Why travel (on reflection)

I draw inspiration from some great muses, as I nostalgically reflect on adventures been and journeys to come.

“We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life” George Santayana

Need is a strong word. And yet Santayana continues:

“There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour.”

I’m all for a nimble mind, and a good sense of humour.

“Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love” Pico Iyer

I stay up late at home, but generally disappoint myself with the sensibilities of life.

“We live without a past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves up for grabs and open to interpretation…” ]

You could be anyone. I inevitably always am myself. I think this is a good thing.

“There are, of course, great dangers to this, as to every kind of freedom, but the great promise of it is that, traveling, we are born again, and able to return at moments to a younger and a more open kind of self”

It’s not being young per se that attracts me, but the sense of freedom and ability to frolic frivolusly.

“Traveling is a way to reverse time, to a small extent, and make a day last a year”

It is true. One the road days last forever. The stresses of life wither away. I laugh constantly.

Friendships created in days, felt like friends of old. I felt at home. Broad smiles, sun kissed tans and friendships built on beer pyramids. Many are transient, short and sweet. Yet a collection of people I’ve meet over the years stay with me, there faces etched in my memory.

“All good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder….And that is why many of us travel not in search of answers, but of better questions”

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Bear necessities

If you’re hiking in the Romanian woods and run into a bear, apparently you should play dead.

I’m not sure I’d trust my acting skills in such a dire situation. Then again, lying in foetal position in a frozen state of panic probably wouldn’t involve that much acting.

If the bear proceeds to try and eat you, apparently it’s then time to talk in a firm voice. I can’t help but wonder if he’d understand the Kiwi accent?

Bear etiquette 101. This was quickly googled after many a traveller returned from Transylvanian hikes proclaiming they’d smelt bears.

Yes, no joke. Apparently you can litterally smell them.

“What sort of smell is it?” I enquired, ever so casually.

“You just know. Go the other way if you smell them.”

Great. Very reassuring. Honey face masks probably not be happening this week.

But bears are not all grrrrrrrr. Sometimes they get depressed. I learnt all about it at the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Brasov, Romania.

A lot of bears became depressed at the hands of cruel owners who used them to attract tourists. The bears would refuse to eat, or worse, self mutiliate – eating their own paws.

There were many other horrific stories as well. Bears with arthritis from being made to sit still for too long. Bears who had never been to the forest. Bears scared of other bears. Bears blinded from the flashes of tourist’s cameras.

When you see these fellas with their soulful eyes, playful paws and feigned cuddly ways you can’t help but feel incredibly sorry for them. But surely modern day tourists wouldn’t be so stupid.

At the sanctuary there were many huge signs, warning of the electric fences around the enclosures. Our guide kept reiterating not to get more than 1m close.

Next thing there’s a gasp, and everyone had gathered. As I got closer I realise someone had dropped their iPhone 6 in the enclosure.

“Who would be stupid enough to do that?” I muttered to myself.

“We did!” A couple next to me admitted sheepishly.

Opps. I feigned sympathy as they retold how he’d leaned too close with his phone, got electrocuted and phone went flying in.

Well at least now maybe the bear could take selfies? That seemed to help depressed people get a self-esteem boost.

I wonder what you should do if you come across a depressed bear in the wild? Give him a hug?

I’d like to hope they wouldn’t be depressed in nature. And luckily I follow the advice of google, not my desire to get the ultimate bear hug.

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Midnight in Shanghai

It’s midnight in Shanghai. My early night has failed miserably. The novelty of my own room has gone to my head as I luxuriate in a starfish across the bed.

And what’s this feeling – hunger? But I already ate. Jetlag. Time zones. Of course, right about now I’d be gluttening on dinner and half a litre of wine in Europe.

I set out from the hostel in search of a midnight feast. The first thing I pass is a man peeing in the alley. How delightful. But China has a safe feel, so I keep strolling.

The neighbourhood is very local and suprisingly quiet at this time. There’s only a few dubious food options still available. Everyone stares as I go past, the only Westerner and women roaming here at this hour.

I almost talk myself out of eating but I’m determined to finally get a good nights sleep. I order a noodle and vegetable soup. It comes with a free green tea in a plastic cup. Things are really looking up.

I sip my tea slowly enjoying the ambience of the concurrent coughing and soup slurping.

Tomorrow has great prospects – roaming the Bund, Nanjing Road and the French Concession but for now I’m happy in the backstreets of Shanghai.

My soup arrives. Compared to the rest of the food I’ve had it’s not the tastiest, but I feel quite chuffed with my late night solo venturing in a new country. There’s not many places in the world that’d be safe.

I head home stoked not to be in a dorm room for once. I settle in for a blissful undisturbed slumber.

The last thing I remembered is the feeling of my burnt tongue. 

The reality of refugees

After the saturation of news on the refugee crisis, I decided to spend my last afternoon in Europe visiting the hundreds of refugees that have taken over the park behind the central station in Belgrade, Serbia.

Keen to do something altruistic, but unsure what, we took a supply of yogurt pottles, bananas, bread and snacks with us.

Even from a far you could see the many tents filling the park, but everyone looked surprisingly placid lounging in small groups in the afternoon sun.

I caught a young Muslim mums beautiful green eyes and gave her a beaming smile. I hoped the smile said something I couldn’t communicate.

As we entered the park all eyes were instantly on us. We ventured through somewhat awkwardly, until two young boys ran up to us eagerly eyeing up the snacks. We gave them a yoghurt each.

Suddenly we were surrounded by swarms of children snatching frantically. Everything we’d brought disappeared within seconds, and we left sombrely well aware of the insignificance of the gesture.

But it was a relief to see in Serbia they’d been given a restful respite, compared to some of the brutality of neighbouring countries.

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Bulgaria

Roses, a UFO, Spartacus and Communists. What do all these things have in common?

A rather sizeable country in South Eastern Europe.

I never planned to go to Bulgaria, but I met a Canadian and a French guy in Lithuania and they just kept going on & on & on & on about it.

I guess it sparked a flame of interest.

I did a teeny bit of research, but pretty much just stole the Canadian’s itinerary.

I was pleasantly surprised it was my kinda place. And that’s not just because it’s old Thrace – the homeland of mega babe Spartacus.

The subdued romantic in me loves roses, and Bulgaria is the land of the rose. It’s one of the world’s biggest producers of rose oil, and they sell an abundance of rose trinkets, perfumes, jam, soap, liquor, water and skin products. Just seeing it all made my inner romantic bloom.

I’d never call myself a die hard sci-fi fan, but even I can appreciate an abandoned UFO. If I didn’t know it was a communist relic from the 80s, I would’ve been convinced the eerily derelict Buzludza was left by aliens. Trespassing through a tiny hole in the wall and climbing 31 narrow rungs of stairs in the pitch black was straight out of a movie.

And I hate to go on about food, again. But, it was pretty fantastic. Bulgaria shows neighbourly love from the Greek and Turkish – with Mediterranean veggies, cheese, cheese, fresh juices, grilled meats, cheese, yogurt and tasty stews. Cheese comes with most things.

They also have this great salty yoghurt drink which tastes about as good as it sounds. It’s like Kefir and said to be good for the heat, digestion and hangovers. I got to put it to the test of several occasions. It’s a really hot place after all. Scientists discovered Bulgarian yoghurt has its own unique bacteria that elongates life. I drunk it in bulk.

Along with wine. And since they’ve been making it since Thracian times it’s pretty great. Except the one homemade batch we had that tasted like detergent, unfortunately we’d ordered it by the litre.

And then there were the only in Bulgaria moments.

Getting to see the restoration of a 12th century monastery in process.

Exploring the same monastery, and stumbling upon a creepy room full of skulls, and bones in boxes.

The homeless looking local collecting signatures in his book, trying for the Guinness book of records.

The bus that was full but the driver let me on anyway because he felt sorry for me.

The many fun moments trying to understand the Cyrillic alphabet. Which for the record it turns out the Russians took from the Bulgarians.

All in all it ticked the main boxes for me. Cheap. Friendly locals. Not too many tourists. Sweet travellers on the journey. I unfortunately didn’t run into any Spartacus dopplegangas, but hey, you can’t have everything.

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e.a.t.

No wonder Italians have a reputation for being so passionate (and are rumoured as perhaps the world’s best lovers) they eat A LOT of aphrodisiacs. A lot.

That was one key piece of information that stood out to me on the Roman food tour.

When tomatoes were first introduced in to Italy in the 15th century they were initially banned by the Pope who believed their red colour indicated aphrodisiac properties.

Luckily he didn’t know the potent ways of truffles, spicy salami, aged balsamic, artichokes, basil or figs (to list just a few)

The food tour was quite possibly the most fantastic gourmand experience of my life.

Homemade pistachio coated cannoli at a Sicily bakery. Pizza by the New York Times acclaimed Italian Michelangelo of Pizza. Never ending offerings of wines, prosciuttos, salamis, cheeses, pastas, Caprese and gelato – all from various reputable stops along the way. Like a pub crawl, but I can relive all the key moments intimately.

My initial attempt at healthy eating was swiftly banished a few days after arriving in Italy. I was going all Eat, Pray, Love on it. In this case specifically EAT.

Time was limited, and so indulgences needed to be increased. Drastically. Gelato everyday. Pasta at least once a day. Sampling of little treaties at all the bakeries along the way. What budget?

Luckily the Italians seemed willing to help out.

People dined alone, but seemed less autonomous. I often chatted with the elderly man at the table next to me.

“Oh you haven’t tried this? But you must! Here have some of mine”

Or “Come no?” The waitor asked when I declined dessert after a huge plate of cannelloni. “How no?” (I love this phrase!) He brought me a free scoop of Limone gelato anyway.

Squares filled in the evenings with locals gathering for their aperitivo – a drink with free tapas to entice everyone to come together and unwind at the end of the day.

Us shoe string travellers took the aperitivo a little too seriously. Free food? That was surely an invitation for a dinner feast of epic bite sized proportions.

And so maybe not surprisingly the highlight of Italy was most definitely the food. I think what makes it so so so good is the fresh, tasty, rich ingredients they use. As well as the flavour pairing. No matter how much I savoured each morsel I still crave it.

But then there was Belgium with chocolate, beer, waffle and French fries heaven.

And then I arrived in Bulgaria and a free food tour literally fell into my lap. I was in my very happy place sampling the Greek and Turkish influenced Balkan cuisine.

My passionate ramblings led some Danish girls to quickly dub me the Foodie and Vino. I was quite happy with this title I thought as I sipped on my Bulgarian rose liquor.

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Ciao Bella

Italy is a curious place, let me paint a few images.

Two immaculately dressed Italian ladies on the ferry to the beautiful island Pocida casually toss their finished cigarettes into the ocean.

On the overflowing beaches old women with deeply tanned crocodile skin, show no signs of giving up sun basking.

A couple fight in Italian, flaying arms and gestural hands saying it all.

Another couple make out passionately on the same beach, he’s taken off her top and they writhe about. Standard behaviour for a public place?

Italian men stalk about in white speedos, populating Tinder with photos so posed it’s enough to put anyone off the app indefinitely.

Italian police officers pontificate about in uniforms designed by a clothes stylist. It’s all about the look.

There are midnight queues around the block for what was the best gelato of my life.

Everywhere you turn is something new to bedazzle. Grit amongst the glam, and passion in even the mundane.

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