Thursday 29 May 2014

Going postal and channelling Mary Poppins

It’s 8:40am and thirty-one degrees; and because I’m wearing my heaviest things to avoid excess luggage fees, I am sweltering. The domestic departures building of Istanbul makes my muscles tense. There are constant alarms that no one seems to be attending to, the signage is easy to misunderstand, and there are people everywhere. Polis patrol the entrance with semi-automatics, the announcer’s voice is so thickly accented that whenever she speaks, I concentrate so hard my temple ticks. My second airport transfer confirms that my first driver was hopelessly lost – an hour lost, in fact. I did wonder why it took so long to get to the hotel! And yet I look around, and everything’s getting done. People are getting where they need to go, I have the right ticket, and soon I will have a gate number.

Maybe it’s just chaotic to my eyes.

My tour finished yesterday morning. A few of us met for a final breakfast together, goodbyes were said, then I was a solo traveller again.

I ran into a friend and went on a boat trip along the Bosporus Strait, seeing Istanbul from the water. I visited New Mosque, as beautiful as the Blue Mosque, but with five - yes, five - other people, not five thousand. I took on the Bazaar by myself and haggled like a pro (please note: I am anything but a haggling expert… it’s a long story), and ended up with the most beautiful, most breakable souvenir imaginable. It’s big, it’s cumbersome, and now it’s mine.

So I mailed it home. Which was an experience in itself.

This was my fourth attempt at a post office – the first to third encountered such cultural barriers that I left without success. This time I was ushered into a room that I swear I shouldn’t have been in. There were parcels stacked half-way to the ceiling. On trolleys, on the floor. On counter-tops and under arms. They only accepted cash payments.

I was starting to think I’d never see my stuff again.

Either way, it was taped up to within an inch of its life, stamped and stacked.

This all happened yesterday, and I am still thanking the inventor of bubble wrap.

I packed so much into yesterday, and was in the sun for so long, that I collapsed into bed at 5:00pm. Like an absolute rock star, am I right?

It turns out domestic flights within Turkey have a 15kg checked baggage allowance. This was alarming news, as I had 20kg when I left Australia. I have since bought things. But during a lunch break at a shopping complex the other day, I bought a Mary Poppins bag. It just keeps swallowing stuff, whilst looking near-empty. The thing’s magic, I tell you, and it opens flat!

So here I am, waiting at the airport for the next leg of my fabulous journey. Turkey’s not behind me yet – I’m off to Dalaman, then Fethiye, where I board a wooden gullet boat to cruise the Mediterranean bays and harbours.

I can’t seem to get enough sleep. All this sun’s wiping me out and adrenaline’s only getting me so far, so I can hardly wait for my next tour – a little over a week of relaxing, something I’ve only recently reacquainted myself with.

Bring it on, I say. I’m ready for my biggest worries to be charging my camera and reapplying my sunscreen.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Free-falling, Trojans, and ANZAC poppies

Today I visited Gallipoli. As an Australian, as a student of history, and as a human being – the place moved me. I left there feeling many things, but mostly gratitude. Gratitude that I could be in this country and be welcomed warmly, gratitude that men and women laid down their lives so that we might live as we choose.

I am honoured to have been to such a place, even though the earth was once damp with blood and the air thick with screams and gunfire. Because it wasn’t all bad. I learned of kindness which occurred during the ceasefires, of mateship and courage. I heard the story of the Australian soldier who took a piece from the lone pine home and grew it, who then returned with a piece when the original tree died. It’s kind of like its grandson stands there now.

I saw the Turkish memorials, and the New Zealand ones. I paid my respects, I re-read Ataturk’s wonderful words to the mothers of our diggers, and I listened. It’s so peaceful there. The waves were soft, the poppies were brilliant red in the sunshine. Those who never left can be at peace there.

In other news, I’ve ticked a few other things off the bucket list.

Namely the library at Ephesus, the ruins of Troy, the cotton castles of Pammukale, and the Altar of Zeus. Oh, and I leapt off a 2,000 metre high mountain – how could I have forgotten that?

The cotton castles were interesting natural formations caused by calcium rich water. It was a hot day when we visited, made hotter by the thirty-odd degree spring waters. I traipsed up and down the spectacular amphitheatre, shuffled through the pools and took an unexpected ride out to ancient coffins and tombs. I don’t know how I did it all without passing out, but it was excellent.

Ephesus was excellent. Just… excellent. I’ve wanted to see the library at Ephesus for as long as I can remember, and when it happened – when I was standing there – I couldn’t quite come to terms with it. So I sat and soaked it all in. Spent very little time with the group, as I lingered in a lot of places and charged ahead to others. Another scorching day, and walking on marble made things twice as toasty. I was also hot under the collar after hearing that Antony gave all the books and scrolls from Ephesus to Cleopatra as a wedding gift. These were later lost – burned, pillaged. In short, he gave away his people’s knowledge for love. There’s romance, and then there’s that.

I visited a night bazaar, which was brilliant fun. My jewellery collection grows. I can justify it by saying such items take up little space and add little weight, yet if I were to display all my jewellery, I could rival one of those shops. That’s all I’m saying on that.

Troy was everything I hoped it would be. More, even. My tour manager warned me that I might be disappointed, but I wasn’t expecting the likes of Pergamon or Ephesus – I knew there was little left. And yet there was so much. And a turtle. Of all things to be following me around Turkey, I keep seeing turtles. I loved the ruins, and had a ball with the Trojan Horse. Everyone was sticking their heads out of the windows and smiling, but not me – I race up there, throw my upper body out the window, thrust my finger forward and yell ‘Charge!’

It may just be my favourite photo ever.

I parasailed, too. Leapt right off the top of a 2,000 metre high mountain and sailed around for forty minutes. Fethiye is gorgeous from the air. Proper photos to come. All I have at the moment is a selfie of me in a big helmet. Possibly the only thing containing my enormous smile, I think.

I’ve been sick for a few days, so there was a time I was struggling to speak in complete sentences, but I’ve bounced back and I’m ready for the rest. Today’s our last day of the Turkey Explored trip. Tonight we hit Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, then we have our last group dinner and part ways in the morning. I have a little bit of downtime, then I’m flying back to Fethiye – the British resort town where my gullet cruise departs.

A whole week sailing the gorgeous Mediterranean coastline, swimming over ruins, diving into history, and contemplating the stars.

Above: my bird's eye view of Fethiye.

Above: I was this happy to see the library at Ephesus.

Above: the wonderful ancient city of Pergammon.

Above: my emphatic public address at Troy. Crowd to be confirmed.

Above: leading the charge at Troy.

Above: ANZAC Cove, Gallipoli

Above: Ataturk's wonderful words to our diggers and their mothers.

Above: rooftop Istanbul.

Above: sunset Istanbul.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Turkey Time

Fifteen more people have seen me naked.

How's that for an opener?

But I get ahead of myself.

Everything changes so much within a few days. When I arrived in Turkey it reminded me of a rabbit warren. Chaotic. Impossible to understand. The passport line at immigration took near on an hour to get through and the traffic makes me flinch (what safe breaking distance?). But the country is infinitely less frightening now. It’s… stirring. Confronting. Beautiful and peaceful.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still had my share of noise. I’ve lost count of the amount of Turks who’ve shouted at me (their standard volume, I think) and the car horns are endless – but there’s also something reverent about this place.

I met my tour group at my opulently decorated Sirkeci hotel, and everyone fell into fast friendships. There’s twenty-four of us – which has turned out to be a really great size – and our Turk guide is fantastic. We saw the incredible Blue Mosque and the staggering Hagia Sophia Basilica. I tried and failed to come up with the right words to describe each. I’ve stalked Turkey through various Instagram accounts for near on a year and it was surreal to find myself standing beneath their gorgeous domed ceilings.

The Basilica Cistern really captured me. It was an unexpected surprise and somewhere I could have lingered for hours. I’ll go there again when I return to Istanbul. I need another hit. An underground water collection structure; the cistern I saw had domed ceilings, hundreds of columns – their feet lit with gold lights, and knee-deep water rich with wished-upon coins and fat fish. Early recycling at its best, two statues of Medusa had been reused to prop columns – they were extraordinary. The whole thing had a strange, alluring energy.

We drove to Ankara next, the capital of Turkey (the equivalent of Australia’s Canberra - the political centre rather than the tourist centre). The Turkish countryside is ever-changing and the vistas are extraordinary. We attended the Youth and Sports Day ceremony at Ataturk’s Mausoleum, and were treated to a spectacular display of national pride, then got our feet into the second biggest salt lake in the world.

After that, we indulged. Or should I say, we were bullied into letting our troubles float away.

A Turkish Bath is an experience you will never forget, and therefore highly recommended.

Yes, you’ve reached the naked part of my story.

The guys and girls were sent their separate ways. The girls were given small towels to cover ourselves. A clay mask locked our expressions in place and a sauna roasted us. All of us were wearing bathers – something which proved a waste of time as the Turkish women in the massage room either pulled them off or pulled them up. Like… up. 

You try relax after a violent wedgie.

They filled these pillow-like things with foam and covered us in the stuff. We lay on heated marble – which was frikkin’ awesome – and were massaged and entertained with song, music, and brusque foreign chatter. Me? I must’ve done something really wrong. Karma-come-collect wrong. My masseuse tried to drag my skin from my body with metal-like fingers. Because she was trying to break my muscles – and perhaps my spine – I’m forced to conclude I hurt her children somehow. I ended up begging her to be gentle. 

Despite some confronting elements, it was a great experience.

Cappadocia next. An alien landscape of volcanic formations made millions of years ago, fairy chimneys, and magic sunsets. We went to dinner at a local’s house – the police chief and his wife cooked for us. Early the next morning I had a dream come true: sun rise hot air ballooning over one of the most striking landscapes in the world.

It was… flawless.

Hundreds of other balloons joined us in the air. Points of bright colour in a pale sky. I’ve never seen anything like it, and maybe never will again. It’s a bucket list kind of thing, and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity. We flew for about an hour. One of the guys proposed to his girlfriend, it was so sweet. We each took over a hundred photos, I guess, but after a while I just put everything away and stared around me.

Sightseeing through Cappadocia involved an open air museum with ancient Catholic frescos, cave churches, and ancient homes. Brilliant vantage points for photos. We drove around the area for a few hours, seeing Pigeon Valley and the like, then when some of the group went to a Turkish dinner and dancing evening, me and a few others caught a ride to Sunset Point and watched the end of a beautiful day. It was a popular place. We lounged on cushions and listened to local boys singing softly beside us. Bliss. I’ve been a lot of places, but that sunset makes the top five of my life.

I keep thinking, I saw the sun rise and set on one of the loveliest days of my life.

Today we drive to Konya, then a long driving day tomorrow to the coast-side village of Fethiye. You’d recognise one of its elements – Butterfly Valley is one of the most photographed valleys in the world, I think.

Until last night, I’d been operating (poorly, I think), on seven hours of sleep accrued over three nights. It didn’t matter how exhausted I was at the end of each night, I got into bed and stared at the ceiling. My zombie tendencies would have amused people if they hadn’t been so near to collapse themselves, but we had a ten-thirty departure this morning, so everyone’s bounced back.

The pace of organised tours is like nothing else.

So for now, I'll finish by saying I'm travelling with wonderful people, seeing wonderful things, and smiling all the time. Life's sweet.

Saturday 17 May 2014

Dizzy Dubai

I’ll begin this blog with a fun fact: in the last forty-eight hours I have drank more water than I would in a typical week. The United Arab Emirates is hot and dry, and sightseeing is thirsty work.

Backtracking slightly, the flight was fine. I had the good fortune of a window seat with an empty seat beside me and I slept a fair bit. I watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks until the acid-trip special effects did my head in, then fell in all of Sleeping Beauty’s plot holes before I found my way to The Avengers. The descent was interesting; the vast expanse of scrub-dotted sands, fences and roads like pencil lines on a page. Then came the estates. Tended squares of green; wide, flat roofs. Pillared mansions, arched exteriors and palm flanked drives. Finally, skyscrapers were glimpsed through a sandstorm haze.

I was put in a ladies’ taxi upon leaving the airport. A woman no bigger than Prue Everdeen wrestled my suitcase from me and loaded it into her pink-topped van, and even though she took me to the wrong hotel (Winchester vs Winchester Grand… I can see where things went wrong), it was a pleasant, incense-rich ride.

Later, I made Chandler Bing look smooth in the practice of clumsy tipping. I suck at tipping. I suck at the whole set-up. Just give me my bag, I’ve got it this far. And I reckon I can find the fridge on my own, thanks. So, so awkwardly done. I haven’t been able to look the guy in the eye since, although I swear he keeps grinning at me.

Speaking of: the local men stare. Unabashedly. They don’t smile, either. It’s disconcerting.

My first tourist excursion was an abysmal failure. Armed with a map and a questionable sense of confidence, I struck out for the nearest Big Bus stop, but I never found it. There were freeways. Back streets. Kilometres of shade-free footpaths. I saw a side of Bur Dubai that most tourists wouldn’t, and I have a sunburned face and cracked lips to show for it. When I finally found my way to a road that had cabs (by cutting through the lobby of a glamourous hotel), I realised I’d spent three hours glitz parallel.

Good to know my shocking sense of direction hasn’t changed.

I got a good look at the Sheikh Zayed Road on the way back, then collapsed into bed at 5:00pm. I may have had sunstroke. There were symptoms.

For those who say travel is like riding a bike, I say different. It’s like falling into a pair of rollerskates. My first day was a clumsy mess.

But I really hit my stride on the second day.

The Big Bus tour has been a brilliant way to see the United Arab Emirates. It has an audio commentary, a city route, and a beach route. A river tour was included, and I got to jump off whenever something interested me, knowing that another bus would be along every half hour. I saw the spectacular Palm Jumeirah and Atlantis the Palm. Ski Dubai. The Burj Al Arab. The Burj Khalifa – the tallest man-made structure on earth. Some of the thirty major shopping complexes, and dozens of mosques. Easy to do when there’s one every five hundred metres! Souks. The bustling ‘creek’. It was a brilliant, full-on day.

I did the night tour after a few short hours reprieve, and the night just improves this place. It was the best experience so far. The Arab Emirates… glitters. It’s a very green, very advanced place teeming with innovative design, world replicas, effective transport systems, and obvious wealth. There’s construction everywhere, and big plans to further impress. My tour guide told me about up and coming projects, including a district of life-sized replicas of the wonders of the world. Extending the creek towards Jumeriah Beach – effectively making part of the Emirates an island. More shopping centres – because there clearly aren’t enough! The leaders of this country have incredible foresight; they’ve invested heavily in infrastructure and public amenities, high-class destinations and tourism. When the oil runs out, Dubai will continue to flourish. And with millions of visitors expected during its 2020 World Fair extravaganza, it will be on the tip of tongues for a long time.

If you haven’t been here and you get the opportunity – give yourself a few days at least. Get a 48hr hop-on hop-off bus ticket. Sit on the top level on the back seat at the right – it’s the best vantage point by far (if you don’t mind your gums flapping in the wind).

Dubai has awed me. I feel like I could spend weeks here exploring each point of interest, but I’m out of time. Today I fly to Istanbul, and tonight I begin my Turkish adventure.

In the meantime, I've been writing heaps!

It’s been an excellent, albeit clumsy start, and somehow I’ve already been away from home nearly a week.

Will update this blog when time and WIFI permits. Would love your comments – have you been to Dubai? Were you similarly blown away? What did you buy? Where you also alarmed by the hamburger, pizza slice, chicken drumstick, fries and a coke value meals? 

Above: The Burj Al Arab. Design reminiscent of an open sail, and symbolic of the city moving forward.

Above: Atlantis The Palm, a reconstruction of Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas, and very impressive.

Above: Ski Dubai. The first indoor ski resort in the Middle East.

Above: Hundreds gathered for prayer on the top level of a shopping centre.

Above: Be prepared to come back, especially on a Friday, which is roughly the equivalent of Aussie Sunday.

Above: Just one of the footwear wonders.

Above: Love a good pun!

Above: One of the world's largest shopping malls, The Dubai Mall.

Above: The tallest man-made structure in the world, the Burj Khalifa

Above: One of the night tour highlights.