Category Archives: Turkey

Hammams and nom noms

We made our way to Çemberlitaş Hamamı, a Turkish bath house. H pointed at something on the menu, paid, and I was given a drawstring bag with a pair of black undies and a scrub cloth. “You wear this for the massage. You bring this for the scrub.”

I walked into the changing room area with a great amount of uncertainty. I put on the pair of black undies and left on a bikini top in honor of my childhood modesty. I was then led through a door into the steam room, a room of marble and stone with a domed ceiling perforated with star-shaped vents seemingly opening out to the sky above. In the middle of the room was a giant slab of marble where you laid out, naked, and soaked in the steam. The lady laid out my towel on the marble slab. “10 minutes, steam, okay?” She took an exaggerated deep breath of air and scooped steam into her hands and waved it into her face.

Surrounding this marble slab were sectionals, each with marble seating and fountains of never ending hot water, buckets, bottles of shampoo and body wash. It’s exactly what you would picture a bath house from the ancient Roman times to look like.

She came back into the room 10 minutes later, this time with nothing on but the black undies, breasts untamed. She eventually slipped on a bra, grabbed a bucket, and filled it up with hot water and suds. Without warning, she walked up to me and dumped the bucket over my body. She began giving me a scrub down all over the front. “Turn over!” She had untied my bikini top with such swiftness, I didn’t really think about it until it was thrown to the side. Some more vigorous backside scrubbing later, she commanded me to sit up to start scrubbing my arms. She gestured to the fruits of her labor on my arm – discarded eraser bits. Um, gross. “It’s nice?” She looked at me expectantly. The only correct answer was yes.

Suddenly, she pulled my head down aggressively, wedging it in between her breasts, and began scrubbing the back of my neck. All feelings of vulnerability no longer mattered. There I was, enjoying her pillow of a bosom while going through an epidermal rebirth. I could’ve easily taken a nap there.

I lay back down on the marble on command, and she unleashed a giant cloud of tiny bubbles all over my body. This mass of suds seemed to gradually grow like The Blob, slowly overtaking my neck, a particularly ticklish area. It only tickled a little but, after telling myself not to think about it, I thought about it even more and the more ticklish it became. Now, I’ve had full body massages done before and completely enjoyed all of them without feeling tickled. But, these suds were 100x more slippery than massage oils and her hands were just sliding everywhere at high speeds. I had engaged my abs so hard to not laugh that I curled up slightly into the beginning stage of a crunch. The lady shoved my torso back down. Finally, I had to turn over. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. My backside isn’t so ticklish.

At the very end, she gingerly held my chin in her hand and said something in Turkish to me before walking out. I still don’t know what she said but, it made me feel like a child who had been rewarded for being obedient. I did go through a rebirth after all.

Ten more minutes on the marble slab and a quick rinse in the shower, I was done. I walked out into the waiting area to find Hayden already there, looking red and equally manhandled.

The Gallipoli Campaign

…from the perspective of an American who had recently learned about it.

Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey

What trip to Turkey would be complete without a visit to Gallipoli? Especially when traveling with a Kiwi, that is.

We booked a day trip through the OneNation Travel Agency but actually was picked up by Crowded House Tours. There is freedom within, there is freedom without. Try to catch a deluge in a paper cup. There’s a battle ahead, many battles are lost. But you’ll never see the end of the road, while you’re traveling with me. Hey now, heyyyy nowww. I’m in a lyyyricalll tangentttt.

So, we were picked up from our Airbnb in Istanbul around 6:15am and, about a half hour or so later, we were a group of 3 Canadians, 2 Indians, 5 Aussies, a Kiwi and an American (that would be yours truly). The 5 hour drive (with 2 stops along the way, 1 for breakfast) was seriously beautiful, at least for the half hour of it that I remained awake. We had a basic lunch, which previous customers have written bad reviews about? I’d understand the bad reviews if we were on a culinary journey. But, we weren’t. The food was decent. As long as you’re not shitting up a storm after the meal, then what is there to really complain about?

During the lunch, though, I sat silently in the corner while everyone else shitted on the U.S. for all of its gun problems. And, who could forget Trump and his love of boobs, even on his own then-infant daughter? I really had nothing to contribute other than slouched shoulders and a scowl.

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Going to Gallipoli was really cool, especially after I had just learned about it in the Te Papa exhibit in Wellington, NZ back in August. It was even cooler going with people who felt nationally connected to it. The tour guide connected with everyone else and was a little surprised that an American even took interest in this tour. Not all of us are history-illiterate. Just semi.

Most of the sites were empty. Luckily it was a weekday and 2 weeks before ANZAC day. We first stopped at Brighton Beach, where the troops were supposed to land, only 1km away. The troops, instead, went ashore at Anzac Cove (pictured above). Time of day: too dark to even have good judgment, around 3 or 4am. The mission was to get to higher ground from Brighton Beach and Cape Helles, take over the Turks, then conquer the Dardanelles. Accomplishing this would gain the British access to take over Constantinople (then capital of the Ottoman Empire and now known as Istanbul, no longer a capital), and to keep open a reliable passageway for ships to transport necessary resources to Russia.

What’s crazy is that Turkey was, at first, neutral. But, they were also weak. If they were to choose an ally, they favored Great Britain over Germany despite the former being allied with Russia. But circumstances led them to side with the latter and as they say, “the rest, as they say, was history.”

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If you looked up, with your back towards the shore, you’d see “the Sphinx” and Plugge’s Plateau, the higher grounds that were incredibly difficult to climb and already hiding soldiers from the opposing side.

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The Ariburnu Cemetery is situated in a seemingly peaceful place. The realization that you’re now safely walking around a scenic area that was once a battleground and a place of agony suddenly makes you feel privileged to be there. It really is an honor. And, I’m not just referring to the lives lost of Australians, New Zealanders, Turks, et al or this particular battle. I’m really referring to any soldier, whether they voluntarily joined the forces or not or, whether they were fighting for a cause you believed in or not. Just any soldier who had to fight for his/her respective cause. Many of us don’t realize just how much mental and physical stress they go through just to keep our homes intact and it’s a shame just how jaded we are and how “normal” this now tends to feel.

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Lone Pine, quite literally named for the one remaining pine that was grown from a seed of the original tree that existed during the battle here. That battle was part of a larger offensive that involved around four months of being in a stalemate.

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Johnston’s Jolly, an area of trenches dug up for the ANZAC troops. The Turks were literally across the distance of the road, hiding out in their own trenches. An Aussie artillery officer tried to lighten up the mood by making jokes with the Turks which is why it is named as such. It’s sad to think that with the absence of war, soldiers on both sides could’ve been friends. The context changes everything.

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As we approached the 57 Alay Cemetery for the Ottoman 57th Regiment, there were throngs of buses transporting locals to this memorial site. Apparently, this was a light crowd. On weekends, about 20-30K come to visit and a 5 minute drive suddenly becomes at least an hour of backed up traffic. The locals seemed to bypass all the Commonwealth memorials which I found both funny and a good fortune for us tourists.

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After a visit to the Nek Cemetery, our last stop was Chunuk Bair, a cemetery and memorial site specifically dedicated to New Zealand.

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Hard to imagine this as a place that conjured fear, huh?

Our guide briefly bragged that he personally took Peter Jackson around the area. There may be a movie in the works which I’d be very excited to see. Crossing fingers.

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours…
You, the mothers,
Who sent their sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears.
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land they have
Become our sons as well.”

-Ataturk 1934

(Current read: Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead)

Calcified coolness

Pamukkale, Turkey

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I did an extensive Google search for ways of getting to Pamukkale from Göreme and, despite forums where people declared how easy it was to take a bus, I couldn’t find any reliable bus sites until maybe 30-40 min in. That could also mean that I suck at researching. But, whatevs. I’m going to lay it out nicely for you.

This site wouldn’t let me book weeks in advance but, I’m glad it didn’t because I wasn’t sure which was really the pickup stop that I should be choosing (Göreme, Kayseri, Nevşehir?). Also, the website doesn’t allow opposite sexes to book seats next to each other (yea, you choose your gender). I figured it would be okay waiting until I got to Göreme to book since it wasn’t peak tourist season and seats would likely not be sold out. This website is good for checking the schedules, though, and also for keeping track of available seats. We booked with Metro bus through our lodging (the bus station and office is in the center of this very tiny town anyway) and opted for the 8pm overnight bus from Göreme to Denizli (55 TL per person, sitting next to each other), which got us to Denizli 10 hours later. The bus ride was pretty comfortable and had several breaks throughout the way. It was just a bit too stuffy and warm.

From our stop in Denizli (not the last stop, by the way, but they will announce or prod you awake to let you know), there was a free shuttle already waiting to take us to Pamukkale 20 min away. From our ultimate stop, it was only a short walk to our hotel but, we called up the hotel reception and the guy offered to pick us up in his car. It was 6:30am and he had just woken up. By 7am, he had checked us in and Hayden and I slept for 5 hours in a real bed.

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We read a Tripadvisor review exclaiming not to go to the thermal pools & Hierapolis because 90% of it was dried up. And, she was right. About the pools being largely dried up. My initial reaction was, “Is this it? I thought it was so much more?” But, it really was more. I just needed to walk in further and explore it all. So, ignore the reviews and decide for yourself if it’d be worth the visit. I say give it a chance. I still loved it.

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It was sunny and hot when we walked over after lunch. Then, the sky turned ominous and a thunderstorm came in, causing cafe tables and chairs to topple over and crowds of people to sardine themselves into the tiny gift shop. Even with the lightning, we thought it was a smart idea to take cover underneath a conductive tree. I also thought it’d be a great idea to open my umbrella, my brand new one that I purchased after hours of reading through Amazon reviews to find the best travel umbrella. Yea, well, that snapped within minutes and a metal binding stuck out like a broken bone. Note to self – don’t open ANY umbrella during a massively windy thunderstorm if I can help it. The storm lasted awhile and it became pretty cold. Hayden and I huddled against the tree until the storm passed.

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Lucky for us, most of the crowds stuck to the few thermal pools after the storm, leaving the rest of the grounds pretty much empty. We explored the amphitheater and the rest of Hierapolis in relative peace, with post-rain breezes and the sun shining again. We also discovered that the calcified portion expanded beyond where the tourists were congregating and we walked on a boardwalk along it. The juxtaposition of it against the green fields and the mountainside was a beautiful thing to see.

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Our flight back to Istanbul (DNZ > IST) the next day wasn’t until the evening, so we ate lunch in the hotel patio and hung out there with beers, books and journaling (is there a b-word for this?). A thunderstorm came and went and, as the sun came back out, the hotel guy told us a story about an ice cream salesman who had come to Pamukkale 50 years ago for a visit and saw that there was a serious lack of ice cream vendors. So, he came back to fill that need, making ice creams by hand and selling them along the tiny streets. Well, he didn’t realize what the weather was like here, especially around this time of year. It rains heavily almost everyday, only during parts of the day with periods of sun. The ice cream salesman got rained on repeatedly, ruining his hand made ice creams, and he had to eventually close up shop. Whomp whomp.

Note: We got a door-to-door airport shuttle through Metro bus for 25 TL per person. First, a short shuttle ride from the hotel to the bus station/office. Then, a transfer onto a different shuttle for the airport (maybe about 45-60 min). When we arrived at the bus station, the second shuttle arrived at the same time to pick us up, something even the Metro bus office workers were surprised about. So, allot a little extra time for possible bus delays just in case.

Cappadocia

I’m going to start off with the fact that I now love Turkish Airlines. No matter how short the flight (about 1.5 hr from Istanbul to Kayseri to get to Cappadocia), they WILL give you a meal. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the carts were out and within minutes, I had a sandwich in my hand. And, as soon as that last bite entered my mouth, I was already handing over my boxed garbage and we were about to descend. It’s like visiting your parents and having your mom automatically having food ready and in the midst of shoving it down your throat no matter how much you insist that you’re not hungry.

Göreme, Turkey

I booked airport transportation from the airport to our lodging for 30 TL per person through our lodging and, though there may have been a cheaper option, it was so worth it. An air-conditioned van with direct drop off. I’ll take that.

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Hayden came up with the idea of hiking up to a viewpoint in time for sunset. About a 15 minute walk later, this is what we saw. Apparently the view is filled with hot air balloons in the morning, a view we’d be a part of the next morning.

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We booked with Butterly Balloons because it was marginally #1 on Tripadvisor. Pickup was at 5:10am which I thought was brutal until someone reminded me that I used to wake up around 3:30am to make it to my 6am spin class – 30 min wake up coffee, 10 min walk to the bus, 80 min bus ride from the suburbs to the city. I should win an award for my dedication. Yup, dedication to craziness and lack of sleep.

Anyway, the pickup was so early because they were picking up people from other hotels and dropping us off at their main office to check in and have time for breakfast. I’m still complaining about the 5am pickup. Ha, ha.

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I’ve wanted to ride a hot air balloon for so long that it felt surreal being next to one, at first deflated then gradually filling up with fiery gas. I wandered off a bit to take photos of other hot air balloons only to have lost track of time and realize that everyone else was already inside the basket and about to take off sans me. I ran towards them with an apologetic look on my face.

As the pilot (Kaan) introduced himself, he lamely joked that this was his first time piloting. But, something about mid-aged European/Eastern European men, who look tough and scary, cracking jokes makes it funny. Maybe it just made me laugh nervously. Who knows. He briefed us on the landing position which involved squatting down to the bottom of the basket while holding onto the interior rope handles. Then, up, up, we were away!

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We were slowly gaining altitude when we narrowly missed crashing into a tree and grazed its branches instead. Kaan apologized. I’m pretty sure it was done on purpose. At least I hoped so. Then, over the Rose Valley, other villages and ghost towns we floated.

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Then, the sun rose. We went as high as 400m, some going to about 600m depending on wind conditions.

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A photo with actual people (courtesy of Hayden & his GoPro)

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Since it was a light day, Kaan landed the basket perfectly on the back of a pickup truck. But, as we were landing, he yelled out “LANDING TIME” which made all of us automatically go into landing position. From a spectator’s point of view from ground level, it would’ve looked like a hot air balloon with just Kaan in the basket.

Kaan: “I said ‘landing time,’ not landing position!”

It became quite clear that no landing position was necessary, especially on a day with fair winds. It also became clear from his laugh that he expected this to happen. Yea, funny.

Once landed, we all helped to deflate the balloon by walking on it and forcing the air out. In the midst of that excitement, a kid dropped his phone in the folds of the balloon. He didn’t realize until the balloon had been mostly packed away and he began to cry tears of utmost grief. All I could think was, “Kid! When I was your age, I had hand-me-down toys! You think my parents would’ve given me a smartphone?” The workers were kind enough to unfold the balloon, though, until the phone was found about 10 min later. Then, bottles of sparkling wine were popped and we had a tasty alcoholic breakfast with some cake. By 8am, we were dropped off back at our hotel and back to bed we went.

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By noon, it was like we woke up to another brand new day. The Göreme Open-Air Museum and a Rose Valley hike was on our remaining agenda, the museum being about a 20-30 min walk from our lodging and the Rose Valley another few hours beyond that. It seemed longer in the “spring” heat, suggesting that the summer heat here is unsurprisingly unbearable. Shiny forehead and melting face. That was me.

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“No materials? No problem. We build into rock.”

At least that’s how I imagined their thought process to be when building this, first a Byzantine monastic site. And, also, if they thought or spoke in English back in the 10th or so century. Their precision in forming the archways and painting the murals with ink created from ochre is seriously so amazing. Many of the faces in the Christian murals, however, were scratched off during the Muslim influence of Turkey, not because of anything hateful but because faces are considered too sacred to be depicted. Since the churches were built into the rock, the interior was kept nice and cool even with the heat outside.

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An old man was guarding the inside of the Karanlık Kilise, which requires an extra entrance fee and is also known as the Dark Church, so that outsiders wouldn’t cause harm to the extremely well-preserved murals.

Old man: “Do you speak Turkish?”
Me, apologetically: “No…”
Old man:”Why not?”
Me: “Because I’m stupid?”

He was very amused.

Old man: “Before other people come, take picture!”

I wanted to hug this man. When we exited the church, a mid-aged man asked if we thought it was worth the extra entrance fee. After we responded in the affirmative, the man turned to his wife and exclaimed, “See?? They said it was worth it!” The wife just huffed and reluctantly followed him to purchase tickets. I mean, it’s only about 10 TL more.

Note: Don’t forget to visit the Tokalı Kilise, which is outside the general area, a little down the hill towards Göreme and across the street. We saw it on our way up and were told to purchase tickets up the hill first. It’s covered in the main ticket price.

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Afterwards, we further walked uphill towards Ortahisar then veered left towards and through the Rose Valley before circling back to Göreme. With some research (check out the walking maps that pop up in a Google image search for “Rose Valley hike Cappadocia”) and the use of Google Maps, Hayden eventually led us to a path with trail markers. The entire hike was about 3-4 hours.

The Rose Valley is labeled as such because of its rose/reddish hue at certain times of day, and it’s a hike I definitely recommend. We passed by “fairy chimneys” which looked quite phallic and I later found out that there was a valley with a higher concentration of these same rock formations, like a dildo shop for giants. (Just Google image it.) This area has been aptly named Love Valley. Take a girl (or guy) there on a first date. I’m sure you’ll leave her wondering about yours.

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Next day, we booked the Green Tour with Gorgeous Tour. We were hesitant to book this at first just because the tour company’s name was pure cheese. But, ignore that adjective and book with them anyway, especially if you can get Azad as the tour guide. They also had amazing Tripadvisor reviews which is what ultimately sold us. It’s a great way to cover a great distance in a short amount of time, with the added bonus of having a local give you an abbreviated version of the country’s history.

Hotel pickup was at 9:30am (not bad!) and our first stop was the Derinkuyu Underground City. Since the surrounding areas were subject to frequent enemy attacks, these cities were built in the underlying rock for protection, some housing even up to 30,000 people. The upper floors were reserved for livestock, kitchens and, of course, wineries (priorities, people!), and the lower floors were where the inhabitants resided for months at a time. It is believed that some of these underground cities started out smaller, then expanded upon by other groups of people after the cities had been abandoned by the original inhabitants. Air shafts and water systems were also set up but, due to the nature of the rock and it being underground, it became seriously cold the lower you went. The guide warned us to stay behind if we were claustrophobic but, once inside, the rooms weren’t as tiny as I originally expected. I mean, it’s still not for the claustrophobic but, some of the upper floors had ceilings just high enough for you to stand upright. Shneaky shneaky.

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Second stop – Selime Monastery. A lot of the surrounding rock formations not only looked somewhat phallic but, also like the costumes used in the Catholic processions in Spain during Semana Santa.

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The churches/chapels built into the rock still housed its murals, albeit extremely faded and faint.

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After an included lunch at a local restaurant, we headed for the Ihlara Valley for a short hike. Azad mentioned that there are many Turkish artifacts on display at the British Museum in London which was on his list of things to see for the city; however, he was denied a tourist visa for no logical reason and couldn’t even fly over to see them. It really puts into perspective how especially easy it is for U.S. and UK citizens to travel, given that many countries either grant them easily upon arrival or do not require tourist visas in the first place.

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Last stop – Pigeon Valley, named for all the pigeons that poo here, or something like that. Hike here if you’re in need of good luck.

History tidbit: For a long time, Turkey was largely Christian. Then the country housed both Christians and Muslims in a mainly peaceful coexistence before the former was essentially pushed out to another country during the Ottoman Empire as a result of, I believe, an agreement of separation between the two groups.

Hey!

Istanbul, Turkey

Today, I was scammed. And, it annoys me like hell that I fell for it. We were walking up one of the busy streets and a shoe polisher conveniently dropped his brush in front of me as he was passing by. I picked up said conveniently dropped brush and he became suspiciously thankful, insisting that he polish my shoes as gratitude for saving his business, insisting that he “clean” them once I pointed out that they were just sneakers, then proceeding to grab my leg after he sat himself down and clean the sides with scented water all the while explaining that he was supporting kids in Ankara. I awkwardly stood there in disbelief as Hayden looked on and, once the guy was done, he demanded a donation.

Me “Sorry, I have no change.”
Scammer: “If you have big bills, I can give you change,” as he dug into his pockets and pulled out a wad of cash.
Me “This is a scam, isn’t it. This is totally a scam.” I began to walk away.
Scammer: “Ma’am! Ma’am!”

He followed us up the block until he was sure that I wasn’t giving him shit. Travel advice #87462: Be an oblivious asshole. Someone else’s baby dropped her best friend stuffed bunny? NO PICKUP! Cute grandpa in plaid and elbow patches dropped his cane? WHO CARES.

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The annoyance wore off by the time we reached the Basilica Cistern (also called Yerebatan Sarnici and nicknamed “the Sunken Palace”). The following is a sort of historical timeline provided by yours truly (and Wikipedia, and the free brochure):

– It was originally a basilica sometime in the early, early days. I’m talking like reeeeally early. Like before the time of grandma and grandpa. Yes, the grandpa with the elbow patches, and the elbow-patched one before him. And then some.

– One or two centuries later (small amount of time), it was converted to a cistern, first by Emperor Constantine and later enlarged by Byzantine Emperor Justinian. It provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople.

– Two major restorations were done during the Ottoman period. The cistern also provided water to the Topkapi Palace.

– It was then forgotten for centuries. Cue in several Boyz II Men songs and other R&B ballads that make you think of your 7th grade lost opportunities for love. Savage Garden? Mariah Carey? Celine Dion? Please also add in No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. Yes, all of it. Thanks.

– A researcher, P.Gyllius, discovered it on one of his trips to Istanbul. His writings about it became popular with travelers.

– Another major restoration was done in the late 1980s.

– It is now a major tourist site, complete with fish swimming around and a cafe where you can consume canned Coke and fashion a duck’s beak out of Pringles.

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When we first walked down into the cistern, many of the tourists (mainly Asians) went straight for the 2 Medusa heads that lay beneath 2 columns. Myth has it that they were placed there to ward off enemies and placed upside down to prevent other people from turning into stone when they looked at them.

It was chaotic during our first and only time at the Grand Bazaar, not because it was heavily crowded but because the salesmen were all up in our faces.

Ruthless salesman #1: “Hey, didn’t we meet here yesterday? I have what you need in my shop.”

Ruthless salesman #2: “Hey! Californian? Texan? Oh, Canadian, right? I’m sorry, Canadian!”

Ruthless salesman #3: “Hey, I have mini machine. You want mini machine?” (What the hell is a “mini machine”?)

Ruthless salesman #4: “Hey, we have everything…except customers.” (Gotta appreciate the honesty.)

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The lanterns were gorgeous though. Too bad some of the store displays had signs that demanded a dollar for every photo taken. I was stealth about mine.

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Before heading to the Spice Bazaar and Yeni Cami (yet another mosque) we took a break at Çorlulu Alipaşa Medresesi for some Turkish coffee and secondhand hookah smoking. I describe Turkish coffee as highly caffeinated siltiness that leaves a filmy feeling on your tongue. Not pleasant but, not too unpleasant either.

We spent the remaining hours of sun in Taksim Square Park. A little reading. A little nappy nap. And, a little snack.

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Next morning, we crossed the bridge and purchased tickets for the Bosphorus Cruise. Despite the (or, rather, because of the) haggling riverside salesmen, we opted for the ferry ride with Şehir Hatları, Istanbul’s official ferry (and pretty much the first kiosk you see in Eminönü once you cross the bridge). We went for the full tour up to the Black Sea for 25 TL per person. No frills, no hassle, great service. And, cheaper.

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We passed by mosques, palaces, several bridges and other boats, including the coast guard’s. I didn’t realize just how sprawled out the city was with its numerous edifices. A yogurt salesman was going around the aisles, advertising not just yogurt but, “Bosphorus yogurt! You want Bosphorus yogurt?” I imagine that this personally branded yogurt tastes just like…regular yogurt.

Next up, a tea salesmen (could’ve just been the same guy). “Hey, you want çay (pronounced like chai)?” It brought me back to the Staten Island ferry in the 90s and early 2000s, when this old immigrant shoe shine guy circled around with “Hey, my friend! Would you like a shine?” He seemed destitute, walking around slowly with his wooden box of tools. Then, one time, my brother’s friend saw him get into his Mercedes after getting off the terminal on the Staten Island side. Good for him! Though one time, a friend left his Stussy hat on the ferry, then found the shoe shine guy wearing it the next day. Finder’s keepers.

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It was relaxing laying my head on the windowsill with the sun shining through and the scenery passing by. It’s quite possible that I’m napping behind those sunglasses. In fact, I would give it a 90% chance.

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About an hour and a half later, we were off the boat, hiking a short uphill towards the Yoros Castle, an out of commission Byzantine castle located where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea.

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From up top, there is a clear view of the new bridge currently still in construction. You can’t go inside the castle, though apparently people have climbed the walls in the past. Archaeological excavations are currently in progress, so no can do in the present day.

We stopped at the Yoros Cafe on the way back down for some fried mussels and grilled fish, which a stray cat clawed through my pants for, twice. Sorry cat but I, too, can be a bitch.

I slept most of the boat ride back but, woke up in time to see a ship aptly named Friendship. Get it? Friend-ship? Yea. Okay.

“Turkish Delight, please, your Majesty.”

After working late nights and weekends, my life had become a giant to-do list and I had begun to feel a bit lost. I felt like I was giving up things for something that wasn’t completely mine and, I wasn’t even sure what exactly I was giving up in the first place. But, anything can be rebuilt and, here I am, on another adventure. And, any adventure is a good one. I probably stole that from Tolkien.

This is my third time in the past 5 years where I am going abroad for a long stretch of time. My friends jokingly set a quota of 3 for the number of times they will pay for my goodbye brunch/dinner. I did genuinely offer to pay my share. On the downside, though, I will be missing 2 epic weddings (slash reunion) and a childbirth.

So, here’s to 6 months! This time, I won’t be doing the back-and-forth with NYC so, you’ll be seeing the same black outfit and plaid number in my photos. I promise that I’m doing my washing regularly. It’s not like you can tell anyway.

Istanbul, Turkey

The reaction I got from most people after telling them that I was going to Turkey was along the lines of “But, what about the recent attacks?” It didn’t deter me from going at all. Call me foolish or perhaps jaded. No second thoughts.

Our Airbnb host, Ata, met us at the Taksim bus station (Havatas bus to/from Ataturk airport, 11 TL pp), slung my 11kg bag over his shoulder and gave us a brief walking tour through Taksim Square and the never ending Istiklal Street (apparently the second longest pedestrian street in the world) on our way to the apartment.

Ata: “This is the street with all the bars and nightclubs. Sometimes people stay out until 6am, especially tonight (Saturday).”

Um, nah.

Next morning, we tracked down a cafe that served flat whites. As I was paying, the barista asked me where I was from and, for whatever reason, I hesitated between saying “New York” and “Korea.” I guess I just wanted to get the follow-up question over with. I ended up saying the truth but hesitated so long, that I came out with “the Manhattan,” as if I was ordering a cocktail. I suppose that is still fitting.

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First stop – Galata Tower with its amazing view of the city, sprinkled with mosques.

Hayden: “Hey, there’s Batman!”

On the ticket was an illustration of the city and tower with a winged man in black flying over it. Apparently, an Ottoman aviator from the 1600s named Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew over parts of the city on artificial wings and was later exiled for being a threat. He is now memorialized on everyone’s entrance ticket. I’ll also point out the fact that there is actually a city named Batman in this country.

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Casual fishermen were lined up along the Galata Bridge, and we looked over to see the waters filled with jellyfish swaying with the current. Those suckers (pun!).

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Second stop – Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia)

There was a civil line leading to the ticket booth, and then human mayhem at the security check.

Man in front of us: “The guards keep redirecting us to a ‘shorter’ line but there is never a line. Just people everywhere!”

It wasn’t even peak season and people were acting like it was. Once inside, though, it was once again calm.

The Ayasofya originated as a Greek Orthodox church, then was later converted to a mosque with the addition of the 4 minarets and the removal or plastering over of the Christian mosaics. The Byzantine architecture of this converted mosque served as the basis for subsequent Ottoman mosques. It’s an awesome thing to see in the panoramic view you get from the Galata Tower.

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Built by 10,000 unskilled workers, this church-turned-mosque still showcases both its Christian (Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in the middle) and Muslim influences.

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Third stop – Blue Mosque

Me: “What’s that mosque over there?”
H: “It says Sultan Ahmet Camii on Google Maps.”
Me: “Okay, nevermind. Let’s just do the Blue Mosque then.”
H: “I thought we were doing that tomorrow.”
Me: “Wait, that IS the Blue Mosque.”
H: “Oh.”

Yes, “Blue Mosque” was just the name made up by Westerners who were lazy and called it by the dominant color of the tiles inside the mosque. Honestly, though, it seemed more pink/red than blue to me.

We waited in the courtyard for a bit for prayer time to finish and Wikipedia-ed the history of the mosque. It was built to mimic the style of the Ayasofya, and holds up to 10,000 worshippers, bumper-to-bumper. Before going inside, I was given an ankle length hospital scrub skirt to wear over my skinny jeans and a cloth to wrap around my head.

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The interior is magnificent. I wished that I could lie on the carpeted floor and trace the patterns on the ceiling with my eyes but, that would just be incredibly sacrilegious and a complete idiotic tourist thing to do. Anyone’s main advice for global travel – don’t be an idiot.

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Fourth/fifth stop – Topkapi Palace and the nearby Gülhane Park

The palace was filled with jewels and sacred relics (though questionably authentic) and for whatever reason, I wasn’t expectedly wowed by them. Maybe it was, to me, just another collection of rich people things, whereas the Blue Mosque was so much more. Or, I should’ve reversed my order of sightseeing. One cool story that Hayden pointed out was how the huge diamond in one of the display cases was found in the trash, then exchanged through a line of buyers’ hands without anyone realizing that it was actually a huge ass diamond. Once figured out, however, it belonged to the sultans.

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We strolled in the park afterwards towards the other end, where there was a tea garden (Setüstü Çay Bahçesi) with an awesome view of the city and water, one of Ata’s recommendations. The park was beautifully laid out with flowers in full bloom, none of which the crowds of people had regard for, as they stepped on and through them to take the perfect selfie and then yanked them out to make personal bouquets.

Tea garden? So worth it. Al fresco tea and a mixed potato for 2? Most definitely yes, please.

(Restaurant choices: Asmali Cavit (where we tried raki for the first time), Sahrap, Yirmibir Ocakbasi, Ottoman Burger)

Visa tip: As an American, I was required to get a tourist visa which was in the form of an e-visa and quite easy to get online beforehand. Just print out a paper copy of it before you go.