Thursday, June 12, 2014

Indonesia: mixed feelings

Now that I am at home from work cause I am sick, I finally have some time to finish my blog post about Indonesia... Here is the story about our month over there!

As explained in our previous posts, we had some difficulty planning our trip in Asia. We were not as prepared as we were in South America and Mexico. Sick of doubting about what our next destination was going to be, we decided to stay 5 weeks in Indonesia: we arrived the 21st and would leave the 24th and head back to Singapore. We booked our plane tickets and that was that. I always dreamed of going to Indonesia, to see the beautiful landscapes, nature, sea, and beaches. We had great moments in this month, but also faced some difficulties, which eventually led us to book an early plane ticket out of Bali heading to the Philippines instead. But let me start with the beginning: our 1,5 weeks in Java.

We took a flight from Bali to Jakarta the 21st of March arriving at Soekarno-Hatta airport. We had a connecting flight to Jogjakarta 4 hours later. It was not really fun to stay there for 4 hours, cause for sure this was one of the worst airports we have ever been in! No shops to buy food or drinks - just some vending machines -, dirty, smelly, horrible seats... We were happy to get on the next plane. When we landed, we were picked up from the airport by the owner of the b&b we were staying in. When we arrived at the b&b, we were impressed with the house: it was an old colonial house with open aired bathroom, and modern interior. But for some reason, the first night, we were unable to fall asleep. I told you that I was sleeping everywhere during this trip: on chairs, at the airport, in buses, small beds, etc. I know it sounds weird, but I felt this horrible negative energy in the room. This continued for several nights... I even tried to clear the energy from the room with some weird rituals. Even though Indonesia a Muslim country, is has a profound belief in magic and spirituality. So I thought, "why not try some magic?". I felt like it worked a little bit, but then again we were woken up at 4.30 am every morning from the speakers from the mosques calling out for prayer... Not cool.

Besides the negative energy, the owner of the b&b was very pushy and an in-your-face type of guy. He constantly forced a guide upon us, even though we explicitly told him several times we didn't want it. We would leave from the house with our rented motorcycle, and a guide was just coming with us, following orders from the owner. We were obviously not happy about it, as we were used to exploring cities and places on our own. It's way more fun and challenging and you have more freedom. Secondly, a guide costs money  - money which we didn't want to spend!So yeah, that was pretty annoying...



Besides all this negativity, we also managed to see some beautiful things and have some fun moments. In Jogjakarta, we visited Craton, the palace of the Sultan. We saw a traditional dance which was very mystical and entertaining. The dancers were dressed in traditional clothing, very beautiful. We also bought a handmade batik cloth. We talked to the ladies who made it, and they explained us that it takes them 1 month to finish 1 cloth. Unbelievable! We were happy to pay 15 EUR for it.

We also took a day trip to visit the temple of Borobudur. We just went with our rented scooter and drove there ourselves: cheap and easy :). The temple was very impressive. When we were at the top of the temple, it started raining lightly and everybody left. We were basically alone up there, and were able to take some cool pics! Another day we took a day trip to the Prambanan temples (again with the scooter). A large part of the temple was under construction, so it ruined it the sightseeing a bit. But the temple itself is very beautiful.  

Borobudur
Prambanan

Borobudur - buddha

After 6 days in Yogyakarta, we left for Malang. We had the idea to go to Mount Bromo from there. Several people had told us that Malang was amazing, so we were looking forward to it. We took a train to Surabaya, and from there a 3 hour taxi ride to Malang. This was probably the worst taxi ride ever as there were cockroaches in the car brrrrr and obviously I couldn't relax! We were constantly looking for them, trying to kill them haha. When we finally arrived, the taxi driver even tried to scam us by asking more money then agreed but we just laughed at his face and left. Not gonna happen! Luckily our hotel was amazing. Such a luxurious and clean room... It was awesome. We just wanted to stay in the room and do nothing. But we had a mission: book our trip to Mount Bromo. So we went out, explored the city a bit and checked some travel agencies. We were in shock when we heard the prices to get to Bromo! Almost EUR 100 per person just for transportation to Bromo and back to Malang. We would have to leave at midnight and return around 9 am. This meant we also had to book a hotel for that night because if you are awake the whole night you want to sleep when you return. In addition, there was another problem. We had booked our hotel for two nights. The night after that (the night was wanted to go to Bromo) was actually the night before a holiday. As a result, all the hotels were booked! Malang is a just a small town but popular among Indonesian people, so every hotel was sold out. I had a feeling the universe was trying to tell me something ;). So after a long discussion, we decided not to go to Mount Bromo and book a flight to Bali :).

So the night before we wanted to leave for Bali, we decided to book the flight online. However, we couldn't book it online with our credit cards because it was less then 24 hours before the flight. Another problem... *sigh*. We asked to hotel receptionist to help us out. She was very willing to help us - people in Java are the best! - and noted down our names from our passport and made some calls. We went out to eat and when we came back she had our tickets. I looked at the tickets and saw that she had only put our first names on the ticket. So my ticket was named "Marjorie Marjorie" and Claudio's even had a spelling mistake: "Claydio Claydio"!! I started freaking out! What if we couldn't get on the plane tomorrow? The receptionist called the airline help desk and ensured us it would be OK. Still, I was worried... My worries and stress resulted in me hanging above the toilet at 4 am, throwing up my dinner, lunch and breakfast of the day before. I felt so ill! The worst I have been during this trip! I couldn't even stand up or get dressed to catch our plane. Claudio took care of me, packed my bag, and carried me to the taxi. When we arrived at the airport, I drank a coke and started feeling a little bit better. In the meantime, we were also able to check in - no problem whatsoever! What a relief. So Marjorie Marjorie and Claydio Claydio boarded the plane and 1 hour later we were in Bali. 


The first three days in Bali were more or less lost days. The 31st of March was Nyepi or Day of Silence. Bali is mainly Hindu (in contrast with the rest of Muslim Indonesia), and Nyepi is the Hindu's New Year. Nobody can come out on the streets, and everybody has to be silent for the whole day. TV doesn't work, and in our hotel also wifi was turned off as well. Our windows were taped so that you cannot disturb neighbors when you turn on your light. The weird thing is that not only locals do this, but tourists are obliged to do this as well. The day before, all shops and restaurants were already closed. Luckily in our hostel, the lady cooked food for us and we had fun with the other guests, sitting in the garden and talking (silently :)) the whole day.

Empty streets on Nyepi - Claudio quickly taking an illegal pic :)
After these three days, we left for Kuta. This is the most touristic place in Bali. We decided to stay there because we found a great apartment with kitchen for 21 EUR a night. We rented a scooter as well, so we could visit different places and beaches. So, we were ready to explore Bali. Since we left, I pictured celebrating my birthday in Bali, with palm trees, a cocktail in my hands, and a beautiful sunset on a tropical beach. Well, to be honest, the sunset was truly beautiful, but all the other elements were missing unfortunately! I probably sounds very ungrateful and pessimistic, but Bali is not the tropical paradise that many of us imagine it to be. Maybe we were unlucky with the places we have seen, but my overall impression of the island was not good.

Dirt on the beach


The thing that bothered me the most was the dirt. The first day, we made the mistake to go to Kuta beach. The sea and beach is filled with plastic waste: bags, slippers, bottles, ... anything you can imagine. In the evening, lots of dogs would enter the beaches, shit and pee close to the water. So disgusting! The next day we decided to go and drive to the southern peninsula, where the beaches are supposed to be amazing. We drove for an hour, and found a really cool beach. We had to climb down 500 stairs to get there. When we arrived, there was nobody there, it was deserted. Still, the whole beach was filled with clutter and plastic again. How is this possible?? Even though the beach was really nice, the garbage everywhere really ruined it for me. We visited two other beaches, which were all amazing, but again too dirty. So we gave up. We decided to enjoy Bali for other things, like the beautiful sunsets and the delicious food. Finally, after one month of chicken and rice we could enjoy some western food: pizza, burgers, pancakes, bacon, and good coffee! Njammmm.

Beautiful beach on the Southern peninsula
Balangan beach
pizza!!

One day, we also took an excursion and saw the rice fields of Tegalalang. Absolutely breathtaking! We also drove by the lake Danau Batur, where we had a great view over mountain Gunung Agung. We also visited a coffee plantation. I stirred some coffee beans, we learned about the process of making coffee, and had a coffee and tea tasting. I even drank Civet coffee, made from coffee beans that are eaten and shit out again by an animal called civet. Pretty disgusting process, but delicious coffee... ;)


Lunch with a view over Gunung Agung

After 1 week in Kuta, we decided to leave and headed for Ubud. This little town is not at the coast but inland, and has a hippie vibe. People go there to visit nearby temples, get massages and spiritual healing, and eat some delicious food in the numerous cute cafes you have around. So this is exactly what we did! We both had two massages in a really nice spa, so relaxing. We visited several Hindu temples close by. We also went to the monkey forest, which was pretty scary cause monkey are so violent. People were feeding the monkeys, so they all get aggressive if you don't give them food anymore. The forest itself though was nice. The last day, we rented a second scooter with the plan to drive to the rice terrace of Jatiluwih. The drive to Jatiluwih was horrible. People were burning garbage everywhere and it was impossible to breath. When after one hour of driving a storm broke out on top of that, so we were frustrated and just headed back to Ubud.


Tegalalang



Ubud













The next morning, I woke up and it was my birthday! Claudio did everything to give me an amazing birthday! He and the owner of the guesthouse decorated the patio in front of our room. They also brought me a cake and a little gift. It was great!! We returned to Kuta that day and had a super nice dinner and some drinks. It was impossible to get drunk though. We had cocktails and shots, but nothing... Indonesia has a Muslim government and there are very high taxes on alcohol. As a result, when you order a drink in Indonesia, it's almost without alcohol. Not the best place to get drunk. Still, my day was legendaryyyy. Thanks sweetie. 

My  birthday cake!

In the last days we were in Bali, we decided to leave Bali a bit earlier then planned, and we booked a flight to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, and from there we would fly to the Philippines. Claudio enjoyed surfing every day, and I was just hanging at the beach, reading and relaxing.

 
sunset in Bali

Claudio becoming pretty good in surfing!

In the end, Indonesia was a bit of a disappointment for me. For Claudio it was probably better cause he enjoyed the food and surfing. I was just too upset about the dirt and the garbage and the lack of respect for nature. I bet that some decades ago, Bali must have been paradise, without all the motorcycles, the garbage and pollution on the beaches and the streets. Maybe we shouldn't have stayed in Kuta so long, or we visited the wrong place. I don't know. But for sure, Bali was my least favorite place of our trip.

Luckily we had some amazing last days in Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. But I'll leave that for next time, this post is getting too long :).

Selamat Jalan!


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lovely KL, Temples of Angkor, and Bangkok

Kuala Lumpur.... what a cool city! We just arrived from one week in Borneo, surrounded by nature and animals, and now we were back in a big city. KL is not as big as Singapore by any means - it only has 1,5 million inhabitants - but the city still has the vibe of a large metropolis. The center of town has a new modern part, which is packed with sparkling brand new malls and the highest twin towers in Asia. In the Southern part of town, you can find Chinatown, the park, the national museum, and the biggest mosque of KL. With four days here, we had plenty of time to visit the whole city!

The place we were staying at is about 2 km walking from the twin towers, so in these 4 days we were here, we walked a lot! The first day we probably exaggerated a little bit, as we walked around 10 km I think... Burning some calories in the hot sun, and escape the heat in the air-conditioned malls from time to time :-) Seems like Singapore... ;-). It was very very hot in KL, about 37 degrees. Normally, in the beginning of March, it's still raining season. This means the temperatures are hotter, but you have some showers during the day or at night. However, as in so many countries all over the world, the climate is changing, and it hadn't been raining for days. Result: super hot weather! But these things don't stop us from having fun off course :-). 

We visited two mosques in KL. When we arrived at the first mosque, we were offered a free guided tour. Before we entered, I had to dress appropriately, and wear a long dress with veil. To be honest, I looked a bit like a pink magician in it, so it was pretty funny! We entered the mosque and after a couple of minutes I started feeling the sweat dripping of my back, my neck, my face,... You can imagine, being completely covered up with 37 degrees outside is not an ideal situation! I couldn't really enjoy the moment because it was just too hot for me. The guide kept on explaining very interesting things about Islam, but I left Claudio and headed to the entrance to get rid of my magician outfit. Wow, I really admire Muslim women in Asia who can cover themselves up every day and battle this extreme heat. I could never do it!
       
  
                Night out in KL

                                          
                                                       Marj the magician ;-)














The next mosque we went to is the biggest in KL. We were disappointed though, because when we arrived only Muslims could enter the mosque. We missed the visiting hours for non-Muslims. To be honest, I thought it was rather discriminatory to exclude tourists with other religions, but hey, what are you going to do? We just saw it from the outside, took some snapshots and left.
Next was a Hindu temple. In these temples, they usually ask you to take off your shoes before you enter. No problem for us. We took off our shoes and went inside the temple. Five minutes later, I see an angry guy kicking ours and some other tourists' shoes. OK?? He told us we couldn't leave the shoes in THAT particular place, but had to put them against another wall. Hm, seems like someone's frustrated. Well, let's say that that day we had enough of religious 'rules'!

So we headed towards the twin towers, which are two beautiful towers in the center of KL. The two building are completely decorated with lights, so at night it's really beautiful to see. Attached to the twin towers, there is a beautiful hyper modern mall (KLCC) where you can shop till you drop. Don't think it's cheaper then Europe though. Brands like Zara, Quicksilver, Topshop, etc. cost the same. But it's nice to walk around in the mall, have a coffee at Starbucks, gaze at the beautiful fountain and light show from your seat, and look at all the people that walk by. Downstairs, you also have a really nice and clean food court, where you eat cheap food (about 4 EUR per plate for a fancy meal). Perfect to save some money! You can also eat for 1 EUR on the street in Chinatown, but with my sensitive stomach I don't really dare to. We always try to eat in clean places, and don't mind spending a tiny bit more rather then eating street food. And still, we had some problems sometimes. Never in Hawai'i or New Zealand, but in Latin America and SEA we did.

Petronas twin towers, KL

After a first long day, we were happy to get back to our wonderful airbnb hostess Burger, a Taiwanese expat living in KL. She was so nice and we had such a comfortable cozy room - with AC luckily! 

The following days we took a slower pace, because after our first intensive day we were pretty tired. We visited the national museum on one day. It was very informative, but compared to the ones of Wellington or Mexico City it was really not that spectacular. We learned a lot about the history of Malaysia though - the occupancy of Portugal and later Great Britain, how Malaysia became a Muslim country, and why you have many Chinese but also Indian people living in Malaysia. To get to the museum, not to forget, we had to cross the railway, the lobby of the Hilton hotel and a highway: not very convenient. If you are planning to go to KL soon, don't worry, they are building a new subway stop at the museum :). Always progressing.... 

We also visited the Lake Gardens park, which is located behind the museum. The park is really beautiful, but it was a pity that also some parts of the park were under construction. We saw a cool  outdoor amphitheater and just hanged there for a while. I felt as if we were the only tourists in the park! All the other Western people were probably in some mall somewhere :D (not that I blame them, they are awesome).

KL center

Our last day in KL we visited the Batu caves, where you can find a huge golden Hindu statue of the god Murugun in front of a cave. The statue is magnificent. It is 42 meters tall and really impressive to see. Behind the statue, you have the caves. You can climb 272 stairs to get inside the cave, where you have a Hindu temple. Off course we went, but after my cave adventure in New Zealand, I'm terrified to go into caves and see huge spiders. Luckily I didn't see any :). However, there were lots of monkeys everywhere that were very aggressive. You cannot keep anything in your hand because they will try to steal it from you. They also fight with each other over food and make wild noises. Crazy monkeys :). The temple inside the cave was not spectacular. The trip to Batu was worth it though because the statue in front of the cave was just beautiful!!

Batu caves

That was our last day in KL! The next morning we took a taxi at 4AM and headed to the airport. We were so tired... But this was the cheapest flight we could get to Siem Reap with AirAsia. The flight was perfect and when we arrived we took a taxi to our hotel. We checked in and our room was so nice! We paid only 12 EUR and had a huge clean room with kingsize bed. After a long nap in our wonderful bed we got up again and went into town. We found an amazing cafe that had sandwiches... finally after all that fried rice! In Cambodia you could find European food like baguettes, cheese, bacon, pancakes, etc. In those 4 days we were day we ate like pigs! 

The reason for coming to Cambodia was to visit the temples of Angkor. We read in our guide that some people take a whole week to explore the temples. We thought it was probably a bit exaggerated, and decided to take a three day pass. The first day, we wanted to visit the Angkor Wat temple. We rented two bikes for 2 USD and drove 9 km's in the burning sun. It was around 40 degrees that day so we were dying :D. When we arrived we were immediately amazed by the beauty of the temple. We practically stayed there the whole first day because the temple is very big and there are so many wonderful carvings and secret hallways to explore. We started wondering: Maybe they were right after all and we will need a whole week?

Angkor Wat

The next day, it was really too hot , and we had to go 14 km's to the next temple, so it was not feasible with the bike. So, we decided to hire a tuk-tuk driver. For 15 dollars you can hire him the whole day and he drops you off at the temple, waits for you, and then brings you to the next one. Siem Reap is filled with tuk-tuk drivers, so when I got out of the hotel I just stopped one and asked for some information. The guy really didn't speak English at all but he was so friendly and sweet, my heart melted. We hired him and he turned out to be great! We visited the Bayon temple, Ta Prohm, and several other temples in the surrounding. It was an amazing day. Driving back in our tuk-tuk, passing the river, seeing children washing cows in the water and cuddling them, ... it was one of the best moments of the trip. I felt so good, the people there were so positive, and there was an incredible vibe in Angkor. I wish we could have stayed there forever.




The people of Cambodia really touched me. If you read about their history, you can just start crying. Long wars with Vietnam; a genocide during the Khmer rouge regime in which more then 1 million people were killed; and currently a dictator in power who is selling Cambodia's beautiful land to foreign (read: Chinese) investors for his own gain. And still... Cambodian people smile, are happy to see you, are hopeful, see opportunities and try to seize them. They have a wonderful spirit which can only be admired. I really feel like I just want to help everybody. We tried to leave lots of tips, buy food and drinks in local stands, we never bargained but just gave the asking price, bought lots of souvenirs. It's not much, but we were trying...

Our super sweet tuk tuk driver!!

The last day, we visited two temples that were further out of town, about 35 km. We hired the same tuk-tuk driver again and had a great day. We were so sad it was already out last day! We wished we could have stayed longer, but we had to head towards Bangkok to catch our next flight to Indonesia. This sucked... :( 

The next day we took the bus to the Thai border where we were screamed at by every border control official. They must really love tourists here... ? We saw a British couple that was freaking out because one of the officials took their passports, wasn't giving it back to them and wasn't explaining anything. I started worrying obviously! But in the end, all went well and we got another stamp on our passports. Fieuw!
The second part of our trip was from the border to Bangkok. We booked a bus ticket, but were put into a van - NOT comfortable at all. All the other passengers were angry about it (including an old Dutch couple who complained the whooooole trip), but you have to get into the van. What else are you going to do? After six long hours later we finally arrived. 

Our first impressions of Bangkok were not that nice. The city is definitely not comparable to KL. There are a lot of poor neighborhoods, rats and cockroaches on the street, people are not as friendly as in Malaysia (they seemed to dislike any kind of tourist), taxi drivers refused to use the meter and try to scam you, ... I think that after being in Singapore and KL, we has different expectations. We did enjoy the food though! We went to local restaurants, pointed at some pictures on the Thai menu and had some delicious meals :). We also had one really fun day where we visited the Wat Pho temple. It was so beautiful and really special! We saw a huge golden Buddha lying down in a temple of 46 meters tall (maybe he was trying to compete with Murugun of the Batu caves? ;) ). The different buildings inside the temple complex were decorated very nicely. There were also cats everywhere, really too cute...



But overall, Bangkok was a bit of a disappointment. We would have loved to stay a bit longer in Cambodia and a bit less long in Thailand. But you cannot know these things in advance unfortunately! The morning of the 20th we took the train to the airport - next destination: Indonesia!

Talk to you soon... :)

Hugs and kisses,
Marj & Claudio

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Planning our South East Asia trip, and exploring Singapore + Malaysia

After our month in New Zealand surrounded by nature, it was time for something else. South East Asia, here we come!

It has been difficult for us to plan our two months in SEA. For South America, Mexico and Hawai'i, we knew which places we wanted to visit. Even though we hadn't booked everything, we had an idea of where to go and how to get there. For New Zealand we hadn't planned anything, but the country is not that big and we decided in advance we mainly wanted to explore the Southern Island. For SEA, we had a blank sheet. We only had a flight booked from Auckland to Singapore the 27th of February, and the next flight the 28th of April from Singapore to London. Two months in SEA... and many countries to choose from.
 

Our first idea was to visit the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. We had several doubts about the Philippines, because certain areas were affected by the typhoon in November 2013. We did some research and decided to go to Donsol and El Nido. Looking for flights was not that easy though, it was pretty expensive. Even with AirAsia it would cost 75 EUR per person to fly to Manila, and then with a local airline 40 EUR to fly to the island where El Nido is located. This was the cheapest we could find... But hey, YOLO right? So we booked the flights anyway. In the meantime, we started looking for accommodation but hadn't booked anything yet. El Nido was actually pretty expensive and we were having a hard time finding decent budget accommodation. Then, a couple of days later, we receive an email from AirAsia that our flight has been rescheduled - it would leave 4 hours later, and this would mean we would miss our connecting flight! After all this hassle, I saw it as a sign (I believe in stupid things like that). Nothing seemed to be working out for the Philippines, and we decided to cancel our flights and ask for a refund.

So, we had to come up with a new plan!! We basically went to a bookshop, and Claudio started looking at travel guides and pictures of beautiful places in the world. We came across some really nice pictures of the temples in Angkor, Cambodia. We went to the hostel, started googling and researching flights and decided to go for it! So the planning for Asia resulted in:
Arrive in Singapore and stay there for 4 days, fly to Kuching (Borneo, Malaysia) and stay for 6 days. From there a flight to Kuala Lumpur and stay for 4 days, then Siam Reap in Cambodia for 4 days, and from there take a bus to Bangkok to catch a flight to Indonesia, where we will spend around 35 days. Maybe we will do something else in those 35 days in Indonesia, a little detour, but we haven't decided yet. Finally, we booked a flight from Bali back to Singapore, where we will spend our last 4 days before we go home again. We loved Singapore, so we are looking forward to spend some more days there.

The planning of these last two months have actually caused so much stress. Every time you are in a beautiful place, you almost cannot enjoy it because you are thinking about what to do next: which city to go to, which temples or museums to visit, where to sleep, how to get there, how long will it take, ...? You are spending more time on google trying to look up stuff than actually enjoying where you are in that moment. Changing plans didn't help much. But I guess it's our own fault for not researching it better before ;-). 

So, to get back to the fun part of traveling, let's talk about Singapore! We took a direct flight from Auckland to Singapore. I don't know why, but I thought the flight was going to be only 5 hours or so... But it was 11 hours! New Zealand is really so isolated from the rest of the world, it's just crazy. Anyway, we landed and took the subway to our room we rented in a huge apartment complex in the West of the city. We had a good connection to the MRT (subway), so we could explore the whole city easily. With the 7 hours difference from New Zealand, we woke up early every day. It gave us a lot of time to explore the city. The first thing that we noticed going out was the heat: it was 33 degrees and very humid. The air-conditioning in our room also broke down on the first night so it was horrible in the beginning! But luckily we got used to it after a couple of days. Singapore is also packed with huge ultra modern malls, one after the other. So if it gets to hot, you just hop into a mall with ice cold air-conditioning and cool down. But really, I have never seen so many malls in my entire life combined as in Singapore! Truly shopping paradise... In every mall, you also have food courts where you can get a meal for 2 or 3 euro's! In this way, you can save lots of money. 

Besides all these malls, you also have beautiful skyscrapers with amazing architecture. This is in contrast with what we are used to in Belgium or Italy where we are surrounded by ancient buildings from the past. You don't see such innovative architecture in our countries. But Singapore is full of those types of buildings. It feels you stepped into the future. It was absolutely amazing to walk around in the city and being surrounded by all these modern skyscrapers!


 view from Marina Bay
Some innovative architecture

For us, Singapore was the perfect transition from a "Western" country to an "Asian" one, because it is a mix between both worlds.  It is a rich city, with lots of facilities, everybody speaks English, and on top of that it is super safe! This is mainly due to the extreme measures of the government: for example, you get a 500 dollar fine (= 300 EUR) for drinking or eating on the MRT or not crossing the street on the crosswalks! Once I saw a documentary on TV where people referred to the city as SingaBORE, and now I understand it. There are many rules and everybody obeys them blindly. However, this also results in Singapore being a very efficient and safe city. The city functions like a well-oiled machine and you cannot complain about anything. 

To sum up, Singapore is really beautiful and it is definitely worth visiting. It is one of our top 10 favorite cities in the world for sure! Our favorite places were the Marina Bay, and the gardens by the bay. At night there is also a beautiful light show at the gardens but we missed it. Hopefully we can see it when we go back in April!
 

          Gardens by the bay


After 4 days, we took a bus from Singapore to Johor Bahru in Malaysia (1,5 hour) and from there we took the plane to Kuching, in Malaysian Borneo. 

The Borneo is an island where the northern part is Malaysian and partly Brunei, and the southern part is Indonesian. We only visited the Malaysian part, in the north-west of the island, in the region called Sarawak. We flew to the city Kuching, which would be our base for exploring the area. Kuching was so nice for different reasons. First of all, it was really cheap: our hostel was 11 EUR for a private room, and food in the mall cost less than 1 EUR per plate. We went seriously over-budget in New Zealand, but in this week we managed to recuperate most part of it. Secondly, people were super friendly, it was crazy. In our trip, we haven't met such friendly people as in Sarawak. Everybody smiles, people just say "hey" to you, ask you how you are, introduce themselves. One night, we were at the supermarket, and this guy just started talking to us for 15 minutes, about his life and politics and Malaysia. It was so nice, and something that would never happen in Belgium. I love it! And third, people speak English pretty well. Malaysia used to be a colony of Great Britain, so especially the older generation speaks good English. This makes it easy to communicate with the locals. 

We were happy to be in Kuching, and explore the Sarawak area. Kuching comes from the Malay word Kucing which means "cat", a perfect city for me and Claudio :-). They even had a cat museum there, which we visited off course. The rest of the city had a relaxing vibe, with not too many tourists, and with many beautiful sites.

Kuching

The highlights of this week were two days: one day we went to the Semenggoh rehabilitation center, where orangutans are living freely in a large jungle area, but are fed daily because they are too weak to survive on their own during certain periods of the year. Before we went to see the feeding at 15h, we had a whole speech about the dangers of the orangutans : no talking, no sudden movements, don't go too close and no touching. We entered the jungle and the feeding started. Everybody was quiet as a mouse. Seconds later we heard noise coming from the trees.... and we spotted the first orangutans  gliding from one tree to another! Soon two others followed, including one mother holding her tiny baby wrapped around her. Sooo cute!  The orangutans went to the feeding place and ate tons of bananas and hanged on the trees, relaxing. You heard  hundreds of silent clicks from camera's, everybody trying to get the perfect picture :-). Seeing the orangutans was definitely an amazing experience, it really took my breath away.

Just chillin' and eating some banana's!
 
Two days later, we decided to go to Bako national park. We took a bus for 1 hour and arrived in a place where we had to take the boat to the park. The park can only be reached by boat so you have no choice. We paid for the ticket and the guy assured us that there would only be 7 people on the boat. I mean, by now I already know that it is never going to be like that. Who do you think you are trying to fool? :-) :-) So indeed, we ended up sharing our boat with at least 10 more people. The sea was also really rough, and at times to boat really flew through the air and landed back in the sea so hard that I got scared! It was a though ride, but when we finally arrived it was worth it. We arrived on the beach and walked to the park entrance, where we immediately spotted a family of proboscis monkeys, and a bearded pig. We did a hike in the jungle, arrived on a deserted stretch of beach again with some lime stones and rock formations. It was a really nice day... We booked the last boat back at 16h, which left early BTW, and we almost missed it! But we got back safely after our second boat ride of the day. We'll never forget that day!

    


View from the beach at Bako National Park
 
This is the end of our Borneo adventure. The next blog post I'll talk about Kuala Lumpur and Angkor in Cambodia. Talk to you all soon!

Ciao :-)

Marj and Claudio


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hiking around in Middle Earth

After a relaxing time in Hawai'i, it was time for some adventure.. Off to New Zealand! We took the plane from Honolulu to Auckland with Air New Zealand and it was such a nice plane for once: good comfortable seats, free in-flight entertainment, decent food, and friendly stewards. The safety procedures was shown to us through a little movie based on the Lord of the Rings - really too funny! It was a late flight, we left at midnight, so I closed my eyes after the meal we got and slept for the rest of the flight.  
We arrived really early at the airport and decided to take the bus to the center: 16 dollars per person (which is EUR 10)!! We are definitely not used to those prices :(. In the center we went to Starbucks - I need my coffee, don't judge me please - and had some breakfast, used the free wifi, and relaxed. Then on to another bus (another 9 dollars BTW) towards our airbnb host Melina! The house we stayed in was beautiful, it was almost a villa, with swimming pool, a big garden and stunning views of the city. We felt home immediately. There were some other guests staying over, a couple. And guess what: they were from Antwerp! After talking for a while, it came out that the guy was working in the building next to Claudio's office. What a small world right? 
In the following couple of days, we really enjoyed exploring Auckland. One day, we went on a cruise boat around the harbor and saw different islands and sights. It was really a lot of fun and the views of the city were worth it. We also went to the Kelly Tarlton's aquarium to see penguins, jellyfish, octopus, different types of fish, and even sharks! In general, I am really against any form of captivity of animals but Claudio convinced me to go and it was not that bad. The only thing I thought was really sad were the penguins. The space they had didn't seem big enough and they didn't look that happy. But overall, it was a fun experience. 
One night, we also met Geraldine again. We met in Bolivia, in Buenos Aires and now again in Auckland :-). She brought us to a nice restaurant and we had a delicious meal. We also walked around in the harbor and saw all these amazing yachts of the rich and famous. Auckland is known as the "City of Sails" as sailing is very popular here. So you see lots of sailing boats and yachts everywhere. 

Auckland
After a couple of days, we took the plane to Queenstown, which is on the Southern Island. The views from the plane were amazing, as if flying of the Alps in Switzerland - but better :). On the plane, we also met a nice Italian guy, Stefano, who was traveling for a couple of weeks in NZ. We agreed to meet up in the next days, and we went for a really nice hike together in Queenstown. We climbed up a couple of hundred meters on a mountain/hill and arrived at a lookout, with great views over the town. It was such a fun day, and it always nice to get to know other people and hang out. Off course it was also nice to practice my Italian a little bit :). 
Queenstown is a really nice town, with lots of young people and a cool vibe. The city attracts lots of tourists not only for its beautiful lake and mountains, but also for its offer of extreme sports! Bungee, skydiving, rafting, climbing, jet-skiing... Anything you can imagine. We were doubting between skydiving and bungee, but in the end we chose skydiving. It was our original plan, and bungee is also really scary because you have to jump yourself. With skydiving, you are attached to another person and have no control over what is happening. So skydiving it is! We made an appointment to go at 1pm. We arrive, get briefed, we all get in the van and are driving to the location, when the driver gets a call: skydiving is canceled, there is too much wind to land! Damn!! So we reschedule for the next day at 10am, and this time no cancellations or problems. Now, we are getting more and more nervous off course. Claudio is also afraid of heights, so you can imagine... We get on the plane and of our whole group, I'm to one who has to go first. Oh my god!!! My heart starts pounding, I'm close to the door, and any second now the door is going to open and we are going to jump out of this plane. I am going to jump. Out of a plane. Aaaaargh!! So the door opens, and 2 seconds later I feel my body turning and falling out of the plane. I scream for a while but then I look down and I see the beautiful mountains, the lake and realize I'm flying in the air! What a sensation... The best feeling I ever had in my life. Then, after 1 minute, the parachute opens and you slowly go down and land. The first thing I thought was: I want to do this again!! Claudio lands almost simultaneously with me and we hug each other. Truly an amazing experience.

Queenstown

After all the excitement of Queenstown it was time to relax and head towards Te Anau. We rented a car and drove up to the little town further down south.The town is literally 1 street with a handful of restaurants and shops and off course, a lake. The whole Southern Island seems to be like this. Just land, sheep, mountains, and once in a while people and shops - but for sure we saw more sheep then people! The reason we went to Te Anau was as a base to explore the Milford Sounds. We decided to go on a 2 hour cruise to see the Sounds. We drive up to the cruise took us three hours, and we stopped in different places along the way. We saw the most beautiful nature, there was absolutely nobody there and we could enjoy it in silence. It was for sure one of the highlights of the trip, and one of the most beautiful nature I have ever seen in my life. It is so unique, we have never seen anything like this before.
After visiting the Milford Sounds, we drove up again to Wanaka. This is a town similar to Queenstown but a bit more relaxed. The weather was really bad in these days so we didn't do that much. 
The next stop was Mount Cook. For me, the best we have seen in NZ. Just driving up to Mount Cook was so amazing... With a beautiful lake on your right side, and the reflection of the mountains in the water. Beautiful colors everywhere. When we arrive at the national park, we hiked up to the Hooker Valley (sorry but I didn't choose that name) for a couple of hours and then hiked back. It was such a nice hike. The only pity was that there were so many tourists - including many annoying Germans. I don't know why, but Germans are not such friendly travelers. But we didn't let it ruin our experience, and had a wonderful day. That night, we slept in Fairlee, and the next day we left for Nelson! We drove around 7 hours to get to Nelson. We stopped many time to take pictures because the landscape was so beautiful. You just cannot find nature like that in Europe! The views are just breathtaking. Once arrived in Nelson, we had a great welcome from our airbnb hostess: barbecue, wine, mussels, great conversations and beautiful views of the city. What more do you want from life?

View going to Mount Cook

From Nelson, we went to the Abel Tasman and Kahurangi national park. More hiking. To be honest, we were getting a bit sick of hiking. It is the best way to see all the national parks and the stunning nature of NZ. But after 2 weeks of non stop hiking we were longing for a break. We booked a nice room in a really remote place in Anakiwa, at the Marlborough Sounds. We had to bring food with us because there were no shops in the neighborhood. Just a couple of houses, hostels, and a lake :). We were basically alone in the hostel, it was as if having our own apartment. There was a big kitchen, garden, and a living room with TV and lots of games. One night we even played the Lord of the Rings version of Monopoly!! So much fun :D.
After our relaxing days in Anakiwa, we left our rental car in Picton and we took the ferry to Wellington. Back to the Northern Island! Wellington is the capital city of NZ, but has less inhabitants than Auckland. It rains a lot there, and it is really windy. You can see the clouds moving really fast, it seems unreal. We were lucky though, and had sunny days, no rain at all :). We visited the city, hiked up Mount Victoria, took the cable car to the botanic gardens, and went to the national museum to learn about NZ's history and fauna and flora. 
In the meantime, we were able to book a relocation car. This is a great concept: as lots of people who rent a car in NZ leave this car in a different location than they rented it from, the car needs to be returned to the original location. Rental car companies therefore offer you the rental car for free for a couple of days. You just need to drive it back to the original location. We found a relocation car from Wellington to Auckland: 2 free days + 1 full tank of petrol included! Awesome!! Since we could use the car 2 days, we could stop at the Waitomo Caves on our way to Auckland. 

Wellington - view from Mount Victoria

We decided to go visit the caves to see the glow worms. We booked an excursion in the caves called black water rafting. You basically go in the cave, which is filled with ice cold water and go through it in the dark. You jump of 2 small waterfalls on a rubber tire, which is lots of fun. The only thing that was not fun was the huge spiders in that godd*mn cave! When we just arrived in the cave, I see two people next to me pointing to the wall and saying: "Oh that's a big one". Then other people: "No that other one's really big!!". Off course, I don't dare to look and start freaking out cause I just KNEW they were talking about spiders! Claudio comes close to me, looks in that direction and tells me it's better not to look, there is a huge spider. I start hyperventilating. Did I really just pay 150 EUR for this? I go to the instructor and ask her if there will be lots of spiders. She assures me just a couple and really small ones. So I try to stay strong and just go further in the cave. I don't need to explain you that I was sooo scared in the following 1,5 hours in that cave. But somehow I survived ;). 

After this crazy adventure, we drove back to Auckland. We returned to Melina's place since we had such a great time there. We used these 2 days to book and plan our trip in Asia a bit better. And the 27th of February we were off to Singapore. 

In general, I think that New Zealand was really beautiful. The nature is just from another world! But I don't think it's for everybody. The Southern Island, where you have the most beautiful scenery, is really remote. We like to relax, but we also like the city life. Driving hours and hours and not seeing one person is really weird. You don't really have anything else to do there than relax and enjoy nature. In addition, NZ is not budget friendly at all. A bunk bed in a hostel costs 20 EUR, and for a double you pay minimum 45 EUR. Luckily you have airbnb :-).Going out for dinner is also not really an option, as it's comparable to Belgium. It's a pity because food is really good in NZ. Lots of organic food, good quality meat, and locally grown fruit and veggies. 
So to conclude, we had a great time... But we were happy to fly to SE Asia to enjoy 15 EUR hotel rooms and 1 EUR dinners in restaurants again! ;-)

Sorry for not adding a lot of pics... we are in Bangkok right now and the internet is slow. For pics of NZ you can check my Flickr account:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/117836193@N07/sets/72157641998572014/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/117836193@N07/sets/72157642209100304/

See you all next time with some stories on Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia!!

Cheers :-)
Marj and Claudio

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hawaii - paradise on earth

So I have two hours  to kill at the airport in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. What best to do than to write about our amazing 2,5 weeks in Hawai'i? :)

The idea of going to Hawai'i started a long time ago. We were thinking of an exotic destination for our summer holidays in 2011 and thought of Hawai'i. We started looking up flights and hotels, but it was so expensive that we quickly aborted our plans. That summer we went to Sardinia instead, which cost about one fourth of what we would have spent going to Hawai'i. 
When we were planning our trip around the world, we initially didn't include Hawai'i, still with the idea it was going to be too expensive. Which backpacker goes there anyway? Only honeymooners or Americans during their holiday break. But, somehow, I was not really satisfied with our first list of countries and I wanted to add another destination: Brasil, Cuba, Miami, or Hawai'i. Miami would be easy because we had a transit flight through Miami so we could stay there a couple of days. Claudio didn't want to go to Cuba, so we doubted between Hawai'i and Brasil. I asked for some quotations through our travel agency to have it included in our round the world ticket and Hawai'i was A LOT cheaper than Brasil! So the decision was made, we were flying to Honolulu the 14th of January :-)

Hawai'i is still really expensive, especially Oahu, which is the island on which most people live, and where Honolulu is situated. We decided to spend 7 days in Oahu and 10 days on the Big Island, which is - as the name already explains - the biggest island of Hawai'i. To avoid high hotel prices, we booked our accommodation already before we left, and used airbnb again. This saved us really a lot of money! 
When we landed in Honolulu (Oahu), we picked up our rental car and drove to the first place we were going to stay in. It was a beautiful house on the hills, with a magnificent view of the city and also Diamond Head, which is a crater in front of the sea. There was also a lanai or terrace with a table and chairs where you could enjoy the views, so we often ate there at night with our take-out food from Whole Foods to enjoy the sunset. Truly breathtaking views!  We also had a car so it was no problem not to be in Waikiki center itself. We were only 10 minutes from the  center and the island is really not big at all. You can easily drive around it in 3 hours. 

The lady we stayed with, Phyllis, was friendly, but in this 'American' kind of way. Smiling and polite, but not really interested in you as a person. We had our own private bathroom and room so we never really saw her. But it was a pity we couldn't hang in the living room or talk with her a bit about life in Hawai'i. She also had all these crazy rules about doors that should be open or not, and had stickers everywhere with info,... a bit too neurotic for our taste ;-). But still, the place was really clean, safe and we had a big room with amazing views, and we didn't pay a lot, so can you really complain? 

             
Views from our lanai in Honolulu
           
Hanauma Bay











In the 7 days that we were in Oahu we visited a lot of different beaches. We went to Waikiki and Diamond Head in the south. We also visited the North Shore, famous for it's huge waves in winter! We followed the forecasts on local websites and went the day that the waves were up to 25 feet (which is approximately 8 meters)!! We saw surfers trying to catch waves and risking their lives. Some couldn't exit from the sea with their boards and there were life guards with special jet ski's to help them. We saw some surfers just abandoning their boards because they couldn't get out of the water with them - totally crazy! People who were not surfing were prohibited to go near the water. We saw some children playing so close to the water we got scared brrrr. One wave can take you and you're gone... But it was so cool to see these waves. The sea is so powerful and beautiful. 
We visited other beaches in the East as well, such as Lanikai and Kailua. The water was so clear and the beaches sandy and bright. At both beaches, you had little islands in front of beach, so it was a lovely view. The waves were a lot calmer on the East and South beaches, so it was nice to swim and relax. One day, we also went to Hanauma bay, famous for it's corals, turtles and fish. We snorkeled and saw such big turtles, they were huge! We didn't see a lot of fish though, because you couldn't step on the coral and that is where they were swimming around - so it was difficult to reach them. The bay itself was one of the best places we have been in in Hawai'i. It is really touristic, but you understand why. It is absolutely beautiful. 

After 5 days of amazing beaches, it was time to leave for the Big Island! We took a flight, as you cannot take a ferry, it just doesn't exist. We also had some trouble booking our flights from Belgium, as you can only book it when you have a US credit card. So we had to book it through a travel agent (we used Kilroy). It was really annoying because they changed our flight time like 10 times, and we always had to confirm, else they would cancel our ticket... But it was the only way we could do it unfortunately. 
On the Big Island we stayed with the best host ever, Jeanie. She had a beautiful house in Captain Cook, and lived there together with her cat and a friend, called Tiger :). We had such nice talks with Jeanie and Tiger, and we loved to hang out in the house and just relax. It was so nice to be in a big house and feel at home, cozy and comfortable. We also had a huge king size bed - better than all these small 140 cm beds we have slept in during this trip ;). We also cooked several times, in an attempt to save money, but actually groceries are really expensive in Hawai'i so it was a failed attempt ;). 

          
Koma the cat :-)
Tiger, me, and Jeanie - miss you guys 

On the Big Island, we had two days of bad weather. When it rains, it rains hard, and all activities are on the beach or outdoors, so your options are limited. We tried to make the best of it, and decided to go to the movies. We saw the Wolf of Wall Street, what a good movie! Leo is the best :). On sunny days, we went to several beaches in the East and North of the island. The beaches however, are not as beautiful as in Oahu. There are a lot of rocks, and the surf was high, so the beaches are really short. One days we also attempted to body-board and rented two or them, but we failed miserably. At least we tried right  :D? 
We also visited the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park and did a hike. We first walked into the rain forest for a while, with a view of the crater, and the lake of hard lava. The volcano erupted and spit lava, creating the lake. This happened during the 20th century. The volcano is still active now, and sometimes parts of the park are closed due to possible danger. Afterwards, the hike led us to the lake itself and we walked around in it! That was a fun experience :)
The last day on the Big Island, we went to Jeanie's workplace. She is stationed at the beach (DREAMJOB right?) and her team rents out snorkeling gear to tourists. The beach doesn't seem that much when you first get there, but once you get in the water and starts snorkeling.... Wow! We saw the most amazing fish, every color that you can imagine, blue, purple, yellow, green,... and different patterns such a polkadots and stripes. Even fish that looked like snakes. It was a pity we couldn't take pictures.
For us, the highlight of our days on the Big Island were the amazing sunsets we experienced. It was so perfect, it didn't seem real. We would stop our car if we would be driving, go to the beach, sit there in silence, and take in the views... Just like paradise...

     
Dreamlike sunsets @ the Big Island
                              
Amazing views




So after 10 days of relaxing life on the Big Island it was time to head back to Oahu for another 2 days! I was not feeling so well in these days. Claudio had caught something in Cancun, a weird cold that lasted for 2 weeks, including fever and a sore throat, and now I was having the same symptoms. I was a bit weak but we still tried to have fun. We went to Makapu'u beach, which was really beautiful. The views were spectacular. The sea was pretty wild that day, but we went into the sea anyway. The waves were huge, and you have to go under the water when it arrives because if it takes you, you just stay under water and you can drawn. So we went under water, again and again, the waves were so huge all of the sudden and there was no time in between the different waves! It was difficult to get out of this cycle, and out of the water and for one moment it was a bit scary. But we managed fine, and luckily we can swim well, so we made it back to the beach. And didn't go in anymore! Lesson learned: don't mess with the sea....

Makapu'u beach

So this was our 2,5 weeks in Hawai'i. The weather was good, the beaches spectacular, the food expensive, the people super friendly, and the sunsets amazing. We would go back there in a heartbeat. Mahalo Hawai'i, for the amazing time. We miss you already...


Saturday, February 8, 2014

One month in Mexico

Hey guys,

Wow, I am having so much difficulty keeping up with the blog, it's just crazy! I know you will all hate me when I say: "I don't have time", but it's actually really true. We are constantly moving from one place to another, and we are filling our days with lots of activities. But now I sat down and I will tell you our story of our one month in Mexico :-). 

We took our flight from Miami to Mexico City the 18th of December, ready to start a new adventure! Back to "speaking" Spanish - it was so much easier in Miami! 
Mexico City has a bad reputation, and it is known to be unsafe, so when we landed we decided to take a taxi to our hostel in the historical center. We arrived when it was already dark, but the city was lit up with Christmas decorations everywhere! A lot of people were around, the streets were filled with thousands of people, probably due to the Christmas period and the festivities in the capital city. I think I have never seen so many people in my life all together. It also gave us a safe feeling, so our first impression was not bad at all. 
The next day, we were ready to go out and explore the city. The weather was really nice, it was sunny and 22 degrees - to think it was winter in Mexico, unbelievable! We decided to go to the museum of anthropology. In Mexico, you had a lot of different cultures throughout precolonial history; not only Maya, but also Toltec, Aztec, Teotihuacan, etc. The museum explained the whole evolution of Mexican culture, and contained a large amount of relics. The museum was very modern and well maintained, and you had explanations in English as well. After 4 hours, we still didn't finish the whole museum. The area around the museum is also nice, with a big park across it, and the coolest starbucks I have ever seen in my life (with a palm tree integrated in the shop ;-)). 
The next day, we went to Coyoacan, a smaller colonial style suburb within Mexico City. This area is so beautiful! We had a delicious lunch outside in the sun, and walked around in the town. There were colorful houses everywhere, all the building are painted green, red, yellow,... It makes everything so much more fun and relaxing! In the center, we also visited the Plaza della Constitucion and the cathedral. Beautiful!
The next day we went to Teotihuacan, a site 40 minutes from Mexico City. Here you can find two pyramids built by the Teotihuacan culture: the temple of the sun and the temple of the moon. We met a really nice guy on the bus, Kris, from Monterrey, traveling around in his home country (the proof that Mexico is really big!). We decided to visit the temples together and had a super nice day. We climbed both temples, which was pretty tough :D, and om top of the temple of the sun Claudio participated in a ritual with a group of people. The sun is supposed to give you energy when you are on top of the temple. Probably I am too cynical and I don't really believe in rituals, so I didn't participate. But it was fun to see Claudio in action hihi.

Mexico City
Teotihuacan


Claudio performing the ritual on the temple of the sun

The next day, it was already time to leave. We had such a good time, and realized that Mexico City is really beautiful! We regretted not being able to spend more time there. We never felt unsafe in the city. There were like 10.000 cops or something, it was crazy. On every corner of the street you had at least 3 cops, sometimes even 30. There were even trucks full of cops, waiting to charge. It was probably due to the high amount of people in the city at that time. Many Mexicans were visiting the city for Xmas, and I think I never saw so many people in one place... The last night, we were out in the center and we wanted to go to the main shopping street, but there were so many people that you could not even enter the street!! But to come back to my previous argument, Mexico City is safe in our opinion. It is also really modern, and is organised well, and the city has a lot to offer. You just need to know where to go. We were lucky to have insider tips from Claudio's friend Diana, who is from Mexico City. So if you are reading this: thanks :-).
So on Sunday, we left for Oaxaca. I had asked the guys from the hostel if we needed to book the bus in advance. No need for that, there are buses every 30 minutes. So we arrived at the bus station at 10.30h, and the first available bus was at 14.30h! Damn!! It was the last Sunday before Xmas, we should have probably known better...  After lots of waiting at the bus station and a 7 hours bus trip, we arrived safely in Oaxaca. The next day, we went out exploring the city. Oaxaca is a small town, but it has many beautiful buildings and churches. All the buildings are also really colorful. There is a nice, friendly atmosphere there which we really enjoyed. We also celebrated X-mas eve there! Our first actual Christmas together... Normally, the 24th, Claudio is in Italy with his family and I celebrate it with my family in Belgium. So now, after 7 years, finally a Christmas together :-). We went to - surprise, surprise - an Italian restaurant!! We had pasta, salad, fish,... so goooood. The guys who owned the place were Italians from Genova who had moved to Mexico. They made us feel at home, and it was a really nice night! Off course we missed our families  though. It didn't really feel like Christmas without them. The warm weather didn't help either, cause you feel like it's summer. On Christmas day itself, we went to the movies to relax and ate a HUGE quantity of nachos topped with cheese and jalapenos, and popcorn. I must say, we have had better Christmas dinners :D:D.
While we were in Oaxaca, we also took a day trip to Monte Alban to visit the ruins there. Our guide for that day was an old guy who was babbling about the stars and where he was from, and stories from his past... Claudio even though he was drunk! So after 1 hour we decided to go away from the group and explore the ruins ourselves. In the end we had a lot of fun exploring everything on our own, and we loved Mont Alban - definitely worth going there!

Oaxaca

Merry Xmas!!

So the day after Xmas we left for Puerto Escondido. People at the hostel advised us to take the shorter trip with the van instead of taking the normal buses - which takes more than 11 hours. The van trip was supposed to be around 6 hours. We decided to leave at 7.00h so we could enjoy our day and maybe already go to the beach. The van arrived and it was pretty small: three seat in the front, then 5 rows of two seats left and a single seat on the right. The van was completely full. But our driver kept on picking up people from street... People were standing in the middle of the seats, completely packed. There was just NO room! The van fitted 18 people, but at one point, there were 25 people in the van!! I was already regretting not taking the normal bus... In the end, it took us 8,5 hours to get there. But hey, we are in Mexico - take it easy :-).
Luckily, we were rewarded with a warm welcome from our surf school, whom was also renting us an apartment. The apartment was really nice, with a kitchen outside and an area to relax. On top of that, it was really cheap, so it was perfect. It was also so warm... 30 degrees, no clouds... amazing. We stayed an entire week in Puerto, and we had so much fun. We went to the beach, in Zicatela, to have our surf classes - we had 5 classes in total - but also so lay in the sun, swam in the beautiful Pacific ocean, ate delicious lunches on the beach and enjoyed the sunsets. It was so nice to have a relaxing week like that after the intensive traveling we had been doing. The surfing itself went pretty well. We managed to catch some waves, which is the best feeling ever. But I wouldn't say we are pro's ;-). 
\One day we also went out with a boat early in the morning to spot animals! We set our alarm at 6 AM, went to the beach to leave at 7AM, waited for a Mexican family who was half an hour late :D, and then we finally left. We were actually lucky that we were late because the first thing we saw was whales!! We saw four whales in total. It was so beautiful, it really took my breath away (literally), and I had tears in my eyes. Maybe I am just sensitive, but it was really so amazing to see... After this, we also spotted tons of dolphins, and a huge turtle. To think that this 3 hour boat trip cost us EUR 15 each is unbelievable. Mexico rules!
We also celebrated NY eve on the beach, with an Australian couple we met. We were literally sitting in a bar ON the beach, under a huge palm tree drinking margarita's... Can it be more stereotypical :D?

Chilling in Zicatela
surfing!!

sunset @ Puerto Escondido



















Shortly after NY's we left for Palenque to visit the ruins there. If I think about it now, they were probably the best ruins we have seen in Mexico. You are basically in the middle of the jungle, and inside of this tropical forest you have tons of ruins. Palenque is also really big, and you can easily spend a whole day in there. We actually went two days in a row because we liked it so much. The second day we also just went into the jungle on our own and we spotted some monkey - that was pretty cool. The proof that good things don't always have to cost money. 

Palenque

We only stayed for two nights in Palenque, and we decided to book a little studio in Cancun with Airbnb and do excursions from there. We wanted to go to Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Tulum, Chitchen Itza, and Cozumel. So we took a 13 hour bus from Palenque to Cancun. Let me tell you: this bus was DISGUSTING. The toilet was completely blocked and filled with s**t and urine, and the whole bus smelled. Try breathing in that bus for 13 hours. Luckily I fell asleep. Claudio told me that in the middle of the night, cops entered the bus and checked everybody's backpack for drugs. He was obviously terrified because we left the backpack on top of our seats, so maybe somebody could have slipped something into it.... But we were OK. I never noticed anything. I was in a coma, sleeping and drooling with my eyemask on and earplugs in ;-). 
Anywaaaay, sorry for all the bus stories but they are always so crazy! In the end you always get through it, so you continue to take buses. But then you regret it again when you're on them :-).
We arrived in Cancun and the weather was just horrible. Rain, rain, and more rain. For four days!! All the places we wanted to visit - Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Isla del Sol and Tulum - were all on the beach and had the same weather conditions. Damn! Normally it is the NOT rainy season in January, but the locals told us that this has been a terrible year for Cancun, with lots of rain. On top of that, the studio we were staying in was rather dirty - spider webs everywhere and dirty floors. I asked the lady a mob and cleaned the floor myself. This sucked... We went to the movies, went out for dinner, and to the mall. We also went to Chichen Itza for one day. To be honest, it was not worth it. We had to rent a car, which cost EUR 40. Then to use the highway, it was EUR 20!! To enter Chichen Itza it was again EUR 15 each... Other ruins we visited were 2 or 3 euro so it was really overpriced. On top of that, Chichen Itza is not even comparable to any of the other places we have seen. It is also small and you cannot climb the temple or enter the ruins properly. What a rip off... Until now, our week in Cancun was not turning out that great. 
But than, miraculously, the sun started shining again!  Let's head to the beach!! We visited the beaches in Cancun, and it was well worth the wait... white Caribbean sand and crystal clear water.. What more do you want? 
We also took the opportunity to go to Isla Mujeres, which is an island east of Cancun. We took the ferry and spent the day there. In the afternoon, we also took an excursion and went our snorkeling. A boat took us to some reefs and we saw so many fish! It was a really nice experience, and again, not expensive at all. For these things, Mexico definitely rules. We saw the sunset on the beach, and relaxed in a hammock (hangmat) for an hour - one of my favorite moments of the trip. We were so relaxed, laying on the beach, on a beautiful island, just loving each other's company. Wow,... life can be good...


Chichen Itza
Snorkeling @ Isla Mujeres

Chilling in the hammock
















And that was the end of our month in Mexico. The 14th of January we left for Hawaii. But that will be for next time - I will do my best to do it ASAP!! :-)

Ciaoooooooooooooo
XXXX
Marj & Cla