Updated on September 4, 2016
Updated on September 4, 2016
Tomorrow we head for Myanmar- a place we’ve both really wanted to go for a long time. And I just know it will be really unique. But many of our other destinations this year have been quite unique too.
Again…it pains me that I won’t be able to cram this post full of photos, (because I dropped my hard drive.) *deep breath* </exhale>.
But I’ll just have to turn the descriptive, writing magic up a few notches and try to paint these pictures for you.
Here are some of my favorite destinations from 2015.
Accommodations: Non-points-hotel lodges, and the InterContinental Nairobi
Given that we’ve spent so much time in Asia and Europe throughout the last four years, Africa immediately rose to the surface as my new favorite continent- purely because its unfamiliarity and novelty feels like an adventure when other places no longer do.
In February, we crammed three of our friends (and occasional Masai hitch-hikers) into a Toyota Rav 4 for a self-drive safari of the Masai Mara National Reserve.
It was a totally different experience. In place of name-brand hotels with their predictable amenities and 24 hour reception, we stayed instead in the heart of the park where security guards walk you to your cabin, shining their flashlights on the hippos who’ve crept onto the lawn just yards away. Instead of the noise of a highway, we sat on the lodge deck after sundown and listened to the peculiar, croup-like roar of a lion. And the security guard told us stories of his father’s generation- proving their manhood and earning a bride by killing a lion.
It was a more expensive trip than a miles and points trip, even though we pinched pennies wherever we could. It was one of those trips that you just know is a once in a lifetime experience. I loved it tremendously.
Accommodations: Adoption-organized apartments and Holiday Inns in Kiev
It’s impossible for me to know how much my love of Ukraine is fueled by nostalgia for my visit as a kid, or the monumental experience of helping with the adoption of my niece. But I really do believe that there is something special about it.
It has a grit and charm that can only be found in this part of Europe. Nothing works efficiently, but everything fits. There is a rhythm and beauty that feels timeless and un-enchanted at the same time. Though the earth is littered with broken glass and old rusting pieces, the old women dig their hands into it and make masterpieces of gardens. They are clothed in a hodgepodge of patterned fabrics, one always wrapped tightly around their head. When I was 14, I watched one such woman from the window of a cross-country train. It was the golden hour of the evening, and the train moved slowly enough for me to watch a gray goose follow behind her beloved babushka on the bare landscape of an isolated farm. That was the moment I fell in love with international travel.
The trip this year was even more beautiful. We lived in the upper room of a clinic and spent our days finding new make-shift playgrounds. My nephews marveled at the purple thistles that sprouted up everywhere. We pretended they were magic and that the stray dogs were tigers. And then, when it was time for her to join us, they marveled at their new sister.
We didn’t do too much sight-seeing. We just did Ukrainian life. And it was awesome.
You can’t beat an experience like that. You just can’t.
Bosnia & Herzegovina is a gem. I don’t know why it doesn’t get more buzz, because the landscape is like a fairytale. There are mountains and castles…and then there is a splash of Ottoman influence. Mosques dot the countryside, side-by-side with old stone castles.
Historically it’s fascinating as well. Not only because of the old stone castles and mosques, but also because of the glaring signs of recent history. Shells of buildings that were bombed out in the 90’s. It’s bizarre. Hard to wrap your head around.
We rented a car. Which I would have said was an excellent idea, except that we got a speeding ticket that became…tense…when the police man tried to confiscate our documents and send us an hour back to the city we’d left.
Apparently that is the legitimate process of giving a speeding ticket. We didn’t know that at the time, and it just seemed like such a shady, risky thing to do. Give up our passports to this police man and then hope we can find him again in two hours when we return from paying our ticket?
Not my favorite travel moment. Sitting in a car in the middle of nowhere while a police man brandishes his handcuffs at my husband.
Next time I might consider taking buses across the countryside, even though I loved being able to drive leisurely and stop whenever the scenery inspired us to.
Accommodations: Non-points-hotels and Club Carlson hotels in Sofia
I’m really really disappointed about losing my Bulgaria photos. Particularly my pictures of Plovdiv.
Plovdiv is one of the oldest, consistently inhabited cities in the world and that identity permeates the whole experience. Everything feels ancient. But, in the typical European way, it isn’t so sacred that it can’t be explored. Even the ancient Roman stadium is still used for performances today.
And the food is incredible. Tomato, onion, pepper, olive oil goodness.
Accommodations: Club Carlson hotels in Ankara, InterContinental BRG, Hilton BRG, and Club Carlson hotels in Istanbul, and non-points-hotel in Cappadocia
Turkey was a highlight for me, primarily because of Cappadocia. Firstly, my dad visited us for our Cappadocia time, so that was really fun. Secondly, we did a lot of hiking, which I love. And thirdly, Cappadocia is one of the most bizarre and other-worldly places I’ve ever been.
And it’s all incredibly accessible from the little town of Goreme. We literally needed only to cross the street to immerse ourselves in the fairy-chimney landscape and explore the old caves, tombs, and churches. They’re everywhere. And we really did spend our whole visit exploring and hiking the endless, barely-marked trails throughout the valley.
During one hike, we came upon a steep bank that appeared washed-out. The trail just halted at the edge, and it became clear that we would need to forge a new way back. A tricky task, since nothing is marked, and the trails are not much more visible than little goat trails. We turned around to backtrack our last mile, and to our surprise an old man was standing on the hill, motioning for us to follow him. He had leathery skin the color of wood and he smelled like sweat and soil. We had passed this man quite some time ago, completely unaware that he’d followed us the last twenty minutes or more.
He bruskly explained that rain had washed away this trail, and we’d have to go another way. Then, he darted up the side of the cliff, motioning for us to follow him. He moved like a goat, or at least a young man, despite nothing more than flimsy sandals on his old feet. He took us up over the ridge and through a narrow passage way, and at last we came out on the other side of the ridge, overlooking a trail we recognized.
I like to believe that he turned back into a magical goat after we disappeared around the bend.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. My favorite destinations always seem to be the places where we can’t find points-hotels. Correlation does not mean causation, of course, but in this case I think it might be indicative. I like the feeling of being far-flung. I like quirky, unique places that don’t have all the standardized amenities- the same IHG shampoos and the same Park Inn primary color-scheme. I like being somewhere obscure enough to elude the chains, and that includes the chain hotels with which we have points. It’s easier and cheaper to cover our accommodations with points. And I’m grateful we’ve got points to sustain our travels. But when we visit places too obscure to have points-hotels, I’m never really disappointed. I know it means we’re escaping the world I know. And that’s the thing I love about travel- exploring the world I don’t yet know.