India is not for sissies

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“You have to go to India. Once.” The man next to me, a travel companion, laughs devilishly as he says this to me, as if he is sending me straight to hell. When I announced that I was going to travel to India, another far-away friend typed back: “India? What’s happening? Sick of order, silence and drinkable water?”. Clearly, I was heading the right way.

Delhi. Welcome to India. The taxi driver whose services I requested weeks before I landed is not there yet. He eventually shows up. I quickly understand that you cannot be in a hurry if you’ve just landed in India. It doesn’t help your nervous system. If you feel an extreme urge to be impatient while you’re still at the airport, take a flight to somewhere else. If you decide to stay, no worries, India will cure you from that.

There he is. We don’t drive straight away though. First, he takes me further into the parking where we stop in front of a very shabby version of a car in which a human is covered in blankets, sleeping. His girlfriend. It’s 4 a.m. I look at her as she wakes up and greets me in and hope she has the legal age to drive. She certainly doesn’t look like it. The hotel they drop me off is on a street that looks as if it suffered a bomb attack few hours earlier. Nothing looks like it will be standing for a very long time. Least of all the hotel I step into.

But hey, Delhi has a subway system, as I was to discover the following morning with fresh eyes and a new level of energy  propelled by a hearty curry breakfast. However, if you are a woman, don’t hurry to jump in the same coach as the men. There is a special waiting area reserved just for you, ladies. You can’t really miss it: it’s pink and nicely decorated with flowers. It clearly spells “Women”, too. The subway – now here’s evident signs of development (or of Britishness). And oh, there is a 200 rupees fine if you spit, irrespective of your gender.

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Getting to a subway station is a challenge though: there’s a big wave of creatures in the streets moving on various means of transport that will swallow you whole. Once the headache caused by such failed traffic flow to the first-time visitor comes to an end, it’s actually a magic place to be. Just try to pretend you’re in a roller coaster in an attraction park and you’ll make your life easier. The less thinking involved, the more enjoyable the ride. Don’t hesitate to strike a random conversation with your Indian tuk tuk neighbours (we all become neighbours whenever we get stuck in a roundabout, which is often). They are friendly people and will often want to know from which cast you are and whether you are eligible for marriage.

Also, don’t freeze if that big truck is heading towards your tuk tuk as if it has every intention to smash it. Your driver will probably manage to avoid the collision in extremis. So relax and sit back. Well, just sit back to begin with. It’s a long road home and there are plenty of opportunities for you to have a heart attack in case you missed your first one.

Oh, you decided you wanted to cross the street? Best of luck! In this case you’d have to do the “I surrender” gesture. Simply put your hands up as if you’re giving up on… life, for instance, or stretch them out to give the traffic people a hint that you’re about to commit suicide – you never know they might decide to spare you. Don’t close your eyes though as you attempt the crossing. It may be worth seeing what comes your way. Just in case you have the time to avoid it.

Now that you have made it safely to the other side (of the road), you’ll have to deal with the kids who’ve been chasing you for the past half an hour to take “one photo” with you. Don’t fall for it, it’s a trap. 300 pictures later, you’d be wishing you’d said no from the first time. But they are sweet and it’s so tempting to take those cool pictures with the natives. Read my lips: no. It’s a word that comes in handy in India.

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With my rickshaw driver in the streets of New Delhi

Have you ever felt fire burning down your throat? If yes, you must have had Indian food. The stuff is delicious, mind you, to the point to which no other food will ever be as tasty as you knew it. That is partly due to the fact that your taste buds would have gone numb after your first days in India. Some restaurants are merciful towards (white) tourists and serve a medium-spiced version. Just make sure you look like one.

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Sometimes – keep this one in mind when you go to India. “Sometimes” the train comes on time.” “Sometimes the ATM gives you back your card and possibly also the money.” This gives a heads up to the fact that most of the times things will not work. Not as planned, at least. But this is the beauty of India: it makes you escape the monotony of that reality where most things actually work as expected.

Yes, there are about a gazillion things that are wrong with India. It’s the ideal setting to play the “spot the mistake” game. Garbage bins or garbage collection trucks are nowhere to be seen. There’s a bull standing unbothered in the middle of the platform of the rail station and everyone acts like it’s normal apart from us, foreigners, who keep snapping pictures. There are more beggars and disabled people swarming around you than you would like to see in a lifetime and it’s hard to ignore that little hand asking for money. There’s no denying the fact that India is a very messed up place. Probably the craziest there is. But as a tourist, you still get the opportunity to see past its struggles and discover its beauties (for a small fee). Take advantage of that. Even if in reality you pay ten times more than the locals to go past the queue to do so.

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Agra, Orchha, Jaipur – There is something magical about the sunset in India

For me, the fraction of Northern India that I was lucky to have access to was a thrilling experience. From the crazy tuk tuk rides in Jaipur (the Pink City) or Delhi to “sleeping” on a night train, the evening rituals on the Ganges river in Varanasi, the strangely captivating moment of opening your eyes to the Taj Mahal for the very first time, the surreal mix of dogs, goats, cows and monkeys, all in one corner of a street, the rich cultural heritage and Mughal stories, the stunning architecture, the explosion of scents and colours, the medieval town Orchha and the charming and surprisingly quiet Alipura village , and last but not least, the erotic monuments in Khajuraho, it’s been a long and exciting journey.

This bit of Northern India seduced me beyond words. It pulses with the kind of energy that can only be lived to be understood and appreciated. Land of contrasts by definition, there are many ways to see and look at this strange place because it has so much to offer. And if you manage to see past its countless flaws, you may well fall in love with its peculiarity…So no, this is not a once-in-a-lifetime destination, as I originally thought, but one to go back to over and over again. And one to long for in the meantime.
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Belgium – no safe haven

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It’s a particularly grey day in Belgium. It makes for the ideal background of a funeral. The country mourns its victims today, the ones it couldn’t save from yesterday’s terror attacks. But mourning, a sky that seems to be crying in unison with us, the one minute of silence and the countless hours of anger are not enough. Something has failed again in Europe. Something important. The protection of civilians has taken three blows. There will be long-lasting scars.

While the whole world stands united in anger, stupefaction and frustration facing terrifying events that have come to be recurrent for reasons we cannot truly comprehend, our peace of mind and freedom fade away. Slowly, but surely, we find ourselves in circumstances that many other countries outside Europe have got used to, but that we wouldn’t have expected here a while back.

On the world map, Belgium is not a big country. That’s easy to see. It also shouldn’t lack the necessary resources to invest in the protection of its people, considering that it hosts some of the most important international institutions. Yet culprits slip through irresponsible fingers. Clearly, there are weaknesses.

How is it possible that neighbourhoods such as Molenbeek-Saint-Jean or again Schaerbeek breed their terrorists unhindered? It’s not like the Belgian authorities didn’t have a clue of what was going on there. After all, it is not yesterday that these districts started to make such a bad reputation for themselves. While Belgium is doing pretty well at exporting small arms and light military weapons (with the Middle East as prime market), it also seems to rank as a top exporter of Jihad, with the highest number of foreign fighters recruited by Syria and Iraq. How can these details be missed out systematically (or deliberately disregarded?) in a country of only 30,528 km²? Something is wrong in the picture.

Also, why would any country put the European Headquarters –presumably a main target for terrorists- right in the middle of the city and have a metro run just underneath? I’m sure one day I will get the point of this, but until then, all I see is EU employees being exposed to risk every day along with people who simply live in the area. How is that safe?

Last but not least, how can an international airport become so unsafe few days after a most-wanted terrorist is captured? Wasn’t it potentially the very first building that needed reinforced security, with the knowledge at hand that Salah Abdeslam had friends out there? Had this occurred months later, I would have understood that the Belgian intelligence and Police could have been caught off guard. As such, I struggle.  But it’s always a good thing to put the whole country back in lockdown after people died and many were injured. It gives a strong sense of reassurance. It is an attempt to show that the situation is under control. It isn’t.

I think someone needs a shake. I get red spots when I hear passive, resigned, powerless remarks such as Prime Minister Charles Michel’s: “We feared an attack and it happened”. It sounds as if “oups, we feared a tsunami would strike and so it happened”. This lax attitude is sadly pretty representative of how things “happen” at many levels in Belgium: slowly, painfully slowly. But while I can wait forever for a document to be sent to me by the Commune because they cannot decide whether to mail it in Flemish or in French, other things require immediate action. And now, getting the bad guys is one. No, this is no time to accept things as they come and pat security services on the back telling them they did all they could. Of all evidence, they could and should have done better. This cannot “happen” again. Because some things can be (here it is) prevented.

Luckily, there are services to be grateful for. Less referred to in the press but nonetheless pivotal, the hospitals doubled their staff and deployed all possible efforts in Brussels and throughout Belgium to receive and treat the wounded. Ambulance drivers, medical staff, firemen, Red-Cross and volunteers, donors, the whole country was mobilized to offer help to the attack victims or simply to one another. Solidarity was truly the watchword in the chaos that was 22nd March 2016. Taxis were free of charge in Brussels for the day to help commuters go back home and many people offered car sharing and accommodation when transport means were at a standstill. There is so much potential for good in us, humans.

The reactions extended beyond the Belgian borders. I haven’t yet counted the number of people who made my phone buzz the whole day and flooded my social media pages with their concern for me and their comforting messages. France, Germany, UK, The Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Sumatra, India, United States, Canada – a whole universe of people was there for me offering priceless support. No doubt, multi-cultural, borderless friendship is a true blessing to be grateful for.

I get it: there is nothing more frightening or dangerous or hard to grasp than a human bomb, a being who only lives for the sole purpose to detonate himself/herself in a public place, making sure he/she never quits this world alone. There is nothing more evil and pathetic at the same time. Possibly, there is also hardly anything less foreseeable than the nature and behaviour of such individuals. But I refuse to think that we allow them to outnumber or outsmart professional intelligence and security services.

Today, the sun will not shine over Belgium or in my heart. But after we all bend our heads to keep a minute of silence, we have to stand up again and face tomorrow. And hopefully, we will wake up to more responsible leaders who take better actions and make faster decisions. Belgium, cry, wipe you tears and go back to business. There’s work to do.

Mada in a snapshot

Melancholic lemur

Melancholic lemur

When people think about Madagascar, they think about cute lemurs and huge baobabs. They imagine an exotic land where tourists feed themselves lavishly on papaya and pineapple for breakfast and treat themselves to coco rum as the sun goes down. They imagine green forests and hidden waterfalls. And they certainly cannot pronounce the name of its capital: Antananarivo.

All of this rhymes indeed with Madagascar. But there is so much more to find there. Here is a crash-course into Madagascar and why it left an indelible mark on me.

Madagascar is the world fourth biggest island and is located in the Indian Ocean off the African South-East coast, at Mozambique level. Its separation from the continent makes it truly unique: because of its isolated position, close to Africa yet surprisingly Asian in many respects, Madagascar is home to species that have developed there and nowhere else in the world. In spite of its abundant diversity, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on the Planet. Having suffered 90% deforestation, it struggles to preserve its unique wildlife on the one hand and feed its population and provide them with essential resources on the other. It is a challenged land. It is often the doom of beautiful countries to be also needy.

Cherry on the top, the country does not exactly receive support from its government and corruption is the true currency, much stronger than the Malagasy ariary that make you a millionaire when you convert them from dollar or euro. Because of instability, poverty, poor governance and everything that can go wrong in a God forsaken country, Madagascar tends to be less appealing to the ill-informed tourists.

With no reported traffic lights or street names, Tana (short and affectionate for Antananarivo) could give headaches even to a GPS. A European driver would have to navigate on a sea of hens, zebus (local cows), and humans who constantly feel the urge to cross from one side of what we shall call the “road” to the other, which to me looks more like a suicidal desire than anything else. Yes, Tana is the human jungle.

However, have no fear: Madagascar is an amazingly beautiful place, the sole possessor of some of the world’s one-of-a-kind treasures, a country of farmers and hard-working people. If you love nature, discovery, a  bit of adventure, if the taste of dust does not frighten you and if you hunger for new, extraordinary experiences, Madagascar can hardly disappoint.

What Madagascar desperately needs is tourism and jobs. With tourism, jobs opportunities are created. Most of the restaurants and hotel owners are still French people, but they do employ locals. An increased awareness that tourism brings in money will hopefully also educate people more on the reforestation programmes that have reportedly started throughout the island.

The reality as I see it is rather simple: no lemur, no tourism. Which means there is no other choice but to battle to keep these species alive (90% of the lemurs – which can only be found in Madagascar and some neighbouring islands –  are estimated to vanish forever if urgent action is not taken, aka start planting those bloody trees). Madagascar simply cannot afford to lose this tourism opportunity. Its people depend on it. Hopefully, again, this will also become a governance priority with traceable results. Right now, the country seems to be more kept afloat by the support of dedicated NGOs which, as I imagine, have not only the hard task of righting the wrong, but also fighting the authorities on the way.

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I have seen some of the most beautiful faces in Madagascar (the Malagasy are an interesting mix of Asian and African genes), trekked canyons and changing landscapes, bathed in crystal blue waterfalls, watched spectacular sunsets, tasted zebu in all its cooked forms, held hands with the locals while dancing by the camp fire, woken up to tens of sparkling rice terraces, went through dust and burning sun and took comfort on the beach, spent my birthday with a lemur on my head (if that is not magic!), enjoyed the local rum, collected hundreds of smiles and memories. Madagascar is no doubt an experience like no other. It is a place of colour and warmth, and above all, an eye-opening destination. I have never been thanked so much for choosing this country over a starred beach resort.

But it is I, the Vazah (white tourist) who am grateful to have witnessed and have been a part of a small fraction of Malagasy life. It is not every day that I get the privilege to wake up in a remote place of the Earth where everything is so different that you’d better forget where you come from and just observe this new universe that develops its wonders in front of you.

Madagascar, you have swept me away with your variety. A much rewarding surprise and nothing short of a treat for the eyes and soul. Merci. Milles fois merci.

Giving Love a Chance

IMG_4142My brain is an awfully selective instrument – breaking news and here here. Somewhere along the way of establishing my reading criteria it decided that books written by female authors displaying the word “Love” in the title were not of a burning interest to me. This is one of the reasons I have been postponing reading “Eat, pray, love” indefinitely, for instance , in spite of some passionate recommendations. Maybe because the storyline is all too familiar to me. Just by looking at the title, I feel that I already know what’s inside the book, and so the time manager side of my brains whispers: why would I invest time into reading something that is not new to me? The “L” word signals that there will be something cheesy, flowery and very girly that I am widely not interested in investing time into. Clearly, I had mentally labelled this type of books and carefully stored them in my own personal category of “Not my thing”. And I was very much convinced that that’s where they would stay.

Luckily, Waterstones (bless them for being open on Sundays) put “Love with a chance of drowning” into the “travel writing” section – my favourite part of their building. Headed for holidays, I decided I could do with a no-brainer, a type of read that wasn’t going to ask much of me. “Funny” – one of the reviews said. In an act of rebellion against my ready-made ideas, I become spontaneous, buy the book and give my too-serious self a kick in the “give me a break” pit. “I want to be girly. It’s my holiday”.

“Love with a chance of drowning”, as it turns out, is an exceptionally well-written book. It is so exciting, fun and vibrant that it drags you into the author’s world of exceptional adventures completely and that is precisely what I appreciate about a good book: the gripping effect. I enjoyed getting lost in those pages so much that the book became my mornings’ delight, a great companion to join me for my 6 a.m. coffee during my time in Ifaty, Madagascar. Caught in the flawless post-card picture that reunites coconut tree with the deep blue of the sky and ocean, the sun dancing gently in my hair, I sipped freshly brewed liquid at Chez Cécile and turned one page after the other. And even though my reality was simply perfect then and there, the book managed to snatch me away.

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For this is a book one cannot put down. One that will make you frown at a friend who wants to join you for coffee (and I think I must apologize here if such thing happened) and deter your attention away from the wonderful adventure that Torre and boyfriend are living on the Pacific ocean that makes the pages so alive. One that you will remember, because of the unique, honest and thrilling writing style. This is a true story, a love story, yes, one that is skillfully rendered through a personal mix of words. Torre DeRoche is inspired enough not to exaggerate on the romantic side of the story, but focuses more on the funny and adventurous journey of a girl who is afraid of the Ocean yet ventures into the Pacific to follow her significant other, discover the world and ultimately herself.

A very charming account of a trip of a lifetime experienced first-hand and narrated by a seriously talented writer. Love…all the way and a great travel read.

Check also Torre DeRoche’s blog Fearful Adventurer.

The Changing Face of Europe

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Not long ago, merely 13 years, I took a chance: I left my (at that time) non-EU country, Romania, and decided I would be a European citizen living in Belgium. To me, that meant a wide open space of possibilities, diversity, travel and freedom. No borders. Romania was not yet absolved of all the special conditions imposed by the Union on the newly-entered countries when I took the Belgian nationality and embraced my new identity as a European.

Today, this space that I and many others integrated for  the benefits and privileges it so alluringly offered has become a place of confusion. This is not what I imagined. Borders are up again. Borders of fear. The freedom that the EU promised looks at us helpless, feet in shackles, caged within walls of prejudice. Schengen seems a blurry dream that is likely to fade away with a strong morning coffee.

I look around: people with shattered lives waiting for confused countries to distribute them among each other like livestock. They don’t get to choose. Their sudden presence forces change upon us, one that, as it turns out, we are not fully prepared for. They challenge our level of tolerance at home, our own private values and capacities for acceptance of the other. And they intimidate, scare and even repel some of us in this new process, us civilized, highly educated and sophisticated inhabitants of Europe. But right now, all they want is to live.

Leaders blink blankly and get more confused over numbers. Of human lives. They act as if they’re playing in a new version of the 4400 series – a crowd of people was kidnapped by extraterrestrials, lobotomized and dispatched back on Planet Europe. But they have no superpowers and they’re not even using the ones they have as they should. Incapable of dealing with war refugees who also happen to have a different colour and religion, and not recognizing their changing surroundings anymore, they resort to racist, xenophobic speeches and gun-protected borders. The refugees are coming. Fear, as it turns out again and again, is a dangerous , disabling disease that spreads like fire among the simple minded and turns any sign of intelligence into ashes.

Looking at good old Europe, with its traditions and values becoming as questionable as its future, I see panicked citizens and impressive levels of leadership incompetence. Europa is giving up on its children. Ignoring needy migrants as they drown at its gates. Putting loads of responsibilities on Italy’s and Greece’s frail shoulders. Then scapegoating Greece. Who believes in the purpose of the EU anymore?

Panicked about a situation it cannot control, one that was nonetheless strikingly obvious and foreseeable, EU decides to share the refugees among the member states. A remarkable thought, no doubt, with the only disadvantage of not being fully functional. Eastern countries and part of the Central European countries do not exactly have a colonial past nor have they historically been much in contact with other cultures. They emerge from a complicated communist past where any minority was condemned and all good things were white and Christian. A non-neglectable detail when you ask them to take in dark-skinned, Muslim people coming from the “Arab countries” that could have played the evil character in bed-time stories. The politics of open-mindedness has not been duly practised in some of these countries for generations, on account of their borders being…closed to the world until not very long ago. It would be naive to expect them to welcome the refugees with arms wide open. This said, this is not an excuse for not putting humans first.

Poor governance in case of crisis is fertile soil for outbursts of nationalism. Multiculturalism is being questioned and presented as threatening. Although no one has come out in the streets to make an official statement, it has become clear lately that the EU project is slightly failing. At many levels. And unforgivably at human level. While common people hurry to provide assistance in support of the refugees all over Europe, politicians come up with the most derisory remarks.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban suggests that multiculturalism is a threat to the European values. There is nothing more detrimental to our liberties in Europe today than allowing people such as himself to become public influencers. It is bad enough that they go about unpunished. But their words may have a heavy impact on mentalities for years to come and those will be hard to change.

If multiculturalism starts being seen as a danger to Europe, I think many of us should start packing and find another planet to mess up. Because this little community of 28 is by nature multicultural: Romanians, Belgians, Germans – we are NOT the same. But yes, we are white and mainly Christian.

Meanwhile, borders rise up again. Mental borders. Mentalities are closing in. I stand an astounded European citizen who wants Europe and the EU to shake its people off their prejudice and start acting on human principles. Refugees are not a threat, it is the ground-gaining narrow-mindedness and anti-migrant propaganda that threaten our freedom in Europe today. Century-old universities that produced tons of top-of-the-class thinkers and we get to listen to derogatory speeches that install fear of other people? Decisions whether to host them or not on account of their religion? Europe has clearly forgotten where it comes from and how it has achieved so much. Now it solves migration crisis by building walls. This makes no sense.

Tell your children that multiculturalism is beautiful. That without it, there is no Europe. I still want to believe that Europe can be the place where multiculturalism not only happens, but where it thrives.

In the meantime, winter is coming.

In and out of Lima

IMG_7752Lima. 5 a.m. But first I need to pick up my luggage, which causes me a bit of a stress. Before I get off the plane, a Peruvian lady gives extensive explanations to her relatives travelling from Europe that it is rather common for the luggage to be stolen at the airport. She focuses on this topic for a while until I remain convinced, same as she seems to be, that I must kiss my luggage good bye. She’s a local, so I am inclined to believe that her knowledge of the place and customs is genuine. Besides, she is not the only one who expresses concern about the luggage situation, several people join the conversation. I struggle to dismiss the sound of Murphy’s law whispering in my ear “If anything can go wrong, it will” and wait patiently for my luggage to slide down to me on the conveyor belt. I enter the first phase that leads to sheer panic: be trustful and hopeful. Be desperate is patiently waiting in line.

Long, very long minutes pass by during which many people take the conveyor belt  by assault. It’s a human fortress that prevents me from even having a sneak preview of what comes on that belt. Approaching that area does not seem realistic unless I start distributing punches which I am too jet lagged to do. I have never seen so many people in an airport reluctant to keep a reasonable distance from that belt and allow other travellers to keep an eye on their belongings as well. Peruvians seemed to  have a strong attachment  to the airport conveyor belt and everything on it. It’s a space they are not willing to share, as if they’re all suffering from some long-instilled national trauma: the airport luggage theft.

Even if I had managed to catch sight of my luggage (which was still not the case), I would not have been able to collect it without a fist fight. First early morning cultural shock happens. After a while, there’s only me and very few people left to stare at the conveyor belt.  It is therefore logically the appropriate moment to start to panic: the Peruvian lady must have been right. This time I was sensible enough to carry half of the important belongings in my day pack which I hug dearly. At long last, critically drained of patience and energy, I spot my luggage and collect it happily. It weighs about 23 kilos, which adds to the 10 kilos that make my hand luggage. I load the whole on my 52 kilo frame and start doing the funny walk towards the exit.

There’s a taxi driver waiting for me. I “booked” him and his driving skills, so I feel  slightly VIP-ish. I’m sure he must have had a name, too, but I forgot it completely. I’m deep in evolving jet lag symptoms and I know I will not be concentrating much. The guy looks reliable for a 5 a.m. airport encounter, but hey, doesn’t everyone? I launch a superfluous conversation in Spanish to test his degree of friendliness. He drives me past a deserted and gloomy beach, going through some unwelcoming landscape of a country which doesn’t seem to know what to build where. We reach Miraflores, one the best neighbourhoods by Lima standards, specifically dressed up for tourists – a hub for anyone who can afford it, which technically means no locals. I’m decidedly not impressed by the accumulation of constructions and pray that a strong coffee will fix that. But I arrived in the garúa period, a greyish unfriendly mist which hovers over Lima during winter time, making it look sad and…painfully grey. I am intimately convinced that the city is much prettier under a different light.

The driver is being very kind: he drops me off right in front of my bed & breakfast even though the Police wanted to block his way and declare the road inaccessible. The place I’ll be sleeping in is equipped with a sort of bunker-like security system. Also, hello shabbiness! Yet, the driver insists that this is one of the most luxurious neighbourhoods in Lima. I raise an eyebrow and try not to look overly concerned. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning local time, so I only have the strength to accept things as they come. I go and have breakfast with the intention to rest a bit and explore the city afterwards. But someone is in the mood for engaging me in a conversation: a tour guide; he’s leaving with his group in one hour and thinks I’m one of his. He explains to me loads about the beauties I am about to see and gives me a warm hug: he’s a Quechua – no, not the brand name for the sport clothes, he’s the actual thing, the descendant of the Inca people who occupied that land in the first place. At that early hour and in my semi-conscious condition, I can’t oppose much to this bit of Quechua affection. We would meet about 10 days later and he’d still know my name. Fantastic person.

My room is much less welcoming however: the air is cold and damp and the windows are made in such an original way that they won’t close properly. You can easily push them to open by pressing the upper or lower part, but you will never be able to make them close fully. So I put on some of my warmest clothes (I could have put all of them on, really) and plunge under the blanket, hoping to warm up and have a good sleep that would make me forget I was there.

Lima is not the best place to be jet lagged in. If you are, the chances that you actually see any beauty in it are rather limited. I can reach high peaks of grumpiness when I lack sleep. Or when I wake up after only one hour of sleep and realize it’s still cold and grey. But I pile up my bits of broken motivation and decide to get out of the B&B and go to the city centre: I’m a traveller, my role is to visit. My initial thoughts were to walk there until the receptionist stopped me from doing so.

“No. Taxi,” she said, in a tone that left little room for contradiction.

Taxi it is. She calls one for me that picks me up right in front of the gate and tells me to only take a yellow one to come back. I’m afraid I did not have enough time to accommodate to the reality of the place: these people know what they are doing, hopefully. I’m all about freedom and when I’m given indicators that I can’t openly practice it, I need to take a moment to digest the news. The taxi driver seems to be confused as to why I find myself alone in his car. He repeats “Alone in the city center?” as if he is deaf and not sure he heard the instructions correctly. “Take the boy with you!” and he points to the young man guarding the door to the B&B. “Hum…I think he’s on duty. And I do travel by myself, so this is how it is.” We drive. Before reaching the end of the destination he also points to my camera: “No pictures! Steal camera in city center.” And when he sees other white European tourists walking around the main square, he yells: “Look, go with them! Go!” I’m puzzled as to how to react to this behaviour. Where am I and what have I done?

The first thing I notice while holding on to the bag in which I “hide” my big camera is that everyone else but the few tourists and me looks different: Peruvians are shorter (than me), dark-haired, look strangely similar to one another as if a big family went out for a walk and are modestly dressed. And this is enough conclusions to make me suspect each and every one of them of wanting to rob me of my camera. Talk about standing out of the crowd: I’m the female version of Gulliver and I’ve been stranded in Lilliput!

IMG_7706If I were to be honest with myself, I don’t think that Lima is a nice place to wake up to at all. But then again, it’s easy to get the wrong impression on a place when you’ve only been there for few hours. Maybe Lima did not reveal itself to me at its right value. I won’t be giving the city much credit that day. I am happy to get out of the crowd and look for the taxi place. Yellow they said. My head is too much the mess for me to concentrate on the plate number, so I truly hope the driver I pick is exactly what he pretends to be. I’m lucky, he decides not to kidnap me that day. I run back into my gloomy room (in August, Lima looks worse than Brussels at its greyest) to try and kill my jet lag, which, I end up admitting, is the root cause of the distorted image I have of this very new environment.

Still, I cannot be blamed for my confusion. Imagine this: there are roughly 9 million inhabitants in Lima and there is no metro, subway or train. There’s an estimated number of 300.000 taxis. Which do not really use what is called a taximeter – the price is usually negotiated before you jump in. The yellow one seems to be the most reliable (says a report based on the number of people who actually made it back safe and sound, maybe?). The yellow taxis are the metropolitan ones and are (supposed to be ) licensed. San Isidro, the “chic” district that to me looked like just another pile of buildings, proudly exhibits a 120-metre-high one which Peruvians refer to as a “skyscraper”. Because of the tectonic friction caused by the Nazca Plate working its way underneath the South American Plate, the reasons we have the Andes, Peru is rather exposed to potential devastating seismic activity.  This is not a place to compete for the tallest architectural achievement.

The real problem with Lima is that there aren’t an awful lot of things to do. Because the weather improved, I decided to give the Larco Museum a miss, in spite of it being one of the main attractions on account of a collection of Kama Sutra visuals on ceramic pots. What I did is eat (food is exquisitely tasty in Lima – and nothing beats a ceviche) and hang out in El Parque del Amor, for its merit of being close to the (Pacific) Ocean. And this is where I found the one thing that seduced me in Lima: paragliding.

IMG_7721IMG_7735I watched people flying around for few hours until I decided to queue up and try it for myself. But it was not in the cards for me that day (or the very last day when I returned to Lima either) because the wind changed so I was stuck on solid ground. High and dry.

Lima was easy to leave behind. But Peru was only just starting to unveil its true precious self.

Love Letter to South Africa

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Who would have thought that I’d fall in love with a country? A place that is not mine by birth, a foreign land. Someone once drew the contour of the South African map for me on a wall and years later I found my way to it. Nor have I ever thought that I would end up missing that dry, reddish earth so much that seeing it again turned into an almost physical necessity. I had been warned: “Careful, it will get under your skin!”

And so it did. During the last 3 years I have been there 3 times. There are reasons why the greatest nations have been fighting for it over the centuries: South Africa is  worth fighting for. It is the hardest place to leave behind.

This country is really something else. As this video from the South African Tourism shows (which I personally find exceptionally well done), it is a place whose unique variety awakens all senses. 

South Africa has a special way of making me happy. It is here that I fired a gun with real bullets for the first time (and the first one going off scared the hell out of me). It Is here that I fed a giraffe and felt my hands shaking when I saw the immensity of that gentle, walking tower coming towards me. I spent a sensational week with Wild Coast Horse Back Adventures surrounded by free, un-fenced horses (60 of them), riding while chasing warthogs, cantering across fields and the loveliest sand beaches. This is where I did jumping for the first time, fell on my head and went back on horse a happy, though certainly dizzy human. I bathed in waterfalls and burnt my skin like a lobsters in hilarious and impossible patterns, for the South African sun is merciless with a 30 SPF. I woke up in a tent to water buffaloes running madly in the open veld. I’ve listened to storms and wondered at thunders – there’s a different dimension to them out there. The place granted me the privilege to fulfill some of the, yes, wildest dreams.

South Africa taught me difference. Contrast. It is still raw, though sensibly blooming, an interesting society facing the challenges of a mixed, restless environment with a scarred past that cannot heal. My eyes sparkled way too many times not to acknowledge that South Africa has somehow become a part of me. It gave me the wilderness and the freedom. It showed me the simple, pure way of living and how to look at life from different angles.

I blame it on diversity. With 6 colours under one flag and 11 official languages, 3 capital cities, 2 Oceans, uncountable species of animals on land, in the skies and water, literally all land forms, the numerous types of food and millions of people of all provenance, there’s enough variety for anyone to fall in love with. I will keep on travelling to other places, but deep down I know that this is my heaven on the ground.

For those who have miraculously managed to escape a conversation on South Africa with me, here’s a random list of some of SA’s essentials:

  • Apartheid (racial segregation) ended in South Africa in 1994. It is therefore, a very, very recent event and I’m amazed at how this country has been dealing with its complexities, evolving in such an admirable way (in spite of everything) ever since. Madiba, maybe.
  • Homo Sapiens, our ancestors, are said to have lived in South Africa (and yes, there’s undeniable DNA evidence that we all come from black people – the San or Bushmen). There’s an interesting archeological site/museum in the Johannesburg area called the Cradle of Humankind which is, I believe, worth a detour.
  • The three capital cities are: Pretoria (administrative), Cape Town (legislative), Bloemfontein (judicial). However, Johannesburg is the main economic hub.
  • Nelson Mandela spoke Xhosa, the “click” language, spoken by the first people, the Bushmen (if you’re curious to learn more about the clicks, click here).
  • If someone tells you to stop at the robot, that means a traffic light and it definitely means you are in South Africa.
  • Bartolomeu Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. Bloody Portuguese. They arrived the first, the Dutchies only came second in line. Then came the English and the French. Things got messy.
  • You greet someone with “Howzit?” And everyone is either a brother or a sister.
  • Goodies: braai, pap’n sous, biltong, potje, boereworst, rusk – they all sound strange but are assuredly lekker, man!
  • Heritage Day (24th September) is National Braai Day (everyone’s favourite). Now here’s a nation who believes in barbecue and is proud of it! There is even a braai song.
  • The Indian and the Atlantic Oceans meet at Cape Agulhas.
  • Soweto, where Nelson Mandela lived on Vilakazi street for some years, comes from SOuth WEstern TOwnship. The street is reputed for having hosted two Nobel Prize winners: Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
  • Important: forget everything about those places that produce amazing wine. Chile ranks high, but this is the wine Paradise. Period. Pinotage (cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut/Hermitage) is South Africa’s unique grape variety. Totally braai- and chocolate-friendly!
  • The Big 5 that you want to be spotting are: the lion, the buffalo, the elephant, the leopard and the rhino.

Some of my favourite SA artists and songs:

mandela2I wanted  to mark this Mandela Day by turning my eyes once more towards his country, one that he cherished so much, and  show my appreciation as a traveller/tourist for having discovered it myself. I was in South Africa the last year when Mandela was still alive, although in hospital, and went back few months after his death. I’m grateful to have seen the colours of the Rainbow Nation and to carry them in my heart.

It is also my way of saying “thank you” to people, friends, all those human angels who inspired, encouraged, invited me, spent time with me, took me by the hand and explained South Africa to me, drew maps for me, told me the stories and had me listen to the songs that make me go back again and again. You brought richness into my world. And it stays, wherever I may go. 

“You don’t need a holiday, you need Cape Town”

cape townWords printed on the back of one of those red double-deckers that carry tourists across the Mother City. I turn my head to read them just as I cross a street at Camps Bay and have the unexplainable feeling that someone wanted me to see them there and then. They were meant for me. I had been in Cape Town for less than three hours and that was precisely what I was thinking in that very instant, that Cape Town was all I needed. Some brilliant local Marketing team (South Africans all wizards, hey) had accessed my thoughts and spelled them out for me, set them where I could see them. I never found that bus again to take a snapshot of this, to me, very personal message.

A month later, back to business and with Cape Town very much behind geographically, the feeling stays strong. With everything it has on offer, Cape Town is without a doubt one city I might always miss and long to get back to. One cannot have enough of it. With its unique blend of mountains, Ocean, white sand beaches, wide open plains, the sound of the waves braking against the rocks, the rebel wind always messing up your hair, with its rising, shining and setting sun which brings with it the most creative and mind-blowing colours, the playful clouds dancing on the bluest boundless sky, the infinite water – Cape Town is more, much more than the perfect postcard view. Cape Town has a unique pulse to you it and you can only feel it if you live it. There’s the scenic drive. The roughness and wilderness of the land. The incredible quality and power of light. The negotiated bits of freedom. The mix of people, food, languages and traditions. It hosts the most amazingly arched rainbows. Oh, and there’s also the wine. Cape Town can make you live several holidays (or lifetimes?) into one.

As a tourist, Cape Town is best enjoyed by displaying a laid back and modest attitude. Don’t be the obvious tourist if you can help it. I was most comfortable just carrying my credit card with me apart from the beach items. Remember you’re in-between Europe and Africa and that too many people struggle with serious issues such as hunger in the midst of all that seductive beauty and diversity, so you’re better off not drawing too much attention on your possessions. Discretion and cautiousness are key.

The Incidental Tourist blended together some of Cape Town’s essentials; make sure you don’t miss these ones: http://bit.ly/1RRPyFE. Luckily, for those who don’t want to rent a car or have never driven on the British side of the road, Cape Town has a fairly good transport system and most day activities include pick up and drop off.

Since it was my second time in Cape Town, I made some other discoveries of my own. I had never tried surfing before and was rather convinced I never would, for having been hit in the head and taken off my feet permanently by the strong Atlantic waves whenever I tried to go for a swim. But have no fear, there are many surf schools which are well-trained to make you enjoy the surfing experience. I spent a wonderful few hours with Stoked School Surf. They take you to Muizenberg (pronounce as if the “i” was before the “u”), where the waters were surprisingly warmer. They have you wear this strange suit that weighs at least as much as you do and carry a board that is definitely larger and clearly heavier than anyone my size. And then they have you paddle.

In the Ocean, every single wave seems compelled to break into your face for some reason. Now, I’m not the paddling type of person; this usually requires muscles and vigorous arms, none of which I truly own. During the first 15 minutes I was positive beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would drown and in-between braking waves made solemn promises to myself to ponder more on my choices and the impulses to always try something new. Simply lying in the sun would have been so much more reasonable and enjoyable. Meanwhile, I was paddling against the waves, feeling grateful whenever one just lifted me up and carried me further instead of crushing into me and propelling me back to the shore before I realized what was happening to me. It is one of the most demanding sports I have ever tried.

That until some minutes later I managed to push myself up on my feet and float. I even managed to look left and right and see the waves guiding me, carrying me now gently. I had found balance. Now, once this happens, you’ll probably not want to get out of the water anymore. Not all waves are surfable, I found out. You have to wait for the right one, patiently. And when it comes, you only have few seconds to stand up and enjoy one of the greatest feelings of freedom there is other than a hearty canter. One gets pretty addicted to it. Chances are you’ll find yourself eager to surf another wave, and another and another (and most likely get very dizzy while waiting and looking at them coming) and experience sadness when the instructor waves (haha) that you can only ride a last one before going out of the water. This was money well spent (+/- 45 euros).

surf cape town

However entertaining trying to keep your feet on a floating board and drinking fair amounts of salty water may seem, my favourite activity in Cape Town and surroundings is no doubt wine tasting. If there’s one thing South Africa is not short of, it’s wine farms. Here’s an interesting fact: there are roughly 900 of them in the Cape Town area, half of which within less than 2h drive. Load shedding? Who cares when there’s so much wine to make you forget about it? An estimated 1,400 types of wines are available just for you.

After a classic one day wine tasting tour with Wine Flies, I decided to book a two-day wine tasting tour with the same guys called “The Forgotten Route”. I was completely seduced by this incursion into South African richness and diversity that Wine Flies offers. It would be reductive to view this as a wine drinking experience. The tour is travel in time, an original and unforgettable journey that is informative, entertaining and local. It takes you through vineyards bordered by mountains, you’ll taste sense-awakening red wine and homemade cupcakes, you’ll embark the famous Shosholoza Meyl train and cross the Karoo to Matjiesfontein – a city filled with ghost stories where you overnight and enjoy a braai under a starlit sky (weather permitting). There will certainly be laughter around the fire and good memories to carry back.

In my eyes, South Africa’s Karoo is a place like no other. It’s where freedom becomes an almost tangible reality and exposes its share beauty: endless sky and Earth uniting somewhere in an incredibly far distance. Only there can one understand and appreciate the meaning of deep quietness and the charming eeriness of the wide open.

karoo

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I came back to Brussels with a basketful of sweet Cape Town memories (and a luggage filled with sand from Camps Bay, Llandudno and Clifton 4th beaches which had willy nilly glued to my belongings). I took the aerial cable to reach the top of Table Mountain, this time to discover there was indeed a view – possibly one of the most spectacular in the world (last time I hiked it, but the place was so foggy I couldn’t see my feet), watched the sun setting from Signal Hill (take a ride with the night bus), had seafood, game, potjekos and happily found the curry chicken with pap on the Shosholoza Meyl train (the food is unbelievably good and cheap), listened to Jeremy Loops rehearsing for his concert in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, had Hunter’s Dry on a balcony overlooking Table Mountain, listened to the sounds of Xhosa clicks on my bus rides (use a rechargeable MyCity card for easy travel in the city), saw a shark up close (yes, yes, shark cage diving with a wakeup call at 4 am), and finally visited Robben Island. When in Cape Town one never runs out of options. I know I always have something to come back to.

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On the one side, Table Mountain. On the other, the Atlantic. They melt into one, building on the strength and character that makes this city a breathtaking place. No doubt, Cape Town got into my skin with its range of seductive exhibits. It is a place of unique variety. Apart from the stunning vistas, Cape Town has a lot to come to terms with. But if you are a nature and wildlife lover and still want to be in a city, Cape Town is a hard one to beat.

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I stayed at the Amber Tree Lodge, a most charming hostel I cannot praise enough set in a wonderful location with numerous restaurants and a MyCity bus stop right across the street.

 

Travel solo, but take a book

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Few days back I found myself walking again under –this time – the lighter weight of a familiar load: my blue backpack. Slightly absent minded yet ready to get carried away towards my destination by a habitual combination of metro, bus and plane, something occurred to me for the too many-eth time: I literally started to walk into life with a book in hand. My father insists that this is how I fancied taking my very first steps as a toddler: by furtively grabbing a book and starting off with it in that funny walking fashion that reminds of a rough night at the pub. To give me better balance, dad caught me and put a second book under my other arm. And that was it: walking happened.

Wherever I travel to, trust me to always have a good book for company. I’m one of those people who actually enjoy silence and the possibility of introspection on the road. I like to listen to my thoughts and feed them, cultivate them, let them wander and come back to me deeper than before. During the camping evenings on the Inca Trail in Peru, wrapped up in a sleeping bag, I read “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer in my tiny tent, lighting the pages with a head torch. It felt greatly adventurous under the circumstances if slightly unsettling since it develops on the true story of a young man who discovers the freedom of ultimate solo travel but dies because of it. It is, no doubt here, an amazing read and a ravaging insight into a traveller’s soul that any person who is a wander at heart should dive into, I believe.

In preparation for a travel to Sumatra, Indonesia I started reading “Krakatoa – the Day the World Exploded” by Simon Winchester. Now that enhanced the thrill of the experience I was about to live and gave me a sense of where I was going, if ever my booking left me with any doubts: the Pacific Ring of Fire. The book is a complex account of one of the largest catastrophe’s the world has faced so far – the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, of course – and is sprinkled with a fair amount of local history as well as highlights of the glorious days of the first explorers and colonisers. It is interesting and documented, though rather charmless from a literary point of view. But if you’re headed to Indonesia, you might as well give it a chance.

And ah, South Africa! I first travelled in mind there thanks to the stimulating, romantic and absolutely mind racing stories of one of the best adventure writers alive, Wilbur Smith, and his Courtney series. The man had me dream of this country before I could actually see it. He clearly inspired me to travel there. Or was it Sean Courtney?

Travel mates can be buggers. Sometimes the landscape may not be particularly gratifying and for having counted a long series of leafless trees on a recent trip through the States and Canada I can confirm that watching out the window for long hours will not always leave you breathless. Maybe you’re bored and possibly can’t sleep. In those moments, what you really, really want is to open a book. My personal recommendation is to travel with Bill Bryson.

The first book I read by him was “Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe” and I found myself in the embarrassing circumstance of bursting into laughter in the public transport. So the danger is real and it’s reassuring to know that I was not an isolated case of this new (to me) kind of public embarrassment. As it turns out, there are more of us out there taking the metro with a Bill Bryson book, laughing their heads off and embracing the risk of being mentally labelled as poor innocents: http://bit.ly/1C5P0qL.

Bryson has become a sort of best friend and as it so happens with some best friends who do not live close by, I miss his humour, the enlightened, jovial tone of his stories and his personal travel undertakings which sometimes end in such a wonderfully comic catastrophe. His books are guaranteed to have a gripping, long-lasting effect on me.

I later went on with “Notes from a Small Island” which tells about his discovery and first-hand observations of  Britain and Britishness and continued with “Notes from a Big Country” where he wrestles with aspects of American life. Finally, I have just finished “A Walk in the Woods” and found it exceptional and as close to perfection as a book can get. Bryson is unbelievably gifted when it comes to decorticating details and explaining otherwise unfathomable and hard to describe feelings, thoughts and behaviours. How he puts that into such unique and mesmerising English is a source of wonder and makes me read his sentences again and again. Bill is magic. I can’t imagine anyone reading one of his books and not be immediately turned into a fan.

“A walk in the Woods” is about encounters:

I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the
Appalachian woods I would not be spared. It became evident from the first moment that she was a rarity.

But most of all, it is an invigorating encouragement to go hiking and lose yourself to the nature:

We took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our trousers, and stepped gingerly into the frigid water. The stones on the bottom were all shapes and sizes – flat, egg-shaped, domed – very hard on the feet, and covered with a filmy green slime that was ludicrously slippery. I hadn’t gone three steps when my feet skated and I fell painfully on my ass. I struggled halfway to my feet, but slipped and fell again; struggled up, staggered sideways a yard or two and pitched helplessly forward, breaking my fall with my hands and ending up in the water doggie-style. As I landed, my pack slid forward and my boots, tied to its frame by their laces, were hurled into a kind of contained orbit; they flew round the side of the pack in a long, rather pretty trajectory, and came to a halt against my head, then plunked into the water where they dangled in the current.

Moral of the story: read Bryson and/or travel with a book – it is bound to give you balance.

P.S. Though I firmly believe a book will always fit into a backpack, I might give Kindle a go one of these days to see how quickly I can adjust to modern day travelling. But I do love books in their printed version and what would make me at least as happy as great content is more use of recycled paper in the publishing industry. So that “A Walk in the Woods” can still be possible in years to come.

No Rhino, No Savannah – Donate for #JustOneRhino

We live in a strange world. Old traditions and beliefs are hard to kill. Rhinos and wildlife, on the contrary, are easy to do in. One by one by one, a rhino is poached every 7 hours in South Africa, keeping alive the wrong assumption that the keratin in their horns has miraculous healing properties to fuel the  Vietnamese and Chinese markets , or again profiting terrorism.

#JustOneRhinoWell, there is no such thing as a miracle when it comes to the fate of the rhino, unfortunately. Alone, facing its main and only predator – the man with guns, axes and hatchets – rhinos will disappear off the face of the Earth. Now, take a moment to imagine what that would be like.

You don’t have to be an animal lover to understand that we’re facing a crisis here and that if the rhino goes extinct as a species, this will have a domino effect on the entire African ecosystem. This Planet needs all its species, Mother Nature has an unbeatable logic where everything falls in place and makes sense. Break the balance and we’re all in trouble.

Rhinos ensure plant diversity so that many other animals can survive. They act as “keystone species” in a very complex and meaningful environment. Let rhinos die and you’ll have to witness a totally different South African landscape – a very empty one.

So let’s bring a little contribution to save what is left of the rhino population! The campaign #JustOneRhino has been set up to help translocate rhinos from South Africa where they’re being hunted more than ever (a 50% increase has been registered since 2012) to a safe haven in Botswana. Taking #JustOneRhino there costs $45,000. We need your help to make this happen. There’s a big team behind this project, including Green Travel Media,  Travelers Building ChangeRhinos Without Borders, sponsors and over 120 bloggers from everywhere. We really care about them and hope you care, too!

Here’s another reason why you should donate: when you do, you become eligible to win some extraordinary prizes. This is what you could win, if you donate as little as $20 to support #JustOneRhino.

International Expeditions-  http://www.ietravel.com/ 

10-day Galapagos Voyage for one. Value $5,298
Full Trip Details found here.

Adventure Life- www.adventure-life.com

South Africa Big Five Safari: Kruger & KwaZulu-Natal + Swag Bag for 2 people. Value $5000
Full Trip Details found here.

Cobblers Cove Hotel, Barbados- http://www.cobblerscove.com/

Seven nights bed and breakfast in a Garden View suite. Value $5,187

Yemaya Island Hideaway & Spa, Nicaragua- www.littlecornhotel.com

10 nights’ stay & wellness package for two people at Yemaya Island Hideaway and Spa on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua. Value $5,241

Secret Retreats- www.secret-retreats.com

  • Vouchers for 2 people at Bali Jiwa Villain in Bali, Indonesia.  Value $1,000
  • (2) Vouchers for 2 people at The Scent Hotel in Koh Samui, Thailand. Total Value $3000 ($1,500 for each 2-person package)
  • Vouchers for 2 people at 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, Koh Kong, Cambodia. Value $900
  • Vouchers for 2 people at Flower Island, Palawan, Philippines   Value $900
Sponsors JustOneRhino

For having seen these wonderful, impressive animals in the wild, I refuse to passively accept the fact that I might only see them in pictures one day. So I’m making my donation and try to spread the word…it’s the only power I have in my hands right now. But I’m sure there are many of you out there who can do more. Well, the time is now: this fundraiser closes on 1st March. Donate on the Travelers Building Change website.

Rhino in the sun

Rhino in the sun