we’re never leaving turkey

we woke up early today to once again try to deal w/ the syrian visa issue. ugh! we called the Us embassy and were told that we could get the letter of recommendation from them if we came by. we were worried we wouldnt have enough time, so instead of taking a bus, we got a cab. well, it turns out that the american embassy is HELLA far. we drove forever and ever. and then we still kept driving for days. and there was hella traffic. finally we got there, grabbed the letters, and cabbed it back. halfway to the syrian embassy, i all of a sudden realized that in my tired haze that morning, i forgot my money belt (w/ passport) in the hotel. DAMN!!! so now instead of going straight to the embassy, we had to stop by the hotel. we were really pressed for time, and caryn was sure that there was no way we’d make it to the embassy by 11:30 when it closed… but i decided to try anyways.

we got to the hotel, and to save time, caryn hit the atm, while i ran to our room to get my passport. but caryn had the room key!! so i had to find the maid, and have her cal the front desk, and then let me in the room. i finally got my passport, and sprinted to go meet caryn (after running up and down 5 flights of stairs). we hopped in another cab, and slowly (damn traffic) made our way to the syrian embassy. it was gonna be really close. finally we got there and ran up the stairs arriving out of breath at the door at 11:35. turns out we had remembered the time wrong. it closes at 11am. crap! all of that for nothing. and we had ended up spending almost 40 bucks in cab fare!!! ouch!! we were so annoyed. so, it turns out that the syrian embassy is open only from 9:30 to 11am. 1.5 hours a day!!!! what kind of work week is that?!?!?!?!? arrrgghhh!!! so it looks like we’re still stuck here. hopefully tomorrow we’ll finally apply for the visa.


even more stuck

we made our way across town today to go to the syrian visa. bad news. turns out that first of all, if you want to get a visa from there, you have to get there before 11:30 which we didnt. secondly, they said that we have to get a letter of reccomendation from the US embassy in order to get a visa. from what i’ve read on lonely planet, it’s near impossible to get this letter. crap. we tried to locate and call the Us embassy, but unfortunately, both phone numbers that we had for it were no good. we got a cab to go there, but upon arriving it turned out that the Us embassy *used to* be there, but now was located across town. arrrgghh!! anyways, now we have to wait till tomorrow to try and get this letter and hopefully get to the syrian embassy by 11:30. if we succeed, we’ll be able to leave istanbul the following day. we’ll have ended up staying here for 7 days instead of the 3 we initially planned. on the other hand, if we cant get this visa, there is no way for us to get to jordan from here (syria is in the way) and we’ll probably have to end up buying plane tix which are bank. *sigh*.

didnt do too much else today. we ate again at our favorite restaurant. heh, this is the third time we’ve gone there in the last few days, but we just cant resist it!!



we were planning on leaving istanbul this morning and venturing southwards to the nect town in turkey, but instead we’re stuck here (heh, not a bad place to be stuck though!!). 11 days from now, when we leave turkey, we’re plannig on going to syria next. the problem is that you cant just get a visa for syria at the border like most countries… instead you have to apply for a visa at a syrian embassy (or by mail). well, the only syrian embassy in turkey is here in istanbul, so we have to try and get this visa before we leave the city. of course, we didnt realize this till yesterday, and it’s the weekend, so we cant do anything till monday, and even then it will probably take at least a day to get the visa. so until then, we’re just gonna chill here.

we were feeling extremely lazy today, so we really didnt do much. we just went down to Taksim, which is this super popular and crowded shopping district full of stores, restaurants, bars etc. for some reason, i’ve become all interested in history over the last couple of weeks. considering just how much the middle east is in the news lately, and the fact that we’re going there soon, it’s pretty sucky that i actually really dont know too much about it. i really want to read about it’s history and find out how it came to be as it is. not only that, but considering that i’m jewish, i really know virtually nothing about israel and it’s conflict w/ palestine other than the absolute basics. if i’m gonna understand these countries that i’m traveling to, i need to get a little more info than i get from just seeing some sights and sampling the local cuisines. so, my main goal in Taksim today was to find some books. in the end, i bought Middle East, a brief history of the last 2000 years by Bernard Lewis and From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman. let’s hope they’re good!!

so, other than just shopping around, we really didnt do much else, so i guess that’s it!


activities… and massages from burly men

in a lot of ways, i think that traveling is really more about the things that you *do* than about the things that you *see*. of course, sightseeing is important. there are many incredible things out there to check out, but i think that in some ways the activities that you try give you much better memories. yesterday after sightseeing, and for most of today, we had a lot of memorable experiences:

as i’ve mentioned, this month is ramadan here. although turks dont seem to be narly as hardcore about it as moroccans, still a lot of people here are fasting during the day. at night though, they are having this huge festival here in the old part of town (along the hippodrome). there are all sorts of different street venodrs selluing different kinds of food, and surprisingly, all sorts of typical carnival attractions like bumper cars, cotton candy, and different carnival games. at one point, i saw this huge crowd gathering and i heard some turkish singing, so i walked up to see what everyone was gawking at. i expected some turkish singers, or maybe some traditional dancing… but shockingly enough, it was actually someone riding one of those mechanical bulls that try to fling you off!! so random!!

we spent several hours just wandering around and sampling the different goods. we tried this ground meat burrito-looking type things, a sausage-like sandwhich, these squishy donutlike pastries, and this absolutely enormous baked potatoe. when we got the potatoe, they asked us if we wanted everything on it, and we said yes. here’s what they put on: butter, cheese, olives, hot dog slices, peas, couscous, potatoe salad, pickles, beets, carrots, corn, ketchup, and mayo. random eh?? surprisingly, despite all the really weird random ingredients, the potatoe tasted hella good! also, i dont know if i’ve mentioned this before, but so far in every single country that we’ve been to on our trip, there have been people selling roasted chestnuts on the street. i keep wondering what they taste like, but haven’t ended up buying any until finally last night i tried them. they were actually really good!

chestnuts roasting.. not on an open fire

today we got up and there were a bunch of activities we wanted to do, but we decided to check out just one sight first… and we ended up being sooo glad that we did. they have this underground area here called the basilica cistern. the guide book didnt seem to say much about it, but online i kept reading that people were super psyched on it, so we decided to check it out. you walk down some stairs and descend into this darkened area, filled a few feet deep w/ water and there are hundreds of columns spread out through the water. it’s kind of hard to explain, but it was really really cool down there… you felt like all of a sudden you weren’t ni the city anymore, but had been transported somewhere unearthly. currently, they have this art project going on down there, so there are tons of ballons hanging in between the columns at different heights. hrm, well, seeing as i cant really describe it that well, i guess a picture is worth a thousand words.

one of the things that turkey is famous for is its turkish baths (hammam). caryn and i had both really wanted to try one out since we’re here, but have been a bit apprehensive about it. would it be weird?? what is the protocol there? what exactly do you do when you’re there? well, we decided to go for it. we wanted to try this experience together (heh, safety in numbers!) but most traditional turkish hammams have separate areas for males and females. we briefly considered just going to a touristy place that is co-ed, but then decided to go traditional.

so, all in all the experience, although ab it confusing, was actually pretty cool. so, you first change and go down to the steam room wearing nothing but a towel. it’s hella hot in there, but gets even hotter when you go to the next room. there’s a huge circular slab of marble in the middle of the room, and you’re told to lay down on it for a while. well, a while turned out to be like half an hour!! so, i’m just chilling there, laying on my back staring at the ceiling and it’s helllza hot. after a bit i started wondering if the people had forgotten about me, but it was actually really really relaxing to just chill there. so after that, this burly turkish dude, also wearing nothing but a towel, comes in. yikes!! so, first he pours water all over me that is practically scalding hot. then the dud like scrubs you down w/ this super scratchy sponge and gives you a massage. it was definitely pretty weird, but what the hell, gotta try everything once, eh? after that he sits you up and pours more water on you to rinse you off, and that’s about it. you then go into a separate room, and sit under some new towels for a bit, before going back to your locker room to dry off and change. i gotta say though, after i was done, i really did feel super relaxed!!

after the hammam, we took a ferry across the bospherous strait. this strait runs right through istanbul, and separates europe from asia. the ferry is super cheap (60 cents) and the guidebook called this “the poor man’s sunset cruise”.. and we really did get to see a spectacular sunset. it was cool to be able to just chill and watch scenery go by on the boat for just a buck twenty roundtrip!!

we had heard that you can get some bomb fish sandwhiches next to the ferry dropoff. after seraching around a bit, we found some stands, where they grilled you a whole fish filet wihout bones (well, mostly without bones!) and throw it in a baguette w/ salad and onions. the cost? a buck thirty! we hung out next to the water and enjoyed the sandwhich.

another thing that is popular here is smoking flavored tobacco out of a hookah… except here they call the hookah a negillah. we found a cafe that had them, and tried an orange one along w/ some apple tea. it was pretty fun, but honestly, i dont think it was either as strong nor as flavorful as the ones i’ve tried in SF at kanzaman. heh, also, we were the only ones in the cafe that were smoking one, and it bubbled hella loudly, so we definitely attracted some looks from the people around. i felt a bit sheepish, but whatever!

so, it was a really fun day. we didnt see nearly as much stuff as we did yesterday, but i think i had a better time today regardless.

oh yeah, one more random thing. does anyone remember spirograph?? that kids toy where you have colored pens and these little disks that end up drwaing trippy patterns when you keep writing in them in a circle?? well, there are guys here that just sit on the street and draw using these spirographs and sell them!! i cant believe people would actually spend money on a spirograph picture!!

oh, and one last random thing… yet another shoeshine guy came up to me begging to shne my shoes… but i was wearing my *sandals*. why the hell wopuld anybody want their sandals shined!!??


exploring istanbul

today we set out to explore the city. we started out by having a hellza good breakfast consisting of sanwhiches w/ grilled meat and freshly squeezed pomegranite juice. it looks like there are hella places around town selling the pomagranite juice, and it’s so damn good!!

after breakfast, we found out about a new scam. a guy comes up to me and asks if i want a shoe shine. i tell him no, but he keeps asking me over and over and i keep saying no reapeatedly. then he asks if he can just have a cigarette. well, unfortunately, i made the mistake of giving him one. at this point, he says that he just cant accept a free cigarette, and that it’s no good, and so he’ll give me a free brushing in return. i tell him my shoes are sneakers… they really dont need brushing, but he insists on giving me a free brushing so i sit down. he brushes my shoes, saying over and over that it’s free, and then starts puting this wax stuff on my shoes. i really dont need any wax on my shoes, but what the hell, it’s too late now. and then the kicker. he starts saying that the brushing was free, but i have to pay for the wax!! HUH?? so basically, even though i said over that i didnt want to pay for this shoeshine, now he was insisting that i pay him money. well, i wasnt going to crumble. i just got up and walked away despite his protests. there was no way in hell i was gonna pay for that!!

anyways, afterwards we went to go see some of the stuff in our area (we’re in the old part of town next to most of the important stuff!). first we checked out Topkapi palace, a huge palace that has was used by the sultans of the ottoman empire for years. this place had 4 enormous courtayrds, and each of them were lined w/ tons of rooms w/ interesting museum pieces. one room that was particularly interesting was room that contained alleged relics from the prophet mohamed. this room contained a tooth of his, some hair from his beard, and other old artifacts such as swords that were owned by him. turks from all over come here to see this relics that have a huge religious impotrance for them. it was interesting to see all the people coming up to the relics and praying to them. there was even a worker from the museum, singing verses from the koran over a loudspeaker. i really wonder what makes people think that these relics are really from the person they are supposed to be from (there was even a staff supposedly owned by moses). i mean, it would be truly amazing if any of these items were really from moses or mohammed… but i guess i’m just to skeptical to believe they really are.

a gate to the palace

caryn took this photo of me in a tree in the palace grounds

after the palace we went to go check out Aya Sofya, an ancient church that was later converted to a mosque, and also the blue mosque… one of the most famous mosques in the world. both were extremely impressive. we actually went inside the blue mosque, and the stained glass and architecture inside was really amazing.

Aya Sofya


Istanbul, not constantinople

last night we took the bus from bulgaria to istanbul. it was a long long bus ride, but the toughest part of it all was the passport control between bulgaria and turkey. first, we go to the bulgarian border, and everyone had to file out of the bus in the freezing cold and have their pasports stamped one at a time. then, next stop was the turkish border, and we all had to get out again. after getting a turkish visa (20 bux on the spot), we all waited in a really long line again to get our passports stamped by the turks. it seems like everyone has been watching the US elections, and the guy asked us whether bush won the election. *sigh*. but wait, the ordeal wasnt over yet. next, everyone had to pull their bags off of the bus, and open them for inspection. the inspection wasnt much of an inspection at all really… the guards just briskly walked by and peeked at our bags, without really digging into them. but, at this point, our bus was gone!! we still have no clue where our bus driver drove off to, but he was gone for hellza days. and it was FREEZING! everyone was standing outside shivering like crazy. finally, eventually the bus driver returned and we all climbed aboard. the whole process start to finish had taken *3* hours!!

after sleeping the rest of the way, we arrived finally in istanbul. we ended up napping for most of today, so we still havent explored the city enough yet, but here are my first few impressiopns of istanbul:

1. first off, it’s *huge*. no, i mean *really* huge. we took a metro forever, followed by a tram for a bunch of stops, and we hadnt even covered that much of the city. the city just goes on forever! from what i’ve read, there are more people living in the city of istanbul than there are in all the cities of greece put together!!

2. second off, it’s way more modern than i expected. i guess i had expected it to be similar somewhat to morocco, but it’s nothing like it. modern transport everywhere, everyone is walking around wearing very fashionablle modern clothes, tons of stores selling cell phones and other high tech stuff. hardly any of the women here wear the traditional head covering at all.

3. the city is super vibrant and thee is tons of hustle and bustle everywhere!

4. the other thing about istanbul, is that there are soooooo many mosques. literally, there is a mosque around every corner. if i threw a stick oin any direction, i woudnt be surprised if it hit a mosque.

5. despite that, it doesnt really seem like people here are very religious. wheni did hear the call to prayer, nobody that i saw even batted an eyelash. no one stopped, no one went inside the mosque, nothing. it was as if the call didnt even happen.

6. the city has really really good food! the dinner caryn and i had was absolutely delicious, and all the food we’ve seen and smelled looks really really good. i think we’ll definitely be eating well here!!

7. their money is ridiculously high numbered. the money they use is the turkish lira, and one dollar is equal to 1.5 *million* lira. so to take out 60 bux from the bank, i had to get out 90 million lira!! the money is especially confusing, vause you laways end up counting zeros. you dont want to mistake a 1million (6 zeros) for a 10 million (7 zeros).

well, that’s all i have to say about istanbul for now. the other thing that’s been occupying my thoughts, is where we will go next. we bought a LP guidebook for the middle east today, and there is soooo much to see. they have a sample itinerary that we’re thinking of doing but that would involve 5 countries in just 7 weeks. it would be a really aggressive plan, and would mean prettyt much 2 days for most of the cities we will see. so it’s a tough call…. should we do it?? on one hand, i really want to see as much as i can see. but on the flip side, i really dont want to be constantly rushing around, and not have time enough to really get the feel of a place and absorb it. i dont want to rush from sight to sight and monument to monument, just to check them off of a list. i dont want to look back on this part of my trip later, and not be able to remember what i saw cause everything is blurred together… but at the same time, how often am i really gonna have a chnace to explore here?? i dont want to skip any out of the 5 countries recommended in the LP. *sigh*. well, it’ll definitely be a tough call.