Off The Beaten Path

It can’t be a coincidence that some of our best travel memories have been created when we have ventured off the well-trodden tourist path. Be it getting lost in little European cities to discovering the amazing hole-in-the-wall eateries or stumbling upon incredible street art, we strongly advocate that everyone should go off the beaten path and live like the locals.

A Gastrorgasmic Street Food Guide to Penang

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Gastrorgasm (n): an intensely pleasurable experience elicited by the consumption of incredibly delicious food, usually with explosive flavours. Likely to induce moans and groans. 

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Discovering the Secrets of Balik Pulau with Matahari Cycle Tours

Balik Pulau has a secret.

The Penangites might not want you to know this. And the truth is, few Malaysians probably do. Ask people where they can find Penang's best Assam Laksa, and you will probably be directed to Air Itam, or Penang Road. But the best answer to this question lies in the town center of Balik Pulau.

How did we stumble upon this secret? This story begins on one special Sunday morning when we dragged our butts out at the crack of dawn to go cycling with Matahari Cycle Tours.

Cycling with Matahari Cycle Tours

Our tour started out in a little carpark, where we were assigned bicycles that had been calibrated to our height and weight. All this information had been sussed out prior to our trip, and I appreciated the attention to detail given how we were all of different confidence levels. Our thousand-dollar Giant bikes were state-of-the-art equipment, which made us feel like we were on our very own Tour de Penang. That being said, my flimsy shorts did not provide any form of discernible padding. After 21km, this proved to be a very sore point.

Balik Pulau - Matahari Cycle Tours

First sights of Balik Pulau.

Breathtaking Scenery

Once we were all geared up and ready to go, we set off in a single file through the countryside of Balik Pulau. Our guides, SJ and Princilia, ensured that we were treated to a diversity of ever-changing landscapes. Through quiet little hamlets and lush padi fields, along winding river streams and picturesque towns, I was constantly overwhelmed with a sense of privilege that I was privy to scenes exclusive to those who had ventured to this part of the woods. We even had a moment with a pair of cows, cheeky fellas who decided to make our ride that much more exciting by plonking themselves in the middle of our path along the bend of the creek. That proved to be a real test of our sense of balance!

Balik Pulau - Matahari Cycle Tours

Just one of the many landscapes we cycled through!

Cultural Activities

Simply cycling would already have been an adventure, but the other activities curated for us made it a true induction into a side of Penang oft hidden from tourists. We had a hand at using a long pokey apparatus to wrangle rambutans from a tree, enjoyed the town's unique kueh kueh with the most fragrant cup of coffee, and had our clothes nibbled on by goats at the Saanen Dairy farm. SJ and Princilia were a veritable wealth of information, answering our many questions with ease in addition to sharing their stories. It was also clear that they had forged strong friendships with the people of Balik Pulau.

Balik Pulau - Matahari Cycle Tours

Peek a boo at Saanen Dairy Farm

100% Safety

I've to admit that there were times when we felt like giving up because the weather was so unforgiving. But apart from the constant banter and encouragement from our guides, what kept us going was the safety vehicle that waited for us at every stop. It was well-stocked with chilled water and 100 Plus, which ensured we were constantly hydrated. Knowing that the safety vehicle was nearby also gave us the assurance that help could be rendered quickly in case of any emergency.

World's Best Assam Laksa

I haven't forgotten about the Assam Laksa. Truth be told, by the end of that 21km, we were all pretty spent. Our final challenge was to cycle on the padi fields, which is no mean feat when your butt is numb and the penalty for losing your balance is taking a dip with the padi. But we persevered, and at the end of the road, in a little hut overlooking an incredible view, was the most amazing spread of Assam Laksa, spring rolls, fried chicken and iced tea.

Heavenly.

We felt like the winners of a reward challenge on Survivor. Every bite of the Assam Laksa - this tangy, umami-filled, springy, noodley goodness topped with a mountain of ingredients - felt like a godsend. The spring rolls were crisp, the chicken wings juicy and the sweet iced tea the perfect thirst-quencher. We were incredibly grateful that our hosts had made the effort to buy us all this food from Heritage Assam Laksa and allow us to enjoy it in this incredible setting. (Read: Gastrogasmic Street Food Guide to Penang)

Balik Pulau - Matahari Cycle Tours

Happy troopers with the fantastic team from Matahari Cycle Tours!

Highly Recommended

If there was ever an experience that made my heart sing, this was it. Cheesy as it sounds, it's one of those moments when your heart feels like it's bursting to the brim with joy, contentment and gratitude. A fullness that only comes from forging new friendships, being treated to views you never expected to see in a city you thought you were familiar with, and enjoying the privilege of savouring Penang's best Assam Laksa.

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Matahari Cycle Tours

These fantastic folks offer a range of tours in Malaysia so do check out their website to see which one suits your schedule best! Tours  are 100% personalised to your group's needs and proficiency level.

We are also privileged that Matahari Cycle Tours is offering a 10% discount to all our readers! Simply quote "etsyexplores" in your booking to enjoy this!

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Visiting Penang?

Check out our Gastrorgasmic Food Guide to Penang for our favourite street food in the city!

Have you been to Penang before? Share with us what you love about it in the comments below!

This article first appeared in ETSY Explores.

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Ahoy New York Food Tour - Why It's Not Just a Food Tour | Review 

To be absolutely honest, I had some reservations about how much I would learn on the Ahoy New York Food Tour. After all, I'd lived in NYC for 4 years and pretty much spent every other weekend roaming the streets of Chinatown in search for legit dimsum, Singaporean comfort food and groceries. As for Little Italy, I didn't care much for it after my first year because it seemed full of touristy restaurants that didn't serve very authentic food. There were much better Italian options you could find in hole-in-the-wall eateries in the East Village.

So what could the Ahoy New York food tour through Little Italy and Chinatown teach us?

Plenty, as it turned out.

Rich History

For one, despite knowing which restaurants were good and which to avoid in Little Italy & Chinatown, I didn't know anything about the history of both neighbourhoods. Did you know that little Italy used to be way bigger than its Chinese counterpart even though now, ironically, the converse is true? Or that the first tenement house in Chinatown is still there?  We could never have imagined that there would be so many secrets and stories hidden in the back alleys. With the use of maps and visual aids, our guide was able to transport us back to the Mafia-ridden days with his tales of turmoil, just so we could imagine how complex and different these neighbourhoods were then.

Ahoy New York Food Tour

Local Vendors

What is really cool about the tour is its selection of local vendors, most of whom have been part of the community for the past few decades and some, even for a century! In a city like New York, competition is absolutely brutal. So the fact that these stores have thrived for so many years speaks volumes of the quality of their food and attention to customer service, which we were fortunate to experience first hand!

Ahoy New York Food Tour

Homemade pasta at Piemonte Ravioli!

Mouth-Watering Food 

A food tour is nothing without delicious food, and with 7 food stops over 3 hours, it was clear that our guide considered it necessary to keep our mouths moving constantly. From pasta to prosciutto, and mozzarella to mantou, our taste buds were constantly tantalised by fresh flavours that were incredibly authentic considering how the origins of these dishes were thousands of miles away. We're talking about dumplings bursting with flavour, cannolis that felt like spring had blossomed in our mouths, and pasta sauce so full of natural sweetness, we wanted to bring it back to Singapore with us! Sadly for us, the sauce was too fresh to survive the 24 hour journey back.

Ahoy New York Food Tour

Sampling piave, pecorino and olives at Di Palo's Fine Foods

AhoyNew York Food Tour

Nothing says Chinatown better than dimsum at Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the first dimsum parlor in New York!

Food for Thought 

As foodies, we also loved how our guide took the effort to explain exactly where these dishes hailed from, and even what their names meant. These little nuggets of information made us so much more appreciative of what we were eating, and shed light on how the history of these dishes are inextricably tied up with the stories of the immigrants. It really got us thinking about how little we actually know about the food we consume on a daily basis!

Ahoy New York Food Tour

Verdict

Whether you're a native New Yorker or first-time visitor, the Ahoy New York Food Tour is definitely worth checking out. It not only revealed to us how rich New York City's history was, but also how little we know about it. While we wouldn't claim that the food on the tour is the best Italian and Chinese food we've ever had, we enjoyed every single dish we were served and were making mental checklists of the ones we wanted to visit again in future. We left the tour not only with full stomachs, but with hearts full of desire to continue peeling back the layers of these neighbourhoods.

Details of Ahoy New York Food Tour

Cost: $51
Duration: 3 hours
Includes: 7 food stops and tons of recommendations
Tips: Go hungry and don't make lunch plans after!

ETSY Explores were guests of Ahoy New York Food Tours. However, all opinions remain ours and are completely unbiased.

This article first appeared in ETSY Explores.

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Afro-Cuban Religion Tour in Havana | Review 

Some will tell you these are practitioners of black magic. You would see them on the streets of Havana. African women, dressed fully in white, with a glass-eyed black doll dressed in yellow between them. Juxtaposed by the immensely colourful backdrop of their set-up, they call out and beckon to you, asking to read your fortune.

But, swindlers they are not. As with most things in Cuba, religion is a complicated affair. These women are  practicioners of Santeria, the syncretic religion that has its roots steeped in Afro-Cuban history. Brought by the African slaves who were imported to Cuba from the 16th to 19th century, it is a fascinating practice that is surprisingly liberal and inclusive in its ways.

Afro-Cuban Religion Tour

We were really interested in going on the Afro-Cuban religion tour because we have syncretic religions in Singapore, and wanted to see how they would compare. We also have a weakness for off-the-beaten-path tours, and realised that this one would allow our voyeuristic selves a peek into a Cuban home. Our tour with Cuban Adventures to understand the religion of Santeria started at the  popular and vibrant Callejon de Hamel. In 1990, the artist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, appealed to the government to transform this alley with colourful wall murals and recycled materials, creating an artistic space that would educate the community about African culture and heritage, which included the practices of Santeria.

Afro-Cuban Religion Tour

Colourful & thought-provoking murals at Callejon de Hamel

We then retreated to a quiet space - a casa de santos, or house temple - where we were given privileged access to explore a typical house of worship for Santeria. Drawing attention to the many symbols, sculptures and artefacts around the room, our guide, Luis, explained in great detail the customs and traditions of Santeria, as well as how it includes elements from so many other religions, including Catholicism & Buddhism. We even got to peek into a Santero & Santera initiation ceremony - a process for those who want to become a priest or priestess of Santeria. This week-long "confinement" is necessary to prove their sincerity, and is only one of many steps to proving that they are worthy of setting up their own house temple.

Afro-Cuban Religion Tour

Believers of Santeria in a typical casa de santos.

Afro-Cuban Religion Tour

The aforementioned black doll in the picture is typically used with Santeros and Santeras. They are dressed in different colours depending on the values the Santeras wish to emphasize. White, in this case, represent wisdom, peace and purity.

Afro-Cuban Religion Tour

Hello Buddha, we definitely did not expect to see you here!

Our 2-hour tour with Luis flew by as there was so much to learn. Being in the house temple allowed us the rare insight of seeing Santeria in practice, and really illustrated how the Africans want to retain their traditional beliefs yet also present their own interpretation of Cuban culture. It definitely helped that apart from just talking about Santeria, Luis was so willing to share his own life stories, and was as sincere and eager to learn from us as he was to share.

Afro-Cuban Religion Tour

ET and Luis engaged in a deep discussion

Our tour ended back at Callejon de Hamel, which incidentally was exactly where we wanted to be on a Sunday afternoon! The street party here kicks off every Sunday at noon with thumping rumba music and has come hugely popular with tourists. It so happened that they were celebrating the 26th anniversary of Callejon de Hamel on the day we were there, which made it extra crowded and to be honest, slightly claustrophobic. That being said, there were still plenty of opportunities for us to wander around and look at the art, and with the context of what we now know about the Afro-Cuban culture, our experience and understanding of this eclectic space became all the more meaningful.

Our Review

If you have a keen interest in understanding more about Santeria, this tour will provide a wealth of information. It essentially allows you a look at Cuban life from a very different perspective, and is just about as off the beaten track as it can get. Simply visiting the house temple was an eye-opening experience, but we definitely wished we were able to speak better Spanish and communicate with the locals to better understand their commitment to the religion. Similarly, our language barriers also had an impact on our understanding of the tour as our guide, Luis, was conducting the tour for the first time and not as fluent in English. (The regular guide, Elias, was busy due to the celebrations at Callejon de Hamel.) That being said, Luis was extremely sweet, sincere, and so eager to share all his knowledge with us, and we really appreciated that.

Details of Tour

Cost of tour: USD 41
Duration: 2 hours
Meeting point: Callejon de Hamel
Includes: English-speaking guide and welcome drink at Callejon de Hamel

ETSY Explores were guests of Cuban Adventures and Havana Adventures. However, all opinions remain ours and are completely unbiased.

This article first appeared in ETSY Explores.

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Visiting Cuba? This is one tour you cannot miss:

Old Havana Walking Tour

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OH Potong Pasir! Why We Love the Latest OH! Art Walkabout.

OH! Potong Pasir Tour

What do floating dead pigs, ukuleles, tarpaulin and a treehouse have in common?

OH! Potong Pasir

I was so fascinated by this picture. There was apparently a huge flood in Potong Pasir in the 1960s, and because the area used to house tons of pig farms, all these poor pigs had to be rescued during the flood!

It might surprise you to know they're all part of the fascinating and ever-changing narrative of Potong Pasir. Once (and to a certain extent, still) considered a sleepy backwater in Singapore's concrete jungle, Potong Pasir is a classic example of #throwback.

For the uninitiated, the OH! Potong Pasir tour isn't just a stroll around the neighbourhood. The organisers spend a year gathering stories about the estate from its residents, seeking volunteers who are willing to open up their homes, and then linking them up with artists who use these spaces to depict their interpretation of Potong Pasir.

I love going into people's homes, and I've learnt to appreciate it a lot more especially after we went through the process of designing our own place. To me, a home is perhaps the most representative symbol of a person's style, character and lifestyle preferences. What one chooses to display - or not-, the colour of the walls, the way space is allocated, speaks volumes of one's personality. Yet, the tours conducted by Oh! Open House do more than just satisfy one's voyeuristic tendencies. This all-immersive experience opens a platform for discussion, for curiosity, for appreciating our nation's rich history and for contemplating on how we should proceed from here. (Read: Our experience at OH! Open House Joo Chiat)

I'm not going to share any pictures of the actual artwork because I don't want to ruin your experience of the tour. But I do want to share some snapshots of charming Potong Pasir from the privileged access we got thanks to the tour.

OH! Potong Pasir

Welcome to Potong Pasir!

OH! Potong Pasir

When was the last time you saw a treehouse in Singapore?

OH! Open House Potong Pasir

Fell in love with Potong Pasir's sloping roofs and the convergence of lines here.

OH Potong Pasir

Okay I lied about not including art work. This is one of the installations that I really loved because it's a reimagined hopscotch play area. In the background you can make out the words “来玩” (Let's Play) and that was exactly what the kids were doing (:

OH Potong Pasir

Bidadari, filtered.

OH Potong Pasir

The "best view" of Potong Pasir.

Funnily enough, the parallel that I thought of while exploring Potong Pasir was the Langa township tour we did in Cape Town. Evidently the living conditions there are way worse, but it was that precious sense of community that stuck with me and the niggling feeling that this is something we've sacrificed and will find very hard to get back.

The subtle play of politics on the landscape, the persistence of the community spirit, the tension of choice between progress and nostalgia - this is Potong Pasir in a "state of constant transition", and I can't help but feel that the best time to see it is now.

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Get Tickets

The OH! Open House Potong Pasir Tour runs for 2 more weekends (until March 27) so get your tickets here!

This article first appeared in ETSY Explores.

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