Tuscany Day 1: From Bondi to Bagnoregio

Bagnoregio: quintessential Italy
Bagnoregio: quintessential Italy

Ciao from Italia!

At the beginning of this year, I attempted to capture our 11 day trip to Japan in a daily travel journal. I think I published maybe three blog posts and ended up with a folder of half complete musings. This time, I’m going to do better because these posts will be short (I’m limiting myself to an hour writing each day), not-every-day (although if they are, that’s OK) and will capture 5 observations from the day that passed.

Here’s Day 1 (brought to you by 430am jetlag, a Canon 7D and an iPhone 6):

It’s my first time in Italy in 7 years. How did that happen? Italy is one of those countries, like France, that always feels familiar. The espresso, the pasta, the pastries…Italian culture has permeated the world, and its presence is felt no stronger than in Sydney, where the coffee culture, delicious bakeries and creative Italian cuisine is delightfully authentic. 

We landed in Rome in the wee hours. It’s one heck of a flight through Dubai, with more than 20 hours in the air, but the bright sunlight and sheer excitement wiped the sleep from our eyes. After collecting our Europcar rental, a Fiat of course, we headed straight out on our 250km journey to Tuscany.

The plan was to grab a bite and stop at a couple of the towns along the way before heading towards Siena. We’re pretty good at road trips and we’ve recently taken to seizing any opportunity to be in a car to listening to a podcast. Usually, it’s something about tech, occasionally its from the Moth or the New Yorker. Today it was about startups. And so, with Jason Calacanis gushing about the soon-to-be-extinct Zirtual as background music, we made good time to Bagnoregio.

Civita de Bagnoregio
Civita di Bagnoregio

Civita di Bagnoregio is a medieval town about 150km north of Rome. It was founded more than 2500 years ago as an Etruscan settlement and sits atop a mountain that is slowly eroding. It was, in a word, breathtaking. 

Like so much in this part of the world, Bagnoregio feels like a perfectly preserved postcard from Roman times. A paved footbridge connects it to “the modern world” and the view from the approach, set against bare ridges, cuts a dramatic scene.

With the sun out in all its mediterranean glory, temperatures had soared to the mid thirties and the 8,000 step round trip was punishing. We stopped on our way back for a refreshing granita and took every opportunity to bask in the shade.

By the time we got to Siena, it was 3pm. We stopped for a quick (late) lunch in town and then drove an additional 20 minutes North to our hotel. Hotel Le Fontanelle sits on a functioning vineyard set against the gorgeous Chianti Hills. Tucked away, tranquil and yet perfectly executed, it’s a beautiful escape and feels unlike anywhere I’ve ever stayed in Italy. By dinner time, temperatures had finally eased and we were able to sit outside and soak in the beauty of the scene…and eat and drink far too much.

Here are my five observations from day 1.

1. So far, Tuscany feels a lot like French wine country: Provence, Burgundy, Alsace. I suppose all wine country shares characteristics but the rolling hills, winding roads and historic townships combine to create something uniquely old world.

2. Speaking of dry sun, did I mention how hot it is? It’s hot as. Coming from the Australian Spring, we’ve been caught by surprise. The Tuscan sun can certainly hold its own. 

3. Italian, the language, is just as beautiful as I remember. I studied French for several years and can rattle off some survival Spanish but I can’t claim to speak much Italian. All I know is it’s music to my ears.

4. People drive fast. Like really fast. And unlike Australia and much of Northern Europe and Switzerland, there’s little concern for speed cameras. We were clocking in at 100kph on the highway from Rome to Siena and were constantly being overtaken. Oh the narrow, winding country roads? The Italians are zooming there too.

5. This one’s a little random but I thought it was really interesting: there are a ton of tour buses with tourists from Mainland China. It might just be the airport and the towns we’ve seen so far, but I thought this was a big shift from the last time I was in Italy. We’ll see if it’s true in the smaller towns as well. 

Getting sick when you’re travelling

I just got back from a week in Singapore and Vietnam.  As excited as I was for my first work trip to Asia since moving down under, I wasn’t prepared for the bout of illness that came with it.  A sore throat grew into a nasty fever, the fever left me with a terrible cold and the cold gave way to one of those coughs that you wouldnt want to be caught dead with in public.  I spent a couple of days cooped up in the hotel room, watching daytime soaps and CNN but mostly I slept and ate pho.  Getting sick is never fun.  Getting sick in a foreign country can be downright scary.

The last time I got really sick on a trip was in 2009. I had quit my job in finance and was spending the summer travelling around South America with two of my future b-school classmates. After a month of schlepping though hostels, we were splurging on the Sheraton in Iguazu for our last stop. We’d started to feel under the weather in Buenos Aires and were looking forward to some R&R in more comfortable digs.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before my tiredness evolved into a raging fever. I decided to skip out of the day’s plans and stay in bed. I barely had the energy to get out of bed and on the one occasion that I did, I blacked out. When I came to, I was sitting on the cold floor and realised to my relief that I hadn’t hit anything hard. I sat there a few more minutes, before I could summon the strength to get up and dial the front desk.

Hours later, a nurse showed up.  He was the only qualified “medic” in the area and his professional advice was to “drink lots of fluids, take paracetemol and rest”.  No meds, no antibiotics, nothing.  I don’t think there was a pharmacy for miles.

The other girls returned and the three of us grappled with our symptoms while staring at the news in our hotel room. It soon dawned on us that this was no ordinary bug: this was sweeping the world, this was H1N1.

Being taken out by H1N1 in a remote town, in Argentina, a few weeks before business school was scary. We worried that we wouldn’t be well enough to travel back to the States or, worse still, be quarantined.  The only thing I felt grateful for was that we were in a hotel room rather than on one of the gruelling hikes we’d been ploughing through weeks earlier.

48 hours later, we managed to get on a flight home. In retrospect wasn’t the best thing for containing the disease but was the best thing for getting us on the path to recovery. It took another week of lying around doing nothing before I felt better. I lost 5 lbs in about 10 days.

A few lessons from dealing with sickness abroad:

  • Carry a first aid kit: Duh! Throw some throat lozenges in there, make sure you have some advil / paracetamol / panadol, some sort of tums, bandaids, maybe some immodium, some neosporin “the basics”.  As obvious  as this is, how many people actually travel with a first aid kit? When in a group, there’s always someone miraculously carrying everything you need; when you’re travelling alone, you have to have your own back. Getting sick isn’t the first thing we think of when we’re going on vacation or on a business trip.  I now leave a ziplock of basic meds in my standard bags.
  • Medicate: Step 2 from above: use your meds (wisely).  If you’ve forgotten your first aid kit and you’re somewhere reasonably “foreign” e.g. you don’t speak the language or you’re in a developing country with unfamiliar medical facilities, it can be very tempting to just lay in bed and hope that whatever you have will pass. Don’t! Symptomatic care is valid so take what you need to give yourself some respite. Leverage the hotel: oftentimes they’ll have basic meds on hand or can send someone to pick up what you need. Worst case, they can direct you to a nearby pharmacy and write down what you need.
  • Know when to escalate: a lot of people and a lot of blogs will recommend that you head to a medical center at the first signs of illness when travelling. The thing is, oftentimes, there IS no nearby medical center. Other times, you already know exactly what you have (“a cold”, “food poisoning”) and you can handle it with OTC drugs. Or sometimes, you’re alone, don’t speak the language and are just too sick to go and sit in a waiting room for hours on end. So, what do you do?  If you’re in a country that still does house calls, ask your hotel if they can help arrange one.  If not, see if someone from their staff will accompany you to a clinic and act as a translator.  If you’ve been injured, had an unrelenting fever for more than 24 hours or if your symptoms are getting worse, you should seek medical attention.  It’s worth summoning the energy and effort to trek out to a hospital.
  • Tea, juice, water, soup: stock up on it, raid the mini bar, order it off room service, do whatever it takes to get those liquids into you. Hydration is key.
  • Keep the phone close: Keep your cellphone charged and the hotel phone handy. Know your emergency numbers.
  • Turn off the AC: I hate air conditioners. I’m convinced my latest illness was caused by germs circulated by the hotel AC.  Having it on even briefly would exacerbate my symptoms in seconds. I went cold turkey sans AC in 30C Saigon for two full days and I think it expedited my recovery.
  • Get some air: Keep the room well ventilated or, if you feel up to it, go for a short walk, fresh air does wonders.
  • Conserve energy: if you’re feeling weak, running a fever or otherwise having trouble moving, stay put! Make the most of your hotel amenities: use room service, ask for extra pillows / blankets, rent a stack of movies.  Extend your stay or do whatever’s necessary to avoid the additional strain of travelling until you’re recovered.

Stay healthy! x

Note: This is based on my personal experience and is in no way intended to replace medical advice. If in doubt, you should seek the advice of a medical professional.  


G’Day from Sydney!  It’s been nearly a week since we hopped aboard a one-way flight to Australia and after 5 fantastic days exploring our new city, it feels about time to start documenting our adventures.  Niraj and I are currently staying downtown, in what the locals call the ” CBD” or Central Business District, but we’ve managed to get out and about and have seen a fair bit of Paddington and Woollahra (the “Eastern Suburbs”) as well as Bondi Beach and Bondi Junction.  To kick off the Australia section of this blog, here’s what I’ve found interesting so far:

1. The people of Sydney refer to themselves as “Sydneysiders”.  I’ve never heard of any other “-sider” but I suppose Sydney-er, Sydney-an or Sydney-ite just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

2. Sydneysiders love their coffee. Independent coffee shops and pop-up stands litter the bustling sidewalks of the CBD, boutique cafés adorn the cobbled streets of Paddington and artisanal roasters peek out from among the sunscreen- and flipflop-touting bodegas at the beach. Australian coffee is delicious and warrants a language of its own.  Asking for a “coffee” won’t get you very far in Sydney.  Drip coffee is something of a rarity here with locals preferring instead to sip espresso machine concoctions with mysterious names like flat white, short black and piccolo. You’ll also be hard pressed to spot a Starbucks in Sydney — no complaints here but I did come across this interesting case study by the University of NSW on the topic.

Flat Whites
Flat whites at Sean’s Panaroma in Sydney

3. Another trend I can get on board with is Sydney’s love affair with muesli.  The supermarkets are laden with muesli of all kinds and in a variety of preparations – boxes of organic muesli fill the cereal aisles, stacks of chocolate muesli bars form pyramid displays and rows of muesli yoghurt pots and smoothies occupy the refrigerated shelves.  Another ubiquitous preparation is Bircher muesli, which, as anyone who knows me well can attest, has been a long-time favorite breakfast and snack food.  Who’d have thought that soaking muesli overnight in apple juice and yoghurt would taste so good?  Seeing it at every coffee shop and on every restaurant menu warms my Bircher muesli loving heart but it doesn’t come cheap – prices seem to range from $6 for a grab and go snack to $15 for a brunch-sized portion.

Bircher Muesli at Icebergs; Bondi Beach
Bircher Muesli we had at Icebergs; Bondi Beach

4. Sydneysiders love their acronyms.  The first time I heard the term “GFC” was when the Commonwealth Bank of Australia employee opening our new accounts began explaining how it had made Australian workers reluctant to invest their supers in American equities. The GF what? Seeing my blank expression, he stopped what he was doing, looked up and said, rather matter-of-factly, “the global financial crisis, you know, in 2008?” Ohh.  Besides “NSW” (New South Wales) and of course “CBD”, I’ve since encountered “EFTPOS” (Electronic Funds Transfer Point Of Service) meaning something that will let you pay by credit card.  Oh and did you know that QANTAS stands for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services?  Quite a mouthful. The Aussies also seem to enjoy abbreviating words and phrases they consider unnecessarily long to make cuter, undoubtedly more efficient words —  “Paddo” is Paddington, “Goodo” is good on you and “How ya goin’?” is the Aussie way of asking “How are you doing” AND “How is it going?” Clever, eh?

5. Sydneysiders’ reaction to their city’s weather is also something to be marveled at.  The Sydney winter is mild by most standards, probably most comparable to the New York fall.  So far (in early July), we’ve seen temperatures vary quite a bit, peaking at around 20C (68F) during the day and dropping to 5C (41F) in the nights and mornings.  For a city that is used to much warmer climes (summer average daily high of 25C or 77F), I was expecting Sydneysiders to approach their winter wardrobes with the gusto that Miami and California folk do – seizing any opportunity to don their boots, jackets and scarves.  Instead, we’ve seen people surfing in the 14C degree water sans wet suits, walking the boardwalks in shorts and heading to corporate offices in shirts and dresses (no jackets, no tights and definitely no coats).  We’ve even seen women brave the evening chill in mere cocktail dresses.  I suppose when it comes to facing the elements, the Aussies are more akin to the Brits than the Californians and Miamians and, for anyone who’s had a night out in Northern England or really at any British college, you’ll remember the superhuman strength that’s on display when venturing into the freezing cold in skimpy outfits.

Bondi Surfing
Winter surfing at Bondi; photo by Acquabumps

6. Spice.  Whether it’s Malaysian sambal, Singaporean laksa or simply a spicy sushi roll, Sydneysiders don’t hold back when it comes to their spice!  We haven’t yet ventured into Chinatown, we’re eating at mainstream, if anything nicer, restaurants, frequented by mainstream guests, and everyone seems to be savoring the spice.  The Indian in me is rejoicing.  Respect.

7. Sydneysiders are an international bunch.  In our short time here we’ve encountered Brits, Kiwis, Americans, Indians, South Africans and Sri Lankans as well as people from Hong Kong, China and France.  Of the local Aussies we’ve met, many have lived abroad, whether they’re a customer service guy at Vodaphone or a lawyer at an elite firm.  Manhattanites like to think of themselves as a “diverse” group…whether they’ve lived outside the New York area (let alone the US!) or not.  Sydney’s international diversity is refreshing by comparison.

I could write more about Sydney and Sydneysiders but I’m not sure I know either well enough yet. What I do know is that the people here seem a helpful and welcoming bunch. Many of the people we’ve interacted with over the last week have offered up tips on navigating the city, shared favorite restaurant and bar lists and invited us over for dinner. We’ve received a boatload of useful opinions on Sydney neighbourhoods along with ample thoughts on where to live. I’ve lived in four countries and 12 cities now, but the level of warmth we’re encountering in Sydney is truly unique.

A Long Weekend of Food in Cabo

The name of this blog promises you travel and travel you shall get!  While I’ve been reporting from SF for a more than a month now, it is time for some real travel.  Last week, the bf and I flew to Cabo for the long, holiday weekend.  It was my first time in Mexico and I was super excited to take in the beautiful landscapes, explore some desert terrain and feast on authentic local food.  It turns out Cabo is probably not the best place for an authentic Mexican experience, but is absolutely incredible nonetheless.

We stayed at a spectacular, but tranquil, resort located in the “corridor” between San Jose Del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas.  Set against stunning white sands, with both the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean in its backyard, Las Ventanas’ sprawling property includes several infinity pools, a luxurious spa and four award-winning restaurants.  The beautiful open air Sea Grill serves delicious meats and fresh seafoods prepared in a wood-burning grill and clay oven.  A fantastic lunch here woo-ed us back for independence day dinner and the breathtaking location provided us with an up-close view of some beautiful fireworks.

Mi Casa, a restaurant in central Cabo San Lucas, is another place we enjoyed.  Decorated with hundreds of wall hangings, quirky tequila bottles and traditional folklore, the restaurant’s entryway will fascinate and mesmerize, a highly desirable effect in case you are waiting for a table.  The place definitely has a touristy vibe with an entertaining mix of glamourous party-goers as well as the occasional mariachi or flower-seller.  The menu, though not super creative, is easily likable and the portions, quite large.  The service occurs at a leisurely pace but is extremely friendly; our waiter insisted on not charging us for our little touched ceviche (it was too tomato-ey).

A big limitation of Cabo is that you cannot really swim in the ocean.  Not only is the Baja California Pacific choppy and cold, it is dominated by powerful undercurrents and a rocky coastline, making it extremely dangerous.  Keen for some snorkelling, we decided to join the Cabo Escape Cruise and head out to the calmer waters of Chileno Bay.  However, a hurricane from a few days earlier had brought cool weather to Cabo and as our ship set sail, we quickly realized it was going to be even cooler in the ocean breeze. An hour and a few pina coladas later, we arrived at our destination.  The crew had handed out snorkelling gear and life jackets and now, ready to explore the famous reef, we stood in line to jump in.  The water was FREEZING.  Not cold like tap water, but cold like ice water – what a shock!  It’s hard to breathe when your body is submerged in an ice bath but we somehow recovered and fought the current (yes, it was as strong as ever) to swim out to the “reef area”.  Hmmm… ten minutes later, we still weren’t seeing any fish.  I looked around and the few people who’d made it as far out as us also looked puzzled, searching earnestly for some sign of sea life.  The water was not only freezing and incredibly rough, it was murky and completely devoid of fish.  We swam back to the boat and climbed aboard only to learn that the hurricane had driven the fish out to warmer waters.  Hah!  The one group that had spotted a fish had been so elated that they’d started chasing it, busting out the waterproof cameras to capture this rare life form we’d all gone to so much trouble to see.  Hopefully this wasn’t an eerie glimpse into the post-BP future…

Snorkelling misadventures aside, Cabo really is fantastic.  After our cruise, we ended up having lunch at a wonderful lobster shack where we got talking with a Canadian couple who’d retired in Cabo 5 years ago. The husband’s deep sea fishing trips supply them with an abundance of fresh marlin and they’d had their latest catch prepared by the restaurant as ceviche – a happy retired life indeed. We spent the next day driving ATVs through the desert and exploring hidden beaches along the (calmer) Sea of Cortez; it more than compensated for the choppy Pacific.  So, if you’re looking for white sands, beautiful resorts, dramatic landscapes and fantastic food, consider Cabo.  Just hope that you get there before a cold-weather hurricane.

Back from the Dead [Sea]: HBS Israel Trek 2010

Fresh from the oven and doused in olive oil and za'atar - delicious

Israel is widely known as the promised land – the land of milk and honey. White sands glisten along dramatic coastlines, lush orchards of figs, pomegranates and olives litter ancient landscapes and beautiful partygoers throng vibrant resorts. But after ten days of intense travel with a group of 80 HBS students, Israel seems much more like a land of paradoxes – a complex blend of antiquity and modernity, religion and secularity, patriotism and rebellion.

The center of three major religions, Israel attracts millions of tourists each year. However, in spite of (or rather because of) its status as one of the holiest places on earth, this tiny strip of land has seen centuries of conflict, turmoil and bloodshed. After a drawn-out battle against the Palestinian Arabs, Israel declared independence in 1948, only to face fresh attacks from Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The now famous Israeli Defense Forces were formally established on May 26, 1948 and, by March of the following year, the IDF had miraculously repelled Arab forces to secure Israel’s borders. Unfortunately this was not the end. During the 6 Day War of 1967, Israel pre-emptively attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria to regain control of the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Egypt and Syria retaliated with a surprise attack in 1973, leading to thousands of casualties that highlighted Israel’s vulnerabilities and the need for peace in the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict has persisted over the decades, manifesting itself in two wars with the PLO in Lebanon (1982 and 2006) and two Intifada uprisings in Palestinian territories (1987 and 2000). More recently, Israel imposed an embargo on the Gaza Strip after the territory fell under Hamas rule three years ago. Last week, a flotilla of 6 Turkish ships carrying 10,000 tons of aid for the impoverished Gaza Strip was intercepted by Israeli forces, causing a significant setback in relations with Turkey, a key ally in the Muslim world.

Given its political backdrop and religious tensions, I was surprised at how secular Israeli society actually feels. Jews, Christians and Muslims peacefully co-habit the densely populated Old City within Jerusalem and flyers promoting the latest clubs litter the glitzy boardwalks of Eilat. Hordes of sun-worshipping Tel Avivians flock to the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and, with the exception of Shabbat (the day of rest), every hour in the city feels like it’s bursting with modern life. Our guide for the trip spoke fondly of King Hussein of Jordan and his work towards signing a landmark peace treaty with Israel.

“We are desperately seeking peace with our neighbours. If we can build more friendships in the region, we’d absolutely be willing to cede land.”

Even more encouraging was our Arab-Israeli taxi driver’s impassioned speech for peace. “The people of the West Bank are trapped in a dead-end society. They cannot work and they cannot leave. I grew up here, an Arab in Jerusalem, and I know that we, the people, want peace. We want this to end. It is the politicians who want the conflict.”

Another remarkable paradox of modern day Israel is the co-existence of a strong culture of rebellion with a mandatory conscription for both men and women to the IDF. Everywhere we went, Israelis spoke proudly of their distaste for authority and their passion for disagreeing with the status quo (regardless of what it is).

“We don’t queue in Israel. Life is all about cutting lines”.

The cultivation of this particular personality trait on a national level appears to have created psychological unity among the Israeli people (above and beyond religious and ethnic similarities) and, perhaps more importantly, spawned a culture of risk-taking and entrepreneurship. Interestingly, Israel’s enormous military budget (~9% of GDP vs. ~ 4% for the US) necessitated by its location in a hostile Middle East, has fueled a booming high tech industry and a desire by its people to “build something” rather than work in say, financial services.

Blessed with lush, dramatic landscapes, gorgeous beaches and delicious and wonderfully spicy food, it is hard not to fall in love with Israel. After four nights in Tel Aviv, two in Jerusalem, three in Eilat and one in Kfar Blum, we were averaging 4 hours of sleep and many more units of alcohol. Despite the exhaustion, the heat and the sensory overload, the thought of leaving “the Land” and the fabulous group of 80 crazy partners in crime, was quite a downer. Israeli people are wonderfully warm and incredibly hospitable and the idea of a ten hour red-eye with American plane food was far less appealing than a hot pitta filled with spicy hummus and perfectly crisped falafel 😉