City escape to Algiers

I´ve tried, and failed, multiple times to visit Algeria. The land border between Morocco and Algeria is (mostly) closed. There wasn´t a visa available for Icelanders or Canadians in Tunisia, since Algerian embassies only process visas for residents of the country they´re in, so London threw the same answer in my face and told me to ask Stockholm since Reykjavik doesn´t have an Algerian embassy.

the statue of Emir Abdelkader and one enormous flag

I succeeded in Sweden and flew to Algiers via Barcelona. It’s a short, one hour flight over a small piece of the Mediterranean, and arriving there wasn´t different than arriving in Marseilles – the French architecture and French-Arab street language, with a mix of other African nationalities, felt like I was at home in Southern France.

our couchsurf hosts

The goals in Algeria were simple – the live and enjoy the city life of Algeirs with two locals, our couchsurfing hosts. Mary and Daniel were both Algerian, born and raised in various cities, but had both spent a significant amount of time living and studying in Paris. They lived in a 12th floor apartment in a highrise on a hilltop overlooking the city, the port and the sea. Most of the outside walls were glass windows, offering spectacular views and light all the time, although one had broken and wind and rain could meander its way inside anytime.

the fish market

We wanted to find the best local food, and in a city of 3 million, there were only three restaurants worth trying: El Djenina, Le Caid, and El essaoura (all with doorbells you had to ring to enter). The secret was that the best food in Algiers is found in the homes of Algerian´s kitchens. We shopped at the fish market and cooked BBQ meat at home, with Algerian wine to pair. We bar hopped too all the dark and grungy corners of the city, the few places where mostly older men gather to drink in smoky bars, where no windows or doors were left open to avoid the taboo of being seen in a bar. The restaurants that served beer or wine would only serve it with food, but you could buy shots without eating since their liquor license permitted serving aperitifs and digestives without food on the table.

not the most welcoming entrance – it reminded me of a prison door

We were there for Halloween, which noone seemed to notice since it was overshadowed by the November 1st holiday, which celebrates the Anniversary of the Revolution. Not everyone was sure which revolution or even which victory it refers to, but at midnight there were dozens of canons fired into the sea, not all at once but one at a time in a slow, melodramatic kind of way, with 45 seconds of fireworks in a far away square. It was a new and unusual way for me to spend Halloween.

how to get free tickets to the soccer game – take the gondola from the Botanical gardens to the top of the hill to get this view

The couchsurfers took us on a walking tour of the Casbah, were we walked past decaying buildings and piles of trash. The old town of Algeirs was once nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site listing, but after a whole bunch of money was granted and thrown into the project, only a handful of buildings were renovated and the rest of the money seemingly vanished into thin air. While passing some ruins on rue Barbarossa, they told us tales of pirates, and I asked if there were still any pirates. The answer was yes – the government. Hopefully that changes soon, and then the casbah might stay standing long enough for future travelers to enjoy.

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Bocuse d´or Europe 2018

I´ve been following team Iceland in the Bocuse d´or competitions since 2011 and every other year, they place top ten in the European pre-qualifying competition. 2018 was no different, and chef Bjarni Siguróli, who was the assistant chef in 2011, placed ninth to qualify for the Bocuse d´or worldwide competition taking place in Lyon 2019.

candidate Bjarni Siguroli, Sturla Birgisson, Ísak Darri the commis, and Viktor Orn coach and bronze Bocuse winner 2017

The support behind each and everyone of Iceland´s chefs since Iceland started taking part, in 1999 with Sturla Birgisson, has been nothing short of amazing. As the smallest country taking part from Europe, we have edged out 13 other European countries in every pre-competition to qualify for the Mondial competition in Lyon every other year. In the finals, we are also nothing shy of top 10, and have placed on the podium twice with a bronze Bocuse to take home.

in the heat of the competition Bocuse Europe 2018

This year, the European Bocuse took place in Torino, Italy. Placed in the heart of Piemonte, the region itself was inspiring for any foodie or wine lover. Watching Europe´s best chefs and the cutting edge of haute cuisine on display for two days was motivating for anyone that took the time to watch – and thousands of people did just that.

beach day in Geneva

[Surrounding the competition is also a food, wine and kitchen expo – I went wine tasting from Hungary to Russia and tried all the newest technology to make the best ice cream or freshest espresso. I also made a small weekend trip out of the journey – there aren´t direct flights from Keflavik to Torino so I flew in through Geneva and out through London.

perfect timing to hit on the street food festival in Geneva

Both were worth it for different reasons – it was my first time in Geneva and I met three amazing couchsurfers and, by chance, two Icelanders that happened to be there the same day. I went to the beach, which I didn´t believe was actually a thing until I sat suntanning beside Lac Léman, looking across the lake to France. I drove through Mount Blanc to get to Italy, and flew home through London to pick up a new passport… I think its my tenth, and I´m never quite sure how many years until it fills up too, since I´ve only had two out of nine make it to their expiration date.

Where in the world is Wallis?

I’ve traveled around the Pacific before and remember thinking Wallis & Futuna would be something like Pitcairn Island – totally unreachable and complicated to plan. When I landed in Suva from Tonga in 2015, I saw a Wallis flight boarding, flown by New Caledonia’s airline Air Calin, and found out it’s not that crazy to get to, or afford.

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public transportation in Wallis

It was my main destination this time around in the Pacific. Direct flights go twice weekly from either New Caledonia or Fiji, and even thought the 1.5hr flight is overpriced at more than $200US each way, it’s still cheap compared to a lot of other pacific island destinations.

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Jono and I in matching hats on our way to Wallis

It’s part of France, not a department or territory, but an “island collectivity” that still allows all residents to have French citizenship and all associated benefits. The population is just under 12,000 – 3,000 in Futuna and 8,000 in Wallis. Futuna is connected to Wallis by a tiny jet, but when the weather allows, flies multiple times a day, even though the distance to Futuna from Wallis is nearly as far as Samoa or Tonga. When the weather’s not so good, you can get stuck in Futuna for days, weeks even – the longest I heard was 6 weeks. With no ferry option, and the weather presumably too bad to sail, there’s no other option than to wait (Atleast they finally got an ATM and credit card payments working since November last year). Considering it was still the tail end of cyclone season, I decided not to risk it and visited only Wallis.

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Couchsurf camp, when the mosquitos and heat are too much inside

I was traveling with a friend who lives in Suva, and though he’s “European” too, it was weird for us both to be greeted by French immigration. Apparently 5% of the island is employed in government jobs, and all the teachers, nurses, doctors, dentists, lawyers and police seemed to be métropoles, so atleast 5% of the island is actually French. The rest identify as Wallisian or Futunan, and there’s a minority of Fijians, mostly for their rugby team.

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one of many impressive churches in Wallis

We couchsurfed, which was a feat in and of itself, since internet has been around for 10 years, but cell phones only the last 2 years, with barely enough bandwidth for smart phone apps. Our host was Michel, who had tan lines on the smile lines around his eyes. He was one of 3 dentists on the island, who had been working there for nearly 15 years and may retire at the ripe age of 55. He called himself a simple man, and lived in a shack with only mosquitos and giant cockroaches as roommates, and some retarded chickens and an extremely obese, angry pig as neighbours. We slept outside unable to bear the heat and bites without a mosquito net or fan, in a little shanty camp that atleast kept us breezy and scratch-free.

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kayaking to Tekaviki island

He was an excellent host, picking us up at the airport (there’s no bus), and driving us all around the island in a day. It doesn’t take more than 15 minutes to get anywhere, but there is quite a bit to see on this 250sq. Km Island. Most of the main highlights are large, imposing churches (99% of the population are devote Catholics), and tourists usually make it to Lalolalo crater, a volcano that filled with water and is now home to the sunken machinery of the American army who refused to give it to the French after WWII. Not much to do, but plenty of water to see and explore by kayak. We went to two islands off the coast of Mata’utu, but the shallow lagoon meant Jono preferred to walk than row. There was plenty of rain too, but it’s hard to flood a rural island living sparsely dotted around dirt roads, in sync with nature for hundreds of years. But apparently the heat and mosquitos have gotten worse, which was a relief for my pride as a whiny traveler.

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cava ceremony

We were extremely lucky to experience both Wallisian and Futunan culture, visiting the weekend when thousands of teens and youth were congregating for dancing and cava ceremonies with all their village chiefs. We met some expats our age that took us to the only nightclub on the island, which roared after 2 am Saturday night, and the traditional dancing kept going.

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Polynesian dance, Futunan style

A cyclone was predicted to hit Fiji the day we left, and thought we may get rerouted to New Caledonia where our adventure could continue, but it seems my bad streak of flight distortions is finally over. Let’s see if I can get stuck somewhere in Fijian paradise instead.

Irish Days in Cork, Blarney & Cobh

Iceland’s budget airline Wow air started direct flights to Cork, only 2h15mins away, for a mere €150 round trip if you’re lucky. My sister and I found the cheapest tickets and decided to hop over for a couple of nights, and maybe try to find some of our roots from our great great great great great great… don’t know how many generations ago grandmother Melkorka, an Irish princess stolen by Vikings to make many, many red headed Icelanders throughout the generations. We were also going to let Kristjana try Couchsurfing for the first time in her life.

Me and Kristjana at the Blarney Woolen Mills

Cork, one of Ireland’s oldest cities and currently second largest, kind of has that small city/big village feeling. Similar to Reykjavik, you can see and do a few things in town for a day or so before you start looking further out to the very green countryside. Blarney Village and the port town of Cobh are less than an hour away by public transport, so we spent half a day in each of them.

Cork

Cork has a walkable city center, with lots of public houses, watering holes, and even a couple breweries right downtown. Definitey don’t miss trying some of the beers from the Rising Sons and Fransiscan Well, and for a dose of history and culture, dip into a few of the old, stone Catholic Churches and Cork City Gaol.

The old city jail, Cork Gaol

Take a bus to Blarney village to visit the Mills, Blarney Castle and gardens, and don’t forget to  kiss the Blarney Stone! Apparently it will give you the gift of eloquence and flattery, but you’ll have to ask my sister if that worked on me.

Kissing the Blarney stone

Go to the Kent railway station and take a 25minute train south to Cobh, the last port of call the Titanic stopped at. There you can learn a lot about other ill-fated voyages at the Cobh heritage center, visit a couple more churches, and walk down old Street and past the port to see some cute and colorful architecture.

Cobh

Make sure you eat a full Irish breakfast every morning to have enough calories to burn for all the walking, drink some Baileys (or try Baileys cheesecake – it’s to die for) and an Irish coffee, have a Murphy’s or Beamish local stout instead of lunch, and gobble down some Irish stew or seafood chowder to make sure you come home a few kilos heavier. Atleast it worked that way for me! Next time I’ll spend more time looking for leprechauns and four leaf clovers, though there was plenty of green between all the gray.

Green fields at Blarney castle

Don’t take first time couchsurfers to surf in the nearby village Ballincollig, unless they really like pitbulls (we shared a garage with three of them on tiny couches), and try to find Central-American decent Parisians in downtown Cork – our host had a really big, nice apartment with  a guest room and private bathroom. I think that might have rebuilt my sisters faith in the Couchsurfing theory.

Kazakhstan, nice to meet you

The first president’s park

I had a red-eye from Istanbul to Almaty, with the budget airline Pegasus who’s seats don’t recline and you don’t get fed in 5 hours, so I arrived a grumpy and slightly disoriented Katrin at sunrise, 4:50am Friday. After getting thru customs and finding some tourist info, I realized all the country was abuzz for Expo 2017. Public buses start at 5:30am so I slowly made my way into the city center. I don’t know why, but I was a little apprehensive about traveling alone there, a place seemingly so big but yet a huge question mark.

The President’s Palace

You can’t get your bearings that easily once you’ve arrived either. The faces are a mix of North and East, the language mostly Russian, the religion largely Muslim, and the streets and buildings a showy blend of big, efficient Soviet/communist architecture and Las Vegas wannabe. Shiny, glass towers and Dubai-like malls pop up between the concrete grey, and all the boulevards and blocks are twice too big. The cars are sometimes right-hand drive, even though the roads are too, and everyone has a brand new smart phone and is addicted to Instagram and selfies more than Chinese tourists are addicted to selfie sticks. There’s a significant minority of Koreans and Turkish residents, which also made race and language identification tricky. I barely heard Kazakh, and even ethnic Kazakhs sometimes speak only Russian, but only my couchsurf host and a few of her friends spared me with English.

My Kazakh friends

I saw faces which resembled ancient Mongol warriors, but with milky white skin and mouse grey hair. The city of Almaty was spread out below snow-topped mountains whose peaks make even the Alps and Rockies look small. The lush green-ness, even in the city center, slapped summer straight in your face, and a humid 30•c have warm tingly feelies to my barefeet toes.

Portraits by @ninachikova

The nightlife was slightly international but anonymous at the same time. I went to a whiskey bar that made Scottish choices seem limited, and a nightclub sigh exactly the same top40 as New York. I was randomly approached by two separate photographers to take my portrait, just because.

Kok-Tobe

I went on a roadtrip to two places out of the city, and it didn’t take long to feel like I was in the middle of nowhere. Only 25km away from the city center is Big Almaty Lake, a reservoir for the city’s drinking water nestled between white mountain peaks. I lucked out to be there at the same time a traditional Kazakh dance video was being made, and tried to photobomb it, just a little.

Big Almaty Lake

Me and my couchsurf host, her son, and a friend with his girlfriend took me to Lake Kapchigai, and nearby Ile river to picnic and swim. It involved an endless, open road, thru a semi-arid steppe where we only ran into horses and livestock, and one turtle crossing the road. We saw some petroglyphs of Buddah from some long-ago Silk Road traveling Buddhists, and marijuana weeds growing wild were just starting to bud. I didn’t try it, but I did have a horse pizza – not quite as exotic for an Icelander, but the local Kazakhs where thrilled I wasn’t offended or grossed out by horse meat, and even more surprised that it was also done in Iceland.

This river starts in China

I left Kazakhstan by road to Bishkek, a comfortable (and incredibly cheap – €5) 3.5hr drive away. The only stops were for a wooden squat toilet and to get gas, and this ‘Royal Petrol’ station whose service area and parking lot covered a plot the size of an American super Wal-Mart, but with only 6 pumps. I guess when you have so much space, why not be a little excessive.

Riding in Lesotho

Lesotho is a tiny, land-locked kingdom, surrounded by South Africa on all sides. There aren’t many road borders in or out, but you could easily walk into the country by accident. There are some beautiful mountains and National parks on the north side where South Africans can see Lesotho just across the valley, including the Drakensberg and Golden Gate National park, places I visited to flirt with the idea of Lesotho before arriving.

on the road in Lesotho

I found couchsurfers to stay with, a household of Filipino sisters and brothers and cousins. They’re all working in various businesses, from textiles to furniture and a car garage. We ate breakfast and dinner together every day, with a few other guests, and at one point I was in Lesotho singing Karaoke with 9 Filipinos drinking South African wine and couldn’t imagine expecting a more random experience to write home about.

bumpy road ahead

I borrowed a friend’s car from Johannesburg and drove to Lesotho. The roads on the South African side were excellent – and also filled with tolls and speed cameras. Once entering Lesotho, I didn’t see a single traffic police officer or camera, and only one traffic light, and the roads were full of potholes, where they were paved, and one big pot hole where they weren’t. I was driving a Ford Fiesta, not the greatest off-road car, and it took hours just to drive 80km, but I managed to get deep into the countryside and find some horses to ride.

riding off into the Lesotho countryside

Lesotho has an alive and kicking horse culture – people still travel by horse, shepherd on horse back, and use horses to work their fields and transport goods. I found a camp called Malealea where tourists can go on multi-day treks, up to 28 days, and basically see the whole of Lesotho from the back of a horse. I rode for only one day, barefoot because I didnt have proper shoes and it was too hot, and left my guide in the dust everytime I asked him if we could go for a gallop. We visited a waterfall, a cave, and some ancient rock art paintings, and by the end of the day I realized I should have stayed a week for this. But oh well, there’s always a next time. And next time I’ll bring riding shoes.

Pakistan – land of the pure and mixed up

I´ve always wondered what the -stan suffix means. It´s in the names of may central Asian countries, and I always assumed it means ´land´or ´area,´ but some argue it doesn´t refer to any geographical boundary. In Pakistan, someone told me it means ´race´ or ´nation,´ and ´Pak´ means ´pure,´ so I’m currently visiting the land of the pure race. The ironic thing is that this place is completely mixed up, not only the people, but their language, culture, religion and look are far from homogenous.

Karachi at sunset

Karachi at sunset

I arrived in Pakistan, a country wedged between Iran, Afghanistan, China and India, and felt, literally, like I was in the middle of the middle. Where east meets the west, the middle east meets the Orient, Islam meets Hinduism, and a minority of ex-pats and local Christians thrown in the mix. You can dress in jeans and a tshirt, a colourful sari, local Pakistani dress (pants with a matching long shirt and shoulder scarf) or a black burka covering everything but your eyes – and either way you´d fit in. Karachi is a sprawling town of 20 million, and feels a little like Dubai growing on top of Delhi. American fast food chains and European coffee shops squeeze in among the local food shops and bustling street food markets, and like everywhere else in central Asia, banks sit on every corner.

local friends and one big ex-pat

local friends and one big ex-pat at the Jinnah Masoleum

I met a lot of bankers in Karachi. I couchsurfed with one, and met a dozen others, and realized I had fallen into a circle of privileged friends. Similar to in India or Nepal, there´s a social stratification system which ensures good education for some, less for others, and none for the unlucky few. Health, religious freedom, and economic stability are of course affected by this, but strangely enough, arranged marriages were still a problem. I met  woman who´s in love with a man engaged to his cousin since birth, and another who took years to finally divorce her ex-husband (from an arranged marriage) and now lives without him or her 18 year old daughter.

Still, my Pakistani friends had their freedom – not conforming to the rules of Islam and indulging in the same things any corporate slave would do, we drove around in their new cars, rode horses on the beach, visited the few tourist sights, drank sun-downers at the yacht club, shared beers at the British Embassy bar, and smoked cigars and cigarettes from their rooft-top patios. We ate home-cooked meals, fast-food-street-food, and dined at Karachi´s best restaurants. My couchsurfing host´s mother fed me breakfast and milk-tea every morning, and told me she loved me as her own daughter.

buses in Karachi are a piece of art

buses in Karachi are a piece of art

Being pure doesn´t mean the nation has to be similar – for me it meant a land of genuine people, a place where people made me feel welcome and they all took personal pride in being able to share their home with me. They were as friendly to guests and foreigners as they are to their own families, and if they could, they would have wanted to show me all of Pakistan first-hand. There were some unfortunate events that happened in Pakistan recently – a hotel fire and a fatal plane crash – but I can still say I felt very safe in Pakistan. Accidents happen everywhere, (as well as terrorism – but don’t indulge in any of the stereotypes you think you´ve heard about Pakistan) so I hope this doesn’t hurt Pakistan´s chance of receiving more travelers and them enjoying the same kind of hospitality extended to me. I´ve already promised to go back, and made plans to see the north with a local friend and backpack thru the countryside with another couchsurfer. I plan on keeping that promise very soon.