The hubs and I spent a lovely weekend in Venice celebrating a friend’s wedding. Afterwards, we had some extra time to spend sightseeing. I originally had a whole itinerary planned, with every minute accounted for, but a last minute visa problem cut our trip shorter than we had planned. As I flipped through the guidebook trying to figure out a new itinerary, I suddenly remembered the way I used to travel: Show up and wander. Get lost. Take in all the sights and sounds and smells of the city. And so, aside from an obligatory Saint Mark’s Basilica visit, because you can’t really go to Venice for the first time and not do that, wander is what we did. We meandered though narrow streets and across bridges, no deadlines or specific destinations, just exploring Venice. And it was lovely. Here are a few snapshots. Venice is a destination we definitely plan to return to with more time to spend, but this weekend was a lovely introduction to a gorgeous city!
We’re leaving for the airport early tomorrow morning. Home for the Holidays, here we come! Boston Logan is typically a relatively calm and uneventful airport, but around the holidays, traveling is like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re gonna get. While I procrastinate on my packing and present-wrapping, here are my all-time best airport stories, a sequel to my weird stories on trains and buses. Moments in airports that just made me do a double take and think to myself, “Wait a minute, did that actually just happen?”
Cairo International Airport, March 2015
With my cohort of fellow Fulbrighters, I boarded an EgyptAir flight from Casablanca to Cairo to Amman for a spring conference. Here are some highlights from our EgyptAir experience:
The plane food looked very questionable, so I did not eat it and was starving by the time we got to Amman. But that was okay because…
Everyone who did eat it got food poisoning.
The plane was dirty.
The pilot said a prayer over the intercom before we left, and I had very mixed feelings about this because on the one hand I entirely support praying for safe travels and often do so myself, but I also want some reassurance that the pilot has confidence in himself and the plane, you know?
We flew home in three separate groups (as some left directly after the conference while I and a few other stayed to wander around Jordan). The second legs of ALL THREE flights were canceled, no explanation given, and we all got stranded in Cairo overnight.
So there we were in the Cairo airport late at night, in need of visas to leave the airport and go to a hotel. We’d thought this through beforehand, as we’d heard about the cancellation before our flight left Amman. While we were waiting in the Amman airport, we had traded our leftover Jordanian dinar for Egyptian pounds rather than Moroccan dirhams. So we all had enough Egyptian cash on hand to purchase our visas.
An airport officer pointed to six currency exchange kiosks surrounding the baggage claim area and told us we could get our visas at any of them.
So we approached the closest kiosk.
“Hi, could I get a visa, please? Our flight was canceled. We’ll just be in Cairo till tomorrow morning.” (hands over passport and form)
“Certainly. That will be twenty-five dollars.”
“Actually, can I pay in Egyptian pounds?”
“No, just dollars or euros.”
“I don’t have dollars.”
“Yes, but I’ve been outside the U.S. for the past seven months. I don’t have any American money.”
“How about euros?”
“I don’t have euros. I only have Moroccan dirhams and Egyptian pounds- how much does the visa cost in Egyptian pounds?”
“I’m sorry, I can only accept dollars or euros. You can try one of the other kiosks.”
So we made our way from kiosk to kiosk, and this conversation repeated itself at every kiosk, and when we finally desperately tried the sixth and last kiosk, I lost it and yelled, loudly enough that everyone in the baggage claim area could hear me- “You’re telling me that I can’t purchase an EGYPTIAN visa with EGYPTIAN currency IN EGPYT?!???”
The man behind the kiosk looked around nervously, slid an Egyptian visa across the counter, and said in a hurried whisper, “Ok, ok, just this once, and just for you. You can pay in Egyptian pounds.”
So, PSA, if you’re going to Egypt, bring your dollars.
Mohammed V International Airport (Casablanca), March 2015
As I sat in the domestic terminal, waiting for my flight to Ouarzazate, a stray cat wandered calmly through the departure gate waiting areas. People reacted exactly how they should have: They glanced at the cat, shrugged- just a cat- and went back to their newspapers or cell phones or coffee cups. A totally normal response that felt excessively strange to me because, let’s be real here, in an American airport this cat would have caused a terminal-wide code red freak-out. It’s a terrorist cat. There’s a bomb inside it. It’s an improvised explosive cat. It’s a cat full of drugs. Where is its passport? Where is its owner? It’s about to detonate! HELP! Run for your lives!
Marrakesh Menara Airport, April 2015
This is the story of how I learned a very valuable life lesson called you get what you pay for.
A friend invited myself and two other girls to go to Italy with her to spend Easter with her cousins. We all readily accepted. We found a $16 flight from Marrakesh to Rome on an airline called Vueling. A deal almost too good to be true. We snapped it up. We’d never flown Vueling before, but we knew Ryanair pretty well and we were cool with those super-cheap no-frills European airlines. We bought a second (and equally cheap) flight from Rome to Lamezia- our final destination in southern Italy- on Ryanair.
Marrakesh was a ten hour train trip away from where I lived, but trains in Morocco are inexpensive and comfortable and I had no problem making such a long trek if it meant that $16 flight and being able to travel with my friends. I took that ten hour ONCF journey, meeting up with one of the girls in Rabat along the way and traveling with her for the final four hours, and we all ended up in the Marrakesh airport by midnight to catch our 2:00 a.m. flight.
Yes, you heard that right. Our flight had a two a.m. departure time. Whatever, it was worth it for $16. And ours was the only flight departing from Marrakesh at anywhere near that time, making a delay less likely.
Oh, wait. Take that back. Two o’clock became two thirty, two forty-five, three… and we were still waiting at our departure gate. No explanation was given. Just as we were starting to get worried about missing our connecting flight in Rome, we were finally allowed to board.
So we boarded…
…and proceeded to sit on the runway for another hour.
Once again, no explanation was given for the delay.
We found a flight attendant and asked her what was going on. We told her we had a connecting flight on another airline that we were likely to miss at that point- would Vueling be able to do anything about that? Could she give us a ballpark estimate of when we might be taking off?
The flight attendant simply shrugged at us- “like a sassy diva,” my friend said, and I can vouch that that is a very realistic description and no exaggeration.
It was now past 4:00 a.m. and passengers were getting very antsy and starting to complain loudly.
A man in an orange vest came on the plane and told us, and I swear I am not making this up, that they would have to turn the plane off and turn it back on again. He quickly ducked out of the plane before anyone had a chance to ask questions.
Rebooting a plane apparently takes at least half an hour.
So we continued to wait.
Some passengers got out of their seats and loudly demanded to get off the flight. They argued back and forth with the flight attendants and the man in the vest who reappeared out of nowhere and another airline guy in a suit. The guy in the suit and the guy in the vest disappeared, then reappeared, and announced to everyone that the mechanical problem had been fixed and the plan was ready for takeoff, but since some passengers wanted to get off the plane there would be another forty minute delay while their baggage was retrieved from the hold.
And that was IT.
Pandemonium broke loose.
Passengers were screaming and yelling in Italian, Arabic, and English. Yelling at each other, yelling at the people getting off the plane, yelling at the man in the suit and the man in the vest and the flight attendants, who were of course all yelling back. Babies were crying. Some guys shoved each other. Someone punched the back of my seat. It was nuts.
So the pilot employed an age-old trick passed down from kindergarten teacher to kindergarten teacher for generations. He turned off the lights for five minutes until we all calmed down.
We missed our connecting flight in Rome and had to cough up sixty euros for a train ticket to Lamezia and then sit on a train for seven or eight hours.
At least we made it in time for Easter dinner!
You get what you pay for. And sometimes what you get is a good story.
Abed Amani Karume International Airport (Zanzibar), July 2015
My husband and I flew from Nairobi to Zanzibar for the second half of our honeymoon. As we stepped off the plane, we were immediately greeted by giant, bright yellow signs: All travelers must show proof of yellow fever immunization. I had my yellow WHO card with me, but my husband did not have his, though he’d been vaccinated about eight years before. We were given two options. “You can wait here for the next flight back to Nairobi, or we can vaccinate you here.” My husband chose the latter option. So the TSA officer- and, I repeat, not a nurse, the TSA officer- opened a mini fridge, took out a needle, showed my husband that it was sterile, and proceeded to jab him in the arm right there by the baggage claim.
I like to end this story with “annnddd now he’s autistic.”
PSA, get your yellow fever shot before you go to Tanzania and don’t lose your WHO card cause they don’t play.
George Bush Intercontinental Airport (Houston), August 2014
The man in line in front of me at Starbucks was wearing cowboy boots and a giant cowboy hat completely non-ironically. Maybe that’s normal in Texas, but I’m an urban New England girl. It was weird.
Philadelphia International Airport, May 2016
On my way home from a girls’ weekend away, I was strolling through the Philadelphia airport in the direction of my gate, casually looking around, when, as I passed an information desk, the woman at the desk called out to me, “Starbucks is over that way!”
Should I be amused or offended? Do I really give off that strong of a “basic white girl” vibe? Should I work on that? Siiiiigh.
(The worst part: I actually was looking for a Starbucks.)
There are some other good ones too, but that’s it for today!
I posted recently about one of the most peaceful and serenely beautiful places I’ve ever been. To continue the superlatives trend, here is the most interesting and seriously thought provoking place I have ever visited: the Joint Security Area (JSA) at the very heart of the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. My grandmother told me recently to be sure to write down all my travel stories so I can always look back on them years later, and this is one I’ve never written down yet.
When we Americans think of North Korea, we think of a brainwashed people, a stream of brash nuclear threats, a dictator whose hawkish craziness is the stuff that memes are made of, a college student sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign from a hotel… It almost feels unreal, right? When we think of the Korean War, we think of monuments and old war movies and history books. But to South Koreans, the war never really ended. The threat is constant and extremely close to home, not something that can be laughed off in memes and left up to the politicians to figure out. And going to the JSA forces us foreigners to confront the realness of all of this.
Driving through the demilitarized zone feels like a scene from a postapocalyptic novel. Barbed wire, a tank here and there, and an eerie stillness accompanied by the feeling that everything is a little on edge. You can only go to the JSA with certain group tours, and you’ll have a military escort. You’ll need your passport and you will have to sign a waiver saying that you recognize that you are entering a hostile area and if anything happens to you no one will be held responsible but yourself. (But most likely nothing will happen to you. Just don’t steal any signs, ok?)
Below, the “Bridge of No Return” traverses the border between North and South Korea. Prisoner exchanges happened here at the end of the Korean War.
At the JSA, two large, stately white buildings face each other, not far apart at all, guarded 24/7, always on alert. From the front steps of these buildings, North and South Korean soldiers watch each other through binoculars. Exactly between them, several small blue shelters serve as meeting spaces for the two sides of the border. As you walk into one of these shelters (and you usually can) and toward its back wall, you cross from South Korean territory into North Korea.Of course, a soldier will have his eye on you the whole time.
Zooming in on a North Korean guard watching our group through binoculars:
Because I’m the kind of person who needs to make herself lists like this so I don’t spend the next three years sitting on my couch sipping ginger tea and watching Friends for the fourth time through.
Go to South America.
Run a 10k.
Run a half marathon.
Learn to salsa dance.
Go parasailing, hang gliding, or ziplining.
Write and publish something, anywhere.
Learn to speak Kiswahili. Improve my Spanish.
See the Northern Lights.
Read at least 30 new books.
Cook at least 30 new recipes.
Go to Iran or Cuba.
Learn how to do yoga.
Take a jewelry, pottery, or woodworking class.
Participate in an open mic night.
Road trip out west. See the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Portland, Seattle, LA. (I’ve seen pathetically little of my own country!)
Learn some Kenyan and African history.
Watch all my 2015-2016 ELL 9th graders GRADUATE!!!
Learn how to code. (They say it’s the new literacy?)
Go windsurfing, paddle boarding, or snorkeling.
Keep a plant alive for more than a year.
Have a baby.
Learn the major guitar chords. Be able to play at least 3 songs decently well.
Start seriously saving for a down payment, retirement, etc. Get an IRA. Get better at budgeting.
Bench more than just the bar.
Buy a good camera and learn how to use it.
Learn to make at least five cocktails really well.
Learn to make really good coffee.
Really seriously master makeup, skin care, nails, and dressing myself. Invest in the perfect little black dress, the perfect pair of comfy and gorgeous leather boots that will last for years, and a timeless handbag.
Keep a gratitude jar for a year.
Do at least 30 random acts of kindness for complete strangers.
In Harvard Square, Cambridge, drivers know that they don’t rule the road. Absentminded jaywalking college students do. Between Kabarnet and Lake Bogoria, the road belongs to the local farm animals, and drivers may use it too, after some patient waiting and, when necessary, some impatient honking. Needless to say, these were some of my favorite photos from our Lake Bogoria road trip.
Cows blocking the road:
Sheep blocking the road:
Goats blocking the road:
Donkeys blocking the road:
More cows blocking the road:
A sheep lying in the middle of the road just livin’ that chill sheepy life, man:
And last but not least, a mother sheep nursing her twin lambs in the middle of the road:
I don’t have any pictures of Eldoret up on my blog… I guess because I use this as a space to post travel photos/stories and Eldoret is more in the “home” category than the “travel” category. But my in-laws and I took some awesome road trips in Kenya this summer, and I was all about the paparazzi-ing on those excursions.
Here is one photo I took in Eldoret, though. It’s a weaver bird’s nest! We don’t have these in the States, as far as I know. What a beautiful work of art!
We piled about twelve people into two cars and hit the road. Our destination: The hot springs of Lake Bogoria.
We saw some prickly pear along the side of the road and it reminded me of Morocco:
That tall brown thing that looks like a tree trunk is- believe it or not- an anthill. And yes, that is an ostrich walking by it! In this area, you can buy a particular type of dark-tinted honey from roadside stands. This honey has a unique taste and doesn’t come from bees, but from the ants that inhabit these giant anthills. It is used more for medicinal purposes than for sweetening.
Here’s some more scenery I snapped along the way. Kenya is so gorgeous, right??
We stopped for lunch at a hotel in a town called Kabarnet. I was excited for this because why would I not be excited to eat lunch in a town that sounds like my favorite red wine. We ordered 3 kg of meat, and it arrived on scrumptiously beautiful platters surrounded by ugali, sukuma wiki (sauteed greens) and other veggies, and potatoes (boiled and then fried, soft on the inside and crispy on the outside).
Another picture I snapped from the front passenger seat. Yep, those cows know they rule the road!
When we finally thought we’d reached Lake Bogoria, we had to take a much longer drive than we expected, over a much bumpier dirt road than we expected, to get to the hot springs. It was the rainy season and the good road was under water. I wasn’t sure our little rental car was going to make it, but it pulled through! Along the way, we spotted a lovely rainbow…
… and some pink flamingoes!
At last we reached the hot springs! We had just enough time to boil eggs in them (yes, you read that right! So cool!) before it started raining and we had to flee back to our cars.
Nature is pretty awesome.
Stay tuned for one more Road Tripping Kenya post. (And more the next time we go, for sure! Maybe some day I’ll actually buy a car and road trip the U.S. too.)