Sunday, December 31, 2017

Year in review: freelance highlights for 2017

With all the juggling involved in a freelancer's life — pitching, writing, invoicing, researching, editing, fact-checking, drumming up new work, updating websites and social media, following up on emails, and on and on — it's easy to lose track of the big picture while constantly chasing after the next assignment and rushing to meet the next deadline. So it was good to take a moment to look back at the year and acknowledge that I'd published some pieces I was really proud of. Here's my personal top five stories from 2017:

1) Science, Interrupted

War and strife have uprooted many researchers. Can their life’s work be saved? (Discover, September 2017)

This feature on displaced scientists and researchers struggling to resume their careers as refugees was one of the most rewarding projects I worked on this year.  It's always a pleasure to work with Discover and my stellar editor at the magazine, who believed in me and this story enough to encourage me to take my kernel of an idea for a short news article and make it blossom into a long feature.

2) Contested Spaces

New political urbanism in Istanbul's Taksim Square. (Disegno, Autumn 2017)

Taking this deep dive into issues of public space, urban design and the politics of urbanism in Istanbul was another highlight of the year. I'm grateful to Disegno and the editors there for giving me so much room and freedom to explore issues I've been thinking, reading, talking and writing about for years in such an in-depth way. I learned so much from the architects and planners I interviewed, and even took away some bits of hope where I'd expected to find none.

3) Turkey ploughs on with controversial €1.2 billion dam project

A controversial €1.2 billion dam project threatens to displace tens of thousands of people across the Tigris Valley and submerge 12,000 years of history in Hasankeyf. (Equal Times, 20 November 2017)

The endangered town of Hasankeyf is a special place in Turkey; I first visited it in 2011 and wrote a travel piece for Time Out Istanbul, followed in 2013 by an article on a cross-border river journey that aimed to raise awareness about the dam threatening Hasankeyf and downstream parts of the Tigris River in Iraq. This year, as the pace of preparations for Hasankeyf's flooding accelerated, I wrote two news pieces about the looming destruction of its communities, heritage and environment, this one for Equal Times, and one earlier in the year for Thomson Reuters Foundation.

4) The Secrets Beneath a Suburb

Experts are uncovering millennia of history under a Turkish megacity’s outskirts. (Discover, November 2017)

Plentiful chances to ramble around ruins are one of the things I love about living in Turkey, and the more hidden-away and neglected, the better. So when one of my regular hiking excursions in Istanbul took our group hacking through thick and thorny brush to reach the largely forgotten remains of a bustling Byzantine trading port, I knew I wanted to learn more – and write – about this fascinating place. Following on my previous features for Discover about urban archaeology and the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, the magazine published this short piece I wrote highlighting some of archaeologists' key finds at Bathonea.

5) Beyond Baklava

To eat in Istanbul is to taste a broad swath of the world and centuries of history, and the city’s sweets are no exception. (Fare, Issue 1)

Over the years I've lived in Istanbul, I've often been disappointed to see travel and food writers cover the same well-trodden ground about Turkey over and over, even in publications I respected. So I was happy to get an email from the editor of Fare, a new magazine promising a more eclectic, imaginative approach, asking me if I had a fresh story about food in Istanbul to tell. My short piece about some lesser-known treats with bittersweet histories appeared in Fare's inaugural edition, a beautifully designed publication devoted to all things Istanbul.

Another big highlight of the year has been developing an ongoing relationship with the wonderful team at Lonely Planet, with whom my work has included helping update their online coverage of Istanbul; putting together neighborhood guides and other fun "insider" looks at the city; writing short travel news items and longer travel narratives about Turkey; contributing social media content to their channels; and editing parts of their global content on places from Argentina to Tallinn.

The year wasn't all about work, of course: hiking, traveling, running, art, books, food and friends kept me busy and inspired, both professionally and personally.

Onward to 2018!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The forgotten ruins of Bathonea

On a warm day in June 2016, I was part of a hearty band of hikers who hacked through the thick and thorny brush surrounding Istanbul's Küçükçekmece Lake to reach the largely forgotten remains of a bustling Byzantine trading port.

The ruins of Bathonea, located on the outskirts of the city far from its historic center, came as a magical surprise to me, but archaeologists have been working for a decade to uncover their secrets.

I highlighted a few of their finds in a short piece for Discover magazine's November 2017 issue: "The Secrets Beneath a Suburb."

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Istanbul art madness

Art-lovers in Istanbul were spoiled for choice this fall, with the annual art fair Contemporary Istanbul changing its usual place in the calendar to coincide with the Istanbul Biennial, and dozens upon dozens of museums, galleries and artist-run spaces opening new shows at the same time.

Trying to catch them all made for an exhausting but invigorating few weeks of exhibition-hopping, during which I wrote four pieces of arts coverage:

  • "New Date, Director and Galleries Reinvigorate Contemporary Istanbul in Art Fair’s 12th Year," on the latest edition of Contemporary Istanbul, for Selections
  • "Beauty Versus Reality – Ai Weiwei," on the world-renowned Chinese artist's first solo exhibition in Turkey, at the Sakıp Sabanci Museum, for Selections

Monday, July 3, 2017

Paint's dance with water

“Your hand must be like a machine, with a nice, steady rhythm — not dropping the paint with too much or too little force,” says Bahar Kocabaş. “You have to be patient, but when the colors open up, it’s beautiful.”

That's how Kocabaş, an artist and teacher in Istanbul, described the art of paper marbling to me. Known in Turkish as ebru, the process has been inscribed on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity -- a list that Morning Calm, the inflight magazine for Korean Air, is featuring in a series of cover stories. I was asked to write the magazine's feature on ebru, which appeared on the cover of Morning Calm's July 2017 edition, and delved into controversies about the art's origins and the way both tradition and innovation are playing a role in keeping it alive.

Read a pdf version of my piece, "Water Colors," accompanied by lovely photos by John Wreford.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A city and its food

Photo via Fare Magazine
The new magazine Fare, devoted to "exploring city culture through food, history, and community," chose Istanbul as the feature city for its inaugural issue, which was published this week. It's full of beautiful photography and design, and an eclectic selection of articles, including a piece by me on some of Istanbul's lesser-known sweet treats, such as the beyaz tatlı once beloved by the city's Greek, Jewish and Armenian communities and now, like the people who once ate it, largely swept away in a tide of cultural and culinary homogenization.

My piece, "Beyond Baklava," and a wealth of other stories are available in Fare Issue 1: Istanbul, on sale at independent book and magazine stores and other locations in Turkey and Europe -- and available for shipping worldwide.

Bonus photos:

Üç Şekerleme proprietor
Altuğ Dörtler scooping
out some beyaz tatlı
for a guest (me!)

A rainbow array of sweets for
sale at Üç Yıldız Şekerleme
in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Lycian Way mini-adventure: Rest day in Kemer

Happy toes in the sand
You know you're in an Antalya beach resort when... your friend leaves her wallet on the minibus and you're alerted to this fact by your Turkish fellow passengers calling out not "Abla" or "Hanımefendi" or "Bayan" or even "Hey lady" but "Devushka! Devushka!"

In case it wasn't already clear from the Cyrillic signs on shops selling fur coats and skimpy bathing suits, that was a pretty good hint that the holiday town of Kemer is known as a destination for Russian tourists. And though I try not to be overly judgmental, it was hard to escape the feeling that they'd given all foreign visitors a pretty bad rap.

Cheers to new adventures
There were exceptions, of course -- the friendly, chatty hunter who had just come down from Tahtalı Dağı and showed us photos of the cave where he'd set up the blackened çaydanlık that he'd hauled up to the summit in his backpack comes to mind.

But on the whole, we received the surliest welcome in Kemer that I've ever experienced in famously hospitable Turkey -- from brusquely impatient waiters to the hotel staff pounding on our door and following us down the hallway to repeatedly demand payment up front for our room. One woman I sat next to on a bus softened noticably when she found out I was American, and not Russian. Finally! A country with an even worse international reputation than my own.

Last sunrise in Lycia (for now)
Though Kemer's beautiful long stretch of both sand and pebble beaches was whipped by wind in the afternoon and marred by cat-calling magandas in the early evening, our little band of hikers was happy to trade our boots for sandals, sit in the sun, and finally make a proper toast to adventures just had, and those yet to come.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Lycian Way mini-adventure, day 5: Tekirova to....?

Poppies and a misty mountain
Fortified after yesterday's exertions with börek and eggs at a local pastane, we picked up the trail again (after plodding across none-too-memorable Tekirova) on a service road behind the sprawling Rixos hotel, whose waterpark and shabby outlying buildings butt up right against the woodlands on the outskirts of town.

It was an inauspicious start to the day's hike, but after a short jaunt through sparse forest, across a campground/equestrian center, and past some flower-dappled fields backdropped by a mist-shrouded Tahtalı Dağı, we were back on favorite territory: curving coastal paths above the Mediterranean Sea, more slate blue than turquoise on this overcast morning, but beautiful nonetheless.

Lovely Phaselis
The promise of visiting the ruins of Phaselis had been a major motivation to get our tired legs moving once again, though having not been to the site in nearly five years, I'll admit I feared for the worst. Would it be blighted by garish concession stands, filled with ham-fisted restorations, or marred by new roads? Thankfully, the remains of this ancient maritime city were exactly as I remembered: an evocative series of arches and tombs and column capitals half-hidden away in the woods, centered around a wide paved-stone road leading to the sea.

There weren't many other visitors at Phaselis when we passed through, but those who were there seemed to be having so much fun, their joy was infectious: a young pair faux-fencing with sticks, a Turkish woman flamboyantly play-acting on the stage of the ancient theater, a group of tourists arraying themselves on the theater steps for cheesy-album-cover-style photos.

Seaside serenity
We took a few band photos of our own on the dramatic, volcanic-rock-like cliffs past Phaselis, then lost the trail in a maze of low brush before deciding to break for lunch overlooking the sea, across a small bay from the town of Çamyuva. Continuing on through a predictably garbage-ridden picnic area, we followed an asphalt road to the main highway, where the trail waymarks led -- in very Hiking Istanbul-esque fashion -- through a graffitied underpass and across a large construction site where a fresh pair of tunnels emerged from the hillside.

What our guidebook described as a forest track seemed to be en route to being turned into forest road, with rocks piled underfoot and some new crash barriers alongside. With one member of our party hobbled by painful blisters, we stood little chance of reaching the next village by nightfall, and after climbing up this unappealing series of switchbacks for about 45 minutes, we decided it wasn't worth continuing on.

Unlovely construction
We hiked back down, crossed through the construction site and the underpass again, and ended our hiking adventure -- this installment, at least! -- hailing a minibus by the side of the highway.

Four-and-a-half Lycian Way segments down, just 24 ½ more on to go on future excursions before I can get the trail's waymark tattooed on my arm. Kidding. Kinda.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Lycian Way mini-adventure, day 4: Çıralı to Tekirova

Tired as my legs were, I nearly broke into a run when I spotted the yellow signpost in the distance, at the end of yet another field of rough red rocks. But when I reached the post, my heart sank. We had already been walking for nine hours on what we'd been led to believe was a hike of about that length, the daylight was starting to wane, and if the yellow sign was correct, we still had more than three hours to go to reach the next town.

Can't get enough of that
turquoise water
We'd started out the day from Çıralı in high spirits, if a bit leery of the dark clouds roaming across the sky. A short climb above the seafront took us on a route leading up and down a series of small coves and the rocky cliffs overlooking their beaches, each vista seemingly more photo-worthy than the last. Turning inland brought us first across the exposed, drab, rocky remains of old mining operations, then into an overgrown meadow that hid any official trail markers, leaving only other hikers' rock cairns to follow through a maze of bushes and tall grasses.

Then we climbed and climbed over rocky slopes where hardy flowers bloomed between the stones, going higher and higher until stopping for a rest at one point, I turned around to be awestruck by the vast panorama below, spreading out to the ocean and those little coves we'd visited hours before, each inch of the view earned by our calloused feet and straining muscles.

Hardy and beautiful flowers
Invigorated by the sight of how far we'd come, we marched forward until the pine-needle-strewn paths turned again into rocky outcroppings and the time we'd allotted for the hike passed without any indication that we might be nearing its end.

Night started to fall not long after we came across the yellow sign, and the question of whether it would be more dangerous to continue on in the dark, make a a treacherous beeline down a steep ravine to the distant highway that was the only sign of civilization in sight, or try to find shelter (since we were carrying none of our own) in the woods for the night shadowed our every footstep.

We started all the way down there
at sea level
I tried to quicken my pace even as I felt my feet begin to stumble from fatigue, the red-and-white slashes of paint on rocks alongside the trail becoming harder and harder to see as the light faded further. Digging out extra batteries for one of two failing flashlights, we continued on in the dark, tracing the uneven path and searching for trail markers with our narrow beam of light.

It was hard to know if minutes had passed, or hours, but eventually the hum of cars on the distant highway had started to seem louder -- or was it just our weary minds' wishful thinking? Then the flashlight's beam caught a piece of styrofoam on the ground, then a wire fence, then an electric pylon, then finally, mercifully, a dirt road. Never had I been so happy to see the signs of development encroaching on nature.

So damn many rocks
For our final hours in the dark, I'd driven myself forward with thoughts of a cheeseburger, a giant plate of fries, and a cold beer (if not three). But by the time the dirt road turned into an asphalt one and reached town, it was past 10pm, too late to buy alcohol from the shop, and the only restaurant within crawling distance was dry. We fell upon our kebabs and pide like a pack of wolves on their prey and toasted our safe arrival with soda and ayran.

Tomorrow, onward to Roman Bridge?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Lycian Way mini-adventure, day 3: Adrasan to Çıralı

Green hills above Adrasan
The path out of Adrasan rose up above the greenhouse-dotted valley, across high meadows bright with flowers and fresh green shoots of grass, past a shepherd perched on a rock under a tree as his small flock grazed nearby, and alongside a rough shack where an enterprising local had set up shop selling fresh-squeezed orange juice to thirsty hikers.

After these bucolic scenes, the trail took a turn for the monotonous as it wound up into rocky forest, pretty but with little to differentiate one stretch from the next. The remnants of ancient Phoinikous, which we'd eagerly noted in our guidebook as something to make up for the lack of sea views on this inland segment of the Lycian Way, failed to reveal themselves amongst the craggy natural stones scattered all over the hillside.

Strange trees and rock cairn
Then the forest became thicker and lower, closing in on us almost jungle-like, cutting off phone and GPS signals and restricting our vision to no more than a few meters as the narrow path zigzagged through unfamiliar trees with twisted reddish trunks that felt as smooth and cold as carved and polished wood. It was easy to imagine ourselves in some kind of fairytale, or perhaps -- remembering the disquieting howls we'd heard earlier from an unseen male voice, or catching a glimpse of a dark green snake slithering across our path -- a darker kind of fable.

Sarcophagus in ancient city of Olympos
Following a long descent, the trees around us opened up once again and we emerged into the ruins of ancient Olympos like explorers stumbling upon a lost city (never mind the parking lot and ticket booths across the river). Moss grew over the inscriptions and carved reliefs on heavy sarcophagi and stone walls seemed to melt into the surrounding greenery and soil. We walked under sturdy arches and through a crumbling theater half reclaimed by the landscape, marveling at how such historical richness could be left in such glorious disarray.

Olympos beach at dusk
Just when we thought we'd reached the end of the site and the seafront beyond where our path should continue... we ran up against a fence. Laden as we were with our heavy packs and having already walked for 16 kilometers, backtracking was not an option worth considering. So like the seasoned urban hikers we are, over the fence we went -- onto the gleaming white stones of Olympos beach, the long sweeping curve of the sea framed by dramatic cliffs catching the last gleams cast by the setting sun.

Tomorrow, onward to Tekirova!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Lycian Way mini-adventure, day 2: Karaöz to Adrasan

Trail marker in flower-filled meadow
Re-scrutinizing our maps over breakfast this morning, we realized we had spent a good chunk of yesterday's walk near, but not actually on, the Lycian Way, which would apparently have taken us over a long stretch of beach rather than through the town of Mavikent and its outskirts. So it wasn't until today that we were really able to get into the swing of one of the key elements of this long-distance hike: spotting little red-and-white stripes of paint on tree trunks, electric poles, and rocks large and small, high and low, and sometimes nearly covered by the flowers gloriously blooming all over the trail.

Field of cairns
"There's one!" became a frequent cry between us as we peered down two paths after a junction, trying to figure out which one to take. After a while it became almost second nature to scan the landscape for these trail markers as we picked our way up the steep, hot climb after the Gelidonya Feneri (lighthouse) or strolled through shaded woods. At some points, there was extra navigational help from rock cairns perched on the side of the path or on top of a larger rock. In one rather spectacularly odd case, we crossed a rock field dappled with dozens of cairns, giving the area an eerie, almost funereal feel.

Korsan Koyu ("Pirates' Cove")
Early on in today's hike we came across a group of sleepy backpackers breaking camp in a gorgeous cove, the turquoise water lapping gently at the shore. The sight gave me a bit of a pang about not sleeping under the stars, but given the dire state of Turkey's tourism industry lately, I'm happy this time around to be putting some money in the pockets of the families running the pensions we're staying at instead. Nothing like a socially conscious excuse to enjoy a few creature comforts.

Tomorrow, onward to Çıralı!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Lycian Way mini-adventure, day 1: Kumluca to Karaöz

When you've been trying for nine years to find a friend or two who wants to tackle part of Turkey's most famous long-distance hiking route with you, the last thing you want to hear before you finally set out on the trail is pouring rain. But pour it did as Katrinka Abroad and I lay in our beds in our pension in Finike last night, the rumble of thunder adding to our trepidation about what the morning would bring.
Amidst the holiday homes and hotels
of Kumluca

But with the skies clearing as we ate our breakfast, we set off in high spirits from Finike, hopping a minibus (as suggested by our guidebook) to skip 10 kilometers of plodding down the flat and scruffy shoreline that ran alongside the road and start our on-foot adventure in Kumluca. Frankly, we should have followed the book's recommendation to the letter and minibused it all the way to Mavikent, sparing ourselves an outskirts-of-Istanbul-esque ramble through half-built housing developments and around greenhouses and water-treatment plants.

Old beach house in Mavikent
Things got better as we passed through the small town of Mavikent, where there was a beautifully overgrown cemetery, a sweet old lady growing gorgeous roses all around her house, dilapidated wooden houses on stilts along the beach, and a big rock to clamber up on and eat our packed lunch.

It was there, by the rock, about 10 kilometers into our walk, that we found our first official signage for the Lycian Way, the 540-kilometer route stretching along Turkey's Mediterranean Coast from Fethiye to Antalya. (We picked the trail up well into its second half, and will hike for less than a week -- this time around!)

From there, though the path largely continued following a road, it became a much more scenic and dramatic one, undulating above the coast with picture-worthy views of the turquoise sea around nearly every bend.

En route to Karaöz
By late afternoon, we'd reached Karaöz, a small farming village near the water, and found accommodations at a simple pension run by a friendly couple with a dog, two ducks, and at least one green thumb for gardening. Though it was a fairly easy day hiking-wise, our dinner of yayla çorbaşı and grilled çipura still felt well-earned -- and tasted delicious.

Tomorrow, onward to Adrasan!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

When politics intrudes on paradise

This time of year, the Mediterranean village of Adrasan used to be bustling with backpackers, spending a night or two in town as part of their trek along the Lycian Way. But this week, I seem to be the only tourist for miles.

"We would be on full staff in March," the owner of the otherwise empty hotel where I'm staying tells me. "As you can see, the weather is so good for hiking, but with the terrorism and the politics..."

Such cares couldn't feel further away while walking alongside Adrasan's serene beach, looking out over its glimmering bay from the tree-dappled mountains that rise up from the shoreline, or eating a hearty home-cooked meal alongside its lazy river. Yet for those who depend on tourism for their livelihood, the effects of distant disasters and decisions are felt especially keenly in places like this.

Before opening the hotel, its owner had operated a pair of restaurants on the nearby beach. All told, he's been in the tourism business in Adrasan for 25 years, but is originally from Diyarbakır, in southeast Turkey. I asked him why he left his hometown. He shrugged. "Same as you moving to Istanbul..."

I hadn't said anything about my reasons for relocating, but it was a more than fair point. I don't have a ready answer as to why I uprooted myself from everything I knew nine years ago. In some ways, it doesn't really matter what someone is seeking, or escaping; we end up somewhere, we may struggle a bit (or a lot), but eventually we build new lives. And then the bombs come -- or the tourists don't -- and we may feel like we're too invested to leave.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

10 yıldır

A soft rain fell as people gathered in Istanbul this afternoon to once again mark the anniversary of the death of Hrant Dink. The Armenian-Turkish journalist was assassinated in front of the office of his newspaper, Agos, 10 years ago today. His family is still seeking justice for the murder.

Where the outcry over Dink's killing in 2007 spurred hope that some old wounds in Turkey might yet be healed, the country today seems more divided and damaged, as Dink's widow, Rakel, reminded in her speech with a wrenching rundown of the past decade's pain:
What has happened in the last 10 years? Oh my darling. The Malatya massacre, İskenderun, Sevag Balıkçı, Roboski, Gezi, Suruç, Diyarbakır, Sur, Mardin, Nusaybin, Cizre, Şırnak, Tahir Elçi, Ankara, July 15th, Maçka, İzmir, Gaziantep, Ortaköy, Airport attack and the war in the Middle East. Operations, terror...
The always-poignant commemoration was a bit subdued this year; under the "state of emergency" imposed since last summer's failed coup, there was no march from Taksim Square to the Agos offices in Harbiye. With Istanbul having suffered yet another horrific terror attack less than three weeks previously, security was high, with bag checks to enter the cordoned-off area in front of Agos, and both visibly armed and plainclothes police mingling amidst the crowd.

But none of this could diminish the power of the words spoken there, both those by Rakel Dink, and those earlier in the remembrance:
"We are all Turks, Armenians, Kurds, Laz, Circassian, Alevi... 
"We are in front of Agos today in these difficult times... 
"We are sustaining your voice and your struggle, but we miss you."

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A death in the mahalle

The steadily falling snow that has blanketed Istanbul over the last 36 hours has brought a welcome hush to the city's noisy, jostling streets and a momentary sense of peace that has lately been in far too short of supply. But the edginess created by recent months' terrorist attacks was quick to grip my heart once again at the sound of a loud voice on the street outside my apartment building.

Cautiously looking out the window, I felt the tension in my chest immediately ease, replaced with a warm sadness at the sight of dozens of people lined up in the snow-covered street, holding their gloved hands up in prayer as an imam in a long cloak and red-and-white cap recited verses over a green coffin.

Bundled up for the minus-zero temperatures, the mourners listened quietly and still as the ruhuna fatiha was read. Afterwards, some consoled each other, touching the sides of their heads together in greeting, while others reached out to lay a hand on the coffin as the open-bed truck belonging to the municipal funeral services department slowly pulled away down the street to transport the body to its final resting place for burial. Başınız sağolsun.