Monday, February 28, 2011

Top 10 travel moments thus far

  1. Bobbing in the warm sea at sunset after a long bus ride in Costa Rica, feeling the grime wash away and my cramped-up body relax.

  2. Padding in my socks around the massive tiled courtyard of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, white pigeons swirling over its gleaming turquoise domes.

  3. Running through the cobbled streets of Beirut’s Hamra district, cheered on by students and watched over by soldiers atop tanks as I completed my first 10k.

  4. Dipping my fingers in the Arctic Ocean and watching small icebergs float close to shore after a day interviewing inhabitants of bleak native villages.

  5. Stumbling on a circle of men listening to a Kurdish storyteller sing traditional tales in Diyarbakır, Turkey, and being invited to eavesdrop over tea.

  6. Clambering through a crumbling power plant and sleeping in a jail cell during an overnight photography workshop on Alcatraz.

  7. Scrambling away from a charging camel along with a crowd of local spectators at a camel-wrestling tournament near İzmir, Turkey.

  8. Seeing the way Picasso explored themes and ideas in sketches and ceramic works at the Picasso Museum in Paris and feeling like I had a glimpse into thought processes never revealed by the masterpieces.

  9. Looking down into a bubbling red volcanic crater while making the 18.5-kilometer trek over Mount Tongariro in New Zealand.

  10. Returning to Istanbul after my first trip out of the country since moving there and feeling like I was coming home.
This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The things I carried

I spent my first trip abroad staggering under the weight of a backpack that might actually have been bigger than I was, lugging separate guidebooks for countries I would spend at most a few days in, the contents of an entire medicine cabinet, and a month's worth of socks and underwear.

Since I still put my foot down at doing laundry on vacation, I'll never join the ranks of those who travel light. But I have trimmed down a bit since then.

Out quickly went the money belt, the portable locks, the ugly "travel towel," and, eventually, the dozens of rolls of film. A mini Ziploc bag of assorted meds still makes the cut, as does the flip-open alarm clock that's been digitally ticking since 1998. (It now stays at home on trips to places where my cell phone will work.) So does my Swiss army knife, though it's seen most of its travel action slicing bread and cheese for make-shift meals.

For long travel days, I have favorite pants (smart but comfortable) and a favorite fleece (the interior pocket is conveniently passport-sized). Since I really, really hate flying, plane trips require an iPod of favorite songs, perhaps a sentimental piece of jewelery as a good-luck charm, and Dramamine with which to knock myself out. (Ambien has been suggested as an upgrade.) And I'm still a sucker for a print guidebook, though I try to keep it down to just one per trip.

NOTE: What piece(s) of travel gear do you never leave home without? Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' must-have items in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Travel Gear, hosted by Vago Damitio of Vagobond.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Masters of painting at the Pera Museum

An older woman collapses into the arms of a stoic young soldier-to-be, their farewell watched by dozens of fellow peasants inside the crowded barn. Hanging alongside this massive canvas, a smaller painting is suffused in the crisp light of a clear winter's day. The picture shows two boys, one wearing an over-sized army coat and hat, beside a freshly dug grave. Its title: "Orphaned."

The juxtaposition, though not entirely unexpected, caused me to gasp slightly, experiencing the rush of emotions that good -- and well-curated -- art can provoke. Wrenching moments are not in short supply in "Scenes from Tsarist Russia," one of the current shows at Istanbul's excellent Pera Museum. A bride sobs, covering her face in her hands, on her wedding day to a much older man. Families escape with a few scant belongings from a village fire. A dying woman sits in a garden, staring off into the distance. Other paintings draw a smile: women celebrating a rural "hen night," a boy being distracted from his studies by the sight of a girl in the window across the way.

Though the local media has been falling all over itself to herald the Pera's other current exhibit, "Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera," people in the know had told me the 19th-century realist paintings from the State Russian Museum were the real find. Many were powerful indeed, combining fine brushwork with emotional sensitivity. But the fiery stars of 20th-century Mexican art are worth spending time with as well, even if you think you're already very familiar with their work.

The show, though small, artfully juxtaposes examples of Frida's famous self-portraits with photographs, including some gorgeous shots by one of her lovers, that shed some light on how the way she perceived -- or wanted to portray -- herself both matched and differed from reality. Perhaps most moving is a sketch Frida made after a miscarriage, showing the lost child outside her body but still tethered to it, tears streaming from her womb.

TO VISIT: Both exhibits are on view until March 20 at the Pera Museum in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. For the duration of these two shows, it will also stay open until 8:30 p.m. on Fridays. General admission is 10 Turkish Liras.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Not-so-hidden history

Even though I've written before about street names that seem to have outlived their meaning, I'd never stopped to think about what my own street, "Havyar Sokak," might mean until I came across the word "havyar" in a newspaper story and thought to look it up. Apparently, I live on "Caviar Street." Is that something like "Easy Street"? (Hope so!) Was caviar once processed around here? Or was it home to rich people? Or Russians? Another mystery I'd like to solve, someday...

When I posted a Twitter message about my "discovery," a blog friend wrote back to say that she had lived on "Piggybank Makers' Very Steep Hill" in Istanbul. Of course I had to look that one up... only to find that it was Kumbaracı Yokuşu, an indeed very steep street I've walked on many times without a single thought to its origins.

Know of any other interestingly named streets, in Istanbul or elsewhere, that I can add to my collection?

Monday, February 7, 2011

'To Şeref!'

To life, to health, to honor. The ritual words shared as glasses clink seem to have the same essential meaning around the globe. During a wine-drinking session last night, however, a Turkish friend put a new-to-me spin on the local tradition of toasting with a hearty "Şerefe" (to honor). Rather than a joint wish for those gathered together, he said, it's a pledge: To protect the honor of fellow drinkers even if having a few too many causes their lips to loosen or their eyes to wander.

In other words, what happens at the rakı-drinking table stays at the rakı-drinking table.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

You can't take it with you

Amid growing unrest in Egypt, the Turkish prime minister grabbed the spotlight (and no small part of the glory) on Tuesday with his strongly worded call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to meet his protesting people's "desire for change." Sounding a philosophical note, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reminded the 82-year-old Mubarak that "We will all die and be judged by those who remain" -- seeming essentially to say, You know all that power you acquired through corruption, repression, and brutality? Well, you can't take it with you.

Or, as I learned is said in Turkish, "Kefenin cebi yok."

The shroud* has no pockets.

Seeing a familiar construction repeated in Turkish -- "ikinci el" (second hand), "havalimanı" (air port) -- often reminded me, as I was learning the basics of the language, that these words I don't give a thought to in English were once upon a time created by someone who had to ponder, "Now what should we call this place that's like a port, but for things that fly in the air instead of boats?"

Discussions at the copy factory about how to translate different phrases and ideas have likewise made me a bit more attuned to the fact that metaphor is not inevitable. Sure, it seems obvious to talk about the "heart of the matter" or the "heart of the country," but it could just as easily be "Eski şehrin göbeğinde" -- in the belly of the old city. The stomach, after all, is much more centrally located in the body than the heart.

* Islamic beliefs call for a body to be washed and wrapped in a shroud before burial in the ground.