Monday, December 31, 2012

Reflections on Istanbul

Looking back on my time in Istanbul, with the echoes of "Bright Like a Diamond" blending with the Adhan still fresh in my mind, I can really begin to process what a mess I was two years ago.  I travelled solo, for the first time, and it was mostly on a whim.  Cheap airfare? Promising shopping? Opportunities for extreme pampering?  Yes, all that and more.  But mostly, it wasn’t Brick City.  And I desperately needed to get away.

My life was in upheaval, I didn’t know what to do with half of my old social circle (but mid-feud the easiest thing to do was cut them loose), and the other half was perched on the precipice above a tantrum spiral.  To date, there are still some people I care about very much, whom I haven’t seen since I left for Turkey on what turned out to be a lukewarm holiday.

Nearly being assaulted on my last night certainly had something to do with it.  There’s a lot to be said for females travelling solo – most about how it’s not as impossible as it seems, and practical safety tips that all solo travelers should obey.  But you know what? Most of that advice is common sense, and common sense – despite what it says on the label – is far from fool-proof.

I was home – locked in my hostel after dark – and well away from any rough neighborhoods.  The concierge let himself into my room, shut the door, and then didn’t like being told no.  But he was told no. Loudly.  Violently.  I am a strong woman, and I’m not easy to intimidate physically.  There was another occasion, about two nights prior, when I stayed out a bit too late (a tad past sundown) and a homeless man tried to follow me into a side-road.  I screamed Muppet-Russian at him and sent him packing.  My point is: I bluffed and won.  Twice.  Because if either of these men had weapons or any real desperation, being loud and large would not have helped.

The really sick part is that I was so adrift in my own drama that I didn’t really accept the gravity of my surroundings.  Turkey was at war with Syria.  ISIS was forming.  Kurds were the victims of genocide.  I spun it out into an adventure narrative.  An ill-fated black comedy.  And all that was true, to the extent that events unfolded as I related them to friends and family; the only difference is that I delivered each admission with a punchline.

My mother was worried.  I don’t think she’s heard all the details, and probably won’t hear about them unless she’s still stalking a blog I haven’t updated in 2 years.  Sorry, Mom.  It was a hard time for me.  But I was fine, and now I know the real secret of solo female travelling: Go Anyway.

Be loud, be alive, be willing to cold-cock some asshole with a half-empty wine bottle and raise a fuss and don’t mind at all what anybody else has to say about it.  If you’re being smart, if you’re using all the conventional wisdom, and you suddenly find yourself uncomfortable, then get ready to run.  No iPods, no smart phones, no drunken rambles down the pitch-black lane – eyes and ears and brain.  Take a damn cab, even if you’re broke the next day.  But go anyway.

Fear and regret are no way to live.  And even though it turned me off of travel blogging for a good while, I’m tentatively picking it back up again.  The real date of this post is August 3, 2015.  I’m posting it to 2012 because that’s where I think it belongs in the chronology: firmly behind me.

Now I just need to update with all my photos from the Bahamas, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Brick City.  Yes, I stopped blogging, but I didn’t stop travelling.  Two years to make up on… Yeesh.  But it’s worth it.  Nobody reads this but me (that’s rather the way I like it – a private thing with all the benefits of a mass email when I share out a specific link for friends and family), but I love to look back on that pretentious 17 year-old with her point-and-shoot camera who blogged like an abridged history anthologist and think: yeah, I’ve seen some things.

P.S. I will never give up on being 100% that same corny dork who started this blog, and you can’t make me.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Photos from Istanbul

I had a fantastic time in Turkey, but there was a bit of an incident on my last night in the country, so I wasn't too enthused about blogging my photos and stories.  Anyway, most of you have heard the unpleasant part of the trip, so I'm going to post a few photos (long over-due) and focus on the nice parts.  After all, I was supposed to do this back in November.

As the stereotype suggests, Istanbul is full of pushy carpet-salesmen, University students, and history.  I had a magnificent time shopping, visiting bath houses, and touring the sites; the museums were, I'm sorry to say, a tad over-priced.  (But I'm mostly spoiled on free public museums when I'm traveling.)  I would say, out of everything I saw, that the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum made the best impression on me. Tokapi Palace and the Istanbul Archaeology Museum were also not awful.

I stayed primarily in the historic districts, because they're more friendly to solo, female tourists, and because history is what first brought me to Turkey. This is a photo of the Golden Horn, taken from the mouth of the Bosporus  on the Sea of Marmara.  To the far left is the Blue Mosque, which is hugely daunting, and to the far right is Ayasofia.  For a long time, the Ayasofia (church converted to a mosque, converted to a tourism site) was one of the largest indoor spaces in the world -- so just imagine looking at this thing circa 550 C.E.  Of the two, only the Blue Mosque is still actively used for worship, which makes it free to tour but you have to time visits around the salah, cover your head, remove your shoes, etc..

Here's a slightly different view of the Mosque.  This is the entrance tourists use, but worshipers still assemble to use the public fountains near the pediments for their ablutions.  There's a really nice park surrounding the area, lots of young professionals, carpet salesmen, and tourists, and -- when the Muezzins aren't echoing off the buildings -- it's surprisingly quiet for a large city at mid-day.

Of course there are dozens of mosques in Istanbul, but even the smaller ones are made in the image of the Blue Mosque.  Even the little ones down by the ferries kept the basic color scheme, which is why the Blue Mosque is so iconic.

Istanbul, if you're not familiar with it, is uniquely situated over two continents.  Half of it stands in Europe, divided by the Bosporus strait with the Asian side.  To the North, you find the Black Sea, and to the South, the Marmara, Aegean  and -- yes -- the Mediterranean.  It feels pointlessly redundant to say "Istanbul is a port-city," but I'm saying it anyway.  I spent quite a bit of my trip hopping between the ferries, visiting the Prince's Islands, and facing my abnormal fear of fish.  The ferry I've got pictured here is MUCH nicer than the one I'm standing on, so you can let the Turkish Tourism Board know that they're welcome, from me.

The Prince's Islands, on the whole, were a mixed bag.  There were the usual tourist areas, of course, but also some abandoned buildings, an old monastery, and a booming fishing industry.  They also have the distinction of being very pedestrian or bicycle-friendly; cars are virtually non-existent, and they'll sell you a phaeton ride (in carriages pulled by half-starved horses) about two blocks from the docks.  I avoided that (obviously), but the men who make grocery deliveries, deliver propane, and move freight up the mountains have much better-kept animals, and I really enjoyed my people-watching.

Some travelers are amateur bird-watchers, but I watch the locals. I like to see how people behave when they think no one's looking, and -- to some extent -- when they know someone's watching, but can't quite figure out who.  Maybe that's creepy.  It probably is, actually, but is it really any more odd than birding?  I watch people.  And occasionally pigeons.  Dammit, I guess the birders got me.

In Istanbul, though, they have an astounding lack of pigeons and an almost certainly related abundance of stray cats.  This little guy was my favorite, by far.  I took this photo on my second day of island-hopping.  I'm standing on the boat, he's on the dock.  Well, silly me, I reached out to pet him as we were departing and he jumped into the boat with me.  I managed to catch him, made him accept my love in the form of kitty-snuggling, and got him back to land -- no worries, my Cat-Friend was safe.

Other than the history, cats and my creepy stalking hobby, the best bonus to Istanbul -- for me -- was the shopping!  The Grand Bazaar lived up to its name, but I vastly preferred the Egyptian Spice Market.  There's a much more normal, less kitsch bazaar outside the Spice Market, so I got a real feel for both the stereotypical market and the slice-of-life, this-is-where-we-buy-our-mops kinds.

There's really no better word to sum up the crammed stalls and vaulted ceilings of the Grand Bazaar than labyrinthine.   The whole thing twists and turns nonsensically, emptying out into alleys and courtyards, and all along the lanes merchants stock the same tourist junk, so even if you haven't ended up lost, back where you started, you think you did, and that's just as much fun.  It's really impossible to see it all, even with a map, but getting lost is exactly the point.  Everywhere you look, someone's haggling; the whole place smelled of saffron, roast lamb, and tea, but with a very authentic armpit stink.  I'm probably going to get in trouble for saying that, aren't I?

Still, the bazaar is commerce at its finest.  I did this thing where I bought a new scarf every day, then -- feeling that I'd gone a bit crazy -- I gifted most of them to my friends over the holidays.  That was very good of me, they were all lovely silk, cashmere, and hand-woven things.  I did keep one, though, and I brought back so much clove-soap, tea leaves, saffron, and dried fruits that it's honestly amazing U.S. Customs let me back into the country.

This is one of the standard, tourist-friendly spice stalls where I did a lot of my bulk-shopping.  The shop owner and I chatted three or four times over my stay, had a few cups of rather thick Turkish coffee, and he let me take some photos of his display.  It's worth noting that you shouldn't just walk up to people in the market and start snapping pictures of their things without buying something.  Rude.

Anyway, if you look closely at the back-right of his display, you will see these candied strawberries that I fell in love with.  I brought back a couple pounds of them, but the girls at work cleaned me out in just three days; thanks, ladies.  Next to that is dried pomelo rind (ick) and dried mango (good, but not worth space in my luggage -- I'm pretty sure they carry that at Giant).  Candied strawberries, though? Conan can add those to his "what is best in the world" speech.

And, of course, the obligatory example of a more "normal" street bazaar.  The Old Book Bazaar, actually.  You can imagine my enthusiasm when I saw that sign!  I found a really neat piece of art that mimics an illuminated, medieval Arabic astronomy script in one of the side stalls; come visit me some time, it's hanging up in my living room, looking gloriously tacky, and I love it.

There's also something to be said for the grocers who work the bazaars.  Most of the neighborhoods have convenience stores and produce-sellers who come through once a day with their karts, but the best stuff is either at the bazaar (fruit, veg, meat, cheese, bread) or down at the docks (seafood, fish).  I didn't have a kitchen, but I did go a little nuts over the local wine and mozzarella  which was easy to eat on my terrace and horrendously illegal to bring back with me.  Believe me, I tried, but they have cheese-bans that you wouldn't believe.  It is (and was) easier to bring back three bricks of tea.

Getting out of Eat All the Things! mode for a minute, Istanbul really is an epicenter for all the best history.  There are Egyptian obelisks, remnants of Byzantium, all of old Constantinople (look, it's a link to They Might be Giants right in the middle of the sentence -- go listen to it and get it out of your system already), and the Arab architecture spans the Renaissance.  I'd tell you about it, but my mother assures me that nobody cares, and if they do then they've already read about it themselves.

So, let me just summarize by saying that I'm standing in the Hippodrome, photographing an Egyptian Obelisk parallel to a minaret on the Blue Mosque, and I think that was pretty neat.  At the other end of that plaza, there's another column -- well, it might also be an obelisk now that I say that, but I don't feel like looking it up -- from another era in Istanbul's history, and I never really got tired of looking at it.  Lucky for me, the tram that runs up and down the main stops of the historical city has two or three stops very near here, so I visited it most every day, got on a first-name basis with some of the touts -- which is a horrible idea, but you should do it anyway -- and just enjoyed the ambiance while sipping my apple tea.

My other scholastic highlight was, without a doubt, my visit to the Istanbul University.  I was very lucky, I got to catch part of a lecture on the local archaeology along with some study-abroad students (probably in their Master's, since it was in English).  You know that awkward person who hitches their star to the paid tour groups in art museums? That was me, except I was surreptitiously spying on a bunch of doctoral candidates hearing about the Old City stratigraphy, and what it meant for developers trying to dig.  They do a whole lecture series that's open to the public right around the Istanbul Jazz Festival, but I missed that by a week. To anybody who says planning is pointless, live extemporaneously: planners don't miss things.

Anyway, I had to choose about half way through my stay whether I wanted to venture out into Turkey proper or stay in the city.  My adventurous streak would have liked a trip to Ephesus or Cappadocia, but the part of me that works full-time needed a little more R&R and a lot less bus-hopping through active war zones (this was right around the time Turkey started exchanging missile fire with Syria).  I decided to stay, and I got to see some parts of the city that don't usually make the websites.

Galata Bridge (with all the fishing poles) was a test of my endurance, but I got to see my lunch caught, killed, cooked, and slathered with lemon juice right in front of me.  It had scales and gills, and probably too much mercury, but I overcame my fish-thing and it was an acceptably nice foray.

Then, when I'd finished the things I wanted to do in the European side, I got good and lost in the Asian side (pictured).  Trust me, the Asian side of Istanbul is not some place you want to be lost in over night. I did figure out how to get home, eventually, although it took a tram, train, and ferry to work it all out.

Lesson learned? Probably not.

 Other than that unpleasant altercation I mentioned before, Turkey was lovely.  I relaxed, read some books, learned some things, and slept in on a Wednesday; simple pleasures in a very complicated city.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Stıll Goıng Strong

I vısıted the Grand Bazaar today and got some of my Chrıstmas shoppıng done.  So far everythıng ıs turnıng out better than expected... actually, I had a really good day today.  Maybe not as relaxıng as the day I spent ısland hoppıng but defınıtely memorable.

I started thıs thıng where I buy myself one new scarf a day for as long as I am ın Turkey.  Saturday was green checkered pashmına, Sunday was pale blue woven sılk wıth a darker cobalt strıpe, Monday was dark teal cashmere that matched the water around the ıslands and kept me warm on deck, Tuesday I had a golden sılk scarf from the Spıce Bazaar so delıcate ıt was almost too fıne to run through my hands, and today I bought a really fıne mesh green nylon wıth whıte strıps and beaded ends... Tomorrow I am not sure what I wıll do for my last one... maybe somethıng from one of the Asıan Turkısh cultures wıth some embroıdery or somethıng.

So now I just need to fınısh my shoppıng and see ıf I am brave enough for the Galata Brıdge and Tower tomorrow:.. and maybe I wıll go through the Hıppodrome and take some more photos of the Blue Mosque sınce I dıdnt get very many good ones the fırst tıme.

Apologıes for the state oıf my punctuatıon the keyboards here are really weırd.  Also my Kındle ran out of juıce today and the charger I found was not compatıble.  If thats not a sıgn ıts tıme to come home then I dont know what ıs.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Greetıngs from Istanbul!

I have had a few days to get used to the cıty and I am lovıng every mınute of ıt.  I spent my fırst couple of days walkıng around takıng ın the sıghts around the Blue Mosque, and yesterday I spent my afternoon hoppıng around between the ıslands of the Marmara Sea.  I got good and  lost at my last port ın the Asıan subcontınent but I dıd fınaly fıgure ıt out and get back to the European sıde before the trams shut down for the nıght.  I spent most of today ın the Spıce Market spendıng too much money and buyıng new luggage for the flıght home -- I am goıng to need more space to store the heaps of herb soaps and tea leaves I am brıngıng wıth me.

All ıs well otherwıse -- I'll have tons of good storıes to tell when I get home.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Headed to Istanbul Tomorrow!

I know it's been a while since I updated this blog, but in all fairness it's also been a while since I went anywhere exciting.  I'm going to try to post some updates while I'm away, and maybe some photos if the technology in the Internet Cafes and my camera want to cooperate with me.

This trip has been a very long time in the making.  I kind of scratched my head for a few months trying to figure out where to go, and then: BAM.  Turkey.  Congratulations to the Turkish tourism board, you got me.

If you're keeping tabs on the border issues between Turkey and Syria, please don't worry; I'm going to stay in Istanbul and the region around the Black Sea, so I should be safe and well away from any fighting.

I've got a few minor housekeeping things to take care of before I go: batteries to charge, books to download, and I'd like to find my missing iPod...  Still, this trip could not come at a better time for me.  It's been a crazy year, lots of ups and downs, but I'm in a good place and looking forward to a week away from the office.

Wish me luck!