Sunday, July 03, 2016

Places we've been,things we've seen; how one year rolled into two!

Having fun with Isabella and Thomas!
After really seeing Ecuador as travellers, including several places that neither of us had been to before, it was on to Quito, to visit our friends and family.  Quito is obviously very special to Alex, as it's where he's from and where his family still lives.  For me, it clearly holds a very, very special place in my heart, for both its beauty and the family I now have there.

We ended up spending several months there, including setting up our own AirBnB apartment in La Floresta.  Alex and I call many places home, and Quito is clearly one of them.

I know it's been a long time since I have put 'fingers to keyboard', but the last year seems to have just run away.  After several months in Ecuador our departure date from Australia had almost reached the one year mark and we decided that we simply were not ready to return home ... yet!  It was July 2015 and we left in August 2014.

Quito up high! "By travelling life is richer!!"

Gonio Beach, Black Sea coast, Georgia.
Fast forward almost a year, July 2016. We recently spent just over a week 'recuperating' on the Black Sea Coast of Georgia, near the Turkish border.  We were in a small place called Gonio about 15 kilometres south of the resort-town (not our deal, never been our deal!) called Batumi.  A lot has happened in the last year, and our bodies, quite frankly, are tired. Now, a couple of weeks on we are enjoying Turkey (and sadly were in central Anatolia when Ataturk Airport was bombed only a few days ago).

So, let's scroll back and recap. The journey so far since July 2015: Ecuador, Colombia,USA, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives, India, Nepal, Georgia, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and currently in Turkey.

Canoa beach, Ecuadot.
After Quito we spent another month or so travelling to Ecuador's coast and further up north to see friends and family.

Whale watching, Puerto Lopez, Ecuador.

Meeting a local girl; four day 'Lost City' hike in northern Colombia.

Next, it was on to Colombia (not Columbia!) where we spent some six weeks exploring it from top to bottom. We ventured everywhere from Putumayo (supposedly don't go territory in the south ... but I say go!!!!!) to Punta Gallinas, the country's northernmost point.  This country is spectacular, and its people are warm and embracing. We had been here a couple of times before but had never really explored it like this.  If Colombia is not on your list of 'must see' places, whack it on!  If it is, place it further up the list, like close to the top!
This is how the locals roll, Inza, southern Colombia.

Riding 'la brujita' (the witch) in San Cipriano, near Cali, Colombia; home to an Afro- Colombian community of 500 people.
La Guajira, near Cabo de la Vela, very northern Colombia.

San Agustin, southern Colombia.

With the las Vegas family.
So close to the USA and with friends and family from east to west across the southern border, that was our next stop. We flew from Cartagena to Florida and then spent some time with Alex's cousin who lives there.  An awesome reunion, given that Alex grew up with Chris and they are more like brothers. Next up Las Vegas, where we also visited Giovanni (my mum's first cousin) and his family. A very special two weeks there, especially given that both Giovanni and his wife Lilo have passed away since. Last but not least it was San Diego, to catch up with my friend Rich and his family.  I met Rich and his then partner, now wife, in Patagonia Argentina, when I was backpacking through South America in 1999, a few months before meeting Alex. It was great to hang out with them, meet their daughters and introduce Alex to a couple I had long talked about. We even went south of the border to Tijuana, Mexico, for a day.

Gorgeous Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas ... amazing hiking!

Us and them!  The fence that separates Mexico (L) from the USA.
South of the border with Rich.

With our Bangkok family.
A cheap flight then took us to Thailand.  I never need an excuse to go to Thailand, and it's no secret that it's one of my favourite places in the world.  We had a brilliant time with our friend Pong and her family in Bangkok and then with Pong's parents in the countryside of Kanchanaburi.  We also ducked off to Ko Phayam near the Burmese border for a week of R'n'R. But we did have a bit of an ulterior motive for going there. Alex's passport was eight months off expiration and we needed visas for India, where we originally planned to spend anything up to six months.  Alex's passport, tick!  Indian visas ... try again!  Two weeks before arriving in Thailand in November, the rules were changed ... unless you are Thai, you can't get an Indian visa in Thailand. O ... K!  Plan B? We looked at our options: South?  No!  Moving closer to home.  East?  Been to South East Asia. West? Yep, also done Myanmar. North?  Well, we have not been to Sri Lanka, so, hey let's check it out and get our visas, that way we get to see another country.

Kho Phayam, Thai Island near Myanmar.

With the Bangkok family ...  you can never have enough good food in Thailand!

Kanchanaburi province, Thailand.

In this way, we flew from Bangkok to Colombo, and spent a month in the country they call 'India light'. We loved it actually.  This tiny country, which looks like a tear drop off India's most southern tip,  has a varied landscape and climate with warm, hospitable people. From highland tea plantations in the centre, to beaches in the south, to ex-war zones in the north, we got to see it all.

India next, right?  Wrong!  We met a man who asked us if we'd considered the Maldives.  Had we? No!  Too expensive! Only resorts! Well, no!  They recently opened it up, some seven years ago, so that you can do it independently.  There is nowhere on earth where you can find a cheaper ticket to fly there (well under USD $100.00 from Colombo), and flying to southern India from the Maldives is also very cheap.  We were so up for this. Always ready for an adventure, we booked our tickets and were off.  Our two weeks in this island-country which comprises of 99% water and only 1% land, lies just south-west of India and Sri Lanka. It was beautiful and we made some amazing friends, local as well as foreign.  The country is Muslim and their language Divehi, an Indo-Aryan one, is spoken by their population of approximately one-third of a million people. Without a doubt, it was on this archipelago that we visited some of the most spectacular beaches on earth.  It was here that we celebrated Christmas, on a desolate beach, with warm warm turquoise waters, gorgeous sand, and no commercialism! Now that's my gig!

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka.

Galle, southern Sri Lanka.
Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka.

On top of the ferry going from Male to Ulkhulas (Alif Alif Atoll), Maldives.

Mathiveri Island, Maldives.

Rasdhoo Island, Maldives.

Hennaed hands, Kochi, India.
India next. We flew into Kochi a week before the New Year.  Over the next three months we would weave up the eastern side, more or less, making our way to, and ending our time in this huge country, in Varanasi (often also called Very Nasty due to its being so very dirty and polluted).  There is no way that I could even begin to summarise our three months here.  It was everything rolled into one, and it was everything rolled into one every second of every hour of every day! It was amazing! It was filthy! The vegetarian food in the south was fantastic!  The noise pollution was off the richter scale! The sights were impressive!  The poverty was gut-wrenching! The colours were magical! The treatment of women appalling! The history and culture was simply mind-blowing! Not getting sick impossible! The lack of hygiene insane!  The pollution frightening!  And all this, all at once! This is India! Love it or hate it! It will take me many years to be able to truly digest what I saw.  I will never be able to unsee what I saw ... ever!

Jaisalmer Desert Festival, India.

Those eyes ... Johdpur, India!

The colours of India; Makar Sankranti (Harvest Festival) in Hampi, southern India
Gokarna, southern India.

The ghats (sacred bathing places) of Pushkar, India.

The infamous Taj Mahal, Agra, India.

Colour your life ... Pushkar, India.

The all-seeing eyes of Buddha; Kathmandu.
Exhausted and drained, we decided that after three months in India it was time to move on.  Step in Nepal. Desperately in need of a sea change, we booked an overnight bus from Varanasi to Kathmandu, but life can sometimes be cruel, and it was cancelled.  Alack and alas, we were off the next evening. Ahhhhhhhhhhh, Nepal, it was like entering Narnia through the wardrobe! Tranquil, relaxing and with none of the constant hassling that is de rigueur in India.  Nobody tugging on our arms or asking us a million times if we wanted to buy something.  We spent a month here, between Kathmandu and Pokhara further out west.  This amazing land, home to the highest mountain on Earth, step in Everest, is simply beautiful and has an energy that is rather indescribable and serene. Whilst in Pokhara, we did a seven day hike which would take us around the Annapurna Range but not to its base camp, in the Himalayas. Eighty kilometres later, including some seriously uphill hours, we had some SSVs (seriously spectacular views) under our belts.

Poon Hill on The Annapurna Trek, near Pokhara, Nepal.

Poon Hill, Nepal.
The magic of the Annapurna trek, Nepal.

A year on from the devastating earthquake that rocked Kathmandu.

A Kathmandu local 'hammering it'!

Georgian dancing on their Independence Day, Gori, Georgia.
With only a one month visa for Nepal we had to think of where to next. Still not ready to go home yet, we looked at the map, we looked at the flights ... we figured that Georgia and Armenia looked good. They were small, they were not touristy and we could then continue to overland to Turkey and parts of Europe. Kathmandu-Tbilisi (capital of Georgia) booked!

Local sauces and sweets, Tbilisi, Georgia.

Breathtaking Kazbegi, northern Georgia, near the Russian border.
Our two months in the Caucasus region was an absolute breath of fresh air, quite literally, after the onslaught of India. Georgia is beautiful, serene, interesting, has spectacular mountain views and is void of noise and tourists.  Yep, if there's a paradise this is it!  After a couple of weeks in Georgia, we went southwards to Armenia, an absolute other jewel of a place. Even less touristy than the already un-touristy Georgia, we found Armenia to be a really 'good things come in small packages' kind of place! Whilst little English is spoken, the people are helpful, friendly, kind and welcoming.  Along with Georgia, it has some of the most amazing, freshest and tastiest produce I have come across in the world, and we ate it to our hearts' content. From Goris, in south-eastern Armenia we ventured into the Independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh ... because we could! A tiny 'country' whose population are ethnic Armenians, they have been 'claimed' by Azerbaijan but have also been in conflict since they were claimed.  They are fiercely and proudly Armenian and do not consider themselves as anything other than independent. It was quite easy to enter; we crossed the border with a marshkruta (mini bus) and went and got an on-the spot visa at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs upon reaching the capital, Stepanakert. The authorities were all too happy to not stamp our passport and give us a separate piece of paper instead. Whilst a two week visa was issued, it ran concurrently with our three week visa in Armenia (Australians currently only have a 3 week or a 4 month option). As our time was limited we were back in Georgia after that. All three places were very special in their own way, as were the people.

Mestia, Georgia.

Mtskheta, Georgia.

Sighnagi, Georgia.

The Tuscany of Georgia; Sighnagi.

Typical Georgian bread.

Around Yeghegnadzor, Armenia.
Armenia still has way less tourism than Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh less again. We spent five days in  and around its capital Stepanakert. I have ever been to visiting a country in conflict! The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an ethnic conflict between the Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, a region in 'Azerbaijan' populated primarily by ethnic Armenians. It has its origins in the early 20th century, although the present conflict began in 1988 and escalated into a full scale war in the early 1990s. Tensions and border skirmishes have continued in the region despite an official cease-fire signed in 1994. In fact, only weeks before we arrived there had been a skirmish on its border with Azerbaijan where several people died. But we loved this tiny place and the warmth and hospitality of its people. Although not much English is spoken and public transport can sometimes be tricky, people were always willing to offer a lift even before you stuck your thumb out!

In summary, these are now two (three!) of my favourite countries, and in fact, National Geographic recently published an article on '10 Places That Deserve More Travelers' and both Armenia and Georgia were on the list. So was Iran, but that's another story.  This was also on our to-do list, but obtaining the visa was going to be a little harder and take a little longer than we expected.  Next time! And with us, there is ALWAYS a next time!

Vernissage Market, Yerevan.

'We are our Mountains' monument, Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh; the symbol of the tiny republic.

Tatev Monastery, Armenia.

View of the valley from 'Wings of Tatev' cable car, the longest in the world, Armenia.

Azerbaijani mother (L) and Armenian mother (R) ... nobody wins in a war!

Zorats Karev (Armenian Stonehenge) near Gori, Armenia.
Time to relax, Gonio Beach, Georgia.
Back in Georgia after we spent another two weeks or so exploring the western side of the country and finally ended up in Gonio, just a few kilometres north of the Turkish border.  Here we spent ten days totally relaxing ... eating, resting and enjoying the beach. It was simply time to recharge our batteries as we had both been feeling a lack of energy over the last month or so.  Me a lack of energy? Hard to believe but yep!

The fairy chimneys of Goreme, Cappadocia.
Now we find ourselves a couple of weeks into Turkey, in the delightful central Anatolian town of Goreme in Cappadocia.  Turkey, its food, its people, its sights ... just wow ... more of Turkey in the next blog post.

So, that's it in a nutshell; almost 23 months on the road and still going.  A few more countries to go but the end is near-ish ... for this time!  As opposed to touring, travelling is a full time job for which you don't get paid: Pack, repack, move, catch transport, look for a place to stay, buy food, cook, work out where to go to next, research that place and the list goes on.  It's our choice and we love it.

Whilst I have not been writing many posts, I have kept our public Facebook page regularly updated with not only lots of photos but several ad-hoc, spur of the moment videos, which I am sure that many of you will enjoy.  If you are not a user of Facebook, don't worry, you do not need an account, and can simply access it as a regular website.  If you are a FB user, like it and follow our continuing sojourn through this big, wide, wonderful world of ours.  Go on, take a look!  It will fill in all the 'blanks' that I could not possibly cover in a single blog post!

And thus, we continue to live the life we love and love the life we live.

One life, live it!