Indonesia, the finale.

We have long loved the beach lifestyle. We are the type of people who can lounge on a beach for days without doing anything but reading a book and taking the occasional dip in the ocean. We felt like we could live this life for months and given the time we had, we wanted to try it out, to push it, to overdo it.

With this in mind, we started researching places in Asia that we haven’t been to and soon found Bali. I had been wanting to go to Indonesia for a few years now, but given how long it takes to get there, how long it takes to get around the country, we always passed, opting for more accessible countries instead (Thailand, Cambodia, Philippians). Without these restraints, we made the easy decision to spend our final month in Indonesia with a focus on Bali.

We put together a rough itinerary just before we headed to Chicago. We would start easy and head to Canggu where we ready offered top-notch Balinese food, kombucha, and beaches. We would then head to the islands for a few weeks, back to southern Bali to stay at a promising surf camp and finish in whichever place we liked best. We booked a few stays but kept things more open then we generally had.

Canggu

That was the plan as we eagerly boarded the plane in Negombo for a 12-hour flight that had us laying over in Malaysia. The flights were seamless, we were able to sleep in the Malaysian airport for a few hours (sprawled across several plastic seats) and arrived in Bali in the middle of a Monday afternoon. A driver was waiting at the airport and took us to our villa, crawling through the Balinese streets packed full of cars with motorbikes zipping by (we would join them down the road).

We arrived at Villa Kano and were immediately impressed – we had traded in the rough-around-the-edges guesthouses of Sri Lanka for luxury. That is how it felt at least. The villa was tranquil, well designed with polished concrete floors and walls, natural wood beams and plants all around. We settled into our room and took the best shower we had in weeks before heading out for some lunch.

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Villa Kano

The first couple of days we walked. Not quite ready to join the masses on the motorbikes, we fought our way down the street in hot and humid weather. Not a walking city, but despite several stubbed toes and a few missteps in puddles full of mud that resulted in stained clothing, we made it work.

This first afternoon we ordered “Super Bowls” and smoothies and sat down to the enthralling scene that was Crate Cafe. Beautiful people surrounded us, all wearing their most fashion-forward beach digs, sipping kombucha out of bamboo straws while Childish Gambino blared from the speakers. We were not in Sri Lanka anymore. Frankly, it was a bit much to take in at the time and we would eventually find more relaxed cafes. Nonetheless, the food was great: a bowl of fresh greens sauteed in garlic, avocado, mushrooms, tempeh. A Haloumi cheese sandwich smothered with mushrooms on top of a thick piece of sourdough. We washed it all down with cucumber water. Did this place really exist?

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Crate Cafe

We slowly walked back to our villa, heads spinning with our first encounter of the (westernized) Bali culture. Like most first days, we felt the need to get a feel of our surroundings. That night we walked to the beach, went to a few beach clubs for a pre-dinner drink – “The Lawn” where over 75% of the people were on their phone actively Instagramming, followed by “Old Man’s” where beer pong tables were set up and rowdy groups had gathered – we felt out of place at both and headed to the beach to escape. We walked while watching the sunset over the ocean wondering What is this place?

 

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First night in Canggu

That night we had our first dinner at Shaddy Shack. This when it all clicked. Shady Shack encompasses everything we love in life (and what we would soon love about Canggu). It’s an old cottage with a high bamboo roof and large windows with wood shutters that open to a wrap around porch. The decor is properly beachy, with distressed wood, potted plants and relaxing music playing. They have a garden with tables placed under dimmed lights, surrounded by soaring birds of paradise, palms, and other wild plants. Overlooking an open field, you can see the sky turning various shades of orange and purple as you the occasional motorbike sputters by.

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The food was the best part. Vegetarian, fresh, and balanced (seasoning is hit or miss in Bali). We ate here every night. I usually opted for the best veggie burger of my life (beetroot, feta, hummus, smashed suds) while Jess would go for the delicious grain bowls and salads. We sipped on kombucha and jamu jamu (an ancient herbal health tonic made of ground turmeric, ginger, lime honey, and pepper), and enjoyed delicious raw, chocolate desserts.

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Veggie Burger

This is the kind of food that we have started making at home in recent years. Simple whole food using whatever vegetables are available at that time. Healthy food that tastes great. We were delighted and realized that there is a side to Bali that is more in-line with what we enjoy – a healthy, relaxed lifestyle. We didn’t have to drink beers listening to party music while people played beer pong, instead, we could enjoy a jamu jamu while eating vegetables and getting to bed by 9pm.

We had four nights in Canggu. The days were spent mainly at Echo Beach where we read books and swam in the ocean. We visited local shops, got afternoon smoothie bowls and enjoyed the beach lifestyle we had been craving for so long.

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Echo Beach

Gili Air

It was Friday before we knew it and time to leave Canggu for Gili Air. We had to take a car to Padang Bai, the port town where we would take a boat to the islands. The port was only 30 miles away and we attempted to use Go Jek (the local Uber app) that promised rides at a quarter of the cost of what the taxi stands were charging. It didn’t work. The driver picked us up, canceled the ride in the app and charged us the taxi stand rate in cash. He got us. Sadly transportation remains a monopolized market here despite efforts to disrupt it.

An hour and a half later we arrived in Padang Bai. We had bought our tickets ahead of time, but still got thrown in the tourism gauntlet they had set up. A motorbike pulled next to our car as we approached the port trying to sell us tickets. The boat company tried to force us into buying return tickets. We had to talk to several people just to get the tickets we already purchased. People insisted on carrying our bags 30 yards in hope for a tip. We were constantly solicited while we waited on the dock (mainly people selling Pringles of all things). It was exhausting. Finally, the boat pulled on and we boarded. We just wanted to get away from it all and were happy to be heading to a remote island.

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Fast boat to Gili Air

Located off the northeast coast of Bali, Gili Air is one of the three Gili Islands. We had read it was the “chill-out” spot of the Gili Islands with white sand beaches, no cars, and a locals vibe. This sounded so good that we booked seven nights at a beachside bungalow on the island. Unfortunately what we read proved to be a bit misleading. It may be the result of a recent 6.9 magnitude earthquake that devastated the island in August. Or the information was just outdated. But what we found was a dilapidated, overdeveloped mess of an island. There was stuff everywhere – abandoned boats, stacks of tables and chairs, wires, and general debris.

The island is small and walking around it (which only takes 90 minutes) revealed every piece of land had been developed. I am not kidding, there was not an inch of oceanfront property that did not contain some kind of beachside resort or restaurant. The problem was, they were all empty. It was a complete ghost town. Less than 5% of the establishments had people in them at all. It was incredibly bizarre and frankly a bit off-putting. There was little green space to escape the development and the island was covered in dirt roads that were unkempt.

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Streets of Gili Air, Mowie’s on the right

We were staying at Mowie’s, which turned out to be the most popular spot on the island, although mainly for their Bar & Restaurant. They had about ten bungalows and ours was the one closest to the road. It was great in that we had a covered porch with a view of the ocean and prime people watching spot. But not great in that it was noisy and slightly rundown. Despite the lack of people, the island had an aspiring party vibe – techno music everywhere, solicitations for beachside parties, the occasional DJ playing to an empty beach. This lasted until 3am at times, it was all very confusing.

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View from our front porch

We wanted to check out soon after we arrived, but had already paid for the seven nights which was not refundable. We instead tapped into our newly acquired beach zen and did everything we could to make the most of it. This was fairly easy during the day. While the beach was not really swimmable (full of broken coral and only a foot deep given the tide) we did have access to beach chairs and umbrellas. The food was surprisingly good. I looked forward to the salty cup of coffee and savory breakfast plate we were served each morning. And the water was a beautiful turquoise color. We lounged and read books all day long as planned.

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Gili Air beaches look best in pictures

The evenings were the best part. Mowies was clearly “the spot” for sunsets on Gili Air. We sat on ocean side bean bags, played dominos and sipped on big Bintags (the local beer) while watching the sky put on a mindblowing display. Some of the best sunsets I have ever witnessed. The sun residue painting the sky with vibrant colors of blue to purple and yellow to orange. It felt like a dream as we paused our domino games to take it in. Once the sky settled into darkness, we would order dinner before heading to bed.  

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The most incredible sunset I have ever witnessed

The nights were oddly tough. It was as if we could no longer escape the strange environment we were in. Whether it was the blaring techno music or the occasional drunk reveler screaming Bruno Mars as they walked home, we constantly found ourselves up in the middle of the night. The bungalow was old with an outdoor bathroom and without natural water. This meant a week of salt water showers and, as a result, very grimey bodies. Tolerable, until one morning we spotted a cockroach crawling around, followed by a snake slithering behind the toilet that night. This created an uneasiness that lasted throughout the stay.

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Our bungalow at Mowie’s

We eventually decided we had enough and checked out a day early. As we were enjoying our final breakfast (served on the beach) Thursday morning, we started to hear and feel a deep rumble. It escalated as glass began falling from inside the bar across the street and people start screaming as they scrambled in all directions. We stood up and moved away from the tree we were sitting under as a great sense of uneasiness overtook us. It was another earthquake, this one not as strong as the one in August, but still registering in at 5.7 magnitude. The people working at Mowie’s were clearly rattled as were a few of the other guests staying there. We were thankful to learn that no tsunami wave would follow (crazy how fast we were able to find this online) and saw it as a sign we were making the right decision leaving a day early. We packed our bags and sat at the beach the rest of the morning waiting for our 12:30pm fast boat.

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A grimy Jess has had enough

Overall, the stay was memorable, especially in the evenings. We ate good food, had plenty of time to read and experienced beautiful sunsets. The thing about travel is that all experiences are great, even when your body is covered in salt for a week, snakes occupy your bathroom and obnoxious techno blares until 3am. There is no such thing as a bad experience.

Nusa Lembongan

Our next destination was Nusa Lembongan. We left a few days open days between Gili Air and returning to Bali where we had a week booked at a surf camp. Once we realized Mowies was not worth extending beyond the original week, we found an ocean front property on Nusa Lembongan, an island that was located just east of Bali and on the way back there.

We took a fast boat (The Queen Mary) from Gili Air south to Nusa Lembongan, an island just east of Bali. We arrived in the late afternoon and were taken in the back of a pickup to Ombak Bay where we were staying for the next four nights. Very different from Mowies. Situated on the edge of a cliff, the unobstructed ocean views were spectacular. Four newer bungalows sat behind an infinity pool that bled into the ocean. There was a common space on the corner of the property.

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View from our bungalow

A very friendly woman greeted us with fruit smoothies before showing us to our bungalow. I immediately took an incredibly refreshing fresh water shower, cleaning a week worth of filth off my body. One of the best showers of my life. We relaxed before grabbing dinner and playing dominos in the common space as the sun made its descent. There was no one else there. The only sounds we could hear were the waves crashing below us. The calm was a great relief after the week on Gili Air.

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An amazing spot to place dominos

After breakfast the next morning (food was not nearly as good as Mowies) I obtained a motorbike. As I alluded to earlier, this is the preferred mode of transportation in Bali. I was tempted in Canggu but the traffic seemed intense, people drive on the opposite side of the road from the States (strange how much this challenges you) and my lack of experience was too much at the time. But here on Nusa Lembongan things were much calmer. Our property was located away from the main drag and the traffic seemed pretty light. I was given a Honda Vario without any paperwork or instruction except how to turn it on and off.

I believe the last time I rode a scooter was with Jordan Veit when I was 10. Nonetheless, I got on and took it for a spin. It went… okay. I was wobaley. I got in the way of others and I didn’t go too fast. I almost bit it on a right turn – the right turn (more like the left turn I am accustomed to) was the hardest part. But eventually I kind of got the hang of it. Enough to make it it back to the bungalows, down a completely unpaved, rocky road and pick up Jess. We headed for lunch, both not fully revealing how nervous we were to be riding.

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Loving life on the motorbike

It didn’t take long until I got comfortable driving the Vario. Having transportation again felt incredibly freeing. We were able to cross the island in no time and could go anywhere to eat lunch (opposed to simply the best place in walking distance). We ran some errands after lunch, picking up cash, and took the long way back to the bungalows. This is when I really got the hang of it, riding on wide open, paved roads next to the mangrove forests.

There were 4-5 different beaches on the island and we decided to check them all out, since we could. First Dream Beach, then Sandy Beach, then Mushroom Beach. Dream Beach was beautiful and the small swimming area was full of enormous waves. We took a refreshing dip and were in awe at the power of the ocean. Sandy Beach was ironically too rocky to swim but had a great beach club where we enjoyed an afternoon snack. Mushroom Beach was full of boats tied up to the beach and as a result not swimmable.

It felt really great to get out and explore again and riding the scooter turned out to be highly enjoyable. We decided to take it easy that night, dinner and dominos at Ombak Bay while the sun went down over the ocean. We didn’t want to risk driving the scooter in the dark just yet. Baby steps.

Saturday we headed back to the main drag for lunch before heading to Dream Beach. We rented a covered beach bed for the day where we lounged and read. We got an afternoon snack in front of Sandy Beach and visited the cliffs that surrounded it – known as Devi’s Tear. Here you witness the power of the ocean up close. Waves (~15 feet high) come crashing into the rocky cliffs below, shooting upward and falling on the rockbed below. This gives the appearance that the rock is “crying” as water comes rushing back to the ocean below. It was mesmerizing. We stood there for 20 minutes taking in the sight, sounds and smell of the waves while the salty mist floated by and cooled us down.

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Devil’s Tear

Same drill for dinner back at Ombak that night, dominos, ocean. Sunday morning we arranged for a snorkeling trip. We were picked up in the morning and taken to the beach where we boarded a small boat with a father and son from Holland. Nusa Lembongan is part of a group of three islands that make up the Nusa Penida district, the other two being Ceningan (smallest) and Penida (largest).

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We anchored off the western coast of Penida and jumped into the water with our snorkeling gear. Here we were told to look for Manta Rays, although our chances were slim as they swim south for the winter. We weren’t in the water for more than ten minutes when the duo from Holland (who were much more experienced) wanted to move on to a more promising area. Jess and I didn’t realize this and were naively trying to keep our snorkels above the massive waves that were filling our mouths with salt water. It was then that I looked down and saw a giant Manta heading my way. It was both beautiful and terrifying. I panicked. I didn’t know if they were aggressive or really anything about them. I frantically started swimming back to the boat. Jess was concerned but oblivious as I signaled to her to look down. She missed the Manta and I had to convince the Dutch duo that I actually saw one.

We moved on to another spot where they both saw one, but Jess and I missed it. I swallowed so much salt water that I started to feel queasy. Luckily we moved on to a much more calm spot where we could observe schools of fish swimming among the coral. The sun came out and the Dutch son pointed out all sorts of fish for us. It felt great to be floating in the water again even if the coral was mostly bleached and the abundant plastic left us feeling disheartened. We finished on the western part of Nusa Lembongan where we fought an incredibly strong current while witnessing underground caves full of fish, statues built on the ocean floor (they love statues in Indonesia) and more colorful coral.

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Jess enjoying some snorkeling 

We were back on land in the early afternoon and took the truck back to Ombak. An hour later we took the scooter back to the main drag for lunch and booked a fast boat back to Bali for the following day. We spent the afternoon at Ombak taking it easy. Swimming wears you out, especially when you haven’t really done anything for two weeks. Same drill for dinner.

Uluwatu

A few months prior to landing in Indonesia, while doing general research, we found Dreamsea Surf Camp. Located on the side of a cliff, overlooking the ocean, the pictures were stunning. They offered daily surf lessons, yoga, and great sounding food. It was the dream ocean spot we had been searching for. A place we could splurge on and spend more than a week at, something we had never done but had always wanted to. We would end up booking 8 nights and based our entire itinerary around the availability of it. Safe to say we were looking forward to it.

Monday morning we were picked up by our fast boat operators, Scoot, and taken to the beach where our hour boat ride would depart from. After another delicious avocado smoothie bowl from B’ Fresh Juice Bar we jumped on the speedboat and crossed the ocean back to mainland Bali. It was a rocky ride as we soared over large waves, but it went by quick and without incident. Once we reached land we were shuttled to Dream Sea Surf Camp on the southern tip of Bali in the area known as Uluwatu.

Dream Sea was beautiful and initially lived up to the hype we had created in our own heads – the design, the furniture, the atmosphere were all picturestique and perfectly Bali. We took the in the views while we enjoyed a fantastic mushroom sandwich and Indonesian nachos for lunch while waiting for our room to be available.

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Dreamsea

Once we were shown our room things started to change. The room was small, we knew that going in, and lacked a bathroom (it located across the hall). That was a surprise. As we unpacked we were startled by voices that seemed like they were coming from within our own room. This is when we realized how thin the walls were. This is something that has never really bothered me before – thin walls – but this was a different story. The walls were made of thinly woven bamboo and offered zero privacy. This means we could hear every word, phone notification, sneeze, burp, fart, bowel movement, morning alarm, and late night conversation that happened in the rooms that surrounded us. When the Australian woman next door decided she needed to blow dry her wet bathing suit for over an hour we had trouble talking to one another. When the mother next door expressed concern to her daughter that she had been on the toilet for too long we were made aware. When the same Australian women left her phone in her room while she ate breakfast downstairs, everyone woke up to her 7am alarm that was never silenced.

But the view from the room was spectacular.

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View from our room (couldn’t open the door due to monkeys) 

We were inevitably disappointed with the situation given our high expectations going in and the fact that we paid such a premium to stay here. Luckily we had only prepaid for 4 nights and were able to strike a deal with the property management for us to forego the final 4 nights. This shorter time period made everything much more bearable.

We rented a scooter from the property and spent our days at Thomas Beach (about 15 minutes from Dreamsea) and our nights eating around town. Uluwatu proved to be very enjoyable, it was less crowded and operated at a slower pace, similar to being in Northern Michigan. The roads were easy to navigate and the food was delicious (we especially enjoyed our meals at Cashew Tree). We did run into a few obstacles – flat tire on the scooter, ATMs that did not work, credit card machines that would not take our cards – but we took them in all in stride and enjoyed our time. In the end, we were able to find the humor in the Dreamsea situation and enjoyed the time we spent there.

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Canggu, part II

We considered a few different options when we decided to leave Dreamsea early – find a new property in Uluwatu, travel somewhere else in Bali or head to Canggu. We had already booked four nights at the same villa we started our journey in Bali at (Kanu Canggu) and decided the simplest thing to do was to just make it 8 nights. We knew Canggu had everything we liked about Bali – beach, good food, shops – and liked the idea of completely relaxing for the final week of our trip.

With that in mind, we hired a car to take us 24 miles north from Uluwatu to Canggu. We departed late Friday morning and 2.5 hours later arrived to the familiar, smiling faces we had left three weeks prior. We were shown to our villa (a different one which was oddly unsettling even though it was exactly the same except), unpacked and arranged to rent a scooter. This would be the biggest change from our previous stint in Canggu and proved to really open the place up for us. We headed to lunch before making our way down to Echo Beach in the afternoon. It was great to be back.

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The next week was spent doing very little. The morning consisted of either browsing shops, a massage or catching up on some blogging. After lunch, we would head to Echo Beach, rent two chairs and an umbrella for $3 and spend the afternoon reading and taking the occasional dip in the ocean. We would head back to the villa to meditate, shower and change before going back to Echo Beach to sit on bean bag chairs, sip Bintangs and watch the surfers as the sun went down behind them. We would then jump on the scooter and head to dinner, usually at Shady Shack, where we would enjoy Balinese food, sip on Jammu and soak in the warm evening. We would return to the Villa afterward and get to bed early.

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Every night looked like this

We did this for 7 straight days. At first, it felt strange. We had been traveling for over three months at this point and had seen and done so much. I felt pressure to continue that and there was a sense of guilt in doing so little as if I was missing out on something or not making the most of the situation. But it’s rare to have the opportunity to slow down like this while traveling. To live such a simple, relaxed life was an experience in itself and one that proved to be very fulfilling.

It was now time to head home. It was hard to comprehend the experience we had just had. Nearly four months on the road, away from our friends and family, away from the life we had built for ourselves was more challenging than I thought. We missed California. We missed Rob the Cat. We missed our home. While we were sad our amazing journey was coming to an end, we were excited to see our family for the holidays, to see our friends for New Years Eve and to bring back a new outlook on life that we could carry with us in everything we did.

Looking back now, this trip changed me in so many ways. It made me appreciate things in a new way, it made my problems feel small and life feel big and full of possibilities. It taught me to value relationships above all, to be mindful of how I spend my time and lead to more balance in my life. Ultimately, the trip rewarded me with a whole new way of living and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to have done it.

Sri Lanka for a week

We did not plan to go to Sri Lanka. It wasn’t even on our radar when we started the trip. I am not entirely sure what prompted the idea to spend a week there in the first place. Outside of eating Sri Lankan food a few times in New York, I knew very little about the small island located off the southeastern coast of India.

What we did know is that we wanted a more adventurous week before we landed in Bali, where we decided to spend the final month of our trip relaxing on beaches. Sri Lanka was conveniently located between Sicily (where we would depart our week spent with PJ and Keely) and Indonesia and there was a decent flight leaving from Catania. After some research that proclaimed “Endless beaches, timeless ruins, welcoming people, oodles of elephants, rolling surf, cheap prices, fun trains, famous tea and flavorful food make Sri Lanka irresistible,” we were sold and booked our tickets.

We left Sicily around 10am Sunday morning, taking a mysterious public bus to the airport. We had a luxurious five hour flight to Dubai (new plane, entire row to ourselves) where we had a three hour layover. We then flew another four hours, this time in a very cramped old plane to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. We landed around 5am, took an Uber to the train station located in the city center and bought tickets for the 6:55 AM train south to Unawatuna. The station was packed, it was already a balmy 85 degrees and we had not slept the night before. Nonetheless, train travel was one of the reasons we decided to come to Sri Lanka, so we were excited for our first journey.

A train pulled up around 6:30am but had no indication as to where it was headed. We stood around for 15 minutes, but the train didn’t move. We eventually found someone who looked like they may work on the train and learned that this was our train and we needed to board on the opposite end of the track. We headed there and were lucky to find two seats, although they were open for a reason. Nearly delirious we settled in for the 3 hour ride.

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Train ride down to Unawatuna

We tried to enjoy the ride as much as we could while we dozed in and out of sleep. It was an old train, with open windows and a few fans oscillating on the ceiling. As we made our way down the coast, we tried to focus on the blue ocean passing us by and not the suffocating heat we were feeling for the first time. We passed by small fishing villages and got our first taste of the Sri Lankan culture. We pulled into the station and I used the PickMe app to summon a tuk tuk. It was chaotic as we exited searching for our driver, countless men asking if we needed a ride, not accepting our various attempts at declining them. We finally found our driver and were whisked away to our bungalow. We arrived 20 minutes later, were given a refreshing smoothie and shown our room. Located about a quarter mile inland and set in the middle of a rice paddy field, it was a calming place with clean, new bungalows. We immediately took showers, laid down on the bed and fell asleep. We slept until early afternoon before forcing ourselves awake.

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Train tracks near where we stayed in Unawatuna

Hungry, we decided we would head to a place that served roti down the street from us. Walking down the road (no sidewalks), we only made it ten minutes before we gave up – the heat, the traffic, the solicitation was too much. We were flustered, hot and hungry. A dangerous combo. We agreed to walk back to where we started, to an ocean side restaurant we saw when we first got to the main road. This turned out to be a great decision. We got a much needed meal and, more importantly, took our first and a most refreshing dip in the ocean (literally in our underwear). All stress faded away as I floated in the crystal clear water. This is what I had been looking forward to for some time now.

It started to rain, so we headed back to the bungalow. The bungalow had a great covered porch with strong ceiling fan to keep the bugs off us. We laid on the couch and watched the storm before both falling asleep. We woke up to monkeys screaming across the trees in front of us.

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View from our bungalow’s porch

That night we decided to head to the main strip of Unawatuna (we were staying a few miles away) for dinner. It started to rain again as we road a tuk tuk into town. We enjoyed a good meal consisting of dahl, veggie stir fry and roti. The rain intensified and we made a dash to get a tuk tuk home where we returned to complete darkness. The power had gone out. We were too tired to care, took showers in the dark to cool off and went to sleep. It was a hell of a 36 hours, as we have found most travel days to be.

The next morning we woke up feeling refreshed despite the muggy sleep. We enjoyed breakfast on our porch and decided to check out the beach in Unawatuna. We also needed to book transportation to our next destination (Ella) and needed wifi to do so (the power was still out). We successfully posted a message to the Sri Lanka Taxi Facebook group and found a place to hang on the beach. We sat around all afternoon, reading under an umbrella and swimming in the ocean. Quality rest and relaxation.

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We headed back to the bungalow that afternoon to find the power had been restored. We finalized our transportation for the next day (by posting to the Facebook group I received 15+ offers for a ride) and decided to head back to the ocean side restaurant for dinner. We enjoyed some seafood, a few Lion’s (the local beer) and an incredible sunset. We had found the beach zen we had been looking for, even if it was just momentarily. We returned to our bungalow later that night content and in a much better place.

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Sunset at Dalawella Beach

It was now Wednesday and we were headed to Ella, located about 125 miles north of Unawatuna. The car we arranged arrived at 9:30am and we headed out. There are few highways in Sri Lanka, only two way roads, mostly paved but sometimes crumbling. The road is shared by everyone: cars, tuk tuks, buses, tractors, bikes, people, and animals (mainly donkey pulled carriages and dogs). It took five hours, our driver frenetically weaving in and out of traffic, dodging and passing obstacles and honking constantly. The buses were especially dangerous, often flying by us, making risky passes and blasting their ridiculous horns – a very loud, what I would describe as, circus horn that blasts an obnoxious melody lasting for 5 seconds as they barrel by. While it took a while, the drive was certainly entertaining and I enjoyed seeing all the villages with locals going about their day.

We arrived in Ella in the late afternoon to rain. Ella turned out to be an interesting place. Located in the mountains (~3500 feet above sea level) it was surrounded by hills covered with “cloud forests” and tea plantations. Beautiful but also very touristic.

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The road leading to Ella on the right

Our guesthouse left a lot to be desired, but it was only two nights and we didn’t dwell on it too much. We got a late lunch – Kottu and Dosa from a place called Raha – and walked around the small town in the rain. We were solicited for everything: bars, restaurants, taxi’s (“not today, what about tomorrow”), massages. It was a bit much and we decided to go back to the guesthouse to get away from it and relax. It rained the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, so we didn’t do much except head out for dinner at night. We enjoyed Lumprais at Cafe Chill – ten different curries, on top of rice, topped with veggies, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. We would go back the following night to eat it again even though Cafe Chill was a massive tourist restaurant. Not the vibe we usually go for, but that dish was worth it.

Thursday (Thanksgiving back home) we had a mediocre breakfast at the guesthouse before heading out for a hike, Ella is considered the “hiking hotspot” of Sri Lanka after all. We made our way through the muggy city and arrived at the trailhead for Little Adam’s Peak twenty minutes later. We slowly ascended through beautiful tea plantations before making a modest climb to the peak, nearly a mile above sea level. Here things really opened up and you could see the lush green valleys and surrounding mountains. It was beautiful. We hopped from peak to peak taking it all in.

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Little Adam’s Peak

We eventually made our way back down. The trip was about 5 miles in total and felt great. I needed some exercise and it felt good to get the heart racing again. After being turned away from our lunch destination (closed for a local holiday) we headed to the train station, ignoring solicitations along the way.

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Downtown Ella

The impetus for going to Ella was to take a train from there to Kandy. Based on what we had read, this was considered one of the most beautiful train rides in the world and a must do for anyone visiting Sri Lanka. While it was no more than 80 miles, the train ride would take 7 hours as it winded through the countryside villages and around the mountain sides. We intended to take the 9:30am train the following day, but were told there were no tickets available when we arrived at the ticket booth. They did have a few tickets left for the 6:40am train, but it was in 3rd class, which meant we were unlikely to have a seat in a very, very crowded train car. Without any real alternative, we opted for them even it meant we would be standing for the 7 hour journey.

Feeling somewhat defeated (why hadn’t we planned better), hot and hungry we got lunch at an organic cafe. The food was excellent and we were able to recover once we had some food in us. We headed back to the guesthouse to cool down. A big storm soon moved in and we were confined to our room, another relaxing afternoon reading and taking it easy.

The rain was unrelenting, continuing into the early evening. As we were preparing to venture into it for some dinner we started to hear a peculiar sound coming from the door leading to our patio. This is when we realized that a type of moth (about 2 inches long) had infested our room. Slipping in through the crack under the door in rapid succession, there were suddenly 25 buzzing insects surrounding us. It was horrifying. We quickly sealed the door with some towels and defensively began attacking them. We didn’t know what else to do except kill them one by one, so that is what we did. We were successful and cleaned up the mess in a distraught state. We stood around wondering what to do next when the sound returned, this time from the front door. We looked over in horror as several more buzzing moths rapidly crawled under the door and came darting at our heads. We found another towel to seal the front door and contacted the guesthouse on WhatsApp. We stood there trapped. If we open the door and leave we would let even more insects in. If we stayed in the room we would have to defend ourselves from the infestation.

The guesthouse didn’t share our panicked concern, said all other rooms were full and that they would send “a boy” to help clean it up. The boy (realistically late teens) arrived at our front door five minutes later, we reluctantly opened it and scurried out of the room. He offered some sympathy, handed us an umbrella and said he would clean it up. We went to dinner and tried to put it out of our mind.

We took our time at Cafe Chill this time. Enjoyed a few Lions and another round of Lumprais. We enjoyed the open air seating as the rain slowly came to an end. We headed back to the guesthouse not sure what we would find. Slowly opening the door we were relieved to see things in were in order, free of living and dead insects. We packed our bags thankful we had an early morning train out of there.

I easily woke up early the next morning and we took a tuk tuk to the train station. We arrived just before it opened and were able to upgrade our tickets to 2nd class with reserved seating. I had read the night before that given the popularity of the train ride, tickets had started to be set aside for travel agencies who resold them to tourists at a significant markup (normal cost is less than $2 USD). If the agencies had any left, they would be released back into the system and available the day of departure for purchase. This type of minor corruption annoyed us throughout our week in Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, we were excited that we would not have to stand and deal with a hot, crowded train car for seven hours. Relieved by our good luck, we waited for the train as fog rolled in.

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Ella Train station, 6:40 AM 

We boarded the on-time train and took our seats. All the problems of the previous day quickly faded as the train started to make its way through the rainy, cloud forests. Windows were cracked to let in the cool, humid air. I stuck my head out of the window for long periods of time taking in the damp vegetation passing me by.

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Overall, the train ride exceeded the high expectations I had going into it. After we moved on from rainy Ella, the landscaped opened. Rainbows appeared over the vast valleys as we slowly passed by breathtaking mountain ranges, lush tea plantations, waterfalls, rivers, and tropical forests. We crossed over old stone bridges and by waving farmers tending to their crops. Freshly made samosas were sold by locals passing through the train and at each stop we could reach out the window and buy snacks; peanuts, friend dahl balls, fresh cut mango and other local staples.

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View from the train

The sun burned off the morning fog, the air warmed and the windows were all opened. The cross breeze kept us cool and I was able to spend long stretches of the ride leaning out of the open door between the train cars watching the changing landscape.

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This was without a doubt the highlight of Sri Lanka for me. The experience of riding an old train, windows and doors open, through the tropical landscape of Sri Lanka was something I will never forget.

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We pulled into Kandy around 1pm and found a tuk tuk to take us to our guesthouse. Much better accommodation. A room in the beautiful home of a retired couple that had a view of the city. We were greeted warmly and enjoyed some quiet time before heading out into the city.

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View from our guesthouse in Kandy

Kandy is the second biggest city in Sri Lanka and felt very different from Ella. It was a real city, with locals going about their day and very few tourists. We walked to Balaji Dosa and enjoyed an amazing lunch. We spent the rest of the afternoon waiting out the passing rain in a coffee shop, walking around Kandy Lake and eventually making our way up to Sharon Inn where we would have dinner.

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Walking around Kandy Lake

We had read about a fantastic buffet of ten different vegetarian curries prepared daily and served at 7:30pm. We arrived at 6:00pm (there wasn’t a ton for us to do in Kandy) and enjoyed a few Lions while watching the sunset through rainy clouds. We were ravenous by the time they served us the soup appetizer and put out the curries. I am not entirely sure what was served, but it was all delicious. I devoured two full plates before we were served a fresh fruit dessert. We took a tuk tuk back to our guesthouse and went to bed.

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Curry buffet

Now Saturday and our final day in Kandy, we opted to hire a tuk tuk for the day and explore the city. The husband of the guesthouse recommended a circuit that would include temples, a tea factory, gardens and viewpoints. We agreed, not really knowing what to except.

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Our Tuk Tuk for the day

The tuk tuk showed up an hour later and we were taken to an ATM. They knew what they were doing. We first stopped at an unimpressive temple; then made our way a very interesting “spice forest” where we saw turmeric roots, cinnamon and peppercorn trees and various other spices in their natural habitat; next was the tea factory where we observed and learned about the production of local black tea; this was followed by a stop at the beautiful Botanical Gardens, the only green space in the city that required an entrance fee; finally a viewpoint concluded the journey as we were dropped off to explore the city. It was a packed day but left us feeling somewhat underwhelmed. The city was packed with cars, tuk tuks and trucks. It was very polluted, exhaust spewing everywhere with no green space to speak of. Not quite the smog of India but not too far from it. Nonetheless, I enjoyed seeing a true city and observing the local life.

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Botanical Gardens in Kandy

The tuk tuk returned and took us back to our guesthouse. We didn’t leave the rest of the night, not even to eat dinner. We simply caught up on some travel planning, read and relaxed. The next morning we had a driver pick us up in the morning and take us to Negombo where we would spend the day ahead of our 11pm flight to Bali.

Negombo was not enjoyable. It was on the ocean (and close to the airport), but the beach was filthy, the main street was lined with empty restaurants trying to cater to tourists, and the solicitation was the worst we have ever experienced (in any country, let alone in Sri Lanka). We had a room for the day, so we hung out there and made the best of it before heading to the airport.

Sri Lanka was an adventure. The country is undoubtedly beautiful and intriguingly wild. The culture is different from any place I have been. The people are friendly, but aggressive. It’s a country that is undeveloped in a number of ways, it challenged us and made us uncomfortable (as traveling should). I look back on it fondly am grateful to have experienced it all.

 

Back in Europe, with friends

It’s always nice to travel with friends. While Jess and I have been having a great time on our own, at times we found ourselves envious of groups surrounding us at the bars we visited in different cities. We had made plans to meet up with the newlyweds and the Ward brothers, who were touring Europe with their band, after our week in Morocco and were looking forward to being with others on the road, sharing all the great experiences we were having.

We landed in Seville (located in southern Spain) early Sunday evening and quickly made our way to the AirBnB where PJ and Keely were waiting. What a place PJ had found – a top floor, two story apartment that was classically decorated and had a large terrace overlooking the city. We admired the place as we caught up with our honeymooning friends who had spent the past week in Portugal.

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First floor of the AirBnB

Hungry, we ventured out for something to eat only to find we needed a reservation at all the places we were recommended. We wandered around the narrow, beautiful streets looking for someplace that would seat us. It was then that we just so happen to run into Alex and Austin Ward. We met the Ward brothers through PJ and Dan a few years ago and recently spent some quality time with them (PJ’s birthday in January and PJ’s bachelor party in August at the Ward’s Kansas lake house). They are some of the nicest people I have ever met and a great time to be around. I had been neglecting my phone (and missed their messages) but it paid off as it was a thrill to find them on a random street so far from home.

Austin had been on quite a journey through Spain and looked the part, so we agreed to meet back up after they he had chance to shower. We found a sidewalk tapas bar with an open table, and sat around drinking beers and eating local fare. It was a lively Sunday night in Seville with people celebrating the end of the week, religious groups parading down the street and a general buzz in the air. We swapped travel stories and had an enjoyable evening.

Monday morning we woke up to rain. This slowed us down a bit. Jess and I ventured out for some groceries and coffee and we made breakfast at home. I followed this up with a misty run (that I ironically passed a running Austin on) before we headed out for some lunch. PJ, Keely, Jess and I went to conTender, a place that had turned us away the night before, and enjoyed a deliciously long three hour lunch. The food was great, the wine had us feeling good. No one at the restaurant left while we sat there that afternoon. We admired how locals took their time, enjoyed good food and good company at a slower pace. It felt like a proper Spanish meal, one that was inevitably exhausting. After walking it off around the neighborhood we headed back to the AirBnB for a nap.

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Feeling good after lunch

The Wards came over shortly after and we enjoyed some beer and wine, sitting around the dinner table and listening to a local radio station that played an incredible mix of music – everything from Steely Dan to Muse.

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We spent a lot of time in this kitchen

We went to dinner at a tapas bar recommended by the Ward’s AirBnB host. We were that “loud table” and enjoyed better Spanish tapas than the night before, sangria and some wine. Our destination for the evening was a dive bar where we could enjoy some truly authentic Flamenco – a traditional music and dance from Southern Spain that includes singing, guitar playing, dance (missing in this nights performance), clapping and snapping. What a time this turned out to be. The bar was perfectly dilapidated and sold beer and wine for $0.50. We sat around as different locals took turns signing while a man played the acoustic guitar. The place was packed and the singers were flanked by people clapping, snapping and stomping as they poured their heart out in Spanish. I had no idea what was happening most of the time, but it was highly enjoyable.

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Standing around listening to locals sing out their emotions

This is also when PJ’s Spanish alter-ego – “Pablo” – really started to emerged. Complete with an earth toned turtle neck and deep Spanish accent, Pablo entertained us throughout the night. He capped things off with a rejected request made of some locals sitting on the street and we enjoyed a lot of laughs hanging out at this little pub all night.

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Pablo

Tuesday started slow as well – breakfast at home, no runs, just lounging. We mustered up the energy to walk around the city, PJ showing us some of his favorite spots from a past trip (fun fact: Seville is the sister city to Kansas City). Jess and I broke off in the early afternoon to acquire wine. The shops, restaurants and cafe all operate on very particular, very limited hours. The wine shop was open from 11-2:30 and then again from 5:30 on. We had to operate on their schedule. We were successful in our quest and met back up with everyone at the Plaza de Espana a few hours later. The six of us took in the sites and slowly made our way back to the AirBnB. We had a Bruce listening party planned.

It turned out to be a great time, here is how it went down:

First the setting. Adjacent to the terrance was a sun room with large wood dining table. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and we were able to open all of the giant windows and create a magical cross breeze.

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The sun room without windows open
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Open air sun room

Next, the charcuterie board. Keely is truly exceptional at putting these together. During the day she acquired prosciutto, chorizo, a few cheeses, dried fruits, olives, almonds, and bread. She put together a masterful board and we cheered as she sat it down on the dining table in front of us.

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Keely’s amazing charcuterie board

Next the wine. Jess and I found the only natural wine shop in the city. We were excited and bought five bottles, thinking at the time this was excessive. The wine was delicious and given the festive atmosphere, it went down quickly. We ran out just after sunset but wanted to keep listening to Bruce. So we wandered the streets back to the shop, this time with a heavy buzz and bought three more bottles. That was a fun walk.

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The initial haul of wine

Finally, Bruce. I have been on a Bruce kick for the better part of the past year. This started with Mike Hammond playing the Born in the USA record for me on a visit to Denver in the fall of 2017. This was followed by Jess and I devouring all the Bruce records my father gave me a few years back and acquiring some more. It has now culminated with me listening to the Born to Run audiobook, where Bruce himself reads his very in-depth autobiography. The Ward’s seem to love Bruce even more than we do (I was delighted when I learned that Born in the USA was “stuck” in their boat’s CD player at the bachelor party in August) and the prior day we all agreed a Bruce listening party was a great way to spend the following afternoon. The result was four hours of non-stop Bruce and ended with one hell of a dance party in the kitchen of our AirBnB.

It was a very memorable evening – good food, good wine, good people. We watched the sun go down over the city on the terrace and enjoyed our last night together.

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Watching the sun set over Seville

After the dancing, we stumbled out to a local bar and took in the Spanish night life one last time. We finished the night with some pizza before saying goodbye to the Ward’s who were taking a train to Madrid the next day while the four of us were heading to Sicily.

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Enjoying the Spanish nightlife

The next morning I paid for all the fun. I was in bad shape – dehydrated, hungover, and generally feeling terrible (it was worth it). We didn’t do much of anything ahead of our afternoon flight except grab something to eat before heading to the airport. I got through the three hour flight to Catania and immediately went to bed upon arriving at our AirBnB. Thankfully the rest of the group was feeling okay and enjoyed their first Sicilian dinner.

Things did not improve much for me Thursday and Jess started feeling poor too. We needed a day to catch up on some chores – buy some visas, acquire health insurance, check in on the finances – so we laid around and did that. The highlight of the day was the food. While I didn’t have my energy, I was able to eat. We discovered Sicily is known for their arancini and found the best spot to get them, Pasticceria Savia, was just a short walk from our apartment. They were incredible and very close to my long lost favorite Suppli (apparently only found in Rome).

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Almost Suppli

For dinner we all went to Al Tortellino, an unassuming cafeteria that served pizza and pasta. Delicious. We ordered two pizzas, two pastas and a disappointing caesar salad. I had my appetite back and we ate it all. We headed back to the apartment after dinner, all feeling a little out of it.

Friday it rained, a lot. Gum-ball sized hail, torrential downpours throughout the afternoon, we couldn’t really leave the apartment (except for an arancini run). We laid around musing, reading and passing the time together. There was a short break in the weather in the early evening and we were able to make it out for dinner. More pasta that wasn’t as good as the night before. We retreated back to the apartment as the rain picked up again. Friday was a lost day.

Saturday was our last day. The weather was better (no rain, just clouds) and we were determined to make something of it. So, we took the train down to Siracusa (about an hour south of Catania) and explored on foot. In our search for a deli that I was recommended, we stumbled on Caseificio Borderi where I would have the best sandwich of my life.

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Caseificio Borderi at the end of the day

It was very chaotic and confusing at first. There was a deli counter set up outside with a line of people leading to and hovering over it. There were two men behind the counter who seemed to be making sandwiches. The line seemed to continue inside where there was another deli counter, also packed to the brim with people. We stood on the outside trying to figure it out as a group of ten teens showed up, said something in Italian to one of the sandwich makers behind the outside counter and pushed their way inside. We followed.

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Caseificio Borderi when we showed up

Inside was no less chaotic but we did figure out you needed to take a number. We got tickets reading #57 and #58, the display behind the deli read #42. The sandwiches seemed worth waiting for and we decided to be patient. There was a different, younger, sandwich maker inside who would meticulously take an order for a sandwich (asking a lot of questions in Italian) and make two of them. We would later learn that he made one sandwich for the person ordering and one for anyone to buy. In the midst of the chaos, giant charcuterie boards we passed out, people were presented glasses of wine, and everyone was talking franticly in Italian. We had no idea what was going on and just continued to wait.

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The inside sandwich maker

Of course I got the itch to look around and try to figure out how this all worked. I went outside as the rest of the group waited for our number. Standing where we originally stood, I figured out there were two separate lines and the outside sandwich maker (an old Greek man) seemed to specialize in vegetarian sandwiches while inside was focused on their tantalizing aged meat. While standing there, I inadvertently joined the outside line (people started to file in behind me) so I tried to signal this to the group. I considered heading back in when I was suddenly handed a chunk of aged cheese. Incredible. I then learned the other “sandwich maker” outside was really a cheesemaker and he was responsible for all the cheeses laid out in front of me. More samples followed, I wasn’t going anywhere.

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Cheesemaker showing off his cheese

The line inched along but the samples increased. In addition to more cheese, I was given bread topped with freshly made mozzarella, pickled veggies and at one point was thrown a slice of ham – the outdoor sandwich maker appeared in the doorway and literally started to toss pieces of ham to the line some 10 feet away, similar to what happens at sporting events with t-shirts being tossed to the crowd. I couldn’t believe what was happening, it was all so great.

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Outside sandwich maker

I eventually made it to the front of the line. I asked for whatever veggie sandwich the man felt like making and watched a masterful creation take place. A baguette was cut in half and oiled. Mozzarella cheese was pulled from a large plastic bin, torn apart and placed on top. Tomatoes were brilliantly diced. Olives and pickled veggies were smashed and added on top. Freshly chopped lettuces followed. More cheese. Olive oil. A clove of garlic was pulled out, chopped on the counter and discarded. Fresh herbs were placed on the spot of the counter where this happened, chopped and then placed in a row of sliced provolone. The herbs were rolled up in the provolone and that was placed on top of everything. The footlong sandwich was cut in half. The sandwich maker looked up at me with a wide grin. I enthusiastically thanked him and accepted my prize. I had finally acquired the sandwich I had waited 1.5 hours for.

There is no picture of the sandwich. I was too excited to eat it.

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Enjoying the well earned sandwich

The rest of the group had an equally great experience once their number was called. The sandwiches were all incredible. We even got a freshly made cannoli to wash it down. We spent the remaining few hours walking around Siracusa. It was the town we had all pictured when planning our trip to Sicily – narrow stone streets, sea views, and quaint shops. We putzed around before catching the train back north.

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Windy Siracusa

Back in Catania, we ate our our sandwiches for dinner while we packed and got ready for early departures the next morning. We said our goodbyes that night. It was sad to part, but we were thankful to have been able to spend a week with our good friends and make great memories with some new ones. Traveling with others is exciting, challenging, and joyous all at once. This trip has been memorable in so many ways and this week will certainly be one that stands out.

 

A trip to the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Here is the background: We had never been to the desert and it intrigued us. Morocco was increasingly recommended and a place that interested us. We had an open week between the PJ/Keely wedding and meeting up with them in Spain. Spain is pretty close to Morocco. So, it didn’t take much convincing when Meli, our AirBnB host in Amsterdam, gushed over how great of an experience she had visiting the desert in Morocco and how we just had to do it. The next morning we booked a four day tour that had us camping in the Sahara Desert.

First we had to get there and that proved to be no easy task. We left PJ and Keely’s apartment in Chicago at 6:30am Monday morning. We took the Orange line to Midway, boarded a flight to New York and arrived around 11am. After a frustratingly long Uber wait at Laguardia we made it to the Brooklyn hotel PJ and Keely were staying at for a few nights around 12:30pm. We dropped our bags and explored a rainy Williamsburg for the day. After a failed attempt at acquiring our long lost favorite pizza (Lucali) we boarded the train to JFK around 7:30pm. We grabbed a quick bite just ahead of our 10:30pm flight to London. Landing in London around 10am GMT, we were barely awake as we made it through a 1.5 hour customs experience before making our way to a different terminal for a five hour layover. At 3:30pm we boarded a horrifically tight EasyJet plane headed to Marrakech. Four hours later we landed, went through another hour long customs experience before getting picked up by our prearranged airport transfer. Now at a level of exhaustion I have rarely felt, we found our way to our riad in Marrakech. We had not laid horizontal in 36 hours. No bed, no couch, just sitting up right nodding off on planes. We were delusional. Luckily the man who ran the riad had the most calming presence I have been around in some time. Sensing the state we were in, he insisted we sit down, have a cup of tea and enjoy some biscuits. The riad was equally calming, low lights, the tranquil sound of running water, a small pool in the middle. Exactly we what we needed. We showered and slept hard, perfectly horizontal.

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Riad in Marrakech

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast and much needed cup of joe, we found Abdo waiting for us in the riad. Abdo is 31 and a part of the family who runs the tour company we were recommended for our four day trip to the desert. Abdo would be our driver and soon our friend and was an all around great person who looked out for us the entire time.

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Abdo front and center

The itinerary involved a lot of driving. The first day we would be driving 8 hours, stopping at various sights along the way before staying the night a few hours away from the desert in a small village in the middle of Morocco. Luckily Abdo had a very comfortable van for us to relax in while journeying through Morocco. We made a number of stops, taking in various Oases, kasbahs, mountain ranges, and views. Here are a few highlights:

Kasbah:

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An oasis along the drive:

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The “monkey fingers”:

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Mountain roads:

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While I am not the biggest fan of being in a car and the route we took was clearly a tourist circuit, the drive was enjoyable. I loved observing the villages we passed through, the changing scenery kept us in constant awe and Abdo kept things light. He didn’t overwhelm us with over recited stories and facts, rather he was there to answer questions when we had them and played us his favorite American hip hop music (oddly a lot of Ja Rule) before sharing some more traditional tunes. At the end of the first day we stayed in a gaudy hotel, enjoyed a dinner buffet with other travelers and got some rest.

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The van we rode in

The next morning we slept in, hitting the road around 10am. Same tourist circuit, same stops. The most interesting was venturing into one of the beautiful Oases we passed by – an Oasis is an isolated area in a desert surrounding a water source and featuring a dense array of vegetation in an otherwise arid landscape. We met a tour guide on the road who walked us around. There was a community of people living in the Oasis, we walked through their garden growing alfalfa sprouts and cauliflower, made our way through the maze of buildings where peopled lived, had shops and opened hotels and had an awkward encounter with a rug dealer who was a very bad, very pushy salesman. I didn’t like that part, even though he served us some nice tea.

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Waiting to be sold rugs

After disappointing the rug salesman by leaving empty handed, we drove the final few hours and arrived in the Sahara Desert just as the sun was about to set. It was gorgeous. Amber sand dunes the size of small mountains with crests running vertical and wavy valleys running horizontal across them. They cast large, beautiful shadows as the sun went down in front of them. We were transferred to a 4×4, leaving Abdo for a new driver left us feeling uneasy, and driven to our camp.

The camp was interesting, with not so authentic Arabian night vibes. But our tent was nice, bed, bathroom, shower (yes, we were glamping) and we were able to relax and watch the sun set over the dunes.

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Watching the sun set over the dunes

Unfortunately this is when the other campers arrived, including an obnoxious family who let an over energized child terrorize the entire camp. He yelled. He screamed. He begged and begged for attention his parents would not give him all to the detriment of the other eight people staying at the camp that night. We got through a group dinner before quickly retreating to the dunes to gaze at the stars. All annoyance faded away as we saw one of the most spectacular night skies of our lives including a few shooting stars that left fiery trails as they flew by overhead. It was truly amazing. We headed back to our tent and got a good night rest.

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Where we stayed the first night in the Sahara

The next morning the other campers departed after breakfast and we were told we were moving camps. Apparently it is uncommon to stay more than one night at a camp in the desert. We were told to pack up our things and that we would ride camels to our next camp (our bags would be transported separately). We did not have a very clear itinerary from the get go and this is where things got uncomfortable. We were met by a “guide” who was really just a guy in his late teens wearing Nikes in the desert. He showed us to the camels who grew unhappy as we approached.

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The camels waiting for us

They were old, branded and had tags. We reluctantly got on and the “guide” started to walk us through the dunes. This did not feel right. We both have pretty strong animals-are-equals-and-should-not-be-held-captive-for-capitalistic-reasons values. We visited an Elephant orphanage in Thailand (vs riding them) and generally refuse to partake in any other activities that involve the caging of animals (tigers in Thailand, animal shows on the streets, etc). Riding on these poor animals felt horrible. Within five minutes we frantically got the attention of the “guide” and promptly got off. He didn’t understand and kept trying to get us to get back on but we refused. He didn’t seem to know what to do, so we continued on. We immediately felt better about the situation and soon declared that no matter what, “we stand with the camels!”

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WE STAND WITH THE CAMELS

So there we were, all five of us – the “guide”, Jess and I, the two camels – walking through the hot Sahara Desert, the late morning, early afternoon sun beating down on us. We walked up and down the dunes, we walked across large stretches of flat arid sand. We walked and walked, unable to communicate with the “guide” who seemed to be just executing the tour he was instructed to execute. We ended up walking for 8 miles over the course of 4 hours. It was absolutely brutal. The whole “stuck in the desert” movie and TV scenes have a whole new meaning to me now. The desert knocks you out. We were hungry, dehydrated (we tried to make our water bottles last as long as we could) and tired. But, we kept reminding ourselves that “we stand with the camels” and that oddly kept us going.

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Walking with the camels

We started to break down, considered calling Abdo, just as we walked up to a lone desert tent.

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The tent that provided a much needed rest

An old woman emerged and we were instructed to enter the tent and have a seat. Tea was poured, water was served and five minutes later the woman presented us a giant plate of cuscus, roasted vegetables and chicken. It was one of the best meals of my life. After devouring the food and drinking the water we laid down for twenty minutes and rested.

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A revitalizing meal

We felt completely revitalized. We continued our walk and within the hour were at our new camp. A much better version of the camp we had stayed at the night before. The setup was better, the decor less cheesy and the tent came with a covered porch. We showered and spent the rest of the afternoon reading and relaxing. Abdo even stopped by to chat and see how we were doing – I think word of our camel riding (or lack thereof) got around.

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Where we stayed the second night in the Sahara

That evening we watched the sun set over the dunes before enjoying a great dinner and another round of star gazing. Less shooting stars, but still spectacular. We got to bed early, our day in the desert had drained us.

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Sun going down over the dunes

The next morning we got up early to watch the sun rise, had breakfast and packed up. We met back up with Abdo and embarked on an eight hour drive north to Fes. This drive ended up being even better than the previous. No tourist circuit (that seemed to run from Marrakesh to the desert and back), just wild and constantly changing landscapes. We went from desert to breathtakingly large canyons, to mountains, to snowy forest back to arid desert. I had no idea Morocco had such variety, let alone that it snowed there.

In the van, we played some of our music for Abdo and enjoyed our last day together. Abdo was truly a great person – he had a great time with everyone we encountered on the road (shop owners, gas station clerks, hotel attendants), pulled over to help when we passed someone broken down on the side of the road, and generally seemed to enjoy life. He had been on the road, giving tours, for 4-months straight but it didn’t show at all. When he dropped us off in Fes he simply gave us both a big hug, let us know the next time we come to Morocco we have a place to stay (this time as family) and told us to keep in touch. While he may not be the best photographer (see below) he was the best driver we could have asked for.

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Abdo not accounting for his shadow

Now in Fes, we made our way to our Riad for an eager, but warm reception. We showered and rested before enjoying some of the best food of the trip there that night. A three course meal consisting of a variety of Moroccan salads – pureed pumpkin with cinnamon, green beans, chilled potatoes, carrots with raisins, beets and eggplant all seasoned to perfection with a variety of Moroccan spices. The main course was a very well done chicken tangier followed by some fresh fruit for dessert. All fresh, all made with high quality ingredients, all delicious.

The next morning we had an equally good breakfast before heading to the market for a few hours, taking in the vibrant culture and picking up a few items. We made our way to the airport mid-afternoon for our flight to Spain.

Morocco was exactly the change we were looking for after spending a month and a half in Europe. It felt more like vacation, more like an escape being in a country and culture that is so different from ours. The landscape, the people, the food was all incredible. We had been told to be careful, to expect hassling from the locals. We didn’t experience any of that. Instead we found a culture full of warm, caring, and friendly people. Food that was fresh and full of flavor. And a vibrant style that was everywhere. It was an incredible five days.

Next stop USA

Outside of our departure, the only firm date we had to work with on this trip was November 3. This was the day that our two dear friends, PJ Thompson and Keely Hogan were getting married. A year in the making, we were excited for them and looking forward to the party that would ensue.

Before we left for the trip, we booked a flight to Chicago from London on Halloween day. It was a very cheap flight and we figured we would find our way to London at some point. We wanted to end our travels in Slovenia but it was more economical to fly to London from Venice than Ljubljana. So, we took a bus from Slovenia to Venice early Monday morning and arrived in the middle of the afternoon. What we did not expect was what an adventure this would all turn out to be.

We got off the bus on the eastside of Venice, at the Tronchetto bus stop. Our guesthouse was located in Cannaregio which was on the west side, about a thirty minute walk. The first fifteen minutes were uneventful. We laughed at some of the families who were dressed in waiters, assuming that is what people visiting Venice do. It was not until we arrived to the city center that we realized the situation we were facing – Venice was flooded, completely flooded to a level that had not been seen in decades.

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Flooded Venice

It was madness. We initially joined a long line of people walking in a single file line down a raised platform (about 2 feet tall) that barely exceeded the water line.

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Walking platforms set up over the flooded street

The line crawled as people were clearly flustered. Bags were dragged along the platform, broken ones carried. Luckily the platform winded down the street that lead to our guesthouse until suddenly things began to slow down. Coming to a complete stop, we saw the platform ended, but the flooded road continued. It was decision time, do we suck it up and walk through the water or do we head back and figure out an alternative. It was only twenty feet until the water seemed to completely recede, so we rolled up our pants, took off our shoes and stepped into the flooded street. Water to our ankles we slowly waddled until we reached the clearing.

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Walking through the flooded street

Our guesthouse was now around a corner, across a bridge and down a small street. Walking through the street was disturbing but we were able to navigate around the rubbish. We made our way up the small bridge and quickly realized we were not in the clear. We were 30 meters away from our guesthouse, 30 meters of road that was even more flooded and without a platform to protect us. We were determined to carry on, rolled our pants higher and slowly stepped into the now knee high water. We slowly placed one foot in front of the next, hoping not to step on anything too dangerous. We made it to the small street that lead to our guesthouse, 10 meters to go. It was flooded but to what extent was unclear. It was the width of a small alleyway and dark. It felt like we were at the point of no return, so we took the plunge. Luckily the water did not pass our knees and we made it to the guesthouse without too much harm.

We walked into the guesthouse to find the first floor flooded. We were met by a frantic man in his late twenties who did not speak english. He signaled for us to follow him up the staircase and showed us to a room. We tried to ask him for help – is this normal? when will the flooding recede? can we drink the water? where can we get food? what do we do!? – but he didn’t understand a word. As he turned to leave our room he paused, looked back at us and said “This is Venice” with a look that I can only describe as a failed attempt to be comforting, and disappeared.

Alone in our room, we didn’t know what to do (besides immediately clean our legs). We found an app that displayed the water level on each street in Venice, all flooded. Through research we found that floods are somewhat common, called  “acqua alta” or “high water,” and usually go down within a few hours. We decided to wait it out in the room. We monitored things from our window and about three hours later saw the street in front of the guest house begin to emerge. It was about 6pm and we figured we should try and find some food, so we decided to check things out. Unfortunately the street was still flooded, fortunately a woman had arrived at the guesthouse and gave us trash bags to put over our shoes and pants. She spoke a little more english, was equally frantic and claimed this to be the worst flooding she has seen in 50 years. The trash bags allowed us to walk through the flood (now only about 12 inches high) to the main street. On the main street were vendors selling plastic overshoes called Goldon Boots.

Goldon Boots

They worked great and allowed us to walk around the city and take things in a bit. While nearly all restaurants and cafes were closed, we soon found a (very nice) grocery store that was full of people. There was water on the floors, but not flooded. We figured this would be dinner and managed to acquire salami, cheese, bread, olives, hummus, a farro salad and even some tiramisu for dessert. We picked up a bottle of wine for good measure and headed back to the street. It was now raining again and in the distance we saw lighting striking. We had no choice and moved as fast as we could through the streets reaching the safety of our guesthouse just as the storm intensified. We sat down for what turned out to be a very good meal as sirens rang out. We would not be going anywhere for the rest of the night.

The next morning the sun was out and the streets were clear. Soaked yes, but no more flood. We spent the morning before our flight wandering around, enjoying a few bites and appreciating the unique experience we had. We took the bus to the airport and flew to London.

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Venice in the sun

We spent the night at a very lovely Inn just outside the Gatwick Airport in the suburbs of London. The next morning (now Wednesday) we boarded a plane for Chicago and eight hours later we were back in the USA. After being gone for 46 days it felt really good to be back in a familiar place. We could read the signs, knew exactly how to navigate and didn’t check Google Maps once as we made our way to Logan Square from O’Hare. We were excited as we waited outside PJ and Keely’s apartment (where we stayed for the time in Chicago) watching kids dressed up for Halloween pass by.

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Waiting outside PJ and Keely’s apartment

It had been 46 straight days of hanging out with just each other and we couldn’t wait to interact with others as well. That night and the following couple of days we soaked up every minute of friend time we could. We had breakfast at Cellar Door (oh how I missed sourdough bread), played ping pong and had lunch in Pilsen with Dan, cooked dinner with Keely, drank wine and caught up with all our great Chicago friends.

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Dan and I in our happy place

Wedding festivities kicked off Friday night with the rehearsal dinner. Saturday was the big day. Jess and I made PJ a wedding day breakfast before all the groomsmen showed up to the apartment. After the ceremony we took a trolley around the city before arriving at Thalia Hall for the reception. Everything was outstanding: the venue, the cocktails, the food, the DJs, the dancing. We had a great time hanging out with so many great people.

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Jess with the bride and groom outside Thalia Hall

After a really great Sunday morning brunch at The Robey (thanks Mrs. Thompson) we hung out at the apartment with Keely’s and then PJ’s family. It was great getting to know them and learning more about our friends. By Sunday night we were exhausted as we packed our bags for an early morning flight to New York the next day. The weekend flew by and it was time to hit the road again.

Slovenia Part 3, Nebesa

Ever since discovering a small, rustic resort on a remote island in Thailand back in 2013, we have been mildly obsessed with finding special places to stay while traveling. We spend countless hours researching, always looking for intimate, family run properties that have a certain, indescribable aesthetic we crave. This has lead to a number of remarkable stays over the past five years. While we are operating on a tighter budget these days, we couldn’t help looking around Europe to see what we could find. It was during that research, on a rainy morning in Amsterdam, that we found the best one yet, Nebesa in Slovenia.

We departed Lenar Farm early Tuesday morning, having one last breakfast before saying our goodbyes to the family. We had to trek to the very west of Slovenia and the drive was tough. Nearly four hours across some of the steepest, windiest roads I have ever driven on. We cursed Google Maps for sending us on such a tumultuous route but got through it. We pulled up to the entrance and were immediately struck.

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The Nebesa property

Nebesa is Slovenian for ‘heaven’ which is fitting. Owners Katja and Bojan Ros (parents to renowned chef Ana Ros featured on a season two episode of Chefs Table) stumbled upon an abandoned ski resort while on a hike fifteen years ago. They immediately decided to purchase it and build a home. That turned into an idea to build a simple retreat to allow people to “enjoy the world, enjoy the little things, and learn from the universe”. They created a place (4 chalets and a common house with wellness center) that was low maintenance, had a relaxed atmosphere and most importantly connected you to nature and the astonishing views of the valleys, rivers and mountains the property offered. This was the ethos we were looking for, the ethos we are always searching for.

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The chalets

After parking our car under the solar paneled carport, we met Katja. She showed us around the beautiful property, each step revealing something more amazing than the last. It started with the common area – an open room with a fully stocked kitchen and dining table. Here is where we could pick up fresh bread, fruit and local yogurt and jam each day. They also had any and all cooking equipment should you needed it.

We were then taken downstairs to their personal cellar, filled with two large vats of Slovenian wine (one red, one white), a full leg of prosciutto, cheeses made a few miles away on the same mountain, local sausages and other snacks. All of this was to be at our disposal, for free, whenever we wanted. A cellar like this has literally been a dream of mine for some time now.

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Table in the cellar

I was on cloud nine as we were shown the wellness center. First a studio with some exercise equipment. Then a small locker room with infrared sauna. Then a full spa room with two saunas, water therapy stations (not sure what to call them), showers and the view we would grow accustomed to. We made our way outside (and if things couldn’t get any better) were greeted by a 3-month old, Bernese Mountain dog puppy named Ash. Safe to say Jess was now in heaven (or Nebesa if you will).

 

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Ash

Then we were taken to our chalet. The same chalet that the president of Slovenia stayed at earlier that year. Living room, full kitchen, lofted bedroom and private deck. All clean, all modern, all candidly slightly outdated and all highly, highly overshadowed by the most spectacular view I have ever seen.

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View from living room

If you have read previous posts, it should now be clear that Slovenia is a beautiful country. Everywhere we went the views were (at that time) some of the best I had ever seen. This blew them all away. The mountain peaks, the Soca valley and Isonzo river below with the clouds floating above them were breathtaking (a word I keep finding myself use). Not to mention the fifty or so deer and sheep grazing on the meadow immediately in front. We were truly overwhelmed as Katja left us to enjoy our chalet – the chalet, the cellar, the views were all too much to comprehend in that moment.

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View from our deck

We would soon settle into one of the better routines of my life, even if it lasted only four days. I will describe it in parts:

Morning

Wake up when the sun rises, around 7am. Once out of bed, stroll onto the deck and take in the view and get a big gulp of the fresh mountain air. Head to the common house for some supplies. Make breakfast consisting of yogurt made on a farm nearby, top it with fresh pomegranate seeds and toasted muesli. Wash it all down with some coffee and toast. Head to the studio and exercise for 30-60 minutes (one morning we substituted this for a foggy hike). Shower and rest, reading a book in the chalet.

Quick side note on the hike. It was intense, very intense. Steep, cold and eventually too foggy to see beyond 10 feet. We slipped, slid and struggled up to the top of the seemingly endless peak for over an hour. By the end we were exhausted and slowly walked down the mountain road, avoiding startled horses and dogs. That was enough for the day.

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Visibility 0

Afternoon

Head to the garden. Pick greens (butter lettuce, spinach, romaine) and whatever vegetables we could find (mainly carrots, celery, zucchini). Stop by the cellar for some cheese, prosciutto and a carafe of white wine. Enjoy backyard garden salad, prosciutto and wine at chalet. Afterwards, read and nap for next two hours.

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Lunch

Late Afternoon

Head to the wellness room and start the sauna. Relax while the sauna heats up, taking a foot bath before entering. Sit in the sauna for 15 minutes, shower and head outside. Cool down while breathing in crisp mountain air and taking in the amazing view while standing in the meadow. Rest for twenty minutes before doing it all again. Shower and head back to the chalet.

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Late afternoon view from outside wellness center

Evening

Head to cellar for more cheese, prosciutto and a large carafe of red wine. Listen to Cooking Tunes (playlist by Dan Barth) and make dinner with a combination of the vegetables leftover from lunch, eggs, cheese and prosciutto. After enjoying the meal, clean up and head to the cellar for a refill of the wine. Play a few games of dominos before retreating to the pull out couch to read, drink tea and wind down from the day. Get to bed early.

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One of the best dinner we made – garden veggie frittata

We did this every day we were there and it was incredible – relaxing, insightful, and inspiring. I truly feel fortunate to have stayed at Nebesa. It had literally everything I want when on a relaxing vacation and is truly a special place.

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Nebesa

After four amazing nights, we departed Nebesa early Saturday morning after we woke to a large storm shaking our chalet. We had to drive to Ljubljana and there was a break in the storm that would allow us to descend the mountain in clear weather. The strategy worked and two hours later we dropped off the rental car and headed to our guesthouse in the Slovenian capital.

If you ask me, Ljubljana is an underrated city. We spent a very enjoyable two days exploring the city, hanging at cafes, drinking great natural wine and eating impressive food. The city had a charm to it while also retaining a “cool” factor. I would describe it as a mild combination of Amsterdam and Berlin. It was rainy during our stay and we took it slow, finalizing our plans for the upcoming Asia leg of the trip and retaining the zen we had achieved at Nebesa.

We left Ljubljana early Monday morning, next stop U.S.A.

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Ljubljana

Slovenia Part 2, Solčava

What appealed to us most about Slovenia was it’s natural beauty. Of particular interest were the Alps of northern Slovenia that seemed perfect for the rest and relaxation we were seeking. We did our research and found a number of appealing places to spend a week, ultimately deciding on a farm in the Solcavsko region. We knew from the pictures that it was going to be beautiful, but seeing it upon arrival was a different story. Breathtaking is frankly an understatement, we were truly in awe.

We left the Vipava Valley early Wednesday morning, embarking on a 2.5 hour drive from southwest Slovenia to Logarska Dolina located in the far north Solcavsko region of the country. Geographically isolated by the Kamnik-Savinja Alps, the region is remote and sparsely populated (only 517 total people). The final half of the drive required us to cross over a long, twisting, single lane, mountain road. The spectacular views were both astonishing and distracting, as the drive required constant attention and lookout for oncoming cars. We successfully made it over the mountain and soon found ourselves driving through the charming village of Solcava. The isolation of the region allowed it to develop at its own pace – the first road into Solcava did not come until 1894 despite settlement dating back to hundreds of years prior. It has successfully maintain its own distinct cultural identity and preserved its natural heritage, all of which was on full display (we visited the tourist center in town and had the benefit of viewing their 15 minute multimedia presentation).

 

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The drive to Logarska Dolina

 

Ten minutes past the town of Solcava we arrived at the entrance to Logarska Dolina, one of three valleys that make up the Solcavsko region. It was absolutely stunning. A wide sweeping grass meadow, broken by a single winding road, flanked by steep mountain slopes packed full of colorful trees on each side. In the background, looking like a mirage and overshadowing it all, were the enormous limestone peaks of the Kamnik-Savinja Alps. A degree of natural beauty I had rarely seen before. As we drove into the park, through the meadow and towards the Alps, we found century-old farmsteads, galloping alpine horses, pot-bellied pigs, grazing cows and fall colors all around us.

We soon pulled up to the Lenar farm, one of the last homesteads before the road heads up into the Alps (ending at the Rinka Waterfall we would soon visit). The farm spans nearly 500 acres and consists of multiple buildings (two of which were lodging), a large field for the two horses to run free, and a pig named Mitsy roaming the front yard. I cannot possibly explain how good the air smelled as we got out of our car and met our host Ursa. Ursa gave us a brief introduction and explained her family has owned the farm since the 1400s (!!) before showing us to our room.

We walked up to one of the wood structures and were taken to a small, but updated room with a distinct log cabin feel. The room was located in the second floor of the building and had a balcony facing those incredible Alps.

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Balcony

We were awestruck. Ursa left us and we just started to laugh at how beautiful everything was. We tend to have high expectations of places we stay, but this far exceeded them. We unpacked, rearranged the room a bit (we were staying for six nights and wanted to utilize all of the space) and I took a nap. The drive was exhausting. I rarely drive cars these days and focusing that hard, on mountain roads drained me. I woke up a few hours later and smiled as I made my way to the balcony to see the view once again.

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View from our balcony

For dinner we went to Kmecka hisa Ojstrica – where we would go every night thereafter. Come October, most places close down in Solcavsko. With only a few options to begin with, Ojstrica was our only one. Luckily it was just a two minute walk from the farm (the Alps were especially spectacular at night when the moon would illuminate their silhouette) and served good traditional Slovenian mountain food. Offered in a prefix menu, we ate a lot of mushroom soup, river trout, the occasional bowl of pasta and a notable homemade sausage. The family who ran the restaurant was friendly and we were treated to a different homemade cake each night. By the end we became tired of the food, but generally felt fortunate to have such a good option within walking distance.

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Kmecka hisa Ojstrica

Our days were slow. We explored the valleys, meadows and trails that surrounded us, hung out on the farm and generally took it easy. Our most memorable hike was Thursday, the day after we arrived. We embarked on a 7km walk that runs the length of Logarska Dolina, winding through the woods, criss crossing the mountain road, and ending at the Rinka Waterfall. We headed out around noon. As we entered the forest, the smells were noticeably intoxicating – fall foliage mixed with fresh herbs, damp forest and crisp pine. We slowly ascended up the mountain, the peaks growing in stature at every step, ran into a few loggers along the way, and after 3.5 hours reached the waterfall.

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The road running through Logarska Dolina

We may have slightly underestimated the effort required to reach the second highest waterfall in Slovenia, but it was worth it. The Rinka Waterfall itself was beautiful and the views of the valley were even better.

The Rinka Waterfall:

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Views from the Rinka Waterfall:

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It was now late afternoon and the sun magically lit up the Alps. Unlike anything I have seen before and hard to describe, it looked like we were staring at the moon up close. There wasn’t snow (that would come a few days later) but the peaks had a grey-white mystique to them.

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We stood up there for thirty minutes taking it all in.

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Given we were running out of daylight, we descended down the mountain road. I felt rejuvenated – the mountain air, the views the exercise. Doing these activities really puts things in perspective and I was feeling great. And the views were never ending.

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We made it down the mountain in less than an hour, got cleaned up and watched the sun set over the mountains before heading to dinner. That was the best meal of the stay.

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Watching the sun go down from our balcony

Like I said, we took it slow. The rest of the trip was filled with smaller hikes, a lot of reading and a few days spent planning out our second half of the trip. We hung out in the beautiful common spaces of the Lenar Farm, enjoyed their breakfast and met some of the animals. We took a few drives to the surrounding valleys, to the “Panoramic Road” that overlooks all three and made a few trips to town (Solcava). We drank tea made by Ursa’s aunt from wild flowers and herbs found on the mountain and explored new genres of music. The beauty of the place made a lasting impression on me and it’s somewhere I will never forget. There are only so many adjectives to describe what we saw and felt over those six days, so I will end with some pictures as they often tell the story more effectively.

In the town of Solcava:

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Biking through Logarska Dolina:

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Hiking around the property:

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Making friends on Lenar Farm:

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Views from Panoramic Road:

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Exploring the neighboring valley:

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What a memorable stay.

Slovenia, Part 1

When we embarked on our trip, Slovenia was not on the itinerary. But, we intentionally left the final 10 days open to allow some flexibility in where we went and what we did. It’s not entirely clear how, but Slovenia came on our radar in Amsterdam. Prior, our experience with the country was limited to drinking Slovenian wine at home and general mumerings about its beauty, but we had no real intent on visiting. Then our research turned up Nebesa (that’s Part 3) and a few other destinations and drew us in. We also kept finding things we were interested in (wine, hiking, wellness) and the pictures of the landscapes were spectacular. With this, we decided to commit to spending our final two weeks in the country. It may end up being the best decision we will make.

Part of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia is young, having officially become an independent country in 1991. It is made up of mostly mountains, half the country is covered in forest and it has the most water of any European country (lakes, rivers, streams everywhere). There are alps in the north and renowned wine regions in the valleys. It’s a small country and with two weeks we felt we could see a lot of it. We decided there was no better place to start than with our new found passion, wine.

We took a six hour bus ride from Budapest to Ljubljana on Monday morning. We arrived in the Slovenian capital around 4pm, picked up a rental car and made the one hour drive to Vipava Valley – arguably the most renowned wine region and recently named one of the top 10 destinations in Europe by Lonely Planet. We were immediately struck by the beauty that surrounded us. Mountain ranges in all direction covered in a bouquet of yellow, orange, and red trees all leading up to majestic Limestone peaks. The highways cut through the mountains with ease and the drive was stress free allowing us to soak in the natural beauty.

We had booked a guesthouse in the town of Vipava for two nights. We arrived just as the sun was setting and were immediately shown the small apartment we would be staying in. It was full of old world character, resembling a Northern Michigan cottage with retro appliances, old paintings and furniture from the 50’s. It made us feel at ease. Hungry, we drove five minutes to Gostilna Theodosius, a restaurant on the hillside that at first glance did not seem open, but luckily was. After the food experience in Budapest, we were excited to get a taste of the Slovenian cuisine. It did not disappoint. We enjoyed fresh baked bread, trout tatar, barley with pumpkin and sage and homemade ravioli. Accompanied by (what would become a staple of the two days) 1 Euro glasses of wine, we indulged. We returned to our guesthouse joyous, having our first good meal since Poland.

Tuesday morning started with a minor case of culture shock. When we walked out of our guesthouse it felt like the entire town of Vipava (population 1,953) stopped and stared at us. In reality, there is a group of locals (mainly old men) who sit out front of one of three establishments on the main road (where we were staying) and enjoy their days with endless espresso and wine. As is usually the case, everyone was friendly and our uncomfortableness was quickly shed. We assimilated, taking a seat in the row of locals and enjoying our own coffee and croissant on the sidewalk.

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The main street in Vipava

One of the main reasons we decided to visit Vipava was a tour we had discovered run by a local company called Winestronaut. Started by two friends slightly older than us, their goal is to provide unique, local experiences, in a small, intimate setting. We booked a tour for Tuesday afternoon that involved visiting local wine cellars, meeting the winemakers and enjoying local cuisine. Our expectations were high going in and they were ultimately exceeded.

To prepare, we got lunch at one of the local establishments – our first proper salad in weeks, along with delicious homemade mushroom gnocchi. We finished just as Matjaz (one of the two founders of ) pulled up in front of the cafe. We introduced ourselves and Matjaz gave us an overview of the history and culture of the region. He was engaging, knowledgeable and made us feel like we had just run into an old friend. Eventually we all piled into his van and set off to meet the first winemaker. We discussed everything from wine and culinary traditions to culture and politics. We bonded over a shared worldview on nearly everything.

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The Winestronaut van

Twenty minutes later we pulled up to Vina Lisjak. We entered an old farmhouse, set in a small village and met Peter Lisjak. The rustic interior was impressive – large wood oven, casks of aging homemade schnapps and even an array of pigs feet. We were shown a table and the wine started flowing. We tasted five different bottles and were served an incredible platter of salami, prosciutto, young asparagus, shaved zucchini salad, a variety of cheeses and bread – all made and grown on the farm except the cheese. Peter then pulled a 3-year old leg of prosciutto from his kitchen cellar and used a knife to cut off the most delicious piece of aged meat I have ever had. He explained that the diet of the pig that he raised (mainly apples and other fruits and vegetables from his farm) and the aging process (stored in the attic where it is exposed to 125 mph winds in the winter, stored in the basement cellar in the summer) is what sets it apart. To that point, I had never been served a piece of prosciutto directly from the leg of the pig it came from, let alone one that tasted this good – it’s a moment I will never forget.

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Peter cutting us a piece of the prosciutto

We continued to tour Peter’s property. We were shown his basement cellar where large vats of wine, along with cheese and meats were fermenting. His garage where wine was being fermented in large open drums and the press where they were headed next was located. It was all very insightful and while this was not my first tour of a winery, it was the first since I have become more familiar with wine. Being able to see everything first hand and ask Peter questions was an incredibly rewarding experience. We learned a lot in just an hour and a half. We said our goodbyes and got back in the van, heading to our next stop.

 

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More prosciutto aging in Peter’s basement cellar

Another beautiful drive through the valley with fall colors on full display. We climbed a hill before pulling into Posestvo Štokelj, located on the south side of the Vipava Valley and known for keeping the legacy of the Pinela grape alive. We were greeted warmly by Špela Štokelj. Špela was impressive – not only was she more down to earth than most winemakers we have encountered, she was running the operation largely on her own at the age of thirty. She tasted alongside us as she poured sparkling Pinela, rose and other delicious wines (largely Pinela) she was producing. We were served another platter of meat (made on the farm) and cheese (from the Soča valley, also Part 3) and learned about the history of the estate and the Pinela grape.

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Jess at Posestvo Štokelj

The estate overlooked the Vipava Valley and was another charming, rustic country home. We ended up purchasing a bottle from her (surprisingly only 9 Euro) before saying our goodbyes, having very much enjoyed our conversation. We got in the van and headed back to Vipava with Matjaz.

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Posestvo Štokelj

A few facts we learned from Matjaz: in Vipava nearly everyone makes their own wine and maintains a cellar in their home. They have always (and continue to be) dedicated to sustainable farming. Largely out of necessity, each home grows their own food and trades with their neighbors to obtain a variety of ingredients. In the fall, each village has a “cellar day” – essentially a village-wide party where the locals open their cellars and share their wine with each other. Matjaz grew up here, and after spending 8 years in Ljubljana going to school, recently returned to start his own tourism business. In addition to starting Winestronaut, he is renovating a 300 year-old stone house (stone was necessary given the 125 mph winds mentioned earlier) that he hopes to turn into a guesthouse. He is dedicated to staying true to the local culture and keeping their traditions alive. Much of what we learned about the area seems to be inline with values I have recently begun to develop – living a more simple life with a focus on sustainability and quality. It was remarkable to find this in such a remote place that a month prior I had no idea existed. The region is undoubtedly beautiful and with the recent attention, I am curious how tourism evolves over the coming years. Everyone we met – Matjaz, Peter, Špela – seemed to be cautiously optimistic that the region can find a way to stay true to their centuries old values, while still embracing the positives of tourism. I hope they are right.

Upon our return to Vipava, we sat outside with the locals (many of whom remained in the same seat we observed them at in the morning) and drank a few more glasses of wine. We got dinner at the same restaurant we ate lunch at, but it was a struggle given how full we were on wine, meat and cheese. We ended our final day in Vipava inspired by everything we had learned and the people we had met. It was a memorable two days.

You can’t win them all.

Budapest was disappointing, there is no way around it. It felt like we were dropped into Cancun during college spring break – large unappealing bars (i.e. The Hangover Bar), crowded streets with hoards of homogenous groups fighting and vomiting on the streets. Debauchery at its finest. As a couple returning from a relaxing week in the mountains, looking to dive into the grand history and culture that we had read about, it was a challenge. We attempted to research our way around the chaos, but even the most acclaimed restaurants, cafes and wine bars were occupied by the madness (and frankly not that good). The highlight was a Sunday morning walking tour, where we learned about the history of the country and received a few “locals only” tips – but that’s using the term generously.

We later learned that the city has in fact been overcome by a recent surge in tourism, specifically people on their “stag” or “hen” party, the European version of a bachelor and bachelorette party. We confirmed our observations with other travelers and people who had blogged about their experience in the Budapest. I am certain there are sides of the city that are not as exposed to this and we could have done a better job with how we chose to spend our time. But given our limited stay (just a weekend) we accepted things for what they were, used our time to do some planning and catch up on some travel chores.

You can’t win them all.

Taking a breather in Slovakia’s Tatra Mountains

The first three weeks of the trip were spent visiting some of Europe’s best cities. We experienced a wide range of culture, ate amazing food and took in centuries worth of architectural beauty. It was a hell of way to kick off an extend period of travel and it will take months to fully absorb everything we saw, heard and learned. While we tried to take it slow at times, inevitably it all happened very fast. I needed a break and was beyond excited to embark on our first rural experience of the trip – five days in Zdiar, a small Slovakian town in the middle of the Tatra Mountains.

We took a 3 hour bus ride south from Krakow into Slovakia early Monday afternoon. The trees had started to change colors as we cut through the mountains passing one small town after another. The highway was being constructed parallel to the small two-lane road we winded down, which allowed us to get a glimpse of rural life in Poland and Slovakia. We were soon dropped off at a small bus stop on the side of the road and left to find our way to Chata Baba Yaga – a small mountain chalet that we booked for the week.

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Bus stop in Zdiar

Luckily we soon received a call from “Richard” who, in very broken english, instructed us to stay at the bus stop. We waited a few minutes until a car pulled up, rolled down the window and asked “Jessica Sheets?” from the driver seat. We threw our bags in the back, got in his car and soon pulled up to a quintessential mountain cabin that would be our temporary home.

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Chata Baba Yaga

We were immediately struck by the craftsmanship of the place as Richard showed us our room that was built almost entirely out of wood and stone. We believe he built the structure himself, but the language barrier was too wide to confirm. We unpacked and settled in. The room had everything we needed – a small kitchen, living space, bedroom and bathroom. It was extremely clean and felt brand new (they opened in August). We had too large windows that let in the warm mountain air. It was exactly what we had hoped for.

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The first thing we did was venture out to get some food. We saw this as an opportunity to eat healthier (especially after Poland), cook our own food (something we were missing) and save some of the budget. Richard pointed in the general direction we needed to go and we took our first of many trips to the local grocery store. We would soon appreciate this five minute walk – down a dirt path, across a small river on a wooden bridge filled with ducks who verbally expressed their frustrations at having to move for us, past a few lookout dogs who fulfilled their duties with a few loud barks and over to ABC Grocery. The selection was extremely limited (more like a party store back home) but we were able to find rice, a new vegetable each day (sometimes frozen), some peanuts and a chocolate bar. We made dinner every night for less than $5.

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The grocery store

Our days were spent exploring the surrounding area. The Tatra Mountains is the highest mountain range in the Carpathian Mountains and form the natural border of Poland and Slovakia. We stayed in the Eastern Tatras in the town of Zdiar which is situated between Belianske Tatry and Spiš Magura. Zdiar is a classic Goral community with a population of only 1,600. I have never seen a place quite like it. The town was full of colorful wood houses overshadowed by a breathtaking backdrop of either the Belianske Tatry mountain peaks or the Spiš Magura’s expansive green meadow leading up to a forest of trees showing off their fall colors.

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Zdiar with Belianske Tatry in the background

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Zdiar with Spiš Magura in the background

Our first day we hiked up the Belianske Tatry, which proved to be a challenge given the muddy conditions, the intense slope of the trail and our lack of proper hiking shoes. We were overmatched and only made it an hour (about 300 meters up) before turning back. I did considerable damage to the running shoes I bought in Berlin just a few weeks prior and the signs warning against bears and rattlesnakes ended up being the final straw. That said, it was a much needed workout and we were rewarded with breathtaking views and fresh mountain air.

At the base of Belianske Tatry:

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Roughly 150 meters up:

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About where we turned back:

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One of the best mountain homes:

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The subsequent days we stuck to the Spiš Magura – a more gentle incline, stable footing and generally more conducive to the hiking gear we had. The views were equally breathtaking and the fall foliage resulted in even better smells. We would sit for periods of time and fully take in what we were seeing, hearing and feeling. It brought a level of contentment that I have not felt in a long, long time.

The expansive meadows leading up to Spiš Magura:

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A less strenuous hike:

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A great view of Zdiar and the Tatras:

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Wide open spaces to walk through:

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360 degrees of beauty:

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Our nights were spent making basic dinners, playing backgammon, listening to music and reading. We slept over 10 hours each night and ended the trip in a very relaxed state. In fact, I was able to reach a mental state that I have been striving for for a very long time – a sublime combination of calm, appreciation of the moment and excitement for what life will bring next. It’s a place I will never forget.

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Watching the sunset over Zdiar