#LivingWithNature in Rwanda’s Akagera Rhino Lodge

On top of the world. The Akagera Rhino Lodge cottages with their wide verandas overlook the stunning, often fog-covered, Lake Ihema.

“Akagera is among the most scenic of savannah reserves, with its sumptuous forest fringed-lakes, tall mountains and constantly changing vegetation” – Bradt Guides Rwanda by Phillip Briggs and Janice Booth

The most exciting part of a solo adventure is when you do not really know what awaits you. Not so sure many wanted this kind of a surprise but there are few crazy ones who will agree with me. Sometimes we win, finding the best, and sometimes we lose, getting the worst. But it does not really mean you wasted time. Every travel experience is, of course, a different experience. Imagine if they are all alike!

Warm, rustic welcome after the car navigated through the winding uphill road.

While browsing online what to do next after having explored Kigali, I chanced upon a beautiful lodge in Akagera which I later found out was over a 2-hour drive. Not too bad. Knowing Rwanda’s rolling hills and amazing landscape, I expected the drive to be exciting. It was!

While I enjoyed the freedom of walking around the city, which was my initial travel plan, a personal challenge was finding a place surrounded by nature. I am not so familiar with what Rwanda can offer but that’s the good part – finding them.

Simply idyllic! Mornings are never the same in the lodge. Sometimes bright, sometimes foggy but always new and amazing.

The comfortably huge bed with a view. Loving its simplicity.

As Paulo Coelho puts it well in Aleph, “Travel is never a matter of money but of courage”, having traveled penniless and happy in his younger years. But of course, you still need the money, I can hear you say it.

This was how I discovered Akagera Rhino Lodge, with all of its nine lodges set in a hilltop in the middle of a bush overlooking Lake Ihema. It was an instant fascination! What can be more relaxing than this. Each cottage has a space for one family complete with a ready extra-bed and having it all for myself was almost a luxury.

I guess just like me, people nowadays want an authentic get away from the hassle of a city and its madding crowd. The lodge exactly provides that.

Be open for an all-out nature adventure. Who won’t fall in love with this?

My first night was quite hilarious. I never felt so alone with the nearby cottages empty. Many of the guests came a day or two after me, so I was conscious that I am the only one privileged enjoying the quiet and serenity of the lodge. I am confident I am safe but my gnawing feeling kept on until I slept soundly.

My first sunrise was unbelievably glorious. This is even an understatement. As soon as I woke up, I tucked away all the curtains and enjoyed the quiet, serene view as the dawn broke and the skies hues turned orange to yellow. I am glad it almost took forever. There I was at the wooden verandah basking on the million-dollar spectacle at around 5:30 am.

I never had a sunrise as glorious as this one. I think what made it incredible was the complete backdrop of the dewy lake, the colorful hues of the skies and the gentle singing of the birds. A luxury only nature can give us.

The rest of the team in the lodge led by Arlette and Chantal, the very first two friendly faces who welcomed me and made sure I have what I need for a comfortable stay, were awesome. I cannot ask for more accommodating staff. When I requested a cottage closer to the restaurant, they immediately found a way.

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. —Henry David Thoreau

People, their charm and friendly smiles, always complete the magic. Arlette and Chantal, the humble lodge owner Joseph, and the rest of the lodge staff, made me feel definitely at home.

Next stop: What to do in the lodge and what more can Akagera offer?

#BeautifulDestinations: Exploring Rwanda, The Land of Eternal Spring

Traveling during the time of the coronavirus: A different kind of experience

#WearAMask: You may venture to travel but this is not the time to lower your guard. Wear a mask not just for yourself but also for people you come in contact with. Photo taken at Pepponi Living Spaces in Kigali, Rwanda.

After being stuck and missing my much-needed work break in Juba, South Sudan after six months, choosing a place to go and unwind while Covid-19 is still a threat around East Africa and many parts of the world was a tough decision. Working as a humanitarian working in fragile contexts, I know fully well that the break is not your normal holiday. It is a requirement to keep your sanity and give you a reprieve.

Traveling during this pandemic is a test of steely nerves. Having moved around 46 countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, dealing with the unseen coronavirus is something else, terrifying, to say the least. It took me months to decide it’s time to pack bags and change my environment. Looking at my veranda in Juba that has also served as my stationary running gym has become tough to endure.

After almost nine years (if my memory serves me right), I am finally back in Rwanda. This is Kigali’s beautiful city hall.

Rwanda was my most practical choice. It is close to Juba via Nairobi and took me only a day’s trip, leaving at 4:00 pm and arriving at 9:00 pm in Kigali, switching flights from Kenya Airways to Rwanda Air with a barely three-hour layover. Both airlines did remarkable jobs keeping the trips convenient and on-time. Filipinos also do not need a visa for a 90-day visit so that extra hassle was off.

Early on, I started practicing wearing my mask at my apartment in South Sudan to get me more acquainted with it. It was my biggest worry especially having asthma. This helped a lot while I was traveling as it became a normal part of my face. I was also able to observe how I breathe and where I was comfortable. I packed several masks in a sealed bag enough for the entire trip.

Here are some things kept in mind and packed in my bag ahead of the trip:

  • Medicines – asthma inhalers, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins
  • Extra face masks and less-than 100mg sanitizers; one I put in my handbag and use from time-to-time
  • Fully-charged phone/s and mobile charger
  • Credit card and spare cash (to avoid ATMs)

I am a sucker for real books but this time I brought my 12-year old Kindle with over 90 e-books on it to travel light. This did not stop me, though, from buying two books in the Genocide Museum. Bookworms are just hopeless paperback fanatics. From Juba to Nairobi to Kigali, the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion gave me a perfect insight on how to handle moments, and generally life, at its most crucial time. Amazing how books fitted what I need so perfectly.

Two Rwandan women catching up while waiting for their bus as I was taking an uphill walk. Rwandans are among the world’s friendliest people. Expect a wave and a smile when people see you walk by.

“It seems that hardship, in forcing us to exercise greater patience and forbearance in life, actually makes us stronger and more robust. From the daily experience of hardship comes a greater capacity for accepting difficulties without losing an inner sense of calm” – the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion

Isn’t that a beautiful reassurance that out of this runaway pandemic, there is something positive we can do with our lives? Working in global emergencies for a long time, reminded me one more time that we humans have the capacity to endure suffering and rise above it when we keep our mind in a noble goal. I have witnessed this in so many survivors.

Many hotels and restaurants are almost empty. In my first week, I was the lone guest living on the hotel’s 3rd floor. But it is also a great time to bond with staff and workers! That’s what travel is all about – meeting people from different walks of life.

One important part of every trip is bringing a positive spirit and spreading it around you. There will be times when you get annoyed or disturbed during the trip, but be ready to shift gears and tell yourself that the world is already faced with a huge threat. The best thing we can do it make it better. Kindness matters at this point.

Beyond Religion shares this reality-check and very timely advice from the 8th-century Indian thinker Shantideva:

If there is a solution, Then what need is there for dejection? If there is no solution, Then what point is there in dejection?

Now, let me leave you to that thought. The most important take-away I have from Beyond Religion is how you do the meditation process well. When you encounter some distractions, the Dalai Lama tells you to just go back without scolding yourself for giving in to the unwanted thoughts that crept in. Just go back and keep trying.

I think that’s the perfect advice that we must do all the time – we find the good and keep going back to it.

A mother and a baby moving slowly. Do you know that the city is also known for its thousand hills. Perfect for walking and running!

Next stop: #ExploringNature – Akagera Rhino Lodge

Dionisia Sira-Chiu: A beautiful life rich with 90-year journey of faith and courage

Dionisia Sira-Chiu’s life story is the story of every woman. Rising, falling and rising again. She has the courage to challenge the status quo of her time and led the way how things can be done by women if they have persistence. Now she tells us her story heading Maya Angelou’s call, ““There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

“Even before you were born, the community is already waiting for you to do something” – Chiu Bun Gim

A woman inspiring fellow women

In her time, women’s struggle to be empowered took roots rising from motherhood to inspiring the family’s thriving business to flourish. Her candle shines forever for women to follow.

What makes a woman’s life different? In particular, what made this one story special?

I have interviewed and written about many women from all over the world and there are few who stood out among those I met. One is Dionisia Sira Chiu, the woman behind the well-respected Chiu families whose businesses are based in Koronadal City, the capital of South Cotabato Province, but spans the whole Mindanao island.

Dionisia’s journey is a wealth of wisdom about family, relationships, faith, courage, trust and yes, compassion towards others. What struck me most was her tenacity as she went through life’s bumps and hurdles. Did she cry and spent sleepless nights over them? I am sure she did and imagine what lessons I found. Did she, at a point, waver through the challenges? I am sure she did, just like you and me. This one many women would share in common.

Indeed, what makes a woman rise above the rest is that effort to do something for her own community; to spread kindness and to do things that matter to other human beings, especially those in need. Often, our life’s inspiration is driven by the passion of people around us. In her case, it was her late husband Chiu Bun Gim, a migrant from mainland China whose business foresight led him to venture in the Philippines. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Childhood at the time of war and peace

She was born from parents who valued education at a time when going to school was a tough challenge. “My father used his rusty bicycle to take us to school which was 7 kilometers away from our barrio (village) named Balabag to the town of Santa Barbara”, she recalls. She became among the first batch of students who graduated from grade VI together with those from grade VII.

Born on May 8, 1929, Dionisia Sira grew up in a deeply religious family who never missed praying the Angelus every 6pm every day followed by the Holy Rosary. “I was always sleepy during the prayers but I managed to complete them”, she says. Somehow, these seemingly tedious traditions helped build her patience and inner strength. She eventually became the prayer lead during important religious celebrations.

Santa Barbara, a town in Iloilo Province is located 16 kilometers from Iloilo City. Though few people may know at present time, it is part of the country’s important independence history. The Revolutionary Government was inaugurated in its town plaza in October 1898 led by Roque Lopez as president. The revolutionary forces successfully launched the campaign to liberate the province from the Spaniards. Then the Japanese came and occupied many municipalities in Iloilo province.

Driven and determined. She witnessed the violence of war but it did not diminish her desire to reach her goals.

Dionisia, fondly nicknamed Nising to family, friends and acquaintances, was old enough to witness the atrocities. She says, “Many people fled outside Balabag for fear of violence. We have heard of rumours of people being beheaded. It was terrifying that I saw myself how a beheaded guerrilla being kicked by a Japanese soldier.”

“There were times when we have to put off the fire in the kitchen hastily, carrying the uncooked rice in the pot straight from the wood stove and run for safety in our air-raid shelter”, she adds. Every grain of rice is considered sacred in the Philippines and should never be wasted even at war time.

From Visayas to Mindanao

After her first two years studying a degree in Pharmacy from Colegio de San Agustin in Iloilo City in 1951, Nising moved to complete the remaining two years of the degree in the University of San Carlos in Cebu City, graduating on 1953. By then, the family moved to Mindanao taking advantage of the government’s program, the National Land Settlement Association (NLSA). Majority of those who made the move came from the Visayas region.

Immediately after graduation, she took the boat from Cebu City to General Santos City in Mindanao. In that journey, Nising met a Chinese guy named Chiu Bun Gim, who was quiet but was fond of going around in the boat. He brought us and some boat officers together to play games. That fateful meeting, almost uneventful, actually became the start of their long journey together in 1957.

Persistence personified. Her parents instilled in them the value of education and this challenge was not easy in the 50s. But she prevailed pursuing what she wanted.

She spent her early days in Koronadal City taking care of her siblings who were still studying. “I was cooking and keeping the house for them”, she shares. She established her small pharmacy in nearby Kipalbig, Tampakan that she named Sira’s Medicinas Caceres in 1955 specializing in household remedies. With the health clinics and hospitals inaccessible in the 50s and transportation difficult, her pharmacy became the refuge of people in need of immediate treatment.

“I have sewn the wounds of a farmer with abaca fiber who got into an accident. I assisted several child births. One night, I was summoned to help a man who was knifed and was profusely bleeding. Faced with these challenges that could mean life-and-death, I have no choice but to use what I have learned and help save lives. Fortunately, most of these patients survived and I was happy I was able to do my share”, Nising added.

Finding love and the future

They next time she met when Chiu Bun Gim was when she remembered offering her services as an interpreter. She ended up working as secretary doing their admin work ensuring that their communications with clients were done promptly. On the side, she taught them proper verbal and written English.

Their relationship gradually blossomed and they faced together the changes in the business industry as they started a family that grew into six children now leaders in the real estate and trading industry with growing families. Valentin now owns Chiu Kim Enterprises. Joseph owns Viajero and other businesses. The four women Maria Victoria and Maria Veronica, Maria Rosario and Maria Henrietta are main incorporators of Marbel Universal Trading, Inc.

“What I really admired in him was his being soft-spoken and thrifty. Imagine that with his P120 monthly salary from La Perla Cigar & Cigarette Company owned by Lucio Tan, he sent P100 to support his family in Xiamen, mainland China and saved the remaining P20 which later were invested into his business ventures assisted by close friends”, she adds.

During Chiu Bun Gim’s death in 1996, whose tombstone was engraved with his favorite saying, “Be like a candle which burns itself to give light to others”, it devastated her but she said she was prepared. Way back in 1980, he was already having a prostate problem and high blood pressure. This led a surgery administered in Chinese General Hospital in Manila and was followed by a diagnosis of colon cancer in 1992.

He went home to Koronadal City after his surgery where he was cared for by his family. Unable to travel anymore, his family from Xiamen came to visit him and the two families met. This part of her life will need a longer sharing time.

Raising a family of business leaders, Dionisia and Chiu Bun Gim with children. From left: Henriette, Rose, Val, Joseph and twins Vicky and Vernie.

Together with Chiu Bun Gim, they worked hard building a business. Every cent and effort counted. This trait they were able to inculcate in their children’s lives.

A campaign to give back to the elderly

At 90, Nising found her calling to take care of people her age. “One instance that really struck me was when a frail, old woman, probably my age, was begging and went to our store. I asked her why she was alone and nobody accompanied her. She shared with me that her children have no time for her and she had to find food for her needs. It broke my heart. The elderly took care of their children while growing up and now that they are old, nobody can return that love to them”, she laments.

That encounter gave birth to her dream of establishing a home for the aged in Koronadal City. There were a lot of hurdles but with the support of her family and various support groups, the dream is gradually unfolding. The groundbreaking event of the one-hectare site donated by the family was a triumph of compassion over the odds. After a careful selection, the Board of Trustees of Anawim Koronadal Home for the Elderly was set-up composed of respected members of the community.

Dionisia Sira Chiu’s 90-year journey is not over yet. It is just taking a good turn to the more fulfilling phase of giving back.

I am grateful to be a woman. I must have done something great in another life.” – Maya Angelou

Age is just a number. At 90, Dionisia still travels the world, now exploring it with her grandchildren. A life well lived and full of adventure.

An early celebration of her birthday in Hong Kong witnessed by families from the Philippines and China. Everyday is a celebration.

Before his death, Chiu Bun Gim had reunified his family in Xiamen, China and Koronadal City, Philippines. The tradition of annual family reunion started alternating locations in both countries.

Dionisia’s life is inspired by many beautiful quotes and poems among them Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata. Note: Copy of the prose poem photo grabbed from www.sacredart-murals.co.uk.

#MoroccoIsAmazing: Where getting lost is finding yourself … and what you really want

The Morrocans have a beautiful way of doing and selling things. Every product display is a work of art. It seemed like nothing was spared to make them appealing to the eyes.

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, in dimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” ― Pico Iyer

As I packed a small suitcase for my Morocco trip, I resolved not to shop but to have more time to enjoy without thinking of things to carry. The cabin bag is perfect for moving at airports. Easy. No waiting time at the baggage carousel. Every time I travel, this is my goal – no checked-in bag! How wonderful to get out of the plane, queue at the immigration and out to the waiting car. I wish!

How do you say “no” to all these and just enjoy the feast? I did. What I am impressed of the shopkeepers here is they can urge you to buy but they aren’t offended when you don’t. I love that kind of respect. Not all, but most.

I met the same mom and daughter team from Argentina who were traveling from Buenos Aires to Barcelona to Cairo then Marrakesh for a month. One carry-on bag each, less hassle. “We washed and re-used and made sure we carried the lightest clothes we have”, Adriana said. Imagine if they traveled in 3 countries with a lot of heavy bags? That can be a nightmare!

On my first day getting into the souk in this small alley, I was already giddy with excitement on what will I find out. I was honestly not disappointed.

I learned well that the best way to travel in Europe is light and easy. Just lugging bags in the train’s overhead bin had been tough for me. Never again. If it is winter time, nobody will even appreciate (including yourself) what you are wearing. All you need is a comfortably warm jacket and a nice neck warmer. If you have other ideas to solve this, let me know.

Going through the shops are convenient, all of them competing not just with an array of things to sell but also on how they creatively display them.

Going through the labyrinth of souks (traditional markets) in Marrakesh was both fun and mind-boggling. The way between shops are small and often, you compete with a very languidly moving crowd, a motorbike doing deliveries and even horses in intersections. Watch your back! This did not faze me, however, as I found it so amusing in most times when a tourist shrieks and shouts after a close brush with a cart pushed by a harried worker.

I was brought to a carpet shop by my guide who insisted there is no pressure for me to buy. Of course I know they wanted me to. After a lot of explaining I don’t need one, we parted ways. Handwoven carpets can sell from US$500 and up. They’re the best buys when in Morocco. You can also arrange to have them shipped.

Most shops open between 9:00-10:00 in the morning and closes at around 6:00-7:00pm except on Fridays when most of the shop owners go for worship. There are few money changers in the big souk but one can always go to the Jemaa El-Afna Square where you can find Bureau de Change and even withdraw money from the ATM machine. I found it easier to do this in the morning when people are still few. It becomes busier by mid-day and all the way to sunset.

Too many choices! Traditional herbs, tea leaves and different kinds of oils are aplenty. Check out where to buy authentic ones before you decide. Your hotel staff can always help advise where to go.

Marrakesh is not a place for people in a hurry. It is best enjoyed slowly, taking time to look at every incredible doorway, a line of ceramic pots in a riot of colors, a rhapsody of tea leaves and oils. Morroco, in general, is best planned like you have all the time in the world to soak even in every small detail of life. Its history is rich and reading about it before you arrive adds to the excitement. It is like meeting a friend after a long time.

A friendly grandma showed us how they prepare and extract oils from the nuts. A painstaking process that Moroccans are happy to do making their oils, especially the argan oil, among the most-sought after.

“Fill your life with adventures, not things. Have stories to tell not stuff to show.” – Anonymous

Exploring Marrakesh: Awesome airport, nice weather, fun flea markets and souks

If you want to soak in vibrant colors and hues, go to Marrakesh. Every plate, wall, sign – even horse carts – are magnet to the eyes.

Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” – Jack Kerouac

Marrakesh (or Marrakech), a former imperial city in western Morocco, is a major economic center and home to mosques, palaces and gardens. The medina is a densely packed, walled medieval city dating to the Berber Empire, with mazelike alleys where thriving souks (marketplaces) sell traditional textiles, pottery and jewelry. A symbol of the city, and visible for miles, is the Moorish minaret of 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque. It is also the 4th largest city of Morocco after Casablanca, Fez and Tangier. *

As Royal Air Maroch taxied in the runway from Casablanca to Marrakesh, this scene bid us goodbye. Doesn’t this looked like a copy of a scene in Casablanca, the movie?

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Flying from Juba, South Sudan to Cairo, Egypt, I arrived in the morning in Casablanca, Morocco and has to wait for 5 more hours for my domestic flight to Marrakech. It was almost a 2-day flight but was made easier with the smooth flights via Egypt Air. The only ruffle was the long wait for the car to take us to our transit hotel in Cairo and the much longer wait for our passports at the Egypt Air office. Otherwise, the trip was hassle-free.

Photography book The Art of the New Airport has named Marrakesh Airport as one of the most beautiful in the world. Indeed, it is.

I was in awe of the Menara Airport. It is one of the most beautiful that I have landed into. It is said to have a capacity of accommodating 19 aircrafts and over four million passengers in a year. The immigration process was fast and in no time, I was out waiting for my taxi driver. I requested from the hotel and the cost was 200 Dirhams (USD20).

This profusion of lights greet the passengers warmly upon arrival and look even more fascinating at night.

Hotel Racine located in Gueliz did not disappoint. The room was spacious and clean with a small verandah that gave me a view of the sunset and the daily lives of the people. Breakfast was a wonderful treat – usually with fresh juices, an array of bread and fruits. There were choices of coffee and tea. The Moroccan tea is not to be missed! I agreed with one tourist who said she is a latte-person but in Morocco, she fell in love with their tea.

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Hotel Racine’s location was very strategic. It is also walking distance to many landmarks, shopping areas and event the Catholic Church.

The hotel lobby. It is fully booked most of the time so I got lucky to have reserved early. Staff are friendly and would patiently explain the direction where you want to go.

People, from hotel staff to drivers, would often laugh every time I ask if it is safe for me to walk alone. Indeed, I have never felt threatened while exploring on my own, even with or without a crowd. The Moroccan traders are among the friendliest! In some countries in Asia, shop owners will scold you taking pictures without buying anything. It is free advertising!

All things nice and beautiful – find them in Marrakesh’s souks (shops) – where every item draws the eyes. It was relaxing!

I learned one needs to bring a light coat or a jacket all the time when traveling on March. The mornings can be warm but the afternoons can be chilly. Depending on where you come from and your tolerance to cold weather, it is best to be prepared. I am glad I brought my thermal shirt with me, it was nicer to layer on top of it. You get the best of both on March and I was happy I came at the best of times.

I almost got tempted bring these plates home. It was too hard to refuse. I am glad my resolve did not break down. Next time, plates (when I have learned to cook)!

Few shops accept US dollars but currency exchange shops are in every corner. Even hotels would prefer the Moroccan Dirhams when you are settling your bill, or pay in credit card. It is also smart to have smaller bills. Taxi rides would often range from MAD 30-50 around the city. Most drivers’ shift ends at 7:00pm but they would gladly refer you to the next if you feel comfortable of the service. I prefer taxis recommended by the hotel but in some instances I just flagged on the road and agreed on the fare before I got in.

Carpet overload! Remember your flying carpet story? I got reminded. If you are into expensive handwoven carpets with amazing intricate Berber designs, they’re waiting for you.

If you are around on a Sunday, never ever miss the choir from the Church of Holy Martyrs at its 10:00am mass. They were amazing you would think you attended a concert with a variety of African instruments being played, including the drums, of course. A lot of tourists and visitors have been raving about this choir. The mass is in French but there are translated guides in a variety of languages from English, German, Italian, etc. I met few Filipinos on my way out of the church.

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The Church of the Holy Martyrs in Rue de Imam Ali in Gueliz. Conveniently a walking distance from the hotel. The church was said to have been built in 1928.

The beautiful mosque in Rue de Imam Ali facing the Catholic church.

They said the mosque and the church facing each other is a testament how the city and the country values diversity and respect of the people’s beliefs, traditions and faith. Morocco is said to have over 50,000 Catholics out of its 36 million population which is 99 percent Muslims.

Jemaa el-Fnaa is a square and market place in Marrakesh’s medina quarter. It remains the main square of Marrakesh, used by locals and tourists. It is also known as the big square and fills up in the afternoon with people. This is said to be one of the busiest in Africa.

Next blog: Getting lost in the labyrinth of the souks!

*From Google and Wikipedia

#MoroccoisAmazing: Goats on trees, how argan oil is made, the beautiful culture and camel ride to the Sahara

The Sahara Desert experience was one of my best unforgettable adventures. The sunrise was amazing! There is indeed no limit to God’s fantastic creation. Below is our desert camp accommodation.

“I believe that Marrakech ought to be earned as a destination. The journey is the preparation for the experience. Reaching it too fast derides it, makes it a little less easy to understand.” – Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams

I learned something new on this trip: When it is your birthday treat to yourself, it better be different. My 16 years on the road made that a tough challenge. What will I do? Where will I go? What kind of adventure can I still do without me buckling on my knees? In the end, I called the travel agent and booked Morocco. Deciding too long has cost me an additional US$400 more for my ticket, so I closed my eyes and confirmed. I told myself this better be worth it. It was, and more!

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The palm tree is an icon in Morocco! Do you know that there is an estimated 5 million palm trees in the country, many of them are 150 years old. Their role in everyday life cannot be understated – they provide shades and prevent soil erosion, among many other uses. This view was from the verandah of my room in Hotel Racine.

I did four stages for my 8-day trip: 1) Walking tour in Marrakech – ½ day, 2) Ourika Valley – 1 day, 3) Essaouira – 1 day and 4) Sahara Desert – 2 days/1 night.

I intentionally reserved 2 days for myself exploring the city and going to Jardin de Majorelle, where Yves Saint Laurent’s ashes were enshrined. The famous garden had been said to be his refuge after leaving the fashion world before his death. Wow, imagine walking in the same steps where the fashion icon had frequented.

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The villa inside Jardin de Majorelle designed by French architect Paul Sinor inside the garden created by French artist Jacques Majorelle. It is also where the ashes of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent was enshrined.

Surprisingly, hotels and riads (or townhouse with courtyard) are aplenty and amazingly designed. They are also affordable! My first 5 days were spent in Hotel Racine in Gueliz, the location is a 10-minute walk to the city center. It is clean, rooms are spacious and staff were very friendly.

My last 2 days I have to move to a riad right in the center because the hotel was fully booked. They were friendly enough to keep my luggage while I went to the Sahara. In every city I visit, I always book for a walking tour to get familiar with the landmarks. After that I prefer to be on my own. I prefer my holidays at my own pace, no rushing and early morning trips except for special ones I wanted to do.

Marrakech’s big square is a mish-mash of colors, bright and muted, but all a feast in the eyes. It was a pain not to buy anything. So tempting! But this time, I am determined to just enjoy the experience.

Tip #1: When you are taking a walking tour, make sure you agree with your guide where to go, what you want to see. If not, you can end up being taken around shops and being cajoled to buy things from carpets, argan and olive oils and all sorts of silver jewelries.

The Ourika Valley tour gave us a glimpsed of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains and the valley’s famous landmarks, the waterfalls and couscous lunch by the river. The view along the way are these open-air ceramics and trinkets shops.

Tip #2: Marrakech is easy to explore and generally safe. Just be careful with your things as you do in many other countries you visit. The Moroccans are very friendly and will always go out of their way to help you, even the taxi drivers and hotel staff.

Needing a mind-boost? On your way to Essaouira, the van will stop at these hilarious trees filled with argan-eating goats. I have never laughed to loud with my fellow tourists. These goats are in the serious business of balancing and eating on top of the tree, unmindful of the gawking tourists!

Tip #3: Do your research what you want to see before you leave home. I sat with 2 girls on holiday who have no idea where to go and what are Morocco’s important sites and landmarks. It is such a waste visiting the country and will never know what are the beautiful stories behind them.

The streets of Essaouira is a labyrinth of these amazing doorways, old colorful walls. This harbor city faces the Mediterranean Sea, a long coastline and beautiful port.

Tip #4: The best thing of traveling alone is you get to appreciate solitude more, and have more time to enjoy the sights. Even in a group try to find time for peace and quiet. That’s what holidays are supposed to be for.

Inside the luxe desert camp in the Sahara. The tour is an amazing experience!

Watch up next: The fun Marrakech maze!