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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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).

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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.

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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.

The Lisboa Experience

Ponte 25 de Abril

Ponte 25 de Abril

Lisbon is destined to be a very lovable city. To begin with, it has an exquisite geographical position: it is the only European capital set along the Atlantic coast. Summer there lasts for about six months and the average temperature in the coldest months of winter is +/- 15°C. This alone won my heart completely. But there is so much more: this is a place with friendly people, mixed cultures, and delicious food at prices that do not give one a heart attack. Colourful in every way with lively neighbourhoods, large and airy boulevards contrasting with narrow streets and endless stairways, old and shabby and timidly modern, equally charming in the sunlight or at dusk, Lisbon can hardly disappoint.

eletrico 28, LisbonThe people of Lisbon are among the kindest I have ever met. Though I only spent four full days there, I don’t believe to be mistaken in making this contention. It is not the customary kind of polite kindness you get in all civilized places. People here do something more. That extra gesture that convinces me that I’m right. There’s something more genuine in their desire to help you out, they seem easier to reach. In Lisbon, you are definitely in a warm, welcoming city.

During the four days that I spent there I only ate fish and seafood variations for lunch and dinner. My relationship with the fish as a dish had always been sour: we’d come to this, the fish and I, because my father, the ultimate fish eating lover, would display a giant catch from the Danube on our kitchen table on Sundays and would prepare it for cooking by taking its bowels out. That could have almost turned me into a vegetarian. But you cannot walk the streets of Lisbon without eating fish: it smells and is devilishly good everywhere.

Please, by all means, do not avoid queuing up at the Pastéis de Belém and treating yourself with the famous custard tart – it is as tasty as the reputation goes and again, you will not have the feeling that you’ve been robbed. Another reason why I could live in this city is the pastelarias (pastry shops). You can find them anywhere and it’s always a rewarding stop. Don’t hesitate to ask for things that are not on display, like fruit salads. They will fetch one for you. As one waiter was saying to a customer: “You get what you want. Just say what you want.” This, I thought, summarizes pretty well what Lisbon is all about.

Now, if it’s cocaine that you want, look no further: you will be stopped and asked if you wish some in the city center. Though it took me a moment to realize I had arrived somewhere in Europe and not in a Brazilian favela, the situation is not as critical as it may seem when you have just landed, feel dirty, hungry and everyone else around you looks and actually is high. Give it some time, this is an aspect you will soon forget.

There is a myriad of things to see and do in the central area of Lisbon and I could not recommend one in particular, so make it a personal discovery. It is very easy to move around, be it by metro, sightseeing bus, train, tram, etc. But I find the city is best enjoyed on foot. Some streets have a serious inclination problem, so if you are allergic to walking, this is not the moment to be brave and give it a go. And ladies, spare yourself the trouble and do not put on high-heels: Lisbon’s cobblestones do not exactly offer catwalk quality, the streets go up and down in impossible angles (I wouldn’t drive there, let alone attempt parking) while the staircases are plentiful.
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What I would advise, though, is a trip to Sintra. Just not the way I did it. Sintra is 40 minutes away by train and the ticket has the ridiculous price of 4€ for a two-way trip. Once in Sintra, have some mercy on your feet and take the bus that takes you to Palácio Nacional da Pena – an absolute must-see– or walk to the historic center and by God, do take a bus at least from there. Lost to the landscape and aerial as I was and having read absolutely nothing about the place other than that it was worth a detour, I thought I was heading for a leisure walk to the castle.

By the time I realized I was hiking up a mountain and that all the bus stops were exhausted, I had gone much too far to turn around. All in all, I walked up a steep slope trying to avoid being hit by cars for 5 long km and was a mess when I arrived at my destination. That the day was not going to get any better became even clearer when I was announced that I had to walk through a large park and further up before I reached my target: Palácio Nacional da Pena. In addition to that, I also managed to lose my way, for the park was big and lacked visible signage.

This made me ponder as to the origin of this palace’s name: was it called like this because it was such a pain (“pena” means “punishment” in Portuguese) to get to it or because it was worth seeing it (“que vale a pena” stands for “it’s worth it”)? When I found myself at its feet, I had to admit in a fraction of a second: yes, it was well worth the torture. It is, truth be told, beyond beautiful and I would have spent a full day there soaking up those unbelievable towers, each different in colour and shape, giving the palace the overall aspect of a superbly ornate cake. The view on Lisbon was quite mind-blowing, too. I did take the bus to go back.

Lisbon is one of the oldest European towns. Choose a viewpoint from where you can have a long and attentive look at the panorama of buildings: different sizes, shapes, colours, styles, spread out on unequal levels as they are. I would recommend watching at least one time the sun go down over the city from the Miradouro da Graça. And walk through the Alfama neighbourhood before or after: though finding your way easily in a town is a relief, it is also a pleasure to learn how to lose yourself and find your way back again. This is a good starting point for such matter.
Lisbon, Portugal
Some other 40 km away from Lisbon is the thing that I, as a resident of a dark country, am generally longing for the most: not only the sun, but also the sand beach, all into one! Ok, the water is still cold, but when you’re lying on the beach of Carcavelos (much nicer than Cascais, I find), you’ve just had octopus for lunch and beer for less than 15 euros, there are no reasons to complain.
Lisbon, Portugal
Still, there is one thing I would like to complain about: the wind. There’s a perpetual wind in Lisbon, which messed up my hair so much that it would have been more reasonable to cut it than try to comb it. It was the sort of wind that might work for the L’Oréal “Because I’m worth it” commercials, only I was worth it the whole day. Strangely enough, of what I noticed, the Portuguese seem to be much chilled and more patient than their much more agitated Latin cousins. Could it be that the strong Atlantic breeze had an influence on their temper and literally cooled them down?

Cabo da Roca - the westernmost point in Europe and possibly the windiest place on Earth.

Cabo da Roca – the westernmost point in Europe and possibly the windiest place on Earth.

All things considered, Lisbon and I almost didn’t happen. Two flights with two different air companies scheduled ten minutes one after the other, one moment of absent-mindedness and I was on the wrong line. I almost missed the flight. It was the first time that I embarked on a plane as the last passenger and the second time I ran as if my life depended on it.

A bridge, a tower, a palm tree, the blue of the distance. Lisbon seduced me, no doubt. It treated me well and sent me back with splendid memories. However, with the Portuguese flocking to countries such as Angola and Mozambique (and apparently there are big queues in front of the African embassies), Lisbon reminds us that perfection does not exist. That we can only get that close to it. Hopefully, we’ll meet again.

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

Lisbon, Portugal

SA14. Cape Town Encompassed

Cape Town view from Table Mountain

Cape Town view from Table Mountain

Another early morning wake-up call and a busy day ahead: we start with a vigorous hike up the Table Mountain. But where is Table Mountain? For having seen it so many times from afar and even yesterday when we arrived in Cape Town, I could have sworn it was there. Somehow, it had disappeared in the dense clouds that were hovering above our heads and the mist that decided to ruin our hike that day. Going up a mountain we couldn’t even see: we were bound for another once in a lifetime experience.

Misfortune rarely comes alone, so I have to drag myself with high fever, too. It is cold, humid, windy, foggy and the grey air smells very much like upcoming rain. Since we had experienced lovely hot weather all the other days, we are not properly dressed for the hike either: in short, all is wrong. However, we climb.

Spooky Table Mountain

Spooky Table Mountain

Table Mountain is not very high (only 1100m and the top is, no surprise here, flat as a table), but that does not make the climb any easier. The rocks pile up in an irregular flight of stairs that make me discover muscles that I had never suspected to have before: some steps are smaller, some much bigger, meaning that it is impossible to find a repetitive rhythm to which the feet could eventually adjust. Though we are not in high altitude, we are soon left breathless. Not by the view, though, since we are not able to see anything one meter in front of us. This said, despite the exceptionally crap weather that denies us an enjoyable walk, the path is busy with locals jogging up and down the mountain. Whom we don’t truly see until they come really close to us, gradually starting to look like human figures as they run their way through the mist.

We, on the contrary, go up pole pole style, following Takalani’s advice more than ever, the one behind the other. Again, the same pattern occurs: some go faster, some very slow and others are somewhere in the middle. At one point I am alone, or maybe not, but hard to tell in that fog. I hear the baboons somewhere close. For all the love I have towards my camera, I do consider to use it as self-defence device, if need be. The mist gets us terribly wet and the cold bites into the skin when we stop. We forget that the view was the initial and probably the only reason for our climb, without which the purpose of us being up there gets blurry, too. Unless a miracle happens, there will be no picture with the view today. Having put that aside, the remaining motivation is to reach that flat top as soon as possible and have a hot chocolate. Only chocolate could make things right again.

There was only one path, so in theory it would have been hard for me (or anyone to that) to get lost, though I couldn’t see or hear anyone around. I would, however, perfectly manage to lose myself on the mountain during the Inca trail in Peru 8 months later, as I was travelling with 15 other people and 3 mountain guides. When there’s a will, there’s a way! Still, two of us are missing; we would find them safe and sound at the descent, so we are again “all in” as Takalani makes sure when he locks us up in the truck. To get down, we used the Aerial Cableway, which, I read on Google later, offers a splendid view of the area. Now, we might have been dropped in a bottomless pit. Table Mountain just wouldn’t reveal itself to us that day.

Takalani, whose face expression reflected nothing else but sheer joy after such an invigorating morning start, drives us out of Cape Town. The sky finally clears out and the sun shines once more. Outside, the landscape is racing past the window. What I see is beauty beyond belief: string of beaches of white and golden sand, green mountain crests, still steaming with mist in the distance, the Ocean in at least two-tone colours that could have been photoshopped – was I hallucinating from the fever?
Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South AfricaEverything is visually so rich with diversity that we are literally stupefied and some of us cannot hold it anymore. Juliana sticks her head out the window and yells: “South Africa, I love you! I will be back, I promise.” Juliana and her family are from Singapore and they have been travelling extensively around the world. They placed South Africa in the top three countries that delighted them the most. For the record: I am not the only SA freak!

In and out the city there’s constant movement. People were practising water activities that I could not even name. Others were jogging, roller blading, ski boarding, doing yoga, chasing seagulls or simply walking, admiring the high waves of the Atlantic. Though I was stuck in the truck, I felt carried away by all that inspiring energy and was envious of this sort of freedom that seemed so natural and accessible to all.

Takalani parks and starts pouring instructions into us. We’re exhausted from the hike and we would have gladly just fainted somewhere in the sun. But there’s more walking to be done. We are at the Cape of Good Hope, Bartolomeu Dias’s discovery in 1488. Before going past the Dias beach, a superb spot for surfers and an enchanting sight for any landscape-hungry tourist, we climb upwards to the Cape Point lighthouse. As if the feet could still respond to my will. Now we have a view!
Cape of Good Hope

Overlooking Dias beach, Cape of Good Hope

Overlooking Dias beach, Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa
That day, we also paid a short visit to a penguin colony. In the evening, Takalani holds a speech to mark our last dinner together. Apart from his sincere appreciation of having guided such a wonderful group like ours, he asks THE question that must have crossed our minds more than once during this tour:

Cool Drifters guide having a break.

Cool Drifters guide having a break.

“Why do you people want to walk? I’ve been walking my whole life. I walked to go to school when I was a child. I walk as a tour guide. I walk all the time. You must be sitting down too much in your countries.”

Takalani is a very lucid person. A man a few words, but which he uses well. Who knows what humour is and “most especially” when to use it. Who, apart from doing a great job at driving around a bunch of people coming from everywhere and showing them his country, also knew how to treat us all as individuals, paying attention to pronounce our names correctly though we had constantly messed up his. Who at 32 has developed more skills than most men in Europe and who did his tasks without showing how difficult they really were. A person whom I find reliable enough to cross the whole of Africa with. Maybe Takalani did not do all that walking for nothing: he did go to the right school.

The next morning is day one till departure. To lighten up the spirits a little bit, Takalani drives us to a wine farm where we have wine tasting at 10 a.m. The five samples that we are allowed to sip cause me to laugh at any remark that could have potentially been a joke. Some go red in the face. I would stick to Pinotage as my favourite discovery, though I’m sure that more extensive research would have been necessary to find the perfect flavour. We also visit Franschhoek, another very different looking site from what we’ve seen before. European Africa greets us once more. The houses must have been pretty expensive in that area – everything was neat, cute, flowery, white, and Frenchy. There’s no debate as to South Africa’s beauty and variety (or I’m ready to defend them fiercely) – it could be a place for everyone.

Back to our Cape Town base, we have dinner right across from the building where we were overnighting. Out of the hundreds of choices that I am sure the city has to offer, the great majority settles for the safest and easiest option. My friend from Escape4Africa, who had patiently taken me through all the booking procedures before I arrived and ensured I’d make it back to Europe as the living proof that survival is possible, is kind enough to take me to a random club for a beer – a bit further than the fence that was withholding me.

Next morning I pack, to go home this time. No more eccentric trip to breathtaking places, no more animal, no more danger, scorpions and everything that fascinated me so much as a visitor to this country. I will be flying for 19 hours and a half with Turkish Airlines, via Istanbul. There’s still time to take a bus tour of Cape Town. From the top deck, I try to memorise and immortalize the city with my camera. We go past District Six which inspired District 9 – one of the most successful local movie productions, and I discover where Wilbur Smith’s residence is – one of the greatest adventure writers alive, whose sagas, I believe, may easily turn into an African blockbuster at least the size of “Lord of the Rings”, should his books be adapted into a film one day.

One hour to go. I step off the double-decker and spend it sitting in the grass and looking at the ocean. I’m not sure one can have enough of that view, of the waves that rise, foam and then disappear. I stopped taking pictures because the essence of Cape Town is hard to frame into series of snapshots. One more look behind. I did not visit Robben Island on purpose. With the self-promise that I will go back. Time will tell.
Cape Town, South Africa

Venezia – Of Land & Water

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I don’t remember to have ever made Venice a priority on my see-the-whole-world list. The rumours that the city was in reality not as charming as its fame went and that the water stank might have subconsciously put me off. Or was it the clichéd image of lovers cobwebbing the city and proclaiming to be madly in love in gondolas that turned my thoughts from it? Whatever it was, Venice and I did not seem to click. Ryanair changed that for me by displaying a round trip Brussels-Venice for 30€. I was immediately seduced.

Week-end in Venice in mid-November it is! I wake up at 3 am, have no coffee leaving it as something to look forward to when reaching the airport and give it some gas. The lack of caffeine and a worrying sense of orientation typically assigned to women cause me to actually lose my way to the airport by taking the wrong exit. Tricky considering that I also largely deviate from the requirement to be at the gate two hours before departure.

But, as all independent and self-assured travellers, I count on myself to always find my way, anytime, anywhere. Fact! Ok, add a spell of luck to that, too. I make it on time for the boarding: one hour and 20 minutes till Venice and ready for take-off.

The weather in Treviso is surprisingly worse than in Brussels, usually hard to beat: it rains heavily, the cold gets to your bones, and the heavy grey hanging in the atmosphere is amplified by a strong, unfriendly wind. Not the magic place I expected.

From the Treviso airport to Piazzale Roma it’s a one-hour trip. There you are finally delivered to the city…and what a majestic one it is. Even under the heaviest of rains, Venice is still one of the most delightful sights I have ever laid my eyes on. Go off-seasons to avoid the crowds, though: the less people per square meter, the more you connect with the place.

IMG_8685 IMG_8776Venice is very easy and pleasant to explore. To begin with, there’s no traffic. Not in the streets, that is. Here, the traffic has been placed on water: there are water buses, water taxis, ferry-boats, gondolas, all-size boats, all floating around and trying to avoid one another. Upon seeing my very first vaporetti station I almost drowned in fascination. After one day of hopping on-and-off, though, this became as casual an activity as taking the bus on land.

In spite of its famous water transport, flooded Venice is best explored on foot. Its great charm resides in its narrow and very narrow streets, bordered by very old buildings which withstand renovation. The visual shabbiness creates the perfect environment for a magic leap into the past. Venice does not belong to this century. Nor should it.

IMG_8981Walk the streets and you will be plunged back in time. The houses are small, some garnished with mini doors in guise of entrance. They all differ in size, shape and colour at every corner. The beauty of Venice is the possibility to get lost in it. I do not mean that you will never find your way back – it is very easy to orientate in Venice. But it creates a unique labyrinth-like experience to enjoy and play with.

Take one street and forget where you are or where you want to go next. Hesitate between turning right or left, take one of the two and then find yourself blocked in your errand by a wall or a closed courtyard. Turn around and try another street to see where it goes. Some literally end in water. Try the game somewhere far from the horde of tourists in the dim lights of the evening, with the rhythmical sound of your footsteps on the stone pavement and a moving shadow on the wall. Leave the boat to the sleepy lovers; Venice is a playground to roam on foot.

After a full day of rain, the Piazza San Marco is a sparkling pond under the Indian summer sun. People queue up one behind the other on the walkways that have been set up to keep their feet dry. Others put on colourful waterproof boots and walk the Piazza carelessly, feet in the water. Venice welcomes everyone. Culture, art, architecture, luxury shops, a lagoon with islands, all gathered to piece together a splendid fraction of Earthly paradise.

IMG_8955With its (too) domesticated pigeons and sparrows that are bold enough to pick up the cookie crumbles straight from your coffee plate, the illuminating sun that blinds you when reflected by so much water, the drops of rain that make the water from the canal shiver and the gondolas look sad when anchored, Venice has unexpectedly become my favourite city in Europe, by day and by night.

venezia

IMG_8984Why visit Venice:

  • The city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in its entirety.
  • It is Europe’s largest car-free area.
  • It is a unique venue: 177 canals and 409 bridges (says wiki).
  • Famous for its masks and carnival (watch out for the crowd, though).
  • It is probably world’s most popular and romantic place where you can finally declare your flame in a gondola or go as far as propose (if you really must). Then maybe you can take a flight to Los Angeles, get drunk and get married to close the deal.
  • Sunday is particularly charming when the bells from St Mark’s Basilica shake the city.
  • You can buy Venetian/Murano glass objects (if you can afford it).
  • Here’s your chance to drink a very expensive coffee with a view and share your very expensive cookie that comes with the expensive coffee with the pigeons and sparrows that will inevitably land on your table.
  • Because the following people lived here: Marco Polo (a famous explorer after which 50% of Europe’s pizzerias have been named), Antonio Vivaldi (if you like the seasons) and Giacomo Casanova (the most notorious self-declared hypersexual Italian of all times).
  • It inspired Shakespeare to write “The Merchant of Venice”, thus making sure to sour the life of any student in literature throughout the centuries.
  • It is a 1600 year-old city with a wooden foundation, built and maintained on water by very complex technical systems – a man-made wonder that is likely to sink one day. To avoid this, the Italian authorities might want to collaborate with the Dutch – they, of all nations, know a thing or two about how to tame the water.

Visit Venice.

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Bad Company in Campania

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Some journeys are just longer. To others, there’s simply no end. My thoughts exactly as our train halts for the third time in the last three hours in a station which is still not our final destination. I am steaming, sweating, perhaps also swearing on a train in Italy, somewhere between Rome and Ariano Irpino.

Chance and curiosity plotted to get me here. First, my name was drawn at a tombola organised during a wine and cheese tasting event, opening up the possibility for me to spend an agro touristic week-end in the beautiful Campania to which I am now headed. The flight tickets were not included, but for someone who never won anything before, this was no obstacle. The organiser is very considerate: he makes arrangements for me to travel in the company of one of his colleagues. I praise such generosity and cannot believe my luck. But that was before I meet my travel mate.

The lady he sent over is not a gift. Suspicion ramifies inside me that she is on the mission of putting my patience to a test. This I do not have plentiful and she seems determined to put me off balance. Her conversation opening line when we reach the airport is: “I hope no plane crashes today.” I’m dumbfounded: why would anyone mention plane-related disasters 15 minutes before boarding a Ryanair flight? “Last time I was here, one did crash on the platform and our own plane had to be delayed.” Meet Vania. I will be stuck with her for the next endless hours.

While I am quite the independent traveller, Vania acts as if crossing the street on her own were a wild experience. Hence she follows me: I turn left, she turns left. And as she does so, she feels compelled to utter her precious opinions and substantial advice. And she has one for everything. I now finally have someone to coach me on how to eat, where to sit, when and how to look out the window, etc. Vania truly makes one appreciate the golden side of silence.

I hope my nerves would last. The doors close behind me, taking me hostage in the Italian train. But pray the Lord: the seat next to my undesirable partner is already taken! I rush in the hall, rejoicing the prospect of some peace and quiet. But no, Vania cannot let me sit on the floor, and insists I take the only spare seat that lies not far (enough) from hers. Needless to say, there is no refusing Vania. Not if you want to save yourself a headache.

I then search for refuge into music. But even though a perfectly visible cable connects my ears to an iPad which I ostensibly hold in hand for anyone to see, Vania keeps talking to me. Fearing I might be too subtle, I increase the level of my rudeness to point out as clearly as humanly possible that I need a break by diving into a book, doing my best to fake concentration and turn invisible. But there is no stopping Vania: try as I might to camouflage my presence for a little while, she ends up tapping on my knees, making signs that I should look outside.

A window separates me from that wide open field she is so crazed about. I wish she were on the other side. The train has no air-conditioning. The night is falling and we are much delayed now. We’ve been travelling all day: took a plane early in the morning, then a bus to Rome Termini, walked the streets of Rome, and ended up on this battered old train. We are trapped in one of the five carriages that carry too many people it can handle. We sweat in unison. After all, Vania did warn me: “I hope we make it to Ariano. When I travel, there’s always a problem.”

The train squeaks and dies on us at 9 o’clock in the evening: this time, we even get the privilege of an announcement. It says sorry, due to technical problems, overheated engine, all passengers must get off, not going any further. Everyone takes the exit except for Vania who believes we should stay, just in case the train decides to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and move again. I jump out, thinking that reaching the destination would not solve my problem: I still have a whole week-end in front of me with Vania.

5. Wicklow in Autumn

wicklow, irelandRemember Braveheart? Well, this is where the movie was partly set, and mind you, only 5% of the movie was shot in the Highlands of Scotland, so don’t be fooled. The Wicklows display truly magnificent scenery, which we thoroughly enjoyed, in spite of the unreliable mood of the weather. We almost felt like walking into a dream, had our frozen limbs not reminded us that we were experiencing the real thing. Wicklow is quite a sight in autumn, and I could solemnly endure that evil cold again, just to smell that fresh from the rain air, just to see that explosive variety of leaves’ colours surrounding us, some holding on to their branches, some paving our way to the lake, some flying like crazy in the restless wind. I wondered how the landscape would transform itself in summer. Yet I was convinced that this was what I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out. So I froze and stared.

It was time for us to get back on the bus. When the driver opened the doors to let us in, a strong smell of alcohol rushing from the inside caused me to ask myself whether it was thoughtful for a bus driver to drink on duty! Especially since the roads that crossed those places needed the driving skills of an expert. But the poor man had not been drinking; he had prepared samples of genuine Jameson whiskey for us, tourists with petrified face expressions. The man surely knew how to cheer people up. We spent the following hours chattering, laughing, singing and blessing father Jameson. Happy times!

Still euphoric from the mixture of alcohol, exhaustion and happiness, we regain our hostel room. I was only to lie down for one hour that night, before saying good bye to Dublin, again. I did not mind being out in the streets alone at 3 a.m., only the noise of my luggage on the pavement following me. Nor did the pouring rain bother me much. When I’m happy, I’m untouchable, invulnerable to anything that might want to extract me from my high spirits. I waited for a bus, but I did not know where exactly it was supposed to stop and collect us for the airport. Someone called me and asked me if I wanted to share a taxi with him, explaining to me that we would pay more or less the same price as for the bus, but we would gain in comfort. I said yes, and the guy grabbed my luggage and forced it into the taxi trunk. He was going someplace sunny, I was merely going home. I might not have been fully awake: I do not normally accept a stranger’s proposal. But there I jumped in. Clearly, I was out of my regular system and I needed sleep. Problem solved as my Ryanair took off.

I’ve been to Ireland four times. It’s a difficult place to leave behind.

wicklow, ireland

4. Dddd Dublin!

Dublin, IrelandIn Dublin things just kept being fun (I should probably mention that when I am dead beat I find everything incredibly funny). Two wasted luggage-dragging mechanisms we were in those streets, Kim and I, our minds set on finding our hostel and a bed to rest on asap. Yet finding the address of the hostel turned out to be an intricate matter that we weren’t able to handle alone. So we found ourselves a Good Samaritan to put us on the right track.

The above-mentioned, a lady, was at first not quite sure of her directions. This ought to have alerted us a bit, had our brains not been atrophied because of the fatigue. Still, our direction-giver got motivated to do her best and eventually made sure we went her way. So we mounted a street with completely wrong numbers for a very wrong number of miles and for a disturbingly wrong amount of time until, having by then lost our ability to feel our arms and feet, we realized we had been walking the wrong lane. Up on the bloody hill, we started to panic at the idea that we now had to do all the way back. We also prayed, in the name of civilized behaviour, that the well-intentioned lady who had so gently steered us away from the right path did not cross our way.

But then there was the hostel and the nice concierge whom we had to bother every now and then because the card to our room would not work. There was the perspective of shorts nights in Dublin (aren’t they all so?), there was good food, wine and good chat. Next came “The Quays” (Dublin hosts one as well), and the laughing and the Bulmers, the singing and after all that, again, the difficulty to find our way back to the hostel. For different reasons than previously, though.

I think we did manage to wake everybody up this time, because the hall leading to our bunk beds was soooo long, and it was sooo dark inside and straight walking sooo complicated. I remember Kim having a hard time climbing on the top bed, so I think I had to push her. Anyways, we eventually found a place to fit in. We woke up with injected eyes way too early in the morning, yet all smiles: we were leaving for a one-day trip to the Wicklow Mountains.