No “Soufriere”-ing By The Pitons

No “Soufriere”-ing By The Pitons

 

If I’m in the photo or the photo is really really professional, then the photography credit goes to Paul Woo.

 

 

Survivors of the reckoning.

 

 

This morning we cruised down the west coast of St Lucia towards Soufriere, home to the famous Pitons, beautiful botanical gardens, sulphur baths, and waterfalls.

 

 

It’s time to celebrate getting this far!

 

 

The crown jewel of Saint Lucia is when you watch its coastline grow dramatically to the world famous Pitons.

 

 

Photoshoot time as we moor in the waters for the night.

 

 

She may not know how to swim yet, but she does know how to SUP now!

 

 

Kimmy tried to be our instructor, but we were too busy distracted by the Pitons in the background.

 

 

Afterwards we bought lobster by local fisherman that came up to our yacht to sell live produce. We haggled them down from $40/lb to $15/lb.

 

 

Before:

 

 

After:

 

 

To what a sunset do we owe in enjoying this lobster dinner:

 

 

Then it was a night on the sea, underneath the stars, and away from civilization and COVID:

 

 

The next morning after breakfast we docked at Sugar Beach and stepped ashore for a hike. Whether with view from the top of the Pitons or at the modest falls ($3 per person), there are plenty of options to choose from to make up for the lack of exercise for the week.

 

 

Afterwards we walked onwards towards the town of Soufiere where our yacht and skipper would pick us up.

 

 

The town itself is small enough that you can walk all of it end to end in 10 minutes.

 

 

After a quick lunch at Bellview and then provisional shopping at the local Massy’s . . .

 

 

. . . we headed onwards towards Marigot Bay.

Just don’t forget to come back here for more photos by sunset the next day:

 

 

Nature just got served.

 

 

Or simply great to pose with:

 

 

- At time of posting in Pitons, it was 27 °C - Humidity: 11% | Wind Speed: 34km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

Mecca Wasn’t “Ta’if” on Us!

Mecca Wasn’t “Ta’if” on Us!

Ta’if

About a 2 hours’ drive north of Jeddah lies Ta’if. Located within the Mecca region and one of the oldest towns in Saudi Arabia, it has been famous for its rose production and views over Mecca itself:

 

 

Along the way we stopped to say hi to the numerous baboons that live here and amongst the mountains. The young ones, if they’re not busy fighting each other, can be a little feisty in trying to steal your stuff from the car. 

The older ones are calm as Zen:

 

 

… also enjoyed some charcoal mint tea by the side of the road:

 

 

Once in Ta’if proper, we got ourselves acclimated with a view over the Mecca region:

 

 

We then toured the Al Gadee Factory and learn how roses are distilled to produce rose water and oil:

 

 

Afterwards at the recommendation of one of our beloved monsooners from Egypt, Karthik, we boarded the cable car at the top from the Ramada Hotel (also know as the “Jeju Island” honeymooners’ spot for Saudi newlyweds):

 

 

Each way takes 18 minutes. Once you near the bottom of the cable car ride, you may notice a barely unused (at least when we saw it on a hot Tuesday afternoon in October) waterpark guarded by a very lonely and bored-looking lifeguard.

 

 

During sunset, we opted for an al fresco dinner with a view at BelleSoire:

 

 

Afterwards we strolled along one of the numerous parks in the area, filled with families:

 

 

And from there we drove onwards into the hills for our hotel.

 

 

The next morning we drove back into Ta’if’s city center, first stopping at the Al Katib and Kaaki House, which architecture combines Roman style with Islamic motifs:

 

 

We then began our morning stroll at the Bin Abbas Mosque:

 

 

Nearby is the local souq, where you can sample some of the area’s naturally harvested honey and halwa:

 

 

We then had breakfast up on a rooftop overlooking the souq before driving out into the Al Shafa mountains for another local rose farm:

 

 

After having fresh pomegranate juice there all by ourselves (I swear we are the only tourists in the entire region), we headed back into Ta’if again for lunch.

And “when in Rome,” we were suggested the camel meat; a cross between a lamb rump and pork shoulder, it was just as good as how I remembered when I last had it a decade ago in Shiraz, Iran:

 

 

And after lunch, we returned for our last night in Jeddah. . . .

Mecca/Makkah

 

This deserve a section in of itself; I have yet to go into details HOW we got back and forth between Ta’if and Jeddah.

The short story is as much as we did NOT need or want to, our local Saudi driver — a devout Muslim and local Saudi born and raised in Jeddah and hailing from a generation of Saudis also based in the Mecca and Jeddah region — insisted that we SHOULD drive through Mecca/Makkah, the holiest city in Islam.

Local Saudi from Jeddah & Mecca (and our driver): “The fastest way between Jeddah and Ta’if is through Mecca. Are you okay with that?”

 

Me: “Are you joking? No!”

 

 

Driver: “No I’m serious. We go through Mecca. It’s fine.”

 

Me: “What? But we’re not allowed…isn’t it illegal? I don’t want to get into or you into any trouble” (I pull up Wikipedia)

 

Driver: “I’m Saudi. I know. I’m from here. Look at second line: ‘loosely enforced.’ It’s fine now. It’s okay. You just can’t go inside to see Kabbah because you need clearances for that. Special papers because of COVID. Even I cannot see Kabbah now because I don’t have clearance papers. But rest of Mecca city okay! No traffic, much easier and faster Insha’allah!”

 

Me: “Haha, you’re funny. Stop joking around! I’m going to take a nap. See you in Ta’if.”

(I then fall asleep in the car as we begin our drive)

15 minutes later I wake up only to freak out at the sight of sailing through the multiple checkpoints towards Mecca without any checkpoint guard bothering to stop us (and they’re looking in every car including ours!):

 

 

Whether it was me with my mouth agape underneath my surgical mask because COVID-19, or Mihaela as an American/Serbian brunette who didn’t even think of covering her hair up with her makeshift abaya (our driver never reminded us to), every guard at every checkpoint (I counted at least 2-3 throughout our drive) indeed looked inside our car and waved us all through. I can tell our driver was totally judging our anxiety and shock.

For the record, we drove through Mecca and all of these checkpoints twice over between Ta’if and Jeddah on the roundtrip, let alone both on separate days at different times with nobody seeming to mind on either day.

Have times really changed? I’m confused. I’m speechless. I’m left dumbfounded and shooketh.

 

 

Even as we protested at least 4 times before our drive that we did not want to disrespect the rules, our driver didn’t even let us negotiate as he began to suggest that we would be disrespecting him as a local who’d know better than we would. And the last thing we wanted to be was to be one of those disrespectful entitled foreigners who’d assert that we would know more about a country than our very own hosts.

Oddly I’m therefore also grateful that he insisted so much. As if the universe, or some energy “up there” really wanted us to be here, or that they really wanted to show us things are changing. And who are we as mere mortals to really know how the universe really works anymore?

Driver: “I told you. Look, it’s ok. It’s fine now.”

 

Me: “…this is not so you can get a better tip right?” (half joking tone)

 

Driver: “No tip! Jeddah, to Mecca, to Ta’if is just better and faster drive for us all. Look, relax, Google says so.” (Indeed, it says so)

Uber — 5 star rating for all the reassurances? Our driver even told us to look at our Google Maps for any places to get coffee.

Driver: “Before we leave the city for the next stop, do you want coffee? donuts? We have 3 Starbucks by Al-Haram…but can’t stop too long; have to keep driving.”

 

Me: “…(what is going on)”

 

 

As we officially entered the city our driver points out the Burmese neighborhood that is home to an older, more established Burmese community of 250,000:

 

 

Although at every exit I had thought we we would take a turn to leave Mecca, our driver continued onwards into the city center. He seemed intent about getting his Starbucks fix. This was a screenshot from his phone:

 

 

Who were we to stop him?

 

 

We began to see signs for Al-Masjed Al-Haram, the location of the Kabbah and the holiest site in Islam.

 

 

Our driver kept onwards to Al-Haram:

 

 

We then crossed a long tunnel:

 

 

And then I saw it. I recognized all the buildings.

 

 

Once we reached the King Abdul Aziz Gate . . .

 

(Wikipedia)

 

. . . I knew we were at the feet of the holiest site in Islam, the world’s most expensive building valued at 100 billion US dollars, and the crossroads of history during its second expansion:

 

(Mine)

 

And I definitely recognized the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, the world’s second most expensive building in the world valued at 15 billion dollars.

This photo is from Wikipedia:

 

 

And this photo is from me…because I just drove right underneath it:

 

 

And inside you can find pilgrims performing Umra:

 

 

I ask a friend for context as our driver stopped to get a Frappucino:

 

 

With that and a Frappuccino in our hands, we headed onwards past Al-Haram:

 

 

We even stopped to see some of the other mosques in Mecca:

 

 

…as well as an all-girls university:

 

 

We then continued onwards our respective destinations, whether it was Ta’if or Jeddah:

 

 

…and as I’m posting this where I am in my hotel, numerous Saudis have already walked by looking at my photos, and giving me a smile. They know.

And I’m still confused. And grateful. Something or someone is watching out for us. Or times really have changed.

 

–EDIT–

The response so far has been 100% unanimously positive. I was so worried. Thank you to my Muslim supporters around the world:

 

 

- At time of posting in Ta'if, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 38% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

You’re Going to Miss …Sardinia & Corsica

You’re Going to Miss …Sardinia & Corsica

 

Press play.

No, I really mean it.

PRESS play and read the post with the music . . . 
 

Did you press play yet? Are you hearing music playing?

OK, you can keep reading then.

 

 

You’re going to miss …

the moment you were invited to come on your first Yacht Week (YW), realized how opposite it would be from a typical monsoon, and then decided not to pass judgement unless you tried it at least once (or twice). You’ll then miss all the introduction e-mails, pre-orientations, trying to find 8 decent looking swimsuits, more orientations, wondering how to pack regular clothes with a week of elegant costuming and no suitcase, keeping track of all the chat groups, trip updates, new apps, feeling disorientated by who’s saying what, and yet a burgeoning anticipation of what could possibly happen in a week with 34 seemingly both random and hand-picked strangers sailing the Tyrrhenian Sea.

 

 

. . . But deep down, we secretly knew the universe was up to something.

 

 

You’re going to miss …the anxiety of packing for your first trip since the pandemic, paired with the sudden travel declaration changes in the EU, tripled by the chaotic weather patterns right before you left, and oh yes more anxiety of whether you’d even arrive at all, to finally reach the odd revelatory feeling of witnessing dominoes fall into place when you defeated insurmountable odds as the Red Sea seemingly parted before youAnd through it all, you’ll miss the gradual appreciation for the growing message threads that would tie us together, mirroring your own yearning for a novelty that had been eclipsed by the pandemic; threads that drew from wandering hearts of wonder, as we took our initial steps towards liberation knowing sweet is never as sweet without the sour. 

 

 

You’re going to miss …landing at your final destination and seeing faces you only had known from Zoom calls, breaking the ice in shared cabs, not sure how to turn down maggot-infused cheese and giving in anyway, exchanging plates of food with a group of complete strangers for your first group dinner in a foreign country in months, the taste of fresh gelato after as you walked up and down a single boulevard of unbroken dreams and new promises, feeling both lost and found as camaraderie built in a noisy suite at the after-after party before you passed out in your last stationary bed on land for the week.

 

 

You actually might not miss the flash floods that overwhelmed the roads the next day while waiting to be checked in as you fought off panicked sewer roaches the size of your palm to rescue your luggage, while considering prematurely inflating your floaties to escape …that was not fun. But the brightest rainbows come only after a storm, and you will miss the first walk down the aisle of yachts as the weather cleared, dodging awkwardness as you picked your coffin ..ahem room.. for the week, filled up the cabinets of your new home, celebrating the birthday of the most sober birthday girl in the world, before getting dressed for your first night out to meet the rest of TYW fleet. You’ll also miss what was supposed to be a wholesome night became something entirely alternative with …lots of whipped cream … as you then returned back to the marina with no time wasted to party more, all the while making sure we’d be united in setting our boundaries for the days to come.

 

 

You’re going to miss …waking up to footsteps on the deck above you as your skipper prepared for first sail, then really waking up to the Lion King theme blasted from the stereo, before ascending to the open sea, and embracing the long awaited feeling of physical, emotional, and spiritual freedom as a sun-kissed wind enveloped your naked skin for the first time. You’re going to miss the first dive into open waters, swimming (or learning to swim) with your new friends, spending way too long and feeling like your arms were going to fall off from inflating floaties for the first time, tasting freshly curated meals onboard as land approached, and feeling a new kind of alive as you watched the La Maddalena archipelago growing larger before you.

You’ll probably get nostalgic over docking at all-day cafés that rarely understood the concept of iced coffee, the 18th-century town exploration, your first e-bike ride of unknown destination, and tending to monsooners’ injuries as you begin the habit of picking them up after they fall. You’ll even miss how you got dressed in an outfit entirely made of sequins for a dockside disco party only to bring the party back for a yacht against yacht dance-off, after which, you first discovered the illuminating sensation of chatting until sunrise. 

 

 

You’re going to miss …the next morning’s northward drift towards new countries, approaching the unique natural coastlines of Corsica, snorkeling to shore with fresh sea urchins in hand, cliff-diving into a lagoon, the unraveling of a timeless seaport as you dock in the marina of Bonifacio and the group fights another to hijack an entire train to the top of the citadel.

You’re also be sure to reminisce over long walks through the antiquing town and cemeteries with no plan other than bringing back a semblance of a monsoon, before the following dinner and afterparty where we’d be bringing down the house with endless bottle service. You’ll then miss returning for our first group card-game during which arms were cleaned and truths, connections, and shades of attractions would be established and remodeled. And then you might remember witnessing some toxic masculine rage from afar while thanking your lucky stars you didn’t have to worry about anyone like that in your crew.

 

 

You’re going to miss …waking up (nahhhzavenya) to a day entirely on open water, the epic atmosphere of competing amongst 21 yachts sailing side by side during the Regatta, which led to an injury requiring you to care for another fellow monsooner with a yet unnamed medicine bag that hadn’t been used in nearly 7 years. You’ll miss docking at an inlet near Maddalena for a day-long festival of swimming down a tunnel of blow-up pizzas, lobsters, eggplants, and llamas, crossing onto other yachts to meet those you may have noticed but were too preoccupied to approach, both synchronized and unsynchronized diving, devouring another delicious dinner with your yacht before returning to the festivities, getting down to bhangra, rescuing your life-jacket adorned friends from the water and other yachts, teaching your friends how to swim, enjoying music and chats beneath the stars, and falsely believing you could finally go to bed early for once, only to have a shooting star tell you “not today.”

And when you look back on that night afterwards, you will realize we are just a culmination of the tiniest decisions — dare I say seemingly random meteor shower moments — that had felt at the time as if they neither would matter nor add up . . . until they do.

 

 

You’re going to miss …being woken up (pass me those caffeine pills?) to pose for a long-planned black swimsuit shoot with the entire group, before arriving in Poltu Qualtu for an entire day at the beach club where “The Spy Who Loved Me” was filmed. You’ll miss flipping your circadian rhythms with the DJ’s tempo, this time underneath a garish sun while balancing friends and glasses on body parts in ways you didn’t think possible, followed by hours of intimate questions over hookah, and an impromptu concert where everyone huddled around one monsooner like a Sofar by Sea, singing Hallelujah in harmony as people on the dock joined in and cheered (with a touch of envy). What followed after was the repeat of a card game with a group getting to know one another just a little bit better, where newer, more intimate truths were divulged. Or maybe you wish you could forget this part (But I won’t).

 

 

You’re going to miss …waking up roping the yachts together for the epic circle raft YW is known for, the last dives in unison at the drop of “Peanut Butter Jelly,” the odyssey of floaties in one final run, the impromptu last minute makeshift wound-dressing that MacGyver’s your way into the water of your first and last floating festival, joining our yachts together again for a Mexican fiesta onboard before sailing among the super yachts of the Rolex Cup, learning Queen B was somewhere in attendance, and docking in Porto Cervo for a free day of cafés, shopping, and a serendipity that lead to wakeboarding on a million dollar yacht.

And while you’ll certainly miss Beyonce, you’ll sadly also be unable to miss the lamest seemingly never-ending dinner you’ve ever been to at an otherwise swanky nightclub, when you realized you wouldn’t even have done dinner at a nightclub back home…yeah, that was dumb. But then again, you’ll still miss the liberation of leaving the party earlier than all the rest, to return home and chat into the wee hours of the morning over cigars and under lightning-streaked skies. 

 

 

You’re going to miss …staying up for sunrise again, before sleeping in afterwards through a storm that threatened to throw you from your seabed and hoping you wouldn’t wake up underwater, somehow arriving back at your base marina with the frenzy of squaring away last minute items, repacking, atoning for your sins, and going out for one last gelato in town before returning to dress all in white (which you’d surely stain) for the closing party.

And while you may have missed the background hum of violins building up to the final party, you will definitely miss everything about this night of mayhem as unfolded in real-time: the dancing inside the brightest-lit nightclub you’ve ever been to, the final group photos, a symphony of murmurs that cushioned the DJ’s beats, the pirouetting circles in unison, the furtive glances across the room, the catharsis of sea winds that dried sweat and tears as the Perseids twinkled above, and the brief words exchanged between embraces that meant something; a whisper of truth in our ears.

 

 

This is where I’ll break the fourth wall and say I’m going to miss the moment (yes I remember everything) of being immediately picked up when I fell and hit my head on a rock wall, nurtured back to life by a group of once-strangers I could call a family especially after the loss of my own during the pandemic.

I’m going to go all in here and say I’m really, really, really going to miss even the idea itself of being taken care of by a family— a concept which had been elusive to me since childhood; you have no idea how much that meant to me. What an odd feeling I didn’t know I had needed. Thank you.

 

 

You’re going to miss …the romanticism of looking back on the “last night” even before it was over for a group who bonded so quickly and so much, seeing the threads that bound chance and possibility unravel through a multitude of the tiniest leaps of faith, held together by the underlying support we had for one another, and the literal ‘dancing in the rain’ in between it all. You’ll miss the cab ride back to the marina calling out to people not even in the car with you before the last after-after party where even our once playfully main competitor (the Swiss Boat) carried their speakers to us for the first time. You’ll then miss bringing the house down together with one unifying denouement where every underlying plot-line the past week would converge into a single moment as if we were all in some 90s prom movie or a particular music video, compelled to recognize a dance of letting go and becoming part of the refrain around you, with no expectations or security of what the next “tbd” step would be.

And you’ll miss how a single night could release a lifetime of self-doubt as if it were a cloudburst in the sky, or how a single night could melt away the chains of insecurities as they passed through us like fleeting waves sent off into the ocean eternal, finally guiding us to recognize that we may be worth the realization of our own personal legends and to dare to live the life that we’ve always wanted. And just like those teen movies or a nostalgia-laden music video, we learned that while we may have playfully chanted “all I need — is your love tonight,” the irony was that we actually never needed it …because we already had each other’s all along.

 

 

You’re going to miss …realizing how life isn’t a journey or a rush to a particular conclusion: It’s a dance, and it’s important for us to recognize that before we’re missing these moments imprinted in our minds. But even then, a feeling will stay with you long after the laughter dies down, the rain and tear drops fall, that last sunrise from the marina, that last sunset from the airport, and when you say your goodbyes and “see you again.” Your heart will continue to pine after the emotion that moves you still, like some sort of land-sickness long after you’ve left the sea. For regardless of whether the following reunions the weeks after would conjure up the spirit of what we had or what could have been, you’re going to miss returning home knowing that very moment a needle has shifted, where once familiar things gain new dimensions.

It is therefore now only up to you to keep this momentum going, knowing that the very people you will miss most of all may have arrived inadvertently into your life this week not only “to have the best week ever,” but also to renew each other’s sense of purpose and possibility, beating ceaselessly against the memories of a past we’d certainly never want to forget, and dreams of a future. . . .

 

 

… one we’d certainly never want to miss. 

 

I Want “Paler-mo” Of It!

I Want “Paler-mo” Of It!

 

After 2 days relaxing in the off-the-beaten-path island of Lampedusa, the gang took a direct evening flight out to Palermo, capital of Sicily, afterwards.

 

 

Founded by Phoenicians under the name of “Ziz” and later renamed by Greeks “Panormos”, which means “all port,” Palermo’s golden age was during Arab rule from 9th to 11th centuries AD when it became one of the most prosperous cities in the Mediterranean and Europe.

 

 

It was referred to as the “city of delights” for its gardens, mosques and palaces.

 

 

After the Normans conquered Palermo, they destroyed most of the palaces and mosques, but replaced it with a unique architectural mix of Arabesque, Romanesque, and Byzantine influences known as the “Arab-Norman Style of Sicily.”

 

 

Modern history, however, would make Sicily infamous for cosa nostra, aka the Mafia that now predominate the popular culture consciousness whenever Sicily is referred.

 

 

Let’s begin.

 

 

Starting from the west side of Palermo, we tried to visit the unique Catacombe dei Cappuccini filled with 8000 dressed up corpses and skeletons, but it was closed at the time of posting. So we walked by the 9th century neo-classical era Norman Palace instead, where the ancient chapel Cappella Palatina is also located; you can find elaborate Byzantine mosaics and paintings inside.

 

 

While here you might as well also peek inside the red-domed medieval church San Giovanni degli Eremiti:

 

 

 

Then working your way beginning east towards the harbor, pass through the symbolic and landmark Porto Nuovo, built in 1570.

 

 

Weave around Teatro Marmoreo and through Villa Bonanno park

 

 

As you walk east towards the water, stop by 12th century Cattedrale di Palermo:

 

 

If you pay the 12-15 euro ticket to access the rest of the cathedral, there’s the gorgeous roof:

 

 

…and the underground tombs:

 

 

Take a detour at the open-air Market Ballaro:

 

 

Head into the winding alleyways further east to find the baroque Chiesa del Gesù, built in the 1630s:

 

 

There’s also Church of San Cataldo, built in 1154 and featuring landmark Byzantine mosiacs, including Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio which lies next door.

 

 

…and equally beautiful Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria:

 

 

Inside there’s a monastery you can stroll through for a few euros:

 

 

Then swing around Genius of Palermo Statue:

 

 

…past Fontana del Garraffo:

 

 

…past Fontana del Cavallo Marino:

 

 

…and as you approach Porta Felice, you know you’ve reached the sea:

 

 

There’s also an abandoned UNESCO World Heritage Site Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (“Admiral’s Bridge”) to the south, although there’s nothing much else to do around here:

 

 

Donna and I are taking it easy from here on out, because from here it’s a long way home. Brian knows it:

 

 

Palermo to Rome to Brussels …to Paris

The original plan was fly from Palermo to Rome to Brussels to NYC. So after Donna and I parted ways at the Palermo airport, I did just that. Once arriving into Brussels, however, it felt like …something was pulling me to Paris. I don’t know why since “I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains” …but I trust my gut. 

MXMS and Carla Bruni play on and on in my head.

 

Passing by the very same piano that caused us to miss our flight to Lampedusa 3 days prior

 

While arriving into Brussels, I got on the chat with United and asked if I could change my economy Brussels to NYC flight to a free business class upgrade at no extra cost. The answer: Sure, but you’ll have to get from Brussels to Paris and take a flight from there instead. Furthermore…

  • Evie also left her ONLY charger back in Palermo, and she was going to be in Paris that night.
  • Gina and Priscilla decided on a whim yesterday to extend their layover in Paris an extra day.
  • Priscilla had something personal of mine. And her foot, which had been injured during Yacht Week and became taken under my medical attention, appeared to need extra care.
  • Gina was still probably annoyed Evie, Sabrina, Sampson, Donna and I all barged to crash in her room 5 days ago in Olbia. It was a bad goodbye; I owed her a drink.
  • We would all be in Paris after a united last minute extension of all our trips. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.

These were enough signs. And so I booked the next Brussels to Paris Thalys 9388 train at 9:16pm, arriving into Paris at 10:38pm where I would crash with one of them before all our morning flights back to the USA at 10am. It would be perfect.

But as we all know with travel, “perfect” may always involve a snag where the universe tests your will: Soon after booking my train ticket, I would get emails from Thalys every 15 minutes informing me of significant track delays up to 2 hours long. Every email indicated a longer and longer delay, to the point I was worried they were going to cancel the train entirely.

 

 

And yet when there’s a will there’s a way: although I had considered giving up on the idea of Paris as the logistics seemed too prohibitive, the prior Thalys 9376 train that had been due to arrive at 7:13pm in Brussels Midi Station instead pulled into the platform in front of me at 8:50pm. It was also running nearly 2 hours late, but oddly did not show up on the departure board as a possibility.

I immediately asked if I could board this one instead, but the agent at the station informed me that my ticket I had bought for the 9:16pm 9388 train would not apply and I would not be allowed onboard 9376. Once she left, I stowed away onboard the 9376 anyway, staying in between cars looking for a place to put my bags, pretending to wait for the bathroom, and hanging out at the café until the bullet train was well already in France.

Eventually my ruse would be noticed (I’m the worst spy ever), but after a discussion with the onboard police, playing stupid showing them I had already purchased a ticket but for a different train, a copy of a negative test for COVID-19 (with a BivaxNOW self-test kit which I had done with Donna the day before…thanks Donna!), that I was fully vaccinated, and a USA passport to accompany my vaccine card, they had no legitimate reason to throw me off the train when we were already 10 minutes away from Paris Gare du Nord station. Checkmate.

And to even make it more opportune, Evie’s hotel — where I could drop off my stuff — was located immediately outside the train station. Does that sound familiar to the beginning of this trip when I had arrived into Florence train station to briefly meet Patricia? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.

Evie would have travel issues of her own: her flight from Valencia almost would be cancelled by a tornado there. Nevertheless it was a false alarm as she arrived, although 45 minutes late. Then from her hotel room we both set out to meet Priscilla and Gina, surprising them both (well, really just Priscilla; Gina had said she always knew I’d had it in me to make it work) that we’d make it in time right before they went to bed. And so our goodbye 5 days ago in Olbia was extended in none other than a midnight in Paris. 

Having stayed up for our third sunrise, we felt the third time is always the charm.

 

 

Then at 8am Priscilla, Gina and I then coordinated a cab together back to CDG where we would be all leaving at similar times back for our onward connecting flights home. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.

And of all the business class flights to be upgraded to for free, United would choose SWISS Airlines, with the exact same layover in the exact same city of Zurich . . .  WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.

 

 

. . . and in the exact same 7A seat I had flown to begin this trip 16 days ago. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.

 

 

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN

 

 

The magic of the universe has and shall continue. Whether in circles or forward, probably the next step for us would be time travel.

 

- At time of posting in Palermo, Sicily, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 61% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

“I Love Lamp”-edusa

“I Love Lamp”-edusa

 

Definitely didn’t look nearly like this 24 hours prior to taking this photo…

 

 

After a week rampaging throughout Sardinia’s coastline including a pitstop in Corsica — with a final night belonging in a 90s teen prom movie (I really can’t describe it in any other way … it was that … perfectly bittersweet) — we tried to take it easy the next morning with a spa day relaxing in Olbia.

Some of us having pulled a second all nighter for our final sunrise, we returned to the yachts, quickly took the trash out, made one final camp check, gave our goodbye hugs to Mihaela, Ann, and Jeanette from the marina, and walked over to the hotel Priscilla, Gina, Alex, etc. were staying in.

 

 

All I can remember it was a dreary struggle of a morning, especially after coming down from a high of the night before. Once I saw a bed, my body fell hard without even realizing until later how the marina arrivals — Sabrina, Donna, Sampson and I — were likely pissing everyone else who booked the hotel as they graciously still let us use their rooms to crash in for an hour (I’M SO SORRY).

 

 

After Priscilla, Donna, Sampson, Sabrina and I got a quick hour’s sleep in thanks to a late check out, we tried to look for a quick brunch before the next round of goodbyes with Priscilla, Gina, Sampson, and Raubern. I then felt like I was living through the entire ending scene of the movie “The Half Of It.”

I don’t know how we eventually made it so underslept but Donna, Sabrina, Evie, and I then managed to take a cab over to Jazz Hotel by the airport where we then both ran into and said goodbye to Song at the Jazz Hotel, and then had an early dinner with Daisy, Ihita and Radhika before taking advantage of the hotel sauna afterwards.

The next morning Donna, Evie, and I said our goodbyes to Sabrina after breakfast and set off on a morning flight back to Rome, where we would transfer to a quick flight to Lampedusa.

However, while walking over at the gates in Rome airport I had mistakenly assumed “Palermo” was Lampedusa (we’re actually heading to Palermo the day after) and therefore was misled to the wrong gate. And the whole time we just sat, chatted and watched Evie perform on a piano nearby without realizing we had all the time in the world to go to our actual gate.

 

 

By the time we began to board at 1:06pm, it was already too late: the agents told us we had the wrong tickets, I then realized Palermo was not Lampedusa, and that the 1:10pm Lampedusa flight had already taken off. I took a deep breath, consoled myself it was only fair after a week of successes in flying 34 people into and around Sardinia, and walked over to the last flight out to Lampedusa in another part of the airport. Then leaving my bags with Evie and Donna at our new gate with only 2 hours to spare until that backup flight would take off, I ran out of the airport with their 3 passports and vaccine cards in hand looking all over for the ticket offices.

This particular Wizz Air flight out to Lampedusa from Rome was not showing up on my searches online, and the Wizz Air website did not allow me to buy a ticket on the same day. I therefore had no other choice but wait 30 minutes physically in line, sweating out everything I had drank and ate the past week wondering what my alternatives would be if I couldn’t buy this flight. After another 20 minutes at the counter figuring it out and finally getting our new flights, I was directed back to the check-in desk (thankfully having been allowed to cut in front), where I had the awkward task of explaining to them how I wanted check in 2 passengers who were already past security at the gate itself. By the time I had returned back through security to rendezvous with Donna and Evie, they had already began to board.

Crisis barely averted.

And the whole time I could recall how this near exact scenario had played out 4 years ago when I was trying to get to Slovenia, where Rome airport was also involved and I barely made it work (Mihaela was part of that experience, and it would be the same trip where we would meet Ashley Jia, who had just joined us for Yacht Week! …you never know…).

Yet what I find even more remarkable about this particular incident afterwards, was that everyone else in our Yacht Week group were also going through missed connections of their own AT THE SAME TIME: Priscilla and Gina were also led to the wrong platform for their train from Rome to Florence, and ended up instead on a wrong train to Bologna. Ashley missed her flight home in Rome. Sabrina would find out last minute her flight out of Sardinia would be canceled and would have to spend an extra night there.

I began to wonder whether these comedies of errors was emblematic of something bigger; that no matter how frustrating or random these inconveniences would seem at the time, they serve to remind us they’re just detours — or even required pit stops — that eventually get us back onto the paths we’re supposed to be on. They seem like mistakes at the time, but they might be anything but. Either way we all felt some sense of farflung interconnected camaraderie despite being separated by hundreds of miles of land and ocean knowing we were all going through the same thing…and instead of feeling frustrated at our present predicaments, we actually got a laugh together out of them. That’s a special kind of kinship.

Furthermore I wondered had we picked the right gate to Lampedusa, we wouldn’t have be sitting next that piano for Evie to play on, which could have inspired a random onlooking passenger, that mom dancing with her baby behind Evie, or even our social media, to look at life in a new light as if we became part of a greater ripple effect…

…and yet these are also thoughts I consider when I pull 2 all nighters in a row. One can dare to dream.

 

 

Back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea as the southernmost island of Italy, Lampedusa is the major island of the Pelagie Islands and considered to be part of Sicily. We arrived around 2 hours later than planned at 4:30pm.

 

 

This island has been inhabited by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs until it became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. You can tell it has Arabic influences to moment you arrive into town.

After a week in the very Wester European influenced old towns of Sardinia and Corsica, I felt immediately at home here.

 

 

With population of 5800 people, the island is 12km long and 3km wide, boasting a Middle Eastern-influenced capital “town” full of charms and vibes.

 

 

Fun fact is that we’re not really in Europe; this island geologically belongs to Africa.

 

 

For the average visitor who must go somewhere “unique” to the island, they should head straight to L’isolotto dei Conigli (the Island of the Rabbits), regarded as the “world’s best beach” on an official TripAdvisor poll.

We took the hourly 1 euro per person bus from the center of Lampedusa’s central town which gets to the beach on the west side of the island within 15 minutes.

 

 

What we did not know was that you need to make reservations ahead of time via your accommodations to visit the beach, otherwise expected to be placed on a waitlist (aka sit on an uncomfortable rock wall) where you could wait up to 2 hours to get in.

 

 

Thanks to a kind Italian nuclear engineer named Claudia (and her parents!) from Naples living in London, her watermelon themed umbrella kept us sane for our 2 hours underneath the sun.

Once our 2 hour wait was up and after the folks with reservations having been let in first, we finally got to see what the fuss was all about. I also needed to stretch my legs after that.

 

 

For sustainability purposes, they only allow a maximum of 550 people at a time on a beach, with a maximum of 2 hour shifts at a time before you’re expected to leave to make room for another group to arrive. The beach opens late morning and closes at 7:30pm.

 

 

Once you’re in you have to hike down a rock path 15-20 minutes to finally reach your destination.

 

 

And once you do, it’s baptism by paradise.

 

 

Wait this long to get in and you just want to flip your hair:

 

 

No excuses:

 

 

Lampedusa was also a location for many film shoots, so movies fans may also recognize some locations and film stars here. We recognized one:

 

 

After our time here was up, we headed back into town for a cab pickup at our lodgings for our onward 6:40pm DAT direct flight to Palermo.

 

 

- At time of posting in Lampedusa, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 63% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

OPorto-nity Awaits!

OPorto-nity Awaits!

 

 

After nearly 3 days in Madeira, we flew out on a late night flight back to the Portuguese mainland, arriving into Porto at midnight. Then Uber’ing straight to our lodgings at Ribeira São João Apartment in the city center, we arrived by 1am. I immediately fell in love with the city:

 

 

The next morning I quickly grabbed coffee at Café do Comercial in the neigborhood at 9am where lo and behold, I’d make sure to run into Vibhu, whom I first met in person 25 days ago on May 20th in NYC, before she’d catch her 10:25am train to Lisbon

Flippantly at the time when we had first met, we quipped then that “who knows, we might run into each other traveling,” not realizing a scheming universe always could make sure it would actually happen 25 days later.

 

 

I mean of all places to have a run-in, what better than a place like Porto? The city oozes with saudade:

 

 

So take your time wandering, especially in the alluring and evocative winding and hilly streets of Riberia.

 

  

19th century built Bolsa Palace is right next door:

 

 

And facing the palace is Mercado Ferreira Borgesa landmark building from the 1880s now converted into a nightclub and performing arts space.

 

 

A few paces away from both structures is the local’s favorite pasteis de nata at Castro:

 

 

Walking 10 minutes uphill and northeast along Rua de Mouzinho da Silveira, you’ll reach the decorative São Bento Train Station, which was formerly a monastery.

 

 

About another 5 minutes walk south street stands the 12th century Porto Cathedral:

 

 

The Cathedral is in the same complex as the former Bishops’ Palace of the Episocopal Palace. It became controversial for how lavish the residence became for the bishops as the rest of the city languished economically.

 

 

The cathedral complex faces the 16th century Convento dos Grilos across an overlook:

 

 

If you dig old bookstores, head up 10 minutes north from the cathedral for some Harry Potter vibes at the historic Livraria Lello. To set the record straight, the bookstore has no direct connection (the movies were never filmed here) with Harry Potter other than it was known that JK Rowling used to live in Porto while in an abusive marriage before leaving for Edinburgh.

You have to reserve ahead of time online to even get in (a minimum of a 5 euro entry per ticket, which can be used as a voucher towards a book at the gift shop; vouchers cannot be combined for a single purchase), let alone wait on the hour and half line. If you want to skip the line entirely, expect to pay up to 15-17 euros for a book you can then pick up at the store. We got lucky as we visited in the afternoon during lunch, so our wait time was only 20 minutes on the 5 euro voucher. They even give you umbrellas in line as protection from the elements!

 

 

This place is currently regarded as the beautiful and one of the top 3 bookstores in the world after Cărturești in Romania and Avid Reader in Australia:

 

  

After about 15 minutes at the Livraria Lello (it’s otherwise pretty small), walk 5 minutes southeast along Rua Das Carmelitas to Igreja dos Cléricgos, the world’s tallest building made of granite. For 6 euros you can climb the 200+ steps to the top for 360 views of the city, which I found to be similar to the views I got from Luis I Bridge and the countless elevated terraces around Porto:

 

 

The continuing along Rua dos Clérigos, you’ll reach Av. dos Aliados a few minutes away:

 

 

A little more north leads to the streets of Rua Santa Catarina, famous for eating, shopping, and churches with Azulejo tiles:

 

 

If you’re feeling peckish, there are numerous small dessert shops back in Ribiera. We picked out a special homemade nata dish at the oldest building in Porto:

 

 

And finally to the south of Riberia, you can walk along the top of Luis I Bridge for the views of Porto from afar:

 

 

Venturing further outside of Porto’s old city, we looked at the unique trees at Jardim de João Chagas. They’re not a native species but rather newer trees replanted within the old, dead trunks that swelled immensely from a tree-specific bacterial infection decades ago.

 

 

You may notice that across the street from the park, António de Oliveira Salazar’s unique “Lady Justice” statue stands imposingly outside the very un-Portuguese brutalistic architecture of the Tribual da Relacão do Porto. The statue is unique in that it has been redesigned without the typical “justice is blind” blindfold and the scales are tucked away at her side.

The redesign became symbolic of the fascist style of justice that Salazar’s reign wanted to convey to his people: we’re watching you and it’s not going to be impartial.

 

 

I then walked south back towards the river into the former Jewish neighborhoods of Porto, situated by the Jardim Municipal do Horto das Virtudes:

 

 

Of note, the stray cats here are taken care of and have been trained so well by the neighborhood here that they’ve learned to do their business in the man-made drains:

 

 

Resting a bit in the afternoon, we then headed back out in the evening west, passing by the Casa da Musica:

 

 

…before finishing our trip with a splendid al fresco dinner at Em Carne Viva:

 

 

Most atmospheric dinner of the trip so far:

 

 

Let’s begin:

 

 

Arugula Bread and Vegetable Chorizo with Chickpeas and Spices Tapenade:

 

Vegan Francesinha:

 

 

Bulhão Pato Mushrooms – Shiitake and Marron mushrooms in a white wine, garlic, and fresh coriander sauce:

 

Spinless Tofu with seaweed “Lagareira” – Finely sliced grilled tofu with seaweed from the Atlantic, crispy bread topping with herbs, sautéed greens and roasted potatoes:

 

Spearmint Petit Gateau, Caipirinha Hail, Creamy Lime Ice Cream:

 

How this trip ends:

 

 

Returning to the USA (COVID-19)

While in Madeira 2 days ago (which was at the beginning of our 72 hour window on our return back to the USA), we scheduled a rapid antigen test beforehand at one of the pharmacies in the neighborhood. Many already have testing tents set up in front of them but they only take appointments, which you must arrange at the sponsoring pharmacy itself.

 

 

Timing our flight back to NYC to be 4pm exactly 2 days from today, we selected the 4:35pm time slot the next day (yesterday) to be tested. This way our tests could count not only for our return back to the States, but also our layover in Madrid beforehand just in case we wanted to leave the airport.

 

 

Then yesterday afternoon we checked in at the tent located about a 2 minute walk past the pharmacy in front of Sé Cathedral in Madeira:

 

 

They really go up there in that nose here! Our rapid antigen test results were ready within 45 minutes and we picked them up back at the pharmacy where we originally scheduled our tests:

 

 

Then I uploaded my test result to the new app Verifly so I can make sure I minimize the fuss on my way back to NYC tomorrow morning.

 

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Porto, it was 15 °C - Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny