Faith Ruth Villanueva visits the UAE before traveling to other hotspots in nearby countries.
PHOTO BY SUPPLIED
I took a break from my hectic work in Laos to go on a 30-day trip to seven countries. It all started after I landed in Dubai.
Dubai was the perfect launchpad for my serial travel: seven countries in 30 days. It was so easy to hop onto the next country from here. But not before I enjoyed all the sights and superlatives that the bustling “City of Gold” had to offer. My college classmate graciously hosted me on my four-day visit and took me sightseeing to many of Dubai’s architectural wonders, including The Frame, Burj Al Arab and the iconic Burj Khalifa. Most of my visit was spent reconnecting with friends who now live and work in the UAE. I also took a side trip to Abu Dhabi on my four-day visit.
From the UAE, I went to Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. I didn’t have time to plan the trip, but signing up for tour packages really saved me a lot of time.
My next stop was Israel. The best part of my tour was being baptized in the Jordan River exactly on my birthday. I brought along a photograph of my mother, so I had something of her with me. Indeed, it was a very symbolic baptism for me.
Arriving in Israel, I thought I was going to be interrogated like the seven people ahead of me at the immigration counter, but when my turn came, the immigration officer only asked me two questions before stamping my visa card.
My visit to Israel’s hotspots was smooth and a great learning experience, thanks to a tour package with Eunoia Travel and Tours, an Israel-based tour company managed by a Filipino who was also our tour guide. Everywhere that our bus stopped, the tour guide would tell us biblical passages related to those places.
Despite what is in the news, there are still many reasons for tourists to visit Palestine. Locals are friendly and hospitable. It’s easy to strike up a conversation. I loved exploring their delicious cuisine, centuries-old relics and historic cities. I even tried to float on the world-famous Dead Sea and climbed up the mountain to an amazing view overlooking the city.
The only hiccup to the tour was while I was on top of the mountain overlooking the Palestinian city of Nablus. While the tour guide was talking about the history of the place, our tour group heard multiple gunshots and sirens. It appeared that they came from the exact place where we visited 15 minutes earlier. I thanked the heavens we were away from the commotion. Later, our tour bus took us from Tel Aviv to the King Hussein Bridge Terminal where another bus was waiting to take us to Jordan.
For many tourists, Petra might be the place to go but I honestly had more fun in Wadi Rum. Not only did I get to sleep in a Bedouin tent, but I also got to experience a panoramic sunrise and ride on the back of a Jeep as we traversed the Mars-like desert. The place is surreal and hauntingly beautiful.
My tour mates were mostly Filipino caregivers working in Israel. We went to Mount Nebo, the mosaic city of Madaba, the capital city of Amman and the world-famous ancient city of Petra.
Georgia amazed me with its gorgeous mountain landscapes. It had Switzerland-feels, and yet I was actually in eastern Europe. I walked on cobblestoned streets, visited monasteries and old Orthodox churches, and was enamored with the beautiful architecture of buildings in the city capital of Tblisi.
I visited Georgia with a college classmate. Since we didn’t have time to plan the tour, we signed up for a tour package with Little Manila Travel and Tours. It was a good decision as most of the places we visited were far from each other. We visited the Zinvali Reservoir and Ananuri Castle. On the way, we passed by the Aragvi River. We also visited the Gergetti Holy Trinity Church, Jvari Monastery, and the Georgia-Russia Friendship Wall.
Armenia is a time capsule with lots of amazing monasteries and centuries-old Orthodox churches dating as far back as the 10th century. It’s a great place for a leisurely visit. I visited Mt. Aragats, Symphony of Stones and the breathtaking Geghard Monastery.
In Armenia, my friend and I went on a city tour by ourselves on our first day. We visited the Mother Armenia Statue, Cascades, the Russian Art Museum, and the Republic Square. On our second day, we opted for a tour package so we can visit historic sites that required a bit of travel time, such as the Armenian Alphabet site, Amberd Fortress and Garni Temple and other monasteries.
I also discovered that Armenia is one of the world’s best makers of the best bottles of grapes. Definitely plenty of cheers! I stayed in Armenia for four days, exploring its capital of Yerevan, enjoying the local cuisine, going to an Armenian orchestra and just having a leisurely stroll through the streets. The cost of living here is cheap, so I didn’t have to worry about breaking the bank.
In Kazakhstan, I joined a tour group with eight Vietnamese flight attendants. Our local tour guide, Zhuma, not only showed us popular sites in the capital of Almaty and scenic spots in Kolsai and Kaindy, but he also made us feel literally at home by letting us have lunch at his home where his mother prepared a traditional Kazakh dish for us.
Before my beautiful trip to Kazakhstan, I had a hitch in my visa, which I only realized at the Armenian airport wasn’t valid until after two weeks. So I searched the internet for visa-free countries for Filipinos. I discovered that the nearest one to Armenia was Kazakhstan. With nary a travel plan or itinerary in mind, I had only about thirty minutes to book my airfare and rush to the airport for the travel enroute to Kazakhstan.
I was almost blocked by Armenian immigration officers for exit as I did not have a Kazakhstan visa. Good thing I was already a seasoned traveler. I confidently insisted that Kazakhstan provides visa-free travel for Philippine passport holders. The officer then stamped my passport and I was able to fly to Kazakhstan.
Traveling in a tour group helped me cut costs in Kazakhstan since the cost of the tour was divided between the tourists. I was able to visit Kolsai and Kaindy Lakes, which were a 4-hour drive from Almaty, the commercial city of the country.
If you ask me to describe Kazakhstan, I would say it is a vast country with a lot of tourist potential. It’s still at its infancy in terms of tourism, but its breathtaking natural sites are definitely worth the long drives.
My great adventures definitely changed my perspective about humanity. I can’t wait to discover more places in my next travels. FRV/Expat Media
A condensed version of this story also appears in the Expat Media Special Edition magazine
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