Hanoi Side-Trips

After the family left we took a couple side trips before flying halfway home.

Sapa is in the Northwest corner of Vietnam. We took overnight trains to get there and back. Then spent a couple days trekking with one night at a homestay and another at a hotel.

We almost didn’t go to Sapa because we had heard from other travelers that the weather was pretty bad. One couple traveled up on one night train and left town on the very next night train because the fog was so terrible. So we were kind of risking it with this trip. In the end it turned out quite well – we had one day of decent weather before the clouds rolled in. So we could see far enough in front of us to glimpse these amazing views:

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Our guide, Thai, leading the way through the fields.

 

First day of hiking

First day of hiking

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Luckily our guide and the other travelers in our hiking group were all really awesome and we had a fun day hiking, learning about the area, sharing travel stories, eating meals, drinking rice wine, and playing cards together.

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Our awesome group eating dinner at the homestay. Cale, Jon and Emily from the U.S., Hringur and Erna from Iceland, Mauricio and Natalia from Columbia, and Thai from Vietnam!

 

We left our homestay after the first night and continued trekking. Emily and Jon had been trying to figure out an opportunity to gift several pairs of reading glasses to some of the women in the villages.  A family friend of theirs who lives in Hanoi had given them a package of glasses with instructions on how to check vision using postcards with different-sized letters and distributing glasses of varying prescriptions.

Any hikers that come to Sapa are followed by an entourage of local women who assist you on the trail (whether you like it or not) and then try and sell their handwoven products at the end of your hike. They speak enough English to ask where you’re from, whether you have siblings, and whether you are married with kids- but not any more than that. So mid-way through our hike on day 2, Emily and Jon decided to figure out if the women in our entourage needed the glasses.  First they gave them postcards to look at, then handed out the glasses. There was obviously a language barrier but they were able to pass out the glasses and the women tried them on.  Immediately they put down the postcards and looked at the stitching in their clothing (which is exactly what the family friend said would happen). In this way they were able to figure out who could use which prescription.  It was so fun to see them getting excited that they could see their stitching more clearly- this is their livliehood and a pair of glasses that isn’t otherwise accessible out in the hills of Vietnam was a welcome gift. There aren’t any Walgreens, Bartells, or 7-11’s in the hills of Sapa.

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Testing the prescriptions

 

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Emily and Jon with our group of ladies and their new glasses.

 

After our prescription party, the fog rolled in and didn’t leave for for the next two days but we were still happy to be hiking and active.

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Foggy water buffalo.

 

Our 7th and last train ride in Vietnam. Also the nicest.

Our 7th and last train ride in Vietnam. Also the nicest.

We spent our last few days in Hanoi drinking egg coffee (kind of like coffee with Tom and Jerry’s mix on top), going for runs at Lenin Park, and we took one last side trip to Tam Coc where we were rowed down a river by a lady using her feet to paddle, through rice fields and under caves.

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We topped it all off with a bike ride in the pouring rain. Cale, as we left town for our freezing cold, wet, hour long bike ride: “Well this is fun!!!!”

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You can’t quite tell but we are completely soaked through and our faces are dripping with rainwater.

It’s bittersweet to be ending this trip but we are so excited to come home! Next stop: USA!

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Hoi An Photo Tour

I took a photography tour in Hoi An and wish I would have taken one before we embarked on our trip.  Our group went to the outskirts of Hoi An to take photos and it was easy to approach people and ask for a photo since everyone knew our tour guide.  I learned a lot about my camera (read: get rid of it and buy a new one).  We lost light quickly, but these were my best shots of the day.

Buffing things up for Tet

Buffing things up for Tet

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With our instructor, who speaks perfect Vietnamese

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It’s amazing what people can fit on motorbikes here. This is a common sight. Add a few more people to this bike and put a cell phone or a cigarette in the driver’s hand and that would also be quite normal. Drivers are very coordinated 🙂

On to the rice paddies:

In the rice paddys

Working hard in the rice paddy

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My favorite shot of the day

My favorite shot of the day

Planting peanuts

Planting peanuts

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We had lost the magic hour sunlight at this point but still got some decent shots back in the village, and got to say hi to a bunch of kiddos:

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We learned panning, and I was stoked… but then I tried again after the class and couldn’t re-create it (the background won’t blur). Photographer friends, what am I doing wrong?

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And finally, some night shots: I don’t have this perfected but it was really fun messing around with different exposures:

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Overall, a fun, informative day taking photos!

Good Morning, Vietnam!

I have to admit, I was a bit nervous about Vietnam. We had spoken with a growing number of friends, acquaintances, and read various blogger summaries (Nomadic Matt for one) who really didn’t like it here.  So it was a pleasant surprise that we have found we absolutely love Vietnam.

A few things may have helped this first impression.  For starters, I believe the main reason visitors to Vietnam have a bad experience is because they feel they get ripped off or taken advantage of far too much.  But, well, we’ve been traveling for a while, and how should I put it…

We survived Morocco.

In Vietnam, nobody would even think of ‘guiding’ you somewhere you were already walking to, then demanding payment for their service.  We are guaranteed to pay more than locals for just about everything, but for us it’s never been more than a few dollars.  And though they are aggressive salespeople here, they are not personally offended if you say no, and in the end everyone still has a smile on their face.  That’s A-OK in my book.

At any rate, our love for the country started right away with our first full day in Ho Chi Minh City (A place I thought I wouldn’t care for purely because of its size: over seven million people).  The backpacker district we stayed in was entirely walkable (though we definitely had to learn how to cross the street….aaaaack!), there was a nearby park we could run in that had outdoor gym equipment, and everyone was extremely friendly to us.

Cale and I went for a visit to the War Museum.  It had its own slant towards propaganda, but as Cale put it: “I was taught in school that the Vietnam War was a tie!”  So at least this way we got the other side of the story about, as it’s referred to here, “The American War.”

Let me just go on a quick tangent before I continue my love-fest of our first few days in Vietnam.  The U.S. has sure done a lot of terrible things throughout the world, and it is extremely blatant as we have made our way through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  Cale and I visited the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) museum in Vientiane which had a fantastic overview of the impact the Vietnam War has had in the years following.  All my stats listed below were taken from this museum.

COPE provides prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to bomb victims.  Laos was never involved in the Vietnam War but as a neighboring country, Northern Vietnamese were using Laotian land to access the Ho Chi Minh trail to get supplies into Vietnam.  To try and plug the supply line, the U.S. dropped over 270 million bombies (sub munitions from cluster bombs), of which 30% failed to detonate. Cluster bombs come in may different forms, but the gist is : many are the size of baseballs, and if they don’t explode on impact, they will explode if touched OR if they are exposed to extreme heat.  Since bombs don’t just disappear when a war ends, 80 million unexploded bombies remained after the war.  25% of villages in Laos are still contaminated.   Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured since after 1974. Of those 20,000, 13,500 lost limb, and 40% were children.  There are 100 new casualties annually.

Many of those affected are kids looking for scrap metal to sell.  It’s a big gimmick in Laos to buy souvenirs made from bombs; it’s a great idea in theory to make something useful out of something that has resulted in so much destruction, but think about how they get that scrap metal: it just encourages kids to go out and risk their lives searching for it.  Many other injuries come from farming.  One particularly heartbreaking story told by video documentary was of a man making a fire in his home to cook dinner- something he had done hundreds of times, when a bomb exploded in his house. The heat from the fire had heated up an bombie buried under his dirt floor. He survived but is now blind, leaving his wife to support him and their two kids by rice farming.

Another interview was of a couple telling the story of how their 7-year-old son died.  He and two friends followed some older villagers into the forest to look for scrap metal (the first time the kids had followed along). The older villagers passed on some bombies, knowing they were dangerous but the kids didn’t know.  The boy’s two friends died on impact after trying to pick up a bombie which detonated.  The boy was standing a bit further away and his father found him still alive but badly injured.  They rented a ride in a pickup truck to take him to the nearest hospital… which turned them away since they had no blood and no medicine. They drove to another hospital and it was the same story.  Keep in mind, many villages in Laos are extremely remote with terrible (if any) roads.The guy with the pickup didn’t want the child to die in his truck so they took him home and he died at home.  It’s so heartbreaking, particularly because most of those affected by bombies today are children. Multiply one of these stories by 100 and there you have an idea of what goes on in Laos annually. This certainly highlights the lasting effects of war and makes me even more uneasy about what is happening around the world today.

It’s not an easy feat to clean this up.  They figure the contaminated area of Laos is 87,000 square kilometers (over 1/3 of the country).  Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) clearance progresses extremely slowly, at about 40 square kilometers per year.  UXO Lao is a government organization, employing 1,000 Laotian staff with a few international organizers.  They clear bombies from land (basically by going through carefully with metal detectors and then detonating the area) but it can take 10 days to clear a 100×100 meter space.

Cambodia has a similar story to Laos… they have their own terrible history with the Khmer Rouge in power for so long (we visited the genocide museum at S-21 which was a sickening overview of the terrible history there). Though the U.S. wasn’t connected to the Khmer Rouge, we weren’t blameless in the war here either, and dropped over 2.5 million tons of bombs on Cambodia during the war.

At the war museum in Vietnam we learned that, though many U.S. soldiers and their families that were affected by agent orange have been compensated (as much as one can be) monetarily, Vietnamese victims of agent orange haven’t seen any compensation.  This isn’t something that just goes away. Children today are still beinb born without limbs or with mental disorders. This is something that lasts for at least three generations, though it’s unclear when the cycle will end. (Side note- guess who was involved in the making of agent orange?  Dow Chemical and Monsanto).

Anyway (sorry- that was a long downer of a side note), Cale and I emerged from the war museum in Ho Chi Minh fully depressed so decided to grab a beer at the minimart and go to the park to sit and drink away our sorrows.

We hadn’t been there for long when an older man came up to us and started talking.  We are always a bit wary of this and had our guard up, kind of wondering when he was going to ask us for something.  Well, he never did, and pretty soon there was a younger woman who approached us and joined the conversation.  The man said – “oh yeah that’s my student.”  And that’s when it clicked: I had read somewhere that locals come to the park to practice their English with visiting tourists.  Pretty soon we had a crowd of no less than 15 people around us. We split into two groups and talked… and talked… and talked… until two and a half hours later I needed some water!

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Day one at the park in Ho Chi Minh City- and the crowd just got bigger!

We had such great time that we returned the next day and stayed for the same amount of time.  The group was a mix of students from various schools, and locals who just wanted to practice and improve their English conversation skills.  Skill levels ranged from fluent to very-basic English.  But they had some pretty great questions, like:

“What is love?”

“How does retirement work in the U.S.?”

“We heard about Ferguson, tell us more about race relations?”

“Why is sustainability important in business?” Oh heyyyy BGI!

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Triple Bottoms Up!

I realized later that some of them thought I was legit Ellen Degenerous.  And one guy clarified: “no it’s like 70% Ellen, and 30% Miley Cyrus.”

It felt like having fans… and I was OK with it!

I had an equal amount of questions for the crowd about life in Vietnam and the upcoming Tet holiday, what sites I should see, what foods to eat, what towns they were from, etc.

So this was our warm welcome to Vietnam via the park in Ho Chi Minh.  What a fantastic first impression.

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The beginning of day 2 at the park.

 

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More photos of Vietnam:

 

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Terrible shot of the beautiful Central Post Office Building

 

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Reunification Palace

 

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View from Reunification Palace

 

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The inside of the palace is stuck in the 1960’s

 

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Letting Go in Laos

Sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned. The best way I can express what I was feeling in Laos is this:

Laos needs an operations manager.

Assuming that position will never get posted and filled, I will write a few tips for the future traveler to Laos.

Bus Travel:

If your bus says it will leave at 7am, consider yourself lucky if it leaves before 9am. Don’t be surprised if the seat in front of you is broken so that the man in said seat is basically napping in your lap the entire time.  After leaving two hours late, the bus driver will immediately pull into the gas station next door to fill up.

Your journey will always be 10 hours or more, no matter how far you are going. Rule of thumb: double the expected time on the bus to figure out your actual arrival time.

Buy some pills from a questionable stand on the side of the road. Don’t hesitate to take them, despite the fact that the ingredients listed are in Lao and there’s no way to tell what you’re actually taking.  You will need them for the twisty, bumpy ride ahead.

About 10% of the bus riders will be throwing up their breakfast. Sometimes that number includes you. But this issue has been considered; everyone is conveniently provided with a plastic bag for their own personal puke.

The bus you are on is guaranteed to break down at some point. Sometimes within 10 minutes of leaving the station. Don’t worry, you can relieve yourself on the side of the road, along with the other 30 passengers, as you wait two more hours for the bus driver to fix the bus by removing some engine parts.

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Broken Bus

 

If you choose the alternative bus option, a 15 seat minibus, it will almost always contain 20 passengers. They won’t sell your seat, but they may sell your lap.

Slow Boat Travel:

This is a lovely way to travel. Just know that slow boats may pack just enough people on to come to the brink of sinking. If it sinks.. safety first!  The boat has windows so you can easily escape. Just watch out for water snakes.

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Crowded Slowboat

 

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Mmmm, cold Beerlao on the Mekong. A lovely way to travel through Laos.

Innertube Travel:

This is the best way to travel, albeit the slowest. It’s still ok to go tube the river if it’s cloudy, the numerous bars along the way will have fires going which you can crowd around, shivering in your swimsuit. This was the most organized form of travel we experienced, complete with rented tubes and tuk tuk rides to the put-in spot.

Tubing in VangVieng. Photo courtesy of Edwin Sia, one of our tubing buddies!

Tubing in VangVieng. Photo courtesy of Edwin Sia, one of our tubing buddies!

 

Hotels:

-If you find 100 earwigs on the walls of your pre-paid hotel room, “don’t worry, they don’t bite.  They just crawl in your ears.”

-Your hotel manager greets you at the door on evening number three of your pre-paid stay to say: ‘We moved you into a smaller, much smellier room. Don’t worry! We moved all your stuff for you!” Fair warning.

-Your hotel room will not have a window, so don’t expect to be able to escape in case of a fire.

Food:

-The tour you booked that comes with lunch may instead come with a bag of raw meat and no means to cook it.

-Expect food poisoning at some point in your journey, even if you have successfully dodged the raw meat lunch.

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Grumpy Sarah

Needless to say, we ran into a string of bad luck while we were there. So much so that we couldn’t bear the thought of another curvy bus ride to get to the relaxing southern half of the country, and instead took a night train back to Bangkok in order to make our way to Cambodia.

The lesson from all this:

Let it go! Laos was a lovely country as soon as we realized that we would reach our destination… eventually.  We just needed to sit back and relax (and recover from the food poisoning) before we figured it out.

Cale has reminded me about seventeen times on this trip that:

1) There is more than one way to do something,

2) There isn’t a ‘wrong way,’ and

3) That my way is not necessarily the ‘only’ right way.

Obviously that’s entirely false and my way is always the best and most efficient way. But in Southeast Asia, I’m learning to let it go, and in the words of the great Taylor Swift, ‘shake it off.’ Hopefully it’s a skill I can carry back home with me.

And with that, I will leave you with some nice, relaxing photos of beautiful Laos:

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Cats love Cale. Taken at Daauw Home in Huay Xai

 

New Years at Daauw Home in Huay Xai

New Years at Daauw Home in Huay Xai

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Sunset over Thailand from Laos, in Huay Xai

 

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Treehouse Lyfe at the Gibbons Experience.

 

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Ahhhh Slowboats. So much better than busses.

 

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Landing two days later in Luang Prabang.

 

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Luang Prabang

 

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Waterfall outside of Luang Prabang

 

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Beautiful landscape in VangVieng

 

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In the capitol, Vientianne

 

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City Monks in Vientianne

 

Running a Marathon- Istanbul Style

We purposely aligned our Turkey trip with the Istanbul Marathon- neither Cale nor I are in marathon shape but we signed up for the 15k and 10k options, respectively.  We luckily met another runner at our hostel, Natalia, who we teamed up with to get to the race convention the day before, make it to the starting line on time, etc.  Nati is an ultra-marathon runner so way out of our league, and she ran the full. It was so fun to hang out together for our few days in Istanbul!

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Obligatory photos of Istanbul. This is Aya Sofia.

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Inside Aya Sofia: note the symbols on either side translate to Mohammed and Allah, and then the figures in the middle are Jesus and Mary. All living together in perfect harmony!

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Blue Mosque, as seen from the window of Aya Sofia.

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Blue Mosque

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Blue Mosque

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Underground Cisterns

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Fishing poles in Istanbul

The race convention was a zoo and none of the signage was in English, so I’m still not sure how we successfully signed up, paid, and retrieved our race packets. Luckily Nati had thought ahead and knew from the website where we needed to be the following morning to catch a bus to the starting line.

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Photo courtesy of Nati Castaneda. This is us pushing our way to the front to catch one of the busses. Oh yeah, Nati, I stole two of your photos and posted them here without asking. I hope that’s ok 😉

Note to future Istanbul Marathon runners: don’t do it! Or rather, don’t do it if you care about your time and sanity!  Do run it if you prefer to run marathons and take selfies at the same time. Imagine thousands of people (see below) signing up for the race, pushing to the front, and hearing the starting gun go off… and then starting to walk, pausing every so often to take a photo of themselves.  Seriously, I almost tripped over so many people who decided to stop and take a selfie in the middle of the crowded course.

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Again, photo courtesy of Nati! This is the starting line, the bridge over the Bosphorus is up ahead.

Ok ok, I’ll admit, if I had my phone with me I probably would have done it too! The Istanbul marathon is the only race to span two continents! What a photo opp!  It starts on the Asian side of Istanbul and ends on the European side.  And you get to run the bridge over the Bosphorus, which is quite a site.

Next on our list: a red-eye via Dubai to… Taiwan!

We Found the Sun! Olympos, Turkey.

After experiencing freezing cold weather in Goreme, we needed to find the sun again.  One night bus later, we arrived in Antalya.  We spent a couple days recovering from said night bus, then moved on to Olympos.

Olympos is a backpackers paradise, located on the southern coast of Turkey. We were drawn to it because we were searching for warmer weather, we wanted to hike a portion of the Lycian Way, and because the guidebook said something about treehouse lodging which sounded fun!  Really all that means is Olympos has several hostels advertising rooms built on wooden platforms with ladders leading up to get in, open windows, and no bathroom.  Nights were a bit too chilly to book a treehouse so we ended up staying at a place called Saban’s which also had heated cabins.  The great thing about this place is that they include breakfast and dinner with the price of the room.  The food is amazing, and there is so much of it that you don’t need lunch. So it’s pretty much all-inclusive.

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Beach at Olympos

 

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Cale tolerating yet another photo. At Olympos.

 

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Sunset at Olympos

 

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Oh yeah, plus there are ruins there from the 2nd century A.D.

 

 

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Treehouse and orange trees at Saban’s

 

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Our little cabin

Six months into our trip, we surprisingly haven’t met that many people that are traveling long-term (there has just been one Seattleite in Morocco!).  And to think, before we left, to convince Cale that this was a good idea, I said “don’t worry, everyone does this, we’ll meet lots of people!” Right.  But in Turkey, we met a ton of other travelers that had been on the road for a while.  In Olympos, we met some new buddies, Saba and Kelsey, who had been traveling for a few months and had been to some of the same spots as us (camino in Spain, parts of Morocco, etc.). We joined them for a day-hike on the Lycian Way, which is a gorgeous trek from Fethiye to Antalya that spans about 500 km . We only hiked about 16km total and spent much of our day swimming.  The trail was beautiful, overlooking the ocean.  Cale and I would love to come back someday and hike the whole thing!

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Kelsey, Saba, and Cale on the Lycian Way.

 

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Lycian Way

 

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Lycian Way

 

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Cale and Kelsey are on that beach somewhere

 

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The beach where we spent much of the day lounging and swimming

Two nights in Olympos (though we could have easily moved there… for good…) and we were back out to Antalya before our flight back to Istanbul.  We have sworn off night busses.  For now, anyway.

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Gotta love mustaches.

 

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Hidirlik Tower in Antalya. The boat below was playing that song from Titanic.

 

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Beach in Antalya. We planned on going to a famous museum but instead crossed the street and spent the day here.

 

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We found the sun! Gotta get our fill before moving back to Seattle!

 

Magical Cappadocia

One of the highlights in Turkey was visiting the town of Goreme, in Cappadocia.  The area has a really interesting landscape with ‘fairy chimneys’ that were formed from a volcano erupting ages ago, then eroding away over the years.  For a long time people carved homes out of the ash formations and the region is scattered with old abandoned homes and churches. There is a rich religious history here, and many early Christian communities gathered in Cappadocia as early as the 4th century.  Some of the carved out homes are still occupied today but many have eroded away.   It’s so different from the states in that in most of the surrounding valleys you can explore the old homes and churches wherever you find them.  No need to sign any waivers before scrambling up a cliff to explore!

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Landscape around Goreme, with Mt. Erciyes in the distance

 

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Room with a view, at Zelve Open Air Museum. People lived in these cliffs until the 1950’s.

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View from inside a church at Zelve

 

 

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Cavusin

 

 

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Sunset behind Uchisar, from Goreme

 

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Hiking in one of the valleys near Goreme

 

One of most magical things about Goreme is that every morning at sunrise, hundreds of hot air balloons launch, carrying tourists over the interesting landscape to get an aerial view.  We didn’t splurge for a hot air balloon ride but we did wake up every morning to watch them float past us.  One morning we climbed to the top of the hill in town to watch them but every other morning we could just wake up and walk out of our hotel room to watch them pass.  It’s so silent that early in the morning so all you can really hear is the gas from when they fire up the balloons as they float past.  They are flown by actual trained pilots, though they can only really control whether they move up or down. The rest is up to the breeze.

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Sunrise in Goreme

 

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Our hotel (we stayed in one of the fairy chimneys) with balloons passing overhead

 

 

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We spent a few days in Goreme, hiking in the valleys, renting bikes, and going on a horseback ride tour (great suggestion, Lacey!).  We then moved on to warmer weather, towards the coast in Southern Turkey.

Life On The Road

As we approach 6 months of travel (in just a couple days now!) we realize we’ve become rather accustomed to life on the road.  Here’s a little snippet of our new normal:

We sleep in awkward places:

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Sleeping on buses can be so much fun!

We find creative ways to exercise:

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Who needs extra exercise when walking 17km per day? Apparently Cale Will.

 

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Just exercising at an outdoor gym with new friends, ya know, the usual. This particular machine was extremely ineffective 🙂

 

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This gem of a photo captures laundry day and exercise all in one.

The rest of the world doesn’t believe in the size ‘large’ for coffee:

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Cale: “I asked them for the biggest size that they have.”

Coca Cola is Everywhere:

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On the way to our camel trek in the Sahara Desert

 

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Coke in Turkey

We sleep in new beds every few nights:

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Neon hostel in Split

Sometimes we get homesick:

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I never thought I’d be so happy to see a Starbucks! Complete with a Seattle photo in the background.

Bloggy blog blog:

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Blogging with pastries in Budapest

None of our clothes match anymore:

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is that what you’re wearing? Yes. Yes it is. All my other clothes are dirty. And even if they weren’t they still wouldn’t match.

We learn to decipher signs:

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What they really mean is: Camino Pilgrims Not Welcome!

We learn not to expect to eat what we actually ordered:

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I’ll take the dish with no mushrooms, please! Oh… well… ok I’ll take the dish with about of pound of mushrooms instead… I guess.

We take matters into our own hands:

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Sometimes I need the freshly washed underwear faster than they will dry on their own.

We live out of backpacks:

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Everything I own. This is actually much more organized than it looks.

That’s it in a nutshell, folks! The nitty-gritty of everyday life for a career-break traveler. Now excuse me while I use the hair dryer to dry some more underwear.