I posted this on my Medium page, not knowing if it falls under “Travel Writing” or plain essays. In any case, I’ll cross-post here and hope for the best!
There’s something of an art to balancing over-planning a trip and have it be so much I’ll just wing it that the trip becomes a logistical nightmare once you arrive. And as I didn’t do a wrap-up post for my Southeast Asia Adventure, I’ll let this one stand in its place.
It begins like this…
I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. It had been a rough few months at work, with an overload of “on”: meetings and projects and deadlines, and too little of the quiet, nature-filled and people-free moments that enable me to adequately recharge my batteries. So when the opportunity to visit my uncle in Bangkok over the holidays presented itself, I seized the day, as it were, to carve an itinerary around that visit.
I’m also the textbook definition of an introvert: I avoid parties and am exhausted by small talk and crowds; I’m very careful about who I share my thoughts and feelings with, and I need my “alone time” to recharge and feel human again. I plan and read and write and consider…and I often find destination inspiration from mythology or historical fiction or travel writing. And it seems strange, but I tend to bump into my kind of people when I’m travelling. Once away, there is little time for small talk, and there are usually mutual reasons for being in that place; so conversation, even with complete strangers, doesn’t feel like a burden or a chore. I don’t feel judged or awkward or out of place because, well, I am out of place…so that thing is an immediate known, and it is therefore immediately off the table as a source of anxiety. This is the contradictory and backwards logic which rules an introvert’s life (yet confounds many an extrovert), but also that which makes so many other things accessible in far-flung places.
As we’d come to discover in this part of the world, the fog nestles in the canyons, blanketing the landscape in a dreamy cotton morning, sun warming the day and revealing the treasures that lay beneath. And it’s no exception when we arrive at the bridge spanning the Tara Canyon.
The story goes that the Đurđevića Tara Bridge was put into service just before the Italian army invaded at the beginning of WWII. Built between 1937-1940, it was quite the engineering achievement, earning the title of largest concrete arch vehicular bridge in Europe. Rather than help the enemy reach deeper into Montenegro, one of the project’s engineers sacrificed the bridge by blowing up its main arch and hindering the advance. When this man was ultimately captured, he was executed on the very same bridge he helped erect.
Sad history (and ziplines) aside, the bridge is gorgeous. As
the fog swirls to reveal the canyon below, we are even more excited for the
rafting trip we’ve just booked. So the (birth)day’s adventures are set: rafting
in the morning, hiking Durmitor National Park (Part I) in the afternoon.
It’s rather off-season for the rapids as well, but we enjoy a spectacular view of the Tara Canyon from the river, C takes a dip in the frigid waters (I’m further convinced that Swedes do not feel cold), and we arrive back at our starting point with smiles on our faces and hopes to see the river again at its peak.
It’s late in the day to start a real hike, so we lunch in town, find a reasonable-sounding guesthouse for the evening, and take a nice afternoon stroll around Durmitor’s lake, where Chris is adopted by a local dog and we watch the sun fade over the water, mountains reflecting their tranquil mood in its mirror.
Birthday: pas mal, as they say. Also bonus: this night’s guesthouse ranks many stars above our previous evening’s experience. We’re greeted by a vivacious (!!!) host who not only gives us answers to every question we had but also answers to those we didn’t even know we’d wanted to ask. Suffice to say, we’ll be fully-armed to hike tomorrow, as it’s our last day and a last madcap dash through Montenegro, into Bosnia and back into Croatia to get C to his flight on time.
It’s only at dinner that we realise that each of us had the same thought whilst in the shower: our very friendly host lives with his mother in a little house in a little village and nobody knows where we are. But we meet mom in the morning (she prepares the strange and massive hodge-podge brekkie before we set off), and we’re convinced that they are just Montenegro’s sweetest mother-and-son team.
Erm, one hopes…
The next day: more cool nature, crazy roads, and why I’m going to hell.
Our host sends us off to the other side of Durmitor National Park, pointing us towards a hike he suggests will take approx. 5 hrs round-trip. We guestimate it’s a 4-hour drive from here to Dubrovnik, and we want to make the most of our last day. So we clip the hike a little (I think C feels a little guilty for giving me his cold and then sending me up and down mountains with a head feeling like a wax factory), then wend our way through the moon-like hills of this part of the park, stopping occasionally to gape at nature as it unfolds (several-fold) around us. NB: I could spend days here.
We decide we’ve got time for lunch at another (ok, the only)
roadside place, and also time to do a quick pass by the Ostrog Monastery, a marble
wonder carved into (or superimposed on) the side of a mountain in 1665.
Again we climb a white-knuckling switchback road towards this next really weird
First, the pilgrims. People from all over the world come to this monastery to be blessed. They walk the umpteen bajillion steps, barefoot, to pay homage to the saint, who lays wrapped in a shroud in a cave in the monastery. When you get to the upper monastery (there are two), you are met with a sprawl of humanity, the pilgrims (literally hundreds) sleep on mats outside the monastery (to what end, I’m not clear), and queue to take their turn kissing (and, presumably, being blessed by) the shrouded saint. It’s at this point we decide to enter the monastery to see its intricate mosaics. We apparently get in the wrong queue because as I duck into the cave*, I realise I’m in line to view the saint. Who is flanked by a priest. Who is holding a wooden cross at my face so I can kiss it. And so I panic, wave it away, shake my head, bow a little and say no, thank you. To which he answers, aghast, shocked, maybe pissed off, Vere. Arrr. You. Frrum? in a rolling-rrrr voice that sounds more Count Dracula than priestly. (inside my head is shouting: What. Is Happening???) In my humblest voice, I say, The US. The priest nods. I leave (again, cursing my blue passport and all that it represents). Chris has a hearty laugh. I’m going to hell.
We heathens continue up to the top of the monastery, and into the other cave to view the frescoes, well-preserved in the cave’s cool atmosphere. There are thankfully no more run-ins with priests. All I can wonder is what kind of curse I’ve been dealt, and cross fingers, touch the Ganesha that rests around my neck, and hope the rest of the trip is incident-free.
This bit of adventure takes a tad longer than expected: the book does not account for the harrowing road or the local traffic jam (a herd of sheep). But each little experience adds some fiber to the story, and we still have time to drive through Bosnia (country #3!) en route to the airport. The views are not bad as we go…
Tea in Bosnia, check! Passports stamped, check! Airport, check!
And, like that, the week’s adventure comes to an end. C is en route home and I’m on a bus back into Dubrovnik, and to the port from which I’ll take a ferry up to Split tomorrow and continue my wandering through Dalmatia. Just in time: there are 2 cruise ships in port when I arrive.
Some final observations: Montenegro is a tiny country with a history as meandering and unforgiving as its mountain roads. But it’s also beautiful and packed with terrain I never expected, its landscape reads as if nature tried to use everything in its palate to paint this little part of the world: rocky coastlines and breathtaking canyons and daunting mountains and rolling hills… Wild and rustic and rough around the edges, it’s a little place with a giant heart. In contrast to the attitudes we encountered in Croatia, the locals we met were warm and proud and content. Even in the bustling silliness of Budva, we were warmly received by our hostess.
It felt as though Croatia had somewhat sold out to the cruise ship industry, trading tourist € for a slice of their own heritage. And while Montenegro’s reputation as organized crime central is not a secret, one hopes that the tourism blight that has tainted Dubrovnik’s charm will take its time spreading beyond Montenegro’s coast, sparing the inland the tour buses and selfie-crazed throngs.
One can only hope. And look forward to revisiting the mountains,
hiking the canyons, and maybe having some of that kačamak or cicvara again.
*Ostrog: how they built this is unknown. For centuries, monks and others have used these caves to hide out and hang out doing their meditative retreats (or, erm, whatever else one does when hiding in a cave in a supremely remote location). And so, the enormous marble façade of the monastery is actually built in front of the caves, creating a surreal structure when viewed from below.
Having escaped the throngs, we catch a local bus to take us to the main bus terminal to catch a fancier bus to take us to the airport to get the rental car we’ve hired to get us from points A to Z (and several others, like B, K, S, L, O and D*), and back to again in a week… it’s like a series of semi-strategic moves as we shuttle ourselves to the next square in the game of What’s Next!?
Car, check! Green card that clears us to move freely in and
out of the surrounding borders, check! Snacks, check! And they’re off!
A colleague of mine whose family is from this area had told me that crossing the border into Montenegro is like going back in time 10-15 years. As we wend our way towards Kotor, over the border and through the (hills, villages and gorgeous seaside vistas), I’m reminded of his words as we pass through villages that look as if they’ve been bodged-together from scraps of Soviet-era block housing, brick, medieval limestone, corrugated metal and palm fronds (in not necessarily that order or quantity). Interspersed in the weird architecture are ancient palazzos, churches and other structures, each (IMHO) warranting its own page in Lonely Planet. Kotor is nestled in a rocky, fjord-like bay**; a limestone mountain backdrop springing majestically from the sea. The photos do not even do it justice.
And it’s bustling. Kotor has become both a cruise ship
destination and something of a smaller, sweeter Dubrovnik to the south. Because
we’ve raced a cruise ship here (and there’s another already in port) we’ve
decided to wander around the old town, climb up to the top of the fortress, and
find lodging on the outskirts of town to avoid the bustle (and the congestion)
in the morning.
The old town is a pleasant surprise: its narrow, labyrinthine
streets, now a familiar folly from a few days in Dubrovnik, are softer and
warmer and much more inviting than those to the north. Venetian lions flank
every gate, many a corner and a few fountains dotted throughout the town. So we
wander the alleys, marvel at the cats of Kotor (there are hundreds, perhaps
thousands here – there is even a Cats of Kotor museum down one of these narrow
streets) and bask in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Kotor’s fortress was built into the near-vertical limestone foothills of Mt. Lovćen (which we are to hike tomorrow), and it, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (actually, two: it’s part of the Natural and Cultuo-Historic Region of Kotor as well as the Venetian Works of Defence between the 16th and 17th Centuries). The town itself dates back to Ancient Roman times (Montenegro was part of Dalmatia too), and while the original fortress on the hill was built by the Illyrians c. the 5th Century, the fortress of Sveti Ivan (the one that stands there now), was built some 1000 years later. To get to the top, you first have to navigate to a back corner of the old city, find the guy at the entry gate and pay a fee to enter the city walls (NB: the book said 3€, we paid 8€; we couldn’t determine whether the fee had gone up or the toll-taker was making a side-living fleecing tourists). From there, you begin the climb. To the top, it’s roughly 1200 metres, or approx. 1350 steps.
Did I mention that it’s quite steep?
These city walls are higher than Dubrovnik’s, and perhaps this has kept out the nouveau-posh cafés and trinket shops besmirching its character. But along the way, there are a couple of old men selling water from a bucket and snacks from a blanket laid out on the old stones. Here, it just fits. We’ve come prepared (with water and trail food, but perhaps not expecting the day’s heat: it’s 25 and there’s not a cloud in the sky!), so we slog upwards past the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, noted for reportedly curing plague victims in the 1500s (also noted as the cover shot on Lonely Planet: Montenegro). The trail then continues up to the top, where, from his fortress, the spirit of Sveti Ivan watches over a now-peaceful Kotor.
If my Photoshop skills were better, I’d use them to blot out
the two cruise ship-sized eyesores from an otherwise gorgeous view.
An aside about our itinerary: We had a guide book, some
websites, and a rough plan of seeing as much of Montenegro (and possibly Albania)
as the week permitted. No rules, no reservations, and fingers crossed for
access to Wi-Fi so we could secure a place to crash for the night.
The day: simply wonderful, and we had yet to make it to our (first of many) last-minute choice of lodging, a B&B in a restored 16th Century Venetian Palazzo in the (pick one or more adjectives: adorable, charming, romantic, lovely) exquisite seaside town of Perast. We had this tiny town virtually to ourselves, as the cruise ship folk don’t make it here and the regular tourists have mostly gone for the season. The architecture alone in this little gem is worth a night or two. Did I mention that there were loop-holes in the walls of the room?! (I had to look that term up: these are the slits in castle or fortress walls from which guards can shoot arrows). Ours had, of course, been restored as windows (not needed anymore, as the conquering armies are now safely tucked away in their cell-like berths aboard their floating cities).
The views from our B&B were divine, and in our short
stay we could feel the different moods of this enthralling village: the
nostalgic undertones of the Venetian stone buildings, old and new; the warmth
of the sunset reflecting in a flat-calm bay; the whimsical fog dancing with the
same at sunrise… this is a place that calls one back.
Morning came too quickly, as I wanted to revel in the understated
luxury. I watched the fog play at the water’s surface as the sun warmed the air
and morning dawned another perfect day in Montenegro. Today’s first adventure:
a hair-raising, panoramic, thrill-ride up Kotor’s back road, a narrow, serpentine,
one-lane (2-way) road that winds you up to Mt. Lovćen.
We arrive at the top unscathed and are rewarded with what Google calls “Best View of Kotor.” The rest of the views are not half bad either. For the effort, C wins all the adventure points for this drive! Had I been behind the wheel, I would have ended up pleading for mercy in a corner of one of the road’s 25 hairpin turns. And that was just the morning’s adventure (there’s also a precious resident stray mutt up here that, for some moments, I consider smuggling home with me).
As it turned out, by driving up the snaky road and following Google Maps into Lovćen National Park, we overshot the trailhead and ended up in a parking lot at the top of the mountain. So we did the hike in reverse, first visiting the mausoleum of Petar Petrovic Njegoš (Montenegro’s own philosopher prince. Ish.), the site situated atop Lovćen’s 2nd highest peak, with its breathtaking views of the valley and surrounding mountains. The day was so clear, we could see into Bosnia. And, who knows…Montenegro is so small that perhaps we could even see into Albania. With these views, I guess they wanted to ensure Petar could look out over his kingdom in the afterlife as well.
Beginning with the hike down the 461 steps we had already hiked up, we found a rocky trail that led to dry, grassy fields, and came out on a local road in a mountain village that was quite obviously taking a deep breath after its busy summer season. So we had the outdoor restaurant virtually to ourselves, where we lunched in style on local cheeses and Montenegran salad. They present salad here in sort-of an “assemble-your-own” format, so each meal has been an interactive experience thus far. The local cheese, sir, is divine; the air, fresh; the travellers, sated. And the travellers push on, back towards the top, but not before missing a cue on the trail, ending up back at the park ranger’s station and having to walk along the road we rode in, then meeting back up with the trail a few kms ahead.
All in all, another stellar day. Montenegro is looking like
a winner already.
Tomorrow’s adventure: Budva (the Russian Riviera of the
Balkans) and into the National Parks of central Montenegro. Yay!
*Budva, Kotor, Skadar, Lovćen, Ostrog and Durmitor to name a few…
**while it looks like a fjord, Kotor (like Sydney Harbour and many more like Kotor up and down the European coastlines) is actually a ria, or a drowned river valley that remains open to the sea.
Preface: I had not taken a proper holiday all year. Months of 50+ hour weeks were grating on this wanderer’s spirit. I had planned literally NOTHING for the trip, save a B&B for the first and last days. I had not read the guidebooks. I had not figured out what one does in Croatia or Montenegro or Bosnia and Herzegovina for that matter. But I was on a plane, headed for the Balkans.
Part I: Dubrovnik
I arrive, late and groggy, and foggy from the long flight. Warm sea air and fortress walls welcome me to a new place I’ve read near-nothing about due to a near-overflowing plate of things to do back at home. All work and virtually no play for months make this a much-welcomed holiday (NB: as I begin to write, I am 9 days into a 17-day holiday and have not as yet looked at my work email or read any news.).
I sat and contemplated the upcoming 2 weeks, toes dangling in an aquamarine Adriatic on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, thinking and so it begins:
The B&B here in Dubrovnik is the only place I’ve booked for the trip, and the only “known” knowns at this stage of the adventure are these: my feet are on the ground, there is an old walled city to be explored, and my co-adventurer will arrive at 2100 tomorrow. I am the least-prepared for any trip I have ever taken.
Also, I have never read or watched Game of Thrones. This, I mention, because from the throngs of tourists on GOT tours throughout the city, it’s disturbingly clear that these filming locations were the show-stoppers, and ensuring proper selfie angles were more the goal, than admiring Dubrovnik’s centuries-old and history-rich walls and streets and architectural marvels.
First, Dubrovnik Old Town is gorgeous. Its marble streets are stunning, and the fairytale-esque fortress walls certainly seem less daunting in peacetime than when they were erected – outdoor cafés and gelato shops certainly help. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old city’s fortress walls were built in the 9th Century, re-fortified in the 14th Century, and even further strengthened in the 15th Century. What they hadn’t figured out then was how to protect themselves from a 1667 earthquake that demolished the city, and the 1991 onslaught by the Serbs (ditto). Speaking to any native Dubrovnik-ite, one gets the clear message that the signage throughout the old city about the Homeland War and especially the attack on Dubrovnik in 1991 is there to remind visitors that while GOT is a fantasy world, theirs is an everyday reality. Even 28 years later.
No other metaphor is nearly as apropos: playing something like a Game of Throngs, we walked the old city’s streets and tallied countless steps through the alleys and fortress walls (little did we know that this was only a mere taste of what was to come in the days that followed!), we found what locals consider the best gelato in the city (Peppino’s), the best spot for watching the sunset (atop Mt. Srđ), a quiet place to (cat) nap by the sea, and so many charming little hidden alleys with cats galore.
But 2 days in Dubrovnik is more than plenty, so it was time to move on. Next stop: Montenegro. Kotor first; then, as they say, we’ll figure it out.
*Doživljaj (Croatian/Serbian/Montenegran/Bosnian): n. experience, adventure. NB: I discover that they are not big on vowels here and that many words I’ve tried to pronounce have me sounding like a drunk muppet. Naprijed!
Day 1: Arrival and the beginning of a mini-adventure, in which I meander from Termini (station) to Forum (B&B), arrive in awe of the sheer magnitude of the architecture, and wander about the crowded streets that divide the Fora and lead the throngs to and from the Colosseum.
The evening before, I had boarded a British Airways 747, my frequent flyer miles and some manipulation of schedules landing me in a Business Class seat. A multi-pronged luxury it was, as the past 3 months had been a whirlwind of work and little sleep, resulting in an unintentional avoidance of adulting, and a lack of attention to detail on the home front. When you get home, you’ll have to deal with it all, a somewhat-envious inner voice reminds. That noted, I feel only a bit guilty at the indulgence and glad to leave the gray December New England skies behind if only for a few days.
I arrive groggy, from both a short night’s sleep and more than enough vino plied by the nice airline folk. A Roman day with its crisp and clear blue sky greets me, tho; the relative warmth already seeping into my pores.
Arrival is always a little overwhelming; not knowing the way, the landmarks, the language… It’s mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve eve, my first time in Rome and I’m still semi-embarrassed because it’s a rather frivolous way to end one year and herald in the next. I’m here a day early to shake jetlag and get my sea legs before I meet my co-hedonist. I navigate the uneven Roman streets from Termini station towards my B&B, thankful for Google Maps to guide me because I’m too frugal (read: aghast) to pay the 60€ for a car from the airport. This is a marginally longer commute, but I rather like walking and it’s a nice way to get immediately immersed in a new place on arrival.
I’ve been warned enough of the pickpockets here from the travel blogs I’ve read and all the signage everywhere… Is it such a rampant problem, I wonder, or are they just stoking visitors’ anxiety around being in a Foreign Place? Foreign, being a relative term, as it looks more foreign to me than it actually feels. Decidedly European, I decide on first impression; confirmedly ancient, I then observe, as the Colosseum leaps into view when I turn a corner towards my hotel. There it looms, large and impressive at the end of the via. Another corner, and 3 columns of one of the Fora materialise at the end of the street. Cobbled steps, a fountain (one of hundreds that are scattered throughout the city) flowing with clean, fresh water. 10 more metres and I’m at the B&B, where I see my first ruin up close.
I arrive also
without much of an itinerary, save a map I’ve bodged together to mark recommendations
from friends and sites that look too good to miss. It’s in the spirit of getting the lay of the land that I set
out to wander the neighbourhood to keep occupied and awake enough until proper
Real first impressions: it’s crowded, where crowded is an understatement. I start the journey a little off-put if I’m honest. I don’t want to spend our precious days here waiting in line alongside tour groups. I chalk up the looming mood to cranky, hungry, tired, travel-weariness. But the sites so far are breathtaking: the Colosseum at dusk, the Foro di Augusto glowing in the evening’s light; the Roman Forum across the way; the 35-metre tall Colonna Traiana, with its comic book-looking depiction of the wars between the Romans and Dacians spiralling up its length; the magnificent Typewriter building, the Altare della Patria, whose imposing stature dwarfs the other wonders in this area.** Non male, as they say, for the first few hours…tomorrow, I explore!
Throngs and wonders, a big dome with a hole in it, a creepy crypt, and things that go ka-boom in the night
Day 2: Before C arrives, I’ve got about 5 hours to see some of the sites I’ve plotted on my map. First, it’s the Pantheon – not to be confused with the Parthenon (Athens) or the Panthéon (Paris)! 😂
Like many monuments, the Pantheon is a former Roman temple that now serves as a church (I take a heathenistic moment to ponder whether there are enough congregants for the astounding number of churches in this city). One of the factoids I’ll learn this week is that the dome of the Pantheon is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The astounding fact to me, tho, is that it was built in 126AD and still in pristine condition! And as if to out-do all other fountains I’ll see here, the one in the Piazza della Rotunda is a wonder in its own right.
Speaking of fountains: toss a coin over your (left) shoulder (with your right hand) into the Trevi Fountain, and it will ensure a return trip to Rome (more coins assure both romance and marriage). And over 1m € per year are thus tossed. I’ve read that the €s go to the needy. I’m not hard pressed to fling coins, but I’m pressed hard as I squirm my way to the fountain’s edge, disenchanted by the throngs by the time I’m down there.
On the way to the Pantheon, though, I passed a man playing what I surmise is a hammered dulcimer. He’s set up in front of an elephant bearing an obelisk that sits in front a nondescript church. It’s the little wonders, I remind myself, and not necessarily the big attractions that are some of the most memorable.
After Trevi, I find I’ve still got time, so I head towards the Spanish Steps (when in Rome…). These 174 steps run from the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the the Trinità dei Monti church and are the darling of many a famous movie and song. More fountains; ditto, the throngs: it’s because of the latter that one cannot see any actual steps, and for just a moment I wonder if I’ve mis-stepped in coming here.
Fleeing the masses, I point my GPS in the direction of an Atlas Obscura oddity: the Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, or the Crypts of the Capuchin Friars. This ossuary rivals that of the Catacombs in Paris; what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in creativity. Suffice to say that the artiste took creative liberties in arranging not only the stacks of bones (some 4000 skeletons are (dis)assembled here), but also the various bodies in repose (fully-frocked Friars) and flight (child-sized bodies looking down from the ceiling; skulls with scapula-wings). The walls and ceilings were covered in mandalas and chandeliers, each surface laden with myriad symmetrical designs, all made from individual bones and carefully arranged in gruesome patterns that affected something of a moribund paint-by-number display.
As I wend my way back, I stumble across the We Run Rome road race and flash a 2019 goal to do a 10k (we’ll see!). But first, it’s Pizza for lunch, a trip to a local wine and cheese shop for aperitivo supplies and then back to the B&B to get ready for New Year’s festivities.
Ringing in the New Year, Roman style!
Italians eat dinner late. So an 8:30 dinner is on the early side, but we’ve managed to find some fantastic melanzane parmigiana at a little local place in the piazza near the B&B. New Year’s Eve, thus far: Prosecco and Parmigiana. Next stop, Pyrotechnics.
I’m not a fan of huge crowds or wild New Year’s Eve parties. But since it’s my first in a European city, la Fiesta di Roma is on the docket. It takes place in Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), the grand sports stadium where they once held chariot races and Ludi, festivals for the gods. In its day, the capacity was 250,000. Tonight, I’d estimate there’s 50,000+ modern Romans. We listen to the weird music, watch the bizarre dance and aerial show (a tribute to the ludi of yore?) and ooh and ahh over the fireworks display over the ruins of the Palatine palace. It may be the most dramatic setting for fireworks I’ve ever seen.
The festival goes for 24 hours, but 2am feels like we’ve been up for a week. We make it long enough to purchase a bottle of bubbly from a street vendor (C’s post-midnight haggling is impressive!) and toast to goals and future adventures.
*Jet lag avoidance tip #1: when travelling East, stay up as long as possible the day you arrive, so you go to bed at proper local bedtime in an attempt to fool your body into waking up at a moderately human hour the next morn.
**Among other nicknames for the monstrosity are la dentiera (the dentures, in reference to its white marble in stark contrast to its surroundings) and la torta nuziale (the wedding cake).
I write nearly daily. Sometimes the ramblings are mere crap flung on a page, to unstop a dam and let the quality words out to play. Hopefully. [some of the less-crappy bits are HERE, if you’re curious]
Case in point: I finished this today, a mélange of exasperation, daydreaming and misfit ranting. I’m not sure I like it as much as other things I’ve penned, but the words badly wanted out and I like it enough.
The more I travel, the more I want to see and hear and learn and experience. The more I become a member of a larger sphere of experience and citizenship, the less I feel beholden or attached to this small (and shrinking) one from which I hail. This citizen of the world thing has merit: belonging is a mindset.
And if belonging is a mindset, I need to wonder whether one belongs because they strive to fit a mold. Or: if belonging is an effortless thing, where once you find that place, you won’t want to ever leave, will I find it? Have I already?
And does it become a place to leave once you’re there?
And as I write, I read…in doing so, I stumble across inspiration for the next adventure (and the one after that); in the process, procrastinating by plotting points on a map or two (or 6) and planning the first leg of the next holiday.
Some of the best books read in the past few months (travel, fiction, fantasy that approximates our absurd reality…). Africa, Pakistan, Eastern Europe, Discworld:
Glorious Sundays such as today are meant for forest bathing. And so I go, to break in the new hiking boots, to contemplate my place amidst the trees and forest critters, to indulge my aging pup, to visit my secret cache of wild blueberries, to breathe in the mossy air in hopes of dislodging stagnant words…
I don’t know why, but this made me think of a brilliant Soul Asylum song:
After contemplating even farther-flung possibilities (and deciding they’re not possible within our time constraints), somehow we settle on the Seychelles: warm water in which to dive, jungle to explore, the possibility of seeing interesting critters, some fantastically cool topography…flights, booked!
I arrive on the main island of Mahe first, whisked away by an uber-efficient taxi driver, and am greeted in my hotel room by a towel creature in the form of Ganesha, the elephant-god and my patron saint of sorts, bestowing well-wishes on a weary traveller. He’s my reminder that obstacles may be removed to charm a journey but may also be placed in the way as tests of mettle, meddle and might…all of which one might encounter on holiday in as far-flung a place as a speck of an island in the middle of the Indian ocean.
“Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures.” – Lewis Carroll
The Seychelles are volcanic islands, and as such, where jungle meets beach is displayed in spectacular form. Look inland, and the lush hills remind you of a scene straight from Jurassic Park – you expect to see T-Rex or one of his contemporaries bounding through the jungle brush at a moment’s notice. The enormous granite rocks that jut out of the sand like monstrous dinosaur teeth invite one into the bathwater-temperature ocean (if you dare…).
After a lazy day fending off jetlag, it’s an early airport run to fetch my flight-weary Calvin, travelling companion (and human) extraordinaire, then a dash to the ferry to take us to La Digue, leaving the relative civilisation of Mahe behind: traffic and construction and bustle, the din of a small city bursting at the seams, desiring to be something larger than it ought. Funny that what we call progress ends up shuttering out the natural world in favour of big buildings, motor vehicles and pavement. Regardless, we’ll be back to spend a day here on the other end of our week’s adventurings.
What we didn’t realise at the time was that this lorry would haul us up the mountain later in the week…
We arrive on La Digue on a Sunday. It’s noticeably quieter than Mahe, the town itself (La Passe) bustling in that charming way you’d expect from an idyllic island where there are few cars and everyone gets around by bicycle. And because we haven’t obtained our bikes yet, we walk the 1.2km to the guest house, up and down the hills that are to become familiar this week, “Left! Left! Left!” on the mind, because even though there are very few cars, there are bikes (and European tourists and Aldabra tortoises) to dodge. English colonisation here has left at least one vestige: left-side driving.
It’s during this walk, about half-way to the guest house, where we encounter our first free-range tortoise.
An aside on the Seychelles and the Aldabra giant tortoise: Seychelles is an archipelago, consisting of 115 islands of all sizes, plunked in the middle of the Indian Ocean, east of Somalia (yes, there are the occasional pirates) and north of Madagascar (and unfortunately no lemurs or other primates). The farthest-flung outer islands are 1100+km from where we are. One island, Aldabra, is a World Heritage Site and the Indian Ocean’s answer to the Galapagos. Its native species include the Aldabra Tortoise, some of which have made their way to La Digue over the centuries. Being easy prey and a good source of food for La Digue’s earliest residents, the La Digue subspecies of the Aldabra giant tortoise is extinct, so the ones that remain on the island are the original Aldabra variety, many of which are kept, quite loosely, as pets.
Needless to say, encountering a 200-kilo walking dinosaur as you drag your luggage uphill on a 30° C day (with equal humidity) is more than enough reason to stop for a fresh fruit juice by the side of the road and interact with local (semi)wildlife.
We’re here mostly to dive, but our first full day on the island is spent exploring the world-renowned Anse Source d’Argent. This famous beach (Castaway and Crusoe were filmed here) looks even more unreal in person than it does splattering the pages of every travel mag’s world’s best beaches issue. Je suis d’accord.
To get here, a pleasant bike ride takes us to the southern end of the island, through a vanilla plantation that rends the air a sweet and salty mix. The path to the beach goes by the park’s tortoise pen; a weird sight really, with dozens of the massive reptiles lazing in the sun and engaging with chattering tourists who feed them leaves and grass in a United Nation’s collection of languages.
Then, it’s down some jungly paths which end at the promised Anse. It looks like a lost paradise; a sort of déjà vu, because the beach looks both familiar and surreal mere steps from the throngs of tourists sunning themselves (they don’t show you that on the InstaWeb). But we’ve come south of the equator largely to escape the world at large, so trekking farther south to flee the selfie sticks and instaglamourous beachgoers seemed the right option. Also, the tide was coming in. So we earned some of our adventure points* this day by coining a new water sport: aqua-hiking. The water, waist-deep (my waist) by the time we returned from our exploration, was a refreshing yet balmy bath verging on hot at water’s edge – in hindsight, more than a foreshadowing to what a warming planet had to reveal under the surface.
We’re rewarded mere metres from the selfie-crazed masses: we manage to find a completely empty beach and encounter only a handful of humans between Anse Source d’Argent and the southernmost tip of La Digue. The location scouts got this right.
After the aqua-hike back to the throngs, lazing a bit, and an attempt at sunning ourselves to dry out, we decide to air-dry instead: more biking, up and across the island, to Grand Anse.
An overall fantastic day awarded us our first set of adventure points for the trip: 5 for the aforementioned aqua hiking and discovering deserted beaches; 1 for bikes as mode of transport, navigating the wrong side of the road, and dodging the errant tourist and meandering tortoise; and 1 more for feeding (albeit captive) living dinosaurs, aka, giant tortoises.
*A couple of years ago, C and I devised a system of adventure points to reward ourselves for tackling and completing myriad explorations and adventures. The silly ranking system takes into consideration physical effort, wildlife encounters, natural wonders, vistas, summits, mishaps, getting lost (we do this sometimes), finding unexpected treasures, being gobsmacked by the natural world, getting dirty, getting wet, and other general adventuring. [“let’s go exploring…”]