Cuba; a month of constant moving from one place to another in order to get to know the island as much as we can, turned out to be an amazing but sometimes hard experience for me and my traveling partner. Amazing; some parts of the island could be considered as one of those breathtaking places, hard; it’s not that small as many think of it and it can take you far too long to get from one town to another, due to the roads which are often extremely bad. When somebody mentions Cuba, there are several associations that people usually think of, things like Cuban cigars, rum, their well known rhythms or revolution and Che Guevara; communism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with connecting all that to the idea of Cuba, but the truth is that Cuba offers much much more. And Christopher Columbus’s quote in which he declared Cuba as the most beautiful country human eyes have ever seen, after our trip from the most western to most eastern part got its point.
I wouldn’t maybe claim it for sure, but the truth is that Cuba’s nature has absolutely fascinated and unconditionally overwhelmed us. Besides, the country is so safe for tourist that it’s hard for me to think of any other as safe as Cuba is. Still I don’t know for sure if this is just the way they are by their nature or is it the consequence of rigorous communist system and their fear of police. Probably combination of it all, but either way more than good for anyone traveling to Cuba. It’s again same old sad story shared with many other poor countries; the ones this beautiful nature should belong to have the least possibilities of enjoying it.
The thing that any future Cuban explorer should have are basics in Spanish, if not then good Spanish dictionary is a part of compulsory baggage, their English is really not good. Since most of the time tourists book rooms in one of the numerous Casas Prticulares, which are rooms with bathrooms in their family houses with breakfast or other meals as well, the ability of at least understanding Spanish is really useful. (Prices: 20 to 30 dollars per room per night). Of course you won’t have any problem if you don’t understand them, but you will miss the opportunity of getting to know them, their kindness and the chance of familiarizing yourself with the facts how it really feels like to live in Cuba. All Casas Particulares around Cuba have the same sign ( light blue reminding of anchor) and prices are also almost the same no matter where you go, but the quality can vary a lot.
The owners of the houses know each other all around the Cuba, sometimes leaving you with the feeling they are some kind of secret organization. After you had spent the night in their house they have already booked a room for you in the next city you are going to at their friends or relatives house, even though you haven’t really asked them to do that. As like if you didn’t even have the other option, since according to them everything else might be already booked. As you can assume, this is just their way to help their friends to earn some money, which is absolutely legal, but their suggestion for a room can be good as much as it can be a bad option for you, so from our experience the best way is just to find your rooms by yourself. When it comes to Cuba there is also one really specific thing about staying there, popular couchsurfing is forbidden. One of their laws simply forbids Cubans to have foreigners spending night at their houses, unless they have a room registered as a part of Casas Particulares system, since in this way country gets its commission and can easily control everything.
As you all know everybody expects Cubans to be that singing and dancing nation, I’m not sure what kind of images we all have in our heads when thinking about people living in Cuba, but seems like that they all dance and sing everywhere you go. Unfortunately that kind of image is far from truth. The truth is that almost every restaurant, coffee place or a bar has some Cuban musicians playing every night, you can also find them on many squares, but as you could have already realized, these are all places where tourists go. That doesn’t make them less good musicians, but their eyes often reveal the truth that their Cuban life mybe doesn’t make them feel like singing or dancing. But being just a tourist, don’t worry you will always find a place to enjoy Cuban music every night no matter where you go.
When it comes to all kinds of pleasures, Cuba is a place where all of your senses can easily receive an excellent treatment. Besides music their food is amazing, especially if you are a fond of sea food. When you realize that for approximately 10 dollars you can get a lobster and for even less money things like prawns, fish, shells or some other usually expensive meals, at first you don’t even believe it can be good. But it is , it’s actually more than good, all around Cuba. Even better part is that prices in best restaurants are literally few dollars higher when compared to cheaper ones. Besides sea food, fried bananas are something you will love, or at least get used to, since there are one of the most common side dishes.
Everybody for sure enjoys Cuban rum or famous Cuban cocktails; Mojito, Cuba Libre, Daiquiri or some other combination with rum, you can find them on each step of the way, starting with the price of 2 dollars, yeah for two dollars you can get quite good Mojito. If you decide to drink it at some really fancy place it still won’t be more than 5, consequently you end up having trouble while trying to zip your jeans when leaving Cuba.
Havana for sure offers more than other Cuban cities when it comes to clubs, restaurants, cafes, museums, sightseeing… , but the Cuban capital is not a place where you could experience the stunning Cuban nature and landscapes. Although after spending just few days in Havana, there is a lot you can figure out about the whole country. Cuba is not one of the destinations for a crazy night life, but if you’re middle aged European, Canadian, Russian … who likes young female body next to him, than Cuba can easily be transformed into number one destination for you. They are young, really young and often good looking just as Rihanna or Beyonce, and you can have them for already 20 dollars per night. Better looking they are, higher price they’ll have , but not too much higher. Cuba has a bit different situation with “Roxannes”, here guys take them to dinners, clubs, cafes, beaches…they are not only hidden in hotel rooms. But, most of the time you will see them leaving places separately, since the girls that don’t have a passport could end up in a jail for being caught in a company like that. I don’t even have to tell you that getting passport for many Cubans is somewhat mission impossible. Even when they finally do have the passport, it still doesn’t mean they can leave the country in the way we are used to. Where they’re going and for how long are they about to leave Cuba is all regulated more than you could imagine.
Anyway this kind of true love stories are to be seen everywhere you go, but quite funny is that it’s not only middle aged men doing it, you will see as many white ladies having three times younger guys walking next to them. I’m a woman so I have the right to find this older ladies situation really amusing, even hilarious from time to time, or you can think of me as the Grinch who doesn’t believe in love. Either way the sex tourism situation lead me to the conclusion that Cuba is top of the tops when it comes to that , in my experience so far it was Thailand or maybe Kenya, but I have a feeling that Cuba beats them all. Unless I discover some other country like this in future time. Some of the gentlemen on the photos might be wrongly accused, since girls can get really persistent, but….
If you add the fact that Cubans are really liberate when it comes to the sexuality, so every typical Cuban has few lovers and a wife, you can turn famous association of Cuba and revolution into a sexual revolution. We didn’t have to wait too long for an absolute affirmation of this statement, we got it our second night in Havana in front of a gay club. Revolution indeed, it doesn’t happen often that you see so many gay people being so free in showing their affection and orientation in the streets. This is an absolute paradox since we are talking about communist country where internet in the way we know it doesn’t exist for Cubans. Our new gay friends made it clear that it was totally different few years back and that it was Raul’s ( president and Fidel Castro brother) lesbian daughter who changed the rules for LGBT community and turned bad situation in the one we can find today.
The internet situation is one of the things that will make you think that Cuba is still trapped in the past. Even as being a tourist you will have a hard time in finding the internet connection, only the most expensive hotels can offer you something like that, but when you finally find it, it might seem like it is the 50’s internet. It simply takes ages for everything, so facebook posting for instance easily turns into a never ending story. Local people on the other hand are able to use the internet only for emails, but even for this purpose they have a certain time limit. Cuba Libre! On the other hand if you are a fan of cars from the 50’s you might think of Cuba as haven. They can be in a great shape or just the opposite, from the 70’s or 80’s perhaps, but either way outnumbering the new ones.
Since recently they do have the possibility of importing new cars, but it’s just few of them who can actually afford it, since their average salary is a bit less than 40 dollars. The only way that helps them to survive is the fact that Cuba still has two official currencies, CUP, or the “national peso” and the convertible peso CUC, to put it simply Cubans use CUPs and tourist are paying in CUCs.
Communist slogans and symbols of their revolution are to be found everywhere you look, but it’s extremely rare situation to get somebody talking about anything that has to do with it. But other than that they are openhearted and will talk to you about anything else. When talking about the revolution, in all of the museums again everything revolves around it, with the same old perspective, communist values and heroes being shown as the supreme goods and anything related to “western” world (US) as pure evil and ultimate enemies. It’s not even necessary to mention that all of the main squares and streets are named after revolutionaries and not only in Havana, furthermore you will find a statue or something like it in each of them.
Likewise rum and cigars, which are offered on every possible spot, they are all crazy about baseball, so after few days in Havana you won’t be surprised when seeing children playing it everywhere they can. Unfortunately most of the time they don’t have the chance of playing with real bats…
While talking to an amazing retired geography teacher we “discovered” that socialist Cuba makes a major difference among people while taking care of them ( well that was really a new discovery). The old ones like her, now useless for the society, are in the worst position. Having a brain tumor she needs to sell newspapers, more like begging on the street in order to be able to survive. Still she is ever smiling and enumerates all the cities she knows about in Croatia- you wouldn’t believe it! Also one of the Cuban problems; attending university is possible for everyone, they don’t have to pay for it, but after graduating due to the lack of working opportunities you will have engineers working as waiters or professors as taxi drivers..etc.
With the tear in our eyes we said goodbye and left her 20 dollars ( it was all we could have afford since our budget was quite tight) even though she never asked for it. But to feel the compassion with the people like her you don’t have to go to Havana, I’m sure you will find enough sad stories like her in your countries as well. But the picturesque streets of Havana and people of it are more than worth of checking out. The best part to take a long walk and fell the city vibe is the old part of Havana, Malecon (a broad esplanade along the coast) as well. While the best city view offers fortress complex La Cabaña which is to be reached by underwater tunnel, so you have to take taxi or have a rented car to get there.
Hotel Nacional, is one of the places you want to see in Havana, the hotel is kind of a museum and moreover it has a small museum in the it’s park. Therefore you won’t be surprised when realizing that guided tours of the hotel are offered few times a day and surprisingly tours are free. It’s the best place to get the feeling what kind of a place Cuba was in its “golden era” before the revolution. It’s the place where all the big names stayed when visiting Havana, indeed you will see photos of all of them hanged on the walls. It’s also the place where The Havana Conference; a historic meeting of United States Mafia and Cosa Nostra leaders in Havana was held, what doesn’t come as a surprise since hotel was their popular meeting point with Sinatra as their constant guest. Cuba in that period was something like Las Vegas today and a place which all the big fish of that time would consider as their playground and this is something Nacional shows and you can actually feel it.
The place I was most fascinated by in Havana was Callejon de Hamel, artistic oasis. Salvador Gonzales Escalona, famous Cuban artist lives here and has turned the whole neighborhood into an open air gallery. Therewithal you want to go there if you are interested in details on African- Cuban traditions and Santeria ( African- Caribbean religion).
Our trips around Cuba started towards western part of the island and as further from Havana you go, more often you hear yourself saying WOW! Our first destination was Viñales. To get there you can take a bus – Viazul- name of the bus company for tourists or you can take “Collectivo”, this is something like shared taxi with people going in same direction as you. Often you will be driven in the 50’s car when choosing it, besides it is often the cheapest way to travel and the best way to meet new friends, furthermore good thing is that you will easily find them on the bus stations since buses are often overbooked. “Collectivo” is the most common mean of transport for Cubans too. I have to honest here, the best possible option is if you have enough money to rent a car while discovering Cuba, you can stop where and how long you want , but we weren’t that lucky, so we had to find other options.
At the first sight Viñales is some other Cuba, after seeing Havana. Even a bit different you would imagine Cuba to be, it’s not one of the most popular touristic places which is quite strange if I think of all the amazing nature you will find there. The city itself is not offering too much, but there are quite enough restaurants with an amazing food and Cuban musicians playing every night.
Moreover you might get the feeling as if you had found the time machine and there you are 60 or 70 years ago. Viñales and area around it is the main place of tobacco fields and the whole region is a national park. There are no sandy beaches, but there is a lot of red soil, tobacco and banana fields while the Viñales valley landscape is interspersed with dramatic rocky outcrops.
Taking a horse trip across the valley was one of the best things we did in Cuba, overall it’s for sure number one way to explore the valley; fields and people living there and making a living from growing tobacco. Besides you will learn how authentic Cuban cigars are rolled, you might try and buy them, even though they are not allowed to make them by themselves. The system works in the simple way, they sell tobacco to government at really low price, then they sell cigars at high prices, whereas people growing tobacco are allowed to keep some really insignificant amount of it for personal use. Viva La Revolucion! At one point of the horse trip we were also able to experience how it feels like to take a swim inside one of the numerous caves, and when I say inside I mean deep inside in complete dark. I did come, walked through the cave, but must admit, taking a swim wasn’t that tempting, so i skipped that part.
Riding a bike through Vinales region familiarized us even more with the beauty of it, it took us around 30 km of riding in one direction to get to Puerta Esperanza, main port of the province, which offers literally nothing, but the nature and people on the road were unbelievable. But when in Vinales it doesn’t even matter which direction are you about to choose for bike riding, they all offer great experience, you don’t have to take that long ride or even towards Puerta Esperanza. Among all the comments we got form the Cubans while talking to them, was for sure the one that came from a small tobacco factory guard. He explained that we have the same smell ( we stink) just like his brother who lives in Miami and comes to Cuba with the same smell. Who knows perhaps his brother also cycles for hours, but I don’t think it was about the bad choice of the deodorant. 🙂
Around half an hour drive away from Vinales is the city Pinar del Rio, which is the main city of the this most western Cuban province, famous for the biggest tobacco factory. The factory is worth of checking out, but when it comes to city itself, you realize really fast while walking through it, why majority of the tourist decides to sleep in Vinales when visiting the western region.
BAY OF PIGS
After Vinales we were interested in discovering another thing to be found only in Cuba, but not as popular as Cuban tobacco and cigars, Cuban crocodiles. Bay of Pigs and the whole peninsula Zapata is the place which offers a lot when it comes to enjoying incredible wildlife and plants often endemic species. Since we were mostly interested in their crocodiles, crocodile farm was our next destination. Apart from the option of eating them in the restaurant on the farm you are able to see all kinds of them form babies to several decades old chunks. We skipped the restaurant since we know from before that their meat is not something that we would like to eat more than once. But on the other hand we learned it the hard way how fats chunks could be and were shocked how fast and high they’re able to jump when they smell you too close to the fence. In the certain moment I couldn’t stop laughing when I realized that my partner is able to perform backwards long jump, that cameras can handle serious falls and that the fence was doing its job even though it didn’t look promising.
Besides national park and inevitable revolution museums, Bay also offers amazing beaches on the Caribbean side of Cuba. Along with amazing nature there was another one getting us to know with awful facts about life in Cuba. Best beaches like Caleta Buena, which we visited are only to be visited by tourists. Well it’s not forbidden for Cubans to come, but if you take into consideration the fact that the entrance fee, which includes all you can eat and drink, is like half of their average month income it doesn’t take too long to realize why aren’t there any locals on the beach, unless they are someone’s escort. Talking about true love again. Beaches are also often part of some hotel complex, again Cubans being there only as workers, but Bay of Pigs is really big so you can find normal beaches as well, while later on the situation was even worse with some of the islands.
More and more amazing landscape with endless palm trees, bananas and sugar cane fields, along with sometimes heavily damaged roads followed us on the way to Trinidad, next city we were heading to. In our opinion the most beautiful Cuban city. Colonial style, which is to be found all around the country, is best and most preserved in Trinidad. Unfortunately we made one of our biggest Cuban mistakes here; we stayed to short when compared to other cities. Ok we did manage to see a lot in few days, but it would have been so much better if we had stayed longer in Trinidad. Of course we became aware of that fact after we have checked other places.
Plaza Mayor which is the central square is actually something like museum on open air, museum of Spanish colonial architecture. The thing you might like even more about the city is the realization that even the Casas particulares, houses in which again majority of tourists spends nights, are just as good and old fashioned but highly preserved, just like the houses you admire while walking through streets in the center. It’s really hard to say if we liked more walking through the streets of Trinidad during day when you can see all the colors, or during night when we weren’t even able to choose in which restaurant should we go first. There is surprisingly high number of restaurants for a small city like this, besides they even look better than in other cities, and most important offering amazing food for a bit lower prices than we saw elsewhere around Cuba. Again each of them offers Cuban musicians playing while you are having dinner. One of the coolest things about Trinidad was that we actually found the square with not only tourist enjoying Cuban music, there were many local people too and I’m not talking about the ones who are escorts to tourists.
Just traveling to Cayo Coco (one of the Cuban islands) is already interesting, for quite some time you are on the road literally in the middle of the ocean. There is one rule about the island, you need to have reserved place to stay before going there, at least we were told so. We didn’t complain too much when we realized that renting a room when you get there costs few dollars more. Oh yeah, on the Coco island we kind of had to go for the hotel option, since finding Casa Particulare option is not that likely. You can assume, the island is for the ones with a bit more money, but to be honest it wasn’t that expensive as you might imagine; for some 60 dollars per person you will get really good hotel on the beach with all you can eat and drink. There are even cheaper options but more often you will find more expensive ones.
When it comes to beauties of the island, it would be hard to find appropriate words, I can only constant that it was one of the top 5 places I have ever been to considering ocean and beaches. That colors are something you might always remember seeing.
Right next to Coco is another island; Cayo Guillermo, some claim even more beautiful, but if you ask me it’s the same thing. On the way to Guillermo you will see many flamingos, one more experience you can easily get impressed by, since the island is their nature reserve. Between two islands is also a place where you can find out how it feels like to swim with dolphins or to kiss them. Even though it’s one of those typical touristic things, something animals lovers like me really don’t support, but it was stronger than me, I became one of the people giving money for something like this ( and some money- around 100 dollars). On one hand I still feel remorse for doing it, but on the other one it’s one of the feelings you never forget.
In preventing Coco of being heaven on earth there are mosquitoes and sand flies. We were too cool to use some spray against bugs bites during the day, mosquitoes bite during sunset or evening anyway; wrong decision. Next few days after leaving Coco we looked like as if we were suffering from some serious skin disease – the flies are so small that you don’t even realize being attacked and itchiness has a postponed reaction, so we end up realizing that being cool has its own price. Besides itchiness there were some other bitter feelings in our mouth after magical island.
During the evenings you can feel quite depressed if you’re like us; two single girls expecting young people to socialize with, the emptiness of this type of tourism reaches its top. It’s only old couples, families, most often couples where he is like 50 and she is in her early 20s or in the best case some annoying just married couple on their honeymoon. The worst thing is there is no better place to go if you decide to run away from your hotel, they’re all the same at the end of the day, so the only fun was the fact that all we could have drunk was included, we were able to try almost half of the cocktails on the list or maybe even more, but we don’t remember anyway.
The reason why nobody asked us about the reservation of the hotel when entering the road to the island was the awful fact that we didn’t look like Cubans, who believe it or not are forbidden to go there, except if they’re one of the workers in the hotels. So the islands can be amazing and awful places at the same time. Again the story is not the same for all of them, if they’re a part of their communist party, the rules change, just like for the lady who was the owner of a house in our next city, she proudly explained it all to us, . Old Partisan was part of the system and she sure liked it.
She owned a house in Santa Clara, I don’t know if I was under a huge influence of the fact that I was strongly annoyed by her, but Santa Clara shouldn’t be on the list of the cities you must visit while in Cuba, unless you really have a plenty of time. To summarize it I can say it’s the Che Guevara’s and transvestites city. Nothing particularly bad about it, just there are so many better places to go. Now if you are crazy about the Cuban revolution or a huge fan of Che, than things change. The city has his mausoleum, several of his bronze figures, and of course a museum dedicated to his life. Santa Clara was chosen as the site for Che’s remains since a battle which he won in the city during the revolution was decisive for the liberation of Cuba’s former dictator Batista.
We spent most of the time at the club Mejune, which was really something special after so long in Cuba. When you are in the club you feel as in some European city. It was the only place (apart from the hotels where they are only foreigners anyway) where we were able to hear international music like Queen or Bob Marley. Otherwise it’s either listening to Cuban music exclusively or even more interesting are radio stations ,which do have international music, but more than often only instrumentals. So you are listening let’s say Michael Jackson, Abba or Simply Red, but without actually hearing them; no words and messages. But it’s not only about the music, club offers several times a week a drag show and other different artists. The feeling in the club is amazing, everybody at the same place, both old and young and gay and straight, and transgender and macho guys and all kinds of artists; awesome!
SANTIAGO DE CUBA
The city which taught us that perhaps you really don’t have to go to work when it rains. Rain followed us most of the time while in Santiago, which wouldn’t be an issue if it hadn’t closed all of the museums and other cultural spots for tourists. It’s simple; if it rains they don’t work; who wouldn’t love to live in a system like that? It didn’t take us long while staying to confirm that the Cuban nature is far more interesting than cities. Nothing particularly differs Santiago from Santa Clara, except that is bigger and has more cafes and restaurants, at the end it’s the largest city after Havana.
The only thing we were really fascinated by was forth Castillo del Morro, a bit outside of the city originally built in 17th century in order to protect the old city of Santiago. At the forth we had the best Cuban sunset, for me even one of the best ever, the place is outstanding for catching sunset. Even though we didn’t know in advance visitors are also able to experience the changing of the traditional guard after sun sets.
Baracoa is the city on the most eastern part of Cuba, and just when we had enough of buses and the constant movement and even being suspicious whether we should have another city on the list, just a trip towards Baracoa was already enough to make up for any tiredness. Columbus landed just near Baracoa when he first saw Cuba and declared the comment at the beginning of the story. It was first Cuban capital city, although today is literally at the end of the island somehow completely cut off. Since it’s the main production site of the Cuban chocolate Baracoa is the only place in Cuba where you can without much effort actually find traditional chocolate to buy, offered like cigars in Havana on every corner of the streets. In restaurants you can try some specialties like fish in a chocolate sauce, (it’s better than it sounds) not to be found around the rest of the country, while Baracoa is known to have cuisine a bit different than other parts of Cuba.
The town itself is quite small, again nothing spectacular, but the nature around it and on the way to Baracoa is so unique that at certain parts of the road I had the feeling that we were on some new planet. Countless palm trees, black sand beaches, some green rocks combined with all possible shades of blue and green ocean altering on the way.
The most interesting thing to see in Baracoa is the archaeological museum of Cuban Taino Indians, who were in fact the original inhabitants of Cuba. The Spaniards managed to eradicate them all over the island, except in Baracoa, for this the city is the only place where can find their descendants even today, they live in tribes hidden in the surrounding hills still in some other time. Besides the cave with bones and all kinds of remains, hill where the museum and cave are provides you with the best view of Baracoa.
The city itself and the nature on the way to it has already justified the fact that it takes forever to get there since it’s on the end of the island, but then we took a taxi to get to Maguna beach, some 30 minutes away from Baracoa and realized that it’s not just the matter of justification. Baracoa should actually be one of THE things to see while in Cuba. The only problem I had was to decide what I liked more; the nature on the way to the beach or the beach itself. Something I admired just as the beauty of it; there is no entrance fee, there are no expensive hotels around it, you can even find a place to hide from the others and the best part, the number of Cubans on the beach, not just tourist at least for now.
For us it was the last one on the list while for most of the tourists first, it turned out that it was not a coincidence. Varadero is close to Havana (approx 2 hours by bus), it’s truth that there is 20 kilometers long sandy beach, which looks ok, but after everything else we’ve seen in Cuba Varadero really wasn’t something I would recommend to someone. Absolute mass tourism, hotel next to hotel, tourist everywhere you look and when compared to other Cuban places not that beautiful, which might be the reason for a bit cheaper all included hotels than the Cayo Coco ones. Since it was already almost the end of our trip we have adapted to the typical tourist standards and spent the two Varadero days on the beach with cocktails that did not stop coming and concluded that for us this all inclusive way definitely paid off.
If you are traveling to Cuba:
Bus company / Viazul that it is intended for non Cubans has a temperature of about minus 10 in buses- bring warm clothing you will need it. Furthermore during tourist season you should buy tickets few days in advance if you want to get them.
Nightlife in Havana is the best in part of the town called Vadedo and there are most of the clubs. A good jazz club; La Zorra El Cuervo, really close to it is a good club with Cuban music; Gato Tuerto, besides them there is the Hotel Habana Libre – their top floor is the closest thing to disco in Cuba and has very good view on the whole Havana.
When it comes to restaurants, don’t miss Castropol which is on the Malecon, excellent food not significantly more expensive than other restaurants. Absolutely avoid eating in Chinatown because it’s Chinese food prepared in the Cuban way which turns out criminally bad.
Although the typical tourist thing; it’s ok to hire one of the guides / drivers of an old classic car for a few hours they are offering themselves everywhere so you won’t have any trouble with finding them. They can show or recommend you things that any familiar only to local people.
And there was God, ok Allah in this case to be correct. And there was Sheik and Sheik created himself an artificial kingdom in the middle of the desert, he paid slaves, gave them a little bit of fun and luxury and there it was, biggest showing off arena on the planet Earth; Dubai. Otherwise, when travelling, I like to let the path lead me in the most interesting way, so I don’t prepare myself too much for the places I’m visiting. I love to feel the place with all my senses without having an opinion in advance. But that number of documentaries, like on the subject of Dubai, hasn’t been filmed about anything else in the world, so unfortunately it was almost impossible for me to avoid all of them. Yet they all talk about the same thing, Skiing place in shopping center in the middle of the desert, hotels where spending a night costs like something that it would take ordinary people a lifetime to earn, artificial island in palm shape, tallest building in the world, biggest this biggest that….
Sheik who wants to show the whole world how much money he has and how powerful he is. So it’s not a surprise that place attracts all kinds of moral scum. It’s all true, documentaries didn’t lie, I saw it all; luxury, all the places they were talking about and all kinds of people visiting it. Dubai is definitely not on a places to visit list, for typical backpackers or those looking for exotic or cultural and historical heritage while traveling, on the other hand desert itself is not some natural wonder. But since I strongly believe, that every single place on Earth has something to be seen and becomes a place where you can learn something new, if you know how to look, I have decided to accept the invitation from a friend who went living there and tried to find something I would be fascinated by. Personal satisfaction, something that would distinguish Dubai from everything else.
I knew I wasn’t going to find that something in a sail-shaped hotel, copies of Venetian canals, shops offering everything you can imagine, biggest concentration of the most expensive cars in the world, or even not in the tallest building in the world; Burj Kalifa. Although the view from Burj Kalifa was more than impressive (my suggestion is to book a visit in advance on the web, since it is much cheaper option than just showing up there). Don’t get me wrong, I do like shopping and I adore fast cars, but still I don’t judge people on the clothes they are wearing, cars they are driving or money they are earning. I just knew the city must have something else too, it was true, in the end I didn’t leave Dubai disappointed.
I felt some special vibe in that circus. Everybody who lives there and are not being locals, comes there with some reason and just for some time, or are just being tourists. There really aren’t people from other countries who have plans on staying there forever, since it is actually impossible because of their laws, that just don’t allow you to get their citizenship. But exactly for this reasons city has this crazy pulse. “I’m here just for a while, as long as it’s fun..” so when I have multiplied this sentence with millions of often young and attractive people from all over the world, I realized why everything seemed so wildly and unrestrained. For me Dubai was like a strange mixture of New York and Las Vegas.
Glitz and madness is almost the same as in Vegas, but it is a little finer version without casinos and fake Elvis Presleys, but crazy night life is possible every night. Everything is always available, so let’s say you remember at 4 am, that you are missing cigars, juice, yoghurt, condoms.. anything, you just call the number and it is being delivered to you in ten minutes, and delivery is free, I don’t even have to mention that it is totally normal to come to a restaurant at 2 am and get everything as it was 2 pm. This maybe wasn’t the story in each restaurant, but there are enough of them like that. Besides the fact that it never sleeps, the thing that reminded me of the Big Apple was the presence of every possible nation, skin color, religion,.. for sure one of the places you would call multicultural. Traditional Arabic robes on men, together with enormous number of half-naked tourist girls, on the other hand numerous completely covered Muslim women, all together make a patchwork of cultures even richer. All of them walking around shopping centers at the same time and around those rare places where you are able to take a walk. The lack of the places where you are able to take a walk is one of the biggest disadvantages of Dubai. You are doomed to cars or public transportation.
It is true that these are being characteristics of many major cities, but somehow they are more expressed in Dubai than anywhere else, so there it was; something that distinguishes it from other places. Being that multicultural as it is, made it really interesting for me, and for a moment I had an idea of spending some years of my life there. That bubble exploded when I realized my life would come down to visiting shopping centers, beaches and maybe gyms, or partying all the time. So I would need to have an extra strong reason to live in a place like that, since there really aren’t things like cultural or art scene, theaters or museums. Ok there are some, yeah Sheikh bought some of them too, but as you can conclude, you cannot buy a soul or built it over the night. Only art that is blooming there is the art of comfortable life where everything is customized to your needs, it’s all there for you in every moment, as long as you are respecting their rules. For my hypersensitivity it would have been better if I hadn’t been noticing slaves in the shape of underpaid Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and many others on whose backs was the desert perversion built. To notice this, only thing you have to do is to take a public transportation instead of taxi, which is by the way very cheap. There are too many underpaid workers , who work all days and nights long in order to make Sheiks world functioning.
Public transportation, where you will have the opportunity of meeting these other inhabitants of Dubai is again different experience than any other public transportation. Everything is so clean that I really needed some time to realize that this was a public train, something I have never seen before. Everything by the rules, first wagon only for VIP tickets, second one only for children and women, and then for others. Nobody really doesn’t eat or drink anything or makes any kind of noise. Everybody are following the rules, since the police officers are walking around all the time checking out that everything is in the right order. I prefer crazy public transpiration I am used to in other major cities, but this is good cause you really don’t have to worry about your wallet being stolen or anything else bad happening to you.
First thing I did in Dubai were the beaches. Technically speaking it is just one long beach along Jumeriah road, but since there are just several places where it is being a public beach, you get a feeling that there are more of them. Actually most of it just belongs to hotels, so this one beach is divided into different parts. Great sand, but after all it is desert, if not here than where else should it be good? On the other hand sea is really nothing particular, really doesn’t bring up the need in you to stay long inside of it. The one I liked most was Jumeriah public beach, with a great view on Burj Kalifa and rest of the buildings on famous Sheik Zyhad Road. But all together really not one of the beaches you just must visit during life time.
But Man, what a jogging trail! Made out of some material that is almost like a rubber, so your knees don’t suffer, and right next to it the one where you can walk or roller skate. They were obviously thinking about everything. Only thing you might find strange on the beach, nobody’s kissing or exchanging any kind of tenderness. All forbidden! I wondered just for a moment how do they check this things, didn’t wait too long for my answer, officers walk around here too.
If you are tourist, every night here looks almost the same, you start it with a dinner in of the hundred restaurants in Dubai Mall or on front of it, where you watch the show of dancing fountains with loud music along, right underneath the tallest building in the world, so all together does look impressive. If you are able to ignore millions of people around you. Hate to admit it but fountain show is more impressive in Dubai than the one in Vegas, after all Sheik must have proved he can do better. After that you continue with clubs and crazy nights out.
When the night falls hypocrisy in Dubai reaches its maximum. Everything is about the rules again, you are not allowed to kiss in clubs, you are not allowed to drink alcohol anywhere else but in clubs or hotels, if officers see you being drunk, you can go straight to jail. But then again, Dubai is one of the best places for parties in the world. Clubs are amazing, music is good, booze is not as expensive as you would expect it, girls can get in most of the clubs for free, with many free drinks for them. Trust me, for guys there is not a better place to get easily girl for a night, all of them are here just for a while or for fun anyway. As long as they are not kissing in the clubs everything’s allowed, it’s not a secret that you can easily order “Roxanne” just by dialing some different number than the one you dial when you need yogurt in your apartment.
From all the tourist attractions they have to offer I did the desert safari. One of the most typical things to do while being there. You get picked up by a Jeep, where ever you want, they drive you to the desert and thorough it, you get to ride a camel, watch belly dancing and great local dinner in the middle of the desert. And then they bring you back where they picked up, all together for really ridiculously cheap price, since there are really many agencies offering almost the same, so you won’t do wrong no matter which one you choose.
At the end what to say about Dubai? With all good and bad things about it, even the ones like me, who aren’t being fascinated by the money and power of Sheik can find something for themselves. It sure is one of the places worth of visiting, not maybe for too long, since there aren’t many diverse things to do, but to have fun for few days, the right place.
Religion and spiritual thought have been main association of India since always, after living and working there for a while I must admit that I’m now even more sure that this things are to be found in person itself or not; there’s no place that could make you rich in spirit unless you already had it in yourself. Yes, it might have great impact on you, as any other country you visit, but it won’t give you inner peace or make you a better person just because you went there, as some assume. But, among many other places in India, there was one where I could have felt the power of Indian Gods, it was Palitana, temples in Palitana to be exact. And I swear it was before smoking magical green cigarette in the middle of the temples ;).
The fact that there aren’t many tourists who visit the place or even know about it, already made it a bit magical. It was the first place where I haven’t seen any other foreigner but us for the whole trip, doesn’t mean they never go there, but it doesn’t happen that often- making the place even better and more authentic. Although it’s located in Gujurat, Indian country I lived in, even I didn’t know about it. This was a great opportunity for my best Indian friend to show me and our small international gang “the real India”. Since we had him and his car there was no need for a bus and Palitana was just around 4 hours away from Ahmedabad, the city we lived in. But if you find yourself in India you will have the bus option and Palitana is something you don’t want to miss. The city of Palitana and mountain Shatrunjaya next to it is the world’s only mountain that has more than 900 temples. So it’s no surprise that the temples and whole mountain are the most sacred pilgrimage place for the Jain community and this is the world’s largest Temple Complex. Being the special place as it is has good and bad side of it.
On the way to Plaitana we stopped at one of the numerous restaurants next to the road, even though it seemed as lottery winning place– this was the way we would call places where things like diarrhea would be inevitable. It actually turned out to be the place where even I loved the food, which wasn’t often when it comes to Indian food. Besides, we were like Hollywood stars since most of the people having dinner wanted to take a photo with us, in India this happens often when you go to places where tourist rarely come.
Ok this was the good part of a special place, but after coming to Palitana we experienced the bad one as well. We haven’t booked a place for the night, since our Indian friend was sure we won’t have any problem with finding one, once we get there. The city is full of Jain hotels, meaning they maybe offer rooms like regular hotels, but are actually only for Jain and usually don’t accept anyone else. We have tried with the normal hotel first. While our Indian friend booked the rooms we were taking things from the car and the moment a boy at reception desk saw us coming in, (international girls and boys), he changed his mind, gave money back and explained that there was no room for us. After my friend got angry and tried to explain how wrong this was, 4, 5,6,ACTION ( we were Hollywood stars anyway), one of them was holding him while the other one was hitting him with a wooden stick. Next scene “our” international guys getting between them right away and there it was; just like a movie scene.
The noise we made gathered several angry Indian guys in front of the hotel and we realized instantly that the best thing we could have done was to get into the car as fast as we could had. So there we were, no place to stay since the next expensive hotel (with no scenes like this) was already full. Right before considering sleeping in the car, our Indian diplomat managed to convince one of the guards in one of the Jain “hotels” that nobody will even know that we were there. We paid a bit extra, ran into the rooms and left them before dawn.
Leaving rooms before dawn was our initial plan anyway. Most of the people walking to the temples start that early for a simple reason; main complex of the temples is on the top of the mountain and it takes more than 3800 stairs to be climbed (3.5 km) in order to get here. Furthermore you have to get down before evening, since nobody, not even Jain monks are able to sleep there. Beside taking all that stairs and not being able to sleep on the top, there is one more rule which will help you find the Indian Gods or discover spiritual India: you are not allowed to eat any food on the way to the temples. Mistake number one; we didn’t eat before walking there, mistake number two; we carried only biscuits, hoping to find food offered on the top. Upsss, first thing that for sure made Gods angry, we had been eating on the way to the top. Even though you’re not allowed to eat, you can get free water on several stops towards temples . Standard Indian way of drinking; everybody drinking from several same metal cups, without touching mouth. After few months of life in India, this things become completely normal for you.
Every devout Jain aspires to climb to the top of the mountain at least once in a lifetime, because of its sanctity, so there will be numerous both female and male monks whom you will meet on the way to temples. Besides being inspired by their devotion I got my answer for their “strange” hair. (If they weren’t bald, their hair looked just as the hair of a toddler looks like). They all have to pull out their hair, both man and women in order to avoid obstacles in their path of going Gods way, since in many ways the beauty of a person is attached to the his/her looks and looks have a lot to do with hair. Monks walk bare foot and very fast especially when you think of their age, but it wasn’t only monks walking bare foot, majority of the people was walking barefoot, of course but us. Beside Jain living in India you will meet many of them living far away ; Canada or States… but they visit Palitana at least once if not every year, they simply find it necessary for their health and success or something else. Some of them will be the ones who will talk to you, often surprised to see you there.
Just as with many different sanctuaries of other religions you will find many people trying to get there even though not being able to do it by themselves, with a hope of getting better if they reach the top. That’s when “Doli” comes in. These kind of things are really only to be found in India or some other 3rd world country. Doli is kind of a swing chair carried by porters. Yes the truth is that some of them are too old or too ill to climb the hill alone, but many of them just use the chance to have others carrying them on their back literally, for this I was amused by the fact that you are charged based on your weight. I don’t even have to mention that we were offered to be carried by every single available Doli carrier, since we for sure looked like someone with the money, being white as we were. Sadly for them we didn’t like the idea in the first place.
With all the stories on the way there, with every step closer to the top and main complex of the temples I was realizing why every single stair was worth it. Since the whole hill considered as a sacred place, there are also temples on the way to the top, already amazing enough to fascinate you. No crowd, as often in temples around India, no people living on the streets next to them, no cows coming in…all together some different India. As the number of stairs has increased, so has the level of the fascination by the view on the Cambay gulf underneath and temples in front of us.
After we were already slightly spiritualized (extremely hungry-one causes the other) we have reached the main temples at the top of the mountain, where we instantly felt some special energy. Although they were the same people whom we met on the way to the top everybody was somehow happier and more relaxed, followed by the energy of the place itself. It really wasn’t only about the fascinating architecture, the place has some kind of power to make you fell the peace inside of you, yeah you are able to find that in many churches, temples or mosques, but there is something which distinguishes Palitana temples form many other spiritual places.
There is amazing and big outdoor space between temples which you can easily enjoy; we have managed to smoke weed ( usually not my kind of thing, but the energy of the place made me do it ;)), we have climbed through all kinds of passages to reach every possible top of the temples, we have laughed like maniacs which didn’t bother anyone. We have even found the place to sleep in the middle of the temples. All together absolute freedom, just like the place where Gods live. Still if you go there and don’t experience the same things, don’t blame it on me , I just had the right friends along, so everything was possible with them, still we have proved that it’s possible. If this kind of energy was to be found in churches I don’t think they would be missing young people like they do.
There are two basic parts of the complex, the one with old temples and with the new ones, on the day of our visit (Sunday) there was some kind of ceremony, something like mass in churches in the old part. There is a rule that forbids you to take any photo of the old part, still I have managed to find some spot where at least few shots were possible, ok another way to make Gods angry. It’s amazing what kinds of their customs you can get familiar with during the ceremony, most interesting one was that many of them hold some little mirrors in their hands during singing-praying, so they avoid looking directly at the Gods whose statues are at the altar.
We were already familiar with the next custom, but that day it was our favorite one; they feed the Gods. Not some proper meal, but they bring almonds and different kinds of sweets and just leave them close to the altar or at some spots in the temples. Hahaha yeah you just made the right conclusion, our hunger was greater than the fear of making Gods angry or risking with the bad karma. Our inner Gods had enjoyed some sweets and a lot of almonds when nobody was watching, we are all still alive and fine. I believe this made the Gods more angry than anything else we did that day, while on the other hand I was angry when thinking about the fact that all that food from all the temples in India could be in the hands of many hungry children in India instead of being thrown away. Just the same as the fact that rich Jain community from all around the World is spending enormous amount of money on keeping the temples in such great condition or on building the new ones can easily make you wonder. Obviously making Gods happy is more important than helping millions of people leaving on the streets of India. However, that same Gods are still enjoying themselves while I hope you will enjoy photos of beautiful temples in Palitana, before you explore them by yourself.
For the ones who will go:
During the monsoon season the temples are closed for devotees – June till September mostly.
Book a place for sleeping before going there.
After being absolutely fascinated by the city of Udaipur, I was able to find the reasons for fascination in several facts; it was the first trip I didn’t take by myself during life in India, which made me feel more secure, friends I was traveling with were the best possible traveling partners and I tried a magical drink…
Even so , the truth is that after coming back from India and traveling to many other Indian places with that same group of friends, Udaipur still remained for me, but also for many other people who have explored India, one of the places that shouldn’t be missed while in India. Friends I was with in Udaipur made the experience complete, since they were ready to become a part of all kinds of adventures with me during several days we had spent there, but the city itself really offers a lot on the other hand.
India is most often described as colorful, explosion of colors and scents, full of contrasts… it’s all truth, but unfortunately the contrast often comes down to a collision of great wealth and terrible poverty. Udaipur confirms all of this, but in a milder form than other cities I have been to in India. Another great thing about the city is the fact that majority of things worth of checking out is within the walking distance, so you won’t get that often into a fight with rickshaw drivers, who always want to take more money from you then they should. The most popular place in the city is the Lake Palace, on an island in the middle of Pichola lake. Today transformed into very expensive hotel and a home to one of the James Bond movies. It’s a typical Indian scene when you see people washing clothes in the lake on one side and that same expensive palace on the other one.
Only by looking at these photos you can already realize why is Udaipur known as Venice of the East, while the number of the tourist walking around the city is almost something like the number of them walking around in Venice. You might often get a feeling of not being in India at all. Even I usually really don’t find hordes of tourists as something appealing, after living for some time in India it was amazing to meet people from all around the World. Next best thing about walking around the city in the evening is the fact that you can actually do it carefree, which really isn’t often the case with many Indian cities.
Udaipur is in Rajasthan, where alcohol isn’t forbidden as in Gujurat where we lived. After “relaxing” with beers, adventures were about to start… As soon as we left the restaurant and stared walking towards hostel in which we had arrived earlier that morning, problem number one; nobody remembers the name of it, so we couldn’t find the address or the phone number or even take rickshaw to get there. Ok, we were about to rely on our blurry memory. We have walked the distance from the hostel to the restaurant anyway. During night all that narrow streets looked just the same, so it was more like mission impossible. We were relaxed, night was warm and the only thing we did about our situation was laughing- the beauty of safe Udaipur, if we were in some other Indian city it might have not been that funny.
Then we’ve met them; sacred cows, in India all the cows are sacred any way and there isn’t a street were you won’t be able to meet them. We had all the time in the world and the male part of our team came to a “brilliant” idea, discovering if the cows would attack back them if they “attacked” them? Indian cows always attack you if they feel annoyed!
Few moments after that we were something like spider-man, again laughing enough to get the attention of the policeman walking around who didn’t find it amusing as much as we did. After few threats he became soft on the part that we were lost, so he took us to a place where his colleges were, something like main square. With their bad English and our bad memory we were trying to get us back to hostel . Next scene several policemen and us walking around trying to find our hostel, until: TA DA! There we were! After paying them some rupees, since it was expected form us anyway, we were about to start with our new adventure.
There was Indian/ Muslim wedding in the street right next to the hostel, at least we thought it was wedding. Of course we crashed the party and everybody were amazed to have us there except the bride, since we became the stars of the evening, instead of her.
This kind of experience is something you can’t plan, you can’t pay for it, there isn’t a guide which will suggest it and the most important you won’t experience it unless you’re open minded enough and your heart is filled with love for all the cultures and people in the World. But if you are, that kind of experiences are the best you can get while traveling. While talking to the other guests we had found out that it was their version of bachelorette party. More kind of a traditional rituals grooms family does with a bride a week before the actual weeding. Grooms family comes to visit the bride and her family. Even though it was a party there was only Masala chai (Indian tea) and water offered, but still we were having more than amazing time, with a lot of singing and dancing while enjoying the privilege of being able to be a part of it. I’m really not able to tell you when to be in Udaipur to experience the same, but I can tell you what not to miss in the city…
Since it’s the city of the lakes, taking a bout trip around the Pichola Lake, is a kind of an obligatory and it provides you with the best view of the city and all of the palaces. Besides, the trip also includes visiting the most beautiful palace on the island in the Pichola Lake. Jag Mandir is the name of the place and when it was built in the 17th century it was a place where royal family would organize parties. It doesn’t come as a surprise that it was turned into a luxurious hotel, just like the Lake Palace, but even so I don’t know when I liked it more; when approaching it or when were exploring every single part of it including some forbidden passages. The boat that takes you there and picks you up comes every half an hour, yet even few hours wasn’t enough for us.
In the city itself you shouldn’t miss the City Palace which was being built for 400 hundred years, while getting more and more colorful and luxurious. It used be a home for Kings and their families and today is a place where you can learn about their history and Indian culture. On the other hand I found it more amazing from the outside than inside and it has an amazing view on the city and lakes on the other side.
In the city center something you just can’t miss is big Hindu temple (Jagdish Temple), it might not be the best temple you’ll see in India, but if you’re already there it’s worth of checking out. While the space in front of it is something like the main square in some other cities around the world. This is also one of the interesting facts about India, their cities are not similarly conceived as ours, you often cannot identify the main square, it’s all really different on that part of the World.
During the evening you really don’t want to miss traditional dance show and since it’s is held in the museum ( Bagore Ki Haveli), the place itself is interesting already.
Magical drink, the Bhang, can be bought on the streets of Rajasthan just as it was some usual drink. This is strange just because of the fact that it is being made out of marihuana balls mixed with lemon juice, sugar and water, at least these are the ingredients I’m familiar with. It tastes like lemonade, but the effect of it; well I might be still living in India if it was to be found that easily on the streets of Gujurat.
After trying it I have realized why some young people from western world find it hard to leave India. I actually don’t smoke marihuana cause it just makes me feel sick, but this was something absolutely different, literally some other dimension. After drinking, it works in the way that as more sugar you take ( like sweets or sweet juice) more high you get and if you wish to get back from the state in which you almost die laughing, you drink yogurt or water with lemon. But the thing we weren’t aware of; it has a bit postponed reaction and when it started it was already a bit too late to realize that we have overreacted with the sugar and some of us with the amount of the Bhang itself. Consequently the Indian cooking course we took right after drinking it on the street became another adventure, besides the fact that we weren’t even paying any attention on a woman teaching us to prepare the Indian meals, we were talking in a language only we understood. It’s really hard for me to find the words to describe you the amount of the laughter we had during that cooking lesson, so the best you can do is to try the drink yourself while in India.
Another thing more than worth visiting is the Monsoon palace, for what you will need to take rickshaw, since it’s few kilometers away from the city, but it’s not the palace itself that will leave you speechless. Actually on the entrance where you are picked up by a car taking you there it doesn’t look promising, but closer you get to it, you come to conclusion that it’s about the hill where it is, more than about the palace. The only problem you’ll have is to decide where is better view? On the side towards city and the lakes or on the other side on endless Aravalli Hills. Of course the best time to be there is during the sunset.
At the end I can add only one more thing, the city has absolutely won me over and I even haven’t visited the number one spot, according to many visitors; Jain Temple Ranakpu. So, if ever in India, Udaipur is something you don’t want to skip.
For the ones traveling there :
The best time to visit the city of Udaipur is from September till May and it’s also easy to find the way to get there from other cities by train or by bus. You also won’t regret if you visit Jagat Niwas Palace restaurant. I don’t think I have ever suggested some restaurant like this before, but this place is far more than just a restaurant. The place looks amazing and it gives you the best view on the lake while also being one of the best sunset spots in the city. Furthermore the food they have was one of the two best meals I had during life in India.
I’m not sure if it’s about always smiling inhabitants, nature, exotic destination or something completely different but I was amazed by the number of young people from all around the world who were exploring interesting Cambodia. Among all the islands and hidden places I had the opportunity to drift away in this beautiful Kingdom, Koh Ta Kiev (island) was for sure one of the most unique places in Cambodia. Many of people exploring the country usually don’t go there, which is just another advantage of it, of course there are visitors , but no crowd or people obsessed with taking selfies and posting on Facebook or doing some similar stuff ( don’t want to use another “s” word).
The beauty of the island also lies in the fact that posting is not even possible on the island, you are miles away from the internet and you just have to adopt yourself to people on it and feel the vibrations of Koh Ta Kiev and energy on it. Still since the island has many “things” to offer, more than certain there are rumors about it among backpackers traveling around Cambodia, even if they didn’t have the chance of getting there.
If by any case you have missed “The Beach” movie with Di Caprio, where group of people has a world for themselves on a hidden small island, a world ruled by their own rules far from the civilization we know today, if you have missed it, watch it. And the ones who are still dreaming about the idea, take some money you need and run to Koh Ta Kiev. Something like that does exists, but in Cambodia , not Thailand. The island is in Thai gulf , around 10 km away from SihanoukVille, popular Cambodian port and summer resort on southern eastern part of the country. As for the country itself the best part of the year for traveling there is during dry season, something like November till April, otherwise rain might get between you and enjoying it. Driving on a boat towards island is already interesting and it takes about an hour from Otres Beach ( popular beach – part of SihanoukVille) , where you will always find a boat to take you there. Besides you will for sure meet local fishermen on the way there and get to know with their tradition of fishing. And closer I was getting to the island more was I realizing why this was the island my friend mentioned as the one where I just have to go.
I still hadn’t put my feet on the sand while getting off the boat, but I could have already smelled some amazing food being prepared, combined with the smell of weed which everybody smokes there and which is being breed on the island without any issue. The energy on the island is something that made everyone prolonged their staying at least for a day more than planned. No wonder ’cause just after few hours there, you forget about everything and leave it all behind, at the same spot where you left every sign of modern civilization. Joel, everything except typical American guy, holds a “resort” where I was staying and a good part of the island. With the tree houses where you will sleep for around 5 US dollars per night he has his own crew living there with him and making you feel as if you had found a new home. It doesn’t stop here, they even have their mini manufacture of normally forbidden Absent. How? Everything is possible in Cambodia if you know who to give money to, which as you can assume isn’t always good as in the case with the Koh Ta Kiev. He basically gives some money to the army, which island belongs to and they leave him alone. After just few hours which I have spent drinking at the bar every person who stepped on the island after me had the same question ; “Hey are you dude that makes his own Absent?” So, it didn’t take too long for me to realize that the island wasn’t popular only for the beautiful nature.
Yet there weren’t more than 15 of us there all together which was more than awesome and with all the stimulation for easier way of forgetting problems, Joel also takes care that you eat an amazing food. Man was a cook in Italy for several years, consequently for just few dollars you can enjoy great Italian cuisine. Since there are also local people living and working for him , you can have the taste of local food too.
It wasn’t just about the food, booze and weed or even the amazing nature around me, the way they were thinking about every single detail, simply makes you feel like you’re at your new home, just having a huge outdoor house. You just become one with the jungle around you, there are no boundaries between you and the nature. You sleep together with birds, all kinds of bugs, mice and other animals, but no snakes around you , at least I haven’t seen any.
When the night falls, things become even more interesting … Guitar gets its own five minutes of glory, you easily forget about the electricity, there is enough of it only for the fridges, or if you really need to charge your phone. After a night underneath the stars, in the middle of nowhere hangover is much easier to handle when you awake with the view you do and it takes just few steps to dive into the sea.
I will see you in ten minutes. Our time or Indian time? Our time. Having lunch with the only Croatian girl in Ahmedabad but me, really special feeling. Even though there is like 8 million people living in the city it is really hard to find someone of your nationality, especially when it comes to a Croatian one.
It’s been long ago, that all of us living here, not regarding the country we come from, have realized that Indian clocks simply work in different way than ours. So when they say it’s ten minutes , it’s at least, really at least 40 minutes of our time and this joke with Indian time has become part of any international conversation that includes meeting somebody. My Croatian friend is here for the job as well, Ahmedabad is really not one of the popular spots for tourists. Right after all the current topics in our country I breathed in the smell and dust, covered my mouth with scarf which I use for hiding blond hair ( really useful in India) and took rickshaw in order to get home. I’m already an expert in checking on the meter they use for measuring kilometers in order to charge the drive. The thing is; they don’t often put it on zero when they pick you up, but how to blame them? They’re just making a living. So, if you ever travel in India, make sure you’ve been put on zero, it’s the same in every city. With constant endless horns and foggy sunset I have come to the conclusion that time runs extremely fast in last few weeks making me already feel like home in this chaos. I have discovered many new things and realized that it was about time to share some things with you.
Finally days off from the office and writing articles and news for rich and successful Americans in my different Indian reality. Oh yeah; irony is a small word for my life here. On everyday basis I write about last trends in technology world, most successful companies, guys who are able to buy an island while i do it from a building which is surrounded with hundreds of people living on the streets, people who can only dream about life far away from trash. Sometimes seems like many here don’t see it as a problem; for them people living on the streets are not from the castes that deserve better. I often get a feeling that there isn’t many of us who feel like crying when we see half naked children living next to the road which is dangerous even when being in a car. Why days off finally? India is celebrating Diwali and their New Year.
Diwali and New Year’s
From all the adventures and experiences in last few weeks I will this time share one of the most special ones. Celebration of the Diwali and Indian New Years. Diwali, also known as the festival of lights, is one of the most important holidays in India, something like Christmas for “our” countries. The celebration was one of the best experiences I have had so far in India, since I got the opportunity of celebrating it with local people in their homes, I was a part of this in a different way than being just an ordinary tourist. Although it was a little bit strange and sometimes funny for a girl from European world, it was more than a privilege. Again I would be happy if I could describe all the ways they do it, but no way to do that, some things are universal, but again all those castes have their own way and it represents something similar but also different for each of them. All together in their religions they have over 33 million of gods to worship and look at us, while we have issues and wars for only one or two of them. First fascinating thing about Diwali were ornaments made out of colored powder in front of every apartment, office or house.
Diwali afternoon brought me to an office, where we were allowed to attend blessing of the office and computers with ” waiting” for goddess Vishnu, the one that brings success in business. All in all it was amazing to see the performances and traditional activities for Diwali and one of the best ways of getting to know with Indian culture. At the end it made me thinking; to be honest our way of celebrating Christmas is not that different in its own essence. Here they prepared the sweets for their God, a bath and some money, which was taken by the “priest” who was doing the blessing. So I don’t know for your country, but in mine priests also get the money after sprinkling few drops of sacred water on Christmas tree. Are we that different in the end?
And just when I thought I got some clue about celebration of Diwali, at least in Gujarat/Ahmedabad, since there are differences in other parts as well, we have spent the Diwali night at friend’s home with her family who are Hindus, but some sub caste as part of Hindu, I realized I have no clue again. At her home traditional activities were different than the ones I was a part of, earlier that day. There wasn’t that kind of “priest”, instead men were singing by themselves first, then women and then all together. If I had the opportunity of being in Jain house or a Sikh I believe the celebration would be different again. The thing that was in common to every family in the whole city , were firecrackers and fireworks on each step of the way. They burst all of that as much as they can, since they believe in driving away evil spirits in that way. It would all be great if anyone cared about the safety, any kind of it, firecrackers were burst on the streets but on the roads too, so nobody seemed to care that there were cars, rickshaws and all the other ways of transportation coming through, for which firecrackers could have an effect of a bomb. If you want to see why the drive to friend’s house that evening was almost like being in the middle of the war you have a link to the video underneath. For me it was amazing and fun, but for my German roommate for instance, huge stress.
Day after Diwali is New Year, it would be insane to expect that anyone cared enough about the trash on the streets after all those firecrackers, cars passing through will disperse it all around any way. Long lived the Indian way of solutions for the problems.
And there is something else finally, ..I have a home, Indian standards/ having a shower with warm water becomes possible only during the day when the water heats itself due to the heat outside, but still it’s a home. Consequently my boss doesn’t have to have me at his place anymore. At his place I was like a Cinderella, cut out of the social life, since it was too dangerous to leave the place after dark at that part of the city, so besides home a have a life now as well. I found the apartment by myself of course; if I had waited Indian organization including their way of measuring time I would have been at bosses place till Christmas probably. Indian time. Legendary French guy, his cool Spanish girlfriend, girls from Mexico and Germany and me the Croatian chick, all under the same roof through good and bad.
Man would say typical situation for any big modern city, but you see it is very specific when it comes to Ahmedabad. There really isn’t too many of us from other countries here, so it often comes to that you know almost all international people here and they all know you. So thank God I really love all of my roommates cause we don’t get many options of choosing here. All of us here are constantly hanging around together, stick together like a glue, it is for sure easier for us to adopt to this world; really different from the one we left behind. We live in country of Gujarat, dry country where alcohol is forbidden, so there are no clubs where you could party and meet new people in the way we usually meet them. Here you work , live , sleep, travel, eat… with the same people, often 24/7, so if this doesn’t teach you patience nothing will. I sometimes get a feeling we are a part of Big Brother show here, if you let’s say kiss someone, tomorrow all the expats know about it. But there is a great part of this situation as well; we become more close much faster, than we would somewhere else, we see us as friends faster than we would at home. I believe this also must be one of the reasons why many fall in love with the place. Every week we gather few times at someone’s place, but just few of us have the option of having guests after 22pm, so there we enjoy hardly purchased alcohol. There are places to buy it, but even for that we have to get the permission, which being an expat allows us to get it, but of course even we have a certain limit for the amount. Even more often it happens that we are being kicked out of the apartments when having a party, which aren’t even close to the wild parties. If you are really lucky like my friend Stan you become the legend who got to be homeless two times in ten days time for organizing parties. When you think this is crazy let me remind you that meat and fish are here also really hard to get, not maybe forbidden like booze, but still there are just few places to buy it and not too many restaurants with, so all those huge stores are absolutely without it.
Part of our small international society are also some local friends, who actually really love us , besides with us they are enriching themselves with international friends and make our lives here much easier and getting us more familiar with the true life here.
Horoscope as a precondition for marriage
I honestly don’t know what to share with you among all the things that leave me speechless every day. For instance a girl from my office took me to a marriage biro in meantime. Yeah you read it right, majority of marriages are still being organized and besides they have to be within the same caste, it is still real situation. For this reasons they still have offices or biros for finding them life partners. Of course there are more open minded families that don’t force their children into things like marrying in that way, but I’m talking about majority here. Some of them are my friends and are aware of the real situation, where young people often have to choose between love and talking to their families for the rest of their lives, or even better it still happens that they get killed if they run away with somebody from different caste. And the punishment for killers? Well, hm.. it often just happens that nobody knows if they are being punished. I would like to be able to explain the way how the castes and sub castes are exactly divided, but don’t think even next few years of studying that wouldn’t make me capable of doing that. For sure basic way has to do with religion; Jains, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, …but then there are many, many other divisions among them really hard to know them all. It all comes to that it is all about in which family you were born in and that shapes most of your life in advance. Something that happened hundreds years ago has a reflection on your whole life today if you are part of this world. Beautiful India.
Visiting that marriage biro was for me/ typical want to be emancipated western unmarried female in her late twenties/ almost like life time experience, somewhere on the thin line between fun and tragedy. So specific that it deserves to get a blog of its own in some near future. Just to make you interested Horoscope is one of the main conditions for your future marriage, so when you think you read “that crap” too often, just remember what you read here. In India if your horoscope combination isn’t promising, if the chances for success aren’t too high according to Horoscope: NO matrimony!
Of course I went through potential candidates, but nothing for me, first of all I don’t belong to any caste and besides I’m almost too old already, to sum it up; I don’t stand a chance.
In this chaos of ours I would like to say that I hardly wait to get back to my country, but when I read news from Croatia it makes me wonder. Yes I hardly wait to see everyone I love, but things people often see as problem and how much money are they are about to spend on certain things in the current economical situation, makes me just want to fly over the country on a way to some other. Politicians who end in jail next to ex prime minister for robbing the whole nation and that same nation doing nothing but worrying about destroying gay friendly environment which many of us were trying to built for years, just leads me to the conclusion that sacred cows on the roads are not issue at all when compared to moral insanity at my home country. And if I think of all those young beautiful girls marring old rich guys, arranged marriages become less hypocrite and more logical solution. Namaste!
It has never been so hard for me to write a blog; India is simply something really hard to be described. Really bad and good at the same time. In order to describe you at least a part of all kinds of feelings collapsing in my head for the last two weeks I should start from the beginning, but the problem is that India has neither beginning nor the end, it is absolute chaos each step of the way. This also must be a reason why they say for it, that it settles you down. In this chaos there isn’t any other option but to accept everything around you just as it is.
So forget about temples, incense sticks and their priests, making peace with Universe is coming from some other direction. It just forces you to find peace inside you. I haven’t seen a lot of India yet, so all this written here is based only on things I have seen so far. And they say it takes a lifetime to discover it whole. Before coming here I was of a strong belief that some traveling I did earlier, like hidden parts of Africa or almost whole Cambodia, had absolutely prepared me for India. I was sure nothing could surprise or shock me more than things I saw before. Oh how wrong I was. Nothing is like India so far.
For instance I don’t know how to explain you the way how many of them stare at me every single moment. All kinds of glances; from staring at me like if I was a wonder , or obviously a sex object, all the way to looking at me with sympathy or disgust. It is almost the same with all foreigners, but I get some extra bonus here since I’m blond and a girl. But I have found the solution I have started wearing scarf around my head, every time I go outside of my apartment. It really does help, besides I still haven’t seen any other blond girl, or they’re also hiding themselves. Still I don’t blame them. Most of them have probably never seen a blond girl before and there are so many of them living on the streets, meaning they hadn’t even had the opportunity of seeing one on TV.
WELCOME TO INDIA
Right after landing in Ahmedabad I had to find out what doing business in Indian way sometime means. Apartment which they should have had prepared for me long time ago, well they still don’t have it. Welcome to India! On the way to my temporarily accommodation there wasn’t too much light in the streets, but there were many cows and a lot of poverty. By poverty I mean people who sleep on the streets and the ones who have a “house” made out of old sheet, carton, maybe few old bricks. Either way something compared to what tent would be a penthouse. There are also many of them who just sleep on the streets, all together, thousands of them. Then there’s Indian traffic, I still don’t get it how it actually works. There are absolutely no rules, there are no forbidden directions, turnings when you are allowed to do it, there are some traffic lights, but nobody cares about them. They just drive however they feel like, directed by some force from above. And there’s horn, those millions of all types of vehicles use it every five seconds, each of them, it doesn’t matter if there’s reason for it or not. Horn is there so they can use it.
Temporarily accommodation..I have arrived to a some small house, which isn’t bad. There is some old Indian lady, her granddaughter and some other Indian girl in her early twenties. They’re sitting, not making any sound and just stare at me for few moments. One of the girls guides me to my room, seems like we’re sharing it, between our beds max 15 inches distance. Just when I was about to go outside of the house for few moments to feel Indian air on my skin, NO! Doors are locked after ten; you can’t go outside before morning. All right, I will at least take a shower, no again, no water; they often run out if it by the evening! But on the other hand they do have Wi-Fi that works flawless. That’s India!
With the sound of loud fan combined with high level of humidity and heat, me and my Indian roommate greeted the morning. Since officially I still didn’t have a place to stay, have decided to go to Bombay, while a friend of mine who I met last year while traveling is also coming there. That same people who picked me up from the airport the night before, are taking me to something that should be a bus station, while explaining that there is no need for me to take a plane considering the fact that bus is safe enough, besides it has sleeping compartments. Indeed it has, the whole buses like this one, are turned into some strange places for sleeping. With just some curtains between you and of course bus is older than me. That bus was all but good way to get to Bombay. Me, blond alien surrounded by 30 males and two females who left it on the way much before me. I will remember that journey for a long time, from a fear which maybe wasn’t justified since nothing bad happened to me, to indescribable discomfort, followed by endless sadness and sorrow on the way. Unfortunately I can’t even say that landscape has been great enough to make it worth it. It only made me wonder about so many things in life and world we live in. What if I was born in a place like this, under these circumstances? Some of the parts were too hard to say, big nothing, woods and mud, thousands of people living in houses made of materials we would refer to as trash and hundreds of cows. Places where people don’t seem to have any contact with the world we are all part of. If you were smart as Einstein, it wouldn’t help, seemed like something you could never move away from.
To hug my friend and have a familiar face next to me, after 12 hours in that bus was…just as it looks like on the photo.
CHILDREN ON THE STREETS
Since everybody keeps on talking about Bombay as the best place in India, I was expecting something really good. And it is good for certain part of the population, which we belong to, it is also the best reflection of life in India. On one side you will find luxurious apartments, beautiful palaces, nice restaurants, but on the other hand I have never seen a place with so many people sleeping on the sidewalk, here it seemed like millions of them. That’s what makes life in India hard. There isn’t any other place where you will find thousands of homeless people right next to Porsche saloon or something like that. The worst thing for me was to see so many babies sleeping on the sidewalk. They’re not alone, whole families are there, but as most of the people I am more sensitive to children than adults. There is so many of them that at one point my friend almost step on a child, it was dark and there are on the sidewalk. That was the situation where crybaby girl like me simply isn’t able to hold the tears. So how could I see only the good parts of Bombay in situations like this? How to accept that as part of someone’s culture? I wasn’t long enough in Bombay to write good travel writing about it, but will come back and face it again to do so.
A blond girl can also be looked at in this way. For girls I was like a white queen, because I have let them have my coke. But crybaby feels like crying again. Yeah I will burn out in India unless I start accepting things around me. Probably this is coming to peace with destiny, what many keep on talking about. Still too big of a problem for me. That also might be the peace; many people seem to get here.I hope to find those places in India, for which many people claim that they give you all of the answers. And trash, yeah there’s too much of it as well, but obviously it doesn’t stand in the way to all of us sitting on the beach and enjoying the view.
POSITIVE SIDES OF INDIA
Coming back to Ahmedabad… Airplane this time and there it goes more positive things in India. Since I still don’t have a place to live, get used to it, when they say you’ll have it by tomorrow it often means in few weeks, my boss gives me his apartment to stay in. He actually moved out till I get a place, man drives to work every day for an hour instead 10 minutes. Here I must say that he didn’t have to it at all, since this isn’t my companies’ responsibility, but organization’s I came here through. It’s hard for me to imagine that any other boss I had so far in my country would do such thing. Now I live in a great place even for western European terms, gym and pool in the building, something I won’t have for sure when they finally find a place for me. But the view through my window is again some other India.
Yet this is far better than living on the streets, at least they have water and a house to stay.
Already first day at work revealed their nice personality; of course here I am not a blond alien. Girls accept me if I was here since always and hug me all the time, we became friends instantly. Far better environment for work than ones I sometimes had. I find out that I’m here to be their supervisor; I will be checking what they are writing along with my writings. Nice change for me in life, I am far away from my country where these kinds of position often get people who don’t know what Art Deco means or what Mensa represents, but they are someones sons. In India works starts at 10, you are not in a rush, it’s India. But still we work till 19:00. Time for lunch is a special feeling, our office turns into a restaurant and I get a chance to try something local from their homes, they share everything they bring. I sometimes get a feeling they really want me to like their food, who wouldn’t love them?
Going out form the building and on that muddy road, with many holes, brand new shining Porsche, I’m really not able to restrain myself.. Seriously Dude? And keep on walking, if I could only know how it feels like to drive it on these roads.. India,..home of biggest contradictions.
In next few days, my new friends took me to some festival held in the city at the moment and showed me how normal it is if there’s three of us sharing a motorcycle. I got used to this already when traveling in south east Asia, that it’s totally normal to put whole family on it, just I didn’t have the chance to try it, so far. I don’t even have to mention that nobody uses helmets here.
Including all good and bad sides of my staying here so far, I would still recommend to everyone to put themselves in a situation where you need to adopt yourself to totally different world and culture at least once in a lifetime. Maybe you don’t have to take potentially dangerous bus, there are other ways and places, but staying forever in your comfort zone, can’t teach you too much about life and values in it nor about the world we are all part of. Even less about the fact how insignificant as individuals are we. Namaste! India is huge country and there are many places to be seen, so I don’t want to think that it is hard to find beauty here. And since I will be here for some time I hope to bring you as many travel writings as I can.