Travels in Asia

November 28, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain, Trips to the US

Sometimes you meet a soul friend — a person that, with very few words or encounters, you just feel like you’ve known for a lifetime. My friend Candace is one of those people.

It might seem like a cheesy term, I suppose — soul friend — but there’s really no better way to describe our friendship. We first met two years ago at a travel-blogging conference in Copenhagen. Both feeling somewhat out of our element, we formed an instant bond over the spontaneity of chasing down a horse-drawn carriage that was delivering the season’s Christmas beer. Sporting illuminated blue Santa caps, we toyed with the idea of a future get-together (Spain, perhaps?) but, like most chance meetings, she could have very well just ended up being one of many Facebook friends that I “met that one time when I was traveling.”

That wouldn’t be the case for us, though. A year and a half and several sporadic emails later, and Candace messaged me to say she was finally thinking about coming to Spain. Not just to visit, though, but to do the Camino de Santiago.

Hmmm, I thought, the Camino.

The idea danced in my head, both tempting and terrifying me. I didn’t have any gear, I’m not a backpacker (far from it), and I barely knew Candace. But the time was right and the Camino called.

So I went, and I had one of the most moving experiences of my life. We stayed in grungy albergues (hostels along the Camino), ran through frigid poring rain, and lamented over gnarly foot injuries. We cried, we laughed, we complained, and we covered not only ground, but probably every discussable subject possible. We saw magic on that trip in the people we met, in the pain (both physical and emotional), and in the triumph of powering through it all to arrive at our destination.

And then Candace was off again, to the States and then to India (her new home, if you can believe it). “Yes, yes, I will see you in India,” I said with the same certainty as our first conversation in Denmark, aware that only time would tell when or how our paths would cross next.

Indeed, our next chance encounter wouldn’t be in India, but instead in San Francisco. My flight was already booked home last summer when Candace told me she would be in the North Bay for a writing conference. “Will you be there? Would you like to come?” she asked on the off chance I’d be around and interested. My answer was a resounding “yes” (or more like: “You’re what?!!!? When??!! Yes!!!!!).

Even better, with the event taking place in a tiny town, she not only needed transport, but a place to stay. So for several days, we held slumber parties at my friend’s house in San Francisco, and commuted each morning through the ethereal fog engulfing the Golden Gate. Once again we saw magic: magic in the conference, magic in spending time together in a third country (our country!), and magic in the serendipity of it all.

But alas, this trip too would end with no guarantee of when our worlds would intersect once more. Again, I vowed that I’d come visit her in India, knowing that logistically many stars would have to align (those stars being my budget, timing, and more of my budget).

Of course those stars lined up just like Orion’s belt. Not only would Candace be free in November, as would I — perhaps the very best time of year to visit India — but I was able to buy a plane ticket with miles! In fact, my whole trip to India would cost me a sum total of roughly $400 (flight, visa, food, souvenirs and (free) lodging). The travel and friendship gods must have really been smiling down on us, especially since silly me didn’t realize I needed a visa until just nine business days before the trip, when it was supposed to take ten days to process; it only took seven.

And off to India I went, where our next adventure would begin.

When Candace and I parted at the airport last Friday, we embraced, knowing that even though we have no idea when we’ll see each other next, that it will happen, and there will be magic.

Thank you, Hammie Hamster, for another amazing journey!

November 19, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Asia

Wheeling and dealing with rickshaw drivers, noshing on street food like spicy samosas and syrupy sweet gulab jamun, and making new friends with some of the warmest people in the world: These are just a few of the highlights of my last three days in Delhi. As my mind buzzes to process and appreciate all the colorful commotion that swirls around me, I prepare for the second half of my journey, which will include visiting the Taj Mahal, and even attending a proper Indian wedding. More to come when I return to Madrid, but — until then — I leave you with a photo of the Main Bazar in the Paharganj neighborhood of New Delhi.

September 7, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe, Video

Just admit it – you barely knew the country of Georgia existed before I started flooding your inbox and RSS feeds with blog posts that make you so hungry you think you’re going to burst. But now, you’re extra curious about this peculiar Eurasian nation. So, since I’ve reeled ya in, here’s a little video giving you yet another taste of the country. (Be sure to watch it until the end – I think it’s hilarious, but I’m also easily amused.)

If you are having trouble viewing the video, please click here.
To see pictures from my trip to Georgia, please visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page or Flickr page.

September 5, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe

My summer overdose of travel continues to its next stop – Istanbul, Turkey. While I spent a good majority of my trip there obsessing over baklava, I did manage to squeeze in a few tourist stops as well. Even though I may not be too keen on sharing my beloved Turkish dessert, I figure I can at least let you in on some of my top travel tips for the city that now ranks as one of my all-time favorites.

Bargain hunting
When we first arrived, we felt compelled to hoard tempting Turkish souvenirs like they were rare treasures. We learned quickly, however, that the same junk quality products were sold throughout the city – from soaps to ceramics, rugs and tea cups – and at a wild range of prices. Take, for example, a shawl I bought for myself next to the Blue Mosque – the item cost me 8 Turkish lira (after I busted out my killer bargaining skills), but in the Grand Bazaar they wanted to charge me 50!!! Haha – that’s exactly what I said to the guy too – hahaha! Knowing the running price of our wish-list items helped us negotiate price throughout the trip, and avoid getting ripped off by some of the smooth-talking salesmen.

Ignore salesmen flattery
Speaking of smooth-talking salesmen, don’t be flattered by their ability to impress you with knowledge of your language or country. Originally, we were shocked when Turks here, there and everywhere spoke to us in fluent Spanish, only to realize after a five-minute walk through the Grand Bazaar that they ALL spoke Spanish….and English, and Italian, and French and I don’t know, probably Pig Latin. The brilliant sales tactic in the popular merchant city includes speaking a load of languages to impress clients. And don’t be surprised if they have some incomprehensible connection with your home country – “I’ve got a cousin living in Seattle” , “I’m half Spanish” or “I’m moving to Texas!!” Ignore the conversation starters – you know better than that.

See spots early
Topkapi Palace, The Blue Mosque, The Hagia Sofia – each day we rose early to make to our way to these popular destinations a half an hour before opening. Not necessarily to avoid the lines, though, but for the real bonus – having the usually tourist-filled sights all to ourselves. Sure, other visitors rolled in behind us, but for a brief moment a few of the world’s most famous spots felt like our own personal playgrounds.

Skip boat tours
Following a friend’s recommendation to check out the Kadiköy neighborhood, we hitched a ride on a ferry that transports Turks and tourists alike from one side of the river to the other. For around one, count it – ONE – euro, we enjoyed a relaxing boat ride across the water with priceless views of the city. I honestly don’t know how much the proper boat excursions cost, but if they cost more than a euro, then you’re being taken for a ride – an expensive unnecessary ride that better include champagne and caviar. Kill two birds with one stone by just grabbing one of the transportation boats across the water to see another neighborhood.

Other recommendations:

Ayasultan Hotel – Oh man, we lucked out on this one. Looking for a new hotel to replace our old hotel (which shall remain nameless), we came across the brand spankin’ new Ayasultan Boutique Hotel smack dab in the heart of Istanbul. Just off the main drag on a narrow near-traffic-free street, sat our oasis in the city of nine-million. The price was right, the rooms were not only new but well-decorated, and the rooftop-terrace breakfast was the yogurt on my kebap.

Hamdi Restaurant – With views of the Bosphorus River and the city, the sights alone makes the dinner here worth it. The bonus? The food, of course. The service may not be stellar, but the cuisine and views are so impressive that you just won’t care.

Rüstem Pasha Mosque – While others flock to the more popular mosques, you can smartly head to this lesser-frequented complex. Just a pistachio’s throw away from the Spice Bazaar, a stop at the near-vacant mosque is a relaxing escape from Istanbul’s hustle and bustle.

*To see photos from my trip to Turkey, please visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page or Flickr page.
**A big muchas gracias to TheViatrix for suggesting Hamdi, the Rüstem Pasha Mosque and Kadiköy! Check out more of her Turkey tips here.

August 31, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe

Georgian foodsIt’s true. I’ve been cheating on my dear Spanish food not only with Turkish desserts, but also with Georgian cuisine. What can I say – I’m a tad unfaithful and culinarily promiscuous. But when it comes to food, I’m just not a one-cuisine kind of gal! Let me introduce to you to my latest food love affair.

Bread is king in Georgia. These people eat bread like it’s the last day of their life – multiple kinds of bread at breakfast, lunch and dinner. And I get why – because it’s off-the-charts good. The most famous of the breads is the lavashi. Often made in a signature oblong shape, the soft, squishy bread is perfect for eating by itself, with a Georgian cheese, or just soaking and scooping up whatever you have on your plate. My other bread favorite was mchadi – a cornmeal based patty typically served hot and which Georgians love to slice in half, stuff with cheese and eat like a sandwich (genius!!).

mchadi georgia
Hello, Georgian pizza, can you please come back to Spain with me? This little delight mixes the scrumptiousness of the aforementioned bread, with, you guessed it – cheese! Across the country you’ll find different variations from cheese on top, to cheese inside. Batumi, the beachside town that Eastern Europeans flock to, even boasts its own special version – a boat-shaped bread that cradles a mixture of melted cheese, a semi-fried egg and a slice of butter, all which you must mush up with your fork and then eat until you explode or have a heart attack (whichever comes first).

khachapuri, Georgia
I spent my first several days in Georgia thinking that the only sweets that those folks ate included watermelon (I’m still not amused – sorry, Georgia). But after nagging a little, my Georgian amiga, Sophia, revealed her country’s sweet tooth – a sweet tooth fulfilled by some finger-licking-good pastries. My favorite, kada, is basically just a fat roll of what I would consider to be crumbly pie crust. I know, why didn’t anyone think of this sooner, right?? Then there’s a sumptuous cream-filled pastry, called shu, that I may as well just bag and hook up to an IV drip. Why they don’t eat this stuff with the same reckless abandon as they do bread and watermelon is just plain beyond me.

pastries, georgia, kada
coffee float, georgiaCoffee float
On hot summer days, it’s not uncommon to see locals slurping their Georgian-style coffee floats through colorful straws. And it should be mentioned that Georgians do love their ice cream – a fluffy, almost whipped frozen treat that often comes prepackaged in soggy cones. Kind of sounds unappetizing, but I’m not going to lie – it hit the spot (apparently I have a lot of spots).

Herby, spiced, crack-filled (OK, maybe not crack) sauces
For a good portion of our trip, Sophia hesitated introducing us to the more flavorful (read: spiced and spicy) Georgian cuisine for fear that we wouldn’t like it. Apparently past guests (many of which were Spaniards who are averse to spicy cuisine) didn’t care for the dishes. One taste, though, and we were s.m.i.t.t.e.n. Served with meats or veggies, the chashushuli sauce is typically mixed with fresh herbs like cilantro and dill, and spices such as hot pepper and flavored salt. The result is an irresistible concoction that I would eat everyday of my life on and with just about anything that I can get my hands on. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can’t be friends with someone who for some reason doesn’t love it. If you like Indian or Southeast Asian cuisine, then I promise you will be obsessed with this dish too.

veggie dish

Honorable mention
Georgia serves up several other universally loved dishes that I too enjoyed, but not with the same embarrassing passion as those mentioned above. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention khinkali, which basically looks like giant dim sum (and kind of tastes like it too). To eat it Georgian style, pick it up with your hands and take a bite of the base, slurping up its broth while you eat.

Then there are also the kebaps, which come as crepe-wrapped ground-beef. The meat is blended with the same mixture of fresh herbs and spices as the crack-sauce mentioned above. Dipped in a little Georgian ketchup (not really ketchup, the tkhemali is a sweet-meets-sour sauce made of a fruit similar to plums) and you’ve got yourself a winning combination.

Still curious about Georgia? Don’t forget to read more about my impressions on what makes Georgia unique.