Unexpected polar encounter

It’s night but it’s not dark. At this latitude, the day lasts almost 24 hours. It is 3 am and the campsite is bathed in a dark light. No need for a flashlight to guide me. As I walk through the motorhomes, a shadow leaps suddenly in front of me. It saw me, and as stupefied as me, stops. Its two bright eyes stare at me. The moment is fleeting, the beast leaves immediately, a dark ball of hair that runs like an arrow before disappearing behind a bush. What was it? I am perplexed because, apart from sheep, there are few animals on this island. Too big to be a cat. And the gait was not a canine thing. Pointed ears and a long snout, a bushy tail, a soft and agile look. In the half-light and awake, I did not realize that I had just met a polar fox, rare endemic species of Iceland.

July 2017 – Family road trip – 1 week

Funny moment with the Mentawais

After 18 hours on an old wooden tub populated by cockroaches and stinking kerosene; then several hours stuck sitting on a wooden micro board on a dugout canoe; followed by 4 hours of walking through the jungle in a mud so sticky that I loose several times my shoes in it, I finally arrived at the Mentawais, an indigenous people of the archipelago of the same name, off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island.

So here I am lodged in a wooden hut on stilts. Under the floor, wild pigs whose strident growl wakes me up in the middle of the night, when it is not the coconut that falls on the roof, in a crash-like explosion. Inside no sanitary. For toilets, I have to go deep into the jungle, and to choose carefully my location, to check that there is no pig nearby or any dangerous creature on the big leaves which hide me. A last look around my feet just in case, it seems all right, the place looks safe, so let’s go, I drop my shorts and my pants. And there, raising my head, what do I see in front of me? A Mentawai warrior, rifle in hand, who says to me smiling “it’s okay, it’s okay”

August 2008 – Group tour by ZigoTours – 3 weeks

West USA

A road trip is the best way to discover the Far West and its famous national parks. Ready to be a poor lonesome cowboy? Let’s cross Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada…

Arizona: Grand Canyon State

The Grand Canyon is the must-see. There are two great ways to discover it. For the first one, you’ll have to wake up early, in order to see the sun rises above the canyon. The show is really worth. The other way to enjoy it is to get down the Colorado River on a canoe. With that experience will understand how deep is the canyon.

The other place to see in Arizona is definitely Monument Valley. In fact, it’s in Arizona and Utah, close to the “four corners” (the crossing point between these two states, plus New Mexico and Colorado). Don’t just take a picture of its three most famous mesas, take a ride inside the park, with a Navajo guide it will be better. Navajos are the native people. They named most of the mesas you will see, such as the Three Sisters (they look like a W) or the Dragon, and they left some petroglyphs, which most famous is “Cocopelly”.

There are some other sites to visit in that state. Petrified Forest is interesting as its particularity is these enormous rocks which were tree trunks, million years ago, when dinosaurs were still alive and ate their leaves. Lake Powell is a great place to enjoy nautical sports such as jet-ski. It’s an artificial lake thanks to Glen Canyon Dam, which is so high that it can be vertiginous.

Colorado: the Pioneers state

Mesa Verde National is famous because of its Anasazi monuments. The United States has few pre-Columbian monuments, that’s why this palace is important, especially because it’s a troglodyte. The other specificity of this canyon compared to others is its flora. It’s really well named because it’s the greenest canyon.

Durango really looks like a pioneer city, but its main attraction, except Ralph Lauren shop, is its steam train.

Utah: the Centennial state

Why the Centennial? Just because it joined the Union in 1876, 100 years after the USA independence. If its known because of the Winter Olympics Game in Salt Lake City (2002) or because its the Mormons state, trust me it’s as beautiful as Arizona. They are two great sites to visit. Start with Arches National Park, where water curved wonderful sculptures. The most impressive one is the Delicate Arche. Then go to Bryce Canyon national park, maybe the most incredible canyon of the USA. It’s called the Silent City because it looks like orange buildings separated by little canyons as streets, with no one, like an abandoned town.

Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas

You can’t go to Nevada without visiting the city of games and sins, even if you don’t want to gamble. I was a teenager, so I wasn’t allowed even to sit, as I was forbidden to play. But the casinos are amazing places, their decorations are incredible. I don’t know which was my favorite one. I remember I was impressed by how the Paris Paris truly looks like Paris city. The Venetian, the Ceasar Palace, and the Luxor are also very well made, especially from the outside. New-York New-York is funny because of its roller coaster, and of course, you can’t miss the fountains show at the Bellagio. The best way to discover it is to walk along the strip, start at sunset and spend the night along with it. Don’t miss as well Fairmont, where you must see its roof show. And, last but not least, you should go to the Stratosphere and do the attractions at its summit. Vertigo guaranteed.

Some tips to add… Everything seems bigger in USA, roads, cars, distances. Never forget that prices are without taxes, it’s always a surprise to discover at the cashier how much you’ll pay. The thunder on Monument Valley picture shows the reality: usually, days are hot and sunny, and evenings are rainy with thunder. But camping remains a good option to make your trip cheaper.

August 2005 – Teens Camp – 3 weeks

Malta

I discovered Malta, 40 years after the country took its independence from Great Britain (it was a former colony) and just before it entered the European Union.

3 good reasons to go

Malta is a great place to send teenagers on a language study holiday, rather than in England. First, the weather is definitely much better, as the country is located in the Mediterranean Sea, between Sicily and Tunisia. Then, food has many Italian influences and colors, with pasta and tomatoes among it. And last but not least, it’s an archipelago made up of Malta the main island with the capital Valletta, Gozo, Comino, plus 5 other little islands. This means you can swim.

A little bit of Geography

Most of the time, when I speak about Malta, people don’t see what it looks like, so to resume, the islands are just rocks in the middle of the sea. I mean it, they are really rocky islands, with few plants, it looks like quite arid, with almost no relief. Another important thing to know before getting there is that it’s not an island with sandy beaches. As I said, it’s rocky, so you have wonderful cliffs. To swim some artificial pools where curved in the rocks to allow tourists to swim.

A little bit of History

Malta is also a very interesting cultural destination, due to its crossroad position in the Mediterranean Sea. You can still see traces of its early History, with Megalithic Temples from the Neolithic period. The country was dominated successively by the Carthaginian, the Roman, the Byzantine, the Arabian, the Sicilian, the Knights of Saint John, the French thanks to Napoleon, and finally the British until its independence in 1964. Each domination left its influence. For example, the Maltese language sounds like Arabic, despite its written with the Latin alphabet, and the fact that everyone speaks also English. The Order of Knights of Saint John built the fortified city of Valletta (named after one of the Grand Master of the Order who defeated the Ottoman). Last occupiers, the British left the main traces: driving on the left side of the road, red telephone box, etc.

What’s typical in Malta?

What I liked about Malta is its originality: its old fashion and colorful bus; its colorful little boats with an eye at the bow; the little-paved streets of Valletta with its green windows.

Lastly, Malta got famous because of Game of Thrones. You’ll probably recognize the gate of M’dina (the former capital) as the gate of King’s landing. Many cities and fort of Malta were used as the scenery of the capital of the Seven Kingdoms. The wedding of Daenerys and Khal Drogo was spotted near the Azure Arch, which, unfortunately, was destroyed by a storm in 2017.

Just one last tip before you book your next holidays in Malta: sometimes its windy, I mean fresh breeze which is very welcomed. But, be careful, because you won’t feel the sun burning you, and you can quickly turn red.

April 2004 – Language study holiday – 1 week

Tunisia

I was a teenager when I put my first steps in Africa. Or at least in the Maghreb. I was in a teens camp in Hammamet, located in the North of the country, one hour drive from Tunis, the capital.

When not to go ?

I went there in February, and despite it’s Africa and the south coast of the Mediterranean sea, it’s not warm in the winter season, so don’t choose that period. For me, except for one day, the weather remained cloudy and fresh the whole week.

Oriental culture: writting and driving

I never met the oriental world before these holidays, despite the fact, my grandfather came from the neighboring country, Algeria. When I arrived at the airport, the policeman at the customs read my family name on my ID and directly asked if my father was Tunisian, because he recognized my Arabian origin. Everything was so different for me, starting with the writing: how do they distinguish the letters? A word seemed to be only a long horizontal line interspersed with a few vertical lines of different lengths. Later I learned Arabic for 2 years at University, and honestly, when you know the letters, it’s easy to recognize it, but for my teen eyes, it remained a mystery.

As Tunis was close, we went to visit the capital. Before reaching it, I have to admit I was quite skeptical about the way people were driving, regarding how the cars were dented. The main rule seemed to be: the one who honks the strongest goes first. In the city, we went to the souk, for shopping. I never found it so hard to buy something. At home, prices are written on the product and I knew how much I was going to pay. There I discovered negotiation. I never knew how much I was going to spend on something I wanted. The only information I was given was that the trader was going to sell it more expensive than its real value, so the game was to make the price get as lower as possible. Some of my friends really enjoyed playing it, but for me, it was quite intimidating.

Oriental delights: hammam & pastries

One of the things I really enjoyed there was the hammam, which is something you can really enjoy in winter. It’s a wet warm, a little bit like the ancient Roman bath, and mostly known as a Turkish bath. Its main purpose is to make you sweat, in order to eliminate your impurities.
As you sweat, your dead skin goes off, almost just like this, passing a blow of washcloth. I didn’t know it was possible to lose so much dead skin. Women, and men, separately, used it for centuries to get clean. And I really felt clean and relax after that.

Traditional hammam

If you love sugar, believe me, you’ll love Tunisian pastries. Of course, Tunisian food is more than that, you can find the traditional couscous, with lamb and merguez (remember no pork in this country). But oriental pastries are a real delight. They are made with bursts of almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, pine nuts, rose water, orange blossom, honey. Just try the Cornes from Gazelle, the most famous.

Oriental pastries

The typical things to do

In fact, there is no camel in Africa, only in Asia. In the Maghreb, there are only dromedaries, with one hump. A tip to remember the difference: camel has two syllables, like Asia, so it has two humps. Easy. Honestly, riding a dromedary is not exactly the most comfortable thing to do, my posterior didn’t really enjoy it. But it remains very funny. I did it along the beach, and the best moment is when, just after climbing on the animal while he was sitting, he suddenly gets up, starting by leaning forward, which makes you think you fall over his head.

Dromedary

I almost forget to say, that, yes I tried the shisha. Just to describe my personal experience, I am not a smoker, and it was the first time I smoked something. I coughed for 5 min because I didn’t know how to deal with it, then laughed for 20min, and finally got sick for 2 weeks. It didn’t make me want to try again.

Shisha

I truly believe I was not old enough to face a different culture and to be able to understand it. I visited other oriental countries since I am an adult and really enjoyed it much better, especially the souk atmosphere.

February 2003 – Teens camp – 1 week