Mauritius, country #200

I came up with the goal to try and visit 200 countries before I turned 30. I arrived in Mauritius, country #200, 3 days before my birthday, and 9 other friends from around the world. Without sharing too much incriminating evidence, here are a few pictures and stories from the best birthday week I’ve ever had.

one of those lazy beach days

Most of my friends are from Europe or North America, so I had originally chosen Laos as a more ‘central’ meeting point. But my best friend Ursula from Washington D.C. said there had to be a beach, and booked her flight to Mauritius even before I did. She knew it was a new country for me, and thought it would increase the number of people coming, despite it being much further away in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

La Cambuse beach

There were supposed to be twelve of us, but one friend from Australia who is a pilot for Qantas couldn’t use his standby tickets because of some schedule changes. My best friend from Canada, who recently married an American, got scheduled an immigration interview for a date exactly in the middle of her already booked vacation, so since Green cards don’t last forever and Donald Trump exists, she had to cancel.

But, there was the Lebanese entertainer from Paris, the German horse-back rider from Munich, the Belarussian couple from Minsk, my study abroad roommate from Washington DC, a couchsurfer I met in Italy from Pennsylvania, an emergency doctor from New York, a professional dancer from LA, and Iceland’s best chef. We were 4 girls, 6 guys, half of us couchsurfers, and nearly no one had met eachother before.

the 4 ladies of the group

The week went flawlessly. I could never imagine putting a group of 10 strangers together, traveling and staying together in a foreign country without any hiccups, but it was perfect. Everyone got along, the rum was never-ending, and the beaches and sunsets stayed beautiful no matter where we were on the island.

sunset at Flic en Flac

We spent our first 4 days in Blue Bay, 3 days in Flic en Flac, and 2 days in Trou aux Biches, near Grande Baie. Our only errands every day were to refill the ice bags and fill them with wine, then walk to the beach and work on our tans, or burns, in some cases. In Le Morne we swam with wild dolphins in the open sea, and our personal taxi-van carried us from A to B and showed us some of the touristic sites on the island. We passed towns with the names of Suriname and Yemen, and saw endless fields of sugar cane backdropped by Jurrasic park-like mountains.

Tea party at the Bois Cherie tea plantation

We visited a rum distillery, a tea plantation, a Hindu temple, and some waterfalls and park areas, but the beaches were by far the most memorable. The water was always warm, and even under dark and stormy skies stayed bright and crystal blue. We had a few rain showers, but went to the beach anyway, and missed the cyclone that hit after we left. We danced at some live music bars, drank with some locals who were friends of friends of friends, ate brunches with bottomless mamosas and cooked dinners together at the various airbnb’s we stayed at. It’s a miracle no one got hurt or lost or left out or too claustrophobic, but this group of people made my 30th birthday a most unforgettable party. I’ve also never traveled in such a big group, but after visiting 200 countries and experiencing Mauritius the way I did, I kind of wish some of those people would carry on traveling with me.

The Seychelles

The Maldives and the Seychelles are two destinations I always thought were reserved for couples, and not just any couples, but rich, getting-married or honeymooning couples. But, fun fact, there is a lot more to do than just sit at a Hilton bungalow resort for an all inclusive week of seeing nothing else.

the Hilton’s infinity pool

The culture of the Seychelles is a crazy mix of imports and exports. All the tourism and associated industry caters to English, French and Russian speaking white people, but the local people and Seychellois food was mostly Indian and Indian influenced. There were hindu temples, christian churches and muslim mosques, but total peace seems to reign between all the islanders. People smiled and greeted strangers wherever and whenever, and I had the impression people were happy. Even when the tropical rain storms hit and the hillside streets flash-flooded, it was normal to go out and play in the puddles in your bathing suit, and this made people smile at us, the crazy white people doing it too.

one tune and one dorado!

I didn’t totally do things wrong, since I had some handsome male company too and we actually stayed a few nights at the Hilton, but I also couchsurfed with some not-so-local locals and partied with all of their friends. My couchsurf host was an off-shore banking something something kind of guy, and his friends were the managers and HR heads of local hotel resorts.

the top of Morne Blanc

We hiked up to the top of Morne Blanc and looked down at Mahe island as if we were flying above it. We had fresh fish and local rum and even celebrated someone else’s birthday, and caught or own fresh fish off a deep sea fishing boat. I met more Mauritians and Russians than Seychellois, except for the fishing boat captain and the first person I met on m way over to the Seychelles.

this tortoise was trying to escape the male mounting her but didnt fit thru the fence

I flew Air Seychelles from Madagascar to Mahe, and got upgraded to first class after being the last one to check in on the overbooked flight. An engineer from the airline sat beside me and he was the only local friend I made all week. He took us hiking to some secret spots on the very far south of the island, including a bottomless rock pool carved into the cliffs beside the ocean. Nearby at the beach resort, we saw some giant tortoises, and even some tortoise mating! I guess humans arent the only ones having sex at the honeymoon spots.

The Cheltenham Festival in the UK

If you are visiting the United Kingdom next March we recommend that you enjoy some British heritage by going to the Cheltenham Festival. The Festival is not a music festival but rather the second biggest horse racing event in the UK. The event takes place over four days and is a great way to experience an important part of rural British culture.

cheltenham-day-1According to the Cheltenham Festival website, racing at Cheltenham dates back over 200 years. Very quickly the race became one of the most popular sporting events in Victorian Britain. The races at Cheltenham have survived many events including two world wars and is now considered the biggest racing meet in the country after the Grand National. Crowds of over 200,000 will descend on the racecourse during the course of the four days. The best way to understand why this event holds such as special place in the UK sporting world is to visit the festival.

treadmill-1201014_960_720The Cheltenham Festival is a great chance to experience British culture and even see the Royal Family who come to the races with their own horses every year. If you feel like dressing up for the races then Ladies Day on the second day of festival is when people come in their best. Women will wear elaborate hats with elegant dresses while the men will wear their finest suits. If you need some inspiration for what to expect then The Guardian did a photo article on last year’s event.

Tickets range greatly in price depending on where you want to watch the races. They will cost between £25-£200 for the big days but no matter where you decide to view the race you won’t be able to help but get wrapped up in the excitement. Be sure to place some bets down to get the full experience.

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The town of Cheltenham turns racing mad for four days and the city will be alive with race related events. It is impossible not to get swept up in the atmosphere. The town of Cheltenham is famous for its quintessential Britishness and is one of the UK’s most famous examples of Regency architecture. Surrounding the town is also the beautiful British countryside that is perfect for walking in if you need a breather from all the excitement. Cheltenham is easy to get to as there is a direct train line from London, which takes less than 3 hours making it the perfect day excursion.

So if you are in the UK in March and want to experience some British heritage be sure to come down to the races. UK horse racing specialists Betfair who cover the event call it the “the greatest four days in jumps racing”. There is certainly no event like it and you will get to encounter a side of the British population that can’t be found in the city.

Madagascar

I’ve literally procrastinated one month to write a blog on Madagascar, because I feel it’s impossible to put into words. Malagasy words are also impossible to remember – lots of letters and syllables. But now I’ll attempt to rant in some coherence about all the crazy, indescribable, and magical things that happened (not all good), and what a wonderful surprise it was to enjoy traveling there as a solo-female.

Tritriva Lake with my biking guide

My first moments in Antananarivo (aka Tana) were a bit stressful. Everyone I had left behind in Reunion told me to be careful, and that it would be dangerous. I landed just after sunset, which is always a bit discombobulating, and the airport didn’t seem like a very big or important international airport, or at least not an airport serving the capital city. I walked out to the small arrivals hall, filled with only taxi drivers, exchanged some money, bought a sim card, and took a taxi 45 mins to town for a little more than 10 euros.

The road was also dark, no kind of major highway, but we hit one traffic jam. There were hordes of people rushing from the dark to the road, and someone exclaimed ‘2 dead!’ It was a car accident, where a truck had rear ended a scooter. Its two passengers were scattered, meters apart and yards ahead of the shredded scooter, and only one helmet lay a few inches from the drivers head. My taxi driver simply drove on the curb to get around it, and didn’t seem at all bothered by the sight. It took me a few days to shake the image, though I can still recall it, slightly more blurry, but it still makes me gasp.

Another day I was on a bus that got stopped by an entire school of children. Everyone stood roadside in their uniform while a teacher held a life-less girl in his hands. She was board-stiff, so still alive enough to have all her muscles clenched. I guess she must have had some kind of seizure, but they couldnt fit her into our full bus, and the next car that passed took her to the hospital. I wonder what happened to her.

My first couchsurf hosts were actually some Turkish guys that had just moved there, and had seen almost as much as I had of Madagascar. I reached out to a couple other locals – one gave me a walking tour of the lower, middle, and upper cities of Tana, and another took me fishing. We didnt catch anything, but it was still fun, and he taught me the basic Malagsy words I’d need to know to greet people well enough to think, just for a moment, I spoke Malagsy.

a zebu cart taking me out to my boat to Anakao

I have 1 friend that lives on and off in Madagascar, and 3 friends who had recently backpacked Madagascar, so I asked them for some tips. Strangely enough, they came back with very similar ideas and itineraries, so I ended up traveling the N7 from Tana south to Toliara and surrounds. I spent a night in Anakao where I was the only tourist on the beach. I had the only bungalow rented out, I ate dinner alone, and I shared the beach with a plethora of children. There were always a lot of children in public areas, and never any parents. There were kids driving zebu-carts (zebu are the cattle in Madagascar), and kids alone in the middle of the open sea in dug-out canoes (some to paddle, others to sail with sails made out of old clothes) fishing with nets. Its strange how that makes you feel safer, but it definitely does.

my bungalow at Anakao

Then I went to Ifaty, or Mangily, I never figured out the difference, and visited a forest of baobabs and cactus-like trees. I saw some strange bugs and birds and then got escorted by my hotel security for a late-night walk, just before he proposed sleeping in my bed. I said no, quite politely, and he said ‘okay thank you, just had to ask. Good night!’

one fat baobab and a cactus tree fence

People had warned me that buses break down a lot in Madagascar, and it never happened, except for the two ways to Ifaty and back. Both ways, only 20 km, took hours to complete. One bus went up in smoke and we waited on the side of the road at high noon until they figured out someway to stop it. Another had the gas peddle stuck and the car stayed revving up its engine for a good 20 minutes, black exhaust smoke spitting out behind it until they also finalyl figured out what was wrong. They always did.

a ring tailed lemur at Anja Reserve

People also warned me about broken bridges. Luckily none broke when we were driving over them, but we passed 3 that I could clearly see had collapsed unexpectedly. One was on the way to Ranomofana National Park, a place where I stayed 3 days, also the only tourist at the auberge. I took a 8 hour hike through the park, a lush valley of greenery, rivers, waterfalls and of course, lemurs. Noone warned me about the leeches though, and those suckers were thirsty for blood. I actually had to pick them out from between my toes, where they had slithered to through my shoes and socks! some even crawled up my leg and I had to pinch one off my calf the size of my thumb. Ew. My guide kept reminding me it wasn’t life-threatening, which I knew, but its still gross.

Not much was gross in Madagascar. For an African country, it wasn’t even that polluted or smelly. All of the accomodation I stayed at were clean enough, just the occasional cockroach and a few mosquitos, except for one night. In that same bus stop I got stuck at with the slaughtered chicken. There I ended up spending a few hours at a guesthouse the size of a prison cell where you werent sure if the floor or walls were dirtier. There were smears of brown, maroon and yellow, all fluids I couldn’t recognize, and opening the mosquito net revealed more blood spots and dead mosquitos than were already in the room. I couldnt decide if it was better to sleep under it or not, and eventually just covered myself in bug spray and lay on the bed under my silk-liner.

I usually went to bed shortly after sunset, maybe around 8 pm, and I always  rose before sunrise, maybe 5 am. The streets were bustling by 5:30, and all the buses departed for their destinations by 6am. Traveling a mere 150km could take 4 hours, and I took one 20 hour trip with only 4 hours of stops. One bus station I got stuck at unexpectedly, in a small bus-change city, was a small parking lot with a few buses and passengers waiting around, and not much else. As I stood there thinking about how hungry I was. a man walked infront of me with a chicken in his hand, a knife in the other, and stood on its wings while it slit its throat, right there in the parking lot. It bled out in a minute and stopped twitching after another, and he casually returned with the chicken to a food stall to prepare dinner. Needless to say, I lost my appetite.

rainy season makes everything green, especially the rice fiels

It was the tail-end of rainy season, but I managed to almost always miss the rain. I could see the dark clouds in the distance, and often heard lightning, but I never saw the thunder and the sun still shone overhead. During my long bus rides, we’d sometimes drive through a rainshower, or pass one by just to the side of the road. I was unlucky enough to once get stuck in the window seat where a window was stuck open, and got drenched to everyone’s entertainment. I thought I had figured out the best seat in the bus – the one beside the driver in the front – until I got into a stick shift van and the driver had to maneuver the gear stick between my legs for 6 hours.

I saw a guy working on paving the road in flip-flops, and the soles of his shoes had melted onto a layer of tar that must have made it really hard (and hot) for him to walk. There was a guy who threw a butterfly at me from out his passenger window when we passed, and I wondered if it was a nice gesture or not. I guess its better than getting hit by someone spitting out the window, which also happened to a few people.

Isalo national park

There were the most beautiful big blue butterflies floating around, and these little robin birds with bright red and orange stomachs. There was a boy who passed my in the street and sniffed me as he walked by. I never really understood if that was a good or bad gesture either. The kids I saw on the beach also had strange reactions; one splashed me, which may have been playful, but another threw a handful of wet sand at me from behind, which was a little mean. Others tried to

Both men and women like to wear hats, all kinds of hats. Straw hats, baseball caps, bucket hats, and their Sunday’s best hats. The local hat fashion was usually a multi-coloured woven straw hat, which sometimes just fit like bowls on the tops of people’s shaven heads. It was beautiful to see how people had shiny, new hats, or at least very well taken care of hats, but their clothes were in rags and their shoes were either filthy or non-existent.

Madagascar was a pleasant surprise. In general, I never felt danger, I never felt lost, I never felt abused or taken advantage of, and I even think I barely got ripped off. And if I did, it was only for half a dollar at most. I thought Madagascar would be a bit weirder, more other-worldly, exotic to the point of unrecognition – but, it was very familiar. I’ve never been to Mozambique, but I imagine it was very similar to Mozambique.

 

Ile de la Reunion, a colourful French island in the middle of the Indian Ocean

Its weird to fly 12 hours south from Paris, over half of Africa, into a hot and humid island  in the middle of the Indian ocean and still be in France. Ile de la Reunion is a department of France, full of way too many Renault and Peugot cars, where Metropoles shop at supermarkets, stocked with foie gras and champagne, and pay in euros. But it felt somehow familiar – Reunion is to France what Hawaii is for the USA, a slice of home out in the tropics.

one of the many natural fresh water pools you can hike to thru tropical forests

one of the many natural fresh water pools you can hike to thru tropical forests

Like Hawaii, its also a lush, green island, stretching from coasts of crystal blue waters up to black volcanic peaks. The middle of Reunion is split into 3 large craters or ‘cirques’, all inhabited somewhere remotely. Mafate is a car-less village, only visitable by hiking in and out from the top of the crater. Another cirque is still a very active volcano. The Piton de Fournaise started erupting the day after I arrived, so I didn’t miss the opportunity for a midnight hike up to see the red-hot, glowing, spewing lava eruption. I was surprised how many other people were walking the 3-4 hour return hike in the middle of the night, dressed like we were back in France, because at 2200m above sea-level, even this tropical island was freezing cold.

the road to Cilaos

the road to Cilaos

There were other natural forces in Reunion that made the island seem wild and dangerous. A recent rise in shark attacks has made half the coast unswimmable. The road to Cilaos, at the bottom of the third cirque, is a narrow, windy, cliff-hanging road full of blind turns and two tunnels only wide enough to fit a bus – there were literally only centimeters between the side mirrors and the walls. When the road turns into single-lane width, just before another u-turn bend, cars simply lay on their horns to warn any oncoming traffic of a potential head-on crash. The day I left Reunion, a cyclone warning had been announced, and I’m not sure when or how hard Cyclone Carlos was, but people had already started locking down their homes.

colonial architecture left an interesting mark in Reunion

colonial architecture left an interesting mark in Reunion

The people of Reunion are a mix of metropoles and creoles, with very friendly, civilized demeanors. People I passed in the street said Bonjour just to say hello, and after the first few hellos, I started greeting everyone that made eye contact with me with a smiley Bonjour, and didn’t feel weird about it. I traveled mostly by public bus, which is superbly organized, and the regional bus drivers were even greeted with handshakes and cheek kisses by the passengers. I didn’t try that, since I assume the probably knew eachother.

beaches of paradise, without sharks, are on the west and south coast

beaches of paradise, without sharks, are on the west and south coast

I always say Iceland would be the best country in the world if we had better weather, but maybe we just need to colonize a tropical island and export our people and culture out there. I guess I’ll have to keep my eye open for an eligible island for the rest of my Indian Ocean trip.

Paris, je t’aime

My first visit to Paris was in 2007, and I was mostly chasing a cute Parisian guy I had met in Fiji. I don’t know if it was his kiss under the Eiffel tower or just Paris in general that had me smitten, but my infatuation with this city of love had begun. Obviously it didn’t work out with the Parisian, but my love affair with Paris is still ongoing. I returned only a few months later to study the piano at a music school Chopin once taught at, which was very appropriate for me, someone only learning Chopin’s nocturnes.

The Eiffel Tower in the backround from one of the many Seine bridges

The Eiffel Tower in the backround from one of the many Seine bridges

Now, 10 years later and another 5 visits under my belt, I’m still infatuated. It changes every visit; the season, the food, and the people I meet are different every time, and I think only a lifetime in Paris would be sufficient to experience it all. I never tire of the endless parks, museums and cafes. Staring at the sparkling Eiffel tower at night or just checking out any old residential building is like glimpsing a piece of history and an architectural wonder. I crave for crepes and paninis, and more recently, I discovered the French Taco.

Hotel de Ville + bicycle + musical carousel = Paris in a nutshell

Hotel de Ville + bicycle + musical carousel = Paris in a nutshell

This trip was an exceptionally wonderful visit; it was just a short weekend trip, but 9 other Icelanders were also in town. And we had reason to celebrate. Our friend and one of the worlds top chefs had just won third place in the Bocuse d’or competition in Lyon, so after filling our stomachs with foie gras and wine in the gastronomical capital of France, we now had Paris to toast our champagne glasses, with Bocuse de bronze at our side.

Viktor Orn and Yannick Alleno with Mr. Bronze

Viktor Orn and Yannick Alleno with Mr. Bronze

Paris has over 15,000 restaurants, and more Michelin stars than any other city. We chose a 3 Star restaurant, as you do, and wined and dined at Yannick Alleno’s mansion Pavillon Ledoyen. It was the most amazing, and perhaps expensive, meal of my life, and even after 15 courses, I had to keep tasting everything they offered. After rolling out of there and swearing I’d still be full the next day, the next day came and there were mussels, oysters and escargot to be eaten.

can't get enough macaron's either, especially inside a chocolate piano

can’t get enough macaron’s either, especially inside a chocolate piano

Even when I thought I was finally satiated of French food, then I realized that Paris is full of so much more. The last meal I had was Japanese udon, a kind of casual fast food joint, but lined up out of the door and an easy 100 euros for two to dine. I also discovered an underground scene of speakeasy bars, like Candelaria – a bar you have to enter thru the back door of a taco shop. I learned that the Moulin Rouge neighbourhood is open later than most other night life, and the sex shops must be 24 hrs. How I know that isn’t the point of this story. The point is there’s always something new about Paris to love.

Iceland wins Bocuse de Bronze 2017

Iceland has been competing in the prestigious cooking competition Bocuse d’or since 1999. For chefs, this is like making it to the culinary Olympics. Iceland has always qualified in the regional Bocuse d’or Europe to compete in the worldwide Bocuse d’or, and never placed lower than the top 9 countries in each competition. In 2001, chef Hakon Mar was the first to land on the podium, with a third place Bronze, an extraordinary accomplishment for a tiny nation, often overlooked as a foody place, like Iceland.

Bocuse de Bronze winners!!

Bocuse de Bronze winners!!

Since then, a lot has changed. Scandinavian countries have become fashionable leaders in Europe’s culinary scene, and Iceland has finally become a world-renowned tourist destination, not only for nature tourism, but for also for gourmandes. The competition has also changed, becoming much bigger, better and far more complicated to win each year. The level of cooking in 2017 would have shunned the first podium winners with their abilities in 1987.

Bocuse d'or Team Iceland setting up their box

Bocuse d’or Team Iceland setting up their box

It takes one year to prepare for the regional competition (there are 3 regions: Latin America, Europe, and Asia), and another year for the top qualifiers (plus a few additional wild card countries) to compete at the biennial Bocuse d’or Concours Mondial in Lyon. Its named after Paul Bocuse, one of France’s most famous chefs and a leader in fine dining history.

The French commis looking back

The French commis looking back

This year, Iceland had over 150 supporters follow the candidat Viktor Orn to Lyon. After winning 5th place in the Bocuse Europe competition, and having 4 other previous candidates supporting and trainng him, he also had an amazing coach, Sigurdur Helgason, and a commis that would have definitely won Best Commis if they hadn’t landed on the podium.

Selfies with all the famous chefs (clockwise from top left: Bocuse d'or Gold 2015 Norwegian Orjan; Bocuse Europe 2016 winner Hungarian Tomas; 3 time Bocuse podium placer Danish Rasmus, and the USA Bocuse team coach Thomas Keller

Selfies with all the famous chefs (clockwise from top left: Bocuse d’or Gold 2015 Norwegian Orjan; Bocuse Europe 2016 winner Hungarian Tomas; 3 time Bocuse podium placer Danish Rasmus, and the USA Bocuse team coach Thomas Keller

The French team had the best commis, and European winner Hungary placed 4th just after Iceland. In second place was Norway, and for the first time ever, the USA won gold. All the winners went to Paul Bocuse’s restaurant for breakfast after the competition and met the now 91 year old legend himself. Viktor’s name has been permanently engraved in a shiny plaque, a walk of fame for all the winners of Bocuse d’or since 1987. Now with 2 Icelanders having mastered the competition, its only up from here. Despite being a nation of only 300,000 with a handful of good restaurants, its amazing to think that we could easily be shaping the next silver or gold Bocuse d’or candidate. Stay tuned til 2019!