Night Train from Istanbul to Bulgaria

Night Train Istanbul to BulgariaIn 2012 while living in Istanbul, I was fortunate to make many friends and have many adventures. This was the beginning of one of them.

If a Turkish night train sounds dangerous to you, you might want to consider getting some travel insurance  before you begin your cheap trip to the Balkans.

Leaving Istanbul is like leaving home. As I say goodbye to my friend Gaye, I can’t help but feel sad to be leaving this incredible city that delights the eyes, mind, body, and soul.

Still, the fact that the bag with all my ‘good’ clothes in it and another bag with the rest of Hanane’s and my things from Turkey both sit in Gaye’s basement means that I’m coming back.

Not to mention, I’ve got a flight to catch to Malaysia at the end of the month. And then another flight from Istanbul to North Africa when I get back. So, like friends and those we love, for Istanbul it is really only a ‘see you later.’ That helps.

Also helpful is the fact that I’m boarding an overnight train from the former Constantinople and into Sofia, Bulgaria. Not only is Bulgaria new and unknown to me, I’ve got a berth on a sleeper car. There’s something just incredibly cool about that. The cost of the ticket…about 30 euros including the sleeper.

The train itself looks old and as if it has come out of a Soviet Republic. I admit I knew nothing about Bulgaria before leaving and it was only when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going into the former USSR, that a friend told me I was wrong. Still, it was Eastern Block and hardcore communist, so I suppose that excuses my American ignorance a bit…that and the fact that I am American. Usually I do better, at least I don’t think Cuba is in Australia or Asia.
An American couple are in the cabin next to the one I share with a Bulgarian mountaineer who is just returning from Nepal. He actually lives in Seattle, he tells me Nepal was the most disgusting place he had ever visited.

The story continues below, but I thought you might want to see all the pictures I took first…the the slideshow is next with the story below it.

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Next door, the American man and woman are getting progressively more smashed and I swear I hear one of them crash down from the bunks to the deck. At the border crossing at 3 am they go to the tiny duty free stall and carry back what looks like a bottle of whiskey. When we arrived at the border the Turkish engine detached while we went through a relatively painless customs procedure. The conductor had to wake the Americans by pounding on their door for about five minutes. This was, of course, before they went to the duty free.

The two hour wait at the border was because we had to wait for the Bulgarian engine to come to us. We arrived in Sofia about 3 and a half hours late at right around 1:30 pm. Prior to that we made a stop in Plovdiv where the conductor this time spent ten minutes waking the Americans who staggered out with their clothes hanging on them the wrong way. As I had gone to sleep I heard them having progressivly more slurred conversation. Something like “Just because you fell, doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of getting up there, I mean you did it.”

I kind of loved these two. Getting shitfaced on a night train from Istanbul to Plovdiv. I didn’t want to talk with them because I was afraid it would spoil the nice spell they had charmed me with. when they staggered past to get off the train at Plovdiv the man, who looked a bit like Johnny Depp said “Hi” to me in the drunkest tones and the smell of bourbon wafted up. I took their pictures as they looked around the platform completely confused. I just didn’t want to forget them. Even if they wouldn’t remember their trip.

Arriving in Sofia, it was cold. The train station was freezing and the effect of having cyrillic alphabet all around me was that giddy feeling of culture shock that I both love and hate. I felt completely disoriented. My phone  wouldn’t work in Bulgaria, but I was very pleased to find that Bulgaria has the decency to put a wifi hotspot in the train station. Sitting in the cold station, I found my couchsurfing host’s number and then called him with Skype. You have to love technology.

He told me to go to the bus station and get a cab to his house instead of using one from the train station since the guys at the station would rip me off.

The cab was just about three euros and that took me to Tim’s door. In my pocket was the drunk American girl’s hat which I’d spotted in their cabin as i got off the train, picked up, and kept as a souvenir. It was very fluffy and very blue. I imagine it was how the two of them felt when they woke up later.

Kadikoy – A Trip to Istanbul’s Asian Side – Flashback Friday

From 2010 to 2012, I was fortunate to live in several Turkish cities. Istanbul, Izmir, and Manisa. Turkey and Turkish people won my heart over and over. There is nowhere like it on Earth or presumably anywhere else in the universe. I am grateful for the time I was able to spend in Turkey. For a time, I began to feel like a true Istanbulu, a resident of Istanbul. This was written during that time….

Istanbul

Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits in both Asia and Europe. The amazing part of that is that many visitors to the Queen of All Cities never leave the European side. In fact, a day trip to the Asian side can be interesting, delicious, and won’t cost you very dearly.

The ferry from either Eminonu or Kabatas will cost you 2 Turkish Lira each way. The trip itself across the Bosporus takes about fifteen minutes and while you are gawking at Sultanahmet from the sea on the right side or the Bosporus Bridge on the left, don’t forget to pay attention to the little tower that rises from an island in the middle.

IstanbulThe Princess Tower is a place of legends and fairy tales and dates back to the Byzantine era. While there are more than stories than one, the most famous is that of a king who wished to save his little girl when a seer told him she would die. As in most such stories, his plan backfired. In any event, keep your eyes open on the left side of the ferry.

Arriving in Kadikoy you will notice the big thing that looks like a balloon. In fact, it is a balloon. Filled with helium, the Turkbaloon takes passengers up for sight seeing during the summers.

IstanbulAfter you disembark from the ferry you will see a lot of construction work underway. This is for the tunnel under the Bosporus. In a city with 5000 years of history, every inch yields new archeological finds…and bureaucratic red tape to hinder completeion. It should be complete in a couple thousand years more.

Passing the construction head into the backstreets of Kadikoy and enjoy some shopping without the hassle of the Grand Bazaar or other touristic areas. Duck into the passageways and you will find both treasures and oddities. One passageway is filled with the odd collection of comic books, military gear, and sporting equipment. Somehow the three go together.

IstanbulDifferent passageways have different themes so you can find book areas, clothing areas, and of course there are the street vendors offering all kinds of deals on all kinds of things. In fact, Kadikoy is home to the biggest food market in all of Turkey!

Further along pull a chair up to one of the tables at Hamsi. Hamsi is oneIstanbul of the best kept secrets in Istanbul. Here you can enjoy great mezas, fresh black sea sardines (Hamsi), and a couple of pints of cold Efes beer. If that doesn’t appeal to you, right next door is the most delicious lahmacun (Turkish pizza) in the city. Some may argue about this, but when you taste either the meat or the cheese version, you will know the truth. Don’t forget to sprinkle the purple spice on it. It’s a form of poison ivy, but don’t worry, it’s not poison, it’s slightly bitter and delicious. Make sure you also sample their fresh Ayran (yogurt drink).

In fact, Kadikoy is filled with bars, restaurants, and even cinemas. This neighborhood dates back to about 5500 B.C. and today has approximately a half million residents. With all that, a trip to Kadikoy is definitely worth your time.

 

The Derinkuyu Underground City in Cappadocia – Flashback Friday

In 2012, we took a trip back to Turkey from Morocco to see friends and visit places we hadn’t had the opportunity to visit when we worked there as teachers in 2010 and 2011. Cappadoccia was one of those places. While we were there we stayed in beautiful rock hewn palaces, took hot air balloons over the surreal landscape, explored the open air museums of Goreme and even explored an ancient underground city – yes, we climbed 85 meters down into a deep cave with our infant on our backs – my wife looks like a mommy version of Laura Croft (Tomb Raider) in some of these pics. As I look at this now, I’m awestruck with the memory and reality of that place and very underwhelmed by my old Pentax photos – it’s astounding how much better photos with an iphone are…below is the original post…..

Derikuyu City Underground CappadocciaYou might think that the world is all discovered, all explored, and all figured out. You might be right, but I doubt it – people have thought that for a long time, but as recently as 1963 one of the world’s most amazing discoveries came to light in the Cappadocia region of Turkey.

Was it found by a team of intrepid archeologists? Nope. Was it found by a group of explorers or spelunkers? Nope. It was found by a guy who wanted to knock down a wall of his house and build a better one. He knocked the wall down – and found a room behind it. And then another room, and another – in fact, he found one of the largest underground city complexes the world has ever known. He found the Derinkuyu Underground City.

Even today, the full extent of the underground city is unknown. Archaeologists have penetrated as far as 40 meters beneath the surface but they suspect that the city goes much further down – to a depth of 85 meters. To put that in perspective, that’s about the same as the height of the statue of liberty and the pedestal it stands on which is 91 meters combined. So far, there have been 20 levels discovered. Visitors, like us, are allowed into the first eight levels. Less than 10% of the total that has been explored is open to the public. I can tell you first hand – that 10% is vast.

At full capacity, the city, built by the Hittites sometime around 14 centuries before the common era (that’s before Christ without Christ or B.C.E) , could house between 3000 to 10,00 people, their livestock, and their possessions. As I said, the full extent of the city is still unknown and some scholars believe that it is actually connected to other underground cities in the region by tunnels that stretch for miles!

It’s not as outlandish as it may sound as there has already been one such tunnel discovered which stretches 8 km (about 4 miles) to another underground city, Kaymakli near Nevsehir. When you consider that there are at least 200 underground cities that have been discovered thus far in the region… the possibilities become incredibly fascinating.

 

Derikuyu City Underground CappadocciaWhile it’s fun to think of thousands of people living underground like ants, most historians suggest that the cities were built for defensive purposes and were never meant for long term inhabitation of a large population. For short periods, Derinkuyu is large enough for 10,000 people (though some say it is large enough for 50,000) . On the day we were there, it felt like it was pushing pretty close to that. Tour buses arrive constantly and since the entire city isn’t open to the public, they are all crammed into the same sections. Luckily the ventilation systems designed by the ancients are incredibly effective although there was actually a bit of panic when groups coming down to the 8th level wouldn’t make way for groups who wanted to get back up to the top. The galleries began filling with people and at one point a woman actually began to scream. Finally, the guides managed to make the way clear and there was an exodus for the exit eight levels above.

One thing we didn’t have explained to us was where all those people used the toilet – we had to go back up to ground level for that, which, when you think about it, was a relief. Pun fully intended.

To get to the Derinkuyu Underground City, you will need to go to the above ground city of Derinkuyu which is about 40 km from Goreme. While there are about 600 doors to get in the underground city, as a visitor you will need to wait in line and buy a ticket. Your best bet is to hire a tour from Goreme or Uchisar.

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Turkey and All The Trimmings – Diving into Culinary Istanbul

I’m thankful that I had the chance to live and work in Turkey for several years. On this Thanksgiving, I am in Hawaii, but I look back at Turkey…and all the Trimmings. Happy Thanksgiving from Vagobond!

The Blue Mosque Spiritual Center of Istanbul

I love Istanbul. It’s big, it’s ancient, it’s filled with people from all over the world, but most of all – it’s delicious. Like the city, the food of Istanbul is a mixture of the large, the old, the international and, well, deliciousness. To help explain what I mean by that – here’s a very brief history of Turkey.

Turkey was the birthplace of the founder of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the greater part of Alexander the Great’s Empire, it was the Eastern Roman Empire, and it controlled Egypt, the Middle East, and North Africa as part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, Turkey was split into regions controlled by different European powers and after Attaturks’ war of Independence it became modern Turkey. The Western part of Turkey is in Europe, the Eastern part of Turkey is in Asia. If you’re looking for the center of the world – Turkey is it. If you’re looking for a world cuisine, go no further than Istanbul.

Peacock was a delicacy served in Ottoman Palaces for a different kind of Thanksgiving

Italy may be the birthplace of pizza, but when you go to Turkey you get something more magical. Pide. Cooked in wood fired brick ovens and served on long wooden planks, pide is essentially a large pizza stretched out until it is often more than a meter long and a hand wide. This is the ultimate Turkish fast food and it’s a great place to start when you want to eat Turkey with all the trimmings. Pide isn’t the real Turkish Pizza though, that distinction belongs to lahmahcun.

Pide in Turkey

Pide is the longest pizza in the world!

Lahmahcun is a thin oval shaped Turkish pizza on a very thin pita crust. You can get a cheese lahmahcun or the traditional which is finely chopped meat and herbs baked until crispy. To eat it in the true traditional style, squeeze a bit of lemon on it, put a small bunch of parsley or sorrel on it, and then sprinkle it with sumac. North Americans invariably ask “Isn’t that poison?” and while there is indeed a poison sumac (similar to poison ivy) the Turkish version is a slightly sour purple condiment that goes perfect with lahmahcun. Now, just roll your lahmahcun up and eat it like a burrito.

This next is a statement that can cause some controversey. Turkish home food is very similar to Greek home food. The controversey comes because any Turk will twist that statement on it’s head and say that Greek home food is like Turkish home food. I sat in a cafe on Kos and watched a Turkish man try to order a Turkish coffee and refuse the Greek coffee that the Greek waiter kept offering him – was it possible that only I knew that they are exactly the same thing?

The Turkish Home is the Culinary Center of the Country

Stuffed grape leaves. Dolmates in Greek, dolmades in Turkish. I took a cooking class in Istanbul recently. A New Yorker in the class learned that we were going to be making stuffed grape leaves and said to me behind her hand “I thought this was a Turkish cooking class, not a Greek one.” The truth is more complex. Dolma means stuffed in Turkish but has no meaning in Greek. As one Turkish pundit put it “in Greek dolmates means ‘stolen’.“

That brings up a good point. Watching foreigners interact with Turkish food is one of the great Turksih delights. Americans say that kifte is like hamburger, Mexicans say that a donor durum is like a burrito, Greeks say that everything is like the Greek version, Italians raise their nose at pide and lahmahcun but then eat it with simple smiles. One of my favorite reactions was when an older English lady was eating a bowl of iskembe chorbasi (chorba, by the way is a generic word for soup in Turkish, though it is often used to describe a minestrone type soup – which makes sense when you realize that shorba is an Arabic word that is used to describe a minestrone like soup.) The English lady was obviously enjoying her chorba and asked me what it was made from. The name iskembe is derived from a Persian word – shikamba. Shikamba and iskembe both mean – tripe. Tripe soup. When I told her, she wouldn’t eat any more despite her earlier enjoyment. “I won’t eat cow stomach,” she said, “Even if it is delicious.”

For Turks, iskembe is the perfect cure after a night of hard drinking. Hard drinking usually involves drinking raki, the Turkish national liquor. An anise flavored hard liquor that typically is served with fish. For Turks the word fish always goes with raki. So, raki balik, liquor and fish. My kind of country.

In a way – with the drinking, the fishing, and the tripe – Turks are the masters of feasting. if you don’t believe me, you can look at one of the most famous of the Ottoman palace foods – a quail cooked inside of a chicken, cooked inside of a duck, cooked inside of a peacock. The North American redneck Thanksgiving version is a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey – suitably called Turkdukin. I’ve no idea what the Ottoman/Turkish version is called – but one thing you can be sure of, it’s going to be delicious.

Cold Turkey – Back in Istanbul Unexpectedly!

Bosphorus CruiseSometimes life is filled with the best kind of surprises. I got a call last week from a friend in Istanbul who needed a bit of help with a tourism project. She asked if I would be willing to leave Morocco for a few weeks to come to Turkey – those of you who know me, know that my answer was most definitely “Yes. When do you want me there?”
I was thinking it would be in a month or a few weeks but instead she answered – can you come this weekend? I checked with my wife and she gave the green light – after all, it is work and not just cheap holidays to Turkey, but in fact it is always a pleasure for me to come to Turkey.
turkey holidaysIn particular, Istanbul in Winter is a magical place. The crowds are smaller, the city is still completely and overwhelmingly exotic and for me – going to Istanbul is like going home to Bellingham, Washington or Honolulu, Hawaii. It’s nice to go home now and then.
And best of all, nobody asks me if I’m Muslim, if I pray, or if I know the shahada. Nobody looks at me like I am a demon as I order a beer. Nobody cares what I do – they are too worried about what they are doing – unless the two merge and I look like I might buy a carpet, but they rarely take me for a buyer.
Turkish HolidaysAs I walk around this city during the time I have off from the tourism projects, I remember why I fell so deeply in love with this place. It’s cold, but I don’t mind in the least. It’s not as cold as the inside of our uninsulated concrete house in Morocco.
Jumping on the ferry and going across the Bosphorus, walking across the Galata Bridge, seeing the crowds marching through the city carrying their football club’s banners in the hopes that their fandom will bring a win, drinking raka with fish (rakabalik!) and struggling to get my Turkish to come back as an amused shopkeeper smiles at me in approval for even trying.
Winter Turkish HolidaysThe smell of the Bosphorus, the smiles of Turks passing by, the sounds of the traffic, the slightly worried looks of tourists as they are herded into souvenir and carpet shops and the sound of wheelie bags being dragged across the cobblestones. All of these things make me love this city. Maybe I can figure out how to stay this time – maybe I can get my wife and daughter here for good. Maybe I can find a place to rent in Kadikoy and a job to supplement my writing income.
Turkish winterI’m working on buying a small house in Morocco to turn into a writer’s residence and that we can stay in when we go to visit my wife’s family. I’m trying to get my wife a resident visa so she can live in the United States – but that’s for her – I want to live in Turkey. Oh, I’m so happy to be back in this, the queen of all cities. The most magnificent city in the world.
 
Turkey holidaysFrom Sultanahmet to Taksim – the fresh yogurt and cheese, the smit (like pretzels and bagels had a baby), kebab shops, doner, and the wonderful melody of Turkish language. Restaurants galore, coffee shops (even Starbucks and I’m happy to see it), grocery stores you can wander through isles, book shops, cinemas, cafes, and so many language schools because all the Turks want to learn English right now.
If you’d like to visit Turkey or Istanbul, contact me using the form below and I will gladly hook you up with the right people, companies or destinations and any advice I can provide.
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Greek Sailing Adventure – Part 1

Greek Sailing AdventureEver since a friend back 1992 told me that Leonard Cohen had dropped out of society and gone to live in caves with a bunch of Greek hippies – I’ve had fantasies about sailing around Greece, checking out the wonderful islands, indulging in the amazing Greek cuisine, and just getting away from it all. Holidays in Greece, just a dream, right?
I think a Greek Sailing Adventure could well have been the reason why I was so drawn to the Mediterranean in the first place but it seemed like I was all over the place and all around Greece without actually being there.
coastal medI lived on the other side of the Aegean in Izmir, Turkey. I swam in the Moroccan, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish Med but always I had this idea of sailing sailing sailing in Greece. The problem was part monetary and part mental. I’d gotten it stuck in my head that only rich guys get to go sailing and as far as living in caves…those islands and (I was thinking) all of Greece were so developed and monetized that the kind of cool adventure I was thinking of could never exist in anything but dreams. Maybe, in some ways, I was right but also – I was definitely wrong.

50 Adventure Tours under $995

My friend Graham who runs a guesthouse in Fez bought a share in a Greek sailboat a few months ago and he invited some close friends to come out and sail with him during the end of the summer season. The only problem was that they only were staying half the time and as a new sailor, he wasn’t entirely comfortable manning the yacht solo – lucky for me, he mentioned he needed crew and even luckier, when I told my wife about it she said that I should take the opportunity to go for two weeks even though we have a new baby who was only about six weeks old. Since she has her whole family here, she assured me that she would be fine and so…off I went!
While I wasn’t able to get the ultra low fares from Morocco to Greece that I got on the way back ($16 US dollars from Volos, Greece to Bergamo, Italy and $16 from Bergamo to Tangier, Morocco and then $18 from Tangier to Fez by Train!!!) Even with last minute fares, I was still able to get to Greece for a relatively cheap amount and since I would be sleeping and often eating on board – the cost was worth it. I went with Ryan Air from Fez to Girona, Spain for about $125, then from Girona to Milan for about $80, and another $100 or so from Milan to Volos, Greece. So all together round trip from Fez to Volos with stops in Milan and Girona ran me about $355 US dollars!

Click Here For Greece Discount Hotels

It’s things like RyanAir, WizzAir, AirArabia, Jet4You and other budget airlines that make me very hesitant to ever return to the USA where even a flight from one state to another will cost you more than it costs me to visit five countries.
So anyway. There I was. A not rich guy on the way to sail in Greece. Who says you have to be rich to lead a rich life?
More coming soon- Next up is Girona and my night in the Bergamo Airport!

Izmir Sunday in a Friendly Turkish Home

We voyaged to Izmir this Sunday to meet up with a Moroccan friend my wife made on her flight here. Nice to have a different location for this week. Sunday in… Izmir, Turkey.

Hanane’s ability to make new friends will never cease to amaze me. In this case, her new friend is a Moroccan woman married to a Turkish man. Her husband is in Morocco and she and her sister are staying with her in-laws in Izmir. they sat next to each other on the plane and then exchanged facebook and skype info and have been chatting ever since. One evening they even had both of their families join in the conversation!
Turkey loves Moroccans!
We woke up, had a late Sunday breakfast and caught the bus to Izmir which costs just six lira each. The girl, Souad, her sister Wafa, and her father in law picked us up at the bus station and drove us around Izmir. Fishermen in Izmir, TurkeyWe had a nice walk along the water and then went to Souad’s in-laws house where we had a wonderful Turkish lunch/dinner and enjoyed the afternoon in a lovely Turkish home. Souad’s little boy is cute as a bug and her father in law showed me his garden filled with grapes, pomegranites, olives, and hot hot peppers.
I know just how hot because after eating some at dinner, I stupidly reached up and touched my eye! It hurt like hell, but for some reason, that kind of pain, like tattoos, I’ve never really minded. I don’t know quite how to explain that, so I’ll just leave it there.
Dinner was a Turkish soup, followed by beans, followed by kifta (lamb meatballs) with wild rice and yogurt/cucumber sauce. After dinner, a lovely cup of Turkish coffee, followed by nuts, followed by chocolate. Needless to say, I feel like I might explode.Our Friend's Father in Law in Turkey
They were all lovely people and we had a very nice day. It was especially nice for Hanane, I think, because I know how nice it is to connect with your expat community when you are living abroad. Since this is her first time living outside of Morocco, I’m guessing from the smile on her face that this was a very nice Sunday in Izmir. For me too it was nice, though it was somewhat confusing to have to change channels from English to Turkish and back to Moroccan again, but I wasn’t alone. At one point Souad started to explain something to her Turkish mother-in-law, but she was doing it in Darija while the woman smiled in confusion. We all laughed together about it.
Izmir statue of Attaturk
After way too much food, Turkish coffee, nuts, and chocolate they drove us back to the bus station and we headed back home.
I really love Sundays, wherever I am. That’s why I pretty much always make it a condition of any job that I never work on them.At least not for anyone but myself.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t such a good Sunday in Istanbul where two bombs by separatists killed seventeen or more people. While Turkey is generally safe and wonderful, Kurdish separatists have been growing increasingly violent over the past few years. I’m glad to be somewhere that isn’t ‘important’ enough to be a target for them.

What am I doing here? Manisa #2

The life of a solo traveler can be great, but I have to admit I’m very happy that my wife has arrived. Suddenly this house doesn’t feel empty and today, Sunday, we set out for a nice walk through our new hometown of Manisa, Turkey.
After a late morning and some pancakes for breakfast, we set out walking just to see a little bit of Manisa together. Of course, I’ve already had plenty of long walks in Manisa, so I took us in the general direction of some things I wanted her to see and to see for myself.
We strolled through Fatih park, past the statue of Tarzan of Manisa (still with a broken arm) and then up past the mosques where I told her about Mesir, the spicy candy for which Manisa is quite famous.
The museum of Manisa is still closed for renovations, so we couldn’t go in, but we did get a peek in the courtyard and saw quite an astounding number of Roman, Greek, and Lydian sculptures.
Kids playing in Sypil Mountain From there we strolled towards the signs that point the direction to Sypil Mountain Park and Niobe (which I will talk about tomorrow for Manisa Monday). Manisa is really an amazing place. It has one of the only protected forest parks in all of Turkey, there are hot springs in the mountains, it has a huge number of historical buildings, ruins, and structures, and it is clean, beautiful, and safe. On top of that it has a thriving Industrial Free Trade Zone, plenty of agriculture, and friendly warm people. So, with all of that, why isn’t Manisa a tourist draw?
Simple. Manisa sits surrounded by the cities of the Aegean Coast, the ruins of Sardis and Ephesus are close enough to draw historical tourists, and the city of Izmir is a metropolis seaside playground. If Manisa were not surrounded by so much, it would be one of the top places in Turkey.
View of Manisa Of course, the way things stand, I like this kind of city. It’s why I prefer Bellingham to Seattle, Kailua to Honolulu, and Sefrou to Fes. Everything you could want and the shitty tourists get drawn into the surrounding vortex zones.
Anyway, we took a small hike up into the mountains and were astounded by the quick change in environment from urban to wilderness. A herd of goats sat on a steep mountainside, they were too far away to tell if they were wild or domestic.
Manisa is beautiful.
From the mountain we strolled along the high road taking in the view and seeing the more traditional way of life when one gets outside of the city center. Sadly, what you would expect was true, the poorer areas had more garbage which probably translates to less government services like garbage pick up. Still, people looked generally happy and healthy. Manisa Turkey is Fun
We saw three little guys riding a tiny tricycle down a steep hill and about twenty older guys taking turns riding a mule two at a time. We found a couple of cafes which offered stunning views of the city and then hiked back down through the city center to my favorite restaurant (so far) Konya Mutfagi. I had the pide (Turkish pizza) and Hanane had the chicken wings. Lucky for me, she liked the food too, so we can keep eating there. For both of us the total was 20 lira which included pide, salad, chicken wings, two sodas, two waters, and tea. That translates to about $13 which is a pretty great price for such a delicious meal.
From there, it was time to go home. The house, as I said before, actually feels like a home now that Hanane is here and despite the fact that I thought it was pretty clean, she insisted on cleaning it again and I can see the difference easily.
Hiking in Manisa
Yeah, it’s nice to have her here. To hear the television, to have the Arabic conversations with her family going on in the living room (via Skype) and to be able to play and explore together.
Tomorrow, I will tell about Manisa’s patron saint of remorse. Niobe.

Sunday in … cyberspace!

Does anyone actually use the term cyberspace any more? Or just us old geeks?
I admit it. I’m definitely a geek. All this travel stuff led from being a teenager in the 1980’s and expecting the nuclear warheads to drop on us at any moment. My mom’s 1960’s flashbacks and back to nature hippie ethics didn’t help. In 6th grade I got my first computer, a Commodore 64 with a tape drive and then in 7th grade I stopped reading dog stories when some kid told me I should read Riverworld which led to Tolkien, Heinlein, and every other geek genre I could get my hands on. Maybe some people mistook me for a ‘cool’ kid, but I knew that at night I would stay up until 3 a.m. reading space operas and end of the world apocalyptic stories. Yes, I’ve been hoping that civilization would crash since I was 13. Never mind all the fantasies that go with it.
geeks and the end of the world
Anyway, those fantasies led to me becoming a pretty damn good ‘man meets wild’ kind of survivalist. I can do just about anything with anything. The problem was though that the world just keeps keeping on, so I started testing myself in other ways, by say, becoming homeless and living in the northwest by choice. That led to doing some ‘rough travel’ overseas and of course, I kept playing with computers all along the way. Then I got interested in why civilization was such a bummer which led to an interesting but fairly worthless degree in Anthropology.. And of course, I kept the geek mentality through all of that, hell I even wrote a Sci-Fi novel, but only about ten other geeks read it.
So, here I am. A geek with a computer who managed to find a fairy tale wife who also believes in fairy tales (especially the one we live) and this Sunday, I just didn’t have the energy to go wander around in Turkey, like I’d planned on doing. I’m a little depressed because I’m starting to think that civilization as we know it…WILL SURVIVE. Shit.
What some would consider hope has me a little bit in despair, so I spent the day geeking out. Improving my SEO, link building, and once in a while going to Yahoo News just to see if things might fall apart after all…but it’s not looking good folks. This mighty old ship of human errors keeps continuing and seems to duck every potential death blow.
I did find this though: New Muslim Superhero Comic
. I’m slightly disturbed though that they are making him disabled though the story explains that. At first I thought it might be because people are scared of Muslims, unless they are disabled.
I was surprised to ask my students over the last few days what is more important, Love or Money and to have them ALL answer with no hesitation that money is more important. Shit! It’s not going to get any better with people thinking that.
I still know the answer is love, but with those kids coming of age, it’s not looking good for romantics, so I figured I better spend the day improving my chances of making enough money to get my wife the caravan of her dreams and a big dog to scare the greedy little fuckers all off when they come to rob us. (See, that’s a geek dream leaking out in an otherwise straight narrative.)
Of course, my day in cyberspace did lead me to some fun places. Ex officio underwear, geek gadgets, and a nice story of how money was invented and was never really real in the first place. Meanwhile the Turkish ice cream trucks wander up and down the streets, the politicians and business creeps keep taking advantage, and life goes on.
Frankly, I’m glad I’m a geek. My geekness, sci-fi, end of the world, technomad, survivalist, romantic mentality has led me to some places that are beyond anything I could have read about. And besides, I haven’t had to grow up. Lucky for me I married a woman who doesn’t seem like she will ever grow up either. It will be nice when she gets here so we can go out and play on Sundays together.

What am I doing here? Manisa, Turkey

I live in a small Turkish city called Manisa and while it is an interesting place with lots of interesting stories to tell, I don’t really want to be here all the time.
One thing I’ve learned in years of wandering around is that if you don’t take the time to appreciate and enjoy the time when you don’t really have anything to do, you end up looking back on it with some regret. Sure, I’m bored now, but that could change at any time and so I need to just let myself fall into the zen-like state of slack. I have almost done that. And while I still find myself wishing that my life were more exciting, I’m actually enjoying the sensation of boredom.
the Street in Manisa Turkey
I had kind of expected that I would have friends here that would be willing to show me around, share insider knowledge, and maybe teach me some things about Turkish life, but that hasn’t really happened. The teachers I work with are either busy teaching or just disinterested. The students are busy with work and classes. And the expats, well, as soon as I arrived the one I was going to share a house with split.
So, here I am. In Manisa and my days are fairly simple. I wake up, try to force myself to do some yoga and go running (about 50% successful) and then I head to work. I teach for a few hours and then I have a few hours during the hot part of the day so I come home, make lunch and study a little Turkish, check my email, and perhaps do some online work. Then I go back to work and at around 10:30 I come back home, make some dinner, watch some TV on the computer, and maybe read a bit before going to bed. I usually talk with Hanane a little bit either in the afternoon or before I go to bed and we sometimes play battleship on Skype. That’s my life, six days a week.
Since I haven’t had a camera and since I sort of want to save most of my sight-seeing for when Hanane gets here, I’ve sort of avoided checking out the old mosques or doing the other sight-seeing kind of things.
But, now, since I got my Samsung Star semi-smart phone, I have a camera and today was my one day a week off. Sunday. So, without further ado…I introduce a new feature here at Vagobond. Each Sunday, I will try to do a little exploring or will just document my rather humdrum day. If I go somewhere else it will be Sunday in…wherever but since I am in Manisa, Turkey, here it is.
Sunday in …. Manisa.
My roommate left the house with no gas for hot water and no light bulbs aside from one or two in the room he was in.
I told the school and they told me they would have gas delivered. They didn’t tell me I would have to pay the toothless boy who brought it. In addition, he couldn’t make the gas water heater work and neither could I. I’ve been with nothing but cold showers for my time here, which isn’t awful since it’s warm and Hanane isn’t here.
When the boy arrived, I didn’t have money but luckily the guys who run the little market across the street loaned me 20 lira. Natural gas here is expensive. 54 lira for a canister. This all happened last week. I told the school about my cold showers but nothing happened, so I told them again and they told me that the landlord would come either Sunday or Monday. They didn’t tell me which.
So, I woke up on my day off not knowing if I really could go and do anything at all or whether I had to stay at the house. I called the school and they told me ‘Oh yeah’ the landlord will come on Monday. It didn’t make much difference to me.
Since I had the camera and the day off though, I decided to walk around and take random pictures. This is the little store that loaned me 20 lira.
 Manisa, Turkey
Here is the view up the street.

The other direction are the train tracks. Crossing them, I saw this little ruin and thought it worth a picture.
 Manisa, Turkey
Then I found this beautiful old locomotive. I climbed up in the engineers cabin, but someone had taken a big dump in it, so I didn’t stay.
 Manisa, Turkey
I walked around a big stadium and one of these horse drawn wagons built on an auto chassis that I love in both Turkey and Morocco came down the street. My camera was out too late though to capture the big peasant ladies who were driving it.
 Manisa, Turkey
Back across the tracks, I encountered what I think was a wedding since there were lots of women waving scarves out the window. The wedding procession is led by a big traditional band playing in the back of a flatbed truck. This is the same as the circumcision parade for young boys but since I didn’t see any horse and carriage with little boys dressed up like fairy tale princes, I knew this wasn’t one of those.
 Manisa, Turkey
I walked up to the Manisa museum which is under construction so I couldn’t go in but I did get to see lots of marble columns and architectural pieces that are probably around 2000 years old through this gate.
 Manisa, Turkey
I took a couple of pictures of the mosques. I didn’t go in though. Not today.
 Manisa, Turkey
The statue in the roundabout is Merkez Effendi who was an ancient doctor who created the famous candy/medicine of Manisa which is called Mesir and which I will write about in detail in a future post.
 Manisa, Turkey
From there, I went to Fatih Park and took a few pictures of the Monument of National Sovereignty which was decorated with wreaths today and since I saw a lot of military guys in dress uniforms as I wandered around, I figured it must be a holiday of some sort.
 Manisa, Turkey
The Monument of National Sovereignty was built in 1985 by the sculptur Tankut Oktern. It symbolizes the public, army, and youth working together with the founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Ataturk. To me, it looked like a statue of Daniel Boone in shorts and the world’s tallest man with his normal sized family.
 Manisa, Turkey
In fact though, the Daniel Boone figure and the two warriors are ‘Zeybek’, an ancient Turkish word, meaning a wise person. The zeybek were like the samurai of Turkey.
 Manisa, Turkey
After that I bought some mesir and went to the Hollywood Cinema where I watched “The Expendables” which was in English with Turkish subtitles. It was an incredibly bad film. Bad writing, bad acting, bad everything. Awful. The mesir on the other hand was delicious spicy stickiness.
Then I walked around taking pictures of Tarzan who I will detail tomorrow in Manisa Monday. Yes, I figure one day a week devoted to the town I live in for the next year is a decent amount of time to spend…after all, what else am I going to do with all my time here?

Technomad Tools – #1 – Smart phone – Mine and yours?

Let’s talk about smartphones. I just got one and following is my review. What smartphone do you use? Is it better or worse? What features do you love? What features could you do without?
This term technomad is coming up more and more these days. To a certain extent, I fall within the category since I do a lot of my paid (and unpaid) work online and for that I don’t have a boss, an office, or a need to be in any one place.
As such, my office for the past year or so has been my netbook. An Acer Aspire One which has been by far the best $300 I’ve ever spent. I’ve used it for everything a full on laptop or desktop can be used for and it has never let me down. I recommend it 100% as the ultimate travel machine. Below is an affiliate link from Amazon for one.

Still, I’m always trying to make my possessions smaller, faster, and better and I’ve been looking at people with smartphones for a while now and wondering if I would be able to make the leap and perhaps the next time I travel I would be able to leave the netbook at home.
best phone for travel
Does your phone travel well?

I’m a cheap bastard. I don’t like to replace things while other things still work, so when my camera went kaput during our wedding in the Sahara, I thought that maybe if my phone would die too, I could replace the phone and the camera with a smart phone. So, I’ve been keeping my eyes open.
Unfortunately, in both Turkey and Morocco the cost of electronics is about 500% more than in the USA or Europe. Even in Europe the cost of an iPhone or Blackberry is at a premium. Another thing is that I don’t like contracts since I’m never 100% certain I’ll be staying in a country. And, I’m pretty poor in terms of money that I can spend.
An iPhone in Morocco runs about $1700 U.S. A Blackberry is a little less, but the truth is that I’ve used Blackberries and I don’t particularly like them. In Turkey and iPhone is about $1500. I thought about ordering one from Ebay or Amazon, but friends here confirmed that customs (as in Morocco) would rake me over the coals and I would end up paying more. I don’t want to make any bones about it, I’ve looked around and despite the problems, it looks to me like an iPhone 4 is the best thing going.
The other day when my old Motorola Razor V1 once again started dying with a full charge, I decided it was time to make the leap to something. One of my colleagues showed me his phone and told me that I could get one for right around 350 Turkish Lira which works out to about $225 US.
I did a little homework and decided that while it didn’t have all the options I wanted, it would be a pretty decent way to break into having a smart phone. Here is what I wanted:
– a decent camera
– wifi so that I could check email, use voice services on Skype, GTalk, and Yahoo messenger to make calls with no charge when wifi was available
– video capability – playing and recording
– blue tooth
– good sound quality/ call quality
– a good quality touchscreen
– fm radio
– good battery life
– and some games/ability for java apps
samsung star wifi
The reviews I read of the phone seemed to indicate that I was going to get what I was looking for with the Samsung Star Wifi which is marketed in India, Pakistan, Turkey, and other Arab countries under various names such as Samsung Avila.
The phone lives up to most of what I read about it. I’ve had no problems with the wifi though I haven’t yet figured out how to change the default for most java apps so that I don’t get charged for usage.
samsung star wifi - phone for vagabond
It’s small, light, and fits easily in my hand or my pocket.
For me, the camera takes acceptable pictures but the lack of a zoom and flash probably means I’m going to have to get a camera anyway. The video quality seems pretty decent.
Call sound is good and the music player works well but doesn’t seem to have much flexibility in the way playlists work. Definitely would prefer i-tunes.
One big issue at the beginning was that the proprietary browser kind of sucks. Only allows one window at a time. I solved this by downloading the Opera Mini 5 browser which allows for multiple windows but the cost is that with Opera when I turn my phone sideways, it doesn’t automatically change to landscape screen
Another issue is that since it is proprietary, Skype and other voice chat services (VOIP) have not bothered to (or not been able to) make software that allows free calls. So even with the wifi and a browser, I’m not able to make the free VOIP calls I wanted. I was able to download a java app called Nimbuzz, but can only access it through the browser and engage in text chat only. Big disappointment on this one.
Also, I think because of the firmware and proprietary Samsung crap, I can only run one app at a time, although there is a setting which allows music to run in the background while I do other things. So what this means is that if I am using the Opera browser and want to make a note, I have to close the browser and open up the note. Again, big disappointment and not ideal at all.
The initial data storage size is reasonable, but not huge. I’ll have to buy a data card. I want to have the space for videos and music on it, not to mention pictures, and hopefully an ebook or two.
The word processing (notepad) function is fairly primitive and when I have put pdf or .doc files on it, I have to scroll left and right in addition to down. Not really very good for reading something which I was hoping would be an option.
The battery life is good. About 10 hours with heavy usage or from what I’ve read, if it isn’t being used much, a week or more.
The touchscreen seems to work great. It’s fun and the stylus which comes inside is easy to use and stores in the corner safely.
As to videos, I’m afraid that this phone is set up to mostly play youtube videos and since I’m in Turkey, where youtube is banned, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to watch any video but the one I recorded to test out the video camera function. I’m hoping to find an alternative source so that I can watch tv shows and news.
The phone has a couple of kind of goofy features. One is that if you choose you can set up the phone to automatically email two contacts if the SIM is replaced. Ideally this will tell you the number of any thief who steals your phone.
Another one is a fake call function where you can press a button and the phone will call you and play a conversation you’ve pre-recorded so that you can get out of class, meetings, or other uncomfortable situations. It’s a phone with built in lies.
One last thing I do like about this phone is that it comes unlocked and is quad band so I can go anywhere and use it in any country on the planet.
Overall, I like the phone. It’s a definite upgrade from the razor v1, but it is definitely not a replacement for the netbook. That will have to come later. Although, I’m quite happy to lug the netbook with me since it is light and awesome.
Now, how about you- what smart phone do you use? Does it kick ass? Or does it blow?

Living in Turkey – Working in Turkey

[ad#Link share in post google replacement]Getting a job in Turkey and living the expat life in Turkey will certainly present some challenges.

Once again, I feel like things are moving up. As I mentioned on facebook (what? you didn’t see me on facebook? here http://www.facebook.com/vagodamitio ), I felt like a returning son coming to Turkey. I had new friends cheering my arrival, friends offering to help me figure life out, and best of all – when I arrived in Manisa I already had an apartment waiting for me!
That’s one of the advantages of taking a job. The apartment and utilities are all paid for. Of course, time will tell how things go. At the moment, I’m sharing the apartment with just one other teacher. If they load it up like the staff room at a hostel as time goes on, then it might be an issue.
living in Turkey, working in Turkey, Manisa
I didn’t come here with much, but teachers who have already gone left plenty in the way of clothing and even a couple of books. My roommate told me that I could take what clothes I wanted and surprisingly, I found quite a few things that fit me and looked like they’d never been worn. On top of that, I actually liked the clothes! So, my wardrobe has nearly doubled just by arriving.
The house is furnished and has everything that Hanane and I need in terms of a refrigerator, a stove, a washing machine, satellite TV, and wifi internet. Of course, back when we were living in the casbah we got by with no shower, no hot water, no stove, no fridge, and not much else, so in truth we don’t need much. All of this is luxury for us, but completely unessential.
The one thing that is missing is Hanane. I came as an advance scout to make sure everything is on the up and up and see if we can live here. So far, so good. I am just anxious to see her again. In truth, I’m a bit bored without her company. Last night there was a big carnival concert thing not far from the apartment, but I had no desire to wander up there on my own. If I were 25 and looking to get laid though, I think that’s exactly where I would have gone. Although, from what my new roommate has told me, it’s a celibate life for a single non-Muslim in Manisa. Sounds frustrating and I’m glad that I don’t have to experience that frustration any more. It’s funny, so much of my life was defined by that constantly looking for love, sex, or affection that I missed out on a lot in the process. Anyway, it was nice to recognize that and just know that I’m missing my wife.
As far as I can tell there are only four native English speakers in this city of 300,000. Two of those are going to be leaving. I’m not one of those, at least not as far as I know.
So, the apartment is good. The work is good so far. Manisa is also good. It’s a quiet city, the people are friendly, it feels safe. There aren’t a lot of bars or party places which means there aren’t a lot of drunks wandering around or fighting in the streets. The apartment is situated near a Turkish army base, looks like an officer housing complex to me, because these aren’t uneducated 18 year olds, nor grunts I’m seeing. Somehow the fact that I pass a bunch of sentries in helmets carrying machine guns just feels good to me as I walk to work.
I also pass by the police station where a guy in a flak jacket with a mean looking sub-machine gun paces back and forth. From our fifth floor front balcony that is what is on the left. On the right is an Imam school of some sort. I don’t really see these guys, but they practice the call to prayer and while some of them are good, man, some of them sound like two cats with their tales tied together and slung over a clothesline. They really shouldn’t let those guys use the PA system. Further down is the train station.
I love hearing the whistles and grinds of trains. It’s funny how often I end up living near train tracks. Fairhaven, Raleigh, Fes, and now Manisa.
From the back balcony which is off of our bedroom, there is an amazing view of Mt Sypil. It’s massive and as the moon rises, the sun comes up, or the sun sets the mountain exerts a pull, an attraction. In fact, I think it was the mountain that brought me here, but I’ll write about that later.
Manisa is a healthy place and it is filled with parks, outdoor workout stations, and lots of trees, green space, and scenic spots. there are no shortage of interesting statues and places to see. While I wait for Hanane, I am mostly walking around and just getting the feel of the place in my spare time. It’s easy to find a healthy meal for 1-2 lira ( about $1.50 will do it), the food is pretty cheap, and if you want to splurge, there are plenty of ways to do it. There are at least three movie theatres and I’ve already watched one film at a matinee for about $5 U.S, (8 lira).
There are libraries in Manisa. I’ve visited one of them already and found that they have a few English language books that are scattered over the shelves. When I say a few, I mean a few. I found a book about chicken embryology, a book from the 1800s about the pillars of European history, a book about ‘the Armenian question’, and a few plays. Still, it’s nice to have a public library and they provide free wi-fi as well.
I’ve done little shopping. Mostly buying food in the open air market on Thursdays and some regular groceries like pasta, milk, and rice in the supermarket. I also paid a visit to the Turkish version of Walmart, called ‘Migros’ and bought a pair of trainers so I can do some running for 25 lira (about $18). My next purchase is probably going to be a semi-smart phone with a camera since my phone is pretty shot and my camera is broken and gone.
I’ll be writing quite a lot about Manisa in the coming days. It’s a fascinating place with rich history and a lot happening. for now, I just wanted to sort of catch up with myself (and you) here at Vagobond.

Back to Morocco, Back to Turkey

Istanbul is incredible. After the performance of the Whirling Dervishes we wandered down to the Galata Bridge and decided to eat some fish while sitting on the water.
The touts were the most aggressive we met in Turkey though the location was romantic and beautiful. The food? Well, it was really crap and perhaps made us both sick. I recommend you go down there, have some tea or a cocktail and then go get your food somewhere else.
bad food but pretty location, Istanbul, Galata Bridge
The prices were also the highest we paid in Turkey. Again though, the ambiance and location were superb.
eating at Galata Bridge Istanbul, Istanbul restaurants
The next day we wandered around and bought souvenirs for Hanane’s family.
Istanbul Spice market, shopping in Istanbul
I don’t really do souvenirs except for the kind I find for free lying on the side of the road or those of necessity (like my souvenir shoes when my old souvenir shoes get worn out from all the walking) but for Hanane it was essential.
istanbul shopping
And then it was to the airport for our return flight to Morocco.
A funny thing happened on the return flight. I’d warned Hanane that airport security in Turkey wouldn’t be as lax as that in Morocco. She’d bought some bottles of shampoo, so I insisted that she check her bag so they wouldn’t get thrown out. High end shampoos, creams, and lotions are very high end in Morocco. So, we went through security at the gate and then the other Moroccans started to come through. There must have been $1000 worth of shampoos, lotions, and creams which were thrown in the garbage because they were in big bottles in carry on luggage. The signs were posted everywhere in Arabic as well as in English and Turkish. That’s not the funny part though, that’s slightly tragic watching as Moroccan women are forced to throw out all their beauty products and families have to throw out the yogurts, waters, and other foods they were bringing for the flight. The funny part was the reaction of the Moroccans. They were livid. The airport security had to deal with increasingly pissed off Moroccan women yelling at them, a father with a bunch of food he was being forced to throw away invited other passengers to help his family consume it, and women kept going to the garbage and making efforts to steal their products back when the security weren’t looking which forced them to move the garbage bin. It was one of the oddest real life dramas I’ve ever witnessed.
istanbul airport security
The flight was uneventful, the train back to Fes from Casa was uneventful, and the arrival back in our apartment was also uneventful.
We spent a couple of days just enjoying our space while we had it and then Hanane made a bee line for her folks place in Sefrou. Usually, when I move, I get rid of everything by selling it or putting it on the street, but this time, that wasn’t really an option. All of our stuff had to be trucked up to the in-laws place in Sefrou. I’ve furnished a good portion of their house at this point!
Ramadan began and we arranged a moving van, I packed everything up, and then we cleaned the apartment and paid our outstanding bills to the landlord.
Shepherds in Morocco
After that we spent a few days at the in-laws place where we fell into the fasting routine of wake up at 3 AM, eat, go to sleep, wake up and work, sleep, eat at 7 PM, go to sleep, wake up at 3 AM….but I’ve already written about that.
Now, it’s almost 5 AM and while this won’t be posted for more than a week, I will be leaving Sefrou, Fes, Morocco, and all I’ve found here behind in about an hour. Even my wife won’t be coming with me as I return to Turkey to start yet another new life in yet another new country.
She’ll be joining me in about a month after Ramadan is through and when I’ve made certain that things are going to work for us in Turkey. I’ve already bought her tickets, but I’m a little worried as it will be the first time she is doing any bigger travel than a train or bus trip on her own. She’ll do okay though, she’s already been through Vago 101.
I leave Morocco with the two bags I arrived with. Of course, there are a few things that we are leaving at the in-laws house that we would like to have in a home someday if we ever have one. Also I am leaving my guitar and violin #2 here for the moment. The harmonica comes with me though.
I’m filled with a mixture of excitement, elation, sadness, relief, and weariness. I’ll write more about Morocco in the near future though. For now, suffice to say Veni Vidi Vici.
eating under the bridge in Istanbul

Hotel Ayasofya – Top Suite – End of trip luxury

Back in Istanbul, we once again caught the ferry to the Sultan Ahmet and walked from Eminonu to the Hotel Ayasofya. It was early, but the guys told us that they would have our Suite ready for us by 10:00 AM and that we could go downstairs and enjoy the complimentary breakfast.
It’s funny to come back to a city you’ve visited during travels in which you’ve seen nothing but new places. The sense of being home is something truly comforting and strange because really, as in our case, you might have just spent a few days there and still feel a stranger except since you are returning from places that are all new, you lose that sense of being a stranger…can that possibly make sense?
Tourism, Istanbul, Ayasofya Hotel
Anyway, it felt nice to be back in Istanbul and back at the Hotel Ayasofya. The breakfast was as wonderful as we remembered with the plumpest, most delicious dried figs I’ve had just about anywhere and some lovely Turkish cheese and yogurt.
Suite, Istanbul, Great hotels of the World, Hotel Ayasofya
After breakfast our suite was ready and the bellman led us up to the room. Once again we had complete luxury. A massive private balcony looking out over the Marmara Sea and the old city walls of Istanbul. A salon, a big ultra comfy king sized bed, Ottoman furnishings, slippers, robes, and yes…another jacuzzi bathtub!
Istanbul, city walls, ancient house
We do alright traveling on the cheap! It’s really a matter of choosing where to suffer and where not to. As I said before, I don’t like to suffer at the end of a journey nor at the beginning. During the middle, I don’t mind a bit. If you think about it, it makes sense. The two things you usually know are when you will arrive and when you will leave. Book a hotel for those nights and play everything else by ear.
So anyway, we’d slept badly on the bus and spent a lot of the night in the Ankara Otogar, but somehow that was all behind us as we put on fluffy white robes, room slippers, and lounged on our big balcony at the Hotel Ayasofya.
I heartily recommend the Hotel Ayasofya. The top suite is worth the price and whether you book it at the end or the beginning of your trip, a stay at Hotel Ayasofya is worthwhile. It is situated near all of the attractions of Sultan Ahmet, has a top notch staff that is friendly, helpful, and ready to go the extra mile for you, and it’s the kind of hidden gem luxury that you will remember for years to come.
the streets of Istanbul
To book a room at the Hotel Ayasofya you can go here.

From Fetiye to Goreme, Cappadocia – Moonlight Cave Suites

The bus ride from Fetiye to Goreme was 55 lira. I’d asked Omer if I should book our tickets from Goreme to Istanbul in advance and he’d told me that there was no need, later I found every bus we wanted was full.
Here is a full listing of hotels and cave hotels in Goreme, Turkey
If you want to go from Goreme to Istanbul on a specific day, book it in advance. At the Fetiye Otogar, I felt like some sort of shell game took place as we were led to a different bus company than I’d bought tickets for and our tickets were changed for new ones. We were then led to a big bus that wasn’t nearly as nice as I had thought it would be and then we set out. I looked for another bus heading out at the same time as us, but didn’t see one, maybe it was legit but something stunk of a swindle to me. Regardless, our bus left when it was supposed to and took us where it was supposed to so maybe being in a tourist trap had simply made me paranoid.
cappadocia, Goreme, Cave hotel
We slept on the bus and arrived in Goreme where Omer had said there was no need to make a reservation. I called our too top choices to see if they had cave rooms for us but they didn’t. In the small tourist information booth, I found another place which looked good and they did have a room so we went with them. They told us to sit and wait and the room would be ready in a few hours. I got on the net and realized they were trying to charge us 20 lira more than their published rate. When I asked why, the manager said it was because the room was bigger than the one’s on the web. He refused to budge and at 100 lira a night, I felt like we could find more than just a big room since this wasn’t even actually a cave.
cappadocia, Goreme, Cave hotel, Turkey, Cave city
Hanane wasn’t happy with me as we left with our bags but I wanted to walk and look and find the place that seemed best to me. I went into a few and asked the prices and if they had rooms. It seemed that 100-150 lira was the going rate for a double room. I started to walk into Moonlight Cave Suites and Hanane grabbed me and told me to stop because there was no way we could afford this one. It was beautiful. I almost listened to her, but to be honest, I was tired of not following my instincts and instead bowing to her Moroccan sense of ‘shame’ and ‘hshuma’ meaning that she didn’t want to ask because she didn’t think we could afford it. I went in and she decided to just wait in the street.
cappadocia, Goreme, Cave hotel, Turkey, Cave city, Moonlight Cave Suite
It was more beautiful inside. It was a new place and they’d spared no expense making it deluxe and beautiful. I’ve no doubt that it will become one of the top boutique hotels in Goreme. I say will become because in fact, it hadn’t really opened yet. They’d had a soft opening a few nights before and were offering rooms at incredible discounts just to get the word out.
cappadocia, Goreme, Cave hotel, Turkey, Cave city, Moonlight Cave Suite
Before he would tell me the price, the owner insisted on showing me the room. We walked in and I knew it was beyond our range. A beautiful cave room suite with a large flat screen TV, leather sofa, deluxe king size bed, full size jacuzzi bathtub, mini bar, jet shower, white robes, white slippers, and incredible inset lighting. It was gorgeous.
cappadocia, Goreme, Cave hotel, Turkey, Cave city, Moonlight Cave Suite
He laughed when I told him it was the nicest room I’d seen in Turkey. “It ought to be,” he said “We just spent 8 million Euros making this place.But wait until you see our deluxe suites…” The room I was drooling over was a ‘standard’ !!!
He suggested we go back to his office and talk about the price. I saw his rate sheet on the desk and knew it was going to be beyond us. Standard suite….180 Euro per night. We spent a few minutes talking about my travels in Turkey, travel writing, and the business of promotion. We settled on a price of 100 lira for the night! I was flabbergasted. I told him that I needed to let Hanane see the room before I said yes for certain. I was desperately afraid she would say no since I wanted to enjoy this room, but of course, she saw it and wanted it too.
cappadocia, Goreme, Cave hotel, Turkey, Cave city, Moonlight Cave Suite
Now, with a room like that, it’s hard to leave but I wanted to go get our bus tickets to Istanbul for the next night since we had the top suite at the Hotel Ayasofya reserved for our last night in Turkey.
Hanane laid down for a nap while I went to go get the tickets. Every bus company was sold out. I cursed Omar for his bad advice and tried to figure out what to do. The bus companies just told me I would need to wait another day. I couldn’t do that, we had another suite waiting and paid for!
I sat for a minute and figured it out. We’d take a bus to Ankara and from there we could take the train or a bus to Istanbul since the bus service is more frequent from Ankara than from Goreme. So, I bought tickets to Ankara and started to dream about catching a sleeper train to Istanbul. The only problem was that the bus to Ankara left at 2pm instead of 7 pm so we wouldn’t have time the next day to explore or take a tour.
cappadocia, Goreme, Cave hotel, Turkey, Cave city, Moonlight Cave Suite
Back in our deluxe cave suite, I forced Hanane to wake up since we only had half a day in Cappadocia and I thought it would be a shame not to see anything while we were here.

Couchsurfing in Istanbul and Turkey

couchsurfing in Istanbul
As I’ve mentioned before, we had planned to use couchsurfing.com throughout our trip to Turkey in order to save money and more importantly in order to make new friends and learn about things from a local’s perspective. For two months prior to our departure, I was searching for hosts, emailing requests, and planning our trip around those who were able to host us. While we were excited about the places we would see, we were equally excited about the people we were going to meet. Since we’ve both hosted a lot of people, we had an expectation that those who agreed to host us would honor their commitments since we had planned our travel and time around them, but upon arriving in Istanbul, I found that one of our first hosts (whom we had planned to stay with in Istanbul’s Princes Islands had had to cancel due to illness), our itinerary was essentially this:
1) Day 1 – Hotel Ayasofya
2) Day 2, 3, 4- Couchsurf in Kadikoy
3) Day 5,6,7 – CS on Princes Islands
4) Day 8,9 CS in Bursa
5) Day 10 CS in Izmir
6) Day 11, 12, 13 – Hotels in Mediterrainian
7) Day 14 – Night bus to Cappodocia
8) Day 15, 16 – CS in Goreme
9) Day 17 – Nightbus to Istanbul
10) Day 18 – CS in Istanbul (different hosts)
11) Day 19 – Hotel Ayasofya
So, based on people agreeing to host us, we planned to spend only 5 nights in hotels and splurged to get the suite for our last night in Istanbul. Our first hosts, Alp and Serap were the only one’s that actually came through though so we ended up booking an additional nine nights of hotel accommodations and didn’t know it would happen until we arrived. Not ideal.
Hosts canceled due to illness, pregnancy, unexpected travel, and having just forgotten that they had agreed to host us. While we were sad to have to stay in hotels, mostly we were sad not to be able to experience Turkish life and make new Turkish freinds.
our friends in Istanbul, Turkey
All of that will help explain why one of the highlights of our time in Turkey was getting the chance to become friends with Alp and Serap who were our first and only hosts in Turkey. Reading about the two of them was like reading a better written profile of ourselves and Alp was thorough in his communication as well as being funny. He suggested that we spend the day sightseeing on our own in Sultanahmet and then catch the 5:30 ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian side of the Bosporus to meet them. I called him as the ferry left and he and his wife Serap were already waiting for us.
Istanbul ferry, Eminonu to Kadikoy
They are an interesting and lovely couple. Alp almost didn’t let me pay for the taxi to their flat but when I said that I wouldn’t be able to sleep if he didn’t let me, he relented. During the three days we spent with them they provided us with suggestions, helpful advice, and showed us some places we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. One of them was the busy mezos bar area where we had dinner that night. After explaining three must-eat Turkish meals, Alp let us choose which sounded the most appealing to us. They were Turkish raviolli, Pide (Turkish Pizza), or Hamsi and Mezos which are Black Sea anchovies and tapas, Turkish style.
Istanbul Restaurants, Kadikoy
We chose the hamsi and mezos since it sounded like the most unique experience. Serap then told us that she had been hoping we would choose that one. Alp, like me is a freelance writer and Serap is a food engineer.
black Sea, Hamsi, anchovies, Istanbul food guide
Alp has written a lot of the Couchsurfing guide to Istanbul and we found ourselves in excellent hands during our time with them. For dinner we had the fried anchovies, a variety of eggplant, a delicious salad, and I drank one of the local favorite beers, Efes. It turns out that in Turkey, I’m not alone in being a Muslim who likes to sometimes quaff a beer or two whereas in Morocco only the scum imbibe.
Hanane of course didn’t have any alcohol and put about six sugars in her Turkish tea to make it drinkable for her. Dinner was about 120 lira for the four of us. It included an amazing variety and amount of food. It was the most expensive dinner of our trip but well worth it.
After dinner we had a wonderful walk through Kadikoy and Hanane was barely able to restrain herself from spending all the money I’d given her for souvenirs and shopping but our ‘You have to carry your own bag’ rule kept her consumer impulses in check.
Returning to Alp and Serap’s apartment, Alp made us delicious Turkish coffee and then we all went to bed. They provided us with a room of our own and were the epitome of Turkish hospitality.
In the morning, we went back to Sultanahmet to see several sights they had recommended we not miss (The archeological museum and the Basillica Cistern) while they went to the Turkish Modern Art Museum. In the evening they took us to outlet malls because I had asked where I might be able to buy a cheap digital camera since mine was broken and Hanane’s isn’t of the best quality, but since I knew we had the extra expense of accommodation, I didn’t find one that was in our price range.
The next day,Alp took us for an abbreviated version of one of his favorite Kadikoy walks since we wanted to take a boat tour up the Bosporus and in the evening Hanane made a Moroccan meal for us all in their kitchen. Serap was astounded by Hanane’s kitchen skills and said that she might ask for her to come train some professional chefs at the institute where she works. It was a beautiful meal with great wine and gorgeous conversations. One of the highlights of our trip to Turkey for sure.
Moroccan food in Turkey
In the morning, Alp got us pointed in the right direction so we could catch the early ferry to Bursa. I’d decided that since our second hosts in Istanbul had cancelled, it would be better to start seeing more of Turkey sooner rather than later. I was also anxious to get to Manisa.
So, you might start to see that this trip was more than just a holiday, it was a mission to see if we would be able to make the jump from Morocco to Turkey. I’ll give you more on that later. We kept in touch with Alp and Serap throughout our trip and once again, through couchsurfing, we have made friends that will last a lifetime.

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