Monday, April 24, 2017

London Bridge is...still standing!

To finish off our great British adventure, we headed to London. We were in London together 4 years prior on our engagement trip, and so we were excited to revisit some favorite spots, and get in some experiences we had missed the last time.

First off, London is a tough cookie on a $100 per day budget, but we were up to the challenge! We found a private room with shared bath in a hotel in Bayswater, just north of Hyde Park for $69 per night. Sure, it was a little dusty, and sure, the shared bathroom was so small you could barely turn around in it, and sure, you had to go to the hotel lobby next door for wifi, but it was warm, safe, well-located, and CHEAP! To keep transit inexpensive, we got a week's pass for the Boris Bikes and spent most of our trips in the city biking.

Our first night in London happened to also be Thanksgiving stateside, and we felt happy and honored to be invited to our good (American) friend, Lara, to her Thanksgiving feast (incidentally, my mom was celebrating with her parents back in California!). If you have never enjoyed Thanksgiving with 20 Brits who have never celebrated, you should know it's quite a treat. We sometimes fail to use the big dinner as an avenue to talk about our blessings and those things for which we are thankful, and it was a blessing to be reminded about the joyful purpose of Thanksgiving.

We spent the rest of our week sightseeing around town, with the following special highlights:
  • The British Museum: We visited the British Museum on our last trip to London, but after spending so much time in Turkey, it was a whole new animal this time. We downloaded Rick Steves' excellent (and free!) audio guide to the museum and made our way through, learning about the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and numerous other rooms full of artifacts and history from lands we had just visited. Plus, there was a fabulous exhibit about Japanese erotic art (technically called Shunga). It was a riveting (and exhausting) afternoon!

  • The Borough Market: We missed this stop on our last trip, so it was at the top of our list this time. We showed up on a rainy, chilly London morning, and spent a few hours just meandering between stalls selling cheese, meats, bread, vegetables and other goodies. It was like a farmer's market on the best kind of steroids. After much meandering and much debate, we opted to lunch on a warm bowl of Indian food, escaping the drizzle under the protection of the bridge. It may have been the most memorable farmer's market lunch I've had...

Cost Breakdown:
We were in London for 6 days and spent a total of $973, for a daily average cost of $162. The daily averages were: Housing: $71; Transit: $19; Food: $64; Other: $8.

(This post was written in 2014 after we returned from our trip, but we didn't get around to publishing it until 2017...oops!)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

FAQ of Long-Term Travel

So we've done our trip, returned home, gotten jobs, settled in completely, and not finished writing our blog. We know, it's just tough to finish once life in the home world starts up again. Seems creative writing has a bit less convenient place in this life!

But, we have had various friends contact us to ask about long trips they want to do, and the nuggets of advice or wisdom we may be able to offer. So here's our answers, in your basic FAQ format. And if you are going on a trip like ours, and want some advice, just ask (and we'll update this post)! We love to share our hard-earned knowledge (well, only some of it was hard-earned. Some of it we got from other travelers who went before!).

What did you wish you had brought that you didn't? What do you have that is indispensable? What do you wish you had? What do you wish you left behind?
We wrote a Packing List after our first 100 days of travel that, in retrospect, is still quite accurate. Pepto bismol pills and a scarf/pashmina/wrap are still indespensible. There is nothing I wish I had and couldn't buy (and for considerably less money than I could have bought it in the states - the only caveats here are the pepto pills, neosporin, and tech gadgets). The other caveat is if you are going straight to the outback...otherwise, you can buy things you need anywhere there is a concentration of local people!

For leaving behind, we sent a lot of stuff home (or left it for hotel cleaning staff and other locals who might want it), including makeup, a travel hair dryer, Cory's sleep sack, beach clothes once we hit Europe in the fall, and my point-and-shoot camera (we kept one iphone and one fancy camera).

What location was the best surprise?
China, hands down. Cory wanted to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge and I had no interest in what I assumed would be a smoggy, unappealing country. Boy was I wrong! There is so much to see and do across the country, China is filled with incredibly friendly people who want to practice English, share their food and heritage and were very welcoming to us (in addition to often being in awe that we were able to travel without speaking Mandarin). And the west side of the country is budget friendly. So if you feel as I did, lower your guard, open our eyes, skip the big bus tour and explore China on your own...oh, and climb their holy mountains. Puts the awe back in awesome :)

Did you get burned out with long term travel? If so, how did you remedy that?
Yes, definitely. Many days are not glorious, filled with long bouts of travel (because on a super budget, if a short flight is $100 but a 15 hour bus is $5, you're going to need to learn to love the bus). And you need to take the time to plan your next stops, which can be especially difficult when you're new to the area. But you'll get a lot of time you didn't anticipate because you don't have to go to work or commute, which gives back more time than we thought we'd have.

Our remedy for burnout was to get out of whatever city we were in for a "weekend" (which could be any few days of a week really) in the countryside, or to allow ourselves to be in an incredible place and spend the day watching netflix inside.  It helps to give yourself permission not to be "on" all the time, for months.

How much did your trip cost overall and how did you save the money?
All in, we spent $35,500 for 8 months of travel (including everything we purchased in preparation, not including the value of family and friends who put us up along the way), which comes down to just under $3,000 per month. As it happens, that's a lot less than our life in San Diego cost us before we left. Sure, we had to save all those dollars ahead of time because we weren't bringing any in while we were gone, but there was no rent, utility bills, gas and car expenses, and all the other expenses that go along with life at home. Our year was much less expensive than if we had stayed home!

How we saved was another question all together! Our savings started in October of 2011 and we left April of 2013. When we started saving, we had two well paying jobs and no consumer debt. We were living in a less expensive apartment than we could "afford", we had two paid-off cars over 10 years old, and every time we went to buy something non-essential, we would say "would I rather have this or a day in Vietnam?". Vietnam usually won :) And when we left, we had an influx of money by cashing out our excess vacation time when we left our jobs, we sold one of our cars and many of our belongings (and to support us, many of our generous friends and family purchased our things or gave us gifts as they could). Of course, once we got home, we only had one car and had already spent the money from selling the other one, but after a year of travel, we find we don't need as much stuff, and in fact we don't need two cars living in San Francisco. So now we're a one car, one scooter family, and happier for it. But it's not likely we would have made that decision without the trip to help us.

Lastly, and on a technical level, we tracked our spending and saving ahead of the trip using Mint, and cannot recommend it highly enough! Once on the trip, we became a cash based economy and used a really fabulous excel spreadsheet I made to track all our purchases daily, and keep track of how much money we had left. If you send me an email, I'm happy to send you the template.

How did you access your cash as you traveled?
Most of the world had pretty easy ATM access, with some specifics. Some countries (Vietnam) don't allow you to take much money out each day so you stop frequently, some countries (Cambodia) only give out $100 bills even though you can't easily spend that much money in that country, and some (China) had a lot of ATMs we couldn't access (every time we passed a Bank of China ATM, we withdrew some more!). And when you get to Turkey, make sure you have $25 cash US each, or they won't let you in until they decide to walk you through customs to visit the ATM.  You figure it out as you go via trial and error.

The biggest issue here was having a bank account with free ATM withdrawals globally. Our credit union, the San Francisco Firefighter Credit Union gives us free ATM withdrawals, and pays us back for whatever the ATM/local bank charges, and I've heard Charles Schwab has a similar deal. SFFCU also gave us a credit card with no international transaction fees (most cards cost 3% per transaction!) which was a life/budget saver.

Do you ever wish you had a local phone (or do you have one?)  Did you use email primarily to keep up with family, or Skype, or something else? Can you find the information you need and do the planning you need online through the iPad? Is it hard to find wifi?
Skype is great - we brought a computer and iPad on our trip, both of which can Skype to either communicate with family and friends or be able to buy Skype credit and for 8 cents per minute you can call any phone in the world (Skype to Skype is free). The only caveat is that you need wifi, which we found plentiful around Asia certainly. We had a local phone in Thailand for the first week and not at all for the following 6 months, and it was just fine. You learn to be somewhere when you say you will, because you can’t just call your partner to change plans. If you agree to meet in front of a building at 3:00 you need to be there because you can't call your partner to change plans last minute. I think this is probably a good return to basic respect, from before we all had cell phones and could change plans on people to suit your own convenience. I would happily go without a phone again (and this is coming from someone who was an iPhone junkie before the trip!)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Our Incredible Irish Adventure, Part 2

After bidding a bittersweet adieu to Maire and Carl, it was time to head out on our own, with no real plan except to end up in Dublin for our flight to Birmingham in 3 days. We got our rental car in Shannon and started south. I had heard of the Ring of Kerry (who hasn't?!) due to it's incredible views of the water, steep cliffs and windy one way roads. But we'd also heard that it was packed with tour buses and people, and quite frankly, a pretty long day in the car. So we elected instead to enjoy the Ring of Dingle (or "Ringle" as we came to call it), which is a bit shorter, with fewer people and no tour buses, but also insanely beautiful.

The view from our morning departure in Shannon
We spent the night in Dingle, a ridiculously charming summer town (and yes, we were there in November) with cobblestone streets and cozy pubs, right on the water. We stayed in a B&B we found in an old stable on the waterfront (the charming Quayside B&B), run by a fabulous (and tiny) man who introduced himself as a leprechaun. And he really did look like one! Because we arrived a little late (due to many stops on the incredibly gorgeous drive from Shannon that morning), we didn't get on to drive the 30 mile loop of the Dingle Peninsula until about 2pm. And by then it was kinda stormy and getting dark, but we didn't go to Ireland in November for sunshine and butterflies!

Gallarus Oratory
We took Rick Steve's guide of the peninsula with us, so we would know where to stop and learn things, but either our odometer was off, or his directions were, so we mostly ended up just stopping where we wanted to. And it seems each time we stopped, the sky would open up, dump a bucket of hail down, and then 3 minutes later, the sun would come out, and we would explore. The two highlights of the pensinsula were the pastures of sheep (I just couldn't get over all those cute sheep!) and the church at the end: the Gallarus Oratory. We almost didn't make it in time to see it in the light, but it was a special place. Built 1300 years ago, it is one of the earliest Christian churches preserved in Ireland today, and well worth the visit. After our amazing (and cold) day, we spent the evening in a pub, playing dominoes by the fire, drinking hot wine and enjoying some live music.
Scenes from the Ring of Dingle
Local haberdashery in Dingle
The aftermath of my hike through a pond
The next day we drove east, with the goal of reaching Kilkenny, but didn't make it very far out of Dingle before a castle-type structure by the water caught Cory's eye and we decided to go find it. We drove down some local roads between pastures, which ended at a gate with a path into a pasture that said, "public path." So it was on foot from there. We started up the path into the pasture, following the general direction where we thought we'd seen the castle. Seriously, we were just traipsing across someone's sheep pasture, sheep and all! The path went through a bit of a muddy section, so I figured I would go above the mud, uphill. But it turned out uphill was a muddy pool, and I was soaked up the knees. Once Cory picked himself up from all the laughter, we decided a little freezing water in my socks wouldn't kill me and we should really press on and find the castle (and I'd like to take a moment here to applaud my Balega socks...because I went hiking in November in Ireland with soaking wet socks and shoes and I hardly noticed!). After the sheep pasture, we climbed a fence to get to into a cow pasture, and then another fence to the castle! And it was...ok. The hike there in my wet shoes was so much better :)

We continued east, meandering through little Irish towns, stopped in Waterford for dinner (where Waterford Crystal comes from) and found an incredible little Polish restaurant, Koliba. We were the only ones there and when the Polish owner found out we had been there a few months earlier, I'm pretty sure she brought us a bit of everything they serve. It was a truly delicious and incredibly memorable meal. But enough stops! There's still a few hours to Kilkenny and we don't yet have a bed for the night.

We drove down the main street in Kilkenny (a charming medieval town) and saw a sign in a pub window saying "accomodations" so I stopped in to ask. For a mere $20 US we could have a charming private room above the empty pub. Yes please! And by charming, I mean the walls and ceiling were peeling and the heat was broken, but it was ours and it was cheap!

After a cold sleep, we had a few hours to see the town before we needed to be in Dublin for our flight, so we went straight for the biggest draw in town: the Round Tower at St. Canice's Cathedral. Although it was windy and positively freezing outside, the nice church lady opened the tower up for us and we made our bone-chilling way to the top, up the wooden staircase that ladders across the inside of the tower. The view from the top was excellent, until my nose froze and it was time to come down.

The Round Tower at St. Canice's Cathedral
Back to Dublin, our amazing adventures on the Emerald Isle were over, though I know now without a doubt that we'll be back again. It is an incredible country, filled with friendly people, beautiful vistas, toe-tapping music, charming towns, fascinating history, and invigorating weather. Until next time, Ireland!

Overall Costs: The costs for our Irish adventure aren't really accurate, because our friends were so incredibly generous with us. These costs are only for the 4 days on our own, where we stayed in hotels and rented a car (again, Ireland has some expensive gas, but we saw so much of the countryside, we would absolutely do it again!). Average daily cost was $160, split between housing ($59 for two small inns, a night in Dublin, and a night in a hostel above a bar in Kilkenny), food (usually cold cut sandwiches from the supermarket) ($55), transit ($56) and other expenses ($5).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Our Incredible Adventure on the Emerald Isle

I have wanted to go to Ireland since I was a little girl. My stepdad is Irish and spent many years singing me “little ditties” and telling me fantastical stories about the Emerald Isle. So when we decided to go to Ireland on our big trip, I was very concerned that the Ireland of today would be modern and devoid of the culture, history and music I had always imagined. Thankfully, the expectation of my childhood visions was more than exceeded!
We arrived in Dublin and after dropping our bags at our hotel, we went around the corner to the pub in search of a bite. We walked in and it was like every Irish pub in the US, only REAL! We sat down with pints of Guinness, sausages and sang along joyfully with the live band.

The next morning, we got up early and made our way to the Guinness factory (our 3rd brewery tour so far!) and were quite pleased. Although the tour is pretty expensive, and more shiny museum than working brewery, the exhibits were excellent. We got to take a Guinness tasting class, a Guinness pouring class and learn about (and taste) some Guinness/food pairings. By the time we finished, after several tastings and the leftovers of the nice old ladies we met at the final bar, we were feeling quite Irish. But alas it was only noon o'clock!

That afternoon, it was time for our Big Authentic Irish Weekend. We met a lovely Irish couple, Carl and Maire, on their engagement night in Vietnam six months earlier, and they invited us to come stay should we ever come to Ireland. At that time, we had no plans to, so boy were they surprised when they got an email from us 6 months later asking if they wanted to meet for a drink. And boy were we surprised when their response came back, “yes, we'd love to have a drink. But how about with that drink, you come and spend the weekend with us out in the countryside at our family home and we'll take you on a big adventure?" It didn't take long to agree to that offer wholeheartedly!
Carl bought me a cookie. I knew I liked him!
We met up with our new favorite Irish people and headed south to his family's home in Wexford. My dear readers, here is where you may think I'm exaggerating my story, but I promise you, this is what happened next. As an aside, I should share that Cory has a dream of his own about Ireland. He dreams that it's like those movies where a small village has a problem of some kind, they come together to work it out and their town becomes better in the process (see Calendar Girls, Waking Ned Devine, The Englishman who went up a hill and came down a mountain). Now back to our story. In the car on the way, Carl had called his mom to "put the kettle on" so there was hot tea awaiting us when we arrived at their lovely home in the tiny village of Kilineran. His dad wasn't home yet because he was at the neighbor's house planning a dance in the village to raise money for the school. Yep, we were in a little village and they were coming together to solve a problem! Heaven :)
We settled in with our tea and introductions, but the fire started to get low. The solution? Throw some more peat bricks on it! Ah yes, we were in an Irish village, drinking tea, watching rugby, and warming our toes by a peat fire. After dinner, we all took a walk into the center of the village, to go to the pub. And by pub, I mean village living room slash gas station store. All in one. The only other non-houses in town were the school and the church. We had a couple of pints with the locals and headed home to rest up for another big day.
The next day, we hit up the beach (it was a little different than the beaches we're used to in San Diego. I was freezing), got lost in the countryside trying to find a beautiful waterfall (we found it) and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset walk to a lake. We made it home in time for a roast dinner courtesy of Carl's mom, and we contributed a slice of Americana...homemade chocolate chip cookies (recipe at the bottom, in case you'd like to thank your own Irish hosts!). And they were the best ones I've ever made. Probably something about the Irish Kerrygold butter, and the act of dipping them in fresh Irish milk. Another successful day!

Old Irish church and graveyard (including sheep!)
Matching cutesie mittens!

By day 3 it was Carl's weekend, so we opted to head west and see Kerry, on Maire's family farm. We drove a few hours and took a break in Galway, to enjoy a rugby game in the pub, a couple of pints and a photo shoot on the Blackrock Tower, re-enacting the ending scene from The Guard (without the guns, of course). Plus, Carl took us to bet on the dog races at the bookies. It was very Irish :)

At the Blackrock Tower, we saw the below guy going for his afternoon swim, and thought he was absolutely crazy. And then we returned to San Francisco, and Cory started swimming in the SF Bay. Without a wetsuit. In December. Cory is now this crazy old man... :)

Reinacting the Guard
 A short while later, we arrived in Kerry, in another delightfully small village, Tarbert. Maire had warned us that we might not understand her family - apparently the challenge is due to heavy Irish accent mixed with a sprinkling of Irish words. And she was right! Even speaking slowly for our benefit, the conversation was a particularly delightful challenge. 

This is what it looks like when you put your hand in a cow's mouth
Cory driving an Irish tractor
Maire's Dad, the Irish Farmer
We spent the next days on the farm with Maire's family, learning about the cows and the coursing dogs their family trains. And now when we are home and buy some Kerrygold butter, we say a little thanks to her family's cows. Sunday afternoon brought a special treat when we went to the village pub (also owned by her family), The Swanky for Sunday roast dinner. As I was parked between the fire and the local priest, munching happily on my roast lamb with mint jelly and all the accompanying sides, I looked out the window to see a whole herd of men and women on horseback, returning from the morning's hunt. Seriously. Just trotting down the street through the center of town, as though we are accustomed to seeing things like this in California!
It was hard to believe, after these wonderful days, how we would fare on our own in the Irish countryside for the next few days. I think we did a pretty good job, but that's another story...


Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
(adapted from America's Test Kitchen)

2 cups + 2 Tablespoons (10 5/8 oz) unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons salted Kerrygold Irish Butter, melted and cooled until just warm
1 cup packed (7 oz) light or dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk
1 overflowing Tablespoons vanilla extract
1 bag semisweet chocolate chips
A couple handfuls of toasted pecans or walnuts, if desired
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. 
2. Either by hand or with an electric mixer, mix both sugars and the butter.  Beat in the egg, yolk, and vanilla until combined.  Add the dry ingredients and beat on low until just combined.  Stir in the chips and nuts. 
3. Taste dough liberally to make sure it's not poisoned.
4. With a cookie scoop or two spoons, scoop cookies onto cookie sheets, 2-3 inches apart.
5. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until they are golden brown and the edges are dry, but not so long that the middles lose all their moisture. Cool on the baking sheets.
6. Serve in piles alonside a jug of fresh Irish milk. Yum!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Istanbul: where East meets West

After 2 weeks traveling around the Turkish countryside, it was time we made our way to Istanbul, to see what all the fuss is about. In comparison to the more rural areas of Turkey, Istanbul seemed very European, and lacked the mysterious Eastern flair we were expecting, but we did very much enjoy our week there.

We stayed in an apartment hotel just outside the old city, and spent most of our days sleeping in a little, visiting one or two tourist sites and then making our way home by sunset for drinks and dominoes on our rooftop terrace (along with the hauntingly beautiful sunset Call to Prayer from no fewer than 5 Mosques surrounding us), followed by cooking a Turkish dinner in our little apartment kitchen.

And then there's the kitties. Many people from home who we talked to about Istanbul and their experiences didn't notice that there were cats EVERYWHERE. Maybe we were just missing our own kitties at home, but this is a city for cat lovers, as there are cute, friendly, clean kitties all over the city! The shop keepers and residents feed them and care for them, but somehow the city isn't covered in their waste. Our two favorite run-ins were a cat meandering into the hair salon where Cory was getting a cut and hopped right into my lap for some lovies while I waited. And another cat crawled into my lap and fell asleep during a visit to Hagia Sofia.

In lieu of giving a play-by-play of our 5 days in Istanbul, here's a run down of our favorite spots and experiences (other than the kitties of course!!):

Basilica Cistern: My favorite spot in Istanbul for sure! Previously on the trip, we had both read Dan Brown’s book Inferno, which has its grand climactic ending in the humid, dark, and moody cistern. We also watched James Bond navigate the cistern in From Russia With Love. So by the time we showed up, we had plenty of things to look at down below (though sadly it was devoid of men in tuxes drinking martinis).

Egin Tekstil in the Grand Bazaar: although the bazaar itself is a bit overwhelming, this shop was a delight! We meandered in because there was a kitten sitting on a shelf in the front door (are you sensing a theme yet?!) and stayed to shop because the owner was incredibly friendly and had beautiful Turkish towels, soaps and things. We bought a bunch of things for ourselves and as gifts, and upon leaving found out that this is the famous shop described in our Rick Steves book! We would absolutely return and definitely recommend it!

Market Hall
Shopping at Egin Tekstil
Topkapi Palace: Beautiful gardens, colorful tiled rooms and a beautiful view of the Bosphorus once you get to the back of the palace. We paid extra to go through the Harem Section and thought it was absolutely worth it. We got a really good understanding of the culture of the harem and the lives of the women (and eunichs) who lived there: the Sultan’s mother and all his concubines and their children.  This is a section where you definitely want a book or an audio guide to give you some context and history, or you’ll just be walking through rooms of pretty tiles!

Taksim: this is the new side of Istanbul (you may have heard of it from the protests in 2013), which I found physically overwhelming and culturally underwhelming, and which Cory found to be a spirited and vibrant treat. The main street is packed with people and lots of internationally--known stores, but the side streets meander through independent art shops and galleries (ok, that part was really cool).  Certainly a different side of Istanbul from the old town.

Overall, our trip to Istanbul was a relaxing way to end our 3 weeks in Turkey. Sightseeing by day, taking in incredible sunsets over tea and the calls to prayer in the evenings was a fantastic end to our southern adventures. And now it was time for a change…off to Ireland we go!

Catching the train through Taksim
Enjoying the local wildlife
Where we stayed: A'la House AparthotelBinbirdirek Mh., Katip Sinan Cami Sk No:13, 34200 Estambul, Turkey. The proprieter was incredibly friendly and we would absolutely recommend this place for a relaxing and central stay in Istanbul!

Overall Costs: For 23 days total in Turkey, we spent $2583, for a daily average of $112. Our biggest cost putting us over $100 per day was renting a car (turns out Turkey has some of the most expensive gas in the world!). Our daily averages were housing ($36), transit ($29), food ($28) and other expenses ($20).

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Safranbolu - an Ottoman Delight!

We arrived in Safranbolu after a terrible 8 hour bus ride stopping to change buses first in Nevshehir and then in Ankara. Terrible part aside, the Ankara bus terminal was really interesting and looked more like an airport than any bus station we have ever seen, with one level for arrivals, one for departures and another for washing and refueling buses. Unfortunately, the bus station in Safranbolu is almost 3 km outside of town, and even though it was only 6pm it was already quite dark. But to save a few lira on a taxi, we opted to walk to our hotel. Only got really scary when we almost got attacked and eaten by a big dog in a dark alley, but then we arrived safely at our hotel, the Yildiz Konak Pension, and the day immediately got much, much better.

The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because it is a very well-preserved Ottoman town, with amazing buildings from the 1300's on. The town was named for its importance in the Saffron trade from the 13th century to the 20th century, but once the rail system in Turkey got up and running, it became a side note. Sort of like the Route 66 of Turkey!

Fatima and her generous dinner offering
We were welcomed in to our pension by Fatima, the delightful and welcoming Turkish owner, who spoke almost no English. She sat us down and shared her dinner with us: a pan of fried mini fishes, a loaf of bread and some fresh herbs. And tea of course. We "talked" and ate and then watched a Turkish gameshow, while she presumably gave us the play by play on what was happening (in Turkish). Then we started to wonder if we would ever see a room. An hour went by and I really needed a shower, but how to get there communication-wise? Turns our we just needed to stop accepting her offers for more tea! She took us to our room and we had a nice 3 days as the only guests in the hotel.

Cory gets help with dominoes
Safranbolu does not have a wide variety of tourist activities, but what we found were some of our best, local Turkish experiences. One shop owner stopped to ask where we were from and showed us how he is famous, as there is a photo of him in a Japanese tour guide from 20 years ago. Another afternoon, we were playing dominoes over lunch outside a cafe and a local man came up, brought us some chestnuts to try and "helped" us play. I use the term "help" lightly, as he was instructing our plays (in Turkish) in playing a completely different game of dominoes. But we did enjoy the chestnuts, which we're pretty sure he just stole from the bin outside the shop next door. But the experience was nothing if not incredibly welcoming.

Dinner in the off season involves walking into a restaurant (which may double as someone's home), asking if they have dinner and sitting down in the kitchen to feast. One night we ate at a great little place called Eyvan Yore Mutfagi, where we were seated in the kitchen, the owner pointed to his wife and proudly exclaimed that she was a wonderful cook! We asked if he had children and he told us all about his 3 daughters: career women in Ankara. It was such a treat to be invited into his (wife's) kitchen and family. Plus, the meal was great too!

Caci Hamami
Our last other local experience involved a trip to the Caci Hamami, a Turkish bath built in 1645, and which we were free and welcome to enjoy. I had read different stories about tourist focused baths in Istanbul having men only to do the massage and soaping, and I didn't think I was quite up for that. This hamam was very traditional and so I got the joy of being soaped up by a big Turkish woman in her lacy underwear instead. 

I walked into the Hamami, not knowing what to expect at all, and was so happy to be welcomed in, language barrier aside. The attendant motioned for me to strip down completely and tie a towel (known as a peshtemal) around me to go into the bath room. I followed her into the most beautiful, domed marble room, where she led me into an alcove next to small sinks of water lining the walls. She motioned for me to sit on the marble bench (by motioned, I do mean "pushed") and then threw a bucket of warm water on me, to indicate I was to do the same for myself. Then she left. After I got over the feeling of, "I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing, and there's no one in here to watch for cues! I'm so nervous!" I just enjoyed the beauty of the room and the tranquility of only the echoey sound of water pouring into the basin next to me. 

After about 15 or 20 minutes, she came back in her underwear and motioned for me to follow her into another alcove, with a long marble table in the middle. Being used to western notions of privacy and modesty with strangers, I was a little taken aback when she whipped off my towel and laid it on the slab. Then she nicely pushed my naked little self over the slab and motioned for me to lie down. And then I became the human car at the carwash I had read so much about. She poured water over me and scrubbed and polished like I've never experienced, even down to the backs of my ears. 

After all this, I rinsed off, enjoyed the main room a bit more, got dressed, and then sloshed out of the bath house, cleaner than I have ever been in my life! What to do after such a great experience? Get the best Turkish Coffee of the trip, right down the cobblestone street outside. 

After our few wonderfully local days in Safranbolu, it was time to hit the big time...ISTANBUL! But that's an adventure for another bus ride and another day...

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Hiking Cappadocia


After our first week and driving adventure on the western coast of Turkey, we thought it was about time to change things up a little and flew to Cappadocia, a purported wonderland right in the middle of the country.  And a wonderland it was...we came to Cappadocia for 3 nights and stayed for 7!

Here's our play by play:

"Ladder" over the canyon wall
Day 1: we went to breakfast intending to have an easy day, maybe stroll through town and make a plan for the week. At breakfast, we met Thomasz and Olga, a fun couple from Poland. They invited us for a hike, and we said "yes! to life" Hiked through Rose Valley, an easy start to seeing the area. Rose Valley is a long, somewhat dusty, valley that rises up on each side with some caves (some of them cave churches), and lots of little trails that meander into the hills.

New friends Olga and Thomasz
Day 2: we got nicely lost making our way to Uchisar castle, which is the highest point in the valley and makes for a great way to see the valley from above. The castle is not really a "castle" per se, but a tall rock tower that has been carved out with little rooms and a few passages. At the top, you can get a lovely and very reasonably priced cup of tea for a super civilized way to get warmed up while enjoying the sunset views. We hiked back to Goreme through Pigeon Valley (top photo), which turned out to be our favorite close-by hike from Goreme. The valley was filled with lots of lush trees, interesting rock formations, local farms and some incredibly colored sunset skies.


Day 3: we went to Goreme Open Air Museum with Thomasz and Olga. It was ok, but quite expensive. If you're physically prepared for all the hiking the valley has to offer, you can get lots of cave church visits for free, and without all the tour bus crowds. The museum caves are nice because they're well-preserved, but at 24 TL ($12) each, you have to decide if it's worth it for you.

Cave church frescoes
Day 4: we rented a car with Thomasz and Olga and drove to the Ihlara Valley, a beautiful and very lush valley about an hour and a half from Goreme. The entrance fee of 8 TL ($4 US) gets you a nicely maintained canyon hike along a river with scenery uncharacteristic of the surrounding area. We hiked from the southernmost entrance out the north end (about 11km). To get to the dolmus (little public bus) back to your car, turn left at the beautiful old stone bridge and walk north into the town. The stop is across the street from a cave church tourist stop, and cost us 1TL each to get back to Ihlara.
Overlooking the Ihlara Valley; Lunch on a trestle bridge; Tea houses over the river; Old stone bridge 

Day 5: took a day off, did some blogging, took naps and hung out at the hotel. We were lazy and it was awesome.

Gomeda Valley
Day 6: we rented a scooter and drove to Gomeda Valley, a really cool, lightly maintained lush valley about 20 minutes drive from Goreme. The first huge rock you see is shaped like a dinosaur, so we were IN! At the top of the road is a cave church where you can see what happens when frescoes are not preserved and protected. Just under the road is a really cool underground city with views of the valley (so I'm might have to be 6'5" to see them!). We hiked down into the valley (more of a canyon really) and followed the almost-overgrown path over questionably sound stream bridges, under natural rock arches, past chirping birds and forgotten (but still growing) grapevines. After about 45 minutes the path ended in a river and it was time to head back for our well-deserved lunch picnic.

On our way home, we stopped in Love Valley, so-called because it looks like it's filled with penis shaped rocks. Seriously, my head isn't the only one in the gutter...they named it that! Despite (or maybe because of?) the phallic rocks, it was another lovely spot for a hike.

This was our absolute favorite hike of the week, but unfortunately our camera turned out to be broken! So, we made a cool video from the day instead:

Going to Goreme? Here are our suggestions:

We stayed in a little hotel, Coco Caves, in the central town of Goreme, which turned out to be a great place to take little half day or full day hiking trips. The owner was pretty weird, but the room was really nice and very inexpensive! In the evenings, we found 2 favorite spots to eat. The first, the Omurca Art Cave Cafe, is run by a local guy who has an entire colony of cats he cares for outside (clearly a winner for us!). He's an artist who has carved out his home into a cave and has a great little one-choice restaurant in the very atmospheric cave. The second restaurant is fancier and with more choices, called Topdeck, in an underground cave (with fireplace!). Both were incredibly charming and memorable!

The sunrise view from breakfast each morning
More photos from our adventure in Cappadocia: