Wednesday, January 26, 2011

10 Things I Hate Being Asked About Turkey

After more than a year away, I'm going home in a couple of days for a holiday.
It's always exciting, albeit a little strange, and I am expecting another dose of reverse culture shock which, in some ways, is more difficult than the shock of moving to a new country.

You adapt to the rhythm of a place; its pace; its mannerisms; in some way, its language- you begin to merge with the culture. And then suddenly you're home, and the familiarity of it all is strange. Your wild, Mediterranean style gestures and blatant disregard for road (and most other) rules are suddenly out of place. You feel like a foreigner all over again.

And then come the questions. Now, in no way do I expect people to know the ins-and-outs of Turkish culture, politics and history, but there are a few basic questions which I am frequently asked which I thought were worth tackling prior to departure:
  1. Isn't it Dangerous? Compared with every other nation I have been to, I can honestly say that I feel safest in Turkey. Violent crimes are few and far between and apart from the odd bag snatch, Istanbul is generally a very safe city. That said, of course it's wise to avoid certain areas at certain times.
  2. What's it like to ride a camel? I wouldn't know. Apart from the rather odd camel wrestling competition on the Aegean coast of Turkey, one would be hard pressed to find one of these fine beasts here.
  3. Aren't the men creepy? On the whole, no. Just like anywhere else there are some notable creepers, but on the whole I find Turkish men kind, generous, honest and respectful of women.
  4. Do you have to wear a burqa/headscarf? No. Turkey is a proudly secular state, and only a portion of the female population wears a headscarf, which certainly does not include me, apart from if I'm entering a mosque. And they are banned from most state institutions.
  5. Aren't you sick of kebabs? Despite what the many 'Turkish' kebab joints all over the world seem to suggest, there is much, MUCH more to Turkish cuisine than kebabs. And it's delicious.
  6. How are your belly dancing skills coming along? They aren't. Belly dancing didn't originate in Turkey, nor is it really even possible to see- apart from at exorbitantly priced tourist shows.
  7. How's your Arabic? Non-existent. Turks speak Turkish, a unique language which has its origins in Central Asia and adopted a Latin script following the foundation of the Turkish republic.
  8. So you've been to the ANZAC Day commemoration at Gallipoli? No, and I don't intend to. Hanging out with a bunch of loud and drunk Commonwealth country backpackers while they trash a stunningly beautiful area of Turkey is not at the top of my list.
  9. You mean it gets COLD in Turkey? Yes. Istanbul has a Mediterranean climate, which means cold, rainy (and occasionally snowy) winters. And out east, well, that's a much chillier story.
  10. ? Well, I confess to getting tired after 9. You tell me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Having a haircut in a strange land

I don’t quite know where my almost-phobia of hairdressers began, but my memories of trips there seem to merge in a gush of small talk from women with grating accents and hair as parched as a hungover tongue.

Perhaps it was hairdressers’ love of cutting, because it seemed no matter how many times I told them I wanted a ‘trim’, they would take to my painfully slowly growing hair as one would to unkempt hedge. And, once again, I would be left with mid length, dead mouse coloured hair, greasy with product I never asked for.

Whatever it was, I would avoid going at all costs, even if it meant going the DIY route which, as every teenage girl knows, NEVER ends well. First there were the temporary dyes, which either never worked or stained the hair with a tinge of pink. And then there was Sun In, whose promise of ‘sun-bronzed and kissed by the sun’ locks was woefully understated- translating into, well, yellow hair.

Venturing past the borders of New Zealand hairdressers left me with new problems to contend with, the biggest of which was trying to make myself understood in a different language. Unfortunately ‘gul’ (yellow) and ‘guld’ (gold) are much too similar in Swedish, and I was left with stripes the shade of a wedding ring.

In Ireland, lack of funds led me to a bunch of Koreans who had set up shop above a seedy looking internet cafe, whose apparently untrained, non-English speaking staff left me looking like a less peaceful and consistently coloured version of this girl:

It was with trepidation, then, that I traipsed off to a hairdresser in Istanbul following the return of my trusted hairdresser friend, Ellie, to the USA.

Within minutes of entering the salon I had their finest whizzing around me in every direction, offering me tea and making up the foils. I have to say that there’s something strangely disconcerting about having two good looking, presumably straight men attending to matters of beauty, but I took considerable pleasure in the fact that I could read my book or contemplate the wall colour in peace without having to be disturbed with news about the finale of Lost or of Lindsay Lohan’s latest downfall.

With all the lack of distractions I could finally attempt to relax and lose myself in the atmosphere of a Turkish hair salon which is, well, pretty much like any ordinary salon, save for the music being turned off for the duration of the call to prayer. There are the same uncomfortable hair sinks which leave you feeling that you’ve been pinned down by the neck by a professional weightlifter; the same walls of mirrors which leave you stuck as to which way to look; and the same overwhelming scent of hair products and bleach which result in a not-so-pleasant dizzying effect.

Three hours and too much hairspray later, the result was surprisingly positive. Good looking hairdresser #1 chivalrously helped me with my coat while good looking hairdresser #2 gave me the Turkish compliment- “Güle güle kullan”- roughly translating into "I hope this brings you joy". Unfortunately I confused this with the Turkish goodbye- “Güle güle”- and, with my phobia of hairdressers waning ever so slowly, I wished them both a nice evening and walked away as fast as I could.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


I've touched on three seasons since my last post, and this murky autumn day seems like a fitting time to resume. I'd like to think that writing is only worth doing when you've really got something to write about, but that's just an excuse for apathy, or lying, or both.

In four months I've seen things, I've done things, I've felt things. Vietnam, London, Bursa. Beaches, cities, parties, food, food, food. Frustration, anger, success, failure, delight, anxiety, elation, expectation, disappointment in people, disappointment in myself, alienation, belonging.
I've farewelled old friends, made new ones, sweated from places I didn't know you could sweat, tasted food I never knew you eat, discovered bars I thought only existed in dreams.
I would like to have read more, written more, travelled more, doubted less, doubted more, said more, said less, drank less, stood up for myself more, slept more, loved more, lived more.

But that's life, and I'm still here to write about it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Istanbul Waning

I don’t like quiet mornings in empty places.

Dusk is my favourite time of day; the light is different then, special. Dusk captures the essence of Istanbul- its temper, its force, its raw sense of life. The light bleeds then like spilling gooseberry juice, and as the air cools the city sighs.

I was on a ferry a few evenings ago, doing the cross-continental hop between Beşiktaş and Kadıköy. There’s something wonderful and slightly terrifying about being stuck in a vessel in the middle of a darkening sea with 500 strangers who just happen to be sharing the same linoleum with you.

Often the strangers are the most interesting part and I love to observe those few minutes of their lives; to watch the graceful tea sellers doling out steaming çay to sleepy commuters and to try to spot a real newspaper in between the comic strips and sports pages.

As the ferry edges closer to the dock, most get up, too quick to crowd and form a panicky queue. But a few stay behind: the old, the bored and the melancholic, stepping slowly onto the plank and taking a last look at the lemon light before resuming life outside the ferry.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Becoming A Little Turkish

I rarely see being an ex-pat as a term of endearment. It usually conjures up images of loud-mouthed, mono-thinking English teachers who spend most of their time outside their native country drunk and complaining about the food, stuck in a whinge-worthy, cringe-worthy purgatory halfway between their two hells of home country and host country.

I find myself dearly trying to distance myself, to desperately not want to be an 'ex-pat', 'alien' or 'foreigner'. To not want to be a 'yabancı' anymore. Yet there's always that tugging pride in being a more objective observer, in being able to see the faults in people and place as much as you can appreciate the strengths, even if voicing those thoughts in an accent will automatically deem them void in the non-foreigner’s mind.

From the age of eighteen months, I’ve been a foreigner, and from that point on I always was. No matter how well you master a language, an accent or certain cultural norms, as an immigrant or foreigner or tourist your opinion on a place is seen as different, and it is. Whether it’s valued more or less depends on who you’re talking to, but it’s never viewed as equal.

Where you’re born, where you grow up, where you choose to live or where you’re forced to live, all reflect on who you are. ‘Where are you from?’ is a lot more complicated than it should be for me, because I want to answer ‘what does it matter?’ But it does.

There’s a little part of everywhere I’ve lived and travelled within me: the best, the worst and the most mundane of it. And part of life in a new place is about embracing these parts, or at the very least being able to laugh at them.

‘Integration’ in cultural terms is a word I will never like. But by living anywhere you start to take on the energy of place by some kind of wonderful osmosis, and I’m happy to say a few of the below have stuck during my last seven or so months in Turkey. I like to term it my ’10 Ways of Knowing You’re Becoming A Little Turkish', though the list surely goes on...

10 Ways Of Knowing You’re Becoming A Little Turkish
• When you start feeling panicky when you don’t have wet wipes, hand sanitizer, tissues AND lemon cologne in your handbag.
• When you don a scarf in 20°c weather, for fear of ‘catching a chill.’
• When you start believing that yogurt is indeed the cure for all of life’s problems. Or ayran (salted buttermilk).
• When, after far too many beers at 3am, your craving for McDonald’s is replaced by a desperate need for Iskembe (tripe) soup.
• When you learn that obeying pedestrian signals are only for the slow or stupid and crossing a busy intersection becomes part of your subconscious.
• When you stop giggling at Turkish soap operas and find yourself being slowly sucked in. And kind of enjoy it.
• When deciding whether to call the slightly elderly woman on the bus 'abla' (sister) or 'teyze' (aunt) sends you into a cold sweat.
• When you start realising that lemon really does compliment every dish.
• When you opt for ayran instead of cola at a lokanta.
• When switching to another foreign language, you answer ‘evet’ instead of ‘si’, ‘ya’ or whatever ‘yes’ should really be.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Philosophy of Team Sports

Despite a lifelong ambivalence to team sports, I feel it’s necessary to keep challenging your ideas, fears, likes and dislikes. So it was that I ended up at my first Turkish football game the other day. The result? I took up smoking for one night only. It was either that or kill myself more quickly.

But through the damp plastic seats, fluorescent lights and biting cold I wanted to dig deeper into my phobia. Where did it come from? Why don’t matching scarves and cleverly rhymed chants instil excitement and the burn of patriotism in me?

Did I suffer some team sports related tragedy? Was I hit by a ball at birth? Did my parents lock me in a cinema and play the Football World Cup on repeat for hours on end, Clockwork Orange style?


So then why is it that my eyes glaze over and my soul starts to whither whenever sports come within sight and sound?

To start with, it’s the balls. I just can’t fathom how it can be possible to find the throwing/passing/bouncing/kicking of a ball back and forth interesting. Sure, there’s some variation in the speed, height and power by which it can be moved, but it’s still a ball. Being propelled back and forth. I have more fun on a see-saw.

But more than that, it’s the mentality I find the most difficult to stomach. Sport develops some of the most intense anger, hatred and jealousy. Sure, there’s love there too, but it only lasts as long as one team’s winning and the other’s losing.

Affiliation to a team is rarely based on logical factors such as reasoned judgment about who is the best team, but almost always on inherited or circumstantial factors like who your father supports, where you are from or which team can afford the most talented players.

And so they trudge, the ‘supporters’. Decked in identical colours, with a similar mindset, ready to jump and clap and hug and cry for the team. As they gather, they begin to evoke old songs and chants which reinforce their love and devotion to a group of people they have never met and will never meet.

The team are intrinsically linked and dependent on each other. They are brought together not because of a genuine and mutual love and respect, but for the purpose of working towards the ‘greater good.’ Yes, an individual’s efforts are acknowledged, but it’s always done in the context of the ‘team.’ Sound familiar?

So there we have it: sports involve socialism, nationalism and patriotism. My most detested ‘isms’.

I knew it was more than just the balls.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Back to School (just another brick in the Istan-WALL)

I had my first Turkish lesson today.

It was rather like being teleported back to school days, only without the sadistic P.E. teachers, uniform coloured hair ties and boys calling me "Clown Face" (in reference to my overly rosy cheeks) or 'Tapeworm'' (not in reference to parasitic crawlies in my stomach, but because I ate more than everyone and was still the lankiest, skinniest girl in my class). Hrmm... seems things don't change much...

We don't even have a siren-like bell to startle us back to life. Instead we get Turkish pop music played at full volume until the break is over. There are no lunch ladies to growl at me as they slop processed cheese muck onto my plate, but a wizened old man offers steaming glasses of tea to dazed students.

The lessons are relaxed but packed with information. Turkish is interesting in that the language was completely overhauled by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1928. The founder of the Turkish Republic went about swapping the Arabic script to a Latin one and purging the language of most of its Persian and Arabic words; within a few months it was forbidden to use the old language.

The Turkish of today has no genders and a very logical grammatical structure. It's a designer language of sorts, kind of like the Milton Keynes of linguistics...

Still, that doesn't make it easy. Things like suffixes, pronunciation and vowel harmony are enough to induce a tequila flashback headache. There are so many 'formulas' to master that it's more than a little daunting.

Learning a language is like mathematics with a bit of history, politics, geography and sociology throw in.

And right now I have all the colours of a Rubik's cube whirling around inside my head.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Istanbul Info

For those of you who are wondering why my blog went dead for awhile, I blame this:

I've spent the last few months furiously writing and editing this online guide to Istanbul.

So if you've visited or plan to visit the city, check it out! Feedback welcome...

Monday, February 08, 2010

For the Cat

Winter has come to Istanbul. Before you see it you can smell it- in the plumes of roasted chestnut-pricked smoke that whirl down Istiklal Street and float into the blue-black sky.

You can taste it in the hot helva melted into sweet kebabs which are rolled up for easy access as you hunch over with hood on, munching through the January rains.

You can hear it in the howls of my feline neighbours, who moan at each other and the world as the snow keeps falling.

And you can feel it in the tips of your fingers and toes as the cold creeps in.

But as I sit here, peering out at my damp, dark garden, I know that cold or no cold, returning to Turkey was an easy choice; I chose to live life as it should be. Or at least try to. I’m now lost in a world of words… editing, writing, teaching words in a crazy, chaotic city which pulses with endless energy and torments.

Not long ago I witnessed a cat in its death throes: hit by a car and flinching its last bloodied flinches in the most undignified and horrifying way. I was on a bus, heading home after a long and draining day, full of equally drained workers on their way to collapse into an armchair and make a brief peace with their sushi-train lives.

But something sparked in that bus and as we passed the almost-corpse of the cat I felt a nauseated gasp shiver through. The whole street had paused; gruff looking mechanics paced up and down in helpless horror and teenagers glanced numbly at their feet.

So next time someone asks me why I moved back to Turkey, maybe I'll say, "for the cat."

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Working the Street

I’ve had some unusual jobs in my time. Somehow I was never content with McDonald’s, KFC or the local fish and chip shop.

No, my first real whack at employment in my school’s summer holiday involved standing for eight hours a day on hard concrete, my hands in cold water, shuffling asparagus on a long assembly line to the tune of Britney Spears’ latest single.

I still don’t know what my title was. Asparagus Services Representative? Asparagus Operations Assistant? Asparagus Shuffling Operative? If it wasn’t for Britney, it would have been a great job. But when I ran out of daydreams to amuse myself I decided it was time for fresh inspiration. Off I went to the local Swiss chocolate factory, where I spent every Saturday for the next two years poking a tea towel at rodent shaped chocolate moulds and developing a nauseating aversion to the smell of cocoa.

Then came the call centres, where I was coached on sales techniques by a bunch of highly charismatic Indians, whose cutting humour and ability to sell anything to anyone at any time made for one of my favourite jobs of all.

After a few more serious jobs I decided to take it international. After the stint in Dublin I needed a decent, real Turkish trade. It was without qualms, then, that I took up the offer of a one day trial in the world of carpet selling in Istanbul’s old town.

I have been sworn to secrecy on the details of this ancient trade, but I will say that carpet salesmanship is an art form and involves an intricate understanding of geography, politics, human psychology and mathematical probability. Unfortunately I was not blessed with the necessary depth of understanding and so had to look for other employment opportunities if I was to live my dream of working and living in Turkey’s largest city.

After my weeks in Georgia and the Middle East my funding and stamina for travel was running low. I was fed up with packing, unpacking and repacking my backpack on a daily basis. I was tired of thin mattresses and was looking for some stability in my pillow situation. I considered it fate then, that within two hours of being back in Turkey, I was offered the job of any insane traveller’s dream: touting for restaurant customers on a bustling street in Istanbul’s old town. The day had come to tackle 84 hour weeks, endless treks up and down flights of stairs, and setting up permanent camp in a sardine tin dormitory. In return I had free accommodation, restaurant prepared meals, and the chance to see backpacking culture from the depths of a 20 bed basement, on a crowded street side and from a rooftop restaurant and bar. Perfect.

For the next month I would have first-hand insight into the permanent and not so permanent relationships of travelers and develop some lasting friendships of my own. I would discover the answer to such complex philosophical problems as ‘Why do the French always drink such small beers?’ and ‘Why do New Zealanders always insist on wearing hiking clothes, even in large European cities?’, along with ‘Microfibre towels: to use or not to use?’

My day would start at 11am and end when the last beer was drunk, usually well after midnight. Most of my time was spent on the street, trying very badly to entice passers-by to brave the three flights of stairs to reach our sea-view restaurant terrace. The phrases, ‘Are you looking for something to eat?’… ‘We have a beautiful roof terrace’ … ‘Cold beer, good view’… ‘Delicious Turkish kebabs’ started to permeate my psyche and my dreams. I liked to observe the reactions of passers-by, who were mostly used to being accosted on every street corner by carpet sellers, waiters and lonely men with expertly crafted pick-up lines such as ‘You must be an angel… can I be your Charlie?’ By the time they got to my corner, a few would give a weary head shake, some would utter a brief ‘no, thanks’ while the majority would pretend I didn’t exist. They would pass, tight-faced and tight-lipped, looking like they’d rather be anywhere but on this sunny, cobbled street in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I had sudden urges to yell ‘BOO!’ or tickle them.

When I wasn’t watching the street I was eating from it. It’s universally agreed on that one of the best things about Turkey is the food, especially the roadside stalls and mobile carts, which sell such delights as hand squeezed pomegranate juice, hazelnuts, ripe figs, stuffed mussels and sizzling corn-on-the-cob. So in the interest of cultural research I felt it was my duty to sample each new food item I was brought- with the exception of some very suspicious looking fried liver at 2am. I developed an addiction to Frigola, a cheap, chewy, chocolately ice-cream which became a compulsory mid-afternoon escape from workplace tedium.

There were of course many boring—painfully boring—moments along the way, and the irony of working directly opposite one of Istanbul’s most notorious former prisons (now a five star hotel) didn’t escape me. Every Tuesday, on my one free day per week, I was bursting to get out of my self-imposed incarceration.

But when it came time to leave this job and city I knew I would greatly miss this country, this city, this food, these people- and, of course- this street. Being witness to the life and energy of a street is a special and energizing gift, and I regretted having to hand it back.

City streets have lives like no other; they become a medium through which a myriad of interactions take place. Though I’m far from it now, this street- my street- in a little corner of an ancient city, can still hear the cats pat-pattering on steamy cobblestones, see the young barber hang damp towels on a small white rack each morning, taste the tobacco laced spit of overweight and overbearing men, and feel a melancholic calm replace daytime chaos each evening.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


In a dusty corner shop in downtown Tbilisi, amongst the cute but useless souvenirs, Stalin beamed back at me. The Man of Steel, butcherer of countless millions, 'Uncle Joe', had been reduced to a label on a wine bottle. I suppose I could think of worse ways to be commemorated, but it seemed cheerfully fitting that this champion of Marxist revolution should now be used as a marketing tool in his home country of Georgia.

Nausea was setting in thanks to my traditional Georgian breakfast of Katchapuri, a colossal boat-shaped hunk of bread, knuckle deep in melted white cheese and fried eggs and drowned down with a large glass of coca cola. I wasn’t sure if it was the heartburn, lactose intolerance or a sudden urge to vomit, but for a brief and miserable moment I was forced to consider the benefits of veganism.

On all my travels, I had experienced a few moments where my life could have ended rather absurdly- falling from a pirate ship at a rickety theme park in northern Syria; a bad case of food poisoning- not obtained in a third world country, but rather in a quaint little Indian restaurant in central London; and falling into a drain in a nondescript village in Guatemala. I began to wonder if Katchapuri would be the end, and how it would look on my gravestone: ‘Died (not so tragically) of gluttony, somewhere in the southern Caucasus.’

Luckily Georgia’s other famous dishes managed to save me from certain death. Ken, me and two Swedes that we had met at the border (Viggo and Jens) were recommended a local restaurant by our hotel owner. In the basement of a shop in central Tbilisi, we found heaven. Though the waitress couldn’t speak a word of English and the menu was in the completely undecipherable Georgian, we pointed at a variety of dishes which were translated in the guidebook. With no idea of the prices or food quality we ended up stuffed to the brim with melt-in-your-mouth juicy dumplings, eggplant with walnuts and garlic and shashlik, skewers of marinated, grilled pork… all washed down with a litre of fine local wine. We received the bill with trepidation, wondering what this ‘top five best meals of our life’ would cost us. $30 for the lot brought it swiftly to the top of the list.

As we had crossed the border from Turkey, I noticed the roads degenerate and the skirts get shorter. Now that I had spent some time wandering the streets of Tbilisi, the contrast in cuisine, religion, landscape, language and culture became much more obvious. Georgia stands out for all of these reasons- a mountainous, mineral rich country with varied landscapes and climates- from sub-tropical to continental- making it ideal for everything from skiing to wine making. Although Muslims make up a sizeable minority (around 10%), Orthodox Christianity remains dominant and is widely practiced. The Georgian language is blessed with a beautifully curvaceous script and unique pronunciation, making it virtually impossible for travelers to understand. I did learn the Georgian word for ‘thank you’- ‘madlobt’ (თჰანქ yოუ) - although I still managed to forget it so many times that I would accidently merge it into an indecipherable blend of Turkish, Russian and Arabic phrases.

I only had two days in Tbilisi so I wanted to make the most of its fantastic food, cold beer, cobbled streets, hilltop cathedrals and suburban markets. Although the country’s capital and home to close to 1.5 million inhabitants, Tbilisi seems very small. We were told that Georgians love to flock to the Black Sea coast when the weather warms up, and as it was the height of summer, it may explain why the city centre felt eerily empty at times.

While strolling past the parliament, we somehow ended up in the middle of a protest. It seemed the entire police force of Georgia had turned out in rather severe looking riot gear for this day. It turned out that US Vice President Joe Biden was in town, and the Georgians weren’t happy. Since April the opposition had been gunning for the resignation of their president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and they wanted to make it clear to Biden that their authoritarian, warmongering president was guilty of human rights abuses and a failure to initiate promised democratic reforms. Mock jail cells had been erected across the front of parliament, protesters lined the streets and police had closed areas of the city and the central city metro line. We waited around for awhile but in the end the protest petered off undramatically.

We spent the last night in Tbilisi at an English pub, of all things. Sitting outside in the balmy evening air, talking to a homeless Chechnyan woman and listening to some young Georgians attempt karaoke, it couldn’t have felt further from England.

The next day Ken and I said our goodbyes to Jens and Viggo, the two Swedes whose black jeans and even darker humour I would miss. They were heading to Armenia while we were off to Batumi on the Black Sea coast. I’d had my fill of monuments and museums, my money was running out, and I was looking for a relaxing seaside end to my eastern journey before heading back to Istanbul.

Thanks to another unfortunate food poisoning incident, my lasting memory of Tbilisi’s bus station was of lying half conscious and crumpled in a stifling minivan waiting for it to fill, and finally on the sidewalk, begging Ken for a quick death or at least a pretty toilet. So to McDonalds we went, where I emptied my stomach before making my way back to the hotel to sleep off a raging fever. By nightfall I was feeling human again, so we headed for the railway station to take the night train to Batumi.

I woke to the morning light and soft drizzle tapping at my cabin window. Peeking through the curtain, I was greeted by a verdant collage of sub-tropical rainforest and the dark mass of the Black Sea looming forth.

Batumi is the last stop on the Transcaucasian Railway and is the largest port in Georgia. It’s also on the Baku Pipeline, making it an important player in the oil industry. Less than 30 minutes drive from Turkish border, it’s an interesting mix of local and Turkish vacationers and businessmen who come to stroll along the palm lined promenade and painstakingly tan themselves while standing upright on pebbled beaches.

I’d read about Batumi’s botanic gardens, a spectacular 111km mass of flora and fauna on the shores of the Black Sea. A lush wonderland of species from across the world, I was surprised to find it had a New Zealand Garden, even if it did consist of a few randomly placed ferns next to the gum trees that made up the Australian Garden.

It’s a compulsory cultural experience to see inside the depths of a nightclub in an ex-Soviet country. As much as I detest these manmade abominations, I felt it was my duty to endure a night on the town for the sake of research and bizarre entertainment. Batumi’s nightlife is centered on its beachfront clubs blasting dreadful techno music to vodka fuelled teenage girls. It could have been the music, hefty entrance fees, lack of sleep or jealousy at the ability of Georgian girls to totter through sand on six inch heels, but I didn’t last long on the town that night. Maybe I’m just getting old.

Ken and I parted ways the following day. After a week of Ken’s heroic rescue attempts from starvation, sickness and strange men it was time for me to find a home and a job back in Istanbul, and for Ken to continue on his way across central Asia. I’d miss my dear travel friend, whose unfortunate travel experiences and cheesy grin outdid mine hands down.

The rain was falling with unwanted vigor the day I left Georgia. Soaked to the bone and still full from my last dumplings, I said my last goodbyes to this strange and beautiful land.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Going East

It had always been a dream of mine to travel the length of Turkey and to make it right to the far east... the Wild East... where few travellers have the time or will to go. Virtually impassable for parts of the year due to heavy snowfalls, the east remains a mystical place, with its rugged, desolate landscape, dramatic mountain ranges, sparkling lakes, ancient castles and centuries old Armenian ruins. Although my grand plan was to take the exotic sounding Trans Orient Express train from Istanbul to Tehran, unfortunately time, money and the violent post-election riots meant I'd sadly have to miss the sands of Persia for now. Instead I took the decidedly less romantic (but infinitely more practical) long distance bus from Hatay on the Syrian border to Van in the far east of Turkey.

It wasn't long ago that it was virtually impossible to backpack here due to violent political clashes between Kurdish separatist fighters (PKK) and the Turkish military. The situation has calmed dramatically since the 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and the area is now largely peaceful and easy to travel in. The military presence is still obvious, especially on the towns bordering Iran and Armenia- right where I was heading- and I passed through a few military checkpoints on my travels, one of which had a pack of rather scary looking dogs watching on.

I arrived in Van, a city on Turkey's largest lake, Lake Van. Its mouthwash blue waters are out of this world; as if a part of the Caribbean had magically landed here. The town itself- with beautiful scenery, a large student population and a number of key historical sites- is a good base for exploration of the Lake and its surroundings.

I booked in at Hotel Aslan- 'Hotel Lion', which I can only hope was named for its jungle coloured interior... though perhaps the New Zealand bush would be a better comparison- brown and damp, with some rather strange inhabitants. The good thing about backpacking out east is that there's a severe lack of backpacker hostels, so I was free from the suffocating confines of dorm rooms. The flipside of this was the difficulty in meeting other travellers, so for the majority of my eastern Turkish experience I was either alone or sought out by locals.

Van's culinary claim to fame lies in its breakfasts; they are so famous, in fact, that they have a street aptly named Kahvalti Caddesi (literally, 'Breakfast Street'). My first stop after the harrowing bus journey was a genuine Van feast. I packed into a restaurant on a narrow alleyway to enjoy a delectable assortment of morning goodies. Fresh herbed cheeses, wild honey, boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives, fresh bread and an odd honey sponge... delicious.

All fired up, I got the first bus towards the lake for a day of sun and ancient history. Lake Van also boasts a series of islands, the most visited of which is Akdamar Island, homeplace of Akdamar Church. This Armenian cathedral, constructed in the 10th Century AD, is perched on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the tiny island. Once the seat of Armenian patriarchs, it was abandoned in the late 19th century due to conflict between the Ottomans and Armenians. It was recently restored and reopened as a museum by the Turkish government.

It's fairly easy to get to the Island from Van- just a short dolmus (shared taxi) ride followed by a ferry crossing. Getting back to Van proved a little more difficult, and the three hours I had to wait to led me to a group of Iranian hippies who were staying at the nearby campsite.

While on my way to the local bus station I had made friends with a local student, Adnan, who offered to show me around the town and its castle that afternoon to practice his English. When I finally got back to the town we met back up and he took me to see the castle. Van Castle is a surprisingly large hill-top fortress, and settlement is said to have begun here around the 8th century BC. It took a couple of hours scrambling over steep, dusty paths at sunset to see the fortification in its entirety. Adnan was a perfect guide.

It's unusual to see many women alone on the streets, so not many foreigners get a chance to talk to local women. I felt very lucky, then, to be invited into the home of a local family while waiting for my bus out of Van. I was shuffled in by hoards of children and their mothers to a little roadside house beside a stagnant river in the town centre. The house, with its low ceilings and silk flower packed living room, felt cozy and familiar. With television blazing, the matriarch fed me tea and bread on faded mattresses on their living room floor.

The girls crowded around my camera, posing for photographs, and excitedly began to tell me the life story of their family, all in the Kurdish language, of which I understand next to nothing and which has no real relation to Turkish. Still, it's amazing how far gestures and spontaneous sign language can get one in such a situation. I was graphically recounted the story of the death of one woman's brother. Whether it was murder or suicide I couldn't quite get, but the grief was obviously deep and fresh. All I had on me to give was an old packet of very melted chocolate biscuits, so we munched away until I had to catch my bus.

I felt that it would be a sin to come to eastern Turkey without seeing Mount Ararat. Ararat, with its surreal looking peaks and year long snows, lords over many lands. Now Turkish territory, it's also the backdrop of the Armenian capital of Yerevan, and its summit is a mere 16km from the Iranian border as well as an enclave of Azerbaijan. A militarized zone for most of the 20th century, the mountain was only opened for tourists in 2001, and takes a lot of money and bureaucratic nonsense to gain permission to climb. I didn't have the patience, fitness or desire to tackle the mountain, so I took to eating and watching instead.

I nabbed myself a cheap hotel in the town of Dogubeyazit with panoramic views over both the town and Ararat, and for the first time in months I had the use of a kitchen. As nice as it sounds to have meals cooked for you everyday, I was in desperate need of something other than bread and meat. To say I was 'Kebab-ed out' would be an understatement. I cooked up a giant bowl of tomato pasta and spent the rest of the evening on the top floor lounge gazing at the majestic mountain, which is said to be the resting place of Noah's ark.

Dogubeyazit's famous man-made landmark is Ishak Pasa- a spectacularly beautiful 18th century hill top palace and administrative complex, undoubtedly one of the best castles I have ever seen. Its location, in full view of the majestic Mount Ararat, and with fields expanding in all directions, defied all my expectations.

When I came out of the palace it didn't take long before I was approached by groups of teenage girls, apparently confused by this tall, gangly blonde girl going solo by the Iranian border. Cellphones were whipped in flurries from leather handbags and I became the subject of the most remote photo shoot of my life. I wasn't quite sure if they had mistaken me with someone from Hollywood or outer space. To avoid seeming rude, I posed with women, children, young and old men. It was not uncommon to have random babies thrown at me, either. To this day I still wonder what percentage of the Middle East population has my photo, and I won't be surprised to one day come across myself on You Tube.

Thanks to the infrequency of bus services and my dislike for very early starts, my next destination took a lot longer to get to than I expected. To get to Kars, not more than 150 km from Dogubeyazit, it's necessary to first take a bus to the town of Igdir, change buses, then go onto Kars. What I didn't realise was that there would be a 3 hour delay between changing buses, and so I ended up Igdir, a town of about 120,000 on the border with Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Thanks to my Igdir friends- Hakan, Kurban and Ali- whose friendliness, generosity and apricots I will never forget.

I arrived in Kars as the dusk was setting in. Despite having near perfect weather for the entire duration of my time in the Middle East, it decided to rain in Kars. I had just finished reading a Turkish novel about a town cut off by heavy snow falls, providing the perfect environment for a gruesome coup. The town was Kars. And as I approached the town centre, I was greeted through the drizzle with mud, military barracks and buildings as grey as decaying teeth

The rain only got heavier and colder and it took some time before I finally found Hotel Kent, the 'best budget option in town.' Tucked away on a side street with prime views of rain sodden footpaths, it looked more like a low end brothel than anything else.

Just when I was beginning to question why and how I ended up in this godforsaken town, I was saved by the only foreign inhabitants of the hotel- an ageing British sometimes-journalist and a wide-smiling Australian dentist named Ken. Within minutes of introduction, tensions were already rising between the journalist and the dentist, the latter of whose Indian origins seem to prompt the Brit into enacting a painful slowing down of speech and movement while in his presence.
Despite this, and at risk of starting our own coup, we decided to join forces the next day to tackle the town's most important gift, the medieval ruins of Ani.

Ani is an abandoned former capital of an Armenian kingdom and is said to have once been inhabited by an incredible 100,000 – 200,000 people. Due to its rather remote and desolate location about 45km from Kars, we were lucky to be one of only a handful of tourists, so we had free rein to wander through the crumbling remains of this ancient place. Most of the site has been left to the elements is in various states of disrepair and it's hard to imagine that this former city once rivalled Cairo and Baghdad in importance.

On my last day in Kars I still had no idea what to do next. All rational signs were pointing me back towards Istanbul- to a job and the comforts of slightly settled life. However, when Ken suggested I join him on a detour to Georgia, I thought... why not?

We set off early the next morning, heading for the most remote border crossing in Turkey.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Entering Lebanon was just like any other day in the life of a traveller: get in the queue. Wait. Step. Wait. Step. Wait. Smile at facetious official. Fill in pointless form. Pay money to corrupt government. Smile. Stamp. Welcome to Lebanon.
We got back in our waiting shared taxi and continued on our short journey from the border to Beirut. Our vintage American taxi wound up and down the mountain range surrounding the city, along the increasingly urbanized highway until finally coming to a stop at a concrete yard. We only had the name of a hotel suggested to us which was supposedly only a few minutes walk from this 'bus station.'

Talal's was not easy to find; hidden up a few flights of stairs in an otherwise unremarkable grey apartment block off a main road. The tiny reception also functioned as a lounge, which was to become the site of many cramped but enjoyable evenings spent drinking cold beer with an eccentric mix of travellers.

Once we were settled in at the hotel we took an afternoon walk around Gemmazye, the nearby bar hub famous for its western themed nightlife and restaurants. Beirut is indeed the party capital of the Middle East, and it was obvious from the first encounters with locals that we had strayed far from the conservative culture of Syria. Everyone is just so damn cool. Girls giggling over Cosmopolitans in a lounge bar; guys reclining with a Heineken listening to jazz- and even at a whopping seven dollars a drink, who's counting? The locals switch effortlessly between Arabic, French and English in a country where its universities bear names such as the American University of Beirut; Lebanese Canadian University; and the Ecole Superieure des Affaires.

Beirut is a dazzling city, surrounded by verdant mountains on one side and the jade waters of the Mediterranean on the other. Construction is ongoing and rapid, and for every pile of war ravaged rubble there seems to be a new sushi bar, gelato shop or glittering hotel looking on. The energy and optimism is palpable as the city undergoes yet another reincarnation, and the feeling of being witness to this re-birth was electrifying. Any preconceptions I had faded into the dusk and I was overcome with child-like excitement.

Our trip was organised at such last minute that I hadn't had a chance to let my family know I was even going to Lebanon. I sent off a quick email to my parents that night:
Hi guys, great to hear from you. We are in Beirut now! Not nearly as scary as it sounds.''
I had an email from my father not long after:
''This trip has certainly taken you to places that you hadn’t necessarily intended to visit. Have you witnessed any live shelling yet?''

There was no shelling for us on that trip, although we heard our share of horror travel stories from other backpackers from our hotel. One evening, while meeting up for a drink and water pipe at a clifftop restaurant, we caught up with two dazed looking young travellers- one from Northern Ireland and the other from Canada. They had been walking around the Hezbollah dominated refugee camps that day, merrily taking photos of their surroundings, when they were forced into a car and taken to Hezbollah headquarters.

Their interrogation lasted a couple of hours and took much ego boosting along the lines of ''Hezbollah good. Israel bad. Canada likes Hezbollah'' (two thumbs up). In the end, ''the guys,'' they said, ''were kinda friendly, and offered to drop us back at the hotel.'' We were more concerned about the power cuts, however- each day, for several hours at a time. Nothing can really prepare you for a cold shower in the early morning, no matter how much you try to rationalise it in the context of a war-ravaged developing country.

Back at the hotel we were lucky to meet a journalist who offered to take us on a three day tour of the rest of Lebanon. We rustled together a group consisting of myself, Kristin, a kiwi mechanic named Kerry and Torry, an American girl who had just finished working in Jordan. We piled ourselves into the car and headed south along the coast towards the border with Israel. Driving through the quaint fishing villages of Tyre and Sidon, past the sparkling (though predictably polluted) waters of the Mediterranean, it's easy to miss the war-shattered buildings, sandbag checkpoints and martyr posters honoring those who have killed and been killed.

Along with Beirut, southern Lebanon has seen its fair share of bombings, gunfire and landmines, often due to its close proximity to the Israeli border. Standing right next to the fence between Lebanon and the border, in a seemingly tranquil spot, I asked our journalist guide what would happen if I tried to jump the fence to the Israel side. ''Well'', he started, ''Firstly you would have to get past the landmines in the strip below. Once you got through those you would have to dodge fire from Israeli snipers hiding in the the hills above us, who are watching us as we speak. There will also be people hiding in the grass below. All follow a shoot to kill policy.''

Recent Lebanese history is violent and complicated. Following independence from France in 1943, Lebanon maintained a largely calm, stable and prosperous economy. However, when the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, 15 years of violent warfare followed with an estimated 150,000 killed, 200,000 injured and up to 900,000 internally displaced. Despite extensive rebuilding in the country, violence again broke out in 2006.

This is a country where the state, rather than distance itself from religion, has instead used it to define its political makeup. In a bizarre attempt to minimize sectarian violence and correct ideological religious imbalances in parliament, the Lebanese government has embraced a system called Confessionalism whereby the government is strictly divided on religious lines. The President, for example, must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi'a Muslim. While guaranteeing representation from all of the major religions in the country, it's easy to imagine the paradox effects of such a system.

The religious divisions are often obvious, with many grouping together geographically into majority towns or suburbs. On a simpler level, dress can be a clear indicator of religious affiliation, such as a headscarf or length of skirt on women, while Druze men tend to have moustaches and wear white hats. Bad feeling runs deep and in southern Lebanon, none is so obvious as hatred for Israel.

It was fitting, then, that we visit Al- Khiam Prison Museum. This former prison, once a Lebanese army base, was taken over by the South Lebanese Army (SLA) and purportedly used by the SLA and Israeli soldiers as a brutal prison camp until the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Following the withdrawal, Hezbollah converter it into a museum, but it was destroyed by the Israeli airforce in 2006. It has been resurrected as a museum again, although it is now mostly just piles of very disturbing rubble. There is little doubt, though, that hideous torture was commonplace and included methods such as electrocution and long periods of solitary confinement.
Walking around the former prison, it feels more like a theme park from a horror movie. Tattered Hezbollah flags wave eerily in the breeze. Children, on an educational Sunday outing with their family, play on the disused tanks and peep at eachother through bullet holes. Old rockets have been shuffled around so that they all point in one direction: towards Israel, a blatant 'fuck you' to the neighbours.

But Lebanon is not all tanks and terror. After our day of political history in the south, we took in some highlights of the north and east, past the spectacular seaside ruins of Byblos and onto the cedar forests which Lebanon is famous for, despite extensive and badly managed deforestation. These woodland jewels rise out of dramatic hills dotted with wildflowers, ancient hermit caves and Christian monasteries. The fact that so few cedars remain somehow make them all the more beautiful.

It's also no secret that Lebanon has some of the best wine in the Middle East; its Mediterranean climate, French influences and liberal leanings lend itself to wine making. Heading east from Beirut, the natural landscape is interrupted now and then by grand vineyards and their accompanying restaurants.

On our final day in Beirut we headed to Sabra and Shatilla, open refugee camps housing mostly Palestinian refugees who fled the conflict in Israel. The camps are often remembered for the massacre that took place there in 1982, when up to 5,000 inhabitants were brutally slaughtered over three days. The massacre was led by a Christian Phalangist militia following the assassination of their leader, Bachir Gemayel, the recently elected President of Lebanon, and carried out with the knowledge and protection of the Israeli Defense Force.

The majority of camps' inhabitants have been refused citizenship by Lebanon. Unable to return to Israel or to integrate properly into Lebanese society, they remain as unwanted aliens with little chance of getting out. Access to property is severely limited due to a law which forbids those with no recognized state (such as Palestine) to own property outside the camps. It's of little surprise then that Islamic militias and terrorist organisations have moved in, using its inhabitants to further their religious and political causes.

The narrow streets of the camps are overshadowed with dilapidated apartments blocks and tyre weighted shanties. Pictures of fighters, martyrs and even Saddam Hussein are pasted on bare, sometimes bullet scarred walls. Children ride on rusted bicycles in the dust, or pack into darkened internet cafes to play outdated warfare games The local market is bustling, selling everything from freshly squeezed fruit juices to leather boots while a corner pizza shop churns out fresh and delicious treats.

As we were leaving the camps a group of men approached us to ask us the usual questions: where we were from; did we like Lebanon; what were we doing here? When they discovered Kristin was from Norway, one broke out into fluent Norwegian while the other, when he found out I had lived in Sweden, excitedly started speaking Swedish. It turned out that both had lived in Scandinavia but had returned for their family- they'd come home.

From the camps we headed to the public beach, to sunbathe, swim and try to make sense of our day. In many ways it had summed up the week we'd spent there. Lebanon is mad, maddening, sickening, friendly, disgusting and beautiful. It's familiar and alien all at once, and it doesn't take long before the checkpoints, guns, guards and bullet holes start to feel unexceptional; part of the routine of everyday life in Lebanon. Its bizarre contrasts give it an edge like no other, but by the end of the week I felt as educated as I did confused.

I left Lebanon on a Monday. Kristin was flying back to Norway and I was heading back to Turkey. As there is no practical way to reach Turkey by water, the only way to get there by land is to transit through Syria. So I packed myself into a shared taxi with Kerry the Kiwi and two Lebanese businessmen. Arriving at the border, Kerry and I were told that the free transit visa for Syria (which was promised at the Ministry of Immigration just four days earlier) no longer existed and we would have to pay US$85 for less than twelve hours in Syria. Two weeks earlier I had paid almost half of that for a 30 day visa.

One of the Lebanese men in my taxi who spoke both Arabic and English helped us to argue with immigration for an hour, but we were not successful. Despite this, our new translator-cum-engineer on his way to work in Syria reached into his wallet and paid for my visa, refusing any offer of compensation. 'Enjoy your travels', he said with a smile, and got out of the taxi to begin a new day of work.