Been There, Done That (But Would Do It Again)

On the wall of my office is a large world map, covering the majority of the available wall-space above my desk. I used to have one twice the size before I sold my home with the purpose of literally downsizing. In each case, the map was/is liberally dotted with color-coded pins detailing the places I’ve been – a badge of honor within the travel community; a lame attempt at looking cool to everyone else. While the act of pinning my map on the safe return from a voyage abroad is a great source of joy (See my blog post: Happiness is Pinning a Giant, Oversized Map), the greater joy comes from reflecting on which experiences were had on that particular spot, and the memories each pin represents.

With so many unpinned places on my map, I’m always quite reluctant to use my precious time and resources to go back to places I’ve already been. But experience has shown that there are some places that are most certainly more than worth it. Below I’ve compiled a list of five of my greatest travel experiences (in no particular order) and the wondrous places where you too can have those same experiences for yourself.

Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

This region in Central Anatolia is right out of another planet. With cities carved out of the soft volcanic rock and the giggle-inducing shapes of the so-called “fairy chimneys” it’s hard to believe you’re still on earth and not in a galaxy far, far away (See my blog post: The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cappadocia). The best and most-awesomest way to take in this surreal landscape is by hot air balloon, which will allow you to alternately soar far above and skim the surface of this otherworldly wonderland. If it weren’t for parking and three-point turns, I’d say hot air balloon is the nicest way to travel, period.

Zip-lining in Jodhpur, India

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Zip Lining Mehrangarh Fort

I’m a fan of zip-lining in general, having done so numerous times; mostly in jungle settings. The only gripe I have about these “canopy tours” is that often there’s little to see other than branches and tree trunks as you hum along a cable to the next platform. It’s still an awesome experience, but in the city of Jodhpur, India, you can have the same zip-lining excitement with an entirely different backdrop – in this case the mammoth Mehrangarh Fort with the ethereal ‘Blue City’ lying at its feet (See my blog post: A Hyper-Inspirational Shade of the Color Blue). Starting and ending from the fort’s massive stone ramparts, participants will soar over and around an artificial lake and stare out at the boxy monochrome houses right out of an Escher drawing. So if you like your adventure with a side of scenery, this is the place to do it.

Cheetah Encounter in Livingstone, Zambia

Zimcon 1246As an animal lover, some of my greatest travel experiences quite understandably revolve around animal encounters (See my blog posts: Game On! A Rundown of What to Expect on a Safari Game Drive, and The Chobe Riverfront: Botswana’s Got Game). Of all these encounters, the most thrilling most far was the Cheetah Encounter excursion I had in Livingstone, Zambia (See more on the blog post: When a Cheetah Licks Your Head, Try Not to Laugh). Having the chance to pet, walk and get licked by these gorgeous giant felines was a thrill that still hasn’t worn off. Located near incomparable Victoria Falls, these spotted kitties almost made me forget about that ‘other’ attraction in town.

Shark Diving in Bora Bora, French Polynesia

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Lagoon of Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Continuing the animal encounter theme, the only thing I like more than seeing animals is seeing animals underwater. I’ve done a few shark feeding dives where a ribbon of meat is lowered down an anchor line to the sharks waiting below, and each time it was both thrilling and a tiny bit terrifying. What made the experience in Bora Bora so memorable was the appearance of a trio of 8-10 foot Lemon Sharks who nonchalantly snapped up a morsel of floating food just inches above my head. Being in the open water with creatures longer and fatter than I am is a humbling and exhilarating experience; so much so that it trumps my enthusiastic octopus encounter (See my blog post: To the Octopus I Chanced Upon One Early Winter’s Eve) for Best Undersea Experience.

Hanging Out in Brazil’s Costa Verde

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The idyllic harbor of Abraao, Ilha Grande, Brazil

I know hanging out doesn’t sound all that exciting, but if you’ve been to Brazil’s Costa Verde I’m sure you can understand. Whether it was a night out on the town in Rio de Janeiro (See the blog post: In Rio de Janeiro Save the Drama for the Scenery), a stroll through the rain forest on idyllic pedestrian-only Ilha Grande (See the Post: A Love Letter to the Island I Met a Year Ago), or an evening’s exploration of the cobblestone streets of supremely charming Parati (See the post: Parati, Brazil – The Whole Package), doing something or nothing was an amazing experience either way. In a perfect world, this is where I’d want to live. I would also have less grays and a six-pack but that’s a story for another time.

Insufficient Data…Sort of

To date I’ve visited 65 countries/territories across all seven continents. That said, according to the handy app Been (#beenapp) I’ve only covered 26% of total world countries (29% of Europe, 18% of Asia, 52% of North America/Caribbean, 42% of South America, 10% of Oceania and 100% of Antarctica). This means that however many pins might adorn my map, there’s still the majority to go. Knowing as I do that each future pin represents an as yet unrealized experience, the above list is subject to change and the activities mentioned are by no means an exhaustive compilation of all that awaits. The fun is going out and finding those experiences that will last a lifetime. That, and pinning it on my giant map.

How About You?

Do you have a Top-Five worthy travel experience that you’d like to share? Leave a comment and share your story to inspire the rest of us

The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cappadocia

Souvenirs for sale, Kaymakli, Turkey
Souvenirs for sale, Kaymakli, Turkey

From a Persian term meaning “Land of Beautiful Horses”, Cappadocia is not one town but rather a region etched into an otherwise unremarkable plateau in central Turkey. It was in this general neighborhood that the ancient Hittites thrived, paving the way for a unique collaboration between man and nature that is still in effect today. Having always wanted to visit another planet, I was thrilled by the prospect of visiting a landscape that looked right out of a galaxy far, far, away.

 

Before the emergence of the Hittites—or anyone else for that matter—erupting volcanoes blanketed the region with a mixture of hard volcanic rock and ash, which solidified into a soft material called tuff. Over the millennia, the combination of wind, rain, and temperature changes caused the underlying tuff to erode while the denser upper layer of volcanic rock remained intact. The result is a Dali-like dreamscape of cones and pillars that wouldn’t look out of place with a melting clock or two draped across them. Though the sizes and shapes vary widely, the undeniable stars of the show are the so-called “fairy chimneys.” Political correctness and good taste aside, these towering shafts of rock topped with mushroom-shaped peaks challenge even the most Puritan among us not to giggle while winding through what are essentially valleys full of upright phallus. Personally, I did a lot of giggling.

 

Most visitors arrive in Cappadocia by air via the rather industrial city of Kayseri. From the airport it is less than an hour’s drive to a pair of the area’s primary tourism centers: Goreme and Urgup. The latter boasts the lion’s share of the region’s upscale accommodations, though throughout Cappadocia the most appealing lodging by far is available in numerous ‘cave’ hotels liberally delved into the mountainsides.

 

 

A cave hotel has all the charms of home--especially if you're from the town of Bedrock
A cave hotel has all the charms of home–especially if you’re from the town of Bedrock

Essentially renovated cave dwellings from generations past, these small-scale enterprises boast all the comforts of home—especially if you’re from the town of Bedrock. The charm derives from the fact that each room is uniquely sculpted from the aforementioned tuff, from ornately carved “moldings” to the hollowed-out nooks for local bric-a-brac. After a long day of giggling and exploration there’s no greater feeling than climbing into your very own hole in the wall.

 

 

Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey
Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey

The nearby hamlet of Goreme is home to the aptly-named Goreme Open Air Museum—a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This cluster of honeycombed hills was once a stronghold of early Christianity, as is evidenced by numerous chapels, churches, and monasteries with frescoes dating back to the 9th century. Here, the landscape has been sculpted by more than just the elements. In seemingly all directions are the remains of troglodyte dwellings hewn from the rock in an Escher-like warren of doorways and staircases whose architectural style can be best described as early Dr. Seuss.

 

 

Baloon-view over Cappadocia, Turkey
Balloon-view over Cappadocia, Turkey

For a clearer perspective of the uniqueness of Cappadocia, I suggest rising above the jungle of rock to take in the surreal landscape by hot air balloon. Is it expensive? Well, yes, but those who have indulged in an hour or so drift across this moonscape are hardly quibbling over pennies when they finally touch down. The movement is gentle and serene and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better vehicle to take in the views. If it wasn’t for the challenges of parallel parking, I’d say a hot air balloon may just be the best way to travel period.

 

As if the cave dwellings and hot air balloons were not enough, Cappadocia is also home to several underground cities such as can be found in Kaymakli and Derinkuyu. Burrowed some eight to ten stories underground, these mazes of chambers and kitchens sheltered tens of thousands of the local populous for months at a time during periods of Arab invasion. Though not recommended for severe claustrophobics, most will find that just such a tour is well within their comfort and interest range, and its fun playing ‘ant in the terrarium.’

 

Naturally, almost all tours include stops at the local tourist traps where guests are given a demonstration of how local handicrafts are made, then amazingly offered the opportunity to purchase a piece for themselves. At the very least it’s nice to sit down and relax over a warm cup of the ubiquitous apple tea you’re sure to be offered. Plus, adding a handmade souvenir to your china cabinet is worth the trouble of being targeted by smooth-talking Turkish salesmen.

 

Many Americans may feel hesitant about traveling to Turkey, yet such trepidation is mostly unfounded. The Turks are a truly friendly bunch and if they seem proud about their heritage, just take a look around and you’ll understand why. Prices are generally reasonable and though you’d do well to sharpen your haggling skills, deals can be had. Just a note, if you’re looking to take home that authentic Turkish rug, be sure to save your pennies and be prepared to receive the full-court press if you show any real interest.

 

Without a doubt, a visit to Cappadocia is an experience far removed from your average vacation. For anyone wanting to try something different without straying from their comfort zone, you’d be hard pressed to find another locale with so much to do and such a unique setting to do it in. Besides, at the very least you should get a few giggles out of it, and after all, isn’t that what travel is all about?

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Miles

One of the most frequent questions I get asked when people peruse my travel photos is: “What made you go there?” followed by the inevitable: “How did you even hear about that place?” The response is the same for both: “I saw it in a picture.”

Yes, just as the beauty of Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, so too a few travel photographs have sent me on a chase of many more than a thousand miles, just to witness the scenes depicted in person. My earliest recollection of this was an old book my parents had on a shelf in the crude entertainment center my dad built on his own when I was still a young boy. In it was the iconic scene of Machu Picchu, and I knew then and there I wanted to see it for myself. (I made the attempt to do so back in 2010 but was denied due to mudslides, so that goal is still pending).

Is it a sign of weakness that my mind (and wallet) are so open to suggestion? Perhaps. But there’s no doubt I have consistently had my expectations either matched or surpassed when I finally got to see the real thing. Below are just a few examples.

 

The Meteora, Greece

The Meteora, Kalambaka, Greece
The Meteora, Kalambaka, Greece

The first time I saw the image of ancient monasteries dwarfed by enormous pillars of stone, I thought I was looking at a scene from a video game (specifically something out of MYST). When I found myself in the general neighborhood of Greece I made visiting this otherworldly setting a priority and was thrilled when I was able to add hundreds of inspirational pictures to my own collection.

Cappadocia, Turkey

Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey
Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey

This surreal landscape captivated me at first glance. I mean, where else can you wander entire villages of sculpted rock right out of a Dr. Seuss book? Add to that the opportunity to stay in an authentic cave hotel (the coolest thing ever, btw) and I knew that despite being literally in the middle of nowhere (well, Turkey actually) it was worth the effort. My photo album is in complete agreement.

Jodhpur, India

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Partial view of the Blue City

 

While India had always been a dream destination of mine, nothing stoked my wanderlust quite as much as a picture of Jodhpur, The Blue City as seen from the imposing Mehrangar Fort. Other than the intriguing color, the warren of flat houses, alleyways & staircases seemed a real-life M.C. Escher drawing. Considering its use as a setting in the Dark Knight Rises installment of the Batman series, apparently I’m not the only one to consider it as worth the trip.

Parati, Brazil

Sunset over the Historic Center, Parati, Brazil
Sunset over the Historic Center, Parati, Brazil

It was in a book of travel photography that I first caught sight of the cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses of Parati. Having always wanted to go to Brazil anyway, I not only included it in my itinerary but also decided to spend the bulk of my time there. Sure, I had read up on all its fine attractions, charming pousadas and artistic vibe, but it was those first pictures that made me say “I have to go there” and made me feel so very glad that I did. In fact, very shortly I will be posting about what a marvelous place it is.

These are just a few examples but by now I’m sure you get the point. So the tip is: If you’re lacking in inspiration or have always taken the road most traveled, do yourself a favor and go down to your local library, take out a book on a destination that intrigues you, and flip through the pictures (or alternately, view my photo gallery.) Inspiration is never far away so long as there are pictures, and so long as there are pictures, there will always be a reason to travel.