The days following my trip to the Dead Sea went nothing like I imagined. Initially, my plan was to apply for my visa to India, finally tour Tel Aviv, and spending some days leisurely wandering the city before heading south to Eilat along the Red Sea on my way to Petra. Even after traveling for the last seven months, I’m still surprised how frequently I’m wrong when it comes to predicting the future, but I have to say it’s always an adventure. The very first lesson I learned way back in Faro, Portugal was never, ever, ever let an opportunity to travel with good company pass by.
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After spending a few days wandering Jerusalem, I took a tour out of the city to visit Masada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea. Normally, I prefer to do things on my own instead of paying for someone to shuttle me around all day on a tour, but the logistics of getting to Masada, the Dead Sea, and back to Jerusalem via public transportation were extremely time-consuming. It took a little bit of convincing to get me to sign up for the tour, but I met a group of travelers on my first day in Tel Aviv who had great things to say about the Dead Sea tour. After mulling it over a few days, I decided to take to plunge and sign up.
In the days following my trip to Bethlehem for Christmas, I spent my time exploring the rest of Jerusalem. While I greatly enjoyed wandering the city with my friend Ron, now I had a opportunity take leisurely strolls through town, revisit the sights to take all my pictures, and explore distant places we didn’t have time for earlier in the week. Jerusalem is a remarkably fascinating city to learn about and I am repeatedly surprised by how many important religious landmarks are crammed into this relatively small plot of land. To any travelers out there considering a visit to Israel, I highly recommend spending at least a week in Jerusalem, there is far too much to see in just a couple days. Today I want to share my three favorite attractions in Jerusalem: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock.
Six months ago, as I sat waiting for my flight to Portugal to begin my trek across the world, I remember wondering where I would spend Christmas this year. It's a seemingly random thought considering the holiday was months away, but the last time I went traveling (during my exchange in Milan) I ended up missing Christmas with my family for the first time in my life. Thanks to an ill-fated snowstorm, instead of celebrating the holiday with family, I enjoyed some quality alone time in a Frankfurt airport hotel scavenging food from the vending machines. Not quite what you would call "Christmasy," but that's life. This time around, however, I'm voluntarily skipping out on the holidays, but was I destined to spend Christmas 2014 in a lonely airport hotel or in some other exotic location? Of all the possible outcomes I imagined, I never thought I’d be celebrating Christmas this year in the very town of Bethlehem!
After spending only one day in Tel Aviv, I headed out for Jerusalem to meet up with an old friend, Ron, who I met during my travels in Kiev, Ukraine. Many of the travelers I meet along the way ask to reach out if I’m ever in their hometown, but rarely do our schedules align - as in the case of Stephan from Cologne, Germany. I'm always hopeful to cross paths again with the people I meet on the road, but I know it’s always a long shot. When Ron messaged me saying he had a few free days to visit Jerusalem, I scrapped my original plans for Tel Aviv and quickly departed Tel Aviv even though I’d just arrived into the city. Since Ron is originally from in Israel, I couldn’t pass up the chance to travel around with a local.
While my arrival to Israel was remarkably pleasant, I remember hearing horror stories of travelers being detained and questioned for hours on end by the Israeli border officials. Given Israel’s location and checkered history, I understand the necessity for these this kind of security measures, but I was terrified being single man traveling alone with no solid plans would throw up a few red flags. I can’t stress this enough, not a single person I’ve encountered thus far on my trip has ever said anything good about their experience crossing the border into Israel. In fact, several people (and even web sites) said that if you don’t get detained at the border for at least 2 hours, you haven’t had the “true” Israeli experience.
My last stop in Turkey, Antalya, is a popular local vacation destination along the country's southern coast. I knew next to nothing about the city prior to my arrival, but Antalya came highly recommended by my fellow travelers and all it took was Google image search to sell me on this idyllic paradise. The pictures reminded me of the ever-intoxicating Croatian coastline, but I assumed the pictures online were either heavily photoshopped or taken at the most beautiful time of the year. It is the middle of December and so far Konya (my previous city) was depressingly rainy, Göreme was insanely cold, and Istanbul was both! I spent hours trying to lower my expectations of Antalya, but much to my surprise it is a spectacular city with easily the best weather I’ve experienced in so far in Turkey!
Since the beginning of my trip, whenever I mention plans to visit Turkey every traveler's immediate response is, "You have to visit Cappadocia!" Oddly enough, many people recommended Cappadocia to me even ahead of Istanbul, but I figured they couldn’t all be wrong - there obviously must be something special about this region of Turkey. I honestly didn’t have even the slightest idea of what I would find, but looking back I’m thrilled I visited. I’ve seen numerous exotic locations so far on my travels, but none compares to the incredibly unique landscape of Cappadocia.
Over the last three weeks in Istanbul I've become quite familiar with the city and it's slowly beginning to feel like "home." After weeks of exploring, I know where to get a good meal in town, where the best bars are in the area, how to bargain a bit (even though I'm still comically inept at it), and even how to navigate the Grand Bazaar without getting lost. I've wandered across the city numerous times, walking over 10 miles on most days, yet there are still parts of this great city I've yet to explore. There’s just too much to do and not nearly enough time to do it, but thankfully I had some help courtesy of a local friend.
Five and a half months of continuous travel takes its toll on any backpacker. While I’ve slowed down my travel schedule to make my lifestyle more sustainable, eventually the constant moving was bound to catch up with me. Many people back home think it’s absurd I need a "vacation from my vacation,” but the reality of the matter is that long-term travel is far more tiring than you'd expect. While travel is absolutely thrilling, it boils down to a lot of logistics planning. Since no two days are ever the same, I am forced to constantly pay attention to my surroundings, figure out solutions to a variety of novel issues on a daily basis, and adjust my short term plans based on a never-ending array of unexpected changes. Thankfully, my three weeks in Istanbul was a return to a “normal” life that I’d long since forgotten and gave me the chance to explore the city at my leisure.