Monday, October 10, 2016

Random Dublin

It was a short weekend, but we were able to walk around and feel a bit of what the city is. With a new trendy area around the Canal where a lot of the companies (like Google or Facebook) have their offices, a touristic bar-filled area filled with stag-dos and hen parties, an artistic vibe present here and there, potatoes, whiskey and Guinness! An increasingly cosmopolitan place that is still able to retain its small city feel, especially as you feel like you can walk to most places.

The photos below help to illustrate our experience of this weekend:

A fountain in the city centre that had been "adapted" to the stag do party mood!
The Canal area
Celebrating Autumn in Trinity College
Going for a spin in Trinity College 
Is the true meaning 'stag dos this way'?

Dublin Castle 1
Dublin Castle (the other side)
Guinness - for strengh and maybe anything else
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey
Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes
A food market right in the middle of Temple Bar
A new kind of self-portrait  

A crash course in recent Irish history

Not so long ago I read an article about how more and more people add to their travels destinations mandatory stops at places that tell a dark-side of human history. Places like Auschwitz or even Chernobyl. A mix of dark curiosity and a want to better understand the good and bad of other cultures (past or present).

We felt that ourselves when we visited Prison 21 in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Even after knowing most of the Khmer Rouge history, it was a shocking, intense and moving experience. Especially as it was as recent as it was.

This weekend we came to Dublin. I came here 7 years ago in what was one of the first times I travelled alone. I came for a conference in Maynooth and decided to stay for an extra day in Dublin just for some unplanned walk-arounds. Since then the changes in the city are notorious. And this time we actually planned ahead and investigated places where we would like to go to. Advised by an Irish friend that has lived in Dublin, we booked a tour in the Kilmainham Gaol Museum (i.e. Kilmainham prison). A famous place that, amongst other things, had a relevant role in the recent history and independence process of Ireland herself (we also learned Ireland is a she :)).

Coming in I was not really sure of what to expect. But what we had, surpassed my expectations. First, it was the crash course on the story of the birth of Ireland as an independent state, a story of resistance and political persecution, with all the blood and sacrifice inherent to it.

The hearing room
Waiting f or the tour
The old West wing section
"Beware of the risen people"
The flag of Ireland in the yard where many prisoners of war were shot to death

Then, the building itself, in particular the newest part - the East wing - is quite incredible. Being such an impressive place and no longer in use (it was closed in 1924 as it was attached to so many bad memories) it has been used as the set of numerous movies such as "In the Name of the Father" or the "Italian Job" (the old one).

The West wing
The East wing
An image from the "Italian Job"

And finally, our tour guide. As Andre called him, a true story teller that let his powerful words reverberate in the air, and his stories sink in along with the images they created in our mind. And every time he told us "You can walk around, take pictures and explore before we move on. Please meet me by that gate/door" he actually meant "You have the time that it takes me to slowly reach that gate/door to do whatever" - this was about 30 seconds in total!

Our storyteller/guide
I don't know if it was solely the advise from my friend that convinced us, or if the above mentioned morbid curiosity for the darkest moments of a country's history helped. But coming out of it, it was the sensation of being richer with the knowledge of all the events that happened between this walls and outside of them that made this such an extraordinary experience. Thanks CS for the tip :)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

8 million people on motorbikes

Last country, last city, last Asian experiences, last days. Our trip was coming to an end and we had only a couple of days to enjoy Vietnam. Definitely, not enough!

Our trip, as for the rest of the days, was done by bus. 6 to 7 hours on a bus got us to the centre of Saigon (how people still refer to Ho Chi Minh around here). On our first minutes on the city, with our backpacks back on our backs, we got a first glimpse of how busy this city is! We had experience the crowds in Bangkok and the disregard for the rules in Phnom Penh (in all of Cambodia, really), but here... here we saw both at the same time! 8 Million people on the streets, all with scooters or motorbikes! This made crossing the streets a true adventure! Every time!

But Saigon is an amazing city (our favourite out of the 3 capitals we went to). It blends a traditional side (with its markets and lively parks) with the a most modern and high-end one (with fancy restaurants and it's multicoloured lighted roller skates and self-balancing two-wheeled board). Yes, it is a bit touristic and we did stay quite close to the backpackers area, but it was the life of the city that captivated us! Another interesting part of it, is also how different it is from its neighboring countries, especially in regards to Religion. Whereas in Thailand and Cambodia almost all houses have a little temple at the entrance (that is supposed to provide protection), here what you could see in every street were the Vietnam and communist flags. They were everywhere! This nationalist side of Saigon could also be seen in the War Remnants Museum. Here, they present their side of the story (and is always interesting to see the other side of the story), but they don't even try to hide the propaganda behind it (e.g. on the section where they mentioned the reporters that had died whilst covering the War, the Vietnamese ones were called "patriotic and martyrs", the American, French and all other reporters, were mere reporters, nothing else).

In the 2.5 days we spent in this country, we were also able to squeeze in a trip to nearest branches of the Mekong River for a day tour which, despite being overly touristic ("Now you go here! Now you try the tea! Now you look at the bees! Now you listen to the traditional music and eat the fruit! Now you buy caramels! Now you go to the boats! Now you... " - I think you can get the idea!) was good for the setting itself. It would have been quite difficult to do such a thing on our own and, honestly, at this point we were a bit too tired to think of the logistics of such a thing! Talking with other travelers in the same day-trip that had spent a few weeks in Vietnam, our will to come back and continue to explore this side of the World (and Vietnam in particular) went up exponentially!

So as the last day came, we had this feeling that we usually have. This feeling of unsatisfaction, of a job half-done, of an opportunity that was there but that could not be taken. From our days on the Koh Kood island, to the streets of Battambang (that we just quickly skimmed through), to the most rural side of Thailand and Cambodia, to the whole rest of Vietnam, we wanted to see more. But time is finite, and so were our holidays. The World is too big for 2-weeks holidays! This is the feeling of the ones that want to see more and want to experience more! Considering that, I am actually happy we feel this way! Because it is this feeling that will keep us searching for more, even if our next search is done somewhere else in the vast, amazing, sometimes incredibly cruel, sometimes incredibly kind, World of ours!

Here are some photos of these 2.5 days (as I am at home already, I uploaded a bunch! :)).

Our last long bus trip from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
I was so happy when I showed him this photo afterwards!
The modern side of Saigon
ALF @ Saigon by night
This was a Japanese restaurant (there were so many types of restaurants around!)
@ The World Remnants Museum
Imagine crossing this street!
Like this one is! (she survived!)
Street Vendors
And some (a lot!) just decided to sleep on their bikes!
Arriving at the Mekong
On the boat!
"A volunteer to touch the bees?" Guess who that was!
On the canals of Turtle Island
Us! ALF was able to close his eyes even more than usual! :P
Our rider
She pointed us her house (this one). She looked so happy/proud of it!
Making the coconut candies
At a first glance they looked like rocks! They weren't!
This is your expression when you're photographing a very big, maybe lethal, snake!

Friday, May 6, 2016

The time we met Lucky and Chhouk

When we were planning our trip back in London, we planned things so that we had an extra day for unexpected events or if we wanted to fit in something else that we'd heard about during our first days. In Battambang we knew, after saving one day in the border between Thailand and Cambodia (see "What now?" post), that we would have a day to spare so we discussed how we could use it. A few ideas came up, but the one that stuck was about the possibility of visiting an elephant centre. Searching on the guide and online we both read about a rescue and shelter centre near Phnom Penh ran by Wildlife Alliance - Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. They had a tour where we would be able to actually feed and meet different animals, including some baby animals that had been rescued. It was a bit expensive, but this became the perfect gift for ALF's 30th birthday that would happen in a few days.

Arriving at Phnom Penh I confess that my mind was mostly set on that experience. I was trying not to create very high expectations (always the first step to delusions) and finally, one morning, we wake up bright and early before 7am to meet our ride in the rendezvous point.

The staff, an Australian and two Cambodians were very nice and it was great talking to them the whole day, not only about the centre and the animals, but also about Cambodia in general.

And then we arrived to the centre and the first stop was for us to meet Lucky, a 17-years old female elephant that was rescued when she was still a baby. She was found wandering alone (probably forcibly separated from her mum and the rest of the herd) and brought back to the centre where she found a new mum. She was adopted (or maybe it was the other way around) by the first keeper that fed her and that stayed with her 24/7 (including sleep) for 2 years! Lucky went through a lot since, as she got sick a few years ago and is only now recovering from it. We met her as she was around in her morning wandering around. I fell in love immediately! I don't know if it was because she was the first one we met, or because I felt a special connection with her, but meeting her, feeding her and saying hello, was my favourite moment of the day. And the day was full of great moments, from more elephants to lazy tigers and leopards, to crazy otters, to tiny bears, to strange birds and big and baby gibbons! Another great moment was when we met another elephant, Chhouk, who lost his foot in an animal trap when he was very little and now uses a prosthetic one! An amazing story of survival!

This was a great day and we both agree that it was the best experience of the whole trip. And because of that, I am going to break my own rule and upload more than one photo, because the animals and the great work being done at this centre are worth it.
ALF and Lucky (you can see here the damage on her ears that she suffered after being sick)
Feeding Lucky :)
Because she can't cool herself (due to the damage on her ears) she needs these baths when it is really hot
This is the best photo of Chhouk's prosthetic leg
This was another female elephant that we were able to feed! She was really sweet as well
They are such beautiful and intelligent animals!
The centre also has some old tigers. It was so hot all they could do as lay down (just like cats)
The bears :)
The otter after he catch his fish
Don't try this as home!
This female gibbon was raised by humans so she doesn't even recognise other gibbons as her own; she is more comfortable with humans!
And she loves to be petted
She kept asking for more
This is a baby bird, a huge and strange baby bird
He was sleeping while standing. So cute!
ALF surrounded my baby gibbons that we fed 
Baby gibbons - part 2
Eating the greens!
They are actually really picky, they were putting aside most of the leafs