A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A day at the Szechneyi Thermal Bath

On a pleasant but very warm summer day we strolled down Andrassy Avenue, the grand boulevard of Budapest, taking in the neo-renaissance architecture of the city.

We headed towards the city park and came upon the impressive Hero’s Square. Quite literally we hadn't researched Budapest yet and when we just stumble upon a great monument, square, or building its like magic. Or the universe conspiring in wonderful ways.

Our final destination was located inside the park, Szechneyi Thermal Baths which are the largest medicinal baths in Europe. Entrance to the bath was about $15/each for the day and you even get a locker to hold your belongings if, that is, you can figure out the card they give you is meant to go in the locker door to release the key.

Stepping out into the pool area for the first time is just incredible, the nicest public pools I’ve ever seen, decorated lavishly in neo-Baroque style with white scupltures reflecting off the aqua pools below. The three pools outside ranged from cool to warm to hot. It was amazing to be inside a large pool that felt like a jacuzzi in the middle of a sunny day. Surprisingly it felt great. Now we are kicking ourselves for skipping out on Pamukkale Hot Springs in Turkey.

It was crowded but didn’t seem overwhelming. A lot of locals come to these baths, some regulars have come for years to play chess while lingering in the medicinal waters.

One of the pools had circles of jets spewing up from the floor monopolized by Hungarian grandmas in old fashioned bathing suits. I couldn’t figure out the fuss until I staked one out for myself and made a mad dash for it across the pool when it was free. And it was, how can I put this…aqua erotic. Go grandma!

A few hours later we discovered that the outside pools are only half the experience. Inside there are hot and cold plunges, whirlpools, steam rooms, and saunas.

I hate saunas. I try them every year or two, and like a dry martini I can never acquire the taste. If I liked to be hot and suffocating I would never have left Arizona. It’s a dry heat, they say, but that’s just a nice way of saying hella hot with the operative word on “hell”. Guess this is a good opportunity to give a big HI to all my pals in Dante’s Inferno sweating out another August!

Ron loved the saunas and especially liked going directly afterwards to the cold plunge, the 18 degrees celsius water jolting his system awake. Then to a 38 degree jacuzzi, I’m not sure if this would be a very therapetic order of events, but we had fun for hours running around like little kids.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Great Budapest Apartment Shuffle

Here’s the story of how we stayed in 3 apartments in 8 days in Budapest.

After getting off the neverending train ride we still needed to find a place to stay. We immediately met a women named Kathy that offered her apartment for 50 euro/night. We thanked her and went on our merry way, the price was too much for us and way too much for Budapest. We needed to hit the bank, get some food, and then purchase our next train ticket “before” we left the station so we don’t have to backtrack and fight the crowds more than necessary. That plan was quickly thwarted as good ole Kathy found us and started bargaining. We were a little worn down so settled on a much lower price and left to take a look at it.

The apartment was big but on closer inspection wasn’t exactly clean. I don’t even know if they changed the sheets, the bed sheet sporting a red wine stain and curly black hair. No internet connection. And the single sorry dusty fan was broken. Whatever. We were starving and needed food and would have agreed to a liver transplant at that point. The apartment had 4 doors bearing 5 locks and was like Fort Knox trying to get in and out. I prayed for no fires because we would surely be burnt to a crisp. We booked it for 3 nights but when we went back to the train station all the trains to Vienna were booked so we tried to book it for two extra nights.

However, the next morning the man of the house comes over, some ex-cop from NY, and tells us that the bathtub is leaking into the apartment below and we have to move out. But worry not, he has a friend with a hostel that we can move to and will meet us the next morning at 10am. Around 11am, and he meanders in, and takes us to a shitty little hovel that is charging $40/night for a sad room with a shared bathroom, all the other backpackers looking depressed and forlorn in the dim, depressing light. No thanks.

We took our plight to the street and went online to find a cute little studio from Firstapartments for an amazing price of 20 Euro or $28/night, complete with AC, internet, and kitchenette. When we showed up, it was even better than we imagined, it was super clean and well decorated in a deep red motif. The bathroom was so spotless you could eat off the floor. The owner, Gerry, was exceedingly cheerful and friendly and we wished we met him earlier. If you are ever in Budapest and want a good deal from a great guy, you better call him up!

I just love the big beds that use two comforters. This can actually save a relationship if you are with someone who is a bed hog or a “tuck and roller”. You know the type who tucks the covers under them and rolls away leaving their partner blanket-less and freezing. (Ahem, Ron.) My mom has known this one for years after renting an apartment in Val Gardena Italy, it must be a European thing, we first saw it in Prague and now we seek it out as our first bedding option. Second is the two twin Brady Bunch arrangement. Lastly is the too short, not wide enough full size bed that is way too small when it is hot out. No snuggles from me when it’s over 90 degrees out and you are in a room without a fan.

We were only supposed to stay 2 nights, but Ron woke up feeling sick with a cold. Now we had a conundrum, we had non-refundable train tickets and the room we were in was getting work done on the gas line the next day. Gerry found us another apartment from a friend in the Octogon area for two more nights and I went back to the train station to hawk the tickets to an English couple heading to Vienna. It was the first time I carried around a sign hand scrawled with a black sharpie and even though I was selling real tickets I felt like people took me for some kind of a scam artist. We recouped most of the ticket cost and I nursed Ron back to health with fizzy vitamin c tabs and endless cups of juice.

The two times we were to meet Gerry, he was an hour late like the other landlord and we were seriously wondering what Hungarian sense of time was, until we arrived at the train station on our very last day and realized that our watches were off by one hour the entire time we were there!


Monday, July 27, 2009

30 hour train through Serbia

We boarded the train just before noon. It was supposed to be a 17 hour ride arriving at 5am the next morning in Budapest. Famous last words, Gilligan. The train wasn’t full so we ended up having a 3 bunk room all to ourselves and high fived in our triumph. What luck!

We had dinner and watched a movie on our laptop (our new favorite pasttime when we have battery power) and caught an amazing sunset. All was going as scheduled.

We realized something was wrong around midnight. We seemed to have gone through Belgrade but we were going backwards now. And then suddenly the worst thing happened, we stopped. The hours pass, and still no movement. I peek out a crack in the window and we are surrounded on all sides by dark empty trains. One train is being hosed down by a creepy guy in overalls. A single lamp overhead casts long angular shadows in all directions.

Why aren’t we going anywhere? A Dutch kid named Simon in the next car sticks his head out the window, "we missed the connecting train to Budapest, they left us here.” Left us?! How can that happen? And more importantly is anyone coming to get us? I suddenly feel a little anxiety. I’m in a dark, desolate train parking lot (or more like graveyard) in the middle of...Serbia. Dun duh dunnnnnn.

At some point we sleep because there isn’t much else to do. The train has stopped so there is no breeze to quell the suffocating heat. The window is down. The mosquitoes are out in swarms.

We wake up around 8am in the exact same spot. A few hours later and we finally move but dreadfully slowly. And a couple hours into the ride we start going....backwards! Talk about two steps forward, one step back.

We were extremely fortunate to have loaded up on food supplies: chicken gyros, cheese pastries, crackers, nuts, and bananas but we ate nearly everything the night before and were hungry by hour number 24 and counting. At least Ron had filtered several liters of water so we weren’t dehydrated. To pass the time we alternated between reading, napping, playing backgammon, and praying we were headed in the right direction.

I got a lot of use out of my freshette, which is a little pink doohickey that let‘s women pee standing up. The invention of the century. Necessary to avoid all the bathroom pitfalls, unsanitary ills, and general nastiness of having to use a unisex toilet. Why are all guys such pigs? I mean seriously, do you have to pee all over the toilet seat and floor like a cave man? If you are saying to yourself, “Hey! I’m not a pig” then do explain why there is pee all over 9 out of 10 toilet seats only in the bathrooms where we have to share. It can’t be the same guy running around giving you a bad rap. Even if its just half of you, I’m appalled at your bad manners. And another thing, after you pee all over the seat, try washing your grubby hands every once in a while. There are no towels in that bathroom so unless you're licking your hands dry you aren't even washing up!

On a more pleasant note...sometime during the day a bright spot appeared on the horizon, an electric yellow field of sunflowers as far as you could see. Obviously we couldn't get a shot like the one below from a speeding train but this is almost exactly what it looked like. Sunflowers are such a happy flower with their smiling faces craned up towards the sky. You can’t feel anything but good about life looking at them. Next time you are down in the dumps, get yourself a sunflower and stare at it for 15 minutes. (For added fun, try not to blink) Problems solved. Nature’s secret flower therapist to the rescue.

We arrived into the Kereli station in Budapest a little before 6pm. Smelly. Hungry. Exhausted after 30 hours of train travel.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sofia, Bulgaria

We stayed at a place aptly named the Internet Hostel just off the main street Vitosha. Your typical room, free lame breakfast (which we missed because our watches were off an hour), and shared bathroom situation. I love the bathrooms with just a showerhead mounted to the wall over the tiled floor so you get water all over the toilet, your towel, and everything else in your path. Pure genius.

But the room came with a bonus nightly cocktail at Murphy’s Irish Pub one floor down. Can’t beat a free drink! Bulgaria is the first place since our trip started that has cocktails we could afford, so after our freebie gin we had to order a couple more at the rock bottom price of $3. It didn’t get too out of hand but boy was a perfectly iced beefeater gin & tonic a revelation we didn‘t want to end.

We only spent two days in Sofia so we mainly did a walking tour, meandering to churches and statues, taking photos along the way. We found a flea market in the park to buy a souvenir, and perused fascinating Nazi memorabilia, like a bullet shaped lighter that still worked like a charm half a century later.

The sidewalks and streets are treacherous. There are holes and ridges and loose tiles everywhere. You have to consciously lift your feet up when you walk or you’ll trip every now and then like a total loser.

Their corner stores were halfway underground and you had to crouch down to a little window to place your order. Which makes me wonder what grandma does when her sciatica acts up and she needs some Gatorade.

Although we escaped the nonstop newsreel of MJ’s death, we still happen upon makeshift shrines and cries of grief for Micheal Jackson. Our friend Gerry in Budapest asked us to visit Neverland and light a candle for him. Better add that to the list for the California leg of the tour.

Cyrillic script is really wackadoodle, it makes Greek look like hooked on phonics. What’s up with the mirror-image “K” letter?! Try parking your car here...


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Overnight train to Sofia

We took our first overnight train from Istanbul to Sofia in a 6 person couchette which is essentially a tiny room with three bunk beds on either side. As we have been in private rooms our whole trip thus far, it was a bit of a shocker for us to be in such cramped quarters with four other people (and a kid). It brought me back to my first overnight train in France years ago, huddling with my backpack on the top bunk and not wanting to give up my passport in the middle of the night to some strange man, who only later I realized was the conductor.

We shared the room with a couple from Switzerland and their cute little girl that had a strawberry shortcake knock-off doll that was knocked too many times in the head, slurring out a pitiful song and jerking around epileptically. As kids travel free around here if you can put them in your bunk or bus seat there are usually kids crawling all over the place, families are not afraid to travel in Europe. The other bunkmate was a nice guy from South Korea, a Tae Kwon Do teacher who scaled the bed and leapt to his bunk on the top with the deftness of Jackie Chan.

In addition to the confined space, it was blustering hot even with the window open. We both knew we were going to have a tough time sleeping so I inquired about drinks and was directed to the Romanian train car. Bumping back and forth into the walls as I traversed the narrow, dark hallway like I was already drunk, and nearly getting caught between the train car doors, skirt slipping into its death grip where I couldn’t go forward or back. My heart beating faster, what am I doing? I finally found the conductor who sold me two warm beers in the can, no excuse me it was the Romanian King of Beers! Success! It helped ease the hours until we tried to sleep through the sweat and the smell. My god! someone had bad, bad gas.

A couple hours later we got to the Bulgarian border and had to get out for passport control. Ron and I put on our shoes and bolted from the train, eager to get through the line and back to sleep. We were number 6 or 7 in a line that went out the door but when we got to the front the officer was not at all happy with Ron’s passport. He scanned it a couple times and frowned, trying to turn the monitor to show us the incomprehensible message it was returning. Mine was no better. We were directed aside the line and stood there another hour as everyone passed, the visa stamps flying.

At last the place had emptied and the officer pounded our numbers into the computer, made an angry phone call, photocopied our passports and finally relented into stamping them. What’s wrong, we never found out. The only thing I could think is that other than looking Spanish, a lot of people think Ron is Turkish, so maybe they thought he was trying to escape the country with a fake passport? Whatever the case, our plan to be on and off the train the quickest backfired and we limped back to the broiling train to frustrated stares of the other passengers being held up by the suspect Americans.

We thought that was the end of passport control but we were woken up an hour later and again an hour after that to get more stamps. Welcome to Bulgaria, we have inefficient border security procedures but once you’re in everything is pleasant and cheap!


Friday, July 24, 2009

Random Notes on Turkey

Still the footwear choice for the non-conformist hipster. Even in a burka, this cool girl sports her camouflage converse.

Everyone thinks Ron is Spanish. At least a dozen times a day someone inquires “espanol?” or greets him with a hearty “ola!” I find this highly amusing. Takes me back to a charcoal sketch we got in nyc where he looked latino and I called him “taco” for several months afterwards.

It’s unclear whether this is a Turkish phenomenon or a tourist issue but there is a lot of litter especially empty water bottles everywhere tossed carelessly on the ground or stuffed in holes that were not meant to be trash cans. It’s pretty disgusting but after awhile you think it’s ok to finish something and throw it down. Y’know when in Rome…

Who is the man? Ataturk that’s who. The father of Turkey is everywhere, from the Turkish lira bank note to life size posters, inspirational signs and wall calendars. The man is a legend. Revered and loved, looking dapper in his circa 1930 suits.

There is no such thing as pedestrian rights. Cars will not stop for you and may even speed up if you cross the street. They must get 5 extra points to hit a tourist.

It is not uncommon to see men holding hands. Now this isn’t exactly a shocking site for us living in San Francisco but it is not a sign of homosexuality in Turkey but rather very close male friends enjoying a walk together. I find it interesting how men have no qualms showing affection for each other but then jealously wrap up their women.

Speaking of, its odd that tv is so inconsistent, one channel censors alcohol and cigarette smoking (literally blurring the image of Spencer Tracy taking a puff) and on the next channel is a fully naked woman with a phone number, just dial 05-3939-12186. Long distance charges may apply.

And then Wifi is plentiful but You Tube is banned. No fair Turkey. Ever hear of freedom of speech and the expression of idiocy through grainy home video? No? God Bless America and unrestricted internet!

Every man, woman, and child over 12 chain smokes like a chimney. Their hospitality is to offer you a cigarette, even at 10 in the morning, and you actually feel bad refusing. But the smell is foul and all pervasive. There is no escape. With ashtrays on every table to hold down the tablecloths from blowing away. Just this week they banned smoking inside public places. There may be a revolt so Ron and I are fleeing the country.


Turkish Food

Most of our rooms have included a Turkish breakfast but we can’t stomach anymore tomato, cucumber, cheese, black olives (in the morning, yech), and hard boiled eggs. Usually we opt for just the free jam, bread and Nescafe which gets old pretty quick. It’s a sad fact but we’ve drunk so much instant coffee I don’t know if I remember what Starbucks tastes like anymore.

The Turkish coffee is dark and strong and comes with heavy grounds lining the bottom of the cup. This coffee kicks Nescafe in the ass but is usually twice the price.

In Bodrom we drooled over the Lokma which are fried balls of dough in sugar syrup sold on the street corner. We greedily ate them with toothpicks until a mini sword fight broke out between us as we fought for the last one.

Ron fell all over himself for the Helvasi, one type sesame, one shaped as a birds nest (or maybe mohammeds beard) and another a chocolate walnut variety that is sold in blocks that weigh at least a pound each and could be used as a doorstop in a pinch.

The most ubiquitous food is doner (essentially a greek gyro) which is the Turkish word for “turning“. I call it meat on a stick. We ate it almost everyday since it is 2 YTL or about a dollar fifty for a chicken sandwich. Unfortunately the Turks don’t believe in sauces on their doner so it is usually dry leaving me to dream of the days of where mustard was plentiful.

What would a visit to Turkey be without shish kebap? I sampled the lamb and chicken shish which comes off the skewer with rice, pita, and a little salad. It’s nothing special but it is literally everywhere. We wanted to try the pottery kebap in Goreme which is baked in a terracotta dish and busted open at your table but didn’t have the chance.

The best Turkish pizza we had was in Konya where we had a ground beef and cheese pizza alongside yogurt, spicy sauce, and fresh tomatoes and jalapenos. Ron was one happy critter!

We ate our first Gozleme in Goreme which is a tortilla like flat bread filled with meat, parsley, or potato and cheese. Like a local quesadilla this was my favorite lunch.

Sucuk is a spicy sausage that we ate several times. We had a couple follow up dinners at our new friend Kubilay’s, one was a grilled sucuk sandwich we ate near midnight and another was a delicious spicy bean soup.

Turkish Ravioli are mini raviolis filled with a bit of cheese and soaked in cold yogurt and tomato sauce. It sounds weird and if you are in the mood for actual pasta it is weird, but in the realm of authentic dishes it is high on Ron's list.

Cay pronounced “chai” is tea and it is almost religion here. Turks drink tea all day long, linger over tea, conversate over tea, offer you tea, deliver you tea down the street on a silver tray.

Nothing goes better with your morning tea than borek which is a thin phyllo-like pastry filled with meat or cheese, steamed to perfection, cut into squares and sold by weight. I could eat this every morning of my life.

The more popular but less tasty, in my opinion, is a round sesame roll called a simit that is very cheap and easy to find. Perched on this guys head make them somehow more appealing than they are.

Variety. Can I say it again how lucky you all are to have a bountiful harvest of international cuisines at your beck & call every day and night? We are so used to eating a smorgasbord of different foods, Thai for lunch, Italian for dinner, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Afghani, Mexican, that its tough eating doner and shish kebap over and over and over. How do the Turks do it? Don’t they get sick of it? They must not. The Subway is empty. The Domino delivery scooters are rusty. Everyone wants the shish.

One night we found an Indian restaurant called Dubb and nearly fainted over the tikka masala, paneer, and naan. I know this post is about Turkish food, but man that was some scrumptious eats that night. Ron still talks about it.

The last night before our train to Sofia we ate sulu yemek which is traditional home cooking found at reasonable prices. Often the dishes start with the same base of garlic and tomato and are a mélange of seasonal vegetables and meats cooked in a single pot. Perfect. You know you always find the best things right before you leave.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Alison takes a Turkish Bath

Likely my #1 reason for coming to Turkey was to experience an authentic Turkish Bath because of its exoticness, richness of history dating back to when it was the only way Ottomans bathed, and just because I can’t pass up anything that resembles a spa experience, as a true Taurean and comfort glutton. I was tempted by a few local hamams but then decided to go big and visit the 300 year old Cagaloglu Hamam with its exquisite Ottoman dome with small star shaped skylights. It was about $86 (including tip) for the Complete Oriental Luxury Service which sounded really good on paper. Something to the effect of me feeling like a sultan, and I say sign me up! It was definitely worth the experience but was not exactly luxurious in western terms nor all that relaxing.

I come in to the hamam, no one is particularly helpful or welcoming probably because they are already in “1000 Places To See Before You Die” and don't need my word of mouth. They give me a little wooden room on the first floor off the marble courtyard. The room has frosted glass up to the neck to give privacy while changing in to a mini plaid towel wrap and ridiculously oversized wooden clogs that make walking on the wet marble floor a slow and humiliating affair, trying not to slip and break my hip like in the medi-alert commercial.

I’m led in to the hamam which is sauna warm with a octagonal marble slab in the middle of a large domed room to sit and relax. After 15 minutes or so my masseuse, or Greldur the Gargantuan as I come to lovingly refer to her, comes in and leads me to the marble slab to lie down. She is a big lady and speaks little English, not enough to chit chat with me (thankfully). Instead she jibber jabbers in Turkish to the other masseuse almost nonstop.

There is only one other women on the slab so naturally I lay down one spot away facing the other direction to give us a little “space“. Greldur doesn‘t like this, she wants me right next to the other women for no apparent reason, my feet to her head so she has an extremely intimate view if she looks up and I can inadvertently kick her (which I do twice).

First up is the loofah exfoliation which is quite the experience with layers of dirty skin pealing off my body like I’m some sort of filthy snake. (Yes, I do bathe regularly.) She rubs my décolletage area so hard the skin turns raw. HEY I’m fragile here Greldur! When my front is done I turn over as carefully and gracefully as you can on a wet slab of marble which isn’t careful or graceful, more like a beached whale coming about.

Then I’m led by hand to the corner of the room where I try to act nonchalantly standing naked being doused with bucket after bucket of freezing cold water with a dozen onlookers all waiting their turn, now a bit pensively. I chuckle a little out loud. What else to do?!

Next is the dry massage which is the most like a standard Swedish massage with glimpses of deep tissue torture like an elbow digging into your spine bone because Greldur isn’t exactly trained in the finer details and structure of the muscular-skeletal system.

The wet massage portion involves a lot of foamy water and more scrubbing with a washcloth. This is definitely when you start to feel about 5 years old and you are getting a bubble bath from grandma. I was just waiting for her to start cleaning out my ears while humming a nursery rhyme.

Last was a hair shampoo and of course more buckets of water. I have to say that I did feel really clean and the most relaxing part of the afternoon was sipping apple tea afterwards in the coolness of the café area, basking in the glow of my smooth skin.

If only momentarily, five minutes into my walk back to the hostel I was dripping sweat and smelly all over again.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Scammed in Istanbul

It was bound to happen. But somehow I thought it would be different. Something lifted from our room. A diversion on the street masking a pickpocket. I won’t go in to all the gory and, as you would imagine, embarrassing details but will give you the gist. I was taking a nap and Ron went out to take photos of the city. A local struck up a conversation with him and then asked if he wanted to go have a drink. Apparently there were women in this bar. Not naked women or women on stage, but dancing together on the dance floor, which is normal in the west but apparently there are no “girls night out” in Turkey. After the drink, a single drink mind you, the bill came for 1000 YTL (that’s over $700)!!!

Apparently this is some well known scam they play called “let’s have a drink” to get a single male traveler alone in a bar and threaten them with a ridiculous bill. Even the police are in on it and will only help you recover some of your money pocketing the rest. The sad thing is that I read about it only a week beforehand and didn’t think to mention it because it seemed like a far fetched scenario since we are usually together. So in the end Ron had to cough up a` couple hundred bucks so the 3 big guys at the bar didn’t rearrange his face.

The worst part isn’t the money it’s that our whole sense of safety has been shaken. Ron was basically robbed under the threat of physical violence. Now everyone is a scam artist. Everyone is trying to rip us off. Our whole view of the country just got flushed down the squatty potty and that really pisses us off!


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Istanbul was Constantinople

Yes, yes every time I think of Istanbul I think of the "They Might Be Giants" song, it’s a liability, or maybe a curse because its been in my head all week. I wish they made more songs about geography and history because maybe I could remember a few factoids or dates better. I’m afraid its in one ear and out the other for me. In 5th century AD some guy named so and so did blah blah blah. I don’t have a mind for it, and I envy those that can rattle off interesting details about times of yore, but that ain’t me.

I can tell you around 8am on Monday morning July 20 we arrived in Istanbul after a painful overnight bus ride with broken down AC and half the Turkish kingdom heading home we hope for a bath and a good long teeth brushing. The main bus station, or Otogar as they call it, was totally nuts. It took us one hour once we arrived to actually arrive. We had a referral for one hostel but it was a little sketchy so we moved on and found a semi-decent place (other than the arrogant and unhelpful desk punks) called Cordial House. It was in the Sultanahmet district which boasts basically all of the major tourist attractions.

We visited the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or The Blue Mosque, named for the blue tiles inside, which is the national mosque of Turkey. Built in the early 1600’s during the rule of Ahmed I it is rumored that he asked for a gold minaret but the architect confused the word “gold” with the word “six” and built 6 minarets instead of the usual 4. Afterwards, the architect feared a beheading but the sultan was pleased because I guess even then, more was better. The story continues that the sultan was then criticized that there were already 6 minarets at the Ka’aba mosque in Mecca and he had to pay to build a seventh one to ensure its rare distinction (and maybe to keep his head? they really liked to behead people back then).

The Hagia Sophia was built as a church in 537 in the Byzantine empire and was later converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered in 1453, and then opened as a museum in 1935. It has a massive dome and was the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years. Inside is just as impressive with the sheer height of the ceiling making you tiny and inconsequential. There are a few lovely biblical mosaics still available to view and photograph but those pesky Japanese tourists don’t respect the no flash zone so go now before they have completely disintegrated from the onslaught of one too many Sony flash bulbs. I know I stereotype but really there was a whole tour bus in front of us and not one person turned off the flash!

We spent an entire day wandering the world famous Grand Bazaar which is the largest and oldest covered market selling everything from carpets and spices to pottery and tea sets to knock-off Rolexes and Mont Blanc pens. The place boasts over 1200 shops on 58 streets under one roof. We entered the melee with a short shopping list including a new watch for me (lost the second week of our trip), a travel backgammon set for the long travel days, and a t-shirt for Ron of the Turkish flag with the simple yet cool graphic of crescent and star. We also had notions of some gifts, and we still needed our little souvenir from Turkey. Since we can’t carry anything heavy we decided we would get one small (less than 1 inch square) souvenir from each country and make a little wooden keepsake wall box for when we return.

The market was really disorienting. People yelling, trying to get you to buy this and that, price haggling fueled by something resembling crack cocaine and the lust for a good deal. We were exhausted after trying and failing to find a backgammon set that was both cheap and light, and this was only the first hour. Then came my watch, which they don’t sell digital watches really except an old school Casio similar to Ron’s and although the style can’t be denied we are already on the brink of being one of those disgusting couples with way too many matching items. I found a Chanel knock-off that was cute but couldn’t stomach the enormous price tag. In the end we got Ron’s shirt for 15 lira and met a sweet man in a antique shop that let us sift through all of his old Turkish lira to find one as our little souvenir, and then gave it to us for free. Just that one single moment in that smiling moustach of a mans tiny and dangerously overstuffed slightly metallic-smelling stall made the whole day.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Our Very Own Turkish Night

Everyone does tours here and prepackaged experiences. It drives us crazy. There are too many tour buses and too many tourists. And a gazillion Japanese. The whole island of Japan must be a ghost town this time of year. They pay top dollar to be shuttled in and out of the sights at breakneck speeds. But the one tour you will find the Americans (and Aussies and Germans) is Turkish night. Apparently the bars here are pretty deserted normally. Ron and I popped in after dinner one night for a whiskey but at $10 a drink we reluctantly turned around and walked out.

How does Barney Rubble afford a drink around here? I mean, how do they stay in business? The answer is Turkish night. They bus in 50 party goers, bring out the belly dancer, crank up the music, and its open bar all night. Of course this means you try to drink your moneys worth. One local remarked that he and his buddies would bet on how many tourists would stumble outside and puke in the street. Tonight, I got my money on lucky number 4.

But this post isn’t about the Flintstones Bar. Rather, we met some friendly Turks at the local moto rent place (because apparently this has been a good strategy for us to meet people) that invited us over for dinner and we had our own Turkish night that I guarantee was much more fun and a billion times more authentic, even without the belly dancer.

First the cast of characters: Kubilay and his adopted niece Ashay started Action Rent A only a month or so prior renting bikes, scooters, atvs, jeeps, and have cornered the market on buggies. Abdullah or “Abul” is the translator, who owns the jewelry shop next door. Mr. Unal is Kubilays best friend, a lawyer who lives in Kasery, dresses sharply and just that week met with the President of Turkey.
We came over at 8pm and as it was a little drizzly outside, set-up the little bbq right outside the shop. Starting the fire and getting the charcoal to burn was aided by an Ancient Turkish method of using a Vidal Sassoon hair dryer, but however speedy this got the grill going it still smoked out the restaurant next door, much to the dismay of said restaurants owner who came over and frowned at us, barking something I couldn’t understand in Turkish that very well might have been “Why the hell are you lighting a fire outside my restaurant?!”

First on the grill was tomatoes and green peppers. Next onions and garlic. Then the main event of lamb seasoned to perfection. Earlier that day, Abul helped us negotiate a good deal on the meat (our contribution to the meal) which was 30 YTL for 2 kilos. This and several loaves of ekmek (bread) and we had the best downhome meal yet. They call it mongol bbq, we called it delicious.
“Hosgeldin Unal!” this is what I repeated at least a dozen times before he arrived over and over so I wouldn’t screw up the welcome. He came with a baglama which is a handcrafted folk instrument that he played beautifully.

No Turkish night would be complete without smoking some water pipe. We all took turns sampling the sweet apple tobacco and sometimes taking too much and coughing it back up.

Not to mention, you need to be drinking raki to have a real bonafide party here. And watch out because with copious raki drinking, the dancing is bound to ensue. Ron got out his iPod and played DJ for our new friends while we danced, often comically, into the night. I will spare you my poppin' and lockin' video that I will have to take to my grave.

Through Abul we bridged the language gap and made four new friends. I learned more Turkish in one night then I did the whole week prior, even struggling to learn good pronunciation that they seemed proud of me for trying to get right. We broke bread, shared music, laughed, talked, danced, joked, and had the most special night in Turkey by a landslide.

Bizim sevgili arkadaslarimiza: Abdullah, Kubilay, Ashay, ve Unal…cok tesekkur ederim!

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