cold Turkey

I had a three day layover in Istanbul, Turkey on the way home from Uzbekistan.  I briefly want to recognize Turkish Airlines for their excellent airline food (which almost made up for the mediocre service on board).  Side note: I think I am an international flight snob now.

Back to Turkey though:  Istanbul is incredible!  The majority of the city is in Europe and it feels quite European.  We stayed at a hostel in a bohemian part of town with lots of musical instrument stores, cafes, restaurants, and shops.  I loved being able to walk so many places and also utilize Istanbul’s user-friendly public transportation system.  Also, I traveled with another Op Smile worker and we both (independently) wanted to purchase and learn to play ukuleles.  Lo and behold there were about five shops on our street with ukes in the windows.  We took this as a sign from the universe that it was time to purchase.

Taksim Trolley

cute buildings

our hostel

our purple ukes

The major tourist sites are the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, conveniently located across a garden from one another.  The Hagia Sophia was built in the 500’s as a Christan church, but then converted into a mosque when the Ottoman rulers took over in the 1400’s.  Now it is a museum with a fascinating combination of Christian and Muslim aspects.  Also of interest (to me): there are several cats that wander around inside.

the view from the balcony inside Hagia Sophia

rachel and melissa out front

another inside look

told you there were cats inside

The Blue Mosque competes with Hagia Sophia for the beautiful ceiling award.  I could not determine a winner.  The intricate details are extraordinary.

free wi fi at the blue mosque !

one of several domes

mandatory head covers make for fun photos

We also visited the Grand Bazaar where you can get lost with the tiny alleyways of streets full of peddlers of every sort.  Be prepared to bargain your little socks off on a visit here.

Another main attraction in Istanbul is taking a ferry across the Bosphorus River from Europe to Asia and back.  Unfortunately, due to cold, rainy, cloudy,  misty, etc. weather, we did not take such a ferry ride.  We did, however, enjoy many a cup of tea and dessert at the various cafes throughout the city in our attempt at staying warm.  Next time I visit Istanbul in April I will be prepared for cold Turkey.

tea time. with the best dessert I had in Turkey. and they have some good desserts in Turkey

pinky out

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Discovering the black market

Uzbekistan sure does have some quirks and the black market is one of them.  The Uzbek currency is called the som.  The official government exchange rate is 1680 som to 1 USD.  This is the exchange rate listed at banks and hotels.  The unofficial black market exchange rate is 2400 som to 1 USD.

There is a 30% difference in the official and unofficial rate!

This means if you change your money at the black market rate and you spend your som at locations who use the lower rate, you essentially save 30%!

So how do you exchange your money on the black market?  It at first sounded scary to me (the rule-follower I am) and it is definitely illegal.  But you find that it is an everyday occurrence and most local people you meet can help you get your money changed.  Even the security guard at our hotel offered to exchange money for us.  And the first week we were there, they would give us a rate of 2000 or 2200.  The second week we found out the actual rate was 2400.  So pretty much everyone is making money off of foreigners, even the go-betweens.  Eventually, we found out you could change money at the supermarket.  At the fish counter.  But it’s not recommended since there are security cameras.

I am happy to be back in a place where I no longer have to work the system, negotiate exchange rates, and bargain for everything from taxi rides to souvenir fridge magnets.  I am also happy not to use thousand-dollar bills and have to carry around large stacks of money (that only equate to fifty USD or so).

on the train with thousands of som and maybe twenty bucks

i did bargain for this painting. and then carried it on the airplane, to turkey, and finally home!

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Tourists in Tashkent

Tashkent, Uzbekistan (believe it or not) is not a very touristy city.  I have had a couple of days to explore though and found there is more than what first meets the eye.

For instance, we saw the world’s oldest Koran this week.  It is made of deer hide, is quite large, and is kept in a museum here in Tashkent.  It was one of six copies made in the 1600’s, but is the only one still intact.  Photos are not allowed, so you will have to take my word that I saw it.  We also saw another mosque similar to the ones in Samarkand with turquoise domes delight.


just another beautiful dome

1.5 hours outside of Tashkent is a ski mountain.  We took the drive up and then braved a chair lift that looked like it was built in the 60’s.  The 40 minute ride ended at a snowy field at the bottom of a lone ski run.  There were a couple of skiers and boarders doing their thing, but mostly it was us trying not to fall down in the slippery snow.  Apparently, Uzbekistan has some of the finest heli-skiing in the world, but unfortunately we were too late in the season to try it out since most of the snow had already melted.

pretending to ski in Uzbekistan

the mountains of Uzbekistan

more mtns

What is the food like in Uzbekistan you ask?  Well, like many places I’ve visited this year, they place a large emphasis on carbohydrates.  Plov is the main national dish and it consists of rice mixed with meat, veggies, raisins, or whatever is available that day.  People are very proud of their plov and will insist it is the best.  Also, tomatoes, cucumbers, and bread a staples at every meal.

this bread is everywhere and at every meal

And what do the people look like?  Here are some examples:

a patient, her family, and me. the mom posed us for this photo and asked us to take it

future doctor

the latest style


this girl's hat had blonde curls attached

Today I finished my last medical mission of my year with Operation Smile.  Tomorrow I leave for Istanbul for a three day layover/vacation before heading back to the states.  I’ve starting working on some year-end statistics, but that is still to come.  For now, here’s to Turkish delight!


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Made it to Uzbekistan!  We are staying in the capital, Tashkent, a very clean and somewhat Soviet-looking city.  And I didn’t know what Soviet-looking meant until I saw it and then I understood.

where in the world am i?

After a 24+  hour journey and 2 hours of sleep, several of us decided to get up early for an excursion.  We took a train to Samarkand, the famed Silk Road city, four hours away.  It reminded me of the show Amazing Race, because of our rush to make the morning train, lack of planning, and lack of understanding of the language.  Most people here speak either Uzbek or Russian.  Not English.  This makes for some very entertaining games of charades to get points across.

The main attraction in Samarkand is Registan, a complex of buildings including a mosque, school, and dormitories built in the 1400’s and 1600’s.  We wandered through the buildings marveling at the architecture, the history, and how well the buildings have fared through the years, withstanding several earthquakes along the way.

Registan from the front side

the mosque's ceiling

inside the mosque

rachel looking very uzbeki

We also meandered through a local bazaar, getting a flavor for the people’s dress and food choices.  I saw a surprising number of gold teeth or grills.  Hopefully I will have pictures to prove this later.

the fruit and nut section

boy selling bread on baby stroller

More pictures to come as I continue on my Uzbekistanian journey!

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Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Tegucigalpa (pronounced Teh-goos-e-gahl-pah) is not only the capital of Honduras, but also the most fun Latin American capital to say.  It is also one of the more dangerous cities in Central America.  So dangerous in fact, that the Honduran Congress had to delay their sessions because so many of the congressmen were held up on their way home from work.  That being said, I did not see too much of the city because of the countless warnings of muggings.

Tegucigalpa is located in a valley, and its airport has been criticized for being dangerous also.  In fact, the History Channel ranked it the 2nd most dangerous airport in the world on its program Most Extreme Airports.  The runway is very short and large jets have to make a hairpin turn at a low altitude to make the landing.  I was very happy they announced this fact on the plane before doing it.  There’s also a curfew at night.  Planes cannot take off after dark.  On the way out our flight was delayed for 3 hours and as we were finally boarding, they announced “we have 10 minutes to take off or we will be stuck here, please take your seats as quickly as possible.”  I have never seen people move so fast to get seated on a plane and thankfully, we made it out.

a view of the valley

We went hiking in a cloud forest only 22 kilometers outside the city.  Parque del Tigre, an easily accessible national park, is quite lovely, despite a history of mining exploitation by none other than the United States of America.  We hiked through the forest to a waterfall.  On other trails though, you can see the abandoned mines.

dont miss the cloud forest for the trees

team members in a tree

the waterfall

one thing denver lacks is palm trees

And the cutest baby one week after surgery award goes to…..

this guy

Now I  must pack my bags again, one last time for Op Smile, for a trip to Uzbekistan.  Guess I need to brush up on my Uzbek!

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Guwahati, India

After two weeks of solo travel (or as I liked to call it:  The Lifetime Original made-for-TV movie Rachel Discovers Herself in India), I made it to Guwahati, India for the Operation Smile medical mission.

Guwahati is east of Bangladesh, in a part of India I didn't realize was there.

Guwahati is a unique mission location because of the extremely large population of people with cleft lips and/or cleft palates.  Because of this, Operation Smile is setting up a clinic for ongoing care for these patients.  Until that gets going though, the missions in Guwahati are much larger than normal.  During four weeks and with the help of two teams, we operated on 509 patients!

Guwahati is the capital of the state of Assam.  The people speak Assamese or Hindi or (occasionally) English.  I have only seen a very small portion of the very large country of India, but Guwahati was the most polluted of the cities I visited and the poverty was the most in-your-face here.

However, as always, the children were resilient and adorable.

she looks sweet here, but just moments before this picture she was attacking me with her panda doll

family before son's surgery

passing the time before surgery

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Darjeeling. My cup of tea.

Darjeeling, India is tucked way up in the northeast section of India, close to Nepal, Bhutan, and China.  It is home to the world-famous tea and also the world’s 2nd highest train station.  It is not easy to get to – tourists have to fly into a small airport then take a 3-hour shared jeep ride through the mountains.  But the effort is worth it.  The city is perched on a hillside with breathtaking views of the Himalayas as the backdrop.

darjeeling on a map

the view of the Himalayas from my hotel window.

The big attraction in town is heading out at 4:30 am to a nearby hilltop to view the sunrise.  On a clear day, you can catch a glimpse of Mt. Everest.  Now, I have noticed that everything in India has different classes available and this hill is no exception.  There’s a building with several classes of accommodation for waiting for the sun.  Our small group from the hotel chose the Super Deluxe class, which put us in at the very top of a 3-story building in a room with large windows and cozy armchairs.  This way we could look down on the commoners.  That is, until we decided sunsets are better watched from outside and thus joined them in the cold.

misty mountains

mount everest is in the background. i know it is tiny and blurry, just trust me.

the Super Deluxe citizens were up top

Along the way back from watching the sun rise, we stopped at several Buddhist monasteries, aka gompas.

monastery est. 1850

Buddhist monk school

Japanese peace pagoda

peace pagoda up close

Darjeeling has a strong Tibetan influence and I visited the Tibetan Refugee Center to learn more about refugees in the area.  The center, built in 1959, provides housing, health care, and job training for Tibetans.  They make the famous Tibetan carpets through a process which takes longer than I can imagine working on one project.

refugee center

Tibetan making shoes

I also went to the Himalayan mountain zoo.  I always love the idea of going to zoos because I love weird animals, but then I get there and I remember I don’t really like zoos because the animals are in cages that are sometimes too small.  This zoo seemed pretty decent and even had a snow leopard and red pandas.  As legend has it, red pandas are bad luck to see in the wild.  I hope it is not back luck to stare at them in a zoo because I surely did stare.  They are probably some of the cutest things I’ve ever seen, even trumping my kittens and puppies calendar of 2010.

red panda doing its thing

Between the mountain views, Buddhist monasteries, and quaint streets, Darjeeling has a lot to offer a traveler.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.

Naturally, I will conclude with a tea metaphor: Darjeeling was lovely to sip on.

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Udaipur. Elegant enough for James Bond.

After a quick (I use that term loosely) overnight train ride from Jaipur, I arrived in Udaipur, said to be the most romantic city in this part of India.   It has been my favorite city so far.  It feels smaller, has lovely winding roads, and is set next to a lake.  I could actually get out my map, walk the city, and not get (too) lost.  Though it is smaller, thankfully you don’t lose the Indian charm of traffic, tourist shops, street vendors, and cows roaming the streets.

the view from my hotel rooftop

once the royalty's summer home. now a luxury resort. "keeping commoners out since the 1500's."

Udaipur is also the place where the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed.  You can even watch the movie at 7pm at your choice of several restaurants in town.  I decided to save the movie for when I get back to the states.

The big attraction in town is the City Palace, set on the lake.

the palace, as seen from across the lake

one of the many palace courtyards

royal rachel

royal garbage van

In Udaipur I also began a new diet, thanks to getting sick from my favorite Indian meal of the trip.  Good thing I love irony almost as much as I love food.  Prior to this occurrence, the food had been fantastic.  Unfortunately, I had to cancel my cooking class because at the time I didn’t think I could stomach it.  But I am still planning to learn how to make a few dishes (look out friends back home!).

I also visited a Hindu temple, but more on that later…

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Agra and Jaipur. Palaces and Forts.


I spent one more day in Agra after visiting the Taj (which is closed on Fridays for services at the mosque).  Since big Taj was closed I visited Baby Taj, the precursor to normal Taj.  This particular Taj, though smaller, had more intricate details throughout.  Semi-precious stones were inlaid in the marble.  And, unlike normal Taj, Baby Taj has peaceful gardens with not many people so you can stroll at your leisure or even have a seat and enjoy the beauty.

tiny Taj

semi-precious details

Next I visited Agra Fort, built in the 1500’s and home to the great Mughal rulers of the day.  This was also the Fort where Shah Jahan (who built the Taj) was held captive during the last years of his life.

Now, this fort should really be called a city because it is huge!  It’s built of mostly red sandstone, but also has sections of marble on top.  You can wander the grounds for hours and get lost amongst the passageways.  It was fun to imagine what it looked like back in its prime.

outside the fort. there is a moat you can't see. and a drawbridge. and an entranceway designed so that elephants cannot break the door down

tower overlooking the river and a distant Taj

where one ruler's 500 harem lived in underground apartments. yes i said 500.


Jaipur is the third city in the Golden Triangle of tourism here in northern India (the first two are Delhi and Agra).  Though Jaipur is large, the old city is surprisingly navigable.  I visited the City Palace, yet another surprisingly large, sprawling city with various courtyards, balconies, and passageways.

in front of the palace

in front of the palace with the indians who asked to take their picture with me.

in front of one of the doors representing the four seasons. i think this one is summer?

Next I saw an observatory built in the 1700’s that has various instruments to track celestial bodies.  The park was filled with different concrete objects built for specific purposes.

a giant sundial! it can tell the time accurate to 2 seconds. not very portable though

there were structures for each zodiac sign to measure celestial latitude and longitude of celestial bodies. all i know is i wanted a picture in front of Taurus.

I also visited (yet another) fort built on a hill overlooking the city.  This fort had a palace attached where a king lived with his nine queens.  The queens each had identical apartments surrounding a courtyard.  When the king wished to visit one of the queens, he used a special hallway built connecting all the apartments.  Good to be king, I suppose.

view from the hill where the fort is. this is jaipur's floating palace.

This trip has been quite the adventure so far.  I feel like everything I see should be in National Geographic.  I’ll post more about daily life/challenges/frustrations/surprises later, but wanted to get these pictures up first.

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The Taj

Today I saw the Taj Mahal, the she really must have been something special monument that took some 20 years to build and cost some $40 million.  Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, died while giving birth to their 14th child.  The husband started building the Taj (her mausoleum) right away, but soon after it was finished his son threw him out of power.  He had to gaze at the Taj through a window at the Agra Fort, where he was held captive until he died.

What a story, huh?

There is a lot of hype surrounding the Taj.  From my perspective, all the hullabaloo is completely deserved.  Even though it is draining to ignore the touts of hundreds trying to sell you things everywhere you look, it is absolutely worth the visit.  I have heard the best times to visit are sunrise and sunset because the marble walls really come to life.  I can speak to the sunset and I can only imagine a sunrise.

the gate to enter the main garden area and see the first full view of the Taj

The gardens inside were beautiful.  From the gardens to the mosque and buildings on each side, the Taj is bilaterally symmetrical.  It is as tall as it is wide.  It’s also built on a platform of marble so the only thing in the backdrop is sky.

i only had to fight for a few minutes for this shot

up close. it is big.

You can enter the actual structure where the tombs are, but photography is not allowed.  The marble walls are covered in paintings, marble etchings of flowers, and calligraphy.  The details are exquisite.

taj sandwich on tree bread

this might go on the wall someday

All in all, it was a phenomenal experience that I highly recommend.  And I can’t help but think: that Mumtaz Mahal must have been one foxy lady.

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