Fighting For Optimism

The last few of weeks have been some of the most difficult (and rewarding) of the trip thus far. I have seen the impacts of war and been confronted by the deplorable things people are capable of doing to others. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed the hope and optimism for the future and the unfailing strength of the human spirit. It puts into perspective advantages that I have never even considered and those that I routinely take for granted.

After our week in Istanbul, we took a short flight to Bucharest, Romania and landed at a small airport to freezing temperatures and a fierce wind (yay polar vortex!). Luckily our AirBnB was a cute and homey one bedroom apartment, located in the middle of the downtown pedestrian core and surrounded by restaurants and shops. The snow continued over the next two days while we spent time exploring the immediate area on foot while popping into different restaurants to warm up with a cup (or two) of vin fierte, hot mulled wine.

img_20180227_130312-012604673109507185750.jpeg

Welcome to Romania

I had thought we were prepared for the weather, but the dry, cold wind made for miserable walking and I often found myself longing to curl up on the couch to read a book. You know, what I would be doing during a winter storm at home.

The problem was that we only had three full days in Bucharest, and cold or not, there were things that we wanted to see. One of the main sites on Dean’s list was the Palace of the Parliament, the second largest administrative building in the world behind the Pentagon. It is an imposing structure; 276 feet tall, with a footprint of 3,930,000 square feet, and 1,100 individual rooms.

img_20180228_1446597021458323377704445.jpg

The Romanian Parliament From a Mile Away

Seeing the building perched on the hill was rather anticlimactic after the hour long, freezing walk but on our way back to the old town, we happened to stumble into one of the oldest restaurants and beer halls in the city, named Caru’ cu bere. The huge interior was warm and inviting, with dark wood and frescoed walls. We originally stopped in for a hot drink and quick respite from the cold, then decided to make a reservation for lunch the next day, as traditional Romanian food is heavy on the soups, vegetables, and meat. The perfect cold weather cuisine!

Our lunch was so delicious that we decided to reserve again the next day, to coincide with their daily string quartet for a pleasant 3 course meal – soup, main and dessert (freshmade donuts with blueberry compote and sour cream).

IMG_20180228_140712.jpg

Caru’ Cu Bere Beerhall

The snow storm finally broke on our last day and we enjoyed checking out 19th century buildings, monuments, and a huge park complete with an ice skating rink just outside of the old town. The temperature was still frigid however the weak winter sun was out in all it’s glory and I wandered where it shone.

img_20180301_143544-018639028445471840648.jpeg

The Sun Returns in Bucharest

The following morning, we took the metro to the train station for the next leg of the trip. Our time in the Balkans was limited to three day stints (not including one day of travel) in Bucharest (Romania), Sofia (Bulgaria), and Belgrade (Serbia), with a longer stay planned in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Dubrovnik, Split, and Zagreb (Croatia).

Train travel in this part of Europe is limited to small, regional trains with a number of stops to accommodate the local population of commuters. Each train has a number of brief stops (we’re talking 30 seconds) at tiny stations (sometimes smaller than a house), with slow travel speeds in between. On top of that, the border crossings outside of Europe’s open-border Schengen zone can take up to an hour as immigration and customs officers walk through the train cars collecting a passport from each rider, then disappearing into the station. After an indeterminate amount of time (often depending upon the number of passengers), the agents return to hand back the stamped passports.

img_20180306_1146047712569040935839595.jpg

So Much Better Than Flying

Knowing that we were going to spend the majority of the day traveling, we purchased a grocery bag of snacks as well as several foot-long subs from the train station prior to the 7 hour plus journey.

In Sofia, our hotel sat two blocks outside of the main square and pedestrian street (Vitosha Boulevard). I was pretty excited about this hotel as it appeared to be new and its ratings were quite high. Our accommodation experience in Europe had so far been cute but quirky AirBnBs/hotels. I was hankering for a standard hotel room, with a clean bathroom where the shower had good water pressure (and a door).

The next morning we dug into the hotel’s huge breakfast spread and then began our day of touring with a quick take away coffee prior to joining the free Sophia walking tour. The winter storm we experienced in Bucharest (which had enveloped most of Europe) had blown through and the snow was just beginning to melt.

Throughout the morning we dodged droplets of water and snow coming off the buildings while we walked the sidewalks of the city center listening to our tour guide (a young university student) talk about the history of the city. It turned out to be Liberation Day, Bulgaria’s national holiday similar to our Independence Day, celebrating the end of Ottoman rule and the creation of a free state. People were out on the streets, waving flags and wearing the Bulgarian colors of white, green, and red.

img_20180303_111041-026475423287338439863.jpeg

Liberation Day in Bulgaria

Sofia is a very old city, built on layers and layers of preserved ruins dating back to the Roman and Byzantine Empires. After World War II, it was a part of the Soviet Union and was a one-party socialist state until finally becoming a democracy and a market-based economy in 1989. Our 26 year old tour guide spoke of the country’s history of Communism, but having not yet been born, was unable to provide any firsthand anecdotes about that time period.

We spent the next two days exploring. Unlike most European cities, Sofia lacks a large central square that the remainder of the city organizes around. Instead, it has a gilded statue that sits on the median of several main thoroughfare streets with public buildings, parks, and churches surrounding on either side.

The Sofia History Museum, housed in the old public baths, provides the history of the city from the early 1800’s to modern day. The Cathedral Saint Alexander Nevski is an iconic Bulgarian Orthodox Church with New-Byzantine architecture, sitting in a cobbled plaza. The adjacent Temple Sveta Sofia (from which the city takes its name) is a 6th century Byzantine church with an underground museum that preserves and displays the excavated foundations of previous churches and crypts. We spent hours randomly walking through the urban neighborhoods and local parks, happening upon some hidden gem restaurants including a converted house with an amazing salad, a fast/casual soup place, and a local burger and craft beer joint.

img_20180305_100118-019078140194768526945.jpeg

Vitosha Boulevard in Sofia

On the day of our departure, I walked the two blocks to grab three footlong sandwiches for our long day of travel to Belgrade. The shop was supposed to open at 7:30am, but like most things in Bulgaria, they were late. So I decided to grab a couple of Americanos at the shop next door and returned to the hotel 30 minutes later with our lunch, dinner, and to Dean’s surprise – coffee!

It was another long day of travel – 8 plus hours of sitting on the train, listening to music and watching the countryside scenery. We switched trains twice that day and upon entering the train station to check the time table for our second train, we walked through a group of 7 young and bedraggled children, holding their hands out and begging. Several of the group followed us into the station itself and continued their pleas while I kindly repeated, “No. I’m sorry.”

It broke my heart to see their dirty little faces but I don’t think that giving money is the answer. Not only does it reinforce the behavior of begging but oftentimes I doubt where the money goes. In India, we were told stories of adults who ran child beggar rings, commandeering the day’s take and leaving the children ill cared for until they were too old to appeal to the sympathies of tourists and turned out without a sustainable means of survival.

This group of boys however were very persistant and after realizing that I wouldn’t give them money, decided to focus on the ball cap hooked to the outside of my bag. One of the boys played at grabbing the hat, as it was fastened on the bag with the sizing hooks and could have easily been torn away. He was so persistent as to follow us out onto the platform and I had to very firmly yell “no,” while Dean unhooked the cap and zipped it up in my bag, sending a clear message. We finally boarded our train and watched as several other tourists were harassed until we pulled away from the station.

We arrived in Belgrade around 10:00pm and were shocked to exit the train station to desolation. No cars, cabs, or buses were waiting outside the train station. Nothing.

Dean had gone back inside to ask the information desk to call us a cab and we waited, unsure and frustrated, for 10 minutes until a car with a light on top finally came down the road. We provided our hotel address and were surprised when the car stopped on a busy road, pointing vaguely up a pedestrian street. We trustingly followed his directions of “up street, go left,” to find the sign for our hotel, which was tucked on the 4th floor of an old building right in the heart of Belgrade.

The next morning, we searched the pedestrian streets for coffee and breakfast for some time before finally deciding to enter a restaurant on the main square, a stone’s throw from where we needed to meet our free walking tour. The restaurant was a large, touristy place with both indoor and outdoor seating under heat lamps. Under normal circumstances we would have avoided such a tourist trap, but desperation was setting in – me for food and Dean for coffee.

Considering it was still early in the morning, we opted for indoor seating and were surprised when ushered to the “non-smoking” section. On our walking tour an hour later, we learned that every restaurant in Belgrade allows smoking indoors and the majority of our three days spent there was trying to find places that didn’t smell like a 20 year old ash tray.

img_20180309_1127414309767520643566100.jpg

Belgrade’s Fort at the Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers

Our tour guide, Sonja, was a grad student, born and raised in Belgrade, and throughout the tour, she not only shared her beautiful city but also an interesting perspective on life. Serbia is suffering from “brain drain,” with most of their young talent leaving the country to pursue opportunities abroad. When I asked if she had considered leaving as well, she replied that she is very much tied to Belgrade, as she highly values her relationships with friends and family. She had learned this during a year spent in Spain and upon deciding if to return, she chose to pursue a life of working to live versus the alternative that she sees played out in western society.

She spoke with the confidence and optimism of a young person who is just starting out in life with endless possibilities. She has an apartment downtown, recently moving out of her parent’s house, and enjoys spending time with her friends, always making time to meet for a coffee. In fact, we saw no lack of young people gathered at the cafes in the pedestrian streets on the sunny days, whiling away the hours over a cappuccino.

Belgrade is a beautiful city, pocketed where the Danube and the Sava rivers meet, and we enjoyed exploring the pedestrian area, wandering the Bohemian and Jewish quarters, as well as exploring the parks and ancient castle walls. However, when thinking about our time, my major impression will always be that it was “smoky” and because of this, I probably wouldn’t return.

To get from Belgrade to Sarajevo, we hired a minibus (also known as a large van) as there currently isn’t a train route from Belgrade to Sarajevo. The journey was an easy 5 hours. We shared the van with 3 young Serbian guys and a few older women who were all traveling to Sarajevo to ski. At one of our two pit-stops, I asked the one of the other passengers, an older woman in her 60s, where she had bought her Lululemon yoga pants. I was surprised when she responded in heavily accented English that she lives in Calgary, but is originally from Bosnia. She left with her family 24 years ago and had moved to Canada as a refugee, fleeing the war (when Serbia, the seat of Yugoslavia attacked Bosnia).

Immediately after crossing the border into Bosnia Herzegovina, I had started noticing the abandoned houses that were scattered across the countryside. Many had shrapnel holes, while others were empty shells without roofs or windows. Dean and I disagree about the numbers, but I believe that about 1 in 10 houses showed some kind of damage. I asked the Bosnian-Canadian about the houses and she sadly replied that many who fled their homeland never returned. Even worse, many had died in the fighting or were murdered in the work camps. This is the first time that I was confronted with the magnitude of the conflict that occurred upon the break up of Yugoslavia, resulting in the countries we know today – Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Kosovo (still a disputed state).

img_20180311_1507567739192431994302844.jpg

Many Buildings in Bosnia and Sarajevo Still Have Scars from the War

Sonja had provided a little background on the history of the socialist state of Yugoslavia and it’s break up upon the fall of Communism but hadn’t touched on the Serbian aggression that resulted in years of brutal war.

We began our education into the war that day looking out the van window – more would come over the next week.

Our first full day in Sarajevo, we decided to join the free walking tour provided by one of the city’s highest rated companies on Trip Advisor. This has been our new routine – we join the free tour on our first day to get an overview of the sites and then go back to study places in more depth with the remainder of our time in the city. Our tour guide, Enes, was a high energy young man, in his early thirties who was born in Sarajevo and demonstrated a great depth of knowledge and love for his city. He kept the information on the tour high level, providing information around the history of the city and touching briefly on the seige.

Like the other cities in this area, it was part of both the Roman and Ottoman Empire, and much of the architecture and culture has been shaped through those two great civilizations. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and is the place where WWI was started with the assignation of Franz Ferdinand.

It was largely untouched by WWII, as it was then part of Yugoslavia, a socialist coalition run by the benevolent dictator, Tito. From Enes’s description, Tito is still very well thought of in Bosnia, as unemployment was 0, people had food, and the widespread corruption that often is highlighted in USSR Communism wasn’t discussed. However, a decade after Tito died, his empire fell apart and regions of the state started to succede.

Enes walked our group of 20 around the old town, showing the oldest Mosque in the city, the Ottoman marketplace, the synagogue, the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The tour highlighted some of the infamous history of the city by showing us the Latin Bridge and nearby the exact spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.

Often we walked past the Sarajevo Roses, a red painted demarcation on the pavement of the city indicating where people were killed from the Serbian mortars during the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990’s. Some 11,000 people died during the 44 month siege, and as you can imagine, there are a large number of the red splatters throughout the city.

IMG_20180312_143434.jpg

One of the Many Sarajevo Roses

Enes encouraged us to ask questions and most of mine were focused around the siege. I remember hearing about the conflict in Bosnia when I was a child. Enes was a young child when the siege started in the early 1990’s. His family household is on the opposite side of the river valley, or hill, where the Serbs set up their lines and mortars. He made mention of his mother not allowing him to wear the color red as a child so as not to make an easy target for the indiscriminate Serbian snipers.

At the end of the free walking tour, Dean and I arranged with Enes to meet the next day for his Siege of Sarajevo tour, where he would speak specifically about the war, visiting The Tunnel of Hope, the abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics, and the Jewish cemetery that would become a battle ground throughout the siege.

To broaden our knowledge of the siege prior to the next days tour we visited the Museum of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Slovenia and Montenegro left Yugoslavia without much bloodshed, Bosnia and Herzegovina upon trying to declare independence from Yugoslavia was not as fortunate. There are three ethnic/religious groups that call this area home – the Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox), the Croats (Catholics) and Bosniacs (Muslim). The Bosnian Serbs wanted to remain under Serbian rule and with the help of the Serbian Army (still the army of Yugoslavia), tried to take the country by force. They set up work camps to imprison the opposition (primarily the Bosniac and Croat peoples) and surrounded the city of Sarajevo. The UN placed an embargo on Bosnia, but since the Serbs had already stockpiled arms and were being supplied by the Yugoslav army, this essentially meant that the Croats and Bosniacs were drastically limited in their ability to fight back.

The museum was dedicated to showcasing the heinous crimes committed by the Bosnian Serbs against their neighbors. Stories of torture, rape, and genocide were displayed – the likes of which hasn’t been seen since WWII and the crimes perpetrated against the Jews – except this time, the persecution was against a different ethnic group – the Muslim Bosniacs and Catholic Croats.

Walking through that museum, looking at the pictures and reading the stories was one of the hardest things I’ve done. Tears took up residence, occasionally spilling down my cheek, particularly when I read a remembrance from a woman or child. The pictures were gruesome and I spent most of my time questioning how someone could do such things to another human. And how we, as a civilized world, could allow it to happen. The museum discussed in depth, the ambivalence of the UN and how their indecisive actions exacerbated the abhorrent behavior, as their inaction was seen as encouragement by the Serbs.

The next day, we spent a few hours at an outdoor coffee shop on the square, Dean reading while I wrote a blog post. We then visited the Jewish Culture Museum, housed in a historic synagogue, a beautiful stone building with large windows and wooden balconies used for displaying the local Jewish relics.

On our way to get lunch, we ran into Enes, also on his way to get food before the tour and we asked him if he’d like to join us. He took us to a delicious doner place where our three sandwiches were $10 total. Over lunch, I suggested that we grab a few beers to drink somewhere on our tour. Enes was extremely accommodating and took us to the grocery store to purchase a six pack of the locally brewed lager.

We started the tour by driving through the city, Enes pointing out a barrage of sites left and right as we made our way across the city to the tunnel of hope museum on the far side of the airport. During the drive, Enes had talked about different aspects of the seige, but it really hit home when we sat down to watch a 16 minute video at the tunnel of hope museum that was comprised of footage from the war – first-hand images of shelling, buildings blowing up, people running under fire and helping their fallen comrades were gruesomely portrayed in black and white. After the images and stories from the day prior, I was still shocked by the cruelty and sheer ambivalence for human life that was being played out on the screen.

IMG_20180312_142806.jpg

Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope

When reading about WWI and WWII in history class, it’s easy to gloss over the brutality in your imagination. But when these images confront you in the very place in which they happened, the gravity is much greater. Hearing Enes’s stories about the bleakness of the siege and his first hand experiences were humbling. His willingness to share his honest and unfiltered opinions were refreshing as many times I feel like our tour guides have diplomatically tempered their dialog in the name of professionalism.

At one point, I had a small breakdown, asking aloud how anyone could live with themselves after having done some of these horrendous things. He shared a story about a sniper who had killed himself after not being able to get over murdering an 8 year old girl who was walking down the street with her mother. The man had singled out and killed a number of his fellow Bosnians throughout the siege but apparently this one act haunted him.

I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like for him. Or worse yet, for the mother to have everything change in an instant due to someone on the other end of a scope. Can you imagine being a mother and everyday worrying if your children will come home?

The tunnel was extremely interesting as it served as the only means of travel into the seige city of Sarajevo for the Bosniacs and Croats during the almost four year seige (1,425 days). It was built in four months and four days by volunteers from each side, running under the UN controlled safe zone – a strip of land, housing the airport. The Bosnian Serbs had encircled ¾ of the city and planted mines across the hillsides of the Bosnian army zone to the southwest. Sneaking across the open land of the UN controlled airport strip was risky and if caught, the UN would return you to whichever side you originated. Enes told stories about the UN soldiers spotlighting people crossing at night, making easy targets for the Serb snipers on the cliffs above. I’ve always had the perception that the UN serves as the world’s peacemakers, but hearing Enes’s stories about their ambivalence and inaction during the seige, made me reevaluate.

After visiting the tunnel, we drove up the mountain to explore the abandoned bobsled track. Above the track, we stopped on a hillside, overlooking the entire river valley. The point gave us a birds eye view of the large city, sprawling across the hills, and a great place to enjoy our beers. We could see the Olympic stadium, all three parts of the city (Ottoman old city, Austro-Hungarian, and new city), as well as a number of cemeteries littering the landscape.

img_20180312_160246-018177962489416770459.jpeg

1984 Olympic Bobsled Track

We quickly finished our beers on the mountainside and continued on to the bobsled track. It’s one of the most magically haunting places I’ve ever visited. It sits on the side of a steep mountain, the trees and bushes encroaching on the cement chute. Every available inch is covered with layers of spray painted graffiti. Some murals stretch along the walls while others are shortly worded tags. Upon asking about our feelings towards the current POTUS, he gleefully showed us a small tag saying, “Fuck Trump.”

We decided to continue walking down the track instead of stopping halfway. This area was heavily disputed during the war and towards to bottom, Enes pointed out several places where small holes were chiseled in the cement, places that acted as foxholes for Bosnian Serbs, allowing them to shoot their enemies from the high ground while being protected by thick, insulated cement. Another reminder of the cunning of man in killing their brethren.

img_20180312_1555339124287394717185505.jpg

Holes in Bobsled Track from the Siege of Sarajevo

During the walk on the track, Dean fell behind to take pictures and I got a chance to talk to Enes about his life. His fatalism about the war and current political situation was tempered with a cockeyed optimism about the future and his own place within it. He had gotten married 12 days prior and was enjoying the afterglow of such a happy occasion.

We compared notes on our weddings as well as our futures. He was surprised to learn that we had quit our jobs to go on this trip. Technically, Dean and I are both on a leave of absense but don’t have guaranteed positions when we return.

In Bosnia, employment is extremely difficult to find and most people would never willingly leave a good job. His new wife is a radiology technician but has been struggling to find a job in Sarajevo due to a limited number of openings and the fact that she is not well connected politically and does not have enough bribe money to secure a position. That alone shocked me but then Enes said something that I will never forget – America is the land of opportunity, children grow up believing that they can be whatever they want. But in Bosnia, children grow up knowing that they can’t.

Pause and think about that for a second.

I’ve never questioned that there isn’t anything that I can’t do if I just put my mind to it and work hard enough. My previous career success was built through sheer grit, determination, and an unfailing confidence in my abilities. But there are so many people in the world that don’t have the same advantages. Oftentimes I think about limitations of opportunities and education in context of poverty. However Enes has a masters degree in tourism. His limitations stem from living in a corrupt political climate, where the system is stacked against people progressing on merit alone. No matter how hard he works, he will not achieve great success. However he optimistically speaks about his future, working hard to build up the tour business and living a simple but happy life with his new wife.

It forces me realize the endless possibilities that are open to me and how much I take them for granted. If Enes isn’t deterred and continues to have big dreams, what’s stopping me?

Advertisements

Judging The Book By It’s Content

The more we travel, the more I’m struck by the similarities of people across the world. You’d think it would be the exact opposite considering the unique differences in almost every circumstance of environment: ethnicity, history, government, geography, language, traditions, religion, etc. Though local customs and societal rules may change, I find that, at their core, most people operate with similar dreams and goals.

In Nepal, Ngawang glows with pride when talking about her four children; one daughter helps run the guesthouse and the family spends much of their day congregating in the kitchen, socializing and preparing the next meal. In India, sharing drinks with Madan and his family, we enjoyed hours of conversation before sharing a meal together, cooked by the women of the house. In Bali, we met a Spanish couple, Anna and Dani, who left corporate jobs in Barcelona over a decade ago to become scuba instructors in Southeast Asia. A similar story was told by Megan and Sal, a California couple, who recently left behind the exhaustion of the American rat race to pursue their passion under the sea. In Greece, we enjoyed discussing birthday plans with our host, Niki, whose daughter’s ninth birthday falls on the same day as my 36th. In Serbia, our walking tour guide, Sonja, shared that unlike many other young people seeking better opportunity, she has chosen to remain in her home country after realizing the importance of her family and friends, enjoying the sweetness of a work to live lifestyle versus the alternative.

When thinking about all of the different people that we’ve met, similar themes are demonstrated over and over; the value of connection with others, whether it’s a partner, family, or friends; the ability to make and pursue choices about career, lifestyle, or location that will impact happiness; the drive to protect and raise successful, joyful children; the importance of protecting local traditions and customs while embracing new ideas; the freedom to practice (or not) a religion and the importance of worshipping whichever God you choose. This last theme became particularly relevant as we traveled to Turkey for a week.

I’ll admit to having some trepidation prior to visiting. First, Turkey shares a southern border with Syria and the complexity of the crisis surrounding their civil war and other factors has made for a heated political climate. Additionally, I feel that the sensationalist nature of the American media makes their reporting on the situation unreliable ensuring a difficult search for truthful information regarding the safety of the country.

To top it all off, recent political friction between the US and Turkey has caused both governments to deny specific visa options to the other’s citizens. The US State Department recommends that visitors “reconsider travel due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions.” In fact, the word “terrorist” is used no less than 10 times on the US State Department’s webpage for Turkey. A word that strikes fear into my heart and conjures mental images of Osama Bin Laden and jihadist suicide bombers.

On the other hand, Dean has fond memories of his time in Istanbul, boldly claiming it as one of his favorite cities. So when he acquired online visas for our visit, I pushed my worries aside.

Arriving in Istanbul was exactly like entering any country. You go through immigration, where a stern faced officer reviews your visa, or in this case electronic visa, before stamping your passport and waving you on. Next, you wait an indeterminate amount of time at a carousel for your bag, walk through customs, and leave the airport to find a taxi or public transportation. We easily followed the signs to the metro where we hopped on a train taking us into the city.

If you ever want a first hand demonstration of the similarities amongst humans, ride public transportation. The interactions and behaviors between people is consistent no matter where you are. Students wearing backpacks gathered in small groups to chat before exiting at the station for University. People entered the train carrying groceries, pushing strollers with small children, or briefcases after a long day at work. They looked at their phones, read books, listen to music, or lay heads back to rest their eyes. The young gave up their seat for their elders (when Dean tried to do the same for a woman standing near us, she smiled, flapped her hand, and told him to sit).

Upon arriving at our metro station, we exited the train and followed the mass of humanity up the escalators to street level. Our walk was a short 3 blocks, halfway down an aggressive hill where we met our AirBnB host, Ali, who efficiently showed us our home for the next week.

In typical Krista fashion, I decided to test the comfort of the bed by taking a nap, while Dean was given the important task of finding a restaurant for dinner. After several hours, I awoke hungry and we ventured out to the street directly behind us for falafel.

The three gentlemen running the tiny falafel restaurant laughed as I walked in the door, obviously winded. The walk had taken no more than 10 minutes, but started with a scramble to the bottom of the hill and ended with a slow trudge up the other side. They jokingly told me to get used to it as Istanbul was nothing but hills… great.

The next morning, I awoke to the haunting sound of a nearby loudspeaker blaring the morning call to prayer. While Dean continued to sleep, I enjoyed curling up in a chair to drink coffee and read. Eventually Dean woke up and we decided to get breakfast at a creamery found through a New York Times article and located close to our apartment. We trudged back up the hill towards the Metro stop to Istiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian drag.

The creamery was small, sporting 4 tables on the main level with additional seating upstairs. We were the only patrons so decided to sit on the main level with full length windows looking out on the rainy street.

Our waiter was a large, wrestler of a man who smiled as he offered us the English menu. Dean and I quickly decided to order eggs with sausage, cheese, and tomato and were delighted when the waiter brought out a big basket of bread and our orders of menemen (an egg scramble served in a pan, similar to a shakshuka).

IMG_20180220_091946.jpg

Menemen

After hearing us speaking in English, the owner, Fehmi, struck up a conversation. He patiently stood at our table and helped me pronounce the complicated sounds of a Turkish “thank you,” (teşekkür ederim) while receiving our compliments on the food. We enjoyed the breakfast so much, that we went back three more times during our stay.

On our second visit, Fehmi, recommended that we try the kaymak (clotted cream) with honey, a house speciality. This will go down as one of the most memorable things that we’ve eaten on the trip. The cream was extremely rich but light and the honey was fresh, still having a bit of comb making it extra thick. It is served with bread, though both Dean and I ate it with a fork.

IMG_20180222_084746.jpg

Kaymak, Honey, and Walnuts = Breakfast of Champions

While reveling in our decadent breakfast, I asked Fehmi where he was from as his English was only slightly accented. He mentioned that he had spent 6 years in Phoenix, working security at The Biltmore. Upon hearing that I had lived in Scottsdale for two years, his face lit up and he shared several stories about the famous people that he’d met at the world class resort.

On our next two visits, we enjoyed the amazing food and conversation, learning more about Fehmi, his farm and sharing our views on life. He had returned to Istanbul to take up the family business after realizing that there are more important things in life than money. A sentiment that we’ve heard echoed from people we’ve met across the globe.

That first day, the weather was grey and cold, forcing us to bundle up and walk briskly down the steep hill from Karakoy (the neighborhood we were staying in) to cross the bridge to the Golden Horn, or the old city. Since we were getting out later than usual, we decided to check out the wait times to enter the Hagia Sophia, then make a game time decision on entering or postponing to another day. As we approached the massive building, we were waylaid by a man, telling us of the closure of one of the sites and asking where we were from. Now, after visiting India with arguably the most aggressive touts I’ve ever encountered, you’d think I would know how to handle unsolicited salespeople. But I was easily pressured to enter the man’s shop where he invited us to sit down and provided tulip cups of tea. We spent the next 30 minutes being shown a number of Turkish carpets, even though both Dean and I stated that we weren’t going to purchase. Perhaps we betrayed buying signs when asking the cost of the carpet as the price quickly went from $500 to less than half that cost. I will admit to seriously considering it, but my better half sagely suggested that we think on it further. And when discussed over a cup of coffee later that day, we decided that while it would be an extremely cool souvenir, we could think of any number of experiences that would be a better value than an exotic floor covering.

After leaving the shop, we walked across the street to the square to be greeted by a long line outside the Hagia Sophia. So we decided instead to walk across the large park to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, a beautifully massive building located directly opposite. More commonly known as the Blue Mosque, the building was constructed between 1609 and 1616 and acquired it’s nickname due to the hand painted blue tiles that adorn the mosque’s interior walls.

IMG_20180220_113334.jpg

Blue Mosque

This would be my first time in a mosque. I know very little about the Islamic faith, remembering only a small amount of information from my intro to religion class taken in college. And I don’t know anyone who is Muslim.

Having visited any number of churches, temples, and holy places throughout our travels, I was smart enough to dress respectfully, wearing long sleeves and pants and remembering to wear my scarf that would double as a head covering. However after taking off our shoes, I was asked to also wear a loose skirt over my skinny jeans. A small inconvenience but really a non-issue considering this congregation is willing to allow me to marvel at their place of worship (for free might I add), the least I can do is respect their customs and rules.

At the entrance, pamphlets were provided in a number of languages to explain more about the Islamic faith. The information was laid out historically, outlining the origins of the Abrahamic religion, as well as providing information about the prophet, Muhammad. The pamphlet addressed several misconceptions about the Islamic faith, making a distinction between Islam and Islamists (an advocate or supporter of Islamic militancy or fundamentalism – radical extremists).

I’m ashamed to admit it, but this is the picture that immediately pops into my mind when thinking about Islam. And I don’t think I’m alone. I have no first hand exposure to the religion, or anyone who practices it, and am ignorant of its evolution and history.

Unfortunately the main context that I have is from news reporting on the actions of a small subset of violent extremists or the conflict in the Middle East. Like many Americans, I operate under the assumption that there is truth in journalism and that the news exists to educate the populace. And at one point in time, that may have been true. However after the repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine (requiring broadcasters to cover controversial issues of public importance and offer contrasting viewpoints on those issues) under the Reagan administration in 1987, mainstream media news outlets (owned by a small handful of companies with differing agendas) now prioritize increasing viewership and ratings over offering unbiased coverage. Oftentimes the different news networks focus on sensationalist stories that propagate fear as a tool to accomplish these ends.

But what about the Muslim people who don’t fall into the category of extremist? Islam is the world’s second largest religion with over 1.8 billion followers and 25% of the global population. Just pause for a second and think about those numbers.

I grew up in an area of that is predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant (WASP), and many people, whether religious or not, hold similar beliefs, i.e. Do unto others as they would do unto you. Don’t steal, murder, lie, etc.

The numbers suggest that a large part of the global population grew up in a geographic area that is Muslim. Though a different religion than those I have previously been exposed to, I find that Islam holds to the same basic beliefs as listed above. Why then, does a small faction of radicals shape my opinion of the whole?

I believe that you are a product of the information you consume and the influence of those with whom you choose to surround yourself. When I think about it logically, I can understand how my perceptions are shaped by misinformation. I have participated in accepting news as fact while choosing not to critically and proactively educate myself further to expand my knowledge and therefore, my understanding.

When you travel, you have little choice on your exposure and in turn, are granted an opportunity to rethink your opinions.

The pamphlet at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque spoke of a peaceful religion with deeply held beliefs around worship and similar principles to supporting a healthy community. The fact that they specifically address the misconceptions around defining the religion by its radicals, demonstrates to me the desire to be understood and not painted with broad strokes.

And as we walked around Istanbul, my perception of Islam changed. No longer do I picture long bearded men with M16s (an over dramatization, but important to my point). Instead, I see people. People who share similar beliefs, goals, and dreams as the rest of the world.

Groups of youths congregate in cafes and the main pedestrian areas – walking, talking, and laughing with their friends. Tourists marvel at the beauty of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Families indulge their small children, letting them choose the prettiest dessert in the case at a patisserie. And in one small shopfront, an extremely hospitable cafe owner, who enjoyed sharing his culture with us and fondly reminisced about his time sharing ours.

IMG_20180220_112337.jpg

Entry Court to Blue Mosque

Small & Significant

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace

On day 110, at the exact halfway point of our time abroad, we flew to Greece to start the European leg of our journey. We had scored $600 tickets to Athens (that’s the price for both of us!), on a 3:00am Scoot flight from Singapore. While neither of us was thrilled about the 7 hour layover at Chiangi Airport, we were pretty stoked about the price tag on the Asian budget carrier.

Considering that Singapore is a major hub for flights to the remainder of Asia and Europe, we weren’t the only ones enduring a long layover. Trends show the Chinese as the fastest growing outbound tourist country in the world, with over 140 million traveling to foreign destinations and spending over double the international average while on vacation. Throughout our travels, we’ve encountered Chinese tourists at almost every major sight. You can easily recognize the large buses and throngs of people, wearing matchings t-shirts, hats, or badges and following a very prominent tour guide. We’ve even seen several groups of Chinese scuba divers, a pastime that has yet to gain a lot of popularity.

As we walked along the concourse to our gate, we passed no less than 6 flights headed to different Chinese cities which explained the number of Pokémon backpacks and cat-ear hats (yes, this is a thing) that we encountered in the main terminal.

Upon boarding the 12 hour flight, we were expecting a full plane. Dean and I had decided to upgrade our seats at $20 each to a forward economy cabin, just behind business class, that promised quiet. Considering that everything on the Scoot flight costs extra money – food, headsets, and even water ($4 for a small bottle of Evian), we weren’t expecting much of the upgrade. However, after everyone finally stowed baggage and took their seats, the main cabin was packed while our’s remained only 15% occupied. I immediately ditched Dean to grab my own row and lay down across the three middle seats. It was one of the most delightful long distance flights I’ve ever experienced – I slept for 7 hours, waking up for a brief sandwich, previously purchased at the airport, and then watched several episodes of A&E’s Pride and Prejudice. Dean, who never sleeps on flights, was able to get 5 hours in spite of his 6’4” frame being cramped across the three seats.

Arriving in Athens at 9:30am we took a 45 minute train ride into the city to meet our AirBnB host, Eleni. Having dropped off our bags, we marveled at the view towards the ancient Acropolis crowned by the Parthenon from our balcony before leaving to find food.

img_20180206_132347-012742133508375346979.jpeg

Hard to Beat the View

In typical Krista fashion, I made Dean walk up several streets, eyeing the open air patios filled with people drinking espresso freddos (iced espresso) and perused menus until forced to turn around and sit down at a restaurant that had only one table remaining.

Surrounded by locals, drinking their mid-morning coffees, smoking and gesticulating in their beautiful language, I couldn’t help but feel content. The feeling could be attributed to having just eaten semi-familiar food – delicious kebab, ground lamb and beef patties resembling a hamburger, or Dean’s mousakas, a Greek shepherd’s pie.

After three weeks in Bali, enjoying the tropical temperatures of 85 degrees with 1000% humidity, we were both hankering for cooler temperatures. The mid-60 degree weather was perfect for strolling down the pedestrian-friendly streets, occasionally passing ancient ruins and more frequently looking into tavernas.

Sitting outside, even throughout winter, appears to be the norm in Athens, every restaurant spills out onto the sidewalks and offers options for dealing with the cold – blankets, portable gas heaters, and roll down walls/windows – allowing for seamless people watching and enjoyment.

Over lunch, both Dean and I mentioned that we were going to need to upgrade our wardrobe for the cooler temperatures and trendier surroundings. Most of my cold weather clothes had been packed with our trek to Nepal in mind, prioritizing function over style. I had originally packed two long sleeved, ¾ zip base layers to be used instead of sweaters as a second layer but unfortunately lost one in India – the second has developed a hole in the right elbow.

Searching the old town shopping district of Athens, I was specifically looking to replace these articles with something similar, not caring how many different stores I needed to peruse to find exactly what I wanted. Dean on the other hand is an efficient shopper. He walked into the Toms store, tried on one pair of shoes and bought them within 5 minutes. To be fair, he owns a pair almost identical to those he bought, but even so, he’s not a patient shopper.

Over the next few days, as we walked all over Athens, enjoying the ancient sites, I covertly window shopped. A difficult task as most of our time walking through the shopping district was in the early morning before the doors were open.

On the first of our two big sightseeing days, we awoke early to grab a coffee and spanakopita (spinach pie) at a neighborhood corner cafe. We then ambled through the small, meandering back streets to the Acropolis Museum while enjoying our coffee, entering the museum just after opening. This is a little trick we learned in Paris when visiting Notre Dame and the Louvre – most tourists prefer to wake up late and enjoy a leisurely breakfast at their hotels before heading out for the day. In getting to the sights early, you not only get to watch the city wake up, but you also enjoy shorter lines and more often than not have “the sights” to yourself for a few hours.

We wove through the museum, looking at the ancient statues and artifacts preserved from the Acropolis. Dean, in particular, enjoyed the museum as it boasted a complex and elegant modern architecture, relating to the footprint of the Parthenon crowning the Acropolis above. The views from the upper floor of the museum got us excited to see the ruins for ourselves. So after a quick snack of pork gyro, we bought our tickets and started the climb up the hill, passing several ancient temples, caves, and amphitheaters on the way.

GREECE-5

The Acropolis, Athens, and the Aegean

The Acropolis is the name for the large, bluff that overlooks all of Athens and is home to multiple ancient ruins dating back to the fifth century BC. The most famous of the ruins is the Parthenon, but also located on the hill are the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike, each in different states of restoration.

Having come up the backside of the hill, Dean and I encountered a handful of large tour groups at the West side of the bluff, where a paved road allows easy access to the masses. We walked up the stairs of the Propylaea, the monumental gateway that serves as entrance to the Acropolis. Walking through the ancient marble pillars, you get your first real sense of the magnitude of this place.

GREECE-3

Overlooking the Propylaea

And then the top of the hill opens up – on the right the Parthenon, shrouded in scaffolding on one half, and to the left is the Temple of Athena. We immediately started wandering the south side of the Parthenon, which overlooks the museum that we had just left. I spent time marveling at the view, both of the Parthenon as well as Athens’ patchwork quilt of old buildings, parks, and ancient ruins surrounded by mountains. The weather was overcast and windy but occasionally a ray of sunlight would sneak through the clouds, illuminating a certain area of the city.

Dean was focused on taking pictures, his camera sporting a large lense, so I was left to enjoy the scenery at the top of the hill mostly by myself. This is fairly typical as we each have a tendency of moving through sites at a different pace, leaving me plenty of time to find a nice place to sit and reflect while Dean catches up.

Over the last several days, I’d been thinking about how travel makes you feel small. You get to experience the culture, but always from the outside. Often giving you a glimpse into alternative lifestyles, challenging your ethnocentricity and helping to realize that people define happiness differently across the world.

While being in Europe definitely feels more comfortable, it throws into contrast how really out of place I felt in Asia. In my opinion, we had done a fairly good job of trying to experience the local culture and try things outside of our realm of comfort. Eating at a night market in Thailand was unnerving as I couldn’t easily identify what was being offered, but we challenged ourselves navigating the different street stalls for our Saturday night dinner. Being scammed in India and working to get our money back was daunting but we figured it out. Getting accosted by a mob of angry cab drivers in Bali, and feeling threatened as one followed us for 10 minutes screaming, “I’ll kill you” was extremely unsettling but we ended up being ok.

Immediately after each one of these experiences, I felt very insignificant and lonely in the big world. But after dealing with each situation, often with a positive outcome, I continually built confidence.

And don’t get me wrong, we’ve had many more amazing experiences than bad. Trekking the mountains of the Himalaya, watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, being contorted during a traditional thai massage, marveling at jungle waterfalls, playing with elephants, scuba diving with mantas – too many to list. And oftentimes, with a little extra work and a bit of luck, we find ourselves getting to experience places that most people never see. Leaving me feeling overwhelmingly grateful.

With those thoughts in mind we decided to forgo the popular Greek isles to instead travel to a rural part of central Greece to celebrate my 36th birthday. The area, called Meteora, is a famous rock formation hosting one of the largest and most precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece. Six working monasteries are built atop immense natural stone pillars, and offer a glimpse into Greek monastic life, as well as fantastic views and hiking. While it isn’t the secret destination that it was twenty years ago, the area is still very quaint.

After a 5 hour train trip from Athens, we arrived in Kalambaka, the small town of 15,000 people at the base of the stone pillars. We checked into our family run guesthouse, Iridanos, and were welcomed by the proprietress, Niki – a Dutch transplant who moved to Athens before the Olympics in 2004, married a local, and then opened a guest house in his hometown. I had written to her previously, letting her know that we intended to hike around the area during our stay and she pointed us to a local tour group (VisitMeteora.com) to sign up for a hiking tour, and provided a map of the footpaths that traverse the area.

img_20180213_130325-016583798208964098991.jpeg

Kalambaka Tucked at the Base of the Monastic Plinths

Since we had three full days to explore the area, we decided to do the hiking tour on our first day to learn the history of the area and get a local’s perspective on the culture. But first, we walked to the center of town to Palladinios, the Greek taverna run by Niki’s husband. We enjoyed a fantastic meal of pork leg, cooked in the oven for 5 hours, the meat falling off the bone, and meatballs cooked in tomato sauce. The food was so amazing (and the table wine cheap), we ended up going back to Palladinios everyday for lunch over the next 4 days.

Afterwards, we went to the Visit Meteora offices to set up our hiking tour and met an American couple from Virginia who were also signing up for a tour the next day. Upon both exiting the office at the same time, we decided to walk up the street to get a drink together. Two hours and a liter of red wine later, we had some new friends.

The next day, we were picked up at our hotel at 8:30am, to start our hiking tour. We shared our guide, Vaggelis, and hike with an Italian couple from Sicily.

We started, overlooking a large rock with a number of caves carved in the sides and an overview of the history of the area. The first monks traveled here searching for solitude and found the caves on the sides of the rocks the perfect place for a hermitage. After a while, the hermits started to form monasteries, located high on the rocks to ensure isolation as well as protection from the conquering Ottomans and raiders.

Our trail led us around the rocks, providing an overlook of the river valley and snow capped mountains beyond. Winter comes to this area in the form of rain, instead of snow, providing an environment for the plants to thrive and moss to sport green coatings on the conglomerate stone cliffs. While brisk, the weather was a perfect 57 degrees. Just cold enough to require a coat in the shadows of the looming cliffs but warm enough to make the walk comfortable. Since we were hiking in the winter, the deciduous trees had lost their leaves, leaving us with unimpeded views.

img_20180212_095118-015172685922463294944.jpeg

Winter Hiking, We Swear

 

We walked for 40 minutes, enjoying Vaggelis’ stories about the area and information on the local plant life. We took a quick break at a small stream, then rounded a corner where the first monastery peeked out.

The monastery of Ypapanti is one that most tourists never see as it’s located on the North side of the main monasteries, and instead of perching on top of its own cliff, it’s cleverly tucked into a fissure, clinging precariously to the side about 100 feet above the ground. Ypapanti was once used as a retreat for the monks of the Great Meteora monastery and has recently been renovated and opened to tourism in the summers.

After marveling at the beauty and engineering from the ground, we climbed an opposing hill to view the monument of a local hero, as well as to bask in the sun, take pictures, and enjoy the sweeping views.

IMG_20180212_103522.jpg

Ypapanti

We continued our journey upward, over a brook, past a wild boar watering hole, and eventually found ourselves cresting the hill to look down on the monasteries, each perched on their own rock cliff. The view was stunning. Winter sun directly above us, made the red tile roofed monastic enclaves pop with color against their grey and mossy green plinths. We stood on the side of the hill while Vaggelis regaled more history of the monasteries, explaining that each operates autonomously from the others, managing it’s own money and lands. The 4 monasteries have less than a handful of monks each, as most devotees are located at the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Athos. However, the two nunneries house 13 and 28 sisters respectively, as these are a female’s only option for a religious cloister.

GREECE-13

Cresting the Hill we are Treated to Views of 4 Monasteries

We scrambled down the hillside on goat trails, until reaching the road and walking down to Varlaam, one of the larger monasteries just below us. Up until the 1920’s the monasteries were only accessible via wooden ladders that could be drawn up in case of invasion or by climbing into a large net and then being winched, as two monks walked in circles at the top of the tower to pull you up. Now there are bridges and stone stairs, carved into the rock, and several have a metal tram for moving supplies and the less mobile.

img_20180214_1424287614206581121899085.jpg

Ladder Requiring Prayers

Dean and I were left to explore Varlaam by ourselves as Vaggelis remained outside and the Sicilians had visited the day previous. We started climbing the impressive stairs, stopped to pose for a few pictures and entered through a heavy wooden door which is barred at closing. While Dean paid our €3 each at a small admission stall, I tied the provided skirt wrap around my waist as women must wear long skirts to show respect.

We continued up the stone stairs to emerge into the sunlight on a large stone court, opening to the south, providing a fantastic view of the rocks and slivers of Kalambaka beyond. A small garden was planted to the side and several stone benches were provided, I would like to think for religious contemplation, but more likely to aid the winded travelers after they’ve made the climb.

In the spring and summer, this area is overloaded with tourists. Filling every guest house and restaurant in town and jamming the small monasteries with teaming crowds. Vaggelis had told me that during the high season, he and another guide hike every day and each will have as many as 10 people in a group. This still blows my mind, as that means that no more than 20 people per day will get to explore this area by foot and enjoy the hidden Ypapanti and gorgeous views.

img_20180214_123651-015865456002480060406.jpeg

Feeling Small Happens Often on the Trail

I had little time to think about this as Dean and I continued to explore the areas open to the public. We enjoyed the court, the winch tower, and the museum which showed relics of books, vestments, and paintings from the monastery. The cathedral had been recently renovated, the frescoes on the walls looking nearly new, making me question the authenticity of the images. After learning that they were originally painted in 1548, I understood the need for a touch up.

Upon returning to our group, we began hiking down a cobble paved trail just below Varlaam. This path had been built roughly 500 years ago and was the main thoroughfare for monks from Varlaam and the Great Meteora when visiting town for supplies. The trail followed a lively stream, the trees overhead were bare of leaves but a number of wildflowers were still in bloom on the ground. After only 15 minutes, we were on the road and walking to meet the large, Visit Meteora bus, where we joined the group who had just finished the half day driving tour. Our friends from the previous day, Chris and Mary Carol were part of the crew and we decided to grab lunch together before they continued their vacation in Northern Greece.

 

The next day was my birthday! I awoke to a kiss and a “Happy 36th,” before watching a gorgeous sunrise and eating a huge breakfast of hard boiled eggs, pastries, Greek yogurt with honey, cold cuts, cheese and coffee. More than adequately fueled, we laced up our boots for another full day of hiking.

IMG_20180213_072538.jpg

Birthday Sunrise

Grey clouds threatened rain but we were undeterred and starting making our way into town to find the footpath leading up to Holy Trinity. Similar to the path from the previous day, this trail was paved with stones and clearly marked for the first part of the journey, snaking vertically up the side of a hill leading to the stone plinth. We walked through the forested hillsides, appreciating the glorious views that the fallen leaves afforded and vowing to return during a different season.

After an arduous climb that left us both breathless, we reached the top and made our way into Holy Trinity. The public areas of the monastery weren’t as impressive as the larger Varlaam, however it is posed on a larger cliff top and therefore had much more open area for gardens and we sat to enjoy the views of the valley and town below. Pulling out the hiking map on loan from Niki, we debated following the road to the farthest nunnery, Saint Stephen.

I’m certainly happy that we did as this was my favorite of the 4 monasteries we visited. Its buildings cover every available inch of clifftop and the open spaces in the center have been utilized to their fullest. We passed no less than 3 different gardens, two of which sported both flowers as well as herbs, the last being a greenhouse growing tomatoes and other vegetables that feed the 28 nuns who live there. The chapel has been beautifully renovated and while marveling at the inside, I happened upon a young nun, holy book open upon her lap, having a quiet conversation with an older nun, who was crocheting a doily. It was such an out of the ordinary sight that I couldn’t help but be taken aback. I lingered in the chapel, looking at the frescos while keeping an eye on the two women, thinking about how their lives are so different than my own.

GREECE-11

Cloistered Gardens in the Monasteries at Holy Trinity

After fruitlessly searching for a small goat track indicated on our map, we decided to walk along the paved road to our next stop, the Holy Monastery of Rousanou. We made a few exploratory stops along the way, walking out to the edge of the rocks in several places to see the views and get more pictures. We made it to Rousanou with 30 minutes before closing. A good thing, as the public areas were very small and we had just entered with a large group of devout Greek women, who had arrived on a large bus. We quickly went through the chapel and museum, as there was little else to see and then decided to make our way back to the footpath we had come up that morning, but from the other side where a trail was clearly marked on the map.

GREECE-10

Rousanou Nunnery

We started off on the small footpath but must have lost the trail while crossing several large rocky areas as we spent the remainder of the hike scrambling down a dry creek bed in the center of the gorge. Having ditched my hiking poles in India, I had to use tree limbs and large boulders to keep my balance. After an hour of scrambling, we finally made it back to the footpath and trudged into town to find a very late lunch.

 

The meal was a decadent affair, with a liter of house red, saganaki (fried cheese), salad, sausages, and fruit. Dean had promised to take me to a local bakery for a treat, so after lunch, we headed over to buy some birthday baklava to take back to the hotel. Overall, it was a perfect way to ring in my 36th year!

IMG_20180213_145244.jpg

Birthday Lunch

Waking up the next morning, we talked about what to do on our last full day in Meteora. Dean wanted to draw for a few hours at the vantage point we had seen our first day of hiking above Varlaam and Great Meteora. So we ate our huge breakfast and then walked into town to find a cab to drop us near the monasteries where we scrambled up the steep hillside, dodging fresh cow pies.

We sat in silence, sitting on a large rock and drinking our coffee. Dean made progress on his drawing while I sat with my thoughts. I kept going back to the two ideas that I’d had in Athens – how wildly outside of my comfort zone I felt in Asia and how travel makes you feel small. And in thinking on it further, I did feel small. I’m one of 7.6 billion people on this earth (for reference, 1.4 billion of those are Chinese), each making decisions and living their lives in a way that they think best and oftentimes, in a way very different than my own. I’ve seen countless examples of this over the last 3.5 months, the most recent in the chapel of St. Stephen.

But here’s the thing – sitting on that hillside, enjoying a view that only a handful of people will ever see, I also felt big. Infinite. Significant.

As I’ve said, the last several months have helped me to build confidence as well as cultivate gratitude. But I also think there’s something else – something that I’ve overlooked and after our time in Meteora, has become glaringly apparent to me – spending time in nature will always heal my soul and no matter where I am in the world, it’s a place where I will always be a fish in water.

FB_IMG_1518594505231.jpg

Back in My Element