Sweden at covid times – Chasing the Northern Lights

I felt curious and hopeful at the same time, as I stepped out of Stockholm central station. I was wondering if it was true, what I read about Sweden and its way to face the pandemic. It was true, life was normal, and this realization hit me like a punch in the face. The current long-term foolish restrictions that we have in Italy, kind of put things in perspective so that even trivial details can suddenly become meaningful. Long time I hadn’t experienced the freedom of walking around without feeling guilty or taking a deep breath and inhaling fresh air without wearing a mask. A cold wind was blowing and messing with my hair and all this was intoxicating and energizing. I asked myself if I was in a dream and decided that I had to live it fully whatever it was. Having dinner at the restaurant sounded extraordinary on that day. Swedish meatballs and blueberry cake seemed like a perfect start. Thank you, Sweden, for awakening a sensation of endless joy in such a simple way!

Stockholm looked magnificent on that clear winter evening. There was a changing of the guard in front of the Royal Palace but the square and the streets and alleyways of the old town were almost deserted. The lashing wind made it chilly to be outside for a long time. Part of the sea of the bay was frozen and pieces of ice were swinging gently on top of the waves like in a dance, accompanied by the symphony of the wind.

Stockholm spreads across an archipelago of fourteen islands and it is characterized by water in any direction. It is a city of many facets: modern buildings and big malls alternate with small shops, historic cafés, and the narrow streets of Gamla Stan. It looked to me like an orderly and liveable city where you can easily feel comfortable and safe. Walking on the streets I could perceive this cozy atmosphere, both outside and inside the houses: nearly every window was carefully decorated and featured at least a stylish lamp, while blinds were non-existent or rarely used. Swedes pay great attention to sustainability and show unconditional love for nature. I already realized that, as I wouldn’t find bottled water at the restaurant or anywhere, as this is considered pure waste, and water from the tap is of very high quality.

On the next day, heading to Kiruna and the great north, the plane flew over a winter wonderland. Everything was white and frozen. Rivers, lakes, forests, everything was still. Life seemed to have been suspended to leave space for ice and snow. Kiruna is located north of the arctic circle and it is a town on the move: because of the expanding excavations of its famous iron mine putting in danger the buildings in town, this is being relocated to a new city center. Scattered colorful houses emerged from the snow and Kiruna gave me the impression to be a ghost town as nobody was around. Curiously enough, the only place that seemed opened for lunch was a Thai restaurant: it was full, showing that there was indeed town life, just not outside. Walking the two kilometers to the train station on the snowy road, I was excited to be almost there, at the final destination of this trip: Abisko.

Abisko National Park is at the very north point of Sweden. It is famous for being one of the best spots to see the aurora borealis in Lapland. Being surrounded by mountains and the Torneträsk lake, the sky is often more clear than in the surrounding areas. However, chasing the northern lights is not the only activity to do there. It is a great place to hike and do any snow activities. In winter the park offers such beautiful natural scenery as it is covered by a soft blanket of fresh snow. It is exactly like I imagined Lapland after seeing postcards and pictures. Dusk falls very slowly at this time of the year and the dim light is often tinged with soft colors, resulting in pink, orange, and yellow winter sunsets.

It got finally dark and I felt a thrill looking up at the sky. There were no signs of any activity, no strange lights up there, but the aurora is unpredictable and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t want to miss any chance to see it, so I thought I’d take a night walk to explore the area. Walking on a beaten path along the river I realized that the night was not completely dark, as the snow was reflecting the moonlight. I couldn’t help keeping looking upwards in the hope of seeing something moving, but the only thing moving was a falling star. The setting was so silent and wild, it conveyed a sense of peace and serenity. No wonder the top of the small hill at the end of the path was named meditation point.

So, the first night passed without luck, and on the following day, soft and light snow was falling. The sun appeared very pale behind a thick layer of clouds. It was a good day for a long hike because the temperature was not that cold, between -5° and -10° I believe. Walking on the same pathway gave me a different sensation this time: the river materialized in a scenic canyon, formed by wild rocks emerging from a white landscape. The flowing of water was paused by the grip of the cold winter, which froze the river and the waterfall in their movement giving shape to spectacular ice configurations. The National Park of Abisko is great for its possibilities to hike its panoramic valley covered with mountain birch trees. As soon as you leave the beaten pathways, you’ll have the chance to use your snowshoes, and crampons will save your life when you need to trek on icy terrain. You can spend hours outdoors without meeting anyone and enjoying the quietness of nature asleep. Local people love cross-country skiing and maybe even spending the night in the wilderness; sometimes you see them accompanied by their huskies that help to pull sleds with their equipment for the expedition.

The next day the clouds had disappeared and made way for a clear, bright, and extremely cold day. The thermometer outside marked twenty-two degrees below zero. It was the perfect condition to explore the Torneträsk lake. This place was beyond amazing. The lake was huge, it extended to the horizon and it was completely frozen. Everything was covered by the freshly fallen snow, but the ice underneath was hard and dark. Taking a stroll on the frozen lake was impressive. The vastness of the view, the blinding light reflected by the snow, the icy wind blowing: all this made me feel once again so alive and free. The sun was dazzling and the unusual thing was that it never reached up high in the sky, always keeping at the same height quite low over the horizon; this was pretty confusing because it was never possible to rely on it to guess what time it was. Another curious thing was a couple of caravans parked on the surface of the lake. I wondered who was staying on an isolated caravan on the frozen lake in winter… holidays on the lake for solitary people? No, one guy came out of the caravan right at that moment and he was a fisherman! He had just pulled an arctic char from the depths of the lake. It was cool to see the fishing equipment inside the caravan, which had a trapdoor at the bottom that allowed to drill a hole through the ice below while being comfortable inside the caravan. The idea of vibrant underwater life deep below the still and icy surface was just amazing!

Now, let’s get to the chase! After a full day outside in the cold, what is the best thing to do for relaxing? Lay on the couch or get to the sauna? No, there’s no time for that if the aurora could appear at any moment! You need to be outside again in a dark place, wait patiently, and be well equipped with extra-warm clothes and loads of hand warmers to prevent freezing. In Abisko there’s an open-air chairlift that takes you to the STF Aurora Sky Station, up to Mt. Nuolja, 900 meters above sea level. It is supposed to be a special place for watching the northern lights. I would say it was magic for the experience itself of being lifted into the night starry sky, towards the mighty mountain looking so close to heaven. Before boarding the chairlift we were provided with huge boots and warm overalls that we had to wear on top of our clothes. I felt like an astronaut getting ready for a space mission. The ride took 30 minutes and they were minutes of intense wonder. While the black sky seemed to swallow us, the northern lights started dancing on the top of our heads. The lights were fickle, slowly changing their shape and intensity, forming rays and arcs and glowing faintly with green colors. The sky was alive, full of hues and movement. The enchantment was broken by the arrival of the chairlift. Suddenly on top of the mountain, the bitter chill brought me back to reality. The sense of wonder turned into the awareness of my body getting cold, despite all the clothes leaving uncovered only the eyes. My breath was forming ice crystals on the balaclava and I guess the perceived temperature must have been around -30° because of the wind chill: time to go back. The aurora showed up three nights in a row and was well visible from the lakeshore as well. It was enchanting every time and the pictures don’t do it justice because they can’t arouse the emotions you feel when you are right there, after a chase in the dark, holding your hand warmers tight to get some heat, with your heart jumping at every flare of green light in the sky. And, just for the record, it is not possible to photograph the aurora without the proper equipment, so it will remain in my memory only.

It was a journey of intense excitement, I was thinking while the taxi drove fast to Kiruna airport and the wind was throwing flurries of snow violently onto the road in front of it. One more extraordinary Swedish dinner at a restaurant in Stockholm before returning to the dull and annoying reality in my country. Once again, thank you Sweden, I will be back!

Galapagos Island Hopping – March 2018

I heard about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution for the first time when I was at school and the Galapagos Islands have been my dream destination ever since. Now I can say that no other place where I have been got me so excited and fascinated like this. Galapagos is a unique place in the world, an outstanding natural environment and the ideal location for photography lovers. 

For me, it was like living and finally understanding what I had only read in books. I found out that each island has its own ecosystem, different vegetation and wildlife, but the landscape and climate change rapidly also within the same island. Species evolved differently and, for example, the famous Galapagos giant tortoises are not the same on different islands, as their characteristics vary between populations. Lonesome George was the last individual of the Pinta Island tortoise, it died in 2012 and it is now a symbol of the islands as its taxidermied body is displayed at the Charles Darwin Research Station

Lonesome George

Several conservation projects are aimed to protect the Galapagos environment and there are strict regulations for visiting the National Park. You must be accompanied by a tour guide and therefore book organized tours or cruises for visiting most of the National Park. This makes traveling to Galapagos quite expensive compared to other destinations but it is justified if it helps to preserve this fragile environment.  

Personally, I don’t like cruises and Galapagos cruises seemed to cost way too much for me, so I organized my trip on an island-hopping basis, which turned out to be quite cheaper and probably more fun.

The Galapagos archipelago is off the coast of Ecuador. You can fly there from Quito or Guayaquil. The main airport on the islands is Baltra airport, close to Santa Cruz, but there is another one on San Cristobal, and I would recommend flying in and out from different airports, in order to optimize your time if you plan to visit more islands in a few days. 

You have to get the Galapagos Transit Control Card before checking-in for your flight and pay an entry fee to enter the National Park. After that, traveling among the islands is quite easy, as there are daily ferries connecting the main islands.

I stayed on the three main inhabited islands and I booked day tours from there to visit other parts of the National Park. On each of these three islands – Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela – you can also find places to visit for free and experience proximity to wildlife. You might find the road blocked by sleeping sea lions, or mistake an iguana for black rock. You might swim in the sea and suddenly realize that dozens of sea turtles are swimming below and around you, or even better, look at the sea at night and see the waves sparkle with millions of luminescent plankton when they hit the shore.

I am aware that sometimes words are not enough to describe the sense of beauty and wonder that nature may cause. Here, I will try to give an overview of the best things I experienced on the islands and the things that left me speechless the most.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has a central location within the archipelago, and due to its proximity to the main airport, it is often chosen as a base for visitors. The town of Puerto Ayora is the largest and most developed in the Galapagos Islands, with numerous hotels, restaurants, stores. I would recommend going to some agency as soon as you get to Puerto Ayora, in order to book the tours immediately for the following days. There are plenty of agencies, but there is a limited number of people that are allowed to be on the boats every day, so some of them get fully booked very quickly. If it is not a very high season, it is still possible to find availability when you get there.

Sea lion sleeping on a bench

On my first day, I went exploring the town and I ended up at the port, where I had my first close encounter with a sea lion. Of course, I had seen pictures before, but I can tell you when you meet the first one, you feel as excited as a kid. They are absolutely cute! They seem to love benches, so you find them sleeping on any available benches regardless of anything around them. The most impressive thing is exactly this: here, animals are not afraid of humans. You can walk up to any animals expecting them to flee, but they will not. Their absence of fear has presumably developed because they never had predators on the islands. I realize that human and tourist invasion are dangerous for this fragile balance. I hope everybody keeps in mind to be a considerate visitor and that this is their home first of all.

One of the first things you need to do as soon as you arrive on the island is walking to Tortuga Bay: it is absolutely crazy! The 45 minutes walk to the beach is gorgeous in itself. On the way, you can stop by Laguna de las Ninfas to have a relaxing walk through the mangroves and try your luck with birdwatching. When the path to Tortuga Bay starts, you pass through peculiar vegetation of moss-covered trees, reddish barks and huge cactuses standing on black volcanic rocks. Darwin’s finches and lizards may appear to keep you company. When I finally got to the end of the path, I was first stunned by the beauty of the white beach with black rocks showing up in front of me. However, after a few meters of walking towards the ocean, I was suddenly puzzled by realizing that some of the black rocks were actually moving! Of course, they were not rocks but dozens of black iguanas strolling at their leisurely pace along the beach. Having a closer look at the actual rocks, I noticed that they were riddled with big red crabs crawling around. A pelican was peeking from the mangroves, apparently careless of what was going on around him. It already felt like magic, walking on the beach with all senses awake in order to spot any unexpected signs of life. And there it was, a blue-footed booby standing right in front of me, on the side of the bay! These clumsy birds are very easy to identify, with their distinguishable blue feet. It was only me and the bird on that rock and, once again, I was astonished to see that I could get so close to it, and it just wouldn’t move, as if it was posing as a model for the best photograph. I came back from Tortuga Bay as if I would have already seen all the Galapagos had to offer; of course, this was just a little part of it.

I was lucky enough to get a ride by motorbike to El Chato, the natural reserve located in Santa Cruz’s highlands, where you can see the Galapagos giant tortoises in their natural habitat. This area of the island is in contrast to the beaches and arid landscapes of the coast, as it is more humid and fresh and has rich vegetation. Get a couple of boots and walk on the muddy field among the giant tortoises, they are such impressive big animals! 

If you like swimming, there is an amazing place not very far from Puerto Ayora, called Las Grietas, where you can swim and snorkel in an emerald green ocean water pool at the bottom of an earth fracture. The water is very clear and it stands out in contrast to the cliffs of volcanic rocks. Swimming there is quite an experience if the place is not packed with people as it usually is. Otherwise, you can swim at the nearby Playa de Los Alemanes, a sandy little beach with a lot of iguanas and surrounded by mangroves, although I found it nothing special, to be honest. Much more beautiful for a relaxing beach day is Playa El Garrapatero, a popular beach in a bay on the eastern side of the island, reachable in approximately 30 minutes’ drive from Puerto Ayora.

From Santa Cruz, there are several organized tours to visit the surrounding islands. One of the most famous is the tour to Bartolomé, the island where the most photographed site in the Galapagos is. After climbing the 372 steps to the summit, you have a breathtaking view on the colorful lava and volcanic landscapes of the archipelago. There is almost nothing living here, except some small endemic bushes growing on the lava ground, and lava lizards warming up in the heat of the sun. I would definitely recommend it for the unique landscape you can see from up there, although it seems that this tour gets sold out very quickly and it is not always easy to find it available.

Isabela

Isabela holds a special place in my heart for its relaxed and magical flavor. Forget the lively atmosphere, the multitude of restaurants and tourist shops of Puerto Ayora: the first feeling I had when I got off the boat at Puerto Villamil was that the island was dormant in the summer heat. Only the sea lions at the port seemed to be alive and active, calling each other and jumping into the water with a mix of clumsiness and ease. There are no paved roads and the sandy streets are lined with palm trees and a few places where you can eat or drink cocktails. Isabela is the largest island of the archipelago and one of the youngest. This volcanic area contains extensive lava fields and very little vegetation, offering a wild and picturesque landscape, bordered by white sand beaches and blue water.

Next to the port, there is a wooden path through a mangrove forest that leads to Concha Perla: it is a small bay bounded by rock formations that keep the sea very calm, like a lagoon. Everybody goes there for snorkeling because the clear water is perfect for observing marine life and swimming with sea lions, turtles and colorful fish. When I went there the first time I found two big sea lions sleeping on the pathway and leaving no space for me to pass. I tried to get closer walking softly but they woke up and got quite angry I disturbed them in their sleep – and I got pretty scared as I thought they would attack me! – then, fortunately, they left and went to rest somewhere else.

I decided to book the tour to Los Tuneles because it was supposed to be ideal for snorkeling and to spot different Galapagos species. The boat navigated through a series of unique geological formations formed by lava rock and looking like arcs and tunnels plunging into the sea. On the rocks, sparse vegetation of cactus and other small plants is a habitat for many seabirds. Our guide led us to the nest of a blue-footed booby: it was sitting on its eggs and didn’t pay much attention to us. He told us that the blue feet of this bird plays a key role during the breeding season: males perform an elaborate mating ritual and display their feet by lifting them up and down in a kind of dance to attract females. The color of their feet comes from their diet of fresh fish. The bluer the feet, the more attractive the mate is. If a blue-footed booby has pale feet, it likely means that it is unhealthy and has not eaten a lot of fish lately. 

When it comes to snorkeling, this site is also quite spectacular, as the water is crystal-clear and you can swim next to dozens of giant sea turtles and also see other marine species, like seahorses or manta rays. Our guide led us to the cave where the white-tipped sharks were sleeping and we dived down to be face to face with them. The only species I didn’t see – and I was hoping to see because it is one of my favorites – is penguins. They swim too fast and I knew they were around there, but they didn’t show up… too bad!

There is another great walk you can do on Isabela without taking part in a tour: starting in Puerto Villamil and following the sandy path going to the Muro de las Lagrimas. This is a stone wall built by former prisoners who were held in a penal colony, and the wall is not so attractive itself, but the path definitely is! You pass by beaches, viewpoints and unique vegetation with plants I had never seen before. In this mostly arid zone, the sun is burning: I had already learned my lesson in the first days and I tried to literally cover all parts of my body because I felt it was really scorching. On the path, I encountered so many wild tortoises of different sizes and of course the ubiquitous iguanas. You can also walk past the wall and upon a small hill to have a wide view on the island. It took me longer than two hours to get there, and a lot of sweating, but it was one of the best experiences I had.

San Cristobal

Sea lions are some of the most adorable creatures – when they don’t get angry – and San Cristobal is full of them! Just next to the port in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, you can immediately hear their presence, as they get louder and louder making a variety of sounds. There are hundreds of them, some are pretty big and others are just babies I suppose, and they occupy the beach, rocks and even the nearby street. Their activity can keep humans watching them for hours and hours.

San Cristobal is again very different from the other islands. Quieter than Santa Cruz but more developed than Isabela, it has white sandy beaches, a mild and green interior of the island, wild cliffs with a lot of seabird colonies. 

The main landmark here, included in most of the organized tours, is Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock): it is a huge and scenic rock emerging from the sea, which looks like a sleeping lion if you see it from a certain angle. It is formed by two rock towers divided by a narrow channel, where boats can pass but they look so insignificantly small between those two giants standing there! Nothing grows on the rocks, but they are home to many birds, also frigates and blue-footed boobies. It is known for being an excellent diving site: the rocks plunge in deep water, which seems to be calm from the distance, but it is actually a little rough when getting closer, with waves rolling in one after the other. When I looked down at the deep blue under the boat a shiver ran down my spine at the thought of snorkeling there: so scary! 

In the end, it was amazing and exciting, there was a whole world down there: tropical fish, sharks, turtles, sea lions… all of them twirling gracefully as in a silent dance in the blue. What a satisfaction when I finally got back to the boat!

There is also another place on San Cristobal that was very special to me. One day I left Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and started walking the footpath that leads out from the Interpretation Center. The path turned into a hiking trail among bushes and rocks, going up and down along the coast with gorgeous views over the sea. After one hour I arrived at Playa Baquerizo and I fell in love with this beach! Nobody was there, only iguanas and playful sea lions. The sea was not really smooth but enough to go swimming. As soon as I was in the water, I realized that I was surrounded by sea turtles: they were coming up for air, so I could see their heads surfacing for breathing, and they were all around me… It was magical! It was really worth every step of the trek under the hot sun, and a great way to explore the island on my own. 

Generally speaking, I found Galapagos to be a great destination for solo travelers. Taking part in daily tours allows you to meet other travelers easily, and the inhabited villages themselves are so small that you keep on meeting the same people over and over again. For me it was not really a relaxing vacation, but a journey of discovery: all my senses were awake and I was often left in awe as I watched wild animals and singular nature’s creations. I came back home happy, full of unforgettable memories and lasting impressions. I really hope we are smart enough to preserve and treasure this unique natural environment over the years.  

Kyrgyzstan, a country remarkably unknown

The funniest thing about planning this trip to Kyrgyzstan was seeing people’s reactions when I told them where I was going: “Kyr…what?” “And why?” I didn’t know much about the country myself but it looked so fascinating from the pictures and blogs I found during some research about Central Asia. Now I can answer the question why with greater conviction: Kyrgyzstan is an amazing travel destination for the stunning beauty of its landscapes, the countless hiking possibilities, the kindness of Kyrgyz people and the variety of cultures that merged in this remote country, which is still off the beaten track for tourists. The country is mainly mountainous, with highest peaks over 7000m, and most of the population lives in the capital Bishkek, but in the rest of the country the nomadic tradition of the Kyrgyz people is still alive, and people are the most welcoming and authentic ever. Hiking through valleys and climbing peaks, swimming in the lake and sleeping in a yurt, trying a variety of food and drinking kumis, this is all part of a great Kyrgyz experience.

On the Silk Road

For centuries caravans of goods traveled between the East and the West on the Silk Road, crossing deserts and mountains and creating connections between different people, cultures, and religions. One of the routes passed through Tash Rabat, in the south of Kyrgyzstan, where traders could find rest in the caravanserai, before passing the mountains to nearby China. P1020590The building is still well preserved and it is located in a valley on the Tien Shan mountain range at an altitude of 3200m. When I arrived there, my first thought was “what am I doing here?”, as I felt really in the middle of nowhere, the sky was beginning to darken and the soil was still wet from the previous rain. I learned that weather can change abruptly from the best to the worst, sun can turn into rain, rain can turn into hailstorms within minutes, and temperatures can drop dramatically even in July, which is the hottest month of the year. For this reason, our first attempt to hike through the valley finished pretty soon, as we ended up soaked and frozen before we could find shelter under a rock. However, the hike from Tash Rabat to Panda Pass is truly spectacular, we tried to do it again the following day leaving as early as 5 am and I think it was one of the most beautiful experiences of the whole trip. The first part of the path went up the valley along the river, which we had to cross a couple of times and the crossing was not so trivial as we thought. P1020613After a while we realized that we were not alone: high pitched shrieks echoed in the valley and we spotted dozens of marmots watching us still from every corner, ready to go back into their holes as soon as we got too close. As the sun illuminated the valley we could see pink-colored mountain peaks standing like lazy giants at the end, and soon the path started rising steeply on their slopes. The peaks looked more and more majestic as we got closer and the last part of the climb was breathtaking: on one side, a black mountain peak was glimmering under the sun as its slope, covered by a layer of ice, was melting slowly and creating little streams of water as if the mountain was crying. 20190723_084556Once taken the last turn and reached the highest point at approximately 4000m, I looked all around me and I had the feeling I was on the top of the world. On the other side, I could finally see lake Chatyr Kol, at the border with China. I thought about the traders who traveled this road in the past, under any weather conditions, and I tried to imagine how difficult it could be and how strong their motivation must have been. 

Nomadic life

Kyrgyzstan is famous for its jailoos, high pastures where the nomads spend the summer, living in yurts and letting the livestock graze in the meadows. Every year they migrate between summer pastures in the mountains and winter settled farms in the villages. P1020337The yurt is a round structure formed by a wooden frame covered with canvas and felt. The top is a wooden circle, called tunduk, which is one of the most important symbols in Kyrgyzstan and it is even represented in the national flag. The tunduk is covered by a piece of felt, which can be opened when the weather is nice and closed when it is cold or wet. There is usually a stove in the middle used for heating, cooking and warming up tea. P1020359Carpets lay on the floor and opposite the door are stacks of blankets that are used at night for sleeping. Yurts are an essential part of Kyrgyz culture, and the best way to enjoy Kyrgyz hospitality.

On the shore of lake Song Kol there are several yurt camps scattered on the jailoos at 3016m altitude and it is a very picturesque place to spend a couple of days enjoying the summer tranquility and the simplicity of shepherds’ life. 

Personally, after a night in the yurt, I was longing for a bed, as I couldn’t sleep at all because of the other guests snoring and the discomfort of the floor. The good thing about not sleeping was going out and seeing a spectacular starry sky on an incredibly clear night. The toilet was also an experience: it was a shed made of metal sheets with a hole in the ground and a terrifying smell.

Anyways, all this was compensated by the beauty of the place. Song Kol is a sparkling crystal lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and immense jailoos where horses and cows are running wild and grazing everywhere. P1020509The pastel colors make the landscape delicate and relaxing, looking like an image straight out of a painting.

Very young boys ride horses with such grace and naturalness that suggest they are put on a horse as soon as they start to take their first steps.

The girl who took care of the yurt camp was 17 years old, in age to get married: she told us that a girl has to get married before 25 years old, no matter what, and family helps to arrange the marriage. Another unusual marriage tradition I never heard before is that of wife-stealing: a man may kidnap an unmarried girl and make her his wife; usually, she doesn’t refuse, because it is considered shameful to do so. This practice was made illegal but sometimes it still happens.

In the morning after my sleepless night, the family was going to slaughter a sheep and they asked if we wanted to watch the ritual, warning us that there was going to be a lot of blood. I saw them carrying the sheep with its legs tied together while they said an initial prayer, but I looked the other way not to see more.

Eating and drinking

During our stay in the yurt camp, we had the chance to drink our first cup of kumis, the traditional beverage. P1020739It is made of fermented mare’s milk and I found it to have a slightly alcoholic and sparkling taste, it was not that bad as someone described it and it has been considered a healthy drink for thousands of years. Kyrgyz seem to love fermented beverages and they have several of them, like bozo, a frothy drink made from millet. In Bishkek, you can find sidewalk vendors at any corner, who sell maksim, a wheat-based drink that I found quite disgusting, and chalap, made from dissolved kurut (small balls of dried sheep’s milk cheese), P1020746this one was very refreshing and the taste was more similar to the taste of yogurt. Kyrgyz are also big tea drinkers and chai is served at any meal and other occasions.

Kyrgyz food is usually meat-based and not very spicy, as a result of the traditional nomadic way of life. One great thing about traveling in Kyrgyzstan is exactly the culinary aspect, there are plenty of dishes to try, and all very tasty – and cheap! Common dishes include lagman (noodles in a broth of meat and vegetables), manti (steam dumplings filled with meat), samsa (pastries filled with meat), plov (fried rice with meat on top). Beshbarmak is another traditional dish (another kind of noodles with meat) whose name means five fingers because you are supposed to eat it using one hand. 20190721_200453Other delicious meat dishes are kuurdak and shashlik, but on the menu, there are often several salads of all kinds (even with meat in case you miss it). 

Everywhere you can find the typical bread, which has a round and flat shape and it is also yummy.

At the crossroad of Central Asia

The best place to indulge in a variety of food is Karakol: maybe due to its location at the crossroad of different cultures and culinary traditions, it offers a wide range of restaurants and specialties to try. Here, you must have an ashlan-fu (cold noodles topped with vegetables in spicy broth), which is the most typical Dungan dish. The Dungans are a Muslim community of Chinese origin that fled persecution and settled in this area. Nowadays, the wooden colorful Dungan mosque is still used as a place of worship by Dungan and Kyrgyz people. There is also an orthodox church in town, which is even more attractive: the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It is very fascinating in its simplicity, entirely built in wood with green domes, it is tinged of warm colors with the setting sun.

However, the most characteristic thing to see in Karakol is its peculiar animal bazaar, which takes place every Sunday morning. P1020738They say it is one of the best animal markets in Central Asia and it is worth waking up at 5 am to go wander and watch the morning unfold between the animals and the Kyrgyz who have come to negotiate for the livestock on offer. Local villagers load their vans or old cars with their animals and drive to the market to sell them. The market is a huge area divided in compounds for sheep and goats, horses and cattle. There is a lot of activity going on, but you can easily take a walk between complaining animals and bargaining people, just watch your step!

The highlight of the Kyrgyz experience

People come to Kyrgyzstan to hike and Karakol is a very popular destination because of its surrounding mountains that offer a lot of hiking possibilities, including multi-day treks through valleys, mountain passes, and alpine lakes. We were excited to trek to the Ala Kul lake, this spectacular alpine lake nestled between high mountain peaks. We knew the hike was hard on either side and whatever way we would decide to take, but seeing Ala Kul was a must so off we went, and we survived! We opted for a day trek, getting to Altyn Arashan by car and starting from there the trek to the lake. The owner of our guesthouse helped us arranging the transfer (and if you go to Karakol you must stay at Askar Guesthouse, he gave us the best hospitality ever and help for whatever we needed). P1020645So, our driver picked us up at 5am on an old Russian jeep, the only kind of vehicle that can go up that road: I have a great respect for those Russian jeeps now, the two hours drive were tough and I would never expect we would make it to the end of the track, because saying it was bumpy is really underrated… but obviously it wasn’t the first time the driver was doing that. 

The first part of the trek was easy and pleasant, almost level, and we walked along the Altyn Arashan valley, in a landscape that was similar to our Alps for the pine trees, the green forest and the rocky mountains in the background, but different for it was scattered with white yurts and horses all along the river. After a couple of hours, we had to cross that river; we were not able to find a reasonable place to cross safely walking on the rocks, so we decided to take off our shoes and face the ice water. In the meantime, the weather was worsening and we felt the first raindrops on us. The mountains in the distance looked pretty hostile, shrouded in the dark gray clouds, but we continued the ascent. Walking under the rain for so long took a toll on us and we were continuously checking the GPS to see how far we were from the Ala Kul Pass. When it finally seemed so close from the map, we looked up and we realized the path went up the steepest side of the mountain, on loose gravel and muddy slopes. It was only thanks to a Canadian guy who was coming down from that path that we found the strength to continue the ascent, as he told us the lake was visible right from up there and it was not that far.It was a grueling climb and rain and hail were falling intermittently from the gray sky. It was all worth it though. As we got to the pass at 3860m it was freezing cold and a furious wind was blowing, we were in the middle of big clouds. 

Suddenly, the clouds opened up and lake Ala Kol stretched out in front of us.

P1020658

 The water of the lake had a unique unnatural greenish/blue color even in the absence of the sun and the view was breathtaking. Mountain peaks were stretching around as far as the eye could see, but this was all a matter of seconds, after that the sight was covered again by the clouds. It was too cold to stay longer up there, so we started the descent, one step after the other down the near-vertical and slippery path. 20190725_175151Back to the grassy fields that were already saturated with water, we walked across the marsh. Towards the end of the way down the clouds drifted away, the sun was shining again on us and everything changed. We were back in the valley in a cheerful mood after this strenuous but spectacular hike. Such a physical effort and fatigue for just a moment of glory on the top, but it was a great reward and an unforgettable experience! 

Chilling out

What is the best thing to do for chilling out after an exhausting hiking day? Lake Issyk Kul is perfect for that: this immense saline lake dominated by high mountains is a favorite holiday spot for many tourists, especially Russians, who come here to spend the days on the beach. In fact, it really looks like a sea, especially when there’s a little haze and you can’t see the other side. On the northern shore, it seems to be on the Adriatic Riviera: resort towns with big hotels, holidaymakers in beach dresses, souvenir shops and chaos everywhere. On the southern shore, you can find more peaceful and wild beaches, in a bleak and savage landscape. It is a very relaxing and charming place and you can swim in the clear and refreshing water of the lake. 20190726_134828

On the southern shore, near the village of Tosor, there is also a magical and unusual place not to be missed: Skazka, the fairytale canyon. Here you can let your imagination run free and wander through weird rock formations that can resemble animals, imaginary creatures or even landmarks like the ridge that looks exactly like the Great Wall of China. The canyon is a very hot and dry valley where wind, ice, and water have eroded these sandstone shapes in rocks that vary in color from yellow to red and orange and other striations due to different chemical composition. 

The hot and big city

After ten days in Kyrgyzstan’s landscape of high mountains, forests, grassy meadows, and sparkling lakes, it was quite a shock to get back to a big city like Bishkek. The climate was really different and temperatures reached 40° those days. I found the capital to have a rather anonymous character: excluding a couple of huge monumental squares, the long roads lined with gray squared buildings in Soviet style were not attractive at all. The great thing about the city is the great offer of cafés and restaurants of all kinds, and the picturesque Osh Bazaar where you can spend some time shopping for local products. However, after one day here, you will want to escape to some natural place again. Fortunately, the mountains are never too far in Kyrgyzstan and the Ala Archa National Park offers the possibility to do quick or longer treks outside of the big city life. 

No matter where in Kyrgyzstan, one of the greatest things was the hospitality of the people. Despite the language barrier, because we couldn’t speak Russian, we always found welcoming and lovely people, showing happiness to meet foreign visitors in their country. So, my suggestion is, if you plan to visit this beautiful country, learn some Russian words in advance so you can interact more and make the experience even more interesting. And then pack your hiking shoes, rainproof clothes, some toilet paper and you are all set for a fantastic travel in Kyrgyzstan!20190721_071941

Myanmar

Sometimes on your travels you encounter people who give you precious insight into local life and food for thought. Then a young guy from a tiny village of Inle Lake appears. While we were walking around the Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon, he asked me so many questions about my beliefs, my feelings and my expectations in life: questions you wouldn’t expect from a person you have just met, and that caught me off guard. “What do you think about when you have free time?”, “Have you ever felt jealous?”, “What are the most important things for you?”. I realized that our way of life is so different. Every morning he takes at least 30 minutes of self-reflection to meditate about different aspects of life. He has a strong will and determination and he is studying hard to learn English because he wants to achieve some important goals in life: he wants to be able to communicate with foreigners and learn from them, he wants to travel, he wants to improve his financial situation to support his family. For me he represents very well the changes that have recently started to take place in Myanmar, this country that has been quite isolated and ruled by an oppressive military junta for decades. He wants to be an example for the next generation, although he believes that it will take time to change things, also because people are unaccustomed to think or reason for themselves, as they have been imposed not to do so for almost half a century. 

In fact, I decided to travel to Myanmar because I read about its history. I was fascinated by the story and personality of Aung San Suu Kyi P1010926and I hoped that the country was not yet contaminated by mass tourism and its side effects. It was totally worth it, and Myanmar didn’t fail to meet my expectations. Since it has opened up to tourism only very recently, finding online information to plan the trip was challenging, but once arrived in the country I realized that it was really straightforward to organize all kinds of transportation and activities. Information provided by Lonely Planet was often inevitably out of date because everything is changing rapidly. The new Myanmar remains a work in progress: infrastructure can be lacking, historical buildings need care and renovation, there are still conflicts between ethnic groups, it is still a long way to lead the country to democracy and stability. However, I loved the authenticity, poise and dignity of its people. I was touched when, on a number of occasions, people having lunch on the side of the street made the gesture of handing their plate to me to offer part of their meal. And when they approached me timidly because they were excited to talk with a foreigner, even if they couldn’t speak English. And so many times they wanted pictures together – in which they always have a serious look, as it seems they are not used to smile in the pictures.

This is a very different side of Southeast Asia, and fascinating to explore because of its shining temples and pagodas, the culture and the scenery. It has a long coastline with beautiful beaches and hills with trekking possibilities as well, if one has more time to spend in the country, but maybe they could also be useful to have a break after visiting hundreds of temples in a row! 🙂

YANGON, the first impact of Myanmar

There are so many temples and pagodas in Myanmar that you can get tired of seeing them, but  I can tell you, when you first arrive in Yangon and you visit the greatest Shwedagon Pagoda,P1010250 it will certainly blow you away with its beauty, especially when its golden dome reflects the rays of the setting sun. On a full moon day, you will find Shwedagon in a fever of activity, with people getting ready to make offerings, hundreds of monks and nuns, rituals and celebrations. Some people apply golden leaves on the Buddha statues as a sign of devotion, others make devotional acts in front of the planetary post corresponding to the day of the week they were born: there are eight posts around the dome (because Wednesday has two, one for the morning and one for the afternoon), each one with a Buddha image and an animal representing the day, according to the Burmese zodiac. Devotees offer flowers and pour water on the image, with a prayer and a wish. 

The streets around Shwedagon bustle with activity until the evening, when local people eat in the many food stalls. However, when I arrived here on my first day in Myanmar, I had a feeling of relaxation and peace of mind that is not very common in such a big city, especially under the 38° heat in the evening. I had a sugar cane juice at one of the stalls by the roadside, but street food didn’t sound very appetizing, as it looked quite greasy and unidentified.

The first unusual thing that I noticed immediately is that many women had their face covered with a yellowish powder looking like mud in a way, sometimes with patterns resembling an art of face painting. It caught my eye because I had never seen this habit anywhere else. Then I found out that this paste is called thanaka P1010633and it is a traditional powder derived from the bark of certain trees growing in central Myanmar. It is used not only for decoration, but also as a natural sunscreen and it gives a cooling sensation on the skin.

Men wear skirt-like longyis and often have teeth stained red as an effect of chewing betel nut, which is an old tradition in Myanmar. This nut is usually seasoned with flavours and wrapped in a leaf, and locals love to chew it! Sometimes they look like vampires, with bloody teeth and lips, and streets are also red-stained because they spit out betel saliva after chewing for a while. 

Another thing I realized very quickly is that the most dangerous thing in Myanmar, especially in the big cities, is walking, and not only because you should skip the betel stains: the sidewalks are in really bad shape and and you’d better watch out, to avoid stepping into one of the ubiquitous and treacherous holes between broken slabs of concrete. In Yangon the scariest thing to do is crossing the streets, especially those very large streets that are always congested, with hundreds of cars racing and changing lanes continuously. However, you get used to it quickly and other than that, Myanmar is a really safe and pleasant place to visit. 

Despite being the biggest city, Yangon had a special flavour to me also because of its colonial history, that is still visible on the facades of the old buildings in downtown. They often have a decadent and neglected look, but they stand there as a memory of the past, flanked by the modern traffic, lively street markets and glittering pagodas.

The traditional tea shop culture also reminds me of the colonial era. Even in the large city of Yangon there are many opportunities to pop into a tea house. P1010793They are the gathering places of Myanmar people, where they sit on plastic stools on the street and chat, enjoying a cup of tea and food. I tried the tea leaf salad in one of the more modern tea houses in Yangon, the Rangoon Tea House, which is stylish designed and frequently visited by foreigners as well as locals. I really enjoyed this Burmese typical dish, it was fresh and delicious.

Ancient history in BAGAN

One hour flight away from the busy city of Yangon lies the ancient area of Bagan, by far the most magical place I have seen in Myanmar. Here, the atmosphere is totally different: there are no big roads and not too many cars, the streets are peaceful, and it is so silent at night. Bagan is located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River and it is home of an immense archeological site with over 2000 ancient brick temples remained from the original 13000 temples built between the 9th and 13th centuries.P1010344 The temples have different shape and size and are spread around the dry plain, in the middle of a scarce savannah vegetation and gravel roads bordered by bushes. 

Imagine it is 5 in the morning when you jump on the saddle of your e-bike: the air is cold and it is still completely dark; you try to find your way among the paths with the help of a simple map, while other e-bikes buzz around and appear like ghosts from the mist. Then you get lost, you turn into a random path and you suddenly become aware of the imposing shadows standing on both sides of the road, as the mist is slowly lifting and the dark is getting less intense. They stand here and there in a surreal atmosphere: you are surrounded by temples and pagodas, which stand out from the flat landscape like sleeping giants. P1010518At this time of the day, there’s a hunt going on, as everybody is trying to find the best place to see the sunrise over the temples, possibly where there’s an elevation or a small hill with a better view. With sunrise comes the quietest and most inspiring moment of the day; the light reveals the vastness of the plain and the multitude of temples: some of them have been destroyed by earthquakes or time, others have been renovated, but all of them become tinged with reddish and golden brown colors when bathed in sunlight. You can explore the area for days, at the end of which your eyes will be tired of seeing temples, but you will feel so lucky to have been in such unique place. P1010288

However, it’s not all so idyllic in Myanmar and I was quite impressed by the visit to Mount Popa, one and a half hours away from Bagan. This is a very important destination for many local pilgrims, and there is a shrine on the peak of the mountain, which you can reach by climbing a stairway of 777 steps. The drive across the countryside was not the most peaceful, because the further we went, the more beggars we saw on either side of the road. These people were sitting under the blazing sun waiting for cars to pass, and they were children, women, elderly people, all clearly malnourished and suffering. They screamed and threw themselves towards the cars, their voices pleading to show them some compassion. It was really moving and I felt powerless, as there’s nothing I could do to help these hundreds of people, I had no idea who they were and where they lived and why they ended up in that condition. 

The climb to the top of the mountain was also not that pleasant, because the steps were really dirty and not only because of the monkeys along the path. I forgot to mention that when you enter temples or any sacred area you have to take off your shoes and socks and walk barefoot. This is why my first recommendation if you visit Myanmar is always carrying a lot of wet wipes with you, they will save your life 🙂

MANDALAY and monks

Monks in Mandalay love to talk. As soon as you reach the terrace of the pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill, or even on your way up there, you will be approached by young monks who are eager to talk to you to practise their English. P1010620This is a very crowded place in the evenings, when people enjoy the panoramic view and the sunset over the river and the hills. The light is perfect at this time of the day, because the last rays of the setting sun hit the colourful tiles of the pagoda and make them glitter with warm and golden reflections. Monks approach tourists very politely, they ask many questions, they wish they could be able to travel the world as well, and for this reason they are learning English and they want to know as much as possible about us.

The traditions of Buddhism are very strong in Myanmar and every boy is sent to the monastery when he reaches the age of seven or older, to serve as a monk for at least a week. Novice monks start learning the teachings of Buddha and living a monastic life full of regulations, meditation and self-control, as well as education. That is the reason why children of poorer families might spend a long time in the monastery, so they can be supported with food and free education. Still, they don’t have an easy life: they wake up very early in the morning and they walk barefoot around the village to get food offerings for breakfast and lunch. P1010314For locals, offering food to the monks is a way to acquire merits for their future reincarnation. Novice monks study a lot and are very busy with their coursework. After noon, they are not allowed to eat in order to prepare themselves for the evening meditation. However, monks always have the choice to leave the monastery at any time to return to their normal lives if they want.

When traveling through the country, monks in their rust-colored robes are visible everywhere. Not with the same frequency, but still relevant, is the presence of nuns. They are easily recognizable by their pink robes, because otherwise they shave their head completely like men. P1010172Their daily routine is similar to their male counterparts, although they are not allowed to be actually ordained and therefore they hold kind of an illegitimate religious status. Still, the image of these graceful pink dressed girls walking around with their umbrellas against the sun is one of the loveliest I have in my mind from Myanmar.

Down the hill, the city of Mandalay seems to have a different flavour than the rest of the country. Here, the pace is faster, the city has no charme and it has a more modern look with wide and busy streets and neutral buildings. There are plenty of diverse restaurants and cafés to hang out at night, but it all somehow clashes with the darkness of the streets, the dogs wandering around and the broken sidewalks. Today, Mandalay is an important commercial centre for trade, especially with China, as you can see at the Jade Market, where Chinese and Burmese jade buyers and sellers try to find the best deals for their expensive stones. 

Anyways, Mandalay has a couple of real gems. One of them is the Shwenandaw Monastery, a monastery made entirely of teak, which was once part of the original royal palace. P1010570The carvings adorning it are exquisite: they are so refined and meticulous in details, representing dancers, flowers, animals and mythical creatures. Not far from the monastery, at the foot of Mandalay Hill, is the Kuthodaw Pagoda with its 729 satellite stupas, also called “The world’s largest book”. Each of the 729 white stupas surrounding the golden pagoda contains an inscribed marble slab representing a page of the book, whose text was copied from ancient manuscripts of teachings of Theravada Buddhism. This place is fascinating in its peculiarity and the dazzle of the sun on the white stupas is blinding in the middle of the day.P1010593

In the surroundings of Mandalay there is a lot of other places to visit. One of the most famous, and for me also the most disappointing one, is the U-Bein Bridge in Amarapura, one of the former capitals. This is a walking bridge crossing a lake and it is entirely made of teakwood. At sunset it gets assaulted by tourists for the artistic pictures and the place has become a gathering of souvenir sellers. I found the place really dirty and not so fascinating as it was depicted in pictures or reviews. 

I found Inwa much more interesting, and especially the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery. It looks unusual, built of bricks in ochre color, and two majestic Chinthes, Burmese mythological lions, stand in front of the building protecting the entrance. P1010658Inwa was also the capital of Burma and it has a much more laid back atmosphere. It looks like a sleeping lion itself, dormant in the heat of the afternoon in the middle of rice fields, banana plantations, tall palm trees and archaeological ruins eroded by wind, rain and time. I just would not recommend visiting the place on the carts, it is the most uncomfortable means of transport ever!

Sagaing was also the capital in the past. It seems that the kings in this region really liked to move the capital every now and then. This one is really picturesque, located on the western bank of the Irrawaddy River and dotted with multiple buddhist monasteries and pagodas on the hills, it is a centre of Myanmar religious practices and meditation. On a summer morning in late March the landscape appeared a bit spooky, due to the mist coming up from the river. Actually it could have been pollution as well, or smoggy air due to the season when farmers set their fields on fire to burn unharvested crops, as I could see all around the country. The beauty of the place remained partially hidden by this foggy condition, but the sun was still shining bright on the top of the hills, for example where the Soon Oo Pon Nya Shin Pagoda dominates the valley. They say this pagoda is built on a hill shaped like a frog, and the donation box you find there is made in the form of a bronze frog.

INLE LAKE

Water is life, and here life flows entirely on water. Everything floats on the water of Inle Lake: villages whose houses are built on stilts, gardens where vegetables are grown, markets, wooden pagodas, restaurants and handicraft shops. The living communities of Intha people are based entirely on water and this place feels like a different world to the rest of Myanmar.  P1010849People use characteristic wooden canoes to move from one location to another and fishermen steer their boats with a unique rowing style, standing on one end of the boat with one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar, looking like acrobats on water. Between the blue of the sky and the lake, the green of the vegetation stands out and the surrounding hills create an idyllic setting; all this makes Inle Lake one of the most popular destinations for tourists in Myanmar, with all its advantages and disadvantages. 

P1010819I have seen some very disrespectful tourists, dressed inappropriately and not caring about local customs. The issue of the Kayan women is also questionable: the longneck women are well known for wearing those neck rings that lengthen their necks; some of them can be seen in some tourist shops on the lake and when people want to take pictures of them, they happily oblige. It looks like they are there to attract tourists and I must admit, I couldn’t help taking a picture as well, although I would have preferred to sit down with them and ask them questions about their life, but I didn’t do that: the moment I saw them I felt kind of ashamed to look at them with wonder as if they were some kind of show, so I just tried not to stare.

However, it would be really interesting to spend more time here and not passing by so fast, to get more in contact with the people, their unique way of living, rituals and traditions, taking off for a moment the tourist clothes and wearing theirs… For me the day on the boat was over very quickly, ending with a lovely sunset on the lake.

A visit to a pagoda could not miss even here, and there is a spectacular place two and a half  hours drive from Nyaungshwe, it is called Kakku. After crossing hills and small villages, red earth paths in the middle of cultivated fields, you get to this ancient religious site, flanked by some giant trees with enormous trunks. I think Kakku is a hidden gem, one of the best sights I have seen in Myanmar. It is a huge collection of 2478 stupas, arranged in approximate rows in a square area, all around a central golden pagoda, and seems to come out from a fairy tale. You take off your shoes and socks and start roaming around in a dreamy way and getting lost in the jungle of stupas of every shape and size. The walkways are scorching under the midday sun, but you don’t care as long as your attention is continuously captured by different details at every corner, sculptures, shades of pink, white and gold. And suddenly a little breeze blows and all the bells on the umbrellas of the stupas start chiming all together with an enchanting sound. When the wind stops, the heat of the afternoon wakes you up from the dream and you start feeling your feet burning on the ground: it is time to leave again. 

P1010736

Bucharest and beyond

I suppose many of you have mistaken Bucharest with Budapest at least once. I mean, even Michael Jackson did it at his concert, when he began by greeting his Romanian fans from the balcony at the Parliament Palace with an enthusiastic “Hello, Budapest!”. As for me, I never did this mistake but, honestly, I knew absolutely nothing about Romania or Bucharest before leaving for this trip. I had no idea, for example, that Bucharest earned the nickname of “Little Paris” between the two World Wars, due to its elegant architecture with French influence, or that it even has its own Arc de Triomphe.

There is a great free walking tour in town organized by Walkaboutfreetour, which I would highly recommend because it is very informative and enjoyable. I learnt a lot about the city and its history during the tour, including curious stories and facts. 20180729_121417Do you know why you can find clocks on the front of some important buildings in town, like the Central University Library on Piața Revoluției? Well, at the time the German king was pissed off because people in Romania were often late at his meetings, so that was a kind reminder to be on time.

Revolution square might not be that beautiful but it is worth to see for the meaning it has in Romanian history. Here, the communist leader Ceaușescu gave his last speech in 1989, while the revolution was starting right in front of his eyes and led to the end of the regime: Ceaușescu and his wife Elena escaped Bucharest by helicopter, but were captured and executed a few days later. Romanian people had been through so much under the regime’s severe austerity, that Romania was the only Eastern country where the regime was overthrown violently by the people. The Memorial of Rebirth on Revolution Square is meant to commemorate the victims of the revolution, but it actually looks quite confusing and difficult to interpret, as it looks like “a potato skewered on a stake”.20180727_144401.jpg

And what about the Palace of the Parliament? It is for sure one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen. Being the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, it is difficult not to be dazzled by it and by its luxurious salons adorned with huge crystal chandeliers and fine curtains. Nevertheless, it was pretty scary to me when I reflected on its history and its significance. The question that was on my mind all the time while attending the guided tour in the building was: “Why?” What is the meaning of all this and why should all this be necessary? It was too much for me to make sense in that context. In fact, Ceaușescu had the megalomaniacal idea of this construction after his visit to North Korea, where he was impressed by the gigantism of its architecture and wanted to do the same by building something that would represent Romania’s greatness. For this purpose, he ordered to destroy entire parts of Bucharest, including houses, churches and other buildings standing on the area where the new Palace had to be built. Some churches and even some blocks of building were saved from destruction by being literally entirely moved to other parts of town. The Palace is also visible from the moon but, ironically, Ceaușescu was never able to see it because he was shot before the completion of the work.20180729_121743

Just a short walk distance from this crazy palace starts Bucharest Old Town, with its small streets but great variety of renovated buildings, animated and full of life anytime day and night. Here there is everything for everyone: restaurants and clubs of all kinds like the flashy Bordello Bar or the elegant and historical Caru Cu Bere, signs inviting tourists to numerous massage rooms, live music and parties until late at night, and even a whole passage full of cafes where you can smoke water pipe with a variety of different flavors. I didn’t expect Bucharest to have such a vibrant atmosphere.

Also, I would say Bucharest has an eclectic look, in that you can find a mix of architectural styles just right next to each other. 20180727_111304Standing on the same spot and just turning your head around, you can see Art Nouveau buildings, other compounds clearly showing oriental influences from the Ottoman empire, and some ugly square communist blocks.

Some of the orthodox churches in town are really charming, in particular Stavropoleos Church with its elaborate frescos, or St. Anthony church as one of the oldest. In my opinion, the hidden gem is the Patriarchal Cathedral, which is found on a hill not far from Unirii square, a bright and outstanding architectonic ensemble that is not much advertised but a really pleasant spot for a walk and a visit in town. Thanks to my Couchsurfing host Mihaela who told me about it!20180729_115916

Last but not least, Romania is much more than Bucharest, of course, and if you heard about Count Dracula legend, you already have a reason to go to Transylvania and visit Bran Castle, although it is very very touristic. Vlad the Impaler, the real prince who might have inspired the legendary character, is often referred as an hero in Romanian history for fighting off the Ottomans. Of course he was known for killing his enemies in such a brutal way by precisely impaling them on large stakes.20180723_135628

Nowadays, Transylvania is a beautiful region. It has lovely medieval towns, castles and nature. You should not miss Brașov, Sibiu, Cluj-Napoca, and there are many more places we didn’t have time to visit.

Too bad it was raining a lot those days, but the mountains also offer spectacular landscapes.

We were lucky enough to be able to do an easy hike to the mountain peak within the Bucegi National Park. That day, the sky opened up and revealed amazing views on the plateau. Going back down was more of an adventure though: there seemed to be a failure at the cable car to Bușteni, and they would not let people in. Other hikers got really angry and argued in Romanian with the guard, until he gave up and let people in, so we actually went down on a cable car that had been declared malfunctioning, without understanding what was going on.. That was a bit of an eerie feeling, I must say.20180725_193403

Instead, when we arrived at Bâlea Lac after hitchhiking for a couple of hours along the famous Transfăgărășan road, it was pouring rain and the lake was shrouded in mist, kind of a spooky atmosphere. Not to mention the bear that suddenly showed up by the side of the road while we were driving away! He was peeking with curiosity at the cars passing by. If that would have happened in the forest, with nobody around, I guess I would have been scared to death, no idea how I would have reacted. In this case, the bear must have been as puzzled as the humans who were staring at him from behind the windows of their cars, and he left after a few minutes. It seems there are a lot of bears out there in Transylvania, and I can tell you they do look scary! This bear sighting was the highlight of our mountain wandering in Romania but obviously I won’t wish you to have the same experience. 🙂

Senegal

My first time in Africa! I decided to take a trip to Senegal, which is supposed to be a good country in this big continent to start with. Also new for me, I joined an organized tour for the first time, and this was great in many ways but I have the feeling I missed out on contacts with local people. Senegalese people looked friendly and welcoming and the country seemed safe. My overall impression was that Senegal is like a soft version of Africa. Not only easy to travel around and offering good facilities,

20171101_104750.jpg

I think it is also less attractive from the naturalistic point of view than other African countries. It was like having a taste of what Africa is about. We did a small safari in the Bandia reserve where the animals were mostly imported from other parts of Africa, we went bird watching in the famous Djoudj National Park but the pelican colony was the only exciting thing we saw. We visited the Pink Lake that was not that pink anymore, we stayed overnight in a camp in Lompoul desert that consists of just a few dunes, we entered the mosque in the holy city of Touba but it was under construction and it will be for a long time. But still, life in Senegal is as colorful as the dresses of its women and its markets. People are so tall and have beautiful lineaments and posture, the smiles of the kids are lovely. I was really touched by some simple events that happened, which made me think that sometimes we really take many things for granted and we do not appreciate what we have enough. Here, I want to describe the highlights of my short trip to Senegal.

The fish markets

Crowded, vibrant, noisy and especially smelly. The stench hits you like a punch in the stomach as soon as you set foot on the beach or even before, when you pass through the line of colorful ice-trucks that are waiting to be loaded with the fresh catch of the day. And there it is, a bustling sea of people, all of them busy with their tasks in a relentless pace.

20171029_164727.jpg

Hundreds of pirogues come back at sunset fully loaded from the fishing day. The pirogues themselves are a great show as they are painted with the most vivid and eye-catching colors. They slowly move close to the seashore, where a bunch of people are ready to initiate the offloading. Some of them wear waterproof clothes, they jump into the water with big buckets on their head, which get quickly filled with fish that are still moving. The market starts already a few meters back, on the beach. As you walk your way through the crowd, you can see women who cut and sell fish, piles of fish standing out, fishbones, pieces of fish spread out on the sand for drying. A part of the beach is dedicated to shellfish, and you can see a huge mountain of pink shells,

20171029_165911.jpg

like a shellfish cemetery. All of this is spectacular and nauseating at the same time. The smell comes from the rotten fish that is left out there in the sun and gets mixed with the stink of the garbage and the sewage. Mbour has the most popular fish market in Senegal, but you can see other fish markets and the arrival of the pirogues in other towns along the coast. The sea is one of the richest in fish and fish plays an important role also in Senegalese cuisine.

The food

I found Senegalese cuisine simple but tasty. Thieboudienne is a traditional dish made with rice and fish marinated with herbs and cooked with a tomato sauce that gives it a reddish look. Dishes are often served with an

20171104_130831.jpg

onion sauce called Yassa, which is sweet and a little spicy and lemony.

I am a tea lover and I loved the mint tea people drink in Senegal, and the way they prepare it. They use imported green tea from China and fresh mint leaves. Drinking tea is a social moment and the preparation is like a ritual, which involves pouring the tea several times from the pot into the small glasses and from the glasses back into the pot. It is served very hot and with plenty of sugar, which may not seem the most refreshing thing in the Senegalese hot weather but try it, it is just perfect!

Among the fresh juices I loved to drink was the baobab fruit juice, with its sweet and milky taste. I think baobabs very well represent the African capacity to make the most out of each resource: from chewing the rubbery pulp of the fruit to extracting flour out of its seeds, from using baobab leaves for cooking to making a delicious baobab jelly, these trees are really multi-purpose.

Baobabs and Griots

Baobabs are ubiquitous in the savannah landscape and they are extraordinary trees: their trunk is massive and uneven and they can live over a thousand years. The old baobabs often have cavities within their trunks, possibly as big as rooms and used for different purposes, like shrines or even tombs.

20171030_140906.jpg

We saw a baobab in Bandia that may have served as a burial chamber for Griots, whose skulls were still visible inside the cavity. As it seemed, it was a common practice to do that.

Griots are story-tellers in Senegal, they carry on oral tradition with songs, poems and music. Traditionally, they were a social caste, just like blacksmiths, and they could only marry within their caste. In modern times this has changed a bit in bigger towns but Griots still play an important role in Senegalese society, as they sing, play, do celebrations and announcements and they remember and keep the past alive.

People, culture and religion

It is fascinating to see how ethnic groups and religions coexist in Senegal. On Joal-Fadiouth, this island made entirely of clam shells, Christians and Muslims live peacefully together and they are evenburied in the same cemetery, on another very picturesque island also made of shells.

20171030_104456.jpg

The majority of the population, however, is Muslim. The sound of the muezzin calls believers to prayer, and in Touba the singing and chanting reverberates through the whole sacred city. The Great Mosque is one of the largest in Africa, and Touba is the religious center of the Mourides in Senegal. When we got there, it was so hot, with a temperature of 44°, and the sun was reflecting on the marble of the mosque, making everything even brighter. The Mosque was undergoing renovation and decorations works, so most of it was actually covered by scaffolding and the floor was dusty. However, I could feel a strong religious presence permeating this holy city.

Polygamy allows men to have more than one wife, and as a woman it is quite easy to get proposals. When visiting a village I was encouraged by the chief of the village to marry a guy who – he said – was a good catch, because he had just built a brand new hut and he still didn’t have any wife. The driver of our minibus, this huge but placid and soft-spoken man, also asked me to stay in Senegal and become his second wife.

The slave trade

Senegal also witnessed and experienced some very sad and brutal pages in its history. Goree, this little and charming island lying in front of Dakar, was a strategic post for the Atlantic slave trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Men, women and children from Western Africa were held here in inhuman conditions for months, before being traded as slaves and then loaded on the ships to the Americas. The House of Slaves is one of the oldest houses that was kept as a memorial of this dreadful history. The door-of-no-return, at the back of the house, was the point where the

20171104_115001.jpg

ships were waiting, but also the point where slaves who got sick or useless were thrown into the ocean to the sharks. Nowadays, Goree looks so pretty and peaceful, showing these colorful buildings that remind of its colonial past. One would never think that millions of people were traded or died in its dungeons and on the way to the Americas.

Saint-Louis

The most fascinating thing I have experienced in Senegal is the market in Saint-Louis. I was walking through it for an hour only or even less, but it stayed impressed in my memory, and no pictures will ever show it because I didn’t dare to exhibit my camera within that mess. Besides, people in Senegal get really angry whenever you try to take a picture of them without asking, and even when you ask, they will probably say no. However, if you want to imagine this market you should think about a multitude of people, dressed in the most vivid colours, all extremely busy to bargain fervently and loud. You should think about all kinds of vegetables, tamarind, spicy peppers, green leaves and in between fish, both fresh and dry, shiny fruit, fabrics, baskets… imagine the heat and the proximity with all these people and imagine feeling disoriented and intimidated, and kind of lost, but incredibly alive. I really loved this market.

I was not as much impressed by Saint-Louis itself though. It does have a French colonial style and more similarities to a European town, with the modern metallic bridge to cross the Senegal River and get to the historical part of town, but because of this, it is very touristic and people were annoying and insisting too much to sell us things all the time. But I must also say that we stayed for the night in a resort that was only for tourists and it was in stark contrast with the surrounding area, where kids in worn-out clothes were playing on the river bank in the middle of goats and garbage. I was touched by this gap and it gave me a bad feeling about sleeping in that beautiful resort with air conditioning and private beach.

Fighting for a pen

I had a similar feeling on the last day, in Dakar. I was walking randomly on the streets near the market with two other girls of the group. Before leaving for the trip we had been told we could bring some clothes for kids or even pens and notebooks would have been appreciated. We had given away most of these things in two villages we visited, but one of the girls still had some pens left in her bag and we thought we would ask around to women with kids, if the kids went to school, we would give them a pen. We were walking on quite empty streets so when we saw the first two kids, we gave them one pen each, and they were so excited! But immediately after, a bunch of kids of all ages

IMG-20171031-WA0003.jpg

materialized seemingly out of nowhere, and assaulted us, screaming and fighting each other because they also wanted to get a pen. They became more and more, and we had to run away very fast because they were chasing us and becoming a bit aggressive. That was quite a scary experience, but it also touched me deeply because none of our kids would ever need to fight for a pen.

Our driver had a problem with one of his eyes, which got very red in the last days. I had already let him get some of my eye-drops, although they were very simple hydrating eye-drops, but he said they were a miracle because you cannot find such good eye-drops there. So when we arrived at the airport I gave him the complete pack I had left, and he got very emotional, as if I had given him a very precious gift. His big face and his thankful eyes, on that very hot and sticky African evening, are the last memory I have of Senegal and it was certainly worth the trip.

Bali, the island of Gods

The streets of Bali start getting very colorful in the early morning, when women make the first daily offerings to the gods and spirits. This is the thing that immediately catches your eye when you arrive on this unique island: these small baskets made of folded banana leaves and filled with flowers, rice, food and sometimes money are ubiquitous. You find them in front of the houses and the shops, in the cars and on the motorbike saddles and at the crossroads. They adorn the shrines, the sacred statues and the temples. You should pay attention not to step on them while walking, especially if the stick of incense is still burning. Preparing daily offerings takes time and money, and I find totally charming how women pay attention to every small details in the process. The offerings are meant to express gratitude to the gods and appeasement to the evil spirits. The Balinese believe that spirits are everywhere and they are constantly trying to live in balance and in harmony with spirits, gods and nature.  20170606_163643.jpg

What surprised me the most is that people genuinely carry on these traditions and beliefs and that Balinese are so peaceful and smiling and helpful. I felt these good vibes especially during my stay in Ubud, which is considered to be the artistic and cultural center of Bali, as well as one of the energy centers of the world. Everything contributes to make it so magical: the daily practices and ceremonies, the surroundings made of intense green rice fields, the frangipani trees bending over the streets, the uncountable yoga and wellness centers. Of course tourists are everywhere – I was also curious and watched the movie “Eat, pray, love” before going to Bali – and you constantly hear someone offering taxi and transport services when you walk around, but I never found it annoying and it didn’t stop me from soaking up the energy around me.

I met a variety of people during my short stay in Bali, most of them thanks to Couchsurfing, so I could learn about many aspects of life and traditions and hear different points of view. There are loads of solo female travellers, maybe due to the fact that it is a very safe place, and many expats of different nationalities living in Bali. It seems that Bali is still a great and easy place for expats to live in, although it might have changed a lot in the last decades. Some of them move to Ubud for its laid-back lifestyle and spirituality, others to the south of the island to enjoy the beach and water activities or for parties and a faster pace of life. If you are thinking of moving to Bali, just keep in mind that you will not find an electric toothbrush anywhere and you will have to ask an Italian friend to bring you one! 🙂

While in Ubud I was invited by Neyna, a lovely girl from Java, to watch a documentary at Littletalks Ubud, a small library and café by the river. The documentary was showing different aspects of Bali by telling stories of local people. It was quite impressive to see how fast and crazy tourism has grown on the island of Gods. Farmers are strongly pushed to sell their fields to the tourism industry, whic20170609_110451.jpgh is building uncontrollably and changing the landscape, the identity and way of life of Balinese people. There are several organizations fighting this rampant growth and promoting sustainability, organic farms, wellness for farmers and Balinese traditions. I do hope the island keeps its authenticity as much as possible, because that is what I really loved about it.

Jules, a new Indonesian friend I met in Ubud, drove me around on his scooter to the Tegalalang rice terraces and the Pura Samuan Tiga  temple. He is an artist and illustrator and always carries his sketchbook with him, just in case he gets the inspiration and captures a moment in a drawing. The way to Tegalalang is also very picturesque as it is full of art shops and you can see any kinds of handicrafts, textiles, wood carvings, and traditional paintings.

Pura Samuan Tiga is the first temple I visited in Bali. Its name means “the meeting of the three” and might be a reference to the three Hindu gods. There are several courtyards, shrines with elaborate decorations and fearsome statues, and many trees growing in between. To visit a Hindu temple you need to wear a sarong and possibly a scarf around your waist, as a sign of respect.20170605_150351.jpg

Temples are countless in Bali, so I will only mention a few of them I visited. I learned from Jules that each village has at least three. Shrines and religious compounds are everywhere. Festivals nd rituals are held in each temple at different times of the year and this makes it very likely to encounter some kind of celebration going on. I was there on a full moon day and passing through the villages I could see lots of people dressed with colorful ceremony dresses bringing offerings to the temples. 

Balinese traditions and religion make it really unique, also because this little island is the only part of Indonesia where the majority of the population is Hindu. In addition to this, Balinese hinduism has incorporated animism beliefs and buddhist influences. Traditional Hindu gods Shiva Brahma and Vishnu are worshipped but also other forms of gods associated with mountains, sea, rice… people believe in karma and reincarnation; they don’t do bad things, as this would come back to them in this or another life. 

Jules comes from Borneo and is not Hindu but is very knowledgeable about Balinese history and traditions. It was great to hear him talk, and he showed a lot of interest towards other cultures as well. I heard the first time about the traditional cremation ceremony from him. When people die, their body gets burned in a great ritual to send the soul of the deceased to his next life. The cremation ceremony is usually performed on a favourable day and it is also very expensive, so for people of lower classes it is often a mass ceremony. People are usually temporary buried, and only later on cremated, when this ceremony takes place in the village.

In the cycle of life, family members come back after some generations reincarnated in a newborn. When I went to Sanur, in the south of the island, I met Suda, a Balinese guy, with whom I talked more about this topic. He told me that shortly after he was born he was taken to a shaman to ask which among his ancestors he was the incarnation of, and he turned out to be the reincarnation of his gr20170611_172921.jpgeat-great-great-grandfather. He told me that his great-great-great-grandfather also had a mystic experience, in that he went back to life a week after his death, saying that he was rejected when he arrived in front of the gate of heaven: the guard of the gate told him to go back because he was not supposed to be dead yet. Listening to Suda telling about his family and his culture was really fascinating to me.

During my time in Bali I have been asking around several times about Balians, Balinese traditional healers, as I was interested to meet one, but it sounded like many of them had become a kind of tourist attraction and it seemed not so easy to meet a real one. It turned out that Suda could introduce me to a local healer, if only I would have known before, as it was already one of my last days in Bali! However, it was very interesting to hear about them. Many Balinese go to the healer instead of going to the doctor. Of course this is also depending of the kind of issues they have, but sometimes the healer can solve their problems in an easier way than Western medicine. People go to Balians for physical illnesses, as well as for spiritual or emotional problems or issues caused by black magic; in any case, they ask the healer to help them restore their balance that has been lost somehow.

Balians do not choose to become healers, but they are chosen by receiving some meaningful signs as a vision or some healing power, and when this happens they cannot refuse this assignment. Sometimes being a healer can be hard and tiring, as it is their duty to receive people in need anytime and use their healing gifts to help them. They use the ancient knowledge of their ancestors to treat people and they do not necessarily expect anything in return, although it is tradition to make an offer to them.

Another thing that fascinated me in Bali and especially in Ubud was the traditional Balinese house. It is normally formed by several buildings around a central courtyard, and it is surrounded by walls with a narrow entrance. Each house has its own family temple, essential to the several ceremonies and rituals that are performed in the house. Usually many people live in the house because it is home of extended families: for example, when a son marries, his wife typically moves in to his family compound. Family and community are very important in Balinese society and not only the house architecture reflects this, but also the structure of the villages, with each temple located in a precise position according to its funct20170604_124209_001.jpgion. Each family is represented in the local community council by the man of the family, and this organization is responsible of different tasks in the village.

Bali also has a caste system, with four different castes. Most of the population belongs to the lowest caste, Shudra, while the highest is the caste of the priests. People naming system also depends on the caste. It will surprise you how many people are named Made or Wayan for example. In fact, each person receives a name based on the caste and on the birth order in the family. So, in the lower caste the first child is always named Wayan, the second Made, and there are four names in this system, so if there is a fifth child he will also be named Wayan. Balinese are also given other names besides the birth order name and these names can be chosen, anyhow people are often referred to by their birth order name.

There are so many fascinating facts about Balinese life and traditions, and I believe I only learned a few of them. Suda drove me to Pura Uluwatu on his scooter, in a long ride that lasted at least one hour. It is one of the most famous temples in Bali and it is very picturesque in the late afternoon, because the sun sets on the sea and the temple on the cliff is illuminated in a spectacular way. While walking on the cliffs and watching out for the monkeys – one of them even jumped on me for stealing my glasses! – Suda told me he comes to this temple twice a year with all his family, when the temple celebrations are held. The precise dates of these celebrations depend on the 210-day Balinese calendar. However, I must admit I gave up in trying to understand the Balinese calendar, because it sounded really complicated and not even Suda was able to make me understand how it works.

Another must-see temple in Bali is Pura Lempuyang, on the opposite side of the island. It is not very often in the tourists to-do lists because it takes quite some time to reach it and the walk up to the temple is quite adventurous: it consists of 1,700 steps up the mountain, and there are seven temples along the way, in the middle of the jungle and the monkeys. I could only hike as far as the second temple, due to the bad weather conditions on that day. When I got there, there had just been some celebrations because 20170608_220412.jpgmany worshippers dressed in white were going out the temple and the pile of offerings still had the sticks of incense burning on them. During celebrations people pray and cleanse themselves with water and apply some rice grains on their forehead and their throat. The first temple is stunning, because its white color makes it shine at every sunray and its gate facing the valley looks like a gate to heaven. If the weather allows, you can see Mount Agung standing right in front of the gate. It is the highest peak of the island and considered as the sacred mountain and home of the gods by Hindus.

For those who love hiking, climbing Mount Agung is said to be the most challenging but also the most spectacular trek in Bali. As I didn’t have the appropriate gear, I decided to take part in the easier and most popular sunrise trek on Mount Batur instead. This tour is so popular that when you start the climb at night you can see a long line of torch lights heading up the mountain in front of you. I was not expecting hundreds of people going up the mountain at the same time so I was quite impressed by the big business it is. You need to have a guide to do the hike, so do the booking at one of the many agencies offering the tour at different prices. To my surprise, the guide didn’t come with us all the way to the top, but he left us alone to climb the last and most challenging part of the mountain. Overall the hike was not that tough, but the view from the top when the sun started rising from behind the clouds was just breathtaking! We were standing above those fluffy white clouds and we could see the peak of holy Mt. Agung appearing just in front of us, calm and majestic in the first rays of sunlight.20170607_063331-PANO.jpg

If you are planning a trip to Bali, just make sure you get there when you don’t have your period. Climbing the sacred mountains, as well as entering temples is not allowed to menstruating women.

In addition to temple visits, Bali offers more things to do and see, like rice terraces, waterfalls, beaches, huge waves to surf and many possibilities for scubadiving. You can watch a Balinese traditional dance performance in Ubud, indulge yourself with different kinds of massage, and of course try Balinese and Indonesian food in any local warung.

I chose to visit Nusa Lembongan, one of the small islands south of Bali, which can be easily reached by boat from Sanur. It is supposed to be a very pretty and quiet island, but I was very unlucky with the weather on those two days. It was pouring rain most of the time, and this made the unpaved roads become completely muddy and unusable. As I couldn’t go around that much I tried to have a conversation with the Dutch girl staying in the room next to mine, but she said she was there by herself for one month because she didn’t want to meet anyone! Later I had a funny encounter and nice talks with a South African man while sitting at a restaurant for dinner. He had an issue with a tooth and for this he had to find a dentist in Bali. Good thing he was a dentist himself, so he had a good network of connections! The following day I met a Brasilian girl and we had a walk in the forest and got lost on a muddy path, ending up totally dirty and wet, but we had a lot of fun. I find these moments and unexpected meetings so lovely while travelling!

Anyway, that was it for my stay on Lembongan island and it was already time for me to go back to Bali. During my last few days in the south of the island, Sanur and Seminyak, I experienced a totally different Bali. The magic was somehow lost, especially in Seminyak, as traffic was crazy, streets were packed with tourists and lined by souvenir shops, and the feeling was just the same as in every touristic beach town. Prices were really high compared to the other parts of Bali. Of course, for surfers and for enjoying nightlife this is the place to be!

In the south, contrary to Ubud, it is possible to use services like GrabCar to move around. I installed the app and anywhere I was, I would get a car coming within a few minutes to bring me anywhere. In general, transportation in Bali is not that easy because you need to hire a car with driver or a scooter. There are only a few bus lines connecting the major towns.

Fortunately, I got the contact of a very nice driver in Ubud from my friend Mark, whom I want to thank immensely for all his tips, suggestions and information he gave me prior to my trip to Bali, and for his company and support while I was there.

I hope one day I can go back to the island of Gods, but for the moment I am following the news because Mt. Agung, which looked so quiet when I was looking at it a few months ago, has decided to wake up and is threatening to erupt for the first time since 1963. Hopefully, the Balinese intensified prayers and the offerings are appeasing the Gods and keeping safety and peace on the island.

 

India

BACK FROM INDIA

India: a word that summarizes a world of multiple sensations. I have been back home in Italy for a while now and I am still wondering how to describe it.

The impact is strong on all five senses, a whirl of excitement and emotions that isn’t easily described with words.

I can’t forget about the smells: from the waves of fragrances of spicy food to the scent of incenses in the markets, from the malodorous air in the cities to the smelly dirt and the stink of meat and fish left in the sun.

Sounds are overwhelming and make you feel on your guard at all times, so as not to get run over or bump into someone.

Your eyes have to get used to see contrasting things and learn not to care about details like garbage, which is part of the landscape, or beggars, because it is not possible to help all of them.

Rich flavors are a joy but at the same time a challenge for the palate.

The skin sweats and you feel suffocated when some mornings after the rain humidity rises from the ground and surrounds you, preventing you from breathing.

A mix of sensations that are intense but also tiring.

“Did you like India?”

I find it difficult to answer this question, on one hand I can’t say I did, but on the other hand I am still thinking about the vivid images and strong sensations that are impressed in my mind.

A German tourist told me that he noticed huge differences in the country compared to twenty years ago, for example there are almost no bicycles anymore and significantly less blackouts. I wonder what changes will be visible in the next twenty years and if they will be positive or negative.

However, a journey to India leaves its mark. On my return I saw everything from a different perspective, even small things that are usually taken for granted. My first thoughts when I landed back in Italy:

“Hey, I can’t hear anyone honking!”

“There is nobody around!”

“I definitely have to care about not throwing any garbage on the streets”

“And I feel like having a real shower!”

A MULTICULTURAL WEDDING

It all starts with a wedding invitation: my Indian friend Anusha is getting married to her Italian boyfriend Alberto. Before long, it’s the 28th December I am in Bangalore with my travel buddy Daniela and the two days of wedding celebrations have begun.

On the first morning we attend the pre-wedding mehndi ceremony with the bride’s friends and family members. Two skilled women apply henna skin decorations to her hands, arms, feet and legs. The symbolic designs are meant to be a good omen for the couple and the intricate motifs of the bridal henna also hide the husband’s name on one of the arms. Once the women have completed the bride’s decoration, it is our turn to get mehndi applied on our hands. The drawings are so tangled and detailed, but they are quickly done. After a few hours from the application, the brown paste dries and it can be removed, revealing a dark orange design beneath, which will last a couple of weeks.

DSCN1583

The pre-marriage function takes place the same evening in the ballroom at Hyatt Hotel. A presenter gets on stage and ushers in the event in a very Bollywood style, introducing bride and groom and their relatives one by one. She praises their qualities, their studies and careers and their families. It all looks like a TV show where the participants have to stand out and walk on stage in rounds of applause. The public is made up of a great number of guests coming from all over the world, from Argentina to Singapore, from Italy to Korea.

Anusha’s father is emotional and proud, and in his speech he describes this day as one of the most beautiful days of his life. The marriage of a daughter is very important in Indian culture and parents and brothers have organized the events of these days with exceptional precision and attention to details. It’s amazing to see how Alberto’s Italian/Argentinian family mixes with Anusha’s Indian relatives and takes part in the celebrations in the most natural way despite the big cultural differences, and with a great open-mindedness that is not common to everyone.

The official presentations are alternated to singing and dance shows of a famous group that performs on stage with splendid costumes in rhythm with Bollywood hits. At the end of the evening everybody is encouraged to dance and of course Argentinians are the first in line!

The main wedding ceremony takes place the following day, and we arrive late at the Marriot Hotel because of considerable difficulties in putting on our sarees: if the girl at the reception of our hotel hadn’t helped us, we would never have managed!

When we finally get there the bride and groom are already on the wedding altar, which has been built and decorated with thousands of colorful flowers: red, orange, white and yellow. A white cloth is held between them so they don’t see each other. When this is taken away they finally stand in front of each other. She wears a shiny red saree decorated with gold and jewels and she has her hair in a long plait adorned with white flowers. He wears a white suit with golden embellishments and a red turban, like a maharaja. He has a serious and concentrated expression, maybe he is tired or simply intent on remembering the sequence of actions and rituals he has to do. There is a guy standing behind him who seems to be giving him instructions during the several phases of the ceremony.

The intoxicating smell of the flowers and the delirious Indian music playing are making me a little dizzy and the show seems to come out of an old-time movie. The rituals are very complex and involve the couple, their parents and the priest. The father gives his daughter’s hand to the groom, who promises him that he shall never fail in any aspects of married life. The priest directs the bride and groom to the right path through blessings and offerings like coconuts to the gods. He invites them to exchange bracelets and garlands of fragrant flowers symbolizing their unification.

At the end of the ceremony the couple gets off the stage and walks along a path marked by seven heaps of rice and a flower-decorated coconut at the end. The rice and other decorations represent prosperity: to strengthen this symbolism, although I don’t know if I am seeing correctly, there seems to be a credit card next to each pile. After taking vows at each of the seven steps, the couple officially becomes husband and wife.

Now we are allowed to attack the huge buffet, where there are dozens of delicious Indian dishes. Everyone helps themselves to the buffet, and people typically stand next to it holding their plate with the left hand and using the right hand to eat.

When everything comes to an end we say goodbye to Anusha and Alberto, who are dead tired after an endless sequence of pictures and formalities. We head towards the exit, where everybody gets picked up by luxurious cars, but we walk past them and just around the corner we negotiate a ride with the first rickshaw passing by.

RICKSHAWS IN BANGALORE

Bangalore: the capital of the state of Karnataka, known as the Silicon Valley of India. It has a population of more than eight million people. Excluding Bangalore Palace and the Botanical Gardens, there is nothing significant to see, nothing interesting to do. Walking in the streets is not pleasant because of the air pollution and taking some other means of transport you most surely get blocked up in traffic, at traffic lights there are hundreds of cars, scooters and rickshaws.

DSCN1628

Huge mice run happily around through the holes in the dirty sidewalks, and garbage is thrown everywhere to the side of the streets. Commercial Street is the most popular area for shopping; there is a large crowd, countless shops of clothes and jewelry, carts displaying tidy piles of fruit, men barefoot pulling their bikes loaded with coconuts. When a foreigner passes by, every vendor tries to catch his attention, with an insistent “Hello!” and “Welcome”. A few beggars beg for money. They are in poor condition but everybody seems to ignore them.

The first impact on me is heavy, I feel like leaving, everything looks so different. Instead, after a couple of days in Bangalore I get the feeling that walking down these same streets is now so normal. Eyes and mind get used to the sights and the initial fear has disappeared. However, at night it is still different: coming back from the Marriot Hotel it is now past midnight and the rickshaw passes through the commercial area, which is unrecognizable at this time. All shutters are closed, garbage has formed in mountains by now and stray dogs search it thoroughly. By the light of the street lamp they have a mangy, creepy look.

The rickshaw driver has got lost and minutes are passing by slowly while he looks around. It is a characteristic of theirs, rickshaw drivers always accept passengers, even if they have no idea where their destination is. Then, they start going and they ask directions on the way, most often pulling alongside another rickshaw and asking the driver on the run.

We have gained experience in negotiating prices of rickshaw rides by now, and in the city at least we always manage to make use of the meter. The good thing about such negotiations is that it doesn’t matter if a driver won’t give you a fair price or does not want to use the meter, there are many others who will. It is incredible: there is always someone around, anywhere and anytime by day or by night.

After one week in India we also start to understand the gestures. It was very confusing in the beginning when, in reply to some questions, we only got a weird and comical head wobble. Now we know that shaking your head side to side, and not up and down like we are used to, means yes!

We have learned that only the right hand is used to eat or pass objects to others, because the left hand is considered to be unclean as it is  used for impure matters. I buy some coffee in a shop and the girl there is shocked when I hand her the money with my left hand: she tries to explain to me in tamil, her language, that I should not do that and teaches me to use my right hand. Then she calms down and wants to talk to us: “Which country are you from? Italy? Beautiful!”. And she asks if in Italy English is the official language and dollar the official currency.

CHIARA, TAKE ME TO THE HOSPITAL!

We are still in Bangalore, in MG Road (Mahatma Gandhi Road, it seems there is one in every city), a modern area with shops, offices, restaurants and banks. Today we want to go to Ebony, which has been nominated most romantic restaurant in town. The view from the thirteenth floor of Barton Centre is impressive indeed.

After lunch I have a walk by myself in the Commercial Street and I easily get lost in the labyrinth of alleys, which look all the same with no recognizable landmark. So I walk the same way back to the hotel and I find Daniela bent double with stomach pain.

I don’t know what to do, after a couple of hours she is still crying out in pain. At some point she is so desperate that she begs me to take her to the hospital!

I feel my blood run cold: in the same moment I am reading Dominique Lapierre’s book “City of Joy”, the chapter where a rickshaw driver is being taken to a hospital in Kolkata. OK, the book is set in the ‘70s and tells about the poorest people in Kolkata. Nevertheless, the description of the hospital is so terrifying that I am sure of one thing, I want to avoid this experience! Fortunately the stomach pain gets better during the night, and we will never know how modern hospitals in Bangalore look like.

The morning after we read in the local newspaper that a bomb went off near MG Road few hours after we were there. A woman died in the explosion and others were wounded. They mention Islamic fundamentalism and they suppose the bomb was set because of the upcoming visit of Obama in India. Who knows why, I am not touched by this news. Right now I have the feeling time has slowed down and everything is out of place, as if I was never here, or I was here long time ago.

A CULINARY JOURNEY THROUGH THE DELICACIES OF INDIA

After the stomach flu episode, we have a craving for… McDonald’s! All joking aside, I find Indian food very tasty, and I love to experiment different things. However, such spicy food is not easy to eat for someone who is not used to it. In restaurants it is often the case that the only non-spicy dish is french fries.

In fact there are hundreds of dishes you can indulge in. You can choose between vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes – this is very important here – but most of the time the name of the dishes are unknown to us and it takes time to learn.

We start with idli, traditional to southern India: spongy cakes of rice and lentils that are most often eaten with coconut chutney.

DSCN1484Thali, whose name comes from the steel tray it is served on, is made up of a selection of various dishes in small bowls: rice, vegetables, yoghurt, lentils, small amounts of chutney or pickle.

The rice is usually long grained and you can try it with various seasonings, for instance lemon, coconut or butter rice. The spicy version, biryani, is served with vegetables, chicken or fish.

Bread as a side dish is not as common as in northern India, but you can still find many different kinds: naan (I love cheese naan!), but also chapati is very popular, and others like paratha, filled with potatoes and onions.

Fresh fish is clearly very easy to find on the coast. For example in Goa we try mackerel: it is fried with a mixture of turmeric and red chili powder, which gives the dish its bright red color, and the taste is delicious!

Kerala stands out for its fish curries and several dishes with coconut and banana, which grow everywhere.

Coconuts in Kerala are bigger than in Karnataka or Goa. Vendors slice the top of the coconut using a machete, so that you can drink the milk inside with a straw. After that, you can ask them to cut it open to eat the white coconut meat inside, which they call malai. Not all coconuts have it, but you can ask the vendor to choose one with malai.

Last but not least, you can find yummy fresh juice, like pineapple, mango, banana or papaya.

THE COLORS OF MYSORE

Local markets are a must-see in India. The hustle and bustle and the bargaining going on in a street market cannot be conveyed in words. I love strolling through the roads lined by little shops and carts displaying fruits, vegetables, incense, clothes, utensils and any kinds of household tools.

The most picturesque and vibrant market is the one in Mysore, it is a triumph of colors and smells. It is well-known for the colorful and scented flowers, with which women make garlands and various decorations for weddings and rituals and it is a delight to walk by these nuance-rich baskets full of flowers.

There are stands dedicated to colored powders for rituals, piled in pyramid shapes, just like the spices are. And fruit: bunches of bananas, red pomegranates, piles of oranges. Some vendors are immersed in violet onions, garlic and chili. Vegetables are so accurately arranged they attract the eyes, no need for the vendor to call out to customers. DSCN1519

Mysore is a peaceful and clean city – by Indian standards – known as a place to relax. “Let’s chill out in Mysore” seems to be the motto. Here we are hosted by three Indian guys who live out of town, in a big house in a forest of teak trees. Teak wood is very famous and expensive and it is mostly used for good quality furniture.

We are very close to Infosys, one of the biggest IT services company in India. It is a huge area with office buildings, campus and training center and thousands of people work and get trained here.

But not only is Mysore very advanced in software development, it is also a popular tourist destination. It is considered the cultural capital of Karnataka and Mysore Palace is one of the most visited attractions in India, although I had bigger expectations.

I found the view of the town from the top of the Chamundi Hills to be more exciting. The temple on the hill is flooded with worshippers and everywhere you can buy garlands of flowers for votive offerings. A few meters further there is an even older temple where small monkeys run after each other over the walls.

While we climb down the thousand steps of the ancient stone stairway leading back to town, we stop next to the statue of the bull Nandi, five meters high and carved out of a single piece of black granite. We have a glass of fresh sugarcane juice, it is so popular in this region and it is made by crushing sugar canes in a special machine.

WATCH OUT FOR COWS IN GOA!

Our next destination was supposed to be Hampi, an archeological site in northern Karnataka. However, we are deviated by two Indian guys we met, who invited us on a motorbike trip to Goa to spend Christmas on the beach. It is only 300km and it takes approximately six hours, they guarantee. This is how our trip across Karnataka hinterland to the state of Goa begins.

Crossing the country and watching it flow from the saddle of a motorbike: simply extraordinary! Passing through villages off the beaten track we get a glimpse of daily life, religious processions, women in multi-colored clothes, kids running barefoot in the dust. And more: hills with unusual rock formations, followed by flat red soil, stalls along the road where to rest drinking a hot chay, spike fields swinging at dusk.

Driving in India: insane! Extremely dangerous! There are no rules and on the roads you find anything: carts, cows, cars, rickshaws, bikes carrying the weirdest objects, like meter-long pipes.

“What happens if you hit a cow by mistake?” That is a problem, you have to pay back the owner for the damage. Yes, the cows running roaming freely on the streets belong to someone!

“However, we have never seen anyone hitting a cow”, the guys say laughing, and in the meantime it is getting dark.

“How much longer is the way?” “Not too long, we are almost there”.

Two hours later we are getting closer to Goa, which is easily recognizable from the colorful colonial churches and from the Christmas lights and decorations everywhere.

“How long before we arrive?” “Not too long, we are getting there”.

Never trust the Indian concept of time: the six hours driving we expected become twelve and we arrived, dead tired, at the guesthouse in Anjuna.

If it wasn’t for cows and chaos on the streets, I could say the atmosphere in Goa doesn’t look Indian at all. Hippy tourists and many Indians come to Goa to enjoy the beaches and alcohol, which is much cheaper here. Bars and nightclubs are packed and people party all night and sleep on the beach the day after.

DSCN1565The food is eclectic and we take a seat at a restaurant on Vagator beach and have delicious momo for breakfast, a type of dumpling native to Nepal, spiced with a meat or fish filling and is served fried or steamed. It is Christmas day and this is how it is celebrated here, swimming in the sea while a holy cow looks at us peacefully from the beach.

In the late afternoon we get back on the motorbikes to go watch the sunset on another beach nearby. Unfortunately, we will never get there!

“Is everything all right?”, we try to call Daniela and the other guy, who were following us on the second bike and are not visible any more.

“Not really, we have a problem: we hit a cow!”

We could not miss this experience in India: hitting a cow! How scary, my heart is beating fast while we get back to them, and we find Daniela sitting on the side of the road: she is bright yellow! Fortunately she has only light scratches, but I guess you will be wondering what happened to the cow? Nobody knows, it ran away while people were assisting Daniela by covering her scratches with yellow turmeric powder, which is used as a natural antiseptic.

COCHIN CARNIVAL AND KERALA BACKWATERS

Considering that we celebrated Christmas with exhausting motorbike trips and accidents, we expect New Year’s to be quiet. However, when we arrive at Fort Cochin, in Kerala, it’s the peak time of the famous Cochin carnival. People await this festival eagerly and the roads are covered with written messages wishing a happy new year in all languages.

On 1st January nobody works and nobody would ever miss the massive procession scheduled in the afternoon. The parade seems about to arrive at any moment, and the crowd swells quickly. The sounds and confusion increase dramatically. People compete for the best spot: along the roads, on the walls of the church, on the balconies of the houses. They all carry a whistle, which emits an extremely annoying sound like the cry of a strangled animal, and they whistle all together. They’re crazy, these Indians!

After hours of waiting, the elephant leading the procession appears. It is well embellished and accompanied by drums. The crowd is so thick now, that we are overwhelmed and we can only see the head of the elephant passing by. The parade goes on until late in the evening with dances, music, fancy dresses and masks and the town is bursting with enthusiasm for the celebrations.

Fortunately we manage to have a small break from this craziness, having a walk on the long Cherai beach, and strolling by the famous Chinese fishing nets of Fort Cochin. These huge structures of wooden poles hold out 20-meters-large nets, which are counterweighed by stones tied to ropes. It takes at least four men to operate each net, lower it into the water and raise it pulling the ropes. Catches are collected by fishermen and sold nearby, while they still jump in the boxes.

DSCN1674Once the celebrations are over and the excitement diminishes, we are finally able to leave town and enjoy some tranquility. This area between Cochin and Alleppey is well known for the backwaters, a network of lakes, canals and rivers, intersecting like a labyrinth and extending parallel to the sea coast. Hundreds of houseboats cut through water: renting one of these famous boats costs a fortune and tourism in Kerala is all about that.

Only here, sailing through the canals, we are far from the contaminated air and the crazy blare, and this is the main beauty of this place. The driver of our small boat paddles slowly and the only sound to hear is the water gurgling.

Life in the villages looks peaceful, and water is the heart of daily routine: women and girls wash their sarees in the canals, scrubbing and beating them on the rocks; other women wash pots and vegetables; kids splash around cheerfully; men lather and bathe themselves; all this in the same water.

All men wear mundu, the traditional Kerala garment, wrapped around the waist and folded up resembling a short skirt, and they wear a shirt on top.

The landscape around is hardly interrupted by the colorful clothes hanging out to dry: the dark green of the palms bending over the water and the light green of the rice fields moving slightly in the wind are predominant. The water sparkles in the sun and birds rest on trees and light poles, like the Kingfisher, with bright blue and orange plumage.

The flow of time has a different rhythm here, even for those only passing by. When it gets dark I have the feeling I have been sailing these waters since time immemorial.

ON THE BUS ACROSS KERALA

It is eight in the morning and we are at the bus station in Alleppey with our backpacks covered with dust and towards the end of our journey.

?????????????

By now it seems normal to us, having to ask at least three different people to find the bus we are looking for – and still not being sure of the answers we get. Usually we ask policemen, or anyone who looks friendly. Only few of them ignore us, maybe because they don’t speak English, in general we always get a fast and determined answer and help from people. Incredibly, everybody knows everything – at least so it seems.

It seems that in India it is not common to answer “I don’t know” and any answer is better than that. So if you trust the first person you ask you can end up in a place that has nothing to do with what you want.

It is precisely this uncertainty, this trying, asking, trusting or doubting, smiling, interacting in different ways with people that gives me the feeling that in India everything is possible, as it is often said in books or blogs. It doesn’t matter how or when, there is always a way.

At the beginning it is puzzling. For example, we are not used to going to the railway station and not finding the track number written anywhere. Also in this case, asking someone at random, waiting on an alleged track where dozens of other trains stop, fearing to be in the wrong place, and finally hearing someone next to us saying “this is your train”, it is simply amazing!

It is the same today, we ask for the bus to Trivandrum at the Inquires desk. A very rude guy points his finger at one unclear direction, saying with excitement “it’s that one, go!”. We rush to catch that bus, and fortunately it is the right one because it is off like a shot, before we can even talk to the driver.

Travelling by bus in India is spectacular, an experience you won’t forget easily! The bus has a rickety and seasoned look, no windowpanes and full to bursting with passengers. The ticket collector forces his way through the crowd every time someone gets on the bus. And there is a rope hanging along the ceiling: when he pulls it a bell rings next to the driver, which signals that he can start.

The driver is insane, he drives at unthinkable speed on the streets packed with people, animals, cars and all kinds of vehicles. Next to the window my hair is blowing in the wind and I enjoy the view of countless palms while listening to the blare of countless horns!

Honking is normal, but this driver must have an automatic horn because it never stops. Everybody honks to signal their presence and I wonder: if everybody honks continuously don’t people get used to it and doesn’t it become useless? But I am probably still thinking the western way. People honk to other vehicles, to other people, to dogs and cows- do they understand? – and when an accident happens the first question is: “Didn’t you honk?”. Indian trucks are extremely picturesque: so colorful that they look like circus coaches and they always have “Please sound horn/Please honk” written on the rear, as a reminder!

The bus brakes abruptly: it looks like the traffic is slowed down because of an accident. I turn to the opposite window and what I see is an elephant passing by! I try to reach the camera but it is too late. The women sitting next to me laughs out loud, it must be weird for them that someone is so surprised to see an elephant crossing the street. This is India and there is nothing strange about it.

Travelling by bus has been one of the most fascinating things of the Indian adventure. From the window I see the flood of people busy with their daily tasks. When we get close to the bus stops, identified only by a number of people waiting, they jump on the bus while it is still in motion. The landscape flows rapidly and it doesn’t matter if you see something you don’t want to see, images follow one another and they are quickly gone.

Passing through outskirts and suburbs at dawn I have had the most intense impressions, like passing by Toranagallu railway station a few days ago: so early in the morning dirt roads are already packed with people walking barefoot in worn-out clothes. It is difficult to describe the multitude moving around, the place is full of relentless life, which wakes up even before sunrise. The same impression I had arriving to Fort Cochin at 6am the other day: a large built up area next to the railway tracks was formed by small shacks and a mass of people waiting outside, but I don’t have a clue to what exactly they were doing or waiting for. “Poor people”, they told us while pointing at them.

Our eyes are not used to seeing such images and the first feeling is “I don’t want to see this, where did I end up?”, combined with a sort of embarrassment for being a stranger to this world and such living conditions, an instinctive and maybe unfounded fear.

However, on the way from Alleppey to Trivandrum our attention is directed to the stunning nature that characterizes the state of Kerala, a luxurious plantation of palms. We are getting closer to the southernmost point of India. We glance at a line of red flags that hangs on the side of the road and reminds us that Kerala is one of the Indian states where Left parties have the strongest presence.

Trivandrum is a big city that doesn’t look inspiring at all. The bus station is chaotic as usual and this time we are not able to find the bus to Kovalam we are looking for, not even asking around. We know it must stop there, so we ask at a counter and we are told we have to exit the station and turn left. At the next counter we are told there is no bus. A policeman tells us we have to exit the station, turn right and walk two kilometers. Another policeman says that the bus to Kovalam doesn’t stop there anymore. So it looks like they all have an agreement to lead us to catch one of the thousands rickshaws instead of the bus. Finally we give up and accept the first offer we get.

BEACHES AND ANTS

We are in Kovalam after two weeks of travelling in India and we want to treat ourselves to a couple of relaxing days on the most famous beach in Kerala.

Actually there are two adjacent beaches, Lighthouse Beach, the more touristic of the two, and Hawah Beach, preferred by locals. Restaurants, hotels and small shops line up along the touristic beach. Given the narrow space, hotels are arranged one behind the other in a maze of alleys that are not to be seen at first sight. As for everything else, this really looks like a typical seaside town, the only difference is the constant caw of the crows in the background. These birds are very common on the Kerala coast, but it looks like they are particularly numerous in Kovalam.

Bikinis are accepted on the beach, but they attract a lot of attention. Behind the sunglasses we can see how men stare at the female tourists relaxing in the sun. In particular, they seem to appreciate a lot Daniela’s white and very tight bikini and the requests for pictures become more frequent: not only men ask to take a picture with us, but even women! We are pretty sure that our pictures will be shared on all Indian social networks  immediately after. In fact, we will probably be part of some collection, in which there are samples of tourists coming from different countries.

A very brave man, after the usual picture, tries an approach: he musters up the courage and asks Daniela with one gesture if he can sit next to her. After that, he dares paying her a great compliment with the few words he knows in English: “you are very white!”. As he doesn’t see the desired effect, he repeats the compliment: “you are very, very white… and I am black!”. Unfortunately, because of the linguistic barrier – neither I nor Daniela are fluent in Malayalam, the local language – he is not able to get her number and his friends drag him away.

The beach is lovely and, excluding the glances of men and stray dogs coming to sit on our towels, it is a good place to relax before the departure, but as in all touristic places the calm is disturbed by vendors, who insist the foreigners buy all sort of things. I don’t understand how they can think that a backpacker could be interested in buying drums or a peacock feather fan, among other things.

In Kovalam there are voracious ants. That night they are attracted by the smell of the tapioca chips we bought, and not only have they attacked and devoured one of the packages, in the morning I found my bikini all to pieces, eaten and full of holes! I made a massacre of all the ants, no matter what jainists here say about nonviolence!

However, this is the last day, we pack everything into our backpacks, filthy clothes, spices and the tapioca leftovers, and we get ready for the long journey back home, thinking of the places we have seen and the people we have met and this strange country, India.

Mirages of Iceland – Travelling around the Ring Road

Earth, air, water and fire: in Iceland, the four natural elements show themselves in all their magnificence to the eyes of the incredulous traveler. You feel yourself small and powerless in front of such forces of nature, which fascinate and frighten you at the same time.

DSCN3181

We see an active and continuously changing land as we proceed on our journey. “Weather in Iceland is like a woman” says a man in a northern village “it always changes, you never know what to expect”. Similarly, every time the road curves we never know what is coming next: the landscape is different at every turn, in a succession of green fields, desert sceneries, black cliffs rising sheer from the sea, ice, lakes and smoking mountains.

Our trip starts in the southern Reykjanes peninsula, covered by an endless lava flow, clouds of white steam rise from the rocks and break the smoothly continuous landscape, the road leads us to one of the most spectacular places in Iceland: The Blue Lagoon. We plunge into the warm water of this huge geothermal pool. The atmosphere is magic, with the hot steam, the blue water and the white siliceous mud on the dark rocks.

Iceland 171The Classic Iceland’s sights are not to be missed. The next day we are in Thingvellir, walking along the canyons and rifts that divide the North American and Eurasian Plates. Tourists are ready with their cameras, waiting for the next eruption of geyser Strokkur, which happens precisely every few minutes. At last, we are hit by the spray and mist clouds created by the power of the majestic Gullfoss waterfalls, while we look at all the rainbows shimmering over the tumultuous waters.

Leaving the well-known tourist route and venturing to the north we immediately understand why Icelanders strongly advice against driving on inland roads without a four-wheel
DSCN3624 drive. Our illusion to have found a shortcut rapidly disappears: the dirt road we have taken crosses desolate landscapes and becomes more and more uneven until it passes in the middle of two glaciers. The atmosphere gets spooky and the mist coming from the ice surrounds us like an impenetrable fog. Suddenly we see a pink candle twinkling next to the road. It is now clear why people here believe in the existence of elves and fairy creatures. After hours of this lonely travel it is a dream-like vision when the sunlight finally fights its way through the fog and reveals a green and shining valley in front of us.

We arrive to the fiords, where the cold wind never stops blowing, solitary houses stand out in the DSCN3307middle of nowhere, horses run free and sheep always cross the street in groups of three. Now and then a ray of sunshine tears the clouds and reflects upon the calm water. Hrisey, crossed by the 66th parallel, is the island of contrasting colors and landscapes: small houses with sharp and gaudy roofs, the blue sea and mountains with perennial snow in the background. Along the walking paths there are some natural energy spots, sources of energy for recharging yourself in a unique way.

We have been wondering for days if it is only a wrong impression we have, the perception of seeing the skyline curved and exceptionally wide. It is an optical illusion, a mirage common at high latitudes, which explains why the horizon appears to be larger and we have the feeling of seeing beyond limits.

Madness has no limits either in Akureyri, here we experience for one evening the other DSCN3365side of Iceland, a Friday night without inhibitions. But as soon as we reach Myvatn we are back to nature, which rules supreme and uncontested. Lava pillars and pseudocraters dominate the view and surround the lake in a unique landscape being formed by intense volcanic activity and steam explosions when lava flowed over the wetlands thousands of years ago. But the most breathtaking site is the active volcanic area of Krafla: this geothermal field of impressive beauty has boiling mud pools, sulfurous puddles and steaming fumaroles. We keep a respectful silence while we walk on the paths marked on the smoking mountain and we feel the heat of the ground coming up from our feet to our legs. We get caught in the rain and a large rainbow appears at once, DSCN3520embracing the lava fields and the craters.

From fire to water: Dettifoss waterfall is wrapped in a deep fog and we can only hear its rumble in the valley. We move on the slippery rocks until we get to the limit, where the water falls and roars with great power. In that moment, the fog dissolves and reveals a fantastic panorama where the river flows aggressively along the canyon.

After the wild north, the eastern fiords with their vivid scenery and mountain slopes covered in flowers convey peace and tranquility: we run free towards the sea on an untouched black beach where the DSCN3589sand has the shape of waves and for a moment we spot the head of a seal peeking out from the blue, but it is quickly gone. Soon the outstanding greenery leaves space to perennial ice in the southeast glacier area. On the Jokulsarlon lagoon huge pieces of thousands-year-old ice break and move away from the glacier, giving birth to milky white and bright blue icebergs. They move slowly towards the sea as in a procession and they are luminous and eye-catching despite the grayness of the cloudy day. Driving further along the Ring Road we come across the remains of a steel bridge that are left there in memory of the 1996 glacial flooding caused by the IMG_7176eruption of a volcano under the glacier. The flood swept away everything with irresistible force and this twisted and broken piece of bridge reminds us once again how powerless we are.

The grassy fields around Vik swing alike, as if they had a life on their own. We have to fight against the wind blowing insistently in order to conquer the black sheer cliffs. The puffins with their bright red beaks are waiting us there and they seem to be immune from the hostile weather: they are small and clumsy as we expected, but they glide on the rocks with graceful agility. Under the screams of thousands of birds, we contemplate once more the midnight sun fading behind the cliffs and we also feel part of the nature of this amazing land, whose mirages will always be impressed in our memories.

IMG_7215