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."