Great Australian Road Trip part 1: Sydney to Adelaide

I’m finally getting around to posting about my great Australian road trip (technically #2), this time from East to West, all in all 3,298 miles of some of the best beaches I’ve ever been on, some of the most striking scenery I’ve ever seen, some of the weirdest people I’ve encountered, and also some of the best. It was around a month of growing out my beard, eating next to nothing, living out of Dorothy and then in a tent, with nothing in front of us but the long road. 

The saga begins back in Sydney, where it seems many a story like this either begins or ends. I had been working for a non-government organization up in Cairns doing design work because of an ad I posted on the Craigslist of Australia called Gumtree. They flew me up to Cairns, put me up in a luxury apartment with my VERY OWN ROOM, massive balcony, and of course, a “barbie.” Oh yeah, and don’t forget the pool. The life I was leading in Cairns could not have been more different than the life I led while road tripping. After my work there was done, they flew me back to Sydney where Dorothy was waiting for me, having her parked at a friend’s in Bondi for about 7 weeks. 

I stayed a night or two in Sydney before deciding to head west with the original intention of making it all the way out to Exmouth, a small town on the western coast where the famed whale sharks pass by every year on their way north for the winter. It had been a dream of mine for a long time to snorkel with these giant but gentle creatures, and Australia is one of the few places to do it. The fact that it was almost 4,000 miles from Sydney didn’t matter to me; Dorothy was indestructible and I had some time, although regrettably not as much as I wanted originally. I had agreed to meet mom and dad in Europe in late May, and therefore only had a month to make it all the way to Exmouth, seeing everything I could along the way. I was determined, though, so I began the drive. 

A precursor to what was later to come began in Royal National Park just south of Sydney. As I drove through the rolling, mountainous park with peaks looking out over the Pacific, I wasn’t quite paying attention to Dorothy’s gauges. When climbing, her engine was heating up a lot; something that was definitely not normal but manageable (as I just made sure to top off the radiator with water every few hundred miles or so). So I pulled over for a minute to let Dorothy cool off and headed further along my way, stopping in the college town of Wollongong before hitting the small surfing village of Ulladulla. I found a great hostel with some very cool hosts and decided to stop for the night, despite the fact that it was literally 2 hours south of Sydney. It was probably for the best though, as the next day I noticed Dorothy had been leaking coolant. After saying a few choice words, I was lucky enough to be literally right across the street from a mechanic, so I pulled in. The fix seemed easy, so he told me to leave the car for the afternoon and I’d have it back later that day. I went on a hike, came back in the late afternoon, and after a bill that was a lot steeper than the quote, I shrugged and took Dorothy back. She seemed to be doing just fine for the next 24 hours, but that was about it. The mechanic only replaced the water pump, but that didn’t seem to be the only problem, as while I continued my drive she continued to heat up. I even called the mechanic, who then was many hundreds of miles away, only to be told I might need a new radiator. Great. Like I said, though, the car was manageable as it seemed — I just needed to make sure to have enough water on me to refill the radiator every few hundred miles, and she would stay fine. No worries.

So I drove. I drove along the eastern coast through mountains and green valleys. I drove through small towns and sleepy villages. I drove along cliffs that fell straight into the ocean on one side of me. I gained more and more miles toward my final destination, sleeping in Dorothy most nights on the side of the road or in a random parking lot. It was just me and Dorothy, with the likes of Jónsi, Freelance Whales and the Tallest Man On Earth blasting through the stereo. It was the greatest.

And then, just before I made it to Melbourne, where a friend of mine from Sydney who I met in Iceland (here we go again) had recently moved, and we arranged to have him (Tom) join me on a little trip to Wilsons Promontory National Park. The park is the southernmost tip of the Australian mainland, and it was a bit chilly in the beginning of winter, but it was incredible. I picked him up in the small town of Leongatha and we drove to the park. We arrived in the late afternoon and decided to go on a hike off the side of the road. The climb was extremely rewarding with an amazing view overlooking the ocean and the sun setting into it. We were also given a rain shower that quickly passed, in the end leaving us with an amazing rainbow. It was basically perfect. We stayed up most of the night chatting in a parking lot of a camping ground, slept in the car, and got up the next morning and did a couple more hikes to some amazing beaches before heading back into Melbourne. I stayed at Tom’s for what I thought was way too long at the time but then headed on my way.

I decided to look into CouchSurfing for some potential places to stay/people to meet along my way, and found a guy named Grant in Torquay who was willing to host me. After spending an afternoon in Torquay working on a graphic I had been assigned in the past few days, I called Grant again to check in. Unfortunately, after talking with some of his roommates, they denied his request and therefore I had no place to stay. He felt bad and decided to invite me over anyway for some dinner (Mexican food… what?) and some conversation. We ended up staying up until about 4 am, talking about American politics a la gun laws, mainly, travels, and some Aussie culture (which Grant doesn’t think exists). Another home run for CouchSurfing minus the fact that I then had to sleep in Dorothy just outside of town on an especially cold night where I nearly froze to death. It was just a few hours before he was back to take me to a sunrise service for ANZAC Day, the Aussie version of Veteran’s Day. It was probably one of the most stunning sunrises I’ve ever seen; the pinks, purples and oranges of the early morning sun creeping slowly over the ocean. Who would have known about something like this without CS? Grant definitely made up for the fact that I didn’t get to sleep at his place with great conversation, and an amazing, uniquely Aussie experience for ANZAC day.

I drove slowly on the along the coast from Torquay toward Adelaide, along the Great Ocean Road, via a few million stunning vistas, the cold Pacific crashing just below me for hundreds of miles. I spent a cloudy afternoon at the Twelve Apostles, took a nap, and even took a little detour through Great Otway National Park where I saw at least 10 koalas in the Eucalytpus trees. I was on my way to Adelaide, but in no hurry at all. I treated myself to a giant fish and chip dinner before finding a place on the side of the road to pull over. It was a day that you sit back and realize the greatness you have just encountered, and, as we humans tend to do, I tried to preserve the feeling forever. I sat on Dorothy’s roof and wrote in my journal, lit only by one of the brightest moons I’ve ever seen. 

"Sleeping in Dorothy again tonight, on the side of the road, writing this in the moonlight," it reads.

"Remember these times forever.

And never forget how lucky you are.”

-
Wednesday, 14th August

I’m finally getting around to sharing with you some portraits that I took when visiting an Aboriginal community on the northern West Coast of Cape York called Aurukun. As part of the work that I did in Cairns, I was awarded a trip to see a community, and many people allowed me to take their photograph while I was there. 

It was the same set up that I used for a portrait series on people of Lawrence, Kansas I did almost exactly a year ago for a lighting class. The set up is simple: white cardboard for backgrounds, and white cardboard for reflectors. The person stands in the shade, and natural light is reflected on them. (Taken with a Canon 50mm 1.8 lens).

These faces definitely tell their own story.

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Saturday, 4th May

I couldn’t wait any longer to share these photos from a helicopter ride I took over the Great Barrier Reef this morning.

Not too many words can describe the experience except AMAZING.

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Sunday, 31st March
Roadtrippin'
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Sunday, 10th February

In typical fashion, I am just now posting about the city I’ve been living in for the past month and a half. I am completely packed up from Reef Backpackers hostel, the place I have been working reception in exchange for a place to stay.

People warned me about coming to Cairns at this time of the year; “the weather is too hot,” and “it’s rainy season” were common responses. And while it has been very hot and a cyclone or two has gone through the area, the place really stole my heart. Not so much the city itself, honestly, but the people I met here. I really did enter into a sort of a family living here at the hostel, all backpackers, all with the same lust for travel that I’ve always had. At The Reef, it’s easy to get “stuck” for a little while because of the great people and atmosphere of the place. The property definitely leaves something to be desired, but working only 15 hours a week gets you air conditioning and a clean place to lay your head. And, apparently, a giant backpacker-family.

The reason I knew I had to “rush” this post (HA) before I left the actual hostel was because I really wanted to solidify the effect this place has had on me, and the significance of it being the first real stop on what will probably be an adventure of a lifetime here in Australia. A 1996 white Ford Falcon named Dorothy is sitting outside waiting to be driven across this giant continent. My first partner in crime will be an Icelandic girl named Rúna with bright ruby red hair (but not a ginger, mind you) with great music taste but no drivers license. While that means I’ll have to drive the whole way to Sydney (and beyond..?) She’ll be there to keep me company and make me playlists of Icelandic bands, so the trade-off will work out.

Cairns, thanks for the best of friends, the worst of goon, the best of the Great Barrier Reef and the worst of hangovers. But most of all, thanks for the best first true backpacking experience. 

May the adventures never cease.

-
Friday, 1st February

—Catch up post #2: Slovenia—

It’s Christmas Eve here in Cairns, although it feels nothing like a holiday season. I’m sweating in the front office here at reception because there is a giant wall separating me from the air conditioning (or “air-con,” as the Aussies say). There’s a slight breeze I can see from the swaying palm trees, and the sun is low. In the distance, I can barely see the mountain peaks through a wall of a giant raincloud. Maybe it will be a wet Christmas eve here in Australia tonight.

PS: I’m publishing this two days after I wrote this original paragraph because I have been working reception at the hostel basically non-stop since Christmas Eve. It will all be worth it though when I’m on the Great Barrier Reef this weekend, so suck it!

But back to catching up.

Slovenia

Sometimes, a photograph can be really powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it makes you visit a remote and random country 10 times smaller than Kansas. The photograph: a cover photo from the July issue of Travel + Leisure, the place: Lake Bled, Slovenia. Why not take a peak at the “best kept secret in Europe?”

I had a very early flight from Istanbul that meant I had to leave even earlier from the hostel. Like 4:30 early. It was pretty rough, as you can imagine. This meant that I arrived in Ljubljana quite early as well, at around 8:00 am. I was pretty excited to try my first CouchSurfing experience, and lucky for me, the guy that was hosting me was going to be awake then before heading to work. I landed in Ljubljana (pronounced Le-yoob-le-yana), the capital of Slovenia and its largest city, if only about 200,000 people. I took a shuttle to an area of classic, Euro-style highrise apartments; plain concrete buildings with balconies jutting from their facades, all about 10-15 stories high. Somehow, I picked the correct building on my first try, which was lucky because it was quite cold that morning. 

I gave my host a call, and made my way into the apartment building. After mistaking the number he told me for his apartment (60 instead of 16, or something similar), I found where I was supposed to be. Ziga, a true Slovenian originally from the area, had just gotten back from a trip to Tunisia, and was a little groggy when I first met him as he was eating breakfast and getting ready for work. He offered me a little breakfast that I gladly accepted, chatted for a bit about what I was doing (and why in the world I was in Slovenia) and his recent adventures. He had actually made me a spare key which was extremely helpful, and he passed it along to me before going to work. I was exhausted, so I went back to bed (couch).

One of my fellow Jayhawks and J-School alumni Sarah Weaver had messaged me a few days earlier as she was working in Germany and was doing a little backpacking. After I told her I was going to Slovenia, she decided to come visit! She got to Ljubljana the night before and we had plans to meet up later that day. Of all my friends, she is one of the few people who I could have seen meeting in a random location 3,500 miles from home. Who would have guessed it would be Slovenia?

We met at a nice, classic Slovenian restaurant. I walked in to find a familiar face at the corner table, and we spent probably the next half-hour catching up before actually ordering something. My stomach wasn’t too happy, but it didn’t matter. The two of us always have great stories to exchange about our travels. Sarah had recently taken a semester off to travel around Australia and New Zealand back in our sophomore year at KU, so we talked a bit about where I would be going when I made my own visit down under. A few glasses of wine and some Slovenian risotto later, we decided to explore the city a bit. Sarah had already done a little exploring herself, so she took me to the heart of the city, where the famous “Triple Bridge” and pink baroque church met at a plaza. Ljubljana can best be described as the perfectly kept, perfectly arranged European capital. If you want a stereotype of what Europe looks like to a travel guide, Ljubljana is it: a church here, 500-year-old building there, castle here, a few cafes, fancy shops, nice restaurants and the like. Even though it was quite cold, al fresco dining was still, of course, very popular, and there was no shortage of customers at any cafe, although outdoor heaters were a nice supplement. 

After strolling through the center, we made our way up the hill that leads to the castle. By this time, it was nearing sunset, as the sun goes down in most of Central Europe at this time by about 4:30 (which is extremely depressing, but not as bad as Iceland…). The day was pretty overcast, but for just a moment, you could see the Julian Alps way in the distance, and some orange and pink tones blending with the clouds. There was a great view of the city below, and the lights in buildings began to flicker with the coming twilight. 

After descending back into the city, we met up with Ziga for a beer. After talking for an hour or so, we decided we were going to go back to Sarah’s place first and then try and come back to make some dinner at Ziga’s. It didn’t end up working out as Sarah and I got lost in the world of the Internet and other things, making me unable to make it to the supermarket before it closed at 9. Ziga hadn’t eaten yet, so it worked out alright, but he and I ended up getting into a conversation that lasted for hours. At around midnight, we were both pretty hungry, so we set out for some Bureks, a pie-like pastry popular in Slavic countries. I got one filled with cheese, as Ziga warned me that friends joke about the questionable meat you can get. I think I paid 3 or 4 Euros for his and mine. It turns out Ziga ended up being the perfect host for my first CouchSurfing experience.

Sarah had told me about a free walking tour that met outside the main church at 11 am, so I made sure to take advantage of it. I had been on many of these kinds of tours before; they’re advertised as “free” because the people who lead the tour work on “optional” tips at the end. You’d have to be a real dickhead to not tip, but I guess technically you aren’t required to. Our tour guide was a sweet Slovenian woman, probably a little less than 30 years old, and the tour was simple and informative. At the end of the tour, she talked a little about what was the former Yugoslavia, and I learned a few things: 1. that Yugoslavia was not, in fact, controlled by the Soviet Union, they just got inspiration from them; and 2. the Slovenians didn’t mind it. Tito really liked the Slovenians and saw them as the epitome of what Yugoslavia should be, so their lives were relatively decent under his rule, which is not usually what you hear when you talk about being under communist rule. Slovenia suffered quite mildly to gain their independence compared to the other Yugoslav republics, with a war that lasted only 10 days with only 18 Slovenian fatalities and 182 wounded. The Yugoslav military also only suffered 44 fatalities and 146 wounded. The Slovenes are grateful considering their neighboring countries’ circumstances, which were the worst conflict in Europe since WWII. 

After the walking tour, Sarah and I met back up and ended up taking a tour of the hostel she was staying at, which was a converted prison in a funky area of Ljubljana called Metelkova. Each room was decorated and arranged differently so that no two were exactly alike. Some rooms appeared less functional than others (some with circle-shaped beds, funky bunk arrangements, etc.) but it was definitely unique. After the tour, we needed some Internet and planned our next day’s adventure to Lake Bled. I convinced Sarah to wait a day to go because the weather forecast was fantastic for the day I was planning to go. (Turns out that ended up being a really great choice).

That night, we opted for a relaxing evening and headed to the Ljubljana International Film Festival, where we saw a special screening of Argo, Ben Affleck’s new movie about the Iranian hostage crisis in the 70s, and the creative CIA plot to get them out. There was only one ticket left, but then we saw a guy waiting to sell an extra one. His brother apparently wasn’t able to make it, so lucky for Sarah and me! We got to talking with him, and he turned out to be really interesting and friendly. Coincidentally, Luka was from near Bled, where we were going the next day, and he gave us some pointers about the area. After the movie, we ended up meeting up again (as Sarah and Luka sat next to each other and I sat way at the front). It was only about 9 p.m., so why not go for some drinks? We ended up at a restaurant at the top of Ljubljana’s “skyscraper” that was really only 13 floors, but was obviously the cool thing to do. There was a raging party on the floor just below the top deck, but we escaped that for a quiet room with windows on all sides that overlooked the city. We talked for hours about everything. It always impresses me how much general knowledge of the United States people from other countries (but especially Europeans) have. But when you’re as small of a country as Slovenia, you basically have to know about other countries in order to adapt to today’s world. We needed to catch a bus the next morning, so we said our goodbyes and made sure to become friends on Facebook.

The bus to Bled took about an hour from Ljubljana. There’s a saying that you can reach any border of Slovenia in about an hour and a half from the center of Ljubljana. The ride cost about seven Euros, and, after about a 3-minute walk from the station, there the lake was. It was an impressive first encounter, as the sun was breaking through the trees onto a perfectly calm, blue mountain lake. A little hungry from the trip, we stopped at a lakeside restaurant and ordered some food and coffee. And just sat in the sun, basking in the glow of an incredibly crisp fall day in Slovenia, this tiny country that really was starting to look like “Europe’s best kept secret.”

After lunch, we walked the circuit around the lake. We were at the westernmost point of the lake when, by chance, we saw the sign for the rock Luka was talking about! It led to a hiking trail that very quickly began a pretty steep ascent. The sunlight was getting lower, and I was getting a little nervous about not being able to get the perfect photo I wanted with the church on the island illuminated with that orange fall glow. Luckily, it took only about 15 minutes to reach the top, and we were rewarded with one of the most picture-perfect scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Mountain backdrop: check. Crystal blue water: check. Perfectly placed island with idyllic church in the middle of said lake: checkity-check. Sitting on top of that rock, Sarah and I reminisced about KU and our not-so-distant J-School days, traveling, and where are lives were going. It was just like we were on Wescoe Beach, but with a slightly different view. The sun slowly crept further below the mountain behind us as less and less of the lake was illuminated. We couldn’t have had more perfect timing or weather.

So take that T+L cover! I got my perfect shot. Maybe my photo might inspire you to hop on a plane like that cover did for me.

You know you want to.

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Thursday, 27th December

—Catch-up post #1: Istanbul—

Guys, I am so behind.

Currently, I am sitting in a hostel in Cairns, Australia, where I am working a few hours a week as a receptionist to pay for my bed here. I think it might be a good gig for a while, but hopefully I can find more permanent/paying work on the Great Barrier Reef. How unreal does that sound?

But since I last posted, I have only updated you about half of my EuroTrip. I still have Istanbul, Slovenia and London to talk about! I’ve also made it to Australia and been in both Sydney and Melbourne before making it here to North Queensland. OHMYGODWHATHAVEIDONE.

Here’s the plan: I’ll post about Istanbul first and then Slovenia and London tomorrow. Then I’ll do another catch-up post about my beginnings here in Australia. HERE IT GOES.

Istanbul

There isn’t a much better way to describe Istanbul than to say it is an absolute overwhelming of the senses. Incredible views almost everywhere you turn, an array of color, smells and sounds throughout its vibrant streets and crowded bazaars, and an incredibly deep and unique history that blends Eastern and Western cultures, Istanbul doesn’t disappoint. Looking back on the whole trip as I am now able to do, this was definitely a highlight I’ll treasure. And make sure to be back in the near future.

The incredible hospitality of the Turkish people began in Copenhagen, where we boarded our Turkish Airlines flight. Unlike most airlines I’ve flown for just 3 hours, we were given a full, luxurious (for airline standards) meal with unlimited wine! The incredibly welcoming attitude kept going after we got off the tram we took from the airport and found ourselves in the Sultahnamet neighborhood (the center of the old city) with no idea where our hostel was. After popping into a little bakery and buying some Baklava, we asked the store owner for directions. He then asked a young girl at the store, who then decided to guide us there herself! Her English wasn’t very good, but we managed to say a few things, most importantly a big “thank you.” The walk took a good 5 minutes, but she led us the whole way. Great first experience.

We walk up to the hostel to find Christine, Dana and Christina sitting outside, smoking a large hookah (“FOR ONLY 15 Lire!”—which translates to about $7.50). Not much time was wasted before all of us were sitting around the hookah with a few snacks. In total, there were 6 of us; 3 girls and 3 guys, and we all got along ridiculously well. The girls arrived on an earlier flight than us, and had been checked in to the hostel for a few hours already. It was already quite late by the time we got there, so we smoked for about an hour and decided to go to bed so we could get a head start on our visit.

It turns out we didn’t have a whole lot of an idea what we wanted to do, so the next day was spent just exploring. It was actually a perfect day, in my opinion, as days spent wandering are often some of my favorites. The only thing on our agenda that day was to get to Asia, so we took a ferry to Üsküdar, one of the Asian neighborhoods of Istanbul. The ferry ride, which cost about $1.50 or 3 TL, was incredibly scenic and a great way to see the Bosphorus. Like any great city claims, Istanbul says it is built on 7 hills, which you could see from the water, lined with minarets from the hundreds of mosques you could see in every direction. On this day, a few of us wore denim. Just denim. Decked out in our “Canadian tuxedos,” we always knew where to find each other in this city of 13 million. Just look for the “denim on denim on denim,” as Kelvin would say.

Without much direction, we found ourselves wandering about the Asian side of Istanbul, climbed a lot of stairs, found an open-air market and ended up at a terrace cafe to have some Turkish coffee (Türk kahvesi) and some sweets. As a Turkish coffee noob, I had no idea that they served alongside the coffee a little Turkish delight, dipped in powdered sugar and served with a tiny fork. Mistaking it for a lump of sugar, I dumped it in my coffee and gave it a swirl while my fellow Americans laughed at me. Of course that was a Turkish Delight. Duh. Dipped in coffee or not, it was delicious. We also found out that per tradition, you’re supposed to dump your grounds in order to read your future (Turkish coffee is served with the grounds still in the mix, although they sink to the bottom and you don’t drink them). My grounds just looked like a pile of shit. Prophetic?

After our coffee break, we took the ferry back to Europe (see what I did there?) just as the sun was setting. It was absolutely stunning. The low light cast dark shadows over the city as minarets became the only distinguishable shapes in an incredibly dense and vast skyline. The city and the water was stained in a dark yellow and orange color, and a bustling city appeared quiet as the only sounds were the crashing of the waves against the ferry and the seagulls. I was smitten.

After disembarking from the ferry, we walked by the New Mosque and the Galata Bridge. Hundreds of locals had their lines cast out into the water to try and catch a bite, and we just walked, mingled and watched with them. After the sun set, we headed back toward the Sultahnamet neighborhood for a bite to eat. On the way, we found some kittens making a playground of the alleyway, and of course had to pick them up. I guess I deserved it, but a few seconds later, I look down at my hand to find a little brown present. The cat… shat. Probably worth it, though.

We ended up finding a place tucked into the side of what I’m sure was an ancient (potentially Roman) wall. Of course, we got some hookah, hummus and some mint tea. Christina and I ended up splitting two delicious meals, which ended up becoming the norm for the rest of our time in Istanbul. Neither one of us could decide between two great options, so we would just split. (As I sit here in Australia, I miss how cheap Turkey was… most meals didn’t cost much more than 10-15 TL, or $5-7.50, and definitely less than that a lot of times). 

As we sat passing the hookah, alongside that ancient wall, we set out to solve the world’s problems. The discussion weaved in and out of politics, religion, America’s place in the world and human rights. Sometimes, even getting a bit heated, but of course everybody respected each others’ opinions. While these talks are something that can occur at home, there’s something about travelling that brings it out of people more, I think. While the weather in Istanbul was quite warm during the day, usually around 65º with the sun shining, at night it definitely cooled down, and our discussion was then given a stopping point when it became too cold for those of us with just denim on to keep sitting there. Otherwise, we probably could have talked for days.

The next day we again set out with little planning about where we wanted to go, and ended up walking up the hill from our hostel for about 2 minutes before running right into  Topkapi Palace. The stronghold of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, this palace was stunning. I had been a little opposed to going to (another) palace because European ones are extremely similar: lots of gold, paintings and tapestries, fancy furniture and big chandeliers in grand halls—I didn’t feel the need to pay $20 to see that again. But this palace was different since it was such a mix of Western and Eastern style, which definitely made it worth a visit. There was lots of the classic Arabic-style blues and greens, gold Arabic script over doorways and monumental pieces of art, and the classic keyhole shaped doors. It was really beautiful.

We then ventured out toward the Grand Bazaar, ended up getting lost and making a circle at least once. After a group decision to sit for a while, we found a small place to eat, and had a great lunch that ended with us getting some free dessert—some cake made with poppyseed and coconut that was to die for. Never figured out what it was called. After another try, we found the Grand Bazaar and then spent the afternoon walking through the crowded, covered passageways, and had the opportunity to buy basically anything we could think of. Ben ended up with a pretty nice hookah.

That night, we decided to smoke some hookah and ended up at a place that we then frequented at least two more times on the trip. The maitre’d looked like a Disney character with slicked-back hair and a pronounced cleft chin, and he loved to hassle us Americans, even sometimes crossing some boundaries for some of us. But in the end, it was all in good fun, and the hookah was so good that we had to keep coming back. To top it off, we had live Turkish music and a whirling dervish dancer to complete our Istanbul experience. Oh, and how could I forget our little cat friend “Ahmed,” a sickly stray that hung around our table like he belonged to us. Unfortunately, he didn’t smell great. But he was pretty cute.

The next morning, we were determined to be tourists. The wandering had been great, but we really needed to check some things off our lists. So where to head first? Hagia Sophia, of course. Arguably the icon of the city of Istanbul, the building was first constructed under Constantine as a Christian church, later being converted to a mosque during the Ottoman conquest about 1000 years later. The first Turkish president decided in the 1930s to convert the building into a museum and no longer have it serve as a functioning religious institution. This also coincided with the formation of the Republic of Turkey and the change of Istanbul’s name from Constantinople. That same president also decided on a huge renovation of the mosaics that lay underneath the plaster that the Muslims used to cover them up during its conversion to a mosque. Now, the juxtaposition of a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with the infant stands next to giant tiles with Arabic script. East meets West at its finest.

After getting some groceries and eating a lunch of cheese, crackers and persimmon in the park, we headed to Bascilica Cistern. A remnant from Istanbul’s Roman days, this underground wonder was basically a fancy reservoir of drinking water for the city. The water level is now drained down to a level where you can walk on boardwalks and see its structure. It’s actually quite surreal.

On our way back, we stopped for a bit at the Blue Mosque and explored inside. After Hagia Sophia, this is probably the most iconic building in the city, and the two basically face each other. After walking around (of course without shoes on and the girls covering their heads), we ended up sitting in the courtyard for probably 30 minutes, just soaking up the last rays of the sun before it set. But we made it back to the hostel for the actual setting of the sun, and what a treat that was. From the rooftop terrace of the hostel, an amazing array of pinks, blues and purples swirled across the sky just like the combination of colors lining the shops at the Grand Bazaar. The Blue Mosque’s giant silhouette sat in direct line with the sun, creating a stunning scene that a photograph can’t do it justice. As if the situation could get any more perfect, the call to prayer came on in the middle of this sunset show, adding a soundtrack to the experience.

We went out that night in a part of town called Beygolu, which has all the fancy restaurants and five-star hotels, with great views over the old city. While the rest of Istanbul was an incredible bargain, they were definitely catering to a different subset of much wealthier people on this side of town, and at some places we went to, drinks were the equivalent of $30 each. Definitely not worth it, but an interesting experience nonetheless. We ended up getting a late-night bite to eat and heading back, but Christine was hinting at the fact that she wasn’t feeling great. She stuck it out for the majority of our time out, but life caught up to her on the cab ride home. Stopped right in front of Hagia Sophia, we were slowly gathering our money together. I was sitting on the driver’s side in the back seat, with (short) Christine in the middle. She leaned over to me and said so calmly, ” Can you get out fast?” I could and did, and luckily Christine made it out of the cab to…vomit. Right in front of Hagia Sophia. If you’re going to do it, might as well have some scenery, right? It turns out this was a bad omen for things to come, as Ian and Dana had decided not to go out earlier because they also weren’t feeling well. By the morning, those of us who weren’t up puking our brains out (me, Peek, Kelvin and Christina) found out that everybody else had been. That morning after breakfast, those of us who weren’t still feeling like shit took a “garlic bomb” to kill whatever potential bug could be floating around our stomachs. Probably more of a placebo than anything, it worked. And lucky for us.

It was our last full day in the city, and we just had a couple attractions to check off our list. One, a Roman Aqueduct, and the other, the Spice Bazaar. We got to the aqueduct and saw what modernity had done to it as a major thoroughfare ran under it, with cars blithely passing under those iconic Roman arches. Wouldn’t it be something to have your morning commute under a 1,500 year-old structure like that? After wandering around the base, we ended up finding a part that appeared to have an easy climb to the top. We looked for a couple places to stick our feet and began to climb the thing. Some police drove by and stopped to look as Ben and I jumped off and tried to scamper away. The police weren’t coming to reprimand us, actually, they came to watch! 

Kelvin ended up making it to the top before some neighborhood kids approached us to tell us of an easier way to ascend the aqueduct. How friendly, we all thought. Another prime example of Turkish hospitality, no doubt. After leading us to an area where a tree stuck out of the wall creating a natural step, the kids then followed us, and once we were no longer able to get away from them, began demanding money. After trying to shake them off, Christina rightfully got a little worried with them grabbing her arm and gave them a few lire, but it definitely left a sour taste in our mouths. But it didn’t matter after a few minutes looking around the sprawling city views all around us. The wind picked up as we walked across this ancient monument, and realized how strange it was this wasn’t illegal/regulated. But who can say they’ve climbed a 1,500 year-old aqueduct? I’m guessing not many.

The four of us then continued on through to the Spice Bazaar, buying a few (a lot) of Turkish Delights and again witnessing the incredible amount of color, smells sounds and noises that are the bazaars of Istanbul. We emerged near the Galata Bridge just in time to make it to the Galata Tower for sunset. Flying solo, I took an easy elevator ride up an old guard tower set up during the Ottoman Empire. I was rewarded with argualy the best views of Istanbul in every direction, and the characteristic pastel palette of pinks, oranges and yellows stained the city again, with hundreds of minarets shooting toward the sky. The call to prayer came on for me one last time before the sun actually set, and I could feel an incredible sense of calm watching this incredible, bustling city below me. 

I was a bit sad on the walk home thinking about my incredibly early flight the next morning to Slovenia, as I knew not only that my time in this amazing city would be over, but the shared experience with new friends would also be coming to an end. It was an all-around incredible time, with incredible people (and incredible hookah). Incredible Istanbul.

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Thursday, 20th December

Copenhagen

Isn’t it weird that you can fly what seems like such incredibly long distances throughout Europe in such little time? I’m currently sitting in the Portland airport waiting for a flight to San Francisco, and the flight time is 2 hours. When I flew from Reykjavik, Iceland to Copenhagen, Denmark it was only 3, and then the same to fly all the way from Copenhagen to Istanbul, Turkey. Crazy.

I know what you’re thinking—this post is really late. You’re right. I tried to be more up-to-date on my blog, but life happened. So here’s my post about Copenhagen. (Posts about the rest of the trip will come later, I promise!)

Copenhagen

I decided to hop over to Copenhagen for a few days to visit my friend and ex-roommate, Ben Peek. (On a side note, I have lived with a Ben almost every year minus one in college). He is studying architecture there with a program through KU. I arrived at the airport to find him hipstered-out with yellow pants, longer-than-usual hair and thick-framed glasses—and he fit right in. I knew before talking with him much that he had to be enjoying himself in Denmark, especially since I had known his politics living with him for a year back in Lawrence. He took me back to his place via the metro, and told me he even had a bike for me waiting back at his place. How else would I expect to get around? Duh.

Arriving at his apartment that evening, I met his quintessentially-American roommates; I think totaling 6. They couldn’t have been more different. There were a couple fratters, a chill pot-head type, a prissy daddy’s girl with a great drawing talent, and two other girls (I forgot there was one Danish girl who was the kid of “RA”). And Ben. They wore their university sweatshirts, North Face jackets and baseball caps. We talked about beer pong and Hurricane Sandy, and of course, about the election that had just happened back home (wasn’t it weird we were abroad for it?) But I did feel a little out-of-place as the recent graduate. Midterms seemed like such a distant thing of the past, even though it hadn’t been 6 months since I took my last one. It was kind of nice to feel like I was studying abroad again, but it also made me glad I was out of school.

The view from Peek’s apartment

Ben was a good host. Although the bike he promised turned out to be a huge POS, we ended up just getting me a city bike you can rent with a 20 Krona coin. While less than ideal, it definitely got the job done. I pedaled around the city with Ben and friends, although I pedaled a little harder than they had to. 

It was a nice break for a few days to feel a little less like a tourist than I was in Iceland. I didn’t do a whole lot of touristy things; really the only museum/attraction I visited being the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside the city. Really, I just hung out, not doing a whole lot during the daylight (what little is still left in Denmark this time of year). But at night, we had some fun. 

Of course, we had to visit Christiania, the center of anarchy and a haven for hippies. For those who don’t know, Christiania has become an autonomous neighborhood of Copenhagen after squatters settled in an abandoned military base there in 1971. Weed is sold and smoked legally there on the famous Pusher Street, and there are lots of concerts and hippie-esque things that go on there, like yoga and art classes. It’s a really interesting place, for sure. We went to a concert of an American band called Diiv, and although a pretty good show, it definitely left my ears ringing for a few days crammed in that small venue. 

My favorite part of the trip, though, was a dark and rainy night when Ben took me to visit an area of town called Islands-Brygge. As a modern-architecture-enthusiast, Ben loved this area that has become the go-to place for modern, Danish design. It was really cool. But the best part was the bike ride home. There we were, pedaling through the rain in Copenhagen, thousands of miles from home. The discussion in that bike lane of course ended up on politics, and it really made me hopeful for the U.S. Sometimes, it seems like there is so much holding us back from becoming a modern and open-minded society like the one we were currently in. But when you get enough people who are able to visit and live in places like Denmark, the experience never leaves you. Did you know gay marriage has been legal in Denmark since 1989? Or that taxes are incredibly high (sometimes above 60%), but the Danes have some of the best healthcare, schools and qualities of life in the world? There we were in that bike lane, two Americans from one of the reddest parts of the country, talking like a couple of - dare I say it? - LIBERALS! It was a great thing. And an experience I soon won’t forget.

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Saturday, 1st December

I have to be honest. I had no idea if I would actually be able to make friends while traveling alone. I kind of trusted that it would just happen, being friendly at the hostel and using forums like Lonely Planet’s Thorntree to get in touch with other solo travelers. In the process, I think I’ve made some really great friends and met some incredible people. And so. many. Australians! When I get to that far corner of the earth later this year, I’ll already have a social scene set up. Those people travel a ridiculous amount!

First of all, the car renting process went about as smoothly as possible. Tom, an Aussie from Sydney, and Andrew, a Bostonian who went to school on the West Coast, joined me through a journey to the West Fjords, a beautiful, extremely remote part of Iceland. We stayed in Grundafjordur one night and then traveled further north to a town called Bildudalur the next. Most of our trip consisted of driving through the most incredible scenery, stopping for a photo every now and then. Mainly, it was a lot of great music and beautiful countryside. It’s hard to take a bad photo this time of year in Iceland, as the sun is so low it has that constant late-afternoon glow. Tom and Andrew are both very knowledgeable about music that you’ve never heard of, and they both introduced me to some great stuff. Tom made a mix so good that a German girl I was giving a ride in my car asked if she could marry him.

Bildudalur really put the icing on the cake of our trip, though. After arriving late, we were quite hungry, so we visited the only restaurant/grocery store there. (We asked the server if there was a grocery store in town and he replied, “Yes. This is it.”) Icelanders are good at being very friendly and helpful but also very matter-of-fact. It can sometimes come across as a little cold—classic northern European/Viking. After waiting for someone to arrive at the hostel to be able to check us in, we got a nice room, settled in and decided to visit a natural hot spring nearby. Actually, the only real reason we were even in Bildudalur was because the hostel owner in Grundafjordur recommended it to us because of this “natural hot tub” he called it. Turns out the man was a genius, because not only were we soaking in a natural hot tub with a beautiful full-moonlit view of the fjord and snow-capped mountains, but from the warmth of the tub we also watched the Northern Lights. And while it was a little fuzzier than a postcard-perfect set, it was still one of the best experiences of the whole trip, for sure.

On our way back to the South to drop Tom and Andrew off for the Iceland Airwaves festival in Reykjavik, we had the incredibly nerve-racking experience of almost running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere. Middle of nowhere has a different context in freezing temperatures and snowstorms on the top of mountains on gravel roads. After not thinking about filling up in town (where there was a perfectly nice gas station literally down the street from our hostel), we drove around a few fjords (up and down and up and down and up again) before we noticed the gauge was getting dangerously close to empty. And then the light came on, on the top of a mountain pass with nothing in sight except snow. And more snow. We actually canceled plans to go further north because the weather was so bad, but didn’t expect that it would be so bad for the drive back to Reykjavik. We panicked a little bit. After the pass ended, we saw a small farm in the distance, so we decided to stop. No one was there. More panic. We drove a little further, but at this point it was total roulette as to whether or not we would find a gas station before we puttered to a halt. We started thinking about how long we could last on body heat—the conclusion was actually pretty positive—but thinking the thought wasn’t. After flagging down two tourists in a tiny Ford Focus (I haven’t read any headlines with the words “tourists” and “frozen to death in tiny car”) and finding a farmer who spoke perfect English, we just kept driving without the heat or the CD player on until we finally came upon a gas station. Never in my life have I been so happy to see that stupid little pump. To celebrate, we got a traditional Icelandic hot dog inside, which are really good, by the way. (The best are in a little stand in downtown Reykjavik, but don’t take my word for it, trust Bill Clinton).

I stayed in Reykjavik for the night after a long conversation spanning all kinds of topics, and even getting a bit emotional sometimes. Joining Tom and Andrew and I was our friend Daniela, a great German girl who Andrew and I both met on separate occasions at KEX hostel. I tried to stay at KEX another night, but it was completely booked for the festival, and it was absolutely overwhelmed with hipsters, and not all the nice, fashionable kind. No— there were plenty of rude, pretentious ones, judging your ridiculous music taste through their thick, black-framed glasses (“I used to like Sigur Ros… but I don’t anymore. Too mainstream.”) So I stayed at a hostel on Laugavegur, the main shopping and entertainment street downtown, called Backpackers. Great atmosphere when I was there earlier that day for an off-venue show where I was lucky to snag the last bed in town, but definitely not nice accommodation. The room I stayed in had exposed wires, squeaky beds and the door wouldn’t even close all the way because it didn’t fit in the door jamb. I didn’t sleep hardly at all. 

But the next day, I was determined to get out of Reykjavik to avoid the Airwaves crowd, so I headed south, to Vík. Little did I know that the road I wanted to take (the nicest, safest road in Iceland called the “ring road” because of the circle it makes around the island) was closed. Due to wind. I thought it was strange that I was the only person on the road at times, but just kept driving. At one point, I seriously thought my car might blow over. When I drove over rocky rivers, debris was flying over and hitting my car. I later saw people with windshields completely gone. After I arrived at the hostel in Vík, the girl at reception asked me where I came from. When I said Reykjavik, she was in awe. And then we both were grateful I was still alive. I had to work on an infographic I was making for PoliticalFiber.com, so I headed to the restaurant/cafe in town while the storm raged outside. After busting through a graphic, I was hungry, so I had dinner. And then the power went out in the restaurant. This storm was nasty!

The next day proved to be calm and warm (at times reaching 8º C/46º F!) for my leisurely drive back to Reykjavik. That area is absolutely breathtaking. Black sand beaches, cliffs, and strange rock formations dominate the coastline, making it some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen. I was joined by a German girl who needed a ride back to Reykjavik for the Sigur Ros concert on Sunday, and since she had been working in the tourism industry in Iceland for some time, she knew where all the good sights were and took me to them. It was great. Some of the scenery we saw was featured in Bon Iver’s Holocene video, which was one of the first inspirations I had to come to Iceland about a year ago! Miriam, the German girl, saw their film crew last summer when they came. We even picked up a Russian hitch hiker on the way who spoke little English, but filled up my tank, so no complaints! Strange dude, though. Tom’s mix was playing the whole ride, which prompted Miriam asking me if this mix creator was single and then some kind of actual proposal. The Russian even liked it so much he asked to copy it to his computer. This was a seriously good mix tape. 

Since then, I’ve been back in Reykjavik, staying in a suburb called Kopavogur through airbnb. It’s a little hard now that I don’t have a car to get around, but I’m catching up on some laundry, photo-editing, and of course, the blog. But the main reason for coming back to Reykjavik was for Sigur Rós, and they didn’t disappoint. It was absolutely incredible to see them in their hometown, thanking the crowd in Icelandic, (“Takk fyrir!”) and with a group of people who could actually understand the lyrics! Personally, part of the mystery that I love about Sigur Rós is because I can’t understand the lyrics. But to be fair, only part of their songs are in Icelandic. Some is actually written in the made up language a girl at our hostel translated as “Hopelandic,” so I guess the mystery is still their even for Icelanders. I wish I could say more about the show, but I’m almost not able to. It kind of left me speechless.

I was also able to meet Fraser and Kirsty, two friends of Tom’s from Scotland who now live in London. We drove the Golden Circle before seeing Sigur Rós, and it was an absolutely gorgeous day with bright sun and no wind. Iceland at its best. 

This place is the next best thing. I’ll miss you, Ísland.

Finally got this posted from a café in Copenhagen, where I’m visiting my KU friend Ben Peek who is studying architecture here. Tomorrow we head to Istanbul!

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Friday, 9th November

Reykjavík

The initial post! It’s the beginning of a string of adventures, and I think it’s appropriate that it’s from Iceland— one of the most random places I’ve ever been, or even thought of going.

I got to KEX hostel in Reykjavík after originally booking a day early incorrectly, (which they fixed no problem) and was told I wasn’t able to check in to my room until 2 pm. I arrived at 7:30 am. I was, of course, exhausted from flying 6 hours the night before, but I was also hungry and thought it would be a good opportunity to see a little bit of Reykjavík. There were only a select few places actually open before 11, and I had a big breakfast that was just about as American as the breakfast I had the day before in a downtown Kansas City diner. 

After my hearty American meal, I decided to go to the top of Hallgrímskirkja, the highest point in Reykjavík, for some sweeping views. It was freezing at the top, but very worth it.

Hallgrímskirkja

Here are some views from the top:

I then walked around the town for a couple hours while the sun took its time rising.

Iceland seems to be a land of contrasts—it’s light almost all the time in summer, dark almost completely in winter, has glaciers and very active volcanoes spewing lava, black streets made from lava rock and brightly colored houses—and the name “Iceland” is sort of a contrast because this place is actually quite green.

Today, I didn’t wake up til 11, but the sun had only been out for about an hour and a half, so I wasn’t too worried. I met up with a guy I met last night and ate the second half of a giant sub I ordered last night, and wasted time in the hostel lobby until deciding to go to the Blue Lagoon. Although sort of a tourist trap, it is incredible. I got to soak in its “healing” waters, put silica on my face like I was getting a facial (minus the cucumbers) and relaxed while the wind blew cold (38º F to be exact) above the water, which stays at a balmy 98-100º average. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, but it truly was incredible.

Some of that steam you see is geothermal energy being harvested. Iceland runs on 98% renewable energy, mainly from the heat generated by the Erf itself! But, to be fair, there are only ~320,000 people that live here. Pretty crazy to think about.

I met some guys tonight that are going to rent a car with me and we are doing some touring around the city tomorrow, and then on Sunday we leave for the north!

I’ll be back in Reykjavík next weekend for, oh, no big deal, just SIGUR ROS LIVE.

Watch out, Iceland.

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Friday, 26th October