Istanbul: Day Three

Day Three has been the best of my Istanbul adventure thus far. First and foremost…I finally slept through the night!!! My head hit the pillow and I was out like a light. I don’t ever remember sleeping that well.

The rest of the day followed suit. I started off with a simit (pictured below) and popped down to Sultanahmet again to go inside the Blue Mosque.

Next, I headed to Suleymaniye Mosque. Suleiman the Magnificent was the longest ruling Ottoman sultan, and the mosque was built in his honor. To be honest I thought it was more beautiful than the Blue Mosque, and less crowded, which was nice. Outside the mosque there is a cemetery and some tombs of famous sultans too, with a killer view of the Bosporus to boot.

I stopped by the Valens Aqueduct too. It’s a massive waterway built by those Roman guys in the 300’s AD. Pretty impressive that it’s still around, and that it’s now used as a thoroughfare highway with cars zooming under the arches.

Next I walked inland through the Fatih (Conqueror) district and was pleased to find that there were minimal amounts of tourists and a refreshing lack of guys asking me to buy carpets. I ended up in the Balat district, which is an extremely cool neighborhood mostly known for its brightly colored buildings, hip coffee shops, and Jewish population.

One of my most anticipated sites on this trip is the Chora Church. Everyone thinks of Hagia Sophia when it comes to Roman architecture in Istanbul, but Sophia was converted to a mosque 500 years ago, and most of the Christian mosaics inside stripped away and replaced with Muslim calligraphy. The Chora Church, however, was never Islamized this way. The mosaics and frescoes are all 12th century originals, and they are stunning. It’s the only church of its type remaining in Istanbul.

I had an interesting conversation with the owner of my hostel tonight. He was talking about how the tourism industry has been impacted by the government’s instability and terrorism the past 4 years. (In case you were wondering, the answer is: badly.) The hostel has experienced lots of cancellations and low bookings because of the incidents. In fact, I almost didn’t come to Istanbul because of a travel warning issued by the State department in January. At first I was devastated and considered canceling my trip. But then I did a little research, and it appears the reason for the warning is obviously very political. WAIT, WHAT??? Yes, governments use public policy to further their political agendas–shocking, I know!!! As I said in a previous post, I really could not feel safer here–definitely safer than I feel in many parts of the US. So if you are thinking of going somewhere but are worried about what others say when it comes to “safety,” please do your research and be confident in your decision. I’m so glad I came.

But I haven’t even told you the best thing that happened to me today. I was walking up the street after yet another baklava binge, and lo and behold, I see someone walking toward me with a familiar logo on his T-shirt. I had to blink a few times just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. But sure enough, there it was: a legit Turkish VGK fan! And of course, I got a photo with him.

All in all, the trip is going great, as I hope you can see for yourself. My FitBit tells me I’ve walked about 12 miles each day this week! So now I don’t have to feel guilty about all the bread and baklava I eat. 😋

Beginning tomorrow, I’ll cross the Golden Horn and stay in the Beyoglu District. Stay tuned for Day 4!

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Istanbul: Day Two

It’s been a rough one, folks.

I went to bed at around midnight last night and woke up suddenly at 2 AM. I could not fall back asleep to save my life. Instead, I descended into a cycle of: lying awake in bed -> watching hockey -> YouTubing hockey fights -> pondering my life choices and wondering what my purpose is on this earth. Y’know, the usual things people do in the middle of the night.

So needless to say, I’m absolutely exhausted. This is probably the poorest I’ve adjusted to any time change–possibly because it’s the biggest time difference I’ve ever experienced. In any case, I got out of bed and got ready in the morning, determined to make the most of things in spite of the fact that I feel like a human dumpster fire.

I visited the Istanbul Archaeological Museum first. Since the primary reason I wanted to come here in the first place is history, as you could imagine, it was totally my jam. I took way too many pictures, but here are a few I think are cool:

It’s a crazy well-done museum; they had artifacts from early human history through the Roman era and of course, the sultans. I spent about two hours there but could easily have spent more.

Next I went to the Blue Mosque. This is when I started having a tough time, unrelated to jet lag. There are young Turkish guys all over Sultanahmet who will come up to tourists, start asking you questions, then invariably lure you into to their family’s carpet shop or propose to be your tour guide (for a fee, of course). Apparently I look super Spanish–the owner of my hostel also commented that I dress like an Argentine (?)–because people have been approaching me all day saying, “Buenos Dias!” I even told one guy I was American and he cocked his head at me and asked, “But what is your background? South America?” More fun with my apparent ethnic ambiguity 🤷‍♀️

Anyway, I was basically bombarded by these dudes all morning and started getting really annoyed and frustrated. I know these guys are just being friendly/curious and trying to make a living, but it started wearing on me. Finally, one of them remarked, “You look angry!” and I barked back, “I am angry!” He turned away and left after that, but I felt bad, especially because there aren’t many Americans here and I didn’t want to be a jerk. After I had calmed down a bit, I decided to start having fun with it instead. Now I just pretend that I don’t speak English at all, and since I do happen to know an obscure foreign language, I just respond to everything they say in Albanian and they get weirded out and leave me alone. I even pretended to actually be Spanish when some women approached me asking for directions–I totally pulled it off and had fun with it!

Needless to say, I have one day left in Sultanahmet and will be happy to get some distance from the super touristy places even though I have loved all the history here.

Below is me at the Blue Mosque. I didn’t go inside because I was wearing sandals and they make you take your shoes off before going in so I had to go back to my hostel and get some socks, because there’s no way I’m getting Hepatitis A, B, C, or G from that floor. But BOTH times I came back they were closed for prayer. This is due to the fact that I can’t do basic math and convert a 24-hour clock to a 12-hour one.

So I will have photos from the inside of Blue Mosque tomorrow. 🙂

The Hippodrome, or the giant chariot racing arena in ancient Constantinople, has now been converted into a modern plaza. There are a couple obelisks, one from Rhodes and one from Egypt that’s like a bajillion years old:

Dope.

Next I went to the Mosaic Museum…which is exactly what it sounds like. All the pieces were taken from the imperial palace and are in good condition considering they’re 1,000 freaking years old.

Last, I went to the Grand Bazaar. To be honest, it was a bit overwhelming considering all the hundreds of shops crammed together and various shopkeepers trying to get your attention. There is a lot of jewelry and knick-knack souvenirs sold there, which I’m not really interested in, but there’s also an “Old Bazaar” section that has antiques that I think I’ll go back and hit up once I’m in more of a shopping mood. Just an FYI to anyone I told I would bring stuff back for: I’m super bad at buying souvenirs and gifts in general, so just let me know if you want something and what you want, and I’ll get it! Otherwise there’s no guarantee I’ll come home with anything…

As for how I ate today…it was pretty great. I had borek for breakfast (as opposed to byrek, the Albanian version I had in Peace Corps) which is phyllo dough stuffed with various things (cheeses, meats, etc.). It was oilier than its Albanian counterpart but still really good.

I also had Turkish ice cream, which is thicker and almost gummier–is that a word?–than regular ice cream. The chocolate flavor I got was insanely rich but I ate every bite.

For dinner I went to a local “lokantasi” which is like an ala carte restaurant. I pointed to a yellow rice dish and some mystery meat that looked good, grabbed a hunk of watermelon and the most obnoxiously fresh, crisp bread ever made, and treated myself to a delicious and cheap Turkish meal. Sadly I don’t know what it’s called, but it was totes yums.

Tomorrow I’ll be hitting up more museums (yes, more museums), another mosque, and more old marble blocks of stuff. Hooray, being a nerd!

Istanbul: Day One

OMG. OMG. OMG.

I love it here. I’m never going home. You can’t make me.

(Ask me how I feel in about seven days when all my clothes are dirty and I’m tired of people trying to sell me carpets by shouting at me in Turkish, Spanish, and Russian after incorrectly guessing my nationality.)

Istanbul is gorgeous. My first impressions are that it’s a clean, well-planned, and diverse city. I get the sense that I came at the right time of year–there are other tourists, but not as much, as I’m told by the locals–as there would be had I come later in the summer. The weather has been perfect–it’s mid-70’s and sunny all week. Being right next to the sea results in a nice breeze every few seconds, which is welcome, because it is also humid. I’m reminded of that each time I climb the extremely steep cobblestoned hills and immediately am rewarded with a sheen of sweat.

So far I haven’t met any other Americans here. The only other native English speakers I’ve met are from Australia and New Zealand. Most other tourists are from Spain, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, China, or South Korea. It’s kind of refreshing to be in a part of the world that is less-traveled by my countrymen. However, I can’t really blame them for not coming because our governments have not been friendly to one another. In addition, this city has a reputation for being unsafe at the moment, which based on my limited experiences so far, is undeserved. There hasn’t been split second when I’ve felt unsafe; the locals are are reserved but kind, and there are armed police everywhere who all speak English. (I don’t talk enough about how incredibly lucky I am that English is my first language, and how grateful I am that others take the time to learn it.) At the same time, however, the presence of the same armed police does remind one that this country is still technically in a state of emergency. This city has always had a tumultuous history, and I don’t think that will change.

Soooo before I get into what I did today, let me preface it with the fact that the wifi at my hostel is absolutely horrible, so I haven’t been able to upload as many pictures as I’d like. I will make up for it once I find a better connection/get back to the States. To recap the day:

I woke up late because I am INCREDIBLY jet lagged. Like, so jet lagged that I thought I was sick and had to go to the hospital until I remembered that my body just has to adjust to the hell I’ve put it through. To make things worse, I hardly ate at all because I was so excited. Queue me almost passing out in a park this morning before realizing that I need food and water. I had a tasty simit–a fresh bread ring encrusted with sesame seeds–and a European Coke (I’ve missed you guys!!!) to stave off the blood sugar crash, and that did me right for a day packed with sightseeing.

My first stop was obvious: the Hagia Sophia. The exterior of this building is so huge that you can’t even fit it into one frame when photographing it. My anticipation built up as the line waded through fragments of ancient columns and tombs and inscriptions. My heart started beating rapidly as I entered the doors, and then BAM–there I was, inside the single most beautiful building in existence. I actually cried. Yes, you heard me–just hours after crying because the Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Finals, here I was full-on bawling in the Hagia Sofia. (I really need to find more important stuff to cry about.)

I had read this countless times before, so I was prepared for this to be the case, but there really is no way to photograph this building properly–you absolutely have to see it in person. I took dozens of photos and they all suck. Two that I don’t hate as much as the others are below:

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Just looking at these photos again makes me so upset that I couldn’t even get close to the beauty of that building 😦

Next, I went to the Basilica Cistern. A cistern is a Roman-age water reservoir, essentially, that was used to bring water to the citizens of the city. This one is particularly huge and located entirely underground, which makes it super eerie and cool.

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On my way to Topkapi Palace I stopped by Hagia Irene, Hagia Sophia’s little sister. Although much smaller and not nearly as impressive, I actually found Hagia Irene more interesting because it was never converted to a mosque like Sophia had been, so you get to see what Sophia would have actually looked like if it had never been restored.

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Topkapi Palace is HUGE–a sprawling complex of chambers and harems and quarters, built first by the Roman emperors and then refurbished by the Ottoman sultans. A couple of my favorite scenes:

Believe it or not just those four places took me over six hours to get through, and my feet are killing. So I wrapped up the day with two of my favorite street foods, Balik ekmek (literally just “fish bread”–simplest and tastiest fish sandwich sold right off the boat) and baklava. The chocolate was my favorite 🤤

I just finished this post at 3:00 AM Istanbul time, and I’m wide awake. My poor body has no idea what’s going on. I’m off to get some sleep/possibly end up watching the Lightning-Capitals game if I can’t. Tomorrow I’ll be back with more photos, assuming they don’t take so long to upload!

LAS -> LAX -> IST

I’m here!!! I made it to Istanbul! It’s been a long day of traveling, but everything went really well. Shout-out to Turkish Airlines for being legitimately the best international airline I’ve ever flown. I had heard their food is really good and I have to say I agree. Besides the bags taking almost an hour to arrive from the gate, getting through customs was really fast and easy too. The only hiccup I experienced is meeting the airport shuttle driver to take me to my hostel. When I arrived, the dude holding a sign with my name just shouted at another dude in Turkish for like 20 minutes while I sat there confused. Finally I was directed into a white van with a driver who kept made emphatic remarks about the Erdogan propaganda covering the streets, none of which I could understand. By now I’m just used to embracing this type of chaos.

The driver took me into the Old City, which is, as the name implies, super old. We drove right past the Theodosian walls–the ancient land walls that are what allowed the city to survive from antiquity into the 21st century–which made me emotional for a bit. All this stuff I had spent so long reading about, and now I was actually here to see it in person!

I got to my hostel a few hours ago and was welcomed with some apple tea and a pet kitty. I popped down the street to the Hagia Sofia as the sun set, but immediately regretted it because I finally realized how hungry and tired I was, and I didn’t get to soak it in like I should. For the same reason, I didn’t feel up to taking many pictures either. After trying and failing to find a balik ekmek (famous fish sandwiches) joint, I picked up a feta cheese breadstick thing and a gigantic Turkish chocolate chip cookie from a nearby bakery, both of which were delicious.

I’m so glad I got a private room, because it means I can take my pants off!!! Now I’m sitting here watching the Golden Knights play, because my body thinks it’s 1:00 in the afternoon even though it’s 11:00 PM here and my FitBit tells me I only got 1 hour and 12 minutes of sleep on the plane. 🙂

Tomorrow will be an actual, real, pictures/re-cap post and not just me complaining and talking about sports, I promise!

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No matter where you are in the world…gotta rep, ‘cuz your team’s in the Conference Finals 😉

My Istanbul Adventure

Today the countdown app on my phone kindly alerted me that there are just 9 days until I board a plane to Istanbul, Turkey. My family, friends, and co-workers have been eagerly asking me, “Are you excited?!” And yes, of course, I’ve been planning this trip for 10 months and it’s been at the top of my travel bucket list for years…but I always have a brief moment of trepidation right before I depart for a new destination. How am I going to survive the 13-hour flight? What if I get ripped off by a taxi driver at the airport? What if the fish sandwiches make me sick? What if Erdogan detains me because I accidentally look at him funny? What if I get kidnapped by ISIS?

My mom helped me put all these fears to rest on Sunday. “You’ll be fine,” she told me, “because you have to be fine. Seriously, don’t get into trouble over there, I don’t have time to negotiate a ransom for you.” She’s right…my dad is a candidate for a highly invasive back surgery, and my brother and his pregnant wife have just moved in with them for the summer. Also, Scott is watching the NBA Playoffs and continues to be addicted to Angry Birds as if he’s a 15-year-old trapped in 2014, so he won’t be much use either if I’m sold into slavery.

Obviously I’m joking, and I would never willingly go somewhere that I actually felt was dangerous. But why exactly I chose Istanbul, the city where East meets West along the Bosporus Strait, is a fair question. I never had much of an interest in ancient history until I read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This wonderful book, set primarily in Istanbul, exposed me to the rich and compelling history of the city, and soon I knew the city of Constantine would be my next international solo travel destination. I started reading other books about Byzantine and Ottoman history (including this one and this one and this one, if you’re interested) as I made my plans. I booked my ticket on Turkish Airlines in January and haven’t looked back since.

Over the past few months I’ve made an itinerary and booked hostels and hotel rooms around the massive metropolis, trying to include as many neighborhoods as I can while still making time for the archaeological sites. Since so many people have asked, I thought I’d share what I’m going to do while I’m there. I plan on posting photos here on the blog (now that I’m sans Instagram), so readers can know what to expect and when. Also, maybe there are some fellow travelers out there who would want to use the itinerary for their own trips:

Days One & Two: Trapped inside a giant, cold metal tube 7 miles above ground

  • LAS -> LAX
  • LAX -> IST

I’m in for 14.5 hours of travel, and Istanbul is 10 hours ahead of my current time zone. It’s gonna be a rough one. Constantine, your digs better be worth it!

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Hagia Sofia. Duh.

Days Three thru Five: Sultanahmet District a.k.a. “Old City”

  • Hagia Sophia (duh)
  • Blue Mosque (also duh)
  • Grand Bazaar
  • Hippodrome/Sultanahmet Square
  • Topkapi Palace
  • Basilica Cistern
  • Balat neighborhood (Jewish quarter)
  • Chora Church
  • Suleymaniye Mosque
  • Valens Aqueduct
  • Theodosian Walls
  • Museums:
    • Istanbul Archaeological Museum
    • Mosaic Museum
    • Panorama 1453 (the conquest of Constantinople)

Obviously I’m cramming A LOT into three days. All the Istanbul guides I read said that this is the minimum amount of time one needs to see the sites in the Old City, but I want to be sure to see as much I can of the other districts too.

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Day Six: Beyoglu District

  • Galata Bridge
  • Galata Tower
  • Istaklal Street
  • Taksim Square
  • Maiden’s Tower

Beyoglu is located across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet, still on the European side. Taksim Square is more or less the epicenter of the city, and supposedly has all the best nightlife.

Day Seven: Food Tour & Kadikoy on the Asian side

  • Culinary Backstreets “Two Markets, Two Continents” Tour: book here

I found this awesome all-day walking tour that starts on the European side, includes a ferry across the Bosporus to the Asian side, and ends in Kadikoy, which is one of the city’s best culinary destinations. If you hear news about an epic baklava shortage in the Middle East a couple weeks from now, that’s all me.

Day Eight: Relax at a fancy hotel

  • Hamam (Turkish bath)
  • Hanging out with rich Chinese people
  • Resting my very tired feet

Almost every other day of my trip, I’ll be staying in private rooms in various hostels. I like this option because it’s cheap and provides a connection to the hostel community of younger, budget-minded travelers, but I can still have privacy. However, I once got some advice to splurge on a fancy hotel for at least one night of a trip–which I’ve followed and enjoyed ever since–so I chose a point in my trip where I’d probably be completely worn out and would really appreciate a fluffy white robe and an intense body scrub administered by a burly Turkish woman.

dolmabacheDay Nine: Besiktas

  • Ortakoy mosque
  • Ortakoy street market
  • Dolmabahce Palace
  • Galata Mevlevi Museum (whirling dervish performance)

I’ve read great things about the Besiktas neighborhood, particularly the street market held on Sundays. Also, rumor has it that Dolmabahce is even more opulent than Topkapi Palace.

princes islandsDay Ten: Prince’s Islands

Depending on how exhausted I am or if I want to go back and see more of what I saw the previous nine days, I may or may not take the ferry out to the Prince’s Islands. This is where they used to exile all the dethroned emperors that the current emperor decided not to kill.

Day Eleven: Get back into the giant, cold metal tube

Assuming I don’t get kidnapped, detained, or simply refuse to leave the wondrous place that is Istanbul, I’ll conclude my trip on Day 11 and endure another full day of travel.

Off the Grid, Part Three: Breakthroughs

In the month that’s passed since I left social media, I’ve replaced a lot of time that I used to spend on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat with other activities. Some of these activities are good and wholesome–catching up with family and friends, reading books, cleaning my house–whereas some of them are just as useless as social media–watching TV, re-watching Goon for the eleventh time, and picking all the nail polish off my fingers, just to name a few. So unfortunately, leaving the most popular social media platforms did not automatically make me a better person; turns out I still have to keep working on that.

I do admit that I’m cheating a little; I have a secret Twitter account. I deleted my personal Twitter a while ago, and I don’t tweet at all on this one, I just follow sports accounts so I can stay up-to-date on my beloved Oregon Ducks and Vegas Golden Knights. I’ve debated whether or not this aligns with my recent convictions; since the Knights have gone to the playoffs, I have spent a lot of time enjoying dumb tweets from whiny LA Kings fans. Maybe too much time than is good for my already easily-frayed sports nerves. But, I keep telling myself, this won’t be an issue in the off-season…Right? This is the problem with social media: you give an inch, and they take an ell. Before you know it you’re up in the middle of the night wondering why William Karlsson won’t respond to any of your DM’s. 😦

However, I have also had some small victories! Here are a couple things that happened this month:

  • I went to a conference in Nashville. Normally, after I’m done attending sessions at these things, I go straight to my hotel room, take my pants off, and scroll through my Instagram while eating pizza in bed. I’m too tired from interacting with so many people for so long that I just need some fake and superficial interaction with people who can’t see that I’m not wearing pants. However, that was not an option this time. I got bored in my hotel room, so I decided to put on some pants and go to a networking dinner (which I normally never bother to) and ended up meeting some really nice people. It was a good example of how I’ve started to replace meaningless virtual social interactions with meaningful face-to-face ones.
  • A friend called me recently to discuss a life update that he knew I wouldn’t be aware of because I no longer have Facebook. We ended up having a wonderful, hour-long conversation that made each of our days. I realized that the chance that this conversation would have occurred in the first place would probably be lower if I was on social media. So even though I am missing out on the small things, I discovered that when important things happen to the people I care about, I’ll have opportunities like this to delve deeper and have a more quality interaction.
  • I caught up with a friend recently who had also stopped using her social media accounts months ago. We agreed that although the world may consider us to be strange now, that this is the direction that our generation is moving in. Here’s some proof:

Obviously these are extreme examples and most social media users are not stalkers or drug mules, but I think it’s evidence that the millennial generation has been greatly impacted by the use of social media, and we are beginning to become aware of and remedy the negative effects.

I’m retiring this “Off the Grid” series because I feel I’ve felt what I’ve needed to say about it. I leave for Istanbul one month from tomorrow and will be posting photos from there now that I’m sans Instagram 🙂

Off the Grid, Part Two: Withdrawal

It’s been almost two weeks since I deleted all my social media accounts. Many people have asked me how it’s gone since then. Honestly, the way I feel about that decision changes moment by moment.

On that Friday afternoon when I hit the “delete” button on Facebook and Instagram, and cleared Snapchat from my phone, I felt INSTANT ELATION. I felt like I was finally free after being held captive for years (three and a half, exactly, since I got my first smart phone). I was blissful for the next couple days, knowing that I didn’t “have” to “check” anything, I didn’t need to worry about what people would think of what was on my various profiles, that I would be much less likely to hear about depressing news or ridiculous outrage campaigns.

And then, the boredom set in. I would be in line somewhere, or waiting for something, and pull out my phone and realize, “Oh…right. There’s nothing to check anymore,” then sheepishly put my phone back in my purse. I would want to look up so-and-so from high school but then remember: “Right…I can’t.” A lot of the things I spent my down time doing–snooping on people, reading stupid B.S. opinion pieces about yoga pants or “Trump-Russia-something-something,” and watching models do workouts I would never get around to trying–I can’t do anymore. So instead, I just…sit there. Wait. Be in line with people.

I’m ashamed to admit how reliant I was on social media–how much I used it to take up my time, to keep in touch with others, to get information (much of it fake or biased). Now I have to do other things to take up my time: clean, study, read, take walks. I have to find other ways to reach friends: a text that says, “Hey! What are you up to? Do you want to get together?” There are things that happen in the world that I miss out on–like the recent bombing in Austin I overheard a co-worker mention–that, quite honestly, I’m totally okay missing out on. I’ve had to adjust, and I really miss that instant “fix” that would give me fun, connectivity, and a sense of belonging. But more so, I’ve realized just how fake that fix actually is.

Sometimes I feel bored. Sometimes I feel lonely. Sometimes I feel out-of-touch. But mostly, life goes on pretty much the same way it used to. I am still convinced this was the right thing for me to do, and the more I talk to people about it and read accounts from others who have done the same, the better I feel.

Stay tuned for Part Three, as I continue my fade into digital obscurity. 🙂