Konnichiwa Japan!

Our world trip would never have been complete without a visit to Japan. When we left Kansas City and began this journey almost a year ago we had a list of our top three countries that we were dying to see and Japan was at the top of that list.  So you can only imagine how excited we were to finally arrive in the land of the rising sun.

We were also very excited to have a housesit where we could relax for a bit and slow our pace down after being on the go, staying in hotels for several weeks in China and South Korea. As much as we live for and thrive in fast-paced travel, it can also be extremely exhausting. Housesits have proven to provide the calm and routine that we need to keep us sane and healthy throughout the constant movement.

After arriving at Kansai Airport, we took an hour-long shuttle to get to Rokko Island, south of Kobe, where we would be staying. We found it very interesting that the entirety of this trip was along a complex network of bridges, elevated over water and many small towns. It seemed that the entire southern coast of the island is made up of high-tech double-decker bridges that span for hundreds of miles. Later we were shocked to learn that there are over 600,000 bridges throughout the country!

When we made it to our housesit, we were greeted by a friendly fellow American who teaches at a nearby international school and her sweet Saluki named Sally who was rescued from Saudi Arabia. Poor Sally had a very difficult upbringing where she was abused and tortured in her first few years of life. Although she still showed some signs of trauma, she really was the sweetest thing and one of our favorite animals we have had the pleasure of taking care of.

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The first couple of days we spent catching up on some much-needed sleep and work before taking a day trip to the nearby city of Osaka, an hour train ride away. We visited the historic Osaka Castle, the most iconic landmark in the city. We walked all around, watching street performers and sampling street food. We were even brave enough to try takoyaki, the octopus balls that are famous in Japan and sold everywhere.

Leaving the castle, we found ourselves amidst a crowd of hundreds of local university students leaving a graduation ceremony, who were all dressed up in traditional, formal Japanese clothing. It was so cool to see all of the girls in their unique, colorful kimonos, and admire them from up close.

Next, we wandered all around the Shinsekai neighborhood where we had an amazing sushi meal for only $7! We learned after spending 10 days in Japan that it is a very expensive country, except for two things… sushi and sake (which happen to be my two favorite things ever!) Needless to say, we indulged in both every single day of our visit.

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Carrying on with our Osaka tour, we found a food market where we discovered our love of mochi! Never having tried it before, we were both a bit skeptical but after that first bite of soft and delicious rice cake, we were hooked.

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Before leaving the city to head back to Rokko Island, we saw our first cherry blossom tree that had just started to bloom. We were ecstatic and took a million pictures of this one tree, not having any idea of the cherry blossom wonderland that we would soon see in Tokyo, on coincidentally what happened to be peak day of the entire year!

Our next day trip took us to the city of Kobe, just 20 minutes away by train. It was a beautiful day to walk the many miles that we did, seeing the Kobe port tower, the Great Buddha and the Ikuta Shrine. We learned some cultural lessons of the rituals involved in paying respect to the shrine. We followed others in bowing twice, clapping and then shaking a rope that sounds a bell connected at the top.

We also learned what NOT to do at the chozubachi, or water basin outside of the shrines. As a means to cleanse and purify your hands and mouth, you are supposed to use a ladle to pour water over each hand and then scoop some into your mouth, spitting it out on the rocks. As a tourist and beginner to this ritual, Daniel mistakenly poured water onto his hands over the basin, rather than outside the basin and then scooped it into his mouth and drank it. We then watched others performing the ritual only to realize, he had done it all wrong! Feeling slightly uncomfortable at our cultural faux pas, we carried on, able to find humor in the awkward mistake.

While in Kobe we, of course, had to try some Kobe beef! Known for its tenderness and well-marbled texture, it is a real delicacy (reflected by the high price). The tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle are given beer and sake to induce appetite, massaged daily and listen to classical music as a relaxation technique. We shared a small skewer of the grilled beef and agreed that it certainly lived up to the hype. It was juicy, fatty and so flavorful!

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Back at our housesit on Rokko Island, we learned many important lessons about Japanese culture. First and foremost, they are all about respect and politeness. They are organized, clean, quiet and hard-working. You will never hear people yelling or speaking loudly in public. They all form orderly lines to get on buses and trains, politely waiting their turn. They love heated seats, whether it is a toilet seat, a train seat or a bench in a food market. Cleanliness is of their utmost concern in bathrooms – toilets everywhere have more buttons and functions than you could possibly imagine! They are very strict when it comes to sidewalk cleanliness. If your dog pees on or near the sidewalk, it is expected that you pour water on it to wash it away. Even more strict are their rules regarding trash and recycling. We were given an entire handbook with specific guidelines about what days you can throw out what and where you must put each classification of recyclables.

There was so much to learn about Japan’s culture in the short time we were there. But what we did learn was that it is truly a unique one and while it can be excessively orderly, strict and expensive, it is also pleasantly beautiful, kind and enjoyable.

Saying goodbye to Rokko Island and our beloved Sally, we headed to the station, bought a couple of overpriced Bento boxes (that were so worth it!)  and took the bullet train to Tokyo. At 224 miles per hour, we crossed through most of the island in just under three hours. Despite being super packed with people, many standing in the aisles for much of the duration, we were able to get seats and enjoyed the smooth ride through the Japanese countryside. We even caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji!

We arrived in Tokyo and got checked into our cozy little pod hostel where we slept in long, rectangular private pods stacked on one another. Throughout our travels, we have come to love sleeping in pods for the privacy that they provide while still lodging on a budget.

The next day we set out early to explore one of the largest cities in the world. Starting at the Tokyo Dome, we got to see the massive ballpark that is home to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. In the background of the Dome we saw a gigantic roller coaster that of course, we had to ride! Then we headed towards the Meiji Shrine located in the middle of a vast forest where we saw once again the Japanese ritual of cleansing and paying respect.

On our way across town, we took in all the sights of flashing lights, 20-story advertisements on the side of buildings and people rushing everywhere. We visited the famous Shibuya crossing, know for being the world’s busiest crosswalk intersection. At every light change, there are as many as 2,500 people crossing in every which direction! It was pure chaos and insanity to witness but also felt exhilarating to walk amongst it.

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We saw tourists dressed up in video game characters and riding in go-carts along the streets, playing a real-life game of Mario cart. It was definitely one of those things you only see in Tokyo!

On our way to dinner, we were stopped by a film crew who asked us if we would be willing to be interviewed for a TV show. Being the shy one, I wanted to politely decline and carry on our way but of course, outgoing Daniel immediately said yes and before I knew it we were in front of a bunch of people, cameras and microphones. First, they had us look at written Japanese characters for 15 seconds and then gave us an old school water brush to see if we could replicate the original Japanese phrase. We were both able to get pretty close to the originals but our work still warranted laughter from the film crew as if our version meant something totally different.

Then we entered the interview phase where we were individually asked different questions about Japanese food, culture and entertainment. Again, our responses were always followed by laughter leading us to believe that the entire purpose of the show was to make fun of tourists on the street. But even if we were made to look like idiots, we still reveled in our 15 minutes of fame on a Japanese TV show and had fun doing it.

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The next day we spent eating more sushi and visiting famous landmarks like the Tokyo Skytree and the Tokyo Tower where we went all the way to the top viewing level where we could see the entire city from above.

That night we experienced one of the most magical moments and to date one of our favorite travel memories ever. Walking several miles along the Meguro River we were enveloped in a canopy of gorgeous, fully bloomed cherry blossoms on the highest peak day of the year. The trees lined both sides of the river for as far as the eye could see, with pink lanterns strung along the pathways to perfectly light the way. We sipped on strawberry champagne and walked hand in hand through the cherry blossom wonderland, in awe of nature’s beauty (and awe of the sheer coincidence of being in Tokyo on this exact day of the year to experience the magic of cherry blossoms). It was a sight and a feeling that we will never forget and the most perfect way to end our stay in beautiful Japan.

South Korea: Discovering the Soul of Seoul

I can remember very clearly back to my first encounter with a culture different from my own and the strong feelings of interest, curiosity and admiration that I felt. I became good friends with a girl from Korea in junior high and I loved spending time with her and her family, learning all about their food, their music, their language, their culture. I was absolutely fascinated by the differences between her family and mine. And I realize now, that this attraction to otherness has always been a part of me and always will be. It has been the driving force behind my desire to travel the world and has been my motivation to leave my comfort zone, to get out and see how other people live.

I will never forget the seemingly small moments that I had with my friend, Inkyo. Back then, I didn’t know it but those moments were actually the spark that led me to where I am today, on a little island in Indonesia.  Learning how to make paper origami animals, eating kimchi sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching K-pop videos over and over until I could recite the words and listening to the fast, eloquent language spoken between her parents and sisters influenced me in such a way that I will forever be grateful.

Here I am 20 twenty years later and I found myself actually visiting the beautiful country of South Korea and experiencing its culture first-hand.

We arrived in the very modern capital city of Seoul for a short visit that we squeezed into our itinerary between housesits. We knew we had a lot of ground to cover in a short time so we scheduled a tour for the following day, leaving the rest of our visit open for exploring the city on our own.

The tour picked us up at our hotel at 6:30 am and we headed towards the border between North and South Korea to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between the two countries. As the most heavily militarized area in the world, it is also considered an active war zone. Despite this, it is actually still very safe to visit, so long as you follow all of the rules and do not cross the DMZ.

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So after doing our research, we decided that this would be the most interesting and exciting way to learn about Korean history and get a glimpse into one of the most closed-off countries on earth. Our tour guide was very informed and educated on the humanitarian crisis that the world seems to know so little about and she was so enthused to share it with us.

Before entering the DMZ we first visited the Bridge of Freedom, a structure built to represent the peace and reunification that so many still long for. There was also a memorial to honor those affected by the unspeakable horrors of the Korean War.

We then entered the actual buffer zone where soldiers came onto the bus and checked everyone’s passports, doing an official headcount to ensure that the same amount of people came in and went out. It was a slightly intimidating experience to consider the seriousness of what we were doing and the repercussions for anyone not following the strict rules.

We arrived at a lookout point where we climbed to the top and had a vast view of several North Korean villages. There were standing binoculars that we could use to focus in on the villages and see their huts and farms and waving flags. It was quite an eerie feeling to be in such close proximity to a country that is completely closed off from the rest of the world.

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The next stop took us to a man-made tunnel deep underground that was created by North Korea in the 1970s with hopes of invading Seoul. We spent about 30 minutes walking through this long, dark tunnel with hardhats on, hunched over in many places where the walkway was only five feet tall until we reached the several blockades put in place to prevent any further attacks that would result in a full-blown war. Again, it was an odd and rather haunting experience to be in what was once an extremely fragile and volatile place.

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Our final leg of the tour was to visit Dorasan Station, the train station built in 2002 in hopes of connecting North Korea’s capital Pyongyang with South Korea and with the intent of encouraging friendly relations. The state-of-the-art station was fully finished and the tracks were laid through the entire route. Unfortunately, however, shortly after the project was completed, political tensions intensified and the station never actually opened. To this day, the political unrest continues between the two countries and unification remains unseen.

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After a long day of an intense, yet unforgettable tour, we went to a local restaurant where our guide ordered a full table of traditional Korean food for us to sample. We tried kimchi, fish soup, beef brisket with rice, sushi, spicy vegetables and sipped on soju, a rice liquor made in South Korea. We passed on the silkworms that were being served out of a huge pot but we were told that the flavor is “earthy”, whatever that means.

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The next day we went to a food market where we walked around and marveled with curiosity (and a bit of shock) at the host of exotic foods that were being served to locals. One of the most popular delicacies, sold by most every street food vendor was live octopus. They cut off a leg at a time and serve it still moving. The tricky part, we learned, is chewing and swallowing it before it suctions itself to the side of your mouth or worse, your throat, which can be very dangerous. Needless to say, we passed up the live seafood and instead tried mung bean pancakes that were absolutely delicious!

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Leaving the markets, we headed towards the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest of the five palaces of the Joseon Dynasty built in 1395.  There were hundreds of people dressed up in traditional Korean clothing, wandering around taking photos with the beautiful buildings as backdrops. It was so cool to see the outfits in such an authentic setting.

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Walking back to our hotel, we noticed a large crowd of people holding signs in protest, with an equal amount of armed officers nearby. As we got closer, we noticed that they were gathered in front of the US Embassy and seemed to be upset with their president for not interfering or reacting with the recent meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un and were actively expressing their concern. After the strong alliance developed between South Korea and the US during the Korean War, they feel very strongly about maintaining this positive relationship.

Our final day in Seoul we stumbled upon a cat cafe where we spent more time than we would like to admit. We paid a cover fee that included a coffee drink of our choice and an unlimited amount of time petting and playing with 18 cats of all different breeds. It was the cutest little cafe and worth every penny.

Walking more than ten miles around Seoul that day, we had the opportunity to take in all of the city’s amazing street art, statues and buildings that make it so beautifully modern while admiring all of the traditional temples, markets and palaces that represent the city’s origins.

In the four days that we were there, we realized that we are most in love with cities like Seoul, those that have a perfect, seamless blend of newness and old school. And I also realized that after two decades, I was just as inspired and intrigued by the very culture that lit my travel fire so many years ago.

 

 

China: Let the Culture Shock Begin!

When planning our year-long journey around the world, China was never a country that was on the itinerary. Not because we didn’t have the desire to see it but we just hadn’t given it much consideration due to the difficulty of traveling it on our own – outside of an organized tour – and the high price of obtaining a visa. However, as our “route” has changed so many times, we have learned to roll with the unexpected and most often, pleasant detours. So after landing a housesit in Shenzhen, we added China to the map and started doing our research to be able to make it as solo Americans in such an isolated country.

What we learned from our research, and later our experience is that getting around in China is very difficult. For starters, almost no one speaks a word of English, most places don’t take non-Chinese credit cards, there is no Uber, all public transportation is only in Chinese and all Western websites are blocked (including Google, Gmail, all social media, etc.) So even walking about the city on our own was difficult since we couldn’t use our Google maps as we normally would. Thankfully, our extensive research paid off and we were prepared for these obstacles.

However, there is no amount of preparation that could have alleviated the immediate and overwhelming sense of culture shock that we both felt our first few days upon arrival. Leaving our housesit and walking the streets to find the grocery store the first day, we were flooded with a mixture of conflicting emotions – alienation, anxiety, exhilaration, awe.  We crossed through narrow alleys full of tiny shops and food vendors selling unrecognizable meats, motorcycles whizzing beside us just inches away, old men sitting on crates, playing cards on makeshift tables, the overwhelming smells of food, fresh hanging laundry, sewer and pollution all coming together to create a beautiful chaos unlike anything we have ever experienced.

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The people on the streets seemed to be equally in awe of us as we were of our surroundings. As an isolated country with no access to the outside world through the internet and movies, it is not often that they see people who are non-Chinese. So two tall(ish) Americans walking through their neighborhood must have been an extreme oddity. They would stop and stare and turn and stare some more. And they were shameless in taking photos. At first, we were in shock about the many photos that we would see people taking, making us feel as if we were aliens from another planet. But after about the first 10 times it happened, we started having fun with it and would just pose and smile for them. They would smile back.

When we finally made it to the grocery store, our culture shock was only heightened. We were trying to shop for foods that we could prepare at home during our two-week housesit and were struggling to find anything recognizable outside of fruits and veggies and rice and noodles. Of course, all of the packaging was in Chinese so we couldn’t even decipher what things were.

We returned to our housesit with our groceries and a feeling of, “WTF are we doing here?!” In that moment, we very seriously questioned our decision to travel through China and for the first time in 10 months we missed home and its familiarity more than anything.

Thankfully, that feeling was short-lived and we came to embrace the unknown and the uncomfortable. We spent the next two weeks enjoying our beautiful view from the 22nd floor of a lovely apartment with two sweet and well-trained dogs. We worked a ton on our laptops, worked out every day with the homeowner’s gym equipment and enjoyed our new (temporary) vegetarian lifestyle after a traumatic meat experience left us with no other option. We went on jogs on a nearby trail and enjoyed our daily walks around the complex with the pups. Overall, we had a pleasant two-week stay in Shenzhen and even successfully ventured out to explore the downtown area one day.

Our next stop was Xi’an, the historic city in Central China with more than 5,000 years of history. We planned this visit at the last minute after learning about the Terracotta Warriors, the world wonder that was discovered there just 40 years ago. Once again, the short-notice detour took us to one of our now favorite Asian cities! Throughout our half-day tour to see the warriors, we learned so much about Chinese history and culture from our amazing guide.

The terracotta warriors are an army of 8,000 lifesize soldiers made from clay that has been buried beneath the ground for 3,000 years. Built by the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang to serve as protection in the afterlife, the army surrounds his tomb. It was accidentally discovered in 1974 by a farmer who was digging for a well. We were actually able to meet and shake hands with the farmer who made this magnificent discovery!

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We were completely astounded to learn that it took 700,000 slaves over 40 years to complete this project. Every single warrior was unique, with intricate facial features and different body types. There were different ranks of soldiers, indicated by their uniforms, weapons and style of hats. The slaves would spend most of their lives laboring on the creation of the warriors, only to be killed in the end so that Qin’s secret of his terracotta army would never get out. It was tragic and inspiring at the same time and we felt moved to be in the presence of such an incredible, ancient phenomenon.

Next, we went to an authentic Chinese restaurant with our guide and the kindest Phillipino woman and her nephew who were also on the tour with us. We sat and shared the most delicious, family-style meal complete with 12 different soups and entrees and got to know them better. Then later that night, we ran into them in the city center, chatted a bit, took a photo together and added each other on Facebook. Funny enough, we ran into them yet again the next morning at the airport and they were even on our same flight to Beijing! So even in the country with the highest population, it can still feel like a small world sometimes.

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Our second, and final day in Xi’an we rented a tandem bike on the top of the wall that surrounds the city. Built in 194 BC, it represents one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved walls in all of China. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed seeing the city from above.

That evening we went walking through – or eating our way through, I should say – the Muslim Quarter, a long strip of street food served by the small Chinese Muslim population. The street was packed with people, shimmering in flashing lights and erupting with the loud noise of vendors yelling to get our attention. There was so much going on, and so much to take in, it was quite thrilling to be in the middle of it all.

We stopped at five different food stalls and tried a bunch of different delicacies, half of which we weren’t exactly sure what they were. But without being able to communicate or ask questions, we had to choose what we wanted simply based on looks. We were even brave enough to try a durian cheese pastry and it was surprisingly delicious! We have heard much about durian, the famous South East Asian fruit that has a bad rap for smelling like stinky feet.

Early the next morning we hopped on our 14th flight and headed to Beijing. Although it was only a two-hour flight, we were still served a full meal AND snacks and drinks! We still cannot believe the great service of all the Asian airlines that we have flown so far.

The minute we stepped outside the airport in Beijing, I immediately felt suffocated by the smog and horrific air quality. In the previous two Chinese cities, we were definitely affected by pollution but it was nothing compared to what we felt in China’s capital city. Looking at the hundreds of people around us wearing facemasks to protect their lungs from the harmful effects of toxins floating in the air, it was very disturbing to imagine that so many millions of people live like this every single day. I simply cannot imagine a life where fresh, clean air is nonexistent. To me, it is just as necessary to living a happy healthy life as fresh, clean water. And yet, so many people don’t have access to it.

I spent the next three days in Beijing deeply saddened that such a large portion of our world has become so heavily polluted and that it has become the norm. Seeing small children running and playing with masks on shook me to the core. Sadly, that has become the new normal there. Even more disturbing was seeing other children without. After learning that respiratory disease is common in cities like this and claims the lives of millions of people every year, I just never really felt comfortable there. And my discomfort grew after the effect of pollution led to me having a sore throat, headaches and a bloody nose.

We checked into our hotel room and settled for the night. We had a big day ahead of us and would be waking at 6 am to get ready for our Great Wall tour! We both have dreamed of walking along the Great Wall of China our entire lives and we couldn’t believe we were finally getting to do it… together! 🙂

The tour started early in the morning when a van picked us up, along with six other people – two of them from Nebraska! – and we set out to reach the farthest and most difficult section of the wall to reach, in Mutianyu. We chose this section as it was the highest peak, farthest from the city (and smog) and with the best views. We rode for two hours, making a couple stops along the way to visit a famous mausoleum and a jade factory until we finally arrived at the foot of a mountain. There we had another shared, family-style Chinese lunch with our tourmates and then took a cable car up the side of the mountain until we reached the wall at the top. Lucky for us, it was a beautiful bright, clear sunny day and the view was as far as the eye could see. The wall stretched for miles in both directions and we could see how it received the fitting name of the Stone Dragon.

The “walk” along the wall was not exactly a walk. It would be much more accurate to call it a hike! As you can imagine a wall built along a mountain range, there were hundreds of stone steps. And even the sections without steps, the surface was very rough, with jagged rocks and uneven surfaces. But we didn’t care, we were so happy and excited to be there. We were the only people on our tour to go the farthest distance and make it back in the two hour time that we were given. When we checked our phone later that day, we saw that we had ascended 108 flights!

Learning all about the history of the Great Wall and how and why it was built was absolutely fascinating. I have never been one to be interested in history but when you actually visit a place like that and see it for your own eyes, it’s quite a bit different than looking at a picture in a history book. It was truly an epic day and really made us feel grateful for all of these unforgettable and life-changing moments that we have been able to experience together.

The next two days we explored the old city of Pekin (now Beijing) and visited Tiananmen Square, the city center, a site of great cultural significance and the country’s governing headquarters. We walked through Beihai Park, people watched, climbed to the top of a hill to see a pretty white pagoda, a Buddhist temple, and enjoyed the beautiful day.

In all, we spent three weeks in this country stretching and challenging ourselves and discovering that great lessons are learned in the face of adversity. It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always comfortable but in the end, we have nothing but gratitude for this unexpected detour that gave us a glimpse into the beauty of the Chinese people and their unique culture.

 

 

 

 

Dubai: The Disney of the Desert

When you think of Dubai you probably, like most people, think of excessive wealth, luxury cars, tall buildings and 7-star hotels. And while these images do accurately represent this mega-city in the United Arab Emirates, there is also so much more to it than that.

Dubai is a city that has evolved to what it is today in just the last 40 years. Before that, it was nothing more than a vast desert. The Emirates have found a way to defy what is possible when it comes to constructing the tallest buildings in the world upon 100 feet of sand in the Arabian Desert where temperatures soar well over 100 degrees and rainfall is usually less than two inches per year. The technology and engineering required to achieve a working, liveable city in these conditions are extremely advanced and quite mind-blowing to learn about.

Everything in Dubai is considered to be a luxury. Upon our arrival, we were picked up at the airport from an Uber driver, dressed in a full suit at 5:00 in the morning and immediately felt a vibe that we were in a very unique place. After a much-needed nap and catching up on rest after an overnight flight, we headed towards the city center to explore. First going to the Dubai Mall, we were taken aback by the massive aquarium full of sharks and tropical fish. I don’t know of any other mall that has a shark tank for entertainment!

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We stepped outside just in time to see the famous fountain show with lights and music, comparable to that of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. With the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) as the backdrop, it was quite a sight to see.

Taking an elevator up 146 floors to an observatory deck of the Burj Khalifa, the view was absolutely incredible. We were lucky to have a clear day, with no desert sand storms blocking our view and it was as exhilarating as it was scary to look down on all of the other skyscrapers.

Throughout our exploration of Dubai’s main attractions, we couldn’t help but notice the degree of diversity in the people. We saw everything from the local Emirati to tourists to workers that had come to Dubai from all over the world. We learned, in fact, that there are people from 200 countries living and working in Dubai, making it the most international city there is!  You will see all different kinds of clothing and hear every different kind of language, making it the most unique and interesting place that we have seen.

Our first evening there we met up with homeowners, Julia and Simon, who we had house/cat sat for in London for five weeks. Interestingly enough, however, we never met them in person, as they live in Dubai part-time and had already left prior to our arrival. We had kept in touch and were in communication when planning our Dubai trip. They kindly offered to take us out to dinner to a fabulous hotel overlooking the fountain and Burj Khalifa so we could watch the building’s light show at night. They also chose the hotel so that we could order cocktails. Since alcohol is illegal in Dubai, you can only drink at hotels that have a special license. And because it requires a special license, drinks are not cheap! One cocktail cost $20.

We sat and talked with Julia and Simon for several hours, learning so much about the city of Dubai from people who have lived there for 12 years. We also learned that Annie, their cat who we fell in love with in London had sadly passed away the night before. So it was rather poignant timing that we were there to remember and celebrate their beloved pet while they were still grieving.

The next day we woke early to go on a desert tour. The two of us, along with a couple from the Czech Republic and two flight attendants from Korea, rode out into the Arabian desert in a 4-wheel Jeep. After letting some air out of the tires, we entered into the sand dunes where we spent a half hour “dune bashing.” What was fun at first, racing, spinning out and jumping over the dunes, turned into what felt like a never-ending roller coaster that I couldn’t get off. Having a bit of a weak stomach, I had to stop the driver midway and ask for a puke bag. Luckily, I never had to use it but it was a close one!

Once we got far out into the middle of the desert, the driver stopped and we all got out to sand board down one of the steepest dunes. Strapping our feet onto a board, we took turns gliding down until wiping out at the bottom. We were told to just sit down if we felt we were going to fall but instead we both fell forward resulting in a flip and roll. It wasn’t exactly the most graceful landing but thankfully didn’t hurt too bad to land in the sand.

The next stop on the tour was a desert camp where large tents were set up in a circle over Persian rugs. We were greeted with tea and dates while our authentic Arabic brunch was being prepared. We then enjoyed tabbouleh, hummus, naan, pasta, beans, luqaimat (sweet potato donuts), and lamb.

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After eating we went on a short camel ride that took us around the camp. We really had no idea how massive the animals are until we were next to them! The ride wasn’t exactly the most comfortable but it was a fun experience, nonetheless.

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The rest of the day we spent laying out at our rooftop pool with the Dubai skyline in the background. Luckily, we were there before the desert heat had reached its peak and the temperatures were quite mild and comfortable at around 80 degrees.

Our third and final day in Dubai, we wanted to see the marina, the Palms and the Burj Al-Arab, the 7-star hotel. But because the city is pretty spread out, it is hard to get around unless you have a car. So we booked a driver through our hotel and spent the afternoon seeing and learning about Dubai’s most famous landmarks. Our driver had moved to the city from India many years ago to make a better living than his home country could provide him. He was very friendly and super knowledgeable and we learned so much from him.

We rode out onto the Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest man-made island and saw the Atlantis hotel, where there are underwater rooms for $25,000/night. We learned that the cost for dredging the sand and maintaining the island is a mere $1 million dollars per day.

We took a walk along the Jumeirah Beach and through the Dubai Marina. We also rode by the site of The Dubai Creek Tower where they are building the world’s new tallest building that will far surpass the Burj Khalifa, standing at almost 1 mile tall! It will be open in 2020.

After a short visit in this multifaceted city, we witnessed all of its glitz and glamour and were completely awestruck by its splendor. However, through our own research, documentaries and conversations with friends who have lived there over a decade, we learned that the city’s flawless Disney facade masks a much darker, more complicated side.

It’s not the lap of luxury for everyone. As you can imagine, the millions of people who have immigrated there to find work do not have it so good. We sat outside of the mall one early morning for the tour pickup and watched hundreds and hundreds of workers getting off buses that are shipped from the outskirts of the city where they live in bunk beds, sharing a room with up to 10 people. They work relentlessly so that the wealthy locals and tourists can live their fairytale life. It was a bit shocking and disturbing to witness and consider the flip side of this dreamy destination.

The city also has the most sophisticated, extensive surveillance system in the world. From the time you step foot outside of your house or hotel to the time you return, you are being monitored. The cameras are so detailed that from the top of a skyscraper, it can read a text on your phone as you walk along the street. Dubai is very safe for this reason and the need for actual police on the ground is minimal. However, laws are extremely strict and if you are not aware, you could be jailed for simply kissing in public or failing to follow traffic laws. You can also be fined thousands of dollars, have your car confiscated and jailed (in prison where torture is acceptable).

We learned so much about Dubai during our visit – things that most tourists would never discover during their luxurious vacation. Learning the ins and outs, the good and the bad, the pros and cons of any place is what we aim to do when we travel – to uncover the culture, the norms and the people that are all woven together to tell the whole story.

 

 

Istanbul, Where Europe Meets Asia

With our European adventures coming to an end and a week to kill before heading to our next housesit in China. we took a look at the map and spontaneously booked a flight to Istanbul, Turkey just days before. Adding this new, random destination to our itinerary changed our “route” yet again, but with great excitement and delight at making travel plans to a new country on a whim.

Our detour to Istanbul turned out to be a fabulous decision as it remains one of our very favorite cities of all! From the minute we stepped outside of the airport to sunny, blue skies and felt the warm, spring-like air for the first time in over five months, I had a really good feeling about it. We stood in the parking lot waiting for our driver when one of the daily calls to prayer began. The song, emanating loudly from the speakers of every nearby mosque, was pleasantly warm and beautiful and became one of our favorite things during our time there.

Once the driver picked us up from the airport, we rode an hour to arrive at our hotel in the Old Town. Along the way, we were able to get a look at all three sides of the city that is divided by the Bosphorus River and the Black Sea. As we were driving alongside the water’s edge, we looked out the window and saw a dolphin swimming right next to the shore! Then a few more jumped out of the water until finally, we saw an entire family of dolphins jumping and swimming just feet away from our car.

After getting checked into our hotel we ventured out for dinner and found a traditional Turkish restaurant where we drank hot apple tea and had the most delicious food. The meal was slow-cooked in an enclosed clay pot, presented at our table over fire and finally cracked open and served. It was as entertaining as it was tasty.

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Walking along the streets, the first thing we noticed was the insane amount of cats. They were literally EVERYWHERE. Obviously, all of them being street cats, our concern and sadness began to overwhelm us as we stopped at every street corner to give a different one some love. It wasn’t until the next day after we had explored a bit more that we realized how Istanbul’s street cats are very much adored and well taken care of by the locals. We saw piles of cat food on doorsteps, sidewalks, in front of houses and restaurants. We saw policeman and shop owners stop to pet them as well as many tourists. Once we knew that Istanbul’s cats were happy and healthy, we could finally appreciate that we were in kitty heaven.

We spent one afternoon exploring the beautiful mosques in the Old Town, first visiting the Hagia Sophia, the ancient landmark built in 537 AD. It first served as a Greek Christian cathedral and later became a mosque for the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly enough, to this day there are still Christian saints represented on some of the walls even after it’s conversion to a mosque centuries ago.

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Next, we visited the historic Blue Mosque that still serves as a place of worship today. Visitors are allowed to enter outside of the times of prayer so after borrowing a hijab to cover my hair and taking off our shoes, we went in and marveled at the intricacies of its architecture.

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Walking the streets once more, we stumbled upon the outdoor terrace of a restaurant that overlooked both mosques, the city and the water all at once. So we stopped for coffee and dessert with the most magnificent view!

We finished our day with a visit to the Basilica Cistern, an underground chamber the size of a cathedral, capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water. We were a bit confused though because all of the photos we had seen of the cistern showed it with water and when we were there, there was none. Nonetheless, it was amazing to see this ancient wonder lying below the city’s streets and to see where the scene of Inferno was filmed, in person.

The following day, we took off early to cross the Galata Bridge on foot to reach the part of Istanbul that is considered the New Town. The long bridge crossing the river was filled with hundreds of fisherman, working on their catch of the day. When we reached the New Town, we visited the Galata Tower and went all the way to the top for a panoramic view of the entire city.

The rest of the day we spent meandering through the spice market, flooding our senses with the chaotic but pleasant mix of sights, sounds and smells. We finished with a long stroll through the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest markets in the world. With over 4,000 shops covering 61 streets, selling everything from expensive rugs and lamps, to fine jewelry and clothes, to cheap perfumes and trinkets and souvenirs, it was truly an experience in itself.

Throughout our three day visit in Istanbul, we became so shocked and curious about the hundreds of men that we saw on the streets with bloody scalps and wearing what looked like a black sweatband around their heads. At first, we thought that all these guys were getting head tattoos but after a bit of research, we learned that Istanbul has become the leading city in the world for surgical hair transplant operations. Apparently, it is much cheaper to have the procedure done in Turkey than other countries so men from around the world travel to have it done there. As someone with a weak stomach, I had a difficult time seeing the aftermath of these procedures everywhere I looked.

Another observation we made while in Turkey is that the people, in general, are extremely friendly. They smile, they greet you warmly and they are very sincere. Even when trying to sell you something, they are not pushy nor aggressive as we have found in many other countries. In restaurants, they are always willing to give you something complimentary. Free tea, free dessert, free appetizer. Every time we ate out, we were given something by the friendly servers (or owners) who came to our table for genuine conversation.

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After our short (but sweet) visit, we conclude that we love Istanbul for many reasons: its beauty, its food, its history, its kitties. But most of all, we love Istanbul for its people and the way they made us feel when we were there. We will definitely be back one day.

Canals, Crepes and Catacombs, Oh My!

After four months in the UK, we finally returned to northern Europe to visit the last few cities on our list that we were dying to see. We flew to Brussels, Belgium where we took a train to the city center and walked through the deserted streets on a rainy Sunday evening to arrive at our hotel.

What we did not know was that the hotel had no front desk reception to greet us and check us in. Instead, they had sent us a code that would let us in the front door and another code that would let us into our room. However, they had only sent these instructions a couple hours before our arrival, while we were traveling and unable to connect to wi-fi, thus never receiving the message. Luckily, we have an international SIM card that allows us to make calls in the case of emergency so we called the hotel owner (with the 3% battery we had left) to request that he text us the information.

We immediately received the instructions via text and began attempting to enter the building using the code he gave us. Unbeknownst to us, however, the owner had sent us the wrong code, leaving us stuck outside in the cold and rain, frustrated and exhausted, attempting the same wrong code over and over. Just then, a man appeared off the street, seeming very eager to help us and let us in, leading us to believe that perhaps he was an employee.

This was simply an assumption because the man spoke no English and we speak no French so any communication between us was not happening. After looking at the code on our phone – rather than already knowing the code – we realized that this was certainly NOT an employee! My heart sank and I immediately went into panic mode, thinking that this man had ill intentions and that somehow the situation was about to end badly.

Thankfully, the code was wrong and neither us, nor the man, were able to enter. He finally got frustrated and gave up, leaving us alone once again. We were able to use the 1% we had left in cell phone battery to place one last phone call to the owner and get the correct code. We finally entered, got inside our room and have never felt so relieved as we did in that moment! And the next day we discovered that the man was a shop owner next door and was, in fact, only trying to help.

We got up early the next morning to take advantage of our short stay in Brussels, first visiting the Atomium, a historic landmark turned museum, built in 1958 for the Brussel’s World Fair. Up close, the structure is massive and looks so shiny and new, we couldn’t believe it was that old.

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Next, we made our way to the city’s central square known as the Grand Place where we were in awe of the beautiful architecture of the buildings dating back to the 17th century. The square is so impressive, it is no surprise that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Our tour of Brussels would not have been complete without seeing the famous Manneken Pis, a small bronze sculpture of a little boy urinating into the fountain. It is a very small landmark for having such great fame. We walked all over the entire city, covering a span of 9 miles, seeing all the city has to offer. And of course, we ate Belgian waffles! And they did, in fact, live up to all the hype.

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Hopping on a Flixbus, our favorite mode of transportation in Europe, we moved on to Amsterdam where we had a housesit for two kitties, Matias and Felix. Our first day at the house, we went to the nearby grocery store to stock up on food for the week and encountered yet another patience-testing, yet character-building roadblock.

After shopping for an hour, filling our cart with items and scanning them with the cashier, we went to pay for everything with our travel Visa credit card (which we use for all transactions to accrue points and then pay off every month). We were told that they do not accept Visa. So I waited with all of the bags while Daniel went back to the apartment and grabbed another form of payment, an American Express card and a MasterCard. He handed them to the cashier who then told us they do not accept AmEx or MasterCard either. To which we replied, “What do you accept?!” We were shocked to learn that all grocery stores in The Netherlands take local Dutch bank cards only (or cash).

So after a scavenger hunt to multiple different ATMs in search of one that would take our debit card, we finally succeeded hours later. Again, it was a lesson in the trials and tribulations of long-term travel and one that we can laugh about in hindsight.

The next day we went to the Anne Frank House and museum to see the very attic where Anne and her family hid out for two years during WWII. When we walked through the hidden doorway behind a bookshelf leading up to the attic, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with emotions. It was deeply moving and disturbing and I couldn’t help but feel a strong urge to cry. I remember reading the Diary of Anne Frank in school and very vividly can remember the details of the horrors that she endured. And to be there in the exact place where she wrote the diary and lived out her final years was something that I will never forget.

One of the most powerful parts of the tour of the attic was Anne’s bedroom where the cutouts from magazines that she had put up on the walls to try and feel like a normal teenager were still in the exact same place that they were 75 years ago. It was kind of eerie but powerful and again, made us feel something indescribable.

The next couple of days in Amsterdam were spent exploring the endless canals, walking through the famous Red Light District, people watching in several of the “coffee shops” and taking in the super chill, laid back vibe that only this city has to offer.

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We were also very lucky and grateful while in Amsterdam to get free concert tickets to see one of our favorite bands, Caamp, who happened to be doing a show while we were there. When we discovered tickets were all sold out, we tweeted at them that we were their biggest fans and asked if there was anything they could do to help us get tickets. Sure enough, a couple hours before the show, they replied saying that there would be two free tickets waiting for us at the door. So we immediately hopped in an Uber and arrived right before the show started, with just enough time to run into one of the band members and thank him for their kindness. It was truly a special night and one of our favorites of this entire trip.

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After the week came to an end, we took another Flixbus to Paris, but this one was a bit different. To start with, it was 10 hours long but also, it was overnight. From my experience, the only thing worse than an overnight flight is an overnight bus ride with stops every hour when all the lights come on and the driver loudly and obnoxiously gives information over the speaker, not allowing for one single wink of sleep.

When we finally arrived in Paris the next morning, I was in bad shape. Not only had we not slept, but apparently I had picked up some germs along the way that made me so sick for the next week. But with only four days in Paris, I knew I had to suck it up and get out of bed regardless.

We checked into our adorable hotel room where it wasn’t long before the hotel kitty had joined us and was sleeping with us every night! His name was Espiga and he was the sweetest, cuddliest kitty ever.

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Our visit to the Eiffel Tower was, of course, amazing and a major bucket list experience for me. However, it was a bit disappointing when we learned that we wouldn’t be able to go up the tower that day due to a strike that was going on. So instead, we visited the Arc de Triomph where they were letting tourists go up to the top for free due to the closing of the Eiffel. In the end, we feel that this worked out because the view of the entire city from the Arc was truly impressive.

The next day we visited the Sacre Coeur, the Roman Catholic church that is the second-most visited landmark in Paris. As we were climbing up the steep hill to the basilica, we were greeted by African refugees who asked us where we were from. After Daniel responded he is from Mexico, they started speaking Spanish to us, reached out to shake our hands and simultaneously placed some colorful threads around our fingers, quickly making them into bracelets. We knew immediately where this was going so we both tried to decline their offer, stating that we had no cash on us.

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They ignored our comment and continued asking us questions and engaging us in conversation and within two minutes, they had finished the bracelets and tied them in a secure knot around our wrists. Again, we reminded them that we had no cash on us, thanked them and offered to return the bracelets. Another man, the “boss” then appeared demanding rather aggressively that we pay for the bracelets. After going back and forth with the boss, they finally let us leave. But it wasn’t without an uneasy feeling of their shady process and unnecessary aggression.

Continuing our Paris tour, we went on to admire the Notre Dame Cathedral, eat magnificent crepes in the Latin Quarter, visit the Louvre Museum and stroll along the Champs-Elysees.

Seeing the Catacombs was another unique and chilling experience that we couldn’t miss during our visit. Venturing several stories down below the city, we explored the vast network of tunnels, holding the skeletal remains of six million people that was created to eliminate the overflow of the city’s cemeteries.

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All in all, we had a lovely time in Paris. Although, if I were to give my honest opinion on the city, it would be that it did not live up to the dreamy, romantic and magical ideal that it has so often been portrayed as in books and movies. Personally, it felt like any other big city, but more smelly, a bit dull and void of color. Paris in real life, to me, was very different from Paris in all the greatest love stories. I know others may disagree, but again this was just my experience.

Moving on to the very last stop on our Europe tour was Denmark where we had another housesit for two beautiful Main Coons. We were lucky enough to have two bikes loaned to us by the homeowners during our stay so we were able to trek around in normal Danish fashion. Copenhagen is known as the most bike-friendly city in the world with specific lanes and stoplights on every street just for bikers, making it super safe and efficient to move about. More than one-third of the population commute by bike so we saw women in dresses and heels, men in suits, parents with their babies in carts, grandparents, young children, and everything in between. It was so interesting to be waiting at a stop light in bike traffic and look around at the hundreds of other bikers on their way to work or school.

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Throughout our week in Copenhagen, we worked on getting our Chinese visas which turned out to be a lot more than we had bargained for. In all, we spent 12-15 hours working on the applications, gathering all the necessary documents, and presenting it all to the officials at the Chinese Consulate. After much stress over getting them in time – and after spending $400 – we were finally granted the visas and purchased our first plane tickets to Asia.

To treat ourselves for all of the hard work, and to celebrate Valentine’s Day, we went to Nyhavn, the famous colorful harbor for a lovely Valentine’s lunch where we had the traditional smorrebrød, open-faced sandwiches with tasty, creative toppings.

We finished up our Danish adventures with an ancestry scavenger hunt to find the homes of my great-great grandparents who had lived in Copenhagen before traveling through Ellis Island and moving to the US. My mother had sent me their addresses that she discovered during some genealogy research so we rode our bikes all around town and successfully found the very buildings that were still standing after 120 years. We also visited the church where they were married and their children were baptized. It was an exciting feeling to stand on the doorstep of the same house where my ancestors had lived so long ago.

Our last day in Scandinavia, we took a day trip by bus across the Øresund Bridge, the longest combined road and rail bridge, to visit Malmö, Sweden. We first traveled under the ocean through a tunnel, coming out in the middle of the water to then cross a bridge.

We spent the afternoon wandering the streets, admiring the buildings, eating delicious food and being grateful for seeing our 23rd country.

Finally, after a total of seven months, we said goodbye to Europe, packed up and moved on to our next adventure in the Middle East.

Scotland & The Irelands

It has been three weeks since we left Scotland and Ireland. We have been so busy traveling and exploring that this is our first chance to sit down long enough to recount our adventures from our time there. So here goes… better late than never…

Our four months in the UK will always be a pleasant surprise that was never in our plans or our itinerary. We kind of just ended up there but quickly fell in love with it, nonetheless. England was certainly amazing but Scotland and Ireland far exceeded any expectations we ever had.

We arrived in Glasgow, Scotland on New Year’s Eve to yet another housesit. We had hoped to meet the homeowners, get settled in and have time (and energy) to venture out for a little New Year’s celebration. But when we arrived after a long day of travel to four wild and rambunctious animals, we quickly realized that we were going to have our hands full. We joined the lovely couple for a nice dinner before they got dressed in their complete Scottish kilt costumes and headed off to perform in their traditional Gaelic choir in a televised event.

With travel exhaustion setting in, we opted to stay home with the fur family, pop open a bottle of bubbly and watch our new Scottish friends’ live performance on TV. It was definitely a New Year’s like no other we have celebrated but one that we will not forget.

The next couple of weeks at that housesit proved to be some of the most challenging times we have had throughout our pet sitting adventures. Taking care of a hyperactive, disobedient, non-housebroken 4-month old puppy was somewhat of a nightmare. Under our care, he discovered how to escape out the kitty door, knock the trash can over, rip  the toilet paper holder off the wall, pull our toiletries bag from the counter, pull books off the shelf, pee on our bed (and everywhere else), destroy everything within reach, and terrorize his siblings. Keeping up with him was a full-time job, leaving us very little time to get out of the house and explore. He tested our patience and even at times, our desire to continue house and pet sitting.

But at the end of the day, this sweet little face would look up to us with loving eyes and his warm, fuzzy little body would fall asleep between us and despite all his destruction and terror, we couldn’t help but love him anyway.

Our second day in Glasgow, we welcomed Yuki, a Chinese-Canadian PhD student into the home (set up through the homeowners on AirBnB) who shared the common areas of the house with us during our stay. This was a unique experience for us, as we have always had the homes to ourselves during sits but it turned out to be a positive and interesting one as we learned a lot from Yuki. We interacted daily with her and learned a lot from her about her native country of China, her home country of Canada and her host country of Scotland, where she was taking university classes.

She shared with us many local spots of interest to visit that she learned about from her fellow Glaswegian classmates. One such place was the neighborhood cathedral turned into a whiskey restaurant, concert and wedding venue. We spent a couple of evenings there doing our own Scottish whiskey tastings, choosing from a menu of hundreds of options from the 6 different regions throughout the country.

We had our very first visitor, Daniel’s mom, Joyce join us for two weeks as we moved around Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland, seeing some of the places she had always dreamed of visiting since she was a little girl. In our housesit applications, we had mentioned her arrival and in every instance, the homeowners were more than welcoming, allowing her to join us for comfortable accommodations with true local experiences.

Throughout the remainder of our time in Glasgow, we visited the award-winning transport museum, went on board the Glenlee ship, walked through the Necropolis, one of the most interesting graveyards overlooking the city, toured the beautiful university campus and drank beer at the local Tennent’s brewery, all the while admiring, yet struggling to understand the thick, impossible accents of the local Scottish folks.

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Our next stop took us to the capital of Edinburgh (pronounced Ed-in-bruh). There we stayed in the coziest, comfiest hostel where we slept in pods.

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During an insane amount of walking through the Old Town, we learned about the city’s creepy and tumultuous 3,000-year-old history of bloodshed, war, death, and extremely cold and miserable winters. At night, we took a haunted tour through the Greyfriar’s Kirkyard cemetery, listening to ghost stories and famous tales of the town.

We toured Scotland’s oldest and biggest castle that towers over the city on the coldest day that we have yet to experience on our travels. At the highest point of the castle, high on the cliff, the wind was brutal and the air felt like needles on our skin. The painful conditions made us appreciate the strength and tenacity required of the people that have inhabited this part of the world for centuries.

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While in Edinburgh, we ate at a local restaurant and sampled a traditional Scottish dish called Haggis, which we later discovered is made of sheep’s lungs, stomach and intestines. Our server did not reveal the ingredients until after we had enjoyed every last bite. And despite how unpleasant-sounding it may be, I must say, it was a tasty dish!

On our last day in Scotland, we heard about a nearby pub where local musicians gather for nightly jam sessions. We decided we could not leave the country without taking part in this cultural experience. When we arrived at the tiny pub, Sandy Bell’s, we saw a group of 8 musicians sitting around a table in the back room. As we approached them, a woman pointed to a tiny bench in the corner, inviting us to join in their intimate space. We quickly realized that this informal group was a hodgepodge mix of people, ages, and instruments, some of them playing together for the first time. One young kid had even taken a road trip with his mom all the way from Inverness, three hours away, just for the opportunity to play with the group in hopes of getting his name out there.

There was most likely a lot of freestyle play taking place but to us, it sounded like they had been playing together for years. They sang a couple of Scottish war songs, one of them by the young kid from Inverness that gave us all chills it was so good. The whisky was flowing and the vibes were indescribable. It was truly a magical moment and one that we will remember as one of our favorite experiences in our 10 months of travels.

Leaving Scotland on a high note, it was time to pack up and head to Dublin. Since Ireland is not considered part of the UK, we had to go through immigration once again upon arrival. After our bad experiences, we were thoroughly prepared for any and all inquiries about our visit. Luckily, this time it was a smooth entry and we were on our way. The homeowner for our next housesit was there waiting for us at the airport to take us back to her house on the outskirts of Dublin, in an upscale suburb along the sea called Clontarf. She took us to her lovely home where we shared a nice meal and conversation, learning much about her home country.

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We were introduced to Tashi and BB, the two international champion show dogs, one of them still in full coat. I learned the whole grooming process that was required to maintain BB’s hair in her owner’s absence. And it was quite the process! The combing and braiding took about 20 minutes to do (if she cooperated).  BB has actually entered again this year in the Cruft’s competition where she will be competing for another world title.

The city center of Dublin is easily reached by public transportation so we would simply hop on the bus and be there in 15 minutes. We spent a couple of days touring around and seeing the sights. One of our favorite things we did was going inside the massive, historic library at Trinity College. It truly was a sight to see!

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We also had a lot of fun drinking Guinness and listening to live Irish music at the Temple Bar, walking Grafton Street and visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Guinness brewery. One evening we even met up at a pub with a couple of Joyce’s friends who live near Dublin. There, we learned that no one in Ireland has ever heard of an Irish car bomb! 😀

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The adventure continued in Northern Ireland where we spent a few days in its fascinating capital of Belfast. We took a hop on/hop off bus around the city where we learned all about The Troubles, the period of political conflict from 1960 until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The period of severe divisiveness can still be seen around the city with the many walls that were built to separate the Nationalists and the Loyalists. They are now covered with hundreds of murals and graffiti representing both the horrific violence that took place and also the people’s hope for a more peaceful future. The extent of street art is seriously impressive!

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Belfast today is perfectly safe, welcoming and nothing reminiscent of its volatile past. We met some of the friendliest people there who were exceptionally warm and kind.

During the tour, right as we reached the highest point of the city on the beautiful Parliament building’s property, it started to snow. Out of nowhere, the biggest snowflakes I have ever seen starting coming down. We went out on the upper deck of the bus and got some amazing photos of the winter wonderland.

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The next day we visited the Belfast castle, overlooking the city and visited the gigantic Titanic museum. It took us three hours to get through the museum and we could have spent even longer, there was so much to see! From the windows of the state-of-the-art building, we could see out into the shipyard where the world’s biggest cranes, Sampson and Goliath were used to build the Titanic (and many other famous ships).

Our final tour in Belfast was at the Crumlin Road Gaol, a former prison built in the late 1800’s. The tour took us all around the property, into the underground tunnel connecting the jail with the courthouse, into the prisoner’s cells, and even into the execution room where the original noose was still hanging. It was an eerie, creepy experience but so fascinating at the same time. We heard all kinds of stories of the atrocities that when on there over the course of a century. Interestingly enough, there is a portion of the prison that doubles as a wedding venue and as we were told, is strangely popular.

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The next point on our route was up the northern coast of Northern Ireland to a small seaside town called Portrush. Here, we had another housesit for two adorable pups and their equally friendly owners. We were greeted at the train station by Tim who picked us up and offered to give us a little tour of the entire region. He graciously drove us to the Giant’s Causeway, leaving us to take our time and explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the home to more than 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that were created from an ancient volcano.

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Tim also drove us by the Bushmills distillery, the Dunlace Castle and even the Dark Hedges, a creepy cool street featured on Game of Thrones.  We then returned to the house to meet his wife, Judy and the pups, Beau and Socks. They shared an amazing meal with us followed by a proper amount of wine and good company in front of the fireplace. We will forever be thankful for their kindness and the opportunity to get to know them.

While our stay in Portrush was short and sweet, it was just long enough to explore the quaint little town, stroll along the beautiful beach with the dogs and celebrate Daniel’s golden birthday at a local restaurant.

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Our time in Scotland and the Irelands came to a close, along with our travels with Joyce. We took a bus back to Dublin where we parted ways the following morning. As always, it was hard to say goodbye but we knew the next adventure was waiting for us on the other side.