Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

I’m back safely from an adventurous holiday in Jordan! Since last week was Kurban Bayram in Turkey (roughly translating to the Sacrifice Holiday for Muslims), everything was closed and we had a weeklong work break. Friday night, Katy and I flew from Istanbul to Amman to begin our adventure vacation.

After sleeping late on Saturday, we woke up and carefully peered from our hotel window in Madaba- a town just outside Amman. We were hesitant about what we would find outside – how were the women dressed? Who was walking around? Did it look safe? Fortunately, all of our deep harbored and American fears about the Middle East turned out to be perfectly fine—the scene outside looked like any other city. People mulled around the dull desert streets, and shops looked open and friendly. Moreover, even though almost every woman we saw was covered, at least they were out and walking around the town.

We began our day by heading to St. Georges’ church where we viewed some amazing mosaics. Somehow, we ended up with an elderly French tour group. While this was not ideal (since the entire thing was in French), we ended up not having to buy a ticket because we apparently blended in so well with the old folks. Following the church, we viewed more mosaics at the Archeological museum.

Mosaic at the Archeological Museum in Madaba

In the afternoon, we decided to book a car through our hotel and tour multiple sites. We began with Mount Nebo- the memorial of Moses and a spectacular viewpoint of the surrounding area. While there isn’t that much to see there, it was nonetheless exciting to be at Moses’ old stomping ground. After Mt. Nebo, we headed out to the Jordan River to Bethany Beyond the Jordan where Jesus was supposedly baptized by John the Baptist. While I found the Jordan River, the view of Israel’s West Bank, and the tour interesting, I’m still not totally convinced of the historical accuracy that this exact spot was were Jesus was baptized. Finally, our driver headed us out to the Dead Sea. Since it was almost sunset, we didn’t buy a ticket to the public beach, we just stopped and climbed down a rocky embankment to the sea. Sans bathing suit, I just admired the view and the absurd amount of salt deposits on the bank while Katy buoyantly floated around for a little while.

View from Mount Nebo

John the Baptist Church at Jesus' Baptism site

River Jordan!

The Dead Sea at sunset

The following day, we were up early for our day long van ride down the scenic King’s Highway to Petra. The road is windy and long, but the views of Wadi Mujib, the canyons, and the dry Jordanian landscape was completely worth the trek. We stopped several times along our route- once at Wadi Mujib (the Grand Canyon of Jordan), once at the castle at Karak, and other various places for amazing photo opportunities.

We spent two days in Wadi Musa, the small town outside the gates of Petra. Petra was most definitely the highlight of my trip. The 3rd century BC Nabataean capital is amazing, and I highly suggest that everyone head to Wadi Musa immediately to see everything Petra has to offer. Katy and I bought a two day pass which was definitely necessary to see everything. The entrance to Petra begins at the Siq which is a couple kilometer walk through a narrow, winding canyon. At the end of the Siq, the Treasury (Indiana Jones, anyone?) comes into site through the rocks. The Treasury is stunning, and we spent quite awhile just staring at it. Like the rest of the city, the Treasury is just a façade- inside is merely a cave. It’s really interesting that the Natataeans spent that much time crafting their city of facades. They had a highly impressive network of roads, water systems, and trade routes, and the city reflects how innovative and exciting the city was at one time. The first day, we walked all over the city including hiking up to the Monastery – another incredibly impressive façade high up through the cliffs of the city. The second day, we explored another hiking route and climbed up to the High Place of Sacrifice from where we could see fabulous views of the entire city. It’s impossible to capture Petra in words or pictures- it is that amazing, and I think it might be the best place I’ve been so far in my sixteen months abroad.
The Siq

The Treasury

Eroding facades

Colonnaded Street

Our next stop was Wadi Rum. We had a mixup with our transportation out of Petra, and ended up having to take a bus headed South toward Aquaba. The driver assured us that he would drop us off at the “junction” that was the turning point for the Wadi Rum protected area in which we were headed. As promised, our driver tossed us out at the “junction” which was not a junction in any modern sense of the word—around us was only desolate desert. There weren’t cars zooming past us or many signs of life. After laughing at our misfortune, we crossed the road to where a minivan with two Arab men had stopped and were standing outside the car motioning us to get in. The van looked as if it was about to fall apart at any second, and the two men looked a little dirty and skeptical, but having no better option we grudgingly put our packs in the back and jumped in. After we began heading toward Wadi Rum, we noticed the van didn’t go faster than about 30mph which was a great discovery- that’s definitely slow enough to jump out if need be. We arrived without incident.

Wadi Rum was incredibly beautiful. I’ve never been to a desert before, and this exceeded my expectations. Our Bedouin guide- Obeid picked us up from the Wadi Rum visitors center, and we bounced around in his jeep heading toward his camp. Once there, we grabbed some pita before heading out on a camel trek. I don’t remember the last time I was on a camel/does the zoo count? Camels are kind of smelly, but at the same time they’re quite majestic at the same time. They have really large, human-like eyes with long lashes, and they are very friendly animals. After our camel adventure, we then headed out for our jeep trek through the desert. For four hours we careened around the sand and rock – occasionally stopping to view rock bridges and picturesque desert scenes.

Camel Trek

Under a Rock Bridge in the desert!

After returning to camp, we watched the desert sunset followed by tea around the campfire and a delicious dinner which was in large metal canisters and actually dug up from the sand outside the camp. We fell asleep in our tent early.

After leaving Wadi Rum, we had no idea how to get back to Amman where we hoped to spend our last few days. We thought about hitchhiking, but Obeid recommended that we take a taxi an hour south to Aquaba and then take a bus from there to Amman. We decided we would go to Aquaba in the morning and spend the afternoon on the beach lounging at the Red Sea. After we arrived and book late afternoon bus tickets, we unfortunately noticed that everyone (everyone meaning probably everyone in Aquaba- the place was packed!) at the Red Sea public beach in Aquaba was fully covered. The women were all fully covered women, and some splashed in the waves still fully clothed- headscarf and all. There was no way Katy or I was getting in that water wearing a bikini. No way. We settled for eating approximately three Happy Meals and two McFlurry’s each over a six hour span at a nearby McDonalds.

Back in Amman that evening (after a brief yet terrifying bus fight incident involving and elderly woman who got the best of a terrified teenager), we checked into a hostel that was only a slight step above sleeping on the street. We spent the next day at Jerash exploring the ancient and impressively preserved ruins there.

Our final day in Jordan was spent at a public beach on the Dead Sea alternating between sunbathing, floating, and battling the bajillion flies that bombarded us. We flew back to Istanbul on a red-eye flight, and even though I loved Jordan I was thrilled to be back in Turkey. I will tell you soon about the beginning of our holiday season here!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Turkish Road Trip!

When I lived in Seoul, I made a point to leave the city occasionally for mini-vacays and some fresh air. My life in Istanbul is no different, and I am trying to get out of the city every now and then. Last weekend was a holiday weekend, and my roommate, Katy, and I were joined in Istanbul by three of our friends from Korea who have relocated to Eastern Europe. I had a blast spending time with Jen, Mark, and Byeong-Hun, and I hope Katy and I get more visitors soon!

Our weekend started at the rental car office where we had rented an adorable little stick shift that was to be our wheels for the weekend. Katy was our driver (no easy feat in Turkish traffic and a stick), and she did a great job getting us around safely. First, we headed to the port on the outskirts of Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara. We drove our little rental with all five of us crammed inside onto a large sea ferry at Yalova heading across the sea to our destination at Ayvalık. After a short and uneventful ferry ride, we had about a four hour drive to the Aegean coast. The scenery was stunning, and it was exciting to be out of Istanbul and into the much less populated Turkish countryside. We finally reached Ayvalık around 9PM then spent the next hour careening through precariously narrow alleys searching for our pansiyon. Our quest ended when we finally ended up stopping and waiting on an adorable old man from the accommodations to come find us. Following a terrifying incident on a steep hill in our stick, we finally settled into our Ayvalık pansiyon for the night.

The next morning we ate a fabulous Turkish Breakfast of tea, coffee, olives, hardboiled egg, various cheeses, jams, and fresh bread provided by the adorable old man from the night before and his wife. We then headed out into the alleys of Ayvalık which seemed much less confusing in the light. Ayvalık is located on the Aegean just a short distance from Lesbos, Greece which can be seen across the turquoise water. The weather was chilly, but we spent several hours shopping and sightseeing in the resort town (which I hope to return to in the summer). Ayvalık was a mess of narrow, cobblestoned alleyways full of stray cats, fresh fish, and tiny stores offering an array of knickknacks. It was impossible not to like it.

The narrow streets of Ayvalık

The Aegean Sea!

After lunch, we piled back into our little rental where we headed down the “scenic route” towards the town of Bergama – the present day city at the ancient acropolis of Pergamum - a site of Hellenistic period ruins.

The beautiful drive from Ayvalık to Bergama

Following a second terrifying incident on a steep hill in our stick (this time involving Mark jumping out to help push the vehicle up the hideous, cobblestone incline), we made it safely up the mountain to the acropolis. The ruins at Pergamum were worth our afternoon.


We had planned to spend the night on the road before heading back to Istanbul on Sunday, but we were having so much fun on our car ride (Turkish music and the questions game), we decided to drive back late that night.

One week later, Katy and I are leaving for Amman tonight where we will spend the next nine days touring the spectaular sites in Jordan!

Have an awesome week and Happy Kurban Bayram

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Two Months In...

Somehow it is already mid-November and I am almost two months into my new life as a Turkish resident. Obviously, I’ve been miserable at writing and updating my blog and now so much has happened that it would be impractical to efficiently describe my life in one post. Alas, I will make an attempt. I think my friend Rachel wrote it best in her blog (http://anyidiotwithablog.blogspot.com) when she says,

“I've seen so many amazing things in my life, sometimes I worry that I'll never be able to appreciate them all properly. Who thought I would get to do these things in my life?...Even the ordinary day to day of my life as a teacher is made more exciting by the fact that I live abroad. I'm not just grocery shopping, I'm grocery shopping in Czech… I'm going to try to be better about recording it all, so that later when I look back on it I'll have another chance to appriciate just how fantastic it's all been.”

Thanks to Rachel’s inspiration, I will now try to do the same.

My favorite spot in Istanbul

First, Istanbul is beautiful. I know, I know—obviously. But, it’s not just beautiful, it’s like really, really, really beautiful. I’ve lived in Paris and Seoul, I’ve traveled through some of the best places Europe, Asia, and North America offer, and I really don’t think there is a comparable place in the world. There is something spectacularly unique here. Something completely foreign yet familiar about hearing the call to prayer from my open window, about the skyline of minarets at sunset, about the way the Bosphorus changes colors from gray to blue to gem green depending on the weather, about the old men playing backgammon in back alleys, about the smell of a simit cart in the morning, about the stuffed mussels sold on the streets, about the unparalleled, gleaming teal in the ceramic tiles, about the tea served in tulip glasses after every meal, about a special je ne sais quoi in the red of the Turkish flag as it flaps over the streets, about the simple, yet mouthwatering fish sandwiches sold at the iskelesi (port), about the genius shared taxi system that should be in every city in the world (the dolmus – which quite accurately translates to “full”), about the colors of the headscarves some women wear, about the market streets spilling over with colorful fruits and fresh, shiny, fish, about kumpir-the stuffed baked potatoes that I make a point to eat at least once a week, about the food, the people, the smells...

Sunset Skyline

I’ve done some fabulous tourist things such as cruise down the Bosphorus on a boat tour from the mouth of the Sea of Marmara all the way up the straight to Anadolu Kavağı where the Bosphorus opens into the Black Sea.

View on the Bosphorus Cruise Tour

I’ve enjoyed walking around the old city near Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque where I wandered around the Hippodrome and toured Basilica Cistern.

Inside Basilica Cistern... the ancient cistern reportedly built by Constantine.
It's quite eerie inside.

I’ve eaten seafood on Galata Bridge while watching the fishermen and the sunset, and I’ve eaten admired Galata Tower from near and afar.
Galata Tower!
Fishermen on Galata Bridge

I’ve also done my share of shopping at the Grand Bazaar, the Sunday Market at Ortaköy, and the Monday market in my neighborhood. I’ve been quite lazy about museums, but as soon as the weather turns, I plan on spending my time looking at the amazing collections around the city.

A lazy cat lounging at the Grand Bazaar

I could go on for paragraphs about Istanbul and how much fun I’m having here, but just so you aren’t jealous, I’ll point out a few of the not so great parts about the city as well. To begin with, you can’t go anywhere without breathing in an obscene amount of bus exhaust, pollution, and a pack of someone else’s cigarettes. The air in Istanbul is quite filthy.

Next, Turks do not wear deoderant. Koreans don’t wear deoderant either, but they don’t need it—and let me tell you, the Turkish people need it. From what I can gather, the deoderant aversion may have something to do with protecting the environment. A student of mine responded to an environmental essay question on a test by stating that deoderant was a principle cause of global warming and ended the short, dramatic essay with, “The animals are dying.”

Finally, the traffic is unreal. Not only are there more Renault’s and tiny European cars crammed into narrow streets that could not have accommodated the traffic of the Byzantines much less of today, but the citizens of Istanbul have the typical driving skills of Europeans. (ie Americans follow traffic laws surprisingly well while lanes, laws, lanes, traffic lights, lanes and general and reasonable amounts of caution are completely lost on fellow drivers on the other side of the Atlantic). Add in complete and utter ambivalence about the overuse of the horn, and that’s Istanbul traffic in a nutshell. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the city is split in half by the Bosphorus and the intercontinental bridge (lovely and large as it is) cannot handle the amount of commuter traffic in the city. Despite these few issues I have with the city, it is a lovely city and I hope to see all of you here soon!

Visitors are always welcome!