Que cante mi gente: a different side of Colombia

The 2-day trip which brought me from Asia to South America – 30hs of which were spent in-flight, including the longest existing direct flight, 17hs from Abu Dhabi to LA, passing over the North Pole, Greenland and the Grand Canyon – somehow benefitted my transition between these two radically different places, with something like a…defrosting period. Asia was new to me, I didn’t speak the local languages (which is not to undermine my attempts at basic communication in Khmer while in Cambodia), the culture is foreign to me, and everything was a discovery. South America, on the other hand, feels very much like a second home. Aside from fully mastering the language (Spanish), I am very familiar with the culture, due to both having lived there (in Peru) for almost 3 years, as well as it being very close to the Mediterranean culture I come from. In a way, this was a holiday from professional traveling!
Being, however, my first time in Colombia, there were plenty of expectations to be filled. Nonetheless, the primary purpose of my visit was to see a good friend of mine after 3 years of long-distance-friendship, so anything else I considered to be a bonus. And indeed there ended up being plenty of those!
A flight delay left me in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with the dilemma between accepting $100 from the airline to sleep one night there and catch the next day’s flight to Bogota, where I had meant to arrive; or catching a flight that same day, but instead to Cartagena. You would think that for a budget traveler, already scraping the end of her savings pot, it would be somewhat tricky to make that call. However, there was not an ounce of doubt in me when, in a split second, I accepted to be sent to Cartagena instead. To me, it was as if they had told me: would you like Easter tomorrow, or Christmas today? So I said: “Caribbean coast, here I come!”

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And what a great choice that was. Cartagena has this quaint little historical city center, consisting of two main neighbourhoods: a more “proper” part, where fancy shops and restaurants for tourists are huddled among tiny colonial streets, surrounded by the old city walls, along which you can take a relaxed stroll while watching the sun set over the Caribbean Sea; and the more popular neighborhood, also in a colonial-style, also with a lot of tourists, but with a whole other “calle” (street) feel to it. At night, the main square is crowded with jugglers, youths having a beer (illegally, as it’s not permitted to drink on the street), and music blasting out of street food carts and the surrounding bars. From the moment I stepped out of the plane I could feel the Caribbean soul on my skin (of course, a gush of hot air after the air conditioned aircraft helped). The typical lightheartedness of coastal people is taken to a whole other level on Colombia’s Caribbean, and just walking down the cobbled streets filled me with joy. Of course, the main reason I had so promptly accepted the flight change was not for cobbled streets, but for some well-deserved and long-overdue beach time!

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So, after just one day in Cartagena, I set off to unwind and recover from my 12h jet lag at the nearest beautiful beach: Playa Blanca. I must admit that my arrival in South America coincided with a loss in passion for budget options, and I certainly started treating myself to slightly more costly choices: for example, instead of a 2-3 hs bus ride from Cartagena to Playa Blanca, I opted for a motorbike ride…more than for the time saved in arriving, because I was missing my time on the road with Selma! To make up for that small luxury, I opted for the cheapest form of accommodation: 2 nights on a hammock right on the beach! It may have been the cheapest option, but for me it was also the best I could have asked for. Given my overwhelming need to sleep off the jet lag, I spent the majority of 3 days lying in the hammock, watching the sea, and occasionally dozing off. The rest of the time I would swim, and take long walks towards the end of the beach, sit on the rocks, and meditate. Absolute bliss.
Unfortunately, 2 nights is all I could afford to stay in Playa Blanca, as I had not allocated a lot of time to Colombia, and still had make my way south to visit my friend, with a stopover in Bogota. Again, I opted out of the cheapest option: 22hs on a bus to reach Bogota felt like more than I could take, after my recently spent 30hs on planes. Luckily, Colombia is the only (I believe) South American country with low-cost airlines, so I took advantage of that.
As I was in a hurry to reach La Plata, in the Huila province down south, where my friend lives, I only spent 1 night in Bogota, enough to take a stroll around the central neighborhoods, visit Montserrate, and dance a little salsa.
And off to Huila I went, this time by bus. For the sake of time management, I traveled by night, unknowingly missing out on some breathtaking views on that route – which I discovered when I traveled back to Bogota by day 10 days later, #betterlatethannever.

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Recounting my stay with my friend and her lovely family on their amazing “finca” would not be too interesting to my fellow travelers. However, I can vouch for visiting Huila. In fact, my friend and her folks host people from AirBnB, so anyone can go and enjoy their little corner of paradise!

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It is an off-the-beaten-track gem, with endless lush green mountains, thousands of rivers and waterfalls, including some hidden away inside caves, and a temperate climate to please all. We took long walks in nature, collected soap nuts to make natural soap, and talked about the highs and lows of life. In Huila I found an Eden, and will forever hold it in my heart.

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I had been planning to make my way down to Lima by road from Huila, via Ecuador to catch up with a friend there too, however, excessive rains and avalanches both in southern Colombia and northern Peru had badly affected the roads, so that was no longer an option. Thus, I made my way back north to Bogota to catch a low-cost fight to Lima.
If I started to list what I didn’t get round to seeing in Colombia, this post would double in size. However, I have seen enough to know that this country’s fame of wonders and diversity is fully justified, and can now be looking forward to my next visit to explore more.

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I will skip writing a post about my visit to Peru, since I stayed in Lima for the whole time, catching up with friends, and ticking items off a list of must-eat foods – of course, ceviche featured on that list repeatedly 🙂
As a side note, I did discover a new facet of Lima I had not known when I lived there: the local surf scene. This city, generally unappreciated by passer-by travelers, always manages to surprise me and teach me something new, while all the while making me feel at home. Coming back to Lima truly feels like coming home.

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Soksabai: happy happy in Kampuchea

And the dream of exploring Cambodia on a motorbike came through!
All thanks to a lucky find, a road trip companion that was worth at least 10, in terms of entertainment, practical knowledge, and light spirits! (I recommend you follow his travels too! @ thesearch101.wordpress.com )
He was looking for a motorbike travel companion, after a month traveling more or less solo, and I was looking for a little push in the decision to take on the road on two wheels…the suggestion was to meet in Phnom Penh, get to know each other and exchange travel plans, and then make the final decision as to whether we’d join forces…but my mind had long been made up!

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The first couple of days in Phnom Penh were all about starting to get acquainted with the country and my new travel companion…and, of course, to get me a nice ride! Within 24hs of landing, I had found her…my beautiful Selma: a Chinese copy of the ancient-by-now-out-of-production Honda Win, first sold in Vietnam, and with several thousands kilometers on her back, many of which carrying other adventurous travelers. At least with the last owner, she had already been through all of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. And now she was going to show me around!
The first day of riding started way into the afternoon, because my buddy Tiago had to retrieve his Laos visa first. As we set out to leave the hostel, my dear Selma refused to start! Tiago patiently turned back to see what was wrong (a pattern which repeated itself several times during our ten days together, #blesshisheart), and kindly offered to drive Selma out of the city, while I rode on his bike, La Poderosa (#chegoeseast). Lucky that he dealt with Selma’s initial complaints, since the road out of Phnom Pen was hell, by far the worst of the whole trip! There were road works for 10km or more, all the traffic stuck on one or the other lane, and to try and get ahead we had to wiggle our way through and go up and down steps between the old untarred road and the tarred road in the process of being built…what a start!
We reached Kampong Chhnang as it was getting dark, and immediately found ourselves in the non-touristy life of the country. Nothing exciting, in reality, but definitely refreshing from the tourist trap that is downtown Phnom Penh!
Glad that both Selma and I had made it in one piece for the first 90kms (Tiago and I switched bikes again after we reached the better road out of town), we settled for a good nights rest, as the next day we had almost 200kms awaiting us till Battambang!

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Unfortunately, the next day Tiago wakes up with a bad tummy…nonetheless, he bravely rode north, even taking the time to stop to visit a floating village, where we were greeted by shrieking kids, as well as mistakenly trying to stop for some refreshments at a funeral – #cultureclash. The next couple of stops were for fueling up the bikes or our (mine, mainly) tummies, and were slightly extended because Tiago felt like, and I quote, “I am going to die”. He was in fact pale as a ghost, so much so that the rural family from whom we bought our lunch (and who refused to understand that we didn’t want any meat in our soups!) told him to lie down on one of their hammocks. After an hour or so of rest for lunch, the brave warrior got on his bike again, and we set off. Needless to say that reaching Battambang a couple of hours later was a massive relief for both of us.
This quiet, pretty town was more of a rest (recovery, in Tiago’s case) than anything breathtaking, although we did have a couple of nice visits: in the morning to a bamboo train – “train” being a complete understatement, while the name should rather be The Most Unsafe Bamboo Rollercoaster in the World, given that it was a platform made from bamboo sticks, with an engine on one end, simply laid on two sets of wheels…which sped through the most rattly, least aligned train tracks either of us had ever seen! Still, we met a nice Englishman who got excited about hearing of our motorbike trip, and told us about his tour of southern India on a Royal Einfield, and plans to buy a bike in India and try to cross half of Asia and the whole of Europe all the way back to the UK. Pretty damn awesome.
The killing cave was our afternoon trip, and I believe the name says it all. We had a little adventurous fun climbing down into a couple of caves, wary of the bats overhead, whose noises strongly suggested they would soon wake up. And so they did, and once we came down from the hill after watching the sunset, we sat at a local bar and enjoyed a beer and a chat with the bar owners while we watched hundreds of bats flying out of the caves into the darkness of the night arriving.

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The next day we were ready to head to Siem Reap, and planned a couple of pit stops to see nearby temples. Little did we know, that day we’d already start feeling like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft! The first temple had that Tomb Raider feel, and there we met a veeeeeery tall German man (who defined our bikes as “little”, but of course he is 2.05m tall, which makes you wonder what would be a “normal sized” bike for him), who told us that he had visited a crocodile farm nearby, and of course Indiana…ehm, Tiago couldn’t resist! Never having even heard of a crocodile farm in my life, I was quite intrigued to see the place. Of course, seeing animals in captivity is never pleasing (for me, at least), especially when for a small price you get to hold one of their babies – yes, I held a baby crocodile, his skin was super cold, a feeling I had never felt, but the poor little guy was also growling in anger, so overall it didn’t feel too good. But the little boy in Tiago was really happy, so I guess it was not a bad detour. Especially since it led us back to a decent road, as opposed to the muddy untarred road we had planned to take (by “we” I of course mean Tiago, who I lazily left in charge of most planning efforts throughout our time together) to reach the highway from the temple!
Siem Reap was way more of a tourist trap than I could have ever imagined: enough to say that it’s main touristy street is called “Pub Street”. Thousands of tourists, hundreds of bars and street vendors for both food and drinks, music blasting out of every inch of road, fish that munch on dead skin from tired feet, and of course deep fried bugs and small animals (think tarantulas and snakes) for the tourists to try on dares. We actually saw one British guy trying a tarantula, but he only ate half (the vendor was quite content with finishing off his snack), then made a massive scene of spitting it out, so not very impressive overall. For two days, Tiago dwelled on whether he’d try a deep fried snake (I already knew my adventurous palate could not go that far), then gave up.

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I in fact could not wait to get away from that kind of atmosphere, and was extremely happy when the time came to see the Angkor temples, the real reason tourists come to Siem Reap. We attempted to catch the sunset there on the day before our visit, but were too late to reach a temple before the sun went down. However, we did identify a minor temple (minor in comparison to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but still pretty impressive with its 50-m height and veeeery steep steps) and decided we’d come and watch the sunrise here the next day. And so it was, that we started our visit of one of the most touristy places in the world (as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) completely alone, at the top of a very high temple (#punintended), in complete peace and quiet! As the day went on, and probably due to the order in which we tackled the temples, the place got more and more crowded.

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By the time we reached Angkor Wat, our second last stop, we were very tired and not too patient with the hoards of tourists posing here and there (most of the time, HERE) for a million pictures. The sights were all impressive nonetheless, for me especially those where the jungle had taken over these man-made miracles, with trees towering over the walls, encroaching them in their long, powerful roots (enter Lara Croft – funny side note, Lara Croft…ehm Angelina Jolie was actually there the same day, for the premiere of the film about the Khmer Rouge era that she directed, “First They Killed My Father”, a true story).
That evening we half-willingly tried to catch a Couchsurfing meet-up, but didn’t try too hard, and then just ended up sharing a happy pizza, and hitting the hay pretty early.
We wrapped up our stay in Siem Reap with a lazy day, each planning our onward travel, as our paths would soon split, hanging out on hammocks by an Angkor man-made lake, then joining some expats living in Siem Reap for a Turkish dinner. We were ready to move on.

The two-day ride to Preah Vihar City and then Stung Treng was long and dry. Both of these cities seem to exist only for passersby, and it really was impressive to see how much you can perceive this when you are in transit cities. Nothing much happening, little, if any, choice of entertainment (although we did find a pretty kick-ass terrace belonging to a local bar/eatery and chilled there at sunset), few options for accommodation, and just overall…dryness. Except for the night in Stung Treng when there was a pretty heavy rainstorm!

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Our last evening together we spent lazying at sunset, with a couple of beers and a bit of meditation, by the Mekong (an absolutely amazing find was the Mekong Bird Resort, had there been more time it would have been great to stay in their huts overlooking the river). Here, Tiago got a feel of what was expecting him on the other side of the Lao border, at 4,000 Islands, and I made up my mind to leave the Mekong behind, certain that I’ll have another chance to explore the Mekong trail, and head into the “Wild East”. And what a great decision that was!

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#Chegoeseast – Riding solo

With his usual care and patience, Tiago made a million recommendations on how to get by traveling solo by motorbike. Among them was: buy a strong rope, so that if your bike breaks down, you can be towed to a mechanic. Skeptical that my Selma should let me down like that, after 800km of being an amazing ride (albeit, with a few hiccups), I of course set off without buying a rope. 80kms into my first day of riding solo, at a pit stop by a bridge over a pretty river, I had the funny realization that my lateral bike stand had fallen off somewhere along the way (the main stand had been a no-go since day one). After a short rest, I set off again, stopping at a couple of nearby mechanics to see if they could replace it, but nobody had an adequate one. No big deal, I merrily told myself, I’m sure I’ll find one in Banlung. Little did I know, I shouldn’t have laughed so early! Confidently getting close to my destination, about 30km before I notice Selma is struggling, she is losing power when in fourth gear. I start going slower, thinking I would reach my destination in one piece, but lo and behold! Shortly after passing the “20km to Banlung” sign, she just stops. And there’s no way to turn her on again. “It must be the spark plug” I tell myself, and also Tiago via whatsapp. “But how do you know?” He asks, adding “we put a new one in yesterday” (Selma had in fact suffered a bit of a full throttle issue the day before, but that seemed to have been resolved). As luck would have it, Selma stopped right across the road from a small rural house, where a smiling old woman sat in the shade of a small hut. I go over and seek refuge under her same shade, and we somehow converse about my mishap. She comes over and points at the tank, I open it to show her that there is fuel. She points in the direction towards where I’d been driving, telling me I should go there to find a mechanic. I try to ask if it is close by or far away, she signals that it is just around the bend. So I start to set off on foot, soon realizing my mistake: if I could barely make myself understood with mechanics with my bike at hand, imagine explaining with no bike around! So I go back, and try to ask her if it is close enough for me to push the bike there. That’s when she calls in my savior for the day: her son, who had been enjoying a nice afternoon nap. He spoke a little English, and told me that the mechanic was only 200m away, right after the bend. He also signaled me to hop on the bike, and pushed me far and fast enough for it to pick up speed on the slope (lucky I was at the top and not at the bottom!). So I ride on neutral round the bend, and soon find a mechanic. Except he was well into his hammock nap, and did not even stir as I tried to get his attention. Before I made a physical attempt at waking him up, my savior caught up with me on his bike, and signaled me that I should go further down, as this mechanic was not good. The one of his choice, however, said he could not fix the bike (note that at this point I was still convinced it was the spark plug). So my savior says “wait for me”. I thought he had gone to another mechanic to buy a new spark plug. Instead, he comes back a few minutes later with a rope. “I’ll tow you”, he gestured. And tow me he did, for 20kms, all the way to my destination! Being towed on a bike was a whole other experience, I must say I felt quite proud to have made it up and down hills, round bends, and even on an untarred road without falling over! He brought me to a trusted mechanic, who in an hour or so took apart my bike, got some new parts that had been damaged (don’t ask me what they were, my knowledge gap in motorbikes mechanics is still very deep), put it all back together, and off I was!

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Settling down in my eco-friendly hut, with a view of cashew and rubber tree plantations, just as sunset was drawing near, was of course a massive relief. My host was kind enough to hang out with me (probably felt bad that I was all alone!) for a couple of hours, told me a lot of interesting things about his culture and the difficulties his people are currently facing, or have faced in the past, and organized for me to join a group on a jungle trek. Selma will get some well deserved rest for a couple of days.

Jungle Trek in Ratanakiri

And so the next day I joined my travel companions. A Texan guy solo traveling around the world, a German couple, and two French men in their 50s. All of these people had a wealth of travel experiences to share, positive vibes, and good spirits! So we set off all cramped up in a 4×4, to reach the river, where a boat would take us to the starting point for our trek.

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The peace and quiet of the jungle soon enveloped us. The hike was demanding but not overly hard (except for those uphill parts in the blazing hot weather!), we stopped three or four times for resting (our guide especially needed rest, as he had suffered a back injury in a motorbike accident a couple of weeks earlier, but it worked out well for us to stop and catch our breath!) and having our lunch, before reaching the highlight of our destination…the waterfall! We all immediately dove in, some of us (me) then taking a doze in the sun on the warm rocks, while our guide and local guide (a surprisingly skillful 19-year-old from a local village) got to work to set up camp, and started preparing dinner (as well as fashioning cups out of bamboo, for us to share some rice wine later!).

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The evening was light and pleasurable, the food delicious, and the bamboo puzzles proposed by our guide were extremely entertaining! By 9pm, however, we were all settling into our mosquito-net covered hammocks, with a view on the starry sky above – our guide rightfully called it the Thousand Star Hotel. What a dream.
The night was too warm for some, a bit chilly for others (me), but it passed in peace and quiet. The next day, after having had our breakfast and packed up our stuff we set off again into the bambooey jungle back towards the river (a longer trek would have allowed us to venture more deeply into the natural reserve, but we were all content with the two days anyways!). Those who had been slightly disappointed at the lack of wildlife sightings were rewarded with a little play time with a tarantula and its egg sack (the local guide handled this dangerous animal like it was a puppy, even allowing it to crawl all over him).
The sight of the river was a very welcome one indeed, and almost all of us didn’t hesitate to jump in, and try to swim against the surprisingly strong current, while lunch was getting ready. After lunch, the boat took us a little way down the river, to visit a local village and their peculiar cemetery, before taking us back to the other side, for our drive back home.
All in all, the trek was brief but very sweet, and a wonderful chance to meet some great people, including our guides!

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The next day my guesthouse host took my new American homeboy and I to three Kreung villages. We were especially interested in this tribe, after having come across a very interesting article describing unusual, yet very progressive customs of this people: every young girl, upon turning 15, gets a little hut built for her only, where she will receive the visits of similar-aged boys, to…”get acquainted”, with as many as they wish, until they choose the one to marry!
After a minor hiccup – a small fall on a very sandy uphill slope, basically because I had proudly insisted my friend should ride with me on Selma, instead of with the guide, but then couldn’t handle both of our weights on tough off-road bits! – our bravery was rewarded by falling upon a local celebration (think music blasting out of speakers, and men and women plastered on local rice wine at 11am), where the chief’s family was saying goodbye to his son as he moved to his new bride’s village. They invited us to share their drinks (which I particularly appreciated, as I was a little shaken from our fall), and exchanged small souvenirs. What a unique experience!

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After that, homeboy and I headed to the crater lake, which was way more beautiful and organized than we could have imagined! Several wooden platforms allowed people to access the lake from its jungle-covered shore, there were hammocks for rent, and of course plenty of food (I tried the delicious mango with salt and chilly!) and drinks – thus we couldn’t help but enjoy a beer in the sun, after having taken a dip in the turquoise water. Some chilling and chats, to the sound of country and pop music played by a few locals who were enjoying the lake alongside us, provided perfect relaxation for the afternoon.

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Elephants bathing in Mondulkiri

Off I was again, riding solo, this time south, to the junglier Mondulkiri. With 180km to go, and not wanting to stress my Selma (nor risk having her break down on me again!), I had planned to take two stops for that journey. However, the landscape had somehow become very dry again – even though I drove through two national reserves – and after the first stop, with 100km more to go, the weather also started changing…a significant wind picked up, and clouds started rolling in. Wary that I’d get caught in bad weather, I pushed Selma to complete the last 100km in one go, and she bravely did!
I settled down in the Happy Elephants Bungalows, a very cute and jungle-like set up only 5min from the centre of Sen Monorom, and dedicated my first afternoon there to just…chillaxing. I was quite tired from the ride, as I actually remained quite tense for the whole of it, probably in part due to the sandy fall the day before, or perhaps also because of the breakdown when trying to reach Banlung. As sunset approached, I picked myself up again, and went to enjoy the view over the Sea Forest from a very windy hilltop nearby, just Selma and I – and a few other tourists 🙂

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The day after, I had been planning to ride to a couple of waterfalls nearby, but instead, while having my coffee in the Gecke Bar, I overheard some people were heading out on an Elephant Experience…I had seen the opportunity while glancing through the guesthouse brochure, and couldn’t resist, so I hopped on! And what an amazing experience it was!
Being able to approach elephants in their own, semi-wild environment (these elephants had been captured by local villages of the Bunong tribe, and used for working, heavy lifting and transportation – then rescued by this project, which paid their owners a salary to keep the elephants somewhat free in the jungle, without making them work), feeding them bananas and sugar cane, and then bathing them in the river! Never thought I’d enjoy so much scrubbing down such thick, wrinkly skin!
That evening I finally managed to change my flight out of Bangkok, pushing it back by 10 days, so as to be able to enjoy my ride back to Phnom Penh without haste. And what a great decision that was!

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The last ride

Because after taking me on a very hilly 70km ride to and from the awesome Bousra Waterfalls – where I chilled my last day in Sen Monorom – Selma bravely took on the 210km that were separating us from our next destination: Kratie. The plan, MY plan, was to use Kratie as the basecamp to explore parts of the Mekong. Of course, Selma’s plan was another. My sturdy travel companion breezed through the first 70km from Sen Monorom, which took us through what I can’t help but describe as “Junlge Road”. Of course, this route was no longer as it had been a few years ago, literally an untarred jungle road, which only the bravest motorcyclists could undertake. Now it was tarred. But it was also literally just going through kilometers of jungle, with no villages, no rural houses, and certainly no mechanics around! And of course, it was all slopes….4th gear downhill, 3rd, sometimes 2nd, uphill, and so on…And Selma did a fantastic job of it.

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After the jungle bit finished, I was in a fantastic mood, the ride had been amazingly pleasurable, and I figured both of us deserved a rest. So I stopped in the first village, left Selma to rest in the shade, and I had a cold drink and a rest myself. Little did I know, Selma was not so ready to set off on the road again! All of a sudden she had no more power, I believe (I don’t know for a fact, because she of course has no speedometer functionality) we rode for the next 50km or so at about 30-35km per hour. It was a loooong ride. Not to mention the only two near accidents of my whole time with Selma – all of a sudden, as we were coasting the Vietnamese border, people’s driving became completely erratic and unpredictable, taking turns without prior notice, orrrr chasing herds of cows out of their yard, without realizing the danger that a herd of cows literally running onto the road out of nowhere represented for drivers of all sorts. All’s well that ends well, I guess. So, finally we got to the next biggish town, Snoul, where I sought the help of a mechanic. And here I completely missed two clues that should have made me suspicious: 1) the mechanic did to Selma the same thing that another mechanic had done to address the full throttle issue back in Stung Treng, before my previous break down; 2) he refused any money from me. That, I should have know, meant he hadn’t fixed the problem. But I was tired, and it was hot, and I just wanted to get away from the busy roads leading into Vietnam. So I took off.
My dear Selma had recovered her power, at least temporarily. Shortly before we reached Kratie, as it then became her style, she switched off again. And there was no turning on. With 9km to go, and sunset approaching, I set off, pushing her on the relatively flat road. A soldier stopped and offered to help me, by riding on his motorbike behind me, and pushing Selam with his foot on the exhaust pipe. Needless to say, I did not feel like that was a safe towing methodology. So after 3km, at the first gas station, I signaled him to stop, as I was really hoping it was a fuel issue – of course, it wasn’t, but by the time I verified that, my savior had already gone. So I got back to pushing.
At the entrance of Kratie, a well-meaning mechanics took me in, even though it was almost night. He and his son worked on Selma for 4 hours, only to the establish that a major piece was broken, and that they could not fix it that evening, as the shops and markets were closed. “Bring the bike back tomorrow morning”…as they refused to keep it for me, as well as didn’t really offer any help to get Selma to my hostel, I set off again on foot. At times I’d be pushing Selma, other times I’d climb on and use some slight slope to ride her in neutral…and so on, for the remaining 4km to my hostel. The next day, I arranged for a tuk tuk to carry myself and Selma back to the mechanic, who, after 3 hours, declared I should take her back to Vietnam (!!!), which is the only place they’d have the parts to fix her. I took the rest of that day to mourn my loss. From Laos, Tiago assured me in Phnom Penh they’d manage to find the parts, plus my CS host-to-be claimed that his father-in-law was the best mechanic in Phnom Penh, so I arranged for Selma (and myself) to be loaded on a bus to the capital the next day. The Mekong trail would have to wait.

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And so it was, that we somehow completed the loop we had started 3 weeks earlier. Selma was in the trusted hands of our new benefactor for the next couple of days, while I half-willingly visited the city, or lazied about, between my host’s house and my preferred cafe in town (don’t miss Kenneth’s Asylum’s Waffles!).
The upside of spending more time than planned in Phnom Penh – Selma’s sale resulted to be less swift than I had optimistically predicted – was that I got to attend several Couchsurfing events in town, thus delving a little deeper into what life in the Pearl of Asia is like (primarily for expats). And I liked what I saw! Let’s hope the near future will bring me back here!

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A cultural weekend in Bangkok

And thus my first South-East Asia trip was rounded up with a weekend in Bangkok. Not having managed to secure a Couchsurfing host, which I especially wanted for this city, whose touristy side I did not much care to see, I ended up in one of the hundreds of cheap hostels near Khao San Road.

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The first day was of intense sightseeing: the Royal Palace, Wat Pho, and Chinatown. Overall, beautiful sights, worth the time and money. As I walked back to my hostel that evening, I allowed myself to walk through the buzzing Saturday night Khao San Road…just to be reassured that no, it was not the place for me. The next day was lazy, between prepping for my onward travel, grabbing a Thai massage, and a Québécois Poutine with a Canadian friend.
South America was now calling, and I was more than ready to head its call.

Sri Lanka, the Land of Beauty: exploring a few of this mid-Asian gem’s treasures

Peaceful Jaffna, still somewhat off the tourist trail

Deciding to head straight up to Jaffna with an overnight bus (blasting Sri Lankan music, I was so excited I barely slept!) was definitely a great decision to start getting acquainted with Sri Lanka. My couchsurfing host was an endless pit of traveling knowledge, eager to share his experiences and hear about mine! Although I did visit the main sights, my stay in Jaffna was mainly about chilling with Jonathan, exchanging stories, eating jackfruit, and drinking tea! The highlight of the visits was the scooter drive around the Jaffna islands with a fellow couchsurfer, stopping off at any temple and beach that called our attention, and even ferrying the scooter across to one of the unconnected islands on the roof of a small boat!

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After 3 days in Jaffna, I was not at all ready to leave! However, a slight planning-panic before leaving India had led me to advance book accommodation in Ella, so it was time to move on!

Ella

Reaching Ella, and particularly my amazingly located accommodation, right by the rail line and with an amazing view over Ella Gap, was a great reward for the long overnight bus ride down from Jaffna.

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Aside from amazing views, meditation sessions in caves and up on hill tops, Ella gave me some great new friends! Especially my homegirl Brendalyn, whom I started chatting with about the difficulties of solo traveling for women while visiting a sacred temple on my first day, and who I ended up hanging out with at the super apt ‘One Love’ bar, where we became friends with some local guys. With them, TWICE, we tried to meet up at 4am for a hike up Ella Rock to watch the sunrise, and, of course, neither time did we manage. Nonetheless, after taking a mid-morning hike up Ella Rock, and seeing the quality of the “paths”, I was quite glad we hadn’t attempted it at night!
Brendalyn headed on down to Mirisissa for some whale watching and scuba-diving, while I stayed behind in Ella a couple more nights: aside from my Ella Rock hike, I pretty much just chilled at One Love bar, and it was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. Finally, however, the time came to catch up with Brendalyn down by the coast, so I headed on down, leaving the lush green hill country behind.

Mirissa

Unlike what I had been told, Mirissa ad some pretty beautiful beaches, and its tourist-peak season was completely bearable. Also…got to sight several blue whales while on a whale watching tour!

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Over the 24hs I spent there with Brendalyn, we chilled and chatted endlessly, finding a million things in common in our very different lives, played in the waves like hyperactive children, enjoyed some pretty amazing food and ….several Margaritas, and saying goodbye sure was tough!
After she left, I went to stay with a Sicilian 69-year-old couchsurfer, with a treasure chest of experiences living in various countries since his 20s, and, of course, an amazing selection of food (pasta with octopus sauce!). During the day I chilled at the beach with local surfers and other travelers, as well as a couple of friends from Ella who came down for a night, and in the evenings I had delicious dinners with Vittorio, and listened to his life stories and millions of initiatives and projects…a pretty unique experience of Mirissa, I’d say!
With only a few days left in Sri Lanka, I though I should try to be a little beach-lazy, and get some culture in me. So I relocated to Unawatuna (still on the beach, only about 45min away from Mirissa), so that I could alternate some more beach time with cultural visits of Galle Fort.

Galle/Unawatuna

My stay in Unawatuna was yet another wonderful couchsurfing experience. The Russian couple that hosted me have been on the road for 10 years, moving from country to country, settling down here and there for months of years at a time, while managing their online business. Needless to say, they had plenty of interesting experiences to share, as well as some fun group games!

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Galle Fort was indeed beautiful, its strong and thick walls having protected its colonial heritage from the tsunami that hit that area in 2004. The Maritime Archeological Museum more than satisfied my cultural thirst, so the next day I proceeded to hang out at the awesome Jungle Beach with a couchsurfer from Colombo who had come down to the south for some beach time for a few days. Shikwu and I had such a great time (including swinging from a rope tied to a palm on a beach at sunset!), that we went back to Colombo together, and hung out there for a couple of days, until I left for Cambodia.

Colombo

The highlight of Colombo was watching a Buddhist Poya parade, the biggest one to take place every year, although the chained up elephants dressed up in flashy cloths left me with mixed feelings.
Sri Lanka was a great real start of my solo trip, showing me how even when you travel solo there is no need to ever be actually alone (unless you wish to), and proving once again what a great platform Couchsurfing is for meeting like-minded people. Without a doubt, a home run!

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A note to women solo travelers

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These days women empowerment is a very hot topic, as has been shown by the Women’s Marches that have taken in the US and all over the world on the first day of the new US President’s mandate. Strong, confident women with public profiles are continuously reminding us of the fight at hand: for employment, health, and rights in general.
And what about for traveling?
As a woman solo traveler, one of the first questions you’ll be answering when meeting people is: “Are you traveling alone?”. The answer might leave your audience perplexed, perhaps concerned for you, or in admiration.
“Do you feel safe?”
A not-so-friendly answer to that is (especially when it is a man asking): “Would you feel safe, if you were a woman traveling alone?”
A less aggressive answer: “Well, yes, most of the time, but of course I need to take precautions and be careful not to be alone in isolated places”.
In principle, nothing wrong with that.
But what about when the places you are visiting are dotted with beautiful, peaceful, wondrous isolated places?
And what about when you’re traveling alone through countries with a particularly chauvinistic culture?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with approaching other travelers, especially other women traveling alone, and asking to join you, or join them, in some sightseeing. There is also nothing wrong about expressing your concerns with security. Most men might struggle to grasp the nature of your concerns, but generally they will not diminish them.

You might want to forget about meditating alone in isolated places, like the beautiful Hampi ruins, and think twice about wandering after sunset to find a local spot to eat, unless you remain on main, crowded roads.

I’m afraid I don’t have many more recommendations for this often overlooked issues, except for: don’t overlook it.
As you’re reading the Lonely Planet guide, and start daydreaming about this fantastic waterfall, slightly off the beaten tourist track, make a mental note that if you really want to visit it, you should find temporary travel companions.

At the cost of ending this post on too much of a heavy note, remember that it’s better to be safe, than be sorry…but also remember to have a great time, you may be solo traveling, but you’ll never be alone!

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Kerala – an unusual family holiday, for an unusual family!

Even though this was not really part of my solo trip, I was lucky enough to see some amazing places while on this family holiday, over one of the busiest times of the year for southern India.
Those 24hs floating with a houseboat on the Kerala backwaters in Aleppey were a great kickstart for our…relaxation. As the houseboat took off from the port, we were concerned at the numbers of swarming houseboats all moving at the same time, like an ant procession on the canals… Nonetheless, we were soon alone, with paddy fields and palm trees extending till the eye could see, birds chirping around us, and calm waters leading us along. Innumerable naps were taken during that afternoon! As the sunset was approaching, we anchored near a few other boats, and enjoyed the evening dinner (with some noisy neighbors, who seemed to be playing many fun games on the boat nextdoor!)
The experience was brief but sweet, recommendable for 2 or 3 nights (or more!).

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Fort Kochi offered us quite a bit of entertainment (as well as the mandatory holiday shopping), especially thanks to the art Biennale that was being held in that same period (#traveltip: research events happening before you reach the place, which was marvelously done by my sister in the case of Kochi). We ate well, strolled around colonial buildings holding expositions, and watched a LOT of Kathakali! Our first Kathakali show was a bit disappointing, as the lights continued to go out (together with the air conditioning!), and the artists’ …etiquette was questionable. The second Kathakali show at the Kathakali Cultural Centre, however, was very impressive, all the way through the make-up session, the demonstrations of facial expression in Indian classical dance, and the short story performed by the artists.

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Marari beach delivered exactly what we wanted: a quiet stay, not very touristy, cute beach huts providing delicious food, and even dolphin sighting! The location was perhaps a little too quiet for someone seeking some New Year’s Eve excitement, but luckily we were able to join the festivities at the neighboring Marari Beach Resort, which resulted to be delicious and entertaining! (First time welcoming the new year with Bollywood dances???)
Finally, the 4-day detox retreat with Saptrashmi, in Mevellor, was the cherry on the cake!
7.30am detox therapy, morning yoga, midday meditation, evening yoga…it sounded a little like a work schedule, rather than a holiday, but it actually turned out to be a fantastically energizing experience!
Every morning we’d wake up to the lazy mist over the silent river, take a brief stroll to wait for the effect of the detox therapy (I’ll spare you the details of the therapy…), then stroll over to a little round table surrounded by benches which hung right over the river, and received a deliciously spicy hot tea, while exchanging chats with the other visitors.

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The morning pranayama helped wake us up to a fruit breakfast, before a brief morning break, to relax or go canoeing on the river, and then the midday meditation grounded us (at times to the point of making us sleep!) for the new day. The light lunch was followed by three or four free hours, during which some people got slathered in coconut oil by the Ayurvedic masseuse, to then meet again for our afternoon spicy tea, and then a slightly more demanding (sometimes back-breaking and tear-flowing) yoga session, followed by a pleasant group dinner, before each person made their way back into their beds.
A yoga/detox retreat is not an usual destination for a family holiday, but we sure enjoyed sharing that experience, and would recommend it to all!

We managed to see only a speck of this beautiful Indian state, but without a doubt Kerala, with its luscious green backwaters and amazing coconut-centered food, is a destination most recommendable to travelers hitting up southern India!

On waiting

In this day and age, with all our gadgets and technologies that allow us to obtain whatever we want in an ever record-setting time, we have somewhat lost the ability to patiently…wait. A most common phrase, in all the languages that I know (#bragbuttrue), is related to having lost time due to something, most often than not something classified as being unexpected (that probably we should be able to expect): “there was this traffic!”; “I thought I’d be in and out to buy a couple of things, but that supermarket!”
And waiting, of course, is the worse way to lose this precious time of ours.
If that is the case with you, more or less accurately, then I recommend you do a lot of introspective work before you set off on a shoestring trip!

When traveling on a shoe-string, in fact, you will experience endless delays, extensive waiting times, and generally unexpected things (which, if you really love traveling, you should embrace and enjoy!).

On the very first day of my solo trip, which cheekily started after a comfy family holiday for Christmas, I was still trying to sort out my ticket for my next destination (Kochi to Mysore), and the resources I had available to me were just not delivering. The much praised train and bus booking systems online were not accepting my international cards (#rookiemistake, judge me not, you’ll have plenty of these too). I knew the bus times, but could not buy my ticket…and the seats were slowly but relentlessly being sold out. I was staying in a hotel near the airport, which was an hour or more from the bus station, and almost two hours from the city center, so going to the bus station, having a stroll in town, and then going back to the hotel for my bags was not a very viable option (depending on public transportation!), and yes, I was too lazy to stroll around town with my backpacks (see Prep talk!). So I packed my bag, and headed for the bus station, a good 7 hours before my bus was due to leave! I first had looked up images of the bus station, so knew that it couldn’t be such a bad place to spend a few hours.
And there I squatted, on the relatively comfy bus chairs, reading and watching people. Only in these occasions do you get a chance to really observe locals, and get a gist of their daily routines: two young teens, who came and chatted on those metal chairs, for a good couple of hours, before just leaving the station again… A young, secret romance?
the accountant from the station cantina, who is the only one who really speaks English, and invariably ends up chatting to you about his dreams of going to live abroad, how he loves hanging out with foreigners, and just gives you a little company…
7 hours flew!

But patience when traveling doesn’t only involve physically (and mentally!) waiting. Patience also means not rushing to do things, because the best deal is always around the corner!
When I arrived in the magical Hampi, for example, after a night sleeping on the train from Mysore, I was immediately tackled by a guesthouse/travel agency salesman. Even though he didn’t succeed in giving me one of his (small and cramped) rooms, he convinced me to buy my outgoing bus ticket for the next day from him. Right after, as I made my way through the village, I saw that he had actually charged me a third more than the standard price for that route! Of course, it didn’t amount to much, so I didn’t bother with going to protest (kudos if you are into protesting for your consumer rights, for me it is among the things to try and avoid doing when you’re on holiday!), but it was a good reminder to not do that again.

Finally, you will need a lot of patience with most other basic logistics: all those things you thought you could comfortably do while away (“Oh, but for those countries I just need to apply for the visa online!”), will probably turn out to be a little less…smooth. Slow internet connections, lack of information, people who don’t really know where you need to go but give you directions anyways (I’ve been one of those people when I was selling tours of the Colosseum in Rome, and as much as it was done in good faith, I admit it is a pretty nasty thing to do to a tired, confused, tourist!), etc.

These are just some of the things that might happen when traveling, especially when on a shoestring budget, and I recommend that the best attitude is lightness of spirit and self-irony!

What will you then do when that bus is just not arriving, or the Internet moves at the same speed it did when it was first invented? Will you get all flustered, and spoil that wonderful holiday mood that you earned with your blood sweat and tears?

Or will you sit back, laugh about the irony of the situation, and….wait?
With a smile pasted on your face, of course.

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Prep-talk

25/12/2016…a very Merry Christmas indeed 🙂

Of course, the thought of packing a small bag and heading to the airport to see what new destination could be explored, and just jet off into an unplanned adventure, is possibly a sexy fantasy for many travel addicts…however, if we call a spade a spade, it might not end up being such a budget option. Notwithstanding that there are people that manage to go on relatively economical holidays with this strategy, it can’t be denied that they do this with a significant level of financial security behind their backs: on an unplanned holiday, anything could happen that will incur unexpected, and potentially unbalancing expenditures. In summary, if finances are a constraint to your travels, a little forward planning will (allow YOU to) go a long way!

Flights

For single-destination travels, search engines such as CheapFlights (with its various ‘.somethings’), Expedia, LastMinute, and, nowadays, even Google! will help you identify the airlines flying your interested route, and give you an idea of what the prices are. NOTE: do not actually purchase the ticket on the search engine, because if anything were to come up, triggering the need to make modifications to your flights, dealing with the search engine customer care tends to be hell (any search engine people out there reading this, take it as constructive criticism!). Go to the website of the airlines that offer the best prices, and purchase your ticket there.

If, however, you are looking to cover several destinations, possibly over a more extended period of time than just a one- or two- week holiday, then you might want to look into Round The World Tickets. There are many travel agencies that offer this type of ticket, but I used STA Travel – a particularly student-friendly UK-based travel agency – and I highly recommend them. After you contact them for an enquiry, they will give you ticket quotes based on the destinations and (approximate) travels dates that you ask for, and will patiently go back and forth with you until you finally make your mind up (took about 2 or 3 months, in my case!). Then, at the time of making the booking, you only have to pay a small deposit! The balance is due 10 weeks before you travel, meaning that you can start booking the ticket far in advance even if you don’t quite have the money saved up yet!

Accommodation

Budget options for accommodation while travelling are many, and there extents to which people will go ‘budget’ on sleeping arrangements highly depends on their ‘comfort needs’. If you’re not too demanding in terms of where you set your head down to sleep at night, and are inclined to meeting local people to get a feel of the real life in the country you’re visiting, then Couch Surfing is the way to go.

Couch Surfers started as an online community of people love travelling who wanted to connect with other people who love travelling, and host each other during their travels, with the three great benefits of: getting a local feel of the place, saving on accommodation, and making new like-minded friends! NOTE: I advise against approaching Couch Surfing with the sole purpose of getting free accommodation – you might get hosted at first, but Couch Surfers will see through your misguided intentions rather fast, and you’re likely to get not-so-good reviews on you CS profile, and unlikely to get hosted again.

If you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of sleeping in a stranger’s house, but you still want the chance to meet locals, you could always find some hostel or hotel, and then contact Couch Surfers residing in the city you’re in to meet up for a coffee/beer/meal and a chat, or check out what events the local CS group may have going on when you’re around! Personally, I’ve made many-a-wonderful friendships by joining CS groups and events!

If you’re not too into the idea of Couch Surfing for sleeping, you can use the multitude of search engines for hostels, hotels, guesthouses, BnBs, etc (TripAdvisor, HostelWorld, Booking, etc), or you can check out AirBnb – an online platform where people put up for rent (short-, medium- and long-term) their flats and houses, or a room within their house. This option tends to be cheap especially when there are more people travelling together, since they charge a fixed price for the place, as opposed to per person (as with most hostels and hotels).

 

I believe these are the basics that need to be covered when planning a budget trip. However, there are a few more things you should not overlook:

  • VISAS! Yes, the worst thing to have been invented by mankind, dividing us up into completely arbitrary pigeonholes, and preventing us to mix with like-minded people across the world. However, they are a reality, and you do need to take them into account and plan ahead for them. If you book a Round The World ticket, it is important you first have a quick glance at the embassy websites for each of the countries you’re planning to visit, to ensure that your being on the road won’t get in the way of you being able to get a Visa for a given country. For example, some (most!) countries require you to apply for the visa in the country you’re resident in, and may also have a time restriction between visa granting and entering the country, therefore it’s important you plan ahead for these details, in order not to find yourself in an annoying situation!
  • Insurance: yup, yup, super boring, potentially useless, but guess what? Budget travelling in far away countries is really a better-safe-than-sorry type of situation. So, do your research for getting insurance (they are country-specific, so I won’t bore you with the one I used, a simple google search will do), and MAKE SURE you read the details of the policies properly before you purchase it! Yes, this is obvious, but guess what? Those small lines we can never be bothered to read, well, with insurance covers they matter A LOT. I have already had the chance to have a massive fail in that regard, and I’ve not even left yet!
  • Cultural Awareness: it may sound interesting or boring to you, depending on your inclinations, but it is very important for your plans to go smoothly and you to enjoy your travels – be aware of what the cultural parameters are in the countries you plan to visit, it will help you be mentally prepared for your travels, and keep you out of sticky situations!
  • Packing: I am personally still on the lower end of this learning curve (see picture!), but am striving to make it past that bump, trying to detach myself from the need to have ‘things’, and a million different options of outfits! The truth is, when you’re traveling you won’t care too much about showing off your latest buy, or most glamourous outfit, primarily because you’ll be on the move, and surrounded by people you don’t know! The criteria are (for me): do I absolutely need it? Do I feel comfortable in it? How much space does it take up/weigh? I tend to go through 2 or 3 selection processes, continuously removing things from my previous selection! Hence, it took me today 5 hours to pack my bag, what I will live out of for the next 5 months!

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Well, this has gone on quite a bit, and it was relatively boring, I know….but necessary nonetheless!

In a few hours I’m off for the first leg of my trip, a wonderful two weeks in Kerala State, India, with my family!

I wish you all a merry christmas (if it’s something you care about!), and a fantastic start to the new year (if your year starts on the 1st of January), and promise to come back with a much more entertaining and interesting second post about the Ayurvedic wonders of the Kerala backwaters!