Jumat, 19 Februari 2016

A date with Gaudi

One cannot visit Barcelona without having a love affair  with Antoni Gaudi.  An architect who was part of the Catalan Modernista movement and whose vivid geometric design style demands attention within Barcelona.  He loved to play with ceramic tile, reptilian like metal and concrete.  And play is what I took to on my expedition to admire his impressive work.  I spent 2 days feeding my soul through his creative offerings.

We met for our first date at his impressive to date continuous construction of Sagrada Familia.  Photos here will show the old part blended into the new construction.  Many tourists wanted his attention and I would not have much of that.
So we sneakily walked away to take in the wonders of 2 of his apartment like buildings Casa Mila and Casa Batllo. Jaw dropping architecture !!!!
I wanted more time with him so a hop skip and a jump over to Park Guell is how we spent our afternoon rendezvous. Meandering columns, ceramic tile, funky sculptures and quirky surprises all poised to impress.
To exude such creativity as Gaudi did, is yet to be challenged by his many followers to date. Until then, Barcelona will take care of his imaginative artwork and will always feel proud to showcase the results of his ingenious mind!  My love affair with Antoni Gaudi was so worth it !

Kamis, 12 September 2013

Does Accommodation expenses – eat into your travel budget?

Living a location independent lifestyle sounds very romantic and exciting to many but expenses can creep up if not planned well. I find accommodation expenses to be the most expensive, followed by travel costs, food and finally activities. I owned a total of 6 successful vacation rentals in the past and personally managed and designed each and every one of them. I have also consulted with other homeowners who wanted to set up similar businesses (and still do as I love designing and creating beautiful spaces for people to live in).

However I must admit that being on the guest side of a rental enquiry is an eye opener.  It is impossible to secure affordable accommodation, especially when you are on a budget on sites like Vrbo, Owner Direct, Perfect Places (my top 3 sites as a vacation rental owner, that brought in 100% occupancy over the summer months).  To think that I brought in an income of $10k a month on just ONE of those 6 rentals in Vancouver, makes me now shudder.  I would never pay that amount of money for a rental myself, yet my guests gladly did (of course they paid for the location and the upscale standard of the accommodation).

These days, I have lived through the likes of advise from fellow travellers who so openly share their opinions through sites like trip advisor, agoda and airbnb. These are my regular go to sites since June 2012.  I booked all of my Asia accommodation through agoda and always cross referenced it with trip advisor. This helped me save on surprises I might have otherwise not planned on. Most of my accommodation was heavily discounted as I was traveling during the low season in Thailand.  Bali was surprisingly the most expensive in terms of accommodation, during that trip to Asia. I found that the longer I stayed at one accommodation the cheaper the rates became and agoda does have a sliding scale rate plan. Try it for yourself.  Book for 5 days and watch your daily rate lower if you book for a week or more. Take heed of their booking and cancellation policy though. The upside about agoda is that you earn points (which paid for my recent accommodation in London woot woot).

Prior to my Asia trip I was a pre-planner type of traveler but now I find myself becoming a go with the flow type of traveler. Many ask me where do I plan to be during this month or that month and I honestly don’t know.  Living a location independent lifestyle affords me the opportunity to live in a place for as long as I choose to (visa pending of course).  Using agoda really helped me with last-minute accommodation choices.  Their Asia data base is huge so you are bound to get options to choose from.  Now obviously these prices were a bit higher than hostel rates but I am not the hostel type of traveler, as I love my own space and I do need my solitude at times.  I have found certain hostels advertising on agoda and backpackers that heard about this were ecstatic with their last-minute price reduction. It does help to have wi-fi on hand though so that you can map out your accommodation in relation to places of interest or the local town etc. I recall landing in Phuket and met 2 German seasoned backpackers. They had no idea where they were going to nor any idea on how they were going to find their hostels. I salute them for their bravery. I don’t think I could be that brave (I am referring to travel without wi-fi access). My smart phone is one of my most important travel companions (well after lip balm and eyeliner lol). It became theirs for that evening.

During my travels to Vancouver and Europe, I have found agoda to be too expensive, regardless of longterm rental plans.  I have used airbnb and have been very happy with the choices thus far.  For those that don’t know, airbnb is a site where owners can rent out their own homes (some have vacation rentals advertised).  There is an advantage to renting someones home or apartment to that of a hotel room.  The privacy and space are priceless.  My rental in Barcelona cost me 750 euro a month and in split it is 550 Euro.  Both accommodation have 1 bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, free wifi and all utilities included.  Both are near major shopping and attractions which cuts out on the cost of transport. Walking has become a daily exercise routine, which I don’t mind.  An added advantage of renting an apartment or home is that you actually feel like it’s home.  Travel can steal from your sense of belonging.  I have grown to discover that choosing to rent for a month or more at one location, creates a sense of home and belonging and makes for my travel experience all the more comfortable and enjoyable.  If you can afford to travel for longer periods, try booking into a place for a month or so and watch your travel experience take on a different feel. Trust me I have been converted from speedy Gonzales on ecstasy to the old lady with her walking cane.  Yes I love the slower paced travel these days.  I even have the luxury of choosing not to get out of bed on some days, which would never happen when I booked into shorter stays. The mind is weird at times.  On shorter stays, I used to think “Omg I need to do this and see that and try this and test that”.  Now it is “mmmm what do I feel like doing today?”

I am glad for the changes that have taken place in my travel style and life.  I certainly have evolved as a traveler.  Will I become a luxury traveler?  I have experienced this type of travel on numerous occasions and will certainly not turn down the opportunity should it arise but currently, I am enjoying experiencing life as a mid budget traveler and have learnt so much about budgeting.  Travel has humbled me in so many ways and the more I learn about travel hacking tips and experiences, the more I want to share this information with everyone.

I will now take you on my journey through Asia and show you what my budget had brought to me and how you too can experience wonderful travel experiences in the future, at a fraction of the price. (Note that these reviews were written for other travel websites). I have highlighted a few of my favourite places and have included the names of other hotels that were modern in design and had passed my cleanliness test (lol).  If you search for the names of the hotels I mention below, on agoda, you will have an idea of the current discounts that can be found for these hotels.  Also note that all of the hotels mentioned have free wi-fi and a pool, which are  important features for me. Utilities and housecleaning are also included.

Haad Salad Beach Resort – Koh Phangan – Thailand 2 weeks – $560

Super friendly staff welcomed us and then showed us to our clean bungalow which had a western style design with a rock wall in the bathroom. It was refreshing to note commercial toilet paper dispensers which is not a feature most easily found in Thai hotels. The grounds were well maintained and the pool area although busy with families during the day was a welcome haven for couples at night . The beach was clean and great for snorkeling too. You can rent kayaks or book a water taxi to wherever you wanted to go on the island. Dining on the beach at night by candlelight was a great feature, as you are literally at the water’s edge. Meals were okay but try Jay Jay’s Italian restaurant just up from the resort, within reggae village (great value for money western and asian food).
Overall a lovely stay!

Maryoo Hotel – Koh Samui – Thailand 10 nights – $405

A great little boutique hotel with modern design, clean, friendly staff and the pool all to our selves . The hotel is only about a 5 min drive into the main tourist area, mango strip but the local tuk tuks charge an arm and a leg for this ride. Depending on the time of day we paid 50-200 baht each. Always negotiate. This hotel would really do well if their management provided a frequent shuttle bus for their customers. They do rent motor bikes for 250 a day but the lady to the left of the hotel charges 200/day. We also used the local lady to the left of the hotel for our laundry. She charged 30 baht/ day as opposed to the hotels rate of 100 baht/day.For great local food , try Bongos restaurant, a little further up from the laundry place and 7/11 is a little further up from him. For most part of our stay we had the place almost to ourselves as it was during the low season. I know a lot of people would complain about the distance to the main tourist area. This place is not for you if you want to be within walking distance . Hopefully management will consider providing better transport.
Room Tip: There’s not much difference between the ocean view or tropical suite . Spend your money elsewhere instead.

 Taman Sakti – Bali – 6 nights – $340

With grounds reflective of Bali’s typical old world charm style, a pool to soak away those scorcher days, Taman Sakti felt like a hidden serene world. Large size rooms, a huge bathtub to fit the entire family and lots of geckos to keep you company at night(you are living in the forest here you know), you will feel comfortable here. The town is a mere 20 minute easy walk and just to the right of the entrance is a great local japanese restaurant with the best Nasi Campur (rice dish) ever. To the left of the hotel are local cafes and a place to do laundry.

Ao Chalong villa and spa – Phuket – 7 nights $246

Great little retreat if you seek just rest and peace . Come here to chill , read, meditate . Don’t expect a swimming beach as it overlooks a beach that serves as docking area. The two pools on the property make up for this deficiency . One overlooks the ocean and the other privately tucked in the middle of the property. We booked into a poolside villa that has ample space within, inclusive of an outdoor kitchen area, clean separate shower and toilet. The bed is of a futon style on a raised platform (watch your step at night if you need to use the washroom ).  If only a couch could be included for comfy lounging .  They maintain the grounds very well.  The on site restaurant serves good food but boy were they pricey . Use them only if really needed. Otherwise use the courtesy transport the hotel provides to the main road via a golf cart. To the immediate left of the main road there is a little coffee shop restaurant called Sentai ! Omg !!!! Divine cheap food and they have wi-fi !! You can lounge in there for hours if you wanted to . It’s run by a young couple and he’s an awesome chef . Try their massaman curry and fried Phuket noodle .

Now if modern interiors are your preferred accommodation style, here are a few I have stayed at:

Fave hotel – Bali – 6 nights $188

Alfresco Hotel – Phuket – Thailand – 3 nights $88

Lay lae Suites – Phuket – Thailand – 5 nights $150

Sarasainee All Suites – Bangkok – Thailand – 1 month $902

The following  hotels were on the older side but clean and walking distance to most attractions and restaurants.

Amata Resort - Phuket – Thailand – 5 nights $170

Phuket Centre Apartment – Thailand – 7 nights $215 (only accommodation with no pool but does have an indoor gym)

Aonang Sunset Hotel -Krabi – Thailand – 10 nights $258

Sabtu, 18 Mei 2013

When Park de Ciutadella beckons your camera

Barcelona has it all.  From art rendezvous, to gastronomic encounters, to a laid back lifestyle, to just living and being. Living and being is one of the key highlights I have observed of the Catalans in their daily activities.  They seem to have mastered this lifestyle.  Addictive I must add.
Towards the end of my 3 month stay I chose to take a stroll and play with my camera at Park de Ciutadella, one of Barcelona’s biggest and beautiful outdoor parks which is 70 acres in size and houses the Barcelona Zoo, the Catalonian Parliament, a lake, a few museums and an impressive fountain.
It did turn out to be quite a relaxing afternoon as the sights and sounds of the park did lend to a meditative feel. I was captivated as soon as I walked towards the Arc de Triomphe, a catalan version of that found in Paris. The long walkway from this impressive artistic erection, beckoned towards the entrance of the park. I shall stop here and have you visually join me on that wonderful stroll….


Selasa, 07 Mei 2013

Ubud – an artist’s lifestyle – in Bali

I am an artist.

Well I mean I was one during my school years.  I painted huge forest murals for school concerts, had my art work displayed in the principal’s office and went the added mile when it came to expressing my creativity in my speech and drama class related projects. When asked to write an autobiography on a playwright, I presented my essay in a coffin (made out of polystyrene) with a mummy like figure inside and all the creepy crawlies to give it the effect that I had found his burial site which also housed  his memoir (my autobiography essay).
When asked to design a stage on paper, I took this project to the carpenter in me. I literally built a mini stage out of masonite board and used the million asterix  toy figures I had – as props to represent the actors and actresses on stage. I obviously had a difficult time transporting my project to school and my teacher had no idea how she was going to toss my design, that was meant to be on paper, into her satchel.  But she really could not exercise any complaints about my presentation, as it was speech and drama class, and dramatic is how I rolled during those years. (chuckle)
So where is this hop, skip and jump down memory lane taking me, well to Ubud of course. Ubud is an adorable little village within the interior of Bali.  It is home to many artists and yoga loving spiritually evolved people. The energy in Ubud is healing and nurtures you, empowering you to embrace your authentic self and any creative energy you may latently possess.

It can also be a place to obtain a huge headache, when you find yourself caught in the hoards of tourists that just won’t leave the village.

Yes I hear you, but aren’t you a tourist too Natasha? Actually no I am not (smiling). I am a wandering soul who is traveling without any expectations and any plans. I was once a tourist for sure. Travel guide in hand, pages highlighted, maps revised several times, must visit every museum or see every statue type of tourist (after 4 statues you literally start to see just concrete in the mould mind you).  These days, I find myself so relaxed that I merely read up on the history of the place and the main tourist attractions so that I know where NOT to go when I am out exploring.

My camera leads me on my walking tours and I follow, without realizing that I sometimes stumble into the mainstream sites I had no inclination to view. Hence the headaches. But in Ubud there was no way to avoid these headaches.The village is small yet steep in character, charm and personality.

I loved this village. The blend of old world charm with modernism was seen in many of the retail boutiques and restaurants. I found it really difficult to walk past storefronts without exercising the stalker in me. I wanted to take in everything ! Every detail. Every construction. Every bent nail. And I did. Everyday. Every night.

Our accommodation was about a 20 minute walk away from the Main Street. So late night walks (totally safe) became a routine. I preferred the evening walks around the village as most tourist were either stored away in the myriad of restaurants or involved in the traditional Balinese dance performances that lure tourists at many hidden corners. My days found me lazing around in our quiet sanctuary at Taman sakti or exploring the local scenes around our immediate environment.

We discovered an amazing local restaurant, cafe Bintang, 5 minutes walk from our ‘home, which served as our go to kitchen. On other days, Joe would meet up with us and drive us to local must see natural wonders that Bali had to offer.

Tegalang rice paddy, temples tours ( should be called children accosting you with their sales tours), more rice paddy scenes, drives through the poorest of places I have ever seen (heart wrenching yet humbling) and more rice paddies.

Ubud and its surroundings had no filter. It displayed it all. Including the prayer offerings that pave every street, home or storefront. What initially looked like litter, later exposed the significant cultural rituals that the Balinese so diligently adhere to. Religious practices are part of their genetic make up and showed daily.

I found the Balinese to be very polite. ‘Tuk tuk’ is what we would regularly hear from the local taxi drivers. ‘No thAnk you – we walk’. Okay thank you maybe tomorrow? Maybe tomorrow we would smile back. And they would humbly walk away hoping that tomorrow would be a lucky day for them. For the many tomorrow’s that followed…there will be 2 posts on the day trips experienced. Until then…

Senin, 06 Mei 2013

Surf’s up in Bali

You cannot go to Bali and ignore the ocean and even if you did try, the hoards of Australian surfers will remind you of the water and usher you to the wonders of the shores. So where do you start exploring the beautiful beaches of this exotic island. I enjoy beaches less populated with people, so after witnessing the crowds and hoards of surfers in Kuta, I chose Sanur, Uluwatu and Nusa Dua ( all 3 providing seaside options with different options). Let me show you how.

Sanur is Bali’s oldest upscale relaxed resort area, and appeals to the more mature and middle-aged crowd.  With a 5km paved bicycle path, you can spend a leisurely afternoon or evening here, stopping at the various beachfront eateries or engaging in some of the aplenty water sport activities.  For the adventurous type you have kite surfing, wind surfing, jet skiing, and para-sailing. For the less adventurous you can hop onto a banana boat and whiz around the ocean.  The spectacular annual international kite festival in July finds locals competing with 10 meter handmade kites on hand.

The southern peninsula of Bali , the Burkit found me exploring Nusa Dua and Uluwatu .
Nusa dua is an enclave built especially for luxury tourism. Here you will feel as though you have stepped into another country, once you pass your security check at the gate. The myriad of luxury estate like hotel grounds, with manicured grounds and well structured roads overwhelm your senses (especially if you had spent a week or so in the ‘real’ Bali environment. This area is home to Bali’s most popular golf course and the convention centre.  Beaches are miles of white sand and calm waters, with Geger beach serving the public. It was quite busy the day I decided to hangout at this beach.  I could not see how swimming was possible given the number of jet skis and motorized boats in the water.  But nevertheless, it was a beautiful drive and a great spot to spend a day or your holiday if you can afford the rates at these overpriced luxury hotels.
Following Nusa Dua, we then drove down to Uluwatu, an idyllic setting with one of Bali’s nine key directional temple hanging close to the tip of the limestone cliff.  It is best to travel to this area in the  late afternoon to take in a kecak dance at the temple and the awesome sunset.  When visiting the temple, we were advised to take off our sunglasses, jewelry, handbags or cameras that may be nipped off us by the local monkeys.  Yes the monkeys actually approach tourist and bam your targeted possession is easily stolen.  The only way to have your stolen possession returned,  is to bribe them with food from the local vendor.  But monkey thieves or not, the view from this cliff is stunning and the beaches below are claimed to be one of Bali’s popular beaches with the surfers.

Now there are obviously more beaches to Bali that need recognition but I wanted to highlight the main ones that are popular with lots of activity to engage in, be it watersports, golf, shopping or just plain old beach bumming.
From beaches to the interior of Bali – in my next blog, I will show you why Ubud is the heart of Bali and the best part of my visit to this island. Until then…

Minggu, 21 April 2013

Attacked by kids and lost my sarong in Bali

Poverty is everywhere. It has no geographical boundaries


We cannot escape from it. Some live under a rock, oblivious to the needs of many around them. Some choose to live in a bubble, ignoring the poor and actually giving a damn. It is hard to give a damn when you are struck by the smells and scenes of poverty in front of you. Bali has a lot of poverty. Many tourists go to this island and hide within five-star resorts, never exposing themselves to the reality that makes up a vast majority of the this place known has heaven. My day trip from Ubud to Mount Batur and the oldest village on the east coast of Bali, demonstrated a reality that humbled me.
Our drive to Kintamani district challenged my motion sickness but the reward offered, as I stepped out of the car to view Mount Batur, was worth it. Mount Batur is Bali’s most active volcano, with the south-east side hugging a huge lake around which 6 ancient villages still exist.

 The panorama was just stunning but we were badgered by many locals, who were very aggressive in their attempts to sell us handmade souvenirs. Travelling has made me become less of a souvenir buyer. I now purchase items if I have a need for them and not because I want them. Most of my souvenirs take the form of photographs which has proven to be easier to carry. I managed to make the adults understand that I was not interested in any of their sale items but I could not escape the children. With their little voices and continued pleas to buy something, I had to give in. There was one little girl, who called herself Putu (meaning first child) and who stole my heart. Her eyes were mesmerizing and I so wanted to buy every postcard from her. She followed me for some time and insisted I hold her. I did and when it was time to walk into Pura Ulun Danu, a nearby temple, my heart sank as we said our goodbyes. My feelings of despair stemmed not from maternal instinct but more from one soul feeling the deprivation experienced by another younger soul.

 Pura Ulun Danu is Bali’s second most important temple (the first being Pura Besakih). It was rebuilt in 1926 after the volcano had destroyed the original temple. Prior to entering the temple we were escorted by the locals to a huge market like area and were told to “hire” sarongs, as it was essential to dress respectfully whilst within the temple. We happily obliged. Within the surrounding courtyards, the locals were found surrendering to various religious acts. Some sang, others meditated in silence and many women prepared offerings to the many god like stone figures. This temple had a very calm feel, regardless of the activity.

Walking to the edge we were surrounded by panoramic views of Mount Batur reminding us of its powerful presence and unpredictable nature to someday destroy all that sits within its karmic path. Walking away from the calm of the temple, we returned to the market like area to hand over our “hired” sarongs, only to discover that they were not hired but paid for. This would have felt reasonable except we were also asked to return the sarongs to the owner. First attacked by the kids followed by losing our sarongs to the sly business women, we merely chuckled about our “daylight robbery” and wondered what the rest of the day had in store for us.
As we continued to drive along the east coast of Bali, Joe stopped at Gua Lawah also known as Bat Cave. The temple was located opposite the ocean that had black sand along the shores. Outside the temple, children were seen practising their local dance. As little as they were, their graceful hand movements and the sway of their tiny hips kept me entertained for quite a while.

 I would have much preferred remaining here for the afternoon than actually witnessing thousands of monster looking bats peering at me from within the cave. At the entrance to the cave, the local shrine was noted. I could not understand how the Balinese saw this cave to be an area of worship, with fecal matter from the bats caking the shrine and the offerings made by the locals. I later learnt that a hindu priest who during his trip around Bali, had stopped here and had found great serenity and peace within the cave, regardless of the Bats. A temple was later erected at this location for all to experience its potent calming energy. As potent as the locals believe the temple to be, I needed out as fecal matter was not calming to me.

 We left the temple feeling a little drained from the heat and the days activity but before driving us back to Ubud, Joe insisted that we visit the oldest village in Bali, Tenganan Pegringsingan where the locals – called Bali Aga are known to live within the original traditions and rules of ancient Balinese. Here you will find homes built out of mud and stone with very narrow corridors allowing only one person to enter or leave at a time. Religious ceremonies are still strictly practised and rules carried out with great respect. Only those born in the village can live within the village and should a local choose to marry outside of the village,they are expected to leave. The village felt sparse. Some locals bent over their intricate artwork whilst ladies sat within dark store interiors dedicated to their geringsing, a textile created by the demanding double ikat method. This type of weaving calls for the worker to sit on the floor with a wooden device placed along her lower back and her attention devoted to her dedicated craft, which only exists in 3 parts of the world, India, Japan and in Tenaganan village in Bali. To watch this ancient craft performed in from of me, made me realize how lucky I was to experience this event.

 The remaining village showed no further signs of amazing artistry but observing daily activities was an eye-opener. A local woman hovered over her “open food stall” selling food to the local people, whilst others just sat at the entrance to their doorsteps indulging in daily conversations with each other.

The poverty showed but the simple and peaceful way of living that was observed, regardless of their environment, made me realize that poverty is only considered to be poverty when we live through comparison and a feeling of lack. To most wealth comes not in the form of bank balances but in the form of integral relationship amongst friends and family.

That night I went to bed thanking the universe for the days unfolding but especially making me realize that Bali with all of it’s offerings and devotions, was a very special place to most, especially to the locals who call it home . Poverty may have no geographical boundaries but it sure has endless lessons in humbleness. Salamet Jalan (goodbye) dan (and) Terimah Kasih (thank you) Bali.

A Photographic tour of Bali

showing you both the harsh reality and the natural beauty.

Music is from Karmix – song called Sabyhata – I claim no ownership to this song – just my photos.

A photographic tour of my trip to bali