How to NOT Quit Your Day Job and Travel

There are tons of articles and inspirational stories about how people quit their jobs and traveled the world, how people made a living out of it or even found ways to travel the word for free. But not all of us have that luxury or the need to do so, some of us have commitments and in fact some of us actually love our day jobs. Taking a break and traveling somehow makes it more special, more earned, more sought after. Everything over done can be boring and I for one never want travel to be boring. So here’s an article, for a change, about how to travel relatively excessively while still having a full time job.

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The first thing we see as we wake up each day – a push pin map up on our bedroom wall

1. Have that burning desire to travel…for adventure, to see and experience new things – unless you really really want to travel it’s not going to happen. You may look at other people’s pictures and stories wishfully but if you don’t want it badly enough it ain’t gonna happen. Travel is going to cost you and that “payment” in return for all those memorable experiences has to be more important than a lot of other material things. If travel isn’t your priority then again it ain’t gonna happen, make the choice and don’t complain. #noexcuses

2. Maximize number of days – the first question people always ask us is how we manage to do it with a full time job, how we manage to get days off work. Actually it’s quite simple – here our secret (might be very obvious when you read it). We plan all our travels around public holidays. Every additional day you get to spend in some exotic location is like gold when you have a full time job. Unfortunately for us Singapore (where we live) doesn’t have a lot of public holidays unlike our beautiful motherland (Sri Lanka) but we make it work.

Here’s our actual holiday calendar from last year –

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3. Plan well in advance – this I know for a lot of people is a huge hassle, then do yourself a favour and hire a travel agent (if you want I highly recommend THE TRAVELLED :)) lots of people travel during long weekends and prices soar! The only way out is early planning. Also if you want to experience some of the most unique things that sell out fast, there is no other choice.

Pro had to book a meal at Jules Verne inside the Eiffel Tower 6 months in advance as a surprise during our trip to Paris. Even then he couldn’t get us in for dinner.

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An exclusive look out, reserved only for diners at Jules Verne on top of the Eiffle Tower

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We bought the passes to see the mountain gorillas forever in advance because it was a bucket list item we really wanted to tick while in Africa.

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Coming up close and personal with a Silverback Mountain Gorilla, during our trek in Rwanda

4. Make use of benefits your work place offers – if you are lucky enough to work for a progressive company that believes in things like agile working, make use of it! Be disciplined about and ensure you don’t slack, but working out of a quaint coffee shop in Fremantle with a sea view is way better than sitting at your desk. Plus you still have a few hours everyday to explore your surroundings

 

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Working off a cafe in Fremantle, the coffee though..!

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That very same work day ended like this, just before the sun set

Pro and I go back home every Christmas. We end up spending about 2 weeks in Sri Lanka and work about a week from home. Working from your dining room, having your mum’s home cooked lunch is a gazillion times more satisfying and productive than your office desk. Also you have the entire evening to catch up with friends from home. Precious.

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Home for Christmas

 

5. When work takes you places, extend – if you are blessed enough to travel with work, make the most of it. It’s a bit difficult to plan in advance but sometimes a weekend on either side or just an extra day is all you need. When Pro and I first started traveling way back when we were still working in Sri Lanka, we got the chance to travel to Singapore thrice within a year for a training. We extend each trip and covered 3 other cities – Hong Kong, Phuket and Manila.

Work took me to Africa last year, Pro joined me and we took a week off together.

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Waderlusting at the entrance of the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Once in London for work, all I needed was one extra day to bask in a rare sunny day during the British Spring.


5. Maximize time on your holiday – we are definitely not the type of tourists that hop on a tour bus and rush from place to place just to snap a quick photo and tick a box. Having said that we do really try to make the most of our holiday. Time is precious when you have a limited number of days off from work and your inbox is overflowing while you are away. So make choices, a little extra effort and time on the road will be completely worth it.

When we went to South America we really wanted to see Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. It was completely and utterly out of the way, but who knew when we’d make it to this far away land again? So we made it happen. Taking 2 flights (which we had to research like hell to find) and paying extra for transfers we made it to see the world’s biggest mirror and what a journey it was! We had to skip Bolivia’s bohemian capital La Paz and had to sacrifice Lake Titicaca in Peru and only had 2 nights in the Bolivian wilderness, but I’d do it again any day. Just to see those stunning desert lakes and the salt flat.

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Salar de Uyuni in all its glory

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Making full use of the stunning landscape to take some interesting pics

Just this Spring, we went to Japan and really wanted to maximize our chance of seeing Mount Fuji. So we hired a car and drove in a hail storm to the town of Kawaguchi-ko at the foot of the mountain. The next day we were rewarded with stunning views of the almost symmetrical volcano.

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Driving in a hail storm to Kawaguchi-ko, Japan

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Rewarded the next day with breathtaking views of Mount Fuji

Or the time we spent way more than we should have, to fly to Uluru in the middle of the red desert in Australia, just to see the iconic Ayer’s Rock

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This sacred rock was such a special place with an amazing vibe you could actually feel

Or the crazy dash we made to the remote town of Jiuzhaigou in China to witness the unique turquoise lakes, a serious effort was required.

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Multi coloured lakes in Jiuzhaigou, China

So all in all, this is how we manage to pull off sometimes 16 countries a year while having a full time job! And we our total count as of now is 50, that’s only 1/4th of this beautiful blue planet, there is so much more to see.

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Be wanderlusters, make choices, if it’s too much let a professional handle the planning!

Good luck and tell us how it goes…

Delightfully Salty! A Photo Shoot Like No Other

What have you imagined heaven to look like? Living in the blue sky, walking on white fluffy clouds? Welcome to Salar de Uyuni.

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The doors of our jeep opened and we leaped into the sky. Or at least it felt like it, until our feet touched a shallow layer of cold water. Here we were in the middle of the Bolivian desert, in the largest salt flat in the world, stepping on the largest mirror in the world.

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Everything you’ve read, seen and heard about this place is true. The place is almost surreal. I’m not sure where the sky started or ended. What was real and what was the reflection. For as far as your eye could see it was the sky, above and below you.

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Perched up ~3600m above sea level, in the land locked Bolivian desert is this natural marvel. No doubt it was once submerged in sea water, probably a few millennia ago before tectonic plates shifted to make the world as we know it today. But today this salty delight is in the middle of the South American continent. Accessed from a non-descriptive little town called Uyuni, the salar is the crowning jewel of this little nation.

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The best time to visit the salar, in my humble opinion is the rainy season. Although most would prefer the dry winter months, when it rains a thin layer of water remains on the surface of the salt flat creating an amazing mirror effect that gives the feeling that you are walking on clouds. The dry season I’m sure is perfect, but when you see the sky and ground collide to create one seamless white & blue paradise, you know it just cant get any better.

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There isn’t much to see here other than whiteness for as far as your eyes can see (over 10,000 sq km to be precise), but the setting does make for a fantabulous backdrop for perspective photography. So we hired a few “props” from our hotel (side note: all hotels have cupboards full of toys and toiletries and what not that one can rent for props for a day of photography) and set out shoot the day away.

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Just remember to bring out the crazy in you, or ensure you have a crazy friend in tow, like we did (thanks Swa for the brilliant photo direction!) to end up with pictures like this

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A few things to keep in mind when visiting the Salar,

  1. If you go in the rainy season, remember to pack water proof shoes. Stepping into the cold water early in the morning was not pleasant as a few of us discovered

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  2. Pack water proof clothes, pants at least, so you can roll around in the water, shooting pictures with no worry
  3. Consider staying in a salt hotel, its an interesting experience to say the least! Read about our’s here.
  4. Nights in the salar can be bitterly cold, so pack well
  5. You are in the middle of a salt flat, so be extra careful with your camera and such devices, the last thing you want is the insides of your precious SLR corroding
  6. Tons of sunscreen is a must. You are completely exposed to the sun with no where to hide. At the end of the day we were burnt crisp.

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  7. Take tons of props with you and let your creativity unfold.

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The Surreal Landscapes that Make Up Bolivia

We had to squeeze Bolivia into our South America itinerary, just because we were fascinated by the magical landscapes of Salar de Uyuni, but we soon discovered that there was so much more to this land locked South American nation than the world’s largest salt flat.

To start right from the top, we had a nail biting journey from Cusco (in Peru) to Uyuni. First the flight from Peru to Bolivia was delayed due to bad weather. They told us “the airport was shut” but it seemed like many other flights were landing and taking off. The flight we were on seemingly wasn’t able to manage the cloudy skies. So we waited and waited, with tempers soaring because we were likely going to miss our connection. We spoke to everyone we could, ground staff, security and even the flying staff later when we finally boarded. We had to make that connection or we were*^($@^.

Long story short we finally took off and landed in La Paz, midway point to get to Uyuni and our entry to Bolivia. More drama! We rushed to get to the front of the queue at immigration, begging and smiling at people and we made it. The visa officers of course took their own cool time. We were then asked to pay the visa fee in Boliviano (?!??!) sorry what? We just landed and haven’t even entered the country! Oh no problem, why don’t you go in and change some money. Err what? You are letting us enter the country with no stamp? Yup go ahead. Are you in a rush to get you luggage? Why don’t some of you go wait at the luggage carousel. Sure! Why not!!! Coolest immigration guy. ever. Of course if we were terrorists (like most countries think we are when they see our passports) we could have blown the airport to kingdom come. But we weren’t. We then ran one by one to get our next flight. Poor Sandi almost died running back and forth to help us with our luggage. La Paz is at an elevation of almost 3700m, us island folk can simply walk and pass out, let alone run multiple times with luggage! Some ladies even offered oxygen seeing that Sandi was nearly dying. But all was well, we made our flight (which was also delayed!!), Sandi remained conscious.

It was all worth it once we got to Uyuni.

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We all cramped up into one jeep and set off on a ride of our lives with Elvis our guide & Carlos our driver. Most people come here just to see the salt flats, but the area around it is as stunning! Given that we were late we drove straight to Villamar and spent the night there. It was a long long long drive, but the spectacular scenery and the amazing sunset which set the desert on fire made it more than bearable.

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The best thing about Uyuni was its ever changing landscape, one minute you were passing through dry dessert land, the next it was lush & green, you’ll then come across colourful mineral lakes, hot springs and geysers, all in one drive. Stunning.

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We drove through dramatic landscapes and came across a hot spring. And a nice pool to go with it. Of course we took a dip until we felt boiled by the water and roasted by the sun.

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Pro lost his hiking boots here, but that’s a sad story we don’t talk about. Key learning: don’t forget your belongings. 15 minutes later when we came back, the shoes were gone.

Our next stop was the most spectacular of the all, the red lagoon. I read some tours that have this as optional or charge extra to see this, make sure you do, because it really was the highlight. Like the name suggests the lagoon water was red and it was adorned with hundreds of flamboyant flamingos. Together with the green grassed shore and herds of llamas, the colour combination was mind blowing!

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I fell in love with llamas. They were the cutest creatures ever. Shy & cute! The locals jazz their ears with colourful wooly thread, llama earrings that only increased their charm. Such bohemian creatures, they fit so perfectly with the rest of the breathtaking landscape.

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We just passed through so many incredible sights, stopping to take pictures and breathing in Mother Nature’s creativity. We saw the stone tree, a geyser, the black lagoon before we called it a day.

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We were so impressed by Bolivia and we hadn’t even see Salar de Uyuni yet! But we did, read that here.

I’ve never been to such a tremendously diverse place that made me feel so keenly aware that I am on a weird floating space rock, just like those alien planets in sci fi movies. Huge red deserts with black rocks, thick green bushy grass, growing in porcupine shapes, mammoth boulders appearing in the middle of nowhere, fiery sunsets – all set against dazzling blue skies painted with dramatic clouds. It just doesn’t get better…

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As always, before I end, here are some useful things you need to know

  1. We actually found it quite a challenge to find a good tour operator. Most people didn’t respond to our emails, the others charged ridiculous amounts or had bad reviews. The one we finally picked, the only one who seemed reliable was La Torre Tours. We highly recommend Elvis & Carlos, who really took care of us.

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  2. You are bound to get altitude sickness. Unless you are a mountain goat or you are from high altitudes, be prepared. We weren’t and we suffered as a result – horrible headaches and nausea. Lovely Carlos gave me a pill, which may or may not have worked. But it’s a horrible feeling to have. We went from 3600m to about 4500m above sea level in one day. That’s a lot and your body will tell you.

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  3. We were a group of 6 plus the driver & guide. We managed to squeeze into one jeep. It’s not ideal, but it can be done, if we had used two, the cost would have doubled!

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  4. Most drivers do not speak English, so you are better off getting a guide. Not because there is a lot to explain in the surroundings, but you are literally in the middle of nowhere with zero facilities, you never know what might happen. So unless you speak Spanish, get a guide.
  5. Don’t expect luxury, you are in a ridiculously remote area. Meals and accommodation will be basic and expect to go to the loo in the wild. We stayed the night at Mallku Cueva, highly overpriced, but had all the basic necessities and was clean! They also provided food. If you are a vegetarian, you are going to suffer, as poor Lavi did. At one point she was eating boiled rice and boiled potatoes!! So I suggest you bring something from home. I don’t usually advice that when traveling, but in this case its about basic survival.

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  6. Be ready for things to go wrong. You are in a part of the world that thrives on chaos, so don’t expect things to be on time or for things to work perfectly. Just enjoy the ride, look out the window and let your jaw drop!

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Coming up close and personal with King Kong

Gorilla trekking has been on my mind for a long time, the concept of venturing into a thick jungle in search of giant mountain gorillas was extremely fascinating. Walking up to a 200kg King Kong and his family blew my mind. So it made it to the bucket list and therefore seemed like a good way to celebrate my 30th birthday. Why not come up close and personal with a giant primate and consider how humanity evolved for me to have lived 30 years of a homo sapient existence!

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We were assigned to the Sabinyo gorilla family which was really exciting because firstly the iconic jaggered volcano in the park shared by all 3 countries was named Sabinyo as was half the hotels and restaurants, so it seemed like we were visiting royalty. Secondly the oldest silverback known to man was the alpha of this family! Real life King Kong!! Silverbacks usually live upto a 35 or 40 years, but this gentle giant just crossed 45!

 

The entrance to the park marked by a rock wall and guarded by an armed guard who was waiting for us. There are mountain elephants (didn’t know such a species existed before) and buffaloes in the hills. They can sometimes go rouge and be dangerous so we must at all times we guarded by a man holding a gun, which he promised was not to shoot at the animal but only to scare him away, if it ever came to that. Spoiler alert! It didn’t.

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We trekked for about 90 mins and apparently came to a point where the path split. My first reaction was, there is a path?!? The whole time I was thinking we were creating one, chopping off small branches and the undergrowth. But yes, there was a path and we were at crossroads. The problem was that the trackers hadn’t yet spotted the gorillas. They apparently almost got to the gorillas when they spotted a mountain elephant! Then no one moves. So they were waiting for the giant to move away so that they could carry on tracking the Sabinyo group. But without knowing where the gorillas were, we couldn’t proceed. Such is the nature of cross roads. So we sat down and waited. And waited. One of our guides escorted by the armed guard went ahead to see if they could find the trackers, so we waited for them to come back. And we waited. 30 minutes went by, no guide, no guard, no news. So the second guide went in search of the first armed with a porter who was carrying a machete. That felt a little like abandonment. Here we were sitting in the middle of the thick forest with our porters and nothing to protect us if it ever came to that (well I was armed with a selfie stick). Another 15 minutes slowly ticked by and the guides returned. The Sabinyos had been spotted and we were on our way.

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This is where things got….difficult. The blooming gorillas were on the face of a steep mountain. So our first task was to trek or in my case crawl, hang and slide down. The thing you don’t realize till you actually do it is that you are not stepping on solid ground. The plant growth is so thick and roots and wines and trees and plants are seemingly one of top of each other a good few inches above the ground. So you have to keep going. You can’t stop because if you do you fall. To add to our problems there were stinging nettle everywhere. Not only can you not step on something solid, nor can you hold on to dear life! So you just go..and we did. Finally after what seemed to be forever they said that we arrived. We had to leave our bags and walking sticks with the porters, grab only our camera and trek further down to the gorillas.

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All my pain vanished the moment I spotted a fury back with touches of silver merely 10 meters away. OMG the Sabinyo silver back, the oldest alpha was sitting, just there, right there where I could reach out and touch him.

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We got closer and closer. I really only had to straighten my arm and I would have touched the magnificent alpha. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Park rules and fear for my life.

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He just sat there. Posed for us. Ignored us. Scratched his arm. Ate some leaves. Stared at us.

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After a while the silver back for bored…stood up to show us his ginormous size and where the 250kg was dispersed (I really took a step back, not that there was space or ground to move back) pounded on his chest and growled loudly (I think I peed a little and then toppled).

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Oh. My. God. Here was King Kong, telling us who’s boss. We didn’t for a moment doubt that he was.

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Then he walked away, showing us his magnificent rear! We followed of course.

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Two other gorillas, one baby and one female joined him and we were on their trail. They stopped, we stopped. The cameras snapped.

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We just stood there snapping and snapping and snapping. A minute later the guide said “guys, slowly turn around” OH. MY. GOD. Mummy bear, I mean gorilla with her baby on the back was walking to us. And I mean we were in her path. She was a few feet away. Of course there was nowhere to move to. She just brushed up against us and walked away. Just. Like. That.

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The two baby gorillas jumped away from their mummy and started playing. What a riot. They were aggressively playful with each other. Pulling, biting, tackling, punching, eating, stealing and probably even tickling each other. A-do-ra-ble!! We were inches away from them and they did not care.

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The silverback got bored and went further downhill, sat himself near lush vegetation and started eating. I guess he knew we wouldn’t hurt his family, although he did give us a few looks while whole bushes vanished into his mouth.

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What magnificent creatures. I could’ve stared at them all day. They just went about eating and playing and just being. They were so like us. Their fingers, their eyes, the expressions, the way they itched, the way they ate, the way they gestured at each other. It was easy to see why Diane Fossy was so obsessed with these creatures.

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Technically we had an hour with them, but I think we spent close to two. I was devastated when the guides said time was up. Partly because we needed to make our way back the same way we came, but also because I wanted to snuggle up to the Sabinyo and be a part of their family.

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Kicking and screaming (only in my mind) we left. And things got even more difficult back up. If not for Eric, my porter, my trekking partner I would have had to beg the silver back to let me join his family. Eric almost dragged and partly carried me back up. What an amazing experience.

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One I would not do again, but to have been able to do it once was all that I had expected and more.

An Amazonian Adventure 

Exploring the world’s biggest rain forest was an obvious bucket list item, so I didn’t even hesitate to fit it into our South American adventure.

We accessed the Amazon from Brazil with our guide, whose name was…wait for it…RAMBO! He’s from a local tribe and apparently after spending 5 years in the Army he got this nickname.

The best – and sometimes only – way to access this thick rainforest is by boat. The part of the Amazon we visited was around Rio Negro and Rio Amazon. We boarded our small boat and set off to see the spot where these two epic rivers met – one black, full of minerals met the other, brown, cold and apparently more aggressive. It was quite a spectacular site as the two opposing rivers formed almost a line when they met.

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We cruised along the rivers and every now and again spotted fishermen (or maybe some kind of water weed gathers) hiding among the thick vegetation on the river.

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Rambo took us around to find various Amazonian residents including

1. The sloth bear – having very much a humanlike face and clinging on to you like a baby it was the cutest animal ever!

2. A baby anaconda – this baby weighed a ton and coiled itself around my neck before I quickly passed it on..I’ve tried pythons around my neck before, but the anaconda was something else. It was a lot heavier and stronger!

3. Enormous carnivorous cat fish!

4. Amazonian monkeys who we tempted with bananas. They aren’t tamed so these little creatures were slightly afraid of us and wouldn’t interact too much. But the allure of food got the best of them so they would stretch and jump to get hold of the bananas
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We also spotted some residual giant water lilies growing ahead of the season or left behind from the last. Rambo calls them Amazon pizzas!

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We then disembarked at a small town to buy supplies for the next few days in the jungle and drove inland to take yet another boat to get to our lodge. This was more of a canoe than a boat. We loaded all our stuff and set off through narrow winding streams and lakes to get to our very basic jungle lodging.

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After resting for a while we set off to capture one of Amazon’s most feared predators – the piranha! A few mins away from our lodge we stopped the canoe in a shaded area and Rambo took out the fishing rods. My expression was “sorry, right here?!? You mean I shouldn’t dip my toes in the waters outside the lodge?!?” Of course he failed to mentioned the river was piranha infested! Pro had even ducked his go pro underwater in hopes of getting a shot at some fish!!! Narrow escape apparently.

Rambo took out a few piranha delicacies – beef and pork, cut it in small pieces and fixed it onto the hooks of each of our rods. Apparently piranhas don’t like the fat part of the meat so that had to be cut off..demanding much! With the bait in, we waited. For most part we felt that we were feeding the piranhas than fishing for them. It was either the lack of experience or the intellect of the fish, they managed to gobble away the bait without getting caught.

Rambo of course had no problem whatsoever and kept catching all 5 varieties of piranhas. But they did trick him too many times and kept eating the bait, so it was just our lack of experience.

Piranhas aren’t as big as the one on the movie poster, they were little harmless looking fishies with killer well hidden teeth.


Swa managed to get one but flicked the rod too hard that the fish got tossed off to the other side. This happened twice and the third time was of course the charm! He ended up catching 3 little monsters!!

 Piranhas in stock we set off to watch the sunset. I snoozed off for a while and when my eyes opened we were approaching a beautiful soft white sand beach…how did that happen in the middle of this river?!

We took some stupid photos while waiting for the sun to set – some jumping, some silhouettes and some down right weird shots later we witnessed a beautiful sunset turning the sky and the lake orange at first and then a beautiful shade of pink

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As darkness set we headed back to the lodge for a grilled piranha dinner.


The next morning we were up before the alarms. Such is life in the jungle, the sun rises and the surroundings quieten down signaling your body to wake up.

Today Mother Nature reminded us that we were in a rain forest. The skies opened up and poured all morning. But of course this didn’t stop us as we set off to find and swim with pink river Dolphins. This was by far the cutest Amazonian experience (not that one expects the Amazon to be cute!).

At first I was a bit skeptical about getting into the water. Although Rambo swore it was piranha free, who knew?! And what other strange swimming floating creatures could be in these dark waters, it was the mother of jungles after all. I had heard horror stories of invisible creatures getting into your body and taking residence! But after seeing the Dolphins jump out of the water and interact, I couldn’t help myself. Screw the piranhas, I will take the chance!


These Dolphins were completely wild but playful. They would come and rub against you, bite you. I freaked out at first (was it a piranha?!) but it wasn’t painful and they were just being their excitable selves. Their skin felt like human skin and they didn’t seem to freak out at our touch. So, dancing in the rain with Dolphins – check!

We then went to Rambo’s friends place in the jungle and snoozed on hammocks while Rambo cooked the most delicious chicken stew and rice. This guy is multi talented! It was the perfect comfort food our wet bodies craved. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and snoozing after that heavy lunch.

  
We were meant to camp in the forest tonight but the blessed rain was not going to allow that. So Rambo’s friend Dorian kindly offered us hammocks in his hall. When night fell Rambo made a kick ass barbecue before taking us caiman spotting.

Now this caiman spotting was something else! Decked up in rain covers we set off in the dark and walked down to the river and boarded a small canoe. It was pitch dark. Complete black. Rambo sat at the front of the canoe with a flash light on his head. He was like a lighthouse or a flood light. Turning his head around and lighting up the river banks. Not seeing is a scary feeling! The waters were so still and the blackness was daunting.
Rambo nodded in one direction and the boatman changed direction. He slowed the boat, Rambo casually reached out and lifted a caiman!! Just like that! Oh shit! The waters are infested with man eating alligators and here we were floating around in the darkness! For its recreation value!!!!



The caiman he caught was small but strong. It had to be held by its head and tail, else one can get hurt. Rambo passed it around and the boys had fun! But I was completely freaking out. They could grow up to 2 meters and are aggressive! One wrong move, the boat could topple and we could be eaten alive! I wanted so badly to have my feet on the ground. But Rambo had other ideas! After releasing the caiman we went around the river and he taught us how to spot the little monsters. Their eyes gleam in the light. Apparently you need to have 100% visibility when you reach out and snap it out of the water. Rambo showed us 3 scars from when he tried to catch them without really seeing them. I couldn’t handle the predator infested water in the darkness anymore and was more than glad when we came back.
Later that night the boys drank local Rum and smoked an Amazonian weed. We sang and danced and told stories.

Rambo was a colorful guy! He claimed to have 3 families – two in the indigenous tribes, one in Manaus! Apparently he fathered 18 daughters and 15 sons with 5 wives!! His oldest is 32 and youngest was 2! He was apparently in the army special forces and was a qualified sniper, survivor, parachuter and commando! He spent 3 months living in the jungle eating rodents, frogs and insects as part of his training. Were these fairytales told around the bonfire to gullible tourists or was this the way of life in the jungle one would never know. But he seems to be more than deserving of his nickname, Rambo.

The next morning the rain had ceased. So we once again boarded the canoe and headed up stream. Rambo found us a spot to enter the forest and we hiked around the thick jungle. Ever so often he would point to a tree or pick a fruit and explain its medicinal properties or how the tribes would use it. The guy was good with his hands he made a bowl out of a leaf, a spoon out of a bark, a spear and even a carrier for our water bottle.

   
At one point Rambo turned Tarzan and started swinging himself on the thick vines that were hanging down from colossal trees.


Of course the boys followed suit!


Later that day we cruised along the Amazon River spotting various animals, flora and fauna. We had spent most our time in the Amazon around the negro river which had a starkly different landscape than the Amazon River. Now seeing this part of the forest, I think I preferred it to the other. But I can’t really say for sure since I only spent a few hours there. But one thing was for sure, there were more animals in this part of the forest, on the banks of this river. We saw a variety of birds, monkeys and even a sloth bear in the wild.

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Our time in the Amazon was coming to an end and we made our way back along some of the same parts of the river we had used to get here. Half way through we had to stop. The entire river was covered with a very thick vegetation that wasn’t there 3 days ago! If you had an Ariel view you wouldn’t be able to say that there was a river here, let alone the majestic Amazon River.


Rambo tried really hard to wade through the jungle and maneuver through the growth. It was impossible! There was no getting through this, so we turned around and took another path.


A few mins later the sky opened up and rain poured down. It was actually quite a nice experience, I loved cruising along the river drenched! Before we could make it to port the rain had stopped and the sun was out. That’s how unpredictable the weather in a rain forest can be, sunny one minute and a proper downpour the next and back to being sunny. It was either that or the cry protesting the end of our Amazonian adventure!

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In Search of the Lost City of the Incas 

The cloud kissed Andean mountains were magical. As much as I wanted to move them away in favor of blue skies, there was something mystical about following the ancient Inca footsteps in this magical setting.

The train slowly moved along the cactus liner river banks. The Urubamba river was gushing through much faster than our train but we didn’t mind, this view was to die for!

Peru Rail was well equipped to take millions of tourists each year in search of the lost city of the Incas. We boarded from Ollayntaytambo after our sacred valley trip and it took us 1.5 hours to get to Aguas Calientes the entry point to the much awaited Machu Picchu.


That night we rested and woke up before dawn. There are two ways up the mountain to see the ancient ruins. You can either take a bus from town or hike up. We chose the former and were glad we did when we saw hikers red faced and almost passing out on our way there. We needed all our energy to get through that day and the bus offered the same dramatic views as the uphill hike.

We were touching the sky, above the clouds. Literally the clouds floated below us. With dramatic drops of the sacred mountains all around us and the Urumbamba River screaming below it was easy to see why the ancient Incas chose this place. There was magic all around us. Pachmama (Incan god Mother Nature) ensured that every element and detail of this landscape was perfect.

From the entrance we hiked about 15 minutes to get our first view of Machu-freaking-Picchu. There it was, standing majestically below us, holding all the secrets of the Incas. There it was, the Lost City Of The Incas.

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I had to pinch myself. This was not a dream. I was standing above this hallmark of a great civilization. A place I had dreamed of seeing, a place that had been on my bucket list for a long time, here it was, and here I was.

I would have taken a 1000 pictures, each one more perfect than the one before. Machu Picchu was only some 500 years old. Many countries had historic marvels much older than this Incan city, including my own country, but it was this setting, the stories behind it, the mountains, the mist, the clouds that made Machu Picchu a little bit more special than the rest.

Of course there was also the architecture and technology that shouldn’t have existed 500 years ago that the Incas were using. Their obsession with the sun, the moon, the stars made it all very mystical. Incas were obsessed with the number 3, they had 3 rules for life, 3 principles, 3 gods, 3 of everything. Each building had 3 sets of windows.


  

There are many stories about what Machu Picchu really was. Some say it was an ancient retreat for the Incan empires – but could this be true? Incas believed in equal treatment and no social class system, so would they then have a retreat for the selected? Another theory is that this was an ancient university. Our guide Fernando was convinced on the fact. However, I’m personally not so sure about it. Machu Picchu was heavily guarded, there was many secret trails leading upto it guarded well by many guard posts set high in the surrounding mountains. Don’t forget that the Spanish conquerors never found this place. Why would university students need so much security? Also where were all the classrooms or lecture halls? There were no structures or rooms big enough for the purpose. The third theory is that this was an administrative and political capital of the empire. Now this made more sense to me. But the Incas died together with their knowledge of what this place really was. So one can only assume.

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We spent hours walking around the ancient ruins – from the sun gate way up in the mountains, to the main entrance, to the sun temple and the moon temple, to the living quarters of the empire and the empress and the high priest and those of the common man, to the terraces where the grew crops to the sun dial and the temple of virgins. Machu Picchu was jaw dropping at every turn.

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Something about Machu Picchu makes you want to physically exert yourself to earn the right to be there. Some hike the Inca trail (which is closed in February every year so we missed it), some hike up to the sun gate, some upto Machu Picchu. We chose Wayunapicchu – the familiar mountain that stands over the city of Machu Picchu. This is where the ancient astronomers of the empire lived, high up in the mountain to get a closer view of the stars and planets in the night sky. Legend has it that they kept their eyes closed during day and trained themselves to see better at night and that they could see upto 5 planets with the naked eye! Like I said, legend has it.

Everything about the Incas was larger than life. Apparently they were as tall as 180 meters and could run all the way to the coast and back in 45 mins. We could barely make it up Wayunapicchu! We literally dragged ourselves up the slippery path and at some points we crawled, on all fours! It was not an easy climb. Fernando had more faith in us than we did. He assured us it would take us only 45 mins up the mountain, it took us just over an hour but it felt like 2.

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This is not for the faint hearted and definitely not for the unfit. But once you are up there the views are completely worth it.

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But remember you have to come down as well. Usually coming down would be easier, but Wayunapicchu was strange in a sense that we had to climb down first before climbing up, which meant that the last stretch of the trek was uphill.

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We almost made it with zero casualties, but somewhere down the slippery slope Sandi twisted his ankle. The macho guy refused help and almost ran the rest of the way to make the last for a shorter time. He might have been inspired by the Incas, who knows!

After coming down we walked back to the exit. I kept looking over my shoulder taking one last glance after another of the magnificent Machu Picchu. There really wasn’t anything like it. The Incas may have been simple people but this lost city was beyond imagination, it really was a trip of a lifetime. And nothing sealed it better than an official Machu Picchu stamp on our passports.

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Before I end my somewhat dreamy narrative, here are my top tips on this Incan marvel

1. Visit it. You must. If you see just one thing in your life, then it must be Machu Picchu.

2. Hire a guide, it really makes a difference. A huge difference. Without a guide Machu Picchu is a beautiful stone city, with a guide is a mystical marvel of human history

3. The weather is unpredictable and it can rain anytime. But don’t worry about it, the rain and the clouds are a part of the charm

4. Skip the sun rise. You can’t see it anyway because of the clouds, so why bother dragging yourself out of bed and battling the crowds? Go a little later in the day. The best time is in the late afternoon when most of the crowds have left

5. Some may not agree, but don’t hike up to Machu Picchu. Do the Inca trail by all means, but on the day you see this ancient wonder, save all your energy for it

When to go where..a quick travel guide for each month of the year..

Whenever people ask me for travel recommendations one big question they fail to ask is “when to go where”. Timing can have a huge impact on how your trip goes and what you will be able to do. A very good friend of mine was once stuck in Myanmar in the height of summer! It was 50 degrees and she had to spend the whole day in the hotel room! She had only 3 hours in the day when she could bear to step out. Another friend visited Maldives during the rainy season and didn’t see the turquoise waters at all!

So given that it’s the start of a brand new year, here’s my recommendation on 12 countries to visit in the 12 months

January in Sweden – the best time of the year to see the northern lights. Brave the cold and head to the arctic circle to see natures own fireworks. If your luck runs out, its still a perfect winter wonderland!

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February in Brazil – be a party of the biggest party on the planet! There is nothing better in life than the carnival in Rio, sipping caipirinhas on copacabana and doing the samba down the street!

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March in Japan – by far the best and most magical time to visit Japan is during the cherry blossom bloom. Head over to historic Kyoto and enjoy the Sakura bloom clad in Kimonos.

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April in Thailand – catch the Songkran water festival and enjoy the highlights of Thailand in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai

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May in Phillipines – go to the best Labour day party in Boracay. It’s even got a name #laboracay! Enjoy the pristine blue waters and soft white beaches, by far one of the top 10 islands in the world

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June in Singapore – there is one main thing to do in Singapore and that’s shopping! There is no better time for it than when the whole island goes on sale for the Great Singapore Sale

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July in France – enjoy a romantic summer standing beneath the Eiffel Tower. Head further south to Provence to enjoy the French countryside with lavender blooming, butter croissant baking and wine aging..

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August in Kenya – head over to Masai Mara to witness the breathtaking wildlife migration. Spot the big five in dozens and learn the ways of the tribal people living as one with nature

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September in China – wait till the end of the treacherous Chinese summer and rush to see the Great Wall in Beijing, the terra cotta warriors in xian, the bund in Shanghai and the pandas in Chengdu before the cold winter sets in

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October in New York – head over to the capital of commercial holidays to celebrate Halloween. Shop for the scariest costume and go trick or treating in the concrete jungle and be a part of the NYC Halloween Parade!

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November in Myanmar – it’s the “cool season” in the ancient kingdom which was closed to outsiders till very recently. Take a hot air balloon ride over the 4000 temples in Bagan and let your jaw gradually drop!

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December in Germany – have a fairytale like white Christmas in the popular Christmas markets in Germany. Cross over to Austria if you have a few extra days. Wander around collecting little tinsels, sipping eggnog and snacking on cinnamon rolls

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So there you go; my top 12 destinations for the 12 months of 2016!

Interested in visiting any of the above destinations? Get in touch and we’ll handcraft your holiday thetravelled@outlook.com or click here

Cappadocia, the real Flintstones! 

Cappadocia deserves a book, but I’m going to try and manage with a blog.
When the wheels of our plane touched down, I wanted to cry. It was gloomy as hell with a slight drizzle. I was dreaming of weird rock formations and blue skies. I guess we’ll have to manage with chunks of angry looking clouds.

We had plotted our destinations for the next two days, and after getting picked up from the airport, our first stop was Deverent Valley. It turned out to be more of a pit stop to fill ourselves up with all sorts of nuts and dried fruits. Apricot seeds easily mistaken for almonds was the highlight. Of course the camel shaped strange rocks were cool too.

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Next we were off to the little town of Avanos, popular for its pottery. Given the landscape and geology, one would expect the entire valley of Cappadocia to be popular for pottery, apparently Avanos was particularly popular.

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We walked into one of the many potteries – is that what you call them? Or pottery houses? – and the folks were kind enough to give us a demonstration of how to make pieces of art out of clay. We were also served Turkish tea, apple tea and wine from an interesting decanter; Turkish hospitality at its best!

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Much to my delight and that of the 10 family members I was with, I was asked to have a go at moulding clay and of course I did! So under the watchful eye of a master potterer (is that what they are called?), I made a bowl and painted it!! Of course the moulding in some parts of the process was looking a little x rated, but a cute little bowl emerged at the end, so all good. I might have an alternative career here, if all fails.

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There was a gallery full of beautiful painted pottery to buy, most of which were not allowed to be photographed. The price tag was quadruple that of the ones at the grand bazaar, so we gave it a miss, although we spent enough time walking around and admiring.

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Our next stop is probably one of the most iconic in the valley – the fairy chimneys of Pasabag. This beautiful site has obviously inspired many fairy tales. It is not just weird rock formations; people actually lived there. There were reminiscence of a church, kitchen with a tandoor and bedrooms.

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The living quarters got more elaborate on our next stop, Cavusin village. Imagine this – a whole village inside a rock!

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Not entirely sure how people got in and out of this village on a daily basis. Maybe they didn’t. The highlight of course was the church which still had coloured frescoes on its walls. Although there was evidence of burning inside, someone clearly tried to destroy this religious structure and what was left was black tainted walls.

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Our last stop for the day was the Goreme open air museum. This isn’t a museum as much as it is an enormous monastery with countless churches. This is where the history of Cappadocia became clear to us. Early Christians came here to meditate, pray and practice their religion in solitude. They couldn’t do it in the busy big cities and the caves in Cappadocia was a perfect refuge. That’s why there are countless churches in the valley. It’s a humongous complex, but one can rest and grab a cuppa at one of the quaint cafes inside.

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A drizzle set in and it got too cold for our tropical bodies to bear, so we called it a day, especially because we had big plans at dawn the next day. It was only natural that our abode for the night was a cave hotel, we were in fact visiting the real Flintstones! Bedrock Cave Hotel was an old cave dwelling turned into a hotel. The rooms were beautiful, the floors were covered with earthy coloured carpets and the uneven rocky walls made the whole experience very primate. If u ever visit Cappadocia you must must must stay in a cave hotel.

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The next morning our alarms went off before dawn but we didn’t mind struggling off the bed and layering up because we were taking flight to see Cappadocia from above. Hot air ballooning is one of the highlights of Cappadocia and it’s right on top of many best hot air ballooning locations around the world.

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My mum is not too fond of my good friend adrenaline. Standing in a flying basket controlled by a balloon and hot air was exactly the kind of thrill seeking adventure she didn’t enjoy. So although we assured her it was completely safe and there was nothing to fear and she put on a brave face, I could see she’d much rather be enjoying the view from where her feet can touch the ground. A minute into our flight there was an almost inaudible sigh of relief just as she began to love the experience.

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Around 200 balloons take flight everyday so it’s considered a daily festival, our pilot Emrah informed us. He expertly guided us right around the rose and red valleys, through clouds and above mountains. The view from the ground was perfect enough and imagine, from the sky it was spectacularly splendid!

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The sunrise as it most often is was spectacular. Seeing other balloons drifting in front of us shadowing the rising sun was a picturesque sight.

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At one point we felt whiteness surrounding us and we couldn’t see the ground anymore. We were inside a cloud! It was magical!

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We flew for about an hour, this was easily the highlight of our trip. This coming from someone who had been on a hot air balloon twice before. So don’t fuss over the money you will have to spend, Every. Penny. Was. Worth. It.

Emrah was a master pilot and a bit of a show off. When it was time for landing he told us he was going to land directly on the truck that was waiting to transport the basket back. And he did. He expertly maneuvered the balloon to stop right where he wanted it to – the back of a truck. He was also quick to point out how some of the other pilots landed on ground and some who tried to land on their trailers but needed a tremendous effort from the ground staff to do so. Kudos Emrah, we were very impressed!

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The best part about landing, the champagne breakfast.

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A splendid breakfast and yet another gorgeous view of Goreme and its outskirts was awaiting us back at the hotel. Tummies full and eyes well feasted we set off to explore more of this mysterious valley.

Our first stop was the Goreme panorama. It only takes 5 mins, unless you drool over the view like we did, but it’s completely worth a stop. It’s most popular to view the sunset, but autumn brings with it grey clouds so we stopped by during the day.

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A gazillion photographs later we set off to Ortahisar rock castle, a colossal rock turned castle. We were advised not to climb it for safety reasons, a group of foreigners had fallen some time ago, but lots of people braved it and we could see tiny humans all the way on top. We only admired it from the bottom.

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Talking about admiring from the bottom, our next stop required admiring the underground – Kaymakali underground city. We picked this over Derinkuyu because the entrance and exit was different so you didn’t have to retrace your steps. The guy at our hotel advised us to take a guide and preferably “uncle mustafa”, the oldest guide there (73 years old we found out later) who also happened to be bald. Once we got there, the boys set out to find uncle mustafa. Now every guide at Kaymakali is named mustafa, but uncle mustafa is special. Unfortunately the uncle wasn’t around so the boys contracted a toupeed mustafa instead. We all gathered at the entrance, collected our tickets and made our way inside. Pro’s mum suddenly turned to a respectable looking old gentleman in a suite and a cap and demanded he took his cap off! The old gent surprised and confused obeyed. He happened to be bald and yes, here was uncle mustafa! She demanded that he accompanied us as our guide, but of course he couldn’t because we had contracted someone else. But no one says no to her, so toupeed mustafa huffed off and uncle mustafa gave us the tour. He really was the best.

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You need a guide in Kaymakali, otherwise it’s just a maze of rooms and corridors. Uncle mustafa was so knowledgeable and had a knack for storytelling, so the whole place came alive. How the early settlers hid inside the city during war times, how they closed the doors and guarded themselves, how they cooked, how they let the kitchen smoke out without anyone above ground noticing, how they made wine! Such fascinating stories. The most impressive part was the ventilation system! These guys were proper engineers back in the day!

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Apparently the city has 8 underground levels, only 4 are open to the public. 3500 people lived here! I would have gotten a little (a lot) claustrophobic, but I guess desperate times call for desperate measures. Plus this place was cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

We then went to Uchisar to have a long lunch and taste Cappadocia’s famed wine. Uchisar is a quaint little village filled with cave houses, wineries and cute little shops. We picked a restaurant named Sira with a gorgeous view of the valley and just sat there for hours. This is the good thing about being with family, the conversation flows just like the wine and no one wants to move.

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We had to drag ourselves off our chairs as there was more to see. The Pigeon Valley was our first post lunch stop. As the name suggests this beautiful was full of pigeons!

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Apparently pigeons were used as an essential form of communication and their droppings were used as fertilizer. So the early settlers started breeding pigeons. Each house carved into the valley had a pigeon hole! (Now I know where that phrase came from).

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Some houses even had beautiful houses made just for pigeons.

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The Uchisar Rock castle, one of the most iconic landmarks of Cappadocia stood in the background of the pigeon valley. Rock castles are fascinating! These people were smart enough not to build from scratch but use nature’s own structures to create utility for themselves.

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We drove back to Goreme and looked for things to do to kill time before taking our flight to Izmir. Oh what oh what oh what can we do…oh what oh yes oh ATV! Perfect sunset activity. We hired ATVs and drove off road to the rose valley.

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With the Uchisar castle in the background and the red rocks of rose valley on other side, this was a perfect ending to a perfect weekend spent in Cappadocia that can only be described as breath-taking.

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So here are my top tips for Cappadocia, if you ever consider visiting

  1. Two days is perfectly enough to explore the region. It would be ideal to spend two nights because you can wake up to see the hot air balloons in the sky one morning and take a flight the next
  2. Don’t miss hot air ballooning for obvious reasons. If the pictures in my blog doesn’t convince you, take a leap of faith.
  3. Go wine tasting. Cappadocia has the perfect climate to produce wine, and it shows! The French may not agree, but its true. Try the wines made out of the local grapes which is a little bit more special than the Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon you can find anywhere.
  4. HIKE! this is something I missed because our group was too big and not fit enough for it. But the beauty of Cappadocia is in its surroundings. One can truly appreciate it only if you just explore..on foot.
  5. Stay in a cave and feel like the Flintstones!

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A Turkish delight

Turkey is a smorgasbord of scent, sound and taste. Something about its old name Constantinople had left an image of mysterious allure in my mind. Not that I had visited before, but history lessons can do that to the mind of a teenager. When my sister suggested Turkey as a possible destination for her wedding, I must admit that I was a little biased and may have steered the course to ensure it was finally picked. Turkey is infused with the character of two continents. It may not be the only country to have that charm, nor the only country to have two continents within its boundaries, but there was so much history and stories, I couldn’t wait to get my feet exploring. Good thing there were shoe polishers at every nook and corner had my feet gotten dusty!

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We had 9 days planned that took us across the ancient trade capital of the world, Istanbul; the curious rock formations in the valley of Cappadocia; the capital of Alexander the Great’s empire, Ephesus and the travertines in the white cotton castle of Pamukkale. This post is only about Istanbul, had I tried to fit in the other 3 cities I may never have made it to the end, or worse; you would have gotten bored.

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An overnight flight brought us to Istanbul and an hour later we were in the historic Sultanhamet. You probably won’t get the most spacious and luxurious rooms, but staying within the area of Sultanhamet was the best decision we made as most of Istanbul’s prized attractions were only a very short walk away. We had enough time left on our first day to cover one of the city’s highlights, the Hagia Sophia, once a catholic church later converted into a mosque, it is now a museum. Its insides are covered with beautiful paintings, but underneath those paintings are the most breathtaking mosaic designs of the church it used to be. The main dome is said to be covered with 30 million gold tiles forming stunning Christian art.

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Although a museum Hagia Sophia still has prayer recitals 5 times a day, to which they receive a response from the Blue Mosque across the street. It’s quite an interesting prayer dialogue that almost sets the background music to Istanbul’s old city. Our next stop was the Blue Mosque but we were too late and it had already closed for prayers so we called it a day and went to feast our taste buds on some mouthwatering Turkish cuisine.

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On day 2 we started off where we left off, the Blue Mosque. The blue morning sky and palmyra trees gave this imposing figure a stunning background. It’s officially called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but is nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles that adorn its interior. There is only one main dome to see and to enter women have to cover their heads since it’s actually a worship site. An hour admiring the blue tiles later we crossed the road to the mysterious Basilica Cistern.

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Ever since reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, I have been curious about this underground water storage and it didn’t disappoint. It’s remarkable for both its practical and artistic value, not to mention the magical feel inside.

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At the end of one side there are two pillars with Medusa’s head. One curiously upside down and the other tilted. All this coupled with dim light inside, definitely adds a mysterious touch.

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Back up on ground level we walked for 5 minutes to reach the opulent Topkapi Palace, which was home to many sultans for centuries. It’s huge, I mean colossal. Be ready to spend hours here if you want to see half of it. It’s crowded and there are queues to see the most popular attractions, like an 80 carat diamond in the treasury! But it’s worth it, as this might just be the epitome of Ottoman riches and architecture. What you just can’t miss is the Harem. You have to buy an additional ticket to see this area, worth every penny spent. Every wall is covered with either mosaic or traditional blue and white tiles.

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Walking from room to room of where the Sultan and his harem actually lived, I kept picturing beautiful Turkish woman clad in their riches, surrounded by their many servants walking the same corridors that was all part of their home. I did wonder if I was alive back then and if I dipped into the massive swimming pool or looked out the ornate windows into the vast empire. Apparently 4000 people lived here at a time, so there may be a chance that I was one of them.

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We had to call it a day earlier as today was the big day! We all rushed to get dressed and later that night sailed down the Bosphorus making merry and toasting the newlyweds. We sailed from Europe to Asia and all the way to the Black Sea and back. Here is a glimpse of the beautiful couple..

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Day 3 in Istanbul and the skies decided to have their own party! But a little pitter patter didn’t stop us, as we hopped on the tram and then the bus and made our way to the Chora Church. Definitely a little less popular of the many attractions in Istanbul, but its paintings and the mysteries they revealed made it worth it. The interior of the Church is entirely covered with frescoes and mosaics detailing out the Christ’s life and various miracles he performed. One of the most intriguing frescoes was the one which showed that Joseph had a family including a son before he met Mary. I’m no historian nor a Christian so I can’t comment on the story, but it certainly was a version of the story I hadn’t heard of before.  Among the mosaics and the frescoes are the stories of how Jesus cured a leper, turned water into wine and multiplied bread.

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The second half of the day was something I was really looking forward to since the day we landed, the shopaholic in me was screaming, the Grand Bazaar, the grandest of them all was awaiting exploration. I’d read of many horror stories of people being robbed, cheated and lost inside this ancient maze, but I was not deterred and armed with a map downloaded from the net – which one doesn’t need by the way – we began our adventure. I must say the grand bazaar is a great shelter from the rain and the overtly friendly Turkish salesmen ensured we were fully occupied for 3 whole hours. You can spend much more, I mean it is the grand bazaar after all, but we spent 3 fruitful hours and exited with a beautiful Turkish kilim and some Turkish pottery. A day well spent if you ask me.

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However, the day was not over yet, we had a session booked in a Hamam to scrub away our tired bodies and any worries of all the money we spent. Hamam is the Turkish name for the famed Turkish bath; usually the spa is split by gender, but we managed to find supposedly the only Hamam in Istanbul where couples could go through the treatment together. The Suleymaniye Hamam is a 10 minute walk from the Grand Bazaar. When we walked through a door dated 1557 into a traditional and lavish living room I knew we made the right decision.

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The price for the treatment is a steep 40 euros per person, but the whole experience is worth it. After changing into our spa outfits, we started off in a hot (very hot) room where we lay on an ancient (I hope) marble slab sweating our lives away. After a while we were ushered into the smaller rooms inside the hot room and properly “exfoliated”! I must admit I was expecting it to be a lot more painful than it actually was, so having gone through the experience, I can fearlessly recommend it to anyone, even people who are pain intolerant like me. After being scrubbed, soaped and bathed by a male masseuse, we were escorted outside where we dried ourselves before being wrapped from head to toe. And that was the end of the hamam treatment. On a rainy afternoon, I’d go again!

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Our last day in Istanbul before flying off was spent in the Spice Bazaar. My Sri Lankan, spice loving senses had a field day! This was the place to buy anything from spices (obviously! as the name suggests) to tea and coffee to especially mouthwatering Turkish delights and other sweet Turkish delicacies. We were advised not to buy anything from inside the bazaar as it’s overpriced and vendors and known to cheat! But we had to walk inside and feast our eyes on the pyramids of multi colored spices, lines of dried chili and tomatoes hanging from the shop ceilings and an array of sweets with tasting samples (the boys made maximum use of those samples, much to my embarrassment). Once outside the bazaar we zeroed in on one store from which we bought all that we needed – spices, Turkish delight, pistachios and dried fruit. Our bags were now a few kilos heavier than they should be!

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We had purposely skipped the attractions on the more developed side of Istanbul like Taksim square to spend enough time feasting our senses in various nooks and corners of the old town.

I left Turkish food right to the end only because had I mentioned it earlier you may have rushed out hungry and not read this in its entirety. Turkish food…oh…Turkish food…I can sing about it and I can dance for it. Heaven on a platter. A pottery seller in the Grand Bazaar summed it the best, “Turkey may not have the most beautiful sites, the richest history or the best people. But it has the best food and no other country can compete.” I may not fully agree with his exaggeration, but Turkish food was simply delightful. You must try everything – the meats, the vegetables, the warm breads, the dips, the pickles, the tooth numbing sweets. If it looks weird, don’t be afraid, looks and taste have no correlation. Everything is fresh! Everything has a distinct flavor that explodes in your mouth. My all-time favorite was grilled paprika (OMG! Yummmm…) which sometimes comes in the mezze platter and…….wait for it…Kozde Patlican! Grilled eggplant, oooooozing with butter and garlic, heart stopping! As a pure non vegetarian I’m a little bit surprised that no meat dish made it to the top, let’s blame it on the extra fresh Mediterranean vegetables.

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I must mention that both my favorite dishes were from the same restaurant. The Old Ottoman Café, an unassuming little place down an alley in the Sultanhamet is well worth the mention.

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Turkey has a notable tea and coffee drinking culture. Turkish tea & Turkish coffee, of course! its not for the faint palatted. A tiny cup of Turkish coffee is half filled with ground coffee powder, you can obviously only drink the liquid sitting on top, which is just half the cup. But with a scrumptious little Turkish delight, this is the perfect night cap (for those like me who’s sleep is not afraid of caffeine).

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And then there is the whole drama around Turkish ice cream. Sometimes annoying, but mostly fascinating, these guys really make you work for your ice cream!

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Our time in Istanbul was up and we boarded a plane to Cappadocia. That story is for next time, till then here are my top tips for Istanbul:

Must buy – I’m sure you will buy everything from pottery to carpets to spices and sweets, so I’m not going to waste time advising on those. The definite buy for me was pomegranate juice-ish, vinegar-ish substance. You know the amazing combination of olive oil and balsamic when eating bread or in salads? Replace that with the pomegranate substance, heaven!

Must eat – yes you will eat every type of kebab and lots of meat. But if like me you notice the many empty half foil covered pots outside every restaurant you must try the pottery kebabs. The taste of course differs depending on where you eat it from, but the fanfare and drama around it is well worth ordering this dish. But like I said before grilled paprika & Kozde Patlican were my absolute favorites.

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Must do – the hamam of course! Some may think it’s a little pricey, but most places I checked offered a similar rate. You can find a hamam in every nook and corner. It’s a purely Turkish experience, not to be missed!

Must see – the view from the top. Istanbul has a beautiful skyline. So whether you see it from the top of one of the many rooftop restaurants or the top of the Galata tower or even from on board a boat on the Bosphorus, it’s a magnificent sight.

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An Arctic Adventure in Search of Aurora Borealis

“Arctic?!? No way!! You guys are crazy” was pretty much the response we got from any and everyone who heard of our trip. There were moments when I wondered myself if I was crazy, especially when we were buying clothes to prep for the trip. We are islanders. Period. 30 degrees, sun, sand and sea – that’s how we lived all our lives. So venturing out to almost the North Pole was bordering on crazy. But there were too many once in a lifetime things which can happen only that north, so we had to do it.

A few days in Stockholm, acclimatizing ourselves to sub zero temperature, we boarded a flight to Lulea to start our adventure – one that would help possibly tick two items off our bucket list – 1) see the elusive Aurora Borealis and 2) spend a night on ice.

We spent the first night in a hotel with tree houses for rooms! After checking in, we hiked 500m to our own unique little house up on the trees. We had picked the breathtaking mirror cube.

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There was also the not so blue ‘Blue Cone’, ‘the UFO’, ‘the Dragon Fly’, ‘the Cabin’ and ‘the Bird’s Nest’ in the vicinity.

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A group of journalists from the French Channel 5 were doing a documentary on the hotel and found out that a group of Sri Lankans had ventured out into the arctic. Their curiosity got the better of them and we were interviewed, filmed and featured in their travel program! We were feeling like celebrities and it was only day 1!

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After our near famous encounter with the French journalists we decided to take a cat nap in the early evening because there was unfortunately very little hope of seeing the northern lights due to extremely cloudy skies. As we were drifting into a peaceful slumber we were woken up by the shrill of the phone – it was the reception saying that the lights were out. We rushed to layer ourselves and dashed out of our tree houses. But there was nothing visible except for some light white clouds. It was then that I remembered a blog I’d read some time ago that said they saw the northern lights as white clouds but long exposure photographs revealed the elusive green lights. So we tried that and sure enough, there it was – the traveling streaks of Aurora Borealis.

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But there wasn’t much to see to the naked eye, was that it? Was that what the fuss was all about? Slightly disappointed we went off to sleep after dinner. It was then that we got the second call saying the lights were out and it was very strong. We only had to open our doors to see the green hues in the sky all around us, behind the pine tree forest. One look skywards and my heart stopped. The northern lights were out in all it’s glory and put on a show of a lifetime!

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We stood for hours in sub zero temperature admiring natures own fireworks. It had no sign of stopping, showing off hues of green, purple and red. After a while the cold got to our bones, so we called it a night.

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The next day we woke up to a bright and sunny winter day and took a 5 hour train ride to Abisko, a little village up in the arctic mountains known for it’s light shows. The train crossed into the arctic circle and we whizzed past miles and miles of snow covered forests. At first they were thick forests and gradually the trees became short and sparse and vanished all together. All that was left was miles and miles of mountains and nothingness that reminded me of the ice planet in interstellar.

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We arrived at our mountain lodge set up on a small hill on the banks of Lake Torneträsk. This ginormous lake apparently ensured that clouds didn’t stick in the sky and this increased our chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

After having reindeer for dinner (forgive me Rudolph) we wore a gazillion layers and trekked our way up to the foot of yet another mountain to take a chair lift up to the Aurora Sky Station. A viewing deck set up just to monitor and see the northern lights. They gave us warm overalls that weighed a ton, and given our primal fear of the cold we wore it and made our way up the lift looking like mini yetis.

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The ride up the chairlift was cold and eerie. The clouds covered the top of the mountain and everything was pitch black. Maybe it was a good thing I couldn’t see how far down the ground was, I’m not entirely a fan of heights.

We spent 3 good hours in the sky station, freezing our ***** off waiting against all odds for the clouds to clear and the lights to start. Unfortunately for us the cloud cover was so thick, there was absolutely no chance of seeing the lights that night. We had the option of spending the night in the sky station and taking the chairlift back in the morning when it started at 8am expecting the lights to show. But we opted to sleep on our comfortable warm beds back in the lodge. Good call, since the clouds never cleared.

Day 3 morning started with meeting Peter, our guide and hopping into his snowmobile drawn sled before heading off on our own snowmobile adventure. Pramodh and I got a snowmobile to share and of course he drove first. We made our way into the Abisko National Park, we rode through the forest, over creeks and across lakes before lo and behold it started snowing. Oh what beauty. This was the first time I was experiencing a proper snow shower.

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I immediately fell in love with the white flakes falling from above. This was perfection. I could almost forgive the clouds for blocking the aurora last night.

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It was my turn to ride. What an amazing experience, the wind in my face, semi frozen fingers and no complains. The forest opened up to reveal a beautiful frozen lake and we rode right across. I may have exceeded the speed limit here, but I couldn’t help myself.

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We took a break for a hot cuppa, made snow angels and attempted to make a snow man before riding back to the village through the wilderness.

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That night we were meeting the folks from Lappaland Media for a Aurora photo course. We hiked down towards the lake from the lodge and set up camp right in the middle of the frozen Lake Torneträsk to learn the basics of Aurora photography. Nikalas our instructor had built a cute little igloo so we started taking test shots of it when her majesty Aurora Borealis decided to make an appearance (yes! Twice in three days). It wasn’t as strong as the first day but it danced all over the sky and gave us a great show. 

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Standing in the middle of a frozen lake in temperatures waaaay below zero looking up at the sky and admiring this light show was truly humbling. For all the man made marvels and advances in science, nature does have a way of making you feel small. 

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The next morning we set out to explore our surroundings while the sun was still out. We discovered a frozen river, a dead drop cliff and a Sami village. 

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Not bad for a few hours of wandering about. And that afternoon we caught the train and headed south to Kiruna and checked into the Ice Hotel! 

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Don’t ask me why sleeping on ice made it to my bucket list, but it did. So here we were, in the banks of the Thorne River, the site of probably one of the greatest living art projects – the Ice Hotel

The Ice Hotel is built up from scratch every year using ice from the Thorne River. When spring comes the hotel melts and flows back into the river. A perfect cycle. I would have probably gotten bored and given up in year 3, but the artists behind this amazing creation have been doing it for 25 years! 

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From the outside its a bit disappointing because all you see is a short building with reindeer skin covered doors. But when you open those doors, oh boy..you step into the most amazing frozen castle, like something out of the movie Frozen. I could be Elsa and live here! 

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Every bit of the castle is carved to perfection – the ice chandeliers, the long beautiful corridor, the seats and tables – stunning! 

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And then there are the Art Suites! Each one different from the other, each one created by a set of artists with a story to tell. 

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After admiring this epic art project we hit the bar! So this, ladies and gentleman marks the first time I was intoxicated; in front of my in laws no less! I blame it partly on the cold and partly on the very handsome swede who served the drinks. When I picked my first drink his comment was “oh that’s a rare choice. Only a strong few can handle the spice!” So how was I to back down from there. Drinks were served in ice glasses that melted away bit by bit with every sip. There might have been 3 maybe 4 shots that followed..oh well..I was a light drinker and badly needed the dinner that followed. I could only pray that no one noticed me accidentally dropping my phone into the gravy three times. What’s a girl gonna do if her phone decided to test gravity!?!

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After dinner we made our way to the hotel’s dressing room and equipped ourself with everything we needed to survive the night – a sleeping bag made for -40 degrees although it was only -5 inside, hats to cover our heads and scarfs to cover our faces and thick socks. Clad in our thermals as adviced we carried our gear and walked to the hotel. That’s when the lights decided to come out for the night with a show almost as strong as what we saw the first night. Of course Pramodh by this time had seen all he wanted to of the northern lights, especially after the first night’s epic show; he didn’t want to stand outside freezing in his thermals. So we rushed inside and made our way through the ice corridor and found our room. 

The ice bed in the centre had reindeer skin and a soft mattress. We set up our sleeping bag and jumped inside. I wasn’t sure if I would survive the night. I woke up a few times and had serious doubts. But we had each other and the thick sleeping bag for warmth, so we did in fact make it through the night. When the staff woke us up with warm Lingonberry juice the next morning, not only was I happy to be alive (and not frozen), I was also very proud of myself for braving the cold. 

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As a reward we all went dog sledding! A sled drawn by 11 Alaskan huskies was waiting for us by the river. What beautiful dogs! They absolutely loved running and did not want to stay still. So till we got on to the sled and they got the signal to go, there was a complete ruckus – non stop barking, jumping and pulling. 

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It was a thrilling experience once again speeding through forests, across frozen lakes and rivers, watching the dogs eat ice every few mins while running in perfect formation. 

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There is one thing you need to know if you want to enjoy dog sledding – do not sit in front of the sled. Those dogs fart. ALOT. And they poo throughout the ride. Not a pleasant sight or smell. Other than that everything else was perfect. DSC_0353  DSC_0383

Our last adventure before heading back to the tropics was an encounter with a herd of reindeer who lived in a Sami Village. We got the chance to pet and feed them before saying goodbye to the Arctic.

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We got pretty lucky, the Aurora Borealis danced for us 3 out of the 4 nights we were out in the arctic, we raced snowmobiles while it was snowing, lived in a tree house, got featured on the French Channel 5, survived a night on ice and rode a dog sled through the beautiful arctic landscape. There aren’t too many other things that come close to this adventure.