Feathered Aspen


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Kathmandu to Syaphru Besi to Riverside Hotel

November 16, 2010

We had 4 days off trail. During two of those days, we endured epic bus journeys. On another, we navigated Nepali bureaucracy.

So this morning, there was no mumbling or groaning or complaining when the alarm went off at six. In fact, we leapt out of our sleeping bags, our feet itching to get on the trail. We packed up, ate Tibetan bread with eggs, slurped piping hot tea, and then got out of town.

At the permit checkpoint, we glanced at the ledger. Yesterday, nearly 30 trekkers had passed in and out of Langtang. That about 150 less than in the Annapurna. We were the first trekkers today.

Crossing a suspension bridge, we looked up at the different valleys. One takes you to the Tamang Heritage Trail, another takes you to Langtang, and the other goes up to the Gosainkund Lakes. We’ll do all of these trails by the time we’re done, but for now, we’re headed to Langtang.
On the other side of the river, old Syraphru Besi looks like a town out of a western filmset.

There’s smoke coming out of the chimneys, chickens and cows in the street, and women coming out of swinging wooden doors with buckets of water that they toss onto the gravel road that runs through the center of town.

We crossed another suspension bridge and began heading up through thick, green undergrowth. The air smelled like wood. There weren’t pines around, so it wasn’t that, but it had the same tangy, woodsy smell. Around us, the trees are starting to change colors, and the whole place is just on the edge of summer and fall.

We felt great. It sounds silly, but for some reason, finding out that Red Wing is a 20 minute drive from Ellsworth and then reading that it was ranked in the top 100 of historical destinations in National Geographic put a whole new spin on things. I started to get excited about going home and exploring it. I’m not even as worried about jobs. I’ve been kicking around the idea of waitressing, and also of getting my masters in Social Work. I’ve got all these new ideas, and I’m not feeling so anxious. The trail helps, too.

We passed through a number of small little villages with guest houses. Each of them sat on the same river, rioting past over enormous bolder the size of buses or buildings. We saw a few trekkers descending from the other direction, but otherwise, not a soul passed us (except for a weird Dutchman. He tried to walk with for a while, but I was so put off by his awkward/competitive vibe that I hardly said a word to him.).

After four and a half hours of hiking, we hit Upper Rimche. Stopping at Hotel Ganesh View, we sat at a picnic table overlooking the valley. We ordered a couple plates of veg chowmein, played a few hands of cards, and just generally marveled at our good fortune. This place rocks.
From Rimche, it was a 20 minute walk to Lama Hotel, the village where most Langtang trekkers stay on their first night. Hoping to avoid the ‘crowds,’ we decided to head on to a lone guest house, about an hour away.

The air started to cool off, and low, misty clouds rolled in and then out again. I stung my hand on a mean set of stinging nettles and had to take a Benadryl, but mostly, it was wonderful. Up ahead, we could see our first glimmers of snowy mountains.

At Riverside Hotel, a small string of rooms sits next to loud, white water. A beautiful red tree hangs over the path. The guest house keeper invited us in, and we took off our packs.
Before we lost the motivation, we ran out and did 60 push-ups and 60 sit-ups. Joshua’s training to be a policing bad-ass, and I don’t need any such excuse. Afterwards, we layered up and sat by the river. For 50 rupees, we ordered a thermos full of hot water, and feeling very thrifty, we added in our own tea bag. We saved 5 dollars. (Tea is more expensive than food here.)

We read, looking up and enjoying the view at the end of every page. At five, our guest house keeper brought out tons of Dal Bhaat, and we ate until we were stuffed. We finished the thermos of tea.

When the light went down over the hills, we moved into the kitchen where the fire under the stove was still burning. It’s warm in here, and the guest house keeping, Ukchi, is very friendly. I’m typing, and Joshua’s reading. In a bit, it’ll be bedtime.

Once I’d finished writing, Ukchi, our guest house keeper, asked to see some of our photos. I showed him our little slide show from the Annapurna. Although he’s never been there, he seemed pleased that it wasn’t too different from his Langtang Valley. He told us that his wife runs a lodge in Langtang while he runs Riverside. They spend the tourist season apart, and his three sons are all in a Kathmandu boarding school. The come home two months a year for the holidays, during Deshain and Deuwali. He seemed lonely, and he told us that life felt hard here.
Like others we’ve spoken to, he’s not impressed with the government.

We talked for a little while, and when the fire started to die out, we all said goodnight. In our sleeping bags, Joshua and I scooted in close to catch each other’s warmth, but it was a long while before we were warm enough to sleep.

November 15, 2010

Have you heard of those gravity simulators? I haven’t personally seen one in action, but I get the impression that you sit in one and then it whips you about and you feel your cheeks flap back towards your ears. Ok. Maybe that’s a bit abstract. Have you ever seen a rock tumbler? They’re the sort of craft novelty that sounds like a really great idea at the time, and I’m sure that there’s someone somewhere who has put this appliance to really great use, but the for the rest of us, once purchased, it sits on the shelf and collects dust.

Well, anyway. Imaging that you’re sitting in a little cockpit, and by whatever method, that cockpit is taken through motions one part gravity simulator and one part rock tumbler. It’s bumpy; it’s bone-jarring; and it’s one hell of a ride. Now, imagine that you are in that little cockpit for 10 hours.

Actually, I’m beginning to think that this metaphor doesn’t really do our bus ride yesterday any justice. A ‘little cockpit’ sounds quite cozy and sterile, and the bus – I assure you – was neither of these things. For a vehicle containing 30 tightly packed seats, there were an astounding number of passengers. Every seat was full, there were people standing in the aisle, the driver’s cab was bursting, and there were over a dozen perched on the roof. I would estimate that there were nearly twice as many passengers as there were seats.

There was some screaming (more on that later), some vomitting, quite a bit of dust, even more exhaust, and the distinct smell of body ordor. It was a bouncing, heaving, breathing mass of humanity that crossed mountains and teetered over the edge of chasms that seemed to fall forever. More than once, our back tire met the loose gravel on the edge of cliff face, and I watched as those little stones fell down, down, down.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We woke up at 6:15 and quickly scrambled to pack up the last of our things and make it to the dining room for breakfast. After a short wait, our toast, eggs, and tea arrived, and we gobbled it all down. Outside, our taxi driver was already waiting, so we hurried to pay and check our big bags in their storage room.

The taxi ride took less than 10 minutes. Our buses stood in the street, and they already looked full. A bit apprehensive, we double and thrice checked that this bus was, in fact, headed to Syraphru Besi. Judging by nods and gestures, we boarded.

Our tickets said seats 7 and 8, and while Nepali bus rides tend to be life-threatening, chaotic ventures, the Nepali are very serious about people sitting in their proper seats. We sat.
Looking around, there were perhaps eight other Westerners who appeared to be trekking-bound. A few of them had guides, but others seemed to be going it alone, like us. Gradually, the bus became even more packed, and at 7:30 – our estimated time of departure – the bus driver started the engine and began to inch forward. Joshua was shocked. Starting on time is unheard of.

But not so fast. One irrate Nepali man stood over a couple of Westerners two rows ahead of us, telling them that these were his seats, and they need to get out. The money collector got involved, and somehow, he decided that where they needed to be sitting is where we were sitting. We looked behind us. We looked in front. There were no more seats.

Showing the money collector our tickets, we explained that these seats, in fact, were ours. We would not be moving. He disagreed. He told us that we should take ‘those seats.’ By way of explaining ‘those seats,’ he gestured to the back of the bus. There were none. Now, you might think that perhaps this was a large bus and maybe he couldn’t see ‘those seats.’ Maybe he didn’t realize that they were all full.

Nope. This was a tiny-ass bus, and I can most certainly assure you that every bleedin’ passenger could see for his or herself that there were no such seats available. The man was quite clearly trying to screw us over.

In my firmest terms, I politely availed this man of his notion. By now, the situation had escalated. There were people screaming. The man who believed that the two Westerners in front of us had taken his seats unjustly was getting in the woman’s face and gesturing angrily. I took my cues.

‘Do you see seats back there?’ I asked. ‘No, you don’t, because there are no seats back there. You are lying to me, and you know it. I bought tickets. These are mine, you see? We’re not moving.’
I could feel the blood pumping in my ears. I was pissed. Joshua, unsure of what had gotten ahold of me, put a warning hand on my arm. When the man once again tried to tell me to get out of our seats and go back to ‘those seats,’ he restrained me from, as my students would say, ‘clicking out.’ That’s right. I was about to go New Orleans on his ass.

So there was some more screaming and more gesturing. It went on like this for about 30 minutes, and then, when it became clear that our asses were rooted to those bus seats, the bus driver started the bus and made his way out of Kathmandu. The horrible, rotten-toothed money collector man tried once more to tell us to move to ‘those seats.’ I didn’t respond to him; I just gave him my meanest possible mean look. He seemed to get the idea.

It was hostile for a bit, the locals hating the tourists for taking up bus seats and the tourists resenting the locals for feeling like we’re all just money trees and as long as we hand over our rupees, they don’t give a damn what happens to us. It was the start to a fine ride.

A couple of hours later, the bus came to a stop in front of a little road-side cafe. People stumbled off to use the restroom and load up on snacks, but I stayed put. You had better believe I’m not falling for that one. Sure enough, as soon as everyone had disembarked, the Nepali man with double-booked tickets came on the bus, moved the bags from the seats, and deposited his mother and sister. He had been thoroughly awful to the Western couple, screaming and spewing spittle in their faces, but now I felt a little bit bad for him. He had paid for the bus too, and his mother was very, very old. His sister sat on the floor with her face on the seat, clutching her stomach and groaning. It was a bad situation all around.

When everyone came back on the bus, there was surprisingly little fuss. Two people volunteered to sit on the roof, and everyone who insisted on seats had them. I drowsed off and on for hours. The bus bounced over potholes and switchbacks. I took a dramamine.

At one of the stops, I hopped off and purchases a couple of mandarins and some bananas. We ate them slowly, trying to pass the time. It was only noon.

The bus kept going. Below us, the gorge dropped so far down that it went out of sight. The edge of the road crumbled away into nothingness. I tried not to look. When we hit bumps or holes so hard that our butts flew out of our seats, I wondered how the people on the roof were managing to hang on.

At 3, we arrived in Dhunche. Checking in at the permit office, we all stretched our legs for a bit. The air had gotten much cooler since Kathmandu, and everyone took out extra layers.

Back in the bus, we rode for another two hours, stopping to pick up and drop off locals along the way. This part of the road was one of the worst yet, and people began vomiting from motion sickness. I kept my eyes closed. As long as I can pretend to sleep, I’m ok.

About an hour from Syraphru Besi, I started to have that I’m-going-to-absolutely-lose-it-if-I-don’t-get-off-this-godforsaken-bus-very-very-soon feeling. By the time we got to the village, I was already half way out the door. I stumbled out onto solid ground and thanked whatever diety it was that had decided we were fit to live another day. This was our last bus ride in Nepal, and we lived to tell the tale. Now, I can tell you that Lonely Planet tells travelers to use the bus system as little as possible, because there are more bus fatalities here than anywhere else. That was my little secret that I was going to wait to tell you until it was all over, and now it is.

In Syraphru Besi, we found the first guest house, Hotel Peaceful, and immediately dumped our packs. Joshua went to order Dal Bhaat, and I went to go take care of a problem that only a course of anti-biotics can take care of.

The rest of the trekkers seemed to all lodge themselves at Hotel Peaceful too, and within minutes, the place was full. It took them a while to churn out that much Dal Bhaat, so while we waited, we played cards in the candlelight. With frequent power outages, candles are always nearby.

Dal Bhaat was delicious, and we scarfed it all down, barely coming up for air. When it was all said and done, it was nearly 7. We looked around, and no one seemed ready to head off to bed, but we reasoned that it’s trail-time. We led the way.

In our room, we laid out our sleeping bags on one of the narrow twins. It’s funny, because although we technically met and began dating in high school, I wouldn’t call us ‘high school sweethearts.’ We don’t reminisce about the good old days or all the teachers and friends that we had who were the same. Sometimes, we’ll start a story and we’ll realize that the other actually does know who we’re talking about, but it almost always comes as a surprise. We didn’t have the same friends in high school, and although we met on the school bus and we had crushes on each other for a couple of years, we didn’t start dating until the very last semester.

Sometimes though, it’s fun to take out those old stories. We tease each other about what we were thinking and when. We debate who really asked out who. We talked for a while, thinking about old friends that we haven’t seen or heard of in a long time, and then, when our eyes started to close, we learned over, kissed cold noses, and fell asleep.


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Istanbul to Cappadocia

No spell check!

September 8, 2010

Although my throat hurt so badly that my ears hurt too, there was nothing to be done. Today, we planned on wandering through Istanbul with our packs on and then catching the bus to Goreme; we didn’t have anywhere to relax, and doctor’s appointments are both extremely expensive and hard to come by. Besides, what is the doctor going to tell me? Rest. Drink lots of water. Etc. Drink lots of water I can do. Rest? Not today, anyways.

Before we left SoHo Hostel, I went upstairs to shower. It smelled a little like piss and there didn’t appear to be any locks on the door, but I wasn’t about to quibble. It had been two long days of travel since my last shower, and I did not smell good. Undressing quickly to beat any other early risers, I hopped in and started fussing with the knobs. No luck. I looked dubiously at the exposed plastic piping that had been duct-taped in several places. Down the line, there were more knobs. No luck. Up above me, there was a tank with a button. No luck. I tried to flush the toilet. Nope. I tried to turn the faucet in the sink on. No way. Getting dressed again, I retrieved Joshua who confirmed my suspicions: no water.

Now, not only did my tonsils feel like two ungainly toddlers, but I was also stinky. Excellent. We quickly packed our bags and left, I don’t think we’ll have many fond memories of SoHo Hostel. (Apparently, Joshua’s night had been even more traumatic: he couldn’t fall asleep until the disco music stopped, but almost as soon as it had, the Spanish girls came in talking loudly and turned on the lights. They poked him in the back to see if he was ready for fun, and seeing that he was not, immediately packed their bags and left (why?). Then, about a half hour later, Joshua heard keys in the door, and then he saw a very large man come in the door. Stumbling into the bottom bunk, this hulk of a human immediately fell asleep and began to snore like the train engine that could.)

Outside, Taksim Square was sleeping off a hangover, and we had the cool, sunny morning to ourselves. Stopping at a pharmacy, I purchase throat lozenges that are laced with Ibuprofen (what a wonderful idea), and then I proceeded to suck four of them down. Feeling much better, I began to tune into Joshua’s narration of our city tour. Heading South through Beyoglu, we stopped to take photos of the Galata Tower and Neve Shalom Synagogue.

Down on the Bosphorus, we headed East to Karakoy Gulluoglu, the very first cafe to sell Baklava in Turkey. I should tell you now that Joshua has a rule: if you see baklava, eat it. It’s a pretty simple edict, but given any extended period of time in a Middle Eastern country, it could have serious reprecussions. Namely, not being able to fit through doorways. Nevertheless, Joshua hopped in line while I sat an guarded our packs. Although the line was massive, most of the people waiting for their honey goodness were Turks, and they all looked at us bemusedly, especially when Joshua came back and we took a picture of our plate.

Sipping tea and eating really good baklava is kind of like a religious experience. It’s such an intense pleasure that you’re afraid that your spirit might actually up and leave your body, but you fight like hell to stay corporial so that you can extend the experience. If we carry out the metaphor, then I guess Karakoy Gulluoglu is kind of like the Vatican or – more appropriately – Mecca. It is worthy of pilgrimage and hajj.

It only took one cup of tea and two pieces of baklava each, but by the time we were finished, we were so in love with Istanbul. Walking across the bridge over the Bosphorus, we admired the fishermen with their impossibly long poles and Istanbul’s skyline, dotted with the domes and minarets of lovely, large mosques. On the other side, we made our way to Topkapi Palace.

In 1453, Constantinople was attacked and then subsumed by the Ottoman Empire. Topkapi Palace was built to house Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, and with each reign, the Sultan would extend or embellish the complex. Although many of us may think of the Ottoman Emprie as something of the distant past (ok, so that was my assumption, and now I’m foisting it upon you), the Empire was more or less alive until 1920. Within the Topkapi Palace walls, the Ottoman elite met with their military leaders, ambassadors, and foreign leaders, and today, you can see where they ate, walked, read, and… Well, you can see the harem, too. With three courts, the Palace becomes increasingly oppulent the farther in you go, and the two of us spent nearly 4 hours wandering the various rooms and courtyards. Like the Alhambra, Topkapi Palace had incredible tile work, and there was hardly a square inch of space that was not decorated in beautiful designs and colors. Unlike the Alhambra, there was very little three-dimensional decoration, and many of the walls were painted with frescoes and tromp o’lile. In some of the rooms, we could see the Sultan’s clothes that have been preserved, as well as many gifts and spoils they had collected from their foreign neighbors (and enemies). The room with the longest line had the spoonmaker’s diamond, the world’s fifth largest, and the Sultans’ sabers. In the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, we saw Moses’ golden staff, Mohammed’s footprint, robe, and beard, and John the Baptist’s skull (or so they said).

In all, it was a massive and beautiful complex, and our favorite rooms were the library, the circumcision room, and the Baghdad room (when the Empire sacked Baghdad, they built a room to celebrate). After we exited the palace, we walked to through the gardens to a cafe overlooking the Bosphorus. Ordering tea, we sat for a while, appreciating the breeze and the beautiful view of Istanbul. We wrote a few postcards, and when the tea came, we practiced pouring from the infusion pot, the water pot, and then stirring the little spoons in our little glasses. After hours of hefting our packs through crowds, it was just what we needed.

Making our way back to Sultanhamet Square, we passed the Hagia Sofia and found the Blue Mosque. Sitting in the park between the two, we passed an hour reading and people watching. At one point, some sort of outdoor speakers began blasting a man chanting. In the distance, another man responded. Realizing that this was the Call to Prayer sounding from the minarets of the Mosques nearby, I closed my book. I looked around, hoping to see someone praying, but apparently, this isn’t the stop-drop-and-pray signal I had thought it was. Turks and tourists alike – veiled and unveiled – just kept walking. I suppose people must be used it; at five times a day, the Call to Prayer probably starts to sound as commonplace as church tower bells tolling the hour. Chills ran up and down my spine. This is my favorite thing about Turkey: listening to the Imam call the Muslim faithful to pray. It has to be one of the most beautiful and enchanting sounds in the world.

At 6, Joshua went in search of Jeton (tokens) to get on the Tram. Riding to Aksaray, we watched as the touristy part of Istanbul made way to neighborhoods and shops selling the oddest combinations: toe clippers, socks, orthotics, and hand-held sewing machines made out of old staplers. From Aksaray, we passed people selling polos, sunglasses, and levis spread out on blankets along the sidewalk. At the Underground station, we bought more Jeton and boarded the subway headed for Otogar, the Bus Station.

Beyond men shaving lamb and chicken for kebaps with long knives and tall hats, we entered an enormous square. On each side, more than 50 bus companies had little offices with bright colored signs emblazoning their names: Metro, Oncu, Suhir Turizm, Goreme, Nevsehir, Kapadokya, etc. Consulting our guide, we played ‘where’s Waldo?’ and tried to find the name of the four of five bus companies that run lines from Istanbul to Goreme, the town in Cappadocia where we have reservations. (Amazing Race, take note: this would be a fabulous road block.)

First, we found Goreme and went inside to investigate. No tickets to Goreme. All full. Next, we went to Kapadokya. Same story. Next, Oncu. Next, Metro. Next Nevsehir. Sadly, none of the bus companies had any open seats. It’s the last night of Ramazan (and no, I’m not spelling that incorrectly), and tomorrow begins a three day holiday called Seker Bayrami (Ede, elsewhere) where little children go asking for candy (kind of like Halloween, but religious) and people may finally break their fast and eat and drink in broad daylight for the first time in 30 days. (And Catholics thought no meat on Fridays was a big deal!) So, long story short: no bus to Goreme for tonight.

Seeing us with our noses deep in our guide book and looking up, squinty-eyed at all the signs, a couple of Turks tried to convice us that they could help us. One man took Joshua on a little scavanger hunt, trying to presuade him to catch a bus to Nevsehir or maybe Kayseri instead. For some reason, Joshua followed him, but don’t worry, grasshopper. I wasn’t about to fall prey to some bus scam that gets me landed in the middle of Turkish freaking no-where. I’ve read ‘Dangers and Annoyances,’ and I’m no rube. I deftly snatched Joshua and thanked-but-no-thanked the man. He may have been well intentioned, but I wasn’t about to find out. Back at Goreme, we bought the very last tickets for tomorrow night, and then we headed back to Sultanhamet Square.

On the way back, I was feeling pretty anxious. Not only would we have to forsake our reservations for a hostel in Goreme, but we didn’t have reservations for a hostel tonight. Our plans had been thrown off, and I didn’t want to feel like tomorrow was a waste, especially when we only have 7 days in Turkey. Joshua was feeling pretty anxious too, and that’s when we realized that the only things we had consumed all day were a pot of tea, four liters of water, and four pieces of baklava. All day long, I had been watching street artists create their culinary tricks, and in particular, I was intrigued by the red and white stripped stands with piles of corn in their husks. On one side, there was a small grill, and in the middle, dozens were boiling. For one Turkish lire (more on that later), you could buy a piece of corn doused in salt and handed to you on a piece of printer paper. Excellent.

Stopping at the first corn stand we saw, we ordered two grilled pieces of corn. The somewhat sullen teenager managing the stand bypassed the pieces of corn he had already grilled, carefully selected the best specimens, and slapped them on the grill, rotating them regularily. He asked us where we were from, and we told him the US. He told us he was trying to learn English, and that he was tired and hot and bored. Another man came over to buy a piece of grilled corn, and the boy handed him an already grilled piece. When the man asked him to warm it up, he said it already was, and the man, a little miffed, walked away with his piece of corn in hand. The boy looked at us, rolled his eyes and shook his head, mouthing ‘it wasn’t.’ He was pleased when we started laughing really hard.

It took about 10 minutes for the corn to grill until it was way too hot to eat. In that time, our sullen culinary street artist called over his English teacher. About the same age, this boy had a totally different demeanor. When he discovered that we were from the US, he smiled so big, I thought his ears might pop off. He then began speaking in rapid-fire, broken English, explaining that his adopted mom is from New Jersey (well, not really, but almost), that he was in his last year of school, that he wanted to go to college in the US, that he had been studying English for, like, 6 hours a day, that he had been teaching his friend here, but his friend was stupid, and the only word he knew for sure was, ‘shut up, that’s wrong.’ When our corn was finally done, they wished us a good night, and waved to us as we walked away. After a few yards, I glanced back at them, and they were both talking quickly and excitedly in Turkish. I think I know the feeling. After I’ve successfully spoken to someone in Spanish – AND THEY’VE UNDERSTOOD ME – I feel like a million bucks.

Trusting the old LP to lead us in the right direction, we wandered across busy Sultanhamet Square and into the tourist quarter. Here, it was quieter, a little bit more polished, and the only Turks were the ones managing the establishments; otherwise, the streets were lined with polite tourists, dining, chatting, and tinkling their glasses of wine. It was Istanbul, watered down and tamed for Western palates. These places aren’t bad for sleeping accomodations, but I wouldn’t want to spend any more time here than that. It seems a shame that some people would go half-way across the world to spend time with people who look and act and speak just like they do in places that all pretty much look the same.

First, we checked with Hotel Peninsula, recommended by LP. No room. Next, we check in with the Orient. Nope. Feeling vary anxious indeed (despite our pieces of crunchy corn), we checked in at the Mavi Guesthouse. No room there, either. Finally, at a hostel not listed in LP – Big Island Hostel – we secured beds. Although Joshua had sworn to never rent a bed in a dorm room again, desperate times call for desperate measures. We rented beds in a dorm room for 16 (yowzah).

Climbing the stairs to our sleeping pavillion, the music got louder and louder. Perfect. Inside the room, 8 bunks were crammed in side-by-side with barely any room to walk. Seizing the last two beds, we chucked our packs on top, and I immediately went in search of a shower. Although it was a relatively large hostel, there were only two shower stalls. Thankfully, I only had to wait for one person to finish showering. He must have been European, because he walked out and climbed the stairs to the 16 bed dorm in nothing but his whitey-tighty undies and his head wrapped in towel. (Be real. Would an American boy ever do that?)

After I showered, I dressed myself (I’m not about to go trapsing through the hostel naked) and went upstairs to find Joshua on the computer. Apparently, Yvonne had heard about a crazy-Christian-fundamentalist-Muslim-hater who planned on burning the Quran in Florida (where else?) on Saturday, in an oh-so-thoughtful commemoration of 9/11. In retaliation, fundamentalist Muslims around the world had promised to make life unpleasant for traveling Americans. Obviously, Yvonne was worried, so Joshua called to try to explain that we were ok. Turkey’s fine. We’ll be smart and safe. Just as a precaution, we promised to tell everyone that we’re Canadian. They all think we are anyway.

During Joshua’s call to Yvonne, the Call to Prayer sounded, and although I’m sure that it didn’t assuage any fears, I made Joshua hold the speaker up so she could hear too. I LOVE IT.

After talking to Yvonne, Joshua went off to take a shower, and while he was gone, I met a couple of our dorm-mates, Carolina and Raful. A married Polish couple, these two had just gotten back from three weeks of touring Turkey. They were really lovely (literally and figuratively), and we spent a long while talking. When Joshua got back, they told us a story about how they had tried to get a bus ride from Armasya to Istanbul last night, but that the bus had left them in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. The only other tourist was a woman from Thailand, and the three of them had been stranded at a strange bus stop. Thankfully, Raful took control and went to the police. He showed them their tickets and then explained their situation. No one spoke English, so they had to wait for a man who lived a few miles away (who had spent a year in the states) to come and translate. Finally, the police went to the bus company and demanded that the three tourists get a free shuttle into Istanbul. As a result, they hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. (Ok. Family. Don’t freak out. We are prepared! We have already read about bus scams such as these in ‘Dangers and Annoyances’ in the LP. They have a listed of trusted bus companies, and we will not be taking any buses from unknown companies.)

Although we had planned to go back out and grab a little bit of food, our conversation with the Polish couple had gone on so long, I was too tired to eat (I know!). Instead, we rolled into bed, and I discovered that my ear plugs were missing (TRAGEDY). Closing my eyes, I prayed for sleep to take me swiftly.

September 9, 2010

You know what? It wasn’t that bad. Although there were 18 people sleeping in one room (two couples were brave enough to sleep on one twin… We did that in college and swore to ourselves we would never do it again.) and 12 of them were boys, no one snored! The music stopped at a reasonable hour, and people were respectful at whatever times they turned in for the night. It was actually kind of cool to listen to all of them breathing deeply and mumbling in their sleep. Even the big-bad Euro guys looked like little babies with lines of drool coming out of the corners of their mouths. They were almost cute.

I slept better than the night before, but I woke up frequently to swallow and dope up on tricked-out throat lozenges (seriously. this is a BRILLIANT idea.). I was not about to go through the same agony as yesterday morning. Just before sunrise, drummers and chants in the streets sounded faintly, signaling the start of Seker Bayrami.

At 9, Joshua and I packed up and stowed our belongings in the luggage room. With our valuables on our backs, we headed towards the Grand Bazaar for a day of window-shopping. Following a walking tour laid out by the LP, we passed a number of Mosques and graveyards, and we stopped at each to take photos. When we reached the walls of the Grand Bazaar, we discovered that the place was closed for the holiday. Trying to squelch our disappointment, we promised ourselves a visit when we get back from Cappadocia and went to see if the Spice Market was also closed. Wandering through the empty streets of Istanbul was kind of eerie. No one was walking, no one was driving, and all of the shops were closed. At night, the place has been so crowded, but now it was empty.

Stopping at a Mosque, we entered the courtyard and watched as Muslim family members visited their dead. Apparently, that’s why all of the graveyards were open today: the first day of Seker Bayrami is used to visit the tombs of passed family members. Back on the trail, we found that the Spice Market was closed (surprise, surprise), and we went to peer inside the courtyard of the Yen Cami Mosque. In front, women in their veils and children were milling about and pigeons were flying all around them. Women would call to each other from across the crowd and then run to hug one another. It looked like a holiday anywhere.

On the other side of the closed Spice Market, stalls with pets, pet food, plants, and seeds were open and selling their wares. We walked through, cringing at the big jugs of leeches, and cooing over the new-born kittens (cats were Mohammed’s favorite, and they hold a special place here. In Spain, you could tell if the private courtyard was Muslim if there were little trays of catfood welcoming dozens of strays. On the other hand, dogs are considered unclean, and to call someone a dog is a horrible insult.). It was fun to browse through the enormous sacks filled with bulbs and seeds. One of the last Sultans loved tulips, and one of his legacies is the piles and piles of tulip bulbs available everywhere.

Feeling a little disheartened, we wandered back towards Sultanhamet. Spying another baklava shop, I knew what would cheer us up. Inside, we ordered one of every kind we could see: green baklava, chocolate baklava, backlava with spindly stuff instead of philo, triangle shaped baklava… We also ordered tea. Because it’s amazing.

Outside, we sipped our dainty glasses and divided each piece of baklava exactly down the middle. The baklava was so good, we ate them with our hands cupping our chins, just in case a rogue crumb or drop of honey tried to make a break for it. At the end of every half slice, we licked our palms. Don’t worry; this is good etiquette (actually, it’s probably not, but anyone who really loves baklava must understand).

Happy once more, we set off for the Hagia Sofia (or Aya Sofya). On our way, we stopped to peruse some of the more touristy souvenir stalls that had opened. In one of the stalls, I found a beautiful orange scarf shot through with pale yellow threads. It was light and airy, and when I asked the shopkeeper how much it was, he said, ‘5 lira.’ Done.

At another stand, we found a magnet with whirling dervishes, and wanting to expand our magnet collection (which doubles as bragging: ‘yeah. I’ve been there.’), we purchased that too (for 1 lira).

At the Hagia Sofia, we stood in a really long line for tickets. In front of us, a group of middle aged and older Americans were shuffling, bewildered. All of them had blue laniards around their necks that said, ‘Sea Side Cruises,’ and they were all wearing golfing bills (you know, the kind of hat without a top?). Their feet were all sensibly clad, and I whispered to Joshua, “there’s not a stylish flip-flop in the bunch!” It’s silly, because we’re just as American as every one of them, but somehow, their accents seemed louder, harsher, and we noticed all their stereotypically American mannerisms like bright neon signs. On the other hand, good for them. There aren’t many Americans who decide, ‘hey! Let’s take a cruise through the Middle East!’

Inside the Cathedral-turned-Mosque, we wandered through the hoards of people. The walls were covered in mosaics, and the ceiling had an odd motif of birds with faces. Large brass chandeliers had been hung from the ceiling, and they hovered low over the crowds, illuminating us all with a soft light. All around us, people were staring up at the dome and flashing their cameras in every direction. When we finished wandering around downstairs, we took an illuminated passageway to the second floor where we could see even better views of the famous Byzantine mosaics of Jesus and the Virgin and Child. Many of the mosaics have been painted over (In Islam, it’s disrespectful to have images of faces or animals in art), but some of the paint has been removed to reveal these historic mosaics. I heard some frustrated tourists, angry that the Ottomans had taken such a beautiful Cathedral and made it into the mosque. I guess I know how they felt; I felt the same way at La Mezquita in Cordoba. At least here, there was no polemic pamphlet literature to incite my wrath, and it’s not used as a place of worship anymore. It’s treated as a museum.

Back outside, we found stamps for our postcards and posted them, and hungry, we went in search of the real deal: kebaps. Outside Sultanhamet, one of the streets is lined with restuarants and cafes, and in the windows, the chefs are preparing their traditional meals. Women are rolling thin pitas; men are sharpening their massive knives and shaving meat of the spit for kebaps; boys are plunging enormous rods into steel barrels, lifting them, twirling the taffee, and then plunging them back into the barrels. As they work, they use their various implements to ring bells above their heads, and they shout, ‘kebaps! kebaps! kebaps!’ When tourists stop to take their picture, they look sternly over and say, ‘photo for 10 lire.’ The tourists look nervous, and then they toss a big smiles that seems to say, ‘just kidding!’

We bought two lamb kebaps (chicken or meat? they ask) and ate them as we walked back up to Sultanhamet Square. Passing the Hippodrome (the old arena), we saw an Eqyptian Obelisk (the Ottomans loved the spoils of war), and a very, very old bronze tower dating from the time of the Romans, when Istanbul was Constantinople.

Finishing our kebaps (and I’m not spelling that one wrong either), we entered the courtyard of the Blue Mosque. Although the Mosque is fully operational, the worshippers are kind enough to allow tourists to enter for free through a side entrance. We stood in line, watching as the tourists far in front of us took off their shoes, wrapped themselves in proffered blankets, and walked through a metal detector. To our side, worshippers were sitting at little individual spigots, washing their hands and feet for prayer. I have to admit; everything about Islam fascinates me. Just watching people wash their feet was more exciting than the Hagia Sofia (yeah, I know that’s hearsay for someone who has Art History degree).

Just as we were nearing the entry, the guards stopped and announced that the Mosque was closing for prayer. It would reopen again in an hour. The line dispersed, but Joshua and I decided to sit on the steps and read. After about 30 minutes, the call to prayer sounded from right above us, and we stopped just to listen.

After about an hour, people started to gather, and we were let in. Wrapping my new scarf about my hair and shoulders, I took off my shoes and entered. I love that Mosques are carpeted. How welcoming is that? The interior of the Mosque was lined in beautiful blue mosaic tiles, and in front, an altar faced Mecca. I watched as the stragglers finished their prayers, bowing from the waist, kneeling, touching their forheads to the ground. I felt so honored to watch. Women held their children and prayed. It was so much more alive than the Hagia Sofia.

Outside, we put our shoes back on, and I left the shawl around my shoulders so that we could go into the courtyard. Most Mosques are designed in the shape of a square: half of it is a courtyard, and half of it is where people pray. Surrounding the courtyard, there are often hamams (for bathing), libraries, and even schools. Mosques aren’t just for one day of the week; they are every day establishments meant to be used. In fact, one family was having a picnic on the steps (not that I would recommend that; the pigeons seemed to be uninvited dinner guests).

When we were done, we walked back through the square and into the tourist district to retrieve our bags from the hostel. Bumping into Carolina and Raful, we wished them a happy rest of their travels, and then we headed for the tram. Retracing the journey we had made the night before, we made our way to Otogar, and we got there about 45 minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave. In the mean time, I went in search of a little grub. I bought a kebap and a couple of pieces of baklava to share, and a banana each. By the time I got back, we were ready to get on the bus. We quickly stopped to use the restroom, and then we boarded.

Sitting in the very last seats, we congratulated ourselves on our extra elbow room and all around good fortune. Settling in, our seatmate arrived and introduced herself as Lucky. Lucky is from Chicago, she lives in a commune, and she was wearing (you guessed it) a tye-dye mumu and peace sign earrings. While we chatted, she told us that she intended to meet up with someone she had met at a rainbow gathering and that last night she had couch surfed for the very first time. In case you don’t know (and we certainly didn’t) couch surfing has got its act together in the past 5 years, and now they’re an official community (of sorts). They have a website, and if you have a couch, you can post it. If surfing is all you have to offer, that’s ok too. She and her couch host had been ‘very simpatico.’ We thanked her politely for her travel tidbit and stored it away in the we-will-never-use category. I don’t think we would find couch surfing very simpatico.

For the next 10 hours, I dozed. To call it sleeping is really a stretch. Every half hour or so, I woke up to a loudly complaining back muscle and had to reposition. Oh well. It was better than wasting 10 hours of daylight.

September 10, 2010

It just dawned on me where I got my tonsils/ hockey puck simile. You know when kids are making out and people our parents’ age call it ‘tonsil hockey?’ Yeah. That’s where I got it. Cute.

At this point, I’m having visions of taking a dull pair of scissors and just taking out the goddamn things myself. How messy could it really be? Aren’t they just unnecessary organs like your appendix and pinky toe? So I guess the answer to your next questions is, yes. They still hurt. And then, no. I won’t be undertaking any amateur surgery. Breathe easy.

When we arrived in Goreme, it was only 7:30. Hot air balloons were hovering just above the arrid landscape, and the sky was a hazy blue. Goreme is a very touristy place, and at first, I felt a little disappointed. There didn’t appear to be a non-tourist oriented home or business in sight. We got out the trusty LP and found our way to Ufuk Pension. The whole city was closed up, and we had the streets to ourselves. At Ufuk, Orhan, the innkeeper, greeted us and gave us a place to store our packs until our room opened up. Handing us a map of the area, he wished us happy hiking, and we set off. On our first stop, we loaded up on nuts, apples, a bag of chips, and 3 liters of water. Pausing to lube up with sunscreen, we tightened our shoelaces and set off.

Following the road out of Goreme, we passed the Open Air Museum (where you can see old cave churches and frescos) and the last of Goreme’s many hostels, hotels, and even camping villages. At the top of the road, we turned left onto a dirt track. It was here that my disappointment left me: I can draw parallels between Cappadocia and the Grand Canyon, Zion, and the Badlands, but the truth is, there’s no place like it. For the next 6 hours, we wandered throught the valleys and hills of this strange landscape, admiring the view around every turn. Like the Badlands, this is a landscape that is every shade of pink, yellow, and white sand imaginable. It too has folds and sculptural details with stretches of wavy sand that looks like wrinkly skin. Unlike the Badlands, the sand here has eroded into great conical spires that reach upwards into the clear, blue sky. Lining the path, tall, skinny trees reach their branches heavenwards as well. To make things even more surreal, people built their villages here. Even now, the valleys grow grapes, and huge, long sheets of plastic have bunches of drying purple sultanas. The rock has been carved to form caves for dwellings and monasteries, and higher up, dovecotes have been built to collect the guano for fertilizer (used to be, if you were a farmer in Cappadocia, you couldn’t find a proper wife if you didn’t have a decent dovecote).

As we wandered through the Rose Valley, we wondered how people ever would have climbed up into their homes, and when we stopped for an apple below one, Joshua decided to try and climb up. Apparently, the rock has well worn hand and footholds perfect for climbing, and in no time at all, Joshua was peering at me out of his rocky cave. I’m not nearly as brave, but I had to try, and I made it to the top too. Luckily, there was an easier way down out through the back, and I didn’t have to try to climb back the way I came.

We continued walking, passing some groups of guided tourists as we went, but mostly, we were alone. In one spot, we wandered off the path to explore more of the caves, and we found a beautiful chapel hidden behind a small vineyard. Inside, the 500 year old paintings were still in pretty good shape, except for all of the faces of the saints and Jesus had been very deliberately scraped off. That was kind of sad, but it didn’t ruin the fact that we had found our very own lost 15th century chapel. There had been no signs, and there was no one out there. Anywhere else, this would be a major tourist attraction, but here, it was just the two of us sitting beneath the ancient stone arches, looking out at the vineyard.

After a little rest, we puttered on, and eventually, we hit the village of Cavusir. Like Goreme, Cavusir has a thriving tourist sector, but at least here, we could see homes and businesses that had nothing to do with tourists. In one of the little shops, I spied hand made onyx dice, and I pointed them out to Joshua, telling him he needed to buy them or he would regret it. He bought 4 for 7 lire.

Above Cavusir, there is a ghost village in the caves and rocks that stretch high up and overlook the valley. We climbed up and wandered through the old homes, amazed all the while that we had the place to ourselves. At the top, we had an excellent view, and we listened to the Call to Prayer. It had gotten hot, so we decided to call it a day and head back along the dirt road to Goreme.

By the time we got back, we were absolutely weary. We had walked about 8 miles in the sun and heat, and neither one of us had slept very well the night before on the bus. Before we got to the hostel, we stopped to get more cash, and just to be on the safe side, we decided to buy our bus tickets back to Istanbul for Sunday night.

Well, that was the plan. There are five different bus companies at the Goreme Otogar, and all of them have at least two buses that go to Istanbul every night. All five of them were booked solid for Sunday night. Resigning ourselves to staying another night (and cutting it close: we’ll arrive in Istanbul at 7 AM on the day we’re leaving for India at 6 PM), we went down the line again. Finally, at the last company, we found the last two seats available. Thank GOD (or Allah or whomever) we decided to ‘play it safe.’ We would have been screwed, otherwise.

Back at Ufuk Pension, Orhan insisted on carrying both of our bags into our room (this man BELIEVES in hospitality), and we greatfully sank onto our bed. The room is simple, but it has a nice queen-sized bed and what Joshua likes to call a ‘shit ‘n shower’ ensuite (as you may have guessed, a shit ‘n shower is the space – and time – saving design that allows you to take a shower while you, er, use it at the very same time. Brilliant.)

While Joshua showered and… I laid on the bed and made an effort to catch up on my writing. We only just bought an adaptor yesterday, and I was afraid to waste battery power before that. As I said to Joshua, writing about Turkey takes more time too, because I can’t explain away vast swaths of time with ‘we biked. It was pretty.’

Showered, Joshua sat next to me on the bed, and within 30 minutes, were were both sound asleep. I woke up with my throat feeling like a gravel road, and I decided to take a shower. This might sound familiar, but rather than giving me relief, the shower made me feel like I was really going to pass out, and I stumbled out just in time to make it, dripping, on the bed.

I forgot to mention earlier that, although I had been doing ok, the tiny muscle in my eyelid had begun to stage a mini revolt. It twitched for three days straight and drove me absolutely nuts. It subsided this morning, but in its stead, my whole body has just informed me that it’s time to rest, m’dear (I tried to tell you nicely, but now I’m going to have to use the stick, etc.). We rested for the rest of the day in the hostel, napping, reading, and writing, and for a little dinner, Joshua went out to buy chicken kebaps and peachy jelly treats (which are actually pretty good). We’ll see what tomorrow brings.