November 30, 2008
Going from our Petra hostel, where we had to give some ahead notice if we wanted to shower with hot water, to the Kempinski Resort has to be one of my most contrasting experiences. Upon arriving at the resort, our car was scanned for bombs by someone with the appropriate tool at the front gate. Upon entering the resort, we were offered a hot towel as well as a juice drink before checking in. After being shown a map of the grounds (including what they reported as Jordan’s second largest spa), I was driven to my room. Entry to the room was achieved with a water-proof FOB, which could be attacked to my shorts when I swam.
My room included a view of the Dead Sea and a nice patio, free wet bar, walk-in closet, and a bathroom with a huge tub and a circular, tiled shower (with awesome singing acoustics, I might add!).
The resort was gigantic! There were multiple buildings with rooms to stay in, some of which were $25,000 a night! There were at least 4 restaurants, including Thai and Itallian food, and many bars. The odd thing was that there really weren’t many other people there, so much of the resort had an abandoned feeling. It did mean that we got great service attention!
My only disappointment facilities-wise was the Hammocks Garden. I saw a sign indicating the general direction of “Hammocks Garden,” and immediately became very excited, seeing visions of groves of trees with hammocks of every shape, size, and color languidly dangling between them before a sweeping view of the Dead Sea. Alas, after asking many of the staff where said Hammocks Garden resided, and doing some very convincing impressions of a hammock to those who didn’t know what it was, my search ended in vain.
One of the highlights of the resort is the supposedly demotologically therapeutic remedies resulting from completly covering oneself in mud from the area for 15 minutes, and then stepping into the Dead Sea to wash it all off. Before we began this process, we noticed a camera crew and a reporter chatting with a hotel employee looking about as if searching for someone.
“You there, do you speak English?” one of the camera crew asked.
“We’re doing a program about this resort – can we film you putting the mud on?”
Rucha and I were happy to help what turned put to be a Turkish news crew, and eventually even Suja allowed herself to be filmed. Supposedly, we aired on TV the following day! We both laughed at the thought that Shushan (our new friend we met in Turkey) might see us on TV after only just meeting us days before.
We were all shocked to learn that you really do float in the Dead Sea. Not just kind of floating, but literally I could not get myself to sink no matter how hard I tried. This is apparently the effect of having such a high concentration of salt that you are only supposed to stay in the water for 15 minutes at a time.
But oh God, the flies. How such an amazing resort could be plagued with such a countless number of flies is beyond me, but it really took away from the lounging experience when you were constantly brushing flies away from you. Luckily we did find pockets of places where there were fewer flies, and at night they seemed to go away. They didn’t seem to bother you once you were in the water, too.
Food was a bit of a challenge for Suja, but the Itallian restaurant was accommodating to her vegetarian needs so we quickly became regulars there. Like most Jordanian food, though, it was pretty bland, so we put a big dent in their Tobasco sauce supply
My most vivid memory of our time at the resort is of watching the sunset from one of the resort’s pools. It was circular and filled to the brim with warm water so that the outer edge of the pool (towards the Dead Sea, downhill) was constantly spilling water below and acting as a fountain for those viewing from below. You could swim all the way to the edge of the pool and watch the sun setting and casting beautiful colors on the surface of the water both on the Dead Sea and the pool in which you swam.
November 28, 2008
The following morning I was lucky enough to wake up while the sun was still rising, and to see the desert slowly return to full illumination. After a breakfast of pita bread, jam, honey, bananas, and cheese, Ali had us clamber atop his jeep’s roof and hang on for dear life as we drove to meet his family further in the desert.
Ali’s family was very kind and welcoming to us. We drank tea with them, watched how they made bread, and Rucha got to hold their baby girl. We also met their camels, who were very friendly and began following us about in hopes of receiving food. Luckily, they couldn’t move very fast because their front legs were tied together, a technique the Bedouin seemed to use to ensure their animals didn’t get too far away.
After meeting the family, Ali drove us back to town so that we could continue our travels. Though we were excited to go to the resort, we couldn’t help but feel some regret that we weren’t staying longer.
Our driver taking us to Aqaba happened to also be named Ali, and though he didn’t speak as much English as Bedouin Ali, he was nice enough. He was from Aqaba, which we thought would be good to get a local’s insight. However, aside from viewing a gigantic Jordanian flag, there didn’t seem to be much to do at the Red Sea. We even tried to take a glass boat tour to view what the tour guide promised to be amazing coral and fish, but we were underwhelmed. Lunch was pretty good (chicken / lamb over rice), though we all felt like we’d had enough pita bread for a lifetime.
Though our driver didn’t speak much English, he did manage to ask Rucha to sing a song from India, which she did with a barely sufficient amount of resistance. When we asked Ali to return the favor, however, he protested that he couldn’t sing, and jokingly pressed his hands together in prayer-like orientation, bobbing his head left and right and speaking in a gibberish Indian language, which made Suja and Rucha both burst out laughing. Pleased to find something that consistently made them laugh, he repeated this joke throughout the day until it had milked of all its humor.
Once back in Petra, we had pizza at an empty restaurant that turned out to be run by an Egyptian man who was very (almost overly!) friendly. He had the idiocyncratic habit of making a joke and then sticking his hand out and expecting you to clasp and shake it as if in congratulation of his wit. I was given this twice, but Suja got it all of five times or so!
Some more random notes:
Apparently everyone in Jordan watches and loves Indian movies. It was usual for people to immediately ask about Bollywood movie titles and actors and actressses as soon as people found out Rucha or Suja were Indian. This also seems to be the case in Egypt.
There are few bizarre phenomena when it comes to Jordan’s roads. First, people tended not to pay any attention to the lane dividers, so often our drivers would just drive straight ahead on a curvey road to avoid turning back and forth. This technique meant that often they would be in the lane of oncoming traffic, which was very exciting and had Rucha pumping frantically on her nonexistant brake pedals from the passenger seat.
There are points on their “freeway” where they want drivers to slow down, which they achieve by essentially placing speed bumps on the road and a sign warning of its presence. So we’d be driving along at a pretty good clip and suddenly the driver would slow down to a snail’s pace so as not to destroy our car.
Another phenomenon was that we would be in the middle of nowhere and there would be someone standing inexplicably by the side of the road, watching us as we passed by (perhaps hitchhiking?). The effect was a bit eerie, to see a lone person standing aside an empty road amid the barren Jordan landscape, as if waiting for something or someone yet to come.
November 22, 2008
Since yesterday’s tour of Petra was at night, we only caught a glimpse of the city, so we made a return that morning. Before going, we had a chat with the hotel’s owner, Mahmoud, about our plans. Mahmoud was a big, friendly man in his late 30s (he told us some people gave him the nickname Tony Soprano, and it suited him). Upon finding out how much our arranged Bedouin camping would cost, he told us that he knew a good, cheaper alternative (45 JD per person instead of 60). He also said he could take us there for 45 JD, and was kind enough to give us a ride to and from Petra for free (usually a 4 JD ride). Don’t worry, there’s a reason I’m telling you all this stuff
Petra by day was even more incredible than by night. Nighttime was fun to walk along the path lit by candles, but daytime let us see more details, explained by our informative, if somewhat lethargic, guide. It was fun to look at the carved homes and waterways in the stone and imagine what it must have been like when it was in its full inhabbitance. Our guide also showed us paintings of the city done by David Roberts 170 years ago, which was facinating because it highlighted the rate of the city’s erosian: even as more of the city is excavated and revealed each year, it looked like exposed areas were fading away.
The other striking thing about the “lost city” was the diversity of foreign influence on the carved structures. The temple (the most famous of the buildings) comprised of Greek corinthian columns and godesses, with some Egyptian godesses thrown in for good measure.
Leaving Petra, drivers called out to us, quoting prices to go to popular destinations. One of the drivers offered 30 JD to go to Wadi Rum, where our Bedouin camping awaited, which was 15 JD cheaper (around $25) than what Mahmood quoted us. We took the driver’s card, and said we’s call if our original driver couldn’t match the price.
Mahmoud was 20 minutes late when picking us up from lunch (tasty pizza!), and on our way back we mentioned the alternative price. “30 dinar? Take it.” he said, in a tone that we couldn’t tell if it was offense, increduility, or genuine surprise.
Unfortunately, it appeared to be offense, because the rest of the ride back to the hotel was in akward silence, and when he gave us the keys to our room he smacked them down on the counter. When Rucha asked if she could use the phone to call the driver, Mahmoud said coldly “You want to make a phone call? That’s 1 JD per call,” a price he hadn’t charged us before.
In our way upstairs, Rucha, Suja, and I spoke in hushed tones about what to do. After some discourse, thinking of the amount Mahmoud had saved us thus far, how nice he’d been, and how our belongings would be in rooms that he would have keys to while we were away overnight, we resolved to be driven by Mahmoud. However, when we asked if we could ride with him, he said simply “Too late.” So, we slunked back up to our rooms to pack our overnight bags.
Time passed akwardly as we waited in the hotel lobby. Eventually Mahmoud broke his sulking by explaining that he could do good business for himself by pretending that the Bedouin Camp cost 50 JD per night and take a small commission for himself, but “That is not how I do business.” He also explained that his car, a large van, requires more gas than usual.
After our cab didn’t show up for some 20 minutes, he agreed to take us in his van. As luck would have it, just as we were getting into his van, the taxi appeared! Would the drama never end?
The taxi driver came over, and was switching between Arabic and English, saying some excuse about why he was late. Mahmoud looked annoyed, and pulled away while the driver was still talking and standing between Mahmoud’s open door and the car. Mahmoud explained that “I give that guy a lot of business,” as though he should know better than to try and take business away from Mahmoud. This revealed what must be a tight social network in the small town of Petra, where everyone knows everyone.
Thankfully, Mahmoud was in much better spirits on the drive to Wadi Rum (especially after he found out that Rucha and Suja were single!). He told us how he dropped out of school at 11, his various business indeavors, and his travels to other countries (though not America because his tourist visa was denied for reasons he didn’t understand). “You must help me get into America!” he joked. When we asked him where he’d like to go, we laughed at his response: “Las Vegas…and Arizona!”. Apparently the man likes his deserts
I was a bit nervous going into Wadi Rum…here we were being driven into the desert to stay the night with someone we’d never met before, recommended by a guy of mixed character. The coup de grace was just as we pulled up to our guide, Mahmoud said, “This is Ali…Ali Asshole I call him,” to which Rucha and Suja bust out laughing and couldn’t stop (apparently they thought he was just saying an Arabic word that sounded like “asshole.”
Thankfully, my worries were put to rest, and for the next 24 hours we proceeded to make what was our new highlight of our trip, and memorable experiences of our lives. It’s difficult to capture the details of our time with Ali that does justice to experience, but I’ll do my best.
It began with Ali’s jeep, a white 4-wheel-drive vehicle like I’d only seen in Indians Jones movies. As a hood ornament, Ali had placed the tail of a wolf he had found (caught?) at the Saudi border. Rucha sat in front, with Suja and I next to each other sitting sideways in the back. On the seat across from us, we saw what looked like groceries foe the night’s meal.
As we drove and bounced along the desert, we would usually follow the wheel tracks that others had made, which had accumulated over time to form a kind path. Sometimes, though, Ali would turn hard off the path so that we would be driving on the red sand, and eventually would reconnect with another path.
The desert was mostly, well, deserted, though at times we would spot another jeep, or 4wd Toyota. In the distance, we could see large black tents that had been set up, a foreshadowing of our night’s accommodation. At times we would stop so that he could point out areas of interest, but I was just struggling to take in the vastness of our environment: a sea of red sand, with huge mountains of sandstone towering above like wading giants. I could see why this place was used for the movie “Red Planet” as the surface of Mars. The other key element to note was the silence: being so isolated with no sound to hear made my ear’s perception turn in and in upon itself so that I could hear my own body’s biology (breathing, and I would swear just blood flowing) as if it were being played on a car stereo.
Eventually, Ali drove us to his home where we would be staying. I’ll let pictures do the talking here later (I ever took a video which I’ll upload later), but suffice to say it was surprisingly large, and beautifully integrated with the rock it was situated against. I was glad to learn that when people spoke of “Bedouin tents” these weren’t the small, 1 or 2 person camping tents I was used to, but instead large, Lawrence of Arabia-style tents that were more like rooms whose walls and ceilings were made from goats’ hair (which apparently naturally opened more when hot, and tightened/closed more when cold).
We sat around a fire that Ali made for us, and drank some delicious tea (black tea with sugar and mint) and munched on fig biscuits until Ali served us dinner, which was a kind if chicken stew with vegetables.
After dinner we continued drinking tea by the fire while Ali told us of his life, and learned a number of things that surprised us. I had assumed that the he would be without technology, but here was Ali driving his jeep (one car of five), talking on his cell phone (even my cell phone got reception out in the desert), and talking about his web site. I had assumed that he lived a life of sollitude, but he meets more people from around the world than I do because they seek him out for their tourist experiences (from French rock climbers to Japanese tourists who want a taste of the Bedouin life). He even told us of how he once met the King of Jordan in the desert!
After Rucha successfully implored Ali to sing us a song, we went out for a walk at night while Suja went to bed. I couldn’t help but notice the difference between my footsteps, which were loud and constantly tripping over things in the dim light, and Ali’s, soft and sure in their progress. Ali pointed out places where he took past campers and rock clinbers, and eventually brought us to a large flat rock where we could lay out and look at the sky.
Being so isolated from civilization allowed us a clearer view of the night sky than I had ever had before. Elements of the constellations that to that day I’d assumed were figments of the imaginations of others were now crystal clear. The Milky Way also revealed itself to us in a hazy mist that brushed across the night sky. I lay there for a while, not speaking, just trying to take it all in, and it struck me just how rare it is these days that I even bother to look at the sky.
Once back at camp, Ali observed the last glow of embers in the fire and exclaimed, “Oh good, there’s still fire!” I wasn’t sure what he was referring to since I didn’t see any flames left, but Ali just went to the fireplace, took a charred branch, and ground away the blackened portion before leaning in close and glently blowing on the embers with long, slow breaths. Suddenly, there was a “Puff!” and the fire burst to life anew, as though Ali had breathed the fire himself.
He told us stories of his past experiences and the history of the Bedouins (interestingly referring to the fact that Bedouins were here “before the government”). One of his stories described how he came back to camp to find his groceries gone because a fox had taken them, and how he tracked the fox down and retrieved most of his groceries!
One image that stays in my mind when I think of that night is of Ali’s dark sillouette, the the outline his Arabic clothing (a galabia, I think it’s called) and headpiece clearly visible, as was the small glow of light that came from the cigarette he held, while he spoke softly of his stories. That was my “Oh my God, I’m in the middle east!” moment, when I felt like I was in the Lawrence of Arabia movie, which was fitting because apparently the rock we camped underneath was actually in the movie!
That night, inspired by the night sky, all three of us chose to sleep outside the tent so we could view the vast night sky. We counted numerous shooting stars, and reflected on the day’s adventures, until one by one we dropped off to sleep.
November 20, 2008
Suja guest authors!
Hot chocolate YUM :p
Whisked away to Petra in an A6 limo
Driver says Val Kilmer CRAZY in person!!!!
Driver takes us to tourist trap.
Rucha sees severed finger-shaped corels…and Dead Sea salt!
Corey buys 3 waters. Store owner gets annoyed at me.
Lunch. heated argument about vegetarianism. I was attacked, but they lost.
We go to Internet cafe with sticky keyboards.
Guy with long hair and eyeliner calls Corey Polish and then invites him to his monastary.
We buy biscuits.
I tried to sleep, just for half an hour, despite Rucha and Corey’s warnings
Corey shocks me out of sleep by singing “Wake Me Up Before I Go Go.”
We saw Petra by candlelight.
Rucha buys 2 bags of potato chips, throws one away and makes me carry the other.
Corey forces me to write a blog entry.
November 20, 2008
Special guest author: Rucha!
The 400 year old Ottoman Palace Topkapi had a grand entry which resembled London’s Hyde Park. However, I was disappointed with the palace’s lack of grandeur. They were the Ottomans, after all! They should have learned how to build palaces from India’s kings. Now we know why they emptied their treasury to build Dolmabache palace (European/baroque rococco style). The Topkapi Palace looked similar to a university…think San Jose State, not Stanford.
The treasurery museum had a basket of huge emeralds (which they should have sold to build a nicer palace), and an 84-karat baseball-sized diamond (which at one point was set into a ring!), and tall gold candle stands studded with diamonds.
We were skeptical (Corey especially), but they were displaying what was supposed to be the Prophet Muhammad’s foot print in gold, his tooth, and pieces of hair from his beard. After that, we stopped for Turkish coffee and what Corey likes to call a “dessert burrito,” a mixture of nuts and honey wrapped in a mochi-like substance, with pistachio nuts covering the outside. It was to die for!
When checking out, the manager at the front desk took great care to end our stay well by giving us Turkish delight and apple tea boxes to take with us. “Please give us a 5/5 on Trip Advisor so we move up higher in the search results!”
As we were ready to bid a teary-eyed farewell to Turkey, a police officer pulled us over and started talking to our innocent looking baby-faced driver. He got out of the car and continued speaking with the police officer, and then on his cell phone, all while Corey and I peered out the back window (think kids watching their parents fight!). Soon, the hotel manager emerged from an alleyway and began speaking with the police officer, clearly trying to negotiate his way out of the situation. Abruptly, they turned to the wall their hands exchanged cash, or so it seemed. Just when the situation seemed resolved, the “nice” manager turned around and boxed our driver IN THE FACE!! When the driver returned to the car, Corey asked, “You ok?” and the driver responded, “OK.”. The rest of our ride to the airport was in ominous silence.
Once at the airport, the theme of angst and violence continued. After passing security, we walked to our gate and as I pulled out my ticket a fellow passenger hurled his tickets, passport and laptop bag to the floor and kicked it in anger and frustration. We were dying to know what had happened, but obviously couldn’t ask. Just when I thought his anger had subdued and he walked towards his bag as if to pick it up only to kick it again! His wife stood by in silent embarrassment…the whole time! :p
On the bright side, Corey thought the girls were getting cuter “Royal Jordanian air hostesses” (not “Air Jordan” Corey!). Corey handed me a Sandman comic to read while I ate the most dry chocolate cake ever.
I was pleasantly surprised by the number of English speakers in Jordan compared to Istanbul. After nearly forgetting my purse at the airport and recovering from a flat tire (India-style), we arrived at our hotel.
It appeared as if the King of Jordan had passed a royal decree that all buildings had to be the same color – white.
We checked in and hoped to watch some Al-Jazeera but instead watched habibi music until Suja arrived.
PS: Corey scribed, and Suja inserted her unwanted opinions on this blog entry despite her not being involved with 95% of the day.
November 19, 2008
Our third day in Istanbul began with a trip to Dolmabahce Sarayi Palace. It was certainly beautiul and elegant, but what struck me and Rucha the most was just how European it felt. On the one hand, such elegance was still impressive, and perhaps illustrated a desire for a more westernized Turkey, but on the other hand it seemed a shame to immitate another culture rather than be true to the wealth Turkey’s own cultural heritage. Aside from things like Persian rugs, multiple “wife of the sultan” bedrooms and miniature Turkish baths, much of the public facilities looked like glimpses of Versailles. The most impressive area was the finale of the tour: a giant chamber with a 4-ton chandellier hanging from ceilings painted such that they appeared to stretch even further than their already lofty height.
The harem area was disappointingly simple: apparently elegance was not to be wasted on the women. The disappointment was enhanced by the fact that it came after such grandeur, and it cost us extra to see :p
Our next stop was to the Ayasofia, where the theme of a clash of cultures was continued. The Ayasofia was originally a Christian church, which was then converted into a mosque. The conversion included acts like plastering over beautiful frescos of the Christian faith, which, years later, was attempted to be undone with mixed success when the mosque was converted into a museum. The net result was that the building was interesting not so much for its own sake (architecture, artwork, etc) but rather the bizarre juxtapositions that resulted from so much transformation. A kind of Muslim alter that indicated the direction of Mecca was set off-center in a semi-circular enclave below a fresco of the Virgin Mary with child, and giant circular wooden signs with beautiful golden Arabic script were hung around the perimeter of the interrior as placed with an enormous stamp.
Our sightseeing for the day complete, it was time to go out on the town with Shushan (the Armenian girl we’d met two days before) and experience some Istanbul nightlife! It being a Tuesday night this was a tall order, but she did her best and brought a friend along whom she had also met through her restaurant.
We began at a local bar, where we sat and chatted over 3 Turkish beers and 1 margherita (I think Rucha was wary of Turkish alcohol after we tried Raki, a kind of fermented cough syrup that I think they use to embalm corpses in Turkey). During our conversation, the bar’s stereo played some songs we recognized, others we didn’t, and some very interesting covers (like a salsa rendition of U2′s “Still Haven’t Found I’m Looking For”). When we got hungry for dinner, the server just brought us menus from the restaurant across the street, took our orders, and brought our food over once it was ready!
After eating, Shushan’s friend left and in her place came another friend who had a place in mind for dancing. He took us to what looked like a 2 star hotel, and we went downstairs towards the distant thumping of dance music.
The nightclub was primarily empty, with more waitstaff than patrons. Most of the room was taken up by tables and booths, though there was a small dance floor in front of a mirror with two older women and one guy dancing. After ordering some drinks and snacks, a song came on that Rucha and Shushan both recognzed, so we took to the dance floor.
As the evening progressed, more and more older and apparently Russian ladies began filling up the dance floor. The music they played was a mixture of American pop and Russian/Turkish dance music. Rucha and I couldn’t help but smile and laugh at what we knew was our new unforgettable vacation moment: dancing with newfound friends in a den of Russian cougars in Istanbul on a Tuesday night.
November 19, 2008
After a night of back and forth waking and sleeping, we had our hotel’s breakfast (pictures below) and checked on the status of our luggage. The response? “We don’t know where they are.” So, faced with the prospect of traveling over a month with one pair of underwear, we decided to set out and discover what shopping Istanbul had to offer. As it turns out, many of the tourist attractions are closed on Mondays anyways.
Shopping began at the Grand Bazaar & Spice market which, while not yielding the clothes we needed, was still quite an experience. Spices, lamps, rugs, desserts, and tourist trinkets were all on display for purchasing, touted by vendors clasping small glasses of apple tea pinched between thumb and forefinger.
We continued our shopping in the Nisantasi area, with much more success. This area was much more European in style, and we purchased a number of clothes at Top Shop, a store usually seen in London. Prices in general were good: I scored a tshirt for $7, and Rucha got a nice jacket for $50 (at 50% off).
For lunch, we had some tasty lentil soup and an excellent raisin juice drink, as well as slices of meat over slices of bread with tomato sauce.
After a long day of shopping was completed, we returned to our hotel triumphantly bearing bags of our hard-earned clothing. And guess what was waiting for ua in our room? You guesses it: all of our luggage! Irony knows no borders.
Tired and still a bit jet-lagged, we decided to indulge ourselves at our first ever encounter with a Turkish bath! Suffice to say this experience is already a highlight of my trip. Though there were many to choose from, we decided on Cagaloglu Hamami since our tourbook claimed it is the best Istanbul has to offer, and that the likes of Cameron Diaz attended the bathhouse. Though a little worried about the price, we decided to give it a shot.
It turned out $70 was the price you paid for the top level “teatment like a sultan” which included massage, scrubbing, and foam soaping. Used to $120 massage prices, we went for it.
The process began in a main area which had many small wooden rooms where I was told to change into a towel and some wooden sandals. I was then introduced to my attendant, Ali, a jolly, overweight, hairy, balding, moustachioed man who smelled of tobacco. He gestured towards a hallway with a door at the end and said something in Turkish. Happy to oblige, I shuffled / clomped akwardly to my destination (my feet didn’t really fit in the sandals, and I questioned whether they would really help me keep from falling as advertised).
Upon opening the door, I was presented with the main event: a giant Turkish bathhouse! As large as 3 basketball courts set side-by-side and constructed entirely of white marble, the center had an elevated area with a bush in the center where one might lay out. Surrounding the permeter of the bathhouse was 8 separate marble basins, each with their own set of hot and cold faucets flowing water so that they were always full of warm water. Floating in each basin, or next to it, was a metal bowl for scooping out water. Overflow or splashed water dropped onto the floor and flowed into a number of drains out of the room. The whole chamber was hot and humid, but not unconfortably so (if you ever got too hot, you could simply splash yourself with cold water).
After sitting and sweating for 10 minutes, Ali returned to start. His English was very limited, but he managed to ask where I was from, and then to say “Obama good?”
After what the tour book accurately described as a “pummeling,” and one startling moment where he managed to make my back make some cracking sounds I’d never heard before, I was invited to stay as long as I liked, or visit a small corner room where the temperature was 110 and you could lay out on marble slabs to heat your back.
Severely relaxed, I changed back into my clothes and purchased a freshly squeezed orange pommegranite juice and waited for Rucha to return.
Some final random points of note:
Catching a cab in Istanbul is unbelievably easy because there are basically more cabs than cars. I thought New York had a lot of cabs, but it has nothing on Istanbul. You don’t hail a cab either, just look remotely interested in potentially taking a taxi and someone will inevidably slow and ask if you need a cab.
There are a lot of stray cats in Istanbul, and they are everywhere – in the streets, in bars, in museums, rummaging through trash. They reminded me of rats, only much cuter and cleaner, or like park squirrels in the way they tried to get food from you.
Food in Istanbul was quite good, and easy for an American pallate. Desserts are especially tasty, and not just the Turkish desserts like Turkish delights; We had some excellent European-style cakes and pasteries, including a blueberry cheesecake, tiramisu, and a chocolate éclair.
November 16, 2008
Our travels began after my brother Colin dropped me and Rucha off at the airport (thanks bro!)…and a healthy delay of our airplane taking off. This is why I try and avoid layovers, but this time it was unavoidable. 1 season of Entourage later, we were still in the air above JFK having difficulties landing due to weather conditions, so we were pretty on-edge and ran to our connecting flight to Turkey…and made it!
Turkish Air seems to really like baby blue, because all of their seats are that color, which is quite dizzying. They also try ad distract you from the fact that you have no legroom (thanks to 1/2 of each leg area is taken up by a metal box which I suppose contains a life jacket) by providing you with unnecessary and implausible accessories like a footstand and a coat rack peg on the back of each seat.
But enough about crappy flying, that’s nothing new. What was news to us was that our luggage didn’t seem to sprint as fast as we did to our plane to Turkey, and instead settled for sightseeing in The Big Apple. Undaunted (ok maybe semi-daunted) we checked into our hotel and prayed that our luggage would make it before we left for Jordan.
That afternoon, after purchasing new clean shirts from a nearby store, we walked about to fend off the jet-lag. Our first stop waa the Blue Mosque, which was quite a sight to remember. Rucha bought a scarf to cover her head, and I needed 2 bags for my shoes (one for each shoe) before entering the carpeted mosque. The interrior was beautiful, and the long black cables that supported low-hanging chandeliers emphasized the height and vastness of the mosque.
Afterwards, while walking outside, I was surprised to suddenly hear loud, projected singing from a nearby building. The voice was singing beautifully in its own way, and seemed to be calling out to someone. A brief pause, and what seemes like a response came from another building not too far away. Back and forth the voices went, and I fumbled for my camera to catch the moment. Folks around me made no acknowledgement of the music, and even Rucha didn’t seem too surprised by the event as she had heard it before, but I thought it was amazing. I thought about how this must be just like the chime of a clock for the locals, and on the one hand seemed a bit eerie in an Orwellian Big Brother kind of way, but also unifying in a musical kind of way. The religious significance of the call to prayer wasn’t as prominant as I thought it would be since I didn’t understand the language being sung, but perhaps it was better that way.
Our musical experiences continued that night when we saw the Whirling Dirvishes perform in an old train station (famous for being a major stop on the Orient Express). The show began with a small Turkish musical group playing instruments and singing, followed by the entrance of the Whirling Dirvishes. By this time jet lag was hitting me and Rucha pretty hard, and the drawn-out, somber music wasn’t helping. At one point I had difficulty keeping myself from laughing because part of the ceremony we witnessed involved each dirvish slowly nodding to one another, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Rucha also nodding again and again as if to join the ceremony
Finding a place to eat in Istanbul is an interesting task because the standard way that restaurants work is that the person who seats customers stands outside and tries hard to get you to eat at their establishment, promising delicious food and confortable atmospheres. The only comparison I can make is to North Beach restaurants, where guys stand outside both inviting you in but also cat-calling the ladies (there was some of that too in Istanbul…in fact Rucha reported a surprising amount of unabashed staring from many men). At any rate, the place we settled on had an older woman rolling what looked like pancakes on a slab of stone, which looked interesting, so we went inside.
The girl who sat us was unique in that she wasn’t outside pushing us to come in, but upon entering she was very friendly and spoke quite good English, and made some excellent dish recommendations: a kind of “Turkish pancake” that was a bit like a small, thin crepe, filled with cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, and meat, plus a chicken dish with a curry sauce and mushrooms.
Ok, so this is where I have to give major props to Rucha for being the best wing-woman ever, because as soon as I commented that the girl who sat us was kind of cute, she kicked into action so that somehow, by the end of the meal, we had learned her name, got her phone number, established that she was 22 and single, communicated that Rucha and I were just friends, and got commitment from her to join us for dessert after dinner AND two days later to go out at night!
So, with that, the girl Shushan joined us for dessert that night, where we learned that she was actually Armenian and had only been in Istanbul for 4 months. She told us her thoughts on Istanbul, the hardship of living with her parents, and her difficulties getting paid at the restaurant where she worked, and we told her about American life and discussed general cultural differences.
We also got our first taste of the bowels of Istanbul (yeah that’s right, I said “taste of the bowels”; if you want professional caliber blogging either pay me or go somewhere else!). Shushan asked that we walk her home since it was late, so we took her as far as we could wihout compromising our own safety. I wasn’t too worried, though, because I am quite adept at the self-defense technique of pushing my companion towards my assailants while yelling “Take her not me!” and fleeing.
All in all, not bad for our first day abroad!
November 15, 2008
After 5 years, making many friends (and seeing many leave), and creating countless mockups, the time has come for my sabbatical! So here’s the skinny:
What: When an employee stays with eBay for 5 years, eBay provides a “sabbatical” which is really 4 weeks of paid vacation (I have to clarify because my professor dad objects to the term sabbatical here
When: 11/15 – 12/20
Who: With Rucha the whole time, Suja in Jordan and Egypt, Helen Ye in Egypt, and Polly in Thailand!
Where: Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Thailand, India
No really, where?: I’m serious! Check it out:
So there it is. I’ve gotten the visas. I’ve bought the iPod Touch and loaded it with The Wire, Entourage, The Office, and Law and Order. I’ve made sure to eat sushi, burritos, pizza, and pancakes before I go. I even set up this blog just in case I have time while travelling to share some of my thoughts. Now all that’s left is to drag my brother out of bed in the morning to give me and Rucha a ride for our 7:50 AM flight!