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South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana Trip Report Day One: Johannesburg
We left JFK on Sunday morning and flew with South African Airways. After a very long and very dreadful flight we arrived at OR Tambo in Johannesburg on Monday morning. We then went to our hotel where we were staying for one night. We didnít feel that we wanted to spend too much time in Johannesburg, but being that we were landing there anyways we spent one day there and toured a bit.
After washing up and resting a bit we went off for our tour of Soweto. We drove through Soweto and got a running commentary on everything we passed. It was very interesting to hear about the lifestyle there from our guide, who was a local. We saw Winnie Mandela and Bishop Tutuís homes, stopped at the Mandela Family Museum (but didnít pay for entry) and visited the Hector Pieterson Museum.
Hector Pieterson was killed at age 13 during the Soweto uprising and the museum is located two blocks away from where he was shot and killed. Hector's sister Antoinette, who is seen in the photo below, works at the museum as a tour guide, and we were able to meet her.
HectorPietersonMemorial by ponash, on Flickr

A standard township in South Africa:
Townships by ponash, on Flickr

After that we went out to eat at Metzuyan. The food was really good and the prices can't be beat! (The dollar gets you really far over there)

Day Two: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Tuesday morning we went right back to OR Tambo to catch our flight to Zimbabwe. After sitting down and getting ready to take off, we were all told to get off the plane and identify our luggage. Apparently a family with 2 kids had 11 pieces of luggage that caused some confusion. After all getting back on the stewardess walked up and down the aisle and sprayed us with some sort of insecticide so we donít bring any diseases to the animals. Then, after hearing the landing gear go down and circling for a while, we were told that we couldnít land yet because there were animals on the runway. We finally did land a little while later but we were pretty pleased with this introduction to Zimbabwe  :).
We then landed in Victoria Falls Airport in Zimbabwe. I was handed my passport back after getting a visa and walked off without looking at it. Good thing the agent called me back because he had mistakenly handed me a 90 year old womanís passport.
VictoriaFallsAirport by ponash, on Flickr

Some dudes dancing outside the airport:
DancingDudes by ponash, on Flickr

We then went to our hotel which is right near the falls. Ilala Lodge is a really nice little place with amazing service. They were also extremely accommodating when it came to dealing with our kosher food. After checking in we went to Victoria Falls. The falls are magnificently beautiful and still manages to have that untouched nature feel that Niagara does not. We were planning on doing Devilís Pool and tried to arrange it. Unfortunately we didnít realize that you normally have to book 2 days in advance, and we werenít able to work it into our very packed schedule. I was disappointed about that but as we were walking along the falls we got just as close to the edge. But still, youíre not in the water. Oh wellÖ next time  :)

VicFalls3 by ponash, on Flickr

VicFalls by ponash, on Flickr


Here you can see some people in Devilís Pool:
DevilsPool by ponash, on Flickr

Note the baboons crossing the bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia:
Bridge by ponash, on Flickr

Some warthogs in the backyard of our hotel (we were told at check in to keep the back doors closed at night so animals, mainly baboons, donít climb in):
Warthogs by ponash, on Flickr

After getting back to the hotel we walked to the market. As we were getting near the market we were approached by a Tourism Policeman who walked with us. Zimbabweís main source of income is their tourism so they are very protective of it. And with good reason! We entered a big open space and immediately started getting calls and shouts. We decided on a shop to enter, a big building with no electricity. We walked in were instantly surrounded by complete darkness and about 10 women, pushing onto us, harassing us to buy their wares. It was quite the experience!
Market by ponash, on Flickr

Apparently they donít listen to the rules:
MarketSign by ponash, on Flickr

Day Three: Botswana
Wednesday morning we crossed over the Botswana border, which was about an hour from our hotel, and went directly to Chobe National Park. We then took a game drive for a couple of hours. It was amazing and we were able to see 3 of the big 5 on our first day on safari. We were lucky enough to see a leopard, which are really elusive. We came across a dead elephant and the leopard was snacking on it:
Leopard by ponash, on Flickr

Elephants protecting the sleeping babies:
Elephants by ponash, on Flickr

After the game drive we drove to the Chobe lodge for lunch.
Giraffe crossing the road (a regular street outside the park):
Giraffe by ponash, on Flickr

After lunch we did a river safari cruise which was really nice. The weather was perfect and we sailed through the river and were able to see a whole host of animals including crocodiles, hippos and buffalo.
The Ďofficeí where were registered our boat:
BoatOffice by ponash, on Flickr

Crocs by ponash, on Flickr

ElephantPostcard by ponash, on Flickr

Family of elephants crossing the water and then rolling in the mud (the mud acts as sunscreen for them):
ElephantsCrossingWater by ponash, on Flickr
ElephantsMud by ponash, on Flickr

We then returned back to Zimbabwe and to our hotel.

To be continued...

September 02, 2015, 11:11:04 AM
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Re: SQL Query help GETDATE()
April 04, 2017, 11:52:37 AM
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A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes Morocco has been on my list for quite some time, and this summer, we finally made it happen!

We started planning this trip a few months ago, and chose this time of year to go, for various reasons.
We knew it would be extremely hot, and chose to go now anyways, adjusting our schedule accordingly.
It worked out great for us, and we managed in the heat, but it is QUITE hot, so Iíd suggest a different time of year if it works for you. October/November is a nice time to go, but prices are hiked up a bit since thatís busy season.
 
The currency is Moroccan Dirham Ė MAD. The rate last month was 9.3 MAD to the dollar, so you get a lot for your money.
Some hotels and vendors will charge in Euro, but the street shops are all in MAD.


Day One: NYC -> CMN -> RAK
 
We took off from JFK on a Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca. Our immediate destination was Marrakech, so we booked a connecting flight with a 4-hour stopover.
I didnít think weíd want to drive for 3 hours after sitting on a plane for 7, but that turned out to be the one thing Iíd change looking back.
CMN airport, isÖ lacking to say the least. There was no air conditioning, making it unbearably sticky and hot, and barely any sitting space in the domestic transfers area. We ended up exiting the airport and entering the arrivals area so we can convert money and find a place to sit.
We also dealt with getting sim cards in the airport, which was very simple. The most expensive plan was about 100 MAD and even though the service was occasionally spotty, it was good to have.

Our connecting flight was delayed, with no announcement so we sat there in the heat for about 5 hours until we were told to board a shuttle. We stood crammed on a shuttle for about half hour until we finally drove the tiny little plane and boarded.
After a short 20-minute flight, we landed in Marrakech. With Casablanca being the cosmopolitan industrial city, one would think that theyíd have the nice airport. But in fact, Marrakech, who gets all the tourists, has a big, beautiful (air conditioned!) airport.
We landed in Marrakech at about 1:00 AM and were picked up by a driver sent by our riad.

A riad is a traditional Moroccan house which always has an interior garden or courtyard.  Many old Moroccan mansions have been restored and repurposed as riads used as hotels. We chose to stay in a riad vs a hotel simply because itís authentically Moroccan, and the service is unparalleled.
Riads offer far more in the way of personal attention than any hotel can. Most of them are located in the Medina (old city) and have a home away from home feel.

Riad Kheirradine, the riad we opted for in Marrakech, was the best hotel stay Iíve ever experienced. It is beautiful and grand, with little alcoves all over, fountains, pools, terraces, and little winding staircases. The rooms were clean and nice and a bit on the small side. Most importantly Ė the AC in the rooms worked perfectly.
But what really stood out was the outstanding service. Every single staff member, from reception, to the waiters, to the cleaning staff were all gracious, helpful, and genuinely kind. We truly felt like we were the only guests there, with every single one of our needs taken care of instantly. The first day or two we were there, they said they were at maximum capacity (18 rooms) but we would never have known!

They were so gracious when dealing with our Kosher food, storing it in their freezer and heating it up whenever we asked. They served us individual meals in whichever location we desired, which included multiple terraces with amazing views of the rooftops of Marrakech. They had bowls of fresh fruit all over, as well as one in each room. They offered free laundry service as well, which really came in handy.
Every time we left the riad, they supplied us with cold water bottles (a precious commodity in 110-degree weather), and greeted us with water when we returned. They gave us a local cellphone to use whenever we left too, and we could call them with any questions we had.
They had someone walk us whenever we needed, especially in the beginning when itís hard to find your way around.
I seriously cannot recommend this place enough!
 
It is located deep in the medina and is, quite literally, a little hole in the wall youíd miss easily if you didnít know where to go.



View from our room to the courtyard below:


We were dropped at the closest place we could get by car and greeted by staff from the hotel. They had a wheelbarrow type cart which they loaded our luggage onto and walked us to the riad, which is about an 8-minute walk.



By the time we reached the riad, it was after 2 AM. We quickly checked in, stored our food in the freezer and were off to bed.

September 07, 2017, 12:25:01 PM
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Re: A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes Day Two: Marrakech
We had an early start with breakfast on the terrace. We were then greeted by our guide and we started our morning tour of Marrakech.
Just walking through the streets of Morocco is an explosion of all 5 senses, at all times. 
Everywhere you look there is noise and color and smell. The traffic is insane and without any law, rhyme or reason. Even for the best drivers, this is new levels. Not that walking is without any danger. If you stand in one spot too long, you run the risk of getting plowed over by a mule, a scooter, or a car.
 

A kid bringing his family’s pitas to be baked in the communal oven for 10 MAD each:


We began by going to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, the largest university in Morocco, founded in the 14th century. This building is an architectural delight, and it’s absolutely amazing to see how the intricate design was all handmade by natural materials.
It’s really interesting to see how they used to learn, and to go into the students’ rooms, which looked like prison cells to me but were considered standard.

 



We then walked to an herbalist who gave us a presentation on all his products – different herbs, spices, and natural remedies.
 

We walked through the Artisans Market, which is fascinating.
In Morocco, things are still done the old way; by hand. The men and women working here have learned their trade from their parents and grandparents and keep them alive.
We never tired of walking through the souks and admiring the work, and it makes it so much more interesting when you see the behind the scenes.
It’s amazing to see the work that goes into each piece. There are leather workers, Zellige (tile work) fabric weaving, brass work etc.

Leather hides being laid out to dry:


Hides being prepared for the leather auction:




 



We then walked through the main souks to get a feel for it and familiarize ourselves before doing any actual shopping. Our guide gave us some tips and showed us around so we’d be more familiar when we came back later ourselves.
The souks are overwhelming, but in the best way possible. There is nothing that isn’t sold here and if you absorb the chaos, it’s a whole lot of fun. Haggling is a huge part of life there and it turns into a sport. You find yourself fighting vigorously over, what you realize later, is one or 2 bucks.  If the vendor didn’t agree to the requested price, after a bit of arguing, we just walked away. 99% of the time, they’ll come after you, eager to make the sale.

The ubiquitous babouches - traditional Moroccan slippers:


Standard alley in the souks:


We had scheduled our days to have a chunk of down time during the heat of the day. After a couple of hours of walking in the intense heat, we were ready for a break. We headed back to our riad, had lunch and relaxed by the pool for a few hours.
Since Marrakech has such a vibrant night life, we had our dinner early so we could head back out. We had brought Pomegranate meals, and were absolutely thrilled - they were all delicious!

After eating we headed back out to Jemaa El Fna. This is Marrakesh’s main square and its beating heart. It is a cultural mix of color, scents, sight, and sound and is one of the liveliest attractions in Morocco. During the day, the square has numerous stalls, most of which sell fresh fruit juice, water, fruit, and snacks. It is mostly empty, with people calmly milling about, and some vendors on the side selling their wares.
In the early evening, it comes alive and starts to bustle with storytellers, musicians, henna artists, peddlers, snake charmers and more. It gets jam packed, teeming with people, with vendor harassing and chasing everyone they see.

 

The comments, shouts, and remarks we received throughout our trip were constant, borderline harassment, and downright hilarious. That being said, if we were one or two women alone I doubt it would’ve been that funny. My friend was there the week before with her husband and had a very different experience in this aspect. They won’t bother a woman if she’s with a man. Either way, it was only slightly uncomfortable, and in general we found it quite entertaining. 
We got henna tattoos on our hands and walked around a bit. Held a snake, held a monkey, and held onto our purses to avoid getting pickpocketed and held onto each other. Look alive or get swallowed up by the crowds!
If you’re spotted taking a picture of anyone, be it a musician, snake charmer, or vendor, they will come running after you for money. It’s best to ask first and offer money upfront, rather than fight about it later.
We found our way to a cafť that had a rooftop terrace and got drinks. We were able to view Jemaa El Fna in a calmer fashion and watch the (alleged) eclipse as the sun set.

Jemaa El Fna night view:


After sitting for a bit, we headed to the souks where we stayed for a few hours shopping and then headed back to the riad for the night.

September 08, 2017, 10:12:25 AM
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Re: A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes Day Three: Marrakech

Tuesday followed the same pattern as Monday, but we did the South of the Medina, as opposed to the North which we did the day before.
While walking, we passed through a different souk which was interesting. This guy was uber talented, making intricate woodwork with his toes!



We started off by going to El Bahia Palace. This palace was built in the late 1800s, and I believe it took 15 years to complete. Itís beautiful and interesting to see how they lived. Each of the kingís 4 wives had their own quarters, with the favorite one having an entire riad to herself (she became the favorite by having the first son).







Also interesting to note is the Star of David floorwork in one of the rooms. Apparently, they were eager to show the good relations with the Jews and used this pattern often.



After the palace, we walked through the Mellah Ė the Jewish Quarter. While once housing hundreds of Jews, it is now all but empty. There is a Jewish cemetary which we visited a few days later, so Iíll expound then.
We walked towards the Lazama Synagogue and found an Arab kid standing outside yelling Ė you Jewish? Shalom! Synagogue here. He learned some basic Hebrew and holds himself as the official Ďguardí of the shul. It would be difficult to find if you donít know your way around.
Lazama Synagogue is one of several remaining in the Mellah. To my knowledge, it is the main one and the only one that is still open daily to the public. Itís beautiful, with a nice courtyard (riad) and garden area inside.
I believe the original synagogue on this site was built in 1492, when the Jews fled Spain. The current building was built at the turn of the 20 th century.





We visited the Saadian Tombs, a burial ground constructed by the Sultan in 1578. The tombs are magnificent decorated with marble, which is the Saadianís signature look. Itís cool, but not a must-see.



We went back to the riad where we relaxed for a few hours and had dinner.

We headed back out to Jemaa El Fnaa where we hung out with some snakes, and the souks where we stayed for a bit and shopped.



We then went to Le Comptoir Darna, a popular restaurant in the New City. We couldn't eat, but got drinks and enjoyed the entertainment, which was lively Moroccan music, dancers, and entertainers. Itís nice to walk around the New City and get a totally different side of Marrakech. Itís quiet and clean, with beautiful hotels and nightclubs. The cars parked are all luxury cars and there are contemporary, western shops.
Interesting paradox to the grungy, loud, stuck-in-time medina.


Day Four: Atlas Mountains

The Atlas Mountains is a great day trip from Marrakech. It has beautiful scenery, slightly cooler weather, and is a general reprieve from the hustle and bustle.
We arranged with a company to do a full day trip, which includes the drive from Marrakech, which is about 2 hours.
We started off in Imlil Valley by having refreshments and mint tea at a local riad. Mint tea is a staple in Morocco and is how they welcome anyone. We were served mint tea at almost every location we went to.
The riad had a terrace where we enjoyed our tea and an incredible view.






We then set out on a hike through the mountains, stopping at a scenic waterfall to cool off. The hike was really intense, but it was magnificent and thankfully the weather was a bit cooler than the previous days. Itís interesting to see a different part of Morocco in the villages, with the simple, hardworking Berbers. They are visibly friendlier than the people of Marrakech, all smiles, saying hello, and just overall have a more easygoing nature.
At the waterfall, the locals were clambering over hard rocks barefoot, seemingly not bothered at all.
Another fascinating aspect was how the women were all swimming fully clad in their burkas, which knocked down our perpetual being-the- most-covered- females-around status. The water was FREEZING so maybe the burkas came in handy  :) .

We hiked for about 2.5 hours and then made our way back to the riad where we enjoyed a relaxing lunch.
On our way, we stopped at local Berber shop where we bought some items. When we discovered later that one of the scarves we bought was missing, the shop owner was super nice and told us to head to his brotherís shop where heíll give us a new one. We found, in general, that most shop owners, hotel staff etc. throughout Morocco, were all super nice, polite, and eager to help. It was a nice change from the New York mentality we are used to.







The simple Berber homes:



We then set out for a camel ride, which we did for about an hour.





On our way back to Marrakech, we stopped in an Argan Oil Ďfactoryí. This is made from the fruit of the Moroccan Argan tree, and is a lengthy process done mostly by Berber women. They do everything by hand and need numerous Argan nuts for a tiny bottle of oil. Argan Oil is used for culinary and cosmetic purposes.



We got back to Marrakech pretty late, so we had dinner and called it a night.


Day Five: Marrakech and Desert Agafay

We spent our morning in the medina and opted to view it from a different vantage point: a caleche. These are horse drawn carriages that are lined up in Jemaa El Fnaa and offer tours of the medina.



We drove around and were able to see the sights in a leisurely fashion. When driving through the mellah, we passed the Jewish cemetery, so we alit for a quick stop. Itís much larger than it looks from the outside and is well preserved. This is the largest Jewish cemetery in Morocco, and itís beautiful, with white washed tombs and sandy graves. Most of the graves donít have names of them, but they say that some of them date back to the 16th century. Thereís a large section for tinokos shel bais rabban, which is basically a mass grave of children that died in a plague, as well as numerous graves of great Rabbis. Itís very sad to see such a vast cemetery which hints to the great life that once was here.





We drove around some more and made a stop at La Mamounia Ė an exquisite, opulent hotel. If youíre willing to spend a bit more, and donít want the raid experience, this is the way to go! It was certainly worth a visit, just to look around at the grandeur and beauty of this hotel. Just the entranceway and garden is amazing, and it certainly gives a feel for the rich Moroccan lifestyle. The staff were really gracious even though they knew we were just taking a look around.







We were dropped back off at Jemaa El Fnaa where we had told the driver of our half-day trip to meet us. We then drove about 45 minutes from Marrakech for our Quad Biking trip.

Visiting the Desert Agafay is a good option if you would like to get the feel of the sand dunes and desert, but donít have the time to travel all the way south to the Sahara. Quad biking, or ATVing as we know it, was a really fun way to explore the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains, and the beautiful Desert Agafay. We also drove by the stunning Lake Takerkoust, and stopped there later for mint tea.








The desert was vast and silent, with just the sand blowing in our faces and the sound of the ATVs. I was unsure about adding this to the itinerary since I generally steer away from doing things I can do at home, but Iím really glad I left it in! Great fun and great views all around!
It was also really funny how, when getting to the desert, we drove on the main road and the cars actually yielded to us and took it all in stride. Only in Morocco do mules, scooters, cars, and ATVs all get equal treatment on the road.

We drove back to Marrakech, hung out in Jemaa El Fnaa and the souks for a bit before going back to Riad Kheirradine to pack up and get ready to leave for Casablanca early the next morning.

September 13, 2017, 06:52:19 PM
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Re: A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes Day Eight: Fes

We left Casablanca early and drove the 3 hours to Fes.
The difference between Fes and Marrakech is hard to grasp when reading about, but once youíve been to both, itís pretty stark.
Marrakech is colorful, hectic, fascinating, and loud. Itís fairly simple to get around and navigate on your own. Most people there speak English (or some variation of it) and they are much more used to tourist. This lends itself to a slightly more commercialized, touristy feel.
The locals are also very wary of tourists and if they even spot a camera pointed in their direction, they go berserk (unless you offer them money first).
Fes, on the other side of the spectrum, is a cobblestoned, medieval labyrinth, which within youíll find souks, mosques, children running about, and lots of artisans. If you lost sight of your guide, chances are the 9th century maze of over 9,000 streets, alleyways, lanes, and derbs (dead-ends) would swallow you up instantly.
The locals are friendlier, gladly posing for us when spotting a camera, and welcoming us into their stores.
In general, Fes is much older, a bit more authentic, less crowded, less tourist-oriented, and locals were not as persistent in their harassment. 
Something to note Ė While in Marrakech we felt safe walking around at night, we did not do the same in Fes. There is very little nightlife in Fes and much less people out and about after sunset.
Both were amazing in their own way, and I wouldnít be able to choose between them.

Palais Faraj is a beautiful riad and looked like a palace. We met the owner who showed us pictures of what it looked like when bought it and how he renovated it.
While nothing can compare to the privacy and personal attention that Kheirradine gave, it was amazing in its own right and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay.
It is located right outside the medina and has the most magnificent view.


Being greeted at the riad with mint tea:




View from the rooftop terrace:


After settling in and eating lunch, we set out on foot for a short, guided tour.
We entered the medina through the iconic Bab Bou Jeloud Ė Blue Gate. Front and back:



Just walking through the medina is amazing. Everything is so old and so many things still done the old-fashioned way. Our guide told us that he teaches Arabic to lots of Jewish kids. Unfortunately, most of them were away for summer vacation so we werenít able to meet anyone.

Standard alley in the maze that is the medina:




A couple of days after we left Morocco was the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha or the Sacrifice Feast. This is a holiday in remembrance of the Akeida (of Yishmael as it turns out) and they slaughter sheep and have a feast in celebration.
It was interesting to see the preparations taking place wherever we went. Sheep were being brought every which way. One funny sight was a bunch of guys stuff a herd of sheep into the luggage compartment on a coach bus. Unfortunately, we passed that on the highway and donít have a picture.





We visited a carpet cooperative where we got an impassioned speech from one of the owners about the cohesiveness of the country, and the great relationships that existed between Muslims and Jews. He served us mint tea and showed us a couple of gorgeous pieces. After looking around, we went up to the roof for an amazing panoramic view of Fes.






We then visited another herbalist where we got a similar presentation to the one weíd gotten in Marrakech.
After that, we went to an amazing factory/shop where they had a giant loom and were sitting there weaving the most amazing scarves, pashminas, and tablecloths. One of the workers told us that he makes an extra-long, white tablecloth special for the Jews.






We got a ride back to our hotel in a special Ďcabí.


We ate dinner and relaxed by the pool for the rest of the evening.




September 26, 2017, 11:46:27 AM
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Re: A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes Day Nine: Fes

We started off the day by having breakfast in the rooftop restaurant. All riads offer a complimentary generous breakfast of which we were able to parcel out a couple of things, and supplemented with our own food.
We then made our way our over to Poterie de Fes, a pottery cooperative. It’s a fascinating place where you can see how the craftsmen mold, glaze, and paint all things ceramic like big fountains, tables, and dishes.




The oven where the pottery is baked:


Some of the items being sold:


I got a stern lecture from the Muslim worker when I dared to call this a menorah and not a chanukiah:


The zellige (mosaic tilework) is all done by hand:


Beautiful table getting ready to be shipped out:



Fes is famous for its leather products and is home to ancient tanneries, which is almost a thousand years old. There is a tannery in Marrakech too but it’s not worth visiting if you will be in Fes.
There are numerous vessels filled with a vast range of dyes and liquids spread out like a tray of watercolors. 
The best views of the tanneries can be found from the surrounding terraces where the leather shops are located. The salesperson from a shop will give you a rundown on what products are used (all natural) and how the process works.
The hides are soaked for a few days in vessels full of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt before being picked at and dried. Next, they are sent to a different set of vessels filled with diluted pigeon poop and water to be softened. It’s really fascinating to stand on the rooftops and watch the tanners standing in the vessels using nothing but their bare hands and feet to dye the leather. They then turn the hides into high quality leather products such as bags, coats, shoes, and babouches.
There is a pungent smell so everyone gets handed sprigs of fresh mint to help overcome the odor.
Keep this in mind when purchasing any leather items (from any city), as it will have a rather strong smell for a while.



Hides being hung out to dry:


Some of the leather products being sold:


We made our way to the mellah of Fes, making a stop right outside at the king’s palace. The king, Mohammed VI, has several palaces located throughout the country, with the main residence in the capital, Rabat. In Marrakech there are 2, one for him and one for his family.
There are 7 golden gates to represent the 7 days of the week.

After walking through the mellah, we went to the home of the Rambam. It’s been completely renovated and is now a restaurant, but you can see the alley outside and exterior of the home.



Jewish cemetery:



One of the things we had been really excited about visiting in Fes was the grave of Sulika. This is considered an extremely holy site by Jews and Muslims alike and everyone there knew immediately what we were referring to.
You can read her story here:



We walked through the souks and spent some time shopping. After that we went back to the riad where we had dinner and cooled off for the rest of the evening.

Views from around Fes:





Day 10: Fes -> CMN -> NYC

We woke early, packed up our things, and had a quick breakfast. We warmed up our remaining Pomegranate meals to be eaten later that day and headed out.
The evening before we remembered that we had completely forgotten to go to the Jewish synagogue in the mellah, so we asked our driver to make a quick stop on our way to Casablanca.
There a few synagogues in Fes, one of the oldest being the Ibn Danan. It’s interesting to see, and they have a Torah from the 17th century. The caretaker is an elderly Muslim fellow, whose face literally lit up when he found out we were Jewish.


We were running a bit late by the time we reached CMN airport. The security is the most intense I’ve ever seen, with there being a security line just to enter the airport.
We went straight to the gate and boarded. By the time we took off and were ready to eat it was about 4 PM. We hadn’t eaten a thing since our meager breakfast at 7:30 AM and we were famished. To our chagrin, when we pulled out the Pomegranate meals, we saw that the wrapping and seals on all the meals were opened. I’m not sure what happened since the same riad had warmed up our food the previous 2 days and listened to our explicit instructions, but either way, we were out of food.
The airplane food was barely edible - a bottle of grape juice and some crackers. We had a couple of snacks with us, but NY pizza never tasted so good as it did 8 hours later!

With our unbelievable and incredible trip coming to a close, we all conclusively agreed that we wouldn't have changed a thing about our itinerary. If we’d been able to stay a couple days longer, that would’ve been ideal as we unfortunately didn't get to the Sahara, Essaouira, and Chefchaouen, all of which are supposed to be beautiful.

Morocco was an unreal experience and we are thrilled to be coming home with memories, gifts, and photos that will last a lifetime (or at least until our next excursion!)
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

September 28, 2017, 02:17:47 PM
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Re: Iceland Master Thread Well I only went back and forth 20 times, so I think need to stop now or it will never end!
The end of my snorkeling will probably be getting dark out, which is not perfect, but doesn't bother me too much.
1. Yes. Ideally, I would pitch a tent or stay anywhere I can find :) Gotta do what I gotta do.
2. It seems that everything works very differently in the winter. The meeting point for snowmobiling is not at all near the south. It's northeast from Reykjavik in Hķsafell, which is north to the glacier, as opposed to the south which is the summer meeting point. So it wouldn't work.
    Technically, it doesn't make sense to drive back and forth. But in our case, we're a large (some slow-moving) crowd and I don't think it's worth the hassle of switching locations.
3. Would love to, if we have time on Monday. It looks like it's on the route I plan to take.

Thank you!

December 06, 2017, 10:34:18 AM
1
Winter Weekend Getaway to Iceland Iceland was the perfect location for a quick weekend trip. So, when Icelandair ran a sale a few months ago, we quickly booked tickets without thinking twice about it.
I then set out planning an itinerary, attempting to maximize our brief time there to the fullest.
WellÖ woman plans, and God laughs.
 
We started out Thursday evening by heading on an uneventful flight. By trying to save on luggage space, we had worn our thick coats and boots on the plane. By the time we landed in Keflavik Friday morning, we were hot and looking forward to some cool weather.

I was dismayed to see the temperature displayed on my screen at a balmy 40 degrees, but as Iíd soon learn, this was not the 40 I was used to.

We stepped out of the airport and were stunned at the ferocity and intensity of the winds and hail, we were literally almost blown over. In a matter of minutes, we were freezing cold and any exposed skin was numb. It was super exhilarating after spending so much time on a stuffy airplane.

We made our way to the car rental by airport shuttle. We chose Blue Car Rental for their customer service and prices, and they didnít disappoint. They provide studded tires all winter and we got a wifi router for free, which really came in handy for mapping.

We packed up the car, which was a lot hard than it sounds and involved filling a rooftop luggage rack while having to hold onto it with all my strength so the lid doesnít go flying backwards, at the same time holding onto the car door, so it doesnít fly off into the wilderness, amid attempting to lift suitcases onto the roof of the car, all the while being whipped in the face by freezing rain and wind.

With that taken care of, we set out on our way. It was completely dark and felt like it was in middle of the night, but in reality, it was already around 9:00 AM (the lack of streetlights doesnít help matters).

We made a quick stop at Bridge Between Continents, only because we were in the area.  Itís a nice little photo op but thatís about it.



We then made another stop at Gunnuhver Hot Springs. This was actually pretty fascinating and Iím glad we went. Thereís a strong smell of Sulphur, hot mud and boiling spitting water, with a large spring that sends clouds of steam in the air. If youíre in the area, itís definitely worth a stop.



At this point it was starting to get a bit lighter. We made our way to Blue Lagoon for our scheduled 10:00 visit. I had heard repeatedly that itís overpriced and a tourist trap. It was all these things, but we still enjoyed immensely (aside from getting in and out, which was no fun). We watched sunrise from the boiling hot water, while the air around us was freezing cold. It looks otherworldly with the milky blue water surrounded by steam and black rocks. (For any females, the sulfur did a REAL number on our hair)





After spending a couple of hours at Blue Lagoon, we drove up to Reykjavik where we had rented an Airbnb for our stay, which worked out great.

While getting ready for Shabbos, I made a quick trip to the nearby Bonus store. Not much there has a hechsher. Either way, everything is extremely overpriced, but we bought some fruits and vegetables.

We enjoyed a nice relaxing Shabbos. A funny moment was Friday night, after going to bed really early, a couple of us woke at around 9:30 and spent 20 minutes wandering the house trying to figure out if it was AM or PM. It was dark outside, and we werenít sure if we had slept for 1 hour or 12. As it got later, and the sun didnít rise, we brilliantly deduced that it must actually be PM and went back to bed.

Motzei Shabbos is when things started to go sideways. When Shabbos was over, I pulled out a computer and see an email that our snowmobiling for Sunday has been cancelled due to weather concerns (more on that later). They had emailed me Saturday morning, so I made a last ditch effort and replied asking if anything had changed.

On top of that, our plan for the night was to try to see the Northern Lights, and when checking the forecast sites, I was greeting with a glaring big zero. On the maps I could see that there was less cloud cover at that particular moment over Grotta Island Lighthouse. We figured itís worth a shot and raced over, but to no avail. The sky was foggy and cloudy with nary a light in sight.

We were disappointed but, ready to salvage the rest of the night, we headed to Laugavegur Street, which is the main shopping street in Reykjavik. Itís a cool, quirky street and we enjoyed strolling around and shopping. It was surprising when a random passerby came over and asked us if we're Jewish. After affirming, he threw his hands up in the air and exclaimed 'Thank God! I thought I was the only one!". He wasn't religious, but I guess our crowd of skirts drew him over.  We understood his surprise, as the only Jew we saw was in the airport waiting to transfer to Israel.



We got back to another email confirming that snowmobiling was well and truly cancelled. I quickly put together a backup itinerary and we were off to bed. 

Sundayís schedule was supposed to look like this: leave early and drive out to the meeting point at Hķsafell. Weíd meet up with the snowmobiling company whereíd we drive out onto LangjŲkull Glacier for snowmobiling. It sounded incredible and we were really looking forward. After the 4-hour tour, we were going to drive to řingvellir for a snorkeling tour at Silfra.

In place of the snowmobiling, we chose to do the standard Golden Circle tour and end up at řingvellir where we needed to be anyways.

We drove out of Reykjavik and promptly saw why the snowmobiling was cancelled. The car was shaking from the wind and when I stepped outside, my hat flew straight off my head and I was practically lifted into the air! I assume that out on the glacier, itís that much worse.

Our first stop was Keriū Crater, a striking volcanic crater lake just along the Golden Circle route. The lake was frozen, which was a very different look than the bright blue water thatís seen in the summer. We spent some time admiring the amazing view and trying (some of us failing) to not go slipping and sliding on the very icy ground.



Next up was Geysir, the famous hot spring that gives its name to geysers all over the world. Though Geysir itself is hardly active anymore, the area has a few hot springs, including Strokkur, which spouts a large amount of water every 10 minutes or so. It was freezing and full on icy sleeting, so we only stayed for a couple of minutes.



We went to Gulfoss Waterfall next. I was thinking we can really skip it since we had much more impressive waterfalls on schedule for Monday. But as it turned out, I'm glad we went and we got at least one waterfall in! (cue ominous foreshadowing music)

Gulfoss was actually quite beautiful. The whole surrounding landscape was snow covered and the falls themselves were frozen solid, so it was a sight to behold.



After admiring the falls, we went into the rest stop to eat lunch. At this point we were soaking wet and freezing. It was raining so hard that our supposedly waterproof coats and boots were completely soaked through and we were drenched. None of us were even slightly in the mood of going into icy water now to snorkel, but we had scheduled the tour.

We headed out towards řingvellir, and when we were almost there we came to a road that had a small 'closed' sign somewhere on the sign. We started going anyway but quickly realized that the entire road was covered in a sheet of ice. Not feeling particularly fond about taking an icy plunge into the nearby lake, we turned around and went the long way around the park. 

řingvellir National Park:


We had made a special appointment for later in the day. Generally, they don't go past around 2:00 PM this time of year so they have full sunlight, but they agreed to move it later to accommodate our schedule. We ended up being even later that we were supposed to be, due to the circuitous route we were forced to take, but it turned out fine.

Once we got to the right area of řingvellir National Park, we quickly met our guides from Arctic Adventures and began suiting up in a large cargo van (no building or changing rooms). We first donned a thin suit over our base layer, and then squiggled and danced our way into a thick dry suit that squeezes the living daylights out of you. For the slightly claustrophobic it's not fun, but you can breathe through it and get used to it. We then did a frigid penguin march to the entrance where there's a ladder going down into the water. 

The water in the Silfra fissure is fresh glacial water, which keeps a temperature of 35įF year-round. It's a cool concept that it's freezing cold outside and you are in the water. The water was cold when we first entered, but the dry suit did an excellent job and it was really not bad. Putting your face is another story as the only parts that got cold was anything exposed, namely hands and lips. The guide warned us that our lips would turn numb and we'd come out 'looking like Angelina Jolie'. As he had warned, it was painfully cold for the first moment, and then you stop feeling much at all. In order to keep some feelings in your hands, they advise you to keep them behind your back, out of the water, for when youíre just floating. This was a bit warmer than keeping them in the water, as the gloves we were wearing didnít do much to keep the cold out.

Silfra is the only place where one can dive or snorkel directly in the crack between two continental plates. The fissure is actually a crack between the North American and European continents, meaning you can actually be swimming right where the plates meet and drift apart slowly.

The water takes your breath away, in more ways than one. The underwater visibility is amazing, partly because of the temperature (itís glacial water), and because itís filtered through the underground lava.   

This is different than any other snorkeling Iíve done, as thereís no coral or fish, but it was a completely different kind of adventure and an incredibly cool one at that. Plus the water is clear and tastes fresh and delicious. 



The Silfra Fissure:


After a snorkeling tour of about 35 minutes (shortened a bit due to the sun setting), we climbed out and walked back to the lot. We then began the arduous task of peeling off our layers, which is harder than it sounds in icy temperature and with completely numb hands. The guides served us some hot chocolate which helped warm us up a bit.

We were hoping to catch some Northern Lights tonight but realized that it was still super cloudy and weíd have to admit defeat. So, soaking wet, tired, and shivering, we drove back to Reykjavik for the night.

 

Monday was supposed to look like this:

Leave Reykjavik very early and drive to Vik. Catch sunrise at Reynisfjara Beach, one of the most beautiful black sand beaches. After spending some time there, weíd drive west up the coast towards the airport, making stops along the way at Skůgafoss and Seljalandfoss Waterfalls. Weíd be at the airport in Keflavik in time to return the car and catch our 5:00 PM flight.

Like the previous couple of days, Mother Nature had other ideas. We woke up as planned, packed up the car and were out of the house at 7:00 AM. Within 10 minutes of leaving Reyjkavik, it had started to snow heavily, and visibility was steadily worsening.

We checked the weather and realized that were heading straight into the storm, which was supposed to last all day. We had approximately 6 hours of driving on the schedule and knew that the driving conditions will only be getting worse. So, as the responsible young adults that we are, with heavy hearts we turned around and drove back to the house. We hung around and napped for a bit until the sun was starting to rise. We then headed back to Grotta Island Lighthouse to watch sunrise from the nearby beach, which turned out to be quite spectacular.





Sunrise at 10:00 AM:


We spent some time there enjoying the beautiful scenery and then headed to the nearby shopping mall where we strolled around.

Not having much else to do, we went back to Laugavegur Street and enjoyed some time there shopping and walking the streets.





Incredible mountainous scenery at every corner:


Although it was a bit of a waste of day, once we got on the road towards Keflavik, we had no regrets whatsoever. It was snowing heavily and got worse the further out of Reykjavik we got. At one point it was complete white-out conditions and I was driving absolutely blind on a highway full of cars. It was one of the scariest things Iíve ever done and Iím quite glad I didnít have to do that for hours at a time. Not to mention that I was driving about 5 miles an hour, so we most probably wouldíve missed our flight.

Thankfully, we made it to the airport in time. Our flight ended up being delayed, and then stuck on the runway for an hour, so it turned into a not so pleasant trip home, but allís well that ends well.

Although we didnít get to cover a lot of what weíd planned, we still had a great time. Iceland is amazingly beautiful, and just driving along the road felt like another planet.

Weíll definitely need to go back though!

Random pictures from the road:







Reykjavik:

March 07, 2018, 05:20:05 PM
1
Re: Iceland Master Thread Trip report posted here
March 08, 2018, 03:54:31 PM
1
Ayubowan from Sri Lanka (with a side of Dubai) Intro:

Welcome to Sri Lanka - a diamond in the rough!
Still recovering from their 30 year civil war, which ended in 2009, this country is fighting its way to development and it's fascinating to see.
With no Zika, beautiful beaches, mountains, safaris, rain forests, timeless ruins, and welcoming people, this was a great way for us to experience Asia.

The current exchange rate is 160 Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) to 1 USD, so most items end up being really cheap.

The weather was much better than expected (albeit slightly hormonal), being that the summer is monsoon season. It really depends on which part of the country we were in, but the weather forecast was completely untrue, as it showed rain every single day, all day.
There were definitely a couple of downpours, but in general it rained basically every day but usually only for a couple of minutes. It was sunny 30 seconds after the rain, and the humidity was not bad at all. In The Hill Country it was much cooler, and we had generally pleasant weather.

There are numerous sim card options, but Dialog is the easiest and best, and most accessible throughout the country if you need to refill. We bought a sim card for safety reasons, though I don't think we used it once as we had wifi in the hotels and car.
Our total cost for the sim card for 8 days was under $2, which included the sim card ($1) and minutes for local time, which served our purpose.
Important to note that Verizon service and T Mobile were both a bit spotty, for those relying on the $10 a day plan (not recommended since the sim card is a fraction of the cost).
Some may prefer to purchase minutes for international calls which would cost more. The basic tourist plan to include international calling is $9.

The driving in Sri Lanka is not for the faint of heart. In addition to the fact that they drive on the left side of the road (or on the right, or in the middle, or on the sidewalk), there are basically no highways and a large chunk of the driving takes place on super narrow mountainous roads that are hundreds or thousands of feet high, with no guardrails or streetlamps.
Try following the rules? Well, there just aren't any. Coupled with the fact that you need a special license to drive there and traffic laws are mere suggestions, this was not something we were going to attempt.

From doing research we learned that it was a lot cheaper to get a driver for the entire duration of our trip, than to pay for each drive separately. Although we didn't love the idea of being so dependent on one driver, it seemed the smartest route to take.
The company we ended up using was fabulous. Although I went to them with a fully formed itinerary, they would've been a great resource in planning the trip if needed.
They came with an air conditioned van that had excellent wifi, and the driver was professional and great to work with. Our total cost for 8 days was $520, which included tolls, gas, and driver accommodations , so it was a no brainer.


Day One: Flyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyying. And then flying some more.

There are no direct flights to Sri Lanka and the most time efficient and cost effective route is through Dubai.
These flights are PACKED and fill up fast, especially since this is the route a lot of people take when going to India. We booked several months in advance as the tickets were disappearing before our eyes.
Even so, we dawdled for about 3 days too long and lost the flight we wanted. We therefore ended up with 2 stopovers on the way there. We were traveling for so many endless hours anyways, we figured an extra couple of hours won't make much of a difference. (We voted to do our extended stopover on the way home so we don't run into issues with our food, namely it all melting into a giant Pomegranate smelling puddle. We also knew that Dubai is much stricter about allowing food into the country, as well as the hotels giving problems with storing it, as happened to my friend the week before.)

We flew Emirates which allowed us 2 suitcases each. I will admit to feeling like a terrible Jew when I weighed my suitcase. To my dismay, it weighed a mere 38 lbs and I considered packing a library of books just to get it over 50.
Then I remembered about our 4 suitcases of food and immediately felt better.

We departed from New York on Sunday morning for a 13 hour flight to Dubai. Emirates is a great airlines with more legroom, an excellent in-flight entertainment system, and really nice flight attendants, so the flight went by smoothly (Thank you Bose headphones courtesy of Prime day, which were a lifesaver!).

We landed in Dubai a bit late and immediately made our way to the gate for our connecting flight to Male. DXB is a massive airport so we knew if we were in the wrong area, we would definitely miss our flight (as happened to my friend as well) so constant vigilance was in order.
We were fortunate enough to have landed in the correct terminal and did not require a shuttle. If we needed to take a bus, or a train, or a plane, and all the fun stuff DXB Airport has to offer, we would certainly have been cutting it very close.

Thankfully, we made our flight with no problems and 5 hours later we were circling over the beautiful Maldives. We had a 1 hour stopover , though we were not allowed to disembark, we did get to enjoy the view. After sitting on the plane for an hour, we departed for an hour and a half long flight to CMB.

We made our way out of the airport easily, and our driver was waiting to greet us. We then had a 2.5 hour drive to our hotel, which was located in Galle. 
Driving to our hotel was our first introduction into Sri Lankan driving. It is located deep in middle of mountains/rain forest/tea plantation and in the dark it felt like we were driving into impending doom.
We eventually climbed our way up to our hotel. and so we arrived, a mere 26 hours or so after leaving home. 

Niyagama House is a beautiful place nestled in nature, with sparkling clean big rooms. It's owned by a German woman, who moved to Sri Lanka after marrying a local. She used to be an architect and designed the place herself, and now lives in it.
The staff was really hospitable, and we had a wonderful stay.

After dealing with our food (trying to explain Kosher and Shabbos to bewildered Sri Lankans who have never heard of Jews before was quite fun), we settled in and were off to bed.

August 20, 2018, 02:58:58 PM
1
Re: Ayubowan from Sri Lanka (with a side of Dubai) Day Two: Around Galle

Galle is a beautiful coastal town, which is steeped in history.
Once an important trading post between the east and west, Galle was the main port for the country for more than 200 years.
Today it still retains many of its military features, narrow streets and Dutch-colonial buildings, but with a tropical climate that you wouldnít otherwise encounter in Europe, which makes for a very interesting juxtaposition.
(Some say that Galle is the biblical Tarshish but I couldn't find anything that supported that.)

We started off by driving towards Galle Fort. On the way we passed by a bustling fish market and hopped out for a quick look.







We then continued on to the local town where we exchanged money, got a sim card (the airport Dialog booth had run out) and bought lots of water.
Point to keep in mind - the water is unsafe for drinking and it's suggested to use bottled water for everything, even brushing teeth.
We really enjoyed walking through the town, which gave us a nice feel of the culture.



Galle Fort is a walled city surrounded by thick ramparts. These were built by the Dutch merchants that controlled the city in the 17th century.
We walked on the ramparts which has beautiful views of the ocean and the lighthouse.
Inside the fort there are cute little boutique shops (though a bit overpriced) which we spent some time in.







Towards the end of our rampart walk we got stuck in a torrential downpour, so we didn't bother finishing up. We headed back to our hotel and had lunch.
The hotel is a place we could've spent hours in. We had a balcony on which you can see the tea plantations, hear monkeys chattering, and be mosquito lunch all at the same time.

Lounge area:


Balcony:




Infinity Pool:


We chose to do a bike tour of the surrounding villages that afternoon. We biked through the rice paddy fields, the rural villages, and the beautiful tropical surroundings. This proved to be slightly more difficult than expected being that the 'roads' were quite wet and it was very mountainous terrain. Although more of a workout than we bargained for, it was great fun and we enjoyed immensely!
As we biked we passed the locals, who greeted us enthusiastically, small houses nestled in the rainforest, steep hills that we had to share with tuk tuks, cars, and buses. It's each man for himself out there so we had to be aware of our surroundings at all times lest we get plowed over. 
Throughout our stay in Sri Lanka, whenever we encountered locals, we got beaming smiles and giggles from the kids. They were thrilled to see us, and everyone was genuinely nice and looking to please.
We were literally an attraction. Mothers called to their kids to quickly come to the doors to see the white people on bikes!

Views from the bike ride:








We got back to the hotel, washed up (we were completely covered in mud from our bike ride), and ate dinner by the pool.
The mosquitoes are everywhere and boy do they bite. I think I asphyxiated about half the hotel staff with OFF, but it didn't seem to do anything and we all got very bitten up anyway.

We were wiped out by then and headed to bed early. Thanks to the extreme jet lag, none of us actually slept much (over the entire trip) but enough that we were able to function throughout the day.



Day Three: Balpitiya / Bentota

We spent our second day on the island on the west coast.
We started out going to Balpitiya, which is under an hour from Galle, for the Madu Ganga River Safari.
This was a really nice boat ride which was a great way of seeing some of the hundreds of species of plants and animals; monkeys in trees, water monitor lizards etc. It was a speed boat so it went pretty fast, though it did stall at times. They were chilled and let us sit on the bow and do our thing. 
The area surrounding the river are all swampy marshlands covered in mangrove forests. There are numerous small islands, and the boat makes several stops.









Fishermen in the river:



There's a small island with a temple, which we did not get off at.  We then made our way through the mangroves, and eventually making a stop at 'Cinnamon Island'.
We met a young girl that lives there, and got to see how they get the cinnamon from the bark, along with how they weave the roofs for their huts using coconut fronds. It was really fascinating and at the end we were able to purchase cinnamon oil and some cinnamon sticks to take home.




We continued our beautiful boat ride, stopping at a floating shop to purchase a coconut (word to the wise- it looks better than it tastes).



Next stop was the fish 'spa'.  We got onto the floating stage from the boat and sat down to put our feet in. Hundreds of fish swarmed over and gently nibbled the dead skin off our legs.
I can't say it was pleasant, but definitely an experience!





We had beautiful weather, which definitely contributed, but this was a really enjoyable way to experience some of the nature and animal life in Sri Lanka.

We then made our way to Ahungalla Turtle Hatchery. They look after the turtle eggs to protect them from animals and poachers. Once they hatch, they keep them for a couple of days, at which point they are released to the sea.
The baby turtles are unbearably cute and we had a great time playing with them, and then releasing the 3 day old turtles to the sea (one of us may or may not have yelled out encouraging words to the turtles as they battled the waves).
They also keep maimed or 'handicapped' turtles there for good, which is interesting to see.










We then headed to Bentota Beach where we ate a late lunch.
Bentota has various water sports, like jet skiing, banana boats etc. At that point we were tired and thinking of heading back to the hotel, but we ended up deciding to do a quick spin on the 'Sofa' ride. This was exactly what it sounded like - we sat ourselves down on an inflatable couch and got pulled by a boat, which was awesome.

After that, we went back to Niyagama House where we ate dinner, and enjoyed Ayurvedic therapeutic/methodical massage, which is designed to heal the body and create a balance between mind, body, and spirit. Or something to that effect.


August 21, 2018, 10:43:25 PM
3
Re: Ayubowan from Sri Lanka (with a side of Dubai) Day Nine: Dubai

We landed in DXB at 6:00 AM after a 4 and a half hour flight from Colombo.
Since our layover was under 24 hours, our luggage went straight from CMB to EWR, which was great.
We changed some money, got out of the airport quickly, and caught a cab to our hotel.
Even though we weren't spending the night, we chose to get a hotel room for the 21 hours we would be there, as a home base.
We chose the Hyatt Regency Dubai Creek Heights due to it's close proximity to the airport and cheap pricing. It was really nice and worked out beautifully.
We got to the hotel, showered, rested a bit, and ate breakfast. We then headed out for our 11:00 Yellow Boat Tour.
The Yellow Boat Tour is a great way to see the main sights of the city in a pleasant and enjoyable manner.
Once we reached open water, the boat went fast which was really refreshing. We saw The Atlantis, Burj al Arab, as well as lots of other sights, for about an hour and a half.

One thing we were not counting on was the intense intense intense (did I mention intense?) heat.
The humidity was suffocating and the sun was beating down ferociously. The day we were there had a real feel of about 140 degrees.
By the time we exited the boat, we were all just about wilted.











Any plans we had for after the boat ride were immediately nixed as we took refuge in the nearest grocery store and bought some cold drinks. We then went back to the hotel, cooled off and had lunch.
After girding ourselves to face the heat again, we took a taxi to the Gold Souk, where we enjoyed walking around and shopping.





After feasting our eyes on all the glittering gold we took a cab to the Dubai Mall, where the entrance to At The Top is located.
At The Top is the observation deck on the 124th and 125th floors of the Burj Khalifa. We chose not to pay extra to go higher as everyone said it's really not worth it.

The line was long to get up and we waited for about half hour. After that we went up an elevator that takes 70 seconds to go up all those floors. It's really cool that you don't even feel yourself moving at that speed and the only indication is that your ears pop.

Once we got up we walked out on the balcony to enjoy the views of Dubai. It was getting dark by the time we got to the top so we got to see partial daylight, as well as the nighttime views which were really nice.







We chose to do the virtual reality which was a fun experience. They have you up climb on top of the Burj, blowing wind in your face which makes it very realistic, and then jump off the building with a parachute.

After spending some time At The Top we went back down to the back of the Dubai Mall. They have a really nice fountain show every half hour at night.
They have options to pay for views from a boat or the platform, but it's completely not necessary as you can see perfectly from the boardwalk.





It was a really incredible show, in fact we enjoyed it so much that we stayed another half hour (almost dying from heat exhaustion in the process) to see another one.

In between shows they had a cool light show with music on the Burj Khalifa.



We went back to the hotel to freshen up and get ready to leave.
We left pretty early to the airport which was a good thing. DXB is like a city unto itself and it can take a really long time to get anywhere.
Once we got to the gate, there were no seats to be had and the place was packed. Our flight was so full that they started boarding over 2 hours before departure!

We got on without incident and had a pleasant flight home. Upon our arrival we breezed right through thanks to Global Entry but then waited about an hour for our baggage.
Since it was such a full flight, they had to open 2 luggage carousels and it took an endless amount of time for everything to come out.
Eventually we made our way out of the airport and headed home. 

Dubai was a great stopover and a great way to break up the trip home. Any more than a day probably would not have been enjoyable due to the heat, but we loved seeing the city for the couple of hours that we did.

If anyone has any questions on Sri Lanka or Dubai, feel free to ask!


August 27, 2018, 03:20:08 PM
1
Re: South Africa Master Thread
Just read your TR , amazing pictures and info, thanks.

Thank you! It was a couple of years ago, but still remains my most memorable trip I've ever taken.

October 30, 2018, 03:55:34 PM
1
°Bienvenido a Perķ! We recently got back from a fantastic trip to Peru, and it has  been one of our favorite destinations!

Some points regarding Peru in general.

Altitude: the extremely high altitude of Cusco and the Sacred Valley was something that was a bit of a concern to me. I based our schedule around that, spending some time first in the Sacred Valley, before going to Cusco, which is higher. We also had a bit of a lighter schedule for the first 2 days, choosing to take it easy and not overexert ourselves.
Altitude sickness is real thing, but thankfully it didnít get in our way too much. Most of us experienced slight stomach discomfort and headaches, as well as getting extremely out of breath after just a couple of minutes of walking.
Tylenol and caffeine (coffee or coca tea) helped me personally with the headaches.
The huffing and puffing was something we got used to, though it did make hiking that much more difficult.
Itís important to drink a lot of water and not overwork yourself in the beginning to allow yourself to acclimate.

Weather: because of the high altitude, the sun is extremely strong, and the air is cool, and super dry. This made for some really gorgeous weather. Out in the sun it does get very hot, but in the shade itís nice and cool and at night we needed a light sweater.
Of course, the Amazon is a whole different ballgame.

Monday:
We touched down in Lima on Monday morning after an uneventful Latam flight from JFK.
Latam, as we have come to know, is not the best of airlines. Although the flights themselves were okay, their services is horrendous and they are extremely unreliable.  They cancelled one of our flights without reasons a few weeks prior, and split up our reservation mid-trip without notifying us.
We were traveling from NY to Lima to Cusco, with a 2-hour stopover in Lima. We thought that would be more than enough time, but alas, we were wrong.
Our luggage was extremely delayed in coming out and they insisted on opening up one of our Pomegranate boxes. Another thing we were unaware of is that baggage closes an hour before departure time. We were also unaware that we would need to pick up our luggage in Lima and recheck it to go to Cusco.
Between all that, by the time we got to check in for our final leg, they would not allow us on. After much deliberation, we were finally placed on a different flight an hour later.
Incidentally, our original flight ended up being delayed 2 hours, which meant that we landed in Cusco earlier than we wouldíve had we made that flight. Allís well that ends well!

We landed in Cusco at around 10:30 AM and had a driver waiting for us to go to our hotel in the Sacred Valley, with some stops on the way.
We chose to base ourselves in the Sacred Valley for a couple of days, rather than Cusco, because of the beautiful surrounding mountains, and the proximity to some of the areas weíd be visiting.
We made a quick stop to change money and buy water and we were on our way.
The first stop was Chinchero, which houses a large traditional weaving coop and market. The local women showed us how they dye the Alpaca wool from natural plants and weave it.  We then shopped around a bit from the handmade products.





One of the resident Alpacas:


Chinchero also has a large Sunday market, which we missed, as well as ruins. We chose not to enter the ruins (since weíd be doing so many others) but we did drive to a viewpoint and got some great views of the ruins.


Next stop was Ollantaytambo, and old town and ruins, still set in the old Inca structure.
We greatly enjoyed walking around the cobblestoned towns and exploring the markets. We then entered the Ollantaytambo Fortress on the outskirts of the town.
To enter this site, as well as most popular locations, you will need to purchase a tourist pass called the Boleto Touristico. This allows entry into almost all the sites and ruins around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. It needs to be saved and punched at each location you enter.
The fortress is large and impressive. We climbed about a third of the way up before deciding that a full climb wouldnít be the best idea with the altitude.
Still, we were able to get an idea of how itís structured and greatly enjoyed the views.






We headed to our hotel, which was a mere 15 minutes from Ollantaytambo.
Casa Andina Valle Sagrado is a beautiful hotel nestled in the Sacred Valley. The views are incredible, and the cabin we got was beautiful and spacious.




Our villa:


To be continuedÖ

July 29, 2019, 02:07:16 PM
1
Re: °Bienvenido a Perķ! Tuesday:
After a relaxed morning enjoying the amenities of our hotel, we were then picked up for our drive to Moray and Maras.
The drive along the way had incredible views of the Sacred Valley.






We chose to do an ATV tour as an alternative way to see the sites we wanted to see.
We met our guide, got basic instructions, and were on our way. It was incredibly exhilarating to be driving an ATV in the valley with amazing views, people, and animals surrounding.



Moray is an archaeological site that contains unusual Inca ruins of farming terraces. Itís extremely picturesque and was quite interesting to see. (Entry is included in the Boleto Touristico.)








Salinas De Maras are ancient salt mines in the city of Maras. There are thousands of small pools dug into the side of a mountain that are fed by a small local stream.
These are still in use today and the salt is harvested by the local families.











Wednesday:
Our third day in Peru was an exciting one Ė it was Machu Picchu day!
Going to Machu Picchu is a lot easier and quicker from the Sacred Valley than it is from Cusco. We took a taxi to the Ollantaytambo train station for our morning train ride to Machu Picchu.
There are several train options, all of which are pretty pricey. Going to Machu Picchu is going to cost you and thereís no way around it.
Hiking the Inca Trail is also expensive and takes 4 really physically taxing days, so itís not something we had considered.
We chose to do the afternoon shift at Machu Picchu so as to avoid the crowds and avoid waking up at an ungodly hour.
We enjoyed our 90-minute train ride on the Vistadome train which has panoramic windows to appreciate the beautiful scenery along the way. Itís a beautiful train in which they serve snacks and drinks and you can comfortably enjoy the ride through the Andes Mountains.









We arrived at the small town of Agua Calientes which is located just a short distance from Machu Picchu. We walked through the station and the markets to buy our bus tickets up to Machu Picchu.






The bus lines are long but there are many leaving at all times, so it moves fast.
After a 20-minute harrowing bus ride, we were finally at the entrance of the Incan masterpiece.
We presented our tickets (bought a while in advance) and our passports and were able to walk through. We then chose a guide from the many that were milling about. We knew about how much we wanted to spend on our group and found one that we liked that met our budget. We were very happy with her as she was friendly, knowledgeable, and professional in every way.
We walked up and around a bit until we rounded the corner and Machu Picchu was there before us.
It was incredibly surreal, appearing larger than life.










There are several options of how to spend your time in Machu Picchu. We chose to do the Inca Bridge Trail before heading down to the city itself. Not many people do it, which is a shame, as itís definitely worth seeing and the lack of tourists along this narrow dizzying trail makes a nice escape from the selfie-taking masses down below.
The views from the trail are stunning, with rainforest, rivers, canyons, and mountains stretching out below and beyond the path.
It was not particularly difficult; however, the steps were harder than usual for us due to the high altitude and the beating sun.





Once we had finished the trek and were done admiring the views, we headed down to the city of Machu Picchu.
We spent some time going through the rooms and getting a history of what every structure was used for.
Itís fascinating to see how the Incas lived and how they built such structures so long ago.
Many people spend a few hours exploring the city. While it was certainly interesting to us, thereís only so long you can spend wandering around ruins hearing things that are entirely conjecture. 45 minutes was enough for us and we headed out, making sure to get our passports stamped on the way.












We took the bus down to Agua Calientes and spent some time shopping in the markets while waiting for our train.
We chose to take the Expedition, a slightly less expensive train back, as it was dark outside, and the large windows were not necessary. As it turned out, there was a train stuck on the tracks which delayed ours about an hour.
We arrived back at Ollantaytambo, caught a cab back to our hotel and called it a night.


July 30, 2019, 02:24:49 PM
1
Re: Next Vacation - Ideas
Are you feeling claustrophobic?

Very much so

July 16, 2020, 07:00:02 PM
1
Escape to Croatia We just returned from a fabulous trip to Croatia. There is very little information here, so I figured this would helpful, especially considering that they are one of the few countries that Israel allows entry from without quarantine (with a 14 day stay).

Some background info:
We normally plan our summer trips several months in advance. Obviously, this year, everything was on hold and we were unsure if we would be able to go anywhere, let alone leave the country, but I was holding out hope.
At a certain point, Croatia opened their borders with a tourist visa requirement. We got excited for a minute, but they got so flooded with entries that they closed the applications the very next day.
Towards the end of July, we decided to face reality and start planning a domestic trip. We settled on Washington State and began planning. About 3 weeks ago, we were just about to finalize our Washington trip, when we heard that Croatia had reopened their tourist applications. We decided to try our luck, and to our jubilation, we got approved instantly!
We immediately began planning. As someone who revels in spending 4 months planning a trip, this 1-week deadline would prove to be a fun challenge!

COVID-19

- Croatia require tourist applications to be presented, which we were able to obtain easily online.

- They require a negative COVID test from within the past 48 hours. Since the PCR tests take a few days, we took rapid tests the morning we left. Upon landing in Croatia, we presented the rapid test results and were told they are not acceptable, and we would need PCR tests to enter. There were a few stressful moments, but eventually the agent spoke to his manager and allowed us entry. I assume it depends on which agent you get, but if doing it again, I would probably get a PCR test (they make 24-hour tests) and maybe a rapid as well.

- Most of us have had the virus and have antibodies, so we werenít too nervous. I myself felt the safest that I ever have while traveling. Iím normally a bit of a germaphobe when flying and always wipe down my seat and area and take vitamins before and after. This time, the plane felt cleaner, the airport bathrooms were being cleaned in between each use, and in general it felt a lot cleaner.

- We were officially required to wear masks the entire flight. The way there we flew Aer Lingus, and they were pretty relaxed about it. I took my mask off or pulled it under my chin while I was in my seat and just put it on when getting up. No one seemed to care. The way home we flew Air France, and they were definitely a bit stricter. They would not allow me to wear a bandana, or my friend to wear a cloth mask, and instead insisted on surgical masks (unclear why surgical is better than cloth but will not attempt to understand).  They also took our temperature before boarding, and in general were more uptight. I also pulled down my mask in my seat on the Air France flights though and no one said anything, though my friend did get a pillow thrown at her from a fellow passenger when her mask slipped down  :).

- Politics aside, the whole thing seemed a bit ridiculous and nonsensical. While on line for airport customs, or on the jet bridge, there were bright stickers on the floor and they were urging us to maintain 6 feet distance, while a mere 5 minutes later, we are herded and stuffed like cattle onto the plane.

- The planes were pretty empty (especially the flights to and from the US), which was nice as we were able to get full rows to ourselves.

- We were required to fill out forms from the CDC upon entering the US, and our temperature was taken when landing in JFK.

- While in Croatia, it was quite relaxed. Zagreb was a bit more cognizant, and most stores asked for masks when entering, but thatís about it.

- We met one other American couple while we were there. August generally is high season and itís usually unpleasantly crowded. We appreciated that we got the country to ourselves, but it was a bit sad and eerie to see how empty it was. Several local drivers and people in the tourist industry told us excitedly that we were the first Americans they were seeing this summer.


To be continued.

August 28, 2020, 09:56:23 AM
7
Re: Escape to Croatia Sunday - Monday

(Be warned, there will be an overload of pictures in this TR. I just canít help myself)

Our flight was scheduled to depart JFK late Sunday afternoon. We had a few last-minute things to take care of Sunday morning (like picking up our frozen food etc.) and had an unexpected 2.5 hour wait at the urgent care center, but we made it on time and rushed off to the airport,  negative COVID tests in-hand.

Side note: in the past we have bought travel meals from Pomegranate and have been pleased. However, they have raised their prices, have been slightly declining in quality, and is a bit of a shlep for us since we are not located in Brooklyn.
This year we decided to try Seasons and were thrilled with the results! They have a bit to improve on in regard to packaging the boxes, but otherwise it worked out great. The food was fantastic, lasted perfectly, and the prices are great. Would definitely recommend!   

JFK was the emptiest I have ever seen it and sparkling clean. We boarded the planes, had a stopover in Dublin, and had pleasant, uneventful flights overall. 

Beautiful landing sights:


We landed in Split on Monday morning, and aside from a few heart stopping moments with the agent and our rapid COVID tests, we exited the airport smoothly.  We grabbed some coffee and headed to the Sixt kiosk in the airport to pick up our rental car. We added a Wifi pack to our rental car, which worked out great! For a mere $8 a day, we had full Wifi anywhere we went and none of us needed to add international plans to our phones.

We wanted to spend some time in Split before heading to Dubrovnik, so we drove to Diocletianís Palace to explore.
Diocletianís Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an ancient palace that was built for the Roman emperor Diocletian. If we had been more awake, we probably wouldíve done more exploring and maybe a walking tour, but we really enjoyed walking around and seeing the sights.












We also walked a bit around the old town and on the promenade by the water, which is picturesque.





We then started out on the 2-hour drive to Dubrovnik, which is along the coast and quite scenic. There are many sharp turns on the windy roads, but itís incredibly beautiful and every turn had us gasping at the breathtaking vistas.









Interestingly, there is a small area of disputed territory between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina called the Neum Corridor. Itís a 23 km coastal strip which basically divides Dubrovnik and the rest of the country and belongs to Bosnia and Herzegovina. You need to have your passports handy and go through border crossings on either end, which is pretty comical.  Although Bosnia and Herzegovina has travel restrictions in place due to COVID, we did not have any problems driving through this small strip of land.



We enjoyed the beautiful drive and arrived at our hotel in Dubrovnik. Rixos Premium Dubrovnik is a beautiful hotel, perfectly situated on the water, and just a 15-minute walk from the old town.
Most of it has recently been redone, and the rooms are beautiful. We had 2 seaview rooms with balconies, which had the most amazing views. They also have a magnificent, huge spa.
One of their most appealing features, is that they are located on the water. And when I say on the water, I mean just that. There is no sandy beach. They have a ladder going straight down the rocks into the ocean, and itís just incredible. They were also very gracious when dealing with our food requests and were overall eager to please. Would highly recommend this hotel.



The back of Rixos, as seen from bobbing up and down in the Adriatic Sea:


Never seen bluer, clearer water before:



Tuesday

We spent Tuesday morning around Dubrovnikís old town and city walls.
The Walls of Dubrovnik are fortifying walls surrounding the city, dating back to the 7th century.
While there is normally an hour wait to buy tickets to the city walls, and one needs to walk sideways in a single file line due the excessive crowds, we walked right up to buy our tickets and didnít have company in our immediate vicinity the entire time.

We started off by entering through The Pile Gates, which is a drawbridge over a dry moat, and climbing the (many) steep steps to reach the top of the walls. We walked around the walls, seeing the various large cannons, viewpoints, and fortresses. The enormous walls encircle the entire old town and overlook the sea. It was an amazing sight and we enjoyed it immensely.
















The city harbor is one of the oldest sectors of Dubrovnik and it looks it. One can easily picture the merchants sailing in with their goods.






We spent some time walking around the old city and browsing the markets. There are lots of stalls with different families selling their products, like lavender from their lavender farm.
We also witnessed an interesting musical presentation of sorts from on top of the churches in the old town.

(For any GOT fans, there are a ton of episodes filmed in various locations here. We got a very entertaining recap from an Uber driver of how the entire town were extras and how it all went down).

We visited Dubrovnikís Old Shul, built in 1546, which is the oldest Sephardic shul in Europe, and the second oldest shul overall.








At this point, we got caught in torrential downpours. This seemed to be a pretty unusual phenomenon, but it lasted a while. We decided to make a run for it and got completely and thoroughly drenched running through the old town to catch a taxi.  We got back to the hotel, dried ourselves off and spent the remainder of the rain in the spa and around the hotel.

Our plans for the afternoon were to hike or take a cable car up Srđ Hill in the late afternoon and view sunset from there. We scratched those plans during the storm, but a couple of hours later it had cleared up and we saw the cable cars running from our hotel balcony. We did the walk back to town only to be told that they were not, in fact, running. We decided to take a taxi up the mountain either way. Of course, as soon as we started driving, it started raining again, but we were holding out hope.  The drive up is quite steep and precarious, especially in the rain, and it took some maneuvering when there were 2 cars on the road.

Thankfully, it stopped raining a few minutes after we got to the top and we were treated to the most magnificent views. There is a restaurant on top of the mountain called Panorama, which has long wait lists. The manager was crestfallen at the rain, stating that even when it cleared up, they couldnít seat people outside due to the ĎNorth Windí coming in after the storm.
We hung around enjoying the sunset, a dramatic rainbow, and breathtaking views of the islands, sea, and old town. 





We were able to clearly see the city walls that we had walked that morning:








September 02, 2020, 02:56:02 PM
7
Re: Escape to Croatia Wednesday

We woke up early Wednesday morning for a poolside yoga class and then enjoyed breakfast (our stay included a large breakfast spread, of which we were able to find some items to eat).
We then spent a few hours in the pool and ocean. Rixos has steps down the rocks leading into the ocean, or one can just jump, off a (guesstimated) 20-25-foot ledge.
There was a fearless kid doing countless running leaps around us, so we of course we had to jump after him, which was really exhilarating!
Rixos provides rafts, tubes, and floaties for the ocean, as well as jet skis for rent.
Weíve all been to many places in the world and have never seen water this unbelievably clear, clean, and blue.

After lunch, we headed out to the old town to meet our ride for our afternoon boat trip. We had a private speed boat and proceeded to head to several nearby islands.  We were able to snorkel and get out and explore one of the islands as well.
We did have a couple of mishaps, which are possibly avoidable.
One injury was sustained when we hit a large wave and one of us went flying up in the air, only to land down hard on the another oneís foot. Although said foot is still hurting as I write this, 2 weeks later, thankfully it was not serious like a break or sprain. We did ice it and keep it elevated for the next couple of days and managed just fine.
Another injury was sustained when we were snorkeling and swam over to some rocks. One of us stepped on a rock and it mustíve had some sort of plant or animal on it that sent spikes into her foot.
Surgery was performed later that night in the Rixos bathroom with the help of tweezers, an iPhone flashlight, and cooking oil from the hotel kitchen.

Another point: the sun is really strong, and sunscreen is a must. An Uber driver exclaimed to us ďI hate Americans! Theyíre always sunburnt or lost!Ē (of which we were both, of course). He then hurriedly followed up that sentence by stating ďof course Iím happy to see you, youíre the first Americans Iíve seen all summer!

Allís well that endís well and no lasting damage was incurred, though we did make a sorry looking bunch for a day or two!
 
VIEWS FROM THE BOAT:















Islands we visited:

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Thursday
We woke up early Thursday to pack up and check out of Rixos. Sadly, we were leaving Dubrovnik and heading to Zagreb, which is a long drive of about 6 hours.
To break up the drive, we decided to stop at the Cetina River, which is about 2.5 hours from Dubrovnik, and do an activity on the river and canyon.
We had a magnificently beautiful drive and arrived to meet our guide for our Extreme Canyoning activity.

Views from the road:


We changed into many layers which included, sneakers, a base layer, thick neoprene wet suit, outer neoprene vest, life jacket, helmet, and harness for abseiling. We made sure to wear a thin base layer because when not in the water, we rolled down the top half of the wet suit, as it was quite hot out.
Once we were all changed and ready to go, we headed to the top of the canyon by car. We then proceeded to hike down the canyon, which consisted of climbing down rocks, boulders, and trees, all the while praying not to go slipping and sliding down the canyon. This was additionally difficult as the mid-day sun was beating down ferociously, and we couldnít take water bottles because we needed both hands at all times, so be sure to hydrate in advance. Their usual tour times are early morning or late afternoons to avoid the sun, but they were accommodating our schedule.

After about 15-20 minutes, we made it to the bottom of the canyon and eagerly jumped into the river to cool off, fully clothed in our multiple layers.
We proceeded to float down the river, be violently swept along by the rapids, scramble over some rocks, and bounce around through the spectacular canyon. We also had a few opportunities to repeat our cliff jumps from yesterday and jumped off high rocks into the water.
We also abseiled, or rappelled, down the canyon near a majestic waterfall. Look down if you can handle it, but the views make it worth it, they are magnificent.

After rappelling, we chose to cut our tour a bit short due to time constraints and exit by way of climbing the canyon as opposed to continuing down the river.
This was extremely intense, as we actually climbed the vertical wall of the canyon, no harnesses or help offered. It was definitely an exhilarating experience and our guide was fantastic and extremely patient with anyone that needed more time.
It was hilarious when an old man in tattered shoes appeared out of nowhere holding water bottles, like an angel from heaven. He was like a mountain goat and just scampered up and down the canyon as if it was his home staircase.

The canyon:










Once we changed and cleaned up, we headed out for the long 4-hour trip to Zagreb.
Late that night we arrived at Hotel Jagerhorn. Itís a cute, boutique hotel, which is perfectly located in middle of town, and 10 minutes from Chabad, and with only 2 floors and hard keys is very convenient for Shabbos. We were also able to walk straight into the kitchen and heat up our food, which was super easy and handy.  There are no parking lots and just air train tracks in the main part of town, so we had to park in the hotelís lot about 5 minutes from the hotel. We proceeded to walk to the hotel with all our (many) pieces of luggage and settled in.



September 07, 2020, 10:36:54 AM
4
Re: Escape to Croatia Friday

Friday was spent around Zagreb, and we were able to see the ramifications of the March earthquake and COVID-19. The whole town was really empty, normally busy streets of shopping stalls were bare, and some buildings are still showing signs of damage.
We climbed up to the old town and strolled around. We made our way to the unique Museum of Broken Relationships, which is quite interesting.
After the museum, we walked around a bit more and city bikes to widen our breadth.
We biked around town and made our way to a mall where we did some shopping.
One thing we noticed is that the entire country is pristine. There is no trash anywhere, the streets are swept and washed constantly, and the water has not a piece of garbage in it.











Shabbos
We had a beautiful Shabbos with Chabad of Zagreb. We felt very lucky as it was the first week they were having a public meal since Purim.  It was a small crowd, and the shluchim, Rabbi and Mrs. Pini Zaklas were of the nicest and most welcoming Chabad centers that we have been to.

One thing to note: it was quite hot and humid in Zagreb and the air conditioning only helped somewhat, so it was definitely a bit uncomfortable, but we managed.
There are tunnels that were built during World War II, called Grič Tunnel. It was originally built as a bomb shelter and is now used as pedestrian walkway. Itís located right near Hotel Jšgerhorn and is significantly cooler temperature than the rest of the city, so we enjoyed walking through them on Shabbos.



Sunday

On Sunday morning we headed out to Plitvice Lakes National Park, which is a bit under 2 hours from Zagreb. We bought tickets online a few days before, but it probably wasnít necessary, as the crowds were a lot smaller due to COVID.

The park is a bit complicated, but we eventually figured it out. We parked in Entrance 1 and headed in to walk Route A+B.

I donít have many words to say about the park, other than it looks otherworldly. Every view we saw was jaw droppingly beautiful and looked photoshopped. I had seen pictures online but didnít believe that that was what it actually looked like. Itís a MUST-SEE.

There are numerous crystal clear turquoise colored lakes separated by trees and greenery, as well as magnificent waterfalls.
There are beautiful, picturesque wooden walkways over the lakes which lead you around the park. We were lucky that that it was fairly empty, so we were able to take our time and get some great shots.

There is a lot of walking, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring water.  Plitvice is definitely a bit cooler than Zagreb, which made for pleasant walking weather (though our hotel concierge told us to bring layers and jackets as it gets really cold, which made us laugh as we were sweating under the sun).
We also rented rowboats for an hour, which was fun and gave us an idyllic reprieve from walking.
























We left the park and decided to stop at a village nearby that we had passed on our way in, which turned out to be a fantastic treasure.
Rastoke, built on the Slunjčica River, is an old watermill village which has extraordinary natural beauty and historical traditions. There are traditional wooden homes that line the streets or rest out on little islands, and waterfalls flowing throughout the village.
We had some snacks (our own) and coffee at one of the cute little shops and enjoyed the views.
There is one part of the village that has an entrance fee. When entering, you can view the old mill, extra views, a small museum, and different sights.
The whole village looks like it came straight from a fairytale, and in general, gives off a Disney-esque vibe I wouldnít have batted an eyelash had a dwarf (or seven) had popped out of a tree.



















September 09, 2020, 03:40:23 PM
5
Re: Morocco master thread It's a crime to stay in a points hotel in Marrakesh or Fes, I must protest!
December 30, 2020, 09:21:27 AM
1
Re: Something Fishy's Whatsapp Status Master Thread
For videos, I put the screenshot first followed by the video. Let's see if that works.


Absolutely amazing

January 26, 2021, 09:53:36 AM
1
Guatemalan Getaway A mere 5-hour flight away, with beautiful weather, vistas aplenty, and fascinating culture, Guatemala is a no brainer for great winter getaway.
On Wednesday evening, we took a United direct flight, which was very smooth and comfortable, especially since the plane was very empty.
If flying international, be aware to give yourself an extra 40 minutes or so these days. There is a line where they are checking that you have the proper COVID paperwork in order, and it takes a while.

We landed in Guatemala City and proceeded immediately to Antigua, which is about an hour drive away.
We chose to stay at Casa Santa Domingo, which is a beautiful old hotel. Itís a converted monastery and ended up having a lot more religious items and decor than anticipated, which made me slightly uncomfortable. But it is a beautiful, inexpensive hotel, and has hard keys and only 1 floor which makes it great for Shabbos.
It is a 20-minute walk from Chabad, but itís a nice easy walk and a great opportunity to get a nice feel of the city.

Chabad of Antigua is a fabulous, all inclusive, warm and welcoming Chabad center. They have hotel suites, beautiful gardens, and a restaurant with delicious food. They also arrange tours of all kinds and can really be a one stop shop for your trip to Guatemala. 

Random point: upon just reviewing my credit card bill, I am noticing how incredibly cheap Uber (and everything!) is there.

View from our hotel balcony:


The streets in Antigua are cobblestone, so be aware if you are the sort of person that gets sick in the car.


Thursday /Friday:
We woke up at the crack of dawn on Thursday after just a couple of hours of sleep and headed to Chabad. We were doing the day and a half Acatenango hike, which had been planned through Chabad. We met up with our fellow Jewish travelers, gathered our food that they had prepared for us, and were soon on our way.  We werenít quite sure what we were in for but were excited for what lay ahead.

Acatenango is a beautiful volcano with an elevation of about 13,000 feet. Acatenango is dormant, and the goal of hiking it, aside from the spectacular views, is the crystal-clear view of neighboring, very active, Volcano Fuego.   
We drove for about an hour to the base, where we met up with the rest of our group and gathered our gear.
Due to Acatenangoís elevation, itís extremely cold in the upper parts of the volcano. For this reason, we bought many layers and warm clothing, in addition to our food.  We hired porters to carry our packs and were also able to rent walking sticks and windbreakers, which were quite helpful. Some people also rented horses to help with the climb. The tour company took care of tents and sleeping bags and set it up at camp prior to our arrival.

We travel like proper Jews. See our porter below carrying our Kosher pot.


We started off hiking and immediately decided that this was a terrible idea. You feel the altitude almost instantly, and the volcano is INCREDIBLY steep, which amounts to a lot of huffing and puffing.
The altitude, the steep incline, and loose rock make this an extremely physically challenging hike (I consider myself pretty fit).  We had rented horses, though I did do most of the hike on foot, I was able to hop on the horse every once in a while to catch my breath, which definitely helped.
Even the most fit find themselves stopping to catch their breaths every few minutes and the horses were panting. (Of course we had the ubiquitous Israel ex-chayal in our group who was running up the mountain in his shorts).
Itís beautiful and sunny, so we started off in thin layers and slowly added layers as we got higher and the wind picked up. It took us over 5 grueling hours to reach the summit, which included a couple of short stops.

As we neared the summit, we felt the increasingly cold temperatures, wind, and heavy fog, to the point where it was difficult to see around you. We finally reached our camp site, where the guides set up a fire, which was a sight for sore eyes.
We all kind of collapsed on the ground around the fire and stayed put for a while. We ate, had some tea, and rested up. Our little Jewish group enjoyed a Tu BíShvat party of dried fruits and nuts around the fire (and noted how apropos it was to be one with nature, quite literally, on this holiday 😊).

When we mustered up the energy to get up again, we headed to our tents, which were all pitched on a small ledge at the summit. In the distance we heard the rumble of Fuego but could see not a whit through the dense fog. Our guides said this weather was very unusual and seemed very pessimistic that we would actually see anything, which was about the most disheartening news Iíve heard in quite a while.
After the requisite grumbling and sulking at the weather, we settled into our thermal sleeping bags to get some sleep, as the temperature dropped, and the winds picked up. At around 10:30 PM, we heard the guides exclaiming and hurriedly climbed out (sweatshirts and shoes flying about in our excitement). The fog was clearing slightly and behold! There was Feugo before our eyes, in all its glory.

Seeing a volcano erupt was definitely a bucket list, once in a lifetime, am I really seeing this, kind of experience. It was surreal to hear the rumbling (and feel the ground vibrating beneath me!) and the ensuing boom, and then see lava spewing forth and flowing down the mountain. We all stood around for a while, shivering in the cold, and gasping each time the fog cleared and the volcano was in sight. We were able to make a bracha on it as well, which was nice (you learn new things every day!). At one point, it got so windy that I had to hold onto a nearby tree, but we stayed out until the fog got too dense again and visibility was down to nil.

We settled back into our tents for the night. This was quite a brutal experience, and not one I am keen to repeat. My whole body was shaking from cold, the wind was deafening, ripping through the tent and flapping furiously and noisily around. The thermal sleeping bag did do its job after some time, so the bottom half of our bodies were warm, but we were wearing layers, gloves, and hats on top. Between the cold, the hard ground, and the roaring, deafening wind, sleep was not really an option.
At about 5 AM, the guides woke everyone up for an optional hike to the peak to see sunrise. We chose not to partake, being that we hadnít slept a wink and the weather was so bad. It turned out that the group couldnít make it to the top either way because the wind was so strong that it became too dangerous.
We got up and out either way since the sky was completely clear at this point (Thank G-d!) and we wanted more views of the volcano while it was still dark. We were treated to some amazing eruptions, and then watched the magnificent sunrise from camp. After some time, we had a bit to eat and packed up our stuff to begin the trek down.

Hiking down the volcano is, in a sense, even harder than hiking up. Itís so incredibly steep and full of loose rock, that you have to hold yourself back at all times. We all took a couple of spills but eventually made our way down, shedding layers as we descended. After about 3 hours we reached the bottom, sweaty, blistered, filthy and exhausted. We proceeded to then drive back to Antigua after dropping off our coats, sticks and packs.
We arrived back at our hotel at about 1:00 PM. We showered, ate, and rested in bed for a couple of hours, until it was time to get ready for Shabbos.

Views from the hike:


Fog started rolling in:
on Flickr


We made it!



Home for the night:



VolcŠn de Fuego:








As it gets lighter, the view changes from red lava to smoke:


Shabbos:
We had a really nice and fun Shabbos with Chabad.
We only decided to do the hike a few days before. I probably would not have booked this hotel had I known, since itís a 20-minute walk and every bone in our bodies were aching, but it ended up turning out fine.
We had beautiful weather and since we didnít have much time in Antigua, this was a nice way of seeing the city.

On Motzei Shabbos, we packed up and drove to Lake AtitlŠn, which is about 2.5 hour drive from Antigua.
 
To be continued.

February 16, 2021, 11:48:48 AM
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Re: Guatemalan Getaway Sunday:

AtitlŠn is one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen, encircled by mountains and volcanos, with absolutely perfect weather. It is surrounded by about a dozen different villages, many of which are home to a primarily indigenous community. The Mayans are still living in this area, and many of the towns each have their own signature style of clothing.
Most frum travelers that go to Lake AtitlŠn end up staying in San Pedro, because there is a Chabad center and Kosher restaurant. Food was never much of a barrier for us and so we opted to stay in Panajachel, primarily because itís a good location, and we could find a nice hotel on the water (San Pedro and many of the others tend to lean towards the backpacker/hostel crowd).

We stayed in Hotel AtitlŠn, which is beautiful and has magnificent grounds and gardens. They are directly on the lake, and has the most amazing views. 





View from the balcony:




Lake AtitlŠn:










Sunday Morning we took the hotel tuk-tuk to town for the Sunday market. This is really colorful, with lots of street vendors selling all sorts of food items, sitting on stools or pallets surrounded by their goods. We had a great time strolling about and enjoying the scene.





Street in Panajachel:


In the afternoon we took a guided tour of San Juan, one of the surrounding towns.
To get there, we took one of the many public ferries that go across and around the lake many times a day.
San Juan is a quiet, tranquil little town that doesnít have too many tourists. Thereís a great hike called Indian Nose that we had initially planned on doing for sunrise but opted out once we did Acatenango.
Strolling through town we saw handicraft vendors selling colorful wares, and farmers drying corn in the sun, all with the stunning backdrop that includes the mountains and the lake. The locals take pride in their craft traditions, which include painting and weaving. 
We visited a weaving coop, run by several local families, where we were treated to a presentation of how it runs and the process from beginning to end. We stayed there for a while and shopped a bit when the presentation was done.
We visited some art galleries and strolled around, stopping by a coffee plantation and shop.
We then took a ferry back to Pana and spent the rest of the evening relaxing in our hotel.



Cotton growing:


Around San Juan:






Coffee beans:


Monday:
Monday was a chill day. We spent some time in town in the morning and spent all afternoon relaxing at the pool and lake by the hotel.
 
Tuesday:
The Solola Market takes place every Tuesday and Friday morning and is considered one of the most authentic market in Guatemala (as opposed to Chichicastenango which is a very popular market for tourist.
The market is not for gift or souvenir buying, rather simply enjoying the sights and sounds of a traditional market where you can find fish, meat, housewares, and just about anything else.
Solola Marketís main draw is witnessing the huge variety of colorful costumes worn by the vendors and sellers, Several Mayan tribes travel to this market from nearby villages to trade their goods, therefore the market is a blaze of color from the people, textiles, flowers, and produce.








We visited AtitlŠn Nature Reserve, located right next to our hotel.
There are a few nice walking trails, hanging bridges, and zip lines. One is able to spot spider monkeys, coatis, and kinkajous, as well as beautiful gardens and waterfalls. Itís definitely a nice place to spend a few hours.

In the late afternoon we packed up and headed out. We chose to get our COVID tests in Antigua, so stopped off there. After that, we had a delicious dinner and hung around Chabad for a few hours.
We then drove to the airport, giving ourselves plenty of time to go through the necessary lines and checkpoints at the airport, and had a pleasant, very empty flight home.

February 19, 2021, 10:34:08 AM
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