3 Days in Istanbul

We had originally planned on going to Cairo for the weekend. I was so excited to see the pyramids (something I’ve always wanted to see) and I would’ve checked a continent off of my list (I want to visit all 7 continents before I die). Plus, one of my old clients was working there with the World Health Organization (check out the amazing disaster work he does!) and I have a friend that lives there. All very good reasons to go to Cairo.

Unfortunately, the only way to get to Cairo without making our trip 16 hours long (and wasting the precious time we had) was to transfer almost $1000 to a sketchy bank account with Air Sinai. The available itinerary would’ve given us a measly day and a half in Cairo.

Definitely not enough time to justify the cost.

So, we did as any rational people would do — we hopped onto Kayak Explore to see where we could travel in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable amount of money.

kayak_explore_from_tel_aviv

The final result? Istanbul!

Day 1: Tel Aviv, Israel –> Istanbul, Turkey

Kyle set his alarm for 3am on Thursday so that he could shower, pack, and get ready for us to leave the hotel at 4am. I set my alarm for 3:45am. Am I disgusting because I don’t shower in the morning? Nah. I’m efficient for showering at night.

I woke up with him and couldn’t fall back asleep. I was too excited!

He had a cab waiting for us (I love how he thought to call one in advance) and we were off to the airport at 4am on the dot. Our flight was at 7:20am but we wanted to give ourselves enough time to get through the layers and layers of security at the airport. In the past, it’s taken him 3+ hours to get through!

checking-in-at-the-airport

The kiosk wouldn’t let us scroll down to the “U” for “United States” so we had to click the button a thousand times. Then the screen would time out and we would have to do it again.

Since we didn’t check any bags, we got to skip some lines (woohoo!) and the check in process was significantly faster than anticipated. When we were going through the second round of security checking, the man asked us supremely personal information beyond the standard questions about our business in Israel:

  1. What is your relationship to each other? We’re dating.
  2. How long have you been dating? About 6 months.
  3. How long have you known each other? Just over 6 months (yup, I snatched him up as soon as I could).
  4. Do you live together? No. Because that would be living in sin, of course, and then Grandma Leenknecht would pray for me every day.
  5. How far apart do you live from each other? Umm, about 20 minutes.
  6. What’s your cup size? Ok, he didn’t ask that, but I was expecting him to.

Then he made us wait, grabbed his supervisor, and then his supervisor basically asked us  the same questions. And that was all just to get through that line; we weren’t even through the customs line to “exit Israel.”

Even with all that, we still made it to our gate extremely early.

waiting-at-our-gate

I was cold.

We arranged for a car to pick us up from the airport in Turkey (we flew into the airport much further away from our hotel and a lot of the touristy locations) and I was so excited to come out of the doors and see our names written on a piece of paper. I’ve never had airport pickup before!

Alas! There was a mixup at the hotel and there was no man waiting with our names on a piece of paper. We got everything sorted and then made it to the hotel.

I think the hotel was horse themed. That, or they just really like horses… because they were everywhere. 

Waiting in the lobby for our tea and coffee

We dropped our stuff off in the hotel and started walking around the city. After all, we only had 3 days in Istanbul and there’s thousands of years of history.

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern

We were convinced to come to some guy’s carpet shop because “it’s a family business and you can just look for a minute, no need to buy.” Ugh, they get you every time! The man insisted that Kyle looked like Brad Pitt and called him “Brad” for the duration of our visit. He also assured me that “Koreans are the best looking women of all Asian women because they have…” and then he proceeded to make motions to his chest.

Sigh. Don’t even get me started.

Turkish carpet shop

Carpet salesman and Brad

We went to the Blue Mosque and it was pretty awe-inspiring. Pictures definitely don’t do it justice. Here’s a quick video (it still doesn’t do it justice).

The outside was also gorgeous.

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Still a nice view

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Outside of the Blue Mosque

We didn’t have time to get to the Hagia Sophia before it closed, which was really confusing for us. I specifically wrote down the times that these places would be open and we thought that we had another hour. Very strange.

We ate testi kebabs for dinner! It’s food cooked in clay pots and then broken when it’s ready to be eaten. Yum!

Day 2: Istanbul Food Tour

A good friend who used to live in Istanbul for many years recommended that we go on a Backstreets Walking Tour. They take you to the places where the locals go and not the touristy places that we could see on our own. Plus, you get to eat all day, which is easily one of my favorite things to do.

We woke up early. We had plenty of time to get ready and find our way over to the meeting point. At about 8:40am, we received messages from our guide, Benoit, asking if we were on our way.

We were supposed to meet at 9:30, I thought. In a panic, we started getting ready as quickly as possible. Actually,  was in a panic. Kyle was his normal self — calm, cool, collected.

Benoit graciously waited for us to arrive (we were the only ones on the tour, thank goodness). It turns out that as of September 7, 2016, Turkey stopped doing Daylight Savings, so instead of turning their clocks back, they just left them.

Unfortunately for us, the clocks on our phone didn’t get the memo and they turned back an hour when we landed. That explains why we missed so many things on our first day.

The rest of the day consisted of lots of walking, eating everything in sight, and hearing a  slew of historical and cultural information that Benoit taught to us.

turkish-delight-everywhere

Free Turkish delight sample? Yes please!

Breakfast

This was our breakfast. The red, round pieces in the middle are water buffalo (yum!)

Honey in stores

Real honeycombs sold in stores

Baklavah

Baklavah

Here’s a quick clip of Benoit explaining Baklavah to us:

 

Fruit candy

Fruit candies that are shaped like their flavor. I wanted to try the potato flavor.

Lamb heads

Lamb faces

Lahmacun, Turkish pizza

Lahmacun, Turkish pizza

Manti, Turkish dumplings

Manti, Turkish dumplings

Kokorech

Kokorech, meat wrapped in intestines

Kanafeh, a delicious , cheesy dessert, soaked in sugar syrup

Kanafeh, a delicious , cheesy dessert, soaked in sugar syrup

Our tour guide, Benoit

Our tour guide, Benoit

We finished the day with a trip to Çemberlitaş Hamamı, a Turkish bathhouse that dates back to 1584. Woof! I was really excited to experience one because I had such great experiences when I visited a Korean jimjilbang and Japanese onsen.

We entered the hamamı, paid the fee, and were ushered to separate areas. I was instructed to undress and put my things in a locker. They gave me gigantic underwear to put on and a towel that I used to cover myself up.

Then I entered the bath.

There were probably 14 topless women around a circular marble structure. Some women (the guests) were getting washed by the women that worked there. I laid on my towel on the marble, not sure what to do. I was very uncomfortable, not only because I was half naked, but because I was lying on my stomach and my knees were poking uncomfortably into the marble. I wasn’t about to flip over and expose myself to a bunch of strangers, though!

Finally, a woman came over to me with a soapy bucket, threw some water on me, and proceeded to scrub my entire body with (what felt like) a metal industrial sponge, According to their website, “every cell of your body will start to breath, your blood circulation will speed up, you will loose the dead cells and re-vitalize.”

I did not experience that.

It felt like she was scrubbing the skin right off of my body. It was awful.

After she was finished, I was lying on the marble, feeling unbelievably violated and raw.

Then she used a soapy cloth to give me a light massage and wash me. It was much nicer than the first part.

She took me to a wash basin, told me to sit down, then washed my hair. But really, it felt like she was waterboarding me. She got a huge goop of shampoo in my eye and I kept trying to get it out, but she kept dumping full buckets of water over my head. I was gasping and coughing, trying not to look like a total buffoon (of course, it would be the American that drowns in the hamamı).

We finished, I got an oil massage, and then she had me take a shower. I read on the website that you could relax on the marble for as long as you wanted after the service (it was warm and nice!) but since I was the last customer, she basically forced me to get my clothes on and leave.

Kyle had a much nicer experience. He came out looking very relaxed, calm, and happy. At least one of us had a good time!

Day 3: Istanbul, Turkey –> Tel Aviv, Israel

On our last day, we visited everything that we missed during the first two days. We saw the Hagia Sophia, went to Topkapi Palace (it was underwhelming), and did some last-minute shopping at the Grand Bazaar.

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Hagia Sophia

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Inside of the Hagia Sophia (plus lots of renovation)

I bought a few tops from this man, only after I learned how to use them... kind of.

I bought a few tops from this man, only after I learned how to use them… kind of

Shopkeeper at the Grand Bazaar

Shopkeeper at the Grand Bazaar

All in all, it was an incredible 3-day trip to a beautiful and historical city. The Turkish people are so warm and friendly — I can’t wait to go back and continue exploring.

I am so fortunate that I have a partner who has as much of a sense of adventure as I do and loves eating almost as much as me. I can’t wait to see where our next adventure takes us!

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Why Tipping In Israeli Restaurants is Ludicrous

If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about in this post.

I’ve created Michelangeloesque masterpiece foot long subs, brewed a mean cup of coffee, served bloody steaks and chocolate cakes, and poured drinks so stiff your eyes will cross (is that a real analogy?).

I’ve broken glasses and plates (less than you would probably expect), wiped down a gazillion dirty tables, cleaned up the dry cereal that a snot-nosed little kid ground into the carpet, handled angry customers, been understaffed, overworked, and underpaid.

I’ve smiled, apologized profusely, laughed at terrible jokes, been hit on by men older than my father, comp’d meals, and re-made the drink that was supposed to be “70% regular Coke, 30% diet Coke” because “it tastes more like 60/40.”

And I did this all with a smile on my face and sympathetic head tilt because I was working for those tips.

With all of this experience, I like to think that I’m extra sympathetic to those that work in the service industry.

Food took a long time? That’s fine—the server looks like he’s busting his butt and it looks like they’re short-staffed.

Quality of food less than desirable? It’s not the server’s fault—they didn’t make the food.

Takes a long time to receive a menu or drink? It’s ok—the server apologized profusely for the wait and worked hard to pay extra attention to our table for the rest of the night.

Long and slow-moving line at the coffee shop? No worries! The guy at the register greeted me with a smile and didn’t rush me through my order.

See a pattern here? All have great service and in my opinion, earns them a great tip.

But all bets are off in Israel.

The majority of the service that I’ve received in Israel has been bad. Terrible, in fact.

“But Cara,” you may be thinking, “it’s just the culture and you’re in a different country. You can’t expect every place to have similar levels of service as what you’re used to.”

Sure, I agree. The culture is different. Perhaps a bit more aloof and less attentive. But I don’t like feeling obligated to give a tip simply because you took crankily took my order, plopped food down in front of me, and ignored me for the rest of the night.

Wherever you go, it seems like you’re inconveniencing the person working there. I’ve stood patiently waiting at a counter to place my order while the person working there glanced at me, then proceeded to finish the long conversation that they were having with their coworker about something far more important.

“Hello, do you have an English menu?” I inquire.

Person rolls their eyes at me and hands me a menu without a word of acknowledgement.

Standard. Expected.

I’ve had a lot of bad service; here are a few that have happened in my time here in The Viv (not sure what “The Viv” is? Check out this post on doing laundry):

  • Sat at a table for more than 5 minutes without ever having anyone come to over to us, bring us a menu, or give a glass of water.
  • Requested the check at an empty bar, waited a few minutes while the bartender walked around, watched him print the check off and leave it at the machine, pour himself a glass of orange juice, drink said glass of orange juice while nonchalantly leaning against the wall, then re-requested the check from the bartender.
  • Charged $4 for a glass of hot water with lemon (it was labeled as “tea”). This has happened more than once.
  • Watched our bartender pour himself and his fellow employees FIVE shots of Jameson in the 45 minutes that we were there. How he wasn’t dead by the time that we left is beyond me.
  • Been asked to “wait 10 or 20 minutes” to place our order because the kitchen is busy.
  • Chased after because the tip wasn’t high enough and the manager wanted to know what was wrong with the service (it turns out that the group we were with didn’t calculate the tip correctly).
  • Waited to get seated at a restaurant and the hostess told us “5 minutes.” Three minutes later, she said “5 minutes.” This happened a lot. Flash forward to 45 minutes later, and we got seated. I got waters for the table and she said “you should’ve asked me–I can help you with anything” but when I asked for our check, she said that she had to get our server.
  • When we paid our check, we gave enough bills/coins to get a bill back (like when the total is $2.51, you give $3.01 to get 2 quarters back instead of a bunch of pennies, nickels, and dimes). Instead, she brought back the change that we gave her and the change from us paying the bill.

Just last weekend, I went to a restaurant with Kyle and his coworker while we were in Jerusalem. I was hopeful because Jerusalem is a very touristy city and perhaps they operate differently than what I’ve experienced in other places.

We sat down in a virtually empty restaurant. There was an abundance of staff available. It took a while for a server to come to our table (probably because he was in the middle of a good conversation). Then when we placed our order, he did not use a pen and paper… which is totally fine, if you can actually remember the order. He repeated our orders back to us (almost 100% wrong) and we corrected him. We didn’t have high hopes about him getting our orders correct.

Kyle’s coworker asked for a Coke Zero and the server brought a regular Coke. I asked for a glass of hot water and he brought a bottled mineral water. When I returned the unopened bottle of water and requested the hot water that I ordered just minutes before, he stared at me and said “you wanted a hot water? You ordered a mineral water.” (I most definitely did not.) He did not apologize or entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, he made a mistake. We were still charged for the mineral water.

When our food came, our server had only gotten two of the orders wrong (but at least the food was delicious).

And finally, a few more words of advice for you when you go to a restaurant in Israel:

  • You have to specifically request the check or else you’ll be sitting at the table forever. This is something that I actually like; you don’t feel like you’re rushed out of there so that they can turn the table over and give it to the next people.
  • A “salad” is diced cucumber and tomato.
  • The service charge has to be added to the bill before they run your credit card. This means that you have to tell the server how much tip you would like to add onto the total. Super awkward.

I hope that this post helps you even a little bit if you decide to visit Israel. Happy tipping!

…or not.

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The Great Laundry Adventure in The Viv

You know how people change city names and make them sound much cooler than they actually are? Examples: Portland = P-town; Cincinnati = The ‘Nati; Eugene = The Eug.

I want to change “Tel Aviv” to “The Viv.” I feel like this will significantly improve my online credibility and cool factor.

…that, or it will confuse people. Either way, I’m doing it.

I’ll be honest. I’m really tired (the kind of tired where one eye is droopy and it looks like part of my face is numb) and don’t want to write about anything super thought-provoking or deep–you know, like the majority of my blog posts. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to transition between thoughts in a way that makes sense to anyone but my sleepy self. And I don’t care. So here goes. My stream of consciousness storytelling that may or may not be intelligible.

My first full weekend in The Viv was a solo attempt to do laundry. I had a few options:

  1. Have the hotel do my laundry. It probably would’ve cost $300 since I had both my and Kyle’s laundry.
  2. Have the laundromat next to the hotel do my laundry. That also would’ve cost a lot of money. I also don’t like people touching my laundry, either dirty or clean.
  3. Clean our laundry by hand. Ha! Like I would ever do that. Not only would it take forever, but our laundry would probably be dirtier than when I started.

So I ventured out to find the self-service laundromat that one of Kyle’s coworkers told him about. Supposedly, it was down a few roads and on the left side of the street. I estimated 15 minutes of walking time based on the instructions that he texted to me.

I bundled our laundry up into Kyle’s duffel bag and started walking down the road. It was awkward and heavy-ish.

Alas, I forgot laundry detergent! So I deviated from the instructions and crossed the road to the Super-Pharm (like a Walgreens). I spent far too long picking out laundry detergent (hoping that it wasn’t dishwashing detergent), grabbed some dryer sheets, and struggled through my transaction at the front counter because the woman helping me didn’t speak English and the little Hebrew that I know was totally worthless.

I crossed the road again and started walking down the road, keeping my eyes peeled for the laundromat. I was still in high spirits.

After walking for what felt like forever, I couldn’t find it. I checked my map and the directions. When he said “cross Ibn Gabirol and take a right” did he mean cross it and take a right on the next side road or just turn right? Since I couldn’t find the laundromat, I thought that it was on the next side road. I started walking down a sketchy side road and peered into buildings. They were mostly apartment buildings and there was no laundromat in sight.

I stopped and asked for directions from a woman walking her dog. She didn’t speak English (or likely, she spoke English but didn’t feel like helping me).

I tried to use my phone to search for it, but without knowing the name of the laundromat or the crossroad, it was difficult.

I tried finding other laundromats in the area and found a place called Soap Opera that was supposedly a self-service laundromat. I walked more than one kilometer down the road only to discover that it was not self-service. Poo.

The man working there directed me down the road (the opposite side of the street) for a laundromat that he thought existed. “Ten minutes,” he said.

After 15 minutes of walking and no laundromat in sight, I crossed the road and thought that he was mistaken with the side of the road that it was on. I walked back down the same road again.

No laundromat in sight.

I started to get hungry, so I stopped for some lunch.

The food was delicious and I even made a new friend(?) that suggested that I do laundry at his apartment. It was all the way across town and I would have to take a bus to get there. He would go with me when he got off of work, he said. Then he could take me out and show me Tel Aviv and his favorite restaurant. Ummm, super generous, but I’ll have to pass on going to a strange man’s apartment for laundry and a date.

After lunch, I started down the road again. I walked up and down Ibn Gabirol all afternoon and still hadn’t found the laundromat. Finally, a very helpful man at a gelato shop “asked Google” and gave me the building number, specific directions, and I was able to find the laundromat. Yay!

It was like in the movies where the gates of Heaven open up, it’s all golden, bright, and the angels are singing.

At that point, my arrival at the laundromat felt like the Israelite’s arrival to the Promised Land. *Sorry about the sacrilege, Mom. But that’s how glorious it was for me to finally find this place. Relevant?

I soon found that the washing machines only took 5 shekel coins and each load would cost 20 shekels. I had two coins and I needed eight. Boo.

Figuring that it would be easy to make change, I went next door and asked the coffee shop for some change. Not so politely, the woman said “we don’t have any change” and proceeded to stare at me while I uncomfortably stood there and stared back at her. What she should’ve said was “we have change but I don’t want to give any to you.” It makes total sense–they probably get asked for change all the time. But she didn’t have to be so rude about it.

Luckily, a service man came into the laundromat and he gave me change directly from the machines.

I finished our laundry, folded it, and brought it back to the hotel like a sweaty, tired little pack-mule with my prized laundry possession.

All in all, I was probably “doing laundry” for a solid 5 hours.

My laundry adventure taught me lessons in patience, perseverance through adversity, strength of character, and…. ok, who am I kidding? It taught me to hoard any 5 shekel coins that I can get a hold of.

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Exploring Israel With Kyle

When your partner in crime works full-time and has to commute an hour+ to and from work, it doesn’t leave a lot of time during the week to get up to any shenanigans–and you know that I love shenanigans and tomfoolery.

But the weekends are totally different.

We’ve had two full weekends in Israel (where I wasn’t crazy jetlagged) and we’ve been taking full advantage of our days off by exploring Tel Aviv and the surrounding area.

Last week, we drove for just over an hour up to Haifa to see the Baha’i Gardens. The gardens are supposed to be beautiful and there’s a great view of the city.

looking-at-the-bahai-gardens

A view of the Baha’i Gardens from the road in Haifa, Israel

We approached the gate and were asked to spit our gum out because it’s a religious ground. We walked up the first flight of stairs and saw a large group of people taking pictures at first balcony. Why were so many people taking selfies when the view from the top would be so much better?

Ah. It was because the gardens closed an hour before we got there. So much for random adventures with very little planning!

Lesson learned: always check the hours of places that you want to visit, lest you be disappointed at the gate.

sad-at-the-bahai-gardens

Super sad that we weren’t allowed to go in

view-from-the-bahai-gardens

A view from the stairs

As we were walking down the streets in search of our next adventure, we heard sounds that could perhaps be a soccer or basketball game. Then lo and behold! A soccer ball popped over the fence and into the streets, a mysterious metal door without a door handle opened, and a guy scurried out of the door and after the ball. I broke away from Kyle without explaining to him what I was doing (I’m drawn to soccer like a moth to the flame), beelined it for the open door, and plopped myself down on the sideline.

We finally found a soccer game! Yahoo!

Neither of us were dressed to play, but we’re definitely going to bring our boots next time… because if there’s anything that I’m good at, it’s bullying random strangers into letting me play soccer with them.

soccer-field-in-haifa

Watching a soccer game in Haifa

We spent the rest of the day getting lost through the winding alleys.

street-in-haifa

Street view in Haifa

alley-in-haifa

Wandering through the alleys

spices-in-haifa

Jars of spices in Haifa

The next day, we went to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. It’s a quick walk from our hotel and one of few things that’s open during Shabbat.

beware-the-birds

Kyle insisted that we take a picture of him with the bird figurines outside of the museum 

the-cultured-art-observer

Thoughtfully contemplating the painting

This past weekend, we drove down to Masada National Park, which lies on the southeast corner of the Dead Sea. Because it was a relatively hot day, my knees are not in the best shape, and we were feeling tired, we decided to take the tram up to the top.

Lazy? Yuuuup.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Especially as I looked down from the comfort of the tram onto the poor saps that were struggling up the winding trail with the sun blazing down on them. I could see the sweat dripping off of their faces. Rookies!

tram-to-masada

Pleased with our decision to take the tram up to the top

We opted out of the audio tour (they were pushing for that hard); instead, we walked around at our own pace and made up historical facts about the site until we could do some research on our own. I feel like Wikipedia is all that anyone ever needs for factual information, right? If it’s on the Internet, then it must be true.

masada-national-park-2

Going against the flow of the tour guides and groups

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Standing outside of a public pool/bath at Masada

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He was tired and hot

Masada

View of the Northern Complex

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You can see the Dead Sea in the background and Jordan just beyond that

cave-on-masada

We ventured down into a cave and I didn’t fall down the stairs once!

After we trekked through the ruins of Masada, we floated in the Dead Sea. And it was super weird. I felt like I was in some giant 2nd grade science experiment.

“Look kids! You can drop in a full-grown woman into the Dead Sea and she won’t sink, no matter how hard she flails around in the water! Shhh kids, let’s watch her struggle.”

The weirdest thing at the beach were the public changing rooms. They’re not individual stalls where you can change in and out of your swimsuit; instead, it’s one giant stall with a door that just swings open for the whole world to see. I almost went into the men’s changing room and caught a peak of some random man’s goodies… or perhaps it wasn’t an accident.

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Beach at the Dead Sea

Public showers and giant resorts in the background

kyle-floating-in-the-dead-sea

Showing me how well he can float

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Look Mom, we’re floating!

I’ve had an incredible time here in Israel and I can’t wait to see what kinds of mischief we can get up to in our month remaining.

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Nothing Holding Me Back

I’ve never been to the Middle East. With everything that’s going on right now, I wasn’t in a big rush to get out there. One day, I thought. For now, I think I’ll wait.

But when Kyle asked if I wanted to come to Israel with him for a few months, I didn’t hesitate for a second.

It was a no-brainer.

This trip to Israel is very different than my trip from last year. Instead of meticulously packing into a backpack, utilizing every square centimeter of space, I packed my stuff into a suitcase–one that has four wheels (you mean I don’t have to carry my stuff everywhere like a lopsided turtle?) and super fancy mesh inner pockets (I’m big-time now).

I finished packing everything from my list (I have lists for everything) and anxiously looked down at my suitcase—holy moly, I still have more space in here? That’s never happened to me. Ever. I usually have to take out a few items and seriously re-think that second t-shirt that I packed. And my socks are always stuffed into my shoes to save on space.

This time, I had so much extra space that I started to worry that my stuff would jostle around too much while in transit. In a panic, I started haphazardly throwing extra shirts, jackets, and shoes into my giant rolling bag.

Much better, I thought.

My suitcase was sufficiently stuffed and I was ready to go.

I started my trip out by almost stepping in someone’s vomit while waiting at the MAX station. In case you were wondering what vomit in NE Portland looks like, here’s a picture for your viewing pleasure.

ne-portland-max-station_2016One of my layovers was in Frankfurt. To get to the gate for the flight headed to Tel Aviv, you have to go through an additional round of security. Everyone that goes through that security check is on the same flight and going to the same place–Tel Aviv. I fell asleep in one of the chairs because I was crazy tired and when I woke up, everyone was gone. In a panic, I got up and started running towards the gate like a baby deer learning to walk for the first time (and consequently ran into a chair because I was still very hazy and disoriented). Seriously. It’s dangerous to go from sleeping to a dead sprint in 0.5 seconds.

Somehow, I made it onto the plane in time. I was the last one to board, but I made it.

I’m still wondering why nobody thought that maybe, just maybe, they should poke me and let me know that our flight was boarding?

Strange. Rude.

More than 24 hours after I left my house in Portland, I landed in Tel Aviv. I was dirty, hungry, and very tired. It was a very long journey.

I made it through security! For some reason, I’m always shocked when countries let me through their borders (like why would anyone trust me in their country?). Once I got the approval to go through, I wheeled my bags as fast as I could towards the exit while trying to keep a “there’s nothing suspicious happening over here” facade.

And then I saw him.

All my feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, hunger, crankiness, annoyance… melted away when he wrapped his arms around me. It was then that I knew that everything would be ok.

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Wait. Balance. Surf.

Alright, so it’s been a few weeks… er… months, since I last posted. But what do you expect? I’ve been a busy woman. I traveled to Laos, the Philippines, back to Japan, and then I returned home to the United States. There’s lots to fill in but I’ll get to that later.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to travel to a small surf town in the Philippines. A friend that I met while traveling in India had generously invited me to stay with him in La Union, where I could learn how to surf and bartend at the hostel, Flotsam and Jetsam, where he worked.

I’ve only been surfing once while on the coast of Oregon. The waves were tiny and of course, I had to wear a wet suit because the water was freezing.

Conversely, La Union is a famous surf destination for foreigners and locals alike, looking for a relaxing weekend away from the congestion of Manila.

Lying flat on my board, I waited expectantly for the next wave to come in from somewhere in the depths of the ocean. The warm water gently rolled over my body as my surf instructor, Jericho, stood next to the board, patiently peering out at sea. The waves came in so infrequently that I started to become disheartened. Am I wasting my time here? Will I get my money’s worth (11 dollars for the rental and an hour of private instruction)? When am I going to get to ride the next wave?

Observing my frustration, Jericho very calmly and very gently told me to “wait” and then he turned back towards the horizon.

I resigned myself to trust Jericho and then relaxed into my board. The waves lazily lapping at my toes while I waited and watched.

Then it came.

Even I could tell that it was going to be a good wave.“Ready?” Jericho asked. I nodded. My muscles began to tense as I prepared to paddle and spring up onto my board.

Before I knew it, I was off. I felt the board catch the wave and I popped up like pro… or it was more like an awkward board kerfuffle, with elbows and knees flailing in the water. Either way, I was up!

…and then very quickly, I was down.

I thought for sure that I would be an expert surfer and I would be the amazing anomaly that not only got up on the first try, but that smoothly sailed into the shoreline, looking poised and perfect on my board.

I was not.

Frustrated and embarrassed, I paddled back to Jericho, who was still ever-so-calmly standing in the shallow waters, waiting for me. A slew of questions flew out of my mouth at him. Did I wipe out too hard? How was my foot placement? Was I on the right section of the board? Were my knees bent far enough? Too far? What were my hands supposed to do? What did I do wrong? How can I improve?

He peered at me and smoothly said one word: “balance.”

Hmm. Ok… thanks Jericho. I know that you’re supposed to balance on the board. Isn’t that the whole point? Sighing, I flopped around on the board and re-positioned myself in preparation for the next wave.

We waited for the next good wave to roll in. My mind was racing with the steps that I needed to go through to get up (and stay up) on my board.

The wave came, I got a push from Jericho, and I was up!

And then down again. Poo. This happened a lot. And every time I questioned Jericho about my technique or which wave to ride, he would say the same two words to me:

“Wait. Balance.”

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and obeyed.

Jericho’s eyes scanning the horizon caught sight of a beauty. The wave was perfect and it would be mine to ride.

I waited patiently for it to roll in.

Instead of thinking about placement, knee angles, and positioning of my body, I cleared my mind and breathed.

My board caught the wave, I popped up, and I rode it all the way in. No overthinking, no critical thoughts about how I looked or how my legs were placed. Just balance.

It was amazing.

Surfing has such an incredible parallel to the struggles that I was facing in life. My trip around the world was coming to an end and I didn’t know what I would be doing upon my return to my “real life” in America. Would I go to grad school? Start a new career? Stay with my existing career? Move across the country… across the world? What about my relationship (or lack thereof)? Would I be single forever?

Stop overthinking, stop questioning, and just wait. The perfect wave will come, and when it does, just let it ride and balance.

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Songkran Festival: Wanna Have A Water Fight?

After meeting up with Patty (a college nickname for my friend–it kills me to call him “Pat” or “Patrick”) and my ill-timed sickness, we were running out of time to see everything that we had planned on seeing. The original plan was to take a bus from Chiang Mai up to Chiang Rai, where we would see the White Temple. Then we would take the 2-day scenic Slow Boat down the Mekong River into Laos, travel by bus to Vang Vieng, and then ultimately end up in Luang Prabang.

Easy peasy, right?

Unfortunately, time was not on my side. I had less than a week before my flight out of Luang Prabang and accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be able to see or do everything.

Instead of rushing through Laos, Patty and I stayed in Chiang Mai to kick off the start of Songkran Festival.

What’s Songkran, you ask? In a nutshell, it’s a week-long water fight in the streets. It started out as a cleansing ritual to ring in the New Year where people gently sprinkle water on you. But during the New Year, the weather is intensely hot (check out the screenshot of the 10-day forecast!) so people started to throw water as a way to cool people down during the hot summer days.

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10-day forecast in Chiang Mai

I was a little nervous about “playing Songkran,” especially after my experience with Holi Festival in India.

But unlike Holi, Songkran was innocent, lighthearted, and fun.

On every street corner were roadside stalls selling water guns of all sizes, buckets, rain jackets, and waterproof cell phone bags. Adults and children alike stood in the streets cheerfully tossing water onto passersby. Large trucks ambled through the streets, their beds full of people armed with huge bins full of water, buckets, and guns; its occupants tossing water onto anyone who dared come close. At first glance, one would think that there was a recent downpour in the streets. Young children clutched at water guns far too big for their tiny frames, preparing to squirt people walking by. The water adorably dribbling out of their gun while they looked to their parents for approval, as if to say, “Am I doing this right?” Elderly residents gingerly walking through the water puddles, smiling while they toss their small bowl of water onto the driest person they see.

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Throwing water and selling water guns

As we rode by in our songthaew (a truck where you ride in the back), people would spot us and shoot their guns, hoses, and throw their buckets of water into the open windows. I couldn’t stop squealing with delight while trying to duck my head from the onslaught of water.

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Songthaew ride with Patty

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View from our songthaew

We arrived at our destination: a hotel where we were attending a rooftop pool party. Glancing around, I saw them: a large group of guys, strategically surrounding a huge tub of water, fully equipped with guns and buckets.

Our eyes locked. They hastened over to me and scooped me up. They had clearly done this before. I knew what was about to happen. I gave up the fight and accepted my fate: I was going into the tub and there wasn’t a darn thing that I could do about it.

Being the ever-considerate gentlemen, they removed my bag from my back so as not to damage any of my valuables. Then without warning, they unceremoniously plopped me into the tub.

I was completely soaked and laughing hysterically.

Refreshed and feeling fully initiated into the true spirit of Songkran, I looked around for Patty, wondering if he got away unscathed. The guys helped me out of the tub, returned my bag, and then I found Patty (what help he was!) to get some snacks before the pool party.

We walked into a small shop, purchased some delicious beverages (and mangosteen ice cream), and relaxed in the dry safety of the shop.  We chatted with the shopkeeper and his friend and toasted to Songkran.

Patty and I made it up to the pool party to cool down, swim in the pools, and to play on gigantic blow-up swans. It was a great way to finish off our first day of Songkran.

Photo courtesy of Le Meridien Chiang Mai

Pool party at Le Meridien Chiang Mai

Since we were running out of time, we decided to book a 1-hour flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. This was the first time that I’ve ever booked a flight on the same day that I took it (what a rebel I’ve become).

We arrived into Laos at a tiny airport. The skies were hazy from the burning fields to make way for new crops. We were excited for the next part of our adventure and ready to get to our guesthouse for a quiet night in.P1110733

We were in for quite the surprise when we starting driving through town, only to have our taxi surrounded by more people playing Songkran. Water splashed onto the windows, people stood in the middle of the street to stop cars driving by

The drive that should’ve only taken 10 minutes ended up taking an hour due to all the rowdiness in the streets.

And I loved it.

Those riding motorbikes seemed to be asking for water assaults from all angles. It seemed like they would slow down and drive towards the people with water buckets so that they could have the bucket poured down their backs and splashed with water.

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Truck full of water hooligans

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Water throwing

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Water gun and hoses

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Prepping for the next person

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Watch out!

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Water festivities

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Playing in the city fountain

It was just like Songkran in Chiang Mai but on a smaller scale.

The things that I loved about this festival was there didn’t seem to be any malicious intent with Songkran. Locals didn’t target foreigners any more than they targeted other locals. It was just good, clean fun. The festivities lasted for the full week: children had time out of school and many shops were closed down so that the workers could spend time with their family during the New Year.

I had a blast during Songkran and feel so fortunate that I was able to experience such a fun (gosh, I keep saying that word, but it’s the best way to describe it!) festival in two different countries.

Patty and I had to say our goodbyes on the 19th, as he returned back to Bangkok to prepare for a trip to Nepal, and I departed for the Philippines to do some surfing, sunning, and relaxing.

I am now in San Juan, a small surf town that is a 7-hour bus ride north of the capital, Manila.

I am being hosted by an awesome friend that I met while traveling through India. So far, I’ve been loving my time here. I don’t feel like a tourist because he’s been showing me the local hangouts, best food, and we even made a late-night McDonald’s run for ice cream with his friends. Everyone here is incredibly welcoming and friendly.

It has been difficult to be present and appreciate every second that I have here because as I get closer to the end of my trip, I can’t stop thinking about the ever-increasing list of obligations waiting for me back home.

Once again, I need to take a step back and breathe.

Here’s to living in the moment and appreciating the unforgettable memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

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Still In Chiang Mai (But I’m Alive!)

I finally gave in.

I happily said goodbye to my $4 per night hostel in exchange for a hotel with a private room.

I was tired of waking up in the middle of the night covered in sweat, then groggily stumbling to the shared toilet to get my hair wet so that I could cool down, and getting back into bed with the hopes of  eventually falling asleep again.

No longer would I have to worry about constantly feeling exhausted due to sleepless nights.

I wouldn’t have to use a sink that was constantly clogged with other people’s spit, toothpaste, and hair, where the basin water remained at a level dangerously close to spilling over and onto the ground.

Where the toilets had a sickly, hot smell, and it was a luxury for it to be stocked with toilet paper.

I wouldn’t have to worry about someone charging into my room in the middle of the night because the door doesn’t lock and they wanted a bed to sleep in. Where only moments before, I didn’t have any clothes on.

No more staring at the bunk above me while the blaring music from the tattoo shop seeps into my room, killing any remaining hope I had to get a good night’s rest.

But hey, it was only $4 per night.

I checked into a hotel that’s closer to CAMP so that I don’t have to navigate the narrow streets on a bike late at night. I have my own room, big bed, air conditioning, private bathroom, desk, and even a fridge. There’s a big pool for me to relax in and a “gym” to work out in (it’s really just a treadmill, bike, and bench).

The original plan was to wait for my friend, Pat, (we both played soccer at the University of Oregon) to get arrive in Chaing Mai. We would travel together to Chiang Rai, take the slow boat into Laos, and visit Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

But plans changed when I got sick. Like, really really sick.

I feel like my sickness was a long time coming, especially since I made it an entire month in India without getting sick even once. Everyone gets “Delhi Belly” (aka explosive diarrhea) in India. Everybody except for me!

I’m pretty sure that I know what did it. It was the questionable-looking pork in a thick sauce that I ate for lunch. But I ate it because I was hungry and I hate wasting food.

After my sketchy lunch, I checked into my hotel, got my laptop to get some work done, and walked down to CAMP.

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MAYA Mall, where CAMP is located

At this point, my stomach  was gurgling and I had to go to the bathroom when I got to the mall.

I settled in to work and my stomach continued to gurgle. Another bathroom break. Ok… that was strange, but I had a lot of work to do and had to push onward.

Six (really not fun) bathroom breaks in four hours and I decided that I had to go back to my hotel. My stomach was cramping and I wasn’t getting much work done because I was constantly running out of CAMP, praying that I wouldn’t accidentally shart in my pants.

My hotel was less than 1 kilometer from the mall, but I took a taxi because I was legitimately afraid that I would poop my pants on the walk back. I was sick all night and I was anxious that I would poop the bed in my sleep.

Yup. Here I was, a grown woman, afraid of pooping the bed. I wore long pants to bed just in case. I wasn’t about to ruin the sheets and have to explain to housekeeping that I had an accident.

For the record, no beds were pooped in. Whew!

The next day, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was weak, I had the chills, my stomach was hating me, and I had no appetite. I knew that I had to drink water but it was hard to force it down.

A friend brought some medicine for me, which was greatly appreciated because I wasn’t going anywhere. I slept, hobbled downstairs to the restaurant for a small bite to eat, and went back upstairs in preparation of seeing that food again in the toilet. It wasn’t a question of if I would see the food again, it was a question of when.

I was sick for four full days and never made it far from my room.

Today is the first day that I felt 100% better (yay!). Excited to get my appetite back, I ate far too much food (hey, I gotta make up for days of not eating), rented a bike with Pat, rode around the city, and played some soccer. It feels good to be back.

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We asked for a tandem bike but this is all they had.

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We’ll be back to this field (real turf!)

The unfortunate news is that because I was sick for so long and couldn’t travel, we’re a bit behind schedule and might have to cut some things out.

No worries. I believe that everything happens for a reason. Plus, I’m just happy that I didn’t poop my pants. Success!

 

 

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Chillin’ Out Maxin’ Relaxin’ All Cool

Sometimes I crack myself up with my blog titles and this title is certainly no exception. If you get the reference, then you definitely grew up in the ’90s.

It’s almost been a full week since I landed in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Since I’ve been to Chiang Mai in the past, there wasn’t anything on my agenda of things to do or see.

Elephants? Check. Tigers? Check. Bamboo rafting, zip-lining, jungle trekking? Check, check, check.

Instead, I’ve been using this time to relax, read, eat as much Thai food as possible, get $8 massages, and decompress. I really needed this down time, especially after all those train and bus rides in India.

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Pool time is the best time

Unfortunately, my sleep schedule has been really thrown off since I left India. My flight was originally scheduled for just after 11pm, but we didn’t take off until close to midnight. Add in the time change, sleeping under the stairs at the Kuala Lumpur airport, and sleeping on my flight into Chiang Mai, and I can officially say that my internal clock is very confused.

Otherwise, Chiang Mai has been good to me. I find myself being truly happy and grateful for this incredible experience. As cheesy as this sounds, I often catch myself just smiling just for the sake of being happy.

I’m staying in a small, 4-person, female dorm. Most of the time, I have the room to myself. There is no AC and it’s crazy hot here, averaging 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. Sometimes it’s hard to go to sleep (like my first night where I was up until 6am) and it’s always hard to sleep in. I wake up covered in sweat with my thin sheet crumpled up at the end of the bed. Two showers a day are a necessity.

My favorite part about waking up is knowing that I’ll be able to eat soon. Honestly, the food here is that good… or maybe I’m that much of a little fatty.

It’s been a nice change from Indian food, where I was mostly eating “veg” (how they refer to “vegetarian” food) most of the time out of concerns for food safety but mostly because meat just wasn’t offered.

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Khao soi gai, a famous dish in northern Thailand

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I asked the waiter to make his favorite dish and this is what he brought (it was delicious but difficult to eat because of all the bones)

I rented a bicycle for $1.42 USD per day. Most people get motorbikes, but I like the exercise and the less hurried, more deliberate path that a bicycle takes. Plus, I’m kinda cheap. I have the freedom to go where I want, when I want, and I don’t have to worry about finding a tuktuk or taking a long time to walk there.

I found this amazing shared workspace called CAMP (Creative And Meeting Place) in a mall that’s about 3.5 km away from my hostel. When I come here to work, I feel like I’m back in college at the student union. There’s a treehouse, standing desks, insanely fast wifi, and no shortage of power outlets (which is always my biggest problem when I work at coffee shops).

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Working at CAMP

When I was riding home the other night, I made a wrong turn and passed by some kids (can I call university students “kids” now?) that were playing futsal. I immediately pulled my bicycle over and asked one of them if I could play. Once the other kids saw 1) a foreigner 2) a woman, talking to their friend, they quickly stopped playing and crowded around to see what was going on.

After only a little bit of convincing, they agreed to let me play with them.

I rode back to the hostel, changed into some sneakers, pulled my hair back into a ponytail braid (my teammates from Oregon know the one!) and went back to the field.

They were so much fun to play with and after I scored my first goal, they gave me their seal of approval to come back and play with them again.

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Tomorrow, I think I’ll ride out to a place called the Grand Canyon, where you can cliff jump into deep water. It’s about 15km away and will be a difficult ride because of the distance (I’m a slow bicyclist) and also because of the heat. Here’s to hoping that I don’t die of heat exhaustion.

Grand Canyon

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India In A Month

I told myself that since I had a serious case of travel fatigue, I would slow things down in India and maybe just visit 3 or 4 cities instead of the 8 cities that I had planned.

Unfortunately, I’m not very good at listening to my own, very logical, advice. Every couple of days, I was hopping on an overnight bus or train (they all seemed to be 14-16 hours plus a few hours of delays) to the next city.

I actually really enjoy traveling by overnight buses and trains because it seems like I get the best night’s sleep on them. The only thing that keeps me awake is the incessant honking of the bus. And it’s not the normal “beep beep” sound that buses make back in the States. It’s like a crazy clattering of sounds all jumbled together… like a party bus or a  recording of a child who is given free reign in a room full of horns. It was really entertaining at first, but not so much at 3am when the bus driver would honk the horn over and over and over again. And then once again for good measure.

My sincere apologies for not posting for a few weeks. I like to blame it on the terrible Internet connection and the fact that I’ve been on the road so frequently. In fact, just today, I visited 7 different coffee shops, 4 restaurants, 2 McDonald’s, and 3 bars, to find a place with unlimited, free, functional, wi-fi. I am now in a night club/bar, sitting alone in the corner with my laptop and sad little chicken burger.

So settle in, fix yourself a nice cup of coffee, and brace yourself for a not-so-quick rundown of everywhere that I’ve gone since I left Mumbai (March 1 – March 4).

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Udaipur (March 5 – March 8)

This was probably one of the calmest and most peaceful cities that I visited in India. Perhaps it was a combination of the spacious and relatively empty hostel where I stayed, mixed with the sheer joy I had since escaping the craziness of Mumbai.

I stayed next to one of the two man-made lakes in the city. Someone told me that you could swim in the one near my hostel, but I didn’t dare get in for fear of coming out with an extra limb or giardia… or both.

The Internet at Backpacker Panda Udaipur was unbelievably fast (that’s the most important thing for me when booking hostels). You know, so that I can get some quality work done and regularly post in my blog.

Just kidding. I like it so that I can use Facebook and Instagram.

My time in Udaipur was leisurely, 100% unplanned, and relaxing. I walked everywhere, ate every single meal on whatever rooftop restaurant that caught my eye, and watched the sunset each night. Udaipur was probably my favorite city in India and I would love to return one day.

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Marveling at the beauty of Jagdish Temple

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A view of Jagdish Temple from a rooftop restaurant

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Delicious Indian snack called “choley bhature.”

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Sunset in Udaipur

Jaisalmer (March 9 – March 11)

Just about everyone that I spoke to said that Jaisalmer is a must-see city in India because of the camel safaris in the desert. It’s called the “Yellow City” because it’s surrounded by desert and all of the buildings are made of the same yellowish color.

After visiting a handful of different safari agencies, I booked with Trotters International because I met a really nice French couple who highly recommended it (above all other companies). Being the naïve, trusting person that I am, I went with that company. After all, these weren’t locals who were trying to get a commission or scam me; they were other tourists just like myself who experienced something amazing. I later found out that they worked for that company, so their intentions were not so pure.

I paid 2250 rupee, which is about $37 USD (this was the most expensive of the places that I  looked at). The price included transportation, camel riding, all meals and food, and overnight accommodation in the desert.

I had these grand ideas that I would be like Lawrence of Arabia, trekking through the wind-swept desert on my majestic camel, who was colorfully decorated in the most beautiful of Indian tapestries. I would look out across the horizon and see nothing but sand and sun, and I would feel peaceful.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite like that.

We met at 6am and were taken by jeep about 10 minutes outside of the city. We pulled over next to the highway for our sunrise breakfast next to the road.

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Herding cows on the road in Jaisalmer

We rode our camels for 5 hours on the first day. It  wasn’t quite the desert; instead, it was more like dusty plains where you can see the wind turbines and lots of brush. It was neither picturesque, nor serene.

By the end of the first day, everyone in our group was sore. Our butts and legs were hurting. Riding a camel is much less comfortable than riding a horse, and riding a horse for 5 hours doesn’t sound like much fun.

I slept on the sand dunes on a pad under a thick blanket. That was a lovely experience because when I looked up, I saw nothing but stars.

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Our beds for the night

Overall, I had a great time because the group that I was traveling with was amazing. My camel, Lalu, was the oldest and crankiest camel of the bunch and I loved it.

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Lalu snapped at me every time I tried to pet him. I am actually pretty far away from him in this picture (yay for camera depth trickery!)

During my time in the city, I visited an Ayurvedic shop and the owner was extremely friendly. When he found out what I do for a living (working in web development and digital marketing for Peaceful Media), he asked me to look at his website and give some suggestions.

I was happy to give him a few pointers and then he asked if we could connect on Skype. I agreed, but soon realized that I made a terrible decision. Take a look at our conversation below before I blocked him (note: he’s married):

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Then he proceeded to call me three times in a row, each time where I declined the call. I know that I should have blocked him sooner, but I was giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that maybe the English translation seemed a bit more intense than he was intending.

Lesson learned.

Jaipur (March 12 – March 15)

I believe that “hate” is a strong word for anything. But I hated this city. This is where I had one of the worst experiences in India, and while it’s not the fault of the city, I will forever associate Jaipur with being very inappropriately touched and having my face grabbed by a pervert who tried force a kiss.

It was hard for me because I tried to not let that horrible experience tarnish the rest of my time in Jaipur and India. But it was hard. I felt dirty, embarrassed, and worst of all, I felt like it was my fault.

But it’s not my fault that some guy is a sick pervert and it’s not my fault that I was his victim.

I suppose that if I didn’t get sexually assaulted, Jaipur would’ve been a totally different experience for me. Alas, it happened, I’ve dealt with it, and I’ve moved on.

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Hawa Mahal, Jaipur

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I’ve always loved taking awkward pictures with guards. This is no exception.

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The beautiful and serene Royal Gaitor Tumbas

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Stray dog on a wall at the Amber Fort

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Jal Mahal

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Monkey Temple at sunset

Agra (March 16 – March 17)

Two words: Taj Mahal. It was beautiful, romantic, and a lot bigger than I expected. Other than the Taj, there’s not much else to do in Agra. If you go, I would recommend only staying for one day because you can do the Taj in less than 3 hours. I stayed for two nights because I had a work meeting and needed to have access to the Internet.

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The Taj Mahal at sunrise

Varanasi (March 18 – March 21)

Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest living cities and the spiritual capital of India. The holy Ganges River runs through here and there are 87 ghats (stairs leading down to the river) in it. There are also two burning ghats where people are cremated.

I thought that Varanasi would be a calm and peaceful city. But I was so wrong.

The honking never stopped.

Navigating down the road was like this carefully choreographed dance where the cars are on the right, auto rickshaws to their left, bicycle rickshaws to their left, people walking on the far left, and motorbikes are weaving in and out of traffic. They say that you can tell when an Indian person is drunk driving when they drive in a straight line.

Sometimes it was just faster to walk 3 or 4 kilometers than to sit in traffic (albeit a bit more dangerous!).

It was in Varanasi that I saw my first procession in the streets of people carrying a body down to the ghats to be burned. The body was wrapped and beautifully decorated; the people were chanting and walking with the body as they carried it on a stretcher on their shoulders.

The first cremation that I saw was of a child or young teenager. The family members of the body were wearing white. It was incredibly beautiful and sad at the same time. I was struck with sadness when I saw the fragile arm that was visible through the flames slowly engulfing the body. I held back my tears (women aren’t allowed at the cremation because they are prone to crying and that’s bad luck) but I couldn’t hold back my feelings of anger towards the other tourists who were smoking and being loud and disrespectful.

I read that to burn a full-sized body, it can take up to 1,100 pounds of firewood. Some families cannot afford to buy all of the wood needed, so they end up throwing the partially burned remains of the body into the river. If you ever visit Varanasi, don’t be surprised if you see a dead body floating down the Ganges.

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Betel leaf market

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A view of the ghats

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Cremations on the Ganges. You can see all the piles of sandalwood on the boats and shore.

Mathura (March 22 – March 24)

I came to Mathura because I read that it’s one of the best places to celebrate Holi, the festival of colors. I also read that it’s very unsafe for women, especially women traveling alone. I’m incredibly grateful that I was able to meet up with Cody, a friend that I had met in Varanasi, as well as his 17-year-old sister, Sarah, who was visiting him from the United States.

So, what is Holi? The story that I was told is that Lord Krishna was sad that Radha was fair-skinned and that his skin was so dark. His mother recommended that he put colored powder on Radha’s face, and that’s why people celebrate today with colored powder.

I planned for the worst and hoped for the best. I covered my camera in plastic to protect against the colored powder and water, wore clothes that I was ready to throw away, and met up with Cody and Sarah.

We trekked out to this Sri Krishna Janma Bhoomi Mandir, the temple where they say is the birthplace of Krishna. Immediately upon getting out of the tuktuk, we were surrounded by smiling people saying “happy Holi!” and putting color on our faces. They were sweet and gentle, and this woman really loved getting pictures with us.

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That was a nice way to ease into the madness that was about to ensue.

We couldn’t walk further than a few feet without people approaching us to ask for selfies (it’s funny how that’s a universal word) or trying to take our picture. As we got closer to the temple, the crowd got rowdier and powdered colors (gulag) were thrown into our face, onto our hair, and down our shirts. This is very standard for Holi and they say that nobody is off limits—including elderly people and children. It’s all in good fun and people all over the city are “playing Holi.”

However, I wasn’t  prepared for the fact that because we were foreigners, we were targeted more than any of the locals who were celebrating. It started to feel like an excuse for locals to be mean and really rough with us, all while shouting “happy Holi!”

The experience is akin to a snowball fight: at first, it’s fun for everyone. You throw a few snowballs, they throw some snowballs, sometimes you get hit, and everyone is fine. But then everyone playing gangs up on you at the same time and you start getting snowballs down your shirt, snowballs with rocks and ice in them, snowballs in your face, snowballs shoved into your mouth, ears, nose, and eyes, and before you know it, there are 8 people surrounding you in a flurry of laughter and snowballs, while you’re cowering in the corner, trying to hold back tears and rage.

That was our experience. It was fun and then very quickly, it wasn’t fun.

It certainly wasn’t fun to get groped by men in the crowded streets. Some tried to be subtle about it and some blatantly grabbed whatever they felt like grabbing. It was even more disturbing to get groped by little boys who clearly were doing it as part of a game that they didn’t fully understand.

When we finally pushed through the mass of people, we arrived at the temple just as it was closing. Cody used his very impressive convincing skills to get them to let us into the temple because “we traveled all the way from America just for this and we came by boat, train, plane, and we even swam to get here.”

By the end of the day, we were exhausted. Sarah and I were especially tired because it takes a lot of energy to constantly be on guard. It’s never just “walking down the street.” It’s “walking down the street, darting my eyes back and forth, evaluating every man and child to assess if they could be a potential threat, covering your body, veering off to the side if someone passes to close to you, wondering who and when your next assailant will be, and yelling out and making a scene if someone does touch you inappropriately.”

And this feeling was constant.

It’s really sad because of course, not everyone in India is a threat. In fact, I’ve found that the majority of the Indian people that I’ve interacted with are unbelievably helpful, kind, and compassionate.

I did not take many pictures during Holi for fear of ruining my camera and phone. And somehow, during the festival, even though my camera was covered, some of the colored powder got into the lens and now my faithful camera does not work. Sigh.

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Taking a break from “playing Holi” in an alley

Delhi (March 24 – March 28)

I am currently in New Delhi, where I plan on getting some quality work done before I leave the jungle that is India. On Monday, I fly out to beautiful Chiang Mai, Thailand. I am excited to eat the delicious northern Thai cuisine and I will try to find my favorite smoothie stall that I loved to visit more than 4 years ago.

After that, I will travel up to Chiang Rai to see the White Temple, then take the 2-day slow boat into Laos.

India has been absolutely exhausting for me and now I feel ready for the next part of my grand adventure.


 

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