Category Archives: Vacation

Visiting Istanbul Turkey: Sights and Sounds

Nothing prepared my sister and I for the absolute delight that was Istanbul. Granted, we were not too happy at the airport, having flown in at 12 noon local time, and tossed up and down a very lengthy airport because nobody seemed to know where we could pay for and get visas stamped on our passport. We were grumpy, hungry and tired, having been up from 2am to pack and prepare for the drive to London Heathrow airport to catch an early flight. Eventually, we joined a very long line of Iraqis and got our visas in all of one hour. I suppose this does not apply to all countries of the world, there appeared to be a fast-track line for certain countries with certain types of agreements with Turkey; the United States of America and some European countries come to mind.

The Blue Mosque

We knew it would be an interesting trip when four immigration police officers left their desks and came to chat with my sister and I as we sat waiting for the visas to be processed (the second round of waiting after the standing in the queues). I did not see this sort of desertion of duty post in the UK or anywhere else to be honest, and there we were, being told all the lovely places to visit, and how lovely we were, by these really good looking men in police uniform with guns and handcuffs hanging low on their hips. We perked up considerably. You see, in Istanbul, it is quite a novelty to be black as the city is not diverse in that sense. The men were incredibly charming; we were greeted and welcomed everywhere, our bags were carried for us, doors were opened, meals paid for, it was quite flattering, for the first two days. Then it became irritating.

The Blue Skies by Hagia Sofia
The Blue Skies by Hagia Sofia

“Hi Chocolate girls, where are you from?” My sister and I were shocked. Never in our lives had we been addressed in that way. But you move on, because it is such a stunning city, and you are on holiday. Nothing else mattered. Plus to be honest, I don’t think it came from a place where it was intended to make us uncomfortable. So if you are a “chocolate girl” travelling to Istanbul soon, be prepared!

If you plan to go to Istanbul anytime soon, here’s what a great time you could have. We loved it.

1. We got a confidence boost from all the smiles and attention we were getting from all the men. Be careful though, don’t get sucked in, this is just a novelty, keep your wits about you.

2. Stay in Sultanahmet, it is the old city and most of the historical sites are around it, you can walk everywhere. The streets are quite charming, narrow cobbled streets with houses in rows, and balconies. The driving can be crazy though so be careful.

3. Stay in Basileus, a love bed and breakfast place, http://www.basileushotel.com, what a lovely place. The breakfast was amazing and the staff were really friendly and happy to help. There’s turkish coffee and apple tea in the evenings downstairs, the cookies and cakes were amazing. Our room had a balcony and view looking out at an old building from the 15th centrury. They also offer a complementary airport pick-up.

4. Try the fish sandwich in Eminonu, just by the water. Remember to ask for extra spicy if you like it hot. You sit there and eat looking out to the water, with the cool breeze of the evening settling on your skin.

5. Take the ferry to Khadikoy and visit the Bazaar there; everything is death cheap and what a colourful market.

6. Visit the Grand Bazaar and try the dried fruits, turkish delight (traditional sweets), and other keepsakes from Turkey. The storekeepers are fantastic and are very quick to offer you apple tea or turkish coffee. What a huge market. Remember to haggle, or you may end up buying things inflated by 200%.

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7. Visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. These sites are so old, that they reminded me of my humanity and the miracle that is our existence. That all these wars were fought, and empires fell, and these monuments remained made me feel so small, but in a very heartwarming way. They are all so beautiful, but remember to wear a flowing dress or trousers and take a scarf to cover your head and shoulders respectfully before you go in. Otherwise, the mosque staff will provide you with a blue shawl which a billion people have used.There is also an Archeological museum and Topkapi palace not far from Hagia Sofia. You will need a pass to go into the last three. Only the mosques are free to view, and there are quite a number of them.

8. Take the bosphorous dinner cruise. It costs about 35 Euros I think. When you are travelling on the water at night, the views of the city are amazing, the palaces (and there are several in Istanbul) are all lit up, there is a stunning bridge which I saw over sunset. You also get to enjoy the henna ceremony. It’s all very romantic as well, something to enjoy with that special someone I think.

9. Listen to the 4am call to prayer. I know. My sister thought I was crazy, but the call to prayer in Istanbul is quite different from the calls that I have heard before. The call which I heard from my hotel room was quite moving, the intoner sang from his heart, he had a lilt to his baritone, and I just sat up and listened. My sister did not have the same experience, but I was moved by his singing. I know what the words mean, although they are always sang in Arabic, and I really have no connection since I am not muslim. But a heartfelt chant is a heartfelt chant. Anywhere.

10. Watch the whirling dervishes, at Hodjapasha Cultural Center. The centre itself is full of history, a 550 year old turkish bath place converted into a cultural centre. At 70 turkish lira per person, the show was expensive but worth it. Very colourful and the acoustics was wonderful. I learnt that a Dervish is a Muslim religious man who is undergoing an apprenticeship of learning the profession that will bestow him with eternal livelihood. So the whirling is one method, which is used by the Sufis to get closer to Allah.

11. Visit Taksim. I was worried about the protesting which I thought was ongoing but by the time we ventured into Taksim, the square was full of tourists and people just having a good time. I have never seen skies more blue! The sun was out, people were having drinks, the food was amazing, lots of flat bread and wraps. We went to lovely club where we danced to loads of Turkish and American music, had a few drinks. It was a blast.

12. Istanbul has dozens of restaurants. Too many. It’s always nice and warm, and in the evening, the breeze comes in from the shores, so dress up and find a lovely place to eat. Remember to do the dinner cruise.

13. Finally, do not leave Istanbul without getting a traditional ottoman Hamam. The one next to Hagia Sofia is very good, the package is lovely and the soaps and creams used felt quite luxurious. It costs about 90 Euros. Take all the time you need after the hamam and the massage and just chill. Lie back, and read, or just doze lightly. It feels great. I got it on the day I left Istanbul and I thought it was an excellent parting gift to myself.

One week isn’t enough though, there is so much to be seen. You can pay for most things in dollars, euros or turkish lira. There’s a ferry, a tram system, a metro, and taxis. If you stay in Sultanahmet, you will most likely not need any of these (ok, maybe the ferry for the experience and the taxi for airport). Oh, and my map reading skills are much improved now 🙂

All photos are mine.

London Underground And The Madness of Oxford Street

I might as well leave it at that. I do not think that this subject requires any more analysis.
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I arrived London wearing a dress, thinking it was summer. Well technically it is, only it is quite chilly and alas my dress failed me. I found a store as quickly as I could and purchased a few odds and ends to keep me warm. I knew there was a reason I seemed to gravitate more towards countries in the Mediterranean. Last night, I was in a really light mood, and my sister and I were having a laugh and being silly. We were checking off a few reasons why we may or may never come back to London (Heathrow and Victoria Coach station are excluded) and the UK generally really.

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1. One ride on the tube costs more than it costs me to fuel my car for a week. It is an expensive place, and the pound is strong isn’t it?
2. There are cameras everywhere. No peeing in the street. Or is there??
3. Oxford street has too many people on it, it feels like a scene from the Apocalypse.
4. I can never find my way around the city and end up walking miles and miles until my bones creak (hey I have improved my Map reading skills).
5. There is too much bread eaten here; everything is wrapped in bread. Nothing is spicy.
6. For some reason, people always step on my feet in the underground rush and nobody ever says sorry.
7. The folks at some local radio station are very happy to talk about all the mugging and murdering going on in London (am not joking, I have to find the name, not sure why this reception is constantly tuned to it). It’s pretty scary.
8. Too many homeless people, I wonder if there are programs to deal with the issues.
9. The city is incredibly diverse and I have heard more languages on the bus than in any other country
10. I can photograph anything and anybody, nobody cares really, nobody has attempted to take my camera and smash it.
11. Street food is amazing and costs only GBP5 for chinese, and indian and whatever else you fancy really.
12. There is a lot of culture, and a lot of effort has gone into preserving this.
13. People seem quite aware of the issues plaguing our world, lots of protests going on around the city. One could go to one protest per day. The police does not turn water on the protesters
14. The universities are great in London and have an amazing array of books and research facilities.
15. Everyone back home gives you a list of stuff to buy for them without money, because they assume that you pick gold off the streets and buy stuff.

In all, this seems like a really great city for anyone interested in International Development, I have seen loads of offices from DFID, to VSO, to Save the Children, and met quite a few development people here. So much work is done in the field by these NGOs and their engine rooms are in this city.
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I am off to take in a bit of culture today; Madam Tussaud’s, the London Eye, a show at the West End. Will put up pictures tomorrow. By the way; my photography course is yielding some excellent pictures (the pictures here are all mine) which I shall share soon enough.

Omne Bonum Veniat!

Istanbul’s Riots: A Big Deal?

This post is quite a selfish one. I have not found a single idea in my head to blog about for the last three weeks, it’s the worst blog drought that I have experienced, and I have lived a short blog life so far. In my defense though, work has been incredibly busy, so many things have happened that have left me emotionally drained and unable to read or blog. I should really blog about those, my work, my journey, my plans. In the next post perhaps. I have also travelled quite a bit in the last one month to areas where the internet was spotty at best. Thus I have sometimes missed posts that I would ordinarily have caught. Am still playing catch up.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Photo source: http://www.wikipedia.com

But the next two weeks will be full of posts mostly because I am on leave! For two whole weeks! Blogging, photography, books and food. I just bought Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book “Americanah” to read on my vacation. If she were a man, I would marry her! What an amazing writer. As I write this up, am about to leave the house to catch a flight to good old England, I hope the weather is nice this time around, I always end up in the UK when its freezing (or maybe it’s just Scotland). My friends have planned some good times for this trip, and I have a wedding to attend on saturday. I am excited to be getting away for a bit, but more excited at the possibility of going to Istanbul after England! Yes, the only city which has been the capital of three empires! It had better work out, because we have bought non-refundable, non-cancellable, non-anything-but-fly ticket. But everyone is dampening my spirits by asking my sister and I if we are aware of the riots going on in Turkey.

Holiday mode
Holiday Mode:
Photo source: http://www.hellobeautiful.com

Now, people have called me and compared the riots to the Arab spring movement which lasts for months and months in each country. Syria is still ongoing. But my understanding is that this is a different kind of fight really. The people feel that their government is not listening, and must take the opinion of the citizenry into consideration before selling off all the lands and trees and green areas that are as old as their ancestry, to developers. One thing has led to another and it seems this is like the “occupy movement”. There is no ambivalence in this for me at all, the way I see it is that a lot of have obviously exchanged hands (paperwork, profit) and the government does not want to back down. But isn’t that the point of a democracy? That the elected officials must listen to the voice of the people who voted for them? I hope that this blows over, I hope that more lives are not lost, I hope that this does not become as big a deal and as sad as Syria. I find that there is always a disconnect between the people and the men and women who sit in the parliament and in the state houses; the latter lose touch, selfish interests abound, which sometimes are bigger than them. Sometimes they forget the people and basically fight to advance the ideals and motives of their political parties and political godfathers. I sincerely hope this blows over and the greater good of the people of Turkey supersedes.

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque
Photo source: National Geographic

Now having said that, I hope I have a good vacation. Istanbul is on my mind, the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar. In London, I shall be taking some photography classes, and hopefully blogging everyday. Yay! If you have a favourite place in both cities, please recommend them, the food, the shopping, the sights, I shall try it. I am like a child right now, my mind is wide open.