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The real Bombay: Venturing into the underworld of Shantaram

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“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you have got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”

Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram

While I have always had an affinity for India, reading the book Shantaram engulfed me in an entirely new experience of life there from a westerner’s perspective. As background, this novel depicts a tale based on the life of the author Gregory David Roberts, Australia’s ‘most wanted man’ in the 1980’s after he escaped from prison and found refuge in the bustling streets of Bombay (now known officially as Mumbai, but I will refer to it by both names in this post), before settling to live in the slums under the name Linbaba and joining the mafia. While the book is contested among many Indians as to what is actually true in the story and what is fiction (the author certainly took his creative liberties in his account of true events), a general consensus is that such vivid depictions of a tumultuous life in Bombay cannot simply be from one’s imagination but from experience. As it turns out, much of it is, in fact, true.

When I learned I had a short business trip to Mumbai in early February, my mind immediately went to Shantaram and whether there were any tours of the places from the book. And after some research, reading reviews and talking with other tourists on TripAdvisor, I found the Original Shantaram Tour, led by the brother of one of Shantaram’s most beloved protagonists, Prabhakar Khare, or Prabu, as he’s affectionately called in the novel. While Prabu died tragically many decades ago, his brother Kishore is still very much alive and leads tourists daily through the places in the book right in his own backyard, where he shares his insights on what actually occurred versus what Roberts wrote in the book.

After I made certain this tour wasn’t a scam or a copycat operator, I found myself heading in an Uber, driving from the Bandra Kurla Complex of Mumbai just hours after I had landed from Texas, heading to the seaside peninsular neighborhood of Colaba, where I would meet Kishore and begin the tour of Shantaram.

The barebones: the tour began at 10:00 am and lasted 4-5 hours, as Mumbai’s unpredictable traffic can jam up at any given moment. The cost was 50 USD or 3,500 rupees. Kishore has a small van that can transport about 5-6 people (probably more, as this is India, and they tend to make the impossible work!). If Kishore is not available, his son Kumar does the tour. Taking an Uber is quite affordable, as I came from the BKC business district, and the cost one way was about 280 rupees in the morning. If you’re already staying in Colaba, Fort or Nariman Point, even better, as the meeting point is just outside of the opulent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel opposite the grand Gateway of India monument. Kishore speaks very good English, he is very friendly and answers any questions you might have.

As soon as I met Kishore, I felt like I had known him all my life. He was just as I pictured, beaming with a proud and friendly smile. The tour is a mix of riding around in Kishare’s vintage van and walking – you drive past places like Leopold Cafe where so many scenes took place, the India Guest House where Lin first makes his arrival in Bombay, and then you stop at the Sassoon docks, one of Mumbai’s oldest docks where you’ll learn a bit about the illegal drug smuggling in the area.

Next you head to the impressive Dhobi Ghat, which is the world’s largest open air laundry. Indeed there nearly half a million sheets, clothes and other items being laundered and pressed daily, while somehow staying remarkably well organized by a number tagging system. It’s a very neat sight indeed, and I made a personal note to never complain about doing my own laundry after seeing the magnitude of this place and its laborious working parts.

And what’s probably the coolest part of the tour, getting to walk through the Babasaheb ambedkar slum, or zopadpati, where Linbaba lived for several years with Prabhakar (fun fact: Madonna visited this slum after reading the book). Now Indian slums are not for the faint of heart. Although this was not my first time in India, I was still taken back by the extreme poverty, building and expanding before my eyes formidably. The sight hurt my heart, just as it strangely warmed it. Perhaps who other to describe it best than Roberts in this excerpt of Shantaram:

“And then, last, what should’ve been first, I saw how beautiful they were: the women wrapped in crimson, blue, and gold; the women walking barefoot through the tangled shabbiness of the slum with patient, ethereal grace; the white-toothed, almond-eyed handsomeness of the men; and the affectionate camaraderie of the fine-limbed children, older ones playing with younger ones, many of them supporting baby brothers and sisters on their slender hips. And half an hour after the bus ride began, I smiled for the first time.”

Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram

Indeed I did meet grinning, curious locals who smiled and wagged their heads in the charming Indian side-to-side manner – and I wagged my head in return, garnering even wider grins from around me. You also see the former huts where Lin, Prabhakar, Kishore and Johnny Cigar lived (I even get to briefly meet Johnny Cigar’s brother and see Joseph, the drunk who beat his wife and was later depicted as a redeemed member of the slum). The characters from the book are all real, and although most are dead now, to feel it brought to life and to walk their steps is truly extraordinary. Just ask Kishore about the beautiful and mysterious Karla, the french drunk Didier, the mafia lord Abdel Khader Khan, the prostitute Ulla, slum leader Qasim Ali Hussein, and he’ll tell you his account of them.

Since I’m Russian and speak the language, Kishore introduced me to a young doctor in the slum, Dr. Virendra Koli, who studied medicine in Russia and came back to open up a clinic to service members of the slum community where he grew up. This was such a treat, and hearing his story in fluent Russian was very impressive. He could have gotten a great, well-paying job as a doctor in Mumbai, but he chose to return to the slum and help people there. Folks like Dr. Koli are inspirational and a reminder of the goodness in humanity.


We had a nice cup of chai atop the slums in a breezy cafe overlooking a beach, the same beach where Prabhakar humorously refers to using the bathroom as ‘making motions in the oceans’. And yes, the shoreline was completely littered, without so much as a grain of sand to signify it ever being a beach. Unfortunately, the culmination of population and poverty will ultimately lead to pollution if the municipality does not intervene.

Check it out: Bandra is another cool and unique suburb of Mumbai you’ll want to visit

Note: While Kishore does not force this, there are times in the tour where it’s customary to tip a couple hundred rupees to the locals you visit, for instance to the clinic I went to and the chai shop. I didn’t mind, but I wish I had brought more cash with me in smaller bills. Just helpful to keep in mind!

When we left the slum, we stopped briefly at the former Victoria Terminus, the railway station and UNESCO Heritage Site, for a quick photo, then expertly made our way through typical Mumbai traffic. We drove past Madam Zhou’s former brothel, where Lin and Karla helped get Lisa out. It’s all in ruins, burned down – but I learned nearby brothels are still booming with business and run by thugs. In fact, the street called Fawkland Lane was formerly called Fuck Lane, which makes sense, as the street is wrought with prostitution, porn and human trafficking. It’s a dark reality of an overpopulated city full of corruption and broken dreams.

We also drove by Arthur Road, the cruel prison Lin served several months in, where he was tortured and beat brutally. This prison to this day is extremely overcrowded, and it’s such a harsh place, criminals who serve time there come out and never come back – I guess they truly are reformed after that experience!

We passed by the Thieve’s Market where stolen items are sold, the Muslim Quarter where much of the drug trade is handled (hard drugs come from Afghanistan and Africa), and you get a general sense of the controlled chaos that is Mumbai traffic, moving to a harmonious rhythm of cars, bikes and pedestrians. You pass by the docks where many junkies hang out, looking for tourists to star in Bollywood films as extras – they are rewarded by the production companies in small bits of heroin to feed their addictions. As you may recall, Lin was a hardcore heroin addict, and he partook in the Bollywood business by enlisting local junkies to target tourists.

As the tour came to a close, I joined Kishore for a quick beer and delicious garlic cheese naan break in a local café called Canara Lunch Home & Bar. He is so chatty, so open, always smiling – and while I had exhausted my stream of fanatic questions about the book, he was more than happy to indulge me. While Kishore moved out of the slum some time ago, he comes back every day, bringing the Shantaram book to life for fans, and getting to do so in his old home, where everybody knows his name. He still gives back to the community, to people in real need – and he warned me of the fake beggars that target tourists and are actually part of a larger scheme.

As the jet lag fog finally took over, I realized this was an incredibly worthwhile and lucky experience, not to mention a unique way to see parts of Mumbai off the beaten track. My heart was full, and I knew that the next time I’d read Shantaram, the experience would be completely different. Oh, and if you’re wondering about Linbaba, aka Roberts himself, it seems he’s back in Mumbai after serving out his full prison sentence in Australia and Europe. While I didn’t get to see him, maybe you will one day in the bustling streets of Mumbai!

“That’s how we keep this crazy place together – with the heart…. India is the heart. It’s the heart that keeps us together. There’s no place with people, like my people, Lin. There’s no heart like the Indian heart.”

Gregory David Roberts,Shantaram

If you come to Mumbai, be sure to do this tour – even if you haven’t read the book, it’s such a cool experience. And if you have any apprehension about going alone as a woman, I can say that you’ll be in the best hands and as safe as I felt if you go with Kishore. Feel free to ask me any questions or share your experiences on this tour!

The best way to reach Kishore Khare of the Original Shantaram Tour is through Whatsapp +91 91461 12289 or email: kishorekhare@yahoo.com.

travel

Tasmania: 25 things to do in 4 days

IMG_5081 2Wine Glass Bay view atop Mt. Amos

As a kid, when I heard the name Tasmania, I associated it with everyone’s favorite disastrous slobbering, incoherent, hurricane-spinning Looney Toons character Taz, the Tasmanian Devil. As my love for geography grew (before traveling even became a hobby), Tasmania took on new meaning – it turned out to be a fantastically wild and raw Australian island with rivers, glaciated peaks and glittering coastlines. But it seemed so far away…

 

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Remember Taz? Courtesy of: https://secure.img2-fg.wfcdn.com/im/81982222/compr-r85/4145/41451898/looney-tunes-tasmanian-devil-standup.jpg

Imagine how happy I felt when I had a work trip to Melbourne in September, which was not only my first time in the great country of Australia, but it was only a 50-minute flight to Tasmania! Suddenly that vast distance that seemed much too out of the way before was now at my grasp, and I had my chance to visit this dream island. So I didn’t hesitate and booked my flight to Tassie, how Aussies affectionately refer to it.

Here are 25 must-do things in Tasmania if you have only 4 days. It’s not enough to see everything on the incredible island, but I’ve captured the best experiences to do out of Hobart and East Tasmania.

25. Explore the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery
A complete opposite of the MoNa (#3), the TMAG is a more traditional museum exploring local historical artifacts – and there is free entry every day! This beautiful museum houses local artwork, capturing the cultural and natural wonders of Tasmania’s rich heritage and biodiversity. Note that it’s open daily until only 4:00 p.m.

24. Get friendly with furry friends at Hobart’s Cat Cafe
Okay, I recognize this is not for everyone, but being a cat lover, I figured I’d give this a try. Who doesn’t love getting a coffee while hanging out with 12 funny rescue cats? [If you have cat allergies, maybe skip this one.] However, if you do enjoy loving on cats with interesting, sometimes tragic rescue stories, then this might be worth a visit. The place looks like a giant jungle gym and dream playground for kitties. Note: bring a lint roller if any of the furry cats jump in your lap. Also, let them get to know you first, as they may claw you as a natural defense mechanism. I may have left with a few scratches!

23. Visit Australia’s oldest standing bridge
The Richmond Bridge, located in Richmond, just 25 miles outside of Hobart, is a quiet attraction, but it’s picturesque and absolutely beautiful. Built in 1825 by convicts based out of notorious prisons like Port Arthur Historic Site (#4) and still used today, it’s a constant reminder of hard labor that went into settling in the new colonies.

22. Enjoy the Salamanca Market on Saturdays
If you’re into local goods and food, then the Salamanca Market is the perfect place to see that local goods that are produced by Tasmanians. A free outdoor market every Saturday in downtown Hobart, the Salamanca market lets you check out local-made clothes, jewelry, produce, artwork, beauty products, leather goods and bags, homemade cheese, bread, drinks (alcoholic beverages included!) and yummy foods!

21. Explore Hobart, the beautiful and delicious capital
Oh Hobart, I did not expect to fall for you, but I most certainly did. In fact, I ended up looking at costs to buy homes and rentals while there – something I never do! In fact, Tassie is some of Australia’s cheapest real estate, and Hobart is a great place to live, according to many locals. There is a lot to explore by foot, historic and new, and of course, places to chow down (#10).

20. Do go chasing waterfalls at Russell Falls
If waterfalls speak to you, then you must drive out and do a short hike to Russel Falls further inland of Hobart. Located amidst lush greenery and towering pines, Russell Falls and neighboring Horseshoe Falls are a great escape from the city hustle and bustle with plenty of parking and a well-preserved landscape.

19. Relax in Bicheno
Just north of Freycinet National Park, you’ll find a relaxing town with local wildlife (including wild penguins), fresh seafood, beautiful beaches and even world class diving offshore Governor Island Marine Reserve. This is a good spot to stay overnight after spending the day in Freycinet.

18. Relax in the Tasmanian Botanical Gardens
Enter by any donation amount you feel, this tranquil garden features everything from plants to food to tours you can enjoy and take in various collections of Mother Nature’s unique gifts. There are two restaurants you can eat at, Sprout Cafe and Succulent Restaurant, amidst the peaceful gardens with lovely views.

17. Visit the lavender fields of Port Arthur
A nice departure from the spooky historic prison just minutes away (#4), the colors and invigorating scents of the lavender fields nearby will certainly be a nice refresher. You can try high quality lavender products from honey to botanical oils and even try some lavender-infused dishes. And entry is free!

16. Wine tasting is always a good idea
The wine route in Southern Tassie is comprised of over 15 diverse wineries and cellars, nestled between Coal River and the fertile Derwent Valley. Some are open for walk-ins, others by just calling in advance. These wineries offer tastings, food pairing, cooking classes and a chance to learn the unique story of each winery (I personally love this!). There’s something for everyone, so be sure to visit a couple of wineries.

15. Drive the Great Eastern Drive
A gloriously stunning road trip from Hobart, hop in your car and take in the mountains, forests, rivers and sea views of Eastern Tasmania along the A3 highway. It takes about 2.5 hours to get from Hobart to Freycinet National Park (#13). Be sure to stop by and snap some photos along the way! Sometimes it’ll be just you alone with majestic nature.

14. See the dramatic Fortescue Bay 
On your way in and out of Port Arthur Historic Site (#4)don’t forget to pull over and marvel at the white, sandy coastline of Fortescue Bay, surrounded by heavily forested hills. Plenty of activities to do in this area, even just walking around trails to breathe in the fresh Tasmanian Peninsular air!

13. Explore the astounding Freycinet National Park
Perhaps one of the most beautiful parks I’ve visited and hiked in recent years, Freycinet is a perfect place to go alone or with family. Get into nature, see long stretches of white sand and dramatic, forest-capped mountains. Tip: go on weekdays as it’s less crowded and bring your own picnic food, as there are no places in the park that sell food. There’s a visitor centre where you get buy a 24-hour parking pass and get information on all the parts of the park to visit. You can stay in lodges inside the park, Cole’s Bay or any of the nearby cities like Swansea or Bicheno (#19).

12. Visit Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary
“Better the devil you know!” The Tasmanian devil, that is. The unique furry, black animal has a funny story on how it earned its name. When the first settlers came to Tasmania to explore the exotic land, they were startled one night to see two bright red eyes glaring at them in the dark. Terrified it was a demon and that the land was haunted, they aptly named the animal the local devil. The Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, located just 25 minutes from Hobart, takes care in injured or ophaned wildlife, from Tasmanian devils and kangaroos to koalas and wombats. You pay an entrance fee of 30AUD (all proceeds go to helping heal wildlife, as the park is run by volunteers), and you can join a feeding tour to learn about specific animals, or explore on your own. They have a Kanga Country section where you can hang with scores of free roaming kangaroos, feed them animal pellets and enjoy the views in this part of Tasmania. It’s very rewarding and educational!

11. Catch the Southern Lights dancing in the sky
So I wasn’t lucky enough to see the Aurora Australis when I was in Tasmania, but it’s something unique you can catch closer to the Southern Pole as well, not just Northern Lights on the opposite side of the world. As such, southern Tasmania and Hobart are the BEST places to catch the Aurora Australis when the lights and geomagnetic fields are particularly active. Aurora, I learned, actually means dawn or early light in Latin, and there are Aurora forecasts you can follow to see if you have a higher chance of seeing the lights on a clear winter night.

10. Check out Hobart’s gourmet bar and food scene
Hobart is not only one of my new favorite world cities, but the range of food and restaurants available here is one to drool and marvel over. From dumplings to burgers to brunch and fine dining, there is something here for everyone! The most noteworthy bars and restaurants I enjoyed were The Glass House, a waterfront bar with amazing cocktails; Room for a Pony, great coffee shop by day and even better bar by night with a fantastic terrace; Dier Makr for beautiful food (hint: try the Jerusalem artichoke and fried leek); Monty’s for romantic fine dining; The Burger Haus for old-fashioned juicy burgers, and Small-fry Hobart for a super cosy, savory brunch.

9. Stop by Honeymoon Bay
Nestled in Freycinet National Park in Tassie’s glittering East Coast, the romantically-named tiny horseshoe-shaped bay will welcome you with dramatic mountains dipping into the ocean, with friendly seals sometimes basking in the sunshine. I liked this place as it was quite deserted – you can have it all to yourself.

8. Take in the views at Cape Tourville Lighthouse
There’s something about lighthouses I find so nostalgic and romantic – always shining, providing a guiding light to anyone lost, helping ships to avoid crashing ashore – you get it! But perhaps what’s most rewarding is catching the sunset here. How the sky changes color by the minute, casting lights on deserted islands and the soothing sound of crashing waves as the surf rises. While you can’t access the actual lighthouse, this is a noteworthy stop on your day in Freycinet National Park.

7. Maria Island nature getaway
Maria Island is accessible by a 30-minute ferry ride from Triabunna (1.5 hours north of Hobart on the Great Eastern Drive). It’s so pristine, you will surely catch sight of wild animals from wombats and Forester Kangaroos to wallabies and Tasmanian Devils. If you’re up for a rigorous hike, then check out the island’s two mountains of Bishop and Clerk. It has lovely biking and walking trails, and plenty of stories to learn about with its rich and well-preserved convict past. If you find yourself pressed for time, then opt for the equally beautiful Bruny Island (#5).

6. Take a cruise to witness Wine Glass Bay from the water
If you may not be suited to hiking, you can certainly take a cruise to see the magnificent Wine Glass Bay. It 4-hour long and departs daily from Cole’s Bay aboard a comfortable boat. You may get lucky and see dolphins, seals, whales and penguins. Relax, eat a delicious lunch aboard and see unique sea caves and hidden coves that would otherwise be difficult to access by foot.

5. Ferry your way to Bruny Island
Take a day to explore Bruny Island, the wildlife and food scene is amazing! There is a car ferry or eco-ferry that goes there from Kettering, just south of Hobart. Visiting this island is awesome for even more beautiful scenery, isolated beaches and delectable cuisine. There is a long isthmus called the Neck that connects what almost appears to be two islands connected by a narrow beach. If you love oysters, chocolate and cheese (not necessarily all together), then Bruny island has plenty of great restaurants to feed your appetite.

4. Tour the Port Arthur Prison
Beautifully preserved and a museum under open air, the Port Arthur Historic Siteis at times spooky and thrilling, telling immersive tales of the convict settlement from the first colonies. With loads of tours you can do (or not do), get lost in the sinister history that shaped so much of Australia and Tasmania. Through hard labor and work, convicts of all ages were sent to be “fixed” before being reintegrated into society as reformed citizens. Tour the prison cells, former insane asylum, punishment chambers, silent solitary confinement quarter, and the many significant buildings that housed hundreds of staff, soldiers, doctors and support staff. There is even a night tour by lantern that puts you in individual cells which housed the deadliest criminals in the silent ‘solitary’ chamber – do this tour if you dare!

3. Experience the MoNa, “A museum, or something”
Experience is really the only word that comes to mind when I think about the Museum of Old and New Art, or MoNa. From immersive, mind-altering exhibits to a wall of endless vagina molds to a robotic stomach that gets fed daily and actually digests food (mind the smell), this museum is unlike anything you’ll ever experience in your life. It’s subterranean, located deep below ground level, making it feel like you’re in a villain’s secret lair. It’s beautiful, wacky, entertaining and super weird – it will leave an impression all right, so plan to spend about half a day there. They have a nice bar and several restaurants as well. Honestly, when I finished touring this museum, I felt a range of emotions, but I was definitively impressed. People embrace and celebrate weirdness, and I love that! Bonus: You can take a ‘luxury’ ferry to the MoNa along the Derwent River, sipping on wine and priming yourself for the experience. This departs from the Brooke Street Pier.

2. Conquer Mount Wellington/Kunyani
Sitting atop Hobart, the looming Mount Wellington (Kunyani is its indigenous name) gives you the best and highest view of the Tasman peninsula. About a thirty-minute ride up a windy mountain road, enjoy the crisp air and play in the clouds (when I went, I was exactly at cloud level). Note that the roads leading to Wellington may ice over due to snowy conditions, so be sure to read the Pinnacle Road status before you go – if it’s closed. To ensure safety, roads will be closed for access if ice conditions are dangerous. However, when it’s open, there are hiking trails and horseback riding with plenty of look out points at the top (including an indoor enclosure to help you thaw a bit from the cold and wind).

1. Hike Mount Amos to get the best view of Wine Glass Bay
If you choose to do this advanced-level hike, be sure to wear the right shoes (hiking shoes preferred, but I managed fine with my Adidas as well). This trail varies between flat surfaces to huge rocks you need to scale, and the roundtrip hike takes around 3 hours. I may have slipped a couple of times and even cracked my phone screen… oops! The rock gets very slick on the flat surfaces, and fighting strong winds on this side of the peninsula can be a challenge. However, once you reach the peak and see the pristine and iconic Wine Glass Bay from above, a calm will wash over you as your heart rate settled after the steep hike. And if this hike is too rigorous, you can always choose to walk an easier path directly to the beach, just follow the signs at the junction. And fun fact: Wine Glass Bay is ranked one of the top 10 best beaches in the world!

There is a still an ENTIRE island to explore, so I’ve only really scratched the surface. Have you been to Tassie? Share your adventures below!

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Spectacular views and glistening blues: This is Mallorca

Looking at Mallorca's sparking clear waterLooking at Mallorca's sparking clear water

The largest of Spain’s three Balearic Islands, Mallorca genuinely surprised me with its beauty, nature, fulfilment to the taste buds and its charming villages. But besides all that, it’s a fantastic destination for a girls trip!

My best friends have made a pretty cool habit of visiting me wherever I’m living (Austin, Los Angeles, Moscow, and most recently, Madrid). I knew that Madrid would not be worth spending an entire week in while they were taking time out of their busy lives to visit me (Sorry, Madrid), and since they had all been to different parts of Spain, Mallorca came out as one of those destinations we all wanted to check out. And we are so glad we did!

Here’s how to spend 4 glorious days in the sunny Mediterranean island, if you want a good mix of the four pillars of an amazing vacation: beach, culture, hiking and delicious food.

Day 1: Arrive in Palma de Mallorca
We debated whether to stay in the capital or a remote location, and in the end, the choice to stay in Palma de Mallorca paid off. Besides being really beautiful with lots of yummy places to eat and drink, it was a great spot to be based out of (less than 20 minutes to the airport and about 1-1.5 hours to all the other ends of the island).

We picked an AirBnb in the center of Palma. Parking was relatively easy, but beware of the street signs of whether it’s permitted for non-resident parking, as we got a ticket and were almost towed once. Oops! [Insider’s tip: If you do get a traffic ticket while in Spain, you get the fine reduced by half if you pay it online within the first 20 days.]

Having taken an early flight and three of us fighting jet lag, we were sleepy and hungry (when am I not, come to think of it?), so a coffee and quick bite were on the agenda. We discovered a lovely cafe near our place, called Mama Carmen’s. Perfect for a brunch or breakfast, with an assortment of really good coffee and beverages – it was just what we needed to refuel for the day ahead.

Perfect matcha latte at Mama Carmen

Healthy veggie breakfast

Beaches: Our first stop was the coveted Platja des Trenc, a beach that is supposed to be the most beautiful on the island. However, parking was no where to be found, so we had to find a new beach and leave Es Trenc for another day, where we could get an earlier start to find parking. I suggest getting there before 10:00 am to guarantee parking, especially if on a weekend. Keep reading to learn about Es Trenc, as we ended up coming back on our last day.

Nonetheless, the next beach we found would be equally beautiful but slightly harder to get to: Caló des Moro – about an hour away due to small roads; get used to it in Mallorca! This required a bit of a walk from the parking lot and then short hike down to the cove with topless sunbathers and sculpted bronzed bodies (really, it was a great place to people watch).

The water at Caló des Moro is blindingly clear, albeit the small sandy beach is packed to the brim with people like a can of sardines, even in early September when we went. Also, once it gets to be about 5:00 p.m., the sun disappears from the cove, as it is tucked away between the cliffs. Plan to come pretty early to make the most of it here. While there is a tiny drink stand at the top of the cove, you should definitely bring a picnic lunch or snacks if you’re staying for a while.

Calo des Moro

Crowded and beautiful

A very cute, albeit limited drink stand at Cala des Moro

Bonus views: If you hike a bit beyond the path to get to the beach, you can explore the craggy cliffs and beautiful background against the sea and golden sunlight. A prime sunset spot, as long as you know your journey back. We hiked okay in our sandals, but I wouldn’t do it barefoot.

Rewarding, isolated views atop Calo des Moro

Bars in Palma: At night, back in Palma de Mallorca, we had a fun night of food and bar hopping. A great first stop for cocktails is at the Sky Bar rooftop bar of the Hostal Cuba (don’t let the name fool you, as it’s neither a hostel or hotel!) It’s quite nice, actually, with yummy cocktails to match.

Next, we checked out a very unusual bar called Bar Abaco – it’s something between a fruit basket that exploded inside of a swanky mansion that is about to have an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy. Note: we didn’t witness any orgy, but that’s not to say it couldn’t happen in a place like this. It was an interesting experience, where you can tour the whole house, get a drink at the bar, pretend you’ve gone back in time (or future) to a dystopian Victorian-decorated universe that plays music from all centuries, it seems. Bottom line: A really unique experience worth the pricey cocktails.

Bar Abaco

Photo courtesy of http://www.innasky.com/en/abaco-palmas-schonste-bar/

Image courtesy of http://www.innasky.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/P1720928.jpg

Day 2: Frolics and Folies

Beach Club Gran Folies: After waking up and getting dolled up, we headed to a beach club I had heard great things about called Gran Folies Beach Club, about a 40-minute drive outside of Palma in Andratx. After making a slightly dizzying trip down a mountain, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Balearic Sea with colorful cliffside homes. We were fortunate to get a circular day bed in a prime spot with beautiful views in the club. This beach club has theme parties, like Gatsby Night, where it turns into a party after 8:00 p.m.

Beach Club Gran Folies

Can you spot us?

Now, when I say beach club, I’m not talking about techno-blaring party club scene like Nikki Beach. This is a very relaxed beach club that serves food, drinks and offers folks to escape the hustle of crowded beaches in Mallorca. It’s actually a very romantic and fun spot to get away with your significant other, as we saw many couples here. However, when a fun group of four girls appear in an array of bikinis, safe to say we unintentionally stole the show and disturbed the chill vibe a bit. Everyone was very friendly, and we had a great time.

Note: There are no sandy beaches here, but you can enter the water by walking along the rocks to take a dip, as many people did, and there are stairs going into the water from the rocks. We spent the better part of the day here, swimming, relaxing, eating and just catching up, as best friends who live thousands of miles apart do.

My bikini bod diet is whatever tastes good on vacation

A girls trip for the ages

Dive into the sea to cool off from the sun

For the relatively high amount of money you spend here, I recommend spending most, if not, all day here. The views are really nice and relaxing, the vibe is romantic and you will no doubt wish you could live in this paradise. Soak it all in!

Check out my post on Menorca, Mallorca’s little sister!

Day 3: Towns, beaches and lighthouses

This was perhaps my favorite day in Mallorca, as we really got to explore a full array of what the island has to offer: charming villages, beaches and mountains. Unequivocally we had heard that Sóller and Fortnalutx (pronounced For-nah-looch) were must-see places. Located in the north of the island, they’re about one hour away from Palma. You can take the paid tollway of Highway Ma-11, which is a straight shot through a mountain tunnel, or to take a 30-minute detour through incredibly twisty mountain roads (Ma-11A). We took the tunnel without hesitation, as we wanted to maximize our time in the towns.

Sóller is a perfect place to wander the narrow, cobblestone Balearic streets and have a nice brunch at any of the delicious cafes in the center. As with every European city, there’s a large cathedral (Església de Sant Bartomeu) in the central Plaza d’Antoni Maura.

Charming streets of Soller

But the real treat was the next door town of Fornalutx. It is a medieval gem, enveloped by mountains, picturesque homes brimmed with flowers of every color – and even in September, it was calm and hardly touristy. Take an hour or so to hike through town (I’m not kidding when I say hike, as there are seemingly endless stairs and hills throughout the town). Just about everything about this place is Instagram-worthy!

Soaking it all in

Not crowded, which was the best part

Lush, green and perfect Fornalutx

By this time, we were ready for the beach. We drove to the Northwest tip of Mallorca to explore the long stretch of sandy beach called Platja de Muro. This beach was definitely more crowded and family-friendly, but at least parking was a cinch. The sand is soft, there are no rocks and you can rent sun loungers and umbrellas starting from 10€. The water is crystal clear, despite the beach being crowded and folks playing water sports.

Platja Muro

Taking the plunge off the pier!

Cap Formentor: To top an already adventurous and truly fun day, we chased the sunset on Cap Formentor, or the “meeting point of the winds,” as local Mallorquines call it. And they aren’t wrong! Cap Formentor is a wild peninsula on the eastern tip of Mallorca, giving you stunning (and very windy) views of the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range and the glistening Ballearic Sea. There is a crowded observation deck that offers views in all directions, but if you have a daring spirit, drive up the windy mountain road to the Lighthouse of Cap Formentor. The climb up to the actual top of the Lighthouse is an adventure in and of itself, as it’s very steep and the only way in and out. However, it’s phenomenally worth it to watch the sunset from the top.

Views of Cap Formentor

The Lighthouse with steep ‘stairs’ leading to the top for rewarding views

Overlooking Cap Formentor from the Lighthouse

The day wouldn’t be complete without a tasty meal back in Palma at a restaurant called Duke. This turned out to be my favorite meal of where we ate, and I cannot recommend it enough, especially the “artisanally” crafted cocktails. The atmosphere is really fun, dynamic and they really put their heart into every meal they make.

Looking for things to do in mainland Spain? Check out this 8-day road trip to see the best of Andalusia

Day 4: White sand and nudist beaches

Before you get excited (or hesitant?) about the nudist beach, let’s start with the fact that in Spain, much like other European countries, it is normal and common to go topless on public beaches. No matter their age, you’ll see women ditching their bikini tops and basking in the sun. As for nudist beach, it was an underwhelming experience, having witnessed only a handful of fully nude folks.

We started the day where we began the trip essentially, at Es Trenc. Only this time we came earlier in the day (on a weekday, I should add) around 10:00 a.m., and we got parking on the street heading leading to the beach easily. Note: you need coins to pay for the parking meters, and you better believe they check the time on those tickets.

Es Trenc is a long stretch of super fine white sand and the clearest, calmest water. It’s not as chaotic as Platja de Muro, especially earlier in the day. To me, this was the best beach of the island.

Soaking up our last day in Mallorca

If you didn’t do a Baywatch run, did you really go to the beach?

For lunch, we drove through a cute town called Ses Salines, where we grabbed a bite at a super trendy and cute restaurant called Cassai.

Trendy, full of light and plants

Bar at Cassai

Gotta stick to the classics sometimes

The next and final beach we decided to visit was Cala Varques, on the southeast part of the island. It was pretty hard to find using Google Maps, and here’s why: this place requires a good 30 minute hike though a forest to reach the Cala. And it’s a nudist beach. I’m talking full frontal of guys and gals. The beach here was definitely 18+, you’ll catch whiffs of marijuana and they sell alcohol with edible straws on the sand. There are people playing music, slacklining, surfing, hiking and just relaxing. The day we went, the sea was quite rough, so swimming in huge crashing waves did not happen. It was a neat beach to check out, but it’s a very particular vibe that I concluded was not for everyone.

A doggies enjoying the sea breeze

Some folks may be brave enough to cliff dive, but it’s very high up and dangerous

Mallorca is the Goldilocks of the three Balearic islands – if you’re looking for a fair-priced European vacation with sunshine, beautiful beaches and tasty bites, look no further – especially if you have a girls trip in mind. Have you been to Mallorca yet?

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travel

Into thinner air: hiking Rainbow Mountain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARainbow Mountain

Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, is picking up popularity as a day trip from Cuzco, Peru, with mesmerizing striations of red, yellow and green minerals comprising the fantastic landscape that resembles, you guessed it, a rainbow! But behind this Instagrammable paysage is an arduous journey that requires grit and perseverance, and I’m here to share my experience of conquering this bad boy.

I had one last free day in Cuzco before I was off to Chile, and I had already experienced the lush Sacred Valley and extraordinary Machu Picchu. I had met a cool couple from Quebec at my Airbnb who had just returned from a trip they were raving about to Rainbow Mountain. When I saw their photos, my mind connected this vaguely familiar scene to an acquaintance who had posted a photo in this very place a while back. I asked them a ton of questions about the experience, just as they were getting my advice about going to Machu Picchu.

By then, I needed no further convincing: I was going to see Rainbow Mountain.

It was about 7:00 p.m. when I went into central Cuzco for dinner and happened to walk by a tour agency that had a photo of that striated mountain. Being a complete control freak, I inundated the seller with every question I could think of: how high is the mountain, how far is the drive, how do people normally feel in those altitudes, what kind of shoes I needed; I was clearly stalling.

Nonetheless, I purchased a ticket for about ~$25 USD, which included transport from Cuzco, food and guides. Easy and cheap! Turns out if you book online in advance, it’s astronomically high – so it’s better to buy from a local operator. I got some dinner but also bought enough food and water to pack for my journey.

After a night of literally one hour of sleep from both anxiety and altitude (I didn’t sleep too well in Cuzco that whole week), I was picked up at my Airbnb at 3:00 a.m. from Cuzco in a small bus for about 12 people. This portion of the drive to the place where we were to have breakfast was to be ~3 hours long, so I settled into my seat and dozed off, despite the windy mountain roads.

Here’s where there’s an unfortunate twist, and I don’t want to scare anyone.

I woke up clutching a man as I felt everything around me move violently from side to side. I knew something was wrong. Then BOOM!

The bus had crashed! HOLYFUCKINGSHIT! I was still groggy and confused, looking up at this man who, just moments before, had been sitting across the aisle also sleeping. It appeared I had been thrown from my seat and into his lap as the bus pulled to a crash. I apologized and got off of him. His wife was kindly comforting me, and I was in shock, not knowing what the fuck was happening. There were some cries from the back of the bus of confusion and fear, but it seemed no one was hurt. I was okay, just shivering from shock, I suppose. What a rude wake-up call! No, it could have been worse. I was filled with regret and bad omens, thinking I should have never come on this trip – the signs could not be clearer!

It turns out that the driver had fallen asleep! And to think, this person had actually stopped to buy coffee on our journey, and he still managed to knock out behind the wheel and put everyone’s life at risk. We were driving on the edge of the Andes Mountains, for Pete’s sake! If we had gone off to the right, we would have crashed to our deaths in the depth of the mountains. Luckily, we had veered left and he jolted awake to try to gain control before we stopped.

In the midst of all this, I went outside to observe the damage – it didn’t look like much, but the bus wouldn’t be able to take us further. This is a rural mountain road, and there wasn’t a person or car in sight!

Beware of sleepy drivers

Within the next half hour, another bus came by and picked up a few passengers, and the rest of us went on the next bus, which was smaller and more cramped. I had managed to meet a new friend, a cool British chick also solo traveling, and we already considered ourselves blessed after surviving a crash.

2 hours later, we arrived at a small village nestled in a valley, where we were served breakfast and the guides explained the directions, distances, etc. I could barely eat, to be honest, and this was a clear effect of the altitude. I tried to force myself to have a few bites, because I knew I needed the energy. This was late September, and the weather was frigid but sunny (it was about 6:30 a.m.). I had dressed in layers, thankfully. And with that, we set off to the base camp, some 30 minutes away.

The hike began at 4,300 meters (14,100 feet). I was glad I had at least spent a week in higher altitudes to acclimate. The extent of the effects I felt up until that point were breathlessness going up any stairs and a harder time sleeping. But at this altitude, at least 1,000 meters higher than Cuzco, I felt very winded.

Let’s do this thing!

Beginning our snowy hike

You can negotiate a trip up with a horse and porter

Welcoming the break

The ascent is gradual throughout most of the hike

Unusual mountain plants

Alpacas greeted us along the way

We peeled off layers as the sun melted the snow

Andean clothing is always so colorful

The hike itself is 10 km roundtrip, so about 3-4 hours up and 2 hours down.  The hiking level is difficult, but that’s really only from the altitude. The terrain is normal, no extremely steep parts, and with hiking boots it’s not hard on the feet. The physical exertion feels 100 times worse than at sea level, so I really didn’t know what I was in for. The guides did have emergency oxygen tanks if anyone felt ill, and there were locals walking beside us offering a horse to carry us or our stuff up, for about $20.

What I remember was taking a lot of breaks, which I kind of beat myself up over, thinking it was a reflection of my fitness level (which is normally quite high). No, this was my body’s reaction to the high altitudes, and I should have given myself a break.

(If you have ever watched the show Malcom in the Middle, then you’re familiar with Malcom’s friend Winston. Well, I sounded like Winston the entire way up – I had to breath and wheeze through every single word I said. It was funny and awful at the same time.)

Snow had fallen the night before, so the trail was covered with snow throughout the journey. By the time we’d come back through, the snow would melt and the mountain range would transform colors.

Even lifting my arms was a struggle

“Just keep going!” My mantra during the hike

My friend had decided to get a horse about 2/3 of the way into the journey to help her up, and I gladly gave her my heavy backpack to carry to the top with her. I continued on foot with my water bottle in hand, munching determinately at the coca leaves between my teeth. By the way, Andeans believe coca leaves and any products made from them relieve symptoms of altitude sickness. Whether that’s true or not, chewing them also helps give you a jolt of energy, and I knew I needed it along the way.

Plenty of horses available if you need one

I may have eaten one of his brothers for dinner that night… oops

No matter how hard it got, the views at every step were distraction enough

Just when I thought I was getting close to the end of the journey, the guide would literally run past me (damn you with your freakish large lung capacity…) and yell, “Almost there. Only 2 more hours to go! Let’s go!” I wanted to punch him, but I could not even raise my hands to do so. So I persevered on.

Views like this literally took the little breath I had away

The ascent was gradual, but the final meters were the steepest and hardest. I could see the finish line, but it felt like the Vertigo Effect would taunt me and surprise me with another ridge I had to cross.

Almost there! This part was the steepest ascent and super hard

Finally, I had made it! Sweet victory, it tasted so good. Seeing the fantastic Rainbow Mountain in all its unique glory at 5,200 meters ( ~17,000 feet) felt like conquering the world in that moment, especially considering the trying experience getting there that day.

I did it!!!

These views will forever be etched in my memory

Kelly, a great hiking partner throughout this whole ordeal!

Parts of the mountain are closed to hikers to preserve it

View of our trek from above

Absolutely worth it!

That moment when you realize you have to go allllll the way back

Wild furry friends enjoyed playing in the snow! They trekked the entire way with us

We got to hang around the top for a good 30 minutes or so, taking photos and enjoying the view. The actual Rainbow Mountain is closed to the public for preservation and rightfully so. This trek is getting more popular by the day, and I’m lucky I got to visit it before it becomes the tourist mecca of Machu Picchu, which can bring with it environmental consequences. It’s the double edged sword of tourism.

Some of the other great hikers who conquered Vinicunca that day

A selfie for the ages (mind my clearly exhausted face!)

The fun didn’t stop there though. Now came the long hike back for about 2 hours, and mine included a splitting headache from the altitude. The way down did get a bit easier as altitude decreased, I just remembered wanting to tie a compress around my head to reduce the headache. Along the way back were much fewer people, at times we were completely alone with only wild alpacas keeping us company.

The snow was all melted by now

These guys are lucky to have this view every day

Alpacas galore!

It felt surreal to end this journey

The desolate road back

Debating if there’s time to use the toilet

We made it back to the bus, which took us to the small village where our day began for a warm and savory lunch about 3:00 p.m. Remarkably, my appetite had come back swinging, so I devoured the local dishes they prepared, as I wrapped my mind against the huge feat I had accomplished.

It was time to go back to Cuzco – a bumpy three-hour bus ride that got us back at about 7:00-8:00 p.m.  I made sure to share the experience with my Quebecois friends, as we compared our tales of alpine defeat.

The experience was truly remarkable, and I’m so glad I did it. If you’re wondering, the bus crash was never brought up once among the tour guides, nor was there even a wink at a partial refund for the danger we had faced before even arriving. If this were another country, I guess it would have been handled very differently. This was Peru, for better or worse.

I do have tips if you’re interested in doing this:

  • Drink plenty of water and electrolyte-enhanced drinks
  • Pack power bars or fruits for replenishment (if you have any appetite)
  • Chew on coca leaves or drink coca tea to fight off altitude sickness
  • If possible, spend a few days beforehand in Cuzco to acclimate to the altitude
  • Slather on sunscreen
  • Wear layered clothes for different microclimates you’ll encounter
  • Don’t be afraid to take breaks on the hikes, even if you fall behind – it’s a very hard hike for any level of fitness and everyone’s bodies react differently to high altitudes, so take it easy. The guides will try to push you to go so they can fit their time commitment (assholes…), but I say listen to your body first and foremost.
  • Leave nothing but footprints, literally. The mountain range is so beautiful and pristine, but people are the worst thing to happen to nature. Take care of the environment the way it has taken care of you.
  • Have your cameras or phones charged and ready to document your journey.
  • Bring cash, as there’s a 10 Sol entrance fee ($3 USD) and then coins if you need the toilet
  • There is an alternative you can do to the group tour, which is to hike the trail on your own and take a taxi there and back – you will need to negotiate the price (I’ve heard it’s ~300 Sol roundtrip). You don’t have to leave at 3:00 a.m., and you will go when there are no crowds. But you will be on your own without any guides or help. The trail is not difficult to follow, but bear in mind with high altitudes not having any help around can be risky.

Would you try this trek? If you have already done it, share your experience below!

“Leave nothing but footprints”

travel

The real Shark Tank: cage diving with great whites in South Africa

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Often called one of the most exhilarating experiences on earth, I decided to try cage driving with great white sharks while visiting Cape Town for about a month. It seemed like a hell of a way to kick off my time in South Africa – daring, bucket list experience that I will never have to do again in life. And frankly, that’s exactly how I feel about it to this day. If you have a free day in Cape Town and want to try something different, then this experience may be for you. If you hate getting seasick, long boat rides and feeling a shark’s slippery skin rub on your bodysuit, this may NOT be for you.

There are dozens of cage diving operators in the area, so we took one that our hotel suggested (rookie mistake, as I usually do my own research and book something without a middle man getting kick-backs, but the hotel owner was a very kind man, and we trusted his suggestion). The operator is called Supreme Sharks, they are highly experienced – and a day with them (including transportation from Cape Town and back, breakfast, lunch, boat ride, cage diving, wet suit and diving mask) sets you back ~2,000 ZAR (~140 USD) per person, which seems astronomically high compared to prices in the rest of South Africa. Nonetheless, keeping in mind it was a once in a lifetime experience, why the hell not?

At 3:00 a.m., we got picked up from Cape Town in a small van along with a couple of others and began a ~3 hour journey to Gansbaai, a small town near “Sharkstown”.  You can get some shut-eye on this journey, the road isn’t too windy or bumpy.

Arriving at the Supreme Shark center, we were fed a hearty breakfast of eggs, ham and hot tea (which many should NOT have eaten, but I’m getting ahead of myself…). We were also asked to listen to important instructions and warnings, and we signed waivers, essentially relieving the company of all wrong-doing in case we became shark food. So on that cheerful note and a few nervous chuckles later, we selected our wet suits. Note: I’m not scuba-certified, nor do I want to be. It was my second time ever in a wet suit, and unfortunately I learned later that the size was completely wrong (too large) and I’d regret this. We also got dry bags to carry things like cameras and waters, but most of the stuff was left securely at the Center.

Cage diving operators “Supreme Sharks” begin easing their boat into shark-infested waters

Appropriately apprehensive about this insane thing I’m about to do

We walked to the boat aptly named “Great White” to begin a rough 30-minute voyage to a spot where we might find great white sharks. Now, you’re not guaranteed to see any sharks, nor are you compensated if you have this bad luck (I think they give you a discount on your next trip, but no money back…). They do, however, monitor tide levels and weather the day before, so the journey would be cancelled or postponed for safety reasons.

They asked everyone to change into the wetsuits over our bathing suits on board while the boat got anchored in the middle of the sea.

Wet-suited up and wanting a lollipop

This was 7:00 a.m. The weather was not in our favor yet, and we worried that visibility wouldn’t be great, which meant shark sightings could be limited. It was slightly overcast and cold as hell during the month of October. While we were changing, we got divided into 3 groups of 8, as only 8 people can fit into the cage at a time. We were in the second group, so we watched and learned as the first group climbed into the cage to face their fate.

“Helping” people in and out of the cage – I suppose it’s better than becoming shark food

Packed like a can of sardines

The boat captain then tried to lure any nearby sharks in by throwing  stinky chum out into the water on a rope. After what seemed like ages in tumultuously wavy waters, we heard the captain yell “Down! Down!” to the first group. Before I knew it, I saw an ugly gray, razor-like fin speed its way in our direction from below. I would even say the view from the top is more impressive than in the cage if visibility is bad. I stood, stunned and frozen (literally and figuratively) as my mind wrapped around the fact that I was going to be in these icy waters (which was literally about 19 degrees Celcius) moments from now, going head to head with has been ranked the greatest predator on earth. No big deal. I didn’t feel fear, just the usual anxiety. All I saw were rows of jagged teeth, big dead black eyes and that ghoulish fin.

Fins of foes

Comin’ in hot!

Getting after that shark bait

Finally it was our group’s turn. I got in the middle of the cage, putting my swimming mask on tight, and then I felt the cold water hit me like a ton of bricks, because the damn wet suit was a size too big. ARGH!! I decided to divert my attention on not being eaten by a shark instead as the top of the cage door slammed shut with a loud bang. Now all I could hear was the nauseating creakiness of the boat and metal cage rocking against the rise and fall of the sea, while the eight of us waited, partially submerged in the Atlantic Ocean. What sucks is they don’t give you the snorkeling breathing tube, just the mask for your nose and eyes – if you struggle with holding your breath under water, this could be very difficult.

It seemed like an eternity waiting and shivering, and I was about to say, “Get me the fuck out of here” when I heard the dreaded words, “Dive! Dive! Dive!” And intuitively, without taking a deep enough breath, I stuck my head below the water level and moved closer to the edge of the cage, forcing my eyes wide open.

Everything looked murky and green for a second, when I saw a shadow darting around. That can’t be the shark, can it? As the shadow transformed into that familiar gray mass of the predatory creature I saw from above, I caught a glimpse of the stinky chum swing just in front of the cage top, followed by those teeth!! HOLYSHIT! I was cage diving with a great white shark!  The shark came around the cage several more times, bumping the cage angrily as it couldn’t tear off all the chum on the hook. We waited for further signals to dive while we graciously replenished our oxygen in between. I had to remember to hold the cage bars that were NOT outwardly facing the shark… because I fully intended to come back with the 10 fingers I came with.

Dark shadows that turned out to be sharks

View from the cage

When the sharks tail/fin almost knocked the GoPro out of our hands!

They do get insanely close to the cage without actually being inside

Someone wanted breakfast.. and it wasn’t me!

Hangry noms! And those teeth…

Dead eyes, am I right??

After about 20-30 minutes in the cage and a few more appearances by Mrs. Great White (we learned there were several females in the area that morning), we climbed out of the cage.

Me behind two German girls – ready to get into some warm clothes

The third and last group went next, ironically having worse luck and fewer sightings. The captain asked if anyone else wanted to go a second time, but frankly, I had had enough. I was freezing cold, to a point I could not enjoy the experience anymore – and what’s worse, half of the people on the boat were at the edge losing their breakfast. And I’m one of those people who has a serious aversion to vomit. Luckily, I had taken a precautionary Dramamine that morning specifically fearing this situation – but the sight of everyone puking truly made even me feel green at the gills. Funny enough, the solution for seasickness onboard was sucking on these obnoxiously bright sugary lollipops. Literally, the whole boat was all all over them! I hope it helped…

Finally, we changed back into our dry, warm clothes as the boat turned around and made its way back to Gansbaai (by now it was around 11:00 a.m.). I could not WAIT to get off of that boat and kiss the ground. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m an anxious traveler who get sweaty palms and nervous from all unpredictable turbulence, bumps, waves, turns and what not. But sharks? Meh.

One thing I should mention is there’s a professional videographer on board who captures this entire experience for your viewing pleasure. Honestly the boat got so wet and you’re concentrated on seeing sharks, that I didn’t even take our my own phone or pro camera once! So we opted to buy the footage (I believe it was around 30 USD), and it was worth it!

The divers that day

Once back on land (and after breathing a sigh of relief and swearing off boats for a solid year), we actually had worked up a hunger. Lunch was warm and tasty, while they played the video montage from that day on the screens. I purchased the photos and videos, and after that, it was time to head back to Cape Town (around 1:00 p.m.). On the journey back, the entire van was knocked out, including myself.

I may have dreamed of swimming with sharks on the ride back, but my memory is a bit hazy. Overall, it’s an experience I’m glad I did but don’t plan on doing ever again, unless I know the sea conditions are smooth, visibility is high, and my wetsuit fits like a glove!

Would you go diving with sharks? Share your experience or thoughts below!

travel

8 great places for the solo female traveler

Views over Machu PicchuView over Machu Picchu

I am a seasoned solo traveler, and I am immensely proud of this! Perhaps now, it’s less uncommon as it was several years ago, and my heart is full seeing other women embrace the experience of traveling alone. There is something liberating about exploring new places on your own schedule, trying new dishes and sipping a local beverage (Party of 1, what it do?) and the unknown of who you may meet.

Many women worry that traveling alone can be boring, unsafe or they just don’t really know what to do with themselves. I’m here to tell you that you have nothing to worry about, and that a solo adventure will teach you quite a bit about yourself. Here are some GREAT destinations you can try on your own, based on my experience.

1. Dubrovnik or Split, Croatia:

Brela, Croatia

Dubrovnik was actually my first solo trip while living in Russia. Croatia is a tremendously beautiful country, largely overshadowed by its Mediterranean neighbors like Greece and Italy. You can take day trips to islands from Split such as Brac or Hvar, or you can check out stunning Montenegro (Kotor Bay is really nice), or you can explore the medieval old towns in white limestone. Try some burek and crni rizot (black risotto). Learn some history about former Yugoslavia, which has shaped what Croatia is today. People are very nice, but beware going in the peak of summer, where every beach is super crowded with families and kids.

2. Santorini, Greece

Sunsets in Oia, Santorini

Don’t let anyone tell you Santorini is a honeymoon destination. I went alone and LOVED it, and I wasn’t on any honeymoon. In fact, I went in early May before the hoards of tourists arrived for summer, the weather was a bit chilly at night but hot enough during the day to soak up some sunshine. Price-wise, Santorini is not cheap, but if you go during the shoulder seasons, you can get some great deals on places that would otherwise cost an arm and a leg. I stayed in Oia, the picturesque village on the north end of the island with Instagram-worthy views. I did a day trip sailing throughout the caldera, swam in hot springs and enjoyed a fun lunch on board, where I met an amazing couple I still keep in touch with. For my fit vacay folks, you can hike from Oia to Imerovigli in several hours of hours, then take a bus to the volcanic beaches on the south side of the island. And Greek food and Santorini wines? DELICIOUS!

3. Jaipur, India

Jal Mahal, Jaipur

Okay, so India may have stolen a HUGE chunk of my heart, and going there alone engulfed me in so many emotions that I will never forget the experience. Its dirty streets cleansed my heart, ironically, at the risk of sounding completely cheesy. Indians are some of the kindest and most humble people I’ve met. I went in March, and I did a 4-day tour of the Golden Triangle with a private driver and tour, where you see New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. While the Taj Mahal in Agra is a sight to behold and a must visit, Jaipur wins for a place for solo travel. Known as the pink city, the buildings do, in fact, shine in a salmon hues. Be sure to visit the Amer, or Amber fort, ride up by elephant if possible (a tourist cliche, but I was told their treatment is humane, before you judge me for exploiting animal rides!), and take in the majestic mountains of Rajastan. Check out the Man Sagar Lake with the Jal Mahal palace standing erect among its placid water.

4. Cusco, Peru

The Sacred Valley of Peru

Cusco is so much more than the Machu Picchu starting point. The culture, food and richness of the the architectural ruins throughout the region, nestled among the soaring Andes Mountains, is something everyone should witness. Despite how cold Cusco was when I went in September, the warmth I felt with the host family I stayed with still touches me today. I did a few day trips, including to Rainbow Mountain, Maras, Chinchero, Moray and Ollantaytambo. There are plenty of buses that go to each destinations, or you can opt for a private transfer, arranged through your accommodation. Treat yourself to a Pisco Sour after a day of hiking and exploring, plus some alpaca (to wear and eat!). It’s a lovely city filled with tons of other solo travelers, ones you’re sure to meet and befriend.

5. El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Island hopping, El Nido, Palawan

I first went to the Philippines with my best friends for one of their weddings, and I knew I had to come back to explore more of this incredible country and its thousands of islands. El Nido, Palawan, is paradise on earth, very cheap, and beaches will transform your last ounce of stress  into pure relaxation. I came alone, but almost immediately I met really cool, new friends that I went island hopping with and partied until dawn. You can scuba dive, explore nearby islands, snorkel, sunbathe, kayak, hike – you name it. Palawan has it all! Try some lechon (a giant Filipino pig, literally) and pancit for some local flavoring. Note: the south part of the island can be quite dangerous for tourists, so I am recommending to stay in El Nido. Also, flying directly into El Nido from Manila is much more worth it than flying into Puerto Princesa and taking a 7-hour nauseating van ride.

6. Cape Town, South Africa

Lions Head, Cape Town

I was pleasantly surprised with how incredible and affordable Cape Town was, despite all the warnings I had heard about the dangers in South Africa. Granted, I stayed in nice, safe neighborhoods and away from any crime zones, but I don’t think I looked over my shoulder in fear once. There’s a rich and complex recent history to South Africa that has shaped its diverse culture, but everyone I met was very friendly and helpful. The beaches in Camps Bay are as picturesque as they come, with the Twelve Apostles of Table Mountain looming in the background. Check out hikes to Table Mountain and Lions Head for rewarding views of the land and sea, check out Robben Island to relive Nelson Mandela’s 27-year prison sentence, lounge with penguins in Boulders Beach, sip the country’s best wines in Stellenbosch, take in the magnificent view on Chapman’s Peak, and, of course, hike the southwestern most tip of the African continent at the Cape of Good Hope. Oh, and if you’re really feeling brave, why not go cage diving with great white sharks?

7. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Beijos from Rio

Get ready for a colorful, artistic and musical experience when in Rio. You won’t feel lonely for a second! In fact, after taking a very interesting walking tour of the Rocinha Favela (which I highly recommend), I met very cool new friends with whom I explored the rest of Rio for several days. Stay in Copacabana beach, walk through the iconic Ipanema beach (preferably while listening to “The Girl from Ipanema”), hike through the Tijuca forest, see the EXTREMELY crowded Corcovado Mountain with Jesus looming over the city, and explore the colorful, multicultural Escadaria Selarón. Be sure to try the many flavors of caipirinhas, the heavy typical dish Feijoada, and if you have a sweet tooth, Brigadeiros are to die for! Plenty of rich and fun nightlife in Rio de Janeiro – but of course samba music is what you should catch while in this fantastic city. Note: not all parts of Rio are safe, so I don’t recommend wearing anything too ostentatious while out, especially alone.

8. Tel Aviv, Israel

Relaxing in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv

Forget about everything you’ve heard from the media about Israel. It is hands-down one of the safest places I’ve ever been to in my life. Next, the people are the most vivacious and assertive you’ll encounter – with an obvious history and conflicts that have formed the attitudes and ideals of the Jewish State. Politics aside, I have been to Israel six times, and each time I fell in love with Tel Aviv more and more. Try some yummy Shakshuka for breakfast, relax or play Matkot on the long stretch of Mediterranean coast with extremely clear water, or take a day trip to Jerusalem for some spiritual enrichment (or just to explore a new city, whatever floats your boat!). Let me tell you: solo female travelers won’t stay solo for long here. Between the hoards of extremely attractive men who will be vying for your attention and the super friendly groups who are always welcoming to strangers, especially if you are alone and don’t a place to have Shabbat dinner, you will quickly feel a sense of family here. A remarkable place, where the nightlife rages 7 days a week!

 

travel

Bagan: Sunrise or Sunset?

While I was in Myanmar for two weeks, I heard Bagan was the crown jewel of the country – with over 2,000 Buddhist temples still standing today from an impressive original 10,000. The landscape, a mix of lush green trees and dirt roads over a flat horizon, boasts a plentiful amount of these ancient brick temples as far as the eye can see. Sometimes a mist shrouds the surface, or clouds create impressive contrasts with the sunlight. Nonetheless, I decided to check out the hype of these frequently Instagrammed shots of a sunrise in this mystic ancient city with hot air balloons all around.

As we went in April 2018, one important thing to note was we could not officially climb up temples to claim the BEST spot for sunrise/sunset, high enough to see the other temples but not too high from the ground. Myanmar decided to ban climbing on temples (again). Officially. But we asked locals who agreed to take us to the few temples that people could still climb and weren’t guarded. So we did this for a sunrise at Ta Wet Hpaya, which as of April 2018 was open for secret sunrise viewing.

Good news, it was indeed a beautiful spot to watch the sunrise. Bad news, we weren’t the only ones who learned about this ‘secret’ temple, so there were quite a few of us up there catching the most distinct part of Bagan sunrises: the hot air balloons!

While we didn’t have the clearest day to watch a super sunrise, we ‘got the gist’ of it. We arrived around 5:45 am while it was still dark out, climbed up the stairs to the roof of the temple, waited for the balloons to float out and for the sun to rise. The balloons came out very slowly out of a corner in the horizon around 6:45 am or so. I’ll say this, on a clearer day, I bet it would have been much more beautiful, and the colors would have swirled against that cotton candy pink and blue backdrop into a scorching ball of yellow fire on the horizon. It was a nice experience, but we decided that would be our only sunrise in Bagan, as the weather and cloud cover was supposed to be about the same for the other days. Bottom line: WORTH IT, IF you find a temple to safely climb and you have luck with a clear day. It’s a memorable experience, and I hope Myanmar revisits their ‘no temple climbing’ policy soon!

Sunset is a different story. Since the temples are officially closed for climbing, the Burmese authorities have attempted to narrow the spots to watch the sunset to two manmade hills where they actually check if you’ve paid the 25,000 Kyat pass to access all the temples. Guess what? We actually didn’t know this, and no one told us about this ticket in advance, so we never bought one. In the end, we got to catch a sunset on one of the hills for zero Kyat, as we convinced them that we left our ticket at home. Oops and yay!

Here, it was way more crowded than sunrise, because like I mentioned it’s a hot spot and one of the few ways to officially watch the sunset, plus it has a controlled entrance. So to get a nice spot in peace without people on the way is harder. Yet again, we did not have the clearest day for a sunset, so we took our pics and enjoyed the weather cooling down after a very hot day. Bottom line: WORTH IT to see sunset from the hill. Just buy your temple passes in advanced.

Lastly, or should I say firstly, we checked out the Nan Myint tower on our first sunset tour, which logically seemed like the highest, ergo best place to see the sunset. Alas, no, it was not and for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is too high up – and remember when I mentioned you don’t need a bird’s eye view, just to be slightly higher than one or two stories up? From the tower, the horizon doesn’t look as impressive. Then, reason 2, it is quite far from the densely populated temple area, which is the gem you want to capture in photos. And lastly, it’s not free. You have to pay an entrance of about US$5, and if you’re thirsty or hungry, the restaurant (with a lovely view) is available for a pretty penny. As such, the bottom line for this: NOT WORTH IT, but if you have an excellent camera lens, you may get some nice zoomed shots.

I think ultimately that sunrises are the most impressive in Bagan, although they depend on whether you can find a temple to climb with fewer people and cooperative weather.

What do you prefer: sunrise or sunset?

travel

European summer holiday ideas

IMG_0268Views from Oia, Santorini

Living in Europe has been a very cool experience, mainly because there are so many beautiful places with cultures and languages that are just a short train ride or flight away. Here are my favorite summer holidays in Europe, ranging in price and landscape.

  1. Sardinia, Italy

    Cala Luna,  Sardinia

    Why I love it: It’s a huge island, so there’s a mix of beaches (literally the entire coastline), hikes, mountains, Italian villages and very delicious food (they cook pizza crust with potatoes, and it’s major noms!). It’s a gem in the Mediterranean best discovered by car, with stomach-dropping hairpin mountain roads and soothing sea views. Price range: $$ (I went in June, but I hear prices skyrocket later in the summer, especially in the pricey Costa Smeralda)

  2. Santorini, Greece

    Oia, Santorini

    Why I love it: No matter who you are, you will agree to the picturesque beauty of Santorini that make it internationally renowned. The food is delicious, they make their own wine, and the views are ridiculously pretty. Famous sunsets on the Oia end of the island will be etched in your memory. I recommend staying in Oia in one of the cave houses. It can get pretty busy in summer, but I went in May, and it was just right. Price range: $$$

  3. Dalmatian Coast, Croatia

    Brela, Croatia

    Why I love it: Croatia is one of those countries that surprised me how much I loved it. A rocky mountain coast with glittering clear water offers amazing sunsets and a refreshing swim in chilly waters. The food in Croatia is VERY good, and you can explore the islands around Split, such as Brač and Hvar. Price range: $$

  4. C’ôte d’Azur, France

    Cannes, France

    Why I love it: While I wouldn’t make a habit of going to the South of France due to the impressive price tag, it’s also something recommend you experience at least once. Between the colorful and classic town of Montecarlo, relaxed and stylish Nice, to the star-studded Cannes, there’s something for everyone, between the beaches, parties and shopping. Be prepared to spend a pretty penny for an unforgettable experience.  Price range: $$$$ (especially during Cannes Film Festival)

  5. San Sebastián, Spain

    La Concha, San Sebastián, Spain

    Why I love it: I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to at least one place in Spain I really enjoyed for a holiday, and San Sebastián takes the bait. From incredibly delicious and cheap Basque pintxos to the glittering Bay of Biscay engulfing the horizon, San Sebastián is both great as a getaway with your partner, your girlfriends or your family! There are enough activities for everyone. If you go during a festival, like Semana Grande, there’s even more activities in the streets that are fun, loud and memorable. Price range: $ (Could be $$ during Spanish holidays)