A Day in Ayutthaya and a Night in Silom

I’d booked a bike tour of Ayutthaya for Wednesday – and since I am a sad, Mary-Ann-Singleton solo traveler, it meant having to make my way to Ayutthaya on my own via the local train, rather than being picked up in a van like all the superior tourists traveling in pairs. OK, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic – but solo pick up meant paying a $50 premium and frankly, I think I can figure out how to take a train. Nevertheless, I wanted to be sure to give myself plenty of time to get to the station and purchase my ticket – so I was in a taxi to the Hua Lamphong Station by 6AM.

No snags encountered (well, other than the taxi driver dropping me at Hua Lamphong metro station rather than train station – they are close to one another, so NBD, but the intersection I had to navigate was particularly treacherous…) and I got my ticket easily enough. I even sprang for the super-luxurious, extra-fancy 2nd Class ticket, which set me back about US$2.00, rather than the US$0.75 for 3rd Class! It took me a bit to locate the appropriate carriage, but once I did, the 95-minute ride to Ayutthaya went off uneventfully. I even managed to doze for a good portion of the trip, which was nice.

Arriving at my destination and shaking off a highly persistent tuk-tuk driver offering me a tour of the area, I schlepped up the road armed with the highly-stylize map of directions provided by the Recreational Thailand Biking, the operators of today’s bike tour. Even with the assistance of Google Maps, this proved to be quite the most difficult navigation of the day. They referred to the spot I was going as their “office” – which I pictured as something along the lines of a storefront with a sign announcing “Recreational Ayutthaya Bike Tours” or something. Not so much – the office consisted of a non-descript dwelling behind a wall with no indication of what business might be conducted there. The only reason I even found it is was because one of RTB’s vehicles was parked in the field next door and the fellow behind the wheel ushered me over to the “office” – which was really just the small courtyard in front of where the bikes were kept locked up.

I should also add that the advice I was given by the company was to take the 7AM train from Bangkok – which certainly gave me plenty of time, but also meant sitting around waiting for the tour to start for over an hour in a bare courtyard. Perhaps not the most auspicious of starts, but oh well…

Anyway, 10AM finally rolled around and the other bikers and our guide showed up. We hit the road pretty quickly. After a pretty decent ride of several kilometers, we stopped at a rice paddy, where our guide Amm gave us an interesting and comprehensive overview of the role of rice in Thailand’s farming and diet.

The next stop was a local elephant camp. The tour description makes it clear that an elephant camp visit is included – and frankly, that should have been enough for me to re-think this particular tour, but I didn’t. After my wonderful visit to Elephant Nature Park, this camp was pretty grim. Most of the elephants had leg shackles and were chained to poles to keep them from roaming. At least two were chained by their necks to poles right next to them, meaning they could not roam even a few feet. I also saw a number of elephants demonstrating repetitive behaviors like rocking and head shaking associated with stress in captivity. It was difficult to witness and I really did not like being there. I simply sat out the activities there, like feeding and posing with the elephants (for a fee), and hoped the time would go quickly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely true that I was unhappy with the situation for these captive elephants – but I also recognize that this camp undoubtedly provides employment and livelihood for plenty of local residents. And Zeus knows that as a meat-eater, frequent airplane flyer and resident of the earth’s most wasteful, energy-hogging nation, I am hardly innocent. But I really could have done without visiting this particular elephant camp…

Happily, we were back on our bikes soon enough and the next stop was for lunch. A simple open-air place along the river where we served a whole passel of yummy Thai food. We’d been on our bikes for a couple of hours at that point, so the food was super satisfying. And it was another nice group of folks: a couple of gays from Seattle, a mother and her teenage son from the Netherlands and a couple from San Diego. Amm, our guide, was genial and easy-going. We all really enjoyed sharing a meal together.

Back on our bikes and we started making stops at the various temples, ruins and statues in Ayutthaya. This was the main attraction for my visit and I really enjoyed the combination of sightseeing and cycling. Amm was extraordinarily knowledgeable about each location we visited and was well-versed in Thai history, weaving the information together so that we learned about how the different places we visited fit into a historical context.

And while all this history was fascinating, at our penultimate stop, we encountered something really incredible: PUPPIES! We were just standing around, minding our own business, when all of a sudden I felt something around my ankles – and it was the most adorable little white puppy and he was obviously in love with me! I only managed to get one or two decent selfies with my new friend. The fellow from Seattle snapped a few more – but he never sent them to me as requested. The nerve!

At this point we were given a choice of continuing on to one more location or calling it a day. The San Diego folks decided to pack it in – and I was wavering myself, as it was hot as Hades and I was filthy with sweat, dirt, sunblock and puppy drool. But since the other folks were willing to soldier on, so was I.

And I was glad I did! We had a pretty lengthy ride to get there – which was great! Part of the reason I like to take bike tours is because I miss my daily cycling at home. So it’s nice to actually put some miles on (and maybe work off some of that coconut ice cream I’ve grown so fond of…). And our last stop was, I think, the most intact and complex of the sites we visited. We headed back to our starting point – including crossing the river, bikes in tow, aboard a small river boat – and wrapped up a really fun afternoon.

And I’ll confess right now – as much as I enjoyed visiting all the different Wats, I neglected to take any notes. So while I think my photos below are pretty great, I could not tell you specifically which wat is what. Of course, my philistinism is well-known, so this should not come as any great surprise…

I was also able to hitch a ride back in the van to Bangkok. The train would’ve been fine, but I was happy for the AC, comfy seats and no wait. I was under the impression I was getting dropped at my hotel but instead was let out at the Skytrain station. I could’ve taken it a couple of stops to the subway and transferred, but instead I just did the 20-minute schlep. I was already filthy, so why not?

After a glorious and lengthy shower, I met up with Ak and we headed over to Soi 4 and the Telephone Bar, where my friend Nicolas was waiting for us. He’s Swiss and works as a flight attendant – so when he heard I was going to Bangkok, he arranged his work schedule so that he’d be on a two-night layover during my trip! This was great, especially since he’s been to Bangkok many times and knows his way around.

After dinner upstairs, we meandered up to Bas Bar for a few more cocktails. After being suitably liquored up, our next stop was DJ Station (which for reasons I cannot explain I kept mistakenly referring to as DJ Superstar… In fact, that’s the name of the place I gave to the two fellows on my tour that day. Perhaps that’s why I never got those puppy pix. But I digress…), Bangkok’s most well-known gay dance club. I’ll be frank – it’s at this point in the evening that my memory is a bit hazy (jet lag, I’m sure…) but a fine time was had by all and I even got to break it down on the dance floor a bit (though Ak was decidedly unimpressed with my rendition of The Robot. Shows what he knows…) Eventually made it back to my hotel (apparently) and the next morning, I did not wake up with a stranger lying next to me nor with any new piercings or tattoos. If that’s not a successful evening, I don’t know what is!

A Day with Elephants

Do you like elephants? Well, you’d sure better, because in this post, I’ve finally gotten around to winnowing my 300+ photos (plus action cam vids!) from my visit to Elephant Nature Park down to a discreet 70-something. I still have plenty to blah-blah-blah about in this post, but let me just say that the this visit was everything I’d hoped for and more. If you are interested in interacting with elephants in an environment that is focused first on the well-being of these wonderful creatures, this is the place for you.

So, our guide for the day, Ging, showed up at my hotel as scheduled and I piled into the van with, at that point, one other couple. At our next stop, the first person to board looked quite familiar to me. “You were sitting in front of me on the flight from SFO to Tokyo, weren’t you?” Answer in the affirmative – this was Jodie, traveling with her step-daughter Katie (on a break from teaching English to school children in Korea). As it turned out, not only were we geographical neighbors in the Bay Area, our respective itineraries had much in common. The two of them had just done the cooking class at Thai Farm Cooking School and declared it a rollicking success – it was good to hear, as my own class was coming up later in the week. After our tour wrapped up, the three of us had a nice dinner together (making friends with several resident kittens at the restaurant!) back in CM.

We continued to pick up other folks and the van filled up – kind of a surprise to me, given that October is still the tail end of low season and the other tours I’d been on were rather sparsely populated it seemed. On the halfway point of our journey to Elephant Nature Park, we stopped for a bathroom break and there were probably 20 similarly populated vans, all on their way to the same destination. Another surprise – I was a little concerned about what this would mean in terms of crowds at our destination. But thanks to a large parcel of land and an extremely well-run program for visitors, our tour that day was extraordinarily intimate and with little overlap with other folks at the park.

Anyway, we arrived at our destination, clambered out of the van and there were three gorgeous elephants hanging out in the grass. Seeing a group of easy marks for bananas and watermelons, they made their way toward us immediately. It was really quite remarkable that literally the moment we arrived, we were interacting with elephants. I was also pleased at how relaxed it was. I’ll be honest – large animals can be a scary to be around. But these gentle old ladies (all in their 60s and 70s) seemed pretty content to scarf up the food we had to offer and were clearly used to being around tourists. Of course, our guide and the mahouts were close at hand to make sure nobody got trampled…

From there, we and our new elephant friends ambled along toward the river – most of us visitors attempting to master taking photographs while also feeding our rather demanding companions who knew exactly what was in those bags we were carrying (bananas… sooo many delicious bananas…). And we all adjusted fairly quickly to the fact that one winds up covered with rather a lot of elephant saliva when feeding them.

I have to say, touching the elephants was amazing – most especially so when they were grabbing food from your hands with their trunks. It was fantastic to see exactly how both agile and delicate those trunks are – not to mention how incredibly strong.

At the river, we forded on foot, humans and animals alike, and continued our trek up into the hills a bit. As I got used to the idea of chilling with elephants, I finally noticed how really beautiful the setting was. We were surrounded by tree-covered hills, the sky bright blue with fluffy white clouds. And from the hillside, we had great views of the river and the rest of the sanctuary, seeing other small groups of elephants in the distance.

A stop for lunch, a simple vegetarian spread that was that special kind of delicious that goes with a healthy appetite after a good hike. We all got to know each other a little better – it was a fun mix of Yanks, Brits and Aussies in our particular group.

After lunch, we headed back down to the river along a different path, though we crossed at the same place. Once across, we got buckets (and more watermelons!) to give our elephant friends a nice soaking, followed by a group photo.

Once back to where we started, we piled back into our van – though not before I took the opportunity to purchase what is likely to be my most cherished memento from my visit to Thailand, a small elephant carving, made by one of the mahouts. Not only does this little guy have a ton of personality, but like each of the carvings for sale, he is based on one of the local residents – in this case, a handsome fellow called Banyen.

For some reason, I’d forgotten that the particular program I was enrolled in – “Pamper a Pachyderm” (IKR?) – included a raft trip. And this was in spite of the fact that Ging, our extremely personable and knowledgeable guide, had mentioned it repeatedly – though he’d also been quick to pull  my leg about a couple of things, so I thought this was just him ribbing another camera-laden city slicker.

Anyway, it was no joke! Which was fine… but I suppose I imagined a gentle ride down the river while I sipped a cocktail. Well, it was a bit more athletic than that (and required me to don a highly unflattering life jacket! And to paddle!), but it was a super-fun trip down a mostly gentle river, with a couple of small but exciting rapids.

Our raft trip ended at ENP HQ, home to the main lodge along with all of the various support facilities, like the kitchen, vet, etc. This is also where we met lots and lots of wonderful dogs and cats who reside at ENP – and who are for the most part ready to be adopted.

We spent the rest of our time observing a couple of groups of elephants, one including a toddler who happily played with his tire and frolicked in the river while his adoptive moms bathed. Wrapped things up with a beer in the lodge before heading back into Chiang Mai.

I can’t recommend Elephant Nature Park highly enough. They do a really amazing job looking after their resident elephants and their programs for visitors are well-organized and provide a truly memorable experience. All of the staff appear to be really engaged with the organization’s mission and to care deeply about the elephants in the park – and they are certainly a huge part of what made this day so special. A superb highlight of my visit to Thailand.

BONUS:

Here’re a few excerpts from my head-mounted action cam. It’s a little Blair-Witchy, so if you’re prone to motion sickness, maybe skip it. But I hope it gives at least some sense of exactly how up-close visitors get to interact with the elephants. I know I keep using the word, but it was really quite amazing.

And here’s a bit of rafting!

The Cats (and a Few Dogs) of Istanbul

THERE ARE CATS EVERYWHERE IN ISTANBUL! And, I must say, for the most part, they seem in relatively decent shape. Though I’m sure it’s still a fairly tough life out on the street. And, as much as I wanted to, I refrained from cuddling with them. I do love cats, but I also value my stunningly-beautiful countenance and didn’t want it slashed to ribbons.

Oh and there is also a pretty decent size cat population in Tel Aviv – so the last few photos are actually from Israel.

Jerusalem

Presented myself at the Arlozorov Terminal in Tel Aviv to catch bus 480 to Jerusalem. Bus had AC and wifi, so the hour trip to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station went by quickly.

Managed to find my way to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City with not too much difficulty and then wandered a bit as I waited for the walking tour I’d signed up for – namely Holy City Tour with Sandeman’s. Essentially, it’s a souped up version of their free tour, going for four hours rather than two and with much more depth – and it was a bargain at €17.

Happily, it was a reasonably small group – about ten people – and our guide, Jeremy, was really great. Originally from Liverpool, he’s been living in Israel for six years. And his enthusiasm for the subject matter of the tour was evident throughout – we explored all four quarters (Armenian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim) of the Old City and Jeremy provided a really solid foundation for understanding both the ancient and modern history of an extraordinarily complicated place. His take on Jerusalem was especially engaging – namely, that it is a city that is made up of stories.

Are the stories true? Well, that’s really not necessarily important, as Jeremy opined, given that the history of the Jerusalem is so intimately entwined with religions – and that faith can make the historical veracity of story beside the point.

Jeremy started his tour off in front of the Tower of David by reading a poem by Yehuda Amichai.

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers 
and dreams 
like the air over industrial cities.
It’s hard to breathe.
And from time to time a new shipment of history 
arrives 
and the houses and towers are its packing materials. 
Later these are discarded and piled up in dumps.
And sometimes candles arrive instead of people 
and then it’s quiet. 
And sometimes people come instead of candles 
and then there’s noise.
And in enclosed gardens heavy with jasmine 
foreign consulates, 
like wicked brides that have been rejected, 
lie in wait for their moment.

It was an apt selection as we began our walk.

Oh, and another great thing about Jeremy? He spoke up! That is, I could hear him throughout our tour – at one point, he was even shushed by the priest outside of the Cathedral of St. James (which Jeremy sincerely blamed on how excited he gets talking about the history of Jerusalem – for example, here pointing out that a long ago proscription on Christians ringing bells lead to the pounding of wooden “cymbals,” here seen hanging on either side of the door).

The tour proceeded at a reasonably rapid clip – we certainly weren’t rushed, but Jeremy wanted to be sure we not only saw everything on his itinerary but also had time to answer our questions.

He took us up to a rooftop overlooking the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock (we were at the end of a Muslim holy week, meaning access to parts of the Muslim Quarter was limited to Muslims) – it was a rather amazing vantage point. He then told us all about the Western Wall – and that rather than take us to the “famous” portion of it that we could see, would be taking us to the Small Wailing Wall – a tiny section of the same wall that for hundreds of years had been the part of the wall that faithful Jews sought out for prayers and lamentations.

When we arrived, he encouraged us all to hew to tradition and write our prayers on slips of paper and put them into the wall. He also pointed out that both Obama and Romney had visited the Western Wall during the 2012 campaign – but only one put a prayer in the wall… and he won the election.

We also had a brief stop for lunch – I wound up at a falafel place with a group of jolly fellows from Belfast who’d been in Israel to watch a football match, followed up by a few days sightseeing. We kind of got busted for being too chatty (I was just getting tips on visiting South Korea from one of them!) when Jeremy rousted us from our table to get moving once again.

Through the Muslim Quarter, populated by 30,000 residents – versus about 2500 each in the Jewish and Christian Quarters of the same physical size. It’s pretty clearly not an easy place to live…

Followed part of the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with Jeremy stopping periodically at the Stations of the Cross. Once we arrived at the church, we spent a good amount of time out front with Jeremy telling us a variety of stories about the place (the Immovable Ladder is both an entertaining example of the Status Quo at the church, but also a rather telling symbol of how fraught with the competing faiths and sects Jerusalem remains) – and also advising us that the pilgrims within the church were generally not shy about using sharp elbows to make their way through this holy site.

It was certainly crowded inside – but relatively orderly, all things considered. After visiting the various sections of the church (each under the “control” of one of the six Christian sects), we ended our visit at the Chapel of Adam, the site under Calvary where Adam’s skull is buried – and where Christ’s blood from his crucifixion seeped through the ground to redeem Adam’s original sin. Or so it’s said…

We wrapped up the tour shortly thereafter, back at Jaffa Gate. My only regret? That I had a bike tour scheduled for that evening, meaning I had to decline an offer to hoist a few with Jeremy and the Northern Irish fellows. It was really a great tour – it provided an amazingly robust view of both the ancient and contemporary Old City. I heartily endorse this tour – especially if Jeremy is leading it.

Of course, at this point, I was exhausted and sweaty (and I’m sure I stank), so I was eager to get to my place for the night, Zach and Roi’s extra bedroom that they let on Airbnb. Found their place easily enough and was greeted warmly by my hosts (they didn’t even remark on my odor!). Had a much needed shower and a lie-down, before heading back out to meet up with my bike tour.

I stopped for a bite at Café Yehoshua on my way and had a couple of tasty sliders to fuel up for the evening’s activity. Cool place…

Found my way to the Jerusalem Midnight Bike Ride meet-up site, just down the road from the Jaffa Gate. I was a bit early, but luckily so were some other riders. None of us were quite sure if we were in the right place, but if we weren’t, at least we had company… But we were pretty close – one of the fellows got a message to proceed down the road and look for the guys with bikes in the parking garage.

The bikes provided were pretty nice – though I’ve never ridden a bike with shocks and thought my tire was flat! But they were well-maintained and comfortable. Of course for me (warning: bike snobbery ahead) it was really weird riding a bike with front and rear derailleurs. I’m used to my internal 8-speed hub… which of course led to my dropping my chain early in our ride. Kinda ruined my well-deserved bike cred, but what’re you gonna do?

This, by the way, was the only drawback to the tour – and completely not the fault of the tour company. They are very specific that this ride is for seasoned bike riders – and I’d venture to say I was the only person in the group who met that qualification. The other folks were OK – but I got caught behind one gal who never shifted out of low; some other dude was tailgating and smashed into me at a red light; and a couple of times our guide had to stop and go back when the laggards got lost because they couldn’t keep up… Oh well.

Anyway, despite that, I really loved this tour. After two weeks of traveling and tons of walking, it was great to be back on two wheels. I made a conscious decision not to schlep my DSLR along – and was glad. Though I don’t really have any photos, it was nice to simply be engaged in the activity at hand rather than fumbling for my camera at every stop.

We first rode through the outskirts of the Old City, with a couple of stops for explanations. Wended our way through some parks up to a hill overlooking the Old City, with Jordan visible on the horizon. It was pretty great.

Then back down and biked through the cobbled streets of the Old City. What a difference from that afternoon! It was devoid of tourists, the streets quiet and cool. It was really an amazing ride. If you like to bike (and know how to do so!), don’t miss this tour in Jerusalem.

Headed back to my place, had a great night’s sleep and bade farewell to Zach and Roi as I trudged off to the Israel Museum. And what a trudge it was! Not the easiest place to find, despite being visible at the top of a hill, but I made it just in time to take the hour-long Highlights of the Museum tour at noon.

The lady who gave the tour, who’d studied archeology when she migrated from the Netherlands back in the ‘60s, was a fine guide. She shared a wealth of information in our short time together and had a great sense of humor.

We saw a bit of each of the three major parts of the collection: archeology, Judaica and fine art. Perhaps the most amazing piece was the Ketef Hinnom, a pair of tiny silver scrolls discovered in 1979. The inscription on the scroll includes a Jewish prayer that is still in use today and proves that “some of the material found in the Five Books of Moses existed in the First Temple period.” I tend not to be all that moved by archaeology – but this was breathtaking.

In the Judaica section, one of the highlights was a reconstructed temple interior from Cochin, India. What a marvelous room!

And then, for me, the highlight from the museum’s contemporary wing, Adi Nes’ untitled photograph depicting the Last Supper with Israeli soldiers. What an amazing work.

One of the other folks on the tour asked, “Which one is Judas?” and our guide indicated it wasn’t clear, despite the highly-structured composition of the piece.

Now, my philistinism is well-known – but I opined that the one soldier seated second-to-the-right from the Jesus-figure’s was the only one at the table whose gaze wasn’t actively engaged with anyone else’s. And that the half-eaten apple in front of him could represent Adam’s original sin. And that the silver coffee pot in front of him could represent the 40-pieces of silver. I was quite proud of myself for making a trenchant observation!

Even better: our guide said, “Well, from now on, I can tell people on my tour that ‘according to an expert from San Francisco, this is probably the Judas-figure.’” I like her!

Took a quick look at the Dead Sea Scrolls (probably more interesting if I’d taken the time to do the audio tour – the philistine is back!) and then caught a cab to the Central Bus Station.

I’d planned to take the bus again – but it was a 20-minute wait ‘til the next one. Plus the line was quite long, meaning I might not get on until the one in 40 minutes. So, I went back outside and boarded a sherut – a shared taxi. The driver touts his destination and once all nine seats are full, he goes. I boarded and it took another ten minutes to fill up, then we were off. It was very easy.

Once back in Tel Aviv, I actually knew where I was – sufficiently so that I was able to take the bus back home! That’s really one of my favorite things about staying in one place for awhile – feeling like I’m getting to know the place.

Shower, nap, dinner, then home to pack and head back to Istanbul for the weekend. Shalom, Israel! It’s been great.

Israel – I’ve lost track of what day I’m on…

Tuesday, I schlepped out to the Design Museum Holon – and quite enjoyed my visit. The current show is by Ron Arad – who also designed the rather amazing building that houses the museum – and featured several of his fascinating metal pieces and his trademark crushed Cinquecentos – or is it Cinquecenti? Non so… Anyhoo, I was quite taken with the building’s interaction with its environment (i.e. I took tons of photos).

Oh, and on the way in, a group of kids – two girls and a boy – asked me something. “Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew.”

“What do you call that? It’s super cool!” referring to my septum piercing. They peppered me with other questions, amazed that I was all the way from SF and saying “Oh too bad…” when I indicated I was traveling alone. They also recommended a visit to the mall across the street. “Zara!” Nice kids… Oh, and the ticket lady at the museum told me she liked my mustache! I seem to be getting more popular every day – it’ll be good to get back home where everyone hates me!

Had a lovely dinner at Cafe 48, which I’d spied across the street from Mizlala over the weekend. I plan to write separately once I’m home about the restos I went to – but I heartily endorse this charming cafe. Really good food, an extraordinarily kind server (who translated the entire specials board for me and gave me some excellent recommendations – and a shot of gin and cucumber on the house. THAT really won me over!).

Today, I was up early and managed to find my way rather easily to the train station for my trip to Haifa and Akko. Other than getting off two stations too early (and fortunately figuring that out before leaving the station – had to wait 20 minutes for the next train). Good thing I’m in no hurry what with being on vacation and all!

Now, I’m relatively good at finding my way around with a map – so I’m going to go ahead and give a big “eff you” to Fodor’s for the shittiness of their Haifa map. It didn’t seem to relate at all to the actual geography. But given that my destination was the Bahai Gardens, which were gloriously visible from the train when I arrived, I figured I wouldn’t have too much trouble finding the funicular which goes up to the crest of the hill.

I was sort of headed in the right direction and sort of not, when an old dude came up to me, seeing me staring at my guidebook, and asked me something in Hebrew. “Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew,” I advised.

“Oh, English? OK, I speak English. What other languages do you speak? Oh, French? Bonjour, monsieur! What’s your best language? OK, I speak English. Are you Canadian? Oh, where in United States? OK, here I take you.”

And with that he escorted me about three blocks to the funicular station, explaining to me on our arrival that it is called Paris Place because it was built by the French. I think this was pay-off for my attempts to bring good travel karma by helping lost tourists when I’m home in SF – though I suppose now I ought to start offering to escort them to their destination as a thank you to this very helpful gentleman from Haifa.

Rode to the top of the hill, had some breakfast and then took the noon tour of the Bahai Gardens. It was lovely – a walk down the 700 steps toward the golden-domed Shrine of the Báb, surrounded by burbling fountains and beatiful landscape cascading down the steep hillside.

Back to train station and rode another 20 minutes to Akko. Schlepped over to the old city (it was literally one million degrees out – again) and had a bit of a look around. Frankly, it wasn’t my favorite – I guess I’d seen similar-though-far-more-impressive scenery in Istanbul…

Train back to Tel Aviv and I walked past the Azrieli Center just as it was being hit with the setting sun. A wonderful trio of towers.

I was supposed to be taking an “East-West Tour” of Jerusalem on Wednesday – one with a decidedly political slant. Sadly, it got canceled at the last minute. So, with no plans to get up early the next morning, it seemed wise to re-visit the gay bar – where it was drag night and I got to see “Cher” and “Evita.” Lots of fun actually.

Quiet day after. Thursday I go to Jerusalem for an overnight visit!

Istanbul – Day 2

Up early again – not a bad thing (though I wish I were better adjusted to the time change), given that I had to present myself at the Spice Market at 930AM for a tour of the Asian side of Istanbul. I allowed myself plenty of time to get lost on the way there, but managed to find the place in plenty of time – which meant I got to take a wander through the market.

It’s quite a feast for the eyes – spices piled high, mounds of lokum, gold jewelery, textiles. Looking forward to trip back to stock up on candy…

I met two of my two tour companions – a very nice couple from Geneva – as we waited for Alexandra, our guide, from Context (I’ve taken tours with Context in Rome and they were the best walking tours I’ve ever been on – today’s walk in Istanbul proved to be no different. I recommend them unreservedly). She showed up shortly, along with a Canadian fellow who’s been living in Istanbul for six months and wanted to learn more about the city. Alexandra is Viennese, though she’s been in Turkey for four years – and lived in India before that. She was a wonderful guide – thoroughly versed in this city and its history, while also sharing her own experiences with us a both a local and a foreigner.

Started off with a ferry ride across the Bosphorus – traveling from Europe to Asia during the 15 minute voyage! We were treated to cups of tea and simit, just like authentic local commuters. Once in Asia, Alexandra showed us around Üsküdar with a stop at a charming mosque set right on the water, followed by a walk along the Bosphorus. This is where we made a new friend – one of the city’s many street dogs (though they are far outnumbered by cats – I’ve not included any of the hundreds of photos of cats I’ve taken thus far – I think they warrant their own post…) took a liking to us and joined our walk for the next 20 minutes or so as we made our way to the Yeni Valide Mosque. A relatively small but quite charming place – and my first time ever visiting the inside of a mosque. Alexandra had lots to share about the design and construction of mosques – really useful as I’ll be exploring several other mosques during my visit.

After that, we proceeded through an old hamami that is now home to shopping center filled with tat (and none of those 20TL shoes were even available in my size!) – but the building is amazing, including the original domed ceiling, pierced with stars and hexagons to create a skylight. Just lovely.

Next a meander through the local market – cheeses, nuts, fish so fresh they were nearly jumping, piles of fresh local produce, plus dried tomatoes, aubergines, peppers hanging from the rafters. The place was bustling and great fun.

A short ride over to the next little neighborhood. We stopped for tea and sweets (Alexandra treated us to an amazing local specialty – a small, chewy ball with a bit of icing. Sort of marzipan meets cookie meets cake) before walking us through the neighborhood. She’s friends with several of the local shopkeepers – we had visits with a baker, a chocolatier and a guy who produces olive oil and sells it along with cheese and olives. He had us sample just about everything in his shop and it was all delicious.

Hiked up the hill, through narrow streets filled charming houses – and at the top had an amazing view of the Bosphorus and the bridge from Europe to Asia. Ambled back down to the water, said our farewells and hopped on the ferry back to Europe. It was a really great day for me – felt like I was spending time with friends, rather than being marched around by a tour guide. And as much as Istanbul has to offer tourists, it was a real treat to feel like I’d gotten a bit off the beaten path – in the capable hands of Alexandra.

So many waterfalls!

Well, it already feels like it was so long ago, but I spent a delightful week in Maui just before Memorial Day. Having been to the island several times previously, my plan was a simple one: sit on the beach and swim in the ocean every day. And that was exactly what I did – with one notable exception.

Midway through my visit, I went on a tour to Hana with No Ka Oi Adventures. On one of my prior trips to Maui, I’d driven about halfway down the road to Hana, but never all the way, so this was a golden opportunity to see parts of Maui I’d never seen before. Wade, guide extraordinaire, had already assured me via email that he regularly included single travelers in his small tours and that I need not worry about being the fifth wheel. Given Wade’s perfect score on TripAdvisor (literally every review is a perfect score), I was pretty confident that I’d enjoy my trip.

WELL! It was even better than I expected. Wade picked me up at 6:20AM, then collected the two other fellows, Mike and Ken, on that day’s trip (you can imagine the sigh of relief from me when they advised they were from NYC – we’ll all get along just fine…) from their hotel. And the rest of the day was spent hiking, swimming, seeing countless waterfalls (seriously – I lost count), eating, snorkeling. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, though some of the highlights included:

  • Our first stop to hike through a bamboo forest, at the end of which Wade told the three of us, “Good – you passed the test.” Phew!
  • Jumping off a rock into the chilly water at our first waterfall stop.
  • Later, hiking a short way up to a waterfall and having Wade tell us we were passing that one for a better one. When we got to the second one and “oohed” and “ahhhed,” Wade told us that this wasn’t the one either! We were going a bit further to a waterfall he’d stumbled across while exploring. It was amazing and remote and we were the only ones there.
  • Stopping at Coconut Glen’s for the best coconut ice cream I’ve ever eaten (this is not hyperbole – it was amazing and delicious). And – get this – it’s vegan. I KNOW! And it was still the best coconut ice cream ever!
  • The red sand beach in Hana is beautiful. Weather not super-cooperative – it was gray and we got a bit of rain – but we still snorkeled and swam.

Anyway, it was a great day. Wade took us to places few others get to see, which makes for a wonderful trip. He is also very well-versed in the history and lore of Hawaii, the flora and fauna, and the current environmental issues affecting Maui.

But it wasn’t actually until the next day that I realized what made this trip so special – Wade was having just as much fun as his clients. Every time we stopped for a swim or took in another beautiful view of the rain forest or the ocean, Wade was grinning ear-to-ear just like we were. This is clearly more than just a job for him and it shows.

So, enjoy these photos – and keep in mind they don’t nearly capture everything I saw and experienced that day. And if you go to Maui, be sure to make time for an adventure tour with No Ka Oi and Wade.

Oh, and here’s a bit of live action…