Jordan: The Sands of Time

We found shelter for the night inside the crumbling walls of a crusader castle.  As dawn approached we made our descent, clamoring over rocks and sliding down cliffs of sandstone, there, hidden amidst towering hills we found the city of Petra.

The rising sun revealed rocks awash win a swirling mass of color, into which the ancient Nabataens had carved a huge city, complete with palaces, temples, tombs, houses and stables.   Time has diminished the definition of the buildings and their elaborate facades,  creating an effect like melting candle wax.   Ripples of sandstone in shades of blue, white, red and pink give Petra its color, creating a marbled effect that is most dramatic at sunrise and sunset when the rocks glow as if burning from a fire within.

For the first two hours we saw no one and wandered, awe-struck through the valleys. It was almost as if we had crossed into another dimension, where everything was slightly unfocused and dream-like.  It was the first time I had ever seen my friend Felix lost for words.

The sun started to heat up the desert and the effect of sleeping rough with little to eat or drink was beginning to take its toll.  Salvation came in the form of a Bedouin who invited us for tea. Insisting I ride the donkey, he led us to a sheltered spot by a cave. With a handful of twigs he soon had a crackling fire.  A little tea was added to the boiling water and a big bag of sugar.  The resulting brew was sickly sweet and very reviving.

The Sands of Time

The Nabataens started to arrive in the third century BC and  were soon policing the lucrative spice trade that passed through the area.  They also indulged in their passion for carving and their city grew out of the rocks, rapidly becoming the capital of a flourishing empire.  The city was eventually lost to the Romans in the second century AD and gradually diminished into obscurity.For hundreds of years Petra remained hidden from the outside world.  Set on the edge of a giant wadi (canyon) it is surrounded by rugged mountain ranges which protect and hide the city.  The Bedouins  who made their home in the caves of  the city were not eager to share its existence with outsiders, fearing that an influx of visitors would threaten their existence.  It would seem that their fears were justified, for in the mid-eighties most of Petras’ inhabitants were relocated to  a nearby village, although  many still make a living selling souvenirs, antiquated coins and skillfully filled bottles of sand.

Most visitors enter Petra through the Siq, a  two kilometer winding cleft in the rocks.  Sheer walls of sandstone rise up sharply, at times almost touching overhead as the path narrows to six feet in places.  At the end of the passage you emerge in bright sunlight and the Khazneh (Treasury Building) is revealed in all its splendor.  It is the finest and best preserved of all the buildings in Petra.

My friend , having  regained his power of speech  entered every rock carved temple and chanted om………. He received some rather puzzled looks that soon turned  to appreciation as the deep sounds reverberated around the walls and the acoustics of nature worked their wonder. Inside one  temple a  man seemed annoyed by Felixs’ chanting but as we walked away I realized he had just been waiting his turn, for his heartfelt rendition of the Hymn Jerusalem filled the valley.

The midday heat was intense and exhausting so we took shelter in a large goat-haired tent, known to the Bedouin as bayt ash-sha’ar (house of hair), and stretched out on the cushions for a siesta.  As the shadows grew long with the late afternoon sun, we  wandered back out into the ruins and came across a spring  and plunged in to be completely revived in its icy depths.

Petra is blessed with an abundant water supply, without which habitation would be impossible.  Eighty per cent of Jordan is desert, in parts stretching much further than the eye can see, creating optical illusions as it merges with the distant horizon.  Its beauty lies in its starkness and its silence.  There is almost a complete lack of vegetation and color, except in the spring when the desert comes alive with a profusion of wildflowers, including purple thistles, red poppies and black iris.

Wadi Rum

To the South of Petra lies Wadi Rum, a small Bedouin settlement with some of the most spectacular desert scenery in the world.  Millions of years ago explosions beneath the earth’s surface thrust up giant mounds of granite and sandstone, what remains resembles tidal waves frozen in time.  Like Petra the sandstone is predominantly pink although the colors are constantly changing as the sun moves overhead.  We met a guide named Mohammed who offered to drive us out to Sunset Rock and to a well  used by Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab revolt.    After a brief stop to meet his family and drink the obligatory cup of tea we arrived at Sunset rock and what was indeed a remarkable sunset.  The Well however turned out to be a rusty pipe that briefly emerged from the rocks and dripped.  It was a nice place to camp though so we built a fire  and slept under brilliant starlight.  We were woken early the next morning by a small Bedouin girl who seemed to be inviting us for tea.  We could see no form of life around us and wondered where she had come from, but as she led us around a hill we saw a large tent.

While successive civilizations have risen and fallen the lifestyle of the Bedouin has changed little over the centuries.  For many the only concession to modernization being the addition of a Landrover.  They are amazing people, adept at survival in such a harsh land.  The nomadic still roam the desert in search of grazing lands and water, knowing no borders, only the vastness of the desert.  The camel plays a vital role in sustaining life, resisting heat and dehydration it provides transport , milk , meat and clothing.  Bedouin hospitality is a ritual.  For people living in the desert it would be unthinkable to let a stranger pass without inviting them in, as any contact with the outside world is welcome.  Such hospitality extends to all Jordanians and we were always treated as honored guests.

The Ruined City of Jerash

The dry climate has helped to preserve a number of ancient sites where the ground is often littered with pieces of mosaic ,shards of pottery and occasionally flint tools .  The remarkable state of preservation of the Roman ruins at Jerash is due to their being covered in sand for hundreds of years.Situated just north of Amman it is considered to be one of the most complete of any Roman settlement in the world.  Only ten per cent of the city has been excavated, including baths, theaters, a giant forum and the colonnaded street flanked by two hundred and fifty towering columns.  The pavement is original and embedded with the marks of chariot wheels.  It’s impressive now and must have been incredible in its heyday.

The capital,  Amman  lacks the old world grandeur of  its neighboring capitals Jerusalem and Damascus. Its charm is due to an amiable atmosphere and friendly population.  There is a well-restored Roman amphitheater in the center, surrounded by a tree lined plaza and a number of coffee shops.  We would come here to enjoy the cool of the evening, passing the hours by playing backgammon and smoking apple tobacco from elaborate water pipes.

On a hill overlooking Amman there are the ruins of a second century AD castle and township.  Bedouins now graze their goats between the crumbling walls, oblivious to the sprawling mass that lies below them, as always untouched by the world changing around them .


Living with the Dead

My Days as a Deadhead, published in Farang Untamed Travel 2005

All photographs by the extraordinarily talented Joe Ryan

Jerry Garcia, singer, songwriter and founding force of the Grateful Dead was a larger- than-life character, hailed by many of his fans as a Messiah-like figure. When he died in 1995, 20,000 people gathered in San Francisco for a candle-light vigil. Shortly after, the band announced their split and to many it seemed like the end of an era. But time has proved otherwise and ten years after Jerry’s death, and forty years after the band played their first gig, the spirit of the Dead is alive and kicking. The Grateful Dead formed in the 60’s and seamlessly provided the background music for Ken Kesey as he unleashed his acid tests on California. Playing their unique, psychedelic boogie music, Jerry and the Dead came to symbolise the summer of love and the phenomenon of the‘Dead Head’ was born as loyal followers went on the road for the bands legendary tours across America.


In the spring of 1993, I embarked on my own summer of love and went on tour with the Dead– albeit selling falafel to hungry Dead Heads. We arrived in Chicago for the first show and seemed to have passed through a time warp when we entered the parking lot. There were tie-dyes, buses with flowers painted on them, girls in patchwork dresses, drumming circles. It was bitterly cold but everyone was in high spirits and incredibly friendly. I swapped a falafel for a space cake and off I went. A truck opened its doors, revealing hundreds of balloons, a queue formed and people were soon reeling about with big grins on their faces as they inhaled the happy gas from the balloons. Everything seemed to go a bit crazy, my friend Martin was arrested for selling falafel and the cops were bombarded with snowballs. The disco bus raised its flag, cranked the volume and the air was filled with the funky beat of Freak out, suddenly everyone was dancing – even the cops. All around the snow gently fell.

There were thousands of us on the road with the Dead, but we weren’t just following a band, we were following a lifestyle. I had stumbled upon a sub-culture, whose roots were firmly entrenched in freedom of expression and that was something I could relate to. Although I could never fully silence the cynic in me, at times I came close. I have never experienced such kindness and dare I say it, love! Dead tour was about people coming together; it really was one great big happy family, complete with its own lingo. Everything was ‘kind’; ‘kind bud’ to get you high; ‘kind veggie pasta’ if you were hungry and it seemed that I had become a ‘kind rainbow sister’ which I wasn’t really too sure about. Kind brothers and sisters kept asking me if I could ‘kick down a kind falafel’ which I eventually figured out meant they wanted one for free. If something was good, it was‘styling’ or ‘grooving’ and no-one said hello, it was ‘hey now’ or ‘hey dude’ or ‘hey bro’. Scores of people would hang around outside the venue calling out for a miracle (a free ticket).

The scene teemed with vitality and energy. In the heat of the summer I saw a show at Shoreline, California in which Terrapin (my favourite song) was jammed out for over an hour during the most glorious sunset. The music built and built until it became almost unbearable, erupting into a frenzy just as the sun sank behind the horizon.

It soon transpired that my friends ( a motley crew of fellow backpackers) and I were working for the falafel mafia, so-called because our boss, Bill, was no Dead Head, he was in for the money and not the vibe, which was very uncool. I eased my conscience by kicking lots down (falafel that is) and later by kicking in the whole job. It had all got a bit much anyway, six of us sharing a room, Wendy screaming out “Falafel” in her sleep and Dave – who seemed to have missed the point entirely – waking us all up every morning with blaring Megadeath tunes. He was increasingly drawn to the black power movement and had started shedding all his belongings which were not black. I scored a purple sleeping bag and a red Swiss army knife. He was last seen at the end of the tour buying an axe and heading off to live in the caves of Yosemite National Park. By then I had traded in travelling in the back of a truck- with six people, bulk falafel mix and pitta bread – for a styling van and a Dead Head boyfriend named Dion. He was beautiful and funny and loving and kind, until he broke my heart when he took off with a Dead Head chic in a ‘I love Jerry T-shirt’. “Ali, I’m just grooving on Jacky’s energy”, he explained to me. “Well, groove on this baby”, I screamed as I punched him in the face. And my days as a kind rainbow sister were over.

I was travelling in the Middle East a couple of years later when I met some US Marines who told me Jerry had died. With only two tours and ten shows under my belt, I was hardly a Dead Head, but I had been touched by the magic and it seemed that things would never be the same again. However, the movement that surrounded the Grateful Dead proved to be big enough to sustain its own momentum. “While he was the guitarist extraordinaire, half the voice and arguably the leader of the band, the band was a whole lot bigger than the fat man”, claims David Dranginis, a veteran of 30 Grateful Dead shows. The sales of music and merchandise continued, Dead Heads kept doing their groovy thing and other ‘Dead’ influenced bands such as Phish and Blues Traveller partially filled the void for people looking for a similar experience. Surviving band members went on to form their own bands, keeping the music alive by including a number of Dead tunes in their sets.

In 2003, to the delight of fans, surviving members reunited, calling themselves simply,‘The Dead’. “For a while we had to let it go, but now we’re reclaiming that part that we had a right to”, says Bassist, Phil Lesh. The band embarked on successful tours in 2003 and 2004.

Dead Heads have heartily embraced the cyber world and there are thousands of websites related to the band. Many fans have their own pages; merchandise is sold on-line; music is traded and there are numerous chat rooms and forums. I logged into a chat room recently and my inquiries about the current scene saw my inbox inundated with messages. People sent photos, colourful anecdotes, general musings, and a couple of people even remembered me (there weren’t to many Australians on Dead tour).

The Dead and their various incarnations continue to show almost total disregard for the record industry, at all times remaining true to their artistic vision. While they have enjoyed limited success in the studio, it’s always been the atmosphere of the shows that provides the magic: the unstructured improvisations: the legendary light shows: the people spinning in the doorways: the chance to see all your friends. They went from crazy hippy freaks to mainstream popular culture, but did it their way; they ignored the rules and against the odds became phenomenally successful.”The band became synonymous with a way of life”, wrote Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle, shortly after Jerry’s death. “Without ever intending to, Jerry and the Dead came to symbolize the summer of love, both for aging baby-boomers who lived through it and those who wished they did.”

A walk on the wildside


Bali Herbal Walks

I drive up to Ubud early in the morning, dark ominous clouds hang over the hills creating a moody backdrop. I hope the rain will hold off for the next few hours as I have signed up for a herbal walk, and trudging through rice fields in torrential rain isn’t quite what I have in mind. I meet my guide, Westi, a wise and gentle soul with an innate knowledge of all things herbal. He and his wife Lilir have been leading guests on walks through the ravines and rice fields of Ubud for twelve years. Their extensive knowledge of herbalism gained from their families, working in the field, and from years of studying with traditional healers.

The use of natural medicines, known as Usada, is a strong custom in Bali, as traditionally the only medicines that people had access to were those provided by nature. Most Balinese have some knowledge of natural cures and many families keep an apotek hidup (living drugstore), a small garden of herbs with medicinal properties in their yard. The edges of Bali’s fertile rice fields also host a plethora of herbs, fruit and trees that have therapeutic and health enhancing properties.

We head down a walled path way that edges along a steep ravine. Westi points out a magnolia tree, its leaves can be steeped in hot water and the resulting brew creates calm and balance. He adds that many Balinese women can’t afford perfume, instead enjoy the scent of fresh cut flowers such as magnolia, tied into their hair.

We wander through dense foliage, thick with trees, shrubs, and fernery that grows with untamed abandon. He tells me that unlike the heavily landscaped gardens that are popular in the island’s holiday resorts, a traditional Balinese garden is more wild and artistic. We come to a ylang ylang tree, with a solid trunk leading to a mass of leaves high above. He says the Japanese use it as ‘honeymoon oil’ which I guess makes it an aphrodisiac. Here in Bali, the flowers are considered holy and are used in offerings, but, “You have to be feeling strong to climb,” he says, “because it’s a tall tree and if you fall off, it’s all over.” Nearby, an avocado tree is sprouting with tiny green fruit; when ripe these can be used as a natural colouring and women blend the creamy flesh into a body mask which is highly moisturizing.

The path winds around the river and leads us up a gentle slope. We pass back yards where women are busy preparing morning offerings. Roosters crow, dogs bark and the air is fragrant with frangipani.

We find the dark red Indian long pepper growing on a climbing vine that clings to a stone wall. It is hard and shriveled and, as I discover when I taste a tiny sliver, very very hot. “The heat creates power,” Westi says, and is chewed by men as an aphrodisiac. I ask if women can chew it too, and he replies, “Yes, women are more equal now.” It is also one of the ingredients in boreh, a traditional body mask that relaxes the muscles and helps prevent rheumatism.

We head into a more open area, resplendent with the verdant green rice fields (sawahs) that Bali is so famous for. As with so much in Bali, the growing of rice is approached with an artist’s eye; just because something is practical, doesn’t mean that it can not also be beautiful. Palms line the path, butterflies flitter by and the sound of trickling water is ever present. We come across a couple of water snakes but they are timid and quickly slither away.  Westi points out the Balinese rice crops which are tall and stately and tells me that this is the best quality rice, as it is high in vitamins and nutrients, but only yields two crops a year. Nearby we see the Philippine variety which is more common, it is shorter, thicker and less aesthetic, but produces three crops a year and needs less attention.

I have never really given the rice paddies much thought beyond admiring them, taking numerous photos and regularly tucking into nasi goring. I learn that all farmers must be part of a rice co op a system known as Subak. There are 200 Subaks in Bali, seven of which are in Ubud. The one we are walking through is called Juwukmanis (Sweet orange organization of rice fields.) Water is set into irrigation channels to which everyone has equal access and although fields are individually owned, all members work together for the prosperity of all.

A few farmers are at work in the fields and a man in a rattan hat walks by with a stick over his shoulder laden with bushels of rice that have just been harvested.  A couple of small fires are burning which Westi tells me is sometimes necessary to rejuvenate the soil, the farmers decide what is needed. Natural insecticide is provided by a gaggle of ducks that are busy pecking away.

Small temples are scattered over the fields, and offerings are made to ensure good harvests.I notice a doll like figure dangling from a large bamboo stick and Westi tells me that this is a representation of the Rice Goddess Dewi Sri. It has been made from harvested rice husks, and is an offering of thanks to Ibu Purtiwi (earth mother.) He adds that after the rice has been planted, it is deemed  pregnant, and in the early growing stage, offerings such as sour fruit, which control nausea, are made to the rice goddess to prevent morning sickness.


Although Balinese practice Hinduism, the more ancient practice of Animism imbues much of the spiritual side of life. The earth is considered female and the sky is male – when the two meet, as in human relationships, there is power. The wet season is considered particularly powerful as the continual rain from the sky pounds the earth nurturing everything that grows with in it.  Nature’s bounty is powerful, because it has been created by the union of earth and sky. The reason that there are so many problems in Denpasar he explains, is that there is too much cement and the gods are angry because the sky and earth never meet, there is a block.

“When we eat, we absorb the character of the food,” he tells me. “Holy men eat only duck which is a symbol of wisdom, roosters are no good to eat because they like fighting.” I ask about ritualistic animal sacrifice and he tells me that, “Whatever we need, we offer the gods, blood sacrifice symbolizes fertility and may be necessary to ensure a good harvest.” But before killing an animal a ceremony is held to bless it, so that the animal will come back to a better and higher life.

We come to the temple compound of the Subak, it is late morning and the clouds have dispersed revealing the sun in all its scorching glory. We sit in the shade, enjoying the rest and the peaceful rural scene that surrounds us. A farmer brings me a fresh coconut to drink, skillfully opening it with a long curved knife.

We continue on our way, stopping to crush Citronella leaves which release a strong aroma that repels mosquitoes. We inhale the scent of Melaleuka leaves which are also used as an insect repellant, and pick stalks of lemongrass which are good for colds.Outside a temple Westi points out a tiny little plant not much bigger than my hand, it’s a banyan, one of the most sacred of all trees, it seems hard to imagine that this scrawny  little thing will one day be a magnificent sprawling mass of branches and vines.

Westi and Lilir are both keen to revive and preserve the natural heritage of herbalism, for the sake of the young generation of Balinese, and for the tourists who flock to the island. With the help of Melanie Templar from the UK, they established Utama Spice in 1997 which produces a range of high quality herbal beauty products, including lotions, oils and soaps. Westi tells me that some of their clients were interested to know more about the natural substances they used, which gave them the idea of taking guests on  guided walks. He says that there goal is sustainable tourism “You must have an income, but it should be a positive income, whereby you also look after the environment and share ancient knowledge.”

I meet Lilir back at their little shop on Sweta street in Ubud, she is tiny in stature, but big in spirit, and bubbles with enthusiasm. She tells me that her family had strong healing traditions and the brood of 11meant that there was no money for doctors, instead all ills were cured by trips to the living drugstore – the family garden.It has been a pleasure to meet this couple who are so passionate and dedicated, and I feel like I have learned more in these few hours than I have in years of living on the island. Lilir invites me to come another time and sample her special tumeric tonic and to join one of her Jamu classes, but that’s another trip, another story.

Book one day in advance.



There are few places in the world that evoke a sense of wonder like Greece. From ancient monuments to the mighty Gods, to the deep blue sparkle of the Aegean Sea that surrounds windswept islands where white washed houses hug the cliffs; to the  cosy tavernas that serve up homemade ouzo and crusty white bread with kalamata olives and pungent fetta cheese. While the lure of basking in the sun on a rugged island has always been irresistible, I finally managed on my last trip to Greece to drag myself away from the beach and head to the mountains. A picture spotted on a postcard had drawn me to the fabled monolithic rocks of Meteora where monks have long sought solace in the monasteries that perch like birds nests on top of them.

The bus wound higher and higher into the forested mountains and we were enveloped in a thick soupy fog as we crawled over the Koziakas Pass. It was after midnight  by the time we descended into the town of Kalambaka and I was battered by pelting rain as I stepped off the bus. Everything was closed and I wandered alone in the dark. I knew the town was nestled under the rocks of Meteora but I could barely see a few feet in front of me.  My spur of the moment decision to come here suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea and I cursed myself for not having a guide book or at least some idea about where to stay. The road eventually gave way to a dirt track, a loud crack of thunder made me jump, and was followed by a brilliant flash of lightning that illuminated a small guest house crouched under a great big monster of a rock. I had found my bed for the night.

The rain had cleared by morning and stepping onto my balcony I  was all but surrounded by giant rocks. I say rocks, but that goes no where near capturing the enormity of these monoliths – some of which are 600 meters high and bizarrely enough have monasteries sitting on top. Meteora translates as ‘suspended in air’ and at one time there were 24 rock-top monasteries scattered through the valley, now just six remain and a few monks still call them home.

I followed a sign that said ‘pathway to Meteora’, and clamoured up the steep trail which traversed boulders and thick forest and finally emerged at a plateau. Before me the mighty rocks of Meteora rose like natural skyscrapers from the valley floor. A climbers dream with over 50 rocks to conquer. Some were tall and spindly, others were bent and twisted,  and a few had boulders balancing precariously on top, stone faces were so sheer that they looked like they had been sliced in half by a giant carving knife. They rise so abruptly from the plain that they seem to have been thrust through the earths surface, but were actually formed by gradual erosion over 60,000,000 years ago.

Meteora has been a stronghold of the orthodox east since the eleventh century. Hermits were the first to dwell amidst the rocks, living high in the caves and crevices. By the 14th century monks were climbing the stone towers  and building churches on top, enduring incredible hardship in their efforts to be closer to God.  Cut off from the rest of the world they indulged in a life of praying, fasting and chanting, with rope ladders providing the only access until the 1930’s.  These days access is easier, via stairs and tunnels carved into the rocks or bridges from the hills behind. Most people visit on tour buses or by car but I preferred to walk, approaching each rock and monastery slowly, enjoying the different perspectives and the all-encompassing silence. For the first couple of days the sky was dark and overcast and the rocks seemed cold and hard, almost menacing, but on the third day I woke to brilliant sunshine. Under a luminous sky the rich layers of colours in the rocks revealed themselves, streaks of yellow, pink and red; the hardness softened by wild grasses and ivy, and the rocks suddenly seemed more gentle, more friendly.

I visited Gran Meteora first,  the largest of the monasteries and was excited to hear chanting as I climbed the stairs, but was disappointed not to find monks, but rather a gift shop playing a CD. Somehow I hadn’t expected a shop or to see the guy at the till sending a text message. My Greek friend tells me that very few monks live here now, as tourism and asceticism make a poor mix. “They have turned Meteora into a supermarket”, he laments. He was here years before working on the production of Tomorrow never dies which saw Roger Moore (or more likely his stunt double) climb one of the stone faces. There were delta planes, helicopters, a crew of 200. “The monks went crazy”, he told me, “but they made a lot of money so they couldn’t say no”. Although Gran Meteora now operates chiefly as a tourist attraction it still provides a  fascinating insight into life in a religious order. The chapel is thick with the smell of holy incense, and burning candles and smoky oil lamps illuminate beautiful frescos and ancient artefacts.  One room is dedicated to skulls, bones and relics of various saints, while the museum has an interesting collection of relics, including some amazing old photos. One depicts a monk with a full  black beard dressed in flowing black robes and a  tall black hat. Staff in hand he is leading the Greek revolutionary fighters into battle and cuts an imposing figure.  Other photos depict the rocks covered in snow and swirling mists.

I came across a sign in the valley proclaiming, “Do not shout, respect the unequalled character of the place”,  and although thousands of tourists descend on  Meteora every year, people are remarkably quiet, it is a humbling place. The other monasteries are much smaller and less visited. Rousano is reached by climbing down a lush leafy path which passes through two giant boulders then crosses a bridge to the rock itself into which is carved a stone staircase. It now acts as a nunnery and the  courtyard is filled with brightly coloured flowers. While  the other monasteries are dark and austere, this one is bright and cheerful with a  woman’s attention to detail. The gift shop sells the usual iconography and religious paraphernalia but also lace embroidery worked by the nuns and mint tea cultivated from the garden.

After dark the main square in Kalambaka bustles with activity. Tables with checked table cloths spill onto the sidewalk and are filled with a mix of tourists and locals. Some of the rocks are illuminated by spotlight and on a clear evening appear to hover like ghostly apparitions above the town, a silent reminder of the extraordinary feats of nature and of man.

Food of the gods on the island of the gods….

Chocolate truffles at Alchemy, photograph courtesy Suki Zoe

The magical world of raw chocolate

A few years ago my  friends had a ‘decadent dessert party’ and we all took along a dessert of our choice, not surprisingly there was a lot of chocolate – including my own triple chocolate cheesecake. What had started as a very chilled affair suddenly turned into a mad crazy night of dancing, I assumed we were all on a  sugar rush, it only occurred to me recently that we were more likely high on chocolate.

Few foods can evoke such passion, sensuality, comfort and addiction.  What is it that makes chocolate so special?

Legend has it that the first cacao beans came from paradise and lent wisdom and power to the person that ate them.  Deep in the tropical rainforests of central America, ancient Mayans  used ground cocoa beans in wedding rituals and for healing magic. To the Aztecs it was known as the food of the gods; and it is said that the  god Quetzalcoatl, was  kicked out of paradise for giving chocolate to the human race.

Most of us have experienced the ‘feel good factor’ of chocolate, its smooth exotic taste known to induce feelings of euphoria, even its aroma is enough to promote feelings of well being and happiness.  But if you are reading this while munching on a Mars Bar, its time to think again. While mass produced store bought confectionery might taste good and have a small amount of nutritional benefits,  this is sadly outweighed by vast amounts of chemicals, refined fats and sugars.

Raw chocolate, on the other hand provides a dose of pure natural goodness and is packed with magnesium, antioxidants and  a taste far superior to anything you will find on a supermarket shelf. In its purest form chocolate contains  an abundance of Tryptophan, a substance which triggers a reaction in the brain and creates a feeling of elation and giddiness. It is also packed with  Anandamide a name derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss. Also known as the love chemical, Anandamide induces feelings of euphoria…. just like falling in love. While cooking and processing chocolate destroys much of its natural goodness, raw chocolate is healthy for the mind, body and soul.

Raw Chocolate cake at Alchemy, photograph courtesy of Suki Zoe

A number of places in Bali are now making raw chocolate, but Alchemy, a quirky health cafe in Ubud has the best,  with its  gleaming refrigerator shelves stocked with a dazzling display of cakes, candy and chocolates that don’t just taste good, they are good for you. The slabs of dense chewy chocolate bars are seriously ‘to die for’ (or at least to ‘drive to Ubud for….’) I also love the homemade bounty bars filled with fresh shredded coconut, the dark peppermint infused Stevia Mint Drops and the coconut dusted truffles. Bali Buddha also has a good selection, including lovely heart-shaped chocolate truffles, while Desa Seni serves up a tasty range of energy balls – just the thing after a yoga session. The raw chocolate dream pie at Clear Cafe in Ubud also deserves a mention – it is positively dreamy! It is also worth paying a visit to Five Elements in Mambal, a divine eco retreat offering gourmet raw cusisine that provides one of the most profound dining experiences on the island. Actually, the first time I tried raw chocolate was here and it was a moment I will never forget.

One of the newest venues on Bali’s raw chocolate scene is the inspiring Bamboo Chocolate Factory, also in Mambal (just near the Green School.) The soaring bamboo building rises from a sea of tropical forests and has been created by Big Tree farms who work with local farmers to produce organic ingredients such as salt and pepper, vanilla, cashews and honey.  You can join a tour of the factory, which starts with  a cup of thick and creamy organic hot chocolate to get you in the mood. A guide will then lead you along the labyrinth of bamboo hallways and cavernous rooms, following the trail of the humble cacao bean as it is transformed into a delicious chocolate bar. If images of oompa loompas and rivers of chocolate are flowing through your mind, think again; but if you are remembering the movie ‘Chocolate’, with the beautiful Vianne sensually grinding beans on a stone you are a little closer, but still not thinking big enough.  Actually, the six tonne, 70-year-old Mélangeur is so big it has its own room – with two giant granite rollers that crush the cacao beans (fermented, not roasted) into a thick paste.  Twelve hours later the paste is ready for the conche which turns it into a smooth liquid, while a cold press separates the butter. In the cashew sorting room, nuts are hand selected and trimmed, before making their way into chocolate bars.  Back in the tasting room you can try the fresh slabs of 70% bitter chocolate, which is also on sale, along with cold processed cacao powder, and cashew chocolate nibs. Chocolate-making workshops are planned to start from August so you will be able to create your own sublime concoctions.

cocoa dusted truffles at Alchemy, photograph courtesy Suki Zoe

Desa Seni Magic


At  Desa Seni  the path to well being is scattered with flowers…..

As my friend and resident Kundalini yoga teacher Daphna says, “It’s a place of peace and joy, from the moment you enter any stress evaporates…. it’s a happy place.”

Desa Seni has been keeping me sane for the past two years, a sanctuary that is most certainly my happy place, where I can escape from work and every day pressures, and  lose myself in the beauty of my surroundings and in the ancient practice of yoga. At early morning classes  I  watch the flowers unfurl as I stretch into sun salutations, while sunset classes are filled with the golden glow of dusk and the flickering light of candles against a crimson streaked sky.

I always feel like I am stepping into a fairy tale as I follow the stepping stones that lead through colourful vegetable patches and heavily laden fruit trees. Everywhere I look there is something of beauty that has been thoughtfully placed to create joy ; a quaint wooden bridge, an  ancient dug out canoe filled with flowers, a wooden statue decorated with frangipani, or a carefully labelled tree or plant.

I once spent a weekend at Desa Seni staying in one of the charming antique wooden houses gathered from across the Indonesian archipelago. My beautiful house came with a  written story that detailed its origins, and that of all the antiques that filled it. In the afternoon one of the staff dropped by with fresh fruit and herbal tea and when I woke in the morning there was a traditional Balinese offering placed on my verandah with a card explaining how to make the offering to my own small temple.

Tom, the ever-inspiring man behind Desa Seni describes how he saw the island “blooming and growing” but felt that no one was staying true to Bali. His vision incorporated farming, yoga, unlimited potential for creativity, and integration with the local community. His founding belief , “If we all give back, educate, inspire and nurture, the world will be a better place.” I love that Tom is a man of his word and Desa Seni gives back to the community on so many levels, from being organic and green, to free English and yoga classes for the staff, to organising beach clean ups and to sponsoring worthy organisations such as Sacred Childhood Organisation and initiatives such as Ayu Kita Bicara which raises awareness about AIDS in the community.  Through Kula magazine Desa Seni continues to spread the word and promote like minded people and businesses on the island.

Desa Seni reminds me to always take a little time for myself to reconnect with the magic and beauty of life – something that I sometimes forget. Here I see positive vibrations leading to action, and remember that we can make a difference. Love certainly isn’t all you need – but it’s a great place to start!

Donau Toba, Sumatra

Seventy four thousand years ago Sumatra was rocked by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of all time. Anthropologists believe that the resulting dust cloud that covered the earth killed most of the planet’s population. From the mouths of hell sprang the tropical island paradise of Samosir, perched in the middle of Donau Toba the world’s largest crater lake.


I travel by bus from the south of Sumatra, a long crazy night in which our driver, sporting an Elvis quiff and a purple satin shirt, has the radio cranked and sings enthusiastically for the whole journey. In what appears to be a nightly ritual, we also make frequent stops at the roadside karaoke bars where he croons Indonesian love songs while we all wait on the bus.

It’s a relief to arrive in Parapat, the gateway to Toba Lake, and I am just in time for the first ferry. We glide across the thermal waters, before us looms the mountainous island of Samosir, its peaks shrouded in mist. Covering an immense 1700 square kilometres Donau Toba is the largest lake in South East Asia, and Samosir, which is almost as big as Singapore, is the world’s largest island on an island.

It is a place of panoramic vistas, covered in sprays of bougainvillea, fields of sunflowers and dense banana groves. Traditional boat-shaped Batak houses with their enormous saddleback roofs and elaborate carvings line the shores of the lake. The Batak people who inhabit the island are descendents of an ancient war-like cannibalistic kingdom that was converted to Christianity by Portugese and Dutch Missionaries. The new religion was adopted with zeal and countless Church steeples poke out from the tropical foliage.

I rent a Batak house which sits like a beached hulk, just meters from the lake and is decorated with hand-woven blankets and tribal masks. It’s like being on a house boat, but without having to worry about sea sickness, and manages to be cosy despite its soaring ceiling.  These traditional stilt houses have a beautiful symmetry and are rich in symbology, featuring 3 levels of existence, the tall roof reaching to the gods, the middle part where the family lives, and the bottom part for animals and the mythological dragon. The tiny doorway is designed so you have to bow down to enter the house, thus paying respect to the people inside. The gables are decorated with carvings of serpents, lizards and birds and the side beams are adorned with large carvings of ‘singa’, a mythological lion with bulbous eyes which is said to radiate positive energy and will apparently shield me from disease and evil.  I have to say that I sleep incredibly peacefully.

I wake each morning and dive into the clear, glassy lake which is infinitely enticing with its soft water that is just cool enough to be refreshing. Life here centres on the lake. People wash themselves, their clothes and their dishes; children frolic; fishermen in tiny dug-out canoes ply the water, as they have done for centuries. Late one afternoon an angry black storm creeps across the lake, whipping it into a frenzy of waves.  By dusk the storm has blown itself out and leaves a swirling fog in its wake. I can just make out the shadow of a man washing in the lake; he sings a soulful lament, his haunting voice wafting like the mist across the water.

My house sits on the corner of the Tuk tuk peninsula which juts out of the eastern side of the island and overlooks a picturesque bay on one side and the vast expanse of the lake on the other. A tourism boom in the early 1990’s saw hotels and restaurants spring up all over Tuk tuk, but these days they are mostly empty and the island is quiet.

It is a peaceful and laid-back place where tourism is squeezed between daily chores; attending weddings; harvesting crops and drinking Tuak (palm wine,) a favourite past-time of the Bataks.  I am drawn into Orari restaurant one evening by the sign out the front which says, “Lake Toba Wine – maybe not the best but we try to be.” Bottles steeped with fruits and herbs line the bar, I choose one at random and the bar man pours me a glass. The sign is right, it’s not the best, but it is definitely palatable and has quite a kick which adds a slight weave to my walk home.

The Batak people are fun-loving, friendly and love to sing. The traditional music is folksy and rousing, and singing is a natural accompaniment to most activities; riding a motorbike; cooking; taking a bath in the river; and most enthusiastically, while drinking Tuak. I constantly find myself in random exchanges with people. As I walk down the street one day a woman calls out to me, “Hey you – I like your body, you not too fat, you normal, it’s good”. When I have a problem with the lights in my house I call the owner. He says, “I better call the electrician before he gets drunk.” He returns twenty minutes later and says, “Sorry, too late, he’s already drunk.” I am happy to make do with candle light.  One afternoon I chat with a local guide named Luca. I ask about the volcano that once lay beneath us, he shrugs his shoulders and says “That’s what the scientists say,” and proceeds to tell me the ‘real story’ of Toba lake. “A long long time ago a man caught a fish in a stream, but the fish talked to him and said don’t eat me because really I am a woman and if you save me I will become your wife, but you must never tell anyone I was once a fish. Sure enough the fish turns into a beautiful woman who bares him a son. One day, in a moment of anger he calls the boy a son of a fish and with this betrayal the woman becomes a fish again and weeps for every more, filling the lake with her tears.”

I rent a bright red automatic scooter, and set out to explore. My first stop is in Ambarita where the roadside market is brimming with hand woven blankets, miniature carvings of batak houses and hand tooled leather craft. On a hill behind the market a megalithic site set in a dark grove provides a silent testament to the island’s cannibalistic past.  The circle of 300-year-old stone chairs was once the conference area for Batak kings and a place for passing judgement on a criminal or enemy prisoner. At an adjacent site, the accused would be bound, and rubbed with chilli and garlic and then beheaded with a long knife. A local man shows me around and points out thespecial curved stone where the beheadings took place. He explains that the head would be thrown into the lake and the body cut into small pieces that were mixed with buffalo meat and boiled into a stew. “Fortunately,” he says, “we are now Christians and do not eat men any longer.”

Some of the island’s best preserved Batak houses are also found in Ambarita and are set up as an open-air museum which  incorporates another set of stone chairs built around an ancient banyan tree. The banyan is the tree of life for the Bataks and these majestic trees with their branches twisting and turning in every direction are found all over the island. Heading north I leave the lush rainforest, palms and banana plantation behind and find a sparser more mountainous landscape, with low lying areas planted with corn, rice and vegetables. Family tombs shaped like miniature Batak houses are so prolific that there seems to be no vista that does not incorporate at least one. Ancestor worship remains a strong custom on the island and the tombs are built above ground so that everyone can see and never forget. Some are quite small and simple, while others are huge and topped with large crosses and life-sized statues representing the departed.

I follow a rough and bumpy dirt track up into the mountains. The panoramic view allows me to appreciate the immensity of the crater and the cataclysmic explosion that caused it. Nature at its most furious has created a place of infinite beauty, peace and refuge, the island is the calm after the storm.