Madeira About You

Madeira About You

 

After 3 days in the Azores, I took the 8:10pm flight from Ponta Delgada to Funchal, arriving at 11:15pm local time.

 

 

As long as you upload a copy of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of your arrival, proof of recovery, or your vaccine card (which we did) on their travel portal madeirasafe.com, and show the nurses at arrivals the hard copies before you head out from the airport, you’ll get through. Otherwise be prepared to get tested before they let you out of quarantine.

 

 

It was a 20 minute and €30 cab ride from the airport straight into the city center of Funchal, where I checked in at The Marketplace by Storytellers at midnight:

 

 

Funchal is the capital and main city of the autonomous region and island of Madeira. And where Ponta Delgada had soulFunchal has attitude. The vibes here are so much more bustling than the surreal calm of The Azores, at least during daytime.

 

 

Because when night falls, it becomes a different animal:

 

 

Since my lodgings are located right across the street from the very touristy market hall Mercado dos Lavradores, that would be my first stop the next morning:

 

 

Sé Cathedral is a few minutes walk away:

 

 

I nevertheless began my first morning in Funchal with necessary coffee at Art Corner Café:

 

 

Eat all the local bread Bolo do Caco:

 

 

Next door you can orient yourself and where you really are at the Madeira Story Center, which features interactive exhibits of the island’s history:

 

 

After a stroll around town, take the Funchal Cable Car across the street from the Story Centre for 16 euros each way:

 

 

At the top you can stroll about the Monte Palace Gardens and the church at Monte.

 

 

You can also take another circular cable care back down to visit the Botanical Gardens below, or take a toboggan for a hefty fee down the hills:

 

 

Later in the afternoon we booked a fun last-minute 3 hour tour on one of Madeira’s Sidecar Tours, which picked us up in front of our lodgings at 2pm:

 

 

Our first stop outside of Funchal was the viewpoint over Camara de Lobos:

 

 

Further out west and you can’t miss the dramatic cliffs of Cape Girão; at 580m in height they are the tallest cliffs in Western Europe:

 

 

Free admission. Try (not) to look down!

 

 

We eventually drove as far west as the viewpoint over the village of Ribeira Brava:

 

 

If you look far off in the right place you’ll catch a glimpse of the controversial sea bass farms here:

 

 

If you are in need of unique things to visit in Madeira, consider a 15 minute walk along the shore to the CR7 museum to look at all the medals and trophies Footballer Christiano Ronaldo, who was born and raised on this very island!

 

 

There’s even a life sized chocolate statue of him here. Why.

 

 

After a slow 2 days here and on our departure from Madeira (and eventually beginning our 48 hour window on our return back to the USA), we scheduled a rapid antigen test beforehand at one of the pharmacies in our neighborhood. Many already have testing tents set up in front of them but they only take appointments, which you must arrange at the sponsoring pharmacy itself.

 

 

Timing our flight back to NYC to be 4pm exactly 2 days from today, we selected the 4:35pm time slot the next day to be tested. This way our tests could count not only for our return back to the States, but also our layover in Madrid beforehand just in case we wanted to leave the airport.

 

 

The next afternoon we checked in at the tent located about a 2 minute walk past the pharmacy in front of Sé Cathedral:

 

 

They really go up there in that nose here! Our rapid antigen test results were ready within 45 minutes and we picked them up back at the pharmacy where we originally scheduled our tests:

 

 

Then I uploaded my test result to the new app Verifly so I can make sure I minimize the fuss on my way back to NYC.

 

 

In the meantime, next stop: Porto!

 

 

A word of warning: make sure you agree on the fare to the airport to be €30 from Funchal; ours insisted on the meter, which seemed shady since it’s usually a flat fare, and during which he then sneakily pressed a button on the meter that went from “1” to “2” and claimed there was a “night surcharge” (there isn’t, otherwise our fare getting in at midnight 2 days ago in the same yellow cab wouldn’t have been €30). The metered fare then began to accelerate at to double the original rate.

We would have ended up €45 on the meter but after a little internet sleuthing and catching him in the act, he relented back to €30, but then entered €40 anyway on the credit card terminal. The shamelessness. :/

 

 

- At time of posting in Madeira, it was 15 °C - Humidity: 58% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: n/a

 

Luxor-y Travel

Luxor-y Travel

 

After the first rounds of goodbye to Likhith and Karthik last night, I noticed that Mihaela is already crying realizing that the trip is halfway over:

 

 

Wrapping up 2 days in Aswan, we planned to set out this morning on a 7:30am train to Luxor, arriving at 10:30am in the morn ng. Since it was an ordinary passenger train and not a sleeper, we planned to buy tickets on the car. However, we were informed the night before by both the train station personnel and our hostel owner El-Amin that the train car had been oddly sold out.

Not to fear though, an even better plan emerged out of this trip hiccup: we would be provided 2 private vans to take us to Luxor, picking us up and dropping us off at our leisure.

So we woke up to a wonderful breakfast on the balcony overlooking the Nile.

 

 

After breakfast at 8:30am, we crossed the ferry over to our vans waiting for us on the East Bank.

 

 

Hopping in our vans, we nearly had an uneventful 3 hour drive to Luxor until 2 random men jumped in, claiming to be our “travel agents” and pushing us to book tours with them.

But we saw through their smokescreen from the very beginning, so we collectively trolled them by pretending to be interested, driving them all the way to the West Bank of Luxor, before telling them everything was booked and then asking why they were there. They promptly sulked and walked away: Mission Failed!

 

 

We then settled in our lodgings at Luxor Guesthouse with its fantastic owner, Ahmed. What a vibe:

 

 

After freshening up, Ahmed arranged us a private ferry right outside his guesthouse to take us over to the East Bank . . .

 

 

. . . and we headed out for Karnak Temple (120 EGP), an open-air museum and the largest temple of the ancient world. They shut their doors at 5:30pm so by the time we got there at 4:31pm, the ticket office initially refused to sell us anymore and let us in.

 

 

. . . But I charmed them with a 200 EGP bribe to let us in, and with a 50% discount as we had our student IDs. WINNING.

 

 

One of my favorite profile pictures was taken 10 years ago here on a timer:

 

 

But now I don’t need a timer. I have friends to take one for me:

 

 

 

… I remember the time it got served 10 years ago:

 

 

And on Grace’s insistence, I serve it again 10 years later:

 

 

How about a side by side comparison:

 

 

Still got it!

 

 

It’s good to be back. Other people also got the idea:

 

 

After Karnak Temple closed down at 5:30pm, we took our ferry 10 minutes down the Nile towards Luxor Temple. I was able to snag a VIP section above from all the tourists on an elevated and underutilized platform.

 

 

Then I took them down to the real thing —

I remember writing 10 years ago: “This is the first time my jaw ever dropped.”

 

 

The same holds true today:

 

 

After about an hour here, we then hopped back on our ferry towards our guesthouse on the West Bank, where we had dinner and toasted our sorrowful goodbyes to Neerharika and Andrena.

Then we danced it up with the guesthouse staff in our party room on the balcony!

 

 

The next morning, thanks to Ahmed, all of us booked the famous sunrise hot air balloon tour over Luxor at 6am:

 

 

This would be a first for me! I had attempted to get on a hot air balloon 8 years ago in Cappadocia, but alas the whole thing got rained out then.

NOT TODAY:

 

 

After 50 minutes in the air, we returned back to Ahmed’s guesthouse where we enjoyed a hearty breakfast on the balcony at 8:30am.

Then to make things even better for the day, Ahmed himself offered to take us on one of the best tours of the trip so far, while driving us all around the West Bank — the Theban Necropolis used for ritual burials for much of the Pharaonic period, especially during the New Kingdom.

There are so many but instead of a single convenient ticket, you’ll have to buy tickets for each temple.

 

 

I have to mention I endured a lot of bargaining today trying to get a 50% discount with our student IDs, with partial success.

 

 

Halfway through, Ahmed took us to a much needed tea break at an alabaster shop where they let us chop stone for free over some complimentary tea and coffee.

 

 

As for the West Bank itself, there are countless temples and if you had to choose, we recommend seeing the following in order:

Colossi of Memnon, which are 2 massive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. I recommend it because they’re both free admission.

 

 

Valley of the Queens, home to Nefertari and the Great Wife of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Often referred as the Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt, it is restricted to private tours of 20 people max and costs a pretty penny at LE1,200 (with a max viewing time of 10 min). No discounts for students.

Valley of the Kings, the burial place of most of the pharaohs of Egypt of the New Kingdom:

 

 

Your ticket (250 EGP) to the Valley of the Kings gains you access to 3 temples with extra charges for places like King Tut’s tomb (now essentially empty after everything was moved to the Egyptian museum). If you had to choose, our favorites were Ramses III, IV, and IX.

 

 

Try to find the inexplicable carving of the kangaroo in Ramses III!!!

 

 

Temple of Hatshepsut, One of the more impressive sights on the West Bank:

 

 

Ahmed’s and our personal favorite, Medinet Habu, a temple built by Ramses III:

 

 

Ramesseum: The fallen colossal statue of the pharaoh that inspired the sonnet Ozymandias by Shelley.

 

 

Deir el Medina, originally called Set Maat (the Place of Truth), the village was built to house the workforce of literate priest-craftsmen for the Royal Tombs. 

 

 

The abundant domestic and written remains here make it the very best-studied Ancient Egypt community to date.

 

 

At this point we were all getting really templed out (this crew lasted up to 4), as expected, so we returned in the evening for a much needed lunch and shisha before catching our 8:10pm Watania overnight train back to Cairo.

 

 

- At time of posting in Luxor, Egypt, it was 19 °C - Humidity: 54% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

So I’m In Kabul, Afghanistan Right Now… (Updated July 1, 2019)

So I’m In Kabul, Afghanistan Right Now… (Updated July 1, 2019)

 

(Given the ever-changing security situation here, this post will be updated as circumstances develop so check back often)

 

Travel Warnings

A helpful warning as I set off for Kabul today:

Do not travel to Afghanistan due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict

 

Travel to all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe because of critical levels of kidnappings, hostage taking, suicide bombings, widespread military combat operations, landmines, and terrorist and insurgent attacks, including attacks using vehicle-borne, magnetic, or other improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide vests, and grenades.  

 

Terrorist and insurgent groups continue planning and executing attacks in Afghanistan.  These attacks occur with little or no warning, and have targeted official Afghan and U.S. government convoys and facilities, local government buildings, foreign embassies, military installations, commercial entities, non-governmental organization (NGO) offices, hospitals, residential compounds, tourist locations, transportation hubs, public gatherings, markets and shopping areas, places of worship, restaurants, hotels, universities, airports, schools, gymnasiums, and other locations frequented by U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals.

 

The U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is severely limited, particularly outside of Kabul. Evacuation options from Afghanistan are extremely limited due to the lack of infrastructure, geographic constraints, and the volatile security situation.

 

Family members cannot accompany U.S. government employees who work in Afghanistan.  Unofficial travel to Afghanistan by U.S. government employees and their family members is restricted and requires prior approval from the Department of State.  U.S. Embassy personnel are restricted from traveling to all locations in Kabul except the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. government facilities unless there is a compelling U.S. government interest in permitting such travel that outweighs the risk.  Additional security measures are needed for any U.S. government employee travel and movement through Afghanistan.

 

Due to risks to civil aviation operating within or in the vicinity of Afghanistan, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and/or a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR). For more information, U.S. citizens should consult the Federal Aviation Administration’s Prohibitions, Restrictions and Notices.

 

Yep, even 5 hours ago after arriving and driving around something just happened here:

 

 

But to be perfectly honest, we drove right by this police convoy that was apprehending the Taliban and we heard no commotion whatsoever. Just a lot of cars honking in a typical traffic jam.

In fact, other than the usual security precautions of not posting until after we left the place  — and an attack a few minutes ago on our very last day here (more on that later) — my entire week at Afghanistan personally felt completely safe and remarkably uneventful. Tourists are never a target. The locals have been friendly, the sights have been beautiful, and all in all, not once did I ever feel the least bit of worried for my well-being during my time here.

Except for a handful of minutes on my last day in the country, the most surprising thing about Afghanistan was how normal it felt to be here.

 

Arriving (The Airport)

On Monday I took the 2.5 hour Emirates EK640 flight from Dubai to Kabul departing at 11:10am:

 

 

As we approached our landing:

 

 

We disembarked at 2:30pm.

 

 

Unlike obtaining my visa for Afghanistan, getting through immigrations took less than 5 minutes. They simply take a photo of you and your fingerprints.

 

 

Given the understandable security situation in this part of the world, I was instructed to obtain a temporary ID card from the small blue booth facing baggage claims. I had prepared two 2×2 passport photos ahead of time so I could expedite everything.

 

 

However, it occurred to me I would be the only one in the group to have this ID card as everyone else reported that the booth was closed when they arrived.

 

 

Once I had my temporary ID card (which took 3 minutes for them to make), I left the terminal, turned left and followed the rest of my fellow passengers.

 

 

Non-flyers are not allowed into the terminal building so I had to leave the airport entirely to reach my greeters and guides who had a sign with my name and his own special ID card with clearance to be there.

I had mistakenly wandered into the diplomatic area first, but it seemed nobody cared about my presence before I re-entered the airport and exited the normal way.

 

 

And with that I was on my way!

 

 

Money

Regarding money, there are a number of moneychangers within two minutes walk of our guesthouse that changed USD to local Afghanis at a good rate at 80 to 1.

It is recommended that you bring all the cash you need for a time exchange; ATMs are understandably scarce and the existing ATMs usually never work…except for a few that I found in hidden grocery stores!

 

 

Food & Drink

We chose lunch and dinner at various heavily guarded restaurants during the day as our guide arranged everything ahead of time. Afghan cuisine has been a clear intersection of recognizable Persian/Iranian and Pakistani staples.

Alcohol is obviously banned and is difficult and expensive to find.

 

 

My favorite place was a café called Tea Time that served great shisha, fantastic food, and even better tea and fresh mango juice:

 

 

Much to my surprise, the entire group generally has been feeling fine the entire week with Afghan cuisine. There has been one exception of someone who vomited once on day one and felt fine since, and another whose diet simply couldn’t get used to the change in Mazar-e Sharif. I’ve been totally fine despite me eating everything in sight; TMI, but so far not a single episode of diarrhea!

 

Lodging/Power

I recommend choosing a hotel/accommodations that’s NOT The Inter-continental, The Serena, or any of the world-class hotels that are frequently targeted by terrorist groups. We’re staying at a secure hotel complex and conference center inside the Kabul city center but it’s completely hidden away by tall walls and unmarked doors. 

I can’t tell you where we are exactly to preserve the safety of future travelers (it doesn’t even have an official name or show up on Google Maps!), but you can privately message me if interested. 

In fact our hotel is so secure that a TV crew came by after our breakfast to set up a shoot here for a broadcast on government-sponsored female contraceptives!

Power was also pretty reliable in Afghanistan. Other than a rolling blackout that happened once or twice (and was barely noticeable), everything was chargeable. I barely used my portable charger at all this past week.

At least most hotels have great WiFi if anyone wants to stay connected; in our rooms I was able to upload photos at 4G/LTE speeds!

 

 

Cultural Faux Pax

As we arrived, we were given our choice of clothing. As Afghanistan remains a conservative Islamic country, women are required to wear a headscarf and long sleeved clothing that obfuscate the shape of their bodies. Men wear long trousers. Luckily given the weather, Afghan clothes are light and breathe very well.

When I got my clothes, they felt so light and freeing I wore the same outfit everyday for a week.

 

 

Despite hearing of the infamous conservatism, we found Afghans to be extremely forgiving for any cultural faux pas. There are a few following things we made sure to do, however:

  • Always ask before taking photos, especially regarding to women and people praying
  • Asian households! Take off you shoes if entering a mosque or someone’s house. Hold soles together.
  • Never walk in front of someone if they are praying.
  • Never directly expose the bottom of your feet to anyone
  • Don’t talk too loudly
  • If you are of the male persuasion then do not start talking to/interacting with local women unless they approach you first.

 

 

Security and Safety

Yes, to get this out of the way: As I’m writing this a few explosions just occurred within our vicinity a few km away (it’s already on the news). Still hearing some gunfire in the distance where the plumes of smoke are.

 

 

We just went up to the rooftop to take a look:

 

 

What is remarkable is how the hotel staff and even some of the people in our group remain so blasé right now as if we had heard a car accident just happened a few blocks away. We’ve been here a little over a week and the desensitization is very real, even though nothing close to this has happened during our 7-8 days here. We even went out for lunch outside an hour later. As our guide informed us, most of the attacks occur between 7am-10am at the same places to target the morning commutes of VIPs and foreign workers. Tourists are never a target.

And regarding overall security and safety, the areas we otherwise have been visiting in Afghanistan are where our guides feel comfortable that they can take us without any unforeseen or undue risk. There really have been no other incidents.

On another note, narcotic drug use is unfortunately publicly rampant on the streets of Kabul. The users tend to keep to themselves, so they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.

 

 

FYI, speaking of security you will always notice the 24/7 all-seeing surveillance blimp (aka the “dirigible“) the USA has set up over Kabul:

 

 

The following things are important should you find yourself visiting Kabul at this time:

  • Never discuss your itinerary or name of hotel with anyone you meet. While the question may arise in curiosity, please keep the schedule to as few people as possible as a precaution
  • Never take photos of any military personal, vehicles or installations.
  • Take early starts on the days if you plan to travel long distances. In the case of a breakdown, you do not want to be stuck on the road after dark.
  • Register with your foreign office. If you go to your countries foreign office website there is usually a form you can complete to let them know where you are. This is so if there are any problems and you need their help, your embassy will be much more helpful if you have registered with them
  • If you get invites for tea or for dinner from people, which is one of the great things about visiting Afghanistan, stay cautious. Follow your guide’s lead if he feels taking up such an invite may be inappropriate
  • Watch and listen to your guide. He has a lot of experience in Afghanistan and may see signs that things are not as they should be before you do.
  • If you disagree with your guide, the time to argue and discuss what to do is later in the hotel. So if your guide asks you to do something, do it and then argue about it later.

 

 

Military Presence

They may be everywhere, but they’re not menacing. Most are local Afghani troops and police forces. I only noticed coalition/Western forces stationed at the airports and inside bases.

 

 

Nevertheless, get used to the sound of Osprey/Chinook helicopters every 5 minutes and the constant traffic jams due to military and police checkpoints at the roundabouts.

 

 

Packing

This was my packing list (and this is overdoing it):

  • Comfortable clothes for wearing around the hotels
  • Conservative, loose fitting clothes for when you first arrive (or buy them on day one)
  • Headscarves for women
  • Plastic carrier bags. Very useful for dirty washing, dirty shoes, rubbish and keeping stuff dry.
  • Spare passport photos for use at the borders
  • Flashlight
  • Flip flops/thongs for bathrooms
  • Small packs of tissues and wet wipes
  • Money belt or secure pouch
  • Sunscreen
  • Sewing kit
  • Sunglasses
  • Writing materials
  • Plenty of spare film or memory space
  • Some small gifts can be nice as presents
  • Umbrella or Keffiyeh for small bouts of rain
  • Towel

 

 

What To Visit

That said, what did we see in Kabul? There’s so much! On my first day arriving when I bought some local clothes to blend in, I found myself at a street shop outside the largest mosque in Kabul, built 6 years ago.

 

 

We then strolled down Chicken Street, formerly the most hip place in town and more notoriously the site of the recent Taliban ambulance bombing on January 27, 2018 that killed 103 people and wounded 235 others.

 

 

Now you can’t tell if anything ever had happened here:

 

 

There are street shops here selling everything a tourist would want in souvenirs including this gem:

 

 

In fact we walked up and down this street more than one occasion each for an hour doing some shopping. Locals greeted us without a care, we wandered in shops without feeling the pressure to buy anything, and perhaps the most dangerous thing that happened to us on the trip were cute children following us down asking us to spare a few Afghanis.

 

 

If you hike up to any viewpoint, you can’t miss the sprawling USA embassy:

 

 

A few times we drove past the Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque, built during the time of Amanullah Khan and unique for its significant European influence in its architecture:

 

 

This site is unfortunately the site where the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada took place; a woman was falsely accused of burning the Quran by a mullah, leading to a crowd of Islamic extremists lynching her. She was beaten, stoned, run over and dragged 300 feet by a car, before being set on fire by the banks of the Kabul River. Her death would lead to the formation of the modern women’s rights movement in Afghanistan.

A memorial to her has been built nearby:

 

 

We also visited the Kabul museum, largely restored after its demolition by the Taliban:

 

 

We paid our respects at the British cemetery, home to hundreds of foreign nationals who died in Afghanistan (The USA have their own private cemetery but that’s restricted access).

 

 

One of my favorite sites in Kabul was the Bird Market, arguably the most dodgy part of the city for tourists since there are reportedly many Taliban sympathizers here, but we felt fine shopping here for clothes in the frenetic frenzy of locals around us.

 

 

We drove up to the hills of Bibi Mahru that overlook the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, where the novel The Kite Runner took place:

 

 

The country’s largest flag, donated by a joint venture between India and Pakistan, sits on top:

 

 

There is unfortunately a well known (for the wrong reasons) swimming pool here where the Taliban executed their prisoners by pushing them off the diving boards:

 

 

That said, if you’re into this kind of morbid stuff, we drove by the infamous football/soccer stadium numerous times:

 

 

Driving back down into the city we took photos of the remains of Darul Aman Palace, “the dwelling-place of peace,” a crumbling symbol of what was once supposed to be the modern future of the country.

 

 

When we returned to Kabul after 3 days in Mazari Sharif, we finished off our sightseeing in Babur’s Gardens – the final resting place of the first Mughal emperor:

 

 

The Qale’H-Ye-Balahissar, an ancient fortress dating from the 5th century AD.

 

 

The OMAR landmine museum, dedicated to the still continuing efforts to remove the hundreds of landmines in this country. It unfortunately shares the space with a television studio constantly threatened and attacked by the Taliban.

We had a close call here as it’s been just attacked by the Taliban again today, literally the morning after we had visited. Yikes.

 

 

The Mausoleum of Zahir Shah:

 

 

The views from here are some of the best:

 

 

The Shah M Book Company, run by a Norwegian book collector who curates a wide and diverse collection on paraphernalia and books pertaining to Afghanistan including controversial items that the Taliban would consider pornography. Photos are not allowed here as he already had to move numerous times after constant threats and attacks:

 

 

And the one of the most surreal, batshit but positive moments of my week in Afghanistan: a brief 10 minute visit to Zablon Simintov, the last remaining Jew living in Afghanistan and the caretaker of the only synagogue in Kabul.

His wikipedia and Atlas Obscura entries are incredible.

 

 

You have to find his hidden synagogue somewhere behind a shisha café and up the stairs on the second floor:

 

 

He speaks no English so we had to use a mixture of basic Russian, Hebrew, and Dari. Eventually for a fee he agreed to open up his synagogue for a visit:

 

 

Oddly he always asks for payment for to be in his company but otherwise to be inside a hidden synagogue and seeing Stars of David everywhere after a week in a place like Afghanistan was a true shock and humble privilege.

 

 

Final Thoughts (Addendum on July 1st, 2019)

Because for security reasons I chose to post this on my last day in Kabul, and especially given that just as I finished writing this we heard a series of explosions and sporadic gunfire occurring a few kilometers away from our hotel, I’m writing this both from the perspective of my first and last day in Afghanistan after 7 days here. And although it took awhile, Afghanistan surprised me in ways I could not expect.

I expected to be throttled, shocked and awed, stumbling to the ground believing it would be a feverish experience from the moment I arrived. Instead pleasant surprise prevailed. Walking on the streets of Kabul on my first day felt immediately comfortable and familiar, and I never once experienced any sense of heightened tensions I had been warned to expect. At many moments I felt like I was back in Pakistan, gallivanting without a care other than the occasional tout and curious child. Like our initial concerns coming here, even military forces soon evaporated within the din of rush hour traffic.

Then I traveled to Mazar-e Sharif, Samangan, and Hairatan for 3 days — and despite the reported threat of the Taliban lurking around the corner — Afghanistan’s ocean of grandeur remained in wait, its beauty slowly unraveling like the beginning of an epic tale. Not until my return to Kabul for my final 2 days did this country finally reveal a tapestry of countless beautiful complexities.

Yes, before I go on, I must take a sense of responsibility and acknowledge the inherent dangers that could happen — even the one within a few minutes at the time of writing. However, I also cannot ignore the tens of thousands other minutes and moments where we felt completely safe, privileged to witness a place past the filter of Western media. Where a degree of the negativity bears truth, most of the positivity remains unrecognized. I know I still go to work hearing gunshots outside my ER back home.

To know Afghanistan is to know patience; the first impression can sometimes be the wrong impression. And sometimes the first impressions stick. Either way, you cannot judge a place or a person until you have experienced it for yourself. All I can conclude is that Afghanistan takes its time, lies in wait, rewarding only to those willing to look past the trauma porn of violence and war at its surface. It may take ages, demand repeat viewings, and should never be considered as n simply packaged, single-serving experience.

What I had witnessed this past week was resilience. Resilience in a country and people proud of its deep history — scars and all — while forging ahead towards an uncertain destiny.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kabul, Afghanistan, it was 13 °C - Humidity: 41% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Czechmates For Life: Prague

Czechmates For Life: Prague

 

The last time I was in Prague 19 years ago, I was 11 years old. 

 

 

And I haven’t been back since. So does it count if I really don’t remember anything but this photo? NO IT DOESN’T.

 

 

Last month, when 7-time monsooner (Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait!) Ann Wen found out she had more days off than expected and asked me to extend my travels, the convenient thing was to ask her to join me in Fiji since I was already in the area. Of course, being based in NYC she balked so we had to find a compromise…where could we meet in the middle? And if she’s never let me down on past trips, how could I?

After finding ridiculously cheap flights from Fiji to Prague via layovers in Auckland, Shanghai, and Xi’an, it was meant to be. Prague was happening. 

15 more people signed up within 2 weeks, and then Ann recruited a random stranger she met at the airport on the way to Prague: a medical student from Kazakhstan studying in Prague named Aia. Another monsoon was forming.

For “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

 

 

And nearly 2 decades later, I was back in one of my first European cities: Prague.

 

 

After 3 weeks island hopping in the Pacific and the least visited countries in the world, I took off from Suva for a 3 hour flight to Auckland (on almost the one year anniversary I was last there!) where I had a few hours to transit to a 17 hour Emirates flight to Dubai, and then a few more hours there before finally getting on a 7 hour Emirates flight to Prague. And right after disembarking and stamping into the EU, I hailed an Uber for a 25 minute ride into the city to meet up with the rest of the monsooners at a pre-reserved lunch at Terasa U Prince.

 

 

It’s known for having one of the best rooftop views in the world for lunch, although I don’t know which governing body would determine that.

 

 

After lunch and introductions, we returned back to our hostel and immediately hit the ground running in monsooning Prague.

There are sights everywhere; right outside our hostel grows a little statue called Embryo. Designed by Czech sculptor David Černý, it was created as his statement about the difficulty of creating art in an unimaginative world

 

 

A few paces east we found Man Hanging Out, aka “Zavěšený muž”: Černý’s statue of a dangling Sigmud Freud as a critical statement about intellectualism in the 20th century.

 

 

About 5 minutes away south we walked by the Velvet Revolution Memorial, which commemorates November 17, 1989, the date that changed the Czech Republic forever.

 

 

It was that date when a crowd of students marched towards Wenceslas Square from Vyšehrad to demonstrate against the one-party rule of Communism, as well as to celebrate the anniversary of a similar student demonstration against Nazi occupation 50 years ago. After being met with fierce resistance by riot police, the students’ numbers swelled from 50,000 to 200,000 within days, leading to the eventual fall of Communist Czechoslovakia.

Across the street is popular Café Louvre, where we grabbed breakfast on our 2nd day.

 

 

And if we hadn’t had enough memorials and monuments, A few paces more east is the fittingly enigmatic and constantly shifting Head of Franz Kafka:

 

 

We then walked 10 minutes more south, passing by the birthplace of Kafka (thanks Jommel for pointing it out!)

 

 

. . . to the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror.

 

 

After assassinating SS-Obergrupenführer Reinhard Heydrich in the Operation Anthropoid, 7 brave Czech paratroopers escaped to this basement crypt and over the course of 20 days killed 700 Nazis before they ran out of ammunition and killed themselves.

 

 

And next door to the memorial we had to take obligatory photos with Dancing House, the famously curvy office building designed by architect Frank Gehry.

 

 

Get creative here!

 

 

We then headed back north, passing by the Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc memorial, which marks the site where Jan Palach immolated himself in 1969, followed a week later by his friend Jan Zajíc, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Prague.

 

 

10 minutes more north you’ll reach hit the eastern edge of Old Town at the Basilica of St. James, which is known for its art-filled baroque interior, as well as a 400-year old shriveled mummified hand of a thief dangling from a chain (having served as a warning to other kleptomaniacs).

 

spot the hand?

 

And from there we entered the gorgeous Old Town Main Square.

 

 

We made sure not to miss the Prague Meridian, which was used like a sundial to tell time back in the day.

 

 

And in the spirit of telling time, the creme de la creme would be the Prague Astronomical Clock. Installed in 1410, this gem exists as the 3rd oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still in operation.

 

 

Legend has it that its creator was forcibly blinded by the Prague Council in order to prevent him from making similar clocks for other nations. In response, he committed suicide by throwing himself into the clocks’ gears, hence placing a curse on anyone who attempted to repair the clock in the future.

Then we walked north to Josefov, the former Jewish ghetto. Once you pass by another odd Memorial sculpture to Kafka, you’re at the eastern edge of the former ghetto.

 

 

We first visited The Old-New Synagogue, Europe’s oldest synagogue and Prague’s first building of Gothic design when it was completed in 1270. More famously, however, it is the reported legendary home of the Golem of Prague (that’s who that ladder on the outside is for!)

 

 

Next door we looked for the photogenic Old Jewish Cemetery, which houses over 12,000 tombstones of bodies up to 6 layers deep!

 

 

Leaving Josev to the south, we stopped in the Municipal Library of Prague, which features the “Idiom” installation: A literally literary (get it? hah!) tower that appears to stretch into infinity.

 

 

We then crossed the street to sneak into Prague City Hall, which is home to one of the world’s only Paternoster elevator, aka the elevator that never stops! Accessible after 10:00 Monday to Friday, we went through the huge doors on the front of the building, and then headed to either left or right to get around to the other end of the building where the lift is.

 

 

From the ground floor it goes up 4 floors but then it keeps going…I mean  you can stay on the lift after it passes the last stop but only If you dare…

 

 

… you really can’t say you’ve ridden a Paternoster unless you’ve gone over the top and around the bottom!

 

Then the sight that all tourists who come to Prague for: We finally crossed The Charles Bridge, Prague’s landmark stone bridge that links Old & New Towns.

 

 

Be careful of your stuff here! This is where Joanne got pickpocketed, losing both her wallet and green card! However, luckily she was able to get an emergency re-entry permit from the U.S. consulate within 24 hours despite the current shutdown.

 

 

When we approached New Town, we made a quick left for the John Lennon Wall.

 

 

We then made an about-face north and passed the narrowest street of Prague to our right, built originally as an emergency fire exit.

 

 

Steps away we had a laugh at Piss Sculpture, also designed by aforementioned David Černý, which features 2 statues that will piss out actual messages that you can text to +420 724 370 770

 

 

Then we walked over to St. Nicholas Church, a structure that took over a century & 3 generations of architects to complete when it was finished in the 1850s.

 

 

We then walked 5 minutes south to the Church of Our Lady Victorious and The Infant Jesus of Prague, open late and famous for its statue of infant Jesus and its constantly rotating wardrobe throughout the year. According to Jommel, this was the statue that inspired the spread of Christianity through The Philippines.

 

 

Finally we walked uphill to Prague Castle, the symbol of the city and the holder of The Guinness Book Of World Records title for being the largest ancient castle complex in the world at 70,000 sq. meters (750,000 sq. feet) and the official office of the President.

 

 

The group then split, with a third staying at the Prague Castle for the numerous art galleries and other exhibits, while the rest headed west to Loreto Prague just to take a gander at the peculiar Statue of St. Wilgefortis, a bearded female saint. We sang our heart out karaoke style to “I Want It That Way” here.

 

 

They also have a treasury on the 2nd floor, of which in their collection the most famous being the 6222-diamond encrusted monstrance, the Prague Sun:

 

 

Then we walked up to Petrin Tower, a 378m cast-iron tower that was built to be taller than the Eiffel Tower in 1892, featuring a deck for city views.

 

 

We paid for the elevator up just in time for sunset.

 

 

Then as we headed out of the park back towards the direction of old town, we sauntered past an equally sauntering Monument of Karel Hynek Mácha.

 

 

As we exited, we took pause at the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, which commemorates all the political prisoners jailed during Communist rule.

 

 

That’s pretty much most of central Prague, all of which can be done in 10-12 hours over the course of 2 days!

 

 

For our third and free day, some of us caught on the latest trip gossip over a lazy brunch at Café Savoy,

 

 

. . . with others checking out the weirdness of the Kafka Museum:

 

 

Later in the afternoon, some chilled out at one of the handful of beer spas in the city.

 

 

…and there was a lot of socializing at our gorgeous rooftop maisonettes at Old Prague House:

 

 

And what would a monsoon be without group dinners and drinks at some fine establishments? On our first night we pregamed at Hookah Place next to our hostel.

 

 

And then across the street at 5-story Karozy Lane — aka the largest nightclub in Central Europe — we were able to turn this:

 

 

. . . into this:

 

 

And finally we celebrated Katy’s birthday at Mlynec!

 

 

What To Eat In Prague

 

Open faced sandwiches at The Sisters Bistro:

 

 

Next door is Lukásskálacukrár for sumptuous Czech pastries:

 

 

They can be generous with free samples!

 

 

And don’t leave without trying the Pork Knuckle

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Prague, Czechia, it was n/a - Humidity: 86% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: snowy

 

Mosul, Iraq: Life Finds A Way

Mosul, Iraq: Life Finds A Way

Our drive this morning on the “Highway To Hell” into Mosul, Iraq: 
 

 

DISCLAIMER:

Unless you have made adequate arrangements, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DO WHAT WE DID TODAY. At of the time of posting, Mosul remains an active war zone. Although ISIS/ISIL/Daesh has fallen to the Iraqi forces and Mosul has been recaptured by the Iraqi government, pockets of resistance belonging to the Islamic State remain at large — even today a suspected ISIS jailer was captured fleeing a few feet away from us as we were waiting at the checkpoint outside of Mosul

Our trip to Mosul today was based on a personal decision where unique conditions on the ground at the time were relatively favorable to going — the consequences of your actions may differ from what happened to us, as any attempt to travel to Mosul or recreate this itinerary is entirely of your own accord.

To be once again explicitly clear: If you do decide to travel to Mosul, you are going on your own as The Monsoon Diaries and our travel partners at Young Pioneer Tours and Kurdistan Iraq Tours assume ZERO and NO responsibility for you, your well-being, your safety, and for whatever consequences that befall you if you are to be caught and persecuted by the Islamic State, the Iraqi Government, militia groups, Pershmerga, or the Kurdistan Regional Government.

 

This morning I ventured on the “Highway To Hell” into Mosul. And at the last minute I recruited 2 others to join along:

Venla — 3 days ago, while getting to know the Young Pioneer Tours group on their last day in Kurdistan, I met a fellow traveler from Finland named Venla, who was planning to stay here another month to interview various local women for her project on women’s rights. We struck up a quick friendship and walked together around nearly the entire city of Erbil together the day after. To make the world even smaller, she has been planning to be in Kuwait the same exact day I’m planning to be there in 3 weeks!

João — The next morning while having breakfast at my hotel I met a fellow travel blogger from Portugal: João of Nomad Revelations. I recognized his travel site, and so did he with mine, so it was remarkable how we had heard of each other before finally crossing paths in Iraq; I felt it was as if we were part of this exclusive little travel club. He’s also way more famous than I am, having done this for 15 years and traveling for the past 7 months driving a van with both his wife Anna and his son Daniel!

Neither hesitated at the chance to come with me to Mosul. We all went to bed by midnight deciding to go.

 

 

Just like our destination itself, it is simply remarkable to witness how circumstances can change so quickly.

 

 

Mosul

Mosul was once a beautiful, thriving, cosmopolitan city on the forefront of the civilized world, and Iraq’s second largest with a diverse population of 2.2 million people.

 

Photo Credit: Corriere

 

It then fell into notoriety of the modern day when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, becoming prominent in the news as the city where Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay were killed in a gun battle with Coalition Forces in 2003. For the next decade the city languished for the next decade under US occupation, Iraqi military infighting, and government corruption.

 

Photo Credit: CNN

 

A growing power vacuum and worsening conditions led to its eventual capture by a mere 1500 ISIS/ISIL/Daesh soldiers in 2014, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” at the Great Mosque Of Mosul.

 

Photo Credit: Fox News

 

An exodus of half a million refugees over 48 hours soon followed and the Iraqi Government Forces, allied militias, the Kurdistan Pershmerga, and other international forces made 2 subsequent unsuccessful attempts to retake the city from ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in 2014 and 2015.

It was not until October 16th, 2016 when “the mother of all battles” would earn its nickname: A major military offensive Operation “We Are Coming, Nineveh” was launched, with allied forces attacking ISIS-controlled areas on 3 fronts, village to village, in the surrounding area outside Mosul. This was the largest deployment of Iraqi troops and the world’s single largest military operation since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

 

Photo Credit: CNN

 

On November 1st, 2016, Iraqi Special Operations Forces entered Mosul from the east where they were held back by formidable defenses and the presence of civilians. The “full liberation of eastern side of Mosul” was declared on January 24th, 2017, and the offensive to recapture western Mosul began on February 19th, 2017.

Nearly 5 months later on July 9th, 2017 — exactly 10 months ago to this day — the Iraqi Prime Minister arrived in Mosul to announce victory over ISIS, even though heavy fighting would continue in a final pocket of ISIL resistance in the Old City for almost another 2 weeks.

 

Photo Credit: CNN

 

I know it would be easy for anyone to criticize us for coming here in the first place but when you take what was once a thriving, rich, educated city that had so much history and promise, and have it quickly crumble under the effects of government corruption, international complacency, foreign imperialism, domestic terrorism, and indiscriminate violence, you can’t help but bear witness to your own history in the making. We travel to these places to fully appreciate how similar circumstances could easily befall the very same cities that the more fortunate of us reside in and take for granted today.

We travel because we care.

 

Photo Credit: CNN

 

History knows that Mosul has been more the rule than the exception: All of us must begrudgingly accept that what happened to Mosul can also happen to us, and that some of us are compelled to our duty as human beings to fully internalize that reality — blankets of security can easily be snatched away if we remain complacent to what is going on the world outside our bubbles.

And so today, we decided to briefly step outside that bubble.

At 6:30am this morning, João, Venla and I congregated at the lobby at my hotel, where Abdallah picked us up and took us to the Christian Ankawa district to meet his friend who worked in the Iraqi government at 7am.

 

 

About 20 minutes later his convoy arrived and we set off for Mosul at 7:30am. It was clear his friend was a big deal as every checkpoint we passed through was waving us off.

 

 

At around 8:30am we passed the last Kurdish checkpoint  — the one where we hung out at yesterday morning and marked by Kurdistan’s red, green, and white flags — and drove a few hundred meters towards the first Iraqi checkpoint, distinctly marked by red, white, and black flags.

 

 

We just managed to slip by until one of the officers flagged a man in one of the convoy jeeps behind us: although he was here on an official project, he had a Maltese passport and it was not logged in their system.

Since Abdallah’s friend was not going to leave without the Maltese guy, this led to an unplanned 2 hour wait from 9am to 11am as shit was being handled.

 

 

We would then be told the excessive 2 hour wait was due to their having just caught an ISIS jailer trying to flee the city a few feet away from us. We had shrugged this off as a made-up excuse at the time, but a news article João sent me later proved that they were telling the truth: Iraqi security says Islamic State’s jailer arrested in Mosul.

 

 

As Abdallah and his friend tried to speak with the captain and calling higher offices to let us through on our own without having to wait for the Maltese guy, some of the border guards began asking to take photos with us. Even their captain joined in and tried to practice his English.

 

 

By the time 11am rolled around I started to get antsy: I calculated it would take at least an hour and a half to drive back from the airport for my 4pm flight, let alone 2 hours from Mosul itself with all the checkpoints and potential further drama. I also had left my backpack at the hotel that I still needed to pick up AND I hadn’t yet checked in for my flight (Erbil’s airport doesn’t allow online check-in). I was beginning to consider giving up on Mosul, turning around for the airport, and having João and Venla go on without me.

At 11:10am I became more serious about heading back to the airport as every passing minute was another potential chance I would miss my flight home. Abdallah even began to reason it would be impossible for me to do both Mosul and make it back to Erbil’s International Airport on time.

When 11:20am came around, Abdallah turned our car around towards Erbil in a decision to give up on Mosul, until the captain and his border guards told us “5 more minutes.”

Although those 5 minutes would turn to 15, we felt something was eventually going to give. Finally at 11:35am we got a call from higher authorities and were allowed to turn our car back around and drive onwards to Mosul: Everyone got cleared. I reasoned then that even a few minutes in Mosul may be worth it if I could still make it back in time for my flight.

Alas, it was around this moment and given the context of where we were going, I started to become self-aware of my entitlement to first world problems. One of the kids that had been selling us biscuits and water at the checkpoint had been telling us how one morning he woke up to a bomb dropping on his house and killing his only brother. His family now sleeps in rubble. Another boy said he hasn’t gone to school since it was destroyed a year ago and he “doesn’t know” when he’ll ever go back to anything resembling an education. And here I was feeling frustrated over possibly missing a plane back home.

So I decided to stop worrying about a stupid flight: We go without reservations — we would never have another chance at this ever again.

We drove on towards Mosul, first passing by a refugee camp for those who lost their homes during the conflict.

 

 

About a few kilometers outside the side, we turned a hard right to take a back road and avoid the traffic.

 

 

By 11:45pm we reached Mosul’s city limits on the east side, the same side where Iraqi Special Ops entered on the dawn of November 1st, 2016 to retake the city back from ISIS. This was where we began to see the extent of the city’s devastation.

 

 

 

Bullet holes lined their walls of the few buildings that remained standing. This was their reality.

 

 

As we went deeper into the heart of the city, we passed by a large makeshift mound topped by a few military bunkers overlooking the city.

 

 

Once past the mounds, we saw some of the rebuilding efforts and a few new, modern buildings. The reconstruction costs are estimated to be $50 billion USD, $1 billion alone going into Mosul Old City.

 

 

 

Nevertheless, some structures were waiting for a full demolition:

 

 

We eventually hit the very center of the city. Perhaps a sign that a way of normal civilized life was returning were the traffic jams. But then we realized that’s probably because most of their bridges have been destroyed.

 

 

We then reached the ruins of the once internationally renowned University of Mosul, now destroyed at the hands of ISIS.

 

 

To give you an idea, this was University of Mosul before ISIS:

 

University Of Mosul before ISIS

 

And this is how it looks today:

 

Today

 

We took a chance at stepping outside our car to get some fresh air. Everyone on the streets immediately stared at us. At one point Iraqi military came by and thought Venla was a bride of ISIS until João stepped in and charmed them out of suspicion.

 

 

From here you can go further into Old Mosul, where 4000 bodies are still reportedly buried under the rubble and the smell of death still permeates the air:

 

 The following 3 videos of Old Mosul were taken by João:

 

The following 6 photos of Old Mosul were taken by João:

 

 

The following photos of Old Mosul were taken by Venla:

 

When we got out of our car at the ruins of the University of Mosul, Abdallah arranged for a local friend to take João and Venla under his care for the next few hours while Abdallah would take me back to the airport.

So as João and Venla stayed behind to explore more of Old Mosul, Abdallah and I sped back out towards Erbil, breaking every single traffic violation that could be broken in a still active war zone, including speeding into the direction of oncoming traffic:

 

 

Scenes of devastation continued to follow us on our way out.

 

 

As we were left the city, we drove along an endless caravan of trucks carrying wreckage and rubble as part of the cleanup process.

 

 

Abdallah would make good time and thanks to our earlier befriending of the border guards this morning, we were whisked right through the 3 Iraqi checkpoints back into Kurdistan.

 

 

It was ironically the last Kurdish checkpoint that gave us the most difficult time, but somehow we still got through.

 

 

By 2:20pm we approached Erbil International Airport. Given the lack of time to pick up my stuff at the hotel, Abdallah and I instead called for the hotel to send a driver over with my bag.

Remarkably, that worked better than I thought. A driver pulled through and I was reunited with my bag outside the entrance to the airport road by 2:35pm just as we were about to turn in. I gave the driver 10,000 dinars for his troubles.

 

Reunited with my bag although at this point we were doing to seconds in making my flight!

 

I still needed to check into my flight, however, and I had until 3pm (an hour before departure) to do so. You’d think that arriving at the airport by 2:40pm I’d have plenty of time, but Erbil’s International Airport is different: there are at least 4 layers of security you need to go through before you even reach the airport!

 

 

First they searched our entire vehicle with bomb-sniffing dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, armed guards and by opening all our compartments.

 

 

Then after saying goodbye to Abdallah, I rushed into a separate airport building called the “Meet & Greet Area.”

Here they checked for confirmation of my boarding passes (so if you haven’t checked in, you’ll need to show copies of your bookings), x-rayed my bags, and patted me down.

 

 

After this you have to wait for a separate bus to take you to the main departure terminals.

It was now 2:53pm which I meant I had only 7 minutes left to make it to the check-in counter.

 

 

By 2:57pm there was still no bus, and I resigned that I was going to miss this flight. Then I noticed one of the people who was waiting with me for the bus hop into a waiting taxi. I ran after and asked if we could take taxis to the departures terminal instead of waiting for the bus. When he nodded I then pleaded if I could join him. His name was Haithan, who was heading to Dubai, and thanks to the kindness of strangers he gave me a free ride to the terminals (he first asked for 5,000 dinars but since I only had $20 USD bills he instead let me go for free).

By 2:59pm we reached the departures terminal and thanking Haithan as I ran out, grabbed my bags and encountered another security screening process. Once again they checked my confirmations, x-rayed my bags, and patted me down.

I then sprinted towards the check-in counters, making it sort of just in time at 3:02pm where they said they’d allow me an extra few minutes just because Erbil is notorious for not accepting online check-ins: WHEW.

I finally got my tickets and sauntered my way into salvation, going through one last formal rounds of security screening before boarding my flight to Vienna.

 

 

What a day.

After landing in Vienna and having a 14 hour layover here before my flight home to NYC, I was welcomed back by my local friend Daniela (who joined us last month on our Central Europe monsoon) once again at Duzi’s Shisha and Cocktail Bar. Hard to imagine we were both just exactly here only 6 weeks ago.

 

 

And hours later, I met up with Mariana from Brazil, whom I had befriended 9 months ago when we met back at a hostel in Belgrade and recently went on an adventure of her own to Kabul, Afghanistan.

 

 

There was a lot to catch up on.

 

- At time of posting in Mosul, Iraq, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 57% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly sunny

 

Essentially, The Odyssey…To Ljubljana

Essentially, The Odyssey…To Ljubljana

 

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” – John Steinbeck

Everything seemed like it was going according to plan. After all, I had a minor scare 6 days ago when I nearly missed my flight from JFK to Paris and then again on the way home 4 days ago. So I thought I had learned my lesson: Today after my overnight shift in the Montefiore Pediatric ER ended at 8am, I skipped the nap and left really early from my home to make it for a 2:40pm Air Serbia Flight to Belgrade where we would catch a connecting flight to Ljubljana the next morning.

I also met up with the other monsooners, my high school friend Nathaniel and perennial monsooner Mihaela (this is her 5th monsoon with us this year!) at the airport where we all relaxed at the Wingtips Lounge waiting to board our flight.

By 2:15pm, 25 minutes before departure, the electronic departure screen in the lounge still wasn’t showing any indication of “Go To Gate” or “Boarding” next to our flight (whereas other flights did), so we got a bit suspicious and mosey’ed our way down to the gate by 2:20pm just to check, where we discovered our suspicion was well-founded and that they were indeed boarding this whole time. . . .

. . . . and yet we were still denied entry.

Apparently a long lapse occurred between our arrival and the last person before us, so a very unprofessional and inpatient staff wanted to believe that we bounced, cancelled our seats and gave them away. To make it a perfect storm, there was also a break in communication between Wingtips Lounge and the gate, so we were never informed of the boarding process, either on the electronic departure screen or in person. One had commented “something was wrong with the screen” . . . or something. Needless to say, this was pretty fucked up and we were livid. . . . not that it meant anything to the people at the desk, however.

Either way, the flight was already taking off – even 20 minutes before its scheduled departure – and we were stranded.

But we don’t give up.

From considering flying out on a later Turkish Airlines flight at 7pm via Istanbul (causing us to miss our layover in Belgrade, as well as being stranded at Istanbul’s airport for 8 hours as visas on arrival for USA citizens have been suspended), to flying to Helsinki and joining with another ongoing monsoon led by Taylan (too expensive), we decided for the most convoluted possible flight combinations to keep our plan as close to the original itinerary:

  • 6:05pm – Alitalia flight from JFK to Rome
  • 8:40am – Arrive into Rome
  • 9:35am – Alitalia flight from Rome to Belgrade
  • 11:10am – Arrive into Belgrade, 6 hour layover
  • 6:15pm – Air Serbia flight from Belgrade to Ljubljana
  • 7:40pm – Arrive into Ljubljana

. . . .with identical returns on our way home.

Nathaniel and Mihaela followed suit (there is a Monsoon Diaries’ insurance policy) and we were on our way to Rome.

The flight to Rome was uneventful; I had been up for 25 hours at this point and was able to pass out for most of the flight (which never happens), so that was nice. But when we transferred to our connecting flight to Belgrade (mind you we would have only 55 minutes to do so), the electronic departure screens all around the airport had yet to post a gate number. So we shrugged and instead of standing around, we headed to another part of the airport for the lounge.

But when we noticed that the electronic departure screens in this lounge wasn’t listing our flight at all, we were compelled to ask the staff what was going on. They informed us that “something was wrong with the screen” (sounds familiar?), that our flight was still scheduled to depart (thank god), but that we would need to leave now as it was departing from a gate on the other side of the airport. So we bolted again, not about to take another chance at showing up “too late” to a departing flight. We made it.

When we arrived into Belgrade at 11am, the usual déjà vu hit for someone who just led a monsoon here 2 months ago. The same weird feeling happened with Mihaela: Years ago I had half-jested with Mihaela that I would one day take her to her birthplace of Belgrade on a monsoon. This thought amused her as she didn’t know anyone non-Serbian who would bother to know where Belgrade was on a map, let alone visit for fun (as in her words “nobody goes to Belgrade!”).

When I finally got around to organizing and leading our monsoon to The Balkans 2 months ago, kicking off in Belgrade, it would be divine injustice that Mihaela — who almost didn’t come on the trip at all due to prior commitments with her Dragonboat team — would miss this part of the trip us (she would inarws join us a week later in Kosovo) and then travel to Belgrade without me after we would part 2 months ago in Budapest.

Well, guess what: Maybe all this shit was meant to be as I finally got to fulfill a half-joke of a promise I made to her years ago.

 

Today, at The House of Flowers in Belgrade

 

The first stop was at Mihaela’s suggestion and what I missed last time I was in Belgrade: To visit the bombed out Chinese embassy that the US-led NATO forces accidentally (to this day it remains controversial whether it was) struck during the Belgrade siege.

Although what’s listed on the internet (aka Wikipedia) insists this embassy is located around the site of The House of Flowers, the cab driver balked: “Fuck what the internet says, I actually lived through the siege!” and took us where the actual bombed out embassy stood in New Belgrade.

He was right.

 

 

We then got picked up by another cab driver to take us to the House of Flowers where I waited for Mihaela and Nathaniel to check out Tito’s Mausoleum (I had already visited 2 months ago).

Then we headed onwards to Miahela’s cousin – Belja – and his apartment where we dropped off our bags and got a tour of Belgrade through his eyes.

 

 

The first stop was his choice of the “best bureks” in Belgrade as the place we went to 2 months ago was not the “best bureks” but rather the “best pies” in Belgrade. Ok, whatever.

 

 

He was right.

Whether it was the raki Belja had served me a few minutes prior at his place, or actual hunger from not having eaten since the shitshow that happened at JFK, this shit I put in my mouth was unreal: I had 2 plates all to myself. And even though I was stuffed after, I wanted more.

Afterwards we walked up through the pedestrian streets and back up to the Belgrade Fortress, where pangs of nostalgia déjà vu just kept hitting me over and over again. I guess I’m that kinda guy.

 

 

After some tea and coffee at the fortress, we cabbed it back to Belija’s apartment at 4pm, picked up our bags, and headed onwards to the airport to make it to our 6:05pm flight to Ljubljana.

 

 

Arriving at the airport at 4:45pm and more than an hour before departure, we thought the hard part was behind us and Ljubljana was within our reach. Except that again, our flight to Ljubljana was nowhere to be seen on the electronic departure screens. What the hell was going on? Is this a sign?

But when we asked nearby staff, they reassured us that “something was wrong with the screen” (uhh, again?!) and that we should be able to check in. So we did, and after waiting about 30 minutes on a line that barely moved, we started to get nervous. Once near the front, the entire computer system crashed. Every screen at the check-in counter went blank (how’s that for “something wrong with the screen”!), conveyor belts stopped, staff looked absolutely bewildered.

Never again, Air Serbia (well, except when we need you to head back home in 2 days).

As we waited for the system to reboot, we also noticed a suspicious looking box just lying there next to us; as Nathaniel said “the epitome of ‘If you seen something, say something.’”

 

 

So we informed them. And they did nothing. Fair enough. 

By this time it was about 20 minutes left before departure and we still hadn’t checked into our flight and gotten our tickets. Luckily for us, however, this was an airport-wide problem this time and all the passengers that were in our boat for other destinations joined in a united front to keep the flights delayed for us.

And so they did, moving us to another part of the airport to check in, which we finally got to do, and after a quick passport and security check afterwards, we boarded our fight to Ljubljana at 6:10pm (5 minutes after the scheduled departure), taking off at 6:35pm.

We would get into Ljubljana at 7:30pm, touching down 11 hours after the originally planned itinerary… but after gaining an 6 extra hours that we got to spend Mihaela and her cousin in their hometown, I’d say the delay may have been still well worth it. 

Lessons learned today:

  • Trust a human (aka don’t trust what you see on the departure screens, don’t trust what the internet says about where a bombed out building could be)
  • Fly Air Serbia with extreme caution
  • Travel with us, and we’ll get you there.
  • That box is still probably there.

Once we were off the plane, we quickly headed out through probably Europe’s smallest arrivals hall (aka it’s a café that gives out travel brochures).

 

 

Be wary of the cabs you get here, as you might get one with a meter that charges you up to 70 euros just to get into the city, as it should only be 25-30 euros (once again we got unlucky!).

Once we settled into our hostel at England Pub, we immediately befriended the 2 other Americans staying with us — one of whom, Swathi, has 3 mutual friends with me (and one of these mutual friends being my colleague and co-resident!). SMALL WORLD.

Kidnapping Swathi, we had her take us to Pogacarjev trg which is a 5 minute walk away to check out Odprta Kuhna (“Open Kitchen”), a seasonal open-air food market that runs every Friday from March to October 27th from 10am to 9 or 10pm and always features stalls representing the city’s top 50 best restaurants.

 

 

After getting food here we walked around the completely pedestrianized streets of Ljubljana, which charm and easygoing vibe immediately made this one of my favorite European capital cities to wander.

 

 

Our first “stop” was to see the city’s famous Triple Bridge, which is exactly that, a series of 3 adjacent bridges right next to each other that span over a small canal.

 

 

Then a mild detour to Republic Square:

 

 

Then we walked back into the city to check out Dragon Bridge, known for featuring its dragon statues at the ends (Ljubljana’s city symbol is the dragon):

 

 

And then it was a nightcap to relive my all-time favorite hobbies while traveling: open-air hookah. Luckily there is such a place for that at Hadouta Lounge facing the Ljubljana Train Station.

 

 

After what we’ve been through the past 24 hours, this was a perfect celebration well-deserved.

 

–ADDENDUM: October 21, 2017–

After a spirited daytrip with Slovenia Explorers visiting Lake Bled, Predjama Castle, and The Postojna Caves the next day, we returned to Ljubljana later that night to check out Ljubljana Castle before it closed at 8pm. Adding it here because it totally makes sense to include this in your tour around Ljubljana. Don’t miss it!

After returning from The Postojna Caves at 6:45pm, we bought 10 euro tickets to access the castle funicular and tower/museum.

 

 

The funicular takes you up to the castle in seconds.

 

 

In addition to the decent museum exhibits here, you should really come for the views. The first spot is the viewing terrace:

 

But even better are the views from the tower. You’ll need your admission ticket to enter.

 

There’s also a chapel next door to the tower:

 

 

And an ancient Roman well that was discovered during the construction of the castle. Parts of it have been preserved within the castle grounds.

 

 

After about 45 minutes here, we headed back down to the city and took a cat nap back at the hostel to recharge after a long day.

 

 

- At time of posting in Ljubljana, Slovenia, it was 9 °C - Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 2km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear