Our flight from Tel Aviv to Turkey was a dream- 2.5 long and direct. Again, after so long on the road, a 2.5 hour transportation time while traveling is the equivalent of like 10 minutes in real life. That was the easiest part of the journey. Istanbul as a city is halfway in Europe and halfway in Asia/Middle East and has two airports, one on each side. Where we were staying was the old city, Sultanahmet on the European side. Unfortunately the budget airline we flew with based all flights out of the airport that couldn't be farther away from where we were going...like an hour away so a taxi was out of the question because it would be way too expensive. So began the first time we ever tried to get from an airport to anywhere fully by public transportation.
Our flight got in early so we figured we had lots of time to spare before dark to make a go of total public transport. It looked like this: Got out of the airport and took an airport bus waiting just outside to the pier. Took about 45 minutes and cost less than $5. It dropped us at a ferry pier where we caught a ferry which cost $2 to cross from the Asia to European side of Istanbul. It was all pretty straightforward and relatively simple up to that point. Where we failed was the next step, the tram. Got off the ferry, asked someone where the tram was and then wandered aimlessly in that direction directly, which happened to be crossing a road. Fine until the sidewalk ran out so we had to cross the road again, this one in non-stop traffic carrying a backpack on all sides. We made it to the other side, too bad there was a railing between the road and the sidewalk/square on the other side so we had to walk back on the road through the traffic we just passed to eventually get on the right sidewalk. We're walking and walking and can't find the freaking tram and melting in the midday sun in the process until a guy randomly stops to ask if we need help and pulls out a very detailed map and shows us exactly what to do...and then a girl asks if she could take a picture of him doing it. Turns out, while we were totally lost, we ran into a promotion team from the Turkish tourism authority or something who basically used us as promotional material...works for us! Made it to the tram but had to buy tokens in a ticket machine which for the love, we couldn't make it take our bills. A lovely young Muslim girl came up totally unsolicited and offered to help and got me those tokens. Then we got on the tram platform and read the map about what train (there is multiple lines) we were supposed to get on/which direction. No problem, nailed that. We waited for the train that listed our destination...which never came. The platform filled up, wrong tram came, everyone got on except us waiting for our desired train, repeat 10 times. Finally we resolved to just to get on the "wrong" train that kept coming because obviously if everyone else got on, it must be actually the right train. Train comes, people pile on, Canadian politeness kicks in and we sacrifice ourselves getting on because with our big packs, daypacks and purses, "we couldn't fit". Well then like 15 more people got on. Doors closed and even though we had finally decided to just get on the train, we were, once again, the only people left on the platform. There must have been about 13 trams go by before we actually got on one! Got off at the station we were supposed to and then asked 35 people for directions, walking about 2 km round trip past where we were supposed to be, passing the gauntlet of staff standing outside their restaurants with all sorts of creative tactics to get you to a) stop and talk to them b) come to their restaurant. Some techniques were old news ("Where are you from?/Where are you going? Welcome to Turkey? Do you need directions?") and some new (Taking a total stab in the dark at where you're from and telling you so i.e. "You're from Australia!", starting to talk to you in some language or other) but one thing was clear, Istanbul was a hustle city. After much longer than we wanted, we finally found our hostel. Boom, nailed it haha. I think the tram/walk around experience was longer than the bus/ferry leg put together but hey, we got there and for like $10 ea.
So every country we visit, a very clear pattern continues to emerge in Bridger and I's relationship: we fight in EVERY big city we ever go to. Ok that's not true, we're at about a 95% failure rate because we didn't fight in Dubai. But every other big city, Seoul, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Vientiene, Manila, Amman, yooooou bet!!! Maybe it's because we both dislike big cities so we're grumpy individuals or maybe it's because big cities are a curse on our relationship but it's the one thing that we're most consistent on. Istanbul was no exception, so it didn't take long for Bridger and I to start scrapping. Whatever, fine, I know the drill, I'll tour around by myself. So once again, Bridger is absent from this chapter. Istanbul is a really fun city to tour around and there was lots of awesome stuff to see and do. Turkey is also a Muslim country so the first day I headed to the Blue Mosque, a most impressive massive and still functioning mosque in Sultanahmet with amazing and interesting signage with information about the Muslim faith in this absolutely amazing walled off, marble tiled floor courtyard in front of the mosque building proper.
Shortly after I got there, the call to prayer came and at the risk of sounding, totally cheesy, it was absolutely magical to be inside this courtyard looking at the incredible dome shaped architecture of the mosque as the call to prayer reverberated through the walls and local Muslims began flooding through the gates into the mosque for prayer. Usually the mosque allows visitors to go in to see it, however, it closes during prayer time, rightly so. A giant sign "closed for prayer" sat in front of the door yet visitors kept also trying to flood in the door and security kept screaming "closed, pray time!!!". How annoying it must be to constantly turn non-believers away so that you could have peace in your sacred space?! After this I was going to go to the Hagia Sophia museum, another huge dome shaped structure with a museum inside but the price was stupid. This is a "must do" in Istanbul but really, I don't typically like museums, especially ones about ancient history or art and I don't like spending money on things I don't like so happily skipped this one entirely and have never regretted it since.
I left the mosque and wandered around and just got lost in the narrow streets of Istanbul. I was more than happy to be alone but mostly, as a girl moving about alone, you just draw attention and EVERYONE tries to stop you and chat. Some random man in front of a carpet store started talking to me and I responded warmly and politely as I continued to walk by. Well, the hustlers of Istanbul know this trick so blatantly called me out saying "you don't have to run away!". Shit, good move man, you win this round. We chatted for awhile and then the obligatory "are you alone?" question came to which I responded "no I have a stupid boyfriend back at the hostel". Usually the boyfriend card works, this time it didn't. He continued talking and then tried to get me into his carpet shop and when that failed, tried to get me to meet him later without Bridger for dinner so we could become friends, wtf. How will I escape this without being a total prick? So I did the best exit trick ever I have learned on the road and asked if he had a card...always ask if they have a card! You can politely slip away, feigning interest, without blatantly saying "I'll never buy your carpet, I won't be back for dinner and from this point forward I will be taking the long way around to avoid passing by you again so you can't ask me why I didn't come back" which is what I'm thinking. I dodged several more of these interactions as I moved about the old city.
Another day I walked down to a public plaza/Galata bridge crossing the river and just people watched. Istanbul is an amazing city to just sit around and people watch because there is always so much going on. I tried some street food, watched the men fishing off the top of the bridge constantly reeling in little fish. I headed up the Galata tower to get 360 views of the Asian and European sides of Istanbul as well as the Bosphorus river separating the two and then walked around the trendy shopping district of Taksim square.
I walked so much between Istanbul and Israel prior, that my knees were on fire and I craved some sort of beach destination where I could just not walk anywhere! Anyways, all the while while walking I was being approached and talked to CONSTANTLY by people...being alone makes you a real magnet. And now I'll tell you about the biggest scam in Istanbul that apparently happens all the time, especially for people alone: some smartly dressed person approaches you and chats you up, makes friend with you and invites you out somewhere for dinner/drinks whatever. You think you've just met a nice local friend and then you get hit with an absolutely exorbitant bill complete with a menu listing these prices that you obviously agreed to when ordering and then you're muscled into paying or being driven to an ATM by thugs so you can pay your massive bill. Of course you can never be sure how many of the people who approach you are scammers and how many are just friendly Turks but two things I know a) Istanbul is an awesome city to visit but undeniably rife with hustlers and scammers and b) 100% of the time someone asked to walk with me/meet me later the second I made it clear they could walk with me but I wouldn't be doing any dinner and/or I am not alone as I "have a boyfriend waiting for me at the hotel", I can't even explain how fast they excuse themselves and go! Not a good sign! Everybody's opening line seems to be "where are you going" so I got really good at giving a vague "oh I'm just wandering" even if I knew exactly where I was going so that they couldn't say they were going the same way or that they'd just take me there, both common. Haha people talk to me so much while out and about that once when I was sitting on a bench the young guy beside me started talking and I said "pardon me" obviously assuming he was talking to me but instead he was actually on a cell phone headset! Ok arrogant girl, not everyone wants your attention. However, sure enough, when he was off the phone he did start talking to me first by buying me a coffee from the street coffee seller. I politely declined with a big smile, not really sure what to do because I know it is impolite to refuse but also I'm not inclined to drink anything offered to me by a stranger while alone and also I really, really, really just wanted to be alone! He barely spoke English and kept saying "good coffee!" and "where you from?" but that was about the extent of his English conversational skills. We chatted briefly and then I went back to writing in my journal when he got on his phone and I heard him say "Turkish Turkish Turkish Canada Turkish..." Then he miraculously started speaking full sentences in English. "What's your name? How long have you been in Turkey? Do you want a Turkish man?" haha...he obviously called an English speaking friend who told him what to say and then he parroted it to me. Haha, very resourceful! While all the rest were smartly dressed with impeccable English Turks, this nervous guy on a park bench with limited English calling his friend so he could figure out how to talk to me may have been the only truly genuine interaction in Istanbul thus far!!
While on the topic of Istanbul scams, one night I literally witnessed two young girls about 12ish years get set up for begging. It was quite comical really as I saw them walk to separate places along a wall, giggle at each other warmly and then "assumed the position"-they both plop down against a wall on a main street, slouch body and head over, eyes averted, hand out. So if you ever had doubts about whether to give to beggars or not, here's a perfect example of why you shouldn't...
Since Istanbul was the start of Turkey, we definitely needed to sit down and do some planning which proved absolutely impossible firstly because finding paper copy guidebooks on the road is like stumbling into a brick of gold-doesn't happen. We eventually resigned ourselves to buying an ereader version. The second impossibility about planning was that I could literally never find a place to be alone in Istanbul. I'd go to the dorm and people would end up talking to me for hours. I'd go to the "common area", the restaurant and the staff would end up sitting with us and talking to us for hours. I'd go on the street or in the plaza and everyone wanted to talk or take me somewhere. Literally I could never be alone and it started grating on me heavily.
Eventually Bridger and I made friends again and started touring around Istanbul together which was much more fun. Our first day reunited, we headed to what was my favorite sight in Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern. It is essentially a cavern under the bustling city that used to act as a water supply for the city. You descend beneath the ground into the dark save a few eerie lights to see this enormous room full of pillars and water that had fish swimming about in it. It really was the coolest thing ever considering the bustle of the city above!
We also hit up the Grand Bazaar, the giant indoor market but between sore knees and being after really cheap street stuff, this was definitely not the place for us... things seemed to be "legitimate" and therefore expensive. In the evening we headed back over to the Blue Mosque and it was all lit up-even more spectacular than the day visit! And then all of a sudden a few birds started circling overhead and as it got closer to the last call to prayer of the day, more and more birds started soaring in circles around the top of the mosque until there were about 20....a really magnificent sight.
Among other more positive titles, Istanbul is voted (by us) as the most likely place on our trip so far to get hit by a car. That's right, Turkish drivers are totally insane. They fly down narrow passageways with people everywhere and don't even slow down an inch. We've come cm's from being knocked out by side mirrors or driven right over and one time I was even walking through an alley when a bus came in and turned around the corner and literally almost pinched me against the wall! Luckily it was a half wall so I jumped up on it but if not for that, don't like to think of the alternatives. Seriously, they're lunatics.
Eventually Bridger and I were also friends enough to make a plan to get out of Istanbul, about 3 more days after we should have left. Ah well, water under the bridge at that point. Turkey is SUCH an incredible country to travel with so many incredible places to travel to and we were torn about our next stop. Most people in Turkey make a stop at Ephesus, the famous Roman ruins of the area but at the last minute we decided to skip it. It was quite a bit out of the way of everything else we wanted to see and quite expensive, we don't love ruins and by this point we had been to some of the best ruins in the world so had been pretty spoiled about what we saw. We've also found that at this point in the trip, we have a pretty solid sense of what we like and what our interests are and what not so much so we've become much more selective about what we do and spend our cash on. We love structures and architecture but not so much ancient history, guided tours or crowds, all of which Ephesus is known for. We gravitate towards nature and outdoor sights and activities, quiet relaxing and small places so unfortunately Ephesus didn't quite fit the bill this time.
We decided to head out on a 10 hour overnight bus to a small town called Pamukkale instead and again, we decided we were gonna get to that bus by cheap public transport again instead of taxi. We jumped on the tram which by this point we were pros at and then jumped off at the stop for our transfer to the underground metro. Now Turkey and Jordan both do this funny thing where there is a sign that points in a direction that says what you're looking for (i.e. metro) so you follow it and then all signage disappears and you're standing in the middle of what seems to be a food court or whatever with no indication that what you're looking for is or ever was here! I'll never understand the dead end signage. So then you end up standing in the middle of something that is not the place you're supposed to be until you can ask someone where the place is and they point you in a direction. Haha while traveling you pretty much always have no idea where you are going while in transit. The goal becomes only to make it 10 feet forward in some correct direction , reorient, ask, and start again! Through that process, we eventually made it to the metro when some lovely Turkish man came up and asked where we were going and then later when we were close, he moved all the way from the other end of the train just to come tell us that this was our stop. SO amazing! Again, people really do just want to help you!
What was also so amazing was this night bus-leather, tv's on every seat, usb's for charging on every seat, what!!! We are SO not in Asia anymore!
We quickly reclined those beautiful leather seats and fell asleep-until I was snapped awake by a bag that fell from the overhead bin directly on to my head. Based on the lump and headache I had for the next 3 days, I can only assume that this bag was packed full of rocks. So that was a nice experience. Also, through traveling it has become clear to us that what may happen, WILL happen...to me. Seriously, even Bridger is starting to notice. Things never work out for me the first time or crazy highly unlikely stuff always happens to me. Seriously who has two major dive equipment emergency/failures..in a row?! How come when I'm in the middle of buying my Turkish visa and I have just pushed submit with all my credit card details, the last step that the iPad internet connectivity craps out...and now I can't use the iPad to Facetime in for my great friend's wedding which happens to be that very same day?! How come the ATM rejects my bank card spitting it back out right after Bridger, with the exact.same.card.exact.same.bank, just pulled out $300 successfully and now we have to to walk for 35 extra minutes to find a bank machine that doesn't spit my card out?! Infinite examples of this have happened over the last 5 months and I'm now entirely convinced that I am neurotic by nature because it has become my conditioned response to constant failure!!! Of course!! In related news, I've almost stopped biting my nails this trip. Now I have a firmly entrenched habit of biting my lips-ah upper lip wrinkle!
We woke up to bus breakfast at like 6 am which I almost wish I woke up earlier because the scenery was absolutely incredible. We cruised through sprawling green fields to mountains to small towns seemingly within minutes. I actually wanted to just get off the bus and frolic through the field and sing songs, it was that kind of place. These tiny inhabited and some uninhabited communities just dotted the fields and overgrown, crumbled "ruins" were everywhere, also just littered throughout the land. As we were staring in awe out the window, the well dressed bus attendant (a bus attendant!) came down the aisle asking if we wanted refreshments. Bridger got a pepsi and guzzled it back like he'd not had a drink in 31 years. A little taken aback the attendant asked if he wanted a refill and then asked if we wanted some bus snacks. After having nothing offered to us on buses ever (well actually we had tea offered to us on a bus in Jordan and we foolishly assumed it was free and then in true Jordan fashion, were hit with the bill at the end of the ride), we tentatively said "is it...free???" My gosh the attendant looked at us like we had 13 heads as did the guy across the aisle as they both said, "yeeees?". We had this involuntary burst of excitement and snapped up as many free snacks as we could. Must have looked completely and unequivocally like cave people who came out of like 10 years of hibernation or something.
We made it to Pamukkale which truly was a tiny little village...must have been like 500 people living there and we were SOOOO happy! The air was fresh, it was quiet, birds were singing, tractors were rolling down the streets, you know, the usual. The first thing we did was take a walk around town. Pamukkale is visited because of the giant, naturally forming, snow white calcium shelf terraces that have developed outside of town. Because of this it is a MAJOR package tour destination so most people come on tour buses for the day and not as many actually stay in the town for a few days. Needless to say, we drew a bit of attention from the locals as we walked. There was one old headscarves lady sweeping on her porch who immediately started beckoning us over with her hands, not her voice because she didn't speak any English. Not sure what happened because normally I would totally ignore something like this but Bridger described it as like a fly to light as I just zipped across the road directly towards her, no idea what she wanted. I immediately regretted this as she continued to wave me directly into her freaking house! At this point, with no escape, Bridger stayed outside in case I never came out again and I reluctantly followed her inside her little village home having no idea why. Sure enough, out comes the giant bag of handmade scarves that she immediately emptied onto the living room floor for me to choose which I was going to buy! Ah, I see. Once I escaped this situation and we were walking down the street, we ran into another very elderly lady (I think every elderly lady in Turkey looks exactly like this: hunched over, cardigan, shawl, headscarf, weathered) who was so excited to see us and immediately launched into a full conversation in Turkish gesturing here and there and just so excited and friendly, no mind to the fact that we had NO idea what she was saying! Of course we tried to hopelessly converse back until a local guy drove up on a motorbike and asked if he could help to which we said we were just aimlessly walking. Then he tells us this lady was like 100 years old and always talks to everyone but just keeps saying the same things...dementia fully implied. The lovely lady just continued walking down the street at an absolutely amazing pace and with out of this world stability for her age!
The next day we were supposed to visit the terraces as well as the ancient city ruins of Heiropolis at the top. We woke to...rain! We have skirted the rainy season so well on this trip that we forgot that some days it might rain and make your plans a bit more difficult. So we did what any lazy traveller would do and went back to bed hoping next time we woke up there would be no rain. No suck luck. And rain was in the forecast every day for the foreseeable future. Super. Instead of extending our stay to visit on a non-rainy day which did not seem a likelihood, we decided to bite the bullet and go this day. Showed up and explored the ruins across this sprawling grassy field for about half an hour and had just gotten to the highest point, the amphitheater when a massive storm blew in pissing down torrential rain, intense thunder and lightning lighting up the sky.
By the time we made it down to some shelter along with everyone else in the grounds at that time, we were completely soaked and freezing cold...before even starting our exploration of the terraces. While standing there shivering we were contemplating whether to make the splurge on two teas when the song playing on the radio made the decision easy. It said "I don't drink coffee, bring me a tea dear". It's settled then, tea it is.
From my simple understanding, water is heated underground and dissolves calcium in it and then eventually it migrates to the surface where the dissolved calcium hardens over the land.
Back in the day the water flowed naturally into little hot pools within the terraces but again, based on my understanding, the pools are now filled with man-heated water which nonetheless is nice to have a soak in. Bridger, in spite of the cold, decided to give soaking a go where I, the cause-effect driven one figured it's nice when you're in but it will make for a miserable next hour walking down the terraces in the rain and cold.
He later agreed with my logic on the way down as he froze. We walked from the top of the hill to the bottom and saw both hardened calcium and soft loose calcium which was my sensory-loving dream. The entire area is so white, if you didn't know, you would just think it was snow. Government says you have to walk barefoot down the shelves so you don't damage them...byproduct being a really great exfoliation for your feet against the rough, hardened calcium...seriously my feet were so soft! While walking down the hill, you can definitely tell that the thousands of people walking over the terraces every day has taken it's toll on those beautiful crisp white terraces pictured in the travel brochures, and that the "naturalness" and authenticity of the site has become slightly lacking over recent years, however, still an interesting stop over and I bet far more enjoyable on a sunny day. I can't even describe how cold we were on this day so definitely weren't as patient in setting up the camera properly and getting some solid pics as we were pretty well ready to get home to warmth. For the rest of the night, I couldn't warm up no matter how much tea I drank. In related news, since getting to Dubai/Jordan/Turkey, we've drank so so so much tea (it's SO part of the culture) that my teeth are straight up permanently stained. In combination with also never flossing (5 months in I've yet to run out of the single half used package I brought from home) and brushing our teeth only once a day, there's gonna be some serious dental work happening when we get home. Or in my case, when I get home AND when I get a job and benefits back. Ugh.
Of course in the rain, our cell camera was no good so waterproof GoPro it is. The unfortunate thing about the GoPro is that it does this awesome thing where from the back it really accentuates or creates a bald spot in the back top of your head, I'm not exactly sure which. So now Bridger is convinced that he's going bald so one more thing to follow up on when we get home!
Also in more unrelated news, my god is Bridger ever resourceful. Seriously he blows my mind, he'll get anything figured out. Window wont lock, he'll wedge a chair in. Need a clothesline but there's nothing to hang it from, he'll find some way to hang it. Need a bug net put up, he'll find the exact place and angle and orientation to make it work. Toilet lid won't stay up, no prob, he ties some fishing line from A to B securing that sucker up. It's really great because though my current skill set is awesome for certain things, if left to my own devices I'd just have a toilet seat flap down on me 13 times every pee with not even so much as the idea to fix it let alone the ingenuity to figure out how.
At this point in the trip, we have also been reveling in how much we are happy that we have hit up the Middle East part of the world, especially at this time. We talk all the time about how it has been so nice to break up Asia and Africa, our next stop with this part of the world that is just a little bit more laid back, clean, well connected, well oiled and safety conscious than both Asia and presumably Africa. Though I adore traveling in developing countries for a million different reasons, it has really been an amazing reprieve to just let down your vigilance level a bit and experience traveling in a bit more developed nations, something neither of us have ever done before!
On checkout the next day the hotel owner practically begged us to write a tripadvisor review of the hotel. Over and over on this trip we've realized how influential tripadvisor is to business owners. Seriously, they practically grovel for you to write for them. It obviously can make or break a business as tourists put alot of weight about what tripadvisor says. I guess it shouldn't come as too much of a shock because I use tripadvisor tons and it does actually make decisions for me about what company/accommodation to choose. I do write alot of reviews so long as I have something to write as it has been an invaluable resource for trip planning and karmically I figure if I use a resource alot, I should also put something back into it.