Kentucky Derby, wedding crashers and the south

I´ve dreamed to go to the Kentucky Derby ever since I started riding horses as a child. I heard it was an epic meet of the rich and famous with the drunken and pretty, some tens of thousands of people all coming to watch (some very expensive) horses run a mile or more for a lot of money.

in the grandstands at the Kentucky Derby

Hats and fascinators are a thing, and nearly every woman had some colourful decoration on her head, while most men atl east wore a handsome hat or colourful bow tie or suit. The Twin Spires at Churchill Downs have an infield and the grandstands, split into different sections. The most expensive box seats will cost more than $3000 per person, which isn´t much when people are betting $1000 on the winning horse of the Kentucky Derby, which this year, paid out 65-1, and walk away with more than $60,000 in winnings.

a paddle steamer sails between Indiana and Kentucky on the Ohio river

I spent the weekend in Louisville couchsurfing with an ex-military Trump supporter, and although we had our political differences, we became great gambling friends. He walked me to Jeffersonville, Indiana, another state I had never been to, or really planned on going to, but the views over the Ohio River from the Big Four pedestrian bridge were a memorable highlight.

the roadtrip hybrid

I had flew into Cincinnati airport to start this adventure, which I assumed would be in Ohio, but lo and behold I accidentally landed in Northern Kentucky and felt a sigh of relief when my rental car had been rented from the right airport. I planned on enjoying the warm, sunny spring time to road trip thru the south, since Louisville is considered the northernmost city in ´the south.´ My friend Stef from NYC came and we headed thru Kentucky, stopping at a friends in Lexington, and into Tennessee. She would be married a week later in Eastern Tennessee, and without any sort of real invitation, we had already decided we´d try to crash her wedding.

Eileen and James´wedding!

We couchsurfed when we could, and rented Airbnb´s for no more than $50 or $60 a night, and drove a hybrid Ford Fusion that cost $30 to fill and lasted 500 miles, so the expenses were few. We tried to splurge on food and drinks, but that was also cheap, and I was most excited about eating my $3.99 drumstick meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken, in Kentucky! It reminds me of Viggo Mortensen´s quote in the Green Mile: Kentucky fried Chicken! in Kentucky! whens that ever gonna happen? We ate a lot more fried chicken, from random other small chains I had never heard of, some with waffles, others with biscuits and gravy, and gained at least 2 kg´s in deep fried goodness.

the Lisa Marie at Graceland

We hit Nashville and Memphis, getting our full dose of country Music, honky tonks and soul music. We visited Graceland and boarded Elvis Presley´s private plane, the Lisa Marie. We took a steamboat cruise on the Mississippi river, with views to Memphis and Arkansas state, and drove over the bridge to Arkansas just to say we´d been there. But there wasn´t much there. Except that liquor store we stopped at.

Stef and I, after crawling thru some caves in Tennessee

We them drove through northern Mississippi and Alabama, meeting two of our loveliest hostesses. In Tupelo, we visited the birthplace of Elvis and stayed with a lovely woman and her two cats, who I´m sure I´ll see again as she´s been designated as my informal guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans 2020 for my 33rd birthday. In Huntsville, we couchsurfed a mansion, with a couchsurfer and her parents, who cooked us an amazing meal and her mother took me running at the crack of dawn with her running buddies.

sitting on a draft horse with a western saddle is like sitting on a whisky barrel

Next we carried on back north, thru Tennessee, and did indeed crash Eileen and James´wedding in the romantic foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. We managed to visit a bourbon distillery, twice, and even a local winery in Kentucky. We spent a night in Asheville, beer tasting at Highland Brewery, couchsurfing with a crazy cat couple, who were really well meaning but actually allergic to us. Other spontaneous plans included caving at Great Mammoth caves and spelunking in Raccoon Mountains caverns, horse back riding in Kentucky and finding the trail of the Woodbooger – southwest Virginia´s own version of Big Foot.

the woodboogers!

We slowly made it back into Kentucky, just barely missing the opportunity to also visit West Virginia. Our last night was spent in Pikeville, where we ran into a crew of Kellog´s workers at a local bar, joining (and significantly strengthening) their trivia night team. After a week and a half on the road, we had hit 8 states, and I dropped Stef back off to Cincinnati airport (in Kentucky), before finally driving myself into Ohio. Stef had said it would be the armpit of America, and jokingly refused to set foot in the city, so my expectations were low, only to be blown out of the water by some incredible local hospitality.

I´ve definitely seen this bike before, at Burning Man 2009

I spent my last night with new couchsurfing friends, who I know I´ll see again (I´ve already seen one since!). I stepped foot on more than just the bridge to Cincinnati, trying my first taco turtle (so good!), taking a spin thru the nightlife, and getting pulled over in a topless BMW by a trooper (I was the passenger, not the driver, who didn´t get a ticket FYI). I was pleasantly surprised to find a Burning Man exhibit at the Art Museum. It was slightly more relatable than the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, where Taylor Swift´s presence came as a surprise (isnt she pop?) and I hadn´t a clue who most of the other artists on exhibit were. But being temporarily transported back to the playa, with snipits of Black Rock Desert to reminisce on, I realized that many of my travel experiences in the US were similar – culture shock, only slightly different, followed by total submersion. The south now has a special place in my heart.

Christmas in Bangladesh

I arrived in a place that felt like India and Saudia Arabia had collided. As a traveller, I experienced it the same way I experienced Lagos, an overwhelming, chaotic, crowded filth of a poverty stricken, mega city. It was a place where people’s faces were a blend of Indian and South East Asia, all the while still feeling a little middle eastern. I saw some Burmese faces, smelled clove cigarettes, and ate things authentically Bangla that I swore I had eaten in Mumbai. The alphabet had changed from Hindi and all English had been subtly dropped, even the numbers didn’t make sense.

rikshaw ride

The rickshaws were actually the tricycle pedal bikes, where anyone seated looked like a regal passenger endorsing modern human (paid) slavery. The Indian style rickshaws had been downgraded to dull, green cages. I didn’t understand why until I rode in one, and realised that it was safer to be locked in from the crowded streets and angry pedestrians and over-worked human pack donkeys.

ubering thru the streets, with election advertisements overhead

They have Uber here, on motorcycles, and I took an 8 km ride across town as someone’s first ride, breaking in his brand-new passenger helmet. He was nervous, not only because he was new on the job, but because I was the only foreigner for miles, a female, and directing him where to go since he had no idea and hadn’t thought to get a phone holster for his bike to follow directions.

pedal boating on the river

I took a sunset boat ride on the Buriganga river, which was, without exaggerating, as black as tar. Only the setting sun put a twinkle of lightness in the water, which was the top layer of oil and petrol shimmering like a greasy rainbow. I suddenly became hyper aware of the fact that I don’t have black hair, and being brunette with any sun kissed streaks meant I wasn´t local. I was a foreigner, no matter what I wore, and covering my hair wasn´t enough since the tone of tanned skin isn’t the same as having dark skin. I couchsurfed with a much whiter, larger Turkish man, but luckily for me, he had two local Bengali friends to show me around while he worked, and their presence made me feel a little less noticeable.

my christmas family

They have a funny way of peeing, the men do. They squat like a female and wee with their little man out of sight, but I wondered then if they also deal with the same splatter back problem women do when squatting too close to the ground to be discrete. I visited the deserted town of Panam and took another sunset boat trip where we couldnt see the sun and had to row ourselves. That was when I realised two out of four of us were afraid of water and didnt know how to swim. That kind of stuff doesn´t get lost in translation no matter how little we say, but I sort of managed to make everyone relax and laugh about it.

boating around the moat of Sonargaon

I took Uber motorcycles everywhere I needed to get to in Dhaka, including the zoo where I finally saw a  Royal Bengal tiger. Tourists normally need travel permits or militarized escorts to leave the capital, and traveling for run around election time as a foreigner was a big no no, so there wasn´t much chance to try and go trek for one in the wild.

National Parliament in Dhaka

I saw the old part of town and some markets and mosques, but was most impressed by the National Parliament house – it looked like something either from former Yogoslavia´s communist past or out of the future, George Orwell 1984 style, with security around it tight enough to impress the US Embassy. I walked around worried about where I could look, walk and barely mustered up the courage to take a photo, and then realised the satellites and internet signals around the parliament weren´t normal; google maps located me in a totally different part of town and I wasn´t able to order my uber motorcycle to where I was actually standing.

the one and only Royal Bengal tiger in Dhaka

A fun fact about the Bengali language: In English, its simple and all to have just cousins as a word for male and female relatives, and in Icelandic, we don’t even differentiate between an aunty, cousin or niece, they’re just all cousins. In Bangla language, they refer to an aunty from your moms side totally differently than an aunty from your dads side, and same for a paternal or maternal uncle. Mama is the word for your moms brother, which still makes me snicker.

The Star Mosque

A very useful fact for overland travelers to Bangladesh: visa on arrival from Kolkata to Dhaka thru the Benapole border is not possible during election time, and sometimes possible at other times. I was refused entry, blatantly stamped in my passport, after being told to go there from the Bangla authorities in Kolkata. But the immigration officers at the land border told me I wouldn´t receive the visa on arrival there because of elections, but I could fly from Kolkata to Dhaka and get the VOA at the airport, even though the elections are mainly happening in and around the capital. I took the risk of traveling back to Kolkata Airport and buying a one way flight (my return flight thru Delhi and back to Iceland was from Dhaka so I figured that was a strong argument to have after already landing in Dhaka) to Bangladesh, only to buy toyed for another hour about the difficulties of getting a visa during election time. My couchsurfing host was Turkish, which the authorities didn´t love, but the final yes came from a muslim Bangladeshi man named Salman, named after Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman empire in the 1500´s.

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.

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.