Category Archives: travel

Fire and Ice-Land 3 (Dancing Lights)


Day 3 in Iceland and the weather was still occasionally sunny but mostly snow stormy.  Any hope of catching a glimpse of the fabled northern lights seemed to be all but lost as all northern light tours had been cancelled for 7 consecutive days on account of poor visibility and driving snow.

We consoled ourselves by hiring a Superjeep  tour up to Langjökull glacier to do snowmobiling and to visit a man made ice cave.  Along the way, there were stops to look at some of Iceland’s thermal pools, a rather pretty though small waterfall and a pit stop for lunch.

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Mrs. Squirrel obscuring the view of the pretty Hraunfossar waterfall.

Along the way, there were a few cars that had got stuck in the snow and we stopped to render some assistance.  We were very glad to be in a Superjeep with huge tyres and retractable spikes which carried us steadily through the worst of the snow and weather.

And when we reached on top of the glacier, it was time to switch to the snowmobile.

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Our two snow conquering chariots!
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We had to bundle up in special snow suits, wear helmet, visors and get instructions.

Well, getting dressed up for the snowmobile ride was a thorough workout in itself and we were sweating from the exertion and glad to be out in the cold so that we could cool down.  There were 14 of us and we paired up to drive 7 snowmobiles.  Of the 7 drivers, only one had driven a snowmobile before.

Let me just say that it was not easy to drive.  I certainly found it hard to control, requiring a lot more strength and throwing around the body weight to get the machine to turn.  And when I managed to turn it, it would over extend in that direction and I would have to compensate in the other direction.  We were told to follow behind the guide in the lead snowmobile but we were all struggling to do that.

We were also facing driving snow and bitter cold, poor visibility and fresh loosely packed snow which made it easy to capsize the machine if we strayed too much to the edge of the packed trail.  The journey was supposed to take about 15 minutes to the cave entrance but it took us more than 30 minutes.  During that time, one snowmobile sunk about 2 feet into the soft snow and had to be dug out.  Except for two snowmobiles, the rest all had exciting moments when the machine tipped over trapping driver and passenger underneath.

It happened to me and Mrs. Squirrel.  I wandered too much to the side and the machine toppled over and slid down a small slope.  Both my wife and I were pinned down by the 350 kg machine.  From our prone position, we could see nothing at all and could only hope that the guides would notice we were missing and could here our feeble cries for help.  Eventually, they showed up and got us out of there.

Finally, we made it to the ice cave and I took out my camera from my backpack only to find that it had not fared well from the snowmobile ride.   The cold had completely caused my camera battery to be drained out.  So all the photos in this post is courtesy of my traveling companions.

We were joined by another group that had come up by monster wheeled buses.  “You mean we could have done the trip in comfort?”  One of my group tried to trade our return snowmobile ride for a spot  on the bus but there were no takers.

During the tour of the cave, we were shown the “chapel”.  The guide explained that the acoustics were particularly good here and asked for a volunteer to test it out.  The rest of the cowards nominated me to do it.  And so I found myself giving a rendition of “Amazing Grace” inside a glacier.

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Singing “Amazing Grace” in the ice cave chapel.

When we got back to the base camp on the glacier to put away the snowmobiles and to get out of the snow suits, I asked my driver how I could get a refund for the northern light tour that I had previously booked with Superjeep for my first night in Iceland.  Now Superjeep and some other tours allow clients to go on a second tour at no extra charge if the first trip was cancelled or the northern lights were not seen.  However, the weather had been so bad and the forecast was for more of the same, that I had given up hope.

To my surprise, our driver, Loji, thought there was a chance that the tour would go ahead that night.  He called his office, consulted with them and then proposed to take us out that same night.  I really was skeptical given the weather conditions but decided I would regret not trying and so our whole group agreed to go northern light hunting.

Loji said that despite the snow and blustery wind, we just needed to look for breaks in the cloud cover where we can see the stars and we would have a good chance to see the northern lights.

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This is not the Millennium Falcon jumping to light speed but the view of the driving snow from the windscreen of the jeep and the reason why I did remained skeptical of our chances of seeing any northern lights.

And so we left Reykjavik at about 8.00 pm and we drove and drove and we drove.  Around and around,  Chasing perceived clearer skies.  We made a few stops when it was not snowing as bad and strained to see stars but most of the time, the sightings were brief before the clouds and snow returned.

To warm us up and to dull the sense of disappointment, Loji gave out generous servings of hot chocolate fortified with vodka.  That certainly made us more cheerful and a little sleepy too – it had been a long day.  Then at about 12.30 in the morning, Loji delivered!

We managed to see the lights!  It appeared like a light green ribbon across the sky. It wasn’t the brightest but we enjoyed it, taking pictures and just taking in the sight.  But after maybe 10 minutes the clouds came in and the show was over.

We were reasonably satisfied and we settled down in the jeep for the long drive back to Reykjavik.  But Iceland had not finished giving us a show.  30 minutes later, we saw an even better display as we were driving back.  We pulled over and enjoyed this spectacle for about 20 minutes, thanking God for blessing us with this experience.

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Hallelujah!

Next post:- Around Reykjavik.

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Fire and Ice-Land 2 (Vik & South Coast)


We arrived after dark on the first day in Iceland and had taken the Flybus from the airport to downtown Reykjavik.  For future travelers, this is a lot cheaper than taking a taxi but there is the inconvenience of having to change from the airport bus to a smaller shuttle bus which then takes you to a bus stop near your hotel.  In our case, the bus stop was about 200 m from the hotel which would not be a problem if it weren’t for the driving snow and the slush on the roads making it unpleasant to be dragging luggage in the streets.

But bad weather is part of the nature of Iceland which one must accept. Still, it immediately spoiled our plans as the tour I had booked to go out that night to seek out the northern lights was cancelled on account of the weather.  Although disappointed by that, I immediately activated plan B which was to get a good night sleep and take off early the next morning on a long bus ride out along the southern coast as far as the small town of Vik.

Here are some highlights from Day 2;

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Icelandic Horses – these tough guys spend the winter out in the elements.  Descended from ponies brought over by Vikings in the 12th century, they are used in sheep herding and more recently for “tourist herding”.
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A short stop at the LAVA Centre and there was this interactive model of Iceland showing all the earthquakes and tremors that occurred in the last 24 hours.
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The impressive Skógafoss waterfall
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The black volcanic sand beach at Vik
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It was a wild and windy day!
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You could actually lean backwards into the wind and the wind would be able to hold you up.
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But the wind was also pelting us with tiny bits of hail which was quite painful.  The round ice spheres can be seen clearly in contrast to the black sand.
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These are the basalt columns at the famous Reynisfjara beach near Vik.  Oh, and the sun came out briefly.
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They told me that seabirds nest on these rock stacks but all I saw were @#!$%#* tourists!
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The beach can be dangerous as the waves are violent and rogue waves are known to occur which can drag you into the cold North Atlantic.  The last fatality was in 2017.  We were told not to go too near the waves and also not to turn your back to the waves.
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But, it could also be very romantic!
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The ends of the basalt columns in the cave.
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Another view.  Notice the icicle at the top?
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A good place to roost after a long day on a tour bus.
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We also visited part of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
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These guys were returning from hiking on the glacier.
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Another beautiful waterfall – Seljalandsfoss Waterfall.  In warmer times, it is possible to walk behind the falling water.
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Wait a while and you might get the place to yourself.
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This little excursion along the south coast gets my thumbs up!

Next installment will be about snowmobiling and an ice cave in a glacier.  See you then.

(All photos by LGS; please ask permission before using).

Fire and Ice-Land 1


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Picture and T-shirt by idontspeakicelandic.com

Hi there honorable readers!

The squirrel just got back from one of his bucket list destinations!  I am sure that  the photo above of a T-shirt I saw while there will have tipped you as to where that is …….. Iceland!   So what part of Eyjafjallajökull didn’t you understand?  Will the smart alecks among you please enlighten us all to its meaning in the comments?  In this era of alternate truths, your explanation doesn’t have to be factually accurate but by Odin, make it interesting.

Yes, my missus and I went to Iceland, otherwise also known as the Land of Fire and Ice, the Land of the Vikings and more recently as part of Westeros and beyond The Wall (Game of Thrones).  Oh yes we did, and we did it in the midst of winter too!

And how was Iceland, you ask?  I quote my wife; “It’s Crazy Beautiful!”  The people were fascinating and friendly and the food fantastic – there are lots of delicious options so you don’t really need to eat the famous rotting shark meat or the boiled sheep’s head if you don’t want to.

Before I carry on, I must thank Terry for inspiring me to make the trip and also her practical advice.  Even though this is not primarily a travel blog, please bear with me as I will share about my experiences over the next few posts.

And, if you were wondering ……….. I did see the Northern Lights!

For now, I leave you with Asterix and Dogmatix as they show us that it isn’t so difficult to learn the Viking language.

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Traveling Cheaply


Dear friends,

By the time you read this, I will actually be on the road, traveling with my wife. Of late, I have become somewhat of a frequent traveler and so I decided to share with you some of the wisdom that I have gleaned from my experiences.  Consider it a preview of my up and coming self help bestseller entitled “Tips on how to travel cheaply with your spouse”.

In my younger, foolish days, I used to believe that “two can live as cheaply as one” and that that applies to traveling too.  For example, with accommodation, the cost per person drops when you share a room.  Similar savings for hiring a car or joining a tour.  Occasionally, you even stumble on “two for the price of one” offers for restaurants, museums and even airfares.

But don’t be fooled! Unless you plan your trip well, costs can easily escalate.  Here are just a few tips to help lower your travel costs……….

Tip 1 : Choose your destination well

Generally speaking, countryside is cheaper than cities.  Not just because the price of things are generally more in cities but there just aren’t anywhere as many shops for your spouse to be tempted by in the rural boondocks.  Las Vegas, for example, have wonderful, cheap or even sometimes free, all you can eat buffets but it is still to be avoided if you or your spouse are likely to throw good money away at the slot machines or on Elvis impersonators.

Tip 2 : Choose your time well

Congratulations if you managed to plan a holiday in the countryside and away from all the shops.  Still, occasionally, you may have to touch base with an urban area or worse a centre with shopping.  When this happens, try to time the visit on a Sunday when many of the shops are closed.   I did this when we visited pricey Switzerland.  A visit to Bern and the wonderful, UNESCO World Heritage Old Town and its charming,  medieval covered arcades was achieved without too much damage by visiting on a Sunday.

Tip 3 : Choose the right option.

When you plan your itinerary for any given day, you have many options to consider.  Choose wisely.  For example, if you only had time to visit either a diamond centre or a chocolate factory , which one should you choose? (Hint:- one measly, micro diamond is worth the same as many, many crates of chocolates).

Try another one guys; a Swarovski Crystal tour or a beer brewery tour?  A no-brainer, right?

Bethlehem – Worst View


With Christmas just round the corner and I reflect on Christ’s birth, I often think of the words of my favorite carol,

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

And so, I was blessed to have just returned from a visit to the Holy Land and I got to go to Bethlehem.  And just in time too, as with President Trump’s announcement of the USA recognising Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, things there are likely to become a whole lot more complicated and unsafe.

I have to say that Bethlehem was not at all what I expected.  As per the carol above, I would always imagine Bethlehem as a quiet, sleepy little village.  The reality is that Bethlehem is a noisy, bustling, dusty town.  The streets are filled with traffic and there is a busy bus terminal a short distance from the Church of the Nativity (the supposed birthplace of Christ).  I don’t think these days there is any “how still we see thee lie” or “Silent Night” in Bethlehem.

The other thing that I witnessed in my short visit was the animosity and fear.  Bethlehem is under Palestinian Authority and Israel has built a very, very tall wall separating it from Jerusalem and Jewish settlements (part of a 708 km long barrier which the Israelis call a security barrier, the Palestinians call an apartheid wall and the International Court of Justice called illegal). In Bethlehem, the wall is up to 8 m high.

As a result of the barrier, Palestinians cannot easily travel around to Israeli controlled areas without permits and having to undergo security searches at the few gates in the barrier.  I know of one former colleague whose 5 minute walk to work was transformed to a one hour commute due to the barrier.  Similarly, Israelis cannot venture into Palestinian controlled areas with out due cause and permits and if they do, personal safety is always a worry.  These difficulties have also reduced tourism, business and jobs in Palestinian areas.

I also witnessed the tension within the community.  On the streets and in the shops, suspicion and wariness of each other was occasionally evident between the different communities.  I also saw some Islamic extremist hate literature plastered on some walls and heard the duel between the Muslim call for azan and the pealing of church bells.

There is no peace and there is no quiet on the streets of Bethlehem today.  What would Jesus think?

I think, Jesus would not be surprised.  Man will be selfish, jealous, covetous and contentious. It is the nature of man, our sinful nature and this is why he came to be born; to give us a better way which is beyond our own means to attain.  This is the hope that he brings. Peace and hope.

And if the world seems, for the most part at the moment, to be ignoring his message, perhaps it is no surprise either.  The King of Heaven was born in Bethlehem but the world mostly ignored him then too.  In fact, as we are told, there was no room for him at the inn.

On that note, I want to end this reflection with sharing about an inn or rather a hotel that I saw in Bethlehem.  It gave me a chuckle amidst all the gloom.  The hotel is right by the wall.  It faces the wall.  The management admits that it has “the worst view of any hotel in the world” and its rooms only get about 28 minutes of direct sunlight a day.  This is Bethlehem’s answer to the famous Waldorf Hotel.  It is the Walled Off Hotel.

I later learned that this hotel was set up by the famous artist, Banksy, to help create job opportunities for the Palestinians, support Palestinian artists (the hotel also functions as an art gallery) and make a statement about the political situation and the wall.

Ladies and gents ……….. I give you the Walled Off Hotel.

 

Squirrel’s Secret Spot 17: Mouraria


If you have read my last post, you will understand that I am, at the moment,  a bit allergic to popular tourist spots and their attendant crowds of tourists.  But also, I am sure we all realise that touristy places usually don’t reflect the lives of the locals very much.

So it is with a little trepidation that I share with you this quiet little gem in Lisbon which I am nominating as Squirrel’s Secret Spot or SSS #17 because I wouldn’t want this often overlooked place to be suddenly over run by the plague of locusts tourists.  Then again, I reassure myself with the thought that the number of readers of this blog would make up a very plague or a very lonely horde.  So we are probably safe if you keep the secret to yourselves.

Mouraria is Lisbon’s secret neighborhood.  Lying on the slopes of the hill and under the shadow of the imposing castle, Castelo de São Jorge, it is the sister neighborhood to the more famous and more frequented Alfama area which is on the other side of the castle. Both neighborhoods are probably the oldest parts of Lisbon as they survived relatively intact after the great earthquake of 1755 flattened most of the city.

Mouraria means the Quarter of the Moors because it was first settled by the Moors in the year 714 and even after Lisbon fell to the Portuguese in 1147, they were allowed to live on there.  It has always been a multicultural neighborhood and remains so today.

But why have I included Mouraria in my very select group of Secret Spots?  It is enchanting and it feels like a hidden secret.  One moment you are in a busy wide pedestrian avenue which seems typical of downtown Lisbon but just a few steps down a narrow opening between buildings and you enter a different world.  At once, you leave the bustle of the city  and you enter a peaceful, quiet village-like neighborhood.  It seems like magic.

Mouraria is one of several places that claim to be the place where the music genre, Fado was born (see last post).  The story goes that the very first star of Fado was Maria Severa Onofriana (1820-1846) and her house is still there in Mouraria.  Fado is all about lamenting one’s fate so it is perhaps no surprise that Maria Severa did not have an easy life.  She was a prostitute living in the slums and occasionally singing her sad songs in local taverns.  One of her lovers was an aristocrat, Francisco de Paula Portugal e Castro, the Count of Vimioso.  It was he that help elevate this song styling and made it popular among high society. Maria Severa died  of tuberculosis at the age of 26 and was buried in a common ditch at a local cemetery.

Rua da Guia is lined with portraits of famous Fado singers who contributed to the growth of Fado’s popularity.  Most are actual photographs but the one of Maria Severa is just a stylised drawing as no picture of her exists.

Mouraria’s narrow streets are also lined with 15 photo portraits of local residents.  These and those of the Fado luminaries were photographs transferred onto concrete or wood by a special process by British born photographer Camilla Watson.  She loved Mouraria and the people there and continues to be a member of the community and she wanted to thank the community for making her feel so welcomed.  These photos help the visitor enter into the community too.

There are lovely surprises around every bend.  It could be a quaint restaurant serving sardines, a charming little plaza, a park bench with a view, a street with neighbors talking on their doorstep or from their balconies, a neighborhood watering hole with no space to swing a cat but a long, long revered history, an old historic home, beautiful wall murals expressing the spirit of gratitude and hope in the community or it could be tables and chairs filling whatever space they could find along a narrow lane and serving the best samosas I have ever tasted, apparently for generations.  Mouraria is so many small gems that make me want to go back and spend a lot more time there.

But for me, my short visit ended by going past a street of brilliant murals, down a steep stairway and then with one step, emerged between two buildings and onto a part of busy central Lisbon that I had walked before without knowing that an enchanted place was hidden just out of view.

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A Series of Unfortunate Incidents


When one goes to Lisbon, there is a lot to see and with Portugal becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, a lot of what you see are other tourists.  Whether you go to the many squares like Praça do Comércio or visit the monuments like the Torre de Belem or the commanding Castelo de São Jorge or you walk the quaint neighborhood  and narrow streets of the Alfama or even when you catch a ride on their iconic trams, you will be in the company of herds of tourists.

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The busy streets near Praça do Comércio where incident No: 1 occurred just before this picture was taken (Photo by LGS)

An unfortunate fact is that where the herds graze and mingle, the predators also gather.  I refer to the pickpockets.  In all my travels, I have had no problems with pickpockets as I take reasonable care when I am in crowds.  But to my horror, in a flash, someone had unzipped all three compartments of my backpack in broad daylight while I waited to cross a busy road – and I was surrounded by traveling companions at the time.

I had no valuables in the backpack at that time so I suffered no loss but it was still an upsetting experience and it made me on edge for much of the remainder of the trip which was a bit of a damper on having a fun experience.

And it gets, worse.  I was of course on high alert after that incident.  But we were in fact on the way to take part in a three hour walking food tour with a local guide.  I tell you, I was as paranoid as the best conspiracy theorists, suspicious of everyone that came close to me.  Still, on two more occasions my backpack was tampered with.

In one incident, we had to walk in single file along a narrow lane because of some road works.  I became aware of two guys walking along that did not belong to my group.  So I walked quickly, turning frequently to make sure they were keeping their distance.  As soon as there was enough space, I took my backpack off and swung it in front of me.  At that moment, the two men peeled off, loudly talking and appeared to be running to catch a bus.  But when I looked at my backpack, I found that one compartment had been partially opened.

Our walking tour ended at a very popular and crowded square and there was a band playing.  As we made our way, we had to join a stream of humanity moving away from the square.  Again at a dark section of the road, I noticed 2 women walking a little too close to our group.  Then there was a very loud man who was dancing  through the crowd to the sound of the band and waving his tourist map.  Alarm bells rang.  I held my bag tightly and kept turning right and left to try to thwart any attempts.  The minute we entered a brightly lit section, the two women and the man all dispersed in different directions which was strange because almost everyone in the crowd was still headed in the same direction.   The bright light revealed that two of my compartments had been partially opened again.

Three times in three hours.  I am now looking for backpacks that I can secure with locks or something.  More inconvenient for sure but even if nothing is stolen, this sort of thing just plays on your mind.  If I disliked crowded places before, I feel like avoiding them like the plague now.  But the reality is that if you want to travel, there will be crowds ……often.

So, 1) don’t keep anything valuable in your backpack (may have to start thinking of money belts or pouches), 2) get bags that are hard to unzip or open,  3) keep the bag in front of you when in crowded situations and 4) be super vigilant.