Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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In my windowless room I sat propped up in bed, a pillow wedged between my back and the wall. Outside, a late season monsoon pounded the hostel’s tin roof like a herd of galloping horses. Determined to use the inclement weather as an opportunity to catch up on writing, I balanced my laptop on outstretched legs and tried to ignore the cacophony. Thirty minutes later a blank screen still stared back at me. Frustrated, I jiggled my legs awake and reached back to plump the pillow. It was soaking wet. What on earth? I jumped up and discovered the seat of my pants was also soaked. Rainwater had silently run down the wall behind my bed, soaking the pillow and mattress. Worse, the hostel had no other room available. In the deluge I packed up and moved to the hotel next door, happy to have found clean and dry accommodations with fast wifi, despite having to pay triple what the hostel was charging.

Kuala Lumpur's famous Petaling Street, in the center of Chinatown

Kuala Lumpur’s famous Petaling Street, in the center of Chinatown

I had scheduled this five-day stopover in Kuala Lumpur in order to get my two-month visa for Thailand, however the previous week I had discovered it was just as easy to do so in Istanbul, so when I arrived in the Malaysian capital I was fancy free for five whole days. It was not my first time in KL, but on all my previous visits I had been just passing through on my way to or from somewhere else. This time I was looking forward to seeing some of the city’s sights. The rain slackened enough that first evening for me to venture out into the Chinatown neighborhood where I was staying. Seeking shelter beneath the high canopies that arch over Petaling Street, I browsed through market stalls and fended off hawkers until the sun finally set and hundreds of crimson paper lanterns were set aglow. Read More

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It was late when I finally arrived at Second Home Hostel in Istanbul. I’d suffered though an eight-hour ride from Burgas, Bulgaria, on a bus with no toilet and a driver who stopped just once at the Turkish border, where we had only enough time for immigration. Once at my final destination I looked around for an ATM machine to get Turkish Lira and the metro station that would take me to Sultanahmet, the Old Town area of Istanbul, but neither were anywhere to be seen. Fortunately, I’d met a nice young man on the bus who made it his mission to help me, right down to paying for my metro and tramway tickets. At Sultanahmet I asked shopkeepers for directions to the hostel. Just my luck, it was located at the top of a steep hill, accessed via a lumpy cobblestone street that trapped the wheels of my rolling suitcase every few seconds.

Second Home Hostel, Istanbul, Turkey

Out of breath and exhausted, I checked in and dragged my luggage up one floor, thankful that I’d had the foresight to reserve a private room rather than a dorm bunk in this instance. I collapsed on the bed and didn’t move for the next ten hours. The next morning, Read More

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Five Whirling Dervishes filed slowly into the room, black ankle-length cloaks covering their wide white skirts. Lining up at the side of the room, the men sank to their knees and prostrated, touching tall conical camel-hair hats to the polished wood floor. Standing, they circled three times, bowing in greeting to one another as they circuited the room. After three rounds, they removed their cloaks, revealing long flowing white gowns cinched at the waist.

Beginning of the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony

Beginning of the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony

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Like all visitors to Istanbul, Turkey, I began with the city’s most famous sights. At Sultanahmet Park, I stood aside the central fountain and looked toward the six delicate minarets of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque for the handmade ceramic blue tiles that adorn its interior walls. Swiveling 180 degrees, I beheld the four minarets and copper dome of the stunning Hagia Sophia. Completed in 537 as a Greek Orthodox Basilica, it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Latin Empire and became a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and renamed the city Istanbul. In 1935, it was transformed into a museum by order of Mustafa Atatürk, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey.

Blue Mosque, seen from the central fountain in Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul, Turkey

Blue Mosque, seen from the central fountain in Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul, Turkey

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By the end of my week in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia I was still suffering from the effects of eating tainted food in a restaurant in Brasov, Romania. I couldn’t seem to shake the the upset stomach and general malaise that had sapped my energy. Just the idea of returning to fast travel mode made me tired, so I decided to forego seeing the cities of Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo. Sad as that decision was, I had to make health my first priority. Instead, I began looking for an affordable destination in Bulgaria where I could do a one week yoga retreat, take long walks on the beach, eat healthy food, and recover my stamina. A bit of Internet research led me to Sarah Astbury, a British yogi who offered Yoga, meditation classes, and massage services in Sozopol. A phone call later, I’d not only booked a week of Yoga, but Sarah had arranged for me to stay with the Atanasova family in the historic old town area of this small fishing village on the shores of the Black Sea.

Sarah Astbury strikes a yoga pose on the beaches of Bulgaria

Sarah Astbury strikes a yoga pose on the beaches of Bulgaria. Photo courtesy of Sarah Astbury Yoga.

And so began my week of recuperation. Each morning I meditated in my room for half an hour, then walked the block to Sarah’s studio for a 1.5 hour restorative Yoga class. Afterward, Sarah made me a big brunch of my choice; sometimes I opted for fresh fruit topped with mouth-watering homemade Bulgarian yogurt, other days I craved fluffy three-egg omelets. When I couldn’t eat another bite I burned off those calories with long afternoon walks, during which I discovered Sozopol’s fascinating history. Read More

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During my visit to Sofia I heard repeatedly that the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rila Monastery was a must see. Based upon this endorsement my expectations were high, but my first view of the monastery’s tall stone walls left me uninspired; it appeared to be nothing more than a simple stone fortress tucked into a pretty mountain glade. Disappointed, I walked through a long tunnel to a vaulted entrance and stopped in my tracks, stunned by the unexpected beauty of the interior courtyard that spread before me.

One of two entrance tunnels leading into the interior courtyard at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

One of two entrance tunnels leading into the interior courtyard at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

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