Saturday, 25 January 2014

Istanbul - Take 2: A Feast For The Senses

Would you give up your bedroom for four days, travel a 3hr round trip and organise a feast for visiting countrymen that you once spoke to for 15 minutes? After a whirlwind 4 day adventure in Morocco we arrived back in Istanbul, straight into the warm hospitality of a family that we didn't really know from a bar of soap. We had a lesson in what generosity and hospitality really look like and how it feels to receive it!

When we were last here on the cruise ship it was a rushed tourist affair. This time we were keen to see it from a different view with friends of friends who lived as expats. Our new friends organised a Turkish feast for us on our first night to ensure all five of our senses were instantly immersed in Turkish culture. It was delicious!

We spent our few days absorbing as much as we could. We were intrigued by the split school day: half of the family went to school in the morning while the other half went from the afternoon into the evening! It meant that there was a continuous stream of homework to be done, someone getting ready for school, or someone needing picking up from school.

We discovered much more about Turkish customs, history, and the context in which they do life. This included the secular brand of Islam that prevails in Istanbul. It seemed to us as casual observers that while there were certainly devout people, the majority seemed to be more culturally linked to Islam than within their hearts or minds. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out over the coming decades - will it affect culture, governance, business, and politics in Istanbul, all of Turkey, or even the broader region?

Turkish wedding dress
More wedding costumes

After visiting a lot of countries and using the public transport in most of them, we felt strangely daunted by the Turkish minibus. Perhaps it was that neither of us knew the language (or anything even close) or the fact that the maps, routes, and minibus stops seemed more 'informal' than other buses or ferries - we didn't know what we were dealing with! Yet, emboldened by a couple of key phrases our hosts gave us we ventured out, determined to make the most of our short time.

One time our minibus driver seemed annoyed we didn't know his language and had a poor grasp of the currency, we were worried we had set back Australian-Turkish relations by a couple of decades! Armed with our Turkish phrases (particularly one akin to 'thank you very much' and our big smiles) thankfully we soon became friends. In fact, when he dropped us off, he waved profusely with a big smile of his own. I quickly checked our wallets and how much change we'd received - all was good, so we were definitely friends!

A favourite memory was crossing the harbour of the famous Bosphorus strait. I was quite taken with the notion I was catching a ferry from Asia to Europe and back again and all without leaving the city.

We donned our 'tourist hats' and went back to the grand bazaar, finding our way down to the spice bazaar where buckets of spices and dates are displayed at every stall. At the entrance we bought a Turkish kebab for lunch (yep, just like the good ones we can get near my workplace in Australia). Amanda followed hers with a sticky/tacky Turkish-style ice cream.

As we sat on some steps looking up at a skyline punctuated by the minarets of at least three mosques, Amanda says, "this ice cream would be great with cinnamon" (one of her common phrases). I replied "If only there was somewhere nearby that we could get cinnamon..." No reply, unless that roll of her eyes counts. So we walked up to a spice stall and Amanda smiled nicely and received a thick sprinkle of cinnamon in exchange. I'm not sure if it was the smile or that they were bemused by some Australians wanting a sprinkle of cinnamon for their ice cream!

Back in the grand bazaar, we took our time and wandered around, planning which souvenirs to buy. Online blogs advised us that prices were more expensive here, but we bought a few things anyway. They were as good a price as we'd seen anywhere. Besides, we were getting better at the whole haggling thing - we had a routine. Amanda would look at items and enquire about them if she was interested while I would mill around looking rather uninterested and perhaps impatient to be moving on. If Amanda pointed them out to me (along with the price she'd been quoted) I would be unimpressed. Not disdainful, just unimpressed and nonplussed. Of course, I couldn't really tell you how often that was a routine and how often I was just not interested in another brass plate or small pearl inlaid box...

The number one item on Amanda's wish list were those gorgeous turkish lamps. They're the ones with stained glass in nice patterns. If you visit our house I'm sure you'll get to see what we're talking about... We shopped around for prices and were in a shop with at least three signs saying "fixed prices, not negotiable" when Amanda starts negotiating. "How much for two... three.... What about four?" It was somewhere between three and four that the sign no longer applied.

An interesting piece of trivia about the grand bazaar is that you'll get really good exchange rates from the money changers there. Apparently one of the main exchanges is located right in the bazaar and because it's so close the currency exchange rates are really really low. I guess they have lower overheads and transfer costs.

We also went to a place called "Miniaturk", which is a fun little tourist trap that has miniature models of all the famous tourist sites in Turkey. We saw a mini Blue Mosque, Ephesus (and the temple of Artemis), the bridge over the Bosphorus, and others. We'll let the pictures do the talking.

'Mini'-aturk really did showcase Turkey's incredible and historic structures. We couldn't help but wonder if someone did a similar showcase for Australia. What would it have? Perhaps Uluru (the big rock) the Sydney Harbour bridge...and beaches? We've got lots of great things to see and do, but Turkey is in a whole other category!

As for this photo, I did say it was a a tourist trap. I think Amanda would've made a great Sultana!, not a type of raisin or dried fruit. Though one day I'm sure we'll both be wrinkled old prunes!

Dressing up in Istanbul

The last thing to stand out for us in Istanbul was the call to prayer. We'd heard it in Morocco, but it seemed different here. There was something about it. Oh, yeah, that's right... It was coming from a lot more Mosques! At one stage (while we were at Miniaturk actually) I looked up and counted at least eight Mosques from which the megaphones were issuing a call to prayer. And each of those had a number of towers. We later found out that each Mosque has its own arrangement and is responsible for playing its own recording so they were all out of time by a few seconds and creating a real cacophony.

Before we close out this post, apparently you can get some Very well priced health services here by European practitioners that come over for a short time. Similar to East Asia, you can get new hair/new eyes/new teeth etc and have a holiday for the same price. Of course, you'd want to do your homework if you chose this!

After a quick fire four days, our suitcases were packed with souvenirs, our minds were packed with more knowledge of Istanbul culture, and our hearts were full of memories. So we bid Istanbul farewell for a second time on our adventure, wondering if we'd ever be back and hoping we would.

Next stop, China.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Morocco - Unbelievable sights, indescribable feelings

Authored by Amanda

We stepped off the train in Casablanca, Morocco, to calls of "taxi, taxi!" and looked out at a third world street. Broken concrete edges, dirt, rubbish and pot holes channelled dented cars as they dodged sandalled pedestrians in tatty headscarves and flowing clothes that covered down to the elbows and the knees.

I had covered up in regards to my clothes and agreed with Jahda not to have any public displays of affection - at least until we had a better understanding of the culture we had walked into. We were grateful for the crash course we got over the following days with our hosts.

Our hosts (friends of friends) had lived here for many years and spoke the local arabic and french fluently. They knew you could say 'hum de la' (praise Allah/God) as a completely legitimate response when things ever got confusing (!?) and had friends in the "middle class" housing where whole families squeezed their sleeping and child-minding into a single room that many westerners would consider an 'eat only' area.

We heard that our friend, Tim, is an envied man by some local female friends who come and visit him and his wife. Simple kindnesses for his wife like offering a cup of tea or saying "here, let me do that for you darling" are enough to place him as an incredible find in the minds of these women who usually experience a different kind of relationship with their husbands due to age old customs.

Our first 'taste' of Morocco was a broken-up layered type of pancake dish (yep, no idea what it was!). It was gifted from a generous neighbor who would have spent a long time making the difficult, yet delicious, creation. It seems that for all the lack of what we would call freedoms (thought, speech etc), the sense of community is full.

It really is an interesting place. Here are some things we discovered:

  • Nothing negative is said of the king as the king is above reproach by commoners.
  • Road markings are only of 'emotional value' (!!) for those people left over from the French colonization period: drive as you will on the multi-option yet one-lane road.
  • Insurances (such as car, house etc) are kept in the names of the original buyers as any other option is seriously too complicated(!)
  • If you cause a traffic accident, be prepared to hand over an appropriate amount of cash for damages; but don't worry, panel beating is cheap (anyone got a hammer?) and the once-off payment from your wallet is all you'll be charged.
  • Swimming in the ocean may bring you up close to... a sacrificed goat carcass.
  • The postal service is not trustworthy, so desired overseas items must be brought over personally by friends
  • And, during our visit, the tram construction company found that the tracks laid down at the opposite ends of town did not meet in the middle of town... missed by just two-three metres! So work would continue for a while longer. The newspapers heralded the positive news of continued employment!
How our friends handle Australian laws on their return visits, I don't know. They shared that they really struggle with the enforced seatbelt laws and all the 'legislative red tape' around so many activities.

We made our way by train to the colorful and ancient town of Fez on our friends' recommendation. Small family-run hotels called 'ryads' greet many travelers who come to this town, which could easily have featured in the Disney 'Aladdin' movie. We walked through ancient city walls to our ryad and our eyebrows went up as we gaped at the fine craftsmanship inside. Apparently pictures of people or things are not allowed to be showcased in case they become objects of worship but intricate tile or inlaid wood designs are perfectly acceptable alternatives for artistic displays.

Our host greeted us with piping hot mint tea and exotic shortbread biscuits and beckoned us to sit on finely furnished chairs. He stayed for some time to make conversation, as was culturally appropriate. What a contrast to many western hotels where face-to-face contact is minimised!

We woke to a very loud call to prayer at 5am. Thankful for the ear plugs we always keep next to the bed when travelling, we tried to block out the loud speakers that blared-out prayers for what felt like a very long time.

Breakfast was different-but-good in our little moroccan paradise. There were thick polenta pancakes with fried eggs, fresh orange juice, coffee and cute mini-tagine containers filled with condiments including olives (for breakfast!?), thick honey, and date syrup. Then we walked through the maze of streets to the fancy gate that led into the Medina, the old town area of Fez, to meet our guide for the day.

It would have been helpful knowing a distinguishing feature or two of our guide (like the fact that he only had one arm...) but apparently these things aren't spoken of in Morocco. When we finally found our guide, Abdullah, we knew we were in for an authentic experience as he wore the traditional little red hat, local slip-on yellow leather sandals, missing teeth, and an off-white jalaba.

For those of you who don't know about jalabas, they are an ankle length outer robe with a pointed hood that men and women wear. The closet thing I can think of for describing them are the brown robes worn by those little sand men in Star Wars with the luminescent eyes. For the women, jalabas are often bright and colorful with cute tassels and pretty edging on the pocket holes that allow you to slip your hands into your pockets underneath. I even bought one, as I was won-over by the splashes of colour that were actually women just doing their grocery shopping in their everyday, shine-like-it's-your-birthday, clothes.

Abdullah told stories and wove histories for us. Who knew that Thomas Edison was "actually" inspired to create the light bulb by seeing the woollen 'light sparks' from jalabas at night in Morocco? He may even be right - there is no way of knowing!

We walked through town alleyways, dodging men spitting and donkeys pushing past us as they carried traditional leather skins to market, or carried small crates of the equally-traditional staple item, coca cola filled bottles...

We followed Abdullah through cave-like tunnels (as short cuts between streets) and saw men at work on large fabric looms, entire alleyways filled with jeans being dyed blue, hand-chiseled and shining fancy bronze plates (they now have three less of them), jewelled belts and wedding necklaces, and later on, meat displayed for selling - including live chickens being held to have their throats sliced and blood drained all in view by the front counter (imagine being surprised by THAT as you step around the corner!)

Each new corner really was a surprise. Seeing the traditional tanneries (and being handed fresh mint to hold to our noses!) and being offered yet more mint tea as we listened to hopeful sellers of argan oil, shining bronze plates and carpets ("so will that be two or three carpets today?" thanks! "But Australians are very good buyers of carpets"... unfortunately for him we didn't feel 'chosen by a carpet' today - see post "Turkish Delights: Ancient wonders, palaces and belly dancers"). All this combined with the sensory overload from constantly dodging donkeys resulted in us feeling like we were in a whole new world... soon to be joined by a genie, a monkey, and a magic carpet.

There were very few tourists and we felt immersed in the place. Two special moments were
1) when we found ourselves in the middle of a dyed-leather-skins market amongst crowds of men intensely haggling over red, yellow and green leathers before they threw them out to the wind and over their hardy little donkeys' backs; and
2) when Abdullah warmed right up to us and let me touch his massively overgrown, and hard, toe nail which surprisingly hadn't yet scratched its way out of his sandal (see the foot comparison below, though with his other foot). Certainly some moments are treasured for their rarity!

At the end of this incredible day filled with walking and wonder the fun wasn't yet over... ...

The town's main mausoleum was being re-dressed in the annual festival to honor its famed inhabitant. The street was packed as men on horses paraded past, blowing loud out-of-pitch instruments and other men danced spectacularly with old style tambourines. As the sun set we saw the dances and instruments from each local ethic group.

Slightly deaf and treasuring our well-haggled new items, we lost ourselves in the maze back to our quiet moroccan haven.

On returning to Casablanca -- after a long train trip where we passed the time discussing climate change with a British scientist and her friends -- we were taken through a slum near our friends' apartment. They had friends here and wanted to show us the markets and lifestyle situation. It reminded us just how blessed we are back home and to have the opportunity to travel. It also turned out saffron could be bought here for around 20c a 2x2cm packet and it was free of the usual export tax slapped on all saffron that you buy outside the country. We decided to get some for our friends and family - so we stocked up and bought an amount that would have cost well over $100 in Australia.

Now its hard for me to write this... but the rosewater we also bought at market leaked into the packets and a few weeks later we had a large amount of mould-covered saffron...

...and it turns out that rosewater can be bought at the grocer near our house for around $3!

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Barcelona - Architectural showground!

Want to stand out? Live here...
After three and a bit weeks cruising from one Mediterranean port to another, we arrived at Barcelona and it was time to disembark the ship for the final time. Making every moment count we were among the last to leave. Though, to be fair, we were actually looking for our Mt Etna friends who had kindly booked a hotel at a special rate for us due to their connections.

For me, Barcelona was home to four things - Gaudi's stunning cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, the 1992 Olympic Games, tapas meals, and the Nou Camp (where footballer Lionel Messi and his team mates dazzle audiences and opponents alike). We were two decades late for the Olympics and it was the off season for football, so that left Gaudi and tapas - which is kind of funny because tapas is all about little selections and Gaudi is all about largesse!

Cathedral on Mt Tibidabo
We did visit the Nou Camp as part of our 'hop on, hop off' bus tour but the only thing I was dazzled by was the price - 30 euro each just for a tour of the stadium!! So we did our own self tour... of the merchandise shop, which was actually very impressive with eleven life sized manikins dressed with the first team's jerseys and full uniform. I suppose if you're a player you could just stop in here before each game to see if you are in the starting side...?

Before exploring Barcelona I was only vaguely aware of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia from the odd picture or story. We were pleasantly surprised that there were more Gaudi buildings for us to visit, along with Gaudi-inspired street lamps and park benches! But the jewel in Gaudi's architecturally-designed crown was definitely the Sagrada Familia. Construction started in 1882 and the cathedral was opened in November 2010.... But they still haven't finished building it! That's 130 years and counting! When you see it, you start to appreciate why it has taken so long.

Gaudi didn't skimp on the back facade either...
For those that care, the building is about 170m high and has several 'facades' depicting different themes. It has massive doors with 3D words on them - the words grace, hope, and love stood out most to me. Officially, the style is a mixture of Gothic, art nouveau, modernism and something else I'd never heard of before. I'm no architect, but that seems like an eclectic (or perhaps, eccentric) mix! But that's Gaudi, he was one of a kind.

The inside was jaw-droppingly amazing - fascinating, massive, and full of great colour! It'd be a tough gig preaching in this church because the craftsmanship and design of this amazing structure would outclass all but the most inspired and well-structured sermons.

Please bear in mind that the size of the building (inside and out) makes it almost impossible to capture both the intricate detail and overall architecture in mere photos.

We wandered around for quite some time, just absorbing the play of the light, the likeness to Elvish buildings in Lord Of The Rings, admiring the curved walls, and feeling dwarfed by its size and the creativity on display. It got me thinking about our capacity for creativity and commitment and why hadn't I contributed something amazing to the world yet... Then I remembered that it has taken them 130 years to build it and they still aren't finished... so I felt a little better.

If you think Gaudi went a little over the top with his design and it's a bit too much... well, you are not alone. Some people think the word 'gaudy' comes from Gaudi, but it's not true. There is evidence of the term gaudy being used as far back as the 16th century, well before Gaudi was born. Anyway, enough with the language history lessons... Back to the travel stories...

I've also decided that tapas area a rip-off... It costs the same (or more) than a normal meal and you get less. Sometimes it's not even real food - it's just a collection of snacks. So now whenever I feel like eating bar snacks instead of dinner, I just say I'm having 'tapas'. We also realised that when we have kids and serve up 'leftovers' for dinner, when our kids say, "not leftovers!" We can say, "no, it's tapas!". All thanks to the Spanish.

Rainbows of fruit smoothies everywhere in the markets
While we were in Barcelona, we also took a crazy and epic long walk up a big hill. It was totally by accident on our way to the Tibidabo look out. There was a cable car, but we decided to save a few euros and walk - after all, we had walked up many hills on our adventures and were getting quite self-confident in our walking abilities. As they say, pride comes before a fall and by the time we got to the top via various trails, roads and moutain bike tracks) we were completely done in! To make it worse, when we went to buy a one way cable car ticket to get back down the mountain we discovered that it was around 10 euro to go one way and only 12 euro to go two ways! Foiled!

Despite this, the walk was good for us and the view at the top of the mountain was excellent - we looked out over Barcelona and out to the Mediterranean.

There was an old church at the top of the mountain and to the side of it, an amusement park (??!) Choosing to laugh instead of cry after our ridiculously difficult unplanned long detour, we took this photo and chuckled at the possible caption: 'Has your church sold out?'.

We ducked inside the church, but only glanced around because there was a service underway. We found stunning mosaics. They had rainbow shimmers and covered most of the inside walls and though they had seen better days, they were still impressive - so much so that from a small distance they looked like paintings!

We left Barcelona with its laid back lifestyle, beaches, and overpriced 'leftovers' thoroughly glad we'd been able to spend a day and a half there.

Next stop Morocco...

Jahda and Amanda