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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Goldilocks and the Three Bears...

Day 169


November 15, 2010


What a trip.  I arrived safely in Istanbul and it took me a few minutes to look at a map and figure out where I was. Apparently, there are two airports in Istanbul and I flew into the Asian side, on the other side of the city (European side)!  But thankfully, Okan sent me maps and gave me bus numbers and navigated me to his home on the European side all by email! 

The journey into the city would require two bus transfers and was supposed to have taken me about 2 hours but fortunately, would only take me about an hour and a half. I also got lucky because there was an older couple that was on my plane that just so happened to be going on the same metrobus that I needed to be on.  I actually was really lucky.  If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t know where to get off on the first bus and would have NO IDEA how to walk to the metrobus station, up the stairs and about 200 meters from where we got dropped off.

The language in Turkey – Turkish – was  not really what I expected it to be and for some reason, I was excited about the fact that I would be able to go to Turkey and hear Arabic again.  I assumed this because of the many Muslims in Turkey but I was completely wrong.  There were only a few Arabic words used – Inshallah (God Wlling), Marhaba (Welcome), Alhamdulillah (Thank God). Other than that, I didn’t understand anything and couldn’t commit it to memory either…it was a really difficult language! 

With the help of the couple, I got off at the station and then quickly got lost without them; I wasn’t quite sure which way to turn.  I decided I should call Okan to see if he could guide me but I didn’t have a phone and didn’t see any pay phones around. Just then, a guy came up to me to see if I needed help.  I noticed that he had an iphone so I asked if there was any way that I could use his phone to make a call. He generously agreed.  So I went through my phone and quickly realized that I didn’t have his number! I didn’t save it in my phonebook…I assumed I would be able to view my messages from facebook but since I had no internet, I couldn’t pull it up. I was screwed. I had no phone number, I didn’t know exactly where I was going and I had all my bags which made me so immobile! It was starting to get dark and I was getting worried. I asked him if I could use his phone to check my email to get the number.  He agreed and let me retrieve the number.  So nice!  So with that, I got the number and called Okan.  Turned out, I was going in the right direction and I just needed to go down the street.

IMG_4932       the guy with the iphone

Okan left the keys for me with the shopkeeper at the corner so I needed to go there to pick it up. It was like I was a contestant in the Amazing Race!  I found the shop okay and Ibrahim didn’t speak English but more or less understood what I was saying.

So I finally get the keys to Okan’s apartment and find my way okay. I had to lug up all my luggage up several flights of stairs. I didn’t know which exactly was his apartment so ended up climbing to the top of the steps.  But that didn’t look right.  Finally, I figured it out! I still cannot believe how AMAZINGLY GENEROUS Okan is to allow a perfect stranger into his home, especially when he’s not there! I am so grateful! 

Okan told me that his room was the biggest room....but I didn't check all the rooms, instead I found the last room with his nametag on the door so I thought it must be his room...I go in and there's a big laundry hanger rack....with clothes hanging and you can't get into the room; the room also smells of mold. Oh well, I thought, he must have been busy...I'm not going to complain, I have a place to stay...

So I moved some things to the side and slept there and made my way around the mess. Tidied up a bit, folded some clothes...Then today I get the wi-fi password emailed to me from Okan so I connect and give him a call...I'm telling him that I can't find his laptop...he's telling me that it's under the table but I don't see any table...did he forget that he put the table away? Because I see a table folded up leaning against the wall. So, anyway I call him on skype and I'm telling him, there's no table...then I say, 'there's only the bookshelf with the tv'. Then he says, 'wait are you in my room?' HUH? He tells me it's the first I open the first door, with him still on the phone...OH, NOW I SEE THE TABLE! OH MY GOD! I was sleeping in the wrong room! Then I tell him, 'but your name was on the door!' And he's like 'really? hmm..I don't know.'

So anyway, clear out all my stuff and go to his room...go back to look at the door and look at the nametag again..I read it (probably like the 5th time I've looked at this nametag) and it says: O-K-V-A-N! Not, O-K-A-N! SO EMBARASSED! Oh my God! It turned out that I slept in his brother’s room!  I laughed and cried when I retold the story to Simone over email.  I really felt like Goldilocks, just walking into the home of the THREE bears (Okan and his roommates – brother and cousin) and just making myself at home, sleeping in their beds. Thankfully so far all the Turks that I have met have been so kind to me! Really.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tram, Train and Airplane!

Day 169


November 15, 2010

I woke up at 5:00AM so that I’d be able to ride the 5:52AM tram; I had a 6:51AM train to take me to Switzerland.  From there, I’d take a bus to the airport and then fly out to Istanbul.  I had a big day ahead of me and my biggest fear was that I wasn’t going to wake up and I’d miss my tram, that would make me miss my train, an then I’d miss my flight…we all remember Nuweiba, Egypt! From anxiety and getting the wrong information on train times, I made sure I caught the earlier tram just in case…I still had the next tram as back up.

Judy’s house was very close to the tram station. On a good day, it was only a 5 minute walk.  But I had all my things…so I estimated that it would probably take me at least 10 minutes…The other element was that it was forecasted to rain….I did not want to have to walk to the station in the rain!  Makes your things heavier with all the water weight!


Now you’re wondering why I just didn’t call a taxi? Well, according to Judy, there’s an additional charge of €6 or so to order a taxi.  That comes out to about $8.25 and that doesn’t even include the taxi fare!  When Judy and I returned from Paris, it cost us 15 ($20) to get back to her place though the driver forced us to give him a 2 tip. So, basically we were looking at $30 for a 4 mile distance!  Also, outside of the city where Judy lived, I never saw a taxi…so it wasn’t like I could hail one down.

So my plan was to leave the house at 5:30AM.  That should give me enough time to walk there and catch the tram. Of course, the plan never happened and I didn’t end up leaving until about 5:40AM; by the time I got downstairs, it was 5:46AM! I thought surely I wouldn’t catch the tram but I was still going to make an attempt!  I tried to walk as fast as I could and was making good time but I also had to do a short stop…I needed to drop of my glass containers….the night before, I had asked Judy’s roommate, where I could put it for recycling and he told me it was on the way to the tram….so I guess he wanted me to bring it myself.  It was easy enough and it probably only took me an extra :30 but it was the weight of carrying it with all my other things that made it a bit of a hassle.

As I was approaching the tram station, I saw a tram making a turn…I was a good 200m or so away but I ran like I was being chased by a dog! Then, I got to to the tram station only to realize it was the other line!  So I waited and hoped that I made the right decision to wait…I didn’t know if it would be better for me to take that tram and switch. The time board was saying that the tram I needed was coming though I didn’t see it.  Within a minute though the correct one arrived!

I arrived at the station at about 6:15AM; I feel like it got there faster because less people were riding.  Here in France, I noticed that the doors for their public transport don’t open unless you push a button to open the door.  I think this helps to move things along quickly but I always imagine having a hard time to jump out especially if you’ve realized late that you were at your stop. I made it to the train station early and tried to see if I could catch the earlier train especially since I didn’t know how to get to the airport once I arrived at the train station. 

When I purchased my ticket a couple of days earlier, I noticed that there were trains every 30 minutes.  But I only knew which station I was going to and not the final destination of the train, so I went to ask information. I had an idea that the earlier train would be at  6:31AM but I just wanted to be sure.  They also only put the information up 20 minutes beforehand so my train information wasn’t up to compare to the earlier trains.  The train staff did a search through the computer and told me that it wasn’t possible to take the earlier train because it wasn’t going to the same place; I swear that it was though! But what could I do? I didn’t want to get on the wrong train or get on the train and then be required to pay another fee.  So I waited at the train station for 30 minutes until the train that I had booked arrived.

Getting off the train and finding my way to the airport was easy enough. There was another girl doing the same thing so I wasn’t the only tourist looking lost and confused.  Exiting the airport, there was a bus that went directly to the airport. I suppose they also time it up to the trains so we were at the airport in good time. It was a neat airport because three countries’ borders crossed here. It was quite interesting because the French side was fenced off from the Swiss side, etc.

 Basel Airport, Switzerland     Do you see the fence separating France from Switzerland?

I was going to Istanbul, Turkey!  Again inspired by a professor; this time at the University of Hawaii, when I was on medical leave from my university in Indiana.  He was one of my political science professors and was really nice I just remember being mesmerized by his accent and intrigued that he had come so far to teach.  I don’t remember his name, but yes, he was the first person to get me interested in Turkey…this was back in 1998. This was also shortly after the 1996 Olympics in Athens so I thought one day, I’d like to go to both Turkey and Greece on the same trip.

My friend Simone, you all remember her from my travels to Russia! Originally, before Russia was decided, we played with the idea of possibly doing a meet-up in Greece because she has so many friends there….so on this occasion, I asked her if she could put me in contact with her friends in Athens.  She did so right away and then she asked if I knew anyone in Turkey. When I said I didn’t, she said ‘oh, let me try an connect you with my friend Okan’ and so she did.

Okan and I started emailing and he is one of the nicest people I have met! It’s one thing to be nice and hospitable to someone but it’s another to do it to a stranger, not to mention that he has offered to let me stay in his house while he’s back home for a sacred ritual feast! So my first week’s accommodation is taken care of.  Again, it’ll just be nice to have my own space and leave my things if I need to.

So this it the plan…I have 3 weeks before I need to make it out to Italy. I’ll be visiting my college friend Jackie in Macerata (pronounced: Ma-she-ra-ta). She is now happily married to an Italian and has called Italy her home for the last 10 years.  I haven’t seen Jackie since we graduated, and to be honest, she’s one of the last people I’d ever expect to marry a foreigner!  But I also thought I’d be married with kids by now so I guess my predictions are far off!  But I digress…rather than fly to Italy, I plan to take a ferry from Greece to Italy…I think I read that it will take me at least 2 days…we’ll see! So, that means, in 3 weeks time, I have to make my way to Greece and then sort myself out to get on a ferry to go to Italy!  I’ll have about a week or so in Italy and will be flying back to Madrid on December 16!  Then, I’ll spend about 10 days in Spain, including Christmas!

Then…the best part ever! I’ll be going to Lithuania for New Year’s Eve! That should be fun to hang out with the girls…more importantly, it wasn’t on my agenda so I really don’t know what to expect though I think I will freeze my arse off!  Especially since I won’t be able to take a lot of luggage with me!  And so the journey continues….

Lazy days in Strasbourg

Day 161 – 169


November 7 – 15, 2010

We got up to Strasbourg and Judy and I only had about 3 full days together.  Judy was returning to the US on November 11.  She was kind enough though to offer me her room in her shared apartment until the end of the month since it was already paid in full.  Such a tempting offer! Free accommodations?!  But time was of the essence and actually, I had already bought a ticket to Turkey flying out from Basil airport located in Switzerland, only an hour train ride away.  So, unfortunately, I couldn’t take her up on her offer but what a great way to see a part of France for almost free!

So my days in Strasbourg were numbered.  My time with Judy came and went that it felt like we only had a day to spend together.  Actually she was really busy trying to finish up work and tie up loose ends before leaving.  The day after we returned from Paris, we ended up sleeping in and she didn’t go into work the next day! oopsies.  I felt bad because I knew she had a lot to do.  AND to make matters worst, if we took advantage of this time together and explored the city, it would not have been lost in vain but we ended up just lounging around – my new favorite pastime on this trip! We finally left the house at about 4PM but by then, everything was more or less closed; they seem to work on their own clock here.

The relatively quaint and unpretentious city of Strasbourg is actually a big deal.  It is the official seat for the European Parliament as well as some other notable European institutions.  According to, it is also home to the Council of Europe, European Court of Human Rights, European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and its European Audiovisual Observatory, Eurocorps and the European Ombudsman of the European Union.  Who would have known?  Strasbourg has found itself under not only French rule but German rule too and in early days even came under rule of the Holy Roman Empire.  Its close proximity to both Germany and Switzerland gives the town an international feel which seems absent from most other French locales.

On our first night, Judy and I dined at a creperie which was okay. I was already starting to eat less and realized that I am not much a fan of savory type crepes.  I barely finished my order of crepe though somehow we still had room for dessert?!  The second night, Judy took me to a cozy restaurant that specialized in L'onglet de boeuf à échalotte.  The best way for me to describe this dish is that it’s thin pieces of rare beef.  Bloody meat doesn’t scare me too much but I suppose if you like your steaks well done then you wouldn’t be able to enjoy this.  This dish was excellent especially for the price of about $40 per person. Included in the set course: beef, salad and french fries.  Yum. Of course to thoroughly enjoy the meal, I needed to partake it with my travel chopsticks.  This meal I couldn’t finish either which was fine because I much preferred to eat this with rice!  So I forcefully finished the fries and took the rest home for dinner the following night.


L'onglet de boeuf à échalotte

Before I knew it, Judy was leaving and I woke up early on the morning of the 11th to see her off!  It’s always so sad to say ‘good-bye’ but like our last meeting in Russia, only two months prior, I knew it wouldn’t be too long before we saw each other again.  I’m so grateful for the friendship I have with Judy. Not only is she a great travel companion but she’s like the big sis that always makes sure that I am okay. Thanks Judy!

Of course as soon as she was off, I curled back in bed!  Weather forecast wasn’t so great but anyway I envisioned spending the rest of my time writing and catching up on my blog.  I was also trying to see if I could book some tickets to Lithuania for the New Year.  While I was trying to find a ticket, Antonia was also working on getting hers.  In the end, I found a reasonably priced ticket to Lithuania via Belgium and via France on the way back.  If I didn’t have to pay for bags, I could have done the trip for about $100 but because I would be taking 2 flights going and 2 flights back, I would need to spend an additional €15 for one checked-in bag PER trip totaling €60 ($80!). Feeling under pressure and not knowing that I could add on the bag option later, I purchased baggage for two flights then realize it was too much and that I didn’t want to spend another €30 so I did the obvious damage control, I didn’t purchase the baggage for the other flights.  It was a bit retarded because I could take a bag from Belgium to Lithuania and a bag from Lithuania to France.  Going was not a problem because I could always bring gifts from Belgium to Lithuania but if I wanted to bring gifts from Lithuania back to Spain, I couldn’t; I’d have to dump them off in France during my two hour layover.  Anyway, I felt better having lost some money rather than all; I would still try to see if I could recoup my money from the airlines. Now the only other issue was finding someone in Spain to help me with storing my bag.

Although I would have preferred to stay in, Judy kept encouraging me to go out and explore the town.  I really didn’t want to especially since it looked cloudy.  But she was right. As much as I wanted to catch up on my blog, I was there in Strasbourg, I should go out and explore!  So, per her advice, I walked to see the European Parliament and then the following day walked to see an area known as Petite France.  The scenery was beautiful and I’m glad Judy played the guilt trip on me!  I got to take some gorgeous shots of Strasbourg!

Cathedralchurchduskdusk2European ParliamentPetite Francerierside2riversidesquareIMG_4823IMG_4825IMG_4838IMG_4842IMG_4844IMG_4847IMG_4856IMG_4860IMG_4885IMG_4890IMG_4906IMG_4907IMG_4910

All in all, I got to catch up on some blogs (2?) and explore the beautiful town of Strasbourg. It was the first time in a long while that I was able to relax and feel completely safe with my valuables sprawled out. Thanks Judy for the much needed time to rejuvenate even though you weren’t there with me the whole time!  All in all great week in Strasbourg and tomorrow I’d be going back to the Middle East – Turkey (is that considered the Middle East?) I was excited for the trip, I just needed to make sure I got to the airport - an hour away - to catch my 10:20AM flight!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Surprises in Paris!

Day 159 - 161

November 5 – 7, 2010

I arrived in France early in the morning; slightly disoriented because I had to switch trains twice on my 7 hour journey, with a 2 hour stopover in Munich…each leg only a little over 2 hours. I was meeting up with my friend Antonia - remember Antonia? My cute French friend who I traveled with back in Namibia?  Yes, I was in France visiting her. I also thought it would be fun to go around Paris with Judy, my new travel buddy…Judy was actually living in Strasbourg (one of the capitals of the European Union) so we had the idea of meeting up in Paris and then going back to Strasbourg together. It was only a short time in Paris though - Friday to Sunday…

I arrived early in the morning with all my luggage and rested a bit at the station before I went out to meet Antonia. She had a meeting so wouldn’t be able to meet me until later in the afternoon so I had some time.  We finally met up with each other and it was great to meet up with her and see a familiar face! It’s strange because even though we have only known each other for a little over 3 months, it was like seeing an old friend! She took me back to her apartment which was a cute little 1-bedroom with a great view…though the view unfortunately, was of a cemetery! We caught up a bit, had lunch, then she took me around to places that I had never visited before…

We went out to Moulin Rouge - my knowledge limited to just the movie - didn’t realize it was a real place!  We walked around and then she took me up Montmartre to catch a great view of the city after climbing some steps! Later, we met up with her friends for some wine…wine kills me and after 2 glasses I am done! I was so tired, having had little sleep the night before that I asked if I could go back to the apartment on my own…somehow I managed!



The following day, she told me that we had to meet up her friend who was from Spain…the meeting time was promptly at 2:00PM and they would be coming over. So, I tried to be ready by then….unfortunately, I wasn’t and just before 2:00PM, I hear the door bell ring…I’m in the living room - my new quarters - and Antonia goes to open the door. I hear her greet the person in English which I think is completely normal since that person is from Spain and she’s French. I decide to wait in my room while they walk in since space is limited…and then my mouth dropped!

I KNEW THIS FRIEND AND HE WAS NOT FROM SPAIN! It was Michael from Belgium who was also on our South African journey with us! Oh my God! I was so happy to see him but shocked! I looked behind him, for Jolanda, my tent mate, his new love interest from the trip but she was nowhere to be found.  But, she was coming! She was living in Lithuania and flew in earlier that morning but had not made her way to the apartment yet.

IMG_3361[1]   IMG_3358IMG_3364IMG_3369IMG_3370IMG_3374

So here’s the story…after I told Antonia that I was coming, she told Jolanda and Jolanda told Michael and they started making plans to come out to see me! I am rarely the recipient of surprises (I think it’s because I figure it out!) so it made me really happy that they had done all this planning for me!  I was so happy to see him and tried to catch up on what had been going on in his long distance relationship for the last 2 months…about an hour later, Jolanda came by and it was a nice reunion with the 4 of us. We ended up talking and reminiscing for the next few hours and before I knew it, it was dinner time. So Michael and Jolanda went to their hotel and we decided to meet again in about an hour and a half for dinner…We ended up having dinner at a pretty good restaurant that night.

Judy found us at our restaurant and our group was just getting bigger! Judy was actually supposed to have come in the day before but because of work, had to stay an extra day in Italy. Poor her!  She still made it down to Paris though even though she would only be there for a day and Antonia was nice enough to let her stay over too. After we all met up, we ended up going to a club but I could see that Judy was really tired - I felt that way the day before! - and since she’s not a drinker, I told her we could go back to the apartment…since I knew the way!  It was already late though so we were racing to catch the last metro out…

The station was a lot farther than what we expected but somehow we managed to get on; we decided to take a completely different line because we knew that we would have to ride a cab anyway so we wanted to be closest to Antonia’s house. When we got off the metro, we didn’t know where to go for a cab…looked like everyone was thinking the same as us and it seemed like we would never get home. I decided to stand in the round-about thinking that we would have the best chance of catching a cab here.  Just our luck, a cab pulled up to us…..we really only had to wait about 10 minutes…just as we were getting in, someone starts running towards us and shouting!  Out of breath, she asks me something in French and I look at Judy since Judy is the multi-linguist. Then she realizes that we speak English so she asks: ‘Can I share a cab with you? It’s impossible to find one at this hour’. Of course if I can get a better price, I’m all for it. Luckily, she needed to go in our direction so we all hopped in. We ended up exchanging our life stories within the short 10 minute cab ride.  She was an English girl who had met a Laotian, 10 years ago, and now living with him in France….She got to her stop and she offered the cabbie money. ‘No!' I wanted to shout at her….I didn’t want him resetting the meter! And the cab driver also seemed confused at what she was doing…I told her to just pay 70% of the ride and we would pay the rest. It took her a while to realize what was going on…In the end, we only had to pay about $12 for our taxi ride…but about a half an hour after we got home, Antonia comes home! All that trouble and we could have just stayed back a bit and shared the cab with her!

The following day - our last day in Paris - we ended up at the Palais of Versailles.  When planning our weekend the week before, I asked - practically begged - that we spend the day at Versailles.  Why was I so keen on going to Versailles you ask?  Well, 10 years ago, when I traveled around Europe, I made it all the way out to the palace after spending about 2 hours on the train…alone, I somehow managed to ride the train in the wrong direction.  When I finally realized, I had to back-track and spend an additional hour on the train, an hour that I could have otherwise avoided!  When I finally arrived, and climbed up the small hill to the palace, I was told that the palace would be closing in about 30 minutes however the gardens were still open for another hour or so; at least this trip was not made in vain I thought. Just as I walked out to take in the view, my camera batteries die!!  Now, this is back when digital cameras did not really exist along with rechargeable batteries. So, I walked back down the hill and purchased overpriced AA batteries.  Marched back up the hill only to be told that the park would soon be closing! Versailles was unfinished business and I was always pining to return and enjoy it in its entirety.

It couldn’t have worked out any better - perhaps maybe even worth the 10 year wait - but it was the first Sunday of the month which according to Judy, meant free admission to museums!  And among all the museums, Versailles was one of the most expensive.  Judy wanted to go to a modern art museum but instead agreed to Versailles and shared with me that T. Murakami, a famous Japanese artist, would also be exhibiting his work at Versailles.

Versailles an old palace residence of royalty in France, houses some of the most impressive arts and paintings of its time.  It was a strike contrast to the work that Murakami was known for - his cutesy Japanese animated looking pieces, whimsical fantasy.  Versailles invites artists from varying backgrounds to display their works among the backdrop of traditional, 18th century classical pieces.  Many people were opposed to this, and honestly, it seemed quite strange and a bit inappropriate but modern artists were excited about this form of progressive art interpretation.

The cool thing about the first Sunday free museum entry is that they even allow you to use their audio guides at no cost!  How wonderful! Obviously, to run a palace and maintain it, costs money; I would have at least charged for the audio guide to make-up for loss revenue in free admission but great, if they can do it for free, that’s wonderful! I definitely gained a better understanding of all the pieces that I saw on display.

At one point, Judy and I lost each other but eventually found ourselves in the garden. We took more photos together and finally after spending about 7 hours at the museum, we decided to go.  We ended up making our way to view the Eiffel Tower, the iconic mark of Paris - the city of love.  After a few snaps, we decided to rest at a café to enjoy the view. Of course it wouldn’t be that expensive to have coffee, would it?  We would later find out, it would.  We ended up paying about $30 for coffee, hot chocolate and included in the tab, $12 for a small serving of hot pumpkin soup….

We thoroughly enjoying our drinks and stalling as best as we could so that we could see the sparkly ‘glitter’ that would shine the Eiffel Tower promptly at 8 o’clock.  Promptly at 8:00 though, we got a call from Antonia and she was there to pick us up in her car.  She gave us a quick tour of Paris as we made our way to the train station to see Michael off.  It was nice to have a refresher and re-view the sites that make Paris what it is, from our own private car. It was a fun challenging ride as it started to drizzle and Antonia had to manually move her wipers to clear her obstructed view.

We met up with the lovebirds and gave Michael a fabulous send-off, Hawaiian style. I’m sure many thought we were outrageous.  It was sad to say good-bye to Michael as I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to see him again.  After Michael left, we had about an hour before our train to Strasbourg was leaving.  We ended up at a bar across the street and here at the little non-descript pub, we (Antnoia, Jolanda and mysef) agreed to celebrate New Year’s Eve together in Lithuania. 2011 from the Baltics!  That was surely a thought that never crossed my mind. But we were being invited and it would be fun for Antonia and I to go and see Lithuania with our friend Jolanda.  We decided we would at least look into it.  We finished our beers and we were on our way back to the train station! 

It was a bit sad but the sadness quickly wore off as our train became delayed for over an hour and eventually the girls left because there was no sign of the train taking off any time soon. Finally we took off and we were so tired we both passed out on the train.  It was a great weekend with new friends that I had only met a few months before; it was a great feeling to be able to meet up again in another city and never imagined seeing everyone so soon!  Thanks to Antonia for devising and organizing the whole operation and Jolanda and Michael for spending their time and money to come out to Paris to see me!  It was a great surprise!