Saturday, September 26, 2009

Around the World in 180 Days

UAE – Australia – New Zealand – Costa Rica – Argentina – Brazil – Peru – USA – Scotland – Germany – UAE

It has been a while now since I am back “home” in Dubai. Three months. It feels like three years. It almost feels like I have never been away. Amazing how the excitement of 6 months traveling can wear away so quickly, how life’s routine can catapult you right back into that mental state that you were hoping to escape from forever. All these natural wonders I have seen, all those people I have met, all that funny food I have eaten, all that soul food – diminished to nothing more than a distant memory captured in 2000 pictures.

But it is exactly that memory that counts. It is the reminder of how good life is, how beautiful and diverse this planet is and how fortunate I am to be able to experience it that makes the difference. It is this appreciation of life that continues to provide me with a limitless source of inspiration and motivation for everything I do and aim for … until the day when the batteries have to be re-charged and that backpack packed again.

Pura Vida! as the Ticos would say.

Aaah yes, the Ticos, the lovely Costa Ricans! Costa Rica - more than just a country on our list that we have visited. For me, it was an absolute highlight of our whole trip. We, that is Mark, Pam and I. Mark = husband; Pam = my travel mascot. Costa Rica, a relatively small country in Central America packed with so many natural wonders, wild life and adventures that you feel ashamed leaving it after just 3 weeks. We could have stayed forever, especially given that we have lodged for 10 days at what I consider to be the best kept secret and the most beautiful spot in Costa Rica if not Central America: Finca Exotica on Playa Carate (Peninsula Osa) –

Imagine a place where time has no meaning, where animals dictate your daily routine and where nature’s colors give you the feeling that you have been blind before. Have you ever dreamt about being one with nature? I have. David Attenborough is my hero. Without sounding like a marketer who has spent too much time in the communications business but Finca Exotica is where you get a taste for nature at its best. This is not just a guesthouse offering hand crafted jungle cabins and tents at the doorstep of Costa Rica’s most impressive national park (Corcovado), it is a center for sustainability, an organic farm, a botanical garden, and part of a biological refuge which hundreds of exotic and endangered animals consider as their home. So yes, I did wake up to the sound of howling monkeys, I made friends with spiders, snakes, scarlet macaws, mountain crabs or frogs that lounged in front of or in our open jungle cabin and I enjoyed listening to the ongoing symphony of thousands of cicadas.
It is amazing how long the mind needs to adjust to an environment that has excluded all aspects of our modern civilization – no internet, no supermarket, no restaurants, no souvenir shops, no museums or statues to look at, no loud and drunk partying tourists (bliss!), no ATM machines and no urge to constantly consume. Just me, Mark, some other like-minded guests, nature and of course the fabulous hosts Markus and Gabriela. True relaxation gained a new meaning for me at Finca Exotica, together with an increased appreciation for nature and animals. I never thought that I could spend hours in a hammock at the unspoiled beach and watch the busy hermit crabs without getting bored. Just as I never thought that I would get up voluntarily at 7am during my holiday, start my day with yoga, followed by a healthy breakfast based on freshly picked fruits and vegetables from the organic garden and fall into bed at 9pm after an exciting day of nature indulgence.
I am sure that there are other places similar to Finca Exotica which deserve equal admiration but after having traveled so extensively through the Americas, I can undoubtedly say that there are not many places where nature, beauty, hospitality and a true sense for ecological sustainability have come together in such a perfect blend. Thank you Markus and Gabriela.

There are so many more impressions from this trip. Each one unique and intense in its own way of course. Writing about them now is somehow weird. Thinking back to the different experiences actually changes the way I perceive them, especially when I try capturing those moments through words. Each ordinary moment during those 180 days seems extraordinary now. Exceptional moments seem like wild adventures. Well, maybe that distortion is a good thing. Isn’t it so much nicer to feel like a hero, jumping from one adventure to the next?

Sure enough, I want to tell you about how I have hiked through the Peruvian highlands for days surviving on drinking from waterfalls and hunting for guinea pigs, how the loneliness made me hallucinate but how my strong will for life kept me going, how I’ve camped at 4300 meters at minus 10 degrees Celsius and thought I would die and how I’ve just managed to follow a Lama trail until I’ve reached the ancient Inca city of Machu Pichu. But that’s another story to be told another time …

Monday, December 8, 2008

Dr Pong

The things you can do in Berlin -  a sea of options. Hundreds of events every night. Culture, music, art, fine dining, cheap dining, wineries, international bars, local bars, posh bars, museums, art galleries, concerts, cabarets, theaters, clubs (or should I say discos - I have been informed recently that the term "club" is out). An overwhelming choice of entertainment at more than affordable prices. I guess that is what makes Berlin so popular.

However, this won´t be a story about how great Berlin is. This is a story about what I did last Friday. Considering all these places that I could have visited last weekend, I ended up going to Dr Pong with my friends Steve and Christian. A fascinating way to spend Friday night in a cultural hub like Berlin.

Dr Pong is not a disco as such
. It´s also not a bar or anything similar offering good drinks, good music and a funky vibe. It´s a run down apartment - it must have been a shop once - on the ground floor of an old filthy building on Eberswalder Strasse, one of the main but not nicest streets in Prenzlauer Berg. The window front that opens to the main street has been covered with huge posters from the inside and graffiti from the outside, thus blocking any view a
 pedestrian might have from the outside. All in all, it looks like a forgotten and dirty place that urgently needs a new owner or at least a clean. Since there is no front door or any sign hanging outside you wouldn´t even notice the place when passing it. Just like so many venues in Berlin.

Once you enter Dr Pong from a side door, you feel like you are back in school. Young, foolish and easygoing. What awaits you inside is absolutely unexpected: a large room with bare and grey walls and a ping pong table in the middle. That´s it. The dim lighting and the cigarette smoke add some ambiance to the grey, seemingly windowless space and there are some chairs lined up along the wall but they are of no interest to the 30 or 40 guests. They didn´t come for drinks, ambiance or chatting. They came to play ping pong while sipping beer. On a Friday evening. As simple as that. Why care about the world of entertainment and consumption when you can have fun without worrying about dress codes or money. Wearing your favorite sneakers, jeans, a sweater, hitting a ping pong ball and running around the table with 30 others seemed like a very attractive and bonding way of socializing on a cold evening in Berlin. The only concern you have is staying on the table - if you miss a ball or have a bad hit you get thrown out and have to wait till the next round. But if you make it to the 1:1 final you are the star of Dr Pong. There was foosball for those who got tired of ping pong.

I loved it and stayed for hours. This is exactly what I needed after living in the glitz and glamour of Dubai for 3 years. What an uncomplicated way of spending Friday night. No hassles with dress codes, queuing, bouncers, guest lists, entry fees, expensive drinks, overcrowded bars and dance floors. Dr Pong had everything I needed. The bar was a 2 meter counter manned by an American guy, the drink selection was sufficient and the music was entertaining (two lesbian looking girls, dressed in some ridiculous looking 80s outfits, standing behind a table with speakers on top playing some random 80s and 90s hits from CDs). No one was dancing but no one would have cared if I did.

The greatness of a place lies in its simplicity I guess. Entertainment and fun in its purest form - not to everyone´s liking. But then again, who wants to be like everyone.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Bulgarian Cheese

I actually don´t want to know how much Bulgarian cheese I had in the past 5 days. 2kg at least - I can see Mark´s face now, in horror, visualizing my waist getting bigger and bigger. But this is Bulgaria, sorry, and these are the things you do there. Eating Bulgarian cheese in all variations, in salads, stuffed in capsicums, baked with veggies, as a dip or with a mountain of meat. I love Bulgarian cheese - I´d say it´s the best white cheese in the world. But my trip to Sofia was not only about eating ... 

My second trip to Bulgaria (yet another one that I chose to make in the middle of winter!) was all about spending time with my Bulgarian butterfly Eva and understanding the Bulgarian psyche. Bulgaria is a beautiful country, rich in natural heritages, culture and history and it offers a considerable range of "firsts" and "onlys" (just like Dubai!Ha!). Sofia is a cultural jewel with narrow streets, impressive buildings, shops, cafes, boutiques, art galleries, rustic taverns, wine bars and communist relicts. The nightlife is equally impressive where you can choose between mafia and non-mafia locations to have a boogie. As a relatively new member to the EU, Bulgaria is putting a lot of effort into competing with its European neighbors - or so it seems -  and tourism is a promising and growing industry. Skiing in Bulgaria´s picturesque mountains, tanning at the Black Sea, tracing European culture in Sofia ... the choices are endless. Bulgaria is a country wants to be explored. If you know how! It´s not exactly an average tourism destination where you unfold your map and start sightseeing. If you don´t speak Bulgarian, Russian or any other language from the area, you can get pretty lost. And if you can´t decipher Cyrillic, then that´s a bit unlucky too. To me, Bulgaria is like a rough diamond and that´s actually a good thing because it´s always nicer exploring a place that feels like a relatively good kept secret rather than a Thomas-Cook-all-inclusive-must-see destination. You just need to be flexible, especially when you try to figure out the Bulgarian mentality.

I have never encountered people who are so obviously and confidently grumpy like the Bulgarians. Grumpy might be the wrong word. I think it´s more like a mix of being proudly negative, glum and indifferent. I´ve made the same observation during my first visit to Bulgaria but didn´t give it much thought back then. Admittedly, you can´t expect people being too cheerful in the middle of winter, surrounded by a grey, freezing and foggy environment. Still, winter or not there´s something quite heavy and depressing about the way Bulgarians interact with each other. Naturally, I was excluded from all communications with Bulgarians (Eva had to do lots of talking and translating) due to the language barrier. But that´s not the point. The point is that in 5 days, I haven´t encountered many people with a positive facial expression, excluding Eva and friends. It was a rare thing to get a smile from a waiter, bartender, or someone at the next table. I have tried starting various conversations with those who could speak English, but it didn´t work. It could be just that Bulgarians find me boring or strange. OK, accepted and I won´t shed a tear about that. But why is it that people had this absolute blank and apocalyptic facial expression whenever they replied to an inquiry, regardless of it´s nature. Eva could have communicated to a talking robot - it wouldn´t have made a difference. Even those brilliant jazz musicians the other night were jamming away on their instruments with an expression that resembled absolut boredom.

This is a mystery to me considering that Bulgaria is - just like most other European countries - a place where hospitality forms a cornerstone of the country´s culture and traditions. I wonder if I´m misinterpreting all this. Maybe Bulgarians don´t want to reveal their mood? Just as Americans choose to be overly friendly to anyone, Bulgarians choose the opposite. Eva ones told me "We Bulgarians love being negative. It´s our mentality." 
I still need to verify that - I shall come back to Bulgaria in the summer. 

In the meantime, I have the following confession to make: 
- The Bulgarian Air cabin crew was very charming, even though they do throw the food boxes at you (the food is revolting by the way)
- I love Bulgarian food ... cheese cheese cheese
- I love Eva and her sarcasm
- I love the abundance of art, music and culture at affordable prices
- I love the sight of mafia couples who look like out of a movie
- I love Sofia´s roughness: post-communism sleeping beauty meets globalization

See you again in warmer times Bulgaria ...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What is luck?

I've read this article yesterday while flying to Bulgaria. It was talking about luck and humanity's quest of trying to define luck. I didn't know that some scientists do nothing else other than measuring luck in a society. Turns out that the majority of people consider themselves unlucky, especially in Germany. Funny that. And apparently Eli Lilly has developed a drug which makes people happier - well, it's just an anti-depressant!

To cut a long story short, here's the formula for becoming a lucky person:

1. Nurture your friendships
2. Write a diary for "luck": every evening, list 5 positive things that happened during your day
3. Just do things (stop playing the victim)

So here are my five positive things of the week:
1. My dad is still alive
2. I'm able to visit my best friend in Bulgaria
3. I'm healthy enough to wander the streets of Sofia for hours
4. I can't stop eating
5. I played Sqash today and won every game

What are your happy "things" these days?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Return to Benztown

The journey has started - with negative news. I´ve arrived in Frankfurt around noon, it was freezing, raining and grey but I was all the smiley face, as if I´ve just arrived somewhere in the Caribbean, ready to jump on a boat to some coconut island. I had some time to kill because my ride to Berlin wouldn´t leave until 5pm so I kept myself busy eating lots of German things and staring at the Germans at the train station. And then I thought, why don´t you do something useful and get yourself a German mobile number to call your parents. So I called home and this was when I stopped smiling. Turns out that dad had a heart attack and got admitted to hospital. No, not today. Almost a week ago! A tearful half hour later I was sitting in the train to Stuttgart - Benztown here I come - and at 6.30pm I was holding dad´s hand at the hospital bed.

These things happen. All the time and everywhere. Still, it hits you like a rocket. One minute you are immersed into your selfish happiness and the next you get a wake up call. It hasn´t occured to me that my dad is in a risky age - he´s 70 now. I´ve always been too absorbed with my own life, taking for granted that my parents are always there, waiting for me to come home once a year, dinner ready on the table. Now I´m sitting next to my dad´s bed in the hospital - this is day No. 5 - and feel bad about having left him (and my mom) to go and live somewhere else. I should have stayed. Should have, could have, would have. Who knows what the right decision would have been. Fact is, it´s difficult seeing your dad strapped to a hospital bed, surrounded by morbidity, bad food and loneliness. He is feeling better every day - still, I feel guilty for having left him years ago. He kept telling me "what´s the point of having children when they´re never around, especially when you are about to die". I guess he´s right so I´ve decided that things will change ... how I don´t know yet. But I know for sure that I want to be a part of his life again. Parents are too precious to grant them 2 weeks a year only. You won´t have them around forever.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

So this is it ...

This was Dubai. 3 years. Actually, 3 years and 16 days. In the beginning, I couldn't wait to absorb this city, to settle down, to meet new people and enjoy the sun. There was no time for thinking or reflecting. Who needs to think if you have all you can eat & drink every second day on every corner, if you have beach, sun and happy people. And then there was Mark (there still is), getting engaged, getting married. The best thing that ever happened to me.

So why am I leaving now? Well, I guess life and work caught up with me ... faster than I thought. Sunday till Thursday ... 8am till open end ... You see, it's not that I don't like working. I love working and luckily I landed at a place that treated me like a family and not like an employee. It's just that I love life so much more. So here I am ... stuffing my tons of clothes into boxes, saying goodbye to some crazy and amazing people that I will miss a lot to go and discover some other brave new worlds.

Next stop Berlin. It's not new. But very brave ...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I did it

I've created my own blog. Jamie will be so proud of me.
Now I just need to use it.