Friday, November 11, 2011


I hadn't realized just how huge Turkey is, but it is an immense country. For those of you who are wondering, I'm in the Western third and the earthquakes are in the far East, probably more than 1000 miles from where I am. Although the blog is a bit behind the actual day...since I'm taking notes and then transcribing them later...this day, today, I'm on the Mediterranean in a city called Anatolia. The earthquakes are in Van, which is on the Syrian border.

On the way to Ankara

The itinerary for our tour has changed because of the Eid Festival—instead of seeing Istanbul, we are leaving for the rest of the country first.  If we stayed in Istanbul, we couldn’t see many of the sights because they would be closed, so we are turning things around a bit.
Our guide is a tall, stocky man who is probably in his late 20s or 30s, but it’s hard to tell. He speaks very good English, but with a bit of a German influence.  I ask him and he says that he guides tours in English and German, which explains things.
We bumble onto the bus, sort of jostling and figuring each other out. We will be close companions for many days and I can sense the sort of determining the hierarchy and relative ranking that always occurs when you put a group of people together. We drive through some of the city that I saw on the tour and park at Taksim Square. People get off the bus and go exploring, but I elect to stay and watch the people. Of course, having been to Taksim Square twice before might have something to do with it. It actually was a good choice. The bus driver and I go down a sidestreet away from the city and park on a steeo incline.  Of course, all the inclines in Istanbul are steep…and uphill. I’m glad to have a few minutes to be alone, to collect my thoughts and get ready for what lies ahead.
I hate to admit starting the trip tired, but I am.  I have been somewhat jet lagged and haven’t slept well so I stare for a few minutes at the hillside to regroup, marveling at how well the driver manages a huge bus with a clutch on such a steep incline.
A generic tree, I can’t tell what it is, but then I’m not particularly good at identifying trees in North America, much less Istanbul, is turning gold in the autumn chill. Its leaves shimmer slightly in the breeze, making it look like it is shivering. Some sort of industrial complex with cement grey buildings tumble down the hill. A small patio with chairs and an octagonal building with bright red-orange windows shows that sometime humans do occupy the space.  I look more closely and one of the more distant walls is almost completely covered by the Turkish flag—its vivid red background with the white star and crescent a sharp contrast to the grey buildings.
We return to the Square where the rest bound up the steps laden with treasures from the East—you’d think they were spice merchants from their gleeful expressions—postcards, Evil Eyes, shawls, tapestries are held up for admiration. I think to myself that they will need new suitcases if they continue to purchase at this rate for the rest of the tour.
We head out of city toward the Bolu Mountain range. It’s a highly mountainous area. The trees are gilt, covered with gold coins. Rows of poplars appear planted in what appear to be almost orchards and later we are told that they are grown in that fashion in this area of the country,
It’s a very wooded area and it looks like fall anywhere in the world that I’ve been. Most of the trees are gold, with a few reds and a great deal of green. I am surprised by how cold it is here, but it is a very large country and the climate varies as much as it does from Colorado to Southern Florida. The roads are very good, new and modern. We are on our way to Ankara, the capital, traveling alongside a large lake which is a water source for Istanbul.
We stop for lunch at a truck stop, unlike any truck stop in American, with a huge buffet filled with unknown foods and a market with spices, fruits, cheese and many other unidentified foods. I ate an egg buried in yogurt sauce (I thought it was going to be cheese), some sort of beans, olives and what tasted like corn bread drenched in honey. With a sour cherry drink. Here, along with orange juice in the morning, they serve sour cherry juice.  It’s not terribly sour, more tart than sour, and I’m beginning to be quite fond of it.
People on the bus are saying how the people aren’t very friendly, but I find them about the same as anywhere else. Some are friendly; some are not.  But most of the time when I smile, I get a smile in return.
Back on the bus, racing the fading daylight, I spot my first animals other than dogs and cats—black and white cows. I’m waiting to see sheep since lamb and mutton is served extensively, they have to grow the animals somewhere.  Perhaps not in this mountainous region, however.
We travel for about an hour and then our guy says we are going to stop to “open our legs.” The bus erupts in laughter, and his command of English is good enough for him to realize he made a direct translation from the Turkish and he immediately corrects himself to “stretch your legs.” But the damage is done!
It is late when we arrive at our hotel but even in the dark it’s obvious that Ankara is a political city. It’s that odd blend of austerity and pomposity that one finds in many capitals where bureaucrats gather to determine the fate of others. It also has horrible air, smoggy and smokey. Most of Istanbul is heated with natural gas, but obviously not all of Ankara is. It’s also smotheringly hot in the hotel. They must think that tourists are all from hot climes, because it must be 95 in the room.  My roommate and I agree that it’s too hot to sleep with the window closed, so we open the balcony doors.
From our window, which is up about 7 stories, we can see an amusement park with an illuminated Ferris Wheel flashing multi-colors into the sky, making a rainbow of illumination on the night sky. It’s almost like fireworks celebrating the first full day on the tour.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Around the City

I woke up again to the call to prayer just before dawn and dozed until the sea gulls came awake at sunrise.  Today the plan is to take a bus tour around the city to get a feel for the landscape. It’s a double decker bus that leaves from the area  between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque…the center of tourist activity.
The bus is full, so I sit on the lower level. The audio is in seven languages and I’m tempted to try out my French, but figure English is the better bet. We begin the trip by traveling through some very upscale shopping areas and cross the Galata Bridge.  At some point, the original was burned and the remains dragged to another location.  Istanbul seems filled with bridges, but then it also is surrounded by water on three sides, so bridges are important.
We pass by numerous mosques, many of which look like grey wedding cakes with turrets and spindles. The ornate designs of Ottoman architecture lend a fairybook sense to the city.  It’s as if the pages of fables have come alive on the hills.
At Taksim Square, the Times Square of Istanbul, the bus stops amid dozens of other buses and public transports. At one side of the Square is a “statue” of a cat made entirely of flowers.  It’s sort of reminds me of a Hello Kitty, to be honest.
After we circle the city, my companions decide to visit the Basilica Cisterns, but I opt for a second trip around, this time on the upper deck on the opposite side. And I listen to the audio in French. A young Arab woman from Saudi Arabia who is on holiday with her family sits next to me.  In between the audio, she tells me about her life, about wearing a veil, a burka, arranged marriages.  Her father, she says, is progressive, but her mother is more traditional.  As the wind whips over the low shield, she shivers and tells me that this is the coldest she has ever been in her life. I’m cold, too, but not that cold.  One of the things she says is that wearing the traditional covering for a woman, especially in the summer, is extremely hot and that she tries to go from air conditioned home to air conditioned car to air conditioned store and not be outside. I don’t blame her.
When the tour ended, I walked up yet another hill to the Basilica Cisterns. Just beyond the Hagia Sophia was discovered an enormous cistern, like the size of two football fields, completely underground. Supported by magnificent Byzantine columns, it is one of the eeriest places I’ve ever been. Lit with yellow-orange lights, the vast shallow “lake” is something out of Phantom of the Opera. The classical Turkish music that reverberates helps cement the impression.  Under the boardwalks swim the most enormous carp, aka goldfish, that I have ever seen. Apparently they have been there since ancient times when they were used as poison detection devices. When the fish died, the water supply was known to be compromised. The cisterns were lost for centuries and only rediscovered in fairly recent times.
One other oddity:  deep with the cisterns, at the far back wall, are two enormous carved heads of Medusa.  Why they would be there, in the dark depths of a city water supply is a puzzlement. The Japanese tourists seem particularly intrigued with them.
When I emerge, a bit disoriented from the experience, the day is nearly over and the wind wafting down the cobbled streets has a definite bite to it.  I pass alongside numerous carpet salesmen, but with my head down and eyes averted, they realize that I’m not a customer.  After twisting and turning past many little shops and houses, I finally spot the pink walls of our hotel.  Entering through the back door, where the front desk clerk is having a smoke, I climb the marble steps to the room.  A nice cup of tea is in order.

Unable to post

I am unable to put up pictures.  I get an "access denied" notice in Turkish.  So I'm hoping to be able to continue to write the blog, but pictures may have to wait.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


It was a gloriously sunny morning, as I woke up in the hotel facing the Sea of Marmara. The long flight (14 hours) was almost forgotten as the cool November air wafted through the window. I had awakened at the distinctive sound of morning prayer somewhere around 5 am when it was still dark, but by 8, when it was actually time to get up, the glittering light from the surface of the water was almost blinding.

We had breakfast in the hotel, with one of my favorites from this part of the world..honey still in the comb on delicious bread with slices of pungent cheese and a selection of olives. After a short walk down a cobblestone street to a little market/fruitstand, I got 2 large bottles of water to hoard. In areas where you can’t drink the water, bottled water becomes a valuable commodity.

The streets in this part of Istanbul, not far from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are cobbled with patches of mossy grass growing between them. Fat cats prowl the ledges of walls and stray dogs trot on some mysterious missions. I’m told that the Turkish government captures stray dogs and cats, neuters them, gives them shots and then releases them. You can tell the government dogs because of the green tags in their ears, although I haven’t seen a tag in a cat yet.

This afternoon we are going to take a cruise up the Bosporus to the Black Sea. I can’t say that I’ve ever had any great desire to see the Black Sea, but I decided that this was probably going to be my only chance to cruise the Bosporus Straights, so decided to go. For those who are interested, it cost 45 Euros. They charge in Euros, not Turkish Lira. Because Istanbul spans both Europe and Asia, many things are priced in Euros, although American dollars are still accepted virtually everywhere.

As we drove to the dock, we passed through what I’m guessing are fairly luxurious residential areas on one side and fishermen on the other. The narrow streets and drivers who pass within a sheet of paper’s width of each other assure me that I’m not in the states, but the Starbucks and McDonald’s attest to the homogeneity of the world.

The boat consists of a large dining room with spacious windows and an upper deck. It’s coolish, but the upper deck is refreshing. However, lunch is being served inside so I find a seat by the window. It seems quite romantic to sail between two continents, even though they look exactly alike on either side.

Two bridges span Europe and Asia. As we pass under their at least 60 meter high rises, we enter into an area which must be a military complex. Just above four battleships, stands a Crusader tower, its massive stone walls sharing the hillside with modern radar and other communication devices. A hilltop still remains the best place for a military installation, regardless of the centuries.

The hillsides are still vibrantly green, although a little hint of yellow indicates the change of seasons. As we circle an outcropping, a fishing boat is hauling in the catch of the day. Sea gulls flutter about the bulging nets like so many white water butterflies. Seagulls seem the same all over the world, with their keening calls and distinctive wing shape. Like the smell of the sea, they seem to be part of the greater whole of the planet, a familiar in an unfamiliar landscape. They swoop into the water to snatch a fish and then soar to the sky and become white lights against the green hills.

We land at a small fishing area called Poyrazkoy and walk to the top of a very steep hill to take pictures of the actual Black Sea. It stretches as far as the imagination, a dark, although not black, vastness. As I walk back down the hill, I marvel at a young woman who is making the climb in boots with four inch heels. I’m slipping with flat walking shoes, but she steps as elegantly down the hill in her boots as she much move across the dance floor of a club. The climb seemed steep going up, but even steeper going down.

In the village, several orange cats circled and called. They all looked alike. There must have been one prolific male who managed to escape the mandatory neutering and spread his seed as far as possible before his glory days ended. The one black and white cat I saw clearly wasn’t in the same feline social class. Back at the boat, the left over chicken is being tossed to the stray dogs who leap and catch the morsels in midair. The boat’s dog, whose name is either Captain or Top Dog, the translation was a bit difficult to determine, looks on rather smugly. He know full well that he is the King and these are merely beggars at the gates.

A bit further down the Straight, we stop again at another, larger fishing village. I wandered the streets filled with fish vendors offering fried sardines, mussels, calamari and other fresh fish…and it was fresh. Some even had tanks with the fish still swimming, but most appeared to have come directly from the boats in the harbor. A few shops offer the typical tourist attractions—earrings, trinkets, postcards, but the distinctive blue Evil Eye, or the Eye to ward off evil, graces several items. I wlll eventually purchase some, but not here, not today.

As I wait for the group to come back to reboard the boat for the cruise back to the heart of Istanbul, the strains of a bugle playing taps echo across the harbor courtyard. The smell of frying fish permeates the air. When the bugle ceases, the cry of gulls mingles with voices on cells and the calls of vendors. One very persistent dog approaches each person, hopeful for a treat. As the light turns to a deep gold filtered through the masts of the fishing boats, I am struck by how much this is the fishing village of every myth and dream.

The trip back takes place under the darkening sky with the twinkling of lights on either shore. The bridges spanning the Straights are lit with multi-colored lights—red, purple, green, blue and violet. I watch them change color as we are served a snack of bananas drizzled with honey and topped with nuts. In the distance, the lights of city itself begin to appear and my first full day in Asia Minor is drawing to a close.

(Pictures to come as soon as I can upload them.)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Almost ready

My bags are packed, I'm ready to go...I think there's a song with those lines. I leave in the morning for LA and then a direct--14 hour--flight to Istanbul. I don't think I ever truly believed this moment would be here. Off to see the land where the Christian church truly began--the OTHER Holy Land.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A New Adventure

On November 3, I am leaving for Turkey. Why Turkey? Well, other than the fact my friend and travel agent got an amazing deal, it has been the second place on my travel bucket list after Egypt. Sometimes, when God/the University/Divine Fate hands you a gift, you take it, even if it comes at an inconvenient time, as my favorite poet Rumi says.