36 hours in Istanbul

Istanbul is a magical city spanning two continents, where the East meets the West. From the architectural wonders of the Hagia Sofia, to the bustling fish markets of Kadiköy, and the hip coffee shops of Karaköy where young people flock on the weekends, there's something for everybody.

Start your journey by taking a tram (suggested during rush hour; 5 lira, 1 hour) or taxi (~30 lira, 20 minutes) from Ataturk International Airport to the Sultanahmet neighborhood. Here you can tour the Hagia Sofia, a former Greek church, turned Ottoman mosque, turned museum. 

Sultan Ahmed Mosque also known as the Blue Mosque is right across the square. Make sure to bring a headscarf, shirt covering your arms and pants that cover your knees or you'll get stuck wearing one of the dusty, public chadors!

Skip the overpriced restaurants in Sultanahmet that cater to yabancı (the Turkish term for "foreigners"), and head down to the Eminönü ferry port where you can float over to the Asian side of the city in just 20 minutes. The ferry is a form of public transit that thousands of Istanbulites use every day and also one of the best spots to view the city's "skyline". 

Once you arrive at the Kadikoy limani, it's just a five minute walk to the Moda neighborhood where you'll find everything under the sun. Walk down Güneşli Bahçe Sokak where you'll be lured into one of the many fish restaurants by the persuasive (and handsome) hosts. If your sweet tooth is starting to kick in, pop into Beyaz Fırın Kadıköy or Sekerci Cafer Erol for traditional Turkish sweets including baklava, cookies, and marzipan. 

If you do decide to stay the night on the Asian side, Hush Hostels has two locations: one is right on the main street in Moda and another about a 15 minute walk away in a quieter part of town (called Hush Hostel Lounge). Shared dorm rooms are $12 and private rooms are just $20.

Spend the last hour of daylight at the Moda Seaside, a long path along the Bosphorus full of couples canoodling while they watch the sunset and colorful balloon dart games set up on the rocky edge of the path.

As dinnertime approaches, make your way to Cibalikapı Balıkçısı where you can start off with a variety of Turkish mezes such as stuffed grape leaves ('dolma', in Turkish), yogurt sauce, octopus, and sea greens. But, don't stuff yourself too much and save room for a fish entree!

If you haven't fallen asleep after this, enjoy a keyif, as the Turks say with a nargile (hookah pipe) back in Moda at one of the many bars on the main street.

Before heading back to the airport for your onward journey, spend a few hours getting lost around the European side of the city. Beyoglu is the perfect neighborhood to start in, but make sure to wear good shoes, as you'll be climbing some steep hills! Here you'll see what typical Turkish life is like with grandmas out shopping for dinner ingredients, men sitting in the local cay house, sipping tea and playing backgammon all day, and children playing in the streets. If you have time, head over to the Galata Tower and take the elevator up to the top for grand views of the entire city.

Make sure to go coffee shop hopping, as there seems to be an infinite amount of cafes to stop in. End the day with lunch and a Türk kahvesi in Karaköy, down by the water. Despite how many of them are condensed into just a few blocks, each and every one seems to be busy all the time. If you do decide you want to stay here for the night, Portus Hotel (~$36 for a private double) is a small hotel, with simple, clean design right in the center of the neighborhood.

Bonus day: If you fall in love and decide to stay longer (which you probably will!), take a trip out to the Princes Islands. In the summertime it's packed with folks from the city looking for a place to cool off on the beaches, but early on in the season you'll find a way to escape the masses if you venture out a bit. Büyükada is the big island and the busiest, but walk 40 minutes up the path to the Dilburnu Milli Park and you'll find lovely spots to picnic under the pine forest as well as views of the Sea of Marmara that will make you think you're at the end of the world. 

Turkish Airlines flies non-stop from multiple US cities including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. You can make a stopover for 24-36 hours before continuing onto one of their 272 destinations worldwide. 

 

The Adventurer's Guide to Crete: Beaches, villages, hiking and more!

Imagine being surrounded by mountains in each direction, staring out at a beautiful valley, hearing nothing but the sounds of the wind and the jingling of the bells coming from the local sheep. Now imagine sitting on the beach, trying to take a nap to the sound of children screeching and your least favorite music coming from the person’s iPhone next to you. Which version of Crete would you like to see? I’ll take the former.

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While I do enjoy the occasional trip to a busy amusement park and walking around crowded cities, when it comes to beaches, I do not settle for the popular spots. Trust me when I tell you that I can find the quietest spots to swim in, even in the most touristy places. In this week’s episode of Where in the World is Alex Sandiego, I’ll tell you about my 6 day road trip through Crete, the largest island in Greece.

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My journey in Crete started where most people start: Heraklion. I had only booked my flight from Istanbul 48 hours prior, and my car rental was booked no more than 6 hours before. I usually book accomodation for at least the first night I arrive in a new place, but after that I like to leave it open ended, even if I have a time constraint. 

After spending two hours gathering my rental car— I wouldn't suggest Goldcar, just stick with the trusted names like Europacar— I was off into the wild blue yonder that is the isle of Crete. The island is quite large, and 6 days is not even close to enough to see it all, so I decided to stick to exploring everything west of Heraklion, which is pretty much the center of the island. I had heard that Chania and Rethymno were good bases… but I knew I wouldn’t be sticking around the cities long. After all, I came here to see secluded beaches, authentic Greek mountain villages, and winding roads with drops down to the sea. But, knowing me I am bound to have some sort of ridiculous mishap within my first day of a new journey… and on this trip it happened only 12 hours in. 

After a long day of traveling from Istanbul, and what felt like an even longer evening of trying to retrieve my rental car in Heraklion I finally arrived around 11:30pm in Rethymno, where I had booked a hostel in the old city for my first night. By the time I arrived in the city, I was exhausted and ready to be done traveling for the day. The hostel was on a pedestrian street, and the main street had no parking spaces, so I was a bit confused on where I could legally park. Now if you read my last post [on Iceland], you know that I had no clue how to drive manual…. buuuut, things have changed since that trip a year ago and NOW I CAN DRIVE MANUAL TRANSMISSION! …..but not very well. I still find myself getting stuck on hills, spending five minutes parallel parking in a spot that would take me 10 seconds with automatic, and lurching backwards when I shift from first to second gear. But, the biggest issue I’ve had with every different car I’ve rented is reverse; until I google it, I JUST DON’T KNOW HOW TO GET THE DAMN THINGS INTO REVERSE. The problem is each car is so different, that not one of them has had the same way to do it. So each and every time I’ve driven the car off the rental lot, and not realized I didn’t know how to reverse it until I’ve already driven to my first destination. So here I was, sitting at the toll entrance to the parking lot trying to figure out the pricing at this lot. 

Whatever. I’m too tired to care. I’ll pay whatever it is. Besides, I don’t even know how to reverse this car out of here anyway.

And so I drove right into the lot…. ignoring some very, very important signage. It said:

No parking Wednesday midnight to Thursday 15:00 due to the market.

Sure enough, the next morning the parking lot had completely transformed into a full scale market. My car was wedged between a truck, grape seller, and ice cream vendor. What else could I do but wait? At first I was upset, but when I found out that a German friend I'd met in Mexico two years prior was also in town I headed over to her hotel for an afternoon on the beach. Minus the incident, Rethymno was a nice place to start a journey in Crete, but from there on out I knew I'd be spending most of my time in the villages. Once my car was free of the disaster the was the market, I headed up to a small village about thirty minutes away called Argiroupolis. My home for the night was at a guesthouse called Lappa Apartments run by a lovely woman named Sarah (with her 6 year old son's "help"). 

A view from the mean streets of Argiroupolis.

A view from the mean streets of Argiroupolis.

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To add to the bizarre events of the day, it turned out that once a year people hike up the road all the way from Rethymno, 30 kilometers away to make a pilgrimage to the town above Argiroupolis. There is a church there that is believed to have healing powers and grant prayers to come true and of course, the pilgrimage was that day. Because of this, there were as many parking restrictions as there could be for a village of 400. After a half an hour I finally found a spot down the road and arrived at Sarah's little slice of paradise.

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My one self portrait I took in Greece... couldn't resist with those gorgeous doors.

My one self portrait I took in Greece... couldn't resist with those gorgeous doors.

One day I will have a door this color. Greek doors are perfect.

One day I will have a door this color. Greek doors are perfect.

Sarah is originally from Germany, but married and had a son with a Greek man. Now running the hotel, she was sympathetic towards my stressful day, gave me lots of tips of where to go, and gave me an idea of what life in Greece truly is like. I'm eternally grateful for her hospitality and would highly recommend staying at her place.

The next morning I ventured down to the southern part of the island, where they say it's significantly warmer due to winds coming off of Northern Africa. Now, if there's one thing to know about me it's the fact that I LOVE beaches. I could seriously spend my entire life on a giant treasure hunt for the world's best beaches. And the best ones are of course, the quiet ones. So seriously, don't ask me if I like resort beaches, filled with package holiday tourists... ask me to find beaches like this:

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The ones where you have to climb down a sand dune to get there or the ones nestled between giant cliffs, covered with fog, or even the beach that's busy during the day but silent in the evenings after all the day trippers leave-- these are the beaches that I will find. 

It's a bit of a tough climb back up, but worth every second.

It's a bit of a tough climb back up, but worth every second.

Normally you have to pay for chairs and umbrellas.... not here! 

Normally you have to pay for chairs and umbrellas.... not here! 

At first I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to find this mysterious beach, Agiofarago Beach and in fact it wasn't until the next day that I realized I HAD found it.

I'm in love with the color of this sea.

I'm in love with the color of this sea.

View from the mountain above.

View from the mountain above.

Almost there!

Almost there!

If you're with the family, you can find another beach called Saint Paul on the other side of the mountain with easier access. A bit busier, but better than the beaches closer to the cities.

If you're with the family, you can find another beach called Saint Paul on the other side of the mountain with easier access. A bit busier, but better than the beaches closer to the cities.

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There are two places to park near Agiofarago Beach: one is near Saint Paul beach (which you see on this map as Agios Pavlos Beach) and the other is at the top of the hill, right above it. I accidentally navigated myself down to the busier beach and simply took the stairs past the beach, up to the top of the cliff where you'll find the view point (labeled as 'Apoplystra' on the map). Keep following the dirt path about 300 meters up and at the top you'll see the secret beach below. It seems that you can also park up there if you go down the road from "Meltemi", but for a compact car I'd suggest just sticking with the other road which is fully paved.

After a few hours of sun I headed back to the village and stopped for dinner at Arhaia Lappa Taverna, right down the road from the village. The food in Greece is delectable; it's fresh, green, and the olive oil is the freshest you'll ever taste— I even ate salads without vinegar, which if you happen to know my eating habits, is unheard of.

My favorite salad in Crete filled with fresh greens, avocado (which I'm allergic to, but whatever), some sort of seeds, and citrus dressing.

My favorite salad in Crete filled with fresh greens, avocado (which I'm allergic to, but whatever), some sort of seeds, and citrus dressing.

Although these lemons were past their time, I just wanted to show HOW LARGE THEY GROW HERE!

Although these lemons were past their time, I just wanted to show HOW LARGE THEY GROW HERE!

 

 

Driving directions... pretty straightforward.

Driving directions... pretty straightforward.

 

Sarah had also recommended that I try a restaurant which is located down the main road, right before the next village, Episkopi. She told me it's the kind of restaurant with home cooking you won't forget. Unfortunately I had trouble finding it, and moved on from the village before I got a chance to look for it. The sign of the restaurant says, 'Κήπος της Αρκούδαινας' which supposedly means 'The Bear' and has a large image of a bear outside the restaurant. I've finally found it on google maps... a few weeks too late. If you get there before me, let me know how it is!

 

Street view of the restaurant with the bear sign.

Street view of the restaurant with the bear sign.

 

 

 

Speaking of food, another one of my favorite places that I stayed and ate in was Panorama Askifou, about 30 minutes up the mountain from another South coast port town called Sfakia. Panorama is right off the main road in a small town on a plateau and is run by a local family. When I walked in, I saw grandma cooking and the father pulling apart greens and with that, I knew this place was a gem. Only the son spoke English, but he gave me a good deal on a room. Normal price was 45 euros, but because it was already evening he gave me a room (that sleeps four!) with a huge private balcony and incredible views for 30 euro. You can't even get a Motel 6 for this much in the US...

 

I arrived at the perfect time to take in the view, just around dusk.

I arrived at the perfect time to take in the view, just around dusk.

Papa cutting the stems off the local mountain greens.

Papa cutting the stems off the local mountain greens.

View from the restaurant.

View from the restaurant.

The owners collect a special flower that only grows in these mountains to make a "mountain tea". They pick them in June and let it dry out for a whole month. It was so good that I bought a 'bouquet' of them to bring home.

The owners collect a special flower that only grows in these mountains to make a "mountain tea". They pick them in June and let it dry out for a whole month. It was so good that I bought a 'bouquet' of them to bring home.

I didn't get to swim at the hotel's private pool because it was a bit too windy... just another reason to come back!

I didn't get to swim at the hotel's private pool because it was a bit too windy... just another reason to come back!

The same day I arrived at Panorama I had spent the day on another hunt for a great beach. This time I decided to take the boat from Sfakia over to Loutro. On the map it looked like a sleepy fishing village, but as soon as I got on the ferry with hundreds of other foreigners carrying suitcases and backpacks I realized I was wrong. While the town was very scenic, I wasn't interested in being surrounded by Germans and English people, and so I took a walk around the peninsula to a hotel and restaurant with a private beach. There's two ways to get over to The Phoenix: one is walking around the peninsula on a flat, dusty trail and the other is over the hill. Going over the hill is definitely faster, but steeper. Because I was wearing flip flops I decided to take the long way.

The beginning of the ~20 minute walk to The Phoenix beach.

The beginning of the ~20 minute walk to The Phoenix beach.

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Almost there...

Almost there...

I paid 2 or 3 euro for a chair and umbrella for the day. The water was beautiful, but looked a little sketchy once you were in it due to exhaust from the boats. 

I paid 2 or 3 euro for a chair and umbrella for the day. The water was beautiful, but looked a little sketchy once you were in it due to exhaust from the boats. 

The route I took over to Phoenix.

The route I took over to Phoenix.

After cooling off in the water, I had a greek salad over at the restaurant and then rented a strange looking, metal "kayak". Sadly I didn't get any photos on my journey, but I can tell you that it was the highlight of the day. I paddled about a 20 minutes out to the next bay where I not only saw people hiking above the cliffs (which I think you can do to get to a super quiet beach a few hours down by foot), but dozens and dozens of goats resting in the cave below these steep cliffs. How on earth they even got down there is a mystery to me. If I had more time, I would've kept going, but I needed to return my little vessel in order to catch the ferry back to Sfakia. You can also do a day trip from Loutro to Marmara beach or Sweet Water beach which has some cafes and sun beds; I heard from some other travelers was still lovely and not too busy. If you're feeling super adventurous, you could probably even kayak over to Marmara beach from Phoenix (I imagine it'd be about an hour one way, depending on how fast you go).

On the ferry to Loutro.

On the ferry to Loutro.

The run down on the towns that the ANENDYK ferries go to is as follows:

•Sfakia is where most people get on the boat, as it is accessible by road. The ferries that stop at both Loutro and Agia Roumeli depart at 10:30am, 1pm, and 6:30pm. If you're just going to Loutro they run at 10:30, 12:00pm, 1pm, 2pm, 4:30pm, 5:30pm, 6:30pm. Although the schedule says these are the times from August 18th-October 31st, so better to check the ferry's official website with timetables as they may change based on the season.

•Loutro seemed like a nice place to visit, but it was quite busy and you probably wouldn't need much time to explore the town itself as it's quite small. I'm sure it calms down overnight, but I got the feeling that out of all the towns reachable by boat it's the most popular, therefore I didn't explore the town at all.

Agia Roumeli is only accessible by boat or on an 8 mile hike through the Samaria Gorge. If you're feeling adventurous, you'll have to start from the top at Omalos, which I will tell you more about shortly. If you can hike quick enough, the beaches are pretty quiet before 2:30pm when the first day trippers arrive and the crowds start to fill in from the end of the hike.

Sougia is the other town accessible by road and was probably my favorite town I went to in this area. At 5:30pm the boat from Roumeli brings all the hikers back here, where most of them load onto buses departing for Chania. But, I decided to stay the night in this little seaside village at a place called Anchor Rooms. It was above a restaurant called Anchorage, which was absolutely AMAZING. Here I had the best seafood in two years (last place that was this good was in Bergen, Norway and it costs seven times the price). The folks who own the place were lovely, and honestly if I could eat there every day I probably would. I highly recommend the pasta with seafood, which includes shrimp, mussels, squid, and other creatures of the sea.

Palaiochora is one other place you can take the boat to. I didn't go here, so I am not qualified to give you tips on it, although it just seems like another busy town connected by road... but I could be wrong. If you do happen to go, let me know what it's like!

And now I present to you the most majestic part of my week on the isle of Crete: Samaria Gorge...

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There's signs all over saying not to feed the animals. Don't be that person (this guy wasn't one of them, but there were others who did).

There's signs all over saying not to feed the animals. Don't be that person (this guy wasn't one of them, but there were others who did).

Entering the gorge.

Entering the gorge.

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It is recommended that you run through the last 5 kilometers of the hike!!!

It is recommended that you run through the last 5 kilometers of the hike!!!

They don't want innocent hikers getting hit in the head by rocks, yet they allow us all to hike through here!

They don't want innocent hikers getting hit in the head by rocks, yet they allow us all to hike through here!

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Made it to the end!!

Made it to the end!!

By the end of the hike the sun was beating down, and I was ready to jump in the sea. Fortunately the town of Agia Roumeli is just 3 kilometers down the road, and to the relief of my blistered feet, there was a bus for 2 euro to go straight down the road into town. Worth the extra money? YEP. It seemed I made it earlier than the majority of the hikers and at this point the beach was still pretty quiet. There's several restaurants that have sunbeds which you can sit in for free if you purchase food. If not, you have to pay but I doubt it's more than a few euro.

Post hike swims are the best ones.

Post hike swims are the best ones.

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At 5:30 I took the boat over to Sougia where I'd be staying for the night. As I mentioned, Sougia is usually just a point of transfer for folks heading back to their bases in Chania. But man, was I happy that I decided to stay there for the night. The beach was pebbly, but peaceful and clean. I think that this was one of my favorite spots that I stayed in. While there isn't so much to do there, I would HIGHLY recommend staying after your hike.

The beach in Sougia

The beach in Sougia

View from my room at Anchorage 

View from my room at Anchorage 

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After a solid sleep in Sougia, I hopped on the 12:30pm bus back up to Omalos, where I picked up my trusty little Toyota Auris to return it in Heraklion. On the way out I stopped at Bali beach, which was packed with tourists and not even worth mentioning other than this single sentence. I figured it'd be easier to stay in the city of Heraklion and give myself the following day to explore, before my flight to Barcelona. I didn't have such high expectations, but it turned out that the capital city of the island was actually quite charming. I didn't get any photos due to my phone dying for good that day and my camera not being charged, but take my word that it's not a bad place to spend some time in.

I stayed at an apartment at the edge of the old city wall. The area was full of narrow streets, whitewashed buildings (typical Greece), and surprise passageways. As my taxi driver dropped me off, he told me that the restaurant on the corner called 'Οτι, Θες' (address is: Leof. Plastira 85, Iraklio 712 01, Greece and google shows it translated as 'Anything') was great for traditional Cretan meat dishes. Kristos, the older gentleman who owns the apartment recommended two different restaurants that both serve small dishes: Vourvouladiko and Kafeneion O Lakkos.

Lakkos had mainly outdoor seating and seemed popular with 20 somethings looking for a place to sit and talk with their friends. As it turned out, my waitress was a super friendly young women who has a passion for the United States... and American people. After taking my order, she told me that she "couldn't help but notice my American accent", and gave me her phone number if I wanted to ever hang out. I ended up spending the following day with her, walking around the city. She's from the island and has traveled just a bit, but has a great desire to see the US. Coming from a country that isn't doing so well economically, just being able to afford a roundtrip flight to North America seemed like something in the distant future, but I have faith that this passionate young woman will make her dreams of seeing America a reality. 

The lovely Eleni from Heraklion.

The lovely Eleni from Heraklion.

I've been to many places in the world and I cannot say I've liked all of them, but I enjoyed every second of my week in Crete. I think that Greece is even becoming one of my top five favorite places in the world. Maybe it's just because I resonate with the Mediterranean culture, but I know I'll be coming back to this island and encourage anybody who is loves warm people, delicious, healthy food, quaint mountain towns, and crystal clear seas to visit Crete.

SHEEP!!!!: Rainy adventures in Iceland

In the past few years it seems that people have done nothing but rant and rave about the wonders of Iceland. Being a total beach bum, I tend to spend my days traveling in hot climates such as the Tropics or Mediterranean, so it never occurred to me to travel to chilly, rainy Iceland. But, when I was looking for the best flight deals to Europe from California, it seemed that my cheapest option was to fly to Reykjavik via Seattle. And so after so research to double and triple check that this was truly my best option, I did it; I was officially going to Iceland!

In case you didn’t know, the name given to this country was actually a trick by Erik the Red. When he discovered Greenland, he wanted to make people think that it was a beautiful, green land that was worthy of settling in. But the truth was (and still is) that Greenland is full of ice and snow, and Iceland is the green, rocky country. But it is not to be said that it is sunny in Iceland…. 

Okay, so maybe there isn't a lack of ice in Iceland either.

Okay, so maybe there isn't a lack of ice in Iceland either.

View from breakfast at Kex Hostel in Reykjavik 

View from breakfast at Kex Hostel in Reykjavik 

"Ice beach" near the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 

"Ice beach" near the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 

I arrived in Iceland on a rainy Monday morning. The clouds hung low, and the cold air hit my face like a New York wind (which if you’ve ever been to New York in the winter, you know it is brutal). Despite, I had high hopes that there would be at least one or two days of sunshine. The people of Tripadvisor had suggest that it can be hit or miss, but is still a beautiful time to visit before it gets too icy and snowy. I soon learned that in Iceland, a “nice day” is a partly cloudy day at 50 degrees fahrenheit, with a lack of rain. But you’re lucky if you get a full day of that. As they say: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”. 

And so my six day rainy adventure in Iceland began… with rain. And lots of it.

On the bright (errr... colorful?) side, ever-changing weather is great for rainbow spotting.

On the bright (errr... colorful?) side, ever-changing weather is great for rainbow spotting.

I have never been much of a planner-- in fact, I thrive on the thrill of last minute plans and never knowing where I will end up the next day. That is basically how I ended up in a car for four days on a road trip, with somebody I had only known for 12 hours. Now before you think, "but that person could have been a murderer!!", just trust my judgement. The night before I was due to check out of Reykjavik (which I STILL cannot spell without the help of spell check), I found myself scouring the internet for rental cars and/or ways to get around the island without a car.

"Don't you guys think I should just rent a manual car and just learn to drive stick shift on my own? Nobody at home is ever going to teach me, since most people drive automatic in the US!" I asked two other Americans at the hostel.

Coming from a country where we are spoon fed nearly everything, a decade into my years of having a license, I still haven't got a clue how to work a manual vehicle. And of course the Europeans almost never drive automatic, so renting one is normally three times the price of a manual.

"NO! You'll burn out the clutch and never get anywhere," they told me. We debated this for the next hour, as I struggled to figure out how on earth I'd manage to get around the island.

As the other Americans got up to leave, I considered going to bed as well. But sometimes you make a split second decision that can change the course of your life (or in this case, the course of your trip to Iceland). Instead of leaving, I decided to give myself at least a little time to talk with the French guy who was also sitting nearby, listening in on our conversation. And in the end, it was a good thing I did, because ten minutes later he was giving me my first lesson in driving stick shift. By the end of my drive around the parking lot, and lots of stalling and stopping short I realized that it would be nearly impossible for me to rent a manual car.... because clearly I had NO idea what I was doing.

I don't speak Icelandic. I also don't drive stick shift.

I don't speak Icelandic. I also don't drive stick shift.

After my lesson and laughing about the weirdest safety video ever, I decided to be bold and ask if he wouldn't mind if I came along on his road trip the next day. Lucky me he said yes, and that is how I ended up on a road trip around Iceland with a guy I had just met.

Sometimes traveling with people you don't know can be a risk; and I'm not talking about safety, but rather locking yourself into being stuck with somebody you don't necessarily know you'll get along with. I know myself, and I know I am picky about everything in life from the food I eat, to the people I befriend. But from the start, I could tell that Remy from Toulouse and I were going to get along well.

I sang about sheep (Iceland is known for having one dangerous animal: SHEEP, because they often cause accidents in the road), we complained about the constant rain, and stopped at a small family owned restaurant on a farm in the middle of nowhere.

It finally stopped raining... for about ten minutes.

It finally stopped raining... for about ten minutes.

The famous Seljalandsfoss Waterfall... it started raining again once we arrived.

The famous Seljalandsfoss Waterfall... it started raining again once we arrived.

A mini volcano! Clear skies!!

A mini volcano! Clear skies!!

Farm house near mini volcano.

Farm house near mini volcano.

SHEEEEP!!! ....they ain't no joke.

SHEEEEP!!! ....they ain't no joke.

Remy throwing hay at them to get them to come over. I laughed at first.... until they wandered in our direction.

Remy throwing hay at them to get them to come over. I laughed at first.... until they wandered in our direction.

Iceland in French = Islande.

Iceland in French = Islande.

At the end of Day 1 after getting hailed on at a waterfall and driving through hours of rain, we came across the little picturesque village of Vik. It only took us a few minutes to drive through the entire town, and find a nice little guesthouse to stay in for the night. After dinner, around 7pm we asked the waiters where we could buy some alcohol. Turns out the liquor stores in Iceland close at 6pm. The restaurant could technically sell us a bottle of wine that we could take with us... but they had to take the top off. Note to self: if you want to buy alcohol in Iceland, do it early!

Remy being skeptical that we can carry open alcohol. Somebody might arrest us!!! ...wait there's no cops in this town.

Remy being skeptical that we can carry open alcohol. Somebody might arrest us!!! ...wait there's no cops in this town.

A glorious few hours of sunshine the following morning!

A glorious few hours of sunshine the following morning!

This river is wiiiild. Rivers and rooooads *sings all songs about rivers*

This river is wiiiild. Rivers and rooooads *sings all songs about rivers*

It seems that every large rock has waterfalls flowing down it's side.

It seems that every large rock has waterfalls flowing down it's side.

"Ice beach" near the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

"Ice beach" near the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

We paid $50 to take a 30 minute boat ride around these glaciers. Worth it? Eh, probably not.

We paid $50 to take a 30 minute boat ride around these glaciers. Worth it? Eh, probably not.

The glacier guide about to hack off a piece of glacier ice for us to eat. Yummy.

The glacier guide about to hack off a piece of glacier ice for us to eat. Yummy.

"I could have gone to Mexico and been sitting on the beach with a coconut... what am I doing here in the cold!!?" -me in the cold.

"I could have gone to Mexico and been sitting on the beach with a coconut... what am I doing here in the cold!!?" -me in the cold.

Okay, so it was kind of cool. Literally.

Okay, so it was kind of cool. Literally.

Feeling defeated and tired from lots of rain on our last night in Iceland, we stopped in a town about an hour out of Reykjavik. Just as we were getting ready to go to sleep, Remy asked if he thought we should give the Northern Lights one last shot... and so in our pajamas, we went off to a field on the outskirts of town.

"There's something up there, but it's just a white light. Must be light pollution..."

"No, I don't think so. I was told that you need time to adjust your eyes, and sometimes it does actually start without colors".

We pondered whether it was worth it or not to be standing outside in the freezing cold looking for some mythical dancing lights. As beautiful as I imagined they could be, it was a miracle that I made it 5 days in a country so far north-- when the temperature drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, I start shivering. 

"I see it moving!"

Low and behold, crawling slowly through the sky, between the clouds that had ruined the majority of our trip there she was: the mighty Northern Lights.

Disclaimer: while this photo is NOT enhanced on any photo editing programs, the lights were not this bright in person. Long exposures tend to bring out the best in the Northern Lights.

Disclaimer: while this photo is NOT enhanced on any photo editing programs, the lights were not this bright in person. Long exposures tend to bring out the best in the Northern Lights.

Never the less, we felt lucky to get to experience this.

Never the less, we felt lucky to get to experience this.

Northern Lights... with a little bit of light pollution mixed in.

Northern Lights... with a little bit of light pollution mixed in.

The aurora borealis turns cigarette smoke green... just kidding.

The aurora borealis turns cigarette smoke green... just kidding.

Following our joyous evening with the Lights, we headed back to the capital in the morning. We were fortunate enough to have at least one day that was NOT filled with cold rain, and we spent it strolling around the city taking photos of street art and cafe hopping.

We also took a visit to the lighthouse at the edge of town.

We also took a visit to the lighthouse at the edge of town.

It was unlocked.

It was unlocked.

We had to walk across this jetty to get to the lighthouse. 

We had to walk across this jetty to get to the lighthouse. 

The mean streets of Reykjavik (a city name which I still cannot spell without autocorrect). 

The mean streets of Reykjavik (a city name which I still cannot spell without autocorrect). 

Colorful Reykjavik 

Colorful Reykjavik 

The famous Hallgrímskirkja church

The famous Hallgrímskirkja church

While I did enjoy my time in Iceland and was very grateful to have the opportunity to go, my overall experience did not quite live up to my expectations. So many people told me that it is their favorite place in the world, but I think the bad weather just put a damper on it. I was suggested to visit the South-- and that it was the best option for those with limited time-- but I felt that this area didn't change much from the start to the end of our drive. Since my trip, I've had other friends who visited and had totally different experiences than me; if I were to do it again I think I would travel to the West Fjords in the Northwest, get a larger 4x4 car to go to the interior of the country and go in the summer time when there's less chance of rain (but still not guaranteed). If you do decide you're interested in the south, here's the route we took:

iceland map

The towns outside of the capital are all very small. And by very small I mean one or two restaurants, a convenience store (if you're lucky), and a few guesthouses. Our first night we stayed at a local guesthouse in a woman's home in Vik. I was quite surprised that a lot of the people out here don't speak English very well. It was enough to get by, but nobody seemed particularly interested in conversing much. 

The second night we drove to Jökulsárlón otherwise known as the Glacier Lagoon, then to Hofn for dinner. We did eat magnificent langoustine (a type of lobster) at a restaurant called Pakkhús Restaurant. It's right near the harbor and the restaurant has a view of the water. 10/10 would eat there again. There's not many places in town to stay, so we drove back south about an hour and stayed at another guesthouse off the main road called Guesthouse Skálafell. 

Accomodation options at Guesthouse Skalafell

Accomodation options at Guesthouse Skalafell

View from the bottom of the driveway, along the main road

View from the bottom of the driveway, along the main road

In Reykjavik I stayed at Kex Hostel, which is in an old cookie factory (Kex means 'cookie' in Icelandic). It was an excellent, social spot and even hosts live music in the evenings. I've heard they're one of the venues for shows during the famous music festival, Iceland Airwaves in November. 

 

Live music at Kex

Live music at Kex

Despite my feelings on Iceland, most people are absolutely enthralled just by the thought of this country. In the end, I learned that maybe I'm just not cut out for winter-y adventures... after all, I am one of the biggest beach bums you'll ever meet.

Road tripping through Mexico's Baja California

Every winter I seem to find a way to escape the cold weather of the northern hemisphere. In the fall I decided to try out a new kind of traveling: fall and winter backpacking in Europe. While it was fun to try out something new, I realized that I can't change who I am and what I love, which is a sun soaked winter by the beach. And so after just two weeks home, I set off for another new adventure that I'd always wanted to do: a road trip through Mexico. 

In the past few years I've traveled across the United States with my own car and anybody who knows me, knows that I love to drive. To be honest, I'd rather drive my own car for 11 hours straight than sit on a bus for 4 hours. While traveling by bus, I've always found myself dreaming of the freedom to stop at all the vista points in the mountains, hole in the wall restaurants in the middle of nowhere, and run out to catch the sunset. Having that freedom while traveling is is something truly special. Some of my favorite places I've found are ones that would be difficult to get to without your own car, and that is why I decided to take my own car down to Mexico. 

Driving through Latin America is quite different than driving in the States or even in the rural parts of Eastern Europe. In order to drive in Mexico, it's not only important that you are a confident driver, but you also must know how to drive both defensively... and aggressively.  Even with hundreds of thousands of miles behind my wheel, the idea of taking my precious Jetta into the wild world of Central America made me nervous. But knowing the key rules of the road will help on your Latin American adventure.

Key rules are as follows:

When another car is on your tail, signal with the left blinker to alert them that the coast is clear and it's safe to pass. When driving on a two lane road, cars from both sides will pass whether an oncoming vehicle is in the opposite lane or not. Therefore you must always be alert and know when to drive in the shoulder in order to allow sufficient space for three cars to momentarily line up without colliding. When looking for parking (estacionmiento), look for a sign with the letter E inside a circle and curbs lined with yellow paint (or no paint). Red paint on the curb is a no no.  When coming up at large intersections, the general rule is first there, first to go, but be aware of your surroundings as there are not always stop signs and people will not always adhere to that rule. If they're going faster than you, it's better to just let them pass. There are also many one way streets that are not clearly marked. If the road is short and wide in a smaller town, it's not a big deal to pass through. If it's a larger street in a major city, it's best to take a moment to check which way the traffic is moving and only turn in the correct direction.

Anyway. Onto the good stuff: stories and photos!

Shortly after crossing the border in San Ysidro (also know as the Tijuana crossing) I stopped for the evening in a town on the beach called Ensenada. I didn't have much interest in Tijuana, not because of it's reputation but simply because after months away from the Pacific I was ready to soak up all her glory. The crossing was painless and to my surprise when you enter Mexico through Baja California you don't even have to stop to have your passport stamped. This international border is essentially the same as a toll booth (but without the toll), where you slow down, get a photo snapped of your plates and are welcomed with a big sign for Mexico!

Even though it wasn't my first time in Mexico, there was a new excitement to cruising down Highway 1 south of the border. Within a half hour I made my first pitstop to take a photo. While the weather wasn't quite warm yet (actually I was still wearing the same coat I had on when I left San Francisco days before), the views were just what I was hoping for. 

I arrived in Ensenada with just enough time to shop around for some goodies before the shops closed. After chatting with a local shop owner in Spanglish, which has become my primary language here, I bought a beautiful hecho a mano (handmade) blanket for $20. Since the last time I was in the country two years ago the value of the peso has dropped from 12 pesos/1 USD to 20 pesos/USD, so now is the time to visit Mexico with the USD. 

Beginning the trip I figured that as usual, I would be doing most of the long distant traveling on my own with the possibility of new friends joining for a day or two at a time. But as traveling goes, surprises in the form of new friends were to come. The first night at the Ensenada Backpackers hostel I met Cynthia from Montreal who was spending a few weeks in Mexico without any solid plans. She ended up riding all the way down to Cabo San Lucas for the next week with me. While Ensenada was a nice town, I wasn't quite prepared for the cold temperatures at night. There was no heat inside the hostel and it had a heavy draft coming in, so I ended up leaving the next day.

Cynthia, just south of Ensenada at the beginning of our long drive through the desert.

Cynthia, just south of Ensenada at the beginning of our long drive through the desert.

A small town we stopped for lunch in.

A small town we stopped for lunch in.

Cynthia somewhere between Ensenada and El Rosario, where we pulled the car over and ran down a dirt road to catch the sun set over the ocean.

Cynthia somewhere between Ensenada and El Rosario, where we pulled the car over and ran down a dirt road to catch the sun set over the ocean.

Different exposures of the sun set, whose colors seem to change from minute to minute in the last hours of daylight.

Different exposures of the sun set, whose colors seem to change from minute to minute in the last hours of daylight.

While the first day's drive was a beautiful one, Cynthia and I both quickly realized that northern state of Baja California wasn't exactly the sunny, hot beach destination we'd been looking for in December. We decided that the next few days would be spent driving as much as we could each day in order to reach the popular North American vacation destination of Cabo San Lucas.

Valle de los Cirios, a protected area in which the Cirios cactus, native only to Baja (and a bit of Sonora)....  It went on, and on, and on for hours. 

Even the cacti have a place to pray for their lost ones.

Even the cacti have a place to pray for their lost ones.

Muy grande!

Muy grande!

In terms of safety, there are quite a few check points run by the federal police, but other than a quick "De donde va?" (where are you going?) and "De donde vienes?" (where are you coming from) and the occasional request that you pop the trunk, they won't bother or bribe you like most people believe. We kept forgetting which saying was which and would tell them in broken Spanish that we were coming FROM the town that we were actually going TO... and yet, they always just waved us right along.

It may not be a sunset on the ocean, but this one in the city of Guerrero Negro was one of the best sunsets I saw in Baja.

It may not be a sunset on the ocean, but this one in the city of Guerrero Negro was one of the best sunsets I saw in Baja.

From El Rosario and onwards, there wasn't really many attractions until we hit Mulege in Baja Sur. The city of Guerrero Negro was large, but uneventful, although I hear that December-March is whale mating season and you can get on a whale watching tour to see the baby whales. I would have loved to do it, but I also wanted to get the hell out of there. Instead I bought a sweater which proclaims that 'I <3 whales' (I <3 Ballenas) at the hotel gift shop. If you do happen to stay in Guerrero Negro as a stop over, or just to watch the whales I would recommend Hotel Malarrimo. The man at the desk (presumably the owner) didn't seem so friendly, but nevertheless it was a nice, affordable hotel with a little gazebo to sit outside under. The most eventful things that happened here were: running into a woman in the parking lot who was also from New York like me, AND lives in the same San Francisco suburb as I do. The second was my car's check engine light coming on. I previously had a potentially engine fatal problem caused by a bad oil change by Jiffy Lube (avoid them at ALL costs!) and was concerned that there was something seriously wrong with my car. Turns out it was on because Mexican gas is a different quality... or something like that. I don't know much about cars, but note to anybody with a European car driving through Mexico: fill it up with premium (red) gas rather than the green. Since then it's been smooth sailing with the car..... when on the toll roads.

Stopped on the side of the road to pee behind this building... although no disrepect, because I agree with this statement.

Stopped on the side of the road to pee behind this building... although no disrepect, because I agree with this statement.

Long stretches of desolation in the center of the peninsula. 

Long stretches of desolation in the center of the peninsula. 

Four days in, we finally hit the winding coastal roads along the Gulf of California.

Four days in, we finally hit the winding coastal roads along the Gulf of California.

While this stretch of the road was truly stunning, we had our first and only terrifying near death moment on the road. While driving up a curvy stretch along the water in a light rain, we saw a car coming down the hill that had lost control. I don't know if he was drunk, his breaks were shot, didn't know how to drive when the roads are slippery, but he was coming straight towards us. Often on this road there was little to no shoulder, but at this point I had just enough room to pull my car to the shoulder before he sped past us, missing my car by mere inches. Watching in the rearview mirror I was convinced that I was about to witness something I'd been expecting to see one day: a car drop right into the ocean. Miraculously he managed to stop his car right at the edge of a pull off... also just inches from tumbling to his death. For the next two days I drove with extreme precaution, slowing down any time another vehicle passed me on a curve too fast. It's moments like these that make you grateful to be alive.

Our last two stops before reaching Cabo San Lucas were Mulegé and Loreto. Mulege is a palm tree oasis, that pops up out of nowhere after long stretches of desert. There's not too much to do there but it was a nice place to stop over for the night. We met some Spanish guys also traveling by car from California and hung out with them in the tiny main square. Here, some local boys begged us (and by us, I mean the boys) to play soccer/football with them... on a basketball court. I'm not much of a sports person, so I just cowered at the opposite end of the "field" until the game was over. Later on in the evening I found out that there's no need to be afraid of police or crime in Baja.... just the 14 year old boys who will surround you and pressure you to let them have some of your wine!

Chillin' in a hammock in our little courtyard oasis at the hotel in Mulegé.

Chillin' in a hammock in our little courtyard oasis at the hotel in Mulegé.

Turns out Mexicans are spacially challenged. Not the best position to place the toilet!

Turns out Mexicans are spacially challenged. Not the best position to place the toilet!

The one shop in Mulegé that sold Mexican blankets was owned by a woman from Oaxaca (famous for it's handmade goods). I bought this extremely bizarre one from her. This warrior will always protect me!

The one shop in Mulegé that sold Mexican blankets was owned by a woman from Oaxaca (famous for it's handmade goods). I bought this extremely bizarre one from her. This warrior will always protect me!

Another few hours down the road, we spent the night in Loreto which was uneventful. There was a nice hostel called Casas Loreto and the owner was very friendly and enthusiastic about Loreto, but I wouldn't recommend staying for more than an overnight stop.

We tried on these sombreros. We didn't buy them. I wish we did.

We tried on these sombreros. We didn't buy them. I wish we did.

We did manage to find margaritas that were 2 for 70 pesos ($3.50 USD)

We did manage to find margaritas that were 2 for 70 pesos ($3.50 USD)

Not so good photo of the church in the main square.

Not so good photo of the church in the main square.

Once we got past Mulegé and Loreto we reached La Paz, which is a fairly large port city and much warmer and pleasant to visit than anywhere else we'd been so far. We stayed at Baja Backpackers owned by an American guy who was sent to Baja many years ago to work in the mining and construction industry. It was here that I met Claudia and Sara, two girls who had hitchhiked all the way from their home in Cuernavaca (an hour south of Mexico City) to Mazatlan, the city across the Gulf from La Paz, and then took a flight to Baja. They left home with a minimal amount of money and only slept on the beaches and in the homes of people they met on the way. The best part is that they weren't even staying at this hostel when we met; they had just stopped in to use the shower there. I didn't know it at the time, but I would soon end up changing my entire plan in order to drive across mainland Mexico with them.

My favorite beach that we visited in Baja, Bolandra Beach.

My favorite beach that we visited in Baja, Bolandra Beach.

After a few hours of lazing around we hiked up to a mountain with epic views of the bay.

After a few hours of lazing around we hiked up to a mountain with epic views of the bay.

I bought a wood carved cactus and mantaray from this guy near Tecolote Beach in La Paz.

I bought a wood carved cactus and mantaray from this guy near Tecolote Beach in La Paz.

On Christmas Eve I made my way down to Cabo San Lucas with my two new friends in tow. We chose to stay at a hostel called Ocean Tigers Divehouse which is owned by a French man who offers good deals on diving courses in addition to accomodation. Other than some of the rowdy, drunken guests, I did think it was a very nice hostel and the owner was helpful with any info we needed. Our second night the house was fully booked, but he let us pay half price to sleep on the couch on Christmas Day. I even had a space in the driveway to park my car.

This dude from San Diego hitchhiked all the way from California to Cabo. At one point a cop gave him a ride and then would drop him off an hour later with another officer in the next region down. He got at least a few hundred miles this way in a single day.

This dude from San Diego hitchhiked all the way from California to Cabo. At one point a cop gave him a ride and then would drop him off an hour later with another officer in the next region down. He got at least a few hundred miles this way in a single day.

Claudia, Sara, and I gazing out the window at the beach across the street from the hostel in Cabo San Jose.

Claudia, Sara, and I gazing out the window at the beach across the street from the hostel in Cabo San Jose.

At the start of my trip I planned to drive to the bottom of the peninsula and then head back up, spending maybe two weeks in Mexico this time around. But low and behold, I am always making spontaneous decisions to make trips I never dreamt of taking and before I knew it, I'd agreed to take my car on the ferry across the Gulf of California and drive back towards Mexico City with my new friends. Two months later, I've made it to Chiapas, the most southern state in the country and am soon headed to Guatemala. 

My overall thoughts on Baja are that the drive had some interesting sites to see, but it was more like things you'd stop to marvel at for 20 minutes and then move on from. Honestly, I probably wouldn't do the drive down the 1,000 mile peninsula again, but I am glad I had the opportunity to do it. In my opinion, mainland Mexico is much more interesting and enjoyable, but more on that later...

People on streets: taking notice of others in need

It’s 3am and I’ve just gotten back from a pub crawl in Riga with a large group of 20 something-year olds staying at my hostel.  I’m sitting here alone in my room thinking about all of the people who were out drinking tonight. Presumably all from middle class families, maybe not all of us have had the easiest lives, but we’re all young and able-bodied and have enough money to feed ourselves.

“I’m so fortunate and I shouldn’t take that for granted” 

“At least I have a roof over my head” 

These are phrases that are so much easier to say than they are to actually understand and appreciate. But, more importantly, we need to understand how people on the other spectrum live— the ones who don’t have a home to live in. 

And then of course you’ll find people in small villages on the streets (or in the sea) selling whatever they can to survive. Maybe they do have a home, but I can’t imagine it’s much considering what they’re doing out on the streets. 

In some countries they lie to make money. Women wear headscarves that they don't normally wear, hold their young children in their arms, and eye passersby with a look of despair. They cry out that they have no money and need yours. At the end of the day, they take off the scarf and chat with their friends who run the hotel next door. Maybe they aren’t really homeless, maybe their husbands make enough money for them to eat every day. But, if this is what they are choosing to spend their days doing, then maybe, just maybe, they really are in need of money to keep a roof over their heads.

And you’ll find men sitting on the streets all day not saying a word. No begging, no hassling, no selling. Just waiting. They’re just waiting for somebody to pass by and say “hey I want to buy that wicker broom for 50 krona”. And maybe he will have enough to buy dinner. Sometimes it's impossible for me to walk by a person like this and forget their face. To this day, I still think of some of those folks.

Or maybe it’s the lovely man who has escaped an impoverished land for a country with greater opportunities. But unfortunately for him, he's landed in one of the countries in the EU that in recent years has become known for it's economic instability. Maybe he does have another source of money, but at the same time, I'd bet you anything that whatever he makes from playing those smooth blues melodies on the streets of Athens is a necessary supplement to it.

athensbluesplayer

We often walk by these people and think that there is something wrong with them; that they did something bad to end up here. But in reality, it can happen to anybody. These people have stories just like you and I, and in fact they are often the most interesting stories. Whether you think you could never relate to the woman on the boat selling scarfs, the ice cream man, or the guys working at the tea house in a small town-- we can learn so much from people who we think are so different. Because in the end, we're all connected.

And the next time you waltz by them without a thought, just stop and think. Think about how much that 50 cents, 1 euro, 1 dollar, or whatever it is that you have to spare, could make a difference to them. And think about how badly you really need to save that small change. Maybe 1 euro won’t change their lives, but if every person who passed by them, or even every other, it WOULD change their lives.

Trust in Strangers: Bozcaada, Turkey

It had been so hot the past few days in Turkey, that I could barely manage to leave my hotel room in the city. After suffering through the heat for what felt like forever, I took the ferry to Bozcaada, a beautiful former Greek island-- one of the only two islands left in the Aegean, still belonging to Turkey.

After taking a short dolmus (minibus) ride from the town center to the beach, I stopped at the closest, most convenient place for water. It turned out that the owner was an English speaking man who had just moved from Istanbul to open a small bar right in that very spot. 

“You’re from Australia, right?”

I snickered at this Turkish man's poor read on my accent.

“Not even close!”

It’s always funny to me how non-native English speakers can’t tell the blatant difference in accents between an Australian and American. 

“I’m from New York,” I corrected him.

After chatting for a minute, I headed down to the beach for a much needed jump in the sea. In the past years, it has become one of my main missions in life to find the best beaches around the world, and almost all of them have been in Turkey.

Returning to the bar after two hours of swimming I got talking with the Turk who sold me the water. As many people do, he left his life in the city for the quiet island life to open the small beach bar. 

“I can’t believe that you’re traveling alone as a girl here in Turkey,” he said to me.

Yeah, I get that a lot.

“I see no reason to be afraid of the world. What makes traveling my own country where there is just as much hatred and violence, any safer?"

He realized that I had a point.

“If you’d like I can drive you back to town and we can get dinner. Only if you want.”

Most of my friends or anybody who hasn't traveled much would probably tell me that this was a horrible idea. But the way that I see it is that life is not only an adventure that must be had, but it's also about having good judgement. It's about knowing when somebody has good intentions and when they have bad ones.

Sometimes my intuition does fail me, but this time it did not. I’ve had my fair share of being picked up by men with the intention of sex, but I could tell that this man was being genuine. 

“Do you want a tour of the island?” he asked. Did I? Hell yeah. 

Not only that, but he knew of a spot where you can see a wrecked ship off the coast. Anybody who knows me, knows that I LOVE abandoned things whether it’s buildings, vehicles, or ships. 

And so we went off to see the abandoned ship. I showed him how to use his camera, took some shots of my own, found out that he had worked at a summer camp not far from my home town, and had dinner (for free) at his friend's restaurant right on the marina.

After many years of traveling both in my own country and around the world I've made an important realization: it’s important to trust your judgement and be careful who you go off with, but also not to be afraid of every person you meet. Because in situations like this evening's, trusting a stranger resulted in nothing less than an incredible night. That’s part of why I love Turkey and the Middle East— people aren’t afraid to talk to you and invite you for tea or dinner by the sea. It can definitely be a bit scary sometimes, because as we know, not everybody has good intentions.  But, when you pick the right people you’ll end up having unforgettable experiences around the world.