Tbilisi for the Uninitiated

The Caucasus is a region I had absolutely no clue about, except that it is where Europe and Asia converge, and where ancient man, as anthropologists and linguists posit, first walked out of Africa and into this part of the world. Georgia seemed like the logical choice when I planned this trip, along with Azerbaijan or Armenia. Time and costs narrowed it down to only Georgia and well, Doha, given the logical stopover that Qatar Airways offered. The Travel Companion (TC) bought his tickets separately a few weeks later after suddenly deciding that he wanted to come and truth be told, I was glad for his company. Georgians are hyper-social creatures; no one eats alone and a foreign woman going at everything alone would make it doubly odd—after the wary but blatant stares I kept receiving, I’d say TC helped in some ways to make me feel less like a specimen under a microscope.

We were only in Tbilisi for about a week and with this limited amount of time, day tours seemed like the most logical option. Even so, there was so much we couldn’t cover without a car. I decided on this post simply to make planning somewhat easier for idiots like me who bumbled about and probably made tons of mistakes getting around. But I’m hoping this will be a useful source of information for anyone planning a short, compact stay that wouldn’t take too much out of you.

How we got around

By taxi

This was our primary mode of transport. A taxi is pretty much any guy with his own car and a lit sign that says ‘Taxi’. Completely unregulated, you simply haggle for a fare before you hop in. We’ve taken a few through Tbilisi, using fingers and body language to negotiate and the taxi drivers typically range from grumpy to grumpier. Saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in Georgian helps a lot. The general rule I’ve learnt is that a trip around the city centre should cost no more than 5 GEL, which anything outside can be anything between 7 and 10 GEL. The airport is a completely different story though, so be prepared for inflated prices that would cost about 35-40 GEL, be it a taxi, a hotel car, or a pre-arranged driver from one of the tour companies.

By metro

Tbilisi has just 2 metro lines, tunnelled so deep into the ground that you can probably develop claustrophobia and vertigo just by riding the long, long escalators. The Avlabari and Rustaveli stations have long, long ones that take at least 2 minutes to clear them all, which can be a horrifyingly unpleasant experience. Built in the Soviet era, they retain that grim, bleak look that made me wonder if Tbilisi really left that bit of their past behind yet. 1 GEL takes you anywhere, for a single trip. 2 GEL for the reusable Metro card, which can be returned at a ticket office after showing your passport.

Bus & Marshrutka

We didn’t try this at all, finding the Georgian script and the general lack of English rather daunting. There are designated routes and stops for buses, but only designated route for Marshrutkas, which pretty much stop wherever people want to get down. But there are numbers on these little yellow things and there’s also a website explaining the routes, but there’s only Georgian on it.

Where we stayed

Hotel Piazza

Just a couple metres off Avlabari metro and in the heart of the old Armenian district, the location and its breakfast are pretty much the hotel’s perks. The staff were lovely and incredibly accommodating. In their 24-hour shifts, I think we bothered them the most with questions and odd requests and all of them had no problems with what we asked for. But it was impossible to open our room window without getting a fragrant whiff of the constant cigarette smoke that swirled around the ashtray just outside. Workmen came on the third day and worked till late at night and tons of (loud) tourists who were mostly Russian came back drunk and loud late at night—clearly not the best thing we could have hoped for when we were already so much in need of uninterrupted sleep. Breakfast started at 9 am (!), so early-risers, you’re straight out of luck if you want to start out early for your day trips.

Automated/self-service laundromats were impossible to find, but the hotel did laundry for us for 5 Gel/kilo, and it was amazing how much we actually spent washing our dirty clothes.

Tours we did

Free Tbilisi walking tour

At noon every day at Freedom square, there’ll be a guide who will walk you around the city for about 3 or so hours, explaining Tbilisi’s and Georgia’s history. These guides survive on tips, so give what you think they deserve.

Colour Tour Georgia

We booked 2 tours with them—one into the Kazbegi mountains and the other into the Kakheti wine region. Both tours were very different in their own ways and the driver/guide are always accommodating to what you want to do on the way. Another driver/guide we considered was Makho (sourced from Tripadvisor), who has a Facebook page. Colour Tour’s slightly lower costs won out in the end.

Culinary Backstreets

Trust Paul Rimple to take you around. If anything, you’ll get an expat’s view of Georgia and Tbilisi but he has been living in Tbilisi for so long that he’s practically one of the Georgians. Paul’s interesting stories help make the hours fly past, and you get to sample all the food he shows you in the Deserter’s Bazaar.

Places we ate at

It’s difficult to find bad Georgian food really, or we’ve been incredibly lucky for most part, to get what we wanted. We normally try to stick to local cuisine as much as we can, so there’s quite a bit of Georgian food where we’re concerned. It’s easy, however, to overload on Khachapuri and Khinkali, and then feel a little sick for a while as the cheese and meat start to take root.

You can eat cheaply, if you rely on fried food, or bread with cheese from the numerous bakeries (Tone) that could be found around the city.

The smoking ban in enclosed places hasn’t reached Georgia, so cigarette smoke in restaurants can be a problem if you’re particularly sensitive to it, as I am. Some of the places listed below do have a view over the old city; others don’t.

These are the places we visited and they’re mostly around Avlabari or the old town which we could easily reach on foot.

Oat gallery & Art café 144-stairs (right below the Cable cars, but do not use the path leading up to the Fortress for it. It’s through one of the tiny backlanes called Gomi)
Culinarium Khasheria
Saamo (Avlabari, near the Trinity church)
Zakhar Zakharich
Vino Underground
Café Flowers

A place we were recommended but didn’t make it: Machakhela, Organique Josper Bar, g.Vino

Other things we did on our own

Gulo Thermal spa

One of the best and worst decisions I could have ever made. The hammam experience was really not bad—steam from the sulphur baths helped unclog my nose and pores—though it was overpriced, with, well, rather bad service. Be prepared to face a chaotic mess at the reception as Gulo the proprietress attempts to sort out your reservation or walk-in booking with minimal English. I tried making a booking through Facebook and ended up with a heated argument between Gulo and someone called Zura when Zura didn’t manage to get my reservation down with Gulo at all. We had to wait an hour for a larger bath to be available—no apologies made—and was doubly charged until we managed to convince an English-speaking ‘bather’ that we’d already paid for our 15-minute massage and scrub, which in truth, was shoddily completed in about 5 minutes.

Visiting all the churches

See Orthodox Christianity in full swing, marvel at the richness of Christian Iconography and look at faded frescoes that are centuries-old. Walk the crumbling battlements of fortresses, step on stones that have weathered conquerers and enemies and soak in the haunting melodies of the liturgies. We walked up the Narikala Fortress (1 GEL brings you straight up there from the other side of the river) and it was a relatively easy climb and a good way to see the city in the setting sun.

Medical emergencies

I’m sort of embarrassed to say that a skin condition forced me into a private emergency clinic off the Medical University Metro stop late one night. MediClub Georgia has staff who are English-speaking, though I was tended to by residents who triaged their patients before handing them over to the main doctor on duty. Never having been in an emergency ward, I spent most of my time waiting, feeling both curiosity and dread at the somewhat dated setup, then wondering how much it was going to cost me. I got prescribed strong antibiotics in the end, something I couldn’t get on my own in a pharmacy.

Wine Education

I was just along for the ride to Kakheti, the richest and most fertile part of Georgia that lies in the shadow of the magnificent Caucasus range. The wine tour that we did with Colour Tour Georgia (and with Gvantsa and Tazo) was more for TC than me, but the journey into the mountains and into Telavi – Kakheti’s old capital – was just as scenic as the one to Kazbegi.

Wine tasting was limited to 2 large producers: Shumi and Khareba and both companies are impressive in their own ways. Shumi takes advantage of micro-climates in Georgia, producing wine from different regions where terroir helps shape it flavours and taste. Khareba’s sprawling compound , on the other hand, consists of a lovely park, and an 8-km-long underground, converted tunnel beneath the Greater Caucasus that houses wines of all sorts.

Archaeological excavations seem to suggest that Georgia has produced wine from 8000 B.C., long before the empires rose and fell, or so says the tiny Shumi winery museum in Tsinandali. The traditional method of fermenting wine in a Qveri – a large, roundish terracotta clay vessel buried in the ground – is still practised in villages today and for some large wineries, Qveri wines now make up the premium range of their collection. As we learnt, Qveri wines produce deep, dark colours as opposed to the European way of fermentation and in particular, white wines turn out a deep amber colour; red wines turn out nearly black. Both have strange but stronger aromas and are typically very dry – TC is better suited to sorting them out than I can – but generally, the difference is rather stark.

And that’s saying something when all I smell is typically sour socks and the sharp burn of alcohol. Just sipping a Qveri’s bitter dryness just made me cringe.

Georgians are understandably, proud of their wine heritage and their enthusiasm about wine shines through every time they talk about it. There’re never-ending jokes of course, about Georgian men’s ability to imbibe 3-litres of wine each when the occasion calls for it and the correlation to their stomach sizes. No one ever makes a toast with beer – it’s considered inferior to wine – and since every family in villages practically own their own vineyard for their own wine consumption. With a wine culture that’s accessible to the common (and poor) man, it’s unsurprising that people don’t tend to get snobby about wines here.

Food, wine and revolution

The long road to democracy, a squeaky-clean police force (thanks to a reality show called ‘Police’ to restore its standing in the eyes of the public and a concerted effort to clamp down corruption) and a booming tourist industry that almost everyone is happy to capitalise on pretty much characterises what I saw in Tbilisi – and perhaps to a lesser extent, the whole of Georgia. The Tbilisi of today is a far cry of Tbilisi in 2002, at least according to Paul Rimple, one of the authors and guides for Culinary Backstreets, the food tour company with which TC and I signed up to get a feel of the local area.

A native Californian who’d been a chef, a blues musician and is now a journalist in Tbilisi after spending some time in Poland, Paul made it clear from the start that he wasn’t a tour guide, but rather, someone who knew the city and wanted to share the places he loved with visitors.

That was perfectly fine with us, being in a city where it was hard getting around without knowing Georgian. Our day started on a winter morning in the old town and after shaking hands with Paul, who stopped to tell us about his own experience living through the end of Eduard Shevardnadze era to the Rose Revolution and finally to what Georgia has become today.

We made stops at a tone bakery, a wine/cheese/cha-cha shop just next to the Sioni Cathedral and then hopped into a taxi to elbow our way through the Deserter’s Bazaar (or the Dezertirebi), a chaotic, boisterous place that hawks the freshest fruits, vegetables, spices, oils, nuts, piglets (dead) and well, pretty much everything else, named as such because army deserters sold weapons here in the early part of the 1920s. Today, you’re more likely to be faced with anonymous plastic bottles filled with what could be honey, sunflower oil or any other unnamed liquid rather than guns and toothless old crones (who look alarmingly like the old witches in fairytales) hustling you to buy their cheeses.

This is Paul’s favourite place and he has been called insane for that, but it’s clear he’s on very familiar terms with the shopkeepers there, stopping to greet people while doing his grocery shopping as we followed in his wake, buying the things he bought and then sitting down for handmade Khinkali (dumplings) at Zakhar Zakharich. Other several hole in the wall-type shops we made pit-stops included a Georgian wine/cheese shop whose owner went to the only English-speaking school in Georgia, as his Soviet-sympathetic father had probably expected his son to be an interpreter for the KGB. But said son grew up to make cheese and wine instead, which probably puts him in a better position now than ever, if he does indeed get to retain his license to make blue cheese.

TC and Paul sampled 7 different types of wine at Vino Underground, the most interesting being the amber-coloured ones that were fermented traditionally in the ground in large earthenware vessels called Qveri(s) for about 6 months or more, a process which produces very dry, deep-coloured liquids with unusual aromas. And finally, we headed a few blocks down and around to Ezo, an organic restaurant that’s focused on putting quality food on the table – cooked just the way a Georgian’s mother/aunt/granny does it, supposedly – sourced through sustainable farming methods and fair-trade deals.

Through Paul’s stories, it was easier through learn about the radical facelift that Tbilisi had undergone, some pieces of Georgia’s history finally falling into place after he filled in the gaps for us, but others remained frustratingly out of reach. Replete with wine and fantastic Georgian food, we walked dazedly back to Sioni Cathedral through backstreets that we would never have ventured on our own, never quite getting over the fact that Georgia – and its inhabitants – still remain quite a mystery apart from what the history books say.

The bride who hides her face

“Hello, my friend!” Tazo our driver greeted us with such enthusiasm that it was impossible not to like him at first sight. As we found out throughout the day, he knows a smattering of English, ending every sentence with ‘my friend’. His driving skills are unparalleled, so much so that we had a headache by the end of the day trip into the Caucasus mountains.

The road out of Tbilisi is scenic, but absolute shite in many places. There are many times though, when the landscape alone makes it worth it and this is possibly one of those times.

The Georgian military highway is the only route out of Tbilisi into Russia and Azerbaijan, and follows the route of traders and invaders throughout the centuries through the high Caucasus. Touted as one of the most scenic – but dangerous drives – in the world, it’s easy to see why: harsh winters have reduced parts of the road to nothing more than potholes and the narrow width along hairpin turns would faze any driver.

But it’s also unbelievably gorgeous as it winds through isolated villages paralleling the Zhinvali Reservoir, the Ananuri Fortress, and the Gudauri ski resort near the highest point of the road called the Jvari pass before descending into Kazbegi, where most tourist journeys end, in the small village of Stepantsminda.

From then on, it’s a matter of playing Russian roulette (with not quite the same stakes) with the weather, to see if Gergeti Trinity church is accessible from Stepantsminda. Winter and heavy snowfall rule that option out almost immediately, despite the sunny skies, impassable even for 4WD vehicles which are normally used for that 6km trek uphill. TC and I had hoped to hike up, but that was pretty much a negative.

Kvintsa, our guide with Colour Tour Georgia, says Kazbegi is likened to a bride who shyly hides her face from visitors as it’s often shrouded in fog and clouds. Our disappointment and desperation must have been obvious, because the guide suggested that we could visit a neighbouring church on the other side of the mountain but we chose not to in the end, opting to see Gergeti church from the terrace of the very posh Kazbegi Rooms hotel.

Then it was back through the same road to Tbilisi – but with a stopover at a supermarket in Gudauri for lunch. Gvantsa and Tazo were brutally accommodating, eschewing their own proper meals that made us feel quite bad about it.

TC, however, slept most of his way through the journey, prompting concerned stares from everyone.

In the heart of the Caucasus

The locals call their land Saqartvelo, whereas everyone else calls it ‘Georgia’, a place (and many men thereafter) named after its patron Saint. For the longest time, it has been a country shrouded in shadowy myths (for me at least), lumped in with the rest of the Soviet states and forgotten about, until the Travel Companion (TC) bought a bottle of Georgian wine years ago.

My research into the place started in earnest then. I looked into their ancient language – a part of me imagines this is how Proto-Indo European might have sounded like -, the wine, the gorgeous churches, the mountains, the fabled hospitality of the people…and I was sold.

A few days into this trip, well, let’s just say that reality is a little more sobering. Avlabari, the site of old Tbilisi where the hotel is, is oddly chaotic and I’ve never gotten so many wary, distrustful stares from people and that’s not because I have unshaven armpits.

Georgia has always been the pawn of a larger power or another, tussled among those who warred over its ancient, fertile soil. War, or at least some kind of conflict has plagued its borders every few years, the latest being the looming spectre of a revived Russia seeking to inch past its borders. Consequently, there’s always a long story made of facts (and some entertaining fiction about saints and sinners) that every guide will enthusiastically tell of their colourful history, though getting their personal opinions of their conquering powers and the recent political situation is equivalent to pulling teeth.

Tbilisi is on its own, a huge contradiction but a proud survivor of its turbulent past: a beautiful mixture of architecture (best seen in the carvings on the balconies in the old quarter), a blend of old and modern, centuries-old Orthodox churches, bordered at times by grim, industrial-looking Soviet architecture on both sides of the Mtkvari River.

The guide that we had in the free walking tour of Tbilisi exemplified this quirk in his anachronistic dressing that belonged better in Dickensian or Victorian England. He took us around the old city, explained about the family network of Georgians as seen in the sharing of balconies/terraces, walked us through the sulphur baths, the Siony church, Freedom square and gave us a taste of Churchkhela (Georgian traditional candy made of nuts dipped in a sweet wine roux and left to dry out).

But there is as always, much more to the country than just its capital. I couldn’t wait to find out.

Staying fashionable while on the road

I’ve personally found it an impossibility to stay chic and fresh as I pull pair after pair of wrinkled pants (and shirts) out of my bags while moving from place to place. Even with hair that has thermally reconditioned (it’s a concession that I’ve been giving myself for the last decade to tame flyaway hair that can sort of still look alright in the morning), jet-lag and travel fatigue generally help guarantee that I wouldn’t be walking down any fashion runway any time soon. Those who look good effortlessly have my perpetual admiration and envy.

Yet I’ve never really been particularly image conscious, until I started walking the streets of Paris, London and Tokyo, where I stood out like a cranky barbarian who absolutely stood out from the fashionable natives because of how sloppy I looked.

Clothes maketh a man, so they say. But this wisdom has clearly passed me by. Sometimes clothes just don’t help me at all, considering how I try to wear my most well-worn things on travel so that they can get ripped and eventually tossed…without me, well, giving a rip and a toss. Paranoia also makes me keep it down to the minimum, especially when it comes to jewellery. I simply don’t wear any, safe for a boring, cheap watch that reliably tells me the time.

In short, I do think that many travellers don’t exactly care how they look as they wander down yellow brick road, just as there are many who do.

My own humble opinion really, is that I try to strike a balance between staying practical and looking as though I can fit in. But because I also dress for safety, what I ultimately throw into my suitcase requires more than a little thought given to it. Here are just some simple rules that I follow:

  1. Choosing basic colours that allow you to mix and match clothes effectively. I’ve always liked Scandinavian chic, so there are loads of black, navy and white (read: dull) combinations in my suitcase. Boring, practical, but easily matchable and great for concealing bulges and slimming silhouettes. Also prevents those sweat stains from showing which is already a huge tick in my book. Personally, patterns and dots and checks spell my doom.
  2. I typically pair loose tops with tight-ish or straight bottoms and vice-versa. No two things should hang loose at the same time, nor should both top and bottom squeeze you into a muffin top. This rule gets tossed out of the window when it comes to visiting religious places–stay conservative, culturally sensitive and respect the rules and regulations.
  3. Minimal accessorising: The most colourful I dare to get would be with a scarf, or at most, with some fancy bracelets that scream costume (not real) jewellery. Add too many colours to your getup and risk looking like a heavily-dressed lantern out of season.
  4. Being very careful with the use of cosmetics. I find myself rushing more often than not and there are fewer fancy nights out that I actually get to. Again, I keep these so very basic (I bother with sunscreen when visiting the beach, for instance), but ladies, I don’t think I should say any more because I do tend to be on the no-maintenance scale here. There are women I know who pack hairdryers and straighteners and every type of mask available in their cupboard, but I’m going to go out on a limb here to say that you’ll need to space for other things.
  5. Finally, looking good from the inside out: I do bring vitamins, keep myself relatively hydrated and try to stay the narrow road when it comes to eating healthily. It’s not always successful, clearly, but well, acne outbreaks and flaking skin have long taught me my lesson.

How do you look good while travelling?

Speaking in tongues

My (ex)Icelandic tutor once told me that she was learning several Japanese phrases for an upcoming trip to Japan, despite knowing nothing of the country. A Travel Companion once, had even bought Turkish and Italian quick-fix language sets in preparation for those holidays.

I’ve no idea if they actually succeeded in getting around more easily, but they’ve never worked for me. Should I bother memorising anything other than “Yes”, “No”, “Thank you” and “Please” in a language I’m completely unfamiliar with?

I’ve often asked myself if I should even bother with the short section found at the back of every travel guide called “Useful phrases” in the language of the country you’re visiting, knowing that I’ll mostly likely sound like a complete idiot when I mangle the pronunciation and say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Forget about even counting to ten, when I can barely remember the basics.

I’ve tried to go beyond the polite niceties, rattling off something and either annoyed someone, or got drawn into an enthusiastic conversation during which I’ll be raising my hands sheepishly and admitting that I know nothing of the language to the crestfallen person.

All too often, I’ve had more success with pantomime and a little dancing around involving frantic gestures. Got hands? Use them. Got legs? Even better. Walk till someone helps you. Have a killer smile? Hopefully someone will take pity on that face. Sometimes, I simply hold up the guidebook to their face, point at the phrase I’m trying to say and hope that at some meta level, they know what I’m trying to get at.

The alternative however, involves learning several languages to a competent level – and for me, that takes years and a heck of a lot of investment – before I feel comfortable conversing with a local or asking for help and not receiving a barrage of information I can’t unravel quickly enough.

In most cases, my interest in the language grew only after visiting the country. And I’ve never quite regretted learning the language since.

The truth is, many locals are charmed and receptive enough when you make an effort to speak what they speak and that’s why I still try these hacks from time to time.

So learn those phrases if you think they will help, but know that they can be as futile as you’ve thought they’d be.

Travelling when ill

It’s hard to do anything when your body doesn’t want to corporate. You’re sneezing, coughing or wheezing and there’s a flight to catch, or a train to run after, or an early morning call that you have to take because you’ve signed up for an early day tour that you sort of now regret.

I’ve hard diarrhoea and food poisoning (fever and all) on board a plane and it’s far from a fun ride. Besides that, it’s difficult to think about what will happen the next hour, let alone the next day. What is supposed to be the time of your life experiencing loads of new things has suddenly turned to laboured prayers for a warm comfortable bed and much needed, uninterrupted sleep.

It’s possible to enjoy the trip laid out before you, but it does take some preparation. There are those who do have specific instructions about not travelling, but my concern here is for those who simply fall ill or feel very poorly while on the road.

  1. Pack medication that you can get off the counter. I have a huge bunch of them–antihistamines, anti-diarrhoea pills, cough tablets, aspirin, painkillers–and these are brands which I know and have used before, which I lug around. Some of them make their way into my hand-carry bag, just in case.
  2. Carry a doctor’s prescription for special medications especially if your supply is going to run out. If you have a pre-existing condition, this is all the more so important, especially if the emergency services in the country you’re travelling in need to know your medical history in a hurry.
  3. See a doctor in the country you’re visiting and depending on which country this is, access to medical care can be anything from easy to near impossible. Language barriers might worsen this problem. Admittedly, I’ve hardly done this and have always managed to ride out the illness, though this probably isn’t the best thing for more severe bouts that might require antibiotics or surgery.
  4. Purchasing travel insurance that has the kind of medical coverage you’re satisfied with in case you manage to land yourself in hospital. These vary greatly across the insurance companies and it’s not secret that there’s always some kind of balance between wanting the most coverage and the kind of premium you’re prepared to pay.
  5. Get up to date on your vaccines. Preventative measures like vaccines might go quite a long way in keeping you safe. A flu vaccine might be wise for the cold season in Europe, just as malaria/hepatitis A/typhoid/cholera vaccines would reduce the risks of infection.

But if you’re already sniffing and coughing and miserable about it, there’s pretty much no way out but to ride it through as valiantly as you can. I’ve found it hard to give up a particular sightseeing tour if I’ve planned it for months simply because I’m laid low by a virus. So I’ve gone on stubbornly, only to pay for again later.

All I can really say is…have loads of clean water, bland food and a less intense travelling schedule – essentially babying the body until it recovers – would go a long way to shrugging off the untimely bout of flu.

Adventure prone

Waking up at 4 am is a hellish experience I wouldn’t ever want to wish on anyone. But the Travel Companion and I did it, in my 4th iteration of what has so far been an annual pilgrimage to Bali, that has now gotten past just scuba diving off the east coast of Bali and off Nusa Penida.

I had a great time on Christmas with Jan and Markus (just the 3 of us, it seemed), since tourist numbers are madly erratic for this period. But perhaps what made it worth it as always, was the accidental conversations I fall into during these journeys. Jan and I spoke at length about conceptual art, the European far-right, losing face and how stupid people can get on the way back to Sanur, while TC got badly sunburnt in the meantime.

But that was only the start of the trip. Blame my growing thirst for adventure.

Thus far, I’ve done a dive off the drifty little islands off Padang Bai (Mimpang and Tepekong), gone off-roading on a Buggy/quad bike tour off the villages past Ubud and recklessly decided to up the ante and head far north for canyoning.

“Do not hesitate,” Adrien (the Icopro instructor) said. And he’s right. It gets worse when you think and re-think the angle of the jump, the probability of hitting your head on the rocks.

I ended up lobbing off the edge, 8 metres into a deep pool, and straight on my arse like a demented cannonball into the water.

Add that embarrassing thing to sliding down slippery rocks, zip-lining partway down and rappelling off waterfalls…and I found myself having an absolutely brilliant time while at it, then wished I’d chosen to do a full day of it. The Kalimudah part of the Kerenkali Canyon in the mountainous north of Bali (Git Git) is the most technical of the parts which the TC and I had signed up for with Bali Adventure and Spirit, and the hellish experience of waking up at 4am just to make this journey from Sanur more than made up for the adrenaline rush and the thrill that came from working the stunning scenery and getting dunked straight into ice-cold water. TC, who couldn’t even swim, was so enthused and challenged by the entire experience that swim classes are finally, finally on the cards.

Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t in 2 minds about this when we first started out—straight out of a furious thunderstorm in Sanur to rain that persistently didn’t let up until about 8 am after we finished breakfast in Gigit. We went past numerous lazy dogs, endless rice plantations and cloud-covered misty mountains framed by rows of corn and coconut trees. The drive back had worse traffic, but bluer skies and colourful towns where tourists don’t seem to register much on the locals’ quotidian.

But it was mostly filled with memories of the hard kick of the water up my nose, the thrill of the slides and the pull of the abseil rope, as well as the exhaustion that crept in slowly as the day wore on.

My canonying-initiation card will proudly stay in my wallet for now.

2016: What I remember

I’ve never been the sort who catalogues every good and bad moment of the year and up until now, it has been difficult trying to sort each and every memorable one out. The months and the weeks go by in a manner that makes me feel I’d been in a coma for several months; a bad blip rolls over into a good one, which sometimes stays on…until the next disappointment or roadblock hits. And on it goes.

But now that I think a little harder about it, the good memories always tend involve the process of learning something new, either as a hobby or as skills acquisition (I hate this corporate-sounding term in any case), along with the times I’ve been away travelling doing something new.

In no particular order, this was what really stuck out:

  1. Taking rock climbing technique classes.
    Over a period of 4 weeks, I shook my bon-bon, twisted from side to side, gained many bruises along the way and trashed my ankle while at it. And still came out of it liking the sport more and more.
  2. Visiting the Lofoten islands in Norway.
    The pictures that I’d seen did all the justice to this place. Best done with a travelling companion and a rental car. Probably also best done while not during Easter when the whole country shuts down.
  3. Visiting Okinawa.
    Yet another amazing place I’d seen from afar, then finally made good on the personal goal to do it. This was a solo trip, done with a rental car and the blue, blue sea everywhere I went.
  4. Finally signing up for motorcycle lessons.
    I figured that wanting to be a biker chick starts with learning how to get my limbs coordinated with the brakes, clutch and the throttle while enduring the insults and the yells of the instructors. I’m barely into the practical lessons and also have the bruises to prove it after a skid and fall.
  5. A death in the family.
    I can’t even begin to describe the deluge of emotions that accompanies this, the scrambling that occurs later and the fallout from it do chip away some part of the soul.
  6. Coming to a point where important relationships had to be evaluated, giving up some things, while hanging onto others.
    Not to say it isn’t all figured out, neatly compartmentalised and sorted in my head, but such housekeeping has been and I suspect, always will be painful.

The truth is, I don’t remember much more beyond this. There’s only just the mantra of keeping on, then hanging onto the hope of what will come next. And then I look up and pray.