Skiing in the Desert of Dubai & Road Trip to Oman

Ski Dubai

I’ve been skiing, snowboarding, and tubing in Dubai.  It’s a surreal experience.  I do recommend it.  The novelty factor is very high given the extreme hot temperatures in desert sandy HOT HOT conditions that Dubai and the UAE is known for.

A quick tour of the Ski Hill in the Mall in Dubai

 

I’ve had some incredible adventures in Dubai speaking at TechEd Middle East and at the SharePoint Conference.  My friends L-R Michael Noel, me, and Zlatan Dznic, took our turn at Snowboarding and Skiing the great slopes of the Mall in Dubai.  It’s really a decent hill, likely better than many mountains in the East Coast.  While the snow conditions were a little icy for my taste, I really really enjoyed the experience.  While it was a bit pricey, it was a blast and a great memory.  We all were glad we did it.  By the way, don’t worry about bringing your equipment to Dubai, it’s not that much more to get the full package of the full blue suit, and the gear.

 

Todd Klindt a popular SharePoint speaker went with me tubing, he didn’t want his first experience skiing to be in mall.  For that I don’t blame him.

Todd goes for a ride

Dubai is an amazing Oasis that is so much more than that now.  The world’s tallest building definitely stands out as a must see.  It is.  I saw it going up, and saw it after it opened up, and I’ve been so impressed with the Burj Khalifa and the Burj Dubai, both magnificent buildings. 

It says so much for what is possible with passion and a little money.  Give it a few years, we’ll see if they can hold onto it or if Qatar or Bahrain or Kuwait take on the challenge to push the limits.  I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone of those rich Arab Oasis were to take on architectural feats.  They are all doing amazing things with land reclamation, and the Palms, the Pearl, the World… All these water projects with architectural marvels are so incredible.

 

Not only did I go snowboarding in the snow, I did get out on the sand slopes and had my turn at Sand Boarding as well.  Everything is great until the abrupt stop at the bottom of the slope.  Getting out into the sand and fitting in some camel rides, and having traditional

food around a fire with some possible belly dancing and dancing a bit yourself may sound like a tourist trap, and most of it is.  Which is why I encourage you to track down the real berber experiences.  The multi day trips into the Sahara from Morocco are much more authentic.  Much of what you get out of Dubai is akin to the dude ranch things they put together in the US where they let you ride a horse and show you a farm.  It’s not the same as getting on a horse for a real round up or branding session.  You’ll have to decide what kind of dose works for you on that.  It was reasonable enough and I had a day to kill so I decided to do the touristy thing and go on an organized tour that included the 4 x 4 in the sand, In fact I rode in a hummer which was that much more cool.  That was a great ride.  The camel ride I’ve done too much at this point, but they had that as well.  I always appreciate belly dancing, so that was a great bonus… sitting out under the stars listening to traditional music with the sand in my hair… it was a blast. I must admit. 

There were some campy moments walking around the tents and trying on the apparel, but it was still awesome. 

It’s quite possible to jump in a rental car and drive to Oman, which Michael and I did.  We went all the way to the coast, drove along the beach, and played around a little.  In all we crossed 4 or 5 of the Emirates, and while in Oman we saw the different facial gear the Muslim women wear in Oman.  I was fascinated.  It had more of a metallic face guard looking thing I mentioned in my Qatar post.

I really enjoyed my time in Dubai.  It’s a beautiful Oasis.  The buildings are truly magnificent.  If the Emirates were trying to send a message to the Western World that they should pay attention, I think many many more are really listening.  We are a much more global world.  The days of the Sears Tower and the New York Empire State Building had their moments.  They had their day in the sun, and I think it’s great to see more representation around the world.  America needed to make itself known and now it needs to share that stage.  The more I travel, the more I do recognize the need for self actualization for many other nations.  We need to recognize the amazing qualities of every country and feel their pains and celebrate their wins.  Dubai and all of the UAE for that matter is an incredible Oasis of the world.  They have risen out of the Sand and are a real gem.  Cheers and Congrats on the Burj’s.  Great scenes in Mission Impossible.  Was cool to see where I was.

Machu Picchu Spiritual City of the Sky and Wonder of the World (5 of 7)

Spiritual Machu Picchu

This post is in a series of 7 posts on the 7 Wonders of the New World

The lost city of Macchu Picchu.  What an amazing and historical place filled with mystery.  The Jewel of the Incas is spectacular.  Definitely one of the coolest places to hike, explore, and take in the spirit.  Lots of great photos to take, people to meet, cultures to explore.  (Pictured below is the city of Cuzco with a nice llama in the foreground along with my baby Dean, a favorite among the locals.)

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I flew into Lima, Peru which was already a pretty long flight.  Lima is a fascinating city it’s own right.  It was my first city in South America, but what a great first experience it was.  All of the modern amenities, great hotels, great museums, lots to see.  I hope you like cathedrals, and gold, and the mysteries of the Incas.  There’s some great food, great get aways.  Lima is on the coast, and there are some awesome restaurants and great board walk.  Too many think that south of Mexico is more Mexico.  In the U.S. and likely much of the world has Mexican restaurants helping the world appreciate burritos, tacos, and enchiladas, but it takes a little digging to find Argentine and Brazilian steak houses.  What of Peru.  What you definitely find in South America is very distinct cultures, very different food, and even clothing.  If you haven’t made it yet to South America, I recommend Peru as a great place to start.  Peru has Amazon Rain forests, Andes Mountains, and desert and beaches. (Pictured: Agnes, Michael, me, David, Tony, and Jose)

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Chichen Itza Mayan Masterpiece Pyramid Perfection and Wonder of the World (6 of 7)

pyramids of chichen itza

Visit of Christ to the Americas

This post is in a series of 7 posts on the 7 Wonders of the New World

 

When I was planning our Cancun vacation, my wife was thinking… we’ll chill on the beach at an all inclusive resort, and I was thinking… we’ll grab a rental car and pick up as many of the Mayan temples as possible within a 2 week period.  Finally I can see one of the 7 finalists of the new 7 Wonders of the World – Chichen Itza.  As a traveller I was anxious to see real wonders of the ancient world. I love temples, I love archeology, and I love the mystery that surrounds these massive new world temples. I also was incredibly interested in Tulum on the coast, and my ultimate Tikal the Mayan Capital.  We know so little about the Mayans, but I was surprised to find out they weren’t totally wiped out.  There is a group of Mayans that give the tours in Tulum, and they speak the ancient Mayan language.  It’s so, so sad that the culture has so much of who they were.  They lost everything.  A few documents recently were rediscovered in Germany referred to as the Mayan Dresden Codex.  Mayan Temple of Chichen ItzaWhich some point to as the source of the 12, 21, 2012 apocalyptic date or the beginning of 1000 years of peace, but “A German expert who says his decoding of a Mayan tablet with a reference to a 2012 date denotes a transition to a new era and not a possible end of the world as others have read it…The interpretation of the hieroglyphs by Sven Gronemeyer…He said the inscription describes the return of mysterious Mayan god. Continue reading on Examiner.com German Mayan researcher’s 2012 conclusions.  Cool.  Beginning of the end of the world or return of a Mayan god… Bearded white god?  (By the way, ask to see the rock carving of the bearded god at Chichen Itza.  It’s pretty cool.  If it’s Lief Erickson or Jesus or insane stone carver it’s mind numbing given the carvings all around it.  Seriously fun stuff.  You gotta enjoy the speculation and not get too caught up either way, since we can’t know.

While I don’t think the end will happen in December 2012 (No one is suppose to know the day or hour when Jesus is coming back Matthew 24:36), I have used it as an opportunity to be prepared for disaster.  In my church, we have been asked to have a year supply of food on hand in case of disaster.  It has paid off with members all over the world.  As recent as the tsunami in Japan and earthquake in Hati, the members who obeyed have been blessed. As a member of the LDS Church there is a fascinating Book of Mormon back story of Christ in the Americas and Artists often paint pictures of Christ appearing to the righteous people in 3 Nephi 11 with the back drop of Tulum.  There are Mormon tours all over this region.  In fact we discovered that more Mayan Temple of Tulumthan 30% of the guides in Tulum were Mayan members of the LDS Church.  It’s understood that there really hasn’t been any LDS revelations on the locations, and anything discovered is purely speculation.  Our guide at Tulum was actually a Mormon Bishop named Mosiah.  It was a quick tour, which really didn’t add any info on what we had already got from our tour in Chichen Itza.  He shared pictures of Tulum where light shines through specific building on April 6th, and sold us a tree of life medallion.  Great stories.  Amazing place.  While I didn’t necessarily subscribe to all he shared, I was fascinated with the history of the Mayans, he being one himself.  The PC accepted story is that Mayan calendar simply points toward a new era.  Great.  Others are looking for the Age of Aquarius.

Dean%2520taking%2520it%2520inThese grandios temples are mucho bueno.  Very incredible.  Left: My trooper, Dean at Chichen Itza.  This is 3 of 7 New Wonders for him.  He’s been to Machu Picchu and the Great Pyramids in Egypt.

Travel Tip: I do recommend highly recommend seeing Chichen Itza.  I do recommend getting a negotiated tour there.  There are some inscriptions and history that you’d miss otherwise.  There are a lot of things to point out in the area.  There are half a dozen buildings and a great ball court area, and you need to know more about the rules of that game and what happens to the winners and losers.  Those stories you must hear.  There’s a lot of inscriptions and interpretations and stories you need to hear.  We got the 2 hour guided tour, that we negotiated on the spot after we arrived.  It wasn’t too outrageous.  There are a lot of people that can give tours, so shop around and negotiate.  Don’t take the first rate you hear.  Many hotels in Cancun can arrange transport and tour as well.  Just don’t over pay.  There is a lot of cushion.  In relation to Cancun both Tulum and Chichen Itza are both day trips. There is a toll road all the way to Chichen Itza from Cancun. You’ll pay 20-30 USD for that trip one way! We decided we’d take the scenic route on the way there, and hurry back. It is a difference of about an hour. You can get to other ruins as well including Coba. I didn’t make it to Coba, we were with my wife’s family and Jeff got sick, so we missed out on that one, but that’s ok because my eye was on the ultimate prize of Tikal, Jaguar temple the largest temples in the new world.  In contrast to Chichen Itza, I do not recommend the tour in Tulum.  The buildings are a lot smaller, things are close and if you did this one after doing Chichen Itza there’s a lot of overlap.  Our tour may have ultimately been 15 minutes of explanation and he didn’t even walk the whole thing with us.  Don’t miss the views from either side of the temple near the water.  There are some great photo shots by of Tulum by the water.  Another reason to do your research of Tulum ahead of time and get the guided tour at Chichen Itza.

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Rediscovered Europe: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Island in Bled Slovenia

I had seen most of Western Europe when I visited the Balkans, but I wasn’t prepared for the beauty and raw elements of war I would see.  Mountain views, lakes and valleys that would rival the best of Switzerland, rivers that rival the beauty of Idaho’s and untouched wilderness, the bridge in Mostar rival the arches of the canals of Venice, but evoke an emotional response.  The worst of the war torn parts remind me of some parts of Beirut.  Even the West Bank has been more cleaned up than some of the pits out of the buildings in Sarajevo.  The stories of the rebuilding of the Synagogue in Sarajevo… How many times can a building be rebuilt?

Night in Zagreb, Croatia

In contrast, Roman emperors vacationed in Croatia. croatia_bosnia Dubrovnik and Split are incredibly scenic and would rival that of any ports in Italy or France, and a fresh seafood or fish dinner would cost you much less.  I guess what I’m saying is, I loved it.  Belgrade and Sarajevo are the hidden gems of Europe, the passion and life, and recent history to blow your mind.  The travelers looking for secrets in Europe.  Here’s a great place to start.  It’s the Balkans.  Some of my best friends in Europe.  There’s something that goes deeper here.  Relationships are stronger, and go deeper, you can feel it.

My trip started in Zagreb the capital of Croatia with a night tour. We met up for a great dinner and ended up walking around parliament, and old town Zagreb. Zagreb itself did avoid much of the conflict in the Balkan conficts/wars that happened back in 92-93.

Remnants of the war are still visible.  There are more reasons to come and visit than the incredible night life.  There are fresh memories that will teach the world a lesson… this lesson is war is not kind to anyone.  War should be avoided at all costs, and the horrors and nightmares of war are real.  Those who only vacation at Disneyland or Disneyworld and spend their vacations with the Grand Canyon as the ultimate bucketlist need to come for a visit.  This land has a lot of lessons to teach. 

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When we got close to the Republik of Srpska we came across these signs.  After spending time at the Cambodia land museum, I have been convinced that land mines do more danger to the citizens that have to live with these than any good they do for the military.  There are some crazy stats on how much the people are impacted by these.

 

Now before you think it’s all doom and gloom, that’s totally not the key take away.  It’s the opposite.  In fact my friend Michael, who I was traveling with, recently wrote about his experience on this same trip.  I highly encourage reading about his writeup on the former Hapsburg empire – Serbia, Romania, Bosnia & Herz, Montenegro, and Croatia. This trip started with a fellow colleague who lived in Croatia, Toni Frankola, a speaking team of Michael Noel, and Paul Swider.

This place is amazing, but as an American tourist, that gets a rise out of seeing something unlike anything I can find within the US or Western Europe.  I get excited. This was one of the best Europe vacations I’ve ever done.  I’ve seen Dubrovnik and Mostar on the front page of Bing on multiple occasions.  They really are spectacular.  The castle in Belgrade was an awesome place to walk around.  The cultural music and dancing we got at night was spectacular.  Very fun environment.  I think it was a good thing for Toni as well, as he recognized some of the tunes, and was surprised to see the similarities between Croatia and Serbia.  Good stuff.

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Post Revolution Egypt – Am I Safe?


It seems like Egypt has for the most part fallen out of the news.  Is it safe?

tanks in egypt

A couple of quotes from an article on Egypt welcomes tourists and affirms safety.

Travel warning lifted

“Ambassador Scobey met with the heads of U.S.-based travel associations NTA, USTOA, ATTA and ASTA, along with tour operators and journalists, at the American embassy in Cairo.

The group was on a six-day, fact-finding trip to investigate travel safety in Egypt and Jordan. I traveled with the delegation as they met Egyptian officials and toured Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum and other cultural attractions.

“Our recent visit to Cairo confirmed that Egypt is safe and ready for tourists,” said Lisa Simon, president of the NTA, in an email. “The Egyptian people welcomed us with a renewed spirit and pride resulting from the revolution – they’re ready and anxious to show off the ‘new Egypt.’”

British tourists “never stopped” coming to the resort areas and were motivated by great deals, according to Egyptian tour guide Mina Mamdouh Edwar.

Before the revolution about 270,000 Americans visited Egypt each year, compared to nearly 3 million Russian and 1.5 million British visitors, said the Egypt Tourism Authority’s Samy Mahmoud.

“Foreigners have been coming back steadily [and] there have been very few problems,” noted Ambassador Scobey.”

While the elections press on, Egypt itself is definitely on sale.  Tourism is such a huge part of Egypt’s GDP.  Egypt has had to borrow money to sustain the governing that is going on.

I personally toured Tahrir square, Egyptian Museum, about a dozen Pyriamids, Kahili Market from the north into Alexandria to the far south in Abu Simbel.  The people are very welcoming, and they want to share their “New Egypt!”

I was there over a year ago, so it’s only gotten better in the last year. This picture was a rare one of a couple of tanks.  Life is back to normal.

As a traveller looking for the place without the crowds I think you’d find there are tons of reasons why you’d want to go while it’s still fresh in others minds, and would consider somewhere else.

If I told you there were no police or the police was the army, but you are in one of the safest places… you might not believe me.  I visited Egypt following the Jan 24 Arab spring.  In fact I visited in Spring 2011, in April.  The taxi driver we were working with was picking up people at the Libyan border and providing transport.  Now you’ve got resolution in Libya and Tunisia.  Syria is having issues, but that’s north of Israel.  Look at a map, it’s not that close.

If you are considering a trip, I’ve got a few twitter friends who live in Cairo that could give us the on the streets update.  You can ping me on twitter @joeloleson or just add it to the comments.

My kids got into the spirit of it.  In fact, Jared pictured on the right is wearing the shirt of the revolution.

Happy New Egypt

In Arabic #Jan24 and New Egypt.  You can see the guard here is pretty excited about his choice of clothes.  Another worker same day asked if it was ok to take a picture and post it to facebook!

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Skopje Macedonia and the Mysterious Gypsy City


Arriving in Skopje (Pronounced Scope-Ya) Macedonia by Train, we met up immediately with our new friend Darko.  What a cool name!  Darko, a native Macedonian was ready for us on the train platform arriving from Kosovo.  He had big plans and was anxious to show off his amazing city, and we ready to take it in. (Pictured below: Me, Betim, and Darko)

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Darko takes us downtown to this beautiful area.  Tons of Monuments centered around Alexander the Great fountain.  You may not be aware, but the name itself “Macedonia” is controversial.  Greece doesn’t like that Macedonia or FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia)  uses that name.  In Greece, the region north around Thessaloniki, is known as Macedonia and recognized by them as the *real* Macedonia. I highly recommend a quick read from Wikipedia’s article on the Macedonia name dispute.

Alexander the Great

Here’s a little snippet from Wikipedia which better explains it: “The dispute has escalated to the highest level of international mediation, involving numerous attempts to achieve a resolution. In 1995, the two countries formalized bilateral relations and committed to start negotiations on the naming issue, under the auspices of the United Nations. Until a solution is found, the provisional reference “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (often abbreviated as FYROM) is used by international organizations and states which do not recognize translations of the constitutional name “Република Македонија” (“Republika Makedonija”, “Republic of Macedonia”). UN members, and the UN as a whole, have agreed to accept any final agreement on a new name agreed upon by both Greece and FYROM.”

For now, don’t get upset if I don’t use the ugly acronym.  I love both ideas, and I’m sure they’ll work it out eventually.  Maybe if Skopje builds more monuments of Alexander the great, Greece will concede… joking!!

The amount of construction going on, on these massive and incredible monuments would make you think there’s a great insurgence of money coming in, but really it seems something imperial is going on.  There is a new Caesar or Alex in town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictured Above: Alexander the Great

 

Pictured Below: Tsar, and the Stone Bridge originally from 6th century, and that’s not Las Vegas’s Caesar’s palace but it sure looks like it.

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Right from downtown if you look up, you see this amazing castle -Kale Fortress built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian.  It adds a very chivalrous spirit to the air, and the amazing river and big statues everywhere and all the great colorful flags made for a beautiful day.  I thoroughly enjoyed the city, and walking around it was a lot of fun.  I am a bit dissapointed I didn’t spend more time in the old city going to the bizarre.  I’ve heard lots of good things online.  As a tourist, you could spend most of your time in this area of the city walking up the hill… incredible views.  We even found a secret door into the fortress.  Very interesting.  In these streets of the old bizarre and double hamam you could get lost in a good way weaving around old and new.  We had some great hot chocolate the the guys LOVED the coffee.  The new Mother Theresa building is very nice as well.  More great statue and modern art.  Darko then took us to a fabulous lunch.

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Castle Above Macedonia

After another incredible meal. Awesome vegetables, and succulent meats, we simply walked upstairs to a large group of people that were actually waiting for us.  Darko organized a technical event for me and my traveling buddies to present at.  We had over 120 attendees and with Darko’s help we launched a brand new SharePoint community in Macedonia.  We were super pleased with the turnout.  Nothing I love more than to feel like I’ve left something behind that will blossom and grow.  Building community provides infrastructure, support, and strength.  It also grows friendships and global connections.

After the event we went back and I was doing some research.  I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss anything super cool.  I came across Roman Aqueducts just outside the city, and then was reading about the largest Roma community of 30,000 being nearby.  Michael had this funny look on his face.  Dude, I’m surprised your not excited.  What?  Gypsies!  OH, NO WAY!  I’ve always wondered where gypsies came from.  Here I had found the beginning to that answer.  No where in the world is there a community quite like this.  We did a little research, and Paul being skeptical about our little on the fly adventure to a city of gypsies had him emptying his pockets taking off his watch.  I wasn’t as worried, but what did I know.  I had no idea what to expect.  I did expect desperation.  I had read about 70-80% unemployment.  Wow.  So sad.  I read about efforts to build homes, build schools, but what an incredible story.

In the streets of Shutka Worlds Largest Gypsy Community

From Wikitravel on Skopje attractions: “Shuto Orizari Municipality. Also called Shutka is one of the largest Roma settlements in the world with about 30,000 inhabitants. Neither picturesque nor romantic, it is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in Roma life and culture. On the other hand, this is not a tourist attraction. The settlement developed from a small village where only a few Roma families were living before the 1963 earthquake. Many of the corrugated iron shacks that were donated by US aid organisations are still in use.”

Gypsy Romani Children

I should have been alerted to why it was cool when I read… “this is not a tourist attraction.”  That is a good clue.  After quickly getting ready we jumped in a cab, and said Shutka… huh?  Roma… ah!?  Why!?  We want to see the people!  I wasn’t sure what our cabbie could have been thinking.  He later explained to us that we were the first tourists he’s taken to that part of town.  While there is a textile market, and exchange that locals would request to be taken to, we were the first of his customers to purposely go into what he’d consider a strange part of town that most would avoid.  That is often the way we travel.  I find I personally am fascinated by where culture shows its both clean and ugly head.  I really don’t only want to see the sugar coated places.  My friend Ricardo our guide in San Jose Costa Rica, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Uruguay was always looking out for us, so we had to purposely get ourselves into situations where we could find where the “real” people lived.  For me this one late afternoon was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  Here I was seeing tons of kids roaming the streets that were extremely inquisitive.  I saw a guy selling used shampoo bottles.  We saw homes where animals lived better than the humans, and visa versa.  There were lots of horses, and dogs.  Walking the streets we ran into Jehovah’s Witnesses.  From my past experience as a missionary of the LDS Church, we called them JW’s (Jay Dubbs.)  They were dressed nicely and were teaching a couple of different women.  I have to tip my hat to them.  While others saw this as a dangerous impoverished area, they were trying to spread the gospel of hope.  I don’t know how well it was being received, but based on an earlier conversation on the trip where we were talking about conflict and religion.  It was nice to be able to share how religion can bring hope to a soul.  The conflicts in Kosovo for example while on the surface it looks like religion, I still do have to see these as national conflicts, pursuits of freedom, and of nationality.  The Balkans are so rich with so many nationalities, and religion does play into those differences.  If peace can be found in the Balkans it will spread across many lands.  The conquests of the Persians, Greeks, Roman empire, the Byzantine empire, the Ottoman empire, and Hungarian, and Hapsburgs… This was the burnt over district.  There’s a lot of history in this little area.  Spain has good examples of how it can work in the same nation.  France is still working it out… and when we do get things all worked out it will be for the betterment of society as a whole.

One question the roaming gypsy seems to bring up is… where do they come from?  Assumptions are they come from Northern India.  One more recent thought is they come from Egypt. (hence the name E-Gypt becomes Gypsy.)  Having visited both of those areas.  I do think the beautiful eyes of the Rajasthan province of India would be a good match, but at the same time, there are a lot of similarities with Egyptians and both are plausible.  Would be interesting to get some DNA family research.  Some DNA has been done which points to Pakistan and Northern India. The unique cultures of the Roma people are fascinating.  I would love to spend more time understanding it.  Would love to help build a school, and help inspire the families to value education.  It was amazing to see how much they value family and family unity.  To be rejected from the Roma society is one of the worst things that can happen to someone.

The Romani people have a journey ahead of them.  As a people they have suffered slavery, they were shot on site in WWII by the Nazis, post WWII their music was banned, their women were sterilized, and in eastern Europe haven’t had a fair shake.  Do they assimilate? Do they stop wandering and build cities like Shutka?  No matter where they are they will receive persecution despite the fact that they tend to accept the religion of the region where they live.  Very recently there are still problems around the world with the Romani people.

Paul did quite a bit of research after we got back… I think something happened to him in that city.  It definitely did to me as well.  I think I’m going to look out more for ways I can help people when I travel… I hope you will too!

Romi Children

Virgin Tourist Destinations: Albania and Kosovo


Albanian Art
Albanian Art

When I said I was flying into Albania and traveling across Kosovo to Macedonia some thought it was a very odd choice.  After having done it, I really enjoyed this trip and would recommend it for those looking for more of a raw European experience.  Some of the cheapest areas in Europe with the least number of tourists with some incredibly beautiful terrain.  At the end of this trip, from my UN country list I’m only missing Andorra from continental Europe, that may also explain our odd choice, but again, great adventure.  Did you know Mother Theresa is ethnic Albanian?  She was born in Skopje, Macedonia.

The Balkans are one of my favorite areas in Europe.  Dubrovnik, Split, Sarajevo, Mostar, Budapest and Belgrade continue to be some of my favorite cities in Europe.  The Balkans fail to get the best mention for beauty because of stains of war, but this history shouldn’t keep you from enjoying what hasn’t yet been claimed by tourists.  Seriously, you are missing out on the best if you ignore this region.

I met up with Paul Swider in Istanbul for his birthday, and Michael in Tirana.  You’ll hear a lot about these guys… my traveling companions for many adventures.  The night before our flight I was walking with Paul on the famous Taxim.  A walking street in Istanbul that’s known for it’s incredible night life, shopping, food, and it may have a million visitors in a day.  It’s pretty incredible area for getting the vibe of the city and just people watching.

Mega ATM Machine
Mega ATM Machine

Can you tell this city is interested in tourists?  This ATM machine spits out dollars, euros, pounds, and Turkish Lira!  Minutes later we’d be talked into going into this lounge.  They sell drinks for crazy high prices.  I had warned Paul, and thankfully we looked at the pricelist.  A couple years ago I was in a similar situation, but not with any knowledge of the scam that happens in that area with dancing Ukrainian girls sipping champaign, and within 20 minutes my buddy I had met that night had racked up a charge of over 500 Euros and was looking to split it.  Uhhh, no thanks.  Just a quick word of caution to not be talked into going into boring lounges with crazy expensive drinks.  Thirsty girls that just want to talk, is a bad sign.

As avid travelers Paul and I were so crazy impressed by the Turkish Airlines international lounge at the Istanbul Airport.  It wasn’t just the massage therapist who was walking around giving back massages, or the high speed wifi, the omelet bar, the huge free drink selection, breakfast buffet, but when you lockup your bags in a digital locker area with tons of space, a theatre room with rows of leather recliners, a news room area with 9 screens all showing different news programs all over the world and head sets where you could tune in at will.

Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul

I hadn’t really done much research, but after landing in Tirana, Albania and checking into our hotel, I quickly did some searches and found we were only about 40 minutes from the coast or better.  Tirana is named after a castle and is relatively a new city in European terms, but Durres, a roman port town was an easy drive.  So I convinced my traveling companions we needed to head for the coast.  After walking around down town, we saw some remnants of the communist era as well as a mosque that luckily survived 40 years of no religion in Albania and a touch of modernism.

 

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