paulathai

adventures in Thailand


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MAGICAL SANTORINI #1: PERISSA BEACH and THE BIG STORM

Everyone raves about Santorini. Now I know why. It’s truly a magical island with black, red and white sand beaches, deep blue water, soaring cliffs, picturesque villages, numerous vineyards, whitewashed domed homes clinging to mountainsides, interesting museums filled with ancient artifacts, and, of course, wonderful Greek food and charming people.

PERISSA BEACH, my destination on Santorini, sits on its southeastern shore. A CouchSurfer, whom I had contacted this past winter when he was in Thailand, had invited me to stay in his “hostel” for three nights on Perissa Beach. Hostel does not describe Anny Studios adequately. A more accurate would read: lovely studio apartment hotel with swimming pool, bar, lobby with big screen HD TV, and free washing machine. My 2nd floor room overlooking the pool featured a color TV, AC (not needed), bathroom with enclosed shower (unlike in SE Asia or India), small fridge, 2 burner electric stove, sink, dishes, cutlery and cooking equipment.  My host, Vasilios, was among the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met.

I walked along the four mile long volcanic black sand beach, sat on rocks to read as the sea swirled around me, dipped my feet into the ocean’s white foam, gazed at the towering rock cliff at the beach’s end, enjoyed the pinkish clouds at sunset, and stood awestruck on Sunday when the calm blue Aegean turned into a violent sea filled with huge, crashing waves.

(For Bernadette et al): I discovered a wonderful gyros/souvlaki place across from Perissa’s big white and blue Greek Orthodox Church.  There I enjoyed chicken gyro (freshly grilled chicken, tomatoes, tzatziki sauce and

French fries wrapped in a big pita) three out of four days. On Sunday night, my original “last night” there, live music at a restaurant 20 yards from Anny Studios caught my attention. I abandoned my original idea of an inexpensive gyro dinner and went to Ntomatino Restaurant instead. What a great choice: 4 piece band, lots of Greeks and some tourists enjoying delicious food, groups of women (no men!) dancing to the Greek tunes, and plenty of drinking and frivolity at many of the co=ed tables.  Oh yes, (Bernadette, pay attention please) I had a lovely dinner topped off by decadent chocolate lava cake and complimentary raki from the owner. I had hoped to order a stuffed white eggplant dish, a Santorini specialty that my Athens host Lena told me to try, but another table had just ordered the last one. 😦  The substituted grilled chicken in lemon sauce with rice made a fine replacement.

THE BIG STORM blew into Santorini late Saturday as I noticed when the loud wind woke me up in the middle of the night. The roiling sea looked nothing like it had during my first three days at Perissa Beach. Huge waves crashed against the shore. White spray shot up the cliff wall at the end of the beach. Palm trees swayed and rain fell, flooding the Beach Road and alleyways.

The weather didn’t look very promising for my scheduled midnight ferry departure from Santorini back to Athens. According to the internet, the ferry would arrive at 3:40 a.m. so at 3:15 a.m. a taxi picked me up at the hotel and we headed through the rain to the port. As it turned out the ferry was stuck in Crete and didn’t arrive in Santorini until midnight the following night, 24 hours late.

One might consider this BAD NEWS. However, for me it took top prize as GOOD NEWS. Why? Because it meant I could get a full refund on my overnight berth ticket to Athens and remain on Santorini for four more days. Previously I had tried to change my ticket and extend my stay on this magical island. However, I would have lost at least half of the ticket price. Thanks to the storm I paid for three additional nights at Anny Studios and booked a reserved seat (but not a bed) on the 3:30 p.m. ferry back to Athens on Thursday.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Pollyanna” Paula, the perpetual optimist, failed to mention that spending from 3:30 a.m. until 10 a.m. in a café at the port Sunday night did not rank as one of her more pleasant travel experiences.

(MAGICAL SANTORINI #2 to come soon: Fira/Thira and Oia; also ATHENS)

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MY POST RED SEA ODYSSEY: Two Adventures

(Don’t worry, this one is short)

ADVENTURE #1: The only upside of staying in Eliat was spending the next day snorkeling at the Coral Reef Nature Preserve where I’d swum in 2006. Highlights included seeing an octopus for the first time and viewing a large ray, a creature I’d seen only on the Great Barrier Reef in Belize many years ago. Dozens of varieties of colorful fish and coral came into view as I followed the three underwater pathways along the protected reef.

 ADVENTURE #2: Due to the Passover delay, I had decided to go from Eliat directly to the Tel Aviv airport. This saddened and disappointed me tremendously since I had wanted to visit my Palestinian friends in Hares. However, a skype conversation with Issa Souf convinced me that I could see him and his family as he assured me that he’d find transportation from Hares to the airport. Arabs have different color license plates and must use separate roads from Israelis. It’s not safe for them to travel after dusk due to the military occupation, the longest in modern history.

The reunion with Issa and his family made all the inconvenience and misadventures worthwhile. It had been six years since we saw each other. In that time his wife had had another set of twins who just turned two. They joined his first set, age 8, and their older brother Ward, age 12. Ward was two months old when an Israeli sniper shot Issa during a raid on Hares at the beginning of the second intifada. He’s paralyzed from the chest down and gets around in a wheelchair.  (Google ISSA SOUF if you want to read the amazing story of his recovery and continued quest for peace and forgiveness.) His lovely wife had made a wonderful dinner and we all ate together after the kids received many presents purchased by me in Nepal and Thailand.

After the delicious meal I left for an hour to visit two other village friends, Um Saddam and Um Fadi. It was a difficult time for both women whose teenage sons, ages 16 and 18, were in prison due to a trumped up stone throwing charge a couple weeks earlier.

A friend of Issa’s who lives in Ariel agreed to drive me to the airport, departing at 10:30 p.m. My flight to Athens was at 7 a.m. and spending the night at the airport was the only option. Not fun since all chairs had armrests, making it impossible to lie down.

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MOSES and ME: RED SEA ODYSSEY #2: MISADVENTURES

 or  THE MISADVENTURES OF PAULA AT THE RED SEA

 MISADVENTURE #1: Despite a website and guide-book stating that overnight bus service ran from Cairo to Israel, following my return flight to Cairo from Dahab I discovered the inaccuracy of the information. Instead the buses departed from Dahab where I’d just spent 5 wonderful, relaxing days.

So after one night and day in Cairo I caught the overnight bus back to Dahab where I was supposed to connect with a bus to Taba on the Egypt/Israeli border. From there I’d cross into Israel to Eliat, an overbuilt Red Sea resort town, and take a seven hour bus ride to Jerusalem. Finally, I’d catch a Palestinian bus from the Damascus Gate to Deir Istya, IWPS’s headquarters.

MISADVENTURE #2: On the overnight bus two Egyptian women in their mid twenties sat across the aisle. They traveled with a 21 y.o. German guy (whom they had met through CouchSurfing) and befriended a young British man as well as me. For the first hour or so after the 11:30 p.m. departure, we visited and laughed a lot. The encouraged me to break up my long trip by joining them for a night on the Red Sea in  Nuweiba                    , north of Dahab and south of Taba.  Another night on the Red Sea sounded better than traveling non-stop for over 20 hours.

Thus, the following morning I joined them in a shared taxi to Susan’s favorite “Bedouin camp.”  Camp describes the place perfectly because it had very basic facilities: one shared bathroom (3 toilets and 2 showers) for women plus individual bungalows with mattresses on the floor, no fans and limited electricity. For some reason they put all three women in one bungalow. Later, when I discovered an empty one nearby, I moved to a separate bungalow. The move was necessary because I stayed awake all day whereas my fellow travelers slept all day. I knew they’d want to remain awake late into the night whereas I planned on an early bedtime.

The camp featured a rocky seashore with a few tall rock outcroppings/ hills. Susan and I took a quick swim upon arrival prior to lunch at the camp’s restaurant that served very tasty, reasonably priced food. One of the best parts of this misadventure consisted of watching Susan submerge herself in the Red Sea. The joy on her face and in her voice brought a smile to my face. She had been studying for her master’s degree at Sheffield University and had found the English climate cold, grey and depressing. “I’m home at last,” she shouted as she dunked herself into the water.

After their long naps, we met around 6 p.m. to enjoy the sunset from atop one of the hills at sea’s edge. Dinner and conversation followed. Then I headed to bed.

MISADVENTURE #3 and #4: The Dahab bus that I should have taken the previous day passed the Bedouin Camp around 11:45 a.m. As I gathered my things to wait for its arrival, a camp employee told me he could call a taxi to take me to the border. If I’d known that, I would have left much earlier in an attempt to beat the Passover holiday closures that began, I thought, at sunset.

After a 45 minute taxi ride with the Red Sea on my right and Sinai mountains on my left, I arrived at the border. Here comes Misadventure #3: my arrival came five minutes after two tour buses of Columbian (South America) tourists/pilgrims arrived at the checkpoint. Thus, instead of a quick border crossing, I waited nearly two hours to make it into Israel.

As a result, Misadventure #4 meant that I arrived in Eliat around 2 p.m., having missed the last bus to Jerusalem at 1 p.m. but in time for the 3 p.m. bus to Tel Aviv. However, it didn’t sound like a good idea to arrive in Tel Aviv at 9 or 10 p.m. with no public transportation for 36 hours due to the Passover holiday.

Therefore I booked a room at a hotel across the bus station where I had stayed seven years ago.

MISADVENTURE #5: The Passover holiday in Israel compares to New Year’s weekend in the USA: most hotels are booked far in advance and prices double. I got one of the last hotel rooms in the area and paid a whopping $50 a night (remember, in SE Asia all my hotels cost less than $20 a night). I stayed two nights and on the second morning caught an 8 a.m. bus to Tel Aviv where I found the Settlers’ Bus (no Arabs allowed) to Ariel, the Israeli settlement near Hares where I lived as volunteer with International Women’s Peace Service in 2006 and 2007.

MISADVENTURE #6: The entrance to Ariel Settlement had changed dramatically since my last time in the area in 2007. Thus, I missed the place Issa had told me to get off and wait. As the bus traveled farther into the settlement I knew I had made an error because there was no way Issa with his Palestinian green and white license plates could pick me up inside Ariel.

I disembarked near a taxi stand but no taxis waited there. I approached a nearby merchant who phoned the taxi company and one came to pick me up and take me to Ariel’s entrance. The ride took about 7 minutes and he charged me double the usual fare because of Passover. What a rip-off!

Of course when Issa greeted me from his car with a big smile, my irritation disappeared.

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MOSES and ME: MY RED SEA ODYSSEY #1 (more to come)

[NOTE: a bit of this is redundant–forgot that I wrote about Dahab already. But this blog post has some different info. so hope you’ll read it.]

My time in Egypt and Israel turned into an unexpected Red Sea adventure. Due to security concerns I spent five relaxing days in Dahab on the Red Sea instead of visiting Luxor, sailing down the Nile and visiting the Valley of the Kings. My Couchsurfing hosts in Cairo advised against going to Luxor by bus due to recent robberies and kidnappings. They advised staying in Dahab instead of Sharm el Sheik. The former advice was questionable (bad?), the latter good.

DAHAB features beautiful reefs for snorkeling and diving as well as dozens of low-rise hotels along its beachfront. More famous Sharm el Sheik has loads of high rises, shopping centers and tacky tourist shops. (Dahab has tacky tourist shops as well.) Both places are filled with Russian tourists.

On the internet I found Red Sea Relax Resort whose website included photos of a lovely swimming pool and mentioned free breakfast. So I booked a bed in its dorm which had two bedrooms, one male, one female, each with two bunk beds. Much to my surprise and delight a large living room, dining area, full kitchen, wifi and purified water dispenser complemented the bedrooms. The breakfast included a large, scrumptious buffet along with made–to-order omelets.

Another unexpected plus was the age of the dorm residents. Two British men my age enjoyed long-term stays there and passed on good travel information. One had stayed for seven weeks. He explained that he came every winter to enjoy the sea and sun while avoiding heating his London home. Turns out seven weeks in Dahab cost him less than heat and electricity for that period in England.

SNORKELING in Dahab consisted of two brief periods in the sea near my hotel and a wonderful excursion to the Blue Hole for an afternoon of underwater delights. Colorful corals and more than a dozen varieties of tropical fish came into view as the reef next to the Blue Hole revealed its hidden beauty.

DAHAB’s RESTAURANTS lined the seaside, making it difficult to choose a place to eat. I settled on FRIENDS and liked it so much that I returned twice more. The first meal of grilled chicken was so big that leftovers provided dinner the next evening. The second dinner of grilled red snapper, which I selected from the fresh fish on display, included so much food that its vegetables and rice made a perfect lunch the following day. By the third visit I had learned my lesson. Instead of ordering a full meal I asked if I could order only the items that accompanied each entrée. Thus I enjoyed delicious fish soup, hummus, babganoush and tzataki with large warm pitas plus ice cream and fresh strawberries for dessert. All for $5 plus $1 tip. (The red snapper dinner cost $13, the most expensive meal I’ve had since my last time in the USA. Meals in Thailand averaged $1 or $2.)

ST CATHERINE’S MONASTERY sits in the Sinai desert, a couple hours inland from the Red Sea. One day I took a minivan excursion there and truly enjoyed it. The monastery itself began in the late 3rd century and has housed monks ever since then. It’s important in the Orthodox tradition, not Catholicism, so it made sense that busloads of Russian and Eastern European tourists crowded into its main sanctuary for blessings from the priests. Hundreds of icons and gorgeous silver and gold chalices, chandeliers, crosses and other church memoribilia filled the space.

It held interest for me because St. Catherine’s sits below the Egypt’s second highest peak, historically known as Mt. Sinai. Supposedly that’s where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Moses’  famous burning bush can also be found in the monastery though I doubt it’s the original (haha).

The stark landscapes of the Sina made me wonder how Moses and his people wandered there for 40 years. But then I realized that Bedoins still maintain a wandering desert lifestyle there today.

 

MORE TO COME: Another unexpected night on the Red Sea in Egypt then snorkeling in Eliat, Israel’s nature preserve.

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