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. 

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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Nudity & Nature in Montenegro

“Super ste”
“You’re great” we were told by the 83 year old Montenegrin Grandpa. Day 1 in Montenegro. I had a feeling it was going to be a super stay.

A leathery brown blonde bomb shell in her fifties was stark naked perched on a cliff. Her downward dog beamed to the swimmers below. She slowly took a drag from her cigarette, her head resting on a pillow she’d brought from home. A 12 year old girl walked past nonchalantly, unfazed in the slightest by the extreme butthole tanning.

We were at Montenegro’s infamous “Ladies Beach” that proclaimed to be Europe’s first women only nudist beach. Good to see a country so aligned with women’s rights.

Its sulphur mineral springs were deemed to be an elixir of women’s health enhancing fertility. Women travelled far and wide to swim in the mythical waters, or more specifically to swim around a rock three times and leave a bikini piece on the rock’s swimsuit shrine.

The novelty of being completely naked and painted head to toe in the magical mud for €3 may have been another draw card.

But what struck me most about this women’s haven was the intricate tanning positions. Women’s of all ages would bend in all sorts of angles to get their crotch exposed to the sun. Did they put on sunblock down there? I dare not ask. I did however question a local on the bizarre tanning techniques.

“It feels good” she explained.
“There aren’t many chances to feel the sun there”

All was well in paradise until an elderly man accidentally snorkelled into the cove. I heard shrieks and looked over to see an older women hitting him on the head with his snorkel. He quickly swam off, a mistake he might be willing to make again.

Perhaps surprisingly this all took place in Ulcinj – a heavily Muslim influenced town close to the Albanian coast. Churches had turned into Mosques, and Montenegrin into Albanian.

Rewind a day, zigzag across the mountains and we were in a totally different world. Sitting on a lake side beach in the tiny village Godijne, listening to a symphony of crickets in harmony with a local playing his accordion.

No tourists seemed to make it to this quaint place set amongst Kiwi fruit and Grape vines. As we meandered about locals cheerfully called out:
“Dobre dan”
“Good day”

We were staying with Drazen and Sanja through Air BnB. His Grandmother cooked us the local speciality, a fish dish that was cooked for a casual 20 hours. Obviously I asked for the recipe. The Carp was dried overnight, then cooked for 8 hours. I felt no further instruction would be required.

Our feast was followed by shots of “Brandy of Kiwi” so strong it was hard to believe it was his 83 year old Grandfather’s recipe.

Fast forward through countless beaches, each more stunning then the previous, and it was our last day. We road tripped through Montenegro’s fiords, northern national parks, mountains and lakes.

My Belgian friend Valerie, a die hard New Zealand fan was even impressed by the scenery.
“Shit, this is f a n t a s t i c”
“As good as NZ?”
“Almost as good”
I sigh and laugh.

All the days in between were your usual travel tales.

Sharing a 12 bed dorm with 10 Australian guys, the drunken snoring symphony was fantastic!

Scaling hill fortress ruins in 36 degree heat with a 73 year old man we picked up along the way.

Perusing beautiful old towns and taking copious amounts of photos.

Complaining the food was too heavy every time we put on a bikini (everyday)

Montenegro is definitely a contender for my ongoing contest of favourite country ever (Valerie, always philosophising, tells me our generation make a habit of always using superlatives)

It was the best weather. The most beautiful beaches. The kindest locals. One of the cheapest countries. And because of its small size, in one week we saw a large and varied selection of the country.

Next stop, Croatia. We arrived slightly less glamorously then imagined. The air conditioning was broken on our bus, so the three hour journey was spent in near 40 degree heat sweating in ways I never thought was possible. I look forward to the looming heat wave, it’ll be the hottest ever perhaps.

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The Baltics

The land of insomniac summer nights, medieval old towns, fir forests and tall beauties.

“You’re going where?” Everyone back home asked.

“The what?”

The Baltics. A trio of countries in North-East Europe wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea.

Since gaining independence from the Soviets, these states seem to be swiftly gaining tourist momentum. And yet they still feel so old school Europe, like medieval times weren’t perhaps quite so long ago.

It’s still possible to dine out and get a beer for €2, and a meal for under €3.

The summer days seem to last forever with the sun up until midnight, disappearing only to rise again 4 hours later.

I had a mere two week Baltic teaser – zigzagging across all three capitals: Vilnius, Riga and Tallin, as well as Lithuania and Estonia’s small coastal towns.

My favourite country was for sure Lithuania. I may be slightly bias to the fact it’s renowned for having the best looking men.

Sure, anyone with an ever so slight perchant for tall, urban, bearded beauties will be in voyeurism heaven. But of all the capitals Vilnius is the most quaint, hardly touristy and has sweet bohemian vibes.

I wouldn’t be surprised if men preferred Estonia, as it’s rumoured here the women are the most beautiful.

A bit of eye candy certainly does help decorate the streets. But of course there is so much more to a country then beautiful locals.

And they definitely charmed me. I feel for the Baltics’ quaint aesthetics, folklore traditions, dreamy landscapes, colourful history and endless summer days.

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L o s t in the world

If a girl screams in the forest and no one hears her, does it make a sound?

If you go into the woods today you might get a big surprise…

But let’s not spoil the ending, we’ll start at the beginning.

I’ve done short bursts of solo travel, but never such an ambitious trip. I guess you could call it a cathartic journey.

Post quick fire break ups it wasn’t just that I wanted to escape into the oblivion of travel bliss, it was that the very core of me was screaming for the need to be alone – in fresh scenery, with head space.

People rave about the merits of solo travel. The autonomy, the freedom, the sense of accomplishment -navigating across new cities and countries alone! But no one speaks of the challenges.

Solitude is a two edged sword, and sometimes with it comes a bitter loneliness. And yet when you come face to face with it, it’s not as bad as anticipated.

Perhaps it was for this very reason I was drawn to countries off the beaten track, minus the hordes of backpacking revellers – forever looking for their next drink and their next root.

Lost in the world, but purposefully so.

I thought my lowest point was stuck in a Latvian hospital for 5 hours, awaiting a brain CT scan after a bicycle incident where I didn’t remember hitting my head.

That was until I spent a night in a cabin in the woods clutching my nail scissors. They were sharp, but not as sharp as I would’ve liked.

I’d found a travel oasis. Solo cabins, surrounded by beautiful forest beside a beach on one of Estonia’s western islands. Only €15 per night. There were no other travellers there, just a handful of local families on holiday. Initially I revelled in such a find off the beaten track, but then as night drew in a sixth sense told me this was too isolated. I was too obviously foreign and too obviously alone. All the empty cabins seemed to be watching me as wandered past. I decided the next day I’d leave for Tallin the capital.

Tired still from the remnants of the concussion I went to sleep early. Something snapped me out of my deep slumber. The door handle jerking? My patio light was on and a tall man was standing there looking in. How long he stood there I do not know. Watching me sleep? I didn’t know his intention but I knew it wasn’t good. I’m not sure if I moved, or if he saw my eyes snap open but he swiftly disappeared into the night.

After what felt like an eternity, I slowly reached over and checked my phone. 210am. I checked my surroundings, trying to devise a plan if he came back. The only exit was the glass door where he’d been standing. The window to my left had no openings. I debated whether I could throw my phone through it and climb out. My toiletry bag? That was heavy. It was going to be a long sleepless night.

Maybe I should call the police? I cursed myself that I didn’t know the number and hadn’t gotten around to topping up my phone. Idiot! 911 – that was universal surely? Next thing I was being transferred to an English speaking operator. And before I knew it two policemen were outside my cabin.

“There’s no one here.” Obviously. But there had been.

“The light. The censor light came on” I stammered. Why wasn’t it on now then I wondered? The policeman raised eye brows at each other, obviously thinking the same thing.

“There is no one here. Go back to sleep. Lock your door”

As the 4am sun rose, I fell into a fitful sleep clutching my phone and nail scissors wondering if I’d imagined the whole ordeal.

When I awoke I noticed the patio had a light you switched on from outside. So the creep had been watching me sleep, and that explained how he dissolved into darkness so quickly.

Counting my blessings I googled the next bus out of there.

The moral of the story? It’s one thing to be utterly absorbed in a new world, it’s another to go so far astray you might not be found.

For all my soul searching and radical adventures across the Phillipines, China and the Baltics, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the 2nd half of my trip had somehow been interspersed with good friends from home.

Whatever it was I’d been trying to prove to myself, I guess I had proven it.

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BUCKET.

This year felt different. I wanted to feel alive. Fresh. To explore. And so I wrote a list. I think I’ve done quite well.

 

TRAVEL SOLO TO COLOMBIA TO VISIT ONE OF MY BESTIES

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GET MY HAIR BRAIDED ON A CARRIBEAN BEACH

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CASUALLY FLOAT DOWN THE AMAZON RIVER

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BOAT FROM ONE COUNTRY TO ANOTHER

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DO SOME LONE WANDERING THROUGH CENTRAL AMERICA

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TOUCH DOWN IN THE USA

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In hindesight, I probably should have added these things to the list…

 

GET PAINTED LIKE JAGUAR IN THE MIDST OF THE AMAZON JUNGLE

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DRINK COCONUT WATER AU NATURAL

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POOP IN A TROPICAL TOILET

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MAKE A HUMAN PYRAMID ON A DESERTED ISLAND

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ACCIDENTALLY LIMIT ALL MY POSSESSIONS TO THIS

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ADOPT A KITTEN IN A CLUB

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TAKE A PHOTO LIKE THIS

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Life is short. Make it sweet.    peace-sign-hand-peace-sign-1

Why travel (on reflection)

I’m drawing inspiration from my favourite travel muse Pico Iyer, 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 my sensibilities.

“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. As I journeyed for 9 weeks, I found the stresses of life withering away. I laughed constantly. I felt alive and happy. Young and invincible.

Friendships created in a week, 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 itched 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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On Bogota

Bogota is a city of complexities. I can’t say I loved it, but I can’t say I hated it either. It was simply a place that I passed through, and admittedly had a lot of fun while doing so.

One thing that struck me was the mall mania. Colombian’s love their shopping malls, it seemed almost like a national pride.

Upon driving into the mall armed officials with Alsatians check your car for explosions. Apparently back in the day the guerilla groups targeted shopping malls for terrorist attacks. This stringent safety precaution made made me feel safer. I think.

I was shown around countless malls. I dined in many malls. I was even surprised to discover that they had clubs on top of their malls! Night clubs! It was such a surreal feeling to get all prettied up, park and then walk through a deserted mall to go to a club.

To be fair it was one of the funnest clubs I’ve ever been to. Four floors of eclectic mayhem. The staff come around and decorate you. I was given a hat and a sash that translates roughly to “your life will be beautiful.” One can only hope.

And I was lucky enough to suffer my first Aguardiente hangover, or Guaro as the locals so fondly call it. Guaro is a fun drink, kind of like Tequila but with an Aniseed twang. When you’re drinking it the world is a wonderful place. That could be because you order it by the bottle, and drink it in shots. Vomiting Guardo I can assure you, is something you never want to repeat ever again.

My most vivid memory of Bogota is Colombia’s first game in the Football World Cup. We piled into a foot traffic area called Zona-T and the ambience was unreal. Here in New Zealand we’re not the most passionate folk, even over our beloved Rugby. Colombian’s passion for football was something else. The facials were incredible. The streets were alive. It was like one big giant dress up party.  After the victory we had to escape before we were completely caked in foam and flour (though to be honest I wouldn’t have really minded)

As locals became drunk the festivities quickly spiralled out of control. Drunken fights broke out, flour throwing become aggressive, and next thing there was a topless girl crying on a police mans shoulder. 8 people died that night from fights or incidental victory gun shots going awol. As we all know, passion and drinking don’t always very well together. But that things escalated so badly is a little bit frightening, and perhaps a reflection of Colombia’s sadly violet past.

That game sparked a liquor ban in Bogota for the rest of World Cup. Luckily I was soon long gone, in parts of the country were folk tolerated their liquor more cheerfully.

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