This year of travel took me to places as far as Myanmar, as remote as Mongolia, as popular as Italy, and as surprising as Tunisia. These past 365 days certainly created a lot of memorable moments that I will forever remember, or at least for a very long time. These memorable moments are not all positive. Some came from “negative” experiences, but even these negative moments had something that made them as memorable as they are.
To commemorate this year of travel, I’m rounding up my 13 most memorable moments of 2013. They are all listed in random order.
1. Learning to Drive Stick Shift in Morocco
I never rent cars when I travel, but when I visited Ouarzazate, Morocco, I felt compelled to rent a car to visit several Ksour in the vicinity of the city. Having grown up in Puerto Rico, I only learned to drive automatic transmission cars, as most Americans do.
I decided to rent a car without realizing that it would be manual transmission (there was absolutely no choice in this mid-sized town). I noticed my mistake too late and had no choice but to drive the car. To help improve my situation, I searched for a YouTube video on “learning to drive stick shift” and the rest became one of my funniest (and embarrassing) driving experiences. Read this post to see what happened.
2. Seeing Matmata from Above for the First Time
Matmata is one of my favorite places on earth. It is this surreal village in Tunisia where all the houses are built underground – called troglodyte houses. As you walk the village, all you see are interconnected huge pits in the desert floor. Each pit has several small opening that serve as the entrance to several rooms or individual houses. And, when you see Matmata from above, you can’t help but think how much it looks like a giant whack-a-mole game (as in the picture above). I truly love this place.
3. Camping in the Sahara Desert in Tunisia
Armed with only a camel, a sleeping bag, my backpack, and a guide; I headed to the Sahara Desert for the first time to camp under the stars. I loved seeing the white sandy dunes and the sunset as I slowly went a few miles deep into the desert. It was a cold night, but it was warmed with my guide’s musical performance, hot tea and dinner, the campfire, and the presence of a few other travelers. This experience made me fall in love again with camping.
4. Crossing the Gambia River on a “Scary Ferry”
This was not my first shady ferry in Africa, yet it still managed to make me fear for my life. Taking the one-hour ferry from Barra to Banjul to cross the Gambia River was something I could not avoid. If I wanted to go to Banjul, I had no choice but to take it. I knew this ferry was in a “popular” route, but I didn’t know how notorious it was.
It was around 10pm when we left the pier. It was all ok at first, except for the hundreds of goats that surrounded me – pissing and pooping everywhere. But hey, that’s a new experience for me! But, as the slow ferry neared the middle of the river, the current and wave action intensified. The over loaded and over stacked trucks started swaying as the ferry rocked from one side to the other, the goats became uneasy, and the metal to metal clashing sound between the trucks and the ferry startled most of the passengers.
Nothing happened in the end, but several times I thought that this ferry was not too far from sinking.
5. Crashing in Russia and Receiving Help from Strangers
We crashed our car in Prokhladny, Russia as we did the Mongol Rally and we thought that was it for us as a team. We feared having to handle the situation with the police, since they have a notorious reputation, and we didn’t even know what to do with our crashed car. Luckily for us, a few strangers stepped up and gave us the most sincere help and stayed with us for the two days that took us to “fix” this. You can read more about this experience here.
6. Getting to the Mongol Rally Finish Line in Ulaanbaatar
Well, I really don’t need to explain how memorable this moment was – especially after crashing! Our 5am arrival to the finish line was a bit anticlimactic, but memorable nonetheless. After 46 days of adventures and challenges, we finished our 11,000+ miles rally in the Mongolian capital. We were so hungry and exhausted that instead of celebrating; we immediately looked for food and a bed. You should read about our greatest challenge the day before the finish line and you’ll understand how exhausted we were.
7. Swimming in Copacabana and Ipanema
I’m not a beach bum, but as soon as I set foot in Copacabana and Ipanema I ran into the waves like an unleashed dog. Both beaches are full of beautiful people, the famous Rio energy, and they have the gorgeous mountains as a backdrop.
Between both, Ipanema has the best waves and watching the sunset there is an experience in itself – especially during summer. I love Brazil!
8. Watching the Sunset in Bagan
One of the most magical moments you can have in Bagan is watching the sunset from the top of one of the ancient temples. Bagan has over 2000 temples and most of them are easily accessible, yet not crowded with tourists. I spent 4 days in Bagan and each afternoon I went to a different temple to see the sunset from a different point of view. Sometimes I was on my own in a temple, only with my friend, while other times I was accompanied by up to a dozen other tourists looking for the same experience. The beauty of Bagan is that no matter how touristy is watching the sunset there, you can easily get away from the crowds by climbing any random temple (that is accessible for climbing).
9. Getting held at Gunpoint in Kyrgyzstan
How is this a memorable moment?! Well, like I said, not all memorable moments are positive. This one was ironic for me because it happened just at the border while me and my rally mates were talking about how friendly Kyrgyz people were with us. It was a scary moment (and it reminded me of the time I was attacked at knifepoint in Morocco earlier this year too), but luckily nothing really bad happened. You should read this post to see how it all went. Just in case, the image above is a reenactment… that sweet girl was not the assailant.
10. Giving Toys to Kids in Kazakhstan
We drove into the desert looking for a ship cemetery we never had the chance to get to due to un-driveable terrain, but on the way we stopped at a very tiny village we noticed had dozens of kids playing on the street. We were carrying a box full of donated toys in our rally car, so we took the opportunity to spend some time in the village and donate most of the toys to these kids. It was beautiful to see how these kids jumped out of joy upon seeing all these toys, and it was funny how some of them also became little monsters wanting more toys. This was a fun and memorable day for everyone involved. You should read the rest of the experience here.
11. Getting Lost in Mongolia
Driving in Mongolia is no easy task. There are barely any roads in the desert and dirt paths often split and deviate without any notice. It is very easy to get lost, and we did more than once. But, the first time we got lost, we spent nine hours roaming the desert looking for a way to get back to that “main road”. Even though we were completely lost, this day was one of the most memorable rally days for me. We experienced the hospitality of nomads and had fun with our “lost in translation conversations”. You should read this post to see how these nine hours were spent.
12. Seeing Vernazza for the First Time from the Hiking Trail
Vernazza is considered to be the most beautiful of the Cinque Terre towns (and of all Italy), and I have to agree. I hiked the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza, and as I reached one of its highest points around the middle of the trail I set my eyes in Vernazza for the first time – still in the distance, sitting at the bottom of the mountain. It looked beautiful. I knew it was beautiful, but it still impressed me beyond words. I knew that the challenging hike was more than worth it as soon as I saw Vernazza and continued to peek at it every now and then as I got closer to it.
13. Running a 5K for my Birthday
Last but not least, there’s my birthday. Running a 5K is nowhere near birthday-fun for me, but my close friends in Milan inscribed me in the Color Run, as a surprise… hmmm. Even though I did the run and almost wanted to kill them for this torture, I ended up having one of the coolest days I ever had in Milan. We were all covered in colored powder, tired and sweaty, but very happy about the day and how we enjoyed the run together. By the way, this is the most I’ve ever run in my life. Period.
Which are some of your memorable moments from 2013?