Hala Sultan Tekke

Hala Sultan Tekke and the Larnaca Salt Lake

~K~

The Mosque of Umm Haram, better known as Hala Sultan Tekke is considered to be the third holiest site in Islam by most Muslims. We visited the site twice during our stay in Cyprus: the first time with my parents who came to visit us after finished up a vacation in Europe; and again with Briana’s dad who came for a visit as well during our prolonged house sit here.

The location of Hala Sultan Tekke is optimal for a visit upon arrival. The complex sits at the shore of the Larnaca Salt Lake, which is just 1.5 km from the Larnaca International airport. The first time we visited, we picked up my parents from the airport and then went straight to the mosque.

Briana On the Salt Lake

Hala Sultan Tekke is very inviting and quiet for visitors. The complex is comprised of a mosque, mausoleum, minaret, cemetery, and living quarters for men and women. The term tekke (which means convent) applies specifically to gatherings of a Sufi brotherhood. However, the present-day complex does not align to any specific sect and is open to all.

Minaret Of Hala Sultan Tekke
Hala Sultan Tekke Complex

The site has been of importance for many Millenia. Originally, the location served as a cemetery for the Bronze Age town of Dromolaxia Vizatazia pre-2000 BCE. The town remained inhabited and cemetery in use through to the 1st century BCE.

Hala Sultan Tekke gains its name and importance due to its connection with Muhammad. It is said to be the site of the death of Umm Haram, who was Mohammad’s wet nurse. She was of old age and died falling off her horse during the siege of Larnaca between 647 and 649 CE, which was a part of the greater Arab raids by Caliph Muawiyah. She was buried where she fell and a tomb was built there. Shia belief holds that she is buried in Madinah, Saudi Arabia – but nonetheless, the masuoleum is still considered holy. Due to the political situation in Cyprus, Hala Sultan Tekke is located in the Greek, non-Muslim sector of Cyprus and thus pilgrimages to the site are rare.

During the Ottoman administration, a complex and mosque was built around the tomb. The exact date of the construction of the complex is not clear, but is estimated to have begun in 1760. Repairs began on the complex in 2004, and current restoration projects are underway on the mosque and minaret, funded in part by USAID and UNDP.

Our venture into the complex began at the ornate gate, which opened to a path which led down into the garden. The garden, known as Pasha Garden is a small but nice arrangement of plants and fountains.

Entry To Hala Sultan Tekke
Garden
Garden

At the bottom of the garden is a fountain which stands directly across the entrance to the mosque. We ventured into the mosque and respectfully took off our shoes and put on the provided robes at the entrance. It was unwatched however, so we did not have to.

Upon our second visit, we were disappointed to see a tourist family who was allowing their son to run around shirtless. As well, a couple of young men who went into the mosque with shoes and t-shirts. It is stated to enter dressed appropriately, and the means to do so are provided – it seems to be very insulting and disrespectful to not do so.

Briana and Kyle's Mom

The interior of the mosque is humble, especially in comparison to Mohammad Al-Amin in Beirut and the National Mosque of Malaysia. Little gold ornamentation or any other signs of wealth or extravagance adorn the walls and ceiling. The mosque is simple, with a soft carpet, and a balcony.

Interior Of Hala Sultan Tekke//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Interior Of Hala Sultan Tekke
Balcony Interior

Behind the wall (which faces to Mecca) is the entrance to the tomb. Here we found Umm Haram’s tomb along with four other tombs: two being of former sheikhs, and a two-leveled marble sarcophagus  belonging to Adile Huseyin Ali and Hussein Bin Ali who was a descendant of Muhammad.

Tomb
Tombs

Beneath the women’s guest room lie the remains of an ancient site.

Ancient Ruins

The site sits at the shore of the Larnaca Salt Lake. The lake has been of importance since ancient times due to it’s natural salt composition. When we visited, during the summer (in the middle of a very bad drought), the lake was completely dry. We could walk out and pick up the salt blocks by hand. Underneath the three inch crust, was a deep black muck, which once we realized was there, we were careful to not get on us. During the wet seasons, the lake serves as an important stopping point for migratory birds traveling between Europe and Africa. In all, more than 80 bird species utilize the lake.

Salt Chunk

Many rags were tied to trees here. It is customary in Cyprus to tie rags or ribbon to trees near tombs as tokens of good luck and reverence.

Rags In Trees

We made a friend with a stray Husky by the lake as well.

Husky

Visiting Hala Sultan Tekke is free and the hours are as follows:

Winter hours (16/9 – 15/4 )
Monday – Sunday: 8.30 – 17.00

Summer hours (16/4 – 15/9)
Monday – Sunday: 8.30 – 19.30

Nejmeh Square Beirut

Nejmeh Square: At The Heart Of Beirut

~K~

At the heart of Beirut, resides Nejmeh Square. A chic historical space in the downtown district of the historical “Paris of the east”. We only had one truly full day to spend in Beirut, after spending a few days previously in Bcharre in the mountains northeast of the city. Because of our limited time and AirBNB location, we decided to spend our day in the famed Nejmeh Square.

Directions In Nejmeh

We made our way at the start of the day down Armenia Street. It was going to be about a two kilometer walk from our studio apartment to our destination, so we got a nice taste of the city street life. The street is lined with stores, cafes, restaurants, and the eclectic. The Lebanese take their food seriously, so you can expect excellent food just about anywhere you stop. We decided to have our try of Lebanese coffee at Urbanista, which was not what we expected.

Armenia Street
Pizza Parlor on Armenia St

Briana really wanted to see the painted stairs of Beirut – which we came across. We had our photo op, and then proceeded on only to find more stairs. It would appear that much of Beirut is covered in painted stairs, murals, and street art. Every turn provides a new discovery, so walking around is quite fun unto itself.

Beirut Painted Stairs
Beirut Painted Stairs
Beirut St Art

Martyrs’ Statue

After what seemed to be a very long walk, we finally came to Nejmeh Square, or at least, the area that would become it. We still had a ways to go, but we could at least see it now. Our first stop however, was the Martyrs’ Statue, which lies just to the east of the square.

Martyrs' Statue

The statue commemorates Lebanese and Arab nationalists who were hanged by the Ottoman empire in 1916. The statue was damaged during the Civil War from 1975-1990, and was restored in 1996. Though repaired, the statue still shows the bullet holes and scars from Beirut’s war torn past.

Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque

Adjacent to the Martyrs’s Statue, stands the magnificent Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. Also known as the Blue Mosque, this Sunni Muslim mosque was inaugurated in 2008 and has become a dominant feature of the Beirut skyline with it’s four minarets and blue domed roof.

Mohammad Al Amin

The mosque itself is quite large and inspired by Ottoman architecture. Entering the house of worship, you are greeted with grandeur as massive gold calligraphy graces the marble ceilings, and crystal chandeliers hand in the open room.

Inside Mohammad Al Amin Mosque

If you wish to visit, the mosque is open to visitors most days, with the exception of during prayer times (which change every day, so you will need to check based on when you plan to visit). While it is advisable that you dress appropriately, if you are not, you may be turned down. Briana wore long pants/leggings and brought a long sleeve shirt to ensure she would be able to enter despite the heat. Women will be given an additional covering to wear free of charge at the visitors entrance. I just made sure my knees and shoulders were covered for our visit. 

Inside Mohammad Al Amin
Mohammad Al Amin Visitor Entrance

When we visited, we were essentially the only ones there. There were a few others including the Imam who was reading from the Quran, but it was so large we basically had the whole place to ourselves.

Nejmeh Square

Entering Nejmeh Square itself was a little bit confusing at first. Due to recent uprisings, violent demonstrations, and political turmoil, the square is under heavy police and military presence. At first it did not appear that we could enter, due to the heavy fortifications and soldiers manning the gates.

Military Gate at Nejmeh

That did not deter us however, and we realized soon enough that we could walk into the square through one of the guarded gates. It was a little sad because due to this, the usually vibrant square was mostly deserted. There were a few dozen tourists and citizens walking around the beautiful historical streets, but a good majority of shops and restaurants were closed. In a way, it was also nice because we pretty much got what is a usually rather crowded area mostly to ourselves! 

Nejmeh Square
Nejmeh Square

The famous Rolex Clock Tower however still stood tall and proud and the center. While a bit disconcerting at first, the military presence actually did lead us to feel a little bit safer, as we noticed just how well they were managing the security, and the fact that there was nearly no one in the area to make the place a target.

Nejmeh Clock Tower
Nejmeh Square

St George Maronite Cathedral

From within Nejmeh Square, we made our way to St. George Maronite Cathedral. The Cathedral was constructed between 1884 and 1894, though it utilized a small church that had stood since 1753. We realized though, that this could actually be accessed from outside the gated area, not from within.

The construction itself is rather small compared to the surrounding buildings, but still remains a nice and very important site in the area. It should not be confused with the St George Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

St George Maronite Cathedral

It has since been found that significant archeological remains of Roman constructs and Ottoman walls reside beneath.

Roman Ruins

St George Greek Orthodox Cathedral

About 80 meters north of the Maronite Cathedral is the larger St George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The site originally had the Anastasis cathedral built in the 5th century. An earthquake destroyed all of Beirut in 551 and a new cathedral was not built until the 12th century. Again, the structure was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1759, and was properly repaired in 1783. The cathedral underwent it’s final modifications in 1910.

St George Greek Orthodox Cathedral
St George Greek Orthodox Cathedral
St George Greek Orthodox Cathedral

Excavations beneath the church show a timeline of the city’s history, which now houses a museum which can be visited for $3. We did not get to visit (we were short on money due to being robbed in Sri Lanka), but it is toted as being a great visit.

Instead we walked the grounds and visited a small chapel on the church grounds. The chapel is the Nouryeh Virgin Chapel.

Virgin Mary Chapel

As with the mosque, you are expected to be dressed appropriately to enter.

Beirut

We wandered around the square for a bit but left after a short time. Because of the security measures in that area, there wasn’t too much for us to do once we saw the streets. 

Beirut is a wonderful city to visit, and there is much to see and visit including things we didn’t get a chance to do like the Jeita Grotto and National Museum. The city is far safer than American media portrays it. The memories of the Lebanese Civil War still sits fresh in the minds of the previous generation, and as such misconceptions persist.

With that being said, it is still a country and city to be wary in. The military presence is heavy and felt everywhere: pill boxes, bunkers, tanks, check-points, and soldiers populate the streets. The region just north of the airport is not considered safe for most people – it is a very poor neighborhood with Palestinian refugee camps. One look at it will scream to you not to visit, and it seems quite obvious. There is a military check-point to get in and out of this region of town (our taxi had to travel through it to get to the airport). Our host told us about some of the current issues in the region but I will avoid remarking much on it lest I get something wrong. 

Surprisingly, Lebanon has managed to keep itself out of much of the turmoil caused by it’s neighbors: Syria and Israel. While the borders and the Beqqa valley are not safe for tourists, great swaths of the country and most of Beirut remains safe.

We recommend visiting Beirut, but you should remain cautious while traveling. The city is lovely, and steeped in history and culture, and you should not be turned off due to overhyped fears.

Us In Nejmeh

Airbnb in Kuala Lumpur

The Pros and Cons of Airbnb

~B~

While house-sitting is our favorite option for accommodation while traveling (and working), Airbnb is our next top choice. I will go over some of the pros and cons of using Airbnb but please note that this list is based mostly off of our personal experiences, all of which took place in Asia. Still, after staying at over 20 different Airbnbs in seven different countries, I think we’ve got some idea of the Airbnb experience. We will be staying at two more in Europe this year and I will update the lists if necessary. Most of the pros and cons should still apply elsewhere, but there might be a couple things that are different depending on the location.

nice area in ja-ela

I may also do a future post on how to search for (and find) an Airbnb that meets your needs and that will give you the experience you want, as well as one on our favorite and least favorite places so far. On that note, if you’ve never used Airbnb before, please sign up using our link. Depending on when you sign up (it seems to vary), this will give you between $20 and $35 to use for free! The only stipulation is that you must spend $75 on your booking (or that’s what it says currently). That number is not per night, but as a whole and this would end up amounting to $55 or $40, depending (before the fees- I may discuss this in a future post). When I signed up I did not use anyone’s link and therefore missed out on twenty free dollars! I did have Kyle sign up using my link which gave us both $20, though. My dad and one stranger also signed up using our link and used it so more free money! Unfortunately, that is all so far. We get more credit if you decide to host (though I’m not sure if that gives you any credit). We aspire to be Airbnb hosts ourselves someday if we ever get a place of our own.

On to the pros of using Airbnb as accommodation for travel!

1. Cost. Pick a city and compare the price of an Airbnb with the price of a hotel in the same area. In many cases (albeit not all), you will find that it’s cheaper. There are also often discounts offered on long-term stays. Most places will offer a nice weekly discount and an even greater monthly discount. You may find a better deal at a hostel, but in most cases, for two people, an Airbnb will be a better deal and will also likely offer you more privacy. Even if you don’t save money on accommodation on the surface, Airbnb may allow you to save in other ways. If you have a kitchen, you can cook meals occasionally rather than eat out at restaurants. If you are digital nomads like us, having access to a desk/table and other amenities may also aid in your productivity. If you are staying where the locals live, you may also find things to be cheaper than in the more touristy areas.

Below I will note some examples of the great deals we have found with Airbnb. All prices listed are before the fees (which will add something like $0.50 to $2 a night to the price, depending).

A hotel room with two large beds on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam with this view for $10 a night!!

Room View on Cat Ba

A studio in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam with this view and a maid who would clean a couple times a week for $11 a night.

Saigon sunsets

Multiple motorbikes to use as often as we pleased, a large, fun-looking room, great views both from our personal porch and the rooftop, fruit and snacks shared from the family, and a new friend for $13 a night, also in Ho Ch Minh, Vietnam.

Rooftop Views

2. Quality.

Or at least, quality for cost. I do have to note that this is not true everywhere and thus quality is also mentioned in the cons. We have found plenty of high-quality places and great hospitality through Airbnb, though. One example is our second place in Kuala Lumpur. It was a very secure luxury condo on nearly the 30th floor of a building in the heart of the city. It was clean and modern, and had gym and pool facilities, a steakhouse (we didn’t go), a convenience shop, and a cafe. Finding a hotel that could offer all of this would likely have been at least triple to quadruple (if not more- but KL is still fairly cheap) the price ($16/night).

Kyle in KL
Beautiful Storm in KL

3. Options and variation.

Airbnb is not limited to rooms in peoples’ houses. We’ve stayed in the middle of nowhere and in the heart of the city. We’ve stayed in spare rooms in condos and houses, in studio and one bedroom apartments, and even in hotels and hostels. We’ve had entire floors of houses complete with room, living room, kitchen, en-suite bathroom and a separate entrance both to ourselves, and also shared a floor solely with other Airbnb guests (in separate rooms). One time we sort of even had a huge house to ourselves (long story- link coming later).

Here is part of our funky studio in Bangkok ($14/night):

Our studio in Bangkok

Our bathroom in Bali ($16/night) had some interesting lighting.

Bathroom in Bali

And here is the outdoor dining area at our Airbnb in Yogyakarta ($15/night) where we received breakfast every morning.

Outdoor dining in Yogyakarta

If you would like to see some really crazy places, look at this cool list on Distractify.

4. Search Function Options.

You can filter your search by type of place (private room, entire place to yourself, shared room, etc.), neighborhood, amenities, and more. You can search only for Airbnbs with pools or hot tubs or breakfast! Or you can ensure you have air conditioning or parking available. I always initially search for wifi and a kitchen. The quality of the kitchen and wifi may vary, but at least we’d filter out the places that didn’t have these at all. We always choose entire home, private room, or both (usually both) as we aren’t interested in shared rooms. There are a couple other things I wish they had on there, including the option for ensuite bathroom, but for the most part, you can really narrow down your search by your needs with filters. Pictured: the living room of the floor we had to ourselves in Negambo.

Negambo studio

5. Amenities.

On that note, it depends on the place, but through Airbnb, it is possible to have access to a kitchen, a washing machine, wifi, cable, and more, all of which are particularly convenient for the long-term traveler, but could also be nice for someone staying for a briefer period. Some places (particularly condos) may have pools or a gym. Our first studio in Bangkok had a kitchen, two desk spaces, a pool right outside of our door, and a 24 hour grocery store (perhaps the only we’ve found) less than a two minute’s walk away.

The pool from our second studio in Bangkok:

Pool in Bangkok

A home-cooked meal at our place in the Qadisha Valley in Lebanon:

Homecooked meal

6. Local Life.

Having access to more amenities makes you feel more at home. Staying in a local home/condo/apartment rather than a hotel can also allow you to obtain more insight into local life in the area. We felt we could get a better vibe of different cities and what it would be like to live there longer. Many people now want to travel “authentically” and this is a good way to do it. You are also supporting locals when you book (though I’m sure that is true of many hotels/hostels as well).

The train tracks we crossed on our way out to the grocery store/anything from our place in Ja-Ela, Sri Lanka:

Local Sri Lanka

Kyle with some local dogs in Weligama:

Kyle with local dogs

7. Local insight and tips.

Your host is most likely a local and therefore can provide you with all sorts of tips and advice. Our host in Kuala Lumpur took Kyle to a breakfast place he liked and our host in Sri Lanka brought us local food he picked up. Our first host(s) in Yogyakarta gave us all kinds of advice about the area. They gave us a map they drew of the surrounding area and activities of interest because there isn’t much online. They brought us to the market the first time we needed food and offered to take us other places as well. Some hosts (like our one in Siem Reap) may provide you with local maps and guidebooks to use while you are there.

Our Place in Siem Reap

If you spend time talking to your host, you will also likely learn a great deal about local culture. We learned A LOT, including many things we haven’t found on the internet, but I won’t start getting into it or I might ramble. Pictured: us with our host in Weligama.

Airbnb host sri lanka

8. Hospitality and Support.

In Cat Ba, we were having issues with the internet and and so our host went and bought a new router for us. It worked well. Some hosts end up feeling like (and becoming) your friend, while others just provide great service and support while you’re there. Some hosts may pick you up at the airport (for free or for a fee), some will provide you with long and deep conversations (and beer), some will send you a nice fruit basket and card with the maid because it’s a holiday in their country, some will share their snacks with you, and some will take you to the store when you arrive- at least those have been some of our experiences.

Our hosts in Sri Lanka provided us with a constant supply of local tea. It’s a part of their culture to drink tea like water it seems.

Tea in Sri Lanka

9. The Review System.

This is good for a few reasons. Previous tenants may tell you things about a place that isn’t obvious on their profile and you can get a better idea of the accuracy of the profile. The system also gives hosts incentive to be good hosts. They want to maintain a good rating so they are able to get future guests. I find them really helpful most of the time (see the cons for the rest of the time).

Cutesy Airbnb Room in HCM

10. Help with Transportation (sometimes).

If they do not provide you with transport or rent it to you, your Airbnb may have connections to a particular taxi driver which can offer you good deals or have suggestions for transport for places which require it. There were a number of places which we could get most places by walking, but there were also plenty where we needed or wanted to venture farther. Our hosts in Cat Ba, Bali, and Weligama rented motorbikes to us at inexpensive rates, while our second Airbnb in Ho Chi Minh and our first one in Yogyakarta allowed us to use their motorbikes free of charge (included in the price for the place). We had hosts call us cabs when we were having issues with our phones or apps and also give us recommendations on transportation in general. Below: Java and Sri Lanka.

Motorbike in Yogyakarta
Kyle using our host's motorbike

On to the Cons!

1. Rejections.

We can guess the reason behind one of the times this happened to us: we were booking less than 24 hours in advance. The other times, I don’t know the reason. It’s only happened a few times, but each time the host said that the place was actually already booked and they just hadn’t updated the calendar. Many Airbnbs may list their place on other sites, especially if they are actually a hotel or hostel. Even houses may be listed on other homestay sites or things of that nature. If they get booked elsewhere, the host may forget to update the calendar on Airbnb. If they don’t actually then go and update the calendar, though, that is a sign that they simply did not want to rent to you. It could be because they are racist (this has been a significant problem with Airbnb), sexist, homophobic, etc. It could be because they have something against people from your country, or they prefer to only rent to couples or single people or older people, and so on. If you are new to Airbnb, it could simply be because you don’t have any reviews yet but your potential host could have some sort of problem in their personal life. Who knows, but they can reject you for all kinds of reasons.

Yard PLant in Siem Reap

2. Cancellations.

We’ve only had cancellations twice, and both were places in Lebanon. The first place we booked in Beirut cancelled because “There has been an emergency and I need to travel abroad.” Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know. Something different happened with the place in Bcharre. I had noticed the place had gotten a couple reviews that weren’t impeccable since we had booked. Suddenly the place disappeared from the site. I assumed it was under review. Now, I did not realize this until after we figured things out with another place, but the host actually messaged me on Facebook after their place was removed from the site letting us know it was still available. I didn’t see it at first because it went into my “other” folder. The places we did end up booking were honestly preferable but we hadn’t originally chosen them because of the prices. We were not happy about having to go up on our budget but we were happy to get a taste for what else Airbnb can offer if you pay a little more (which would actually still fall in the low-budget range for most people).

Bcharre Airbnb ViewBcharre Post-sunset

3. Difficult to find.

This has been one of our biggest issues.

Alleyway in Saigon

I think you are far less likely to find this problem in the US, but internationally we have faced a number of problems including: 1) the host not providing us with the correct address 2) taxi drivers who don’t know how to find the address 3) the taxi driver only being able to get so far and then having to navigate the various alleyways to find the place 4) the host providing us with the name of the apartment complex but not the building number and us not realizing until we are there that the complex is gigantic 5) the host being late and us being unsure if we are in the right location 6) the host not being there to pick us up at the train station because the train was late 7) streets which are confusing and difficult to navigate, and more. Each could be a story. Pictured below: our stuff sitting in an alleyway in Hanoi because we had spent hours exhausting ourselves trying to find our place and needed to take off our packs for a little bit.

Lost in Hanoi

4. Quality.

The quality can be great and the quality can also be terrible, and you don’t always know for certain until you arrive. Our second place in Hanoi did not look like the pictures. There was a single bad review for the place but we overlooked it because we weren’t booking early or for very long, so we were limited in places that fell within our budget. We were told we could use the kitchen but this wasn’t really true as it was actually a hostel. It cost money to do our laundry and we heard what we think was domestic violence among the staff/owners. We have a few other horror stories (for different reasons) that I’ve touched on in the past in our monthly roundups and may mention in a future post. Pictured: the “balcony” at our first place in Hanoi.

Cons

5. The Good with the Bad.

Many places which had some fantastic qualities and benefits also still had at least a couple downsides. The bathroom in our first Airbnb in KL (which gave us access to several luxury style pools) was filled with spiders (daddy long legs). I think I counted twenty once. Once the host’s mother returned, we were also no longer able to use the kitchen, even the microwave. We’ve also stayed at a number of places that were great in many ways, but were maybe a little more remote from activities, or far from a grocery store. Pictured: Kyle munching on some bread on our porch in our second place in Saigon. We were more remote here and almost everything was closed for Tet so we had trouble finding food.

Kyle on our Porch in Saigon

My assumption is that if you pay a little bit more, you are less likely to encounter some of these issues, but I’m not positive. As one might expect, the most expensive place we stayed at was probably the nicest.

6. Living locally.

Living locally is a great experience in many ways, but it also means dealing with whatever issues the locals face. We had frequent power outages in Sri Lanka, had an unstable internet connection in our second place in Bangkok, and didn’t have hot water at many places. Some of these issues you are likely to also face at hotels, and some of these issues can simply be fixed by paying more. For us, the first two are only problematic for work and at this point, hot water seems like more of a luxury anyway. Pictured below: To the left there are Vietnamese men fighting loudly below our studio in Saigon.

Local Life

7. Hosting and Staying Style Conflicts.

Staying in someone’s house can present a number of issues,  particularly if you are a digital nomad like us rather than a regular traveler. The biggest problem we face is hosts who want to socialize too much.  Some of the socializing has been mutual (Kyle really enjoyed spending hours just talking and drinking with our host in Kuala Lumpur) but other times, hosts were just annoying. All of the time, it interfered with us getting work done. Some hosts seemed to feel an obligation to entertain us incessantly even though we told them not to and that we had work to do, while others were bored and lonely and wanted company. At some point I wrote on my profile that we really prefer to be left to ourselves but it seemed to have the opposite effect. The other issue we’ve had is because we are night owls. If we are staying in someone’s home, sometimes have to be quiet, can’t cook at night, etc. There is a way to mediate this issue, though, which is to stay in a place to ourselves.

Bed in Bali

8. It’s not a Hotel (unless it is a hotel).

Some Airbnbs are actually hotels which advertise themselves on Airbnb but plenty are not and you cannot expect the same things/services in someone’s house as you would at a hotel. Actually, even at foreign (particularly family-run) hotels, you cannot necessarily expect the same services you would in the U.S., Canada (or maybe Europe?)  While there is typically someone at the desk 24 hours at a hotel, if your host is sleeping, it would be rude to ask them for new towels. Most Airbnbs hosts have their own lives (albeit we have encountered a number that don’t seem to have jobs or a social life) and while they may try, they cannot be there all the time if you lost your key or can’t find something. Still, many of them are available to communicate on WhatsApp or Airbnb most of the time.

Workinig in the Dark

9. Airbnb as a Front.

I guess I wouldn’t call it a front, per se, but some people use Airbnb to upsell other things, especially if they are in the tourism industry. For some people this works out great, but it can also be annoying. The downstairs of the hotel we stayed at in Cat Ba was a hair salon/beauty parlor/massage parlor/place to rent motorbikes/place to book tours, etc. and we were asked often if we wanted any number of things. We did rent the motorbikes a few times but booked our Ha Long day cruise elsewhere which made things awkward. Their other services were honestly very affordable and if you were on vacation then you would likely enjoy taking advantage of them.

Ha Long Bay Cruise

10. The Review System.

The review system is good, but it can also be misleading. One place we stayed at which was quite bad quality in many ways (tons of bugs, hard, damp beds, slippery floor, etc.) had only five star reviews. Why? Sometimes the hosts guilt trip you into leaving positive reviews even though there are lots of issues with the place. I’ve seen places where they are using Airbnb to raise funds for a family member who is ill. In this case, he was trying to pay for his daughter’s college. He was also a very helpful, gracious, and generous (and sensitive) host so we too, didn’t really feel like we could leave a negative review.

Beds in Colombo

At the same time, you may see a bad review from someone who simply had different circumstances from you or was a bit ridiculous with their requests. Hosts also sometimes fix problems mentioned in reviews. Then there are Airbnbs without reviews. Unfortunately for them, we usually ignore those unless we are really having trouble finding a place. We tend to book for longer periods so we don’t want to be stuck somewhere that’s not so great for a couple weeks to a month. I’m going to note one extra con which is that Airbnb support is kind of difficult to contact.

Though there are some disadvantages, I think there are plenty of benefits and the company does continue to work to improve their features for the best user experience. While it may not be for everyone, and may not work in every situation, we still think Airbnb is a great place to look for accommodation for travel. Now that you know the pros and cons, do you think you’ll try it? Do you think there was anything I forgot? Let us know if you’d like information on any specific Airbnb, want to know the price for anything I didn’t mention, or if you have any questions in general!

Pool in KL

 

Poi Pet Cambodia Border Crossing Bangkok Thailand

Taking The Bus From Bangkok To Siem Reap

~K~

For our next destination after Bangkok, we were pretty set on going to Siem Reap to see Angkor, which was a good choice – but the question was how to get there. While we had been flying up to this point, the prices on flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap weren’t great so we decided to look into other options- like a bus. 

We had been hesitant to do a bus ride across borders, or really anywhere in Asia – we’d read a few accounts that did not sell us on them. However, the price was quite cheap at ThaiTicketMajor and the time it would take would be just a little bit longer than the entire ordeal of an international flight so we decided to just go ahead and give it a shot and hope that everything went fine.

You must get your tickets before hand, as the bus is almost always sold out the day of. You can purchase your tickets online at ThaiTicketMajor, but you will still need to pick up the actual tickets from a vendor. We went to a ticket office in the Siam Paragon Mall in Bangkok on Sukhumwit street – it was in the movie theater. We showed them the reservation we made online (which we had to print out) and they handed us the ticket. It is a good idea to bring your passport with you though, as they will ask for it – I forgot to bring mine, but luckily they waived it with other proof of identification.

We reserved our bus ride for 9am and made our way out from our AirBNB. We didn’t reserve a taxi prior, because of the nature of Bangkok, and decided to wing getting one. Luckily, it was no problem. We walked to the edge of the street and flagged down a taxi within 30 seconds. We explained our destination to Mo Chit BTS Station and he took us there. This time, as compared to our arrival, we elected to use the tollway to save time.

Arrival to the bus station was quite simple. While we thought we might be late, we actually arrived just in time to catch the 8am bus ride, if we had gotten that time, but we had bought the 9am so we had some time to wait. No matter, this gave us time to leisurely find our terminal, from which a help desk provided us the answer, and to go grab a few snacks in the form of donuts.

At The Bus Terminal

There are a few food vendors as well as bathrooms for you to use. So navigating the bus terminal is of no issue. About fifteen minutes before our time to go, we were directed onto the bus where we got into our seats, which were quite comfortable surprisingly. The bus was a Korean made bus, and quite roomy. We were also given a little goody bag of food and drink.

Bus Snack

We then got on our way and the bus was off. The ride itself was relatively uneventful for the beginning of the trip. We made one stop about two hours in for a restroom and snack break at a nice truck stop. We then made another stop while we were at Poi Pet where we were given our lunch. The lunch was simply a gas station ready-made meal, but it was not bad actually – it will differ by the day, but we were given shrimp fried rice, so Briana didn’t eat it.

Once we finished our lunch, the bus took us to the border between Bangkok and Cambodia. Here people may try to get you pay for getting your visa done, or other scam-like offers. The bus driver or assistant may even attempt to ask for money to take care of the visa. Our advice, is to ignore them and just go to the immigration office and get your Visa done from the proper office. There are signs, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Our bus driver told us to walk forward across the border and just follow the directions – they were pretty obvious.

Walking Towards Cambodia
Cambodian Border GAte

Getting the Visa was straight forward, albeit a little sketchy. We filled out our information and tried to talk to the immigration office. The cost was supposed to be $35 for each visa, there was however an armed official standing in front of the Visa office, demanding a 100 baht (~$3) “service fee” aka a bribe. His “service” was him handing the passport to the people behind the counter. 

While Briana had her’s, I was missing my passport photos. While everyone else was trying to fight about the payment/bribe (we had done our research so already knew about this issue) and I was trying to figure out what to do, Briana filled out her paperwork, turned in the amount they asked for, and went to use the bathroom. Another woman who was missing her extras passport photos was told to go somewhere else to have a couple done.  I decided to give it a go anyway and walked up to the guy and handed him the money, and immediately said “no photos.” He looked at me for a second, looked at the money, then took my things and told the Visa officials to process it. A few minutes later, our Visas were handed to us and we went to get stamped in.

Immigration

Stamping in through immigration was a very simple process, same as pretty much everywhere else. On a side note, we witnessed a guy who ran into a few issues as he somehow got into Thailand without a stamp on his passport – not entirely sure what happened, but he did manage to get across in the end.
Once we got across, the bus was waiting for us and we got back on and proceeded on to Siem Reap. I spent the majority of my time reading “The Jungle Book” on the Kindle, while Briana read a book she had downloaded onto her laptop. We both also spent time looking out at Cambodian countryside.

Cambodia Has A Hill
Cambodian Countryside

It was Songkran / Cambodian New Year when we crossed, so there were numerous citizens playing with water and spraying people and the bus as we passed.

Kids Playing With Water
Gas "Station"

Finally, 8 hours after leaving Bangkok, we arrived to the bus station in Siem Reap. It really was just a hotel though. We were told that we would have complimentary tuk-tuks waiting for us to take us where we needed to go. But upon arrival, they said that because of the holiday, there was no one to take us, so we’d have to figure it out.

Arriving In Siem Reap

We tried to grab a tuk-tuk after we got off the bus, but we weren’t having much luck. There were barely any available, and a whole bus of people had just unloaded. Finally we managed to get one, who didn’t seem very thrilled. We gave him a phone number to call our host for directions, and then he took us about a kilometer into town and swapped us off to someone else. He told us he didn’t want to work anymore, but still charged us a huge amount (~$3.00 which is actually a lot for the area). We went through the same thing with the second guy, though he did manage to get us to our place. Again he charged us a huge amount for a short distance (~$5.00), to which our host said to him and us at the same time, that he was a bad man who was charging way too much.

Tuk Tuk Ride

So the entire journey wasn’t too bad. The bus ride was easy and comfortable aside from it being very hot with no air conditioning. The border crossing was not too bad either, better than many land crossings we’ve read about. Our only issue was the tuk-tuks upon arrival. So if you’re making the journey, we would recommend the bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, or if you are going the other way, you can use the same company to travel from Siem Reap to Bangkok. We had originally thought about returning to Bangkok, but our plans changed to a totally different itinerary.

Gibran Quote Bcharre

Bcharre and Kadisha Valley Lebanon

~K~

The Kadisha Valley and its most famous of villages Bcharre, is what caught my eye when we first contemplated travel to Lebanon. Its picturesque landscape of rugged mountains, steep cliffs and gorges, and ancient sites seemed to call out. With a little extra convincing, I managed to get Briana to agree to a long route that would take us from Cambodia, through Malaysia, into Java and Bali, to Sri Lanka, through Dubai, and finally to Lebanon. While the numerous amount of moving was stressful, it was worth it in the end.

Bcharre

We first booked our AirBNB with a smaller host, which did not seem to be the perfect place. The reviews were not great, but it was on budget. Oddly, just a few days before our arrival, the AirBNB was removed from the site and our reservation cancelled. This was rather stressful, but prompted us to look for different options within Bcharre. The first place we came across was the Tiger Motel, which was a backpacker’s hostel, so while it could be appealing to solo travelers, it was not what we wanted. Ultimately, we decided to just bite the bullet and go with a more expensive and nicer accommodation – which made us feel a bit safer as we didn’t know exactly how Lebanon was going to be.

View From AirBNB

I decided to try and see if I could negotiate the rates for the place we decided we liked. It was initially listed at $50 a night, which is way over our budget. We made an offer and he countered and we settled on something which was still above our budget but was certainly reasonable. Keep in mind though, that we soon discovered the place is absolutely worth the $50/night (though again, it is too much for us). He does also offer weekly and monthly discounts which would bring down the prices, though! It would be a great place to stay if you want to visit the area, go skiing, etc. 

 Getting to Bcharre was not that easy, but once we arrived – we had no regrets. Our host was very accommodating and showed us the house. We had the entire home to ourselves. Three bedrooms, a kitchen, a nice living room, bathroom with HOT water, a balcony, and a gorgeous view of the valley and Bcharre. He then took me into town to get some groceries, which I found to be surprisingly cheap, and he then gave us a nice handful of cherries from their cherry trees.

AirBNB Bcharre
AirBNB Bcharre
Airbnb Bcharre

The town of Bcharre is a wonderful little village in the very back of the Kadisha valley. Home to the famous poet and writer Khalil Gibran, the town also serves as the base for ski resorts and visiting the famed Cedars of God. The name Bcharre stems back to ancient times, when it was founded by the Phoenicians as Bet Ishtar, meaning the “House of Ishtar”. It was then inhabited by Maronite Christians in the 7th century CE and has remained as such every since. Bcharre now hosts a large cathedral, an old Maronite temple, and numerous homes and shops climbing a steep hillside.

Bcharre Cathedral

Our host is an architect and has designed multiple buildings and parks throughout Bcharre and Lebanon.

Bcharre Park

Bcharre sits at the crux of the Kadisha Valley, also known as Wadi Qadisha at the foot of Mount al-Makmal. The steep gorge is carved by the Kadisha river, the source of which – Kadisha Grotto – can be visited, and is an awesome little cavern that you can explore. Springs abound the gorge and waterfalls spill over the 1000 meter cliffs into the Kadisha river below, where it winds its way 35 km to Tripoli. The entirety of the valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Bcharre
Kadisha Valley

Kadisha, in Aramaic, means “Holy”. The Kadisha Valley has served for centuries as refuge for Maronite Christians escaping persecution. As such, the valley is dotted with dozens of Monasteries such as: Deir Mar Elisha, Deir Qannoubin, Saydet Hawqa, Cave of Deir Mar Semaan, Chapel of Daydet Ed Darr, Dimane, and Deir Mar Antonios Qozhaya. Many of these sites were carved or built directly into the cliff faces and are difficult to reach, though considered well-worth the trip.

Kadisha Valley

Unfortunately, we were not able to make it to any of the monasteries. I had really wanted to explore and hike the valley itself. But there was little information provided beforehand, and after a failed attempt at hiking to the valley floor on our first day, realized we would not be able to do so. The valley is much larger than one might think at first, and hiking down from Bcharre or any of the other handful of villages along the valley rim is certainly possible, but a large endeavor. Most people will take a taxi or private car down to a key location to begin a hike. Considering we had just been robbed the previous day in Sri Lanka, spending money on a taxi was not really an option for us. We’d love to return however and really get to explore the valley over the course of a week or two.

Kadisha Valley Map

Above the valley is the Cedars of God. These are one of a few small patches of old growth Lebanese Cedar, which is prized for its high quality wood around the world. Today, the Lebanese government is working to restore the Cedar forests to their former glory.

A Tomb Beneath Gibran

While we only got to spend three days here, it was definitely a highlight of our trip and we’d love to return – especially for the winter, the mountains look to have amazing skiing and the town would just be wonderful with snow.

Bcharre Stairs
Bcharre Town Center
Bcharre
Bcharre Sunset

Camera-shaped building

Camera House Borobodur

~B~

Camera House Borobudur was another activity in which I had a little more interest than Kyle. Our homestay was in a fairly isolated area in the countryside and this was the closest thing to us so I thought we should give it a go.

Our first venture out there was our first time using our hosts’ bicycles. We had just come from Siem Reap (before a quick stop in Kuala Lumpur) where we had rode many miles on our bicycles in very hot weather so I thought it would be no problem. Well, Siem Reap is very flat. The Javan countryside is not so flat. I mean, for plenty of people, including Kyle, it would not be a big deal, but I found the hills to be difficult to manage. Fortunately, the journey was not too long. On our way back it started raining which made me happy. It was very pleasant riding in the rain out in the countryside. Everything was so fresh and clean and beautiful.

Upon arriving to the Camera House we parked our bikes and tried to figure out what to do. We went to go stand in front of the camera-shaped building to take some pictures and several people started asking if they could have their picture with us. They would take turns with us or one of us individually while their friends snapped some photos. They would usually get pretty excited when we said yes. I think (white?) foreigners are somewhat rare there. If you would like to feel like a celebrity, just go to Java (though maybe not Jakarta).

Camera House StreetCamera-shaped building

We looked around and found the ticketing area. The options were: Kaca Magic Star Wars (a Star Wars themed mirror room, or so it appeared), Kaca Mirror Castle Infinity (mirror room), 3D Photo: Lantai 1 (room with various backgrounds, some examples shown, such as a space background), 3D Photo: Lantai 2 (put yourself in a snow globe, on the Great Wall of China, etc.) and an Art Gallery with a rooftop with lovelocks. We didn’t want to spend much due to having other priorities for our activity budget (like Borobudur) so I decided we would just choose one option. It was a pretty tough choice. I don’t remember my reasoning but I chose Kaca Mirror Castle Infinity. They told us the gallery was required so we got that as well (and were glad). The total for all of it was 40,000 Indonesian Rupeah ($2.93).

Board of Options
Entrance for Picture Rooms

We took off our shoes and headed into the door down the path to the right of the ticketing office. There was a woman who was selling various props but we didn’t get any. There was some kind of camera set up just behind her but she told us to go upstairs.

Props for rent

The place was pretty neat! There were all kinds of fun little photos/paintings on the ground and on the walls, props, etc. There were quite a few other people there as well. I started by taking a photo of Kyle on a magic carpet before someone told us that we were in the wrong area and led us up more stairs and down a hall.

PIcture-taking room
Kyle on a magic carpet

They showed us this tiny little room full of mirrors and told me to go inside. If you are claustrophobic I would not recommend it. I didn’t really understand what was going on but I had my phone so I tried taking a couple selfies but then I tried to get out and it was locked. I tried yelling at them (Kyle and the woman) to let me out but they were ignoring me and apparently trying to make our camera work to take pictures of me through a peephole. I said it is okay, we can just take pictures of Kyle.

Taking SelfiesPicture time
Kyle posingKyle Posing 2

Then we both went in and the woman took some pictures of both of us. She told us to move different ways and took a few pictures. It was honestly kind of a strange experience. I do think the photos look neat, though.

Mirror Room

Upon leaving our room area, we saw another couple in another mirror room and they were doing really like over-the-top romantic pictures like laying down together and kissing and things. I don’t think I would have posed in this manner but I was just so taken by surprise by the whole thing (not really sure what I did expect) that I didn’t know how to pose or what to do so we just kind of stood and sat there. Well, now you know if you ever go there to prepare some poses.

I am not sure if we had the option of going into the other mirror room or not but I was just a little overwhelmed and decided we would just head over to the other area. To reach the art gallery, we needed to go downstairs, exit the building and go around the building. After reading a little more on the place (see this blog), I discovered that the Camera House was actually created by an artist named Tanggol Angien Jatikusumo. We actually saw him both times we visited which makes sense since he’s the owner. The place actually started as an art gallery and was designed as a camera because he had spent time working hard to buy a DSLR. He later expanded to the picture rooms. Allegedly he also teaches art to children.

Downstairs Art Gallery

The art was good quality. Many of paintings were revamps or copies of classic paintings, but there were also depictions of local areas and festivals, among others.

Nice Painting

We looked around on the first floor before heading up to the other floors (which also contained art) and finally, the top. The top of the building had an amazing view of the countryside. We spent some time up there enjoying it and during our time it began to sprinkle which was lovely.

View 2 from the TopView from Camera HouseShades of Green

We also examined some of the love locks.

Top of Camera House
Love lock
Cool Floor

After we went downstairs we looked around a little more and saw a menu on a table. The menu is full of lots of cute and fun options.

Camera House Borobudur Menu 2
Camera House Borobudur Menu 1

We were a little hungry so decided to order some food. We chose fries, Kriuk Jamoor (fried mushrooms), and the Selfie Paradise Marshmallow (I think). The total for what we did order was 41,000 Indonesian Rupeah (~$3). The fries were decent and the fried mushrooms, a local dish, were quite good. The ice cream tasted fairly artificial, but looking at it, what do you expect? It was still pretty good.

A nice snack

On another occasion we visited just for the food, both because it was affordable and because it was the closest place to us. On that occasion, we ordered the fries (this time with cheese) and mushrooms again along with soup and an Affogato (coffee) float and it cost about the same. Pretty exciting. I preferred the fries without the powder but the float was delicious and Kyle liked the soup.

Affogato FloatKriusk, fries, and soup

Anyway, if you’re heading to Borobudur, the Camera House is fairly close and is a good place to stop off to take some selfies, get some food, or even just to enjoy some art or a nice view of the area.

Kyle at the topLooking out at the Top of the Camera House

Details:
Hours: 7am-7pm everyday
Address: Majaksingi 8, Borobudur Jawa Tengah Indonesia (in Magelang)

Hello Kitty House Thailand

Hello Kitty House Bangkok

~B~

While one of the top things Kyle wanted to do in Bangkok was the Snake Farm, one of the top things I wanted to do was the Hello Kitty House. I know it’s silly but I can’t help it. For my birthday this past year, I went to the Hello Kitty Cafe in Seoul. I have hello kitty shoes, socks, pajama pants and shirts, a jacket, a watch, a flask, and a laptop case among other things. In the past I’ve had Hello Kitty planners, calendars, wallets, and more. And do you know what we did after the Hello Kitty House in Bangkok? We went to Caturday, a cat cafe. I guess you can say I’m a little obsessed. (The picture below is me celebrating Hello Kitty’s 40th birthday- Nov 1, 2014).

Me Hello Kitty

Back to the Hello Kitty House. The place is just outside Siam Paragon mall, the 12th largest mall in the world. Pretty convenient.

Hello Kitty House near the mall
Hello Kitty and her husband

Outside the cafe there is a take-away counter.

Take Out Counter

The Hello Kitty House contains a cafe, spa, and gift shop but we only visited the cafe.

Me at Hello Kitty House

The first floor contains tables, a display case featuring some goods, and lots of Hello Kitty decorations. I felt like I should have worn pink. This is also where you order. There are lots of options including meal-type foods like salmon salad (obviously not for me), pumpkin soup, BLT, etc., desserts such as strawberry shortcake, coffee pudding, and rainbow crepes, and various drinks such as mocktails, smoothies, tea, and coffee.

food Display and ORdering areaHello Kitty House

We had a really tough time deciding but Kyle thought he was pretty hungry so we decided to share what I think was called the Hello Kitty Thai Golden Mango.

After we ordered they gave us a piece of paper with a map indicating where our table was located upstairs. We sat in the wrong area at first, but eventually figured it out.

Pink CouchSeat Map

We sat and enjoyed the super cutesy, super pink place for a while (maybe that was mostly me) while we waited.

Hello Kitty Stained Glass WindowPink Table
Me in HK chairLove is Sweet Hello Kitty

The dish we ordered It involved coconut (milk?), mango, ice and I’m not sure what else but it was delicious!

Me with Thai Golden MangoKyle with Thai Mango dish

Allegedly they only use premium ingredients such as chocolate from Belgium and butter from France.

There is a song that plays over and over again (something like “hello hello hello hello kitty” or whatever) that was annoying Kyle a little bit. I didn’t notice it too much and actually forgot about it but Kyle mentioned it when I told him I was writing this article. We can’t seem to find it on the internet.

Kyle looking out the window

If you are interested in the other HK activities there: The shop is supposed to be located in the basement. I didn’t figure out how to get there, though. The spa offers nail services, eyelash services, waxing, massages, and more. It would be nice if the occasional spa visit was in our budget. We can make excuses for this because not only is it food, but it’s also an experience, but the other, not so much. If it were, I would have likely gone to the Hello Kitty Spa in Dubai as well.

Cyprus Travel

Monthly Roundup 17: July 2016

Summary:
Cover or Summary- Kissing in Lefkara

Our digital nomad/travel monthly roundup was a little easier to write this month due to us staying in one place. I left out the “distance traveled by” section because we have just been driving in a car (which has been nice) and haven’t recorded the number of miles we’ve driven. I also skipped the weird/interesting section. Aka, you might actually make it through this month! I know the past couple were particularly long. Anyway, watching seven sweet kitties, a nice house, and a beautiful garden in Cyprus is still going well. We are spoiled! The month as a whole was far more relaxed than last month. We spent the beginning of the month mostly just enjoying it all and working, and towards the end of the month we had some visitors (parents) and got out of the house and saw more of the sites in Cyprus.

Where We’ve Been this Month:
Cyprusmap copy

Normally I list the various cities/towns and countries but because we have stayed put in Dhoros, Kyle made this nice map showing you some of the place we visited within Cyprus this month.

Highlights:
Highlights- Kyle and mountain

1. General Situation. We mentioned aspects of our current situation in the highlights last month so we won’t make these separate points but we are just happy to be staying at a nice house in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains watching 7 cats and taking care of a beautiful garden by ourselves. We have a car, a big kitchen, a washing machine, and even a dishwasher!
2. Visitors. Kyle’s parents already had plans for a River Cruise in Europe during July so they decided to visit us after their cruise was over. They were here for 5 days (2 were partial). My dad had not had a vacation in a while (probably a few years) and also decided to take advantage of the opportunity of us being in one place for a while. He arrived a couple days after Kyle’s parents left.
3. Presents! Kyle’s parents brought us some (birthday/Christmas and more) presents both from their travels and back home. Kyle’s dad got a new iPhone and gave his other one (still fairly new) to Kyle! Kyle’s old phone was his dad’s last old phone (not an iPhone) and it was not doing so well but this new one works great. They brought me new clothes and shoes (really nice) and they brought chocolate and cheese from Switzerland and Germany for everyone to share. My mom also sent some things with them including Kyle’s bday present, a cute shirt for me, a bunch more film, random other things such as itch cream for bug bites (which has been useful) and some other things I had asked to be brought. My dad also brought some cute shoes from my grandma I could elaborate more and talk about individual things but I’ll just do one of them.
4. New Camera! Each present really deserved its own highlight (for example, you may know from a post last month that I really like clothes) but I am just going to separate one to leave room for other highlights. Kyle’s parents gave us a new DSLR, two lens, a tripod, lens cap attachments, and a device which allows us to upload photos via wifi. Get ready to see some higher quality photos! My other digital camera is a few years old and was having issues (pictures weren’t always recording, sometimes it did not want to turn on, battery life was diminishing, etc.) so this came at a great time. It will also allow me to experiment more and will help me if I decide to delve further into photography.
5. Getting Cards. As you may remember, all of Kyle’s cards (credit/debit) were stolen last month. Mine either expired or stopped working (because they sent out new ones with the chip) just before this time so we literally did not have any way to get or spend money except using the cash we already had on us for a while (the end of Sri Lanka, through Lebanon and up until Kyle’s parents brought them). Maybe this explains some of our frugality! The homeowners of the place we are staying did help us out, though. I transferred some money to them via Paypal and they gave it to me in cash. They also left a little extra “just in case” which we were to replace if we needed it. We ended up using some of it and replacing it. Anyway, it’s nice to have easier access to our money again. The cards were sent to our parents’ homes in Florida since we don’t really have a stable location/home.
6. Cute Villages. We love the villages here. We’ve made several trips/walks/drives to Lania and Monagri to walk around because they are very close, and made a couple visits to Koilani. We also just made it out to Pano Lefkara, a village with cobblestone roads which is famous for its lace and silver handicrafts. Each village is charming and unique in its own way and we will touch on each more in their own posts. We also enjoy walking around Dhoros.
7. Other Activities with Kyle’s Parents. Aside from the villages, we visited Kykkos Monastery, the Monastery of Agios Nikolaos, Kolossi Castle, Kourion Ruins, Kourion Beach, Larnaca Salt Lake, Hala Sultan Tekke (an old mosque), tried out a winery down the street, and visited the Church and tomb of Saint Lazarus.
8. Other Activities with my dad. In July we did a couple hikes, explored different ruins, and saw a little more of Limmasol (in addition to the villages).
9. Food in Koilani. One day when Kyle’s parents were here, we decided to get food in Koilani. We found one restaurant open and decided to give it a try. After asking for a menu and having difficulties ordering, we asked them to just bring us whatever they thought would be best (to accommodate 3 meat-eaters and a vegetarian). They brought out a village salad (typical on a Cyprus menu), pita with tzatziki, tahini, and one other sauce, grilled haloumi cheese, fries, and a meat platter. After we were stuffed and asked for a box, they surprised us with some ice cream. We returned there with my dad for ice cream and they gave us large helpings.
10. Little Things with the Cats We’re Watching. Esso and Titch both sat on my lap, Blanca finally let us pet her, etc.

Lowlights:
Lowlights-Bramble

Honestly, most of these are a bit more of a stretch for lowlights, but I just thought I’d still try to fill up this section if I could manage.
1. Water Issue 1. The water went out for a few days at the beginning of the month. We saw people outside the house digging up the road outside the house fixing some pipes. This meant that for a few days not only did we not have water, but we could not get out because the construction was blocking the driveway. It really wasn’t a big deal but with the right/wrong circumstances it could have been an issue.
2. Water Issue 2. One day I thought I heard something in the laundry room. I asked Kyle and he shrugged it off and made up some explanation. I ended up checking it anyway and noticed a drip/leak. The drip became heavier and heavier rather quickly. Though I did not yet know it, the pipe was designed to do this to warn us about water pressure. I followed the pipe and we tried turning each of the little levers/faucets/I don’t know what to call them. I looked at it and saw that the pipe continued outside into this shed and determined we needed to go in there. I asked Kyle to remove the bricks from the top and I got a flashlight and we began trying things out in there. Eventually, we found one which, when turned, stopped the drip. This whole thing was honestly pretty fun for me because I love problem-solving. Anyway, the problem with this solution was that it made it so we didn’t have water at all. I let the homeowners know about the situation and they guided Kyle through a solution via Skype (changing to a different the water pump).
3. Water Issue 3. Ever since changing to the other pump, the water has been a little more sporadic for us. Some days we have it, some days we don’t. Unfortunately for my dad, it has been out some of his time here. We usually have at least a small amount of water (not enough for a shower, laundry, or dishes) but enough to feed the cats and ourselves. It’s always a happy time when it comes back, though!
4. Implications of water issues. Dirty laundry, dishes, and people. We also worry about the plants. The water-drip system to the garden no longer works due to the lower amount of pressure (just means we water them ourselves, though this is difficult when the water is not working properly).
5. Bug bites. Certainly getting a little bit up by those no-see-ums. I also got stung by a thing which Kyle told me is a hornet but I’m not entirely sure. I have such a fear of that type of thing and I have to say, if that’s what it was, it wasn’t too bad!
6. My Knee. The hikes and walking are really getting to my knee. It recovers, though.
7. My Fingers. The door to our room requires a latch. Normally we keep it open, but while we’ve had visitors, we’ve kept it closed. This latch is very difficult for me to open. Thus, when I get up in the night to use the bathroom or get up in the morning and open it, it hurts my fingers to open. One morning I woke up and saw that my finger was covered in blood and I realized it was from opening the latch. Kyle has absolutely no issues opening it, he just presses on the door first but I guess he has more weight with which to do so.
8. Sun/heat. I’ve gotten a couple more little sunburns. I also sweat a lot. I mean, it’s summer so it’s fine. While we don’t have A/C (just one room), we do have fans and it does get a little cooler at night.
9. Nowhere to Develop. I have one roll that dates back to Bali which I haven’t gotten to develop yet and my mom just send me more film but there doesn’t appear to be anywhere on this side of the island where I can develop film. I even messaged several film photographers on the island but no one got back to me. Hopefully in our next location.
10. Ice cream is more expensive here. It was hard to think of a tenth!

Firsts:
Firsts- Hosting

First time hosting guests in a place of our own. So, it’s not technically our place, but we still got to try out the whole hosting thing! (Yes, we had complete approval from the homeowners). We probably haven’t been the best hosts due to having to work some of the time, but it has been kind of fun.
Kyle’s first month (at least in quite some time) making $0!! Not exactly a good one lol!
First iPhone for Kyle and DSLR for us

Budget:
Budget- Church of St. Lazarus

This month we spent….*drumroll*… $636.28! Nice, right? We didn’t purchase anything in advance for this month, nor did we purchase anything for future months, so the cost of the month is equal to the amount we spent. This month we did not have any visa fees and I will explain other categories below:
Accommodation: In terms of accommodation, we were housesitting all month so no rent! Though, in a sense, we did pay a little rent. Our housesitting subscription expired this month and we decided it was worth renewing. That cost $99 and will last until July of next year.
Food: We ourselves did not purchase any food out this month (only groceries). We did go out a few times with Kyle’s parents and had ice cream with my dad but they paid for these food outings. Both my dad and Kyle’s parents also purchased some groceries during their visits and Kyle’s parents brought us some sweets and cheese they had picked up (and made) in Germany and Switzerland. We spent $294.66 on groceries.
Transportation: The other big item missing from this month is plane tickets! It was so nice to stay in one place for an entire month. Gas and (airport) parking were our only transportation expenses. We spent $54.54. Gas is rather expensive in Cyprus (particularly relevant to the gas prices in our most recent countries) and we drove around a bit, but the parents also helped out in this area. (Some of the time we payed but then Kyle’s parents payed us for it which I then credited it towards the directed areas- activities, gas, etc.)
Activities/Entertainment: I normally put Netflix in “regular expenses” but this month I’ll throw it here again. Inconsistent, I know. It’s difficult to decide. Anyway, there was just that and the Choirokoitia Ruins. Our parents assisted with other activity costs in which they participated. Total: $13.58
Fees: $10.95 on ATM (only one visit) and transaction fees (2 uses of a card).
Miscellaneous: $28.55 which included getting a large envelope (basically fifty cents) to forward mail to the homeowners of the place we are sitting, and $28 for our domain renewal for our blog for the next year.
Standard: $135 for our storage for our things (which has gone up $10/month) and our work/regular expenses (Creative cloud, Google Drive, and Dropbox).

Work:
Work Purdey

Kyle: My work this month has not been exactly as expected. Disappointingly, I have not made any money at all this month. That is not to say that I have not had any work, though. I am currently finishing up a medical animation for Wake Forest University that should pay out at the beginning of the month – but the time table for this job forced me to push back my current animation which I was expecting to finish. As well, a small graphic design job is wrapping up, but the client has been slow to respond. I expect to finish that up soon. I have also been interviewing with HSN in Florida, I at least made it through the first round of interviews, but seeing as it is an on-call position and I am not already in the area, the outlook for the prospect is not particularly high. Meanwhile, I have been on the continued hunt for a good, stable, remote job.
Briana: Fortunately I made enough to cover our expenses this month. I had a deadline during the time Kyle’s parents were here which meant we were both up pretty late a couple times finishing up work. That particular client will not need anything else until the end of August and I avoided/am avoiding taking on any other work which will have a deadline during our time with visitors. At this moment, I am avoiding taking on any work in general until it’s just us again. Meanwhile, Kyle has a deadline coming up which he really needs to meet (can’t really control such things).
Then there is the job-search stuff. I usually advertise for Kyle every other day and find jobs for him everyday but this month I decided I would spend less time on him and more on myself. What I did do was send him lists I had created in the past of studios all over the world so he could check them out and apply if they were hiring. I only advertised for him once and only sent him 15 jobs (otherwise). I myself applied to nearly twenty jobs which I thought I might have a shot at but haven’t heard from any of them. It’s pretty annoying because many require cover letters, filling out forms, etc. only to not be given any sort of response. I also applied to 15 “gigs” and a number of other short-term freelance opportunities. I heard back from a couple people at firs,t but none of it really panned out. I advertised for myself 4 times and I cold-call-emailed a couple places to see if they’d be interested in some of my services but haven’t heard from them.
In terms of the blog I kept up social media (Tumblr, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook), though Kyle has been posting on the Married with Maps Facebook now as well. I tried out IFFT and it’s pretty fun and useful (I think). We both continued to post, though perhaps just a tiny bit less. Kyle also created our logo. We had been discussing a design for a while but I am not as good at creating this type of thing as him so I had to wait for him to have time to make it. We also have been weighing the pros and cons of switching over from wordpress.com to wordpress.org.
Then there is also other non-income work. Every week I send the home-owners for whom we are sitting a report with details about their cats, house, garden, car, pool, etc. along with a photo of each cat and their mail. I created a website and social media for photography and Kyle created a logo for me (I made the initial design but he made it happen). I usually use Buffer for Married with Maps for twitter but decided to try out Hootsuite this time. I think I prefer Buffer. Previous to receiving my DSLR I also submitted a few film photos to film photo competitions I knew I probably wouldn’t win but thought I might get more active in these types of communities. I also have another idea for a business I want to create and began thinking about this more and did a little market research for demand. I may continue to do more but some things my dad said gave me an idea of another market I could potentially tap into but would need to probably wait until we are back in the US. I am still trying to figure exactly what I want to offer and how I would like to run things. I was hoping to get started on writing a book but it didn’t happen.

Health and Fitness:
Health and Fitness- Karseras Winery

I think we are doing better in this area this month due to staying in one place, having a kitchen, etc. We are certainly eating better than we were in Sri Lanka by far. As a whole, we are probably getting a little less activity because we don’t have to walk to do literally anything (eat, go to the store, go to an activity, etc.) like pretty much everywhere else, but walking around the villages, ruins, etc. has certainly provided us with some activity! It’s all just a little more intentional (but pleasant). We also went on our first hikes (both in 1 day) in a while at the end of the month: one in Koilani and one to Millomeris Falls.

Media Consumed:
Media Consumed- Ziggi

At the beginning of the month, while we worked (at least when I did not require greater concentration) we alternated between NPR, Netflix, and travel/nomad podcasts. In Cyprus, we are limited to what shows are available on Netflix for Cyprus (the US has more options) because Netflix blocks the VPN. We cycled through a few shows to avoid binge-watching. I’m pretty sure we tried a movie or two as well but I haven’t been tracking this too closely. Unfortunately, we did not get much reading done. This next month I hope to read the book by the woman we are sitting for which I downloaded as well as maybe one or two more. We’ll see!

Peace out!

See you next time- From Kykkos

Cat Ba Island Vietnam Motorbike

Riding A Motorbike In Vietnam

~K~

To preface this: as an expat, you probably shouldn’t ride a motorbike in Vietnam. If you’ve never been on a motorbike before, you absolutely should not attempt to ride a motorbike in Vietnam. So – I decided to try and learn how to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam. After all, how else could I expect to attempt a ride to Da Lat in a few days? It couldn’t be that hard.

Ho Chi Minh Traffic

Our AirBNB host had a bike that he allowed guests to use to get around town. I had never ridden one and was really only familiar with the principals of using a scooter. So I decided to give it a shot. All in all, it did not go very well. At first I could not figure out how to get into neutral so that I could even move it. After thirty minutes, I finally figured out how to work the clutch. But somehow I’d managed to get the key cover closed, and couldn’t figure it out.

Bike In The House

So away to Youtube and Google I went. This actually was quite helpful. I figured out what I felt I needed to know. I knew how to get the key in the ignition finally, how to switch gears properly, how to kill the engine, control the throttle, and brake.

In the private front courtyard I managed to get comfortable riding the clutch in neutral and jumping into 1st. I got used to the “friction zone”. As well, I figured out how to purposefully stall the engine – and more importantly not stall the engine.

Testing Out The Bike

So feeling ready to take a more serious attempt at riding, I went out and began to make my way out of the alleyway. It wasn’t pretty. The throttle was jumpy, and the bike jerked forward and back and I managed to “power walk” my way through the first alley. Turning down the second alley I suddenly came across what seemed to be the entire neighborhood out enjoying the day. It was obvious to the older adults that I had no business on a bike. Their faces only showed disapproval to put it lightly. I made my way past them though without any issues though (still hadn’t stalled the bike yet) and continued on down a third alley.

I turned down a fourth and final narrow alley which would lead to the roadway – and managed to run into a wall. Luckily no one saw that happen and there was no damage to the bike because I was going something like 2 mph. However, the children caught up to me quite quickly and were quick to point and laugh at my ineptitude. Watching the children mock me and looking at the busy street ahead of me, I decided that it would be beyond stupid of me to proceed out into the street. A Vietnamese roadway during the best traffic conditions is as bad as the worst traffic you’ve ever seen in a big city, during rush hour.

Ho Chi Minh Traffic

So I turned around and headed back towards the house. Once again, the elders shot ugly looks my way. Unfortunately, I messed up even further and managed to finally stall the bike directly in front of them. In shame and defeat, I got off the bike and pushed it back down the alleyway back to the house and right where I found it.

I could learn to ride, I had no doubt. But I needed more space than a narrow alley way and to not have the neighborhood shooting poisonous looks my way. Our host would be back the next day, and I’d just ask him to take me out somewhere to learn. It really is necessary here, because it’s just so inconvenient otherwise.

The next day came and went, our host was coming back from a vacation in Da Lat for Tet and got in late. I explained the predicament to him, and he seemed pretty amused. He then explained that I could just use the automatic scooter he had instead as it was much easier, and the next day he would assist me in getting a SIM card for my phone so I could have GPS.

I got up early the next morning, and we went on our way to get the SIM card. I hopped on the back of the scooter and off we went. Luckily, riding on the back gave me a quick eye-opener into how to manage traffic which is much less intimidating once you’re a part of it and not on the sidelines.

Once we got back, I then took the scooter for a spin around the neighborhood to gauge my comfort level with it. I was amazed at the difference. It was far smoother and easier to handle, and thankfully no gears to mess with. It was just get on and go. And the traffic really wasn’t too bad to handle – though admittedly it was completely different from driving in US traffic.

Since I felt comfortable, I came back and we prepared for our trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels which would be a pretty serious test of our ability to ride a bike through Vietnam. It should have been a 40km trip each way – but things happen. You can read about our adventure here.

On The Way To Cu Chi
Riding Back From Cu Chi

There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re driving around in Vietnam. I think one of the most important things is to remember that although there are rules – there are no rules. You should be ready and expect anything to happen: people driving on the wrong side of the road, jumping into traffic, stopping randomly, cows and livestock in the road, and people talking (or stalking) you. So you have to drive defensively, but be sure to take initiative.

Because of this, you should always wear your gear. Getting a full riding outfit is pretty difficult unless you know where to look or brought one from home. But at the very least, you can always get a helmet. It’s the law – for good reason. Traffic related deaths in Vietnam are soberingly high, and it’s in your best interest to protect yourself. If you can’t get full gear in addition to a helmet, at least wear closed-toe shoes, sunglasses (for the sun and protecting your eyes from dust and such), and seriously consider wearing long-pants and sleeves if you take a prolonged trip. Getting a sunburn on your arms and legs is not fun as we discovered on our way to Cu Chi.

Sun Burn After Cu Chi

Cars on the road also always have the right of way and they will act like it. If you see one coming the other way, or from behind, just move on over as far as you can to the right. The cars, while relatively few compared to the number of bikes, are still readily found. They have no problem going anywhere on the road, and won’t think twice about running you off the road. They will usually at least give you the courtesy of honking.

Which leads to the next thing: honking isn’t rude, it’s just the norm. You can use honking for just about anything in Vietnam. But it’s main purpose to inform others that you are passing them, coming up behind them, or want you to move. It’s something I’m not particularly used to in the States, but here I have had to force myself to do it.

Your bike is almost certainly used. This means that it’s parts are possibly going to break, if they’re not already broken. You might as well assume that the speedometer and odometer aren’t going to work. Flat tires are a common occurrence (I got two flats in two days). And anything can break. The good news it that repairs are cheap (an entire new tire costs ~$20), fast, and just about everyone can fix basic repairs. A mechanic is seemingly always just on the next corner.

Biking In Cat Ba

When it comes to cops (which we thankfully have not had to deal with – yet), the best advice I can give is to relay what I’ve read elsewhere. Do your best to not draw attention to yourself (by driving properly) and don’t make eye-contact. If you should find yourself pulled over, then you should prepare to get fleeced. Vietnamese cops are notoriously corrupt, and they will ask for a “non-receipted fine” – read bribe. They’ll take what they can get from you, so it’s wise to have a “fake” wallet with only a few bills that you can hand off rather than a huge wad of cash. It is technically illegal for expats to ride and own bikes in Vietnam, you need a Vietnamese Driver’s License – an International Driver’s License won’t cut it. So when you get pulled over, the cops have all the power. If the option is open to you, speaking English and feigning ignorance might get you off the hook because they’ll get tired of trying to deal with the language barrier, but cops are more frequently speaking English or know someone who can, so this option is being less reliable. You can also call a Vietnamese friend who “owns” the bike who might be able to get you off the hook. All in all, it is illegal, but there are rarely consequences in Vietnam if you do ride.

So if you’ve decided that you really are ready to go anyways, you’re going to need a bike. The Top Gear Vietnam episode has inspired many people to make the ride from Hanoi to Saigon – an epic 2000+ km ride through the mountains, beaches, jungles, and valleys. We thought about trying it, but it’s not quite going to work out because we just have too much gear. But anyways, there are a variety of methods to obtain a bike. Buying new is pretty much out of the question because of paperwork and needing a license. Buying used is easy – just go to any bike shop and make a purchase. You can buy one used for anywhere between $150 and $400. You can also purchase from other expats who have completed their journey and are selling the bike before they continue on. If you go this route, you will have to sell your bike at the end as well though, so keep that in mind.

If buying a bike isn’t your thing, you can rent a bike. This is a great option if you’re just wanting to ride around town. But at the same time you can get rentals that will allow you to go from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh via http://flamingotravel.com.vn/. They have a wide range of options and great support for any issues you run into along the way. Renting, which can cost a bit more than buying depending on your intentions, does have the benefit of convenience. You don’t have to bother with selling at the end, and generally they’ll help if not take care of all repairs you may need to make.

Selfie Biking Cat BA

Our favorite place to ride was in Cat Ba Island. Here we pretty much had the island to ourselves and felt pretty relaxed riding around. It really was a great experience, although we did have to be careful to avoid the pot holes. Briana had a chance to ride around here, since the traffic was none existent and is a great place to learn in Vietnam if you’re uncomfortable.

Briana And The Bike Cat Ba
Briana And The Bike Cat Ba
Briana On The Bike In Cat BA

If a sense of adventure strikes you – definitely ride a bike in Vietnam. It’s a trip of a lifetime, just be safe!

Briana And The Bike Cat Ba

Lebanese Coffee in Beirut

Lebanese Coffee at Urbanista

~B~

I’m going to start off by telling you that we did not like Lebanese coffee.

Me with that Black coffee

After Vietnamese coffee being such a dream (we’d almost return just for the coffee- though there are plenty of other reasons as well) we were excited to try other regional coffees. We had read that Lebanese coffee was similar to a coffee you always hear people rave about: Turkish coffee.

We researched a place to get coffee that would be on the way to other destinations we wanted to see in Beirut and off we went. We actually ended up passing a number of other places on the way, but the majority of them were more expensive than this one (we checked the menu in advance). Eventually we came across Urbanista.

Urbanista OUtside

The staff was fairly friendly and we saw a number of people working at their computers inside. While there were lots of options on the menu, including various meals, snacks, and drinks, Lebanon was already a little pricey for our budget so we decided to share a cup of Lebanese coffee (5,500 LBP, or ~$3.67). Other coffee options included toffee nut iced latte, caramel mocha, cinnamon spice latte and more and these all sounded delicious but some of them were nearly double the price and we wanted to try Lebanese coffee.

Kyle Checking out the Menu

We waited for a little bit and it came out in a little cup.

Kyle with the Coffee

The coffee was clearly black but I had read online that sugar was involved in the process of making it. Sure didn’t taste like it. It was somewhat strong, but didn’t taste too special. In Vietnam, even without sweetener, the coffee had this amazing quality to it, but here it was just meh. To me, it was basically a boring semi-strong black coffee when Kyle and I both like our coffee filled with sugar and milk.

The other thing which I had read online was that once you reach the grounds in the bottom of the cup, you can turn your cup upside down and let the shapes inspire you (reading them is an art) but honestly I think the people might have laughed at us if we did this so we just left them in the cup.

Coffee grounds

Now, we only tried Lebanese coffee at this one place, so I wouldn’t judge it as a whole based on our experience at only one cafe, but if you aren’t really into black coffee, you probably wouldn’t like it. I also wouldn’t shun Urbanista as many of their other options are probably good (they sounded good).

When the bill came out, it showed us the price both in Lebanese pounds and American dollars which was nice.

The Bill