She said, he said: 2018 in review.
In 2018 we visited 19 countries — 16 of them for the first time. One or both of us also visited US cities from San Francisco to Washington, DC, Carmel, Indiana to Miami, Florida.
All in all, Amy spent just shy of 5 months traveling and Keith wasn’t far behind. From stepping briefly into North Korea at the DMZ to nearly a month in different trips to Cuba, we were fortunate to see more of the world in 2018 than any other year of our lives, and were even inducted into the Circumnavigators Club. We decided to look back on our 2018 travels as we look forward to 2019. As usual, we didn’t always agree. Check out our 2018 Year in Review She Said, He Said below.
Amy: The Leon, Spain Cathedral is popular among pilgrims and incredibly impressive — 1200 square meters of glass! — but I enjoyed the Basilica of San Isidoro, just two blocks away, even more. In large part that was due to an excellent tour guide who was incredibly proud of the 12th Century frescos and did a wonderful job of bringing the Basilica’s history to life. (It was built into the old city walls and on a Roman Temple to Mercury.) It was one of those things you don’t plan but just happen to join a tour and end up really enjoying it. I also LOVED the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It’s like a cross between the National Archives and National Treasure.
Keith: MATE – Museo Mario Testino https://www.mate.pe/en/ is a small museum in Lima, Peru that deserves a blog post of its own. It’s a perfect mix of modern art and photography in an interesting, more off-the-beaten path location. The museum says its aim is "to bring Peruvian artists and culture to worldwide attention, while offering the best of international contemporary art and photography to audiences in Lima.” It does all that and more, and is well worth an hour or two if you are at all interested in art or photography.
Favorite hotel, budget category:
Amy: We were really fortunate all year and only ever had one really bad hotel experience. (Nashville, Marriott Courtyard Vanderbilt, I’m looking at you.) Even with trying to keep our hotels around $100/night most nights, we had great accommodations just about everywhere. The Terrazas del Inca Bed and Breakfast stands out, though. Not because the bed was wonderfully comfortable — it wasn’t. Or because the service was amazing — they were incredibly helpful and went above and beyond in some moments and forgetful (breakfast, meeting us at the train) in others. But it was a great reminder that you don’t need an amazing hotel when you’re having experiences you only dreamed of. That’s because the Terrazas del Inca Bed and Breakfast is located in Aguas Calientes — the town where you board the bus to go to Machu Picchu. It had hot water, and was just a short stumble down the hill to the line for the bus. When you’re getting up at 3:30 a.m. and only paying $77, you don’t need much more.
Keith: Ibis Miraflores in Lima, Peru. Not for the simplistic, overly small room, or for the relatively aloof, seemingly disconnected hotel staff. But simply for the price and location, which couldn’t be beat. Within the reach of great food, an Uber or bus to almost anything in Lima, and insane views of the ocean. Just a great spot for a budget hotel — only a block away you’ll find all the much more expensive options.
Favorite hotel, non-budget category:
Amy: I loved the Tambo del Inka in the Sacred Valley in Urubamba, Peru. We had an enormous room, the breakfast was probably the best I’ve ever had at a hotel, the people were very helpful and kind, you could walk from the property to local restaurants easily, and after a day spent hiking ruins and adjusting to the altitude, it was wonderful to float in the combination indoor/outdoor swimming pool looking at the stars. It was a great way to start our time in Peru. My runner up is the Hotel Boutique Palacio Pinello in Seville, Spain. I was wiped out after spending a week traveling from Odessa, Ukraine to Washington, DC and then back to Seville, and the hotel was just what I needed — comfortable, clean, and staffed by very kind and patient people, with a beautiful terrace for a drink with friends after a day exploring the city. Even better, our friends picked it so we didn’t have to do a moment of research!
Keith: I’ll say that my favorite hotel was the Ernst Leitz Hotel in Wetzlar, Germany, just because Amy took what I was going to say. I liked the opportunity to spend almost a week at the Leica campus and be surrounded by incredible photography and inspiring people.
Amy: I liked our AirBnB in Barcelona. The owner met us for an in-depth overview of local restaurants, grocery stores, etc. so we immediately felt like we had a friend in the city, there was tons of space in a very quiet building (I wondered if we were the only ones in the high rise because we literally saw no other people for the first several days) and, unlike some of AirBnBs that were studios, this one had plenty of divided space for two people to spread out.
Keith: The apartment we rented in Tbilisi, Georgia. Taresh’s apartment had great Wi-Fi, lots of room, a comfortable bed, it was in a great location, and he was very welcoming. The terrace was also across the street from an abandoned structure, which made for lots of good photography opportunities.
Keith: San Francisco to Seoul on Korean Air. We redeemed miles to fly in business class and I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the entire flight.
Amy: We redeemed miles for a lot of our flights over the summer, and got to fly business class, which made those flights my favorites. (Though I note that no one in coach ever dropped a suitcase on me — that was only in business class. At least this year. Though when she announced it hadn’t hit me, the reactions from both the man in front of me and from Keith were really something to see.) Any flight where I have the aisle and an empty seat next to me is also a good one. But while definitely not the most luxurious flight, one of my favorites was our Chicago to Panama City, Panama flight on Thanksgiving day. I was able to rearrange our seats to claim the exit row for us, and the woman between us was an adorable and kind Korean grandmother traveling with a group of senior citizens to San Juan for a vacation. She turned her airbag into a trash bag, insisted on sharing her clementines, and was just delightful to sit with.
Favorite meal under $25/person:
Keith: There are too many to pick one, but so many of the meals in South Korea and Japan would qualify, so I’ll lump together nearly all of my meals in South Korea or Japan. Sitting by a creek in Wetzlar, Germany eating schnitzel at a beer hall with our friend Dan from Chicago was great. I also really liked the morcilla at La Bicha in Leon, Spain, which I had two nights in a row. (Amy passed completely on that one.)
Amy: How to even begin? Regardless of price, my favorite meals all year were the ones we had with friends. From the very first meal of our summer trip with a very special former student and his family in Miami, to getting to have a wonderful dinner in Odessa, Ukraine with Hanna, to a great dinner with a favorite former student in Tokyo, our meals in Seville with friends Katherine and Vincent, meals with our groups in Cuba, a wonderful dinner with friends in Washington, DC in March, dinners and food tours with Keith’s mom in Korea and Japan, the celebratory meals in Panama City, Panama as we celebrated a dear friend’s 50th birthday — for all of these, as long as no one ended up with food poisoning, the main thing was the company and atmosphere. A nondescript restaurant on a square in a small town in Peru goes from just filling your stomach to an occasion when you eat pizza with quinoa on it (yes, that’s a thing and no, it doesn’t really taste like much) and do it with a driver who has been incredibly kind to you (and takes no for an answer when you decline to taste his guinea pig). A taco from a truck in a park is just a meal until that park is in Tokyo and the truck is staffed by a guy with perfect English who admires a chef from your hometown. And a waffle cone is a waffle cone until it’s made by a teenager in Tbilisi who is so proud of her handiwork that she photographs your ice cream from multiple angles. Whenever people take pride in their food and you eat it with people who are special, those are my favorite meals.
Favorite meal over $25/person:
Keith: Cinc Sentits in Barcelona. Runners up: the food tour in Seoul, South Korea; Chez Wong’s in Lima, Peru.
Amy: I should’ve gone first so Keith didn’t beat me to it, but I have to say Cinc Sentits also. Separate blog post to come on this one.
I agree on Keith’s runners up, too. I’m not 100% certain it was over $25/person, but we had a lunch in Tbilisi that was really excellent. The food was wonderful, but the thing that makes it stand out in a year of good food (from a city where it seemed all of the food was better than the last meal) was the waiter, who subtly shook his head when I asked about a particular dish. That moment of honesty reminded me so much of my favorite waiter in Chicago, who never, ever steers me wrong. The entire meal was great, and next time I’m in Tbilisi, I’ll be sure to go back to Sakhli #11.
Favorite walking tour:
Keith: My photo walk with Giovanni Piliarvu in Tokyo was a great opportunity to photograph with and learn from a tremendous photographer. His enthusiasm for his adopted city was infectious.
Amy: Basically all of the food walks we did — Seoul, Tokyo, Tbilisi (link to come), and Barcelona (also coming soon). In every case, we had interesting and kind guides with great passion for the food of their culture. In particular, though, the food walk in Tbilisi was hilarious. The butchers in the food market we visited first were trying to get us all to do shots with them. This is normally something that I would politely decline, but they were so excited that I just went with it. The guide said it had never happened before, but before you knew it, another woman from the group and I were practically honorary butchers for a day.
Favorite train ride:
Keith: The Shinkansen bullet train in Japan from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. You didn’t even realize you were moving, it was dignified and fast and as exciting as you always think it will be. The only disappointing part is that it’s so fast, the ride is over quickly.
Amy: The train to and from Aguas Calientes (where you stay overnight before moving on to Machu Picchu) is more or less the opposite of the bullet trains in Japan. The ride is so bumpy that you really only want to use the bathroom when it’s stopped for fear you’ll go flying, and the quiet and clean of the bullet train are replaced by — on the cheaper train — a (I’m not making this up) raucous fashion show featuring various scarves and even a woman in a devil costume. But it was probably my favorite because on the way there, we ended up upgraded to the expensive train where you’re served a three course meal, and on the way back we were on the regular train with the chaos and “charm,” which made me appreciate the quiet and good meal of the first train. Good Wi-Fi on trains in Spain? Sure, that’s nice. And impressive speed in Japan? OK. But as long as I live I don’t think I’ll ever forget the crazy fashion show.
Favorite day traveling:
This one we agree on — every day traveling is a favorite in some way.
Worst moment traveling:
Keith: My complete and utter meltdown on the train from Kiev to Odessa.
Amy: Funnily enough, mine all involve transportation too.
My first one was the bookends of our time in Medellin. The first night of our summer trip we had landed in Medellin after a long delay and could not get an Uber to pick us up to save our lives. It was after midnight, it was pouring, and every Uber kept cancelling. That wasn’t the only time that happened but that was the worst — I kept thinking “Is the entire summer going to be like this?” (Fortunately, it wasn’t.)
Leaving Medellin it really looked like we were going to miss our flight on to Peru. The check-in lines were insane, they appeared to close randomly, and when you’re up at 3:30 am for a flight, the thought of missing it is not a happy one. (We actually didn’t miss a single flight all year — a miracle given some of our tight connections. All those hours watching the Amazing Race paid off!)
There were also some really stressful moments where the heat we encountered in many cities didn’t help. Running for the hotel shuttle bus is always a little stressful. When the temperature and humidity are in the high 90s, “a little stressful” becomes “Who had the ridiculous idea to come here in August?!?!"
My final one was when we needed to go from Seville to Leon. As we got to the Madrid train station after a hot sweaty day of traveling, we checked to see how long we had between trains. That’s when we realized that my grand scheme to go to the art museum across the street wouldn’t work because we needed to get to another train station for our train to Leon. Running on fumes, I went to the information desk, which gave me directions I didn’t understand in English or in Spanish. Next we went to the track we thought they had sent us to, where a worker told us to go to another track instead. Grateful for the umpteenth time that we only had carry-on bags, we finally were going through the security screening we thought might possibly be slightly correct, when a worker saw us, looked at our tickets, and explained how we could catch the very same train from the station we were in. He explained this to us several times. Then, when we decided just to trust the nice man who had given directions that were easier than the others, he found us and handed us written instructions in English. His going out of his way to help two exhausted travelers turned the entire day around.
My runner-up: thinking I was going to die in the bathroom on our snorkel trip in Oman.
This one we agree on: In Kyoto, Japan we took a tea ceremony and kimono class with Keith’s mom. We did not necessarily go into it with the level of positivity we’d like to claim. And the first 5 minutes, where we were told to disrobe and then nice Japanese ladies dressed us in kimonos and did Amy’s hair, did not alleviate our trepidation. But learning to make matcha tea from a woman who was so patient and kind and treated the entire experience with great reverence was something we’ll always treasure. We may never share the photos they took — Keith in a kimono with a samurai sword or Amy attempting to look contemplative while also trying to not stab herself in the eye with a parasol are images we’ll have to save for a paid membership site — but felt very fortunate to have had the experience.
Other favorites somehow not mentioned above:
Chernobyl tour; tour of caves under Odessa, Ukraine (weird but interesting); the landscape in Iceland; our Rhine River boat cruise in October; visiting the DMZ; swimming in the Strait of Hormuz; the pickle lady in Tbilisi, Georgia; the British Airways Lounge in terminal 5 at Heathrow; and the amazing chocolate tarts at the Priority Pass lounge in Tbilisi (Amy may have eaten 6 of them).
Phew! We’re sure we’ll think of 40 other things we should have mentioned as soon as we hit post, but hopefully you’ve enjoyed this look back as much as we did reliving the last year’s travels. Stay tuned for the 2018 Photography Year in Review coming soon.