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How to enjoy and/or have an existential crisis in Istanbul

Sea of Marmara, Island of Buyukada, Istanbul, Turkey

Sea of Marmara, Island of Buyukada, Istanbul, Turkey

This past New Year’s I went to Istanbul, Turkey to visit my friend, Nico. My friend, Erica, also joined in on this trip. The three of us, with our individual variations on the “quarter-life crisis” (plus my horrible cough) managed to explore one of the world’s most fascinating cities. Here is a series of photographs that captures the various moods throughout my week-long trip:

Istanbul, Turkey

Four Cool Cats in Istanbul

Dancing in a Turku bar in Istanbul until 5:30am

Hagia Sophia

Turkish cuisine

Turkish crisis

Galata Bridge, Istanbul, Turkey

How to win at backgammon in Turkey

Galata Tower and a Sea Gull

The Grand Bazaar

Maria Kucinski Istanbul

Istanbul Sunset

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Searching for the elusive in Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland. I recently took a little trip with my family to Reykjavik, Iceland. The country is weird. It is weird because although it’s all very nice and the people are very nice it seems like they have no real strong culture (unlike say Italians). There are only 300,000 people living in all of Iceland, 2/3rds of which live in Reykjavik and the surrounding area. The ongoing joke on the trip was that Iceland has the most [fill in the blank] per capita. We also felt like everything we saw and did reminded us of another place we had visited. That became a fun game saying that the streets reminded us of Lisbon or the climate reminded us of San Francisco.

Geo-thermal tomato farm in IcelandIcelandic food is quite varied with lamb, minke whale, puffin, shark, and tons of fish. They grow produce in greenhouses so they have fresh fruits and veggies of all kinds. We went to a geo-thermal powered greenhouse of tomatoes where they ship out 300 tons annually. That’s just under a ton of tomatoes a day!

Minke whale on the left. Puffin on the right.

Minke whale on the left. Puffin on the right.

At dinner, I tried whale – very much like a steak that is prepared on the raw side, and puffin – which is more like lamb in texture. I am glad I did it, but I feel like I should repent. The waiter who served those dishes grew up on a puffin “farm.” When asked how his family would prepare puffin, he said they would “rip off the chest” and boil it whole. Quite a vivid description…plus the fact that there were stuffed animal puffins in all the souvenir shops and the book of “50 crazy Things to Eat in Iceland” eloquently noted that puffins were, “So Cute and Tasty.” Gulp.

Gull Beer.Which reminds me of the terrible Icelandic beer called “Gull,” pronounced “Ghoulkh” meaning “rainbow” and named after the impressive three-step waterfall, “Gullfoss.”

Gullfoss Waterfall Iceland

Gullfoss Waterfall.

Icelandic horse.

Icelandic horses.

The Icelandic horse is a national treasure having come over with the Vikings and never bred with any other breed. It has an extra gait specific to its breed and is fairly small.

Strokkur Geyser Iceland

Strokkur Geyser, the active geyser next to the original Geysir.

Mid-Atlantic Ridge Iceland

Between two continents. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge in Iceland.

We also saw Geysir, the big, historic geyser and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the tectonic plates between North America and Europe are separated by 70 meters. From there we could also see the largest lake in Iceland. It was beautiful.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland.

One of the highlights was the Blue Lagoon – a sulfur steam bath in the middle of ancient lava. It was so cool (even if it felt a bit like a water park) knowing that it was all naturally harnessed energy. Note to self: don’t ever get your hair wet with sulfur. My hair did not bounce back to its natural softness the rest of the trip (showering and conditioner did not help as the hot water has sulfur in it too). I called it Iceland hair and heard others remarking about it at the airport. Glad to hear I was not alone and now my hair is back to normal.

Reykjavik Art Museum

Reykjavik Art Museum

We spent a full day in Reykiavik (make sure to roll the “r”) exploring the culture. We went to the Reykjavik Art Museum to see contemporary Icelandic art, the National Museum of Iceland to learn about the history, and the Culture House to soak up the history of the Sagas – essentially near-truth fables of Iceland.

Icelandic Pylsur

Icelandic Pylsur

Another Icelandic delicacy is the pylsur or hot dog. Although we had heard so much about it, we couldn’t find those elusive dogs anywhere. When we finally did, I don’t know what kinds of sauces were on mine but it was disgusting. More disgusting than a Colombian Dogger with piña sauce.

Moonrise in Reykjavik at 11pm

Moonrise in Reykjavik at 11pm.

Did I mention that the days lasted 20 hours or so? We arrived at 11:30pm and there were still remnants of sunlight until midnight. Other nights, the first colors of sunset didn’t show until around 10pm.

Lost in an Icelandic Forest

They say that if you get lost in an Icelandic forest, that all you need to do is merely standup. The native birch trees grow only about a meter tall.

It was pretty fun to pronounce Icelandic words and seemed fairly simple in its rules as a mix of Germanic and Scandinavian (does that make sense?). For example, our hotel was the Center Hotel Arnovall – pronounced aargnovawlkh. All the t-shirts had the name of the volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, that erupted 2 years ago with the way to pronounce it. I got through the first four syllables before we left.

Reykjavik Sunset.

Reykjavik Sunset.

All in all, Iceland is a pretty rare and beautiful country.

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Ah, Colombia

Colombian FlagAfter spending eight days in the country, exploring the coastal touristic city of Cartagena, the small mountain town of Salento, and the big city of Medellin that is not as cold and miserable as Bogota, I have only good things to say about Colombia.

My journey started in Cartagena, a colonial city on the Caribbean coast where I met my friend, Nico. We stayed in a lovely little bed and breakfast facing a park in this colonial fortressed city that reminded me of a mix of Milan, Sevilla and San Juan.

La Playa Blanca Cartagena, Colombia

La Playa Blanca, Cartagena, Colombia

We took an hour long boat ride to the Playa Blanca where we spent the entire day in the warm water, soaking up the sun. Vendors came by to ask us to look at their merchandise and served as a personal concierge until you would actually look at and buy their merchandise. If you had no intention of buying anything, they would leave you alone graciously.

Cartagena, Colombia

Downtown Cartagena, Colombia

We went to the highest point in Cartagena, an old nunnery that was also used as a military outpost, just a few minutes away from the largest castle in Latin America.

We took an overnight bus to Medellin that took 12 hours through the mountains with multiple police checks and speed bumps. We made friends on the bus who assured us that we were safe. I definitely felt safe.

Medellin, Colombia

Medellin, Colombia

We spent a day in the beautiful city of Medellin that reminded me of the modern world. There was commerce, culture, and a friendly atmosphere. A trip up the east side of the valley, a visit to the Antioquian Museum filled with modern art and a large collection of works by Fernando Botero, and a quick snack at Dogger (Colombians love hot dogs) made for a picturesque day.

Valle de la Cocora, Colombia

Valle de la Cocora, Colombia

We took another overnight bus to the mountain town of Salento in the eje cafetero or coffee district. We arrived at 6:30 am, just in time to hop on a jeep to the Valle de Cocora where a five hour hike awaited us. We went from the valley floor to the top of a mountain, crossing a waterfall multiple times on logs and suspension bridges, and back down again through a strip of land that has the largest palm trees in the world.

Palm trees in the Valle de Cocora, Colombia

Palm trees in the Valle de Cocora, Colombia

We ate a lot of trucha or trout in this precious town with the friendliest people. We learned about how coffee is grown and processed from start to finish on little fincas or farms. At one point, we sat on a bench overlooking a steep hill when some kids came by and kicked a tire down the hill, tumbling down the road at the bottom for 100 yards, then over a small hill, across a basketball court and eventually ending up in a soccer goal underneath the basketball hoop. Nico and I sat there in awe as this amazing feat occurred. High fives all around from the gringos.

Tire Rolling Hill, Salento, Colombia

Tire Rolling Hill, Salento, Colombia

Did I mention how nice the people were?

We stopped to get ice cream at someone’s house on the way back to town and they had us sit and talk to them as we ate homemade mora ice cream from the woman’s blackberries and her neighbor’s cow’s milk.

Cauca River, Colombia

Cauca River, Colombia

Our daytime bus ride back to Medellin proved a beautiful site. Mountains in every direction as we followed the Cauca River. We crawled along the mountain ridges, passing oil tankers on blind turns, realizing a 7.5 hour trip for only 196 kilometers (121 miles).

Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellin, Colombia

Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellin, Colombia

Our return to Medellin proved once again to be filled with culture and friendliness. We scoped out the Museo de Arte Moderno Medellin (MAMM) and ate at a chic – non-colombian – restaurant and got to play the national sport of Colombia, Tejo. We walked up to the Tejo courts, everyone stopped and stared as the gringos came to try it out. We were a bit intimidated but 10 minutes later, everyone on the court became our best friends, instructing us and complimenting our skills. I was even made an honorary member of the red team.

Tejo, Medellin, Colombia

Taking notes on the rules of Tejo in Medellin, Colombia

Which brings me to this point put so eloquently by our new Tejo playing friend, Jaime. He asked what I had heard of Colombia before coming. I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer. So he jumped in and said, “Drugs?! Violence?! Have you seen anything of the sort?!”

To which I could only shake my head no.

And it is true.

Every Colombian we met was willing to help us in any way they could. They would offer suggestions, advice, reassure you that the bus wouldn’t leave without you, walk you 20 minutes to the Metro, exchange phone numbers so they could invite you to Tejo next week, and drive you all the way home even though you only had enough cash to get you 10 blocks away. The only way to describe Colombians is “muy amable.” From the coast to the mountains to the city, this was true.

All in all, the experience was amazing, learning about Colombian culture and opening my eyes to the beauty of the landscape and the people.

Afterword: That is not to say that danger does not exist in Colombia. There is still fighting going on by the guerillas and the paramilitary. It is important to be mindful wherever you go whether it’s down the block or across the world – and we definitely were.

Sidenote: The people in Colombia were extremely nice, but that is not to say that there was no machismo. I often felt like I couldn’t be the one to talk first, that Nico had to ask the questions and do the ordering. They would also often talk about me, right in front of me. And it was often a question they wanted to ask me but Nico had to reply on my behalf. Obviously, this was a bit annoying so I’m glad that I live in a city and a country where I can be independent.

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