Iceland is a country like no other. Rich history. Intriguing culture. And just far enough removed from its neighbors to make others curious about this island nation.

Regular readers of The HoliDaze already know that taking a road trip around Iceland is high up on my travel bucket list. And while I still haven't had the time to do that yet, I have already been researching where to visit. Plus since this site focuses heavily on offbeat and quirky things to do around the world, it seems like a fitting time to share with you all the off the beaten path sights and activities I've found in Iceland.

Attend The Icelandic Elf School

  Reykjavik
It's no secret that many Icelanders believe in elves and hidden people -- people who look just like us but are invisible to most "normal" people. In fact stories abound about elf "consultants" being hired for construction projects or to help with the planning of bridges and highways. And while the numbers vary depending upon which survey you trust, it's safe to say that between 1/4 and 1/2 of the population believe in these fascinating creatures.

Watch out for in Iceland -- and learn all about them at the Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavik

Since opening in 1991, the Icelandic Elf School has been the go-to source for all things historic and educational about elves (apparently there are 13 different types), as well as hidden people. Their weekly classes are held every Friday and are attended by both locals and foreigners alike -- although the founder, Magnús Skarphéðinsson, admits that the majority of his students over the last two and a half decades have been foreigners interested in learning more about Iceland's culture.

Scuba Dive In The Arctic Circle

  Þingvellir National Park
When people think of Iceland, their pristine glaciers and legendary hot springs are what always come to mind first. But have you ever thought about scuba diving in the Arctic Circle? Diving here is like nowhere else on earth! Why? Because of the Silfra Rift!

A rift is where two or more tectonic plates meet. Most often this occur underwater and a few are located on land, however the Silfra Rift is the only rift in the world located inside of a lake -- the Þingvallavatn Lake.

The Silfra Rift in Þingvellir Lake, part of the Þingvellir National Park in Iceland

Each year these plates drift another two centimeters apart, which results in an earthquake roughly once a decade. However scuba diving in Þingvellir Lake to witness the geologic beauty of planet Earth is safe and a once-in-a-lifetime experience unlike any other. Oh and did I mention that the glacier water here is so clear that underwater visibility is some of the best in the world -- often 250 feet or more!

Get Your Museum On

  Scattered around the country
I've long been a fan of strange, quirky and unique museums around the world and Iceland is home to several of these. Of course all their museums dedicated to sorcery, sea monsters, fish and water seem perfectly normal when compared to the Icelandic Phallological Museum -- otherwise known as the penis museum, for those of you who have forgotten the medical term for the male reproductive organ.

The Icelandic Phallological Museum contains a pant-swelling collection of nearly 300 mammal penises and penile parts from around 100 different species. In addition to the (educationally) stimulating exhibits, the museum also strives to shine a light on how this particular organ has influenced the history of human art and literature. Oh...and there may or may not be a couple examples of the Homo Sapien penis on display -- but you'll just have to visit for yourself to find out.

Skrímslasetrið, otherwise known as the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum in Iceland

Don't tire yourself out too much at the Phallological Museum, though. Skrímslasetrið, otherwise known as the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, covers the entire history of Arctic sea monsters and sightings. They have even begun to classify these monsters as one of four basic types based on their characteristics. For all the curious souls out there, they are: "the fjörulalli (Shore Laddie), the hafmaður (Sea Man), the skeljaskrímsli (Shell Monster) and the faxaskrímsli (Combined Monster/Sea Horse).

Other notable museums include Randulf's Sea House in Eskifjorður (dedicated to fishing and fisherman, this museum is also part time capsule and part restaurant), Vatnasafn (the Museum of Water) and of course the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft, which should be fairly self-explanitory.

This is far from all the offbeat, obscure, strange and unique things to do in Iceland. Want more? Check out all the Unique Types of Alcohol Only Found In Iceland. And remember to keep traveling off the beaten path!

  Which of these crazy sites do you most want to visit?

  flickr   //   mellydoll   diego_delso   backwards_dog

Published in Iceland

One of the best things about foreign travel is the knowledge that invariably comes with it. It provides the opportunity for each of us to learn more about the world and its' many diverse cultures, as well as a little bit about ourselves. Another bonus is the chance to see which technology, trends, and practices are popular in the local region.

Think back and I'm sure you can recall a few things that made you go "Why don't they sell these back home?" or "Damn, why aren't we doing this at home?" even "Look at that, how awesome!" Most often those thoughts and semi-rhetorical questions are soon enough forgotten. But for me, at least in the case of Japan, not a day goes by that I don't miss all the great things about that country.

Japan is full of innovative ideas, futuristic technology, impressive customs, and other things that make you say WOW. Don't believe me? Take a look below and feel free to add your suggestions after the post.

Those Fancy Japanese Toilets

Let's get the obvious one out of the way first. Many people already know that these crappers are in a league all of their own. I wrote an entire article about fancy Japanese toilets and other bathroom innovations. Their toilets have features most Westerners have never dreamed of, including background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make, a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat, built-in water-saving sink, and other impressive features. Be sure to read that post for more intriguing info.

Japanese toilets are top-notch toilets and the best Japanese innovation ever!

  Photo Gallery: Japanese Toilets 101

Underground Bicycle Garages

These things are pretty neat, Mayu showed me how to use one. Basically you just hop off your bike and roll it onto this platform. Insert your card and the machine will automatically stow your bike in a huge underground cylinder. This keeps it safe from both thieves and natural disasters while also reducing the amount of clutter at street level. To retrieve it simply re-insert your card into the attached machine and it will spit your bike back out in around ten seconds.

In areas without the Eco Cycle storage it is not uncommon to see hundreds of bicycles crammed together as part of a makeshift bicycle lot (a trend which I hope has died out since my last trip to Japan).

I don't have any personal photos, unfortunately, but I did find this  

Underground bicycle garages in Tokyo, Japan

Automated Vehicle Garages

An enlarged version of the bicycle garages, these things are amazing! They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are pretty wild to watch in action. Some are drive-thrus that slide the vehicle off to the side. Others in the basement of high-rise buildings feature a circular pad so that the vehicle can be rotated 180° and driven out in the opposite direction it was driven it.

Automatic underground car parking garage in Tokyo, Japan
Ramps down to these underground garages can be seen all over the big cities

Other models are individual lifts that hoist one vehicle up into the air so that a second can be driven in underneath it. Walk past people's homes in the evening and it is not uncommon to see two vehicles stacked atop each other.

Astonishing Array Of Vending Machines

In the big metropolises of Japan you are never more than two blocks from a vending machine. They are usually found in pairs but sometimes also in long banks of a dozen or more. They sell all the traditional items you would expect such as refreshing beverages (soda, water, tea, milk, juice, beer...essentially everything liquid) and cigarettes (requires scan of a Japanese ID to dispense product) to other more unconventional items including ramen, electronics, umbrellas, even underwear and ties.

Vending machines in Japan sell everything from drinks to cigarettes, electronics, toys and even panties -- both new and used. Yes, seriously.

Automatically Opening Taxi Doors

This one is essentially self-explanatory, I don't know what more I can write about them. They are controlled by a button up front and swing open really fast. Oh and they are twice as great when its raining out.

Japanese taxis have automatically opening doors

Touchscreen Menus At Upscale Restaurants


These reduce the number of (and stress on) restaurant employees. Expect to see more in the future.

Pachinko Parlors That Nearly Induce Seizures

Anyone who has ever walked past one of these has undoubtedly heard the noise and flashing lights blaring out. They are basically like arcade halls combined with casinos, some being multiple levels and taking up entire blocks. I never played myself but did wander through a couple of them.

Japanese citizens love these things and have been know to spend hours playing in these giant parlors, like the stereotypical American Grandma glued to the Las Vegas slots. Not very popular among foreigners though due to the constant flashing lights and never-ending din of bells, chimes, tings, tongs, pings, and general noise of hundreds of people gambling.


Japanese crack

Love Hotels

Love hotels are plush yet discreet hotels that rent rooms either by the hour, a several-hour "short stay" period, or for the entire night. Each room has different themes with the fanciest being compared to a brief stay in paradise. These swanky rooms would undoubtedly fit right in with some of the classy hotels of Las Vegas or Dubai.

When I say the theme varies greatly between rooms, I cannot stress that enough. One could be Egyptian theme, the next dungeon-themed, another a retro-hippie love-nest, etc. I highly recommend you check out a love hotel, especially if you've met a cute little Asian girl at the club that night.


Impressive, huh? Love hotels are common in neighborhoods with lots of clubs and an active nightlife.

Other Unique Types Of Japanese Lodging  

White-Gloved Helpers...Everywhere

A variety of businesses have staff that are ready and waiting to help you at a moment's notice. For lack of an official term (that I know of) I jokingly refer to these people at the white glove crew. Whether standing next to the trash cans in McDonald's waiting to take your tray from you and dispose of it themselves or inside the elevator, eager to take you to whichever floor has what you need, these people always have a smile on their face and white cloth gloves on their hands.

The railway attendants are dressed similarly and also sport the white gloves. However, they don't always have a smile on their face -- especially not during rush hour.

Drunk Female Attendants At Clubs

It's not what you may think. Big clubs in Japan frequently stay open until sunrise. Many even have an employee on hand who's sole job is to care for the ladies that have had way too much to drink; other employees that are walking around the club will bring these women down to him. Not only does this prevent them from getting taken advantage of or robbed, but it also leaves their boyfriend free to keep partying (guilty, I'll admit it).

This employee is even armed with rubber bands and miniature black trash bags for -- you guessed it -- tying up their hair and puking. This "drunk person attendant" is located near the entrance, making it easy to retrieve your drunk person on the way home. Hope you saved money for a cab because they will not be fit to walk!

Now that is a level of service that is hard to match. Unfortunately I never thought to get a photo.

Clubbing In Tokyo  

All The Paper Currency Is Perfectly Crisp

Now this isn't so much a Japanese innovation, but rather a testament to their level of perfection. Every bank note is impeccably crisp, whether receiving it from an ATM or as change from the local corner store. No bills are ever raggedy, torn, of limp, as other countries currency often is. I suspect that the banks simply rotate out worn bills at an increased rate. Whatever it is the fact remains that this simple little thing is surprisingly easy to get used to.


Image coutesy of Japan Scene

100¥ Stores

Based on the American dollar stores, Japan revamped these into stores that offer products that are not utter crap -- even fresh food -- and people are not shopping at them because they are poor.


These stores take the embarrassment out of bargain shopping

Designated Smoking Areas Cubes

Although you can smoke inside restaurants, clubs, and a variety of other places in Japan -- basically everywhere except grocery and clothing stores -- many cities have restrictions on outdoor smoking. For example outside railway stations and airports there are sporadic smoking areas. Some are merely painted rectangles on the ground but others are actually fully enclosed cubicles with high-powered ventilation to combat the smoke, as pictured below.


Indoor smoking area at an establishment that had recently banned smoking

(Almost) No Homeless People In Tokyo

Given the fact that Tokyo is the most populated metropolis in the world (36.9 million people, over 10 million more than #2, Mexico City) I initially expected there to be a lot of homeless people as well. After all, I was born in NYC. I'm familiar with homeless people.

There is nothing more depressing than walking around a big city only to pass underneath a bridge and realize you are walking through someone's home. And damn, now I've got to keep smelling this God-awful smell until getting out from underneath this bridge and several paces away.

In my many months of wandering around Tokyo at all hours of the day and night, I only recall seeing a single homeless person. I'm not saying that they do not exist, just saying that thanks to the strong principles of the Japanese culture, homelessness is not near the problem there that it is in many other countries.

There is plenty more that makes Japan a fantastic country to visit, but you'll just have to experience it yourself and see what you find!

  What are your thoughts? Have any additions to this list?

Published in Japan

Traveling is one of the most rewarding experiences you can ever have. Unfortunately, many people allow life's stresses to get in the way. Here's why you should drop everything right now and hit the road.

1. To Learn Something About Yourself

Travel is all about throwing yourself into the unknown and experiencing new things. When you're faced with challenges like having to navigate foreign languages and transportation systems you learn more about yourself and what you're capable of. This is especially true if you're traveling solo, a truly empowering experience.

2. To Build Your Resume

You're never too young or too old to build your resume. Travel helps you to enhance a variety of skills in a first-hand manner. While navigating foreign languages enhances communication skills, being able to adjust to new situations helps you become more adaptable. Additionally, bargaining in markets helps with negotiation, trip planning enhances strategizing abilities and sorting out issues along the way makes you a better problem solver.

3. To Get Away And Disconnect

Signs on Easter Island pointing to Hawaii and Tahiti

Angry bosses. Problems at home. Daily life stresses. Get away from everyday life and immerse yourself in a new place where your worries are far behind. To really enhance the experience, leave your electronics behind and truly disconnect. Remember, the more you disconnect the more you'll truly be immersed in your destination.

4. Because Life Is Short And The World Is Huge

Life truly is short, so you need to make the most of it. Stop making your bucket list longer and actually start knocking some of the items off. The world is a big place, with many destinations to discover and experiences to have. Do you want your last thoughts on Earth to be about all the things you wanted to do, or all the things you did do?

5. To Learn Something New

Traveling is a great opportunity to try something you've never done who're. Not only are you naturally in a more adventurous mindset, you're also exposed to opportunities that you don't have at home. Sample a new food, go mountain climbing, take part in a local festival or learn a cultural skill like tai chi or tango dancing. It's a fun way to enrich your life while experiencing a new destination.

6. To Meet New People

Making local friends in Minggir, a small village not far from Yogyakarta

When traveling, you have the opportunity to interact with locals and learn more about what life is really like for the people of the destination. Ask questions, make conversation and, if possible, hangout with locals in their favorite spots for a firsthand glimpse of community life.

7. To Experience A New Culture

Whether your travel to another country or domestically you'll have the chance to experience a new culture. Dive in and learn as much as you can through food, classes, attractions, interactions and random experiences. It's an easy way to become a more worldly, open-minded person, and can be a very eye-opening experience.

8. To Try Delicious Foods

The Ultimate Indonesia Food Guide to Regional Dishes

One of the best ways to experience a destination is through the local food. Travel allows you to break away from any diets restraints and sample exciting new dishes you've never tried, and maybe even never heard of. Asado in Argentina, cemitas in Mexico and pasta in Italy are just some of the mouth-watering culinary experiences to have around the world.

See More Culinary Achievements Around The Globe

9. To Enrich Your Life

Travel enriches your life through all the reasons mentioned above, so why not give yourself that opportunity? Discover interesting cultures, learn something new, experience new things and become a more well-rounded, fulfilled person in general.

10. Because The Time Is Now

Stop making excuses on why you can't travel. Work will always be stressful, there will always be things to do at home and you'll never have as much money as you'd like, so stop worrying and realize these problems will be there whether you travel or not. In the meantime, you might as well see the world and leave the problems at home for awhile.

  flickr // azwegers
Published in Travel Tips

If you want to be a happy crapper, use a Japanese toilet

There is nothing more gratifying than a top notch toilet. And when it comes to fancy toilets it is fairly common knowledge that Japan leads the pack. Their toilets have features most Westerners have never dreamed of, including background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make, a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat, built-in water-saving sink, and other innovative features. Their proper name are bidets, although many locals refer to them as washlets.

At first glance these washlets can be a little much for foreigners to take in. For example, in America if you sit on a warm toilet seat it means some other warm posterier just vacated that spot mere seconds before. Not the most appealing sensation, to say the least. I've even moved one stall over, just for a cold seat! (Like that one was any more sanitary.) Yet warm toilet seats are preferred in Japan, especially during the colder months. For many Westerners this definitely takes some getting used to, but they will grow on you if you spend long enough there. Trust me ;).

Of course the surprises do not stop there. Another aspect is that every model is slightly different, so there can be a bit of a learning curve. Luckily most of the important bidet functions have icons.

Bidet Control Panels

Yes...Hands-Free Cleansing!

What, the toilets have control panels? How complicated can they be? As you can see below, some are fairly self-explanatory while others can be a bit tricky. The control panel is most often built into what Westerners would view as an armrest on the right-hand side. However some bidets, particularly in private households, have more customized models which often feature a remote control panel built into the nearby wall instead.

Japanese bidet instructions were sometimes a bit confusing...or just downright hilarious. Thankfully this one came with an English translation.
Thankfully this one came with the translation

What, the toilets have control panels? How complicated can they be? As you can see below, some are fairly self-explanatory while others can be a bit tricky. The control panel is most often built into what Westerners would view as an armrest on the right-hand side. However some bidets, particularly in private households, have more customized models which often feature a remote control panel built into the nearby wall instead.

A collage of Japanese toilet control panels

These control panels are what transforms the mere toilet into a sophisticated bidet, which is the technical term of a fixture intended for cleaning the genitalia. Using the appropriate buttons a warm sanitizing spray will gently clean all your important areas, one for the males and another for the ladies. Many inside flats and private residences include the ability to adjust the temperature of this cleansing spray. Some even feature a strategically positioned blow dryer to be used afterwards! Have no fear if not, all it takes is a single square of paper to dry off and you're set.

The Toilet Paper Holder

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

These things are awesome! They have a lightweight flap that overhangs the toilet paper roll and has a downward curve along its front side that features perforated teeth. Thanks to gravity and a slight upwards tug this handy little device tears off individual t.p. square for you.

But the fancy features don't stop there. Rather than have a cylindrical mount that runs through the toilet paper tube and requires 5+ seconds to reload, Japanese toilet paper holders feature one-inch plastic prongs that flip out on either side to hold the roll in place and can be changed in literally one second. (Some Westerners will recognize these as being very similar to the paper towel holders which some people have in their kitchen.)

To remove an empty roll you simply flip up the overhanging flap and lift the old tube straight up. New rolls are loaded from the bottom, it's pure genius! It is simple yet effective innovations like that which make visiting Japan an unforgettable experience. Ask anyone who has ever visited.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

  HoliDaze Tip   These one-of-a-kind toilet paper holders can be purchased individually at department stores throughout Japan. They make amazing gifts for friends back home because they are 1) useful on a daily basis; 2) unquestionably unique; and 3) great conversation starters.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

Bathroom Noises

We've all been there, whether a culprit or the audience. Admit it. After all, sounds have a tendency to be audible to those in the adjoining room thanks to thin walls and doors without insulation. But many of these Japanese bidets combat this by featuring a type of audio masking that is designed to cover any sounds generated by the user. Some are triggered by a button or hand-operated motion sensor, others simply by exerting pressure on the toilet seat, but they all sound exactly the same: like flushing water.

Otohime, the Sound Princess, muffles any noises you make while on the toilet
Motion activated "Sound Princess" muffles any noises you make while on the toilet (found in a public restroom)

After making a comment about this to Mayu I learned that apparently this feature is referred to as Otohime, the Sound Princess. Custom models even have the ability to play bowel-relaxing music instead of the flushing water sound, to help you "loosen up" -- if you so desire. When it comes to Japanese toilets the only limitation is your imagination!

Flushing

This varies greatly between models. Often it is a button without an icon. Other times it is a push-button built into the basin itself. Sometimes it is even a traditional Western-style one-directional knob -- although the vast majority of the time the knob rotates both directions, one for small flushes (小) and another for larger passes (大).

Toilet Slippers

At the entrance of every residence there is a front landing that is used for removing shoes, as well as any outwear or umbrellas. However inside each bathroom there is a separate set of toilet slippers that never leaves the confines of that space. Bathroom visitors slip them on as they enter the room and remove them on their way out. These keep everyone's feet and socks clean.

The Bathroom Sink

When traveling around Japan you will notice that many of the washlets in flats and private residences have the sink built into the wash basin. The logic behind this is fairly simple: after each flush the washbin has to refill with water to prepare for the next flush, so why not first use that water to wash your hands. Besides the obvious water-saving factor, another upside is that you are filling up the washbin with water which has a slight soapy residue to it. This helps to keep the toilet clean.

The water runs for about twenty seconds, a perfect length of time for washing your hands. Plus there is no need for hot or cold knobs as the water is already the perfect temperature.

Toilets with built-in sinks found in apartments and restaurants throughout Tokyo

Back when I had a home (in my pre-nomad days) I tried so hard to have one of those fancy Japanese toilets installed. I don't care about the bidet functions but I really do like the built-in sinks. Of course that has not been an easy task. They just don't sell them in the States. The only current option is to buy a bidet toilet seat and swap out the seats on your Western toilet.

However not all Japanese toilets have this built-in sink. Many look like the one below and feature a separate, traditional sink. These are common in public, high traffic areas such as airports, restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs.


Hotel room toilet

 

Can't Forget The Squat Toilets!

No article on Japanese toilets would be complete without mentioning squat toilets. Although these are not a Japanese invention, they can be found throughout Japan. As such it is best to familiarize yourself with them.

The first experience can be a little strange but some people argue that this method is actually healthier and more efficient. To read more on that debate, I was recently surprised to find that Wikipedia even has a page on Human Defecation Postures.

 

  Have you seen any interesting Japanese bathrooms? Did I leave anything out?

Published in Japan

Beautiful natural scenery and sights, fun water-based activities, top-notch shopping, addictive nightlife, amazing food, and so much more: Just because you only have a short time in New Zealand's most impressive city doesn't mean that you should miss out on some of the best things the city has to offer.

Hike a Nearby Volcano

Auckland is home to a whopping four dozen volcanoes! That means no matter where in town you are staying, there is a nearby volcano that you can hike up and enjoy the breathtaking 360-degree view. Don't expect lava flows though -- these volcanoes have erupted only once in history and are now dormant. In fact, most are lush green parks.

Read More Free Things To Do In Auckland

Splash Around With Some Water-Based Fun

Water plays an important part in the weekly life and fun of Auckland residents thanks to the Auckland Bay. Hop a ferry and explore some of the nearby islands. Get your adrenaline pumping with activities like surfing, kayaking, jet-boating, diving, and windsurfing. Or if relaxation is the name of your game, enjoy some peaceful morning fishing or soak up the sun on a beach.

Karekare Beach near Auckland, New Zealand

Insider tip: Nestled in the countryside west of Auckland is Karekare Beach, overlooked by most tourists and much more refreshing than the crowded beaches at the heart of town.

Tingle Your Senses

Unlike anything else I have ever experienced, the Odyssey Sensory Maze is exactly what the name suggests: an invigorating journey that will stimulate all of your senses and leave you wanting more. Each section features unique obstacles, lighting, music, and yes, even smells. There is a jungle zone, a cave zone, a space zone, and...well...you'll just have to discover the rest for yourself.

Read More Offbeat Sights and Activities in Auckland

Learn More About the Māori

Maori man issuing a challenge at a cultural show at Rotarua, New Zealand
Photo courtesy of Peter Mackey

The Polynesian settlers who originally settled in New Zealand became known as the Māori. Their rich cultural history shaped and still plays a part in New Zealand culture, despite making up only 15% of the country's population. Learn more about the Māori by visiting one of Auckland's many museums, art galleries, or cultural attractions.

Enjoy the Best Auckland Has to Offer

Certain things always tend to be better in big metropolises, primarily shopping, nightlife, and food. Thankfully, Auckland excels at all three. If it's shopping you crave, there are numerous hotspots around town, such as Queen Street, Ponsonby, Newmarket, the Britomart Precinct, and of course Takapuna up on the North Shore.

When it comes to nightlife, many of the same areas known for spectacular shopping are always home to the city's best bars and clubs. Britomart is a popular favorite with both locals and foreigners, but Ponsonby and Parnell are where the stars shine. However, there are also other offbeat after dark Auckland areas, such as K Road and High Street.

As far as great food, that can be found throughout the city. Just ask a local! Or check out this list of the Top 50 Restaurants in Auckland.

Ready to visit yet? Just make sure to find a cheap Auckland hotel, and put all that money you save to good use having fun around town!

Published in New Zealand

Nadaam wrestlers

I flew halfway around the world and was greeted by this...
(Photo from asiabest.ca)

Right now the 3-day celebration that is the pinnacle of the Mongolian tourist season is in full swing. It is a festival of merriment and machismo. A celebration of what it means to be a man. Athleticism and physical prowess is revered. And men get hot and sweaty. Dressed in naught but tiny vests and woollen underwear. Pink woollen underwear (usually).

It can only be the spectacle that is Naadam (in Ulaanbaatar it is celebrated 11-13 of August every year). Inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO in 2010, Naadam is an old Mongolian tradition that has seen revival along with the rise of Mongolian nationalism, at the start of the last century, and now celebrates Mongolian independence in 1921. Naadam is the festival of the "three manly sports" – archery, (long distance) horse riding and of course Mongolian wrestling.

Chinggis Khaan (Ghengis Khan) the embodiment of Mongolian manliness

Chinggis Khaan (Ghengis Khan) -
the embodiment of Mongolian manliness

There are differences to each of the sports to what you would be familiar with. Archery is not aiming at a bull’s-eye, but shooting an arrow in a parabolic path into what is essentially a tiny cylindrical target on the ground (similar in size to a hole on a golf course). Men and women compete separately, at difference target distances. While the competitor's task seems impossible to me, they have been using a bow from a very early age. The bow are incredibly strong – speaking to a Swiss-Armenian archer on the flight out, he was saying his young son's bow from Mongolia is equivalent to the strength of an adult’s Olympic bow, and so has to buy archery equipment on his trips to Mongolia. It's a serious sport – so serious that even the president and prime minister compete (it's true – I was literally spitting distance away from them at the time!).

Horse riding is not like what you would see at Ascot or the other races of that sort. It is like the marathon of horse races; long distance, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. The riders are children (again, a skill that many Mongolians learn from an early age – as young as two years old!), as the aim of the race is to test the skill of the horse, not the rider. After the races (there are races for different ages of horse) the winners are celebrated by a song declaring their equine brilliance. And the loser in the youngest age group is honoured with what I guess is the the Mongolian equivalent of a limerick.

Finally, there is the wrestling. 3 days of wrestling. It's a hard sport to break into – the previous year's champion chooses his opponent (usually the weediest boy there), followed by the second winner etc. It results in an initial stage of David & Goliath bouts running simultaneously before the opponents become more evenly matched. This makes it very difficult to break into the sport of Mongolian wrestling. After each individual fight the winner does the traditional victory eagle dance – a somehow graceful movement after the tussling a few moments before. The winners are also awarded rank titles according to what stage of the competition they get to – there is a whole lot of tradition and ceremony attached to the whole event.

Naadam festival in Ulaanbaatar at the National Sports Stadium

Sadly I never saw the action up close...

I experienced Naadam in Ulaanbaatar at the National Sports Stadium (smaller Naadam celebrations can be seen outside UB a few days before). Like with the Olympics, the opening ceremony is actually the bit most people watch – a huge, choreographed re-enactment of a traditional story, along with a parade featuring Mongolia's musical all stars (one of whom was on my return flight – no idea what his name is though!) as well as various members of the armed forces. Finally there is the singing of the national anthem – musically pretty good, not too pedestrian at all, melodious, lyrically inspirational (and with hints of propaganda in the style of the Communist era). Conveniently song sheets were distributed – all in the Cyrillic alphabet (which I fortunately knew after a failed attempt to teach myself Russian) – and I think I gave it a fair bash at singing along.

Aside from the opening ceremony, seeing a few rounds of wrestling, wandering over to the archery range, wandering around the festival grounds (mobbed by Americans touroids decked out in traditional Mongolian clothing they must have been shafted paying for), trying some khuushuur (greasy, fried mutton dumplings – perfect festival food), perhaps taking a taxi out to the horse race and then coming back for "Ode to a Horse", there isn't really all that much else to do, aside from watching endless rounds of wrestling at a distance (if you want to see it up close, maybe go to one of the wrestling rings that can be found in most big towns, or start an ad-hoc game after a few vodkas). There's a lot of sitting around between brief moments of excitement (like many major sporting event such as the Olympics or big motor races). There are also fireworks in Suukhbataar square – the first night of Ulaanbaatar's celebrations if I remember correctly.

Aspiring (and failing) to be a

proud Mongolian horseman

Naadam is an interesting introduction to Mongolian culture, although it will be hard to gain a good understanding without a Mongolian to explain it to you – it certainly won't feel as authentic. Aside from Naadam itself, UB is pretty cosmopolitan. There are a few interesting museums (like the Natural History Museum which has some really interesting dinosaur fossils, and also the National Museum of Mongolian history for further introduction to Mongolian culture), but once you've seen them, UB has nothing more to offer than international bars and an equally international crowd of people (even more so since Mongolia's recent mining boom).

My advice: get out of UB ASAP and experience the real, untamed Mongolia like the manly Mongolian I can only aspire to be.

Published in Mongolia

"Ntchuva" is a game for male adults. Two teams are formed with one or more players. The game can be carried out on the floor, digging up four rows of small pits. Each queue can have 4, 8, 16 or 32 pits. You can also play in a board made of wood or cement.

The teams squat down, facing each other. At each pit are placed two stones and each team match two rows of pits. The goal is to eliminate the opponent's stones.

Ntchuva game in Mozambique, Africa

To make a move, the player chooses a pit of departure. Grab these pit stones and place them one by one following the pits counter-clockwise. When the last stone is dropped into a pit that still has stones, the player restarts the process, i.e., remove the stones of the pit and place them one by one following the pits until the last stone is dropped in an empty grave. If this grave is located on the 1st row (which is closer to the player) the play ends and the turn passes to the opponent. If the pit in question is located on the second row (closer to the opponent) the player checks if the next pit (corresponding to the secondnd row of the adversary) has stones, which gives you the right to remove the stones of that pit as well from the pit immediately behind and a third pit (chosen by the player, according to a criterion of game strategy, or will seek to reduce the chances of the opponent, a next move, you also remove stones).

Next is the turn of the adversary, who will play in the manner already described, continuing the game with players alternating between the two teams. Players are required (as long as possible) to start the game by more than a pit with a stone, always ending when they leave one stone on a grave. Only when they leave there graves over a stone, the player can start the game from a pit with one stone, walking in this case only one pit, unless you just have to follow a stone so he can continue.

Ntchuva game in Mozambique, Africa

The game ends when one team eliminating the opponent's stones.

Ntchuva may be known as "Warri" in many other countries in Africa. And the rules may differ from place to place, but the strategy is always similar.

According to "Moçambicanismos," from Lopes, Sitoe and Nhamuende, the term "Nchuva/Nxuva" comes from the Swazi term "intjuba." Ntchuva can be compared to the type of board games called "Mancala" (wiki).

Published in Mozambique

Costa Rica's #1 Hidden Backpacker Gem is Perla del Pacifico

Hands-down the country's best hostel and a must visit for any travel lover!

Located on a four-mile long sand peninsula, Puntarenas is a coastal fishing town that also supports a lot of tourism. While there we happened to stumble upon this magnificent mansion turned hostel on the northern shore, the Perla del Pacifico, my most highly recommended lodging option in all of Costa Rica. This place will shock and amaze you, instantly transporting you to a tranquil environment far from Central America -- you have to see it to believe it, there is no other way to put it.

As Puntarenas is lacking in both hostels and hotels, Perla del Pacifico is the only one you will find without having to taxi it back 30 minutes further deep into the mainland. Even more conveniently, it is located on the same block as the Calypso Cruises office and dock. Right after we came back from Tortuga Island we were able to walk 60 feet and be at our new home.

Balcony of Perla del Pacifico Hostel in Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Outside on the wraparound balcony of the Perla.

Walking through the front doors you are greeted by a beautiful marble staircase that leads you either to the main level with the jacuzzi and outside courtyard, amongst other things, or upstairs to the kitchen and dining room, two guest rooms, and wrap-around balcony.

As if the house itself was not exquisite enough, it is stocked full of artwork and collectibles from all corners of the globe. This is undoubtedly due to the the owners, Michael and Elisabeth, connoisseurs of the world. Be it canvases of Audrey Hepburn, old Asian artwork, rare drawings, original pictures of Salvador Dali and his wife, or any one of a thousand other exquisite -- yet perfectly placed -- collectible pieces of artwork and sculpture, everything seems like it is in just the right spot.

Sound good? Well, it gets better. How do you become world connoisseurs? By traveling the world. And that is exactly what Michael and Elisabeth have done. From the minute we walked in the door the conversation just flowed endlessly! Michael has some of the most fantastic stories to tell, Jared and I frequently got lost in the most random yet intricate conversations with him and his wife. Regardless of whether you are a first-time traveler or cultural enthusiast, travel blogger or gap year adventurer, you will feel instantly at home here, I guarantee it. Make sure to view the many pictures below.

  From the owners, Michael and Elizabeth

We - French/German artist couple - just finished restoring a historical mansion - national patrimony - that has been build in 1920 and graciously combines Venetian & Caribbean architecture. To support the project, we rent two exquisitely furnished bed rooms, each containing a modern bath room. You are going to have free use of our kitchen, dining room, salon, jacuzzi, a lovely garden with grill-pavilion and petanque-court and many other amenities of our palace.

  I took way too many pictures while staying at Perla del Pacifico. This is but a fraction...

  Noteworthy I cannot stress enough how highly we recommend this place. If you are a fellow world traveler and you should find yourself in Costa Rica, I urge you to make a stop by Puntarenas, even if solely to swing by Perla del Pacifico and meet Michael and Elizabeth. The conversations alone are worth swinging out of your way to Puntarenas, we promise. You will not regret it, I assure you. I stake my name and reputation on it. Tell them Derek @ the HoliDaze sent you and you may even get a li'l extra loving ;)

  Are you interested in making reservations or finding out more about the Perla del Pacifico and her fantastic hosts? Bypass the hostel booking sites and contact Michael directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

  Also, if you are going to be in the neighborhood, read about our trip to Tortuga Island with Calypso Cruises. Their dock is located one building down from Pearla del Pacifico and its a great way to kill two birds with one stone.

Published in Costa Rica

Few people are lucky enough in life to get to see this for themselves. It is not on the beaten path, not somewhere that you can bop down to for the weekend. It is a journey to get to, that is for sure. And actually, I think that is one of the things that makes it so incredibly amazing. It is not cheapened by convenience. Nestled deep in the mountains of a country steeped in ancient culture an tradition, the journey to the top of this sacred mountain is as incredible as the space itself.

Machu Picchu in Peru

I visited Machu Picchu in 2009, while on an archaeological dig during college (I did not excavate there, I was working in a small town called Pucara). I was with my family for a few weeks before the dig, my mom, dad, and little sister. It was actually by the grace and stubbornness of my mother's gypsy spirit that we made it there in the first place: it was on her bucket list. I should mention that this same wanderlust has already taken her around the world and back numerous times.

My sister and I were crassly awoken by our alarm at around 4 am on the morning of our ascension. You have to get to the bus station EARLY if you want to get your butt on a bus and make it up to the top by sunrise. Rubbing our eyes, we stumbled out onto the tiny cobbled streets of Aguas Calientes, a city with plenty of alpacas but not a single car (unless you count the busses that shuttle masses back and forth to the top of the mountain).

The stories were true. Even this early, the lines were crazy long. But we were on a mission. And if you know my father, you know that he has a (not so) mysterious way of moving through crowds. It is not unusual to get left behind if you get distracted for even a moment. A few elbows thrown here and there and voila! We were on our way. The bus driver (like ALL other drivers in Peru) threw caution to the wind as a rule. The bus careened wildly up a series of impossibly tight switchbacks, and, if we weren't awake before the drive, we certainly were now. Nothing like fear for your life to perk you right up. After we surprisingly reached the upper parking lot in one piece, we were herded off of the bus, and hustled up to scout a viewing area. We didn't have long to wait. The light was getting brighter, and the sun was only minutes away. I was practically pushing people out of the way of my camera's viewfinder...I knew this was something that I did NOT want to miss, and I certainly didn't want my visual memories of the experience to include large German tourists.

In the end, the sunrise was so awe inspiring that I forgot the supposed importance of digital memories and just took the moment for myself. It was the feeling of knowing that you are witnessing something truly special, that few others get to see, and that you will only experience this one time in your life. There is nothing like that feeling. It was the most beautiful morning, the sun came up quickly as wisps of fog crowded through the high mountain jungle and across the dramatic green peaks. Pictures of Machu Picchu are incredible, but unless you are there in person there is no way to describe the scale of these mountains, and the drop offs that await you on all sides of this ancient getaway. I live for moments like these, I relish them, and I hold on to them to examine later when things get boring.

Later that day my mom witnessed tourists being stampeded by llamas. (How's that for a closing note?)

Published in Peru

October is a grand time for the Negrenses and a fabulous time for tourists to visit this charming province and be captivated by their warm smiles and delicious treats. As I join Bacolod City in their celebration of the famous Masskara Festival, allow me to share with you some of Bacolod’s well-loved sweet treats and Negrense delicacies.

Masskara Festival in Bacolod City, Philippines

With the annual festival called Masskara, tourists - international and locals alike flock to the party streets of Bacolod City to witness the captivating smiles of the Negrenses. Iconic masks in a variety of colorful designs can be found all-over with numerous Masskara-making contests being held in major establishments while the plaza is transformed to a party street all-day and all-night long.

Piaya, a delicious and sweet Filipino delicacy in Bacolod City, Philippines during the Masskara Festival

For the sweet tooth, Bacolod City is a haven. Bask in the country's sugarbowl and satiate yourself with a melange of nothing but sweet endings. One sweet Bacolod delicacy that has become one of my favorites is Piaya. This traditional Negros delicacy is a flat dough that has been rolled resembling a round small plate (we call platito) and filled with muscovado sugar. Through the years, varieties of fillings were born and flavors such as Pandan, Mango and Ube were used as sweet fillings. Packs of five and ten pieces are usually available to suit every budget. The small containers sell at Php20 to Php30 while the bigger ones are about than Php50.

Merci Pasalubong has the best Piaya in all Bacolod City, Philippines

Merci Pasalubong is a personal favorite when in comes to Piaya. I particularly adore their Brown Sugar Piaya (Brown Sugar Pie) which is sweetened by - you guessed it, brown sugar and infused with honey. The filling has just about the right sweetness without the umay (satiating) factor in every bite. The sesame seeds sprinkled on top of the flat bread adds a bit of nutty flavor to this local delicacy.

One of Bacolod City’s precious dining landmarks and pasalubong (take home treats) hub is Pendy’s. A family-oriented business established in 1973 in the old streets of Iloilo then later migrated to Bacolod City, Pendy's has become a landmark in this Negros capital. Generations passed and the younger broods are now handling Pendy's, even their daughter-in-law was tagged as the contact person when I asked one of the staff during my visit.

Napoleones at Pendy's in Bacolod City, Philippines
Napoleones at Pendy's

Pendy's is known for their Napoleones and Half-Moon Cake. The latter is made of egg yolk, butter and sugar which is sold at Php40 a piece. This yellow-colored delicacy resembles more of the sun with its hue but the shape is emulating the half moon. Napoleones on the other hand is definitely one of my favorites. This puff pastry is cut into square singles. Each Napoleones (Php14/pc and Php140 for a pack of 10, P210 for a pack of 15) is lined with a custard cream filling and topped with a thin spread of sugar frosting that has settled on top of this thin filo pastry. This is the Philippine version of a French pastry known as Napoleon or Mille-Feuille but the latter is made with whipped cream and jam as filling and chocolate frosting or fondant icing as topping.

So if you’re heading to Bacolod City for this year’s Masskara Festival or anytime of the year, make sure you taste some of these delicious Negrense delicacies and sweet treats. After all, Negros province is the Sugarbowl Capital of the Philippines.

  For more deliriously delicious dining discoveries, check out Eat To Your Heart’s Content

MERCI PASALUBONG
  Lacson Street; Araneta Street; Lopez Jaena
PENDY'S
  25 Lacson Street
Published in Philippines
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