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Gaziantep: A City on the Brink

This morning it finally arrived in the mail. It took nearly 2 weeks to arrive from Turkey, but menengiç is worth the wait.

Menengiç?! you’re probably wondering, is a popular drink in Eastern Turkey that tastes like coffee and pistachio.  In reality, the thick, rich drink is made of roasted, crushed terebinth berries and milk. You can buy a jar of the paste-like menengiç online – it’s very hard to find outside of the region where it originated – even in Turkish grocery stores it’s almost never available.

 

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To ‘brew’ 2 servings of drink, all you need to do is mix 1 cup of milk with 1-1/2 tsp. of menengiç. Stir over medium heat until dissolved and fragrant, making sure the milk doesn’t come to a boil. Serve with sugar, as needed. Don’t swirl or stir to keep the mixture from settling. You’ll want the sediment of the berries to settle to the bottom.

 

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Softer and fruitier than Turkish coffee, menengiç may still be an acquired taste, but to me, it smells and tastes of Gaziantep, or as the locals call it – Antep.

 

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Living as an expat in Turkey was one of the most bizarre and rewarding years of my life. Moving to a country where I knew no one, and only familiar with what I’d seen and read online. The terrain was completely alien – desert-like. A language with few similarities, and few who spoke my own language around the city.

Situated only a few miles from the Syrian border in Southeast Turkey, Gaziantep has a very unique cross-section of cultures and has rich and beloved traditions. Just up the road from the ancient ruins of Antioch, Antep holds ancient roots itself as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

 

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A Bronze Age citadel lies in the center of the city. In its shadow, the famed copper bazaar, and one of my favorite hideaways around town, Tütün Hanı. Wandering through the labyrinth of copper and metalwork stalls within the smoky stone walls of the copper bazaar, the Tütün Hanı café is just beyond a bold stone archway, almost hidden amongst the metal goods and the buzz of locals and tourists filling the halls, looking for a deal.

The 18th century open air bazaar has been host to tobacco merchants and coppersmiths for centuries, among other vendors. The open square in the center of the winding halls of the bazaar is where the waiters of Tütün Hanı bring out nargile (hookah), hot Turkish tea and menengiç to those lounging on the pillows and Turkish carpets under the central tent.

Remove your shoes before stepping in, order a menengiç and an apple nargile and enjoy the sweltering Turkish day in the shadow of the cool stone walls.

 

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I have fond memories of lounging around Tütün Hanı for hours, shopping for copper trinkets in the bazaar and Antep as a whole. Hopping on the dolmuş (shared taxi/mini bus) to get around town, picking up the language and customs, befriending other expats and making new local friends with whom I’d go out to the ‘communist bar’ as the locals referred to it (one of the only bars in the conservative Muslim city). Drinking Efes beer and playing backgammon for hours in the chilly evenings.  Listening to live Kurdish folk music at the tea garden down the hill from my apartment.  Eating giant meals of kebab, lahmacun (lamb and herb-covered flatbread), nohut durum (flatbread filled with crushed chickpeas, herbs and spicy peppers), mercemek soup, and always with a giant glass of ayran (a salty yogurt drink). I think it’s safe to say that I quickly adapted to the way of Antep-life. I left my vegetarian ways when I moved to Turkey, and never looked back.

 

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Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia. It’s a modern metropolitan city, displaying its long and eventful history with pride. Across the country, over 5 years after I left the quiet desert city, Gaziantep is now struggling to keep the peace. Nearly 2 dozen ISIL members were arrested in Antep late last year. The city is feeling a cultural shift due to the massive influx of Syrian refugees. And nearly 2 years after I left, there was a bus bombing in the same region of the city I had lived not so long ago. It’s tragic to hear about a bombing anywhere in the world. It’s surreal to learn of one that happened in a neighborhood you knew so well.

Antep has weathered a great deal in its many centuries of existence. And while it’s on the brink of very heavy political and cultural events, the city will persevere. It will be challenged as it has been in the past, but the Turks are a strong culture with ancient traditions that I don’t foresee going anywhere, anytime soon.  I’m proud to have been able to become a part of Antep, even though it was only for a short amount of time. I’ll never forget the history, the food, the kindness of the locals, and the beauty of the culture. One day, I’d love to make my way back to that fabulously exotic part of the world!

 

Playa del Carmen Travel Guide

If you’re looking for a beachy Caribbean getaway at a reasonable price, consider booking a trip to Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  As a resort town that has overtaken what was once a small fishing village, Playa has a lot to offer, no matter the type of trip you’re looking for.  I’ve put a few ideas together for different types of vacations and activities in and around Playa for anyone, from thrill-seekers to beachfront Caribbean loungers!

I made the trip during April, and let me tell ya, that is the absolute perfect time to go! It’s warm enough to wear your summer gear, but the heat and humidity aren’t sweltering. No matter when you actually decide to book your tickets, here are some recommendations to help plan your dream vacay:

The Adventurer

If you’re looking for some spectacular views, outdoor excitement, or something new to throw you out of your comfort zone, the Yucatan has what you’re looking for!  Explore the lush forests by taking a zip line tour through the Mayan Jungle. While waiting to fly through the trees from platform to platform, be sure to look around – on a sunny, clear day, you can see for miles above the ancient trees.

 

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The cenotes are a must-see natural wonder that are really worth taking in. Cenotes are underground, water-filled caves. With this explanation, it sounds like something out of a horror film, but as a common natural feature throughout this part of the world, Mexican tour companies have lit the caves and have transformed a terrifying idea into a beautiful adventure destination for people to enjoy. Many tour companies will allow you to repel from high above the tree tops to the water’s edge where you can climb into the crystal clear waters for a dip in the ancient and beautiful abyss.  I really wish I had a photo to share, but the ole’ GoPro battery died before I made it into the chilly water. Doh!

While we’re on the topic of water, definitely try to make some time for sailing. (The day after the cenote adventure, after a full night of charging, the GoPro was back in action and ready for a sail!) Renting a boat is very reasonably priced, so be sure to pick up a few beers, bring your sunglasses, and hold on tight, or you’ll end up filming yourself slipping off the side of the boat after hitting the perfect wave just right…..thus the shot below of my feet flying up….

It’s kinda tough to be too embarrassed in Mexico. Worth it!

 

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The Family-Friendly Adventure

Tulum is a site that is sure to wow travelers of all ages! The coastal Mayan ruins won’t fail to impress. And then there’s that drop off of over 40 feet to the Caribbean Sea. Beeeautiful!  The local guides will tell you all about the ancient city’s history, with a moderate amount of walking (all of the major sites are within a very short radius, with paths leading to views of the sea that extend a bit further). The site is very well preserved, has an incredible history and provides breathtaking views.  If you’re lucky, you may even see some of the huge lizards that call the cliffs home.

Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and wear those swimsuits. There are stairs from the ruins leading down to a small beach where you can cool off in the brilliant blue waters of the Caribbean.

 

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The Party Animal

One of my fondest memories of Playa is a day dedicated to doing nothing.  I woke up, spent the early morning lounging around in the hammock on the front porch of our villa, listening to the waves of the sea just over the trees.

As the day warmed up, we strolled down to the beachfront chairs with grass umbrellas. Soaking in the sun, I was very busy slurping down boozy frozen drinks from about 10:00am (best way to start a sunny sandy day!). As the alcohol started to kick in around lunch time, after the steel drum band kicked off their set, and after a few refreshing cool-down dips in the sea, we walked up to the food hut just behind our beach chairs. The smell of freshly grilled fish and steak kebabs were killing me, so it was finally time to indulge. And oh boy, was it good!

The rest of the day kept this tempo. Water. Sun. Sand. Delicious fresh fare. Bottomless boozy refreshments. This is the perfect way to prepare for a night out in the downtown area. Just be sure to put on plenty of sunscreen before drifting away on your nap in the sun….

 

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While all-inclusive resorts can be a worry-free paradise, keep in mind that you’re paying for your food, drinks, and other perks available during the stay; so if you want to take advantage of day trips and other activities around the area, an all-inclusive may not be for you. Instead, think about staying at Riviera Maya Suites. We had a fantastic experience there. You can get a very affordably priced grass-roof villa with hammocks on the porch. You’ll feel like you’re hidden deep inside of the Mayan Jungle, but you’re really only a 10 minute stroll to the beach. It’s cheaper than the all-inclusive resorts and you won’t feel as guilty taking a day trip zip-lining through the jungle, exploring ancient ruins or enjoying the city’s nightlife. And the tacos! Get out and eat some tacos people! So. Good.

Red Rock Canyon: Just Around the Corner in Vegas’s Backyard

There’s nothing quite like Las Vegas; that, I have to admit. But, the strip get’s real old real quick. To shake up your itinerary, there’s a natural gem less than 20 miles away from the strip I recently checked out that’s worth a visit: Red Rock Canyon. If you’re looking for a break from the casinos and gluttony of the strip, this is the breath of fresh air to revitalize you.

 

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A few weeks ago, I was sent to Vegas for work, and it was my first time in town over 21, and it turns out I have very mixed feelings about Vegas. On one hand, I love the idea of a place set up to be a playground for adults. Anything goes. Indulgence. A town built to promote hedonism. Eat, drink, gamble and be married (in a little chapel by an Elvis impersonator – as the mood struck the couple I saw doing just that…).

 

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On the other hand, the massive hotels that charge guests on an a la carte basis is the tip of the rip-off iceberg in town. Want internet? That will be $20 per day. Want to hit the gym to work off those extra boozing calories from last night? Oh, that will be another $25 per day. Restaurants are ultra expensive for mediocre quality, in many cases.

Gaudy. Greedy. Grimey. Burnt out. Girls for sale. Male strippers as a long-standing joke novelty.

This is the city that truly never sleeps. A giant never-ending bachelor/bachelorette party.

Sure, it’s fun…in small doses. It’s also these qualities that make the desert even more refreshing.

 

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No matter your level of love or disdain for Sin City, if you find yourself needing a freeing, budget-friendly escape from town, Red Rock Canyon is a day trip worth the $7 entry fee (per car).

We were lucky enough to pay a visit over President’s Day weekend – and because of the National Holiday, entry was free!

It’s an easy 30 minute drive from the strip, and is nature’s playground with no shortage of breathtaking views, desert flora and fauna and some pretty brilliant sunbathing spots (or sun napping in my case – holy sunburn batman!).

 

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What are some fun activities to take advantage of at Red Rock Canyon?

  • Hiking
  • Photography
  • Rock climbing
  • Sunbathing
  • Picnicking
  • An easy stroll, taking in the views

But don’t expect to share your adventure on Twitter or Instagram right away, there’s absolutely no service out there….and it’s so refreshing!

No cell service. No problem.

 

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The rocks are a popular spot for climbers from near and far; and since there are many different types of formations, the park is perfect for all skill levels. As we walked along the bright red rocks, we saw experienced climbers, working their way up very large, very sheer rock faces. We also came across an instructor working with some small kids who were able to fly up the rock walls.  What a cool thing to learn as a kid!

 

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I love how un-guided this park is. In a world where we are led along by instructional signs to tell us where to go,  following the railings, relying on our smartphones to tell us where to go and the most efficient way of getting there, it’s really quite refreshing to just get lost and figure it out without any guidance. In the canyon, there are trails, but they can be hard to follow. People can navigate their own route in many cases to get to the highest point, or to get to a ledge that looks like it might hold an astounding view. You can make an afternoon out of it, or easily stay the entire day enjoying the views, sunshine, lizards, and just getting out into nature.

A true day of play that you can’t find anywhere in the city of Vegas, and it only requires a set of wheels and $7.

 

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My Top 3 recommendations if you’re planning a trip to Red Rock Canyon:

  1. Take a picnic or some snacks.  When you’re having your ‘Into the Wild’ moment, it’s easy to walk further and further out (and further away from your car…) where you’re sure to end up hungry.
  2. Wear good shoes.  You might just intend to stroll around and take some photos. You’ll regret not wearing sturdier shoes to go exploring once you see how magnificent the canyon really is.
  3. Take some sunscreen. I’m happy I did, even in early February.

Since the East Coast has been bombarded by extreme winter weather lately, my trip to Vegas was definitely a blast, but Red Rock’s sunny 80F days were absolutely the cherry on top of my trip to Nevada. Next time you’re around the strip and need an escape from your escape, get out to Red Rock Canyon, for sure!

 

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