Solo female travel advice = happiness.

I usually travel alone. There are hundreds of reasons to do so, many of which I mention in these posts. But what it comes down to is: Either learn to get along in strange places without your friends, or stay home!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Chicks before Dictatorships: Visiting Turkmenistan as a solo female traveler

Once I left Georgia, it was time for the most intimidating destination of the trip: Turkmenistan.

I will confess that my desire to see Turkmenistan was based almost entirely on my ignorance of it. Like... who goes to Turkmenistan? I saw this rhetorical question as a major reason to go there, but most others I talked to about it (especially in nearby Azerbaijan) would utter it in an incredulous tone that did not leave room for positive, adventurous interpretation.

Many people seem to share this reluctance: Turkmenistan (can we call it T-stan from now on?) is the 7th least visited country in the world with about 7,000 annual visitors. For context, North Korea does not even make the list of the 25 least visited places. The least visited place on earth is Nauru in Micronesia, a country with an area of 21km (who wants to go?!). France is the most visited with... can you guess?
85 million tourists every year!
[Sources for travel stats here]

So obviously you want to go to T-stan now, right? Well, the first issue is planning the trip. Air travel to the capital (Ashgabat) is not very popular (see travel stats above), and only a handful of airlines go there at all. When they do, it's at very random times. For example, traveling from Tbilisi to Ashgabat required a circuitous detour via Turkey on Turkish airlines, resulting in an arrival at Ashgabat at 2am. There are also options to see T-stan by land, essentially retracing the silk road. Sadly I did not have time for such an excursion, but you might!

Americans traveling to T-stan are required to have a Letter of Invitation from a tour company. I went with Turkmen Travel, which I would describe as "technically gets the job done but nothing to worship," as I'll explain throughout this post. They sent my LOI as a picture of the document rather than the original document, which several airport personnel weren't too pleased with, but it worked. When I arrived at the airport at 2am, I had to take that letter to a counter that said "Visa" which had a long line. The person at that counter takes your passport (warning for people who become anxious when separated from their passports) and gives you a little visa bill ($85 USD, must be paid in American cash (?!)). Rather than paying then and there, which would make sense, you take the bill to another counter with another line, and magically when you arrive and present the bill you are now expected to pay $96 USD even though the bill clearly states less. The people in front of me who complained about this were dismissed with a curt "It's a registration fee." I didn't bother complaining because a) I rarely indulge in confrontation at 2am and b) others' complaints were not successful. What are you going to do, refuse? Anyway, the first tip is to bring plenty of American cash.

Turkmen Travel was great because it was a one-stop shop. I got my paperwork, hotel, tours, and (most crucially) a pre-arranged ride from and to the airport all with the same reservation. My 3 day/3 night booking included everything except lunch and dinner for $685 (paid in cash the next day at the hotel, I guess I had the first night on an honor code basis). Gulp! It seemed pretty hefty at the time but when you realize the amount of effort that goes into it, it semi makes sense. For example, the drive to the Darvaza crater was 4 hours each way, which if you think of it as an Uber ride accounts for about half the cost in and of itself. It was also awesome not to have to deal with getting a taxi at, after the visa shenanignas, 3 am.

Before we get into more details, I have one extremely important piece of advice. DO NOT VISIT T-STAN IN JULY. I didn't really have a choice, since this is when my friend was going home to see family (see Azerbaijan post) and I had time between teaching and taking summer classes in Boston.

But July is the hottest month and, go figure, not a good time to go into the Karakum desert. I realize there is a heat wave throughout the entire world right now, but here you pretty much have to be inside from 8:30am (when temps are already in the 100s) to 7:30pm (a little before sunset). I obviously didn't do this since I had a lot to see in very little time, but my body is still not happy about it. Especially since, like Egypt and Jordan, this is a rather conservative country and dressing in clothing that shows any arm or leg will result in weird looks and unwanted attention.

Very typical "casual" Turkmen lady outfit. These hats seemed ornate to me but they were definitely very common. I did not make a great impression in my flowy top and linen pants, but on the plus side I didn't die of heat stroke. 


I had booked a tour that included Nisa, Ashgabat, and the Karakum desert. I had what can only be called a nap (4am bedtime, 8am breakfast) and then my guide and driver for the day met me at my hotel. Before I even got in the car, my guide warned me that taking pictures in certain places, even from the car, was forbidden and could result in a police officer taking my phone. It turns out that this is much more feasible than I initially thought. As soon as we started driving, officers would constantly either direct us onward or wave us to the side of the road for a random "show us your papers" check. Our car got checked twice in 2 hours. The driver nonchalantly handed 2 laminated documents to the officer each time this happened, and after a few minutes we were back on our way. My guide told me it was extremely common and not even an inconvenience for Turkmen people to do this several times a day.

So you're not allowed to take pictures of any government buildings. This is rough because almost every building in the city of Ashgabat seems to be a ministry or government office of some sort. The buildings are all made of white marble with gold accents.

Government buildings in the distance. Don't worry, I took this from the safety of my hotel room. 
Our first destination was Nisa, where you can see the ruins of an ancient settlement, supposedly built around 200 BC. My guide gave me lots of details and facts about this place, but unfortunately I was a sub-par audience.

Guide: "And here in this room were discovered remnants that lead us to believe that there were once statues carved into the wall, a symbol of importance for then king Arsaces..."

Me:

Nisa is really neat though. Do make sure to wear a hat because there are no ceilings and very little shade. Another tip for that location would be to look out for the hundreds of wasps that have made a home in the precious UNESCO-recognized mud walls.

The Nisa settlement as seen from the entry point.

Monuments

After Nisa, we drove around (in the mercifully air-conditioned car) to see the various monuments in Ashgabat. This site breaks them down for you, so I'll just give you my impressions. 

The "president" (/dictator) and former president have many monuments in their honor. Niyasov, the former president, wrote a book entitled Ruhnama. Since he was a dictator very influential, the book is required reading in all Turkmen schools (kindergarten to university). You must cite passages of it verbatim without error in order to obtain a driver's license. In addition to many monuments to the author, there is also a monument to the book itself

According to Wikipedia: Each evening at 8:00 pm, the cover opens and a recording of a passage from the book is played with accompanying video. Here's an inexplicably head-banging excerpt from a documentary with footage of it. 

That's nice, but we can all agree it's not quite enough recognition for the book. But what else could you possibly do? Niyasov was ready with the answer. He officially changed the name of the month of September to "Ruhnama." Because he finished writing the book in September. Obviously! Publishers, are you writing this down? Also, henceforth, the month of May will be referred to as "Las Pastillas de Oro."

Very few in, no one out

We know that not many people visit T-stan. Sadly, the other side of that coin is that very very few citizens are allowed out of the country. My guide (name withheld just in case) told me about how, when he was studying languages and tourism, he earned a spot in a study abroad program in Germany. He completed his visa requirements, bought his ticket, and had his family come with him to the airport to see him off. He got as far as the border patrol before he was told that he was not allowed to leave the country. As someone who studied tourism, he "knew too much" about T-stan. He simply turned around and went back home. The only country to which Turkmen citizens can freely travel is Turkey. 

That reminds me, a quick demonym lesson: People from T-stan are Turkmen, people from Turkey are Turkish. And demonym is a greek amalgamation of "demo" (people) and "nym" (name)  the name of the people (from a certain place). Lesson over, good job!

The food

Not so vegetarian friendly. I had lots of lentil soup and bread. I ordered a beet salad once and got a heaping plate of shredded beets, which was hilarious and a little bit gross. 

The craters

Ranked as the number 1 thing to see in Turkmenistan, the craters are Kind of a Big Deal. I was pumped because I had read several blogs of people visiting the craters and getting these epic pictures. The biggest-deal crater is known as the Doorway to Hell and the guide/driver (a different one from my guide the day before) gamely drove me the 4 hours out into the Karakum desert to see it. We brought sufficient supplies:
Frozen water bottles were a necessity.

On the way, there are 2 more craters. These are definitely the "opening act" craters, and maintenance on them is not exactly up to code.




We finally arrived at the Doorway to Hell crater, and it's extremely cool. To see. It's extremely not cool to stand next to in a desert that was already 110 degrees before you stood next to a massive flaming pit of fire. 

There were only a handful of other tourists there; all of them were camping for (at least) the night in the nearby yurts, which made me jealous.
"People are going to want to see these yurts," I thought to myself. 

However, there was a major bummer. There was now a guard rail! And it was sufficiently maintained! So sad. My guide said they put it up last month, probably because it's dangerous to let people get right up to the edge of an enormous flaming fire pit. But still! 




This was clearly the spot for a handstand picture, but the guardrail was not very photogenic. 

There was only one option. 
It was time to cross my fingers and hope that no state police were lurking around, and hop it. 

My driver was doing his best to take the handstand pic, but he was so nervous about me being over the guardrail that he kept struggling with it. At that point a charming Italian guy walked up and showed me the screen of his fancy camera: it was my handstand!

So, how did it turn out? I don't know yet, he was camping out there with no digital connectivity and said he could email it to me "sometime in August." I was also so hot that I might have given him an incorrect email address. I'll put it on my instagram if/when it comes through!

Scraping away the rubble in preparation for possibly the most badass handstand pic yet; also apparently doing a Michael Jackson impression. 

In case you're still wondering why there are no other tourists in the pics from this part of the trip: practically no one else was there! At the mosque where I took the handstand pic, there was one other tourist who was inside at the time. That's the upside of visiting one of the least popular visited places on earth 😉



Books for this part of the trip:
Small great things, Jodi Picoult. Amazing plot and writing style, horrific subject matter.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Tbilisi, Georgia

After a week in Azerbaijan, it was time to take a long weekend to explore some nearby countries that I wouldn't otherwise travel to separately. One of those was Georgia, a confusing place to tell people you're visiting if you're from the states ("not that Georgia"). Fun fact: the only time I went to the state of Georgia in the US was on a layover.

I stayed in the capital, Tbilisi, which means "warm place" in ancient Georgian due to the thermal springs that tempted some ancient dude to found the city there. Ancient Georgian is about as intelligible to me as modern Georgian - not. at. all. I was not even close to understanding words. Their written language reminded me of Hindi or some other southeast Asian script. It was beautiful!


I only had 2 days in Georgia due to the horrible flight schedule between my next destination and any other country ever (dictatorships be like that sometimes, more on that in the next entry). So I crammed in 2 tours: a tip-based evening tour and a prepaid all-day tour led by the lovely Tamo. They were both awesome and had relatively little overlap (the main overlap was a visit to a bakery that has been continuously functioning for hundreds of years. I was obviously ok with visiting the bakery multiple times.). 

My favorite part of the tours (other than the bakery, obvi) was the street vendors selling fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. Just like in Azerbaijan, pomegranates are big here, and I am literally eating it up. 
 

Another fave in Tbilisi was the statue that overlooks the city: Our Mother of Georgia. The protector of the city is female and holds a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. My guides differed on the symbolism of the wine (is it held as a tribute to the hard work that goes into the production process, or raised in a gesture of welcome to friendly visitors? I got a vibe that it was the latter.) but the sword's message is pretty clear ("I like swords.")

Wikipedia pic


My pic (after taking the cable car to the top of the city).

Tbilisi is has one of the best exotic-to-manageable ratios I've experienced. It is really different from western European cities, but absolutely charming and very picturesque. Everyone speaks Georgian, most people speak Russian, and a healthy handful of guides/merchants/hotel staff speak great English. 

Speaking of Russian, we had a middle-aged Russian lady on the night tour. She left halfway through the tour and I asked the guide what was up. He said she had lectured him on presenting Stalin and Lenin as neutral facts in Georgia's history. She was upset because she expected that when he mentioned those names he would extol the virtues of the Soviet influence on Georgia. When he gently told her he wasn't going to do that, she left the tour in a huff. I was shocked that someone willing to travel internationally could have such a narrow worldview. In related news, Russia's  brainwashing of its citizens seems to be quite successful. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I met some awesome girls from Poland and Spain on my other tour, who like me were just hoping to explore a new country over the weekend. Mission accomplished for the 3 of us!

My gripe for Tbilisi:
Transportation to/from the airport.
It's extremely cheap, which is awesome. The cost is .50 lari (ლ), or about 20 cents in USD, and goes pretty far (it takes 45 minutes each way and brings you straight into the city center). The problem is that you must have it in exact change. I changed money at the airport (ouch) so I could take the bus, and then when I got on and offered a 5 bill had the attendant wave me away shaking her head. Um, ok. The bus left. I went inside and asked the info desk what happened. She explained and told me to go to one of the shops to get change (some travel blogs say the info ladies will give you change. Lies!). So I got 5 1 coins and tried again. The next bus came in 20 minutes (not bad!) and I proudly offered my 1 coin, only to get the dreaded head-shake and a stream of Georgian explanation. I motioned that I was ok losing .50 cents and please just take this coin: no. Ok, I would pay for 2 people so it would be exact change? Also no. Finally a sweet woman just paid for me. I tried to give her the 1 coin in thanks (it was double her investment!) and even she waved me away. One person, .50 cents. NO OTHER OPTION.

The bus attendant on the way to the airport fell asleep on the machine. People kept waking him up to pay and he was livid. A lot of people just didn't pay (even when he was awake) and I'm beginning to think that was the better option. 


Book read during this portion: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Very entertaining, but a bit too long-winded for me. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Azerbaijan

Remember when I moved to Boston and took a while to adjust to the freezing temperatures and hostile people? One of my lifelines came in the form of a friendship with a gorgeous, sassy, hilariously pessimistic girl from Azerbaijan. After 4 years of knowing each other, I finally convinced her to let me come with her the next time she went home to visit family and renew visas etc.

Let's start with this.
That's where it is :)

I had already learned a few things about Azerbaijan through my friend, such as:
a. Azeri is the official language, but the middle/upper class speaks (sometimes exclusively) Russian. The country was a former Soviet Union nation.
b. The vice president is the wife of the president (!!!!!!!). Nepotism is extremely popular.
c. Things like feminism and government criticism are... not popular.


But there was still much to learn, so after teaching a summer school course in Boston I hopped on a plane (via NYC) to the capital city, Baku.

Sites to see:
1. The Maiden Tower (old town)
Named for a woman who, legend has it, got a little too interested in a poor man and was sequestered in the fortress tower by her family to avoid a shameful union with him. She jumped to her death from the top story. I now realize I should have asked my friend when exactly this is alleged to have happened. I assume it was like the middle ages but now that I think about it the honor/money-heavy marriage mentality here does not seem to have changed much.


2. The Flame Towers (old town)
Azerbaijan is reportedly the home country of the prophet Zarathustra, who started the movement that developed into the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrians worship fire (among other cool stuff), and these modern office buildings pay homage to those religious roots. There are plenty of non-modern vestiges of ancient Zoroastrianism though, like number 4 on this list.





3. The Carpet Museum (old town)
France has wine and cheese. Germany has cars. Azerbaijan has carpets.
The craftsmanship that goes into carpet making is so complex that I watched a slow motion animated video on how to do it and STILL cannot fathom how one thread at a time can result in something so intricately detailed as the carpets produced here. There is a museum dedicated to the art form in which you can see not only hundreds of carpets spanning from the 15th century to the present day but also interactive loom displays where you can try your hand at carpet making (you will suck at it). The museum building itself is in the form of a rolled up carpet, which I think we can all agree is just the best.


And don't you dare call them Persian carpets! Azerbaijan is pretty sore on this subject.

A salty jab in the carpet museum #carpetwars
                                              

4. Ateshgah - the Fire Temple (outside the city)
Built on space that, during the 7th century, was thought to be holy due to the fires that seemed to burn constantly in the desert (a natural gas channel below ground provides constant natural fuel), this temple was obvi a good spot to worship fire for the Zoroastrians (see #2). You can go into the center of the compound where a large fire is burning even today. If you are masochistic, you stay there for more than 2 seconds. The average temperature during my stay in Azerbaijan was 99 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the sun it feels like about 110, and next to the massive fire pit it feels like 200. Still, a few tourists were dauntlessly taking pictures by it. Psychos.



5. Gobustan - Petroglyph site (outside the city)
My favorite! Generations of tribes have contributed to these rock carvings that show not only animals and hunting scenes but also dance parties. There is a museum (partially air conditioned, glory be!) with well-done interactive displays showing not just details about the carvings but also similarities between these petroglyphs and others discovered around the world.


Image result for gobustan dance carving

The only thing that is really disturbing is that while animals are portrayed somewhat realistically, and men are portrayed perhaps with a bit of delusional phallic superiority, women in the carvings are portrayed without heads or arms. Obviously my interpretation of that design choice isn't foolproof, but it doesn't seem to bode well for valuing women's intellectual and artistic contributions at the time.

Animals

Man
As my friend noted, the guy on the left was perhaps "the first porn star."

Women
How are they holding the oars/bows?

Other things to experience in Baku include:
1. Pomegranates
They. are. so. good. They factor prominently in local art. I learned how to cut them like a pro.


2. Art
The magnet that you see on the top left of the second picture above came from an art gallery in the old town that features the work of artist Ali Shamsi. When we ducked in, the artist himself was padding around barefoot in his studio (apparently a rare sighting) as customers fawn over his gorgeous works of art. The person usually in charge of ringing up purchases had left the counter to help another customer, so I was awkwardly standing with the magnet and money in my hand when the artist himself saw me. I motioned to pay him and he immediately walked away (I wasn't too surprised, this was not exactly the procurement of a priceless canvas, which several other customers seemed to be interested in doing). But then he came back with a little envelope. He drew an impromptu little still life on the envelope to match the print on the magnet and handed it to me. Then he gave me a big smile and said something in Russian I didn't understand, but my friends translated as "You have a strong guardian angel," and he wouldn't let me pay for the magnet. So cool.

3. Food
It is not difficult, I repeat, NOT difficult to be a vegetarian here so far! There is always a cucumber tomato salad or eggplant-based dish to be had. Also, the food is extremely cheap. Even outings at high end restaurants cost a fraction of what a meal would in Boston. This one (in the touristic old city) cost about $5/person including tip:


New travel tip:
Bring magnets!
I brought these tiny magnets on a hunch and they are definitely paying off. I'm currently using them to secure clothes to a clothesline since there are no clothespins in my air bnb. This shirt held overnight despite some gnarly wind!

I also use them to secure things that I would normally use safety pins for (rolling up hemlines, etc.).

Gripes for Azerbaijan:
1. The (lack of) recycling
There is one recycling bin in the city: in the touristic old town center, not far from the Maiden tower. Essentially no one uses it. The big apartment buildings are at least a 30 minute walk from there, and many people would have to take the bus or subway to get there. I had generated so many plastic bottles (tap water isn't potable) that there was no way I could throw them in a dumpster. I dutifully traipsed the ~ 2k with my bulging recycling bag, much to the chagrin of my friend who had to share the strange looks we got. In true pessimistic Azeri fashion, she reminded me the whole way that they probably just toss the recycling in with the rest of the dumpster trash. The thought of all that plastic in a major capital city going directly into the environment is sickening.

2. The attitudes regarding marriage
As your friendly neighborhood unmarried-and-extremely-happy 32 year old, I was appalled. I'll give you an example. Another local friend, who I'm convinced will soon be a millionaire running tours in Baku with her perfect English, shared her experience with me: "Oh yeah. If you go to any doctor with any sort of pain, their first question will be 'Are you married?' If you're not married, that's the problem. It doesn't matter if your leg is hanging off by a thread. 'If you had a husband, this wouldn't be happening.'"
We are not talking about your judgmental neighborhood middle aged gripers. These are medical professionals peddling this nonsense. Grow up!


Tomorrow I leave for a short solo side trip to Georgia and on to Turkmenistan. I've been getting some very weird and sometimes overtly incredulous reactions when I've told Azeri people that I'm going to Turkmenistan. A reaction I got more than once was "Let us know when you get back safely... well, IF you get back safely." Is it really that bad? I will report back!

Books for this part of the trip: La distancia entre nosotros, Reyna Grande. Very good. Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. Horrific but I learned several new words. Where'd you go, Bernadette, Maria Semple. Not many epistolary books these days!

Friday, March 23, 2018

Cartagena, Colombia

Maybe it's Baader Meinhof syndrome, but ever since I booked my trip to Colombia last year, I've been hearing about people about to go to or just getting back from its coastal port city Cartagena. No one seemed to have anything bad to say: Colombia's days as the violent drug lair of Pablo Escobar and his henchmen seem to be firmly behind it, and tourists are lapping it up.

As usual, come March, the snowy northeastern weather was getting awfully old. Boyfriend and I set off early in the morning and made it out before the third nor'easter hit!

I've said it before, but there is nothing like that first wave of heat against your sad Bostonian skin as you come off the plane in a tropical place. Colombia delivered this in a big way with its cute tarmac arrival "hallways" outside leading you from the plane to the airport itself. They were filled with hanging plants and flowers and palm trees. Had these not been permeated with the smell of exhaust and jet fuel I might have tried to hang out there.


Our number one priority was to get to the beach, so after a chill arrival at our hotel (the intercontinental, known to cab drivers and locals as "el inter") we set out. The beaches in Cartagena proper are NOT the pristine ones you can find in nearby towns. Tons of cruise ships come in and out of the port, so the water is kinda muddled and the sand is brownish. Still, it was great for us since we were just getting our bearings.

Most guidebooks will tell you this, and most of you who have traveled before are used to it, but let me just say: the vendors selling trinkets on the beach and on the city streets are relentless. If you're walking, they run up to you, walk with you, and follow you. If you're stationary (for example, reading on a beach chair), you are a captive audience and you have no chance.

One of the vendors was selling massages on the beach. She was a lovely dark-skinned woman, rather plump, walking around with a not-so-clean-looking bucket and lotion in an unmarked tube. It was not hard to resist this massage. She introduced herself as Nico and would not stop talking to me as I politely declined her services. We actually had a nice conversation (read: she complimented me endlessly, and that was great even though I knew her motives weren't exactly altruistic). I should say here that some people suggest completely ignoring or rudely telling off these vendors, and that may be effective, but I would never do that.*

* Unless I cracked, which I did once  and only once on this trip, in the walled city. I'll tell you later.

We are guests in the country and as Americans we have a reputation to pull out of the mud, and cussing at locals is simply not an option for me (or you). So we would just kind of constantly say "no" as we walked along. My advice is don't bother giving reasons because it will backfire. Here's an exchange I had on the last day with a vendor selling trips to an island we had already gone to:

Him: Come to Bora Bora!
Me: We already went, thanks. It was great.
Him: So you liked it! Go again! Boats start at 9am tomorrow!
Me: We're going to the airport to go home tomorrow.
Him: Go tonight! See the island in the moonlight!

Anyway, we continued walking along the beach and finally sat down near a little restaurant shack. For about $50 American dollars we got ocean-side chairs for the day, lunch, and the first round of drinks, and we were ecstatic. The vendors selling águila ("eagle," the local beer) and fruity drinks were very successful with us. Pretty soon word got around that we were spending money and guess who comes back. Nico! She sits down next to us and just starts chatting but we know it's only a matter of time til she gets into business mode. Hoping to avoid that, we made clear we didn't want a massage but would be happy to buy her a drink. She seemed pretty surprised and delighted and had a beer with us, and we were just chatting about things to do in Cartagena, and it was great.

Then she says, "Well since you got me a beer I'll just give you a sample massage for free. Just your feet." This was to Boyfriend.

Thirty no's later she's rubbing his feet and he is complete mush. It apparently feels amazing and he'll spring for the paid version and "I have to try it" and it's the perfect remedy after all that cold weather and long flights and ok fine I'll get one too just a sample though and wow this is an amazing full body massage! We should probably have been concerned when Nico started confidently ordering more drinks on our tab, but we were very relaxed what with the awesome massages.

Then... oops! It's all over and we have no idea how much the massages are because we never asked. And now the service has been rendered so you can't exactly bargain.

And that's how we ended up paying about $130 US for beach side massages. Damn it Nico! Damn your strong healing hands! Boyfriend and I chalked it up as a win anyway, since we were  contributing to the local economy and the price was still way less than it would have been in Boston. We ended up buying beers for all of Nico's friends and using one of her contacts to set up an excursion to one of the lovely islands with pretty beaches for the next day: Bora Bora.


Bora Bora

Yes we went to Bora Bora, and you better believe I'm going to let people assume that I mean the one in the South Pacific northwest of Tahiti. You, however, will have the exclusive REAL version of the story, which is that this is a one hour speedferry ride from Cartagena. On the way there we were stuck being the last ones on the ferry even though we got to the port early. This is because SOMEONE was buying fresh mangos from a street vendor when they opened up the boat.* Anyway so we had to sit at the very front part of ferry, the part that was uncovered in full sun and the bumpiest. An hour later, we climb off the boat, up some stairs, and onto this island:

*Me, obviously, and if I could go back in time I would still not change a thing.


There were about 30 cabana/beds and we paid an extra $20 to have one on the front row, which was totally worth it, not least of all because it came with a fruit tray. We shared the island with our boat-mates and about 2 other ferries full of people for a total of about... oh I don't know, maybe 50 people total? So it wasn't completely off the grid but still pretty amazing. And there were only two vendors total. One selling jewelry in a very chill "you come to me I won't come to you" way, and another guy who rolled up in a tiny dinghy boat with his wares: live lobsters that he had just plucked from the seabed. Boyfriend has always said he dislikes running and will avoid it like the plague when I go out for jogs or sign up for races, but I am here to tell you he moved so fast trying to get to that lobster salesman that I believe he has been training behind my back for just such an occasion. I'm sure we were supposed to bargain here again, but the fisherman said about $50 usd for a big old lobster and honestly it was worth it to have fresh lobster on the beach. So we pick out the one Boyfriend wants, the fisherman leaves, and about 45 minutes later he paddles up with a fully cooked lobster on the prow of his ship on a little paper plate which was quite a site for someone who has only seen lobster served in fancy restaurants. Anyway it was apparently the best lobster Boyfriend has ever had and worth every penny.

Lunch is included in this little getaway (dinghy lobster is extra as you already know), and it was very nice: fish, coconut rice, fried plantains, just generally yummy stuff. They also had vegetarian options!

Unsuccessfully trying not to be obnoxious and smug.
On our way back, we made sure to get Prime Seats on the boat this time so we were one of the first ones on. We sat toward the back with full shade. Then the captain comes back to our rows and says that we should keep in mind that it's not his fault if we get wet since the way back is going "against the waves," as he put it.

"Getting wet" turned out to be the understatement of the trip. This was a ferry but it still went fast, and we were therefore getting smacked with massive walls of sea spray at about 500mph (yeah yeah not really but still). Here are the phases we, the 8 people in the last rows, went through on that one hour boat ride:

Phase 1 (first 5 minutes): laughing and shrieking
Phase 2 (next 5 minutes): covering faces with hats and making jokes about these being Prime Seats
Phase 3 (next 10 minutes): absolutely soaked, eyes burning with sea water, making tense jokes that we should put on our goggles and snorkles
Phase 4: (next 5 minutes) putting on goggles and snorkels, incredulously laughing about it
Phase 5: (remaining 40 minutes of ride) grimly staring ahead through goggles, getting absolutely pummeled by thick sea spray seeming spewed out by Poseidon himself, just making out the silhouettes of the people sitting up front in the "bad seats" (they seem to be pointing in our direction and laughing... surely we don't look ridiculous: soaked to the bone, wearing goggles and snorkels, while sitting on a boat, right?), heatedly saying "never again" under our breath, pondering Colombian maritime law and the likelihood of qualifying for a multi-million dollar settlement, etc.

Really though, it was fine. The whole day was awesome. I just suggest sitting in the back on the way there and way WAY in the front on the way back.

If you think you get a picture of us during that debacle, the answer is a firm "You are no longer my friend." Also we tried but it would have been like taking your phone out underwater so no go.

There transpired a small detail here that I will tell you personally if you like but should not be added to the blog.


A bit further out - castles and convents

The next day we hired a fabulous cab driver (contact info below) to take us on a jam-packed day since we wanted to see lots of historical things and famous places but also go to another famous beach called Baru. We started out a bit further away from the center of town, making our way to "the castle" which is really a fortress. As fortresses go I would say it is "average." If you're a detail-oriented history nut you will go positively crazy for it; if you're not you'll do an obligatory lap and check it off your list and move on.
The words "fortress turret" can be rearranged to spell Surfer Trotters, and I think we can all agree that's crucial.

We then went to La Popa. I recommend going to this beautiful former convent because it has an amazing view of Cartagena, and a vast collection of (of course!) bills from what must be every country in the world displayed on the walls.

La Popa

The walled city

From there we went to spend some day time in the old town, aka the walled city. We had gone there a few times in the evenings to walk around and shop and check out restaurants that had been recommended to us (I'll include them at the end), but seeing it in the day time is a MUST! The tiny streets are bursting with colorful buildings and flowers. As you can tell by the name, there is a big wall around all of this, a remnant of when the Spanish needed to protect their (stolen) land from pirates. You can walk along the wall and even go to one of two restaurants that are located ON it.

A vendor in the walled city


Locals and tourists milling around in old town. 
As mentioned above, it was in the walled city that I eventually broke down and sort of yelled at a vendor. I was caught off guard. We turned a corner onto a plaza and were absolutely swarmed by people hawking sunglasses and straw hats and jewelry and I finally erupted into a "NO!". Of course the person directly in front of me who took the brunt of this outburst was the youngest, cutest little vendor of them all (maybe 11 years old) and he quickly scurried off. I felt horribly guilty for the next few hours.

Barú

After a very full morning of site seeing and walking around, our amazing driver, Eloy, drove us the 40 minute route to the town of Barú. On our way I was chatting with the driver (Boyfriend was kind of zoning out since my countless Spanish lessons on him never really took). So I'm telling the driver my best stories, which all revolved around the fruit I had tried so far in Colombia. This is something I could easily talk about for 45-50 minutes with no interruption, but he managed to get a word in and mention that there was a street-side guanábana stand that we would be passing soon and we could stop. It was called "The Guanabana King" and they sell juice of this amazing fruit with the pulp still in it. This event may have been one of the top five happiest moments in my life.

Take my money.
So. Barú has amazing beaches, but it is not for the faint of heart or those traveling without a local. On the way, our driver had been telling us that there are many locals living in the town who are very poor and rely heavily on beach tourists. "That's pretty normal," we thought. No. This was different.

We roll up to the turnoff to get to the parking lot for the beach, and there are about 6 local boys (tall, very dark skinned, skinny teens, probably 16-22 years old) waving us over to talk with them. Our driver told us that these boys were pretending to be attendants for the lot, but they were actually relatives of people running restaurants on the beach with no written prices for food. Their specialty is having you order food and then telling you that your simple lunch cost about $150 usd and you can't argue because you already ate it (flashes of Nico's massage flickered through my mind, I nodded to convey my veteran wisdom in this matter). The boys corral you early on and bring you to these restaurants. So he says we're going to ignore them. This approach was fine with us. However, the teens were not too keen on it, and started yelling at him, then chasing the car, then jumping onto the moving car which forced our driver to stop. At this point Boyfriend and I are exchanging looks like "we're about to become combatants in a Colombian brawl," and I'm just happy my last meal was Guanabana juice. But our driver simply rolled down his window and in a voice that was insanely calm (keep in mind he is looking out his window at the stomach of a local teen who has mounted his car), said, "Get down." And the teens yelled some more, and he said, "Get down, get off the car." And they got off. And we went into the beach.

You should know that you can reach Barú from Cartagena by boat if you book with one of the excursion companies, which would circumnavigate the driving/parking/car-attacking issues.

Somewhat tense from that altercation (our driver was unfazed), boyfriend and I spent all day at a reputable place with written prices that featured a 3-step distance from the water. I don't know the name of this place, but apparently there are 3 restaurants (out of dozens) that have menus with prices on them, so just ask to see the prices before you eat and you'll be good. Maybe take a picture of them just in case.

Here is Barú! Worth it if you go with our driver, but if you want to completely unwind and not worry about being scammed, just go with the Bora Bora trip. 
Odds and ends:
Did I mention that you should eat as much fruit as possible? There are all sorts of exotic fruits you've probably never heard of.

 

Arepas. Arepas are translated as "corn patties" and that is a massive disservice because it makes them sound strange. You need to order them (plain, with cheese, with eggs, with meat if you're gross) and eat them at least once a day.

An arepa with fresh mango juice; this meal was about $6 usd at a fancy golf place (ask Boyfriend). I was assuming it would cost 4 times that much.

Suggestions:

For the Bora Bora trip: we went with Rosario Beach Club. Lunch and a boat ride to and from the island was included, all told it was less than $200 for both of us and the "VIP" row of cabanas.

Get in touch with our driver. He's super nice and tries to practice his English but if you speak Spanish it's probably better (duh). His name is Eloy and he communicates mostly with WhatsApp: +57 301 585*

*rest of number separated to avoid bot dials: 5570. He was a lifesaver with transportation but also with advice and warnings about ripoffs around town.

Go to "El carbon de palo" restaurant. It's not one of the fancy ones in old town (though we loved those too, try Juan del Mar and 1621); it's in the Bocagrande zone, which is where most of the hotels are. We ate here 3 nights in a row because we loved it so much. The food was amazing, the service was embarrassingly good, and they had multiple live music acts every night. The music was always chill though; think more "quizás" than mariachi-style.

Guanábana juice and cheesy arepas at Carbon de Palo. I want to marry this situation.

Get local money. Save yourself the stress of asking cab drivers if they take American money as they hold up traffic waiting for you. Things are very reasonably priced; most of our cabs to and from the walled city were $5.

Have fun and let me know what you think!
xoxo


Friday, January 19, 2018

January getaway: Mexico

I. love. Mexico. I went to Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco (again!) and had a fabulous time.

This trip was even better than most. In addition to the gorgeous villa we stayed in and the yummy restaurants we visited almost every day, we also went paddle boarding (Paddle Zone at Mismaloya beach), sailing (Ada sailing) and whale watching. We saw at least 6 different humpback whales (some while sailing!), dolphins, manta rays, clown fish... You can see what I saw on my Instagram. There is also bonus footage of Huichol art souvenirs we got!

My favorite part was during paddle boarding. After we watched the sunset ON the water, it got dark, and our guide Beto (sweetest kid ever who did not mind falling in the water when he was backward on his board helping us navigate choppy waves) directed us under the arches of one of "los arcos," the rocky islands that had spiritual significance for the native Huichol population. He told us to put our hands in the water and agitate them a little bit, and when we did...
We saw glow in the dark algae!!!


This pic is from the Maldives, but it's the same thing. Imagine the water seeming normal but around your hand there is a sphere of these tiny things orbiting magically.

Bonus adventure: we got in a minor car accident and learned that you have to stay on the scene of a fender bender until the insurance agents come out and fill out paperwork. We almost missed our flight back to Boston!

Paddle boarding around Los Arcos at sunset.

Our fellow paddle boarders were 2 girls from Cuernavaca and 1 guy from New Zealand. I made sure to provide entertainment to our worldly group by gracefully falling off my board while shrieking wildly.

Sailing trip with fresh seafood and limitless beverages: go Ada Sailing!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Asia trip part 3: Japan

From Seoul, I went early to catch my flight to Tokyo. That was lucky since every airport experience involved extra security gymnastics because the travel agent who helped with the Chinese portion of the trip also helped me with this one, and had misspelled my name on all of my tickets. Poor guy just removed any hesitation I had about letting the travel agency industry die... Anyway!

I arrived in Tokyo and my first surprise was that the smog wasn't gone. It wasn't as brutally thick as in Beijing, but it was there. Tokyo completely made up for this, however, with their A+ toilet game. I forget where I saw a reference to complicated Japanese toilets, but these things were totally understandable and awesome. It was common to have the following setup: You walk into the stall and the cover is raised automatically. The seat is heated very subtly. There is a little controller with buttons with both Japanese and English text and obvious icons. For the environmentally-conscious yet courteous users, there is a button that makes a flushing sound without actually wasting the water. Having the festering squatty potties from China still haunting my memories, I was especially impressed with these toilets and said so to every Japanese person I met, stopping just short of screaming about them in the streets.


What? You want me to talk about something other than toilets? Ummm... ok, I guess, if I must.

My main goal in Japan was to see Mount Fuji. From Tokyo, this requires a substantial drive or bullet train (Shinkansen) ride, plus renting a car once you get to the correct prefecture (Shikuoka). This can probably be finagled on your own in 4 hours for around $60, but I decided to just book a tour for $140 which included a fabulous guide, quick (2.5 hour) transportation to and from downtown Tokyo, and lunch. "Worth it" would be an understatement.

This particular tour drove us on a bus on the way to Mt. Fuji and we came back to Tokyo via bullet train. During the long (2 hours or so) drive to Shikuoka, our guide taught us Japanese songs about Mount Fuji (how cute is that one?) and answered all of our questions.

There was only one problem. It was cloudy. Like, really cloudy. Our guide explained that we were visiting during the rainy season, and chances of seeing the mountain clearly were about 1 in 5. ONE in FIVE! Strange how they never tell you these things when you're booking... Sure enough, I checked instagram for #mtfuji and saw lots of videos and stories of people trying to see it but just filming clouds.

As we continued the drive, though, our guide stopped short in the middle of an explanation and almost shrieked, "There it is!" We were on the highway, but sure enough, you could see Mt. Fuji in the background, between clouds. Even on a gray day, speeding along the highway, it was stunning. The guide told us we might as well try to grab some pictures from the bus, since the clouds could easily swallow it up for the rest of the day. We did, and kept driving toward our first stop, the observation deck of a nearby mountain which had some great views, weather permitting, of Fuji.

We arrived at the base of the mountain next door (Kachi Kachi) and took the cable car up to the observation deck. A pre-recorded message was blasted to us in English in a creepy baby voice with details about the height of the mountain we were scaling, etc. We funneled out and looked around: all cloudy. Resigned to our nebulous fate, we made our way to the observation deck... and... guess what?!?!



We saw it!!!!!

Now that I think back at how elated we all were, I wonder if the guides always tell people they probably won't see Fuji so they feel extra special when they do. Cynicism aside, I was freaking pumped. As if that wasn't cool enough, there were doggos up there too.


Then I forced some Argentinians to take a handstand pic for me and they got it on the first try. By this point I was in a euphoric daze and went into the gift shop to promptly buy every single thing. When I regained full consciousness I was on the bus, surrounded by shopping bags and wondering where things like a Year of the Snake luck charm that were now in my possession had come from. On a related note, does anyone born in 1977 or 1989 or 2001 need a good luck charm? I had great luck that day, it will probably win you the lottery.

The tour also included a visit to Mount Fuji itself; specifically, the "5th station," a sort of mid-mountain camp with hot food and facilities for aching, tired climbers who had spent days getting there and were desperate for rest and a moment of zen before continuing their journey to the top. They made a prime audience for me as I hopped spryly from our tour bus and started proselytizing about the toilets.

The final part of the tour (it just kept going!) was a boat tour of Lake Ashi, and here our group shared the outing with other tour groups. So we had about 80 people on the boat, right? And it was cloudy again, so instead of taking in the theoretical views that were being described, I had time to people watch a bit. And guess what? There was 1, ONE, other person traveling alone. Out of all the large tour groups coming to see a wonder of the world, almost 100% of them were in groups. Families, retirees, mid-life couples... I knew traveling alone was rare, but this is when it actually set it that I was doing something strange. And of course the guy was Australian so does it even count? They travel in their sleep. Way to go Australians!

With Mt. Fuji off the checklist, I spent the next few days wandering around Tokyo, eating sushi and avoiding peak metro times. I had booked an air bnb in the Akasaka neighborhood, which was close to lots of parks (got in a few jogs!) and subway connections to downtown.

I had spent a little less than a month in Asia and was ready to come home. Now I'm back in Boston, and the school year will be starting soon, so no travel until... oh wait. This weekend :) I'm going to Jamaica for my cousin's wedding (Congrats Max and Alanna!!!).

Hello Kitty was still everywhere.


Book for this portion of the trip: SuperFreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. I read the original ages ago and this one is just as entertaining. Good for enabling you to bring up random facts during conversations that have almost fizzled out.
Neighborhood I stayed in: Akasaka
Tour company for Mount Fuji visit: Sunrise tours. You can be picked up at a hotel  for free and driven to the place where another bus takes you on the actual tour.
A place I didn't go but lots of people were talking about: Okinawa, famous for crystal clear waters above coral reefs. This is kinda the Japanese version of Hawaii: far away from the mainland but sought after due to the fact that it is an absolute tropical paradise. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Asia trip part 2: Seoul, South Korea

My favorite!

After the growing pains of experiencing China with a group of 14 adults (and their strong personalities) and days scheduled from 6:45am to 9:30pm, I was more than ready to get back to solo travel mode and to my next destination: Seoul.

As loyal readers may recall, my couchsurf hosting days in Dallas have already paid dividends. The good times just keep rolling, though. I contacted two of my South Korean guests from back in 2010 (!) and both of them delivered big time. One had moved to Canada (hi Ko!) but gave me the Kakao talk (Korea's version of text/whatsapp) of an awesome Korean girl who was willing to chat with me over dinner (hi Na Rae!), which was really nice. Thanks to Na Rae I also got the inside scoop on the K-beauty scene, which resulted in a bit of a binge. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, Koreans have the most impressive beauty regimens and products in the entire world.

Note that I did not say "Korean women." Korean men are absolutely in on this and there are aisles and aisles of men's products in every shop. There is also a LOT of make-up marketed toward men. Probably because of K-pop.

Majorly famous boy band BTS, K-pop pros
The beauty obsession has a dark side though: a fixation with plastic surgery. Especially in the trendy Gangnam area, you will see dozens of buildings, each of which has dozens of floors, each of which houses several plastic surgery clinics.

A subway ad in the Gangnam area, one of many.
Additionally, before I stray too far from Kakao talk: their emojis have absolutely taken over Korea. Anything with a flat surface has been branded with these adorable little characters.


Please stop everything. I just read the bio for Apeach (the character featured above) and this is it, verbatim, from the Kakao Friends website: "APEACH is a genetically modified peach that left the orchard to seek adventure. This playful and wild creature is not afraid to show off its backside, which may remind you of something other than a peach." I just needed you all to know that. You probably want to see its backside now, which I cannot confirm being a safe for work search but I did the hard part for you.

Speaking of adorable, here is a side by side comparison of the Boston and Seoul metro cards.

Ok where were we? Oh yeah my second Korean friend. Jong Min (hi!) was in Seoul when I was, and helped me get the most out of my visit with some clutch advice and guided wanderings. We started with a tour of the famous local market. This was a brief tour because this market was, to put it delicately, not "vegetarian friendly". You can imagine for yourself the types of horrific "food" that were on display but this is a family blog (notwithstanding the NSFW apeach) so I won't be describing it for you.

The major tourist destinations in Seoul are sprawling palaces with names that you won't even be able to finish trying to say because you'll be laughing at your own incompetence too hard (Gyeongbokgung is the most famous, we started with Changdeokgung; when Korean people say these it sounds like one syllable). After visiting Changdeokgung in the afternoon heat, I mentioned that it would be cool to see Gyeongbokgung (although quite honestly... these palaces might just fall into the "seen one seen 'em all" category for all but the most obsessive historians). Jong Min broke the bad news: I happened to be in Seoul during the two weeks of the year during which Gyeongbokgung palace is closed during the day and open at night for a special show; the tickets for the show had sold out two weeks ago. Luckily, Jong Min is a boss and called the palace to see what we could get in, and it turned out there was a simple solution: foreigners are allowed to purchase tickets on a first come, first served basis. Korean citizens were not allowed to visit unless they had booked in advance! Seriously. So we got there before they opened, I bought two tickets for $3 each and gave one to Jong Min and we went right in.

Side note: there is one other way to get into the palace - wear a Hanbok [the 'k' is silent, 'hanh-bo']. These are traditional Korean costumes and visitors can rent them and wear them around for enhanced instagramming site-seeing. A rental will set you back $10 and includes hair and makeup.

From http://funtastickorea.com/m
Jong Min asked me several times if I wanted to wear one and each time I questioned our friendship because I firmly believed that this is something only a clinically insane person would do. Can you imagine dressing up like a puritan to walk around Boston? But the Hanbok rentals are actually wildly popular. Hundreds of young, cute people were doing it and I admit that the stigma had kind of dropped away by the end of my trip. Still, I just couldn't get on board. I think the 100 degree heat had something to do with it as well.

Anywaaaaay if you wear a Hanbok you can get into Gyeongbokgung for free, but in the fine print of this agreement it says that you still have to book tickets in advance. On our way out from the palace we saw lots of Hanbok-wearing people looking pre-tty outraged that they couldn't get in. Don't forget that the tickets cost $3 each.

Lovely Hanbok-wearing girls. I admit they make for great pictures. 

Here is an egregious example of the Confucian-style gates, seen in Changdeokgung 

So Jong Min and I had an awesome time strolling around the grounds of Gyeongbokgung, and we even got to see the show they put on with one of the ancient buildings serving as a stage. There were traditional instruments, Italian opera (?!), plenty of singing and dancing... but my favorite part was a troupe of female drummers. Jong Min takes awesome pictures (his blog and instagram here) and some of these (the good ones) are from him.

Drummers

Lotus of dancers





So thanks to my generous guides, Seoul was my favorite place to visit!

Gyeongbokgung palace at sunset

Book for this part of the trip: Fall on your knees by Ann-Marie McDonald. Tough tough tough. It made Oprah's book club but jesus christ it's depressing.
I stayed at: Mapo, a cute neighborhood right next to the Han river. However, I would recommend staying in Gangnam, since that's where the biggest shopping/restaurant scene is.
Note: When you first arrive in Seoul, you will need to get Korean cash since the subway card machines don't take credit cards. I used the subway several times a day for 5 days and spent about $17 total on it. Most shops do take cards though. I would go to the 7-11 in the airport, buy a subway card at the counter, get cash at the global atm next door, then go to the subway machine and load the card with cash.
Another note: Google maps is not optimized in SK. I was looking for a store and googled it and it showed that there was one 2 towns over. I asked Na Rae and she said there was one ON THE SAME STREET that I was on, and sure enough a few blocks down there it was, with nary a mention on the google map. Kakao talk has a navigation app which is very thorough but the slight hiccup is that it's only in Korean.