10 October 2013

Oh Vacation...

How sweet thou art!  I was hoping to write soon after returning, before the freshness fizzled out…but we all know how efficiently work-life sucks us back in.  Oh well, my trip is still recent enough to continue enjoying its ripples…

Before I get to the highlights, I’ll say a quick word about the airport in Istanbul (which I perused 4 times in 2 weeks.)  What a wonderful convergence of people, languages & cultures!  Initially I was a little embarrassed for them, but it was truly nice to see folks waltzing about in their tight tank tops & short-shorts.  And, OMG, some of them were even holding hands & communicating with their significant others!!  I know, Crazy!  I was only briefly traumatized and resisted the urge to give them more clothing to cover up.  All jokes aside, I look forward to checking out the rest of Istanbul sometime soon…

Next quick stop – Madrid:
Keep in mind I was about 32 hrs awake (including a 12 hr shift) by the time my feet hit non-Saudi soil.  I had a six hr layover so I zombied into town.  Since I had gotten my skin-shock over with in Turkey, my first thought was how nice it was to hear a more familiar foreign language.  Despite the Spaniard’s funny lisp & extra verb tense, it was comforting to my ears.  I loved the old waiter who served me my 1st beer.  He let me stutter Spanish to him & didn’t make me feel like a complete buffoon – even when I said, “Shukran” instead of, “Gracias” – oops! J

The main attractions…

Gorgeous!  The friend I went to visit lives in Porto, which is where we spent most of our time.  Pictures fail at expressing the beauty & feel of the city.  A river from the mnts runs through town, shops and houses sit on the hillside, folks fish from the street & hang their colorful laundry out their windows to dry and, obviously, much of the architecture is older than America can remember.  Bakeries create little desserts that are almost too cute to eat, every restaurant serves Bacalhau (cod) and people everywhere, despite their current economic challenges, were beyond friendly.  Porto is known not only for port wine, but also for being the largest producer of cork in the world.  Since the trend for plugging wine bottles has diversified to other materials and the demand for cork has dropped, they are now making many other items – hats, shoes, bags, wallets – with the impermeable, buoyant, fire resistant stuff.  Tourists, including this one, ate it up!  Not only did we see the sights of Porto & hang with Diana’s adorable, non-English speaking family, but we hit up a port tour at a winery that was founded in 1692, took the train down to Aveiro & rode free bikes around the cute little town & drove up north to see an old castle.  Super Good Times complete with frequent, deep, appreciative breaths – Ah, the world really is continuing to go ‘round & function as we know it! J

Diana's Mom, Dad, G-ma & Uncle
I have found my new dream car!  I will have a Lada – definitely one built in the 70s or 80s!  Before you google it & laugh, be sure to check out the very practical 4-wheel drive version (Lada Niva.)  Of course mine will have sturdy tires & a rack…green please.  Most important, they look Awesome!!  Also slightly relevant, they can be easily fixed from Russia to Western Europe & everywhere in between.  Anyway, Kyrgyzstan you say?  Yes!  It’s SE of Kazakhstan, west of China, they speak Russian (& Kyrgyz of course) and have incredibly stunning mountains!  Good friends who used to live across the street from me in Portland are there doing a stint with MSF.  We had grand plans for borrowing their friend’s car & venturing out to see Lake Issyk Kul, traversing the mnt range to Naryn and then bopping down to check out Osh & the world’s largest walnut forest before returning to Bishkek.  Oh, the best laid plans! 

We packed up the minivan and excitedly headed towards the lake.  There were a few sputs, spurts, squeaks & other minor complaints from our trusty “Super Caravan” in route, but we were not to be dissuaded.  The gas leak we noticed under the car had slowed from a dibble to a drip…and stopped completely if we parked the car just right.  We also decided the plastic bag wrapped around the hose was normal enough.  (Keep in mind two of us have lived in the African bush & the 3rd has us both beat with crazy travel experiences.)  We spent the night in a fantastic Yurt Camp right on the lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks.  You would never guess this was probably the birthplace of the plague.  The air was fresh & cool – insert more refreshing deep breaths – and I even wore jeans & a fleece!  Day 2 found us optimistic and off to a wonderful start.  Despite our confidence (ie; denial) that all was well, we started formulating Plans B, C & D just in case the minivan refused to get us up and over the mnts.  The day progressed – complete with frequent roadside stops for reassessment, speculation & a bonus stop for apple picking.  At one point we had a repair shop take a look…the mechanic reassured us the car wouldn’t explode, but he declined to guarantee it wasn’t going to completely crap out & leave us stranded.  We carried on.  As our heroic driver was getting leg cramps trying to stay in the sweet spot – somewhere around 35 mph (60 k/h) – we began to accept the fact that this hunk of metal just wasn’t going to cooperate.  Our extremely resilient travel buddy – who happens to be 2 ½ – seemed to agree, it was time to head home.  For the record, I continue to be impressed with how well this young man tolerated our adventure – his capacity for reading (and re-reading) books is astonishing, and most adults would’ve complained more than he did.  We also figured it might not be the best plan to take his 35-wk pregnant mother over 4,000 meters…although a little pre-term labor would’ve really spiced things up!  We planned to abandon the vehicle in Karakol – where we stayed in a nice little B&B – but luck was in our favor.  The owner of the car came out from Bishkek, found s’one to tinker a bit more & we successfully made it back safe & sound the next day.  If only we’d had a Lada…

Yurt Camp
Inside the Yurt
Me n Aziz

While in Bishkek we also toured a felting co-op where they felted carpets, shoes, scarves & small toys – very cool!  We also spent an afternoon on an Amazing hike in Ala-Archa Gorge (I think?!) – if crossing bottomless bridges, fording glacial streams & being surrounded by breath-taking mountains doesn’t recharge your batteries…you’ve got some issues.  It was just what this soul needed.  My holiday cumulated with a serene evening sharing food, wine and stories with great company.  I crashed on the couch for a few hrs before heading to the airport for my reluctant journey back to Jeddah.

Bottomless Bridge

Freeeezing Stream

It felt a bit strange to be returning from vacation to a place that doesn’t really feel like “home”…but here I am!  Back to heat, humidity & the glorious frustrations of work J  Honestly, it was a Wonderful two weeks and, as we all know, without a touch of stress at home, vacations would lose some luster.  I want to again thank my hosts/tour guides/friends!!  Thank you for sharing your homes, meals, energy & time – I am such a fortunate gal!  Nsh’allah I will be able to offer the same hospitality one day...