Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Other Travels (page 1 of 9)

Kosovo

So back at the beginning of April I traveled from Belgrade Serbia to Pristina Kosovo via bus. Truth be told I was really nervous about this trip. I didn’t know anyone who’d traveled to either countries and there’s not a ton of information available online. What I could find said that the bus was the way to go, so I made my way to the bus station . The bus station in Belgrade looks like every bus station the world over. Once I figured out which bay my bus was boarding from I made my way there, stowed by bag in the underneath compartment and boarded. Once I got on the bus though I couldn’t read the seat number so I stood there kinda clueless until this local man pointed me towards the center part of the bus. Now blocking the row to my seat was this elderly man with wispy greying hair, thick unruly eye brows and a short stature.  He was trying to get his small bag into the compartment above. Turns out he was my seat mate, so I helped him get his bag up and he took the window seat and I had the aisle.

For the next five and a half hours I had the most pleasant conversations with this man. It was one of those experiences you would never, ever get if you didn’t leave the comforts of your own country. Where you just trust in the kindness of strangers, and quickly a person touches your heart. His nick name was “Galle” and he was a pilot in the Yugoslav army back in the day. He was on the way to visit a sick brother who lived in Kosovo, while he lived in Serbia. Thankfully, he spoke some English and so we chatted about history and current world events. He translated his Serbian newspaper articles to me, and tried to teach me the Cyrillic alphabet which was really a hopeless undertaking. We shared our snacks with one another and napped off and on. As the only foreigner many of the surrounding passengers were interested in what Galle and I were chatting about so sometimes he included them by translating our conversation.

Since I was the only tourist on the bus I was the only one who’s passport was stamped at the border- the others traveled on ID cards between the borders- if they had their passports stamped it would be difficult for them to return to Serbia. As with most bus border crossings an employee of the bus collects all the IDs and takes them into the immigration office/booth and then returns them to you once the bus is through the border. At both borders an official boarded the bus and walked the aisle but no one was further questioned. Easy peasy.

Galle later told me that he was meant to travel the following day, but seeing as the weather the next day was supposed to be stormy his son urged him to go today. We both expressed what a blessing it was that he traveled today instead of the next day, otherwise our paths would not have crossed. Once we arrived in Pristina I helped him carry his bag off the bus. He was waiting for a relative to pick him up and I was taking a taxi to my hotel. Before we parted ways I asked him for a selfie. I think this was a first for him, or maybe there was a miss communication because when I got my phone out and bent down to take a picture with him he kissed me on the cheek. So I’ve got this hilarious photo of me laughing and him looking kinda confused. We hugged and parted ways, and my heart felt really full after having such a pleasant journey.

The history of Kosovo, like much of the Balkans is complicated and filled with emotion. 95% of the population of Kosovo are ethnic Albanian Muslims, although Kosovo is a very secular country where people identify as being Muslim but don’t really practice. 1% are Serbs who are Russian Orthodox and the other 4% is Romas, Macedonians, Turks and a variety of other minorities. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe- it self declared independence in February 2008 making it 10 years old. Since it is self declared it’s kinda a mixed bad as to which countries recognize its sovereignty. Most countries in the EU and more than half of the members of the UN do. Kosovo also has the youngest population in Europe with nearly 40% of its population under the age of 25. This was super evident walking around the streets of Pristina- it had the feeling of being a college town as everyone was very young.

So here’s my very basic explanation of the Kosovo war. The late 1980’s saw increased nationalism amongst ethnic groups in Yugoslavia (what is present day Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Serbia-which had 2 autonomous areas Vojvodina and Kosovo.) People of Yugoslavia identified as either Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim. Increased nationalism led to civil unrest and in the case of Kosovo the Serb minority felt prosecuted by the Albanian majority. This civil unrest though was felt across the entire region and in the early 1990’s Slovenia and Croatia declared independence which led to the collapse of Yugoslavia. The war in Slovenia lasted only 10 days. Croatia was not as lucky. During this time Macedonia also declared independence. The Croat- Bosnian War then broke out in 1992. In 1993 the US got involved in the conflict after Bill Clinton was elected. Sanctions were imposed throughout the region to prevent the further outbreak of war. Peace was made between Croatia and Bosnia in early 1994. Eventually they banded together to fight against Serbia- later they were assisted by NATO.  In Serbia tensions increased in 1996 with the formation of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) . The Kosovo war started in March of 1998. In 1999 NATO assisted Kosovo forces, and conducted a series of bombings in Serbia which eventually led to the with drawl of Serbian troops. In 2006 Montenegro became independent separating themselves from Serbia.  2 years later with foreign troops still in Kosovo, Kosovo declared its independence. Although as previously stated this is not recognized by many countries. This is obviously a very overly simplified summary of the events. War atrocities were committed though out the region. Thousands of people are still missing. Millions of people were displaced throughout the region from the early 1990’s until the end of the conflict in 1999.

My initial impression of Kosovo was that it was much more run down than Belgrade felt- it’s still very much in the “developing” stage, and the population appeared very young. Also they love the US of A here. I’ve never seen so many American flags outside of 4th of July celebrations in the U.S. This makes total sense seeing as without NATO help the war would’ve likely raged on. I hired a local guide named Bekim the take me around the country, as there were several historical places I wanted to visit. This ended up being the best way to see the country- Bekim has a degree in anthropology and was a wealth of knowledge. If you’re traveling to Kosovo let me know and I’ll forward on his details!

So Bekim and I started the day out driving south from Pristina to the town of Gracanica. This town has a Serbian majority population and there is a moving monument to the 500 Serbs from this area that are still missing. Not noted on the monument are the estimated 700 Albanians from the area that are also still missing. From here we visited the monastery with the same name as the town. It was built in 1321 on the ruins of a 6th century basilica. The monastery itself is really stunning and built in a Byzantine style. No photos were allowed on the inside but there was a church service taking place while we were there so I was able to sneak in and watch. From here we drove south towards the snow capped mountains near the border of Montenegro. The countryside of Kosovo is lovely. It’s green and the air is fresh and it reminded me a lot of driving thru parts of Canada. Next up we visited the Patriarchate of Pec which sits alongside a river. It was built in the 13th century and used to be where the Serbian archbishop resided. Now nuns live there. There are ruins in front of the monastery and mountain views behind it and the whole complex has a peaceful air to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then wandered through the old bazaar of Pec and went for a traditional Kosovo lunch which is mostly kebab style meats with vegetables and bread. All very good. Naturally I paired mine with a local Peja pilsner. After lunch we visited a kulla which is a traditional village stone house. It consisted of three floors- the main floor is for the animals and storage, the first floor the living area for the family and the top floor was for visitors and entertaining. We then drove south a bit to Decani Monastery my favourite site of the day. It was built in the early 1300’s and is under the protection of NATO forces and you must show proper ID to enter. During the Kosovo war the monastery was used to shelter refugees. The church is build in the Byzantine style and inside there are over 1000 frescoes including one of Jesus with a sword. While we were there it started to cloud over and rain lightly which added to the tranquility of the monastery. It was a real highlight for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our last stop was to the city of Prizren which is in the south on the way to Macedonia. Prizren is the second largest city in Kosovo and it’s legit adorable. It reminded me of Turkey and there are postcard worthy views from the old stone bridge that crosses the river with the mosque and fortress in the background. It will blow your Instagram up. For realz. We wandered around the area near to the river and visited a mosque and then stopped off for ice cream before heading back to Pristina. Booking my tour with Bekim was a great way to fit several sites into one day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I then spent one more full day in Pristina where I visited the Kosovo museum which has a lower floor dedicated to ancient history of the region and an upper floor dedicated to Kosovo’s more recent history. I found it very interesting. Then I did what I always do in a new city- I joined a walking tour. On a rain drenched afternoon we visited the Old Town and saw the clock tower, mosque, and bazaar before visiting a traditional home at the Ethnology museum. We then walked over to the newer part of the city and visited the Newborn monument signifying the country’s independence. Across from it is a new monument dedicated to the 20,000 women (and men and children) who were raped in the Kosovo war. We then walked thru the University past the library which if you google it is on many lists of the “ugliest buildings in the world.” And truthfully it is pretty ugly. But that’s just my opinion. We then visited the Mother Teresa Cathedral which is new and huge and way too large for the minority catholic population of the country. The pews have what looks like American eagles on them, but to be fair they could also represent the Albanian flag which also has an eagle on it. Either way it was confusing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favourite building in Pristina was the highly controversial church called the Christ the Savior Cathedral. It was built illegally on the grounds of the university which is not supposed to have a religious affiliation so the church was never completed. It just stands there like a bombed out building, although it was in fact never bombed, looking eerie and abandoned. Naturally my love of abandoned and decaying buildings had me taking tons of pictures of it, and the sky was stormy that day so it added to the ambiance.

From here I took the bus to Macedonia…..

Belgrade Serbia

Back in April I spent three weeks touring through Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Greece. I’m sure some of these sound like really random choices as travel destinations, but I’m a big fan of off the beaten track places, and I really want to visit the few countries in Europe that I’ve yet to see. This is partly why at the time of writing this post I’ve just landed in Kiev, Ukraine after spending a few nights in Minsk, Belarus. Plus I had a flight voucher to use up after the epic mess up of my trip to Djibouti, and guess where FlyDubai flies direct to?? Yep Belgrade so off I went. As a side note one of my embassy friends coined this trip my Red Cross tour of Eastern Europe, mostly because he finds my travel plans entertaining.

As per usual I did very little research about what there was to see in Belgrade. Apart from booking myself into a hotel that was central and walking distance to things, I didn’t really have much planned. My travel style as of late is to just hit the ground and then make a plan as I go, which seems to work well for me. Normally when I’m traveling to a new city I try and join into a free walking tour as soon as possible- this gives me a basic history of the area and walks me past the top tourist destinations. A great way to get my bearings, and figure out what I want to come back and see on my own. So that’s exactly what I did. I arrived to my hotel- went for a lunch (wine) and then joined onto a late afternoon walking tour. I found the architecture in Belgrade to be fascinating. Turn of the century buildings sat juxtaposition next to buildings from the 1960’s. Many buildings were in varying state of disrepair and the whole city is littered with urban art (graffiti) of which I’m a huge fan. The walking tour wound its way through the Bohemian section of the city which is home to many breweries and night clubs, past the city’s one mosque and then through Kalemegdan Park and Belgrade Fortress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Funfacts: Belgrade is one of the oldest cities in the world- the first settlers in this area were by the Celts in the 3rd century BC. Serbia was under Ottoman control for nearly 400 years until the Austrians took control of the region in the 1900’s. Belgrade was bombed 4 times since the First World War and rebuilt each time- the most recent bombing was in 1999 by NATO during the Kosovo War. There are still protests regarding Kosovo and the US’s part in the NATO bombings with signs outside of the Parliament building. The city is built at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers- there are excellent views overlooking this from the Fortress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Probably the most iconic building in the city is the Saint Sava Church. It’s a massive church complex with green domed roofs. The inner sanctuary was under construction when I was there, but the roof was visible and painted in gold- this building reminded me a lot of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Below the sanctuary is the crypt. And this is what you’re really here for people because I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen anything quite like it. Now I didn’t count but I reckon there are like 100+ paintings of saints and religious figures. All gold and flashy and bedazzled. It’s ornate and gaudy at the same time, and reminded me of being in a train station with these arched hallways. Totally worth seeing. I did an underground tour while in Belgrade that took us to a Roman well which served as a dungeon at one time, an underground bunker from Josip Bronz Tito’s time (the former President of Yugoslavia), an old Austrian gun powder storage room which used to house a night club and now holds old Roman artifacts, and lastly an underground tavern and wine cellar. On this tour I met two American teachers who lived in Albania who I would later meet up with! That’s the great thing about travel- you’ll end up with new friends scattered around the globe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other cool thing I did in Belgrade was a private walking tour with Olivera from  Still in Belgrade tours. I was really keen to see the many large urban art murals that are painted on the side of buildings around the city and to just wander with a local. One of their tours is called a Hipster tour-so naturally I was sold. We wandered down near the waterfront to the Savamala area which used to be industrial space before artists moved in and cleaned up the area. We visited the contentious waterfront project by a UAE investor who basically bought up waterfront property to turn into a high end apartment, shopping and hotel area. Think Dubai Mall meets eastern Europe. I was not a fan, but we did end up as extras to some TV production that was filming there when we accidentally walked on set trying to find the exit. Hello Hollywood!!  We walked to an area of the city called Lower Dorcal that’s full of coffee shops and urban spaces. Since you know I’m a bit of a foodie I’ll make one restaurant recommendation in the event you go to Belgrade. Visit Homa restaurant. Do the tasting menu paired with local wines. It’s phenomenal. The menu while I was there consisted of tuna tartare, pork belly, adriatic squid to name a few of the small plates. All expertly paired with wine from the region. Worth every penny. Bon appetit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Belgrade, Serbia I was planning to travel to Pristina, Kosovo via bus. Travel between the two countries is tricky as Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence. In fact maps in Serbia show Kosovo as belonging to Serbia. It should be said that if you are planning to travel to Kosovo on the same trip as visiting Serbia you must visit Serbia first. It’s easy to travel from Serbia into Kosovo, but not the other direction without first going into say Macedonia, Montenegro or Albania. Of course there are conflicting reports- I’ve read blog posts about people who have gone the opposite direction and Serbian border officials just crossed out the Kosovo visa in their passport. I didn’t want to take that risk which is why I started my trip in Serbia and then traveled into Kosovo. For some reason I was really worried about taking the bus into Kosovo, but it ended up being far easier than I could’ve imagined. The hardest part was buying the bus ticket in Belgrade which mostly involved me getting lost on the way to the station, but luckily at a crosswalk I met this Serbian student who was also going to buy a bus ticket and she was able to translate for me to buy my ticket. Next up……Kosovo.

Djibouti

We were careening down an old military tarmac as the vehicle skidded to a stop. In slow motion the guide in the passengers seat reached over and grabbed the steering wheel as the Land Cruiser slowed down. I looked to my left and saw a lone tire rolling by, overtaking the speed of the slowing vehicle. “Hmm. That’s weird.” I thought, and then it dawned on me that we were the only vehicle on this patch of Djibouti road in the middle of the desert, so therefore the tire had to be ours. We came to a stop and the guide and driver got out to assess the damage. The lone tire was still rolling nearly half a kilometer away at this point. Kiwi and I got out to have a look. Not surprisingly there was no tire on the drivers front spot, where clearly a tire should be. The vehicle was titled to that side like a chair with a busted leg. For some not helpful reason the warnings about road travel during some of my pre-trip research popped into my head. “Travel in a caravan in the event that one of the vehicles becomes disabled.” This seemed like solid advice in hindsight. The driver ran off in the direction of the rolling tire and the guide took off to try and find the missing tire bolts, so Kiwi and I busied ourselves with looking at the colourful rocks lining the desert floor and taking selfies, and I thought about the many reasons I love travel. And the number one thing I love is the unpredictability of it. That you can make plans and do the research and then life just happens. And here we were in the Djibouti desert with a missing tire and there was nothing to do but wait to see if it could be fixed. And thankfully a new tire was put in its place and a couple bolts were removed from the back tires as only three bolts could be found and we carried on with our day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sure some of you are reading this and thinking where the eff is Djibouti? And how the heck did you decide  to travel there? Well I’m a lover of off the beaten path type places and a big fan of traveling to places before they become super popular. Every year for Christmas I buy (or get as a gift) Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel” for whatever the upcoming year is. Then New Years day I flip through it and the seeds of future travel gets planted. The beginning of the book is Lonely Planet’s recommendations of the Top 10 countries for the next year. Bangladesh was on the list several years back, and I loved Bangladesh and low and behold Djibouti was country #4 for 2018. After looking at a few pictures, a 5 min google session and discovering that there were direct flights there from Dubai I was sold. Also I coined the phrase “Shake our Booty in Djibouti” so obviously the trip was happening.

So where exactly is Djibouti? Well it’s in Africa to start with. Specifically the horn of Africa. It is bordered by Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Red Sea. Outwards from the Red Sea lies Yemen. It was a French colony in the 19th century and today French and Arabic are the main languages, although like pretty much everywhere the world over English of some form is spoken. The country gained independence in the late 1970’s. Today most of the economy is based off the port which is the 7th largest in the world, and taxes from foreign military. For those of you in the Middle East as I already mentioned there are direct flights via FlyDubai from Dubai several times a week. I will give my full thoughts about them later in this post, but the other easy way to get to Djibouti would be from Addis Ababa, Qatar, Paris or Istanbul, as all have direct flights. A new train line also opened up making it easy to get to Djibouti from Ethiopia by land in under 8 hours.

Kiwi and I flew from Dubai and landed in Djibouti in the afternoon. I had arranged for us to be picked up from the airport by the guide I had organized from Somaliland Travel named Akram. There are plenty of hotels in Djibouti, but not very many that are of western standards. We erred on the side of safety as we weren’t really sure what to expect. The only western hotels in Djibouti city are the Kempinski and the Sheraton. The Sheraton has horrific reviews so that made our decision easy. The Kempinski is very fancy, and very pricey, but if you are a single lady there are many, many military-ish men roaming the hotel so eye candy is a free added bonus. Operation “Shake our Booty in Djibouti” was off to a good start. The cheaper more basic hotel my guide recommended was the Atlantic Hotel which did have good reviews. We spent one night at the Kempinski before we started our tour the following morning. The Kempinski has a lovely infinity pool with gorgeous sunset views over the Gulf of Tadjoura and a really delicious Italian restaurant FYI.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning after a delicious breakfast brunch Akram picked us up and we set off for our Djibouti adventure. First stop- a quick drive thru the city to change money. We visited the African and European Quarter where all the banks are located. Interestingly, there are no domestic banks in Djibouti. And equally interestingly is that the changing of money happens on the streets and not in the banks. There are these olderish grandmother looking ladies sitting on the side of the busy downtown roads in plastic patio chairs holding bags of money. This is how money is changed. I asked Akram how much money each one would have on them- he said around $1500 U.S. and that crime is very low. After money was exchanged we headed towards Dikhil via Africa’s busiest shipping road connecting the port in Djibouti to Ethiopia and on wards. We passed by small villages with goats, camels and monkeys dotting the landscape. As you can imagine village life as in many parts of the world is hard and stricken with poverty. People live in huts and work the land. The people of Djibouti are largely nomadic and graze their animals outside of their villages. The largest ethnic populations are the Somali Issa (a clan of the Dir) and the Afar people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Dikhil we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch. Initially, I had expected Djibouti food to be similar to Ethiopian given their close proximity. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We ate mixed salad and french fries and some sort of spaghetti and some of the best seasoned beef I’ve ever had. So good. From here we left the comforts of the pothole lined roads for the adventures of off-roading. About 90 minutes later is when we would find ourselves taking selfies as Akram and the driver worked out what to do about our tire. From here we continued driving east toward Lake Abbe. The scenery started to change as hills approached in the distance and the ground changed from sand to a dark rocky matter. We came up over a hill and in the distance we could see the chimney rock formations the lake is known for. Lake Abbe borders Ethiopia. In the 1950’s Ethiopia built a dam upstream which caused much of the lake to be drained and on the floor of the lake bed these limestone chimneys were discovered. The entire area looks like what I imagine the surface of Mars to look like- it’s jarring and rugged and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We stopped and walked around some of the larger chimneys before heading off to the nomadic camp for the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now people for sure thought we were more than a little crazy for going to Djibouti, but when we told them we planned to camp in nomadic tents in the Djibouti desert this was when we got the “you’re certifiably crazy” type of looks. The camp area consisted of many thatched roofed tents, a cooking area, and a shower and toilet area. The camp borders a local village. Now in no way was this a “glamping” type of experience. It’s like one step up from tent camping, but it was totally doable for a night. There was some running water to wash your hands with and generator that ran for a couple hours after dark. I did not attempt a shower as that seemed like way too much effort for me. Kiwi and I weren’t the only ones staying there- a group of Italian tourists and a French family would also be camping with us. We had some drinks while watching the sunset and then were called for dinner. The wind had really picked up by this point in the evening which was great because if meant the mosquitos weren’t an issue. After dinner was when the real fun began. The local villagers came to perform some traditional singing and dancing. They pulled random tourists up and had them dance along. Now I have zero rhythm and unless I’ve had several drinks I’m not a huge fan of dancing for other people, but I just kinda went with it. Kiwi danced once and then she’d had enough. After a couple more songs 2 of the villagers ran around the corner and came back with these old rifles. In my head I was like “now things are getting interesting!” So there was some dancing with the guns and the guns were pointed towards the ground and then towards the sky while the dancers were yelling “eyeyeyeyeyeyeyeeee.” And then one of the best things on the trip happened. I got handed a gun. In the desert of Djibouti. And pulled up to dance with my gun. And dance I did. Like I’ve never danced before. To be fair up until this point I had never danced with a gun before, but I do hope to repeat this one day again! After that excitement it was time to go to bed. The wind was still raging, so we didn’t think to cover ourselves with the mosquito nets- which was a terrible idea we would find out a few hours later. The wind was trashing the thatching of the tents and making quite a bit of noise and every time I heard something I yelled to Kiwi “Who Dat?!” This made us giggle endlessly. Truth be told 2 months later it still does. A couple hours later we awoke to a dead quiet. Well a quiet except for that annoying sound of buzzing and then the itching that kicks in when you realize you’ve been fed on by a swarm of mosquitos. So my tips if you find yourself camping in the Djibouti desert would be: 1) bring a flashlight, 2) bring bug spray and 3) use the bloody mosquito net- they gave you one for a reason!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following morning after not a great nights sleep we awoke as the sun was just starting the creep over the horizon and set out down to the lake bed. The sun coming up was one of the most magical parts of the trip. It was truly stunning as the intensity of the light changed from dim to bright orange. I took so many pictures trying to capture just the perfect moment. We then walked over to some nearby thermal pools which cast of type of smoky fog into the air around them. Then it was back to the camp for breakfast before continuing on with the days adventures. We drove back the way we came towards the village of Dikhil and from here we headed north towards Lake Assal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

En route to Lake Assal we stopped off at a couple different lookouts. One was the Djibouti version of the Grand Canyon. I’ve tried to google the exact name of the place but with no luck. Basically though it is the meeting point of three tectonic plates that will eventually (in like a million years) split Djibouti into half- part belonging to the Asia continent and the rest to the African continent. The other cool place we stopped was overlooking Lac du Goubet which isn’t really a lake as it connects to the Gulf of Tadjoura. Apparently there is really good diving here and you can dive between the tectonic plates. Sounds super cool and scary as hell. The other thing Djibouti is known for is diving with whale sharks which is best between the months of November to February.

So eventually we arrived at Lake Assal. This lake is the lowest point in Africa and the salt content here is nearly twice as salty as the Dead Sea. The water is the most stunning shade of blue/turquoise with salt accumulating on the lakes shore. We wandered down to the lake edge to take some photos. We were completely unprepared and didn’t bring towels, so floating in it wasn’t an option. There was also nowhere really to change into or out of our swimsuits. The lake itself is pretty much undeveloped, but it’s so stunning that I imagine it won’t be long before a five star hotel is built onto the shore. There are locals selling salt from the lake, crystals and goats heads that have been crystallized after being in the lake a couple days. There is also a huge port built near to the lake for a Chinese company that is exporting the salt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this we started the drive back to Djibouti. Our plan was to spend 2 nights relaxing in Djibouti poolside before flying to Dubai for the weekend. Remember when I said earlier that one of the things I loved so much about travel was the unpredictability of it? Well the morning we were supposed to fly out I got a message from FlyDubai that our flight was canceled so we would be rebooked the following day. This was hella annoying because we had to book another night in Djibouti which was not exactly cheap, our accommodation in Dubai was non-refundable, and we were missing out on boozy brunch. FlyDubai was not very helpful in providing any type of compensation- in fact we got the run around for hours and eventually they told us the cancellation was weather related as there was fog in Dubai. Yet our flight was the only flight cancelled. I suspect that it was actually because the flight was under-booked as our flight to Djibouti was less than 1/3 full.

After getting over out initial annoyance at the derailing of our plans we did what any seasoned travelers would do and regrouped. I was hell bent on driving a rickshaw so we called Akram and he organized for us to go driving. We headed to the outskirts of the city center. On the way we passed a taxi that had a Canada flag along the windshield and Canada painted on the side. I was all like “follow that taxi!!!” And so we did, and the guy pulled over and in his excitement to get out of the taxi to come meet a Canadian he forgot to put the car in park, but he quickly got back in sorted the brake out and then it was time for a Djibouti style photo shoot. And there was a bunch of thumbs up and high fiving and I was loving it. Next it was “Operation acquire a Rickshaw.” Akram arranged a guy who had a new rickskaw and I jumped in the front with Kiwi, Akram and the rickshaw owner in the back. Since I’d driven a rickshaw only a couple weeks previous in Egypt my skills were on point and once I initially got a feel for the clutch we were off. We headed out onto Africa’s busiest road. It was great fun, and no one died, but I’m sure my Pops would’ve had a heart attack at the size of the trucks we shared the road with. After we were finished we posed for pictures and the rickshaw owner told me what a good driver I was and offered that we could go into business together! Super tempting- I do love rickshaws!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end after a ton of persistence on my part FlyDubai did compensate us for the cancellation. It was a really frustrating process and in my opinion they could really work on their customer service. I did just recently fly with them from Dubai to Belgrade (to use the credit) and they were on time, and the plane was really new and I have zero complaints from that trip. The one great thing that came out of the delay though was that when we arrived a day late to the Westin in Dubai and explained to them what happened they upgraded us to this massive suite which made us so happy and we felt like real high rollers.

Visas to Djibouti are available on arrival for many nationalities at the airport for $60 U.S. until April 30, 2018. After that time you can apply for an E-visa here. At the time of writing this the website wasn’t working and I couldn’t change it from French to English, so good luck! If you want to get in touch with Akram about organizing a tour you can email him at guideakram89@gmail.com or send him a whatsapp at +25377621884. I would highly recommend him- he’s young, but he’s passionate about Djibouti tourism and the tire incident could’ve easily happened to anyone else anywhere else!

Happy adventuring…..

Luxor Egypt

Luxor Egypt has been on my travel list forever. Like seriously years. I’ve dreamed of going hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings. Now I’m sure you know that I love to travel. But I don’t do great in the heat, so I knew I needed to go to Luxor before it got too hot. I invited a few girlfriends to go and at the beginning of February we flew via Cairo to Luxor. We had a 4am flight so we arrived to Luxor tired and in need of a nap. That first day would be the only down time we would have and we booked ourselves in for massages and relaxed next to the pool.

I have been to Egypt before. Once to Cairo for a day and then for a long weekend in Sharm el Sheikh. I remember Cairo being overwhelming. While seeing the pyramids at Giza and the Sphynx were really cool, I remember never having a moment to ourselves. In my memory I recall it being similar to India where it felt like someone was trying to sell you something literally every second of every day. Luxor, by comparison was more chill. I had prepped myself and the three other girls I was traveling with for this type of choatic atmosphere. We were pleasantly surprised. That’s not to say that we were approached to buy things, because we were, but far less often that I had anticipated. Within the first 30 min of the first temple we visited we knew that when a random dude says “Hey lady look at this” you didn’t follow him or else you’d be pressured to giving said old man money for showing you whatever random thing it was that he desired to point out. Luxor felt safe. Well as safe as Egypt can feel. There is a large Coptic Christian population in the city, and they live side by side with the Muslim majority. There is a notable security presence.

I had booked a guide for us thru Aladin tours who sent us a lovely local woman named Azza who would be our guide for the next two days. As a tour group of four women I especially like that a woman would be the one guiding us around! Our first stop was to visit Karnak temple. This temple is one of the largest religious structures ever built and it was constructed over some 2000 years from 2055BC to 100AD. The entrance into the site is lined with all these statues of lion bodies with ram heads known as Criosphinx symbolizing a shield. Hypostyle hall is filled with engraved columns which make for really cool pictures. The complex is full of obelisks, small temples, chapels and courts, as well hieroglyphs. We spend easily an hour there wandering the site and taking photos. Later we visited the Luxor museum which is well worth the trip and houses a collections of well preserved statues, mummies, and different artifacts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later that day we visited Luxor Temple. Our trip coincided with an Egyptian school holiday, so the vast majority of other tourists were actually Egyptians. There were several school trips happening and the teenage girls were very excited to practice their English with us and take photos. I’m not a fan of being asked to have my picture taken with people, but I will make an exception for girls. Especially teenage girls! We had a full on paparazzi photo shoot at the ticket booth. Luxor temple was built between 1100-1600BC. The outer walls of the temple loom high overhead guarded by enormous statues on either side of the entrance with a massive obelisk. Originally there were two but the other one stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Outside of the main entrance was an avenue of sphinx which used to connect Luxor and Karnak temples. On the left hand side as you walk in is an active mosque built overlooking one of the courtyards. It’s pretty surreal to be there when the call to prayer is called out. There are some very well preserved hieroglyphs and sets of columns similar to Karnak although I thought Karnak pillars were more interesting. There were also some carvings of Egyptian men with large genitalia which naturally I needed to take pictures of, but I won’t share them here as not all my readers may appreciate this. I will say that from an anatomy standpoint certain body parts may have been chiselled  inaccurately in comparison to the rest of the body if you get my drift. The other really cool thing I liked was in the outer courtyard of this temple is a partially hidden statue of the goddess Isis. She is headless and dressed in Greek clothing. We were all very taken with her. On our last night we made a point of going back to Luxor temple after dark. The temple is lit up and it casts a magical feel to the whole area. As if Egypt doesn’t already feel magical enough I was completely entranced with the temple after dark. Karnak Temple also is open in the evenings, but from what I understand it is more of a touristy light-show type thing which isn’t really my cup of tea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We ended that first day of touring Luxor with a sunset cruise along the Nile River in a traditional wooden felucca. It was so relaxing. We just sipped tea with the wind blowing thru our hair taking pictures as the sun dipped below the horizon. All four of us expressed gratitude of this shared experience. Egypt is a place that people read about in history books and see art exhibits from in countries around the world. But to walk be able to on Egypt’s soil and float along the waters is an entirely surreal and heart-filling experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2 of our Luxor exploration involved us getting up before sunrise to board a minivan that took us to a boat, that was supposed to take us across the Nile River to another minivan that would take us to a hot air balloon. That was the plan. Hot air ballooning is very weather dependent. If it’s too windy or not windy enough or the skies aren’t clear then you don’t go. This was how we found ourselves freezing our unprepared butts off while sipping tea on a docked boat waiting to see if the visibility would clear. The Gods weren’t in our favour that day, so as the sun was coming up we were back in a van being driven across the Nile to the West bank. You’ve probably heard of the East Bank and West Bank and unless you are really really into Egyptology you might not really know what the difference is. Well thank goodness you’re reading this blog post then so I can give you what little research/knowledge I have on the topic! Basically the East bank of the Nile River was where the people lived and worshipped. This is where the temples are. The West bank by contrast was where the dead are buried. This is where the tombs are. There are temples on the West Bank of course but they were for the purpose of being mortuary temples.

So we drove to the West Bank and our first stop was Hatshepsut Temple. This temple is really remarkable as it’s quite large and built at the base of a rock cliff. There’s a large and imposing ramp that connects the ground floor to the first floor and another ramp that connects up to the second floor and the entire front of the temple is garnished with columns (some with the remnants of statues). Hatshepsut was a pharaoh who was born in 1507 BC and died at the age of 50. It’s believed that she reined for 21 years and that she was the longest ruling woman from that time. She has been credited with building hundreds of construction projects during her lifetime- this temple though was the most significant. Interestingly her body was not officially confirmed until 2007- it had previously been mislabeled as the mummy of her wet nurse. We spent about an hour exploring the temple- there was some very well preserved carvings and the cliffs towering to the back of the temple gave it a cool perspective. There was also a chapel dedicated to the goddess Hathor with a few remaining Hathor headed columns. She was referred to as the “Mistress of Heaven.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Hatshepsut Temple we stopped off at a small artisan family’s shop to see how alabaster vases and figurines were made. We then drove to the VALLEY OF THE KINGS. Sorry for yelling but I was pretty damn excited about it. It’s a place I have long read about and seen in movies so it was amazing to actually step foot there. To date there are 63 known tombs. The last ones were discovered as recently as 2008 and new tombs are being discovered all the time in the hills in the surrounding area. Some of the tombs are just single rooms where as others are enormous with multiple chambers- the largest totaling 120 rooms. The Pharaohs and nobles and their servants and priests were buried here over a 500 year period from the 16-11th century BC. When you enter the site you can buy varying tickets to several different tombs. Ours included three and on the advice of our guide we did not purchase the additional photography ticket of like $15 U.S. Now in hindsight I so wish I’d bought it because the tombs that we saw were very well preserved and wouldv’e taken great photos. Obviously people don’t buy the photography ticket and still try to take pictures, but there are employees watching for this type of thing and we saw one lady being escorted out with her phone being confiscated. Personally I’d just pay the $15 instead of trying to be sneaky.

From here we visited Habu Temple the mortuary temple dedicated to Ramesses III. For some strange reason this temple reminded me of Vegas. If you’ve ever visited Luxor hotel in Vegas than you will understand. The outer temple walls of Hubu temple were so imposing and well preserved that my immediate thoughts were that it had to be fake. Like it was so cool there was no way that it could be real if that makes any sense at all. The outer hieroglyphs were so well preserved my brain and eyes didn’t know what to make of it. After I realized that I was in fact in Egypt and not in Las Vegas we walked into the temple which equally blew my mind. I took some video where I’m standing in the middle getting a 360 degree view of the temple and it was amazing. The columns were intricate and parts of the archway had remnants of bright colours. Blue and reds were the most visible but you could easily imagine how concentrated those colours must have been in it’s originality. One of the inner courtyards had a row of statues supposedly in dedications to Rameses. Funfact: there is a portion of engraving on part of the temple wall that represents people (men) getting their heads cut off and then below it men getting their penises chopped off and a bunch of these body parts laying on top of each other. This made a great backdrop for selfies. FYI.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our way back to the East Bank we stopped off at Colossi of Memnon which consists of two statues from 1350 BC. The statues are of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and are in varying states of decay but quite cool to see nonetheless. If you’ve followed my blog for a while then you know that I have a love of three wheeled auto rickshaws. Like I will literally go out of my way to drive one if they are within a 50km radius. Lucky for me on the outskirts of Luxor city there are rickshaws, and after lunch our guide Azza was able to arrange for me to drive one around the neighbourhood. Naturally, it was a bit of a spectacle and I stalled it a few times until my suppressed rickshaw skills took over and I drove like a pro. Well a pro who once drove one 3000km across India!

Early the next morning we woke up early for hot air ballooning attempt number 2. This time proved successful. It should be noted that Egypt in December and January isn’t hot. It’s actually quite cold in the early morning and evening and we were less than prepared. So after freezing the previous morning on hot air ballooning attempt number 1 we were much better prepared. We “borrowed” our hotel robes and wore them to keep warm. We are nothing if not resourceful and plus we looked hella cool. We got compliments on our geniusness from the locals and looks of confusion from the Asian tourists who were also hot air ballooning. Anyways, enough about our wardrobes and more about the hot air ballooning. We arrived to the launch site (I’m not sure it’s called that but it sounds extra cool so let’s just call it that.) The sun was just starting to come up and you could hear the intermittent “whoosh” as the balloons were filled with hot air. All around us colourful balloons started to take shape and rise. We eagerly watched with equal parts fear and excitement. There ended up being about 18 of us in our balloon split between 4 compartments. We ended up flying near to the Valley of the Kings and then over some excavations sites and then a village and some farmlands before facing the River Nile as the sun poked up over the horizon. The colours as the sky changed were mesmerizing and we took a ton of pictures. This is something else I would highly, highly recommend doing if weather and time permit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know Egypt hasn’t had the best rep for tourists in recent years and it’s really struggling economically, but I still wouldn’t let that deter you from going. Our weekend was a very reasonable. There are not direct flights from Riyadh but Flynas operates flights a few times a week direct from Jeddah, or you can fly via Cairo on EgyptAir. We stayed at the Hilton which ended up being under $200 U.S. a person for 3 nights. Our 2 day tour via Aladin tours was $125 U.S. a person. We brought U.S. dollars with us to pay our tour and for tips and such. If drinking alcohol is your thing I would recommend bringing it with you (for those of you outside of Saudi) or buying it at the Duty Free in Cairo. While you can easily find alcohol in Luxor it was either A. wickedly overpriced. B. Awful tasting. or C. Both. Mostly I’m referring to the wine of which I’m picky about. That’s just a friendly tip from me to you.

Happy adventuring….

 

Photos from Split Croatia

I can’t believe that I’ve been back in Saudi Arabia for a full year, as of last month. If I’m being honest if feels like much longer than that as I’ve packed a lot in during those 12 months. In an attempt to get somewhat caught up on blogging I decided that the fastest way to share with you some of the places I visited over the last year would be to do a few photography posts. One of the places that I really enjoyed was spending a few days last April solo in Split Croatia. April was the perfect time to go as the temperatures were moderate and the crowds weren’t as crazy as they are peak season. Of course if you are going to Croatia solely to use the beaches April would be too cold, and I’d recommend going late May to September.

My time in Split was spend mostly wandering Diocletian Palace. I especially loved the underground parts of the palace as they filled my love of things decaying and abandoned. I sipped cappuccinos on the waterfront, exploring the piazzas and back alleyways taking in the ornate statues and detail in the architecture. Enjoy!

Split Promenade

The bell tower of Saint Domnius

The hidden Church of Saint Martin

Peristyle Square

The Vestibule looking up at Saint Domnius

The cellars of Diocletian Palace

Looking out over the Old Town

In the cellars of Diocletian Palace

Looking into the Vestibule

Stormy skies over the Old Town

The beautiful National Theater building

Sunset along the Promenade

My Top 10 from 2017

Every year I try to do a post about my favourite travel destinations of the past year. So in keeping with tradition I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 travels from 2017. In many ways it feels like the past year flew by, and then at the same time there were some months that looking back at them moved by achingly slow. I fit in a lot of travel this year. I shared a lot of great memories. I nursed myself through a heartbreak. I connected with a cousin I didn’t really know I had and visited her twice this year. I almost delivered a baby on a plane. I drove a rickshaw in Ethiopia. I was flown from Georgia to Bahrain in business class on a flight were I was the only passenger. I’ve made some very dear friends this past year- that has probably been the biggest blessing for me. While the travel was great- the actual human interactions I had are the thing that stands out the most.

In 2017 I visited 18 countries not including Saudi Arabia. 12 of them new to me. I took 38 international flights, which for someone terrified of flying is no easy feat. I traveled solo, with a tinder date, with my Kiwi sidekick, to see my cousin and then home for a few weeks. I traveled by plane, bus, boat, rickshaw and car. So without further delay here’s my 2017 travel recommendations in chronological order…..

1. Croatia

Croatia is stunning. In April I spent a week in Dubrovnik with a fella I met on tinder a month before I left for Saudi Arabia. He was a great travel partner and I would happily have him be my travel side kick again- he was only mildly irritated when I asked him to take the hundreth posed picture of me in a row.  And he was pretty much down to do and eat where ever I wanted- what more can you ask for in a travel companion?! After a week in Dubrovnik he flew back to Canada and I spent a few days in Split solo exploring the city. As I previously blogged Dubrovnik is a great base to visit nearby Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina on separate day trips. We spent our time in Dubrovnik exploring the Old City, taking tons of postcard worthy pictures and sipping Croatia’s delicious wines. I would highly recommend to avoid both Dubrovnik and Split during the peak tourist season. We were there in April and it was the beginning of the cruise ships- I would have been highly irritated if we had gone when the reportedly 10,000 daily cruisers get dropped in the Old Town (although reportedly they are capping this number at 8,000 in 2018.)

My favourite thing that we did while in Croatia was explore the nearby abandoned resort Town of Kupari just south of Dubrovnik. I love abandoned places and it was super cool to be able to wander through these large empty hotels and take pictures. It had that eerie beauty to it, and it was very easy to imagine what it must’ve looked like in their prime time. We also visited the nearby town of Cavtat which has a very cute water front and some delicious restaurants. The Croatian coastline is spectacular.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Switzerland

2017 was a lot about Europe for me. Seeing as Frankfurt is a direct flight from Riyadh and has easy connections to just about every large European city it’s pretty easy to make a long weekend into a trip to Europe. My Kiwi sidekick and I opted for Switzerland seeing as neither of us had ever been and we were traveling in May which made for perfect weather there. We stayed in Geneva where we strolled the cobble stoned lanes, ate our weight in cheese fondue,  and stumbled upon Camino signs which only solidified me knowing that I want to walk the Camino de Santiago again. One of the coolest things we did though was take a day trip to nearby Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps.

Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps range and the highest in Europe. We did a bus trip to the French town of Chamonix and from there we took two gondolas to the top of the mountain. I’m scared of heights and being confined to a small car packed with people dangling from a cable from the top of a mountain was moderately terrifying. Both Kiwi and I rode most of the way with our eyes closed performing lamaze child birth breathing techniques. But once up top the views were stunning. We even concurred our fear of heights by walking out into this glass floored room that’s 1035 meters off the ground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan was one of the countries that surprised me the most last year. I had no idea what to expect and it actually blew me away. It had a Middle Eastern vibe, but felt very European. The buildings were very European but accented with Islamic architectural features. I felt totally comfortable traveling there solo, and it was pretty easy to get there from Riyadh as it’s a direct flight from Dubai to the capital Baku. Some of you may never have heard of this country (and I’ve yet to properly blog about) but I’ll tell you a few helpful facts. Azerbaijan borders both Europe and Asia and is a predominantly Muslim country, but it felt the least religious of all the Muslim countries I have traveled to. It is in the Caucasus region and borders the countries of Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Iran and Turkey, and Baku is on the Caspian Sea. The phrase “the old meets the new” or the “east meets the west” are very fitting in relation to Azerbaijan.

I spent two nights in Baku which was the perfect amount of time to see the city. The Old Town in Baku is really cool. The buildings are of an architectural style I had never seen before with double story homes with very ornate wooden balconies. I would later see this same style in Georgia. I wandered the Old Town and climbed the Maiden Tower which has a great panorama view of the city from the top. I strolled the walkways near Nizami square soaking in the sunshine and fresh air. I walked the corniche overlooking the Caspian Sea. One evening I walked over to Sahidler Xiyabani Park with is a really ornately decorated park that has amazing views overlooking the city, and also perfect views of the iconic Flames Towers. There is an impressive nightly light show on the Flames Towers featuring flames, and running water, and the Azerbaijani flags. If you’re looking for somewhere a little off the tourist track and an easy long weekend trip from Riyadh I would highly recommend Azerbaijan!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Georgia

The country. Not the state. Just to be clear. If I had to rank these countries in order of my favourites Georgia would’ve been at the top of my list. Georgia first landed on my radar after seeing a friend’s picture from a trip she and her boyfriend took. Or more specifically a single view from a balcony of a hotel at a range of mountains that I later researched to be the country of Georgia. I was determined to wake up to that same view one day. I spent a week solo in Georgia. A couple nights in the capital of Tbilisi before retreating for the mountain views of Kazbegi that had inspired my trip, and then a night at the end back in Tbilisi. The best decision I made while in Georgia was to hire a guide/driver from Instagram. At first it sounds a little sketchy- having some youngish guy pick you up a night from the airport in a country you’ve never been to as a solo woman traveler. But, I’m a big believer in listening to your gut. And my gut said that Zuka was legit- and in fact he was. Zuka would be my sidekick over the next week. He drove me around, told me the history of the region, and we rocked out to Enrique Inglasias’s song “Bailando” quite likely 100 times.

Zuka drove me to the famous Jvari Monastery, to the wine region of Kakheti, and later into the mountain region of Kazbegi close to the Russian border where I spend 3 days taking in the most stunning mountain views and watching the changing weather. I spent time in Tbilisi and was mesmerized by the graffiti art around the city. If you are a foodie at all I would highly recommend adding Georgia to your list. Georgian food is fantastic- my favourite was the Georgian Salad made of cucumbers, tomatoes, with a walnut paste and Khinkali which are pork dumplings. And trust me- Georgian wine is amazing. If you go be sure to use Zuka– tell him I sent you, and be sure to listen to a little Enrique or whatever music is trendy when you go!

The icing on the cake of my trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia was turning up to the airport to fly back to Riyadh and getting upgraded to business class and then coming to find out that not only was I upgraded, but that I was the only passenger on the entire flight. It will be difficult to ever top that travel experience!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Ethiopia

Ethiopia was definitely the most exciting trip I took this year in terms of things just generally not going as plan but still working out in the end. From the get go this trip was a hot mess. Our flight was delayed in Riyadh for 8 hours. 8 hours after we had already been awake for nearly 24hours. Then there was a medical emergency where a woman was in questionable labour and didn’t speak English. We assessed her and kept her comfortable and for landing she and I were moved up to Business class. I had instructed her via a Swahili translator that if she were to feel like her water broke or that she was bleeding she was to squeeze my arm. Literally as the plane touches down she squeezes my arm. So here we are taxiing to the gate and I’m under her dress assessing her. Thankfully she was neither bleeding, nor did her water break and she could still feel the baby moving. In the midst of all this excitement my kiwi sidekick proudly told me she knew the Swahili word for Giraffe. Not super helpful!!

Three of our four flight legs were delayed that trip. Ethiopia Air is a bit of a scheduling disaster and I wouldn’t fly with them again unless there were zero other options. My Kiwi mate lost consciousness likely due to altitude in the town of Lalibela. That was medical emergency numero 2 of the trip. One minute she’s saying she doesn’t feel well, the next she’s laying on the floor. The greatest disappointment of the trip though was our Ethiopian attempt at wine tasting. We literally drove 3-4 hours each way to go wine tasting at a French winery only to be told that there was in fact no wine to taste. I nearly cried. Ok. I might’ve actually cried.

It wasn’t all bad though. Ethiopia is an intriguing country with amazing food. It’s colourful and vibrant. The rock churches of Lalibela are amazing and totally worth the effort it took to get there. We were even able to convince our tour guide in Lalibela to organize us a tour by auto rickshaw in which I was the driver and he was happy to comply. He proudly told us that I was the first westerner to driver Bajaj (rickshaw) in the history of Lalibela. We spent time exploring Addis Ababa and even got to meet up with one of the housekeepers that I work with here in Saudi.  She and her family took us out for dinner and I oogled their cute kids and we decided I would take one to Canada- but then we decided Canada was far too cold for them. Ethiopia was both extremes- frustrating beyond belief at times, and then totally rewarding and heart filling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Austria

I’d previously been to Austria twice before. Once way back in 2010 to Vienna, and then in 2016 to Salzburg with my mom. Both times I loved the food and especially the wine. In August I visited Bratislava Slovakia and then traveled by boat up the river Danube to Vienna and later onward to Slovenia. The main reason I was stopping off for a night was to meet up with a cousin I had only really learned about the month before. Her mom and my Dad were cousins so I guess we are second cousins- although after meeting her she feels very much like a first cousin to me. I stayed right near St Stephen’s Cathedral which is beautiful and my room had rooftop views over the city.

Even though I was only there one night I had really wished I had the time to stay another couple nights. My cousin and I went for a traditional Austrian meal and she toured me around the city on foot pointing out the important buildings and telling me the history of the city. We sipped delicious Austrian wine at a rooftop bar and tried to piece together our family history. And best of all we made plans to ensure our paths would cross again….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Slovenia

I’d long wanted to visit Lake Bled- it’s on many people’s favourite places they’ve traveled to list, so I had to see if it held up to the hype. I spent 8 days in Slovenia split between its capital city of Ljubljana and three nights of total relaxation at Lake Bled. Ljubljana is a great city- it’s small and easy to navigate, if felt totally safe as a female traveler and there’s enough to see to fill a few days. Oh, and of course the food and wine is really good. It’s pretty touristy and it being the summer it was pretty packed, but the temperature was perfect for evening strolling while eating gelato (a favourite past time of mine). I did a couple free walking tours while there. As I’ve previously mentioned many, many times I’m a huge fan of taking part in free walking tours. They are offered in almost every major city- they’re a great way to get your bearings by walking a city by foot, learning the history of the region, meeting other travelers and they are cheap. While not exactly free the guides work off of tips- I’m happy to give them the equivalent of $10 US for someone to walk me around for 2-3hours telling animated tales. Always money well spent. If you are only in a city for a short period of time I’d always recommend joining a walking tour. Make sure to visit the central market in Ljubljana as there’s tons of delicious food, and during the warmer months there’s an outdoor food festival on Fridays called “Open Kitchen.” They serve international food and alcohol and it’s great fun to sit outside sampling different food.

After spending a night in Ljubljana I took the bus to Lake Bled for 3 nights. This part of my trip was a bit of a splurge and I had booked myself a room with a balcony over looking the lake, facing towards the castle. I spent my time walking the 6km lake path, climbing up to the castle which had postcard worthy views of the lake and town below and taking boat tours around the lake. In the evenings I would sit on my balcony sipping wine, reading a book and  watching the magnificent sunsets. I would look up every paragraph or so to see the sky changing colours. Deepening. Each moment more beautiful than the one before. Watching as the light sparkled across the lake. The yellow brightening into orange then into pink and then into a light mauve. The sky looked like it was expanding. As the sky fell darker the last bits of light faded the castle on the opposite cliff grew brighter- its windows illuminated from within as the last bit of sun slipped away. Those sunsets were my favourite part of being in Slovenia. Lake Bled is a very romantic place and would be a great place to take a partner, but equally so if you’re looking to clear your head and relax which was exactly why I was there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Estonia

In October I flew into Helsinki Finland and made my way down thru Estonia, to Latvia and then Lithuania before flying to Berlin to meet up with my cousin. Estonia was a place I’d heard a lot about this past year. If you’re into travel at all then you also have probably heard a lot about Estonia, specifically about the city of Tallinn which has been an up and coming travel destination. I spend a couple nights in Helsinki and then took the ferry to Tallinn. The ferry to Tallinn is more of a booze cruise for the Finns. They go over to Estonia where the booze are cheaper and stock up. The ferry itself is only about four hours. It’s super easy to get between the two countries. I’m used to ferries in Canada or the US. They are low key, relaxing type of sailing. Often you sit and watch the view from the windows or go to the upper decks for some fresh air. Ferries in this part of the world are really more of a cruise entertainment experience. There’s singing and choreographed dance moves. There was also a stuffed mascot that was involved in the dancing. While waiting for the ferry to board I was approached by a couple. They were Finnish and very, very drunk. And/or possibly on meth- it was hard to say. He was a little overly friendly and started chatting me up. Being the polite Canadian I was I answered and the following conversation ensued……. Him “Where are you from?” Me “Canada.” Him “Hmmm never heard of it.” So I then told him that I lived in the Middle East and was here on vacation. He then started yelling “BOMB.” Quite loud while pointing at my suitcase and then he started laughing. I was mortified and thankful no one nearby was taking him serious. He then tried to hug me and he and his lady then proceeded to overshare their entire life stories. How they met, how many kids they had, how much alcohol they planned to buy. The ship literally could not board fast enough. I kept thinking that at some point I was likely going to get pick pocketed, but that didn’t happen. They were just very friendly Finns. I managed to lose them in the crowd as we boarded, but later saw them going into the Duty Free. He winked at me and waved.

So I arrived in Tallinn Estonia on a cold autumn afternoon after being mistaken for a terrorist. I had booked a cute AirBnb in the Old Town and it was perfect for my three night stay. Tallinn is a very charming city. The Old Town is cobble stoned and easily walkable and you could easily picture yourself walking there 200 years ago. Because I was there during the off season that meant less tourists, and that it was pretty easy to get a table in some of the citiy’s best restaurants. If you are a foodie then add Tallinn to your list. There are so many great restaurants there. My favourite was Restoran O (But the “O” has those two little dots above it that my keyboard won’t let me type.) They had an amazing tasting menu with a wine pairing and all the dishes are from local foods influenced by the Island of Saaremaa the largest island in Estonia.

The second day I was there I joined a walking tour that wound it’s way thru the city to some very scenic overlooks all the while learning the history of the country. Estonia most recently became independent in 1991. The language is similar to Finnish or Hungarian and they are not gender specific. Also they have no future tense so instead of saying phrases like “in the future” they say “in 5 months time.” Also a large percentage of Estonians are atheists. That’s all the fun facts I can remember right now. You’re welcome. There is also a very cool part of town that has an urban industrial feel and is full of artists, graffiti and bars and restaurants. It’s called Kalamaya and it’s an easy walk from the Old Town. It would be a shame to visit Tallinn and not leave the Old Town as the city has much more to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Latvia

After Tallin Estonia, I traveled to Riga Lativa on a one way tour bus that was really like a day tour with stop offs on the way between the two cities. This was a great way to see the countryside as it was October the leaves were changing colour and the air was crisp. Fall is my favourite season hands down. En route from Tallin to Riga we stopped off at small villages to walk around and wander thru some old castle ruins and then hiked up to some caves that were made of sandstone. Leave it to me to walk 700Km across Spain without falling only to walk like 1km on a muddy path in Latvia to make a massive spectacle of myself. As it turns out I don’t have nearly the cat like reflexes I had previously convinced myself I had. I realized this whilst laying on my back in a muddy puddle. Mud in my hair and covering most of my jeans I opted not to change into the only other clean pair of pants I had, lest I repeat the same incident.

We arrived in Riga in the rain and in the dark, but it being a weekend the city was just getting started. It was gearing up for the bachelor parties and mayhem that would later spill out of the bars onto the main street. The city felt vibrant and full of energy. The following morning I joined…. you guessed it….a walking tour of the Old Town. Riga is known to have one of the largest amounts of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. I’m a big fan of this style of architecture and I had a great time walking out of the Old Town to the nearby neighbourhoods where the vast majority of these buildings are located. The Old Town of Riga though is lovely. The alleys are cobble stoned and quaint, there are several open squares, and you can see the remnants of the old city walls. Interspersed with exploring the city on foot I took many stops for cappuccinos and of course wine. In fact one of the best places I came across that trip was a place called “Easy Wine” in the Old Town. It was a wine bar that had like 60 different kinds of wine in a vending machine. Wine. Vending Machine. Sounds like heaven to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. Germany

Germany was another place I’d been to a few times. I went to Munich for Oktoberfest a few years back and visited the Christmas Market in Frankfurt two winters ago. I ended my trip to the Balkans in Berlin for two reasons. First, my cousin was living there (the one I had met in Vienna in August) and I was keen to spend more time with her. The second reason was that I wanted to get a tattoo covered and I had found an artist I really liked who was in Berlin. I spent four nights there with no real plan other than to hang out with my cousin and get my new tattoo. Other then that I just wanted to spend some time outside walking the city and eating good food. Luckily my cousin is very knowledgeable about WWII history so she walked me around the city explaining to me the history and pointing out important sites. We walked the East West gallery which has urban art painted on portions of the Berlin Wall. We visited the Mauerpark market which sells a little bit of this and a little bit of that and was insanely packed with uber trendy hipsters. My cousin introduced me to curry wurst which pairs great with beer and are basically sausages in a curry ketchup sauce. Fun fact: you can walk all over town sipping your beer. No one will say a dang thing about it.

I loved all the different neighbourhoods and how walkable the city was. I’m a big fan of big cities and I really liked Berlin. I was also lucky enough to be there during the Festival of Lights where there were different light installations spread across the city with evening shows. I’m pretty sure Berlin will be a city that I’ll return to- most likely in the spring when my cousin is back there as I’d love to explore some more and spend some time with her!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s some of what I got up to in 2017. I ended the year by ringing in my birthday in Bahrain. 2018 is starting to take shape and I’ve got some plans in the works. As always I’m still not exactly sure when my final exit from Saudi Arabia will be. Right now I’m just taking it day by day. In a couple weeks I’m going to Luxor Egypt for a long weekend which has been something I’ve wanted to do the last couple years. Hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings is on my bucket list so I’m pretty pumped. I’m looking into going to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi in early February and then flying to Djibouti with my kiwi sidekick for a few days. Many of you reading this are probably like hold up did she just make up another country again? No. Djibouti is next to Somalia and according to the Lonely Planet otherwise known as my travel bible, Djibouti is its 4th pick for up and coming country in 2018. After that I don’t have anything set in stone. I’d like to visit the “Stans” in the spring. Specifically Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Something really off the beaten path for a few weeks. That’s all from me. I hope 2018 is starting off as a good one for you all, and I hope this post gives you some new ideas for your upcoming adventures!

 

 

 

36 Hours in Helsinki……

Last month I spent 2 weeks traveling solo from Helsinki Finland thru Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and then ending with a few days in Berlin. Prior to going my immune system was not great and a combination of back to back traveling, taking on some new roles at work and just being generally run down resulted in me getting sick the couple days before I left. Truth be told I wasn’t especially jazzed to be going on this trip- the thought of spending 2 weeks in my bed was sounding pretty great (insert pitty party here). Thankfully though, as soon as my feet hit Finnish soil (and I checked into my swank hotel) I was out of my funk and ready to see what Helsinki had to offer. A couple years ago I spent a bit of time in northern Finland- specifically Lapland where Santa lives, but never got a chance to see Helsinki.

Helsinki is hella expensive as is most of Scandinavia. Basically it’s kinda in between Paris and Iceland in terms of expensive. The trade off though is that even though things like food cost a lot, I never had a bad meal. I spent 2 nights in Helsinki- basically landing early afternoon and then leaving early 2 days later- so I really only had a day and a half to explore. I stayed in the city center meaning that I was easy walking distance to the water and to shopping and a few churches and sites that I wanted to see. After checking into my hotel I wandered towards the water and found that there was a fish market where boats lined the harbour and sold local pickled varieties of fish from the backs of the boats. The air was crisp and smelled salty like the sea and that was all it took to get me out of my travel funk. That first afternoon I walked along the waterfront and went to the Central Market. The Central Market has a wine store, coffee shops and places to buy fresh fish, as well as places to buy fish sandwiches and oysters. It’s pretty awesome. I then walked up to Uspenski Cathedral an Orthodox cathedral from the late 1800’s. Later I visited the nearby Helsinki Cathedral which is up a steep flight of stairs. The outside is much cooler than the inside. I went at sunset which made for some great pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day I spent part of the morning organizing a ferry ticket for the following day to take me from Helsinki to Tallinn Estonia (more on this in an upcoming post). Seeing as it was the beginning of October, the weather was chilly, rainy and pretty windy. The one great thing about traveling at this time of year is that the leaves had just started to change colours so it was a beautiful landscape of reds, oranges and yellows. I decided to take a ferry to the nearby island of Suomenlinna- the ferry takes about 20min to get to the island and the views of the Helsinki skyline off the back of the ferry are amazing. I stood outside in the chilly air taking in the scenery. Suomenlinna is a fortress, some parts of it from the 1700’s and it is now a UNESCO heritage site. The island itself is free- you just have to pay for the ferry to and from. There is a residential portion of the island (actually it’s comprised of 6 linked islands) as well as cafes, and museums. I spend my time wandering the main path that wound past the church, past the fortress structures and past a hidden beach. I took tons of photos of the changing leaves that lined the walkways. After a coffee to warm up I took the ferry back to Helsinki and had a late lunch at the Central Market. Fresh salmon sandwiches with a glass of chilled white wine never disappoint.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though I’m not especially religious I wanted to visit two religious-y places while in Helsinki so I walked over to the Temppeliaukio (rock church). I’d seen pictures of this church which is built into a rock wall and has a copper dome roof and a skylight that lets in natural light. Architecturally it’s a really cool building, and has a sense of peacefulness inside it once you get past the clicks of all the people taking pictures. The second place I wanted to visit was Kamppi Chapel- a chapel built for the sole purpose of silence in the middle of a busy shopping area. The building itself is iconic- it’s a very modern design and the inner sanctuary is curved and built to block out the outside noise. Of course interspersed between doing some sightseeing and walking in the brisk autumn air I was eating good food and drinking delicious wine. My first night there I had an amazing meal of fettuccine with prawns in a lobster butter sauce. So damn good. The next night I ate at a different Italian restaurant that had a mozzarella bar. Mozzarella cheese soaked in a bunch of different sauces or oil. Not very healthy but totally tasty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s a quick 36 hours in Helsinki. Next blog post I’ll tell you about one of my new favourite cities: Tallinn Estonia. I’m currently writing this sitting on the couch of my bestfriend’s house in Seattle while she is baking some sweets for Thanksgiving. Next weekend I’ll be flying back to Saudi where I’ll be thru the Christmas holidays. No white Christmas for me. Happy Thanksgiving to my Yankee peeps!

Camino Memories

A year ago today is a day that will be implanted in my memories forever. For two reasons…..first it’s my Pops birthday, and secondly because a year ago today we finished our Camino. If you’ve been reading my blog then you know last year I walked almost the entire length of Spain with my Pops. We started our pilgrimage in St Jean Pied de Port and walked over the Pyrenees walking to Santiago de Compostela about 100km from the Atlantic Ocean. I had purposely planned for us to arrive into Santiago on the 29th of October so we would be issued our Camino certificates on Pops birthday. And so that’s exactly what we did.

The night before we stayed in a town called Lovacolla on the outskirts of the Santiago airport about 11km to the Santiago Cathedral. We woke up early as we had plans to arrive in Santiago by mid morning. The Camino had other plans for us though. We left before the sun was up and started out in the pitch black of the early morning hours. This was pretty much the only time we got lost on the Camino and we spend the better part of an hour scouting out the famous yellow arrows we’d spend the last five weeks following. With our headlamps on we just couldn’t make sense of where we had lost the trail and we back tracked and wandered around trying to get our bearings. I have a way over active imagination so being in the woods in the dark is the setting for a horror movie I wanted no part of. We eventually ended up coming across a yellow arrow and were finally on our way.

We made it into Santiago a little before 12pm and went directly to get our Camino credential and to store our bags. On the way to the pilgrims mass we ended up running into 2 older Japanese/American ladies who we had crossed paths with several times and made plans to meet up later. Somehow we confused the Museum for the Cathedral and attempted to go to mass there- the employee thought this was hilarious. We finally got ourselves sorted and took in the  traditional pilgrims mass and then in honour of Pops birthday I had booked us for lunch at Casa Marcelo, a Michelin starred restaurant. It was the bomb. Seriously such a great meal. After several glasses of wine we day drunkenly made our way back to pick up our bags and head to the hotel. En route we ran into an Australian guy we had meet a couple weeks before. I refer to him as Dr Bob. While not a doctor he gave me blister advice and helped Pops with his shin splints so he will always be affectionately known as Dr Bob to me. He and Pops shared the same birthday so we made plans to meet up a couple hours later at the cathedral.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 5pm we wandered to the Cathedral and met up with Dr Bob who had 3 plastic cups and a bottle of red wine and we sat on the cold stone out front catching up and watching other pilgrims arrive. Within very little time we were reunited with several pilgrims we knew- some Americans, a fellow Canadian, another Australian, a girl from the Netherlands, and Swiss guy. We took a ton of pictures in front of the Cathedral and wandered off to find something to eat as a group. A few of us later went for dinner and then out to this bizarre bar with a live jazz band where one of the dudes was very clearly on some type of drugs, but nonetheless an amazing musician. We drank beer and listened to the band play and Pops had a very special day.

For obvious reasons this will always be a day that stands out in my memories of our time on the Camino. There was a huge sense of accomplishment, but also of sadness that the Camino was over. That we had walked nearly 700km over 5 weeks, and that the walk was over. A few days later we would leave Spain and return to Paris. As I’ve mentioned before not a single day has passed in the last year that I haven’t longed to be back on the Camino, the sun coming up, the wind gently blowing, and my feet carrying me across nearly an entire country. So for now I’ll just rely on my memories until I walk again.

And a very Happy Birthday to Pops who I’ll be seeing next week. Can’t wait!!!

Camino Anniversary

Today marks my Camino anniversary. A year ago today Pops and I woke up filled with anxiety and excitement in the town of St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees mountains. We ate a typical Camino breakfast of toast with jam, coffee and juice and we packed up and headed out in the mid mourning hours. We stopped off in a small church and I said a prayer for safety for the journey that lay ahead. I’m not especially religious, but I would repeat this habit in countless churches spanning the whole of Spain. Mostly asking for a safe journey, a quiet mind and an open heart. We crossed the main bridge leading out of town, stopping to take a selfie. Well two selfies really, because Pops has this uncanny ability to look completely surprised in almost every photo. The second one he looks slightly less surprised. We followed the bronzed metal markers that dot the streets leading up the hill outside of the town. These markers then turned  into wooden signs or spray painted arrows that we would follow for the next 5 weeks westward across Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent the next several hours climbing. That first day was only 8km but we would climb 600m into the hills to our first nights stay at Orisson. Those first 3-4km I referred to in my journal as deceiving. They didn’t seem that hard, but the last 4km were very steep. I had trained very little for our Camino- mostly because it was difficult to do much hiking in the months leading up to it on account of living in Saudi Arabia where the temperatures were still extremely hot to be hiking outside, and that mostly everywhere is flat. I had trained with my pack on a treadmill. The conditions going over the Pyrenees were nothing like walking on an incline on a treadmill. First off I had no idea that my feet would get so sweaty. My shoes it turned out were not especially breathable, and it only took me about 4km to start to develop blisters. Yep 4km. Those blisters would haunt me the next 450km all the way to Leon where I finally broke down and bought new shoes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scenery that first day was mesmerizing as the town of St Jean disappeared and we slinked up the hillside. The hillsides layered against one another forming a sort of tapestry with the differing hues of green and browns of the hills playing against the bright blue sky. Pops was extremely patient with me as we stopped numerous times to tend to my feet. Cows passed us, as did other pilgrims. We sat on a log and ate some nuts and hydrated. Further up the path we stopped at a scenic overlook where 20-30 buzzards were gliding in circles on the air current with the Pyrenees in the distance. A little further we came to a flattened area and then a small downhill that dropped us at our refuge for the night. It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived and we dropped our bags in our room. We were lucky enough to arrive and be given one of the only private rooms for the night. We then went and ordered a well deserved beer. If I close my eyes I can still feel how crisp and refreshing that beer at Orisson was. We sat outside looking at the view and eventually made our way to shower and wash our sweaty clothes and lay them out to dry for the following day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We chatted with fellow pilgrims. We were all bonded together by this shared journey that we were embarking on. Walking quite literally into the unknown. We shared our first of many communal meals that night. Something that would become one of my favourite parts of the Camino. Little did we know that this band of characters would become the backdrop of our Camino experience. How our paths would cross and intersect and we would get news about some of these people days later by way of the Camino grapevine. There were the 2 Irish sisters. The Korean girl who we would see many times throughout our Camino. The 2 older ladies from Quebec. The loud Texans- a couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and their uber fit daughter and son in law. And then there was the older American man who talked loudly into his phone. The first time we laid eyes on him he was having an animated conversation and Pops and I looked at each other as if to say “bloody Americans.” His name was Richard and he played a huge role in our Camino. We would walk countless days together. Sometimes in a group, sometimes solo but in sight on one another, sometimes with other pilgrims. We would later learn that the person on the other end of the phone was his wife Sherri and over the next 5 weeks we would be invited into the calls with her. Richard is also one of my best Camino memories and a true Camino blessing. So many of my funniest Camino memories involve him. A personal favourite was when Pops and I were waiting for him at the top of a steep hill and Richard made his way over the crest holding his phone against his ear yelling “Taxi!!” Richard was the best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In honour of this anniversary I thought I’d make mention of the many, many things I miss about walking the Camino. Because truthfully not a day goes by that I don’t think about it and long for the sound of crunching gravel under my feet, the wind blowing against my face, and the quiet sounds of nature.

-I miss being outside as the sun is coming up. Watching the changing light and colours as the sky lit up. Almost every day of those 5 weeks I saw the sunrise. It would rise behind us lighting up the path in front of us casting shadows of our silhouettes. I would stop and take picture after picture spaced out by a few minutes, each picture more stunning than the last.

-I miss the simplicity of the journey. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Except it was more like wake up- eat some type of breakfast. Walk. Second breakfast and cappuccino. Walk. Lunch. Walk. Beer. Shower. Dinner. Wine. Sleep. Or something like that….

-I miss the introspection. The quietness of being alone with my thoughts. Having the ability to tune the outside world out. Walking the Camino is like being insulated inside a bubble. You end up being disconnected from the outside world.

-I love seeing the world at walking pace. There is something to be said about crossing a country powered by your own two feet. I’ve always been a fan of slow motion travel and not much is slower than a walkers pace. You observe things you would otherwise miss traveling by car or train. You take note of things like the smell of wildflowers or the texture of a fern. It’s really something to turn around and look at the landscape behind you to see how far you’ve come.

-The people. Pops and I met so many lovely people. The Camino has a way of leveling people so that it really doesn’t matter what your income is or what your education level is or what your job is. Literally no one cares. What they care about is your reasons for walking. Your observations and experiences. How your feet are doing. I loved meeting people from so many different countries. In fact our last night in Santiago we met up with fellow pilgrims we had crossed paths with from the U.S, Canada, Netherlands, Korea, Australia and Switzerland. A whole new group of international friends.

-As I’ve mentioned I loved the evening pilgrims communal dinners. It was such a fun way to unwind after a long days walking. It also didn’t hurt that the wine was refillable. By now you know how much I love wine. And Spanish wine is very drinkable.

-Being someone who isn’t especially athletic completing the Camino was a huge accomplishment to me. I know I surprised some of the people in my life, and I even surprised myself. I miss the feeling of accomplishment after a hard days hike.

-Getting to spend so much time with Pops was also one of the best parts. There weren’t many father daughter pairs on the Camino. In fact I can’t actually recall if we met any others. We have a pretty great relationship and he learned pretty early on that if I was in the midst of a blister melt down it was best to just leave me be. I get upset fast, but I’m back to my normal happy self equally as quick. I’d happily walk across another country with him as my sidekick.

For the last year I’d planned to blog a ton about our experiences on the Camino but every time I sit down to write I’m at a loss of words as to how to describe the whole experience. I had walked the Camino to find answers to the age old question of “What the hell am I doing with my life??” But instead I ended up with no answers and only more questions. What I did make of it is this though- that I strive to live a full life with an open heart. To be brave even when things are scary. To tell those I care about how I feel about them even at the risk of it not being reciprocated. To live without regrets. Or as Daniel puts it in the iconic Camino movie The Way……You don’t choose a life. You live one. I couldn’t agree more.

Buen Camino my fellow pilgrims. I hope our paths cross again….

 

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

So after a super fun 24 hours in Lalibela we arrived back in Addis Ababa for the last 2 nights of our trip. I’m a huge wine fan, so when researching the trip we found Castel Winery a french winery who had imported french grapes into the Rift Valley of Ethiopia and arranged a tour. By arranged a tour I mean we booked a guide and driver for the last 2 days to take us around. They contacted the winery and arranged a tour for us. So early one morning we set off. The winery is located 3 hours to the south of Addis- it being the rainy season everything was green and lush. Our trip plans for the day were to visit the winery, do a wine tasting, and then drive back to Addis where we had arranged a tour of this world famous women’s hospital that we had to reschedule from the previous day because of our flight delay.

This particular day was a great reminder that sometimes things do not go as planned. Sometimes travel is hard and frustrating and there are communication errors and shit just goes generally opposite of how you want it to. So we drove south towards the winery. The roads reminded me of driving in India- small single or double lane roads winding thru tiny villages lined with massive potholes and any number of bikes, motorcycles, car, trucks, cows all over the road. We passed several funeral processions as we passed thru the tiny villages. We stopped off mid morning for a cup of Ethiopian coffee and Fanta for Kiwi and drove to the winery.

We arrived at Castel Winery which is a large wine exporter. We had read blog posts about the lovely tours other travelers had, and again our tour company had emailed them that we were coming. Except they had no idea we were coming. So we arrive and negotiations were made as to whether we could be given a tour. Thankfully, a random employee gave us a tour of the vineyard and told us about the agriculture in the region and what types of grapes they grow. Which was great, except I’m primarily there to taste the wine. I will totally drive 6 hours round trip on backroads just to taste some wine. So next they arrange for us a tour where the wine is actually made. Which again is cool. But I’m here for the wine people. So after that tour they’re like “would you like to buy some wine?” And I’m like “hells yes, but after we taste is so I know which ones I like.” Being a real wine nerd I had already looked up all the wine they made and knew which ones I was keen to try. And then the guy said the words that I dread….“not possible.” And I’m like “what now?” And they inform us that the person in charge of the wine tasting wasn’t working today so there was no wine tasting. We had a total first world traveler melt down. I think I stopped breathing I was so disappointed. I mean that was the entire point of us driving all that way. We could’ve literally stayed in Addis and bought every type of wine that they made there and did our own wine tasting while getting day drunk instead of driving 3 hours there and back to taste zero wine. We went wine tasting and left sober. It was actually pretty fitting seeing as how our trip to Ethiopia had gone thus far. So they told us we could still buy wine. So we bought one bottle to take back with us. Naturally, being the person who likes to get the last word in I told the tour guide and the winery employees that if they want to get tourists obviously they need to have wine to actually taste. Kiwi chimed in and was like “you need to get some table and chairs and crackers and cheese…..” and I was like “Kiwi that’s the least of their problems- there’s apparently no wine to taste.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

We sulked back to the car, and because we were already tight for time for our hospital tour we opted to skip lunch and just try and make it back to Addis in time. Our guide and driver assured us this was possible despite our gut feeling that it was not. One lesson I’ve learned from mixing with other cultures is that often times people will just tell you what they think you want to hear instead of telling you something bad. This was that exact situation. In hindsight unless we were taking a helicopter back it was unlikely we ever could’ve made it back in time. Like hella unlikely. After 3 more hours in the car we were hungry, tired, and it was impossible to make our appointment so we had to call and cancel. Again. I was so bummed. The Hamlin Fistula Hospital was founded by an Australian couple in the 1970s. It provides free care to women who have sustained injuries related to childbirth. As someone who works in maternity and is passionate about women’s health I was really gutted that we missed this. This particular day was just not our day. We arrived back at the hotel 9 hours after we set out, starving and feeling defeated from the many obstacles of the trip. We had plans to meet up with one of the housekeepers I work with here Saudi Arabia. She was in Addis with her children to visit her family and this was one of the reasons I wanted to visit Addis. We couldn’t have felt less social after our day of irritation but we dragged ourselves to the shower and made ourselves presentable. I’m so very glad we didn’t cancel.

My work friend and her brother picked us up from our hotel and drove us to a nearby touristy restaurant that serves Ethiopian food and then also has traditional dancers. Her three children and her brother’s wife and their two young kids were waiting for us. We had such a fantastic evening. Truly. That night will always be such a special memory for me. We ate some delicious food and sat around chatting while I cuddled the brother’s 6 month old baby girl and gained the trust of his 3 year old son. They were adorable and they kept saying to the 3 year old “do you want to go to Canada?” And I was like don’t leave this kid unattended or he’s for sure coming to Canada with me. We watched the dancing and he sat on my lap (the kid not the brother just to be clear) and we took a ton of photos and got all the kids to do kissy lip selfies with us. It was the best. And then they refused to let us pay and even payed for our taxi back to the hotel which was beyond kind. I hope I can repay this kindness to them in the future. After a dark cloud of a day the storm cleared and the sun brightly shone on us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning we woke up early for a tour of Addis before our flight back to Riyadh that evening. We did a little shopping. The textiles in Ethiopia are beautiful so I bought an absurd number of scarves and some jewelry. We then visited Holy Trinity Cathedral which is very much worth a visit if you are in Addis. We arrived at the tail end of a service and there were worshippers outside. The inside of the church has stunning stained glass windows, but the bit I liked was that the walls and pillars were tiled with this glazed tile which made the light reflecting through the windows bounce all over. Also the carpet was fuschia and who doesn’t love that?! From here we drove to a view point on Mt Entoto which over looks the city of Addis Ababa. Did you know that Addis is the fifth highest capital city in the world at nearly 8000 feet? Well you do now. You’re welcome. We drove down the mountain and visited the Lucy exhibit at the National Museum. While there I started to feel not so great. My stomach felt a little off and I was dizzy so I took a rest hoping things would improve. They did not so we went to a nearby restaurant and I tried some 7-up and soup which marginally helped. We visited the Ethnological museum which probably would’ve been interesting had I not been feeling so poorly. Our guide was a chatty fellow and basically read every single sign to me which was way over stimulating. After that we drove through Merkato market which is the largest market in Africa. They literally sell everything. We drove through because I wasn’t feeling great and our guide wouldn’t have let us out of the car anyways, because according to him there is a lot of theft and such there. I imagine that’s not an untrue statement from what I saw. We then went back to the hotel so I could rest before our flight as I was starting to run a fever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So later that night we headed off to the airport. The check in guy was great and gave us a row to ourselves as I clearly did not look well. This was the first time our flight was actually on time. Thank goodness. We boarded the plane and there was this creepy guy who was clearly taking photos of us. I was too ill to care but Kiwi was getting irritated. Right before take off he moved seats and sat directly across the aisle from Kiwi. I was just waiting for her to tell him off because he was hardcore staring at us. Then he tried to do his seat belt up. He grabbed part of his seat belt and part of the one from the empty seat next to him and tried two identical pieces to match. Naturally this didn’t work. Kiwi and I just sat there watching this happen. So he tied the belt in a knot and tucked it under his arm and look around to see if anyone noticed. Kiwi and I made eye contact with each other and then just about died laughing about the hilariousness of the whole trip. My medication kicked in and when I woke up the creepy guy had moved seats away from us. When we landed in Riyadh I texted my driver to have him pick me up crackers and 7-up. Sometimes having a driver is the bomb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So while a lot of crazy things happened over our 5 day trip to Ethiopia it was still overall a great trip. One for the books really. There’s no one I would’ve rather shared it with than Kiwi as we balance each other out and we laugh all the damn time which makes us great travel sidekicks. I can’t wait for our next adventure!!! Next week I’ll update ya’ll with what’s in store for me for the few months…..

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