travel

Final Chapter: Turkey

 

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Okay, this is the final installment of my vacation recap. Thereafter, Funny Farm returns to insects, sheep and mutant fungus.

So… Istanbul… what a change of pace. As we emerged from the airport terminal into the glaring sun, Mom and I were both like, whoa….

Istanbul was clean. So clean. And cosmopolitan. And green. Slices of grassy parks, flowers brimming from courtyard planters and window boxes. And the city was walkable — genuinely pedestrian-friendly. And clean.

Did I mention clean?

Sorry Beirut, but Istanbul won the tidiness award, hands down. Beirut, you swept the culinary categories. Seriously, Lebanese food was the bomb. (and not the Syrian rebel variety.)

 

Istanbul was pleasant, pretty…

…with mosques-a-plenty.

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At last count 3,113 to be precise. No surprise, given that 99 percent of the population is Muslim.

Aside from the whole mosque-thing, the city, which straddles the Bosphorus, reminded me of San Francisco.

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Maybe it’s not apparent here, but if you closed your eyes and opened them, you’d see San Francisco.

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Mom and I were part of a crew of 16 who flew to Istanbul after the wedding. Each day a tour guide escorted us to must-see spots. We packed an astonishing number of attractions into a few days.

Please, don’t ask me where the next photo was taken. All these historically-significant edifices blurred together. A lady in our group constantly jotted details in a notebook. Now I understand why. This is a picture of somewhere…

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This is somewhere else. Trust me, very old and culturally important.

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Here’s a picture of Mom and my Uncle Bill donning mosque-friendly apparel…

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I photographed the Basilica Cistern but the dim lighting was difficult. Think 6th-century underground water system…

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My cousin Stuart and I stuck together a lot.  Frankly, we both suffered ice-cream headaches from gobs of spoon fed history.

Here we are, another mosque — hey, you two…smile!

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At first, Stu and I admired our tour guide’s limitless knowledge — she expounded the most minute facts on every pillar, every cornice, over several hours. But then our eyes glazed over and we resorted to swapping bathroom horrors stories, discussing burgers and beer, and pointing out freaky-looking passersby. But we plodded along. If Stuart tried edging away, I’d loop his arm and announce, “Hey! Where you going? There’s a must-see mosaic in the next room. You can’t miss it! The ceiling? Dates back to the 9th century. The mosaic of Jesus? Tiles made from hundreds of leetle cheeldren…ground into dust to create these vibrant colors…

We ODed on factoids.

What else? Shopping. There’s lots of shopping in Istanbul. Retail stores, funky boutiques and markets — the latter of which are touristy, but interesting. Here’s the spice market. See, spices…

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And we visited the Grand Bazaar, which sold anything and everything a thousand times over. I’m not exaggerating. There were thousands of booths.

Hooka, anyone?

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I must mention the cats. They were cats everywhere.

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Everywhere.

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I just glanced at the cats, but the women cloaked in black were another story. I don’t know how they withstood the nonstop sun and high temps. When possible, our crew scuttled to any sliver of shade and still, we were sweaty. I couldn’t imagine traipsing around like this.

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What made these women even more striking were their husbands. Each wife was squired by a man, typically clad in a tee-shirt, madras shorts, and flip-flops, with a camera dangling from his neck. How do you not stare at that? Joe Tourist and his black tablecloth-wearing wife? (Technically not a tablecloth. Not a burqa, either. It’s a niqab, covering the face, and abaya, the cloak.) I snuck photos, but mostly elbowed Stuart to add another to our freaky-people count. (This woman’s a tourist, not a local, by the way.)

And while we’re on the subject of women… sexism? Present.

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The above photo is a little misleading. Given the squatting, kneeling and bowing associated with Islam, perhaps it’s wise to separate the sexes in mosques.

But beyond places of worship… well… let’s just say the gender divide was palpable. I dismissed the blatant, interminable staring on the street, in restaurants and stores. In the hotel, out of the hotel. I even ignored the wandering hand move, the “whoops, I touched your butt” move, which mysteriously, always accidentally, occurred on many occasions. But by trip’s end, I was sick of being shoved off the sidewalk by passing men, or getting a door slammed in my face when a guy dashed in front and squeezed through.

I don’t mean to end this post on a sour note. I never planned to visit Istanbul, but I’m glad that I did. It was beautiful and really interesting.

I’d recommend it.

 

Just remember to BYOS.

Bring your own scarf… to cover your head.

Or your hairy legs. Madras shorts have their limits.

 

 

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Enfin!

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Lebanese Wedding

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(Part 2 of my Lebanese/Turkish recap; for Part 1, see previous post.)

Prior to any trip abroad, I do my homework. Brush up the country’s history, politics and culture. And scrutinize maps.

My dad was a map-junkie and he always studied city streets and rural roads linking towns, long before he stepped off the plane. I’ve always tread along the same track.

…except with this trip.

This time, I invested zero preparation and foisted all the planning on my mother. (Thanks Mom.) She researched the flights, plotted our vacation and booked hotels. And, she actually reviewed the emails that circulated regarding my cousin’s wedding — the reason for this trip.

This is my cousin Bryan, by the way.

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Bryan is California born and raised, but he’s lived in Beirut for years. He’s a freelance photographer and has worked in Afghanistan, Georgia and Yemen, among other dicey locations. (Click here to view his photos of Syria.)

Anyway, I never read the emails, nor did I scan a map. Two nights before our flight, I googled Lebanon and weddings (my top priority: dress-code suggestions.)

After a few hours of clicking, I gleaned the following:

–Beirut is not a top tourist destination and travel information is lacking.

Concerning matrimony:

–A Lebanese wedding is cause for several days of pre-partying, clubbing and other festivities.

–The dress code for weddings and related events is, well… dressy. (I combed several photo galleries from unknown Lebanese couples who posted pixs.)

 

Bryan’s wedding didn’t deviate from these tenets. 

We arrived several days early to partake in the activities leading up to the big day.

We toured historic towns…

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…and journeyed to a fishing village where we swam,

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…before we ate.

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Nice fish, Stuart

 

Bryan and his fiancee arranged an excursion to the Bekaa Valley and a vineyard — a lush oasis ensconced in green.

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Of course just beyond vineyard gates, the scenery took a sharp turn.

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Here’s nearby construction on a highway to Damascus… not likely to be completed any time soon.

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There were nights of clubbing (at venues too dark for photos.)

The day before the wedding, Maria’s family hosted a pool party…

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…complete with belly dancer.

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Pre-wedding pomp continued right up to the ceremony. Guests socialized with the bride (and groom, at a nearby location).

Maria and bridesmaids

Maria and family

 

I gave my uncle some last minute advice. Not sure what I was saying, but I gave it the hard sell.

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Then, it was marriage time. We filed into the church, Bryan and Maria were hitched (see photo at the top)…

…and then it was back to music, dancing, booze and food.

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That’s the final photo I snapped. Thereafter, I abandoned my phone and camera, only scooping them up when I departed around 4 am — apparently on the early side of a Lebanese wedding.

Final pixs of Istanbul to come….

 

 

 

 

Bye Beirut; Back to the Blog

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I’ve been home for almost a week but can’t manage to write anything about the trip. I’ve tried, but each time I’m stuck staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page.

It’s hard to sum up 11 days in Lebanon and Turkey. Call it writer’s block (The alliterative title’s a dead giveaway. Hello, writer’s slump….)

But it’s been 6 days and I’m sick of struggling to string together a few words. My solution: post photos, less commentary.

Are you ready? Let’s begin.

 

Well, now I do have something to say, because this next photo requires context.

I left for Beirut on a Sunday night; I didn’t arrive until Tuesday morning. Tuesday. Morning

Do the math: add travel time from DC, a layover in Istanbul, time zone changes… it doesn’t add-up.

Because there’s an added factor, which goes as follows: 

If a passenger on a flight to Istanbul discovers his pistachio nut allergy while flying over the Atlantic, then how long will the trip take?

Answer: factor in that the pilot will turn the plane around. After the passenger flops around like a fish because his airways have closed up… while the flight attendants casually hunt for an EpiPen (Now where is that thing? Oh here it is, behind the trash bags and the toilet sanitizers….).

Meanwhile, another passenger — a Turkish doctor — steps in and evaluates the patient. Diagnosis: anaphylactic shock, but says the doctor to anyone listening, “He no want the shot. He say he don’t like needles.

That’s when two American doctors pop through the curtain separating economy from first class and surmise that Pistachio Nut must have the shot, unless he wants to croak on the plane.

The Americans jab Pistachio– who has ceased fish-flopping due to oxygen deprivation — with the EpiPen. Then they stick him with steroids. As the plane turns around, the pilot chatters at length over the PA system (in Turkish), then provides a snippet of his soliloquy in English: “We go to New York.”

We are hundreds of miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, so New York is really far away. Pistachio Nut needs a hospital — but we’re not talking a heart transplant — so I pipe up. “New York? Why are we flying to New York? How about Halifax? What’s wrong with Halifax?

Everyone else is quiet, except the folks glaring at Pistachio and muttering about their missed connections. Then there’s the passengers in the back, who are really peeved because the flight attendants had just served their dinners only to snatch them up and stuff them in the trash.

When a flight attendant appears in my aisle, I grab her arm. “What about Boston? Boston has tons of hospitals. Why don’t we land there?” (Pistachio Nut is breathing but he’s slumped over, like a fish gasping his last breaths.) The attendant pulls away from my grip and plucks the fork from my seatmate, who’s frantically snarfing down his food before its emptied in the trash.

Finally, the pilot speaks again — Turkish-Turkish-Turkish — then pauses and says, “Halo passengers, we land at Boston.”

Victory! Logan Airport gives us a rousing welcome.

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Paramedics drag Pistachio to an awaiting ambulance. And then, for reasons never disclosed, we idle at Logan. For hours.

So there’s the equation: a normally 11-hour flight, plus the 5 hour Pistachio Nut detour, plus a missed connection in Istanbul, plus a 3-hour layover, plus two hours to Beirut, equals Tuesday morning.

Okay, Beirut. How do I describe that city? A mix of old and new. Posh pads next to crumbling rubble.

Buildings like this:

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Right next to this:

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It is distinctly Middle East… except where it’s not.

Like the shopping district, which was void of traditional or local boutiques. Instead, we find a row of high-end retailers: Versace, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana. And across the street? A mall fit for Anytown, USA, complete with a Gap, Bath & Body Works, Abercrombie & Fitch, Dunkin Donuts…. 

It’s a bit of a bummer — traveling to a foreign land, half-way around the world — only to discover that Old Navy’s having another 2-for-1 sale.

Still, there are subtle nuances.

 

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Soldiers. Hoards of them.

I’m sorry… but an entire military platoon with tanks and trucks? It doesn’t blend with Versace.

I approached several soldiers. They were happy to direct me to the nearest Domino’s. But they were not too keen to discuss their activities. Or to be photographed. No photos!

Yea, whatever.

Look, this guy’s picking his nose.

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Overall, Bierut was pretty gritty. And populated with a huge volume of cars and trucks (many of which haven’t been seen US roads for 30 years). And the drivers are lawless. Red lights? Pedestrians? No reason to stop…

Also par for the course: frequent power outages. They’re a daily occurrence.

Not surprising, given the wiring:

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Beyond city limits? Lots of beautiful, picture-perfect spots. Pretty locales:

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Too many to post here.

My next blog entry: photos from my cousin’s wedding.

Pictured below: me and my cousins, who tower over me and emphasize my shrimpiness.

Thanks guys (left to right: Peter, Stu and Bryan.) Next photo-op, I’m bringing a step-stool…

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