Rounding the Iberian Peninsula Part 1:  Madrid to Cadaques

Dear Readers, as many of you know we arrived home a little while ago in Montreal after 10 months abroad.  We are usually a little behind on publishing, but this is ridiculous… so here’s a bit of an update. After a week apart with our dear friends in Czech Republic, Latvia, Croatia and Italy, we flew back to Madrid, rented a car and hit the road for what would be a whole month of traveling around the Iberian Peninsula.

As Madrid is conveniently situated in the middle of it all, we decided to go about it clockwise, starting in the northeast.  It would take us a few days to reach our next destination, and we were going to savour every minute of it.  While winding our way across the beautiful fields of Aragon full of castle crested mountain tops, we visited countless pueblitos with meter wide roads, old stone houses, and bullet riddled cathedrals showing the scars of the Civil war nearly 80 years past.

The civil war bullets are still very apparent on this church tower.

The civil war bullets are still very apparent on this church tower.

We sprinted through the beautiful cities of Zaragoza and Huesca before hitting the striking castle of Loarre.  Standing at the foot of the Pyrenees, at the wall of this 11th century castle while looking over the endless wheat fields, it was clearly visible how this beautiful country was founded as an alliance of kingdoms more than a central force, which remains a sensitive topic to this day.

Nestled in the foot of the Pyrenees, these castles overlook the plains of Aragon.

Nestled in the foot of the Pyrenees, these castles overlook the plains of Aragon.

If you get a chance and are heading this way, we would recommend taking the rustic road to Ancho and Echo,probably one of the most spectacular pieces of road we’ve ever seen (so much so that we failed to take a single picture). In Echo you can also find one of the best “steak frites” restaurants ever, where your lunch probably grazed within a few kilometers of your plate… most probably in France.

Loren in the middle of yet another beautiful Middle Age pueblito.

Loren in the middle of yet another beautiful medieval pueblito.

Continuing east, we crossed over into Cataluña and were greeted by rolling green mountains, fantastic food, and what would come to be a heartwarming first-time experience of living completely off-grid. The location for our next stop would be Cadaques to visit our friend Josep who we met earlier on the trip.  Named after the juniper trees that dot the stepped mountains, the picturesque white city lies on the Mediterranean just south of France and is famous for hosting the summer home of Salvador Dali.  The city offers an impression of a movie set from the 1950’s and it is safe to say that it hasn’t lost its appeal.

The gorgeous and picturesque town of Cadaques

The gorgeous and picturesque town of Cadaques

When we met Josep in Komodo, he invited us to stay with him on his friend’s land just out of town.  Arriving to town without the faintest idea where to go and with only a phone number (which wasn’t working), we somehow landed at a bar where everyone knew Josep and could show us how to get to ‘Ivan’s place’.  Driving up the mountain in our Hyundai would prove a fun experience (also one that would leave me thankful there was no damage to the car) as we drove on narrow horse trails over boulders and sharp shale roads. After a few minutes, we decided to ditch the car and hike a kilometer or two with our bags, a bottle of wine, and delicious Fuet (Catalan cured meat) in hand.  Ivan’s place is spectacular and not your typical house.  This man has remodeled an old brick / plaster work shed in the back hills of Cadaques into a highly functional year-round one room house. It is stunning and completely off grid through the use of a wood heater, solar panels, small stove, and some basic gardening.

The road to Ivan with our dear Hyundai trying to go through it

The road to Ivan with our dear Hyundai trying to go through it

We would spend the next 4-5 days travelling into town during the day (partly to steal showers from the local hotel swimming pool), camping on the land at night, and taking in the Catalan hospitality of our excellent hosts.  One memorable night, we had the privilege of being invited to a traditional paella at the neighbour’s house.  Made in a 2 meter wide pan (6 foot for our dear American readers), we were treated to the best paella of our lives roasted over a massive wood grill spitting fire in all directions.  Although the paella was miraculous (as though “a little angle peed on our tongues” as our Dutch friends would say), the experience was even better.  Sitting in the hills overlooking olive plantations, drinking wine and watching the sun go down with 16 locals, we would spend the night full of good conversations learning more about the history and struggles of Cataluña… and of course more food and red wine.  As the wee hours of the morning approached, we polished off the last bits of the paella pan by dipping our heels of bread in it, and called it a night.

Cooking the dish, the end product, and serving the delightlful paella!

Cooking the dish, the end product, and serving the delightful paella!

Squatting off grid, even for a week, was a stunning experience and something so very different from what we’re used to.  It is interesting to meet people who have chosen this way of life and to see how rich their lives are when focus is placed on what is important, and how much joy can be taken from basic interactions like a little good food with friends.  Western society could probably learn something from this.

The views and delightful interior of Ivan's abode

The views and wonderful interior of Ivan’s abode

To make our stay even more memorable, Josep took us diving in the frozen Mediterranean (14 degrees Celsius!) to gaze at some of the most spectacular flabelinas in the world. We left Cadaques heading south with full stomachs and full hearts. We cannot say thank you enough to our wonderful Catalan hosts.

Our guide and host extraordinaire, Josep!

Our guide and host extraordinaire, Josep!

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A tale of two travelers – (Part II) : Northern Croatia to Milano

When Anna asked me if I would partake in a parallel girl trip while our partners where “living la vida loca” in Eastern Europe, I jumped of joy! We would soon be joined by Lora and become the perfect travelling trio.

Here we are in Cinque Terre!

Here we are in Cinque Terre!

At that point in time, I had been at Eric’s side for more than 8 months, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I missed missing him if that makes any sense to you, dear reader. We did not grow apart as I initially feared. Quite the contrary, we knew each other’s stories by heart and knew which bad joke would be told about 5 minutes before it did. A little separate adventure would bring some great new stories and jokes to tell him.

I happily jumped on a plane for Zagreb a day after Eric left for Prague. Where exactly was I going again? What was the history of the country? Which sites would we see? Frankly, I had no idea and I loved it that way. After planning our own travel for over a year, I could not be happier to leave all the planning to Lora and Anna. And what an audacious plan it was! In just 10 days, we would travel from Zagreb to Milan by car, bus, boats and trains.

Here are the rooftops of Motovun, a gorgeous medieval town in northern Croatia

Here are the rooftops of Motovun, a gorgeous medieval town in northern Croatia

Luckily for us, Lora speaks Serbo-Croatian and was able to act as our guide, facilitator, and planner extraordinaire in the Croatian leg of the journey. Together, we sampled some amazing rakhia in Zagreb, roamed through the jaw dropping beauty of Plitvice, ate bear sausage like queens in Rastoke, strolled along the beautiful coast from Lovran to Opatja, got lost in Pula looking for our apartment building which was hiding behind a 2000 year old roman temple, shopped our hearts out of souvenirs in Hum, the self-proclaimed world’s smallest town, and supped on fresh black truffles, wild asparagus and delicious goulash in Motovun.

Sampling delicious Rakhia in Zagreb! Photo credit : Anna Gontcharova

Sampling delicious Rakhia in Zagreb!
Photo credit : Anna Gontcharova

Another consequence of our long travel is that I felt I was becoming a little androgynous (thank you Clare for coining the feeling). It is difficult to do laundry alone when you do not know where you will be in a week so you can imagine how much the beauty routine suffers. Can I trust this old Asian lady for my waxing? Will the next town have some supply of non-whitening facial moisturizer? Nails? What nails? My hair had grown to a style of its own (if one can call that a style) as a consequence of running out of conditioner about 2 months ago. Croatia and the quality girl time took care of all these issues and boy, am I glad to feel like a woman again!

Here I am, with my traveling buddies, with nice hair for once!

Here I am, with my traveling buddies, with nice hair for once!

Croatia was a real discovery and I believe my favourite developed country so far. I had not been swept off my feet like this by a first world country in a long time. Even if we only spent 5 days there, I sure felt like I could explore this whole region for a month easily and never get bored. Of course, no country is paradise and I was saddened to hear about the social tensions that still exist between ex-Yugoslavians.

Zagreb is an amazing city!  From its small cafes, to its castles, markets, churches and peole.

Zagreb is an amazing city! From its small cafes, to its castles, markets, churches and peole.

We left the wonderful coastal town of Pula for Venice for what would be a quick dip in the magical floating town. Despite the rain and the floods of tourists, I still managed to enjoy it mainly because Lora and Anna (planners extraordinaire remember!) had booked us a B&B a block away from Piazza San Marco. After exploring the empty city at night and tasting delicious Aperol Sprtiz with actual locals, we headed to Cinque Terre, then Milano.

Delicious Aperol Spritz in Venice.  Photo Credit : Anna Gontcharova

Delicious Aperol Spritz in Venice.
Photo Credit : Anna Gontcharova

The charming villages of Cinque Terre, which are invaded during the day by tourists, all seem to cling on cliffs and are stuck in time. In many, no cars can go through the villages, bringing some peacefulness to the area overlooking the sea. The gelato was amazing, the wine splendid, and the food tasty and our poor legs were trembling after so much hiking up and down… but we did not rest there either as a new city was expecting us!

One of the wonderful towns of Cinque Terre!

One of the wonderful towns of Cinque Terre!

Milano is fun, young, and energetic. Beside its “shop till you drop” reputation and its fantastic nightlife along the Navigli, the city is actually quite pretty! Unfortunately, here is where we would part ways as the girls would go back to Canada and myself to Madrid.

Fun and young Milano with my dear travel buddies!

Fun and young Milano with my dear travel buddies!

It is very difficult to find good travel buddies. I had some difficult experiences in the past where none of the travelling party came out very pleased about the trip. I was nervous about this one as I did not know Lora at all (I had met her once in Toronto briefly about 4 years ago). This was an audacious trip of almost 1300 Km in 10 days, visiting world class cities and attractions and we did not waste ANY second. I can gladly say that our trio was amazing and I would hop back in any plane to go travel with these girls!

Now, back to Madrid to tell all my fresh stories to Eric!

A tale of two travellers (Part 1): Czech Republic and Latvia.

After 2 glorious months in Indonesia and 8 months overall in Asia, we landed in Spain to spend time with Loren’s Grandmother and Uncle in beautiful Madrid. Although we had some trouble adjusting back to ‘western civilization’, we loved our days filled with red wine, cheese, cured meats (any kind of pork you could imagine)… and of course a wonderful time with family filled with conversation and laughter.  But that’s not what this post is about… our time in Spain will come soon.

After two weeks in Spain, Loren and I went our separate ways to spend a week apart with very dear friends, two of whom will be marrying each other later this year in Greece… so keep posted. I would be spending the next week in the Czech Republic and Latvia with the boys while Loren would be heading to Croatia, Slovenia, and Northern Italy with the girls. Her story will come shortly.

Prague: beautiful river walk, skull laden catacombs, and watching hockey in the square.

Prague: beautiful river walk, skull laden catacombs, and watching hockey in the square.

When asked why Alex, Joel, and I chose to explore the Czech Republic and Latvia, the only real responses we could come up with was that we knew nothing about either, we had heard good things, and its cheap.  Our choices did not disappoint. What would ensue would turn out to be a week long adventure through castles, countryside, and narrow roads resulting in a highlight reel of memorable experiences.

Starting our adventure in Prague would prove to be an interesting introduction to Eastern Europe where we also received a surprise last minute meeting with another of our dear friends, Alex (yes, two Alex’s). Together we roamed the old city, stormed the castle, enjoyed Prague’s nightlife, and watched Canada win hockey Gold (amongst a crowd of rowdy Russian tourists). Living off of delicious street meat and Pilsner Urquell, it is still a mystery that we somehow survived our 3 nights in Prague before boarding a train to Hruba Scala.

Prague.

Prague.

Hruba Scala is a very small town in the Bohemian Paradise near the boarders with Poland and Germany, characterized by never ending fields of yellow flowers, massive sandstone mountains, castle ruins, and beautiful forests.  When we got off the train we were shocked that taxis and busses did not seem to exist… so we were forced to go to plan B and hike our way up to the top of the mountain (luggage in tow) for our stay at the beautiful 14th century Hruba Scala Castle.

Enjoying a beer on Hruba Scala Castle, and Joviality on the train.

Enjoying a beer on Hruba Scala Castle, and Joviality on the train.

Here we would sit into the wee hours of the morning catching up on the past 8 months and drinking delicious pilsner.  Lucky for us, someone in the restaurant forgot to turn off the outside keg… so I took it upon myself to ensure everyone’s beers remained full. The next day we would quickly hit the breakfast bar and stuff as many sandwiches in our bag as possible before starting on a 10km hike, followed by a 20km bike ride through the mountains.

A good place to stop for lunch and enjoy the view.  There was a 50m  drop on all sides of that rock.

A good place to stop for lunch and enjoy the view overlooking Hruba Scala. There was a 50m drop on all sides of that rock.

We would finish our adventure in Riga, Latvia, quite possibly my favorite little city in Europe. Historically, it is a classic trading port located at the head of the Daugava River connecting the Baltic Sea in the North, and goes as far inland as Moscow (via the Volga).  The strategic location made it a prominent city from its founding in 1201 up until the 1930s… and although it suffered under Soviet rule, it appears to have bounced back bigtime. Last year, it was the EU country of culture, which is not surprising in that the whole town is a World Heritage Site.

Riga: Stalin's birthday cake, 1930's opulence, and a square full of people.

Riga: Stalin’s birthday cake, 1930’s opulence, and a square full of people.

The city delivered on food, nightlife, and culture.  Riga might possibly have the second coolest bar I’ve ever been to… but to call it a bar is an understatement.  Ala Folk Club is THE meeting place in Riga, packed every night with locals and tourists alike to take apart in good drink, food, and nightly festivities whether Folk Music, Folk Dancing, or Karaoke.  The food was outstanding: pickled herring, smoked mackerel, pickled vegetables, smoked meat… if it can be smoked or pickled, I’m sure Latvia does it.

The delicious 'Snack Platter' at ALA, and pickled delicacies at one of Europe's largest market (located in old German Zeppelin hangers).

The delicious ‘Snack Platter’ at ALA, and pickled delicacies at one of Europe’s largest market (located in old German Zeppelin hangers).

We finished our time in Latvia by a day at the beach, dipping our feet in the (COLD) Baltic sea, and then cruising into our final night at ALA before heading directly to the Airport for our 6am flights.

3L beers at ALA

3L beers at ALA

In writing these posts we usually try to include a theme.  For this one I had difficulty coming to a concise message. Maybe it was the pilsners or the pace of travel within the week, but I guess the only thing would be the comfort and fun of spending time with good friends after a long period of travel.  Even though I’ve experienced a lot on this round-the-world adventure so far, it is reassuring to see how these friendships have not changed.  Thank you Alex, Joel, and Alex for making the trip, meeting me halfway, and we’ll see you soon.

Komodo Round 2

After a delightful detour to Dintor, we made it back (again across the river and down the sand dunes) to La Baj to get back in the water… and wow, it is still amazing and something to get excited for every single day.  Over the past few months we dove in JapanMalaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, off the coast of Cambodia, Australia, and Sri Lanka.  One thing I can say for sure… Nothing I know to date can compete with Indonesia, and for me Komodo is it*.

Always a favorite to see under water: The beautiful Cuttlefish.

Always a favorite to see under water: The beautiful Cuttlefish.

Completing our Divemaster training means that we are Professional divers able to work in the industry.  After volunteering with our old dive team for a few weeks, we started to get phone calls from local dive shops asking us to guide for them.  Over the next month and a half we would get our first experiences in professional guiding and our first exposure to the difference between fun-diving and having people under our guidance.

Loving our new work environment.

Loving our new work environment.

It is a very different thing to work in the industry vs. sit back and enjoy the underwater majesty around us.  Whether performing relatively simple tasks like dive briefings, the more arduous tasks of keeping a headcount of clients behind us, or the extreme of guiding clients through raging down-currents (at times carrying them meter by meter off of the reef and keeping them out of the abyss), it was a powerful experience and something we didn’t take lightly. Don’t get us wrong, we enjoyed every second of it. It was a true eye opener on how exactly the diving industry works, the challenges, the rewards associated with it, and the day to day operations. Will we make it our new career? No Mom and Dad, we won’t so don’t worry just yet!

The flounder is born looking like a normal fish before it's face contorts to one side.

The flounder is born looking like a normal fish before it’s face contorts to one side.

Our time in La Baj round 2 was absolutely amazing. Visiting friends from last year, building deeper connections, getting to know new people, and enhancing our Bahassa was “Bagus Banyak” or “Super bloody maximum success” as our friend Abdul would say!!!

Duuuude.

Duuuude.

Time flew by so quickly that by the time local taxi drivers knew us by first name (although we had never met THEM before), we had to jump on a flight to Spain for our next 2 months of adventure.

We never get sick of the La Baj sunset overlooking Komodo

We never get sick of the La Baj sunset overlooking Komodo

*Unless someone wants to test this out with us in Raja, Ambon, Wakatobi, Alor, Bunnaken, etc…. But we have to be there to verify!

Delightful detour to Dintor

After a week of diving in Gorgeously-Ugly Lembeh, we made our way back to Komodo… or as we like to call it “La Baj”, Labuan Bajo, Flores.  We spent two months diving here in October-November last year, and the reception upon our arrival was amazing.  We were greeted back with open arms, cold beers waiting, and great company.

When we were last here, we met a very interesting man from France (via Austria) who was building a house in the south of Flores where he and his wife invited us to stay.  We regretted not going the first time, so made sure to make it down on this leg of our trip.  Dintor is the closest village to where they are building on oceanfront land.

The gorgeous views on the way to Dintor. Flores is wonderfully lush green island!

The gorgeous views on the way to Dintor. Flores is wonderfully lush green island!

This area isn’t just off the beaten track… the track has been removed and all traces of it erased. After 3.5 hours by scooter through beautiful mountains and rice fields, we reached the off road section of our trip.  We would then spend an hour scootering over boulders, through rivers (check out the video!), and up sand dunes to reach their tropical island paradise looking over a beautiful Island.

The views from Bruno and Christina's home.

The views from Bruno and Christina’s home.

We spent 2 nights here enjoying conversations by the fire, camping out in their soon to be finished house, eating bananas right off the tree, relaxing by the beach, and loving a chilled beer at sunset while watching lightning storms in the distance over Sumba. What a great way to relax.  This was an awesome reminder of why we are here and why we are travelling.

Here is the almost finished home!

Here is the almost finished home!

When travelling you sometimes (although not often) meet people that spark your interest.  Bruno and Christina are genuine people who have embarked on a project consisting of building a fully European standard home at the end of the world during their retirement, which is no less than daunting and incredibly respectable.  They have set a vision and are achieving it despite the extremely difficult environment, and numerous technical and cultural challenges along the way.  In talking with them, we learned a lot about the potential issues of setting up life in Indonesia, the red tape, work ethics, etc…. we also learned a lot about mushroom foraging in Austria!

Wonderful views of the beach

Wonderful views of the beach

Thank you very much Bruno and Christina for inviting us to your lovely property and making us feel right at home.  We look forward to coming back and seeing the final product in the (hopefully) not so distant future.

Eric getting some water from the well

Eric getting some water from the well

Gorgeously ugly Lembeh

After our stay in Sri Lanka, we flew back to Indonesia for another two months of world class diving.  Before heading back to Komodo National Park where we did our Dive Master training, we just had to make our first stop in the world’s muck-diving capital called Lembeh Strait situated in North Sulawesi Indonesia.

Coleman's shrimp left, Zebra Crab right.  Take a close look and you will see that the Zebra Crab has eggs! These critters are both riding on the back of a beautiful fire urchin.

Coleman’s shrimp left, Zebra Crab right. Take a close look and you will see that the Zebra Crab has eggs! These critters are both riding on the back of a beautiful fire urchin.

So what is muck diving?  For most people, diving consists of spending time underwater in order to admire beautiful coral gardens, colourful fish, and, if lucky, something big out in the blue… Well, muck is about the exact opposite.  This type of diving comes from ‘muddy’ or ‘murky’ sediment on the ground amongst dead corral, rubble, and garbage… so very “ugly” dive sites. Here, you look for the bizarre, the small, the weird, and the rare.  On every dive, there is an ongoing friendly competition to find the craziest critter, and everyone comes up amazed with bragging rights if they found something cool.

The ugly Indian Walkman, the beautiful Mandarin fish, and the weird Stargazer.

The ugly Indian Walkman, the beautiful Mandarin fish, and the weird Stargazer.

The Lembeh strait is a shipping lane and the amount of garbage found floating and underwater is shocking.  It is usually horrendous to see garbage in the water, especially plastic bags which turtles mistake it for jellyfish, ingest and die (get away from plastic people!). Yet there can be some beauty in this trash.  The most astounding thing about the rubbish in Lembeh is that almost all of it is in the process of becoming a new reef system.  It wasn’t uncommon to see glass Coca-Cola bottles with a fresh coating of sponges growing on it or with a goby living in the hole. Also, for an unknown reason, most weird creatures love this kind of “flora”.

Goby's in their new homes.

Gobies in their new homes.

The preservation of the reef is a delicate balance and is currently being managed by the dive shops.  Many of the shops run awareness programs in the local city of Bitung as well as in the villages on Lembeh to try and promote waste reduction and disposal.  While we were there, our dive shop organized a reef cleanup day in the nearby harbour of the local village and guests participated in picking up garbage not belonging to the reef or inhabited by animals.  In 1 hour a total of 8 divers were able to pick up 140Kg (310 Pounds) of garbage.

Frog fish of Lembeh.

Frog fish of Lembeh.

Back to the diving!  While we knew we already liked muck-diving from our experience in Komodo, we didn’t know how much we would love it.  At times we came up from dives where we were unable to form a logical sentence because of the sensory overload we experienced.  We saw amazing Frogfish, Nudibranch galore, many Octopuses* (including the mysterious Wonderpus… yes that is its name and it was wonderful), Pygmy Squid, Ornate Ghost Pipefish, Bobtail Squid, Mandarin Fish, Pegasus Sea Moth, and one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen… the Lembeh Sea Dragon!

The amazing Lembeh Sea Dragon.

The amazing Lembeh Sea Dragon.

While still amazed by the gorgeously “ugly” diving, we also missed our sharks, corals, mantas, and friends… 3 flights later, Komodo greeted us with arms wide open!

Beautiful Octopuses of Lembeh. Coconut, Long armed, and Wonderpus.

Beautiful Octopuses of Lembeh. Coconut (top in red and also camouflaged as a clam) , Long armed, and Wonderpus.

* If you just said ‘octopuses…what???’  well, octopuses is the correct plural form for octopus and not octopi which has no etymological basis in that an ending with ‘i’ denotes Latin, whereas octopus is of Greek roots.

PS. If you check out the cover photo of this post, please note the gorgeous clown fish with the ugly parasite which has crawled into its mouth and eaten/replaced it’s tongue.  The parasite will live there until the clown fish dies stealing food from it. Although this relationship will not kill the clown fish, it’s probably not too comfortable having a cockroach like animal in your mouth.

Learning the art of head wiggling in Ceylon

Before landing in Sri Lanka, I pictured that it would be a mini-India full of crowds, poverty, and dirtiness, in other words all the things we were escaping from during our wonderful stay in Australia. While we were excited for the next step of our trip (especially because of who would be joining us) we were also aware that there may be some challenges here which we had not faced before.   Surprisingly, the biggest shock was how the preconceived challenges did not materialize.

The capital, Colombo, was not what we expected: a modern airport, efficient immigration, well-kept roads, and clean streets! Not what one would assume from a country which only few years back was still in a bloody 30 year civil war, and which was hit by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2006. What was this developed county we were now in? Beautiful Ceylon.

Oh! The amazing train rides!

Oh! The amazing train rides!

After a night in Colombo and meeting up with my father who travelled for some 40 hours+ from Canada, we got out as quickly as we got in… but this time by rail.  The train system in Sri Lanka is a combination of British colonial investment in the rails/stations, and 1950’s investment in the cars.  The train system is reliable and cheap, albeit sometimes packed with people holding onto dear life from outside the cars. For a 2 hour train ride comparable to the Ottawa – Montreal run, it costs a whopping $2 for a 2nd class ticket (wooden seats, a fan, and food service in the form of vendors walking up and down the aisles with roti, corn fritters, water, and bags of oranges). The trains here run with Swiss efficiency, only to be matched in timetable accuracy by Japan. The scenery is breathtaking, the people you meet amicable, educated and always up for a good chat. The rail system has been expanded to reach every corner of the teardrop shaped island, through mountains, coastal beaches, and jungles. It is the best way to get around, by far!

Views of the Dutch fort city of Galle

Views of the Dutch fort city of Galle

The colonial town of Galle (pronounced gull) in southern Sri Lanka was a Portuguese trading port before being razed by the Dutch and rebuilt in its current 17th century form.  The impressive walled city withstood the impact of the 2006 tsunami, protecting those inside the stone walls, but the surrounding areas were not so fortunate.  When talking with locals, everyone had lost family in the tsunami.

Unawatuna beach

Unawatuna beach

In order to avoid high tourist prices (or the skin tax as they call it there), we stayed a little out of Galle in the beach town of Unawatuna.  We had the opportunity to relax on the beach (sadly overrun with Russian tourists), to dive the 19th century Rangoon wreck, and to spend a day learning the secrets of Sri Lankan cuisine with Karuna (Thank you John and Rose for the amazing wedding gift!).

Here is what your pumpkin curry should look like before heating it up!

Here is what your pumpkin curry should look like before heating it up!

Sri Lankan food is a combination of savory and spicy… so if you love curry look no further.  Although the techniques and ingredients used are simple and straightforward, the measurements are of utter importance and so is the quality or freshness of the spices used.  All the dished do not take a long time to make so a meal would comprise of an average of 10 different curries and rice!  Our favorite recipe from our cookery class was the pumpkin curry.  Please note, whenever it says teaspoon, imagine it HEAPING with spice (as much as can possibly fit on the spoon), for half teaspoon, it would be half heaping teaspoon…

  • ½ kg pumpkin cut in cubes
  • 5 cloves of garlic mashed up
  • 1 small red onion diced
  • 20 fresh curry leaves
  • 1 green chilli (for those of us who like it spicy, feel free to add more!)
  • 10 cm stick of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp of black pepper
  • ½ tsp mustard seed powder
  • ½ tsp garam masala
  • ½ tsp curry powder
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 pinches of curcuma (turmeric)
  • 1 cup coconut cream
  • 1 cup coconut milk

Put all the ingredients in a pot on medium heat and cook for 10 minutes covered. You can also substitute the pumpkin with any root veggie: Potato, Sweet Potato, Turnip, or mix! EASY!

Safari in Sri Lanka with 5000 elephants! Thank you Laura!

Safari in Sri Lanka with 5000 elephants! Thank you Laura!

Leaving the beach paradise of Southern Lanka we headed up to the central highlands. On the road to Ella we stopped at the Uda Walawe Nature reserve for a safari where we gazed at some of the 5000 Asian elephants in the park. All sorts of birds, reptiles, and even a jackal were spotted. There are many protected parks in Sri Lanka with highly trained guides to give you a plethora of information about the national fauna and flora. What a treat! Unforgettable.

Hiking the central highlands and tea plantations

Hiking the central highlands and tea plantations. Thanks PO and Nat!

In reaching the highlands, the scenery changes and it is evident why the Scot Sir Thomas Lipton set up business here and felt at home. Massive mountains dominate the landscape in a very temperate climate. The dominant crop here is Tea, picked primarily by Tamil women who were brought over by the English in the 19th century from southern India. These tiny women are paid $6 a day for 14 hours of hard labour clinging to the mountain slopes to pick only the new growth leaves… even for Asia this is low remuneration given the relatively high cost of living. We peeped into a tea factory that was once owned by Lipton where we were explained the different qualities and types of tea. It takes about 24 hours for a tea leaf to be transformed from leaf to brew. Without reaching the connoisseur’s level of expertise, we managed to discern a little better the subtleties of Orange Pekoe, English Breakfast and simple black tea. We enjoyed hiking these tea covered mountains and spectacular views. Meeting the Tamil women on our way up was magical and we even enjoyed a nice breakfast on Lipton’s Seat with a cuppa, of course!

Beautiful Sirigyia Rock

Beautiful Sirigyia Rock

Further north, the cultural triangle lies almost perfectly in the center of the island and is a Buddhist pilgrimage for Sri Lankans. Our favorite place to visit by far was Sirigiya rock (Lion Rock), which is a nearly perfect square rock shooting 200 meters up, towering over the plains below.   Frescoes in the rock caves here apparently date back 1600 years. Why would anyone build their temple on top of such a bare rock is a mystery, but the views from it are definitely some of the most magnificent we have ever encountered.

Anuradhapura, capital of the cultural triangle!

Anuradhapura, capital of the cultural triangle!

We finished up our trip getting back to the beach in Kalpitiya, a currently undeveloped beach town which was off limits during the civil war.  It is now renowned for its excellent kitesurfing conditions as well as dolphin and whale watching.  If you are thinking of going, go now! Big hotels are planned and it’s in for a change.

Dolphin watching in the sleepy peninsula of Kalpitiya

Dolphin watching in the sleepy peninsula of Kalpitiya

So what’s up with the head wiggle you say? As some of you may have noticed, some people from the Indian subcontinent wiggle gently their heads neither left to right, nor up to down. This is a gesture that we tried to decipher during our trip and mastered ourselves. It was usually performed when we were asking a delicate question or when we stated something not entirely correct. The wiggle is a polite way of saying that the person is erring on the wrong side. We loved it so much that we now use it between ourselves as a secret code… not without laughing at ourselves, of course!

Third time’s a charm or why you should revisit a place you loved

The first time I set foot in Australia was 11 years ago. I had such a good time during my semester abroad that I hardly remember any of the 5 months spent in Melbourne. I adored every bit of it… that I am certain of for I returned the next year, only to be heart broken as most of the good things of my first trip were nowhere to be found. People went back to their home countries or simply moved on to better things. I promised myself never to go back to a place I adored since I could only be disappointed by going for seconds. Oh, how wrong I was.

Young Loren back in 2005....

Young Loren back in 2005….

We initially didn’t plan on visiting Australia mainly for the (secret) reason stated above but when my aunt Feli told us at our wedding how disappointed she was that we wouldn’t visit her on our trip around the world, we caved in. We found a cheap airfare from Vietnam to Melbourne and landed Down Under some 10 hours later.

Seeing the city from the taxi to my aunt’s place was giving me chills of excitement and fear. Would I get painful and embarrassing flashbacks from this once beloved city? Would Eric like it as much as I did a decade ago? These feelings quickly vanished as Feli opened the door to her gorgeous house and welcomed us in her sanctuary.

Feli and Eric on the patio , enjoying some of our favourite foods!!!

Feli and Eric on the patio , enjoying some of our favourite foods!!!

We strolled the city for 4 days, walking everywhere, revisiting my favourite spots like the Victoria Market (je vais le redire pour une millieme fois: le Marche Jean-Talon peut aller se rhabiller merci!), the parks, the lively commercial streets of Richmond and Fitzroy, and met up with some old and new friends. We ate like kings at Feli’s house, gorging on comforting foods that had not been available to us in the past 5 months such as hard cheeses, olives, cured meats, capers, salads and wines. What a bliss!

With Arie and Feli in Arie's lush garden

With Arie and Feli in Arie’s lush garden

All three of us set out for the weekend to visit our family friend Arie in Warrnambool. As always, we were greeted with open arms and heart by this gentleman. I was amazed of how much his garden had changed in the past 10 years, becoming yet another sanctuary for us. After multiple BBQs with world class company, we bid farewell to Arie and drove back to Melbourne on the Great Ocean Road, where Eric would be able to face one of my all times nightmare: wild cockatoos. He now loves them and I still love Eric.

Wild cockatoos, emus, and the road!

Wild cockatoos, emus, and the road!

Our week spent in the state of Victoria made me realize that my life promise was wrong on many levels. Melbourne IS an amazing city. It is vibrant, full of culture and offers a great lifestyle. People do make experiences so much more memorable but cities and landscapes transcend time. In my totalitarian rejection, I had also terribly forgotten some of the best people I have had the pleasure to meet in my life. Bottom line, we should go back to the places we loved since they are still wonderful and still have so much more to offer than mere nostalgia.

Rooftops of the lively Fitzroy neighbourhood in Melbourne!

Rooftops of the lively Fitzroy neighbourhood in Melbourne!

With our hearts and stomachs full, we said goodbye to Feli and took a trip to Cairns where a liveaboard awaited us for what would be the best diving on the Great Barrier Reef. In our 12 dives there, we encountered numerous nudibranchs (there Eric, I said it), sharks, potato cods, tropical fish, and critters all set in a wonderful décor of corals and colourful sponges.

Some of the wonders below the ocean on Ribbon Reef!

Some of the wonders below the ocean on Ribbon Reef!

How refreshing not to pick up garbage as you dive! How nice that the sites are crystal clean and full of native life! How amazing it is to be the ONLY boat on some of the best dive spots worldwide such as Steve’s bommie, Pinnacle, and Christmas tree bommie! Oh how we wished our generous benefactor could have seen this wonder with us! We missed our exciting conversations with you already!

Eric and Loren on the liveaboard!

Eric and Loren on the liveaboard!

Fully replenished and comforted by the indulgence of first world standards, we were ready to tackle Sri Lanka head first, where another dear family member would take on this next challenge with us!

Island Life in Phu Quoc

After our exciting roadtrip of 2000Km by motorcycle down Vietnam, we landed in Phu Quoc, a small island off the coast of Cambodia which was given to Vietnam during the breakup of the French Indochina colony.

By really getting off the road most travelled, we found a gem.  When initially planning this grand adventure, we looked at possible places to volunteer / help out in Vietnam. From the website Helpx.net, we came upon a listing for Thuy’s House (pronounced ‘Twee’, not ‘Too-ee’ in that the later means smelly).  Although she was not needing any help during our stay, there was an empty bed for us. It is a very basic place, an ideal setting to get back to basics, enjoy AMAZING food, and help out a little by collecting firewood, catching crabs for soup, helping with cooking, cleaning the dishes, etc.   The accommodation was built by Ms. Thuy herself, and is a bit more than glorified camping. It consists of a platform off the ground with a mosquito net, where one might have chickens climb into bed during the night, and may wake up to scorpions on the ground in the morning. The structure is half in the jungle, half on the beach, with the sea lapping a mere 10 meters away from your bed.

Rory the local rooster which wasn't your typical chicken...

Rory the local rooster which wasn’t your typical chicken…

At $10 per night, including three absolutely delicious meals of fresh seafood / veggies, it was interesting to see how our needs have changed and that relaxing with a few fellow travellers was exactly what we needed. During our stay, the big questions would be ‘which way to walk down the beach? Left again today, or over the rocks to the right’, or ‘do I go for a swim now, or later?’.

Beautiful Thuy's House: arriving from the beach, and a delicious communal meal.

Beautiful Thuy’s House: arriving from the beach, and a delicious communal meal.

Along with Nha Trang, this island is known to have some of the best diving in Vietnam and we were determined to give it a try.  One day proved more than enough in that we were foiled by poor visibility again (not to mention a mediocre dive operator, unsafe equipment, and a horrible dive guide, if you could even call him that). That being said, there were a few nudibranchs (Jorruna Funebris) which made it worthwhile!

After 5 days of camping our backs deserved a mattress, and we were craving a shower, so we moved into town… but kept coming back to Thuy’s house for food, cold beers, and good company.  Upon special request, we asked her to pick up durian for us to try.  This stinky “King of the Fruits” can be up to a foot long and 6 inches wide with spikes all around and soft pulp inside. Because of its particular a smell, often hated, it is commonly banned in public places and don’t even think about taking it on a bus.  We were warned not to smell the fruit before biting into it, in that it would ruin our experience and we would never eat it again.  The gentle, delicious, inner pulp almost runs through your hand like a very ripe cheese (which is pretty close to the smell actually), but upon the first bite, our mouths came alive with a new taste/texture combination and we finished off the fruit in no time… as our fellow travellers were gagging while walking away from the smell.

Loren eating Durian

Delicious delicate delectable durian.

Our last day included a trip to a local pepper farm. It was interesting to learn that all peppercorns, red, green, white, and black all come from the exact same plant and that the colour is determined by when the fruit is harvested and the drying / refining process. We also scootered around the island past deserted beaches and planned megaprojects. Our biggest advice is to get to Phu Quoc now because the off the beaten track feel will be gone very soon.

Pepper Plantation

Visiting the pepper plantation: Climbing pepper vines, pepper on the stem, and Loren helping to carry 15Kg of pepper for processing (taking the stems out, and then drying in the sun

After 5 months in Asia, 4 in South East Asia, it’s time to get a feeling of home and enjoy some time Down Under with family and friends!

Hanoi to Saigon: 2000 kilometers by Motorcycle

After a painful 27 hour bus ride to Hanoi we settled into the beautiful Hanoi Guesthouse where we had stayed 3 years prior on our first visit to the “Land of the Ascending Dragon”.  We often reminisced on how great our experience was with the only regret being that we spent too little time here.  In engineering this trip, we budgeted one month to travel the country in the hopes of seeing it all.

We planned that within 2 days we were to: get a massage, get a dental cleaning, and buy motorbikes. With developing world efficiency this was done within a day, allowing us to spend the rest of our time wandering around Old Quarter Hanoi and gearing up for the Road.  For anyone who has seen pictures of traffic in old quarter Hanoi with endless scooters going in all directions where it seems that the only rule is “There are no rules”… this is not an exaggeration.  Learning to drive our fully manual Honda Win 110CC motorbikes, which we named Uncle Ho and Nuoc Mam, was a little stressful, but we were successful.

Map of our route down the country

Map of our route down the country

Travelling the Ho Chi Minh Highway down Vietnam was an awesome experience. Amazing karst mountain scenery, rice fields, and small rural farming villages dotting the road was just what we wanted.  We even saw dogs being roasted for dinner, but sadly for you, dear reader, we didn’t get a picture.  Outside major cities we didn’t meet many people who spoke English. We communicated well through sign language and our ability to say “Pho Bo” (Beef noodle soup)” or “Ca Fe Sue” (sweet milk coffee) saved us, although we did get the occasional strange look due to our horrible accents.

It took 3 days to get completely soaked, and a  week before we saw the sun.

It took 3 days to get completely soaked, and a week before we saw the sun.

After nearly a week on the road, advancing anywhere between 100km (when rained out and freezing cold) to 220km per day, we passed through the historic Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 17th parallel and reached the Imperial city of Hue. Giving ourselves enough time to dry out our gear, we strolled through the impressive Imperial Palace grounds without any other tourist in sight. What a delight!

Strolling around the imperial palace in Hue

Strolling around the imperial palace in Hue

From cloudy and grey Hue, we rode our motorcycles through the Hai Van mountain pass where the sky miraculously opened up to sunlight and blue skies to reach our (still) favorite city of Hoi An.  This beautiful ancient Japanese trading post is just as charming as we remembered it with absolutely delicious food! We were glad to see that our favourite restaurant Dung was still standing and that our secret beach had not eroded like the other more popular beaches around. The only thing missing here was the presence of our dear friend Ben.

Loren at our secret beach (down the path behind the beverage stand) outside Hoi An.

Loren at our secret beach (down the path behind the beverage stand) outside Hoi An.

We pushed ourselves (and our poor bikes Uncle Ho and Nuoc Mam) to make it to Nha Trang in 2 days. With sore buttocks, we made it to what we thought would be a beautiful coastal town, only to find an overdeveloped-hideous-concrete-Russian-centric “Pompano Beach”. We still embraced it and had fun trying to read Cyrillic menus as we planned our next steps. We heard Nha Trang was one of the best diving spots of the country and tried it out one day. With 1 to 3 meters of visibility, it was obviously not the best season for underwater tourism.

After crossing the mountain pass from Hue to Da Nang, forest turned to jungle and everything became green.

After crossing the mountain pass from Hue to Da Nang, forest turned to jungle and everything became green.

Further down the country, the rainforest and jungle scenery changed to dry rice fields and desert. We stumbled on a true fishing village still undisturbed by tourism and mega resorts, with large white sandy beaches. Hopefully, Ca Na will remain in its current state and be able to keep up its authenticity and charm.

Random ruin on the road to Ca Na.

Random ruin on the road to Ca Na.

Ca Na

Untouched Ca Na… or what Nha Trang and Mui Ne must have looked like 20 years ago.

We reached Mui Ne shortly after, only to be disappointed again by the flocks of tourists (projolsta Ballenas) defacing what was once a little hippy fishing enclave. We still enjoyed ourselves riding crazy carpets down red sand dunes and thinking about our friends up in Canada doing the same but in -30 weather.

Shredding some pow... i mean sand?

Shredding some pow… i mean sand?

In a final push Uncle Ho and Nuoc Mam made it to Ho Chi Minh City and within 15 minutes of printing our “for sale” signs, our bikes were sold and we were enjoying a cold beer with the two Americans who bought our bike and would be leaving the next day to take them back up to Hanoi.

eric beach

Saying goodbye to Uncle Ho was difficult.

In the three years since we last visited Vietnam, the change has been remarkable.  Massive housing projects, infrastructure development, and inflated cost of living are all evident.  Nevertheless, Vietnam keeps a strong hold on tradition, culture, and enviable family values.

Now off to the small island of Phu Quoc for some camping and time on the beach!