Sunday, July 26, 2015

Reflections on Six Months Away

Catching yet another train
This isn’t a normal blog post for me. I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the past six months.  My previous record for time away from the U.S. was broken when we passed the four month mark. There have been some challenges and it is definitely different to travel as a married almost 30 year old than to travel as a single 20 year old. First, I’m older. I like more old people things now and prefer the younger crowd less. There are more early mornings and fewer late nights. I also have someone else with me. All the time. Like, all the time. At last count the longest we have been apart is about 4 hours and that was probably two months ago. This may sound suffocating to some but we are remarkably good at being separate while still together. Plus, I would be completely lost without him. I mean, I could make it but, I wouldn’t want to. Having a partner gives you a different perspective to consider, someone to laugh at your jokes and listen to your musings and most importantly someone to remember where you are and where you are going. Here are a few other observations from our first six months away:

1.       Budget

We are no strangers to financial planning but living with a (fairly) strict daily budget really makes you think about your priorities. Do we stay in a tent and eat out or stay in a hostel and cook every meal? Do we buy this souvenir, go to this museum, or have a second helping of Aloo Ghobi? For us, the food typically wins. There have been some instances that we pick differently, and he goes to the museum or climbs the tower while I buy some postcards or another coffee. We can design days in line with our own preferences but with the same goal in mind. It may be unique to traveling but I think it is a mindset that will be hard to shake when we return home.


2.       Coffee

Coffee culture is pervasive. It may manifest in different ways and the beverage may not be coffee, but the majority of the places we have been have their own version of a coffee culture. Vietnam is well known for the high amount of coffee consumed. Their version of coffee involves sweetened condensed milk with a local coffee blend. We drank café sua da which means iced coffee with milk. In India and China, the coffee culture is actually a tea culture. In India people sell chai out of thermoses at the train station and in China EVERYONE carries around a mug with tea leaves and hot water dispensers are readily available. Greece has the frappe (not a frappuccino) and Italy has the cappuccino. Finding and enjoying the local beverages has been one of our favorite experiences over the last six months.


3.       Jeans

I miss jeans. That’s all.


4.       English

Given my profession, I think it is obvious that I treasure communication. If speaking English is not necessary to function as a tourist, it is definitely necessary to socially interact with other travelers. One of our first nights away, in Singapore, I remember seeing a non-native English speaking Western European talking with a man from China in the common room of our hostel. How were they able to interact and exchange stories? In English. It is something I find to be beautiful and perhaps one of the positive outcomes of globalization. If technology continues to advance in the area of voice recognition, then perhaps one day people will be able to communicate in their native languages with the aid of a device. But until then, English is bridging the divide.


5.       Home

Although “home is not a place” is something you hear time and time again, I have always had strong attachments to places and objects. Selling our first home was difficult for me as were all of the garage sells and craigslist advertisements. During the past six months, we have seen all types of houses and apartments and different places that people live. There are different sizes, different types of furniture, and different decorations. These places are always home to us, even if it is just for a night, and it has nothing to do with appearances. As incredibly cheesy as it sounds, home really is dependent on attitude and manifests as a state of mind rather than a location. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Greece: Santorini

We arrived at the port around 4 pm. Our hotel manager was waiting with a van to take us to our island home for the next 4 nights. When we arrived, we immediately went to the super market across the street and got provisions for beach lounging. We went to the nearest beach, which happened to be a black sand beach, and sat in the sun for a while before we wandered down the beach front road and found a nice little place to have dinner. The same restaurant, in fact, that I would go to the next day for a yoga class!
Black sand = hot on your feet sand

Sunset over the ridge of the caldera

Our first full day in Santorini we decided to walk from one main city to another, after morning beach time of course. The walk was 9km between Fira and Oia. Oia is the city known for its sunsets. So, we started walking around 4 pm and arrived in Oia at about 7. We were able to get a table at a restaurant where we could enjoy dinner with a view of the sun going down over the horizon. The walk was long, but not as long as some of the hikes we did in China, and it afforded some beautiful views of the cities and the caldera. Also, before we left I ran into an old friend from high school- so crazy who you might run into half way around the world!
Caldera view #1... I had to be discretionary in my pictures because I took SO MANY

A classic blue domed building along the way

Jared with a view of the path

A panoramic, so amazing

The sun is coming down


And right before it goes below the horizon (people at our restaurant started clapping after it had disappeared)

The second day was dedicated to beach, pool and lounging. It was magnificent.
Breakfast = the most bestest meal of the day

Beaaaaach Suuuuuuuun

Our last full day on Santorini, we rented a four wheeler (very common on the island) and took it to first visit the ancient village of Akrotiri. Due to the volcanic activity on the island, the city was covered and preserved in volcanic ash after an eruption in 1627 BC. The site was very interesting, and one of the first ones we have been to where we could actually imagine all of the buildings coming together as a city. Part of this may be because it was covered and they had paved what used to be a road for visitors to walk along.
Oh, hello there, would you like to ride my 4-wheeler?

A glimpse of Akrotiri

Then we went to see the red beach and an old lighthouse. Both were just different and still spectacular views.
Red beach = not too good for sitting beach

View from the lighthouse

To end our day with the four wheeler we went to the Santo Winery and enjoyed a tasting flight and the excellent view of the island.


The morning of our last day we had a delicious picnic breakfast on a mountain. We then had to take an 8 hour ferry back to Athens.
The mountains were colored differently but still just as pretty as all the green and blue

A peaceful morning spot

Our time in Santorini was bright, relaxing and beautiful. I can see why this place is on everyone’s ‘must-see’ list. Although we went back to Athens, we were there for less than 24 hours before we flew to Italy. Palermo is next!

Greek: Naxos

We arrived at 11 pm on the port of Naxos. The manager of our hostel picked us up and took us to our home for the next couple days. We found a really nice place on this island and it had a refrigerator, cook top, little balcony and private bathroom all in the same room- we didn’t have to share at all! The next morning we started off with a trip to the grocery store and a walking excursion into the winding alleys of the city. Crossing over a little breaker we arrived on a little island with the remains of a temple to Apollo. The most prominent of these remains is the gate which stands high above the rest and is iconic and unique to Naxos. From there we took a bus to one of the more popular beaches on the island, Plaka. We paid 5 euros for some chairs and an umbrella and ate our picnic while enjoying the beach scenery. The water was too cold to enjoy for long but we braved a brief dip and then returned to the warmth of the unshaded lounge chair.
Beautiful view with waves and craggy stone protrusions

The gate!

Some rad sunnies for a rad guy

The winding streets were full of picturesque views

Before dinner we watched the beginnings of the sunset from the beach nearest our hostel (only a 5 min walk). For dinner, we walked down the nearest alley to a cute little outdoor restaurant/café that was set near some sort of torn down building. The effect was fun but I doubt if the “ruins” were any older than I am. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE Greek food? This love is bordering Indian food love, which we all know is intense. I think it is not only the type of food, but also the fact that we get to sit outside, drink some wine and just be leisurely about it.


Sunset at our nearby beach
Our second full day in Naxos turned out to be a windy, just-about-to-rain-but-never-actually-does type day. After breakfast, I wandered into the city in search of a pedicure and instead found some new shoes. I figure it’s a fair trade off. I also wandered through the Venetian museum where I saw a flyer advertising a local music performance. The flyer described music and dance local to Naxos and the venue was to be in a courtyard in the castle. I bought us tickets and thus committed us to a new cultural experience. Before the performance we tried (and failed) to go to the beach when the sun was out, instead we ended up doing some more planning and had another delicious dinner. The show was great and the performers were extremely warm and inviting.

He was playing a goatskin pipe!

We left on a ferry the next day at 1 pm, that morning we managed to get a run in before the inevitable rush pack job prior to departure. Next stop Santorini!

Greece: Nafplio

In Nafplio we stayed in an apartment that we arranged through Airbnb. The lady renting out the apartment met us at the bus stop and drove us to the room! It was a nice gesture and very much appreciated. The apartment was small but had a little stove top, a balcony, and a bed. Through our travels, we have realized how little space is actually required to live (at least while traveling). Nafplio is a popular weekend destination for Athenians and we really enjoyed it as well. The Palamidi Fortress is the main attraction here, built by the Venetians in the late 1600's on a large hill.  Our first day we climbed the 913 steps to the top of the fortress and wandered around for a few hours. Then, due to a limited bus schedule, we visited the two nearby archaeological sites the next day (originally we had planned to see one a day). With our sightseeing accomplished in one day, our last full day in Nafplio we went for a run along the coast, took a boat out to an island castle, and sat in a café with wifi access and ate amazing loukomades (Greek donuts) for a while.
A panoramic view from the top of Palamidi

Blue upon blue

I don't know if I would mind being a soldier stationed here

The Greek flag blowing in the wind

Mycenae was the first place we visited. Mycenae is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was one of the first capitals of the ancient Mycenean civilization in the 2nd century BC. There is very little left to amount to anything substantial but, walking along the path and seeing the ruins of a palace, temples and even some graves, Jared and I postulated on what a person who lived there would think if they were to return today. Obviously they would be in disbelief at some of the modern inventions, but to see the remains of their home from 3000 years ago would be pretty surreal as well.

The Lion Gate, one of the earliest known instances of monumental architecture and the largest remaining sculpture in prehistoric Greece.

The surrounding hills were beautiful, and it easy to see why the Myceneans made this place the center of their empire

Some of the ruins nestled in the hills

Our second stop of the day was to Epidaurus. This area is famed for the huge and largely intact theater. This theater can accommodate up to 13,000 people, and the acoustics are near perfect even by modern day standards. There is a festival here every year and different performances take place at the theater. Of course it started the day after we were there. Hmpf, stupid public buses with no buses on Sunday. The nearby village that spurred the creation of the theater was dedicated to the god Asklepios. This was the healer god, and amongst the ruins there was evidence that there was a ‘hotel’ area where patients and families could stay while they were seeking the healing powers of the god. However, among this rather large area of ruins, our favorite part was the remains of an ancient church. The walls were still standing in places, and there was a stone slab altar (we assume it was erected some time in recent history). It was separate from the other ruins, so it was more peaceful, and the shape and architecture of the church was still evident.
Part of the ancient hotel area

The little church we discovered and chose as the site of our picnic 

Jared in the center of the stage

Looking down from the audience

As I mentioned, for our last day in Nafplio we took it easy. As much as we enjoy adventuring and exploring we have also come to really treasure these days. Days where we can just ‘hang out’ in a city without anything specific on the agenda. It is refreshing and often leads us to new, unexpected experiences.
I would be much more motivated to run if this were my path everyday

Isn't it a charming city?

We left Nafplio the morning of June 1 to head to our first Greek island adventure!

Greece: Delphi

Leaving Athens at 7:30, we made it to Delphi by 10:30 and ate some of the picnic foods we packed before wandering down to the Delphi museum. The museum was interesting and provided a nice context before visiting the ruins themselves. We would have some pictures that proved we were actually in the museum, but they do not allow ‘posing’ aka ‘people-in-the-picture’ with the exhibits. Mind you, the sign noting this policy is quite small and only at the entrance of the museum. Apparently it is too much trouble to add a note to the already numerous signs which indicate you cannot use a flash. Therefore, we discovered the no-people policy when two attendants verbally accosted us. It was as if our ignorance of the policy offended them personally and their response was way out of proportion to the supposed crime. Nonetheless, we deleted the pictures (as they watched impatiently) and continued on our visit.

One of the statues given as offerings in ancient Delphi

Twin Kouroi

By the time we made it outside to see the actual ruins, it had started raining. Luckily we had our jackets and umbrella, and as an added bonus for us, all of the tour groups either delayed the trip up or hurried through to get to shelter. The clouds also provided a beautiful backdrop for pictures. The main attraction at this site was the Temple of Apollo. It was inside the temple that the oracle sat and breathed the ‘fumes from the Earth’ in order to help with the prophesizing. From what we can tell no one knows exactly what it was she was inhaling. The most common theory is that it was some type of natural gas pocket. Who knows?

A view of the hill and the rock where the oracle would read her prophecies

Looking down at Delphi

 Down the hill from the main temple there is another section that was dedicated to Athena. Here, there is a unique round temple, called a tholo, for the goddess. This shape was apparently uncommon in ancient times and historians are uncertain as to its purpose. One theory is that the temple was originally dedicated to Ge or the goddess of Earth, one of the predecessors to the Olympian gods.

The tholo of Athena

Tholo at ground level with Delphi in the background

Delphi was our last stop with Athens as base camp. We left the next day for Nafplio, a city with a view!

Greece: Athens

Two bedraggled, jetlagged Hedges trudged into Athens at about 1 pm. We had grand plans to visit the Archaelogical Museum that day as it was only a 15 minute walk from our hostel. Those plans quickly fell to the wayside when, following the recommendation of our hostel managers, we had our first taste of the gyro. The gyro is the most delicious food on the planet and filled our bellies up to the warm happy place. We therefore had the jetlag and belly-full combination which led straight to extreme laziness. Instead of the museum, we went to a nearby grocery store and bought some food to cook a breakfast mix for the next few days. In the community kitchen, we sat and chatted with a fellow traveler while frying the potatoes, onions and peppers. It was a bit like a breath of fresh air to be able to cook and eat fresh vegetables and drink the water. After four months in Asia, the smallest hints of the ‘Western’ world were inappropriately exciting. For instance, this first afternoon we were walking in the streets and in public for about four hours and during that time we didn’t hear a single person hock a single loogie. It was magical silence for my ears. The feeling was very similar to when we first arrived in Asia; everything seemed so shiny and new. Cheese in the stores! Fresh vegetables! PITA!

Gyro. Ommmmm.

We went to bed at about 9:00 and woke up at about 9:00 the next morning. Actually feeling refreshed, we started the day in full force and went to Syntagma Square and saw the changing of the guards, strolled through the National Gardens and started our archaeological adventure at the Temple of Zeus. The size of this particular temple set the scale for ancient Greek ruins. Walking around the few remaining columns was humbling and a cause for introspection; such big beliefs spur such big buildings. From our perspective we could see the Acropolis up on the hill and walked through the old Plaka neighborhood to get to the entrance gate. We walked up the southern slope and first encountered the ruins of the Theater of Dionysus, one of the theatres where the Greek drama was born. Since Greek drama is the beginning of all drama, it's basically the birthplace of theater. "The theater! The theater! What's happened to the theater?" Not sure what the ancient Greeks would think of White Christmas but I imagine they might echo Phil's sentiments.

The changing of the guards is ceremonial and involves some interesting walking

Such a grand temple

The theater of Dionysus

Following the path up the slope we next came upon an even bigger theater, the Herodes Atticus Theater, still used for productions in the present day. It would be amazing to see a performance in this ancient venue but I have a feeling a ticket is an expensive and highly sought after commodity.

The theater of Herodes Atticus

The first building which serves as an entrance to the acropolis is the monumental Propylaea. Then on the hilltop itself is, of course, the Parthenon. The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patroness of Athens. She won this honor after she defeated Poseidon in a contest for the city by giving the people the olive tree. In addition to the Parthenon is the Erechtheion, a split-level building with carytids (sculpted female figures) as columns on its porch. There was quite a bit of construction going on for both the Parthenon and the Erechtheion, but the scaffolding did little to diminish the impressiveness of the structures. When looking at partially demolished ruins it requires one to use one’s imagination to fill in the missing pieces. Or, you can just look at the Lego model in the museum.

Walking up the acropolis

Amazing. Monumental, if you will.

View from above
We didn’t actually go to the museum right after visiting the Acropolis. Instead, since the weather was nice, we walked through the old streets and the flea market to visit the ancient Agora. An agora is a public space, usually with one prominent building, where people would gather to discuss politics, socialize and carry out other types of business. In the ancient Agora of Athens there also stands the Temple of Hephaestus, one of the best preserved examples of architecture from ancient Greece. Also, in the Agora Museum we saw examples of early voting, jury duty selection, and an example of the practice of ostracism, where Athenians could vote a citizen into exile for a period of 10 years. Jury duty involved citizens’ names being lined up in a horizontal fashion and then for each line a white or a black ball would be randomly produced. If the ball was white, you had jury duty, and if it was black, it was back to work.

Outside the Agora museum
Jury duty!!
Temple of Hephaestus
Temple of Hephaestus

Our second day in Athens we visited the Kerameikos cemetery, where evidence of burials dates back to 1000 BC. This was also the site of another agora and the intersection of major roadways. The remains were pretty scarce and overrun with grass and weeds, but it was easily the oldest place we have visited since we began our travels and this alone justified the visit. After the cemetery we returned to the Acropolis museum. The museum does not allow pictures of most of the displays but the information was plentiful, and on the top floor they have the friezes or metopes from the Parthenon arranged in the same manner they would have appeared on the building. The few hours spent there was worth it, but we were hungry bears afterwards and returned to our neighborhood where we went through the local market and bought fresh peppers, apples, oranges, apricots and tomatoes and then we picked up some cheese and meat from the supermarket. We had a picnic style lunch in our common kitchen while watching Dr. Who on Netflix. A perfect lunch for the Hedges.
Kerameikos Cemetery

The next day we took a day trip to Delphi, the most important site for the god Apollo and the home of the mystical Oracle!