Archive for October, 2011

Thoughts on Finland

Posted by Arlo on Oct 31, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

When planning our round-the-world trip, there were a few places we knew we wouldn’t get a chance to visit.  China and India, because they were big and daunting enough to become full trips of their own.  The Middle East, because of the volatility of the region.  And Europe, because we knew we’d never be able to stay within our budget.

We managed to get a taste of Europe though, when we visited Finland.  Why, of all the countries we could have chosen, Finland?  Two reasons:  It’s the closest country to St. Petersburg, our point-of-entry into Russia, and one of Oksana’s college roommates, Kaisa (who came to Alaska as an international exchange student), lived in Helsinki.

Our flight from Bulgaria actually went south first, for a layover in Istanbul, so it was late afternoon by the time we arrived in Finland and we were tired from a long day of travel.  When we reached immigration, the officer behind the counter grilled us.  How long are you staying? Where are you going next? Where are your tickets out of the country? How much money do you have?   

We had answers for everything but the tickets; we told him that our plan was to buy bus or train tickets to Russia within the week.  He was skeptical when we told him we only had 43 Euros on us (which was how much we received after exchanging the remainder of our Bulgarian lev at the airport.)  He demanded to know how we would get more money within the country, so I started pulling credit and debit cards from my wallet and snapping them onto the counter.  He stopped me at four, stamped our passports, and waved us through.

Kasia was waiting for us beyond customs and, after hugs, she whisked us away from the airport and took us directly to her farmhouse in the countryside, 80kms north of Helsinki.  We spent most of the next five days on the farm, enjoying the peace and quiet, but we saw a bit of Helsinki, too, as we somehow managed to make the long trip into the city each and every day we were there.
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The Orbitz Fiasco

Posted by Arlo on Oct 26, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Travel

Imagine this:  Months ago, you found a great deal on an international airline ticket and you decided, on the spot, to change your travel plans in order to take advantage of it.  You bought the tickets, received itineraries via email, and promptly forgot all about them.  Then, on the day before your flight, you decided to hop online to see if you could do a web check-in, perhaps get early seat assignments.  That’s when you discovered that your flight had been rescheduled for the day before and had, in fact, departed two hours ago.

That’s what happened to Oksana and me in Moscow a couple weeks ago.

Let me back up, tell it from the beginning.

We were in Aswan, Egypt, at the end of July.  Our next couple of weeks were planned out, but we had a deadline on the horizon.  My Russian visa, which we’d obtained in Argentina, had set dates.  I could enter any time after July 1st, but I had to leave the country by the end of September.  We wanted to spend at least a full month in Russia, so that meant we only had one month, August, to travel through the Middle East and Europe.

While searching around for flights online, Oksana stumbled on a remarkable deal: One-way, Moscow-to-Bangkok, SriLankan Airlines tickets for $339.40 each.  The date was perfect, September 28th, but we were planning on entering Russia near Moscow and traveling to the Far East over the course of our month-long stay.  Oksana spent a few more hours crunching the numbers and discovered something interesting: Even accounting for one-way tickets back to Moscow from Kamchatka, we could still fly to Thailand for around half the price of booking tickets out of Vladivostok.   On the spot, we decided to cross the whole of Russia twice and booked our tickets through Orbitz.

Fast forward to September.  We entered Russia via Estonia and spent a week in St. Petersburg.  From there, we took the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Irkutsk, then flew to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy – Oksana’s hometown.  We spent a couple weeks there with her brother and actually changed our airline tickets so that we could get back to Moscow sooner and spend an extra day there.  Our Aeroflot flight left on the 27th at 5:30pm and arrived in Moscow, nine hours later, at… 6:30pm.

We crashed early that night, with the strangest case of jetlag I’ve ever experienced.

The next evening, around 7:30pm on the 28th, Oksana decided to get online and see about our seat assignments.  Our flight was scheduled to leave the following day, on the 29th, at 5:40pm, but she couldn’t find the flight anywhere on the SriLankan Airlines web site.  Confused, she went back to her email and dug up the latest message from Orbitz.

At first blush, nothing looked awry.  The big, bolded sub-head still read “Moscow to Bangkok 9/29/11,” but further down, the itinerary actually began with “Wednesday, September 28, 2011.” That’s where she noticed that the flight had left right on time… just 24 hours before we expected it to!

A careful read of the rest of the email turned up this phrase in a teeny-tiny font size:

Hi! This is from orbitz. Please call orbitz because there has been a schedule change in your reservation. Thank you.

Click to enlarge


Oksana looked up from her computer. “Oh my God.  I think we just missed our flight!”

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PVX: McDonald’s in Bulgaria

Posted by Arlo on Oct 25, 2011 under McDonald's of the World, Postcard Valet, PV-Podcast, Travel, Videos

Who would have thought Bulgaristan would have had one of the most interesting McDonald’s menus we’ve encountered so far?  Not me!

We only had two days in Sofia, the capital, so we made sure to hit McDonald’s for dinner the night we arrived.  We saw so many things on the menu we wanted to try that we went back again the next day.  Because this is a double-shot of food sampling, it’s a slightly longer-than-normal video.

Also, this is where we learn that Oksana has been lying to us!  After I turned off the camera, she made a face and said she really didn’t like the Zorba.

“What?!” I asked.  “Why  didn’t you say that on camera?”

“I don’t know…” she replied.

We ended up swapping burgers, so I didn’t even get to eat my McMenu Shrimp Lemon Burger!  I have to admit, too, that the Zorba does whatever the opposite of “grows on you” is.  By the end, I had to force myself to eat the last bite.  Oksana was right on one point: That cheese was really salty!

And don’t worry.  Oksana has since vowed to be more honest on camera.  Let’s hope she doesn’t start doing spit-takes!

Thoughts on Bulgaria

Posted by Arlo on Oct 24, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

This was our plan when we thought we had a lot of time:  Fly from Israel to Istanbul, then work or way north through Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.  From there, we’d swing west to Poland (because Belarus has an expensive visa) and continue up through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the way to visit a friend in Finland.

By the time we left Turkey, however, our plans had changed.  Our new plan was to go north to Bulgaria… and then fly directly to Helsinki.

We still had some time, but we came to this decision for two reasons.  First, Oksana’s childhood friend, Karina, invited us to stay with her vacationing family in their Sveti Vlas condo on the Black Sea.  Second, the stay was offered rent-free and without a limit on duration!  It turned out to be a great opportunity for us to recoup some of the money we’d spent on our recent travels.

Staying with Karina in her one-bedroom condo was her grandmother and one-year-old daughter.  They generously gave us the bedroom and we quickly settled into a routine.  Babuska busied herself making three huge meals every day, Oksana and Karina spent every waking hour catching up and fussing over Liza, Karina’s daughter, and I spent most of my time in the bedroom (since I couldn’t keep up with the spoken Russian) making a lot of headway on my travel writing.

From time to time, we’d go for a walk with Liza in the stroller, pick up some groceries, go to the beach, or buy a beer at the pub across the street so we could use their wi-fi.  A week turned into 10 days.  10 days turned into two weeks.  We left Sveti Vlas on a bus, bound for the capital city of Sofia, where we spent just a couple of days before flying out.

Sveti Vlas was a total resort town, which was a great place to kick back and enjoy the warm weather, but it didn’t give us any idea about what the rest of Bulgaria was like.  Sofia was more interesting; both Oksana and I enjoyed it a lot.  It was in Sofia that Oksana first remarked, “You know what?  I think I could live here for a little while…”

Here are some of the things I found interesting about Bulgaria:
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PVX: McDonald’s in Turkey

Posted by Arlo on Oct 18, 2011 under McDonald's of the World, Postcard Valet, PV-Podcast, Travel, Videos

Guess what?  We ate at McDonald’s in Turkey, too.

Not much to say about this one except that we used the trip to McDonald’s as an excuse to go a little farther from our hotel in Sultanahmet.  We rode the metro to the Kanyon Mall and planned to take in a movie, too, but the ticket prices were pretty high and nothing was starting soon, so we just did our McDonald’s thing instead.  The restaurant was so crowded (and obviously trendy) that we weren’t sure we’d even get a table at first.

And dang it!  This is the third week in a row I’ve posted a McDonald’s video with audio problems.  It’s a really good thing this sort of stuff doesn’t bother me.  This time, it wasn’t the fault of the video camera; what you’re hearing is what it picked up in a very noisy restaurant.  No, the fault lies in that little microphone you can see on the table with the red record light.  The red record light that lets us know it’s recording.  The red record light that has nothing to do with whether or not the recording will eventually be saved to the micro-SD card inside.  It’s only happened once or twice so far, but sometimes the mic (a Zoom H1) “crashes” (for lack of a better word.)  Oh, well.  At least I don’t have to type up subtitles this time.

Thoughts on Turkey

Posted by Arlo on Oct 17, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

The end of November.  Family gatherings, The Dallas Cowboys playing on TV, the smells of traditional Thanksgiving recipes wafting from the kitch–

Wait.  Sorry.  Not that kind of “turkey.”  This one:

Istanbul from the water

Turkey was never on our list of must-visit countries.  The only reason we went to Istanbul was because (aside from some place in France), it was the cheapest fare out of Israel listed on  We only spent three days there, and we didn’t stray far from the Sultanahmet area, but even just that little taste was enough to put Turkey at the top of a list of places I want to return to again.

Public Transportation

Arriving in a new country is never very fun.  There’s always so much to figure out.  When we fly in, our priorities are to get through immigration, find an ATM to secure some local currency at an exchange rate we can trust, and then we usually just suck it up and pay for a cab straight to a hotel.  Airports are usually a good distance from the city center and we end up paying for that first ride, but it’s often worth it to skip having to navigate yet another metro, in a foreign language, with all our luggage.

Istanbul was different.  The airport was a pleasure to navigate, with English translations printed on every sign.  We didn’t yet have visas, so before going to immigration, we followed the signs to the “visa bank.”  Step up to any counter, present your passport and a twenty-dollar bill, and they’ll slap a small stamp on one of your empty pages.  Total time to obtain a visa: 30 seconds.

Later, as we came out of customs with our bags, we were not surrounded by taxi touts, even when we stopped a minute to look around.  We collected our Turkish lira from the ATM and decided to follow the signs to the metro.  Hey, why not?  It was mid-afternoon and it didn’t look packed.  On the way, we spied a tourist information booth.  They gave us a free metro map and confirmed what we had already figured out; we’d need to make just one route change on the way.


Istanbul’s metro system is a pleasure to navigate.

The token dispensing machines couldn’t be easier.  Just slide in some cash, select how many trips you want, and out come your tokens and change.  The hardest part was getting our big backpacks through the turnstiles.  Half way through our ride to Sultanahmet, we had to get off the train line and get onto a trolley (tramvay.)  It was slightly more crowded – we had to stand with our packs – but no more troublesome.  Within 20 minutes or so, we had made it all the way from the airport to the doorstep of our hotel and at a tiny fraction of what it would have cost us to take a cab!

Tourist Friendly

I hate to keep harping on Egypt, but Egypt deserves it.  It’s impossible to simply go sightseeing there, because touts and hustlers are constantly vying for your attention.  Istanbul, in comparison, was like a breath of fresh air.

Stepping off the metro at the Sultanahmet station was like walking through the gates of Disneyland.  The Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque dominate the skyline, literally thousands of people wander around the large park and countless vendors are selling their wares.  We’d been traveling since late the night before and I was in no mood to be harassed on the way to our hotel.  I hefted my pack, hunched my shoulders, and resolved to not make eye contact with anyone except the receptionist at the hotel.

No one spoke to us on the way.  No one called out, asking us to buy anything.  No one offered us – two tired tourists with backpacks! – a taxi. It was wonderful.

Later that evening, once we had rested a bit, we decided to go out and wander through the stalls.  I slung my DSLR over my shoulder – something I would have felt very uncomfortable doing in Cairo – as we headed out the door.

Just as soon as we stepped into the street, a man came out of his carpet store and sidled up next to me.  “Sir, can I show you some excellent Persian carpets?”

Oh, here we go, I thought.  “No thank you.”  I looked straight ahead, but he was still walking along beside me.  I turned to give him a bit of a glare.

“Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “I’m just walking in the same direction.”  He smiled as we parted ways at the corner.  I felt bad.

Over and over, our inaccurate preconceptions were thrown back into our faces like that.  At the Grand Bazaar, vendors were happy to have you just window shopping.  At the Spice Market, we bought an assortment of dried fruit and the salesmen rounded up when weighing our bag and went on to trim a few cents off the price because it was easier to make change.  At a convenience store near our hotel, the guy behind the counter would always throw a couple pieces of gum in our bag, just to be friendly.

Three days in Turkey wasn’t enough for us to completely lower our guard, but Istanbul went a long way towards restoring our enjoyment of markets.


You don’t shop when you’re on a round-the-world trip.  Or, if you do, you spend a fortune on postage.  Oksana and I have both remarked about how “lucky” we are in this respect.  Because we both already have heavy bags and a tight budget, souvenir collecting has lost much of its appeal.

Turkey, however, was perhaps the first country where we began to regret our inability to shop.  Hanging lanterns, colorful earthenware, clothing, and antiques.  We wanted to take so many things home with us from the Grand Bazaar!  We also appreciated that we were once again in a world where prices were posted on most items.  Even if we weren’t planning to buy anything, it was nice to at least know the starting price.

I remember an interaction with one of those ubiquitous carpet salesmen.  While Oksana was taking pictures in the Grand Bazaar, I was standing around, looking at everything on display.  A man came out of his store and walked up to me.

“Come in, let me show you my carpets,” he said.

I could tell his English was pretty good.  I decided to be polite and explain why I couldn’t.  “I’m sure they’re beautiful, but I can’t buy one.”

“But why?  You don’t even know the price!”

“It doesn’t matter. I’ve been backpacking around the world for a year and I don’t have that kind of room in my bag.”

“Ah,” he said, thinking he had me trapped. “This is no problem. I can ship anywhere!”

“Ah,” I replied with a smile, “but I don’t have an address! We sold our house and all our belongings before traveling!”  It was a half truth, but it worked.  I could see him struggling to come up with another angle, but eventually he had to admit that I wasn’t in the market for a giant rug.


Turkey, or at least Istanbul, is mostly Muslim, but to me, it seemed a much more liberal Muslim than the countries we’d visited in Africa and the Middle East.  Granted, we were in a very touristy area, but even at the height of Ramadan, we saw fewer women in full burkas.  Perhaps in a testament to how cosmopolitan Istanbul is now, we saw many women who were wearing trench coat-burkas.  More stylish than simple billowing silks, these were burkas that managed to cover everything that needed covering, but with fashionable buttons and lapels to give it a certain flair.  Reminded me a bit of the costumes in The Matrix.

They say that Asia meets Europe in Istanbul and I can think of no better example than those trendy burkas we saw there.


Small note, but one that we certainly took notice of.  While waiting for our bus to Bulgaria to get underway, the driver started smoking a cigarette.  Within moments, the whole bus smelled like smoke, but fortunately for us he didn’t keep smoking on the 12-hour ride to Burgas.

We Americas often get a (bad?) rap for being overly health-conscious and controlling, but I tell you what:  There’s nothing like having a nice meal in a restaurant ruined by a guy with a cigar sitting next to you to make it all seem worthwhile.

That said, this was just one incident in Turkey.  To be honest, I’ve been quite surprised about just how many countries we’ve visited that have laws in place to protect the public health.  Restaurants, bars, public buildings – many more places that I would have guessed are off-limits to smokers, just like in the U.S.


Kids playing in a fountain

All over Istanbul, we noticed public fountains.  Not drinking fountains, more like, I don’t know – something older.  These were concrete basins, often set against monuments or ornamental walls.  We saw them in Sultanahmet, inside the Grand Bazaar, just about everywhere.

Even cooler, they were almost constantly being used.  Often people just stopped by to wash their hands real quick, but I also saw a few people splash water on their heads during the heat of the day.  Personally, I wasn’t going to drink from them, but they may have even had potable water.  I saw one person washing their fruit in one and another drinking straight from the spigot.

I’d bet this fountain culture is a holdover from past times when people got their water from communal wells.  I think it’s pretty neat that the city still devotes resources to keeping a tradition like this alive.


Turkish writing bothered me.  After going through a couple Arabic countries – not to mention Israel – where we couldn’t read a thing, I sort of trained myself out of trying to puzzle out the signs.  Turkish is written with a modified Roman alphabet, though, so my brain couldn’t help but try to read each one, even though I had no idea how to pronounce any of the letters.  The end result was the visual equivalent of having something on the tip of your tongue all day (or perhaps seeing an actor in movie and not being able to place where you’ve seen him before.)  Highly frustrating.

Fortunately, however, Istanbul is a lot like other big, touristy cities, in that you’re never very far from someone who speaks passable English.  We had no problems communicating with our hotel staff, restaurant waiters, or when asking directions.

Once, on the street, a person walking past us said, as a way of greeting, “Hello please Lady Gaga!”  Just like that, all at once, without any punctuation.  I have no idea what they meant, but it could almost be a metaphor for what my brain gets out of reading Turkish.

Where in the World Are You?

Posted by Arlo on Oct 13, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Travel

You really need to click here for a closer look!

Early on, on this round-the-world trip of ours, Oksana and I had a serious conversation about just dumping all our electronics gear — our laptops, our cameras, all the batteries and chargers; everything but our clothes — and continuing on without it.  It would have probably halved the weight of our bags, but more importantly, it would have freed us from the self-imposed responsibility of sharing everything online.  Believe it or not, the stress associated with posting new stuff to this blog or on Facebook and Twitter can, at times, detract from our trip.  The travel blogger’s dilemma: Any time spent blogging is time not spent traveling…

One of those pieces of electronics that’s been weighing us down is a handheld GPS unit made by Garmin.  Every day — every single day! — we start it up just before we walk out the door and let it track our progress wherever we go.  We selected this particular unit, a Garmin eTrex Vista HCx, for its battery life.  Two AA batteries last around 25 hours.  At the end of every day, I save a GPS track.  When I have some spare time in front of the computer, I import them all into Google Earth, write up a brief summary of the day, and then combine everything in Google Maps for our website.

If you’ve been following the site, you know that we post a ton of photos, write something up from time to time, and post a video here and there.  If you’re really paying attention, you also know that we’ve been silently updating other parts of the site with much greater frequency.  (See: Our Recommended Tours page, our travel budget, and our “Where Are We?” page.)  Keeping up with this takes a huge amount of effort and is also a big reason why I haven’t written more blog entries or posted more videos on the site.

To stay motivated, I have to keep reassuring myself how cool it will be to have all this data at the end of our trip.  We’ll be able to dig into our budget and tell you exactly how much money we spent on, say, public restrooms in every country.  We’ll be able to recommend hotels for people traveling to the same destinations.  And we’ll be able to print out a wall-sized map of the world with our GPS track scrawled across it!

That’s what I wanted to show you today.  Google Maps is notoriously finicky about showing maps with huge tracks across them.  To reduce loading time, it usually breaks your map up into multiple pages, but every once in awhile, I’ve noticed that Google Maps displays my map in its entirety.  This time, when I saw all the tracks laid out before me, I made sure to zoom in, screencap everything, and stitch a big map back together in Photoshop.  There are still some problems with it (notice some of the gaps in the tracks — they’re actually there when you zoom in closer, but don’t display at this particular zoom level), but it’s a great representation of just how far we’ve gone in a 16 months or so.

Today, this map is pretty much blowing my mind.  We’ve traveled across the whole freakin’ planet!