Turkey

October/November 2021

I’m lazy! I’m blaming it on the holidays. Thanksgiving, then Christmas, and New Years. I’m blaming it on wanting to be with my grandson and his new baby brother. But all of this is just excuses and means I didn’t sit myself down and write about my adventure in Turkey. I went straight from Azerbaijan to Turkey, with no time to record my thoughts. And, in one day I leave for my next adventure. But I still wanted to preserve Turkey’s spot in my blog, if only to have it to savor later on.

So I am cheating, and being lazy (please forgive me). Below is an edited and abridged version of the itinerary for this trip presented by Overseas Adventure Travel, interspersed with my own photos.

  • From Overseas Adventure Travel

From Alexander the Great to the Roman and Ottoman empires, Turkey’s colorful history has left behind remarkable cultural riches: ancient Greco-Roman ruins, Byzantine churches, Ottoman mosques, and more. On this adventure, we’ll  discover multicultural treasures on a journey from the palaces and grand mosques of exotic Istanbul to the surreal landscapes of Cappadocia, a geologic wonderland in the Turkish heartland. Walk in the footsteps of saints and legionnaires in Ephesus, and then witness the cliff-top beauty of Antalya. Plus, you’ll ply the enchanting waters of the Turquoise Coast for four nights aboard a private 13-passenger gulet-style yacht—a modern version of the traditional wooden-hulled sailing vessels that plied the Aegean for centuries—where you can swim in translucent waters, witness Lycian tombs hewn into the cliffs, and visit a hidden bay where Marc Antony built baths for Cleopatra.

We interact with Turkish people everywhere we go—in locals-only, hidden markets; meeting artisans at a rug-weaving cooperative; talking about the Controversial Topics of women’s rights in Turkey and the challenges faced by Syrian refugees; and more. We’ll spend A Day in the Life of a small Cappadocian village, and even enjoy a traditional Home-Hosted Dinner as we discuss what life is really like for Turkish people in seaside Antalya.

Morning: Our Trip Leader will discuss logistics, safety and emergency procedures, and answer any questions we may have. Then, we’ll set off on a full day bus and walking tour of Istanbul, the historic city formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, with our Trip Leader. Due to its strategic location astride both Asia and Europe, Istanbul served as the capital of a series of empires since its founding back in the seventh century BC, and today boasts myriad treasures from its incredible history.

Our first stop is the Hippodrome of Constantinople, a lively central square that was the social heart of the city during the Byzantine era. We’ll witness the square’s defining features—two soaring obelisks—before continuing on to the Grand Bazaar. Upon arrival, we’ll delve into this lively and historic market. Home to more than 4,000 shops today, this remarkable complex dates back more than 550 years. Stroll through row after row of colorful stalls, sampling street foods and Turkish delicacies as you do.

Afternoon: After exploring the myriad wares sold at the Grand Bazaar, we’ll regroup around 1:30pm and begin making our way to Topkapi palace, another highlight of the city’s glorious past. The complex of grand pavilions and courtyards was built by Mehmet II in the middle of the 15th century (just after his conquest of Constantinople) and served as the residence of Ottoman sultans—along with their wives and concubines—for the next 400 years. Today, it is one of the world’s richest museums, and during our 1-hour visit, we’ll behold a staggering collection of arms, porcelain, and priceless treasures that include the jewel-studded dagger made famous by the Hollywood heist film, Topkapi.

 

 

 

 

Morning: At around 8:30am, we’ll begin our city tour of Istanbul. We’ll walk to Hagia Sophia—a true wonder of the Byzantine world. Completed under Emperor Justinian in AD 537, this massive building (known best for its resplendent dome) was a Christian church for nearly 1,000 years, until Mehmet the Conqueror claimed it for Islam. Kemal Atatürk, the revolutionary leader and founder of the Republic, proclaimed it as a museum in 1934—but it has reverted back to a working mosque in 2020. Its interior was designed as an earthly mirror of heaven, and as we explore, our Trip Leader will point out the stunning Byzantine mosaics and distinctive features that contributed to the success of this estimable goal.

Later we’ll drive to a café in Aksaray, an Istanbul neighborhood known as “Little Syria.” Here, we’ll sit down to learn about a Controversial Topic currently roiling the country: The status of Syrian refugees in Turkish society. We will meet with one of three female Syrian refugees and speak with her for about an hour to learn about her experience as an outsider in this country. A Turkish female speaker will also be on-hand to provide the complicated Turkish perspective on the situation: While most Turks recognize the refugees’ desperate situation, many are beginning to resent the Syrians for straining Turkey’s resources. It’s a emotionally charged issue for Syrians and Turks alike; for their safety, our speakers have asked that we not identify them by name.

Since 2012, more than 4 million Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey (though unofficial estimates put that figure much higher, at about 6 million refugees). Fleeing a war-torn region that has been battered by civil war, Kurdish militants, the Assad regime, and the Islamic State, these refugees have left all their worldly possessions, their homes, and in many cases their friends and family members—all in search of a better life in Turkey. But with so many refugees arriving penniless and desperate, attitudes among the Turkish are divided, and the refugees’ reception has not been uniformly welcome. In large part, this is due to the support given to the Syrians by the Turkish government: Syrian people receive priority medical treatment over the local Turks at hospitals, for example, and unemployment benefits are longer and more substantial for Syrians than for Turkish people. And as the number of Syrians in Turkey has grown, so, too, has their pressure on the system—Syrians now make up about 8% of the total Turkish population, a sizable minority. As a result, many Turkish people consider the Syrians a burden on society, taking work and resources away from Turkish citizens at a time of economic distress. Violence against Syrians is on the rise, particularly in the suburbs of Istanbul where there is a prevalence of both Turkish and Syrian gangs. Right-wing political groups are also taking aim at the refugees: There is even an increasing demand amongst hardline Turks that the refugees return home, creating an impossible contradiction—for many Syrians, there is no home to return to.

At the same time, many Turkish people have taken a softer approach to their new neighbors. They regard the Syrians as hardworking members of society and a welcome contribution to the fabric of Turkish culture, worthy of the same aid, dignity, and respect as any other person. But even among these Turks, there is a sense of fatigue: Many thought the refugees would only be in Turkey for 2-3 years, but the situation in Syria has yet to stabilize.

This puts the Syrians, who have already faced unimaginable tragedy, in an increasingly difficult situation. A great deal of them are taken advantage of by local employers, working for subpar wages and living in crowded dormitories. They are often regarded by Turkish citizens as outsiders. And yet the decision to assimilate into Turkish culture can be wrenching, with other refugees condemning their fellow countrymen for abandoning their roots.

We’ll hear from each of our speakers, then spend the remainder of the hour asking questions to further our understanding of the perspective of some of Turkey’s most invisible people. As you continue your journey through Turkey, be sure to keep an eye out to see for yourself how refugees have settled in to Turkish society, and how locals’ opinions about them vary from person to person.

Afternoon: We’ll reconvene after lunch to take a stroll around Galata, the old Genoese quarter. Our walk will take us through one of the oldest neighborhoods in Istanbul and to Istiklal Caddesi, a one-mile-long pedestrian street. As we walk, we’ll have time to witness and appreciate the colorful shops and wealth of Art Nouveau and Ottoman-era buildings that line this route. We’ll begin our return trip to our hotel around 3pm. En route, we’ll stop at Misir Carsisi, the Spice Bazaar—one of the largest bazaars in the city. Travelers who wish to participate can join our Trip Leader on a walk through its bustling stalls.

Morning: Today we fly to Cappadocia. Although our flight from European-influenced Istanbul to landlocked Cappadocia is only about 450 miles, it may feel as if we landed on another planet when we arrive. Over millennia, rain and wind have shaped the soft white volcanic rock—called tufa–of the surrounding Anatolian plain into an otherworldly landscape of dripping cones, pillars, pinnacles, and fairy chimneys soaring more than a hundred feet into the sky.

Afternoon: Our 1-hour drive to Göreme will be our first introduction to Cappadocia’s geologic wonders and remarkable human history. People have inhabited the region since ancient times, using hand tools to hollow out thousands of the freestanding tufa formations. These cave-like rooms once sheltered Turkey’s early Christians from invaders, and vast underground cities in the area housed up to 20,000 people. There are also more than 600 Christian churches carved into the soft rock, some dating to the third century AD. A few Cappadocian caves also serve as homes for modern-day troglodytes, who stay quite cool here in the hot summer.

Early Morning: At about 5am, early risers are welcome to join us for a spectacular experience: an optional hot-air balloon flight over Cappadocia, with the chance to view its surreal beauty from high above, illuminated by the rosy light of dawn. During this 2-hour excursion, we’ll soar over the amber terrain and fairy chimneys—all the while savoring this unique panorama in remarkable fashion. Travelers who partake in this experience will be back to the hotel by 7:30am, where we’ll re-convene as a group and depart for the unspoiled town of Cat. Nestled in the heart of Cappadocia, Cat is located in one of the popular travel destinations in Turkey. But while nearby towns have been transformed by tourism, Cat has retained its authentic character. The economy here is agrarian, and the town’s 2,200 residents still maintain their traditional customs and beliefs.

Very Early Morning: I have been dreaming for years about experiencing a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia and it still exceeded all of my expectations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakfast: we’ll arrive at the pastures on the outskirts of Cat, where we’ll enjoy a typical farmer’s breakfast. Farmers in this area typically rise very early in the morning to tend to their fields, taking a break after the sun comes up to enjoy a simple breakfast from home. We’ll dine on modest fare similar to what the farmers enjoy every day while learning about local agricultural traditions.

Our host for breakfast on his farm, and the tour of The small village of Cat

After breakfast, we’ll bid farewell to the farmers and continue on to the town center. Here, we’ll be met by our community leader for the day and one of the town’s most successful residents. As a farmer, business owner, and well-regarded community member, he’s an ideal host for our discoveries today.

After spending some time learning more about this community, we’ll walk to a nearby teahouse to meet more village residents. Teahouses are typical Turkish “man caves”—places for local men to catch up with one another over a cup of Turkish coffee or a cold drink. While women are not forbidden from entering teahouses, their presence would be highly unusual. Fortunately for our group, the teahouse we’ll visit has an outdoor terrace where the patrons typically gather, and we will be most welcome to join them. In addition to socializing, men often play rummikub (a tile-based game similar to dominoes) at teahouses. We’ll get a primer on the rules and then challenge the locals to a friendly competition. Our visit to the teahouse concludes around 11am, at which time we’ll walk to a women’s cooperative. This cooperative was established by the local government to help local women learn how to make handcrafts (like lace, paintings, and reusable shopping bags) that they can sell to supplement their income. In addition to providing new skills, the cooperative is also a spot for socializing, serving as an alternative to Cat’s men-only teahouses. We’ll learn about its mission, talking to some of the local women, and even trying our hands at making one of their crafts.

 

 

 

 

Around 12:15pm, we’ll begin making our way to the home of a local family with whom we’ll enjoy lunch. As we dine on traditional, homemade dishes, our hosts will share what life is like in a traditional Turkish community, and we’ll ask any questions that we may have.

Afternoon: After lunch we’ll board a bus bound for a community storage facility. Carved into a rocky hillside, the facility is a cool, dark place for storing Cat’s most abundant crop: potatoes. Up to 25,000 tons of potatoes can be stored in the facility at one time, and the natural climate control keeps them fresh until they can be sold to individuals and vendors across Turkey. Later, we’ll bid farewell to Cat and begin the short return trip to Cappadocia, stopping en route to visit a few of the region’s most famous rock formations, such as the soaring Three Beauties or aptly named Camel Rock.

Morning: we’ll depart our hotel for a 1-hour hike to enjoy unimpeded views of the sweeping valleys and landscapes of Cappadocia without any of the large tourist crowds to interrupt the serene beauty of this magical region. Our explorations continue when we take a ride to Ozkonak, one of the remarkable underground cities dotting the local landscape. During the Hittite era, as successive armies swept across Asia Minor, these multi-leveled complexes were built as uniquely defensible communities—all had heavy millstones for doors that could be rolled in place to seal off the outside world. There are believed to be about three dozen of these underground cities in the region, but few have been excavated. In Ozkonak, we’ll explore some of the hundreds of rooms, which were designed to house thousands of people for up to three months. We’ll wander the narrow, sloping passageways between kitchens with enameled food storage areas, water cisterns, stables, and living quarters at the deepest levels—all well-ventilated by giant air shafts.


Afternoon: After lunch, we’ll make our way to a rug-weaving cooperative. Local artisans will help us learn about all aspects of this traditional Turkish craft, from silkworm cultivation to spinning, dyeing, and the traditional patterns and weaving techniques.

Morning: Today our next journey is southwest, across the Taurus Mountains toward the Mediterranean seaside town of Antalya. Along the way, we’ll discover one of Turkey’s iconic fixtures: the Whirling Dervishes. We’ll arrive in the city of Konya, a bastion of Seljuk culture and home of the Mevlevi—known as the Whirling Dervish for the dramatic whirling practice they include in formal ceremonies. Our visit with our Trip Leader will include the Mevlana Muzesi (a museum dedicated to Mevlana Celalettin Rumi), as well as the former tekke (dervish hall) that now holds the tomb of Celaleddin Rumi. Later known as Mevlana, he was the founder of the Mevlevi order and became one of the greatest literary and spiritual figures of all time—more than a million and a half Turks come here to pray each year. Shortly after noon, we’ll walk to a nearby restaurant for lunch.

Afternoon: Afterwards we’ll continue our journey toward Antalya. Along the way, the glimmering Mediterranean Sea will come into view, with mountain views all around. Once an old fishing village, Antalya is now a sprawling seaside resort that combines unspoiled beaches and modern homes with a walled Old Town. The eclectic architectural styles on display reflect more than 2,000 years of history.

 

Today’s discoveries feature the Controversial Topic of how women’s rights in Turkey are changing as society becomes more traditional. We’ll speak with one of two women with different perspectives on this troubling issue. Later, you’ll savor an authentic slice of Turkish life during a Home-Hosted Dinner with a family in Antalya. In even smaller groups, you’ll dine on traditional, homemade cuisine and enjoy spirited conversation about local customs and lifestyles.

Morning:  we’ll gather in a room in our hotel, where we’ll be joined by an archaeologist for an hour-long conversation. Their insights will prove invaluable at our first destination: Antalya Muzesi, an archaeological museum located nearby from our hotel. We’ll observe artifacts from the Stone and Bronze Ages to Byzantium housed in the museum’s many exhibition halls and open-air galleries. In 1988, the museum won the esteemed European Council Special Prize. Perhaps most impressive is its largest collection featuring sculptures dating back to Roman times from the ancient city of Perge. Then, we’ll make our way to Kaleici, Antalya’s Old Town, for a walking tour. Kaleici translates to “within the city walls,” and among its myriad highlights is Hadrian’s Gate, a triumphal arch built in the name of the Roman emperor who visited Antalya in AD 130. As we walk about, we’ll have time to witness the neighborhood’s shops; honey-hued stone walls; and narrow, winding streets.

Late afternoon: We’ll make our way to a café just a few blocks from our hotel. Here we’ll meet with one of two young women who will share their insights into the Controversial Topic of the future of women’s rights in an increasingly conservative Turkey. Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, our speakers have requested that their names not be shared publicly. The café is an ideal setting for this tough conversation: Many teahouses in Turkey are reserved exclusively for men, but this café welcomes women as well. As we’ll learn from our speaker, this type of segregation is just one of the many hurdles women are facing as Turkey tracks toward a more traditional society.

Turkey has been a model of female empowerment in the near-Middle East since the early 20th century, when the country gained independence from the Islamic Ottoman Empire and began embracing democratic, secular ideals. In 1930, Turkish women received full political rights, including the right to hold office; 60 years later, Turkey elected its first female prime minister. Turkey has also amended its criminal and civil laws numerous times over the years to further protect women—including equalizing marriage rights and criminalizing honor killings. However, data from the last 15 years suggest that the march of progress has started slowing down—and may even be reversing.

Regardless of which of the women we speak with today, we’ll see they have witnessed this shift first-hand, albeit from different perspectives. One speaker is an English teacher and activist who has been volunteering at the Women’s Solidarity Foundation for over ten years, helping to support domestic abuse survivors and advocating for gender equality. She has had a front-row seat to the dramatic increase in femicide in Turkey—up 30% since 2009. She’s also keenly aware of the recent controversy surrounding the Istanbul Convention, an international coalition designed to address violence against women. Turkey was the first country to adopt the convention in 2011, but it sought to pull out of it in 2020, arguing that the convention harmed the traditional family structure.

Our other speaker comes from a more traditional background: She was raised in a conservative family and even had an uncle who was an Imam. Twice divorced and a single mother to a 4-year-old daughter, she faced backlash from her family when her marriages ended. She has also endured her share of professional discrimination. (In Turkey, women’s income is estimated to be just 44% of men’s, and women are regularly passed over for job promotions.) She now owns her own e-commerce shop and counts herself among the mere 33% of female Turks who are part of the labor force.

This regression of women’s rights is believed to have begun in 2002, when the conservative Justice and Development Party rose to power. Party leaders have made many statements that seem to run counter to Turkey’s founding pro-feminist ideals, including suggesting that it is “against nature” to treat women and men equally and encouraging men to harass women who are dressed “inappropriately.” Such statements have been embraced by fundamentalist voters while worrying secularists—effectively splitting public opinion in half. Our guest will share her opinions about women’s rights in Turkey; after learning more about the issue, we’ll have time to ask any questions we may have.

Morning: We’ll visit two ancient sites nestled along the coast near Antalya. Perge was originally settled by the Hittites around 1500 BC. This wealthy city was abandoned in the seventh century. Saint Paul visited Perge in 46 AD and preached his first sermon here. Highlights of the excavated city ruins include marble reliefs carved on the ancient theatre and a lengthy colonnaded road lined with the remains of shops, public baths, a gymnasium, and more.

 

Then we’ll drive to Aspendos, a city with roots dating back to the Hittite Empire (800 BC). Here, we’ll behold the best preserved Roman theatre of the ancient world. Built in the second century AD during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the theatre once hosted attractions for more than 10,000 people. Remarkably preserved and still with near-perfect acoustics, the space still hosts plays and operas today.

 

Morning: At about 8:30am, we’ll say goodbye to Antalya and journey south by bus, along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. This region is dotted with turquoise waters and plunging cliffs—impressive displays of natural wonders.

We’ll stop in Demre at the Church of St. Nicholas. Yes, that Nicholas: In the fourth century AD, St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra. Known as a protector of children, the bishop showered them with gifts at every opportunity; later declared a saint, he was the model for Santa Claus or Father Christmas.

Afternoon: around 1pm, we’ll drive to to Fethiye, where we’ll meet our private gulet-style yacht. Along the way, we’ll travel through an area known as Kekova, a scenic region with few roads. We may see fishermen mending their nets, women curing olives or drying figs, and village children at play as we pass through.

 

Upon our arrival at the harbor of Fethiye, we’ll board our floating home for the next four nights, meet our captain and the friendly Turkish crew, and get our cabin assignments. Based on a centuries-old design, gulets are elegant vessels that seem to blend naturally with the landscapes of the Turkish coast. Built of teak and oak with sails and a motor, our yacht will feature an outdoor eating area, as well as comfortable cushions for relaxing on the observation decks, fore and aft. Your small cabin will include a private bath—please note that it will not feature air conditioning or overnight electricity.

Our forever smiling captain taking a break

 

Destination: Turquoise Coast

Morning: Off the gulet for a short bus ride to Kayakoy, a Greek “ghost town.” Anatolian Greeks once inhabited this city of about 600 homes, but in the 1920s, the entire population was relocated to Greece in the aftermath of the Turkish War of Independence. Upon our arrival at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, we’ll behold an eerie and moving place, a tragic reminder of how politics can affect human lives. This abandoned town also served as the inspiration for Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernières’ popular novel about the waning years of the Ottoman Empire (I highly recommend this book). After a brief orientation walk with our Trip Experience Leader, you may choose how to spend your time in Kayakoy. Travelers who wish to experience more of the scenic surroundings can hike up to 3 miles along a winding path to a cove where our gulet will be awaiting their arrival around noon. Or, you might wish to explore more of the town with our Trip Leader or independently. You may return to the gulet whenever you please.

 

Afternoon:  travelers can transfer to shore via dinghy to go for a quiet stroll along the beach, enjoy a dip in the turquoise waters, or take advantage of hiking opportunities in the area. Our gulet might also cruise to a different cove if travelers are looking for easier hiking options. A dinghy will bring travelers back to our gulet and the rest of the afternoon is yours.

Morning: we’ll drop anchor in a scenic cove sheltering the sunken baths of Cleopatra, built for her by Mark Antony. We’ll transfer by dinghy to the shore and embark on a 3-hour hike through forests, meadows, and coastal scenery to and from Lydea—a little-known Greco-Roman site. Our hike concludes around noon, at which time the dinghy will take us back to our gulet.

 

Afternoon: You have the freedom to do as you please this afternoon. Since legend attributes Cleopatra’s beauty to bathing in the waters here, you may wish to go for a swim. Or simply relax on one of the gulet‘s observation decks and reflect on the natural beauty of our surroundings. Perhaps you’ll ask your Trip Experience Leader for more insight into how this special region of the world evolved from Classical antiquity through Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ottoman times to the present day.

 

Our gulet will cruise northwest toward Ekincik Cove, and we’ll drop anchor in the morning. There, we’ll be met by a small riverboat—and after transferring onto it, our small group will embark on a 30-minute ride up the Dalyan River. This tranquil waterway was named for dalyans, the fishing weirs that have supported locals for centuries. As we cruise this lovely waterway, we may well see some of the many species of birds that live here, from the shy ibis to the fearless gull. Depending on the season, we may also discover loggerhead sea turtles when our small riverboat brings us to the Dalyan’s estuary. Turtles have nested here since the age of the dinosaurs.

 

 

 

 

Mid morning, we’ll set out to visit Kaunos, an ancient seaport city with roots dating back to the ninth century BC. Our tour will shed light on this Carian city’s historical significance, known both for its figs and mosquitoes. We’ll view remains of a theatre, acropolis, Roman bath, and more. And since Kaunos bordered ancient Lycia—and took on aspects of its culture—we’ll also behold remarkable Lycian-style tombs hewn into the cliffs. As we walk, we’ll take in the colorful fruit trees that dot the ruins, from lemon orchards to pomegranate trees. Film enthusiasts may recognize similarities between this picturesque setting and one featured in The African Queen (1951) starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, which is said to have filmed on the banks of the Dalyan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morning: When our gulet reaches the port at Marmaris this morning, we’ll bid our captain and crew farewell, disembark the vessel, and board our bus for the day’s journey north. Our drive runs parallel to the Aegean Coast, offering us another view of this diverse land.

Today we visit one of the largest and best-preserved ancient cities in the world. The ancient Greco-Roman site of Ephesus—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—is a marvel of remarkably preserved wide marble streets, flanked by columns and temples. Ephesus was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. No longer standing, it was said to be one of the most colossal temples ever built. During our exploration, we’ll behold many of the city’s highlights, among them the remarkable Library of Celsus, a tiered façade adorned with exquisite statues; the Great Theater, which is where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians; and some of the city’s well-preserved baths. And we may benefit from our small group size: When local restrictions allow, we might have the special opportunity to explore some of the lesser-excavated sections of this world-renowned site. We’ll also tout the nearby Ephesus Museum, a beautiful repository of marble and bronze statues, as well as many artifacts thought to have come from the Temple of Artemis. The rest of the day is yours to explore or relax.

  • Overseas Adventure Travel Itinerary – the end
  • The sixteen days I spent in Turkey were magical. From my favorite thing, the hot air balloon over Cappadocia, to the ruins of Ephesus, to swimming in the sea off our gulet, every day was spectacular. The food was some of the best I’ve ever had. Our crazy, smart, wonderful Trip Leader made Turkey come alive for us. Aykut Azun did not shield us from the not so nice aspects of Turkey, but helped us learn and understand. And he made the good and beautiful parts an experience to remember.

COVID notes: our COVID tests were arranged and performed at our last hotel and all 8 of us tested negative before we flew from Fethyie to Istanbul. Other than an unpleasant interaction with Turkish Airlines in Istanbul (I won’t fly with them again), my journey home was uneventful. We experienced safe practices everywhere we went. In almost all of the restaurants we patronized, we were seated in separate alcoves or rooms to better maintain our bubble.

Random photos:

Couple who hosted for dinner in their home

Azerbaijan

October 2021
Azerbaijan, the land of fire, a world away and situated on the Caspian Sea. It’s neighbors to the north and northwest are Georgia and Russia, Armenia is to its west, while Iran is its southern neighbor.

And the fire? Fire Mountain (Yanar Dag) blazes continuously, with a natural flame fueled by the huge underground gas deposits.

There is much more to discover about Azerbaijan, and since I was headed to nearby Turkey, I thought a week long stopover to the land of fire would enhance my journey to this ancient part of the world.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been at war on and off over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh for decades, but a shaky peace deal brokered by Russia in 2020, was in place during our visit (October 2021). Fighting restarted days after my return to the United States.

As international travel continues to open, I will continue to share my experiences with the new steps and rules for travel during COVID. For travel to Azerbaijan, I would need my vaccination card and proof of a negative COVID test administered no more than 72 hours before my arrival in Baku, Azerbaijan. These I presented at Newark International Airport where my first leg originated. I did not need to show anything at the airport in Frankfurt Germany as I did not leave the departures area. Flights went smoothly, everyone masked and cooperative. Upon arrival in Baku, Azerbaijan, airport signs indicated PCR test with QR code should be presented. I did not have a QR code on my test, but the immigration agent didn’t question me. After a quick glance at my passport, vaccination card, and test results, she smiled and welcomed me to Azerbaijan.

I arrived in Azerbaijan a day ahead of the other travelers I would be joining as part of an Overseas Adventure Travel tour. My hotel arranged a taxi pickup at the airport and I spent the next day strolling the streets of Baku on my own. Our hotel was located just inside the walls of the old city, but convenient to the shops and restaurants just outside.

The late October weather in Azerbaijan is perfect for sightseeing, lots of sunshine and the temperatures were mostly in the 60s. The old city is full of narrow cobbled streets, caravanserais (small inns with central courtyards), hammams, shops, restaurants, and mosques. The 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs is a resplendent complex containing burial vaults and bath ruins. Its Maiden Tower, built in the 12th century, is the stuff of legends. One story tells of a girl with fire-colored hair, born out of flames, she saved Baku from enemy invaders. The tower is named in her honor, whether the story is true or not.

 

From Baku, our travels took us north along the coast towards Guba, a riverside city in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. We stopped in the nearby village of Krasnaya Sloboda, a community of “Mountain Jews” across the river from Guba. A visit to the cemetery was extremely interesting. The town is full of stately mansions, but the majority of mountain Jews spend most of the year in neighboring Russia running their businesses.

 

 

 

 

A couple of days later we travelled to the remote village of Xinaliq, high in the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border. Xinaliq is the highest settlement in Europe and its origins date back 5000 years. The people here are Muslim, but their roots go back to the origins of the Zoroastrian cult, a pre-Islamic religion of ancient Persia. They speak their own language, but our guide was able to translate for us. We were hosted for lunch by a friendly family in the village.

 

Back to Baku for our final days. We visited the home of Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, a man who went from rags to riches and back to rags at the hands of the Bolshevicks. But before he was stripped of his wealth he was a generous philanthropist and leading citizen of Baku.

 

 

 

On our last full day in Baku we walked Martyrs’ Lane, which is a cemetery and memorial in Baku, dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army during Black January 1990 and in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1988–1994. As we observed the eternal flame in this somber place, the skies darkened and reminded us of the high human cost of war.

 

On a happier note, we said goodbye to Azerbaijan with dinner in what was a hundreds year old Hammam converted to a restaurant. A fun and fitting end to our time in Azerbaijan.

 

 

 

For the sake of brevity, I haven’t written here about everything we visited in Azerbaijan, but I have included photos of most places.

Note about COVID protocols: a negative COVID test was required for entry into Turkey, along with our passports and vaccination cards. No QR code is required. The test was conveniently arranged by our guide in Azerbaijan. If you are not traveling with a tour, hotels can easily arrange a test for you in Baku. Our group of six all tested negative. Our flight to Istanbul was without complication.

Further note: the COVID protocols I have described were in effect in October 2021. As we all know protocols can change daily. Always check with your airlines and country sites for current requirements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iceland – Part 2

 

Borgarnes was our home for two days as we explored the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Despite the clouds and soft rain and wind, we walked along the harbor and cliffs of Arnarstapi, a tiny hamlet nestled among
spectacular scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

Our perseverance was rewarded with a lunch of hearty meat soup and bread, freshly baked that morning. During a comfort stop at the Malariff Information Center, I wandered along a path and came upon a zip line! It was low to the ground, so we had to use those core muscles to keep our lower bodies up and off the ground. But what a fun discovery!

Just the drive along the coast of the peninsula is like watching a movie of pretty scenery – fishing villages, rocky cliffs, Arctic terns. In many places you find large fields of lava rock now covered in green moss and lichen, giving them an otherworldly cast.

 

 

 

At Kirkjufell Mountain we stood in awe of its beauty. It’s not a tall mountain, but uniquely shaped and set among coastal water, greenery, and nearby waterfalls.

 

Thus far Iceland has been a testament to sight, but our taste would be tested as we chewed the delicacy known as fermented shark. Admittedly, it wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected, but we gratefully washed it down with Icelandic Brenniven, a drink made from potatoes and caraway and affectionately referred to as Black Death by Icelanders.

 

We departed Borgarnes and drove north, crossing over Holtavorouheidi moor, and took a short detour to Kolugljufur, home of the trolless Kola. More on trolls and fairies later. Her home is enhanced by a magnificent gorge and waterfall, but alas, she did not come out to greet us.

 

 

 

For those of us who have read the book, Burial Rites, you will understand why we were interested in the sight of the last execution in Iceland. The novel is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir and Fredrick Suguorsson, who were beheaded for murder in 1830. The last execution in Iceland. But was Agnes really guilty? Hmmm.

View from my room on the farm

We stopped for the night at the Hofstadir Country Hotel, which is a small lodging on a farm with incredible views. Toti, the owner, is not only a great chef, but he also served as tour guide to a neighboring horse ranch where we learned about the breeding and training of the unique Icelandic horses. Toti’s in-laws own the nearby cattle ranch where we were lucky enough to meet a new born calf. While the rancher brought the calf outside her pen to meet us, her mama was not happy and bellowed and stomped until her calf was returned to her. I didn’t blame her!

Linda pouring us shots of something good!

We set off the next morning for Akureyri, Iceland’s 4th largest city. Large is a relative term here as the population of Akureyri is just over 18,000 and it boasts a police force of five, yes….five. It’s red traffic lights are heart shaped! Needless to say crime is not a big concern in Iceland. But first, along the way we stopped in Siglufjordur, a picturesque village known for its herring production. It celebrates its past and present with small museums that tell the story of fishing and folk music in the north of Iceland.

On arrival in Akureyri on a sunny day, we walked the small but beautiful botanic gardens and then headed to Happy Hour. Linda, our trip leader, arranged happy hours at every place we stayed and almost every traveler in our group participated just about every day. It was a great way for a group of strangers to get comfortable with each other, especially those of us who were solo travelers.

Also arriving that day in Akureyri was a very large cruise ship. Unfortunately, one passenger on the ship tested positive for COVID, so the ship was ordered to leave. Now that’s a bummer.

 

 

 

The Lake Myvatn area has much to appreciate, not the least of which was Freddi the Baker’s delicious rye bread, baked underground in his little section of a vast geothermal field. Freddi lifted his large metal container by rope out of the ground and handed us each a spoon. The bread had a more cake like consistency and we each scooped out a big lump of bread and an equally big dip of fresh Icelandic butter. Mmmm.

After we walked the geothermal field with its boiling mud pits and steam spouts, we visited a geothermal power plant. Geothermal energy is Iceland’s most precious resource and it provides inexpensive, reliable, and safe renewable energy. Heat and hot water are practically free in Iceland!

 

 

 

Our last stop was the incredible Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) where we walked along the river Skjálfandafljót. That evening we were hosted for dinner at the home of two different local families. It was nice to have a home cooked meal after so many hotel and restaurant meals.

 

 

 

It wouldn’t be the perfect trip to Iceland without whale watching of course. While the whales were very shy on this lovely sunny day, our captain persevered until we were finally rewarded with a few tips of the tails.

 

 

 

Once we were back in Akureyri, Linda wanted to stop and visit her friend Hreinn and invited us to join her. A handful of us accepted and we were glad we did. Hreinn has created a garden full of trees and flowers and fairy tale personalities. He uses found and collected objects and materials and builds the people and animals we have all read about in fairytales. This was an unexpected magical visit.

 

 

 

 

The next day a short flight landed us in Reykjavik, the capital and largest city in Iceland, population 123,000. Another 90,000 plus live in the surrounding area. But as capital cities go, Reykjavik is small, which makes it an easy city to navigate.

 

 

A visit to Arbaejarsafn was a step back in time with its turf houses and guides dressed in period garb.

 

 

 

Back to the present. This is, after all, travel in the time of COVID. In order to return home in two days, we would need negative COVID tests. Overseas Adventure Travel organized our testing and we went as a group and were back to the hotel in time for happy hour. We were told to expect an email with our results. As we were sipping our cocktails, phones started pinging…our results were coming in. With each negative result a cheer went up, glasses were raised, and we all gave a sigh of relief. No one tested positive!

Our parting experience was a visit to the famous blue lagoon. Its geothermally heated waters were warm and soothing. We were treated to a special facial mask…and it wasn’t the kind you loop over your ears…and a green smoothie, which we used to toast each other on our last day in the land of fire and ice.

 

 

 

A word about trolls and fairies. I doubt that the majority of Icelanders really believe in trolls and fairies. But…they are loathe to admit it because… what if the fairy overhears them! So concessions are made and plans are changed. The path of a new road is curved around a troll’s rock. I mean people circulated petitions to change the direction of the road…just in case. The parking lot of an apartment building has a giant fairy rock in it. Because…you know…just in case! Amazing! But, back to reality.

Fairy’s rock home in the parking lot!

 

At the airport we were asked to show our passports and negative COVID tests and the entire process went smoothly. Upon landing at Newark International, I went straight to the Global Entry kiosks and was through in less than 45 seconds. The regular customs lines were very long, so I was glad to have Global Entry. No one asked me for my test results.

My first international trip during the pandemic went surprisingly well. I’m glad I went. Any lover of the outdoors will find Iceland a spectacular experience.

I should add that a few days after I returned in late July, Iceland experienced an uptick in COVID cases, so masks became a requirement indoors and on public transport. For those of us who cannot imagine life without travel, it seems a small price to pay. But we must care for others at the same time and not leave our home countries unless we are fully vaccinated. Safe travels has a new meaning in this time of COVID.

Skál

 

 

Iceland – My First International Travel Since the Pandemic

Honestly, Iceland had never been on my bucket list for international travel. Yes…There are the waterfalls, mountains, lagoons, and geothermal fields. But they were never enough to put Iceland on the travel map for me….until COVID. I freely admit to my travel addiction, and so after 14 months of stateside lockdown, I was desperate. Iceland opened up to vaccinated Americans this spring, and without a second thought, I booked a tour with a small travel company for June. Another plus for Iceland was their handling of the COVID situation and their high rate of vaccination (87%). So it really seemed to be the least risky international destination, and that moved it right up to the top of my travel list. And then it cancelled. Apparently not many people were as enthusiastic about international travel in May as I was and so the little tour company didn’t have enough travelers to fill the trip.

Two weeks later, however, I managed to book a 12 day trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), a company I have travelled with and trusted. OAT requires that all travelers, guides, drivers, hosts, and local providers be vaccinated, adding another level of safety.  I managed to score the last spot in this group of 15 intrepid travelers and I booked direct flights between Newark International and Reykjavik. So while this blog will cover the things we saw and did in Iceland, I’ll also focus on what it was like to leave the country during a time of COVID.

On July 9, I boarded an Amtrak train in Philadelphia for the one hour ride into Newark International Airport (EWR). I’ve done this many times in the past and find it very convenient, but this was my first time wearing a mask. The train was 30 minutes late, but I had plenty of extra time built into my commute, and we arrived at EWR just under 3 hours before my scheduled flight. At check-in I presented my vaccination card and passport and headed to the security line. Even without a TSA Precheck line, this process went smoothly. I had purchased a business class ticket with IcelandAir which allowed me to use the Lufthansa Lounge at the airport. Business class on IcelandAir is not fancy, and the cost reflects this. The lounge, however, was a big disappointment. Where previously there had been a bar and hot food, the lounge now served bottled water and bags of goldfish. Oh well.

My short overnight flight to Reykjavik left on time and my trip leader, Linda from OAT, was waiting for me in the arrivals hall. It was 6:15am Iceland time. By my calculations, I had been wearing my mask for just over 11 hours, removing it only while eating. I slept 2 hours while wearing it on the plane. Conclusion: wearing a mask for that length of time wasn’t terrible.
Because of the high vaccination rate in Iceland, their early handling of the pandemic, the requirement that anyone entering Iceland must be vaccinated, my 12 days in this country would be mask free, indoors and out.

Our first few days of exploration would take us along the coast and inland in the south of Iceland.

Our base hotel was in Selfoss, a small town (population 6800) near the banks of the Olfusá River. From here we traveled to Seljalandsfoss, a small but iconic waterfall. The “foss” ending on Icelandic names and words usually refers to a waterfall.

Later we drove along the Eyjafjlla Mountains to the Dyrholaey Cliffs where we spotted puffins! These unique and adorable seabirds build burrows into the cliffs and then dive for food in the ocean.

On the menu for lunch…arctic charr like I’ve never tasted before. Framurskarandi! (Outstanding!) Fishing is Iceland’s biggest industry and we would enjoy numerous and delicious meals of fish over our 12 days here.

Later we met Ingo Matthiasson, who drove us to the Myrdalsjokull glacier and Katla volcano in his super truck. But first a word about Icelandic names. Ingo’s last name is derived from his father’s given name- Matthias. Icelandic surnames are different from most other naming systems in the modern western world. Generally, a person’s last name indicates the first name of their father, or in some cases mother, followed by “-son” or “-dottir.” So John Petersson’s children might be Sam Johnsson and Linda Johnsdottir. Can you imagine what an Icelandic phone book looks like?

Ingo’s super truck is designed for traveling over ice and volcanic stone and easily fit our entire group. The Myrdalsjokull glacier has been blackened by volcanic ash from nearby volcanos, but more disturbing is it’s shrinking size. Global warming is taking its toll on Iceland despite efforts to combat it. The arched ice formation you can see in my photos was once an entire ice cave, and before that, solid ice. Climate change has caused melting to the point that by the time a friend of mine visited Iceland a month after me….the arch was gone, melted!

 

 

 

It’s a tradition to raise a toast at the glacier with a shot of Katla vodka, chilled over glacier ice…and that we did!

As we road back to Selfoss, our Trip Leader, Linda, presented us with her home baked Happy Marriage Cake! It was delicious and perfect for soaking up that vodka! You can find the recipe below.

 

 

 

 

On Day 4, we began our journey toward Borgarnes and Iceland’s Golden Circle. After breakfast, we visited a yarn studio where the artist showed us the natural way she dyes yarns and what goes into the making of the famous Icelandic sweaters. The sweaters are handmade, tagged with the knitters signature, expensive but worth every penny considering the time and quality. Next up….the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland…Gullfoss! On the day we visited there was 5000 cubic feet of water per second flowing into the crevice. The viewing area closest to the falls is uneven stone, slippery with spray from the falls, and requires some climbing. As usual, the ascent was easier than the descent!

 

 

 

Just minutes away from Gullfoss is Geysir, where, as you might guess, you can observes geysers, among other geothermal activity. While we walked the area the geyser known as Strokkur was erupting every 3-4 minutes. At both the waterfall and the geyser area, we encountered lots of tourists and locals, but not nearly the numbers normally seen during the very busy month of July in Iceland. During the 12 days we were in Iceland we experienced no big temperature swings. Most days temps were in the 50s and we had 3 or 4 days in the 60s….heat wave! While it rains frequently in Iceland, the precipitation was never enough to limit our outdoor activities.

 

 

 

 

Our afternoon was spent in Thingvellir National Park which was the location of the Alþing (Althing), the site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. The park sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of the Eurasian and American tectonic plates. I found this so interesting….two continents that appear so far apart on a map are really not so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We ended our afternoon at Drekkingarhylur, better known as the Drowning Pool. There were 70 – 80 executions in Thingvellir National Park during the 17th and 18th centuries. Of those there are recorded 15 hangings, 30 beheadings and 18 women were drowned in the “Drowning Pool”. It is the only place of execution which is marked by a memorial plaque but there are also places at Thingvellir with self-explanatory names such as Gallows Rock (Gálgaklettur), Scaffold beach (Gálgaeyri) and Burning gap (Brennugjá). The treatment of the innocent and often abused women executed at the drowning pool is considered a stain on Icelandic history.

Next time….On a more pleasant note, will be the beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

 


HAPPY MARRIAGE CAKE

Ingredients:

150g (1 3/4 cups) oatmeal – uncooked
280g (2 ¼ cups) all-purpose (plain) flour
200g (1 cup) granulated sugar
1 tsp baking (bicarb) soda
240g (1 cup +1 tblsp)  butter or margarine, room temperature softened
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

Filling:
Rhubarb jam

Directions:

Preheat oven to  375°F and butter a  (12″)  square pan. Blend together the oatmeal, flour, sugar, baking soda in a large bowl. Add the butter bit by bit and use your fingers to mix or kneed it into the flour until well combined.
Mix in the egg and vanilla extract. It’s easiest to just keep using your fingers.
Press 2/3 of the dough firmly into the pie dish.
Spread the jam over the dough in the pan.
Take the remaining 1/3 of the dough and crumble all over the jam.
Bake in centre of oven for about 30 – 40  minutes, until golden.

Serve on its own or with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Only a Road Trip Is Possible


As I write this in late October 2020, the world has been living through the Coronavirus pandemic for over seven months. After all of these months without travel, I decided to plan a short excursion to a nearby state. It would not be the weeks long international travel I have been writing about for five years now, but it would be something…a break in the monotony of pandemic life. I narrowed potential locations to places within a 2-4 hour drive south. Given the time of year, north would be chilly for outdoor dining. My preference was someplace walkable with water…lake, river, or ocean. Annapolis, Maryland fit the bill and as luck would have it, this small city is a model for hosting tourists in a safe and friendly manner.

 

 

 

 

Normally when I write a travel blog, I focus on the culture, history, and people. Many of my blogs have been about volunteer travel to faraway places and the things I have learned from the experience. I have never written a blog about places to stay, eat, and visit. Until now. Because the circumstances are unique and Maryland is not a different culture for most of us, I want to share the practical things I found on this short pandemic getaway.

 

 

 

 

 

Where I stayed: The Flag House Inn

https://www.flaghouseinn.com/

This charming B&B is located on Randall St, across the street from the United States Naval Academy. It is a 3 minute walk to the center of the action in Annapolis….shops, restaurants, and waterfront. It is a double house (2 townhouses converted to one B&B), with five guest rooms, owned and operated by Marty and Carmel Etzel.

I stayed in the Commodore Room, the only available room when I booked it 3 days before my arrival. It was on the third floor, spacious, street facing, but very quiet. The bathroom was small, but functional. The room décor as seen on the B&B’s website looked a tad distracting, but in person was quite beautiful. The bed and linens were comfortable and the owners have placed sleep sound machines in each room. The inn has a small parking area, a plus in the tight neighborhood, and breakfast is included. The weather was nice enough that I enjoyed my breakfast on the front porch, surrounded by pumpkins and flowers. From this vantage point I admired the sharply dressed midshipmen(women) walking to and from the Naval Academy. Breakfast was fresh and delicious, and the coffee plentiful.

 

 

 

 

 

Aside from the excellent location and beauty of the physical structure, I also chose the Flag House Inn because they have instituted safety measures that reduce the chance of virus spread. Check in was conducted on the porch, with both parties masked. Hand sanitizer was available in several spots in the house. The tv and air conditioning remote controls in each room are shrink wrapped in plastic, masks are required anytime guests are in the common areas. Although I did not spend anytime in the indoor common areas. For those guests who wanted to have their breakfast inside, there were plexiglass dividers on the dining tables. Each guest was given their own tea and coffee carafes, sweeteners, and cream pitchers, eliminating the need to share. Each day at noon management performed electrostatic disinfecting, a system that envelopes every surface in a positively charged sanitizing mist. Whew! The Etzels are doing the hospitality business right!

Where I ate:

I chose the restaurants where I had lunch and dinner based on recommendations from the inn.

 

Café Normandie

https://www.cafenormandie.com/

This restaurant is located on Main Street in the center of historic Annapolis. One lane of Main Street has been blocked off for outdoor dining for numerous restaurants. There is still one way traffic on the street, which means you will experience some noise and exhaust the closer your table is to the lane for traffic. But we are living in unusual times. I had lunch here on a bright sunny Thursday afternoon, no crowds, but some traffic noise. Service was a bit slow, but the food was delicious and they even had my favorite French wheat beer available.

 

Carroll’s Creek

https://carrolscreek.com/

This restaurant was a twenty minute walk across a small bridge from Annapolis to Eastport. I made a reservation for 6:15 PM and was able to watch the sunset. I thought the food at Carroll’s Creek was good, not great. The draw here is they have lots of outdoor space with probably the best views of the marina on Spa Creek. Service was excellent. I should add that I walked back to the inn, alone, and felt very safe.

Middleton Tavern

http://www.middletontavern.com/home.html

This historic tavern, established in 1750, has hosted the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. It is a 3 minute walk from the inn, has a large outdoor dining area, and a view of the harbor. The draw here is its history and location, so I was surprised by how tasty my lunch was -soft shelled crab sandwich and fries was the special that day. It was delicious. Service was friendly and efficient.

 

Vida Taco

https://www.vidatacobar.com/location/vida-taco-bar-annapolis/

Customers go to Vida Taco bar mainly to sample their extensive tequila and margarita menu. I am not a fan of tequila, so I tried Tecate, a Mexican beer, that for this fussy beer connoisseur was a pleasant surprise. I ordered two different tacos, which were good, but did not make it onto my very short list of favorites. Like Café Normandie, Vida Taco is located on Main Street, so there was a fair amount of foot traffic, a lesser amount of automobile traffic, and limited view of the harbor. Service was very good.

Kilwins

https://www.kilwins.com/

Kilwins, purveyors of candy and ice cream, has been around since the 1940s. I stopped in on impulse and ordered their Kilwins Mud, vanilla ice cream with an explosion of chocolate chips, swirled with rich caramel.

It was wonderfully satisfying and I enjoyed it on the comfy front porch of my lodging, the Flag House Inn.

The Big Cheese

https://www.thebigcheeseannapolis.com/

This deli, also conveniently located between the Flag House Inn and the harbor, is very popular with the lunch crowd from the naval academy. Crowd being the operative term here. It is takeout only. I ordered a sandwich for pick up, but when I arrived they had made me the wrong sandwich. As I waited for them to make the correct one, the shop began to fill up with midshipmen/women. They were all masked, but my anxiety went up with their proximity in a relatively small space. All’s well that ends well. My sandwich was delicious and I did not catch the virus!

 

Things I did:

I love to walk and the cobbled streets of Annapolis with its water views, shops, historic homes and buildings, was a delight. I easily met my step goal every day. I did participate in two local tourist activities.

 

 

 

 

Watermark Annapolis Harbor and US Naval Academy cruise

https://watermarkjourney.com/events/annapolis-harbor-usna-cruise/

All COVID-19 precautions were in place – masks required, hand sanitizers before boarding, temperatures were taken, and social distancing was easily achievable on board. Because the grounds of the Naval Academy are closed to the public due to Covid-19 restrictions, the next best way of seeing it is to cruise by. While the boat, the Harbor Queen, does not get up close and personal with the academy, it is convenient and not overly expensive. The 45 minute narrated cruise on the Severn River leaves from the city dock right across from Main Street and costs $6 for children 11 and under, $19 for everyone else. Our narrator was fun and informative. The cemetery at the academy is visible from the water and, much to my surprise, I learned that Senator John McCain is buried there.

https://www.wikiwand.com/en/United_States_Naval_Academy_Cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colonial Annapolis Walking Tour

https://watermarkjourney.com/events/colonial-annapolis-walking-tour/

This 1.5 hour walking tour is led by well-informed guides smartly dressed in colonial garb. Our guide was Squire Frederick. His knowledge of history, the historic homes, the state house, and other sights was remarkable. He stayed with a few of us answering questions long after the walk ended.

Again, all COVID-19 precautions were taken.

Did this experience scratch my travel itch? Sadly…no. But it was a little break from the sameness that is life during a pandemic, and I’m glad I went. If you do travel and you can afford it, tip a little extra. Whether it’s restaurant wait staff or tour guides, they are all struggling. I hope to be writing about Greece next Spring. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I know American ingenuity and I’m counting on science.

Ciao!

 

 

 

 

 

Pandemania

I wrote this piece in early May. Of course, it is not about travel because there is no travel. But it is about something that soothed my soul better than a foreign land,  distant mountain, or Glacier could ever do.
******************

I live alone, and I don’t want to die. I want to be with people, but I don’t want to die. Such is the dilemma of living life during a pandemic. As I write this, I have been in self isolation for 52 days. When I entered this state on March 12, 2020, I thought it would be short lived, certainly not long enough that I would need to cancel a planned trip to Greece in May. But here I sit in the warmth of an afternoon shaft of sunlight, as it pours through the window next to a tall stone fireplace in my house….alone. Though the sun is warm, it is the cold stone that matches my mood. I fall into that dreaded category of people who are most vulnerable to a deathly outcome from the virus…simply because I have lived 66 years. And for that reason, I had to remove myself from my new baby grandson. An impenetrable wall went up. Not a wall of wood or stone or wire, but one of restraint. This first baby of my son, Matthew, and his wife, Nathalie, was just over 6 months old that last time I fed him, read to him, kissed and hugged him. His father goes out into the world to work each day and, therefore, poses a risk to me. So I have been stranded on my island away from the people I love most, seeing them only in the cold glass of an electronic device. I squeal at the sight of each new accomplishment my grandson has mastered over these last 7 ½ weeks. I wonder if he recognizes the woman on the screen who seems so delighted, as I coo and call his name to hold his attention.

I am like countless other grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends and families sentenced to this isolation. My story is not unique. There are breaks in the monotony of the sequestered life – long walks in the woods, planting the vegetables and flowers that bring beauty to my landscape, a drive to the little house at the beach. I am lucky. There is the virtual gathering with members of my family, blue light enhancing our flaws, through the lifeline that is a Zoom meeting. There are the driveway visits with Matthew and his family. There are the FaceTime cocktail parties with friends. It’s not drinking alone if five of my closest friends are clinking glasses with my iphone.

Three weeks into our lockdown, I stopped watching and reading the news. Each thunderous headline or opening soundbite struck a sickening spike of fear into my heart. Within days of my personal boycott of the news world, my spirits lifted. It was the right decision.

April was unusually chilly, as if our sweet earth knew that sunshine and warmth would be more than we could resist. She knew that we might break the bonds of home and safety and jeopardize the downward curve.

As I pray to God each day for a miracle, I also acknowledge how the earth is healing. It spins off the pollution and rinses its lakes, and rivers, and oceans. It’s atmosphere and beauty can be seen in places once shrouded for a century by the smog of humanity.

My family knows to alert me when there is actual good news, the only kind my psyche is willing to process. Some of the statistics are moving in the right directions. There is a possibility of a medicine that may reduce the length of time an infected person is ill. The scientists and doctors of the world are making progress in the race for medicines and vaccines. None of this means I can be with my family. Or, does it? With this new found hope, a lot of planning and preparation, a meeting is arranged. I worry he will think me a stranger. It is May. Mother Nature has granted us a beautiful day. Outside I spread a blanket, pull on my rubber gloves, even gargle with Listerine. And then there he is! Matthew and Nathalie, while maintaining our social distance, deliver into my arms this sweet child. Cason is all smiles, dimples, soft chubby arms. Oh the nectar that is an infant’s smell. As his parents wave goodbye, I perceive no anxiety on his part. He is delighted with his surroundings….the soft green grass and fragrant lilacs. He follows the flight of a butterfly and cocks his head to the sound of a bluebird’s song.

At the end of this visit, Cason will be whisked away and I will strip my shield of clothes and gloves, gargle and scrub, and wait. We will wait two weeks to be sure our little test has not been a mistake. But till then I relive and remember as though we are in the garden. Cason gazes at me with a look that says time hasn’t passed. I know you. You are my Gramma.

 

When There is No Travel


May 11, 2020

It has now been five months since I traveled to Nepal and India and almost that long since my last blog. It is not likely that travel is in the cards for most of us in the coming months. Today I would have been exploring the Acropolis in Athens, then sailing the Greek Islands. But it is not to be. Like the rest of the world, I am isolating in my home. So what to do with a travel blog when there is no travel? I offer a poor substitute I’m afraid. I wrote the piece below as part of a writing prompt exercise, while at a writers’ yoga retreat in Lenox, Massachusetts a few years ago. So in a way there is a tenuous connection to travel. The facilitator gave us the three sentences: 1)This is what life does; 2)I don’t want to be anywhere else; 3)What matters now.

We were given 15 minutes to write as much as we could in response to those three prompts. Not a lot of time. Now, many of us have more time than we can fill. If the prompts inspire you, please write your own responses, or even stories, as your time allows….just for yourself. And if you’re feeling especially generous, please share your work in a comment.
Stay safe, be well.
*****

This is what life does….
It sends you hurtling out of your mothers womb one day and drops you into a brightly lit white room. Someone slaps your tiny wet behind, snips the cord of life, and wraps you into the arms of your mother.

This is what life does….
It makes you fall in love and breaks your heart. It places you where you need to be or where you shouldn’t be. I needed to be feeding my dying father as tremors wracked his body and he couldn’t hold a spoon to his mouth.

This is what life does….
It brings you summer days when teenage girls ride in cars with boys, roll down all the windows and sing Beach Boys songs, off key and loud. It brings you snowy winter days when you trudge up the steepest hill in town, dragging your chipped and dented sled behind. You wonder if the screaming seconds long ride down the hill is worth the tortuous 15 minute climb up. But you do it again and again.

This is what life does….
It teaches you that you really never use algebra ever again in real life. It teaches you that history is actually important, not the dates and names and memorization, but the lessons for humanity.

This is what life does….
It gives you trials and tragedies, love and loss, joy and adventure. Some of these last seconds and others a lifetime. But you do it again and again because this is what life does.

I don’t want to be anywhere else…..
I always want to be in the place where I happen to be. It is the place that changes, not my desire to be there.

I am sitting in an open vehicle as it speeds through the African bush. The only light is from the jeep’s powerful headlights and the shimmering stars above. I am wrapped in warm clothes, huddled under a blanket, losing hope that the lion will show himself tonight. Suddenly the beam catches a golden mound of fur. And there they are…not just the king of the jungle, but the queen and three little princes. They look up sleepily at us, these nocturnal intruders.

I don’t want to be anywhere else…..
I am sitting in the first pew of a tiny cathedral. My son is standing tall, his arms outstretched, holding the quivering hands of the woman with whom he’ll share the future. He has come so far, and Nathalie has enriched his soul. I will stay behind.

I don’t want to be anywhere else…..
I’m sitting in a café along Rue de Marques. Tiny blossoms from a line of cherry trees flitter across the table top. Chic Parisians stroll past in their smartly tied scarves, scurry down into the bowels of the Metro. I snap open my computer and begin to write. Ernest Hemingway once said that when he was writing in Paris he always stopped for the day at a point where he knew he would start the next day. I am no Hemingway and I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to be anywhere else.

What matters now…..
Is that this work, these hours spent with writers, the silence, the movement and meditation, the walks in nature take me another inch closer to the goal, or send me sideways to another place, wherever that is.

What matters now…..
Is that there is always progress, healing, insight, and paths to peace. Standing still is only to listen to the voice within, but movement is what keeps me alive. Even a fish will drown if it is still for too long.

What matters now…..
Is being my best self. Helping without judgement or pity. Sending my own inner judge to hell and thanking God for his love and care regardless of how flawed I am.

What matters now…..
Is the child I have and one I have lost. I live my life to make each proud, one in heaven and one on earth.

Volunteering in Nepal

Nepal! Land of Buddha’s birth and home to the mighty Mt Everest. It is a small rectangle of a country along India’s northeast border. It is also a place of tragedy and upheaval. Events like: the massacre of the royal family in 2001; the Maoist Revolution that lasted from 1996-2006; the devastating 8.0 earthquake in 2015 followed by hundreds of aftershocks…and this is just in the last 23 years. These and many other things have combined to keep Nepal a third world country.

 

 

 

My love of travel, combined with volunteering, has led me to new and interesting places on several continents, in vastly different countries. The experience of being embedded in a community, rather than being a tourist (although I love being a tourist too!) adds richness and understanding to the experience. Nepal has a long road to economic and physical recovery, but it is the most vulnerable of its population who can benefit from even the most minor hand up. Global Volunteers is working to be that small helping hand in Kathmandu.

Nepal will mark the first time I am not traveling alone to volunteer. My friend of 58 years, Mary Healy, is joining me and this will be her first volunteer experience in a foreign country.

Nepal has a population of approximately 29 million. Kathmandu is the nation’s capital and largest city and will be our home base. The overall literacy rate in Nepal was 65.9% in 2011. More than half of primary students do not enter secondary schools, and only one-half of those who attend complete secondary schooling. In addition, fewer girls than boys join secondary schools.

 

 

 

Our host in Nepal has invited Global Volunteers to help teach conversational English and business management, repair living and learning spaces, and provide support and training to marginalized women. Our host believes that education is the key to a better life for both adults and children.

Thanks to a generous baggage allowance, Mary and I were able to check not just our personal luggage, but two suitcases with over 60 pounds each of donated school supplies. There are too many generous individuals to name, but the donations ranged from children’s books, science toys, flash cards, maps, anatomy charts, to soccer balls and cash used to buy notebooks, writing utensils, and so much more. Our hosts were stunned at the bounty and the children were wide eyed and brimming with smiles.

Welcome to Kathmandu! This city of over a million people is crazy chaos, wrapped in dust, surrounded by glorious mountains, and dotted with beautiful temples. We immediately realized that it’s best not watch the traffic when being driven anywhere in Kathmandu. We gasped frequently on our ride from the airport, where we did not encounter a single traffic light, but swerved a dozen times to avoid near misses with oncoming rickshaws, motorcycles, and trucks, darting pedestrians, and a sleeping cow.

Earthquake damaged buildings are supported by wooden poles

Our first day as pedestrians left us wondering if we would survive the weekend, let alone the next two weeks. With no traffic lights or stop signs and no good way of safely crossing a street, daily life became an adventure in vehicle and people dodging. As strangers in a strange land, we seemed more visible to drivers and we hoped that would be our salvation. And the dangers don’t just lie in crossing a street. Where sidewalks exist, they are often cracked, and the occasional gaping hole is not unheard of. Some of this condition can be chalked up to earthquake damage and the rest to a lack of resources for maintaining infrastructure. So don’t go gazing at your unique surroundings while walking. Stand still to do your gawking and picture taking!

On our third day in Kathmandu, we started our volunteer assignments. Mary would spend the next two weeks working with Nepali women who were denied an education in their youth, filling in for me at the business college during an illness, and finally, working with a rambunctious class of 5 year olds. Given this is her first travel volunteering experience, she adapted to each situation like a pro.

My assignment was to present a two week workshop of my own creation to students at Shivapuri Business College. Based on email conversations with the Global Volunteers Coordinator in Nepal, I prepared lesson plans that would enable the students to understand western business models, create a small business plan of their own, and enhance their critical thinking and presentation skills.

On our first day there were two classes of about 15 students each. Jeanette, my co-teacher and a PhD from Arizona, and I began by introducing ourselves and our backgrounds and asked the students to do the same. We also asked them to tell us what they hoped to do after graduation. Before I retired I had spent over 25 years as a commercial banker, so I was delighted to hear that several of the female students hoped to work for a bank. Two of them had already done internships with banks in Kathmandu. To my dismay, however, over the next two days our class sizes would shrink.

Almost all of the girls stopped coming over the next two days, along with several of the boys. It is not clear what their reasons were, but Jeanette and I surmised the following:

Speaking in class (even at the college level) is not common. Learning in Nepal is largely accomplished by listening to lectures, followed by reading and memorization, then testing.

While all of the students spoke some level of English, their comfort level for speaking in front of their classmates and two native English speakers was diminished. Lastly, the girls anxiety seemed to be heightened by the fact that they would also be speaking in front of the boys.

Our workshop was scheduled after the students’ regular class day. College classes run from 6:00 am to 10:00 am. Our classes ran from 10:00 to Noon and 1:00 to 3:00, and were voluntary, so there was no real barrier to the students just giving up. Jeanette and I are working with Global Volunteers and the college administrators on a plan to solve these issues for future workshops. For now, I’ll share our experience with the brave students who went the distance.

 

 

 

The work I designed for this class would require the students to think independently and critically, which would push them out of their comfort zones. I brought Business Planning material from home, along with sample business plans. Despite their enrollment in a business college, none of the students had ever seen a business plan, so our first day was spent reviewing the material. In order to have them practice their English and public speaking, each student read aloud a portion of the material, after which we discussed what it meant and how it fit into the business planning process. We discussed in class each student’s thoughts about what kind of business they would like to promote in their business plan. The point was not to come up with a business that would be wildly successful, but to understand the thought process that goes into launching a business. Many of the students in our classes would not likely be starting a business, but this work would prepare them for future job interviews. Understanding how businesses plan, and improving their presentation and English skills, would all add value for them as future employees or entrepreneurs.

Over succeeding days, each student wrote and presented a section of their individual business plans. This in turn sparked discussion about the pros and cons of the student’s plan. Often, one student came up with suggestions for a tweak to another student’s plan.

In week two, once all of the students had completed their business plans, they presented them in front of the class, using a white board, speaking in English, and taking questions from other students. To see the improvement in their presentation skills was by itself worth the trip across the world to work with them.

During the remainder of that second week, we worked on two additional projects. First, we provided information to help them create a polished CV (resume) for their future job searches. We talked about how researching a company’s business plan, financial statements, and leadership experience would help them stand out during interviews. For the second project, We presented them with a list of well know, successful companies that were started by the founders in their parents’ basements or garages, or in their college dorm rooms – companies like Mattel, Apple, Google, that had very modest beginnings. Each student selected a company, researched it, and during the last two days of the workshops, they each presented a synopsis of how the company started and the steps the founders took to grow and succeed. The increase in their levels of confidence, demeanor, and critical thinking skills, over just a two week period astonished us and spoke to their intelligence and determination.

One of the college administrators sat in on a class one day when the students were doing presentations. She was thrilled at seeing them in the front of the class room, speaking with confidence in English, and clearly knowledgeable of their material. She explained that this would be unusual in Nepali class rooms where the standard is teachers giving lectures, students listening in their seats. This was all the reward I would ever need for this work I love so much.

On our last day, some of the students posed with us for the requisite selfies, wished us safe travels, thanked us. But all I wanted to do was stay….stay so I could see them reach for the stars, start their careers, be happy and successful. But I will need to do that from afar, from my own happy life at home, or wherever I am in the world.

Namaste 🙏🏻

“It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I still have to go, the more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough; to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

– Anthony Bourdain

Volunteer Goals
Saying farewell to our local partners

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia and New Zealand


In the final days of a journey, whether it has been travel volunteering, a road trip in a foreign land, or just getting in touch with nature in a national park, I usually know what I will write about. Australia and New Zealand have been different. When I landed home at the end of April there was no big story calling to me, demanding that I write it. And why not? Australia and her neighbor to the east, New Zealand, are the seventh of the world’s continents I have visited. I snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, helicoptered over glaciers in New Zealand, climbed the Sidney Harbor Bridge! Isn’t that a story I should want to write? Hmmm.

I’m not a poet. I don’t really like most poetry. I don’t know what that says about me. When trying to understand a particular poem, I have thought to myself….why doesn’t the poet just tell me what he/she is thinking, rather than making me guess? So I default to memoir, history, fiction….you know, material that doesn’t frustrate me. But, while I was in New Zealand, someone asked the members of our little troop of travelers to write a poem to memorialize some aspect of our adventure. Groan. Luckily, the assignment was to write a haiku. Yes, three short lines. Even I could do that! And then something sparked and one haiku became five haikus. So in lieu of my regular travel blog, here is my first and only effort at poetry. The good news is….each haiku is accompanied by photos, so you won’t have to guess what in the world I am talking about.

 

 

 

 

Towering red rock
Sunrise sunset shadows glow
Wakeful spirits sigh

 

 

 

 

 

White coral mystique
This underwater reef world
Breathe, swim, deep blue sea

 

 

 

Glacier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cool blue icy peaks
Soaring over cotton clouds
A million years old

 

 

Hokitika gorge

Place of gold seekers
Turquoise waters lap the sand
They whisper my name

 

 

 

 

New Zealand

 

 

 

 

 

The land so beloved
Born of quakes and shifting plates
Lush green, down under

 

If my haikus have perplexed, annoyed, or even pleased you, feel free to post a comment. And I’ll sign off with some random photos from Australia and New Zealand. G’day mates.

Earthquake damaged cathedral in Christchurch
The men needed to frolic for some reason

 

 

Argentina and Chile – Dos Hermosos Paises

Our stepping off point for Antarctica was Argentina, a lovely place to visit on its own….and so I did. Unfortunately, technical issues have delayed my ability to create this blog, so I will need to be brief, since departure for my next destination is just around the corner.  While this blog lacks the usual longer narrative, I hope I make up for it in photos.

I landed in Buenos Aires on a sunny Wednesday in late January and met my fellow travelers that evening. While in Buenos Aires, we walked the city, ate too many empanadas, and visited several iconic locations.

First up….Recoleta Cemetery in Bueno Aires. I know…it’s a cemetery. But you have to admit….it’s kind of cool. That is Eva Peron’s mausoleum I am standing next to. Most of the famous of Argentina are entombed in Recoleta. And it was a beautiful day for a walk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plaza de Mayo is known for so many events in the history of Argentina – freedom from Spain, speeches by both Juan and Eva Peron among others, protests, coups, killings, celebrations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Boca – colorful, lively, historic, friendly….I wish we could have spent more than an afternoon in this cool neighborhood!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We said goodbye to Buenos Aires and flew to Ushuaia, our launching point for Antarctica. But for a day and a half we strolled the streets of this city at the southern tip of South America, and hiked the Tierra del Fuego.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With Antarctica in the rear view mirror, we took a quick  jaunt north to Iguazu, a town situated at the meeting point of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. But the reason you come here is, of course,  the Falls, the widest in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Iguazu I said goodbye to my fellow travelers and boarded the short flight to Santiago, Chile. If I ever decide to become a snowbird, Santiago will be my winter (their summer) home! The sun shone every day, temps hovered in the low 80s, no humidity! Add in the affordability and friendly people, and you have a winning combination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I rarely bother to take pictures of the hotels where I stay, but LeReve in Santiago is so charming I couldn’t resist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A daytrip to Vina Del Mar and Valparaiso is a great way to spend some time walking, eating, or fishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favorite excursion in Chile by far was to Cajon Del Maipo, a stunning reservoir tucked into a gorge in the Andes Mountains. Our guides served a picnic lunch with wine from a nearby vineyard, horses sauntered by, and the changing colors of the water left us in awe. My last perfect day in Chile.