Weekly Photo Challenge: Heritage

This week’s photo challenge is Heritage. To me, heritage is much about history and much about culture, – two things that growing up in St Petersburg, home of one of the world’s largest museums and a scene of many, well, interesting historical events, has deeply ingrained into my character. That made me put work aside for a moment and go through the pictures of my recent travels.

As you might have noticed, I like learning new things. A few weeks ago I discovered a new country for me – Tunisia. It’s capital, Tunis, has the world’s largest mosaics collection, Le Bardo. And that’s just breathtaking: hundreds and hundreds of square meters of history laid out in gorgeous rainbow colored tiles, floor to ceiling.

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Which museum have you recently discovered?

🙂

#travelhacks to Bali

I am launching a new category on A Girl with Geography: #travelhacks. Travelhacks are the most useful travel tips I got before taking off to my new adventure – or the things I wish I knew before I went. All gathered in one place, a shortcut to your greater travel experience.

I will start with Bali, a place I put on my travel map a few weeks ago. I loved my time in Bali, and largely thanks to the great travel advice I got from all of you before going (and while being) there.

  1. Fit in between. The second best travel advice I got on Bali was to go there mid April: just after the rain season ends and the main tourist season starts. From Google maps, Bali seems like a pretty manageable place distance-wise, with some 15-50 km between the key sights. Only that it might take you more than 1h to make these 15 km, and that’s outside of the main tourist wave! If you don’t want to spend much of your time stuck in traffic, come before everyone else does. The prices are better, too. Which leads me to the next point.
  2. Don’t even think of driving there on your own, especially with a car. That was the best advice I have got, and I am forever grateful for it. Not only there are traffic jams that can only be cut through some 1 lane path through the rice fields for both ways traffic, not only the driving is on the left side of the road, not only the cars compete with scooters which all the foreigners think they can ride. Not only the roads are narrow and live by its own rules. They are often closed because of the religious ceremonies which happens all over the country in its numerous temples, leaving you the rice field road or the mountain road as an alternative option. So really, don’t. Instead, take a driver for as much as 45 EUR/ day, tolls, car fuel and pathways knowledge included.
  3. Bluebird is the only legal taxi company in Bali. So if you need to take a cab (for example, when you are going to a restaurant in a city you are staying), ask for this one. (Do the same to come back from that restaurant.) Everything else might charge you wildly. There is a Bluebird desk in Denpasar International Airport, so take it from there. Uber works, too, but is not accessible in all the areas: for example, in Jimbaran, the beach with the most stunning sunsets, the closest you can get with an Uber is a 10 min walk from the beach. But then, you can’t get there with the Bluebird taxi, too. The only way to get out of Jimbaran is its own hijack taxi – so negotiate. And be tough. P.S.: Uber is charging 26,000 IDR, or something around 3,5 EUR for 1 hour of waiting: an option you might want to use.
  4. You don’t need a visa for a stay less than 30 days. Even if the official websites, slightly outdated, say that you do. I have diligently passed by the Visa counter on arrival to learn that. Just go to the Immigration.
  5. Chose location to chose experience. There are two main resort areas in Bali: Seminyak and Nusa Dua, both with the beaches. Most of the familiar hotel names are concentrated there, with the exception of the Four Seasons, stashed on the slopes with boutique hotels and small villas, away from the sea. Unless you surf, sea is not really the reason to come to Bali and pools are usually a better choice (never thought I would say that). However, Nusa Dua and Seminyak provide for spacious green areas with increased security (and fountains on every corner), which cater to tourists only. Arguably, you won’t experience the real Bali (think little cozy streets with street side cafes, bars filled with music and locals, massage salon on every corner) there, but you will also be free from everything that comes with it (think traffic jams, compromised air conditioning and no pools/ small pools). Your call.
  6. For fruit juices, go for local and ask for no sugar. Apparently, Bali people think that life is better with some sugar in it (a lot of sugar in it, actually), and generously add it to the tea, coffee and fruit juices. (Sort of how the Americans feel about ice.) Ask to free your juice from it to feel the flavour, and go for the local fruits: mangos (depends on the season), coconut, melon, watermelon, papaya (if you like papaya, of course). Orange is not a local fruit, and orange juice might well be not what you have expected. Fruit smoothies are great, too. A personal favourite is mango.
  7. Stock on wine. In general, alcohol is a doubtful substance in Bali, as everything foreign to locals and catered mostly to tourists is. Cocktails can be pure ethyl and wine… At best, wine will be very expensive – think 4-5 times the price you would pay in Italy or France (for Italian or French wine, if you are lucky enough to find it). Australian wine is usually ok, even though even Australian wine starts at around 30 EUR/ bottle (in a supermarket that is). We found a decent local white wine for 20 EUR (from the winery shop in Bali Collection, a shopping complex in Nusa Dua). You get the idea.
  8. Pet the Luwak. Luwak wild cat, the main source of the expensive coffee in Bali (and probably the most expensive coffee in the world because of the way it is made, more on that later) is pictured as a savage animal at coffee plantations where it is kept in a cage (though the owners promise to rotate Luwaks and keep each animal locked for no longer than 3 months). However, the sunset temples, especially Tanah Lot, offer you a different picture: fat and happy Luwaks the pets, sleeping all over the small cafes and letting you touch their coffee smelling fur. Still go to the plantation for the coffee and tea tasting sessions, they are great, reasonably priced and often offer fantastic views. But to cuddle the Luwak, look elsewhere. And don’t trust the image of a fierce animal.
  9. Believe in sun burn. Bali sun really burns. Even before the main tourist season. I am generally very sun resistant, tan quickly and never burn, but a few hours on the first day (with 30-50 SPF) got me waving good bye to my skin a few days later. So bring your strongest creams (a small bottle of Nivea would cost you 25 EUR from a local store) and apply generously.
  10. Do mental accounting. As in the U.S., the prices you see in Bali are never final and are subject to a local tax and service fees, which, unlike in the U.S., vary wildly (from 11 to 30%) even in the same geo location. So plan for that when spending (or planning what to spend on) – and read the fine print.

These are my travelhacks to Bali (some of them are really hard won!). In my next post, I will share my travel route and places to see in Bali. What are your travelhacks?

🙂

Weekly Photo Challenge: Earth

I have a moment to tune in to the Weekly Photo Challenge contests that brought me so many great impressions (and yet so many great friends). This week’s theme is Earth: and as you would understand if you have ever opened my blog, I just could not pass such a topic.

My love for outdoors was not inborn. I am coming from the heart of a 5 million city, and for many years nature was something I mostly saw in books and on TV, something very theoretical. For a long time, landscape beauty for me equaled city skyline and fine architecture. The only sunsets I saw were that over the cities. Apart from my summer time in a Southern city where my grandmother lived, I have never seen the stars.

And then I moved to Finland, to the capital city smaller than my hometown’s central island. Finland has taught me many things, for which I will be forever grateful. Appreciation of (and introduction to) nature was one of them.

I have traveled a lot since then, and have seen many amazing cities. I fell in love with New York, Berlin, Lisbon, Rome and Havana. I gave my heart to Paris. But when I think about all my travels, the images that come to mind first are that of nature: the sunset over Oia, the turquoise waters of Crete, Morocco desertIguazu Falls. Cities make imagination wander, nature captures hearts. Even for a die-hard urban person that I am.

And Rio, Rio has it all. ❤

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Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

🙂

Cherry time in South Korea

It has been almost a year since I have this blog, and I am realising (now, looking for tags) that it does not have a single post on South Korea. Which is surprising, really, because for 13+ years South Korea remains, together with Paris, another constant in my life, a place where I always come back to. All this time it has been a home to my parents, but it is a long story, and I should tell it in one of my Chapters. For now, I’ll just say that I am in love with this place – madly and for so many good reasons. Since more than a decade, I am witnessing its rise, its growth and, now, its glory. Sometimes I even feel myself part of Korea’s success – and I am very proud of this small country and grateful for all the moments of happiness I have shared here with my family.

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Cherry blossom in South Korea

For all the 13 years (and counting), I came to experience cherry blossom for the first time this April. Cherry (in Korean, 벚나무 or “kotkot”) blossom is a narrow window of opportunity that opens up once a year for a week, sometimes two. God forbids to call it sakura here: even though, I suspect, it was planted by the Japanese, any reference to that time of military occupation of Korea spurs anger even more than half a century ago. (Another enemy is China: every sand wind or storm blows from there, as do hacker credit cards attacks). Cherry blossom is a magical time in Korea: the entire country stops working and starts taking pictures. There is a train station is a small city where my parents live, which is attracting crowds these two weeks: it literally stands in cherry trees, and every time a train is passing by, flower rain starts – to the delight of the crowd and fireworks of camera flashes. This train station was closed this year – to avoid accidents with the most enthusiastic photographers, waiting for the magic at the train rails.

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Cherry blossom in South Korea

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Cherry blossom in South Korea: the creek

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Sea and The City: Le Malecon and El Morro

The city is still Havana, of course. My fascination with the Cuban capital continues far beyond my trip there end of last year. As I am going through the pictures I took at Le Malecon, the 8 km of tamed seaside, I see it again: spacious, wild and free. The sea plays such an important role in Havana’s history: the city owns its very existence to it. Grateful, Havana leans towards the sea. The real heart of the city – and it’s center – is here, with its night bars and breakfast cafés, Internet hot spots, parades and magnificent built at scale hotels, reviving the glorious images 30s when Havana was the mafia heaven.

Today Malecon is for everyone: Havana locals come here to sunbathe, swim, fish (birds do as well), play music and kiss on the parapet. Tourists flock for the stunning panoramas of the city (and for a morning run, a notion that remains foreign to most Cubans). I walked all the 8 km of Malecon and that made me feel part of this city, tune to its rhythm and want to stay more.

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Le Malecon pier in Havana, Cuba

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Havana’s Must Dos: Old Town, Classic Cars, El Prado

Most guidebooks, blogs and tour guides advise to carve out two to three days to discover Havana. WRONG. Three days is the sheer minimum to explore its Old Town, Havana Vieja. And maybe to take a ride in a classic car around the city – the entire city, cruising through Miramar with its doll houses of embassies wrapped in fantastic posh forest, pausing at the panoramic spots to take some gorgeous shots, parading through the Revolution Square. That’s what you can do in three days. And Havana is much more than that. Fun fact: the Old Town has never been the actual city center, nor it is now. Intrigued? More on that later, in the post about Malecon.

I was mesmerized by Havana Vieja. To me, it justified the entire trip to Cuba: 10h+ of flying, staying in casas particulares of doubtful quality, struggling to find the food I normally eat (the food part turned out to be not bad at all). I wanted to come back to this part of town again and again, day and night, until I learnt by heart all its curves, its smells, its treasures. The Old City is Havana’s birth place and its raison d’être: its narrow harbour is the only place along the long coasts where the vessels can approach the shores, otherwise protected by reefs. The single city entrance is guarded by nine fortresses (La Fuerza and del Morro being the most famous). The fortifications made Havana at the time the most protected city of the Caribbean, “the key to the New World”. As well as the major trade post and the most lucrative asset of Spain for other empires.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Wish

Looks like Weekly Photo Challenges are the main contribution I manage to make for this blog during this period of my exciting work life, but so it be. Something little often goes a long way, and the pictures I am usually using for these challenges are coming from my trips, – so one more memory knot is one more sip of happiness.

The topic of this week is Wish. Wishes and dreams are very important for me. There were certainly times in my life when wishes and dreams were all that I had. First steps in every of the nine countries I lived, the job searching period in the end of my MBA studies (with my European residence permit expiring), the first time I held a DSLR camera in my hands. Looking back, I don’t think about these experiences as challenging times but as happy moments, when the future I wanted was so crisp in my mind it seemed I could reach out to it and dissolve in this perfect picture. From these experiences I grew to appreciate wishes and dreams of the others.

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One of the reincarnations of Che’s photograph by Alberto Korda: probably, one of the most printed photos of all times

Such as the dream of Che, the Cuban Revolution hero of Argentinian origin, who toured the entire Latam continent, capturing romantically bitter images of his land and promoting his vision of “the new free man”. This “new free man” of Che would be free of any restraints of the government and the state, have access to land,education and medical care regardless of this origin and would possess many other freedoms most extensively captured by Marx and his followers (personally, I am allergic to communism and even socialism, so I won’t go there).

Despite the inclination of my own political views, I can’t help but admire Che’s dream: so passionate, so absolute, so pure. After Che’s meeting with Fidel it became the dream of the Cuban Revolution – and, later, after the regime of Batista had come to an end, – the dream of many other revolutionary movements, in Latin America and beyond, in Congo and Bolivia. And even if the economic success of the Cuban Revolution and the subsequent Castro’s regime poses some questions today, the spiritual leadership of the image that Che painted more than half a century ago remains undisputed.

Such is a power of a wish. Such is a power of a dream.

🙂