Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas in Istanbul

A Turkish breakfast -- boiled eggs, olives, honey and cream, village cheese, and copious amounts of tea and bread -- before perusing an exhibit of Saudi contemporary art. Then home to start cooking an English-style roast. A ham, of course, was pretty much out of the question in this mostly Muslim country. The weather was mild, the streets busy with Saturday strollers and shoppers. I watched birds circle over my apartment building and thought about my loved ones still asleep in the United States, presents resting under a six-foot tree, and those blanketed with snow in Europe.

A union group started a protest march in front of the neighborhood hospital, chanting loudly and blocking traffic. Just a couple of streets away, bereaved families gathered underneath the municipality-strung New Year’s lights on İstiklal Caddesi to demand justice, for the 300th time, for relatives who had disappeared while in police or military custody or been the victims of unsolved murders, a story we’d report the next day at the newspaper where I work.

As I walked home after leaving the office on Dec. 26, I noticed colorfully frosted cookies in the shape of snowmen and fir trees had appeared in the window of a local bakery – just in time for New Year’s.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Monday, December 13, 2010

10 free things to do in Istanbul

There’s no doubt that the cost of living in – and visiting – Istanbul keeps creeping up and up. While working on a new guide to the city for Simonseeks.com, I was shocked to see how expensive some of my favorite attractions, such as the Bosphorus Tour, had become since I first encountered Istanbul as a wide-eyed tourist. But there are still plenty of things to – some seasonally, others throughout the year – that don’t cost even a kuruş.


1. Gallery-hop down İstiklal Caddesi – Between the Akbank and Yapı Kredi (right) cultural centers, the numerous galleries in the beautiful old Misir Apartment building, and the new contemporary art center Arter, Beyoğlu’s main drag has plenty to entertain an art lover for an afternoon or more.

2. Visit Istanbul’s top modern-art museum – The high-profile Istanbul Modern museum in Tophane is free to all comers on Thursdays, when it’s open from 10am to 8pm. Though the permanent collection of Turkish painting and sculpture upstairs is often overshadowed by the views across the water to Asia and the Old City, the photography gallery and temporary exhibition hall downstairs show innovative work from around the world. While you’re there, cross the parking lot to check out Sanat Limanı (Art Port), a new warehouse space that’s always free of charge.

3. Watch a film festival screening – Film buffs can catch free screenings of movies with English subtitles at the Mountain Film Festival in early spring, the Istanbul International Short Film Festival in November, and periodic events hosted by Documentarist.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dünyada ilk ve tek!

I can't help but laugh every time I see the sign: "Dünyada ilk defa 30 çesit çorba bir arada." For the first time in the world, 30 assorted soups in one place! Really? You've called all the soup places in all of the world's 190+ countries and none of them serve more than 29 different soups? (I also highly suspect that at any given time, at least half of Çorbacı's soups have kalmadı, but that's another story altogether.)

The same sweeping and dramatic statement is very common in Turkish advertising, with the "ilk" (first) often coupled with "tek" (only). I'd say it might have something to do with the seeming penchant among richer Turks for valuing something's exclusiveness or status value over its actual quality, but if so, those utilizing the strategy must be hoping for some kind of trickle-down effect to the masses who patronize soup shops and buy frozen peas.

Yep, frozen peas: "Türkiye'de ilk ve tek! Aç kapa paket" -- the first and only open-close package in Turkey. Never mind that the package of lavash (flatbread) in my refrigerator has the exact same ziploc-style re-sealable top. If it's the "first and only" frozen-pea package with one, that's surely good enough for an ilk ve tek.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Carnival: Regrettable Trips

From getting sick to getting lost to getting stuck, travel sometimes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Following a group look at favorite places around the world, I asked my fellow Lonely Planet bloggers to describe their most regrettable trips, those travel experiences that are memorable, but not necessarily in a good way. While some took the opportunity to warn others about places they should strike from their itineraries, others reflected on how even the most nightmarish trips can have some benefits – if only leaving the traveler with a good story to tell. My own “worst place” – a straggly town on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border – ended up being an awful lot of fun.

A Small Trip With a Big Impact
Wanderlust spurred Vago Damitio of Vagobond to take what ended up being the most regrettable trip of his life, but he didn’t end up getting far. Fed up with his hometown, he decided to enlist in the Marines and see the world. Things didn’t work out quite as the recruiter promised.

Frustration in China
Looking back on her trip to China from the vantage point of a beautiful beach, Barbara Ann Weibel of Hole In The Donut Travels can see the value in her experience, but at the time it was pure hell: unscrupulous taxi drivers, umbrella jabs to the forehead, “vegetarian” dishes full of pork, flooded hotel rooms, and rejected credit cards. Her confidence took a beating, but this intrepid traveler eventually got her groove back.

Struck Ill in Indonesia
Illness is a common theme of bad travel experiences, but while most people suffer through some bouts of what we always called “Montezuma’s revenge,” Simi Bhagwandass of See Simi Travel Blog contracted dengue fever while sleeping deep in the jungle in an Indonesian national park. One of the 61 mosquito bites she got on her ankles alone led to three feverish weeks from which she’s thankfully recovered.

Heinous Hen Parties in Majorca
For the stag and hen parties dressed like Borat and naughty nurses, the Majorcan beach resort of Magaluf is paradise; for writer Vibeke Montero of Photito's Blog, it was just the opposite. She wrote about his trip earlier this year, but says: “I hate that place enough to spread the word twice.”

A Chilly Dip in the Mediterranean
The story submitted by Erin of La Tortuga Viajera reminded me of all the times in San Francisco that I’d watch tourists shiver in their shorts and just-purchased Alcatraz sweaters, obviously unaware before their trip that California is not always warm. Used to the temperate waters of Thailand, the cold-weather-hating Erin planned a Mediterranean diving trip in November and ended up “submerged under ten meters of freezing cold, murky water while I got sloshed around like I was in the laundry cycle.” The hotel filled with tacky animal figurines was just the icing on the cake.

What was the most regrettable trip you ever took?

Participants in the LonelyPlanet BlogSherpa program host periodic “blog carnivals” on various travel-related themes. The last one, hosted by La Tortuga Viajera, looked at unique customs around the world; next up, a Christmas-themed carnival from Inside the Travel Lab.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Travel without regrets

If I had to pick the worst place I've ever been, it just might be Termez, Uzbekistan (pictured). But I don't regret passing through one bit. I had gone with some friends to the southern town to cross the border into Afghanistan for a short visit to Mazar-e Sharif. (This was back in late 2004, when the situation there seemed relatively optimistic.) Though our paperwork was all in order, the Uzbeks didn't want us to leave. As we seemed to be the only four tourists in the entire country at that particular time, I guess I don't really blame them. After a day wasted at the dusty border, shelling almonds and eating them with the guards, we were stuck. Most of the town was blacked out and running water was in short supply as well. By calling on some connections, we learned there were two places we could stay: a hulking empty school building, or a little house that didn't look like it had been occupied since the 1970s. We chose the house, picking our way down a dark back alley to reach the door.

Thus settled in, we found a surprisingly lively little restaurant serving the usual fare of kebabs and grease-covered soup, and then made for the local "disko bar," a sleazy number in the basement of the Hotel Surkhan patronized largely by German and Dutch soldiers stationed at the nearby military base and the Uzbek women who come to try and snag a foreign husband or at least some cash on the bedside table. Fueled by plenty of beer and vodka, the night we spent dancing there is one of my most murkily memorable.

I've been lucky in that I feel I've had very few -- if any -- truly regrettable travel experiences. Though there's been plenty of times I've kicked myself for embarking on some ill-thought-out venture -- usually an endless walk along some unpleasant thoroughfare, or perhaps an interminable bus ride to some shuttered sight -- it's stumbling upon the best darn shawarma joint in Tripoli, cracking jokes with the bored ticket-takers at an empty resort area near Fethiye, or getting a private tour in the pouring rain of the ruins of an old Irish church that stick with me. Though I do still regret not shoving my way onto that packed minibus to the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria. Next time I won't take no for an answer.

NOTE: Tomorrow I'll be featuring stories from other Lonely Planet-affiliated travel bloggers about their own "regrettable trips."

Friday, November 26, 2010

Turkey in Turkey III, the facts and figures

I hosted Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday for the third time in three years, something that has quickly become my favorite tradition in Turkey. As I've explained to the many non-Americans I've shared the occasion with, Thanksgiving is the best American holiday because there's no religion and no gift-buying involved, just eating and drinking with people you (hopefully) like.

Once I cooked a turkey successfully the first year, I decided not to really mess with that, but when October rolls around, I always start looking for new side-dish recipes to add to the ones worth cooking again. This year's menu included:

And for dessert (not made by me), a quince tart and Iranian halva.

On the guest list:
  • 5 Americans
  • 3 Brits
  • 2 Iranians
  • 2 Germans
  • 1 Dane
  • 1 French
  • 1 Turk
The ingredients in the meal were a little melting pot of their own, including:
  • American cranberries and Danish sausage from Denmark
  • Danish blue cheese from Lebanon (I decided to hold onto the French Roquefort from Djibouti for another occasion)
  • rosewater brought straight from Iran that morning
  • American maple syrup acquired in Portugal
  • sea salt, cayenne pepper, hot sauce, and various other things transported from America
  • and, of course,
  • a turkey from Turkey
Since so many of the guests were celebrating their first-ever Thanksgiving, I decided to make a little speech explaining the meaning of the holiday, in the warm fuzzy way we learned in elementary school before we knew anything about colonialism or small pox. As I went through the story, it started to feel strangely appropriate, speaking as I was to a group of people who have settled in a land that was not our own, relying on each other to help us get through the hard metaphorical winters -- the bureaucracy, the strangeness, the language barrier, the loneliness -- and harvest something valuable from our sometimes faltering labors. Şükran günümüz kutlu olsun! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Break-dancers, suicide bombers, and the illusion of safety: Confessions of a fearful traveler

It was crisp and clear yesterday morning as I raced through Istanbul’s Taksim Square, fretting that I should have left the house just a few minutes earlier and grumbling to myself, as usual, about having to work on yet another Sunday. In the center of the square, underneath the massive statue commemorating Turkish independence, a limber teenage boy was doing a one-armed hand-hop to the delight of a small crowd while two girls practiced lower-to-the-ground break-dancing moves. I stopped to watch for a moment and smiled, my foul mood temporarily lightened.

Thirty minutes later, a suicide bomber blew himself up at that very spot in an attack on police forces stationed at the square, injuring 15 officers and 17 passersby. I didn’t learn what had happened until I reached the office of the newspaper where I work. When we switched on the TV as we do each morning, the sound of sirens filled the newsroom.

Though it was by no means the first such attack in Istanbul, this one, quite literally, hit closer to home....

Read the rest on Salon.com, which published this essay as one of its "Life stories" under the title "All my little illusions of safety"

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An American in Turkey

Going on three years in Istanbul, life in Turkey feels like, well, life. I work, I run, I cook, I go to museums and movies, I hang out with my friends -- pretty much what I would be doing in San Francisco, with the occasional cultural misunderstanding, quirky event, or bureaucratic tangle to liven things up. Sometimes I wonder what it all means, if I've really experienced any of the change or growth I hoped for when I bought that one-way plane ticket back in 2007.

So I was pleased to have the opportunity to reflect a bit on my life abroad thus far for fellow blogger Camden Luxford's "Adjusting to Life as an Expat" series. Camden, a seasoned Australian traveler, was surprised at how difficult she found acclimating to life in Cusco, Peru, and decided to interview other expats about their own transitions.

You can read my answers to Camden's thought-provoking questions in "Expat Interview #13: An American in Turkey," the latest in a series of online conversations with foreigners in far-flung places, including China, Kosovo, and Morocco.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Featured traveller

The travel-writing website Matador has featured my profile this month. Look for my smiling face at spot #19 on the site's "Photo Essay: Meet Matador Members, October Edition" list:

"Jennifer Hattam is a journalist, blogger, traveler, photographer, wanderer, reader, and enjoyer of good things to eat and drink."

Pretty much says it all, değil mi?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The ugly side of Istanbul

Sometimes, you just don't want to be right. Last night after work, I met up with some friends and headed down the main street in my old neighborhood to an "art walk" among a cluster of galleries hosting openings in the Tophane area of Istanbul. Civilized, right? Being as this is Turkey, I was a bit surprised to see some people strolling around outside with beer bottles and plastic cups of wine. As we approached our first destination, Galeri NON, the crowd thickened, blocking the sidewalk. "I hope this won't be a problem for them," I told my German translator friend, thinking mostly that the police might break the event up as they had a recent street party featuring alcohol.

When we finally squeezed our way into the gallery, the first thing we saw was a squat, comic sculpture of a winged Atatürk tipped over on its side. (Go to the gallery's website to see the piece, "Melek Atatürk ya da Rodin Kemalist Olsaydi," translated as "Angel Atatürk or If Only Rodin Had Been a Kemalist"; I'm not posting it here.) "Is that kind of thing allowed?" I joked to my friend. "What? The dog?" she replied, pointing at a skinny dog in a sweater sniffing around the statue. "Only if it pees on the sculpture!" she laughed. Mocking the founder of the Turkish Republic is, after all, punishable by law.

Nationalists and Islamists alike came in for their share of criticism in the politically minded exhibit by Extrastruggle. Our favorite piece may have been the sculpture of a bikini-ed girl lying out on a beach blanket, a jet fighter on her kicked-up feet, reading the 1982 Constitution.

But back to the real story. We left NON, met up with some other friends at Elipsis Gallery, looked at some unappealing photos of naked women, had a couple of drinks, and headed out to move on up the street to the next venue. It immediately become clear, though, that something was going on outside of NON. My favorite photojournalist and I hustled down the street to see what was happening (pure professional interest, of course) as the crowd started streaming back toward us, slowly at first, and then in an increasingly panicky fashion. I saw a few men brawling in the street and, not feeling I needed to see much more, signaled to my friend that we should go. I learned later he had seen a man get hit over the head by a bottle and a woman punched in the face. Bottles started smashing in the street. People were screaming. We ran.

Ducking into a side street as the mob of 20 or 30 young men (and the people running in their wake) passed, we tended to a frightened stranger who had been caught up in the fray and unable to run well due to her high heels. Shopkeepers kept coming up to say, "It's OK," but one man approached us in a very serious way. "There were people out drinking. That's not accepted in this neighborhood," he said. "They're going to come back. It will happen again. You should leave." It wasn't a threat, but, I believe, a good-hearted warning.

Regrouping with the rest of our friends, we learned that a street sign had been thrown through the glass door of one of the galleries as people tried to scurry inside. Debate raged about whether the drinking, the controversial art, or a combustible combination of both, had provoked the assailants. I'll leave that to the local press and the police to decide. (So far, they seem to be leaning toward the alcohol theory.) All I know is I don't really want to be right about something like that again.

UPDATE (Oct. 18, 2010): Turkish media devoted extensive attention to the story of the Tophane attacks, which also made the international news in many countries. Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet read this blog post and contacted me to get my take on the events, and the German culture magazine Perlentaucher linked to my post as well.

* Photos of police standing around the neighborhood, late on the scene as usual, and a man injured in the fray from Habertürk.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An innocent abroad

When it comes to travel, I'm definitely the black sheep in my family. No one else even has a passport and my parents often need reminding that it's not 3 p.m. in Istanbul when it's 3 p.m. in San Francisco, but that it is summer in both places at the same time. People often ask me how I caught the travel bug, and I honestly can't say. I do remember when my first serious case struck, though.

I was 23 years old and being laid off from my second job in less than a year. Instead of calling my mother, my best friend, or my boyfriend for a sympathetic ear, I picked up the phone and dialed a travel agent. I was planning my first trip to Europe, a visit with my then-boyfriend to see his family in England and Denmark, and with those pesky limits on vacation days suddenly a non-issue, I wanted more time. I had my passport, my Western Europe guidebook, my Eurorail pass, a kabillion rolls of film, and a borrowed backpack that was way too big for me. I was ready.

The extra two weeks I spent on my own were a blur of train stations, hostels, subway rides, museums, and park-bench picnics. In fine young American backpacker style, I managed to get from London to Brussels to Amsterdam to Munich to Berlin to Paris and back again, because why not see as much as you possibly can? This Europe place is a long way away and you might never get back there again, after all... I slept on a creaky metal bunk in a dingy Parisian suburb and in the boyfriend's parents' posh holiday apartment in Hampstead Heath. I got an actual appreciation of the Dutch Masters at the Rijksmuseum, but was probably more impressed by the graffiti in the East Side Gallery. I struggled over menus, afraid of accidentally ordering pork knuckles in Germany, and tasted Indonesian food for the first time in Amsterdam. I cried while visiting Dachau, and just because I was lonely, too shy to meet a soul the way all the guidebooks say you will effortlessly while traveling on your own.

Berlin, its skies dark with construction cranes and still rough at the edges, made a lasting impression, as did Paris, a place I only reluctantly put on my agenda because it was at the other end of the "Chunnel" from London. It was too cliche, too raved-about; it couldn't possibly be any good. It was. I ate crepes and read books while sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg, marveling at how everyone else was reading too, how people really were so much more intellectual in Europe! I bought bread and cheese and fruit and a bottle of wine that hardly cost more than a bottle of water and the French shopkeeper wasn't even mean to me. I spent hours at the Picasso and Rodin museums, amazed at how Picasso worked a theme in so many different variations and mediums and how a cold sculpture could be so expressive and warm.

After the two weeks were up, I gladly headed back to San Francisco, tired, homesick, footsore... and ready for more. I still am.

NOTE: Every experienced traveler starts with a first trip somewhere. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' experiences venturing away from home or to a new destination for the first time at the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: First-Time Travels, hosted by Claire Algarme of (fittingly) First-Time Travels. What's your first-time travel story?

Monday, August 30, 2010

What's lost and left

Cities like New York, Paris, and Istanbul that are firmly embedded in the popular imagination have become concepts almost as much as places themselves. I think that's why I can sometimes feel nostalgic about a city I only saw for the first time nine years ago, nostalgic even for a time before I was born -- the time of wooden bridges, and taxi service to Trabzon, and people dressed properly to go to the islands, as shown in Ozan Sağdıç's photos of Istanbul in the 1950s (currently on display at FotoTrek).

Istanbul didn't make the Matador Network's list of "21 Iconic Places, a Century Ago and Today," but the before-and-after images of Shanghai, Manhattan, Sydney, and other spots inspired me to go dig up some old images of the city that San Francisco photographer-about-town David Gallagher had sent me a while back and go try and find the same locations today.

Looking over the Galata Bridge toward Beyoğlu in a late-1800s Photochrome from the Library of Congress' collection of Istanbul images on Flickr:

And approximately the same scene (with a higher new bridge and lower vantage point) today:

The Yeni Cami (New Mosque) in Eminönü, in 1890:

And in 2010:

The Tophane Fountain, then:

And now:

And the "Place de Tophane":

Now (I think), Necatıbey Caddesi in front of the Nusretiye Mosque:

Click through to see more then-and-now images from Istanbul.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The flip side of fasting

When the evening call to prayer rang out as I went to board the tram the other night, the platform attendant called out to me, stepping out of his booth to offer me a date -- the traditional food used to break the fast during Ramadan. Onboard, a man carried a large bottle of water and a plastic cup down the aisle, offering sips to fellow Muslims who had been abstaining from food or drink since before sunrise. In the historical center of the city, families brought pots of tea, freshly baked bread, and home-cooked dishes to eat on the grassy Hippodrome in the shadow of the area's great mosque.

These modest fast-breaking practices, however, are increasingly being supplanted by lavish meals that many say dishonor the spirit of the Muslim holy month -- and create an immense amount of waste....

Read the rest of "Muslims Fight Food Waste During Ramadan" over at TreeHugger, where I blog four times a week about environmental issues in Turkey and around the world. Like what you see there? Subscribe to my personal TreeHugger RSS feed.

Photo by Istanbul during Ramadan by laszlo-photo via Flickr. The illuminated writing between the mosque's minarets reads "Believers are brothers."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Eight millennia underfoot

I spent last winter living in a building constructed in 1880 -- charmingly crumbling and ancient by my American standards, but representing just a blip in Istanbul time. Still, despite the perennial jokes about the "New Mosque" (completed in 1663) and the ever-present reminders like the big stone aqueduct looming over the highway, it's surprisingly easy to become inured to the fact that those massive walls you pass by on the bus to work every day were built in the 5th century, that beneath the streets you walk on to get home lie centuries of history -- 8,000 years of it, according to an engrossing show currently on display at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum.

Fellow expat Carpetblogger recommended the air-conditioned exhibit as a respite from the hot, sticky weather earlier this month, but we both had to agree "Legendary Istanbul" has a lot more going for it than just a well-functioning klima. The showstoppers are probably the ceiling projection of designs from domes around the city and the massive tent made out of carpets a la the ones that would have been set up for the sultans during their battle campaigns. But most noteworthy to me was a grouping of figurines recovered from the "Silahtarağa statues" (pictured, poorly, at right). Admittedly, I almost walked past with a dismissive glance -- another smattering of armless statues -- but then I noticed the familiar-looking name.

Needing to remind myself where Silahtarağa is -- and having overcome my typical resistance to walking around the museum with an audio-tour device stuck to my ear -- I learned that the statues had been uncovered during construction of the coal-fired power plant that later became the site of the SantralIstanbul college campus and museum complex. Which meant I had laid on the grass, looked at art, attended a water-activists' workshop, and eaten a passable prosciutto sandwich in the same place where those statues were made in the 4th century.

Personal connection aside, the Silahtarağa statues were apparently made to depict the famous mythological battle between the Greek gods and the giants. The victorious gods were carved out of smooth white stone while the defeated giants were fashioned from rough dark rock -- perhaps the earliest known example of heavy-handed Hollywood-style "white hat"/"black hat" symbolism.

TO VISIT: The "Legendary Istanbul" exhibit is on view until Sept. 26 at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul's Emirgan neighborhood. The museum is open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Wednesday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A tie that bonds, and binds

More than a decade ago, when I was in college, I got a call on my birthday from my high-school boyfriend. This wasn't unusual in and of itself; he's a thoughtful guy and did so for many years. But on that particular day, he was spending his January break in India, and told me he had walked -- I can't remember exactly, but at least a couple of miles -- in order to find a phone. It still ranks among the nicest gestures anyone's ever made toward me.

Now, living in Istanbul in 2010, if I want to call any of my friends back home, I just sit down in front of my computer, put on my dorky call-center operator headphones, and pull up the little dialing pad on Skype. It's essentially free (I pay $2.95 a month for unlimited outgoing calls to the U.S. and Canada) and generally of decent quality, though a sketchy Internet connection can thwart my good intentions at any time.

While I still find the idea of walking down a dusty road to find a phone or waiting weeks for a letter from home terribly romantic, it's hard to imagine how expats managed in the days before the Internets. Honestly, I'm not sure if I would have been made of tough enough stuff for it. In my somewhat pared down life, my trusty laptop has become stereo, television, telephone, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and photo album all rolled into one. (I can't bring myself to ditch books yet.) When my hard drive started crashing, it felt like a crisis of epic proportions. When the Internet is operating at a snail's pace (not uncommon), I feel indignant, and when the power goes out (as it somewhat often does), I'm completely lost. As one of my fellow expats once described the all-consuming importance of the computer: "But all my friends are in there!"

Grateful as I am for the opportunity to chat with old friends online, read my hometown newspaper (for all its faults), and watch (technically banned) YouTube videos, though, I do wonder how much my experience here has been shaped, and limited, by the ready ability to keep close connections to home. Without them, would I have immersed myself more fully in all things Turkey, improved my Turkish, made closer local friends, spent less time inside? I don't know, but I also don't know if I'd want to find out.

NOTE: Whether for better or worse, the Internet has changed the way we travel. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' experiences getting online around the world in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Internet Connections, hosted by Jason Malinowski of AlpacaSuitcase.

* This photo is, obviously, not from Turkey, but was taken instead in Tacarigua, Isla Margarita, Venezeula.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dondurmacı vs. Japon

Sometimes you just want an ice cream, dammit. You're not going to get it from this guy (or anyone else in Turkey wearing the same goofy uniform):

As a side note, I suppose it could be seen as a sign that I've been here too long that the chewy ice cream tastes just fine to me.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hayırlı Ramazanlar

Non-believers can find plenty to gripe about during Ramazan: getting woken up at 2 a.m. every night for a month by loud, tuneless drummers; having your already-nearly-impossible-to-catch evening serviş bus moved up by half an hour to make sure the observant get home in time for iftar; and feeling guilty about drinking water in the midday heat while your neighbors refrain from letting anything pass their lips in the same 90-degree weather that has you dying for a beer. Oh, and the occasional yabancı friend getting hit on the head with a bottle for imbibing during the holy month.

But at certain moments, the beauty, rather than the bother, of the occasion comes to the fore. Saturday night was one of those times. A slight breeze had picked up as I walked with a pair of friends down through our neighborhood to the main road. As dusk rapidly fell, tables were being set up on sidewalks and in alleys for people to break their fasts, whether with a multi-course meal or a humble serving of lahmacun. Some people already sat in front of their plates, patiently waiting for the sunset call to prayer that signals an end to the day's abstention. (Full disclosure: We did also witness a near-brawl at the local butcher shop that may or may not have been Ramadan-related.) The ezan began to echo out from the mosques as we hopped on the tram, and by the time we got off a few stops later, the mahyas were glowing in between the minarets and the streets were full of people eating and socializing happily.

That night was also the kickoff of "Ramazanda Caz" (Jazz in Ramadan), a series of concerts by Muslim musicians, and about as religious of an experience as I'm likely to have. The atmosphere was indeed reverential as Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem and his quartet played their lovely, melancholy mix of Arab classical music, Mediterranean/Persian/Indian melodies, and, of course, jazz, under the soaring, moodily lit neo-Greek columns of the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Fireworks, football chants, and the final ezan of the night blended with the music as the leaves fluttered ever so slightly overhead. The beauty, community, and sense of peace seemed to exemplify some kind of Ramadan spirit, which wasn't even entirely dispelled by the taxi driver who tried to rip us off on our way home.

Friday, August 6, 2010

'Wandering the streets, not quite belonging and not quite a stranger'

It's amazing how quickly you can fall into the same old routines in a completely new place. After two and a half years living in Istanbul, I've largely succumbed (for now!) to the familiar rotation of work — dinner — drinks with friends — maybe going to the gym, but for quite a long time I was "the girl who actually goes out and does stuff." Usually alone, because there are precious few other people who would get excited (or even just not completely annoyed) by a four-hour urban hike that leads precisely nowhere in particular. And generally on foot, initially for fear of getting ripped off by a taxi driver or utterly lost on one of Istanbul's hundred bus lines. Though I'm now perfectly capable of tackling every mode of transportation the city has to offer, wandering on foot is still often the best way to go.

I always recommend that visitors stay in Beyoğlu, the "New City," rather than near the concentrated tourist sights of Sultanahmet. Yes, we have way better bars and restaurants over here on this side of the Golden Horn (and way fewer flag-waving tour-group guides), but I'm also hooked on crossing that lesser-appreciated waterway and hope guests will be too....

Read the rest at EverTheNomad, where I've written a guest post about some of my favorite places in Istanbul for fellow Lonely Planet travel blogger Anja Mutić's very cool site.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ordinary encounters I won't forget

"Çekme! Çekme!" Though I couldn't see the source of the voice as I squinted into the low sun, which had been setting ever so beautifully on one of Ayvalık's old cobblestone streets, the message was clear: Don't take that picture. I lowered my camera. "Çekmiyorum," I called back. I'm not shooting. Afraid of what faux pas I might have committed or what awkward situation I might have stumbled into, I approached the woman who had called out to me. She wasn't angry at all.

"I just look so ugly in my house clothes, I didn't want you to take my picture," she explained (in Turkish), laughing. The heat of the early summer day still hung on the street and like many other residents of the old part of town, this thirtyish woman was sitting on her stoop to stay cool, chatting with people as they passed by. She invited me to sit and I spent the next two hours or so amidst the ongoing neighborhood conversation, meeting her teenage son as he sped by on his bike, answering curious onlookers' questions about where I was from, getting tips on which beach to go to, sipping juice, and finally joining my new acquaintance and her equally friendly daughter and mother (pictured) in the courtyard of their home, talking about the differences between Turkish and American culture.

I recalled this experience from my first summer in Turkey this past weekend, while taking another trip to the relaxing seaside town. No matter how frustrated I get with my halting progress in Turkish, chance encounters like these remind me of how glad I am to be making an effort to learn the language, something that has served me especially well -- in terms of both practical and entertainment value -- on trips out of Istanbul, where the people I meet seem ever interested in chatting with the foreigner who has somehow not found herself in Cappadocia or at a Mediterranean resort. If not for Turkish lessons, after all, I never would have been able to joke with the bored attendant at Saklıkent Gorge about his time working in Bodrum, where all the middle-aged female tourists seem to be on the prowl for young men. Nor would I have been part of the gem of a conversation my friend Matt and I found ourselves engaged in last year at Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site outside of Şanlıurfa.

I don't remember how it happened, but somehow one of the guys showing us around decided we would be a good audience for his conspiracy theories about how Israel is trying to take over Southeast Turkey. Which is rich in, uh, watermelons and pigeons? Trying not to get too engaged in this one, we demurred, saying a few wishy-washy things about how there are good and bad people in every country, etc. etc. When he started asking about our family's religious backgrounds, I thought we'd be in for more of a tirade. But instead he seemed delighted, summing up the encounter as if he had discovered the secret to global peace: "Look at us, me a Muslim, you a Jew, and you a Christian -- all together! If only the whole world could be like this."

NOTE: People make the place, wherever you go. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' encounters around the world with interesting locals -- from teenage village girls to famous astronauts -- in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Travel Encounters, hosted by Camden Luxford of The Brink of Something Else.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bebek varsa...

Like many other things in Turkey, this one seems very strange the first time it happens and then quickly becomes routine: You bring a small child into a restaurant or cafe, the waiters (yes, men) will almost invariably start to coo over him, ask to hold him, and then walk him around the premises, completely disappearing from your sight, before eventually returning the child, likely along with some unsolicited parenting advice.

Having a kid in your social group certainly gives foreigners some different insights into the local culture -- in our case mainly the nosiness, overblown health concerns, and different gender expectations that can characterize certain groups of Turks. Like the way men here are often both very macho and extremely affectionate with each other, the sight of a hipster young man (carefully askew hair, elaborately detailed jeans, too-tight T-shirt with some kind of grammatically incorrect or just slightly odd English-language saying on it) making googly eyes at a baby on the ferry seems dissonant at first, but is also incredibly sweet.

Turks also generally don't hesitate to pry into your private business, especially if there is a child involved. We all got a good laugh for many weeks (OK, months; we're easily amused) out of an evening when our little friend Davey was wailing inconsolably at dinner and one of the guys in the group decided to walk him around the neighborhood so his mom could actually eat a few bites of food. He came back a bit shaken -- as Davey continued to cry, women apparently started scolding our friend who was carrying him, saying accusingly, "Where is that baby's mother?!" One even offered to let them come up to her house so she could take care of the bebek properly.

Perhaps due to some odd differentiation between health concerns and safety ones that I still fail to understand, young Davey's parents were also often harangued by their neighbors for not having him bundled up tightly enough. So often were they greeted thusly when they stepped out of their apartment, they took to swaddling him in hat and jacket even on a warm spring day, then removing the extra garb once they got a few blocks away from the prying eyes. But in the same neighborhood, children play until all hours on the street, sliding down the oiled-slicked hills on flimsy pieces of cardboard, careening at the last minute away from cars screeching around the corner. Apparently that's not as dangerous as the possibility of catching a chill.

NOTE: Turkey's not the only place where travelers + children = interesting experiences. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' accounts from Fiji, Korea, Portugal, Uganda, and more in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Kids Around the World, hosted by Glennia Campbell of The Silent I.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

DIY Mangal

Every 4th of July in Amerikastan, we'd pack up the car and drive out to the suburbs of Sacramento to celebrate the holiday the way it was intended -- with a yard full of kegs and BBQ grills, fireworks in the street, dips in the pool, and the neighborhood on parade. Although (or perhaps because) I'm a die-hard city girl, I loved these excursions to the 'burbs. Last week, I think I may have found the equivalent experience in Istanbul.

First, you go to the store and buy as much köfte (meatballs), sucuk (beef sausage), chicken wings, and cans of Efes as you can carry. Then you walk up to Taksim, take the metro to 4. Levent, and then hop on a bus to Sariyer. (More than one bus, if you do it incorrectly.) Stay on as the bus turns away from the sparkling waters of the Bosphorus and cruises down the neighborhood's main drag, past the dusty little otogar and the dilapidated local sports "stadium," and then down a very unpromising-looking industrial road before hopping off by the sign saying "Çırçır Suyu Sosyal Tesileri." You may feel like you're walking into a construction site, but don't give up hope.

At the end of the road, there's a leafy, secluded patch of land, full of trees and picnic tables where you can set up your goods while the men working there bring you the fired-up mangal (grill) and all the plates and silverware you'll need for just 11 liras a person. And they'll clean up after you too. Just make sure not to get roped into letting the roving band of musicians play for you. They sound a lot better from a safe distance, when the neighboring group of raucous picnickers is paying their tips.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Maç manyaklik

I've worked at a Turkish newspaper long enough that I've pretty much stricken the word "soccer" from my vocabulary, but when the World Cup rolled around, I didn't spare much thought to all the fuss. Still, when the televisions clicked on at 5 p.m. on the first day of the matches, and looming deadlines couldn't tear any of my coworkers away from the screen, it was hard not to be a little curious. The international nature of the game intrigued me -- Turkey wasn't in it, and neither the U.S. nor England had much hope, but my Turkish, American, and British friends were still riveted. I was amused by the idea that referees had to monitor for swearing in 17 different languages. And there was definitely something satisfyingly cosmopolitan about watching the Australia-Germany match in Turkey while my Danish friend explained it all to me.

Football's still a lot more fun when Turkey's playing, though. Not long ago, I took a visitor down to Nevizade (a popular street for meyhanes and other nightlife) to watch the final match of the Turkish Super League. Bars had set up televisions on every floor, each wall-to-wall with people. The narrow street was nearly impassable due to the throngs angling for an over-the-shoulder glimpse at the screens. When fans of Fenerbahçe (a team I like to think of as the Yankees of Turkish football, and not really in a good way) mistakenly thought their squad had emerged victorious, they set off Roman candles amid the tightly packed crowd, causing the paranoid mind to look frantically about for an escape route from the fire-fleeing stampede that was sure to ensue.

Two years ago, Turkey took a shockingly successful run at the European championship, a development so big around these parts that even I couldn't ignore the nighttime screaming, wailing, and gunshots as our boys progressed through the competition. I watched what turned out to be Turkey's last hurrah at a large and absolutely packed çay bahçesi (tea garden, although this one also served beer) on the lovely Aegean island of Bozcaada, drinking Efes and trying to follow the action on the outdoor screen with the aid of a guy I'd met on the beach, an amusing exercise in that he spoke basically no English and my sports vocabulary was pretty much limited to "takim" (team) and "bayrak" (flag). No matter, I quickly learned to chant "Türk-i-ye, Türk-i-ye!" with the best of them, and that was all that mattered.

NOTE: Check out other Lonely Planet bloggers' takes on World Cup watching all around the world, from Spain to South Korea, Berkeley to Beirut.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Literary serendipity

I was warned before I moved to Istanbul that English-language books would be expensive and sometimes hard to come by, but books take up a lot of precious suitcase space and weight allowance that is better devoted to booze, smelly cheese, and various pork products. So while I usually can't resist picking up one or two books on a trip abroad, I've largely had to make do with other procurement tactics. I know plenty of folks who spend a lot of time and money ordering specific books to be brought in by willing visitors coming from places where Amazon.com delivery is cheaper, but in line with my general attempt not to bemoan the things I don't have, I've taken a fairly zen approach to my literary life and largely read whatever happens to come my way.

Thanks to the books friends have recommended and loaned, let me "steal" off their shelves, or left behind when they cleaned house or moved away, I've immersed myself in the true-life love story of a French villager and a British soldier caught behind enemy lines in World War I; a heartbreakingly beautiful Nigerian novel; travelogues along the old Silk Road and all around Iran; fascinating historical fiction about a family driven out of 15th century Granada; the life of expats in the rapidly "modernizing" Saudi Arabia of the 1970s and 1980s; and a tale about young rural exiles during the Chinese cultural revolution. Not all of my serendipitous discoveries have been five-star reads, of course, but there have been enough brilliant ones that I may never decide on a particular book to read again. I'll just continue letting the books pick me.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Turkman Eastwood

I was at a bar on a visit home once when my drinking companion pointed to a poster on the wall, saying, "Check that out!" I looked. I looked some more. It was a poster for the movie "Death Race 2000." I didn't understand why this should be of interest to me.

And then it hit me: The poster text actually read "Ölüm Yarışı 2000." I had read it without realizing I was translating, or that it was strange to see Turkish in an American bar.

Clint Eastwood looks a bit Turkified in this poster for the first Dirty Harry sequel, "Magnum Force" -- or "Gun's Strength" in Turkish -- which another friend emailed to me this week after spotting it in the men's room at a San Francisco wine bar.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The buzz about Turkey and Israel

I couldn't have really picked a crazier moment to jump into full-time daily news editing: 24 hours after Israeli forces boarded a flotilla of ships trying to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip, killing nine Turks (including one Turkish-American) and sparking outrage and protests all around Turkey. Our newspaper has been full of stories for the past week -- as it likely will be for many weeks to come -- about the raid and its implications for a relationship already severely rattled by bad behavior on both sides, from a prime ministerial outburst heard 'round the world to petty-minded mockery of a fellow diplomat.

While things don't look good for Turkey and Israel, those who hold out any hope for rapprochement figure the longstanding economic ties between the two countries will be incentive enough to avoid an irreparable rift -- a position bolstered, in an odd way, by a recent discovery about (of all things) bees.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the 3,000-year-old apiary found three years ago in Israel's Jordan Valley -- the "oldest known commercial beekeeping facility in the world" -- was likely home to bees from Turkey, the first such evidence of animals being transferred over such a distance. The science behind the discovery is fascinating: DNA testing showed that the bees were of "a subspecies found only in what is now Turkey," Wired explains. But in light of recent events in this part of the world, the finding is perhaps even more intriguing as an argument in favor of not letting a three-millenia-long trading relationship lapse.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What's in a name?

Like suburban developments in the States that might be called "The Meadows" or "Forest Grove" when such things no longer exist there, street names in Turkey also sometimes outlive what originally inspired them. Asmalımescit Sokak ("Vine-Covered Small Mosque Street") in Istanbul is now full of bars and there's not much in the way of trees on Siraselviler Caddesi ("Row of Cypresses Avenue"). In the northeastern city of Kars, Bankacılar Sokak ("Bankers' Street") is a small abandoned alley. So when the driver of a car I was in started asking directions in the town of Sarıkamış that involved "çöp" (trash) street, I assumed it would be more of the same. I was wrong.

As the road led outside of Sarıkamış, I felt like I'd been transported back to the mountains of California: Alongside the road ran a clear stream winding its way through a green, flower-filled meadow at the foot of a forested hill. But as I looked closer, I started to wonder why some of those "flowers" had such vivid, almost unnatural colors. Could they actually be... yep, they were... bits of trash, increasing in volume as we progressed. Around one curve, the reason became clear: The entire other side of the road was a massive open-air garbage dump, with detritus fluttering off in the breeze. Sometimes, a name means exactly what you think it does.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

1. Mayıs'ta Taksim'deyiz!

It wasn't exactly what I'd expected to hear blaring out of loudspeakers in Istanbul: "¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!"

But the protesters gathered in Taksim Square had dipped into the global pool of power-to-the-workers symbols, donning Che T-shirts and hoisting posters of Marx and Lenin amid those of Turkish leftist heroes, to celebrate their first legal May Day in the iconic location in at least 30 years.

Even though the square is just a few minutes' walk from my house, I was only half thinking of maybe going up to see what was happening until I heard the megaphones turn on and the helicopters begin to circle. I'm glad I didn't miss it. Knowing that the last two years of blockades, riot police, and tear gas were just a small footnote to many years of clashes and a still-unresolved tragedy, it was surprisingly moving to see tens of thousands of people streaming peacefully into the square, carrying the flags of their unions and banners depicting their fallen colleagues.

Protesters triumphantly scaled a building where police snipers had previously taken up their posts, and dangled from the Republic Monument in the the center of the square, cheering and grinning. Enterprising businessmen set up stands to make grilled köfte (meatball) sandwiches or toted buckets of iced water to sell to the parched crowd. Bands played and tired marchers snoozed beneath the trees in Taksim Gezi Park. I wouldn't have believed it could happen if I hadn't been there myself. Her zaman böyle Bir Mayısımız kutlu olsun...

Monday, March 22, 2010

At peace with the past in Patara

I've got no quarrel with Ephesus or Pergamon in Turkey or the Acropolis in Athens or Rome -- some sights are popular for a reason, and I'd certainly encourage anyone traveling to those areas to see these famous places. In part because anyone visiting a country for just a week or two would probably be pretty peeved if they missed out on its most famous destinations because I recommended climbing atop the wreck of an ancient theater in İznik or Patara instead.

But as amazing as the well-known sights can be, once they become full of tourists and touts, they lose much of the melancholy magic that the remains of a once-thriving, now completely empty ancient metropolis should hold.

That's what you can still find, however, sitting on a weather-smoothed marble seat in the upper rows of the amphitheater in Patara, a tiny village near Turkey's western Mediterranean coast, looking out at cows and sheep grazing amid the ruins -- and the baby goats jumping from one stone foundation to the next as if they were rocks in a grassy lake. Listening to the frogs making a racket in the shallow ponds nearby. Hearing the faint, tinny sounds of the call to prayer carrying over the hills from the village mosque. And soaking it all in completely alone.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ahşap evler

Threatened and neglected they may be, but Istanbul's old wooden houses are hardly the city's "least appreciated architectural forms" -- at least not by me.

According to a recent article by Reuters, there are perhaps just 250 timber houses left in the whole city. Most of the ones you see are on the verge of collapse; as far as I understand it, historic-protection laws don't allow them to be torn down, so owners who'd rather build a big concrete apartment block on the property have to wait for the elements to do their work.

"The decline of the timber houses began early in the 20th century," Simon Akam wrote for Reuters. "After devastating fires during World War I, the authorities banned construction in wood. In the 1920s foreign minorities -- who dominated the ranks of the skilled craftsman needed to build and maintain the structures -- began to leave. Then, following World War II, the Turkish middle classes started to desert old wooden neighborhoods like Zeyrek and Suleymaniye for more modern accommodation. In their place came poor rural migrants who had neither the means nor the experience to maintain the houses."

Training courses in traditional building construction and repair now being given by the Istanbul Municipality seem to offer some hope, however, that a few of these beauties might be restored to their former glory.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Şimdi asker

The first time I walked into a provincial bus station and was greeted by the chaotic mingling of drumming, chanting, and singing echoing off the building's concrete walls, I had no idea what was going on. Now I readily recognize the caravan of cars clogging the road, horns honking, with Turkish flags draped off the back of vehicles, flying out the windows, and wrapped around young men's shoulders. It's a sure sign that families are sending their boys off to the military.

Absolutely the largest and most raucous crowd I have yet seen doing so gathered at the main İzmir otogar (bus station) last night, their chants of "Bizim asker, şimdi asker" (Our soldier, now he's a soldier) reverberating throughout the building. Young men were hoisted onto shoulders and thrown in the air as their headscarfed mothers wailed and even collapsed to the ground. One had to be pulled off the bus as she clung to her son. Even when it's not so dramatic, the scene never fails to choke me up. The boys are so young and the emotions so unfamiliar to me.

In the U.S., at least where I come from, it's easy to be insulated from the realities of military service. Though I know a handful of people who have served or are still serving in the armed forces, most had already returned to civilian life by the time I met them. And though I worry about friends working as journalists or for NGOs in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have yet to have to watch news reports fearing for a loved one on the front lines.

In addition, despite the friends I have with military backgrounds, it's all too easy to retreat into stereotypes about the kind of people who enlist. In Turkey, you can't do that. In the same way as you can't judge a woman's politics in Iran or Saudi Arabia by whether or not she covers herself, military service says little about a Turkish man -- everyone, whether anarchist, Islamist, or nationalist, has to do it. Of course, the wealthy and well-connected can generally draw easier assignments, but knowing that your soft-spoken friend, your hipster coworker, your pal's little brother, or that nice guy at the cafe down the street could each be plucked from their lives and sent to some remote military post makes strangers' goodbyes all the more poignant.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Küçük müzeler

Far be it from me to suggest a kinship with a Nobel Prize-winning author, but Orhan Pamuk and I do have something in common: a love for small museums.

While big institutions such as the Louvre or the Uffizi can sometimes leave me cold, I rarely miss the chance to check out a small town's dustiest collection of ephemera. On a trip last fall to the Western U.S., I even entertained idle fantasies of apprenticing myself to whoever ran the historical society in Silverton, a miniscule old mining town that I adored, and then taking over the museum once she (for it surely is an elderly she) retired.

The Türk-İslam Eserleri Müzesi (Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum) in Edirne will always have a special place in my heart for its utterly random assortment of Ottoman pistols, photos of famous oil wrestlers, illustrated Korans, and a local professor's collection of handwoven socks. Yes, seriously: socks. As will the Malatya Museum, where the guards said "Maşallah!" upon encountering a Turkish-speaking yabancı, as if they hadn't had a visitor all week and a foreign one maybe ever. They fell all over themselves to tell me what the "must-see" exhibits were. To be honest (sorry, guys), I found them mostly forgettable, but I'll always remember one of the guards bringing me a Turkish coffee to sip as I looked at the old coins and earthenware pottery.

The phenomenon seems to work in big cities too, as long as you get off the beaten track a bit. At the Ethnography Museum in İzmir, I got a personal tour of the collection of traditional, heavily embroidered bridal wear; delicately latticed metal coffee cups; rusty firearms; and Koran-carrying satchels. I suppose the guard may have wanted a tip, but I like to think he was just happy to have someone to whom he could show off their costumed dolls from many different countries. "Do we have one from America...? Ah, yes - cowboy!"

Monday, February 22, 2010

Off-season on the Aegean

Come summer, or so I'm told, the Aegean towns of Çesme (right) and, especially, nearby Alaçatı (below) will be mobbed with rich İstanbul'lus as some of the city's poshest and most popular restaurants and nightclubs open up their fair-weather outposts in these seaside villages.

Empty of the hordes to come, Alaçatı in late February looks like a stage set, with its charming cobbled streets lined by shuttered buildings promising boutique-hotel accommodations, wine tasting, tapas, sushi, and French bistro food -- just as soon as the weather warms up.

Seeing the locals leisurely carrying home their groceries and chatting amiably in the quiet streets, it's hard not to feel a sense of impending loss, whether residents in fact welcome or disdain their annual visitors. (Not to mention a twinge of shame about my small contribution to the tourist-ification of this and other places.)

But more than that, I wonder if the people who come to enjoy fine dining and private beaches ever peek behind the stage that has been set for them. Do they see the people living in crumbling houses or tending hidden gardens? What about the sheep and goats grazing in empty lots just a couple of blocks off of the main road? Somehow I doubt it. Though imagining a late-night encounter between a well-heeled couple who took the wrong route back to their hotel and a small herd of goats is somewhat amusing.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Deve güreşi

First, let me clear up a couple of misconceptions: Turkish oil wrestling has nothing to do with girls in bikinis and camel wrestling does not involve men tussling with dromedaries. Having now witnessed both sports, I can say that there are some surprising similarities between the two. In both cases, the contenders often do not possess what most of us would think of as, shall we say, athletic physiques. The "action" consists of a lot of slow, lumbering pushing and grappling before the decisive move, and what exactly one party has done to ensure victory can be a bit mysterious to the uneducated spectator. Maybe that's true of all wrestling.

But when it comes to sheer entertainment value, the camels win hands (hooves?) down. First, the outfits. While the human wrestlers don a minimalist garb of tight leather pants and a healthy coating of olive oil, their animal counterparts are bedecked in every kind of colorful carpet, banner, headband, scarf, and other ornament you could possibly think of.

Second, the spectacle. The stadium full of men watching the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne seemed to take their sport of choice very seriously. There was no apparent beer drinking, no raucous applause, no bare chests painted with the names of their favorite wrestlers. Women and children were entertained outside the arena with shopping stalls and carnival rides, but inside it was just intent attention being paid to the two men in the ring trying to put their hands down each others' pants.

Camel wrestling, in contrast, is an all-day fun fair, with the sidelines often more entertaining to watch then the field itself. Children and stray dogs run everywhere, men knock back plastic cups of rakı and get up to dance, sucuk sellers grill up greasy camel-sausage sandwiches on tiny grills, and children and adults alike don festive orange scarves that actually (and awesomely) are embroidered with the words "camel wrestling souvenir." Plus, the oil wrestlers never make a mad dash for the stands, causing spectators to scatter. They don't spray thick, frothy spit everywhere either. (OK, that one's a point for the oily dudes.)

Next up, Turkish bullfighting and men on horseback trying to hit each other with javelins! Who's with me?

UPDATE: An article I wrote about camel wrestling, "Close Encounters with the Wrestling-Camel Kind," was published in the March 2011 edition of Time Out Istanbul magazine. Check it out!