I finally left Thailand via ferry from the Tammalang Port at Satun and about an hour and a half later was greeted into the Northernmost island in the Andaman sea of Malaysia, called Langkawi. After clearing customs I grabbed a cab for the T-Star hotel in Cenang.
During the 40 minute cab ride my driver informed me of some interesting facts about the island. According to him, Langkawi was barely visible on the map of tourism and tourists until the 70’s when the Prime Minister declared the island Duty Free. Since then, Langkawi has skyrocketed as a hot spot for tourism (loads of tours from feeding eagles to snorkeling are available) and shopaholics looking for the best deals on booze, makeup, chocolate, perfumes, etc.
Another tidbit he shared with me was that the population on the island was about 85% muslim, 10% Indian and the rest a mix of Chinese, Expats, and Europeans. After having been in Thailand for so long with diversity in foods only being available in larger cities, Langkawi was a breath of fresh air on that front with a large variety of cuisine choices to choose from. Of course they also had traditional Malay foods, which consist of rice, fish, chicken and lots of vegetable varieties. The foods are generally a bit spicy (though not as spicy as Thailand) and their national meal is Nasi Lemak, which is a rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf 🙂
I went to Langkawi with one specific goal in mind: to check out the animal shelter on the island and see if they needed volunteers. T-Star, my chosen hotel for the week was an absolutely delightful place and only about a 45 minute walk to the shelter. Every day, at least twice a day troops of the macaque monkeys came through the hotel leaping from balcony to balcony in search of any sort of food. There were signs everywhere to beware of things left on the balcony as they may be snatched and for good reason because those little guys were fast in snatching things!!
The day after I arrived I started my wander toward the animal shelter to check it out. I was a bit confused about it at first because online they seemed somehow located at a hotel resort, which didn’t make a ton of sense until I got there and learned the story. The Bon Ton resort, located next to The Temple Tree hotel is owned and operated by an animal lover. The owner started both hotels and the restaurants attached to them and uses moneys from the hotel and restaurant to fund an animal shelter located just in front of the resorts. There, over 100 dogs and over 100 cats find shelter and a loving home.
I arrived a little after 10am and chatted with the volunteer coordinator, Dorothy, and began the next day doing half days at first (since I was walking 5 km there and 5 back daily). Morning activities consisted of taking over 50 dogs for walks around the hotel grounds with fellow volunteers, then picking up after them and finally serving them lunch, which consisted of rice cooked in beef broth with chunks of beef and a variety of vegetables, all prepared FRESH daily by the restaurant chef!!
So for the first week I walked to and from my hotel to help walk the doggies in the morning, then spent my afternoons trying out new restaurants in the area and walking along the Cenang beach. As my week started to come to an end, it turned out that one of the Nepalese workers for the shelter had to go back home, so I was asked if I wanted to stay in one of the volunteer rooms so I could help with full-day activities along with the other 2 full-time volunteers. I agreed and moved in to my new accommodations (complete with 2 yard dogs, John and Mummy) and began full day activities. Of course, though I’d only planned at first for a month there, it quickly turned into two:)
Bathroom activities are certainly not at all among the list that many want to talk about, but I just have to talk about the “bum gun”… That phrase was actually coined by one of the first volunteers I’d met while here, Megan from Ireland, who also was the one who taught and told me its real function!
When I first arrived in Bangkok and stayed at the hotel near the airport, I noticed that while they had a Western toilet complete with a roll of toilet paper, they also had a hose connected to a water pipe with a nozzle at the end of it that when pressed would squirt out water. I thought it was a rather clever way to clean the toilet and flush out the areas under the rim when scrubbing the bowl out. I had seen this arrangement in every other hostel/hotel bathroom I had been in and continued to think how clever it was…
Then I arrived in Sangkhlaburi… And while J’s Family Homestay, where I stayed for the first couple of weeks, had a bathroom with a Western toilet with the spray nozzle attached, they didn’t have any toilet paper in the bathroom nor a bin stored in there to be able to throw away toilet paper that was brought in… Hmmmm….. That made me wonder a bit and was quite annoying really to have to bring in my own bag for used toilet paper.
A few days after being in Sangkhlaburi while drinking at Baan Job with Megan, Nyzil and Omar (a volunteer from Spain), Megan and I went to the bathroom together (as girls always do) and she made a mention how she really quite enjoys the bum gun as it made her feel so much cleaner! “I’m sorry, what?? The bum gun??”. “Yea that hose attached to the toilet”… Now I was really confused. So… That isn’t to clean the toilet but rather for… cleaning… instead of… toilet paper???
Yup. Indeed the “bum gun” is used in place of toilet paper. Several seconds of squirting water in the areas required is all it takes to get you feeling fresh and clean! Of course you had to wait a few seconds to dry a bit after using it, but it seriously does make you feel so much cleaner! Suddenly it made perfect sense as to why several places had no toilet paper but always had the hose and squirt nozzle! A word of advice that Megan also shared with me however was to always test the pressure of the nozzle before pointing it to yourself as it can sometimes be a bit strong.
So there it is. My knowledge of the bum gun. Use at your will:) Oh and I have thought to take a picture to show you all what exactly it looks like, but really don’t want to be caught walking into a bathroom with a camera… I can only imagine what people would think in seeing me do that, lol! Funnily enough the bathroom at the volunteer house doesn’t have a bum gun… Otherwise I wouldn’t mind sneaking in there for a shot of one. We have an Eastern toilet and utilize Western methods of cleaning since there isn’t a gun there. Honestly I do wish it had the nozzle as it really does make you feel cleaner than toilet paper!
I arrived in Ayutthaya by train from Bangkok. Though it said it would only be just over an hour, as I’ve read from other travelers, travel times should never be trusted as it always takes much longer than stated. The train was very basic. No air conditioning, only windows and honestly reminded me of a school bus on train tracks. People at each stop would hop aboard to sell water, bits of food, rice, etc for the journey. Leaving Bangkok it was amazing to see how many people live and set up work directly on the edge of the train tracks.
Along the Tracks
Along the Tracks_2
Along the way a very friendly Thai woman started chatting with me and as it turned out she lived in Ayutthaya and volunteered to make sure I got off at the right place :). Though they do have an intercom system on the train that tells you what stop is next, I was still very grateful I had someone to tell me for sure since my ears are not yet trained to hear Thai words correctly.
Just across the street and almost down to the end I found my hostel for the next several nights: Baan Are Gong GuestHouse. Originally I planned to stay 3 nights, but extended to 4 as I just got so comfortable there!! The people are very friendly, the accommodations are clean and the location couldn’t be better and easier as the train station is just down the road and the boat to get across the river is right next door! I stayed in a private room on the second floor (fan only) and adored that everyone has to take off their shoes before going upstairs.
Baan Are Gong Guesthouse
Baan Are Gong Guesthouse_2
Baan Are Gong Guesthouse_3
Baan Are Gong Guesthouse_4
The only perhaps, let’s call it ‘culture shock’ that I hadn’t encountered yet was the bathrooms… They were shared bathrooms and there were several sets of flip-flops in front of the bathrooms to slip on before going in. Inside the bathroom was a regular toilet, sink and mounted on the wall was a shower head and knobs. But no shower curtain… So when showering it’s literally like going into a standard single bathroom stall (except larger) and showering. Water of course goes everywhere and there’s just no way to avoid that! So it sprays all over the toilet, the sink and all over the floor. There is a drain behind the toilet to drain shower water away, but if it gets clogged with hair, well you then have a mini-flood going on… Definitely was a first for me and I kept having to remind myself that all the water on the toilet seat was from the shower, not from people peeing on it… I hope anyway, lol!!
But all in all, I adored this hostel!! They also have a little puppy that is just too darn cute for words and I just couldn’t help but play with him every second I got! The woman who owns the place is very nice to talk to and she gave me some great information on places to visit in the country.
Mama Dog 12 years!
My stay in Ayutthaya included going into town the first night to watch the street festival in honor of the King’s Birthday. One of the main streets was shut to traffic and they had stage after stage set up with live music, traditional Thai dancing, a muay thai boxing ring, and tons upon tons of street vendors selling everything from live fish (as pets), shoes, food, desserts, and my personal favorite to see: fried crickets and worms! No… I wasn’t brave enough to try any, but it was awesome to see!! A couple hours later once the sun set and the full moon rose high in the sky, fireworks started shooting off. It was such a fantastic time!!
King’s Birthday Celebrations
King’s Birthday Celebrations_2
King’s Birthday Celebrations_3
King’s Birthday Celebrations_4
King’s Birthday Celebrations_5
King’s Birthday Celebrations_6
Other activities included spending the whole day wandering the streets of Ayutthaya visiting the tons upon tons of temples and temple ruins they have available. From Wat Lokayasutharam (Buddha reclining) to the Phra Ram Park where several little Temples could be found, to Wat Maha That, site of an ancient Temple ruins, the Ancient Palace, Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit where one of the largest bronze Buddha images in Thailand can be found and so many more! Though some of the Temples have been given the status of being World Heritage Sites, they do charge admission (50 baht) for foreigners. Some people I came across took issue with that, but it’s such a teeny amount, I really wasn’t that bothered by it.
Sandstone Buddha Image
Sandstone Buddha Image_2
One funny here: as I was wandering through the park, walking through the grass in my flip-fops, I was thinking to myself whether there were any animals in Thailand to be worried about. Before going to Costa Rica EVERYONE and their brother (mine included) warned about the fer-de-lance snake (highly poisonous and can kill you within a half hour!!) but I hadn’t heard a thing from any fellow traveler to Thailand of critters to beware of. Just as I was thinking this, up ahead on the side walk was… Is that??… What IS that?!?!?… No…. Is that a komodo dragon??? Do they have those here??? Of course, my instinct toward animals not always being on point, I stealthily rushed toward it so not to scare it off, but yes I wanted a picture!! Later I looked it up and it’s not a komodo dragon, but rather what they call a ‘water monitor’. Interesting stuff!
I came across a local fishing for shrimp in the river, which was fun to watch for a bit 🙂
They also have an Elephant Village in Ayutthaya in the center of town where people could ride them down and back on the street. I opted NOT to do this, but did buy a basket of food that I fed directly to the elephants hanging out at the ticket area. I have so much more to say on this topic, but will save it for another post as it’s too long for this one…
Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit
Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit_2
Wat Phra Si Samphet
My last activity in Ayutthaya was of a boat tour. For 200 baht, the two-hour tour included a visit to Wat Phanan Choeng near the Japanese settlement that featured a bronze Buddha that looked larger than the one at Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, then over to Wat Phutthai Sawan followed by the ever so beautiful and my favorite (especially at sunset!!) Wat Chaiwatthanaram. The tour ended by continuing along the river until we made a full circle back to our Guesthouse:)
I thought of calling this post “Tales of Two Tails” but came up with ‘Gecko Hallucinations’ first, so I thought I’d go with that. Just to clarify, I wasn’t on ANY kind of drug at the time, only about 900 mls of beer WITH food, so it wasn’t even like I was THAT drunk!
As I was sitting at my table enjoying some dinner the first night at the hostel, I noticed a gecko making his way across the table toward me. He was quite the brave little guy as he just kept coming closer and closer and closer, wiggling his little body back and forth with each cautious yet determined step.
Seeing how close he was getting, and not wanting to scare him away I stopped all my movements just to watch and see how close he’d actually come. A few minutes later he made his way to my beer bottle… Hmmm… Maybe he was after the water condensing off the bottle? At the beer bottle he lifted his head as if to look the entire length of the bottle up and down, trying to decide what his move would be. He then moved his head to the table where some water had pooled and, well didn’t really drink, but looked like he was sniffing it, lol!! I know this sounds nuts!! I was quite humored by this however!!
I made a movement with my hand to get an itch on my nose and he recoiled back about half way down the table. I know you should never feed wildlife, but I couldn’t help it! I threw over an itty bitty piece of egg from my plate and he immediately attacked it as if it were a bug that just landed. I ended up throwing a few more bits of egg his way when suddenly another gecko was on the table. This gecko only had half of his tail however, so needless to say they were named “short tail” and “long tail”, lol!!
Long tail noticed short tail’s arrival and immediately started twitching his tail back and forth all while giving off short little chirps. Everything seemed friendly enough but all of a sudden long tail scurried over and started biting (or something) short tail on his side! Short tail didn’t seem in any sort of pain however since he wasn’t going anywhere, but long tail kept on for about 20 seconds. Then he ran off as short tail remained.
The tables somehow seemed to have turned because though long tail seemed to be the dominant one (since he was the one attacking) it was him that was running off and short tail that remained.
Short tail started to come toward me this time so I threw him a few bits of egg. A few minutes later long tail came back on the table and started coming toward short tail again. At this point short tail started twitching HIS tail and chirping, but instead of another spat, long tail simply ran off again, lol!! And that was the last I saw of long tail that night…
Believe it or not the second night was the same! Long tail showed up first, then a little while later short tail came by. Long tail tried to show dominance by even raising up on the pads of his feet, arching his body in the air to make himself look bigger (or something!) but still it was always short tail who won out without any real effort being put forward by him, lol!!
The pictures taken are only of the short tailed gecko as on the third night I never did see long tail… Hmmm…
Montmartre is a vibrant city with so much movement and character it’s sometimes hard to know where to look. Fresh open street markets, stores spilling out contents for sale onto the street for people to rifle through and street performers entertaining crowds on the lawn of the Sacre-Coeur are very common sights. Yes, Montmartre is alive! You can feel the culture and inspiration that grew Montmartre into a popular destination to visit. The home of the Moulin Rouge as well as countless artists (Van Gogh, Renoir and Picasso to name a few) Montmartre became home to the Bohemian Revolution long ago, yet today you can still feel its individuality and funkiness in the air. It does have an odd nature to it that wouldn’t appeal to everyone and some “squirrley” characters, but for all except one minor episode, I enjoyed my time there.
I stayed in the Le Regent Montmartre hostel just down the road from the World Famous Moulin Rouge. I must admit I love that movie (Ewan McGregor & Nicole Kidman) and ever since seeing it for the first time, I’ve wanted to get to Montmartre! Well because of that and a favorite black and white poster I had back in College that I just adored of a couple kissing on the steps of Sacre-Coeur with Paris in the background.
The hostel was actually quite nice. The location was ideal, the staff (while not overly friendly in person) were very helpful over email in getting me exact information on which trains to take to get there from downtown Paris and the rooms were cozy too. The hostel used to be a hotel and they have converted each room into a hostel room. The room I booked was only a 3-person room and each room had its own bathroom (a HUGE plus in my book)!! The only negative was the breakfast. It was lackluster and the brioche were a disappointment. Other than that it was a pleasant stay.
Another thing I enjoyed about the hostel (though it has nothing to do with the hostel, really) was my roommates. I stayed there 3 nights and it overlapped with each of my other two roommates’ stay as well. So for the nights I was there I got to get to know my roommates a bit instead of getting new batches of roommates each night of a stay. Both were young guys who were there for different reasons. The first was there because he was about to start film school at the University. He was from Egypt and very kindly gave me a coin from Egypt that I carry around with me. Unfortunately when I was getting ready to leave he wasn’t around so I wasn’t able to get his info to keep in contact, but I’m sure I will be seeing his name on some films not too far into the future:) The other young man was in Europe because he had won a photography competition and his work was being featured in a show in Brussels!!! How exciting is that?? So he was in Paris, well because, why not?? He is incredibly talented and for anyone who loves photography, I would recommend to check out his website at ameasureofmadness.wordpress.com 🙂
My time in Montmartre consisted first of getting to the Moulin Rouge to check out prices and show information, etc. Unfortunately the tickets were WAY out of my budget, but again it gives me something to go back there for! I walked all over town checking out the various nooks and crannies, getting lost every now and again or simply stopping for a seat and to watch life go on around me. I explored Sacre-Coeur and watched the sun set from the hilltop. And of course I took a walking tour of Paris:)
View from Sacre-Coeur
View from Sacre-Coeur_2
View from Sacre-Coeur_3
Church beside Sacre-Coeur
The only adverse experience I had there was my first morning in Montmartre. Before walking into Paris to the meeting point location for the walking tour (Place St. Michel) I wanted to get some pictures first thing of the Moulin Rouge. So I headed in that direction first, finding a little place to stop and get a yummy breakfast along the way. I sat on a park bench between the streets sipping on my coffee when along came a guy (creep) holding a beer in his hand. Mind you it’s 8am… He spotted me and came right over and sat next to me. So I got up and started walking away. Apparently he thought I was trying to be cutsy/coy because he proceeded to follow me. When I looked behind me and noticed this I immediately turned left to see if he was actually following me or not. And when he mimicked my motions, it was time to set him straight.
I stopped to face him and quite forcefully warned him to stop following me. I was speaking all in English but he got the point as his smile suddenly turned to a frown and he crossed the street away from me:) I went back to my original bench keeping a keen eye on the guy and once I finished my breakfast I spotted a very tall man who was going in the direction I wanted to go. So I walked up to him and asked first if he spoke English (thankfully YES!) and then asked if he would mind walking with me for a bit. He was really nice to agree and we chatted for the next several blocks until it was time for him to turn off.
The area around the Moulin Rouge is somewhat like a Red Light District, but very “in your face” and not at all classy (I hate to say) as the District in Amsterdam. Every shop turned into one type of sex shop or another the closer you got to the Moulin Rouge. It literally was like crossing an invisible line which on one side was very obviously the Red Light District and the other very obviously regular life. I found that interesting…
Moulin Rouge by Day
Moulin Rouge by Day_2
Moulin Rouge by Day_3
My favorite random experience while in Montmartre once again happened at the Moulin Rouge. I had pictures of it in the daylight, but now needed pictures of it at night all lit up! So after my day in Versailles, I stayed in Paris until it got dark to get pictures of the tower lit up, then headed back to Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge to get night pictures.
Moulin Rouge by Night
Moulin Rouge by Night_2
So there I was snapping away a ton of pictures. I was just about to leave when all of a sudden a horse trailer rounded the corner and parked in front of the Moulin Rouge… Two large men in black (bodyguards) then put up a little barricade behind the horse trailer. On the side of the trailer was painted “Les Petits Chevaux du Moulin Rouge”… Now I don’t speak French or know many words in French, but this phrase I understood! “Little horses of the Moulin Rouge”!! Oh this I had to see up close! I crossed the street and sure enough out came 6 little miniature horses who were promptly escorted from the trailer to a side entrance of the Moulin Rouge by the trainers and over the watchful eye of the bodyguards, LOL!!! The first thought that went though my mind was “What in the world goes on in there?????” 🙂
Ok, now I know I’ve said this before about places I’ve been to… But I ABSOLUTELY LOVED AMSTERDAM!!!!! Honestly if I can find a place with such charm, spirit, acceptance and SANITY as exists in the people and politics of Amsterdam, yet somewhere warm all year round, well let’s just say I will have found home:) Alas, it does get cold there in the winter so sadly I won’t be able to call it my new home… The search continues, grrr!!!
Moving on… Why do I LOVE Amsterdam so much, you may ask?? The reasons are so numerous I’m getting excited just thinking about the prospect of writing about them! Their views on sex and drugs, their tolerance for people of different religious backgrounds, races, sexes and lifestyles. Then tack on the natural and pure beauty of the city itself with the crazy architecture and lovely Venice-like canals running throughout. So many extremes live peacefully together within a stone’s throw of each other. Everyone is accepting of one another and though they may not always agree, they don’t bother or use any sort of violence toward another. They just coexist and go along with their lives and leave what they don’t agree with in peace. Ah, just wonderful!! So many places and people could learn a lot from this kind of mentality.
Seriously??? I’m NOT High!!!
Am I High? Or are the Buildings Crooked??
Buildings and Bridges
The only warning I will give people about Amsterdam is BEWARE THE BICYCLISTS!!!! Seriously, they will run your rear over and not even look back if you dare to get in their way!! Not kidding either… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stepped into the bike lane or even in the street and had a near heart attack because I was almost run over by a passing cyclist. As one of guides during a tour I took said (and I’m paraphrasing here): the people of Amsterdam are wonderful and friendly people. However something happens to them when they get on a bicycle. They suddenly morph into crazy homicidal maniacs who will take you out if you get in their way. LOL!!!
I stayed at the StayOkay Stadsdoelen Hostel a short distance from the train station and just a few blocks from the Red Light District. The hostel itself was nice and located directly on one of the canals, and even though I was sharing the room with 19 other people, being on the canal gave it a nice view and some charm.
When I first arrived via train into town I have to be honest that I wasn’t impressed at all. The area around the train station isn’t anything to write home about as it’s kinda dumpy and industrial. However just a few minutes of walking took me into one of the hearts of the city (the Red Light District) and the cute homes, canals and vibe started to thrill me. Funnily enough, I had no idea that I had been walking through the Red Light district while trying to find my hostel and only learned later while looking at a map where I’d been. That just goes to show you how classy the area is. It’s not “in your face” or intrusive in any way, though it’s there.
Oh wait… I did say I had only one warning about Amsterdam for tourists. Well… I just thought of one more… Do NOT take pictures of the women in the windows of the Red Light district!!! This was a warning given to us during the “free” walking tour and the “Red Light District” tour I took later that night. As it was told to us by our tour guides the women of the district are entrepreneurs. They are not things to be gawked at or disrespected. And if they catch you taking pictures and you don’t pay them anything for them, they may come out from their window, chase you down, take your camera from you, stomp it to a mechanical pulp with their 6-inch heels and walk away. Yes, apparently this does happen quite often… In fact it happened during my tour of the District to an unfortunate gentlemen. Personally I was so freaked by the prospect of my camera getting stomped to death that I didn’t even take my camera out while walking through the district, lol!
The walking tour I went on started in front of the National Monument just across from the Royal Palace. It covered the Red Light District, Rembrandt’s house, the Nieuwmarkt, coffeeshops, a little known community of charitable women, the homomonument and we were left just about a block away from the house of Anne Frank. At this point I had been on several of the “free” walking tours in various cities and what I really appreciate about them is that each is so unique. Not just because they are obviously about different cities, but because each guide tells the stories that they find most interesting. So each tour guide will give a different experience to each participant. Love it! I paid for a tour of the Red Light District which included stories on the history of the district, a peek on a live sex show, how Amsterdam has come to embrace the district and ended with drinks at a club.
Now I will admit that while I was perfectly fine during the walking tour, I was a teeny bit (fairly plastered) drunk during the Red Light District tour… I do regret that I was so intoxicated during the tour because I don’t recall as many of the stories as I would like to have. But I guess you could say it’s just another reason to go back:)
In my “defense” the reason I was so intoxicated is because I was thinking about getting a tattoo or new piercing so I would always be reminded of the good times in Amsterdam. I even went so far as to check out various options. Turned out to be too expensive and I wasn’t terribly inspired on what to get so I ended up settling on a pair of flip-flops to remember my time by, lol!!! But after deciding against a tattoo or piercing I had several hours of time to kill before my night tour, so I wandered into a bar…
Turned out it was a gay bar, which didn’t bother me because it had fabulous music, was low key and not terribly crowded at the time. However as the hours went on, the crowds grew and I had befriended several of the other bar patrons hanging out and the next thing you knew shots were being bought for me, I was buying shots for others, and well, I’m just happy I made it out of there and to the tour at all!! The shots were a typical (and yummy I may add) shot of Amsterdam called “Heuge Meug” made of cognac, Tia Maria’s and a splash of Bailey’s… YUMMMY!!! But lethal too, lol!!
As for the walking tour, here are my favorite bits. The next post on ‘Sex & Drugs in Amsterdam’ are also highlights from the tour, but I just had so much to say on them that I thought it best to put them in a new post:)
Stock exchange: The World’s first stock exchange started in Amsterdam with the establishment of the Dutch East India Trading Company, the most powerful and successful trading company to trade goods out of Asia. How did they become so good at their trade (pun intended)?? Traders in the Netherlands devised a deal with one another. Instead of sending separate ships to Asia, one for tea, one for spices, one for pepper, etc. they would send out 20 ships and load 5% of each product on every ship. That way, if one ship sank during adverse weather only 5% of each supply was lost instead of losing 100% of a supply. So everyone was able to get their particular product back for trading. Clever, clever!! The trading company reigned for more than 100 years but eventually did decline.
Coffeeshops & the Red Light District: I write about these bits in great detail in the next post but for the picture below, this coffeeshop is actually where they filmed a scene from Ocean’s 12. The scene didn’t make any sense and in the next post you will learn why:) Notice the unexpected critter in the shop too… LOL!
Hi Kitty!! High Kitty???
Community of Charitable Women: This community started back in the 1600’s and is alive and well today. The way it originally began was with a group of women who wanted to take on the charitable responsibilities of nuns without actually having to take all the vows or chastities of nuns. Hence began the community of charitable women:) Now this title I’ve assigned is my own title- it’s not what the group is actually called (since I can’t recall specifically) and I’m not even sure where the community is in Amsterdam since I neglected to take a picture of what street we were on when coming to it. But I guess it’s meant to be that way since it was sort of a secret of the city. Behind the door in the picture below lay the community of women who simply want to live life giving to others. That is how the community began and today it is a peaceful and very sought out area of town to live. This community only allows people who meet the following criteria to live there: 1) they must be female; 2) they must be over 30; and 3) they must be single. To live in this community is so sought after that women are put on a waiting list. One story told to us was of a woman whose name was finally called after 10 years of waiting. When the call came she had been dating a steady boyfriend for several years but she promptly broke up with him so she could move into the community, LOL!! The picture of the grave below is of one of the original members of the community who died in 1654. She wanted to be buried in the street so she could feel the rain wash over her. When she did die however she was buried in a regular cemetary, even though it was against her wishes (If memory serves it was her family who buried her in the cemetary). One night the women of the community knowing her final wish for her resting place went to the cemetary, dug her up and took her back to the community where they burried her in the street. Now those are true friends!
Gateway to Serenity
Gardens of Community
Gardens of Community_2
Feel the Rain 1652
XXX: No, this doesn’t refer at all to the Red Light District or anything at all to do with anything X-rated, it is merely at the core of the 500 year old coat of arms of Amsterdam. It can be seen just about everywhere throughout the city however from the flags to street signs and of course on the coat of arms itself.
The Nieuwmarkt: this building is was the old gate to medieval Amsterdam and was built in 1488. It stood in the canal until 1614 and in 1617 it became a weighing station. Interesting story told by our guide about this place is that it was also the location of several “human experiements” shall we say… Doctors and surgeons way back when used this location to perform a variety of disections on human bodies to figure out how they work. If memory serves it was also the site of many executions that then led to their bodies being taken apart piece by piece to see how they ticked… Today it is a restaurant:) Steak anyone?? 😉
Homomonument: This monumnet is made up of 3 triangles, that if viewed above form a larger single triangle where each of the three smaller forms a point of the larger one. The Homomonument serves as a memorial to all gay men and lesbians who have had to face persecution at any point in their lives because of their sexuality. To me it once again shows how wonderfully accepting and celebratory Amsterdam is of the people who make their lives there.
Ah, Berlin!! So many things to say about Berlin!! What an awesome energy!! Hip, cool, a strange mix of modern and older history. This city is just busting at the seams with a young vibe. Of course, while it does have a history that extends hundreds of years, in a way (due to being completely destroyed during WWII) it is a new city. Graffiti can be found on just about every surface throughout the city and there’s a wildness in the air that speaks to a freedom of “come as you are and you will be accepted”. Such a paradox given the very recent history of the city basically being imprisoned- either during the War or the Wall. Maybe it is only due to all the turbulence in its recent history, but Berlin also seems confused as to which direction it wants to go. There has been so much upheaval there relatively recently and I’m curious how it will continue to grow.
I stayed in a super sketchy looking section of town in a hostel called Jetpak Alternative. To their credit, they advertised that they are in a sketchy area complete with dog sh*t and lots and lots of graffiti. Across the street is a park that anyone who isn’t looking for trouble or drugs should just stay out of. The hostel itself was wonderful! It was a little nerve-wracking walking around the neighborhood after dark at times since people would often come up to you asking if you wanted drugs. But I felt safe enough and would stay in that hostel again. The people were nice and informative and it once again had that fun and inviting vibe that I had recalled of hostels while traveling in Central America yet didn’t encounter at all at the hostel in England. I really wanted to stay another night but wasn’t able to since they were fully booked. So I took that as a sign to keep on moving!
In the time I did spend there I joined in for a “free” walking tour:) The morning before the tour walked from the hostel to the meeting point (Parizer Platz) just taking in the sights and stopping along the way for pictures. I took a quick tour of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (quick because I didn’t realize I was running out of time before the tour!) which was very impressive and quite moving! The ways in which people came up with to escape Berlin while the Wall was up was amazing!
Under the Arches of Brandenburg Gates
Checkpoint Charlie Museum
We started (as mentioned above) at Parizer Platz, then headed to the Holocaust museum, the Berlin Wall, the now parking lot where Hitler’s underground bunker was located, the real Checkpoint Charlie location, to some churches, a theater and ended in the square where Hitler ordered all books be burned (across from the University). As I’ve done before I will share my favorite stories of the tour but not all the information below:)
At the end of the tour I took the train back with a guy that was also staying in my hostel (he was also in the tour) since I had been walking about 7 hours at this point! This does remind me though of the train situation in Germany… It really is on the honor system as to whether or not you buy tickets!! They don’t have any gates stopping you from getting onto the train without a ticket, so while technically one could gamble by hopping on a train for free to get to their destination, I wouldn’t recommend it simply because plain-clothed cops are apparently always present and randomly checking for people aboard without tickets. And there is a hefty fine for those who do try to ride for free… Just sayin’ 🙂
Highlights of the tour:
Hotel Adlon: this hotel is THE MOST expensive hotel to stay in Berlin. It is famous for 2 reasons… the first and most recent event, it is the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby over the balcony railing. The second (and more historical) is that it is only one of two buildings that was not bombed and was still standing after the war!! Everything else was destroyed!! However, years later a group of Russians (as part of an army if memory serves) stayed in the hotel and proceeded to engage in a pastime that is quite popular among many: drink!! They drank and drank and drank and at some point someone, somehow started a fire that caught and burned down part of the hotel!! So there is a joke now where the hotel was able to survive a war, but NOT a Russian party, lol!!!! 😉
Holocaust Memorial: it was just so moving. There is a museum that is part of the memorial that I unfortunately was not able to make it to but certainly plan to when I make it back there! The artist who designed the memorial did a fabulous job with it for sure! It was thought-provoking, moving, inspiring and emotional!! A must see for anyone who visits! And I may add that it was probably one of the few areas that did not have any graffiti on it at all:)
Hitler’s Underground Bunker: Interesting information here that I’d never heard before about Hitler. First that he had Parkinson’s Disease and was taking numerous drugs (LSD, liquid cocaine eye drops, etc) to try to keep even keel, so to speak. It really shouldn’t have surprised me that he was on drugs given how absolutely loony tunes he was, but it did. The second thing was that he got married! Eva, his bride married him and agreed to a suicide pact with him. She ended up killing herself before he did himself in. Good riddance! Oh and the underground bunker isn’t marked in any way because the government doesn’t want the crazies out there setting up some sort of memorial in his honor on the site. Good idea!!
Berlin Wall: this whole idea just fascinated me… Why would a government build a wall then FORCE people to stay on one side or the other in order to build a “stronger” government???? I just don’t get it!! Anyway, my favorite bit about this part was the clever escape one family succeeded in fleeing East Berlin. The father worked in a building nearby and managed to smuggle his family in the building before it closed. They hid in the building until everyone left for the night then changed in all black clothing and went to the roof. They flung a line from the roof over the wall to the other side where a friend of theirs was waiting and basically zip-lined from the roof to the other side of the wall!! What’s even funnier is that a guard of the wall saw this activity taking place but didn’t sound any alarm because he thought for sure it was an undercover op going on, lol!!!
Escape Over the Wall
Prophecy from 1820: the below plaque basically translates to “wherever they burn books they burn only people at the end”. That isn’t an exact translation but I did find it interesting that it was a statement made in 1820 by Heinrich Heine, a German poet, and it was justly posted at the site where Hitler had ordered all books to be burned, just before he really started to come into his power. And as we all know his reign sadly and very unfortunately did end with the burning of people.
Oban! Pronounced Oh-Bin… What a lovely little place to visit! Sadly the weather was absolute crap during my stay, but at least I got a little sample:)
I took the bus from Inverness (or In-bir-nis in Gaelic) early and headed to Oban. I skipped going to Fort William because I had heard there really wasn’t much to do there, but in Oban there is the opportunity to go to several neighboring islands via ferry or boat, etc. So I was excited to check out the area for sure! On the way there just outside of town there is the Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary!!! I was quite tempted to jump off the bus right then and there as one of the stops was just in front of the facility, but that would not have been very sound seeing as I had my backpack with me… Plus, I figured I could always go back since I was staying three nights in Oban.
I spotted the hostel I had pre-booked to stay in (Oban Backpackers) as we drove down the main street to the bus station. I headed easily out to the hostel and was greeted by a very accommodating and friendly German man. I’m honestly not sure he took a single breath during his 5 minute “welcome introduction” lol!! But just as the Inverness Student Hostel was, Oban Backpackers was also warm, welcoming and a generally great place to stay!! They had large areas where people could hang out and chat and offered an area to put down the backpacks while one waited to check in! Just love that feature in a hostel since many times I had arrived too early to check into my room but didn’t want to be stuck hauling my crap around or sitting at the hostel simply waiting for check-in!!
But I’m rambling again… Since I had arrived a bit earlier than the actual check-in time, I put my crap down in the designated area and headed out with a very detailed map of Oban, which I acquired from the very friendly hostel host! The map itself was already very detailed (you know, one of those tourist maps provided by the city) but the host marked several areas of interest on mine before I left his presence so that I would know everywhere to go and see and do right off the bat! Obviously he was used to a gazillion of the same questions from travelers, so in an attempt to stave them all off, he simply answered them all up front, lol!!
So with my map in hand and my bag no longer on my back I headed to the Oban Tower. Located only about 10 minutes up the hill from the hostel, it provided a great place to take some aerial shots of the town!! From there I just wandered around the small town just exploring and getting ideas on what to do for the next coming days while there. The town itself is a little horse shoe shaped town located directly on the water. It has a shipping dock and lots of varieties of boats bobbing in the harbor all for their various purposes. There are even castles just a short hike up the way from the main part of town AND even a whiskey distillery in the center of town!! Yes, Oban does offer quite a bit of activities for those looking to kill a few days in a cute seaside town in Scotland…
Now, even though there were trails to walk, castles to see, a Sea Life Sanctuary to visit, a whiskey distillery to tour and nearby islands to take a ferry to for a few hours… I did absolutely none of those… 😦
I know!!! I know!! I’m totally bonkers!!! And I promise I TRIED to go see the castles and the Sea Life Sanctuary and even the distillery, but alas no… I’m totally going to blame it ALL on the weather!!! Yes, the weather!! I already mentioned above that the weather was absolute crap while I was there… And yes, it was just cold and windy and blustery basically the entire time I was there!! Ok, well the first day wasn’t so bad, but since I didn’t bother or care to look up an extended forecast for the area, instead of putting my rear in gear and actually doing some of the hikes and island visits on my first day (or half day, since I used the morning bit to get there!!) I simply spent it walking around and planning my activities for the next days… So anyway, yea… The first day was quite successful in the sense that I had a solid plan on what I was doing for the next couple days…
But the next day, once I rose and dressed and stepped outside into the blustery cold and wet and WINDY weather, I realized that all my plans were about to go to right out the window!! I first searched for something to nibble, then headed to the boat dock to see about catching a ferry to the nearby island of Kerrera, where there is a lovely monastery to walk around and enjoy a coffee in… But the docks were closed due to the windy weather. No boats, no ferry’s, no island… So I wandered to bus station to find out about the Sea Life Sanctuary bus to see if I could catch it and at least spend some time there. However, the majority of the park would have been outdoors and on the water basically, so if the weather was crap here, 20 minutes up the road wouldn’t be much improved… So I decided against that action… I thought ok, what about walking to the castles??
Finally an option that may work out! So I headed back through town on the main road, then cut through a little side street to the trail that would lead to the castles and just as I rounded the corner got slammed with the biggest wind gust yet!! My poncho flapped around me viciously while I got pelted in the face with rain drop after rain drop… This was not good!! And after only a block of that nonsense I turned back up the next little side street and headed back to the hostel to warm up.
After inquiring about “what to do on nasty weather days” to the hostel host (whiskey tour is what he suggested… or just a pub!) I headed to the whiskey distillery and decided against the tour (I wasn’t really that in the mood for whiskey, plus had no way to carry the glass gift they apparently gave at the end in my backpack) so I did the next best thing… Went to the pub!
Turned out to be a fine rest of the day as far as I was concerned!! Met an interesting guy from the States who was traveling all of the UK and Ireland on his motorcycle!! He actually had his personal motorcycle flown over and was driving it all around!! Needless to say he was being responsible and only had food and one drink at the bar, but it was really cool to meet someone who was doing something that brave!! Well done on him!!
So that’s how I killed my days in Oban… Ate, drank, drank, ate, curled up for a movie on my Samsung Tablet, and generally found any excuse to stay out of the weather and stay indoors!!! Some of my roommates had tried to go to the castle as well, and they succeeded!!! Brave couple!! However they didn’t really get to see anything at all since the mist was all around and the castles were closed… LOL!! Poor things!! They really looked wrecked when they came back!! But I’m sure they still had a great time being adventuresome!!
Inverness… Made most famous by Loch Ness where Nessie, the fabled (or real?!?!?) monster of the Loch lives!! I actually really liked Inverness! It was not too large a place, but also not too small. As Goldilocks would say, it was just right:)
I got there on bus and of course started my day there by wandering around hostel after hostel trying to find somewhere to sleep for the night. The hostel by the bus station was full, which was fine by me cause I got an odd feeling from the staff there when I arrived to inquire about availability. So I wandered as always aimlessly toward what turned out to be the main shopping street and in general main street of Inverness: High Street. Well, ok, maybe it isn’t the official main street, but it was pretty central to all things touristy (the castle, museums, tourist info center, and lots of shopping). And perhaps another little thing to mention: High Street was closed off to traffic and was only available for foot traffic, which I quite enjoyed!! Anyway, I found Highlander Hostel after a few other failed attempts just off High Street. I booked a room for the night since it was the first place that I’d come across that had room… I was getting worried again that no space would be available elsewhere and I had better jump on this one! I went to my room to settle in and was not at all impressed with the accommodations. It just had the feeling of uncleanliness!! Though there was a bathroom in the room itself, it was being shared by 9 others (10 including me) and just the sight of hair everywhere… Ick!! I know that you get what you pay for and many times staying in hostels is an absolute gamble, but some places are MUCH more clean feeling and more welcoming than others…
Not really feeling that location (but being stuck there for the first night) and knowing that I wanted to stay in Inverness at least a few night (since I had to get to Loch Ness to see Nessie!!) I set out immediately to find a room for the next night at another hostel. A little down the road from the Castle and just along the river I came across the Inverness Student Hostel. From the second I walked in I knew this place would be great!! And indeed it was!! The vibe was just warm and welcoming, the place felt clean and safe, the staff were friendly and sane (at the other hostel the guy who checked me in, though there was a “no smoking inside” policy later lit one up in the check-in/common area just because no one was around… yeah… great example to set!).
The Inverness Student Hostel was all booked up for the night I arrived (I had half a mind to demand a refund from the other place and just stay there instead) but had a space available for the next two nights. Perfect!! That’s all I needed!! I paid a little extra to be in a room with only 5 others, but it was worth it!! I payed for my nights in advance to stay there the next few nights and on my way out noticed that they had affiliate hostels in Oban (pronounced by locals as “Oh-BIN” where I was planning to go next anyway). Liking the feel of the place that much- I went ahead and booked in advance (what was wrong with me?!?! ;)) a room at the Oban hostel (called simply Oban Backpackers) for a few nights as well!! I must admit that though the whole “find something when you get there” is fun and adventurous, also knowing that I had a place to stay for sure at the next location was quite comforting… Especially since the past few towns I had been in seemed to be short on places to stay!!
After securing my spot at the Inverness Student Hostel and the Oban Backpackers, I headed out to explore Inverness a bit more. Since I was going to stay there for two full days, I figured a trip to the tourist info center would be wise. There I found an all day tour (literally 12 hours long) for the Isle of Skye hosted by WOW Scotland! tours. I won’t go into great detail here about the booking as I will save it for the Isle of Skye post I’m doing next, but needless to say I did book the tour. The tour would not be until that Friday (2 days from my arrival date) however so I had a day in between to simply chill and explore Inverness at leisure.
At this point it was dinner time, so I wandered around for somewhere to eat. On the opposite side of High Street there was an Italian Tapas restaurant. And even though I was going to be in Italy soon, I really wasn’t hugely hungry so the idea of tapas really appealed to me. Plus, I had heard that many of the immigrants to Scotland were from Italy, so I was pretty confident the food would be authentic and not disappointing!
I was right about my instincts- the food was very good!! I had a tapas gnocchi dish with a glass of prosecco. Now mind you, when I would go out for lunch or dinner I would only bring a certain amount of cash with me. This was mainly so I wouldn’t go nuts on drinking too much, because lord knows if I had brought my card I could have just had my dinner and a drink, then another, then another… To my surprise, this is exactly what had ended up happening anyway!!
I was simply sitting at a table for one, enjoying my gnocchi and glass of prosecco when I noticed 3 guys sitting at the bar. Just something about them made me think that they, or at least one of them owned the place. Just the way they looked around and looked at things and moved around every now and again. They had the aura of being invested. I basically finished my meal and sat enjoying my prosecco. One of the three guys came and stood by my table looking out to the street, then asked if I had enjoyed my meal. I replied that I did and to satisfy my curiosity on whether I was right about whether he was an owner, I asked if he was. And indeed, he replied yes. One question led to another and he ended up sitting down with me (a true Italian! Always inviting and entertaining) and asked if I wanted another prosecco. Though I said no, I eventually said yes and was brought another glass. I won’t drone on with every detail but basically what ended up happening was I was introduced to his cousins (the other 2 at the bar) and a nephew and after a BOTTLE of prosecco and a shot of limoncello I was invited to stay for the after party (apparently it was the owners birthday) to which I stayed for a piece of cake and WATER to sober up a bit, lol!! I was also invited to the after, after party at someone’s house but declined vehemently and made my way back to the hostel at some point shorty after. It was a great and unexpected time!! Italians certainly know how to make people feel welcome!! It was also quite entertaining because the owner was Italian but spoke English in a Scottish accent. His cousins only spoke Italian. I spoke English and some Spanish and even less of Italian, but could understand all 3… The bartender was from Guatemala and spoke English and Spanish, so conversations between everyone was just about the most interesting and entertaining thing!! Between one language and another and trying to say one thing then having to interrupt someone during their conversation so they could translate something for you, it was just a mad house of languages!! Lots of fun though!! 🙂
In any event, after stumbling home I went to sleep then left the next morning for the Inverness Student Hostel. The next day wasn’t the best of weather so I mainly just did indoor things like a Natural History museum and caught up on emailing, etc. I was supposed to go back that evening for dinner with one of the cousins, but felt not very social (dang hangovers!!) that day sadly. Plus, I had an early tour the next day and wanted to be 100% for it!! I kinda felt bad about not showing for dinner, but such is life! You can’t please everyone. But I am very grateful nonetheless for their hospitality and the great time that was had the night before:)
It wasn’t terribly far, nor a bad bus ride over to Huntly. To my disappointment later I realized that Huntly wasn’t technically inside the Highland area at all, but rather about half way between the highlands and the coast… There was another place I was looking to go to -Tomintoul- that I know for SURE was in the Highlands, but it was only accessible by bus on Tuesdays and that would have meant about a week killing time in other areas nearby. Tomintoul sounded appealing simply because first it was in the Highlands and second it’s the highest point of the Highlands… Getting there is half the battle though!! In any event, Huntly was a simple quiet and quaint little place. When I arrived however the weather was not quite cooperating as it had been so far. It was wet and cold and simply dreary!! Very Scottish normal weather I’m sure, just not what I had been used to thus far.
When I arrived I was dropped in town center square. Since I of course didn’t have a planned place to stay for the night, I wandered toward the tourist information center in the square… It happened to be closed and looked as if it would only be open when whomever worked there decided to show (I love small towns!!). There was a little map in the window however that marked a few spots for B&Bs/hotels. I made a mental note of them and started heading in their direction.
Mind you, there was a hotel in the town square itself called Gordon Arms, but I figured being THAT close to the center square, it would probably be too expensive! So I wandered off down the road in the cold and the mist and found the first place of interest. No vacancy, but the nice woman did refer me to another potential place. So off I went back down the road, down the side street, straight on till morning, and found the next lovely place. No vacancy… Hmmm… I really didn’t take Huntly to be THAT popular a destination, especially since there was no one on the streets or no other signs of life really aside from the Hotel owners/workers and some shop employees along the way!
I asked once again about any other place potentially open, but sadly no. So I wandered back to the square and in the opposite direction from where I went before and found another place. No answer… At this point it looked like I could be running out of options… So I wandered into the Gordon Arms hotel holding my breath at the potentially huge sum of money I would have to pay for the night. The hotel clerk greeted me but asked me to hold for a minute. When he arrived ready to check me in, he asked “Are you staying at the hostel?”??
The HOSTEL???? You have a HOSTEL here??? Sure enough, just around the corner not a stone throw away was the Highlander Bunkhouse!!! A hostel for all the crazy cheap backpackers like myself:) Yay!!! Oh and best part too of the hostel, only a few steps from the pub! Double yay!!! So I paid for a night and settled in to my room. I was the only one in my room, which was great, so it was like having a private though there were several other people staying in the hostel. At this point I really wasn’t sure how long I would stay in Huntly. There was certainly much to do there- several castles to hike to, lots of whiskey distilleries to tour, etc, etc. But with the weather being as it was… Well, let’s just say that it just didn’t inspire much of any sort of effort on my part!! So if the next day had the same weather, then I would go. But if it cleared up or showed some promise of clearing up, then I would stay!
In any event, after settling in it just happened to be about beer o’clock… So I headed into the pub for a pint! Now, K and I have had a few chats before about how great pubs are just from the perspective of being able to meet locals fast and chat them up on things to do in their town! This pub was… well… a tiny bit different, but not at all in a bad way!! I wandered in and at the bar were 6 men. Literally as I walked in it was like the room silenced and all heads turned to see who was coming in… I wasn’t sure if that meant that the regulars were all already there so they simply weren’t expecting anyone else to come in, or if they were an unfriendly type, or what really…!!
I sheepishly walked over to the side of the bar (trying my very BEST to seem confident and not sheepish at all!!) sat down and asked the bar maid, who suddenly appeared from around the corner for a beer. And that was basically all it took! Within a few minutes it was like I was just part of the gang. They asked questions of me, I of them, and it we were all best of buds in no time! Everyone was buying everyone else drinks and the festivities just went on like this for hours! As the evening went on, more and more people came and went, which really gave me the distinct feeling that this pub was probably one of the only ones in town as well!! Funnily enough, the 6 original guys who were in the bar (and then another 3 that came in later) weren’t locals at all. They were simply contracted workers who were staying in Huntly to work on wind turbine projects near Huntly. So they weren’t able to give me much information about the area and what to do (nor could the barmaid as she had just recently moved there too) but after a few drinks, I lost interest in that kind of information anyway!
I will say that at least I did behave myself!! I cut myself off at a point, got some food and went to bed so I wouldn’t be hung over the next day! Generally, well, I do like to drink and have quite a hard time moderating myself… But I guess as I get older it gets a little easier as the impending thought of the hangover is enough to make me stop with the booze and start with water!!
I bid farewell and thanks to my fellow bar mates for the night and headed to my hostel. The next day unfortunately had the same dreary and cold weather as the day before. So true to my word I packed up and headed to Inverness.