Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gobbling kebabs in Turkey

Previous experience told me I should fly from Santorini to Istanbul. I wasn't prepared for another two day stint on buses and ferries and trains and the flights were quite cheap. I arrived late at night and found my hostel down a narrow cobblestone alleyway full of little kiddy chairs and tables with people playing backgammon (not badminton, hey Fi), smoking shi-sha and drinking in little cafes with waiters trying to hassle all the passers by. My hostel seemed to be on the busiest street in Istanbul. Lucky I was exhausted and collapsed into bed.

In the morning I met up with Fi and Shelley to do some shopping at the Grand Bazaar and to go and see a mosque or two. We caught the metro which used these cool little tokens that made you feel like you had won the jackpot whenever you purchased them in the machine. We arrived at the Grand Bazaar and the hassling began. First a man at the entrance asked if he could feel my hair and then just went ahead and did it anyway. We got called everything from "Spice girls" to "Angels" to "Shakira" in the stall owners attempts to lure us into their stores. One of my favourites was "Hey, you wanna come into my store and by some things you don't need?". But some of the vendors were really fun. We spent a while picking out some gorgeous cashmere scarves with a man who showed us a cool way of tying them and then offered up his arm to parade us around his store once we had them on. So cute. At another store they gave us some Turkish tea and gave us a lesson in how to spot the quality scarves while we showed them the new scarf tying technique we had just learnt.

Then Shelley got her bum pinched in the crowd (lucky nothing else got pinched - apparently there are some expert pickpocketers in the Grand Bazaar) and we decided it was time to bail. We walked around and saw some mosques before deciding it was simply too hot to function any more. The next day we did more sightseeing and shopping, this time doing the Spice Bazaar where walking around you could smell every type of exotic spice displayed in big piled up pots and buy some fantastic Turkish Delight. We also had a Turkish bath, which was certainly an experience even all the onsen in Japan couldn't prepare me for. We walked into the big stone room which was centuries old and these old ladies with huge floppy bellies who were walking around in black underwear simply whipped off our towels and motioned us to lie on our backs on a big stone slab in the middle of the hexagonical room. There were already other girls laying around it, so we did as we were told and they proceeded to scrub us down with big soapy sponges as we lay there in nothing but undies. I felt like I had stepped back in time, as the building was so old and everyone was laying around like sirens from a Greek myth or something. Then they wash your hair for you (I felt like I was 4 years old again) and then the best part - a half hour oil massage.

That night we went to see a belly dancing show. Of course I got summoned onto the stage by the lady who was acting as the Sultan's mother and ushered out the back of the stage. They put a scarf thing on my head and what they didn't tell us was that we were going to have to go out and dance in front of everyone, to see if we were good enough for the Sultan's Harem. So they played some Turkish belly dancing music and I shook my booty like Beyonce... I'm pretty sure the Sultana was impressed. Fi and Shelley were just laughing their asses off at me. We then went to find a nice bar to drink at. We stumbled upon one that had some cool live Turkish music flowing out the front door, so we sat down for a beer/wine. But we were drawn inside and decided to have a bit of a dance, only to find we were the only foreigners in the whole place, which was fine with us! A song came on that everyone clearly knew and they all got in a circle and joined pinkies (which we were right in the middle of) and we danced around kicking our legs and laughing. Apparently there was some significance of a guy who had a napkin, so we called it "The Napkin Dance". Very fun. Then we sat outside again and an old man started passing fruit out to us, some of it we had never seen before. So random. Then a guy tried to teach us some Turkish - even a simple thank you was beyond us. Shelley thought she had it down pat, then tried it on another Turkish man who replied "Sorry, I don't speak English". Oops, nice try Shelley!

The next day Shelley decided she needed a belly dancing scarf, so we went back to the Grand Bazaar. Now, Shelley is clearly a natural born haggler, because the lady in the shop was so unimpressed with the price she named, she pointed at Shelley and said "This is bad!" as if she was an evil force that needed to be eliminated. But she gave us the named price anyway, not before Fi had upended a whole hat full of tiny beads all over the shop, which Shelley and I thought was hilarious.

Then it was time for Fi and Shelley to leave on a plane bound for London, and I farewelled them and set to making some plans for my remaining week in Turkey. Coincidentally, I found out my cousin Ana was flying to Istanbul the next day, so I decided to wait for her. That night I went to see the whirling dervishes, a branch of Islam that go into a meditative state through turning in circles. It sounds a bit silly, but it was actually quite interesting, and a lot of the beliefs outlined in the brochure reminded me of Christian beliefs. I think our religions are closer to each other than most people think. It took us a while, but Ana and I found each other and caught up on things over a meaty dinner of doner kebab, which really is just lamb off a spit with no salad or any other filler to speak of. Mmm, meat. We did a three hour ferry cruise down the strait between Asia and Europe and then rushed around to do some sightseeing. At the Spice Bazaar I was looking for a present for my dad and an old man tried to convince me that he would really like some Turkish viagra. Considering it was just a huge ball made of nuts I was pretty sure it wouldn´t make it back to Australia and decided my dad would probably prefer some Turkish delight.

The next day we caught a 6 hour bus to Canakkale, the base for tours to Gallipoli. Unfortunately, as I was stepping off the kerb with my backpack on, my ankle decided to give way and for the first time in my life I sprained my ankle. Ana was very sympathetic and was laughing too hard to help me up as I lay sprawled in a ditch with my backpack still on. I was halfway between crying with pain and laughing with embarrassment, as everyone was staring at me. Luckily the guy at our new hostel (who thought he was so Aussie, using phrases that only old men at the RSL would use like "kangaroo loose in the top paddock") was a little more sympathetic and gave me some cream and a bandage to ease the pain. The next day we were doing a Gallipoli tour, so I decided to rent some crutches. The lady at the medical centre didn´t speak any English so she brought in a translator from the shop next door and I had to buy a crutch for ten Lira (about 7 AUD). Ana thought it was hilarious that I was doing Gallipoli on a crutch. I´m glad someone got some joy from my pain :).

So we spent the next day travelling on a bus to Ayvalik which seemed like a cute little seaside town. Unfortunately I didn´t get much time to explore it as the only bus I could get back to Istanbul left at 10am the next day! Dóh! But Ana and I had a nice wine by the water and ate some amazingly juicy peaches and stayed in a gorgeous little homely hostel. Then it was time to say goodbye as Ana went on to Greece and I flew to Spain. I hate goodbyes. At least we would be catching up again for Oktoberfest in September. Can´t wait!

Farewell (just for a little while),

Friday, August 6, 2010

Riding on scooters with boys

Naples was grimy, it's true, but when I got there I felt like I had finally found the "real" Italy. Everywhere you looked, the streets were full of life; men with pot bellies sitting in front of fruit shops, scooter and taxis zooming down cobblestone streets, fat old ladies dangling buckets over balconies covered in washing and pizzerias making dough for amazing pizzas. Naples is the birthplace of pizza, and they like to keep it traditional; their dough is not too thick, a litle bit doughy and the Margheritas have the perfect ratio of tomato to cheese to herbs. I ate a whole one for 3 euros and it was delicious. People had warned me that Naples was full of pickpockets and thieves, but when I arrived I had about 4 people gather around me at the bus stop to guide me to my hidden away hostel using a mixture of sign language and broken English (and my bad Italian).

The next day I hopped on a bus to Pompeii, an ancient town, an archeologist's dream and a fascinating if really hot way to spend 3 or 4 hours. All thanks to a big volcano called Mt Vesuvius which exploded almost 2000 years ago. I felt like I shouldn't be allowed to walk around the dusty streets, like I was violating some UNESCO heritage law or something, but it was pretty cool to see how much was still intact. Especially haunting were the people petrified in lava who were curled in the foetal position or hands in the air with a look of terror on their faces.

After Naples I decided I needed some beach time, so I caught a stiflingly hot train to Sorrento, on the west coast of Italy. I was staying at a hostel with a terrace with 360 degree views of the surrounding area and the place was more like a 4 star hotel than a hostel. I was pretty hot after being squished between sweaty bodies and my backpack on the bus in Naples, so I walked down the stairs cut into the side of a sheer cliff to the beach. I was minding my own business, reading a book on the rocks when a guy called Rafael decided he would like to chat me up. However, he hardly spoke English and kept asking me "Rafael, beautiful?" and these things did not work in his favour. He decided to give me his number anyway.

I went back to hostel and had dinner with two lovely French Canadian girls (who it turns out were young enough to be my students... funny how age doesn't seem to matter when you're traveling) then had a few drinks at the hostel which was overrun with the cast of Laguna Beach, the most typical loud and insincere American girls you could imagine. I was the celebrity for the night because they simply couldn't imagine how a girl could be traveling on her own for like a whole year!

The next night I caught up with two Australian girls I met at a hostel in Naples and we were in the bar at the hostel at 2am enjoying a cocktail when the manager of the hostel asked if we would like to go to a nightclub in Positano, about 30km down the coast. We decided it would be an adventure, and the next thing you know we're each on the back of a scooter with an Italian guy zooming down the Amalfi coast by moonlight with sheer cliffs on either side. We approached Positano which looked like a sea of stars perched on a cliff and went to a nightclub which was in a cave in the side of a cliff. There was an expensive cover charge, but the guys knew the owner so we got in for free. Then we discovered that any drink was ten euros to buy (about 15 AUD), even a beer. We thought we got a good deal when we asked for 3 small glasses of beer for 10 euros, but looking back I am pretty sure it was just one beer poured into 3 glasses. So we stayed out until about 4am when we rode back to Sorrento in time to drop into the back door of a little bakery for a very fresh chocolate croissant and watch the sun rise over the cliffs. What a crazy night.

Then up again at 9am the next morning for a boat tour to Capri Island. This seemed like a good idea before we had stayed out all night, but unfortunately the three of us got "seasick" and ended up spewing over the side. But, once we got that out of our system we swam through some neon blue waters in some grottoes in the side of the cliffs and did some Jack Sparrow diving off our boat.

That night we met some crazy aussie boys on the rooftop terrace and agreed to hire scooters with them the next day to do the Amalfi coast by daylight. So we took off on scooters the next day with reassuring comments from the boys like "I've never driven a scooter before" and "I like to cut corners". For us girls, it was ideal because we could enjoy the view without having to concentrate on the road. We stopped at a few beaches, rode through Positano (even more stunning in daylight) and Amalfi then stopped for lunch. No sooner had we jumped back on the scooters when big grey storm clouds rolled in and out of nowhere came freezing cold rain. We took refuge in some old man's garage before embarking on the journey back to the hostel. Another fantastic day, finished off with Tim Tams and beer watching the sun set on the rooftop terrace (the Tim Tams were a delicious gift from my mum).

The next day was not so fantastic. I won't go into detail only to say I had 38 hours of non-stop travel on sweaty buses, trains and ferries to get to a little island in Greece called Mykonos, where I was meeting Fi and Shelley. Mykonos was not my favourite place in the world to say the least and it was made worse by the fact that I spent my whole first day there alone because I couldn't get onto the girls, the whole reason I even was there. I did find them at about 9:30 that night after some tears and a homesick call to my mum. Of course they had been oblivious and had been lazing by the pool all day. But all was forgiven as we went out and danced the night away. The main reason I didn't like Mykonos was because it was a major rip off and crowded with silly people; it appears the only reason you go to Mykonos is if you like to get off your head and dance until 10am, spend ridiculous amounts of money or you like to grope girls in the dark. Since I am none of those three, I didn't enjoy it so much. But the houses were cool with their plaster white walls and blue doors and shutters and the Venice windmills were pretty. We also got into the Mediterranean habit of eating lunch at 3pm (a yummy 2 euro souvlaki if you please) and eating dinner at midnight. Greek food by the way, is delicious. I only really knew about souvlakis, but there are so many more delicious meat dishes and tomato fritters, cheese balls, greek salads, yum yum YUM.

After Mykonos I caught a ferry to Santorini, and this island fully deserves its reputation as the jewel of the Greek Islands. The place was spectacular with clean white plastered houses with blue domes perched on top of rocky cliffs like snow and amazing sunsets and lava rock beaches. My first day before Fi and Shelley arrived I hired a quad bike and zoomed around the island (top speed of 50km/h whoa!). I even got lost one time and got waved down by a 12 year old hitchhiker who jumped on the back without even asking then put his arm around me. I just laughed and kicked him off at the next intersection. He was weighing me down anyway. The second night was a full moon and I got some spectacular photos of the moon reflecting off the water with the lights of Oia, the old white town, glimmering. So romantic; I think I found my honey moon spot.

Fi Shelley and I went on a tour to Volcano Island the next day, a little island next door which is basically just a volcano which erupted ages ago and caused the amazing cliffs and lava beaches of Santorini. Now because the shores of Santorini are all vertical cliffs, we had a lot of steps to walk down to the port. And it was hot. And we were running late. So we're speeding down the steps when a big fat donkey decides to step in our way and like the stubborn mule he is, will not budge. We tried patting its bum, we tried politeness ("Please move donkey") and we even called out for the donkey man to move his donkey. None of this worked so we managed to edge around the group of donkeys and continue. We climbed the volcano and heard an interesting phone conversation ("Sorry, I can't talk now, I'm standing on top of a volcano") then the boat took us too some "hot springs" which were really lukewarm, which was ok because we were pretty hot anyway.

The next few days we spent watching more great sunsets and relaxing on black stone beaches watching people run to the water like they were walking over hot coals (which they almost were) and eating more souvlakis. I swear I didn't want another piece of meat after Greece, delicious though they were. Little did I know, things were going to get even meatier in Turkey!

More on that next time :)