Well, I can prove Kyrie Irving wrong.
Last summer, I literally circumnavigated the globe, going west from Salt Lake City to Hawaii, then Australia, to Greece, Lebanon then Spain, before finally flying back home. In an effort to remember the trip for posterity, and maybe share some of the things I learned from the experience, I’m writing this way too long blog post about the trip.
Yes, it’s so long that there’s a Table of Contents. But I wanted to write down everything I remember now, so I don’t forget… in many ways, this serves as a journal for me as much as anything.
Table of contents:
- How I booked the trip
- The narrative of the trip
- Things I learned
- 78.55 hrs on flights
- 0 flight delays or cancellations
- 29,697 miles flown
- 434,673 steps
- 217 miles walked
- 6 countries
- 14 cities
- 170 days for me to publish this post
How I booked the trip
When you’re going on a trip that lasts over a month and circumnavigates the globe, it’s easy to spend just a ridiculous amount of money. But it was my goal to do this trip without needing to do so. Here was my three-step plan to spending a reasonable amount:
The number one thing I did that allowed me to save money on this flight was to wisely accumulate, then wisely spend, various types of points through a number of different channels. My unique job (I cover the Jazz for the Salt Lake Tribune, so I do a lot of travel that adds points to my various tallies) certainly helped, but truthfully, only saved me about $1000 on this trip. The other things could be accomplished by someone who doesn’t travel at all. Disclaimer: your situation is unique, and this isn’t financial advice, just what I did.
The biggest key was Chase Rewards points. They’re the ones that the credit card company Chase gives you for spending money on your everyday purchases on their credit cards, and they’re terrific and highly flexible in how you redeem them. For me, I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which has the following setup:
- $450 annual fee
- $300 immediate reimbursement on any travel purchases
- Earn 3 points for every $1 spent on dining and travel purchases
- Redeem points at 1.5 cents each for flights and hotels
- When you sign up, you get 60,000 points if you spend $4K in the first three months
That $450 annual fee scares a lot of people (note: it has since increased to $550, though with a couple of other perks, like free DoorDash and 10x points on Lyft rides), and I get it. It certainly did for me for years. Chase has a cheaper credit card option, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which has a $99 annual fee. That one doesn’t have the $300 travel reimbursement, and you redeem points at 1.25 points each. For me, the 1.5 cents vs. 1.25 difference was worth the adjusted $50 difference.
On this trip, I spent 130,924 Chase points, for a total of $1963 in value, on various flights and hotels. Where did those points come from? Well, I got 50,000 when I signed up for the card. Last year, I earned about 43,000 points: I spent about $24K on my credit card last year, and about $7.5K of that was on dining and travel. (I eat out a lot, and also took a couple of personal trips last year, one to Washington DC and one to L.A., to watch a taping of Jeopardy with Alex Trebek. Also, bars count in the dining category. Hurray, beer.)
In other words, I signed up for the card, and put all of my purchases on it for 2 years. Now, some might point out that this isn’t really “free” money: after all, I pay a lot of money for the right to use the card; a simple cashback card would give me 1-2% extremely flexible cash, etc. But the combination of earning 3x points on some of my most frequently-used categories, and the 1.5x redeem value, makes the Sapphire credit card really useful if booking travel is a priority for you, as it is for me.
As for the other points: I had accumulated about 50,000 Delta points (used for two flights on this trip: Vegas to Honolulu, and NYC to SLC), about 5,000 Southwest points (used for SLC to Vegas, a $64 flight), and 100,000 Marriott points. Marriott points are a little like the Zimbabwean currency post-inflation: 100,000 sounds like a lot, but it’s really not that many stays to accumulate that many when you look at it, nor are they worth a lot. I used those points twice: a hotel near the stadium where Team USA played in Melbourne, and a hotel booking in Barcelona when I added that to the trip last-minute. Overall, I used these three points accumulations, again, from my unique job, to save me about $1,000. The Chase points from my everyday expenditures were worth about $2,000.
Flexible flight itinerary on budget carriers
Lots of people know about Google Flights. I used to use Kayak for my airfare searches, but found it was pretty slow. Google Flights is much faster, and uses one of the most powerful APIs in the flight search business: the Matrix ITA service it purchased a while ago.
But not a lot of people know just how flexible it is. For example, you can just search from Salt Lake City to anywhere in Australia at any time in the next six months. Looks like right now you can get a flight to Sydney for $740, though it’s a real pain: it’s 2 stops, one in Long Beach and one in Honolulu, and overall, takes 41 hours.
But what if we have some fun with it? Let’s instead have Google Flights search from other cities? If the trip is broken up anyway into stops, let’s decide how it’s done. I basically try all of the cities I can think of that might be logical intermediaries. For many of them, there aren’t savings to be found. But for some, there are! Let’s try from Honolulu for example… oh, wow, there’s a flight to Sydney for only $116! How do you get from SLC to HNL? Well, hmm… let’s do a search. Oh look, there’s a flight on Delta for $226. So we’re at $342 instead of $740. We’ve saved $398.
The risk in this approach is that if you have problems with the first flight, the second flight sold from a different company isn’t going to feel bad for you, and you’re going to have to book a last-minute ticket. But if you extend your stays in the intermediary cities, the risk of anything going badly goes way down: if Delta cancels your first flight, they’ll probably put you on one the same or next day. You also can use some of your flight savings to book lodging in the intermediary city. And in this case, nobody ever complained about spending time in Hawaii.
It was in this way I added the stops in Honolulu, Perth, and Athens on this trip. I had friends I wanted to visit in Las Vegas, Adelaide, Beirut, and Madrid. But flights from Vegas to Adelaide cost about $1K, as do flights from Adelaide to Beirut. So how do we figure out how to make that cheaper? Break it up with the cheapest routes from low-cost carriers, found through Google Flights searches.
On my trip, Honolulu to Sydney was only $228, thanks to Jetstar. Perth to Athens was a $289 flight on Scoot. Madrid to NYC was $144 on Norwegian. With those very long and cheap flights as the bedrocks of our trip, I had significant freedom to figure out to fill out the connections between those cities.
Now here’s the thing: If you tell people who love you that you’re flying on Middle East Airlines, Scoot, Jetstar, Vueling, or Norwegian, they will get very concerned about your well-being. In my experience, that has proven to be nonsense: the budget airlines were just as reliable, with just as much seat space as a traditional US airline. Of course, you have to pay extra for big luggage, seat selection, food, and even water. I will pay $3 for water if I saved $100s on the flight itself… and I can bring food on board. I can also pack lightly — I used a US-sized carry-on as my main suitcase on the trip, and then did laundry at various stops.
(Now, I know what you statisticians are saying: anecdotal evidence isn’t really reliable. And that’s true: of course, the cheaper airlines aren’t quite as good at getting you there on time. Jetstar gets you there on time 74.2% of the time. Norwegian Air is on time 75.9% of the time. American Airlines is about 76.9% of the time. To me, I will risk the 1-3% difference in reliability to save hundreds of dollars.)
Here’s the one sad note: many budget airlines aren’t on the Chase points booking portal, so you’ll have to use real money to pay for them. But despite this, the trip was very cheap from an airfare POV. I spent $1,181 on flights overall, along with about 110K points (approximate real-world value: $1500) from Delta, Southwest, and Chase on premier airlines. 14 separate flights that get you all the way around the world for $2,600 is pretty darn good, IMO.
An around the world trip can, by the way, be done more cheaply. My favorite “email me cheap flights, please” service, Flights From Home, recently put one together that sent people to Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, Norway, Denmark, then back home for $1,043. That’s only five flights, though, so please excuse my profligacy.
Cheap stays in private hostel rooms, AirBNB… or with friends
Look, man, I don’t know why you’re traveling around the world. For me, a big part of the rationale of how this trip came about was that I had people I wanted to see — and who wanted to see me! — in all of Australia, Lebanon, and Spain. I had told these people that I was going to visit them, and I was tired of halfheartedly lying to them.
This meant that I had absolutely free lodging in two different cities for a combined six nights: Adelaide and Beirut. (My Madrid friend’s apartment situation was a bit tighter.) That’s really nice of them, and certainly saved me hundreds.
But the majority of the time, I was staying in hostels or other cheap accommodation. Some of this is up to your personal tolerance for how you what you are willing to put up with while you travel, and I completely get that. In my youth (okay, when I was like 18-25… I’m now 29), I was very willing to sleep in 4-8 person hostel dorm rooms for $15-$40 a night: it’s not like I was spending much time in the bedroom anyway. After too many half-awake nights with snorers and farters in the room, people leaving in and out, etc., I’ve decided not to put up with that any more.
Here’s the thing: despite that, you can also get private rooms in hostels, and generally, those are some awesome places to stay. Sure, you’re not going to get all of the hotel room amenities; I’ve never known what to do with a huge hotel room, anyway. Do people work at these desks? Do people put their clothes in these drawers? Do I need eight pillows, four towels, and two robes? Not really.
Some private hostel rooms have bathrooms ensuite, and in others, you have to share the bathroom with others. This is where reviews are critical. Hostelworld is the best place to check out photos and reviews of various hostels around the world, and I always Ctrl+F for “private room” to see what the situation really is like. These private rooms typically go from $40-$100 per night, depending on location and amenities.
The other great thing about hostels is that they’re set up to help adventurous but cheap travelers. This means that they probably have social and entertainment opportunities pre-made for you that won’t break the bank, plus kitchens you can cook in, laundry facilities for you to use, and generally, people who are very, very nice.
On this trip, I stayed in four hostels. The first was in Honolulu, “The Beach Waikiki Boutique” hostel. My room was in an apartment with three others, we shared a very normal bathroom with shower tub. It was $86/night. It was 300 feet away from Waikiki beach. Most hotels in Honolulu run over $200/night, even much, much further away from the beach. They also had free boogie board rentals, and would bus you to various other spots on the island for a $5-10 fee. It was the worst hostel I stayed at on this trip, and it was very good.
In Airlie Beach, Australia, I stayed at the Magnums Hostel for two nights, one each surrounding my Whitsunday Islands sailing trip. They had a meal deal setup with the local restaurant for, essentially, an assortment of $5-$8 meals. They also had a $3.50 pint of beer of the day. They had a pool table and a giant projector TV in the main area, which showed tennis during the day. Each room was its own self-contained pod in this beautiful protected reserve, under trees and along a river. The people in charge couldn’t have been more friendly. Cost: $41/night.
In Perth, Spinners Hostel was so professionally run, in a desirable part of the city. The room was small but nice, and the bathroom and shower situation was great. It was probably also the most social of the hostels I stayed at, with everyone gathering to watch Netflix, play pool, or just chill together. Cost: $51/night.
In Madrid, I stayed at OK Hostel, and despite them trying to set low expectations with their name, it was the best one. They had an in-hostel bar, with beers available for 1.50 Euros each. Breakfast was 5 Euros, dinner was 10, but included an open bar with all of the beer or sangria you could drink. They also set up free walking tours — two different ones ran each day — and 10-15 Euro bar crawls, which also meant one free drink at each of three different locations. The room featured an ensuite bathroom, and also had a balcony overlooking the street. It was nice. It was $84/night, and obviously, most Madrid hotels are far more.
One other great thing is that many hostels are bookable through the Chase Rewards platform, which means you don’t have to spend actual money on them if you have the points. I actually didn’t realize this when I booked the Hawaii hostel, but oh well.
I also stayed in one AirBnb in Athens, which you all know the deal with: potentially bad for the communities in which it exists, but it’s been successful for travelers because they can be dang cheap and good. We got a 2-bedroom, Ikea-appointed apartment right next to the Acropolis for $64 dollars per night.
Had I spent money on traditional hotels at every part of the stay, lodging probably would have cost me $4,000-$6,000. Instead, I spent $924 in cash and about $1500 in point value. This was huge.
So in the end, how much did it cost? I spent:
- $1,181 in cash
- 42,500 Delta points
- 4,911 Southwest points
- 61,808 Chase points
- $924 in cash
- 102,500 Marriott points
- 69,116 Chase points
- Other expenditures:
- Eating out on trip: $1185
- Entertainment: $385
- Intracity travel: Ubers, Lyfts, Taxis, train passes, buses, shuttles: $486
I traveled around the world for 34 days for about $4,100 in cash and $3,100 worth of points. That’s pretty good, in my opinion! I’m sure it can be done more cheaply, but the truth is that it was about a 2-year saving process for the trip: about $200/mo saved, plus “naturally” accruing points.
The trip’s plotline, protagonist: me
To be honest, Vegas was somewhat of a last-minute shoehorn into the plan: I got the word that my college roommate Jeff was having his bachelor party the weekend before I was set to leave on this trip in Vegas, and wouldn’t I please come? So I rebooked the first legs of the trip to make it work.
Was it fun? Of course. It’s hard to truly mess up a Vegas bachelor party, because even bad is good. First, we each brought these extravagantly patterned suits to walk around the strip in:
The Beatles attracted less attention. Every five steps, we’d get stopped for a photo; once or twice, people offered to pay us for the right. Bachelorette parties wanted to merge groups. Great debates ensued among the general populace as to which suit was the best, and to be honest, my Pac-Man one got a significant number of votes.
We also surprised Jeff with a magic show on the Strip, which sounds lame, but I don’t know… You know the magician is going to do some goofy stuff, and have a weird personality, and be into himself a lot too much, and you kinda get how the saw-the-lady-in-half-trick works, and card tricks are sleight-of-hand, and there might be plants in the audience, etc. etc. — and then you see him somehow move from the stage to the back of the theater at the snap of a finger, as if by Floo powder or something, and you can’t even imagine the imagination the trick must have required, and it is legitimately mind-blowing in a minor way.
Still, the part I remember most is that there were these construction barriers on the sidewalk of The Strip, but off to the side, so they weren’t bothering anyone. Two of my pals moved these barriers so that they were bisecting The Strip’s sidewalk, so only one person at a time could move through. Then they directed traffic. It was 1000% a terrible, horrible prank, inconveniencing hundreds of people… but I’ll be honest: I couldn’t stop laughing.
We went to a fancy steakhouse for dinner one night, but everyone appreciated the 8 pizzas purchased from Dominos for $5 each at sunrise significantly more.
And then, the next day, I was in Hawaii. No one complains about being in Hawaii. My biggest problem, to be honest, was limiting myself from drinking too many smoothies in a day… they’re sold everywhere, and God, I love smoothies.
Much of this trip was TripAdvisor driven: I’d land in a city, and see what the best things to do in that city were, and then go do those things. In Honolulu, the Diamond Head volcano crater was No. 1.
Essentially, right on the edge of Waikiki Beach is Diamond Head Crater park, and if you want, you can walk up the side roads, go through a tunnel, and walk to the top of the crater’s rim. This takes about two hours, it turns out. Compared to Vegas and Salt Lake City’s summer, it was relatively cool, so the walk was honestly pretty nice, and parts of it were shaded by these beautiful and huge — you might even say “exceptional” trees.
Inside the crater is kind of bizarre: It reminded me of being in the Salt Lake Valley, surrounded at every angle, but much smaller, which also had the effect of removing a lot of outside noise, even though hundreds of people were inside the park. The hike from the crater center to the top rim is very switchback-y, and at one point, you have the choice to go up a monsterous flight of stairs or do more switchbacks. I chose the stairs. But the view is very nice from the top.
Honolulu, though, is the most obviously tourist-oriented place I went on the whole trip, which I probably should have expected. But there are so many bad tiki bars (don’t go to Lulu’s, where I ate some chalky, burnt carbon in the shape of a hamburger), standard chain restaurants, and just general exploitation happening everywhere.
At one of the bad tiki bars, I was killing some time when two Australian dudes (estimated ages: 50?) named Babs and Tim sat down next to me. Tim’s daughter actually is a soccer player who spent time at Barcelona’s academy, which is pretty cool. We ended up talking for hours, about our lives and my upcoming trip to Australia, eventually going to dinner together. After dinner, we went to an Irish karaoke bar, where a man sat down at our table and tried to convince us he was an actor on Hawaii 5-0. We believed him, but IMDB’d it later in the night, and he was not. What a weird lie! It was a grift of some sort, but with absolutely no consequences, other than maybe he hoped three random dudes would think he was cool.
I did have one really good meal, at a sushi restaurant called Doraku. There, I ordered fried rice as an appetizer, but they did a cool thing where they brought all of the ingredients — the rice, eggs, veggies, steak, etc. — out in individual bowls, then cooked it on a fajita skillet in front of me. It was also like $8 bucks, and really delicious.
In general, though, I’d say go somewhere else besides Honolulu in Hawaii, if you can. Of course, I was there for money-saving reasons anyway, and it was beautiful, but the main drag in Honolulu wasn’t a transcendent experience for me.
My flight from Honolulu took off at 8 a.m. on August 21, then landed in Melbourne at 2:55 p.m. on August 22. My first international date line experience — a moment that young Andy would have thought was really, really, really neat.
But after going through customs, passport control, getting my bag, and actually Ubering to my hotel, I didn’t get in until 4:30 p.m., with a 7:30 p.m. tip-off for Team USA’s game against Australia.
(I actually first booked this trip with no basketball in mind… and then I learned that Team USA, featuring young, nice, and good Jazz player Donovan Mitchell would be playing the Australian Boomers, featuring tricky, ornery, but legitimately hilarious Jazz player Joe Ingles. So I did some flight finagling to get in a day earlier than I had previously scheduled to try to be there for it. The Tribune paid for the flight changes, but the change fees were relatively minor. I also just really enjoy basketball.)
In order to cram as many people into this game — the first time NBA “stars” would be playing in Australia in a long time — they played it in a Aussie-rules football stadium in Melbourne. This, frankly, was dumb. Yes, it meant that 55,000 people could attend. It also meant that 55,000 people — many in Mitchell or Ingles jerseys — couldn’t see the game.
Anyway, that first game was a pretty routine Team USA victory, one of the only ones they had. After the game, I went by the Aussies’ locker room, and met a surprised Ingles for a chat… who immediately called out how jetlagged I seemed during the interview. Was it that obvious? It was.
Despite the weird sleep issues, the next day was one of the busiest on the trip. I started by walking around Melbourne’s CBD, before taking a detour into the National Gallery of Victoria, a very good art museum, and one of Melbourne’s big parks, including the Royal Botanic Gardens area.
(This is a consistent theme I found in my time in Australia: their major cities are so, so much better at prioritizing and maintaining parkland than we are in America. Their parks have more to them as well: variety in native trees, plants and flowers — all labeled so you know what you’re looking at —exercise equipment for people to use, public monuments and artwork. Of course, NYC has Central Park, which gets close to this, but very few other American cities have as much.)
Then I met up with my friend Ben Mallis, who covers Australian basketball but last year moved to the States to write about the Sixers. We went to the Arbory Bar, which was a beautiful riverside lookout on a really, really nice day in Melbourne. The special there was two lamb shanks with a glass of wine thrown in as well, it was delicious. After that, I met up with some Bucks writers at a restaurant, and then it was time to experience a Aussie-rules football game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, more commonly known as the MCG.
When I told Australians I was doing this trip, one of the most common tips I heard was that seeing a game at the MCG was a must. Aussie-rules football is the most popular sport over there, and they get huge numbers of fans to watch these games. I went to a Collingwood vs. Essendon game, and around 85,000 fans were there.
I have to give special thanks to Robert Addison and James Bolt, who invited me and set me up with a ticket. They had some sort of club access as well — I had to wear a collared shirt! — which meant a chance to get pre- and post-game beers and probably some other perks I don’t understand. The game was actually quite close until the fourth quarter, and they did a really good job of explaining the game to me: Collingwood more of a possession team, while Essendon needed to rely on quick counter-attacking play. Rob and James also joined us basketball writers at a rooftop bar after the game, and I’m glad they did.
The next day featured an early afternoon tip for Australia vs. USA, Round 2. This time, though, the Aussies pulled off the upset, in a very well played game. Ingles was at his facilitating best. After the game, went to a restaurant called Meatball and Wine Bar in Melbourne, and had some really good gnocchi. I didn’t anticipate this at all, but apparently Australia has a relatively large population of Italian immigrants, and as a result, there are lots of very good Italian restaurants around.
Another nice thing about Australia: flying is much easier. I checked my bags, walked through security without much of a line at all and with minimal hassle, and instead of boarding in an interminable number of stages, everyone just kind of gets on the plane at the same time. Frequently, they allow you to embark and disembark through both the front and the back doors of the plane, cutting boarding time in half. What a concept.
Anyway, I flew from Melbourne to Sydney the next morning, a very short flight. As soon as I landed, I checked into my incredibly cheap hotel — named the MEGABOOM City Hotel, although capitalization appeared to be optional. It was probably my least favorite of the places I stayed on the trip, but I digress.
As soon as I put my things down, and with only two days in Sydney, I immediately walked to the Harbor area and especially the Sydney Opera House. On the way, I just happened to walk by Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey and his wife Becky! Dennis invited me to lunch with them, and I initially turned them down to explore the pier, but after a quick look around, I decided to join them for a bit. That turned into a long conversation — and now I have a couple of books I need to read.
I also briefly went to the Museum of Sydney. A quick review: very skippable. The best part was a little placard detailing the ups and downs of their rivalry with Melbourne, before concluding that the Opera House’s status as the premier landmark in Australia, the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and the sheer volume of business transactions that Sydney hosts as evidence that Sydney had decisively won that war.
They have not won that war, because Sydney is a city that always sleeps. The feel there, to me, was as if everyone was either Vincent Adultman or a tourist, with no real people actually a part of goings-on. Even The Rocks neighborhood, the walkable entertainment district — where I found a lovely brewery and a man who got so drunk that when he was cut off, he tested his newfound limits by offering to buy everyone in the establishment but himself a drink, which sadly didn’t work — shut down at 10 PM.
That meant my search for late-night food my first night in Sydney led me to Frankie’s Pizza, the only place still open within a two-mile radius. Frankie’s is a hardcore basement rock-and-roll joint that my Tribune colleague Eric Walden would have loved. Truthfully, I liked it too, and the pizza was quite good, but still, it shouldn’t have come down to Frankie or bust.
Anyway, the next day was rainy, and so was filled with cafes and an art museum, the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art. In modern art, it feels like anything is possible, and Sydney had two great examples of that. First, on one wall, there was an invitation to an exhibition by one of the artists on a certain date. Here’s what it said:
A tour of the show by artist Stuart Ringholt, 6-8pm. The artist will be naked. Those who wish to join the tour must also be naked. Adults only.
That escalated quickly.
The second was this lovely exhibition of peacock spider mating rituals. Peacock spiders are about 5 mm big — your index finger is about 16-20 mm wide, so maybe that gives you an idea of how small that is. But despite that size, they have these colorful “feathers” packed in, and with them, the males do these really elaborate dances to try to attract mates. Hilariously, in the documentary videos filmed by artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso, the dances aren’t effective.
Anyway, later that day I headed to the third basketball game I would attend on the trip, USA vs. Canada. It was an easy US win, but the Australia fans kept it interesting by gaining a completely unexplained affection for Brook Lopez, and then expanding that affection until, by the fourth quarter, it was the game’s major plot point. To be honest, I’ve never experienced anything like it.
Afterwards, I had the chance to talk to Donovan Mitchell one-on-one for a few minutes, as he waited for the second team bus. I know everyone talks about what a good kid Donovan is, but it’s actually really true: he’s just a good person.
The Whitsunday Island trip was the biggest surprise when I told most Americans about my plans; of course, the most common response was “Where?” But here’s my rationale: I wanted to go to the Great Barrier Reef. Typically, that’s done by going up to Cairns in the north-east corner of Australia, then getting on a big tourist day-trip boat, one that fits about 150-200 people, and has a glass bottom, and allows you to snorkel around the reef. The problem with that, though, is that the reef is mostly dead in many of those places, due to some mix of climate change and human interaction — in particular, it seems with that many people snorkeling, sometimes sunscreen dissolves in the water and ends up in the coral.
So I started to look up other places to visit the reef from, and found a lot of references to the Whitsunday Islands. They’re a popular tourism destination for Australians and longer-term travelers, but not quite in the numbers of Cairns, and so there’s a lot more variety in the activities you can do. In particular, I committed to a 2-day, 2-night sailing trip on the Tongarra, a boat limited to 18-to-35-year-olds that was purported to be a great mix of terrific sightseeing and a good time on the boat.
So with that in mind, I flew into the teensy Proserpine airport, the closest airport to the Whitsundays. The airport receives three flights per day; two from Brisbane, with the other alternating between Melbourne and Sydney.
From there, a shuttle bus takes you on the half-hour trip to Airlie Beach, a town of population about 1,000. It’s a pretty typical tourist town, but very much targeted to the backpacker community. The upshot: excellent hostel choices, every restaurant advertising their cheap meal deals, and a lot of people looking to meet and hang out with one another. After a relatively quiet first night in Airlie Beach, it was time to meet at the marina to sail.
Let me introduce you to the Tongarra:
Years ago, Tongarra was the first purchase made by the now-millionaire owner of Red Cat Adventures at the age of 23, purchased with a small-business loan from his local bank. It is not a fast boat, it should be noted: the fastest we went on the trip was 8 knots, with the motor going at 100% and a healthy wind pushing us along. Still, Red Cat owner guy started the tradition of this trip as captain, and by charging people a couple hundred each to join him a couple of times a week, he paid off the loan in about a year and started expanding his business.
Anyway, the owner now no longer leads the tour. Our 2-day trip was led by Skipper Bill, a 23-year-old Belgian who had recently graduated from sailing school in Spain. The other crewmember aboard was Deckhand Jack, one of the most bonkers people I’ve ever encountered. I’m not quite sure how to sum it up… Jack was part Jackass (the show, not the personality), part Chopped contestant (he was the chef for the trip, and created some delicious spreads), part provocateur, and 100% lover of life. The man had life-or-death opinions about the pros and cons of the cookies found in a variety tray, a willingness to attempt double backflips off the boat until he finally “landed” one, a curiosity for astronomy, chess, and literature, and most importantly, a pious dedication to the quest of making sure everyone had a fucking fantastic time on the boat. He was the real leader of the trip, not Bill.
Joining the 2-man crew were 16 guests:
- 4 British girls, ages 19-21. I felt like they must have been the popular kids at whatever school they were at.
- 4 British dudes that were pretty cool, ages 22-24. One was named Theo, but he was not the one I thought was named Theo, which was an embarrassing moment to discover on the last day.
- 3 French folks. One girl lost her towel off the boat, presumably due to a poorly timed wind gust, but still insisted we search the boat in vain anyway. I believe the applicable French phrase is c’est la vie.
- 1 British girl who was unaffiliated with the others but was tall, brunette and cute. I met her on the walk to the marina, though she unfortunately got actually sick on the first night and felt homesick on the second.
- Another unaffiliated British girl who I privately nicknamed “the most attractive girl in the world.” She was freckled, wore ankle bracelets, and to be honest, I never really discovered her personality at all. By the end, The One Who Really Was Named Theo and The Most Attractive Girl In The World had started a budding relationship, and they were actually quite adorable about it.
- 1 Italian dude (Bruno, 29)
- 1 German dude (Chris, 20, all backflips, Go Pro and energy. I liked Chris.)
- 1 American (me)
So we all take off our shoes, get on this boat, and immediately spend the next few hours sailing from Airlie Beach to the islands. On the way, we see a legitimate, big-ol whale doing whale stuff; i.e., the breaching of water and then crashing down. This was very neat!
The first night was a party. The boat had a BYOB policy, but didn’t allow glass. That meant the most efficient method for alcohol consumption was bagged wine, also known in Australia as “goon.” As increasing amounts of goon were drank, an increasing number of reality-show incidents occurred. One of the popular British girls started hooking up with the Captain. Another began doing the same with one of the Group of 4 British guys, but at some point, she learned he had a girlfriend back home. This made her feel terribly… for about 45 minutes, and then it was back to it. Later, she came out of the cabins naked in search of the restroom, in front of a group of us playing a card-based drinking game (Kings Cup, if you must know.)
Eventually, we all slept; most of us under the stars.
Day 2: everyone is a bit hungover, but regardless, the itinerary says to explore Whitehaven Beach, perhaps one of the best beaches in the world, so we must. It also started raining that morning, but only really did for about an hour.
Once it cleared up: holy cow, Whitehaven Beach is incredible. It’s made up of the finest sand I’ve ever encountered; essentially like someone piled up dinner salt out of a Morton Salt box until it created a beach. People brush their teeth with this stuff, it’s so fine. It’s also very reflective, creating all sorts of new sunburn possibilities. Perhaps because it’s so easy to move, the beach is shallow for yards and yards out to sea; we never saw anyone get out to further than elbow-deep. That meant that stingrays like playing around in the beach, and yep, we saw some! They’re mostly friendly. It was, by some distance, the best beach I’ve ever gone to.
From there, it was time for lunch, then to go out to one of two snorkeling spots. (I am not a terribly adept swimmer, so I was concerned when I learned that they weren’t giving us life jackets, but truthfully, the pool noodles they did give us worked just fine.) The first spot was basically a little cove, with 20-foot high cliffs around. There wasn’t much coral to see, but there were just a ton of fish everywhere. One, nicknamed Georgina by Jack, was probably 5-feet long and a couple feet tall, it was a big one that swam just below our feet.
But the second snorkeling spot was better, IMO. A Finding Nemo-esque dropoff, this was filled with a maze of coral; Jack advertised eight different colors and was essentially correct. In between this coral swam little tiny fish, just bobbing and weaving and poking and prodding and playing around like… well, yeah, Finding Nemo. I honestly couldn’t believe how cool it was, so much life right at the surface of the water.
From there, we headed to another spot on the day, a little island from which we watched the sunset and heard Jack’s significant and absolute opinions of the quality of each cookie in the trays he brought, depending on their filling and type. This uninhabited island was hit particularly hard by Cyclone Debbie a few years ago, which washed up meters of dead coral onto its shores. The effect was honestly skeletal; we were eating desserts on piles of bones.
We also saw sea turtles. When one came particularly close to the boat, Jack jumped in with a Go Pro to get some underwater video of it.
This island was also the island in which we anchored the boat for the night, as Jack made us a delicious spagbol (one of the most endearing Aussie shorthands is to call spaghetti bolognese simply “spagbol,” I term I think of daily since I first heard it). This night’s party was naturally tamer than the one the night before, as everyone was exhausted. Still (and again, I can’t say enough good things about him on this trip), Jack sought to keep the party going through the introduction of party games, which worked for a while. Still, eventually, sleep.
Day 3 on Tongarra was largely a return day trip to Airlie Beach, though there were some who banana boated in the morning. We saw another whale on the way back. One perk of Tongarra, though, is that they set up after-party locations in the town for everyone to hang out for the last night, this time in fancier clothes and on land. In the end, we went to three different locations that night. The first, called Boaty’s, had a very good live musician and I was sad to leave, but did so at the Captain’s orders to go to a place called “Shed Bar” because, and I quote, “people get weird there.” To be honest, I didn’t really see anybody get weird, but they did have a basketball hoop, so Chris, Bruno, and I played HORSE on it. Then, a club called “Paddy’s Shenanigans,” which featured a truly awful band and a bunch of people having a bunch of fun dancing along to them anyway, yours truly included.
I didn’t get to sleep until 3 AM, and had to catch the shuttle back to Proserpine Airport at 8 AM. I made it, though.
From the tiny Proserpine airport, I caught that day’s flight to Sydney; from there, I flew to Adelaide. Joe Ingles was born there, but I went not for that reason, but to visit my college friend Eddie.
Eddie was a foreign exchange student at Westminster College in my freshman year, he came in part to play soccer for Westminster. He’s quite good at that. While he was looking for a place to stay, his teammate and my roommate, Nikolai, said we had an extra room in our apartment-style on-campus housing. We did, but Eddie didn’t want to/couldn’t/I don’t remember why get it officially. So we broke in to the room with a credit card, and that’s where Eddie lived for a while. After the school year ended, Eddie lived at my parents’ house in Riverton for a further while with us.
Anyway, I haven’t seen Eddie in over a decade, but it was immediately great to see him as he picked me up from the airport. It turns out his brother runs the primary scooter company in Adelaide, called Ride… as a frequent SLC scooterer, I was excited to learn some of the details of the scooter business. Looking at their map (I like maps) was also a good way to learn about the city of Adelaide — how it’s laid out, and where the hotspots are, where naturally most of the scooters reside.
Then, it was time for dinner with Eddie’s family. I’ll admit: I had completely forgotten that I had met them before, when they had visited Eddie in Utah. We went to Noodles and Company together then, apparently. Eddie’s mom said “great to see you again” at the same time as I said “great to meet you” and it was very awkward.
But their hospitality was incredible. Eddie’s brother, Tom, let me use his room for the duration of my 2-day stay. Dinner had already been cooking for 14 hours in advance of my arrival: a traditional braised lamb dish that was super moist and flavorful. I honestly should have had more than one serving, but didn’t because another homemade dish was coming: pear cobbler. This was delicious too. I probably had two of my best three meals of the trip in Adelaide, and this was the first.
(Later, Eddie’s mom indicated how much she liked Cinnabons in America’s airports. My dad used to be a baker, so has a much better cinnamon roll recipe than what Cinnabon uses. I sent it to her. This was not enough of a repay for how kind they were to me during my stay, but oh well.)
That night, Eddie tried to show me the Adelaide nightlife, but rain slowed us down somewhat. We did watch some Adelaide vs. Port Adelaide Australian-rules football, then we headed to a too-classy rooftop bar that definitely did have some great views. From there, we talked about our old classmates, and what they’re up to. Shouts to all of the indoor soccer kids from Westminster: Conner, Jay, Kelli, Marya, etc., etc.
My second day in Adelaide was Australia’s Father’s Day. Before we celebrated with Eddie’s dad, Eddie and I explored the city a little bit on some power bikes, though we were put to shame by these kids in these hyper-efficient bikes at a racecourse they had in the middle of a park.
Then, it was time to head up the Adelaide Hills to Mt Lofty Ranges Vineyard, where we had Father’s Day Lunch scheduled. Both Eddie and I expected something light, small, quick, lunchy… this was not that. This was A) a restaurant with some incredible scenery and B) an all-out, multiple course, fancy-ass meal.
It took three hours to get all the courses out, but that was fine by Eddie’s dad and I, who had our fair share of wine as well. But the surprising timing of the meal did lead to a problem: we had planned on going to the Cleland nature reserve to see some kangaroos and whatnot, but had planned to go back down to Eddie’s house to go get the car and come back up. Now, we didn’t have time.
But because Eddie’s family is ridiculously hospitable, they waited in the car while Eddie and I explored the nature reserve ourselves. It turned out to be huge, and Eddie and I essentially jogged through it. But: we did see wallabies and echidnas and koalas, and best of all, feed and pet kangaroos.
Kangaroos are rampant up there: there were a bunch even in the parking lot, hopping around and saying hi to the visitors.
The next day was a Monday, so Eddie had to work. I spent time in Adelaide’s art museum, which featured this hanging, two-assed horse and also the trivia that the average person uses 656 bars of soap in their lifetimes. Fun fact! Then, I flew to Perth on Qantas. What a great airline. Free bags, wifi, food, drinks, cookies, etc.
I landed in Perth about 6 PM, and quickly headed to my hostel… not in downtown Perth, but in a neighborhood slightly outside of it called Northridge. This was a good decision, it turned out.
Right after that, I met Ben Mallis (remember him? from the Melbourne section!) at a brewpub called Northridge. Ben’s from Perth, so gave me tips on what to do in my short time in the city. Northridge had some very good beers, and I actually ended up staying there after Ben had to go home… About half an hour later, I met two Scottish guys at the bar, and proceeded to start exploring with them. They, for some reason, were on the search of the holy grail: a cool club to go to on a Monday night in Perth. Such a thing, multiple trustworthy people said, doesn’t exist, but this definitely did not stop their attempts. Eventually, I got annoyed with their persistence in obliviousness, and ditched them.
The next morning, after walking around downtown and the harbor a bit, I decided to head to Kings Park. Ben told me that it was something people should visit, but I didn’t really know why. In order to walk there, Google Maps had me cross a freeway by foot, and then go up this hike that Perth had modeled as a miniature version of the Kokoda Trail, where about 2700 people died in World War II. Great.
But once you got to the top, Kings Park is probably the single best city park I’ve ever been to. There’s a tremendous variety of trails, with sorted groups of plants and flowers in different zones. Many of the plants are labeled, so you know what you’re looking at. The park sits over the river, coming just off the Indian Ocean. Canyons are traversed by these flowing bridges, and there’s even a cool “DNA Tower” — called that because of the double-helix shape — for you to sightsee from. This was the day I took the second-most steps on the trip, just because zig-zagging this massive park was cool.
I eventually walked back, went to a restaurant called Spaghetti Bar, and read until the USA/Turkey game was played. I watched it at an American Sports Bar called “Patriots”, using the New England team’s font and everything. I love logo stealing.
With my flight not until 8 PM the next day, I decided to take the train to Fremantle, an old suburb about a half hour outside of Perth. Fremantle is one of the oldest colonies in Australia, and so there’s a bunch of architecture there from the 1800s, including the prison, which was somehow still in use up until 1991. It’s significantly more dilapidated than Alcatraz, for example, and one of the primary exhibits at the museum was depicting the numerous prisoner strikes that occurred as some pretty basic human rights were violated.
But the coolest part of Fremantle was the shipwreck museum. As it turns out, a whole bunch of the ships that sailed for the East India Trading Company crashed near Fremantle, and this museum was dedicated to digging them up and showing them off, including a shipwreck from 1629 called the Batavia. The wreck killed about 40 of the 300 or so passengers. After the ship drowned, the survivors hung out on an Indonesian island until one of the minor crewmembers led a mutiny while the captain was out exploring for habitable land. His mutiny was temporarily successful, and while he was in charge, he had about 100 people murdered for essentially no good reason.
And then it was time for the longest flight of the trip: Perth to Athens.
I had a 3-hour layover in the Singapore airport, from about midnight to 3 AM. Despite the crazy time, I was actually excited about this, because I go to a lot of airports, and the Singapore airport wins all sorts of awards for “best airport.”
And I’m here to report it’s a good airport. Admittedly, I mostly stayed in my little terminal, but even it had a movie theater (so many passed out people, trying to stay asleep as Godzilla: King of the Monsters blared in the dark), a sunflower garden (it was hot outside even at 1 AM), and, well, badly translated T-shirts.
I went to the lounge. The only food left was spaghetti made with asian rice noodles. It was bad. I boarded the Singapore to Athens flight.
After an 11-hour flight to Athens, I arrived at 9ish AM, and after an extensive customs line, and a only-runs-every-thirty-minutes train from the airport to the city center, I get to downtown Athens at about 11.
Tessie greeted me at the train station. It is important, for the next few chapters of this narrative, that we explain Tessie.
Tessie grew up in Moab, was valedictorian at Grand County High School, then went to Westminster, where we met. I tell you the valedictorian thing to introduce the fact that she is brilliant; that way, you aren’t surprised when I tell you that she went to NYU for law school, and that she graduated with honors and got a scholarship and whatever else. We met in an 8 AM macroeconomics class that everyone else essentially slept through… we actually participated and talked about economics during it. She stayed awake through coffee, I did through gummy worms, but it was the same concept. We’ve stayed friends for over a decade now, and I will be friends with her forever.
Anyway, after graduating from NYU, Tessie accepted a fellowship program offer to go to Beirut to work to improve the human rights of migrant domestic workers — read: essentially, in-house maids from the Phillipines/Sri Lanka/etc. — in Lebanon. She’s the biggest reason I wanted to visit Beirut, but she also met me in Athens, and got there before me.
Tessie took me to the AirBNB in which we were staying, a place about a 10-minute walk to the Acropolis and approximately equidistant from a bit of graffiti saying “Stop AirBNB” and the Athens Sports Bar. This was an accident, but a happy one: the Athens Sports Bar was an American/Australian sports establishment, with about 10 seats but could fit probably 25 people in if there was an important game going on. We could see it from our balcony.
During our entire four-day stay, an Australian man named Sam stayed at Athens Sports Bar. Sam was interested in Australian-rules football, of course, but he also wore a Miami Dolphins hat for no other reason than to start conversations with Americans. Athens Sports Bar was open at 7 AM, and Sam was at Athens Sports Bar then. Sam was also at Athens Sports Bar at 2 AM, mooning friends and passerby. In between those times, Sam was at Athens Sports Bar, literally every single time we checked. At one point late in our stay, we spoke to Sam, and when we asked him about his continual presence at Athens Sports Bar, he said he had missed his flight home from Athens to Australia the day before because he was at Athens Sports Bar, so he returned back to Athens Sports Bar. It is, by a significant amount, the most insane combination of man and bar I have ever seen.
Interestingly, Sam met a friend at Athens Sports Bar who was from Utah, and his Snowbird Oktoberfest T-Shirt and ID confirmed it. Small world, though if we’re honest, the friend was also kind of a weirdo. He limped around on crutches, but said his surgery was on the third day of our trip. He missed his surgery, because he was at Athens Sports Bar. Who are these people?
Anyway, Tessie and I started walking around the Acropolis, though I discovered I was quite jetlagged. In the end, we stopped at a very touristy restaurant where the host accosted us to eat, and we obliged, because he gave a very convincing sales pitch which involved asking random customers if the meal they were eating was good… It was, but mostly, we stopped because we were tired and also the scenery was lovely. The people had lied to us, the food was only okay.
The next day was set aside to go to the Acropolis. The Acropolis is one of those famously insane projects that are only possible with a ton of time and slave labor, or alternatively, modern technology. Carrying one gazillion tons of marble up a hill is difficult, but somehow, they did it. Of course, you’ve all seen the Acropolis and the Parthenon and all of that, so none of these pictures will be new to you. That’s fine. But having been there, I just want to emphasize how big these structures are when you’re actually up close. There’s a certain detachment we can get away from things that are famous, but actually being within feet of these things snaps you out of it.
This is also true because there are lots of column heads and marble bits that are just lying around the Parthenon, and they can’t protect them all, so people just can sit or stand or walk over these ancient marble bits, and it’s crazy to consider that these were brought up millennia ago by a civilization that, by physics, shouldn’t have been able to do so.
You’re also kind of awoken to what exactly is missing: a whole bunch of sculptures that the British Lord Elgin knocked off the Parthenon from 1800 to 1812. He took them back to England, where they’re on display in the British Museum, and to be honest, it’s a little strange that Britain hasn’t given them back to Greece yet.
Later that day, it was time for my lunch with Rigas Dardalis. Rigas is one of the Jazz’s European scouts, based in Athens, and Dennis Lindsey introduced him to me via text message in Sydney.
One thing I’ve noticed about NBA people: they tend to be very hospitable when it comes to their own cities. That definitely extended to Rigas. Rigas and his wife picked Tessie and I up from our AirBNB and took us about the half-hour drive to a restaurant along the bay at which he had secured a reservation for us. The restaurant gave him a reservation for 8 PM, but actually didn’t open until 8:30, so we spent a little while at the beach, just talking and hanging out by the water.
The restaurant itself was amazing. We tried a sampler of appetizers, and then the entrees themselves — seafoods, mostly — were also deliciously cooked and in general, incredible. Oh, and a random firework display went off behind us as we ate. It was one of those scenes I could hardly believe was real.
The next day, Tessie and I explored a neighborhood of Athens called Exarchia, essentially an anarchist neighborhood, though Wikipedia calls it “Athens’ historical core of radical political and intellectual activism.” We honestly just hung out there, went through some bookstores with books we didn’t understand, hung out in bars in which we were the only people speaking English. Later, Team USA played Greece, so we watched it at a sidewalk bar with dozens of people watching the game, it was a very neat experience. The patrons there sensed our Americanness, I’m sure, but weren’t upset or bothered by us.
Lebanon is absolutely the stop on this trip I think about most.
The next day, we took an early flight on Middle East Airlines back to Beirut. A quick note on Middle East Airlines, if you’re ever so inclined… it’s exceedingly normal. They have a good check-in process, in-flight entertainment systems, free food, soda, all of that.
We landed in the Beirut airport, and to be honest, wasn’t at all concerned until Tessie told me that the Amal party aligned with Hezbollah “has control” over the road that leads to the airport. That basically means they have armed guards near the airport entrance, as well as a green flag. In practice, it means nothing… unless something were to happen.
That first day was honestly so overwhelming. We took a walk from Tessie’s apartment to downtown Beirut, about a mile. How I experienced it was basically as a series of things that made sense visually but made no sense once I learned the history of them. An incomplete list:
- The downtown area is chock full of apartments. They’re about 90% empty, despite people wanting to live there, because the company that owns them charges rent that is 2x-3x too high. But they don’t lower the rents because they’ve already been built with subsidies, and they were promised they’d rent at that price.
- Here’s a downtown mall! It’s called the Beirut Souks, meant to evoke classic small Middle-Eastern shops of food and local items, the kind you’d see in a James Bond car chase. It’s instead full of upscale brands like Gucci. No one is there, either.
- And in the mall, are some ancient Roman ruins! Discovered during construction of the mall, the ruins are covered by a building, fenced off, in the dark, with no way to see them or signs explaining their existence. To see them, it’s best to use your cell phone light.
- Here’s the city center, with restaurants on every corner! Lebanese people, until very recently, weren’t allowed in the town center because there were protests there about the garbage crisis. The garbage crisis was: in 2015, they closed the local dump. But they didn’t think to allocate somewhere else to put the trash, so the trash collection company refused to pick it up, so all of Beirut was just filled with trash. This tended to make people upset, so they protested. The government responded by closing the city center off to anyone without a foreign passport. It’s still much less crowded than you’d think.
- Here’s a wonderful mosque, and next to it, a Catholic church! Both buildings are legitimately useful and beautiful. Though the Catholic church did build a relatively unnecessary tower a few years ago so that it would be taller than the mosque, and when people complained, they shortened the tower by 3 meters so that they’d be exactly the same height.
- Here’s the Green Line! The Green Line was the line of demarcation, essentially the DMZ, between the two sides of Beirut during the civil war from 1975-1990. It’s called the Green Line because all of these green plants grew in the wreckage where no one dared to go.
- Here’s a sign explaining the new park! It says that it’s a symbol of peace, a symbol of the war being over and how we vow never to do a civil war ever again. That fountain is a memorial for the people who died. The park doesn’t exist, it’s just an undeveloped bit of ground. In the corner of the space where the park should be, there are two temporary offices, about the size of a shipping container. That contains the guards for a nearby political figure, who says that he needs his guards on this spot, so the park can’t be built. Really, it’s probably just to screw with the guy who wants to build the park, an even less useless bit of corruption than Paunch Burger from Parks and Rec.
It was honestly incredibly overwhelming, to face that much dissonance in one walk.
It was also hot. On the way back, there was a store that we stopped at, one with a central counter with every kind of fruit imaginable stacked above and below it. They make smoothies. I ordered a strawberry-banana one. It was three dollars. It was perfect. I was happier.
That night, we planned dinner with Tessie’s Australian friend Felicity, who is also in Beirut doing some important psychologist work. Instead of going out, we all agreed we were tired, so we decided to order food in. Sushi was decided upon, and we ordered it through Grubhub or the equivalent.
Here’s the problem: Beirut doesn’t have addresses.
You are thinking that this is insane, and you’re right. About a decade ago, the government of Beirut thought that they should have take a first step at fixing this issue, addresses, and so started naming all of the streets. Good idea, right? So they went one-by-one and named all of the streets; often, they used the stuff that was on the street to name it. This is logical: “This street has many Armenian-owned businesses, let’s call it Armenia Street. Three doctors work on this street, let’s call it Three Doctors Street.” Fine, whatever.
What the Beirutians seem to be unable to cope with, though, is that three doctors no longer work on Three Doctors Street. The name doesn’t make any sense, so no one calls it Three Doctors Street. The street signs saying Three Doctors Street are still up, Google Maps still thinks it’s Three Doctors Street, but now some other inhabitants work in those buildings, so now it’s colloquially known as The Street With Four Lawyers or The Street With The Mexican Restaurant At The End or something else, depending on who you talk to.
So if you want food delivered to you, you essentially have to tell the app what the nearest landmark is, and then the delivery guy will go there, and then you describe where you are in relation to that landmark when he calls you. In our case, the landmark is the Orthodox Hospital, which the apartment building is down the hill from a little ways, and then the building is right next to a burger joint no one knows called “Mim’s Burger.” Another problem is that the delivery guy speaks Arabic, whereas we only speak limited Arabic, so this is a complicated set of directions to give. Eventually, we end up giving the delivery driver our phone number, so we can send him our current location using WhatsApp.
The sushi was actually quite good, though.
The next day morning, we were dropped off on the West side of the city by the coast, where the famous Pigeon Rocks are. We saw those, took pictures, then Tessie had to go to work, so I was on my own.
This is also when I saw the Beirut Holiday Inn.
Here’s the thing: it is very easy to hear something like “15-year Lebanese Civil War” and be completely disassociated from that. Lebanon is far away, wars are too, and, well, it’s not like the “civil” part makes it easier to comprehend. But I am very familiar with Holiday Inns. You are probably familiar with Holiday Inns. It’s continental breakfast and two double beds per room and hotel blinds and hallways and everything else. This was a tall Holiday Inn, 26 stories, actually, but it was a Holiday Inn. You get it.
This Holiday Inn opened in 1974, and was the tallest building in Beirut at the time. In 1975, the civil war started. All of a sudden, different armies wanted the Holiday Inn because it was the tallest building, it made a very good position for snipers. So wars broke out on the floors of this building, in its staircases and hallways. One army would manage control of it for a while, then another would siege it, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Huge artillery was used to try to dislodge the snipers. The losers of these battles were often thrown off the top of the hotel, falling the 26 stories to be killed on the ground. It’s just… not how we think war happens.
The war essentially ended in 1990. So the Beirutians have had 29 years to do something with this towering, bullet riddled, concrete structure. All remnants of hoteldom that weren’t ruined in the war have been looted. A few years ago, the company that runs Holiday Inn finally paid them to take the Holiday Inn sign/logo off the hotel.
But the two owners of the building can’t agree what to do with it. One wants to refurbish it and make it a hotel again, one wants to demolish it and start over. (Editorial note: look at that building, dude! You want to refurbish that? There are holes in it! Who wants to stay in a hotel where people were thrown out the windows?! Start over!) In fact, at this point, many Lebanese just want the building to stay there as kind of a memorial or landmark of the War itself, and, to be honest, the dumb political battle that came after it. And that makes a certain amount of sense, too. So it just stands there, still the tallest building in the area, looking ominous and depressing.
The Holiday Inn, in other words, is a significant mindfuck.
That day, I also went to the American University of Beirut, which is pretty much what it says: a pretty isolated American-style university in Beirut. There, there’s a very standard archeological museum that I visited, 20% to learn and 80% to be in an air-conditioned building for a while. I started to walk around the city again afterwards, in particular, perhaps the most modern neighborhood of the city. I had been told that there was an Applebees here; it turned out that it was closed, but the fact that there had ever been an Applebees here brought me further cognitive dissonance.
I then started to walk back to familiar ground, Tessie’s neighborhood, when an armed guard prevented me from going down the most logical Google-Maps-suggested street. So I had to take a large detour, and by the time I had finished that, I was again very hot, so I went to the movie theater I knew to be in the Souks. I watched Lion King. It was nice. After that, I headed to a bar that we had seen a couple of Tessie’s friends earlier at, drank a couple of beers, and read my book, waiting for…
Philosophy night! This was honestly quite lovely… I haven’t had an experience that reminded me so much of college since actually attending college. Essentially, every week, this group of mostly ex-pats in Lebanon plus some Lebanese get together to talk about philisophy of some sort. On this occasion, there were about 15 people there. The topic picker and moderator for the discussion is rotated every week. As a result, the topics chosen are pretty varied. Sometimes, it’s the classics: Plato, Nietzsche, whatever. Sometimes, its oddball stuff: the week before I was in Beirut, it was “Can men and women be just friends?”
This week, though, Tessie chose the topic. Because she’s the way she is, she chose “How we should decide the punishment for perpetrators of crimes?” She set up three frameworks:
- The Kantian perspective, in which punishment must always be carried out equally due to equal breaking of the social contract… it is indeed even an insult to the perpetrator’s humanity and ability to act rationally if we don’t punish them for their crime.
- The consequentialist perspective, which basically says you should decide punishments based on the impact it has on preventing future misdeeds, from both the perpetrator and from others
- Or the circumstantialist POV, which might punish someone based on the circumstances and results of their crime. You might punish a rich person more for stealing than a poor person trying to feed their family, basically.
The discussion was really interesting. One attendant was a Swedish woman who works as a social worker with criminals; she referenced studies that show the degree of punishment has very little to do with how much a criminal is likely to commit crimes again. The Austrian dude, our host this evening, is very Kantian, which was great for discussion and also comforting in a stereotypical way.
I, personally, settled on a mix of approaches, essentially, a utilitarian approach. Let’s look at how much the crime impacted the community, impacted a victim, and how much punishment might deter the victims, and seek to balance all of those things in determining punishment. It’s a case-by-case thing, so that makes it really difficult to put into practice, but as a philisophical goal, I thought it was good.
We didn’t eat before philosophy night, so had to go to a Mac and Cheese place late at night on Armenia Street. It was delicious.
You can choose how you get to Tripoli. It’s about a 90 minute drive.
You can get in a 15 passenger bus without air conditioning that drives around to various neighborhoods, honks at people until they get on, eventually drives to Tripoli when it’s full, pay about $2 while sweating like crazy.
Or you can get to Tripoli in an air conditioned bus with Wi-fi, and that costs $3.50. So, obviously, being not impoverished, we do that one.
We get dropped off at a traffic circle just outside of Tripoli, which means we have to walk like 2 miles to our first stop, the abandoned fairgrounds. On the way is El Lasso, an American/Mexican/Italian restaurant. This is exactly the right name for such a restaurant.
The gates to the fairgrounds are closed, so Tessie knocks on the little shack there until a man (a guard?) comes out and says its okay if we tour the grounds. They’re like… imagine an event center mixed with a park, that’s gated off. Among the completely ignored bits: the dome acoustic theater place… legitimately weird even if they had finished it. There’s a St. Louis-esque arch, but the dimensions are off… it’s not a classic arch shape, just something that worked. There’s a helipad that is too small for most helicopters, surrounded by a pool that’s empty. There’s lines for a basketball court, but no evidence a hoop had ever been there. There’s a concert space. This CNN Travel article has a good wrapup of it.
It’s honestly so bizarre that I just kind of shut down… I don’t know how to handle it. This scares Tessie, honestly. So we take a taxi downtown, to go to a Lebanese spot Tessie knows about… it’s in an ancient rock home, and we’re seated in the back. I asked for Pepsi, and received some sort of fruit juice. We eat some fatteh, hummus, and foul that’s fine, but doesn’t exactly hit the spot.
From there, though, it’s time for a walk through the markets… real souks! Here, the streets are skinny, but it’s acres and acres of family-owned stores. Then, we hiked up to the tallest part of Tripoli, at the top of which is an ancient citadel.
The citadel, while still guarded by armed Lebanese, is the oldest structure I’ve ever had that much unfettered access to: you can just freely walk through stuff, like the castle prison, or its latrines, without being watched or guided through. It’s very cool, and nearly no one else is there. (It also is very hot, because Lebanon.) At about 4, the town comes alive with the sound of prayer, a city-wide deep guttural groan. It starts from one direction, then expands to all directions all at once, and honestly, it took me a minute to figure out exactly what was happening.
Then we walk down back to the city center, where we desperately needed something cool to eat or drink. We were planning on stopping for ice cream, but just then, a kid (about 8 years old?) from the street hands us slushies. He’s with his dad selling them in a cart, but when we tried to pay, his dad wouldn’t accept it. One slushy was grape, one was orange. Both were perfect. It honestly made my day, and was maybe the happiest single moment on the trip.
We headed to the Tripoli bus station for the $3.50 return home. We ate at Mim’s Burger that day, the 100-square-foot burger spot at the foot of Tessie’s apartment building. We spend all night there, talking to the crew that works there. Yola is the best one; she’s very kind, refilling your beer for free all night long. Lots of good conversation with the locals, including from Tessie, who doesn’t go along with one of the crewmembers’ subtle racism. Still, it feels home-adjacent. I felt better about Lebanon that day.
I mostly squandered Day 4, a result of being tired from the previous three days and the fact that Lebanon is super hot. I went to a quick restaurant for lunch, then returned to Tessie’s apartment to find an illegal stream of the USA/France game, the one with all of the implications for Jazz fans. But after it ended, I felt guilty about wasting the day, so I went to go look at two museums before they closed.
I went to the Sursock Museum, which is essentially an art museum in a mansion. It’s nice, but small, giving you plenty of time to go to the Mim Rock museum. It has some legitimately cool rocks, and besides, the idea of a rock museum is kind of unique.
That night, Tessie took me to a restaurant for some authentic Lebanese food; but we took her dog to the restaurant as well, and she — the dog — had a very nervous time there, so we left very quickly.
I was scheduled to leave Beirut the next morning, and after doing some random Googling, I learn that the Beirut airport has one of the worst reputations of any airport in the world. Essentially, they usually conduct security screening before you’re allowed to get to the check in desk, to which you have to go because they don’t do online checkin. After that, there’s a middle security station, then a further one right before the gates. It feels like overkill, but it’s especially silly because it means that the long wait is in the entrance hall of the airport, before anyone is screened for anything. So just hundreds of people line up, potentially a target for any of the terrorism they’re checking for. It’s also recommended that you show up 3-4 hours before your flight to get through security, and they definitely don’t help you if you’re late.
And here’s one more lucky moment: the day I go to the airport, all of the above is gone. The government has just purchased new scanners that replace the old 3-scanner system. It functions like a normal airport. Sure, I waited in the check-in line for 45 minutes, but compared to what I was expecting, it was a cakewalk.
I took another Middle East Airlines flight to Madrid, and took the Madrid Metro with two stops to the “OK Hostel,” which is actually one of the highest-rated hostels in Madrid. It’s actually fantastic: there’s a provided buffet for 10 Euros that includes all you can drink, a bar inside with 1.50 euro beers, etc, games to play, pub crawls, etc.
Madrid reminded me of a cleaner New York City: so many different neighborhoods within walking distance, all with relatively unique flavor. But it’s a lot easier to walk in Madrid, with more sidewalk space for cafes and whatnot, and much less construction and trash everywhere. That day, I stumbled upon the Royal Palace more or less by accident, had a traditional Spanish siesta, and then went to go find tapas.
I failed. The two tapas restaurants I noted from my searches on Yelp back at the hotel were both packed, with at least an hour wait. With a goal to make the hostel’s pub crawl, I panicked and went to a Mexican restaurant nearby instead. Madridian Mexican food had actually been recommended to me, and it was surprisingly good, but with one drawback: once I finished it, a food coma immediately set in, combined with my 5 AM wakeup time, and and I was out for the count. Snoozeville.
Second day in Madrid was set aside to visit the Reina Sofia: one of the most famous art museums in the world and still not the most popular one in Madrid. It’s the one with Picasso’s Guernica — which is huge, about 12 feet by 25 feet. It’s a must see, though note that photos aren’t allowed. (This is fine! There are plenty of photos of the Guernica! I don’t need my own.)
One takeaway from the exhibit is that Picasso — and Salvador Dali too, actually — is that both men were immensely talented artists before they got bored with it and went modernist, and ended up creating even better work. That’s kind of inspiring, actually: some level of previous success or talent shouldn’t stop someone from innovating, doing something crazy but maybe more meaningful.
But there are other cool exhibits, one by someone inspired by Alan Turing who took apart a laptop bit by bit and hung it on the wall, and another artist from New York City who created art influenced by the AIDS crisis.
After my trip to the museum, I went to one of the tapas restaurants I had bookmarked from the night before. This one was called El Sur, where I ordered these salmon skewers, along with an order of pork slices in a grape sauce with potatoes. Their sangria was great, with tons of fresh fruit in these big Mason jars, served up by a very busy bartender.
Then I went to the laundromat to do my final laundry refresh of the trip, walked downtown, and did it all again, this time at a tapas restaurant called Puerto Rico. There, I had a plate of Iberian ham, which was too large for one person, so naturally I ate it all and some pollo con ajillo as well.
The next flight, on budget airline Vueling, was actually the most annoyed I was at an airline on the whole trip: the flight was on time, but the bag — I was forced to check my carryon as it exceeded their strict size requirements by about an inch, and they were militant about checking it — took over an hour to arrive at baggage claim in Madrid. Oh well. I met my friend Cathryn in the Barcelona airport, who was fresh off an Italian trip where she was teaching English.
We dropped off our bags at the hotel, then headed downtown, where they have even more Roman ruins! Then, we walked around more, and ended up at this random book festival that was taking place near a church.
The best part was the associated festival food stand, where they were selling beer for 1.5 Euros and Vermouth for 2 Euros. Vermouth is, I’ve found, kinda gross in America. In Spain? Different. It’s delicious, tasting like an alcoholic Coca-Cola, but very naturally so. I would like to have it again.
I then headed to the Barcelona game. The plan was for Cathryn and I to go together, but she had a mishap with an ATM: she withdrew $400… then left it in the ATM slot. Upon hearing this story, I laughed more than I should have, but it was a legitimately tragic event that meant she couldn’t afford a ticket to the game — they are expensive.
But it was a great game. It was against Valencia, one of the better teams in La Liga, and so the Camp Nou was full. Messi was hurt, so teenager Ansu Fati had to get the start in his place… and immediately scored within two minutes. I sat just behind the Barcelona supporter section, and learned some of the chants and learned enough to fake the others. The game ends up with a score of 5-2, including a goal by Luis Suarez as the crowd chanted:
The next day, we went to the Sagrada Familia. The Sagrada Familia, a still unfinished church that is, by far, the tallest building around for miles in Barcelona, is the answer to an unasked question: “What if you gave a crazy architect unlimited building power, time, and resources?” Or, as Gaudi (the aforementioned architect) said, “My client is not in a hurry.”
The current plan for the Sagrada Familia is that it will be done in 2026, though many are skeptical. There are two currently created facades; the first facade a masterpiece of integrating nature and architecture, the second facade, brutish and bleak. The second facade was instructed to look like bones, features supporting columns that look like the muscles of a wrist, columns above that with 13 (?) ribs. It’s striking. The other facades are to be built.
The inside isn’t more traditional, but stands closer to traditional standards of beauty. Columns inside symbolize different trees, literally using differently colored marble from different parts of the world in order to look more like the trees they’re matching. Stained glass is stained red and blue, designed to make different parts of the interior shine at different color tones depending on time of day. It’s remarkable that this wasn’t really built with the support of the Catholic Church until 2010, when they finally allowed it to be used for services.
Intrigued by Gaudi, and with a free ticket in hand, we traveled up to his former house up in Guell Park. His house is underwhelming, but I liked the park, which is a city park that was envisioned as a utopian community that ended up failing for capitalist reasons. The view from the top of the park overlooks the whole city. We identified an area we wanted to go, and found a rooftop bar where we could hang out and enjoy things. It was lovely.
I had a few more hours the next day in Barcelona than Cathryn did, so I ate lunch at a brewery called Black Lab. If we’re honest, it was a very touristy thing to do, and nearly everyone there was American. But I had missed American-style breweries, it turns out, and this was a good one.
I flew back to Madrid that afternoon and met up with Cathryn and her friends Rebecca and Anna. We went to a tiny bar called the Escondido, which felt more like a living room than a bar: a record player, four chairs, and chessboards in the back. It was a great little spot.
The next day, we went to the Sorolla museum. It’s a small museum — it actually used to be Sorolla’s house — but has hundreds of his paintings, big and small. It’s wildly impressive, but especially the way he’s able to use the color white.
We went to El Retiro park next, and sat and looked at the fountain for a while. We were talking, like normals, but then three really unusual things happened: 1) About 10 feet away from us, a guitarist came and sat on the steps, trying to pitch his CD… but unsatisfied with public response, left all of his items in place to go get food. 2) About 15 feet away from us, a dance class either for or entirely comprised of mothers started. 3) About 100 feet from us, a group of about 100 boys just jumped into the fountain, which you’re definitely not supposed to do. They quickly jumped out and ran into the middle of things before park security could catch up.
That night, we went to a tortelleria for dinner. A Spanish tortilla is not a Mexican tortilla, but instead a flat omelette filled with various ingredients including potatoes. Maybe the closest comparison is our funeral potatoes, actually. It’s good, though. Definitely filling.
The next morning, I went to the Royal Palace of Madrid, which continues to be used — Spain still is a monarchy! Kind of, anyway. — There are about 20-25 tourable rooms in the palace, with most of it from the 16th century but with various themes depending on its function. One has Stradivarius violins, one is just decorated with Japanese arts because a former king went there and liked it.
We went to our final rooftop bar, one we had to climb stairs through a suitcase store in order to enter. It was my final Spanish meal, so I did the menu del dia, because of course. It was pretty dang good, and a bargain.
From there: I grabbed my bags at the OK Hostel, took the Metro to the airport, and left. The Madrid airport is huge: it was a 30 minute walk from the Norwegian ticket counter to the A1 gate, where my flight was. From the gate, we took a bus to where the Boeing 787 was parked, and boarded the flight to New York.
And that was it.
Things I learned:
- Madrid and New York City are on the same line of latitude. That’s crazy! Madrid is much warmer and we think of Spain as nearly tropical. NYC is frigid. But no, same line of latitude!
- Other countries are much better at parks than the U.S. This was especially true in Australia, but also turned out to be true in Spain. They’re bigger. They have more features — race courses, exercise equipment, rentable boats, labeled plants, well-designed buildings and bridges, etc. The soccer goals aren’t chained to the fences when the youth teams aren’t using them… they’re for the citizens. We should do this.
- Travel is cheap right now, thanks to a really strong US Dollar. Australia has an expensive reputation, but wasn’t bad at all. Europe was downright cheap.
- Weekly meetups with people of like-minded interests was a really good reminder of how much fun learning can be. If an English-speaking Philosophy Club meets in Beirut, it’d be much easier to find one in Salt Lake City. I have to make more of an effort to seek those out.
- Infinite other things that impact how I see my own community.
- The best people I met on the trip were the ones who put themselves out there the most.
Update: I’m now publishing this mid-pandemic, mostly because I wanted an escape, to give myself a reminder of what the world was like when it was explorable. There’s also a lot of privilege on display here, in all of the things I got to do. I recognize that. Still, I wanted this story online, so those close to me and all who helped along the way could read it.