Saturday, March 21, 2009

Not Constantinople

Yet again I feel I should apologize for the lag time between updates, but then I feel like I should also apologize for starting every entry with an apology... a conflicting situation. This time, as a means of averting the need for said apologies, I'll not make any promises about updating more often. We'll just have to see what happens. Also, its sandstorming outside, so my beach plans were thwarted... might as well update the blog.

Anywayyy.... Istanbul. Incredible. Just a forewarning, this entry is going to be really long. The whole thing came together at basically the last minute. It was time for another border run and my friend Kacey and I, after lusting over images and Lonely Planet descriptions of Istanbul, decided we were just going to do it-- after all, when will we have the opportunity to jump on a plane (for decently cheap) and gallivant foreign lands after this semester? Just after booking my flight Emmah, a friend from IU whom I had not seen since she left for France in August, skyped me trying, as usual, to convince me to meet her in Paris or Morocco or somewhere like that when I told her about my Istanbul plans. She, to my intense excitement, ended up booking a flight to Turkey as well! Being with two fellow history nerds in arguably one of the most historically significant and interesting cities in the world was something of a dream.

After a "brief stay" (aka one hour layover) in Qatar, I was finally in Istanbul, where Kacey and I met Emmah at the airport and headed for our accommodations. For being a budget hotel, the place was actually really nice, and in an AMAZING location, had we any sense of direction. We were walking distance from essentially everything we came to see, but still managed to take the scenic route everywhere, walking in infinite circles and encountering interesting characters at every turn.

That same night we decided to go native at the Turkish Baths. Again, we started off walking from probably less than a kilometer away but ended up so lost (in the rain and cold, might I add) that we ended up getting in a taxi, just to find the place. This was a big mistake. We got in the cab and started driving what felt like way too far away. After crossing the bridge that took us to the other side of Istanbul (aka EUROPE!) we realized that something was wrong. Oh, and this driver was definitely using a GPS, too. He said he'd lived in Istanbul all his life, but somehow I'm still not convinced. After finally convincing him we were on the wrong continent and he should turn around, he rear ended a van, resulting in what I can only assume was a heated five minute argument in rapid Turkish (in the middle of the busy road), followed by kissing, hugging and both drivers returning to their vehicles and cruising away. After a little more looping around, we were basically back where we started, and supposedly at the fabled Hamam (at this point its existence was in question, at least to me). After asking directions again we finally found it (our ever-capable driver had dropped us off a few blocks away) and embarked on our cross cultural adventure into the infamous bath.

We went to the Cemberlitas Hamam, which was built in 1584 by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan and is still used today. Talk about cultural differences-- maybe Americans are prudes (or I'm a prude), but I really cannot see anything like this flying back in the States. You walk in, strip down, wrap yourself in a thin sheet, which you promptly remove when you enter the bath, which is a huge, round, stone room with a domed ceiling that is kept hot, much like a wet sauna. In said room there are women of all shapes and sizes everywhere, laying stark naked like beached whales on an expanse of stone slab soaking in the heat and moisture. Old women, young women, children; levels of physical fitness and amounts of body hair from all across the spectrum. After laying in the heat for a while, one of said old topless women, a bath attendant (their work uniforms and birthday suits are one in the same), approaches you asking whether you'd like a massage. Another cultural difference-- in Turkey, a massage is not what we in America think of as a massage-- lotion, relaxing music and someone working out your knots. The Turkish massage is a large Turkish woman scrubbing your exposed naked body with water and soap and a scrubby mitt, covering you in bubbles and rinsing you off. This occurs in the same room described before, in front of all the other bathers. Definitely not what I was expecting, nor what I signed up for, but my skin did feel really smooth afterward and to be honest, I'd do it again given the opportunity. When in Rome (or Istanbul, rather...)...

Refreshed, so to speak, from our adventures in the Hamam the night before, we headed out to the Hagia Sophia, one of the major sites in Istanbul. Also known as the Church of the Holy Wisdom, it was built as a church in the 530's by Justinian during the Byzantine period and was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1000 years. It was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in 1453. It is absolutely, completely, breathtakingly, insanely beautiful. It was so interesting, as well, to see images of the Virgin and Child and other Christian icons among Islamic calligraphy and pulpiture (I invented this word). There are also gorgeous gold and ceramic mosaics inside the church. The main dome of the Hagia Sophia is breathtakingly huge. I read that the Ottomans sought to rebuild a mosque with the same size dome, but it failed, so they converted the church to a mosque instead.

After the Hagia Sophia we walked across the street to the Basilica Cistern, or rather on top of it. It was built in the 6th century by Justinian I and is the largest of some several hundred cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. If you've ever seen the James Bond movie From Russia with Love (I have not), its in there. It stored the water for various palaces in Istanbul throughout the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Today it is empty and just used as a tourist attraction (seeing as we have more advanced methods of storing water...), but is incredible to see. The columns and work in this place are astounding. There is still some water along the bottom, with (of course) huge and disgusting fish swimming in it. There are two columns in the back which have Medusa heads on the base. No one really knows why, or why they are placed upside-down and sideways, but they are believed to have come from an earlier Roman building. There's also a cafe in the cistern (really cute) and a stage on which they have concerts during the summer. Very very cool! The cistern is surrounded by 13 foot thick firebrick walls and is 470x210 feet. It can hold 2,800,000 cubic feet of water and is entirely underground. It is filled with 336 marble columns that are each 30 feet high-- thank you Wikipedia.

Next up on our agenda was the Blue Mosque, named for the blue tiles that adorn the inside of the mosque. It is the national mosque of Turkey and was built by Sultan Ahmed I in 1609. It is huge-- and by huge I mean has the capacity to hold 10,000 worshipers, and like many Islamic houses of worship, is insanely gorgeous. Check it out:

After the mosque we headed back to the hotel, where we decided we needed to get massages, since we hadn't received the kind we'd expected at the Turkish baths, and after all, we were on vacation. It was a real massage, but again we were encountered with the cultural differences revolving around nudity. They're not so big in Turkey on covering you with a sheet during a massage or avoiding massaging more...uh... personal areas of the body, they way they do in the States. Not to mention our masseur, Mehmet, kept talking to people who'd wander in and out of the massage "room" (a table in a large room, partitioned off by cloth dividers). We also did mud masks and roasted in the sauna. Despite being a departure from the expected (aka American), it was still enjoyable, and a good laugh.

Our next adventure was Sultana's-- a dinner show we booked through the concierge desk of the hotel. A bus picked us up and took us to Europe (I feel so cool saying that) for an evening of traditional Turkish foods ("like chicken, meat and vegetables", as the travel agent described it to us) and entertainment, which included belly dancers, traditional Turkish dance, an old man playing My Heart will Go On on a keyboard and some really ridiculous and really entertaining puppet dancers. I don't know how to explain them, so I've uploaded a video instead. It was two men dancing, the faces of the puppets are their stomachs and their arms are in the hats. Truly amazing:

The next day, we started off at Topkapi Palace, which served as the residence of the Ottoman Sultans, as well as the center of Ottoman administration for some 380 years. It was built in 1478 by Mehmet the Conqueror and was expanded by numerous Sultans over the centuries (I just wrote a paper on this...), so it looks different than most palaces, as it is made up of a number of separate structures, most two stories or shorter, and was built over the course of three centuries and remodeled multiple times. The coolest part of the palace was the treasury, which held insane Ottoman treasures, like an 86 karat diamond and really ridiculous crowns and thrones and knives. Of course, photography was prohibited in the treasury, so, sadly, I have no pictures of the goods to post. A definite best part of Topkapi palace was the Harem, which was huge and incredibly ornate, with huge domes, tons of stained glass, mosaic tiles and gorgeous wood and metalwork. The middle two pictures below are from the Harem.

On the grounds of the palace is also an archaeological museum. There were lots and lots of great sculptures, bones, etc., but I forgot all about them when I found the coolest thing ever ever ever ever....
A LIFESIZE REPLICA OF A TROJAN HORSE... THAT WE CLIMBED INSIDE!!! (though I'm not sure we were supposed to...)
Yes, I am aware that I'm a five-year-old. I'm okay with that.
AAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!! soooo great!
I'm not sure we were supposed to go inside, but no one was there to tell us not to, and the sign by it was completely in Turkish, so that was clearance enough for me. After climbing the ladder, chaos and immaturity ensued:

and continued...

But in all seriousness, there were some really amazing pieces in the museum. Below is the facade of a high relief sarcauphogus from the THIRD century!

This is quickly becoming an insanely long entry, and if you're still reading, I apologize for my tendency to be long winded. I'll try to get this show on the road.

On our way back from the museum we passed by one of the "interesting characters" I'd mentioned earlier-- a man standing on the street with a cart, a rooster and a bunny. The rooster, we learned, was actually not a rooster, but a fortune teller. Intrigued, we had our fortunes told. Basically, the old man had a tray of folded slips of paper, of which the rooster pecked one with his beak, the old man gave to the bunny to sniff, and then handed to you as your fortune. I actually really liked mine. It said something about making a lot of money, taking a much needed vacation and reuniting with old friends.

That night, we went to see Whirling Dervishes. AMAAAAZING! The ceremony was in the train station from where the Orient Express departed (over which I geeked out to the point of no return).

After the whirlers, we had dinner at a rooftop restaurant overlooking Istanbul and the Bosporous before going out for shisha and meeting more of said interesting characters. Its probably best to just leave it at that.

On our next and final day in Istanbul we went to the Grand Bazaar in the morning, which is really more or less like any other Middle Eastern souk, except the Wal-Mart version. Not in the sense that everything is generic or cheaper, but moreso because it is so MASSIVE. I probably spent way more money than I should have on who knows what, but it was fun to haggle and shop. The vendors in the bazaar seem to know every language under the sun, and use them to try to attract customers. The dictionary definition of a tourist trap. Vendors look at you, guess your ethnicity and then speak to you in the appropriate language. I threw quite a few of them for a loop, as I was addressed in Italian, Spanish and even Arabic more frequently than I was addressed in English. I don't come from any of those backgrounds, nor do (I think) I look any of those things (especially Arabic). Go figure.

Our last-but-not-least adventure in Istanbul was a cruise on the Bosporous, the strait that separates Europe and Asia. It was windy and freezing, but you only live once, and the experience of sipping tea while looking at two continents at the same time was completely unreal.
Europe, Asia, Europe again, Me! (with the Hagia Sophia in the background!!)

After our cruise we hightailed it back to the hotel juuuuust in time to make our car to the airport. Usually by the end of a vacation I'm good and ready to go home, but I truly was sad to leave Istanbul. We had done SO much in the four days we were there, but still didn't come close to seeing all there is to see. We barely even made it to the European side (except for the dinner show and the cruise, if that counts). I'd love to make it back someday and spend more time exploring. Truly truly truly an amazing unexpected gem of a place.

Monday, March 2, 2009


I have a lot of catching up to do, and while I just got back from Istanbul, which was really really exciting, I'm writing about Sharjah first for the sake of chronology. Anyway... Sharjah is the Emirate just east of Dubai, about 45 minutes away. A couple of weekends ago I decided I wanted to rent a car for Saturday because it'd been close to two months since I'd driven and I really wanted to drive, and also riding taxis everywhere gets old, and expensive, really fast.

So the car-- I went in Thursday to reserve a car for Saturday, gave copies of my my credit card, passport, license, ID, etc. and pick the car up Saturday morning. About 45 minutes after we leave I get a call from the car company telling me to come back with the car because they weren't supposed to rent to me because I'm not 21 and therefore will not be covered by their insurance. We were already out (albeit, still in Dubai) and had the day planned, so I said we were already gone and were not coming back until the evening, and that I would return the car the next morning, as previously agreed. I also made it clear that, under no uncertain terms, would I be responsible for an accident, my fault or otherwise, beyond what I had signed in the rental papers, as it was the company's responsibility to make sure they were renting only to qualified persons. Then they called back again offering a driver for the day at no charge. Well, I wanted to drive, and we thought a 5th person was going to be joining us later, so I told them the car was already full. Anyway, as all this is going on and I'm insisting the whole time that I'm already out of Dubai, I am, as I would later find out, getting a parking ticket. Of course, it was totally in Arabic.
My little rented clown car. Probably more trouble than it was worth.
My first international parking ticket. Yuck.
Aside from those issues, it was a really good day. We went to a cute breakfast place in Jumierah and then the Dubai zoo, which is the most disgusting zoo I have ever seen, but I suppose worth the two Dirham admission just to say I've gone. Now, I don't want to be a zoo snob or anything like that, but for a city like Dubai that is all about having the biggest and best of everything, this zoo was SO third world. It was completely filthy and all the animals were in too-small dirty cages. They didn't even have grass or habitat-type stuff in them. All of the monkeys had very serious problems with their butts-- I don't know how exactly to describe it. There were gross tumor things coming off of them. It was definitely not normal. I'd also heard that a lot of the animals there (mostly birds and stuff) were illegal ones people had tried to get through the airport. I believe it. There were megatons of birds. Illegal freaking birds. Crazy.
Probable contra-birds at Dubai Zoo

Anyway, after the zoo we came back to the university to pick up the rest of the troops and headed out to Sharjah. Driving in the UAE is like driving in a video game. Its kind of like the level of Mario Kart where you have to go a specific, exact route or you'll never make it to where you want to go and have to start over from the beginning. Seriously, if you miss your turn you have to go about six kilometers out of your way to get back where you were. Also, people drive like they're on the way to the hospital with a pregnant woman in labor in the back seat. At night they'll ride your bumper and flash their brights as if to say "speed up or move the hell over", which made the fact that the tiny Yaris clown car I was driving had what may as well have been a lawn mower engine under the hood. ALSO, some of the roundabouts in Sharjah (the UAE loooooooooves roundabouts--- and speed bumps. I'll never know why) are TRIANGULAR. Yeah. They're triangles. How does that even qualify as a ROUNDabout--- IT HAS CORNERS!!!! Anyway... let's just say we got the grand tour of Sharjah---especially the Blue Souk parking lot--- way more than once.

Anyway, first stop in Sharjah was at a park overlooking the water, which was very cute and quaint. Sharjah is older and less gawdy than Dubai. Its supposed to be the cultural heritage center of the UAE and is much more strict. Alcohol is illegal, unmarried men and women are not supposed to be out in public together, etc. etc. Anyway, we walked around the park area and tried to walk across a bridge to Al Jazeera island... yes, that's its name... but the bridge was locked. For good reason-- I don't think said bridge would be capable of supporting human weight-- it was pretty weathered.
Bridge to Al Jazeera Island in Sharjah-- much less suitable for human use than it looks.

Anyway, after that we went to the Museum of Islamic Heritage, which was super nice. After that we went to the Tate museum of Sharjah.... yes, this is also a real thing. They had a really great exhibit of British Orientalist paintings. After museums we checked out the Blue Souk, which is actually a really new covered souk. It felt more like a mall than a Middle Eastern bazaar--- it had escalators! But it was nice. I bought a pashmina and a camel wall decoration thing. After the souks we took our "grand tour" of Sharjah, missing turns, getting caught in traffic, and so on, but finally made it to Qanat al Kasbah, where we met three other people from AUD. It is a really cute, romantic little area with shops and restaurants and a little bridge over a creek. It has a big ferris wheel-- the Eye of the Emirates and a cool fountain choreographed to music. We had dinner and gelato and rode the wheel. Overall, a very nice day.

Inside the Muesum of Islamic Heritage. Sooo nice!
Qanat al Kasbah and the Eye of the Emirates

I still need to write about Istanbul, but am leaving for spring break in Jordan in about five hours and need to make an attempt at sleep...

Also-- I just booked a flight to Bahrain for the first weekend in April! Do a google image search of Bahrain. You should be jealous.

Love and miss you all! Sorry for not writing more. I'll do big time updating after spring break!!!