An unforgettable visit to Robben Island

I follow a popular blogger who recently tweeted this travel tip: “You can’t understand the present if you don’t know the past. Read up on the destinations you are visiting.”

A section of the maximum security prison.
A section of the maximum security prison.

It’s a simple reminder that is extremely profound.

For that reason, I recommend that you read or listen to an audio version of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “The Long Road to Freedom” if you intend to visit Robben Island when you are in Cape Town.

Will it be emotional? Yes.

Will it also be educational? Yes.

Will it add depth and texture to your experience? Oh, yes!

(For this post, I decided to share excerpts from Mr. Mandela’s recollections of Robben Island that will help to provide greater context to your visit. It enhanced mine.)


AT MIDNIGHT, I was awake and staring at the ceiling–images from the trial were still rattling around in my head–when I heard steps coming down the hallway. I was locked in my own cell, away from the others. There was a knock at my door and I could see Colonel Aucamp’s face at the bars.

“Mandela,” he said in a husky whisper, “are you awake?”

I told him I was. “You are a lucky man,” he said. “We are taking you to a place where you will have your freedom. You will be able to move around; you’ll see the ocean and the sky, not just gray walls.

He intended no sarcasm, but I well knew that the place he was referring to would not afford me the freedom I longed for.

That is how Nelson Mandela described the night he was told he was being moved to Robben Island – the stark, cold place that robbed him, and others, of simple freedoms many of us take for granted.

On the bus tour, I found out that in its heyday the island was ‘the most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system.’ It also served as a leper colony, an animal quarantine station and a hospital before it became known as a place of banishment and terror for activists opposed to apartheid.

Leper Graveyard. Robben Island
Leper Graveyard. It shows that beautiful things can grow in even the most unfavorable conditions.

We landed on a military airstrip on one end of the island. It was a grim, overcast day, and when I stepped out of the plane, the cold winter wind whipped through our thin prison uniforms. We were met by guards with automatic weapons; the atmosphere was tense but quiet.

I was bundled up when I stepped off the ferry – in sweater and scarf with long jeans – and the brisk wind still gave me goose bumps. I can’t begin to imagine what Mr. Mandela and his colleagues must have felt when they landed that day and were stopped to be processed.

Prisoners arriving
Wall mural depicting the arrival of a batch of prisoners.

We were driven to the old jail, an isolated stone building, where we were ordered to strip while standing outside. One of the ritual indignities of prison life is that when you are transferred from one prison to another, the first thing that happens is that you change from the garb of the old prison to that of the new.

The prison was divided into two distinct areas.  There was the general prison, known as sections F and G, which contained communal cells, and a quadrangular shaped area with single cells known as sections A, B, and C. Those cells and a guard station bordered a courtyard.  Mr. Mandela was placed in cell 466 on Block B.  Each cell was outfitted with a bucket, a cup, one dish, and a blanket. There were no pajamas issued, and none of today’s basic prison necessities like bunk beds or sheets.

Communal cell that housed up to 60 inmates.
Communal cell that housed up to 60 inmates. The mat on the ground is an example of what they slept on before the bunk beds arrived.
Nelson Mandela's Cell.
Nelson Mandela’s Cell.

Apartheid’s regulations extended even to clothing. All of us, except Kathy, received short trousers, an insubstantial jersey, and a canvas jacket. Kathy, the one Indian among us, was given long trousers. Normally Africans would receive sandals made from car tires, but in this instance we were given shoes. Kathy, alone, received socks. Short trousers for Africans were meant to remind us that we were “boys.”

Our tour guide, a former political prisoner himself, explained that there was differential treatment for other things as well.  Meals, for example, varied for blacks and coloreds. (Only Africans and Indians were sentenced to spend their terms on Robben Island; women and Caucasians were sent elsewhere). Persons also were placed into one of four categories: A to D. Those in groups A and B were allowed four letters per month while the Cs and Ds only got one.

Segregated Meal Charts
Segregated Meal Charts

That first week we began the work that would occupy us for the next few months. Each morning, a load of stones about the size of volleyballs was dumped by the entrance to the courtyard. Using wheelbarrows, we moved the stones to the center of the yard. We were given either four-pound hammers or fourteen-pound hammers for the larger stones.

Our job was to crush the stones into gravel. We were divided into four rows, about a yard-and-a-half apart, and sat cross-legged on the ground. We were each given a thick rubber ring, made from tires, in which to place the stones. The ring was meant to catch flying chips of stone, but hardly ever did so. We wore makeshift wire masks to protect our eyes.

Picture that captured men working in the courtyard.
Picture that captured men working in the courtyard.

The guide told us that the task gradually advanced to eight hour days spent breaking stones in a limestone quarry. Prisoners were exposed to all elements of weather, and forced to work with the most primitive of tools under the supervision of 15 guards who had dogs.  Many ended up with permanent eye damage because of the harsh glare of the sun and the ever-present stone particles.

Symbolic pile of stones erected by a gathering of former political prisoners and friends to honor Mr. Mandela's release from prison, after 27 years behind bars.
Symbolic pile of stones erected by a gathering of former political prisoners and friends to honor Mr. Mandela’s release from prison, after 27 years behind bars.

On occasion, the men would relieve themselves in a small cave at the back of the quarry. It was the only place that they could escape the watchful eyes of the guards. We were told that they also carved out time to teach each other how to read and write in the dirt there.  It became known as their ‘prison university’ and ‘informal parliament’. I’ve since read that it is quite possible that a significant portion of South Africa’s current constitution was written in that cave.

The limestone quarry with small cave to the back.
The limestone quarry with small cave to the back.

Other noteworthy tidbits that I gleaned from the tour are listed below.

  • Wardens were replaced at regular intervals because some of them were swayed by the arguments
  • Prisoners in the communal cells slept on the floor and often huddled together for warmth on cold winter nights
  • Baths were allowed twice per week only; on Wednesdays and Sundays
  • Prisoners with blisters were not attended to by doctors yet they could not complain. They were forced to use every means possible, including the ammonia from their own urine, to try to achieve healing
  • Hot water and bunk beds in the communal area were not available until after increased pressure from the outside world
  • Today, only former inmates serve as guides for the prison segment of the tour

Given what you see and hear on the island, it would be easy to walk away from Robben Island a bitter, sad, or heavy-hearted individual. But thanks to Mandela’s unifying spirit, and the outlook of many of his fellow prisoners, you leave instead humbled and grateful for their sacrifice. The sign at the entrance and exit best sums up the legacy of Robben Island. It is pictured below.

A sign with a powerful message
A sign with a powerful message

Tata Mandela himself later expanded on that sentiment even more:

“While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.”

Statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the prison from which he was released.
Statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the prison from which he was released.


Editor’s Notes:

To get to Robben Island, you take a ferry from at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.  Look for the Nelson Mandela Gateway that houses a museum shop, a restaurant, and a multimedia exhibition.

The boats leave on the hour between 9am-3pm, and the journey can take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour depending on the weather. When you arrive on the island, you are taken on a bus tour that passes by the Lepers’ Graveyard and the tiny house where another famous political inmate, Robert Sobukwe, lived in solitary confinement for several years.  He was the only prisoner who was allowed to smoke, and he died of lung cancer at the ripe old age of 54.

You also get to see two of the oldest buildings on the island; the Irish church built in 1841, and the lighthouse that was built 25 years later.  There is also a guest house where President Clinton and his wife stayed when they visited with Mr. Mandela in the late 90s.

Of course, there is also the obligatory gift shop. Allocate about three and half hours for the complete tour.

My recipe for a Big Apple Cabtini (Shaken & Stirred)


New York Taxis (photo courtesy of the (Internet)
New York Taxis (photo courtesy of the (Internet)


1 large apple, blended

Cocktail shaker (a.k.a. NYC cab)

Sour mix (as in, the disposition of the cab driver)

3 friends (filled with Caribbean zest and joie de vivre)

Vodka  (Grey Goose or Smirnoff, you choose)

Ice cubes (a.k.a. cool city temperatures)

Manhattan glass



1. After a late night in Manhattan, persistently hail a cab to get to Brooklyn.

2. Put 3 tired yet mellow friends, 1 part apple, and I part sour mix (i.e. obnoxious driver) in vehicle. Close the door, state destination, and lean back to relax for the ride home.

3. Jerk upright and hold on tight as the crazy driver zigzags dangerously down the street. Expect vigorous shaking and swaying to continue for at least 2 minutes. Quickly decipher that your cabbie does NOT want to go to Brooklyn that late at night and he is annoyed that you are already inside.

4.  Ask him firmly, and calmly, to slow down. Strain to hear his response as the unbalanced man turns his radio volume up to full blast.

5. Stir the situation by knocking on the partition and yelling over the music to STOP THE VEHICLE. For extra garnish, add with accented splash, “Do it NOW!”

6. Get out Manhattan glass – fast. Take the subway and enjoy a good girlie giggle on the way home.


Master Blender’s Notes:

For a long time I thought that the taxi drivers in my home country, Jamaica, were uniquely unpredictable. In general, our roads are narrow and often chock-full of potholes so it takes special skills to navigate them safely.

But as I grew up and began to travel, I realized that we are not the only country or place that has public transportation issues. While the road surface may be better in some areas, the random craziness that emanates from cab drivers seems to be a common denominator wherever you go.

I’ve been taken on other wild and/or circuitous rides in big cities like São Paulo and Shanghai. And during one visit to Cairo, I noticed that the cars drove with their headlights off at night.  What’s more, the white lines in the road are a suggestion; not a strict guideline. The vehicles bob and weave across the line as they choose.

So while I filed that Manhattan ride as another “authentic big city experience”, I know that New York cab drivers can be zany but they don’t have the copyright on crazy!

Chinese Street Food

There’s an old saying that says: “The Chinese eat everything with four legs, except tables, and everything that flies — except airplanes.” I rolled my eyes and chuckled when I heard it. But when I saw dishes like sautéed frog, sweet and sour snake head soup, donkey and braised croaker (lizard) listed on hotel and restaurant menus, the laughter dried up – quickly.

So take it from me. Be prepared to see and experience the gamut of food choices when you set off on a Chinese street food adventure. Some of it may make your stomach yearn for more. But the more exotic delicacies? Think churn…or quiver?

Chinese noodles
Chinese noodle stall

If you opt to buy breakfast on the street as many locals do, don’t expect anything as mundane as scrambled eggs or cereal. Most Chinese eat steamed or fried dumplings with various fillings in the morning, or something sweet like doughnuts or buns – usually accompanied with a drink of soy milk. Egg pancakes, rice porridge and noodle soup also are common. I was hesitant to try any meat varieties, so I sampled the vegetarian dumplings instead. They were scrumptious (and filling).

Xi'an Street Food
Meat skewers in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter

For lunch and dinner, many roadside stalls display rows of skewered meats (kebabs), hand pulled noodles, and Chinese-style hamburgers that are shredded meat served between steamed bread. Other specialties include spare ribs, and simmering lamb or beef broth that you break chunky flat bread into. Several vegetarian meals are also available. You can lick your lips and linger; standing up, or sitting down.

Xi'an street food
Chinese flatbread

Xi’an is a great spot for street food. Once part of the famous ancient trading route of the Silk Road, it is now a modern city with craft/souvenir and retail shops,and interesting historical sites – the Terracotta Warriors being one of them. The Muslim Quarter, specifically the bustling Beiyuanmen Street, is famous for its food stalls.

For the faint-hearted epicureans like me, there’s also a nice Starbucks. I won’t lie to you. Its magnetic force was formidable. My warm ham and cheese panini sandwich, washed down with a steamy cup of hot chocolate, was just what I needed on a cold winter day.

Wangfujing Snack Street

If you’re heading to Beijing, you must visit Wangfujing Snack Street. Be warned; it’s noisy and crowded.  However, I was convinced that ‘the snacks’ were presented more for shock value than sustenance when I saw even some Asian visitors with mouths agape. It is must-see.

Your experience will depend on your spirit of adventure. All types of wriggling insects are displayed, just waiting to be cooked. Does hearing about centipedes, scorpions, spiders, bugs or sea horses get your gastric juices flowing? Well you’re in luck; chances are they’ll have it.

Insect varieties at Beijing Snack Street
Insect Varieties at Beijing Snack Street – Photo credit @ Stacy Wilkinson
Beijing Snack Street
Exotic options at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing – Photo credit @ Stacy Wilkinson)

Are those snacks too tame for you? Don’t worry, you can order exotic meat as well – as in dog, cat, sheep’s balls, or frog on a stick.[ Sidebar: I wish I could see your face right nowAre you salivating (or barfing) yet?]

All my queasy compradres, there’s hope for you too. Some vendors also sell plain foods like dumplings, squids, noodles, and fruits.

Beijing Snack Street
Meat varieties at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing

 I’ll end this post with one little word of wisdom. Whatever items you choose to try, please ensure that it is cooked before your eyes.

Beijing Snack Street
Desserts at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing (Photo credit@ Stacy Wilkinson)

 Bon Appétit!


Editor’s Notes: For full disclosure, I must let you know that the hotel menus also had regular meal options. Admittedly, my culinary experience was not the best I have ever had but some people in my group had no issues, and  I do know two families that came back from their China trips raving about the food. I guess it depends on where you stay, what you like, and where you eat. I can vouch for the Peking Duck and the dumplings. They were awesome.

Bimini daycation

Did you see the 1991 suspense thriller, The Silence of the Lambs? If so, do you remember when Clarice Starling answered the phone during her FBI Academy graduation party? Be honest, were you as spooked as I was to find out that it was Dr. Hannibal Lecter on the line?

“Hello Clarice”, he said. [Insert heart-racing pause here. Now go gravelly soft with the cultured, yet diabolical, voice impersonation]

“Have the lambs stopped screaming?”

OMG! Even now, I am getting goose bumps simply thinking about it.  I remember almost jumping out of my seat in the cinema.

That iconic scene was filmed in Bimini, one of the more than 700 islands, cays and islets that make up The Bahamas.  The island is seven miles (11 km) long and 700 feet (210 m) at its widest point.

I spent some time there recently; about five hours to be exact.

Because of its proximity to Florida, Bimini is an easy day trip from Fort Lauderdale or Miami. If you own a boat, or occasionally charter one to go big-game fishing, you can make the 53 mile (85km) trip on your own. I took the commercial route – the Bimini SuperFast.  The ship left Port Everglades at 9 a.m., and we disembarked to the sounds of sweet and rhythmic island music by noon.

The day trip package included free tram service to the Resorts World Paradise Beach or Casino where individuals and families could redeem vouchers for scuba diving adventures, snorkeling, or kayak tours. Persons also had the option of getting discounts on several water sports activities.  If you love water skis, water bikes, jet skis, banana boats, glass bottom boats or parasailing are your thing; you’ll be in haven. I prefer land-based activities, so I chose to explore historic Alice Town. Round-trip transportation was included for that option as well.

Our first stop was at Stuart’s Conch Salad Stand, where my fellow passengers got to sample a dish I’d been introduced to during my university years in Nassau. In this Bahamian specialty, the conch is taken fresh from its shell, cleaned and cut into small pieces. Diced hot peppers, onions, and juicy tomatoes are added, and then lemon juice is poured over the mixture to cure the uncooked meat, like in a ceviche. After that, salt is added to taste. It’s a spicy dish that can take some time to get used to. However, I was pleasantly surprised that all the conch salad first-timers loved it!

Stuart Conch Salad Stand, Bimini
Fresh conch being prepared at Stuart’s Conch Salad Stand

I enjoyed a few of my favorite dishes over lunch at the popular local eatery, Big John’s Bar & Grill.  It is an open air restaurant with a cool, laid back vibe. I hadn’t had authentic Bahamian food in years so the first bite into my conch fritters triggered savory memories of long-forgotten Friday jaunts with college friends.  Back then, a small group of us regularly passed the day leisurely in the many shops and restaurants along Bay Street.

But that was only the beginning. When the rich flavor of the conch chowder hit my palate, I found myself reminiscing even more. And the pièce de résistance of any Bahamian meal? In my book, that honor goes to a delectable dessert known as guava duff. My serving didn’t just invoke recollections; it summoned pleasure-infusing genies from the nethermost regions of my mind.

Bimini Gas Station
Bimini Gas Station

After lunch, I gawked at the island’s only petrol station, which was essentially two pumps on the side of the road. I also checked out one stretch of beach; and dodged happy-go-lucky golf cart drivers that careened noisily through the narrow street.

I skipped a full walk through of the craft market as a cursory glance didn’t reveal any unique items on display. But I braved the overgrown grass and rickety steps to enter the second floor museum across the street. It housed interesting tidbits and artifacts that provided colorful context for the island.

The Bimini Museum
The Bimini Museum

Inside those dusty and dilapidating walls, I learnt of Ernest Hemingway’s Bimini fishing expeditions. I also saw the immigration card that Martin Luther King Jnr. had signed when he visited the island in November 1964. The captions said that he composed his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech while staying there.

Snippets of life surrounding Adam Clayton Powell Jnr, the outspoken, flamboyant and charismatic US Congressman who generally was considered to be the grandfather of the civil rights movement, were also on display. He spent most of his 1967 term in Bimini – not New York – amidst much controversy surrounding his alleged misuse of payroll and travel expenses. Powell’s second wife, was jazz and classical pianist and singer, Hazel Scott. Interestingly, she was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and moved to the United States at the age of four.

School boys in uniform
School boys in uniform

If local folklore is to be believed, Bimini’s most significant historic tie to today’s generation possibly lies in the origin of the phrase, ‘the real McCoy’.  It is said that the island was a popular whiskey supply source during the Prohibition period, and while many rum-runners were forced to ‘water down’ their product, the Bimini–based William S. McCoy could be counted on to export the full-bodied brew to America. As a result, the term ‘the real McCoy’ was born. It is now used in many different contexts.

I rarely drink, and even when I do, rum and whiskey are not at the top of my list. But I checked, and there are local shops where you can sample Bahamian liquor to test its true potency. Cheers to that!

For the last hour or so, my Mom and I puttered around town. We also jumped on the tram and headed back to see the Resorts World hotel, which is still under construction. It will be gorgeous when it’s completed.

Bimini Resort
A section of the Bimini Resorts World Hotel

I’ll end by saying that Bimini is TINY, so outside of water sports, fishing, and the casino, there is not much to do. It is nothing like Nassau, or even Grand Bahama. But it has its unique personality and flair, so be thorough in your research to find things to do while there.

Now, I do wish we could chat longer but I have to go. I am meeting a good friend for dinner…


Editor’s Notes:

The Bahamas is special to me. I suppose it is because I spent two of the most carefree years of my life in Nassau, and made many lifelong friends. In addition to Nassua and Bimini, I’ve also been to Freeport (Grand Bahama), Andros, Eleuthera and Blue Lagoon. The currency exchange to the US dollar is 1:1, so bear in mind that your spending clout won’t extend as far as it might in other Caribbean Islands.

While there, be sure to try their signature drink, the Bahama Mama. It’s a blend of pineapple and coconut juice, and a touch of coffee with two types of rum. Be mindful of where and who you ask for it though because the phrase ‘Bahama Mama’ is also local lingo for a curvaceous and well-endowed woman.

One last comment. I visited Bimini in October 2014 and the condition of the museum and the pubic library below it, saddened me. Alice Town is being touted as a historic place but not enough care is going into the maintenance and upkeep of its buildings and artifacts. I hope that either the Bahamas Tourist Board, the new hotel, or private residents will take that museum on as a project. History needs to be preserved!

My South African Safari

Does music ever factor into your trips? I’ve found that it has an amazing ability to transcend language and cultural differences and connect people in a memorable way.  Plus, listening to my favorite songs at the end of an exhausting yet exhilarating excursion helps me to relax and reboot for the next day.

It’s also great to have access to earphones and a playlist-ready device when you’re on a long flight or a bus tour. Because at some point, you will need to drown out that annoying traveler who either talks too much or asks the most oddball questions.

Well, I didn’t take music on this trip but the mental soundtrack for my safari adventure included all the playful and infectious songs from the Lion King. I can sense that you don’t believe me. Read on.

Thornybush Nature Reserve, South Africa

As my bus driver navigated the bumpy dirt road from Hoedspruit airport to the lodge, I was silently humming and snapping my fingers to Hakuna Matata (click on link for audio). I’m being serious, for the duration of that ride, I also stole glances out the window and hoped for the real-life Pumba (warthog) and Timon (meercat) to appear. SA_PHOTO_BIG 1059

Later, when I met the enamored Texan honeymooners, Craig and Kristen, at our first bonfire dinner, it was the melodic strings from Can You Feel The Love Tonight that filled the air.

Keep rolling your eyes, there’s more.

The Stately Giraffe, Runway Model in the Animal Kingdom
The Stately Giraffe, Runway Model in the Animal Kingdom

During my first night ride, a leopard darted in front the jeep as she whisked her cub to safety across the dirt road. The driver pulled up; and every hair on my head and arms stood up. Why? At that point, yours truly was trying valiantly to drown out the menacing bush sounds with the soaring chorus of The Circle of Life.

The Elusive Leopard.
The Elusive Leopard.

No. I am not crazy. (Okay, okay…maybe I am just a little bit nuts )

I guess you’ve figured out by now that the Lion King is the reason that I agreed to a safari adventure when my sister decided to do something really different for her birthday. On an average day, I am quite possibly the most animal-averse person on the planet.

With several countries in Africa to choose from, initially it was a bit overwhelming to decide where to go. She knew that there was no way I was going to spend more than three days in the bush, so we had to find a location with other attractions to enjoy for the rest of our 10 day trip. After reviewing our options, Robben Island, and Cape Town sealed the deal for me, so we settled on South Africa. (I’ll share some of those highlights in another post.)

The Rooms at Waterbuck Game Lodge, with a balcony looking out to the wild
The Rooms at Waterbuck Game Lodge, with a balcony looking out to the wild

We opted to go to the Thornybush Nature Reserve, which is situated on private land adjacent to Krueger National Park. Everything at our hotel, the Waterbuck Lodge – fireplace, staff, and setting – was wonderful.

En suite bathroom with perfectly private views.
En suite bathroom with perfectly private views.

Our package included two game rides per day in an open Land Rover (at dawn and dusk); breakfast coffee and sundowner cocktail stops; delicious group meals; and cozy and intimate accommodations. The maximum number of lodge guests allowed at any one time is eight.

Another bonus to choosing the private game reserve option, is that our rangers were allowed to go into the bush to track the animals. Rangers in public reserves have to stick to the roadways. It was well worth the extra dollars because those spontaneous detours yielded many of our most memorable moments.

Rhinos on the run
Rhinos on the run

Imagine dodging flaying tree limbs as your driver and tracker pulled out machetes to hack away at minor obstacles. All in a bid to get the jeep into an area where vultures hovered over the remains of fresh kill!

Or picture being left unarmed and totally helpless in an open jeep while your guides got out of the vehicle to track the lions by their footprints. Those few minutes on our own felt like hours.

L-R: Loderick (Tracker) and Gareth (Ranger) tracking the lions
L-R: Loderick (Tracker) and Gareth (Ranger) tracking the lions

We also pulled over on the side of the road to allow rhinos to get to their watering hole, and got off the beaten track to see a testosterone led turf war. PRICELESS.

Testosterone fight.

Our ranger (Gareth) and tracker (Loderick) were excellent guides. Thanks to their bush savvy and persistence, we saw all of the Big 5: lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalos… and the elusive leopard. No safari can guarantee you will see everything, so we were lucky.

Over the three days, we saw a diverse number of wildlife as well. Animal sightings included giraffes; deer; zebras; antelope, and their sub-species: kudus and impalas; monkeys; baboons; wild boars; crocodiles; water bucks; hares; and civets, among others.

There were interesting species from the feathered family too.  I remember seeing a lilac breasted roller; guinea fowl; owls; grey heron; black bellied bustards; bald eagles; a blue reeve (female in the ruff family); and ducks.

The creepy crawlers weren’t left out either. We saw centipedes, large lizards, and a chameleon change from bright to dark green as Gareth plucked him from the side of the road and placed him in the grass. IMG_2694SA_PHOTO_BIG 1194

I will end by saying that the lions, the famed and feared kings of the jungle, were a bit of a let down. When we found the pride their bellies were full, so they were content and lethargic. It was a real-life case of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Sleepy lions
Sleepy lions

Queue the drums and bass guitar here, and join me as I attempt that lovable high-pitched solo:

A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh) A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh) In the jungle, the mighty jungle The lion sleeps tonight…  __________

Editor’s Notes: I visited South Africa in November 2012 when the weather was just starting to warm up. The peak of their winter is June/July. However, I have heard that for optimal visibility, the best time to plan a safari in South Africa is between May and October – their dry season.

I got my malaria tablets as a precaution, although I was told that you did not need to worry about it there – unlike in some other African destinations. I booked my trip through South African Airways Vacations and the package included domestic and international airfare, some meals, accommodation, game rides and Cape Town tours.

The beauty of any trip is that you can choose what suits your personality and pocket. Even if it means going on safari in a public park, and sleeping in a rest camp that houses tents, caravans, or forest huts – with or without private bathrooms. It’s still an adventure!

Look out for my posts on CapeTown soon.

Snapshots of Trinidad & Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago is a twin island republic just off the northern coast of Venezuela. But its place in this world cannot be limited to geographic coordinates or size. Rather, its impact lies in the warmth and vitality of its people, its diverse culture, its soca music, and its oil.

Here is a brief look into the aesthetic beauty of these islands through the lens of talented photographer, Phil Sykes.

Clapboard views
Clapboard views
Relaxtion inlet
Relaxtion inlet


Peer flex
‘Peer’ flex


Paradise beckons
Paradise beckons
Man, woman, dog
Man, woman, dog
Multicultural roots
Multicultural roots
Journey's end
Journey’s end

BEHIND THE LENS: A brief chat with the photographer.

Phil Sykes
Phil Sykes

Phil, tell me about your love of photography. Would you describe it as a hobby, or a passion?

It’s both a hobby and a release. I have a high-stress job with demanding responsibilities and photography helps to relax me because it frees my mind. It’s the only thing in my life that is totally unstructured and therefore it allows me to be creative.

With my camera, all I ever have to think about is ‘f stops’ and shutter speeds. (An ‘f stop’ is a quantitative measure of the size of the lens opening)

I’ve heard you say you feel naked without a camera. Is that really true?

Yes it is. I’m naturally an introvert but my camera allows me to be a part of an event and still remain an observer. Sometimes my equipment even acts as a conversation starter. Wherever I am, I look at the environment around me as a potential photo opportunity. I am constantly assessing light, shape, patterns and compositions so when I see something awesome and I don’t have my camera with me, I get MAD.

How does your smartphone factor in, if at all?

Because I always have my iPhone on me, it has become the quick fix solution to that feeling of nakedness that I described. Thankfully, with a few quality apps, you now can take pictures that come close enough to a shot from a Digital Single-lens Reflex (DSLR) camera.

You’ve mentioned that you’ve started experimenting with different special effects apps. What is your favourite, and why?

My current favourite ‘gimmick’ is a processing technique called High Dynamic Range (HDR). It allows me to manipulate a picture in a way that better mimics what the eye actually sees. The eye is much more powerful than a camera lens as it instinctively adjusts to large variances in shadow and bright light, and then processes that data.

HDR is a method of combining a number of shots of the same scene, each taken with a slightly different exposure setting. The end result is a photo that balances shadow and light in a more natural way, which ultimately brings out an amazing level of detail.

The technique is frowned upon by some in the industry because they claim it relies too much on technology thus taking away from the skill of the photographer. I disagree. I believe that HDR complements and enhances the photographer’s skill. It has its place as one among many photography techniques.

What subjects do you enjoy shooting most?

I have two preferred subjects; family and friends in a controlled studio type environment, and travel and landscape photography. Both are very different and require separate skills.

I know you’re British and that you travel extensively. But you’ve been to this destination several times. Do you feel a special connection to Trinidad and Tobago?

The country has a special place in my heart not just because my wife is Trinidadian and my daughter was born there. Both islands have stunning landscapes and spectacular natural light. From beaches to mountains, rainforest to coconut tree plantation, and inner city life to Hindu Temples in the sea – there is so much to see and shoot!

Living in Dubai, I am used to very flat, dull light that is super bright. And there’s usually no clouds in the sky. Very often the visibility is also very poor. When I go home to Trinidad I can’t help but notice the clouds and the skies, the light, the very changeable weather, the cleanliness of the air and perfect visibility. Those elements create so many more opportunities for eye-catching photography.

You strike me as a gadgets man. So if your family and friends are reading this post, tell them what’s on your photography wish list for Christmas.

I do like me a good gadget, and photography has an awful lot to choose from. Honestly though, I’ve tried quite a few and then left them alone. I am a bit of a minimalist now. Check my gear bag and you will see that it is not that heavy. Two or three good lenses is all I really need.

The one thing I do need more of, is time. Time to practice and time to enjoy my hobby. Also, as photography is an ongoing learning experience I would welcome a gift of enrolment in one of the many specialist courses that are available. I am no expert, and my quest for knowledge is real. Anything that would allow me to continue to grow and get better at my craft would be appreciated.


To look at his portfolio, you can visit his website at http://philipsykes.com. Or, to purchase high resolution versions of his Trinidad & Tobago images, and many others, you can email him directly at [email protected]. (He has so many stunning photos, it was HARD to select only eight)


My brief tango with Argentina

One of the greatest things about the tango is that it has infinite possibilities. There are no fixed rules for timing, speed, or direction and that freedom allows dancers to improvise and live ‘in the moment’.

Some of my best vacation moments happen when I do just that – live in the moment. That’s why I took an extra vacation day to do a quick dance with Argentina after my business conference in June 2010. After three days of touring nothing but plush yet generic meeting room space, I desperately craved a dalliance. Day four was my ballroom and Buenos Aires was my partner. I set my own pace and timing.

The conference was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in the heart of Buenos Aires. Regrettably, I didn’t get remotely close to the country’s famed snow-tipped mountains in the South Chilean border. Nor did I see the magnificent natural beauty of the Perito Moreno Glacier, or any of Iguazu’s breathtaking waterfalls.

Former castle coverted to hotel
A former castle that I snow a hotel

However, what I did see was impressive Spanish Colonial Architecture – with Italian and French influences; fashionably dressed porteños; and a thriving Buenos Aires arts scene. Plus, some of the best leather products on the planet. Luckily, I escaped credit card purgatory by consciously avoiding the handbag stores.

But I couldn’t stay away from the shoes. I tried to be strong, and was quite happy I only ended up buying a pricey pair of thigh high boots. They were SO worth it!!! Let me tell you something, those hot patches of leather shoot my swagger through the roof every time I wear them. Rihanna WHO? In them, I’m the one who is totally badass!

World Cup Fever

Perhaps the best part of my impromptu vacation was the fact that I got to experience a part of the Argentine culture that only kicks into high gear every four years. You could call it World Cup Mania. I toured the official World Cup Village and felt the nervous yet expectant energy bouncing off everyone I interacted with. The love of the game was clear.

2010 World Cup Headquarters
2010 World Cup Headquarters

Massive billboards and posters of their star athletes lined the city center. Blue and white jerseys displayed national pride from every shop window, and everything – speech, transactions, productivity, sheer movement – stopped when a match was in progress. The same thing happens in my country when we watch the track and field events during the Olympic Games.

City Tour

Did I forget to mention that one of my college friends is from Argentina? Lucky for me, he lives in Buenos Aires and he agreed to play tour guide and translator for most of my free day.

We took a three hour bus tour, and did some walking on our own.

The three icons of Arentina_Maradona, Evita Peron,Carlos Gardel
The three icons of Argentina – Maradona, Evita Peron,Carlos Gardel

At various stops along the route, we walked down the colorful streets of el Caminito in La Boca; stopped for tea or coffee in a local cafe, and took pictures at notable landmarks like Maradona’s statue and the Casa Roda. The latter is a baby pink mansion that houses a museum and the executive office of the President of Argentina. La Casa Rosada (equiv of the White House)

While walking, I also caught the tail-end of a union strike. Police battalions were out in large numbers to force back the expected crowds. Strikes appeared to be commonplace occurrences.

In the evening, I went to see a dinner and dance show with one of the conference delegates. My college buddy had ditched me at that point because he refused to watch a dance show for tourists. Well, there was no way I was going to leave Buenos Aires without seeing the famous Argentine tango.

The Argentine Tango
The Argentine Tango

The performances were elegant, energetic and fun to watch. Yo no podía quejarme de nada. _______

Editor’s Notes:

As is the case with any other big city, you need to walk with your wits about you in Buenos Aires. At the dance show, an elderly couple told me that they were robbed on the subway.  The thief used a coughing and hacking technique to get into the husband’s personal space. He lost US $100 and his wallet in the process

Despite my overwhelmingly positive experience in Buenos Aires, I must admit that I had one negative episode myself.  It involved a rather pathetic individual  who spouted a racially discriminatory comment during a tour.

The slight wasn’t directed at me in particular but I’ll be honest, my blood literally ran cold at that moment. I thought long and hard about what to do or say and eventually took the high road.  Especially after I realized that the man was an equal opportunity abuser. He had nothing good to say about Americans, Chileans, Peruvians or Brazilians either.  The irony was that for all his arrogance, he was an immigrant who was in a dead-end job; obviously bitter and frustrated with his circumstance.  Tres touché!

Things I Never Leave Home Without

Travel essentials vary from person to person and the items packed usually depend on one’s destination.  I’ve found that regardless of where I’m going, there are a few basic things that I never leave home without.  They are listed below in no particular order.

Toothpaste in a foreign language
Toothpaste in a foreign language

1. Travel toiletry
Even with universal logos, it’s sometimes hard to decipher product variations when looking at foreign packaging so I like to have my favorite brand of deodorant, lotion, toothpaste, and dental floss with me.

Hand wipes and small tissue packs are my other must-haves. There is no guarantee that you’ll find soap and tissue in a public bathroom, so my motto is: Better be safe than sorry.

2. Clothing and Accessories

Naturally, the destination’s weather forecast influences what you put in your suitcase. In my case, comfortable shoes, a pair of jeans, and a jacket or sweater are constant fixtures no matter what it says.  Nothing is worse than getting blisters on the road, so having the right pair of shoes is crucial.  And, if you don’t have time to pack everything, you can easily dress jeans up or down with tops from a local shop.  I need the sweater or jacket for the airport and airplane because the air-conditioning always seems to be set to sub-zero temperatures (at least in my book).

Cross body bags, also known as messenger bags
Cross body bags, also known as messenger bags

With regards to accessories, my sole non-negotiable is a cross body bag. I do not do fanny packs, and shoulder bags are too easy to snatch. With a cross body bag, you can combine hands-free comfort with safety and style.

3. A voltage converter and plug adapters

After one memorable curling iron disaster in London (I mean loud popping sounds and smoke filing the air dramatics), I never board a plane now without a voltage converter and plug adapters.  I suppose having to go through two or more curling irons in one three week cross-country trip will do that to you. It was a frustrating experience. Try as I might, I just could not find a device with the barrel size and temperature settings that I needed. imagesNTJZC1I4

Of course, many electronic devices like phone and camera chargers, laptops and tablets are now dual voltage, but I drag my converter and adapters along nonetheless. You never know what to expect.

4. Snacks

I like having healthy meals, and I believe in the ‘eating five small meals a day’ theory. But we all know that such lofty nutritional goals are hard to maintain on holiday.  When you’re on the go, fried and fatty foods, and various sweets often replace the healthier items like fat-free or low fat dairy, lean protein, nuts, fruit and vegetables.

As a result, I pack a few snacks as back-up in case I have to skip the artery-clogging meal options.  My stash ranges from instant oatmeal and hot chocolate packs to crackers, nutri-bars and nuts. Almonds, and trail mixes with peanuts and raisin combinations are my favorite.  Bottled water, bought at the destination, is a great accompaniment.

5. Over-the-counter drugs

True confession: I had a funny yet embarrassing encounter with an airport security rep on my way to Cayman Brac one Easter week-end.  The gentleman asked me if I had any tablets on me, and I proceeded to delay the line while I turned my bag upside down to look for my vitamins.

Deadpan, the man looked me in the eye and said, “I mean electronic devices ma’am; as in iPads or Nooks.” Feeling quite daft, I simply smiled and said no.  All in slow motion. What else was a girl to do? My excuse is that it had been a rough work week, and I was tired!

So by now I’m sure you’ve figured out what’s in my travel pillbox. Heartburn and diarrhea medicine are often packed too.

6. Bug spray

I am a magnet for every type of insect that lives so I have to rely on bug spray to protect my skin from bites and stings.  There are several brands on the market and finding the perfect one may take some time.  I’m a Deep Woods convert. untitled (3)

7. Backup documents

I always travel with a folder that has print outs of my entire vacation itinerary – flights, hotel reservations, airport transfers and coupons for car rentals and day trips. I think it’s also a good idea to keep a copy of my passport somewhere safe, as well as a list of important numbers, like my bank and credit card company.

8. Reading material

Finally, books or magazines are always in my tote because I love to read even more than I love to travel (and that’s saying something).  Judging from my earlier story, it’s clear that I don’t travel with Nooks or Kindles.  But a riveting hard cover or paperback? Bring it on!


How does your list compare?

One wonderful week in Italy

There is potential to fall in love all over Italy. Even before you realize that you’re succumbing to the country’s charms, you could become hooked on some of the best tasting food and wine on the planet. Or you could find yourself gushing like a giddy neophyte over its magnificent art and treasures.

Not a foodie or a history buff? Well, your mode of seduction could be relaxing walks through ancient, tree-lined streets; whimsical rides along graceful canals; or indulging in your passion for fashion.

HPIM0595 - Copy (2)
Outdoor Café in Florence

Believe me, no matter how immune you think you are, stay in Italy long enough, and you will get bitten by La Dolce Vita. It’s that laid-back Italian lifestyle that celebrates the power of hospitality and family; the joy of romance; and hearty, unrushed meals that feed your stomach and soul.

I didn’t expect to fall so hard for Italy. But I did. And as it is in love, sometimes you can’t explain it – you just feel. Honestly, I felt more than I thought possible in just eight days. Continue reading “One wonderful week in Italy”

Amsterdam Part 1: A Sex Education Master Class…and Red Lights

Amsterdam is unlike any other place I know. Of course, I knew before I got there that the country is quite liberal. Their laws unapologetically embrace prostitution, the use of soft drugs, and pornography. Yet I still found myself a bit wide-eyed on more than one occasion.

NOTHING is left to the imagination!

Amsterdam sign
Amsterdam sign

There are sex, erotica, and prostitution museums, plus shops that sell every imaginable (and unimaginable) type of sex paraphernalia and video. Almost everywhere you look as well, there are cinemas that present erotic live theater, and peep shows. The ‘presentations’ are made without filters and received without moral judgments.

Sex Museum ticket
Sex Museum ticket

While there, I visited the Sex Museum, a few sex shops, and the Red Light District.  I avoided the coffee shops with henna inspired concoctions.

Exhibits in the Sex Museum were grouped to show the evolution of peoples’ attitudes towards sex over the years. Historic art, sex aids, and photographs gave revealing insights into the Classical Antiquity and the Victorian periods. I’ll be honest, after seeing the display, I found it hard to comprehend how women managed to do anything at all while wearing chastity belts. Lord, have mercy!

An extensive collection of modern exhibits was available too, often accompanied by muted audio recordings. Other displays were just light and silly. Like the trench coat flasher who farts automatically, and the statue of American sex-symbol Marilyn Munroe that gets a constant stream of air pumped up her skirts to keep the iconic white dress blowing.

We went to the Red Light District in the evening and joined the ogling throngs of tourists who stared at the women in their red lit windows. Drawn red velvet curtains either meant they were with a client or they were out. There is a union that standardizes “service” prices and ensures that regular police patrol is in place for their protection.

However, in spite of all that formalization, I couldn’t help but wonder, like Jerome Dickey describes in his book ‘Sleeping with Strangers’, if “the women don’t feel a bit dehumanized being stared at like animals in a zoo.” Maybe that’s why they have a no pictures policy, which I was clueless about and subsequently ignored. Because of my camera flash, I almost got tossed out of the district by irate bouncer looking types. But if they are brave enough to stand in a window, smile craftily at passersby, and entertain random clients, why in the world would they object to being photographed?


Editor’s Notes: .Have you ever wondered, like I did, how red light districts got their name? I read that the name originated from the red lanterns carried by railway workers, which were left outside brothels when the workers entered so that they could be quickly located for any needed train movement.

Others speculate that the term was derived from the red paper lanterns that were hung outside brothels in ancient China to identify them as such. The lights were thought to be sensual. In more recent years, the terms red-light district springs from the red lights that hang from the district’s brothels. (Source: Wikipedia)