Istanbul: The Only City That’s Made Me Question Whether or Not NYC is the Center of the World (Greece & Turkey, Pt. 3)

Istanbul is the most incredible place I’ve ever visited, and so far it is the only city that’s made me question whether or not New York is actually the center of the world. It’s difficult for me to write about Istanbul. For one thing, it’s such a complex, paradoxical city that a superficial travel post cannot do it justice. For another thing, I’ve been obsessed with Istanbul for years; visiting it has been one of the highlights of my life, and every time I try to write this, I have to stop and catch my breath.

Istanbul will make you feel breathless, too. This huge metropolis, with a population nearly twice the size of New York, has the most spectacular setting in the world. It straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. A sea channel called the Bosphorus Strait divides the European side from the Asian side, while a horn-shaped waterway called the Golden Horn bisects the European side into an Old Town and a New District. Istanbul is also bordered by two seas: the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (which flows into the Mediterranean Sea). As the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean — not to mention its location along the Silk Road, and extensive rail networks between Europe and the Middle East — it’s easy to see how strategically placed Istanbul is, and why it feels like the center of the world.

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The former capital of two empires (Byzantine and Ottoman), Istanbul’s significance throughout history is undeniable. It started as a Neolithic settlement back in 6000 B.C., but fast forward to year 330 A.D., when Emperor Constantine made Istanbul the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. When the western side fell, the Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire, and Istanbul was called “Constantinople”. Constantinople was a crucial center of Christianity and shifted Roman power eastward as the empire expanded its borders and lasted for over a thousand years.

Eventually the empire fell, and in the mid-15th century, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and made it the new capital of their empire. Mosques were built, population boomed, and the borders of the Ottoman Empire expanded as far west as Hungary and as far south as North Africa. Constantinople, which was renamed “Konstantinye”, became the largest and most prosperous city in the world.

However, by the 18th century, the empire was struggling once again and collapsed during World War I, after over 600 years of reign. From the ashes of the war came Turkey’s greatest hero: Atatürk. Born Mustafa Kemal, the army officer led Turkey on a three-year-long liberation movement to repel invading armies. He prevailed and established the Republic of Turkey in 1923. He was even bestowed an honorary last name “Atatürk”  (father of the Turks) by parliament. He is responsible for the secularization and Westernization of Turkey, and Constantinople was officially renamed “Istanbul”. Turkey’s fascinating and tumultuous history is far from over, and our trip to Istanbul happened to be during an extremely contentious time — when the country was to vote for or against increasing the power of conservative President Erdoğan (pronounced AIR-doh-wan) to an almost dictatorship level of power. We were intrigued by the prospect of witnessing history first-hand.

After landing at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, Anthony and I caught a cab from the airport to our apartment in the New District. The cab driver was surprised when I told him to take us to Galata Kulesi, which is the Turkish name for Galata Tower. “You speak Turkish?” he asked, impressed. “Hayir,” I responded, which means no and was one of the four Turkish words I had learned right before our trip.

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The iconic Galata Kulesi from our balcony

During our half-hour ride along the waterfront, I started tearing up as we got closer and closer to the Istanbul I recognized after years of obsession. There’s the Hagia Sophia! The Galata Bridge! Those infamous seagulls! And those blue-domed mosques that I can’t tell apart from each other!

The cab dropped us off at Galata Kulesi since our apartment was less than a block away. Our neighborhood of Beyoğlu (pronounced bey-yo-lu) was incredibly charming, with historic buildings, lots of cafes, and cobblestone streets. It was reminiscent of New York’s Soho, but with better views because Beyoğlu sits at the peak of a hill. In fact, I wasn’t expecting how much uphill walking we’d be doing in Istanbul. The Galata Kulesi was once an observation tower, then a prison, and is now a tourist attraction. We arrived at such a magical time, when dusk gave the tower a warm glow.

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Our neighborhood

Our Airbnb, one of two apartments on the sixth floor of a luxury building, was even better than our Athens Airbnb! The expansive studio had modern appliances, a fireplace, and two balconies — one with a panoramic view of the Golden Horn, the other was practically touching the Galata Kulesi. On our first day, we spent the evening watching the sunset from one of our balconies, as the skyline of domes and minarets slowly became silhouettes and the Golden Horn glittered with light reflections. It was much more extraordinary than watching the sunset in Santorini, if you ask me.

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View from our second balcony

One of the first things we did was visit Hagia Sophia (pronounced ay-EE-uh so-FEE-uh), a building that may have actually changed my life; ever since I studied it in AP Art History back in 10th grade, Istanbul has been at the top of my bucket list. Originally a Greek Orthodox cathedral, then an Ottoman mosque, and now a secular museum, Hagia Sophia is a literal representation of Istanbul’s history as a crossroads of cultures. When the Ottomans converted the cathedral into a mosque, the bells, altar, religious paintings, and any mosaics depicting icons were destroyed or plastered over, while Islamic features, such as the four minarets outside and a mihrab that points to Mecca, were added. In 1935, it was converted to a museum but retains its unique elements of both Orthodox Christianity and Islam. The architecture of Hagia Sophia has influenced architects around the world ever since. I actually cried when we were inside.

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The Hagia Sophia is immense
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That ceiling!

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The area surrounding Hagia Sophia is touristy but quite pretty. We were lucky enough to be there during tulip season, when exultant yellow tulips could be found everywhere. The word tulip derives from the Persian word “turban” — an appropriate name since its shape resembles turbans, the fashionable accessory of the Ottoman Empire at the time.

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We visited two functioning mosques, Sultan Ahmet Camii (better known as the Blue Mosque) and Süleymaniye Camii, both of which look very similar to each other. The Blue Mosque was constructed in the 1600s and took just seven years to construct. With five huge domes, six minarets, eight smaller domes, and hand-painted blue ceramic tiles filling the interior, the Blue Mosque is stunning and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. It is the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets. According to folklore, an architect misheard the sultan’s request for “altın minareler” (gold minarets) as “altı minare” (six minarets). At the time, only the central mosque in the holy city of Mecca had six minarets, so the sultan in Mecca built a seventh minaret so as not to be upstaged by Istanbul.

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View of the Blue Mosque from a rooftop restaurant
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Islamic symmetry

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We then walked down to the Underground Cistern, a vast subterranean reservoir that dates back to the Byzantine Empire and is roughly the size of two football fields. The reservoir was built to meet the needs of a growing wealthy city and to provide water in case of a shortage. 336 columns support the brick ceiling, and most of them were recycled from earlier Roman ruins found in Constantinople. Water once filled the space halfway to the ceiling, but eventually the cistern fell out of use, and today it’s just a shallow pond, formed from rainwater that leaks in through cracks in the ceiling. For any James Bond fans, you may recognize the Underground Cistern from the 1963 film From Russia with Love.

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One of my favorite areas in Old Town is Hasırcılar Caddesi, a street filled with vendors selling things for actual locals, which was a nice change after walking through the touristy Grand Bazaar. We smelled spices from the nearby Spice Market, picked up some coffee from a vendor that had a long line of loyal customers waiting to buy bags of fresh beans, and tried a snack called künefe, which consists of layers of shredded wheat soaked in syrup, filled with soft cheese, cooked in a flat copper pan, and served with pistachios.

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The most vibrant part of Istanbul is right by the Galata Bridge. It’s as chaotic as any New York subway station during rush hour, except instead of being packed in a smelly rat-infested tunnel, Istanbullus get jaw-dropping views of the Golden Horn. Ferries carry thousands of commuters between Old Town and the New District, between the European side and the Asian side, and up and down the Bosphorus. The Galata Bridge, which is what we walked over each day to get to Old Town, is bustling with pedestrians and rows of fishermen on the upper level, while seafood restaurants line the bottom level. One afternoon, we bought a balık-ekmek (fish sandwich) from one of the small boats near the pier. Fresh mackerel is caught that day, grilled right there on the boat, and stuffed into a baguette with some lettuce.

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Walking home on the Galata Bridge
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So much going on!

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Another lovely meal we had was breakfast at Cafe Privato, a cafe in our neighborhood with outdoor sidewalk seating and a small patio in the back. In fact, it was so good that we went two days in a row. Turkish breakfasts are sumptuous feasts. They typically include fresh bread, an assortment of cheese like feta and kashkaval, marinated olives, sweet butter, honey, fruit preserves, eggs served in a skillet, spicy sausage, börek (phyllo pastry layered with meat or cheese), kaymak (clotted cream), sliced vegetables, and unlimited cups of Turkish tea. Anthony actually got dizzy from looking at the overwhelming amount of dishes on our table.

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Whenever we travel, I always try to organize either a meal with a local family or a cooking class, and the cooking class we took in Istanbul was our absolute favorite. Cooking Alaturka is run by a hilarious couple that teaches classes in their intimate restaurant. We learned how to make five traditional dishes, and this was the most hands-on class we’ve participated in so far. There was just one other student, an Indian woman from Bahrain, so we got to spread out in their spacious kitchen and take turns practicing numerous cooking techniques. We made ezogelin çorbasi (a comforting red lentil and bulgar soup with mint and chili), kabak mücveri (lightly fried zucchini patties with herbs, served with feta), etli yaprak dolması (grape leaves stuffed with minced meat), imam bayıldi (eggplant braised in olive oil and stuffed with onions and tomatoes), and incir tatlısı (walnut-stuffed figs in syrup). Each dish involved completely different ingredients and cooking techniques as the others, which doesn’t always happen at cooking classes. After two hours of cooking, we spent the next three hours dining together and discussing everything, from the upcoming referendum (our teachers forlornly and correctly predicted that the “evet” [yes] campaign would win), to nail art (everyone gushed over my travel-inspired manicure), to observations of different countries’ reactions to Turkey’s travel safety warnings (European and Asian tourists still seem to be flocking to Istanbul despite the warnings, while Americans are the only terrified hypocrites).

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Our cooking class! Our teachers are on the left
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My favorite dish was the stuffed eggplant

On the days leading up to the highly anticipated referendum, we couldn’t help but notice “evet” banners all over Istanbul, while only in certain neighborhoods, such as ours, had some “hayir” (no) banners. Clearly, there were disparities between the two campaigns. April 16 was the day of the referendum and we actually forgot about it for the most part, as the city was running as normal and we didn’t notice any obvious chaos. When we got home that evening, we turned on the news and heard that the “evet” vote had narrowly won, with the major cities voting against it and rural areas voting for it — sound familiar? The results are widely contested since as many as 1.5 million unstamped ballots were counted. Nevertheless, the existing parliamentary system will soon be replaced by an executive presidential system. Those in favor of the “evet” vote believe that this will bring a more stable government, while the “hayir” campaign argues that it gives too much power to President Erdoğan. Just like the U.S.’s disappointing and potentially rigged presidential election last year, Turkey’s referendum results will pose similar challenges to the future of the country.

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One of the rare “Hayir” signs we saw

On our last full day in Istanbul, we caught one of the many ferries from the dock in Old Town. It was packed with tourists eager for a cheap ride up the Bosphorus, as well as a few vendors walking around selling tea, simits (Turkish bagels), and helva (Turkish halva). After a picturesque turn at the Golden Horn, our ferry took us up the Bosphorus, past the Ortaköy Camii, Dolmabahçe Palace, and Rumeli Fortress. We rode under the Bosphorus Bridge, which is the first intercontinental bridge in the world, and past waterfront mansions that constitute some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Just when I thought I knew Istanbul, the city humbled me again. Istanbul is huge, and our ferry ride helped me visualize exactly how 15 million people can fit into this captivating city.

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Istanbul. No other word evokes so much in me. When I hear it, I’m taken back to the squawks of seagulls plunging through the air and the clanging of long metal ice cream scoopers. I’m taken back to the smell of pistachios and freshly grilled fish on rocking boats. Most of all, I’m taken back to the sun setting on the Golden Horn and the energy of a city so precious that two empires claimed it as their capital. It was an honor to visit Istanbul, and I will be back.

Tip for future travelers:

  1. Get an e-Visa before your trip. Just purchase it online, print it out, and bring it with you. When you arrive at the airport, you can go straight to customs instead of standing in another line at the visa kiosk.
  2. Stay in the New District — preferably somewhere with a view of the Golden Horn. For information on our Airbnb, feel free to message me. I can’t recommend it enough!
  3. Uber works well in Istanbul and is sometimes cheaper than a normal taxi. When taking any cab, make sure the meter is on. If it’s not, just say, “Taksi metre, lüften.”
  4. When catching a ferry, aim to be there at least ten minutes before it’s scheduled to depart so you can claim the best seats (upper deck, left side, up front). Otherwise, you can always stand in the back, but you won’t have a seat.
  5. Things to eat: pide (Turkish pizza), lokum (Turkish delights), as many pistachio desserts as you can stuff into your stomach, simit, ice cream (Turkish ice cream has a uniquely dense, sticky texture, and the entertaining vendors will play a game with you before handing over the ice cream), midye dolma (stuffed mussels with aromatic rice, herbs, and spices), kokoreç (grilled lamb intestines), and balık-ekmek. Many things that we think of as Greek are actually Turkish, so you might even prefer things like baklava here than anywhere else in the world. The best baklava I’ve ever had was at a little shop in our neighborhood called Sakarya Tatlicisi. When buying Turkish delights, make sure to customize your own selection; those pre-made boxes are not as good.
  6. Take a cooking class with Cooking Alaturka. Schedule it for the beginning of your trip because the teachers give helpful travel advice at the end of class.
  7. For unbeatable views of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, have a meal on the rooftop of Seven Hills Restaurant.
  8. To avoid the crazy lines at Hagia Sophia, go right before it opens. However, the best lighting for photography is later in the day — when it gets crowded. The choice is yours. If you’re visiting other museums, purchase a Museum Pass from one of the museums, and it will give you free access to the others.
  9. Skip the Grand Bazaar. While its status as the world’s oldest shopping mall is impressive, it feels just like that — an old shopping mall. Most vendors sell the same trinkets, and the Grand Bazaar actually felt somewhat underwhelming since we had recently visited Marrakech, which now has even crazier markets in the medina.
  10. If you only have time for one, go to the Süleymaniye Mosque instead of the Blue Mosque. They look almost identical both inside and outside, but Süleymaniye is much less crowded. Ladies, you’ll need to cover your hair, shoulders, and legs, but mosques provide clothing if you forget to bring a scarf.
  11. Drink tea during breakfast. Turkish coffee is much less popular (despite its dominance in Turkish restaurants found in the U.S.), and the tea will sometimes be free.
  12. Stop being fearful. Some well-intentioned people were so terrified of our trip that they even demanded we cancel it. As you can see, Istanbul is completely safe if you’re a savvy traveler, and the rest of the world excluding America seems to understand that. Traveling obviously teaches me about the destination, but it also teaches me a lot about my own country. The reactions we received and the misunderstandings we had to deal with were, frankly, disappointing. Americans disappoint me in many ways, but the hypocrisy of some — merely because Turkey is a majority-Muslim country dealing with political issues like everywhere else — really saddened me. When we returned to the U.S., the customs guy asked me incredulously why we went to Turkey. I gave him a brief lecture on Byzantine architecture and told him to educate himself a little more. Readers, if you base all your travels on safety advisories, you will never travel to anywhere interesting. As of today (5/4/17), the Bahamas, Belgium, Brazil, China, France, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, and Thailand are just a few of the countries that are currently at “high risk”. I plan on traveling to almost all of those in the near future.

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Santorini: Came for the Photos, Stayed for the Geology (Greece & Turkey, Pt. 2)

It almost seems unnecessary to write about Santorini, as most people just want to look at this Greek island. However, what I found most interesting about the second stop on our Greece & Turkey vacation is its geological history. In fact, Santorini’s beauty felt somewhat underwhelming to me, which I blame on two things: 1) I’ve been spoiled by having grown up in Hawaii and already being accustomed to seeing breathtaking sunsets surrounded by deep blue ocean every day; and 2) I made the mistake of visiting Positano on the Amalfi Coast first, which I think is much more charming than Santorini.

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Reminds me of Waikiki!

Regardless, even the Hawaiian in me could appreciate Santorini’s fascinating geological setting and connection to the legend of Atlantis. The island of Santorini, located in the southern Aegean Sea, is essentially all that remains after one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history. The devastating “Minoan eruption” occurred roughly 3,600 years ago at the height of Minoan civilization. Parts of the ring-shaped island disappeared as the caldera collapsed and water rushed in. An oval lagoon is now surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, which gives Santorini its iconic shape. There’s evidence that Atlantis, the prosperous land that mysteriously disappeared into the sea, can be traced to Santorini. Many believe that the “Atlantis” referenced in Plato’s story about an advanced civilization that became sinful and had to be punished by the gods, alludes to the eruption that destroyed the Minoan civilization on Santorini. The island in Plato’s story is circular with concentric structures, just like Santorini was before the eruption. We do not know what happened to the Minoans, as no human remains have been found since; it’s possible that a series of earthquakes had warned the residents to evacuate the island before the eruption. This legend is precisely why Anthony was so excited to visit.

To reach Santorini, Anthony and I caught the only Blue Star ferry of the day from Athens. The ride is eight hours long, but it’s a comfortable ride if you book Business Class seats and claim a table up front with a view. (Though, honestly, the view coming into Santorini also can’t compare to the view coming into Positano.)

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Best seat on the ferry

When we arrived at the port, everything became chaotic. Every passenger had rushed from their seats and crammed near the exit, while dozens of drivers on land eagerly waited to pick them up. I was relieved that I had booked a driver through our hotel so we could walk past the taxis, buses, and disoriented passengers who hadn’t prepared. Our driver expertly told us to meet him a few shops away from the mess, and we found him easily, waiting for us at a coffee shop and holding a sign with our hotel’s name on it.

The drive from the port in Fira to our hotel on the edge of Oia (pronounced EE-uh) took about half an hour. It was a scenic drive that hugged the sides of cliffs, and was the first — but definitely not the last — time Santorini reminded us of Hawaii. Although Santorini is an island, water is scarce. It has no rivers, and rain is rare for half the year, so plants depend on the early morning fog for dew. Most of the buildings in Santorini are whitewashed, low-lying cubical stone structures.

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Our hotel was located in Oia, the most picturesque town in Santorini, lying on the northwestern part of the island. Oia was built on a steep slope of the caldera, and narrow cobblestone paths lead to the homes and restaurants built into niches carved into the slope. Staying in Oia is quite expensive so I was grateful to find Strogili Traditional Houses, an affordable hotel that offers a caldera view and cave rooms.

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View from our hotel
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Our breakfast every morning

One of my favorite places in Oia was Atlantis Books, a quirky little bookshop that was opened in 2004 after two college students from England vacationed in Santorini and noticed there was no bookshop. After graduating, they gathered some friends and saved enough money to open up Atlantis Books. Anthony and I loved it so much that we visited it twice during our short time in Santorini and purchased a couple of Greek books.

Before sunset, herds of tourists, including those from Fira, flock over to various viewpoints in Oia and camp out for hours, waiting for the highly anticipated sunset. Oia is famous for its sunsets, as its cliffs facing west offer unobstructed views of the sun setting on the sea. In case you’re also from Hawaii, the sunset looks exactly the same, so you may not be as impressed as someone from, say, a landlocked city. However, what is different is the reflection of the sunset on the whitewashed homes of the cliffs. Face the opposite direction of everyone else for views worth traveling to Santorini for.

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A highlight of our trip was the hike from Oia to Fira. It takes roughly three hours along a pedestrian path, up and down mountainous peaks with scenic views of the caldera and hotels below (unless you miss a turn and end up walking alongside speeding cars on the dangerous cliffside road for about 20 minutes, like we did). We walked through two other towns and ate some fantastic souvlaki on our way.

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“Stretching” before the hike
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One of the views during our hike
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Obligatory souvlaki pita

I was not a huge fan of Fira. It was swarming with tour groups and cruise ship passengers, and most of the charm we had found in Oia was nowhere to be found in Fira. The best things to do there are purchasing souvenirs, watching the cable cars carry passengers from the cliff down to the port, and dining at a restaurant with a view.

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You know you’re close to Fira because cruise ships are waiting offshore
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Entrance to Fira

If anything, Fira made me appreciate Oia a little more. Once we returned to our side of the island, I read my book of Greek poetry on the rooftop of some castle ruins, stopped comparing everything to Positano, and finally started enjoying Santorini.

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Lots of adorable churches in Santorini
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What kind of person am I for not thinking this is absolutely stunning?!

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Stay in Oia. Fira is not as pretty and reeks of tour groups. All the photos you’ve seen online of Santorini were taken from Oia. Besides, Fira is easy enough to reach by foot, bus, or cab.
  2. Look up what time the sun is supposed to set, as it changes throughout the year. If you want a good view, you’re going to have to claim a spot early.
  3. If you have a choice, visit Positano instead of Santorini. Santorini has become overwhelmingly crowded in recent years. I’m envious of those who visited Santorini a decade ago, before it became a popular place for films and photo shoots. We didn’t even visit during tourist season in the summer; I can’t imagine how awful it must be from June to August!
  4. Do the hike between Fira and Oia, and take a bus or cab back. It’s a really lovely journey, and, honestly, there’s not much else to do on the island. Along the way, you’ll be able to peek into some obscenely fancy hotels. Just try not to miss the pedestrian path or you’ll end up walking by the road.
  5. The best things we ate: souvlaki (skewered meat) or gyro (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie), red onions, and fries wrapped in pita; paprika-covered peanuts; and a dinner at Floga. Floga has a private fisherman who catches the restaurant’s fish of the day, and I’m still thinking about the salad I had there, which consisted of arugula, lettuce, sesame-covered cheese, sun-dried cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, cashews, and balsamic vinegar. You can tell Floga has a sense of humor because Anthony’s lamb dish came with a little satchet of olive oil that you’re supposed to cut open and pour over the meal, while our digestif was served with dry ice, reminiscent of Santorini’s volcanic background. Because of Santorini’s unique ecology and climate, the island has exceptionally good cherry tomatoes that are the tastiest and sweetest you’ll ever have. Santorini is also known for fava, white eggplants, capers, and white wine.
  6. Have your hotel book a driver to pick you up when you arrive. It’s much less stressful and saves a lot of time.
  7. Make sure your hotel has a view of the caldera — otherwise, what’s the point? Our hotel had a gorgeous view of the caldera, but if I ever come back to Santorini, I’d try to find a hotel closer to the main part of Oia so we also have a view of the cliffs, since staring at just water doesn’t really impress me. Also, make sure your hotel has cave rooms. The coolest thing about Santorini is its volcanic history, so staying in a cave room is a unique and pertinent experience. Anthony’s a huge Star Wars nerd, so he especially loved that our room felt like the Lars’ homestead on Tatooine.

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Athens is Like a Mini Rome — Except for One Major Difference (Greece & Turkey, Pt. 1)

I enjoyed Athens much more than I thought I would. My husband is the history buff, so I figured Athens would be his city, while the photogenic island of Santorini would be mine. Little did I know that I’d fall in love with the first stop on our Greece and Turkey vacation just as much as Anthony did.

There were four highlights that made the city so enchanting: our Airbnb, a six-hour walking tour, an intimate dinner with a Greek family, and lunch at one of the best restaurants of my life.

Our Airbnb was located in Psyrri, a gritty but gentrified neighborhood known for its trendy restaurants and nightlife (basically Athens’ version of Manhattan’s Lower East Side). Our apartment spanned the entire top floor of the building and had a large balcony that offered an unobstructed view of the Acropolis. It was so heavenly to fall asleep and wake up to the Parthenon every day. In many ways, Athens felt like a mini Rome, with its significant contributions to Western culture, stunning ruins scattered throughout town, and dilapidated buildings covered in artistic graffiti — except for one major difference: you can see the Acropolis from almost anywhere in Athens (whereas in Rome, you have to be right by the actual site to see it). There’s something incredibly romantic about that.

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View of the Acropolis from our balcony
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Our Airbnb host is an architect and designed our gorgeous apartment

Anthony booked us a six-hour walking tour with Athens Walking Tours. On our first morning, we met our wonderfully nerdy tour guide named Aristotle (yes, seriously!) at Syntagma station, a metro station that contains some historic ruins discovered while the city was building the station. Aristotle was fantastic, which is no surprise since becoming a tour guide is quite competitive in Athens — you need a degree in history, archaeology, or philosophy, and apparently need to be able to walk for six hours straight. We walked over to the Royal Palace, which is the location of both the House of Parliament and the hourly changing of the guards, who are Greece’s most dedicated soldiers and wear funny shoes that weigh six pounds each. After passing through the relaxing National Gardens, we made our way to the Temple of Zeus, a colossal temple dedicated to the ruler of Olympian gods. It’s a beautiful temple, but since Athens is the city of Athena, Zeus’ temple was built at ground level while Athena’s glorious temple is up high on the Acropolis. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Temple of Zeus was quarried for its marble to supply projects elsewhere in the city. Only sixteen of the original 104 marble Corinthian columns remain today, but it’s still quite a sight.

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The royal guards and their funny shoes
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The Temple of Zeus
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Aristotle, our tour guide

After the Temple of Zeus, we hiked up to the Acropolis, which means “highest point of the city” and is easily the most iconic site in Athens. This flat, rocky outcrop is where you can find the Parthenon, Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike. The view gets better as you climb higher and higher, past the Theater of Dionysus and Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and up the marble steps to the very top. Apparently a contest between Poseidon and Athena determined whom the city should be named after; if Poseidon had won, Athens would most likely have been called Poseidonia instead.

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View from the Acropolis

My favorite structure on the Acropolis is Erechtheion, famous for its porch consisting of six draped maidens (caryatids) as supporting columns. The caryatids are not just beautiful but functional; each maiden has a bulky braid and thick neck to give enough support to hold up the ceiling. During the Byzantine period, the building was transformed into a church; under Frankish rule it became a palace; and under the Ottoman empire it became the residence of a Turkish commander’s harem. This recycling of buildings is a testament to Erechtheion’s magnificence — I’m sure if it were less impressive, other empires would have either left it abandoned or destroyed it completely.

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In the 19th century, a Scottish diplomat named Lord Elgin stole portions of the Acropolis (including one of the caryatids) to decorate his Scottish mansion. These marble artifacts were later sold to the British Museum, where they remain to this day. The other caryatids were moved to the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. Hopefully some day, the UK finally will return the last caryatid to its rightful city. #bringbackourmarbles!

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This segmented column with a metal rod in the middle proves how advanced the ancient Greeks were. They already knew how to earthquake-proof their temples!

Last but not least is the Parthenon, the structure I’m most familiar with thanks to studying art history. This is the single most important symbol of Greek cultural heritage. The impeccable detail paid to the architecture of the Parthenon demonstrates how much the Athenians valued Athena. The temple is objectively pleasing to the eye due to the Greeks’ impressive understanding of perspective. While the temple looks like a perfect rectangle, there are actually no straight lines. The columns lean slightly inward to give the illusion of straight lines, while the four corner columns are wider since being on a corner and set against the blue sky make them appear thinner and farther apart than other columns. The Greeks take perfectionism to a whole new level. The Parthenon was eventually turned into a mosque in the early 1460s after the Ottoman conquest, and then in 1687 the Venetians caused an explosion that severely damaged it. In the 1800s, Lord Elgin (him again!) stole some of the surviving sculptures and later sold them to the British Museum.

What surprised me most on our tour was that all of these classical buildings used to be brightly painted. It’s almost comical that our image of Greek buildings are understated marble ruins, yet the Greeks covered that beautiful marble with vibrant colors.

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Can you imagine this in vibrant colors?

A tour of the Acropolis is not complete without visiting the new Acropolis Museum, one of the most incredible museums I’ve ever visited. It was built to house artifacts found on the Acropolis and sits on top of ruins that are still being excavated. You can even watch the excavation happening if you peer down through the glass floor inside the museum! The building’s beautiful design evokes the mathematical and conceptual clarity of ancient Greek architecture. Throughout the museum, you can see the actual Acropolis outside, and the top floor of the museum is modeled after the Acropolis, giving visitors a rare opportunity to experience the temple’s perfect proportions. The British Museum has absolutely no excuse for not returning the Acropolis artifacts to Greece now, as the museum’s sole intention was to provide a worthy place for them.

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Entrance to the Acropolis Museum
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inside the Acropolis Museum

Every time we travel, I try to organize either a cooking class or a meal with a local family, as food is the best way to experience and share cultures. Alternative Athens scheduled a meal for us at a couple’s home in the suburbs of Athens, just a 15-minute subway ride from our apartment. Lena and Kristos were a sweet couple who work in the travel industry and excitedly asked to see photos of our Hawaiian wedding. Dinner started off with red wine from the Peloponnese, and moved onto a feta salad (I had multiple servings of this!), fried potatoes, bruschetta, roasted lamb, and a tomato and feta meze. For dessert, we had an incredible rice pudding for which I asked Lena for her recipe, and some shots of homemade limoncello. The best part, as always, was our discussion, which ranged from the pros and cons of democracy (how mind-boggling to have this discussion in the birthplace of democracy!), the refugee crisis, soccer and the Olympics, and, of course, Donald Trump. Apparently some of their other guests had voted for Trump, which got Anthony and me thinking… The Americans who travel to places like Morocco are not necessarily the same as the Americans who travel to Greece. In fact, Greece — “the birthplace of Western civilization” — might unintentionally attract those who glamorize the past and fear anything that seems to threaten Western values. Lena and Kristos were very relieved when they found out we had not voted for the misogynistic orange idiot who is a disgrace to democracy.

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Dinner with our Athenian hosts

One of the best meals of my life was our lunch at Mani Mani, a cozy restaurant with just eight tables, located in a former apartment near the Acropolis Museum. Mani Mani is named after the Mani peninsula, a mountainous region in the center of the Peloponnese. Service was intimate, and the food is making my stomach grumble as I write this. The chef takes traditional Greek ingredients and flavors and makes them new again, in a creative way that somehow doesn’t try too hard. The menu offers half-sized portions of most dishes, so we justified sharing five: Filo parcel with manouri, pastrami, almonds, red peppers, goat cheese, and tomato sauce; white taramosalata (cod fish egg purée with olive oil); hilopotes (pasta with chicken, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini, and basil); grilled veal meatballs with smoked eggplant and spicy yogurt cream; and a thyme honey cream and walnuts. I would fly back to Athens just to eat here again, and this restaurant is the reason why I now want to go to the remote Mani peninsula. Everyone, please come to this restaurant so it survives!

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Filo parcel at Mani Mani

I was sad to leave on our last day in Athens, so it’s fortunate that I had two other destinations to look forward to. Athens is a romantic city steeped in so much history, yet is pulsating with art, food, and passion. It’s a shame that the country is still dealing with financial hardships, but — you know what? This is a place worth saving. I’ll be back someday, Athens. Yassou, Santorini!

Tips for future travelers:

  1. To travel to any of the Greek islands, you’ll most likely fly into Athens and take a ferry from Piraeus, the largest passenger port in Europe. We took Blue Star Ferries from Piraeus to Santorini. Before our trip, I purchased two Business Class tickets online and picked them up right before we boarded the ferry at Piraeus. Business Class gives you more space and better views than the cheaper tickets. Board the ferry early to claim the best tables (facing forward and up front) in the Business Class lounge. We tried the chicken burgers at the cafe onboard, which were surprisingly good, but you should bring snacks in case the line is too long when you get hungry. The entire journey from Piraeus to Santorini is eight hours, which includes stops on two other islands. There’s a faster way to get there, but if you’re prone to seasickness like Anthony, you should take Blue Star Ferries.
  2. For one of the best views of Athens, hike up Areopagus (Mars Hill), right next to the Acropolis. It is believed that Ares (the Greek god of war) was tried here for killing Poseidon’s son, who allegedly raped Ares’ daughter. Ares was tried by a jury of Athenians, marking the first occurrence of a trial by jury. Make sure to wear sneakers or hiking boots, as the hill is made of marble and is very slippery.
  3. The metro is easy to ride. Just purchase a one-way ticket at the vending machines. Not all machines take paper money, so it’s safer to have coins. Validate your ticket before you go downstairs to the platform, and make sure you’re going the right direction by looking at the metro line map. While the outside of the trains are often covered with graffiti, the insides are clean and efficient.
  4. We loved Athens Walking Tours! Athens has an overwhelming amount of history, so going with an organized, entertaining guide makes it more manageable. Wear your walking shoes!
  5. In case you’re wondering, Greek coffee is the same as Turkish coffee. “We just renamed it since we don’t like the Turks,” explained our Athenian hosts. In fact, a lot of Greek things were actually influenced by the Turks and just bitterly renamed. (Blame the Greco-Turkish War.) If history doesn’t fascinate you now, it will after going to Athens.
  6. Book a meal with local hosts through Alternative Athens. The company is very organized and paired us with a lovely couple.
  7. The best things I ate in Athens: salad (Those of you who know me know that I hate salads, so the fact that I had multiple servings of salads all over Greece should really impress you), Greek yogurt (thicker and tastier than other yogurts), honey, and feta (so different from the dry feta you find in the U.S.!).
  8. Don’t visit Athens in the summer. I’ve heard so many horror stories of disgustingly hot and crowded Athenian summers. Spring was the perfect time to come, as tourist season hasn’t yet started, and the weather is perfect for walking tours.
  9. New Yorkers, tell people you’re from New York and they will excitedly ask you about Astoria. I’m still not sure why every Greek person we met knows about the Greek neighborhood in Queens.
  10. We stayed in Psyrri, which I think is the best neighborhood to stay in Athens. It was walkable distance to everything, and we only caught the train twice — once to the suburbs and once to Pireaus. Psyrri isn’t obnoxiously touristy like Plaka, and it has lots of great restaurants and street art. Plus, it has a fantastic view of the Acropolis. (If you’d like to know specifically which Airbnb we stayed in, feel free to message me!)
  11. If you have enough time, the National Archaeological Musuem is worth the trek. It’s located in the infamous neighborhood of Exarchia, perhaps most known for anarchists and police brutality. As with all stereotypes, Exarchia is so much more than that, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to walk through it. Sure, there are a lot more police on street corners, but this is real Athens. Not every Athenian can afford to live in trendy Psyrri or cliché Monastiraki. You’re not a true globetrotter unless you get out of the “safe” areas in your guide books. Not to mention, the museum has some cool artifacts.
  12. If there’s any word you should learn for a trip to Greece, it’s “Eυχαριστώ” (pronounced ef-kar-i-STO) for “thank you”. Anytime we said Eυχαριστώ to our waiters, they were absolutely touched and enthusiastically responded, “Παρακαλώ” for “you’re welcome.”
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We love you, Greece!

 

Camel Rides and Berber Culture in the Sahara Desert (Anthony’s 30th Birthday in Morocco, Pt. 2)

I may have fallen in love with the intricate mosaic tiles and luxurious riads of Marrakech, but the birthday boy’s favorite part of our trip was most definitely our three-day trek into the Sahara. I organized this trek with Viaggiare in Marocco, a small tour company I found online after painstaking research. For about $530, our package included private transportation with a guide named Mohamed, one night at a hotel, one night in a desert camp, two camel rides, and all of our breakfasts and dinners throughout the trip.

Mohamed met us at our riad at 8 am, and we began our long journey to the southeast edge of Morocco. Mohamed is of Berber descent and can speak six languages, which he picked up all on his own. (Meanwhile, I’ve studied Russian, Mandarin, and Spanish in school and am fluent in absolutely none of them). Since he was slightly better at Spanish than English, Anthony practiced his broken Spanish to communicate while I took intermittent naps in the backseat. Mohamed was an incredibly skilled driver, whizzing us up mountains, through crowded village streets, and around exasperatingly slow drivers (at one point, he expertly passed five cars and a huge truck while driving along a cliff!). I’m a firm believer that only those who can drive stick shift — i.e., those who actually drive, not just passively fumble along with automatic transmission — should be allowed to own cars. I think the world would be a much safer and more efficient place.

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Ready for a road trip!
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One of the crazy roads we drove up

We were stunned by the wide range of landscapes in Morocco, from snowy mountains to palm tree plantations to staggering gorges. Mohamed considerately pulled over whenever we wanted to take photos. One of the most impressive things we saw was Aït Benhaddou, a fortified village located on the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. Crammed within defensive walls is a clay brick kasbah. While most residents now live on the other side of the river in the newer part of town (just like in Marrakech!), many still work in the old town, which caters to tourists. I wonder if they’re confused by Western foreigners, obsessed with the old architecture and lifestyles that they just recently escaped. Aït Benhaddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been the setting of various films and TV shows such as The Mummy, Gladiator, Kundun, and Game of Thrones. Mohamed led us up to the very top of the kasbah, offering a panoramic view of the medina and new town. After we took an embarrassing amount of photos, he took us to a secret restaurant inside someone’s home, where we had a chicken tagine and a tray of fresh fruit on the rooftop offering another magnificent view of Aït Benhaddou.

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Ait Benhaddou
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View from the top

During our drive, we noticed that schools seemed to be letting kids out throughout the day. Mohamed explained that since there are not enough teachers or classrooms, students either attend school in the morning or in the afternoon, and switch times halfway through the year. It might seem confusing but it actually makes more sense than the American school schedule, which consistently punishes anyone who isn’t a morning person or struggles to get to school that early.

We also noticed an Arabic phrase written on the hillsides of almost every town — “Allah, al Watan, al Malik”. It means god, country, and king, which are the three pillars of the Kingdom of Morocco. Mohamed explained the differences between the Moroccan flag and the Berber flag, both of which we saw repeatedly. The Moroccan flag is red with a green five-pointed star to signify the five orders of Islam. Meanwhile, the Berber flag is composed of horizontal bands of blue, green, and yellow, with a large letter in the center. The blue represents the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the two bodies of water that surround Morocco; the green represents the land and green mountains; and the yellow represents the sands of the Sahara Desert. The letter means “free man,” which is what the Berbers call themselves, and its red color is the color of resistance. The Berber flag might be my new favorite!

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the Berber flag

We spent our first night in the Dades Valley, at Hotel Babylon Dades. It’s built into a cliff! We had a lovely room with a view of the mountains from our balcony. Breakfast and dinner were served in the dining hall downstairs, and after dinner we were entertained by live music, as Berber musicians sang and drummed for the rest of the night.

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We learned a lot about Berbers on our trek into the desert. For example, the majority of Moroccans are actually Berbers, not Arabs. Most Berbers live in North Africa, especially in Morocco, Libya, and Algeria. Originally a nonreligious society, Berbers were conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century and were converted to Islam. After independence from France in the 20th century, North Africa established Arabic as its official language; most Berbers haven’t been able to use their own language in public until very recently, when some private schools started teaching Berber. The Berber experience is sadly reminiscent of those which so many indigenous populations face.

The next morning, Mohamed collected us and we continued our journey, stopping by the impressive Todra Gorge with its huge vertical rock walls, a rug shop at which we bought a couple of turbans for our camel ride, and a fossil excavation site. Apparently the Sahara Desert used to be underwater (and near the Gulf of Mexico!), which explains why Morocco is filled with fossils of fish and other prehistoric creatures. Berbers used to be nomadic, moving across the African continent freely, but since borders now restrict their movement, many of them are stuck in one place and go into the tourism industry, make rugs, or dig up fossils.

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Todra Gorge is popular with rock climbers
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Learning about handmade Berber rugs
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Ready with our turbans!
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One of the incredible fossils found from a time when Morocco was still underwater

Finally, we made it to Merzouga, a village just 30 miles from the Algerian border and where we were introduced to our camels. We got onto each of our camels one by one and were led by two Berbers into Erg Chebbi, a part of the Sahara known for its stunning sand dunes. This is why we came to Morocco! If you’re only going to ride a camel once in your life, Erg Chebbi is where to do it. We rode our camels into the increasingly quiet desert for about an hour. It looked like every movie you’ve seen of a desert. We took a break to climb up a high dune to watch the sun set, transforming the golden-yellow slopes into a rose-colored dreamscape. Anthony was able to take some cool Metal Earth shots of his Star Wars droids since Erg Chebbi happened to be the perfect setting for Tatooine and Jakku.

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Caravan of camels

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Eventually we arrived at our camp, which was nicer than I was expecting! It was a whole complex of Berber tents, some for sleeping (with real beds and even an overhead light!), a large one for dining, and three small ones for private toilets. Paths were lined with beautiful Berber rugs, and there was a large fire pit surrounded by chairs, which is where we’d end the night drumming and dancing with the Berbers.

One of the wonderful things about camping in Erg Chebbi is that if you want to see a breathtaking amount of stars – definitely the most I’ve ever seen – all you have to do is walk a few seconds to the next dune to completely isolate yourself from everything. And when you’re ready to return, just walk back from your “private” sand dune and find the campfire. I think this campsite has ruined me from camping anywhere else for the rest my life!

Our bed was covered with thick Berber blankets that kept us nice and toasty overnight. When we woke up at 5:30 am, it was still pitch black and near freezing outside. We slowly rode our camels back to Merzouga as the sun rose. It was incredible.

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Riding back into town at dawn
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Saying good-bye to our camels and Berber guide

Mohamed met us back at a hotel just across the street from where we said good-bye to our camels and Berber friends. We fueled up with a quick breakfast before our long nine-hour drive, taking a slightly different route back to our riad.

Marrakech was impressive enough, but to fully understand Morocco you need to get out of the city and experience the indigenous Moroccan culture. We learned so much just by speaking to Mohamed and encountering different Berbers along our journey. This desert trek was easily one of the biggest adventures of my life. More importantly, this has been Anthony’s best birthday so far. (Success! Clearly, everyone should spend their 30th birthday in Morocco.)

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Do some research and figure out which desert is most suitable for you. I highly recommend Erg Chebbi. There are other deserts, such as Zagora (which is more of a rock desert), but these won’t have the epic sand dunes that were really the highlight of our desert trek. To tell you the truth, without those sand dunes you might as well be riding camels in Arizona. Erg Chebbi is also a great place to go sandboarding, thanks to the dunes again. Erg Chigaga is another option, which beats Erg Chebbi in terms of size (great for those who want to feel completely secluded!), but is much harder to reach.
  2. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when trying to choose a tour company. Even my usual technique of sifting through TripAdvisor reviews was exhausting. In the end, I narrowed it down to a handful that met my requirements and went with whichever one responded to my email first. Make a list of your requirements (e.g., number of days, which desert, sites to see, activities to include, price) and just go with the first company that can accommodate you. They’re probably all pretty good.
  3. What to bring into the desert? Bottled water (for drinking and brushing your teeth), tissue (in case there’s no toilet paper), pajamas, warm clothing, a turban (you’ll most likely purchase this on your way to the desert), some coins to tip your Berber guide, toothpaste and toothbrush, sunglasses, and a portable battery pack (there are no outlets, so make sure you can charge your electronics).
  4. Wear pants when riding a camel. It doesn’t matter how many photos you’ve seen of models wearing stylish dresses while standing near a camel. Trust me — they didn’t actually ride that camel. You’ll want to wear pants because your legs are going to be very open and it’s possible the camels might have fleas (though I didn’t see any on ours). Feel free to bring your purse or backpack because camels can easily carry those.
  5. Travel, travel, travel. One thing that Mohamed taught us particularly struck me — he hasn’t left the country because it’s relatively difficult for Moroccans to travel; without a visa, Moroccans can only visit 56 countries, which is roughly a third of the countries that Americans can visit. I sometimes forget how privileged I am as a U.S. citizen, and the more I travel, the more I realize that it is my duty to travel. In other words, if you’re not at least attempting to travel to new countries every year, you are being a bad American.

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My Other Dream Home is a Riad in Marrakech (Anthony’s 30th Birthday in Morocco, Pt. 1)

Last week, I surprised my husband with a trip to Morocco for his 30th birthday. Morocco has been on my bucket list for a long time (if you have any interest in design, you’ll understand), and riding camels through the Sahara seemed like something Anthony would enjoy. Plus, since his birthday’s in February, I figured this would be the perfect time to warm up in a desert — less than seven weeks after we had gone snowmobiling in Iceland!

We spent about half of our trip in Marrakech, a stunning terracotta-colored city that consists of a medina (old walled city) surrounded by more modern neighborhoods where the locals actually live. After we landed at Marrakech’s glitzy airport, we exchanged money and looked for our driver outside. Eventually we spotted a man holding a tiny sign that read “Dar Jaguar,” the name of our riad. A quick 15-minute drive took us to the edge of the medina, where another man greeted us, placed our luggage in a large rolling cart, and led us through narrow winding alleys to our riad. We never would have found our riad without him!

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Marrakech Menara Airport
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Turn right after the moped for the entrance of our riad

In Marrakech, you should stay in a riad, a traditional Moroccan home in which rooms face an inner courtyard with either a fountain or a pool. Dar Jaguar is a gorgeous, intimate riad owned by a British fashion designer. While most Moroccans prefer to live in the newer parts of town, Europeans (especially the French elite) have bought up a fair amount of real estate in the medina and converted old buildings into stunning riads for tourists. We were upgraded to the largest room in the riad, which was an impeccably decorated suite that included a four-poster bed, fireplace, copper bath tub, small balcony, and more space than our entire Brooklyn apartment.

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Each morning, we had breakfast in our courtyard (or in an adjacent dining room if it was chilly that morning), and each breakfast was served by two sweet Moroccans who ran Dar Jaguar. One morning, we went grocery shopping in the souk (a traditional Berber market) with our riad chef, took an afternoon cooking lesson with her, and ate our cooked food for dinner later that night. Marrakech has the largest souk in Morocco, where you can find all sorts of unique Moroccan goods, from rugs to ceramics to spices. The souk was chaotic and overwhelming — and we’re New Yorkers! Imagine bikes and carts whipping through the alleyways, carrying fresh bread for the day; cats slinking by, hoping for scraps of food; vendors beckoning tourists into their shops; and beggars sitting on the street with their children. Walking through the souk takes agility as you’ll be constantly trying to dodge the motorbikes that plow through at top speed. Haggling is an essential part of shopping in the souk. After some hesitation, I was actually able to haggle down to a third of the original price for one rug, and a few dirhams less for a customized leather purse and a magnet.

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Breakfast in our riad’s courtyard
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Altering my new leather purse in the souk
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Two of the dishes we cooked with our riad chef: fish tagine and vegetable tagine

We visited a few landmarks around Marrakech, such as Ben Youssef Madrasa, Musée de Marrakech, Dar Si Said, Bahia Palace, Jardin Majorelle, and Koutoubia Mosque. Ben Youssef Madrasa, a former theological college, was my favorite site. It was constructed by a Saadian sultan and is one of the most stunning structures I’ve ever seen, with ornate carvings in cedar wood, and lots of zellij (Islamic mosaic tile art) in beautiful geometric patterns. Most of these sites are either free or very cheap and located right in the medina. Jardin Majorelle, famous for being Yves Saint Laurent’s home, is the only site located in the new town and costs a bit more to enter.

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Ben Youssef Madrasa

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Musee de Marrakech
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Dar Si Said
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Bahia Palace
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The color of Jardin Majorelle was inspired by French workmen’s coats, and you can purchase the paint at the museum gift shop

Most of our meals alternated between three-course dinners in riads (some of the most talented chefs in the city are actually the ones who work in riads) and cheap meals from food stalls. For meals in riads, it’s good to book in advance because there’s limited seating. I recommend Dar Cherifa, a romantic restaurant located in one of the oldest riads in Marrakech. However, my favorite meal of the trip was a lucky find in Mechoui Alley, a small alley in the medina full of meat stalls. A man led us up two flights of stairs for a view of the rooftops below, and without offering a menu (the best meals are always from places without menus!), ordered us a tray of succulent roasted lamb. The lamb fell right off the bones just with our hands, and it was served with salt and turmeric to sprinkle on, as well as two rolls of bread.

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Lamb from Mechoui Alley
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A romantic dinner at Dar Cherifa

The main square, Djemaa el-Fna, was once used for public beheadings and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It later attracted tradesmen and musicians, and now you can find tourists from all over the world. During the daytime, it feels like Times Square so we tended to avoid it, but at night it transforms into a lovely night market. Food stalls are set up, where you can get cheap dinners such as fried seafood or grilled kebabs. It reminded me of Singapore’s wonderful hawker centers. While you’re dining on the square, you’ll see men pushing around carts of tea and cookies, as well as women selling napkins for you to clean your hands after the meal.

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Kebabs from a food stall, which had fresh ingredients displayed in front of the stall. When you order, the chef will hand select each ingredient from the display and grill them on skewers right in front of you

We spent one day on a quick excursion to the coastal town of Essaouira. Our driver picked us up in the square and made a couple of stops during our three-hour journey. We pulled over to see a bunch of goats high up in a tree! Apparently these goats can climb up argan trees to eat the fruit and leaves. They then poop out the indigestible seeds, which are collected, filtered, and transformed into the coveted argan oil that we put on our skin and in our food. The collecting and filtering is done by hand by all-female co-ops across the country.

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Essaouira, also known by its Portuguese name of Mogador, is a major port city with a fascinating history. Roman artifacts were found here from the 3rd century. In the 16th century, the Portuguese controlled many of its town, while Spain, England, the Netherlands, and France also made attempts to conquer the city. The present city of Essaouira was built during the 18th century when Mohammed III aimed to reorient his kingdom toward the Atlantic. He chose Essaouira because it was the closest harbor to Marrakech, and its trade route brought goods all the way from sub-Saharan Africa, through the desert and over the Atlas mountains. Thanks to trade, the city is fairly diverse, with Jews handcrafting ornate silver jewelry, Arabs constructing gorgeous wooden furniture, and Berbers specializing in spices.

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Felt very European
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Grilled seafood is a must in Essaouira
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Recognize this place from Game of Thrones?

Essaouirans take a lot of pride in their city, and during our tour, our guide repeatedly asked us, “It’s not like Marrakech, is it?” It wasn’t. In fact, Essaouira reminded me of southern Italy – think Amalfi without the steep hills. But after a few hours in Essaouira, we were ready to return to Marrakech, where it felt a little less like Europe-lite and a little more like the Africa I had fallen in love with.

Soon it was time four our three-day desert trek into the Sahara. Stay tuned!

Tips for future travelers:

  1. How should you dress? While you might see some embarrassing tourists in shorts and skimpy tops, be a decent person and respect Morocco’s culture. Always bring a shawl, and wear pants or long skirts to cover your legs. It can get pretty chilly at night, so you’ll want an extra layer anyway. The streets are cobblestone and can get dirty (the souk consists of produce markets and food stalls, after all!), so sneakers are recommended. Even as someone who can walk hours in heels, I wore sneakers almost the entire time we were in Marrakech.
  2. Save enough room in your luggage for souvenirs. We almost never go shopping while abroad (we prefer to relive our memories through photos), but we ended up buying our most souvenirs ever in Morocco. You definitely won’t want to leave without some leather goods, rugs, tagines, lamps, spices, and argan oil.
  3. Morocco has a closed currency, which made me nervous since I usually like to enter the country with some currency on hand. However, exchanging money was simple. Before you exit the airport, there’s a large currency exchange in the center of the arrivals terminal, and in the medina there are dozens of ATMs surrounding Djemaa el-Fna. Once in Marrakech, always have cash on you (especially smaller bills and coins) because pretty much everywhere is cash only.
  4. Stay in a riad in the medina. A riad is the best way to experience Marrakech to the fullest, and inside the medina is where most of your time will be spent. Our riad was just a few minutes from the Djemaa el-Fna, so we were able to walk back to our riad whenever we wanted to, and it was convenient for all our drivers, who pick up passengers in the square. To get to your riad from the airport, have the riad staff organize a driver to pick you up. Riads are often hidden behind unassuming doors, and there’s no way we would have found ours without a guide.
  5. Brush up on your French. Besides Arabic and Berber, most Moroccans speak French. At all the museums, captions were either in Arabic or French — not English. When we had an issue with our water heater at our riad, the only staff available that night couldn’t speak much English; Anthony and I definitely regretted learning Spanish instead of French in school.
  6. Tip everyone, from your guide to your masseuse to your waiter. Moroccans survive on these tips! Before you go, you might want to print out a list of who to tip and how much to tip, as we had to look these up multiple times.
  7. Find a rooftop for lunch. I recommend the top floor of Café des Éspices, which has a relaxing view of a colorful square and very good hot chocolate.
  8. At meals, be wary of anything you didn’t specifically order. When we were at one food stall, we received a dish of tomato dipping sauce for our bread and a plate of sweets after dinner. We assumed these were complimentary, but at the end of our meal they charged us for each item. The meal was still cheap, but if you don’t want any surprise charges, make sure to tell them when you don’t want certain dish.
  9. If you’ve never been to a Muslim country before, prepare yourself for those infamous Islamic prayer calls. Adhan occurs five times a day and won’t usually affect you — except the one that occurs at 4:00 am. Every morning, we woke up at 4 due to the prayer call, which is recited by a muezzin from a microphone in Koutoubia Mosque. Speakers are mounted up high in the mosque’s minarets, and even though our riad was quite far from it, we heard everything loud and clear. Fortunately, we eventually got used to it and were able to fall back asleep right away.
  10. Like Venice, getting lost in the medina of Marrakech is part of the experience. However, if you have to be somewhere specific, try to take a screenshot of the route when you have WiFi. Don’t be afraid to ask Moroccans for directions. Everyone we met genuinely wanted to help us – and they didn’t demand a tip after, like our guide book had warned!
  11. While Moroccans are fine drinking the tap water, most tourists can’t handle it and should drink bottled water instead. We kept a huge bottle in our bathroom for brushing our teeth, and I usually carried a small bottle in my purse so we wouldn’t have to purchase a new one at every meal.
  12. What to eat? For breakfasts, you can look forward to fresh orange juice (there are oranges everywhere in this city), crepes, chocolate croissants, and fruits. For other meals, you’ll most likely have a tagine (a traditional Berber stew made of succulent meats and vegetables cooked in a conical clay pot — also called a tagine — to allow the steam to rise, condense, and drip back down to the stew). You can’t come to Morocco without having at least one lamb tagine. Almost every meal will include bread, which I think is one of Morocco’s most underrated food items – their bread is fantastic! The bread is typically made from durum wheat semolina, and bakeries pumping out fresh bread can be found all over Morocco. Moroccan food is full of wonderful spices like saffron, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, paprika, sesame, coriander, cloves, fennel, anise, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and oregano. A good souvenir to take back home with you is “ras el hanout,” which is a mixture of 27 Moroccan spices – though, many locals like to call this “the spice for women who can’t cook.” Since this is a Muslim country, there will be no pork and very little alcohol. You’ll drink a lot of Moroccan tea, which is green tea mixed with mint and sugar. The tea pots have long, curved spouts, which allows the tea to be poured evenly into tiny glasses from up high.
  13. This is a developing country, so just get over the fact that your riad might have limited hot water, weak WiFi, and toilets that can’t handle toilet paper. You’re not in a Marriott in the middle of Pennsylvania. Remember why you travel.

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[Wo]man vs. Nature in Iceland (Nordic Trip, Pt. 2)

Iceland was a challenge. Photogenic, yes, but a challenge nonetheless. I could tell we were going to struggle as soon as we entered Europe’s most sparsely populated country. We landed at Keflavík on time, but due to traffic congestion on the tarmac, we were stuck on our plane for nearly two hours. While trapped on the plane, we encountered our first experience with Icelandic weather. Usually, when it’s really windy, you can tell because the trees might sway a lot. From my little porthole, I could tell it was windy, not because of swaying trees — there were no trees nearby — but because I could literally see the wind. Like a horror movie, ghostly streams of air glided across the terrain. We could feel the wind, too, as our plane rocked side to side.

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That was just the beginning. I’d been able to easily get in touch with our Airbnb host, who helped us move our dinner reservations since we were running late, but then I received an email from our tour company, Reykjavik Excursions, explaining that due to weather conditions, tomorrow’s tour was canceled! For those of you who’ve read my previous post about our time in southern Italy, you’ll know that I’m not the best at allowing outside forces to ruin my perfectly prepared plans. Fortunately, Reykjavik Excursions seemed to be a pro at handling these situations and let me switch our tours around so that we could still fit the three I had scheduled for us. Phew.

Note to self: everything will work out in the end.

At least that’s what I had to tell myself just a few hours later, when I was hunched over the toilet at our Airbnb, throwing up my dinner. It was a shame because I had enjoyed the meal: fresh bread with caramelized maple butter served on a rock (is that an Icelandic thing?), rich seafood and bean sprout soup, spicy crab cakes with remoulade, and thickly-cut sweet potato fries. Fortunately, after throwing up, I immediately felt better and went back to bed, hoping that this would be the end of our struggles in Iceland. I was wrong.

The next day, we woke up early and walked a few blocks to Hotel Saga to get picked up for our first tour. At 9 am, it was still pitch-black when a shuttle bus transported us to BSI Bus Terminal, where we transferred to a larger bus for our ten-hour South Shore Adventures tour. This was my favorite tour of the trip. We drove along the southern coast of Iceland, first stopping by a crystal-blue glacier called Sólheimajökull. Then we drove just ten minutes to Reynisfjaraa black pebble beach with stunning cliffs of basalt rock columns, and tried not to get blown away by the winds. Our third stop was a beautiful waterfall called Skógafoss. We then strolled through the small Skógar Folk Museum before ending our tour at Seljalandsfoss, one of the most famous waterfalls in the country. Apparently you can walk behind it into a small cave, but in the winter it’s too dark and slippery.

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The best part about our tour, though, was our guide — a hilarious woman who told strange anecdotes and random facts about Iceland. Anthony and I were so amused by her that we typed out some of our favorite quotes on our phones to remember them forever. Here are some gems:

  • “Our first settler was from Norway. He killed a man so he had to leave Norway. So he came to Iceland.”
  • “On our right, you can see storage rooms that the American army used to store bombs during World War II. Now, Iceland uses them to store… potatoes. Because we love potatoes.”
  • “Please be back on time. Otherwise I will assume you fell in love with a troll or a fairy.”
  • “If you want to have a good destiny, support your wife. Whether she’s right or wrong. Support your wife.”
  • “This song is about two tourists who got killed in the area.”
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With our tour guide

Unfortunately, our friends were feeling sick the entire day, so I don’t think they could appreciate our first tour as much. They were too sick to eat dinner that night, so Anthony and I picked up some instant Thai noodles at a convenience store and ate at home while watching “Land Ho!”, an awful, misogynistic comedy about two old American men visiting Iceland.

The following morning, we began our second tour called Gulfoss, Geysir & Langjökull Snowmobiling. Our first stop was Þingvellir, a national park that lies in a rift valley, marking the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It is also where Iceland established its national parliament in 930, making it one of the oldest parliaments in the world. We got there just as the sun was rising, and the view over the snowy park was like an oil painting. Our second stop was at Geysir, where we watched Strokkur erupt over 60 feet high every few minutes. Geysir was the first geyser described in a printed source and, thus, is the reason we have the word “geyser,” which means “to gush” in Icelandic. After a quick lunch at Geysir’s upscale cafeteria, our tour group headed to our third stop, which was Anthony’s favorite. We boarded a huge military tank that took us way out onto Langjökullthe second largest ice cap in Iceland. Once there, each of us was given a black snowsuit and helmet to wear, and then we partnered up for snowmobiling. This was probably one of the scariest moments of my life. After listening to dangerously brief instructions on how to operate a snowmobile, I hesitantly sat behind Anthony, wondering if I was either going to freeze to death or fall off our snowmobile and be lost on the glacier forever. Despite my terror, I couldn’t help but appreciate the view — an endless white expanse under a dreamy, pastel sky while the sun slowly set — as we drove in a single-file line across Langjökull. After about half an hour, our group stopped for a rest break. It looked like another planet. It also felt like another planet, as I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold. I was wearing gloves, but they were no match for this climate, and I began to ponder how tragic my life would be without fingers. Finally, we made our way back, but this time the view wasn’t so breathtaking. Those Icelandic winds returned! I don’t know how Anthony was able to see through the storm, but somehow we made it back, and I was happy to get rid of my bulky snowsuit. I’m definitely made for beachier climates. Our last stop on the tour was Gulfoss, a wide waterfall that turns in multiple directions so that it looks like a flowing staircase.

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After our tour, we hung out at the BSI Bus Terminal because we had another tour: The Northern Lights! Much to our delight, our tour guide was the same entertaining woman from yesterday. The bus took us through a long tunnel that goes under a fjord. Once we arrived at a secluded enough area, our driver shut down the bus and ushered us outside. Spoiler alert: If you’re like me and are expecting colorful dancing lights, you will be disappointed. You will not see what you’ve watched in those heavily-edited videos. When we got there, I was patiently waiting for the Aurora Borealis and whispered to Anthony, “It’d be nice if they were like the geyser, appearing every six minutes, yeah?” He looked at me oddly, and that’s when we both discovered the sad truth. I hadn’t realized that we had been staring at the Northern Lights the whole time! Instead of bright pinks, purple, and greens gracefully fluttering across the sky, the Northern Lights were just a faint, horizontal stroke of green. Oh, technology, you’ve ruined me.

Fortunately for people like me, our tour company provided a photographer who took photos of us with the Northern Lights in the background. He was clearly a professional because, unlike the rest of us, pathetically trying to capture the lights with our phones, he did some fancy camera work and created photos that looked stunning. So, my friends, that is what it takes to produce all those photos you’ve seen of the Northern Lights.

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On our last full day in Iceland, Anthony and I went to the famous Blue Lagoon. After hearing somewhat mixed reviews, I was skeptical about this place, but it ended up being one of my favorite parts of Iceland. Though our entrance time wasn’t until noon, the front desk let us in an hour early, giving us lots of time before it got too crowded. We were given wristbands that allowed us to lock and unlock our lockers, claim our complimentary drinks from the in-water bar, and get silica and algae face masks from the mask bar. It was like a Disneyland for adults. The locker rooms are some of the fanciest I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to some pretty swanky locker rooms at boutique fitness studios around New York). After you rinse your body sans bathing suit, you can enter the lagoon, which is the perfect temperature, unlike American hot tubs. The lagoon is huge, but after about two hours, we were ready to head back to Reykjavik.

15894433_10211113845298568_6214969326597568501_n15781608_10211037816757902_8257301265600650462_nBack in Reykjavik, we looked for lunch, which proved difficult since it was New Year’s Eve and apparently Icelanders take this day very seriously. We ended up at a surprisingly good pizza joint, then breezed through the Icelandic Phallological Museum before it closed. Yes, we saw a lot of penises.

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Sperm whale penis

As we made our way through pretty Reykjavik to meet up with our friends for a show, we noticed that my phone stopped charging. I have a waterproof Galaxy S7, so bringing it into the Blue Lagoon earlier that day should have been fine, or so I thought. It wasn’t until we were back in New York that Samsung would have to replace my entire motherboard (for free, at least!). Being in such a photogenic place without a phone is probably the worst kind of torture you can put a Millennial through, so I was not terribly thrilled about being in a country with apparently no Samsung stores for the rest of the afternoon.

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Not a Samsung store

We arrived to our show early, which gave me time to explore Harpa, perhaps the most stunning building in the country. Unsurprisingly, this concert hall was designed by a Danish architecture firm and heavily inspired by the landscape of Iceland. The walls of hexagonal glass tubes evoke Iceland’s basalt rock formations. The colored and mirrored panes on the glass reflect and fragment light, so that during sunlight, the foyer is completely illuminated, while in dim lighting the building gleams. Meanwhile, the balconies and staircases are dark concrete like Iceland’s lava fields.

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The show we watched was called “How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes,” an entertaining, one-man comedy show that gave us another glimpse into the Icelandic psyche, and ended with a certificate to all audience members, proclaiming that we have officially become Icelandic. This country of 330,000 people sure is desperate for new residents. Perhaps they should increase their refugee intake? (Tens of thousands of Icelanders have generously offered their homes, but the government has inexplicably placed a cap of only 50 refugees per year.)

After the show and a satisfactory sushi dinner, we headed over to a New Year’s Eve party that I had found online, hosted by travel company Wake Up Reykjavik. The venue was ideal, with three different indoor lounge areas, a rooftop with a view of Reykjavik, and even a magician with dreadlocks who roamed around doing card tricks for guests. Reykjavik is a wonderful place to spend New Year’s Eve, as every Icelander seems to pop their own fireworks, lighting up the entire sky throughout the evening. Watching the buildup to midnight on our rooftop was a magical experience.

But, of course, nothing could go as smoothly as that. One of our friends was feeling sick so we rushed back home right after midnight. Later that night, I threw up again. I felt even worse than when I had thrown up on our first night, and I worried that I was experiencing the same strange sickness I had in Seoul. Why do we keep getting sick in this country?! Iceland, you win.

Our flight was the next day, so I was relieved when I felt much better in the morning. After catching a cab to the BSI Bus Terminal, we had some time before our bus would take us to the airport, so we stored our luggage and walked over to Hallgrímskirkja for some last-minute photos of the iconic cathedral. Hallgrímskirkja was inspired by, once again, Iceland’s basalt columns, and the immense brutalist structure took an impressive 41 years to build.

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Six hours later, we were back in New York, where, unlike Iceland, man has indisputably conquered nature. Iceland was probably one of the toughest trips I’ve ever been on, and if I ever return to the country, it will most likely be in the summer. Regardless, I’m glad we went. It was an otherworldly experience, and the sites we were able to see — or, in the case of the Northern Lights, the photos we were able to take — have changed my life forever.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. There are dozens of tour companies available, but we had a good experience with Reykjavik Excursions, the largest company in the country. They were organized and easy to contact. We used them for three tours, two airport transfers, and transportation to and from the Blue Lagoon.
  2. Stay at a hotel. I don’t know why I wanted to stay at an Airbnb in Reykjavik, since this is not necessarily a city in which I want to feel like a local. Plus, checking into a hotel is so much easier than trying to coordinate with an Airbnb host when your plane has been delayed for two hours.
  3. If you’re coming in the winter, please do not rent a car (unless you are from, say, Alaska). Stay in a hotel in Reykjavik and let the professional bus drivers take you around. On the other hand, if you’re coming in the summer, I suggest renting a car and staying at different hotels as you make your way around the island.
  4. Go to the Blue Lagoon early to avoid the frat scene that I’d heard so much about. Also, leave conditioner in your hair before you enter the lagoon or your hair will be stiff for the rest of the day. And even if your phone is waterproof, don’t bring it into the Blue Lagoon unless you buy one of those waterproof cases.
  5. Before you arrive in Iceland, download the Taxi Hreyfill app onto your phone. I don’t know how we would have survived this trip without it! While you do have to pay the cab fare with cash (so make sure you’ve arrived with some króna), the app is easy to use, there are always cabs ready to pick you up, you can request rides in advance, and all our cabs arrived right on time. I wish Uber worked this well!
  6. If you have enough time, book a food or bar crawl tour with Wake Up Reykjavik. The dining scene in Reykjavik is really hot right now, and this company knows their food. While we didn’t get a chance to join a tour, they did give us some restaurant suggestions and hosted an awesome New Year’s Eve party.
  7. If you plan to be in lots of photos, buy a red coat. I brought along my grey Canada Goose coat and wished I was wearing red the entire time. Whether you’re surrounded by snow-capped glaciers, standing on a basalt rock column, or waiting for Strokkur to erupt, a red coat stands out the best. Let’s not pretend you’re in Iceland and don’t want to be in any photos.

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No Wonder the Danes are So Happy (Nordic Trip, Pt. 1)

I knew I’d enjoy Copenhagen, but I didn’t expect it to feel as livable as it did. I had never been to a Nordic country before, and all I really knew about Denmark was its enviable healthcare and education systems, as well as the theory that Danes are the happiest people in the world. I wasn’t at all prepared to be completely smitten with the city.

Just like Milan and Tokyo, I knew I could live in Copenhagen as soon as we landed. If you’re into design, you’ll love Kastrup, the largest and busiest airport in Scandinavia. Even if you have no appreciation for modernist furniture and ribbon skylights that allow ample natural light into the airy terminals, you’ll appreciate the cheerful customs agents. (Yes, you read that correctly. The customs agents in Denmark are cheerful.) Our customs agent joked around with us, warned us about the crazy weather in Iceland, and seemed genuinely excited for our travels. Who knew they’d be more welcoming here than in embarrassingly polite Japan and the faux-friendly United States?

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After customs, we met our friends Mariah and Thomas at baggage claim, and then proceeded to buy our train tickets. While in line to buy our tickets, an airport worker handed out a complimentary chocolate to each of us. Free chocolate upon arrival?! This is definitely my kind of city.

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Our hotel, Axel Guldsmeden, was just a 13-minute train ride and 5-minute walk from Central Station. Axel Guldsmeden is part of a small Danish chain that focuses on sustainability, which I thought was quite fitting for Denmark. The entire place exuded hygge (the Danish concept of coziness that is finally becoming a thing in the U.S.). The lobby had dozens of fur throws and warm lights, and our bathroom had heated floors.

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On our first full day, Anthony led us through the rain on a self-guided walking tour using our Rick Steves guide book. We roamed around quaint neighborhoods strewn with unlocked bikes, grand government buildings, and iconic waterfronts. Since it was Christmas Day, almost everything was closed and the streets were relatively empty.

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That night, we had our first dinner with Dine with the Danes, a cultural exchange program in which a Danish family hosts you for dinner. I learned about this program through our guide book and organized two dinners during our trip. For our first dinner, we took a commuter train just half an hour outside Copenhagen. Our host, an adorable blond woman named Lotte, met us at the train station and led us to her home, where her husband Peter was cooking for us. This was probably our favorite experience of the entire trip! We felt so welcomed, as if we were long-lost friends, and for almost six hours, we discussed everything, from Christmas decorations to the effects of catcalling on female self-esteem to Icelandic soccer games. Our hosts fed us a traditional Christmas meal, which included succulent roast pork with crispy skin (just like Filipino lechon!), boiled and mashed potatoes, pickled red cabbage, and lots of Christmas beer. For dessert, we had ris à l’amande, a cold rice pudding with almonds and a hot cherry sauce. During dessert, Lotte and Peter taught us a Danish game: whoever finds the single whole almond hidden in their dessert bowl wins a prize. Thus, the four of us took painstaking precautions to avoid accidentally biting into that whole almond. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten porridge that cautiously before. Finally, Anthony found the almond in his bowl and won a bag of julebolcher (colorful hard candies). Our next dessert (because apparently you’re allowed to have multiple desserts in Denmark; no wonder the Danes are so happy!) was a plate of klejner (pieces of crispy, fried dough twisted into small knots). These were delicious!

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The next day, we explored Tivoli, the famous amusement park near our hotel. Opening in 1843, Tivoli is the oldest operating amusement park in the world. While I’m not a huge fan of rides, Tivoli is absolutely magical during the Christmas season. Unlike at American amusement parks, Tivoli actually has respectable restaurants, as well as a handful of open coal fire pits around which you can warm yourself. These open fire pits would never exist in lawsuit-obsessed America! Perhaps what most impressed me was the jolliness of the ticket booth and guest services workers. When we had trouble buying our tickets for one of the roller coasters, someone who looked (and acted) like Santa Claus chuckled as he helped us with the machine and cheerfully told us to stop worrying. I think stressed-out Americans could learn a thing or two from the Danes.

Our next dinner was another Dine with the Danes meal, this time with a cosmopolitan couple (which included another woman named Lotte!) and their two daughters. This dinner lasted even longer than six hours! I think I especially enjoyed this dinner because it reminded me so much of dinners with my own family, filled with elaborately-cooked meals made from scratch and intellectual discussions that could go on forever.

We started off with another game which involved rolling dice and stealing presents from the table. It was a great way to make us Americans feel anxious about choosing the best presents and rolling the dice as quickly as possible. Our first course consisted of what Danes traditionally eat for Christmas lunch: pickled herring on rye and smoked salmon on white bread. The main course included more of that deliciously crispy roast pork and pickled vegetables, as well as bacon, mushrooms, liver, and cured meats. Dessert was a dream come true. Lotte and Henrik brought over more and more dishes of homemade cookies, klejner, marshmallows, and licorice. And again, we talked about everything, from Denmark’s education system to songs about Massachusetts. It’s always humbling to see how closely non-Americans follow our politics, and reassuring to realize that the rest of the world was as devastated as us when our country elected the most embarrassing man to become our next president.

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On our last full day in Copenhagen, the city finally opened up completely after three days of Christmas festivities. At last, I was able to see what I’d really come to Copenhagen for: chic Danes! There they were, with their perfectly tousled straight hair; artistically bundled up in thick scarves; wearing only dark, neutral colors and sleek wool coats; and naturally lanky from all the biking they do. I would be constantly happy, too, if I looked half as chic as these Danes.

The next day, as we left our hotel and dragged our luggage to the train station, I thought about why Danes are so obviously happy. Their high taxes mean they have free healthcare, free education, and 52 weeks of parental leave. They eat lots of pastries. They don’t lock up their bikes because they actually trust each other, and 50% of Copenhagen residents commute by bike. Unlike Americans, who brag about how hard they work or how late they stay at the office, Danes actually seem to enjoy their jobs because they don’t define themselves by them, and their work culture entails an ideal work-life balance.

I could probably go on and on about why Danes do life better, but it was time for us to head over to Iceland. Halló, Ísland!

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Tips for future travelers:

  1. Participate in Dine with the Danes. Not only are you going to eat amazing food, you’ll learn way more from these meals than from any guide book. At such a turbulent time for U.S. politics, meeting new people in another country and spending time with them is an easy way to act as a sort of ambassador of sane Americans. To participate, message them on their facebook page, and you’ll be given some questions to fill out about yourself, such as your location and interests. After you pay about $75, Dine with the Danes will match you up with a host family, and you’ll get clear instructions on how to get to their home.
  2. Avoid visiting Denmark between December 24 to 26 because the city completely shuts down.
  3. We didn’t get to try as many restaurants as I would have liked to, but I recommend Restaurant Ravelinen for traditional Danish food and Sankt Peders Bageri for pastries from the oldest bakery in Copenhagen.

Last Stop: Seoul (Asian Honeymoon, Pt. 7)

You know a city is impressive when I can get sick in it — my first time getting sick while on vacation! — and still have a good time. I blame my sickness on the packaged ramen I had at the airport on our way to Seoul. After all the unbelievably fresh ramen I had throughout Japan, my body probably couldn’t handle all that processed sodium.

Our trip started out well. Our Asiana flight to Seoul served us bibimbap (yes, seriously!), and then we landed at Incheon International Airport, which has been ranked Best Airport Worldwide for eleven consecutive years, breaking all records.

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Bibimbap on a plane!

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Everything was so efficient. We had an easy time finding the airport express train (A’REX), which quickly led us to the center of Seoul and even offered free WiFi. Japan, you need to catch up!

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Riding the A’REX to Seoul

Meticulous efficiency was also evident in the emails I’d received from our hotel, Hotel Shin Shin. Months in advance, hotel staff had sent me pages of detailed instructions on how to get to the hotel, so we found our way effortlessly. When we arrived, we passed two pairs of hotel guests, and they all greeted us cheerfully — it’s always a good sign when other hotel guests are that friendly toward each other. The front desk congratulated us on our honeymoon and upgraded us to the King Suite. This was the first time a hotel on our entire honeymoon upgraded us! Our room was impeccable — tasteful furniture that reminded me of a spa, a huge bathroom with the fanciest toilet I’ve ever seen, temperature-controlled floors, and touchscreen buttons for everything. Even the “Do Not Disturb” sign was technologically-advanced — none of those primitive things you hang on the doorknob. We almost didn’t want to leave.

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How many buttons does a toilet need?
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Just half of our bathroom, where I spent most of my first night

Unfortunately, not too long after we settled into our room, my abdomen started to feel incredibly intense pain. I’d never felt anything like it! And so began one of the most painful nights of my life (as someone who clearly has never given birth). I spent the next 12 hours hunched over our luxurious bidet, alternating between vomiting and defecating. I thought it would never stop! Eventually, I didn’t have anything left to vomit or defecate, so only liquid came out, which I’ve heard is even worse for your body. I couldn’t fall asleep because I kept waking up throughout the night to use the bathroom. I was grateful that I had such a nice bathroom to camp out in.

Poor Anthony had to put up with this on our honeymoon! If there’s anything that was confirmed on our honeymoon, it’s that I definitely married the right man. Anthony went out to buy us dinner from a convenience store around the corner, only to have me refuse to eat anything since I had no appetite. He spoke to the front desk, who told him what time pharmacies open tomorrow. Early the next morning, he set out on a pharmacy adventure, accepting help from a nearby Sheraton concierge who even offered to accompany him to the pharmacy. When Anthony returned, our hotel helped him translate the Korean prescription directions. He then reiterated these instructions to me: Swallow a sinister packet of brown powder, take a swig of water to wash it down, then ingest a small white pill. Guess what? The medicine worked immediately, and my abdominal pain disappeared. Korean medicine, folks!

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Anthony made a friend on his pharmacy journey
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Korean medicine

Eventually, I was able to do some sightseeing. Our hotel was convenient enough to walk to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, a royal palace built in 1395 for the Joseon dynasty. We passed Seoul Plaza and City Hall on our way to the palace. While the undeniable efficiency of the city is laudable, I couldn’t help but miss Tokyo. Seoul’s economy has long surpassed Tokyo’s; you can see it in the architecture, the abundant free WiFi, and the cleanliness of the streets. But, just as I preferred the gritty cities of Italy far more than pretty Paris, I missed the density of Tokyo. Seoul felt quiet and oddly spacious.

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Due to my abdominal pain, I was instructed to avoid caffeine and chocolate for the next few days. What a punishment in Seoul, which has an incredible cafe culture. We passed so many enticing bakeries and adorable coffee shops, and my inability to try any of them may have been the worst part of my sickness. I’ll definitely have to return to Seoul when I can consume everything I want.

After we watched the changing of the guards, we left the palace in search of lunch and settled on a no-frills bibimbap joint nearby. Then we sat at Cheonggyecheon, a massive urban renewal project surrounding a long stream that flows west to east through downtown Seoul. In the ’60s, an elevated highway was built over the stream, but a few years ago, the highway was removed and the stream restored. This beckoned a new movement to re-introduce nature into the city and revitalize Seoul’s economy.

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That night, we wandered to Myeongdong, a commercial area in Seoul that contains the 9th most expensive shopping street in the world. The orderly crowds, neon lights, and overload of shops and restaurants reminded me of Osaka’s Dotonbori. We had dinner at the highly-rated Myeongdong Kyoja and finally had our first mind-blowing meal in Seoul. The restaurant only offers four dishes, so we were able to try half the menu: mandu and hand-pulled noodle soup. Guests pay when they order, and dishes come with kimchi. Utensils are hidden in pull-out drawers within the table, and by each table is a wastebasket on the floor. Everything was delicious and incredibly cheap.

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Mandu and hand-pulled noodle soup

13700139_10209345502651107_2475814672048734371_nWe spent the rest of the night gawking at ridiculous street food options and peeking into all the skin care stores.

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It took some time, but we finished it!

Seoul is superb, modern city with pockets of history, surrounded by gorgeous mountains that I wished we could have hiked since hiking is a crucial part of Seoul culture. But our time there was short, and it was cut short even more by my sickness. Regardless, I was still very much impressed. It’s no surprise that South Korea is cool now, and the time to visit Seoul has never been better.

We finally reached the end of our Asian honeymoon. Ready to return to New York!

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Tips for future travelers:

  1. Maybe it’s just the impatient New York jaywalker in me, but the traffic lights in Seoul seem frustratingly slow. Fortunately, most major intersections have wonderful underground passageways, so you can get from one corner to another quickly!
  2. While Google Maps seemed made for Japan, it didn’t work at all while we were in Seoul, so make sure to figure out where you need to go without relying on it.
  3. The only downside about South Korea being super-cool right now is that Koreans don’t feel pressured to speak English. Good for them, bad for ignorant American tourists. Learn as much Korean as you can before you go! Signs won’t be in multiple languages like they are in Tokyo.

Focusing on the History in Manila (Asian Honeymoon, Pt. 6)

Manila was my least favorite part of our honeymoon, but instead of lambasting its horrendous traffic, stifling pollution, and blatant class stratification, I’ll focus on the positive aspects and hope that you do a better job than I did when planning a trip to this metropolis.

Manila is the capital of the Philippines and is situated on the eastern shore of Manila Bay. It is the most densely populated city in the world, and is one of sixteen cities that make up the region of Metro Manila. In 1571, Mexican conquistadors founded present-day Manila. The city thus became the center of Spanish trade in Asia, earning its nickname “Pearl of the Orient”. The city underwent Chinese revolts, pirate attacks, earthquakes, numerous invasion attempts, and British occupation. Most of Manila was flattened by aerial bombardment by the U.S. Air Force near the end of World War II, so very little remains of Manila’s prewar and colonial architecture, which is a shame.

For anyone interested in Filipino history, a visit to Intramuros is a must. Intramuros, or “within the walls,” is the oldest district in Manila and was walled to defend the city from foreign invasion. It is the only district of Manila where you can find old Spanish-era influences. A museum dedicated to national hero Jose Rizal is located in Intramuros, as the site is where he was actually detained during his final days. The museum showcases artifacts that prove how extraordinary Rizal was — he was a political leader, an author, an artist, a poet, and more.

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The Japanese would imprison Filipinos in these dungeons, which would then flood with water from Manila Bay
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Fortunately, some prisoners escaped by swimming away under the cover of those floating plants
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Statue of Rizal in his final holding cell on the day of his execution
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You can follow Rizal’s last footsteps to his execution

Manila is extremely humid, especially in the summer, so we constantly took refuge in underground walkways, shopping malls, and museums. My favorite museum is the Ayala Museum, which is located in the district of Makati. The six-story museum houses contemporary art and archaeological exhibits, but the best part is the diorama exhibit, which narrates Philippine history through 60 beautifully handcrafted dioramas. We borrowed a pair of headphones and took a fascinating audio tour of the museum. This was easily my favorite few hours in Manila.

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These audio guides were worth every peso!
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Lapu Lapu resists the Spanish in the 16th century
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Revolutionary leader Bonifacio encourages Filipinos to tear up the papers that identified them as servants to the Spanish crown
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Rizal’s execution

It always saddens me when American tourists who visit the Philippines bypass places like Manila and Quezon City and go straight to Palawan and Boracay, reducing an entire country to snorkeling and postcard-perfect beaches. It’s similar to those who travel to Thailand just for Phuket or the Phi Phi Islands. I don’t blame them, as my preferred regions of the Philippines are also less built-up and quite touristy (e.g., Banaue and Davao). However, Manila is an interesting city that I hope will eventually gain the respect it deserves.

That’s it for the Philippines. Anyong haseyo, Seoul!

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Tips for future travelers:

  1. Avoid driving (and being driven) at all costs. You haven’t seen traffic until you’ve seen Manila traffic. Stay at a hotel within walking distance to most of your sites.
  2. If you have time, take a day-trip to Tagaytay, just south of Manila. Per recommendation, my grandparents’ driver took us on a detour on our way to Manila so we could view Lake Taal from the city of Tagaytay. Lake Taal is a freshwater lake that fills a massive volcanic caldera formed after a series of eruptions. The lake was once part of the South China Sea, but the eruptions filled in the entrance, isolating it from the ocean. One very lucky Starbucks in Tagaytay just so happens to offer one of the best views of Lake Taal, so we ordered an ensamada and ube cheesecake and took in the scenery.
  3. Travel with my parents. Back in 2011, they took me to Manila and we had a perfectly good time. We went to Intramuros, the Ayala Museum, and even the same shopping malls, so I’ll have to figure out what they did differently to make the experience so much more pleasant.
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View of Lake Taal from a Starbucks in Tagaytay

Anthony’s Introduction to the Philippines — Los Baños Style! (Asian Honeymoon, Pt. 5)

13680513_10209293686835744_6791728328024010702_nAfter a wonderful time in Japan, Anthony and I made our way to the second country of our honeymoon: the Philippines — land of our people! Anthony had never been to the Philippines before, so he was especially excited for this part of our journey. We decided to start in Los Baños to see my grandparents first. My cousin Justine met us at the airport in Manila (she even welcomed us with Hawaiian leis since our wedding was in Hawaii!), and her parents drove us the long two hours to my grandparents’ house, stopping at fast food joints along the way.

Los Baños is most famous for the prestigious University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), but it is also a fairly popular tourist destination, as its hot spring resorts are perfect weekend getaways. This explains why Los Baños is Spanish for “bathing place”.

However, the highlight of our entire time in the Philippines was having Anthony meet more of my relatives. My maternal grandparents have had such fascinating lives. My grandfather, or “Lolo” in Tagalog, spent most of his life working for the United Nations, so he and my grandmother moved around a lot. They’ve lived in places like Rome, Bangkok, Honolulu, and Papua New Guinea, but when he retired, they returned to Los Baños, where he was once a professor at UPLB. The University of the Philippines system is the equivalent of the Ivy League system in the U.S. Unlike in America, the smartest kids in the Philippines go to public universities, while those who didn’t have good enough grades must pay for private schools. It makes so much sense — I’m a big fan of rewarding intelligence over wealth! (Please learn from this, America.)13669209_10105495295450673_6889495768296637398_nLolo is so obviously a former professor, as he can talk and talk about anything — give him any topic, and he’ll have an abundance of knowledge and random anecdotes to contribute. For someone whose mind is still so active, you’d never guess that he’s in his mid-80s. He and Anthony discussed everything, from history to travel to UC-Berkeley (Anthony attended college there, while Lolo was there for his PhD decades ago).

Seeing my grandmother, or “Lola” in Tagalog, was my favorite part. She has always reminded me so much of my mom — street savvy, naturally beautiful, with a quiet intelligence. As I expected, she constantly stuffed us with Filipino snacks and thought of every little detail to make our stay perfect.

On our first day, Lolo took us on a long tour of the university, which is when we first met his driver Jojo, who became our personal driver throughout our stay. It is quite common for people in the Philippines to have drivers, but Jojo was so much more than a driver. Apparently he spends a lot of time on his motorcycle, driving all over the country by himself. Because of this, he knew everything — from secret short-cuts, to best places for the most stunning views, to the traffic patterns in Manila. A few days later when we had left my grandparents (and Jojo) and transferred to Manila, we had to deal with other drivers, and that’s when we really appreciated Jojo’s skills. (I still kind of want to make a film about him. If you have any film connections, please get in touch.)

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Lolo giving us an extensive tour of his campus, while Jojo drives us around

We drove past rice fields and through jungles, had fresh coconuts, visited a rice museum, and ate lunch in the cafeteria. After, Lola took us to a spa where we got incredible massages. Massages are a must in the Philippines, as they are dirt-cheap and may be the best you’ll ever have. We were able to walk back home from the spa, along a commercial street filled with food vendors. Since Los Baños is a college town, there seem to be pretty good food options, and it’d be nice to try more of them next time we visit.

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Fresh coconuts in the jungle

The next day was spent at Villa Escudero, a coconut plantation that has become a huge resort. I love this place. Every time I’m in the Philippines, I always ask to come here, even though it’s embarrassingly touristy. Much of the plantation exists thanks to Don Arsenio Escudero, who built the country’s first hydroelectric plant in the early 1900s. The plantation became a tourist attraction in 1981, as an entertaining way to show plantation life.

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The long driveway into the coconut plantation

When we arrived, we rode a cart pulled by a carabao (water buffalo), with a live musician in the backseat. Lunch took place in an al fresco restaurant below a waterfall, so we got to partake in a huge Filipino buffet with our feet soaking in running water. The Philippines is disgustingly humid in the summer, so waterfall restaurants are life-savers. The waterfall is a lot of fun to play in, with hidden nooks and ledges from which you can slide off.13692559_10105495555349833_1906466084469383625_n13707634_10105495555554423_2712554871360942428_n13690721_10209305139482053_8874552501317337726_n13697179_10209305321086593_1348158932767283464_n13709833_10105495556537453_5688870969174072306_n13619829_10209305780418076_4782595179743138682_n13707628_10209308280280571_5311950213814069727_n13669237_10209308046394724_4020004663538774775_n13686788_10209311805488699_5787779988374243154_n13726727_10209305797618506_7409156397597135444_nAfter lunch, we walked past a performance of Filipino folk dances on stage. I’d seen this performance before, but I was surprised that we could watch it now, as it was a Thursday and these performances are typically done only on weekends. Filipinos are fantastic dancers, and if you haven’t seen tinikling before, or those dances that involve balancing candles on their heads, you need to find a Youtube video of one of them now.13654315_10105495557300923_3806417728191551760_n13692559_10105495557096333_8491633198257011652_n13718773_10105495556996533_1630451250519991727_nWe went out onto Labasin Lake on a bamboo raft. This was my first time rafting at Villa Escudero! Some of the guest rooms of the resort protrude over the lake — what a wonderful place to stay. Unfortunately, it started to rain, so we quickly paddled back to the dock and dried up while watching the end of the dance performances. Apparently, the only reason there was a performance today was because the owner of the resort had visiting friends in town. And we had even sat on their table in the front row — oops!13659014_10209306896205970_2303096314874586044_n14022081_10209695409518560_56035491119809349_nThere’s a pink museum at Villa Escudero that houses the family’s private collection of random things from their travels around the world. Lots of religious artifacts (typical Catholic Filipinos), furniture, and clothing. After the museum, we headed back to my grandparents’ house, where my family surprised us with a party with all my relatives (two cousins, two aunts, and one uncle) for our last night there. I hadn’t seen them in five years, but it felt like no time had passed. Even my grandparents’ maid Marina remembered me! (I wonder if she remembers bathing my baby brother in the sink?)13669794_10209306976807985_5648325772933159013_n

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Just your typical Filipino buffet for dinner
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My family got us a welcome cake!

The next morning, we stuffed ourselves with one last homemade breakfast before moving on to Manila, with my cousin accompanying us on the long journey. Our time in Los Baños had been short, but my parents visit the Philippines often, so we look forward to be back soon for the next Vergara reunion.

Kumasta, Manila!

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One of my favorite things about the Philippines is their breakfasts: fried eggs, longania sausage, pork tocino, and puto

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Go to Villa Escudero on the weekend so you can watch the dance performance. Growing up as a Filipino in Hawaii, I had many opportunities to see some standard Filipino dances at weddings and cultural events, but none of them were ever quite as good as these. Make sure to stay for the very last dance, too. I don’t want to give everything away, but their tinikling choreography will blow your mind.
  2. If you have any interest in nature or agriculture, take a tour of UPLB. Its specialty is agricultural education and research, and it plays an influential role in biotechnology. We were surprised by how many foreign students were there (the blond hair gave them away), but I guess it made sense, considering the number of internationally-renowned research centers UPLB hosts.
  3. On long vacations (2+ weeks), spend at least a few days with familiar faces. It’s a nice break from hotel rooms and feeling like a constant outsider.

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