Saturday, November 27, 2010

Turkey and Bulgaria

Istanbul - Dinner with new friends in the most unbelievable setting. We were celebrating an anniversary down behind a well-known restaurant in recently excavated ruins. The food was delicious, the company was perfect, and even the waiter sat down to share a drink. Incredibly, this followed a two hour trip to the Turkish bath where I was steamed and soaped and scrubbed scrubbed scrubbed while big-bellied Turkish women ordered me about.

One of the many Turkish sweets shops. That is baklava and different types of Turkish delight - a jelly or marshmallow candy with nuts and coconut.

Inside the Hagia Sofia, a Byzantine church turned mosque turned museum. Removing layers of plaster has revealed gold mosaics and Viking graffiti. An interesting mix of religion that reminds me of the Christian/Mayan church in Chichicastanango, Guatemala.

The Hagia Sophia from the outside. Istanbul is truly beautiful. I could spend a week, or a lifetime, there.

The ceiling of the Blue Mosque, one of Istanbul's most famous sites. After waiting in line, removing our shoes, and covering scandalous skin, we walked onto a cushy carpet to witness prayers and some of the finest interior decorating that I have ever seen.

Istanbul's cistern - a really old water storage complex underneath the city. Nowadays there is less water, more tourists, and a tacky fluorescent-lit Cistern Cafe. Great mood lighting though...

Inside the Grand Bazaar, one of my favorite places for about 10 minutes. This covered market is one of the worlds largest, with over 4,000 separate shops and about a million visitors a week. Everywhere we walked, Turkish Rico Suave was trying to tell us that while we don't need a new carpet, we also don't need music - an analogy to show that somehow a Turkish rug could make my life more rich.

The Bosphorous River, as seen from the Topkapi Palace. We'd been walking around all day, so we decided to sit outside and order tea service. The teapot of tea came atop a teapot of water, which I assumed was for the heat. But when the tea-man saw me pour a full cup of dark brown tea, he came to show me that in Turkey, the tea is diluted with water before it is drank. Why they don't use a bigger pot and less tea leaves, I do not know.

In this spot we also saw beauty in fashion. One woman in particular, covered in a brimmed head-scarf, looked as if she had been picked out of the Great Gatsby or from a stroll in the park in Victorian England.

Topkapi Palace. Do you think that this was some sort of tilers competition, or leftover flooring that was put on the wall? I think the haphazardness of the different patterns is strange.

On our third night in Turkey, we headed to the otogar, spent $30 for a ticket, and set off on a 9 hour drive to Sofia, Bulgaria. The border-crossing was miserable. A bus full of people herded through cages and offices and on and off and on and off in the middle of the night. On entering Bulgaria, the customs official asked why I was going to Bulgaria. "I am on vacation," I told him. His response: "And you chose to come to Bulgaria?" Hmm, bad sign?
A food market in Sofia.
The former Communist party headquarters.

We only spent one night in Sofia. The lingering taste of Communism and the size of the city made it feel like somewhere you move on from, not somewhere you stay. But highlights from the 24 hours: the hostel accidentally double booked our room, which we found out when a very nice German man woke us up at midnight; outside an old church we came across a flea market selling jewelry and Nazi relics; Sofia has decent Indian food and Dunkin' Donuts; and even though we had a problem with the room, the folks at Hostel Mostel we extremely kind and helped us get on our way to Rila Monastery, a two hour bus ride away.

Rila is a working monastery in the mountains of southern Bulgaria. The nature felt like Vermont - tall pine trees, cold air, wet. We walked the grounds, explored the museum, and shared bread, cheese, and honey (our menu for more than 2 meals).

Our next stop was the highlight of the trip from me. From Rila, we took the bus to a small ski town in the Pirin Mountains called Bansko. We actually took the bus through Bankso. When we realized our mistake, we got off and stood confusedly on a dark street corner in a residential area. Bulgarian hospitality saved us - the second car to drive by stopped and drove us five miles back to the center of the town.

We didn't have any reservations, so we once again stood on the side of the road, confused. A general feeling told me that we should walk down a particular road, which took us to an idyllic intersection of cobblestone streets. A man must have seen us through his window, so he came out to see if we needed help. We said, "Hotel, hotel," and he motioned for us to come inside.

This white-haired gentleman turned out to be the co-owner of a tiny restaurant with his wife Lily. We dropped our bags, sat at one of the four tables and ordered cheap but delicious Bulgarian beer. The fireplace warmed us up. Three young boys, who turned out to be the sons of the chef, sat at one of the other tables. At another, two men were sharing a meal and a drink. One of these men was the son of the owners. He lived in Scotland, was very critical of Bulgaria because of its suppression of business, and liked to talk.

Lily brought us menus, but I don't know why. When I asked for one salad, she insisted that I get another. And for J, she determined that some sort of mixed meat dish was the best. Well, this turned out to be the largest quantity of food that I have ever seen served to one person. He valiantly made it through about a third of the chicken, beef, and sausage. When Lily saw me sip the wine that he had ordered, she brought me out my own glass, on the house. And when we joked to each other, stomachs ready to explode "Want dessert?" she brought out goblets of dried fruit, sugary syrup, and chocolate ice cream.

At some point during the evening, we expressed that we were looking for a place to stay. The Scottish Bulgarian and his friend had a quick chat (in Bulgarian), the friend made some phone calls, and they told us "Okay." They had a place for us to stay for $30. Without really understanding what we were getting into, we agreed. Lily and the friend then helped us get our things together and led us down the street. The accommodations turned out to be a small apartment with three twin beds intended for skiiers. It was comfortable, and in the morning we woke up to an incredible view.
The following day, we took a short hike up into the mountains. Such a nice change from the deserts of Jordan. We hitchhiked back into the town - the second car to pass picked us up.

From Bankso, we took a lumbering 5-hour train ride to the second biggest city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv. Plodiv is a comfortable mix of history and modernity. There are Roman ruins, wide car-free boulevards constructed at the turn of the last century, and an apparently vibrant art scene. We spent one night there, in a room in the eves of a hostel with a three foot ceiling.

And then finally, back to Istanbul, one more visit to the Grand Bazaar, and back to the "real world" in Jordan.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ridiculous Menu

One restaurant, and sooo many things wrong.

A very nice drive into Aqaba as the sun set on Saturday. You can see the Red Sea in the second photo, as well as a little bit of Eilat, Israel on the right.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


There is a small market about 10 yards from the front door of my building that sells necessities, plus a whole lot of candy and cookies. Each time I have gone in, the owner gives me coins from other places. Today, I got a Euro from Spain and 10 dinar from Saudi Arabia.

A Brazillian woman who owns a bikini shop in Aqaba is hosting an event at the Intercontinental Hotel tonight with a swimwear fashion show. This is only acceptible because it is in a hotel. The land of the foreigners is a little less Arabic (thus, I can also wear shorts at the hotel gym). I am getting henna painted on my hand by my work's helper/coffee maker/cleaner/serious lady who I am just starting to crack.

Rather than have an Arabic lesson this morning I went for coffee with my teacher. We had a lovely time, talking about marriage and relationships in Jordan, money and expenses and inflation, and work opportunities.

Speaking of Arabic, I am just starting to put together complete sentences. Some samples of what I can say:
I am hungry. I want to eat please.
Do you want to go?
There are 100 trees.
I am busy.
Are you free?
I am thirsty. I want to drink.
How are you? My name is Katrina. What is your name?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gulf of Aqaba, Wadi Rum, Nawatef Camp, Wadi Ghuweir, Shoubak Castle (and making up for a long blog absence)

The amazing adventures that I've been having during my free time have been keeping me from posting pictures and writing, but I do want to share what I've been up to, so here we go...

To weekends ago, F and I had some visitors down in Aqaba. They arrived on Thursday night, and after a Friday morning stop at Gloria Jean's, we all went down to the Movenpick jetty to boat a glass bottomed boat that took us to Aqaba's South Beach. The air on the boat was such a nice change from the late summer heat. While cruising along, we were able to see the city from a different, and perhaps more idealistic, viewpoint. For the day, we were tourists, snorkeling in the Red Sea, eating lunch that was cooked on an on-board barbeque, and enjoying the company of other travelers (including two kind English gentlemen who were in Jordan on a singing tour). The highlight of the trip for me was diving from the second story roof of the boat, Edgartown Bridge style.

We passed the Aqaba Container Terminal. Watching those huge chunks of metal being moved around so easily reminded me of the Atari game where the hamburgers fell from the sky. (Dan, what was that?)

That night, we met up with a Peace Corps volunteer who is teaching in a small town a couple of hours away. His stories about Jordan contrasted with the peaceful day that we just had - Peace Corps volunteers are paid a wage that is comparative to the local population. They don't have the luxury of exploring a new facet of the country every weekend. I am very grateful that I can afford everything that I've shared here in this blog. (In case anyone is thinking of visiting Jordan - the wadi trips (including lunch and transportation) cost about $50 each. The day on the boat cost about $40, and scuba diving was a little more than $50.)

On the mandatory walk through the market with our visitors, we of course came across some ridiculous JC Penney castoff mannequins. And J, of course, got a photo.

Packing more into the weekend, we went to Wadi Rum the next day. This was where Lawrence of Arabia was based during the Arab Revolt. The rock formation you can see behind the visitor center is called "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom."

Rather than getting a truck to drive us into the desert, we chose to walk about 5 miles to the Rum Village. We passed by a $13/person buffet and had a great lunch at a small restaurant (hummus, bread, tabouli, salad, drinks) for just a few dollars a person. We skipped a camel ride and T bargained a truck back to our starting point for 5JD.

The bargaining went like this:
Guy With Truck: 20JD!
T: Ha! 5JD
GWT: 20!
T: 5!
[GWT then drives away. Wuh-oh.]
Guy With Different Truck: You need a ride?
T: 5JD!

Whew! Ok, keep going.

This past weekend, I met 10 friends from Amman somewhere near the Dana Biosphere Reserve. When I arrived at the Nawatef Camp it was dusk. There was a fire going with chairs all around, glowing lanterns lighting the paths to the goat hair tents, and some very friendly faces there to welcome me (and bring me tea!). Nawatef is perched at the top of a deep canyon and is one of the most serene places that I have ever been, particularly at that time of day.

The next morning, it was just as beautiful.

Friday, we hired a guide to take us through Wadi Ghuweir. The 10 mile hike started at the top of the canyon, and went from sunshine at the top to the shade of the canyon; from a flowing stream to a dry path; from hopping frogs to tip-toeing millipedes. The canyon walls reminded me of marble cake.

I spent a large part of the day talking with a new Iraqi friend who is living in Jordan implementing security training for individuals who will be working in Iraq. I am very thankful begin to paint a mental image of Jordan's neighbor to the east.

The weekend was capped by a trip to Shoubak Castle, or Montreal, a Crusader Castle built in 1115. The best part of the visit was a long tunnel that went from inside the castle, down into the caves, and down down down until it reached a ladder that led up to the street at the bottom of the mountain. There were also stone wheels in one or two of the rooms and what I can only guess were cannon balls.

Next up: more visitors from Amman this weekend and another boat trip since we enjoyed the first so much. And then I am heading to Amman on Saturday and I'll spend next week working, drinking Starbucks, shopping, and other such big-city things.