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Travel

The Solo Traveler; How to Survive

Life, as I see it, should be filled with as many different and exciting experiences as possible. Not all are entirely fun or without their problems, they can even be a little scary, but they are experiences all the same and add to the rich tapestry of our lives. They fill our memories with a variety of cultures, languages, values and perspectives. Travel allows us to build bridges, provides us an opportunity to hold out our hands to strangers and offers us the chance to forge beautiful friendships. Traveling alone is truly unique, and with the right attitude, it can be one of the best experiences life has to offer.

So far, I have had the good fortune to have lived in six countries and visited over forty. I usually feel like I have stepped into another skin when I travel; as if I am a different person. Generally, I feel more upbeat, more excited about life and keen to try everything. The sights and sounds are so different from my ‘usual’: the wildlife, the scenery, the language and the food. Oh, the food! I try and eat in what would be deemed ‘local’ eateries (often the cheapest too) and attempt to communicate with people in their own language, even if I am sometimes left feeling foolish. After all, who doesn’t feel good when someone tries to compliment their cuisine and culture?

There have been times when I was afraid to travel, thinking of what might happen in a worst-case scenario. But, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Go ahead, you may be rewarded with one of the best experiences of your life!
One of my first forays into solo travel was a trip to New York, initially planned with a friend who dropped out at the last minute. Although mildly terrified at the prospect of going alone, I decided to do it anyway. Who in their right mind would pass up a trip to the Big Apple?

A good way to see the sights is to take part in walking tours led by local guides. Many places also run bicycle tours which allow you to cover a lot of ground and get more ‘bang for your buck’ so to speak. These tours are often punctuated by a stop for refreshments at a local bar or café and give you the opportunity to chat with other travelers. Several tours I have been on have been led by volunteers or students, any donations given for their time and knowledge being greatly appreciated.

Another bonus to being with other people is safety. Let’s face it, women in particular have to be careful, especially as ‘amiable’ to one culture may seem ‘overtly friendly’ to another and messages can be mixed! On encountering uncomfortable situations or locations, my rule has always been to walk at a normal pace, with confidence and to stay alert. Even if I wanted to run, I did not. If you felt threatened by someone, turning around and questioning the person can sometimes embarrass them into leaving you alone. They may think you are a tough cookie (even if you are only acting brave) and give up their pursuit. Of course, caution must be exercised as each situation is very different. Going with your gut feeling is a powerful test of the situation. Several friends walk with a whistle or alarm close by. I too, have a whistle on my bag strap but to date, have never had to blow it. I have had to use my ‘teacher voice’ however, to reprimand a man for making an improper proposal to me on the street!

The one thing that has continued to amaze me over the years is the kindness of strangers. Following a short conversation with an old lady on a train to Kobe, Japan, she insisted on walking me to my hostel, helping to settle me into my room and then inviting me out for Chinese food in the city. In Nagasaki, another old lady ‘adopted’ me on the street, taught me about the history of her town and bought me cakes. In both Finland and Georgia, I was escorted safely to the door of my hostel by middle-aged gentlemen I chatted to on the plane, and in Nepal, a group of motorcyclists held a party in my honor because I rode the same model of motorbike as them! Similarly, in India, I was invited to join a motorcycle group for a long weekend, was renamed the ‘Bullet Rani’ and treated like a celebrity! I hold those friendships dear to this day.

Travel is a gift. Never give it up. Many people can only dream of visiting other countries. The next time you travel, whether it be in your own country or another, take a moment to stand still and absorb it all. Breathe in the air and feel what it is like to really be there in that moment, with that scenery, those sounds, those smells. Remember; you may never go back there again and by really focusing in that moment, it may help fix that memory in your mind for decades to come.

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Lifestyle Travel

Gearing Up for Ski and Snowboard Season

Gliding down a fluffy white slope through an enchanted winter forest is an endorphin-inducing respite from the daily routine. Organizing the necessary gear to unlock that blissful moment can be daunting and expensive. Here’s a practical guide to getting started.

For Beginners:

Rent your skis/snowboard and boots: When you’re first learning and gaining confidence, you’re better off renting gear, which keeps the upfront costs down.

If you plan to ski three days or less, daily rentals from the resort are practical. Allow extra time as it can take 30 minutes to an hour to get your boots, skis, poles, and bindings all fitted and adjusted. Arrive early to eliminate unnecessary stress, or see if you can get fitted the night before.

If you plan to ski more than three times this season, you’ll save time and money by getting seasonal rentals from a reputable shop. They’ll give a proper fitting and allow you to swap out gear mid-season if needed.

Clothes: Considering that you’re playing on frozen, crystalized water, staying dry and warm is the key to being comfortable in the great outdoors. Therefore, avoid cotton, from head to toe. It retains moisture from sweat and snow, which will chill your body.

I recommend a three-layer system:

  • Base Layer: Thermal underwear wicks perspiration away from the body, keeping you dry and thus warm. A pair of synthetics will do just fine. If you want to splurge, Merino wool is oh-so-nice and makes a great gift of coziness for a loved one.
Women’s Comet Tunnel Hoody. (www.duckworthco.com)
(www.duckworthco.com)
  • Mid Layer: On colder days, you’re going to want a mid-layer on your torso for warmth. Pick something with less bulk and more breathability to keep from overheating and restricting your range of motion. Fleece and soft shells are the common choices. However, wool sweaters with reindeers and non-cotton flannels will give you more style points in the lodge and après at the bar. As the weather warms up, luau shirts are a festive look and are totally appropriate with the mountain crowd.
  • Outer Layer: I prefer my warmth to come from the middle layer, so that my outer layer (or shell) can be used for both winter and spring. Whether you choose a light or heavily insulated jacket, the objective is protection from wind and water while breathing well to prevent overheating. Some nice features you may appreciate include a hood that can fit over your helmet, nifty pockets, and climate-control venting zippers. When choosing pants, I prefer bibs to prevent snow from going up the back when wiping out, keeping my layers from untucking, and full-leg side zippers for venting and easy access to make boot adjustments. Finally, while black and gray may be good color schemes for urban wear, vibrant colors make it easier for your friends and family to spot you on the slopes and in the crowded lodge. The brighter the better—I’m talking orange, yellow, light blue, and green.

Gloves/Mittens: Get a pair you love. They can certainly be expensive and fancy, although they don’t need to be. Dry hands and warm fingertips can make or break your day!

Socks: Here’s a point of failure easily overlooked. Your feet are what connect you to the skis. Make sure you pull those socks up nice and tight over the calf so there are no creases, and be sure there’s no cotton in that blend. While snowboard boots are more forgiving and softer, ski boots are rigid and meant to fit very snug, so a bulky sock just won’t do. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but a thin silky sock can keep your feet warmer than a thick cushiony sock, because when you tighten those boots, it’s easy to inadvertently disrupt your blood circulation. That leads to numb feet, and now you’re not having much fun!

Ski and snowboard boots are naturally quite warm, and unless it’s in the single-digit temperatures, you don’t need the thicker socks. If it’s in the budget, as with the thermal underwear, a nice pair of 100% Merino wools will keep you quite happy, though a synthetic, non-cotton blend will do the job fine. If you happen to suffer from extra-cold feet (like my wife), solutions such as heated socks and boots are incredibly effective.

While you’re at it, trim up those toenails. You want to make sure that when you flex forward in the boot, your big toenail isn’t making contact; that can end poorly. To play it safe, throw a nail clipper in your bag, and do a quick inspection before you boot up.

Another tip is to bring pack your ski socks in your boot bag, and then change into them just before you put on your boots. Feet sweat considerably, and starting your session with a clean, dry pair of socks will maximize comfort.

Lessons: Coaching is the quickest way to get you comfortable with stopping, speed control, and maneuverability. Lots of resorts will bundle lessons with lift tickets. If you live within driving distance of a local “learning” hill, splurge for five consecutive Saturdays. You’ll establish muscle memory and confidence, and be ready to cross into the intermediate and expert realms—and plan a trip to a bigger resort.

Intermediate/Expert

As your speed and precision increase and you develop your style, you’ll want to put your money into the gear best suited to pursue your favorite terrain.

Boots: Whether you’re skiing or riding, boots are the most important piece of gear, even more than the board(s) themselves. If your boots are too big, your foot will bang around the inside as you start to ski faster. Too small, and your feet will feel numb.

Boots and socks at the Smuggler’s Notch Resort. (Pat Kelley)

Don’t skimp here with your time or money. Make an appointment with the best boot fitter you have access to. Seek out an expert preferably with at least a decade “on the bench” (kind of like a judge), or an apprentice with direct access to the “master.”

You’re going to spend a few hundred dollars, so get your money’s worth. Plan for one to two hours for a proper fit, which could include setting a custom foot bed or boot liner. Try to go mid-week, or early morning if you go on the weekend. While occupationally patient, boot fitters tend to deal with a huge crowd the weekend before a holiday, and it’s basically chaos. Try to avoid that scene, but if it’s unavoidable, bring a book and headphones, and be patient. (And it may not hurt to ask how your boot fitter likes their latte and show up with a little care package!)

Boot fitting is the essential part to gearing up for the sport, so get it right. After a few days of skiing, it’s normal to do a follow-up visit after your boots “pack out,” as great boot fitters are able to make minor tweaks that can lead to more comfort, confidence, and enjoyment.

Helmet: If you’re committed to spending ample time on the hill, then go get yourself a helmet. They keep you warm, keep your goggles in place even on wipeouts, and will give you the confidence to push a bit past your comfort zone.

Goggles: As your speeds increase, you need goggles to protect your eyes and keep your face warm. There is a huge spectrum of price points and varieties. First and foremost, find a shape that works well with your face and your helmet, and covers your glasses if needed. Decent goggles will be double-lensed and enable airflow to prevent fogging; however, the degree to which they accomplish this can be the difference between a $30 and $300 pair.

You’ll pay substantially more for spherical lenses over standard flat lenses; they look great and are better at venting. Your budget will determine if this is where you want to splurge. Another option worth considering is interchangeable lenses or multiple goggles if you ski in a variety of light conditions, from night skiing to full sunshine. Alternatively, you can certainly use your sunglasses on bright, warm days and use a versatile tint, like amber, if you can only manage one pair.

Water Bottle: With all the fun you’re having, it’s easy to forget that you’re exercising out there and sweating a bunch. Couple that with high altitudes, and you need to remain hydrated. Go with a small water bladder or mini flask that you can keep in your chest pocket. Fill up in the lodge, and take swigs on the chair between runs.

Ski Pass: If you can get enough days at a single resort or with a multi-resort pass to make it cheaper than a la carte, splurge for unlimited skiing. The more time you spend on the slopes, the better you’ll get and the more you’ll enjoy it.

Skis/Board: It may seem counterintuitive to advise against buying skis, but you don’t actually need to own your own. If you’re flying to fun destinations, baggage costs for skis could exceed the renting costs of high-performance skis, and renting will also save you the trouble of lugging them to and fro. You’ll also want different planks for different conditions. If you do choose to commit to a pair (or multiple pairs), make sure you love them, and buy them for the conditions you’ll mostly be skiing in. While deep-powder gear may be aspirational, it may not be too practical if you’re mostly skiing on man-made packed powder. When in doubt, choose an “all-mountain” pair. Also, try before you buy and get them from a knowledgeable shop, as you’ll want them to adjust the bindings to your boots with the confidence that it will be done properly.

 

 

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Experiences Lifestyle Travel

Walking in the Footsteps of the Gods

Achilles’ Heel, the Midas touch, Pandora’s Box, Herculean task, the ship of Theseus—our day-to-day language is filled with references to characters from Ancient Greece. Even in Greece today, it’s easier to walk in the footsteps of these mythical giants than to avoid them.

History, fables, legends, parables—all are woven into the very fabric of that country. They rise from the land in the tangible shapes of temples and arenas. They are embedded in its literature. They are carried in the hearts and minds of its most romantically inclined citizens, who send silent invocations to the deities: “Please Athena, goddess of wisdom, help me with my studies.” “Demeter, goddess of the harvest, please bring me a bountiful autumn.”

There is no escaping mythology in Greece. It is in the breeze, in the sea. Take a deep, deep breath, choose your destination, and dive right in.

(Shutterstock)

Delphi, Mainland Greece

Situated on the slopes of mighty Mount Parnassus—itself a sacred site to Apollo, the deity of music, archery, poetry, harmony, sun, and light—Delphi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the most important monuments in Greece. It’s also one of the most beautiful, and particularly so, when those magnificent, ruinous remains (which include a temple and a 5,000-seat amphitheater) glimmer gold in the light of the rising or setting sun, and the surrounding silver olive trees shimmer and whisper in the wind.

(Shutterstock)

Archaeological finds date the earliest parts of Delphi back to the Mycenaean period—some 15 centuries B.C. But the formation of the site as a sanctuary for Apollo dates to 800 B.C., when priests from Knossos, on Crete, brought the cult of the sun god to this part of the country. The dramatic ruins we see today though, are of the third temple, which was built in the 4th century B.C.

Give your mind the freedom to roam at Delphi, and you will be rewarded by a transportive experience that will take you right back to when the Greeks believed in the 12 Olympian gods, and when they consulted Apollo’s high priestess, the Oracle Pythia, on everything from whether to wage war or advocate for peace.

(Shutterstock)

These ancients believed Delphi was the center of the world, because this is where the two eagles, released by Zeus to find the earth’s navel, landed. Zeus marked the spot with a beehive-shaped omphalos, meaning navel or rock, which is still there. Find it, and you will have found the epicenter of Greek history.

Knossos, Crete

Described by the great poet, Homer, as a “fair land…in the midst of a wine-dark sea,” the island of Crete is a favorite among—well, just about everyone. Famed for its excellent regional cuisine, outstanding wine, suntrap beaches, hiking trails, nature, and history, Greece’s largest island never fails to bewitch.

Its most famous attraction is Knossos Palace, the setting for the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. King Minos kept the half-man, half-bull creature known as the Minotaur in a labyrinth beneath his palace. No one who entered the labyrinth could escape from it, so convoluted it was, and certain death awaited at the clutches of the raging beast.

(Shutterstock)

Then Theseus arrived from Athens. He vowed to kill the Minotaur and put an end to the sacrifice of Athenians who were fed to the bull each year. Aided by King Minos’s daughter, Princess Ariadne, Theseus entered the labyrinth, carrying the ball of golden thread she had given him, unwinding it as he went deeper into the monster’s lair, so he could find his way out.

He slayed the Minotaur, of course, but the story does not end there. Forgetful boy that he was, he neglected to change the sails of his ship to white, as he had promised to do had he achieved his mission. His father, King Aegeus, seeing the ship approaching without the white sails, assumed his son was dead and threw himself into the ocean. His subjects commemorated his death by naming the Aegean Sea after him.

Quite aside from its mythical significance, Knossos has a place in world history as the oldest European city, and as the center of the Minoan civilization—the earliest in the Aegean region. In 1900, Sir Arthur Evans unearthed the astonishing remains of the colossal palace we see today. Built in around 1700 B.C., it once had extensive colonnades, flights of stairs, an elaborate sanitation system, and, of course, a throne room. The king’s gypsum chair has survived, but Evans believed that a fire destroyed the palace sometime after 1400 B.C.

(Shutterstock)

Diktaion Andron, Crete

It’s not often you get to visit the birthplace of a god, let alone the birthplace of the Greek god of all gods. Yet here, in the Diktaion Andron Cave in Lasithi, is where Zeus was born. The cave—also known as Psychro—is a natural wonder.

Its five chambers, some of which reach 14 m. in height, are filled with stalagmites, that have been rising to meet the stalactites, that hang like chandeliers above them, for thousands of years. In its depths, rock-cut steps lead into a pool, where archaeologists have found statuettes, knife blades, pottery, semi-precious stones such as amethyst, carnelian, and other treasures.

The earliest artifacts found in the cave date from the early Minoan period, around 3,000 B.C., and show that this was a significant place of worship—hardly surprising given its connection with Zeus. So how was it that Zeus was born in a cave? Did Rhea, his mother, just go into labor when she was taking a walk? Nope.

She went there to give birth in secret, away from the baby’s father, Kronos, who, fearing that his children would overthrow him, swallowed them the minute they were born. Rhea gave Kronos a stone wrapped in swaddling, which he gobbled, while she escaped to Psychro to give birth. She was supported by the Kouretes, a group of loyal female warriors, who let rip with wild war dances outside the cave to drown out the child’s cries.

Athens

Those who swoop in and swoop out once they’ve seen the Acropolis are doing Athens—and themselves—a huge disservice. The Athenian Riviera, with its fabulous Blue Flag beaches, très chic bars, and charming tavernas, are delights that deserve at least two or three days of exploration. If you do only want to visit the Acropolis, however, then what you witness there, in the words of the UNESCO World Heritage committee, are “monuments that are universal symbols of the classical spirit and civilization, and which form the greatest architectural and artistic complex bequeathed by Greek antiquity to the world.”

Built around 525 B.C., the Acropolis became the focal point for worship of the goddess Athena, the city’s patron. Athena had many talents, including weaving and inventing. She is believed to have created the trumpet, the chariot, and even the ship. And she was a magnanimous warrior who used her brains and acumen, instead of brute force, to win in battle.

Even the way she won Athens demonstrates her moral superiority. She was competing for the city against Poseidon, god of the sea. He hit the ground with his trident and created a spring, showing that he would give the city naval power. Athena offered to give the city the olive tree, a symbol of prosperity and peace. In this case, real life would do well to follow mythology.

Xenia Taliotis is a UK-based writer and editor covering lifestyle, travel, wellness, property, business, and finance. She contributes to numerous international titles including Christie’s International Real Estate, The Telegraph, Breathe Magazine, The New Zealand Herald, and The Epoch Times.

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Experiences Lifestyle Travel

Modern Nomads: Finding Ancient Mobility in a Global World

It’s a moment of uncertainty. As I hold the bowl just below my chin, the fragrant, clear liquid is close enough to sniff. It smells earthy, like an animal. My friendly host stares at me, intently, a little confused, all of us frozen by my indecision—to drink, or not?

“Just half, this time,” my guide, Ankhmaa Baatartsogt, whispers into my ear. This will be the final chaser, after an afternoon of strange, fermented drinks. Having powered through one bowl of this “vodka,” my Mongolian host waits for me to down my seconds.

I’m in the South Gobi Desert, visiting with nomads. Mongolia is a country where people are still tied closely to the land, where some one-quarter of their population of three million continue to follow their sheep and goats across seemingly endless horizons. With no fences for hundreds of miles, they’re always making their way to greener pastures.

Traditional Mongolian gers can be relocated as the herd grazes on the plain. (mr.wijannarongk kunchit/ Shutterstock)

Nomadic Cultures

The persistence of nomadic cultures in a modern world has long fascinated me, as I’ve traveled the globe.

In Sweden’s far north, I dogsledded across the snowy landscape with the Sami, near the world-famous Icehotel. Learning how the eight seasons of these northern indigenous people remain defined by the grazing, breeding, and calving patterns of their reindeer, I jumped at the opportunity to hand-feed some of the herd.

Traditional Mongolian gers can be relocated as the herd grazes on the plain. (mr.wijannarongk kunchit/Shutterstock)
Gers on the grasslands in Mongolia. (michel arnault/Shutterstock)

In the rugged deserts of Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve, I took tea and made bread over the fire with a family of Bedouins, whose people have long roamed across the Middle East. My host explained that, in a place where survival can depend on the kindness of your neighbors, hospitality is baked into their culture, with visitors able to stay for days without any question from their host.

Urban gers in the city of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Monglia. (toiletroom/Shutterstock)

But the best examples are perhaps here in Mongolia. On my first visit to the country, more than a decade ago, I chugged through on the southern arm of the Trans-Siberian Railway, spending time in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Home to about half the country’s population, at that moment, it was a city bursting at the seams, with glassy, half-finished office towers mixing uneasily with austere and shambling Soviet apartment blocks.

Seeking an education for their kids, and modern employment, many families were in the process of moving off the land, bringing their portable, circular dwellings with them, forming a rambling neighborhood called the “ger district.” Lines of these white tents (which in other places, are often called “yurts”) spread across hillsides, stretching for miles. Coal smoke rose up from the stoves set up inside for cooking and warmth, and by evening, a heavy canopy of smoke hung low in the sky.

Genghis Khan statue at Chinggis Square or Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar. (saiko3p/Shutterstock)
The Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue is a 13-story-tall statue of Genghis Khan on horseback at Tsonjin Boldog near Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (saiko3p/Shutterstock)

Mongolia

Now, years later, here in the Gobi, I have a chance to get a tiny glimpse of the way these nomads have lived life for centuries. After flying down from the capital to a small landing strip, my guide Baatartsogt and I hop into a Land Rover. We roll into a world with no roads, racing across open plains while emitting a long rooster tail of dust behind us. I’ll spend the next three nights at the legendary Three Camel Lodge, where the rooms replicate gers. But here, the tents are kitted out with cushy, comfortable beds, and big bathrooms. Plus, there’s a spa on site.

First, we search for dinosaurs, at the Flaming Cliffs, about 12 miles east of the lodge. Here, in the 1920s, archaeologists found a valley literally covered in bones. The richest-ever discovery at the time, it included the world’s very first dinosaur egg fossils. With rumors that odd prehistoric pieces will still pop up from the blazing sands, we search intently, to no avail, settling to watch a big orange sunset, with a glass of red wine in hand.

An aerial drone photo of the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue, a 13-story-tall statue at Tsonjin Boldog near Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (Maykova Galina/Shutterstock)

On our day trips, I’ve spotted white gers all around. On our drive back to the lodge, I ask Baatartsogt whether it might be possible to have a look inside, and pay a visit? She nods, promising to make a few inquiries. The next day, we’re welcomed into a series of homes.

Some of the basics of the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle, including a clan structure, were set as far back as the 3rd Century, BC. Tribes were formed from clans, with the strongest unit providing the tribe name, but weaker clans allowed to retain their own leaders and livestock. For thousands of years, these nomads roamed a vast territory, following their sheep and goats, which provided all the essentials for their families. Wool for clothing and mats and blankets, milk to drink and make cheese. Plus, skins for the walls and roof of the tents, and steaming bowls of mutton for nourishment in a harsh, often inhospitable climate. Dried dung was (and is, still) even used as fuel for fires.

Camels and horses provided transportation, with mares milked more than half a dozen times a day, their milk fermented to create airag, an alcoholic drink still popular today. Hemmed in by mountains to the west, wetlands to the north and desert to the south, these natural features also provided Mongolians with formidable natural barriers against potentially hostile neighbors.

Preparation of airag, fermented mare’s milk, the traditional and national beverage of Mongolia, inside a ger. (Emily Marie Wilson/Shutterstock)
A big pot of airag, fermented mare’s milk, the traditional national beverage of Mongolia. (T-I/Shutterstock)

Ghengis Khan, National Hero

Ghengis Khan remains the national hero. Born into a nomadic family in the 12th century, his success in laying the foundation to the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world lay in his ability to unite these tribes. Khan’s portly statue occupies a prominent place in front of the parliament in Ulaanbaatar, and another one, astride a horse, 13 stories high, sits just outside of town. His image adorns the state currency.

But those statues are a long way from where I stand today, although Khan might recognize the scene before me, all these centuries later. The space inside the ger isn’t subdivided, and everything surrounds a stove in the center of the large, round room. Beds line the walls, and the few pieces of wooden furniture are painted in bright, intricate patterns.

Evening view over a ger camp in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. (mbrand85/Shutterstock)

When the host couple offers us a drink, Baatartsogt is unfazed. Though she’s a modern young woman who lives in the capital and wears western clothes, like many urban-dwelling Mongolians, she’s not so far removed from the land. “I’m an airag girl,” she tells me, and indeed she seems to enjoy her bowl of fermented milk. I’m a little less certain, but Baatartsogt whispers in my ear that our host will be greatly offended if I refuse it. “Three sips,” she tells me, sotto voce. It’s not so bad, milky and slightly sour. Proceeding to our next stop, we exit the Land Rover and pass a big herd of camels, entering a ger similar to the last.

Here, the welcome drink is made from camel’s milk, and it’s rather thicker and less pleasant than the straight-up airag. It’s followed up by the “vodka,” clear, with tiny bits in it. “This time, you must drink the whole thing,” the always-helpful Baatartsogt tells me, breaking the bad news with a smirk. And so, down it goes. I power through the whole allotment in a few hearty gulps, relieved that I’ve finished until I see our smiling host refilling the bowl.

Evening view over a ger camp in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. (mbrand85/Shutterstock)

“She’s misunderstood,” my guide tells me. “She thinks you loved it. That you want more.”

In the end, I drink just half. Taking my bowl, we sit on a mat, Baatartsogt translating. We chat for hours, me learning about the hard, beautiful, simple life of following the rains, and raising both a family and livestock, in this Land of the Blue Sky. No, I’m not cut out for it. But returning to the lodge, I’m just a tiny bit tempted to make my nightcap a glass of airag.

Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.

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Experiences Lifestyle Nature Travel Trending

Sacha Lodge: Where the Wild Things Still Are

After a breathtaking ride over the snowy peaks of the Andes Mountains, the turboprop plane descended from thin air to the thick, humid atmosphere of the jungle. Below us, a muddy river coiled through vibrant verdant forest—until the thick tangle of trees gave way to the dull brown patchwork quilt of agriculture. Ahead lay the airport runway of the city of Coca, near where another river merged and created an even wider winding flow.

Beneath me was the Amazon basin, but still a long way from Brazil. It takes a lot of water to feed the world’s largest river by volume. Ecuador is home to a mere 2 percent of the big river’s source waters, but the three nights I spent at an eco-lodge along the Napo River would be unforgettable. But first I had another two hours of travel on a long and low river launch before I could check in.

A steel catwalk 150 feet in the air stretches out across the treetops near Sacha Lodge in the rainforest of Ecuador. (Courtesy of Sacha Lodge)

A Private Reserve

Sacha Lodge sits at the heart of a private 5,000-acre ecological reserve along the diminutive Pilchicocha Lagoon. Nestled into the surrounding rainforest, a short hike from the banks of the Napo River, the thatched-roof central building and family cabins are modestly woven into the landscape. All brought to you by Coca-Cola, you could say. Well, sort of. A Swiss citizen, Arnold “Benny” Ammeter used to work in distribution for the soda company and found himself deep in the remote markets of Ecuador. He became enamored of the beauty of this region and eventually returned to open an eco-lodge.

After a short time, he didn’t feel the resort was remote enough, so he searched for and found land even deeper into the wild, down the Napo River. With the assistance of local workers, he built Sacha Lodge, and over the years he purchased more acreage. Thanks to a commitment to hire locally, Sacha Lodge is the largest tourism-based employer in this entire region of Ecuador. The guides are primarily local as well, many of them able to draw upon not just typical naturalist knowledge but cultural learning, such as the medicinal uses of plants along the trails.

An aerial view of the Balsa Restaurante, boat dock, and swimming area at the Sacha Lodge. (Courtesy of Sacha Lodge)

Into the Wild

“Wake up call is at 5:30,” we were told during the new arrival briefing.

“So early?”

“Because that’s when the animals get up.” We rest at midday, once again, just like the animals.

Boardwalks connect all the rooms and lodge buildings, which rise up on stilts above the mix of terra firma and marsh waters the color of sarsaparilla. Trails, muddy paths, or simple plank walks lead out into the forest. Umbrellas, ponchos, and, thankfully, knee-high rubber boots are provided by the lodge so guests don’t need to pack special gear.

They don’t call this a rainforest for nothing. Depending on the season, rain can affect the day’s activities. Downpours can be sudden and torrential, or the gray can come in almost as fine as a mist and last the entire day. But if you don’t mind getting a little damp—and you will—the hikes go on regardless. Under the forest canopy, the rain can be less intense.

The Balsa Restaurante at the Sacha Lodge, situated on the Napo River in Ecuador. (Courtesy of Sacha Lodge)

Otters swim in the lagoon. Eight species of monkeys make their homes in the trees, from the world’s tiniest, the pygmy marmoset, to the Pavarotti-aspiring howler monkeys, whose call is so deep and resonant it can be heard a mile away. The abundance of avian life draws birders from far and wide, and during a typical stay, one is likely to see more than 200 species. The lodge guides have recorded nearly 600.

We gathered again in the evening for a night hike. We all carried lodge flashlights, but the guide could spot animals deep in the bush off the trail even in the dark. They know where to look. A special frog on a certain tree; a snake that frequently appears near another.

Dinner at the fine-dining restaurant offers a scenic overlook of the lake. At night, the stars reflect in the water, clear enough to see the constellations—many of which may be unfamiliar to northerners. The Big Dipper and the Southern Cross face each other on opposite ends of the balance of the heavens.

During the day, some guests swam a bit or napped in hammocks. I watched a local man on the dock drop a line in the water and asked him what he was fishing for. “Piranhas,” he replied. What? Where we swim?

Caimans—small crocodiles about a meter long from snout to tail—also call the little black lake home, and on barbeque night when dinner was moved from the lodge dining room to the grill in the dockside pavilion, one apparently had made reservations, snapping up pieces of chicken and pork dropped over the rail by servers.

A master bathroom in a suite featuring windows looking directly looking out into the rainforest at the Sacha Lodge in Ecuador. (Courtesy of Sacha Lodge)
The view of one of the rooms at the Sacha Lodge in the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador. (Courtesy of Sacha Lodge)

Beyond the Lodge

Back out on the Napo River, the launch took a group of us to other sweet spots: A butterfly farm featuring exotic local varieties in a shelter where you can step in and join them. Also along the river is a clay lick, a favored spot for parakeets and macaws. They come at unpredictable times, but they came that day. A flurry and blur of iridescent blue, green, and bits of scarlet as countless birds swooped in and clung to the mud cliff, eating the clay, which is believed to counterbalance the acidity in their other foods.

And then there are the sights above the lodge. A short hike away into the rainforest, there’s a series of towers. Steps lead to the top, where it breaks through the canopy, and a steel catwalk 150 feet in the air stretches out across the treetops, offering closer views of the avian residents. There’s really no need to make much effort to find more birds: Even just outside the rooms, there are oropendolas, crow-like brown birds with golden tails, building their pouch-shaped nests dangling from a large kapok tree in the center of the compound. Their call, not unlike the cool tinkle of water drops in a pool, adds an exotic twist to the white noise of insects and frogs, a soundtrack worthy of an Amazon experience.

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com

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Architecture & Interiors Lifestyle Travel

Farmhouse Charm

Miles away from the ordinary, yet mere minutes from the glitz and glam Ibiza has become world-famous for, is a quaint hotel in a picturesque valley. Nestled amid sumptuous orchards and olive trees, Cas Gasi is a 19th-century Spanish country house that was transformed from private residence to luxury hotel more than two decades ago.

Its whitewashed exterior is surrounded by lush vegetation, while the interior is resplendent in warm hues, handpainted tilework, and Moroccan-inspired textiles. Known for its privacy as well as its proximity to the sparkling nightlife, Cas Gasi is a favorite of loyal visitors who return to the carefully curated 12-room property time and again.

The hotel nestled amid lush vegetation. (Courtesy of Cas Gasi)

“The original farmhouse is from 1880, and it belonged to the family whose name it still has, the Gasi family,” according to Cas Gasi Founder and Director Margaret von Korff. The main house contained five rooms, while adjoining structures included animal pens and spaces to store tools, carts, and carriages.

The decor includes Moroccan-inspired textiles. (Courtesy of Cas Gasi)
A suite bathroom with handpainted tiles. (Courtesy of Cas Gasi)

According to Balearic law, the eldest son of the Gasi family would become the primary recipient of the family’s inheritance, including the farmhouse. He eventually sold the property to a person from Mallorca, who later also wished to sell it—looking for someone who would not simply buy the home, but fall in love with it.

When von Korff and her husband, Luis Trigueros, entered the house for the first time, it was “love at first sight,” von Korff said. “Was it luck, or was it fate?” she thought. They bought the property, a traditional “finca”—literally meaning estate, a piece of land in the Spanish countryside, usually with a farmhouse or cottage—in 1989.

Cas Gasi Founder and Director Margaret von Korff. (Courtesy of Cas Gasi)

Von Korff described the house as being in relatively good condition at the time. Thick whitewashed stone walls protected it from both harsh hot and cold temperatures. Sabina beams held the flat roof, designed to collect rainwater and move it to a cistern. Small windows let in natural light. Yet the roof required restoration, and humidity presented a problem. Neither of its new owners, with two small children in tow, envisioned the home would become the Mediterranean getaway it is today; they initially thought of it only as a private home.

“To build anew is more difficult than to restore,” von Korff said. “The traditional elements and proportions were fundamental to keep the soul of the house. [It was a] partial restoration, lovingly guided … on a day-by-day basis, with the architect integrating their ideas and points of view.”

No effort was too great and no detail was too small, said von Korff, adding that the team wished to stick to the sober character of Spanish farmhouses and avoid fancy elements. Damaged beams were exchanged, yet the originals remained as “an important aesthetic element,” she said. The floors were renewed with handmade terracotta tiles and enhanced with floor heating beneath.

Some of the hotel rooms feature wooden beams that were in the original farmhouse. (Courtesy of Cas Gasi)

Orange groves and almond, fig, locust, and olive trees that were part of the original 9-acre farmland remained—the latter producing organic cold-pressed olive oil for the hotel’s restaurant. The couple also wanted to retain the existing harmony between the property and surrounding countryside, so they added rose orchards, vegetable plots, farm animals, and later, two swimming pools.

Fruits and vegetables from the hotel garden are used in dishes on the restaurant’s menu. (Courtesy of Cas Gasi)

As the idea to build a hotel centered on agro-tourism was born, the goal became to share the beauty of Cas Gasi with travelers from around the world, yet maintain its authenticity, purposeful furnishings, and sustainability. Animal pens were converted into exquisite guest rooms. Gardens, a spa and yoga deck, and a restaurant were added in stages.

(Courtesy of Cas Gasi)

“It is easy to buy new; it is a statement to wear old,” said von Korff, who herself is well-traveled and has a keen eye for detail. “[I am a] strong supporter of everything which has stood the test of time, since it makes it more valuable. It has something to tell.”

To that end, von Korff filled the hotel with antiques from her family home, sourced by her parents from different European countries.

Eclectic pieces of furniture include those handcrafted by local artisans, and others collected via a sophisticated shopping scene among Ibiza’s auction houses and antiques shops. Personal touches are apparent throughout the hotel’s dozen rooms, including a thoughtfully stocked library, a kitchen that draws from the property’s vegetable gardens, and luxuries beyond the first glance, including feather pillows and luxurious linens.

A balcony with a view. (Courtesy of Cas Gasi)

Situated on a sunny hillside, von Korff said she wanted Cas Gasi to represent the idea of “farmers becoming hosts to visitors,” despite the shift toward bespoke accommodations that promise the perfect Mediterranean escape.

“We are ambassadors to the island’s culture and bounty,” she said.

To shop for patio furniture and furnishings inspired by Cas Gasi’s aesthetic, click here.

Categories
Lifestyle Travel

Memories of Jersey

The summer before my final year of graduate school, my husband and I jammed as many belongings as we could fit into two carry-on bags and set off for a month-long adventure to visit my granny, who lives on the other side of the world. The road to my grandmother’s house is one I grew up measuring in modes of transportation rather than miles: a bus, two planes, another bus, another plane, a rental car, and then 68 steps up to her tiny apartment, which smells like gardenias and overlooks the sea.

My grandmother lives on the island of Jersey, a sea-locked patch of land only nine miles long and five miles wide. One of England’s five Channel Islands, just off the coast of France, Jersey looks like a place where one would expect to find hobbits or enchanted woodland creatures. Full of twisting hedge-lined roads, stunning cliff views, and gorgeous beaches, Jersey is made of magic and delight.

We were there, in part, for recipes. A few months earlier, in one of my writing courses, I had interviewed my mother for some family recipes. My mom, who grew up on this island, but left it at 21 for a foreign country and wide-open roads, regaled me with stories about picnicking on the beach at low tide, and lowering baskets and thermoses full of tea by rope over the side of the cliff.

(Courtesy of Visit Jersey)

She remembered my great granny’s pie crust, light and flaky, my granny’s roasted potatoes, slathered with salt and butter, both of which I’ve eaten and enjoyed my whole life. But the more my mom talked, the more other recipes and stories began to surface—stories from a darker time, when islanders had to rely on their own ingenuity and ability to adapt.

From 1940 to 1945, Nazi Germany occupied Jersey and the rest of the Channel Islands. They were the only pieces of British soil to be occupied during the war. My great granny, my granny, and countless other relatives lived through those years of strict rules, fear, and food shortages. They emerged from the war on the brink of starvation, living off limpet stew, luncheon cake, and parsnip tea, among dozens of other creative wartime foods. It was the hunt for those recipes, in writing, that led me to Jersey that summer.

My granny rang up a few of her friends, and I spent the month interviewing occupation survivors. I asked them where they lived, what they did, how they ate. I collected recipes alongside stories of heartache and heroism: the farmer boy who hid a Jew in his attic for three years, the new wife who hid a butchered pig in a coffin, and had it sent to her mum in town. I gathered these actual stories and began to fictionalize them, to put them into characters and a plot that I have been working on in the years since.

In between interview appointments, I walked. Jersey is known for its varied terrain: tree-lined lanes, wild cliffs, and sandy beaches. My goal was to cover as much of the island as I could on foot that month, to reconcile the stories of war with such a picturesque place. Some days, I walked with my granny, who at 80, was still in better shape than me. We walked the reservoir, the rocky path by the lighthouse, the wooded valleys, and the beach on St. Brelade’s Bay.

(Courtesy of Visit Jersey)

As we walked, we talked about the war. We talked about how she patched up her shoes with bits of old tire, about my grandad’s photography shop, which was bombed by the Germans. She talked about what it felt like to go to sleep hungry, about wearing the same clothes from ages 9 to 13, because there was such a shortage of supplies on the island.

Other days, I walked with my husband. We set off from my aunt’s flat in St. Mary’s right after breakfast. Some days, we went east, toward the beach and lighthouse in St. Ouen. Other times, we made it all the way to Gorey Castle, where we rewarded ourselves with an ice cream made from the milk of Jersey cows, and ate it in the cool summer wind, watching the waves splash against the shoreline. Some days we did only a few miles; other days, we hiked up to 20 miles, landing in St. Mary’s pub those evenings, with sunburnt faces and legs feeling like jello.

On every walk, I imagined the Jersey my granny and my other interviewees had described to me: the beaches off-limits, food strictly rationed, no wireless sets or connection to the outside world. I thought about how much the island meant to all of them, how after the war, every single person I had interviewed, stayed.

I had always known Jersey was beautiful. But exploring the island on foot that summer, while writing down the war stories of occupation survivors, I realized the island has a kind of magnetic pull. Jersey has a rich history, quaint shops, and good ice cream, but that isn’t what makes people stay. In different lights, at different tides, the island is full of new wonders, only available to those who put in the time—and miles—to discover them.

Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She’s currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com