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.