My Biggest Travel Fiasco (or, the time I spent New Year’s Eve alone in Romania)

Budapest, Hungary

The clock reads 7:32 a.m. The man in the front seat is antsy, nervously playing with the manual lock system on the minivan. 

“Where are these people? Don’t they know we could be late for our flights?”

I assure Fidgety Floridian that the Budapest airport is quite small and easy to get through, but his wife isn’t convinced. She rolls her eyes and says, “We have the worst luck with planes. We nearly didn’t make it on the cruise.”

My flight to Tirgu Mures, Romania doesn’t leave for four hours, so I’m cool. I settle into the jump seat at the back of the van, wedged between luggage.

Three hours later, I’ve sailed through security and pursue the food options. I decide to wait until I land in Tirgu Mures, as I will need something to do for three hours before leaving for Madrid. My foot taps impatiently against the floor as we begin to embark. Wedged into an airport bus, I choose to stand next to someone who hasn’t showered.

For thirty minutes.

After which we are unloaded back  into the terminal and delayed another thirty minutes. I settle into my third book of my holiday break and return to tapping my foot again while doing the mental math: I have a one hour flight, a one hour delay and a one hour forward time change. I have just enough time to grab my bag, check in again and head to my gate once we touch down in Tirgu Mures. 

My foot taps faster.

In the air, I relax a little, as I’ve been assured that it will be taxi, takeoff, ascent, quick passage of the metal cart for snacks, descent, landing, taxi. Plus, I’ve snagged a seat on the aisle in the third row (thank you, Amazing Race, for teaching me how to get on and off planes quickly). Flipping through the inflight magazine for the third time, the captain announces something in Hungarian. Then, in English: Due to zero visibility in Tirgu Mures, we’ve been rerouted to Cluj, to which we have begun our descent. There will be buses on hand to take you to Tirgu, unless you’d prefer to stay in Cluj. We apologize for any inconvenience.

My heart skips a beat and I call the flight attendant, slightly panicked. How long until the buses arrive? Is it a far drive to Tirgu Mures? Will I have to go through customs here? I continue to fire, but she comes back with two responses: first, I don’t know anything about Romania and second, we are a point to point airline, sorry.

No shit. 

Cluj-Napoca Airport, Romania

Once on the ground, I call the Novio, fighting tears. Our New Year’s plans were to spend the night with his extended family which had come from London, Peru, Murcia and Madrid. He assures me they’ll come and pick me up from Madrid when I get in, whenever that may be. I hastily get through customs, and my checked bag comes barreling down the belt first.

My first stop is the tourist information counter. Unfortunately, the woman speaks limited English. There is no bus to Tirgu Mures out front, and I check my watch: with the time change, my flight closes in 90 minutes. I return to the desk and slow down: How long in taxi to Tirgu Mures? 

“One hour thirty, maybe two.” Remembering my Romania road trip, I think of the poor state of most highways in Romania and bite my lip.

Other travelers are taking pity on me, asking if there’s anything they can do to help me or if I’d like a lift to the center of Cluj. I rack my brain – I’ve been here before. It’s a large university city where we made a quick stop, and the food was cheap. A large, domed church with a fountain in front gets shaken from my head as I try to think straight.

The Cluj airport flies to many more destinations, including Barcelona and Madrid, I tell myself. If I fly out of anywhere, it will be here.

I have to say, I have never been a nervous flier. I always arrive to the airport early, pack my bag without liquids and know how planes work and why they just don’t fall out of the sky. Yes, I even pray to the Virgin of Loreto, patron saint of pilots (and I can’t believe I just admitted that). But now I’m antsy, channeling Kevin McCallister’s mother as I half-run to the Wizz Air ticketing office in the departures terminal.

The woman is quite nice and speaks English, and looks up flights to anywhere in Spain – Valencia, Alicante, Palma. Nothing more will fly out today to Spain, just to Budapest at 8pm, more than six hours in the future. She assures me there are flights from Budapest to Madrid the following day for a mere 145€, and the woman in the other information booth looks up overnight buses and prices for me.

Just then, a young Lufthansa worker touches me on the shoulder. Nothing is flying out of Targu this afternoon – there’s no ground visibility and they’ve already sent word that we’ll be getting flights bound for other destinations here, he tells me.

Feeling a stroke of good luck, I buy myself a cold sandwich and a warm Orsus beer and pace the empty departures hall.

For the next five hours, I jockey between the Wizz Air office, the check-in counters for news and the information desk. Passengers from other flights to Lutton and Beauvais pass through, looking at me as if I am in the movie Terminal. Time ticks by slowly, but I don’t pick up a magazine until several hours into the ordeal. Food doesn’t appeal to me, and even the nice Romanian girl who offers me tea gets a no, thank you.

The Lufthansa worker is nowhere to be found, so I ask another for help. Thankfully, he speaks English perfectly and makes a call. 

“We’ll know in thirty minutes, but I think you’re in luck. Just stay within sight.” Doing as I’m told, I finally start to try to occupy myself, returning to my e-book. Still distracted, another hour flies by and the Novio calls back. He tells me, pity in his voice, that no one could help him in Barajas, then, angrily, “And the call costs 1,15 a minute, joder!”

Just then, nice Lufthansa man steps out from around the heck-in desk with a long face. “Yeah, so, your flight will leave in 15 minutes. From Targu Mures. I’m sorry, the weather has cleared up.”

Well, crap.

Nice Lufthansa man turns into an angel when he gets on the phone with Wizz Air and scores me a new ticket, free of charge, for the misinformation he alleges I’ve received. An email in my inbox confirms this. I could hug him, but instead I give him the bottle of wine I was carrying home for the Novio’s family. One good deed deserves another, and he gladly accepts it, saying that he was made to work an extra eight hours with the influx of re-routed flights.

I grab my things and find a taxi after seven hours in the terminal. There is general confusion, as the taxi driver asks me which bus station I want to go to. I dart back into the terminal to find it completely deserted. I leave it to blind faith and nod when he asks the name of the company and just takes off, racing towards the city.

Cluj-Napoca City Center

We pull up to what appears to be an abandoned junk yard with a few plastic huts. “Bus!” the driver calls out and dumps my bag on the cold, wet ground. Never mind the vintage stein I’m bringing back…or the other bottle of wine.

Everything is dark. I can’t read anything. My watch read 8:22, or one hour, forty-eight minutes until the bus apparently passes. Music is playing at the hotel around the corner, so I go in and plead my way into sitting in the still-cold lobby, tired enough to want to cry, or just curl up and say to hell with an overnight bus.

Welp, turns out there was no overnight bus, or any bus or train on New Year’s Day, so I turn on my Internet data (happy Christmas bonus, Vodafona) and look up hotels, figuring it would be money well spent. There’s a Hilton.

There’s a Hilton.

The closest I can get to home is a Hilton, and they would definitely have wi-fi and breakfast. I realize, rubbing my eyes, I’ve barely eaten or even drank since 6:30 in the morning, adding to my drowsiness and overall pity party.

The Hilton glows green on the empty street, just a few yards from the city center. I practically collapse as the receptionist charges my credit card and writes down my information to the tune of 58€. Giving him the cliff notes of my sob story, he promises to call me a taxi.

Upstairs in my room, I’ve just taken off my bag when the phone buzzes. “Um, yes, my friend can take you to Budapest Airport tomorrow. It is five, maybe six hours. It will cost 250€. Yes?” Without even thinking, I say yes. Besides, I already did the mental math. If I waited another day, I’d have to spend another 58€ for the hotel room, over 300€ for the flight from Cluj on the 2nd, and then another train ticket from Madrid. 

I kick off my shoes and run the shower. I stare at the water and steam for about a minute before I decide I’m too tired to even stand under the jet of water. The clock says 11:23 p.m., a full 15 hours since I left the dock in Budapest. I should have arrived to Spain three hours ago.

My night is sleepless, punctuated by fireworks, whatsapps from well-wishing friends and a very nervous mother. My in-laws send pictures of themselves eating my 12 lucky grapes, and all I can think is, vaya suerte. 

Rural Romania

The driver nods his head at me as I slip in the back seat of his car. He punches something nervously into his GPS and I wish him a happy new year, surprisingly sunny, given the circumstances and the money I am about to fork over to him. It doesn’t seem that he speaks English, which both relieves and disappoints me.

One thing I can say since my road trip through Transylvania and Mures: the roads have definitely gotten better. We speed out of Cluj along the E-61 towards Hungary, and I am flooded with memories of my trip. The intricately carved wooden crosses on the side of the road, the haystacks behind homes and the women in black fly by as we take the twisting roads west.

There’s definitely a common theme amongst Romanians – they’re all so damn nice, and it’s amazing what a terrible night of sleep did to me – I feel 100 times better and pray to the travel gods that I will be back in Spain on the first day of 2014.

Romanian-Hungarian border

The driver is nervous. He backs his car up, pulls it back in, changes positions, smokes his smokeless cigarette pipe thing. I’m sipping down water in small amounts, not sure if he speaks enough English to know I need a pit stop. After seven long minutes (for him, not me), the guard approaches the car and hands me back me passport and Spanish residency card.

On the first day of 2014, I’ve already got two freshly stamped entries in my passport. Every cloud…

Budapest, Hungary

Once we’re into Hungary, the roads become straight and the hills disappear. While I can understand some words in Romania because of its Romantic language roots, Hungary has me completely stumped. All I can make out is the ever-dwindling number of kilometers between our car and the airport.

The driver drops me off right in front of the terminal. I’ve given him a tip of close to 30€ (after all, he charged me in Romanian leu and that conversion is not easy on a sleep-deprived brain) for his trouble on New Year’s Day, and he shakes my hand firmly after helping me put my heavy bag on my back. I thank him on the only word in Romanian I know, multumesc. Thank you very much.

My phone picks up the wi-fi immediately in the airport, and I re-book a train ticket for 9:30 p.m. I have three hours before my flight, which will give me time to finally have a beer, get checked in and get through security…and maybe eat fast food and not feel ashamed about it. Spanish permeates my consciousness and I relax.

Once on the plane, the sky is a dreamy pink with streaks of red until night falls.

Madrid, Spain

As soon as the plane touches down, the first thing that comes to mind is Manolo Escobar’s famous Spain anthem, Que Viva España. My phone is turned on before we reach the gate, and I send whatsapps to everyone I know. I feel like I’ve returned to a place where everything makes sense and where language is no longer an issue. I get Spain. 

Time seems to pass by in three seconds as I grab my bag, transfer to terminal 4, hop on the cercanías line and make it to my train – the last of the day – with 20 minutes to spare. Being a holiday, my car was only half full, so I could curl up across both seats and sleep for two hours. Stepping onto the platform and seeing ‘SEVILLA – SANTA JUSTA’ as I take a deep breath reminds me that I am, at long last, home.

Sevilla, Spain

I arrive home five minutes to midnight on January 1st. The travel gods heard my plea, it seems. I’ve traveled, by my estimate, over 3900 miles in 40 hours. The Novio hasn’t changed the sheets in two weeks, but I hardly notice as I sleep, finally, in my own bed for 10 hours.

I’ve since recounted the short version of the ordeal to my friends. While some are shocked and glad it didn’t happen to them, I can say this: I am relieved that I am a seasoned traveler and that I’ve watched my parents navigate standby and weather delays like champs. My nerves and even my tear ducts were put to the test, but I got home, unscathed (just poorer). Had I been new to international travel or unaware of European flight compensations, I may have made rookie mistakes.

One thing I have realized? I am not cut out for round-the-world travel. While it seems challenging and fun, I’m too accustomed to my comforts and hate wearing dirty clothes (there, I admitted it). I can handle when things don’t go as planned, but I don’t like it because I am not spontaneous. I like feeling grounded. I like the feeling of familiarity. I like having wi-fi and no roaming data (my bill came yesterday…ouch).

That’s not to say that I won’t travel for extended periods of time – I most certainly will travel as far as my body and my salary will take me, and have big dreams when it comes to doing it. But I think I’ve finally mató el gusano. The idea of round-trip travel is no longer a little tickle that flares up once in a while.

The idea of becoming an expat in another city or another country? THAT is the new gusanillo.

Have you had any travel disasters recently? I’d love to hear them, and if they’re Spain-related, feel free to send me the story for publishing!

Dancing in the Fountain: Enjoy Living Abroad Book Giveaway

I’m five minutes early, and there’s just one table left. It’s in the sun and cramped between two groups of German travelers. Karen strides in with just a moment to spare, wearing her signature animal prints. While there’s a gap in age between us, Karen is the type of friend you can have who personifies “Age is just a number.”

I’m eager to catch up with Karen over coffee and talk about her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. I devoured the book on a trip this summer though the Eastern seaboard, often subjected to gut-busting laughter and the wise head nods. The book was, in short, delightful.

As someone who loves travel books, Karen’s story of how she and her husband, Rich, moved to Seville is what Maria Foley calls a “love letter to the Andalusian capital.” Indeed, Karen captures the essence of Seville – its people, its food, its quirks that drive every single one of us crazy, all while deepening our love for this enchanting place. The perfect book for dreaming about getting away, of starting over in a new country and making it all work. 

As we are getting ready to part ways, I reach into my bag to find my wallet is empty. In an oh-so-Spanish move, Karen shoes my hand away and offers up a five euro note. “This will more than take care of it,” she says with a slight smile.

After getting back home later that day, I write my friend to apologize again about the coffee. Her reply is quick and telling: It’s happened to all of us.

Photo by the man in the hat himself, Rich McCann, at Karen’s book party

Just like your friend from toda la vida might say on any other sunny day in Seville.

The Contest

Karen has graciously agreed to donating a paperback copy of Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad to one of my readers, and I’m willing to ship it anywhere.

In order to win, I’d like you to tell us, in 25 words or less, why you’d like to live abroad, or why you chose to if you’re already here. You can earn more chances to win by following Karen and I on twitter or liking our Facebook pages, but we’re both interested in hearing what you have to say about packing up and moving to unknown lands.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Contest begins today and will run two weeks. I’ll send the winner, who will be generated randomly, the signed book to any corner of this great big Earth. But wait! I’m also going to give away a $15 Amazon gift card to the reader with the best answer, judged by and agreed on by both Karen and me.

For more information about Karen and her book, visit her webpage or follow her on twitter at @enjoylvngabroad. If you’ve read this book and enjoyed it, let her know! You can also find the book in both Paperback and Kindle version here: Dancing In The Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad.

What to do With Outdated Travel Guides

I learned the hard way just how tedious and difficult it can be to research a guidebook. After study abroad in Spain and reading of Let’s Go Spain 2005, I felt I knew the Iberian Peninsula in and out. I wanted to travel and eat in restaurants for free, go on tours and ride in buses to far off places, all in the name of budget travel and a small wage.

So, when I was contacted by one GG of Rough Guides, I jumped at the opportunity to help contribute to The Rough Guide to Andalucia (out May 1, 2012 – look for my mention on page 933!). I set off on the task, determined to uncover new places and tout the old ones.

The work was long, often frustrating, and needed various re-writes.

I got in contact with GG in February of 2011, and we met the following month to hammer out the details. I didn’t actually complete the work and get paid until the beginning of 2012 – due to an overhaul of the book’s design, there was more work and research to be done. Additionally, with the new government in place in Spain, the economic crisis and the normal turnover of businesses (Qué! reported in February that 14,000 new business were founded in 2011 and over 5,000 went defunct), I often had to frantically tap out an email to GG to report that a place had closed or changed hours.

Guidebooks are often obsolete the second they go to press. While they provide an excellent way to get started on planning on a trip, they often can’t be relied on blindly. So, then, what happens after your trip to SE Asia? That enormous Lonely Planet or Frommer’s you shelled out money for, what will become of it?

Trade-ins and Book Drop Offs

One of the best moments I had on my first trip to Amsterdam was browsing in the American Bookstore off of Damm Square. I was clued into the Dutch reading habit by my friend Martin, whose small apartment was full of books in many languages. My travel partner needed to do some research for her thesis proposal, so I parked it on a beanbag and browsed titles, running my fingers over bindings and through coffee table books, not wanting to start and not be able to stop a novel.

Similarly, I spent money and luggage space on books bought in Hungary at an English book exchange with incredible organic coffee. If like minds do indeed think alike, the pairing of musty old books and strong java was my idea of haven for a chilly afternoon. In expat enclaves worldwide, book exchanges and drop offs have become a way to recycle old friends and sometimes make a bit of cash.

In Seville, you could also leave your book at the Centro Norteamericano on Calle Harinas, 16-18, in the library. As one of the largest English-language collections in the city, the place takes in all of leftover books from the American Women’s Club book fair and takes up the upper patio of the restored villa. You can find Gaye, the woman in charge, during the workweek from 8:15 until 10pm (8pm on Fridays), though note that the system is based on honor, and you MUST be a member of the AWC to check books out. Similarly, the Phoenix Pub in nearby Bormujos has become a book-collecting haven for English language goods.

Leave it behind at a hostel, train station or airport with a note

Knowing my family would soon be traveling to Ireland, I picked up a copy of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes at the American Women’s Club book fair. Starting up the book in Málaga at the airport, I boarded the plane with a two-hour delay, sat on the runway for another two, was in the air for three, and sat on the ground again waiting for a gate another hour. With nothing better to do on a cramped Ryan Air flight, I damn near finished the book. I also hated myself for not having such a traumatic childhood like McCourt did. The book thoroughly depressed me.

Three days later, we arrived to still Limerick on Christmas morning. The chill and the absence of people made McCourt’s Limerick a reality to me, so I left the book on a bench near the historic center with a note on the inside flap: Reader Beware. I signed my name, printed the date and walked away.

Could you imagine picking up a book or short story in an airport and diving in? Books are to be treasured, so parting with a beloved friend can, in turn, pick up someone else’s day. Likewise, hostels are always hungry for books and provide an eclectic collection for travelers. Your old guidebooks – or books – can find a home here and become an uncovered gem for a like-minded traveler.


As a kid, I loved doing all kinds of crafty work and my mom took us almost weekly to Michael’s for paint, hot glue guns and the like. I started decoupaging anything I could get my hands on – often using travel magazines and the Chicago Tribune Travel section to cover notebooks, shoeboxes and pencil holders.

Now that I’ve been in Europe for over four years, I save all of my museum entrances, bus tickets and even napkins from memorable meals to decoupage photo albums. I have my camera on me at all times – even if it is just my phone’s – so my pictures are often an integral part of my trip. Signing up for photo sharing websites like Snapfish or Shutterfly will usually get you anywhere from 20-100 free prints, and I’ve scored hundreds of others for simply subscribing to the sites. My whole Ireland trip for the shipping and handling costs? Genius.

note: Amazon UK will ship for free to Spain for orders over 25£, Book Depository offers free shipping to Spain.

Plain old leave it on your nightstand, bookshelf or coffee table

In reading Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-term Travel, I realized that I sometimes just need a bit of inspiration to get me through a few hours’ time prowling for cheap flights. My two books that I bought back in 2009 (updated in 2008, then) serve as a good jumping off point, but I find that they’re much more practical at home than lugged in my bag. I treasure the creased pages, underlined routes and worn binding that brings me back to the souqs of Morocco or Asturias’s green coast.

My 2009 guidebooks still just sit around my house, reminding me of the thrill of going to a new, unknown place. They’ve found their home next to cookbooks and old copies of secondhand books in English and Spanish. I’ve got little trinkets all around my house that serve the same purpose – a wooden sculpture from the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta, bottles of Coke in Arabic, a Chinese New Year calendar made of plush animals. Even a good travel book can take me to destinations that seem too far to even think about visiting – as proof, I still have my first Let’s Go! Spain book, a Green Guide to Paris book from a 2006 Art History Class and a second-hand Lonely Planet to China that adorn my bookshelf back in good old America.

Calling all Andalusian-based expats: clue me in on where I can get my hand on more! I caved and got the Kindle, but love to pick up books for the beach or weekend trips.

Turkey Story

They say a cup of Turkish coffee is worth 40 years of friendship.

Between the seven of us, we barely had seven years of friendship, but we suddenly found ourselves in Istanbul, straddling two mighty continents and our own expectations for Turkey.  We laughed, we scowled, we ate a lot of baklava. This is our Turkey Story.

Our first day was rainy, so we spent the morning ducking in and out of mosques, listening to muezzin calls in stocking feet, relishing in feeling the carpet beneath them. After the trek downhill from Taksim and crossing the Galata Bridge, the two peninsulas that make up the European part of Istanbul, we found ourselves at the feet of the New Mosque. Our shoes came off, and the scarves went on.

Wandering the back streets of the neighborhood, we ducked inside of a brightly lit coffee house and enjoying our first cup of Turkish java. The first sip was bitter, even while we stared out at a soft rain and men playing backgammon in stumpy stools. As the cups were drained, we looked for signs of the future in the grinds. No Hogwarts-like fortune telling here, though.

The Hagia Sofia, a momentous Byzantine structure marked as a “museum” left us in awe. Low-hanging chandeliers and larger-than-life mosaics and script adorned the cavernous space.

Lunch was on everyone’s minds, so we hunted down a cheap chicken kebab and washed it down with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. I remembered being warned about fresh juice in Morocco – the juice stung my gums and left my teeth purple, but I didn’t fall victim to bad water.

The Blue Mosque was on the docket for the evening, and we traipsed through Sultanahmet Square as the wind howled. Just as we passed under the gate, the call to prayer began, and tourists were barred from entering. We were forced to contemplate its size and greyish hue from the outside. Truth be told, we were over mosques and all of that effort it took to take off our shoes, wrap our heads up, and then undo it all upon exiting. We decided baklava was a good alternative.

The rain beat on, and Julie slipped into a bar. We ordered beers for us and one for Katerina, but our friends didn’t follow us in. when we left the bar, the waiter just replied, “There is the door, go away.” So much for Turkish hospitality. Since we’d pay for a dinner and music show at Agememnon’s (we think that’s what he wrote on the receipt…kind of), all of us chickens watched as the dervishes bowed before the altar and set to whirling around, soft-footed, as we ate our sausage kebabs. I was entranced and set my ISO to 3200, just to get the swirling effect.

The next day awoke us, sunny and warmer, which was a treat after arriving to the hostel with wet boots and a broken umbrella. Craving a view of the Bosphorous and Marmara Sea, we paused at the Galata Tower, an ancient lighthouse and fire department building, to marvel in the boats zigzagging their way through the harbor and the sparkle of the sun on the river.

Our attraction of the day center around the Topkapi palace, a fortified wall sitting on the end of the Eminönu peninsula. The imposing main gate, men dressed like old sultans and views of the channel were nice, but I left unimpressed and uninspired by the grounds and the prostitute bay, even after turning my camera’s color filter to bold.

Our hungry bellies lead us to a kebab shop off of the main strip, where I was bursting to pee. We had our first lentil soup there, called çorba, which we ate with fluffy white bread. As we chowed down our kebabs, one of the girls with a headscarf at the table adjacent to ours leaned over and began talking to Katerina. I was on the other end of the table, so I ate happily, interrupted. When I asked the waiter where the toilet was (non-verbally of course, just be jumping around like a little kid about to pee his pants), he pulled me outside into a hallway and encouraged me to play a game of tag with him up the stairs, around a few corners and directly into a squatty potty. International toilets – 6 (China, of course); Cat – 0.

As it turned out, she and the girl who accompanied her were executives at a publishing house, and they happened to be dining with an author whose books were being translated into English. She invited us to tea at their company office, a few doors down. Remembering a friend’s insistence that Islamic faithful are encouraged to share what they have, we had some tea with the girls, who rewarded us with free pins and books from the author.

Outside, the day was quickly turning to night, so I suggested we visit a place a student’s mother had recommended to me. Lover of all things macabre, I’d been talking up the cemetery that had been converted into an outdoor garden to smoke water pipes and have a tea for the duration of the trip.

Çorulu Ali Pasa was my favorite part of the trip. Through a narrow alleyway, we walked by stoves cooking hot coals in thin tin pots, and the men-to-woman-ratio was 10:1. Small groups of men sat on fraying woven blankets around pipes, with beautiful tiled lanterns overhead. It was twilight; the lanterns sparkled with the sun’s last daily effort as we ordered apple tea and a strawberry flavor for the pipe. I can’t say I’m a big shisha consumer, but we all relaxed as the men around us attended to businesses affairs or sat alone and smoked.

We retired to Taksim, nibbling at street food along the way. As we watched the sun cast an eery, moonlit glow on the mosque towers and Byzantine temples, I finally got the feeling: we were in an Islamic country. Only one thing left to do, then: head to Asia.

The following morning, which dawned bright and blue, we took a passenger ferry from the Eminönu side of the Galata Bridge to the Üsküdar neighborhood. The tokens cost a little under one euro, and the trip was barely ten minutes, and suddenly, we were traversing another continent. While the Asian side doesn’t have many monuments, the views of the Maiden Tower and business districts of the European peninsulas are breathtaking.

We had tickets for the archaeological museum, thanks to our MUZE pass, so we spent hours traipsing through sarcophagi on the warm day and split off from Julie and Tilly, also making a stop off at the Basilica Cisterns, an overly touristic underground cave. There were even animatronics, if you can believe it.

Our dinner was a quick cafeteria-like place, frequented by young students in the Taksim district and policemen. Live music pulsated in the nearby bars, but I found all of the walking and eating was slowly turning me into a sloth. We decided to ask the staff of our hostel (who spoke very little English) for some recommendations for hamams, the traditional Turkish baths, and found one right near our hostel. It would wait until after the Gran Bazaar, though.

Though overly touristy, this enclosed maze of 61 streets is home to vendors of everything from Turkish football jerseys to pashminas to antiques. We split up to cover more ground and browse the stalls under arches painted in ochre, dandelion and celestial hues. Fountains and tea stands punctuated every small street and the antique pipe vendors had hidden gems. But I had an agenda: evil eye jewelry, a few spice grinders and an engraved dagger for the Novio.

After having bargained in China and Morocco, I knew the drill: start below the price you’re willing to pay. Listen to the vendor rant about feeding his children (I didn’t see a single woman selling). Raise your price by a few lira. Continue repeating this step until you think you’ve exhausted the topic. Try adding a few more lira to get two. If this doesn’t work, walk away until they call you back. Lie about another vendor offering it for a cheaper price, if necessary.

In the end, I got three spice grinders for 5€ each, the dagger for 13€ instead of 20€ and two evil eye glass bracelets for 2€. Satisfied and exhausted, we awarded ourselves with MORE baklava in oozing pistachio and walnut varieties before finding the others.

We had agreed to meet at the hostel at 5pm, but we were on the other side of time, so we took the tram. Being late in the day, our group got split up, so Kristen, Katerina and I had to wait on the platform for the others for six minutes. As the second train pulled into the station, we looked frantically for the other two when I was approached. Clutching my bag, I realized it was my friend from Sevilla, Alberto, also enjoying his Semana Santa. First my alumnos in Santiago, and now Alberto in one of the largest cities in Europe. Surprised as always, we caught up while the funicular climbed the steep hill, stopping to take picture proof in front of the square.

As we relaxed in the hamam (moe about THAT later), we knew our trip was coming to an end. Tilly and Julie back to Coruña, Kristen to Málaga, me to Zaragoza and the other three to Sevilla for the Madrugá. I thought back on all of the baklava, the people and the six towering spires of the Blue Mosque. My four days in Zaragoza were certainly nothing to write home about (except to Ashlee, winner of my passport contest, obviously), but I was happy to have pushed my travel limits (hello, the toilets still get me!!) and finally see the last country on my must-see list.

Have you been to Turkey? What did you like, or not? Favorite food? This is definitely a city I connected with and would love to travel back to! For great articles on the country, check out Hecktic Travels, as the Canadian pair is there house sitting and exploring beyond Istanbul.

The Serendipity of Traveling in Galicia

I have oodles of serendipitous moments while traveling through Spain and the world beyond – from sharing a tanjine with a Berber man to rubbing shoulders with Falete (seriously, he literally brushed passed me on the street in a flare of flamboyant nonchalance). Camera in hand, belly full of food and with my dad or Novio, and I’m totally in travel nirvana.

Still, I gotta throw out this disclaimer: I have just as many flubs and mess ups and utterly frustrating moments when I travel. But I wouldn’t keep traveling if those moments didn’t thrill me and push me to see more.

Just last weekend, I hopped on a plane after work to Galicia, the region where I work during the summer. The food, the people and their sing-song language, the endless stretched of rocky beaches – Spain’s northwest corner won me over on my first visit in 2008, and I now spend my summers working in A Coruña. Kike had spent just an ounce of time here, so I was eager to pay the plane fare and join him during his weekend there.

On Saturday morning, we jumped in his car and drove towards Santiago, windows down. We’d been blessed with a clear sky and warm temperatures and stripped off our jackets as soon as we got parked. I’d been to Santiago four times already, including for the fest of Spain’s patron saint, but coming into the Plaza do Obradoiro was serendipitous: the sun glinted off the stalls selling scallop shells and rosaries, and Camarón was glued to my face as I looked for new ways to capture St. James’s final resting place. From out of nowhere, I heard my name.

Standing just behind me were about a dozen of my old students from Olivares. Like a weirdo, I started sweating, my head spinning. I haven’t found a day to go back and visit a town 40 minutes away by bus, but I suddenly found myself in an entirely different corner of Spain embracing students I taught English to for three years. I promised to visit over Feria and gave everyone a quick kiss more before tailing off behind Kike to the entrance of the Cathedral.

Mass was being conducted in the high arcs of galego. Kike and I had just barely entered when the priest called for the attendants to give the sign of peace. I watched, midday light streaming in through the stained glass, as pilgrams embraced after a long Camino, backpacks still affixed on their shoulders. We circled the church’s chapels before Kike prayed to Saint James that Spain survive the economic crisis.

My ears perked up at the words botafumeiro. KIKEEEEEE I whispered shrilly, they’re going to do it, ¡qué suerte! I couldn’t believe our luck in seeing an enormous incense holder during a Pilgrim’s Mass. The team of scarlet-clad priests gingerly lifted the lid off of the 53kg tin and silver holder. Vaya tajá, Kike noted as I watched the men begin to pull down on the long, braided rope that attaches the botafumeiro to the high ceilings. Like ringing a bell, they heaved together in a perfect synchronization, and the botafumeiro swung like a pendulum – a small ripple that strengthened to a feverish height. My spirit soared along with it.

Kike and I spent the early afternoon walking the back streets between stone buildings, stopping at attractive plazas for a beer and pintxo of tortilla or empanada. I dragged him to O Gato Negro, an unassuming bar I’d eaten at years back. We ordered a bottle of chilled Ribeiro, drinking it out of saucers. Pulpo was our main fare, squishy and seasoned with paprika. Kike stepped outside for a cigarette and struck up conversations with a gallego leaning across the stone entryway of the bar. He returned seconds later, still putting out his cigarette, to order another round of wine and what he called “a crab’s cousin.”  Wrapped in philo dough, the slimy cousin more than got its due. “The man outside said this is the best bar in Santiago, and the cheapest, too.” He wasn’t kidding – a bottle of wine and two raciones ran us a tab of 17€.

I suggested a dessert of queso de tetilla – so named for its shape – and quince with a sweet wine at the Parador, an old hopital sitting at the foot of the Cathedral that has since been converted into a luxury hotel run by the government. Here’s to Los Puppies, Kike said as we shared tiny sherry glasses of vino de pasas. I was happy – belly full, wine making my head ring every so lightly, walking arm in arm with my love. My spirit felt as high as the spires of the temple that marks the end of a pilgrimage with as much force as the waves that batter Coruña’s rocky beaches.

The following day, the gran mariscada was planned. Since camp, I’ve craved the seafood one can eat in Galicia and often use the paycheck (or just really big denominations of euros) to get a nice mariscada, or plate full of different types of shellfish. The day was one of those perfect ones, especially in rainy Galicia – bright even with sunglasses, a hint of a breeze – and Kike had found the perfect place.

…we just never got there. On the back roads out of El Ferrol, his car box shifter thingy gears just kinda, well, gave up. He quickly got out of the car and quickly smoked a cigarette before calling his insurance company. I put my head to his chest and rubbed his back, knowing that the granola bar in my back would be consumed sooner or later.

When he got off the phone, a taxi pulled up and offered to take us as far as Coruña, where I had to fly out of a few hours later. Kike griped about how much the car would cost to repair and that he may not make it down to Seville before my trip, so I suggested we grab a few bees from a grocery store and sit on the Orzán. Looking across the shallow bay to the Torre de Hércules, back leaned up against my duffel bag, we told jokes and sipped Estrella Galicia as the sunlight waned. It felt strangely good to be sharing a place in Spain that I never associated with him, and we could laugh up the negative events of the day.

Galicia has everything that I feel Andalucía lacks – the people who tug at your heartstrings with their generosity, placid beaches, a religious fervor that isn’t just about Semana Santa. I feel at my best in Spain in general, and Galicia takes it to the next level. It’s lovely on the senses and gives me a lifting feeling of serendipity.

Have you ever traveled to Galicia? What are some of your most serendipitous travel moments?

My Seven Super Shots

Maybe it’s just my love of Camarón or my quest to see Seville in new ways, but I was crossing my fingers I’d get to do the Seven Super Shots run by . Similar to the ABCs of Travel, this virtual game of tag centers around photography, which I am all to willing to admit to loving.

The gimmick is to examine the snaps you’ve taken and choose the best out of several categories. When reading a few others on my Google Reader, I already had mine mentally picked out.

[Read more…]

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...