Finally, it is here… my 2018 newsletter!
I know you have all been checking this page daily, if not hourly, in anticipation.
I wouldn’t blame you if this were true: 2018 has been an eventful year at ANJCI ALL OVER. My travel schedule has taken a few borderline-insane twists, leaving me exhausted but content in the run-up to New Year’s Eve. Before the year ends, I will have managed to visit seven entirely new countries and set foot in 19, spending 123 days away from London. Not bad for working full-time!
2018 has seen me visit several particularly memorable destinations. I have travelled to Afghanistan twice and have grown comfortable enough to be planning my third trip there in 2019. I spent two weeks road-tripping Tajikistan, cursing the unimaginably poor Pamir roads but never ceasing to be amazed by the utmost hospitality of locals. I have clocked up four new Greek islands to reach a (questionable?) goal of having visited 50 to date (where is my certificate?). And I flew to Libya for a long weekend of traipsing around some of the most impressive Roman ruins in my memory while trying to avoid local police – which, of course, I miserably failed to do.
Squatting on a rusty Soviet tank in Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan: possibly the theme of the entire 2018
As for professional achievements, 2018, amazingly, fared even better than travel. I have finally recovered from a long bout of work-related disappointments to receive my first promotion in years, gathering stellar feedback, gaining a “Principal” prefix to my title and notably improving my financial and reputational standing. Unsurprisingly, I am finishing 2018 in a better position than ever: after spending years unsure about my next steps I, for once, have a more or less clear vision of the next couple of years. Spoiler alert: they will involve plenty of travel and will not involve getting fired.
Other areas of my life likewise stayed on track in 2018. I have continued to attend Greek and Japanese language classes in Central London, which, albeit exhausting to cycle to and from, influence my everyday life in positive, fulfilling ways. And, in case two language commitments were not enough, I have recently kicked off Farsi classes with Tina at Farsi Wizard, this time via Skype – I really couldn’t have managed another regular evening activity if it wasn’t from the comfort of my home. After three trips to Persian-speaking countries in 2018, it is of little surprise that I currently find myself enamoured with all things Farsi. I do not entertain any particular aspirations with regards to my future with the language, but it would be great to hold more than just a basic conversation next time I am in Iran, Afghanistan or Tajikistan – or mingling with some of the many Persian speakers scattered elsewhere in the world.
…or effectively cancelling out my efforts by visiting the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan where Tajik speakers are a minority
At the close of 2018, I am frantically wrapping up my remaining work to close my laptop for the rest of the year and fly to Eritrea where I will be spending two weeks over Christmas and New Year. I have more exciting destinations planned for 2019, but let’s leave this discussion until next year – and focus instead on recapping the main happenings in my life in 2018. Here goes!
2018 NEWSLETTER: WINTER
It almost seems like a dream now, but I kicked off my 2018 in the faraway Nicaragua, a country I had not initially been planning to visit and pulled into my travel plans almost at the last moment. At the close of 2017, it took me grandiose efforts to stay awake until midnight after a day of active sight-seeing, and my reward was watching the entire centre of the stunning old colonial city of Granada transform itself into a large-scale street party. Granada’s historic centre being fairly small, I swiftly took myself to bed at 12:30am – the best possible start of any year.
Continuing to Ometepe, a twin-volcano island off the western shores of the vast Lake Nicaragua, I had not expected the tiny community of Merida to become the highlight of my entire visit to Nicaragua. Not only does the Hacienda Merida guesthouse have a to-die-for view over Ometepe’s unmatched landscape and easy access to the Maderas volcano hiking trail, it is also well known locally for its efforts to provide quality education to local children through the Ometepe Bilingual School project.
Hacienda Merida might just have topped the list of views I ever enjoyed from the doorstep of a hotel
Very unfortunately, Nicaragua plunged into political instability a few months into 2018, sparking off violent protests in the country’s major cities and shutting down most of its tourism industry. The government is currently trying to lure back tourists while keeping a tight grip on security (and, as it happens, violating a number of human rights in the process). Ometepe is easy to get to from the safety of Costa Rica and has remained relatively untouched by the recent political developments, and Hacienda Merida needs you more than ever. If you cannot visit, it is easy to donate to Ometepe Bilingual School here.
Returning to London, I settled into my usual winter routine involving work, gym, language classes and very little travel. Oddly, I also spent weeks battling a very persistent spell of bronchitis and just about dragged on with my daily life, only managing a couple of weekends in Riga before spring – and, with it, my recovery – came knocking on the door.
READ MORE: HOW I (DON’T) CHOOSE MY NEXT DESTINATION
Despite travelling at what most people would consider a crazy pace, I never really explored my own city, Riga, being content to cruise my favourite eateries and spend time with my parents. Last winter though saw me start a new tradition with Dad who, now unemployed, suddenly had lots of time on his hands: visiting a new tourist sight in Riga every time I was in town. To kick off the new tradition in style, in February Dad and I visited the 17th floor of the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a Stalin-era skyscraper with knock-out views over Riga’s cityscape. It is now my favourite panoramic view of Riga – ahead even of the widely celebrated St. Peter’s Church – and I highly recommend that you come and see for yourselves!
2018 NEWSLETTER: SPRING
I started spring with devastating news: having been in the works for some time, my pending promotion was overturned on a technicality, plunging me into a deep depression complete with recurring nightmares, suicidal thoughts and too much alcohol. I travelled to Faro, Portugal for a weekend in March to change the scene a bit and felt I was doing well, until a seemingly innocent incident before my return flight triggered a major emotional meltdown. I cried the entire flight to London, the bus journey from Gatwick and well into the following night. Faro was fantastic, but depression had started taking its toll on my mental stability.
I carried on the best I could, travelling to Bucharest, Romania on a business trip and staying the weekend to visit Sibiu, a beautifully preserved Transylvanian city. I enjoyed downing shots of palinca in Sibiu’s traditional restaurants and was excited to bring back the memories of travelling on crammed Romanian trains for hours on end. Very pointedly, the train on my return journey from Sibiu to Bucharest was delayed a whopping 332 minutes (precision!), forcing me to take emergency measures – hitch-hiking – to make my return flight. This could have gone terribly wrong, but instead turned out a fun story to tell: I was picked up by Paul, a heating specialist at one of Romania’s prisons, a heavy metal fan and a larger-than-life character. We had a blast playing Romanian rock songs in his car (which, naturally, was a Dacia), and I made it to the airport in one piece. Memorable!
The following weekend brought along some no-less-weird exploits. I had for some time entertained the idea of visiting Skrunda-1, a military camp at a former Soviet radar station in Western Latvia. Hearing rumours that its closure to visitors was imminent, I hurried to see Latvia’s legendary ghost town. Making my way through the forest and sliding on frozen streams to enter Skrunda-1 one frosty morning in March, I was puzzled by how getting into a deserted collection of abandoned buildings seemed so unbelievably difficult. It wasn’t until I had spent a good couple of hours on the site – having the time of my life unearthing kitsch Soviet memorabilia – that I was intercepted by a guard who informed me that public access to Skrunda-1 had, in fact, already been banned. The guard was gracious enough to lead me to the mosaic of Lenin in the former officers’ club – the main reason I had come – before escorting me out. Very sadly, Skrunda-1 is now under full control of the Latvian Army as an urban warfare training ground and lost to us tourists. Do not trespass!
The start of my next major trip, to Sudan, was, sadly, marred by a sandstorm in Khartoum, causing my connecting flight to be cancelled and myself to be stuck in Doha for a day. Having looked forward immensely to visiting Sudan and having the unwanted opportunity to reconfirm Qatar as my least favourite country, I was understandably less than happy. I did eventually make it to Sudan and was amazed by a superbly welcoming, chilled nation that I, sadly, did not have the time to get to know better in a mere three days. Nevertheless, I made the most of my trip, zooming around to admire the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile rivers in Khartoum, the fascinating Nuba wrestling and the timeless Pyramids of Meroe, as well as photographing the Nile in the early mornings and wandering around Khartoum’s souks, striking conversations with locals at every chance. Above all, I loved staying at the Hotel Acropole, the oldest hotel in Khartoum, run by the remnants of what once was the capital’s bustling Greek community. Sudan could have been my favourite discovery of 2018, and I look forward to returning for a more comprehensive visit one day.
READ MORE: VISITING SUDAN: THE TRIP THAT ALMOST WASN’T
I spent most of April preparing for my first big trip of 2018, to Afghanistan. Understandably worried about spending an entire two weeks in such a non-conventional destination, I invested ample time before my trip in learning basic expressions in Farsi and reading up on other travellers’ experiences. It was decidedly not the best time to visit Afghanistan: the Taliban’s spring offensive had been announced mere days before my trip and a number of terrorist attacks were carried out while I was in the country, including the double-explosion attack in Kabul on 30 April which killed 10 journalists.
Despite the overwhelmingly tense situation in the country, I came to love Afghanistan almost instantly. I loved watching kites soar from Bibi Mahru Hill on late afternoons in Kabul and watching worshippers circle the magical Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-i Sharif. I fondly remember jumping from one abandoned Soviet tank to another and devouring freshly fried fish in the spectacular Panjshir Valley. I could spend hours exchanging basic phrases with elderly Sufis in the holy places of Herat, the city that became my favourite in Afghanistan. And, in case some of you haven’t noticed, I threw myself with utmost devotion into shooting countless portraits of locals – something I would consider moving to Afghanistan permanently for. Just exaggerating, of course.
Stopping over in Bahrain on my way back to London, I spent three days indulging in (legal) rooftop beers and going for random walks in insane humidity and dust storms. Amid all this I somehow managed to befriend Jawad, a retired Bahraini, and his sidekick Jamila, the young daughter of Jawad’s Filipino tenants. The three of us explored Bahrain’s sights – of which there were surprisingly few – before, relieved I no longer had to pretend Bahrain deserved three entire days, I flew back to London. The daily messages I continue to receive from Jawad have by now graduated from low-key good-morning wishes to declarations of undying love. Oh well!
And, by this, the spring was coming to an end. At the close of May, I flew to the Greek island of Samos to use up an Aegean Airlines voucher and get my “Greek fix” after weeks of traipsing around Afghanistan. At no surprise to anyone who knows me, I hired a scooter and zoomed around Samos’ hillside villages and beaches for four days. And, it turns out, it was exactly what I needed: some of the memorable experiences include getting flagged down randomly by local villagers in Spatharei and sharing a massive meal with them, complete with ouzo, as well as scoring a motorbike lift to the airport sat on the pillion behind the island’s legendary Pondios, the eccentric owner of the popular “El Coral” restaurant in Pythagoreion. Somehow Greece never ceases to offer me such random, surreal encounters, the memories of which stay with me forever.
I spent every sunset hour on Samos strolling around the pretty port of Pythagoreion, for obvious reasons
2018 NEWSLETTER: SUMMER
Compared to my insanely busy spring, the summer was relatively low-key. Alan and I kicked off June with a weekend in Amsterdam, the result of a joke between us about having some “unfinished business” from my times in Afghanistan (you can all guess what transpired!). We found the city insanely expensive – not helped by our rental flat cancelling on us at the eleventh hour (may the AirBnB mentality be damned) – but infinitely fun. Besides meeting two sets of friends, I am somehow not entirely sure what we managed to get up to the rest of the weekend – which might just be entirely understandable.
Fast forward to late June, and it was time to travel back to Greece! I had spent a while plotting a visit to the remote island of Anafi in the Cyclades archipelago, and the time was finally right. Anafi is not the easiest Greek island to travel to – there is no airport (yet) and many islands separate it from the port of Piraeus – but I found it every bit worth the effort. The island is known as a hikers’ paradise and is criss-crossed by multiple trails, several of which Alan and I explored. Did you know that Anafi boasts one of the largest monolithic peaks in the Mediterranean, Mount Kalamos? The trail leading up to it could easily be my favourite hike in all of the Greek islands.
My favourite experience from the week in Anafi though was, decidedly, traversing the north-eastern part of the island to end up in a tiny settlement of Lyvoskopos, populated by precisely one person, the charismatic Manolis. In the best Greek traditions, we were promptly invited for “coffee” – and, a bottle of tsikoudia, a live musical performance by the host and hours later, we still hadn’t moved a notch. Meeting Manolis was one of those unforgettable experiences you end up sharing anecdotes about many years later.
One short stopover on Ios later (my first – and probably last – popular Greek island in years), I was back in the absolutely sweltering London. After years of eye-rolling at us complaining Londoners, the weather gods finally decided to teach us a lesson. And learn a lesson we did: it was too, too hot. Private homes in London generally do not have AC, which made sleeping at night – let alone existing during the day – fairly challenging. Thankfully, I rarely have an opportunity to complain about weather being too hot in London otherwise.
Another piece of news from last summer was my haircut: I had my hair cut down to a bob shortly after this picture. Long overdue it was!
I continued suffering from extreme heat while working remotely from Duesseldorf for a couple of days to keep Alan company: 3-star hotels in Germany rarely boast AC, either. Before I knew it, it was my birthday and time to fly to similarly balmy Helsinki (do we seem to have a theme here?). You can all guess what ensued: Helsinki was so amazing I could cry, beer was so expensive that I did, in fact, cry and Marimekko broke all sales records in the two days of me around. Oh yes, and Alan and I got ferried off to a dark forest in Western Finland where our forest-dwelling friends fed us haute cuisine and where wine flowed freely. True story! Only sauna could have made it even better – and even more Finnish – than it already was.
One phenomenal stint at Lord’s Cricket Ground – an annual tradition – later, it was off to the place which I had spent years dreaming of visiting… Dubai! Just kidding, Dubai was a (very) enjoyable stopover on my way to Tajikistan, where I had planned a road trip across the Fann Mountains and the mighty Pamirs. Alan and I spent 14 days traversing some of the most primitive roads we had ever seen and meeting plenty of Pamiris, some of the most photogenic people anywhere in the world. The journey was exhausting – we spent hours every day in a moving car – but the raw mountain scenery we watched unfold in front of our eyes every day was unforgettable. Tajikistan receives notably fewer tourists than most other countries in Central Asia, and is a perfect getaway for those preferring places unburdened by mass tourism.
2018 NEWSLETTER: AUTUMN
Autumn brought with it a major achievement of my professional life. After hoping against hope every year to make it to that coveted promotions’ list and ending up bitterly disappointed several times, I learned about my promotion in the best way possible – through an unannounced email from HR on an otherwise normal Tuesday morning in August, months after the official cycle had been completed. Apparently, not even my boss or manager had been notified of this very fortunate development in their humble employee’s career. I guess that’ll be a thanks! Seriously though, this was the single thing I had spent years hoping for, and you can all guess that I was fairly chuffed to hear the news.
And another major (ahem…) achievement was just around the corner. After my years-long love affair with the Greek islands, I finally got to #50GreekIslands! Alan booked us a whirlwind weekend in Skyros – my first island in the Sporades group – specifically so I could reach the half-century milestone before the end of 2018. I visited my first Greek island, Hydra, back in 2008, during the 6-month career break which I entirely spent in Greece. It has been a fun decade-long ride! Skyros itself was absolutely fabulous, too, and I am already looking into ways of revisiting soon.
The final days of September saw me jet off to Istanbul where my team was having an offsite workshop. I used the weekend before to explore Turkey’s third largest city, Izmir, and the Aegean holiday town of Cesme. Izmir – which I cannot help calling Smyrni sometimes, in honour of its profound Greek heritage – turned out to have surprisingly few sights, but I didn’t mind spending whole hours strolling back and forth along its vast Aegean promenade. And Cesme was completely covered by a massive rain cloud, cutting my explorations short and preventing me from seeing the Greek island of Chios only 16 km to the west. On a positive note, I ended up befriending Hakan, the owner of a Turkish engineering company and a restaurant in Cesme, who not only drove me back to Izmir but also fed me exquisite lunch at Ferdi Baba in Alacati, all after I introduced myself as a Greek Anna from Thessaloniki (it is a very long story, but I always say I am Greek in certain countries). Many Turks have a nostalgic affinity with Greeks, and I felt somewhat guilty to be using someone else’s identity – but then again, Greeks have often mistaken me for one of their own, too.
In the first days of October I flew back to Afghanistan. Many of you will remember how disappointed I was not being able to see Bamyan, Afghanistan’s magnificent mountainous region, on my first visit in April. Having paid a significant premium for my first trip, I was also keen to experience dealing directly with a local company rather than through a Western tour company. I roped in Sakhi from Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan to drive to Bamyan along the reasonably safe route from Kabul, and can now put my hand on my heart and say that, in my travel experience involving nearly 100 countries, I have rarely seen such awe-inspiring natural beauty anywhere else. I also loved returning to the cities I had already seen and missed – Kabul and Mazar – as well as the striking Panjshir Valley. I am currently planning another visit to Afghanistan, to the Pashtun-majority city of Kandahar and Herat – this troubled country has truly captured my heart.
Stopping over in the pretty Romanian port of Constanta on the Black Sea, I was back in London for a couple of weeks before travelling on my last “weird” destination of the year (before Christmas, anyway), Libya. It is impossible to obtain tourist visas for Libya at the moment, and Alan and I had to fork out hundreds of pounds for “business” visas instead. With foreigner paranoia running rampant in the country, Libya may have just been my most uncomfortable trip of the year – not that I had expected it any differently, of course – and I was disappointed to tears not being able to shoot as many photos as I wanted. An attempted photo across the Saraya Lake in front of the Central Bank building in Tripoli got us in very real trouble with secret police, who insisted on clicking through all our photos and withheld our passports for some time. Nevertheless, I found the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha mesmerising, while, with all the carcasses of unfinished construction in Tripoli, it was chilling to imagine how well the Libyan economy must have been doing before Gaddafi’s demise.
Another weekend trip to Helsinki later, I had just about wrapped up for the year. 2018 has been exhausting with the amount of work, travel, exercise, language lessons and other extracurricular activities easily exceeding even my usual levels. I cannot wait to enter Eritrea, reportedly a perfect place to chill for a couple of weeks. Many of you have wondered if two weeks was perhaps too generous for a country as small as Eritrea, and I couldn’t agree more: it is definitely on the much side, but I really do need to slow down and recharge during the coming break – because, as life might have it, 2019 is already looking to be busy, too.
Chances are, I will be spending most of my 2019 in the same way: sporting uncomfortably bright clothes while nursing my pint in one of London’s pubs. Victory!
I would like to wish all my readers a very joyful entry into 2019, and a fantastic Christmas. See you next year! Follow my exploits in Eritrea on my Facebook page and Twitter (assuming I find internet access) and stay tuned for my 2018: Year in Pictures post (which I am permanently postponing until after New Year’s) and my 2019 travel plans (spoiler alert: I will be revisiting my old favourites, Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan). For now though…