You’re going to miss the trickle of messages in the group chat leading up to the trip, the tease of photos and prior stories in the periphery, and then departure day when a group of strangers congregated altogether at Terminal 4, Gate 4 at JFK Airport to begin a trip of a lifetime.
You’re going to miss landing to the rush of hailing for cabs, acclimating to the Cairo traffic as you went on an unplanned foray to the Middle East’s oldest market, losing your way and somehow still making it back to a hostel located in the epicenter of the Arab Spring, finally reuniting with your excited and overly nostalgic group leader freshly exhausted from a trip in Yemen but ready to hit the ground running and lead 17 other strangers around a country that changed his life 10 years ago.
You’re going to miss the frazzled attempt to order sandwiches for your first dinner in Cairo, confused over bread in a confused bakery, buying fruit salad for another traveler dismayed by his cab driver as he arrived late to join the group, and waking up to both unfamiliar ceilings and familiar laughter shared at orientation.
You’re going to miss the gallivant through the Egyptian Museum, the welcome espresso afterwards to get you ready for the Uber race to Ibn Tulun mosque — Cairo’s oldest — and the tranquility there after the oversized crowds of the Egyptian Museum.
You may not miss the feeling of being “mosque’ed” out by visits to the crowded Citadel, the calm Al-Alzhar, and the brief look at Al-Hussein . . .
. . . but you will miss forgetting just how many mosques you’ve seen after finally sitting down for our welcome first lunch together and your first taste of Egyptian shisha at Naguib Mahfouz.
You’re going to miss the feeling of exploring alternative Cairo — the desolate streetscape of Qarafa and The City of the Dead, playing frogger to skip over a highway into the post-apocalyptic maze-like alleyways of Manshiyat Nasir aka “Garbage City,” the initial pangs of anxiety for feeling like you’ve intruded upon a forbidden neighborhood, only to have those fears dashed away by hundreds of curious onlookers greeting you with a million smiles welcoming you to their home, and then hollering from their balconies only when you’re walking down the wrong way.
You’re going to miss the gaggle of laughing children dancing and leading you through fascinating streets you wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise, and their joy when you give them money for accompanying you all the way to the jaw dropping cliffside reliefs of Der Sama’an Kharraz aka the “Cave Church” and Cairo’s largest.
You’re going to miss jumping from one extreme to another, from Garbage City to the Ritz Carlton afterwards, taking it all in while realizing it only has been day one.
You’re going to miss waking up at 4am in the morning to find 16 horses waiting to take you on a ride into eternity, with the sun rising over you as you have some of the most filling breakfast and authentic Egyptian tea, while tears well up in our eyes the same way that peaks of the pyramids begin to reveal themselves above the haze.
You’re going to miss coming up and sitting on the Great Pyramids themselves, group photos by the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser, and playing Indiana Jones by climbing into the Red Pyramid before a lazy lunch over crack bread and then taking the long awaited and seemingly mythical Cairo Metro back to your hostel.
You’re going to miss the frenetic rush of diving through holes into the maw of Ramses Train Station looking for Platform 9 & 3/4, hearing the story of what had happened here 10 years ago, and still through all the chaos, arriving to your correct train ahead of schedule.
You’re going to miss turning your wagon into the “barcarpartycar!” on a nearly late night bender and impromptu dance party/karaoke session that was only made sweeter by the fact that you still were able to fit in a full night’s sleep afterwards on the romantic sways of an overnight sleeper train.
You’re going to miss waking up to the continued rocking motions of the railway, looking out to a beautiful morning of southern Egypt, disembarking with all the time in the world to another unfamiliar city.
You’re going to miss feeling the warm friendly hospitality of a place so far away from the capital filled with Nubian pride, the carefree abandon of Mostafa having marked you for adoration, the first ferry ride over to our new home for 2 days, and the welcoming meal on a balcony overlooking the Nile River.
You’re going to miss setting off for the optional journey exploring the West Bank of Aswan, raiding a bat colony at the Tomb of the Nobles, the hike up for views from the “Dome of the Wind”, buying bracelets from curious teenage locals, the solitary walk towards a seemingly abandoned monastery in the distance, climbing over a wall to get inside instead of taking the legal way in, being caught anyway but leaving with only a slap of the wrist, then doing the same at Egypt’s second largest cathedral back in town, and finally making the group whole with the latest arrivals of 2 who felt like they’ve been with us all along.
You may not miss the time where suddenly you’re back to work on your day job, treating a deep hand laceration for one of your travelers, creating a makeshift pressure dressing with the medical team you just formed on the trip, before formally sending him to the hospital to get treated. That was not fun.
You also might debate whether you’ll miss the 3am wake up call to catch a lonely dinghy across for a 3 hour drive to Abu Simbel, and the spurious naps you tried to take to shorten the arduous journey.
But you will miss suddenly waking up to tell stories on the van anyway, enticing fellow strangers to join, and then arriving to the temple just to tell a guide off so you can fully take in the awe-inspiring majesty of the Temple of Abu Simbel on your own — a place that has dodged your travel dreams for 10 years until today.
You’re going to miss the seemingly quicker ride back to Aswan, boarding a ferry that felt taken straight out of Jurassic Park, visiting the beautifully restored Philae Temple and Trajan’s Kiosk, and taking group photos with random local families curious to your presence.
You’re going to miss satisfying the unbearable cravings for overdue lunch back at the hostel, the relaxed free time afterwards in the West Bank hunting for souvenirs, tea, coffee, and dessert, and the first series of goodbyes to the premature departure of some of the most joyful travelers you’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know followed by drinks, shisha, and soul-churning conversations while overlooking the Nile River.
You’re definitely going to miss finally “sleeping in” and waking up to a relaxed breakfast for your last meal in Aswan.
You’re going to miss the comfort of your own private passenger van to your next destination, trolling 2 random men who jump in claiming to be your personal travel agents and satisfyingly wasting their time right before arriving at your destination, your first impression of a much better man named Ahmed who more than makes up for all the doubts you had about Luxor, and the relaxed private felucca ride along the Nile to catch the world’s largest ancient temple at sunset.
You’re going to miss diving into bartering and negotiating with a ticket man to let us in past closing, the million new profile picture possibilities inside, and then the jaw-dropping visual of the world’s largest outdoor museum at night before saying goodbye to 2 more travelers and realizing that no trip can last forever.
You’re going to miss the rush of your first hot air balloon experience over the West Bank at sunrise, your balloon pilot’s impromptu comedy set, the thorough breakfast spread afterwards, and the tomb scavenger hunt for all the oddities that include an inexplicable depiction of a kangaroo in ancient North Africa and a pile of castrated man parts, which suggested what could have been otherwise a dull day ended up becoming a little slice of wonderful thanks to Ahmed.
You’re going to miss the only time you relent to souvenir shopping, only because Ahmed himself was guiding you with his endorsement, the gorgeous alabaster pieces you’re taking home with you, and the hearty lunch afterwards to finish the day right before you were about to hit your temple limit.
You’re going to miss the lazy late afternoon afterwards, the dramatic dash from a ferry to taxis to the train station, the gall of telling a police office to bugger off, the pleasant surprise of receiving a special memento for the trip from an overly sentimental doofus of a leader who already feels a certain sense of saudade that his anniversary trip will soon end . . .
. . . and the following celebration together again on the train over mixed mojitos, mint juleps, whiskey sours, all with another overly eager wagon master.
You’re going to miss waking up one more time to the rocking movements of the train, the lazy morning during an expected delay towards Ramsis train station, the baffling restriction of being allowed to buy only 4 tickets at a time for your next stop, the team working together to grab breakfast in the meantime while the rest of us waited at the food court upstairs, and the serene 3 hour train ride towards the sea and relaxing coasts of Alexandria.
You’re going to miss the ironic hustle of a coastal seaside northern city of Egypt that despite its traffic, the odd visual of 14 very conspicuous backpackers, and after a week of being hustled left and right just for looking different, nobody here bats you an eye.
You’re going to miss an equally conspicuous undercover police officer following you from the train station, disappointing him when you’re not terrorists at all, paying a kind hostel owner for a room to temporarily store our bags, the delicious taste of French pressed coffee, the leisurely stroll along the corniche from the Death Star of the Alexandria Library to the medieval citadel sitting on top of the remains of the lighthouse.
You’re going to miss the kenopsia of visiting your ancestral home of your father and grandmother that evokes nostalgia for a life you’ve never had, the side trip that leads you inside the home of a family that now lives there, the paradoxical feeling of chrysalism while smoking shisha on an elevated outdoor platform overlooking the sea while listening to the adhan at sunset, a special box of pastries that quickly overshadowed that special ice cream you had only a few hours prior, the group splitting up for an impromptu “amazing race” to Cairo, keeping up the bad luck that monsoons have with catching the wrong trains, the sudden gasp when you see one of your comrades take a stumble, and the relief afterwards seeing him quickly get up for us to all be finally led to the correct train that will take us one step closer to inevitable.
You’re going to miss one final early wake up call, this time for 5 hours coasting towards a desert oasis, and a romantic tranquil rest stop in the middle of nowhere for morning coffee/tea and a treasure trove of date-covered-chocolate-covered peanuts.
You’re going to miss driving from a barren desert to a patch of countless trees that rise above this endless stretch of sand, fresh al dente pasta lunch, and the switch into 4X4 jeeps portending 24 hours that will lead you towards the rest of your life.
You’re going to miss the starstruck wonder when you lay your eyes for the first time upon gleaming unreal white chalk pillars of the White Desert, realizing that the biggest adventure you could ever take was to live the life of your dreams, the 30 seconds of complete silence to tune into your own frequency, the fresh fine sand between your toes, the best dinner of the trip under the stars, and then the onism you can’t shake off after late night conversations with your new Bedouin friend over travel, romance, and love.
You’re going to miss waking up to the eternity moment of a different night sky filling you with stars and occhiolism, the top of the sun peeking over an alien horizon, our last breakfast together, and fresh warm solar rays painting your face as you confront with the bittersweet reality you may never set your eyes on such a sight ever again.
You’re going to miss the last lunch together in the oasis, the final long drive back to Cairo, the last dinner toasting to lifelong memories, and the soft looks of those around you with whom you’ve just shared these experiences back where it all began at the very same hostel, and the subsequent goodbyes and final hugs leading to oblivion — a postscript to a chapter that many of us were trying to close for good but didn’t know how. . .
. . . until now.
Because you’re going to miss most of all, each other; the company of diverse personalities that waited 10 years to be united by 10 days of camaraderie and wanderlust, and the way we’ll all look back one day and ask yourself: “did we really do all that?”
“Yeah, we did.”
So I came here 10 years ago searching for someone, returning a decade later only to learn whatever it was I had been looking for, found me instead.
Because long before we had said goodbye, I was already missing us before we said hello.
“On the way to the airport now. It’s been real.
2 weeks ago on my birthday I was lying alone on an isolated beach in Socotra Island, Yemen. There was a group of 10 other strangers traveling with me, none of them knowing that it was my birthday; it would be the first time I celebrated “alone” by not celebrating at all. And so that day came and went without much fanfare and I decided I had to be okay with that — There’s a first time for everything after all.
However, as if the universe was dancing to the familiar tune of irony, I felt that the past 10 days have instead become that delayed birthday celebration I didn’t know I was supposed to be waiting for all along.
And as this monsoon already becoming another memory, I’m grateful for having the best birthday I could have ever asked for, feeling like I had been celebrating it the whole time the past 10 days with so many wonderful individual souls from around the world.
As my decade of life, love, and travel fittingly also wraps up the 2010s, it’s only fitting that I close a chapter to 10 years by saying thank you from the bottom of my heart.
To everyone who believed in me early on in 2010 when I started this crazy little thing (and I still remain unsure what to call it exactly), and to those who feel they’ve just joined: Thank you thank you thank you.
Thank you for the best birthday this hopelessly nostalgic little boy full of both melancholy and wonder could ever ask for.
- At time of posting in Cairo, it was 21 °C -
Humidity: 54% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Of all the layovers I’ve had the past 10 years that have brought me back to the same places over and over again, I’ve never once stepped foot back in Egypt since my 2010 trip that started it all. Fateful isn’t it? And I knew the day I would return, it should mean something.
And of all the times to do so, it would be on my 10 year anniversary there. Oh boy how good it is to be back.
After a week on Socotra Island, it’s time to take over the driver’s seat and revisit Egypt — this time I won’t be alone. This time I’ll have 19 others with me.
Once official re-introductions were made at our lodgings at Tahrir Hostel, we spent the first night getting acclimated to taxi hounds and figuring out the payment system for most of the fast food joints.
Meanwhile as we were running around getting accustomed to the hustle of Tahrir Square, Ji Won happened to be enjoying a 10 hour layover in Athens with Sidian, one of our loyal and most charming monsooners from Prague/Budapest, The Balkans, and Southeast Asia.
Even though I have yet to meet Ji Won at this point in person, I have to pat myself on the back for arranging this impromptu meeting on Whats App at the last minute, both just as I was about taking off from Socotra Island and an hour before Ji Won was due to land in Athens.
All props have to go to Sidian, however, for being lightning fast at responding to random Whats App messages from friends like me who reach out only once every few months. Eff haristó! Eesay mangas — U da real MVP!
The next morning after Ji Won and Neerharika arrived late into the night after everyone was already asleep, we began our day at 7:30am with one final orientation before taking the obligatory visit to the Egyptian Museum (opens 9am, and can cost up to 440 EGP for everything). A must-see, it holds everything and all things Egyptian including the real mummies of King Tut and King Ramses (for $20 extra!).
As I wrote 10 years ago: “The entire the history of Egypt as we know it from middle school history class is all here in one magnificent building.” That still remains true today. And there’s still no cameras allowed.
Although this is where King Tut lives, this is also where 10 years ago I went looking for a girl, actually found her with her family, took by her hand and whisked her away on our first date after convincing her parents to let us gallivant on our own.
Today I didn’t leave with a girl. I left with something better: 15 new friends.
After 1 hour and half at the Egyptian Museum before the crowds took over, we headed to one of my favorite mosques and Cairo’s oldest: Ibn Tulun (free to enter).
Then we cabbed it over to Citadel and Mosque of Mohamed Ali Pasha (180 EGP). Built by Salah Al-Din, it was home to Mohamed Ali, considered to be the founder of modern Egypt and the ancestor of the last King of Egypt, King Farouk.
We then kicked back briefly at Khan Al-Khalili souq . . .
. . . with lunch at the famous and hospitable Naguib Mahfouz.
After lunch we took a 5 minute walk to the City of the Dead, also known as the Cairo Necropolis or the Qarafa, a series of vast Islamic-era necropolises and cemeteries on the edges of Historic Cairo, in Egypt.
After about 10 minutes walking through here, we crossed the highway to enter Manshiyat Nasser. Here the city’s garbage is brought by collectors known as the Zabbaleen, who then sort through the garbage for resale or recycling.
Large rooms are stacked with garbage with men, women or children crouching and sorting the garbage into refuse or quality sellable items. Different families typically specialize in a particular type of garbage; for example in one room children sort out plastic bottles, while in another a group of women separate out aluminum cans.
The scene here can be described as “post-apocalyptic.” However, we were also met with unabashed kindness with locals shouting at us from the rooftops either welcoming us to their home or whenever we were going the wrong way.
We definitely got lost – many many times in fact, but the experience was only made better by a gaggle of children who led us back on the right path many times over.
The goal was to get to “Cave Church” or Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery, built into the side of a cliff along Mokattam Mountain. Make sure you tell a whether a driver or a kid guiding you on your path that you’re heading to “Der Sama’an Kharraz” as locals won’t know what you mean if you say “Cave Church.”
Once here, ask for the viewpoint from a balcony at a 2nd floor restaurant for a look at the famous art mural, Perception. . .
Perception spans over 50 buildings and can only be appreciated from this vantage point. Designed by French-Tunisian artist eL Seed, this artworks spotlights the unique way of life of The Zaraeeb people living in Manshiyat Nasser, also known as “Garbage City.”
As per eL Seed: “Manshiyat Naser is perceived as dirty, marginalised and segregated because of the association with the trash. So I decided to create an anamorphic design, a piece that you can only see from one vantage point.”
In other words, while people in other areas of Cairo may only see scattered parts of the mural, it is only from Manshiyat Naser that one can see it in its entirety and appreciate the Arabic calligraphy that translates to: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first.”
Taken by Andrew Rafalowitz
After about an hour here, the group split up for some free time with half heading back to Khan Al Khalili for some shopping and the other half returning to the hostel to freshen up. The bartering for cabs here became a challenge, but we worked it out before meeting up for dinner at swanky Bab El-Sharq.
10pm. I remember sitting alone in a train station in Cairo. The sun had set, it was getting dark, and I had nothing on me except for a backpack and a wallet. I had no hostel to stay at and I had no plan to follow. Throngs of people passed by me to and fro without a care who I was. I had no laptop, no internet, no cell phone, and no friends whom I could reach. I was a droplet in the fog.
For the first time in my life, I felt an odd, confusing mixture of diametrically opposed emotions: I was structureless, I was formless, and I felt refreshingly yet uneasily liberated. I knew nobody, and nobody knew me. I wasn’t meeting anyone, wasn’t about to run into anyone, and I had no means to reach other people and nobody could reach me. Nobody was going to call me or give me a plan, or tell me what to do. I couldn’t even understand any of the advertisements telling me what to buy or what to watch. Everything was blank to me. I was wandering in oblivion. There was nothing and nobody in that moment whom I could communicate with other than myself.
This was one of those rare moments where you can finally say: “I’m free.” But what do you do with that freedom? For many going through this for the first time, it’s an overwhelming bondage: by freeing yourself from the entrapments of familiarity, structure and routine, you become enslaved by this bottomless fear of the unknown. This fear can choke you to the point of inaction; you may delude yourself into believing that by doing nothing you can hold onto any sense of stability or comfort. This inaction is what causes people to freeze in their tracks, get caught in the headlights, and forget what it means to be alive.
So when the thought of sleeping in the train station crossed my mind, I bit my lip and bought a one way train ticket to Alexandria.
But not today:
How much this train station means to me can be measured by the number of photos I took here during the 5 minutes it took us to find our platform:
Once our train departed (despite what you may have read in other sources, ours left a minute earlier than scheduled at 7:44pm!), we quickly dropped off our bags in our assigned rooms and got ourselves settled.
About 20 minutes in, we we were served our dinner that we had booked online beforehand. After finish, I broke out the music and speakers and we began the party (you can catch the NSFW stories on our instagram).
…so much for catching up on sleep tonight.
And on another note:
Today of all days (as is such with the stars constantly aligning in my life) — on both Thanksgiving Day and fittingly on the eve of my 10 year anniversary of traveling, beginning day 1 of 10 days in Egypt with 20 other monsooners — I am humbled and honored to join my inspiring and more deserving fellow colleagues (and more than that, personal friends) Ivy TL, Bing Chen, Jason Shen, and Tiffany Yu to also have been just featured on the Rock The Boat NYC podcast as Season 3, Episode #33 (BTW 3 also is my favorite lucky number!), where I happen to talk about my first trip in Egypt 10 years ago, my struggles with the Asian American stereotype in whether I should have become a doctor, and much much more.
And to further hammer home on the stars aligning with this post — I also want to give my personal love and thanks to the podcast hosts Lucia Liu and Lynne Guey, both of whom I’ve also known separately for nearly a decade (Ivy Summit! ECAASU: East Coast Asian American Student Union! SERCAAL! Crushing The Myth! Jerry Damon Chang!) before they even started their amazing work with Rock The Boat.
It has been a wild journey the past 10 years and to have all 3 of our paths cross, lose touch, and recross in this moment, of all days, have made me embarrassingly tear up more than I would’ve like in front of my 20 monsooners today while showing them around my beloved first city of Cairo (Lucia and Lynne — you’re distracting me from my job today!!! 😂😂😂 but this is the best kind of distraction I could have ever hoped for)
Love love love love. I hope y’all get something out of this podcast and listen to the plenty of other even more inspiring individuals that they have interviewed.
After 2 months deliberating over an incredibly competitive applicant pool on the eve of our upcoming 10 year anniversary trip to Egypt next month, I have the unique pleasure to finally announce our inaugural social media manager for The Monsoon Diaries: DIANA KLATT, MPH (@klattalyst).
Global health epidemiologist, project manager for HealthRight International, creative director for Community Balance, and the communications assistant for the NYU College of Global Public Health, Diana will hit the ground running in seamlessly managing and developing content across all our social media platforms, especially within the intersections of travel, mental health, and medicine.
A vast repertoire of skills — including Stata, SPSS, SAS, Python, Java, C++, Adobe, and Final Cut Pro — has complemented her 5 years of experience both working in the health sector as well as developing internal communications architectures, business operations, and creating and managing digital communications strategies for a variety of companies.
Diana is also the creator and co-host of her very own podcast on public health, Global Caveat, thus asserting herself as more than capable to shoulder the responsibilities of our social media communications and outreach and take our live and daily travel updates to even higher standards.
But what truly won me over was an amazing human behind the resumé: an effortless personality, inexhaustible creativity, deft wit, willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversations and critical thinking, capitalization on initiative, tremendous empathy, boundless ambition, quirky sense of humor, dearth of bullshit, and a capacity for limitless spontaneity — traits which embody the very nature of our monsoons and style of travel. I only wish you had the privilege of getting to know her in person as I have.
And given what we perceive her abilities to elevate our adventures to the next level, perhaps one day you actually will.
As a postscript, I can’t sign off without writing how I first met Diana, not fully appreciating until now that the universe has literally tried to force us into each other’s worlds, and no matter how much we tried to look the other way.
…Yesterday during her 4 hour layover in Beijing, Ann decided to strike up a conversation with a nearby and seemingly random girl also heading to Sydney.
Her name was Diana Klatt and she also happened to be attending NYU like Ann.
Small world, right? Don’t stop there.
As Ann casually began mentioning me, the trip, and The Monsoon Diaries, Diana vaguely began to realize she had already met me 10 months prior, even having been in my apartment! She was tagging along on a first date with a random monsooner from the Palawan/East Timor-Leste trip, after just connecting on a dating app, and after we all had crashed a random rooftop party in Times Square.
I invited the 3 of them back to my place after the party, but we were all so inebriated (I passed out on them after making hookah for everyone), none of us would really remember that night very well. And I woke up to an empty living room the next morning figuring that we would never see each other again.
Cut back to present day: As Ann and Diana stared open-jawed, at the realization of another serendipitous encounter that was just unfolding on a random layover in Beijing of all places, suffice to say, the signs were too hard to ignore. Less than 24 hours later, Diana would join us for the New Year’s fireworks in Sydney.
And today would be our first time speaking ever since that fateful night 10 months prior.
Since then, no matter how much we let try to let things fade between us given both our penchant for Irish goodbyes, it would appear the universe would not let that happen. After all, I always follow the signs.
So please join us in congratulating Diana as we celebrate a new chapter in our adventures. I am excited to be working with her.
I realized that whenever people ask for advice for what to see in Kiev and I look through my blog to rev up my memory again, all I have on Kiev is a crazy night out that began at the infamous Palata no. 6 (aka Hospital Bar), and nothing on what to actually see.
6 years ago in Kiev:
And we returned to Kiev today after a week in Armenia for an extended layover, I understood nostalgia and traditions are hard to quit.
Today in Kiev:
There’s been a few more tricks up their sleeves since then:
And yes, we even returned to Sorry, Babushka! afterwards.
But we also saw things this time! And when Ukraine International Airlines e-mailed me to say that our final flight home from Kiev to NYC would be delayed a whopping 8 hours, that left us with plenty of time to explore Kiev the next morning sober.
Let’s begin — (Some of these photos are credited to Mihaela, who arrived in Kiev on an earlier flight than the rest of us)
From our hostel, we started at Andriyivsky Uzviz (Андріївський узвіз) or Andrew’s Descent, a steep but charming cobblestone path lined with souvenir sellers, art galleries, coffee shops, restaurants and museums.
The descent’s official start is at Saint Andrew’s Church, and it ends at Kontraktova Ploshcha in Podil.
From Saint Andrew’s we walked 10 minutes over to St. Sophia’s Cathedral, Kiev’s oldest church dating back to the 11th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage site that boasts the world’s largest ensemble of frescoes and mosaics.
Admission fee is 60 UAH.
For an extra fee you can climb up the bell tower for these views:
We then walked 5 minutes over to Golden Gate, which is a 1982 reconstruction of the Golden Gate of Kyiv, which was immortalized in Mussorgski’s “Pictures of an Exhibition.”
Afterwards we turned onto KreschatykStreet, the main path of Kiev’s center, where we took advantage of it being closed on weekends for pedestrians.
This street would then lead us to Independence Square or Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Майдан Незалежності), which as I recall was also where we scrambled around for an hour thinking that we missed our bus to Chernobyl 6 years ago.
More importantly though, it is Kiev’s central meeting place as well as the site where people camped for weeks on end during the Orange Revolution in 2004 that led to the election of Yushchenko and the violet crackdowns of the 2014 Ukranian revolution that led to the ousting of President Yanukovych.
You can take a small set of stairs above the mall for elevated views:
Nearby is a tribute composed of scattered bricks to the 113 of those who died during the 2014 Revolution.
We then walked to Globus Mall for dinner at Ostannya Barykada, a famous speakeasy restaurant devoted to purely Ukrainian cuisine.
You have to find the dedicated entrance first:
Then take an elevator to a hidden floor:
Grab a few drinks at the simple bar and give this password in Ukrainian: Boritesya i poborete! (Fight and you will win!)
Once your table is ready, head through a hidden entrance inside the walls:
And eat, eat, eat away. Our recommended dishes were the goat, steaks (big cuts for $10 USD!), catfish, black pudding (pork blood), and borscht.
After a filling dinner we walked about 8 minutes to St. Michael’s Monastery, which is an active monastery that dates back to the 12th century.
If you’re still up for a longer walk, head 20 minutes south to Friendship of Nations Arch where you can get great views of northern Kiev.
From there you can walk into a pleasant park beginning with Park Bridge:
Right at the end of the park is 140 year old Mariyinsky Palace, which was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who is also famous for designing the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.
Walk another 25 minutes south to reach the Holodomor Holocaust Memorial and its underground exhibit in the park.
A few more paces south from the memorial will be the entrance to Kiev Pechersk Lavra, one of Ukraine’s oldest monasteries. Dug out by hermit priests, these cave monasteries are still intact today for visiting, where pilgrims and tourists alike can venture to see their mummified remains.
Finally, at the southern end of your walk will be The Motherland Monument, adorned by scores of military vehicles and classic Soviet-era memorial statuary dedicated to the sacrifices Kiev made during World War II.
And the motherland statue itself looks much larger in real life. Of note, the design on her shield is the only example of a Soviet hammer & sickle insignia allowed in Ukraine.
This whole walking tour took about 4-5 hours, after which we returned back to our hostel to pick up our bags and headed to the airport for our return flight home.
Perhaps because it’s my birthday tomorrow or Thanksgiving Day is in 2 days, I gotta say when this group first spontaneously formed a few weeks ago I remember not being able to help myself but have this gut feeling I would be traveling with and getting to know a solid bunch of special, amazing, funny, mature, and down-to-earth people. I didn’t know why; except for Mihaela, I never traveled with any of them before. While I tried hard not to overhype expectations, my expectations instead would be exceeded. By being themselves and coming on this trip with me, they gave me one of the best birthday presents I could ask for.
I’m already finding myself missing everyone before the trip even has ended, and I’m beginning to feel this sense of bittersweetness that because there are so many moving parts in this thing called life, these 4 people may never travel together with me all at once like this again.
I hope the universe may one day prove me wrong. Thank you for an amazing 9 days. Happy Thanksgiving.
- At time of posting in Kiev, Ukraine, it was 5 °C -
Humidity: 72% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
6:46pm: Counting down the last 14 minutes in my last shift of residency and the rest of my life.
6:47pm: In 13 minutes I am about to graduate as an attending physician.
It’s remarkable to look back and realize all it took was losing a bet to get here.
4 years of college, 4 years of med school, 4 years of residency, and 150 countries later, ever since my fateful trip to Egypt in 2010, and I’m finally about to graduate. To think I had almost failed out and got kicked out of school/residency more times than I could imagine.
Anyone remember Dr. Greene’s last shift on the show ER? The scene reminds me how every July 1st residents join and say goodbye to hospitals without anyone seeming to really notice. But people always notice.
I’ve been watching that clip a lot on these last few shifts of residency. Cheesy, I know. Sentimental, I am.
“Words really don’t teach but it was you being an example that help me realize it. I know you would be an amazing doctor and traveler. I really didn’t know how you did it as a world traveler and a med student, but now I know for sure there is no excuse and anything is possible if you have the passion and the love and it is thanks to you.” – Iran, 2011
Travel is an investment, NOT an interruption.
As my last shift in residency comes to a close, I look back on 8 formative years that pushed me to limits I could never have imagined.
I survived 4 years of one of the toughest med schools in NYC — while having traveled to 70 countries during that time — the likes of which included places like North Korea, Iran, Antarctica, and Pakistan. I then overcame 4 years at one of the oldest and most challenging Emergency Medicine residency programs in the country — while having traveled to 80 more countries during that time — the likes of which included places like Iraq, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Tibet.
And I never skipped a single day of class or missed a single shift during that time.
(Well, I once was an hour late because of a delayed domestic flight from Arizona, but that was for a visiting rotation and nobody really noticed).
That blogpost belied a complex intersection of feelings: fear, doubt, insecurity, and guilt — fear over whether I would travel as much ever again, doubt in pursuing medicine, insecurity whether I would ever become the doctor I was never sure I was going to be, and a guilt to even consider reserving any part of my life for travel while I was just starting to buy textbooks and take out hundreds of thousands of dollars for student loans.
Those were rational feelings, so I did what I knew best — confront them with irrational actions. When you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, sometimes you just gotta look upwards and shoot for the moon instead.
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd
Although physically tired, I was emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually recharged. I felt less mentally hungover during med school, and less distracted when I returned home. And I didn’t fail those exams (well, I almost did). Something was working.
2010 - San Diego
2018 - Chicago
OK — Med school can be on an extreme of intense for many people, right? Since we must strive for balance in our lives, I hypothesized that trips of equal intensity could be the cure.
I needed to test my theory and save up for more travel.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, 2014
“I Don’t Have Enough Money”
The first obstacle was money. So I had my travel fund add up however it could:
Sublet my apartment for $$$ whenever I was away
Accumulate miles for free economy, business or first class flights
Pay for big group dinners with friends with a credit card that gives you 3x miles for dining (such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example), and then having them all venmo/paypal/zelle/pay me back…I would accumulate up to 40k miles a month this way!
Ask for upgrades every time I check in at the airport, and at the boarding gate desk. I found that you’re more likely to get it if you look really jet lagged and exhausted, turn up the charm, and go in with the confidence that you lose nothing by asking; I’m currently at a 50-60% success rate
Before I became an attending, there was a time where I accumulated too many miles via manufactured spending (the legit/legal route). I still have hundreds of thousands of these unused miles!
If any of my flights were delayed, it was always worth a shot to file a complaint with the airline and get airline credit for a future flight, or via AirHelp and get hundreds of $$$ back…so far they’ve been really good and refunding some of my flights!
Perform a variety of odd jobs: I DJ’ed for private parties and bartender on some weekends and holidays for overtime pay
Sign up for paid tutoring at my med school
Get paid for public speaking on the very topics I was learning about (aka how to save and make money to go on trips)
Skip out on paying for gas, car insurance, that nice TV, cable, video games, fancy dinners, and nice clothes
Identify all free food events on campus and in the city, even bringing Tupperware to stock up on uneaten food, allowing me to not spend money on food for weeks!
Throw potluck parties at my place where people would bring more food that any one person could handle, so I would throw everything in the fridge and ration my meals, allowing me to not spend money on food for weeks!
. . . eventually this all adds up.
On the flip side I would budget my travel into costing no more than $500 all-inclusive for a trip that could last as long as 2 weeks:
It doesn’t cost any money to search for flights, therefore finding such a deal above with any of those sites is worth your time
Stay in $5-$10/night hostels and guesthouses
Or stay for free doing Couchsurfing
Kill 2 birds with one stone and forego paying for any lodging by taking overnight buses
Get group discounts by taking others with me (my spot for Antarctica was free after I spent a year finding 20 people to go with me!)
Bring a student ID to get discounts on all admission fees
Acquire free flights by accumulating thousands of miles (whether by sign-up bonuses or getting 3x points on travel and dining — pay for your friends’ dinners and have them Venmo/Paypal/Chase Quikpay you back!)
Befriend people at my hostel so when we went out to explore, we’d split a cab/meal/bus tickets/train tickets/admission fees/etc etc. instead of paying for the whole thing alone
…eventually this all adds up.
“I Don’t Have Enough Time”
As money trickled in, I needed to handle the issue of time to travel.
So I made time: If I had 2 consecutive days off from school or work, I would try not to see those 2 days as another regular weekend to recharge, but rather an opportunity to make an international trip possible:
For example, if you can get on a flight out on a Friday night, you can reach almost anywhere in Europe, the Caribbean, Central America, or South America by Saturday morning. Then the next 36 hours anywhere is enough to explore most medium-sized cities and towns before you have to return Sunday night.
But there are those of you who feel like it might “not be worth it” and “I’ll wait until I have more time.”
Then is it fear that’s stopping you from moving? For fear never gets us anywhere unless we reframe it as another challenge that we use to push our limits: The biggest risk you can take is to take none at all. Or rather, what I usually say, strive to fail — meaning, if I’m not pushing myself to one step away from figurative failure, then I’m not doing enough.
We all feel fear — what matters is what each of us does with that fear. Perhaps fear shows us what the next step is to push our limits, existing also to motivate us to achieve things we never thought we could.
Give us the benefit of the doubt and consider looking at 36 hours differently than what we had been brought up to believe: can you leave the country for 36 hours? Sure you can (and many of us have), so isn’t it better to travel a little bit than none at all?
Now let’s take it a step further: An analogy with food
Think of a buffet and it’s there right in front of you. You’re STARVING; you haven’t eaten and you would like to. So would you continue to starve, refusing to eat anything just so you can wait for a “full experience” that may not even happen? Wait long enough and you’ll be too old to travel, too old to eat any part of that “buffet” because by then you’ll have been diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and all that bad stuff. Some of the food might be gone by then.
You would miss out more than you could imagine.
. . . OR would you eat a bit of everything now while you’re younger, without all those ailments, so you know better which food to come back to for your seconds and thirds?
While it seemed as if I was pulling off superhuman heroics to travel every weekend, I took “only” 46 trips over 8 years. When you do the math, that’s 4-6 times a year during my 4 years of med school, and 6-8 times a year during my 4 years of residency. That’s an average of a trip every 2-3 months.
This can still be considered to be a lot of travel, but it certainly wasn’t “every weekend.” And if a 2-day weekend getaway can count as one of these “trips”, a weekend trip every 2-3 months can seem pretty manageable!
Soon this lifestyle drew me to other like-minded wanderlusters and strangers who — rather than choose either the life of a nomad or the life of a working professional/student — would instead choose both.
I was not alone.
“Thank you for these weekend trips. And for showing me they are possible.” – Mihaela K.
Even when it seemed obvious that taking time and money off to travel would jeopardize the stability of our lives back home (let alone our professional futures!), we encourage one another to believe in the magic of travel. Whether it was just for a single day in Ireland, a 3 month epic from Turkey to North Korea, or just the magical eternity moment of complete strangers falling for each other, travel became an investment in our lives instead, not an interruption.
We were not alone.
“…Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” – Jack Kerouac
However, the pipe dream seemed to fade: midway through my 3rd year of medical school, I had almost failed out twice. By the time I applied to residency during my 4th year I was:
ranked in the bottom 50% of my class
not only scored below average on my Step 1 Medical Licensing exam with a 212, I also passed by only a single point above failing in Step 2 with a 204 (furthermore, you’re supposed to do better on Step 2 than on Step 1, but obviously I didn’t)
I acquired $200,000 in debt to student loans, all of which payments I deferred and put into forbearance.
My advisers began to doubt whether to bother endorsing my candidacy for residency training at all. Perhaps I was never meant to do this.
The skeptics’ echo of “I told you so” started to become louder.
The universe will find a way to support you, as long as you believe in yourself
5 minutes with Dr. Salifu, the Chair of the Department of Medicine at my medical school, changed everything.
Getting that interview wasn’t special — we all got 5 minutes to meet and make our case with him to get a much coveted recommendation letter. However, as I introduced myself and presented my file, about to apologize and explain for my sub-par academic record, he put up his finger and motioned for me to stop talking; his eyes briefly glazed over my academic transcript but then furrowed his eyebrows on the part of my CV that mentioned travel.
He then asked about leadership, and what it took to lead. He asked about leading these trips around the world.
Machu Picchu, 2011
One hundred seconds later Dr. Salifu made a smile I will never forget, reached out his hand to shake mine, and remarked that I reminded him of himself, and that he wouldn’t be where he was today if it wasn’t for similar risks he took during his medical training. He never let fear stop him.
He said he would write me a recommendation letter that would “make everyone in residency pay attention.” Then there was a knock on the door — our 5 minutes was up.
Little did I know then that I would walk out a different candidate for residency than when I had first walked in.
Scores of interviews at residency programs followed afterwards, many accommodating my travel schedule. I would learn from my experience with Dr. Salifu by no longer apologizing for my academic record. I instead doubled down, shot for the moon, and intersected travel with medicine: You can teach any medical student clinical skill and knowledge, but not attitude and humility. I made a case for travel and how it helped develop cultural competence and empathy; my subpar test-taking abilities could never teach me that. I stuck to my guns and told the truth.
When Match Day came a few weeks later, I opened up the envelope to find that I matched into one of the top Emergency Medicine residency programs in the country. wtf.
How life is ironic: Whatever got me almost kicked out of medical school would also be the very reason that got me into residency.
Travel was no longer the gamble; it became the investment that actually paid off.
Furthermore, on an ironic footnote of this experience I was asked to give my class’ graduation speech as the outgoing class president. So I bid my medical school adieu with remarks that implored my colleagues to think of themselves not only as doctors, but also
I believed we were graduating not just with new titles as resident physicians — it was an opportunity to remember that we’re humans first. We’re complex creatures. We can achieve that level of self-care and self-awareness than what others give us credit for. We need to be good to ourselves first so that we can be good to others.
Residency Woes & The Imposter Syndrome
About a month later I began my 4 years of residency.
As soon as it began, a horrible habit of learned helplessness soon had me back in a stranglehold — I began to doubt myself once more, believing instead I had been lucky this entire time and that my run of good fortune was about to end. I questioned whether I belonged among my colleagues; imposter syndrome kicked in (after all, I was the actual imposter that got in through the back door).
Worst of all, midway through residency I was asked to tone down my travels if I wanted to stay in the program given a perceived capriciousness in the way I carried myself and how much more I seemed to care about this blog. Another wave began crashing down.
“. . . As you no doubt recall, you and I spoke at length last week regarding attending feedback and their serious concern for your genuine interest in the patient care mission. This theme has now been noted by patients, supervisors, and colleagues. The residency leadership has made you aware of such issues multiple times, paired you with Attendings for closely monitored shifts, and even revoked your moonlighting privileges.
. . . I think it is time that we speak regarding your professional future. It seems to us that you need to re-evaluate your priorities and be honest with yourself about some tough decisions, not least of which needs to be, ‘Do I really want to be an Emergency Physician?’ and ‘Am I giving my patients the dedication they deserve – that which I would want the physicians of my most loved ones to get from their physicians?’ If you cannot give us and your patients 100% through June 30, 2018, I expect you to only give us 0%. Anything else is unfair and unsafe to all parties involved.
Please let me know of your availability to speak over the next few days and have prepared a response to these questions. If you so decide, we can work with you to ensure a smooth transition out of the residency program so that you may pursue that about which you are truly passionate and at which you truly excel. Otherwise, please be prepared to redouble your patient focused efforts, even at the expense of other pursuits, while in residency. Thank you.”
– E-mail sent warning me about my medical residency status being revoked
But after a grueling road trip across the United States and Venezuela, I responded with a 2 year process of consciously developing new habits. I cut out the negative toxic influences in my life, let my fears go, surrounded myself by loved ones who supported me instead of telling me what to do, and accepted my own intrinsic faults by diving headfirst into self-reflection. I shared insecurities far and wide among my colleagues and they reflected back to me theirs. We made sure as residents to not be afraid to ask for help.
I soon realized the beauty of foregoing things out of my control, allowing myself to directly steer toward the places where I could make a difference. I began to renew my confidence, deftly bringing my studying from the passenger to the driver’s seat while I travelled. FYI – The NYT agrees: Studying becomes more effectivewhen you’re traveling. I also started coming back from work everyday feeling that true fulfillment I always long sought, beginning to believe I had the best job on the planet.
After casting doubts into shadows, light shone in the overwhelming encouragement and support from my peers — several of whom eventually traveled with me, and sometimes, because of me.
However, I refused to stop traveling. I knew what was good for me and what wasn’t. Nobody else could tell me that. And sometimes, old habits die hard. In fact, I balanced the stress in residency with traveling even more, covering another 80 countries and reaching the coveted number of 150 before marking the end of my medical training.
And despite nearly stumbling out of the gate at the beginning of residency, I buckled down and took in the feedback that worked for me without giving up any of my core values or changing who I was.
“Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming WOO HOO what a ride!” – Hunter S. Thompson
A few months later I was named as one of the program’s first 3 Residents Of The Block during my end of my 2nd year of residency. The imposter was no longer the imposter.
Coming Full Circle & Finishing Residency
Then a year later I was given the fortunate task to serve as the program’s first Director of Resident Wellness in my final year, which role would become the fifth Chief Resident position. I was also presented the Ramsey Rod Award, the only award bestowed upon 3rd year residents/PGY-3s for “marching to the beat of their own drum.” And just like how it was in medical school, last week I was grateful enough to give a small speech about its importance to me at my own residency graduation.
Again, how life is ironic: Whatever got me almost kicked out of residency would be instrumental in propelling me to become the doctor I was meant to be.
And now I’m graduating one last time, to embark on a lifetime of service onto others as an attending physician tomorrow without forgetting what magic and beautiful souls I have been blessed with along the way.
After all, graduation is also known as a “commencement” and it certainly feels like I’m about to commence upon another journey.
The universe has a fascinatingly lovely way of working out.
Since The Monsoon Diaries began in conjunction with the beginning of my medical training, it would be fitting to mark the end of one phase of my life before beginning the next. We mark our existences with milestones and this one’s no less deserving.
6:55pm: I give sign out and take a shot with my attending. I shake his hand. I feel tears coming on.
7:00am: I go over and shake hands with the family member of my very last patient. It’s time to go home.
Today I have become a full-fledged attending physician, mark my 150th country, and close a chapter to my life to begin another. Here’s to 8 years and 150 countries more, with and thanks to you
If not now, then when?
If not you, then who?
The 20 Rules Of Monsoon
(aka everything I learned the hard way these past 8 years in school that got me to where I am today):
1. No More Excuses.
When presented a challenge, make it a habit to always think of solutions and always think in the realm of what’s possible (“how can I make this work”), instead of the bad habit of giving an excuse why you can’t do something.
“Impossible is nothing.” “Just do it.” “Stay foolish.” These aren’t declarations of cliché, they’re evidence of experience.
2. Sleep well:
7-9 Hours a night, 25 hour cycle
Moving forward (aka sleeping later the next night) is easier than back (sleeping earlier the next night)
Consistency & regularity is preferable
No alcohol, caffeine, or heavy foods 4-6 hours prior to sleep
Don’t ever study or lie awake for too long in your bed — you’ll begin to associate your bed with staying awake! If that happens and you just can’t fall asleep, just get up and do something productive and try again
That said only 2 things should happen in bed: sleep & sex.
Life hack: See rule #18b
The more you sleep, the more efficient your work will be, the more quickly you’ll finish your tasks, the more free time you’ll have to do more the things you enjoy, and the more time you have for more sleep. Positive feedback, baby!
Cut out those who are toxic, aka anyone who add little value to your life
Stay away from negative people: They find a problem to every solution
The people who truly truly love you will support you in whatever you do, and never tell you what to do (especially when the advice is unsolicited). If they are telling you what to do instead of supporting you, then their “love” may not be right for you.
Learn to stop caring about what strangers and acquaintances think about you. Most people don’t even care that you’re alive. So when people don’t like you, nothing actually happens. Once you accept this, you’ll have total freedom to do whatever you want, especially choosing those who actually do matter to keep in your life. Aka, it’s time to stop giving a F#@$%*!
Touch. Aka hug your friends, kiss a loved one, cuddle, snuggle, pet a cat or a dog, make sure you give and receive enough love.
Talk. Dare to open up to both old friends and new ones, especially those who are not afraid to be both honest and kind with you — they are your mirrors who can reflect upon you what they see so you can better understand yourself (hence the concept of “Ubuntu” – A person is only another person through another person)
Your relationships with your friends are more important than any relationship with money: Money is a replenishable resource; friends, experiences, and the youth to enjoy those experiences are NOT.
8. Manage your expectations realistically without being negative.
Go into this knowing that this shit is hard.
Go into this knowing that this shit is hard and yet you’ve always risen to the occasion (See #1).
9. Don’t worry about things that haven’t happened yet.
All that stress might be devoted to something that might not even be worth all that stress. So save that energy for something more productive (repeating to myself “we’ll cross that bridge of despair when or if we even get there” has saved me a ton of grief).
10. Take productive and quality time off.
That means not sitting on your ass watching Netflix
Productive breaks can include cleaning your room, organizing an event, planning your next week — they all can play a role in better organizing in your brain whatever you just studied
11. Stay grounded and get out of the bubble.
Do one non-medicine (or whatever is your main profession) activity every day.
12. Don’t “give back.” Instead, give as you go.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, teach those a year or two below you. You were in their shoes once. Their appreciation will motivate you and make you feel like you belong where you are, especially if you have the imposter syndrome.
13. Always do it your own way.
The first doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, programmer, accountant, artist, designer, anything, traveler, explorer, philosopher, anyone…they didn’t follow a blueprint to get to where they were. Neither should you.
See Rule #7c
14. Humans are meant to be complex creatures: You can do more than one thing.
15. Let the imposter syndrome pass through you. It’s a normal feeling.
Everyone else feels the same way as you do
That said, fake it until you become it. This is not a sign of being an imposter — everyone else around you who seems more successful is and has been doing it too.
16. Avoid the psychology of postponement.
You’ll never be as young as you are today
Your job will never love you back
17. Don’t be a dick.
Take 3 deep breaths before you do or say anything negative, especially with your personal relationships.
With all my advice above, especially with rule #13, there’s this one important condition: Make sure you’re not restricting someone else’s freedom to do the same (ex. don’t go on a warpath where you’re willingly hurting other people and creating collateral damage…aka, don’t be a dick).
18. Simple life hacks are “hacks” for a reason.
If they’re that simple, then do them all because they’ll add up
Feeling down and don’t know where to start? Give both your hands a good washing with soap for at least 30 seconds (real seconds, not rushed). Once you’ve dried them, you’ll suddenly feel a little better about your situation: 6 Purely Psychological Effects of Washing Your Hands
Schedule the fun things FIRST. That way you always have something to look forward to and motivate you finish the boring things.
Adjust your body language; it shapes who you are. For example, to gain confidence simply stretch out those limbs and take a confident stance (aka a “power pose”). “Fake it until you become it” and within minutes you start really believing you’re as confident as you look.
19. Be honest.
Communicate. Always tell someone how you feel as long as you can do it with love and kindness. And if you can’t, see #17. You can always find a way.
Don’t miss any chance to say “I love you” whenever you can if you mean it. You have so much more to lose by not saying it.
20. Travel. Often.
If it sounds easier said than done, see #1.
Remember, you’ll never be as young as you are today. And you’ll never get today back.
“Never let your work become your life. Live a little.”
To be honest, prior to this trip, I did not know much about Bosnia and Herzegovina and its history aside from the fact it was part of the former Yugoslavia and had been battled by war. Thus, heading into our bus ride from Split, Croatia, I had no idea what to expect except from Calvin’s Balkan’s Trip in Summer 2017 and seeing his photos of the Old Bridge (Stari Most).
Boy was I in for a surprise.
After catching a quick breakfast in NoStress Bistro, we went to the Split Bus Terminal early to catch the 10:55 AM Croatia Bus/Globtour bus to Mostar. After a 10-minute delay and 1 unexpected bus transfer, we arrived around 3:45 PM at Mostar (East) Bus Terminal.
Hoping to maximize our limited time in Mostar, we quickly walked to our hostel, Hostel Miran, which was a short 6-minute walk from the station. Signage to the place were helpful, making it super easy to find the hostel.
While booking for the hostel, I remembered that the host, Miran, offers a day tour visiting several sites around Mostar as well as the Old Bridge. Being that we arrived later than expected and most of the day was already gone, I thought the best we would be able to do was to visit the Old Bridge, the Old Town Bazaar and dinner. However, feeling ambitious, I decided to ask Maja (Miran’s wife) who checked us in if we could still do at least part of the tour. To our surprise, Miran said yes and for a discounted price of 25 euros per person (normally 30 euros per person from 10AM to 6PM).
Miran, the owner of the hostel, is a native of Mostar who grew up during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. A very passionate person who is enthusiastic to teach others an important part of Bosnia and Herzegovnia’s history, Miran would go out of his way to make sure his guests were well attended to. Normally his tour includes visiting Blagaj, Pocitelj, Kravice Waterfalls, Medugorje, Mount Velez and a war tour with his own personal stories. However, he is very accommodating and willing to tailor his tour to what we wanted to see as well.
In the end, we decided to skip Kravice waterfall since we recently saw Plitvice Lakes NP and Krka NP in Croatia.
First, we stopped by Pociteji, a preserved, fortified Bosnian town dating back to 1383 with beautiful examples of medieval and Ottoman architecture.
Then, we stopped by Blagaj, a historic Dervish monastery built into the cliff along the karst Buna river which flows out of the surrounding mountains. Known for being one of the strongest spring in Europe, many will stop to drink some of the water after eating some pomegranate seeds sold at a nearby local stand.
Finally, we came back to pick up our friend, who couldn’t join because she injured her knee, to see the Old Bridge (Star Most) at night.
Along the way, Miran stopped by several streets in town to show the remnants of the bombings and destroyed buildings with penetrating bullet holes from the war. In addition, Miran gave his take on the war, his perspective on socialism vs capitalism and much more. It was interesting to connect what we learned in the past coming from the US and the differences seen firsthand. It was a true learning experience.
Photo Credit: Miran, 1992-1995
Photo Credit: Miran, 1992-1995
Photo Credit: Miran, 1992-1995
While there were many places to eat for dinner (Urban Grill was suggested by many), Miran suggested Rota Grill a cheaper and better restaurant for Cevapi and Sudzukice (home-made sausages). It was by far one of the best authentic meals we ate.
Just while we thought we would have to end our night early to catch our 7AM bus to Dubrovnik the next day, Miran by chance told us he also offers direct transfer to our hostel in Dubrovnik. For about the same price (20 euros), it takes only 2 – 2.5 hours instead of the estimated 4 hours by bus. This is because the bus companies cross 2 borders and drive through the scenic route along the coast. Instead, Miran’s transfer drives through Bosnia, only needing to cross one border by passing through the town, Trebinje. Plus, you get to see the country side.
As a result, we got to sleep in and got to try some home-made jam and traditional Bosnian coffee (free breakfast) in the morning.
A true legend, who knows practically everyone in town, Miran was one of the biggest reasons why as a group we fell in love with Mostar, even though we were there for less than a day. His hospitality is unlike any other and he is a great guy with a big heart. Thanks again Miran and his family for hosting us and allowing us to be part of his family for the day!