Annchen

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When Joel threatened to book a trip to some island country somewhere close to Mozambique and Madagascar to swim with humpback whales, I responded as I usually do to his threats about traveling here or there – sure, why not? He booked the flights within a matter of days, and spent the next few months obsessing over this place, mining the internet for every scrappy piece of information he could find on the island of Moheli – the smallest of the three islands that make up the Union of the Comoros. And there’s not a whole lot of information out there – it is famously one of the least visited places in the world. The island receives less than 600 tourists a year. That’s not a booming tourist industry with hashtags or billboards or even English information. (For comparison, the louvre museum receives around 15,000 visitors…PER DAY). 

So, it felt particularly surreal boarding a flight for a country we only found out existed a few months earlier. 

Moheli island, the Comoros

HOW TO GET TO MOHELI ISLAND, COMOROS

It is ironic that we had to fly from Cape Town all the way 6 hours up to Addis Ababa, and then halfway down again to the Comoros, considering a direct flight would have been like 3 hours. But that’s Africa for you. (I’ve heard that people in West Africa sometimes have to fly through Europe to go to a neighbouring country). 

CAPE TOWN – ADDIS ABABA

Basically, there are no direct flights to the Comoros, except from Nairobi and Addis. So anywhere in the world you fly from, you will have to stop through either of those two cities. We actually booked our tickets with our miles, so beggars can’t be choosers. 

ADDIS – DAR ES SALAAM – MORONI

Nowhere on the booking site, on the booking confirmation, even on the printed boarding passes does it say that the flight is via Dar Es Salaam, but that’s what we found out at the boarding gate. About 90% of passengers got off in Tanzania, many of them tourists heading to Zanzibar, and the rest of us waited for an hour until we took off again in a near-empty plane for the capital of the Comoros, Moroni. 

MORONI – MOHELI

From Moroni you can either take a very small boat across potentially choppy seas, or a very small plane through potentially turbulent skies. We booked our tickets with AB Aviation (one of two small private airlines) to Moheli for the next day, and was happy to make the bumpy flight, because the seas hadn’t yet calmed down from weeks of bad weather before. Plus, in a game of ‘would you rather’ between a quick 20-minute bumpy flight (we cruised for literally 3 minutes before descending again) and two-hours on a small boat in high seas, the small plane is a sure thing. 

Fly between Moroni and Moheli with AB Aviation
It’s a quick 20-minute flight from Moroni to Moheli with AB Aviation

WHAT TO PACK FOR TWO WEEKS IN MOHELI 

A working vocabulary of colloquial French. Very few people on Moheli island can speak and/or understand English meaningfully. It’s French, or Comorian, or Arabic, or bust. Luckily, I took 20 hours of French in 2017 so we were totally covered (we were not.). You don’t need to let that stop you – we are living proof that you can get around without any French whatsoever, but just be prepared. To this end, I brought a pocket-sized French phrasebook along, even though we mostly made use of Google translate. 

A head scarf. The main religion is Sunni Islam. Not all women in the villages have their heads covered, but most do. It is not necessary to cover your hair when you’re roaming around the island, but it is respectful and polite – at least keep your shoulders and knees covered. What you shouldn’t do is swim in just your bathing suit when you are at public beaches – you won’t see any local women or girls swim in bathing suits or underwear. So unless you never leave Laka Lodge (which is totally doable but kind of sad), pack some shorts and a shirt to swim in. 

A torch. The power cut out multiple times while we were there, for whole nights and days. So, at least you’ll be able to see even if you can’t communicate anymore because your phone died with Google translate on it.

Medicine. There are no shops or pharmacies. An expat offered me some vitamin C after a bad bout of sunburn one day, and I kind of joked and said I brought a whole pharmacy so I should actually be offering them some medicine. She laughed but looked legitimately tempted to ask me for medicine. 

Mosquito repellent. Contending with ‘snorkelling gear’ as MVP of our bag contents. 

Snorkelling gear. Contending with ‘mosquito repellent’ as MVP of our bag contents. Of all the places we have now been, Moheli is unparalleled when it comes to coral reef health and diversity and amount of fish. So – you’re gonna want that snorkelling gear. Bring your own to avoid rental fees and having to do everything from Laka Lodge’s private beach.

Shampoo. Of course you can just wash your hair with soap, too. But sometimes a little TLC goes a long way, especially if you’re staying for 2 weeks. Joel brought a teeny bottle of hotel shampoo, which was nice because I did not see any shampoo on the island.

Basically, bring anything you think you might need. Unless you’re buying oil, petrol, eggs, tomatoes, lollipops, bread, onions, pumpkins, garlic, chillies, soda, frozen chicken or fresh fish, you’re not buying anything. I literally just listed all the items for sale on Moheli island. 

WHERE TO STAY 

LAKA LODGE – THE SAFE OPTION

We were immediately greeted by Laka Lodge’s driver as we exited the airport (everyone exits the airport immediately after disembarkation and then waits outside for all the baggage to be brought out on a trolley). I made a joke like ‘how’d you know it was us?’ because we were very clearly the only tourists at the airport, but he does not speak any english, so my dad jokes weren’t landing. 

As foreign tourists, there are really only two places to stay at on Moheli island. Laka lodge is the safe option – it’s right on the beach, it’s run by an American expat (so English), it’s well organised and the owners are very responsive. It’s essentially a super nice backpackers.

Beach cottages at Laka Lodge
5 little houses, each with two separate en-suite rooms, line a perfect sunset-facing private beach
Laka Lodge beach, Moheli

And a very beautiful little super nice backpackers we found out as we arrived. Little beach cottages with fans (praise the lord), mosquito nets, sea views, and some of them even had hot water for showers (not all). The common area has comfy sofas for sunset lounging, the bar sells alcohol (a very rare substance in the Comoros), the super amazing mega bats are constantly swooping in and out to feed off the fruit in the vegetable garden, and did I mention the Lemurs!? On top of all that, Laka Lodge is where you do your diving from. They have their own dive masters/instructors living onsite, and everybody scrambles to get the generator going when the power cuts out. Plus, the food is actually amazing, even when it’s fish everyday. 

But it’s pretty expensive as far as rustic accommodation goes – at a 120EUR a night (all meals included). Given that we were on the island for 12 days, we couldn’t really afford to stay at Laka Lodge for the entire time.

Lemurs on Moheli island, the Comoros
Mohelian dancers, the Comoros
Laka Lodge is visited by a touring Mohelian dance troupe every Wednesday evening before the weekly outdoor cookout.
Moheli island, the Comoros
Laka Lodge's sunset spot
A sunset spot with 180-degree views at Laka Lodge
Laka Lodge on Moheli island, the Comoros

VANILLA LODGE – THE CHEAP OPTION

The other accommodation option is Vanilla Lodge, about a 25-minute uphill walk from Laka Lodge. This is the cheap option – and it’s a really good deal for large  rooms at only 30EUR a night. It’s extra for meals, but let me tell you: the meals at Vanilla Lodge is killer. The portions are giant and the food is SO GOOD. So so good. In a prison fight between Laka Lodge’s three-course meals and Vanilla Lodge’s grilled fish, the fish wins every time. Those are the pros: the food, the price, the size of the rooms, and the views (which also comes with a fresh cooling breeze) are the best.

Vanilla Lodge on Moheli island, the Comoros
Room with a view at Vanilla Lodge
Room with a view at Vanilla Lodge

The location is not as convenient if you are planning to head to the beach everyday. We walked to Laka Lodge almost everyday whilst at Vanilla lodge – to dive and to go on snorkelling trips, and sometimes just to hang out with some cool people we met at Laka Lodge, because there was nobody else at Vanilla Lodge. Nobody. And part of what made going to Moheli so much fun, was all the incredible people we met, which would never have happened if we stayed only at Vanilla Lodge. 

The tourist-infrastructure that Laka Lodge built itself is impressive, and absent at Vanilla lodge. Our shower worked only for the first of four nights (we did not complain, so they may have been able to fix it, or move us to any of the other open rooms, who knows), the power is only on from 6pm to 6am, unless it cuts out completely for whole days and nights. The women working there spoke no English, and all of us relied heavily on Google translate for meaningful communication, except that time the power had been out and everybody’s phones were dead, and nobody was able to communicate to each other. That was a fun time. (Actually it was a fun time, as we dusted off our pack of playing cards we always travel with but forget about.)

We would recommend Vanilla lodge: large, cheap rooms with super friendly staff, breathtaking views and the best cooks on the island – also, we ended up missing our daily commute through the village when we went back to Laka Lodge for activities. Do not stay at Vanilla Lodge if you need electricity 24/7, or a working shower at all times (bird baths do the trick). 

Moheli island, the Comoros
With views like these we weren’t too bothered by the commute down to the Beach

Anyways, it’s hard to compare the two, because Vanilla Lodge is so affordable (they should really be charging more), and Laka Lodge is so convenient. The lemurs may have to be the deciding factor. 

WHERE TO EAT

Lol.

You can eat at Laka Lodge and Vanilla Lodge and good luck eating anywhere else. 

The first day not staying at the full-board comfort-zone that is Laka Lodge we decided to go on what we called an “adventure lunch” – we’ll walk through the town and just buy whatever we see to eat. Our lunch that day was a bottle of coke and a bread roll. 

The next time we tried adventure lunching we did a bit better: two chocolate bars, bread rolls, some sort of fried dough and two lollipops. 

Point being: there are no restaurants. 

There is very little to buy on Moheli island
Towards the evenings, we found that a lady towards the top of the village sells popcorn popped in a tiny popcorn machine from her house. I pointed to it, handed her a coin, and she filled a bag. No language necessary. This bag cost us the equivalent of 50 euro cents, or R8, and we probably overpaid.

WHAT TO DO ON MOHELI ISLAND

WHALES

So clearly we did not go there for the food scene. The reason we ended up on Moheli island is because Joel found out that it’s one of very few places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales. The whales come to this part of the world once a year, around August, to birth their calves and hang out until they take off into the open ocean again. That’s why – in a world where people usually spend 3-4 days on the Grand Comoros (main island) and then 3-5 days on Moheli – we decided to spend a whole 12 days on Moheli, to give ourselves all the chances of seeing those damn whales. 

We arrived on the island after a bout of wind and rain, so the water was still choppy, making for bad conditions to spot whales on a small boat that maxes out with 6 people. Plus, there had been no sign of them yet, by any of the divers, marine biologists or fishermen in the area. We weren’t too worried, having so much time ahead of us. So we focused our energy on diving. 

Moheli island, the Comoros
The boat coming in to Laka Lodge’s beach from a snorkelling trip
Scuba diving on Moheli island, the Comoros

SCUBA DIVING

Moheli island is a spectacular place to dive. Spectacular and rather special. People haven’t been scuba diving there for a long time, and with so few people coming to do it, the corals are abundant, colourful and just teeming with fish – in a word: healthy. The visibility varied – sometimes it was less than 10 meters, other times double that – but the sheer amount and diversity of fish was astounding. Quite possibly (betting on it) more so than any other places we’ve dived. Notably, the marine park is populated by the coelacanth – a fish scientists regard as a living fossil, having evolved to its current form roughly 400 million years ago. It was also famously rediscovered 66 million years after it was thought to have gone extinct. Anyways, it’s a whole thing and there are even museums dedicated to the fish on the Grand Comoros, which I regrettably did not venture into (seeing how passionate I am about obscure museums). 

Much of the known sites are located in the stunning Moheli Marine Parkthe first protected area in the Comoros – but even there a lot of the underwater landscape is unknown, or the information available is inaccurate. The Laka Lodge dive masters often went out on ‘exploring’ dives – just seeing what else there might be. Also, half of all the visitors on the island (so like 10 out of 20) were marine biologists doing research.

We feel lucky to have been able to been diving in such a gorgeous location (above and underwater) before its imminent development and popularisation. 

A rare capture of us underwater

SNORKELLING 

For all these reasons, the snorkelling in Moheli – specifically the islands of Moheli Marine park – has been some of the best ever snorkelling we’ve done anywhere in the world. The best most accessible place to snorkel is the reef about 150 meters out from Laka Lodge’s beach. You don’t even have to swim out that far though – grazing by the sea grass in front of the reef are big beautiful adult turtles. We saw four of them in a matter of minutes!

Of course it’s most convenient if you are staying at Laka Lodge. But if you happen to be staying at Vanilla Lodge, or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can reach the reef via the mangroves. All you have to do is head down to the mangroves – a 4-minute walk down the road (turn right out of Vanilla Lodge), and swim out about 1 kilometre (more or less). We did this one afternoon – spent about 2 hours swimming and snorkelling – and felt super accomplished, not only because of all the exercise we did, but also because of being able to do stuff independently from Laka Lodge. Level up!

Moheli Marine Park, Moheli island, the Comoros
Want to snorkel off this beach?
Moheli island, the Comoros

TURTLE WATCHING 

Moheli is turtle heaven, and the beaches around the island is where these ocean angels lay their precious heaven eggs. You can pay (at one of the lodges) for someone to drive you maybe two hours at night or at the crack of dawn to go find turtles laying their eggs at the famed ‘turtle beach.’ We’ve had more turtle egg-laying and baby turtle hatching encounters on Oman than any one person should be blessed with, so we weren’t too anxious about seeing these guys. 

Turns out they were anxious to see us, though! In between diving we usually took a bit of a break on the pristine beaches of the Marine Parks islands. One very hot afternoon, our local Comorian dive master called us out from the plant line of the beach – baby turtles are hatching! The sand was too hot, and he feared they might die before reaching the water so they were gently transported to the cooler wet sand, from where they furiously kicked to get to the water. Even after taking care of, literally, hundreds of baby turtles hatching in Oman, it was a special kind of magical moment to see these little angel babies make it out to the beach during the day, so you could see them adapt once they hit the water for the first time. A marine biologist who went diving with us that day had her underwater casing on her camera and took some pretty awesome photos of the origin event. 

Baby turtle on Moheli island, the Comoros
Baby turtle on Moheli island, the Comoros

BATS!

One of the things I miss most about the Comoros is the bat population. Listen, I don’t love bats either – the way they only sneak out at night and then flutter around with seemingly no direction, accidentally flying into stuff like your hair, blinded by light. But the bats on the Comoros aren’t like any bats I’ve ever seen. They don’t flutter and they don’t wait until darkness like cowards – they soar on thermal air waves way above the jungle under the full blazing sun. I was stunned the first time I saw one, swooping through above my head, the sun illuminating its dark brown wings, which reach a whole metre across. I half-expected the Game of Thrones dragon soundtrack to start somewhere. But honestly, this must be the closest thing to a dragon I’ll ever see. (Relax, they eat fruit.). It is mesmerising to watch them glide over the deep purple-green jungle at dusk, one after the other. Now whenever I see a black bird gliding in the air somewhere I am deeply disappointed it’s not a bat. Stupid birds.

Bats in Moheli island, the Comoros

You can also go jungle trekking to see the Livingstone fruit bat, sometimes called the Comoro flying fox, which is endemic to two of Comoros’ three islands (Moheli and Anjouan). They are larger, with a wingspan of 1.5 meters and critically endangered. However, a couple of people we met at Laka Lodge went to go do this and none of them recommended it to us. They were all wholly devoured by mosquitos (right through their long leggings!) and the bats seem similar to the ones you see flying all over the place anyways (which is the Seychelles fruit bat). So it’s a clear ‘not recommended’ on this one.

Moheli island, the Comoros
Watching bats glide over the jungle at dusk

LEMURS

I died and went to heaven the first time I saw a Lemur. If turtles are the angels of the ocean then lemurs are the actual angels of heaven – I am convinced heaven is full of lemurs who all gently take bananas from you. There are two little mongoose lemurs (the only endemic mammal species in the country) living at Laka Lodge, which is pretty nice because they are otherwise very rare to see. What is also nice is that the locals working at Laka Lodge will offer you a small banana to give them at around 5pm when they wake up from their day sleep. Then these little fur angels will very very gently take the banana from you and their hands are like soft little furry baby hands, except better because they won’t grab your hair and they can climb trees. If it were in any way legal I would be a lemur lady rather than a cat person. I know, controversial, but I said it. 

Lemurs on Moheli island, the Comoros

EXPLORING 

After checking out all the best spots in and around the Nioumachoua village with Abu, we asked him about renting a scooter. He said there was one guy in the village with an automatic scooter (we are not comfortable on manual motorcycles, of which there are many) and he’ll ask him if he wants to rent it. Later that day we found out it’s a go. Mister sole-owner-of-automatic-scooter is ready to make some money – a negotiated price of 20EUR for the day. After having the wheels pumped (manually), we were off – cruising through the jungle, catching glimpses of ocean views, stopping to feel the heat of the jungle and watch the bats soar between palm trees. Zipping around islands on scooters may be one of our favourite activities, all things considered, so we were happy to make a deal with a local.

Biking around Moheli island, the Comoros
Moheli island, the Comoros
Biking around Moheli island, the Comoros
Catching the Moheli Magic

Just to be clear, there no formal places to rent anything – you’ll have to ask around.

Some new friends we met at Laka Lodge could actually drive a manual motorcycle, so they went off cruising with one of the dive masters’ bike – for free! So there’s that, too.

Exploring Moheli island, the Comoros
Exploring Moheli island, the Comoros

THE 3 MOST SURPRISING THINGS ABOUT MOHELI ISLAND

1. NEAR COMPLETE LACK OF TOURIST INFRASTRUCTURE

It is really, very absolutely rural and undeveloped. 

We have been to many developing countries – places that are certainly rural in the true sense of the word. Places where you can’t drink the water, where you can’t flush the toilet paper, where trash management is non-existent, where little kids are working on weekdays, where bare concrete construction projects were left to be forgotten, where it smells like sewage, where it’s all goats and dust, or manky diseased stray cats and dogs. You get it. 

But we were unprepared for how little urban development Moheli island had. 

For example, when my bag was lost by Ethiopian Airways on the way there, we thought – no biggie, we will just buy some things at some local market. Sure, there was a market – selling 40 tomatoes, 20 onions, 15 houses of garlic, 7 coconuts and one giant pumpkin. People ran little shops from or close to their homes, of course. But they sold basic necessities and some niceties = bread, maize, beans, frozen chicken. Lollipops, chocolate bars and fried dough if you’re fancy. 

No restaurants, no coffee shops, no post offices, no pharmacies, definitely no air-conditioning, no guarantees, and sometimes not even electricity or running water. 

But, weirdly great cellphone signal. 

The primary school complex in Nioumachoua village
The primary school complex in Nioumachoua village
Nioumachoua village
The entertainment hubs in Mohelian villages: a tiled pavilion facing a locked TV (on the left). Men will get together to watch a movie, or football, or the news. They’d first just have to find whoever locked up the TV last time.
Nioumachoua village
The best view in Nioumachoua?
Nioumachoua village hospital
Signage at the main entrance to the clinic. And our favourite friend: the giant spiders of the Comoros. (Apparently they are harmless).

2. MOHELI: THE PLACE WHERE CARS GO TO DIE

It is apparently more convenient to just get more cars shipped in from the main island (in turn shipped from the Arabian gulf) than to get mechanics from Madagascar. Someone actually told us this. So everywhere – EVERYWHERE – are abandoned, scrappy, rusty old cars or car parts. Where they break, there they are left, so it seems. Even on one of the islands in the Marine Park, where there are no roads or houses or even people who actually live there – the front part of a car was left there to corrode in the sun. 

Moheli island, the Comoros

3. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN

You just don’t get the sense that anything is a sure thing on Moheli island.

For example, after a two-hour drive from Laka Lodge to the airport on our last day, we finally arrived at the check-in counter. We’ve been standing in a very short queue for a very long time, because things are manual and informal. There’s not a lot of people at the airport, which consist out of two rooms accumulatively smaller than our apartment, but it feels busy. Anyways, we get to the front and are told that we were on yesterday’s flight.

Huh what?

Nowhere does it say on our end that it was yesterday, but their booking clearly says it was. On top of that, nobody at the airport speaks English. Nobody. And if they do, this was probably a convenient time to pretend to not understand us, because were quite frustrated. And we were more or less ignored after that. Luckily we got the owner of Laka Lodge on the phone and handed it to the check in counter lady. They spoke for a bit and hung up. He then phoned the owner of the airline and I don’t know what deal was made, but we were suddenly let onto the flight.

In what. world. does an airport work like this?

Similarly, we heard of a tourist who had her flight cancelled because the president wanted to use the plane.

Moheli island airport, the Comoros
The main hall at Moheli’s airport

Speaking about unpredictability, let’s talk about those damn whales. They never showed up. We held out and were disappointed at first, but after a while on Moheli we were so distracted by the thick and unapologetically beautiful place – the sticky jungle and the blazing sunsets and the pulsing sea and its healthy reefs – and so busy meeting new people and making new friends, and breathing underwater and even dancing with a local dance troupe, that we forgot all about our disappointment.

We will just have to go back, no big deal.

Also how long can you stay disappointed when there are lemurs around to be loved on?

Moheli island, the Comoros
Moheli island, the Comoros
Moheli island, the Comoros
Moheli island, the Comoros
Moheli island, the Comoros

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So, clearly we’ve traveled a lot. And also, I have a Masters in Museum Studies. 

So I thought I’d combine my powers to bring you

THE ULTIMATE MUSEUM HACKS AROUND THE WORLD

Well, *ultimate* might be a strong word, but I think it’s pretty good.

The problem with museums is that they are big, they are threatening to burst with quantity and diversity, and yet when you’ve seen one French Romantic painting, you’ve seen ‘em all, right? (The answer is no.) But the point is they can get kind of repetitive. 

Ugh, museums, amirite? WRONG. You’ve been doing it wrong, you fool.

And unless you are some kind of crazy genius that knows everything about everything, half of the time you don’t know what it is you’re looking at or why it should be important and/or interesting. Or unless you get a guide, but guides are expensive, and audio guides are sometimes just that much more than you want to spend and most of the time they get pretty boring, which is why – and here’s my first hack!!!! = I often listen to the numbers set out for kids on audioguides, because it’s essentially the same information in half the time. Also, very often the kids’ version draws you in to visually engage with a painting far better (but sometimes you’ll have to ignore those melodramatic voice actors). 

But ya’ll still go to museums because it’s in the guidebooks. (also, they are the repositories of knowledge and memory of human history, and very often in super gorgeous ex-palaces or mansions, or something). 

But most of the time the problem isn’t museums, it’s that you’ve been going to the wrong ones (I know this for a fact). Because for every great big popular grand meta-narrative museum, there is a smaller, quieter, off-the-radar one that manages to tell personal or relatable stories that will make you immediately want to re-tell it to someone else. And for each one of those, there’s a real obscure one, hidden in the quiet or abandoned nooks of the city, holding bizarre secrets, or curious collections. And I know where to find them, and now you will, too.

So i’ve chosen a couple of major cities in the world, and for each I’ve given you one crucial tip for one of the big museums (because I know you’ll still go), but then for each there is a lesser known but not totally obscure museum, and then there is museum that is really off the beaten path – and these are the most rewarding. Trust me, I should know, I am Master of the Museums. Also, I’m super humble. 

But before we get specific, here are two hacks in general to always keep in mind:

MAIN HACK #1

Museums are often closed on Mondays. All around the world.

MAIN HACK #2

STORAGE:

Try not to go to Museums with large bags, or backpacks or certainly not suitcases. First of all, you won’t be allowed in, and then you have to waste time and energy to find and use the lockers (usually downstairs).

OR ,

DO GO TO MUSEUMS with your backpack for free/cheap storage – if you have time to kill but nowhere to store your backpack, because most of the big museums have lockers so you can leave it there, pop in to the museum (or not), walk around the city, come back and get it later! All for free, or a 1EUR deposit. Voíla.

PARIS

Quick Tip for the Big One:

Download the Louvre app and choose a self-guided tour (and remember your earphones). I’d recommend the Masterpieces tour – it’s €1 and about an hour long (including walking time between art works), and you’ll see all the big stuff. The louvre is big and overwhelming without a plan. 

The Museum Less Traveled: 

Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, or as we regular unfancies call it: The Museum of Hunting and Nature. I cannot in words describe how wonderful this museum is. It feels more like a the beautiful love baby of an art installation and a colonial cigar parlour. The history of hunting and nature is thematically divided amongst the luxurious rooms, each styled according to a certain animal and colour scheme. Within each room is a mixture of contemporary and historical art, furniture, installations, and expertly executed and curated taxidermy. It is interesting and creative and easy. It sucks to say, but three qualities often amiss in the big famous museums. 

USEFUL INFO: €8 will get you inside (€6 reduced), at 62 rue des Archives.

Ultimate museum hacks - Paris: The Museum of Hunting and Nature

Way of the Beaten Track: 

The Hunting Museum in Senlis. To stick with the theme, I recently added the Senlis hunting museum to my list of all-time favourite museums. It’s the village version of the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, beautifully and symmetrically curated, colour-coordinated, and lit with natural light flooding the French windows. It’s at once modest and totally extravagant, located in a little French countryside mansion in the castle estate near the forest, and every available bit of ceiling space has been occupied by mounted deer antlers, dated and detailed. 

BONUS: It comes with the most adorable little French town of Senlis, only a 30-minute bus ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport. 

USEFUL INFO: €6 get you in (€3,50 reduced). It’s at Place Notre-Dame; closed Monday and Tuesday, by appointment Wednesday through Friday, 10am to 6pm on the weekends.

Ultimate museum hacks - Paris: The Museum of Hunting in Senlis

LONDON

Quick Tip for the Big One:

Use the back entrance of the British Museum! The front entrance of the museum is usually crawling with all kinds of tour groups or anti-BP activists, and it takes long to get in as all bags have to be searched (refer to main hack #2 above), but the back entrance, on Montague Place, almost never has a line.

I am seriously confused why more people don’t do this.  

Bonus Tip: the Tate café has an incredible view of the Thames – break up your visit with a coffee on the 6th floor. 

The Museum Less Traveled:

The Monument of the Great Fire of London. Or, just The Monument, to those that know about it.

Okay, technically not a museum. Actually, it’s just a single Doric column on the very place where the Great fire of 1616 supposedly originated. But for a small fee you can go inside, climb the 311 steps to the top and get spectacular London views. Despite its central location – right by London Bridge, close to St. Paul’s – it’s missed by most (even Londoners). Plus, you get a certificate of completion on your way out, which is just the most adorable thing ever. 

USEFUL INFO: £4,50 gets you up (multiple reduced rates), at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Hill Street. Open daily 9am to 5.30pm/6pm (winter/summer times).

Ultimate museum hacks - London: The Monument to the Great Fire of London
Views for days est. 1677.

Way off the Beaten Track: 

Dennis Severs’ House – 18 Folgate Street. 

It was a tight choice between The Monument and this house museum, because they are equally off the beaten track, and actually this museum gets a bit of a queue in front because they only let like 10 people in at a time, but I would say this is a more obscure museum, but certainly one of my favourite museums ever (maybe second-favourite). 

It is a house museum set between 1724 and the early 1900s. And the residents – the French Huguenot silk-weavers – are still in residence. You’ll enter each room (in strict silence), just as the family had seemingly departed it, tea half-drunk, candle still it, with sounds emanating from rooms you just left or will enter next. 

It is a gorgeous portrait of working-class life in the Georgian and Elizabethan eras (the house becoming increasingly modern as the stories ascend), filled with an overwhelming bevy of intricate details (you’ll see the calendar flipped open on the day’s date, but centuries ago, and the kitchen is filled with actual food that would have been made at the time). It a feast for the senses, truly. 

The best time to go is during the Christmas season, when it’s decorated with gingerbread cookies and christmas trees and candles. 

USEFUL INFO: £10, or £5 reduced (CASH!). It’s open only Monday during lunchtime (12pm – 2pm), and Sundays (12pm – 4pm). Closed in July. The Christmas tour is more expensive (£17,50), from 5pm – 8pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and bookings have to be made online.

Ultimate museum hacks - London: Dennis Sever's House
Dennis Sever’s House made up all 19th/20th century traditional for the Christmas special

BERLIN 

Quick Tip for the Big One:

The best view of Berlin is from the dome of the Berlin Cathedral, which is included in the entry price. I am always surprised that it is not swarming with people up there, but then again, they are all too busy standing in lines for all the museums on Museum Island down below. 

BONUS TIP: You have to have to have to go at opening time if you want to visit the Pergamon Museum (the one that has the colossal gate of Babylon) and actually enjoy it. It gets flooded with people.

Bonus bonus tip: Try avoid the DDR/GDR Museum on the weekends, as it’s a family destination. 

Ultimate museum hacks - Berlin: The Berlin Cathedral
I made all my friends go up there

The Museum Less Traveled: 

You can visit the ex-HQ of the GDR (East Germany) Intelligence service, which is widely regarded to have been “one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies ever to have existed” (and that is a Wikipedia quote so you know it’s true.). 

Going to the actual building, in which the head offices were all left in tact, from where the German Soviet state conducted its infamous espionage makes for an eerie, and in turn impactful visit. It’s far from central Berlin, which is why it’s never too busy. 

Pro tip: This museum is not air-conditioned in the summer, so I would suggest avoiding it in the dire heat.

USEFUL INFO: €8 or €6 reduced. Open daily with English tours at 3pm Mon – Thu. Highly recommended audio guides at €2.  

Ultimate museum hacks - Berlin: The Stasi Museum
Where the GDR’s secret police spied on anybody and everybody.

Way of the Beaten Track:

The Museum of Things is located in central Berlin, but wholly obscure and tucked away in a courtyard alley in Kreuzberg. Organised as an open storage displaying ‘things’ (aka ‘stuff’ or products) that signal the culture of mass-production and industrialisation in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is essentially an eclectic and theatrical exercise in taxonomy. 

Expect to be persuaded by the magic of everyday ordinary things, a la Wes Anderson. 

Pro tip: it’s better with a guide.

USEFUL INFO: €6 will get you in (or €4 reduced), except on Mondays and Tuesdays when it is closed. 25 Oranienstraße.

Ultimate museum hacks - Berlin: Museum of Things
Guys. It’s a collection of mini furniture (I’m not crying).

ISTANBUL

Quick tip for the big one: 

Do not attempt to see all of the Topkapi in one standing go. Perk up with some hellishly strong Turkish tea at their café, which is one of my favourite places for tea-with-a-view (of the Bosphorus) in Istanbul. 

The Museum Less Traveled: 

The Istanbul Modern, on the bank of the Bosphorus would have been a good choice here, but my favourite less-popular museum is the Pera Museum, at the very top of the hill. Besides its positively sumptuous collection of 19th-century Orientalist art, hung on deep red walls, it also has a semi-permanent exhibition on the history of Turkish tea, the Islamic measurement system and structures, and impressive temporary exhibitions. My favourite has been a Giacometti retrospective and an exhibition about the history of public bathing in the Bosphorus. 

The best part of the museum? It’s small. All of the museum with none of the fatigue. 

USEFUL INFO: 25TL gets you in (10TL concession), except on Mondays when it is closed. At Meşrutiyet Caddesi No:65.

Ultimate museum hacks - Istanbul: Pera Museum

Way of the Beaten Track: 

The Museum of Innocence. 

OMG. 

This is my favourite museum ever. It’s absolute in its uniqueness and its ability to draw nostalgia from thin air. Created by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, alongside a very long novel of the same name, it’s a museum of objects around which a beautifully depressing love story is told in Istanbul’s modernising years of the 1970s and 1980s. You’ll get drawn in by the wall of cigarette butts – 4213 of them, smoked by the main character and sneakily collected by her head-over-heels suitor.

I loved this museum so much, I made it my mission to work there, which I did in 2015. 

Bonus: It’s located in one of the best neighbourhoods of Istanbul. 

NB: YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE READ THE NOVEL TO BE ABLE TO APPRECIATE THE MUSEUM. Don’t listen to those lies. The first time I went I hadn’t read it either. Also, good luck to you when you ever do try and read it.

USEFUL INFO: 25TL, or 15TL reduced. The museum is closed on Mondays, but open late on Thursdays. In Çukurcuma Street (get off at Tophane station).

Ultimate museum hacks - Istanbul: Museum of Innocence
Ultimate museum hacks - Istanbul: Museum of Innocence
Get lost in the magic of things.

WASHINGTON DC

Quick Tip for the Big One: 

Catch the Jazz in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art during the summers. Grab a jug or two of sangria and find a spot on the lawn, get tipsy, and then rent some city bikes at dusk. It’s a good plan, trust me. 

Bonus tip for all big ones: I had one of my favourite self-guided tours ever at the National Gallery of Art. How, you ask?

Well, a museum guard saw me snickering at the dog pooping in a church in a Dutch painting (IMPORTANT MUSEUM HACK: always look our for the pooping dog in Dutch church interior scenes), and asked if I liked weird stuff like that. (He may have used the word ‘uncanny’), he then proceeded to mark out all the strangest paintings in the gallery on my map, and off I went looking at all the most obscure things at the National Gallery. 

So my tip is: ask the guards what their favourite, or what the strangest, artworks are. 

Ultimate museum hacks - look for the damn dogs
Always look for the naughty dog in Dutch paintings

The Museum Less Traveled: 

I don’t think there is a Museum Less Traveled in DC. It is museum central – I worked there and I tried all of them, and they are all equally big and impressive. But I’ll say don’t miss The Museum of African Art, if you’re into that thing. It’s all underground, behind an unassuming front door, next to the Smithsonian castle. And honestly, probably the best collection and exhibitions of African art anywhere in the world. 

It’s big budget stuff for African art, which doesn’t happen very often.

Way off the Beaten Track: Refer to above; no such thing. Unless you leave the state and then it won’t count.

USEFUL INFO: It’s free, like all of the Smithsonian, and about halfway down the Mall at 950 Independence Avenue.

Ultimate museum hacks - DC: National Museum of African Art
Don’t overlook this modest entrance!

CAPE TOWN

Quick Tip for the Big One: 

Well, which is the big one? Cape Town is more about drinking wine and the mountains and oceans and the wild outdoors, but probably if you’re looking to go to a museum two big ones will pop up.

So, if it’s the South African National Gallery of Art…just go! This museum is so straightforward, pretty small and has fantastic modern and contemporary South African art. Also, it’s curated to reflect the South African high school art syllabus – yeah! It’s not for the empty enjoyment of you, tourist, but the enrichment of South African education (fist pump!). 

If it’s the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary African Art), save some souvenir dollars for the gift shop. You could get some cool things to take home that aren’t as kitsch and embarrassing as regular souvenirs tend to be.

Ultimate museum hacks - Cape Town: Zeitz MOCAA
The Zeitz MOCAA – it’s a whole thing.

The Museum Less Traveled: 

The Slave Lodge, but more specifically the exhibition on the first floor (up the stairs, Americans) on the relationship between protest and music in South Africa. This is a fan-f***n-tastic exhibition that I would honestly put on all tourists’ and locals’ must-see lists in Cape Town. Really, my friend Gera and I were blown away by this amazing one-room exhibit. And Gera has her PhD in museum stuff so who are you to argue?

USEFUL INFO: Free on Fridays! Free on commemorative holidays! Only R30 other days (except on Sundays, when it is closed). On the corner of Adderley Street and Wale Street.

Way off the Beaten Track:

The Heart of Cape Town Museum, or the Christiaan Barnard Museum, or however they like to call themselves. This is a weird one that most locals have never heard of and I absolutely love it. 

So there’s this South African guy, he’s a surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, and he does the very first heart transplant and they made a museum right where it happened. It’s in the Groote Schuur Hospital and Madame Tussaud’s made all the wax figures (except they are made from silicon, not wax) so the quality is bomb. 

USEFUL INFO: Admission is at 09.00, 11.00, 13.00, and 15.00 (because it starts with a tour and a video), daily. At Groote Schuur Hospital, Main Road.

Ultimate museum hacks - Cape Town: The Heart of Cape Town Museum
History frozen in time. Who can resist?

ROME: THE CHURCH EDITION 

Disclaimer, churches are the museums in Rome.

Quick Tip for the Big One:

You cannot enjoy anything in Rome with a sense of peace and quiet 3 hours after sunrise. So when you go to the Vatican City to see Saint Peter’s Basilica, drag your butt out of bed at the crack of dawn, and get there when it opens. One hour later and it will be swarming with other tourists just like you, except you persevered. 

Ultimate museum hacks - Rome: The Vatican

Quick Tip for the Big One #2:

It is VITAL that you buy your Colosseum ticket online. Otherwise you will face a queue that seemingly wraps around the world twice. The tickets were actually sold out online a few days before we planned on going, so we didn’t buy our tickets online.

IN THIS CASE:

BUY YOUR TICKETS AT THE ENTRANCE TO THE PALATINE HILL. Wow, I cannot stress this enough. The line here was only a few people long. You will get a timed entry for the colosseum, so if it’s only an hour or two from when you buy it don’t go into the Forum just yet, as you will be rushed and can only go in once with your ticket. Just hang around and wait for your colosseum time, then go to the colosseum queue 15 minutes before (you won’t be allowed in earlier) your entry time (you’ll bypass the really long queue to a shorter queue for people who already have tickets.). 

People must really learn how to use the internet, I cannot fathom that colosseum queue.

Ultimate museum hacks - Rome: Colosseum

The One Less Traveled:

The Jesuit church of Saint Ignazio was my very favourite church in Rome, nay, Europe, because it has the most theatrical spectacular tromp l’oeil dome. I love a good tromp l’oeil (fancy french word for making flat surfaces look 3D, like that sidewalk chalk artist guy from the internet). Basically, a flat circular canvas is painted to create the illusion of a grand dome. Then you can toss 2EUR or something in a coin thing and the ceiling lights up and it looks even more dramatic. I am all for this gimmick. 

The rest of the ceiling is pretty good (read: magnificent), too.

Ultimate museum hacks - Rome: The Jesuit Church of Saint Ignazio
The dome that never was, and other significant eye trickeries

And that more or less rounds up the ultimate museum hacks for major cities around the world. Museums are great, ya’ll – you just gotta be smart about it. Like,

  • check if it’s actually open before you go.
  • find a museum that display stuff that you might like. (For some reason this is not that obvious to people).
  • Have a plan. ‘To see stuff’ is not a plan, by the way.
  • Use the café! ‘Museum legs’ is a real thing.

Anyway, you get it.

And finally, to amend and appropriate something Van Gogh once said: if you hear a voice within you that says ‘you cannot enjoy museums’ then by all means go enjoy some museums and that voice will be silenced.

But Van Gogh quite literally also said: “You should in any case go to the museum more often.” So be more like Van Gogh.

Photographs of Rome, Senlis, and the view from the Berlin cathedral are my own. The rest I have sourced through google. You can do a reverse image search to see where they are from. 

We met Dario outside of a small three-floor concrete apartment block, the grey version of some pastel colour that I can’t seem to remember. We nodded and yessed and ofcoursed to all of his instructions inside the second-floor apartment – don’t run two energy heavy appliances at the same time, no smoking, no noise before 7am and after 11pm, because there’s a family with small children upstairs (the parents of whom ironically woke us up at 3am twice a week with the loudest …intercourse imaginable – you can ask us about this for more info) – and then left us there, our home just outside of Venice for the next 5 weeks. 

We decided to check out the fitness centre with a pool close to us, which we had identified on Google Maps a few weeks before we came. I think it was then, in that pool place, with the lady trying to help us in strictly Italian and us responding in only English and her yelling at us in Italian for stupidly trying to go through to see the pool without being in swimwear (she was still nice about it, I think), that it hit us what a sort of strange, uncanny episode we have started in our lives (we never figured out the pool situation, and never returned). 

The episode is ‘The One Where Annchen And Joel Live In A Venetian Suburb For A Month So That Annchen Can Do Some PhD Research’. I had just started my PhD at the University of Cape Town, and my project is about South African art at what is basically the world’s biggest exhibition. It’s called the Venice Biennale and it happens every two years in Venice. It was happening so we quickly made plans to go. I managed to secure some funding (who knew doing your PhD is mostly all about getting money for things you have no time to do because you are always asking for money to do it), and we secured an Airbnb apartment (enter supporting actor Dario of the first paragraph) for a sweet discounted deal – it was actually cheaper than our apartment at home. 

I spent a bulk of my time ‘capturing data’ (with no time to actually read what I am getting, there’s so much of it) in the Biennale library, on the eastern, less-touristed reaches of the island, and a bulk of my time doing the same at the Biennale archive, in the shade-less industrial area on the other side of the train tracks – the last bus stop on the mainland before the bridge over to Venice. The other times I set out to see as much art as I could, with a crumpled up map of the sprawling exhibition that goes all over the city. Some days Joel and I took off, and we drove 1 to 3 hours north to the Dolomiti, for spectacular hikes and to get away from the Venetian haze and the people; one weekend we even went to Rome and came back exhausted. There was time left over to go for evening walks, hang out with my mom and oom Thys when they visited us for a week, try every type of cheese and cured meat imaginable sourceable from any of the three grocery stores within walking distance, catch up with our London neighbours who came to town, and even play tennis at the local court (we are getting pretty good now, as in, we aren’t terrible). Most of my time I spent waiting for that damned 7/7E bus, though (please picture me yelling with ‘damn you 7E!’ with a booming, echoing voice into the distance and a raised fist.). 

Living in Venice: often the best part id getting out of Venice, like the time we went to Pompeii (highly recommended!).
We managed to squeeze in a visit to Pompeii, too.

After about three weeks, things felt familiar. I had a sort of routine. As much of a routine you could expect for an episode like this. That is also when the vertigo set in. I had spent most of my time at the library – situated within the main exhibition venue, a 30-minute vaporetto ride from the main bus station on Venice. As you must be well aware, the buses and trains to Venice stop right across the bridge, from there on out you take vaporetti (waterbuses), or navigate the maze of a city and let the bridges determine your route. I would get to the library, find a seat, and get to work, only to find the world swaying when I look up every now and then, as if the whole city is floating on the waves. 

Vertigo in Venice. Huh, I thought. Ya, that makes sense. This strange sensation dissipated in a few days. 

We were staying on the outskirts of Mestre, the nearest town on the mainland. It is small, and already feels like a suburb of Venice, so the edge of town really felt like a suburb. But a European suburb, as in equipped with all the essential services in walking distance and connected with public transport (or whatever semblance of public transport Italy claims to have). There was a free parking lot, always only with 4 or 5 cars, where we could park our teeny tiny Fiat Panda; there’s the  nice supermarket (shoutout to Cadoro), and the cheap one from which we stocked our mozzarella in bulk; there’s the friendly labrador that always came to say hello; the café bar where Joel would go work while drinking 1EUR cappuccinos; the local gelato place ‘Icebear’ with the owner who raved abut Cape Town because he had just gone windsurfing there; the basketball court; the pharmacy that had a condom vending machine outside with ludicrously high prices (catholic tax?); the tobacco shop for public transport passes; the ‘Fast Sushi’ restaurant for when we got tired of pizza. Further afield is ‘Positanos’ – where we ate so much that they offered us a free meal on our last night. 

After three weeks I felt like we had been there a whole while, getting to know this random nook of the suburb we were based in pretty well. We got a grip of the characters in town, the system, the aisles in the grocery store, the parents’ sex schedule upstairs (I wish I was joking), the automated toll points driving in and out of town, the way you had to wangle the key a few times to get the door to open, the graveyard of tennis balls behind court number 7, the time windows I could rely on on getting a bus (haha just kidding, you can never rely on getting a bus). 

So now we are back, and people look at us with stars in their eyes, asking: “How was Venice?”

And it’s hard to say. 

To be honest, we never liked Venice. We’ve been a couple of times for short trips before, and it’s not really a city we ever would jump to go to. There is no denying how pretty it is, absolutely. But it is also crowded, expensive, erratically smelly, impractical, and run by bands of dirty pigeons. I never liked it. Before. 

But the more time I spent in these labyrinthine streets (as they became less and less labyrinthine), and along the canals, and in the crowded waterbus, at morning, noon, sunset, night, as not a tourist but not a resident, the more ambiguous the city became. It was no longer a dirty smelly busy crowded expensive place (even when it still was) – it was a network of habitual routes, solid unmoving ground after an hour’s standing commute, the smell of jasmine right as you get off the waterbus, cold clean drinking water from ever-gushing public fountains, a ‘ciao’ and a ‘grazie’ from a familiar face, quiet corners away from the noise, home to many ‘can’t believe I’m doing this’ moments, and, of course, that exquisite Venetian light. Venice became increasingly hard to describe. And as this happened, it allowed me to experience it in a meaningful way, unconstrained by simply ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’. 

Living in Venice: It's hard to describe.

By the fourth week everything was so normal. We did things without thinking. I was tired when I got home in the evenings. I said the little bits of Italian you use to get by without thinking (so much so that I stumbled over my German when we got to Berlin a week later and I had to switch to a more familiar language). The one english-speaking staff member immediately stepped forward to help us when we entered the bakery or restaurant. Then all of a sudden our final week approached, and it felt like we had just arrived, like it was no time at all. And I guess, in the life cycle of Mestre, it was no time at all. We had been a blip on the radar, an unobservable sand kernel in the modern history of Mestre. We came in, collected data here and there, did some groceries, and left. Maybe some people started to recognise our faces around town just when we left without a trace. But surely we made no impact on this bizarre (to us) little suburb (except for, of course, the Positanos pizza place, where business immediately dropped 30% when we left). But we will never forget our fleeting, non-tourist-non-resident-somewhere-in-between life on the outskirts of Mestre. 

So that’s how Venice was. 

Fingers crossed that my doctoral or post-doctoral career allows me to repeat this little live-abroad trip in Venice aka Mestre again, but if you told me I would never have to wait for that 7/7E bus ever again, I will die a happy woman. 

Living in Venice: It's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: It's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: It's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: It's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: getting to the Dolomiti was one of our favourite things to do.
We took Emily and Angelo hiking in the mountains before seeing the city.
We managed to trick Angelo and Emily into the mountains despite the fact the Emily had never seen Venice before.
The DIY play park at Ai Pioppi's Osteria is equal parts danger and unadulterated fun.
We took my mom to a DIY theme park in the back of a restaurant shack about 40 minutes north of Venice. Do you have the stamina, or the medical insurance, to cycles yourself into a 360-degree loop?
Living in Venice: nothing wring with Italian wine!
There's some excellent wine tasting to be had in Venice.
Had one of the best wine tasting moments in the Venetian Hills.
Venice: the commute is a bit much in the rain.
In our second week of Venice we were greeted with cold and continuous rain, which allows for a *particularly* awful commute.
The magnificent Dolomiti is only between 1 and 3 hours' drive away from Venice.
The closest of the Dolomiti is just about an hour’s drive north, and from there things get increasingly more German and we can understand and communicate things again.
The magnificent Dolomiti is only between 1 and 3 hours' drive away from Venice.
Living in Venice: it's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: it's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: it's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: it's hard to describe.

We have been to many a mosque during our stays and travels, so I knew to cover up my legs, shoulders and hair for our visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman. I was wearing a long black dress, three-quarter sleeves, and had wrapped my scarf around my head to cover my hair. And yet still we were stopped at the entrance. The official pointed to my forearms. 

Dang, Oman. 

Okay, fair enough. 

The mosque’s official gift shop rents out scarves and abaya for this purpose, and he pointed me to the store. They had some nice scarves for hijab-purposes, but at around 3 OMR a pop for hire, they were way above what we would ever pay, simply because we are major cheapskates. 

SPECIAL INSERT

Abayas are kind of like long-sleeve tunics or dresses that will cover everything except for you hands. They look amazing and very impressive, I think, inside a grand mosque. And are probably very fun to wear (I wouldn’t know, because of our above-mentioned cheap status). Also, some of them have pockets and what more could you want?

But girls, they are not props! 

You are supposed to be covered when you wear them, so let them cover you. Don’t let your hair be coyly spilling out at the sides. This mosque isn’t your Instagram studio set and the abaya isn’t a costume. 


It was our first week in Oman and we were staying for a month. We had plenty of time to see the mosque without paying for rental hijab and abayas. So we returned a different day. I was wearing loose pants, a t-shirt, a denim jacket and my scarf wrapped around my hair and I was a-okay. Time to see this grand mosque errybody been talking about.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

DRESS CODE

Oman is a religious country, especially outside of the capital, and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is the only mosque that allows tourists to disrupt the locals worshipping. So the rules are strict: Cover it all. 

No arms, legs, chest, or hair. 

If you are wearing a shirt that is cut lower than your collar bone, make sure to cover up your chest with your scarf. 

Insta babes, this is really your chance to show whether you understand truly simple instructions!

WHAT’S INSIDE?

Oman’s most kickass Sultan ever, the man Qaboos himself, commissioned that Grand Mosque and it took almost seven years to complete the construction. It’s a top-shelf mosque. I wouldn’t even try and bury it down a list of ‘things you gotta see in Muscat.’ It’s up there. 

The library, the women’s prayer hall, the men’s prayer hall, the washing areas, the polished courtyards, the sparkling dome, the towering minarets, the beautifully landscaped gardens, the brilliant sandstone, the golden door knobs and sprawling carpets. Everything about the Grand Mosque is meant to impress, and it does. 

But the crowning glory is that chandelier. It was the largest chandelier in the world when the mosque was inaugurated in 2001. It’s 14 meters in length and weighs more than an elephant (literally) with all its 600,000 Swarovski crystals. 

But things move fast, opulence-wise, in the Arabian Gulf and the Qataris have since mounted a chandelier weighing more than 10,000kg more than that, so it’s the second-largest chandelier in the world now.

Bummer.

Still, it’s mesmerising.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Chandelier
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Chandelier

WHAT ABOUT PRAYER TIMES?

Lots of mosques around the world close for tourists at prayer times. The Grand Mosque is more straightforward. It is only open from 8am to 11am, daily, excepting Fridays, which is the most important day of prayer in the Muslim week in case you were wondering. 

MY KIDS ARE GONNA LOVE IT!

Lol no. 

Unless they are 10 years or older, which is apparently the age when kids become significantly less annoying in public according to Sultan Qaboos (he is not wrong?). 

To be clear: Kids under 10 are not allowed. 

The Short

WHERE: Sultan Qaboos St, ولاية بوشر، Oman

WHEN: Saturday to Thursday, 8am – 11am

DRESS CODE: Cover everything! Even when you are doing it for the gram (Can you feel my eye rolls?)

HOW MUCH: No money. 0 OMR. Nothing. Free.

In short, there’s not much to it. Definitely go. It is one of the most beautiful mosques we have ever seen, and worth at least a quick visit before you head out to the Omani wilderness. All you gotta do is remember to not show all that sexy skin, and you’re good to go.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

2018 was a wild ride at Autobahn speed: We moved from London to Berlin, moved apartments twice in Berlin, Mari Kondo’d our possessions five times in the first half of the year, did a whole lot of visa runs to Eastern Europe, quit a job, moved out and didn’t move in anywhere else, traveled straight for 6 months, haphazardly managed to cross the borders of 24 countries (many of them 2 or 3 times), walk on 4 continents, and took 60-something flights.

It was an erratic way of life, that was mostly by determined flight routes and discounts and visa regulations. It was a lifestyle that made us crave the thing we sort of abandoned a few years ago: stability, dependability, the safe embrace of a ritualised day-to-day. We came to realise that extensive travel isn’t an unattainable far away dream – it is just something you plan for that costs you other things that matter (friends, home, insurance, etc.).

So now we’ve finally settled back in Cape Town. We signed an 11-month lease, which a whole mindset switch – the idea that I can unpack all the things we have and find them in the same place 10 months later. And we are so happy to have a home, and a car, and a gym membership.

So to tie up these crazy loose ends of a year of travel, I’ve highlighted one memory of each country we’ve been to, and chosen one photo (not necessarily related to the memory). These memories range from throwing up in a mall, to sleeping under the stars, to overcoming fears with my family – just a whole lot of good, bad, and ugly memories. It includes one last trip that we took in 2019, as we both agreed that our year officially only starts 1 February, after diving in Mozambique.

Not included are memories from our trips home: California and Cape Town. These moments are so rooted in a specific history and intertwined with people and emotions – between snow on Christmas day and my brother getting married, I set it aside as an impossible feat.

The rest, however, have been uncovered. From January 2018 to February 2019, in chronological order:

Bansko, Bulgaria

The dust had finally settled after moving our life from London to Berlin in as few bags as possible. I had started the long trek to get my German residency visa, but it was arduous and there were many obstacles. I still had my Schengen visa, so it was okay, but it didn’t take us long to realise that I was gonna have to make a lot of visa runs to stretch my stay until my residency came through. 

It was with half-hearted intentions to learn how to ski for cheap, and whole-hearted intentions to get out of the Schengen state to somewhere close where I don’t need a visa, that we ended up in the fairly unappealing mountain resort town of Bansko, Bulgaria (after we figured out how to get the clamp off our wheel in Sofia). 

Bansko was blanketed in fresh white snow, and I just got a new bright orange sweater, and our new Fujifilm XT20, so it was perfect timing. We didn’t end up skiing (I’ll get there one day), but we spent a night going through all the delirious highs and lows of ice skating. Joel guided me chivalrously while I sometimes giggled feverishly, sometimes tensed up as Bulgarian tweens got too close, sometimes gripped the edges with white knuckles, sometimes felt like I was gliding confidently (though, I almost certainly never was). We paid for our boots with a credit card, and I remember we thought how wild it was that we can use a credit card in this random ass town in Bulgaria, but almost nowhere in Berlin. 

By the end of our long weekend I had not only successfully added 3 days to my Schengen visa, but also kind of learnt how to ice skate.

Bansko, Bulgaria


Bucharest, Romania

We probably would have canceled this trip if it weren’t a necessary visa run. Joel was under the weather and we were heading to Bucharest. It was a long weekend of loitering around the streets of the city, and going into as many bookshops as possible, while Joel recuperated in the Airbnb. 

But on the horizon beyond this shabby-cool city lies a lush tropical garden inside a giant crystal palace – Therme Bucharest, aka Europe’s largest wellness centre. The giant indoor and outdoor pools and jacuzzis (and the accompanying in-pool bars) all rest on a huge well of underground geothermal water. And for some reason it has not yet reached the average ‘things to do’ list, so it really is Bucharest’s best kept secret. And there we soaked away the troubles of threatening colds and the memories of a rather random long weekend in Romania.

The Therme, Bucharest


Kotor, Montenegro

Joel is the guy who gets his hair cut around the world. That is part of what makes Joel Joel. On four continents there are little snippets of Joel’s hair discarded in the trash somewhere. Well, Joel needed a haircut, AGAIN. And we had time during our lazy Balkan road trip, so he stepped into a nice-looking salon in one if the squares in the medieval city of Kotor, but was largely ignored by some very rude hair ladies. Forget you guys, we said. 

Later we saw a lady standing in a door in an alley, smoking a cigarette. Behind her – a barber’s chair. This your place, Joel, I said. He stepped in and maybe 3 words were exchanged before she pulled out the buzzer. ‘Haircut’ was one of them. She nodded, with a face showing she knows exactly what to do, and gestured towards the chair in the shop, which was basically the size of two closets put together.

And in one of those ‘pinch me is this real’ moments, we recognised the hilarity of Joel receiving a haircut from this lady without any explanation in the middle of Montenegro. 

It wasn’t the best haircut he’s ever had.

Fun fact: these are the countries Joel’s been groomed in

  • South Africa
  • USA
  • India
  • Thailand
  • Cambodia
  • Montenegro 
  • Oman
  • Germany
  • England 
  • Ireland
  • the Philippines
  • Indonesia
  • Guatemala
P.S. Kotor is also the unofficial cat capital of Europe


Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Everybody was aware of the war in Sarajevo, but for a long time no one realised that Mostar, the famous quaint Bosnian destination town, had been made a battleground. The Croats on the one side of the river, the Bosnians on the other, and the 16th-century Ottoman bridge spanning the two banks. A local filmmaker was documenting the war around his home, and managed to film the moment the Croats deliberately blew up the bridge. He transferred his film to tape, traversed underground tunnels to get out of the war zone, then traveled on horseback all the way to Sarajevo. Here he handed the tapes over to the BBC, who broadcasted the destruction abroad. That’s how the world found out about the battle in Mostar. 

We met him and his wife in Mostar, when we stayed in their house. 

End of the road in Blagaj, a little village close to Mostar


Zagreb, Croatia

I was starting to feel nauseous by the end of our Balkan road trip, so on our last day in Zagreb we decided to just take it easy. Joel looked up the movies and saw Ready Player One was on at the mall – cool, let’s just do that. Wait a second, it’s a 4-D movie?? Awesome! Let’s definitely do that, great idea!

False.

Terrible idea. 

I stumbled-sprinted to the bathrooms halfway through being shook around in my seat and threw up in the toilets. After regaining my strength, I endured the rest of the movie from the floor, as all the seats were swirling around and up and down. On our way out, the concession stand vendors wouldn’t give me an empty box, and I barely made it to the trash can next to the escalators, while Joel held my hair back and a group of Croatian teenagers laughed at me. 

I read the book a few months later and it’s way better than the movie. 

Plitvice Falls National Park, Croatia


Ras al Hadd, Oman

We were jogging behind our Airbnb host at night in the dark on a beach in the Eastern reaches of Oman. He stopped and asked if we’re ready. We nodded excitedly. Then he dimly lit the huge giant turtle from behind. She was burrowing the 100-something eggs she had just lain, kicking so strongly that the sand flew against our legs as we edged closer. I forgot and suddenly remembered that I was still holding a baby turtle in between my forefinger and thumb, kicking furiously, that Salem picked up on the road towards the beach. He said, let’s go, and we followed him to the lapping waves. keeping an eye on a menacing crab nearby, he said, ok let it go, and I placed the baby turtle in the black water, which was now also lit up with blue phosphorescent plankton, like stars. 

That was some kind of magic Arabian night. 

The Bimmah sink hole, Oman


Cappadocia, Turkey

I’ve tried over and over to convey the feelings of a hot air balloon ride over the alien Cappadocia landscape. A thousand words can’t do it justice. But equally as tactile a memory was waking up before the crack of dawn to see them float to the sky. 

We had gone to Cappadocia once before, and stayed a cave house that used to be winery thousands of years ago (casual.). When you step out of your room onto the little porch, there’s a big flat area where the balloons take to the sky almost every day of the year. Best view in town. 

So when my mom decided to join us for our second time, we booked the same place, not telling her that it is also the site of the balloon launch. I hurriedly knocked on her door one the first early dark morning, telling her to grab her camera and come look outside. She pulled on a sweater and followed me outside, to be surprised by a field of giant balloons inflating with hot gas right on our doorstep. Isn’t that just the most satisfying feeling? Surprising someone with a view so grand? 

And there we stood quietly watching the sky slowly turn pinker and bluer and lighter, watching the balloons silently drift up and up and farther away, all the while with the urgent feeling of anticipation that tomorrow we will be in those baskets, floating thousands of feet away from here. 

P.S. This is the ultimate guide you’ll ever need for going to Cappadocia

The view from our Airbnb. Insert hot air balloons here.


Toronto, Canada

It was a hop and skip in Toronto for work before heading to California, and nothing much happened, but we likely won’t forget the moment we opened our hotel room and saw the most bizarre hotel view of views. We had no idea that the Marriot in Toronto was actually built into the city’s baseball stadium, and only found out when the uber pulled up to the hotel foyer. We’ve been upgraded to some executive whatever suite, we were told. 

The view is the baseball stadium. You can literally book this room for a game, and watch the match from your bed. Or the little living room. Needless to say, it made the list of the best places we stayed at in 2018. 

Room with a view, Toronto


Saint Petersburg, Russia

Russia was probably, no definitely, the country that has been my longest-standing bucket list destination. Ever since I was little, before I knew about bucket lists or visas or planes or borders, I wanted to go to Russia (find out here why). And in a shocking turn of events we ended up in Russia for the FIFA World Cup.

We got tickets to one game: Russia vs Egypt in Saint Petersburg. Of course we were rooting for Egypt. Not least because I am from the African continent, but mostly because of Mohammed Salah. We would proclaim our support to all Egyptians we managed to run into, but we had no way to show our support. We had no golden pharaoh hat, or black red and white face paint, or Egyptian flags. The face painters at the stadium weren’t offering the Egyptian flag, and all the Egyptian merch was sold out. We were lamenting this tragedy all the way to the stadium, when suddenly, from the heavens above, an Egyptian flag literally flew into my hands. We couldn’t believe it. The Egyptian gods have provided, and we waved our flag proudly despite the struggle. 

Egypt lost. 

We consoled the two Egyptians next to us as best we could, packed our little heaven-sent flag away, and, being the loyal people we are, immediately started chanting ROS – SI – A, ROS – SI – A on the way home. It was a wild warm night in the streets of Saint Petersburg and we basked in the unadulterated exuberance until the small hours of the morning when we watched the canal bridges draw in the forever-dusk of the never-ending Russian white nights in June.

The Saint Petersburg bridges draw around 2am, and the sun never truly sets in summer.


Pialdier, Italy

It was a lazy afternoon, and we were all lounging around, discussing this and that when our airbnb doorbell rang. We looked around, and one of us slowly opened the door. A middle-aged man started speaking and gesturing in Italian, showing no signs of recognition of the confusion in our faces. When he paused we said, sorry, we don’t speak Italian. He replied in Italian. No sorry, we mumbled and exchanged sympathetic glances. He continued in Italian making sweeping motions with his arms, exclaiming, oover! oover! 

Ooohhhhhhhhhhh, I clicked. Hoover? 

Si, si! Oover! 

Guys, he is selling hoovers. Vacuum cleaners. 

No way, we all said. 

Yes way. 

Sorry, we said again, no italiano. 

Ah, si, si. He carries on in Italian and eventually excuses himself. 

Wow, we said as he left, how is there a universe where a door-to-door vacuum salesman is still practicing and in a teeny tiny ass Italian mountain town? And how are we in that universe right now? 

The Sanctuary of Madonna Della Corona, built on a rock face outside of Verona


Reutte, Austria

If Korene and Dathan weren’t pushing Ryder (11 years old) to do it, I would have opted out of the 114-meter high suspension bridge near the Austrian-Bavarian border. We stumbled upon this crazy thing on our way to the fairytale castle Neuschwanstein when we made an unplanned stop by castle ruins on the side of the road (casual). 114 meters are a lot when you can see the little trucks on the highway passing underneath your feet through the steel grid bottom. Also, it is very movey!!! Whoever built this thing does not get my approval. Also, 400 meters is a long way to walk when all of the above points are in play. 

The best part? You have to walk all the way back when you’ve finally made it across alive. 

But what better way to face your fears than with the most supportive family in the world (and with your 9-year-old niece skipping over like nothing is the matter, because God neglected to put rational fear in her little heart.) 

Despite all the possible trauma, silently facing the suspension bridge is one of the fondest memories of the family visit to Europe. 

Korene taking in the Alps in Zell am See, Austria


Munich, Germany

I was very excited to show everyone (our visiting Californian family) the Hofbräuhaus in Munich. I went there when I was 11 with my mom and my brother and I remember the place like a Kandinsky painting.

It was very busy. (I was relieved – the idea of having them see it quiet seemed sad to me). Waiters were flying by, not affording us even one look, and all the tables in our view were taken. We sort of stood around amidst the chaos aimlessly. 

Then an old man with a long white beard beckoned us to his table. We squeezed in next to him and some other tourists. These tourists had just received their order of sausage, and the German man watched them patiently, before he grabbed their plate and started cutting at it. They stared at him, not knowing what to do. After he had taken the skin off the sausage, he passed it back to them, went to the waiters’ station, opened the drawer and brought them pack some packets of mustard. How adorable. 

Our drinks had come, and I asked Kami (9) to lift up her mini kids’ Stein for a photo. The old man reached over and took the drink from her, put it down, and passed his giant Stein towards her. He lifted up his palm, as if to say, there – no that’s a photo. Kami, who – along with Ryder (11) and mom Korene – seemed just a bit shell-shocked at all this German beer-drinking commotion – started warming up to this strange old man soon after. 

Good thing I was the family member sitting next to him, because he only spoke German. I told him my memories of coming here, when I was Kami’s age. I asked him if he comes here often.

Everyday, he says and shows me his stack of table reservations in his jacket pocket. 

He gathered some menus, wrote ‘München’ and the date on the corners, and hid them in his newspaper. When you go, he said, you have to take these menus, as a souvenir.

Won’t they stop me at the door?

No, just say I gave them to you. 

Lol, ok.

The food came, and he jumped up as soon as he saw Korene eating a Brezel without mustard. Off to the waiters’ station he goes again, helping himself to the mustard sachets. He handed them to her. Gesturing with his hand – that’s how you eat them. 

He told me all about the beerhall and the war, how everything was bombed in except for the room we are sitting in. 

When it was time to go, he joked, no – Joel and Dathan can’t leave before they try the dark beer! (Joel and Dathan almost got another beer just to satiate him.)

He smiled for a photo with me, and wished us well as we left. 

The Hofbräuhaus Angel, we said. 

We half expected to see his painting hung on the wall along with men from another century. Maybe he is the ghost of one of the founders. 

Whoever he is, it seems that he spends his days drinking beer and making sure the tourists at his table take the skin off their sausages and eat mustard with their pretzels. 

May the Hofbräuhaus Angel look after you when you go, too. 

The Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany


Singapore

We noticed some funny signage when we went hiking in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. It showed thunder and lightning, and a man running from underneath a tree as a branch came falling down. We laughed at the extremity of this. 

Fast forward two months when we touched back on Singapore and convinced my cousin, Hendrik, to join us from Malaysia. We returned to the Nature Reserve for the same hike. We had just crossed the suspension bridge when the rain gently started coming down. Good – a relief from the pressing Singaporean humidity. We passed a ranger’s lapa, but voted to carry on – the rain wasn’t that bad and we didn’t have long to go. The shelter was well out of sight when it started pounding, together with a frightfully loud bang from the now-thunderous clouds. We put on a speed walk, hurrying down the wooden walkway for the next ranger’s lapa. We were almost there when a large, thick broken off branch landed with a thud right in front of Joel. Omg. We started jogging, finally we made it and squeezed under the little roof with the rest of the hikers. We waited out the storm for about 40 minutes until the rain had subsided to a drizzle again. 

Damn, Singapore. That’s aggressive. 

We didn’t find that sign so funny anymore. 

The Super Tree Grove – the safer Singaporean jungle


Nusa Penida, Bali

We were on our way to see yet another gorgeous beach on Nusa Penida, the stunning island just a little bit east from Bali. It was a long ride – two people on a scooter for one hour equals about three car hours – and towards the end we drove through a village, where about seventy people (though I am historically bad at guesstimating, so it may be more or less), all men, were drumming around under a large palm-roofed lapa. I saw a flash of feathers above their heads and immediately recognised it as a cock fight. Omg, cock fight, I said, and we parked the scooter. 

We approached the group hesitantly. Cock fights are normally practiced clandestinely, though I haven’t seen any kind of authority on the island since we arrived 4 or 5 days ago. Fights are occasionally legally allowed during certain religious ceremonies, but it is illegal to gamble. Well, the group was in the bet-taking stage of the fight when we joined the outskirts of the circle.

Two men were yelling things and taking large bills from the men in the round, whilst another guy was making notes in a ledger book. While the bets were taken, the two cocks that were to fight were being psyched out to each other. Then the circle became silent. A bell announced the commencement of the first round and the cocks were sort of pushed to each other to begin the battle. The crowd ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ and applauded when the cocks made giant jumps or huge slashes, sending feathers flying. The bell rang – end of the round. 

It was easy getting into it.

We kind of agreed we wouldn’t take photos, in case people get angry. But the men on the side were sending us friendly vibes (Balinese people are hands-down THE friendliest people on the planet), so I took out my camera and asked if it was okay. Not only did vigorous nodding affirm my question, but the crowd basically opened up so I can stand closer to the front. People were holding out their chickens proudly for photos.

The cocks are patched up and the blades are tightened before the second round. 

We stayed a couple of rounds, forgetting almost completely what we were busy doing in the first place. We almost started betting when we decided we should get going. We hopped on our bike and continued, our normal day plans having just been interrupted by a village cock fight.

A prize rooster proudly held for a photograph in Nusa Penida


Malacca, Malaysia

In one of the more bizarre, out-of-place moments, we found ourselves sitting in an air-conditioned room in Malacca, Malaysia, with my cousin, Hendrik, and his girlfriend, Ameline, waiting for a band of huskies, and having paid for it. It’s called the Huskitory and when Joel saw it on the ‘things to do’ list on Tripadvisor we all laughed really hard, saying how weird it is and that we have to do it. I have tried cat cafés, and I don’t love it. But a room full of huskies? I mean…yes, sign me up. 

We were given the rules, and then from outside around the corner heard a spectacular chorus of barking fast approaching. And through the door came leaping the huskies, barking, almost tripping over each other, they seemed so excited. We laughed so hard and so much.

Little did we know they were excited for snacks, because, they do not give a flying F about you if you don’t have a little bag of snacks that you can buy from the Huskitory. That’s how they get you. 

So, yea of course we bought a snack baggie, and made some huskies very happy. They even drew blood when Ameline was trying to feed them. 

Eventually the huskies were ushered out, and the puppies ushered in. One puppy was passed around carefully around the room to be held – he wasn’t allowed to touch the floor (?) – it was a strange but endearing experience. 

We later learned that they (all the dogs) just live upstairs. We felt weird about it, but the dogs look good and get a lot of friendly attention. 

Malaysia can be a confusing place. 

The Huskitory, Malaysia


Oslob, Philippines 

Somewhere in the shabby little town of Oslob on Cebu island is a shabby little karaoke bar. We were sitting at a table with our airbnb host and our driver, drinking the local beer and watching the band set up. Our host said we should rather listen to the band, because they take song requests – she seemed super excited about this. Plus, the karaoke room was already occupied by one guy singing Filipino songs. Cover bands is a Filipino culture. It seems that almost everyone sings or plays an instrument, and this band was actually pretty good! They sang most of our requests, but we had to leave before I could find out of they were gonna do ‘Kiss from a Rose’ (probably not), because we were getting up early the next morning to dive with whale sharks. 

Diving with whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu island

Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt

If you look up what the best dive sites in the world are, the Shark Reef and Yolanda Wreck in Sharm el Sheikh will show up on any of them. And this year we got to dive there for a second time. The dive starts with the colossal Shark Reef and winds around to the wreck of Yolanda, which sank their in 1980 with her load of bathroom supplies – toilets and basins are scattered along the reef. The descent of this dive is my favourite memory of our trip to Sharm this year.

We dropped down into the striking deep blue, deeper and deeper, and deeper. The blue around us was so vibrant and all-encompassing that without each other, the other divers, we surely would lose all sense of meaningful direction. Save for the Shark reef, which wraps around like a giant Poseidon’s pillar, stretching all the way down, 750 meters down to where the sun’s light doesn’t reach. I felt a response which could be loosely describe as speechlessness until we hit 25 meters, and started working against the current, which we expected would have gone the other way. 

I am confident I won’t forget sinking into that deep blue that day.

We also did a day trip on a bus to Cairo, which is 7/8 hours’ drive from Sharm el Sheikh, and really chaotic and not advised. Read what that was like here

The Pyramids of Giza


Istanbul, Turkey

We had a day’s layover in Istanbul, the apple of my eye, so we organised to hang out with our friend Dilan. It was a red eye flight though, so I made sure to mention the date and time that we will be arriving. These things can be confusing when you plan around midnights – is it early in the morning of the next day or late the night of the previous day? Whichever it was, we arrived at Dilan’s flat at around 5 or 6am. She flashed us big Dilan-smile from her window above and buzzed us in. She welcomed us in her flat, and made us feel at home, and we took a power nap before the best breakfast we’ve ever had in our lives (amen). It turns out she was expecting us only the next morning. But that feeling, of feeling so welcomed back and  naturally at the right moment in time and, even though to her we were 24 hours early, that’s a special feeling. That’s the feeling of a friendship that is so right in all the right ways. 

Just hanging out in Dilan, eating our weight’s worth in menemen (the best breakfast in the world) and rice pudding and walking along the Bosphorus on a typically sunny day with cats brushing up against our legs in the park, that was one of our favourite days in Istanbul ever.

The one and only Dilan and the world’s best breakfast


Masirah island, Oman

We spent a couple of nights on a literal desert island, off the southern coast of Oman. Masirah island is home to a couple of 1000-strong villages, all clustered around an army based on the northern part. The rest of the island is a mountainous desert, with barely anyone in sight. With the help of a dang good Turkish restaurant in the populated north, we managed to camp 3 nights in the isolated south, where we had, for the first time in weeks in Oman, a sunset over the sea. 

We won’t ever forget the first night. When the dusk had changed to darkness, and we finished our 2-minute noodle dinner, the stars started glittering. It was just something we could never have anticipated. The milky way rolled boldly out above us, silver and blue. We rolled our foam mats out on the sand, and watched the sky explode with shooting stars as we listened to Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium album. 

Then the stars lost just a bit of their shimmer as the moon rose blood red behind us, over the darkened desert. 

We often tell people that spending a month in Oman is a total time-warp. But the pace of life on the desert island is something so indescribably slow and serene. And this night seemed to last forever. 

Our little tent under the stars on Masirah Island, Oman


Havana, Cuba

We picked the hottest day in Cuba to be our beach day and we decided on going to Playa Bucarano – deemed to be more low-key, mostly for locals, and the best Havana beach for snorkelling, which is always Joel’s number one priority.

It was definitely low key. There was a handful of loitering locals, and 3 or 4 more tourists on the small bay. We asked about renting snorkelling gear. There was a lot of yelling to each other in Spanish; this guy orders that one somewhere; he delegates it to two other people; more shouting from the first guy, etc. We are given our gear, and ask where to pay. They point to a guy under an umbrella. We head there, but he seems confused. More passionate yelling. 

A different group of yelling has originated now, and it is becoming more urgent and intense. People seem to be getting mad, and we are nervous that we caused some of it. One guy is yelling so hard, his vein is throbbing in his thick neck, and his face has gone red. 

‘What’s the matter?’ we ask the lady that speaks English. 

‘Huh?’ 

‘Is something wrong?’ 

‘Oh. no, no worries. Just Baseball.’ 

Wow, okay. 

We thought she was lying because how can people get so upset so quickly about Baseball.

But the next day on our walking tour, our guide told us about the public squares in Havana. You see the same old men coming to the same benches, he said, everyday to talk. They get really mad and always fight about stuff. Not politics. Baseball. 

So maybe she wasn’t lying – baseball seems to be a huge freaking deal in Havana. 

Our ride for a day in Havana


Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

We reluctantly got ready to go to a club for New Year’s Eve. The reason we like traveling over New Year’s is to escape that ‘we gonna have an epic night’ expectation. We’ve always vehemently kicked against the expectations to have so much fun on NYE. But the group of friends we were with was fully buying into this and were psyching each other out. They were ready to party; we would’ve rather stayed and drank wine and watch the fireworks from the porch.

Our mood turned instantly when we got to the teeny bar. A band was playing all kinds of Latin music foreign to us, and Angelo, our Guatemalan neighbour from London, had started pouring the ‘Agua de Fuego.’ We danced and drank and danced the night away. On the stools and the tables, on the street, and also the dancefloor. At midnight Joel lit his Cuban with a sparkler that the bar had handed out to everyone, and we spilled outside to watch people set off fireworks in the street. 

We topped our night with 1am tacos, and called it a year. 

Emily and Angelo, and Joel and I headed home in a tuk-tuk, right after we made sure the two single guys found their next bar. 

It was euphoria; it was, without a doubt, our best new years eve ever. 

Watching the sunset over the volcano of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala


Mexico City, Mexico

We met our Eduardo and Diana in front of Arena Mexico and they graciously took charge of speaking the Spanish and getting the best tickets they could. They suggested getting something at the souvenir stalls here, because it has the most variety. So we bought a t-shirt for my brother. 

We made our way inside the arena and took our seats up in the gallery. 

The Arena is huge, seating a couple thousand people all around the ring. 

We were so damn excited to real. life. lucha. libre.

People started filling in (lots of families!), and Eduardo and Joel went to go get some beer from the guys at the cooler boxes scattered around the arena, while the lights started flashing and smoke machines whirring as the first group of masked fighters ran to the stage under big fanfare. 

Lucha libre is professional Mexican wrestling, (Think Nacho Libre with Jack Black), and it’s AMAZING. A cocktail of bad acting, breathtaking gymnastics, and brute strength, it’s a feast for the senses. And the atmosphere is contagious – even without speaking Spanish, we were immediately drawn into the ethos of each character and each match and each manoeuvre. We gasped when the good guys somersaulted themselves on the bad guys, booed when the bad guys clapped back, and cheered when little people joined the fight (always on the good guys’ teams). Obviously it’s all show, but sometimes they slap each other in the face resulting in such a sound you’d think they definitely burst a eardrum from the impact or something.

Two hours of absolutely unforgettable entertainment. 

A cenote in Playa del Carmen, Mexico


Tofo, Mozambique

The dive site is called Manta Reef. It’s a 40-minute ride out to sea along the coast on a small 3-meter boat on seas that are almost never calm and serene. But the mantas go there to be cleaned so often that we were almost guaranteed to see manta rays. The site is amazing. 

But no mantas. 

It was a bit disappointing despite the gorgeous dive site. 

Then on the way back, there was a big commotion. Someone had spotted something in the water. A whale shark.

We all grabbed fins and masks and jumped in. 

And there it was. A smallish whale shark – 5 or 6 meters in length – gracefully swimming towards us. When you chance upon a whale shark in the wild, time stands still. It glided past me in slow motion, I felt like my jaw dropped, but I was biting into my snorkel. Then the hard work began. 

Swimming at full speed, stopping to catch my breath every now and then, always keeping my eyes on it – its silver matt skin, the white dots scattered like stars in the sky, the gash in its tail where a boat’s motor broke the skin. Every now and then kicking furiously to get out of its way when it made large circles. 

One moment I saw our dive master had slipped on a tank and he was swimming 10 meters below, under the shark, then I looked back to see who else was coming, and the next moment it was gone. I surfaced to find myself 200 meters from the boat, with everyone inside. I felt as though I could’ve followed that whale shark all the way up the Mozambican coast.  

That’s a 2018 travelogue of memories right there.

It is wildly surreal thinking back on this unrooted, unsettling, unbearably exciting year. I am not sure I have the stamina to do another one of these years in 2019, or 2020, but for 2018 it was perfect.

And for every memory in every place there’s a million more to look back on whenever I need a pick-me-up from our much-needed and much-craved daily routine.