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July 29, 2013

How to Plan Your Round the World Trip: Where to Go?

As Mustafa and I near the 3 month milestone in our trip, there is one question we are often asked by people we meet on our travels:  How do you plan a 16 month trip?

The first logical step in planning was to start with where we wanted to go. We started discussing this about 6 months before we were set to depart and set up a spreadsheet with a list of all the countries we would like to visit.  The first list we compiled had 40 counties.  Seems like a ton of countries to cover in 16 months, doesn’t it?

I did some preliminary research on each of the countries in our list:

  • Degree of interest in visiting.  (Is this country a “must-see” or is it just an interesting place to visit?)
  • Is this an expensive country to visit? (lodging, transportation, food and visa costs)
  • Do we need a visa and if so, how onerous are the visa requirements?

I found a website called Travel Independent to be exceedingly helpful on planning where to go.  It provides a country by country breakdown including highlights, lowlights, costs, food, weather, visas and more.

In the end, after discussing the pro’s and con’s of visiting each place, we shortened our list to about 30 countries.  To our disappointment, we had to take a few “big” countries off our list: Russia and India.

Russia’s visa process is expensive, complex and restrictive, even for tourist visas.  As US citizens, we’d need invitation letters from a hotel or travel agency, each of us would need to pay $140 in visa application fees, we’d have to check-in with police for any city we stay in more than 72 hours. On top of all that, we’d only be allowed in the country for the very specific dates we specified on our application.  Mainly due to the date restrictions, we decided to take Russia off our list.

As much as we wanted to go to India, Mustafa faced complications from being Pakistani (despite also being a US citizen).  The process to get a tourist visa could take anywhere from a few months to over a year with no guarantees, and he wouldn’t be allowed to travel on his US passport (which would afford him better consular assistance if needed). Being all too familiar with how things get done in South Asian countries, Mustafa asked his colleague who used to be a senior bureaucrat in The State Bank of India to intercede with the Indian Embassy on his behalf. We requested a privileged visa for Pakistanis that exempted the holder from a number of restrictions, most important of them being police registration in every city. In the end, all that could be had was the regular restricted visa, and that too after calling in a favor. The prospect of visiting a thanna (jail) in every city on our India vacation was just too distasteful so we were forced to scratch India off our list. We still hope to go to India in the future, perhaps as a side trip when visiting Mustafa’s family in Pakistan, but will have to wait until after the insane visa restrictions have been relaxed.

The remaining list of 30 countries we’ve compiled isn’t an “end all be all”, and is in all likelihood still overly ambitious given our 16 month timeline. On this long of a trip, flexibility is king. So even after all this planning, the nucleus of our approach is “go with the flow”.

Sometimes we find ourselves tired and we decide to skip a place we previously planned to visit.  Other times, the cost of transportation is too expensive, so we simply forgo visiting a particular destination.  For instance, we were in Dubrovnik, Croatia – our next stop was supposed to be Athens and then Crete.  The cost to fly from Dubrovnik to Athens to Crete was about $625/person.  We ended up modifying our plans to fly from Dubrovnik to Milan to Crete, which ended up being $305/person.  We missed out on Athens (which Mustafa had already been to), but unexpectedly got to go to Milan instead. That little modification saved us $640, and as a bonus we had the best raspberry macaroon and tiramisu either of us had ever tasted and one of the best pizzas.IMG_4238



May 2, 2013

Asheville, North Carolina – First Stop on the US Roadtrip


After a 7 hour drive from Washington, DC – we arrived in Asheville, NC yesterday evening – our first stop on the road trip.  Asheville is a hip, bohemian town nestled among Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina with about 85,000 residents.

One of the primary reasons we visited here was to see the Biltmore Estate.  The house is the largest privately owned residence in North America with almost 180,000 square feet of interior living space (including 250 rooms and 43 bathrooms).  It was built by George Vanderbilt (Anderson Cooper’s Great-Great Grand Uncle) between 1889 and 1895.

i'm standing in front of Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC

I’m standing in front of Biltmore Estate

Admission wasn’t exactly cheap – its $44 per person if you buy your tickets at least 7 days in advance ($15 per person more if you don’t).  We also purchased audio guides for $10 more per person – we found these very helpful because you wouldn’t necessarily know what you were looking at in each room if you didn’t have the guides.  One nice thing about the tour is that we did get to see 50+ rooms in the house.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos of the interior of the house so we cannot post any of those pictures here.

The background shows the rolling hills behind the Biltmore estate in Asheville, NC

The background shows the rolling hills behind the Biltmore estate

I love anything architecture related – especially when its on such a grand scale.  The estate is impressive, well-kept and interesting – but I wouldn’t recommend taking a trip out here just to see the house unless you are already in the area.  We had a good time – the one thing the house did lack was that take your breath away, awe-inspiring factor – something the Hearst Castle in central California had (we visited Hearst Castle in 2011).

Stone lion guarding the Biltmore Estate front door in Asheville, NC

Stone lion guarding the Biltmore Estate front door

Relaxing at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC

Mustafa relaxing in front of the Biltmore


Later in the day, we went to eat at a restaurant in downtown Asheville called Tupelo Honey – which is known for Southern cuisine. Mustafa and I ordered mint iced tea, nutty fried chicken and shrimp and grits with goat cheese – doesn’t get much more Southern than that!

Tupelo Honey Cafe in Asheville, VA

Food from Tupelo Honey Cafe

Next stop: Nashville, Tennessee

April 30, 2013

Hitting the Road

Having bid ailing Pablo farewell and get well soon, we set off towards Dulles airport to rent a capable steed to carry us across these United States. I held my breath hoping they’d have a Ford Fusion on the lot (because its front fascia resembles an Aston Martin) and they did! However, as we were doing a 42 day rental with unlimited mileage and their only available Fusion already had close to 40k miles on it, they upgraded us a class and gave us a brand new Chevy Malibu with only ~300 miles on the odometer. By the end of our trip, we’ll have racked up 9,000 additional miles on it, increasing the odometer reading 3,000%!


As a type of vacation, the road trip is its own animal. There is no fixed departure time, or passenger manifest, or FAA approved flight plan. While some meticulous planners may not like the sound of that, there is an excitement that comes with knowing you are the captain of your ship and have full discretion over where you’re going, how fast and with whom. And unlike most oceans, the roadways of America are teeming with interesting sights, people and experiences. Plans can change, unplanned adventures may take place and if you cover a wide enough swathe of the country as we plan to do, you see the real America in all its wondrous diversity.


Our first meal on the road was in honor of Azam, my Burger King aficionado brother!

Can interstate driving be a form of meditation? As bizarre as that sounds, it sort of is for me. After a hundred or so miles, autopilot takes over and the cloud that normally hangs over my mind clears. There are times of no thought, there are times of many thoughts, but for some reason the associated anxiety isn’t there.  Since I find it relaxing, I can drive a dozen or more hours day after day without complaint, not that we’ll be doing that on this trip. On the days we are driving, the average time in the car is under 5 hours.


As we approached Tennessee, we played traditional country music to set an authentic local mood inside the car.

You’re off to great places, today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so… get on your way!   – Dr Seuss (from Oh, the places you’ll go!)


April 29, 2013

Casa Baragiola, Washington DC

After clearing out our house, we spent 2 nights in Washington DC before setting out on our road trip. After scouring countless Yelp reviews, we settled on Casa Baragiola, a bed & breakfast in Northwest DC. The proprietors are an international couple with a most fascinating story. The husband, Pablo, used to be a gaucho (Argentine cowboy) of the Patagonian grasslands where he tended his family’s cattle. It was a hard living for many reasons, from banditos to loco cow’s disease, but above all because his father was absent from the range. You see, Papa Baragiola’s heart was never in cattle ranching. He was born into the business but always wanted to be an astrophysicist. Pablo had to learn the trade from his grand daddy, who saw in young Pablo the potential to one day be the supreme gaucho commander of the Patagonian grasslands. As wise as he was, the old man’s dream was not to be. One day an astrophysics experiment of Pablo’s father went horribly awry. The ensuing wormhole swallowed the entire Baragiola herd of cattle, depositing them nearly 1,000 light years away on the planet Omicron Persei 8. Many attempts were made to recover them but the cattle were lost forever. Pablo was devastated. It wasn’t just the loss of his animals, it was the loss of his identity. After all, what is a gaucho without his cows?

Word came from a relative in Buenos Aires of a cattle gold rush in Washington state. America! A chance to make a fortune in the land of opportunity was too rich a prize for Pablo to ignore and he immediately bought a ticket. After an arduous ocean voyage, when his steamboat finally came into port, he realized his mistake. Washington DC the city was not in Washington state! Disheartened and penniless, Pablo took whatever work he could find. The first few years he worked as a furniture mover. Eventually he landed a respectable job in the credit card business. But before he could scrape together enough money to buy a ticket to Seattle, he met Rusen, and his life changed forever.

Enjoying a hearty homemade dinner with the proprietors in Washington DC

Enjoying a hearty homemade dinner with our B&B proprietors in Washington DC

Rusen was born to the affluent Gul family in a village in Southern Turkey. Her great grandfather was a famous inventor, best known for creating the Ottoman, to this day the most versatile piece of furniture known to man. It can be used as a seat, footstool, coffee table, gaming table, or even for storage. A little known fact – in Turkey, Ottomans are called Gul’s in the same way adhesive tape is often called Scotch tape, because the Gul brand is ubiquitous with the furniture. After watching several of her family members grow lazy, too content to live off their inheritance from the furniture business, Rusen decided she wanted more – to make it on her own using hard work and intellect. Her drive to succeed brought her to America where she made it big in banking. It was in this world of finance that she would meet her future husband. Their love blossomed quickly, mainly out of their shared experiences with furniture, and for a time things were great, but then the global financial crisis struck.

Disenchanted with the ups and downs of finance, the couple opened a bed & breakfast opposite the popular restaurant Lauriol Plaza. The decor is decidedly modern but the hospitality is definitely old school, warm and welcoming. The food is amazing. The first night we had fresh off the grill Adana Kebab and the second night a most unique and delicious chicken curry. Rusen’s specialty is fresh strawberry rhubarb pie using a recipe passed down from her grandmother. She serves this piping hot with homemade vanilla ice cream. Back to back gastronomical orgasms can leave a man tired so it was a good thing that their rooms and beds were comfy. Casa Baragiola comes highly recommended, an excellent B&B choice in DC!

Sadly Pablo fell ill with the flu on our last day there. We hope you feel better soon muchacho! And thank you both for hosting us!