11.06.2015 - 29.06.2015
On June 11th I left on a trip to Turkey and Portugal. It was more cost efficient to fly three return trips rather than multi destination, which meant I landed in Lisbon and had hours to wait. The flight to Lisbon had the feeling of a high school reunion from the 1950s - like I was flying to a different era and not a different country. The food on the flight was so awful that the woman beside me force fed me her homemade cookies. I was torn because I half wanted to sleep, which sugar doesn't help but I was also hungry (perpetual problem). I should have voted no.
By the time I landed for my stop over in Lisbon, I was ravenous as the cookie was not quite the satiating and delicious little something I had hoped for. I sat at the Spoon Cafe for hours eating toast and chatting with a Canadian Portugeuse family who were very kind and also fed me chocolate. I think the mother wanted to take me as her daughter in law because by the end she was hugging me and trying to pick up my phone number. I need more yenta in my life, so I soaked it up. Finally it was time to go so I headed off for my flight to Istanbul. In general, the best way to get from the airport to the city is by the Havatas but I arrived very late in Istanbul and took a shuttle to my hostel, Galata West, where I met my friend Kate. We went out to Istiklal Caddesi (close to Taksim) where people are partying on the streets until sunrise. In those few hours out having fun I noticed a few stark differences from my last time in Istanbul three years prior (when I still lived in Turkey): the increased presence of Arab tourists and refugees, and an increase in selfies (and selfie sticks). No correlation as far as I know.
The next day Kate and I decided to visit Büyükada, an island just an 1.20 ferry from Kabataş ferry terminal in the European side of Istanbul. One thing to be aware of when taking this ferry is that it will be overcrowded, so go early to board early and actually get a seat. You'll be kept entertained by the vendors selling things like lemon squeezers and potato peelers. One was so convincing he had the whole ferry clapping and laughing. By the time he was done his schpiel I was first in line to purchase the merchandise. Three weeks later and I have yet to use it but his memory remains.
The first thing that stood out when we arrived were the crowds - it was a gorgeous day and everyone clearly had the same idea to take a break on the islands. The houses were stunning, and there were some interesting sites to visit like an abandoned orphanage and the views from on top of the hills.
After returning to the mainland we walked by some winding streets leading to Galata and enjoyed some of the random activities like shooting pellets at balloons. We also walked by a brothel, which Kate explained is regulated by the state meaning the sex workers get tested regularly and receive pensions. They had more than enough business! We went out that night past Galata Tower to a Circassian restaurant called Ficcin where we were approached by an older lady who thought I was Turkish and proceeded to advise on where to go and what to do while in Istanbul. Serendipity dictated that we run into her again the following day! That night we went to a blues jazz bar called Kumsaati, followed by a bar on a fun corner called Narrdo. You can't beat a party on a street corner. You also can't compete with a rooftop terrace highlighting the mystery of the Bospherous and the beauty of Turkish men... Or vice versa.
On Sunday, we went to visit the Ottoman Banking Museum in Galata Salt on Bankalar Caddesi. They had a number of interesting facts about women and foreigners working at the banks, and also how the banking system worked in general. A benefit was that entrance was free. Ironically, we then went to visit the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Beyoğlu. I had tried to attend a service there years ago and it hadn't worked out but I was welcomed into the Rabbi's house for a Seder meal. I love finding community in transit.
I went wandering Istiklal after and saw the massive influx of police, I then decided to retreat indoors in a restaurant called Ravouna - beautiful rooftop views of the city.
At about 1 am I went to play tavla (backgammon), before dancing at a fun old school bar on Istiklal called Eskici Pera.
I had yet another late night, in keeping with the theme of enjoying Turkey. One of the highlights had to be beating a Turkish man at tavla to which he commented: adamsın. Only took a simple game of backgammon to find out that apparently I'm a man... Or I'm the man. I'll take the latter.
Monday morning was another late morning, but I finally got ready to head off to Bebek and Ortaköy as per the instructions of my new guardian angel from the Circassian restaurant. I walked to Taksim to catch a bus there, but it's not as straightforward as you'd think catching a bus in Istanbul to go where you want to go. I chose to take a cab, and let the driver convince me to go to Rumeli Hisari instead of Bebek. He also promised he'd fight anyone on my behalf, if necessary. I'm not sure what about me screama damsel in distress, but I told him I'd take him up on the offer should the need arise (in the 20 minutes we had together). I'd never heard of Rumeli Hisarı before, but it was well worth a visit - it's a fortress from hundreds of years ago with a view of the European and Asian sides as well as the Bospherous. I was even able to see dolphins.
Afterwards, sweaty and famished, I took a taxi to Ortaköy where I ate kumpir (Turkish baked potato with all the fixings you could ever want), and ice cream and watched Spain's Top Chef being filmed. I thought about interrupting for my fifteen minutes of fame and then retreated back into my delicious food. I then walked back to Kabataş where I took the tram to Karaköy and strolled back to the hostel. I got ready and went out to the Hazzo Pulo Şarap Evi. It's amazing how many different sides of a city you can experience depending on who you're out with. I had already been in dive bars, hipster clubs and now a classy wine house...more in store!
On Tuesday, my conversations with strangers and friends continued to center around the Syrian crisis. It hit a head in a sense when I was having a meal with some Turkish men (the restaurant owner and his friends) and one of their friends walked by screaming in Arabic. He's Syrian and had been rejected from renting a room for that reason. The massive influx of Syrian refugees has been influencing local politics too. This is a nation that still has Gezi Park looming. There are serious complications in terms of how these refugees will be integrated into the society, and whether and how they'll leave. There are humanitarian considerations in addition to the economic ones that are often discussed. No one knows where this will go.
I sat with a friend and his girlfriend discussing these matters before strolling the streets and taking in what I could before returning to the world of politics through a newspaper.
Wednesday morning was departure time for Ankara - back to visit my old life. I decided to stay in Tunalı at the Ankara Gordion Hotel. The first place I wanted to go was Ulus for Iskender Kebap. As if life has any meaning without the decadence of meat, yoghurt and bread.
Mehmet and I went strolling around and I noticed that there have been some changes like a huge new mosque being built, but for the most part things remain the same like Luna Park. Change is a funny concept because throughout my whole trip I couldn't help but compare its present with my past there and wonder when things are identical why that is but question the changes at the same time. You can't step in the same river twice.
We went on the ferris wheel, bumper cars and haunted house. The highlight to me came at the end of the haunted house when finally something scary happened - the mechanical car broke down and we sat stuck when all of a sudden one of the employees came and put his hand on Mehmet's shoulder and said "boo". After that shock, we headed off walking through Sihhiye to Kizilay and finally Tunalı. Along the way we ran into Esat Kıratlıoğlu, a former Turkish politician. We then visited Kuğulu Park, which has become far more political in the wake of Gezi Park. Politics everywhere yet few swans to be found.
Thursday was a day of wandering around Tunalı. Everywhere I went I overheard people discussing the recent election (of early June) and the possible coalitions that may be formed in its wake. If only there were a crystal ball for us to see into the future. But then what fun would the challenges be?
I had the most delicious lunch at my favourite restaurant, Cafe des Cafes - pomegranate and fig sauce on a steak. Food could be my life. I continued wandering and shopping before stopping in at Elizinn where the wonderful management wished me well and provided me with some delicious food. Ramadan had just started so everyone everywhere was preparing fabulous meals to break the fast, Iftar. It's beautiful being able to celebrate it and watch the love and kindness people bring to the table.
Friday was a day of nostalgia. I spent the day visiting my former coworkers, neighbours and friends at the University I taught at in Turkey. I first spent the morning at Bilkent otel and spa, which is fabulous and has a special half price massage deal between 10am and 2pm Monday to Friday. After that was done I visited people and had long discussions about where we are, where we were and where we see the country going. A lot can happen in a few years and there are now babies and newly weds. I was encouraged by everyone to consider coming back to Turkey, maybe it's a sign? Most telling was the fact that almost everyone thought to ask: are you happy where you are? The area around Bilkent has changed considerably as they've developed a new entertainment complex called Bilkent Station. I was impressed with its development, but concerned for the businesses in Ankuva (the mall to its side) which seem to have been neglected. The waves of change, I suppose. Turkey is all about development, after all. Kate met Rob and I, and the three of us ventured into the city for a night out at Corvus, City and Puhu (three classic bars in the same building just off of Tunali). Along the way I tried to memorize the sights and reconfigure my memories so that when I leave, I can carry all this fun and life and absurdity with me... Dinosaurs included.
Saturday was spent in Ulus once more. It was my last day in Ankara and I wanted to visit the best hamam and also my friend, a carpet seller, before a night out in Tunali and Kizilay with a group of my old friends. It was great visiting my friend, he's still working hard and doing well - kind as always. While there a group of British tourists came in so once again I put my translator cap on and helped him make some business. In the hostel in Istanbul my help had been enlisted for some Spanish to Turkish to English translation, at least this was just a two way street: English to Turkish. After some tasty Elma Çay (apple tea) Kate and I set off for the Şengül Hamamı.
For 39 TL they sold us a package of kese (rubbing dead skin off your body), massage, and the flip flops/towels. Compare this to the same package being sold at a luxury hamam in Istanbul for 150 TL. You have to know where to go, I suppose. I liked this hamam because they're honest. They walk around smacking your bum and winking at every opportunity so that they can claim you as their own. I think they must make commission. At one point my woman was massaging me and getting her very own massage at the same time. She then told me we had to move to another part of the marble slab, so instead of me getting up she slid me across on my stomach. I was impressed with her strength but concerned for the spectators. After the hamam, I left Kate and the others (at a restaurant) so that I could head up to the castle for a view of the new Ankara (with Erdoğan's Presidential Palace).
That night we went to Retrox for dinner and also to celebrate Rob's birthday. I had a delicious güveç and had bits and pieces of others' meals too. We sang songs and joked around like old times before setting off for Bestekar and then IF. It was one of the best nights out I've had in ages - everyone was happy, and the places were fabulous fun. After everyone had left, it was just Yalin and I so we set off for Eski Yeni - my favourite old bar. The name of the bar is actually Old New, which was highly fitting. We somehow managed to engage a couple on the street in a debate about what it takes to have a double jointed finger. I have many. Ten to be precise.
Sunday I had to hop on yet another plane, this time to return to Istanbul. I was exactly halfway through my vacation and running on roughly four hours of sleep per night. This time in Istanbul I stayed at an upscale hotel in Sultanahmet, not a hostel in Galata. The trek to the hotel was arduous, and that's with my speaking Turkish. After getting a havatas to Taksim, I decided to hop in a cab. The first taxi driver told me he wouldn't drive to the area because of Ramadan - (hiç alakası yok) there's no connection, but I decided not to argue it. The second driver wanted to force me into paying 50 TL, which is exorbitant (şaka mı yapıyorsunuz?). The third said yes, but then the other two started fighting with him so a fourth appeared and I hopped in his cab (hadi gidelim). The third driver then started screaming at the fourth and made him help me exit the cab and get into the other (yeter ya!). When we finally arrived in Sultanahmet the cab driver made me get out, because he was unsure of where we were so I had to walk the rest of the way with all my bags. The hotel workers were very kind and helped me to print some documents like my boarding pass (I was leaving early the next morning). After some chatting and unpacking I set off for the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia. There were huge crowds because of Ramadan, and they'd even erected a makeshift shopping centre nearby.
The inside of the Blue Mosque never fails to amaze.
I bought some food and sat in a single solo chair on a sidewalk watching passersby. I couldn't have looked more out of place if I were wearing a t-shirt that said "yabanci". After that I bargained for some 2TL watermelon and left that area to set off for Istiklal. The walk was beautiful as the night fell. I can't get over the mystique of Istanbul - everywhere you go, you're surrounded by life, history and adventure! It was a difficult trip because I still felt like I fit in, but I knew that I had to return home. It did really raise the question of where I consider home to be, and whether home could ever have a permanence to it. I think this is the nature of growing up as an immigrant compounded with my personal forays into living in different lands. The cultures create you. I know that it was confusing for the Turks I encountered, because I spoke their language, knew the city but didn't live there. I love so much about the culture, but it's difficult to imagine myself in a city where I'll always be an outsider. I'll never be able to just go about my business without being asked where I'm from, why I speak their language and why I'm there...
The beauty of the city is overwhelming, the water is enticing. My walk was calming and allowed me time to think before meeting a friend and setting off on my final night out in Istanbul. I met him on Istiklal and we went to Nevizade - a party street. I don't know anywhere that could compare to the side streets of Istiklal at night and all there is to offer: from dancing circles to lentil delights!
Monday morning came and it was time for me to fly off to Portugal and my sister. I met her in Lisbon, dropped off my luggage and we headed off in search of bacalau. It was delicious! I had developed a taste for if when I lived in Spain in high school and missed its flavor and probably my memories too. Every bite is a journey. I then ate pastel de nata for the first time. I can declare that I am now addicted.
Tuesday was a day of learning about Lisbon. I signed up for two Grayline bus tours as it was an efficient way to see more of Libson in a shorter period of time. I learned about the Tagus River being the longest in the Iberian Peninsula; Chiado being the former entrance to the city; the company that built the 25 April Bridge being the same that built the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge; Lisbon becoming the national capital in 1256 and a huge earthquake destroying much of the city in 1755 with the Marques de Pompal later helping to rebuild.
I also wandered around Belem, and learned about the explorers like Vasco de Gama - I even saw where he was buried in the Iglesia de Santa Maria de Belem. In fact, there were a number of sites around the city devoted to Vasco de Gama, including a shopping mall, tower and bridge (on the 500th anniversary of his Maritime route to India in 1998). I can only hope that one day I'll have a mall named after me.
One of my favourite parts of solo travel is the people you meet along the way. That night my sister and I went out with one of the people I'd chatted with that day. The three of us went to Bairro Alto, which is where the greatest nightlife is in Lisbon. Bars line the streets, but the real party is outside on the cobblestone. We tried ginginja, a type of cherry wine. We also met a really great group of French tourists with whom we chatted and drank until the time came to be responsible and go home and sleep so my sister could wake up in time for class the next day. One disturbing aspect of the night was the fact that a man walked into the same bar as us with a tattoo of a swastika on his arm, and noone seemed bothered. I'd never seen something like that in real life, and it was definitely not something I want to see again.
Wednesday was my day trip to Sintra, which made me realize the value of planning ahead. Since I speak Spanish I thought I'd be fine just asking for answers wherever I went around Portugal, similar to my laissez-faire style in Turkey. I find whenever I speak a language that's local or close enough to local to get by that I tend to rely on just getting by rather than planning ahead. I try to embody go with the flow. In this case, I got lost with the flow and ended up hiking up a mountain for an hour and a half instead of taking a simple 20 minute path or a bus. By the time I reached el Palacio de Pena I was exhausted, but still motivated to learn more. It's one of the most breathtaking palaces I've seen because it's straight out of a fairy tale imagination. If a king ever proposes to me, I'd appreciate it being there. Who wouldn't want to be queen of that castle?
After descending back to the village in a tuk tuk, I sat in a cafe to eat some bacalau balls and a travesseira (the local pastry of Sintra). I took a train to Lisbon, and Sara and I headed to Castelo de São Jorge where we saw the Miradoura St. Luzia and some of the most beautiful views of the city. We then returned back to the centre of the city to eat at Da Vinci restaurant again, where they have the most delicious risotto I've ever had.
I feel like a huge element of any trip for me is the food - I couldn't have chosen two better destinations in that regard. The fresh vegetables, fruit and fish in Portugal were delicious and in Turkey I couldn't get enough of the meat, yoghurt and breads aka İskender kebabı.
Thursday I left Lisbon for Lagos in the Algarve (southern Portugal). I took a bus there, which was about 15 euro and 4 hours. I sat beside a chatty elderly Portuguese lady who wasn't bothered by my only understanding maybe a quarter of what she said (her accent was very different to the people in Lisbon). I found the hostel easily as it's a very small town. There were a huge number of tourists and some very kitschy artifacts, but the natural scenery was stunning.
I dropped my bags, met my bunkmates (three of them) and then began my long walk alone. Somewhere along the way I had been given a map, and for whatever reason I decided my destination was going to be Ponta de Piedade - the tip of the peninsula. I walked for hours past beautiful beaches and cute couples...
Thanks to the beauty, I was inspired to take endless selfies. It's like a disease. Part of the motivation was probably the deep feeling of being alone when you're surrounded by love at every turn - or at least couples who like to look like they're in love for a prime photo shoot opportunity.
I finally made it to Ponta de Piedade before the sunset, with beautiful glows on the water and rocks.
It was well worth the walk out there, but it was definitely quite a stroll back considering that I hadn't the foresight to realize that you can't just call a cab to the middle of nowhere... especially when you have no cell phone to make that call with. I ended up having dinner at Harley's, which came recommended by a bunkmate who happened to be sitting there when I arrived. We had a lovely dinner, but I realized that I needed to be with my sister. It's not worth being in a beautiful place, if you're not there with the people who you want to be with.
The next morning I went and bought a different ticket to Lisbon and told the hostel I wouldn't be staying the night (they wouldn't give me back the money, but that's not a huge surprise). I then settled in for a few hours of beach time at Batata Beach. It's very calming there. Not so calming was the fact that when I had left and was halfway to my hostel I got pooed on by a seagull. Let's hope the legends are true and good luck springs my way. When I did return to the hostel I chatted with a really cool Canadian couple who are travelling the world for a year. Hostels are prime locations for meeting great people, there's no doubt about that. I also managed to find time to check out the Science Alive Museum in Lagos and go to an art gallery. I was the only one cool enough to hang out in a science centre on a Friday in a beach town as I literally had the whole place (and guides) to myself. At one point a strange man appeared and asked if I was Spanish. I said no, but I speak it. He then proceeded to rave about Ibiza being paradise on earth before promptly walking away. This is who comes to a science centre on a Friday in a beach town: me and a 60 year old retired party animal.
My trip back to Lisbon was accompanied by a Master's student from Belgium who chatted with me in French about his fascinating thesis topic, while I tried frantically to contact my sister and alert her to my far earlier return to the apartment. I did manage to catch her and we were able to have a great debrief before going to sleep and readying ourselves for my last day in Portugal. We slept awfully as usual, which isn't surprising given that we were sharing a cot. I don't think a single overweight ten year old could have fit comfortably yet there we were head to toe clutching onto each other so as not to fall to the creaky floor.
We decided that for my last day we should do a trip to a beach near to Lisbon called Cascais. You can't go from Rossio Station, you have to walk a bit further, but it's still in the centre of town and it was only about 5 Euro return. The beach was pretty, but very small and crowded. It was a good opportunity for Sara and I to just relax and enjoy the scenery - to savour the fact that we were hanging out on a beach in Portugal on a sunny Saturday. She engaged in some pick up soccer while I managed gracefully to fall while climbing on some rocks. All I can say is that it was probably less embarrassing than the walk of shame back to my hostel after I was pooed on...
That night (my final night) we went out to Bairro Alto again, this time with Sara's friend Rachel too. We danced and drank and had a fabulous time. I knew I was tired when a man walked out to the street with a tray full of shots and I mistook it for free samples. The bachelor party of men were definitely amused... I suppose it's the proximity, but there was an abundance of Frenchmen. I got into conversation with one while my sister and her friend watched on, when all of a sudden another Frenchman interrupted just to say to me: t'as l'air trop sérieux. Why would it ever be a good idea to tell someone that? Furthermore, why jump into a conversation to share that useless bit of obvious? I've lived with my face 28 years. He thinks I wouldn't know by now? I'm in fact highly aware of the syndrome they call bitchy resting face. In fact that very same day I had done a "beachy resting face" photoshoot in Cascais on the playa. To add insult to injury, not a minute later another Frenchman wanders over and yells out (directed at my sister): t'es la plus belle fille qui j'ai vu ce soir. What did I learn? My sister is a beauty and I'm a strict headmistress.
Sunday meant time for me to leave this fabulous country, my beautiful sister and vacation life. On my journey back to my present reality, I watched an inspiring Turkish film, Kış Uykusu. I'll leave you with this: "A well-planned life doesn't feel like a real one".