Category Archives: travels

Takeaways from Egypt

A post three months too late, but watching The Square tonight inspired me to resurrect the draft that had been sitting around for ages.

Reuben and I decided to meet up in Egypt over Christmas.  I was apprehensive about the situation there, well sort of.  Was secretly hoping I’d get to see a demonstration…but that didn’t happen!

Some takeaways/notes from Egypt…

Tourism

Just like Colombia, I was met with skepticism when mentioning I’d be going to Egypt.  Having spent a total of 10 days in Cairo and Sharm, I’m happy to report that things were quite normal there, apart from the very obvious hit in tourism thanks to the media and travel alerts.

Two days into Cairo, and you could sense the people’s sadness and keenness to restore this beautiful country back to its days of tourism glory.  This was noticeable by the rows of closed street carts around Giza & Memphis and by the tone of vendors that were somewhat pleading.  At one point, I was in a pyramid in Dashur all by myself.  From conversations with various Egyptians, they report that tourism has declined by 90% since the revolution.  With tourism being the nation’s main source of income, it has affected millions of people.

What does this mean for us travelers?  This is one of the best times to visit Egypt.  The hoards of tourists are not present.  You have the loving attention of locals who want you to feel safe and happy with your experience.  Prices of hotels, excursions are currently very very reasonably priced.

Travelling solo

In my first two days in Cairo as a solo female traveller, I was cautious.  Not so much about revolts, bombings, but more about being in a large city.  I wasn’t sure how I would be seen or approached in a different culture.  As the days went by, I began to relax.  Having walked around some really dodgy looking streets, talking to vendors, cafe owners, smiling at the friendly locals, I felt at ease.  There are certainly other cities in the US where I’ve felt more unsafe.  Regarding the current political situation, there were a few incidences throughout my time in Egypt, a bombing at a police station north of Cairo and clashes at the al-Azhar university.  I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t read the news.

Egyptians encoutered

When traveling, I look forward to conversing with the locals.  I love hearing first hand accounts from people with backgrounds different to mine and then arriving at a mutual understanding of “I’ve let you into a special place, you get it.”  There were some memorable folks we met: Peter, our Coptic Christian contact in Sharm who shared personal accounts of the current political situation, Yasser, my funny diving instructor, Maha, my tour guide who shared a lot about Cairo life with me, and Mohammed, our Mount Sinai guide.  Mohammed was my favorite.  I think he hated me at first as I kept wanting to wander off from the group by myself, but by the end of it, we were running down the mountain, stopping for tea, sharing Bedouin jokes while the others caught up.  He also shared some very sad personal experiences, and I admire him for how he’s been able to move on.  He was full of life.

Having a guide

A guide in a vast city like Cairo can be helpful for any first timer.  I’ve never done this previously, but with the advice of my brother, I asked for a guide during my time in Cairo.  Guides here have to get licensed, i.e. they have to study, pass exams.  Maha, my guide was like a textbook.  I could literally point to anything anywhere, ask her what the story is, and she’d get into it.  In a city insanely rich in history and culture, this is quite helpful to have.  She also prepped me before we’d walk into a site, how much to tip, what is a reasonable price, what to do to avoid hagglers, etc.  I spoke to other travellers and on a few occasions and they were overcharged, sometimes up to 10 times what I paid.  I also noticed different behaviors when vendors saw that I was with an Egyptian woman, versus when I wasn’t.

Food

Food.  God, I love Egyptian food.  Koushari, fresh grilled seafood in Sharm, bread, Egyptian tangine….  I love carbs, seafood and spices.  Koushari surprised me.  It is a Egyptian dish where they mix macaroni, rice, beans, vinegar, tomato and hot sauce.  Sounds weird and atypical right?  It’s delicious.

Diving

Getting Padi certified in Sharks Bay was an incredible experience.  During the last day our group took a boat to Tiran Island and dived around Jackson Reef.  The sights were incredible.  My brother and I stayed at Sharks Bay Umbi Diving Village which I’d recommend it to anyone who visits Sharm.  It’s the complete opposite of the loud, Russian tourist filled, all inclusive hotels that populate the coast.  They have a lovely spot by the beach (with its own jetty) which seemed to be used by a number of pro-diving groups.  Food was reasonably priced, delicious and the restaurant was cozy and comfortable, with an accompanying bedouin tent area where you could sit on the floors, smoke shisha and have tea.

La Ciudad Perdida – The Lost City


lcp4
The hike to La Ciudad Perdida was the highlight of my trip to Colombia.  I’m writing this a day after returning from Santa Marta (my base pre & post hike), and I’m still overwhelmed with emotion (and pain in my legs).

La Ciudad Perdida is the Lost City, and it takes about 2-3 days to get there on foot navigating the Sierra Nevada mountains.  The hike is about 44 km, and is moderately difficult.  You need to be somewhat fit, really for your sanity if nothing else.  The ascents consist of steep scrambles or climbing rocks a foot high. Doing that 30 times in a row numerous times over the course of 4-5 days is numbing.

LCP’s history goes back as far as 800AD, and is older then Machu Picchu.  It sits on a 1,300 meter (4,265 feet) high ridge above the valley and consists of 169 exposed terraces over 3000 square meters.  Another 9000 square meters is hidden by the jungle.  It was once inhabited by the Tayronas and abandoned during the Spanish conquest.   It is now guarded by the Kogi, a tribe that lives in the surrounding areas of LCP, whom we crossed paths with frequently.

lcp1

In summary, the hike was absolutely beautiful, and it was the scenery, the joy of reaching the top and the group of hikers I was with that made it worthwhile.  Apart from our group, there were about four other groups we frequently bumped into.  The sort of people you get to meet on trips like this is just inspiring.  I was probably the only person doing a 10 day trip.  The others had been traveling for months and a few were traveling solo too.  I felt very much at home.

lcp2We had Luis Bergel and Junior (from Guisa y Baquianos) as our guide and helper, and they were fantastic.  Luis lives in the Sierra Nevada mountains and has been doing this for over 20 years.  Being a guide is something he does out of passion, roughly twice a month.  He loves showing and telling people about the cultures here, and he has a special love for the Kogis.  It was very evident in his stories and interactions with the Kogis whom we passed frequently.

1st day – I’d sign up with Magic Tours, and was shuttled from Santa Marta to Sierra Nevada with a group of others hikers.  We arrived around noon, had a light lunch, and began the hike which was about 3 hours long.  The first day was already tough as we began to ascend.  I was with a great group of about 10 people, travelers from all over, Germany, Switzerland, US, UK, Australia.   That first night we slept in hammocks which was a funny experience.  I kind of thought they’d look like the wide hammocks you see by the beaches, but not really, they look more like cocoons.  Mine was as high as my elbows, and I almost died laughing trying to get in.  I found it comfortable, really, although not many others agreed. Haha.

2nd day – The next day, David and I woke up at 6am and split off from the group we started out with.  We opted to do it in 4-days instead of the usual 5-days and joined another group doing the same from a different company.   Now…this group was REALLY fun, young and were from Netherlands, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.  I called them speedy gonzales, because they were a bunch of fast, young hikers, even our guide, Luis (who had absolutely no trouble with this pace) commented on our speed.   These guys really gave me a workout, and I was seriously considering climbing mountains every week to maintain this level of conditioning.  We hiked for a total of about 6 hours traversing terrains, river crossings, more ascents and ended up at the base, where we would climb 1,200 steps to the Lost City the next day.  We were all fast asleep by 8-9 pm.

lcp33rd-4th day – On the third day, we woke up early and began our trek to the lost city.  It’s an indescribable feeling observing the 1,2000 stone steps the Tayronas had constructed back in the day.  We arrived at the terraces and Luis took his time describing the various structures we passed and we soaked in the stories and beauty around us.

As we started our journey back, which was mainly downhill, I was astounded at the steepness and lengths of the ascents we made.  I don’t remember climbing a lot of it, probably because I was so focused on the pain and making the ascents while controlling my footwork and gasps for air.

On the drive back to Santa Marta, I had a huge smile on my face throughout the 3 hour ride.  We also had a hilarious driver.  Along the way back, we stopped at a house, to fill up gas.  Yes a house.  The driver rang the doorbell, a lady answered, and a guy comes out with two large cans of gasoline.  We were speculating that it was gas from Venezuela (where it is way cheaper).   A gallon at the stations costs about $4.42, which is really expensive considering Colombia’s purchasing power, and that is produces petrol.

I look back and think “I did it”.  I will keep doing shit like this.

lcp5

Some practical information below.   Thanks to the many bloggers, reviewers who wrote about their LCP experiences.  It was really helpful in terms of being prepared and keeping that damn backpack as light as possible with essentials.

Packing list

  • Headlamp for the nights and early mornings.
  • DEET, at least 25%.  You get bitten by mosquitoes a shit load without it.
  • Sunscreen, and keep spraying.  I forgot to put some on the third day, and got insanely burnt, still paying for it a few days later.
  • Light towel (I saw some travellers with these Karrimor quick drying towels.  While mine was light, it was not quick drying, and it was annoying.  Once something gets wet, it stays wet in this climate.)
  • Dry sacks.  I got a 15L for dry clothes (for my 22L backpack), and a couple of smaller dry sacks for my camera and Kindle reader.
  • One long sleeve shirt and long pants for the nights.  It gets cold.  You don’t need more than one.
  • 3-4 shirts.  I threw away the first one I wore, mainly because it was still so wet in the morning.  Keep to the dri-fit, lightest possible, quick drying material.  You sweat non stop during the trek, and drying them overnight doesn’t quite work.
  • 1-2 extra shorts
  • Band aids, bandages – which I used.  Although I will say that in my group, I was the person with the most minor bruises. 🙂
  • Flip flops
  • Good shoes.  I bought Merrell’s Barefoot Swift Glove, a comfortable wet shoe with good traction, and it was a good buy.  You cross rivers daily and your shoes inevitably get soaked.  I didn’t bother wearing socks for 3 days with them.
  • Sleeping bag liner – this is more of a personal preference.  You sleep in beds after the first night in a hammock and … in a nutshell, I was glad I brought one.
  • Toilet paper (you can also buy them at the camps)
  • Bring pesos.  You can buy Gatorade, beer, snacks along the way.  Gatorade/beer costs about 5,000 pesos each.
  • Bathing suit.  There are numerous chances to swim in the rivers.  The later bases are by rivers too.
  • Water treatment tablets – A lot of blogs recommended them.  I got these from Wal-mart, and did not use them at all.  You have sufficient opportunities to refill your bottles at the camps with treated water.  At one point, our guide pointed us to a tiny waterfall which we drank water from.  No one in my group was sick.
  • Bring snacks – although you can buy them, there’s nothing more satisfying than having snacks YOU like, on a trip like this.  I’ve been addicted to honey roasted cashews/almonds/walnuts lately and brought a quart of them.  Between lunch and dinner, you do get hungry.

Other worthy mentions..

  • When we returned, I noticed that the back of my hands were full of brown looking freckles.  I was kind of worried, and came across this post on the internet.  I did recall having Lulo, a fruit which seems like a cross between an orange and lime in the middle of the day while the sun was blazing.  The post says they fade in about a month, but mine has already faded halfway 4 days after noticing them. 

Cartagena de Indias

hatsI’m writing the first part two days into Cartagena and this city has swept me off its feet.  Over the past few weeks when speaking of my upcoming trip to Colombia, I’ve been met with various reactions.  Of course there’s the usual: “Are you sure it’s safe? Be careful, it’s dangerous, a lot of bad things happen there.”  Inside I think “But that was years ago when Colombia was in the news a lot for the wrong reasons”.

Now that I’ve been here…..  Yes there are dangerous regions in Colombia, as Fernando, Carmen and many others tell me, but they are in the south east of Colombia where the climate and landscape is kind to growing Coca.  In Cartagena itself, as long as you don’t wander off to the unrecommended areas, you’re fine.  It’s really down to being practical and cautious in any large city, just as you would in NYC, London, Philly, and avoiding the dangerous areas.  I did not feel any less safer than I did living in Kuala Lumpur and Philadelphia.

San Pedro

San Pedro Cathedral

I’ve been traveling solo.  I feel safe.  The police and military are EVERYWHERE, in the city, on the highway, even in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  They are friendly and terribly cute when they smile.

When visiting a new country, the thing that does it for me are the conversations & interactions with the locals.  I’m thankful for Carmen who lives in a beautiful part of the old city.  It is her home that was my base the first few days for exploring the old city.  I’ve found a cute spot on the ancient walls (on the right of Cafe del Mar, for watching the sunset, listening to music, reading and people watching.  Carmen is naturally funny as hell.  She gave me an overview of how  Catholicism is so ingrained in people’s lives here in Colombia.  There’s a Saint that represents everything, e.g Santa Marta is the Saint to pray to for immigration matters, i.e. if you want your visa to US/UK/etc approved.  Locals travel to the Santa Marta cathedral in Bogota on Tuesdays, and it’s packed and overflowing.  You give your name to the priest who then reads out your name during service.  And it’s literally hundreds of names.  If you don’t get approved its because “god didn’t think the timing was right”.

Carmen tells me a bunch of other hilarious stories like how sometimes the Chinese end up in Colombia on a boat, of course “by accident” (trying to make their way to USA) and because there are practically no Chinese living in Cartagena, they are sooner rather than later caught by the police and unfortunately sent back.

I’m currently re-reading Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and Carmen’s stories of Colombia have helped me understand the Carteganian/Colombian nuances throughout the book.

photo

Fernando was sweeping the floors outside his shop on an early morning. I was searching for coffee, he read my mind, and asked if I wanted from Kaffe. YES Fernando!

I’ve traversed the streets over and over again.  I keep bumping into the same friendly people.  Fernando whom I met at the San Pedro monastery, who shoved me into a free emerald tour and told me where to get local coffee.  “Don’t go to Hard Rock Cafe!” he tells me. Don’t you worry Fernando, I would never step in there).  Then there’s the guard outside of Parque de Bolivar who I’ve bumped into thrice now and has helped me find my way over and over again.  He doesn’t speak a word of English, i don’t speak a word of Spanish, and yet we converse in utter confusion and laugh it off.  And there are the others who want to help genuinely and ensure I’m having a good time.

The Cartagenians are proud of their city, and it shows.  I love the enthusiastic, passionate love they exude as I talk to them.

During the time I was hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, I met a number of travelers who had been traveling for months throughout South America.  I heard over and over again that Colombia was their favorite country because of the people and authenticity here.

Bocagrande

I’ve spent the last few days following the La Ciudad Perdida hike in Bocagrande, where I “splurged” at the Hilton.  “Splurged” as in I really didn’t splurged, but had all these points I was able to redeem for a 2 night stay there.  I initially had the impression that Bocagrande was going to be something like that horrific strip of hotels in Cancun, but I was wrong.  The locals like to call it a Little Miami, and it’s also a residential area with great street food and ambience.  I spent my last full day with Carmen’s friends and family by the bay, and the conversations have been hilarious, entertaining and educational.

Notable restaurants/places:

Espiritu Santo Restaurante

Espiritu SantoI came here for lunch with Carmen and Marcus, and the experience is like walking into Royal China (a damn good authentic dim sum place in London), I.e. filled with Colombians, hustling, bustling, with good food.  I ordered pescados de coco, fish in coconut sauce, which came with a soup, salad, rice and plantains.  The portions are hearty and satisfying.  As I finished my meal, Carmen goes “Wow I’m really proud of you!”.   I beam at her and accept the compliment with pride.  I’m pretty sure my stomach’s ability to expand during the right moments is something I’ve mastered as a Malaysian.  We love food.


La Esquina Del Pan de Bono

IMG_8060I’m glad Carmen recommended this bakery on the first day, because I’ve gone back everyday that I’m in Cartagena.  I never know what I choose, and it’s a delightful experience biting into the pastry discovering its filling.  Mmmmm.  I love the round buns.  They have this light frosting which tastes a bit like condensed milk, with butter and cheese in the middle.   Their juices are pretty amazing too – lulo and melon are my favorites.  The bakery is opposite this cute little plaza in front of the Cartagena University.  There are counters and bar stools which look out onto the bustling crossroads and great for people watching.

Riquisimo BBQ

riquisimoGreat tasty food.  Ordered off the specials board: red snapper, coconut rice, plantains and salad.  The coconut rice was particularly delicious.  Got the limonada de coco as recommended by another reviewer and did not regret it.  It came with shaved coconut on the top, and it was sooo refreshing.

Oh New York, and of course…reflections.

I love life.  I returned to Bedford today after spending yet another week in NYC with my close friends.  I couldn’t stop dancing, inside, outside, everywhere….  And then a few hours later, I crashed on the sofa.

“You haven’t lived til you’ve loved”

I finally had the opportunity to watch Once on Broadway.  In addition to the intense nights out on the weekdays, I had a “cultural” weekend: spent Saturday afternoon at the Lincoln Center watching contemporary dance, Sunday, lazing on the High Line with Glen Hansard in my ears before catching the flight back to Manch.

I love this city.  I’m not sure I could live here.  Actually I think I could, and I’m sure that after a few months, I would fall head over heels in love with it.

I’m fortunate that my best of friends all live in NYC currently.  Funny thing is that we all used to live in London.  They live in the best locations in New York.  And they take me to the best areas.  Whenever I visit, I just slip into their daily lives.

I love the energy, attitudes represented by the various personalities here.  No one gives a sh*t here.  I love that.

Back to Once.  I’ve been wanting to watch it for ages.  Siobhan and I did Once on Friday.

Let me just pause and say that, going to an event (which represents another culture) with a friend from that culture makes the experience completely different and more fulfilling.

I distinctly recall watching Arcade Fire with a Canadian who followed them before they were known.  It was just delightful to watch him reminisce and swell with pride.

That kind of energy is so infectious.

Siobh was just a pleasure to watch Once with.  The broadway version was pretty authentic, and it was obvious from her expressions, and the countless number of times her hand flew to her heart.  Oh Siobhan. 🙂

Once is a beautiful piece of art.  I have yet to see the movie.  But a few years ago, I came across the song Falling Slowly as it was played to a beautiful dance piece.  Researched it, and etc etc.

I love books/movies/lyrics/stories that are simplistic yet emotionally raw, and have a powerful meaning behind them.  I also despise them because I spend countless hours contemplating and pondering.

Once falls into that category.

I think that apart from the basic human needs, there are three things that are important to anyone’s happiness: love, career and friendships.  You could have one of the three, but without the other two, it may seem as if things aren’t complete.  And I don’t know if its possible to have all three.  Is it?  And maybe not everyone agrees with me..

Love, career, friendships.  See…the thing is, mine all intertwine.

Love.  Yes I’ve been blessed to have experienced love, crazy love, unconditional love in the past.  It has in some ways completely ruined me, and I mean that in a good way.  But there are other kinds of love.  Love..agape love, for the day, the present, our families, our jobs, our friends.

Career.  Our jobs take up a massive part of our lives.  It’s ridiculously important that we aim to find the job we love.  That it doesn’t feel like a “job”, but you get paid doing the things you genuinely enjoy, and that you are constantly challenged and learn something new every day. I love my “job”.  I know I’ve been really fortunate, and not everyone comes across a job they love in the first company they’re with.  I’m thankful for that, and do not take this for granted.

Friendships.  Throughout my “journey” (quote, unquote, because really I’m 28, not 60 and have a ton more to learn), I’ve found myself drawn towards individuals who have the same underlying values as I do.  They have completely different personalities.  But we find ourselves drawn to the other because we believe in the same things, like passion, ambition, well travelled, just to name a few.  The majority of the handful of these friends work where I work, and oh Lord, can you imagine that?  A job, you love, with your closest friends?  It’s a blast.

Again I love life.

Don’t get me wrong.  It isn’t this rosy every single day.  And let’s face it, life isn’t simple.  I’ve experienced really low lows, where I’ve felt like I’m in the gutter, and there was no way anyone would find me and rescue me.  But on the days that suck, I have a great support system.

And really, all that matters, is that we seize each day as it comes, and aim to live each day to its fullest, while remembering to try and not take things too seriously.

My favorite phrase this year has been “Carpe that f-ing diem”.

Colombia

Following weeks of research after the initial thought was planted in my head, I finally mustered up the courage one evening (admittedly after a few gin & tonics and a massive “DO IT!” from Siobhan – a pretty good recipe for audacity) and purchased tickets to Cartagena, Colombia.

Yesterday, I get an email update from thepointsguy.com on Destination of the Week: Cartagena.  I get all tingly and think, YES this is a sign.

Plan: Skip Bogota, spend two days in Cartagena, travel to Santa Marta for the 5-day hike to La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), and another few days back in Cartagena celebrating with a ton of good food and drink.

I love the internet.  I’ve been reading a ton of reviews, blog posts written by well-travelled folks who have been to the above places.

I chose Cartagena as it has lovely beaches (will definitely be avoiding Bocagrande), is rich in history & culture (UNESCO world heritage site), and has really really fresh seafood (think ceviche).  These are things I like, love, adore and will never get enough of in my lifetime.  I also get the sense that Colombia is a country not many people tend to think of visiting, and therefore not too commercialized.

One thing that struck me, were the reviews on the La Ciudad Perdida experience, especially from those who have done Machu Picchu.  Both are several day hikes to a “Lost City”.  They differ in the sense that the LCP hike and journey is the highlight, whereas the final destination, MP, is the highlight.  Those who have done both find both equally challenging and satisfying, but for different reasons.

Over a 5 year span, I travelled a bit throughout Europe – 17 countries – and had the time of my life doing it.  Now that I’m back in the US, my aim is to explore Central & South America.  Colombia is the beginning, and I can’t wait to spend my late twenties exploring a new continent.

Tagged , ,

Time to get.a.way

A few weeks ago, my body started twitching. I grabbed my Mac and started googling for last minute cheap getaways. For all the “cheap last minute cheap” Google results, they really aren’t “cheap”.

Anyway, the thing is, I need an escape. I don’t mean to another city in the US. I need to go visit a new country. I told my colleagues this, and they immediately assumed it was because I was in rural Bedford. No, this would still be the case even I were living in NYC.

I try to visit at least two new countries and several new cities in a year. Cancun, Mexico doesn’t really count. It’s the most (ridiculously) touristy destination, and it was work sponsored.  I did have loads of fun, not denying that.

I started with Jetblue. They have good flights to Colombia. My brother lived there for a few months. Ah ha. I email him, he writes back saying he’s got a good friend in Cartagena who tells him to tell me “Mi casa es tu casa”. Swoon. I freaking love that phrase. I first came to hear of it from none other than Mia. She says it all the time whenever I crash at hers. I need a “Mi casa es tu casa” wall decal.

Next concern, I will likely have to travel alone. My timeline doesn’t sync up with friends. I don’t mind travelling alone, but I thought I’d check with Reuben. After emailing with him and googling “Travelling alone in Bogota, Cartagena”, it seems like having the attitude of “be cautious, and don’t be an idiot” is all it takes. Sounds like living in Kuala Lumpur.

I’ve been reading up a ton on Colombia. The problem now is, the more I read up on it, the more I want to extend my trip from 10 days to 3 weeks. Heck, at one point I thought, I really want to MOVE THERE.

Key objectives: visit Bogota for 3 days, Cartagena for 7 days, and hopefully fit in Ciudad Perdida somewhere. Not sure if CP will be feasible, but after reading up on CP, I really want to do it. Might have to sacrifice one for the other.

Hopefully it’ll all come together. Still at least a month away. But since I’m blogging about it, the pressure is ON.

Central Line

ImageI found this case thing that looks like a book at a local store in Bedford.  All the stations listed here represent all tube stops in Zone 1 on the Central Line in London.

As soon as I saw it, I stopped in my tracks and and all these memories of taking the central line came flooding back.
I wanted to turn around to the family behind me and tell them why I was so excited, but…
I lived in Queensway (not cool that it says “Queens Way” on it) for over a year.  This tube stop was really really under underground.  You had to take the lifts or walk up/down 123 steps on this narrow spiral stairway before getting to the platform.  There were no elevators.  I rarely had the patience to wait for the lifts amongst the throes of tourists and would run down the stairs, hoping I wouldn’t trip and tumble down.
Central line was also probably the most reliable line.  Trains came every 1-2 mins.  It was also one of the most stifling lines in the summer.  No air conditioning.  You got used to the smell that results from humidity, poor ventilation and a LOT of bodies crammed into a carriage.  Ooh sweet memories.
I loved “commuting”.  Always had my headphones in and people watched.  During peak office travel hours, there were a lot of finely dressed people on their way to Bank/Liverpool street stations.  During non business hours, there’d be a ton of tourists from all over the world speaking their own languages animatedly.
I took it to work for about a year (when our offices were by St Paul’s) and almost every weekend to get to west end or the east part of London.  In some ways it really represents/symbolises this “step” to most escapades I had in London.
I miss London, not in the sense that I want to go back and live forever, but in the sense that it was my home for 3 years and I have many fond memories.

The Village

Monday – Thursday was spent at the Zhabagly village in Kazakhstan. I did not want to leave. It was serene, simple and beautiful. I made the mistake of checking work emails on Tuesday night, and oh boy did that send me back to work mode for an hour.

We stayed at Yevgheny and Lynda’s charming guesthouse in the village. They are from Ukraine, and moved to Kazakhstan in 1978. We met quite a few backpackers at their guesthouse, from Netherlands, Australia and Sweden.
Again, I loved the village. Mind you that when I say village, try not to think of all the negative connotations that come with that word. The villagers were educated, they had lovely yet simple houses. You could tell that the Kazakhstan government took good care of ensuring good education and infrastructure for the villagers. It also made me more angry at the Malaysian government. They like to boast of being quite a progressive country, but try going to the remote areas….
I have to talk about the horses, cows and sheep. When we arrived on Monday, around 7pm we heard a lot of mooing going on. I walked out of the guesthouse and joined the Dutch tourists on the street. The cows were coming home!
So there are about 2000 residents in this village. Every household has an average of 2-3 cows, some sheep and maybe 1-2 horses. Everyday, around 6:30am they take turns gathering all the cows and sheep from each house to take them high up into the mountains to graze. Then at around 7pm, all the animals come home. It is quite a lovely sight, because you see an entire herd walking together, and the cows split off by themselves one by one and they know which house to go home too!
So since that Monday, mom and I made it a point to sit outside by the porch everyday and watch them come home. One day, we were waiting for about 30 minutes, and my mom goes “aha we are literally waiting for the cows to come home!”


Moving on to Tuesday, we went hiking in the Aksu Canyons. We had Svetlana as our guide, a Russian who moved to Kazakhstan in 1991. You could tell she loved nature. So down she took us, explaining everything in detail and with a lot of patience. Tulips originated from Central Asia (although they are often associated with Netherlands), so we saw quite a few of the original Greig Tulips which are plentiful in the Aksu-Zhabagly nature reserve. Mom and dad were really impressive at their age! They managed to get down and up and they were even at the same pace as the forty something Dutch couple we met halfway. 

When we returned from hiking, Svetlana was kind enough to invite us to her home. Actually, mom stealthily devised a plan earlier on so Svetlana would invite us over. There we met the same Dutch couple Svetlana’s backyard and learnt that they had built their own RV and had driven all the way to Kazakhstan from Netherlands with their two dogs. 

Now Wednesday was my favorite part. We went horseback riding into the mountains! This was my first time, and so I worried that the horse was going to fling me off its back! But no, my horse, Patron (Russion for Bullet) took great care of me. I began to trust her, and if I did fall, it was because I was a bad rider.

You could tell that the people of Kazakhstan are natural horse people. I’m so certain they train their horses better than the trainers in the Western world. The horses were great, maneuvering their way about the mountains steadily. I had a lot of time to observe my horse, and thought to myself, no wonder handsome strong men are called stallions. 🙂

Svetlana and Talgat (our ranger) again took good care of us. They were extremely patient trying their best to explain and answer all our inquisitive questions. I was quite amused and proud of my mom when she sat Svetlana down, took out her notepad, and asked Svetlana how to bargain in Russian. We also learnt of the sport Kokpar, a Kazakh version of Central Asian sport where two teams on horses try to catch a sheep’s carcass and bring it to their respective goals. This is where horse polo originated from. Reuben plays polo and he had a polo horse, so that was the context it was brought up in.

Horseback riding was awesome and quite a funny experience because of mom and dad….but oh boy, did we pay the next day. Never has my back and butt hurt like this before…

I’m now back at my brother’s lovely apartment in Almaty and about to fly back to London in a few hours. We spent the past two days in front of CNN and BBC watching the coverage of Osama’s capture and death. I have a lot of opinions about how the days after have panned out, but I’ll refrain from going into it.

Kazakhstan was awesome, and thanks to Reuben for organising and hosting us!

Berlin

I was in Germany last in 2006 with 40 students from university. We visited Cologne, Frankfurt, and Heidelberg. The memories from that trip were incredible, but when it comes to remembering what the cities looked like, I have to think really hard.


Work brought me to Berlin on Thursday and Friday. I absolutely loved it. When anyone travels, I think there are two main things that enhance a person’s experience.

1. The people
2. How different that city is in relation to where you grew up, or where you’ve traveled to in the past.

It was for the above reasons that I loved it.

Firstly, the people. The administrator at the conference I attended made a positive comment about German hospitality and she was right!

On my way from the Berlin Schoenefeld Airport to Potsdam, I was highly amused when on two different occasions, I was literally growled at by two female workers at two different train stations while trying to get directions in English. They then proceeded to laugh and tried their best to help me out. I realized that the growling probably occurred because they were frustrated that we couldn’t converse properly?

Upon arriving at Potsdam, I got lost again, and asked the first person who gave me eye contact for directions. After using a mixture of German/English/sign language, he realized that I wasn’t getting it. He then kindly shoved me to the trams, and proceeded to accompany me on my short trip to the hotel! I was then highly amused and very touched when we got off the tram, and while I could clearly see that the hotel was just in front of me across the road, he tried his best to explain how best to cross the road, and that I should use the ramp instead of the stairs with my luggage! I must’ve looked like the worst lost person he’d ever come across!

On Friday, as I was trying to get from Potsdam to Berlin, I proceeded to stop at this sausage deli for lunch. Now, anyone who knows me, knows how much I love sausages. Oh heavenly. Sausages, sauerkraut and potatoes. Oh my lord! I sat down with my meal and realized that I didn’t have any cutlery or napkins needed to devour this thing. The deli was incredibly busy, and I was at a loss. This old man in front of me, in sign language, directed me to the cutlery station, and then to the napkin station on the other end. He then laughed and gave me a thumbs up signaling that I was now ready to eat! What a sweetie pie!

Secondly, the city. Upon leaving the hotel, I had 3 hours to spare before my flight back to London, so I decided to walk around Berlin for a bit. I downloaded all the free apps I could find on Berlin and got a good idea of where I wanted to go.

I decided to focus on the area South of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof where I would be able to walk down Eberstrabe and see the main landmarks – The Reichstag House, the Brandenburg gate, the Holocaust monument – and end up at Potsdamer Platz.


The holocaust monument – Field of Stelae- was incredible. It is an area the size of two football fields filled with 2711 concrete blocks. It is a pretty controversial monument; not many saw the need for it. I as a foreigner, disagree and think it’s worth every life that was lost in the war. It’s designed in such a way so that as you walk down a row of blocks, the ground slopes downwards, and the blocks get taller. So initially, as you enter a row, a block is the height of your knee, and in the middle, a block is 8 feet high. So the monument is meant to symbolize the fragility of the Jews, and as you walk through the pathways you are meant to feel trapped and uncertain of what’s around the corner. I spent a good 20 minutes soaking in the experience and listening to Kreuzberg by Bloc Party on repeat.

My last stop was Potsdamer Platz. It used to be no man’s land between East and West Germany, but has now been transformed to becoming Berlin’s commercial center. It definitely sounded and looked like the Canary Wharf of Berlin. 🙂 Sure the buildings were great, modern, and of great design, but I was more interested to see the remains of the wall. I get really silly with things that don’t exist anymore, and there in front of you, you have a fragment of what’s left. And so I stood in front of the 5 pieces of concrete wall, and stared and stared, at the graffiti, and let my imagination run wild.


Shame I didn’t have more time on my hands. I would’ve attempted to experience the afternoon Kaffee and Kuchen culture!





Potsdamer Platz: