Ibra, Nizwa & Bahla: The gateways to the interior

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The livestock souk in Nizwa, Oman.

The Omani interior is hot, arid and sandy. Cut-off from the Gulf of Oman by the Al-Hajar mountain range, its terrain is inhospitable. Yet despite the harsh terrain and climate, the interior teems with life. Guard towers, forts and castles pepper the region and, steeped in history and culture, the towns of Ibra, Nizwa and Bahla offer a unique glimpse into the lives of everyday Omanis, their rich culture and the history of this nation.

As public transportation in Oman is scant, the only viable mode of transport to the interior is by shared-taxi. Ibra, Nizwa and Bahla are easily reachable by shared-taxi from Muscat, the Omani capital.  You can hail one at the Clock Tower in Muscat.

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The Clock Tower in Muscat

IBRA

Ibra was the first town I visited. It is in the A’Sharqiyah region and often extolled as the door to the Wahiba Sands – a vast expanse of desert. This town serves as the main commercial hub for the region, where farmers and traders merchandise their goods at the local souk.

I departed Muscat in the morning by shared-taxi for Ibra. The 2-hour ride was priced at OMR 2.500. As always in Oman, the sun-scorched rugged landscape was a sight to the eyes. By noon, I was at a roadside eatery devouring my lunch.

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Briyani rice, a non-spicy gravy, a fried-fish and a plate of salad for just OMR 1.500!

Mid afternoon came and in true Omani fashion, it was time for siesta. Shops closed and streets emptied as the mercury soared above 40C. And at 4pm, the empty streets came back to live and shops resumed operations.

While waiting for my Couchsurfing host at the petrol station, Ashahzad, a Pakistani retailer who works at a local paint-shop, invited me to his shop. While conversing with him, he broached the topic of politics (he was a political science student back in Pakistan) and we soon drank tea while talking about constitutions ( the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta).

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Ashahzad told me to wait for my Couchsurfing host in the comfort of his air-conditioned shop. He even bought me a cup of Karak Tea, which I dearly miss!

Soon, evening came and I met my Couchsurfing host, Humaid, and we headed to his home, where we met his friend, Zayd. Zayd took me to see old Ibra and before ending the night at an event at the A’Sharqiyah University, where Zayd is currently learning English. Unfortunately, as women were present at this event, photography was prohibited…. Surprisingly, women outnumbered men 3:1.

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The following day was a lazy day. I didn’t really do much except exploring the city and slowly feasting my eyes on what the city had to offer, from its old town to the Ladies Souk, where photography is prohibited.

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Old Bahla

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The Ibra Souk, just opposite the Ladies Souk.

Humaid, like all Omanis I met, was extremely kind and friendly. He speaks English fluently and we had really interesting conversations about Oman and its culture!

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Humaid, nearest to me, and his neighbours atop a hill.
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Goat carcasses were strewn across the barren landscape, probably due to the heat and lack of water.
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Getting here:

Take a shared-taxi from the Clock Tower in Muscat. Price is OMR 2.500 (as of May 2017).

 

Nizwa

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Nizwa Fort

Nizwa is one of Oman’s oldest cities and it was once a centre for commerce, learning and religion. Today, it’s the largest city of the Al Dakhiliyah region and a centre for date-growing and livestock trading.

My trip to Nizwa was meh. While the sights and people of Nizwa were awesome (this is an understatement), the experience I had with my Couchsurfing host there was terrible (another understatement).

To summarise a long story, this host of mine, whom I’ll not name, pestered me to have sex with a friend of his from Grindr, a gay dating app, and he was persistent about it until I threatened to call the cops. Moreover, he was pretty xenophobic and held prejudices against Omanis and Indians. Thank goodness the ordeal only lasted two nights.

However, Nizwa itself was nice. It boasts a strong fort that has been recently restored and a traditional souk (one of the better ones I’ve seen in my life).

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The distinct cylinder-shaped tower of the Nizwa Fort.

Erected in the 17th century, the Nizwa Fort is Oman’s most visited national monument. It’s distinctive drum-shaped tower rises 30 metres above the horizon and gives visitors a panoramic view of the town and its surroundings, which is flecked with date plantations. It was totally worth the OMR 0.500 I had paid for it.

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Date plantations surround the city. Together with tourism and livestock trading, the date industry is a pillar of the local economy.

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A library within the fort.
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A mini kitchen.

Another must-visit is the Nizwa Souk, one of Oman’s oldest markets. This place teems with activity during mornings and the post siesta hours (after 4pm). On sale are dates, potteries and crafts, vegetables, fruits, meat-products and fish. The Thursday and Friday livestock souk, which ends at 8.00 am, is something incredible that shouldn’t be missed!

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The pottery section in the Nizwa Souk. On the left is a banner with an image of Sultan Qaboos, the current sultan (king) of Oman.

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Spices at the spice souk.
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Omani halwa, a jelly-like delicacy made of date syrup. It is sweet (and expensive!)
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The fish souk
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Baby whales which are used in the local cuisine.

The livestock souk was an organised chaos, to say the least. In the centre was a circular platform where traders sit. Sellers herd their livestock (usually a cow or goat) around this platform. Interested buyers are then welcome to inspect the livestock and a deal is usually sealed at the end.

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The livestock souk in Nizwa, Oman
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Traders and potential buyers haggle over the price, often in a coarse voice.
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The hype of the livestock souk is centred around this platform, where traders take their seat.
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As the day draws to an end, all livestock are loaded onto the back of trucks just in front of the souk.
Getting here:

Take a shared-taxi from the Clock Tower in Muscat. Price is OMR 3.000 (as of May 2017).

 

Bahla

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The Bahla Fort

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I visited Bahla on a half-day trip. Bahla is Nizwa’s smaller cousin. Home to the Bahla Fort, a UNESCO Heritage Site, this town makes a good day-trip from Nizwa.

Though the Bahla Fort is less renown than its counterpart in Nizwa, to me, this fort was the more superior of the two, both for its size and its condition. It is certainly larger in every aspect and, despite its recent restoration, not every part of her has been restored, thus giving her an old world charm!

Its towering ramparts, sandy-yellow colour and wooden window frames gives it a Maghrebi look from the outside (Though this fort is on the other side of the Arab-world).

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The ruins of Old Bahla sit in the shadows of the Bahla Fort. Currently, no occupants inhabit the mud-brick houses. Some houses are still standing strong while others have caved in after standing for decades (or even centuries).

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The neighbouring Bahla Souk was closed when I visited it as it was time for the Friday noon prayer. While I’m used to visiting souks thronged with shop-owners, hagglers and the curious photo-snapping tourist, this was my first time to an empty souk void of any activity or humans. Shops were closed and people were nowhere to be seen. In other words, it was desolate (though in a good way).

My camera gave up on me and I had to resort to my phone for photos, thus the sketchy resolution.

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The Bahla souk during the friday noon prayer

 

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Empty alleyways of the Bahla Souk

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Getting here:

Take a shared-taxi from the Nizwa Souk in Nizwa. Price is about OMR 1.000 (as of May 2017). Some drivers will charge unsuspecting tourists OMR 5.000 for the same ride. Don’t be fooled!

 

No trip to Oman is complete without a trip to its interior. Despite being cut-off from the coast by the Al-Hajar mountain-range, this seemingly hostile environment is home to an extremely rich culture and history. Visit her magnificent cities to sample Arab and Omani hospitality at its finest!

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Sohar: The city of Sinbad

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The Sultan Qaboos Mosque of Sohar

Situated equidistance from Dubai’s bright-lights and Muscat’s minarets is Sohar – the city from which the mystical semi fictional sailor Sinbad hailed from. This small town situated along the Dubai – Muscat highway, hugs the coast of the Gulf of Oman.

Sohar was my first Omani city and it was a great way to start my Omani escapade!

I arrive in Dubai at the ungodly hour of 1am and slept at the terminal till 5am, when I set-off for the ONTC office at Deira to catch my 7.30am bus to Sohar. The bus, operated by Mwasalat, was averagely priced at OMR 2.300 and took approximately 4 hours.

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The bus, operated by Mwasalat, was comfortable and even had Wifi!

At 7.30am sharp, we left the Dubai skyline behind for the Al Hajar mountains that demarcates the border between the UAE and Oman. Soon, we arrived at the border checkpoints of Hatta, UAE and Al Wajaja, Oman.

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The ride in the UAE side comprised mostly views of sand dunes.
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The UAE-Oman border is situated along the Al Hajar mountain range.

The UAE exit-fee and Omani visa-on-arrival was exorbitant, costing OMR 4 and OMR 20 (as of May 2017) respectively!

At 11:30am, the bus pulled at a bus stop in Sohar and my Couchsurfing host, Bharghav, who’s an Indian expat working in Oman, picked me up to have a sumptuous meal at a local Indian eatery before going to the Corniche to do some sightseeing. However, the 40 degree-heat made it near impossible to do so comfortably. Yet, I persevered…

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The Sohar Corniche
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The Sohar fort, which was unfortunately closed when I was there.
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The abundance of date palm trees, which Oman is renowned for, provided much needed shade from the oppressive rays of the sun.

I knew Omanis were friendly and chaleureux prior to my trip. And lucky me got a first-hand taste of their conviviality just hours after setting foot in Oman!

When photographing the perimeter of the Sohar Fort, Attaullah came to me and asked me where I’m from. Then he repeatedly said, “photo photo photo”, thus the selfie, before ending it off with an invitation to his house for lunch with his family!

 It was my first interaction with Omanis and oh gosh, I instantly knew that they were probably the friendliest and warmest people out there!

Later, my trip to a local beach confirmed this notion where curious beach-goers, who were probably wondering “what’s this tourist is doing in this town?”, greeted me with more friendliness and invitations to their homes.

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Bharghav, at the back in red, and a band of brothers who requested me take a photo with them.
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I also got to play professional photographer with these two boys as my models!
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The beach at Sohar just before sunset.

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Fishing nets were strewn around the beach.

Dinner was at a nondescript road-side eatery. It was a shock when the expected tables and chairs were nowhere to be seen and all that were available was a carpet and cushions. The delectable OMR 1.500 meal comprised fried fish, briyani rice, a local non-spicy curry, and a dozen dates!

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The following day, also my last day in Sohar, was spent at the Sultan Qaboos Mosque. This recently-inaugurated grand mosque incorporates a fusion of Persian and Central Asian architectural styles in its architecture.

Decorated with ornate pieces and intricate designs, I was awestruck by its stupendous beauty and serenity!

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The Sultan Qaboos Mosque of Sohar, Oman.
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The entrance of the mosque made me feel like I was in Tashkent or Qom.
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As an individual who loves Islamic architecture, the visit to this mosque made my heart fonder!
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The inner courtyard of the Sultan Qaboos Mosque.
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The Mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca.

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Here, too, I was greeted by a group of Omanis who showered me with warmth!

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I was glad that Sohar was my first Omani city as it gave me a great introduction to Oman. It etched in my mind an Oman where people are friendly, warm and hospitable. And of course, it offered an authentic Middle-Eastern experience, much like the rest of the country, which has been spared from the construction-bonanza sweeping across the rest of the Gulf!

 

Brussels: A European Cauldron

It was hard, hard trying to find an apt name for this post, a heading that would encapsulate the spirit of Brussels.

At first to me, Brussels felt like a mixture of everything and lacked a distinctive character. It didn’t have anything distinctive unlike cities of its rank like Paris with its Haussmann architecture or Amsterdam’s laid-back atmosphere and its terrace houses.

It was only at the end of my trip across Europe when I did realise what Brussels is – a microcosm of the continent itself.

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Fries, mistakenly thought to have originated from France, is actually a Belgian invention!

Brussels, to me, is Europe’s cauldron. While officially bilingual (French and Dutch), it was common to hear a smattering of other (European) languages, from Hola to Tschüss and everything in between.

I met many European students on an Erasmus internship adopting Brussels as their new home and the city contained the different architectural styles found across Europe, from the grandiose government buildings of Berlin, the terrace houses of Amsterdam and the wide boulevards and the grandiosity of Paris. In other words, if Europe was a city, it would resemble Brussels closely!

At first, a mixture of trepidation, fear and excitement filled me on the day I headed to Brussels. Trepid because I had lost my wallet, along with most of my travel money, in Amsterdam the night before, fearful because of all the travel advisories advising against travel to Belgium after the 2016 bombing and excited as Brussels was the first French-speaking city on my Eurotrip. Oui! Je peux utiliser et pratiquer mon Français!

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Thanks Marco for snapping a photo of me with my hitch signboard!

Thankfully, perseverance got the better of me and I hitchhiked from Amsterdam and reached Brussels South Station at mid-afternoon. I was captivated by the signs in the train station. I knew Belgium, and Brussels particularly, was bilingual, just not that the bilingualism would be taken so seriously so as to having every signboard written in three languages (including English)!

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All signs in Brussels are bilingual, something that caught my attention!

I waited at the station till 7 in the evening, when Marco, my Couchsurfing host who also had the same fervent passion as me for cute-hot guys, fetched me from the station to his apartment in the Saint-Gilles district. It was at the common kitchen of his apartment building where some of the most enjoyable moments in Europe were passed in the company of his housemates, from chatting and joking on very random subjects to even playing a prank on one of his housemates, a cute Finnish guy I had a crush on!

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Marco (on the extreme left) and his housemates made my evenings in Brussels fun and enjoyable!

The following day, after receiving money transferred from my dad via Western Union, I headed to the Grand Place (or Grote Makt) in central Brussels, smack in the middle of the historical district.

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The Grand Place (Grote Makt in Dutch) is the main square of Brussels.
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Surrounding the fringes of the Grand Place were the guild halls built by wealthy tycoons and noble families of the city. The facades of the halls were intricately designed and finished off with gold installations.
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Pictured above is the King’s house (Maison du roi / Broodhuis) where, ironically, no king has ever lived.

I wandered aimlessly in its surrounding alleyways for a good half-hour before I spotted a group of orange umbrellas with the words “Free-Tour” on their orange shades. Led by a bubbly and informative American tour guide, Dora, the 2 hour or so tour by Viva Brussels was so good that I felt the need to, under no pressure from anyone, give her 5 euros as a tip (about 20% of my daily budget)!

We explored the following places:

Manneken Pis, the Delirium Cafe, the Saint-Hubert Galleries and the Sablon district.

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The free tour of Brussels by Viva Tour was extremely informative and fun! There I am on the extreme left!
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Top left: A Tintin mural. Top middle: The Mannenken Pis ( Little Man Pee in Dutch), a landmark of the city. Top right: Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a shopping arcade from the mid 19th century home to many confectioneries. Bottom left: Jeanneke Pis, the sister of the Mannenken Pis. Bottom right: the Delirium Cafe, the cafe recorded with the longest beer list in the Guinness Book of Records.
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As I clearly couldn’t afford to buy any of the chocolates on sale at the Galeries Royals Saint-Hubert, I took advantage of snacking on the samples provided by the shops to taste Belgian chocolate. They were amazing!
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The Atomium in Brussels

I also checked-out the Atomium, a 102 metre tall structure straight out of the space-age that comprised nine huge metallic balls held up and connected by a series of interconnecting metallic tubes. The views at the top were nothing short of stunning!

Built for the 1958 Brussels Expo, the Atomium’s base and, for that matter, the surrounding buildings retained a distinctive architectural flavour of that era. Most buildings had a fire-red brick facade that was typical of that period.

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View of the old Expo Fairground from atop the Atomium.
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Views of the surroundings from atop the Atomium.

The Atomium held a mini expo on Sabena, a defunct Belgian airline, in one of those huge metal balls. As I’m an aviation enthusiasts, my eyes glistened at the first sight of the expo!

I returned back to Hotel des Monnaies metro station at around 5 pm, way ahead of the time I was supposed to meet Marco (which was 7) and thus, I walked down a neighbouring thoroughfare to see a bit more of Brussels.

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Palais de Justice

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What unfolded in front of me at the Palais de Justice (Palace of Justice) was a sight to behold: A panoramic view of Brussels itself where its silhouette was illuminated by the beautiful twilight!

Its lack of a distinctive character was the greatest thing I love about Brussels. I never felt like a stranger here. Unlike most other cities where one cultural strain dominates, Brussels’ culture itself is a mosaic of cultures. I found myself feeling just like any other Bruxellois, though I obviously don’t live there, where I could be myself. To put it simply, I felt like another mosaic piece in the Brussels story.

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Hitchhiking, Auto-stop, Liften

Probably the most interesting segments of my Euro trip were not the cities themselves (though they were definitely interesting and fun) but the in-betweens. While most would opt to drive or take a train, I opted for the more traditional form of travelling that travellers for a century or so have done: Hitchhiking.

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With a cardboard with the city names of Brussels and Utrecht scribbled on it, I waited at the side of the road, hoping to get picked-up by a driver heading in my direction.

Hitchhiking was great. From the thrill of awaiting a lucky break of getting a ride to the interesting conversations with the drivers, every facet of it fascinated me. Also, as I was backpacking on a tight budget, hitchhiking helped relieve some strain from my travel expenditure.

I first hitchhiked when I was heading out of Amsterdam to Brussels. This time not out of choice but rather, out of necessity as I had lost my wallet the day before and only had 15€ on me. However, this delightful first experience made me fall in love with hitchhiking and right now, I’m hooked on it.

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Sophia, a music student and member of the music group, Find Us In Slumberland, gave me a lift from a hitchhiking spot in Amsterdam to a petrol station outside the city of Ghent, Belgium.

In total, I travelled more than 1000 km across Europe by hitchhiking and every single experience I had was unique and great. I also had the chance to practice my French while hitchhiking in France and my vocabulary certainly did expand!

Hitchwiki was of great help as it provided me with tips, including the best places to hitch a ride from. While certain cities, like Amsterdam, had designated hitchhiking spots, in other cities, like Paris and Lyon, Hitchwiki advised me to head to petrol stations along highways in the outskirts.

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I was lucky to get a ride from Mons, a city in Belgium, to Paris. However, after travelling more than 250 km and just 17 km from Paris, a car tire blew and the car had to be towed to the Parisian suburb of Gonesse!
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Etienne, who was heading from Paris to Geneva, Switzerland, gave me a lift from a petrol station outside Paris to the French city of Macon.

I prefered hitching a ride from petrol stations than curbsides. At petrol stations, I could approach drivers and get to know the general direction in which most vehicles were travelling in and enlist the help of station staff, who gave me information on which cities were on the way to my intended destination.

Approaching and starting conversations with drivers at petrol stations also gave them more chances to look at me as a person and thus, waiting times for me at petrol stations were considerably lower than at curbsides.

While often I was lucky to get picked up from curbsides and petrol stations, there were instances in which the wait for a ride was longer than expected. Hitchhiking from Marseille to Frejus in Southern France, a distance of about 150 km, took me an entire day!

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It was a short ride from Macon to the France’s third largest city, Lyon.
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The ride from Paris to Macon, and then to Lyon was scenic, to say the least.
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The ride from Marseille to Brignoles took me past many French villages.

I will definitely recommend hitchhiking to everyone. Not only is it free, it’s also fun and a great way to explore a country. While some might consider hitchhiking dangerous, personally, I’ve never felt unsafe during my hitchhiking journeys! Maybe I might’ve been lucky, but who knows?

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Thank you to all who’ve offered me a lift!

Here are some tips from me on hitchhiking:

1 – Look Presentable: Looking presentable is important as it helps wear-off initial suspicions.

2 – Select a good spot: Try selecting ramps and petrol stations along the most direct route between you and your destination. While all roads eventually do lead to your destination, some are more direct than others.

3 – Listen to your instincts: If you feel that a particular ride might pose a threat to your well-being, politely decline the driver’s offer. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

4- Stay positive: Be prepared to stand hours alongside highway ramps or at petrol stations. Bring along some food and drink as you will never know when will a ride come.

5- Interact: If you’ve decided to hitchhike, then shatter the shell around you and interact with the driver during the ride. Most drivers are eager to listen to your travel and life stories!

Côte d’Azur: A stretch of Paradise

Nestled in Southeastern France, the Côte d’Azur, or also known as the French Riviera, sums up the French (and European) definition of paradise – azure skies, sun-drenched beaches, laid-back, and wealth.

I passed 2 weeks of my European odyssey here, soaking-in its sun rays and exploring the things and places the azure coast has to offer.

Probably, my most unique Couchsurfing experience was here in Menton, where just 8 kilometers from Monaco – a city-state packed with high-rises, I stayed for three days in a small shack snuggled in the mountains that hug the coast.

It was a lucky break for me, after a seemingly impossible task of finding a host, to have Martin opening-up his small shack in the mountains to me after seeing my public trip on Couchsurfing.

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The quaint village of Gorbio
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Like most other towns and villages along the Côte d’Azur, Gorbio’s buildings had their facades painted in pastel colours.
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Martin parked his car at the front of this thousand year old chapel in Gorbio and the rest of the journey to his shack had to be completed by foot.

We arrived at the village of Gorbio just after sunset, situated in between Monaco and Menton, where Martin parked his car as the path leading to his house became too narrow to accommodate any 4-wheel vehicle. After a somewhat 15 minute hike through the woods, we finally arrived at his compound, which housed two shacks – one for him and Couchsurfers and another to be rented out during the summer months to curious tourists seeking to detox from urban spaces and explore the wilderness.

Visit Martin’s webpage: http://www.monacoecolodge.com

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Martin’s shack was small, cozy and comfortable. Solar panels behind the house help meet Martin’s electricity needs.
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Despite it being in a rural setting, the shack was well-equipped with Wifi, a wood stove and warm water for showering.

The first night included me cooking a simple meal (two packets of instant noodle and salmon pasta), starting a fire to heat up the shack, and both of us playing rounds of Domino and darts!

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Domino and glasses of wines dominated the night.

The following morning was one pleasing to all my senses as I was awoken to a gorgeous view of the surroundings, sounds of birds chirping and roosters crowing while I took a deep breath of fresh mountain air.

We headed downhill to Menton, where we purchased dinner ingredients before heading to the cash-awashed streets of Monaco!

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Hills and vegetations dominated the view.

Having only two hours of free parking, Martin and I scrambled to see the sights of this principality – the footballers’ footprints at the Grimaldi Forum, Port Hercule and playing the slot machines at the Monte Carlo Casino!

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Plage du Larvotto in Monaco, situated beside the Grimaldi Forum.
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Zidane’s footprint at the Grimaldi Forum.
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View of Monaco with Port Hercule in the foreground.

Soon evening came and we were joined by a German Couchsurfer, Daniel. Specific roles were given this evening, with me being the cook, Daniel tasked with setting up the fire for heating and Martin preparing his telescope for a stargazing session.

In no time was dinner, consisting of seared salmon, sautéed potatoes and pan-fried squid, served as the room started to heat-up. We gobbled down our food so as to not miss the most opportune time for stargazing – 19H30.

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Daniel was dismantling a wooden crate for the wood stove while I was cooking dinner for the night.
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Our dinner !
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Stargazing was fun and enriching, with Martin telling us the stories associated with the constellations and the science behind stars.
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A final selfie with Martin and Daniel leaving Martin’s shack for Menton

Martin, with evident enthusiasm and deep knowledge of astronomy, showed us the planet Venus, a few distant stars and supernovas with his telescope, all of which left Daniel and I dumbfounded.

Soon the night dragged on and we played Bluff – a game I had introduced the both of them to. Though sadly, despite being the supposed introducer and expert in this game, I won no rounds while the two of them bagged a few glories in their names.

As the next morning came, my stay at Martin’s place was over and I hitched a ride downhill to Menton on Daniel’s car.

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The border town of Menton.

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Menton lacked Monaco’s glitz and glamour, though not in a bad way, and possessed a laid-back atmosphere . Its layout was more resort-town like, with palm trees lining the streets and buildings painted in pastel colours.

 Smatterings of Italiano can be heard alongside Francais as Menton’s proximity to Italy makes it a popular getaway for many Italians. I decided to give the local cuisine, which is heavily centered around seafood, a try and ordered Moules Frites (Fried Mussels), which was sumptuous –  at least to me.

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The Promenade du Soleil in Menton.

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I saw no coincidence on why the Côte d’Azur or French Riviera is often referred to as a stretch of paradise. After all, what’s more to paradise than azure skies, a laid-back atmosphere, wealth and most importantly, sun-drenched beaches?

Amsterdam: Bikes, Canals & Fun

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It’s  no accident that Amsterdam is also affectionately known as the Northern Venice

A Northern Venice, where canals are flanked by terraced houses and streets are awashed with bicycles would probably be my way of describing Amsterdam (Though some might also argue that pot be given an honourable mention)! Amsterdam was my first stop in my 5 week odyssey across Western Europe.

While Amsterdam was at first extremely frustrating – I had to send close to 100 Couchsurfing requests before someone accepted to host me, the experience following this time consuming search for a host was extremely great and more than compensated for the initial frustration!

The person who saved the day was Edwin, a 22 year old student university student, who opened his small yet comfortable and cozy hostel room to me. It was also nice experiencing his vegan and naturalist lifestyle, where everything was recycled and no food when to waste.

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Edwin and I at the front of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
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During one of the evenings, Edwin and I cooked a simple yet delectable vegan meal
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We groced for ingredients at the Saturday Zuidermarkt.
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I also introduced Edwin to a vegan tempura seaweed, which he said was nice though pricey

Transportation, too, was made easy thanks to Edwin, who carried me on his bike and navigated through the busy streets and alleyways of Amsterdam! Though, I must say, seating at the back of a bike isn’t a very nice experience (It hurt alot)!

The first night was a rather enjoyable one, spent at the Foodhallen, a food market that was dimly lit and had the vibe of a club. The following day, we visited the Rijksmuseum and Vondelpark, both of which were thoroughly enjoyable!

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Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s answer to Central Park in New York
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Soothing to the ears were the music played played by this extremely talented trio in the Rijkmuseum tunnel
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A painting of Vincent Van Gogh in the Rijksmuseum

Distinctive to Amsterdam was the smell of pot joints that emanated from roadside coffee shops and hanged in the cold winter air. In some districts, particularly near Centraal Station, the smell was overpowering.

As Edwin had to visit his grandfather during one of the days, I met-up with Jon, another Couchsurfer who was a certified pilot and a software developer, who not only lent me his spare bike for a day, but also brought me to a great community kitchen in the city.

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Westermarkt – a reformed church within the Dutch Protestant church

I cycled myself around the city for a day on streets that lined the canal and visited many of the city’s sights, including the Westermarkt and the Anne Frank House, before rejoining Jon in the evening for dinner.

The experience at the Anne Frank House was particularly emotional as the interiors of the house was small and dark, just as they would’ve been during her time in hiding, and contained documents and personal correspondence that belonged to her and her family.

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Jon (extreme left) and I had a meal together with 3 Turkish Couchsurfers at the community kitchen

The concept of the community kitchen was one that fascinated me.

Firstly, the volunteer-run kitchen served only vegan food, meaning anyone, regardless of dietary restrictions, could patronize the kitchen. Secondly, the price was extremely cheap and patrons could decide to pay any amount, as long as it was above the base value!

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The community kitchen was housed in an abandoned warehouse in the city
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Dinner included couscous and chickpeas with a portion of salad and sautéed pumpkin at the side

The meal was sumptuous and was made even better by the great jovial company. We chatted a lot, mostly on travelling and on our lives back home.

Though short, my stay in Amsterdam was extremely memorable! I love how the city is centered around a series of canals and how conducive it is to biking! Also, its liberal attitude, where people of different ways of life are tolerated and accepted, made everyone, not only me, felt welcomed to the Northern Venice that is Amsterdam!

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Dubai: Tall, Taller & Tallest

Famous for its skyscrapers that seem to scratch the skies, the sight of those behemoths that Dubai is famous for is something of a sight to behold. Almost no two skyscrapers are alike; Each has its own unique architecture and design. Yet, from afar, they form congruous skyline that is pleasing both to the eye and heart!

Two districts that are immensely popular for their buildings are Dubai Marina and Downtown Dubai. Both districts feature a central lake with the edifices erected around it.

Downtown Dubai:

Downtown Dubai is Dubai’s new city centre that is less than a decade old. It’s a district that exhausts superlatives; it contains the world’s tallest building – The Burj Khalifa, the world’s largest synchronised fountain – The Dubai Fountain, and one of the world’s largest mall, The Dubai Mall.

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Downtown Dubai with the Souk Al Bahar (on the right) and The Address Hotel (on the left) in the foreground. The Address Hotel was engulfed in flames during New Year’s eve 2015!
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The Burj Khalifa – the World’s tallest building with a height of 828 metres
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The residential buildings at Downtown Dubai are perched at the edge of the Dubai Fountain
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Dubai Fountain features a water display, where the fountain ‘dances’ to a music! The performance commences at 6pm and occurs every half-hour.
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Souk Al Bahar and the neighbouring The Palace Downtown Dubai have a palatial design
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Also in Downtown Dubai is The Dubai Mall, one of the World’s largest mall!

Getting here:

Directions: Take the Dubai Metro to Burj Khalifa / Dubai Mall station.

Dubai Marina:

Dubai Marina is located at the opposite end of the city from Downtown Dubai, near the Mall of the Emirates and Burj Al Arab. Like Downtown Dubai, Dubai Marina is home to numerous residential buildings and it extremely popular amongst Dubai white-collar Western community.

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Dubai Marina is an exclusive Neighbourhood, evident with the abundance of yachts along its shoreline
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Dubai Marina is popular amongst joggers, provided the weather isn’t too hot
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The Address Dubai Marina is a unique buidling which resembles an elephant (at least to me)
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Ubiquitous in Dubai is the name ‘EMAAR’ emblazoned into the facades of many buildings. EMAAR is the UAE’s largest construction firm

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A mosque with a glittering dome sitting juxtaposed to some of the residential buildings

Getting here:

Directions: Take the Dubai Metro to DAMAC PROPERTIES or Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

Within Dubai Marina, there is a tram system that loops around the district.

Jumeirah:

Jumeirah is a neighbourhood along the Dubai coastline. Famous for its beautiful beach, Jumeirah also house one of Dubai’s most famous tower, the Burj Al Arab. Rumour has it that this hotel is the only 7 star hotel globally!

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Jumeirah Beach is a public beach located near the Burj Al Arab building.
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🙂

Getting here:

There are gaps in the public transportation system in Jumeirah. Thus, unless if a taxi is affordable, be prepared to do lots of walking!

Directions: I took the tram to Al Sufoh. Then I walked some 4-5 kilometres along King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Street.

As the walking time is relatively long and given that Dubai has a not so conducive outdoor weather, these air-conditioned bus stops come in handy. I sat in some along the way to Burj Al Arab to cool myself down.

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Dubai’s air-conditioned bus stops