Mallorca 2009

Aterrizó en Palma en el 19 de Junio 2009. Muy excitado por la idea de vivir en Mallorca por 3 meses, no habià pensado a la difficultades potenciales de no hablar el idioma del país tan bien. Encontrar mi piso fue la razon que me lo hizó realizar. No entendià nadie y nadie me entendià. Despuès 2 horas de de búsqueda sin éxito, renunció y decidió de coger un taxi… solo para descubrir que estaba a 200m de mi destino.

Pues, las proximas semanas no van a estar facil!

Una vez bien instalado, la primera cosa que llamó mi atención en Palma fuí su luminosidad increíble. No solo porque el sol siempre està en el cielo, pero también porque las piedras de los edificios reflejan la luz de manera calurosa. Y como trabajaba solo por las mañanas, tenía mucho tiempo para descubrir la ciudad y sus barrios. No me acuerdo cuantas horas he pasado a explorar sus calles, a pasear por su puerto o a barzonear en sus tiendas.

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Las palmeras también participan en este medio ambiente muy particular que hace de Palma una ciudad unica.

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Un monumento situado a aproximamente 3 kilometros del centro de Palma disfruta de una vista muy especial: el Castell de Bellver. Su nombre viene del catalàn antiguo y significa “bella vista”. Construido sobre una colina y 112m por encima del nivel del mar, sus paredes ofrecen una posición excepcional para admirar la ciudad y su puerto.

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Un poco de historía: fue construido en el siglo XIV, principalmente con piedra del mismo monte, como residencia principal de la familia real Mallorquina. Claro, elementos defensivos fueron incorporados en une forma circular, caracteristica unica de los castillos de la epoca en Europa. Hoy, està configuracíon siempre es unica en España.

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La torre del homenaje (si alguién sabe a quíen està dedicado), también circular, està separada del resto del castillo.

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Defendió solamente 3 asiendos en 1343, 1391 y 1521. No creo que la isla occupa una posición muy strategica en España y en Europa para justificar atacarla. Pero es una destinación perfecta para vacaciones. 😉 Para terminar, fue utilisado de maneras variadas, como prisión hasta el medio de los 1950s, y ahorra como museo de la historía de Palma de Mallorca.

La ciudad de Palma contiene multiples sitios a descubrir. Va a enchantar cada persona caminando por sus calles. Pero la belleza de Mallorca no para a las murallas de su castillo o a su costa con el mar Mediterraneo. La isla tiene mucho màs riquezas a revelar.

Sóller. Una ciudad de 13,000 habitantes a algunos 25km al norte de Palma. Se situa en un valle cercada de collinas de la Serra de Tramuntana. A menudo descrita como la màs guapa de la isla, fue llamada “Vall D’Or” por los Arabes. Como los adjetivos superlativos no faltan sobre su encanto, decidió de ir a descubrir Sóller. De todas la maneras de viajar, he escogido la màs original y unica: el ferrocarril de Sóller, llevando pasajeros desde 1912.

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A mi llegada, descubro el tramway antiguo que transporta la gente dentro de la ciudad.

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Llevando los ojos, todo lo que veo son colinas y bosque. La vista desde alli tiene que ser buena. Vale, empiezo el ascenso para disfrutar de esta vista sobre Sóller. Y después de 2 horas de esfuerzo y de sudor, el paisaje se revela. También se ve el puerto de Sóller a la izquierda.

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De vuelta en el centro, aprovecho de una buena cerveza desde la terraza de un café de la Plaça de la Constitució.

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Fin del día, el ferrocaril llega en la estación para devolver me a Palma a través del campo mallorquina.

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Me gustó mucho esta visita de Sóller. Esta ciudad pequeña merece verdaderamente sus calificativos.

Para continuar la exploración del este de Mallorca, fuí de caminata al Puig des Teix, a 1062m de altitud. Forma parte de la unica cadena montañosa de la isla, la Serra de Tramuntana. Como la llegada se situa un poco más alto que el nivel del mar, la subida es muy rapida. Cristian, un amigo chileno, y su novia me acompañaron en esta excursión.

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El relieve ofrece una vista increíble sobre la costa oeste de Mallorca.

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Y eso es el panorama del plato en la cima.

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Pollença

El sábado 1 de Agosto, Eylin y Augusto, nuestros coinquilino, nos cogimos Quentin y yo a Pollença.

Cada año, del 26 de Julio al 2 de Agosto, Pollença celebra las Fiestas de la Patrona. Concertios, espectáculos y otras exhibiciónes variadas se organizan en las calles de este pueblo del norte de Mallorca. Las fiestas se terminan por el Simulacro de Moros y Cristianos, en conmemoración de la victoria de los pollencins contra 1,500 moros en 1550. Desgraciadamente, fuimos el día precedente y no pudimos asistir a la representación.

Al programa de la jornada, barca a pedal, buceo con tuba…

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… playa…

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… a peritivo con sangría y vino

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Fue una buena fiesta y, la próxima vez, iré en el 2 de Agosto para asistir a la simulación de la batalla de 1550.

CAP DE FORMENTOR

Me acuerdo del Cap de Formentor como el paisaje lo mas spectucular de Mallorca. La agua de un azul muy fuerte, los acantilados abruptos y una vista hasta el horizonte hacen del punto lo mas al norte de la isla une lugar paradisiaco.

Estaba con Angel, une collega de trabajo.

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Y del camino, ya la vista me deja sin respiración.

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Vemos una torre, mucho màs elevada. La vista de allí tiene que ser mucho màs impresionante.

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En realidad, es mucho mejor!

Vemos la bahía de Pollençà al premier plano, y la bahía de Alcúdia detrás…

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… y al otro lado, el Cap de Formentor.

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ALCUDIA

La historia de Alcúdia se remonta a la era romana, in 123 b.c. Estaba llamada Pollentia, que significa “poder” en latino. Creció por 300 años hasta que la disminución del negocio y la llegada de vándalos forzaron la población a abandonar la ciudad. Las ruinas ahorra se pueden visitar a Sa Portella. Alcúdia y su muralla actua fueron construida en el siglo XIV.

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El camino sobra las murallas es muy agradable…

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La sombra de las calles estrechas permite de protegerse del sol ardiente.

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La visita de Alcúdia completa el descubrimiento del Norte de Mallorca. El panorama està differente que el del oeste, los pueblos tienen sus propios carácteres pero es tan bellissimo. El viaje se continua hacia el este y sus cuevas.

Cuevas de Artà

La cuesta este de Mallorca es como un queso de “gruyère” ( no sé si se dice así en español :s ). Se puede encontrar no menos de 5 cuevas muy importantes en menos de 40km. Empezamos nuestra visita en el pueblo de Canyamel.

Y nos vamos a descubrir las Cuevas d’Artà con estalactitas y estalagmitas innumerables.

Es muy probably que estas cuevas han sido habitadas desde mucho tiempo por los habitantes primitivos de la isla.

Se situa 46m encima del nivel del mar y la vista de la entrada es vertiginosa.

El paisaje aqui tambien el lo de un postal.

La visita se termina por una vista de la playal. El Torrent de Canyamel no alcanza el mar y se queda en la arena.

Fuera en direccíon del sur, fuimos a visitar las cuevas del Drach. Son mucho màs impresionantes en mi opinion gracia a su lago subterráneo. Con sus 177m de longitud, es considerado como uno de los màs grande del mundo. Un concierto de musíca classica y una travesía del lago en barca hacen de la visita un momento inolvidable.

La visita del este completa la exploracíon de Mallorca Ahorra es el tiempo de volver a Francia para continuar mis estudios. Durante estos 3 mese, me enamoré con la isla. Es un paraíso y estoy de seguro de visitarla muchas otras veces. Tiene mucho màs riquezas a revelar. Hasta pronto Mallorca!

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Aurora Borealis, Iceland 2013

Aurora Borealis! A fascinating phenomenon which can only be seen around the arctic circle. More commonly known as Northern Lights, this wind of solar particules or something like th…, actually who cares??? All I know is that I am intrigued by the northern lights, I’ve seen lots of pictures on the internet, it seems beautiful and I want to see them myself. So 2013 is the year for that, the decision is made. I’m going to Iceland!

But when? As you probably know, the particularity of countries closest to the poles is that the days are extremely long in the summer (I mean that nights are as short as 1 hour, which is not even very dark) and extremely short in the winter (like 1 hour day light). And the best time of the year to see the Northern Lights is … winter! Hum! Well, the best compromise between daylight and Aurora season seems to be October. Days and nights are about the same and Northern Lights just start to make their appearance.

So, the 11th of October has come and I take off from London Heathrow late after work, direction Reykjavik! This time, I am doing this trip on my own. I have only planned my activities for the first day, the rest is completely indecise. I will have a car so I can be free to go wherever I want whether it’s on snow or across rivers. But now it’s about midnight and I arrive in my hostel Reykjavik backpackers. No time to lose, tomorrow is going to be a big day so I need to go some rest because…

Day 1 – Silfra

I’M GOING DIVING!!!

What? In Iceland? YES!

In October? SURE!

Is the water not cold? IT IS! (about 1 degree celsius)

But it’s got one of the best visibility in the world. It happens inside Þingvellir national park. The north american plaque and the eurasian plaque are moving away from each other, creating a massive Fault across Iceland (with volcanoes and earthquakes of course). So here, there is a crack in the ground called Silfra. The glacier melt and the water travels through the rocks for thousands of years, gets filtered of all it’s impurities and reach this crack absolutely pure. Once, we’ve arrived at the site (we as the group, there is 4 of us but I forgot the names of the others… oups), I can witness the clarity of the water. I can’t wait to get in!

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But like I said, the water is near freezing temperature so we need to wear dry suits. As its name, the suit isolates the diver from water maintaing a pocket of air, allowing him to stay dry. The only difficulty is that there is a larger volume of air getting affected by depth and pressure changes which make it more difficult to control buoyancy. There is normally a diving course for it but, well, it can’t be that hard! Now that we’re well equipped to fight the cold, we’re entering the water… I’ve been in there for 30 seconds and already can’t feel my lips. But the rest of my body is surprinsingly warm. We can descend a bit deeper and begin our progress inside the crack. And once we come out of the little entry pool, the spectacle starts! Cristal clear water, endless visibility, I feel like I’m flying!

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Don’t look for me in the foreground, I’m down the bottom.

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There isn’t a lot of wildlife, but lots of volcanic rock formations. But actually, controlling the dry suit is very difficult. I spend most of the first dive trying to adjust my buoyancy so I didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I could have. Now we’re low on air so we need to come out. And it’s hard. Now I’m really cold and I need to walk for 500m back to the van to get another bottle. On the way back, the others report that their dry suit has leaked so they’re all wet of cold water… Haha, mine didn’t! I feel sorry for them. But well, there is not much that can be done so we swap tanks and go back in the water for the second dive. I enjoyed this one a lot more. We could a few pictures, touching Europe with one hand and America with the other. I noticed that the bottom seemed really fluffy so I approached, extended my hand expecting it to touch a hard surface. Instead, it went straight through without any resistance, creating a big cloud of dust. Well, volcanic ash actually, from the various eruptions of Icelandic volcanoes which has settled in a light and deep bed. Beurk, out of here! We continued using the same path as we did for the first dive to reach the same exit. These dives are very particular, the sensation is exceptional and I will surely never forget this experience… nor taking the suits off in the cold wind.

I feel like my bones are shivering. I urgently put some warm clothes back on, jump in the van and turn the heating up. But even after the drive back to town, I’m not warmed up. So I go straight for a very hot shower. Ohhhhh, that feels so goooood! … Hang on a second… I smell something… Wow, IT STINKS!!! No I haven’t farted, it’s actually the water. It probably comes from natural sources, is full of sulfur which (for those who don’t know) smells like rotten egg… But well, it’s really warm and that’s what I need right now so I’m definitely staying for another hour.

Now that my body has recovered is normally operating temperature, I head out in the cold for the emblematic monument of Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja church (have you tried to pronounce it yet?).

When I get there, the sky i burning orange so I quickly set the tripod and start shooting.

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I actually stayed there for a few hours. The light conditions changed so fast that every 30 minutes, I could get a different picture. But then I captured one I was really happy about.

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And when you are in Reykjavik, what else to terminate a first very exciting day than some fish for dinner?

Day 2 – Rekjavik

Today I am exploring the northernmost capital of the world. And that excludes going to see whales. So I head straight to the port to book my ticket for an afternoon tour. But before the boat ropes off, I have plenty of time to walk around the city centre. Just so you know, there are slighly more than 300,000 people living in Iceland and about 120,000 in Reykjavik. But the city has a lot of history linked to the vikings, the discovery of the island and the expansion of the settlement. But more importantly, it’s very charming.

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I think there is something specific in the atmosphere very unique to polar cities (I don’t know if the terms exist but if it didn’t, now it does). I can easily imagine the streets full of snow but with with a sense of warmth. Also, the icelandic people seem very helpful. When asking for directions, advice for tourist destinations or some food, I have always had a great contact with them, which is very pleasant. But now it’s 1pm and I’m embarking on the boat to go whale watching. Let’s hope that I will see more than the deep blue of the sea.

After an hour into the cold watching around, the first minke whale shows up at the surface. It is the second smallest species of whale, its average length being around 7 meters. But you know what? The brain of a minke whale has 12.8 million neocortical neurons and 98.2 billion neocortical glia! … Anyway, what it doesn’t do is jump out of the water as I was hoping for, humback whales do that. Damn it! All we get to see is the whale’s back and dorsal fin.

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When the whales are diving back deep into the ocean, the white beaked dolphins remain to keep us company. I’m sure you really want to know how many neocortical neurons and glia they have, no? Sorry, I don’t know and Wikipedia doesn’t say.

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And the last mammal in the area is the harbour porpoise, smallest marine mammal. It reaches a maximum length of less than 2 meters and weight of about 75 kg.

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It’s now 5pm, I’m back at the hostel waiting for my car to be delivered (nice service). I’ve asked for the smallest 4WD and I get a Suzuki Grand Vitara. Nice 🙂 Without losing a second, I turn the ignition on to get out of town and drive east towards the Golden Circle: Gulfoss, Geysir and Þingvellir. I drive across the Fault where I dived yesterday so I take the chance to capture the impressive cracks in the area, evidence of the terrible forces in action under the Earth’s crust.

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Once I’ve crossed the Fault, the road goes slighlty uphill. From there, it’s difficult to watch the road given the breathtaking views over Þingvellir national park.

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At this point I started to think about where to stay tonight. I have three options. The first is to stay here and sleep in my car (I’ve got a really nice view after all). The second is to find somewhere to pitch my tent (but it’s pretty cold outside). And the third one is to open my travel guide to find a hostel (comfy option). Guess which one I went for? Yeahhh, the comfy one! I drove for another dozen kilometers to a town called Laugarvatn. To be honest with you, I was more attracted by the food than anything else. My amazing travel guide says that there is a very good restaurant a few hundred meters away from the hostel which serve a deliciously juicy raindeer burger. Baldur, the chef here is quite famous, having managed number of renoun restaurants in New York, Paris and other capitals. Well, let’s got and try this burger then! And effectively, it is juicy and it is delicious.

Now do you remember what I came to Iceland for? That’s right, Aurora Borealis. So I discuss with the world-known chef of the restaurant in the 10-inhabitant village. He shows me his app which indicates the forecasted strength and likeliness of northern lights. It seems unlikely tonight. Also, I need a clear sky to see them and no light pollution. But anyway, I’ve got nothing to lose so I drive back where I came from to get away from the town’s light. after a while, I look to my right and I can see some dancing green lights, YOUHOU! You can’t imagine how excited I am. I pull over and get out of the car to watch that. It’s beautiful! They’re a bit far and not like I’ve seen in pictures of movies but it doesn’t matter. I. AM. WATCHING. NORTHERN. LIGHTS.

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I drive a bit more to see if I can get a better spot and by the time I stop again, it seems they got a little bit stronger.

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I can’t believe my eyes… MAAAN! I see the Aurora Borealis I was looking for on the first night!

I stayed out for a couple of hours that night. Never got tired of the spectacle. Staying in my car for the night seemed even more attractive now. But they started to weaken and slowly disappear, which I took as a sign telling me that I had to go to bed!

Day 3 – Golden Circle

The second stop is only a few kilometers away from the small town of Laugarvatn. It’s an area where water comes out of the Earth in powerful and steamy vertical streams. It’s called Geysir. This is where the word geyser comes from.

I enter the park and discover a field full of steamy pools. And it doesn’t take long before I hear a recognizable “Pssssssshhhhhhh” (the noise of the geyser 🙂 ). Ladies and Gentlemen, let me present to you STROKKUR!

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Strokkur is the most active geyser in the world. It erupts on average every 4 minutes to a height of 20m. It’s really impressive to watch the flat surface of the water, the bubble of pressured gas rising rapidly and breaking into the air and up into the sky. But what about Geysir? The father of all geysers? Well, it can erupt up to 70m high, just not very often. This is because some tourists took it for some sort of animal, thinking that throwing stones into it would wake him up… Well done, the result is the opposite. The stones have obstructed the chimney and stopped its activity.

Now, I need to find a good spot to have a view over the entire geothermal area. And just behind me is a small rocky peak. That will do. A short half an hour of climbing and here I am.

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Strokkur is the big one in the middle, which has just erupted, Geysir is at the left end of the picture and there are a number of others which I haven’t seen in action. But shortly after I took this picture, it started to snow. I’m not actually that cold as long as I keep moving. And finding the warmth of the car is always quite enjoyable.

Then I stop at Gulfoss, the weather is really not great. It’s windy, it’s cold and because it’s is a waterfall, it’s very humid. It falls into a crevice of 32 m in two stages.

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And the mist freezes over the grass next to the fall.

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Now I need to see where to go this afternoon, let’s sit and do that over a cup of coffee. I am planning on going to Landmannalaugar, higher up next to the volcanoe Hekla. There is a famous and beautiful hike that starts there and finish in Þórsmörk. But the staff in the coffee shop informs me that the road is closed at this time of year because of the snow. Arf! Anyway, let’s see how far I can go, I haven’t rented a 4×4 not to enjoy what it can do. I get back on the road, in an area not frequented by anyone really. In the horizon, the glacier and underneath Hekla can be seen.

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But soon I need to leave the road to enter a gigantic field of volcanic rock and dust. That’s really fun!

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The car is really good, it’s got less grip so it slides a little bit but in a very controlled manner. I drive for about an hour in the direction of Hekla. But the landscape doesn’t change much and I have no certainty to get where I want because of the snow. I’ve had some fund but now it’s time to return towards civilisation. Furthermore, I would like to keep some time to go hiking around Hekla if possible. And to do that, I have seen on the map a hostel in the area that I need to get to. But at my arrival, I feel like entering a ghost town, no one and no cars around. Anyway, I stop and try to see if the main building is open. I walk in and discover a man inside who is very surprised to see me. Because actually, the site is closed. He’s happy to open a room for me but there is no possibility to have anything to eat anywhere around. :s Doesn’t sound like too much fun! Change of plans then, direction the ferry terminal to go on a small island at the south of Iceland called Vestmannaeyjar.

On the way, I drive past the Seljalandsfoss waterfall.

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I’m leaving the car on land and hop on the ferry. I have no certainty that I will find somewhere to stay. But there is a town, with real people living there so, fingers crossed, there will be something open.

By the time, I step out of the ferry, it’s night time… and raining. I need to walk for about 20 minutes to a hotel I’ve seen on the map 🙁 .Oh, and did I already mention that people are extremely nice in Iceland? I must have but I’m doing it again. Just outside the port, a car pulls over in front of me and drop the passenger window. The lady of a certain age with her husband offer to take me where I need to go. They’ve never heard of the hotel but they know the street and are more than happy to help me find it. This is very much appreciated and I welcome the proposal. We find the place after a short search, which is open. Excellent. I thank the locals for their help, leave my bags in the room and terminate the day by an excellent fish for dinner.

Day 4 – Vestmannaeyjar

When I get up, the rain hasn’t stopped and the sky is still very depressing. Arrrgh! But anyway, I’ll have some breakfast and be ready for when the sun appears. As I imagined, I am alone in the hotel restaurant, there definitely isn’t many tourists here at this time of year. Some local (and quite unusual products) are offered, like shrimp or fish jam… I didn’t know that even existed! Looking through the window, I drink one coffee… two… three… And as I almost lost hope for the day, I see the sun piercing through the clouds. By the time I’m out, it’s a clear sky.

I’m heading to the volcano Eldfell, one of the youngest in the world. A fissure opened about 1km from the town centre on the 23rd of January 1973, creating a torrential flow of lava. It has been estimated at around 100 cubic meter per second, which, in a couple of days, created a 100m tall cone. Of course, the people are evacuated in emergency. The lava covered a part of the town and was threatening to close the harbour, which would have made any return to the island pointless. A large lava-cooling operation was carried out to slow down and deviate the flow. They successfully saved the harbour by stopping the lava far enough to leave a 10-m passage. The eruption stopped in early July. The cone is 220m high and the surface of the island has increased by 20%.

The path to the summit takes me through large fields of volcanic rocks. Shortly I reach a ridge, marking more or less where the fissure opened 40 years ago. And at that point I noticed something strange. Steam was rising from the volcano slopes. I touch the ground and… it’s warm! Heat is still generated by the volcano and that evaporates the rain water.

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Then I walk along the ridge to the end and there, some chimneys reject extremely hot air. I notice them because of the visual deformation it causes. You know like looking at something through the back of a formula one car, or a plane engine, it’s sort of blurry. The good thing is, the ambient temperature is not very far from zero, so warming my hands up in a volcanic chimney is nice. But the rock itself is burning, I don’t know the temperature but maybe 70 or 80 degrees. Handy as I actually spend about two hours looking at the 360 view. On one side, there is the glacier Eyjafjallajökul in the background.

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Looking west, there is the town of Heimaey.

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In the foreground, the reddish rock is what remains of the fissure. Then if you look right above it, you can see the lava that flowed and destroyed many houses, it’s that greenish patch which seem to penetrate into the town centre. And in the background, the rocky with vertical cliffs, that’s where I’m going now. Apparently, it’s possible to see some puffins there, even in October.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that weather is chaning fast in Iceland. By the time I have crossed the town reached the bottom of the cliffs, sun is no more and it’s raining. Not too much for now so I’m definitely attempting to climb up. It is very steep. The small rocky cliffs are passed with ladders whih you can see on the image below.

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The rain is getting more intense but so are the views over the island. The rocks are very slippery so I am really careful not to break my neck. Now I reach the bottom of a ladder, quite difficult to reach. Anyway, it’s impossible from right below.

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And it really isn’t easy from the side either.

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There is no way I can reach the ladder and grab it, I will have to jump. With the risk of falling down, breaking both my legs and my camera. So I take the sign, it’s time to go back down. The rain is very heavy and I’m glad to reach the ferry terminal so I can wait in the dry.

From the boat, on the way back to mainland, the views over the island is amazing. The storm blocks the light so it feels like it’s night.

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I am heading east now to find a place for the night. I stop in Vik, southernmost town of Iceland. So far, the places I’ve stayed at (apart from Reykjavik) were empty and I was the only customer. But this time, the hostel is full. This is because it is situated on the Ring Road which goes all around Iceland and tourists usually stay on it. But lucky enough, I get one of the last beds.

After dinner, I look up to the sky but can’t really see any trace of Aurora. There is also a freezing wind blowing which doesn’t really motivate me to stay outside. Hum… Well I need to go and have a look anyway. I stop at the hostel, grab my tripod and start looking for a good spot around without too much light pollution. I can see a church slighly outside the town on the top of a hill. it should be good from there. And as walk up, I start to see some dancing shapes in the sky. They’re here! I run to the top of the hill so I don’t lose a single second of this magic moment. They’re a lot more active than two days ago. It’s beautiful! The green lights cross the sky like curtains gently touched by a breeze. And when they go quiet in one part of the sky, it’s to better explode in the other end.

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The temperature is very cold but the wind is freezing. I don’t have extreme weather clothes and I can tell you that even my bones are cold. But the spectacle is so amazing, no way I’m going to bed now.

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Three hours that I’ve been standing here contemplating the sky, completely alone.

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Now it is time to go to bed or I won’t have enough energy tomorrow. The image of the Aurora Borealis from that night will always stay engraved in my mind.

Day 5 – Skaftafell National Park

In the morning of day 5, I share the morning coffee with Guy, a professional photographer from Guernsey. He’s also travelling a lot and we’re heading to the same direction today, Skaftafell National Park. Vatnajökull is a huge glacier, the largest of Iceland. It covers 8% of the country’s surface. And like any other, it moves. The snow accumalated during the winter turns into ice which pushes the glacier to slide down through a corridor between mountain, creating outlet glaciers. Skaftafellsjökull is one of them.

The roads takes me through an amazing landscape.

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Which can change radically from a minute to another.

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(If you ever go to Iceland, please don’t drive off road. I know it’s tempting but the tyre prints will remain and ruin the land).

There are a number of hikes possible to do in the area. The one I chose is about 7km long and will take me to a ridge above the Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue. But all the way, the landscapte is truly amazing. From peaceful water streams…

 

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…to beautiful waterfalls…

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… and through lots of snow. There aren’t many people taking this trail so it’s still very fresh. I’ve always loved snow. It’s pure, elegant, simple and make any landscape beautiful. I reach the ridge after a couple of hours and the view is great. But the sun is behind clouds. It’s cold, my feet are wet and the landscape isn’t as great as it could be. There is no point staying here too long, let’s head down to the warmth of my Grand Vitara.

I make an encounter on the way with a local bird wandering on the trail. We play hide and seek for a few minutes: I get closer, he runs further on the path but he’s still on the way so I get closer and he runs again… until he realises that the bushes are nicer place to be.

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The hike down still provides its share of breathtaking scenery.

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By the time I reach the bottom, something like 400m lower and one and a half hour later, I realise that the clouds are gone and the sun is quickly descending in an orange glow. “The light must be amazing up there!” No hesitation, I begin the hike back up… the run actually. I need to be there now or the light will be gone… I get up there, sun is still enlighting the glacier but for not very long… A few seconds to install my tripod, take a few shots and BOOM, it’s in the box…

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Only a couple of minutes after I took the shot the entire scene became shadow as the sun disappears behing the mountains. Pfiou, I almost missed it. Now I can look at my phone, it took me 45 minutes to ascend what took me 1 hour and 30 minutes to descend!

By the time I reach my car, it’s completely dark. I re-join the ring road, heading to a city called Hofn at the very east of Iceland. I find the hostel, get the key to my room and usually my day ends at this point. I get my bed ready, find something to eat and go to sleep. But not today. When I enter the room, I notice that all beds are already taken. Bugger! But a guy shows me a door saying there is another room just behind it. I walk in and discover only 2 beds and 1 free. Great, I’m going to have a very peaceful night, far from the crowd of the bigger room. Well, I couldn’t be more wrong… My roommate was closer to a bear with an awful cold with a amplifier instead of a mouth. Turn the volume up and listen to this!

This is driving me crazy!!! Even my ear plugs won’t stop my noise going to my ears… I’m going to have a great night…

Day 6 – Jökulsárlón

I am not going further east today. I am beginning the journey back towards the West. The first stop is the lagoon of Jökulsárlón. It’s essentially a lake formed by the molten ice from the Vatnajökull glacier. But before they melt, the blocks of ice will break from the glacier and into the lake. The lagoon is full of icebergs.

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And apparently, a group of seals live in the lagoon.

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All visitors stay next to the road, where the lagoon join with the sea. But I’m thinking of walking on its shore until the glacier itself. Hopefully, I’ll see the ice break off and fall into the water. Should be amazing. And it’s only late morning so I have a lot of time ahead of me. So let’s go. After an hour, I can hear the spectacle I’m hoping to see. Loud cracking sound followed by a big “splash“. That’s encouraging, let’s keep walking… But after a while, I notice that I don’t seem to get any closer. The glacier still looks as small as from the road. Humm, I’m in the right direction anyway, I’ll get there at some point. But after another couple of hours, I still haven’t reached it. I look at the map, see what’s the topography of this side of the lagoon.

Stupid idiot!!!

The side I’m on is made of a number of small bays which, first, make the distance so much longer and, second, open to a river… I’ll never reach the glacier!!! The other side, however, seems almost straight with no obstacles on the way. I should have looked at the map before… lesson learned.

On my 3-hour walk back to the road, I find some nicely shaped icebergs.

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There is a lot to choose from.

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I have took a small one from the water and took it to my mouth. I thought it’d be cool to drink million-years old water. After all, who’s ever had the chance of ever licking something this old?

Are you wondering what these black layers of dirt are doing in the ice? Well, they’re layers of ash from the countless volcanic eruptions of icelandic history.

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On the way I even find the skeleton of what I think to be a seahorse (because of the shape). Quite cool, huh? (So cool that I even took it back home to London as I thought it was very rare… only to find out it was the skeleton of just a random fish, only it was bended in a unusual way…)

When I reach the road, the tide is low which means the lagoon is flowing into the sea, carrying big pieces of ice.

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After all, there’s quite a lot of them.

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They’ll then stop on the black sand to create a scenery out of this world…

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I thought I’d try to hike on the other side but it’s getting late, the sun is coming down and I have to drive back to Vik where I stayed two nights ago.

Day 7 – Þórsmörk

This morning I’m heading to Þórsmörk, which guides and reviews describe as a little paradise. But the sun is hidden by thick grey clouds, I’m no sure it’s going to clear today. But on the road, the weather creates fascinating phenomenons. First, clouds seem to overflow over the edge of the mountain, a little bit like liquid nitrogen.

 

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Then the waterfall of which water doesn’t fall but rises. Strong wind is pushing it as soon as it goes over the edge.

 

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I park my car at Seljalandsfoss waterfall where I’m going to take a bus. This is because we need to cross large rivers which could be too deep for my car, even though it’s a 4×4. We’re only 3 in the bus including the driver. This destination seems to be popular in the summer but abandoned in the autumn when tourists don’t deviate from the ring road. At my arrival, I grab a map of the surrounding trails and head toward the hills. The weather is horrible, despite the rainbow.

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If the horizon was clear, I’m sure the landscape would be beautiful.

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A number of rivers flow from the several glaciers of the area.

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At the end of my short walk (feels like I’m walking into a water saturated air, horrible), I see the sign to Landmannalaugar; start of a famour and apparently incredible 3-day hike. I wanted to try bnut at this time of year, there is a meter of snow there and it’s unaccessible.

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The plan for the afternoon is very chilled out. Coffee in the living room area, reading travel books. But then I remember than there is a natural spring and a sauna next to it. I’ve got time to kill, let’s give it a go. While I’m in the sauna, Magnus comes and tell me that he needs to go somewhere and will be back in an hour. Great, I’m alone. 🙂 And what’s best than swimming naked in a natural hot spring without anybody to watch? I enter the water (it must be about 30°C while the aire temparature is not far from 0°C), sit down and let myself slide down to the middle of the pool. This is good…

But there is a slight problem: warm water + sun shine = algae. The surfaces of the pool are covered and extremely slippery. So slippery that I can’t move from where I am, in the middle of the pool. The edges are too far for me to grab them and pull myself out. Shit! I am naked in the middle of a natural hot spring and I can’t get out… Now I’m going to have to wait for Magnus to come back and get me out… naked… what a shame!!!

No there is no way I’m letting this happen, I must get out. After 10 minutes of efforts, I finally reach the edge of the pool with the tip of my finger and pull myself out. Ouf! Soon Magnus is back (I’ve got clothes on héhé) and he’s getting dinner ready. The Iceland football national team is playing tonight for the 2014 world cup qualifying. The occasion to share a beer for my last evening in Iceland

Tomorrow all I’ve got to do is get back to my car and drive to the airport. I’ve spent a week on the edge of wilderness and I’m heading back to civilisation. The population density country is only 3.1 inhabitant per km², more than 30 times less than the Europe average. And that leaves plenty of untouched land for nature to show its beauty. From ice to lava, glacier to volcanoe, waterfall to hot springs, Iceland is shaped by the constant battle of elements. By day, the landscape is as breathtaking as it is wild. At night? Well, one of the most unique and extraordinary phenomenon on Earth called Aurora Borealis liven up the sky for a truly unforgettable experience. I’ve only discovered the south coast of the country, I will definitely plan soon to explore the rest.

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If only I had gills, Azores, Portugal 2016

When it comes to European diving, options aren’t numerous. In the crystal clear waters of Malta or in the far north of Scotland, shipwrecks are fantastic. But wildlife is scarce. I am sure there are many species of sharks, rays and marine mammals in the Mediterranean but it doesn’t seem there is one good spot from which to see them. Well, not in mainland at least. Far from shore, there is one place which offers just that. I didn’t come across it easily as it isn’t a popular diving destination but I am sure it will soon become one. Sharks and rays are almost guaranteed sightings there and many whale and dolphin species are regular visitors. Although it is quite litterally in the middle of the Atlantique Ocean, it is part of Portugal, making it one of the best European diving destinations to anyone who’s been there. The land there is the witness of brutal geologic activities going on under Earth’s crust. In fact, the nine islands are located on 3 different tectonic plates: the North American Plate, the Eurasian Plate and the African Plate. I am talking about the Azores Archipelago.

Sao Miguel island

It’s a long and painful journey to arrive at Ponta Delgada airport on the island of Sao Miguel, considered the main one. There I meet up with my parents for our first family holiday since I was a teenager. Yayyy 😀 I have to admit, I cannot wait to get underwater and the plan for the first day is just that. There isn’t much to see around Ponta Delgada apart from the wreck of a liberty ship which sank in WWII called the Dori. There is lots of metal on it, and I’m pretty sure it’s not all from the ship but probably also the cargo it was transporting to Europe. I always find it somewhat unreal when large fish come to frequent a wreck, which on this dive was a great barracuda. img_0590-1The day wouldn’t be complete with the best part of every dive holiday, the cold beer out in the sun.

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Most of the architecture in the area is similar to the facade of this church. Black volcanic rock is the most abundant material to use for buildings which are then painted in white creating an aesthetical contrast but also keep the heat away in the summer months.

The next couple of days are spent exploring the land (not very big, the island is barely a few kilometers wide). At Lagoa de Furnas, the ground is steaming.

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The water is boiling.

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Azoreans take advantage of the hot ground to cook the local meat stew.

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Hum, I can smell it as they take the pots out of the natural ovens, it makes me really hungry 😀dsc_0241

Even inside the local town of Furnas, boiling water is coming to the surface releasing a terrible sulfuric odor…

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Which comes to our advantage when relaxing our feet in 50 degrees water pool, although it is a bit too hot for mummy hahah.dsc_1920-1

Nearby, warm iron-saturated water comes out of the ground and is directed into a larger pool. I don’t know if it is supposed to be good for the skin, but it certainly isn’t for my white swimming shorts, now of a disgusting uneven brownish colour… :s

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But other than hot spots, the land is scared by past volcanic activitiy and craters are now filled with water. I am now looking over the Lagoa Azul, one of the two lakes in the Caldeira do Alferes, on the west side of the island. I am planning on hiking all the way around it, walking on the ridge we can see in the distance.

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The weather here is very peculiar. For the entire afternoon, clouds remain over the lake. But the path itself, being on the edge and closer to the sea, is also permanantly lit by the tropical sun.

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Approaching the sea, the view is absolutely stunning. Only a narrow and steep wall separates the lake from the ocean…

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… the path winding on its edge.

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That’s it for my stay on the island of Sao Miguel. Like I mentioned, there are nine islands making up the Azores. One in particular is drawing attention, to most people because of its volcano, the highest peak of Portugal, culminating at 2,351m. But to me, it’s the underwater wonders that draw me there.

Pico island

Humpback whales, blue whales, sperm whales and many others. Bottlenose dolphins, atlantic spotted dolphins, striped dolphins and again, many others. Blue sharks, mako sharks, devil rays, manta rays and, once again, many more species. You see where I’m going? The wildlife visiting the waters surrounding Pico is just astonishing and I am really looking forward to go and look for it. But first, it might be worth putting this into context. The Azores are located on large oceanic currents which animals use to travel. Rising from hundreds of meters deep, volcanic seamounts provide opportunities for many marine species to come to the surface to feed, rest and mate. The wildlife is so abundant that sightings are almost guaranteed. And I have to say, I got pretty lucky.

Princess Alice bank is located nearly 50 miles away from shore and it takes a minimum of 3 hours to get there. This oceanic seamount is completely underwater, the top of it some 40m underneath the surface.

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Divers hang on the line descending from the boat, waiting for something cool to happen.

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And today is pretty amazing. A school of 40+ mobula rays turn up and swim past us…

img_0616An incredible spectacle, at least from what I can remember… My mind was not ready to witness and record this unique moment. I don’t know if it’s the effect of excitement or nitrogen narcosis (cause by breathing nitrogen at depth), or maybe both, but I can barely remember this dive… A bit like after a heavy night out, you know you’ve had a good time, maybe you’ve got a few images stuck in your head, but that’s it! You’re missing all the connections and most of the reasons why you’ve had a good time! To add to the frustration, my camera settings were all wrong so I couldn’t even rely on it to try and bring back some memory…

I am so angry with myself for completely missing this moment, I book another trip to Princess Alice in the same evening for another opportunity to see mobulas. In the mean time, there is plenty more trips planned, the next one being with sharks.

There are two types present in the Azores waters: the blue shark, very graceful with its very thin body up to 3m in length, and the mako shark, shorter and bulkier but fastest of all reaching speeds of up to 75 km/h. I have previously freedived with the first in England (yes there are sharks in the Channel), in Cornwall. I had such a good time that I’m really looking forward to getting back in the water with them. I’m also really excited with the possibility of seeing the second, a much rarer and more special encounter. But first, we need to get chumming and Stefano is the lucky one having to prepare the lovely mixture. haha 🙂dsc_0309I have read a lot about shark diving in the Azores, mostly associated with negative publicity from the fact that the sharks are fed. This is not true!!! It may be a practice used by certain dive operators but not the standard rule and certainly not a method used by CW Azores. Sharks are attracted with a “fishy juice” that smells strong but can’t feed them. I guess it’s a bit like chicken stock, it tastes great but you’re certainly not going to make a meal from it right? Anyway, three blue sharks turned up and, curious that they are, got very close. Here are the best shots.

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One of them even had a sort of remora fish (I guess) in its gills.

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There is something else about Pico that make it a really attractive destination to most grape amateurs: its landscape is classified as a Unesco World Heritage site. It specifically has to do with the vineyards. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it is definitely not in a climate zone normally appropriate for wine making. However, early settlers worked out that they could surround the vines with black volcanic rock. During daytime, the plants would enjoy hours of sunlight and the stones would get heated up by the sun. At night, these stones would release the accumulated warmth and create a micro-climate, allowing the vines ot grow and the grape to mature in unique conditions. Unfortunaly, phylloxera hit in the late 19th century and put a stop to Pico’s wine production. However, the land remains marked by this part of the island’s history.

We head to a place called Cachorro (portuguese for dog) because of the distinctive shape of a natural volcanic rock sculpture.

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Along the coasts remain the evidence of small ports where the wine barrels were loaded onto small boats and then transported onto larger ships just a few miles offsore.

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Very recently, a number of cooperatives are trying to revive the industry and restore the long-abandoned vineyards. I would certainly miss the opportunity to get a taste of the local grape juice. 😀 😀 😀

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Have you noticed in the corner? The perfect minibar! I’m definitely getting one of these in my house one day héhéhé 🙂

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But the call of the sea is stronger and I am very quickly on a boat again, heading to Princess Alice Bank one last time. After the 3-hour journey, about half of the boat is sick but, luckily, I’m ok and I spend the first hour relying on my lungs as tanks. The activity is pretty low and I switch back to the traditional cylinder for the second dive… which ends up being the most boring and most fantastic dive of my life. Apart from a few rays passing by very quickly, I spend the first 70 minutes staring at an empty blue ocean. It’s so frustrating given the spectacle that I got to see a few days before (but can barely remember). However, a mobula finally turned up and gave Stefano and myself an even more unique spectacle. It circled around us for 10 minutes, coming extremely close and allowing for some fantastic clsoe ups.

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I love the pure curves of the animal gliding in the water towards me.

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The air in my cylinder is about to run out but I can’t get my eyes off the beautiful fish.

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The mobula alters its direction only a few meters away from me and passes within arm’s reach for a great portrait and a clsoe view to the two remoras stuck on it.

img_0741-edit-2_reduced-sizeI don’t think the dive could have ended much better than this, a combination of extremes. I am the happiest man in the world and the images are printing in my head in the 3-hour trip back to Pico.

Right, I’ve got only two days lefti n this trip. I have had a great time with blue sharks, a fantastic time with mobula rays but I’m still to experience the unforgettable experience with dolphins. And that’s not despite trying, I’ve already been on two trips! Yes they have been very good as we’ve seen a pod of common dolphins the first time and atlantic spotted dolphins the second time. But they stayed quite far and I am sure it can get better. And I’m not the kind of person who is going to give up! After a day spent getting wet while making an attempt to climb Mt Pico in the clouds, I head for my third (and last) dolphin trip. I fly in the afternoon so fingers crossed, I’ll be lucky.

Three hours have gone and we’ve just seen a pod of common dolphins in the distance… not looking too good. But at the last minute and literally 4 hours before I’m due to take off, we find a pod of bottlenose doplhins, the largest species and that of the famous Flipper. They are also very curious and give me another absoutely mind-blowing moment with marine wildlife.

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He looks really happy smiley dolphin this one doesn’t he???

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But the still images don’t quite do justice to the moment. The group of dolphins isn’t too shy and sticks around for a bit, some individuals checking me out. I can play and play the video again, this is certainly one of my best underwater interaction with a marine animal of my life!

Once again, persistence pays off and the numerous and long hours of searching were definitely worth the last few minutes. Now it’s time to head back to the continent. I’m late on my schedule but I should be alright to catch my flight. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. I’m just the happiest man in the world right now. And before I have the time to sit back or look at my images, I am at the airport waiting to board on my flight back home. Now is the time to review all the videos of sharks, rays and dolphins, all condensed in a short film.

Wow, the Azores have been asbolutely incredible. The underwater world of Pico is unique and I can’t think of any other place in the world that can provide so many opportunities to see iconic species like here. I think I have absolutely loved it because it is relatively undiscovered. Mass tourism has not quite reached these islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean so it still remains very authentic. Part of me would like it to stay like this as it gives the destination its charm and attractiveness. However, the other part of me knows that for the wildlife to be protected, it needs the revenue from tourism. I also wish for wildlife and underwater lovers to discover this incredible place, which gave me unforgettable memories. And let’s not forget, one of the best thing about diving is the time spent relaxing in the evening with a glass of wine in the hand, a tasty dinner on the table and the company of family. 😀

In the heart of Maya’s territory, Guatemala 2014

Day 1 – 6 El Mirador

I actually landed in Guatemala late the day before and spent a night in a hotel close to the airport. I have heard and read a lot about the country’s capital being unsafe and I got a glimpse of it. The neighborhood in which I stayed was completely locked up. The gate was secured by guards with heavy firearms, there were fences everywhere, not really the Care Bears World. Maybe a little bit too much? Anyway, there are many places higher on my priority list so I’ll pass this time.

I have booked my flight to the North of the country for the following morning, to the city of Flores. On landing, the sun is here to welcome our arrival and temperature is 30°C at 8am. Great!!! That’s exactly what I was looking for coming to Guatemala. Neil, the owner of the hostel, picks me up to take me to his little paradise. He is a very friendly Belicean who moved to Guatemala living the good life with his wife. The centre of Flores is actually a small island on the lake Péten Itza. But my bed awaits in the small town of San Miguel, across the lake. After a 5 minutes boat ride (called “lancha”), I step back in time, to what life seemed to be like in the 1950s. Pigs, chickens and other animals are free in the street, people live in cabans made of recycled material and the tourism doesn’t seem to have made its way here. Neil explains me that it is so isolated (the only access is via the boat), that is hasn’t been able to develop as quickly as in the mainland. We then reach the hostel and the landscape is literally amazing. It is built on a hill surrounding the lake you have a 180° view over the lake and Flores Island. Fantastic, this is like paradise!

My bag dropped, I head back to the city centre, my camera in hand. The streets are extremely colourful, all houses painted in different tones. The contrasts are stunning. Even at 10 in the morning, the sun was burning hot! It also meant that the light was very harsh and the shadows very pronounced which isn’t great for photography. I still managed to get the one below from a hill on the island, looking across the lake and the little town of San Miguel.

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Late morning, I stop my exploration to have some lunch in the restaurant lakeside. I stayed there for a couple of hours sipping cold soda and enjoying the view. What else would you want to do? This is what life is all about here. And what about a beer at the hostel terrace? That also sounds great! Unfortunately by the ti,e I got back, the beautiful white clouds had turned into uniform dark grey sky and the rain started to fall shortly after. Not much to do or see in these conditions.

I ordered some food at around 6:30pm. I was so tired and jetlagged that I fell asleep on the table The lady had to wake me up when she brought the dinner. The rain stopped, the sky started to clear out and the sun was coming down. Good conditions for a nice sunset shot.

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A bit frustrated by not being able to make most of the day, I go to the bed in the small bungalows realatively early. I have to wake up at 3:30 tomorrow and start the 5-days trek to El Mirador, lost Mayan complex in the Péten jungle. I can’t wait to see a bit more action! (…and hopefully a wild jaguar…)

The first part of the journey is a 3-hour ride in a 4WD on very bumpy road. We are going towards a small village, the last before the jungle where the community Carmelita is living. The people here are responsible for the land and provide guides to take tourists through the deep jungle. Of course, groups are never large for this type of expedition and only 3 of us took part to this adventure: François and Kine. At our arrival, I have mixed feelings. Some people are extremely welcoming and take us to have some breakfast in a very basic comedor. But we walk next to a large group of men completely wasted at 9 in the morning. One of them even seemed completely passed out! Hopefully our guide isn’t one of them… The breakfast was very traditional with scrambled eggs, roasted banana, tortillas and a sort of black puree that I couldn’t recognise. It is actually blackbeans mashed up called “frijoles”. Berkkk! At first bite I thought it was going to come out straight away. It made me feel terrible. I wanted to be polite and respectful but yet it was physically impossible to eat this. Even with loads of tortilla and eggs to mask the taste. I had to leave most of it in the plate as we got called to load the donkeys. Yes that’s right, donkeys! A dozen of them to take our bags, food, water, kitchenware and everything that we would need during these 5 days. We also meet our guide Miguel. He is a very short and skinny Guatemalan and, luckily, sober. Ouf! His wife also accompanies us to look after the camp and prepare our meals.

The expedition crew all packed up, we start our journey to the heart of the Mayan jungle. I realised after a couple of hours that this trek would be more painful than expected. The ground was unequal with larges holes in the dray and hard terrain. They are caused by the donkeys during the wet season when the path is muddy. “But what was he expecting?”, you must think. Well, I imagined myself a machete in the hand, cutting lianas and small trees to make my way through the jungle. Like Indiana Jones! 🙂 But instead we were on a highway, very painful for the feet, lot less heroic. The spider monkeys join our lunch break. These local primates have extremely long arms, legs and tales to jump from a branch to another. They are really agitated animals, handing onto branches and shaking them hard! At least they stay on pose so I have to time a few good photos.

 

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The path gets a little bit narrower as we got deeper into the jungle. We walk passed many Mayan tombs which, buried under some 1500 years of ground, leaves and trees, look like tiny little hills. Apart from the fact that all of them had been open by tomb robbers in search for valuable artefacts. A few hours later, I noticed that the hills were slighly bigger (a lot bigger actually). We had actually entered another lost Mayan city called “El Tintal”. The surrounding hills were not tombs but buried temples and palaces. I was extremely surprised to find such an important archeological site completely unexcavated. And it’s pretty obvious it’s here! But unfortunately it is very isolated and resources are not important enough to explore all sites in the country. We stood on a very wide plane surface which used to be a Mayan football pitch. Their ball game is not very well understood but the rules seem to be keeping the ball from the ground without using their feet, legs, hands, arms and head… Hip and chest only? It seems so.

At this time, the spider monkeys granted us of their company again, and showed the same agitation as their comrades earlier. I was taking my camera out to capture another few photos when I heard a branch cracking above me, which hit the ground a few meters away. So I moved a dozen meters and the monkeys followed, breaking more branches, touching ground clsoer and closer to us. They’re fucking attacking us!!! And they can be pretty accurate these little basterds! Miguel explained to me that they are a very aggressive species and we better get out of the area as soon as possible. We are chased away by monkeys…

Luckily they don’t follow us and we can reach a large edifice, in peace. It is called Henequén and used to be a Mayan brewery. We can still find the remains of ceramic drums in the surroundings. Miguel attaches the donkeys to a tree and tells us to climb and that he would join us in 5 minutes. What a steep climb! The steps are high and quite a large number of them. It is completely exhausted that I reach the top, but God the view is breathtaking. We are above the jungle canopy and we can see tree tops until the horizon. No sign of civilization!

But 15 minutes later, Miguel still hasn’t joined us. Nevermind, let’s climb down and meet him and his wife. But as I approach where we left them, I realise that they’re gone. No trace of them, of the donkeys or anything. I look around to see if they have moved somewhere else but they’ve simply disappeared. It sounds extrem but I started to imagine the worst “Miguel heard voices just before we went up and seemed scared. What if he told us to climb to protect us from illeagal loggers and they got kidnapped?” “What if they’ve just left us?” “Would we be able to find our way back to the community?” Haha, I laughed! Come on, let’s be serious! They can’t be far. As I understood the camp was supposingly very close (maybe a couple of kilometers), so I walked in that direction to try and find it while my comrades stayed and waited at the bottom of the edifice. As it used the be a Mayan city, this area of the forest is quite clear so I have no difficulty to find the path. A few minutes pass and I see nothing. All the questions are getting louder and louder in my head and my heart rate is increasing. I don’t want to believe it! Is this really happening? And as I was considering walking back, I finally saw Miguel appear on the path between the trees, with a bowl of watermelon. “Que te pasa?”, he said. “No pareces bien!”. So I explained him the story and he just literally laughed at me. And I laughed with him cause I felt pretty stupid. 🙂

We decided to head back to the camp, rest, have some dinner and we’ll climb back up later for the sunset. I was surprised that the camp was relatively elaborate compared to where we were. There was 2 wooden buildings whith tables and chairs, stowage and cooking station. The wood was already burning underneath it. The lady had prepared the refreshing drink, which was nice but would have been excellent if chilled. But hey, that’s not something we can expect in the middle of the jungle with temparetures reaching 40°C.

Back at the top of the temple (yes, a temple!), I am a bit disappointed with the sunset. There are loads of clouds and the sun disappeared quickly, way before it got it’s orangish colour. Well, I’m sure we’ll se a few others so we climb back. If there was still some light above the jungle canopy, underneath it is very dark. We need to find our way back to the light of our torches. At the camp, hot tea is waiting for us. They prepared it from some berries called “pimienta” that they’ve collected today from a jungle tree. It tastes fabulous. Suddenly, Miguel calls us to show womething. He’s found a tarentula next to the camp, about 7-8 cm. As I sit back on my chair to finish my tea, François looks at me very calmly and says “Be careful behind you above your shoulder!” I look back and there a scorpion standing there. And of course, we later found a snake in the gravel just next to the camp. You can imagine my reaction when I realised the zip of the tent was not going all the way and the bottom couldn’t be closed… Anything could enter via that strip. It is with the thought of that scoprion and all its babies that I fall asleep.

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As usual, I get up before the sun as I am still jetlagged and because we are going to climb the temple again for the sunrise. Only this time we are a bit luckier.

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Back in camp, we take our first breakfast in the jungle. Even then, the mashed frijoles are in my plate… I try to eat but I still can’t. I know it’s going to be a long day, 7-8 hours walk to El Mirador but the eggs will do. We pack up, load the donkeys and off we go for the 2nd day of the expedition. It is very quiet. I was expecting the wildlife to be a lot more active in the morning but we didn’t hear a sound other than our own. The path was a lot narrower than yesterday but still as unequal. Late morning, we enter the El Mirador National Park marking our progress through the very dense forest. Later on, a very loud and raucous sound disturbed the nature tranquility. I had read about this animal producing a dinosaur noise, the howler monkey. When a few of them decide to get active at the same time, they concert is very impressive. I read later on that this species of monkey was considered to be one the loudest animal on earth.

We know we were approaching the end of our journey as we reached the first excavated Mayan edifice called “La Muerta”. It used to be a residential complex but had been turned into tumbs, hence its name. As we were looking around, I spotted a hole on the side and entered the mortal chamber. The first one was easy to observe as the day light was reaching its walls. At the back, there was a small tunnel leading to the second chamber. It was so small that I had to crawl and both my shoulders were touching the walls. It would probably be easy to get stuck in here. It is now pitch black and full of bats. I feel a bit like Indiana Jones exploring old ruins at the light of the torch. Miguel who was just behind me, indicates to put my teeshirt over my nose as the bat shit generates toxic gas. There are also remains and blood of insects hunted by the new tenants.

Only an hour later, we reach the camp at the archeological site. Even though, it is mid afternoon, the energy level is relatively low and we remain in camp to rest for a bit. It is only an hour before sunset that we head to the closest pyramid to watch the sunset, EL Tigre.

Again, nothing was excavated in this area and only one of the two small structures on the main platform of the pyramid had been uncovered. A lot of archeological work was going on here but none of them was present. They are working 4 months per year. At that peace, it might take them 50 years to excavate the entire site. Anyway, the sunset was worth it this time.

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There was a few fireflies with us on the way back down to the camp. Of course, we were also expecting the more dangerous wildlife that we observed yesterday. But it didn’t show up the way we thought. After dinner, François decided to walk around the camp and only 5 minutes later, screamed as something stang him. He was wearing flip flops… Because it’s imposible to see in the drak, you never know what’s at your feet. It could be a branch, a mosquito or a snake. Miguel had a look, saw no blood, concluded it wasn’t a snake and sat him on a camp bench. A few minutes later, a snake came out of a hole in the ground and passed a few centimers from his foot. It could have been real this time. Only Miguel remained very relax and explained that this species wasn’t venimous. But still, how would we know!

Day 4 is dedicated to the exploration of the site. We start early to reach the top of La Danta (map above) before sunrise. The walk is actually longer than stated. After 30 minutes, you only reach the bottom of the structure. Its height of 72m, base surface of 180,000 square meters and volume of 2,800,000 cubic meters make La Danta one of the largest pyramid in the world. Reaching its top using the very high steps built by the Mayas will take you another 30 minutes.

Out of breathe, it is inside the cloud that we clim above the jungle canopy. The visibility is no logner than 10 meters and we’re all disappointed by the conditions. It takes a good hour for the sun to pierce but still the clouds are very dense. I use this time to explore the pyramid, climb down its walls, walk around it. The steps are so high and steep. How where the Mayas climbing these walls? I asked Miguel and he justified it with the average height of the Mayas being more than 2 meters. Of course, knowing that the locals in this region of the world are relatively short, I found it hard to believe. And in fact, I later found that they were about 1.5m tall on average… (I also found that crossed eyes and large foreheads were signs of utmost beauty. A prominent forehead dwarf with pronounced strabismus would be the top Maya’s model.) Anyway, despite the bad conditions, I found a good view point on one of the adjacent pyramid from which I could take nice shots. All I had to do was to wait for the sun to come up and light up the pyramid. So as my companions left the site to go back to the camp, I decided to stay at La Danta to get a nice picture. But after half an hour I thought it would take a while and a park ranger confirmed that the sun would be in position in 3 or 4 hours. I might as well have breakfast at the camp and come back later. Walking alone is actually excellent for seeing wildlife. Nobody talked, I walked silently and got to see a lot of the forest inhabitants: squirrels, wild boars and deers… Very exotic! But still no sign of the big cat. On the way back to the complex a couple of hours later, a howler monkey gave his presence away.

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Back at the top of La Danta, the clouds were gone, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. I spent 4 hours sitting on my little pyramid, taking a few photos but just enjoying the peace of the deep jungle and yes, hoping that a jaguar would show up. But they can smell humans from long distances and I can tell you that after 3 days in the forest and no shower facilities, mine was pretty strong.

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At the beginning of the afternoon, the walk back to the camp was a lot more quiet. The sun was at its highest and so was the temperature. I guess all animals are hiding away from these conditions. We went to visit the rest of the El Mirador site. There are many ohter complexes such as El Jaguar, El Leone and a palace probably built for the city top society members. I noticed a small wooden doors around the back which made me really curious. Apparently it leads inside the building where archeologists have find many Mayan masks. I was already dreaming about entering this, finding the way with a torch, exploring the edifice and making discoveries like Indiana Jones. 🙂

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The expedition (Miguel, François,Kine and myself) in front of a sculpted mask.

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For dinner, we had frijoles. This was the first time they were serving it for another meal than breakfast. I guess we had eaten all the nice stuff and only left was the food the easiest to preserve. Why does it have to be this? Pasta would do as well!

And breakfast of Day 5, that’s all we had. Frijoles and nothing else. This was going to be the hardest day of all, 7 hours walk, 25 kilometers, tiredness from the previous 3 days and I would have to start the journey with an empty stomach. It might not sound that bad but there I thought, “shit, I might collapse on the way!” But I didn’t. And by the way, the alarm this morning was a group of howler monkeys passing in the trees above the camp. When you know how loud can a single one be, I was still surprised by the noise produced by 20 of them just above my head.

I soon realised that this day was going to be even harder than I thought. My feet were covered in blisters from the first 2 days and that was extremely painful. The guide proposed to have a break a couple of time but we declined. Making a stop was a relief but restarting was a punishment. We walked like this, at a fairly fast pace, for 4 hours until lunch break. We had done so well that the camp of El Tintal was only a couple of hours away. At one point, Miguel stopped and I ended up at the front of the expedition. As nobody is walking in front of you, your view is only the jungle, the sounds are only the jungle and the feeling of being alone is stronger and exhilarating. The arrival at the camp was a relief. It meant an end (at least for today), to the suffering. I took my shoes off and, oh, that’s like an orgasm. I took two basins, filled them with brown water collected in a nearby swamp and bathed my feet. I hadn’t even noticed that the camp was extremely busy as a group of 30 people arrived to start archeologic work on the site for the next month.

As the evening approached, I started to feel a little bit sad. The journey was coming to its end. One more night in the jungle and tomorrow would be a short day back to the civilisation. I know it’s weird to think that, despite the pain, I am going to miss this. It was such an incredible experience. Trekking through the forest for days, sleeping in camps in the middle of it, in order to reach what is probably the largest Mayan City yet to be explored… that’s an extremely rewarding effort. Hopefully I can spot a jaguar tomorrow and I would be in heaven. The sunset that night had something special. Nobody talked, we all knew it was the last one, and I enjoyed every single second of it. I can’t describe it but I felt like I was sharing a moment with nature and I was in communion with it, after 4 days of efforts. I am sitting above one of the lungs of our planet and I think it makes me grateful. That evening, no animal came out and I went to bed looking forward to the last portion of our adventure.

Last day of this 5-day expedition, we all agree on a later start (still up by 6am). We don’t need to rush. We are only 4 hours away and we should arrive by late morning. Miguel offers two alternative routes: the one we took to get here (jungle highway) and a much smaller path a lot less frequented but a little bit longer. We go for the second one definitely. At this point I don’t admit it to anyone but I hope to increase our chances to encounter a jaguar or a puma. We very soon realised what Miguel meant by “a lot less frequented”. There was a lot more branches to cut on the way and there was absolutely no human footprint. I ended up again leading the expedition, determined to spot a wild cat. I led at the faster pace I could, to increase the gap between us and make sure the effort was intense enough so they don’t talk. I kept looking around me, next to ponds where they could come to drink or hunt, on inclined trees where they could warm up under the early morning sun or on the path which they probably use to travel quicker. But the jungle is very dense and seeing through it is impossible. The odds were on our side but we would also need some luck to make my dream come true.

After an hour, I heard Miguel yelling my name: “Guillermo! Guillermo!”. He wanted me to slow down and wait of his wife whom, by the way, he kept calling “cocinera” (= the cook). He explained that jaguars and pumas frequently use these paths to move through the jungle. “I knew it!” He also told us a story about a group of chicleros (people collecting the resin from a certain type of tree to make chewing gums) who came to this very jungle accompanied by a woman with her baby. As they went to work, they left the mother and her child at the camp. At their return, they found the baby crying and the woman dead, attacked by a jaguar. The animal had only eaten her breasts as it was looking for milk. Sad story… I asked Kine if she wanted to be first but she didn’t want to :s

So I stayed at the front and Miguel just behind me. But not for long. I was looking at the floor but didn’t see the snake until I almost stepped on it. Luckily for me, it got scared and escaped into a bush. I would say it was 2 or 3cm in diameter and probably 80cm to 1m long. At this point I think Miguel realised it was a bit dangerous and asked me to stay behind. And I’m glad he did. About an hour later, he suddenly stopped and reversed back into me. “Que pasa?”, I said. He showed me the snake that he also almost stepped on. Only this time the reptile wouldn’t move. So he decided to smoke a cigarette… Really? Is that the appropriate time for a break? But he actually blew the smoke to the snake… but nothing happened. It seemed asleep. So he took a branch and tried to move its head to wake him up. Then he tried to throw it back into the woods. The reaction was immediate. The snake took a defensive position, opening its mouth and making the typical whistling noise. WOW! Miguel got it to crawl a bit further with more branch hits and cigarette smoke and the path was free.

The last hour was relatively hard. My legs were weak. I felt immense pleasure when we came out of the forest and reached the land of Carmelita. The last few hundred meters back to the main house were extremely satisfying. It was all finished and we will have be able to relax for the rest of the day: having a shower, drinking chilled water, sleeping on a mattress. These things don’t seem like much but the ones you miss the most when you are outside civilisation are the basics. At this point, I caught myself thinking of the next trekk at the Lake Atitlan. Slighly shorter distance but in three days, with steep ascents and carrying all our supplies ourselves. I anticipate it’s going to be more difficult. Back at the house, I enjoyed a cold drink (that felt so good!), had some nice chicken and NO FUCKING FRIJOLES!!! The car taking us back to Flores is ready so it is time to say goodbye and thank you to the locals for this amazing adventure.

Back in Flores, I head straight to Chal Tun Ha hostel in San Miguel. I can’t wait for having a cold beer on the terrace overlooking the lake. And it was truly amazing. The most basic things in life can sometimes be the most pleasant. I love this place so much! Neil and his wife are so friendly and helpful, the view is breathtaking. In short, it’s a small piece of paradise. The plan for the rest of the day? A well deserved rest.

Day 7 – 8 Flores & Tikal National Park

On day 7, I naturally wake up at 5am so I can watch the sunrise over Flores. And by 6:30m, I’m in Flores town to capture the photos I couldn’t get on the first day. The light is very soft and brigthen the vivid colours of the painted houses.

The tuktuks are already wandering the main street.

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Whereas the adjacent streets are deserted.

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By 8am, the sun is already high enough to create large areas of shadows so it’s time to head back to the hostel. The rest of the morning is spent planning the next 3 days, starting with Tikal National Park in the afternoon. The Mayas arrived here in 700BC and developped the city to a size similar to the one that reamins today until AD 250. I had become an important cultural and religious centre in the region. From then, the rulers of Tikal became extremely belligerant, constantly attacking their neighbours of El Mirador, El Tinal, Uaxactun, Calakmul, etc. Its association with the city of Teotihuacán in present Mexico made Tikal the dominant kingdom in El Péten. By AD 550, its population was over 100,000 inhabitants. The king Jasaw Chan K’awiil I also called Ah Cacao took the throne in 682 and is responsible for building the temples that remain today. Around 900, the city declined misteriously, as did the entire Mayan civilisation. Although, the local population always knew of its presence, it is not until 1848 that the Guatemalan government sent an expedition to the site, leading to its exploration by archeologists over the next century. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Arrived at the park, I drop my bags at the camp site and head to Templo IV to watch the sunset. As I start walking, some guards offer me a lift to the Gran Plaza, centre of the Mayan city. This is staggering! Unlike El Mirador, the entire city has been excavated and all the pyramids are uncovered. This allows to realise the importance of the work carried out here, the symbol of the temples and the ceremonies that were ran around them. Below are a couple of view of the Templo Gran Jaguar.

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As the sun comes down, I need to hurry up and get to Temple IV which is probably another 30 minutes walk away. At the top, a large group tourists is already sat. It gives a great view over the jungle canopy and the Tikal temples. From up there we can see (left to right) Templo del Gran Jaguar, Templo II and Templo III.

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Back at the Gran Plaza, I spend some time taking some shots with the colourful sky. I wish I could still be at the top of Templo IV but the park guards wouldn’t let me.

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And soon another guard came to me at the plaza to tell me that I should be out of the park by now. Hozever, he offered me a private night tour of the park for a small tip. 🙂 I think it must be quite an experience to visit Mayan ruins under the stars and might have considered it if I didn’t have to get up at 3am to go watch the sunrise.

Atfer a night spent in a sauna, I cross again the park in the drak to reach the temple by 4am. Unfortunately, there are very think clouds all around and there is purely no sunrise. A shame. But as always in Guatemala, the sun appears and the sky clears an hour later. I can explore the park under pleasant weather.

Templo VI is unique as its back is covered by Mayan glyphs.

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I encounter a small animal called “pisote” on the way.

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Templo V is Tikal’s second tallest structure and unlike the other ones, rounded corners.

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El Mundo Perido is constituted of 38 structures. It is a vast ceremonial complex largely influenced by Teotihuacan architecture style.

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One of the smaller pyramids in the complex.

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Templo IV through the trees.

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Templo II, at the other extremity of the Gran Plaza.

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The Gran Plaza, Templo del Gran Jaguar on the right and Templo I on the left.

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For comparison, the pyramid of La Danta at El Mirador is so large that it could entirely cover the plaza of Tikal with both its temples and the acropolis behind.

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View of the Templo del Gran Jaguar from the top of Templo II.

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This marks the end of the first half of my trip in Guatemala, spent in the north part of the country. It is a region very rich in history and wilderness. Some areas are so remote that reaching them only make the trip more rewarding. I have heard of many large scale plans to facilitate access to a few sites burried deep in the jungle. May they never be born as they would very quickly destroy this area of true wilderness. This area of the world produces much of the oxygen we breathe and we must preserve it from illegal loggers despite their commercial value.

“Imagine if trees gave off wifi signals, we would be planting so many trees and we’d probably save the planet too… Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe!”

Now it’s time to head back to the south of the country. I spend the night in a bus taking me to Guatemala City. I will summarise the journey very briefly: a sit at the first row of the top floor, a windscreen completely cracked, no seatbelt, a driver with a particular liking for racing other cars with the confidence of Michael Schumacher and 483km of sinuous roads. Despite being aware of my chances not to make it, I managed to sleep all the way and we arrived in the bus terminal of GC slighly ahead of schedule. Straight away, I take another transport to a town called Chichicastenango.

Day 9 Chichicastenango

At my arrival I stop at a guesthouse called Posada del Arco. The room is lovely, well decorated with Mayan artifacts, balcony with view over the small garden and a large double bed. It will be a very relaxing stay after the first week spent camping in the jungle. Of course the family didn’t have a restaurant to serve meals but happily invited me in their kitchen to cook a nice breakfast. They’ve made me try so many different things from local teas and coffees to fresh fruits and nuts. The father was really curious about the western culture and also shared details about his own. He is K’iche’, the local population descendant from the Mayas, coming from a remote village and used to come to the market to sell goods by foot. Unlike msot Guatemalan, he had the chance to go and live abroad. It made him so much more open minded and aware about politics and economics affecting Guatemala and Central America. As surprising as it sounds, the town doesn’t have telephone lines and internet. There is a trial ongoing about ownership of land which stop providers to install the equipment. It’s been open for years and doesn’t seem to approach an end, but that didn’t seem to bother them at all. After an hour long chat I take my camera with a telephoto lense to capture spontaneous shots of the local people. Markets always give such amazing picture opportunities.

I knew I was reaching the city centre as the stalls were in the streets, completely packed. I also felt like a giant as I was at least 2 heads taller than everyone around me.

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I was amazed by the brightness of the colours in traditional Guatemalan clothing. For some reason, this applies only to women. I saw only a few men with traditional clothes, all others wearing common tee shirts and trousers.

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Unlike in many other touristic countries, a polite “No, Gracias” with a nice smile is enough for sellers to understand you’re not interested to buy their product. This was particualrly true for this woman, selling flower on the church stairs. She was completely immobile, contrasting with the surround bustle.

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Alright, this girl did try hard to sell me the small dolls she’s made, which I ended up buying against a portrait.

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Wandering around, I manage to capture moments of the local life.

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I had to buy something in those vivid colours… and I couldn’t resist buying a hamock. The traditional 2 minutes negotiation, final price at 150 quetzales and the deal is closed. I don’t know where I’m going to put it in my flat but I found it beautiful 🙂

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A well deserved relaxing lunch after several hours of exploration.

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I can observe the trading from a balcony above the fresh fruit and vegetable market.

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Even the younger ones do business 🙂

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Or simply wander around, curious about the various products on the tables.

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The activity from the morning has dropped and the streets are less busy. It means that the proportion seller/buyer increases. A lady came to me with bracelets and kept dropping the price as I was telling her I didn’t want them. She was so desperate. She begged me to buy those as they needed the money to live and feed her children. I had read about the women having to sell at ridiculous cost their handmade products so they could eat. I wasn’t feeling terribly good buying her bracelets at the low price she offered but I had no more cash to give her :s

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Now the streets are much more quiet and it’s time to head home.

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I enjoyed the peaceful garden of Posada El Arco, the first hot shower since the start of my trip and relaxed for a few hours. I actually felt bored so I went back down to look for some company with my hosts. They invited me for dinner in their kitchen again, offering various local vegetables, fruits, teas or coffees to try. During our talks, Don Pedro explained to me that he belongs to the K’iche’ ethnic group, descendant of the Mayan civilisation. They speak a dialect called the same and live in the highlands of Guatemala. His wife is of Spanish origin, the conquistadors her ancestors. I wish I had more time to spend with them to understand their way of living and their culture. I was sharing my travel plans, my next destination the city of Quetzaltenango (known as Xela), second largest of Guatemala and situated at 2,300 meters altitude. Don Pedro was also palnning on going there, so he kindly offered me a ride in the morning. After several nights spend camping in the jungle or in the front row of a crazy bus, I went to bed at 8pm to enjoy my first night in a comfortable bed and get maximum rest. I need it!

Day 10 Quetzaltenango

We arrived in Xela an hour before lunch and they dropped me off in front of my hostel. According to my travel guide (Lonely Planet as always), there doesn’t seem to be much to do. All sights are located around the “parqueo central”.

Below is the view across the park with the “Pasaje Enriquez” in the background, built in 1900.

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All that remains from the old church is the front wall. The new one was built just behind.

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The flags of Guatemala and the province are floating high.

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I was glad I had only half a day to spend in Xela. There is not much to see, not much to do. I was already looking forward to the morning to start the second trekk: reaching the Lake Atitlan through the volcano ranges.

Day 11-13 Xela – Lake Atitlan

As I thought, this trekk would have one significant difference to the first one: we will carry our bag ourselves. No donkey to help take the load off us! And that was quite a challenge. In my bag I had

– clothes for 3 days

– food for 3 days

– water for 3 days

– sleeping bag and mat

– all my camera kit of course

I’m not sure what the weight was but I’m sure it was heavy. That’s as far as my hostel room that I realised how challenging this would be. First, I could barely lift my bagpack to put it on my shoulders. Second my back and shoulders were in pain after 500 meters on my way to the starting point of expedition. How am I going to walk 45km and up to 3,050m with this weight on my back?

Anyway, I managed to reach the bus stop where we hoped on a chicken bus to get out of Xela. Now we are in a small village and we start the serious hike. The first portion is the steepest as we go straight to the highest point of the trekk at 3,050m. No need to tell you that this was both physically and mentally challenging. My legs weren’t used to carrying such a load and my arse was in a pain I had never known before… We stop for views over Santiaguito and Santa Maria volcanoes, the first so active that it erupts every 45 minutes. Passed the wooded slope, we walk through corn fields.

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We reach the first village inside the clouds. And apparently, it’s like this all the time, or almost.

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I am amazed by the fact that people are leaving at such heights, in such conditions. But I know it’s not by choice. Our guide from Quetzaltrekkers explained that the families don’t have enough money to pay for the bus their children would need to take to go to school. They support these families by helping the kids to get education (the money we paid was actually a donation). One of the girl from the village we are crossing actually had the chance to go to school thanks to the help of Quetzaltrekkers and she graduated from college. No need to say she first the first of her area, making proud and giving hope to the entire community.

We head back down soon after through rainforest, still inside the clouds. It’s quite chilly.

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We encounter many locals logging wood from the forest. This is a massive problem in this area of the world. Often illegally, loggers destroy the forests in an alarming pace, destroying entire ecosystems and the habitat of endangered species. The problem is that we don’t even know what we are losing. What is the true impact of deforestation on our environment? Some people even say it’s already too late to save the planet… There is no apparent solution to solve the problem as the locals rely heavily on this resource to feed their families and survive. Often I’m thinking that I should try to see as much of the world while it’s still possible.

Soon after, we reached a wide dirt road which tool us to the village where we are going to spend our night. I started to rain a little but but I couldn’t be bothered to put my rain gear on. I have to admit that I was a bit fed up with the day because of the bad weather, the fog and the absence of nice views. I just wanted to finish it as quickly as possible. And just like the rest of the day, we reached the village inside the cloud. We were hosted by a lady who had built a small annex to her house for the trekkers. She showed us the way to the public “tamascal”, the Guatemalan version of the sauna inherited from the Mayas. It is a small hut made of stone, up to hip height, in which they make a food fire to heat up a large amount of stones. You thend have two buckets of water, one hot and one cold, which you can mix to wash yourselfp up or throw onto the stones to create steam. It is very relaxing after a long day of efforts, invigorating! We had a quick dinner and then played some games with the rest of the group (Yes, Yes, No!, I can see you the moon!, I hate…!). The first one was actually great fun. The idea is to make somone believe that we have invented a story. He will try to discover it by asking questions to which answers can only be “yes” or “no”. But the trick is that there is no story and the answers will follow the same pattern “Yes”, “Yes”, “No, again and again. It created such an improbably story, complete madness 🙂

In the morning, the sky had cleared and the view from our room door was impressive.

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We actually come from the top of the ridge, on the right of the image, walked along it until the far left and then hiked down into the valley. Anyway, geared up and ready, we stop next door at the neighboor’s house for breakfast and head off for the longest day of the trekk. Seeing us crossing the village, all the kids seemed really excited, waving and greeting us with big smiles. We then walked passed the school and the children literally ran towards us. They loved photos. I was taking my camera up and they would immediately pose in front of it (but not putting a single smile). The second I took my camera down to look at the picture on the screen, they jumped allover me to take a look.

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The three boys were a lot more shy and stayed in the background. I am not quite sure if it was because they don’t want to join or if they are too reserved to ask. But when I go to speak to them they seem quite happy to pose for the camera, although it doesn’t look like it 🙂 I reckon they’re brothers, they look very much alike. What do you think?

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Batteries refilled, we continue our expedition towards to lake atitlan. Next stop? Record Hill!!!

There is a portion of a climb which is so steep that (apparently), you just want to get it done. So they’ve created the challenge to climb this portion as quickly as possible. The record is at 9 minutes something but completing it under 13 minutes is already a good effort. So I start in second position, a couple of minutes after the first guide, at a very steady pace. I realise after a 300 meters and it deserves its name. I am already out of breathe and my thighs are burning. Anyway, pain is secondary and I keep pushing. My bag is now feeling so much heavier, it feels like I’m carrying another person on my back! And it gets worse and worse at every step until I can’t continue any further… My legs are not only painful but they can barely carry me anymore, my heart beat has reached the roof and my lungs are burning like they’ve never been burning before. I have to take a break. And it feels so good… Air is flowing into my lungs, oxygen is going into my muscles, I just want to lay down to recover. But unfortunately, I have to keep going, I have to complete the second half. But 10 steps are enough to put me back into the red zone and I have to make so many breaks that I start to wonder whether I’m even going to be able to finish this climb. And to add to the mental difficulty, I am overtaken by the two girls who started 3 minutes after me (they have tiny, light backpacks but still). Attempting to set a record is no longer the objective, only finishing matters. Finally I see the three already arrived a couple of hundread meters away… this is finally over. For me it was 18 minutes of never ending pain!

But recover is quick. Water, nuts and we’re back on the trail. We reached another village around lunch time. People are working under the burning mid day sun, in the dust and often carrying heavy stuff (wood, tools, bricks, food, etc.). Despite the conditions, they also greet us as we walk pass them. They could be seeing us as tourists, only lucky to be born in Western Europe. But that’s not the case at all and I am amazed by the friendliness of the Guatemalans. This makes all the pain and weight go away in the blink of an eye. We can stop for lunch soon after and relax under the shade of a cliff. But that didn’t last long. All of a sudden, the sun disappeared behing thick dark clouds and big drops of rain started to fall. There is no point to hand around here for too long then so we put our ponchos on and start again. The ground was made slippery by the water. Later, two young tree loggers (less than 15 years old) had to stop their chain saw to let us pass. They not only take the trees down but they also cut the trunk in perfectly accurate, 3-meter long boards with no tool but their chain saw. I have never tried but I can imagine that it’s not too easy.

As the trail widens, the rain gets heavier. The dust turns into mud. One by one, we find ourselves arse on the ground with more or less damage. Even the locals stop their activities and head back to their village. Down into a valley, we encounter a few rivers which I just cross without trying to keep my feet dry. My shoes are already so wet that it won’t make a big difference. Suddenly, a very loud cracking sound breaks the monotony of the moment. The thunder joins the party. It’s proper apocalyptic weather! And amazingly, it’s not enough to take the smile off the face of the Guatemalans. Maybe they’re having a laugh about the western tourists having to hike under such water. The two young boys that we saw in the forest cutting wood wqlked by my side and start discussing. They’re big fan of football, particularly Barcelona and they’re actually cousins. I was also right about their age. I can’t remember exactly but I think the oldest was 16 and the youngest 13. Now there is a river splitting the trail in 2. The rainwater flowing downhill has created a 1-meter wide torrent! I guess that’s one of the first storm of the monsoon season and what a storm! However, it is not affecting my motivation whatsoever. It actually added some interest to the trekk and I’m really enjoying all of it. My physical condition is directly linked to my mental state. If I’m enjoying the moment, I don’t feel the load, the effort or the pain. On the other hand, if I’m bored or fed up, the load feels heavier and the physical effort more painful.

Atfer a couple of kilometers in a narrower path, filled with 15 centimers of water, we reach the final ascend of the day. Imagine a corn field, on a steep slope with the path “zigzaguing” across it. In normal conditions, they call it the “cornfield of death”. Today, the path is a muddy river. There is absolutely no way I can find grip to climb up. One step forward and I slide back 3 meters lower. This is so much effort! Reaching the top, the thunder has probably reached its maximum force. The moral in the team is pretty down but I’m having so much fun! The only concern I start to have at this point is for the following morning. We are supposed to get up early so we can watch the sun rise over the Lake Atitlan. So hopefully the sky will have cleared. But these storms never last long anyway, and the best sunrise or sunset always after storms. So we should be OK. Only a last 20 minutes and we reach the village of Xiprian where lives Don Pedro, our host for the night. And I saw a man with traditional clothes, riding his donkey and wearing a sombrero on the road passing us… that was the perfect cliché of the Mexican far west 🙂 And then a big 4×4 went passed him even faster, showing the contrast of modern Guatemala.

Soon we arrive at the house of Don Pedro, who welcomed us arms open. He shows us where we can dry our wet clothes so I straight away take my shoes and socks off. But since I had chosen camera gear over clothes, I don’t have any other dry change. So I am kindly invited inside the house to sit next to the fire and warm up. From there I could observe the family members from my chair in the corner. The mother was cooking (for us) next to me, the children were playing around me, one of the little boys was actually studying english so I could help him a little bit. After that, nobody really stayed up long. We had dinner and one by one went to sleep on the floor of the hall.

This day was so rich, eventful, exciting! Definitely one of the best of my trip! And I am really looking forward to tomorrow and reach lake Atitlan before the sun rise. After such a storm, the landscape can only be clear and breathtaking…

… well it wasn’t! It’s 3:30am and Sandra, our guide wakes us up as planned. But she’s got bad news, it’s still raining. The debate is whether it’s worth getting up and going up there, given the fact that it’s probably going to be cloudy. OF COURSE IT IS WORTH! If it is still raining and we can’t see the sun rise, then we would arrive earlier to our end destination. On the other hand, the sunrise could be amazing anyway or even the sky can clear by the time we get to the lookout point! Have we come all the way to here to give up now and potentially miss the most amazing view of this trekk? And for what? To stay in bed a few more hours? This is driving me maaaad! But some people in the group were equally reasonable and the majority decided to go anyway.

Despite a (very) few drops and some grumpy hikers, it all went well. Two policemen joined us just before the final climb to prevent unwanted encounters (robberies have happened several times in the past). I look up the sky and see some shades, which means the light is coming through. And finally we reach the top of the volcano, freeing the view over the lake Atitlan, beautiful!

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We are at the right spot to observe the volcano Pacaya in eruption, throwing ashes into the sky evenery 10 minutes.

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A couple of hours later, we make our way down to San Juan la Laguna. I spend a lot of time talking with the policemen, in spanish but also in english. They are trying really hard to learn the laguage. As we enter town, time to say goodbye and our group stops in a coffee roasting plant for a freshly roasted, freshly brewed coffee. (I brought some back if you’d like to try 😉 ) Then we hopped on a tuktuk to San Pedro for the moment we have all been waiting for: a cold beer next to the water… Fantastic moment! It’s amazing how going through challenging and demanding situations helps people to bond people quickly. I felt like I knew everyone for a lot more than 3 days and definitely felt nostalgic of leaving them. But they’re going in one direction, and I’m going to another across the lake. On the boat, I am feeling really good about the trekk. It was challenging and I’m even happier I did it with such a heavy bag that I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it at the start.

It takes me to the next stop of my journey, Santa Cruz. I stay at the hostel La Iguana Perdida because they have a dive shop here and I am planning on doing a couple of dives in the lake tomorrow. Apparently the water level has been rising at 1m per year since 2009, so there should be some fun things to see under the surface. But for now, it’s rest, rest and rest. A nice lunch, a shower (believe me, it’s rare enough to be highly appreciated) and a little bit of travel writing (worth noting that it is the first time I am up to date with my diary) before a long night sleep.

Day 14 Lake Atitlan

7am. Probably the latest time I wake up since the start of my trip in Guatemala. I can barely see the opposite shore of the lake, inside the cloud. As this is going to be a rainy day, I might as well be under water. Altitude diving is different than sea diving, because of the lower pressure from the atmosphere. Here at 1560m, it’s only 0.85 bar instead of 1 bar at sea level. As we went down, we stopped at a depth of 16m. Above this limit, visibility is OK, 3 or 4 meters. Below it, I can’t even see the tips of my fingers… Anyway there was a lot to see anyway. As the level of the lake is rising constantly, a lot of things have been swallowed: gardens, trees, pools, houses, bars and patios. There is even one where the water tap is still working (as so does the light switch which is a bit dangerous). There a few fishes but not many. In 1958, the local authorities introduced the black bass into the lake to develop sport fishing and attract tourists. But this species is extremely invasive and ate all the other fishes in the lake. They also fed from the eggs of a bird, the Atitlan Grebe, which used to nest on the water. Only found at the lake of the same name, this bird species is now extinct since 1991. There is also a lot of geothermal activity. The sand is hot in some places, hot water comes out of underwater chimneys. my dive instructor even brought an egg down so we could cook it in the boiling water from the earth. I even swam through an old tamascal, like the one I saw a few days ago. I am wondering if people still own their land underwater and whether they’re going to be owners again if the water level ever decreases. When we come out, the sun pierces through the cloud and helps to warm up. But not for very long.

In the afternoon, I have a lot more time to relax again. So I book a massage, to look after my body which hasn’t let me down so far even with the challenges I’ve put it through. And it did so much good. I felt so much better afterwards, my muscles a lot more relaxed. But there is not much more to do. The view is rubbish because of the weather and I’m not really motivated to go out and explore the surroundings. I am already thinking that the end of my trip is approaching. I’ve experienced so much, it’s been exceeding my expections by far. And I have yet to visit one of the most interesting cities, Antigua.

Day 15 (and last) Antigua

After a long drive by boat and shuttle, I arrive in Antigua “a las once y media”. Right, first thing to do… big lunch, pepian de pollo, guacamole and other local dishes. I want to really enjoy my last day in Guatemala. Once my stomach full, I go out to explore the city supposed to be “the” most attractive of the country. There are churches, cathedrals and other religious buildings everywhere. The Spanish really left their print here. But the Spanish Conquista isn’t the only important event to have shaped today’s Antigua. The surroundings volcanoes played their part too. Many of the historical edifices still bear the marks of the many earthquakes and eruptions: roofs have fallen, walls are cracked from top to bottom and ruins remain in the centre of the town. But despite being taken to the ground many times, the old Guatemalan capital has always managed to resuscitate. Time after time, walls were repaired, buildings were rebuilt. What we see today is a unique harmony between colonial history and strong cultural background.

Looking at the Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced, I am approached by a lady selling hand made scarves. She doesn’t take no for an answer and sits on the pavement next to me. Surprisingly, I am not feeling annoyed at all but quite curious about this woman. So we start a conversation about where I am from, what she does, where she lives. Her name is Maribel. Of course then she offers me one of her scarves again, telling me the story of it:

” Mira, son las piramides de los Mayas y aqui es el Quetzal, simbolo de Guatemala. Un regalito para tu Mama! Te lo vendo por 300 quetzales”, she says.

(Look, these are the pyramids of the Mayas and here is the Quetzal, symbol of Guatemala. A small gift for your Mummy! You can have it for 300 quetzales)

So I reply (smiling as always 🙂 ) “no, gracias. No puedo pagar 300 quetzales.”

Always ready with a reply, she taught me what negotiation was… To me… A buyer!

“Estamos en la calle, puedes negociar, yo digo 300, tu dices 250 y concordamos a un precio en el medio!” (You can negotiate, I say 300, you say 200 and we agree on a price in the middle!)

All of that was done in such a friendly way that I accept the play. And I felt like helping her out as well, so there we start:

Me: “OK, lo compro por 200 quetzales” (OK, I buy it for 200 quetzales)

Her: “250 Quetzales”

OK, I buy it! I didn’t want to do like other tourists and force her to sell what she made at a ridiculous price so didn’t push further. We continued talking about how long she takes to make her products. The one I bought is 3 days of work. Then every month, they come down to Antigua, her and other women from the village, for 3 days to sell their goods. Also she’s a Kaqchikel, as everyone in this region. Similar to the K’iche’, the Kaqchikel are another ethnical group descendant of the Mayas. While she was talking, a little girl ran into her dress to hide. This is Lily, her niece of 3 years old. She didn’t say but showed me with her fingers. But now it’s time to go and they kindly accept for me to take a portrait of them.

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And of Lily and her mother.

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Various monuments are located around the Parque Central. Below is the Cathedral de San Jose.

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The Arco de Santa Catalina is a landmark of Antigua and an icon of its rich heritage.

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It certainly has been photographed a few times…

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And to fonish, a view of the Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced where I met Maribel and her niece.

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Unfortunately, that’s it. It’s over. I’ve reached the end of my trip around Guatemala. The taxi driver picks me up from the hostel at 4am to take me to the airport. He only can talk about how insecure he fells, how dangerous it is to be out on the road at this time. Come on man! It seems to me that he was exagerating. There is no one out there, what can happen? Well we did eventually drive passed a car which had gone straight into the wall. But that’s not insecurity, that’s an unfortunate accident which can happen anywhere to anyone. All I can say about Guatemala’s security is, just be careful. Like you would be while travelling in any country really. It’s the last country on the Panamerican Highway before Mexico, so I guess it doesn’t help. But I never felt under threat, that someone was following me or paying too much attention to my camera gear. And I can tell I catch the eye with my big yellow bag, tripod strapped to it and my camera around my neck. The people I’ve met were all fantastic: Miguel, our guide to El Mirador; Neil, the owner of the hostel in Flores; Don Pedro, the host of the Posada in Chichi, Maribel and her family, the street vendors of Antigua. They’re so helpful, kind, open minded, joyful, I could use many more adjectives to describe them that I still wounld’t be able to explain it to you fully. The country has got an amazing history which I could feel and touch. The Mayan ruins, endless jungles, altitude lake or volcanoe ranges are great images of Guatemala, the Guatemalans make it a wonderful story.

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Fin to fin with whale sharks, Holbox Island, Mexico 2016

My brother Florent and I booked this trip a little bit at the last minute. I needed some time off in a sunny and laid back location, and British Airways had a sale on. It turned out that the return flights from London to Cancun were £350 and there is an island only a couple of hours drive plus a short boat ride away. With no cars and no roads but golf carts and white sand tracks, it’s Holbox Island! One additional attraction, from June to September, the surrounding seas host the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world. Do I need to say any more? 😀

We land in Cancun airport at 5:30pm on Saturday the 5th of June. I’ve been told there is only one cash machine on Holbox, which, consequently, runs out very often. Our first objective consists of taking enough cash out to subsist for a week and a half so we don’t have to come back to mainland. Our wallets full, we exit the airport to realise that it’s pouring rain outside… But we’re only a few hours away from the paradise island I’ve been waiting for. And before we know it, we arrive at Hostel Tribu on time for a good night sleep to overcome jetlag.

The first few days are almost identical to one another.

I wake up in the morning, feeling particularly happy that there is nothing on the programme for the day. We head to the town centre for a relaxed breakfast. No need to hurry, I can just drink my coffee without any rush whatsoever. So around mid morning is the time to go and be lazy on the beach. 😀 😀 😀 But the thunderstorm we saw when we arrived is over the island and, usually, not long after we’ve dropped our towels on the sand and have gone for a swim, rain drop starts to fall. We head back to the hostel, just in time as the skies open up.

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The breaks between rainfall are the opportunity to explore the not-so-big island. But the first wildlife we encounter is nothing that I was expecting. It’s not the giant whale sharks or the pink flamingos but a prehistoric animal called horseshoe crab. They’ve been around for 450 million years which makes them the 5th oldest animal species on earth, only beaten by the cyanobacteria, the marine sponge, the jelly fish and the nautilus. Another incredible facts: the horseshoe crab has 9 eyes in multiple areas of his body. OK, maybe I’m getting over excited but I think that’s pretty cool to find such a peculiar creature. 😀

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Next, we do encounter flamingos and their bright pink plumage.

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But the sky reminds us that his mercy is soon over as the dark clouds block the horizon above the fluorescent sea lit by the very last sun rays.

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It’s completely soaked that we return at the hostel, having walked under pouring rain for a little over an hour. So much water has fallen from the sky in the last 36 hours that the white sand streets are completely flooded.

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I got used to not wearing any shoes at all, the sand is quite pleasant but the muddy streets, not so much…

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The weather here is like clockwork, the rain stop in late afternoon, the perfect time to head to town for a few beers and a mexican dinner.

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And on the bright side, the most beautiful sunsets occur after storms.

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Luckily for us, the sun returns for the second part of our holiday and reveals the beauty of Holbox.

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Taking a nap on the beach also becomes particularly enjoyable.

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The colours of the village become so much brigher.

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The turquoise sea is at the end of every street.

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It is also the time where the internal football season starts: the Copa America and the Euro. The days continue to be very much alike: coffee and breakfast, nap on the beach, football, another nap on the beach, dinner and some more football. And of course, a few beers all along from the hostel bar, the Tribu Bar 😀

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Let’s not forget that clear and sunny days also give way to pleasant sunsets.

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Ah, almost forgot what we came here for: whale sharks. Well, it seems that we’ve come a little bit too early in the season. We’ve been out twice looking for the largest fish but have been unsuccessful every time. The snorkeling afterwards was OK: turtles, stingrays, great barracudas and a nurse shark. If I was to see all that during a scuba dive, it would certainly be a fantastic one. But having spent 6 hours at sea scrutinizing the horizon for a fin, twice and not seeing anything is pretty frustrating. Although I do enjoy not having anything on my agenda other than relaxing (in theory), I’ve realized that I’m hyperactive. I cannot stay inactive for longer than a few days. No way we’re spending the last couple of days like this.

The second day before last, we take the boat back to mainland and drive to Puerto Morelos for a bit of scuba diving. The first dive on the programme is the wreck of a Mexican gunship, the C56. The current is strong at the surface but as soon as I reach the buoy, I can see the wreck, 30m below… That’s dramatically different to what I’m used to in the UK where the visibility is rarely more than a 4 or 5 meters. Having reached the bow, a couple of eagle rays swim around us. I’ve never seen any before, this is really cool. Their back is covered in white dots and their movements are very graceful, they’re beautiful creatures. The wreck itself is quite recent and well preserved, which make for a very good dive. The second dive is a shallow reef, full of life. There are litterally fishes everywhere, covering rocks, nice one too.

But that’s still no whale shark. And as every other trip I’ve done looking for wildlife, I do not give up until the last minute. Our last day is also our last opportunity to find the giant fish, we’re going to take it! Although it starts as every other day, I’ve got the feeling that this one could be different. And it is… we locate a whale shark feeding at the surface fairly quickly… that’s amazing, my heart is beating at a hundred miles an hour as I gear up and sit on the edge of the boat, ready to jump in. The skipper is placing the boat near the path of the animal and when the time is right… “JUMP!” I let myself slide slowly in the water and immediately look for the whale shark… But I can’t see it. We need to remember that it’s here because of the abundance of plakton at the surface of the sea, and although not visible to the naked eye, they’re like a cloud of tiny particles which reduces the visibility massively. I raise my head above the water, see the fin about 5 meters away… which means the head has got the be… well… where I am. And it is! It appears out of the blue as soon as I look underwater again. It’s swimming fast. I am mesmerized by the sheer size of this fish. So much that I completely forget about my camera, letting the animal swim right past me, its dorsal fin passing about 50cm away from my eyes… absolutely incredible!!!!!!!!!!

We’re lucky because we got in the water first but as I step back on our boat I realize there are already 10 others around now, and more coming. I knew this was going to be the problem with this experience. Although swimming with these giants is a unique experience, it is invasive and must be extremely stressful for the animal. By the time all of us had gone in the water once, we decided to leave this spot and look for another which hopefully will be more peaceful. This has proven to be the right decision, we did find another whale shark with no other boat around as well as manta rays… This time, I remembered I could film 😀 😀 😀

I return to the pier extremely happy. Our determination has paid off. But it’s not just having been in the water with the whale shark that pleases me the most. It’s that we’ve done it with respect for the animal. The water wasn’t overcrowded, the interactions were calm and peaceful and our presence not too long. But I do worry about the future. As in every natural environment I’ve been to, the impact of humans is also obvious here. Local fishermen tell amazing stories how, no more than 10 years ago, the whale sharks used to arrive in large numbers within hundreds of meters from the shore of Holbox as early as mid-May. Now, their numbers have reduced drastically, they arrive much later in the season and they stay much further away from the coast line. Pollution? Global Warming? Human presence? I guess it’s difficult to say which is the main reason for this change of migration pattern. But one thing is certain, we must act immediately to protect this large gathering of whale sharks and ensure tourism operate according to sustainable practices. I don’t mean that in a selfish way now that I’ve had the chance to experience it, but rather the opposite. I would like all future generations to have the chance to live this magical experience. One that I have dreamed of for a long time and that I will always remember.

Singapore 2011

I ended up in Singapore with a bit of luck and a lot of perseverance. After I came back from the USA, I spent a few more weeks at University to complete my second year. And I decided that I wouldn’t come back for the third … yet. Instead, I would go on a gap year.

I found an internship in France and spent 11 months doing the job. From a professional point of view, it was great. My colleagues were fantastic, the work interesting and I got to learn a lot. But I kept reading about my fellow students who decided to go to Poland, Australia or Argentina. I couldn’t stop thinking about going somewhere exotic as well. And as I had 3 months free before going back to University to complete my degree, I picked a destination that I had heard a lot about but didn’t really know what it was like: Singapore! It had become the capital of Asia, home of the biggest firm’s headquarters, but seemed to have kept its cultural roots despite the rapid development. In fact, several cultures were present due to the important chinese, malaysian and indian communities living there.

The start wasn’t exaclty as I was expecting. I had taken an other intersnhip to secure some revenue. A couple of hours after I landed from my 20 hour journey, my boss took me to the office… to work. What!? And then I had to find my way back home using the MRT (Singaporean tube), even though I had no idea where I was nor where I was going. That was a shi* day!

I then made the work secondary and was looking forward to discover Singapore and southeast Asia. To that end, the first thing I did was to buy a Digital SLR camera to capture the great moments and landscapes I was expecting to see in the region. Here are the first few shots I took of the city.

 

The view from my first flat

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My swimming pool

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The condominium I as living in (right) from the bottom

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A chinese style commercial center on Orchard Road, the “Singaporean Champs Elysées”

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My next exploration took me to Little India. Coming out of the MRT station I was surprised by another storm with heavy rains. But as usual, I didn’t last very long. And it didn’t take very long either for the inhabitants of the indian quarter to come out of their shelter. The picture below was taken only 5 minutes after the end of the storm and already people are invading the streets.

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I found many street food stalls with flowersand spices…

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…fruit and vegetables.

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The people there, and 99% are men, just hang out in the quarter without evident purpose. They sit on the pavement, on the grass, chat with friends. I realised then and asked myself the question: how often do I go outside without any reason and just for the pleasure of being outside? Probably not often. And look at the weather, it definitely isn’t to enjoy the sun!

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Chinatown is the other typical quarter with strong cultural influence. It also seems slightly superficial and the effervescence mainly for tourists. But it is still an very enjoyable place to wander, negotiate the price of some chinese handicraft, grab a bite of local cuisine or simply have a beer.

Below is the view of Pagoda St., the main and busiest street.

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It is booming with life, energy and joy.

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Mosque St., parellel to Pagoda St. is a lot more quiet and peaceful.

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While in Chinatown, you get to forget the fast living pace of Singapore, its dementia and its endless pursuit of development. You even forget its skycrapers, though always present in the background.

The ultimate example of this creativity for luxury is the integrated resort Marina Bay Sands. The complex made of 3 towers and a boat-like top opened in 2010 and is the world’s most expensive casino property. Everything in and around the building rhymes with outstanding.

During the day, it already is impressive and feels like a different world. When you enter the dors, you actually are in a Venice-like commercial center.

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The fountain, called Rain Oculus, gives its spectacle to people outside and inside the commercial center.

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And from above, it is actually designed to create a vortex of water in special occasions, hence the non-centered hole.

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At night, it deploys its majesty. Each year, on the 9th of August, it dresses up with the Singaporean flag for the independence day celebration, obtained in 1965.

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From its top, the 360° view is fantastic, especially over the business district across the marina.

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Some people can enjoy this view from the “infinity pool” and its water flowing right over the edge.

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Singapore is an attractive mix of ancestral asian cultures and modern fast living society. The contrast is well observed by the diversity of spirit in each borough. You can be walking in a street with small chinese style houses, cross the next road and be looking up to a 100-storey glass windowed skyscraper. I loved this composition making Singapore such a vibrant city with a unique identity.

But Singapore is not the only attraction of the area. It is in the center of south east Asia, which makes it very convenient to travel to many other places to explore such as Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. I invite you to continue the story in these countries with more pictures and adventures.

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Rajasthan, India 2013

The summer 2013 was the summer of a holiday with a very good friend of mine, Bérenger. We had explored various destinations, looked at what to do in each and the climate at the given period. The problem is that August is the monsoon season is most parts South East Asia. We found direct flights from London to Delhi, at reasonable price and the monsoon wasn’t as intense in this part of India than it is in the rest of the country. So there we go, flights are booked and we set off to Rajasthan, also called the Land of Kings. One week before, we finalised our plan. We are going to visit Delhi, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra, we found the perfect schedule based on train times and book hostels in each city. Now we are both looking forward to go and explore this fascinating country that is India.

Day 1 – Delhi

After a short 8 hour direct overnight flight, we land in Delhi at 6:30am on the 3rd of August. The taxi driver sent by our hotel is here and takes us to the city centre. This gives us our first impression of India and its capital. The roads are jammed, the people are driving in all directions, in short the city seems to be like a gigantic mess. But we manage to make our way to the hotel safely, check in, drop our bags and head back out straight away. The plan? We find the underground, go to the tourism office to buy our train tickets for the following day and then explore the city. We haven’t walked for 10 meters in the street that someone already offers to help us. I know he’s going to try and take advantage of us or want to get some money somehow. So remain dubious and tell him nicely that we’re ok. But he insists to know what our plans are and what to do. He caught my attention by giving away a very important piece of information: the Eid al-Fitr, end of Ramadan the month of fasting in the muslim religion, is coming up as well as the celebration for India’s independence on the 15th of August. It means that all trains in Rajasthan are fully booked for the next 2 weeks… S**t! That’s a slight problem. However, I’m still a little bit cautions about what we’re being told. He shows us a map and the tourism office we need to go to (a different one that we had found). He also recommends to go with a TukTuk which should be no more than 20 Rupees After all, he only wishes us nice holidays and ask for nothing. Maybe I need to be a bit less defensive and realise some people might actually really want to help. I can’t just rely on what books say and I have to make my own opinion about these things.

So we go back into the hotel to grab a card of a hotel so we can come back and head back out to look for a TukTuk. Oh, we are so lucky than one is waiting right outside our hotel (sarcastic). So we tell him where we need to go and guess what! The price is 20 rupees without even having to negotiate it down. So there we go, driving in the streets of Delhi. Just after we left, he puts a shirt on and explains this is the company uniform. Ah ok, I thought TukTuk were independants and not working for a company. How would that be called, TukTuk Delhi Limited? 🙂 But then all pieces of the puzzle came together when he stops, tells us we had arrived and takes us to the entrance of… a f**king travel agency!!!

I am still wondering when exactly we fell into the trap. Was it the innocent helpful guy in the street? But he showed us what was marked as a tourist office on a map. Or was it the tuktuk driver? I guess it doesn’t really matter, the point is that we are now discussing about hiring a driver for 2 weeks. But I’m a little bit cautious, what if he drives us to the country side and leaves us there? There is no chance for us to find our way back. But the trains are fully booked, the plan he worked out for us seems interesting, having a driver will allow us to be more flexible and use our time better; and it’s a really good price! A bit more than £500 each which includes all nights in decent hotels.

That’s the story of how we’ve met Vipin, our fantastic driver (well we don’t know that at this point). We’ve got lots of things to see today so no time to lose. We jump in his old white Tata and drive off the the centre of Delhi. Soon he parks the car and explains that we can only take a tuktuk from this point. He hands us over to a very skinny old man, driving a tricycle. At this point I’m thinking, how is this guy going to pedal with us sitting on his machine? But he does and it seems so hard and painful that I am soon feeling compassion for the guy. He is also quite the driver, slaloming between the traffic, imposing his rule on the road… I’m not so confident that we’re going to make it without an accident. And then we reach our first stop. He drops us off at the entrance of a market, which we need to cross and reach Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India.

We are on our own for the first time in this bustling city. Slightly nervous but massively excited, we reach the bottom of the stairs. There we cover our legs and leave our shoes at the entrance, hopefully they’ll still be here when we get back. We enter and, yeah, it’s pretty impressive!

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For a bit of history, it has been commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1644 and its construction was completed in 1658. Red sandstone and white marble have been used to give its natural colours to this impressive edifice which can hold no less than 25,000 people. The 40m high minaret provide amazing views. We weren’t going to miss the pleasure so we did go up one of the minaret for a bird’s view over the mosque and its surroundings. On the pavement of the mosque, they’ve emptied at least a few bags of corn for the pigeons. Surprising given the fact that in Paris, most people only want to get rid of them. Behind the entrance building is the street market we’ve crossed covered by blue and yellow stalls. Then behind are the walls of the Red Fort, which we’re going to visit later.

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When we came out of the building, we had to battle to get our shoes back, do you believe this!? The guy wanted 1,000 rupees for having looked after them. That’s £10!!! So of course, we refuse paying him such an amount and the argument started. Another guy, very aggressive, came around: “Pay him!” But I’m not going to pay 1,000 rupees to someone who just put my shoes in a corner and read a newspaper the whole time. It’s not really about the money but the principle. I understand that as tourists, people will try to take advantage of us. But in such a rude, ridiculous and certainly not subtle manner, no way! So I take the shoes by force and we put them back on. And the scandal kicks off, they start to shout, it puts all the attention on us and some other people start to approach. At this point, there is no way the situation can end well so I have to let go. I give him his money and we walk back to the square behind the market to meet the tricycle driver.

He then takes us to the Red Fort. Like Jama Masjid, it had also been ordered by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 and completed 1648, his objective being to transfer the capital of the Mughal Empire from Agra to Shahjahanabad (known today as Old Delhi). However, he never completed this move himself. He was imprisoned by his son Auraugzeb in Agra, who did make the city the new capital of the Mughal Empire. However, Aurangzeb was the first and last great emperor to rule from here, his successorts being unable to maintain the dynasty.

It’s literally gigantic. You can easily imagine elephants walking through the gates of this fortress of 2.5km perimeter. The first one is called Lahore Gate and leads to a covered bazaar called Chatta Chowk. Then you walk through Hathi Pol, Elephant Gate, because that’s where you dismount from your elephant. 😉 Now you can progress further into a garden and reach Diwan-i-Am, the Hall of Public Audiences.

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Of course you need to imagine all sorts of luxurious decorations, bright coloured carpets, curtains and paintings over the walls.

At the back of the fort are the emperor’s private apartments, his mosque, his hammam and his office. At this point, Bérenger and I started to feel a bit low on energy. We hadn’t eaten anything since the fantastic feast we had in the plane, hadn’t had anything to drink and the sun generated a good 40°C ambient temperature. I have been personally delaying as much as possible eating or drinking anything in fear of the famous Delhi Belly. But I can’t push it any further. Our tricycle driver stops for us to buy some water and then brings us back to our Tata driver. On the way I couldn’t believe my eyes: we were in a traffic jam, surrounded by cars, he was forcing his way through, people walking got squizzed between us and other vehicles and there was a lot of shouting. You can imagine the relief when we got back to the safety of the car.

It is now time for the first Indian meal. I am excited because I love indian cuisine, but nervous at the same time. We tried to order the food in Hindi, which made the guys laugh once, we asked for the food not too spicy, which made them laugh more and had the mouth on fire after 3 bites which made them laugh their head off. Anyway, despite being a bit hot, the food was actually excellent.

Now we head to Qutb Minar located in Delhi’s outskirts. This is a Islamic complex which was built in 1193 following the victory over the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi. Unlike Jama Masjid, this site is today in ruins. When we got there, the sky was dark grey and it didn’t take the rain very long to come. But after 10 minutes of it, the sky had completely cleared and the atmosphere very enjoyable. Qutb Minar is actually the name of this 73m high tower.

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We spent a couple of hours wandering around the ruins.

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Back in the car, I ask Vipin if we can go to Humayun’s Tomb. The story of the Taj Mahal is known around the world but the one of this place not much, even though it’s very similar. I read in my travel guide that the surrounding gardens are supposeds to be nice, especially around sunset… and it is absolutely amazing.

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Made only of noble materials, the interior is simple but rich, espacielly when the orange light is penetrating.

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We are now told that the park is closing as the sun has gone down. But we take our time to walk back so we can enjoy the peace of these wonderful gardens.

Then Vipin explains that he’s taking us to a Hindu celebration which is happening in a temple of Delhi. I was a bit surprised that we could attend this but I was really interested. However what exactly we were going to attend wasn’t very clear. And to be honest with you it still isn’t…

So we park the car and enter a large complex packed with people. But Vipin doesn’t take us to the heart of the action but towards an empty area and walks into a bulding. It almsot looks like an office with flyers about the Hindu religion. There is also a statue of SHivah (I think) in the hall.

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Then we are indicated that we need to buy tickets… ok but for what? We are then taken upstairs and we still don’t know what we’re going to be doing. This is really really creepy. They show us the way into a room, pitch black and close the door behind us. Then a hoarse voice starts to talk as figures appear under spotlights. It takes us a few minutes to realise that this is a scene of the Hinduism history. After a couple of minutes, that seemed to last at least 10, they take us to the next room for more thetrical representation of the local religion. The way they’ve done it is really weird. Every time we think we’ve reached the end, there is another door, to another room. Although it was probably designed to be informative and fun, it actually looked like a attempt of brainwashing. But now it’s late and time to go back to our hotel et rest cause tomorrow, we’re heading off to Bikaner.

Day 2 Bikaner

We come out of our hotel to meet Vipin with the car around 50 meters away. When dropping us off yesterday, he insisted not to park right in front of the hotel, but a bit further. He called them “angry people”. He said that, if they saw us going in his car, they would try to get some money from Vipin and his company. Apparently because they sell similar tours, they could be quite aggressive and create problems. All I know is that they weren’t too friendly and the day we’ve spent with Vipin was great.

So we leave Delhi and start a long drive to Bikaner, 400km twards the west. Apparently it’s going to take the whole day but it’s only 400km so I’m quite hopeful we’re going to get there in the afternoon. But relatively soon, the roads become terrible. They’re nothing more than a dirty track with loads of holes. We can’t do more than 40km/h on this terrain. I understand why it’s going to take us at least 12 hours. At least we get to see the country side, small villages, farms but no wild territory. I was expecting to see at least a little bit of forest or jungle but there isn’t. So the journey gets a bit long, we alternate naps, conversations with Vipin, another nap, reading travel guides, some more nap. We slept a lot. This is no surprise that when we arrive in Bikaner at around 7pm, Vipin is really tired and wants to go to bed. But we want to go and explore the city. He warns us that many people will try and talk to us, present themselves as students who are not interested in money but just want to practice their english. Or that they study history and they want to show us around. “Don’t speak with them!”, he said. OK, noted. We take a tuktuk and ask him to take us to the Old City.

Just 10 minutes later, a guy probably in his late 20s jump on the tuktuk and sits next to the driver. And he starts talking to us, with the typical “where are you from?”, “what’s your name?”, “how long are you in India for?”. Nothing too suspicious so far but I can see him coming. And when we got closer from the city center, guess what he says! ” I’m a student in history so I’ll come with you and show you around!”. So I turn him down politely, we’ll be ok. But he insists: “I don’t want money, I just want to practice my english with you!”. Hahaha! I found this hilarious. I gave us exactly the speech that Vipin warned us about, with the exact same words, in the same order. It really sounded like a play that they had repeated a thousand times. He kept insisting until we arrived at the entrance gate of the Old City where he finally let us go.

The Old City is a labyrinthus of narrow streets with many buildings made in the red sandstone we’ve seen already in Delhi. I am paying a lot of attention to which streets we are taking and in which direction so we can find our way back. But there is one other difficulty which we saw in Delhi but is more problematic here. There are many cows in the city. It’s a sacred animal in India so not only they don’t eat them but they don’t touch them. They wander around the streets peacefully. This is all fine until you need to walk right behind a massive bull.

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The atmosphere was relatively relaxed, groups of people were chatting, eating at food stalls or playing an unknown game on a large table.

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It is getting really dark now and it’s probably best to go back to the hotel. But of course, we are now lost in this labyrinthus. We try to find our way for a bit but no chance, all streets look the same and when we think we’ve found a place we recognize, it turns out it’s not. Our only chance at this stage is to take a TukTuk back. We find one and show him the card of our hotel. He says no and drives off. So we find a second one, but he doesn’t know where it is. He calls his friends and we suddenly have 6 people looking at the card of the hotel. Then one of them show us his TukTuk, indicating he’s going to take us for 100 rupees. As he doesn’t speak english, he grabs one of his friends to come with us. As always, the ride wasn’t smooth but in the night, it seems a lot worse. Then the english speaking guy turns around and ask “where is it?”. Well I don’t know, I thought you know! So they go and ask people in shops but nobody seems to be able to give us directions to our hotel. Then apparently someone did give a good indication and we are again on the road. The driver stops 5 minutes later to tell us we’re arrived. No we’re not, this is not our hotel! I’m starting to wonder how we are going to find our way back, are we going to call Vipin? But the guards at the gate seem to know and tell our drivers where to go. And this time, the directions were right and we safely found our way back. I thank both drivers, actually gave them 200 rupees because they were really helpful. And now we can relax for the rest of the evening in the lovely patio of our hotel.

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Day 3 – Thar Desert

In the morning, we quickly visited Junagarh, Bikaner’s fort. We flashed through it because there wasn’t much to see and we had to hit the road again. We are going for another day of driving to Jaisalmer. It is situated in the Thar desert in the most western part of Rajasthan, and is the last city before the Pakistanese border. We are going to sleep in the dunes so we don’t want to miss the departure of the expedition. On our way out of the city, we are reminded that transport can vary a lot more than in Europe as we overtake a camel.

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During the car ride, we had some sleep, read some books, had some more sleep, listening to Vipin singing, had some more sleep and eventually, the environment changed as we entered the desert. It’s not as desertic as I tought. There are many villages, farms, we even had to make our way through a herd of sheeps. But what do they feed on? On the rare and dry grass or leaves?

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It also didn’t feel like we were leaving modern civilisation behind. At all. The electric lines never leave the landscape. I was hoping that the deeper we go, the more likely they will disappear but no. Then we reached the lovely village of Khuri, 48km south of Jaisalmer. We are straight away taken into a small patio and served a cup of tea. That’s a nice relaxing attention after such a long drive.

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Around 10 minutes later, someone comes to tell us that our camel is ready. We don’t need to bring all our stuff with us as we’ll be back in the village for dinner. What!? I thought this was going to be a proper expedition where we take the camels, ride for a few hours deeper into the desert, put our tents up and come back the following morning. But we’re actually just going to the top of the dune some 500m away, sit there for an hour and come back. Well I’m sure the sunset from there is worth it. I jump and the camel and once I’m well installed, they get it to stand up. That’s the tricky bit. The animal leans forward so much that you really need to grab whatever you can not to fall on his head. And the ride itself? Fun but not really comfortable. I spend most of it chatting with Gopar, the Indian kid who is driving my camel.

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At the top of the dune, there are already quite a few tourists and their young guides are playing crocket which apparently is a religion in India.

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Now when you look towards the right direction, all you can see is desolation without any trace of technology.

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The sun set was nice and now it starts to get dark so we head back to the village for dinner. On the way, Gopar asks me whether we’re going to sleep in the little houses and in the desert. In the desert of course, sleeping under the stars seems really romantic. Who else than Beber to share this moment with? 🙂 But I wonder, are there any snakes or scorpions? “Yes, many”, he says. Alright, and are they venimous? “Oh yes!”, he replies. Great, that’s not really what I wanted to hear but it’ll have to do. They’ve been doing this for tourists for a long time and if there was any danger, they wouldn’t do it… hopefully! Back at the village, most people are already sat to have dinner. A local band is playing music while a lady is dancing in the middle.

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Well relaxed, we load the camels with beds and blankets and we head back to the desert. Not very far still and we set up our camp for the night.

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In the night, we place the camera on the bed, set at the slowest shutter speed possible and create light trails.

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Before we fall asleep, we set our alarms for 5am so we can watch the sun rise from the top of the dunes. But I guess we were so tired that we missed and got up just after 6am. Still some nice views. I even encountered an impala, a sort of deer which runs really fast.

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We go back to the village to join Vipin, have some breakfast, some coffee and leave our hosts relatively early. Today, there will not be a lot of driving and only the visit of Jaisalmer.

Day 4 – Jaisalmer

We start our day in the outskirts of Jaisalmer, in the boutique of Hari Om. He is a jeweller and works principally with silver. I mention that I’ve read his name in my travel guide, which said that he could be found inside the fort. In fact, it’s his brother. Jewellry is the family’s know how. So he shows us how he starts from a stick of raw silver and how he makes such fine details on the final product. He also has a stone that he uses to tell the quality of the jewellry. He rubs the object on the stone, if the mark left is shiny then it’s high concentration os silver. If it’s a lor more dull, then it’s a lot concentration of silver.

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As you can imagine, this demonstration took very little time compared to the time he spent showing us bracelets, necklesses, rings and many other items for sale. After we made a small purchase (I actually think the prices were relatively low for silver, hummm), we head to the Jaisalmer Fort. Unlike the ones in other cities like Delhi or Bikaner, people still live in the fort here. It is part of the city.

Jaisalmer fort was founded by the Rajput ruler Jaisal. He belongs to the Bhati clan, often fighting against the Mughal from Delhi. We enter Surya Pol (Surya Gate) and the road makes straight away a 180° turn towards Ganseh Pol. This concept was used to avoid that, during an attack, elephants gather speed and force in a straight line and destroy the fort gate. This turn requires them to almost stop and become targets for soldiers above the fort walls. Today, this street is occupied by merchants selling silk and other fabrics.

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The city is actually facing a major threat. It is made of sandstone and, as the name indicates, is mostly made of sand. We’ve all made sand castles on the beach when we were young. Can you remember what happens when water reaches the sand? Exactly, it collapses. Old and defective draining systems means that water is leaking from pipes inside the fort and slowly erode its buildings. Several organisations raised funds to renovate the piping and stop the erosion which was putting the entire site in danger.

From the top of the city walls, we have a fantastic view over this city lost in the Thar desert.

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We can see from above the entrance concept to stop elephants from reaching gates at full speed in war. The first entrance is below the fabric shop you see on the right hand side. You walk for a few meters and then turn around behing the small tower you can see in the middle of the image. Then you straight away go through the second gate and come out where the colourful silk sheets are. In the case you would make it to far to the taste of the defendants, they would welcome you with stones that are still on top of the walls. (I’m not sure they’re secured and the onles perfectly lined up on the ridge probably aren’t very stable…)

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Today, the fort offers a different type of attack to its visitors: the sellers interested in your wallet. Their technique are extremely impressive though. When we entered the fort, we got many offers for a guide to take us through the fort, in french of course. They attracted us by speaking english, spanish, german, italian, japanese, russian, etc. As I said, very impressive. 🙂 Inside the shops, a guy stopped me and said: “Hey, you’ve promised me to come to my shop yesterday”. Haha, well I’m pretty sure I haven’t promised anything because I wasn’t here yesterday. Sometimes they come up with very creative catch phrases which make the interaction a lot more funny and enjoyable than the overheard “Hey my friend, come see my shop!”.

One was a lot less opressive was equally surprising. A man smiling with a long beard shows us his shop, he’s a jeweller and his name is Hari Om. Confident that I have an unanswerable argument to stop his sales speech, I say:

“- Hey, we’ve actually met with your brother this morning and we already bought a few things.

– I don’t have a brother!”, he replies. Oh…

“- Well, we went to the shop of a man called Hari Om, like you, this morning and he said you were his brother.” He explained that he’s the best at what he does and many people try to copy him. He was very upset that other jewellers use his name and renown. He wanted us to go to the police with him to report that guy. I felt sorry for him but I’d rather not get invovled in this. You never what you’re getting into. He understands, doesn’t insist and wishes us some nice holiday. If you happen to go to Jaisalmer, you can recognize the real Hari Om as the following, extremely calm person, speaking very slowly, not insisting to make a sale, probably inside the fort and when we saw him he had a beard.

After this episode, we leave the fort to explore the many other monuments in this city. They are havelis, houses of wealthy merchants built between the 18th and 20th century. We had chosen to see the main two indicated in my travek guide. The first actually showed very little interest. It wasn’t maintained very well, paint had gone long ago and the walls were cracking everywhere. An entire tower was leaning so much that I thought it’s only a matter of time until it collapses.

But now were are in the street of the second one and we see a few men waiting in front of it. We pay the small entry charge and they let us in, alone. There isn’t anybody else. Straight away we can see that this haveli is in a much better state. Its walls are in good condition and the carvings very sharp.

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The havelis are built around a courtyard which provides shadow from the burning sun. From here start the stairs to the upper storeys and various room of the house.

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We realised very soon that, because it is unoccupied and probably not visited often, every single room was full of bats. By when I mean full, I mean full. There is no spare space on the ceiling for a few more to join the group. And we had to cross rooms, go up straicases to reach the top of the house. But even when we reach the roof, we can still go higher up to more terraces.

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From the higher levels, the view over the city and the fort is fantastic.

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Tonight Vipin joins us for dinner. Beber and I order some beer (which became a tradition before every dinner), but our local friend has brought his own bottle… of whiskey. We all had a really good time (well I did:) ). He’s really a nice guy. He is willing to share details about his life, his country, his culture and is also very curious about our life, country and culture. That concludes a very pleasant stay in Jaisalmer, most western point of our trip in Rajasthan. Tomorrow, we start our long journey back to Delhi with a first stop in Jodhpur.

Day 5 – Jodhpur

Well actually before we jump in the car, we have breakfast at the rooftop terrace of our hotel. I’ve had worse views to start a day…

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In India, the trucks are all very nicely decorated. As we stop at a petrol station, several of them were parked next to each other.

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This journey was short compared to the first two which took a full day. We arrived in Jodhpur at the beginning of the afternoon. Vipin didn’t lose time and takes us straight to a shop. We are welcomed with a cup of tea of our choice. Then the lady shows us various teas and spice mixes that are prepared according to secret recipes invented by her dad.

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You can imagine the story: my dad was mixing spices to obtain the best flavours and his dad before him, now I have taken over and our expertise is famous around the world… Of course! I’m being sarcastic but the lady is of very nice company. I chose two bags of spices and two of tea from the large choice.

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At the back of the sop, there’s a man packing a heap of spices into small bags like the ones we’ve bought. Is he really the person doing this for the shop or is it just an attraction to make it look more authentic?

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Coming out of the shop, I realise that our lovely driver is probably going to take us to a shop in every city in which we stop. This is quite annoying. But anyway, we’ve passed this for Jodhpur and now is just going to be about visiting. Well, not really.

The next stop is another shop, one of textile this time. We are taken to the second floor where we are presented with many pieces of fabric. I feel so lucky, we’ve been brought in another world-known shop. Only this time he’s got articles from an english magazine to back this up. It says that these guys are manufacturing most of the textile for the European luxury brands. We are even offered to purchase some of the big names designs for nothing compared to how much he’d cost to buy them branded. But I have to admit that they look very nice and the quality pretty excellent.

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They also have products in pashmina, a type of cashmere wool very soft and warm. It is made with the wool of the particular breed of goat called Changthangi, from the region of Ladakh and surrounding areas.

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Having bought a few things, I have a look further in the building. It’s actually a warehouse. There are 3 rooms per floor, all looking like this.

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And there’s 5 floors… That’s a lot of textile!

Finally Vipin takes us to our hotel. It’s amazing. The rooms are extremely spacious, with 2 large beds, there is a pool, a small garden and a rooftop terrace right underneath the fort of Jodhpur, Mehrangarh.

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After a short dive in the pool, we go to the rooftop terrace for our traditional beer and another indian meal. Tonight for me it’s Chicken Tikka. Well, chicken is obvious, that’s pretty much the only meat you can get in India (with lamb). But there are many many ways of serving the chicken in the indian cuisine. Tikka refers to a piece of meat, usually boneless and on a skewer, marinated into a paste made of various spices and yoghurt. It is then grilled into the traditional oven called Tandoor. The plate arrives, I cut the first piece, take it to my mouth and… oh my god… this is wonderful. The meat is juicy and extremely tasty, definitely the best chicken tikka I’ve ever had. Really, I’m not exaggerating, it was that good! It’s one of those dishes, you know you will struggle to find any restaurant matching this taste. The best chicken curry can be found in Gilgamesh in London, the best chicken tikka is here, definitely the best way of ending our first day in Jodhpur. I think I’ll like this city.

Day 6 Jodhpur

I feel that, for once, today is not going to be a rush. The only thing we’ve got to do is to visit the fort. There are other attractions but it’s no big deal if we don’t see them. So we head straight to Mehrangarh. It was built on a hill over the city in 1459, so we approach from below which make it even more impressive.

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It is known that Rajasthan is a very colourful place. But not only due to the vibrant colours used for clothing but also due to the character of its cities. Jaisalmer is sometimes called the Golden City as it is built mostly from sandstone. Jaipur is called the Pink City, which I’ll discover later in this trip. And Jodhpur is called the Blue City. The walls of the houses are painted in blue. Where this tradition comes from is unclear: some say blue is the colour of the Brahmins, one of many India’s caste, who painted their house to indicate where they lived. I’ve also heard that one of the Rathore ruler really appreciated blue and ordered all walls facing the fort to be painted in this colour. Whatever the origin, it gives this city a very unique identity. I understood (I thought I had) the meaning of the term while walking in the streets of the Old City yesterday. But actually, you can only realise how harmonious and unique this Blue City is when you have a bird’s view from the walls of Mehrangarh fort.

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Inside, we find a similar architecture style than we’ve already seen in Bikaner: long and curved lines, finished with sharp and pointed angles.

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As we’ve seen in the Red Fort in Delhi, there is the Hall of Private Audiences, very richly decorated.

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And the Hall of Public Audiences, a lot more spacious.

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The fort palace also hosts a large collection of royal objects, including the howdahs, carriages positioned on the back of elephants. This one is linked to a little scandal. It is said that, during a visit of the indian royal family to the UK, a journalist captured a photograph showing the ankle of the queen, which was then published in the newspaper. It wasn’t appreciated at all by the royal family, to say the least, and all printed copies of the newspaper had to be recalled.

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In India, opium is still consumed only by very few people, such as the Bishnoi community around Jodhpur. But back in the days, it was a lot more popular with the use of a type of pipe like the one below.

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Inside the palace, every wall, every door, every window, every pillar, or any type of architectural feature is made of finely carved stone.

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From outside the palace, every house participates to give Jodhpur its charm and its name of Blue City.

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Inside the fort is an attraction from the modern age but not less attractive. A zip line starts from the lower part of the fort, goes over the surroundings hills and provide amazing views over the entire fortress. That sound exciting. The only thing is that, it’s 1pm now and the next start is scheduled for 4pm so we’ve got 3 hours to kill. Back in the car, we share our plan with Vipin and he offers to go have some lunch and then see the Umaid Bhawan Palace, built between 1929 and 1943 for the Maharaja Umaid Singh.

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Some members of the royal family still live in part of the palace and the rest has been converted into a luxury hotel. There is a small museum inside, the only thing you’re allowed to see, with pictures and objects. Nothing too interesting really…

But now we jump back in the car for the exciting and fun activity. We drive back to the fort, walk all the way down to the lower part and get geared up for the ride. On the plan are 7 zip lines to take us across a small river (or lake, I’m not too sure) where we should have an amazing view over Mehrangarh… yes we do!

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What’s left now is a long zip line back to the start, Beber you go first! You should be able to see him at the bottom of the picture, in the middle with a white tee shirt, and he needs to reach the grey square at the top of the tower just in front.

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We all got stuck before reaching the final stop and had to pull ourselves onto the platform. Wow, we had a really good time. Far from the noise and crowd of all Indian cities, that was really enjoyable.

But we are going back to it as we stop by the Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower). The square is actually a large market where Tuktuks, motorbikes, bicyles and cows co-exist in a loud hubbub of horns and shouts.

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Oh today was a great day. Back in the hotel, we look at the pictures and the videos Bérenger took of the zip lines. That was really cool. And to finish, what else than the now declared “world’s best chikken tikka”? Even the second time, my taste buds cheer! So far Jodhpur has been my favourite city. It’s got such a unique spirit, great views and we had a fantastic hotel with excellent food. Even the moments we’ve spent in the boutiques were pleasant and the people there, good company. I’m really looking forward for what Rajasthan yet has to offer. Tomorrow, we’re heading to Pushkar, a Hindu pilgrimage town. It wasn’t on our plan originally but was highly recommended, so we’ll see. 🙂

Day 7 Pushkar

At our arrival in Pushkar in the beginning of the afternoon, Vipin hands us over to a local young man who is going to show us the city. We jump on his scooter (it’s perfectly normal to have 3 people on it) and head towards the city centre. There are 2 reasons why Pushkar is a famous town. The first reason is its annual camel fair in November time. The second is its holy lake.

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To put some context around the history of Pushkar, I need to explain the Hindu religion a little bit. (far be it from me to think that I understand this religion, because I really don’t. It is based on a very complex set of beliefs and concepts so far from what I’m used to that I’m still unsure about what I think I know of it. So please, excuse me if my version is not quite correct and feel free to correct me if you have a better understanding.)

Hindusm is nor a monotheistic nor a polytheistic religion. It is often referred to as a henothestic relagion, which describes the belief in one single God while accepting the existence of others. In this context, the supreme spirit is believed to be Brahman, eternal soul and true self of every person. But the Hindu do not worship this Supreme Being, but rather its personalities or forms: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector and Shiva the Destructor. Occasionally, the Gods come down to Earth under a human form. These incarnations are called Avatars. For example, Rama, Krishna or even Buddha are a few of many Vishnu avatars. The Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) give orders to the Devis and Devas (Gods and Goddesses) to maintain their domain. The total number of deities in unknown, although 33 seems to be mentioned many times.

The legend says that Brahma got into a fight with the demon Vajranabha and killed it with lotus flowers. But then 3 petals fell down on Earth and created the 3 Pushkar lakes, one for each of the Hindu Trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Today, Pushkar has great religious importance and many Hindu will make the pilgrimage at least once in their life to wash their sins away in one of the 52 ghats (baths) or pray in one of the 400+ temples surrounding the lake. Following the tradition, I spent some time with a Brahmin, the priest society or caste, for a spiritual experience.

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We were present during an annual festival in the honour of Shiva, called Kanwar Yatra (I think). Devotees will travel hundreds of kilometers to find a source of Holy water (from the Ganges for example), bring it back to their village and then pour it over a Shiva temple. That explains the processions of people we saw pretty much on every road in Rajasthan carrying pots of water at the end of a stick resting on their shoulders, sometimes following a trolley producing very loud music. There were some stands set up so the pilgrims could take their load off and rest before continuing their journey. In Pushkar, the Shiva temple was a few steps away from the holy waters of Pushkar lake. People were carrying buckets, pouring it onto the temple which then made its way back to the lake (which made the steps extremely slippery since we are not allowed to wear shoes).

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After having spent time with the Brahmin, we truly look like locals.

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Like this we could go to the Brahma temple, one of the very few in the entire world (I don’t know why yet but I will find out tomorrow). As a traveller I always have difficulties to enjoy visiting a religious site. As I’m only a tourist and I’m not here for the same reason as all the locals, I feel like I’m disturbing their environment. I don’t need to ask the question to know thay they’d probably agree with me. So unless there is a very specific reason for me to go (part of a group, amazing architecture or decorations, etc.), I try not to. And when I do, I spend as little time as possible inside the building. But it seems to me that the Hindu religion is relatively open and anyone can join the spiritual rituals and celebrations.

That evening, Vipin is joining us again for dinner. Being a holy, you can’t eat meat nor consome alcohol. Although the latter has evolved to a “you can’t buy alcohol in town but you can buy it outside town and bring it back with you”. We drive a around 15 minutes inside the narrow streets of Pushkar and park the car next to a vegetarian restaurant. As last time, Vipin brought his bottle of whiskey. I don’t mind vegetarian food and I’m happily following the local customs. The only thing is that I know I will be hungry again fairly quickly. So I make sure I eat plenty because tomorrow we’re climbing a hill to a temple built at the top.

Day 8 Pushkar

In the morning, the hotel seems completely empty. There isn’t even any staff to show us the way to the restaurant and look after us, I had to go to the kitchen to find a waiter. This morning the plan is to go to Saraswati temple. But first, let me continue the story where I left it (Vipin explained me the origin of this temple).

You remember Brahma, dropped the lotus flower petals and the lakes were created right? Well then Brahma decided to perform a Yajna, an ancient ritual and offering ceremony. But his wife, Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, art, could not be present on time for the celebration and complete her part of the ritual. So Brahma married another girl and, with her, performed the Yajna. When Saraswati arrived and realised what had happened, she cursed Brahma that he would never be worshipped. To calm her down, Brahma ericted a temple in her honour at the top of a surrounding hill. Saraswati reviewed her curse so that Brahma could only be worshipped in Pushkar. This explains the origin of the Saraswati temple and the uniqueness of the Brahma temple in Pushkar. But again, this is one of the many legends that exist.

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So there we go, we start the climb which is not too hard. It’s not very steep, not very long. The only thing is that it’s hot and humid. At the top, nothing special. A temple like we’ve seen many. It’s nice to have gone up there for the view but the temple pilgrimage is more for people practising the Hindu religion. So we stop 10 minutes to have a look at the view and come back down. As you might have noticed, the weather isn’t great anyway.

It’s 10:30am and we’re back in the hotel. We’ve got the entire day ahead of us but nothing really planned. So we grab our bags and start going towards the town centre. The plan is to go have a look around to “feel” the local life and see if there is anything to do. You don’t live experiences or witness surprising scenes by sitting in our hotel room. So hopefully, we’ll find something worth it out there. Unlike all other cities we’ve been to, there is no one here to sell us anything which is nice. I certainly feel a lot more free, less apprehension. But in fact, the weather was bad and after 2 hours we had seen it all, so we head back to the hotel. But with an idea in mind.

At the reception, we ask about ayurvedic massage (which they offer) and book an hour session. Some 45 minutes later, the masseurs are here and the treatment starts. By the way do you know what an ayurvedic massage is? We didn’t. It is similar to any kind of massage you’d expect there’s a few more things like tapping (on the head for example) and squeezing (the ears). And yes, there is oil, a lot of it. I am not sure I can say I was fully relaxed after that. Our skin was red and we couldn’t get the oil off it despite long showers… Great! We need to go for dinner anyway, the plan being to meet Vipin again and go to the same restaurant as yesterday.

But as we were waiting for him in the lobby, the hotel manager approached to ask where we were having dinner. He then offered to find some chicken for us. At first, that didn’t catch my attention but we would rather agree with Vipin anyway. He shows up, the hotel manager explains him the plan and Vipin asks us: “what do you want to do?” I felt some kind of embarassment between all people and I realised that it wasn’t right to eat meat in Pushkar, a holy city! I couldn’t understand why was the guy even offering it, he probably is Hindu. And the fact that we wanted to have dinner with Vipin, the decision was made. We’re going to the vegetarian restaurant. There Vipin had a few more drinks than usual and ended up quite happy. I spoke a lot about his day, he had looked after his car, his “indian” he calls it. He also met one of his old friends and they spent a lot of time talking together. At the end, I was a bit nervous about him driving in the not so easy streets of India, but he was completely fine. No problem at all. Ready for a good night sleep, but still quite greasy…

Day 9 Jaipur

Again, the drive from Pushkar to Jaipur, the Pink City, is relatively short. We arrive ar the beginning of the afternoon under a sky far from being nice. As we could imagine, Vipin takes us to another textile warehouse. The difference is that in this once, they also dye their fabrics. I have seen pictures of these long sheets of colourful material drying in the sun. But because of the weather and the frequent rains, they can’t work. The only thing they have ongoing is a little bit of printing, where they stamp patterns of different colours on a piece of textile. The guy looking after us shows how this is done.

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He’s got 2 stamps of different designs that he uses to apply different colours.

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We’ve got to be happy with this elephant because we’re not seeing more than that… that’s a shame.

Then we’re taken upstairs and we review the collection of textiles they’ve got to offer. In this one, on a craqué notre slip! We both bought a few pieces: bed cover sets (the same one actually, with silver and gold threads), gifts for our family, tailor made shirts and suits. Of course, we weren’t going to leave with them, we’ll have to come back tomorrow. But during the couple of hours we spent in this warehouse, the rain had been falling… a lot. To the point that the streets were flooded. Vipin brings the car as close as possible to the step we’re on so we don’t get wet. And then we drive for 10m to the next room where they store the carpets. I step out of the car and now I can see the state of the main street.

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In the small street we are in, water is just below knee level. But in the main street, in the background, water is at waist level… all that in just a couple of hours. We were feeling lucky for not seeing the rain despite being in the middle of the monsoon season. Well, there we go! (Since then I have met other travellers who went to Jaipur as well. Our experiences we the complete opposite. While Jaipur was our “wettest and coldest experience”, the people I met described the city as extremely hot, dusty and unbreathable. Quite different.)

The problem is that we couldn’t go because you can’t see the holes in the road and the car could get blocked in one of them. So we need to wait for the water to evacuate. That makes the guys from the textile factory happy cause they can now take us to the annex of the main warehouse, where they store (and sell of course) carpets. At the entrance, there is a man making one.

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They looked and felt really nice. I did take my shoes and socks off to step barefoot on them, really soft! I wouldn’t mind stepping on that piece of softness every morning. But we’ve really spend a lot of money already, we won’t have space in our bags so we’ll pass on that one. And gladly, the water has drained relatively quickly and we can jump back in the car to continue our visit. But Vipin takes us to another shop, NOOOO! One of precious stones. That one doesn’t even bother showing anything about his work, he takes us straight to the room where his goods are on display. Oh yes, there are some really nice ones but I’m not sure about the quality. He was persistent, I was fed up so I bought the smallest piece that I could find. It was for the equivalent of £2. He was happy he had made a sale and I was happy he left me alone, deal! But then he targetted Bérenger and again, wouldn’t let go until he convinced him to buy something.

We really didn’t stay long in this shop and asked Vipin to take us straight to the hotel, no shop on the way. Unfortunately, we weren’t in the center of Jaipur but in the outskirts, next to the fort. (You will have noticed that every single city has its fort). So we couldn’t explore and just relaxed with a beer and a nice dinner on the rooftop terrace.

Day 10 Jaipur

This morning, the weather hasn’t really improved. I know it sounds weird but I feel like we’re inside a fish bowl. It’s just really wet everywhere, even the air seems wet. (no, not like London, much worse). It’s in these conditions that we are going to visit Amber Fort.

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For the short history, the city of Amber used to be the capital of the Kachwaha Rajput. This particular community placed a high importance to marriage as a way of managing their diplomacy. They aligned themselves with the powerful Mughal empire through military alliances and marital unions. They were generously rewarded for this, which allowed them to finance the construction of Amber fort in 1592.

There is a noticeable difference to the other forts we’ve visited so far in the way that there is a large plaza. Of course Junagarh or Merhangarh also have open spaces but not as large as here. We can also distinguish the walls in the cloud behind, on the top of the hill. They go so far that I couldn’t see where they end. In a few words, Amber Fort is just incredibly massive.

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Inside this palace, the decorations are sober, the colours very light but equally if not more luxurious than what we’ve seen before.

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It is difficult to truly appreciate the splendour of the site given the horrible weather. I am sure sun rays would magnify the palace surfaces, richly decorated and nicely designed. But all we get in dull light with frequent showers.

On the way to our next destination, we drive next to Jal Mahal, the water palace. It owes its name to the fact that it’s flooded by the waters of Man Sagar. Needless to say, it cannot be visited.

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Then Vipin takes us to a royal cemetery, I can’t remember the name. The kiosk are more than what you’d expect of a more popular cemetery, nicely carved from rich stone.

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At the beginning of the afternoon, the rain has stopped for some time and Vipin accepts to take us to the city centre (he wasn’t too happy about that because it’s like a basin and quickly fills up with water during heavy rains). We take this chance to go a site “out of the ordinary”. What I mean is that every city of in Rajasthan has its fort and palaces, so we’ve seen many of those already. But Jantar Manta is different, it’s an observatory. In order to understand how each system work, we hire a french speaking guide (they all languages…).

If I remember well, the first object is used to determine the time of the year by observing the movement of the sun. There is a small piece of metal with a small hole suspended in the middle by 4 cables. The sun is projected onto the white stone and its position is recorded. The observer would walk between the panels and another version opposite of this one (panel in the place of stairs and stairs in the place of panels) is built right behind.

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The emperor also liked astrology. He built the Rashi Yantras. Each rashi is built in an angle specific to the zodiac sign it represents. Below is the leo rashi, my zodiac sign.

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This is the overview of the 12 rashis for each zodiac signs.

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The last object of this collection is truly impressive. It is called Brihat Samrat Yantra. It’s a 27m high sundial, with a precision of 2 seconds!

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We couldn’t see it working though… and as the rain returned, we headed back to the car. The water was rising really fast, incredible. So Vipin took us to a temple outside the city which didn’t have much to offer apart from a number of monkeys with their babies.

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That closes our stay in Jaipur. The weather really was horrible so I couldn’t really enjoy it. I am sure it’s a really nice city when it’s warmer and drier. But in a way, we were quite impatient to finish this because of the next (and lost stop in India), Agra! I have really high expectations and I’m really please we’ve left it to the end. The lost city of Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj Mahal should be truly amazing sites and I can’t wait to take the road and get there.

Day 11 – Agra

We take the road early morning, not unhappy to leave Jaipur and all its water. We are really hoping that the weather is mush better around Agra. This time, the drive is about 6-hour long and it’s in the middle of the afternoon that we reach Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient abandoned city some 50km before Agra. The weather was opposite to the one we had left: bright sun, sky absent clouds and extremely hot.

At our arrival, Vipin hands us over to a local guide. The guy had blue eyes so light and bright, I’ve never seen that before. Anyway he takes us to the entrance of the abandoned city where we are told its story. The Mughal Emperor Akbar wasn’t able to have a son to take his succession to the throne. He had heard of al old man in the outskirts of a small village called Sikri, capable of making miracles. He decided to go and visit this man, known as Salim Chishti. The old man blessed the emperor and told him he will have a son. The prophecy came true and Akbar’s first son was soon born. The emperor went back to Sikri in order to thank Shaikh Salim Chishti and asked him what he wanted in return. “A mosque”, replied the man. So be it! Akbar built an impressive mosque and a city with 3 palaces for his favourite wives, one Hindu, one Christian, one Muslim (I think this is a lesson of tolerance, especially 500 years ago when religion was the main cause for military conflicts). He moved the capital of the Mughal Empire from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri in 1571. But it was built in a very dry area and it suffered from water shortages. After an ephemere existence, the capital moved back to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned in 1585.

Now we’re walking in it and it is truly remarkable.

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Every square centimeter has been carved with extreme precision.

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The pavilions are open to the exterior. There is barely any wall but columns to let the air circulate into the buildings.

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Now we’re going to the mosque which is still in use today, and there is a lot of people. We are asked, as expected, to leave our shoes at the entrance. (hopefully we won’t get into the same trouble as in Delhi) We pass the gate and the spectacle is surprising: the mosque is like a lively village.There are lots of people, outdoor stalls and eateries, and all that is happening in the middle of the tombs.

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Our guide had a very nice thought and proposed to take a picture of us in front of the gate. This is kind of him, he’s a really good guy and I don’t blame him but f*** that was painful! The sun was high in the sky, it was a very hot day, we were walking bare foot… the ground was burning!!! It was impossible to stand at the same place for more than 10 seconds. But hey, that’s a good picture. 🙂

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Salim Chishti’s tomb is inside the mosque, under a beautiful white marble mausoleum. The worshippers lay pieces of cloth on his tomb as offering for his blessing. It is very busy, we need to queue in order to enter but the air is a lot cooler, maily due to the beautiful stone windows which provide a lot of shadow but let you see the vivid colours of the outside.

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My impression is that of a family day at the park in Europe. The kids have brought their toys and they’re playing together (remember that we are inside a mosque, would you imagine this inside a church?).

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In the surrounding covered path, more stalls are installed selling anything from food to kitchware or clothing.

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Now we’ve seen it all, so we’re heading back to the entrance. But before we come out, let’s have one last look at this amazing scene of local life.

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We recover our shoes (without any problem this time) and start the walk back to the car. I am thinking to myself that entering this mosque was an incredible experience. I would have never thought to find such life in a religious site. For me religion means quiet and peaceful but why wouldn’t it be busy and lively? I know it is because there is a celebration going on (Eid al Fitr I think, the end of Ramadan), but still. I also usually feel uncomfortable being a tourist in relegious buildings, I disturb the people practicing. But this time I didn’t, probably because it’s an event which of course is related to the religion of Islam but also because I think it’s an opportunity for everyone in the local community to get together and celebrate. This creates a very different atmosphere. We’ve now reached the car, we say goodbye to our deep-blue-eye guide and begin the last portion of our journey to the ultimate site of our trip, the Taj Mahal.

I read of a park, on the opposite side of the river flowing next to the Taj Mahal, from which we have great views for sun rise and sun set. When we get there, it’s a bit late and I’m slightly concerned that we’ve missed the spectacle. Bérenger and I run between the trees in order to get to the river bank as quickly as possible. In fact, when we got there, it wasn’t too late… it is the perfect time… this is wonderful… I’m speechless…

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I literally can’t take my eyes of such beauty, and certainly can’t leave. Usually, when a site is supposed to be amazing and I hear many people talking about it, I build up high expectations and end up a bit disappointed. I had very high expectations of the Taj Mahal but what I’m seeing is beyond what I could ever have imagined! I am trying to print the image into my mind so I never forget this moment. It was only interrupted by the guards which told us we had to leave as they are closing the park. I’m already thinking of tomorrow, our last day in India but most certainly a excellent one to end a trip.

Day 12

This morning, we start at 6am, earlier than usual. We have asked Vipin to leave earlier in order to be at the entrance of the Taj Mahal when it opens, to avoid the crowd and get the good light. As always, he does what makes us happy without any reticence. As you can imagine, the ticket booth is surrounded of people trying to sell you tours, only this time they are way more insistent than anywhere else. A guy came to use some 200m away from the gate, spoke to us about his knowledge all the way, made up some stories about “you cannot get in without a guide”, waited for us as we were getting our tickets and walked with us until the actual entrance. That’s persistance!

But once inside the site, there wasn’t many people. We walked for a few meters, enter the park’s gate and here it is. Ladies and gentlemen, the Taj Mahal!

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The story of the Taj Mahal is equally beautiful. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, at the origin of all Old Delhi’s monuments and grandson of Akbar (who commisioned Fatehpur Sikri), married a persian pricess called Mumtaz. He had other wives but she was his favourite and he was truly in love. One day, he asked her: “What gift can I make you to express my love to you?”. “Something unique in the entire world”, she replied. Unfortunately, she dies soon after, in 1631, giving birth to Shah Jahan’s fourteenth child. He promised her to build the most beautiful mausoleum in the world in her memory. So the construction began the following year and was completed in 1653. Then, the emperor apparently got the architect killed so he could not design another building like this. As we’ve seen in the Red Fort history, Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb. He died in 1666 and was buried in the Taj Mahal next to Mumtaz. A legend tells that, once a year, at the start of the rain season, one single drop of water falls onto the cenotaph. As of today, the mistery hasn’t been eluded.

We really took our time to visit it. The light was amazing.

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We went inside the mausoleum and got approached by some guy saying he was an historian. He started to explain a few things about the building in the interior, whowed us the light deflection properties of the stones used to decorate the walls, quite interesting. Could you imagine the speed at which he ran off when I told him that we didn’t have any money? 🙂

We sat for a while, enough for some local ladies to pose next to Bérenger. Nice encounter at the most iconic building dedicated to love héhé.

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Right we’ve spent a good three hours in the park now. It’s time to go. We headed to the entrance, almost walking backwards so we could keep our eyes in the Taj Mahal. You’re going to think that I’m exagerating but no. For me, it’s that captivating! The last step was hard. We have to turn our backs and walk behind the entrance wall. It’s like saying goodbye to a very good friend knowing that you might never see him again (I’ve seen that in movies. You know, a train station, 2 people saying goodbye to each other, the train about to leave, one of them jumps in it at the last second, presses the face against the window, the other runs on the platform for as long as possible… you see what I mean right?). Well, it feels a bit like that. One last look, I print it in my head and I finally take my eyes off it to walk towards the gate. “No, wait! I’ve got to look again!” I run back and watch the most beautiful building of the planet for one very last time and then finally walk out of the park… for good.

We’ve got one last thing to see in Agra before we terminate our stay here: Agra fort. After Delhi, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Jaipur, this is the 6th fort that we’re going to visit… I don’t need to tell you that we’re not extremely excited, especially not after visiting the Taj Mahal. I’m glad we did it at the end cause anything else now seems unexceptional. But it is true that Agra fort is one of the finest example of Mughal architecture. Its history is made by the same names that we’ve already come across. Its construction began in 1565 under the reign of Akbar, as a military structure. Its successor Shah Jahan, extended it and made it a palace since Agra was again the capital of the empire after the abandonment of Fatehpur Sikri. It then became his prison when his son Aurangzeb locked him in to take over the throne. White marble and gold were used to show the wealth of the Mughal empire…

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… the hall of public audiences, huge, certainly one of a capital…

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… and the gardens, very pleasant.

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We come out of the fort to meet Vipin on the car park and we’re hassled by vendors of wips and other sort of useless objects, which are being really insisting. They followed us until we got in the car. Now we’re hungry, lets’ go for our last indian meal!

Sat at the table with Vipin, we realise that this is it. Our adventure is finished. It was an amazing trip, we’ve seen wonderful sites, discovered a truly unique culture, had excellent food (although Beber might disagree on that one 🙂 ). Rajasthan really deserves its nickname of “Land of Kings”. Each city had its own fort but yet with their own identity. And colour. My favourite was Jodhpur, the views from Merhangarh over an entirely blue city, the views from the surrounding hills over Merhangarh, the zip line experience, the best chicken tikka at the hotel’s rooftop terrace just under the fort’s walls, all elements were united to make it an unforgettable dtay. Now it’s time to go home and I’m also happy with that. After an another 3 hours to Delhi airport, a warm goodbye to Vipin, a McDonald’s (we really wanted to try the Mac Maharaja), we take off direction London, home.

To finish, a special note to Vipin, our driver. Of excellent company, he always looked after us, made sure we were safe and did his best to give us a fantastic experience. It surely wouldn’t have been the same without him, thank you! And also a special note also to Beber, my travel companion. 😉 On s’est bien marré mec, on en a parfois chié (surtout toi 😉 ) mais ça a été un vrai plaisir de partager ce voyage avec toi et j’ai qu’une hâte c’est d’organiser le suivant.

I’ve found one picture that I thought really summarizes the 12 days, anti-mosquito bracelet at the left hand (which didn’t work), the “Brahma bracelet” from Pushkar at the right hand, the tee shirt smelling like camel (it really stinks) bought in Pushkar too, the belt pocket to hide all our treasures (loads of them), the plastic shoe covers (so trendy) to avoid walking on sacred ground and of course, camera always around the neck to capture these moments!!!

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A bientôt pour la suite des aventures…

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Wild Borneo, Malaysia 2014

Twice! Twice in the past I had planned to go to Borneo but twice I had to cancel. So when my brother told me he was going to spend a year studying in Malaysia, you can imagine what my first thought was… “BORNEO!”. As we all know, studying abroad is more like super long holiday than late nights studying. I am not sure I know anyone who hasn’t had a great time studying abroad for some time. On the other hand if you are a parent and reading this, studying abroad is such a valuable experience to open one’s eyes on the world and broaden one’s mind.

Anyway, so why Borneo? Because it’s one of the last place on Earth where we can observe untouched nature? Yes! Because it’s home to a large number of unique animal species which can only be found here? Yes! And because what makes this island so special is under threat and could simply disappear on the short term? Sadly, that’s a strong “yes” too… So I really want to go and see this natural wonder before it’s gone.

So straight away, I book my time off work, take out my favourite travel guide and start planning the activities. The programme is quite simple: spend a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur (“KL” as the locals call it), search for wildlife in the heart of the jungle and deep underwater and finally climb the highest peak of South East Asia just over 4000m. For the anecdote, I was trying to arrange a 5 day long expedition with a private guide to maximise my chances of spotting rare wildlife. It took 2 months to get a plan I was “kind of” happy about, which he wanted to charge me £3000 for… That is £600 a day! I was left without arrangement only 2 days before the expedition was supposed to start… not great.

Thursday 9 October, straight after work, I take the direction of Heathrow airport for a 13 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines (at that time, one of their planes was still lost in the indian ocean and another one had been shot down in Ukraine. For me that was just misfortune which means that it’s probably one of the safest airline at the moment.) I got to KL airport late evening, a couple of hours behind schedule, where my brother picked me up. I wanted to get to bed early for an early wake up but the jetlag wasn’t going to let me…

Day 1 – 2 Exploring KL

The programme was pretty much around all there is to do in KL: shop, eat drink and see the Petronas Towers. Shopping we did, at the busy malls for GoPro accessories and trekking gear in preparation of the adventures to come. Eating and drinking we did, at the numerous food stalls and the famous Jalan Alor food street. Seeing the Petronas Towers we did, from every possible angle but unfortunately without clear sky as a photo maniac like me would have hoped for.

When completed in 1998, they were the highest skyscraper in the world, but replaced by Tapei 101 in 2004. Today, they are ranked 9th in the list of the world’s tallest buildings.

Day 3 Kota Kinabalu to Danum Valley Conservation Area

Right, Borneo is a large island, the 4th in the world actually. It is split in 3 regions: Sarawak and Sabah in the North/North West form part of Malaysia, and Kalimantan to the South, part of Indonesia. Yesterday night, I landed in Kota Kinabalu largest town in Sabah. But I want to get away from here as quickly as possible and get to the jungle. The objective for today is simple, getting to Danum Valley Conservation Area. It’s mostly frequented by scientists doing some research on the fauna, flora and the surrounding environment. Consequently, it isn’t set up for welcoming tourists, therefore not a very popular holiday destination. This is exactly why I want to go there. Because there is very few humans, I am hoping that wildlife is more abundant there than in other areas. But it’s also difficult to reach.

I have already booked a flight to get to the closest city, Lahad Datu, hoping to find a way to get picked up and brought to the research centre. To that end, I am going to a travel agency not quite like any other. As you can imagine, there are loads of tourism companies called very similar names such as “Borneo Travel”, “Amazing Borneo”, “Borneo Holidays”, “Borneo Tours”. To me, they clearly state “tourist packages for tourists in tourist places”. In other words, exactly what I DO NOT want. This other company caught my attention as their statement is more like “we’re different”. They offer alternative options and they’re called “Sticky Rice”. An hour in their office and I’ve found the way of getting to Danum Valley, booked 4 nights in the research centre hostel with all meals included and a nature guide for the group*.

* Just me 🙂

That’s perfect timing to now take a taxi, get to the airport, hop on the flight to Lahad Datu and walk over the the Conservation Area office. There I meet Bedley, the guide who is going to take me around for the next few days. All my bags and imagery equipment in the car, we can start the 3 – hour drive to the research centre. Once we get there, it’s already 6pm. From there we have two options, have dinner and get some rest before tomorrow or have dinner and go out into a jungle for a night walk.

So here we are, finding our way at the light of our head lamps. It doesn’t take long before I feel miles away from any sort of civilisation. There is absolutely no light and I can hear nothing but the jungle. In a way, it’s a little bit oppressing but so exciting at the same time. There are several species of rare cats in the area, including the highly endangered clouded leopard. They come out at night to hunt so now is the best time to see one. It know it’s going to require luck, a lot of luck, but I can’t help to hope for it. The first 30 minutes reveal the local, insects, birds but no mammal. I know it’d make bird watchers extremely happy but that’s not my thing. And the difficulty in searching for wildlife is that it’s easy to get demotivated. After an hour of search, I’m starting to lose focus: “I was dreaming! I won’t see any animal, it’s impossible. Researchers stay for months and don’t see them often! … Hold on! …Come on Guillaume what was I thinking? To turn up in the jungle, have a 10-minute promenade and see animals coming to me? Don’t be so naïve, it’s going to take a lot of efforts. And I will only see them if continue searching, day and night!”

We are walking at a very slow pace, listening for any noise and stopping regularly to look into the bushes and up in the trees. Our light will reflect into their eyes and we should see the 2 littles shiny dots looking at us from the bushes. Creepy? Now Bedley has stopped some 5 meters in front of me, he’s fixed his lamp to a bush. “It’s a mouse deer”, he says when I approached quietly. Oh yeah, I can see it… It’s tiny! I mean, it hasn’t been called this way randomly. I’d say it’s about 20-30cm long, the smallest species of deer on the planet. It doesn’t seem bothered by our lights and hangs around for about 10 minutes before going further into the woods. That’s a really cool sighting. Having searched for about 2 hours now and observing the first animal is really exciting and encouraging.

It doesn’t take long before Bedley stops again, looking far ahead on the path. “There is a cat, look ahead!” Hearing that, my heart rate went mad!!! “Clouded leopard?” No it’s a civet. It runs across the path into the bushes. We approach quietly to try and see it… what happens next is on the video 🙂

Have you ever heard of the Kopi Luwak? Supposingly the best coffee in the world? Well, the coffee cherries are eaten by an animal which digestive system let the beans out and give them a special flavour. They are recolted in the animal’s scats and then sold to up to $600 a cup. (you read well, up to $600 for a single cup). Well the animal in question is a palm civet, similar species to the one we’ve just seen. Thinking about it now, I should have gone after its poop to try and make some money 🙂

A couple of hours and another mouse deer later, we get back to the research centre. It’s 1 am. Bedley and I agree to be up at 5:30am to climb the observation tower and watch the sun rise from there. The night is going to be short…

Day 4 Danum Valley Conservation Area

The alarm rings and it wouldn’t take much to convince myself to stay in bed for another couple of hours. But my motivation of seeing wildlife is still intact and manages to get me up. The reward for the effort doesn’t take long to come, a group of read leaf monkeys are just over the main track of the research centre. You see their redish fur? Well you can imagine that my obsession for seeing rare animals led me to confuse them for orang utans at first… idiot!

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So… what are we looking for today? The rare clouded leopard car comes out at night so what comes out during the day? Well orang utans as I’ve just mentioned, pigmy elephants (they’re big I know but rare still) and the bornean rhinoceros. Nobody knows how many individuals of the latter are left but their number is estimated to be under 20…

The climb up the observation tree isn’t as easy as expected. The resin being that the ladder is “caged” for safety reasons and my tripod attached to my bag keeps getting stuck between the metal wires. It’s better be worth it! Once at 30 meters, we stand above most of the rainforest. I say most because some trees are as high as 80m. The spectacle is mostly auditive. As the sun comes up, the jungle awakes. Birds being their sweet melody as the mist enlightens. I sit there for 30 minutes without making any movement not to disturb the surrounding peace.

Back on the groud, reality hits back… leeches are everywhere. They’ll stay on a leaf, “smell” you arrive, extend their long thin body to reach you and try to sneak in any king of hole they can find in your clothing to get to your skin. And eventually suck your blood!

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They also generate an anti clotting particule. So even when they’re fed, you will keep bleeding for another few hours. That’s how I discovered I had been bitten, when I saw a big stain of blook on me tee shirt… really not nice.

By the way, how do you imagine my outfit to go trekking? Brown and green clothing, muddy rangers, Indiana Jones hat, machete on the side?

Hum, not really… I’ve got red and yellow shoes, light blue pyjamas, white tee shirt and yellow bag. Definitely closer to Harlequin than Indian Jones…

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The rythm of the day is based on the meal times. Breakfast at 8, lunch at 12 and dinner at 6. We spend the time in between searching in the forest. But today has not been successful at all. I’m sitting down with Bedley waiting for dinner to be ready and so far we’ve haven’t seen a single animal… nada. I am trying to see it the positive way. I will be so much more excited when I see one of the animals I’m looking for. Or even better, Mother Nature is keeping everything for the last day, a little bit like the Grand Finale of the New Year’s Eve fireworks 🙂

The night walk didn’t really offer us much more. I saw a couple of cameleons, which is quite cool and a sambar deer on the way back to the centre. Opposite to the mouse deer, the sambar deer is the largest species of all on the planet. As today didn’t quite work out, I am more determined than ever. Tomorrow, we’ll be up at 5am for a morning walk and then we’ll head further into the jungle for a day long trekk. May we be more furtunate.

Day 5 Danum Valley Conservation Area

This morning, the alarm rings even earlier, at 5am. It’s my last day, I haven’t seen any rare wildlife so I’ll spend every single minute looking. The sunrise walk takes us to a old burial site. The sungai kinabatangan (people of the river), used to bury their dead over the river banks. As always, the objective is the observe rare wildlife on the way… but no.

Nevermind, I haven’t had that much energy for a long time. We swallow our breakfast very quickly, grab some sandwichs for lunch and head to a remote waterfall, 7km away from camp. It doesn’t sound like much but because of the terrain and our walking pace, it’s going to take us the whole day. I also means that the path is even less frequented. After two hours, we hear some movements up in the trees, it’s obviously a monkey. Straight away, I’m thinking “Orang Utan”, like if it was the only ape living in the rainforest… No it’s actually a Bornean Gibbon, very thin body, extremely long arms, can travel up to 30km in a day and is also highly protected. But at the moment, I can only see moving leaves and hear cracking branches. Until its curiosity leads him to show up in the open to observe us. We observe each other for a few seconds until he goes back hiding further under the jungle canopy. Apparently, he is a juvenile because of the size… seemed fairly tall to me.

That’s a very promising start for the day as we continue to get deeper into the rainforest. There is a number of orang utan’s nests but they’re all empy. No sign of the red-hair great ape. Soon we reach a clearing in the dense rainforest. A small stream flows into the main river building a number of crystal clear pools into the rock. There are also many signs of humans here: kitchenware, tooth brush and tooth paste, drying cloths and more. We find the camp just on the other side, very basic. It’s made of 6 vertical large branches, some more horizontal to make a straight platform and plastic covers on top. They are supposingly researchers that are doing some tree identification work. They’re absent so we continue our way via a suspended bridge to the other side of the river.

Now we are on the other side but it’s not very clear which way to go. We take to decision to follow the most logical option and continue our walk. But this part is a lot less enjoyable than this morning. There is a lot of chopped wood on the forest floor to clear the way for a big water pipe. That goes on and on until we see a sign for short trails around the reasearch centre… S***, we’re going in the wrong direction. There is no time to lose, let’s quickly turn back and reach the more “animal friendly” part of the forest. It’s 2pm when we make it back to the camp we saw earlier, where we probably took the wrong direction. Hopefully, the researchers are back and can help us finding our way. But in the mean time, we allow ourselves a little break for lunch in this wonderful setting… but first, let’s have a little dip.

This is one of those moments that make life so worthwhile. Covered in sweat, mud and blood from several hours of hiking, I get to relax in a very cool river, deep in the jungle of Borneo, far from civilisation and for only noise the songs of tropical birds… delightful…

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(I’m right now sitting on my couch, writing this and looking at the rain falling outside my window… so depressing. Can I go back there?)

The guys at the camp say that the waterfall we are trying to get to is still a long way. We have limited hours of daylight left so we’re heading back to the research centre. Apparently, they’ve spotted big broken branches on the floor which are signs of large male orang utans… fingers crossed. But instead, we are granted of a typical tropical rain, the kind that get someone drenched in a few seconds. Being my last hours in the jungle, I’m really starting to despair. It’s not even possible to look up in those conditions, a single rain drop is as big as my eye.

However, it seems to calm down as we arrive at our hostel. I reckon we still have another 45 minutes of daylight. In which case, let’s go out again. And Bedley, as always, is up for it. So far I haven’t been an easy guest, in bed at 1am, up at 5am, hiking in the jungle all the time, no break and yet he is always keen to go, a large smile on his face. Thanks mate 😉

Now that night has fallen, it’s time for the night walk. We are going to stay on the dirt road, the park rangers have told us some elephants could be around. We walk for 4 hours but no sign of life. In one occasion, we saw the shiny eyes of a cat reflecting the light of our torches in the middle of the road… but it was dead. Now I’m thinking the car takes me back to town at 7:30am tomorrow, we should have some time to have a short walk in the morning! Bedley? “Yes, sure”. Let’s set the alarm at 5am again then 🙂 Just before going to bed, I need to go to the dining area to get some telephone signal. On the way I am still pointing my torch to the trees, just in case I am lucky. But it doesn’t need to be that hard, two sambar deers are eating grass next to the road a few meters from me. What’s the point of spending hours in the jungle if the animals are coming inside the camp? It’s not really what I’m so keen to se but still proof that the wildlife is here, hopefully tomorrow will be the Grand Finale I am dreaming of.

Day 6 Danum Valley to Mabul Island

Easiest wake up of the week yet, I’ve got an hour left in the jungle for some great time. Unfortunately, there is not enough time to go very far. I get to see some long tail macaques. But they’re not rare, you can see them in the jungle as well as in cities. Coming back to camp at 7am really means the end of this expedition in Danum Valley, there is no more “last chance”. But, hey! Once I have picked up the little brother, Florent, in Lahad Datu, we’re heading to Mabul Island for some great diving, incl at one of the best dive sites in the world Sipadan Island. So I’m sure we’ll see plenty more.

Now we can’t lose time. I really want to spend the night on the island, not on the mainland town of Semporna. After so much efforts, I can’t wait for this cold beer on the beach later today. Luckily everything goes to plan, the bus from Lahad Datu to Semporna, getting to Semporna Harbour and catching the last boat to Mabul Island. We’re staying at Mabul beach resort, operated by Scuba Junkie. When we stepped on the jetty, divers were unloading their gear, talking about their dives… maaaan, I really want to get in the water. We only take 5 minutes to drop our bags, get changed with swimming shorts (which are going to be our clothes for the next 5 days) and grab some snorkels to swim between jettys. Even with only 2 meters of water, the life is really abundant, cornet fish, scorpion fish and many more. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like tomorrow when putting the tanks on and going deeper. 🙂

Day 7 Diving at Mabul

Today, my brother and I are going to follow separate paths. I’m going diving while he’s… staying in a classroom, héhé! Well, he needs his advanced open water course before going to Sipadan. We’ve been told we’ve got more chance to see hammerheads sharks below 20m.

The pace of life at Mabul Beach Resort is all based on dive times. Boat ropes off at 9:30am, gets back a 11am for tea time, leaves again at 12, gets back at 1:30pm for lunch and finally leaves at 2:30 for the third and last dive of the day. Unfortunately, there are no night dives here. The area is frequented by pirates and a few tourists have been kidnapped in the last few months. What do you think of when I say pirates? Wooden leg, eye patch, tricorn hat and a parrot on the shoulder? Haha, me too 🙂 Would you imagine at the end of your night dive, you reach the surface and Jack Sparrow pulls you out of the water: “You’re coming with me on the Black Pearl my friend!”.

The first day of diving wasn’t really exceptional. There was alot of the things you’d expect to see, corals, tropical fish, stingrays but nothing out of the ordinary… until the safety stop of the third dive. We were about to go back to the surface when I see a huge turtle on the reef… I approach and realise it’s probably as big as me… Yes I told you, it’s huge. After a few minutes laying down, it lifts off and start swimming just in front of me… WOW! This is exceptional! This massive turtle is a couple of meters away from my face and I could touch it if I wanted to. There are even 3 remoras on its belly. That turtle has just made my day. I can come up to the surface, I’ve had an amazing day diving. 🙂 🙂 🙂

Now at the resort’s bar, I have re-joined Florent and we can share our stories over this well deserved chilled beer. (Another one of those amazing life moment 😉 )

Day 8 – 10 Diving at Mabul with a GoPro

My GoPro will come with me on every dive now. There is no other way to tell a story than showing it in images…

Mabul island isn’t very big and it doesn’t take long to walk around it. It’s also inhabited by fishermen and the Bajau people, living at the pace of the sea. They extremely friendly and will say “hi” to us every time with a large smile.

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We’ve got an excellent view of the sunset and the Bajau village from an abandoned jetty.

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Where we have the company of children, fishing, and even a turtle we can see in the water.

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Day 11 Sipadan 😀 😀 😀

The day has come, we’re going to Sipadan. The boat ropes off at 6:30am. I’ve checked very thoroughly that I have all my equipment. I’d be stupid to forget a fin on the jetty… The sea is flat and the 45 minutes journey is enjoyable. The excitement is building up… Sipadan is a natural reserve and we need to check in on the island before getting in the water. There are a limited number of diving permits per day. So if you’re thinking of going, I recommend you book in avance to avoid being disappointed.

After the safety briefing, Dave, our divemaster, explains that we are going to dive a site called Barracuda Point. So far, I’ve dived in Manta Point but didn’t see any Mantas, Eel Garden but didn’t see any eel, Shark Allew but didn’t see any shark and more. My expectation of seeing barracudas is therefore very low. But it’s going to be an amazing dive anyway with guaranteed sharks, turtles and massive schools of fish. I let you see for your self 😉

Sipadan is mind blowing. The pages on my dive logbook are not big enough to write everything that we saw. Sadly, it marks the end of our stay on Mabul. A part of me is thinking: “this is paradise, let’s stay another couple of days!”, but the other: “no, let’s move to our next destination. We’ve still got a lot to see!” Not even half an hour after we’ve come back from Sipadan, we are already on another boat, direction mainland.

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We’ve made all travel arrangements to get to a town called Sukau. It’s located on the Kinabatangan river, another major wildlife sanctuary in Borneo. We’re also going to be staying with a local family, this is a great chance of sharing their way of living and discovering their culture.

We reach our destination at 11pm, Bam welcomes us to his house. We have a quick chat over a cup of tea. He is the chief of the homestay program called Balai Kito. He is also managing a conservation NGO called Hutan which is doing a lot of work on the Kinabatangan river. It’s actually one of their member who is going to guide us tomorrow to observe wildlife, can’t wait. 🙂

Day 12 Kinabatangan River

We’re on the boat at 5:30am. Early morning is one of the best time to see wildlife as the temperature isn’t too high. It’s even a little bit chilly with the wind of the boat. But it is soon forgotten when the boat stops for the first time, he’s spotted a group of proboscis monkeys. I was looking forward to see them. This species of monkey has quite a unique look, a large nose in the middle of the face. They’re even sometimes called long-nosed monkey. The proboscis monkey is classified as endangered according to the IUCN Red List and can only be found on the island of Borneo.

We are actually looking at females, which have a smaller nose than I expected (still you can’t miss it though).

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Every group is composed of a large number of females and a single dominant male. Unfortunately we can’t find it this time.

A little later, there is a long-tail monkey on the river bank…

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… and his baby not far hiding behind the leaves.

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The guide and the boat driver slow down and talk about something they’ve seen (I guess). There are fresh prints of elephants in the mud, probably from this morning. They look into the jungle to see if they’re still here but it seems they’re gone. To me it’s amazing that a large animal like an elephant can be so hard to spot. They even travel in herds so you should hear them and see the trees moving from kilometers away… But it seems we are not lucky this time either.

We continue our cruise on the river looking in the trees. I never see anything anyway but the boat driver’s eye is exceptional. He slown down again, I turn around and ask to the guide what he’s seen: “Orang utan”. OH! I jump on the boat, grab my camera and start screeing the forest. Here it is…

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That’s fantastic… I’ve been looking for Orang Utans for 3 days in Danum Valley and finally I see one. They’re a lot more difficult to spot than other primates. First of all, because they’re solitary so they’re a lot more discreet. Second of all, because they don’t jump from branch to branch, they swing. So they don’t create the disturbance to the jungle’s silence that other monkeys do. And finally, because the Orang Utan is an expert in hiding which he soon demonstrated by disappearing into the foliage.

Borneo is also home to the diversity diversity of snakes on the planet. But until now I haven’t seen one, until now…

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We cross the path of a pig tail monkey who apparently just woke up. “OOOOOOOAAAAAAHHHHH!… I wouldn’t mind staying in bed for a bit longer…”

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The baby long tail monkeys are probably the funniest to photograph 🙂

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On the way back to the jetty, I spot some movements on the river bank probably 100m away. At the start I’m not convinced there is an animal there. But as we get closer, I can definitely see there are 2 of them on the sand. They are long, thin and move relatively fast. At first I take them for monitor lizards, we’ve seen already a few of them. Wrong! We’re looking at 2 otters, which apparently are very hard to see. They’re shy, will hide from humans and will do it fast.

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Back at Bam,’s house, we are served a huge breakfast. There are so many things, we will never be able to eat this much. And it’s excellent too, fried bananas, fresh fruit juice, cakes, rice, noodles and much more. I have to admit I was a little hungry, so I’m trying a bit of everything. Now we’ve got plenty of time until our next boat cruise around 4pm. It’s the occasion for have a long chat with Bam about his conservation activities. He’s done a lot of seminars around the world about wildlife protection. He manages a team of people with the objective to replant trees and reconstitute the rainforest, develop wildlife awareness in the area and beyond, help generate revenue for everyone in the village. He’s promoting tourism as a protection strategy. If visitors come to Borneo to observe wildlife and all the population benefits from it, it will then dissuade the locals to kill it. He actually explains that some of the boat drivers and host families used to be poachers. His little organisation has supported a reconversion which benefits the ecosystem as well as the local population. Of course it’s necessary to ban illegal poaching and punish those who do. But some people will not do poaching by choice but by necessity, to earn money and feed their family. It’s important to create alternative sources of revenue which will dissuade them from poaching. What Bam is doing here with Hutan and Balai Kito Homestays is remarkable. I definitely recommand it to anyone who’d like to go wildlife spotting in Borneo.

After lunch, the kids want to play a spintop game with us. But first, they need to install the play area. They grab 2 large wooden plaques to bring them on the terrace. But instead of walking around the little wall, they’ve chosen to climb it, plaques in hand… They find some stairs pillars to lay down around the play area. Then they take a wheelbarrow to the back of the dry and grassless garden. It gets filled up with concrete blocks. Everything goes well at first, when all 3 of them join their efforts into bringing the cargo to the terrace. It turns to disaster when two of them disappear and leave their brother alone to cross a ditch. The wheel gets trapped, the bucket rocks to the side and empty its load… Nevermind, he takes them all back in straight away, brings them over to the terrace and places them around the wooden pillars. The arena is now ready!

Now they explain to Florent and me the rules. We need to wind a piece of cord around the big spintop and then throw it into the arena. The last to remain wins. Sound easy? Well I can’t even get the thing to spin… And I’m being laughed at by an 8 year-old kid… :s After some more technical explainations, I manage to understand how to do it and we can play a few rounds. They have so much energy, they’re running everywhere, fighting each other when I can’t even move because of the heat and humidity. So I take my camera our to capture the great moments we are sharing with our hosts. But I didn’t realise it was going to be confiscated from me by the youngest boy. He is fascinated by it and takes pictures of everything and anything. He’s literally filled up my memory cards with shots of me…

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…my hands…

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… the spintops…

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… a little terror 😉

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Time has come for the next boat cruise and we’re heading to the jetty with the the older brother. The sun is still quite high in the sky and the air hot, the wildlife is hiding. Our first encounter is with a couple of oriental pied hornbills.

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We find another group of proboscis monkeys, in the trees right above us. And this time, I find the dominant male and his big potato nose. 🙂

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Did you notice the turbulences in the aire which seems to be coming from his armpits? Wonder what it is… smell? hormones? haha

We cross the path of a number of kingfishers, extremely colourful tiny bird.

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A couple of wrinkled hornbills.

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At dusk, one more species of primate, the silver leaf monkey.

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Just after dinner, we go again on the water for a night cruise. The boat has a massive light projector to look for animals in the trees. He soon spots a owl in a branch hanging over the river and a few other birds. But the most amazing was yet to come. We were some 15 meters from the first tree that the boat stopped. “He must have seen something” I thought. He gets closer, passes under a couple of trees and shows us what he was. There is a tiny baby crocodile in the water… The guy saw it from 20 meters away, between branches and in the dark… Impressive.

Well today was a fruitful day to say the least. I can’t believe how much wildlife we saw, even an orang utan. I couldn’t have been better. We’ve got one last cruise tomorrow morning, I am sure there will still be plenty to see.

Day 13 Kinabatangan River and Kinabalu National Park

As usual, we’re going to try to fit as many activities as possible into today. Alarm rings at 5am for one last boat cruise. We’ve already been lucky so far but we could get even luckier, who knows?

It starts with nothing more common than a monitor lizard laying on a tree trunk.

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To something slightly more special, a stork-billed kingfisher.

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and an Anhinga (also called snake bird because of its neck)

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To the greatest of all sightings, a second wild orang utan.

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It happened, again, when I was the least expecting it. We were on our way back, going at reasonable speed and I was now thinking that it’s the end and we’re not going to see much more. I wasn’t even looking in the trees anymore. And that’s when the boat driver stopped to show us one last time the red hair great ape. So, to anyone going on a wildlife spotting expedition of any sort, lower your expectations to the maximum and let Mother Nature surprise you when she’s ready. 😉

Back at the house, we’ve got an hour before our taxi driver comes to pick us up and take us back to the main road. From there the plan is to stop a bus which is likely to go to Kota Kinabalu and we’ll ask him to drops us off at the entrance of Kinabalu National Park. Nothing’s been booked, I have no idea of the bus times nor I’m really sure that the bus will stop on demand to pick us up and drop us off. But I’m sure we’ll find a way. In the mean time, let’s have another great breakfast, sit down with the entire family watching tv and finally say goodbye. They’ve been wonderful hosts and we’ve really felt like home, Terimah Kasih!

On the way we are stopping at Gomantong Caves, a large cave system inside a limestone hill. There is a 10 minutes walk from the park entrance to get to the cave… but you can smell it well before you can even see it! Yes, that’s right! They’re inhabited by an incredible number of bats which generate an incredible amount of bit shit! Hills of bat shit actually, look for yourself.

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The air here in unbreathable. It’s extremely acid, oxygen seems to be absent. I can only walk around the cave with my tee shirt over my nose (which quite frankly doesn’t smell like rose either but it’s a Channel perfume compared to the ambient air). You can also imagine what a feast it is for cockroaches… they’re everywhere. The path is covered of them, a muddy bat shit hill underneath… BEURK!

Needless to say, we do not linger in this hostile environment. And we also have a bus to catch. We get back to the car now hoping that our travel plan will go smoothly. And we couldn’t hope for better!

The car dropps us off on the side of the road and we are just taking our luggage out of the book when the bus arrives. It stopps, loads our stuff and has no problem dropping us off where we need. Brilliant! We reach our destination six hourse later, and now we’ve got only half an hour to walk with our barda to the hotel, Kinabalu Mountain Lodge. It’s a bit chilly, we’re in altitude and inside the cloud. So when we get there, the view from the balcony is pretty limited.

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We spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing, reading books with hot drinks. We need to reboost the energy levels before the last expedition of our Borneo trip tomorrow, the climb of Mount Kinabalu at 4095m.

Day 14-15 Mount Kinabalu hike

In the morning, the cloud is gone and the view much more pleasant.

 

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We don’t hang around too long and soon take off to the Kinabalu National Park entrance. The climb is a two day expedition. On the first day, we go up to 3200m to the refuge of Laban Rata, where we’ll spend the night. On the second day, we start at 3am to complete the ascend to the summit and then come all the way back down. This activity is highly regulated, so there are many things to sort out, guide, permits, conservation fees, etc upon arrival. (There always is a debate of what’s more economical between a package deal or taking care of everything yourself. Based on my experience, I would recommand to book the night at Laban Rata refuge (about 800MYR) and then do the rest when you get there. This way you have the guarantee that you will be able to do the hike and you do pay for a third party to do the arrangements for you. It worked all well for us.)

After an hour to sort everything out, we meet with our guide Cigu (below with the green tee shirt) and we begin our climb at around 9am. The clear and sunny sky we had this morning has already been replaced by a grey and humid fog.

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On the way, we cross the path of many locals carrying heavy loads, strap on the head. My guess is that they’re bringing supplies for the Laban Rata resthouse. We’ve got fancy bags with reinforcements here and here, comfort paddings in the back, straps everywhere… they’ve got nothing more than a potato bag with 2 strings but yet carry a lot more weight. I can only imagine their pain…

We’ve now been hiking for a couple of hours. There are definitely lots of people on the trail, no chance of being alone and enjoy a peaceful hike. The commonality between those people is the suffering they seem to be going through. In a way, it’s normal. Who would expect a 4000m peak to be easy? Many travel guides will confirm that by writing it’s incredibly hard. But there is a simple reason for that. It’s one of the only peaks in the area accessible to pretty much anyone, physically fit or not. So many people will attempt it, without prior preparation, and that’s hard. But a little bit of training and it’ll be as easy as a sunday promenade. For me, that was my first physical effort since I cam back from Mont Blanc. I was a little bit nervous about my knee as I know it’s not fully recovered. But actually, it’s only causing me a little bit of discomfort and nothing else.

Above 2900m, the environment changes suddenly. There are no more high trees with dense vegetation. They’ve been replaced by smaller bushes a lot mroe scarce. That’s the effect of altitude.

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After 3 and a half hours of hiking, we reach the refuge of Laban Rata.

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Whoo! It feels right to sit down in the warmth of the common room, drinking a hot coffee. Later in the evening, the clouds disappear for a very brief moment, giving a beautiful sunset over Laban Rata and the higher peaks. Tomorrow, that’s where we’re going

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1:30am… The alarm rings. It doesn’t even feel like it’s a different day. We are ready by 2am to have some breakfast and head for the summit as soon as possible to avoid the big crowd. And we do! We step into the dark, headlamps on, and after a few hundred meters, we’ve taken over the few groups who left before us. We are progressing very slowly through the dark. We’ve left all our stuff at the resthouse, we’re going to get it back on the way down… apart from all my camera gear (body, 4 lenses, tripod and other accessories). I still have a good 10kg on my back. It becomes slighly inconvenient when we need to climb a very smooth surface of rock by grabbing a cord and pulling ourselves up.

As we are still alone, I’m starting to imagine ourselves reaching the summit first. It should be quite special to be there alone, without any other tourists to bread the silence. But for that, we need to continue our progress at a steady pace.

We are reaching the last check point of the ascent, to show our climbing permits. I realise that there is another guy right behind us, he seems quick. As I imagined, I took us over only a few meters after the little office, creating a gap between us. Damn it! Nevermind, we will still be second which should be unique. As far as the landscape is concerned, there is no more vegetation. We are on a rock plateau which rises continuously until the horizon. There are a number of peaks around us, which I take, one by one, for the summit until I realise it’s a little further. We’ve now reached the 3900m mark, we’re getting closer. The gradient is increasing little by little until we reach the bottom of Low’s peak, highest point of Borneo. From there, it looks like a pile of large rocks creating a very steep climb. I can’t even see the top, only the light of the guy ahead of us. At this height, the air is thinner, the oxygen rarer. We get out of breath relatively quickly.

I reach the summit without even realising it when our fit climbing friend tells me so. “Really? Are we at the top already? YOUHOU??” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome at 4095m! 🙂

 

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We are not exactly alone but in a small enough number (3) to enjoy being at the top of the island. The topography of Mount Kinabalu is unique. it rises from sea level (or just bit more) to 4000m. It means that from where we are, we enjoy a 360° view over the entire island, 4000m below, impressive. The sky is clear, we can see the stars, the milky way. An hour later, the sun starts to rise and light pierces through the darkness. We are in the front row for a breathtaking sun rise…

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The sun is risen, we need to start making our way down. It’s a long way to go to the bottom. Quickly, I notice the shadow of the peak extending on the plain and to the sea.

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It doesn’t matter in which direction we look, the view is endless.

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Looking back, I can fully appreciate the height of Low’s peak.

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I hate hiking down. It’s so hard on the legs, on the knees, on the feet. You constantly have to refrain your body from rolling down… urgh! I am glad we are doing this in two stages. First, getting down to Laban Rata is done in a bit more than an hour. We relax a little bit, take our second breakfast, pack our bags and begin the second phase: down to the bottom. For most of the distance, we are alone and enjoy the peaceful hike I like. The people coming down are still behing us and those coming up are not that far yet. We meet the first climbers around 45 minutes from the bottom. It’s all very polite, lots of greetings, especially from a group of guys wearing the same tee shirt with the same logo. They’re very enthusiastic to see us, shake our heads with huge smiles on their face. After we’ve met two dozens of them, I can’t help but ask one to what organisation they belong to

“Prison”, he says

“Prison officers”, he corrects.

Pfiou! I think he’s seen my face change colour after his first reply. So now I’m sure we can complete the hike safely, nothing will happen to us. 🙂

We reach the park entrance just before 12 o’clock, grab a bite in the restaurant and jump on a taxi to Kota Kinabalu. We didn’t realise we could be in town so early, so we’ve got free time between now and tomorrow afternoon. I am sure you know what I like to do after some much efforts? That’s right, having a cold beer… a few of them actually. I also like to eat well. So later in the evening we walked around the night market, which is always special in south east asia and have dinner there. A few more beers listening to local singers put an end to a very long day.

Day 16 Kota Kinabalu

This morning I have the traditional blues of holiday end. It’s the last day and tonight we’re going back home. I’ve chosen to optmise my holiday to the maximum so I’ll be landing at 5am and be at work at 9am. Ouch! In other words, I’ll be at work in 24 hours.

It’s even harder that Borneo is wonderful. Feeling lost in the middle of old primary rainforest in Danum Valley, diving in a natural aquarium at Sipadan, spotting lots of wildlife and sharing the life of the local people at Kinabatangan river and finally hiking above the cloud to the highest mountain of the island for a unique view, Sabah is a concentration of natural wonders. Unfortunately, this fragile environment is under threat. Most of the animals we’ve seen (and the ones we haven’t) are endangered because of illegal hunting and destruction of their habitat to the benefit of palm oil plantations (much more lucrative). It seems that the right measures are being taken to prevent further harm to the rainforests and its inhabitants. Only it might be too late… I have read that orang utans used to be able to cross the island (almost the size of France) without touching the ground. Now they’re secluded in small pockets of protected forests.

We can help!!! If you’re thinking of travelling to Borneo, you can make sure your money benefits the local people and the natural environment. Try to find local organizations that are involved in doing conservation work and employing the locals. Hopefully, tourism and the revenue is generates will support the economy of Sabah and further enhance the need to protect the wildlife. I’d love to show my kid a wild orang utan, just like the ones he would have seen in the jungle book, I’m sure you do too!

It’s 3pm, we are heading to the airport in order to catch our flight to Kuala Lumpur. From there I will board an A380 with great in-flight entertainment system to cross the planet… Well not quite yet, the flight has been delayed of 13 hours. There is a technical problmen which need fixing. And knowing what have Malaysia Airlines been through in 2014, I won’t argue with that. Take your time!

Easter hiking in the Lake District, UK, 2016

Easter bank holiday weekend. That’s the perfect opportunity to continue my exploration of England’s. Since I’ve moved here 4 and half years ago, I’ve mostly visited the south: Cornwall, Stonehenge, Oxford, etc. Now time to go North, I’m heading to the Lake District. It takes me almost 8 hours to get to the lakeside town Ambleside on Thursday 24th of March after work, against the 5 hours it should have taken. But I’m glad to drop my bags into my hostel room and pass out, looking forward to exploring the area tomorrow.

When I open the curtains, the sly is blue and there is no cloud to be seen. There is no time to lose, i’ve got to hike some 20km to an area called Wasdale Head, through England’s highest mountain range. Don’t get too excited, Scafell Pike and its 978m shouldn’t be too demanding.

Scafell Pike mapBut only half an hour after my departure, the sky is no longer blue and my route is up there in the clouds.

DSC_0097 2-1I start the climb of Bowfell, a steep and gradual ascent to 902m which gets me closer to the clouds…

DSC_0102-2… which I reach at about 570m.

DSC_0103-3I am surprised to find small lakes this high and in this fog, but it makes for a quite special landscape, like from another world.

DSC_0104-4At this point the temperature has plummeted, it’s humid, winds have picked up and the visibility is poor. Although I’m not too concerned about today, I will have to come back in the next couple of days and the weather is supposed to get worse. I am staring considering turning back as I continue further into the clouds.

DSC_0106-5But on the way up, I overtake kids who keep going without complaining. FFS, and I’m thinking of turning back? That’s a good kick in the butt and my mind’s is made, I’ll keep going and work out the way back when the time comes.

The temperature can’t be far from 0 degrees now, there are more and more patches of snow around and the cairns are the only indicator to find my way.

DSC_0107-6At the summit, it seems I might be breaking out of the clouds as a piece of blue sky appears.

DSC_0113-9Now for the first time since I got to higher grounds, I can see where I’m heading.DSC_0115-11DSC_0121-15It also reveals stunning view over the valley to the south.

DSC_0117-12Over on the other side I finally get a glance at the landscape, where I come from…DSC_0122-16… what’s around me…

DSC_0123-17… and what’s in front of me, Scafell Pike the highest peak in England (still a bit in the clouds)…

DSC_0124-18It’s not very long until a reach the view and begin the final ascent.DSC_0125-19

Once up there, the weather is absolutely miserable again, freezing and windy. The gusts make me lose balance. But on the bright side, the view is breathtaking… right!?DSC_0126-20I’m not staying here too long, there is a beer waiting for me in the Wasdale Head Inn so I begin my descent, fortunately outside the cloud.DSC_0131-22I haven’t long more to go, and I have a visual reference of my arrival point being lake level at the tip of the lake, hidden by the botom right hill on which I’m on. DSC_0138-25The time to sort out the camping spot, and I’m sat at a pub’s table, a beer in my hand… a well deserved treat!

The night itself is proving anything but calm. The wind has picked up and is blowing strong onto my tent. Other than the noise it makes, I can’t help but think of my tent taking off… Not a stupid thought though since that’s exactly what seems to have happened to my neighbour in the middle of the night. I got woken up by one of them shouting: “Get up! It came off!”, repeatedly. After hearing the noise of the fabric flapping in the wind, I do not know the conclusion of the event other than that the tent had disappeared when I got up (fairly early) in the morning.

The conditions are even worse, a lot more windy than yesterday but constantly raining. I head out and explore the lake just south of the camp site for a couple of hours. The path is a bit slippery and it’s not very enjoyable. I’ve an idea to pass the day. I’ll buy a book in the shop (about mountaineering of course) and spend all afternoon in the pub reading, eating and drinking local beers. 🙂

Even better, near the fire place…

DSC_1795I sit in the corner table at the back, left hand side of the picture.DSC_1796Really lovely! DSC_1798Comes the evening and the time to head back to my tent. It has rained all day so the ground is very wet . When I enter my tent, I realise that water has penetrated through the underneath. Not much, but enough to soak my bag. Hopefully, that’s it and no more will come through. Also, the winds haven’t died down. I spend an equally bad night as the last and happily see the sun come up which is the sign for me to head back to Ambleside.

Only an hour after being up, I begin the hike back. I’ve selected a route which avoid the high peaks and should be less exposed to winds.The pub disappears in the distance and msotly into the clouds…

DSC_0140-27But half an hour into the hike, I find myself losing balance because of the strong gusts. In fact, I am stuck against the rock face just above a pretty steep slope, hands on the ground. That might sound a bit hazardous but I’m glad I was alone cause that’s just laughable really 🙂

But higher I am pleasantly surprised to find a lovely tarn.

DSC_0141-28As I continue to ascend, I get once again closer to the clouds.

DSC_0143-29And another larger tern (they’re actually really useful to locate myself and continue on the right path)

DSC_0144-30Now I’m coming dow, it’s hailing and the wind blows it into my cold and wet hands… painful

DSC_0145-31Another tarn (it’s called the Lake District after all) and a sheep in the wild

DSC_0148-33Shortly after that I can see the valley where I’m heading to. Once I’m back down, it’ll be flat until my car.DSC_0151-34The rain starts to fall heavily and it’s an hour and a half later that I reach my car… completely drenched…

Well, it’s been anything but a sunny weekend. But I’ve really enjoyed being somewhere else, outdoors and away from the daily routine. Even yesterday, when I did nothing but read a book in the pub was extremely relaxing. Now I’m pleased I’ve finished and I enjoy a good burger with a beer without any guilt at all. The little I’ve seen of the Lake District looks nice, I can’t wait to come back to see the rest, hopefully on a sunny day.

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A glimpse of Sicily’s wonders, Sicily, 2015

Pfiou, the last 2 months have been extremely busy. Today is actually the first time since my short trip to Siciliy at the start of June that I have more than 5 minutes to write about it. I mean it’s summer (yes, in England! and a rather nice one I should say), I might as well enjoy it, right? Now, let’s get on the time machine and go back a month and a half ago…

Its Saturday 30th of May 2015, 10:25am, I land in Catania, on the east coast of Sicily. The plan for the next 3 days has been arranged: Taormina, Mount Etna and Syracuse, nicely wrapped up with sun, wine and food. What else does one need?

I meet with my parents and we head to our first destination, Taormina. It is a coastal town built on a cliff by the greeks, which has gained popularity along the centuries with tourism. And it owes its attraction to its founders, who had great taste for the grandiose and breathtaking. Imagine this: sitting in a greek theatre in a remarkable state of conservation, with the deep blue Ionian sea and Mount Etna capped with spotless white snow for background. It’s absolutely gorgeous! (I imagine you thinking: “he’s got to show us a picture!”) Well I won’t. Here is the drawback… the site is used for outdoor performances during the summer, a wooden scene is covering the stage and metallic seats have been installed… what a waste… I’m gutted! Now I need to compensate, and what is better than good italian food and wine to do that?

Followed by a lovely walk through the historic centre of Taormina, revealing all its charm at night…

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I wouldn’t have thought that there would be so many Greek remains in a country of which history is dominated by the Romans. But there is another city, often associated to mathematics and romance (not that I am suggesting both go well together), which deserves a detour. It’s Syracuse. Home to the famous Archimedes, what the Greeks have left is truly remarkable. From the theatre, here being prepared for summer performances…

_DSC0039 …to the historic centre of Ortygia…

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… it’s not difficult to understand why poets and lovers favour this city to look for inspiration.

But unfortunately, it’s already time to abandon the charm and warmth of Sicily and fly back home. I usually never go to the same place twice. But this time, I know that I have only caught a glimpse of Sicily’s wonders and there are plenty more to discover. Starring at Mount Etna as the plane gets higher in the sky, I already imagine what my return could be like. Why not a cycling trip along the west coast? 🙂