What to do with 3 days in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a pretty small city compared to other Western European capitals, but there’s a ton of sites to see.

A visit to the Red Light District does make for an amusing first time visit. Try not to be an asshole and take pictures, the ladies have protectors who are on the street observing and if you’re caught taking photos, your phone/camera WILL end up in a canal. There’s tons of little sex shops and sex shows everywhere (my personal favorite is laughing at all the cockamamie names of the porn).

Red Light District (away from the windows, so it's ok)

Red Light District (away from the windows, so it’s ok)

Fun fact: only 5% of the women are Dutch. Women of the same heritage are alongside each other in their windows. That’s right, you can stroll through the Latina women, Asian, African, Eastern European, you name it! My favorite is that De Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest church, is in a small square right across from where the Dominican prostitutes have their windows. Also look out for the blue lights, those are the transsexual ladies.

RLD by boat

RLD by boat

De Oude Kerk at night

De Oude Kerk at night

Check out Warmoesstraat! It’s my favorite street in Amsterdam! It’s exactly what you’d picture it to look like. It’s one of the oldest streets and it’s lined with art galleries, coffeeshops, leather bars, quick bites, and fetish shops. It’s very colorful and a great place to spend some time to enjoy the strange juxtapositions that make Amsterdam an amazing city.

Amsterdam Centraal is a marvelous piece of architecture, and unless you are flying in, will be the first place you find yourself in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam Centraal

Amsterdam Centraal

In the center of Amsterdam you can walk along Damrak and eventually hit Amsterdam’s Dam Square (oh how I love that name), the biggest in the city. It has the National Monument and the ornate Dutch Royal Palace, and not surprisingly is filled with tourists. You may not be able to get a picture without anyone else in it, but the architecture is really impressive.

National Monument

National Monument

Dam Square & Royal Palace

Dam Square & Royal Palace

You’ll also find the Sex Museum, which is the first one in the world. It’s worth a quick visit; it’s informative and can easily be done in an hour. But the highlight to Amsterdam’s downtown to me is Begijnhof. It’s a quiet oasis in the middle of downtown, a tranquil little courtyard with a garden and tiny houses. Outside the entrance is a cute little square called Spui.

Beginjhof, my favorite spot in Amsterdam

Begijnhof, my favorite spot in Amsterdam

Beginjhof

Beginjhof

Spui square

Spui square

In the Western Canals there’s the Anne Frank Huis, where she hid captive for many years and of course where her diary was written. I went on my first visit, but I passed it this visit and the line was extremely long. I would recommend getting up early and being the first one there, it definitely is a great museum. Around the block along the canal there is the Homomonument which is a monument dedicated to the plight of LGBT individuals and their continued journey for equal rights worldwide. It may seem visually underwhelming, but it is the first of its kind! Brownie points to Amsterdam.

Western Canals

Western Canals

In the Southern Canals, there’s Rembrandtplein, a fairly large square where locals come to enjoy some sun in the summer, and where many of Amsterdam’s most popping nightclubs are. There’s also the Bloemenmarkt, which is Amsterdam’s flower market, very worthy of some colorful photos.

There is an array of museums that many visit that I’ve never gotten the chance to go which include:

The Van Gogh Museum & Rijkmuseum (where the famous Amsterdam sign is)

The Heineken Experience – a tour of the brewery and some free Heineken included

The Hash, Hemp & Marijuana Museum

The Amsterdam Dungeon (which has displays on all the various methods for medieval torture practiced in Europe)

Rembrandthuis (home to the artist Rembrandt)

Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum

Lastly, Amsterdam has an amazing selection of food! Did you know that Maoz (really good Middle Eastern food and falafel) is from Amsterdam? Waffle stands are everywhere, the traditional Dutch way is to just have it with the caramelized sugar. Although many kebab shops and other places add colorful frosting to the waffles, it’s not traditional but it sure is tasty!

Enjoying the non-authentic waffles

Enjoying the non-authentic waffles

There are tons of Indonesian and Surinamese restaurants. Thanks to Dutch colonialism, these two cultures are very prevalent in Amsterdam. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to eat Indonesian, but I tried Surinamese at Kam Yin, which is very close to Amsterdam Centraal.

Although I was originally skeptical since it’s a Surinamese/Chinese restaurant, this was recommended to me by several Surinamese people that I met throughout my stay. The owner is from Suriname, the décor is Chinese. The Surinamese dishes are very Caribbean: seafood and rice heavy, but the Surinamese spices that are offered on your table are utterly delicious (not for the light-hearted!).

For a taste of Dutch, try Moeders (means mothers in Dutch, how precious). It’s an adorable establishment along a canal in Jordaan where it’s all home-cooked and hearty Dutch food. Inside there’s hundreds of pictures frames of customers and their mothers. If you bring your mother on her birthday, she eats for free and they arrange a special surprise for her. This restaurant was the highlight of Amsterdam and Dutch cuisine for us. The clientele were largely Amsterdam suburbanites who drive a good hour just for hearty homemade cuisine that reminds people of the holidays and the Dutch truly celebrating their culture, it’s a magnificent place to experience. I’ve included the names of what we ate, descriptions available here.

Moeder's

Moeder’s

View from outdoor table

View from outdoor table

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The appetizers! Above: Small egg in the meadow (most precious name ever) Below: Miss pumpkin

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The main course! Above: Hachée Below: Vegetarian Hotchpotch

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Dessert! Above: Dutch Delight Below: Chocolate party is possible (amazing name)

Van Dobben (website only in Dutch) near Rembrandtplein is another place to try Dutch food, specializing in Dutch meats. The meat croquettes are filling and delicious, they’re also open late to cater to drunk clientele.

For drinking, Roest is one of the hotspots with locals right now. Located in the Eastern Docklands of Amsterdam, Roest is set in converted industrial buildings which have outdoor picnic table seating for a nice day, and there’s live music a lot of the time. This is one of the best spots to meet locals in Amsterdam and to get more suggestions about where to go. A small disclaimer, if you arrive after 8pm you will have to take the long way around. There is a pedestrian bridge that closes after 8pm and if you start heading there to find it closed, the detour is about a 20 minute walk. Plan ahead.

Deals:

There is the I Amsterdam City Card which will give you unlimited transport (the trams are extremely efficient and convenient), free entry to many of Amsterdam’s attractions, city map, and access to special offers.

Where to stay:

Flying Pig Downtown – This is my all-time favorite hostel (and I’ve stayed in quite a few). Great location, great atmosphere, great staff and a great set up for the common areas. Rooms are clean and of good value.

Hotel Atlanta – Good value, some rooms overlook Rembrandtplein and very good location to sites in the Southern Canals.

Hotel V Fredericksplein – A little further out in a quiet area, but very sheik and modern looking hotel. Decent value, and breakfast is included and it’s pretty good.

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Queens Pride in Jackson Heights

New York City is quite the destination during gay pride season, seeing as there’s not only a pride festival for each individual borough, but also Harlem as well. My personal favorite is Queens Pride, since not only is it in my all time favorite NYC neighborhood but it’s a very unique setting. Jackson Heights masters the art of gay neighborhood bars and clubs, with a really fun-loving Latino crowd. I’ve been going to these gay bars since 2008, and it’s one of the few places that haven’t been tainted by gentrification, brunch culture, and circuit parties in NYC. That is not to say that it doesn’t get crowded and crazy, I’ve had many fun nights here partying. But the people who go are what really make it special. It’s a mainly low-key Spanish speaking crowd in bars that have drag shows in Spanish, and all types of Latin music. It’s definitely fun to check out if you’ve never experienced it before.

My husband & I at Queens pride

My husband & I at Queens pride

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Various hilarious and creative costumes in the parade

Take the E,F,M,R, or 7 train to 74th Street and Roosevelt Avenue to arrive in Jackson Heights. The pride festivities consist of:

  • a parade (that marches down 37th Avenue, 1-2 blocks north of the subway),
  • two main stages with drag shows, dancing & singing performances, and a ton of street carts and vendors (concentrated on 37th Road, 1 block north of the subway),
  • the bars and clubs are spread out but mainly on Roosevelt Avenue in a 12 block radius.

In the parade there are familiar faces (the famed Miss Colombia who appears at just about every parade in NYC), local politicians, and various cultural groups from all over the city – many catering to different groups of color (LGBT North Africans for example), The choices for gay bars include Hombres Lounge (younger crowd, hookahs available), Friend’s Tavern, The Music Box, True Colors (all neighborhood bars, the first 2 having outdoor space), and Club Evolution (3 bars and ample space to dance and socialize). Besides the gay choices, there’s tons of Latino sports and dive bars to hang out at, all very reasonably priced. Queens pride tends to get crowded, but nowhere near as crowded as Manhattan and unlike on Christopher Street there’s much more space for movement in Queens.

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Perfect plumage

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The famed Miss Colombia

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Eat your heart out Lady Gaga circa 2010 #queenswhorecycle

Where Carinval meets Pride!

Where Carinval meets Pride!

And don’t get me started on the food. Jackson Heights is the most diverse zip code in the world, the population being mixed Latino from the Caribbean, Central America, and South American, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and a sprinkling of old-school Italian and Russian communities. Needless to say, it’s a festival in one of the most ethnically blessed neighborhoods ever, the options are unlimited. Colombian empanadas, tacos, momos, curry kebab, rice & beans, and Thai fried rice are just some of your choices here. These are some of the many reasons that I’m proud to show off Queens, and I’m ok with most people living in NYC thinking that it’s lame here since it keeps a more authentic feel to what it means to be from Queens.

Have you been to Jackson Heights? What about Queens pride?

Another lovely surprise – St. Louis

St. Louis, Missouri is an interesting city at the crossroads of a few regions. Is it Midwestern? Southern? Great Plains? The general consensus is that it’s a Midwestern city, and you know what that means….good food and good beer! Tons of beers come from St. Louis (some good others maybe not so much). Anheuster-Busch, the largest brewing company in the country, is responsible for the births of Budweiser, Busch, Natural Ice, Natural Light, and Michelob. Other microbrews that were delicious were Schlafly and Urban Chestnut; but there are many others. Urban Chestnut Brewery is right in the Grove area with a very ample space to drink and unwind, some of it outdoors.

Gateway Arch

Gateway Arch

Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis

Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Where the infamous Dred Scott decision occurred, being one of the causes of the American Civil War.

St. Louis also has wonderful architecture, including the plethora of Victorian style homes in the Lafayette Square area, the are in which I stayed. The streets are lined with gorgeous colorful houses, a series of gardens, and a square as its centerpiece (which happens to be the first city park in the country west of the Mississippi River). The houses built during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in Forest Park are extravagant and beautiful also.

Lafayette Square architecture

Lafayette Square architecture

Cute house in Lafayette Square

Cute house in Lafayette Square

Forest Park World's Fair house

Forest Park World’s Fair house

Forest Park World's Fair house

Forest Park World’s Fair house

In the downtown area, the Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse cannot be missed. However, an attraction you might not know of is the City Museum. It may have an ordinary name, but it’s an extraordinary experience. It isn’t really easy to describe in words, but it almost seems nostalgic to a time of childlike exploration. It’s an attraction that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. This place has mazes, tunnels, ball pits, slides, a funhouse among much more. It’s all made of found items and it’s in a reclaimed space of a former shoe factory. This place could easily keep you busy for 3-4 hours. They also conveniently have restaurants on-site for when you work up an appetite.  It’s a true marvel to the city and a phenomenal example of a local business.

Exit from one of the tunnels in the City Museum

Exit from one of the tunnels in the City Museum

Outdoor obstacle course

Outdoor obstacle course

Largest pair of underwear in the world on display at the City Museum

Largest pair of underwear in the world on display at the City Museum

Our host on one of the many slides

Our host on one of the many slides

Finally, there is a marvelous amount of street art in the Grove area. This is probably some of the best graffiti that I’ve ever seen outside of San Francisco, NYC, and Berlin. The Grove is the gayborhood of St. Louis; it’s got a lot of restaurants and bars down the strip, many with their own personal business street art.

Welcome to the Grove

Welcome to the Grove

Street art in the Grove

Street art in the Grove

Famous graffiti artist in STL - his signature is the one eyed face, it's all over the city.

Famous graffiti artist in STL – his signature is the one eyed face, it’s all over the city.

Street art in the Grove

Street art in the Grove

More street art in the Grove

More street art in the Grove

Even more street art in the Grove

Even more street art in the Grove

Have you been to St. Louis? How was your experience there?

Chattanooga – a lovely surprise

Would you go to Chattanooga, Tennessee? Most people might not consider it. But that’s too bad, because it’s a beautiful city. I visited a few weeks ago awhile there was a deep fog descended on the whole city, it was really eerie but, in a way, mystical.

Back in the 1960s it was dubbed ‘the dirtiest city in America’ and it was shamed into cleaning up and revitalizing its downtown. When I saw it, I honestly couldn’t tell at all because it was really neat and in order. Even though the downtown was pretty empty, Chattanooga was making use of its space. The empty office buildings were hosts to local art installations, turning inactivity into opportunity.

Art installation in downtown storefront window

Art installation in downtown storefront window

Chattanooga has some very nice local spots. For southern food and barbeque, try Sugar’s Ribs downtown location. The chili, brisket, mac’n cheese, and grilled okra are all winners. Don’t forget my personal favorite…the sweet tea! Did I mention that there are unlimited refills?! This place is exactly where you want to go for local flavor, also because they frequently have live music.

Right across the street there’s an adorable cupcake shop called Cupcake Kitchen. They’ve got various interesting flavors such as key lime pie, red velvet, cookie dough, and s’mores (which I tried and it was delicious).

Cupcake Kitchen selection

Cupcake Kitchen selection

Across the Tennessee River from downtown there’s a really lively area filled with all kinds of interesting bars and restaurants. Along the river there’s Coolidge Park, a beautiful city park complete with carousel, greenery, riverboat, and awesome river views. From here you can walk onto the pedestrian-friendly Walnut Street Bridge for a scenic view of the park and downtown.

Carousel in Coolidge Park

Carousel in Coolidge Park

Carousel from atop the Walnut Street Bridge

Carousel from atop the Walnut Street Bridge

View of downtown atop the Walnut Street Bridge

View of downtown atop the Walnut Street Bridge

Riverboat on the Tennessee River

Riverboat on the Tennessee River

Other attractions include the Chattanooga aquarium (which is the largest freshwater aquarium in the world) and Ruby Falls, my personal favorite. Ruby Falls is located deep inside Lookout Mountain, aptly located in a mountain overlooking the city. Those who decide to go are awarded with scenic mountaintop views, an incline railway, hand-gliding, and the tallest underground waterfall in the world. Unfortunately it was too foggy to enjoy the scenic view, but Ruby Falls made up for it. To see it, you enter an elevator that takes you underground further than the height of the Empire State Building. After, you hike about 30 minutes to get to the falls. It’s incredible that it was discovered so many years ago without the technology we have today. On the way you pass dozens of bizarre stalagmite and stalactite formations, all with creative and humorous names. When you arrive at the falls, they light up with different colors to view in its splendor. You can just barely get the entire waterfall in a photo if you crotch down. Be sure to bring a jacket! It gets cold down there.

Ruby Falls in all its beauty

Ruby Falls in all its beauty

Foggy scenic view

Foggy scenic view

“Cigar leaves” stalactite

Cave innards

Cave innards

Lastly, for a drink in a spooky vibe, much like from an episode of the Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks, choose Lamar’s. The setting is in a motel that seems abandoned from the outside. There are strange rules for conduct, a 25 year old age minimum, and some of the strangest service I’ve ever seen. A bonafide you-need-to-see-it-to-believe-it kind of experience. You pass through a dark hallway to get to the bar in the back, which has a creepy dimmed light, making for a supernatural vibe. The only things lit are a crest of arms illuminating behind the bar and a jukebox radiating blue and pink light. The crowd is mainly friendly older black gentlemen, which makes for a truly unique and local experience.

Bar and vibes in Lamar's

Bar and vibes in Lamar’s

Jukebox and vibes at Lamar's

Jukebox and vibes at Lamar’s

Have you been to Chattanooga? What were your impressions? Is there a small city that struck you as a lovely surprise?

Washington, D.C.: Capital paradise

In the last few months I returned to one of my favorite cities in the entire world, Washington, D.C. after 3 years of not visiting.

Washington, D.C. is so much more than politics and business. Sure, they bring an interesting and unique dynamic to the city, but that’s not all there is. My best friend lived there for 5 years, so I had the pleasure of visiting a bunch of times. It’s the type of city that every time you visit, you love it more. It’s a myriad of cultures mixed together. Outdoorsy like the Pacific Northwest, somewhat Southern, extremely European elegance, residents from multiple states, and nationalities from all over the globe. It really is a fair representation of the USA, since it has a little bit of everything.

The preferred mode of transport for many DC residents is bike. Cycling is an easy means of commuting, and a favorite activity for the many outdoor enthusiasts. Everywhere you go you see people cycling and jogging, it’s a city filled with fitness. Nearby hiking trails in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland are favorites to the city residents.

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Biking in Georgetown

My husband and I were visiting a friend of ours in DC, and we braved out the rain and decided to bike through Georgetown and the National Mall to see the monuments. It’s much bigger than people imagine, so walking it can possibly take more than half of a day. So we decided biking was more convenient, especially when wanting to cross the winding Tidal Basin to get to the Jefferson Memorial.

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Drizzly day at the Washington Monument

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Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial

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On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking at the Washington Memorial

What’s also nice about DC is that you can meet people from any state there. I’ve met people from Arkansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Alaska just to name a few. Some being the only people I’ve met from those  states. You really get a sense that it is the capital of the country. At the same time you get glimpses of southernness, even though it doesn’t look or feel southern (other than its crazy summer heat). But then you notice the slower pace, friendly locals, Chesapeake seafood, humid weather, jazz, southern BBQ and many residents from the southern states and you start to think otherwise… And of course, it’s got immigrants from all over. Most notable are the residents from El Salvador, Korea, India, Mexico, and Vietnam, which constitute the 5 largest. For a curveball, there’s an increasing amount of immigrants from the UK arriving, and there’s a good amount of Ethiopians as well.

In fact, DC is supposed to have some of the best Ethiopian food in the country, and I believe it. Little Ethiopia is concentrated on 9th street between U & T street. My favorite spot is Zenebech Injera for no-frills hearty and authentic Ethiopian cuisine. My favorite being the vegetarian combo which contains tomatoes, red lentils, collard greens, chickpea stew, cabbage, yellow split peas with the unique injera bread. For those who haven’t had Ethiopian food before, you eat everything with your hands. You wrap up the rest of the food by scooping it into the injera bread. It’s very flavorful, blending spices and tastes from East Africa and India.

Ethiopian food

My favorite part about DC is just how lovely and stroll worthy it is. It’s one of the best cities to just take a relaxing walk through, especially in the summer in the evening.

Have you been to Washington DC? What’s your favorite part about it?

Happy wanderings,

Wanderlust Guru

Saint Patrick’s Day in Savannah

Wow what a blast! Hailing from New York and attending Saint Patrick’s Day in Rockaway, NY (a very very Irish neighborhood) almost every year, I thought I knew all about the wonders of Irish-American shenanigans. But boy was my mind expanded. Savannah Saint Patrick’s Day was in a complete league of its own. Unfortunately I attended during a road trip and wasn’t able to get there in time for the parade, so that was a miss. But the party was still going really strong at 4pm when I arrived, and throughout the whole night.

Getting ready for Savannah Saint Patrick's Day

Getting ready for Savannah Saint Patrick’s Day

There’s music everywhere, people wandering the streets making new friends, and just general good fun going on. The activity was revolving around the street right along the river and also in Savannah’s plethora of squares (I’ve never seen so many squares outside of a European city). The city is absolutely beautiful and everyone is having a great time, and the best part is you can drink openly on the streets legally just as long as it’s not in a glass bottle and it’s contained to a 16 oz cup (but that doesn’t mean you can’t have more supplies in a small knapsack as well).

Monument in one of Savannah's squares

Monument in one of Savannah’s squares

River street in Savannah

River street in Savannah

The festival has a lot of great dancing, people-watching, and food (the shrimp gumbo!!) but above all the people were really friendly and fantastic to meet. None of the bars had covers, and I found that the drinks were pretty cheap also. It definitely lives up to the hype, and I would dare to say that it’s more fun than the ones here in New York City.

Keeping it classy in a kilt

Keeping it classy in a kilt

Has anyone ever been to Savannah for Saint Patrick’s Day before? I would highly recommend keeping it in mind for next year.

Ridiculous (and free) first night in Eilat, Israel

It was November 2011 in Israel. I was on a bus heading to Eilat with my crazy travel companion, a beautiful and out of her mind Jewish Argentine girl named Nena. We’re on the bus where we met this Israeli guy named Gus and his friend Azaf, who is a little person. Nena and Gus were smoking a cigarette at a pit stop before we headed into the Negev desert. Nena befriends Gus and gets us free alcohol. Gus and Azaf join us and sit with us, and Gus immediately starts pouring us vodka beverages. At 1pm. We oblige. There was minimal communication with Azaf since he doesn’t speak any English but he’s encouraging enough with his smiles. We’re laughing, and before you know it we obliterated a bottle of vodka between the four of us, and we’re in Eilat. Gus casually says “Ok well we’re going to my best friend’s Mazie’s place you should come join us for dinner”. We oblige, luggage and all, and found ourselves surrounding a coffee table with 12 other Israelis who spoke not a word of English. We were a little uncomfortable but they were feeding us and giving us all this alcohol, which doesn’t need any translation to anyone of the backpacker variety.

Suddenly, all of Mazie’s friends are gone and they suggest we go to the ice bar. Mind you, Nena had 2 shekels in her wallet, and I had 0. Gus and Mazie pay for everything, and next thing we know we have a photoshoot done and there’s 75 pictures of us donned out in the ice bar gear (several of which I was giving Azaf a piggy-back ride). We’re having fun going down the ice slide, taking shots, and taking cheesy photos. While our tour guide was distracted, Nena and I were behind the bar taking even more shots of vodka.

We get back to Mazie’s place at 1.30am. When it looked like we were going to stay in Mazie blurts out NO WE ARE GOING OUT. She calls up her friend “FatBitch” and we go to her place where we continue to drink and smoke shisha (because that’s what all Israelis like to do while pregaming). We go to a club, FatBitch buys us all shots. We are particularly alluring to the club photographer and pursues to take perhaps 40 photos of us. That night is better documented than my high school and college graduation combined, believe me. The club was fun, and the night was a success because Nena and I didn’t spend not even 1 shekel. We are walking back to Mazie’s place where she said we could stay the night. A few blocks before we arrive to Mazie’s place she flirts with a HotGardener. It’s 5am. Mazie gives HotGardener her phone number.

Gus is sleeping in Mazie’s bed, the 4 of us cuddle. We only met half a day ago. Mazie wakes us up at 8am to kick us out of bed. HotGardener is coming over for a booty call. Nena and I proceed to the kitchen. We some cereal bars and fruits. 7 minutes go by and Mazie is kicking HotGardener out of the apartment, turns out he was a one minute man. Eilat is too small of a town for this to not go unnoticed.

We leave to go to the hostel we were supposed to be checked into the night before. The HostelOwner is obviously pissed we didn’t show up. HostelOwner wants to charge us for the night even though we weren’t there. We tell HostelOwner that our bus broke down in the middle of the Negev dessert and we were stranded overnight for 11 hours before a replacement arrived and that we caught colds in the cold of the desert (this comes back to bite us in the ass later). HostelOwner doesn’t buy it. Nena threatens to bring our business elsewhere, HostelOwner abides. Jews outsmarting Jews.

Moral of the story is when traveling, go with the flow and oblige and random things will happen to you. And to travel with someone equally ridiculous and spontaneous as you.

So what was our logical next move? Not to sleep of course but to mount a camel….to be continued.