Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Nameless Women Who Shaped My Travel Perspective - March 2016

As I sat staring out the airplane window, I heard the thud of a large backpack landing in the overhead bin above my head. A woman with short dark hair shoved into the seat next to me. She sighed loudly and began talking to the seat back in front of her, "I can't believe I made it. The flight from Belize City was delayed two hours, and I literally had to run to catch this plane."

Belize City, I thought. That sounds cool. I was tired but decided to take the bait and engage in a conversation. "Why were you in Belize?" I asked. The woman explained that she and a friend had planned a week-long vacation to the Central American country but at the last minute, her friend had to cancel. My seatmate went on to tell me that even though her friend bailed she decided to travel to Belize on her own and had a fabulous time exploring ancient ruins, lazing on beaches and making new friends.

I studied the seemingly-normal-looking 20-something woman and asked in disbelief, "You traveled to another country by yourself? Weren't you scared?" She shook her head shrugging off the questions, and for the next hour described every last detail of her exciting, solo adventure. As I drove home from the airport that night I thought to myself: It's perfectly acceptable to travel by yourself. Be fearless; you may even make some new friends along the way.

Fast forward to three years later. I'm in my office staring at the computer. I've made up my mind that I'm quitting my job and am already enrolled in graduate school on the other side of the world. The email in front of me is from an American student at the university I'll be attending. It reads something like this: "Everything in Australia is different than it is back home. My parents send me care packages once a month with my favorite foods and much needed supplies. Make sure you bring plenty of soap, shampoo, make-up, and all the brands you like from home because they don't have anything like it over here. Everything is really expensive, too. Bring your own sheets and a lot of warm clothing. No one believes it, but it gets cold here in the winter."

Worried about the new frontier I'd soon find myself in, I bought a monstrously large suitcase and loaded it with all of the goods I would need to survive for the next year. I packed everything from bar soap to blankets, and threw in four tubes of my favorite brand of toothpaste for good measure. But wouldn't you know it, upon settling into my new city, I learned that they had grocery stores just like ours at home. Rows after rows of shelves with bar soap, blankets and toothpaste. Even though I didn't see all of the brands I was accustomed to buying, I found what I needed and I survived. That girl from the emails who I had never met taught me a valuable lesson: Travel light. The differences between where you go and home are part of what makes traveling an adventure. Embrace the culture around you and be open to trying something new.

Still on the other side of the world a couple years later, I got to talking with another woman while playing pool at an outdoor bar in Thailand. She was from Sweden and had a shocking nest of blond curls perched on top of her head. "How long are you on holiday?" I asked casually. "When do you head back to Stockholm?

"I'm not going back," she smoothly replied and pointed to a man playing cards at the bar. "That's my husband. We live here." Covered in tattoos and with a permeating white smile, she shared her story about how she had come to Thailand on vacation with friends, fell in love with a local and got married. They had been together for quite a while, and she had no intentions of going back to what she described as a boring and cold place miles away from anything worthwhile. Wow, I thought. How bold of this girl to travel so far from home to a place so different and bravely establish a new life for herself. A vivid example to support my building suspicion: Home is where you want it to be. Home may not always be a place or the country where you are from, but can be anywhere you feel comfortable and are surrounded by those you love.

As we travel through life, countless people cross our paths and influence our decisions. With each of these women I shared only a passing exchange, but they left impressions on me that would shape my travel perspective for a lifetime. Though I may not remember their names, these women's experiences continue to inspire me to this day. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Ivalo, Finland: Scouting the Northern Lights from a Glass Igloo - March 2016

A short drive from the northernmost commercial airport in Finland and tucked well within the Arctic Circle, sits the now world-famous Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. While it boasts a variety of accommodation options including lavish log cabins, Kakslauttanen is best known for its glass igloos ideal for scouting the Northern Lights.

Having read about the resort some time ago and immediately adding it to our to-do list, my husband and I were excited to check the box earlier this month during our Arctic Safari through Lapland. The arctic resort did not disappoint. Upon arrival at Kakslauttanen we were handed the keys to our own private igloo and briefed on the activities offered and services included in our stay.

The resort itself is divided into two large sprawling villages on either side of a country highway. We stayed in the west village. Along with our cluster of 45 glass igloos, the village contained an area with log cabins and an assortment of cabin/igloo hybrid type accommodations for larger groups. A short walk from where we stayed was a large clubhouse which housed the reception area as well as the main dining area and bar.

Also spread throughout the village grounds were several sauna houses, a collection of buildings dedicated to Santa and his elves, an area for gold panning and various stables to house the reindeer, horses and husky dogs available for safaris. The landscaping at the resort could not have been more picturesque with wooden bridges stretching over steams, and reindeer antlers and carvings decorating the common areas.

While many activities were offered to help enjoy the wintery landscape, the highlight of our visit was the igloo itself. Not knowing what to expect, we were surprised to unlock the door and find a comfortable room with all of the needed amenities. The full-size bed was remote-control operated to provide the ideal positioning to comfortably gaze up at the sky, and the bathroom was outfitted with a sink and commode. The igloo was well-heated and allowed for a bit of privacy with a small curtain that stretched along the base.

As the sky grew dark, the haunting scene of illuminated igloos was only surpassed by the Northern Lights that shown that night. While it was mostly overcast during our stay at Kakslauttanen, we were fortunate that for a brief period the clouds parted and we laid in the comfort of our warm igloo and were able to admire the green skies of the Northern Lights dancing above our heads.

While it may be one of those experiences that you only need to do once, our night in a glass igloo was unforgettable, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort.

Lapland, Finland: An Arctic Safari through the Snow-Covered North - March 2016

Lapland is not a country, but a region comprised of northern Norway, northern Sweden, northern Finland and the Kola Peninsula of northwestern Russia.

Encompassing the majority of Fennoscandia that lies within the Arctic Circle, Lapland's traditional inhabitants are the Sápmi people and the area's landscape is rich with mountains, fjords, glaciers, deep valleys and lakes.

Now that my husband and I are officially Finnish residents, we considered it our duty to explore the great snow-covered north and experience more of the country's culture and geography.

Our arctic safari began in the small town of Rovaniemi, Finland. Situated a few miles south of the Arctic Circle at 66.5 degrees latitude, Rovaniemi is the capital of the Finnish province of Lapland and is the official home of Santa Claus. Our time spent in Rovaniemi revolved around Santa Claus Village: an indoor/outdoor complex with shopping, activities, restaurants and a hotel.

While visiting the village a reindeer-pulled sleigh took us through a birch forest covered in snow. After the sleigh ride, we warmed our hands and toes, and grilled sausages around a campfire. There were several tiny shops in the village offering ornaments and various trinkets to visitors; we walked through a couple and took photos near the illuminated line denoting the Arctic Circle that crossed through the village before visiting Santa's Post Office.

At the post office we saw letters from children around the world requesting Christmas presents from Santa, and we took a moment to mail a note to our loved ones with the special postmark from Santa's workshop. Before long, we had seen the sights of the village and needed to make one last stop into Father Christmas' main office to take a photograph with the man himself before we left.

The following day we departed Rovaniemi and drove three and half hours north to the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort near the town of Ivalo. Kakslauttanen is known for the glass igloos that provide the ideal setting for scouting the Northern Lights. Read more about our experience in Scouting the Northern Lights from a Glass Igloo.

After an eventful night in the igloo, we set out for a day of unplanned adventure. Our goal was to drive to the northernmost tip of Finland. We estimated that from Ivalo it would take about three hours. The drive was stunning. The snow-covered roads took us through spruce forests and up to mountaintop vistas, past frozen waterfalls and glacier-filled lakes and into small fishing communities with red wooden houses. Along the way we encountered countless reindeer meandering alongside the roads, and were lucky enough to spot a white snow owl and an arctic fox.

We reached the border town of Utsjoki just before lunch. Not yet ready to turn back, we crossed over into Norway and followed the Karasjohka River east. Running on adrenaline and protected from the elements by the blanket of warmth inside our car, our new goal was to reach the Barents Sea. We stopped for lunch in the small Norwegian town of Tana Bru. Outside of the restaurant was a playground crafted of snow and ice, and we watched as children climbed all around it and slid down the ice slides.

After lunch we continued following the river as it winded northeast past teepees and small hill towns. Finally we got to the point where the river mouth opened to the icy Barents Sea. Beyond a line of fishing boats, a beautiful white church with a gray steeple beckoned us out to the peninsula in Nesseby, Norway. Excited to finally reach the Barents Sea and our northernmost latitude of 70 degrees, we threw off our shoes and ran through the snow-covered black sands and dipped our toes in the icy waters. We wandered the grounds nearby the vacant church and admired the centuries-old grave stones frozen into the earth.

Contented by having gazed into depths of one of the northernmost seas, we headed back. Our return route from Norway to Finland took us through the northernmost border crossing in the world in the small town of Nuorgam which is also the northernmost point in the European Union and the northernmost point in Finland.

Our arctic safari through Lapland was thrilling and provided no shortage of picturesque landscapes. The Finnish people treasure their solitude, and driving through the small communities in the northern part of the country, I can see why many consider the region the ultimate destination for a peaceful retreat.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Moscow, Russia: Talking Communism with a Local - February 2016

"Russia isn't a communist country and never has been," the gray-haired Russian man in the brown fur hat told us. "The Soviet Union, and now Russia, have been building communism for 74 years. We've so far only achieved the first step which is socialism."

February 23 is a national holiday in Russia. The country celebrates "Defender of the Fatherland," or "Men's Day," honoring those who have fought and sacrificed their lives for Mother Russia. In Moscow, the streets are filled with people hovering close to each other to stay warm as the snowflakes fall. Parades march down the street near Bolshoi Theater, and people hold banners and signs at a rally outside of Red Square.

"The first great city in the world was Rome," explained the Russian man. "Then there was Constantinople, current-day Istanbul. Moscow is the third Rome. Our people are proud, and we find our strength in communism." 

He went on to point out the signs of communism all around us. The hammer and sickle on the banner waving above our heads; the hammer represents the hard-working industrial class and the sickle signifies the farmers. Together they stand for the unity of the people. The red star which decorates the flags atop the buildings is a five-pointed emblem symbolizing both communism and socialism around the globe, and the wreathes of wheat crafted into the nearby bridge remind the people of their humble roots.

Taking a rest from shouting phrases of support to the communist leader on stage, the man in the fur hat shared, "Most of us here in Russia want to go back to communism. It wasn't a jail like many of you people think. It was our fortress, where we felt safe and protected, and taken care of. Now we are free but no one cares."

Our visit to Moscow was both sobering and enlightening. We were in awe walking through Red Square seeing famed city landmarks like Saint Basil's Cathedral and Lenin's mausoleum. A young girl giggled as she told us that all the Russian women love Leonardo DiCaprio because of his resemblance to Lenin, one of the country's most revered leaders.

We walked the bridge into the Kremlin; the same bridge where Napoleon stood more than 200 years earlier. Inside the walls, as we studied the mustard yellow building which houses the president's office, we saw two black helicopters fly off and into the distance. From the chatter around us, we deducted that it was President Vladimir Putin leaving the city.

Not too far away, we climbed the steps to see the gold domed roof of Cathedral of Christ the Savior where we learned that there was no sitting allowed in Russian churches and therefore no pews; singing was also forbidden during church services as it is believed that music can transform emotions and make people feel things that aren't real.

Although it was a gray winter's day, our visit to Moscow was colorful. Russia and it's people have endured much, though wear their scars proudly and are anxious for what the future may bring. As the man in the brown fur hat told us on the crowded street that day, "Russia lost its place as a super power to the West without a shot being fired. Now, we must view ourselves as a fortress under siege with no one coming to provide relief. So, as we have in the past, we must look to ourselves and harness our strength so that one day we will regain our position in the world and our people will prosper."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Istanbul, Turkey: 24 Hours in the Queen of Cities - January 2016

Earlier this year my husband and I flew Turkish Airways from Dar es Salaam to Helsinki and chose to have an extended stopover in Istanbul on our way home. Having been to the city before, we didn't want to pass up the opportunity to take in a few of the sights and immerse ourselves in the welcoming Turkish culture.

With only 24 hours, we set out to experience the best of Istanbul's old town, Sultanahmet:

12:00 p.m. - Touchdown Istanbul Ataturk International Airport. We run through passport control, grab our checked luggage and wait in line for a Turkish visa.
1:00 p.m. - Excited to get a jump start on our abbreviated adventure, we flag down a taxi and make our way to the Armada Hotel Old City. Ideally located in the heart of Sultanahmet and just a stone's throw from the Marmara Sea, we are walking distance to all of the old town's major attractions.
1:30 p.m. - Walk the cobblestone streets from our hotel to Sultanahmet Square. Stroll past the various street vendors hawking roasted nuts and simit, molasses-dipped, sesame-encrusted fried dough, and make our way to a corner restaurant with dürüm on the menu. Dürüm is the standard doner kebab and makes for a perfect midday snack.
1:45 p.m. - Having filled our tummies, we set out to explore Sultanahmet Square. A lively center in the old town, the square is surrounded by some of the most famous and awe-inspiring sites in the city: Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque and Aya Irini. We leisurely enjoy the square taking photographs and fending off the persistent carpet peddlers.

3:00 p.m. - After enjoying the scenery and history of the square, we head into chaos. A short 10-minute walk takes us to the world-renown Grand Bazaar. Once within the walls of endless shopping maze, our senses are ignited, and we are engulfed in the mayhem: aggressive shop keeps shout for our attention and pull at our arms, wall-to-wall people navigate the dimly-lit, narrow alleys, and the market stalls themselves glitter with hand-painted ceramic tiles, lamps, scarves, carpets and jewelry. After not even an hour, we need to escape for air.

4:00 p.m. - A visit to Sultanahmet wouldn't be complete without a stroll through the Spice Market. Considered more of the locals' shopping area, the Spice Market has all of the goods from the Grand Bazaar but at lower prices, and also boasts an endless supply of candies, dried fruits and, of course, spices.

5:00 p.m. - As we exit from a side door of the Spice Market, we are greeted by the evening Islam prayer bellowing out over the loud speakers. The Yeni Cami, translated literally to mean new mosque, is illuminated and we quickly glance in before setting in on the steps to watch the crowds gather.

7:00 p.m. - After a quick rest back at our hotel, we set out to take in more of the Turkish culture. The hotel calls a taxi to deliver us to the Hodjapasha Theater. There we sit comfortably and marvel as the dervishes whirl and the bellies dance. The colorful and engaging show accompanied by classical instrumental Turkish music lasts about an hour.

8:30 p.m. - Across the street from the theater we see a string of quaint restaurants. We pull up a few chairs to an outside patio table and enjoy a late dinner of kebab meat, grilled vegetables and rice.

10:00 p.m. - By late evening we are back to have a cocktail on the hotel rooftop. We relax on the colorful couches, wave off our neighbors' cloudy apple-flavored hookah smoke, and admire the illuminated Blue Mosque in the distance.

8:45 a.m. - After a solid night's sleep we enjoy a buffet breakfast on the hotel rooftop. The spread spans an impressive three meters and includes jellies and jams, olives and cheeses, and fresh-squeezed juices.

9:30 a.m. - After repacking our suitcases, a taxi cab whisks us off to Suleymaniye Hamami for a Traditional Turkish Bath. The authentic hamam, or Turkish bath house, built in 1509 is the idyllic setting for a reinvigorating 90-minute Turkish massage. After the massage, we sip some Turkish tea and coffee, and are out the door.

12:00 p.m. - By noon we are en route back to the airport and ready to catch our flight home.

While 24 hours doesn't seem long, with a well-planned itinerary, we covered a lot of ground and thoroughly enjoyed our Turkish detour. For our next visit we hope to have time to further explore the history rich region near Izmir, the sandy southern coast around Antalya, or revisit the captivating lunar-like landscape of Cappadocia.

Istanbul, Turkey: The Truth about the Traditional Turkish Bath - January 2016

For me the thought of a massage conjures up reflections of gentle kneading and peaceful relaxation with the light aroma of lavender swirling in the room and the sound of babbling brook in the distance. If that, too, is your vision of a massage, run as fast and as far as you can away from the traditional Turkish bath.

A far cry from a soft Swedish massage or an Indian head rub, the traditional Turkish massage is a different experience entirely. You either love it or you hate it, but before you schedule a session, let me do you a favor and break it down for you. I wish I had been the wiser.

Step 1: The Customs and Attire. Upon arrival in a traditional Turkish hamam, or bath house, you will be escorted to a private room where you are instructed to undress and don a pestemal. A pestemal is a colorful checkered cloth or bath-wrap that is tied around your bottom half. If you are a woman, and you are lucky, you will also get another swath of fabric to cover your upper half. In addition to the fabric swathes, you are provided thick wooden sandals and a locker to store your personal items during the bath.

Step 2: The Roast. After changing into the appropriate attire, you will be led into the hararet or hot room. There you will be told to lie down on a marble slab and sweat. It is typically around 42-48ºC/ 108-118ºF in the hararet. You will be left to sweat for a long, long time. You'll feel dehydrated and beg for water. You'll wonder what you are doing and if you'll survive. This is the perfect time to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery around you; some of the last sights you may see if you aren't fortunate enough to survive the incredible Turkish bath experience will be towering marble pillars, ornate artwork and magnificent domed ceilings. The roasting period is intended for patrons to loosen up. Surrounding the göbektaşı, or the raised platform above the central heating source, there are several basins where you can draw scolding hot water. Approximate roasting time: 15 minutes (feels like: a lifetime.)

Step 3: The Massage. The massage begins when the masseur enters the room and beckons you over to a new marble slab. Your masseur may or may not speak English; he may be a handsome young man or she may be a large, angry woman. Regardless of your luck, the massage commences as the masseur uses a metal goblet to cover your body with warm water. Once your body is thoroughly drenched, the masseur uses soaped towels or a pillowcase-resembling-cloth to create massive bubbles and a thick lather. Every inch of your body --- I mean, every inch of your body --- is then soaped and scrubbed. The masseur then proceeds to firmly massage your back, arms and legs. In my experience, 'firmly' is an understatement; I would have felt more comfortable describing it as violently or savagely. In any event, your cries or yelps will be ignored, and sometimes your complaints will be met with more severe treatment and laughter.

Step 4: The Body Scrub. After your "relaxing" body cleanse and massage is complete, it's time for the scrubbing. Your masseur will guide you from the marble slab where you've been laying to a sitting position underneath a water faucet. There you will be rinsed with cool water. The cool water will feel heavenly, but beware: the worst is yet to come. To your dismay, the masseur will grab a coarse goat-haired washing brush and proceed to scrub your body. The brush feels like sandpaper on your sensitive, hot skin. Again, crying or begging for it to stop will only make it worse. The pain will end with the masseur is pleased with the amount of skin collected in the basin. Only then will you be rinsed one last time and freed to go.

Step 5: The Aftermath. Following the trauma that took place within the hararet, you will be escorted into a small shower-like stall and asked to disrobe. You are to put your wet "clothes" in a plastic bag, and are given a white sheet to drape around your body and head. In some hamams you are able to extend your experience by using a sauna, in others there may be showers, but in all there is a soğukluk, or the cooling down room. The cooling down room is a lovely place where you can sit on wooden benches surrounded by questionably erotic artwork, and breathe a sigh of relief that you survived the experience. Most hamams offer bottled water, Turkish coffee and Turkish tea in the sogukluk.

A traditional Turkish bath will leave you dehydrated, exhausted, sore and inexplicably clean. That being said, you should try it if for nothing else to join the club of violated, confused survivors.