24 Hours In: Istanbul!

Our whirlwind of Europe is finally coming to an end – final destination Istanbul, Turkey!

After 22 hours of busses, trains and planes we arrived to Istanbul welcomed by a steep hill and many cobblestones. Note to self: don’t fly into Sabiha Gokcen International Airport in the future.

Connection from Gokcen Airport was achieved through an hour plus ride on a coach (14 Turkish Lira, TL) and two train / tram rides (4TL)…or we could have taken a private transport for ~90TL.

We arrived somewhere near the touristy Taksim Square on a steep hill next to the deepest construction pit I have ever seen. There are buildings under construction everywhere.
Navigating the cobblestones and taxi packed sidewalks, we slowly made our way to Taksim station – tantalizing aromas of sweet, spicy and fragrant combined for an unforgettable combination. This is my first impression of the city, and one I will likely not forget. Melody wanted to sample the wares from every restaurant we passsed. Everywhere we walked we have received a cascade of shouts offering taksi rides or a sampling of foods and drinks. For the easily overwhelmed, this is not the place to visit.

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The metro system in Istanbul is, by and large, efficient and effective. There are your standard metro ‘subway’ type cars, street trams, and even ferries…all of which you can take a ride on for 4 TL. For this purchase price, you receive a little plastic coin about the size of a nickel. There is an option to purchase a metro card, but our pleasure for walking meant we did not go this route.

With our little coins we took a short connector ride underground and then a slightly longer ride on an overground street-car, reaching our hostel in good spirits.

Even at 11pm, there were many shops open and crowds of others milling about. In the short walk we were hailed no fewer than 20 times for dining – did I mention you get shouted at?

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December 7, 2015

 

 

Travel Diary: Copenhagen’s Disappointing Walking Tour

View from the SkyIt all started when we took a train to Copenhagen city center to do one thing: a free walking tour at 3pm.
We found the main square and waited for 20 minutes. It’s an oddly warm day in Denmark, so we’re sitting and sweating. I’m admiring the 2-story Burger King on the corner, and Mark is observing this guy as part of some kind of stag party doing really socially awkward things to embarrass him.

We’re looking for a guide that, per reviews, is wearing a green shirt with a green umbrella. 3pm comes and goes with no mass tour assembling and no green t-shirt tour guide. According to Google Maps, the pickup point for the walking tour was at the entrance of a hotel. We go to the hotel and ask the lovely gent at the desk where the meet point actually is. He tells us to go out of the hotel and turn left, then we would see the meeting point behind the hotel.

We follow his instructions into a narrow pedestrian way that’s filled with the sweet aroma of hookah. Our eyes scan both sides of this walkway, and we don’t see any signage pointing to a walking tour. I’m well past frustrated and teetering on embroiled.

Mark checks the reservation and it says to meet at the steps of town hall. We go to town hall and wait for over 15 minutes. The original tour has long departed. We decide to wait for the next one, at 4. We go get overpriced froyo, sit on town hall steps and wait.

4pm comes and goes. No gathering of tourists. No guy in a green shirt. I go so far as to approach strangers in green shirts and ask them if they’re tour guides. We wander around a narrow street and into a shop with blue and white tourist info sign and ask about the tour. She lets us know that there wasn’t a walking tour today. Color me surprised.

We decide to take the high road and instead of chew this woman’s ear off, to go to Malmö, Sweden instead, since we’re in the business of collecting countries and all.

She shows us the schedule of the coach times to Malmö and transit times. It’s an hour to Sweden and an hour back to Denmark. While we can get to Sweden before day turns to night, the last coach back from Malmö departs 2 hours later, at 6pm. That didn’t work because we had an early am flight from Denmark the next day.

 

Disappointed by the lie that was the free walking tour and the unusable coach to Sweden, we schlepped back to the AC Bella Sky and enjoyed two Scandinavian priced (read: unreasonably expensive) appetizers.

Summary: If you want the walking tour, find the tourist office first and ask if they’re even doing a tour. And if you want to do a day trip to Sweden, leave Copenhagen before 9am. It’s $10 each way.

August 29, 2015

Mission Statement – Why We Travel

Starting in 2013, we began our journey by driving around the United States of America with the only intention being to gather pictures of ourselves next to each state welcome sign. That trip turned into something much more – it sparked the realization that as large as the United States seemed to be, we were missing out on something by staying within the bounds of our home country – a global perspective.

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There are 24,642,757 square miles of habitable space in the world and 7.2 billion people living within 196 countries. With all of these people within all of these countries it doesn’t seem fair to be speed travelers spending two days in capital cities to make determinations about the world. Such quick stays are unlikely to provide much perspective on the way life is lived.

Scoping out this guy's wagon. We kind of like it.
Scoping out this guy’s wagon. We kind of like it.

We want to experience difficulty communicating, difficulty getting around, and completely surrender of the congested, exhaust filled wide highways that belt the United States.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, we have traded in a life of huge highways for two lane roads that

In Costa Rica we drove on roads with potholes so large they could break axles.

Bulgarian posters in memory of those passed.
Bulgarian posters in memory of those passed.

In Bulgaria we have stayed in villages with less than 500 people and even fewer resources. Where the best internet we could update our blog from was a half lit connection from an iPhone nestled on the top of the roof, traded American standards of plumbing for long drop toilets and experienced what it meant to reuse and repurpose everything you buy and everything you produce.

We wanted the edge – where you’re wondering why you would ever sign up for a cross country bus with no toilets.

We have been robbed of sleep, found like-minded travelers, and met people living on less money than we made in a week in The United States, yet were a great deal happier and more giving.

While our travels have been filled with challenges and difficulties, we have also received some of the warmest welcomes from people in countries that notoriously ‘despise’ Americans. We have experienced first hand how schools in Finland are operated. We have learned of historic figures that have made pretty dramatic changes within countries that we would never have read about in our history books. We have seen landscapes that make you say, “Wow”.

It’s true, we have also participated in some of the touristy bits of travel, but that is just another part of the experience.

If anything, our appetite for travel has grown during the last 2 1/2 years. We have learned as much (if not more) about ourselves as we have about the world. Our desire to see the world has continued on an exponential growth curve as we have more experiences – ultimately filling us with a greater number and complexity of questions.

While we are not always sure where our experiences and journeys will take us, we will continue to eagerly pursue them.

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves. We travel, next, to find ourselves.

Travel Diary: The Adventures of Mailing a Postcard in Dublin

This short story is proof that mundane tasks can turn into an adventure with the proper person. Mailing a postcard is not as easy as it sounds. Dublin is the only place where we found a sign that said post, much like the one below, that directed us into a supermarket.

Courtesy of Breaking News, Ireland. Ever so small and kind of easy to miss.
Courtesy of Breaking News, Ireland. Ever so small and kind of easy to miss.

We pass a sign that looks like this and peer in. This is a supermarket; that can’t be right. So we’re walking around South Dublin looking for a post office. A real post office, one that would be green with ample harps and lots of other Irish things. We keep seeing oval green mail drops in the street anxious to receive our mail, but as our postcards do not yet have stamps affixed to them, we can not send them on their merry overseas journey.

Though the post office signs are small, the mail drops are really hard to miss. Daily collection varies from 4:00 to 5:30pm.
Though the post office signs are small, the mail drops are really hard to miss. Daily collection varies from 4:00 to 5:30pm.

After about twenty minutes, we turn around and search again for this tiny sign and go into the supermarket. Everything about this feels odd. We’re in the Donnybrook market, and I see what looks like the beginnings of the warehouse. There are people milling about, so I follow the path all the way to the back of the store. There are those long clear plastic flaps right in front of me, and to the right, I see a two-person queue (that’s a line for my American audiences). Right in this tiny L-shaped, dimly lit area is a post office. There’s two tellers behind bulletproof glass. I go up and ask them for five international stamps, please, which they have to print. She comes back and tells us it’s six euros.

Not a problem, a bargain I think, for such a long journey, and Mark swipes our credit card, which promptly gets declined. The employee sees the error and tells us, debit or cash only. At this point, Mark uses the debit card, and that also gets declined. At this point we didn’t have any cash – so I start to worry. The employee clarifies: “Irish bank cards or cash only.”

Weeeelll, that kind of changes things a bit! We ask where the nearest ATM is, across the street, and walk over only to find out it’s Out of Order. The next ATM is a good ten minutes away, and we have twelve minutes to get our postcards in the mail for the 5:30pm pickup. What a maddening deadline. The next twelve minutes is us running to the ATM, waiting eons to withdraw cash, running back to the post office disguised as a supermarket, waiting in a now very-long queue to pick up our postage stamps that we quickly affix to the postcards and bid them adieu as we drop them promptly at 5:29pm.

Mission. Totally. Accomplished.

The Evolution of Our Travel – So far.

As we wait at Varna Airport* in Bulgaria to board a flight toward Istanbul, Turkey for a connection, I cannot help but think about just how much our travel plan has changed since we began planning.

What was originally to be a 48 day, non-stop movement blast of every country in Europe has become something much more satisfying.

We are currently 80 days in, with a scheduled 68 more on the calendar. Wow.

We may not have visited every country yet – in fact we have only been to 16 – but the things we have experienced more than make up for that.

A quick overview of where we have been and what we have done so far:

July 8 – 15: London, England – Crown Jewels, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, British Museum, Jewish Museum (Melody), National Gallery (Melody), Imperial War Museum, Beefeater Distillery, London Overground / Underground, Tube Strike, Long walks to our AirBnB (learned from this mistake), fined 20 GBP for not buying proper ticket on tube.

July 15 – 21: Oslo, Norway – Overpriced pub night first night, Pier 41, Historic Oslo, Drove up to Lillehammer, Port of Oslo, Took bad pictures of Opernhaus, had most expensive quesadilla of our lives (post about that here), overall felt very financially abused, Experienced what it is like to have a dog that has an indefinite amount of energy,

July 21 – 28: Glasgow, Scotland – Took bus from Edinburgh to Glasgow and picked up rental car, learned that speed is in MPH, not KPH, went to Glengoyne Distillery, drove to highlands (Ft. William & Glencoe), hiked up to waterfall, stepped in marsh land up to our knees by same waterfall, saw Glasgow and had a great burger, went to Edinburgh and were a little underwhelmed, visited Museum on the Mound (free), Glen Nevis Park, Contributed to Yarn Project at Renfield St. Stephens Church.

July 28 – August 6: Dublin, Ireland and Northern Ireland – Temple Bar, Trinity College, Giants Causeway, Watched an aging dog (Lucky) with medical problems, spent a couple days at vet with Lucky due to said problems and learned that vet care is quite awesome in the middle of the night, Hiked in Wicklow Mountains,

August 6 – 7: Brussels, Belgium -Delirium Bar

August 7 – 11: Paris, France – Louvre, Eiffel Tower (day and night), Champ de Mars, Luxemborg Park, Notre Dame Cathedral, Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre, Had to walk home at 1:30 AM 10km because metro closed earlier than we thought.

August 11 – 14: Prague, Czech Republic – Walking tour of Prague, Astronomical Clock, Charles Bridge, Gastronomy Museum, Old Jewish Quarter, Jewish Cemetery, Old Town Square, beers along the river, Old New Synagogue, beers in the street, Black Angel Bar ( great craft cocktails in a speakeasy environment), Franz Kafka statue, St Cyril & Methodius / Heydrich Terror Memorial

August 14 – 29: Helsinki/Artjarvi/Oramatilla, Finland – Taught at Finnish School (Melody), carved 3 walking sticks, picked a LOT of cherries, picked black and red currants, picked gooseberries (had no idea these were a thing before), attempted a bike ride, aborted bike ride, laid foundation and placed bricks for BBQ relocation, raised elevation of ground around greenhouse, trimmed apple and cherry trees for days, resurfaced a table, used an infrared heater for table, drank lots of homemade cider / beer, learned to make mead, helped make mead, learned some Finnish, experienced a Finnish birthday party, taught modded Minecraft to someone in another language, SAUNA!!!, adapted our favorite recipe for use in Finland, set the world right during late night drinking sessions.

August 29 – 30: Copenhagen, Denmark – Nuhavn, attempted walking tour twice, failed to locate walking tour twice,

August 30 – September 1: Berlin, Germany – East Side Gallery, Humboldt University, Walking tour of Berlin, Jewish Holocaust Memorial, Hitler’s Bunker, Brandenburg Gate, visited Hotel where Michael Jackson hung baby out of window, Checkpoint Charlie, straddled former Berlin Wall. Volkswagen showroom.

September 2 – 6: Rome and Vatican City, Italy – Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Sistine Chapel, Church of St. Augustine, Vatican Museum, Villa Doria Pamphilli,

September 6-9: Naples, Italy – Beautiful decorations in subway stop, couldn’t find a cab to save ourselves, Pompeii, driving in Naples (YIKES!), drove along the Amalfi Coast (didn’t quite reach Amalfi), experienced fairly rude service overall at every restaurant we went to (save one).

September 9-10: Sorrento, Italy – Due to weather unable to do our boat tour in the morning, got ripped off by cabbie for ride to pick up rental car, ate a burger for lunch and skipped dinner, had our first bad AirBnB Experience, drove along the Amalfi Coast (still didn’t quite reach it), fell asleep hot, unconnected (no wifi) and hungry.

September 10-11: Rome, Italy – took lovely train ride back to Rome from Naples, had some confusion reaching our hotel (there are two Best Westerns by the Fiumicino Airport), walked along beach, learned that restaurants literally do not open until 8pm by the beach, had best dinner of our Italian trip.

September 11 – 25: Sofia/Popovo/Varna, Bulgaria -Stayed at our first Hostel of the trip in Sofia (excellent experience), took bus to Popovo (not a great experience), met Joe and Julie our hosts and had a nice dinner, expanded and repaired a stone path that was damaged by the pigs, learned to cob, cobbed a part of a wall, milked a goat (Melody), harvested Maize, shucked Maize, de-kerneled Maize using hand crank machinery (excellent!), used long-drop toilet (wha?!), had traditional Bulgarian dinner (very fun and awkward as a foreigner), found old communist radio, learned about old communist radios, walked across train tracks to get to our train, visited Bulgarian version of Walmart (hint: not as big, nor as well stocked as you would think), laid garden beds, held chickens, pet sheep (Melody), straightened out a pig’s tail, trained the dogs to sit, adapted our favorite recipe for Bulgarian food availability, saw the Milky Way – every night, fought to get internet for Melody’s school / students, bought clothes at a ‘second-hand’ store, learned how to make bread (Melody), made bread (Melody), painted with Lime / coffee mixture, went to Bucharest, Romania to pick up a friend, showered using a wood-burning water heater, bathed in the kitchen sink, picked walnuts / hazelnuts, took train to Varna (much better public transportation option), stayed at second hostel of trip (excellent people, excellent city), went to Bulgarian ‘night club’, set feet in the Black Sea, ate very cheaply, lamented how expensive The United States really is, went to Primorski Park, drank really really cheap beer, discovered that beer is sold in 2L bottles for the equivalent of $1.39.

September 25: Istanbul, Turkey – learned that you don’t need a visa to connect in Istanbul, learned that Istanbul airport is REALLY busy, learned Turkish Airlines is a very nice airline to fly (new favorite), slept at airport waiting for our connection, vowed to return to actually see Istanbul.

September 25 – 26: Toulouse, France – met our first friendly French person.

September 26 – Present: Seix, France – Met Peta and Keith, our new HelpX Hosts, assessed project and learned it would be much more difficult than originally anticipated, removed existing retaining wall for garden bed, sorted stones, dug foundation for new retaining wall for garden bed, sorted stones, poured foundations, sorted stones, laid part of wall, sorted stones, chipped stones, smashed stones, stones, sorted stones, laid more wall, weeded a garden bed while Peta and Keith sorted stones, laid remainder of retaining wall (phew!), dug foundations for new steps to be laid next to retaining wall, poured concrete and laid steps, had concrete that was laid around pavers ruined by HUGE hailstorm, climbed Mount Mirabat, experienced first rate doctors help with medication for less than $30 (Melody) after hike up Mirabat, sterilized a lot of pots (Melody), went to downtown Seix, visited Foix (didn’t make it to the castle sadly), observed pigeons instead of visiting castle, tended many garden beds (Melody), washed A LOT of dishes, first indoor clothes dryer of trip, celebrated birthday with wonderfully made cake made by Peta, had delicious meals prepared each lunch and dinner,

Overall, we have experienced many times of magnitude more than what we thought we would. We have learned, sweat, bled, laughed, smiled and drank ourselves around Europe in a fashion that we feel grateful and satisfied about.

Don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

*Started post on Sept 25, posted on Oct 10.

It’s Okay! You Can Skip the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel

I can’t believe there’s not more blogs promoting this. I really don’t understand why it’s on so many people’s life goals lists (Please tell me in the comments). It’s like millions of people suddenly become devoutly Roman Catholic and suddenly care about the lineages of the popes, what the popes wore, what they did and didn’t do, who they did and didn’t kill, and an even greater number of people pretend to really, really like art.

If you’re not on a pilgrimage to fulfill a religious preoccupation, you can skip the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel for any of the following reasons:

It’s expensive

16 euro if you dare wait in the queue (are you insane?) or 20 per person if you pay online. It’s a 4 euro convenience fee to pay online. You still have to stand in a line to pickup your tickets from the ticket counter. Then you shuffle.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.

And sweat, sweat, sweat. This is Italy which means there’s no AC in this building. It’s very old and AC is new. I’m not sure where the 4 euro fee is going, but it’s not going into cooling the building where the average number of visitors is more than 15,000 a day. This isn’t an area with wide walkways or an air current or even somewhere to stand off to the side. Throughout the entire walk through the museum, shuffle shuffle shuffle, which reminds me, I can remember taking exactly six real steps. There’s nowhere to really admire artwork, so actually,

It’s visual overload. 

Every room is ornately painted or carved from baseboards across the ceiling. EVERY. ROOM. You begin walking and trying to take in the beauty and enormity of the artwork, but you can’t because these IDIOT GUIDES and their flock of 20-30 something tourists walk right in front of people that are clearly trying to take a picture or admire artwork. You ask them, mi scusi, a photo? and you get the most disgusted look and a 15% chance of someone actually moving. Two hours later, by the time you get to the Sistine Chapel, you are so tired of seeing 16th century art that your eyes kind of glaze over and Michelangelo’s famous painting The Creation of Adam, becomes an actual snoozefest. Speaking of Michelangelo…

The Sistine Chapel is last room of the entire museum. 

And you’re supposed to be silent. All the signs before you enter tell you to 1) cover your shoulders, 2) cover up your super cute mini, AND BE QUIET. “Silence” is universal. But thousands and thousands of morons can’t keep their mouths shut and they keep whispering. So the guards shout SHHHHHHH! across the chapel and people think it’s funny so they keep talking. Again, you shuffle, and the museum guards make you shuffle in a particular direction. If you don’t shuffle that way you’ll be forced that way. Shuffle shuffle. All the sitting room will be taken, so you stand in a crowd of people that are smelly and sweaty and you just stare at the ceiling. No point in taking a photo. The ceiling is so tall you can’t zoom in far enough with any camera to get a fair picture of Adam and God. Speaking of which..

Take a picture of the Sistine Chapel and be prepared to get thrown out.

No one ever said #ShamelessSelfie with Michelangelo is a good idea. Signs have a picture of a camera with a line through it. No photo. And what do these idiots do? Hold their camera up above their head and try to take a picture, then act all surprised when they’re approached by a guard. Are you serious? How daft do you have to be?!

After you finish the Sistine Chapel, you’re guided through the histories of each Pope, what they did wrong and what they did right (all in Italian of course). At this point you’re just ready to leave. You came, you saw, you pretended to be Catholic or you pretended to know who Raphael was, and then you leave.

Want to have a good time at the Vatican? Don’t go. Just don’t. 95% of the people who go there are better off somewhere else.

If you insist on going, here’s my sage advice:

  • Buy the ticket online and deal with the 4 euro/pp convenience fee.
  • Enter the “group with reservations” line.
  • Go through security, put your bag on the line, and go straight to the left where it says tickets.
  • Show the wo/man your phone, get your tickets printed out.
  • GO UP THE RAMP. Do you really want to be stuck with a bunch of smellies on the escalator? No, you don’t.
  • Finally, at least pretend to be interested in something other than the Sistine Chapel, and divert if only for a moment to another room. We enjoyed the “Modern” Gallery right before the SC entrance.

Ciao.

Special Report: Teaching at a Finnish School

Note: Special interest piece about an educator and her humorous first experience teaching abroad. Not at all travel related.

There’s a saying: “Good things happen one at a time. Great things happen all at once.” In two days’ time, I completed my TEFL course and taught (albeit briefly!) a grade 3 class of Finnish elementary students on their second week of English. Initially, my visit to the school was just to observe how an English class was taught. It’s one thing to read a ‘how-to’, and another to do it, right? Well the teacher, being shy and nervous that I would be judging her English abilities, decided I should give a lesson as well!

Enter nervousness. I hadn’t quite pictured my coursework being so relevant so soon! But at the same time, I was enthralled to teach these kids anything.

I’m driven by my lovely Finnish host, who’s like a second mom, to the school. It’s modern yet rustic. Kids are out in the courtyard, running around, laughing, smiling. They still take recess here. Tall glass windows dot the building. It’s a cozy school.

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Courtyard of the school. Courtesy of the school’s website

I’m greeted immediately by the English teacher, who is wide-eyed and happy to see me. We exchange greetings and two girls approach us. The teacher speaks in Finnish to them, then tells me they will be giving me a tour of the school. Oh how cute!  I coo. They lead me inside and there’s a foyer with shelves of names.

Then they slide off their shoes and motion for me to do the same.

In Finland (and nearly everywhere else in Scandinavia, I’m told), it’s customary to remove shoes before entering a building. Avoid tracking in dirt, mud, snow, and anything else from outside, right? Keeps the buildings cleaner and the adults (more) sane. I remove my shoes, and then it occurs to me that all of the classes are done in socks. Or barefoot. Whatever the kids wear to school that day, they go to class sans shoes.

The two elementary girls give me a tour in English, of the school. It’s laid out like a U, with classrooms on each side and the cafeteria in the middle. Each grade has its own classroom of no more than 16 students. There is also have a music room and a woodworking shop. Students begin woodworking in grade 3; they make top-open boxes, periscopes, and wooden art that is painted and displayed. if they don’t want to do that, they can practice textiles.

Adorned in fuzzy and colorful socks, we walk back to the English classroom where the 45 minute class just began. I sit at the back of the class, and had I not already seen these kids at a birthday party, I would have been incredibly interesting. The teacher instructs in Finnish, tells the students to open the textbooks and they begin counting numbers 1-10 in English. The teacher says ‘One’, the students wait, and then say ‘One.’ So it continues until they reach ten. After a couple repetitions, though, students get excited and begin counting ahead of everyone else. They break up into pairs of two: one student knocks on the desk and the other student counts how many knocks. This lasts about five minutes, so they move to a song about bananas, which seems to engage only a few students. Then I hear quick Finnish and my name.

Melody. Some laughter. Melody. There it is again. Oh, she is talking about me.

The teacher asks me to come up to the front of the class as I am going to give a lesson!

I walk up look at this beautiful energetic bundle of students. Oh, I wish I had something brilliant for them! Then the teacher asks them to go one-by-one, say “My name is..and I like…ice cream.” After they do this I feel infinitely relieved.

And then I have an idea: let’s play Red Rover!

I tell the teacher the gist and we head outside. The kids are over the moon excited. Anything outside is better than a classroom, right? Now there’s the issue. The teacher is by no means fluent in English. It’s okay for third graders, but this is better shown than explained. So I split the group into two sides.

7 students with me, 8 students with her. My group stays on one side of the field and the teacher’s group opposite us.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to communicate with someone who doesn’t know ANY of your language, but demonstration is probably the most entertaining. I hold a girl’s hand, and I hold up our joined hands and point to her and the next girl’s hand. They start laughing, but it works. Children are amazing copycats. Soon we have a hand-holding line. The group across from us sees what we’re doing and quickly follows suit.

Now I sing the song: Red Rover, Red Rover, Come on..over!

And I demonstrate running toward the line and breaking the human chain and if I break the chain I become part of it.

It occurs to me now that when I break the chain I’m supposed to bring someone back with me to my line. Ughhhhh! Must know for next time!

We go back and forth with this for maybe 30 minutes. I see smiling faces, running kids, and every other turn, I make them count as we lose and gain people.

One, two, three, four…eight, nine, ten!  One, two, three…six, seven!

Over and over again. They’re counting. I ask “How many people?” And they count. Over and over. I feel like they’re more comfortable using the words.

The class-time ends much sooner than I wanted to, and in one final motion we all run toward the group opposite us. This becomes a running fest. A girl tags me, like ‘Tag, you’re it!’ So I begin chasing after her with Jim Carrey’s “The Claw!” from Liar Liar.

Liar-Claw

These kids think it’s hilarious. Three more kids join in, tagging me and activating The Claw. Two more kids join in, and then I make The Claw break down, and I turn into a zombie chasing them about the courtyard and then they shuffled them back into school for their next class.

Moral of the story? Best day ever. And nothing can stop The Claw.

Travel Diary: An Adventurous Self-Drive into the Scottish Highlands

Exploring the Highlands, if only for a day, is a must for any itinerary to Scotland. Deceivingly, they look much closer than they actually are. This is because in order for the Highlands to be Highlands, they have to be mountainous, rugged terrain, that’s what makes them Highlands. Navigating a road on this terrain is no small matter, and neither is driving on it.

Most people opt for the road-more-traveled: a day trip in a coach where you are comfortable and a driver takes you right to the scenic area, you take a dozen snapshots and return to your home, satisfied.

That’s not how we travel. We like to do things on our own.

I would have loved to do this drive by myself except manual transmissions and I don’t always get along. In some cars, like Hondas, it’s pretty easy to figure out how to drive. But the car we had wasn’t a Honda. It was a manual transmission car on the opposite side of the road with the driver’s seat where the passenger seat usually is. So Mark had to do the driving. All six hours of it.

If you’re in Glasgow and you want to get a taste of the Highlands, go to Glencoe. You don’t need to drive to Inverness or even Cairngorns National Park, though both of those are beautiful beyond belief and you could spend a week in either location.

Glencoe is a good introduction to the Highlands that will leave you salivating for more.

Getting through and out of Glasgow is a pretty boring, but once you leave the area, the road starts winding and taking sharp turns, twisting and the roads are narrow. Not just American narrow, but barely enough to fit two cars around the corner. There’s no room for error. It’s difficult to shift, keep your eyes on the road, and take a sip of water, so for the driver, it’s generally a stressful drive. About 40 minutes north of Glasgow, we lost cell phone service and entered Loch Lomond.

One of the things we look for is a waterfall. Whenever we land in a new place, we immediately go on a waterfall hunt. We heard that a waterfall existed in Loch Lomond National Park (Which you have to drive through to get to Glencoe) but we weren’t really optimistic about spotting it since there were no exits off of the road. However, a lovely, poorly marked sign indicated a parking area for us to pulll off. We did, if for nothing else than to take a quick hike down to the river and take in some of the gorgeous scenery. What we found was Falls of Falloch, a lovely waterfall hidden nested back at the end of a moderate hike.

Falloch Falls
Falls of Falloch

Once we got out Loch Lomond, the scenery becomes much more dramatic and more beautiful.

Entering Glencoe
Entering Glencoe

The problem with doing a self-drive in Scotland is there is virtually no where to stop for a picture. Miles and miles of breathtaking, jaw-dropping lush green and towering waterfalls and there is nothing to travel on but this narrow two-lane road.

So when we finally saw a parking lot to stop, we slammed on our brakes for it. We missed it and decided to pull off on the side of the road, as it appeared to have a shoulder. We do not recommend doing this. Once we pulled over, the rocky terrain grabbed the tires and cut them to the left. The car sank into the mud. The entire left side of the car was in the mud. Tires spinning, clutch burning. I was definitely convinced we were stuck. We were hungry. Gas was nearly empty. It seemed like the beginning to a Stephen King novel. I tried to lift the car out of the mud (most European cars can be lifted by a person of moderate strength), but I couldn’t get a grip on what needed to be lifted up. So Mark trusts me to operate a left-hand drive car while he lifts the car up and out of the goo and…well, forty minutes later, we were back on the road.

Hellooo, Glencoe!
Hellooo, Glencoe!

Extraordinary right? I couldn’t get enough of it.

Another couple of hours later, we arrived into Fort William. I expected more of a town than It actually is, but on one side of the road is a row of bed and breakfasts, and on the other is a beautiful lake and mountains.

Fort William, where you want to stay if you're to explore all of Glen Nevis
Fort William, where you want to stay if you’re to explore all of Glen Nevis

We are looking for a place to stay, or get information, but things aren’t very well marked out. Apple Maps finally makes a comeback, as we haven’t had map service since Glasgow. What a relief. I find the tourist information center and the woman there recommends a park called Glen Nevis. Says it has some waterfalls and a few nice hikes, best part of everything? It’s free! Off we go to Glen Nevis.

Glen Nevis really is like walking into the wilderness of the Highlands. It’s one-way dirt roads with pullouts to let the other cars pass by. We drive 7 miles on this narrow, gritty dirty road all the way to the end and get out. There’s one waterfall at the end of the trail so we follow it. The trail starts out pretty easy but gets pretty dramatic. Water trickles over exposed rocks and the air begins to thin. Elevation gains are made quickly but the scenery is breathtaking. Strongly recommend hiking boots or strong sturdy hiking shoes.

Hidden waterfalls like these are beautiful yet hazardous on the trail. Nike frees won't do you any good on this trail.
Hidden waterfalls like these are beautiful yet hazardous on the trail. Nike frees won’t do you much good here.
Pretty hard to contain my delight when there are little aquadrops everywhere!
Pretty hard to contain my delight when there are little aquadrops everywhere!

The trail opens up into a field, where you’re in the valley of the Highlands and you can see the waterfall. It’s possible at the end, to get closer to it, and you can climb over the rocks, I recommend you bring food, at least a few snacks, to sit on the rocks and enjoy the picnic time and the view.

A little impromptu rock climbing!
A little impromptu rock climbing!

We brought cheerios and we wish we had brought more. Keep in mind this is a national park of sorts, so there’s no trash or rubbish bins. There’s a rope bridge, which looks a lot like a tightrope, you can cross, if you dare. It’s a bit scary, the first few steps, but as long as no one else is on it, shaking it or moving it about wildly, it’s an exhilarating experience. It’s also a lot higher up than it looks from the underside of it.

Mark turned acrobat on the rope swing I crossed with great trepidation.
Mark turned acrobat on the rope bridge I crossed with great trepidation. How about that view though?

However, once you get to the other side, there isn’t much to see, there’s a house, but not much after it. We thought we could get closer to the waterfall and wound up stepping into a bog and getting covered in mud up to our knees.

The hiking back as or seemed faster than it actually was to get to the waterfall. Maybe it was because I was tired or maybe it was easier after the hike there. There are plenty more things in the park to explore. It’s worth at least two full days, as there are waterfalls in nearly every corner and dramatic drop-offs everywhere you look.

That’s the beauty of the Highlands.

Waterfall spotting on our way back up the mountain
Happy hiking!

How to Be a Five Star Airbnb Guest

We’re big fans of Airbnb as a way to meet locals, experience authentic culture, and to find quality, budget lodging. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine, especially if you have a super relaxed host, what your responsibilities are. To earn yourself a five-star rating as a guest, abide by these tenets:

  • Most people loathe dishes in the sink, so wash them and leave them to dry, or rinse and put in dishwasher.
  • Minimize items left around the house. I’m really bad with this one, as I can be comfortable pretty much everywhere and thus my laundry, socks, and shoes tend to distribute themselves around any place of residence. It’s not messy; it’s a sign of genius. But if you have a host coming and going in the house, it can leave a bad impression of you. So if you’re like me and you enjoying occupying an entire space with your belongings, confine it to your room.
  • And close the door to your room, if for nothing else, because no one else wants to see your stuff, and you don’t want people seeing your stuff. If you’re a night owl like me and your day begins at 10pm (half kidding) then this also works to keep light and music in your room.
  • Ask to use the clothes washing machine!! Even if it is listed as an amenity, because odds are you’ll be using their soap too.
  • Recall your Aretha Franklin lyrics and R-E-S-P-E-C-T the space. Mark wants me to write to straighten the bed – fake make it – just in case something is needed from the room. This has never happened to us, where the host needed something from the room, but ya never know.
  • Understand personal time and space. The host might not always want to talk to you, and they’re not really obligated to. Most of the time they are working people too. We’ve had some quieter hosts and other hosts, like our lovely couple in Glasgow, that were happy to chat for hours.
  • Don’t eat food in the fridge or freezer unless you are invited to – if you finish something that you were given permission to eat or drink, offer to replace it.

And lastly…

Thank the host in person if they’re available – if not, leave a note / send SMS or E-Mail before writing and submitting your review. Airbnb will prompt you for a review at the end of your stay. If there’s any notes you’d like to offer the host privately, you can do so in a separate box after writing your review.

Let us know about your travels abroad, and as always, feel free to ask us for advice from lodging to low airfare.

Happy travels!

Mark and Melody

The Only App You Need to find Cheap Flights Anywhere

Airfare is usually one of the “cost prohibitory” expenses for anyone looking to travel to a far flung place. Yes I know Asia is cheap, they may say, but the flight is so expensive. But are they right? For a long time, I believed it. I took a flight from West Palm Beach, Florida to Hong Kong and it cost over $1,200 in March 2012. Granted, Air Canada is a very nice airline to travel on but after planning our months abroad, Mark and I have found the omniscient, no fail flight app:

Skyscanner.

Skyscanner is a search engine that allows you find the cheapest airfare to any destination at any time.

Type in your home airport. For us, it’s Fort Lauderdale. Then we play our favorite game called let’s see what the cheapest destination is by typing “Everywhere” into the destination box.

Searching
Searching “Everywhere” will show a list of destinations available from your home airport. Anywhere in the world.

Now you can pick a month, or pick the cheapest month. Pick your number of travelers, make sure you have round-trip selected, and go! You’ll get a lovely list of all the destinations by country first. For most people in the US, US destinations will pop up first. Sometimes this isn’t the case though, because once it was cheaper to go to Mexico than it was to go to Chicago from Miami. 🙂

List of countries to travel to from Fort Lauderdale. Note: Prices are round trip per person!
List of countries to travel to from Fort Lauderdale. Note: Prices are round trip per person!

A little further down, we see this list:

Batch two of options from Fort Lauderdale. Check out those European destinations!
Batch two of options from Fort Lauderdale. Check out those European destinations!

This is how we managed to get to Europe for $550.00. Yes, for two people! Once you find a country you like, click on it to see the destination cities. Let’s use Norway as an example:

List of cities you can fly to in Norway. Oslo looks like a good option, right?
List of cities you can fly to in Norway. Oslo looks like a good option, right?

We just finished up a beautiful long weekend in Oslo, so let’s go with Oslo. It’s definitely feasible to take a day trip to see the fjords, or take a drive to neighboring Sweden. Remember that we selected the cheapest month, so when you select Oslo, the cheapest dates come up. Easiest vacation planning ever! No more determining the best time to go or for how long.

You have to select the departing and return dates, and the price you see on the dates is the price for that leg (example Fort Lauderdale – Oslo). But when you select both travel dates, your total price per person comes up:

Norway for under $400? Pack your bags!
Norway for under $400? Pack your bags!

Now that you’re armed with the best airfare finder in the industry, where would you like to travel next?

Let us know in the comments.

Happy travelling!

Mark and Melody

Choosing Your First AirBnB

AirBnB has been truly great to us and we can’t recommend them enough. Every type of lodging is available: tree houses, huts, beach cabanas, modern flats and castles! Search functions allow you to search for a private room, a shared space, or the entire home. The prices vary as much as the style, meaning there is definitely a listing for your taste.

For accuracy in prices and availability, put in the dates you’re looking to stay, even if they’re tentative because you may find a place you like that happens to have a flexible host. It’s no fun to get super attached to a listing only to find out it’s not available. 😦

Before booking, check the cancellation policy. Each listing has one: flexible, moderate or strict. Flexible means you can cancel no later than 24 hours before your intended stay for a full refund, which is best for more spontaneous bookings. Moderate means cancellation must be made five days (in host’s local time) before intended stay for a full refund.  If you’re planning to attend an event or you’re pretty sure you won’t change plans, this is an option. Strict is… Strict. No full refunds are offered for Strict cancellation policies.  Instead, a 50% refund will be given for cancellations made seven days or more before your intended stay.

We’ve found the hosts to be quite delightful and to ensure you get the most out of your stay without any misunderstanding, we always message the host before booking. We also crafted a template to familiarize you with the site and ensure you ask vital questions with a message like this:

Hello, My husband and I are traveling to London from September 23 to September 28- confirming you have these dates available. We are mainly looking forward to visiting Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, and Camden Market. We would like to prepare a couple small meals as well. We will be arriving from Heathrow at 7pm- would you be home at that time? What is the best tube route to your location? 

Thank you kindly. 

Most hosts respond within two hours as they are eager to confirm guests :). Generally, a more outgoing, interactive host will respond with a more detailed message. Ask for recommendations in their area. If you’ve any allergies, it’s good to note that so the host can accommodate. We had an instance where a review noted a pet but the host didn’t, so if pets are something you need to avoid, confirm before the booking. At a different stay, I was totally under the impression the host would be there, but he didn’t live in the area anymore; the house was a rental property. For a first time stay, you may want to ask if there will be other guests in the house.

For short stay travelers looking to maximize time, ask:

  • What do you find is the best way to get around?
  • Is Uber operating here?
  • What times do the trains/ buses run?
  • Additional charge on public transit during peak travel times?

For super savvy and aspiring long term travelers, ask:

  • How far is the nearest market and when does it close?
  • How far is the nearest pharmacy?
  • Do you have ample pots and pans, flatware and cooking tools?
  • Do you have a clothes washer if I bring my own detergent?

For families of four or more, we recommend:

  • Selecting “entire house” instead of one room as a search filter. More privacy, flexibility and importantly security.
  • Booking as soon as possible if you’re attending an event. AirBnB hosts will raise prices too, sometimes three months in advance.
  • Letting the host know the ages of your children, especially younger tots.
  • If you rented a car, ask where the car can be parked. 

Final note: Give a host with no reviews a chance. We did and had a lovely stay!

Have you had an experience at airbnb you’d like us to feature? Let us know! We would love to hear your travel adventures.

Mark and Melody

How A Missed London Flight Became the Best Day Ever

We had a flight from London-Gatwick to Oslo scheduled to depart at 6am. Following the guidelines of international flights, we decided to be there about 90 minutes early: 4:30. We were staying at Masslink Guesthouse so across the street from the airport. The alarm is set for 4am.

It doesn’t go off. Something wakes me up around 4am, but it’s not the alarm. I go back to sleep.

I wake up about an hour later, suspicious of how rested I feel. Light is peeking through the curtains. I know it’s not 4am. My eyes glaze over to the clock and in big red letters it proudly displays… Continue reading

What We’ve Learned After 3 Days in London

Our first stop on our 111 day journey around the world takes us to London. What a city. We had a lot of expectations, both of ourselves and of the city. Here’s what we’ve learned with a little bit of tough love from one of the world’s most cosmopolitan places, and see this link for how to do London on a Budget.

1) This is not a bargain town. With the USD-GBP exchange rate, we’re getting about 64 pounds for every $100 USD. Here’s a point of reference, all prices in pounds:

Cheap beer: 4
Nice beer: 6
175 ml glass of wine: 6-8
Appetizers (half the size of American apps so a bad substitute for dinner): 9-12
Cheap dinner: 13
Filling Dinner: 20-30

So you can see, a nice (non-budget) dinner for two could easily eat up your 64 pounds.
In other words, you’ve just spent $100 on one meal.
No tipping here. Please don’t do it. And no added-on tax. The price you see on the receipt is what you pay.

Picking up foodstuffs from supermarkets or grocery stores is key to saving money.

Cold/ Flu Medicine: 4 [please see note here about pharmacies in the UK]
Small bottle of water: 1
Large water: 2
Takeaway pasta from grocery store: 4 (or you can get lucky with a 3 for 3 deal at Sainsbury’s)
Box of tea: 2

NOTE: There are Panera Bread type places where you can purchase coffees, smoothies and bread items, but you will see two prices: a takeaway (to-go) and eat-in price. The eat-in prices are higher because of a VAT (value added tax) charge. Our suggestion? Get your items for takeaway and eat at one of the numerous parks and green spaces.

2) Please be extremely mindful of the amount of walking/ stair-climbing you do. It is very easy to wear out your body and thus make yourself sick. London is very walkable, but please please plan your visits to attractions in clusters and plan for no more than three attractions a day. It is not necessary to visit the Imperial War Museum and the National Gallery in the same day. They are on opposite sides of town and there is plenty in each “zone” to keep you busy for an entire day.

3) Buy an OysterCard the day you arrive (and think twice about the London Pass). They’re available at the airport, convenience stores, kiosks, and supermarkets. It gives you access to the tube (underground subway), the overground (above-ground subway), and the buses for very low prices. We took a bus during the tube strike: they’re great. Note: As of July 2015, the tube does not run 24 hours; in September 2015, 24 hour tube operations are scheduled to begin.

4) If you have an unlocked phone that can take a different SIM, we strongly suggest you seek out a LycaMobile SIM for 1 pound. The plan we purchased was 17 pounds and came with 2000 minutes, 5GB of data and unlimited text messages. This means we can load maps on Google with the route/ directions, put the phone on airplane mode to save battery/ data, and use the pre-loaded map. Genius. It works. It saves battery. We haven’t gotten lost.

Cheers.

xx

Snorkeling at John Pennekamp State Park – Know Before You Go!

As part of our ambitious desire to visit every state park, we thought a snorkeling adventure at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park would be an easy and fun addition to our list. We called the snorkeling crew down in Key Largo and made a reservation over the phone a day before. The next morning, we made the drive to Key Largo.

The park is easy to find with plenty of signs directing you. Like any other state park, it’s a $6 entrance fee to the park for a car with 2-8 people. With your receipt you’re given a map of the park and some history of the area.

After you park your vehicle you’ll see an education center with some wildlife and conservation information. A little further and you’ll see the area where you’ll check in, which is the gift shop and activities check-in desk together..

The conditions for the water are listed on a whiteboard when you go to check in which details the level of choppiness and visibility in the water.

They have mask, snorkel and fin rentals available in case you don’t bring your own, but I definitely suggest you find your closest WINGS store and pick up a set there. Buying a mask/ snorkel set at Pennekamp will cost a hefty $30.

Fortunately, the people at John Pennekamp don’t make you pay in advance. Unfortunately, we and two other people signed up for the snorkeling adventure and drove about two hours to get to the park. We got to the counter, big-eyed and bushy tailed, ready to snorkel to our hearts’ content when we were told…

The water is too choppy. We might not be running the tour today. If we do run the tour, you will need to be an experienced snorkeler and a strong swimmer.

FYI: I’m not the world’s strongest swimmer. Mark’s never snorkeled. The couple we were with had both snorkeled and swam, but they weren’t keen on bobbing about in choppy waters. We decided to have lunch and see how we felt about going. When we went back inside, we were told that the waters were still really choppy (the wind was gusting at about 15-20 miles per hour) and good visibility wasn’t guaranteed.

Translation: The current is kicking up a bunch of sand and you might not actually see shit.

With the tour being about $40-50 a person including the gear rental, we decided that going snorkeling on a super windy, super choppy day wouldn’t be the best idea for first-time snorkelers.

Alternative plan: We asked about the glass-bottom boat tour, but were told the choppy waters were churning up the sand and reducing visibility on the boats as well.

So, what’s a group to do in John Pennekamp if you’re not snorkeling/ glass-bottom-boating?

It turns out… not a whole lot.

There are three small beaches where you can put your towel down or post up some chairs, but the sand is packed hard and it’s really uncomfortable to lay on. There’s a few boardwalks, and there’s kayaking, but we went kayaking at Oleta River State Park the day before, so our upper bodies were sore.

We wound up leaving about an hour after lunch and headed to Crandon Park, near downtown Miami, for a classic cityscape photo shoot before driving home.

Pro-tip #1: Make a reservation a day before, then call before you leave and ask about “if the conditions are clear, the waters are smooth, and if we can see the statue.”

Pro-tip #2: Buy your own mask and snorkel, even at a drugstore. It’ll be cheaper and function just the same. And you can keep it.

Ciao!

Our Most Oft Asked Question: Travel – on the Cheap!

One of the questions that we get most often is, “How can you afford to travel? You must be rich / rolling in the dough / get money from your parents.” While all of these things would make traveling long-term much easier…it just isn’t the case for Melody and I.

Knowing that we would need to find a way to do it a little cheaper, and also knowing the type of trip that we both mutually enjoy, we set out to discover some cheaper ways to travel.

In general, the two largest cost items while traveling will be lodging and food – these are inescapable truths. While it is certainly possible to eat ramen noodles and camp in a tent, sometimes the weather and local culture may just not let that be a possibility (not to mention that would likely become old, very quickly). Striking a little bit of the middle ground, the following are a couple of other options:

  1. House-sit!We would first like to say a big thank you to Hecktic Travels for their amazing blogs and advice, as well as informing us and many others about house sitting as a travel option. Cheers, guys!Anyone with pets that loves to travel knows that bringing their animals along can make for…less than ideal trips. Traveling with a pet is expensive, and depending on your breed of dog / cat / bird / other exotic animal, may not be possible at all. For the longer trips, it is also not possible to leave your animals unattended (you wouldn’t do that, right?).

    Boarding your animals is another option – but again expensive.

    Some are lucky that they have close family or friends to watch after their furry / feathered babies – but again, not always possible for longer stays.

    For people who fall outside of these lovely conveniences, consider having someone come sit your house!

    In exchange for lodging, you can have a trusted and verified traveler stay at your house and care for your animals / property. The requirements for the stays are clearly stated (expectations and duration), and there are even some that are paid – though not very many – your mileage may vary.

    For our uses, we used Mind My House and Trusted House Sitters, but there are many others out there. Not only will you get to visit some unique and interesting destinations, but in most cases your only costs will be transit expense, food and some time commitment. A secondary bonus for people like us who live in a place that having animals is forbidden – you even get to enjoy the company of the resident animals.

  2. Help ExchangeMelody and I both enjoy staying active. We also love to meet new people and immerse ourselves in new cultures – out of the city and away from the tourist areas. Don’t get me wrong, we love to see the sights too, but there is something powerful about the countryside and the people that live outside of the hustle and bustle of the city.Keeping these things in mind, we set out to find a way to immerse ourselves into the everyday life of a local – and save some money doing it along the route. When we came across Help Exchanges, we knew we had found a winner.

    For our uses, we use HelpX – although there are many more sites out there that do the same thing.

    Simplified, a help exchange is an exchange of your time and labor for lodging and food.

    This exchange comes in many shapes and sizes, but the postings usually detail exactly what the expectations are in advance. The number of hours you are expected to work will vary, but most that we have seen are between 20-25 hours per week.

    Some examples of what you might expect to find:

    Hostel Operator looking for help in maintaining hostel. 20 hours per week to include: Admitting guests, making beds, dusting lobby, preparing food, general cleaning. In exchange you will receive private lodging with bathroom. Minimum 30 day stay.

    or

    Looking for helpers to work in the garden with some experience of gardening and growing vegetables to get the spring work done. Four hours work per each nights stay in return for 3 meals per day and accommodation. Double en-suite bedroom and single bed. Fresh food from the garden where possible and all home cooked meals prepared for you.

  3. AirBNBIf neither of the above sound overly interesting, or you are not really interested in working for your lodging / food, fear not! There are other options for you.AirBNB is, in effect, a house / room / couch sharing site designed to allow homeowners the opportunity to earn a little extra income on empty or unoccupied rooms within their home. These rooms are usually priced substantially below what you might find at a hotel in the same area.

    For smaller groups 2-3, this might actually be cheaper than if you were to individually stay at a hostel.

    The site itself is very simple to navigate, and rooms are available in 190+ countries.Capture

    With an available mobile application, the ability to instantly book rooms, and read reviews from others who have stayed, Airbnb is a viable option for those planning far in advance, or on the fly.

For our purposes, we will be using a combination of the three, in addition to some other creative maneuvering to create the most memorable and dynamic trip that we can.

We have almost finalized our rough travel itinerary, so keep an eye out for that soon. In the meantime, keep thinking about that trip you would like to take, and… don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

Cheers!

Mark & Melody