“This makes perfectly sense to follow something that can kill you”

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Water? Packed! Food? Packed! Camera? Ready! Sense of adventure? Packed! Reaching the Ruschaga station early morning after 2 hours driving through a mystic and thick mist, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. Our group of 7 enthusiastic gorillas trekkers was simply happy to be here, able to get a chance to face a silverback we all had once dreamt about. We only knew that our day could be very long as gorillas can be on the move once they have eaten all the fruits in the area. We were given a short briefing to make sure we were informed about security and behavior to adopt around those beautiful animals.

After being assigned a ranger, Amos, we were asked to jump back on the van to drive to Nyabaremura where we met our two security guards, Isaac and Winzi, and started hiking. The guns were a necessity, we were told, as the jungle where we would hike was the home of savanna elephants. Years ago, the road between Queen Elisabeth and Bwindi got cut and the savanna elephants found themselves stranded in the forest. Unable to adjust, they can be quite agressive and for our safety, we needed those two armed guards. We were also teamed up with two trackers who were already in the forest, trying to send us updates on the whereabouts of the family we were to track.

After hiking for two hours, on a very steep trail, through a beautiful forest, with short water breaks, our hearts started to race when we were heard those three words: “they are close”. We left the trail, followed our guards off road and entered the gorilla family territory. We were by then literally walking in the air, our floor being a simple entanglement of vines. It could have been the excitement but none us considered even questioning this non-sense. We were following professionals after all. What could possibly happen? Adrienne, our lovely New Zealander fellow traveler, made a point to wait for me as I was slower than slow and soon, Amos, Adrienne, Marco and I were separated from our group. We could hear the sound of a gorilla, we felt it was close, very close. I can confidently say now that we had no idea how close it was. Suddenly, a giant silverback stormed out of a bush, determined to take one of us down. Amos grabbed Adrienne and Marco and I froze, trying to stay as still as possible, leaving a corridor between us 4 for the gorilla to go through. So hard to describe what I felt at this exact moment when I realized a 250 kg beast was charging at us. Fascination, fear, respect and excitement submerged me all at once. I’m grateful Luigi (this name was given to him as he is in charge of closing after his group and Luigi means door in Rukiga language) only passed through, trying his best to scare us away.

It could have worked, I guess but our fascination was too big, we had gone too far to see the gorillas and we were too close to turn around. We had taken the warning seriously but we were not about to give up. Only Shane, our Australian tripmate, commented out loud on the irony of the situation with a point of sarcasm: “This makes perfectly sense to follow something that can kill you”. He was right, of course but full of adrenalin, we all rushed behind our trackers that were running through the dense vines and suddenly the area cleared up and we saw at least 3 silverbacks, several young gorillas and a female. Grateful and admirative, I stood there, looking at them, playing together, eating, hiding from us when we were too invasive for their liking. I missed a lot of shots while standing there simply watching but these instants will remain forever with me and for them, I’m grateful.

After an hour observing Ruziika (means stubborn in Rukiga language) and its family, it was time for us to leave. Greedy and foolhardy, some of us got closer to Ruziika. We were quickly reminded that this was HIS territory and we were bound to follow his rules. He stormed out of his bush and charged at us, beating his chest, clearly annoyed by our audacity. We all stood still while he passed through our group, screaming loudly. Luckily, Ruziika was merciful and meant no harm but we had to leave. At once, our group gathered. We said goodbye (or Kali kali) to “our” gorillas and after one last look, we started hiking back. 6 hours, 16 km, countless happy memories, 2 massive shocks and a graduation (we even received a diploma for being an official gorilla trekker!), we were back in the village we had started from. We were welcomed by a group of women who performed traditional dances. A perfect way to end a perfect day! Thanks Amos and Uganda for giving us the opportunity to spend an hour with those beautiful animals!

Next stop: Kampala.

Happy tails and remember: Carpe Diem!

O for Omotepe: a two-faced island

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When we boarded the ferry to Omotepe island in San Jorge, we didn’t know what to expect. Yes, we had done our usual ritual: googling and asking other travelers about the island but this somehow didn’t help much. There were unfortunately too many contradictory opinions (‘it is great’, ‘it is boring’, ‘so many things to do’, ‘not much to do’… Guys were you all on the same island?!) so we decided to jump on the ferry with no expectation. One thing was sure: we had read about the island’s two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas and we were keen to conquer at least one of them. Concepcion vs Maderas or when you have to decide between active vs dormant, risky vs safe(r), dry vs (very) wet, view vs not much of a view. We guessed that once on the island, we would ask people around to take our decision but while approaching the island, it became obvious. A glance at the two guardians of the island and we knew: we would climb Concepcion. It was standing high and mighty over us, almost like daring us to come up. We could not NOT accept the challenge. I’m sorry Maderas but in all honesty, you didn’t stand a chance with us, even with your tempting lagoon. 

Our ferry ride was smooth (I know, I know… How disappointing not to have any mini catastrophe to report) and since we were allowed to ride on the top deck next to the captain, we arrived in a happy mood in Moyogalpa… We easily found a cheap place to stay and quickly organized our climb for the next day as the forecasts were looking good. It would have been a shame to conquer a 1’610 meter high giant and see… nothing. We got up at 4:30 am, ready to defeat this arrogant giant. We entered the park and after paying the mandatory fee, we followed the trail to the forest. We were welcomed by a family of howler monkeys that seemed to warn us: turn around now or be ready to face the consequences. The aggressive howls followed us for a while, threatening, loud but then suddenly faded. I want to believe that they had decided we were worth to climb the giant and let us go through, wishing us good luck. The trail was flat and easy before we started going up on a moderately steep path. We happily reached the look out within 3 hours where a wonderful view over the lake Nicaragua (also know as Cocibolca) was waiting for us with green parrots playfully flying around.

I felt a bit cocky and started to wonder why people needed 10 to 12 hours to hike this trail and karma being a bitch, I regretted my cockiness 30 minutes later when the trail turned into an unstable path – one of those with lose lava rocks and sand. I struggled to catch my breath as M and our guide were litterally flying up. After an hour or so, fighting not to fall backwards, resisting the strong winds that kept challenging my balance, I started to doubt my own sanity: what was I doing here? Was I going to make it to the top? I daydreamed about standing up straight and simply let the wind carry me down all the way to the lake. It was so tempting. But instead I grabbed a rock, and another and another and kept pushing myself upwards. At some point, I glanced up to assess my progresses, hoping to be soon reaching the summit and what I saw left me angry and exhausted. Even though I had been climbing up for so long, the top wasn’t getting any closer. M probably felt my despair and he waited for me, reaching out with his hand and pulling me up. The wind was so strong, I could barely hear him but the 4 simple words that came out ‘you can do it’ which he repeated again and again and over again, carried me to the top (I would have preferred he would have carried me instead but oh well). After 4 1/2 hours we had made it and we were standing at the top of the island. What a spot for a picnic, the senses of humility and achievement were overwhelming as I knew I wouldn’t have made it without M’s support. Going down was even tougher as the path was unforgivable: a wrong step and you were falling down on very sharps rocks. We couldn’t wait to reach the look out, especially after a man stumbled and broke his arm a few meters away from us.  We luckily reached the bottom unharmed, with only a few cuts to remind us that we had been on a challenging volcano hike! We were still high on adrenalin, walking fast, following our young guide closely, when suddenly he jumped and I realized with horror that a snake had bitten him and was making its way towards me. I panicked, jumped back, missed a step and heavily fell on a stone. I was scared, hurt but never stood up so fast in my life. The snake lost interest and fled into the nearby trees. The guide started to laugh at my face and I started to laugh too, holding my painful butt cheek. Luckily, our guide was wearing jeans and the snake only attacked him because our guide literally walked on it. What an end for a strenuous hike: panic, laughs and a bruised butt and all that free of charge! Let me tell you this, I couldn’t get out of the woods fast enough! 

I called Ometepe a two-faced island because this is a place where challenges could meet leisure and we loved it. After conquering Concepcion, we wanted to chill and explore the island. We discovered Santo Domingo, Altagracia and Santa Cruz, small villages that appealed to us for different reasons. Betwen Santo Domingo and Santa Cruz, we enjoyed strolling on the peaceful and deserted beach, witnessing the sunset and some pretty impressive lightnings. Ojo de Agua was perfect to recover from the hike and a lovely treat to our sore muscles. Altagracia was particulary special to us because we met two Nicaraguans brothers (with Salvadorian blood) who shared a dinner, few cervezas and humble yet funny life stories with us. We ended up staying 4 days on the island and we could have surely stayed a bit longer if we would have rented a scooter as San Ramon and Merida were a bit harder to reach with the chicken bus. Ometepe reconciled us with Nicaragua and the locals did apologize for the assholes from the big cities who take advantages of tourists. Ometepe did more than giving us an active and lazy time, it also gave us an emotional attachment we will forever have with the people of Ometepe! 

Time to hit the road though to check out our last Nicaraguan destination before crossing to Costa Rica: San Juan Del Sur. 



Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

My emotional final weekend in Switzerland 

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Only 5 sleeps to go before I (try to) fly to Cancun (I haven’t figured out yet whether the lack of an onward / return flight ticket from Mexico is indeed a deal breaker) and after a great weekend surrounded with wonderful friends I had to say goodbye to, I have felt a bit soppy today. It was expected – unless you are a robot, then you obviously cannot understand… After all, saying goodbye is never easy, right? After such a fantastic send-off party last night, it is even harder. Let’s face it, it won’t get any easier! I still have to say bye to my monkeys and my best friends… Argggggh, I am definitely not looking forward to this! Don’t get me wrong: I have been waiting for this once (or twice) of a lifetime journey for years! Literally! M and I have talked about it since 2012 when we first met and I totally can’t wait! But on the other hand, I can’t get my head around the fact that I have to leave those beautiful people behind. Oh Wanderlust, why are you doing this to me? *sigh*

To be fair, if I could, I would smuggle (note for the authorities: no funny business here, no proper smuggling intended #justsaying) them all in my backpack (we surely could apply for family discounts, right?). However, given my (not quite tall) height, I really don’t think I should exceed the ambitious maximum weight of 12 kg. My dad always says that “you carry what you pack” and he could not have been more right! It makes no sense to try to avoid this sadness versus excitement inner fight. It will anyway last until I have a set a foot on the Mexican territory and been welcomed by M’s beaming face! So instead, I will spend my last week in Switzerland, allowing myself to cry if needed, keeping myself busy with work (We wouldn’t want to overdo it with crying, would we?!), packing and obviously saying goodbye some more.

I could not have asked for a better last weekend in Switzerland, even though, it was an emotional one. The memories of this final weekend in Luzern will be the perfect traveling companion. My heart was filled with gratitude and happiness as I was reminded again why I love my friends and Switzerland so much. With such a fantastic spring weather, reading, laying in the snow at Alpen Tower was a bliss and our lazy Sunday was dedicated to a last stroll in Luzern (and first for my lovely friends from the UK who specially came over for my send-off party. Bless them!). Y0u gotta love Luzern’s lively promenade and its beautiful old town. While my weekend was packed with laughter and fun times, I am also very proud to report that my today packing “drill” was a success. Boom!

Now I am ready (kind of) and fidgety… Ready to ramble. Ready to play Dora, the explorer. Ready to live out of a backpack, to wear flip flops to shower, to sleep in cheap dormitories with complete strangers. Ready for A&M 6-month adventure. Lift off in 4 days, 12  hours and 40 minutes and counting! Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!



Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

3 (bad) good ideas 

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Exploring the world can be challenging at times (Please note the use of a massive understatement to avoid any drama queen effect. Now this is a first, isn’t it?) and it definitely brings the bright but also the dumb out of you. It is how it is. Sometimes you don’t have time to think twice (or to think at all), you are too tired to consider your different options or you are simply being funnily stupid (this happens more often than you are willing to admit). Your good ideas then turn into not so good ideas. Luckily your (bad) good ideas do help to break the ice with complete strangers or to defuse a tense situation within a group. Guaranteed! At least, it worked for me because God knows I came up with many (bad) good ideas over the years. Here is my top 3.

1. One of our trip mates was feeling poorly during a long bus journey in Asia and after having asked the driver to stop many times, she had no choice but to open the window. Fresh air should have helped but it didn’t. Instead, she threw up and bad luck being with us, her puke came right back to her face. The smell propagated so quickly in our tiny van, it was only a matter of seconds and I had to react at once!

My bright idea? Put some tiger balm under my nose…. Really?! I mean really?! For my defense, I had no time to think this through or I was joining the “puker” club. I can somehow change my godchild’s diaper (not my favorite godmother’s duty) but I cannot handle the smell of puke, go figure. Yes, it obviously (so obvious that I should not have done it in the first place but hey this is called a bad good idea for a reason…) hurt like a mother f*** so no, I won’t do it again.

2. When we backpack the world, one of our main concerns is to keep our passport at close range at all times, right? I usually wear a belly purse to safely carry my passport together with some cash and a credit card. But to be fair, it is not very comfortable, especially on a hike in a hotter country…

My bright idea? While hiking Machu picchu, I decided to ‘hide’ my passport in my shorts’ pocket. What was not to love about this great idea? Easy to access and no risk to lose it = perfect plan. On day 3, the weather decided to play against us and it literally rained for  6 hours…. No poncho could have kept us dry… Since my passport was not in a waterproof bag in my backpack as it should be, you can imagine the state of it. When I arrived at our camp, I discovered a rained on passport… On the plus side, it looked freshly washed. My passport still bears the scars of this wet day so I sure know now the importance to travel with my passport at close DRY range. Consider this lesson learned!

3. What’s the most important with postcards? On top of writing them? Sending them! When I was in Laos in 2012, I had 20 of them, stamped and ready to be sent. But I had trouble to find a postbox (let a post office!). Running out of time in Laos, I tried everything I could to find a mailbox before crossing the Thai border. I wasn’t successful.

My bright idea? Ask the Thai driver, who picked us up once we crossed the border, to help me find a postbox. I was still hopeful that my stamps would still be valid, after all we were still pretty close to Laos. The conversation was actually a monologue. He gave me a blank stare: he had no clue what I was rambling on about. His English was limited to yes, yes. When the language barrier is clearly a problem, you need to resort to the hands language. This went pretty well, I thought. I literally showed him what I was intending to do with my postcards. Take them and one by one, throw them in an imaginary mailbox. So far, so good, I thought. Imagine my surprise when he stopped on a bridge and showed me what to do: take my postcards and one by one, throw them… in the river. Say whaaaaat? I did not take him up on his offer and I am still not sure what this was all about but I am glad that my postcards were safely sent from Bangkok, yes I decided to buy Thai stamps after all! Now THIS was a good idea!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

 

TBT # Mt. Kinabalu, Malaysia

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Through my travels, I have come across incredibles places (really struggling to decide which one is my favorite so far! but maybe one of those days I will come up with my top 5) and I am grateful for it. To be able to follow my wanderlust and to keep on traveling is priceless. Last year, when we were planing our Malaysian trip, one of our friends really wanted to go to Borneo Island. Since we were up for anything really, as long as adventures and fun were promised, we started to do some research. We asked around to find out what we could (or should) do on Borneo. We were told that we could not leave Malaysia before climbing Mount Kinabalu with its challenging hike. Challenge? Hike? Where do I sign up? I got pretty excited and I am very happy to take you this week to Mt. Kinabalu, Malaysia.

About Mt. Kinabalu, Malaysia

  • Mt. Kinabalu is located on Borneo Island in the Kinabalu National Park
  • It culminates at 4’095 meters and is one of the highest mountains in the world (Top 20)
  • It was established in 1964 as Malaysia’s first national park and in 2000 it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO
  • Kinabalu’s name’s origin is unknown and there are several hypothesis. My favorite one derives from the Kadazan words, Aki Nabalu, meaning ‘the revered place of the dead’. The local Kadazan people believe that spirits dwell on the mountain top

Mt. Kinabalu’s random and funny facts:

  • In 2015, tourists were blamed by the Malaysian government for the terrible earthquake after posing naked on top of Mt. Kinabalu. They allegedly made the “Mountain Protectors” very angry
  • The world’s highest Via Ferrata can be found on the mountain
  • 100’000 years ago, Mt. Kinabalu was covered with glaciers

If you have 48 hours in Mt. Kinabalu, have fun:

  • Having a fantastic ‘made in Borneo’ experience! It was pretty unique!
  • Hiking 6 km in less than 5 hours with an elevation gain of 1’406.7 meters, started at Timpohon gate (1’866 meters) on day 1
  • Staying overnight at Panar Laban hut (3’272.7 meters). It was a cute little hut with 6 beds, 2 British girls joined our sleeping arrangement.
  • Waking up at 1:30 am to hike after a (more than very early) breakfast. Day two was definitely more strenuous!
  • Climbing the trail in the pitch black night -A long procession of hikers, eager to reach the top by sunrise, was following a path lightened by hundreds of head torches. A part of the trail led us on the rock and a rope had to be held at all times. An interesting and exciting way of hiking / climbing!
  • Reaching the top: The sense of achievement was amazing! We proudly made it to the top, known as Low’s Peak. What a view!
  • Witnessing the sunrise: Because time was against us (some climbers we met along the trail were slow, old or out of shape), we took all the energy we could gather and we passed one hiker at a time. There was no way we were missing that sunrise! Determination is the key of many success stories and ours did a great job! We ended up getting to the summit right on time and we got a well deserved break while the sun was coming up
  • Taking a bloody picture at the top… with the sign! Quite a torture, almost more painful than the hike itself as 100 of people want to get group pictures as well!

We took our time to get back down as we were in no rush, enjoying the nature and the sun. In two days, we covered over 16 km with a total elevations gain and loss of 2’229.7 meters. What a wonderful experience! I would highly recommend it to any mountain lover…



Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

So… 40 days, huh?!

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Can you believe that three months ago I handed in my resignation and I only have 40 days to go until the next chapter of my life begins?! I am really looking forward to traveling the world with M.  Far from idealizing this ambitious project (hoping to backpack through 12 countries in 6 months), I am aware that it will be tough and challenging for us but let’s face it, I could not have chosen a better partner to go on this journey with. Secretly, I am very much looking forward to our heated arguments. I can already picture him losing it when I will be running late (French vs. Swiss exactitude, I cannot win anyway) or when the room will look like it has been burgled (nothing better than a comforting chaos in a hostel room, don’t you think?). But I don’t mind because I have got to know him over the years and come to love his caring and beautiful soul. It is a perfect travel companion to my artistic tortured (read late and messy personality) soul.

So 40 days, huh?! Where on earth has the time gone I asked myself yesterday when my work colleagues asked me how many days were left? Far far are the days with three digits when I started to daydream that I eventually could (might, should, would) quit my job to travel the world. Since the resignation, the countdown has miraculously “melted” at an accelerated pace! So many things have to be organized before I can leave! Yours truly has been very busy (and I have still sh** load to do! Argggggh). What has to be done before one leaves home behind? Here is my to do list:

  1. Immigration: (If like me, you live and work abroad) Check your rights and duties with your host country. Regulations in Switzerland can be tough to comprehend. I was very lucky to talk to a nice officer who patiently explained me what to do (and mostly what not to do). With my residence permit, I am (only) allowed to leave Switzerland for 180 days per year. A special derogation can be applied for but I was told that traveling the world is not considered as a good reason to request an extension. Say whaaaat?!
  2. Finances: Set up all the needed direct debits (phone bill, health insurance, credit card…). It is easily done in Switzerland and perfect to travel worry free! No risk to miss a payment, which is great when you don’t know when you will have (reliable) wifi next! Make sure you have two credit / debit cards that will travel with you. If one would get stolen, lost or deactivated, the second would become handy. I have had two cards “hacked” while traveling. Not fun!
  3. Apartment: Find a subtenant who will take over your monthly rent. Of course, this must prior be agreed with your landlord / lady. Every country has its own regulations so better be safe and check than to be sorry!
  4. Health: Book appointments for check ups (dentist, GP…) and make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date! Your doctor should be able to tell you which shot you need if you let him know which country you will travel to / through. Very important: Do not forget to pack your vaccination booklet as it is mandatory to enter some countries!
  5. Travel insurance: Do. Your. Homework. Find the right one that suits your needs. This is certainly the one expense that can not be avoided. We should not underestimate its importance: in case of emergency, to know that we can be flown home without spending any penny is priceless
  6. Documents: Copy all your documents: passport, credit cards, health insurance confirmation and email them to yourself and to friends. It would help to speed up the replacement process if you would misplace them (a polite way to say get robbed)
  7. Entertainment: Buy a few e-books and create a traveling playlist. This will make long bus journeys and bad days much easier! Any input on books?
  8. Backpacking equipment: Decide if your backpack is the one. My Australian trip confirmed that my backpack was the perfect size, enough space but still rather small to limit myself to a 10 to 12kg weight. The only downside was my day pack so I made some research and I found the perfect one! Ready to travel with my house on my back for 6 months, whoop whoop!
  9. Photography equipment: (if like me, pictures are for you as important as all the memories you will gather along the way) Make sure your equipment will allow you to share the beauty of this world without being a burden to you and your travels. Quality vs weight has been a dilemma to me for years. I have been traveling and shooting a lot with a Lumix, small camera, pocket size, easily out, easily in again. It did a great job (especially in macro) but when it came to wildlife, I had a lot of frustrations (limited zoom for instance) so I am taking my Nikon on this trip. I know it will be heavier but I will be traveling with one lens instead of two, this will be my compromise. Any input on a light tripod?

Alright, I better get cracking as even though I have done a lot, there is still much more to do. If you look for me, I will most probably be running around, trying to cross off the tasks from my to do list before I run out of time!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

 

One of those days…

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… when you wake up and you have the feeling that today you are meant to achieve great things.

Well, yesterday I had this feeling and I was given the perfect opportunity: a lasertag game.

A few of us had decided to go to the Lasertag arena in Emmen. This is a pretty straightforward concept: two teams (pink vs blue) face each other in a dark arena wearing sensors. The players need to get as many points as possible by shooting players from the other team, dodging “bullets”. You can see it as a soft version of paintball with no pain (but gain) and no color bullet.

The first round was pretty average (no clue what we were doing and two evil teenagers kept shooting at us) and after a quick break, I was highly motivated to go back to the arena and kick some butts for a second round. I knew what to do not to be shot (of course I didn’t hide! This might have crossed my mind but instead I bravely ran around with the words “easy targets” on my forehead). My friend and I had also a very clear strategy, we would have each other’s back and shoot the players from the pink team… This was our bulletproof plan, so we thought… A lot of ducking, screaming “Ahhhhh behind you! Too late, sorry!” and running around were involved.

I would have never thought that lasertag could make you sweat that much. Somehow I always thought that this game was a hobby for geeks (I am sure that Sheldon would agree).

Round 2 was crazy, it seemed that a beast was on the loose in the arena, everybody running around, chasing players from the other team but… I made it! I. Broke. A. Record… Yes, you read this well… I broke a new record: with a shooting accuracy of 5%, I succeeded in getting shot more than I actually shot anything / anyone which brought me to a flabbergasting score of – 375.

Most of you (me included) probably didn’t know that it was actually possible to get negative scores and with a long sigh, I had to admit that I sucked at lasertag.  But even with an embarrassing score, it was lot of fun and after all, a record is a record! You surely expected an impressive one (sorry!) but I would like to quote one of my compatriots, Coubertin, when he said “The important thing (…) is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well”.

Give it a try and let’s see if you can beat me at being terrible.

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!