Monday, December 29, 2014

Merry Christmas From Sri Lanka: A Kidnapping, Whales, Curry, and Endless Rain.

His face was tinged with regret as he realised his mistake. 
There was no going back now.
 He would just have to hold on.

Okay, so maybe I'm being a little dramatic. Still, describing the events of Christmas day with my family in Sri Lanka does sound like the beginnings of a B-movie screenplay. If I jotted down the facts of the day in bullet points, it might even seem like a terrible Christmas. In the end it was completely unconventional and I loved every minute.

This picture is not from our rainy Christmas Day- This is from a  much drier Boxing day.

The Kidnapping:

It started with a three am wake up call. We stood in the humid absolute dark, waiting for our hired driver to come down the flooded red clay road. The rain had been torrential and the road to the extremely secluded Good Karma Hotel had nearly been washed out. Most of the five of us- Tom, my dad, my two brothers, and myself (mum decided to sleep in) -had not slept a wink.

The drive was long and when we finally reached the town of Mirissa, we were zombies. We were dead tired but were still feeling festive. Our Christmas morning adventure of choice was about to begin: Whale watching. None of us had ever tried whale watching before so figured it would be a fun way to celebrate. The dock was chaotic with stray dogs, hundreds of boats in various stages of decay, and the odd bit of trash. I noticed that most boats were double decker, with  open sides, long benches on the bottom deck and standing room up top. Sri Lankan boatmen (my brother called them 'rasta pirates') looked around with bleary eyes. "Christmas Eve parties," our driver explained, giggling.

It sounds a little bleak, but the beauty of Sri Lanka shows itself even on a smelly fishing dock at six in the morning. The bright colors of the boats, the sweet mangy pups looking for love and snacks, and the tall swaying coconut palms kept my holiday spirit buoyant.

While we waited we realised that my brother needed to eat to take his medication. It was nearing seven AM and we hadn't had a bite since dinner the night before. No food plus my motion sickness equals a bad time. Our driver being the awesome guy he is, ran off to grab us some breakfast.

Our lovely driver returned with our breakfasts just as the boat was leaving. He hopped on to hand-deliver our sandwiches and boiled eggs, made sure we are all good, and turned to leave the boat. He was too late. The boat had already been untied and was motoring away. The look on his face was priceless. He'd never been on a boat before. His button down, jeans and loafers said he'd not been expecting to join us.  We caught eyes and he started giggling and shrugged but he was already white-knuckling the railing. And that was how we kidnapped our good-natured driver for a five hour boat ride in ten foot swells and continuous rain.

When we were finally on dry land he laughed, still green, and said, "Never again".
I'm pretty sure he thought we were nuts.


The rain. Oh goodness, the rain was crazy. I swear it rained sideways from both sides. That, coupled with the sea water slamming the sides of the boat, made for the wettest boat ride I've ever experienced. I was wearing a rain jacket and a maxi dress and I was still soaked through. One of my brothers disappeared to the engine room (wish I had thought of that). My dad and other brother sat on their bench chatting in the rain. Of course, Tom stood at the helm of the boat most of the time, accepting his soggy-bottomed fate. The boat slammed the water with such a force I'm pretty sure I bruised my butt. I was cold and wet and physically miserable.

Have you ever had a moment so stunning that you couldn't photograph it? A moment you knew would never translate to any photo you could take?

What I'm trying to say is we saw whales, I don't have pictures.

Bryde's whales are related to the blue whale, and tend to be 42-50 feet long and weigh a massive 25 tons. When we saw a couple Bryde's whales breaching from afar we started to get excited. Whale watching tuned into whale-chasing, as the captains frantically radioed each other trying to guess where the whale is going to breach next. The result was a big circle of boats centered around where the captains thought the whale was. Turns out they were a bit off, which ended up working out really well for us. Abruptly, a massive whale was directly in front of our boat. It was so large and so close, it's tail must have been partially under the boat. It breached to breathe and we could see right up it's blowhole. It was so close, it felt like maybe I could jump on it's back and ride off into the sunset like a weird watery western.

So basically, we looked up a giant sea mammal's nose and it was the perfect Christmas present.

Curry and Endless Rain:

Our Christmas lunch is usually pretty typical: a big bird, some savory sides, and gravy in our dining room. My cravings for all things Christmassy had been satisfied in Belgium.This year we sat on the covered porch on the beach surrounded by an immense palm forest. The rain was still pouring around us as we ate a smorgasbord of different Sri Lankan curries. The Good Karma hotel made some mean veggie curries that warmed us up from the inside out. A normal Christmas lunch wouldn't suit our otherwise unconventional Christmas day.

After we had stuffed ourselves the boys went to take a leisurely nap. Mum and I, curled up on the cozy couches chatting and reading as the rain fell. It was the most relaxed I'd felt in ages. That evening we met back up for a delicious dinner to the sound of the waves, played some Bananagrams, exchanged a couple presents, and went to bed early.

A very odd, very different, very Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hot Air Ballooning Over Kapadokya and Other Cool Stuff

For four days in row Tom and I woke up way before sunrise. 

In the darkness, we washed our faces and dressed in the 8 Celsius chill of our cave room. Every morning we hoped that our luck would be finally change and the weather would let us fly. The weather had been extraordinarily bad for flying for an unheard of five-day run. I tried to tell myself that I wouldn't be too disappointed if we didn't get to fly at all before we had to leave. We had already extended our trip with the hopes that the weather would chill out. Truth was, I knew I would be bummed. Fortunately, the town of Goreme and the surrounding Kapadoyka area had lots of other things to offer.

Like this stunning view!
 There are a bunch of little towns tucked away on hilltops or valleys in the area of Kapadokya, Turkey. We stayed in Goreme, which is the one of the larger and more touristy towns, but still only has just over 2000 residents. You can imagine what the 'small' towns were like. In almost all of these small towns, people dwell in the impressive and weird-looking rock formations that some people call 'fairy chimneys' or 'mushrooms', while personally they remind me of a particular part of the male anatomy (I know, I'm twelve).

Fairy chimneys- Look closely you can see the doors and windows of homes.
We stayed at the Nomad Cave Hostel. The people of this area have been carving homes out of these visually arresting stone weiners for centuries, and our hostel was also in one of these majestic pillars. We slept in a cave. Not only was the cave life awesome, our hosts were friendly and would bend over backwards to help us get we needed. They woke up in the middle of the night when we arrived exhausted at 3 a.m. At only 10 euros a night, I would stay there again in a heartbeat.

In the cave.
 Much of the income of the smaller towns is based on the ever-increasing influx of tourists, yet still I felt that everyone was really genuinely relaxed and friendly, especially compared to other places such as Marrakesh, which can be overwhelmingly about the hustle. The culture and history of Kapadokya is extremely unique, as is the food. The land has passed through many hands throughout the ages and was once a Roman settlement grappling with early Christianity. As result, there are amazing underground cities dated back to the 7th-8th century B.C. that were once used as a hideout for cautious new Christians.

Delicious lamb and tomato stew cooked in a clay pot which they crack open at the table

So what else is there to do in (and around) Goreme?

1) Hiking:
Walk in pretty much any direction from Goreme and you will find great little hiking trails with rock formations of all shapes and colors with tons of wonderful view points. Also it's free. Always a plus. We especially liked our hike through the Rose Valley with it's undulating rock faces in pink and gold. The sheer size of these rocks had me breathless. There are tons of tunnels and teensy walk ways scattered in little valleys, turning this surreal scenery into a grown-up playground. We hiked every day.

Tip: Ask a local their favourite trail- They'll be more than happy to help.

2) Go find your own cave dwellings:
So much fun, and again free. There are literally hundreds of abandoned carved out dwellings all over the place. On our long hikes it was so exciting to find a door or a window and see where it went. The only downside is that we didn't know what we were looking at. Were they churches or houses? How old were they? Instead, we imagined the people that must have once lived there. Such fun.

3) Watch the sunset in the Rose Valley:
About a 15 minute walk up the hill from the center of Goreme is the 'sunset point', aptly named because it is one of the best places to watch the sun melt and turn everything gold. There is a little cafe stand selling coffee, teas, and beer along with other knick-knacks, as well as a few picnic tables which make for a great sunset (or sunrise) meal. Be sure to walk all around the plateau -- the view changes quite a bit as you move. Our favourite spot was on the edge to the right. You have a a stunning view of the whole Rose Valley as well as the far off snow-capped mountains in the distance. Again, free.

Tip: look up what time the sunsets before hand so you can watch the whole show from start to finish.

The mountain

4) Visit the Open Air Museum:
 The Open Air Museum can be a crowded mess, since tour groups come in bunches and hordes of people just do not fit well into the small spaces. Go early or just before it closes at 4:30. That being said, it was completely fascinating. The museum is actually a monastic complex complete with churches and living spaces from the 10th century. Frescoes and wall paintings from the 11th and 12th century cover many of the walls. It costs about 15TL (6.33 USD) a person and an extra 10TL (4.22) to get into the most well- preserved section. It was definitely one of the most unusual structures I have ever visited from this time period.

Tip: Watch your head- 10th century monks were apparently tiny and stone door frames hurt.

10th Century interior design
The nunnery complex and me being a rebel.
5) Visit an underground city:
Apparently there are many underground cities in the area. Some date back to the 7th-8th centuries B.C. We decided to visit Derinkuyu, near Neshivir, because it is the largest and most complex of the underground cities. It is a multilevel complex that reaches up to 60 meters underground and can house up to 20,000 people, as well as all of their livestock and supplies. Only a portion of it is open to visitors. It was completely eerie and almost scary to be in dank darkness, doubled over, and crawling through tunnels, but it was completely astounding to think that this complex once housed so many humans. We travelled there by local bus with our three new Australian friends from the hostel. It took about an hour each way.

6) Make friends with local animals:
There are tons of friendly strays in Kapadokya, and I had a blast petting every little cat and pup. Of course don't approach animals that look to be in pain, ill, sleeping, or eating. For the most part we had a great experience loving on the furrier locals. On one day in particular, we came across a German shepherd that was chained to a tree on a two or three foot chain. It was obvious that she'd been there for weeks or more and had been driven mad by it. It was desperately sad. On top of that, she had a litter of the friendliest, most inquisitive little pups that ran out to see us. As we were watching, a German girl arrived with her own dog and some dog food for the poor mama dog. She said she'd been coming by for weeks and had never seen very much food around so decided to feed them and check on them herself. We sat and chatted while the puppies chewed on our shoelaces.

Sorry quite a few puppy pics.

Coming over to say hi 

Very friendly- Dog Angel in the background
Ready to play
Sweet mama looking out in the background 
Happy Tom
And much more:
There are loads of local specialties to try for cheap. My favourites were freshly-squeezed pomegranate and orange juices for less than 25 cents and Sahlep, a milk-based drink made with all sorts of spices including orchid flower and cinnamon and served warm, similar to egg nog in consistency and spiced custard in flavor. There is also horseback riding, visits to other towns, hamams, whirling dervish shows, and smoking shisha, amongst other things.

Delicious pomegranate juice
With so many other things to do in Kapadokya, I'm surprised we even had time to attempt to balloon everyday. Luckily, our perseverance paid off, and on our very last day the wind was just right at six knots (they cancel the trip if winds hit eight knots). After it all, we didn't get to be in the air for sunrise like I had dreamt we would be. At 150 euros (187 USD) a person, I was little disappointed for a second. In the end you pay more the experience of the crew and quality of the equipment (i.e. your safety). There are both cheaper and more expensive flights out there. I used several online resources in deciding who I wanted to fly with and what kind of trip I wanted. As soon as we saw the immense balloons being prepared every feeling was replaced with excitement.

I was giddy. Soon we were floating higher and higher. Tom and I ended up standing right next the flame thrower and our pilot let Tom pull the handle that controlled the fire jets. It was so serene and calming. It was absolutely fantastic to float over all the places we had spent the last four days exploring. We reached our peak altitude at 900 meters. It was surreal. I'll never forget it as long as I live.

Floating towards the valley

Too soon our flight was almost over and we had to land. The pilot doesn't have much control of where the balloon actual goes, only altitude and a little rotation. As a result, it's the ground crew's job to 'catch' the balloon- wherever it falls. The truck pulling the balloon's trailer just chases the balloon around until they decide on a suitable landing place, and then they just drop the whole basket right onto the trailer. We actually ended up landing our balloon in some farmer's field, which he was none too pleased about. After such a peaceful flight it was the perfect amount of adrenaline to get me going.

The truck chasing us everywhere
After our smooth landing we all hopped off and enjoyed flowers, cake, and champagne with the pilot and the crew. It was not even 8 A.M. and we felt alive and at peace. Maybe that was just the champagne, but still it was an experience of a lifetime.


Tom with our captain and the time which read 8:03.

Have you ever been hot air ballooning? What did you think? Would you pay 187 USD to go hot air ballooning?  Have you seen landscape similar to this one? Could you live in a cave house? As always the photos and opinions are mine.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Rainbows Over Rome: Returning to a Once Loved Place

We've come full circle.

Italy is the birthplace of one of Tom's most brilliant ideas: this trip around the world.
It has been almost three long years of dreaming and working since we last were in Italy together in 2011 and decided to change our lives.

These last three weeks we spent in Italy felt almost like a pilgrimage to me. Paying respects to what, at the time, seemed like a wildly impossible dream. In Rome we retraced the steps of my then 20-year old feet. We walked all day, jolts of memories I'd half forgotten swirling.

I've spent the last two years of my life looking forward. In the many months that I was working various jobs to save up I would daydream about about what could happen next. Now I spend a good chunk of time organising- where to go and what to do next.

Rome gave me a moment to look back. I remembered the anxious me on the day I decided to commit to this trip and make it a priority. I wrote about it on this blog and even that post feels like it was written by a different person.

I was obsessed with Rome when I was twenty-one and cried like the sappy mess I am when it was time to leave. But coming back to a place you love is always dangerous.
I always tend to remember the good moments, and with a leaky brain like mine the downs become non-exsistant. When we returned to Rome I didn't feel the crush of my love for Rome like did three years ago. Surely Rome was the same so I wondered what happened. Have I become less enthusiastic? Have finally caught the dreaded travel jadedness? Was I beginning to lose sight of how special it all was? Was I becoming numb?