Category Archives: Reviews

Sintra, Lisbon, Portugal Review

OK, so confessions first, facts later. I didn’t prepare for this trip to Portugal in the slightest. I was excited about seeing another Mediterranean country, thought I would get by on my Spanish, and that was about it. I was super busy leading up to the holiday, and by then, I just wanted to chill with my girlfriends drinking wine in the sun. That did kind of happen, and so did a few surprises along the way 😀

We spent a couple of nights in Lisbon itself and then we img_7165went out to Costa do Caparica for a few nights. We met a few people and decided to go for a day trip out to Sintra with them. Sintra is a town about a 40 minute train ride outside of Lisbon. It’s almost like a well-preserved medieval town with four big castles up -almost hidden- in the hills. They all cost money to go in, and you pay for each separate palace/castle/fort. You can buy a bus ticket that takes you on a route of all the castles and back to town for about 5 euro. Again, our unpreparedness kind of caught us off guard a couple of times, so do your research before you go as to which castles you want to see!

 

We only went into one fort because we’re tight and we were hungover, and of course I’m going to say it was the best one. No, really! It’s called Castle of the Moors. It’s old, like really old. Built in the 8th or 9th century if I remember correctly. And it was built during the Muslim empire days, so its architecture really stands out compared to the other castles, and of course more ‘modern’ old buildings, if you will. The castle offers fantastic views across sprawling towns nestled in lush green patches of nature. It’s really rather wonderful.

It takes you a while to get around the Castle, it’s so big! It even looks a bit like the Great Wall of China! (Hohum… was this before the great wall or after? Who inspired whom?) img_7214There are great little nooks and crannies to chill out in. Seeing as it was the day after my birthday we went, when we were all a bit hanging, it seemed only appropriate that some of the leftover wine (yes there was leftover wine. When it comes at 1 euro 50 a bottle, yes there is leftover wine) was consumed perched on some rocks in the shade, hiding from the heat of the afternoon sun. It was absolutely dreamy.

 

I img_6991kind of wish that we had spent more time in Sintra because it looked absolutely fabulous. The little medieval town had a few windy streets filled with trinkets and restaurants. Granted, it can feel very touristy but that also brings part of its charm. We had so many ginjas it’s hard to count. What are they? Oh, they’re just Portuguese cherry liqueur shots in chocolate cups. The whole atmosphere of the town is very friendly and relaxed, which makes for a lovely afternoon of hanging around. It also would have been great to see the place come alive at night, as nightlife in Portugal can be quite lively, too! Definitely try it out! There seemed to be plenty of hostels and hotels around to find a decent room in your price range.

 

Leave the Fears by the Sea

I’m embracing the Nordic lifestyle. I really am. I will get rain boots next time I go downtown, I promise. And I will buy an umbrella next time I see one on sale. It’s funny how good intentions of doing something don’t ever really end up happening. I’ll watch that documentary tomorrow; I’ll learn to knit next week. I’ll start my diet after this meal; I’ll learn Danish when… who am I kidding? I’m never going to learn Danish.

And such good intentions keep snowballing until you don’t actually do them anymore because you’ve lost track of them… until you do. This is what happened with the Swedish Sauna. Sweden, just a stone’s throw of a 20-minute ferry ride away from my school, was tantalizingly close, and we couldn’t avoid going out to explore Helsinborg for the day. And no trip, absolutely no trip, to Sweden is complete without an experience of the Swedish Sauna.

Stripped

Some of us in our group were extremely adamant they were not going. Being naked with 20 other women in the same room was not something they felt comfortable with, and that’s fair play. It takes a certain kind of blasé to subject yourself to the scariest criticism of all: your naked body. When we reached the spa, some people remained adamant, and others were persuaded by the excitement of the group.

We walk in to the spa, a one-storey, unassuming building along the shores of the beach boulevard, our group divided by gender, and are led straight to the lockers, where we strip down to nothing but a towel. Shy laughter punctuates the air as us girls discuss the many layers of clothes we have on. The narrow hallway, brightly lit by the ceiling-to-floor windows on the left, overlooking the sea and wide sundeck, leads us to our next destination: the shower. After fidgeting with the buttons and avoiding eye contact, we shiver under the shower for ten seconds, before swiftly picking up our towels to wrap around ourselves again. We then enter the resting room. Although not heated, it is warm enough for you to sit naked around little round tables and take a drink from the water fountain. It is especially nice if you can’t motivate yourself to jump into the ice-cold water of the sea, but still need a break from the stifling heat of the sauna.

The House on the Sea

Finally, through a heavy glass door, we enter the hot room. The sauna itself sits on the corner of the spa, which actually rests right on top of the ocean. Four kilometers ahead, with a sea between us, is Helsingor’s Kronborg Castle, whose outline we could just make out through the misty November afternoon. To our left was the rocky Swedish shoreline, our naked bodies vaguely protected from public view with a long wooden fence. The view to our right was limited, with the men’s sauna room being separated only by a temporary wooden partition. We could even hear them speaking. We settle down, keeping a ‘safe’ distance from each other, some girls clutching their towels to their chests, others forcing themselves to ‘be cool’ and just let it all hang.

Small talk ensues, and we trade stories on the day’s events while trying to make out what the guys next door are cheering at. Slowly, as the room fills with our fellow friends and classmates, we settle into a comfortable atmosphere. More and more, towel-clutching slackens, and a few comments are made about how beautiful we all look sitting on the steps of the sauna, different shapes, colours and sizes. Individuality lost all meaning, we were all the same- the big boobs, the small ones, the thin legs, the big hips… it was all there for us to specifically not judge. We were all too different.

The Main Event

Of course, the highlight of the spa is not the sauna itself but the ‘jumping into the sea’ bit. The sun had broken out through the clouds, so with bolstered confidence, a couple of us march off to the patio, where a small set of stairs will lead us to the clear, icy water of the Sound separating the North Sea from the Baltic Sea. My feet were the first to touch the icy liquid, and my body’s immediate reaction was to jump back a step. After much self-convincing, I finally ran into the water, forcing my body into the icy fire. Either feeling relief or shock, my brain took a moment to respond before I dance my way back out of the waist-deep water, up the iron steps, and back into the safety (and relative warmth) of my beach towel. My feet ached- the icy water did not agree with them. Perhaps it was my Asian tendency towards chilblains (winter feet)?

But my, oh, my, was I rejuvenated! My heart felt a bit lighter, my shoulders less tense. I felt like a bit of weight was lifted off my shoulders. I am so excited by this that I actually run back into the water, almost immediately after having come out of it. Of course the next fifteen minutes are spent warming back up in the sauna, wiggling my feet, willing them to stop stinging. The feeling of euphoria doesn’t last long, but the comedown isn’t quite as hard. You keep a state of zen-like contentment. And each time you go in the sea, you stay a fraction of a second longer- improvement! I guess it should be noted right about here that everyone else in my group was a lot less chicken than me, and managed to actually do two breaststrokes in the waist deep water before jumping out. There were others that managed to actually swim out a bit before coming back, cool as cucumbers the sea.

Lessons Learned

I’m not saying that I’m going to start walking around naked every chance I get. I’m not saying that I’m now headed into the icy ass ocean every time I get a chance. But… I am saying that I’m proud of myself. I faced a fear of being stark naked in front of people, and I fucking went into the 10-degree-ocean. If you’d met me a year ago I probably would have given you the middle finger. I’m now giving you the middle finger for a whole other reason: I’m taking leaps that I never really thought about before, and jumping, trusting myself that I’m doing the right thing. I’m not going to let people’s presumed judgments stop me from taking those leaps and bounds.

We all need to bare our all sometimes, and trust ourselves to be doing the right thing. Sometimes, probably most of the time, we would be surprised at how well that works out for us, in the long or short run. Here’s to jumping into the next adventure.

front of people, and I fucking went into the 10-degree-ocean. If you’d met me a year ago I probably would have given you the middle finger. I’m now giving you the middle finger for a whole other reason: I’m taking leaps that I never really thought about before, and jumping, trusting myself that I’m doing the right thing. I’m not going to let people’s presumed judgments stop me from taking those leaps and bounds.

We all need to bare our all sometimes, and trust ourselves to be doing the right thing. Sometimes, probably most of the time, we would be surprised at how well that works out for us, in the long or short run. Here’s to jumping into the next adventure

Kruger

Our first night at the gates of Kruger NP we did a sunset drive of Kruger. We set off, literally at sunset, and spent the majority of three hours pointing at the bush with two spotlights from our full nine seater jeep. We saw elephants, rhinos, civets, bunnies, impalas… More impalas… Some birds, I think, then some more impalas…. 

And it was cold. Did I mention it was cold? After an hour of braving it in my hoodie and Thai fishermen pants, I asked for a blanket too. How cozy it was- a big, soft, wooly blanket to keep all that fresh Kruger air away from my skin. It covered me from my feet right up to my chin. 

The most memorable moment for me was when our guide Michelle decided to show us what darkness looked like- With literally just a flick of the switch, the world around us plunged into darkness. The blackness literally took my breath away. Utter silence. I couldn’t see anything in front of me. We were in the middle of nowhere, now. It was as if no one dared breathe, and for a second, all of us were animals in nature. We were all out for ourselves. If I didn’t have the blanket as a warmer I would have probably peed in my pants. Slowly, my eyes adjusted and I could make out a slight silhouette of the jeep we were in, and a semblance of a road ahead of us- not much else.

The next morning saw us up at 5am to get to the Malelane gate for 6am. We were wisely on time, because were the second vehicle to enter the park. The morning started off quite chilly still, despite having eaten from our hearty packed breakfast our Lodge provided us, we still snuggled under blankets. It’s true what they say about Africa. As soon as the sun disappears, the heat evaporates. We saw four of the Big Five, and lots of other animals in between, among my favourites being giraffes and zebras. Ohh and the waterbucks, with their toilet-seat imprints on their asses! 

What I enjoyed most, though, I have to say, is the camaraderie of the Rangers. There were an unspeakable amount of touring companies, all with their 3-4 guests (in our case we were just 2) in these big Toyota jeeps, clearly especially built for this type of off-roading. Solomon, our guide for the day, had quick chats with guides from other companies as well as guides just in the park chilling for the day as we passed them on tourist-specific paths. He would explain to us after every coded conversation- she’s a German guide, he trained me to be a guide, they both are here as guides, etc. 

This brings me to the coded language. The guides came from all over the world, and yet they all spoke in the same code. It was incredible. They might speak in English, Swahili, or Afrikans, but they told each other where the sightings were, what to expect on the road ahead and the like. My friend and I gave up asking our guide, ‘what is bobo?’ Or whatever code word they used for an animal when they spoke- he was not going to break the code. Solomon only broke rank by the end of the day, when a guide asked him if we’d seen buffalo anywhere. He couldn’t remember where so he turned to us, and asked us instead. 

But even out of the jeep- when we arrived in a picnic area for lunch, I was having trouble opening the latch to the monstrous vehicle to get out, and a guide from another company rushed to tug at the door for me, and then proceeded to remind me to take all my valuables with me- he didn’t have to do that, Solomon was his competition. Or when we were waiting for the lion to come out and eat her wildebeest prey, which she had conveniently killed right by the side of a designated tourist road. The guide of clearly a fancier company (nicer wheels yo) waited for other cars to give up waiting and drive off before shouting out to Sol, ‘baba, is there any cars in front of you?’ When the answer came out in the negative, he cheekily started making animal noises to try and get the lion to come out of hiding for the enjoyment of his guests as well as Sol’s. 

People that look after the park have clearly made it their lives’ work. They stay in the business, they keep coming back, even if it’s to do a joy ride themselves, because it’s what they know and what they are passionate about. So many times Sol would say, ‘he used to be a guide’. They have a sense of ‘you’re one of us’ amongst each other that is almost fierce in its practice- I would never DARE cross a guide/ranger. You’ll have the wrath of hundreds of them upon you within seconds. This makes me wonder- what is my circle? What is my ‘you’re one of us?’ Does it necessarily have to be such an organised group, or am I content with a smattering of people from my different paths in life, that I consider dear to me? 

I could sit and watch that activity all day, I find it fascinating. People, at the end of the day, are just like animals. We all want to be part of a herd, to be accepted, and to live happily and peacefully, and try not to get killed by a lion. We all face different kinds of dangers, and all are creatures of habit (seriously, a hippo will do the same exact walk every day for food, thus creating a path, which looks almost human like). We all want to make our mark on the world- some, like elephants are bigger than others, like steenbok… What cute little things they are. How you make that mark is a whole different question…

Peace on Robben Island

Cape Town is a magical place.  I know becauuse, lucky me, I’ve been before.

People are friendly, literally ALL bartenders tell me I’m beautiful, and it reconciles with its past through the culture, the tour guides, the museums, and even the street art.  Of course there are also things that we would rather not see, like poverty. Our taxi driver (actually, Uber driver.  Uber is safer here) even told us that whille their governor is one of the best in SA, even she only looks after her own, her voters, so middle and upper class.  The way he aptly put it was, ‘she doesn’t get enough funding to deal the problems in the townships.’ Talk about diplomacy.

But today I want to focus on Robben Island.  It’s a major tick off my bucket list.  I remember reading about Nelson Mandela at 14.  He’s the reason I’m so interested in peace studies.  People here are quick to tell you that he wasn’t perfect.  He was quite violent- he headed up the armed side of the ANC when he committed acts of ”terrorism’. But in thee last years of his imprionmnet, he negotiated with hthe SA government to broker a peaace for a country that was on the brink of civil war. 

Anyone that has taken history will know about his story, and of the pain suffered at Robben Island.  There wasn’t direct torture, but back-breaking work in the quarry, only mats to sleep on, that was bad enough.  In the single cell sections (where Madiba also resided), there were only buckets for toilets once you were locked up for the night.  No writing allowed- when the prison guards found part of Madiba’s manuscript in the bushes of the courtyard, the hard-won privelegeto study was taken away from him. His punishmenett was 4 years no studying.  18 years he endured on Robben Islnd.  

But the tour that we got was not necessarily one of guilt or shame..  It was one of simply wanting to tell the truth, to share the story with the world.  

Our tour guide for the prison proper (an islnd tour by bus was also included), Ntando Mbatha was a prisoner himself.  He was much younger when he was here between 1984 and 1990, and while he is aged now, he still walks faster than a steenbok and tells his story with tour-guie precision.  He wants to show the world what it was like.  He wants to tell the world Madiba’s story.  He doesnt harbor any anger anymore, he wants to share thi part of history in his own way.  

In Peace Studies we talk a lot about reocnciliation.  It annoys me when people go, “Oh but Mandela wasn’t really peaceful he  was a terrorist really, until he won so it was easy to forgive.  Yes, it may be easy to forgive as a victor, but how to reunite a broken country? How to bring about lasting change? It was always going to be hard trying to reconcile violence with eventual frgiveness but on Robben Island you get a true sense of foriveness despite a long history of hate and angeer. Mbatha himself embodied that, and that is the main thing that I will take away.  

No matter the pain, the hate, in time, forgiveness will always come. In the form of preserving history, in the form of a renewed friendship… it is alwayss possible. Next time I come to Cape Town, I am going to do a private tour of Robben Island.  I want to ask more questions, I don’t want to be as rushed off my feet as we were on this tour.  I want to know how they came to forgiveness.  As they say, to err is human; to forgive divine.