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These Meals Are our Memories: The Best Food of 2018

If we’re being totally honest here, I pretty much measure time by when I’ll get to eat again. When I was young (read: current age) I would actually think about when I’d get to eat breakfast as soon as I finish my dinner (read: during dinner). When I was really little (really), my mom would set one spot for breakfast when she went to bed, so that I can go eat my breakfast immediately when I wake up at 5 or 6am.

This post is not an ode to breakfast in case you were confused.

It’s an ode to all the best meals we’ve had in 2018. Obviously we got to travel a fair amount. Last year we accidentally set foot in 22 countries, and while each meal is important, some meals are more important than others. These were the meals we wanted to write home about:

P.S. Italy did not even make the list.

THE BEST MEALS OF 2018:

SOFIA, BULGARIA

Via some Schengen visa running and halfhearted intentions to go skiing (for cheap), we ended up in Bansko, Bulgaria one weekend in February. We arrived just in time for dinner and ready for it too, and found the nearest and best traditional restaurant to get in to the Bulgarian swing of things. Tucked in a quiet corner, this restaurant was decked out with wooden ceilings and hog heads and stone walls and quilted cloths and giant copper domes and all kind of other traditional knick knacks. No sooner had we ordered a meal, the traditional band with an accordion and everything started playing and taking actual folk song requests from what we assume must be Bulgarians.

And then the food came out, and the rest of the evening is a blur because holy heck Bulgarian food is actually incredible. Juicy roasted meats, kebabs as long as our torsos, grilled breads and homemade wines. And of course that quintessential Shopska salad. 

WHERE: The Hadjidragana Tavern, Sofia

WHAT TO ORDER: The Chopska salad and whatever meats your heart desires. 

MOSTAR, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA 

We have definitively rated Bosnia & Herzegovina as the single most underrated place we have ever been to, and Bosnian food must have been one of the biggest surprises of 2018, because it is actually incredible. It may have helped that we were very almost hangry by the time we sat down for our first Bosnian meal, but when I sunk my teeth into that lamb chop grilled over the open coals I felt home. This is what grilled lamb is supposed to taste like. I know, because I am South African. 

Meat that tastes like a South African braai + everything else that tastes like Turkish food = am I dead and is this heaven? 

WHERE: Restaurant Hindin Han

WHAT TO ORDER: LAMB CHOPS! 

Bosnian food is life!

CAMBRIA, USA 

Always listen to your parents! 

We spent a night in cutest Cambria during the greatest little central Californian road trip of 2018. Everything went right: our Airbnb was everything that we love about Airbnb, Hearst Castle appealed to our wildest and fanciest eccentricities, and the coastal drives were pristinely Californian. Most of all, however, the rightest of right, was The Sea Chest, which came highly recommended by our California parents. A quintessential Cambria eatery inside a historic beach home, where locals cook and eat at the open kitchen bar. The scallops, the oysters, the crisp Californian wine. It wasn’t cheap, but hot damn it was good. 

WHERE: The Sea Chest

WHAT TO GET: Oysters!

BUELLTON, USA 

I know Chris knows all the good places, but still I was skeptical when we pulled into a bunch of warehouses in Buellton for lunch. A line of people spilling outside an otherwise empty industrial parkin area gently reassured me of this place’s reputation. And let me just say, if I were you I would get in line. 

We ordered entirely too much from the vague menu, which lists only the main ingredients for the dishes that aren’t sandwiches or pizza. This part of the menu is literally titled ‘not pizza,’ and when we ordered ‘porchetta, potato, pasilla, egg’ we thought we might get some small tapa kind of thing instead of a giant mound of porchetta with a sunny side egg on top. 

“The best food memories almost never includes moderation. ”   – me, I said that.

WHERE: Industrial Eats 

WHAT TO GET: The Wilby sandwich, ANY pizza, and the cauliflower. 



MOSCOW, RUSSIA

Who cares about waiting for a table if you can have Bloody Marys at a dark wooden bar reminiscent of a 19th century pharmacy in Moscow? 

This was one of our favourite dining experiences of the year. We had no idea really what to expect, but our jaws hit the floor once we stepped inside Café Pushkin, which feels more like a library meets pharmacy meets palace. Servers move about with impressive speed and precision, ducking around FIFA-clad tourists and their backpacks without being dicks about it. 

At this point we have long since been sold on Café Pushkin, even when our bar for Russian cuisine was rather low. It would be our first traditional meal after eating pizza and whatever at whichever place was showing the World Cup games. But we were quickly won over when the watermelon salad was set, deeply agreeing as the steaming dumplings came out, and long past needing to be convinced as we sipped our post-lunch vodkas

The absolute perfect meal to end off our moments in Moscow before hopping on the Red Arrow to St Petersburg. 

WHERE: Café Pushkin

WHAT TO ORDER: Russian dumplings and vodka 

BALI, INDONESIA

We knew we’d eat well when we took off to Asia for 2 months, but we’ve never heard people raving about Balinese food like the way people talk about Vietnamese or Thai food. 

Well, surprise surprise: Balinese food is GOOD. Like, actually really good. Ginger and chilli and onions and coconut and fresh fish and satay and can you ever get enough of that sambal? It’s good. 

But beyond this, WHO KNEW that our favourite meal in Bali would be the 5-courses cooked by yours truly in a traditional Balinese kitchen with 4 other strangers in a cooking class? Chicken meatball soup, chicken satay on lemongrass skewers, tofu and tempeh curry, salad, rice, and green coconut pancakes.

We are pretty good cooking Balinese food, if I do say so myself.

WHERE: Dong Ding Cooking Class 

WHAT TO EAT: All the things you made yourself like a boss. 

No big deal.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA 

We have been so spoilt.

First we spent 2 years in one of the restaurant districts in one of the top food capitals in the world (London). Then we went to Berlin where the Asian food scene is actually off the charts. So when my cousin boasted of the food scene of his second home, Kuala Lumpur, I rolled my eyes. Ok, sure, buddy. 

Well I am rolling my eyes at my past eye-rolling self.

In reality, our visit to Kuala Lumpur, a South East Asian melting pot, was just a string of eating one mouthwatering meal after another. There are too many good meals to mention after only just a week, but there is one which we cannot gloss over:

The famous Nasi Lemak at Village Park. 

Fat puffy coconut rice marries the crispiest fried chicken you could ever imagine. 

One boiled egg, fresh cucumber, spicy as sambal, and, weird, but just let it slide, sneaky dried anchovies. We went here twice and my cousin had to hold us back or we wouldn’t have tried anything else after going to this place.

WHERE: Village Park Restaurant

WHAT TO GET: GET THE NASI FREAKIN LEMAK. If you are feeling extra, the Milo Dinosaur is a chocolate milk drink so extravagant it shouldn’t be legal. 

BOHOL, PHILIPPINES 

I am going to be honest here. Overall, Philippines does not come through food-wise. In a region with incredible food, it’s dropping the ball a bit. 

But then there’s Pilya!

It’s just a little kiosk in an alleyway on an island, but it is big on flavour. Really very big. And on an island full of below-average sandwich, burger and pizza places – or, if you’re like us, eating pringles for breakfast before a day of diving – it’s the perfect opportunity to see how good traditional Filipino food can be. Ok, not exactly ‘traditional,’ but something close to it.   

WHERE: Pilya! Basta Cuisine

WHAT TO GET: Bistec, a traditional pork dish. 

SINGAPORE

Every taxi driver, every hotel clerk, every Singaporean resident that we spoke to in Singapore very proudly insisted that we try the local favourite: Chilli Crab. Everyone had differing opinions of where the best chilli crab is served and how much it should cost, but everyone agreed that it is where it’s at. We were at first entirely overwhelmed with the wealth of incredible street food, and how affordable it all is, that we gave the chilli crab a skip. It seemed far too expensive, having just landed from Berlin. 

However, we rendezvoused back in Singapore after a month or so of backpacking in Bali and staying with my family in Malaysia. We had convinced my cousin to join us, and after eating for cheap for that long, we were ready to splurge a bit. Chilli Crab is on the menu.

Plus our Singaporean friend Sarah took all the guess work out of where to get it and what varieties to get. Fast forward a few hours waiting for the table and then the crab, two giant pans were brought to our table, filled each with two steaming crabs: one pan classic chilli, the other salted egg. It was so decadent and rich, and so singular; we felt extra extravagant. 

After each country I would ask Joel what our favourite meal was. Of course Chilli Crab waster favourite meal in Singapore. But it also beat out all the other Asian favourites. So that must mean that Chilli Crab in Singapore with Sarah and Hendrik was our favourite meal of our whole two months in SE Asia. 

WHERE: Jumbo Seafood Restaurant 

WHAT: Classic chilli crab 

ISTANBUL, TURKEY 

You can bet that if we’ve been to Turkey that we would’ve had some of our best meals there, because Turkish food is actually what dreams are made of. And the crowning glory of all Turkish meals is the most important meal of the day. The Turkish ‘Kavahlti’ is quite honestly the reason to get out of bed in mornings. The last few years we have tried to spend all our free time in Turkey so we are pseudo-experts, and then when we weren’t in Turkey we were living in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, nicknamed ‘Little Istanbul’, which is the next best thing to actually living in Istanbul. So we thought we knew all the best spots for breakfast. 

And then, after years of going to Istanbul and eating breakfasts at our favourite places, our friend Dilan took us to a place called Beyaz Firin (the White Oven), and now we are convinced we’ve had the best breakfast in the city, and in life, forever and ever amen. 

WHERE: Beyaz Firin, Besiktas

WHAT: Any and all the breakfast items on the menu, but most specifically the breakfast pan and the traditional breakfast. 

RAS AL HADD, OMAN

In a small fishing village on the easternmost point of Oman, where there is nothing besides a tea shop and a market, and there is nothing to do but fish and rescue baby turtles, is an Airbnb host who has somehow become our friend. Salem is the probably the wildest guy we know; he also makes the best bbq’d fish we’ve ever eaten.

The second time we stayed with Salem he immediately took us to the beach where the little boats pull in loaded with the day’s catch, grabbed a giant mahi-mahi (dorado or dolphin fish), proceeded to cut it up in portions (carefully removing a whole squid from the thing’s stomach) right there on the beach, and that was our dinner a few hours later. Nobody pays for mahi-mahi or snapper or tuna or any kind of fish in Ras al Hadd, at least not Salem, who barrels through the village like a berber force. 

Grilled on the coals, stewed in the pot, whichever way it’s been served to us (and always with gigantic portions of rice with fresh tomatoes and dates and thick chunks of onion), it is every time better than the time before. 

WHERE: Book your stay with Salem on airbnb, and you’ll see what we mean. Use this discount code if it’s your first time.

Salem cutting up our dinner right on the beach

VENTURA, USA 

We have spent a lot of time getting cheap and juicy middle eastern food from various shabby institutions in London, and especially in Berlin, where the Turkish dürüm has taken on a whole new German meaning. We love these meals. We get them sober. 

I suppose these kinds of take away foods are a staple in big cities but scantly available in the suburbs, which is why I was surprised to hear Joel’s family rave about some middle eastern place in a little convenience store in Ventura, which is basically a large coastal suburb dressed as a small city. 

We found the market, passed the sodas and the cereals, and sure enough, all the way in the back, was a slowly churning dripping döner kebab. Our eyes lit up with sparkling stars. 

We have had a lot of döner wraps. Like an ungodly amount. In all kinds of places. 

This beef lamb mix wrap, with the pickles and the garlic sauce on the side, has been, for now, the best of them.

Don’t be Californian and get the greek salad or whatever else seems healthiest, get that doner kebab in toasted wrap. It’s the bomb.

WHERE: Santa Cruz Market, Ventura, California

WHAT TO GET: Tri-tip and lamb wrap 

Honestly, this is the best middle eastern wrap food we’ve ever had.

HAVANA, CUBA 

La Guarida is one of the oldest paladars in Havana (private family-run restaurants as oppose to government institutions), and used to be operated illegally. Now it is one of the most famous, and admittedly most expensive, restaurants in Havana (as in £10 – £14 for a main meal.). We splurged and celebrated our 6th anniversary at La Guarida, and we immediately recognised it as one of the best meals of 2018. Everything was perfectly prepared and beautifully served; by any accounts this was a meal that we would not be able to afford in the States or Europe. 

Plus it helps that the restaurant is housed in one of the most breathtaking, photogenic, quintessentially crumbling Cuban mansions. 

WHERE: Paladar La Guarida

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO 

There is absolutely no shortage of mouthwatering Mexican food in California, but there is nothing like eating tacos in Mexico City. I don’t even remember any specific taco (it might be because we ate like 40 each over 2 and a half days), I just remember that we haven’t had tacos that good. From chain restaurants, from cool hip places, from less-than-kosher-looking kiosks and stands, every taco was as good as or better than the next. Granted, there are some less-than-appetising varieties (octopus tacos are rich, pork skin tacos are downright dirty – and not in a good way), so you might want to proceed with caution. 

But then you can always chase it with freshly fried churros or some horchata from the other side of the street. It’s a win-win-win.

WHERE: Taco stands, Mexico City

WHAT TO GET: All of the tacos. (None of the pork skin). 



From the most underrated (hello Bulgaria!) to the most obvious (tacos in Mexico, who knew?) 2018 did not help our weight loss strategies. But like I always say, when you travel you want the richest most intense experiences – you want to try the specialities and all the local favourites – and no place is ever known for an egg white omelet with spinach.

These meals are out memories.

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The Best Beds of 2019

After 6 months without an address or a home base, 6 months of traveling to 14 different countries, 6 months of never staying in one room for more than 3 weeks (but mostly more like 4 days) and a year of moving every two or three months, we have finally moved in to our new apartment in Cape Town for the next year. Opening up the vacuum seals and packing out our bags required a momentous mental shift; the idea that if I packed something out and it would still be in that same place by the end of the year seemed almost excessive. It is a giant relief. 

So in celebration of having a home again, I am remembering all the best temporary homes we’ve had this year. 

Sometimes it doesn’t all go according to plan. Sometimes you can’t find a spot to pitch your tent in the middle of Oman and you forego pitching it in the village playground like a local stranger suggested and you end up sleeping in a dirty and hairy room, stiffly on top of the blanket falling asleep praying that there isn’t lice or bed bugs. But most of the time, if you’re able to lean into it, the world and its friends and strangers treat you well. Sometimes exceptionally well. This is a list of the latter – our best beds of 2018:

CAPE AGULHAS, SOUTH AFRICA

AKA THE SOUTHERMOST BEDROOM IN AFRICA. 

We kicked off 2018 with a bang, bed-wise: we booked a night in Agulhas, the little South African town perched right at the edge of the continent. But we didn’t just book any old place; we found a very adorable little ocean-side cottage, which we soon found out to be the very first house ever built in the town, and also the southernmost house ever built on the African continent. We went to sleep with nothing between us and Antartica but the wild, raging southern Atlantic ocean. 

This B&B immediately lands our list of best 2018 accommodations based on its absolutely unique location. But besides that, Southermost B&B is homy and cozy, with a rustic Greek-style courtyard, and one of the warmest Airbnb hosts we’ve ever had. 

BEFORE YOU BOOK

This is not for you if you want luxury and wifi (there is none). The house hasn’t been changed since it was built, so the toilet and shower are both respectively across the courtyard. But the beating light of Africa’s southernmost lighthouse will light the way for you if you need to go in the middle of the night – so that’s a whole experience right there.

Find it here on Airbnb.

The southernmost  bedroom in Africa
The southernmost view in Africa

CAPPADOCIA, TURKEY 

OR, A 6TH-CENTURY WINERY CARVED INTO A CAVE

Imagine about 100 hot air balloons rising to the sky right outside your front door; 

horses galloping in and out of the wild valley as seen from your porch; 

your cosy bed inside of a cave-winery that was carved from the alien-like rock structures back in the 6th-century; 

an old man roasting you chestnuts and playing Turkish love songs on the sitar; 

kittens running back and forth.

It’s called Natureland Cave Hotel, and it might look a bit like a messy Turkish hobbit-house from the outside, but it is more like magic and there’s no other place to stay when you’re going to Cappadocia. 

Find it here on Airbnb. Use this discount if it’s your first time!

BEFORE YOU BOOK

This is the ultimate guide you’ll need to read before you go to Cappadocia. 

The best cave in Cappadocia isn't fancy, but it's spectacularly authentic
The OG Cappadocia cave house
Views from Natureland Cave Hotel are the best
This place has the best backdoor views. All this open space is where the balloons take off in the mornings too.

TORONTO, CANADA

SLEEPING IN A BASEBALL STADIUM

Joel had to be in Toronto for work, and we had absolutely no idea that the Marriott City Centre was actually built into the Rogers Centre, aka the Blue Jays Stadium, aka a baseball field, so you can imagine our surprise when we walked into our two-story suite and found this view:

Now, even someone with next to no appreciation for American team sports, whose entire bank of baseball knowledge comes from one or two viewings of the Jimmy Fallon classic Perfect Pitch, can recognise the epicness of a view like that. 

Plus, a super nice suite that we didn’t have to pay for? Yes, please.

BEFORE YOU BOOK: 

Having your window open up to a field view of an enclosed baseball stadium is kind of weird, because you can never tell what time of day it is. Also, it’s wildly expensive on game days

The Toronto Marriot has killer views of the Blue Jays Stadium
The Toronto Marriot has killer views of the Blue Jays Stadium
Room with a view

CAMBRIA, CALIFORNIA

THE PUB 

We got to stay in The Pub on the first night of the best Californian road trip ever, which featured three nights of three amazing accommodations, that all made this list. It’s just a little man cave made to look like a classic British pub tucked in the garden next to Amy’s house in Cambria. 

A little wooden fireplace, stacks of books, a cosy bed tucked in the bed, and bagels and coffee in the morning.

Find it on Airbnb, along with over a thousand 5-star reviews. 

BEFORE YOU BOOK: 

There’s no toilet inside the shack, but Amy is so warm and welcoming you will have no problem going in and out of the main house. 

The Pub is an Airbnb gem in Cambria, California
The Pub: A little man shed turned magical hobbit house in Amy's garden
The Pub is everything we love about Airbnb

LOS ALAMOS, CALIFORNIA

THE BEST MOTEL YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF

The Alamo Motel is retro Western ultra cool. Understated cool with bare claw tubs and cow skin rugs and skulls outside with berry and flower crowns. It’s the epitome of the one-street town it lives in – an authentic creativity abounds. 

We wanted to book another night almost as soon as we woke up the next morning, but they were regrettably booked out.

Find it here on booking.com

BEFORE YOU BOOK:

This is the only Central Californian road trip guide you’ll ever need. 

SAN LUIS OBISPO, CALIFORNIA

A COWBOY BARBIE DOLLHOUSE

Madonna Inn is a landmark Californian hotel, unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. It’s kitchy and extra and pink and gold, and each of the 110 rooms has a separate theme. We played tennis on a hot pink court before breakfast and spent hours in the pool sipping pink drinks. What more could you possibly want in life?

BEFORE YOU BOOK:

Some rooms are super extravagant with towers and waterfall rock showers and are super expensive, other are more plain old grandma kitsch and these are the affordable rooms, about $70 or $80 for a 2-bed suite.

Find it here on booking.com.

The Madonna Inn is a pink and gold delight
The Madonna Inn comes fully fitted with hot pink tennis courts.

THE DOLOMITES, ITALY

THE ITALIAN MOUNTAIN STONE COTTAGE

Tucked away outside the teeny tiny Italian village of Pialdier stood the stone cottage, in the shadow of the Belluno Dolomites, with a stereotypically sweet Italian lady who welcomed us with Italian espresso and tea. We managed to bridge the language gap by her sweetness alone. This is where we stayed for the weekend, and it makes our list due to its location and quaintness. We woke up to the fresh mountain air, we ate takeaway gelato in the fields, we tried to communicate with a door-to-door Italian vacuum-salesman (really), we entertained an adorable little dachshund, and spent whatever time we had left exploring the nearest reaches of the Dolomites. 

Also, we followed our host and strolled through the grounds of an abandoned villa, because she insisted we see it before we left. 

Find it here on Airbnb. Use this discount if you’re new to the platform. 

The perfect mountain villa in the shade of the Dolomites
The perfect setting for an Italian villa

OBERALM, AUSTRIA

THE FAMILY MANSION

We wanted to spend one night in Salzburg on our Germanic road trip with our family who was visiting us from California, but the accommodations in the city was just too expensive to justify. Plus, we were all piled into a huge van and we all know how fun it is driving and parking big old vehicles in centuries-old European cities (it’s not). 

So instead we landed a huge and gorgeous country-side house in a little town called Oberalm, about 30 minutes from Salzburg, and it was perfect. Queue quiet morning walks, family photo contests, a rowdy Italian dinner, mixed feelings about a stuffed toy couch, and this golden dog called Fox:

The dog called Fox in front of our Austrian Airbnb home
We had our doubts about the soft toy couch, but all in all a pretty great airbnb.

Find it here on Airbnb. Use this discount if you’re new to the platform. 

UBUD, BALI

PRIVATE POOL VILLA 

After spending hours looking for the best places to stay in Ubud for a week, I finally decided to book it, despite the fact that it had poorly cropped photos and only three reviews on Airbnb. But then our jaws dropped when Tria, another one of Airbnb’s most incredible hosts, opened the beautiful Balinese double doors to our little abode. A small one-bedroom villa with a tiny little private pool and a sun bed overlooking a local rice field was our quintessential Bali villa. And then Tria’s dad brought us two giant coconuts with a seemingly never ending supply of coconut water. Also, it wasn’t long before their two cats came seeking snuggles at night. We wished we could stay longer; we wished we could stay forever. 

We tried to book it again for a couple of nights. It was already booked, so Tria put us up in another one of their family villas. Except this time the villa was twice as big and twice as wonderful. 

Bliss.

If this list were ordered in ranking, the Ubud villas would place first, without a doubt. 

Find it here on Airbnb. Use this discount if you’re new to the platform.

The quintessential Balinese villa
We got set up with an even bigger villa when we wanted to book it again.
Villa number two was even better than the first.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

A FAMILY REST STOP ON THE 40-SOMETHING’TH FLOOR

A week in Malaysia, being take care of by family, in between zipping all over Bali and roughing it in the Philippines, was like food for the soul for two weary travellers. When we weren’t shown around the city by my cousin (aka the best tour guide in KL), we were just relaxing with the family, watching Terrace House, getting some exercise in the infinity lap pool, watching the city sunset through the windows, feeling right at home. 

Sunset from a Kuala Lumpur skyscraper
Swimming laps in the infinity pool in the city

OMAN

WILD CAMPING UNDER THE STARS 

This year we spent a month in Oman, where there are no rules about camping. You just drive your car along a wild landscape where the desert meets the Omani sea, and pitch your tent wherever you fancy. Then you watch the sky light up with the Milky Way with your feet in the sand – and no one around for miles.

If we’re talking about comfort, this ‘bed’ falls far off the list. It was not comfortable (we didn’t have mattresses) but it was so extraordinary. 

I woke up the morning after our first night, with dawn glistening over the sea, noticing some brown things popping up out of the water every now and then. It took of couple of minutes squinting and cleaning my glasses to realise what they were: Turtles. Lots and lots of turtles silently coming up for air in our backyard. Good morning, Oman. 

NOTE:

You don’t need a month in Oman. Check out this 4-day road trip itinerary. 

GUATEMALA

A FRIENDSHIP COMPOUND ON VOLCANOES

It only took us two years to make good on our threats to our favourite Guatemalan-American couple, Angelo and Emily, but we finally made it to Guatemala to spend what would become our favourite New Years Eve ever. 

We met up with old and new friends and took the winding road through a gorgeous lush Guatemala from the City to Lake Atitlan. And then we checked in to our Airbnb and all our Guatemalan dreams came true: A little tiered compound, 3 cottages for 6 friends, each with its own spectacular sunset view over lake Atitlan and the volcanoes that it’s cradled in. 

Well booked, Angelo; well played, Guatemala. 

Find this hidden gem here on Airbnb. Use this discount if you’re new to the platform.

VERY NB NOTE:

Guatemala is wildly underrated. 

Booking your accommodation on booking.com through our blog will help generate us some income at no additional cost to you!

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Friends & Istanbul: the antidote to tired travellers

There is something to be said about the precarious feeling of returning to an old home base. The feeling of instant familiarity, but also of countless nuanced changes – so that you know you know it, but you also know that it is not the same place you’ve known before. For me a place like this is Istanbul.

 

Anyone who knows me well will know that I lost my heart in Istanbul working in my favourite museum in the world, The Museum of Innocence. If you heard me talk about Istanbul, you’d think we spent a year there, or more – but the reality is we spent just a few three months staying in the city. But it seemed remarkable how easily I fell in to the rhythm of this ancient place. I made new friends, I knew where all my favourite street cats stayed, I had my favourite place to buy onions, which was different from where I liked to get my honey and cheese, and still different from where I got my strawberry tea. The shopkeepers stopped showing me the prices on their calculators and started to speak to me in Turkish as I learnt, and the junk shop guy would give me bits and bobs for dirt cheap (and offer me tea afterwards) while I listened as he refused to name a reasonable price for the other tourists perusing his Aladdin’s Cave. The guys at the corner knew to make me a half chicken sandwich when I showed up at lunchtime (and to give me the receipt), and we were almost always treated with a free desert at Omers’s restaurant. Or given a rice pudding to go when we said we couldn’t possibly eat any more.

 

I am not under the bizarre impression that Istanbul is some sort of second home to me. I loved the corner we frequented, but I have little understanding of the complex net of socio-political topographies. I don’t speak Turkish, and have forgotten much of the little that I learnt. I can’t stay for as long as my heart desires (though the visa is free for South Africans). I can’t cook Turkish food, or do anything else valuable that would show any sort of lived comprehension of the culture and the roots. I didn’t even have a bank account. So I won’t call it a ‘homecoming’ – that’d be a bit insulting to Istanbul’s actual residents, people that are rooted, even trapped in its place and history. But I do feel a warm at-ease-ness every time I come back. I don’t need to check my phone for directions every time I walk somewhere; I can walk with a purpose of knowing what I’m after, and a purposelessness of someone who isn’t afraid she’ll get lost without one. I love stepping off in Istanbul without the pressure of doing and seeing stuff and being the tourist that I am, but instead just being content with taking pleasure of being there.

 

And we were fortunate to have two layovers in Istanbul during this long backpacking journey. We were welcomed into our friend Dilan’s palace, and we just revelled in being together and enjoying life’s luxuries like bomb breakfasts, streetcats that aren’t gross, being able to flush toilet paper (not in SE Asia, you don’t!), wine and cheese, and the simple luxury that is strolling along the Bosphorus (in one of Dilan’s favourite neighbourhoods that she told me about 3.5 years ago but hasn’t been able to show us until now!) . These were two days of eating, sleeping, eating, strolling, laughing, trying to convince Dilan to get a cat, and more eating. The first layover was the relief of a feeling like home and familiarity and the world’s best breakfast after mildly roughing it and backpacking in the Philippines (not strong on the breakfast scale), and by the time of the second layover Dilan nursed as back to health after a monumentally tiring Egyptian trip from Sharm el Sheikh to Cairo, and back again, the day before.

This is the best breakfast in Istanbul

Istanbul's snuggly street cats

Istanbul's cats

We’ve traveled a lot the last few years, and 2018 has been especially rough. It is a great adventure, but it can be tiring sometimes, and what we miss most is the constant of everyday rituals and a community – friends to love and be loved by (in person). So moments like these – strolling through Bebek with Dilan, picking up every third snuggly cat, and being given a bed and a couch and space to feel at home in, is what nourishes and repairs traveler like us. Like a den where we can rest from the chase, catch our breath a bit.

Mostly, though, we always just wished we stayed longer every time we get to hang out in Istanbul.

 

P.S. 

The best breakfast in Istanbul is at Beyaz Fırın in Beşiktaş. This is our official statement.

Snuggling Istanbul cats in Beşiktaş

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Sharm el Sheikh to Cairo, and back again

I would rather have a passport that grants me access to all the places that Joel’s passport allows him to go. I would rather not have to pay all of that $$$ for every visa I need to get; I would rather not have to gather all the bank statements and hotel bookings and proof of insurance and all the rest; I’d rather pass up on the stress of going to the application appointment to endure a string of what feels like criminalising questions; I’d rather forget about all the third-party visa agencies that couldn’t care less about you or your passport; I’d rather not have to go to my home country at the southern tip of Africa every time I want to get permission to go somewhere. BUT…NOTHING beats the feeling of relief and joy and pure unadulterated excitement when you are handed back your passport with a brand crispy new visa in it. Which is why I was especially excited to go back to Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.

(Not visa-free, but a free visa for South Africans, woohoo!)

 

We got our Advanced diving license in Sharm two years ago, and we haven’t been in clearer waters anywhere else in the world since then. It is incredible – like almost not even credible, it is so crazy clear. And ever since then we have been dying to go back to this blue universe.

Well, we are in between jobs and degrees and homes – so…no better time than now, right?

 

Sharm el Sheikh, the town

Sharm el Sheikh sits on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, flanked by the red sea and sheltered by the Sinai Mountains that rise dramatically from the dust. We love it here. Joel has bragged about Sharm el Sheikh so much to his family that his dad now jokingly refers to it as Caramel Shake (pronounced the American way – it’s better). But you’d probably be surprised if you showed up in town, thinking: “….this is what they have been raving about???”

Sharm sunset

Looking out over sleepy Sharm el Sheikh at sunset

It’s a strange little town, actually. Before the 1960s it was sparsely populated by Bedouins living in shacks and tents in the shade of the mountains, and some fishermen drawing life from the sea. And then like a mushroom in the night, it became a thriving resort city for Israelis and Russians. But it’s half empty now, tourism has tanked after a plane got shot down about three years ago, with closed down restaurants, mall and hotel construction sites stopped mid-way. Salespeople who moved their lives here when it was booming have little to do and are particularly aggressive. Shisha lounges line the street with no customers. So now it’s a sparse, flat town lining the bays with faded Russian signage and lush resort hotels. An Arabic twilight zone where all the Egyptians can speak not only Arabic and broken English, but fluent Russian or Polish or Italian. Actually, we were almost always at first approached in Russian before we told them we are from South Africa. It’s strange place.

But we don’t love it for its town.

Sharm el Sheikh, the back country

It’s more than just a neglected tourist town – the majestic mountains are rich to explore and the sun sets in a red ball of glory every night behind them. In fact, one of our favourite travel experiences ever was climbing Mount Sinai in the dead of the night for the golden sunrise. This time we took off on ATVs just behind the main town, Naama Bay, to kick up some dust and chase some storks. We yelled our names into ‘Echo Mountain’ with a bunch of Arabic tourists, and waited for the mountains to yell it back to us. Tourism has picked up a lot since we came here two years ago, when the Hilton was so empty we could have had our names echoed back to us in the foyer, so it was nice to get out of the crowded resort.

Sharm el Sheikh: Affordable Luxury

Honestly we also like Sharm because it is cheap. We stayed all-inclusive at the Hilton for 70EUR a night, in a huge ocean-view room. A beautiful resort with multiple pools and spectacular snorkelling right from its private beach. Also, we just came from the Philippines, where we roughed it for 10USD a night, where power cut out and toilets didn’t flush and fans didn’t really do it for us at night in the 90% humidity or whatever it was. So when we arrived in Sharm it was a power shot of ultra super duper luxury, and we welcomed it with open arms!

Sharm: Gate to the Red Sea

But mostly we love Sharm el Sheikh because the diving is out of this world. The water is a colour of blue that gets you every time, the visibility is 15 meters on a bad day, but 30 meters most of the time, and the conditions are always mint. Sharm el Sheikh has something like 364 days of sunshine a year. And in this case, a sparsely populated town with a dwindling tourist industry is perfect. Less people in the water means healthier sea life. Plus, it’s got one of the top-ten dive sites in the world in the Ras Mohammed National Park – Shark & Yolanda, where we got to descend in the open blue, with the Shark Reef wall dropping hundreds of meters into the darkness below, and explore the Yolanda wreck with toilets and bathtubs and basins strewn about at a shallow end a few meters away. There is no place for reef diving and visibility like the Red Sea at the tip of the Sinai peninsula. 

Sharm Shark & Yolanda

Finishing up a dive at the famous Shark & Yolanda reefs.

Diving sharm

Added bonus: all the diving boats are really, very nice

Sharm to Cairo

And when we got all the diving out of our system, we decided to do something a bit crazy. Joel has never seen the pyramids before, so I convinced him we should go to Cairo for a day. It’s crazy because we would leave at midnight on a bus from Sharm, get to Cairo at 8am, do all the stuff, leave there at 3pm, get back at midnight (if there aren’t delays or traffic!!!), fly from Sharm to Istanbul at 3am, fly from Istanbul to Oman at 9pm.

Three continents, two days.

Impossible, right?

Wrong.

We did it.

Sharm to Cairo, at the pyramids

Made it.

We were exhausted.

But we did it, we survived the surprisingly crowded Egyptian Museum after no sleep and no breakfast. We fell asleep only for a minute on the Nile cruise. We managed to convince all of the Papyrus sales people that I already bought one 15 years ago and don’t need another kitschy papyrus with my name in hieroglyphs. WE SURVIVED THE PYRAMIDS. We posed for every dumb photo they made us pose for until we had to be rude about it. We managed to completely evade the sales people in the perfume shop. We skipped the bus ride back and bought tickets online with Air Egypt from Cairo to Sharm. We made it to the airport in time. We realised we didn’t actually have tickets. We bought tickets again. We flew back to Sharm with plenty of time to catch our flight to Istanbul.

It will now forever be known as the craziest 48 hours of travel we have ever done, until, God forbid, we do something crazier. We spent valuable time on three continents in two days.

The Nile

The Nile: Good a place as any for a nap.

If someone instructs us to do an optical illusion photo one more time…

By the end of it – when we finally arrived back in Sharm el Sheikh – we were so ready to move on and get out of Egypt. We were so ready to say goodbye to the busy resort luxury in Sharm and usher in a time for early quiet mornings of camping on the beaches of Oman for a month. So we checked in, checked our backpacks right through to Muscat, even though we were still to spend a day in Istanbul, and took off right out of there on my window seat.

 

Sayonara Sharm. That’s a wrap from us.

Sharm ATV

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A Birthday in Bohol: Travel Diary Update

If the Phillipines was Joel’s birthday trip, then Bohol was the birthday island. We were only staying for 3 nights, so we jumped right into packing our days full of incredible things to do – after we found some mouthwatering Filipino fusion food at Pilya near Alona Beach.

After our amazing-turned-terrible snorkelling session at Apo Island, we were eager to get some dives in before we departed this beautiful island nation, so we signed ourselves up for a day of diving with Bohol Dive Club right away. And the dives were incredible. Giant turtles half the size of us, sea snakes, and fields of eels popping out of the sand bed simultaneously, floating around like long little ghosts before taking cover in unison again. And then there was that giant shoal of Jackfish. Hundreds of half-meter fish slowly forming tornados and clouds and walls. Joel and the dive master drifted through as they parted like the red sea, but before I could follow the wall of jackfish closed up just inches from my face as I waved to Joel and he completely disappeared on the other side behind them. You just hang there and it feels like you are just engulfed inside of this giant shoal of fish.

We hailed in thirty-five on the rooftop of our 5-storey, artist-designed tower Airbnb with a couple of beers as we watched the sunset on one side, and a thunderstorm roll in on the other.

Sunset, Bohol

Thunderstorms, Bohol

Thunderstorms, Bohol

THE CHOCOLATE HILLS

So on Joel’s birthday there was only one more thing to do on Bohol island: see the famous chocolate hills.

It was a tight schedule. The chocolate hills were at least 1h30min drive from our Airbnb – in a car. We were going on a cute little yellow scooter. So that’s 3-4 hours of driving right there. But we had to be back by 4.30pm to be picked up for a kayaking with fireflies excursion that we got really excited about and booked the day before. And we also really wanted to check out a snorkelling spot that was recommended by our host. And in-between all this we had to check out of the tower and check in somewhere else.

We packed up and set off early, deciding to ignore our hunger and just stop at a place on the way. The chocolate hills are a well-known tourist attraction, so there will be something along the way right?

Wrong.

A house here and there where people are leaving cooked dished in pans on the window sills, for sale. At-home convenient stores where chips and cookies and water are sold from behind metal griddles.

The islands that we visited in the Philippines made Bali look like an all-inclusive resort.

Finally we spotted a bakery and quickly devoured some muffins and ice cream for breakfast. I mean, did you even have a birthday if you didn’t have ice cream for breakfast?

The Tarsier sanctuary was our first stop, after cruising through the wonderfully cool and eerily quiet man-made forest. Tarsiers are teeny tiny tiny little primates that will fit snuggly in the palm of your hand. They are furry little alien babies. Top level cute.

Man Made Forest, Bohol

Cooling down in the shade of the man made Mahogany forest

Tarsier sanctuary, Bohol

Tarsier sanctuary, Bohol

 

And then the we noticed dark and angry-looking clouds moving across our way, dwarfing the hills where they came from. The light drizzle turned to pelting rain, and we happen to pass by the only building in sight when torrential rains swept through. A local lady ushered us in – ‘quickly, take cover – it’s gonna rain!’ And we pulled in our bike under the porch of a room in the middle of nowhere with a sign that said ‘40php entrance fee’ just as it started dumping (we learnt later they are charging a 40 pesos entrance fee to look at the python and ostrich they keep in the back). It wasn’t long before the little porch was cramped with 10 locals all taking shelter, getting out and putting on their ponchos. And there we were, drinking beer and tea, staring at a paper-mâché ostrich head and spitting python, watching it come down in a restaurant-cum-zoo with the loud shrieks of what is apparently a horn bill kept somewhere in the back piercing through the storm every now and then.

Waiting for a storm to pass in Bohol

Waiting for a storm to pass in Bohol

We arrived to the expanding views of the chocolate hills eventually, which, surprisingly, actually has nothing to do with chocolate besides inducing cravings from having to say and read and hear chocolate so many times. We had just enough time to climb the 200-something steps and take in the view of thousands of hills stretching out as far as the eye can see, before thick white clouds moved through, erasing the view like it was never there and bringing with it that heavy monsoon rain. And whilst we were taking cover on top of a chocolate hill with a bunch of Chinese tourists, we finally canceled that kayaking that we were never gonna make anyways.

Chocolate hills, Bohol

Mist rising from the hills after a brief cooling down pour

Chocolate hills, Bohol

Nevermind Carmen, Bohol – I love this birthday boy!

And just as well, because our supposedly two-hour ride back turned out equally adventurous and a thousand times longer as we pushed to get out from under the mountain and its clouds, having to stop every 20 or 30 minutes and take cover from beating rain, later accompanied by flashing and blaring thunder.

We finally made it to the main city at 5.30pm. The billowing rain clouds were behind us, and – shining bright like a beacon of hope – a towering glowing ‘M’ in front of us. We were starving, having had ice cream for breakfast and not much else. We didn’t even have to check with each other – it was a definitive, telepathic YES, and we parked at McDonalds without hesitation. And then we both scarfed down a meal and a mcflurry and it was one of the best most satisfying meals ever.

Rain, McDonalds, tiny alien animals, thunderstorms, infinity pools and wine, more rain, and a whole lot of adventure. This birthday was one for the books.

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