Adventures in Turkification

My spring break began with plans to attend a birthday gathering of one of my classmates, then getting a few hours of sleep before my 6:30 am flight to Turkey. Naturally the birthday gathering turned into an all-night affair resulting in maybe 15 minutes of sleep before departing for the airport. I figured it would be no big deal since I could grab some sleep on the two-hour flight. Oh how wrong I was. I ended up being seated next to a woman and her two children (one on her lap) who baby basically screamed the entire flight. It was the worst flight I’ve ever been on. In one of its finer moments as we were taking off, the woman next to me pulled out her phone and proceeded to make a phone call as we lifted off the ground. I’ve never seen that happen before. On the other hand Turkish Airlines provides pretty good service. The flight attendants are nice, the seats are comfortable, and the food is really good. After arriving in Istanbul the trip got even better. One of the girls I was travelling with was detained because she was using her Mexican passport (she’s a dual citizen) and had not obtained an advance visa. We ended up waiting for about two hours while the police waffled about allowing her entry in the country. During that time we also found out that the airport currency exchange counters did not exchange Jordanian Dinars of Turkish Lyra. So there we were in Ataturk International Airport without any money and a friend detained by the police. Also I remembered the one thing I forgot to do before this trip. I forgot to inform my bank and credit card company that I was going to be in Turkey for a week. Well, two hours and about 230 Lyra later our friend was granted a visa and of we went in search of somewhere to exchange our money. Eventually I was forced to use the ATM and fortunately my card worked so I was able to get some local currency. After an adventures trip in a taxi with a driver who understood nothing we said, we ended up at our Hostel in Sultanahment, Istanbul.

First I have to start off by saying it became readily apparent that we were no longer in an Arab country. Istanbul is very European and very different from Amman. Our hostel was located in the historical area near the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. I wanted to explore very much but unfortunately I was exhausted and spent about 4 hours sleeping in the Hostel. After I woke up we had been joined by a couple other CIEE students who just happened to be staying at the same Hostel. I joined them for a walk which took us through a park between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia during which call to prayer began. We were buffeted by the call from both sides and it was a completely surreal experience. Once I had exchanged my currency I returned to the Hostel to meet up with the rest of the group.

It was decided that we were going to meet up with a CIEE Istanbul student who happened to be a classmate of a few of the girls in our group. So we set off for our adventure in Istanbul and took the Tram (a European style light rail in the center of the road) down to the Bosphorus where we caught the Furnicular (an underground incline railway) to an area called Taksim Square. There we waited at a giant square for Margot’s friend to arrive. While we were waiting we got to watch a Turkish guy physically abuse what appeared to be his girlfriend for about fifteen minutes while he shook her at times and supposedly punched her in the face. A few in our group stopped some Turks to see if we should do anything but they did not appear concerned. Different culture I suppose but I didn’t want to interfere as I know nothing of Turkish social norms. Eventually Margot’s friend arrived and she took us to a restaurant on Istiklal Avenue (I think that’s what its name was). The avenue was one of the most interesting streets I’ve ever been on. It was full of shops, clubs restaurants, what appeared to be the French Consulate, and the Turkish Communist Party headquarters. The street was full of thousands of people all speaking different languages. It was truly a sight and experience to behold. After having some yummy Turkish Ravioli we then wandered to a chocolaterie where we had gourmet hot chocolate complete with chocolate spoons and ridiculously yummy cheesecake all packed into a tiny room full of tables and people. After desert I decided to return to the hostel as I was still feeling exhausted after the events of the night before. After our time out I was able to get some amazing night photos of both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia.

The next day we decided to go tour the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. Unfortunately it turned out to be quite a rainy day. We waited in front of the Blue Mosque for Margot’s friend to show up and then we went into the Blue Mosque. Breathtaking is the only word I can use to describe this place. Wall to wall carpeting amazingly clean as shows are not permitted. The ceiling is majestic and intricately decorated with endless designs. Truly amazing. Words cannot describe it. You just have to go see the pictures on Facebook (if you need my permission just ask). After the Blue Mosque we headed to the Hagia Sofia which proved to be just as breathtaking. In some ways this building impressed me more as it is so much older and has a much more interesting history. It was built as a cathedral by the Byzantines, was later converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral by the Latin Crusaders, and then a mosque by the Ottomans which it remained until it was converted into a museum by the Turks. Once again, words cannot describe this building. Black granite columns, golden mosaics, a variety of stones in the walls, giant marble urns, not to mention breathtaking ceilings. Perhaps one of the silliest memories I will have is when I attempted to take a picture of a cat sitting by a giant marble in order to show the sheer size of the urn the cat got up, walked over to me and climbed up my leg and laid down on my thigh with its head on my knee. Apparently it was cold and wet so I provided a perfect warm bed as I kneeled in a catcher stance. After the sightseeing we went to a restaurant for some kofte (basically Turkish meatballs). Supposedly it has the best kofte in the city and it did not disappoint. Later that night we had some nargileh at a Turkish café and I had my first beer in months. During our time at the café a couple beautiful girls with fabulous legs walked past which resulted in our entire table stopping and staring at them as they walked by. They were wearing short skirts and high heels and I think we were all in shock since none of us had seen that in a very long time. It was actually quite humorous.

The next we went down to the Bosphorus and caught a ferry to the Asian side of the city.

Some of my colleagues decided it was a good idea to go into a communist party rally. I’m not really sure about the pull as you could see everything from outside the rally but whatever. We walked around for a little while and eventually found a restaurant. Naturally it was a restaurant that had nargileh as my companions found that to be the most important deciding factor in restaurant choice (once again, not really sure why but whatever). After dinner we were walking to catch a taxi when we came upon one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a while. There was this glass case full of furniture and advertisements for a particular brand of Turkish chocolate/dessert. Inside this case was a live model sitting on a couch reading a magazine. I wanted to take a picture but I felt rude about it. It was yet another example of many of the beauty of Turkish women.

On our final day in Istanbul we took the tram to the Istanbul spice market. This was a classic Turkish bazaar full of shops carrying all sorts of trinkets, household items, clothing, jewelry, and all sorts of touristy junk. I walked around for a while and generally was ignored by the shop keepers since I’m not a woman. Apparently I don’t radiate the: I want to buy things please rip me off aura.

After some time in the market we decided to go to the Galata Tower. The tower sits at the top of a hill and offers an amazing view of the city.

To get to the tower we took the tram across the Galata Bridge and navigated up the hill via some narrow and distinctly European styled streets. Once we got to the tower we took an elevator to the restaurant on top and went out onto the balcony just in time for call to prayer. I took a video to try to capture the spectacle as we were under an audio assault of the call from a myriad of mosques around the city. The view was breathtaking and I could only imagine what it would have been like had the weather been clearer. I took a bunch of pictures and some panoramic photos as well so be sure to check them out on my facebook page. After the tower we had lunch and then went back to the hostel to wait for our shuttle to the bus station where we were catching a bus to Fethiye. But I’ll discuss that in the next post. In the meantime, I have Arabic homework to do. Until the next time, cheers from the Jo.

Published in: on April 16, 2011 at 8:15 pm  Comments (2)  

Wadi Rum

I had intended to write a post about my time in Wadi Rum which I experienced on the weekend before my midterm exams however those very exams caused a delay in composition of such a post. Needless to say I’m a little behind. Therefore, the following is written from memories suffering from post-examination brain drain. I will try to recall details as best as I can.

The trip was preceded by an evening of college partying and drinking. The students were celebrating the birthdays of two students, one of which who was my roommate, Adam. The evening was rather anti-climatic and once again I experienced an example of anti-Arab discrimination (I could use a stronger term but I won’t in this post as this really isn’t about that subject). AS I was hanging out with some classmates and some Jordanian friends who I met through my peer-tutor we eventually made our way to the birthday party. Once there I stepped into a time warp and found myself at the age of 18 again. A room full of loud drunk people who had drank all the alcohol by 9 pm. My Jordanian friends showed up eventually and it quickly became apparent that we were not welcome there. Apparently there are some American students (one in particular whose apartment was hosting the gathering of drunk students barely past their teenage years) who do not like the company of Jordanians and eventually we left to go have coffee. It still makes little sense to me that someone would want to study in an Arab country yet had no desire to interact with Arabs. Perhaps there was something deeper going on but either way I found the situation somewhat upsetting. Eventually we ended up back at a friends apartment playing Egyptian ratscrew.

After the evening we made our way to the university to catch our bus to Wadi Rum. I spent the bus ride talking to my friend Dylan about lots of different subjects. Eventually we stopped at a rest stop/tourist shop filled with all sorts or ridiculously priced items which tourists seemed all too willing to pay. There were some rather beautiful hand crafted chess sets there among other interesting things however nothing I really wanted or needed. After being given our lunch in a bag we set off for Wadi Rum once again.

After seeing some beautiful scenery from the bus we eventually were dropped off at the side of the road by a collection of 4×4 pickups which were our transportation into the desert on the first day. We all piled into the back of the pickups and took off into the desert at the brisk speed of perhaps 15 or 20 mph. It was somewhat disappointing actually how slow we drove. The scenery was breathtaking though. Wadi Rum is home to some epic rock formations which jut out of the desert into the sky. It really is not surprising that this was one of T.E. Lawrence’s favorite places in what is now Jordan. We made numerous stops as we drove through the desert to allow us to take pictures and climb all over the rocks. I found good use of the panoramic feature on my camera to take some amazing pictures. I really must admit though that after a while it really all starts to look the same. The ride in the truck was fun though as I was grouped with some fun people. After a stop at a Bedouin tent to hear a presentation on culture and listen to some Bedouin music (not really a fan) we took off to find a spot to see the sunset. It was at this point that the driver of our truck finally decided to drive quickly through the desert which was pretty fun.

After a crazy tear through the desert we arrived at a spot to view the sunset. The sunset was breathtaking. I took pictures but I don’t think they will be able to do the scene justice. I also took the time to write a message in the sand for someone very special to me, took a picture of it and sent it to her. The Bedouin drivers made us tea and then we left for the camp that we would be spending the night at. Our driver drove through the desert in the dark like a madman. It was fun yet slightly scary at the same time. Eventually we arrived at the camp which was a disappointing example of pandering to tourist consumerism. The camp is permanent with complete bathrooms and a restaurant. We had a yummy dinner and then a few of us went outside the camp to view the stars. I’m not sure I’ve seen that many stars before, possibly in the rural areas of Pennsylvania but these may have been the clearest view of the stars I’ve ever experienced. Eventually a Bedouin came out of the camp and offered to take us away from the camp so we could get an even better view. Naturally we accepted. After some stargazing we returned to the camp to sit in a tent with a Bedouin who would sell shish for inflated prices and insult you with one of two words. He did this all night and thought it was hilarious. After that I went to bed and after witnessing Dylan running around the camp like a crazy man looking for his tent I went to sleep and proceeded to freeze to death. Ok, not really but it was unbelievably cold that night in the camp. Of course I forgot to pack a sweatshirt so I ended up sleeping in my jeans and coat.

Sunset in Wadi Rum

The next morning we woke up had breakfast and prepared to set off out into the desert on the backs of camels. As the time came to pick a camel I was chosen by a Sudanese Bedouin who led me by the hand (I’m still not used to holding hands with guys) to his camels where I was grouped with my roommate Pete. His camel was lashed to the saddle from mine and our guide Ali stood the camels up. Staying in the saddle while a camel stands up is an interesting experience as it’s a cross between a balancing act and a test of quad strength. I never realized how tall camels were until I was riding one. I also expected them to smell terrible but I barely noticed a smell at all. First, I have to say that I started out riding the camel like a horse which my inner thigh muscles definitely did not agree with. This is going to sound really silly but I thought about the movie Lawrence of Arabia and how he was sitting on his camel. I emulated this and found it to be much more comfortable. Perhaps Hollywood isn’t completely useless after all.

We set out into the desert and into the canyons of Wadi Rum. The canyons were absolutely awe inspiring. I’ve never seen anything quite like them in my life. While walking on the path you’re surrounded by shear rock faces that stretch into the sky almost straight up in some places. Any loud sounds echoed endlessly throughout the canyons. It was like being surrounded by a great city composed of different shades of red rock. I wondered if such a place could represent what the surface of Mars could look like. Yet in this great canyon the only sounds one could here was that of our own caravan. It was an epic walk through a sea of silence only broken by the occasional grunt of a camel and the sound of their footsteps in the sand. Our first stop was at a small stop where there were bathrooms and which was supposedly a favorite stop of T.E. Lawrence. His face and that of Emir Ali were carved in a rock which the residents held in very high regard and claimed to have been carved during the Arab Revolt (our guide later told us that despite the claims the faces were carved perhaps 30 years ago). The Bedouins served us tea and I’m not sure if I’ve ever had better tea. Their tea is distinct and absolutely delicious. After a short presentation and a peddling of goods for ballooned prices we set off again through the canyons. The walk lasted for about 4 hours during which I was either lost in thought or chatting with our guide in Arabic about where he was from (he was from Khartoum) and eventually came to a close with a walk to the visitor center which we could see from our last stop across a plain. The walk turned out to take a lot longer than I expected since the visitor center appeared to be much closer than it actually was. During the final push the guide took the camel up to a trot which I must say was extremely painful on my legs and rear. Once we arrived at the visitor center we bid goodbye to our guide and went inside to eat lunch before returning to Amman. During our lunch we found out that a protest on the Friday we left had turned violent and at least one person had dies and over 100 were wounded. Out of the peaceful canyons of Wadi Rum we had re-entered the turbulent reality of life in the Middle East in contemporary times. As always plenty of pictures are available on my facebook page. A post about my spring break in Turkey will be forthcoming so until then Cheers from the Jo

Published in: on April 10, 2011 at 11:43 pm  Leave a Comment