Istanbul–Revisited

Serving up the raki--Jeff not feeling it

Serving up the raki--Jeff not feeling it

In tandem with my last blog about what we were able to see and do in Istanbul on our own, I feel it is equally if not more important to recount our last few days in one of the world’s great cities as shared through the generosity of our friend in Turkey. Our meeting started out simply as an email exchange with a friend of our friends who is from Turkey and happens to live in Istanbul. The result was an unforgettable experience in the “real” Istanbul in addition to us making a friend of our own.

We stayed with our host, Kerem, in his apartment with a beautiful panoramic view of the Bosphorus Sea and surrounding districts. Aside from the many creature comforts that come with being lucky enough to stay in an actual home (fresh towels and linens, a washing machine, not having to wear flip flops while showering, sitting down on a couch…the list goes on), we had the privilege of meeting and getting to know our host, who freely gave up a few days to take us out and about and show us Istanbul in a way we never would have been able to see on our own. We enjoyed a complete Turkish breakfast along the waterfront. In addition to the mix of olives, cheeses, breads, tomato, cucumber, and tea that we have grown accustomed to and love, we also got to try some meat-filled pastry, honey and cheese, and Turkish omelet (soooooo good). Let me tell you, I could have kept on going and out-eaten both of those boys, but since they were stuffed (as was I), I decided to check it as well. After breakfast, we drove up to see views of the Bosphorus leading to the Black Sea with Europe and Russia far out towards one side and Anatolia (the Asian side) off to our right. As happens time and time again during our travels, I once again had the feeling of being so very small (hold your comments everyone!). We also went to and through Taksim Square and spent the afternoon walking through Beyoglu, where I had my first Turkish coffee and not-so-first puffs from the nargile, which the guys also enjoyed with a couple of beers at one of the many outdoor cafes, while watching the crowds go by. It was both relaxing and invigorating at the same time to chat and sip and puff (sorry mom, you know I don’t smoke, but when in Rome…), while watching Istanbul’s young and old literally working and playing in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the area. There were a handful of tourists sprinkled in among the locals, some doing as we were, business men in suits walking past, a group of trendily dressed young women chatting over tea, a couple playing what seems to be the national game of backgammon, and vendors darting about selling their wares. We had dinner (mezzes, seafood, and our first taste of the Turkish liquour, Raki) at another outdoor restaurant in an alley awash with similar restaurants, Raki-fueled customers dancing between the tables to the music along with the clapping and shouting of the other patrons. It was like nothing we have in the states. We had heard that if you haven’t been to Beyoglu, then you haven’t been to Istanbul. And now we know why. We had wanted to come on our own and had been unable to get here, but in the end it was much better to experience it with our generous host and friend, and go out with a bang. Once again, thanks Kerem!!! Serefe.

Posted: June 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

A bit of Istanbul

Men fishing with one of several mosques in background

Men fishing from Galata Bridge (one of several mosques in background)

6/8/09

We are slowly wrapping up our Turkey adventures in the city where they all began. After flying into Istanbul five weeks ago and hanging out at the massive otogar (bus station) for several hours only to begin our land travel across western Turkey, we are once again in Istanbul (not Constantinople….sorry, ever-so predictable, but I couldn’t resist).

Istanbul is by all accounts once again a world-class city. By our account, we would have to agree although unfortunately due to a round of sickness each, I can’t say we’ve been able to experience as much of it as we had planned. It’s never fun to be sick, but much less so when you are traveling. Even though you’d rather stay in bed, you feel obligated in a way, to each other, to yourself, and to this astounding place that you came all the way to see and will possibly never get to experience the same way again. Therefore, we’ve managed to get to some of the major sites, albeit walking very slowly (Jeff) and stopping every few feet to pull out a tissue and blow (Mari). All in all, it’s all part of the travel experience. When else can we roll out of bed at noon and decided which UNESCO World Heritage site to visit first?

We are staying in Sultanhamet in Istanbul, which fortunately is quite central to almost everything we want to do. So far we have shuffled over to Hagia Sofia (elaborate and grand), the Blue Mosque (not that blue), and taken short strolls around Sultanhamet and the surrounding districts. Today we will attempt Topkapi Palace and maybe the Anthropology Museum (but maybe not). If we are brave, tomorrow the Grand Bazaar (which is guaranteed to be awesome and intense) and Miniaturk, a mini scaled-down version of famous world sites where we can walk around doing Godzilla impressions (which I’m guessing will not be crowded at all).

Being sick has small advantages though. For one, it offers a convenient excuse to get away from overly friendly merchants, but more importantly helps with our food budget. This is nice, since lodging in Istanbul is much more expensive than elsewhere in Turkey. Even though our travels here are coming to a close in a world famous city on a slightly less than stellar note, I am grateful. Five weeks in Turkey has given us a chance to get a feel of much of the country, make some new friends, sample the local foods, and see the most amazing sights, all of which have made me certain that I will be back here someday.

Note: We have also added new pictures to our Turkey Album.  For those of you who have not done so, from our Photo link, click on the Flickr page link and then Details so you can see all pictures with descriptions/captions.

Posted: June 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Cappadocia

In Central Anatolia there’s an area that alternates between hillsides that mimic bunched ribbon, at once both smooth and rippled, and plains where seemingly randomly placed rock columns violently dot the landscape. It’s a hiker’s wet dream. In actuality both formations were created by previous volcanic activity and make for a spectacular scene. The rock columns look like giant phallus symbols or fairy chimneys, depending who you ask (and I guess depending on the audience). For the purposes of this blog, I’ll refer to them as fairy chimneys henceforth. And I guess it is a pretty accurate description, since coming here to Cappadocia made me feel like I had entered a fantasy world. Because the formations were created from tuff, softer volcanic rock– the hillsides, fairy chimneys and the ground itself has been carved out by previous civilizations leaving a world of possibilities imagined and imaginations actualized.
We arrived into Goreme, the most central town in Cappadocia expecting to find a “normal” hostel to lay our bags and then go exploring our new surroundings. We checked 5 or 6 which all offered dorm accommodations for relatively more expensive housing then we were hoping for. So we kept looking and were offered a cave to stay in, but Mari exercised her executive veto power. The move was a good one though, because we ended up being offered our very own fairy chimney as lodging because of it! As Mari entered the fairy chimney, ducking at the door, I thought about how small fairies must have been in the past. Not enough hormones in the food supply. Our ceiling in the chimney was almost 6 ft. in height, which gave us the illusion of being giant—like that room at the Exploratorium where you get bigger as you walk further in. We settled in, made our obligatory Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum jokes and went for a walk.
Over the next 3 days our walks took us through the Rose Valley, the church of John the Baptist, numerous fairy chimneys and an underground city which was populated by upwards of 10,000 people. Throughout the sights one of us would usually proclaim that they felt like they were on a movie set. I pictured a movie with Christopher Walken for some reason.
I should actually make a correction. The fairy chimney was not our own. We had a fairy chimney buddy that stayed on the floor below us whom we had met previously in Fethiye. Mari and I complement each other pretty well as travel partners, but because our companionship is constant and encompassing, an interesting new travel friend acts like a snap of the finger to a driver crossing down the long straight part of I-5. It was great to be able to hear another perspective on what we were seeing-another voice to supplement our knowledge base on the area. We all shared meals, conversations, hikes and somewhere around our 2nd bottle of shared wine, I realized our fairy chimney buddy felt more like an old friend.
The next day we went our own ways, she back to Ankara and us off to Istanbul. We all were glad we came here if not a little overwhelmed by the uniqueness of the landscape. I think too, at least for Mari and myself, that the land of the fairy chimneys was made better because of our buddy on the floor below.

Posted: June 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Feeling French in Turkey

Over the last few days, we’ve had 2 experiences, both designed to achieve the same result, but in polar opposite ways. Better planning probably would have had us do it in reverse order, but c’est la vie.
We were just in Fethiye, and decided to go to our first hamam (Turkish Bath). We had seen the pictures of people, lying in a large marbled out communal space getting scrubbed down and knew there were a bunch of other steps to it. Mari’s anxiety got the better of her, so before we went we did our homework on the process. How long is it and how much do we tip? Do we go sans clothing?
We went at night to avoid the crowds, and were led immediately into a sauna. The attendant sprayed and placed menthol on the charcoal, and left us in this modern day sweat lodge to prepare our skin for the exfoliation part. He probably told us how long we would be in it, but since we can only count to 4 in Turkish, Mari’s guess was as good as mine. Mari doesn’t like heat, so this amounted to a slightly torturous event for her. She initially tried to be calm, but ten minutes in started a repetitive chant of “I need to get out of here, I need to get out of here…” About 15 minutes in, our attendant came back and we jumped up, thinking he was going to let us out, but instead he sprayed the charcoal more, and left again to our muttered curses. About 25 minutes in, he came back and let our withered, but gleeful selves out .


He led us into the communal bath area, the relatively cooler air almost convincing us that maybe the sauna wasn’t that hot. As we tried to tell him that the sauna felt good, he led us into a steam room and closed the door before we could protest. Mari’s face that had just been exhibiting relief, now was a mixture of sadness and fear. We sat in the steam room, wondering how we could have offended our attendant for him to treat us like this. Mari started to count. We talked a little to keep our minds off the heat. 1 minute… We talked about previous steam room experiences at the gym. We talked about how nice the communal area looked. 2 minutes…we wondered whether our attendant forgot about us. 3 minutes…We talked about symptoms one feels before fainting. 5 minutes…We asked each other where the hell our attendant was before finally giving up and exiting the steam room prematurely.
In the communal bath area, we laid out on the marble center, or goebektas, as our respective washer, or tellak, went to work on us. Alternating between cups of water and a scrub mitt, or kese, they scrub your body down. After my tellak was done, I looked at the amount of dirt and dead skin that had come off of me. Disgusting. I wondered whether I was actually lighter now that I wasn’t carrying all of that on me anymore. I was rinsed off using one of the sinks and bowls, then laid out again on the marble and got soaped down. A pillowcase-like device created unreal amounts of bubbles of the olive oil soap. After I was rinsed off again and shampooed and rinsed off again, the experience wound down with my being wrapped up in multiple towels to chillax a little more. I’m not sure why, but Mari started her bath first and ended way after me…go figure. We left the hamam clean and as soft as a baby’s butt.


Today, in a river town called Dalyan, we went to one of the city’s principal attractions—the hot springs and mud baths. The mud pools and thermal pool areas contain slightly radioactive mineral waters good for the skin and rheumatism.
As we arrived at the mud pools, the smell of sulfur hit us first. Then we saw them—the mud people. They were covered head to toe in a greenish-gray slime, camouflaged into the mountains behind them. But they looked happy—smiling, laughing. So we ventured nearer and worked up our courage to join them.
The pools themselves were warm and squishy. You float to the top, in spite of your efforts. After swimming in the mud awhile, we exited the slippery pools slowly doing our best Toxic Avenger impressions. We rinsed off and topped it off by hanging out in the thermal pool. We left the mud pools dirty, but smooth as a baby’s butt.

The mud pool/hot springs made me think back to Nicaragua. A couple of months ago we were swimming in the crater of a volcano, Laguna de Apollo, said to have a similar mineral composite as the hot springs here with some of our Spanish language classmates. Our French classmate exited the lagoon, impressed with the sulfur’s effects on his skin and proclaimed to the rest of us “I feel French again!” …as French as a baby’s butt.

Posted: May 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Kindness of (Turkish) Strangers

Everyone I know who has visited Turkey has returned with glowing reports, so expectations of Turkey were high to begin with. The problem with expectations, as we all know, is that they are rarely met with reality. However, I am happy to report that thus far, our experience in Turkey has been nothing short of sublime-so much so that I can not understand why we haven’t run into more American tourists or vacationers. As popular as it seems to have become with Aussies and Europeans, and Russians in particular, we have encountered very few travelers from the states. Must be a well kept secret, but as far as I’m concerned, this is a must visit for so many reasons, but today I will start with the people.

The Locals
I do not presume to make sweeping generalizations about an entire population of people, and at the same time, as always, there are exceptions. That being said, the Turkish people we have encountered have been polite, friendly, and truly wonderful. I can’t even keep track anymore of how many people have stood up to give us their seats, offered us tea, given us directions, or just wanted to chat or share a laugh, all without expecting anything in return. Really. After traveling for four plus months, this has come as a bit of a shock. Initially, we were suspicious, waving away offers for help and dismissing those we assumed were touts with curt replies. But here we have found that most of these advances are genuine and even the touts back off quickly and politely once they know you aren’t interested. And we have made friends with a few strangers, despite the language barrier.

Our first encounter upon arriving in Istanbul, was with two young men who wanted to practice their English. After ignoring their multiple attempts to say hello, we finally stopped and made guarded small talk and declined when they offered us a smoke, until it became clear that they had no other objective other than to talk to the Americans. As they walked off, after pointing us to the bus station, I frantically checked all my pockets and backpack, and felt only slightly ashamed of doing so.

That night we took the overnight bus to Izmir. Not only was this our first overnight bus, it was also our first major bus ride outside of Central America. It is hard to compare the two, because there is little comparison to be made. In fact, it may not be quite fair to do so, since Central America’s “chicken busses” are so named because the locals can bring aboard live animals, including live chicken. Anyway, we found our assigned seats on this large clean fancy new-looking bus, and settled in. The guy seated across the aisle saw us looking at the controls, TV monitors, and refrigerator like country bumpkins and showed us how to work the armrest. As we have learned, busses in Turkey have a “helper”, just like in Central America. In Central America the helper collects the fare, yells the stops out the window, and opens and closes the door. In Turkey, the helper is more or less like a butler. This being our first ride, we tried to figure out what was happening as he swiftly made his way down the aisle, carrying a small bottle and splashing some of its contents in the hands of those who indicated for him to do so. On the second round several hours later we thought we’d try it out and found that it was hand sanitizer. This in addition to him spraying down the carpet with something like Febreze between stops, the washing of the bus at rest stops, as well the individually packaged handi-wipes that came with our choice of drinks and snacks, was our first introduction to the cleanliness standards here. At one point, our friend across the aisle, asked us something in Turkish, and through pantomime we determined that he was asking us if we wanted water. As we stared back, trying to figure out how to ask if it was free, he got up and returned with three cups of water, handing us two with a nod. After the bus drove onto a ferry, we were allowed to get out and walk around the boat. During this point, I made friends with a very sweet Turkish lady, using nothing but gestures, as we waited in line for the bathroom. By the time we made it to the front of the line, we were sharing a laugh and she was pinching my cheeks and patting my face. When we re-boarded the bus, the very same guy had bought us a packet of snacks, which he tossed to Jeff with a smile. We just sat there smiling gratefully, wishing we knew how to say “thank you” in Turkish. It’s a good thing we soon learned how, because with the way we continue to be treated by the people here, we say it a lot.

In our short time here, we have been the recipients of random acts of kindness. There were the semi-truck drivers who saw us walking a long road in the mid-day sun who gave us a lift (to our destination, and another ride back). There were the guys at the market selling olives, of which we taste-tested several varieties before deciding what to buy, but when I handed them the money, they insisted I keep it and enjoy the olives. And there was the guy at some tourist trap who gave me one of the necklaces he was selling for free “as a gift”…just like the bag of mixed Turkish Delights I was given today (yum!). They say that nothing in life is free, but our friends here are proving that wrong everyday with their kindness.

The awesome olive guys

The awesome olive guys

Posted: May 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Summer Camp

Tree house cabins

Tree house cabin

Turkey has offered us some of the most unique experiences to date. I’ll save the landscape, culture, cuisine, comments for a future blog, because they are worth it. For now I will concentrate on our one day spent at Olympos (yes, the Olympus of Greek fame). We were planning to spend some time in Antalya, but after bussing through, decided to keep going (not for any reason in particular as the old part of town looked spectacular, but that seemed just about all there was to see). So we hopped on the next bus headed for Olympos. Today the majority of lodging options there are “tree houses” scattered out along one stretch of road. Unlike our previous tree house experience in Guatemala, the ones in Olympos are not actual tree houses, but rather bunches of one- and two-story cabins or bungalows–lots of them (400 at the most popular locations). As luck would have it, ours turned out to be the one establishment that appealed to mainly Turkish vacationers. If I had ever attended a summer camp for Turkish adults, I can assure you that this was it. There was a main lodge, housing the kitchen, dining tables, TV area, and general store selling drinks and snacks. The bar and dance floor took up the entire second floor. Surrounding the lodge was a volleyball court, campfire pit, ice cream cart, cabins, and cabana-like structures for hanging out and smoking the nargile (the Turkish water pipe). Each structure had a low table, surrounded on three sides by a booth stocked with large colorful pillows with people strewn about smoking, reading, napping, or playing cards. When we arrived, all was calm, but we were warned by the bartender that the nights could get pretty rowdy. Luckily we met a young Australian couple upon arrival, and we latched on to each other immediately since we appeared to be the only English speaking guests. The four of us opted to do the night tour of Chimeara (also the one of Greek lore). We were driven to the nearby town where we climbed up the hillside and were able to spot several patches of fire blazing out of the rocky hillside. They resembled little campfires and were only made more interesting knowing that they burn continuously from the gases contained in the ground and the fact that they were a part of the Greek myth. We arrived back to our tree houses a little before midnight. Before the van slowed to a stop, we could already hear the pulsating beat of early 90’s pop music, and when the doors opened, the sounds of the Turkish guests singing along at the top of their lungs, presumably while dancing. We walked quickly past the bar and up to our rooms, hoping against hope for a good night’s sleep. With each change of song, came an excited roar from the crowd, displaying their satisfaction and familiarity with the song choice and the singing continued, interspersed with my less than all time favorite genre of music: techno. Although we had been told that the party typically moves on to another spot after midnight, midnight came and went, as did the next several hours with hits by Ace of Base, Lady Gaga, whomever it is that sings “We will, we will, rock you”, and techno beats playing into the morning hours. As annoyed as we were, we had to admit the whole scene was just plain funny. I was again grateful for my ability to fall asleep in a matter of minutes, while Jeff eventually nodded off at some point in the wee hours. The next morning, we decided one night was enough for us at the Turkish tree houses, hastily ate our breakfast (the usual Turkish fare of olives, cucumber, tomato, bread and jam, but here also omelets!) and headed off for the coastal town of Kas.

Posted: May 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Stepping into the Unknown

We met a photographer in Guatemala a couple of months ago. During conversation she wanted to move past the usual traveler small talk of the, “where are you from?” and “what did you like the most so far?” type of questions. Instead, she thought we should be discovering why it is people travel. What are we getting away from, what are we trying to discover? You ask people why they travel and the answers are as varied as the faces that respond.
The last 2 weeks (in Barcelona, Leucate in the south of France, and Turkey), have offered me small, deeper understandings of my own answers. Barcelona reminded me that I travel for feelings of familiarity and not just for what is new. There’s happiness in a place that you’ve remembered in fondness welcoming you back. Eating at the same restaurants, feeling the city’s pulse late at night, seeing its Gothic and Modernist architecture brought back memories of times past. This time however, there also was an added feeling, that of pride—mostly unwarranted, as I was able to share the city I had learned to love before, with Mari and her parents. And by seeing them see the city with fresh eyes I once again saw the city’s offerings. I felt fortunate to spend time with the Yaos as I got to know them better, and in turn Mari.
The familiarity of Barcelona became less familiar as we stopped over in the south of France, and stepped back in time. Whatever you conjure in your mind of the south of France…picturesque vineyards…medieval castles and French village life…the Pyrenees—It’s all accurate. And sometimes traveling is about that—seeing something with your own eyes. Confirmation of the world’s beauty.
We stayed in France with some friends whom we originally met in Central America. Traveling had allowed us to develop a friendship with this amazing couple whom we would have never met otherwise. They were warm hosts and have become good friends.
From our friends in France, we took another step towards the unfamiliar and entered Turkey, a country neither Mari nor I had any idea what to expect from. It was another step back in time, as we have traded the medieval ages for the Greek/Roman eras and exchanged the warmth of family and friends for the random kindnesses of strangers. And initial impressions of Turkey have been all really positive. So much so, that we are postponing our step to the next country, staying here 2 ½ extra weeks, and if we’re lucky—continue to be given those little truths of why we travel.

pondering traveling over the nargile

pondering traveling over the nargile

Posted: May 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments »