During 2017, I developed diarrhea on three continents. Vomited in two countries. Got lost in nine cities. Missed the bus in one village. Fell down hard in the dark and spilled blood on the floor in paradise. Flew LOT Airlines on a one-way ticket that cost more than a round-trip. And I realized three life goals: ate moose and reindeer steak, watched dragon boats race, visited the country where the Christmas tree was invented. This year for my annual Year in Review, rather than recap the year’s journey, I’m going to share a number of fun facts I learned along the way in various countries throughout the year.
Although perhaps not politically correct in some circles, I’m going to admit I rather like the idea of adding a country to my list of “been there, done thats”; however, bagging countries has never been one of my goals when I travel. Actually, I never even kept a tally until not long ago when I read about a young woman who was the “first blonde” to visit every country in the world. Turns out she wasn’t, but that’s another story. I’m generally more of a long-term traveler, staying a month or two or six in one place, and sometimes returning to places I’ve stayed numerous times before; however on some trips, I may visit a number of countries if they’re close together as I did this year in the Baltic States.
During 2017, I spent over two months in Bali, a place I have visited half-a-gazillion times since 1987. I don’t travel to tick countries off a list; I travel to have fun, I travel to learn, I travel to embrace other cultures and people and cuisine. I travel to discover who I am and how far out the edge might be. And I travel because I feel way more like “me” when I’m vagabonding the world. I like the ‘traveling me’ better than the ‘stay-at-home me’—the traveling me is much cooler. He wears berets, neck scarves, rudraksha-beads. And he does yoga. He sits outside his comfort zone for hours. And smiles. And he’s a much safer driver. So, maybe grab a cup of coffee, or afternoon tea, or pomegranate juice, sit back and let me offer you a few fun facts I gleaned this year in foreign lands while wearing my nomad beret.
Penestanan Kaja, Ubud, Bali
The fun fact I learned in Bali was not as wonderful as one might desire. Like they say, there is good and bad in everything. Because it was the dry season, I decided to leave my de rigueur rain poncho at home; it rained every day—a lot. Lesson relearned and fun fact number one: always pack the poncho for Bali, no matter the season, no matter what your weather app is predicting.
The interesting fact is this: Bali has a new visa rule for 140 countries. If you’re from one of those countries and plan on staying 30 days or less, you get a Free Visa—no muss, no fuss, no fee; they stamp your passport, and you walk to a taxi or trishaw. Another fun fact about your Bali visa: if you’re planning to stay more than 30 days (or you’re from Djibouti), you need to pay for a “Visa on Arrival” which can later be extended for another 30 days.
Here’s the not-so-fun fact: the average-tourist stay in Bali is like 8 days. If you arrive and are unaware of the new visa rule, and the customs guy waves you on and informs you that you no longer need to pay for a visa on arrival—because the customs guy probably thinks you are one of those average-short-term-8-day tourists, so he doesn’t bother to ask how long you’re staying, then what happens is—wait for it—you CANNOT EXTEND YOUR FREE VISA, and you must fly out of the country to Singapore and then back in again to get a new visa or pay 300,000 rupiah per day (US$21). I learned this the fly-to-Singapore-hard way.
Some travelers say the best airport in the world is London Heathrow. Other travelers claim it’s Central Japan International just outside Nagoya. Still others say it’s the newly-constructed Hamad International in Qatar, which cost US$16 billion to build. My personal favorite is Schiphol in Amsterdam, which in stark comparison to Hamad was built in 1916, but harbors a library and also a branch of the Rijksmuseum that is free to the public 24/7.
Although Amsterdam is my favorite (partly because I harbor Dutch blood and partly because Schiphol fosters people-watching from my favorite café near the arrivals exit), I would have to say that Changi Airport in Singapore is perhaps the nicest: it has great architecture; it’s so clean, you could eat lunch off the floor; it has free massage and sleeping chairs; movie theaters; spas; a wild, super-fast corkscrew slide, the tallest in Singapore. But get this: Changi’s Terminal 3 houses a Butterfly Garden that flaunts a waterfall, lush tropical greenery, a profusion of flowers, and something like 1000 butterflies.
Another upside to the Bali visa fiasco is that if you are the kind of traveler who wants to tick off another country, this is a legitimate, face-saving method for doing just that, and it turns the downside of Bali visas for you into an upside—not so for me though, as I’ve been to Singapore literally dozens of times, and I’d prefer to sit and watch rice grow than fly anywhere.
Advice du jour: if you’re going to get sick in SE Asia, get sick in Singapore.
Abu Dhabi at one time was known as the “richest city in the world.” The city was planned back in 1967, and designed for a population of 40,000 inhabitants. Today, there are over 1 million residents in Abu Dhabi, and close to half are Indians; the other half are Filipinos. One quarter come from Nepal. Another quarter are from Bangladesh. An eighth from Afghanistan. About 15% are local Emiratis. The remaining expats come from 120 various other countries (FYI: I was never good at math).
Fun fact number two: Abu Dhabi has been slowly and consciously positioning itself as a first-class tourist destination over the last decade or so, perhaps preparing itself for a time when the oil runs out in a hundred years. This year the country turned 46 years old. Next year, the city will begin charging a 5% VAT on sales. And the 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour, a professional bicycle race, attained UCI World Tour status, with pro riders like Mark Cavendish and Caleb Ewan competing. One stage of the Abu Dhabi course ran through Reem Island, a high-rise residential zone just off the main island of Abu Dhabi, and the route ran right beside the apartment I was living in. During the fourth and final stage of the race later that week, something that “never” happens in Abu Dhabi happened: it rained. They don’t call it a desert for nothing.
The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961, was the method chosen by the Soviet Union to separate the areas controlled by France, Britain, and America from the zone controlled by the USSR. A literal façade of the Iron Curtain, well over a hundred people were shot and killed as they tried to cross to the other side during its 28 years. Sometimes in defiance, people living on the west side would toss their garbage or broken furniture over to the east side—a seemingly bold gesture of civil disobedience, until you stop to wonder who had to clean up the mess on the east side, certainly not Soviet soldiers, eh?
Another fun fact is that people on the west side covered the wall with spray paint and graffiti. There was none of that nonsense on the east side. You can still see the remains on the west side today—I don’t read German, but I’m pretty sure I know what most of it says. If you look at the wall strictly from an artistic viewpoint, it appears as a nicely designed structure—thick, sturdy architecture; an aesthetically pleasing, rounded top; vastly utilitarian.
Finland bears a number of interesting fun facts you wouldn’t expect. Ice skates were invented by the Finns. The world’s first internet browser meant for public use was first invented here. The Finns have also invented some rather strange sporting events; perhaps the weirdest is the Wife Carrying Championships. Right, the competing couple stands face to face, then the husband kneels and slips his head between his wife’s legs and slings her upside down over his shoulders—booty against the crown of his head, her feet crossed in front of him, her head dangling down more or less at his waist behind him (both husband and wife try not to eat beans before a race). The husband runs carrying his wife like that while navigating an obstacle course of barriers to hurdle and water features to plunge through. Winning is no mean feat for either of them. Luckily, Finnish women are some of the slimmest in the world.
Perhaps a rather odd fun fact is that the Finns have developed award-winning pizza—the secret ingredient is smoked reindeer meat. Oh, and this: a small, northern village named Rovaniemi, located inside the Arctic Circle, is one of Finland’s top tourist attractions; known as Santa Clause Village, it’s located at (not precisely) the North Pole. Elves and jingle bells abound.
Tallin may just be the coolest little town you never heard of. Tallin is no sleepy little burg. Well, it is after the cruise-ship passengers return to their ships. If you’re wondering what it might have been like to live during the 15th century, Tallin may be the place to visit. Locals dress in Medieval costumes, sing old songs and play 3-stringed antique instruments, wear those pointy-toe shoes—if you desire, you can even buy a custom-made pair of those hand-made-pointy-toe shoes.
Of course, like most Old Towns in European cities, there is a Market Square in Tallin surrounded by eateries and shops and pubs. The fun fact here is this: in Tallin, you can find the greatest chocolate pastries in Europe—OK, from my humble opinion. But I am an expert at assessing, and eating, fine chocolate in any form. Somehow, I inadvertently (by gut feeling) and luckily landed in the Restaurant Tchaikovsky, and only learned later that it is known as the best in Tallin. They claim to be a “Symphony of Russian Cuisine.” I guess! Another fun fact, or oddity, is that you can visit the building that housed the KGB Headquarters and prison cells, it lies just past the main gate from the ferry landing. But here’s what I like most about Tallin: they make great wool berets, very comfy and affordable.
It’s a four-hour bus ride from one city you maybe never heard of, Tallin, to another city you never heard of, Riga, and if you pop for the premium seat, you sit in a single seat, no seat just a super-wide aisle next to you, with a quantum leap of leg room and a stationary table top for food and drinks. Riding a bus in this part of the world is definitely a decent way to travel; crossing borders is seamless and effortless: the bus doesn’t even stop.
Here’s another fun fact: if you find yourself visiting the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, and I suggest you do even if you’re not a museum kind of person as it is quite unique, you can climb a few flights of art nouveau stairs to the Janis Rozentals and Rudolfs Blaumanis Museum located in the top-floor flat where two famous artists you never heard of lived during the late 1800’s: prominent Latvian writer Rūdolfs Blaumanis and painter, Janis Rozentāls.
If you want to taste the best bread in the world, you need to hie your hienie off to Vilnius, another four-hour bus ride south from Riga. Their pastry, however, is not the symphony you find elsewhere in Riga, but it’s not chopped carob either, and they can brew coffee alongside the world’s finest baristas. You won’t find a Starbucks in Lithuania, but they do have an Apple store where you can buy stuff like extra charging cables for your iPhone 7+ for half the price in other European countries. One fun fact here is that Lithuania boasts more hot air balloons per capita than any other country. You’ll also find statues of pagan gods here, such as Perkunas, the god of thunder; you may also run across a place called The Hill of Witches.
Here’s another fun fact you might want to be aware of when visiting Lithuania: it’s considered bad form, and bad luck, to whistle indoors. You may see more amber jewelry here than perhaps anywhere in the world; it’s known as Baltic Amber—the lighter the color of amber, the older it is and therefore, more expensive. I bought my daughter a necklace of amber containing four different shades (four qualities), and it cost half the price of the strand of pearls I previously purchased in Hong Kong. Baltic amber during high season is not cheap. Neither are daughters, apparently.
A famous Warsaw organist, Przemyslaw Kapitula, plays Bach and Mozart daily on the Baroque organ in St Anne’s Church just off the Old Town Square; the pews in St Anne’s were apparently never meant for comfort: the back of the pew pitches you forward slightly. It would be a little more comfortable if you could rest your feet on that wooden shelf on the floor in front of you, but that’s for knees, not feet. Many men ride large motorcycles here, very few are Harleys. But this is the interesting fact: Warsaw’s Old Town buildings look extremely-well maintained for 15th-century architecture. They look so well-preserved because they are relatively new: Warsaw was bombed and completely ruined in WWII, and afterward was totally rebuilt, modeled after the original structures.
Turns out, Guinness really is good for you—it contains antioxidants that lower your risk of heart disease, Alzheimers, and cancer. The ruined Desmond Castle nestles on the shores of the river Maigue; it dates from the late 1100’s, one of the 200 castles built by the Normans.
It also turns out that Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland (and really fun fact here—also patron saint of Nigeria…say what?) was not Irish; he was a Roman born in Britain. You always hear the tale of his ridding Ireland of its snakes; the fact is that Ireland never had any indigenous snakes, most probably because it’s an island and snakes don’t relish swimming, especially that far from the mainland in that frigid Atlantic Ocean. However, the Irish built the Titanic in Belfast to sail those waters. Today, abortion is still illegal in Ireland, and bills to legalize medical-use marijuana are being hindered by politicians although at one time not long ago, Dublin harbored one of the largest populations of prostitutes in the world. And leprechauns and fairies really do exist for the Irish—and anyone else who needs miracles in their day.
So, that’s the bits I learned last year. Let me know what fun facts you may have come across in 2017.
Safe Travels, Happy Travels, and Happy New Year 2018!
see more DP Photo Challenge photos: 2017 Favorites