Aug 20, 2008

The Final Destination

After spending a few weeks relaxing from our incredibly stress-free vacation on the Greek islands, Amanda and I were ready to do some more traveling. I flew to Ann Arbor to spend some time enjoying their unseasonably cool August. Our days were spent playing ladder ball, sipping wine, and eating the most incredible dinners courtesy of Master Chef Ruth Petran and Master Griller Bob Petran. However, in the interest of saving everyone’s keyboards from saliva and drool induced meltdown, I will deny the urge to go over each meal in detail.

We thoroughly enjoyed our grand finale of the good life of all play and no work before our official move to Tucson. Not to place Tucson in a negative light. It is, however, no coincidence that upon our arrival Amanda will begin her massive push to achieve the greatness she had in Rochester and I will begin Law School, a sharp contrast to the lives of travelers.

On my fourth day in Ann Arbor we loaded the Hyundai with the deftness and precision of the world champion of Tetris. Neither nook nor cranny stood a chance against our superior packing skills. By Friday afternoon the Sante Fe was sagging beneath the weight of Amanda’s entire business, a 48” glass table strapped to the roof, and enough artwork to open our own wing at the Louvre.

Our final journey back to the real world began on Saturday morning. Had we not gone drinking with Bob and Ruth the night before, we just might have made it out of Nebraska. Yet, after passing through the potholes of Michigan, sprawling suburbs of Illinois, and the rolling corn fields of Iowa, it was a roadside campsite in the cornhusker state that we settled on for night #1. We were able to catch a few hours of sleep between the constant barrage of freight trains and 18 wheelers that assaulted our tired ear drums all night. I surrendered at 3:30 AM and decided to pack up the tent. It was an early start to a grueling day.

Sixteen hours of driving can be worse than waking up with your head sewn to the carpet. Yet, the beautiful scenery in Colorado worked hard to fray the strains of sitting upright for so long. The massive leather bound photo album behind my seat destroyed any hopes I had of reclining to an even remotely comfortable seating position. After passing through some heavy hitters in the famous ski resort lineup such as Breckinridge and Vail, we headed south past Telluride to the small ski town of Durango. The beautiful peaks surrounded us with the realization that you really don’t have to travel far to see some of the most stunning nature in the world.

We had our first real meal in two days at a Mexican restaurant in Durango and then drove our final hour to Mesa Verde National Park. Once our tent was erected we took a sunset hike on Knife Edge Trail. It skirts the edge of the Mesa allowing us to see for hundreds of miles over the flat valley below. Afterwards we attended a talk by a park ranger about the storytelling tradition of the Pueblo peoples that inhabited this land over a thousand years ago and still do to this day. We definitely heard the spirits talking that night. We fell asleep under a bright full moon in the desert: our new home.

In the morning we took a tour of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. After visiting dozens of ruins in the last few months, it still managed to impress us by its size and level of preservation.

By noon we were heading towards New Mexico for our final day of driving. We passed through the Navajo Indian reservation, the eerie specter of Shiprock, and were welcomed to Arizona via I40 by the incredibly nostalgic Route 66 town of Holbrook and a lush and green palette of plant life. It seems the arid forests and deserts of Arizona have had a good share of rain the past few years. How beautiful it has become. As we headed south we passed from high desert to pine forests, over red rivers, and into the Sonora desert. This dry desert is home to more species of plants and animals than any ecosystem in North America. Now you can add two more: Amanda and Leighton. We drove up to our new home just after a rainstorm and in the middle of a colorful sunset that is so common to the desert.

And so, after nearly 2300 miles we are here. Our new lives have officially begun. We were welcomed with open arms and a warm dinner by my parents. We have no income, no friends, and so many unknowns. We hope Tucson is as good to us as Rochester was. It’s a high peak to summit but we have faith. Amanda’s business will grow and I will study. Of course all are welcome to our spare bedroom on Croyden St.

Aug 6, 2008

Epilogue of the Wanderers

Millions of people travel in this world. Many of these tourists take packaged tours with guides and travel agents. However, many go as Amanda and I did. They take the bare minimum of supplies; a couple of shirts, some underwear, and a toothbrush. They put these items on their back and leave. We met hundreds of such travelers. Some had no plans and had been gone for more than a year. Others had 1 year’s worth of plane tickets with plans to spend no more than 2 weeks in each country. Some worked as they traveled. Some took many drugs. Others hung out in the same hostel for months. Some traveled to escape their reality. Some were looking for themselves. Some had no budget. Some had the smallest budget imaginable. Some traveled alone. Many traveled with their loved one. Many more traveled alone only between traveling with new friends they met along the way. We traveled with people from Canada, Norway, France, Australia, Israel, India, Argentina, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, and many other places around the world. And while we all had our own agendas, our own plans, our own time line, and our own budget, we all shared one thing in common: we had all sacrificed so much to see what the world had to offer.

While Amanda and I would love to look at ourselves as pioneers, we are not. We simply are two Americans who created an opportunity for ourselves to get out of our familiar lives of work and play to explore this vast planet we live on. Go ahead and browse through this blog again. In the last seven months we packed in a lifetime of stories, adventures, sights, sounds, and food sickness. We saw so much. In typical American fashion we moved fast and tried to see it all. Yet, we failed miserably. Once we got to Peru, our first country, we realized we could not see it all. Once we reached India we understood why everyone told us 25 days was not enough. The vastness of this world and diversity of its inhabitants is astronomically huge. In a way, it is overwhelming. Take India for example. Life is simply a struggle to survive in India. The majority of over 1 billion people try every day to find safe water, and food, shelter. Yet, the resources simply cannot be spread thin enough. Where do we fit in as tourists? In Bolivia we saw a new president, Bolivia’s first with Inca roots, fighting a wealthy Spanish population in the Southeast in a country that has been ruled by Spaniards since the occupation in the 1400s. In Turkey we saw a country caught on the fence between the westernized world and decidedly un-western Muslim religion that 97 percent of its inhabitants practice. Many of the countries we visited are all too familiar with terrorist attacks and civil unrest and strikes and chaos. We were simply tourists there to observe from afar. Some countries made us miss the comforts of home more than others. We have it good in America. Sure most of the world hates us and our foreign policies. But we have to ask ourselves if this matters as long as we can flush our toilets, buy our fancy electronics, sip our Starbucks, and buy our cheap gasoline ($13.5/gallon in Turkey). I don’t mean to sound sarcastic or even elitist. These truly are the things you begin to miss. We have rights in this country unlike any others. We have laws that protect us and police who don’t ask for bribes (often). America has its issues much like any country, but it is a wonderful place to call home.

Maybe this is why we travel. It is good to leave for a while and forget about the mundane media reports on the price of gas or Obama’s preacher. It is good to step outside of our American cruise ship to catch a glimpse of the beautiful and turbulent ocean that surrounds us; if nothing more than to realize how grateful we are for all the comforts of life in a western world.

We missed our friends, we missed our family. We missed knowing what was happening around us. We didn’t miss the hectic schedules and American work ethic. We didn’t miss 14-hour workdays and only spending a couple hours a week with each other. We didn’t miss the American media or the election news. In fact, there is a long list of the things we didn’t miss so much about home.

It seems Americans, much like any country, have the tendency to become engulfed by the microcosm of their lives. This is only natural. Why worry about the ban on head-scarves at public universities in Turkey when it’s Muslims that wear head-scarves and Muslims who are killing American soldiers in Iraq? Who cares if Argentina is facing a nationwide strike due to taxes on beef exports that could send the country into its second massive recession in 10 years when we can still buy a Big Mac for $3 any time we want? It is easy to view the world through our American goggles. This is what I loved about our trip. We saw the world in a different light. We hope that my words and Amanda’s photos acted as a portal of this perspective for our friends and families. We want this blog to not only share our experiences, but to reveal a small portion of the vast world that exists beyond our borders and TV screens.

We hope we can carry all of the wonderful experiences with us as our journey continues on the homeland. Life is, after all, nothing more than collection of experiences. We strive to find a way to shape them into some meaning now that we've returned to a different reality. We certainly have a more global perspective and we hope it will last as I begin to bury my head in books for Law school and Amanda begins building her successful business from scratch all over again.

We want to thank all of our readers and encourage you to check back every few weeks. We have decided to keep the blog going because life can be an adventure – even if we aren’t stopping thieves, escaping road blocks, getting published in a national magazine, or hiking the Inca trail. We have seen so much of the world and it has been a bittersweet ending to this chapter in our lives. We will miss the life of a tourist. Yet, we are excited to see what life brings us next.

And because ending with a quote just feels right, I will leave you with J.R.R. Tolkien:
“Not all those who wander are lost.”

Jul 31, 2008

Blink of an Eye

The final tale of our journey is indeed a wonderful one. In fact our merrymaking has been so intense in the last 2 weeks that our blog has suffered dearly. Who has time to write when you’re exploring an entire island by scooter? Why go online when dozens of beautiful beaches await us, lounge chairs and umbrellas galore? No time for pictures when there are so many gyros pita stands to try. Once Nick and Lisa landed in Santorini our travel brains seemed to turn off. These final two weeks were the only section of our 7 month adventure that was strategically planned. Hotels were reserved, ferries were booked, and budgets were thrown to the wind. This was the Greek islands in the summer, there where 4 of us, then 5, then 4 again, and we had more fun than can possibly fit into one of our Eagle Creek back packs. The alcohol was flowing and the mornings grew shorter and shorter as we partied our way closer to the finish line. And while time has erased so many details in my sun and beer soaked brain, I wish to stop with the generalities and fill in as many blanks as possible in the grand finale of Hablog Ingles.

Thira (Santorini)

Known as one of the most touristed islands of them all, Santorini, despite the throbbing crowds, did not disappoint. We visited the White beach, a beautiful outcrop of limestone that slid in the ocean creating a small beach of a beautiful color. We drove our scooters to the northern end of Oia to watch the sunset amongst hundreds of tourists. After the crowd applauded the sun’s final descent into night, a full moon made its glorious debut directly behind us. It was a memorable scene as we perched ourselves high in the bleached city that suspended itself on the edge of the cliffs, hundreds of feet above the sea. Thira is thought to be the site to the largest volcanic eruption in the history of the world. In 1500 BC the island’s entire center exploded into the atmosphere 30 km high creating a massive caldera that soon filled with sea water. It is one of nature’s masterpieces and the cause for all the crowds in Sanotrini. Yet, when the cruise ships depart and the sweet light arrives, this island is very romantic. The four of us relaxed, drank wine, and caught up on old times while staring off into the sea from our hotel.


After 4 hours on the slow boat, we arrived in the very un-touristed island of Amorgos. This island is basically a massive mountain protruding from the sea. We loved the contrast of its tranquility and serenity compared to Santorini. Again we rented two scooters because this is an amazing way to experience a Greek island. Here we went on a hike above the sea, and visited many beautiful classic white towns. We took the bus to a monastery that, because the Greeks love to do it, clung to the side of a cliff like the pickle from my quarter-pounder that now sticks to the window of McDonalds.


In Naxos, an old friend from France that Nick and I met in Costa Rica joined us. C’eline was happy to see us waiting for her at the port when she arrived. Now that the party had really started, the five of us rented an apartment near a very nice beach and lounged around all day. The five of us enjoyed the shallow waters as we tossed the Frisbee for hours. We had a wonderful seafood dinner that night and before we knew it we were off to …


As we stepped into the scorching heat of a bus parked in the sun, a fat sweaty man soon followed. He looked at his passengers – a rag tag bunch of independent travellers eager to see the island. “Welcome to Mykonos” he mumbled as his hand reached up for the stereo and the house music began pumping through the sound system. As our ride began and our heart beats assumed the rhythm of the music we knew that Mykonos would be intense. Mykonos, at least the part of Mykonos that the five of us experienced, is a never ending party. Our nights started at 11 and ended at 4 am. We sat at the beach among hundreds of party animals, a dance club party filled the background with all 3 genders joining in on the fun.
It is a beautiful island with some incredibly scenic towns and never ending white-washed buildings. But who cares when you’re gettin’ down at the night club SPACE or cruising the never-ending bars and restaurants that line every nook and cranny of this once sleepy place? We had lots of fun in Mykonos and though we had to say goodbye to C’eline, we were happy to be moving on.


This unknown was an added island as we decided three nights of Mykonos was too much for us. Turns out it was well worth the stop. This was old world Greece. Finally, we found towns with no tourist shops and only the occasional taverna. We took a drive at sunrise in our rented shoebox-of-a-car. It was a fitting farewell to our version of a 5 island tour.


Athens was the final stop of more than 100 for us. We made it. This is it. This is a dump. OK, so first impressions aren’t always accurate. Athens is a city that demands your attention to produce good results. While much of it is a ghetto, a little discovery will produce excellent eateries, wonderful gyros pitas, awesome bars, great vistas, nice beaches, and yes, the Acropolis. It’s too bad that so many tourists spend a whirlwind day at the Acropolis, Agora, and wonderful museum before boarding a ferry to the islands. It was a really nice city to spend our final three days. Since we had three full days, we did as Athenians do. We saw Mamma Mia at one of Athen’s outdoor movie theaters. Afterwards, we danced to some real music – none of the Mykonos house mixes here. The weather was perfect with a nice breeze for 3 straight days. We dined like kings and stayed out late. On the last night we climbed to the top of Lycabettus hill for a stunning 360 degree sunset over one the oldest cities of the world.

And then we flew home on four different flights. Just like that, the journey had ended. Seven months, thirteen countries, in the blink of an eye.

Jul 16, 2008

The Home Stretch

The sole of my right shoe is now peeled back a few inches from the toe. Amanda’s favorite shirt has elongated itself into a dress from so many hand washes in a hotel sink, and drying over the back of a chair. Our hair is long and shabby, our clothes need replacing. Yes, as I sit here in our beautiful hotel perched on the scenic caldera of the Greek island of Santorini, I am painfully aware that the end is near. Six months ago, this time would never come. Five months ago we had thousands of adventures in front of us. Last month we still had two countries on our list. Now there is Greece.
Before getting ahead of myself, I must back-track 1 week to Turkey. After taking a plunge off the mountain with the Mediterranean as my backdrop, we took a bus inland towards the ruins of Heiropolis in Pamukkale. This ancient Roman city resists the urge to be bland by perching itself atop a large outcrop of limestone terraces. The Romans shaped them into pools and what is left are stunning waterfalls of cool spring water into dozens of beautifully shaped pools over a bleach white landscape of calcium rich soil. It made for an incredible sunset. The ruins were crowned by an amazing Roman theatre – one of the best preserved in Asia. What might have caught our attention the most was the hundreds of bikini clad women, mostly Russian, posing in terraces for pictures. The beach was a hundred miles away yet everyone was in their bikini taking a swim. Considering the Turkish tourists wore headscarves and coats, it made for some bizarre contrasts.
We then headed for our final Turkish stop at the ruins of Ephesus. Regarded as one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world, we were certainly impressed. However, the stifling heat, encroaching forest fire, and crushing mass of cruise-ship tourists had us moving on our way fairly quickly to the port town of Marmaris. From here we took a pricey catamaran to the ancient Greek island of Rhodes.

Our guide book told us we’d either like Rhodes or love it. However it was dead wrong. These descriptives are far too weak and commonplace to truly explain the way we felt while roaming the ancient streets of Rhodes town on the northern tip of this large island.
Maybe it should have read: you will want to give up all your material possessions, renounce your citizenship to the US, climb a mountain, climb five mountains, do everything you hate – even listen to country music, just to be in Rhodes. It was fantastic. And all we had to do was give a company 50 euros each to get here! The old town is surrounded by ancient walls, 16 meters thick. The cobble stoned streets demand that you take your time as you stroll through crooked passageways, tunnels, and old, old, old. We loved our little apartment off the street. It was as though we had always lived there. And though the crowds could be intense, it was not difficult to find the quite streets where cats and old ladies still reigned supreme over mass tourism.

We took an excursion to the famous town of Lindos on the Eastern coast of Rhodes for a day of scorched skin, floating in the turquoise waters, and beer sipping.

After waking to a minor earthquake on our last morning in Rhodes, we boarded an 18 seat plane and now we are in Santorini; an island which speaks for itself. My sister Lisa and high school friend Nick will be meeting us here shortly. It is the beginning of the end and never have I experienced such a strong sense of the word “bittersweet”. We can’t believe our lives of travel are nearing an end but wow has it been great. We can’t believe we only have 2 weeks left but… we have two weeks to spend in Greece! Life is good. No, life is great.

Jul 5, 2008

4th of July

“This man stole my passport!!!” A small crowd quickly grew in numbers to engulf the scene that was unfolding in front of a fruit stand in the Western Mediterranean city of Kas (pronounced kash). Fists started flying as I held the man by my shirt.

Five minutes earlier, as Amanda and I strolled through this beautiful Turkish beach town, Amanda stopped me and told me something that really caught my attention. With her right pointer finger extended Amanda said: “Leighton, isn’t that the man that was on the beach yesterday?”

I turned for a look and began to follow him. It would be hard to call this a chase, but the guy sure was taking some strange turns as he wound his way through the small alleys and shops in the center of town. After nearly being run over by a kid on a scooter, my hand reached for what I suddenly realized was the exact shirt I had been wearing the day before.

Had I spoken Turkish there would have been many wonderful and glorious phrases spilling from my seething mouth at that moment. “You f#@$% sh@@#$ad ba#$%d. However, all I could think to say was: “That’s a nice shirt”. I said this because it was a nice shirt. It was mine after all, and after not having it for the night, I realized how fond of it I had become. It was really nothing too special – just a grey Jockey T shirt. However, when you have been wearing the same 4 t-shirts for the past 6 months, you tend to grow quite fond of them.

So now I was standing in the street holding a Turkish man wearing my shirt. This was the only man at the beach yesterday whose face I remembered. As we swam in the clearest and freshest seawater of our lives, he sat on a rock smoking his cigarette with an impossibly long ash.

“How you know he steals from you?” A thick Turkish accent from the crowd asks me this fair question. As I answered yet another local stepped up to bat. His right hand made a solid connection to the face of the man wearing my shirt. My shirt staggered backwards and fell into the stack of crates. More locals saw an opportunity they could not resist and crates began flying at the lanky man.

Amanda had left about 3 minutes prior to the flying fruit crates. As instructed by me, shortly after my first foray into crime fighting, she was causing a scene by running around the town screaming for the police.

The Turks will throw a punch at any opportunity apparently. So anytime this 6 ft scrawny man with a darkened complexion and dark beard’s mouth opened, it was met with a new fist. I was smiling the entire time.

We had spent a good portion of the prior afternoon at the police station struggling to fill out a police report in Turkish.

The bag sat ten feet behind me as we stared off into the Mediterranean in awe. In it rested my pants, knife, wallet, credit cards, passport, camera, cell phone, and many smaller items such as my insulin, blood tester, small plastic samurai man, luggage keys, and basically everything of value that I possess on my travels – including my Herpicin Lip Balm because lip herpes can be a problem in the sun.

I wanted to throw a punch but I’m just not a violent person. Fortunately he was bleeding quite badly by the time Amanda arrived with the police to a crowd of about forty.

While the owner of the fruit stand was no doubt concerned about his flying crates of fruit, I was more focused on my shirt. I really like that shirt.

Our fingers shook as adrenaline pumped through our bloodstreams. Amanda and I were escorted to the station by two detectives.

I sat in the blue chair at the end of the hall tonguing my herpetic lip, pondering which items I missed most. Was it the samurai man, the driver’s license, the passport, the camera? We sat at the police station for many hours. Amanda produced a beautiful image from her digital camera of the beach we were relaxing at the day before. The man with the now bleeding face sat in the left corner of the frame, waiting to run off with my possessions. The police loved it. It was possibly the first time they had evidence of a petty thief in action. They wanted to hire my little Sherlock Holmes on the spot. They took him into a room near where I sat. Apparently the man and four police decided to sit down and watch a Bruce Lee flick on high volume in this room. However, I did not notice a television. Nor were there any chairs. I was promptly asked to move down the hall, away from the noise. I never received an invite to join in the melee.
My translator was a Turkish man of 21 years whose German girlfriend was also a victim of theft that morning. Their criminal was caught on tape. We shared our stories and begged the police to let me search the man’s hotel room who at this point was still wearing my shirt.

Items began turning up one by one. First the phone, then the camera, then my bag, then my sunscreen walked through the door as detectives searched his hotel room and the trash bins around the hotel. “Where’s my passport?” I screamed in agony.

In the end, we left the man in his jail cell – minus my shirt. He has many pieces of evidence to prove his guilt and even more bruises.

I hope they cut his hands off. However, this law was abolished in Turkey with the fall of the Ottoman Empire nınety years ago.

I still have no knife, no shorts, and worst of all, no passport. I do have one hell of a great story to tell. It is certainly an Independence Day that will not be forgotten.

Jun 29, 2008

Living Under a Rock

Cappadocia is a modern day Bedrock. The main difference is that cars are not foot powered and I haven’t been able to find dinosaur vacuum cleaners or anything that resembles a bird can opener. But people do live inside rocks and mountains as they have for hundreds of years. There’s even a Flintstones cave hotel. I realize I have been quite liberal in the use of this word in past blog entries, but Cappadocia is the definition of surreal. Nothing has captured our bewilderment more than the hundreds of fairy chimneys carved into ancient homes and churches. Imagine a tall rock spire planted in the desert with a door, windows and stairs carved into its side. Walk inside to find multiple floors, carved tables, shelves, and even large, domed and frescoed churches. The volcanic rock is particularly soft in this region. For some reason, its inhabitants in the 11th-13th centuries decided to pick up a hammer and chisel and start digging. Nearly everywhere we turn, we see windows set hundreds of feet into the cliffs. The landscape alone is enough to deem this region stunning, the fact that thousands of people still live in the caves is the tipping point. This place is beyond anything we have ever seen. After 6 months of travel, we don’t feel this way very often.

Each home is supremely different. All resemble something from a Dr. Suess book. Some are built in groups such as apartments, other stand solo surrounded by grape vines. Each morning a barrage of 20 + hot air balloons make a quite assault on the sights below. But this only adds yet another element of madness as now the skies are filled with colorful jewelry.
We rented a scooter on our first day to do some exploring. We hiked and climbed and played in this ancient fun house of a place.

And if things just couldn’t get any stranger, it turns out that they lived underground too! Over 30 underground cities have so far been discovered. Using similar methods of carving and removing rock, the Cappadocians dug down as well. The largest underground city is 12 levels deep. Discovered in 1982, it is thought to have housed up to 30,000 people completely hidden beneath the desert’s surface. It is said that they lived here during periods of war and conflict (history has placed quite a few in this region of the world) to escape religious persecution. This was a very Christian community surrounded by Muslim armies. All entrances could be blocked by a 10-ft diameter stone that was rolled into place. The city we visited at Kaymakli was 8 levels deep and supremely strange. It is difficult to fathom an entire city living beneath the ground, yet here I was staring at their pantries, churches, air shafts, and toilets.

We’ve spent the last two days exploring the beautiful pigeon homes and rock formations in and around the city of Goreme, our home base for Cappadocia. Turkey just keeps getting better.

Turkish Delight

We boarded our air conditioned bus (we missed air con) headed for Safranbolu. This small town has managed to earn a World Heritage designation by preserving its old Ottoman homes. Indeed, we checked into our hotel, a 300 year old wooden home with a bathroom built into a closet. This may sound strange but imagine opening up a pantry door, stepping over a 1.5 ft ledge and into your shower. The hustle and bustle of Istanbul gave way to peaceful streets, and a more traditional Turkey.

It was not hard to spend two days meandering (a slower pace than walking, but faster than strolling) Through the streets of Safranbolu and eating free samples of Turkish Delight. Unlike many regions, here they sprinkle their chewy sweets with Saffron, the spice from which this town takes its name. Diabetics beware!! It is addicting.

We had no idea what to expect of Turkey. So far it has been comfortable, friendly, and full of surprises.

Istanbul was Constantinople

If India was our lobster-red sun burn, then Turkey has become our soothing and refreshing aloe. The storm has finally passed. Traveling is suddenly wonderful again. The roads are paved, the food is filled with meat, the cities are clean, and everyone is honest. Welcome to Turkey.

Our plane landed in Istanbul and to our absolute wonder and amazement not a single individual approached us to take their taxi or bus or stay at their hotel or buy their map or buy their daughter. We strolled onto the air-con metro and glided into beautiful Istanbul in absolute peace. Keep in mind we had just left a land of more than one billion people and even more headaches.

Istanbul is a world class city. It is also the only city that spans two continents: Europe and Asia. It has managed to blend old world beauty and heritage seamlessly together with a new sense of energy and excitement. We fell in love as soon as we stepped foot onto its rock paved streets and shaded parks. We spent four days exploring sights such as the Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia). Built as a church in 537 AD, It is without doubt the most incredible building we have ever witnessed. Its walls and frescoes have withstood many earthquakes. Considering that 97% of Turks call themselves Muslim, it now serves duty as a mosque. Highlighting the skyline among dozens of mosques is the famous Blue Mosque. We fought the crowds to catch a glimpse of the beautiful blue tile work inside that give this standout its name.

We walked for miles enjoying the Grand Bazaar district of leather, gold, rugs, and anything else a tourist might buy. We took a poor man’s cruise in the form a 30 minute ferry across the Bosphorous River at sunset (highly recommended). Mostly we just strolled and enjoyed all that this westernized metropolis had to offer. We sat in benches and spent Turkish Lire and loved everything about it, especially the absence of cows.

It was an incredible city that greeted us with open arms and a warm kebab; exactly what we needed.

Jun 19, 2008

Curse of the Rosewood Bracelet

The last 2 weeks have not been easy for your favorite travelers. India has done its best chew us up and spit us to the curb stained red from pan, a red chewing tobacco that is all the rage. Since Varanasi we have spent nearly 4 full days in transit, sleeping somewhere different every night. We have not seen nearly as much of India as 25 days should allow for. Instead we have been on the move, constantly attempting to find a place to sit back, relax, and enjoy India.

It all started with a rosewood bracelet. While on a 5 hour bus ride in the state of Bihar, India’s poorest. We sat next to an 18 yr old girl on her way to Patna to take an entrance exam for university. She was a joy to speak to. She offered me a wooden bracelet with silver roses as a gift to remember her. I happily and gracefully accepted her offer astounded by the generosity and kindness of every Indian not working in the tourist industry. I wore my bracelet with pride, it fit my girlish wrist perfectly and I didn’t have to barter for it.

Then we spent the night at the train station. After a 5 hour bus ride, we arrived to the station at 7 PM, 3 hours ahead of our 10 PM train which actually arrived at 3 AM. There was only one announcement in Hindi meaning we nearly missed it as we were both sound asleep by 3 AM. Our 10 hour train ride to Siliguri, a northern city in the State of West Bengal picked us up 5 hours behind schedule and arrived in Siliguri only 8 hours behind schedule. Next we caught a 3 hour taxi to Darjeeling, a beautiful hill station town where the temperatures are cool. Tibetan culture overruns this city which boasts 360 degree views of the three highest peaks in the world – Everest included. After 30 hours of traveling we checked into our hotel to discover that tomorrow is the beginning of a strike. It turns out, the mainly Nepali and Tibetan people of this hill region are demanding their own state, separate from West Bengal. It’s a 20 year old conflict that has waited until our arrival to culminate into a complete shut down for the region. This means no busses, no trains, no shops, no restaurants, nothing. Miraculously the taxi driver was able to find his way around all road blocks.

Our kind hotel owner kept his facilities open for us and the 6 other tourists who remained. We spent the day relaxing and strolling though the quietest streets India has to offer. Thick cloud cover obstructed our views of the Himalayas but we could feel their presence as the clouds swirled over our heads.

After a day of the strike the Hotel Owners Association organized an evacuation of all hotel guests. We were scurried into a jeep packed with 12 foreigners and part of a convoy of about 50 vehicles going down the hill. Our driver had to fight with every road block but the evacuation was a success, despite some vomiting children in the Jeep ahead of us.

Siliguri, the town we escaped to, was facing transportation strikes due to rising gas prices. Darjeeling and Sikkim, where we planned to spend 7 days where now shut from commerce. The Trains were all booked for 4 days solid as it is Summer vacation for India. Keeping all this in mind, we made the decision to get away from the craziness and move on to Nepal, only 1 hour away.
We walked across the border in the dark and found a guest house. Our 4 AM Kathmandu-bound bus left in the pouring rain on time. It was going to be a 15 hr journey. We stopped twice for food and dozens of times for more passengers. Then we stopped at a road block. No problem, it will be clearing in 30 minutes. This quickly turned into 2 hours, which turned to five, which turned to our entire bus load of Nepalise sleeping in the bus in front of a gas station. Miraculously, of the roughly 10,000 people stuck behind this road block, we were the only foreigners. The Canadians we crossed the border with must have been smart and flown to Kathmandu.

It was now 11 AM the day after our bus left. We had been stuck at the road block for 24 hours. The only good thing to come of the situation was the kind conductor who walked and talked with us and kept us feeling safe. The three of us decided to stroll to the front of the line of trucks, busses, and cars to find a group of villagers peacefully dismantling a cargo truck. Diesel fuel spilled though a punctured gas tank and pieces of the engine were scattered on the road next to bucket seats and deflated tires. A group of 5 young policemen stood and observed this calm yet destructive protest, riot gear in hand. It turns out a man was killed the night before by a bus, and a small child a few hours later nearby by this truck. This resulted in a block and now the entire country is inconvenienced. At least that’s the story we got. One has to wonder if the fact that Nepal changed from a Monarchy to a Republic only 2 weeks ago and is now in the process of building a new government has anything to do with the strikes. Wondering when our luck will change, we make the difficult decision to go back to the very country we ran away from to begin with. This meant boarding one bus and driving about 2 km until we reached a third accident. This one was getting violent. Amanda and I strapped our bags on and ran through the blockade to a bus on the other side heading to the Indian border. At the Nepal immigration office they wanted to know why we came to Nepal for only 2 days. They denied our accusations of problems on the highways and road blocks. We rolled our eyes and fled back to the country that we love to hate – India.

Another 5 hour bus ride through potholes that could swallow a Volkswagen brought us back to Patna. Somewhere along the way I chucked the bracelet out the window cursing its evil hold on our luck. We admitted defeat, checked into a nice hotel and booked a plane ticket to Delhi where we arrived, greeted by the earliest monsoon on record for 108 years. Its strange to find respite in such a huge polluted and dirty city but here we our, in the fifth day of Delhi and it’s not such a bad place. The rains have cooled things down a bit and we have been enjoying the shopping and dining that this city has to offer.

We are sad that India has rejected our advances of courtship. Yet, we are not surprised. In this vast country where most marriages are arranged, we now realize that when we return we must plan ahead and have a huge dowry to offer. The best matches in India cost a lot of money. Traveling here can cost as little as $8 per day and as much as $3000. Be prepared to get what you pay for. Next time we’re taking out an ad in the Sunday Hindustan Times: “Wanted, relaxing cultural excursion through the beautiful landscapes of India. Will pay as much as is necessary”.

Jun 15, 2008

Markets of Asia Slideshow

Please click here to view slideshow in a larger screen.

Jun 5, 2008

The Ghats Must Be Crazy

Our wooden boat slowly maneuvered through the masses of worshippers. There were those that floated, those that lathered, those that splashed, and those that prayed. It was 5:30 AM and the sun was slowly making its ascent over the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. It is considered one of the oldest cities in the world and certainly one of the holiest. Indians from across the country make their pilgrimage to the ghats that line 7km of the river. These ghats consist of stairs descending into the cleansing waters of the Ganges. They are a continuous carnival of tourists, touts and spiritual rituals. On these steps, at any given moment, you can find people washing their cows, washing their clothes, cutting their hair, selling flowers, cremating family members, playing cricket, meditating, roller skating, sleeping, eating, having a shave, dancing, or just sitting back and enjoying the sights, smells, and sounds. It is the absolute epitome of the chaotic Indian culture, all conveniently occurring simultaneously on the miles of steps, platforms, and temples that lines the shoreline in Varanasi.As our driver continued to row, narrowly avoiding the heads of those cleansing their souls, Amanda and I watched in awe. Of course, all of this activity gives the city a magical air. It is a place of life and death. It is a place where one can witness the entire cycle of life while floating in a boat rowed by a teenager. Parents wash their newborns. The elderly rinse their pains away. The mourning say their prayers. The truly religious ring their bells and wave their flames in a nightly service thanking the Ganges for its devine power. The crematory sits on the banks as well. We passed through it often. At any hour in the day and night you will find families ritualistically burning the bodies of those they love. As their ashes join the floating candles in the river, the Hindu cycle of life and death is broken, sending their souls to a final resting place. My fingers nervously flip through my phrase book as our boat approaches a group of men squatting on the rocks drinking down the holy water from their cup-shaped hands. I want to explain to them that this holiest of holy waters is also the dirtiest. Unfortunately I am unable to find the words I want. The phrase was conveniently excluded from the pages of my guide. The Ganges River here contains over 3000 times the safe amount of faecal coliform bacteria. It is literally septic, meaning it contains no dissolved oxygen. Over 30 sewage pipes deposit directly into this nearly still river. These facts only add (considerably) to the spectacle that occurs here daily. Over 60,000 people, whether ignoring these facts or ignorant to them, happily let the filthy water surround their bodies and cleanse their souls.
We spent our three days wandering through the mazes of streets and chaos. It is hardcore India culture to the max.

Jun 1, 2008

Eating India

As we sit down at the small Ram Raja Restaurant in the town of Orchha, a man herds his fifteen water buffalo over the adjacent bridge for a refreshing bath. The sign for the restaurant proudly reads: “Recommended by Lonely Planet”. The traveler’s bible is omnipresent. We glance at the small menu where nothing costs much more than $1. A family of about 10 noisily awakes themselves in the morning hours behind the curtain separating the street from the kitchen. We finally decide to order: Shak Shuka, an egg dish with cabbage and onions, toast and chai tea. Five minutes later a man emerges from the curtain, starts his Honda bike and motors off. After a few more moments a young boy runs towards the market, 20 rupees in hand. The tea arrives after only ten minutes. The Indians love their Masala Tea. Known as Chai to us westerners, it’s the perfect blend of spice, milk, and sugar, served in a tall glass. As we sip tea two SUV’s packed with one family arrives. They file out and head towards the restaurant. Their shotgun-armed bodyguard looking like a drunken frat boy who spent the night binge drinking follows them. They sit in a half circle of chairs in the street staring at Amanda and I center stage at our raised table.
They stare, talk about us in Hindi, and stare some more. Their tea comes out and they sip it and stare. Awkward. Finally the father convinces his son to talk to us.

“Hello, from what country?”
“USA” we reply, “Where are you from?”
“I am twelve, you my home like?”
“What?” this conversation isn’t going too far. “Is this your family?” We warily continue.
“Yes, my father, 4 sisters, uncle, two brothers, drunken, shotgun-wielding driver.” The conversation is back on track.

Just then the man on the motorcycle returns with a crate full of vegetables. We ordered 30 minutes ago and the ingredients have just arrived. At least we know they’re fresh.
The family returns to their stares and we return to our Lonely Planet. While traveling, meal times are always a great time to plan your next move. A few minutes later the other boy returns from the market with no cabbage. His father, not too pleased, sends him running back from where he came. Then a twelve year old boy emerges from the kitchen speaking perfect English to us. His brother went to buy cabbage for our meal he explains. We smile and order more tea. Then about 8 young kids run off the street through the curtain. Two minutes later, 4 different children emerge and run down the street.

The large family stands up, pays, and wanders up the road. Their body guard, who has been stroking his shotgun for the past half hour, puts it in the truck and sits back down. Families only need guarding while they’re eating.

There is a constant flow of tractors pulling water tanks. They return from the river full and cross the bridge empty. The electricity goes out, killing the Indian music and giving us a sudden silence. It is rare that electricity does not go out in most cities around here. After about 70 minutes I finally get antsy and ask the man who went to the market if the boy returned with the cabbage yet. He smiles, nods and slips behind the curtain. Twenty seconds later he returns with our meals. We devour it, taking note to avoid the butter with dead mosquitoes in it. It is delicious but there is no cabbage. We pay our bill: $2.38, and pray to the Ganesh poster on the wall that we won’t spend the next three hours in the bathroom. It’s now 8:30 AM and India is waking up. Nothing is ever as it seems in India. It truly rewards those with patience.

After breakfast we hired our guide (pictured left, photo by leighton) for the rest of India. He's not very good with the train schedules but he always leads us to the good restaurants.

May 31, 2008

The Taj Mahal

How do you describe a shot of tequila? It burns as it first enters your system. Then, you feel the warmth coming from within. You beg for more. It’s funny how the same words can be used to describe India. At first we were overwhelmed by a city of more than 15 million. At first we were disheartened by all of the people pushing their products – often lying to make a sale. At first, the crowds of men huddled outside a restaurant like a pack of starving dogs waiting for scraps was appalling. Then, suddenly the warmth comes through. We see past the bad and into the good. The people are warm and friendly, the culture is well preserved, and the chaos has become quite comfortable after only a few days.

After wandering for a day through Delhi, the most overwhelming city in the world, we headed south by train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. This is possibly the most photogenic structure ever erected by man. Its perfect symmetry and raised foundation give it a surreal appearance, not to mention the white marble that shines as bright as the day it was completed. We spent four hours looking at the Taj from every possible angle.
We are now in the small town of Khajuraho. We spent the morning strolling through the ancient Jain temples here that feature thousands of Kama Sutra carvings. It’s hot , it’s crazy, it’s India.

May 25, 2008

We've Been Published part 2

In today's Tucson daily newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, we had another article published! click on this link to read it.

May 24, 2008

Kaup Chai Laos

After Luang Probang we spent a few nights in the backpacker city of Vang Vieng. Imagine a city set in the midst of beautiful limestone karsts and rivers. Fishermen cast their nets from their long river boats. Locals cross bamboo bridges to their island homes. Dozens of restaurants blast every season of “Friends” from multiple TVs all hours of the day. Every hangout is packed with tourists who waste their day sipping “happy” shakes and watching Joey and Rachel and the rest of their Friends get out of some crazy situations. It was not exactly our idea of paradise. We then bussed it to Vientiane, the Laos capital. Here we rented a 1967 Vespa to cruise the town. It was a fitting end to this peaceful country.
It is said that Laos is the most bombed country in the world. Between 1971 and 1973, it became helplessly involved in the largest bombing raid in US history as the North Vietnames sheltered their soldiers across the border in Laos. In these 2 years, more bombs fell in Laos than were dropped during all of WWII.

Yet, in spite of all this destruction, today they are a wonderful people who have begun to embrace capitalism and open their borders to investment and tourism. We loved Laos and give it an enthusiastic two thumbs up.

May 20, 2008


It’s quite humorous that I find Laos to be such an amazing country. After all life has not gone so smoothly for me since our small plane barely landed on the tarmac of the dark airport. The trouble began as I sat in the head customs agent’s office. After paying an extra dollar for my Visa because our plane landed after hours, it was pointed out to me that my passport has less than 6 months of validity left on it. Apparently I am the only world traveler that did not get this memo. I should never have a passport in this state of existence. It is nearly worthless in most countries. Lucky for us a little cash will do the trick - $120 and my meaningless identification had yet another entry stamp emblazoned in its tattered pages.

Luang Probang, in Northern Laos is referred to in our Lonely Planet guide book as the “prettiest city in Asia” This might be true. However, it has also fallen ill to the “Lonely Planet” curse. All of us loyal followers adhere to its words with the voracity to descend like the swarm of adventure-hungry independent traveling locusts that we are, destroying every town, hotel, and restaurant whose name is so fortunate to find it’s way onto the pages of the tattered Lonely Planet bible that rests clutched in the hand of every other tourist who passes. With one finger stuck in the page where a small map of the town resides, we hand over our hard earned cash in abundance, raising prices and crowding the streets with our own kind. Unfortunately, this is the exact thing we have traveled around the globe to avoid. Ahh but not all is lost. Luang Probang is simply too wonderful to be destroyed by the $800 scarves that sit on the shelves of boutique stores and the $40 French restaurants nestled between two $1 noodle soup shops. It is a town teeming with young monks who reside at its more than thirty temples. They march through the streets at 6 am collecting alms for the day from shop owners. Their mere existence is a constant reminder of the country we are visiting, - as if the beautifully colorful tuk-tuks weren’t evidence enough that this was indeed not Kansas.

It’s not so much that 23 people were crammed into the back of a truck on a journey north that bothered me. It was not the sweltering heat. The frequent and jolting stops and uncomfortable seat did not rattle me. It was not even the motorcycle that leaned on its kickstand mid-ship in the truck dripping gasoline on my foot that simply has no other spot the rest but beneath its engine. None of these things disturbed me. What nearly brought me to tears was having not a clue how long the journey would last, and that the guy next to me was smoking. Eventually we reached our destination. The beautiful city of Nong Khiaw’s small write- up in our “Lonely Planet” has spared it. A town must have a map in the guide book before the curse sets in. The swarm must know where to sleep. We lulled the day away reading from the hammocks in our private Sunrise Guesthouse bungalow ($5/night) perched high above the Nam Ou River. Massive Limestone cliffs dripping in lush jungle rose on all sides. Kids played soccer on a small island that surfaces only when the water is low. Ridiculously long river boats motored locals and tourists alike up and down stream.

So far it sounds pretty good doesn’t it? There’s just one hiccup in this story. That’s true. Then there was the fall. We had been hiking through the thick jungle, around freshly scorched rice fields, between thatch houses on stilts, and among the amiable water buffalo for three hours. We stopped every five minutes to pick leaches from our ankles. I had been telling the German in front of me about the amazing durability and usefulness of bamboo. “Did you know that pound for pound, bamboo has twice the tensile strength of steel? It is the fastest growing plant in the world – ten cm a month! It is used in Chinese scaffolding Michael! It is used in concrete as a cheap alternative to rebar! It is a truly renewable building material. You can eat it! It is godlike!” Most of these words fell from my mouth in the moments leading up to the bridge.

I never expected to fall off a bridge in the thick Jungle of Laos. Then again I never expected three sticks of such a wonderful material to give way beneath my weight, depositing me into the river below. I was not scared. Mid-air, as my arms both attempted to roll up imaginary car windows I did not think about the fact that we were thousands of miles from a Western hospital. I did not wonder if I would be hurt. I did not worry that we were three hours by foot from the nearest road. In this moment of clarity, all that passed through my head was the fact that the bamboo had failed me. I felt used.

Of course I was fine. I sat in the muck in shock for 5 seconds while my five trekking partners, Amanda included, ran to my aid. I escaped with a small scratch and nothing more.
Strike two for Laos. But I still love it. The people are amazing. The food is wonderful and the terrain absolutely surreal. I keep expecting a red Jeep to drive by with a T-Rex in close pursuit. Our hike finally brought us to the small village of Phayong. As you stroll down its dirt paths and watch the children throw chickens at each other, it is difficult to know what century it is. Under one of the 40 stilted houses a woman crushes corn with a foot powered mill. Next door, a topless woman holds her new-born slung across her back as she watches her chickens eat from an old basket of feed. Down the street, a man tends to the ten beautiful pineapples growing inside his bamboo fence. Laos is wonderful. This particular village sees about 10 tourists every month. We slept in the home of the Village Chief. For dinner and lunch we chewed on rice and green beans. Breakfast mixed it up a bit with rice and bamboo. Amanda couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She became a vestige of her lens as it pulled her toward every corner of the village. The shutter never rested more the a few seconds.
And this has been Laos. We are headed towards Vientiane, the capital, so I can replace my passport. I’m hoping I don’t receive a third strike in this country because it is really great. No one wants to see Sammy Sosa strike out. It’s just not right.