Trying to do it all: my last seven days in Bali

Here it was: my last week in Bali, and I was headed back to Ubud!

I had been looking forward to returning for another week of yoga at the Firefly Resort and when I arrived back, it felt like coming home!

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The rice fields around the resort were in the process of being harvested when I arrived, and over the course of the week the farmers harvested all of the rice plants surrounding us and began tilling for the next season. IMG_9893

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It had a completely different look from full rice plants growing tall and green, though it did allow for extra lovely reflections of the sunrise in the morning.

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I was able to snag the very last room available as it was a full week at the resort (8 other participants plus a family of 4 staying at the hotel), and I got the quietest room at the end of the property with rice fields on two sides and floor-to ceiling windows to frame this peaceful view.

 

It was wonderful to be greeted like family when I arrived. I’d only been gone 7 days but the guys welcomed me back with such enthusiasm I knew I’d made the right choice coming back for another week.

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Celebrating my favourite kind of breakfast in Bali!

I was thrilled to see my friend Laura again and have another week of awesome yoga practice. She greeted me with the best hug when I arrived to set up my yoga mat for our first morning practice.

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This week I planned to focus on yoga, relax in the pool, and explore Ubud and this part of Bali a bit more thoroughly.

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There is lots to discover in Ubud, from the market to the many yoga studios to artisan jewelry shops to unique gift shops to restaurants of every kind, and you can enjoy anything from local cuisine to Sicilian pizza to sushi. One night I enjoyed fantastic Thai food on a cute little side street that was great for people watching.

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Laura convinced me to join the group at Firefly for the “Balinese Experience”. She hadn’t gone before and was excited to join in, and since I had such an exceptional time two weeks prior, it didn’t take much to convince me to come along too!

We started at the elementary school we visited last time and got to peek into the library and office before being invited into a classroom to talk with with the students.

 

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The school courtyard

 

We went around and introduced ourselves to the class, told them where we were from, and told them our hobbies. The kids seemed most enthusiastic when someone mentioned soccer, scuba diving, or dancing as their favourite activities, but the biggest response was when Jessica introduced herself and the kids all freaked out and yelled and cheered and pointed to a girl in the back of the class who’s name was also Jessica. The poor girl definitely looked like a deer in the headlights with the sudden attention, but then Jessica gave her a high five and she beamed with pride.

They excitedly sang us a Balinese song at the very top of their lungs, and leapt energetically into photos people took of the class afterwards.

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We wandered through the banyar (community) to arrive at the same lovely village for a tour of the nearby rice fields, village temple, and the home and traditional kitchen of the family we visited last time, complete with demonstrations, lunch, and entertainment.

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When we watched the preparation for the offering they used different fruit from last time, so we got to have snake fruit and try ambarella for the first time (a firm, slightly sour fruit that reminds me of green mango).

 

Our group was again blessed with water and invited into the family temple and given gifts of the Tri Datyu: the red, black and white yarn bracelets.

 

The weather was a bit stormy so after lunch the band and dancers set up under the covered eating area with us and Laura got to try out some dance moves!

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The next morning while the group did the jackfruit cooking class, Laura and I went into town to try a yoga class at Radiantly Alive Yoga. We were originally going for an Ashtanga class but they changed up the schedule that day and we ended up in an aerial yoga class!

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This was one of the yoga studios here. Not a bad view…

Aerial yoga, for those of you that don’t know, consists of doing moves with the addition of a hanging hammock or sling of fabric that you use to achieve balance poses and allows for a different style of inversion poses as well.

It was something I have always wanted to try so I was excited!

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Thus began the hardest yoga class I have ever taken. 😀

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I survived!

The following afternoon, Laura invited me to join her to visit Tirta Empul (Holy Spring Temple) and handed me a helmet to join her on her motorbike! I had never been on one so I was definitely nervous to begin with.

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This is my nervous/excited “I’m on a scooter!” face.

Motorbikes are cheap to rent here ($3-5/day!) so Laura used it to get from where she was staying to the retreat every day as she was only working at the retreat for a month.

I held tightly to the back as Laura maneuvered through the winding, tiny streets. I was the navigator, getting more and more comfortable to the point of not white-knuckling the frame around the back of the seat and even capturing some video of our ride.

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When we arrived at Tirta Empul it was pretty busy, and there were many locals standing around, waiting to guide you through the process for a small fee. The temple is famous for its holy spring water and ritual purification in the pools there, and we were excited for the experience.

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We walked through a courtyard with a pavilion and this beautiful natural sculpture made entirely of branches, reeds, and woven palm leaves.

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You pay a small fee to enter, and you can rent a sarong if you didn’t bring your own to wear in the fountain. (Sarongs are mandatory, and you must be dry when you enter the water, among other rules.)

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Before entering the water you change, and then create or purchase an offering to place at the waterside. You are welcome to pray, give thanks, or simply reflect before stepping into the pool. The local gentleman that we paid to guide us through the process said that although the Balinese Hindu people are praying to their gods, you don’t have to be Hindu (or even religious at all), as long as you believe that the water is purifying. Everyone is welcome as long as there are respectful, and there was a wonderful feeling of awe and respect by all the people there.

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We arrived after a large group of people went through, so by the time we went in, it was quieter. The water was COLD. Definitely the coldest of any temperature I had experienced in Bali so far. Huge koi fish swam in colourful figure-eights of gold and orange and white around your ankles as you stood there.

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There are 16 fountains in the temple, and you wait in the water for your turn to go up to each one in sequence and perform the following process:

  1. You collect the pouring water in your hands and wash your face three times
  2. You drink the water (it was safe to consume as natural spring water but you were also welcome to simply rinse out your mouth if you were uncomfortable ingesting it)
  3. You duck under the spout and let it pour over you as long as you liked.

Each of the first 12 fountains focus on cleansing different sins, and we were told to skip the 11th and 12th fountains as they are reserved for purification when people die and are only for rituals surrounding death in the Hindu faith. The final four fountains in the neighbouring pool are based around karma; the focus of each of them was both for acknowledging wrongs you have done others and vowing to fulfill promises in the future.

It was a very soothing experience and I would highly recommend this to anyone.

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We had a lovely ride through the rice fields and stopped for lunch at Green Kubu, a restaurant surrounded by rice terraces on our way back to be at Firefly in time for the evening yoga practice.

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The weather this week was the rainiest of this “rainy season”, and there was numerous picture perfect mornings, followed by a mid-day wind that brought dark clouds and rainstorms.

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Occasionally, the power went out, which meant that the wifi went down and for the first time since my few beach days in Bali, I journaled, read, and did a little painting to pass the time.

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I still managed a daily sunrise swim and occasionally a night swim in the infinity pool because why the heck not?!

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A few of the girls and I also went wandering across the ravine from the Firefly to look at local art, and spent some time watching a few of the locals paint, carve and sketch in the afternoon sun.  The famous Mas Village is a local wood carving community in the area of Ubud (Gianyar Regency) and we saw dozens of local shops selling the most incredible wooden sculptures, furniture, and art pieces. I found it fascinating that there is no traditional word for ‘artist’ in Balinese, as art is a regular part of daily life in Bali, and everyone is considered artistic; music, dancing, storytelling, and handcrafted art is a central part of the culture.

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I really wanted this rice field and mountain piece in the middle.

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One of my friends left with two of these painted dancers (yellow and blue).

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The artist told us that his traditional Balinese wood carving is placed over entrances in Balinese homes or shops, and will take over 200 hours of work.

It was difficult to decide on pieces we all wanted to take with us!

On Saturday I said goodbye to all my new (and ‘old’) friends at the Firefly Resort, and Dewa picked me up for an afternoon of exploring on the way from Ubud to Sanur for my last weekend in Bali. I couldn’t believe this incredible month-long adventure was coming  to an end.

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So long, Firefly!

Dewa took me to this gorgeous eco-lifestyle boutique hotel just on the edge of Ubud called Bambu Indah. We bought drinks and one of the staff gave me a tour. From a movie room with deluxe seating, to tree-house style lookouts, views overlooking a ravine and rice terraces, local organic garden and beehives, lofts with basket chairs and hammocks, and a very calm and open-air feeling, I dreamed of staying here even for one night next time I come back to Bali.

 

 

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Treehouse lounge!

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Just a small bamboo ladder to the top….

We also stopped at a coffee plantation and jungle swing spot that was so quiet, when I asked to purchase a swing ride (usually $10-15 for 5 pushes total at the popular tourist spots), I was practically up in the air for 15 minutes, and the guys running it began competing to see who could send me swinging the furthest up into the sky!

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They would actually leap off the ground to get more height as they hucked my chair out over the jungle. I was harnessed in completely so I felt very secure the whole time; my only issue by the end was almost a feeling of motion sickness for how fast I was thrown up there.

 

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I also got a very Instagram-worthy shot up in a cute basket bird nest. How very touristy!

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When we arrived in Sanur, Dewa suggested lunch at a local spot that was unassuming and not a flashy tourist attraction, but had amazing roast pork.

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I arrived at my cute little hotel in Sanur and wondered why I didn’t hear about this city as a place to check out! I had booked two nights there so I could possibly take a day trip out to Nusa Penida (famous island/beaches) and also only be 20-30 minutes from the airport when I left on Monday night.

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My room had a dozen orchid plants outside on the balcony, and a clay rooftop view.

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This was our open air lobby/pool. Not bad. 🙂

I wandered down to the long beach strip and had a hard time keeping track of all the great looking restaurants, spas that looked worthy of visiting, and the many many hotels and various offerings on their beach fronts (from yoga, to dance lessons, to kids parties and beach movie nights, to live music).

It turned out that on the Saturday night, Laura was coming into town for a few days, meeting up with some yoga retreat ladies from the week in between my time there, so we all met up for cocktails and pizza, with vegan desserts to end the night. A salsa dance class in the sand was our entertainment for the evening, along with a gorgeous sunset.

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My sunset mojito.

Sanur reminded me of a more relaxed version of Seminyak, with lots of touristy/souvenir shops, spas, and restaurants, but it didn’t feel quite as busy, or is it touristy.

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And the beach!! You could find shady frangipani tree-covered groves, fancy resort beach chair and wedding pavilion sections, surf lesson areas, popular fishing spots, and shallow areas where families with littles ones splashed around to cool down in the hot sun.

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This table had been recently set with fresh flowers and table settings. Honeymoon?

I managed to book a speedboat day trip with Bali Hai Cruises for Sunday to explore Nusa Penida, Ceningan Island, and Lembongan Island. I had heard about the crystal clear waters and picturesque views and I thought that would be a perfect last full day in Bali, followed by a lazy beach day (and maybe spa afternoon) on Monday before heading to the airport late Monday night.

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Everything started off well for the boat trip, and I was prepared with gravol for the hour and a half ride across the ocean to the trio of islands, as it was supposed to be windy. As we left the dock you could see dozens of parasailing boats starting up, and the wind was definitely strong. As we got out onto open water the waves got bigger and bigger.

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I don’t know how I completely forgot my absolute loathing of speed boats from previous experience, and I proceeded to be white knuckled and stiff with fear for the entire 90 minute rollercoaster ride from the Benoa Harbour to the shores of Nusa Penida.

There were multiple times the wave surges on the water were so high I was reminded of scenes from White Squall and was planning my escape from my seatbelt and the canopy overhead should we (inevitably) capsize as the boat cracks completely in half or one of the waves overtakes us and we are flipped upside down.

When we arrived in one piece (with many additional grey hairs/years off our lives) I practically dove off the boat at Crystal Bay for our first snorkelling stop.

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It was still windy and the water was not still but I managed to enjoy puttering around and saw entire schools of baby barracuda, angel fish, and a puffer fish to boot! Plus, it was better than sitting in a rocking boat on the water like some of our group chose to do, and looked a bit greener for it.

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When I finally looked back to the boat I realized that everyone was on board watching me, waiting to move on to the lunch spot at our midway point, Nusa Lembongan…

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This is the bridge connecting Ceningan Island to Lembongan Island. Only foot and motorbike traffic move across it.

I was still queasy from the ride over and stuck to crackers and bread from the heavily American-style influenced menu of mayonnaise-laden ‘salad’ options, including potato salad, chicken salad, coleslaw, and two kinds of pasta salad. I also shared my gravol with a couple of friendly but sea-sick Italians, and took more myself. We had a bit of rain and storm clouds danced around the peripheral view as if to tease us with the threat of stranding us in this paradise. I’m glad I hadn’t booked this for Monday, just in case.

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The ocean had a hint of gorgeous turquoise colour, but with the overcast sky and turbulent waves, I had to imagine what sun rays and still water would do to enhance it’s beauty, and continued to enjoy getting out of the damn boat and back in the water to get my last snorkelling in on my trip!

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I bought Reef Safe sunscreen at The Dive Shop back home in hope of having a less detrimental impact on the environment and was really happy with it. It stayed on, wasn’t greasy, and I knew it wouldn’t be harming the fish and wildlife around me. And for the first time ever I didn’t once get a sunburn while snorkelling on this vacation! #winning

Our second snorkel spot was a large, buoy-marked area and only one other member of our group got in the water with me to explore. I think everyone else just wanted to sit and drink Bintang on the boat.

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I saw hoards of fish and even caught sight of a magnificent blue starfish as I explored the various areas around us, living in absolute denial that soon I would have to get back on the boat and experience near-death yet again for the 90 minutes back to port.

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We spent the last couple of hours of the afternoon at the Bali Hai resort on Nusa Lemongan, complete with access to a pool, showers, free tea and coffee, a bar and restaurant, and a sandy shoreline with plenty of beach chairs.  The sun even came out for a little bit while we were there.

 

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Armed with another gravol pill and determination to be less scared on the return, I got back on the speedboat. Thankfully, even though there were still some heavy dark clouds on the horizon, the ride back was not nearly as terrifying, and there were far fewer screams for our lives as we went over slightly smaller waves. I feel like the crew may have taken a slightly slower approach to make it a bit less stressful…

When we arrived back on land I practically knelt down and kissed it. Reminder for the future, Sara: NO speed boats. No tiny bouncy smashy terrifying little speed boats/rafts/cruisers. Big boats only!

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After a shower at my hotel and a quick bite to eat, I went for a foot massage across from my hotel (and next to an Irish pub playing live music that reminded me of Newfoundland!).

I planned to explore the night life here, as a lot of places seemed to have live music on Sunday nights, and I went back to my hotel to grab a bit more cash, and decided to double check my itinerary to see when I could do online-check-in that night for my flight the next evening.

And that is when my heart dropped into my ankles.

My itinerary said the following:

Departure Date: Monday January 28

Check in: 11:15pm.

Flight: 1:15am.

All this time, all this month, and up until 7:00pm on this Sunday January 27th, I thought that my return flight home was Monday night, focusing on “Check in at 11pm”. I had NOT realized that the check-in was SUNDAY night at 11pm. For a 1AM Monday flight.

So this meant that I had three hours before I had to leave for the airport.

NOT the entire next day and evening. THREE HOURS.

Luckily my pragmatism kicked in: I told the staff at the hotel I would be checking out early, I booked a taxi for 9:30pm, reorganized and repacked all my gear into my (now two!) large bags and backpack, and then was able to jog up and down the main road to find the last few souvenirs I had been putting off getting before I left.

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After passing by twice and hearing great music, I managed to stop and sit on the side of a packed bar for the last 30 minutes before I had to leave for the airport. There was a Beatles Tribute band (called FaceBeat) performing for the evening, and not only was the band exceptional, but the bar was spectacular, filled with interesting art and really cool lighting design that kept changing.

 

Arriving at the airport was bittersweet as I was sad that I ‘lost’ a day at the beach in Sanur, but equally grateful I didn’t completely screw up my 36-hour trip home and have to re-book and pay for another set of tickets back!! I was on my way back through Seoul, then Seattle, then home!

Selamat tinggal & terima kasih, Bali!

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I absolutely plan on coming back here soon, and I am happy to tell anyone who will listen all about the absolute magic that is Bali, Indonesia, and how happy I would be to come back with anyone as their tour guide!

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The Balinese Experience day trip

The big adventure at the Firefly Resort was on Wednesday.

After breakfast we met our taxi to begin a tour day that included a local village, a school, a rice processing farm, and a local family compound and temple. Called “The Balinese Experience”, this was a definite highlight of the week.

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The school sign

We arrived at the school (ages 6-12) and while we were waiting for the guide to talk to us the students were on break and hovering around the courtyard watching this group of tourists with curiosity. A couple young girls came skipping up to me and tugged on my shirt. “Your name?” The smaller girl with her two front teeth missing asked. I told her my name was Sara and asked her what her name was.

She puffed out her chest and said “My name is Rosa.” And then the two girls giggled and backed up to join some others watching us at a safer distance.

We were told about Saraswati, the god of education. You can recognize her because she has four arms and is always holding a book (represents learning), a linked chain (representing connections), a string instrument (representing art and music), and has a peacock and a swan at her feet (representing travel and learning from other cultures).

Behind the statue was the courtyard in between all the classroom buildings, the library, and the office.

(There was actually a change to the school system while I was in Bali. The students used to have school six days a week, Monday-Friday 9am-2pm; on Saturdays they would focus on a hobby like art or dance. But then the school system changed and school is now only Monday-Friday from 8am-3pm, with optional classes incorporated into some of the days.)

The students clearly enjoy this tourist intrusion that must happen pretty regularly, and they enthusiastically belted out a couple of Balinese songs for us when we came to say hi at a couple of the classrooms.

We then wandered further through the village and came to a rice processing area with some farmers raking out rice on slightly sloped concrete ground. If it rains they pile the rice up at the highest point and throw a tarp over top.

The rice was drying in the sun before the husks would be removed (by machine) in a nearby building.

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Balinese eat so much of the rice they produce, none of it is exported; it is all made for local consumption. img_7516-1img_7515

We then met up with a traditional procession including women with offerings balanced on their heads, men playing instruments, and Barong dancers. The Barong is the good spirit that protects against evil spirits, and in these parades two people are inside the head and back of the Barong, creating a dance that would be most similar to a Chinese Lion dance. Like the Korean Heatch, a sculpture of the Barong is often placed on either side of the entrances or gates of homes and temples for protection.

We were given sarongs to wear and we followed the parade, where we all got the chance to try and balance the tall ‘banten’ offerings on our heads.

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When we arrived at the front gate of the house we had garlands of frangipane flowers placed around our necks and had flower petals tossed as a blessing over our heads.

Three generations of a family lived here. Grandparents, parents, and sons lived in three different bedroom buildings, and they shared several other buildings in the compound. The buildings all have separate uses. Three of them here are bedrooms.

This one is where they play music or relax, and store the family’s rice up above where it is dry and away from animals.

This ornate space is for celebrations as well as religious ceremonies like funeral ceremonies.

The youngest son of the household gave us a tour and talked to us about Balinese home life.

For example, the head of the beds always points north or east only because the head is considered holy. In a similar fashion, in Bali you do not touch the head of another person; especially if they are older than you, out of respect.

Two friendly family dogs followed us around the entire time.

The family has their family temple in the compound, and worship here every day. In a temple (family or village or public) there are 3-10 ‘sanga’ (3 is a small temple, 5 is a medium, etc. The largest temple would have up to 10).

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The grandmother blessing us with holy water before going into the temple.

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A sanga

We were also welcomed to the family home by being given a gift of a bracelet called Tridatu; made of red, white, and black yarn and tied on the right wrist.

The colours represent the 3 gods Brahma, Wishnu, and Siwa.

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They tie it on your right wrist because Balinese give and receive with their right hand only as a sign of respect.

We were all handed those conical hats you often see rice farmers wear, and we went for a walk to local rice fields and a village temple nearby. It had a moat around it and two huge Banyan trees nearby that were wrapped in black and white and gold fabric sarongs in respect/gratitude to the trees for the fresh water they store for times of drought.

The hats kept us so cool under the hot sun. The top part of the hat actually sits above your head over a ring that sits snug to your head, so air can flow underneath.

When we returned to the family compound we were offered coconuts and watched a woman building a banten (headpiece) offering with fresh fruit and flowers. We were told that the fruit is brought to the temple as part of worship/offering, and then brought back home and shared among the family. This is a modern version with rimmed levels that hold the fruit in place. The traditional style was a vertical banana stem in the middle and fruit would be held to it with bamboo skewers pushed through the fruit into the banana stem.

It was here that we were invited to share mandarin oranges, mango, and my new favourite fruit: Mangostee!!!!

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This is a very soft, sweet fruit that is unlike anything I have ever tried. And yes, it does look like giant white garlic cloves in real life, too. It’s delicious. The bitter fushia peel is soft and breaks open easily, and is often dried and made into delicious herbal tea.

We went into the family cooking area where they showed us all the ingredients and preparation involved in making chicken skewers and a spicy tomato sate sauce. They use fresh garlic, ginger, turmeric, coriander seeds, peppercorns, fresh chilis and shallots, regular and aromatic ginger, lemongrass, and lime juice. It was enuk(delicious)!

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Chicken skewers waiting to be eaten!

They also were making canang offerings and had premade the baskets and were adding the gorgeous flowers to them.

We got to try the dessert called Kalpon- a boiled dumpling of sorts made with rice powder and pandan leaf for colour. They are filled with sugar syrup and boiled. When they float they are put in an ice bath and then rolled in shredded coconut.

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You pop the whole thing in your mouth before you bite it or else the sugar syrup will burst out. They are delicious cold or warm, we discovered!

A few of us even made a couple ourselves.

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After that we were able to visit the stable they have where they keep their cows and pigs. They brought the two cows out to the field to show us how they prepare a new plot to plant rice, and I got to try guiding the cows around as they pulled a wooden beam behind them along the top of the mud, as well as try my hand at planting new rice shoots in the field. The mud was warm from the sun and surprisingly easy to manouever through.

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Folding palm leaf mats
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Opening coconut husks

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Grinding roasted coffee beans

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We were served the most incredible meal with the best rice I have ever tasted, and an assortment of almost-tapas style items; pork sausage, tofu, tempeh, dried fish, chicken sate, omelet, potato and corn fritters, and jackfruit and long bean salads. We also each got our own basket of seasonings and spices. img_7487img_5095img_5093

We each got a personal basket of seasonings including hot chilies, garlic, chilli, and shallots minced together, peanuts, toasted coconut, and the saté sauce made earlier
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This chicken noodle soup was delicious

We were treated to traditional music while we ate.

Then down the pathway came these 4 young Balinese dancers dressed in traditional lace tops, sashes, and sarongs. The music shifted and the girls posed and prepared to dance. They were incredibly articulate in their movements right down to head tilts and eye movement.

The music never really stopped and the little girls bowed and then dance-exited off down the pathway back to the main house. Then an older girl wearing a more ornate costume and carrying a had fan entered and performed for us. She was smiling mischieviously the entire time, and for a good portion of the dance she often made eye contact with me as I was crouched closest to her in front of everyone else. I almost felt like I was in on some wonderful secret.

At one point she stopped dancing and pulled me up to dance with her, tying a scarf around my waist and handing me the fan to dance with. There were about 20 people watching.

No pressure. 😳

After I danced with her, my friend Rachel went up, and then a young girl was pushed up by her older sister. She was clearly shy and pretty reluctant to dance so her dad went up with her and tried out the moves too, which was adorable. Her sister joined them and then an American girl jumped up and then a tall German guy (who was sort of shoved up there) started dancing too. Rachel and I joined and it became a nice little Balinese dance party. Not that we had any idea of what we were doing, but we were having a good time faking it. 😁

The music seemed like it would never end so we dance-exited off like the little girls did earlier.

We went back to the resort absolutely elated about our day. How do you top this?! 

L to R: Me, Aneta, Ange, Kaska

 

My first week in Bali!

Good morning, Indonesia!!

I woke up on the other side of the world and couldn’t believe I had an entire month ahead of me to explore this island.

At this point I had only planned the first two weeks: I would spend the first two days in the trendy/touristy area of Seminyak, then four days further south on Balangan Beach. The second week I had booked my first ever yoga retreat in the rice fields near Ubud.

A continental breakfast was included at the Aswana Seminyak hotel, which I thought would be the easiest way to start the first morning of my vacation. It was picture perfect and was served to me with a cup of hot tea in the quiet lobby of the hotel with a view of the pool.

We had wind and a little rain on those first couple of days which kept it a bit cooler, but I was still very aware that the moisturizer I brought was completely superfluous and any sunscreen I put on my face would inevitably melt off as the day went on.

Oh the humidity!

Just a beautiful stone carving in between restaurants…

People watching on the beach…

It wasn’t weather for swimming, and in fact the beach had red flags up all along the shoreline, some with skull and crossbones on them, and ‘swimming is prohibited’ in English and Indonesian.

This of course meant it was ideal weather for surfers, and many folks took to the waves to practice. I was thisclose to trying it out myself…

Instead, I bought my first young coconut and sat at a coffee shop on the beach watching the waves.

In addition to January being the off-season, the stormy weather made for quieter waterfront restaurants, although they looked like they were ready for throngs of tourists at any moment.

Walking down the streets I saw many small and large temples and small offerings on ledges, shelves, or even just on the sidewalk, and it was clear how much the Hindu faith is part of the culture here. Colourful flowers, food, an incense were the most common offerings I could see.

Shops and spas and restaurants lined the streets and you couldn’t go halfway down a block without coming upon Balinese women saying “massage, Miss? Spa treatment, yes?”

Well, twist my rubber arm.

When a one-hour reflexology massage is $10, you are tempted to get one daily.

And maybe because the day before I walked 17,000 steps in Seoul, I went deluxe and tried out the fish tank foot treatment first…

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I wish there had been a camera on me when I first put my feet in the water and the tiny fish started nibbling. I squealed like a little kid. It’s the strangest thing ever. Not sure I’d do it again, but it was an interesting experience.

The pool at my hotel was gorgeous and no one used it while I was there except me. It felt like I had booked it for my private use. I did not hate this.

My hotel was a 20 minute walk to the beach and I saw a good sample of what sort of souvenirs and crafts I could get here. From handwoven dreamcatchers and lantern covers to carved wooden statues to candles and jewelry and beautiful fabrics, I realized that it may be a very good thing I can check two bags on the way home…

The beach here felt like it was definitely more of a touristy/party area and it reminded me of the resort spots in Mexico or the Bahamas. I even walked past a sports bar with a huge pool in the middle.

This restaurant had coconut trees on top and a ladder set up and ready to go to collect them!

I enjoyed my first Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and a mango lassi at this beautiful little hotel and restaurant. With its own little waterfall.

A mango lime lassi! Delicious!!

It was while I was in Seminyak that Anna, a childhood friend (that I had not seen in, oh, 25 years), messaged me on Facebook. She has been living in Germany for the last seven years, happened to be in Bali on her honeymoon, and suggested we meet up! We planned to get together later in the week.

In the meantime I enjoyed some excellent meals, massages, and window shopping in Seminyak.

Amazing salmon poke

Before I knew it I was heading to my second location on Balangan Beach, a surf hotspot on the south peninsula of Bali, and I was hoping to get in some surf lessons while I was there.

My driver had trouble finding the resort and ended up dropping me off on what looked like a rocky cliff face, where I was instructed to hike my gear down the pathway to my hotel.

As I waved goodbye to my driver and carefully stepped my flip-flop wearing feet down the rocky hill, I thought “Well this place sure is remote!”

I got to my hotel at the bottom, and the girl in the lobby/restaurant/poolside area basically took me at my word that I had a reservation, and ‘checked me in’ by writing my first name (“Serrah”) and “Room 2” in an ancient looking ledger.

“Retro!” I thought.

And then she took me to my room.

We walked behind the main building to a long thatched-roof building. The doors were woven palm leaves and looked very old. I felt a twinge of concern as she unhooked a very rusty padlock from the door and opened it into my room.

I may have let out a slight gasp.

Now the kindest word I could give this place was RUSTIC.

Like, shockingly rustic.

I feel I should have been more prepared for the rusticness I came upon.

In fact this may be the place where the word ‘rustic’ originated… 😂

All (somewhat true/panicked) jokes aside, this place first made me think of Belize and their small villages and typical rural homes (see: huts). Just add one light switch and running water.

The walls/roof of my room were rattan/palm leaves. There were places I could see right through them.

My shower was a bamboo pole with a switch halfway up that opened and closed the hose that lets water pour out the top.

There was a large knothole in my floor that I could see the jungle below through.

The way I ‘locked’ my door from the inside was by jamming a piece of bamboo in a notch. I locked it from the outside with the rusty padlock and a key that look older than me.

The one tiny and dim lightbulb hanging crookedly from the ceiling, the grey mosquito nets, and the ancient dusty floor fan in the corner were the most humorous juxtaposition to the ‘welcome to your honeymoon suite’ look of two ridiculous towels folded into kissing swans that had been so delicately placed at the foot of my bed.

I honestly had to take several deep breaths and tell myself I’d be fine.

My first thought was: This is the place I got all those vaccines for.

#jokingnotjoking

I tried to put myself in the mindset that maybe this is more like what I should expect in Bali. Maybe my hotel in Seminyak was an overly fancy and rare example of what places are like here.

Either way the photos of this hotel that I saw online did not tell the whole story and did not meet my expectations. (Buyer beware.)

To get my mind off what I had gotten myself into I took off for a walk down the beach to the north end where the water and waves were stunning, and many people were making using of the photo opportunities with that view.

Along the way I saw several people learning to surf and particularly enjoyed watching one guy triumphantly punch his fists into the air as he succeeded at his first surf in to shore. I hoped I would enjoy it as much as that!

I couldn’t believe the number of stray dogs here. They almost outnumbered the people. They would lie in the shade of people’s beach umbrellas, tussle in the sand with each other, and hang out next to the restaurants likely hoping for scraps.

Just a pooch chilling by the pool.

And then I got to the end of the beach and the wedding photographers almost outnumbered the stray dogs!

I counted 9 or 10 couples taking either wedding photos or engagement photos; on the sand, in the water, and up along the cliff overlooking the water.

I got some Mie Goreng (fried noodles with egg) at one of the restaurants on the beach and booked a surf lesson for the next morning.

That night was …interesting. The mosquito netting was an absolute must-have as this place was SO buggy. That and probably full of other creatures I didn’t want to think about. A foot-long gecko occasionally creeped in and out of my bathroom and I just hoped he would be hungry enough to eat all the scary bugs. The hole in the floor made me wonder what sort of things regularly crawled through so I put my flip flops over it so I wouldn’t be reminded of it. Plus it was a dusty, stale oven in that room; I was so hot that the ancient floor fan was just effective enough to keep me from dragging my pillow down to the beach and hoping for the best.

Needless to say, I was delighted when morning came and I could get some fresh air and breakfast. And my first banana pancake of the trip.

This beach is definitely a hotspot for surfers and folks learning how to surf. The waves aren’t very big this time of year, but they are constant so it’s a good place to try out your skills as a newbie at high tide.

Armed with a surf shirt and surfer booties (neoprene slippers) we found some shade on the sand to do some intro lessons on how to lie on a board, paddle, and stand up and balance.

The best part was when we went out to the ‘white water’; broken foamy waves. My instructor Jack would hold my board ready and then give me a push when a wave came along and yell “up!” when it was time for me to stand up on my board.

I was absolutely overjoyed when I first succeeded, getting up to standing and riding my longboard into shore, jumping off before reaching the spot where the coral reef broke through the sand. I turned around and raised my arms in triumph and Jack cheered from the waves!

I was able to get to a decent balanced standing position about seven or eight times during our 60 minute lesson. It was amazing!!

I booked a second lesson with Jack for the next morning and went in to get some shade.

A large bottle of water, and a chicken sandwich and fries for lunch, followed by a swim in the hotel pool, brought me to the early afternoon. I had been thinking of finding a new hotel as I didn’t quite feel like I could do the dark, grass-walls, hot room for another two nights. Plus, my friend Anna invited me to their resort in Nusa Dua on the Saturday and I thought maybe I should just find a room in that area.

I was sitting by the pool (where I could access the wifi) and started looking up hotels when I wondered if I’d had a bit too much sun. I needed to lie down so the hotel search was paused.

At about 4:30, I still couldn’t pull myself out of bed and felt awful. I ended up staying in bed through the night and what turned out to be food poisoning made me fully sick at about 10pm. It was after that that I dragged myself to the lobby to send off an email to my friend and travel agent that basically said “I cannot stay here another night, please book me something with real walls and air conditioning in Nusa Dua.”

I texted my driver Purna and asked him to pick me up the next morning and take me to Nusa Dua. I apologized to Jack and cancelled my 2nd surf lesson.

We got to Mercure Nusa Dua and I was relieved to find a cool and quiet room in this 5 star resort. I’d got a good deal on the room but I would have given them all my money to have a good night’s sleep at that point! I was happy to drop off my gear and know I was coming back here that night.

When I arrived at Anna’s resort and was brought to the Villa lobby, I knew that I was upgrading my day exponentially.

Anna came to get me and bring me down to the beach to the reserved chairs she and her wife had booked for the three of us that day. She also had surf board rentals organized, and ordered us all fresh coconuts to drink when I arrived. Deluxe!

How does one start catching up on 25 years? The last time Anna and I saw each other we were in elementary school!

We had a great time chatting and sharing stories of our lives and clearly Anna and Samantha were having a fabulous honeymoon with one week in Nusa Dua, and then heading up north to do some “glamping” for their second week.

We went back to their villa and went swimming in the unbelievably gorgeous lagoon that runs all along the back of the villas there. (Sorry, no photos of the lagoon!)

Their private pool

The secret lagoon is through that gate. Best discovery ever!

Anna and Samantha were doing a day trip to Ubud the next day and offered to take me to my yoga retreat if I wanted to share a driver.

We were picked up at 8am by their driver Ketut, and we proceeded to have an adventure-filled day.

A driver costs about $60-70 (CAD) for the day (10 hours max), and we got more than our money’s worth with Ketut!

Ketut was like a driver and tour guide in one, telling us all sort of fascinating aspects about the sights along our way and the Balinese people. In addition to all the temple offerings we were seeing in the streets and in buildings, there were also tall decorative bamboo poles lining all the streets and Ketut explained that these penjor are for a festival that happens in Bali every six months. People put these up to celebrate and they stay up for weeks at a time. The last festival was Dec 25.

We stopped at the Tegenungan Waterfall and got in some good photos and a little refreshing mist to our faces on a beautiful, sunny day.

Please note the smaller sign.

We were elated when we discovered we were able to order cold coconuts after climbing the 115 tall stone stairs back to the top of the hill afterwards.

We went for lunch on the edge of beautiful rice fields outside Ubud, and had delicious crispy duck, and chicken saté that came steaming hot on a tabletop clay oven.

Out next stop was the Monkey Forest in Ubud, which I had heard was a must-see spot.

As we pulled up, Ketut said we could borrow his umbrellas in case it rained while we were in the forest. It was still really hot and not very cloudy so we declined, not wanting to have anything extraneous the monkeys could grab, as we had been warned they will try to steal anything from purses to cell phones to the glasses right off your face.

Do not panic. The first rule of the monkey forest.

The amazing sign at the front gate.

Right away we were delighted to see monkeys all over the place, many filling their faces with papaya and sweet potato and corn.

I never felt like they were going to grab something off me (or even were interested in me at all). Apparently you used to be able to buy bananas to give to the monkeys but they got too agressive… so that’s no longer a thing.

One particular monkey showed a little agression at Samantha only after she stood near him for a picture for a little too long. He hissed and bared his teeth at her and she quickly moved out of his reach. He then proceeded to not only stay sitting there, but he leaned back and crossed his legs like he was just relaxing!

It was only about 15 minutes after we walked through the front gate when the skies opened up and there was a huge downpour.

We were soaked to the skin by the time we got back to the car and we sheepishly told Ketut that the next time he offers us umbrellas, we are taking them.

It was about time for my to check in at my retreat, and then we were going to go back into town and grab dinner.

So now, the story of Finding the Firefly Hotel.

To say I was a little gun shy after the sketchy beachside literal-hole-in-the-floor hotel is an understatement.

So when Ketut used google maps to find the gps location of my yoga retreat and we drove further and further away from anything that looked like civilization, Anna and Samantha’s voiced concerns about my next accommodation were completely valid and I was a little worried.

When we had to drive down this steep tiny road to the bottom of a hill with what looked like an abandoned outdoor community centre, I was thinking ‘oh noooo’.

When we arrived at the bottom, and turned right along a grassy path to arrive at a dead end next to a house and a hill, I thought, “I have been scammed, this place isn’t real. I look like an idiot.”

The gps looked like we should have driven directly into the massive grassy hill to our left.

Ketut got out and walked up this sidewalk along the side of a tall building (that was definitely a private residence) to ask someone for directions.

He came back with another man who said he could carry my bag up the hill to the resort.

We were still skeptical, but at least this man claimed to know that the resort existed.

We walked up this ‘road’. (The only “road” to the hotel, by the way)

And at the top, saw this:

My first view of The Firefly Resort

It turns out, the man who came for my bag is the owner. His name is Ariel, he is from Israel, he is an astrophysicist (because of course he is), and built this place himself.

He checked me in, handed me my welcome package and our week’s itinerary, and then picked some wild passion fruit that was growing in front of the office building for all of us to try before taking me to my room.

Anna and Samantha still wanted to make sure the actual buildings were safe and came with me to see where I was staying.

That’s when Samantha saw the infinity pool and decided “this place is probably okay” and then joked she wanted to stay here too.

With that we went back into town to do some shopping and exploring, and stopped into a Starbucks that just happens to look out over a gorgeous lotus pond and temple. No big deal.

Yes, this Starbucks has a gong.

Pura Seraswati

Samantha found a restaurant called Hujan Locale she wanted to try for dinner and it was by far the best meal I have had so far in Bali. Soft-shell crab, locally-caught tuna ceviche with watemellon, and fancy cocktails. Even the menu was perfect with very conversational descriptions of each dish.

The description for “Sate Buntel” is my favourite.

A perfect way to end this reunion/meeting/weekend with friends!!

So clearly, one of my next trips needs to be to Munich, Germany, to visit these two!!

One fantastic week down, 3 incredibly eventful weeks to go!

A 40-hour journey to Indonesia with a day in South Korea

Five hours after my first plane took off from Calgary and this crazy adventure began, I found myself on a plane much larger than I usually take. I walked past the First Class and Business Class sections, and then past one full section of Economy to get to my seat, which was moved forward in the aircraft 10 rows from my original location. And there were two aisles; 9 seats across in Economy.

It was all becoming very real that I was heading to the other side of the world.

Dear Korean Air, You had me at “Here are three seats to yourself on this almost-full 13 hour flight”.

Love, Sara

This girl was feeling very lucky on this New Year’s Eve’s Eve!!!

Not only that, but there were piles of things on every seat to make our flight more enjoyable: a pillow, a blanket, some headphones, a bottle of water, a pair of slippers, and a mini toothbrush and tube of toothpaste.

This would be the longest flight I have ever been on, the longest travel ‘day’ I have ever taken, and will be the furthest trip I have ever made from home.

I was headed to Bali, Indonesia for the first time ever, for one entire month on another solo adventure.

And a bonus to the extremely long journey there: I was stopping in Seoul, South Korea for a 12-hour layover.

Remembering how much I loved my 5 hour layover in Belgium a few years ago, I knew it was the perfect excuse to speed-explore another new-to-me city on the other side of the world!

There were screens on the back of every seat with attached remotes. You could watch tv or movies or news, play games, or watch the flight path (including the live video of the on-board camera as we landed!)

They served us dinner as soon as we were up in the air. It started with distribution of warm hand towels, and then they gave us the option of two American dishes or Bibimbap!!

I have heard all about bibimbap from friends who lived in Korea and I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. Steamed sticky rice with sautéed vegetables like oyster mushrooms and shallots, along with sesame oil and some spicy chilli sauce. It was delicious, and possibly the best airline food I have ever had.

Who gets giddy over airline food? This girl, apparently.

After dinner, for the first time ever: I took a sleeping pill on a plane. We were leaving at midnight and the flight was going to be plenty long enough to sleep and still have hours to be awake on the flight.

Side note, this airline has the best dressed flight attendants I have ever seen. i wish I had thought to snag a photo.

Having three seats to myself made me feel like I hit the economy ticket jackpot. I sat in the window seat and leaned against the window, and my feet could stretch without even sticking out in the aisle. Armed with a neck pillow, three pillows (from the three seats!) and my Korean Air blanket, I put in my earbuds and played a white-noise type app that sounded like rain on a tarp, and I was out to the world for about 8 hours.

When I woke up I decided to watch a movie and Crazy Rich Asians was one of the options. I had been wanting to see it for a while and it did not disappoint!

And before I knew it, breakfast was served – after warm hand towels again (an omelet, hash browns, and sausage with fruit and orange juice on the side).

We arrived at 6:30am in Seoul and I was off to the city centre for my walking tour with Ben. It turned out to be a private tour as no one else signed up, which was actually amazing.

Ben first took me up to a viewing deck in the governement building next to the Changdeokgung Palace. Because it was a Tuesday, he told me that the main/primary palace that was promised on the tour would be closed.

We could see many world embassies in the downtown core surrounding this ‘secondary’ palace. The juxtaposition of the modern buildings, Korean style traditional building, Russian influence, and mountain backdrop was amazing.

Symmetry is extremely important to Koreans and the four directions of the city of Seoul were repeated in many ways. There are four gates into the city; North, South, East, and West. And Ben told me that Seoul has a wall surrounding it, which I had not known before.

After giving me a fascinating and thorough history of Seoul and Korea, we went back down and through the main gate to explore the grounds.

The heatch is an imaginary animal- created out of the strongest parts of other animals, like the lion, the pig, the dragon, etc. It is the symbolic animal of Korea that sits on either side of the gates of all the palaces as well as in front of the government buildings.

The Korean architecture is designed after nature, so roofs are curved like the mountains, and even the colour of tile and building material is considered.

Ben emphasized that the number three is considered to be perfect in the eyes of Koreans. Like a triangle, there is balance and stability to the number 3.

Balance + blending + harmony are the three most important concepts to Korean design. Even the flag is white with three colours: black, red, blue.

Black and white/red and blue represent yin and yang, light and dark, fire and water. The solid lines in the flag represent yang and the broken lines, yin.

Odd numbers like 5 and 7 are very powerful too, and in the main palace Ben pointed out that the dragons on the ceiling had seven prongs to their tails so they were the most powerful dragons ever.

As we headed to the village, then realized that the primary palace gates were actually open. It turns out, they open them especially for the holiday. So Ben told me that I got “a bonus palace”.

The grounds of the Geongbokgung Palace were exceptionally larger than the other palace and we explored every corner.

I couldn’t get over the lines in the roofs, the detail to the building and bricks and tiles.

Balance of the materials is important too. Stone, brick, and wood/paper.

Ben told me how Koreans were the first to design a heated (stone) floor, where the chimneys are outside the home and tunnels run throughout the home, and the fire burns so long and so cleanly, there is almost no smoke whatsoever.

Paper screens kept out cold air but were also breathable so people didn’t feel like they were suffocating inside.

Some of the chimneys were incredibly ornate. This main chimney to the Queen’s quarters is actually the 810th national treasure of Korea.

(The first one is the South Gate.)

I also learned that the King and Queen has separate living quarters. The Queen’s residence was closer to the mountain and the earth was brought in and built up around the back side of her buildings to connect her to the mountains’ energy.

After exploring practically every square foot of the grounds we went to look at the  architecture of traditional Korean homes.

It was a good thing I ended up bringing my winter jacket and toque and scarf and mittens and boots to Seoul. It was cold!

Ben suggested we end the tour with lunch, and brought me to a Michelin-star-awarded restaurant for noodle soup.

The line up outside was long but it moved quickly. We were seated on the floor in a traditional room and served two kinds of kimchee and two steaming bowls of delicious soup with hand cut noodles, mushrooms, veggies, and beef.

It was the perfect way to warm up. And I couldn’t resist ordering some handmade jumbo dumplings to go- to have as my dinner when I got to the airport before my last flight of the journey!

Ben went above and beyond and brought me to a traditional Korean Sauna by the Seoul Station where I would head back to the airport. This was recommended to me by my friend Heidi, and it was the perfect way to relax and warm up on this chilly winter afternoon before another two hours at an airport and a 7 hour flight.

First of all, this place has a restaurant in it, a games room, bathing pools, sauna rooms, a nail salon, hair salon, and even sleeping rooms. Entire families must spend the day there!

I was given a clean pair of shorts and T-shirt to wear in all the common areas. Women wore orange shirts and maroon shorts and men had grey shirts and brown shorts. (Signs informed me that the (women-only) showers and bathing pools are garment free.)

Each floor had different offerings (and there were 6 floors, including the basement pool.) Strangely, every floor has a smoking room. This must still be a very common habit in Korea…

I had just enough time to try four of the sauna rooms for about 15 minutes each, which was just a sampler amount of time. I started in the salt room, where you could lie on/in and bury yourself in chunks of rock salt. It was a medium heat sauna room.

Next I tried a red clay room, which had balls of red clay that felt like rough marbles cascading over your toes as you stepped into the space. Again, people were mostly lying on their backs or sides, piling the balls over their legs and arms. These were hot!

After that I went into a charcoal room which was another medium temperature sauna room. There were mats on the floor and the sloped ceiling and walls were black with sheets of applied charcoal. There was a man next to me in there completely asleep and snoring.

It was in the charcoal room that I noticed people on their cell phones, which I would not have thought to bring into a sauna with me…

Lastly I went into an oxygen sauna that was cool extra-oxygenated air. After all the heated rooms it was quite refreshing, and I stayed there a few minutes extra.

Before I left I had to check out the 5th floor, as it was labelled “clay caves, and sleeping and snoring rooms”.

There I found a long room with all these almost tunnel-like bunks made out of red clay, and people were under blankets inside these dark low caves. There were also a couple of large rooms with mats on the floor and dim lighting where people were sound asleep. The snoring room was at the end and had a door to keep the sound inside, I guess!! On this floor there were locker charging stations for cell phones so you could boost your phone’s battery while you napped and re-charged yourself!

This place was unlike anywhere I have ever been, and I’m tempted to come back on my way home and spend a bit more time here!

Back to the airport in time to get a Starbucks (they have toasted chestnut lattes and toasted rice lattes in South Korea!), and catch a jazz band perform near this beautiful indoor garden still decorated for the holidays. Have you ever seen a jazz xylophone player? Well neither had I, until this day!

See you in one month, Seoul…

Bibimbap breakfast snack!!!

A seven hour flight, one meal, and half a sleeping pill later, I arrived in the much anticipated Bali!! I walked past the dozens of taxi drivers holding up name cards or calling out “miss! Taxi? Ride? Miss, you need a taxi?” … to find my driver Purna, with my name neatly printed on a card.

40 hours (almost to the minute) after I walked into the airport at home in Calgary, I arrived at my hotel in Seminyak.

I couldn’t have had better timing getting to my room just before 2am, folding myself into bed, and waking up at 9am the next morning. No jet lag for this girl. 😎

Another win for the Indonesia trip 2019!!

March 2018: A Much Needed Tropical Trip

IMG_0358

I decided in January that I was overdue for a tropical vacation, and after one of the snowiest, coldest winters I have experienced in my entire life in Calgary, I needed OUT!

I decided to try somewhere new for a seven-day escape.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t too difficult to convince my mom to join me. 🙂

Our route to Belize from Calgary made for a long day; three flights, three airlines, and an arrival 12 hours after first take off. We left for the airport at 3:30am, and were on the plane at 6:00am headed for Texas. From Houston we flew to Belize City. From there we walked to the local airline and flew 45 minutes (with one stopover) to arrive at the south end of the Belizean peninsula: Placencia.

We stepped off the plane along with one other gentleman who was greeted by a big enthusiastic group of American ex-pats. My mum said “well, you folks seem like a lot of fun! Can we come home with you?” to which one gentleman replied “Sure! Welcome to Belize! Wanna beer?” and preceeded to walk straight over to his golf cart and crack two Belekin Beers and hand them to us without waiting for a reply.

He introduced himself as Eugene, and he and his wife own the Pickled Parrot in Placencia, a bar ‘with the best burgers in town’! He invited us to the bar that evening for dinner and live music by a buddy of his visiting from the U.S.

We arrived at the Serenade Hotel and met the hotel manager Anna, who became our go-to lady for all things local. She showed us to our room that came complete with microwave, mini fridge, and air conditioner. The A/C was quite the pleasant surprise as in previous vacations we were used to having only a ceiling fan (if we were lucky).

The humidity and warm evening was perfect for a little exploring, and after spraying our ankles with Deep Woods Off (in perhaps a too-optimistic, attempted defense of the inevitable sand-flea bites), we took off down the boardwalk behind the hotel. This pathway is poured concrete faux-finished to look like wood, and goes all through Placencia to the south end at the pier.

Lots of local artists carve conch shells, calabash and coconut shells, and natural wood into jewelry, serving dishes, and beautiful art.

The forecast here was 28 degrees celcius. Every day. (The LOW was 23 or 24 degrees.) Magical. We never needed a sweater in the evening and the days were sunny at best and partially cloudy at ‘worst’- in the way you actually don’t mind when a few clouds roll over and give you a little reprieve from the heat.

We found the Pickled Parrot and were welcomed first by Eugene’s two dogs and later a cat as we found a seat at a picnic table on the side of the bar. This place was busy! We had our first pina coladas of the trip and ordered burgers, fries, and onion rings.

The Belizean dollar is worth half the American Dollar, so our original thought of a $20 burger being a bit pricey turned into the realization that it was closer to $12 CAD which was totally reasonable. The Pickled Parrot is cash only, and we were told that it is pretty common for places in town to only accept cash (both American and Belizean currency.)

The music was great, the burgers were excellent, and Eugene made us feel very welcome, introducing us to some regulars sitting nearby who quickly gave us the rundown of must-see and must-do things for our week on the peninsula.

We were walking back to our hotel when the sound of drumming pulled us further up the boardwalk and we found ourselves at the Tipsy Tuna and a performance of drumming that we later learned was Garifuna (also spelled Garafina) traditional music, and dancing. It was mostly kids, dressed in traditional Garifuna costume, and tourists and locals were enjoying the rhythm on the dance floor. Although we were too tired to join in, we couldn’t help but bounce along to the music. This is a weekly event at the Tipsy Tuna, so we felt fortunate to catch it on our first night in town.

One of the things we always love about the Caribbean is that the sound of the waves and the wind in the palm trees feel like they immediately lower our heart rates. ❤️

We also noticed that over the week we were there, our walking pace definitely slowed.

Plancencia has some of the nicest people I have met in the Caribbean, and people always said hello and good morning and good night as you passed on the boardwalk or on the main road. It felt even safer than Nassau!

Our first morning found us over at a tiny little building that was no more than a counter that seats about 5 people, a stove with two burners, a sink , and a fridge. And the best burritos I have ever had for $4 each! Anna told us they had the best fresh juice in town, and we ordered orange and watermelon to go with our breakfast. (This was another place that only took cash- and exact change only!)

We were anxious to get to the beach, and as we were told the ocean side of the peninsula was too hard to swim at due to all the seaweed, we headed down to the south end next to the pier and found a good patch of sand to throw down our towels and summer dresses and we leapt into the water.

To give you an idea of the ocean here, these are views of the Belizeans shoreline from the tiny plane we took to and from Placencia.

I’m pretty sure the ocean around Belize is more shallow for further out than anywhere I have been in the Caribbean, and the temperature reflected that. It was practically warm! We were slightly constrained as to how far out we could swim as the boats coming in and out of the harbor are constant (and the harbor master on the pier will yell at you, we quickly learned!).

There wasn’t much to see using our snorkels in this spot, but we had been assured by Anna that the real beautiful water and snorkeling was out off the mainland at reefs. It requires the hiring of a boat, and she knew just who to call. She phoned her friend Rudy as we chatted with her at the hotel and told him “Get over here right away! I know I know, but you are only five minutes away, so you can spare a little time to come and talk to these ladies!”

Rudy and Rudy Jr. arrived and we were informed that Rudy Jr is a certified boat operator who can take us out for either a half-day or full-day excursion. We opted for a full day trip which would include lunch and a stop on an island that had a natural pool and hammocks. We booked for the next day.

Rudy & Rudy Jr.

After a full lazy afternoon of sunbathing and swimming in looped repetition, we decided to try the Tipsy Tuna for dinner, and ordered wings and conch fritters and iced tea. We shared a big table with a couple from Lake Tahoe who were quick to chat us up and tell us about their road trip adventures exploring Belize and Venezuela over the past 12 days; this was the end of their trip. Theresa and Joey had two days in Placencia, and were considering taking a boat out to go snorkeling, so we suggested they join us the next day, hoping our guides would have room for two more.

Friday morning we got all our snorkeling gear together (yes, we bring our own snorkeling gear) and headed to the meeting spot for our day on the water. Our plans were quickly kai-boshed as the wind was strong that day and the ocean was choppy with white caps. We all agreed that the 30-minute ride out would be too rough and likely the water cloudy from all the waves, so we post-poned until Monday, as the Rudy’s were already booked Saturday and Sunday.

We decided to have another lazy beach day, and wandered along the main street and stopped into the Above Grounds coffee shop – which truly felt like a treehouse – and was a perfect spot to have an iced latte and enjoy the breeze. (They also make delicious baked goods and sell local coffee you can take home as a souvenir.)

Most of the houses in Placencia are on stilts, and we learned that the reasoning behind this was three-fold:

1) The higher you go, the better ocean breeze you get, and since most people cannot afford air conditioning, opening windows and letting the wind blow through was the best way to stay cool.

2) When they get sudden heavy rainstorms there is often flooding, so having your home off the ground means less damage/stress when this happens several times a year.

3) Sand fleas (or ‘no-see-ums’) and other bugs are only active a few feet off the ground so to be a floor above them makes it easier to avoid bug bites.

Friday night we went to Nic’s Restaurant, another recommended spot. We arrived to a pretty full, tiny wrap-around porch where we took a seat at a small table so close to the couple next to us we joked we were joining them for dinner. We ended up ordering a Greek Pizza and Caesar salad to share, and learned that our almost-table-mates ordered a similar meal; they got a Cobb salad and a Belezean Pizza (think: Hawaiian pizza with jalapeno peppers and red onions).

Pete and Sandy were from Missouri and were back in Belize after 12 years, and had just spent one week on a sailboat cruise swimming and snorkeling out along the islands and reefs off the Belizean coast. They were lovely company and we had a great time getting to know them as we ate our respective meals, and then ended up exchanging pizza slices! How often do you share/swap your meal with people at another table?! The magic of Belize. 🙂

We had been told about Taste Belize Tours  and as soon as we saw “Chocolate Waterfall Tour”, we knew what our Saturday plans were. Our tour guide/tour company owner was Lyra, a born-and-raised Belizean who was raised on a cacao farm outside Toledo Belize, and had gone to university in the US to get her doctorate in Anthropology and Food Studies. She was full of information about Belize’s history, the various cultural influences, the indigenous people, and I was lucky enough to sit in the front seat (or, alternatively, be unlucky enough to have the worst motion sickness in the group). There were 12 of us total; my mum and I, a couple from Ontario, and two American couples who were on vacation together with their 3 kids.

It was a two-hour drive to the chocolate farm and along the way we drove past more and less touristy areas, through the a Garifuna town of Barranco- the birthplace of the most famous Belizean musician Andy Palacio. We went past many tiny villages, saw several banana plantations, and drove past large sections of land that are currently being developed into resorts. There is a big boom in real estate in Belize right now, in Placencia specifically.

We also drove through the tropical part of Belize and then suddenly, like a switch had been hit, we were driving through a savanah with dry grasses and tropical pine trees. Apparently the soil quality changes over a few meters to make this huge environment change. And we also found out that we were visiting in the dry season, which meant that many plants were blooming that don’t normally have flowers, like the “Buttercup Flower” tree.

We were greeted at the Ixcacao Farm by Juan, who owns the land and factory with his wife, Abalina.

Juan showed us the cacao tree and we learned about the process of growing cacao in Belize, and things like how succeptible the cacao plants are to disease and fungus, how they require mixed sunlight and shade to prorperly mature and thrive, and how, like coffee and grapes used for wine, the soil and area and local plants influence the final flavor of the cacao.

Two varieties of cacao plants:

Also growing on their property were the calabash tree, which has these beautiful round fruits that are the traditional container (the shell is cut in half and dried) to drink hot chocolate. We also saw these shells carved and decorated as souvenirs you could purchase at various places in Belize.

We went upstairs to a beautiful patio and sat down to try traditional Mayan hot chocolate. When it was poured, it looked like a cloudy caramel-coloured coffee.

There is no milk or cream products in any traditional mayan chocolate, so the ingredients that make up hot chocolate is ground cacao nibs and hot water. It was slightly bitter and tasted like a watered down version of a dark chocolate hot drink without any sugar.

We were instructed to add a tiny pinch of crushed chili powder. Contrary to popular belief, the idea of ‘chili hot chocolate’ that I have known previously, the point is not to make the drink spicy. There is a reaction in the chemical compounds between chilis and cacao that cuts the bitterness so the cacao flavor can be deeper. It was remarkable.

After that we added a tiny bit of cinnamon; this is another ‘classic’ addition to Mayan hot chocolate but is also not traditional, as cinnamon is not naturally found in central American and was introduced by Indian/Middle Eastern influences.

Lastly we were offered sugar to add but we didn’t feel like it needed it.

Juan then opened up a cacao pod to show us the wet seeds and then took us step by step through the entire process of making chocolate.

He let us try the wet seeds straight from the pod and the exterior was a soft, slightly stringy, and sweet coating that tasted somewhat like soursop, or sort of a combo of sweet melon, citrus, and pineapple. And if you bit right through the cacao seed it was bright purple and had not even a hint of chocolate flavor!

They harvest the pods by hand, cut them open and scoop out the wet seeds, letting the sugars in the juice of the pulp ferment, and then they take that liquid to make chocolate liquer, and dry and then roast the remaining seeds.

Dried and roasted seeds:

We were given the roasted seeds and asked to shell them to collect caco nibs that we would then grind to make our own chocolate.

Shelled cacao nibs:

The two granite pieces on the table in front of us were over 150 years old and had matching granite grinding stones that they had used before the factory acquired machinery that could grind large quantities of beans 24 hours a day and increase their output exponentially. (We were informed that 32 cacao beans are required to make one ounce of chocolate. No wonder high quality chocolate is expensive!)

We got a chance to grind the cacao seeds ourselves, and it is hard work! Lyra told us that Abalina ground all the cacao seeds by hand for the first 5 years they owned this farm, which is one of the reasons she is called The Chocolate Queen. (She must have amazing biceps!)

Juan finished grinding the chocolate at a speed that made it look like his arms would fall off, and the emulsification of the cacao seeds and the cacao butter in them was so creamy, it almost looked like it could be scooped up and dropped in a swirl like thick Nutella icing.

We got to try samples of the many kinds of finished chocolate they produced, including orange, ginger, coconut, sea salt, cardamom, and milk chocolate.

We learned about the European discovery of adding powdered milk to chocolate to make it creamier, but that other stabilizing ingredients have to be added when milk is added, which is why the percentage of cacao drops so significantly when it is processed into chocolate products. (And how a Hershey or Nestle milk ‘chocolate’ bar contains less than 10% actual chocolate; artificial flavor and colour has to be added because the finished product no longer tastes or looks like chocolate!)

And then there was the lunch that was included with the tour. This was definitely one of the highlights of our vacation!!

Lunch was created by none other that Abalina; the Chocolate Queen herself. It was a phenomenal spread of the best food we had the entire trip, including chocolate chicken, hearts of palm, cooked greens, beans, tortillas, zucchini and squash, coconut rice, and fried plantain.

As we were leaving we heard a little tune playing on repeat and slowly getting louder. The source of it turned out to be a small truck that was driving by. My mom joked “it’s the local ice-cream truck” and we all chuckled because it had a similar sound. Lyra then looked over at the truck and said “Yes it is, actually!”

We could see a bunch of coolers in the bed of the truck as it went past, and she told us that many of the people in rural Belize do not have refrigeration so this man drives through all the villages and sells ice cream!

On the way back to Placencia, Lyra stopped on the side of the road and introduced us to a group of women who sold palm leaf woven products like baskets and trivets and art. They were kind enough to show us their kitchen where they were making green corn soup and smoking/drying chilis.

A few details-

Drying chilis:

Most rural buildings have these palm-branch roofs:

We loved the way this hinge had been attached to their shutter:

Baskets and trivets and placemats:

These girls were shy to talk to me but were happy to pose for a picture.

On to the waterfall!!

The Coxcomb Ridge is the largest collection of foothills through Belize and we drove up the side of the ridge to spend the afternoon on a private property at a set of three gorgeous jungle waterfalls.

You turn off the main road at the fake Mayan pyramid along the main highway, and you find yourself at a small gate where a man who doesn’t speak a word of English meets you and you hand him $20 per person and he will open the gate so you can drive up to the waterfall.

The Maya King Waterfall:

We drove through a rain storm on the way to the farm, another downfall happened while we were having lunch, but by the time we arrived at the waterfall the weather was perfect and we proceeded to swim in all three pools, sit under the waterfalls, and even try out the natural stone slide in the lower pool area.

Have you heard of the trend at some Asian spas where you can pay for a fish pedicure; tiny fish nibble off the dead skin from your feet? Well in the pools of this waterfall, you get that for free! #notjoking

We got back to the hotel just in time to change for dinner, as we met our Lake Tahoe friends at RumFish at 6pm! Both Mum and I couldn’t resist the special; sesame crusted tuna that had been caught that day! It was absolutely delicious, and we paired it with watermelon mojitos. Dessert was key lime pie and banana crème brulee.

Sunday morning we got a surprise phone call from the Rudys and were told that their day had opened up and the weather was PERFECT for snorkeling, so we dropped our plans to explore up the peninsula and the recommended Turtle Bay beach and Restaurant, and loaded up to take a boat out for the day.

We stopped at three different locations out on the reef, and Rudy Jr let me try my hand at spear-gun fishing. 😁😳

He and his dad went fishing while my mom and I explored the reefs and discovered jellyfish, many varieties of Parrot fish, Angel fish, grouper, conch, and even a couple of medium-sized Nurse Sharks sleeping in a cave of coral!

We arrived at Lark Cay and pulled up to this sweet island with a man-made natural pool on one side, hammocks, and a perfect place to lie in the sun and dry off.

You can actually rent a cabin on this island for $20 USD a night!

The Rudys had caught a grouper, a snapper, a jack fish, a pompineau, and conch for lunch, and proceeded to fillet and cook them up with okra, purple yams, plantain, tomatoes, pineapple, potatoes, shallots, and cilantro in a coconut and spiced broth. We drank water from coconuts they cut down for us while we waited for lunch, enjoyed some iced fruit punch, and then ate this amazing lunch. We even got to take home the leftovers for dinner that night!

By the time we took the boat back the wind had picked up and the water was choppier, so it was perfect timing to head home and apply after-sun aloe vera lotion….

Note to self for next time, bring way more sunscreen, and make sure it is waterproof! We were two cooked Canadians after that day.

Sunday night we stopped for dessert at the gelato place and heard amazing jazz music coming from Chachi’s, the bar upstairs. We made our way up there and got to watch the last hour of a phenomenal 8-piece band jamming out. Soprano and alto sax, flute, 2 guitars, piano, bass, and drums. It was phenomenal! We ended up meeting one of the owners of the bar on our last night there as he and a buddy practiced in the open area downstairs for a gig they had later that week. A couple of music majors from the US decided to come to Placencia, open a pizza restaurant that had a good space for live music.

Monday we enjoyed a shady beach day. Swimming in the salt water felt good on our more-than-sunkissed skin, but we hid under palm trees for most of the day, chasing the shadows as they inched over.

Tuesday we were brave enough to venture out in the sun again and for our last day we decided that some kayaking was in order. The ocean side of the peninsula was a bit rough when we went to pick up the kayak from the handsome Frenchman who ran Awesome Adventures rentals on the beach, so he suggested we start on the lagoon side (a 5 minute walk across the road to the other side of the peninsula).

We slathered on the last of our sunscreen and set about exploring the lagoon side of Placencia. A quieter side, there were properties on either side of us, as many long islands are inhabited in the lagoon. Sorry, no photos until the second half of the afternoon; we were too busy kayaking. 🙂

The water’s edge wherever it is left wild is like what I imagine mangroves to be. Viny roots with big tough leaves bend in and out of the water, and we moved out to the south end and into the open ocean water quite easily.

We pulled our kayak up on the shore at the pier and went for a swim before heading back around to the ocean side to complete our loop.


As we came into shore I realized our mistake in not returning to the lagoon. As I mentioned before, the west shoreline is covered in thick seaweed which makes it less than ideal for swimming, but it also happened to be covered in plastic garbage. Pop bottle and water bottle lids, straws, plastic juice containers and broken pieces of every colour man-made garbage you can imagine. We were told that “it is not normally like this”; apparently a recent flash flood in Guatemala washed all their garbage into their rivers and therefore into the ocean. It made my heart hurt to see this, as I have never seen such litter on such a grand scale, especially in such a beautiful, natural place.

(I took these photos later that day, when the waves weren’t as high and most of the garbage was held against the shore by the seaweed.)

We had an audience as we paddled up to the shoreline as a group of volunteers had just arrived that day to clean up the shoreline. As my mom stepped out of the kayak I realized what was coming and braced myself for the incoming wave. Let me tell you, there was a collective gasp and grimace on all the faces of the volunteers as garbage and seaweed washed up my shirt and across my back, not once, but twice before I could step out of the kayak properly. If that doesn’t make one seriously consider changing their plastic consumption, I’m not sure what else will. Imagining the wildlife affected and how this isn’t even the worst situation that exists in the world, it just makes my heart hurt.

After rinsing off (!) and some lunch, we took some fresh pineapple and made ourselves pina coladas, and headed to the beach at the pier for a final afternoon of swimming and sunning.

Our last treat that afternoon was finally trying Bakerman John’s famous cinnamon buns! Delicious.

When we walked by the “garbaged beach” later that night we saw bags piled and only seaweed along the water’s edge.

Our last dinner was pizza at Chachi’s, and a shot of homemade bitters with the owners! We then got to hang out while 2 of them practiced for a gig later that week. One played the cajon (box drum), and the other, a Charinga; a Peruvian ukulele! It was a perfect way to relax on our last night in this totally chill place.

The flight on the tiny plane to Belize City gave us great departing views of this tropical place.

So long Placencia!

A trip to Mont Saint Michel…

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So this is a brief post (and mostly photos) of our trip out to Mont St Michel last week. I was told that the island is a must-see by several friends, and I was looking forward to spending the night on the island in order to be there after the daytime rush of tourists. The tides at Mont Saint Michel come in and out very quickly when they change and it’s exciting to see when you are out there, so naturally, I looked it up. It turned out there would be absolutely no change between low and high tide while we were on the island. I was slightly disappointed but figured that the water would be in and it would look like any other island. It turned out, the water was completely out, so the island was now surrounded by sand. And that turned out to be amazing.

We took the train from Paris to Rennes and then took a bus to the shuttle at Mont Saint Michel, but it was a beautiful afternoon so we decided to walk along the pathway to he island, which was awesome. It turns out you can rent bikes too, but it’s an easy walk.

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A storm was leaving the area just as we got there, so it made for really exciting skies!

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The view from our hotel room

The view from our hotel room

After dinner and some exploring around the island (the *one* street filled with restaurants and novelty/souvenir shops), we headed down to the ‘beach’ to take pictures. We walked barefoot and there were only a handful of people down there, so it felt like it had cleared out just for us. Aside from the constant cries of seagulls, it was quiet and beautiful! My sister can attest- I was downright giddy I was so happy to be there.

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The next morning we went through the Abbey at the top of the island (oh the stairs…. People with limited mobility or even worse: strollers (!!!) : stay away!!).

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Even by 10:00am we realized how quickly the island gets busy!

The one street. Did I mention there is only one street? I'm not exaggerating. One street.

The one street. Did I mention there is only one street? I’m not exaggerating. One street.

I’ll never forget it. I am SO glad we stayed overnight on the island, and got to see this incredible place. It is a ‘must-see’. 🙂

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“The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” -Dr Seuss

Not too much exploring recently, at least, not with great purpose. 🙂  I started classes on Monday with Alliance Français, and if you are looking to learn French, I HIGHLY recommend them. I’m only 3 days in and think both our professor and the class structure are brilliant. I will defintely be continuing my studies with them in Calgary when I return home. image

I took an online placement test before I was put in this class, and it definitely made me feel discouraged by how little I understood. The beginner class is A-1, and I was placed in A-2.

Along my walk to class each day

Along my walk to class each day

The view from my classroom

The view from my classroom

There are 10 students in my class- 2 from Italy, 2 from China, 2 from Canada, 1 from Spain, 1 from Turkey, and 1 from Japan. They all took A-1 together so I am the only newbie to the group, but they are all very friendly. It’s a good mix of people, and what I truly appreciate is how close we all are in our level of comprehension, and just vary a bit in our speaking skills (or at least, our confidence in our speaking skills). There are definitely moments in class where I feel intimidated or frustrated with how difficult the language is, but I find that the challenge really tests my skill and I feel like I will make great improvements in my speech and comprehension as a result. It’s awesome!!

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Rainy school day

 

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The Panthéon

 

Église Saint Étienne-du-Mont

Église Saint Étienne-du-Mont

I was starting to feel a bit homesick the other night and decided to research ways to meet people in Paris.

I found many options. One was “Franglish” (www.franglish.eu)  a twice-weekly event held at various pubs and cafes, where the purpose is to speaking both English and French to practice your second language. It’s kind of like speed-dating, without the dating part. 😉 image You speak one-on-one with an assigned partner: entirely in French for 7 minutes, then entirely in English for 7 minutes (or vice versa) , then switch partners. It ran from 7pm to 9pm and I spoke to six people in total. It went quite quickly and I made friends with the lovely woman sitting next to me (who was from the UK who moved to Paris in January), and the Parisians I chatted with included a lawyer, a retiree, three students and an urban planner. It was fun and exciting, but it was definitely a real challenge for me, since my nerves sometimes get the better of me when I try and have a conversation in French.. I definitely plan to do it again, and told my classmates all about it today. Several of them are hoping to try it in the next week or so.

These are photos on my walk after class today through the 4th and 5th Arrondissements. When the weather is this nice, I try and walk as much as possible, before I take the metro anywhere. However, this morning on my way to school, there were two saxophone players in our car on the train, ‘dueling’ with jazz music. Hearing “Take Five” by two talented musicians to start your day is fantastic. I hope it catches on back home….

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The building at the end is the Senate

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Those chickens are actually bags.

Those chickens are actually bags.

Some beautiful peonies that I wanted to buy...

Some beautiful peonies that I wanted to buy…

It rained for most of today, but the sun has come out and turned everything golden this evening. I was going to just grab some dinner and go home but the evening is so beautiful I decided to wander around the 4/5 arrondissements before finding a metro stop to get home, and I ended up at Le Jardin du Luxembourg. “Superbe!” image I would also like to take this time to note, I have purchased a bread product every day since I have been here, be it baguette, croissant, or crêpe. I am also becoming a lover of coffee. Cappuccinos, in particular (or café au lait). Maybe it’s because everything tastes better in Paris…