Bangladesh – Gossiping in Dhaka

I love being on the subcontinent…. , everything smells pungently of incense, curry spices and sweat!  Traffic lanes don’t exist in Bangladesh and every journey is a crazy game of chicken between gutsy rickshaw wallahs, dented buses, aggressive tuktuks and the pristine cars of the wealthy.  It’s a constant cacophony of horns. Crossing the street on foot here takes nerve. It’s a team sport, best undertaken with an expert between you and the oncoming homicidal traffic.   But its fun!

National Assembly building

I met up with a local guide and for our first few stops much of the discussion was on the liberation from Pakistan in 1971 and the 3 million Bangladeshis murdered during that war.  There is still ongoing anger towards Pakistan for their historical oppression of the Bengali language.  Yet another sharp reminder that my history knowledge is dire. I had made the naive assumption that being Muslim, Bangladesh would be friends with Pakistan. As it turns out they prefer their Indian neighbours, though they reckon the Indians are unfriendlier and cheaper than Bangladeshis.

Paintings near Shaheed Minar, the monument to commemorate those killed in the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations

After seeing Dhakaswari, the National Assembly, Shaheed Minaar, and the Sculptures Terrace (none of which were remarkable apart from the history) we headed out to Sonargaon to see the the lost city of Panam. Fortuitously we were half an hour early so we took a wander around a local village to kill some time. That ended up being my favourite part of the day –

Lovely local ladies in Sonargaon

Every house we walked by, we were invited in by the stunningly beautiful women who lived in them.  We stopped at a few places for a drink  and then some fruit as it seemed rude not to when everyone was trying to force us to sit down and visit

Friendly lady in Sonargaon

Most of these ladies’ husbands are off working in Saudi, according to these ladies it is good money but a horrendous lifestyle…..which doesn’t surprise me having seen how many immigrant workers are treated in the Arab states. It was a lovely way to pass some time, sitting having a gossip with the gorgeous local ladies.   We also wandered by a local school.  We wandered in to say hi – it was a Saturday so there were no formal lessons going on.   The headmistress came to say hello and had the students practice their English on me.

School kids who were practicing their English on me

Eventually Badal the guide got me moving and we went to see Panam. It is quite lovely, and we enjoyed a peaceful twenty minutes before five bus loads of schoolboys arrived. Panam City  is part of the 15th century city of Isa Khan’s Sonaragaon.  The buildings that remain are lovely but falling down at a rapid pace and it was disappointing to see the schoolboys rampaging all over the site, climbing up the walls and dumping rubbish everywhere.


One the bright side, unlike India, the hassle factor is manageable. The locals are delighted to see you, western tourists are rare, and I had many new ‘friends’ ask for photos of me with their offspring.


From Sonargaon, we headed back into town to check out the madness at Sadarghat – Dhaka’s river port.   Getting to river port requires navigating the seething mass of humanity and road traffic in the old market to find another seething mass of humanity down at the port.  The river is a major form of transport and there are about 50 large ferries docked at Sadarghat with all forms of accommodation available from lying on the floor of the open air decks, paying for a japanese style coffin box with a fan, all the way up to an aircon room with tv.

Sadarghat river port

We were there early afternoon before the ferries started to fill up properly but families were already there staking out their claims to the upper deck.  There were only 2 toilets for the open decks, which apparently can fit several hundred, I can imagine that class of travel may not be for the fainthearted or those with a good sense of smell.   I loved the noise, the colours and the friendly people, and the sulphurous smell rising from the pitch black Buriganga river definitely left an impression on my nostrils!

Sadarghat River Port

I also visited the other main sites in town – the Lalbag Fort, the Star Mosque, and the Armenian church.  Honestly, none of these is remarkable.  More interesting is enjoying navigating around the old town getting stuck in the traffic and watching the passers by.

Nap time

I had a wonderful time in Dhaka, probably because I had no expectations having read all the reviews.   The very best thing about Dhaka is the people, who were all incredibly friendly, even when I was wandering down the street.   I felt very safe everywhere, though I have no doubt there were a few pickpockets about.

Folk art

The food was pretty  fabulous also, and I would recommend eating as much Dal as you can!   It is the best Dal I have ever eaten.  I am looking forward to visiting again

My new friends

Note that getting a visa on arrival is pretty straightforward at the airport.  Also Uber works well in Dhaka and is much cheaper and easier as a foreigner negotiating with a taxi!

May 8, 2017 Dhaka, Bangladesh

Off the Beaten Track – Tuvalu

Tourism development

So, if you thought Kiribati had not many tourists, Welcome to Tuvalu.  Apparently there are less than 1000 tourists per year!  Actually Tuvalu is delightful, and I did meet an American aid worker there who was in charge of building the tourist industry.   His challenges will be numerous

  1. Air Fiji flies only twice a week (Tuesday and Thursday) and only from the secondary airport of Suva (not Nadi).  And it would be a bit of a stretch to say they fly twice a week as the flight is regularly cancelled for weeks at a time……  I flew up and back with one of the Air Fiji staff and they hate flying to Tuvalu as the runway is not maintained properly – his job was to come up and check it periodically.  On the bright side the airport code for Funafuti is FUN
  2. Food shortages are rife on the island.  I went everywhere trying to buy cake, ice-cream or chocolate.  There was no cake!  There was no cake because there had been no eggs on the island for a few weeks.   There were no eggs because the ship hadn’t come and there was never room on the plane for food.   A whole country with no cake – my definition of a bad day.   I did manage to track down ice-cream and chocolate at the ‘chinese supermarket’ (how the locals describe it), after visiting the other ten shops that were closer to my hotel.  It is always amusing in almost all the countries I visit to hear the locals complain about ‘the chinese’ stealing their jobs and customers.  Well, hard not to be stolen as a customer by the only shop in town that has ice-cream and chocolate (albeit out of date)
  3. The hotels need a little development – I stayed at Filamona’s moonlight lodge.  I think the cleaning and design staff were moonlighting somewhere else.  The bathroom suite was salmon pink.  The mattress was new, and came complete with the plastic still wrapped around it – it made for a slippery night’s sleep.  And the window looked out over the living room, with a sheet for a curtain so everyone could see in.  (the pictures on the website aren’t doctored but are definitely misleading)
  4. The only tourist operation in town – the town boat that takes you to marine zone is a tin dingy with no chairs or shade.  It was fun, but can’t imagine any posh tourists using it

That said, I found Tuvalu perfectly touristy enough for me.  The locals were friendly, the beaches were beautiful, and you could swim!  I had a blast and I would go back, but I would make sure to take more food with me

So, what are the tourist highlights?

Meet the locals at the bar

The main bar in town was at Filamona’s so I pretty much met everybody.  Well by everybody, I mean all the men, as all the women were probably off doing more productive things like working or feeding their kids.   My favourite interaction was with an 80 year old Tuvalan who had come home for a month for christmas.  He gave me a long lecture on why I would never find a husband (I didn’t bother to correct his assumption that I didn’t have one).  Apparently I looked too bony and therefore I must come from a poor family that didn’t feed me enough.   I was also not going to be any good as a wife as I wouldn’t be able to dance given I didn’t have hips.  Bummer for me!

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The view from Filamona’s balcony of the airport…. We landed, and I was at the hotel 4 minutes later (including clearing immigration)
I was also very entertained for an hour by a french tuna boat captain and has alcoholic alaskan helicopter pilot.  I only learned this when I was in the pacific, but all Tuna boats have helicopters that they send out to look for the fish.  This pilot had clearly had enough of the job and was desperate to get off the boat and out of the islands.  Six packets of cigarettes and countless beers later, the French boat captain abandoned him and the pilot spent the night in the hammock as he couldnt figure out what to do next.  I am still mildly curious as to whether he went back to the boat, I am assuming he did as he wasn’t on our flight, and it was the only flight for the next week

Tuna boat - if you look closely you can see the helicopter
Tuna boat – if you look closely you can see the helicopter
head out on a boat to the marine reserve

You rent a boat from the town ‘hall’, anyone can drop you off there.  It was AUD 150 including the gas.  For that I got two personal guides and we went to 3 different islands.  They didn’t bring any lunch, but I had packed enough over processed carbs for us all (its pretty much all you can buy to eat in Tuvalu).  The islands were divine, the water the clearest I had ever seen.    The snorkelling would be terrific if you weren’t terrified of fish.  I don’t know why, but I don’t like it when scaly fishy things swim towards me, so I am a bit of a snorkelling failure.  Even without the snorkelling, it was a magical day

The guys trying to start the boat....
The guys trying to start the boat….
Marine reserve
Marine reserve
Marine Reserve - storm coming in
Marine Reserve – storm coming in

Hang out on the run way

The runway, which only gets used twice per week for a plane, is the central hub of social life in Funafuti.  When the sun starts to go down, and it gets a bit cooler, it is the location for speed walking, rugby and quite a bit of volleyball.


Boys on the runway
Boys on the runway
go for a run

As well as the runway which is a pleasant run, you can also run from one end of Funafuti atoll to the other – well almost all the way to the end as you have to stop at the rubbish dump – it is a nice round 10k ish.  At some points the atoll is only about 4 metres wide so you have the waves crashing on one side and the lagoon on the other.   The highlight of the run will almost certainly be the kids yelling “Palagi, Palagi”, to warn everyone that there is some weirdo foreigner running past.  For those of you who didn’t grow up in the Pacific, Palagi means white person.  (well literally it means a bang from the sky, and thats what Europeans were called as they came with guns and wiped us all out, but now they use it to mean white person).   I am sure I amused some of the adults at least as I ran by and corrected them that I wasn’t a Palagi, but a Maori.

The 'highway' to the edge of the atoll
The ‘highway’ to the edge of the atoll
Additional tips
  • There is a tasty, albeit greasy, cafe in the airport.  Good fried random things.   After my cake disappointment I needed some fried stuff and this did the trick
  • Ask for fish for dinner – no-one local actually likes the tuna as it is the food of last resort.  Everyone eats ramen noodles, fried rice and chicken that was rejected from Australia.  I preordered fish and it was always amazingly fresh tuna!
  • Take food with you if you are coming from anywhere with good fresh fruit and veg
  • There are no ATMs in Tuvalu and no-one takes cards.  Bring boatloads of Australian dollars!  The National Bank can’t help you
  • You can rent a moped for $10 a day, but you can walk everywhere in five minutes.  Also if you are walking everyone will think you are nuts and stop and try to drive you wherever you want to go.
  • Learn a bit of Samoan, it helped break the ice.  Hello (Malo) and thank you (Fa’afetai) would be a good start.

Off the Beaten Track – Moldova

Honestly I thought that Moldova was a made up country, because I had mistakenly confused it with Molvania – the subject of a spoof guidebook….., so was happy to realise my mistake
Moldova is lovely.  A small and perfectly formed ex Soviet Republic with a few nice things to see, friendly people, and everything is within easy reach of the capital Chisinau (pronounced Kishi -now).
Wander around Chisinau
The town is small, really small, everything is within walking distance.  My favourite building was the bright blue St Tiron Cathedral.  Other things worth wandering past are the small Orthodox cathedral in the cathedral park.  Wander to the other side of the street from the cathedral and stroll through the other park – Stefan cel Mar.   There is also a fine arts museum if you are so inclined and some large and pretty ugly government buildings.  The lonely planet aptly describes Chisinau in lacking any ‘pulse quickening
must-sees’ and that is right, but it is pleasant enough.

St Tiron towers
St Tiron towers

St Tiron Gatehouse
St Tiron Gatehouse

Get a car and driver and head to Orheuil Vecchi
This is definitely the best thing to see in Moldova – a complex of cave monasteries carved into a massive limestone cliff.  Monks still live in the complex today and it is an active monastery so dress appropriately.  There is a lot to see, but my favourite part of this place were the other ‘tourists’, most of whom were local and quite religious.  It was fascinating to see their reverance for the monks and the monastery.
We had lunch in a local restaurant next to the monastery.  The food was astoundingly good – and included a cherry pie thing and some Mamaliga which is a bit like cornbread – delicious with sour cream and meat.  The place didn’t have a name, none of them do…. but if you have a guide am sure they will take you somewhere decent
You can get buses from Chisinau, but they are infrequent.  I rented a car and driver so I could see a bit more of the area

Caves at Orheil Vecchi
Caves at Orheil Vecchi

New Monastery at Orheil Vecchi
New Monastery at Orheil Vecchi

Visit the Monastery at Curchi
I had a lovely wander around Curchi. There wasn’t much going on until we hit one of the back churches and we stumbled on an orthodox christening.  They didn’t seem to mind an audience, I got lots of smiles.   They do take religion very seriously, and that means a serious amount of make up and some seriously high heels. (side note –  I am always feel as if I am letting kiwi girls down as I slob around the world with no make up and my flip flops but I don’t seem to care enough to dress better)
Additional tips
  • I was working hard and earning money when I went to Moldova so I splashed out and stayed at the Nobil Luxury Boutique Hotel.  I even got my hair cut at the salon in the hotel – that is when you know you are living dangerously when your hairdresser doesn’t share any common language with you.
  • I was really surprised at how good looking the monks were in Moldova. Really!
  • I am not much of a drinker but Moldova apparently have very good very cheap wine!  there is an enormous winery at Milestii Mici which has 200km of underground wine storage tunnels if you are thirsty
  • The food is surprisingly good, I particularly liked the Branza – which is local cheese.
  • If you fancy you can head to Transdniestr, but there is a possibility that you will get detained and hit up for bribes.  I wasn’t in the mood that day 😃
  • If you want to make friends, listen to the  Zdob și Zdub and talk about them enthusiastically when you arrive.  They were Moldova’s highest ever entry in Eurovision, and I had my ears blasted in the car with their beats wherever we went

Visited May 2014

Off the Beaten Track – Kiribati

Kiribati – one of the least visited countries in the world, less than 5,000 tourists a year!!!!  It definitely felt like it as only 8 of us got off the plane and everyone else was an aid worker.

Just to clear up the obvious – it is pronounced Kiribass….  the ‘ti’ is pronounced as ‘ss’, so the Kiritimati part is pronounced almost exactly like Christmas (as that was what it was called when the anglos colonised it).

Kiribati has a land mass of 811 square  kms, spread out over 3.5 million square kms of ocean.  And that land mass is likely to be under water in the next 30 years.  The government apparently have bought some land in Fiji for when that might happen, but no-one wants to go!

So Kiribati is picture perfect, so much so that the Huffington post wrote an article about how beautiful it is.  However, i question whether the reporter has ever been to Tarawa Atoll!  Yes it is beautiful, the lagoon is stunning!  but you can’t swim in it under any circumstances, at least not any where near anyone lives.  Why?  very few people in Tarawa have running water, let alone a flushing toilet, so the lagoon is basically one large, exceptionally pretty, open sewer!  Everyone craps on the beach and then it floats out to sea.  I have never been anywhere so nice and not gone in the water, especially in 35 degree heat with 80% humidity.   Kiribati is really really poor!

I stayed in Tarawa for a 6 days, due entirely to the vagaries of flight timetables.  There just aren’t that many people coming and going to justify much traffic.  The people were lovely, and I met almost every foreigner on the island and probably half the locals, so if you feel like it you could just sit in Bairiki square and chat to the people going by.  If you want some other things to do, here is my list:

Attend all the events associated with domestic violence week

Not kidding!  Kiribati apparently has the highest rates of domestic homicide in the world!  Really!  I met three NZ policeman who visited twice a year to work with the local police and they told me that if you were a Kiribati woman it was a very common way to die.  They also told me under no circumstances to leave the motel after dark.  They were confident I would be fine wandering anywhere during day light, but that the local guys were insensible once drinking, and drinking started promptly at 6.30pm when the sun went down.   Given it was such a big deal there was a four day event at the local police station where local kids sang, weird middle aged guys did karaoke, someone else did a home made rap, and some kids acted out what looked like a play about violence in the home.  I didn’t understand anything that was going on, but there was genuinely nothing else to do, so I hung out and watched.  The highlight was these young boys doing a local dance

Local Dance
Local Dance
Kids doing Gangnam Kiribati style
Kids doing Gangnam Kiribati style
see the guns at betio

Its an easy walk from Bairiki across the causeway to Betio (pronounced Besso).  Betio has some ruined guns and bunkers from WW2 (things were pretty ugly here at that time) and if you look carefully you can find them falling apart on the beaches.  Betio is probably the poorest and most densely populated part of Tarawa, but I felt very safe wandering around.

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go fishing or head out to the Northern atolls

I tried to go fishing or at least head out on a boat to the North island!  Renting a boat was going to cost $300 and as I was by myself it isn’t worth it.  You can also take a ferry, but I took one look at the ferry and didn’t fancy it – a combination of questionable seaworthiness, amazing over-crowding and no shelter from the sun.   I don’t dive, but if you do, I suspect the outer islands would be paradise

Visit parliament

Not really!  but the building was quite interesting

Parliament building
Parliament building
GO running

I ran every day! Option 1 is the causeway, but take care as the drivers don’t give a crap about you, and they have to veer all over the road to avoid the potholes.  I didn’t take it personally as size matters – the trucks pushed the vans off the road, the vans did it to the cars, the cars pushing the motorbikes off the road and everyone trampled over me.  You also suck in a lot of dust on the causeway.

Causeway between Betio and Bairiki
Causeway between Betio and Bairiki


Option 2 is the ‘stadium’, which is a pot holed asphalted track.  I would recommend Option 2 as it is quite entertaining in the late afternoon.  The local guys gather to play football in the middle of the stadium and the women all play a pretty fierce volleyball.  Once night the local running club ran with me (or ran past me), most of them were shoeless, but we managed to get some good sprint intervals in.

The Olympic Stadium of Kiribati
Additional tips
  • Stay at Mary’s, eat at Marys.  If you have a car, stay somewhere else and then eat at Mary’s.  Everyone ate at Mary’s every day, there isn’t really anywhere else between Betio and the airport to go.  They were nice to me and got me fresh fish and steamed veg every days as I couldn’t bear the battery chicken and the fried rice.  Note that the steamed veg consists mostly of cabbage.  On a good day you might get some frozen carrots and corn.   I did try to go to the grocery store to top up on vegetables and fruit, but there wasn’t really anything that wasn’t rotten.  Honest!
  • When you leave, you ‘clear immigration’ and then go outside again to wait.  There is a spectacular banana cake for sale at one of the huts selling coffee across the car park.  Ok, well spectacular might be pushing it a bit far, but I hadn’t had any cake fore weeks.
  • I walked everywhere, clocking up 20-25 k per day.  I tried to rent a bike but no-one had any.  I suspect there is a taxi service.  There were local buses too….
  • For some ideas check out, but don’t expect any of the tourism operators to actually help you.  I tried to book stuff but no-one was interested
  • You can get there with Air Nauru (connecting through to the Marshalls and Pohnpei, from Nauru and Brisbane) and Fiji Airways

Visited November 2015

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Off the Beaten Track – Tajikistan

Another auspicious entry to a country!  I was met at the border by my 20 year old guide and promptly asked him to get the driver to stop 200 metres down the road so I could pee behind a tree.   He was a bit bewildered as to why I hadn’t even approached the public conveniences at the border……, honestly my nose wouldn’t let me get within a 100 metres of the border loo!  Sewage cooked in Central Asian sun does not smell good!
Thus began 48 hours of what I hope was some reprogramming of my lovely guides ‘interesting views’ on women and what they could and should do.  In fairness, he was lovely, very friendly, had terrific english, eager to please and to make sure I had the very best experience that I could in Tajikistan. However, I was his first female tourist – tourism not being a huge thing in these parts.  And he spent a lot our time together trying to reconcile being nice to me, with his view that most women should be like his wife  (who he had recently wed in an arranged marriage) i.e shouldn’t work, should cover herself from neck to toes, and should wear a headscarf.  It was fun!
There really isn’t much to do in Tajikistan unless you have time, companions and money to go and hike in the high Pamirs.   I will do that at some point, but I didn’t have the time or companions on this visit.    So, I went to Khujand – the cultural capital of Tajikistan for a look around.  It is no Uzbekistan, but there were a few things to see, and I didn’t see a single tourist when I was there.  I couldn’t honestly recommend anyone go for the scintillating tourist sites, but I managed to find a couple of things to do
I visited the museum in Khujand in the Fortress.  There is a lot of sadness in the Tajiks, as most of their treasured cultural monuments are actually in Uzbekistan – particularly the tomb of Ismael Samani, the founder of the Tajik society (see the post on Bukhara).  When the Soviets broke up the Stans, many of the boundary lines were drawn without care or reference to the historical tribal lands.   Listening to the old ladies in the museum lament the ‘loss’ of their treasures was powerful, they aren’t easily able to cross the borders and they feel like whole parts of their lives have been stolen.    Honestly, it wasn’t the V&A, but they did have a much loved mosaic tile recreation of the life of Alexander the great (who says I don’t appreciate the arts ;-))
go shopping in Payshanbe
After the museum we went to Payshanba the biggest bazaar in Asia.  Great fresh produce, nuts, meats and the usual plastic rubbish that everyone imports from China.   The watermelons were amazing.  The clientele and the stall owners were fascinating – loved the dresses.  And every now and then I would see an incongruous Russian lady in a mini skirt – not sure what they were doing there.  Next to the bazaar is the Shikh Muslihiddin mosque and mausoleum, sadly no women allowed!  Apparently it is a bit cultural highlight, so if you are a bloke it might be worth checking out.  My most entrenched memory from visiting the market was a deep and abiding gratitude for time and place of birth.  I am not sure I would have coped well as a Tajik woman
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Competitive trading
Why I don't eat much meat when travelling
Why I don’t eat much meat when travelling
Go see some weddings at the arbob palace
We also popped out the Arbob palace, which is actually a bonkers modern building which used to be the home of a Soviet collective farm, and was the place were Emomalii Rahmon came into the public domain.  Rahman is the mad dictator who has been ‘president’ for 24 years.  He’s not popular but has just changed the constitution so he can stay in power indefinitely.   Technically you are not allowed go into the palace, but a small donation to the doorman sorted that out.   The gardens were a hot Khujand wedding venue and we saw 8 weddings within the space of an hour.  Not one of the brides was over 20!!!!
Arbob Palace
Arbob Palace
Go for a run, avoiding the drunk locals
Had an interesting 10k run one evening in the searing heat around the botanic gardens and along the river.  I had unwisely gone out in shorts and a tank top, so did have to extricate myself from an over-friendly group of half drunk Tajik blokes who wanted to get to know me better.
Check out Mug Tepa and the Shah Mausoleum in Istaravshan
Mug Tepa is one of the ancient settlements in Tajikistan, which is to say it is a few old walls and a dome which are well guarded by policemen.  So, while we tried to visit, we got kicked out.  Apparently they were worried about us being political demonstrators….., which I think loosely translates from Tajik as ‘you didn’t offer a big enough bribe’    We also popped by the Khazrati Shoh mausoleum.
Guide and Driver at Mug Tepa
Guide and Driver at Mug Tepa
Additional tips
  • The food is good – simple and fresh.  Delicious salads with tomato, cucumber and tonnes of herbs and good cheese.  Lots of grilled meats.   I probably shouldn’t have eaten the salads given they were washed in tap water, but my stomach survived
  • I stayed at the Grand Hotel in Khujand – very nice, probably nicer than I needed.
  • The border crossing is a total pain in the butt.  Both the Uzbek and Tajik side were rude, unhelpful and unnecessarily pervy at looking through my underwear.  Ladies, be warned.

Places to Return to – Georgia

Georgia is stunning!  The Caucasus mountains, the black sea and some amazing orthodox architecture.  The people are friendly and relatively modern.  The food is amazing.  I can’t believe more people don’t come to Georgia.  I loved it and can’t wait to go back.  My recommendations for Georgia

Head to the Kazbeg and climb up to Tsminda Sameba

It is a thrilling, albeit rough, ride up the Georgian Military Highway, almost to the border with Russia to reach the Kazbeg, a sleepy mountain village in the shadow of Mt Kazbeg.  On the way, you pass the gorgeous Ananuri fortress, which is worth a visit.

Ananuri Fortress
Ananuri Fortress

Once in Kazbeg, you can climb up to the spectacular orthodox church – Tsminda Sameba at 2200m.  These Georgians take their religion pretty seriously, and none of the 80 year old villagers think anything of walking up 1000 metres to go to a service.  The Russians actually built a cable car up here in the 80s, and the locals promptly destroyed it – you can’t see any evidence that it was ever there.   Don’t expect any respite when you sweatily arrive at the church either.  Like most orthodox churches in this part of the world, there are no seats.  Only lazy people need to sit down to hear a sermon for two hours, good orthodox christians are happy to stand up.

Bustling metropolis of Kazbeg
Bustling metropolis of Kazbeg

The church is spectacular, but the setting more so.  If you have time, I would recommend staying a few days and getting some hiking in, and perhaps climb Mt Kazbeg (5047m)

Tsminda Sameba
Tsminda Sameba
Visit davit gareja

Davit Gareja is a collection of old cave monasteries right on the border with Azerbaijan.  So close to the border in fact, that I decided to go for a walk in Azerbaijan, as I hadn’t technically visited at this point.   Getting there is easy from Tbilisi, though we did run into a very NZ like traffic jam on the way there

Traffic jam en route to Davit Gareja
Traffic jam en route to Davit Gareja

6000 monks were killed here when the monastery was sacked by Shah Abbas in 1615.  The monasteries never fully recovered but there are still monks living there today.

Davit Gareja
Davit Gareja

Its easy hiking around the many caves, and worthwhile going the hiking to check out the frescos (although be on the look out for snakes)

Cave Frescos
Cave Frescos
wander around tblisi and eat a lot

Georgian food is good!  So good in fact, that whenever I travel to a former Soviet Republic I check to see if they have a Georgian restaurant and make a point of going to eat there.  My favourites are Khinkali (meat dumplings), Kachapuri (cheese bread) and Mastnis Supi (yogurt soup).  They sound heavy to eat, and they are, but Georgians are masters at spices and herbs, so the food is delicious!!!!

Old town architecture Tbilisi
Old town architecture Tbilisi

To counter the calorie intake from all the good food, I would suggest taking in the sites of Tbilisi to get your step count up.  I really enjoyed the new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi (yup same name as above, it means Holy Trinity), wandering round the old town to visit the little old orthodox churches, and enjoying the huge stalinist monstrosities in the new town.


The new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi
The new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi
Additional tips
  • I only had 5 days in Georgia and getting public transport was going to be slow!  So, I used a local agent to provide transport and an english speaking guide (a groovy young feminist called Tamuna).  It was about $150 per day just for me, and both the guide and the driver were fab.  They also entertained me with lots of local music.  I booked this through  If you were time pressured, you could do everything above in a long weekend.  If you had more time you could go to Svaneti and the black sea
  • I stayed at the Radisson on points.  It was fine.  Being cheap, I made sure I made a packed lunch and snacks to take with me from the very good breakfast buffet
  • Ladies don’t forget a headscarf or a hoody if you want to see the inside of the churches

Visited May 2011

Places to Return to – Botswana

I never understood why people wanted to go on Safari.  Surely it was just like going to the zoo, but perhaps a bigger zoo with fences that were more spread out.  What was the point of spending huge wads of cash to go to a zoo?   But after the first safari drive that we ever went on, we were totally hooked.  We had a magical experience and got to see two lions mating (no rude jokes please!!).  Since then we have been going whenever we could summon up the cash

Elephants in the Okavango
Elephants in the Okavango
where to go on Safari

You can go on Safari all over Africa.  South Africa is terrific for self organised safaris, it is good value, the food and wine are amazing, and you can drive yourself everywhere!  I would highly recommended Kruger for Safari virgins and there are tonnes of good places to stay.  Namibia is also good, very safe and easy to drive around.  Kenya and Tanzania are good too, particularly in the Masai Mara, where you are almost guaranteed to see the big five in your first hour on a safari truck.  However, the downside is that Kenya and Tanzania are crowded with cheap package tourists, so while you are watching the cheetah kill the gazelle, sixteen other safari trucks drive up to watch it too.   So, if you can afford it, I would highly recommend visiting Botswana at least once.  The wildlife is as good as anywhere, but you will likely be the only people you see on your safari drives and that makes it a magical experience.

Yawning hippo
Yawning hippo

For a control freak like me, a safari is the perfect holiday!   The daily routine is fixed – get up for coffee and a snack, drive for three hours, come back for a huge breakfast, sleep for three hours, eat a huge lunch, nap again, drive for three more hours, eat a huge dinner.    And it is utterly utterly relaxing to have nothing to think about apart from what sundowner drink you want on the truck that evening.    The animals, also, are totally outside of your control.  You can’t dictate what you will see when.  Of course the rangers are world class, so you can let them know what you are more interested in seeing, but the leopards aren’t going to turn up where you want them to, so you have to be patient.

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Cute but hungry cubs (apparently their mother hadn’t found any food for three days)

There are lots of good places to stay in Botswana, some cheaper, some outrageous.  My most memorable experience is our stay at Chiefs Camp on Mombo Island.  It was incredible.  I was going more upmarket than usual as had hubby in tow, together with his parents.  We had gifted them a trip to celebrate their 70th birthdays.   While the lodge was divine and the food was good, it was Mombo and the cats that really stole my heart.   Some memorable moments….

Watching a leopard kill an impala

Ok, so I know it is gruesome, and I did use to struggle to understand why people actually sought out ‘kills’ on safari drives (I never had).  But it was fascinating, visceral and thrilling to watch a lone and hungry leopard take down an impala. We would have missed it entirely if our guide hadn’t noticed the assembled audience of baboons checking out the action (hoping the leopard would do the work and they could steal the impala afterwards).  The whole process took at least half an hour and it was enthralling

The baboon tree viewing gallery
The baboon tree viewing gallery


Suffocating the impala
Job done!
Job done!
Following a pack of wild dogs

In over twenty safaris, I have only seen wild dog once.  There are apparently less than 1500 adults still alive in Africa, and they are common on the menu for Lions.   It was a real treat to find this pack waking up from their afternoon naps (they are tough to spot as they blend into the grass very well), have a few yawns and then head off to go hunting

Waking up in the grass.... big yawn
Waking up in the grass…. big yawn
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the leader figuring out which way to go

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getting to follow the same animals over a few dayS

The interesting thing about staying in the same place for a few days is you get to see the same animals more than once.   My favourite occurrence of this was two young male lions.  We met them one evening, and they were hungry and grumpy….. you can see they were hungry by the size of their stomachs!  And then we found them again the next morning, and they had obviously found something tasty for a midnight snack as the tummy was bursting.

Before: Hungry and grumpy
Before: Hungry and grumpy
After: Bloated and sleepy
After: Bloated and sleepy
Additional tips
  • Safaris are expensive.  Shop around.  Going direct to the lodge is often not cheaper as they have to guarantee not to undercut the agents they use.   See if a UK outfit with a bundled flight offer is cheaper.  Also don’t move between lodges too much as it takes time away from seeing the wildlife and the internal flights are expensive
  • Don’t expect to take decent photos with your iPhone or digital camera.  It just won’t happen.  We had a decent canon digital SLR (EOS 5) but more importantly rented a serious kick arse zoom lens for the week.  It was worth it.  The lens would have cost $10,000 to buy, but we rented it for $400 (with hefty insurance).    If you like photography definitely consider renting at least one decent lens

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Off the Beaten Track – Sudan

The trip got off to an auspicious start.   I was on an Lufthansa flight from Munich to Addis Ababa with a stopover in Khartoum.  As I tried to disembark in Khartoum, the hostess blocked my exit and double checked my boarding card.  “Are you sure you want to get off here?????, I am ok if you want to stay on until Addis, as I really don’t think it is safe for you here!!!!”.   In her defence there were only about 10 other people getting off and they all looked like wealthy local business men!!!        Sudan definitely has a reputation, but it was probably one of the most interesting and friendly places I have been, and there was lots to see.  Highlights of the trip were!

Pyramids of Meroe

Meroe has more pyramids than Egypt!  And I didn’t see a single tourist the whole time I was there.  I barely saw any people, just the guardian, and an opportunistic young boy who wanted to sell me some jewellery.  I actually bought some too as wanted to applaud his entrepreneurialism.   I had a glorious two days wandering up and down the ruins here.  The light was magnificent in the evening and the morning, and it was a totally different experience to seeing the pyramids in Egypt.  Blissful solitude, just me, the sand, and the pyramids which were tombs to the Nubian Kings and Queens.

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I treated myself to a night at the tented camp at Meroe.  I was the only guest.  Apparently they occasionally get Italian tour groups  The food was great (enough for four people), but it wasn’t cheap.  Worth staying though, as unless you have your own camping gear, this is the only place near to the pyramids, and they are worth seeing at sunrise and sunset

Whirling Dervishes at Omdurman on Friday

Head to the  Sheikh Hamad-al Nil Tomb in Omdurman to see the whirling Dervishes – Sufi Muslims who wear patchwork robes and dance to the beat of drums twirling and stamping their feet until they go into a trance.    Apparently the dancing helps them communicate with Allah.

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Lead drummers

I had a blast here talking to locals, enjoying the ambiance.  No-one bothered me, though a few of the women came for a chat.

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Temples at Naqa

These temples are the largest archaeological sites outside of Meroe, and are still being excavated.  It is a bit like going to luxor, but before it was excavated and without any tourists.   I had all of the temples around Naqa entirely to myself, and the only humans I saw were goat herders sleeping under the trees.  I am not sure I would make a special trip to see these, but they were lovely, and they were en route to Meroe

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Additional tips
  • The best (and only) place I would ever stay in Khartoum is the acropole.  These guys were amazing, they sorted out my visa, had a fixer at the airport to help me navigate immigration and they sorted out a driver and all the permits tourists require to take me to Meroe.  It ain’t flash, and it isn’t that cheap either, but it is good.  They also serve a decent dinner, where you will meet lots of other crusty travellers, archaeologists and aid workers.
  • There are no ATM or credit card processing in Sudan.  Take cash!  lots of it!  I ran into an american couple who had had an accident, and they were stuck without anyway of paying their hospital bill, and they couldn’t leave the country without payment.   Eventually they worked out a solution of wiring money to the foreign account of a third party and getting cash – but it was complicated and took weeks!
  • Its hot here!  really hot! As I was travelling alone with a male driver, I started off wearing a headscarf and sitting in the back seat of the car.  I gave up on the headscarf on day 2, and moved to the front seat (closer to the aircon) after a bout of heat stroke of day 1.  Would still bring light loose clothes and keep your legs and upper arms covered.
  • I am not the only one who liked Sudan, check out this guardian article

Visited November 2013

Off the Beaten Track – Nauru

Visiting Nauru was a bit challenging and conflicting.  Challenging as the flight was outrageously priced on the monopoly airline carrier and it took me 47 emails to the consulate in Brisbane to get permission to travel.  Conflicting as I am deeply troubled by the Australian governments approach to ‘outsourcing’ their ‘refugee problem’ to the pacific.   (For those of you who are not familiar with the refugee camps Australia has opened and funded in Nauru, the Guardian has decent coverage of the events and issues

It started off well!  At the check in counter, the conversation went like this….
A: Why are you going to Nauru?
M: I’m a tourist
A: They don’t have tourists, are you one of those crazy people that are trying to visit every country in the world?
M: Yes, how did you know?
A: Well you weirdos trying to tick off all the countries are the only ‘tourists’ who visit Nauru as there is nothing to see!
The old phosphate mine - which created all of the islands historical wealth
The old phosphate mine – which created all of the islands historical wealth

Hmmm, ok.   Went to the boarding gate and was surprised to be surrounded by at least a hundred buff tattooed ozzies and kiwis in shorts and jandals.   I got chatting to a few of them (they were friendly even though burly), and they were all working on Nauru.  It was considered a major hardship assignment (worse than Coober Pedy for those of you who know where that is), and they were all dreading going back.    Curiously, when I boarded, there were only six female passengers on the plane – and we were all seated together in the same row.  I asked the attendant why this was, and apparently they had had a few problems with other passengers being a bit drunk and harassing women on this flight before so they put us together for our safety.  To clarify, it was 7am! and in Australia!  I can’t imagine being worried about serious harassment from an Australian at any hour, let alone 7am on a plane surrounded by people.  And the guys all seemed to be polite!  But I guess there must be some history there…..,   Nothing to report on our flight, though I had braced myself for some entertainment 🙂

Landed in Nauru, and was told by the immigration official that I had to go sort out my visa but the hotel would help.  Of course the hotel shuttle wasn’t there.   O2 didn’t roam in Nauru, but one of the Ozzies called the hotel for me and an hour later Jasmine showed up.   “Sorting the visa out’ required visiting the visa office (a non air-conditioned shipping container) to fill out a form, then going into town to pay a fee at the revenue department and then back to the shipping container.   Two hours later I arrived at the ‘glamourous’ Hotel Menen – the best and most expensive hotel on the Island.  Fortunately I had been warned by my fellow adventurer Evelthon, that the Menen was minging and I wouldn’t want to sleep in the sheets or walk on the floor barefoot.  He was right!  The water didn’t  work half the time (so no toilet flushing or showering!), the hallways smelled like cooked piss, and I got a rash sleeping in the bed (even though I slept in my clothes).

Eroded Phosphate on the beach
Eroded Phosphate on the beach

Fortunately forewarned, I had packed enough food for three days (berries, vegetables, eggs, dehydrated couscous, salami), as had been told the food on the island was dire.   Having seen the cleanliness of the room there was no way I wanted to eat anything out of the kitchen.  Nauru probably doesn’t make it into global stats given the population size of under 10,000 but I would bet that this is the most obese nation in the world (and I have been to Tonga and Texas).  The diet consists of spam, fried chicken and fried rice!   Without a hint of sarcasm, I have never seen motor scooters working so hard to support the weight of the drivers.

the pentecostal church!
the pentecostal church!

I set out to tour the island.  Inspired by a post I read on Gunnar Garfors blog (, I decided to run around the island – it is only 16km to circumnavigate the whole country.  That was a hoot!  I didn’t get to run uninterrupted for long as the locals kept stopping their scooters to ask if I was ok.  “Girl, what you running from????”.   And I wasn’t running that fast in 30 degree heat with 80% humidity.  I don’t think running is much of a local sport.  There isn’t really much to see on the island, but the remnants of the phosphate mine are interesting, and the rock formations from the erosion on the beaches were also pretty cool.

Possibly one of my favourite store names ever
Possibly one of my favourite store names ever
I also managed to chat to a bunch of people on my slow run around the island.  The refugees I met were universally friendly, but desperate to be anywhere else.  They were mostly concerned about the quality of healthcare and education available to their kids locally.  Apparently the refugee camp school had been terrific, but due to funding cuts it was closed, and now their kids had to go to the local school which apparently didn’t have flushing loos.
The locals I met were friendly too, though they hated the refugees and wanted them to leave.  The common concern was that the men were stealing their wives!  I was too polite to ask how they thought Nauru would survive without the Australian aid provided for the camps, as the government had blown the billions of dollars that Nauru once had from phosphate (at one time Nauru had the highest wealth per capita in the world).  Curiously, most of the locals had never left Nauru and had no desire to…… and they thought I was odd to be travelling at all….
And the Australians, well most of them really didn’t wanted to be there either, and I couldn’t blame them.
However, every single person I met was friendly, albeit with very strong and opposing view points.
It was interesting!   Am not sure I would go again, but it was certainly a thought provoking trip.
Additional tips
  • Yes you kind of have to stay at the Menen as there is nowhere else.  You will be ripped off to the tune of AUD 150 per night, and the hotel is always full of aid workers so book ahead
  • Take food with you!!!!  there is a fridge and a kettle in the hotel, so I boiled eggs and steamed veg in the kettle.
  • Transport is non existent but hitching is easy.  I wanted a ride to the airport the day I left and the hotel were faffing about.  So, I asked the first person I saw checking out for a ride and of course he said yes.  (happened to be the pilot for my flight, so I felt like I was in business class getting a free limo to the airport)
  • If you want to go for a swim, pretty much everyone swims at the harbour at Anibare as the beaches are too shallow and rocky.  It is a short walk north of the Menen
Anibare - the best swimming spot
Anibare – the best swimming spot
Visited November 2015

Places to Return to – Guatemala

I was quite torn about visiting Guatemala! While the pictures looked beguiling, I was taking my mum, dad and husband on a trip around central America, and was worried about their safety.   A legitimate concern given the violent crime rates are the highest in Latin America (which is a high bar to begin with).  My dad too is a stubborn hardy kiwi bloke who contrarily seeks out dangerous situations.  Case in point, when I asked him not to walk up Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua (as apparently it was a hot spot for tourist muggings).  He promptly went up there the next morning before breakfast.  I told him he might have been robbed, and he proudly told me he took no money so they couldn’t rob him.  Note to non frequent travellers – you really want to make sure you have some money for people to steal from you, at least $20 if not $50!  I am not joking!….. better they steal $50 from you than get pissed off and shoot you as you have nothing for them.   Anyway, parental frustrations and concerns aside, Guatemala was the highlight of that trip for us all.   The only other thing to note is there are more gringos here than I typically like to see on holiday, so make sure you time your visits to places to avoid them as much as possible!
Girl in the street in San Pedro
Girl in the street in San Pedro
Visiting the villages around Atitlan
Be smart, as there are quite a few tourists in Panajachel, so go and find the villages which are less visited.  There are lovely places to eat, and hugely photogenic local ladies to take pictures of.  The air is clean and it is is stunningly beautiful on the lake.  We went to Santa Cruz, San Marcos and San Pedro and enjoyed wandering around.
Buys carrying a heavy load in Atitlan
Stayed at Hotel Posada Don Rodrigo in Panajachel, but there are tonnes of good options in Atitlan, eat anywhere as it is a bit of a gringo paradise
Head to Tikal to see the ruins
Make sure you stay the night, as the flights from Guatemala city land en masse in the morning and then there are swarms of people all over the ruins (we made the mistake of being on the plane with the swarms).  Frances Ford Coppola has a famous hotel nearby if you feel like going glam
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Ruins of Tikal
The ruins are amazing, and if you are fit and ok with ditching your guide there is some terrific hiking.    While you are out there definitely pop over the border to Belize and see the ruins of Caracol and Xunantunich (a regret of mine that we didn’t as I ended up flying in 3 years later to see these)
go to the market in chichicastenango
Yes this was a tourist nightmare, overrun with gringos by 10 am.  However, if you want to see the locals, then stay the night, get up at 6am to watch them set up and get the hell out before the hordes arrive at 10 am on their buses.  We really enjoyed having breakfast at one of the stalls and chatting with the locals
Dad bargaining at the market
Hang out with the gringos in Antigua
Antigua really is lovely!  There is really nothing to do here except eat!  We whiled away plenty of hours drinking decent coffee and eating cake…. it is just one of those things you do when you have been travelling and haven’t had a decent coffee or anything yummy to eat for a few weeks.  Thats why places like Antigua suck you in and you get stuck doing nothing but energetically finding new coffee and cake places every day :-).  There are some nice things to see between the cake shops, so take your camera with you.  The plaza Mayor, Arco de Santa Catalina, Cathedral San Jose and Convento de las Capuchinas are all lovely!
Locals Laundry in Antigua
Locals Laundry in Antigua
Stayed at the uber luxurious Palacio de Dona Leonor.  It was beautiful and enormous.  Not my normal travelling style, but it was a gift for Ma and Pa for their 60th birthdays.  Eat anywhere with cake!
Additional tips
  • Reading back on this post it seems that visiting Guatemala is a bit like going on safari.  You want to be up and out between 6-10am and then again perhaps in the late afternoon.  But you want to avoid the middle of the day, when the gringos are at their most active.   It really is worth the early mornings
  • I prebooked almost everything in Guatemala as was keen to look after Ma and Pa.   Elizabeth Bell came highly recommended, but charged a premium.   Things did work like clock work.   You can contact her at If I was going by myself I would probably use local buses
  • Guatemala City is one of the dodgiest places in Latin America.  Antigua is less than an hour from the airport in a car, so there is no reason to stay in the City.  We were amused by how many carpet and plastic stores had armed guards!

Visited December 2011