Monday, December 19, 2011

myanmar snapshots

a bunch of buddhas, bagan, myanmar
from bangkok to yangon, arrived at night. men in skirts (longhis), women wearing thanaka face paint and everyone spitting betel juice, and that was just the airport! before finding a taxi we exchanged money, dollars for kyat. exchange rate was 785 kyat to 1 u.s. dollar. two $100 bills = HUGE stack of kyat. they had to give us a plastic bag to carry our money. it felt illicit!

first morning, taxi to downtown yangon with very cool taxi driver cranking burmese covers of the black crows and singing along while pointing at things out the window. this so called "taxi" was a torn up old toyota wagon with half the floorboard missing and a couple of woofer speakers bungee-corded down in the back. our first thought was "this is easily the worst taxi we've ever ridden in." we would end up revising our opinion nearly every day.

disco buddha, silly papaya,
yangon, myanmar
sule paya (paya, a generic term for a buddhist site of worship), which we childishly took to calling silly papaya , in downtown yangon, one of the most heralded of buddhist sites in myanmar. a beautifully bizarre collection of buddha statues with neon disco light patterns radiating from their heads, all sitting at the base of a huge gold stupa. we left our flip-flops at the entrance, were bamboozled into buying a "mandatory offering" and then later escorted to a payment booth to pay a foreigner's entrance fee. hence, "offering" was a scam. on our way out our flip-flops were gone. "over here, i put your shoes in this box, you must give me donation." what?! welcome to the very small percentage of burma that is having a complicated, yet understandable, adjustment to tourism.

shwedagon pagoda, yangon, myanmar

after a couple of days in yangon and on our way next to bagan, the old capital of burma, an american hands us a card of a guide in bagan. "just ask for kyaw, it sounds like 'joe,' everyone knows him. by the way, everyone is called kyaw." oh, thanks. we then land in bagan, taxi guy asks what we're doing tomorrow, i hand him kyaw's card and say "i'm looking for this guy." he says "OH KYAW! he's my best friend! i will call him for you right now." and we learn quickly, this is how myanmar works.

temples of the central plain, bagan, myanmar
we met kyaw the next morning for one of the most fantastic guided tour days we've ever had. immediate friends. spent a day in a horse cart over dirt roads touring through magnificent thousand year old buddhist temples strewn across the middle plains of burma near the irrawaddy river. this was one of those powerful moments that drove home just how privileged we are to travel.

we drove an hour across those very same plains to climb mount popa, a volcanic crag that juts out of the landscape straight up for hundreds of feet. a series of 777 steps to the top that is the home of 37 "nats," animist spirits that have been "kinda-sorta" integrated into buddhism, particularly in the rural areas of myanmar.  monkeys everywhere, including one that steals our water bottle. he wins this battle. but then he tries to eat it. hard to say who wins now.

water stealing monkey, mt popa, myanmar
at the top of mount popa a stunning 360 degree view of the surrounding land. myanmar is a hazy country because of the dust and dirt and the constant fires from the burning of vegetation which makes the light seem unworldly. and out of that light are gold stupas and temples popping up out of the green country side all the way to the horizon. while sitting at the top, surrounded by buddha statues, a man emerges from a temple with two, long fluorescent light bulbs, walks to the side and launches them into the air and down the side of the mountain. well, huh.

4:30am wake up for a 5:15am taxi to the boat that will take us to mandalay, a trip we have long dreamed of. a boat up the irra-freaking-waddy river! unreal. the boat is scheduled to leave at 6:00am. 5:30am arrives. 5:45am arrives and even our hotel manager is looking worried on our behalf. screeching out of the dark comes a pair of headlights and a van we've never seen before. he skids to a stop. shouts "jump in!" and we jam through nyuang u with horn screaming and monks scattering in the dark to reach the boat. turns out, the guy's car ran out of gas on his way to pick us up and he had to jog around town at 5:15am to find someone's car to borrow so he could fulfill his promise to us.

temples of ancient burma, bagan, myanmar
arrived in mandalay, after a dream-like day floating up the irrawaddy river. sunrise from the top deck. villages floating by. women selling bananas from the banks. picking up new river pilots every couple of hours by pushing the nose of the boat into the bank and someone (the pilot) popping out of the vegetation and hopping on board. long tail boats floating by. people waving from the bank, or other boats. meeting new friends on board with a crew of fifteen for a passenger list of six. sunset from the deck with beers and palm toddy being passed around and great conversation as we touch land at mandalay.

ubein bridge, amarapura (old capital of burma), mandalay, myanmar
that dream came to a sudden, jolting end when we disembarked into a crowd of touts and trishaw drivers screaming at us "where you go! trishaw! carry bags for you!" man, hard to catch our breath after being so relaxed. this may qualify as the most challenging moment on our travels yet. they refer to mandalay as a "city" but upon arrival it was a dark, dirty, crowded collection of scooters and people that stare. all the other passengers, a total of 4, had disappeared into the night and we were left alone with trishaw drivers yelling at us "no taxi mandalay! no taxi mandalay!"

i crossed the road in the dark with a policeman who, after i put my hand to my head imitating a phone call, walked me to a makeshift counter with an old g&e phone sitting on it and a phone cord disappearing up the palm tree above and into the dark. showing the phone number of our guesthouse to the girl, and the little boy hugging my leg, she dialed the number and i was connected with our guesthouse who had promised to send a taxi. "oh! we were told the ferry was late. it's on time? that means it's early."

we walked back across the road to michelle, our baggage, and a gaggle of trishaw drivers. the policeman mumbled something in burmese essentially saying "they have a ride," and all the drivers suddenly disappeared. welcome to burma.

myanmar is a wonderfully baffling, and unbelievably generous, country making do with what they have. it's a challenge to travel here as one can't pull money after entering. there are no ATMs. the preparation for arriving was a guess in the dark as to how much cash we would need without knowing the day to day cost. u.s. dollars, oddly, are the preferred currency and to get the best rate of exchange, they need to be pristine. which means the banks of myanmar must have the largest supply of the cleanest, most beautiful $100 bills in all the world.

it's been a great nine days so far and we're looking forward to another week. next stop, inle lake in the shan hills, a legendary area. and with that, we leave you with this... you're welcome.

parts of this guy are strewn all over this country. mandalay, myanmar.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

always leaving

it's a testament to our species' ability to adapt to our surroundings that we find ourselves a little sad each time we leave a new place. it's also a testament to just how many wonderful places there are to visit in this world.

serenity and calm. special price for you, $5.
bangkok, thailand.
without exception, we've felt a little sense of loss each time we've left a new town or city, regardless of country. well, maybe not dubrovnik, but that's complicated. still, one of the surprises on this trip is just how quickly we make ourselves at home. that initial rush of a few hours of disorientation upon arrival quickly washes away with a small walk around town, or down to the beach or wherever, just to get your bearings. over the next couple of days, places and people quickly become familiar.

as we were leaving the thai islands of the andaman sea last week (he shakes his head wistfully while typing) after nearly three weeks to visit friends in bangkok, we were struck with just how at home we felt. when we landed those three weeks earlier, it was an alien world. granted, an alien world full of palm trees, beaches, mango and papaya but still, after istanbul, definitely alien feeling!

we've been in bangkok just under a week and knowing we're leaving in a couple of days has us already a little melancholy. keep in mind, we're talking bangkok. not the smallest, most lovable place on the planet upon first impression but, like anywhere else, give it a little time, allow it to show you what it has to offer (and bangkok has a LOT to offer) and you feel at home.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

roomorama review part 2: lessons learned

not istanbul. our bungalow on koh lanta, thailand.
back a few weeks ago while staying in istanbul we had the good fortune of being hosted by roomorama, an online short-term apartment rental service matching apartment owners in cities all over the world with travelers looking for a temporary home. (see our review part 1)

this added boost of spending money let us shop for an apartment a level up from what our budget typically would have allowed. however, what we found were that photos, and a VERY friendly host, can really sell a place. we've used short-term apartment rentals before and have loved all of them. even this one, in its quirky way.

take a look around at some of the apartments available on and you will start to drool. ours in istanbul looked unbelievable. the location could not be beat (galata tower neighborhood, if you're looking) and the views seemed unbeatable. all of it was true, kind of. we were down a ragged alley lined with garbage bags and chewed up pavement. istanbul is old, we get that, no problem. but that's one of the pitfalls. be prepared for a neighborhood that might challenge your ideals. such is travel, yes? the apartment was described as being in a romantic, turn of the century, french-inspired building. well, it certainly was turn of the century.

through a heavy iron, more of a gate than a door, up four flights of stairs to #5. we stepped inside to the living room hardwood floor and we tilted to the left. oh, i see, that must be the "romantic" part. there was a pretty damned good view, though. overall, the apartment worked, but that's because we were determined to make it work. dangnabbit, we were in istanbul and we we're going to enjoy the hell out of it. and we did.

we can deal with loud, squeaky, horizontally-challenged floors. and we can deal with chairs that were purchased at a turkish version of ikea, and a satellite dish staring us in the face out one window and, dang it, NO COFFEE MAKER! ok, got that last bit off my chest. luckily, we bought a press pot in athens. :)

now this is istanbul. mosques for days. istanbul, turkey.
the point being is that one's expectations when booking an apartment online, as wonderful as the experience has been for us, can also come with some challenges. sometimes that next level up may not provide exactly what you think you're getting and sometimes it will. just like anything purchased "sight unseen," do your research, be prepared for reality not matching up to dreams and, in the end, have fun anyway. i mean, for god's sake, you're in istanbul! or athens, or berlin, or madrid, or.... wherever, but use to get your juices flowing and you'll be buying a ticket somewhere sooner than you think.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

thailand: don't you rock my boat

as we mentioned several weeks ago, we've learned a few things while on the road.

longtail boats, koh lanta, thailand
newest lesson? having a beach within 30 seconds of your thailand bungalow causes a severe drop in interest in a computer screen. and we mean severe

that's just one of the many reasons we'll probably never make it big as travel bloggers, not that it was ever our intent. the laziness and slow pace here starts to creep in, slowly at first, until you realize about a week later that even pressing the power button on your laptop would require too much thought and energy. 

another lesson? when the weather's gray and a little choppy in the morning, and you're stepping on to a boat for an hour's journey to a remote island, and the snorkeling guide says "oh, when it's like this in the morning, it always calms down in the afternoon," run... run far away until the sun shines again. 

hey, it rains a lot. who has time for a rain coat?
koh lanta, thailand

we'd like to think we're no pansies as travelers but, holy freaking cow, that ride back was NOT through calm waters! as we left the protected bay of our snorkeling spot later in the afternoon and headed around the island into the teeth of the wind and rain towards home, we hit a cross sea (too many jack aubrey novels were running through my head at this point) and all of us were being thrown around the cabin, our speedboat was SMACK-smack-SMACKing against the next wave, a little kid was puking into a bag, the french couple across from us stopped their playful banter and took on a wan, pale, stare-into-the-distance kind of a look, and everyone else just went quiet.

one could barely talk above the din yet the on-board british photographer that came along announced, no SCREAMED, above all of the noise "ok everyone, i have all of the photos imported on to my laptop, LET'S ALL HAVE A LOOK!" i laughed out loud, it was so comical, yet everyone gamely turned his way and gave it a shot. however, as we smacked into the next wave we could only focus for a few seconds, then it was back to the million-mile-stare. lesson learned. 

included in the price of the trip was a ride back to our resort from the pier. while shivering in the pouring rain up pulled a pickup truck with an open-air bed and benches in the back. someone from the dive shop stepped out and waved their hand toward it suggesting "here you go, your limo, as a thank you from us."

back in the safety of some free wifi now, where we found the energy to turn on our laptops, it all seems suddenly comical. we love it that over the course of a day we can now count as new friends some danes, some french, a few swedes and a brit. again confirming for us that the best thing so far about travel is the people.

see? this is what we're talking about! it's hard to step away. koh lanta, thailand.

moving on: we've already extended our intended stay here at relax bay, about half way down the island, but we'd like to stay even longer. sadly, staying here would kill the budget so we're moving to a simpler place with very simple bungalows set back from the beach. they quoted us $12.50 a night but suggested that we could also haggle a little "for a better price." a better price! i don't think either of us have ever stayed in something that cost $12.50. it seems our walk to the beach will now be a full minute.

we'll report back.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

thailand love you long time

that 27 degrees detail on the boarding announcement? that's why we made the difficult decision to leave istanbul. so much more of turkey we planned to see! we made it from berlin to istanbul over the course of four months, through germany, austria, a little bit of hungary, slovenia, croatia, bosnia, greece, and turkey. we were following the sun. but we knew the day would come when the weather in europe would leave us cold. well, with istanbul gray and drizzly, 27 degrees said "go now."

going where the climate suits my clothes...

so hey, we're in thailand! koh lanta in the andaman sea, to be exact. roughly the same latitude as sri lanka, ethiopia and guatemala. which brings us back to why we came. all kinda warm places, yes? yes.

we'll make this post a quick one. when we arrived (after a red-eye flight to bangkok, a connecting flight to krabi, and a two hour drive including two ferries) we found this...

and in this morning's sunshine, we found this from our porch...

got a great beach, a great bungalow, an open air restaurant, a beach bar and nothing to do but recover from jet lag.

southeast asia, thailand in particular, is a well-worn traveler's destination. i doubt there's much we can contribute to what's already been written, blogged, filmed or whatever, that's original but we'll do our best.

we'll report back.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

my turkish bath

kule hamam, galata, istanbul, turkey
kule hamam, our neighborhood turkish bath in istanbul. talk about a humble doorway. if we hadn't read someone's positive review of this place kindly left behind in our rental apartment, we would have avoided it like the plague.

by the way, it's good to be a man in turkey. hamams, if they take women at all, only provide a few hours per week for them to be abluted (it's kind of a word), scrubbed and massaged. i, however, was welcome any hour, any day of  the week.

i entered and all eyes fell on me. clearly not a local. the dude behind the counter asked in turkish "are the penguins full featured in autumn?" i think. to which i confusedly replied, "no, no, i'm here for a hamam and massage."

he pointed down the stairs to a sweltering changing room and into a stall with, for some reason, a nearly full window in the door. facing other full-windowed changing stalls. what was the point? i could clearly see some other men and they could clearly see me. i haven't been around such naked machismo since the marine corps.

the "new" mosque (built in 1597!), istanbul, turkey

i was handed a sarong-like thingie (a pestemel) and i dutifully stripped, wrapped myself in my sarong and stepped out. then, with several more grunts, was pointed in the direction of a door with the word "hamam" on the front. "sweet," i thought, months of traveling, not a hot tub to be found (we miss ours back home so bad), and we walk everywhere. the body will enjoy this, big time.

the magic door opened on to a square 20x20' gray marble room with five or so marble stalls along each wall with stone basins, tiny water taps and plastic bowls. in the middle of the room was a large flat, two foot high, maybe 10x10' marble platform. splayed out smack in the middle of that was, what appeared to be, a heavily sweating tony soprano flat on his back in a plaid sarong.

the door closed behind me.

i had no idea what to do. i laid on the marble thing, tony soprano looked at me. i got up, fiddled with the taps a bit, some tepid water leaked out. i thought it would be a sauna in here. nope. i stepped back outside and was grunted back into the room. next thing, the sarong-wrapped dude who pointed me in to the hamam followed behind, opened the tap of water, had me pour water over my head, pushed tony soprano to the side and gestured for me to lay down. "on the marble?" i thought. well, yes, yes. he left, i laid on my back, looked over at a couple of younger turks who laughed and made a gesture that conveyed "roll over, freak, you should be on your front." OH!

turkish delight, istanbul, turkey
in comes mister hairy guy who starts making a HUGE pile of suds in a basin, shoves a towel in it, turns to me and masterfully showers down an amazing array of warm, soapy suds. aaaaahhhhh... now we're talking. after being covered in suds this guy went to work. legs, back, shoulders, pinning my arms behind my back and working on the shoulder blades. he spoke two words of english "YOU OK!?" i spoke one word of turkish, at the moment, "evet!" (yes) through gritted teeth. i think it sounded more like eeehhhhvvvvveeeettt...

all the while, men are coming in, splashing themselves with water, sitting there sweating, inches from where i was being beaten. i kept trying to steal peeks from behind all the soap and towels but one thing you don't want to do is be caught eyeing other men in a turkish bath.

ok, two more words of english, finally. "sit up." and dutifully i sit up, swing my legs over the side... and *SPLASH!* "holy freaking cow, what the HELL was that?!" i was hit in the face with scalding hot water from a plastic bucket. i guess i was now being rinsed. then, just as suddenly, pushed to the corner, water tap turned on and it was clear, we were done. rinse yourself. i staggered out, somehow managed to put my clothes back on, paid some cash, uttered some rudimentary turkish that went something like "hhffruummf kishduhmmm, vroom, bye," and walked out in to the cool, november, istanbul air.

in the end, i'm not completely sure what happened but, wowza, i'm glad it did. i felt like i just stepped off of "the sidewinder" ride at the carnival when i was a kid. remember that thing?

travel is weird. weird in a very cool way.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

our athens regret (in a good way)

"athens is noisy." athens is dirty." "athens is chaotic." "athens is a hole." that's what you always hear, right? well, it's all true.

road through the old agora leading to the acropolis, athens, greece

but what else is true is the fact that it packs a whole lot of awesome.

caveat: no attempt here has been made to enlighten, educate or even shine a new perspective on a city that's been written about a million times. here below is a quick impression of a bunch of "wow." wow that such a noisy, dirty, sprawling, chaotic city could be that seductive. ok, maybe not seductive, but more like grab you by the lapels and kiss you in a kind of rough, affectionate way.

our regret is that we didn't schedule more than the four days we spent there. running out of pages in our passports (that's a great feeling!) we decided to head to athens, from crete, to visit the u.s. embassy and have pages added. worked like a charm. what surprised us was just how sad we were to leave athens, and greece in general. two and a half weeks on crete lulled us into comfort and athens was a slap in the face. but in a really good way.

yeah, the parthenon is behind me but everyone knows
what that looks like. look at this sprawl!
athen, greece
this city goes on forever and there's no better place to get a sense of that than from the acropolis. everyone talks about the acropolis, and they should, it really is that fantastic of a place to visit and absorb, but no one really conveyed the sheer expanse of concrete madness that would splay out below us. wow. just wow.

after getting our bearings and checking into our hotel (hotel attalos) a couple blocks from monastariki square and dying to see the city, we... took a nap. that's right. a nap. THEN we headed out. now here's the thing about athens... "honey, let's go to that mini-market for supplies." "ok, wait, what's this? a three thousand year old ruin across from the stop-and-shop?"

i mean, that's the thing. we had dinner with friends our last night there and literally, ten feet to our right was a 12th century church. we're eating souvlaki, drinking wine, chatting about current events and at any moment we could get up and place our hand on a wall of history. AND, from that spot, we could look into hadrian's library. from 12th century to the 2nd century in 180 degrees. and in the middle? the stop-and-shop!

poor guy. athens, greece
favorite spots for us were, of course, the acropolis and the new acropolis museum. it's unrivaled. it's every postcard you've ever been pummeled with all your life. but the older national archaeological museum a mile or so walk up some of the most busy, some would say seedy, streets to an oasis of calm, and one of the most impressive displays of mycenaean finds you'll ever see, blew us away.

the athens open market was a rush! it straddles athinas avenue with a loud, boisterous atmosphere selling every kind of fish, meat, vegetable and fruit you can imagine. the unrelenting meat hanging from hooks for an entire block is something to behold. the fish slime through which you walk in the middle part of the market is not for the squeamish. ok, maybe not as bad as the pigs heads hanging from hooks in the meat market, but you are IN IT when you enter this section. and do these people love octopus, or what? it's clear they do. and it's not for show for the tourists (think pike's place market, seattle), this is a working, functioning market and the people who come to shop here know what they're doing. they have no problem bumping you out of the way either. we ended up with a sack full of olives, carrots, bread, cheese, sausage, figs... for about $10.

just another 13th century church laying about.
athens, greece.

this list could go on but if there is one thing you should take away from this rambling post it should be "go to athens." just be prepared to experience everything you love and everything you hate about travel to happen every single minute.

next stop: istanbul. we'll report back.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

roomorama review part 1: how we found our istanbul apartment

not a roomorama apartment, mirtos, crete, greece
having the luxury to spend a week or two in any given location has been a great experience while on the road. we've taken advantage of our extended stays to rent apartments which typically means we're staying in actual neighborhoods. you know, among "the people." staying for ten days in zagreb, for instance, we got to know our local grocery store, made friends with people we'd seen day after day, and even if it's just a nod of recognition it makes us feel like we're "living" while traveling.

apartments are the perfect mid-category between a hostel and a hotel (or bed and breakfast). typically it costs less per night than a hotel and we've stayed in some great spaces. they've all been clean, they've all been private and they've all been a great way to travel.

there are a few sites on the web now that provide similar services to each other: a secure site to connect property owners with travelers looking for an accommodation not in the hostel or hotel category. in actual neighborhoods. with coffeemakers! we're heading to istanbul next week and we've added to our arsenal of apartment sites and, as far as the ease, convenience and security while booking goes, it's a huge winner.

essentially, it works like this. you've chosen a city to visit. you fire up your favorite browser, browse to, enter that city name in the "where are you going" search field, your 'check in' and 'check out' dates, the number of people in your party and click "find now." it's that simple.

sure, other sites have similar interfaces but there are two features we loved that made Roomorama stand out among the others...

SHOUT OUT: a sort of built-in twitter service within the site that allows you, as a registered user, to message property owners in your destination city with something like: "couple, looking for great apartment, close to public transport..." within two hours i had twelve offers. within twelve hours i had twenty two offers. like twitter, you're limited to 140 characters so creativity regarding likes and dislikes expressed in a small format is well worth your effort because you WILL get replies.

WHERE ARE YOU GOING?: when you enter your destination city, in our case istanbul, a very large city with many different areas and their own personalities that may be lost on first time visitors (us), a breakdown of neighborhoods is provided that allows you to narrow your search. HUGE help. it was a tip to us to go back and do a little research.

your apartment could be steps from here
once we entered our contact information, and choice of payment method, and clicked "book it," we received an immediate reply from our host with detailed information on how to find the apartment, who to contact upon arrival and, in our case, a handy "tips of istanbul" paragraph. sweet!

we now have that great apartment we asked for waiting for us upon arrival in istanbul. if the apartment is anything like the roomorama reservation process was, this is going to be a great trip.

we'll report back!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"of course i have zucchiniballs"

wait, what?

"... um, i'll just have the stuffed tomatoes."

gibenice (slovenian dessert), maribor, slovenia
let's talk food for a moment. we've been traveling now for almost three and a half months and something that happens every day and about which we've said very little, oddly, is eating. there was a great quote in a new york times article recently which in turn quoted someone regarding farmers in the balkans, "what you in the u.s. call 'organic' we call food."

word of the day... fresh. here on crete, we've learned to identify that when only 50% of the listed menu is available, that means it's fresh and in season. what's in season right now? white beans. and tomatoes. and cucumbers. however, we still giggle when we see "greek salad" listed. you'd think it would just say "salad."

gulasch, zander fillet salad, vienna, austria
we've been eating well, very well. currywurst and doner kebab in berlin. chantrelles and goulash in vienna. cold fruit soup, langos and pureed chestnuts in budapest. pumpkin soup in graz. gibenice in maribor, slovenia (and mike and paula's garden vegetables and roasted pork, aka "the magic animal."). cevapi in ljubljana. fresh fish, olive oil, figs and homemade wine on brac. ice cream in dubrovnik. more cevapi in mostar. stuffed vegetables in sarajevo. bean soup and baked veal in zagreb. venison salad in munich. feta and tomatoes and lamb and fresh bread and cheese on crete...

crete food plate, selakano, crete, greece

thank god we walk everywhere, otherwise we'd be worthy additions to the goodyear blimp fleet. and thank god we're in the habit of making our own breakfast and lunches, otherwise we'd be broke! but if there's one cost while traveling that we've learned not to stress about, it's good food. worth every single penny. every single time. happily, you do not need to visit a fancy (or costly) restaurant to get this amazing food.

what's stunning about this photo to the left is that all the food, the stuffed cabbage rolls, white beans in tomato sauce, dakos (seasoned and diced tomatoes, feta cheese and herbs on top of brown bread), fresh baked bread, greek salad and slow-stewed pork, all came from the tiny kitchen of a woman who owns a taverna WAY up the hillside in the selakano valley on crete. if it wasn't for our new friend yiannis we'd never know this place existed. hell, even if you just happened on the village you still wouldn't have known it was a place to eat, let alone know that it would turn out to be some of the best food you've ever eaten. everything fresh. and everything grown (or fermented :)) on the land around it. and here she is... bless her.

taverna lady and her deceiving kitchen of magic, selakano, crete, greece

Thursday, October 20, 2011

it's all greek to us

yesterday we embarked on a drive from kissamos in the upper northwest corner of crete to mirtos, in the lower southeast corner of crete. the map had a big, thick red line that seemed pretty clear. HAH! we consider ourselves somewhat comfortable with directions and maps but during yesterday's drive i vaguely remember laughing off the comment from the rental car dude when he said "oh, and don't trust any maps, they're all wrong."

countless times we had to stop, turn around, re-read that last road sign (some in greek alphabet which i'm happy to report we're starting to learn) and a couple of times we had to stop and actually ask for help. for me, this hurts deep down inside. for michelle, it's more like "duh, they know and you don't." i love that woman.

the way to mirtos, crete

here's just a portion of the google map directions. it's here for comedic value because it holds no authority, really, on these roads. bear in mind, this represents maybe a tenth of the distance we were traveling. if following every one of these turns on your mobile device or printed page you'd never be watching the road, and the point of this post is YOU BETTER BE WATCHING THE ROAD!

this is in no way a complaint. no way, no how. the scenery, the light, the mountains, the sea and, most importantly, the kindness of the strangers who we asked for help with directions, added up to just one more wonderful journey on this incredible island.

at one turn you look out over mountain sides of olive trees. at another turn you look on miles of vineyards. at another turn are old women dressed in mourning black moving sheep across the road.

royal apartments, ancient knossos, crete

over the course of six hours we traveled from a beautiful studio apartment above kastelli kissamos (thanks arianne!) to one of the oldest known settlements, ancient knossos. this is the controversially reconstructed palace and town complex of the minoans, dating as far back as 3000 BC. controversial because the man that unearthed it also took it upon himself to reconstruct some of the fallen ruins to represent his idea of what it looked like. that story alone is fascinating. we wandered for quite a while inconspicuously (we hope) behind an english speaking tour guide taking in any information we could overhear.

after being historically enlightened we continued onward up and over the mountains that split the island north from south. holy olive pit! arrestingly beautiful views, tight hairpin bends, villages climbing up the hillsides, sheep and goats just hanging around in the middle of the road, and we end up in the small village of mirtos with a stated population of 600 people. i think we can count maybe 50 so far, though.

this area of crete is commonly referred to as the southernmost point of europe. whatever, we came because it's also commonly referred to as the sunniest and warmest place on crete and we're still chasing the waning days of summer. yeah, it's autumn, but that's just on the calendar. and, upon arrival, we find this...

mirtos, crete

lots of greek protests right now, including a fuel distribution strike. we have a rental car and some day we need to get back to the north side of the island. most gas stations down here are either out of gas already or closed completely. wonder what's gonna happen. we'll report back.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

the things you see

"the things you see." uttered by a friend, maureen m., when our conversation was stopped mid-sentence many years ago at an outdoor cafe while a completely skinned, uncooked hog on a spit was paraded by two men past our table and into the restaurant next door. we've repeated that phrase nearly every day while traveling.

we've been on the road now for 100 days and if there's any wisdom we can pass on, it would be this: save your plastic bags. seriously. trust us on this. michelle's got a pretty serious collecting, collating and storage routine down now that we're never wanting for proper storage of anything we carry, and when you move around a lot like we do, it becomes quite the priority.

our cretan throne, 3rd century b.c., fallasarna, crete
you're welcome.

we've learned a few things, taken some notes and made up our minds about things we never really thought were that important, like plastic bags. who knew?

so, a little 100 day wrap up:

1. the world is full of fantastic people, or at least the small part of the world we've seen so far.

2. people of dubrovnik are exempt from statement number 1. especially the old folks at the green market. such a stunningly beautiful place this old city is and such a stunning contrast are the manners of its citizens. we're tourists, we get that, and we really try our hardest to be unintrusive and, at the very least, (see #7) learn a few words to ease communication and, we hope, offer some sort of message that we're trying. *sigh* in spite of this statement, you should absolutely visit dubrovnik.

3. there are a LOT of different toilet designs in the world, some of which take a few minutes of concentration to figure out, including the push button on the bottom of the tank which is hung on the wall over a cretan commode. we both looked around for a good minute or so until we looked up. it was the only thing left in the bathroom that we hadn't pushed.

3a. the same goes for showers of the world. some you pull, some you push, some are completely inoperable once you've lathered up and a slipperiness factor has been introduced and you're reduced to "hhhooooonnneeeyyy..."

birthday, mirce, brac island, croatia

4. we love our keen hiking shoes. couldn't imagine a better pair of shoes to cover all of our bases. these things have brought us across old european cities, over the green hills of the austrian countryside, the rocky hills of south crete and a couple of pretty fine restaurants.

5. don't underestimate the power of a leatherman. we've used ours to cut cheese, to fix a shower head, to cut off a toenail, to open beer and wine bottles, to pop out a sim card... if the airlines ever take it from us, we may break down and cry.

6. a map and a metro pass is your ticket to happiness. european cities have got it down when it comes to public transportation. we've seen way more of a place than we could in the u.s. with the purchase of a few dollars worth of tram passes and a free tourist map. berlin, budapest, vienna, zagreb all come quickly to mind but you could drop in there any european city or town.

kissamos, crete, greece
7. regardless of the language where you find yourself, communication really does come down to a few common words and some body language. we haven't traveled so far away from home but almost everyone speaks english to some degree. even if they don't, if you can say "thank you," "good morning," "nice hair" or "the bill, please," whether or not you can even remotely understand the reply, you'll be half way home.

8. ask the person next to you, "so where are you from?" most of the time we get an unintelligible reply in some language we don't understand but sometimes we hit a goldmine and make an immediate friend. meet a fellow traveler who has been on the road and you share an instant bond. everyone wants to share experiences and recommendations and after however many days they've been surrounded by languages they don't understand, or are too tired to try to find meaning in those words, a little common english goes a long way.

9. don't judge a new place by first impression, let it come to you. we've learned this in a couple locations where after only a day or two our opinions were completely changed. it's amazing just how quickly some new place becomes familiar. that vague unsettled feeling when you first arrive, particularly after a long or arduous transit day of some sort, quickly fades away with a night's sleep and a wander around town. or a quick conversation with a local, however cobbled together.

10. take a break. take a vacation from your vacation. learn to identify those moments of information overload, when looking at or visiting something with profound historical or cultural significance and all you can think about is taking a nap... go take a nap. don't "power through." trust us on that one, too.

today, we've been invited by our new friend arianne to a "chestnut festival" in elos, on crete. we're hoping for the crowning of a chestnut queen! "the things you see."

midpoint of an incredible hike, lisos, crete

Saturday, October 8, 2011

a slice of sarajevo

would it kill them to put a train station in the middle of a city? or, perhaps, surround it with something nice?

remember in 'get shorty,' when the cab driver turned to the
mafia dude and said about los angeles, "they say it's the
smog that gives us such wonderful sunsets."
welcome to sarajevo, bosnia 
pulling into sarajevo from mostar, having just shared a compartment with a chain-smoking bosnian blowhard who got into a shouting match with a woman who joined us late in the ride, what we saw did not instill comfort or joy. this place is polluted. train stations are often located on the outskirts of town and this one is surrounded by tall apartment blocks sticking up into the smog. we would learn later from a friend we made that packs of wild dogs roam these streets and have lately begun attacking the residents of "new sarajevo," this sprawl of communist era apartment buildings in the west end of the valley.

we were shaking from the shared nicotine of the train compartment but thankfully met with a free ride from our inn in town. i don't think i could have held the map steady enough to figure out how to get there, anyway.

sarajevo rests in a long narrow valley and sure, it's crowded and yes there is a ton of pollution, but having spent a couple of weeks in croatia we were starting to realize that bosnians are a lot nicer to outsiders. in fact, they actually smile and, for the most part, even ask "how are you? what do you think about our country? where are you from?" and, what some from our homeland would consider considerate behavior in a restaurant, "would you like to see a menu?"

off the top of your head, what do you think about when you hear "sarajevo?" if you're like us, it's olympics (1984), the bosnian war (1992 - 1995) and the assassination of franz ferdinand (1914), popularly referred to as the start of WWI.

turkish quarter, sarajevo, bosnia
like mostar, where we had visited before sarajevo, this was a major ottoman city for a few hundred years that luxuriated under the favor of the sultans who valued sarajevo for its logistical advantage along the trade routes and its beautiful setting at the end of a green valley cut by a river. you can't swing a hookah in this town without hitting a several-hundred year old mosque or the ruins of an old caravansary. the old coppersmith alleys are still intact at the east end of town, the turkish quarter, and we were happy to still find coppersmiths actually making the wares they were selling, unlike a lot of old-town areas where everything is made in bulk somewhere else and sold as "authentic."

you can track the history by the architecture. starting from the east end of the valley that butts up against the mountains is the turkish quarter. small, squat buildings creating a warren of lanes and alleys that you can wander for hours drinking coffee, eating baklava, smoking a hookah, watching coppersmiths. then, moving west the austro-hungarians set up shop and started building a tiny little vienna, then the communists moved in further west and over the 40 years of tito rule spread further down the valley to "new sarajevo," those enormous, grimy apartment blocks that go on forever.

is that a vegetable? need that stuffed? no problem.
sarajevo, bosnia
the food, my god the food!

thankfully, we were heading back toward the land of hummus and falafel and, apologies to my brother, may have had the best falafel we have ever eaten. this place is littered with "restoran nationals" that focus on, you guessed it, national dishes of bosnia. the photo to the right is a perfect representation. you can walk into one of these places, point at things (good if your serbo-croatian isn't up to par) and for somewhere around $5 get a beautiful plate of stuffed anything. usually stuffed with minced up meat and onion but also lots of rice with spices, too. and cevapi stands for days. easily hundreds of them within any given square mile.

srebrenica, site of one of the worst massacres in modern war time.
graffiti (just a small sample) in sarajevo, bosnia

wanting to really understand where we were we did something we rarely do when we travel. we hired a guide for a few hours to walk us around and answer our questions. like a few places we'd visited before, the effects of the war are still very much on display around town. we met up with neno, a local, post-grad political science student who lived through the siege of sarajevo and was home-schooled in the basement while the serbian army was set up in the hills above town randomly shelling its citizens. we were trying really, really hard to understand the balkans, particularly the wars of the 90s. clearly, it takes more than a few weeks here to even come close to understanding territorial, religious, political and tribal considerations that date back hundreds and hundreds of years.

šargijas (i think), and carpets. sarajevo, bosnia
every day still there are news articles about serbs, croats and bosniaks disagreeing about something. yet, with this as a daily background, and set against a national unemployment rate of around 40% (you read that correctly), this place feels vibrant. unlike the croatian vibe of resentment or aloofness or "people don't understand our plight," it seems bosnians are just getting on with being alive and, seemingly, happy that others are interested in knowing the hell is going on. a huge generalization, i know, but on the surface that's what we found.

it's because of that feeling of hopefulness that we just sank further and further into feeling comfortable here. each day we ate something new, drank bosnian coffee (according to several people differs from turkish coffee by the number of times it's brought to a boil before removing from heat), found a local brewery and drank good beer, hiked up to the top of the ridge and looked from east to west down the valley (do something about the car emissions!), chatted with as many waiters, shopkeepers and our bed & breakfast hosts as we could. we've left each place on this trip, without exception, feeling sad that we were leaving so soon. that's a good trend!

sarajevo rocks!

side note: we've had several wonderful conversations with other guests at hotels, one of which left us considering adding baku, azerbaijan of all places, to our itinerary down the road. love having our directions steered by chance meetings. we'll report back.

Monday, October 3, 2011

our bosnian surprise

"bosnian coffee," mostar, bosnia
i confidently said goodbye, shut the door and offered a hearty "good night!" in bosnian to our driver. bear in mind, this was 11:00am.

with a combined use of english, bosnian and german michelle and i managed to get a taxi ride out to blagaj, a small, very old town about six miles down the valley from mostar, where we were staying. oh, and a return pick up arranged for hours later. the driver lived in germany for a few years and he and i managed to communicate using all three languages. by the end of the drive the driver and i were throwing out all the words we knew and i was proud to leave him with a smile.

herceg fortress, our destination, blagaj, bosnia

out. in. the. middle. of. nowhere. blagaj, bosnia. wow, just beautiful, scrubby and hot, with limestone formations poking out of the dirt and no one around. approaching town we could see a fortress on the mountain looming over town: our destination. i pointed to it and the driver, with a slightly worried face, said "nur laufen." only walking, no cars. for a moment he thought we wanted him to drive us all the way up.

after an hour climb up the backside of a small mountain and we were staring down on blagaj with a fair part of herzegovina splayed out before us. after the illyrians and then after the romans, this was duke stjepan herceg's fortress. the name source of "herzegovina," the southern territory of "bosnia and herzegovina." we found ourselves clambering through and over a 14th century fortress all by ourselves. there's been a settlement up here since the 3rd-4th century along with human remains found in the valley that date back more than 12,000 years. there was no admission fee, no safety, no nothing even resembling an american fear of injury liability anywhere. just us and an old ruin on a hill. great hike.

from the top of a 500 year old minaret, mostar, bosnia

bolivar, mostar, bosnia
lesson learned: never judge a town by its bus station. we learned that in mostar. dropped off at the edge of town in front of a run-down communist era structure, assaulted (gently, of course) as we were literally stepping off the bus by women selling us a room for the night and then some begging roma mothers with their infants held at their hips and dressed in dirty clothes. roma, a problem we would try very hard to understand but about which we would receive very different opinions. we trucked through town to our hotel in the heat of the day, sometimes shadowed by bullet-torn shells of old, blown out buildings never repaired from the war. our bus into town drove right down bolivar, the dividing line between croats and serbs during the war. we were kind of asking ourselves "we came here by choice?" yet we left four days later thinking "why are we leaving so soon?"

don't know about the rest of you but pretty much all we knew about bosnia was of the balkan wars in the 90s. what we didn't know was how charming, how deeply historical and subtlety inviting this country could be. we stayed in mostar first (followed later by four days in sarajevo), in the southern part of the country. small, old, ottoman. mosques and churches, minarets and spires. bosnian coffee and turkish delight all set in the a beautiful valley cut but by the neretva river. you're in europe, but you're not. if you kept to the very center of the city, which is easy to do, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in the 16th or 17th century. well, apart from the occasional beer distributor umbrella shading a cafe here and there.

we're back in croatia, grumpy waiters be damned, and camping out in zagreb, the capital. we came through here on the train to the coast a few weeks ago, spent a lovely couple of hours in the park, and decided to return if we could. over the last few weeks, many people commented "oh, have you been to zagreb? no? you really should." so we did. got a GREAT apartment in the middle of the city and, for the moment, we're living like a couple of 'poor ol' big dogs.' we'll report back.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

new friends, old walls, and always the freaking bells

our favorite section of the bookstore

took a bus from split, croatia to dubrovnik a couple of days ago. it was hard to leave the island of brac but the desire to see some more of the world overrode the desire to see another beach. hard to admit that.

we spent a night in split, a 50 minute ferry ride from brac, on our way to dubrovnik. we typically wouldn't even have mentioned this overnight but for the apartment we rented in the old city center. we've used a couple of times now and it's paid off in spades. we found a listing in split titled "next to the old palace." we thought "no way." split is centered on the remains of the roman emperor diocletian's palace. apparently, after persecuting thousands of christians, he was tired of the high life and retired to his ancestral home of dalmatia. over the course of, oh i don't know, seventeen centuries a town grew up within and around its decaying structures. we met our host who guided us right to the middle of the old palace and took a left into a doorway. "wait, is this it?" "yes, i said center." turned out it was kind of IN the old palace. srdan walked across the living room, drew back the curtain, pointed at a wall across the way and said "that's jupiter's temple," a 4th century structure inches from where we were staying. "we'll take it!"

the stradun, dubrovnik's main street. 
off to dubrovnik: our first bus experience in two and a half months, we dragged our roller bags and day packs down to the bus terminal, bought a couple of $45 dollar tickets for the four hour ride from split to dubrovnik, bought a ćevapčići sandwich (with ajvar, of course, duh), a bottle of water and off we went. bus pulled out of town in the rain and we were treated to the gray, drab streets of the outskirts of split. as we neared the freeway through some concrete, no name suburb, michelle poked at the window and uttered something like "hey, is that, wha... i, um, LOOK!" there, running through some people's backyards was a several hundred yard stretch of a beautiful roman aqueduct severed from its source and destination and sentenced to live its life looking at concrete and drying laundry. better than yard cars, i guess.

sure, it rained. and sure, our driver couldn't care less about road conditions, but we made it. (side note: border crossing from croatia to bosnia and back to croatia consisted mostly of a dude coming on the bus, tiring of checking passports after the first ten or so passengers, seeing us all in the back holding up our documents and just waving his hand and turning around. could. not. be. bothered. classic.) next thing we knew we were squeezing ourselves through the old pile gate and onto the stradun, old town dubrovnik's main street. check out the live "stradun cam."yowza, has this place changed since the time of a buddy of ours described it (from a trip twenty five years ago) as "refreshing to be in a place with no tourists or frat guys in flip-flops." still this place reeks of history and if you can block out all the people around you for a minute, you would have no idea in which century you stood.

emily, michelle and pascale.
easily, one of the most gratifying and ever renewing experiences we've had so far is meeting new friends and wonderful people along the way. emily and pascale were no exception in helping to further our appreciation. we headed out to walk the city walls our first morning and if there's one thing one should do in dubrovnik it's walk the city walls. we've read about this for years and all the superlatives held up. about a quarter of the way along i strolled up to the edge, turned to my right and said "hey there." there were our new friends from the bus the previous day, emily and pascale, a couple of final year university students from london, studying in bristol. michelle's mom has a saying when she likes someone: "they're good people." these are good people. we shared some good stories and some great laughs on the bus ride the day before and our conversation helped distract us from the windy roads. an hour amble over the walls turned into a near three hour tour followed by a cathedral and dinner for four in the old town. we had a right knees up. hope you guys made it to mostar ok! i'd say england's in good hands.

dubrovnik's city walls, facing the adriatic.

about that cathedral, "the cathedral of the assumption of the virgin." THEY ALSO HAVE A HOLY RIGHT! that's right, a right hand. readers of this blog may remember our fascination in budapest over "saint stephen's holy right," the thousand year old, mummified right hand of saint stephen that's paraded through the streets of budapest once a year on, wait for it..., "saint stephen's day." we were lucky enough to arrive there for that spectacle. in dubrovnik, "saint blaise's right" is sadly locked away and out of sight (well, you can pay to see it, but what fun is that?) but, my god, two "miracle rights" in one trip? what are the odds? dubrovnik ups the ante, however, and has not one, but several of saint blaise's body parts including his throat. and here's why. not only that, they hold a part of jesus' cross AND his baby swaddling clothes. it says it right there in the brochure, surely it must be true. sure, they lost track of him for 30 years but the swaddling clothes they kept. why would they lock this stuff away and charge for the privilege instead of allowing worshipers to share in the wonders? ah, travel, such a learning experience.

it's 9:17am as i write this and the bells of dubrovnik are going freaking nuts. all across europe, centuries old bells seem to go off at pretty much any time they damn well please. at first, we thought "oh, it must be the top of the hour." then we started checking and realized, "no, wait, it's 10:52 am," or something. we swear, it's just someone overly bored thinking "oh, i know! it's time for bells." if you're a light sleeper, and you're in europe? pack the earplugs, my friend, because a lot of times those bells are right across the street from where you're staying. here's one of the offenders...

bell tower, dubrovnik, probably ringing itself to death right now