Archive for January, 2011

Homeward Bound

Friday, January 28th, 2011

We left home more than ten months ago with a tentative plan and a one way ticket to New Zealand. Prepared to spend up to 14 months on the world road, we knew that our trip might be cut short if the right opportunity were to present itself. Much to our delight and dismay, seven months into our trip Jason was offered a job in San Francisco with his former company. Unwilling to turn down Jason’s dream job and a chance to live in one of the world’s great cities, we are returning home on February 1. In a few short days we will board a plane in Santiago, 321 days after embarking on our journey around the world.

In the year leading up to our departure, trip planning felt like a second job. Countless hours were spent researching destinations, figuring out what to do with our house, searching for health insurance, selling some of our belongings, pricing plane tickets, finding the right ATM and credit cards and shopping for clothes we wouldn’t go crazy wearing day after day. For the past two years, this trip has consumed our lives. As I sit here today looking out at the beautiful landscape of southwestern Bolivia, I can´t help but reflect on the whirlwind of experiences we have had this past year.

From the hilly streets of Auckland, we have made our way through Asia, Africa and South America to the world’s largest salt flat in southern Bolivia. Along the way we swam with whale sharks, rode motorcycles through the Vietnamese highlands, slept in gers with Mongolia’s nomadic people, watched the sun set in the shadow of Mount Everest, seen four of Africa’s Big Five in some of the world’s best game parks, tracked mountain gorillas in Uganda, wandered through the tombs of ancient Egypt’s greatest rulers, lived the life of a gaucho on an estancia in Uruguay and hiked on a glacier in Patagonia.

We’ve grown accustomed to carrying our belongings on our backs, brushing our teeth with bottled water and checking for bed bugs. We have ridden on countless crowded buses, survived many nights in less than appealing hotel rooms and been ripped off by more shady taxi drivers than we care to admit.

In some ways it feels like just yesterday we were packing our bags and chatting excitedly about the adventures that lie ahead. I remember handing in my Blackberry at work, canceling my cell phone service, selling our cars and closing the door to our house one last time. I remember feeling free and that feeling is why I find traveling so exciting and addictive. It is also what I will miss the most once we return home. Each day is an adventure. We wake in the morning not knowing where we are going to sleep that night, how we will get there or what we will eat. We deal with confusion and uncertainty on a daily basis. Not a day goes by that we aren’t blessed with the opportunity to meet interesting people, locals and travelers alike.

As much as I enjoy life on the road, there are things about home that I miss. Obviously I am excited to see my friends and family but I’ve also missed hot showers with good water pressure, flushing the toilet paper, skim milk, doing my own laundry, not having to question whether or not the bed I’m sleeping in is clean, long runs along the Mississippi River and a consistent workout schedule.

Through our travels, I’ve learned so much about the places we’ve visited and developed a strong appreciation for the cultures we’ve come to know and love. Maybe more importantly, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for my life at home. I am privileged in that I’ve always had access to clean water, electricity, indoor plumbing, paved roads, healthy food, and a good education. Seeing first-hand the number of people who live without these very basic things has been an eye-opening and heartbreaking experience. I will never forget the hungry little girl that stole food out of my hands in Egypt; the hardworking Indian pedicab driver who sleeps on the back of his bike and only travels home once a month to see his family; the young Filipino man who dropped out of school to earn money for his sibling’s education; or the schools we visited in Africa that didn’t have enough chalk, pencils or paper, let alone desks or chairs.

When we first told people of our plans to travel the world, I think some were skeptical that any couple would want to spend every single moment together for 300 plus days. I honestly never really thought twice about it and now that our journey is coming to an end, I am pleased to report that this trip has only brought us closer together. Of course there have been arguments and moments of frustration that would’ve featured prominently on an episode of the Amazing Race, but nothing we weren’t able to laugh about later. Having spent 321 continuous days together, it is obvious now more than ever that we have found each other’s best partner. I have no doubt that when we have a chance to travel again, regardless of the length of the trip, we will quickly fall back into the routine that is now second nature to us. Jason will forever figure out the maps, drive the stick shift rental cars and take care of the bargaining while I will likely always be in charge of determining the itinerary, finding us a decent place to sleep and asking for directions.

Thank you to everyone who has followed along as we’ve attempted to cram a lifetime of travel experiences into the last 10 and a half months. As you can see, we have been consistently behind on our posts and still have a lot of writing to do. Even though we are returning home we will continue to update the blog. Future posts will include stories about our journey through India, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Chile. Plenty more pictures will be posted as well. Feel free to keep reading as we document this trip of a lifetime. We hope to see many of you very soon!

Apprehensively Entering Egypt

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

12 October – 14 October 2010, Egypt

We’d never really dreamed of visiting Egypt, so when we created our itinerary it ended up in the “maybe” column. During the first six months of our trip we moved at such a rapid pace that we both started to feel a bit burnt out. We were looking for countries to skip and Egypt would’ve likely been axed if it weren’t for the Red Sea’s reputation as a world class diving destination. Once we decided to make our way there, we couldn’t leave without seeing the country’s renowned monuments and temples.

Other travelers warned us that Egypt’s hassle factor is incredibly high. We would have to bargain for everything from bottled water to taxis, and tips or “baksheesh” would be expected for even seemingly inconsequential services like opening doors and giving directions. While traveling we regularly deal with similar situations, but had the sense that circumstances would be more taxing in Egypt. As we landed we tried to maintain an open mind but our resolve was tested only minutes after stepping off the plane. We passed through a security check and when our bags emerged from the x-ray machine, an officer handed them to us and, with a sly smile, asked “baksheesh?” Jason rolled his eyes, the officer’s smile widened, and we walked off without paying, but we realized that we might still be in for a stressful couple of weeks.

Our first stop in Egypt was Aswan, famous for its proximity to Abu Simbel. On the banks of the Nile, Abu Simbel is reputed to be one of the country’s most impressive temple complexes. Since a 1997 terrorist attack foreigners must travel in a convoy that supposedly leaves Aswan at 4 AM. This seems ridiculously early but actually makes sense because it allows visitors to explore the temples before the sun becomes unbearably hot. Bracing ourselves for a long day, we rolled out of bed at 2:45 AM and drove around the city picking up others before finally making our way to the convoy meeting point. The promised departure time of 4 AM came and went as we sat around in the dark waiting for something to happen. Just before 5 AM, our driver climbed into his seat and took off at high speed without turning on the headlights. All around us, other drivers were doing the same. Apparently driving in the dark without headlights is how it’s done in Egypt?

At no point during the three hour drive did we see any police officers, security guards or military. As far as we could tell, the convoy consisted solely of vehicles carrying foreigners. Obviously there may have been police officers somewhere amongst the large convoy but we felt justified in questioning their presence, especially once we had been in Egypt for a couple of weeks. Everywhere we went, we encountered broken metal detectors, x-ray machines that looked like they hadn’t been used in years and armed security guards playing cards and sipping tea. During our travels, we met others who questioned the effectiveness of the country’s security measures. One person in our minibus to Abu Simbel posed a good question. If foreigners really are in danger of being subjected to a terrorist attack, wouldn’t a convoy of hundreds that leaves at approximately the same time each day be an ideal target?

Despite the early morning and the inconvenience of the convoy, we were glad we made the trip to Abu Simbel. The site’s two massive temples are carved out of a mountainside and are a tribute to Pharaoh Ramesses II and his queen, Nefertari. Statues of the pharaoh standing 20 meters tall flank the entrance to the Great Temple, which opens to a series of elaborately decorated chambers. Walking through the temple, we looked up in awe at carvings depicting scenes from the Pharaoh’s victorious military battles.

The most relaxing part of our stay in Aswan was a sunset boat ride down the Nile. Floating on the world’s longest river surrounded by thousands of years of history, we watched as the sun made its way to the horizon. Our captain guided us quietly past cruse ships and other sailboats filled with tour groups. We’d paid extra for the luxury of our own boat but the privacy we gained was well worth the effort invested into negotiating a fair price. The sky grew dark as we listened to the sound of music being played on a nearby boat. Aswan’s crowded streets and the searing heat of the day seemed like a distant memory. For the first time since arriving in Egypt, we let down our guard and allowed ourselves to fully appreciate the moment.

Searching for Paradise on the Turkish Coast

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

29 September – 8 October 2010, Turkey

We hadn’t spent much time on the beach since leaving the Philippines in April and both of us were looking forward to a little rest and relaxation on Turkey’s beautiful Mediterranean coast. Peak season on the coast had supposedly passed but after dodging crowds in Istanbul and struggling to find a hotel room in Cappadocia, we weren’t willing to take any chances. When deciding which part of the coast to visit, we focused on spots that are a bit off the beaten path. In Cappadocia we boarded an overnight bus for Fethiye and then hopped on a minibus to Faralya. As we drove through Fethiye’s tourist area, we looked out at the nightmare that could have been: t-shirt shops, tour operators, and all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants lined the streets. We were only a few water parks away from 1980s era Wisconsin Dells. Fortunately we soon left the crowds behind and a perilous stretch of mountain road brought us to tiny Faralya, untouched by development and contrasting starkly with Fethiye.

In Faralya we stayed at George House, a hidden little gem with some of Turkey’s best hiking at its doorstep. Its close proximity to the Lycian Way means that it’s more likely to be frequented by nature lovers and hikers than people looking to party. The rooms and amenities at George’s are nice but its real appeal is its location on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Our stay here marked the beginning of one of the most relaxing weeks of our entire trip. During the day we hiked, swam and finally had a chance to read some of the books we had been lugging around for months. Each night we ate a home cooked Turkish meal prepared by George’s daughters, drank tall cans of Efes beer dispensed on the honor system and swapped stories with other travelers. The tranquility of our stay was interrupted only by a death defying hike to the beach in nearby Butterfly Valley. The trail was so steep that several stretches are outfitted with ropes to aid in the descent. After a little more than an hour the trail leveled out and the valley opened up before us. During our descent we’d watched a small armada of tour boats ominously approach, but fortunately they soon departed and we had the beach to ourselves.

We enjoyed our stay at George’s so much that it was tempting to hang around for a few more days. However, other travelers encouraged us to make our way to remote Kabak with promises that we wouldn’t be disappointed. Rather than waiting for an infrequent minibus, we packed the essentials and set off on foot. An initial ascent brought spectacular views of brilliant blue water and Butterfly Valley below. Further along the coast we came upon hundreds of beehives and a beekeeper offering tea, cookies and a chance to try on his bee suit. As he dusted off an old crate for use as a table we thumbed through the language section of our guidebook looking for conversation starters in Turkish. We quickly exhausted the few appropriate options and once we were left with phrases like “I am allergic to…” we passed the time with smiles and nods. After finishing our two cups of tea we were surprised that he neither asked for nor would he accept any compensation, and he even sent us on our way with a frame full of honey.

Two hours of hiking and a few wrong turns later, we stopped for lunch at a picture perfect spot along the coast. After a swim in the clear Mediterranean water we hiked the final stretch to Kabak, where we stayed at the Olive Garden for three tranquil nights. Each night we looked out at the Mediterranean and dined on a delicious multicourse meal prepared by the owner, a former chef. Breakfast was typical Turkish fare but perfectly presented and with extras like yogurt and fresh fruit. Our stay in Kabak passed too quickly as we enjoyed challenging hikes and a nearly empty beach. It was so pleasant that reality may have completely slipped away from us if I hadn’t spent several hours crouched over the laptop, interviewing for jobs via Skype.

With our time in Turkey waning we left the coast and traveled inland to Köycegiz, a small lakeside farming town. Apart from the bed bug infested hotel in Cappadocia, our accommodation in Turkey had been top notch and Köycegiz was no exception. Busy season in this lazy little town had ended which meant that we literally had the hotel to ourselves. For $40 per night, we stayed in an apartment style room with views of the lake. Our first night we had salad and Turkish pizza delivered for $4 and another night the friendly family who owns the hotel invited us to join them for dinner. There’s not a whole lot to do in Köycegiz but we managed to entertain ourselves for a few days. Our favorite activity was exploring the surrounding area by bike. As we followed the road out of town, we whizzed past orchards filled with citrus fruit and waved to groups of children shouting “hello.”

When it finally came time to fly to Egypt, we weren’t ready to leave. Having heard so many wonderful things about Turkey, we thought we’d enjoy our stay but the country more than exceeded our expectations. Friendly locals, stunning natural beauty, delicious cuisine and a fascinating history make Turkey one of our favorite countries and, without a doubt, one that we will visit again.