Wasting Away Again in Santorini Ville

Santorini…you’ve seen the pictures…that Greek island with the white washed homes and blue roofed churches, all dangling off the cliffs high above an azure Aegean Sea. We’ve had Santorini on our bucket list for a long time. They’ll be no rushing around touring for the next few days. We intend to just soak in the sun and the sights and take a vacation from our vacation, well, most of the time.

We are staying in Oia (pronounced ee a) As always when we stay in one spot for a few days, we seek out the bakery. Up early, we follow our noses to find that unmistakable scent of baking bread. We are led to To Poupvi Bakery, just down by the bus station. They have arguably the best baklava in the entire Greek world. Each morning we set our breakfast table with fresh fruit, Baklava, Greek yogurt, orange juice and a little Ouzo. Great way to start the day.

Santorini is a photographer’s paradise. You just need to point your camera and PRESTO, a post-card perfect picture.

We shall finish at least one book while here, but tomorrow we need to get SIM cards and the only place to do so is Fira, the capital city here on Santorini. There is a path calling us bright and early tomorrow.

Cave Hotel, Open Air Museum, Love Valley

While in Cappadocia we stayed in the quaint village of Goreme. Years ago Goreme was just a working village where people farmed the land and raised sheep. The rooms, carved into the fairy chimneys centuries prior, served as homes for the people and barns for livestock. There were no balloons, but occasional backpackers would wander through to view the unique landscape. One person, Mr. Ali Yavuz, decided to turn one of his barns into a guesthouse for weary travelers. It was a hit, and soon others followed suit and the town transformed overnight, much like Leavenworth. Mr. Yavuz little guest house has now evolved into a 47 room hotel, the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel. The room we stayed in used to be Mr. Yavuz’s ancestral home. Another room once served as a chapel, another a barn, a storeroom, the others all unique, all carved from the stone. Now cave hotels are everywhere, as well as cave restaurants and shops. Carpet stores, cafes, souvenir shops now line the main streets. While tourism has replaced farming, Goreme is still a quaint little village. Men, escaping the noon-time sun, can be found sitting under grape arbors playing backgammon or dominos. Invitations are tossed at you to sit and enjoy a Turkish Coffee or some hot apple tea. Life still moves at a slower pace, much like the balloons passing in front of our balcony as we sipped our morning coffee.

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LOVE VALLEY

Yesterday in the balloon we floated above Love Valley. Today we hiked the trail that meanders through the gorge. About a quarter mile into the hike, our journey was interrupted when two dogs, a man on horseback and his herd of sheep crossed in front of us…we quickly recorded our “encounter”
All That Grass and Sheep in the Road
Once the road was clear, our hike resumed. The road/trail wove between small farms with apricot, apple and pear trees. Here and there were small plots filled with grapes, melons, squash and onions, all ripening in the warm Cappadocia sun. Our path made a sudden turn to the right and smack dab in front of us we encountered our first Fairy Chimney. Standing approximately forty feet tall, it served as a sentry guarding the others behind him. Soon we were in a forest of fairy chimneys, all standing erect and tall. These “chimneys” are phallic in appearance (thus the name Love Valley) although Heidi and I both agreed a better name might have been “Viagra Valley”. Found a land tortoise near the base of one of the chimneys…cute little critter. At one point we hiked high on a hillside and looked out to the horizon. If you took away the fairy chimneys, the area could easily be mistaken for Eastern Washington. All in all a great 4 mile hike.

Goreme Open Air Museum
We have soared above Cappadocia, hiked among the Fairy Chimneys, today we go underground. We visited the Goreme Open Air Museum. Here we found dwellings of people who lived here centuries ago. Deep into the hillsides were carved homes and churches. In other areas of Cappadocia, entire cities have been found underground, some going 11 levels deep and holding up to 3500 people. Stables, store rooms, communal rooms, kitchens, churches…were all carved into the stone. While most of this area is sedimentary stone, I cannot for the life of me comprehend how these rooms were carved. Some of these were constructed before the advent of metal. At the Open Air Museum, we saw the artistic genius of these early inhabitants. The thinking and planning that went into creating these places of worship is mind boggling. Brightly painted frescoes still adorn much of the interior, protected from the sun, wind, and rain/snow. Prior to this area becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was open to anyone who happened to wander by. Unfortunately, vandals defaced many of the faces depicted on the frescos. While the caves protected the artistic treasures from the elements, they could not stop thoughtless people.

We leave Cappadocia with another rug and memories that will last a lifetime. We soared like the birds and tunnelled underground. We are thinking we need to come back to Turkey. There are miles and miles of trails to be hiked. We missed the Travertine Pools of Pamukkale, the ancient city of Ephesus, the Sümela Monastery carved into a hillside, and the breath-taking Turkish beaches on the Mediterranean. We head to Greece tomorrow. We can only hope we will find the same level of hospitality and kindness that we found here in Turkey.

Geri döneceğiz…..we will return.

Up, Up, and Away in Cappadocia

Thirty million years ago, volcanic eruptions deposited massive amounts of ash and mud upon the area now known as Cappadocia, Turkey. Through the years erosion has shaped the area into an other-worldly landscape. From the earliest time of man, cave dwellers have lived here. Entire cities were built underground, some 11 levels deep into the ground able to accommodate thousands of people. Monasteries and churches were carved into the ground…the altars and seats chiseled from the stone. Some are intricately painted. Christians hid from Roman soldiers. The history of this area is astonishing. If you are interested in reading more, see HERE

Flying Over Cappadocia
There are over 25 balloon companies here and at any one time 100 balloons can be seen floating over Cappadocia. We booked a hot air balloon flight with Butterfly Balloons. We lucked out and grabbed a spot for an extra long flight in a little smaller basket….it was just us, Kevin, an oil and gas engineer from Scotland, Sylvia, a flight attendant from Indonesia (Singapore Airlines), and Max, a Doctor of Philosophy from Russia, and of course Bozlak, our pilot. We were picked up bright and early (4:25 am), given a light breakfast, and ferried to our balloon. We got there just before they turned the burners on. We scurried into the balloon, received our safety talk, and lifted off into a clear blue Cappadocia morning. I cannot find the words to describe the landscape of Cappadocia so instead of trying I’ll add a lot of pictures. At one point during our flight, we entered Love Valley, and just as we descended down among the Fairy Chimneys, Kevin handed me his phone and asked if I would man the video. He got down on one knee, pulled out a diamond engagement ring and asked Sylvia to marry him. She accepted!!!! Pretty cool. Our balloon continued to soar well past the others and finally landed in a wheat field, and get this, Bozlak touched down right on the trailer, I mean RIGHT on the trailer…AMAZING!!!!

We helped to deflate the balloon and then had the traditional champagne toast, but in addition, it was Sylvia’s birthday and Kevin arranged for a birthday cake (does that guy get brownie points or what!!!!) We were all rather giddy after the flight….a time to remember to be sure.

There is truly nothing like a balloon flight, and when you add the landscape of Cappadocia and doing it with someone you love….well, it’s magical.

ISTANBUL

“Why do you want to go there?” “Isn’t it dangerous?” “Be safe.” “Aren’t you afraid?” “Where is Turkey?” These, and similar comments, were typical responses when we said we were coming to Turkey. We expected it, for the media did a good job reporting the rash of bombings last year in Ankara and Istanbul. Everyone has heard of their prime minister becoming more and more autocratic. But you find everything isn’t mayhem and turmoil that the papers would lead you to believe. We found an extremely safe environment with many safeguards put in place. At the airport a security screening was installed BEFORE you check in for your flight, in addition to the regular screening prior to entering the gates. We found a city full of warm, kind, friendly people….people who would go out of their way to help you. Like the two women who made a point of helping Heidi navigate the payment instructions at the pay toilet under the Galata Bridge. Or the man who guided us to the English speaking attendant at the post office. People on the street coming up to us just to say hello (not counting the ones wanting to sell us carpets) The way we look at it, we probably have a much high probability of getting killed in an automobile accident on the way to Seattle than anything happening to us here in Turkey.

Istanbul is a MASSIVE city…over 20 million and spans two continents. Founded around 3000 BC and named Byzantium, renamed Constantinople in 306 AD after the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. In 1453, after being conquered by the Ottoman Turks, the city received its current name, Istanbul…meaning “The City”.

Each day we were here we walked over 9 miles…taking in as much as possible. There is soooo much to see and do and such amazing food!!!!! One day we ate breakfast in Europe, lunch in Asia and back to Europe for dinner….now that is continent hopping for you!!!!

Istanbul Sights
Hagia Sophia – Without a doubt one of the most beautiful churches/mosques in the world. Now a museum, you feel so tiny when you stand under her massive dome. This is actually the third church built on this site…the first two were destroyed in separate riots. The current Hagia Sophia was built in 532, with no power tools, no cranes, and believe it or not, no steel. It’s an architectural marvel and a wonder to behold.

The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is opposite Hagia Sophia. This is a working mosque, but is open to tourists throughout the day except during the daily calls to prayer. Built in 1609, it isn’t as old as Hagia Sophia, but many will say it is even more beautiful. Entry is free of charge and you must be wearing respectful clothing to enter. Shawls and long skirts are provided for women and covering for the legs for any man arriving in shorts above the knee.


Basilica Cistern
Built around 527AD, this underground reservoir has walls around 6 meter thick and covered with a fine layer of mortar dust to create a water tight seal. Going underground is a bit creepy…dark with water dripping from the ceiling, but so cool to walk through something so old.



Grand Bazaar/Spice Bazaar/Galata Tower/Bosphorus Cruise

We were always on the go while here in Istanbul. Went to the Grand Bazaar…the oldest and largest covered market in the world. It covers over 54,000 square meters and holds over 4000 shops….a shopper’s paradise. The Spice Bazaar, not as old or as large as the Grand Bazaar but filled with every type of spice imaginable plus nuts, candies, cheeses, and goods of all kinds. We hiked up to the Galata Tower, crossed the Galata Bridge and watched the fishermen catch sardines, and took a morning cruise along the Bosphorus Strait. We spent one afternoon on the Asian side of Istanbul visiting a quaint little market and tree lined residential area, and enjoyed an evening Whirling Dervish show….and in between we ate Lamb Kebabs, Clay Pot Beef, Baklava, freshest humus in the world, rich and strong Turkish Coffee, Raki, the licorice flavoured national drink…delicious, delicious food.

It is a shame that tourism is down around 85%. One restaurant we visited said they used to have lines of people waiting in the street to eat. They employed 7 servers, all of them let go now because of the downturn in tourism. A crying shame for all the merchants, but for us it meant small lines, seats available in restaurants, no crowds.

We leave Istanbul now for Cappadocia. Can’t wait…Heidi gets her first balloon ride.

Malaysia Adventure…..What did we learn?

Well, our Malaysia Adventure is over. Quite an adventure it was, filled with many highs and unfortunately some lows. But through it all we have come away stronger and wiser.

We learned that people are the same all over the world. They want to love and be loved. They want happiness and joy, a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, and purpose.

We learned when you think about going to war that the people who will be hurt are the same ones you shared a beer with at the local tavern, or the little children you saw playing in the park, or the lovers stealing a kiss on the metro. Suddenly everything is personal. When you travel, you develop a love for other cultures, religions and lifestyles and you fully understand that people are our greatest treasures. We believe if more people traveled, there would be more peace on this planet of ours.

We gained friendships that now span the globe and found out some old friendships and relationships were not as strong as we thought. We learned that language is not a barrier to friendship and that kindness, empathy and understanding are more important than words.

We learned to embrace diversity and celebrate other cultures and customs. Ours is not the end-all, be-all. There is so much to learn from others.

We learned the world is a lot smaller than we thought.

We gained in confidence….we can drive on the left side of the road, navigate any airport, bus system, or subway system in the world, and order off a menu with nary a word in English. We can gather necessary visas, start up a bank account, lease an apartment, secure a phone plan, and find food for the kitchen. The world is not a scary place.

We learned to adapt. Travel and living in another country is fraught with the unexpected. You learn to go with the flow, you learn to substitute, to do without, to embrace new ways of thinking and doing things. What worked for you at home may not work in your new environment.

We learned monkeys are not our favourite animal and that durian will never be served in our home. We learned to take our shoes off at the door and business class is sometimes worth the investment. We learned to always carry some tissue with you for it is as handy as duct tape.

While our Malaysia adventure may have come to an end, our travel will continue. As such, we have decided to continue to blog. So our “Malaysia Adventure” continues. We hope you come along for the ride…..first stop, TURKEY!!!!!

The Temples of Bagan…..and other stuff

There is one paved road connecting the cities of New Bagan, Old Bagan, and Nyaung U, all other roads are dirt. Most people live in the little villages throughout the area in small homes with woven mat walls and bamboo support.

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Life moves at a gentle pace. No one is in a hurry.

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Smiles are plentiful.

Goats are herded through towns and from field to field.

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Things are done the way they have been for hundreds of years.

And then there are the temples, a few thousand temples. And they are all open to explore. There are no fees to pay, each open to explore, to worship in, to make memories. The large ones are busy, visited by tour buses, surrounded by vendors. Others rarely visited, just you and the temple, the wind, the birds.

Ananda Temple
Built in 1091, the Ananda temple is the jewel of the Bagan temples. It is probably the best preserved and most beautiful temple in all Bagan. The spires are covered in gold as well as the Buddhas, all four of them. An interesting fact…the architecture was so unique, so special, that the King executed all the architects so they would never replicate or surpass the temple. This was one of those temples visited by the masses. Lots of vendors, tour buses, ever so popular.

Dhammayangyi Temple

The largest of all the temples. It was built by King Narathu, the tyrant King. Narathu was second in line to be King, so to change that he first killed his older brother and then his father. Now King he felt a bit guilty so he decided to build the largest of all temples. During the building, he kept his ruthless ways. He would test the way the bricks fitted together…if a pin could be placed between the bricks it meant to him the slave was not worthy and was put to death. After the temple was built, he tired of his wife and had her killed. When the father-in-law got word of his daughter’s death, he sent assassins dressed as merchants to meet with Narathu. Once given audience with the King, they chopped him to pieces and then killed themselves. Dhammayangyi is known also as the haunted temple…so many deaths, gruesome murders.

Manuha Temple
This temple seemed claustrophobic….the Buddhas filled the entire space..I could barely get by the toes. It was built to honor their king who was held captive in a nearby kingdom. The Buddhas are as cramped and uncomfortable as their captive King. Only the reclining Buddha has a smile,a smile one would have entering death, depicting death as the only release their King would enjoy. When Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest, this temple was the one of the first places she visited.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

The temple many go to watch the sun rise or set. Steep, steep climb to the top level and the views are tremendous…360 degree views of the surrounding temples and toward the Irrawaddy River flowing cold and strong all the way from the Himalayas. Right next door I found a nondescript building holding a simple but elegant reclining Buddha.

Misc. Temples Big and Small

I am in love with Bagan….with the people, the temples, the simple way of life. It is a jewel, one I’m afraid will be tarnished in years to come. I am so lucky to have experienced this special spot on this planet of ours. Truly lucky.

Bagan, Balloons, Bees, and Bargaining

I have been searching for a place where life is simple and moves at a slower pace. A place that is still fairly innocent, where the modern world hasn’t “spoiled”. I found it in Bagan.

BAGAN
Bagan is an ancient city, dating back to the 9th century when it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. Today three small cities make up the former flourishing capital; New Bagan, Old Bagan and Nyaung U. In and about this tri-city area lies over 2500 temples left over from 10,000 or so built between the 10th and 13th century. Big temples that scrape the sky, tiny temples smaller than a drive-up coffee stand. Ornate temples, simple and plain temples, temples built in a few months, others constructed over decades. Single entry temples with a single Buddha, four sided temples with a Buddha facing each cardinal directions. Like snowflakes, each one unique and different.

BALLOONS
If you google BEST BALLOON FLIGHTS IN THE WORLD and compare the sites, you will find many of the same places…..Cappadocia, Turkey; The Serengeti, Tanzania; Gstaad, Switzerland; Loire Valley, France; Monument Valley, Utah; and Bagan, Myanmar. I booked a flight with Oriental Ballooning and it was worth every penny of the almost $400.00 fee. It was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had. Up bright and early, the van picked me up and brought me to the staging area. I was escorted to a beautifully draped table where I joined my balloon mates and shared coffee, tea and pastries. While we got to know each other, the worker bees readied the balloons for flight. The pre-flight preparation was a show in itself. The burners in the baskets were all fired and prepped….the flames lit up the dark, morning sky. The balloons were laid out, lines hooked to the baskets, and big fans begin to fill the balloon, the basket was then tipped on its side and the burners roared to life sending hot air into the cavernous mouth of the balloon. The pilots then gave us our safety talk and we climbed into the basket. With a massive roar of the burner our balloon slowly, every so slowly, lifted. I think I know how astronauts feel, that sense of weightlessness. It is truly dreamlike as we silently flew over these amazing temples. We felt like voyeurs looking down at the little villages spying goats being herded, laundry being hung, children walking to school. We flew up to dizzying heights and down so low we scraped the top of trees. We watched the sun come up and a flock of white herons fly between us and the ground. Our balloon was last to land, almost an hour and a half after take-off. Our intrepid pilot led up to a hastily set-up circle of chairs where we enjoyed the traditional champagne toast. We all left rather giddy, not because of the champagne, but because, for a short while, we soared like birds high above the world. Simply one of the most satisfying adventures I have ever experienced.

BEES AND A BRUSH WITH DEATH
During the day I explored the temples with the help of my trusty little mountain bike.

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I came across a lonely single track trail that had my name on it. It ended at a beautiful little temple.

There I was, a temple all to myself, no one around for at least a quarter mile. The sun was shining, a light breeze keeping all cool. I respectfully left my flip-flops at the edge of the temple and entered. A simple seated Buddha greeted me. To my right I noticed a small stairway leading to the level above. Who could resist???

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Now, remember, when these temples were built there probably weren’t many people 6 ft 4 inches tall…so I crouched over and carefully crept up the tiny passageway. Near the top there was a sharp bend to the left. With head down and nearly crawling on hands and knees I navigated the final five steps. Only when I heard a massive buzzing sound did I realize my backpack scraped a large honeybee nest (similar to the one pictured below) hanging just inside the exit of the stairs.

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As fast as my rickety legs could carry me, I jumped as far away as possible. You see, Malaysian Honey Bees carry a wicked sting. And when they sting they emit pheromones which prompt other bees to attack. Each nest can hold thousands of these little devils. I do not know how I did it, but I escaped without a single sting. While ever so lucky and thanking Buddha and every deity I knew, I quickly realized myself in another predicament. Seems this temple was built with only one passageway to the upper level. The only way down was through the same stairwell. I had to go under the bees to get out.

After 30 minutes or so, the bees calmed down and returned to their honey comb. I took my backpack off and ever so slowly, painfully slow, I did the best imitation of a little child bumping down the steps on their bums. Bump, bump, bump….goodbye honey bees. Thank you for sparing me!!!

BARGAINING WITH AN EXPERT

Everywhere in SE Asia, you will find the postcard hawkers. Beautiful pictures of the area where you are visiting up for sale. Bagan is no different. In front of most of the larger temples you will find people selling postcards and arts and crafts. The game begins. You receive an over-inflated price and you counter 50% lower, back and forth it goes until eventually you come to the bottom line. I usually hold my own in these negotiations, that is, until I met the master bargainer.

I took a dusty road down to the banks of the Irrawaddy River, and there was this little girl, probably about five years old. She was still in her school uniform and was carrying a small little satchel.

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Out of her bag she took out a plastic sheet with four homemade “post cards” and said, “Hey Mister, would you like a postcard?”

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I said, “How much?”

“Two Thousand Kyat” (about $1.50 USD)

I countered with, “One thousand”

A shake of the head and, “Two thousand”

“Oh no”, I said. “One thousand!!!!”

She then gave me her final offer. “Two thousand or no postcards”

I caved…she had my heart from the moment I saw her.

She ran into her little home clutching those two bills like she just won the lottery. I am betting she is still busy making more postcards!!!

I will do one more post on Bagan in order to show off more of the temples.
I loved Ankor Wat in Cambodia, but in my book, Bagan is the place to go.