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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

You’ll never know who you’ll meet….

My first morning in Jordan, I was awoken rather early (I thought it was 7AM but apparently it was more like 5:30AM) by the sounds of the ‘Call to Prayer’. In the predominantly Muslim country, the Call to Prayer is heard several times a day (5 to be exact) urging Muslims to pray towards Mecca…or at least this is my understanding of it. I must have been startled by the sounds and woke up but quickly realized that it was way too early to wake up and decided to go back to bed. I didn’t emerge from my room until 3:00PM on my first day there. It was too late to go to the Amphitheater or the Citadel as I was told that it closed at 4PM. So I just hung around the hostel.

I never heard the early morning Call to Prayer after that. The following morning, I was the face you’d see when you walked into the the hostel (granted that it was after 10:00AM).  I hadn’t seen anything of the city except for a walk down the streets of downtown with my co-worker, Khaled, the driver. I absorbed everything and was glad to be escorted by a local male.  I had heard stories about single women in the Middle East…It’s a hard place to get by, on the one hand, constant stares of desire (or so the say) by the men, and often times looks of disdain, mostly from other women, if you’re wearing anything that exposes some skin: tank tops, sleeveless tops, shorts, skirts, you get the picture.  But, if you’re with a guy, somehow it’s as if you got an ‘Get out of Jail” card and you don’t seem to get as much attention than if you were walking alone.

Friday, November 12, 2010

It was love at first sight and so I said yes…

I was on the plane heading over to the Middle East…The Middle East! It’s that faraway place you only hear about on the news?!  I was finally going there! First inspired by one of my political science professors, Dr. Nasr, I knew one day I’d like to go to his home country - Lebanon.  Jordan is not quite Lebanon but it was close. Other than the association with my prof, the only other knowledge I had about Jordan was what I saw on a 10 year running reality TV show in Japan called Ai nori where 4 men, 3 women, always random, travel around the world in search of love. (Yes, I like cheesy shows like that and quite bummed that they’ve ended the show!) Besides finding love, they visit with people around the world and see famous places. Petra and Wadi Rum, two of the most famous places in Jordan, left a lasting impression on me… After seeing that episode over a year ago; I knew I wanted to go there.

So I was going here. Usually before I start any trip, I always try to find someone who knows someone…especially if I’m traveling alone. Unfortunately, of all the people that I know, I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone in Jordan so I was going alone. Traveling to a foreign land alone can be quite terrifying; traveling to the Middle East alone can be traumatic. But it wasn’t! With a travel guide - where I must pause and thank my dear friend Stephanie again for buying me this book when I was staying with her in Breedon-on-the-Hill! Thanks Steph! - for the first time on this trip, I was reading about how nice the people were and how incredibly safe it was; this laid to rest a lot of my anxiety.

The Venice of the North

Is what St. Petersburg has been dubbed and it truly is…when you walk down the streets, you’ll be amazed to see how many canals there are and how the architecture is something out of Western European. We also heard that many of the early urban planners modeled the city after Amsterdam. Whatever city St. Petersburg tried to imitate, it’s definitely not what you’d expect from Russia, or at least in my head.

The city changed its name three times (St. Petersburg - Petrograd - Leningrad) and finally reverted and settled on its original name, St. Petersburg, named after St. Peter who founded the city; contrary to many who assume that it was named after Peter the Great. Upon arriving in St. Petersburg, we sensed a different vibe from the one we left back in Moscow. Maybe it was our imagination but the people here seemed much friendlier and a few people even stopped to ask if we were okay and needed any help. We also recalled that the girl who helped us with our train back in Moscow was actually a native of St. Petersburg! There exists a longstanding rivalry between the cities and each will have their own opinions but for me at least, St. Petersburg was much more welcoming and here made me feel like I was traveling in a not-so-foreign place.

After we got off the train, we quickly found the metro and found our way to our hotel. The hotel, which we found through was located right in the center of the city and for $120 a night, we each had our own bed, breakfast and free wi-fi! Not to mention, the company also provides the necessary sponsorship documentation(for free) which is required for all foreigners applying for a Russian Visa. I later learned from others that hotels charged about $30 for this service.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

From Russia with Love

Day 86 - Day 100!

So, I finally made it to Moscow!  After all the hassles that I had with the visa, again, I was admitted into the country with very little questioning.  We were about an hour delayed and so I needed to quickly find my luggage and make my way out towards my friend Eleanor’s house.  Eleanor and I also used to work together; she is also good friends with Yvonne, Maggie and Andy!  Eleanor has been living and working in Moscow for the last year and a half so I was extremely lucky to know someone in Moscow who knew the area and could speak the language.  Russia is rumored to be one of the most expensive cities in the world and I wasn’t entirely excited to see if this rumor was true!  

I was also very lucky to have two friends come out to see me!  It was definitely a special treat to have a visit from friends!   There haven’t been many moments that I was completely alone on my trip; I was always surrounded by good people, but it is definitely much more fun to be able to discover a city and experience things with dear friends.  So my two visitors were: Judy and Simone.  I met both of them on my study abroad to Japan almost 13 years ago!  Judy is a very close friend of mine and we have traveled to many countries together.  She is and has continued to be a great supporter of my current soul searching mission.  Simone, who is Dutch, also came along on the journey.  I haven’t seen this girl in years!  10 years to be exact!  The last time I saw her, was in her hometown of Amsterdam.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Case of the missing underwear…Travel gone bad…happy endings in Moscow

I pulled an all-nighter…the first time in a while.  I had been on a mission for the last week or so to finish the book ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert so that I could leave it for Stephanie.  I didn’t finish it in time when I was in Breedon on the Hill so I thought I will definitely finish the book while I’m in London and I’d see if maybe Gogz could take it with him when he went to visit the family in Breedon.  Well, I never got in touch with Gogz, and in the meantime, I got Maggie interested in the book so the new plan was to leave the book for Maggie who could then post it to Stephanie after she was done reading it.

So I stayed up all night and didn’t get any shut eye so that I may try and finish the book. Until the final minutes, I was reading the book!  I was getting worried that for only 20 pages or so, I’d have to take the book with me and then post it to Maggie so that she could post it to Steph.  At about 5:04AM, I finished the book! I then put away my laptop and all my other knickknacks spread out and thought my driver should be here any minute.

The house phone rang at 5:07AM and I told the driver that I’d be down in 5 minutes. He started arguing with me asking ‘didn’t you want me here at 5:10?’ I told him, ‘I need to hang up the phone now so that I can get ready.’ I didn’t really see the point in arguing when I could be packing my things and getting downstairs as soon as I could.  I really thought that maybe the driver left though…

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Celebrate Good Friends

Day 73 -86

I arrived safely in the United Kingdom. It was a long flight but I was able to sleep most of the way. It’s one of the gifts I have been blessed with, I can sleep anywhere! I have been to London several times so it wasn’t anything new for me. I was hoping to be able to sort my bus ticket before arriving but for some reason, I wasn’t able to pay online. When I contacted my credit card company, I was told that due to the increase of fraudulent activity in the UK, you need to call in to request that your card be activated. Since I ran out of time, I didn’t have a choice but to get my ticket upon arrival; which worked out to my benefit because I was able to find a ticket to get a ticket for much less than I had originally found.

The only trade-off was that I needed to go into the city and then board a bus from there; which was fine by me because after I returned from visiting Steph, I would be spending my final days in London anyway. So, I found my way on the tube to Victoria Coach Station. I’ve done this route before, most recently as 2006, so it was all vaguely familiar for me except this time I had so much more to carry! I was still carrying the tent, 2 bottles of champagne, books for the kids and my two backpacks…

Managed to find my way and arrived safely in Leicester at 12:40PM. Steph lives about 45 minutes away; in a smaller town called Breedon on the Hill and was trying to time my arrival to come get me. There were no loading zones so I had no idea where Steph would be coming from. Somehow, she spotted me and waved to me from across the street. It was soooo nice to see her after all these years! The last time I had seen Steph was in 2006 when I came to surprise visit her for what was supposed to be a weekend trip (4 days + 2 days traveling) over Thanksgiving. That was before all the little kids came; it would be almost exactly a year later that her daughter Maya would be born. Now, there were two!  And coincidentally, I was coming just in time to celebrate little James' 1st birthday!