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

#JustOneRhino – “Rhino extinction is not an option”

Photo courtesy Susan Portnoy - The Insatiable Traveler

Photo courtesy Susan Portnoy – The Insatiable Traveler

I am one of the 120 something bloggers from all over the world who campaign for #JustOneRhino – a fundraiser supported by Green Travel Media and Travelers Building Change. #JustOneRhino, the project we have at heart right now, aims to help Rhinos Without Borders raise money to translocate 100 rhinos from South Africa – where a rhino is killed every 7 minutes (a reality that gives me chills down my spine) – to Botswana, Africa’s safest place for this endangered species so far. The project is steered by wildlife conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert – National Geographic Explorers in Residence and founders of Great Plain Foundations – people who are thoroughly dedicated to saving rhinos from extinction.

Try as we might, it is hard and often beyond our possibilities as individuals to stop the poaching, change mentalities, make people understand once and for all that rhino horns DO NOT have aphrodisiac or healing properties, or efficiently fight against illegal ivory trade. We’re also critically running out of time. Rhinos are disappearing fast: reports show that we’ve already lost 107 since the beginning of the year. We can’t change these numbers anymore. What we can do, however, is move these animals to a place where they can be protected and live.

For this to happen, we need money – “shipping” #JustOneRhino to Botswana costs $45,000. It is pricey and difficult, but it is essential if we want to secure a future for these majestic creatures which are priceless to the African landscape and the savannah ecosystem.

Rhinos have been around for 40,000 years and they need to stay with us. We must give them a chance! Help us to keep them alive, as many as we can. Donate here and contribute to this major importance project that is rhino translocation. In exchange for your contribution, you have the chance to win some extraordinary prizes (see below) – #JustOneRhino is supported by some amazing sponsors, and we are very grateful for their generosity.

These are some of the prizes at stake (but there are more). All you have to do is  donate on the Travelers Building Change websiteYou will receive “tickets” – a $20 donation gives you the right to 10 entries, $30 to 20 entries, $50 to 30, etc. and you get to choose the top 3 prizes you would like to win. The fundraiser closes on 1st March, so hurry up! The prizes will be drawn randomly; the winners will be announced on 3rd March, World Wildlife Day.

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

Will you help us, too, to lift up our rhino and take it somewhere safe? Become a #JustOneRhino contributor – every rhino counts!

Last but not least, no one can give you better insight into why your help is needed than the founders of the project themselves. Have a look and spread the word!

*The quote in the title belongs to Dereck Joubert

Brussels Travel Massive goes L’Amour Fou and De Haus

De Haus, BrusselsTwo weeks ago, our steadily growing group of Travel Massive bloggers, professionals, start-ups and enthusiasts in Brussels gathered for the third time to celebrate Travel. The 13th of January, 2015 gave us a cold, rainy evening, the sort that would prevent most people from going out of their comfort zones. Yet many of us showed up with a fair dose of energy and good humour and we spent some quality, fun time together.

We found the perfect kind of refuge. Our host for the evening was the café/bar L’Amour Fou, my own personal number one burger place in town. L’Amour Fou is first and foremost about fresh, natural, home-made products. This is why everything tastes so good here. The place is always a full house, so if you fancy one of their famous juicy burgers (try Gringo and you’ll want more!), make sure you book in advance. It is also a cultural and musical hub, alternating art exhibitions, vinyl music, workshops, and even movies. One of those one-of-a-kind venues you just fall in love with.

L’Amour Fou gave us the perfect start: they offered us a choice of cocktails, tasty finger foods and generously put on the table two vouchers of 50€ each: one allowing for dinner in their premises, the other to be used in a famous Ethiopian restaurant, KoKoB. Our Brussels Travel Massive participants were invited to enter an Instagram and Twitter competition using the hashtag #bxltravelmassive. The winners of the two gift certificates turned out to be Emmanuelle Hubert and Elena de Marco – both very active at promoting our event online.

Then we went next door to De Haus, where the Gin & Tonic heaven is. Pierre Barbieux, owner of the two places, prepared a Gin tasting session for us, which culminated with a flambéed. What to say about this bar where I now spend most of my Friday evenings? This is where you’ll discover true love and devotion for this wonderful alcoholic invention that is the Gin & Tonic! The place boasts an amazing selection of Gins, among which the floral ones rank high on my list of favourites. But not only: De Haus stands out for its original interior design and the overall laid-back, cosy atmosphere and of course, a really nice and rich food and drinks menu. De Haus “Where the peanuts shells are thrown on the floor” and where you find “Probably the best toilets in Brussels”, as they market themselves, is the Gin-uine experience you just need to dive into. Take note: happy hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 6-8 pm. You’re welcome!

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With two such great sponsors, the evening couldn’t have been better! Thank you for supporting our freshly started Brussels Travel Massive adventure, we all appreciate it!

During the event, I took a step back once in a while, and, camera in hand, was delighted to see that our participants were having a great time in each other’s company and were evidently happy (that was even before the Gin tasting!) to come together and talk travel. Looking forward to our next Brussels Travel Massive event and connecting with even more people from the travel industry! Until then, cheers!

De Haus

A Travel Massive event

A Travel Massive event

Interstellar – the sky is not the limit

Source: imgur.com

Source: imgur.com

Interstellar is no doubt the most powerful cinematic experience I’ve had in a while. Between impressive trailers leading systematically to seriously disappointing movies that always lack that little something (like a main topic or an exciting dialogue) that keeps me hooked on the screen, I might have given up on the possibility to find a truly thrilling movie any time soon. Nolan’s Interstellar gave me hope in the cinema again.

Without disclosing anything of the topic, which could not have been more contemporary, I’d say Nolan has created a mind-blowing movie in terms of visuals, beautifully supported by two exceptional actors. Matthew McConaughey who has kept on dazzling me with one exceptional performance after the other lately (from the monumental and practically unforgettable 5 minutes’ appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street to the flawless interpretation of an HIV dying cowboy in Dallas Buyers Club) is pivotal in Nolan’s tale. Jessica Chastain, timidly marketed by Hollywood still, but shining a powerful light in all her roles – I was particularly impressed with her role in Zero Dark Thirty, a movie, that if you asked me, received much less appreciation that it truly deserved (and I’m sure all Kathryn Bigelow fans will agree) – is once more stunningly natural and convincing here. Two absolutely perfect performances delivered in a supremely intelligent movie filled with exciting scenes and dialogue exchanges on the backdrop of uplifting Hans Zimmer music. What more can one ask from a movie?

When Cooper (McConaughey’s character) struggles to breathe at one point, I feel strangely breathless myself. I count the seconds till I breathe again and hope Cooper will keep on breathing, too. Remaining still in one’s chair is impossible. I’ve seen people bending towards the big screen, visibly alert and absorbing the tension in the same way I did, being part of the action.

The movie literally takes hold of you. This because it has all the ingredients that make one live and feel the movie. Nolan embarks us on a powerful sensory journey. He is possibly not of this world himself, so skilled are his endeavours. The details are fascinating and work together like little stars in a wonderfully sparkling galaxy. I’m always fascinated by how coherent the little bits and pieces, the fragmentary action and flashbacks come together under Nolan directions. He cannot make simple movies, there is no A to B flow, there’s X and then there’s T, Y, and then he throws you into A – sequences unfold irregularly but never randomly in front of our eyes; no one can predict what comes next.

Nolan gives me headaches: his scenes are so filled with intelligence, humour, wisdom, emotions, logic, rapidity, possibility, imagination, novelty, that it shakes the whole of you. He can easily give you a ride through a black hole and other places you didn’t suspect. You couldn’t have. It’s his universe, so impeccably architectured that you have no option but to follow and be dazzled. Nolan is difficult because he obliges you to be 100% present, to follow the course of the action which is preferred nonlinear. He commands involvement, mentally and emotionally, which is strenuous. Interstellar is a beautiful, sensitive, spectacular accomplishment of one of the liveliest and most spirited directors of our times.

Looking at the script, some lines have the potential to stay with us for a while. “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends time and space,” says Anne Hathaway in the movie and guess what? It doesn’t sound cliche. Probably because it fits the movie context so well when it is uttered – and time and timing are Nolan’s obsessions and specialties, after all. He knows this is bound to resonate with the audience. Even if the movie reality is mould to be dramatic, Nolan powders it with a great dose of humour. It has great pace and tension. It has logical, meaningful scenes. It has rhythm and exceptional soundtracks. I personally take a bow; Nolan is a tremendously skilled director.

It was about time I remembered what an intense movie was like. About time a movie asked so much of me. Interstellar is clearly my “wow” movie so far this year. I’m running out of words to convince you to go to the cinema and see it. I hope you will, for it is rare to see movies of such exquisite complexity nowadays. Unless they are signed Christopher Nolan, that is.

The right to remain silent

Source: the world wide web

Source: the world wide web

The world stood in shock this 7th January, 2015. Just another working day at a controversial satirical magazine in France, since long under the threat of terrorist attack for its provocative publishing of religious caricatures. Jihadists seeking revenge step into the editorial office and unload their Kalashnikovs all around, killing in cold blood. They will take other souls as well by the end of a mad man hunt that kept us all breathless for hours. Whether at work or in my car, I kept following the live broadcast of the developing events, chewing nervously one M&M after the other. The reporters shout whenever they receive ground-breaking information on the background of ambulance sirens or the sounds of hovering helicopters. Tension at its highest. We’re living exceptional times in terms of media coverage.

The tragedy triggered immediate international reaction and naturally united people in support of the victims and against all forms of terrorism. To which I wholeheartedly adhere. There have been a lot of talks including religious and immigration problems and the inherent responsibility of the States towards their minorities, lack of integration, etc. – in the heat of the moment, sensitive issues come to light. In this need for people to stick together, an idea worth militating for becomes the symbol people rush to hang on to: freedom of speech.

What happened is indescribably unjust, and there’s no discussion about that. But I watched the crowd campaigning for this emerging “Je suis Charlie” ideology and I grew worried. I’m sorry, but I cannot partake in a tendency in which freedom of speech is promoted as the liberty to say whatever, even when it offends and gravely disrespects others. While I express solidarity with all victims and their families and I am as outraged as any that such cruelty should take place, it would be hypocritical of me to pretend that now, all of a sudden, I defend what Charlie Hebdo was publishing under the label of freedom of speech.

Since when is freedom of speech an excuse for insulting people, cultures, religions that are clearly largely misunderstood and disrespected? Since when does the press, a major influencer on people’s minds and reactions nowadays (and by God, not everyone is an intellectual) has the right to provoke gratuitously when it comes to such sensitive topics as religion on the grounds that it is funny? Who of you who were out on the streets defending this kind of freedom of speech has truly laughed at the magazine’s caricatures back in the days? And should the press not better use its overwhelming power by being informative, instructive, meaningful, and let me push it a bit further, naively, maybe even play a role in appeasing racial/religious climate in a country where it is already tensed instead of literally opening a gate towards more conflicts and hatred and add fuel to the fire? Is that what freedom of speech has come down to and is that what people feel the need to defend nowadays?

Sad, if so. I am all for the freedom of speech, but there are also limits that should be self-imposed and that belong to common-sense and sensitivity towards those around us. If we decide to act selfishly and disregard issues that other cultures have deeply at heart by openly holding them up to ridicule, doesn’t it mean that we abuse our access to freedom of speech? Why not harm others with words and images just because we can? I was first taught “relevancy” when I started to write. If there’s a message, make sure it comes across. But what is the underlying purpose of saying that “Le Coran c’est de la merde?” I fear the freedoms that have been passed on to us are being largely misused and misunderstood nowadays and that everyone cries “freedom of speech” far too easily. Offending the other on the grounds of being funny is not something I can be supportive of.

I stand up for free press. The press that understands its power and stops feeding your kids with information they don’t need to see or hear. The press that knows it is strong enough to influence politics and decision-makers. That fights for the right cause not that keeps itself busy spreading fear, chaos, that brainwashes the audience and shows disrespect for the others simply because provocation sells well.

Forgive me, but I do happen to believe that press has a responsibility towards readers, citizens. Hence what you say demands a fair balance of information and reason. Press should not become just another example of cultural ignorance. Freedom of speech should be taken with moderation and respect. Otherwise, paradoxically, the freedoms we have come to acquire will only enhance chaos. I have a friend in China who could tell me a word or two about how precious the right to freedom of speech is. Use it well. Ultimately, maybe an inherent part of the freedom of speech is also the freedom to realize when it’s a good moment to remain silent.

P.S. I’m sure that if we all were to take the streets and march against every single bomb that blows up in other corners of the world as well and against the fact that to date roughly 805 million people struggle with hunger, we would have a much better world.

Two planes till Peru

Lima, PeruKeys, money, passport, credit cards, flight ticket…I use all my powers of concentration to do the final check ritual and make sure I have all the vital belongings with me, preferably before I lock the door behind. Previous experiences have shown that, thorough though I may be in some circumstances, when it so happens that I lose my head, I usually go for a remarkable mistake, not just a small, insignificant one.

Before I left to South Africa, for instance, after some hectic days spent in-between work, work-related travels, packing and everything else, I did manage to lock myself out of the apartment with the keys on the inside. Luckily, every time I screw up massively, my guardian angel steps in to save the day. My landlord, who is strategically located three blocks away from me, had a third key (you would have guessed, I had duplicates, but they were on the other side of the door as well). He only answered my calls two hours later, so I had plenty of time to simmer gently in my own guilty consciousness and the extent of my stupidity. Can’t say I’ve learnt my lesson.

Before I board the plane from Brussels to Lima with a first stop in Madrid, I grab the fresh-of-the-day edition of El Pais. My Spanish is not great, but like every decent Romanian who grew up watching telenovelas, I have a passive knowledge of the language, good enough for me to grasp the overall message.

One article in particular gets my attention: it says something about a meeting involving several Latin American countries and taking steps towards an agreement to loosen abortion laws, etc. Here I am, up in the air, finding out that five of the seven remaining countries in the world which ban abortion in all circumstances are in Latin America: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Honduras, Dominican Republic (the other two being Vatican City – no surprise here- and Malta). Here, banned means that the mother is forced by law to deliver her baby even if: 1. The pregnancy is the result of a rape. 2. The pregnancy threatens her own life and 3. It is medically proven that the foetus cannot survive after birth. I’ll be damn!

“You can judge a country by how they treat their women”? If so, then many should hurry into respecting theirs and considering them more than just walking incubators programmed to deliver babies at the expense of their own lives.

To put things into context, I grew up in a country where communism has taken the best part of being a woman: in my mother’s time and way before, there was no access to contraception. Could anyone in developed countries imagine sexual life without pills and condoms nowadays? On top of that, abortion was illegal and consequently practiced illegally on a large scale in dodgy conditions, jeopardising thousands of women’s lives. How many children could a woman breed after all, and what to put on the table? Sex must have been a real nightmare for them. So yes, reading stuff like this does get me out of my system.

I am steaming on the inside, going through paragraphs that take me into how little rights Latin America’s women have over their bodies, lives, health, fate. I turn towards the lady next to me: she’s dozing off peacefully. How can she sleep so carelessly, did she even read this, does she understand that the low consideration of these women makes human rights look like a shameful joke? Is no one up in arms about this? Peace and quiet on the plane. People travel in a relaxed holiday mood.

I, on the contrary, set myself in war mode. I mentally prepare some nice letters intended to the brilliant law- and decision-makers and wish I were granted permission to rewrite some of the Pope’s public speeches. In the Middle Ages, I would have probably been burnt at the stake. But there I was, in this 21st century crippled by underdeveloped mentalities, landing in Madrid.

At the Madrid airport I have 2 hours to kill. To make time pass quicker, I inadvertently exit a door that takes me out of the airport. I didn’t realize this until I wanted to come back and saw that the only possibility to do so was to go through customs again. I only thought I was doing a tour of the airport but was absent minded and followed the wrong crowd. I must pass through the security check again, only this time I also have to take off my shoes as a bonus.

Luckily, I still have time before catching my connecting flight, so I spend it wondering aimlessly in the duty free shops. I never buy anything, but then I was bored and needed something to entertain myself with. Have you ever noticed just how dull everyone looks in an airport? But my steps and perhaps some subconscious desire lead me to where those small, cute bottles of alcohol are exhibited. It’s my lucky day: there a special promotion, 3 little bottles for the price of two.

I’m usually very bad at striking deals in all aspects of life, but I estimated that I could not go terribly wrong on this one. So there and then I decided to do what any reasonable human being who has an 11-hour night flight ahead should do: get drunk. I therefore acquire the small exhibits, buy a bottle of coke and empty some of the Johnny Walker magic into it.

This marked the first time I have ever stepped into a plane after having a drink. It was a very bumpy ride, I could feel the whole frame shacking from all over, but it didn’t manage to wake me up. From Madrid to Lima, I was sound asleep, the world’s problems hanging somewhere beyond me. Holidays, at last!

Travel Massive meets Rock Salt

Rock Salt Chilli PeppersThe second Brussels Travel Massive meeting took place on November 20th in a very special venue. A new restaurant in Brussels city centre with a funky name opened its doors to welcome us, Belgium capital’s community of travel bloggers, start-ups and industry professionals. Keep this in mind: Rock Salt Chilli Peppers (RSCP, please!) fusion kitchen & lounge. What a welcome we had! I’m happy to share pictures, but I’m afraid they cannot translate the yumminess of the appetizers that an enthusiastic team of five people coming from different corners of the world carefully prepared and explained for us. Just to give you a flavour of the unique culinary diversity that inhabits the place, the restaurant’s Head Chef is from Indonesia (have no fear, the food is not Indonesian-spicy), the Under-chef is Spanish and the three kitchen helpers are from Spain, Macedonia and Belgium. A little universe of cooking artists at work! The bottom line is: what they put on the plates was a treat and there was some finger-liking involved in response to that (I saw it!).

Sumit Gupta, one of the two young owners of the restaurant, was the perfect host. He takes pride (and he should) in picking only the best quality and freshest products on the market to prepare the menu. He buys everything himself from selected suppliers to make sure his fusion food gains respect and high appreciation from his customers.

The Brussels Travel Massive participants in the event were spoiled at Rock Salt Chilli Peppers: the appetizers were bountiful, artistically decorated and no doubt, mouth-watering. And to wash down this amazing food, Sumit prepared some delicious cocktails for us, using a most surprising mix of ingredients.

Needless to say that the attendants to the Brussels Travel Massive event had a great time in the cosy atmosphere of the Rock Salt Chilli Peppers bar and lounge area, cocktail in one hand and appetizer in the other. Just a teaser to stimulate your senses.

Rock Salt Chilli Peppers has recently opened Rue des Cultes 34-36, 1000 Brussel and specializes in fusion food. The menu is rich with a variety of worldwide aromas, so if you are a foodie, or if you simply want to chill with a cocktail in a modern, laid-back and exotic setting, go give RSCP a go! We were very lucky to taste the best samples of what this restaurant has to offer and we thoroughly enjoyed every single bite and sip.

The second Travel Massive meeting in Brussels was a pleasant medium for the travel bloggers and enthusiasts who attended to meet, greet and discover one another, make new connections and why not, friendships. Most of all, it provided us with the opportunity to come together for a friendly talk in a beautiful and comfortable environment and taste some of Rock Salt Chilli Peppers specials, prepared with love by Sumit and his crew.

Travel Massive Brussels chapter is currently seeking to enlarge its number of members and bring travel bloggers and tourism professionals under the same roof to exchange creative ideas and experiences. It aims to build a strong local community of people who share a passion for travel/tourism. They are also on the lookout for sponsors to host further Travel Massive events in Brussels.

A special and heartfelt “Thank you” goes to Sumit and Rock Salt Chilli Peppers for having so generously supported our second meeting with so many goodies on the table! I gotta say, you rock!

Rock Salt Chilli Peppers

 

A Travel Massive event

A Travel Massive event

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TBEX Athens – All about the Conference

Great summary of a great event!

passionforhospitality

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TBEX the world’s largest gathering of travel bloggers, writers, new media content creators, and social media savvy travel industry professionals, took place in Athens at the Megaron Athens International Conference Centre from the 23-25 October 2014. Over 800 delegates from 50 countries attended this year’s conference, turning it into an even greater success.

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Metro ride in Athens

Athens metro, GreeceComing back from Athens, Greece where I attended a TBEX travel bloggers’ event that gave me a fresh insight into the blogging world, I found myself lost and uninspired: what to blog about the city? The doubt was legitimate. I didn’t manage to see Athens. I only went to the Acropolis Museum and had a 2€ espresso with a view on the famous ruins and took a free ride on a hop-on and off bus, courtesy of City of Athens. The rest of the time was spent at the Megaron Athens International Conference Center, either in the conference rooms or in the hallway.

I did finish my journey with a short evening walk in the Acropolis area though, nostalgically retracing the steps of an eleven-year-old kid who was travelling for the first time abroad: me. I did not forget that my teacher had slapped me for having lost myself from the group, an act which I have ever since perfected through regular practice, especially when it comes to hiking on a mountain. The mythical atmosphere of the place must have distracted me to such an extent that I forgot to follow.

Years later, here I was again, jumping from one metro into the other to come and listen to the TBEX speakers , hoping to suck in all their knowledge just by being present. I wasn’t going to stay long in Athens, not enough so as to feel the pulse of the city and be able to blog about it. Writing about Athens didn’t seem realistic. And yet. When I arrived in Brussels, Belgium and had to take the metro back home, weary and sleepy as I was, I found my story angle.

Factually, Athens was for me an accumulation of underground travels this time. As a result, the metro became the only site in Athens that I could give some observation-based feedback on. As I was waiting for my metro connection in Brussels, it became clear as day that the metro stations in Athens were infinitely cleaner, nicer and overall friendlier by comparison. And by clean I mean spotless, which is easy to notice because they are built with white marble walls and granite floors. On the walls, small representations of gods and goddesses remind the travellers of where they are. In Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world, the myth is present, the legend is brand.

So what if the metro is so packed with passengers when it enters the station that some of them are glued face against the window? You’ll squeeze in, everybody does, eventually. The place is so neat it shines. There’s not one single trace of graffiti spray; eating, drinking and smoking in the stations are also forbidden. Some of them even have screens where you can watch the news while waiting. Let’s have a look at the price as well: a five-day ticket costs 10€. Now that’s affordable. And cherry on the top, in Athens the metros run until 2 am on Fridays and Saturdays.

The Brussels metro, on the contrary, welcomed me with a rat hole type of smell that put me off any desire to have breakfast and a general state of uncleanliness – a stain on its status as Europe’s capital city. At the conference in Athens I had a nice conversation with a representative from the Munich Airport about how airports are the business cards of their cities. They are, after all, the first stop on a traveller’s way to somewhere. And first impressions tend to be long-lasting.

The same goes for metros. After the airport, they are most likely what the visitors see next. Or the only thing they see at all, several times a day. Wouldn’t it be interesting, Brussels, to take Athens’ example and clean out a bit the mess that has established itself all too well in your underground world? I would like to come back from my travels to underdeveloped countries and be greeted by clear signs of civilisation, which can hardly be a reality as long as dirt is allowed to pile up with negligence. Shall I remind you that you’re hosting some of the most important European institutions and that it would be interesting to stand out as proud and presentable?

I felt like congratulating the City of Athens on this one. Crisis there may be, but the efforts to maintain a spotless and welcoming underground transportation system have not been affected and this is all to your credit. Next time I will spend more time on the upper level, too.

P.S. And while doing my research, I was pleased to discover that Frommer’s included Athens in the top ten cities with the best subways in the world: http://www.frommers.com/slideshows/818699-the-world-s-best-subways-10-top-cities#slide818700 Well done!

Don’t let Doel die

Doel_Belgium

I was missing chaos when I found Doel. After a recent trip to Indonesia which gave me a crash course on how chaos can look like, Brussels seemed a tad too orderly and sober by contrast. No monkeys on the roof, no motorcycles that carry whole families together with their belongings, no passengers on top of buses, cars that actually stop at the red light –the ordinary was failing to excite the eye and mind and the civilised world was once again comfortable, yet colourless and dull.

Somewhere not far from Antwerp lies Doel, a small village the Belgian state is giving up on based on a decision to expand the Port of Antwerp, one of Europe’s largest. Doel happened to be in the wrong place. Its inhabitants left. Some 25 people are still refusing to do so, but the evacuation order could become resolute one day. Doel is slowly but rather surely going down.
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Yet for now, its streets are alive with a weird kind of magic atmosphere. They are empty, devoid of residents, overtly displaying heaps of dirt and unkempt gardens filled with greedy weeds that grow uncontrollably. Some houses collapsed, others are still standing. And in the creepiness of an area that leaves the impression that a cataclysm made everyone pack and run, a strange and unexpected sight! Every single wall is covered in graffiti, making Doel a colourful if far from cheerful place in the gloomy mood set by the Belgian weather.

European graffiti artists left their marks on the walls in an attempt to save Doel from demolition, hoping to convince the government to preserve it, if only as a container for street art, an accidental tourist attraction. But it does not look like the message is coming across. For now, no entry fee is claimed and no one distributes flyers to celebrate the fortunate outcome of a derelict village that was doomed to disappear but escaped its fate.

In spite of itself, Doel magnetises visitors, however, no doubt thanks to its creative graffiti that gives life to its eerie emptiness. People who are curious enough go to this dodgy but seductive area with a camera and snap some shots. The day I visited, a group of men were taking pictures of their Ferraris and Porches parked against various graffiti backgrounds. Doel, it must be said, has become an original and seriously cool place unlike any other.

Some of the graffiti artworks are exceptional. It is exciting to be almost alone on empty streets amid the bountiful testimony of street art. Scary, too. This is a genuinely derelict place, not a museum that is meant to recreate the impression of abandonment. The doors to some of the houses were left open just wide enough for the curious passer-by to spot the traces of a questionable kind of occupancy. Squatters, no doubt.

Doel made me marvel. Not only at how an ugly place (if you add the neighbouring nuclear plant and the large number of electricity pylons) can become eye-catching, visually interesting enough to be inspiring, and even earn itself an identity made of spray paint models. Graffiti made Doel worth a visit, if only for a while. And with discussions to erase it from the map dating back since 1970, my guess is that you still have plenty of time to go and take those pictures, too!

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