A Trusty Travel Companion

dsc_0176I’ll never forget my first trip abroad.  I had just turned 18, and although I had wanted to get out and see the world my entire life, I really had no clue what to expect.  I packed a huge suitcase full of ridiculous outfits that were hardly suitable for any of our plans and two travel journals (in which to chronicle my adventures in broken French and Spanish).  To be honest, I didn’t love that trip.  I was culture shocked by the overly forward French men, didn’t love the people in my group, and realized very quickly that carefully structured group tours  were not my jam.  Still, I learned a lot of unexpected lessons on that trip and my thirst for travel remained intact.

Fast forward to now, and I am still learning and growing with each trip we take.  One thing that has definitely improved is my packing skills.  I still would not consider myself an expert, but I’ve gotten better and better at knowing what to take along and what to leave behind.  This year especially, I’ve stumbled onto one handy little item that has been a life saver on multiple trips now:  the blanket scarf.

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These babies go for 10 lira (roughly $2.50) on the streets of Istanbul and are worth every penny (kuruş?).  I initially bought one because I was freezing one afternoon in Kadıköy and they looked really warm (which they are).  However, I’ve discovered that these bargain accessories are so much more than what meets the eye.

First of all, they’re great for plane rides.  We’ve been on many red eye flights, most of which have not provided blankets…and even when they do, they usually pale in comparison to my blanket scarves.  They are generally pretty water-resistant, so they have been great as makeshift towels or covers to protect things from getting wet in the rain.  I even used one to protect my 3rd degree sunburn from the heat in the Maldives.  Rain, shine,  or snow, these cheap rectangles of fabric have become my best friends.

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What strange things do you swear by on your travels?  I’d love to hear.

Hulhumale – my kind of layover

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We had about 24 hours back in the Maldives before having to catch our flight back to Turkey (and back to reality!)  We wanted to make the most of our time there, but we also needed to catch up on sleep after spending all night in the Colombo airport.

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There really couldn’t be a better place to spend a long layover, considering the whole country is full of beautiful beaches.  The main conundrum people run into is the ferry schedules.  Not all of the ferries  run at convenient times, and if you have an early morning flight, you don’t want to risk going very far.

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After asking around, we determined that the best choice was the island of Hulhumale, which is right across the bridge from the airport.  Buses run every 30 minutes from the airport and are very cheap and comfortable.  We did not book in advance, but were lucky to find a reasonable hotel with a room available.  Our only agenda was to soak up the sun one last time and enjoy the beach (and our last day of vacation!)

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While I certainly hope anyone traveling to the Maldives goes for more than just a layover, there are certainly worse places to be stuck for 24 hours!

Tissamaharama and Yala National Park

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The last leg of our Sri Lankan journey was Tissamaharama, a city in the Southern part of Sri Lanka known for its diverse wildlife.  We went there specifically for the early morning safari tour at Yala National Park, where we hoped to see some exciting animals.

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What we weren’t expecting was to see so many strange creatures wondering around the town like it was no big deal.  On our first day there, we decided to take a walk around the lakes near our hotel, and got our first glimpse of a land monitor.  At first, we thought it might be a baby crocodile (not hard to find in those lakes), but once it got closer, we realized it was a very big lizard.  They are similar to komodo dragons.

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This place gave me some serious nostalgia from my World of Warcraft days.

We woke up at 4:30 the following morning to get ready for our tour, which is really saying something about how excited I was about the safari because I despise mornings.  I had just enough time to chug some hot tea before hopping in the jeep.  I still felt pretty dead inside, but I loved driving under the stars with nobody else on the roads.

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We watched the sun rise and entered the park, eager to spot something special.  Our first sighting?  A bunch of cows hanging out in the water.

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Next, we saw a peacock dancing his ass off, trying to impress a couple of lady peacocks, neither of whom seemed very interested.

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The first few hours passed by pretty uneventfully.  We were starting to worry that we’d made a huge mistake going on the safari and wouldn’t see anything at all.  And then…

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This cute guy burst right through the trees in front of us!

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Sadly, we didn’t spot any leopards.  Our driver said it was most likely due to the heavy rainfall they had been having.

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We did, however, see this adorable family of wild pigs.

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The babies!!!

I wish we would have had a luckier day, but it was still an enjoyable morning.  It will definitely not be our last safari.

Among Mountains in Ella

DSC_0240.JPGI have mentioned recently that I love visiting beaches, oceans, and seas after having spent the majority life without easy access to such places.  Well, I am equally impressed by mountains since in addition to being water-less, Kansas is also literally flatter than a pancake.

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We arrived in Ella after an epic train journey in the middle of the pouring rain.  We could barely see where we were going as we rushed down narrow, rocky stairs to our hotel room, but once we reached shelter and were able to look at our surroundings, we knew we were in for something special. Our room was literally on the edge of a cliff with a crystal clear mountain view.

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That view, ya!

We decided to take things a bit slower in Ella since we had been rushing so much everywhere else in Sri Lanka.  We had a couple of good days with no planes, trains, or buses to catch and we took advantage of them.  The best part of each day there was waking up next to the emerald green mountains and enjoying a leisurely breakfast.

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The town itself is basically built for tourism, but not necessarily in a bad way.  It’s no surprise that such a beautiful place would attract a lot of visitors, and other than the disappointingly bland food designed to cater to the Western palate, guests and locals alike seem to enjoy Ella’s laid back vibes.

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The main item on our Ella agenda was to do some hiking.  We decided to hike Little Adam’s Peak as it seemed the most reasonable given the amount of time we had on our hands. Luck was on our side that day as it was one of the few days it did not rain while we were in Sri Lanka.  As for the hike itself…I’ll let the photos do the talking

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Moving Through Tea Country

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The central highlands of Sri Lanka are mainly famous for one thing: tea.  The frequent rainfall provides the perfect climate for production and the stunning green hills have started to draw the attention of travelers, particularly hikers and backpackers.

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We began our journey through tea country in Kandy.  Our original plan was to take the scenic train ride from Kandy down to Ella, but once we learned it would entail over eight hours on a packed train, we decided to change our plans.  Instead, we hired a driver to take us to Nuwara Eliya and then hopped on the train for the last three hours of the epic train route.

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Though it is more expensive to hire a driver than it is to go by train (about $30 vs. $1), it was well worth the extra cash for us to have a comfortable amount of space and the ability to stop along the way.  Our first stop was at a tea factory, where we were able to sea how all of the different kinds of tea are sorted and processed.  Then, we were able to do a taste testing of the teas, and of course, buy some tea to take home.  Our favorite was the strong brew of the Broken Orange Pekoe (especially with a little milk and sugar!).  We also made several stops to stroll through various tea fields and to see some waterfalls.

DSC_0141.JPGWe arrived at the Nuwara Eliya train station just in time for the 3 PM train; it was everything we’d hoped for.  We lucked out and were able to sit by one of the doorways…certainly not the safest spot, but definitely the most picturesque!  The pictures will never do it justice.  Every curve along the rail revealed a breathtaking new scene.

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When I was first doing my research for this trip, so many people talked up the long Kandy to Ella train.  Personally, I couldn’t imagine myself enjoying something like that for eight or nine hours, unless I’d booked way in advance and gotten a good seat and brought along a healthy supply of books (and snacks!).  If you want to experience the great views, but don’t want to spend all day on a slow, crowded train, definitely consider the Nuwara Eliya to Ella route.

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The Sri Lankan Jungle: Habarana, Sigiriya, and Dambulla

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After a brief night in Colombo, we started our Sri Lankan adventure with a 6 hour bus ride on a packed bus (without air conditioning!) to the tiny city of Habarana.  I was immediately taken aback by how lush and green everything around us was, mostly due to the plentiful rain.

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Exhausted and starving, we immediately asked where we could find food and the hotel owner whipped up a delicious plate of fried rice (with spicy chicken gravy!) and brought us a couple of Sri Lankan Lion beers.  As fate would have it, a Slovakian guy who was also starving joined us at the table, and after chatting over drinks for a few hours, we decided to travel together the following day.

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Habarana is small, but is a very convenient location for several of Sri Lanka’s highlights. There are a ton of day trips that can be done from that area, and out of all the places we traveled to in Sri Lanka, this is where I wish we had budgeted more time.

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One thing that blew me away was how cheap it is to hire a driver for a whole day.  The three of us split a “tuk tuk”- a tiny, three-wheeled vehicle- for less than $10 each.  Our first stop was Sigiriya.

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The crowds were a little crazy, but since we weren’t traveling with a tour group, we blew through the mobs pretty quickly.  The view was incredible, surrounded by jungle, mist, and tons of tiny monkeys.

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It took about an hour to reach the top – and we got there just in time.  Just as we started our descent, we were pelted with a torrential downpour, which somehow blew horizontally and destroyed our umbrella.  I’m normally not a big fan of rain, but it actually made the view even more spectacular, cascading off of the rock into tiny waterfalls.

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When we finally made it back to our tuk tuk soaking wet, it was about time for lunch.  We stopped a little diner and discovered Sri Lankan cutlets; spicy, deep-fried balls of tuna and potato.  I’m going to have to attempt to recreate them in Turkey.  They are delicious.

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Next on our agenda was the Dambulla Temple.  As we climbed up towards the caves, we were once again greeted with the sight of little monkeys scampering along the path.  There were also vendors selling fresh, ripe mangoes spiced with chili pepper…a snack I could not resist.  I had forgotten how much I love mangoes.

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 We finally made it to the entrance, where we dropped off our shoes so we could go into the temple.  I was stunned by how beautiful it was.  The temple – built into the side of a cave circa 4th Century AD- was incredibly intricate.  The ceilings and walls were covered with detailed paintings and the walls were lined with countless golden Buddhas.  Of all the churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples I have visited, this one certainly stands out.

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After a good hour of exploring, we decided to go out for a cup of coffee before saying goodbye to our fellow traveler.  On the way home, our tuk tuk driver pulled over to get us some fresh grilled corn…a perfect end to a perfect day, in spite of (and perhaps even because of) the rain.

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Maafushi Island: A Few Days in Paradise

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Can we all just agree that this winter has been absolute shit? Cold, miserable, and full of vomit-worthy headlines.  I knew early on that I needed to feel far away from everything on this vacation.

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The Maldives had been on my radar for a few years, having seen a slew of impossibly beautiful photos from all over the internet.  When I did my usual Skyscanner search for flights, I decided to turn a blind eye to Europe and really seek out Asia for the first time. As fate would have it, the cheapest flights into Asia from Istanbul were to Male.  A few days on the beach with my love, sans stress and schedules (and with an extra dose of sunshine) sounded perfect to me.

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We landed in Male early in the morning, greeted by the sight of sparkling turquoise waters that were somehow ten different shades of blue at the same time.  We decided to head to one of the closest islands – Maafushi- to make the most of our limited time there.  It was only a 30 minute journey by speedboat and we enjoyed every second of the warm weather and sea breeze.

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An employee from our hotel was waiting by the docks to greet us and then walk us over to where we would be staying for the next few days.  As soon as we set down our bags, he rushed to the kitchen and came back clutching two glasses of fresh mango juice.  We knew right then that we’d made the right choice.  We spent our first day getting to know the island (you can walk from end to end in about 10 minutes), playing in the sand, and consuming papaya milkshakes.

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Day two was beach day (actually, every day was beach day…but especially day two).  After a fabulous breakfast of pineapple juice next to the Indian Ocean, we walked over to the bikini beach for a morning of swimming in the most beautiful water I have ever seen in my life.  This was also the day that I got the most epic sunburn I have ever had in my life, despite liberally applying sunscreen all over my entire body three times.  That equatorial sun is no joke.  After a few hours, we headed back to our hotel so I could nurse my wounds and only reemerged after the sun had set to spy on baby sharks and sting rays by torchlight.

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Day three was the indisputable highlight:  the snorkeling tour.  Keep in mind that my husband and I are certified land creatures, born and raised in the landlocked Land of Oz…this was a big deal!  Neither of us had ever been on a proper water tour and we were super stoked to see the coral reefs and some tropical creatures.

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Photo c/o Naabe @ KSAEYS

The tour did not disappoint in the slightest.  After a breezy ride on a speedboat to what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we jumped into the mouthwash-colored water (I’m not kidding) to see what we could see.  At the first point, we saw several large mantas.  I wanted so badly to swim down and touch one, but I couldn’t hold my breath long enough; I guess I need to take some diving lessons.  At the second point, we saw turtles, eels, more sting rays, and all kinds of incredible tropical fish…it was hard to breathe, and not because I was underwater.  Point number three was the fish feeding and my personal favorite.  It was so fun to toss the crumbs into the water and see all the fish suddenly swarming around me!

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Photo c/o Naabe @ KSAEYS

After the snorkeling, they took us out to a sand bank for a picnic lunch of tuna fried rice and oranges.  The views were truly surreal.

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When it was time for us to go on day four, we packed our bags with heavy hearts.  We were excited for our next destination, but also sad to leave the beautiful island behind.

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In his natural state

Some things to know about the Maldives:

  1. It is a conservative Muslim country.  Most of the islands do not allow alcohol (outside of the super expensive private resorts) and many of the beaches do not allow men or women to enter without at least a t-shirt and shorts.  If you want to go to the beach to party, this is not the place.  Personally, I kind of appreciated being able to enjoy the beach without a bunch of obnoxious drunk people around.  It was not terribly crowded and very relaxing.
  2. Despite its reputation for being super expensive, it can be done on a budget.  If you stay away from the pricey luxury resorts, you can find good accommodation (even right on the beach!) for $30-40 a night.  Food is not very expensive and some of the tours are as low as $10 and are well worth what they cost.
  3. It is extremely safe and friendly.  It seemed like everyone was ready to greet us with a smile!  One of the most eye-opening moments of the trip was when we were on the ferry to head back to the airport and the captain noticed a stray swimmer struggling in a current  well past the swimming area.  He turned the boat around and saved her and then took her back to shore.  Needless to say, my faith in humanity was temporarily restored.

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I can fully recommend the Maldives as a fantastic beach destination.  Despite its recent notoriety, it is much less touristy than I was expecting (even in high season) and comes with a much different flavor than a lot of other islands.  Both of us fell head over heels with this tiny island nation and have already daydreamed about going back someday.  At least now I have some photos of that beautiful blue water to help me escape on difficult days.

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