Archive for the ‘Thoughts On…’ Category

Thoughts on Estonia

Posted by Arlo on Nov 7, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

The easiest way to get from Helsinki, Finland, to St. Petersburg, Russia, is by train.  It’s a straight shot, takes about three and a half hours.  Since St. Petersburg was our next destination, taking the train was everyone’s first suggestion.  We didn’t take the train.

We skipped a lot of Europe when we skipped from Bulgaria to Finland, and I wanted to see at least some part of it before we slipped into Russia.  Estonia, which was right across the Baltic Sea, was an easy choice.  Close, cheap, and also sharing a border with Russia.

We left Helsinki on a giant cruise ship (the word “ferry” just didn’t seem to apply) and a couple hours later, we were in Tallinn.  We spent a night and a day there, exploring the city, and loved every minute of it.

European Union

Estonia was our first border crossing within the European Union and we weren’t prepared for it.  We disembarked from the ship with a few hundred other passengers and followed them through the long and twisting corridors of the ferry terminal.  We passed through a couple glass doors and suddenly found ourselves standing next to a line of taxis.  Hey, what the heck?  Did we somehow miss immigration and customs?

Nope.  There was no immigration, no customs.  As we skipped back into the terminal to withdraw some more Euros from an ATM, I reflected on just how much more convenient life in the Union must be for the people of Europe.  Crossing from country to country didn’t seem to me to be much different than crossing from state to state in America.

Only bummer is we didn’t get any new stamps in our passports!
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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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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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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.

Thoughts on Israel

Posted by Arlo on Oct 10, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

Toward the end of our stay in Egypt, we began looking for a way to reach Eastern Europe.  Our plan had always been to start somewhere around Turkey and work our way north.  There were many routes we could take, some of which were easily discarded due to visa costs.  Even so, we looked forward to visiting Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia before entering Russia.

But before all of that, we had to find our way to Turkey.  Overland from Jordan was simply not an option, not with the unrest in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.  We thought for sure we could find a cruise ship or ferry or something out of Israel, but that turned out to be next to impossible.  When all was said and done, we simply purchased a flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul.  Simple, but spendy.

Because we lingered in Africa, we were in a rush by the time we got to Israel.  I would have enjoyed having a week or more to visit historical sites like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the Jordan River, but by the time we crossed the border, we had barely 24 hours before our flight out.

Fortunately, our friend, Michal, was living in Tel Aviv and offered to show us around.  We packed quite a bit into that day and a half and, with her there to answer my questions, we learned a lot about the country, too.

We spoke a lot about geopolitics – I was very curious about how Israelis see themselves, how they fit in in the Middle East, and how religion plays a role in their country’s politics.  I’m not going to get into that here.  I know I wouldn’t be able to do our conversations justice, but furthermore, I didn’t get a chance to talk with anyone else.  While very informative, hers was only one Israeli’s opinion.

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Thoughts on Jordan

Posted by Arlo on Oct 3, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

Let me ask you a question:  How many times have you read about Jordan in the news?  Thinking back, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Jordan making headlines.  Now, what about the countries that surround it?  Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.  Can you remember a time when one of those countries made international news?  Maybe once or twice?

Most people only know about the Kingdom of Jordan because of Petra, the ruins that played a part in the third Indiana Jones movie.  To be honest, that’s about all I knew of it before we arrived, too.

We ended up sharing a cab ride, from Aqaba to Petra, with an Australian woman a short time after we cleared immigration.  I asked our cab driver how, in such a volatile region, Jordan doesn’t make any waves.  His answer?  “We’re peaceful – the Switzerland of the Middle East!”

Maybe so, but I just did a Google search for “the Switzerland of the Middle East” and the tagline seems to belong to Lebanon.  For some reason.  Huh.

At any rate, Jordan was a very pleasant change from Egypt.  We noticed many differences right away.

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Thoughts on Egypt

Posted by Arlo on Sep 26, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

I’ve got good news and bad news about Egypt.  Which do you want first?  How ‘bout the bad.

Oksana and I have visited somewhere between 25 and 30 countries so far and it’s safe to say that Egypt is our least favorite so far.  Why the hate?  Because of the hassle.

Our guidebook warned us, a tourist in Tanzania warned us, friends on Twitter warned us, even the guy behind the counter at our hostel in Cairo warned us, but I still couldn’t believe it would be as bad as they said.  It was.  Actually, it was worse.

Listen to me.  If you go to Egypt, you will be hassled, hounded, yelled at, and argued with.  You will be followed, lied to, cheated, and taken advantage of.  The people in Egypt will not leave you alone.  They will do everything in their power to separate you from your money.

There is no escape from it.  At the pyramids of Giza, camel riders will follow you around, pestering you with questions constructed from the seven words of English they’ve memorized:  “You want ride? Camel ride? Hello? Camel ride. Twenty dollars.  Hello? You want camel ride?”

At the temples, Bedouins will step in front of you to get your attention, point out a hieroglyph on the wall, lie about what it represents (“Look! Cleopatra!”), and then hold out their hand for money.

In the Valley of the Kings, “helpful” people standing at the entrance to the tombs will hand you a half-dead flashlight as you enter and then demand money for it when you try to leave, even though you never used it because the whole tomb was lit with florescent lights.

If you’re not a dark-skinned Arab wearing a robe or a turban, you’re a mark.  Egyptians will swarm around you like a cloud of mosquitoes, buzzing in your ears, eventually angering the most patient tourist.

We tried everything we could think of to avoid them; nothing worked.  Sometimes we lost our temper. I’m ashamed to admit that we even swore at a few.  They swore right back.  They know all the worst words, in every language, because they’ve heard them all before from travelers just like us.

We were told again and again that the best thing we could do was ignore them.  Don’t make eye contact, show them your back.  We tried.  It was as simple as ignoring that cloud of mosquitoes and just as effective.
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