Soaking Up the Sun in Girne (Kyrenia)

20180403_163706.jpg

It has been one hell of a winter, in every sense of the word.  We have had a lot of ups and downs these past few months, not all of which I am ready to share in this space.

20180403_121630.jpg

Spring Break was approaching, yet nothing felt like spring.  We were desperate for an escape, but even traveling can be stressful at times.  We were really at a loss this time around.

IMG_3404.jpg

At the last minute (literally the morning of the start to our break), we decided to fly to Northern Cyprus, an island country (that is generally not even recognized as a country) just south of Turkey.  We had heard good things about it from friends and the weather forecast showed nothing but sunshine, which was exactly what we needed.  We based ourselves out of the coastal town of Girne, also known as Kyrenia.

20180401_123632.jpg

North Cyprus is only a partially recognized state that is loosely affiliated with Turkey, and as such, I expected it to feel very familiar.  While Turkish is the predominant language of the region and there are similarities in the food, I was surprised by how much North Cyprus is not like Turkey.

20180403_161813.jpg

Really North Cyprus is like a younger, more relaxed, and more liberal version of Turkey.  English is much more widely spoken, the cities are much more international and diverse, casinos (which are illegal in Turkey) are pretty much everywhere, and alcohol is very cheap.  As I said, there are similarities, but North Cyprus is definitely its own thing.

IMG_3424.jpgWe didn’t make too many plans for our trip.  Instead, we opted to go with the flow and see what we felt like doing each day.  Our favorite thing to do in Girne was simply walk along the picturesque marina in the sunshine and then stop for a drink or two at one of the many seaside cafes.  We also indulged in a lot of good (yet reasonably priced) seafood; I was especially pleased by the abundance of delicious grilled jumbo shrimp.

IMG_3344.jpg

We also made it out to Bellapais, a small village up the mountain from Girne and home to Bellapais Abbey.  Unfortunately, the abbey was closed when we arrived, but we still managed to get a good look from outside of it.

IMG_3361.jpg

Since we booked everything so last minute, we didn’t bother to look into car rentals, although I wish we would have.  There are some amazing views along the coasts and through the mountains.  Just be aware that they drive on the left side of the road like in the U.K.

IMG_3399.jpg

Girne was a great starting point for our North Cyprus adventure, and if you ask me, April and May are the best times to visit.  The weather is beautiful (~80 degrees with cloudless skies), but the crowds are still relatively small, so you can have this little slice of paradise mostly to yourself.

An Ode to My First Passport

DSCF3444

A grainy photo of my old passport the day before I moved to Turkey.

Retiring my first passport was like saying goodbye to an old friend. I still remember getting my photo taken at Walgreens, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the prospect of finally seeing the world outside of small-town America.  I always found a certain comfort in turning to the first page and seeing my teenage self smiling back at me, full of dreams of faraway places.

My new passport is empty, and thanks to Turkish passport rules, the photographer refused to allow me to smile in my passport photo (in spite of the fact that said rule does not apply to American passports), so I look a bit more like a displeased psychopath than I do an eager world traveler.  Still, there is a certain thrill in all of the blank pages of possibility that will inevitably fill up with adventure (hopefully sooner rather than later – I am feeling the itch).

At the very least, I still have my old passport as a souvenir.  As I flip through its pages, I like to think that my 16-year-old self would be pleased to know that that passport would carry me to 27 countries, using every last page before it expired.  26-year-old me certainly is.

Fener-Balat

20180309_172128.jpg

Tucked away in the Golden Horn of Istanbul is an often-overlooked piece of history, just far enough away from the main attractions of Sultanahmet to go unnoticed.  The old districts of Fener and Balat – the old Greek and Jewish quarters respectively – have somehow managed to preserve their minority histories throughout many tumultuous centuries.

20180309_173859.jpg

As you walk along the coast from Eminönü, past the fishermen and heavy traffic, a different sort of skyline will come into view.  Along the sea, the imposing figure of St. Stephens, a newly renovated Bulgarian church made almost entirely of iron, shimmers in the sunlight.

IMG_3294.jpg
Across the bustling streets, Rum Lisesi – a Greek Orthodox church-turned-school overlooks the tangled network of alleys.  The old bohemian streets beckon you in a little farther with their numerous charming cafes and quirky shops.  Before you know it, you are standing above it all, glancing down at rows of colorful houses, dotted with clotheslines.

20180309_172301.jpg

IMG_3309.jpg

IMG_3305.jpg

20180309_164712.jpg

It is a version of Istanbul unlike any I had ever seen before.  I don’t know why it took me so long to see it, but I know that I must go back.

A Mild Addiction

dsc_0051

I remember in the months leading up to beginning my journey as an expat, I naively believed that I would become an instant minimalist, forever moving through life with no more than a couple of suitcases. As it turns out, I can fill up an apartment remarkably quickly. For the most part, we have tried to avoid accumulating more than what is necessary to live comfortably. That being said, we all have an Achilles heel and ours seems to involve coffee mugs.

20180217_173544.jpg

It all started with this mug, a cool and thoughtful Christmas gift from my husband. Before that, we had been using drab, secondhand mugs left behind from previous teachers.

20180217_173521.jpg

20180217_173513.jpg

Just a few weeks later, I acquired this amazing, nerdtastic beauty as a New Year’s gift from a student. When I asked him how he knew I was a Game of Thrones fan, he simply responded “I didn’t.” To this day, I wonder what it was about FIRE and BLOOD that made him think of me. In any case, I love this mug.

20180217_173303.jpg

Generally speaking, I’m not much of a Starbucks fan, but it is so ubiquitous that a frequent traveler can hardly avoid the place. I actually fell in love with the Istanbul “You Are Here” mug on an outing with friends and bought it for Dakota. When I went to NYC last summer, I couldn’t help myself.

20180217_173047.jpg

We bought these lovely Gaudi-inspired pieces on our trip to Barcelona and I just love them. Perfect for cortados.

20180217_173423.jpg

These were a cheap and frivolous purchase from our summer trip to Alaçatı. I love the colors and textures.

20180217_173147.jpg

Our most recent addition to the collection is this set of mini mugs that we purchased in Jordan. They are slightly larger than espresso cups and have very interesting designs.

Sometimes I look at our cupboards and lament the fact that we have so many damn cups we don’t need. Other times, I stare at them all one by one as I am reminded that each one of them carries a story with it. I can’t imagine parting with any of them and yet I can’t imagine packing them all in a suitcase. That is what is so hard.

The thing about being an expat is that you never really know when you will move on until you do. We have gotten so comfortable in this stage of life, but something in the air has been telling me that it’s time to start thinking about the future. I guess this is my way of recording this time and these memories while I am still in this moment. For now, I can enjoy my collection just a little longer.

Floating in the Dead Sea

IMG_3202.jpgAfter a phenomenal adventure full of hiking and camping through Wadi Rum and Petra, we were ready for a little R&R.  The final stop on our Jordanian journey – the Dead Sea- was perfect for just that.

20180130_085639.jpg

After a scenic drive along the King’s Way and through Wadi Araba, we were greeted with a hazy coast full of jade green water.  It was at least 10 degrees warmer in Northern Jordan than it had been in the desert, so we were happy to have a little sunshine in our lives.

IMG_3192.jpg

We had gotten pretty gross after all of the hiking and desert wandering and the campsites had offered pretty limited shower facilities, so we were ready for a slightly more pampering experience.  We got a pretty sweet deal at a spa resort (~$60/night – including buffet breakfast and a private beach), which seemed like the perfect way to end our holiday.

20180130_133733.jpg
Being able to float in the super salty water was an insanely cool sensation.  It was very difficult for me to abide by the one-hour-at-a-time rule because it was so relaxing.

IMG_3210.jpg

The next few days were spent swimming, floating, sunbathing, and enjoying some drinks in the sunshine.  It was the perfect end to a fantastic vacation.

IMG_3226.jpg

Some local brew

IMG_3212.CR2

IMG_3221.jpg

An incredible sunset

The Rose City of Petra

IMG_3114.jpg

Petra:  the crowning jewel of Jordan.  I  mean, how is this place even real?  To think that it was once a city of thousands, intricately carved right into the mountains…wow.  It was humbling.

IMG_3150.jpg

We decided to go straight to Petra after our camel ride in Wadi Rum, which made for an exhausting but incredible day.  Thankfully, we chose to purchase Jordan passes for our trip, which included two days at Petra (you need at least two days to see all the highlights and could easily spend three).  The Jordan Passes also include the visa fees to visit Jordan, as well as entry to several other sites like Wadi Rum and Jerash – great value for the money.

20180129_143446.jpg

A rare view of a mostly unobstructed Treasury!

Most people only know Petra because of the Treasury, which is undeniably beautiful; however, Petra is SO much more than that!  I couldn’t believe how massive and extensive this ancient city really is, not to mention how well-preserved most of the structures are.

IMG_3148.jpg

IMG_3156.jpg

There are a wide variety of routes you can take through Petra, ranging from flat, easy walks to more intense hikes.  If you visit, expect to be bombarded by people asking if you want to ride a horse, donkey, or camel.  Most of these people are not licensed professionals and in my opinion, most of the animals there did not look well taken care of.  Personally, I did not feel comfortable riding any of them and chose to go on foot.  I also enjoyed the intensity of the longer hikes and wanted to be able to stop and take in the views as I pleased.

20180129_111824.jpg

The hike to the Monastery was one of the highlights for me.  Along the way, there are tons of great views, it’s not nearly as crowded as the Treasury, and there is a great little cafe right next to it.

IMG_3167.jpg

Our other favorite hike was to the High Place of Sacrifice.  The views from the top were stunning.

IMG_3179.jpg

20180129_142541.jpg

IMG_3125.jpg

It’s amazing to imagine what Petra would have been like back in its heyday, when people still lived in caves nestled along the mountains’ walls.  This New Wonder of the World is an ancient marvel not to be missed.

IMG_3132.jpg

 

 

A Magical Journey in Wadi Rum

IMG_3037.jpg

We woke up bright and early for our journey into Wadi Rum desert.  We quickly shoved the last of our delicious breakfast down our throats in Aqaba before our driver came to take us to the entrance.  The seaside highway quickly gave way to sandy mountains, and before long, the vast stretches of red desert were all we could see.  It was the stuff of dreams.

IMG_3012.jpg

It was a cold and cloudy day and our Bedouin travel guide reminded us to keep our coats within reach throughout the tour.  In the end, I was grateful for the chilly weather as it made the countless hiking stops much more enjoyable; I could not imagine doing it in the heat.

IMG_3025.jpg

IMG_3030.jpg

IMG_3032.jpg

The first few hours of the tour were spent hiking under the mystical fog, which somehow made the desert look even more amazing.  To be honest, I had not expected the tour to include so many great hikes (I imagined it more like a safari); it greatly exceeded my expectations.

IMG_3045.jpg

Around noon, we pulled over to have some lunch and warm up.  Along the way, we grabbed some dry pieces of bush for the fire, which was difficult since it had just rained.  We enjoyed a delicious stew of tomato, pepper, onion, peas, and beans, followed by some freshly brewed tea.  It was easily one of my best meal experiences to date.

IMG_3049.jpg

The sky started to clear a bit after lunch, and while I loved the way the clouds looked hanging over the desert, the sun on my face was a welcome sensation.

IMG_3041.jpg

IMG_3064.jpg

The final hike on top of the arch bridge was an incredible way to end our desert tour.

IMG_3083.jpg

IMG_3089.jpg

Above and below!

We headed towards our camp just in time to watch the sunset.

IMG_3095.jpg

As if we hadn’t already had an incredible day, our hiking adventure in the desert was followed by a fun and relaxing evening at a Bedouin camp, where we met some wonderful fellow travelers, ate a delicious meal, played several rounds of various card games, and learned more about Jordan and Bedouin life.

IMG_3104.jpg

It was a cold night in Wadi Rum, but we managed to sleep well under several thick blankets.  After a quick breakfast, we were ready for our final Wadi Rum adventure:  a camel ride across the desert.

IMG_3109.jpg

IMG_3105.jpg

20180128_085955.jpg

My husband may or may not want a puppy.

We traveled with Wadi Rum Nomads and loved every second of it.  Camping in Wadi Rum was a crazy, magical adventure of a lifetime that we will never forget.

IMG_3009.jpg

 

Exploring the Red Sea: Eilat to Aqaba

IMG_2938.jpgAfter a few very interesting and eye-opening days in Israel, we were ready to cross into neighboring Jordan.  Prior to our trip, we wondered if this was even possible, but after some research, we realized that it was a relatively simple process.  We flew down to Eilat -an Israeli resort town on the Red Sea- to spend the night before our border crossing into Aqaba.

IMG_2937.jpg

Eilat reminded me a lot of Antalya or Fethiye – a bustling tourist town full of restaurants, cafes, and shops.  Honestly, it was a little crowded for my taste, but since we were only there for one night, we did our best to take it easy and enjoy it.  The mood was simultaneously upbeat and laid back and we were pleased by the variety of food options (Japanese, Mexican, American, you name it) in such a small space.

20180123_145611.jpg

The next morning, we took a taxi to the border crossing, which involved a lot of stamping and signing, but only took about 20 minutes in total (we were the only ones there when we arrived).  I was amazed by how completely different Aqaba was than Eilat, even though they are right next to each other.  We hopped in a cab which drove us along the coast to our hotel near the beach.  Along the way, wild camels grazed on the side of the road and desert mountains rose above the horizon.  I already felt like I’d experienced so much adventure in Israel, but I realized in that moment that my adventure was just beginning.

IMG_2992.jpg

We got to our hotel, dropped off our stuff, and immediately hit the beach for a stroll.

Much unlike Eilat, the beach was relatively peaceful and uncrowded, save for a few families barbecuing.  It’s important to note that people dress much more conservatively in Jordan than in Israel as well, so plan accordingly.  I definitely saw foreign tourists in bikinis, but I felt it was more respectful to cover up.

IMG_2963.jpg

After our first night, I was ready to  spend some time in the water.  The Red Sea is known for its beautiful coral reefs, and after snorkeling in the Maldives last year, I was really excited to do it again.  Our hotel let me rent a wetsuit, mask, and flippers for just 5JD  per day (~$7) and even graciously drove us down to some of the best dive sites.

IMG_2984.jpg

I don’t have an underwater camera (although I’m starting to wish I did), but the image below can give you an example of some of the aquatic life I was able to see in Aqaba – and right off of the free, public beach!  Winter is not the most popular time to travel in Jordan and especially not in Aqaba.  The weather is good (roughly in the 70s), but a bit cold for swimming.  Still, it was warm enough for me and I happily spent several hours snorkeling both days we were there.  As a bonus, I had the water to myself, thanks to the lack of crowds, and the cloudy skies prevented me from getting sunburnt!

800px-Red_sea_coral_reef.jpg

Yes, it was really this magical.

Aqaba was a lovely and relaxing introduction to our Jordanian adventure!

 

The Holy City of Jerusalem

IMG_2865.jpgI felt like I was living in someone else’s dream as I boarded the dusty green bus headed for Jerusalem.  Jerusalem:  one of the world’s most ancient cities; the most sacred city for the world’s three most powerful religions; a city steeped in contention and controversy.  To be honest, I didn’t feel worthy of such an ancient and important place, especially because I know many people long to make that pilgrimage while my own visit was not religiously motivated.

IMG_2856.jpg

Still, what a place.  I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about this city that had kept its walls under constant turmoil for most of its existence.  I had hopped on that bus with little expectation, aside from a couple of starred locations on Google Maps.

The Jerusalem I first saw was a far cry from the picture I had in my mind.  Upon exiting the bus station, I walked into a rather modern, four-story mall.  Continuing along the road into the old city revealed residential streets reminiscent of downtown Kansas City.  None of it was adding up in my head, but I kept walking.

20180121_151529.jpg

Once I caught my first glimpse of the Old City, the Jerusalem of my imagination and the one in front of me bore more resemblance to one another.  I entered the maze-like alleys, winding unintuitively in every direction, avoiding eye contact with the pushy shopkeepers whose stalls line every inch of every street.  Turkey has jaded me in this way.

IMG_2851.jpg

I stepped out of the tunnels and finally reached  the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the alleged site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.  Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the world filed in and out of the church with surprising consistency.  Just down the street, a group of well-dressed Jewish men, followed by a crowd of Jewish schoolboys struggling to maintain their best behavior, filed down the steps to pray at the Western Wall.  The Muslim call to prayer filled the cloudy sky.  My head was spinning.

IMG_2861.jpg

My husband and I stopped for a quick snack of hummus and pita bread at a nearby cafe, and as luck would have it, a woman with a camera crew showed up to film an interview with one of the restaurant owners.  He was Palestinian and was sharing his thoughts on Trump and the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  We chewed our bread a little harder, trying not to be too obvious about our eavesdropping while trying to grasp every word of the man’s valuable perspective.  In a nutshell:  the conflict rages on and little ever changes.  No one will go anywhere without a fight.

My head spins even faster at that point.  My husband suggests that we grab a coffee at another cafe with a great rooftop overlooking the city.  For the first time, the city feels quiet and calm.  We are the only ones up there, looking around at the beautiful, ancient rooftops – a skyline unlike any I’ve ever witnessed.

20180121_154233.jpg

On the bus back to Tel Aviv, only two seats remain and they are not together.  I sit next to a sleeping woman with earbuds in and my husband sits next to a man who turned out to be a Zionist and a former American.  His take on the conflict?  Anyone who isn’t Jewish should have left a long time ago.

I step off of the dusty green bus and walk back to our hotel, feeling like I understand more and less than ever.

Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa

IMG_2830.jpg

My husband and I second-guessed this trip approximately one million times.  We had actually planned our visit before the lovely Trump debacle, which left us in a bit of a predicament afterward.  Was it safe?  Was it ethical?  The answers to  those questions are pretty complicated and still not entirely certain.

IMG_2877.jpg

In the end, it was curiosity that won.  One of the reasons we choose to live abroad and travel is because we have always believed that the world is so much more than what is portrayed in the media – an instinct that has so far been proven to us countless times.  When class was dismissed for the last time for the semester, we eagerly grabbed our bags and headed to the airport with open minds, plans unchanged.

IMG_2796.jpg

We woke up bright and early in Tel Aviv to find a place that felt both strange and familiar.  In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Florida with its skyscraper skyline and long stretches of beach.  Perhaps less like Florida were the hordes of people working out literally everywhere – on the stairs, jogging down the sidewalks, doing push-ups on the beach; I made a mental note to do a better job of sticking to my workout regimen after our trip.

IMG_2813.jpg

The waves were insane!

Tel Aviv proper is a lovely, modern city filled to the brim with great restaurants and cafes.  Brunch seems to be a popular concept there and I did not mind one bit.  My immediate impression was that the city was very laid back and liberal and I learned before arriving that it is one of most gay-friendly cities in the world, which is not what generally comes to mind when people talk about the Middle East.  It also didn’t hurt that the long stretch of Mediterranean coast that outlines the city was one of the most spectacular walks I have ever experienced.

IMG_2826.jpg

Following that coastline leads to the nearby Old Jaffa, which is suspected to be the oldest port city in the world.  We had scheduled a free walking tour with SANDEMAN’S because we had had such a good experience with it in Prague.  In the end, I was so glad I did because I gained a lot more understanding of Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Israel in general.

IMG_2883.jpg

I had not realized how much of Israel was once part of Ancient Greece, which is very apparent in the architecture of old Jaffa.  I also had a miniature nerd meltdown when the tour guide told the story of Perseus and Andromeda (which  happened to be my favorite Greek myth as a child) because it supposedly took place in Old Jaffa, lending its name to Andromeda Rock (pictured above).

20180122_150901.jpg

Another fascinating tidbit from the tour was the story of Simon the Tanner, who, according to the bible, played host to Saint Peter.  While on the rooftop, Saint Peter had a dream which would change the course of Christianity (and, unquestionably, the course of humanity).  In the dream, two angels approached Saint Peter with tons of animals to eat, including pigs and shrimp.  He turned down the gift because, at this time, Christians still followed a kosher diet; however, the angels insisted, telling him that nothing they could sea with their eyes was unclean.  This dream was important for two reasons:  1) Christians could now eat bacon and 2) Non-Jewish people could thenceforth be converted to Christianity, which was not the practice prior to this dream.

IMG_2891.jpg

To be honest, I’ve never been very religious, but I found this story to be very interesting because I recognize how much it has shaped the world we live in today.  Also, bacon.  After our awesome tour of Jaffa, we walked back along the coast and stopped for a lovely dinner, where we enjoyed some local brew.

IMG_2821.jpg

The art scene was LIT.

Even as I write this, I feel like I can’t find the right words to describe Tel Aviv.  It felt so much like an American city at times, yet it is ancient.  It was like many other places I’ve visited, yet unlike anywhere else.  What I can say is that I enjoyed my time there not only because it changed my perspective on that part of the world, but also because it is genuinely a safe and pleasant place to visit.

IMG_2827.jpg