Tuesday, September 8, 2015

9 Months of Cycling from the Netherlands to China: The Amazing and Beautiful Iran

Together with the migrant children in a school supported by Right To Play in the Shanghai district (China)

Written by: Wycher Van Vliet
Guest Blogger 

So what about Iran? My first ideas about the country were shaped some time before I decided to take a 9 month-18 countries trip by bicycle; a president who shouts that he hates America, gets support from two angry men with white beards (yes, just one now), and people who share their ideas. Where did I find this information? Television and newspapers.

For over half an hour I cycle past an extraordinary amount of Turkish and Iranian trucks before I reach the border of Turkey with Iran, at Bazargan. It is a hot day in June, and headwinds towards the border are keeping me off my schedule. I am full of fears and I cannot give them a place. What if? It is not the fear itself that gives me an unpleasant feeling, but most of it is the unexpected. It usually returns in my system when I have to pass through a new country. I guess in a way I am still used to a certain feeling of security, but on the other hand I could feel it getting weaker and weaker the further I travelled.
The majestic and beautiful Mount Damavand (کوه دماوند) in the back. At 5610 meters, this semi-active volcano is the highest peak in Iran, and the second highest in all of Asia. 
I am at the border and I cross without any problems. I have to change my money but the counters are closed. There is one open, but when I ask the guy to change my money, he rejects my attempt to change and points at a guy who seems to deal on the black market. But… I just passed the border police. This is a trick, for sure. I am the foreigner that gets caught because I am so stupid to change money, almost in front of the border police. I just need a bit of money for the first days and I know I will get screwed with a rate way below the normal one. So I just take an extra look around, see the blades of air conditioning running on the ceiling, closed counters on my left and decide to change money on the black market (just a random guy). I look around suspiciously, but nothing happens.
View of the city of Tabriz in North-West Iran 

When I arrive in the small city of Maku, I am very curious. How do people live? How do they go to work, what do they eat? Just the simple things, but essential for learning anything about a culture I do not know much about. During my travels, I quickly learned how to connect with people easily. It is a certain flow. I want to know what their story is, how they see things and what their thoughts are. The beauty of traveling is meeting all sorts of people in all kinds of situations. That is what drives me. If I am who I am to people, I know that people will be open to me and that I will be able to get to know them better.
On the mountain road between Tehran, the capital city, and Amol, a city in the north of Iran.
Women in Iran are forced to wear some form of hijab when outside, regardless of their religion or lack thereof. It is the law and it is strictly enforced.  
The low position of the sun indicates that the day is going to end soon. It is still terribly hot and the family I see on my right, sitting on a piece of grass next to some houses, is having a picnic on a small carpet. The children are playing soccer just around the corner in a dusty street. Their loud voices and laughter makes it clear that they are enjoying their time. I am curious and ask the man about some place to sleep near Maku. And my first invitation! They tell me that I can sit with the family on the carpet and enjoy the food they are having. This is extraordinary! I am used to a hasty way of life, sometimes not enjoying everything. These people are not in a hurry at all; it looks so simple and pure. My bicycle seems to be an extraordinary magnet to the children and of course, within minutes I am running around, laughing and shouting with them while playing soccer till sunset. What a difference from Doğubeyazıt in Turkey, where children were throwing stones at me and people tried to hit me with a car without any reason. It is so sad because Turkey overall was on of my best experience up until then with regards to hospitality. (Actually, I think it still is.)
A young boy sitting in a small grocery store window between the city of Mashhad in North-East Iran, and the Sarakhs city border with Turkmenistan. 
Again some stress. I cycle around the main street of Maku, up and down, back and forth. It is getting dark and I need a place to sleep. I do not know what to do. Two guys in the park are driving their motorcycle up and down the park. It is extremely busy in the city. The park is full of families having picnics with tons of food in little bowls and cups spread around the carpet, filled with typical Iranian dishes. The rainbow colored picnic tents are put up all across the grass around me. And once again, I get an invitation. A lawyer and his wife and mother are on their holidays. They speak a little bit of English. So I sit with them till late and enjoy the Iranian food that the women had prepared at home. The family then decides to sleep on the carpet. In this park? I would have never dared to try this in a public park in Amsterdam… I ask again. “Yes, it is safe”, they tell me. The ability to choose whom to trust is also something you learn during extensive traveling. Shortly after, I set up my tent and dream about my previous adventures. The next morning the sounds of birds and voices of people around me wake me up. Again, everything was perfectly fine.
Mountain road from Tehran to Amol.
Next: Tehran, a humid summer day in June. I am struggling to go uphill towards the northern part of Tehran. I was able to cycle on the highways, especially in Tehran and many other cities, without any danger. Mehdi, a very friendly Iranian guy stops his white Khodro (type of car), and asks if I am okay and need anything. This is crazy! I am sweating profusely and a cold drink would make my day. But I tell Mehdi that I really do not need anything now, because I know that it is only another 30 minutes to my hotel. So after a small talk, and many Tarofs (an Iranian cultural phenomena - the method of showing your kindness by refusing 3 times before accepting something), I decide to go uphill again. Mehdi steps into his car and speeds on ahead. 5 minutes later, as soon as my focus is back on the road again, a smiling and honking Mehdi in his white Khodro appears in my small mirror. No way! A few seconds later, I am enjoying some cold drinks and fresh food that Mehdi has specially bought for me. This is just stunning!

The month and a half I spent in this country was full of great experiences. Although local governmental institutions sometimes showed their misplaced paranoia, I accepted it because Iran is not a standard country to visit, as of yet.
Group of friends who invited me to a wedding party, and then provided me with a place to sleep in the city of Minudasht in the Golestan province, Northern Iran.
Overall I have learned that my experiences during my trips are totally different from the views I have before I visit. It sometimes feels as if the huge amount of information brought to me during my childhood (not the information from my parents of course ;)), is sometimes totally doubtful, especially information brought by different sources of media. This information comes from a pre-determined environment in which we assume it to be true instead of asking ourselves the critical question: what are these information based on? Seeing countries for myself were far more educating than just reading about the bad things going on there. You just need to feel the vibe.

Iran is a good example. Most people I spoke to are very well-educated, have big dreams, and work hard. They do not shout that they hate America. The drive and positive energy they have is unbelievable. The country in which they are living does not give them all opportunities; it is family life, tradition, and an extremely civilized culture that holds them together. And maybe it is also partly their situation that makes them tremendously driven. There is only a very small group that represents the limited thoughts of the Iranian government, which is what we are shown on the media. There is a clear distinction that the well-civilized majority understands very well; All around the country people emphasize the fact that they are different than the people who are ruling their country. “We are people offering you hospitality, we do not want war”, is a sentence I heard many times. Just like “Ask us anything and we will take care of it.” This is the real Iran, full of people wanting to make something of their lives, surrounded by their relatives, extremely strong roots, and giving me the best hospitality experience I have ever had in my whole life.
Ferdowsi Museum in Mashhad, a large city in the North-East of Iran.
I feel guilty about my previous thoughts, because I realize that many people in western countries share the same ideas about Iran that I had before. Iran and its people just do not deserve this!

As I push my bike across the border towards the deserts of Turkmenistan, I take one more look over my shoulder: it makes me instantly forget the typical traveler’s illness of terrible pain in my stomach, the yearning for water and shade. This was Iran. The country that surprised me in a superb way and gave me one of the warmest feelings during my trip. Mamnoon, Iran.

In the northern town of Saari (ساری)
About Wycher:

Raised in a family who is used to travelling around the world, Wycher has continued this spirit of going everywhere. Driven by a need for adventure and pushing his own boundaries, Wycher decided to take a trip by bicycle, starting from the Netherlands all the way to China, in 2011. So in March 2012, he left his hometown in the Netherlands to cycle to Shanghai for more than 9 months through 18 countries. Iran was one of those countries. In doing so, he also raised money for Right To Play, an organization that uses sports and games to enhance child development in areas of disadvantage. At the moment, he works, studies, and lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Together with the kids of a primary school in The Netherlands. I gave a presentation about my trip. The kids raised over 7000 euros for my Right To Play project during a day of sport and play.

Monday, June 29, 2015

7 Must-Know Tips for an Amazing Ibiza trip

With my two loves - Cala d'en Serra
I love writing blog posts for all of you to read. But sometimes it becomes a bit harder to write than other times. There's a lot that goes into writing a post and a big part of it is how inspired and excited you feel about a particular post. With all that being said, I feel really excited and inspired to write this post. Ibiza was always this really cool place that I wanted to go to. I watched the VCRs of music videos shot in Ibiza when I was old enough to watch those, I listened to the music that originated from the clubs there from the techno days to the progressive house and electro music days, and heard amazing stories from the friends that had gone there already. To sum up it was a dream place for me to go to.

Fast forward a few years, not only did I get to go to Ibiza but I got to go with my sister, Nava, and my best friend/sister, Saghar, that I hadn't seen in 6 years!!! I mean if all wishes would materialize to real life experiences, then they would feel like how this trip felt. I had just arrived in Milano a few days back and my sisters flew to me from Budapest for a small day trip in Milano and then our flight to Ibiza.

Benirras beach drum circle at sunset
Funny story although it wasn't really funny at the time. Saghar came down with a terrible flu and an extremely high fever the day they were flying to Milan. She arrived completely out of it with a fever. We were too excited about seeing each other and our trip that we were trying to pretend it's nothing. Nava and I being the positive thinkers that we are continuously told her that it's all in her head and she should keep saying that she's in complete health. I don't know how she survived the flight because despite her fever the three of us couldn't stop talking and laughing. She then drove us and even insisted that we should go to a club till the morning. Glad we didn't because the next day she told us that she remembers nothing from the entire day yesterday! She had completely blacked out due to the high fever and here we were trying to make her feel better with our positivity!! haha well, at least we can laugh about it now...

So here are the 7 tips that will help you make the most out of your dream trip to Ibiza:

1. Rent a car. Honestly I see many people that don't do this and they basically stay more or less in Ibiza town. Unless you live in Europe and jumping on a plane at any time to go there is no biggie, then you want to take advantage of your time there. And being stuck on just one part of the island (As most people do for the full moon party in Ko Phangan) doesn't make any sense, at least to me. This is especially useful and efficient if you are traveling with a group and you have the option of dividing the cost of travels between all of you. Ibiza is a pretty big island and it offers so much more than Playa d'en Bossa and the clubs.

Yes, there are buses and taxis that go all over but a) if you are planning to really explore every nook and crany then taxis can get too expensive and b) buses limit you to their schedule and are not as flexible. Whether or not you should rent your car online or when you arrive there, now that's entirely up to you. If you are flying in during peak time, you risk the chance of literally having all the rental cars being rented out or having very few options. But booking in person can also mean scoring better deals on the spot since you can negotiate from one booth to the next when you land in the airport. So make your decision wisely and go with what suits you best.

Two little cuties that were jamming to the drum beats the entire time <3
2. Have an old-school map on hand. You can even pick a free one up at the airport. If you are going to solely rely on your phone GPS then you're possibly setting yourself up for failure. We were lucky to have human genius/gps Nava with us who for some reason can read a map, and instinctively knows all directions even in a new country. She guided us through the streets till we got to our place. Saghar and I would've probably still been lost somewhere in Ibiza if it weren't for her :D This'll also come in handy later when you are trying to find your way through dirt roads somewhere to get to a hidden beach. Your gps simply won't help you out there.

Our very handy paper map
3. Book a place that is right for your needs,...and your budget. There are no shortage of places to stay in Ibiza. There are a shortage of budget-friendly places in Ibiza especially in peak time. Being that we sort of did things last minute, we tried to book our place only two weeks before the trip (in peak time, that is last minute my fellow procrastinators). I honestly think your best budget choice when you are with a group is Airbnb. That is what we went with and honestly I think we got lucky because one of the only two places we found within our budget and in the area where we wanted to stay in was still not booked. All the apartments in and around Playa d'en Bossa get snatched up wayyy ahead of time and honestly our place was a 10 minute drive away and much better than any place there. Now if money ain't no thang and you are not a budget traveller then the gorgeous hotels are your best choice, obviously, hands down, no questions asked. I also am a fan of couchsurfing and if you are traveling alone that might be your best option.

Last thing to say on this subject is if you are a family with children, then you want to stay in the San Antonio side which is extremely gorgeous and more quiet. If you are younger and you wanna party day and night, stay in Playa d'en Bossa. If you want to do both (party at night and chill during the day), then do what we did and stay really close to the clubs but far enough that you can enjoy the beauty of the island and still get a good night's sleep (for the 2 hours that you will sleep at least).

4. Go to the best clubs for free. Of course this is if you can and it most likely is possible for the ladies. For us, our host actually knew someone at Pacha and so he offered us to be on the guest list for free. We obviously said yes and so our first night there we just walked up to Pacha and went in for what was my favorite night in Ibiza. The music and the DJs that night were amazing and we just stood there and listened to the amazing music. Walking around the streets on the party side of town you will get approached by tons of promoters who try to get you on their waitlist at some club (Vegas anyone?) but I wouldn't suggest just going to any club. Be selective about where you want to go and know which DJs you want to see. The other places we went to we actually paid for because there were no promoters for those places. But we wanted to go there and so it was definitely worth it.

5. Be selective about your clubs, especially if you are on a time crunch. The first night we arrived there on mid-night and like I said before Saghar was really sick so we slept in. Nava got sick the next day as Saghar got better but that definitely didn't stop us from exploring and clubbing. In the 3 remaining nights that we had there we went to Pacha, Booom, and Sankeys. Here's my review on each one. Pacha is amazing! Despite being sleep-deprived and sick we were so energetic the whole time and really enjoyed the music and the atmosphere. Pacha knows how to do it. It was also my first time seeing Paul Kalkbrenner live and he has since become one of my favs to listen to.
Dancers at Booom
Booom was also fantastic! The atmosphere was so lively and the music was out of this world. My sister Nava knows her music and she really wanted to see Defected in the House that was playing there that night and that is why we chose to go there. Definitely not disappointed. Nava was actually really sick that night but she was front and center all night dancing and jumping around to the music. Saghar and I fell asleep standing up on the dance floor somewhere around 5 a.m.! We woke up 5 minutes later ashamed of how old we have become haha Oh to be young and youthful...

Fianlly, Sankeys wasn't nice at all. They definitely had more people than they should've in there, there were tons of sweaty creepy guys lurking around, and it was extremely touristy. So why did we go here, you ask? Well, we didn't know this is how it was going to be and a DJ that we really wanted to see was playing here and only here during our time there. But because of how bad the place was we honestly barely got to enjoy ourselves. We were actually debating on going to Ushuaia or some other place instead but they didn't have any DJs we wanted to see that night. #firstworldproblems

Platjets de Comte at sunset
6. Beaches, beaches, gorgeous beaches. If you know me in person or follow my Instagram feed, you know that I'm obsessed with the beach. Also this is where renting a car becomes crucial in Ibiza if you really want to see the island and all it has to offer. Ibiza has so many beaches to choose from but if I were you I would stay away from your typical tourist-filled beaches. How we did Ibiza was wake up as early as possible, go beach-hopping, eat something, get an hour of sleep, go to a club, get 2 hours of sleep, and repeat. We also didn't drink or anything of that kind and really had the time of our lives. Here are the beaches I recommend:

6A. Aguas Blancas in Santa Eularia des Riu: Gorgeous waters, very low-key, good cafe/restaurant overlooking the beach, gets a lot of sun, clothing optional.
Aguas Blancas
6B. Platjets de Comte: Popular for sunset watching.
Platjets de Comte
6C. Cala d'en Serra in Portinatx: Hidden beach surrounded by cliffs, only a few people, small cafe, clothing optional, personal fav.

Cala d'en Serra hidden somewhere down there :)

6D. Cala Xuclar also in Portinatx: Hidden beach, few people, clothing optional.

6E. Playa d'en Bossa: Not recommended but rather I think is a must-see. Party beach so accordingly not so clean but I believe a must experience especially if you are younger. Long stretch surrounded by bars, hotels, and vacation complexes.

7. Enjoy the hippie drum circle at Benirras Beach in San Miguel right before sunset. Sit around them with hundreds of other people, watch them banging on their drums for hours, and listen to the harmonious sounds they all make while the sun goes down. Also take cash with you if you want to buy cool handmade stuff or get a henna tattoo at the hippie market. When the drumming is done, go sit at a beachside cafe for some delicious Spanish food and watch the sky go completely dark.

Drum circle at sunset
Sunset watching at Benirras beach
Any other suggestions for things to do in Ibiza? Share them with me in the comments below.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

5 Essential Tips for Your Trip to Sri Lanka

Written By: Andrea Binley
Guest Blogger

This April, I returned from three months living in Sri Lanka. I’d signed on to volunteer as part of a Graduate Mental Health program, where I would be working with patients and teaching English in a rural suburb on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. After obtaining my entrance visa, renewing vaccinations, and packing three different types of mosquito repellant, I was ready to set off on my first adventure in Asia. The next three months passed by in a blur – I lived and worked in Colombo during the week, and travelled around the country on the weekend. Despite being a small island (approximately the size of Ireland), Sri Lanka is home to an incredible diversity of things to do and see. There's something for literally everyone: gorgeous coastlines for beach bums, tropical jungles for nature lovers, and ancient ruined cities for amateur explorers. It's almost impossible to distill my favorite things about Sri Lanka into one blog post, but I've tried to highlight some essentials. 

1)   Take a tuk-tuk

Tuk-tuks are a ubiquitous sight in Sri Lanka.  They are by far the most efficient mode of transportation, as drivers are able to weave in and out of the brutal Sri Lankan traffic (which, frankly, can be terrifying at times). They also come in every shade of the rainbow, from classic red to sassy hot pink. One of my favorite pastimes was spotting the bizarre, poorly translated bumper stickers on many tuk-tuks – this one says, inscrutably, “Every Day is not Christmas”. Taking a tuk-tuk is definitely one of the best, cheapest, and most thrilling ways to see the country.

2)   Try a Sri Lankan Rice and Curry

Sri Lankans are proud of their cuisine, and for very good reason. The food is predominantly vegetarian and is based around endless combinations of rice and curry.  It's also not for the faint of heart, as curries tend to be fiery and are typically garnished with “sambol”, a savory blend of coconut and chile that enhances every dish. It took a while to get the hang of the Sri Lankan method of eating with your hands, which involves shaping the rice and curry into a ball and flicking it into your mouth.  Sri Lankans claim that this enhances the taste of the food, and after three months of foregoing forks on a nightly basis, I would have to agree.

For full immersion into the cuisine, I would highly recommend taking a Sri Lankan cooking class. I took a class in Unawatuna beach, which began with our lovely chef Karuna taking us to the Galle market to pick out our vegetables and fish, and ended with us eating our creations! 

3) Visit Anuradhapura

Although it’s tempting to spend all day, every day on one of Sri Lanka’s amazing beaches, I would highly recommend checking out the Cultural Triangle, which is home to the ancient ruined cities. Anuradhapura is the largest of these cities, dating back to nearly 2,500 years ago. It’s packed with ancient temples and holy monuments, some of which are said to contain remnants from the Buddha himself. You can easily spend a whole day biking between ancient monuments and stupas and poking around the ruins.

Me channelling Indiana Jones in front of the ancient Jetavana monastery.

4) Hang out with Elephants

Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to get some quality time with Asian elephants. You can choose to see the Ellies at a National Park, or in one of the designated sanctuaries in the Kandy region.  I went on safari at Udawalawe in the southern part of Sri Lanka, and was able to catch sight of dozens of grown and baby elephants, along with plenty of crocodiles, buffalo, and even one elusive leopard. I also made a trip to the Millenium Elephant Foundation in Kandy. Millenium is an elephant sanctuary where visitors can come to bathe, feed, and ride elephants. There's an adjoining factory where elephant dung is dried and processed into all sorts of paper gifts. Touring the factory was fascinating and I was able to pick up lots of unique souvenirs for family and friends back home -- where else can you purchase earrings made out of elephant dung? 

Elephant showers at the Millenium Elephant Foundation in Kandy.

An elephant family taking a mud bath at Udawalawe National Park
5) Take a train to Ella

The little mountain town of Ella is one of Sri Lanka’s best-kept secrets. After several weeks in hot and smoggy Colombo, it was a relief to head up to the hills and breathe some fresh air. If you make the trip via one of Sri Lanka's charming, rickety trains, I can promise you it will be one of the most scenic train rides you'll ever take. Ella is absolutely magical, tucked away in misty hillsides and surrounded by lush green tea plantations. It’s also home to two of the country’s best hikes: Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak. The panoramic view of rolling green hills from the peak of Ella Rock is totally unforgettable and makes the challenging climb completely worthwhile. I’d recommend rewarding yourself after the hike with a large Lion beer and a plate of rice and curry from the uberhip “Chill Café” on the main street. You can also treat yourself to an Aryuvedic massage at one of Ella’s spas.

Taking in the sights at the top of Ella's Peak

About Andrea:

At age one, Andrea took her first overseas flight from Sydney to Cape Town. Since then, she has been obsessed with travel, and is constantly seeking a new adventure, whether that may come in the form of an impromptu road trip up the California coast or a three month volunteer project in Sri Lanka. For the time being, she lives and works in Los Angeles.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Post-Graduation Decisions: How to Define Success and Happiness?

Graduation season is upon us and although some of us are all set up to dive into the working world immediately, the rest of us are not ready to commit to the conventional adulthood realm yet. And you know what? I don't think anyone should. When I was graduating last year I had to think really hard about what I wanted to do after I graduate. I had decided already not to work for anyone as I already knew through numerous internships and jobs that I wanted to do something bigger and with my own vision. Something that I could never do while I worked for someone else. But as the final semester came about, I felt the peer pressure to start interviewing for the elite jobs that all my other peers were interviewing for or had already interviewed for and secured a position. Honestly I was also curious to see how I would do being the perfectionist and constant self-challenger that I am.

While I joggled between a full load of classes, going on multiple interviews every other week, group projects, taking LSAT prep courses, and preparing for the finals, I couldn't stop thinking about which route was the right one for me at the moment. I had just wrapped up 7 months of non-stop traveling and committing to the traditional life expectations and pretending like I wasn't constantly dreaming of seeing new places was very hard.

My mum (who is also my best friend and role model) and I had very long talks every day in which I did the majority of the talking. I was basically stuck between making immediate money and working in a typical business-school-graduate prestigious role, taking the leap of faith and starting my social business immediately, or taking the year off to travel the world (maybe even by bike), all while preparing for law school which I want to go to because I want to be a human rights activist. My mum reminded me time and time again that she would support me 100% no matter what decision I decided to make.

I spent countless times talking to everyone trying to get different perspectives on the issue. I finally decided to take the job offer at the company that was global, entrepreneurial, and required relocation (which I thought would satisfy my wanderlust), and wanted strong leaders. I thought that I will be able to study for the LSAT and start my business on the side while I gained valuable experiences and made money. 5 months later with no time to do anything besides work and despite the success I had at the company and the great people that I had met there, I decided that I wanted to do so much more. I had always wanted to do so much more. I did not love what I was doing, I wasn't passionate about it, and despite my always-positive attitude the days seemed to just go by without any happiness. So I quit. Decided to use up all my savings, forego all luxury and any expenditures on myself besides the necessities, and go for my passion. It does take a lot to make a decision like this especially when almost everyone besides a select few, advise you against it. What most people don't realize, in their pure goodness of heart, is that money and rank isn't everything. Happiness comes from within and you define happiness.

The business that I started, started with my faith in myself and in the ones that love me unconditionally. When you go to my online store you'll see that I have truly tried to blend everything I am passionate about to create a community that I can truly be proud of. I wanted to experiment with the idea that I could fully do what makes me happy and what makes my heart tick, and turn it into my life. I travel, to buy beautiful handmade items from people in need around the world thus helping them directly, and then give back from the sale of every product to causes that I truly care about such as education, human rights, women rights, and to those who need it most such as refugees, orphans, homeless, and other persecuted or underrepresented groups.

I also learned the most important lesson from this and every other crazy thing that happened to me and my family this year. I am learning "patience". I am learning that dreams, hopes, heartfelt wishes, and our goals will come true. That health, freedom, togetherness, and success will come to us. But sometimes we have to wait longer than we want to for them to happen and that's ok as long as we don't give up hope and give up on our faith in ourselves and the higher power we believe in. Patience is proving to be the hardest thing I have ever had to learn because although I have been through some tough tests throughout the years, it is deciding to test me to the point of giving up this year. I have found that love from loved ones, and a daily dedication to faith in myself and my life path, positive thoughts, and commitment to being happy no matter what, are the tools to get me through.

I realize that my story might not resonate with many and I do know that without sharing all the details of my life that it is hard to understand where I come from exactly, but I am not ready to share more. This post started as something else but quickly turned into this. So I do want to share with you what my mind seems to have decided for me to write for you. What remains is what I would ideally want anyone reading this to take out of the uncontrollable rants of my mind; lessons which I myself hope to learn better everyday.

That it is never too late to do what you want. That following your deepest instincts or heart's desires, although really scary, is not wrong. That whatever you do should be what you want to offer to the world. That your passions are valid as long as, as my mum always says, what you do benefits and helps you, the people around you, and the world and all its creations. That every action you take should strive to satisfy all three. And what I still struggle with everyday, that there is no universal definition for the following words: Happiness, Success, Love, Wealth, Family, and Friendship. You truly are in charge of those definitions.
Be happy and FIGHT ON!
I hope that this helped in any way with your post-graduation decisions. Please share and inspire me with your definitions of success and happiness. Lets inspire others with our definitions so that maybe we learn to be more accepting of ourselves, our aspirations, and others in this world. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Berlin in 3 days and 3 nights

Wilkommen in Berlin!

Berlin seems to be that one city in Germany that everyone is longing to go to. The hipsters, the house music fanatics, the underground scene lovers, the history buffs, the culture appreciaters… they all want to go to Berlin. And then there's me. Berlin is still my least favorite city in Europe. Yes, Yes, I know you can't even right now, but hear me out. I am not saying that Berlin isn't interesting or beautiful, because it is. It really is. It's just not my favorite. And I have my reasons. I'd like to indulge you, if you care to know.

1. Berlin is still struggling to have an identity. Explore the city and you will literally feel the uncertainty lurking around. Is Berlin modern, a struggling post-1989-era city, historical, the not-so-hidden party-goer and music lover's hidden gem, little Turkey? I don't know and I honestly don't think that Berlin has the answer yet either.
I know you can easily say well it's all of those things and in a way yes, it is. But it has not yet established its identity and that bothered me.

2. It is pretentious, in a SF-hipster-oh-we're-so-anti-LA-because-it's-pretentious-but-we're-not way. It is basically on the other far end of the pretentious spectrum, which ironically ends up being very pretentious. In Berlin, you are not considered cool if you are dressed up. Hip grunge is the look and what not, and to be honest I'm not a fan of any place where you have to look a certain way to be considered socially hip whether it be LA or Berlin. - I will explain this point later. 

3. But I think ultimately the real reason why Berlin felt the way it did was because it was just too sad for me. To think of the number of lives that were ruined because of this crazy prejudice, and to literally be able to see the remnants of all these destroyed lives and broken families was too much for me. Although it helped me learn and grow so much from all the hands-on knowledge I gained here, it really did leave me feeling helpless and sad inside because of all that has happened and how I felt like I couldn't do anything to make it better.

However, now that we have been over my reasons why Berlin is not my favorite city in Europe thus far, lets talk about why it is such an amazing city because it truly is! And here starts your guide to Berlin in 3 days and 3 nights:

1. Arrive at your hostel/accommodation and without wasting a minute inside, head to Brandenburger Tor for a Free Walking Tour. Or actually, ask your hostel's front desk for recommendations and tour times, and grab a few pamphlets before you head out. But then head out and do one of those free walking tours. Berlin has a lot to offer in terms of history and sights to see so tackling it by yourself can prove to be very difficult at least on your first hour of your first day there. Plus these tours as I've talked about them before in other posts, never ever disappoint. They're always fun and humorous and are led by mostly young people that are passionate about that particular place's history and have completely relocated there just so they can do this and enjoy showing the place they love to others. My tour guide, Leo, was so good that I practically gave the exact same tour to my friends who arrived in Berlin the next day and I knew everything. 

Some things you will see and learn about on your general tour are:

1a. Brandenburger Tor and its history - The gate stood between East and West Germany and is a symbol of German unification now. The statue on top of the gate is said to be of the goddess of peace butttt in a more controversial theory- Napoleon took the statue with him after his victory over Germans. The quadriga was later returned to the gate. Nowadays, the French embassy is located next to the gate and it is said that after Germans got the quadriga back that they turned the head of the goddess (who is also thought to be the goddess of victory) to face the French embassy as a constant reminder that Germans have their eyes on them, forever!

1b. Hotel Adlon - This gorgeous luxury historic hotel is also located in Pariser Platz across from Brandenburg gate. Although it has a lot of history behind it, it is mainly known now for the hotel in which Michael Jackson famously dangled his baby out the balcony.

1c. Holocaust Memorial - One of the most touching memorials I have ever had the honor of interacting with. This memorial was built in the honor of all the Jews that were murdered during the Nazi times. 
Take a moment to walk through and pay your respects in any way you see fit. 
You will also see this

And this
1d. Hitler's Bunkers - Hitler's secret underground home that he had built for himself, his wife (they got married in there), and their dog. When the Nazis were losing the war, he gave pills to all 3 of them, committing suicide. This was the first time I noticed something that I think to be so strange in Germany. Many people live around places like this one although they are aware of the awful history of the places. 

This grassy area is where his bunkers used to be, way way under ground. As you can see people live in those apartments, facing as their view his bunkers. There are also people living literally right across the street from the concentration camps with the window of their homes facing the camps!!! I just don't get it, but you live and you learn. 

1e. Remnants of the wall and the Topography of Terror museum - The first time you will see pieces of the wall. Although as I will later explain, you can take another tour or go by yourself to see the longest remaining piece of the wall somewhere else. The museum is the former site of the SS and Gestapo headquarters. You won't have time to go see the inside on this tour, but I highly recommend you do it later when you get the chance. The entrance is free. 
The wall and the museum in the back
It is said that at the time, 1 in 5 Germans were employed and utilized by the Gestapo!!! This meant that your neighbor, friend, spouse, parents, or child could be a member and was spying on you the whole time. A lot of people accepted this out of fear of death, but the result was that after the Gestapo were gone that a lot of families were broken up. Imagine finding out that the ones you love were spying on you the whole time! Yet another sad effect of those times…

Building remnants - Museum's outdoor exhibition
1f. The former Ministry of Aviation building (Reichsluftfahrtministerium) - Another surprise for me is the use of old Nazi buildings for practical purposes in modern days. I love the fact that Germans can do this, but I really don't understand how you can go to a building everyday and spend hours working in there, in which you know too many horrible things happened not too long ago. The building is now used as the building for the German Finance Minsitry. 

1g. St. Hedwig's Cathedral - This cathedral is an important place to see for a few reasons. It is currently the seat of the archbishop of Berlin. It is also the first Catholic church in Prussia after the Protestant reformation. King Frederick II wanted to make sure that the Catholic immigrants that were seeking refuge in Berlin had a place to worship in an almost fully Protestant Berlin.
St. Hedwig's Cathedral located in Bebelplatz
1h. Humboldt University - One of Berlin's oldest universities with an impressive faculty of law, and a magical library. Depending on what kind of thing rocks your boat, this can be a really cool place to see for some of you.
Humboldt University also located in Bebelplatz
1i. The Nazi Book Burning Memorial - Bebelplatz was the scene of the May 10, 1933 book burning by the Nazis. They burned around 20,000 books that day including the works of Heinrich Heine, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, and others. Micha Ullman has built a very powerful memorial dedicated to this horrific act of ignorance. 
The glass plate set in the cobble stone gives a view of an empty bookcase that could fit 20,000 books in it. 
The plate set below the memorial reads from a line from one of Heinrich Heine's plays: "That was only a prelude. Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people. " And how sad that that became a true prediction. 
1j. Gendarmenmarkt: Kozerthaus, French Cathedral, and the German Cathedral - Known to be one of the most beautiful squares in Berlin. The beautiful concert hall in the centre with the statute of German poet Friedrich Schiller stands between the nearly identical German and French cathedrals on either side. 

Leo, our tour guide, whose stories were told with great sense of humor, explained that the French cathedral was built first. The Germans felt jealous and wanted one that looked just as nice. So the German Cathedral was built. One is said to be slightly taller than the other and that is the only difference. How accurate this story is, I don't know, but it is certainly more fun to think of it this way :)
1k. Museuminsel: Museum Island - For you museum lovers out there, this one is sure to be a museum paradise. Home of 5 amazing museums, Museuminsel is sure to offer something for any art and history enthusiast. 
Altes Museum (Old Museum)
1l. Berliner Dom or Berlin Cathedral - Another symbol of Berlin, the cathedral is also located in Museuminsel. It is said that King Frederick II actually decided to design it himself by mixing a variety of architectural techniques from various eras. Although at the time it was considered an architectural failure, it is certainly beautiful and truly captures the pleasant oddness of Berlin. This is also the last part of your free walking tour and is where Leo hilariously told us the story of how the wall fell in 1989. Please do not forget to tip your tour guides! This is how they make money. I really don't understand the people that take these amazing tours and fail to give a tip!! No matter how tight your budget is, there is no reason why you can't give a few euros to your guide after they give you some of the best tours of your life! Come on people! 
For more pictures of the Dom checkout my instagram @travelwithava
By the way, I was freezing here as it got really cold as the day went by. Sheer workout top and leggings, not a good idea for cold Berlin nights!  
2. Go out to one of the many clubs in Berlin. Or tell your hostel roomies that you definitely want to go out and will only take a 2 hour nap, and then fall asleep from extreme exhaustion caused by non-stop traveling like someone here! But in all seriousness you all know that Berlin is known for its underground clubs and house scene. You will have no problem at all seeking these places out. From clubs that let you in on Friday and out on Monday (yep, you can sleep and party in the club), to clubs with no sign at the door that will take you over an hour to find, especially when you have had a few to drink, Berlin has it all! That's all I'm gonna say on this topic, it's honestly not hard at all for you to find places by yourself.

I will, however, tell you a funny story! So my last night in Berlin, I had to go out and finally experience the infamous nightlife! *I kept falling asleep every other night so going out never happened before the last night although I really wanted to. One of my roomies and I decided to go to the hostel bar and then to a local bar for only two hours till 12 am as I had a train to catch at 6 a.m. Long story short, I started speaking Italian to our hostel bartenders from Italy, they responded with strong drinks, we ended up having one too many jaeger bombs, kept on walking past the entrance to this underground club that had no sign, finally found it, kept on dancing, and I realized it was 4:30 a.m.! I ran outside, but then became friends with the bouncer, to whom I continued talking for another 45 mins! It was fun as he let me scan the cards of everyone that walked in and pretend like I wasn't going to let them in. But then I looked at his watch and realized it was 5:15 and I hadn't even packed my stuff or checked out of the hostel yet!!! So I ran to the metro, ran to the hostel, couldn't find my locker keys, ran out to ask the concierge to let me break the locks, woke up all the girls in my room (I'm so sorry girls :(( ), checked out, ran back to the metro, took the first train to Hauptbahnhof while honestly having trouble even keeping my eyes open, running inside to the other end of the station where the information booth was located (at which time it was 2 minutes to 6!), managed to take the elevator up where my train was. The doors opened, I saw the plaque that said 6 am to Karlsruhe, showed my ticket to the train attendant who confirmed this was my train, jumped on the train, and the doors closed!!!!! Literally the doors closed as soon as I walked on the train at 6:01 a.m. (Deutsche Bahn and your punctuality!) I proceeded to make an immense fool of myself on the train for the remainder of the time, fell asleep, woke up to the guy next to me desperately trying to push my head away from his shoulders (sigh :/), fell back asleep, and woke up 30 mins away from Karlsruhe! Moral of the story is kids, don't plan your crazy Berlin outing for the last 5 hours of your trip! To this day I'm still not sure how I made it on that train on time but I know that by some miracle I did and I made it to my next destination! Ok, on to the next…

3. Take the Red Berlin tourOr any other tour, such as the Alternative city tour, with the New Berlin tours. We decided to go with the Red Berlin tour as my friend Steven was also very interested to learn about this. I must admit that I learned so much through this tour and although I wouldn't describe it as a fun and light afternoon, I will definitely recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the history of the wall, and how it affected people's lives forever.

Things you will see on your tour:

3a. Bernauer Strasse - The station that stops at Bernauer Street has been kept in the condition it was back in the time when the wall was erected. Bernauer Strasse is famous for the street where the Berlin wall was erected in back in 1961. The station here has such an eery feeling as it has this inherent sadness lurking around and looks like a ghost station.

3b. The Memorial Park and the preserved sections - It is crazy to witness what a bunch of people with crazy ideals managed to do to the lives of people living here. The part of the wall of Berlin that we all see and hear of today was the outermost part of the wall. Behind this section was the no man's land - where the soldiers stationed at the wall were instructed to shoot and kill anyone that was trying to run away and was in this area! - and behind that the fences that ran parallel to the concrete wall.
The only part of the wall that is preserved exactly as it was back then. You can see the vast area in the middle known as no-man's land, the wall, the fences, and the guard tower. 
When the wall was built, a lot of people's houses were located in the middle of the wall. As a result, the East Germany government used their home as part of the wall! They blocked in those who could by building over their windows. A lot of the people that were stuck in their apartments on the border, risked losing their lives by jumping out of the windows and running towards freedom. A lot of people died during these attempts! 

The most touching story to me was that of a mother and a father that were stuck in the second floor of their apartment and their daughter was getting married on the West side. There is a picture that shows them crying and sending down flowers from their window to their daughter without being able to participate in her wedding. 
The memorial park is home to this and many other pieces as a tribute to those that lost their lives, were divided and torn apart from their loved ones, and lost everything in the course of these vicious acts. There is also a church there that is home to an old bomb that is kept under ground and will not be moved as it might go off! 

An iconic photograph of the soldier who ran. This guy was an East German tower guard. He is pictured here being able to run away from his post into West Germany. But there is a really sad twist to this story. As he was pictured, the East Germany government was able to identify him. When the wall came down and he was able to return to his family who he had to abandon on the East side, he learned that his family was tortured severely throughout the years due to his action. His family refused to talk to him and he was so depressed that he committed suicide. You see now why I can't love Berlin. It is crazy how much sad stuff happened here!

3c. Palace of Tears or Tränenpalast - Arguably the most interesting attraction of Berlin for me. This free exhibition is located inside the Friedrichstrasse station, which was the border crossing and checkpoint between East and West Germany, once the West Germans were finally allowed to visit friends and family in the East. It is where a lot of tearful goodbyes took place (hence the name) and where a lot of brave East German families attempted to leave everything behind and cross to the West German side for freedom and a normal life. It is now home to one of the most interesting exhibits I have ever seen. It includes audios of stories told by people that tried to flee as well as their belongings and many other pieces from back then. Below are suitcases of people that were actually successful in crossing the border to West Germany with what they could take with them, without of course arising the suspicion of the border inspectors. They had to take so little and most of them chose to only take a birth certificate and a few memories. 

There are videos of those people telling their stories. It is such an astonishing exhibit and I highly highly recommend it to everyone that visits Berlin to take the time and interact with the pieces here and listen to these fascinating stories.

3d. The longest remaining piece of the Berlin Wall - This needs no explanation. You need to see it by yourself. The entire 1.5 kilometers is covered with graffiti from various artists. It was located down the street from my hostel and so I was able to spend extra time walking alongside it and examine it.

My favorite art on the walls. This is what a typical checkpoint looked like. There is also the drawing of the famous soldier who ran discussed above. Also lampoon that soviet artist, Vrubel, did of the former Soviet leader kissing East Germany's former party leader on the mouth. 

A quote I like from the wall
4. Definitely have Turkish food in Berlin!!! If you have ever been to Turkey or have lived there, you know that Turkish food and desserts are simply amazing! If you haven't been, you probably have heard tales of the deliciousness of the food there. Germany has the largest population of Turks living outside of Turkey, with Berlin having the highest concentration of Germans living in it. When I tell you that I got by around Berlin and the rest of Germany almost entirely dependent on speaking Turkish, I am not exaggerating! Although I devoured my famous Turkish noms all around Europe, including Copenhagen and Amsterdam which also have a lot of Turks living there, the little Turkey area in Berlin knocks all of them out the park! I cannot recommend eating at Hasir more to everyone that is in Berlin! I had THE most authentic and amazing Turkish food there and their Ayran and Künefe was soooooo on point! 
Also, here's another link that breaks down all the yummy Turkish places in Berlin: 
Kunefe at Hasir restaurant in Berlin

5. I hesitantly recommend seeing the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Although I think I am glad that I gave myself the chance to learn about something this important in history, I will never ever subject myself to so much sadness again. To get here you will have to grab the train. We walked from the station to the sight, but you can also take the bus. Honestly this city felt so dead. There were no birds chirping, no sound, no children playing, no one out on the streets. There was just the sound of the wind and even that stopped when we walked on the grounds of the camp. There is so much negative energy towering over this place. The sky and the air feels heavy and I couldn't escape feeling dead inside the whole time I was there. We did rent the audio tours but I could not listen to them anymore after an hour and so had passed. I asked my friend Steven if we could leave after 2 hours as I really couldn't take it anymore. I felt so many different feelings but I think I mostly felt really really angry inside, I was in disbelief, and I felt extremely helpless. It makes you wish you could prevent all of this from ever happening. So I will definitely not recommend visiting this sight to anyone that is as sensitive as me although I know that it is the best way to bring awareness to people. But as much as I am grateful for the awareness, I can't subject myself to something like this again as it affected me too much. I also really couldn't grasp how people were living in this town, let alone across the street from the camp! There is something really haunting about this place. Please visit with the utmost respect, spread the awareness you achieve through visiting this place, and hopefully make a positive difference somewhere with the knowledge you have gained.

So that is all concluding the end of my guide for Berlin in 3 days and 3 nights! I will leave you with this really cool picture that sparked a feeling of familiarity within me. This is an actual picture from the Nazi times of a man that refused to hail. It is said that he was later found and tortured but I love that he stood his ground and made a stance.

Probably not coming back anytime soon, but until next time, Tchüss Berlin!!!
I know this was a slightly heavy post and it might've left you feeling a bit down. I do apologize but I felt it important to bring awareness to what happened here. If you go to Berlin, make it a point to also learn about its history and what it has been through. Thank you for reading. As always, I am here to answer all questions so leave me a comment below. ☟