Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Complicated Love Affair that is Turkey: Part 2, Istanbul and Bodrum

A:  Istanbul
By now you are probably wondering where all the complications/frustration I mentioned in Part 1 are......well, Istanbul to start.  I am going to preface some of my following negativity by saying that we did have an amazing experience overall and that if we had to do it all over again we still would.  Well, maybe not everything.  We stayed in old town where all the tourists, sites, mosques, palaces, and bazaars are located.  Although we enjoyed all of said things, it would have been way better to go visit those places during the day while staying away from the tourists and vendors at night (our mistake, not Istanbul's).  Istanbul is a gigantic, crowded, and hectic city and getting around/finding places is not the easiest and proved to be a considerable part of our frustration. By now we consider ourselves pretty well traveled and hiccups like not being able to figure out how to buy a train ticket can be a little more frustrating than it used to. Aside from the getting around problems, I was really just getting tired of people trying to sell me something, get me to come into there restaurant (even if they just clearly saw us leave another one), and general running commentary/blatant staring at my wife.   Even with Nicole fully covered (sometimes literally from head to toe even though it was a humid 90 degrees), we could not walk more than ten feet without hearing "Where are you from?" or.... "My friend, don't worry I am not a guide....but I do happen to sell the finest rugs in Turkey!" .....or "Beyonce! I love you!"......"Top Model!"....Naomi Campbell!"....or my personal favorite...."Jennifer Lopez!"  (This last comment was immediately compared to when Mason was called a "Guido" by some drunk guy in Hawaii.....those of you who don't know this story, ask me sometime...it's a classic). It was humorous the first day trying to have fun with it, but by day three we were both ready for a new location.  We decided on a simple plan:  Go to the Blue Mosque early before the crowds and then get the hell out of the tourist district! We successfully woke up early (sounds easy, but for us, this is an accomplishment) and made the very short walk over.  This little trip made for one of my favorite moment in Istanbul.  The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are two of the most impressive structures I have personally ever seen and to view them without anyone around in the early morning light made them seem all the greater. No crowds, no guides, no vendors....just us and the stray (or not stray, could never really tell) dogs and cats cruising around neighborhood looking for breakfast and the monumental structures that look the same as they did hundreds of years ago.  Then we got out of there....and began the search for someplace cool to hang out for the evening.  We eventually found it (not easily) after roaming from area to area and passing several roads full of lively bars with zero women in sight....anywhere.  That was a strange feeling for me, as well as Nicole.  We would just turn around and keep moving on. This all led to the finding of a very cool and hip area (with gender equality) and ended up having a great evening eating delicious food and drinking wine and raki.  Aside from our extremely shady walk back across the city and to our hotel (at one point I had incredibly bad but couldn't find anywhere I felt comfortable leaving Nicole alone for the .5 minutes it takes me to use the bathroom),  this was a good moment to end our Istanbul adventure on.  Nicole and I both agreed that the one thing that would have made our trip much more enjoyable would be to go with or know someone from Istanbul to show us around.  Not rocket science....I know. We are good on Istanbul for the time being.

B: Bodrum
Known mostly as a party/beach town, we arrived in Bodrum with great anticipation.  The town itself is beautiful, with most of the buildings painted bright white that contrasts with the brilliant blue of the ocean.  Right way we noticed one very important detail, no beaches. Hmmm...ok there goes my research.  They did, however,  have a long boardwalk full of clubs, restaurants, and bars that seemed, at first glance, primed for all night dance parties so we were okay.  Unfortunately, the place ended up being just another tourist town with no sense of culture, heartbeat, or character. I have never been on a cruise, but being in this city is what I feel like being on cruise would be like; crowded, tacky (Nicole's favorite word), bad food, and expensive drinks. Over the past week, we ate Turkish food for every single meal, loving it the majority of the time. This was the first time since being there that we were forced to avoid Turkish cuisine opting for a burger and wine one night and Spanish tapas the next (both were actually very good so I guess I shouldn't complain).   Even the party scene left us wanting.  Hundreds of people walking up and down the boardwalk at 3 AM but hardly anybody dancing in the bars or clubs! One afternoon, tired of the crowds, we decided to walk along the port area and if a boat opportunity came up that we had a good feeling about we would take it just to get away. (there were tons of what I would dub "tourist trap" boats) Well, the opportunity came up.  We ended up renting a beautiful 30 foot, three cabin yacht from 10:30 to 5:30, just for us with lunch and a bottle of wine,  for about 200 USD.  I doubt there are many places in the world that one can do that!  We had an amazing time cruising around, reading our books on the deck, and swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Aegean Sea.  Nothing could have been more relaxing, a true holiday moment, and a perfect end to a crazy trip that at times felt more like work than vacation.

In my opinion, Cappadocia and Istanbul should both be on ones bucket list.  They are completely different but both experiences of a lifetime that I will truly never forget.  I apologize for the sometimes negative storyline, but hey, if it was perfect then everyone would go.

Next stop: Greek Sailing Adventure with PJ, Jennie, Amy, Drew, Aspen, and Paul....can't wait guys, see you soon!

The Grand Bazaar

Traditional apple tea...basically tastes like apple cider. I loved the orange tea because it tastes like hot tang! (which is now a new saying)

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Blue Mosque

Istanbul loves cats! 

Blue Mosque

Taksim Square (where the protests were)

Taksim Square

Hmmm...what to get?  I know, let's have the worst meal in history that we will refuse to eat and get a free bottle of wine from the manager so we don't write a bad review.   

just keep swimming...just keep swimming....

The ocean was incredibly clear! This was taken from up on the boat looking down in about 20 ft of water.


Friday, June 14, 2013

The Complicated Love Affair that is Turkey: Part 1, Cappadocia

Beautiful, crowded, enlightening, frustrating, magical, difficult, quiet, touristy, historical, awe inspiring, friendly.......umm, welcome to Turkey, the land were nearly any adjective could work.  We had so many up and down emotions throughout our trip that I feel bipolar just thinking about it.... so that being said; here comes the first installment of my latest roller coaster of a blog: 
Instead of starting up the track like every good roller coaster should, our trip started in the opposite direction due to a little protesting/riots/tear gas/crowd control going on in Taksim (about a 10 minute walk to where we were supposed to spend our first two nights).  While on our way to the Zurich airport, a Turkish colleague of Nicole's advised us not to go via manic text saying something along the lines of "Istanbul is like a war zone and the police are beating people in the streets."  So....on that note we decided to change our plans and head to Cappadocia instead of Istanbul. We later found out that this was greatly exaggerated and the protests were confined to a very small area that could have been easily avoided, but you can understand why we wussed out and changed our flight.  That initial day of travel ended up being ridiculously long (our apartment to hotel, something around 17 hours) and included a 45 minute search to buy our visas for Turkey.  Did you know you can only by a visa in Turkey using Euros and not their own currency? Neither did we. Anyway, we finally made it to Goreme a little after midnight and all our troubles were immediately forgotten as we checked into our beautiful cave suite and were welcomed with mezze sandwiches and a delicious bottle of Turkish wine.  And back in the game!  
We woke up the following day excited and invigorated but nothing could have prepared me for that first real glimpse of Goreme in the morning sunlight. I have truly never seen anything like it.  The strangely magnificent landscape simply looks like it doesn't belong and should be from another planet.  Serene yet surreal, the tall chimneys, doors, and windows carved into the stone hills and spires that are everywhere you look, gave me the impression that it was something out of a sci-fi novel rather than our Turkish holiday blog.  Long ago, volcanic activity from three surrounding volcanoes laid down thick layers of ash, lava, and basalt that hardened over time.  Years of erosion eventually left behind the spires or "fairy chimneys" that past civilizations discovered were stable yet easily carvable and made perfect shelter opportunites that led to the creation of many small towns and underground cities that are still around today. (geology nerd rant over)
We rented a scooter and just rode around the countryside stopping in small villages and checking out underground cities with bazaars out front for most of the morning and afternoon.  The underground cities could be surprisingly vast and intricate. I have always loved natural caves and caverns and I couldn't help but marvel at the comforting feel these man carved tunnels instilled. We went to two, which was enough for Nicole because I started to worry that she would get a concussion if she hit her head one more time.  The low ceilings were apparantly not made for persons of her height and the builders of both cities were similar in stature to myself because I could stand straight up in a number of the tunnels and rooms with only about half an inch to spare. I love finding new benefits to being short! Flying on planes or in backseats of cars, check;  maneuverability in tight and confined spaces which now include underground cites in Turkey, check....yup, that about covers it. Outside the cities were the bazaars with all the sounds, smells, and activity that one would imagine. We enjoyed walking around drinking fresh squeezed pomegranate juice and saying "no thanks" to hundred different friendly merchants within the space of about ten minutes. We did manage to buy a few small trinkets with a very low success rate in the haggling department. Neither of us are very good at it and I think we are resigned to pay a dollar too much for everything we will ever buy where this strategy is involved.
I don't know if it was the lanscape, or the people, or being in and part of an ancient country where whole empires were won and lost, but thinking back it still seems a little unreal. I guess knowing you are having one of those "experiences of a lifetime" while you are in the middle of it just makes it feel more like a dream than reality. At one point we had a random touch of homesickness, as clouds began to roll in we were suddenly enveloped in that "just before the rain starts in the desert" smell that only true desert dwellers know and love.  Although we have both lived away from Arizona for 10 to 15 years of our lives and will probably never live there again, that moment, riding a rented scooter around in the middle of a country halfway around the world, we realized that Arizona, with its beautiful mountains, vistas, and arid climate will always be what we consider home. We don't have those moments often but this time it was something comforting and heart lifting that we were able to share together. We continued our ride, randomly getting lost on purpose, and eventually made it back to our town never letting the silly RomCom grins slip off our faces. After working up a huge appetite scooting around all day we went to a great authentic restaurant where we sat on the floor and had our food brought out to in the clay pots they were cooked in.  Relaxing Turkish music played in the background as we watched our waiter break the pots with a hammer in order to pour the food we had to order three hours in advance onto our plates.  The wait was definitely worth it! We ate and drank, we talked for hours and relived our adventures of the day, as well as adventures past.  Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I caught myself staring across the small wooden table at my beautiful wife who was smiling and laughing, probably about something ridiculous we did together. I still remember the first day I saw her almost 20 years ago, and if she had any clue she would have caught me staring then as well.  She didn't, instead she looked up and said "let's go to a wine bar and watch the Heat Pacers game."  God I love that woman.  Hands down, one of the best days of my life.   
Stay tuned for "The Complicated Love Affair that is Turkey: Part 2, Istanbul and Bodrum."  

This underground city had eight different levels. Nicole only hit her head 17,000 times.

Cool sitting area in one of the three different cave rooms we stayed at in as many nights.

hmmm....no idea.

Uchisar Castle

I don't think anyone is going to mistake me for Jax Teller anytime soon. 

Top of Uchisar Castle...there are not stairs in a city that Nicole has not made me climb. Admittedly most have been worth it.

If you are wondering why the normally very fashion conscientious Nicole is wearing one of my long sleeve T-shirts, I will touch on it a little more in Part 2.

For breakfast one day we were picked up in this tractor and taken to a small family owned valley for breakfast.

Heading down into the valley for breakfast were we met our crew for raging that night! 

Volcano in the distance.

Sneaky camel shot so we wouldn't get bothered by the owner.



The small holes used to be pigeon houses.  Pigeon poop was the areas main resource long ago because it was one of the few things that could be used as fertilizer.


Our dinner was cooked in the pots and then broken open.

This is what came out of my pot....sorry it's upside down.

This is where the real party started...too much wine and way to much Raki to be happy about a 4 AM balloon ride! From left to right: Karin, Antonio (can't see him), Derek, Susie, Nicole, the owner of the restaurant who ended up hanging out with us and taking us to the next bar.

Half an hour before we have to leave for our balloon ride....whoops.

Whelp.....we made it...Barely.

Ok...so I wasn't sold on the balloon ride at first but I have to admit it was pretty spectacular.