Say what you will about the value of guidebooks, but I’d never have found Köycegiz if I’d had one with me in Turkey. To be fair, this small Aegean town peppered against a large, warm, freshwater lake does get a mention in most Turkish guides - usually a throwaway paragraph with words like “sleepy” and “quiet” and “nice for lunch”. It’s just one of several signposts you’ll pass en-route from the infamous ruins at Ephesus to the Mediterranean beach resorts around Fethiye. But stop inside, look around, and you’ll find it as sweet as the sugar in Turkish tea, as chilled as a penguin guzzling down some flash-frozen baba ghanouj.
I got the hot tip about Köycegiz from a New Zealander named Alison who ran a guesthouse in Selcuk. She had married herself a Turk, settled in for a life of olives and fruit orchids, and was only too happy to share the secret of the lake with me. Since I had no real urgency to be anywhere else, I asked the Selcuk-Fethiye bus driver to let me out on the highway outside the town. A couple of other travellers looked on with mild curiosity, and who could blame them? Why is this guy getting off in the middle of nowhere? Alison suggested I hit a local hostel and after walking through the quiet, sleepy, nice-for-lunch town, I was pleased to find the Tango welcoming and comfortable. Large mattresses were covered in rugs and pillows, interspersed with hammocks, a bar and a DJ booth. There were just a straggling of backpackers, but the owner Sahin assured me things would pick up when the Fez Bus pulled in. The Fez is a hop-on hop-off backpacker bus with the deserved reputation of being a moving party. In anticipation, Sahin had organized a booze cruise on the lake for that evening. Enjoying the calm before the storm, I walked down to the lakefront and was blasted by a fresh breeze, the gentle lapping of water, the view of towering mountains in the distance. The lake, also called Köycegiz, connects with the Mediterranean through a channel called the Dalyan Delta, and cruising through large bulrushes to the sea is a popular activity for Turkish tourists. I see a couple guys playing tavla, which we know as backgammon, and gradually readjusted to the pace of a fishing village where not much happens and people prefer it that way. Here is the real Turkey away from the bustle of the tourist circle, and with it of course, real Turkish hospitality. People smile, invite you for tea, quiz your origins, all with a genuine sincerity and warmth. Sometimes they’ll try sell you a rug too.
Well equipped with a headache the following morning, I awake to find the Tango Inn empty, the Fez Bus departed, and another delightful Turkish sunny day. Hopping aboard a wooden boat crammed with local tourists on their way to the beach, I am the only foreigner and relish the enthusiastic hospitality. I am ploughed with homemade food and polite questions by new found friends. Along the canals, we pass imposing 2000-year-old Lyceum rock tombs carved into the cliffs above us. History is never far away in Turkey. After stopping off for a refreshing dip in the lake, we arrive at a long sandy beach, and the crystal blue Mediterranean. I end up playing Frisbee with a some brothers from the boat, eating local delicacies, enjoying my spontaneous off the beaten path adventure. The boats slowly makes its way back to Köycegiz at sunset, humid wind in my fingertips, the notes of a tanbur floating out the speakers up front. These are the moments in life when you stop, look around, and believe that somehow, everything, for everybody, is going to work out just fine.
During the course of my travels, I’ve chanced upon some places so romantically charged that I could hear the blues tugging on my heartstrings. Since it’s my job to share my secrets, I present a gallery, alternatively titled: 8 Places I Really Did Not Want to be Travelling Single.
Sunset from the Rose Garden, Cappadocia, Turkey
It’s a remarkable view over a remarkable landscape. Thousands of strange rock formations can be found in this region of central Turkey, where people have lived in caves for thousands of years, and “fairy chimneys” pointing at the sky give an alien charm. A popular sunset spot called the Rose Garden is a short drive from the main town of Gorome. Here, the rocks glow as pink as the cheeks of the lovers enjoying the moment. The fairy chimneys are also undeniably phallic, just in case you needed something to stroke your imagination.
Drifting Amongst the Firebugs, Malaysia
Picture the scene: You’re floating down a river just after dusk, the silence broken by wooden oars dipping into the still water. An old man rows in the traditional fashion – standing at the bow, his back towards you, his leathered arms in perfect rhythm with each stroke. The night is young, the air is warm. All of sudden, you see a tiny flash of light, then another, then another. Rounding a bend, your jaw drops as the trees on either side of the river look like lights in a disco, pulsing with thousands upon thousands of tiny neon flashes. Firebugs glow as part of their mating ritual, and the romance of such a moment is thick. I turn to my guide: “You’re a great guy Mr Kabir, but right now, I kind of wish you were a single girl.”
To which he replies: “No offence Mr Robin, but I wish the same.” Unfortunately, firebugs hate posing for photos, so here’s the river before the disco opens.
Overnight in a Bedouin Tent, Wadi Rum, Jordan
Deserts are hot places to be, just like our most feverish romantic dreams. In Wadi Rum - a desolate but beautiful valley of sand, punctuated by mountains of rock - it is possible to ride into the desert on camel, and spend the night in a traditional Bedouin tent. A gourmet meal is cooked in ancient fashion; by baking meats and vegetables beneath the hot sand, served with pita, salad, humus, and all the delicious trimmings. You’re free to explore the surrounding rock hills, feeling the dry air blowing in your hair, listen to the crackle of the fire while shooting stars spray across the clear night sky. It was an incredible night, pity I was being filmed by the Word Travels crew, and, with no one to cuddle with, picked up a nasty cold.
Bled Island, Bled, Slovenia
Slovenia is a jewel of a country in central Europe, and the waters of Lake Bled shimmer with an emerald glow. European aristocrats have always flocked to its quiet summer shores, and in the middle of the lake rests the country’s only natural island, a striking view for the first-time visitor. The first church was built here in the 11th century, the current steeple dates to the 1500’s, and 99 steps lead up to sanctuary. Legend has it that if a groom can carry his bride up the stairs, it will be a lasting and successful marriage. It might be too much a feat in this day and age, but the romance and beauty of the island, coupled with the surrounding Julian Alps, are better than flowers and a box of chocolates.
Blackwater Rafting, Waitomo, New Zealand
Somewhat similar to our Malaysia experience, only this time, we’re in the water, underground, and floating through caves on a rubber tube. It’s a typically adventurous activity for visitors to New Zealand, so how does this end up on my Romance list? Deep in the caves, it is pitch dark save for the light of your headlamp. A wetsuit keeps you warm, but the cool underground stream rushing over your skin cannot help but get the goose bumps flaring. Eventually, you make your way to a cavern where you sit in a big, black rubber tube, link your legs around your partner, and float downstream like waterproof doughnuts. Your guide asks you to switch off your light, and then you see them: a milky way of stars, deep in the earth. Phosphorus glow worms twinkle, and all you can hear is the drip of water, and the breathless sigh of those around you.
The Locks of the 3 Gorges Dam, China
It’s been described as the most ambitious engineering project in history, a marvel of science, the redesign of nature by man. China has damned the Yangzte, the third biggest river in the world, and the 3 Gorges Dam, the world’s largest, will generate the equivalent energy of 18 nuclear power plants upon completion. Cruises have been operating for years, and sit outside, in the early morning humidity, while massive transfer and cargo ships make their way through the five immense locks. Intelligence, power, size and ambition are all aphrodisiacs, and they all meet right here, as your ship drops metres at a time, protected from disaster by the ominous gates that hold back the floods. It’s a surreal experience, and oddly enough, an exotically romantic one too.
Ilha Grande, Brazil
This photo was taken in Ilha Grande, but to be honest, it could be anywhere in Brazil. Anywhere in a country where couples will randomly start dancing on old cobblestone, sometimes to music that’s only playing in their heads. Public displays of affection don’t go down in Canada too well, but in Brazil, and throughout Latin America, it is common sight to see couples smooching their lips off, at the dinner table, on the streets, hell, even in a bank meeting. And it’s not just the young folks either. Elderly lovers are as into it as the teenagers. The result is an undeniable atmosphere of romance, where love is proudly on display, and if you feel like you need to watch, well, then, go ahead.
Badeschiff Bar, Berlin, Germany
Why swim in the river, when you can swim in a swimming pool in the river? Another warm summer night, and the hip beach bars that have sprung up alongside Berlin’s Spree River are starting to get busy. DJ’s are playing some smooth jazzy beats, the cocktails have umbrellas, and it’s the perfect time to strip down and take a dip in the pool. Swimming over water is a weirdly romantic, not to mention wet, surprise, here in the heart of the Berlin.
Over the years, I've found myself in some dark, deep caverns. I'm not talking about the heavily trafficked tourist attractions where a red gel light illuminates some rock that may or may not look like a breastfeeding alligator. No, these are the caves where you truly get a sense of the subterranean world, too dark for a sliver of light, so quiet you can hear the blood rushing past your eardrums. Some caves have been holy, others have been wet, while others somehow host life, like glow worms, bats, and butt-ugly blind scorpion spiders. Here are some of my pics and experiences from Turkey, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Hungary and beyond.
When people talk about travelling for" the food", this is what they're referring to.
Nasi Kander - Malaysia
Nasi Kander is a northern Malaysian dish that combines a variety of elements – meat, rice, vegetables – and smothers it with various types of sweet-spicy curry sauces. Served in buffet-type street stalls, the result is a gift to
your taste buds. Eggplant, beef, chicken, squid, peppers, and okra are all flooded with flavour, soaked up by coconut rice and scooped with the right hand.
Ceviche - Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica
You can get ceviche around the world, but not the way they make it here. Raw fish, shrimp and calamari are drowned in limejuice, herbs and spices. The acidity of the lime cooks the fish, creating a mouthwatering delicacy that is served in the finest restaurants, all the way to roadside shacks. In Peru, it is often served with giant corn, and people sometimes order the leftover juice on its own, called Tiger Juice. In Ecuador, and other parts of the continent, ceviche is served with crackers. My favourite ceviche of all time is served out of a big tub in a tiny ice-cream store in Santa Theresa, Costa Rica.
Borscht - Russia
I struggled with the food in the Russia, easily reaching my limit of boiled meat and potato. One thing I never got tired of however was the borscht – a soup made of beetroot, with meats, dill and sour cream. Considering how bland Russian cuisine can be, the complexity of taste in well-prepared borscht is staggering. Sweet, sour, tangy, and always ready to warm you up on a cold day. My favourite borscht was served in Irkutsk, Siberia, where a vegetarian friend and I ordered borscht without the mystery meat, and it still knocked our socks off.
Biltong - South Africa
The easiest way to describe biltong is to compare it to beef jerky, but that’s like comparing a Prius to a Porsche. South Africans have been making biltong for hundreds of years, spicing, salting and hanging strips of raw meat until it dries out, but not too much. No sugar, no preservatives, no neat wafer thin slices. Biltong is served in chunks, sometimes wet (rarer) and sometimes dry (tough). It can be salty, spicy, fatty or lean. Choosing the right piece is part of the fun. It makes the perfect accompaniment to any sports game or road trip.
Farofa - Brazil
If you visit a Brazilian churrascaria, where a never-ending stream of meat is served until you’re ready to explode, you might notice a bowl on the table of something that looks like breadcrumbs. Brazilians eat it with everything – meat, fish, stews, roasts. It’s not breadcrumbs, but rather manioc flour, fried with butter. Somehow it adds something to the dish – more substance, certainly, but also a way to carry the taste a few yards further. It took me a while to get used to it, but these days, when the BBQ is firing, there’s always a bowl of farofa on my dinner table.
Ika Mata - Cook Islands
Cook Islanders have created their own little slice of culinary heaven, using a resource that surrounds them in abundance - fish and coconuts. Similar to ceviche, raw fish is marinated in limejuice and spices, with the addition of coconut milk. It’s not quite as tangy as ceviche, but just as fresh. The coconut milk softens the spices and also tenderizes the fish. It goes down smooth on a hot island day, a rich treat available just about everywhere you go on the islands.
Awaze Tibs and Injera - Ethiopia
Awaze tibs is a lamb or beef stew, cooked with onions, peppers and spiced with awazare, also known as berbere. Berbere, which features in many Ethiopian dishes, is a ground spice made of garlic, chili, ginger, basil, pepper, and fenugreek. The stew is slow cooked and served with injera, a spongy pancake-like flat bread made with teff flour, the taste almost sour. Using your hands, you scoop up the meat and sauce with the injera, creating a perfect blend of flavour.
Pide - Turkey
Kebab shops around the world now serve pide and for good reason. A thin oval bread is covered with ground lamb, and seasoned with tomato paste, red peppers, garlic and spices. It might be topped with eggs, fresh mint, and lemon juice. The pide is baked much like a pizza until the crust is crispy, and cut into strips. It’s so good it’s hard to order only one. Meat, bread and tasty vegetables in every bite.
Roo Burgers - Australia
It’s sometimes difficult for tourists to understand, but kangaroos can be quite a problem for Australians. They breed like rabbits, destroy the countryside, and are often referred to as pests. No surprise then that kangaroo features on the menu, meat that has become increasingly popular in recent years. It tastes gamey, kind of like venison with a touch of rabbit mixed in there as well. Much like ostrich meat, kangaroo meat is healthy and lean. If only they didn’t look so damn cute.
Photo: Renee S
Meat Pies - New Zealand
In New Zealand, every garage station, bakery or corner store sells savory meat pies. They’re cheap, they’re tasty, and they come in surprising varieties: Tandoori Chicken, Bacon and Egg, Thai Beef. With flaky crusts and thick filling, pies are a sense of pride across New Zealand. There are various competitions for the Best Pie, and intense customer loyalty for bakeries and brands. All for under a fiver.
Photos: Robbi Baba
"The people were so FRIENDLY!" We often hear those CAPS from friends and family returning from abroad, or recollecting an experience many years ago. People do make an impression. Personally, I've found locals to be rather lovely.India, Turkey, Georgia, Laos, Sri Lanka - they certainly rated amongst my most friendly countries. It's a gross generalization, of course, since my experience (like everyone else's) is supremely subjective. Maybe I'm lucky, but it's the reason why one of my maxims is that PEOPLE WILL RATHER HELP YOU THAN HURT YOU. Even in a country like Albania, which has perhaps the worst reputation in Europe, and tops my list as the World's Friendliest Nation. When random strangers go out of their way to show you kindness with no expectations of something in return, that's friendliness. Not to be confused with "I'll help you, now visit my jewelry shop!" or "The time is 11am, now please go away." The least friendly country I visited was Hungary. That being said, I made some wonderful local friends, and in this photo taken in Budapest (above), it doesn't look like I'm a Hungarian Hater at all, does it? Now, now, settle down...
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.