Friday, October 24, 2014

The Work in Derry

Ask and you shall receive, they say. I do my best to ask, with positivity and faith in the law of attraction, for exactly what I want and once again, it seems to have worked out better than I could have imagined possible.

After a week in Belfast and a far-too-short driving tour through the south west of the Republic of Ireland, I came back to Derry - you can read about the moment of return here.  Derry is a smallish (100,000 people) city in the northwestern corner of Northern Ireland. It’s the only city in Ireland that still has the totality of its’ original city walls standing, and they are some of the best preserved in all of Europe. This beautiful little city reminds me of my hometown Duluth in many ways: people are genuinely friendly, all the important things are easily navigated on foot and the water is close by. It's not a bustling capitol city, but it is full of culture and history. It was actually named the European City of Culture in 2013.

I love it not just because my book happens to take place here. I just got lucky when I picked the setting for the novel.

Derry from the old City Walls

For months I have been saying that I will find a place in Derry where I can settle in and volunteer – clean rooms, wash dishes, give tours, pull weeds, whatever anyone needs – for a bed, as I’ve done in many ways before. For one of the first times in my life, though, I came here truly without a plan. There are a few people out there who know what a big deal this is for me and can imagine why this was a little terrifying.

It only took me about a week of wandering and asking around to unearth a free bed at a hostel, one of the four in town. It turned out to be a pretty simple thing in the end: I knocked on the door, asked if they needed a volunteer for the next few months and they said sure. A few days later I brought my stuff over and made my new bed.

There are six volunteers here right now, probably more than they need this time of the year, but they don’t really loose anything by having more staff around, besides a few pieces of toast in the morning and a little more coffee during the day. It’s a good group too: we all get along and work well together. I’m the only American in the group – the others are all from around Western Europe: Spain, Germany, England. They are working on their English, taking a break from school or work. Two of them are also writers, working on their own manuscripts right now.

I now live on Asylum Road, up the hill from the City Walls and River Foyle, just a five minute walk from the Bogside, where my book takes place. I now work in the house which used to belong to the Warden of the 19th Century Asylum. The house is apparently haunted and the ghost was terrorizing several guests. Some Italians suggested a few years ago that perhaps a blessing would rid the house of the spirit, but several locals also pointed out the residents of the house were likely not Catholic and such rituals might only anger them.

I now live in a house half a block up the hill from the main hostel, where the overflow rooms are. We sleep in the attic – where the help has always belonged, no? – up 50 winding stairs, past windows giving you an increasingly beautiful view of this picturesque little city and the green hills all around. The halls of our building are drafty and our room is chilly in the evenings, but the living room in the hostel is cozy, with a fireplace, TV and couches full of blankets. We only need to clean a few hours a day, even when the hotel is completely full the evening before: with six of us, it is surprisingly quick work changing 45 beds. Everyone has three 5-hour shifts per week. It's a pretty great situation.

The view of Derry from the staircase window.
So I write in the afternoons. 2-4 hours. 1,500-4,000 words, depending on how I’m feeling. Knock on wood, right now I feel an energy and inspiration that I have not experienced since I was 14 years old, frantically writing Catching Dragonflies, my fantasy novel, in my chilly bedroom in Minnesota until well past midnight, consumed and devoted. I always thought that this was an amazing piece of my youth, but I see now that maybe it has to do with opening enough space in my life, as well as being in the middle of a life-changing story, which brings forth a lot of inspiration.  

All in all, the transition between city-hopping, Mediterranean Sun-kissed Katy to sweater-wearing, sitting still and writing in the windy rainy weather Katy has so far been successful. I remain happy and fulfilled, but in totally new and delightful ways.

Derry, looking towards the City Center from the Waterside of the river.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Corners of Ireland

Slea's Head, at the end of the Dingle Peninsula
I have always idealized Ireland, even before I came here for the first time five years ago. I remember being mesmerized as a little girl by the movie The Secret of Roan Inish, thinking about green hills, seals, fishermen and rocky coasts; imagining winter storms knocking eagerly on the doors of thatch cottages. Maybe it is because I am most connected – through the gallant memories and storytelling of my Cashman family – to my Irish heritage. The stories of Edward Cashman coming to the United States and the endeavors of generations of his offspring are well known in the family mythology. We have also managed to keep in touch with our family that stayed in the Old Country, even after several generations. I’m hoping that like many of my relatives, I’ll have the chance to go back down to County Cork and visit the Cashman Farm before I leave.

I wonder sometimes if the deep, homelike feeling I get in my bones when I’m here is a construction of my very-American desire to connect to my nearly-lost ancestry and the idea of coming from somewhere. I wonder if the reason the mists dancing along the rocky coasts of these shores make me ache is that I’m finding my way back to some hidden core of myself, or if I just love this scenery and the energy it gives.

I do know that I am not disappointed with my second trip to the country. Since I arrived on the 1st of the month, I’ve been up and down the island, from Belfast to the Dingle Peninsula, from Derry to Cork, Dublin to Galway. It doesn't matter if it comes from a sense of lost heritage or the fact that this is just an incredible place: I am enamored. Every mile of this place is fill of history, secrets and stories. There will never be enough time to see it all, especially without a car. 

The task of keeping the images of picture-perfect moments fresh in my memory overwhelms me some days here. Walking through the winding streets of colorful villages as the sweet tang of peat smoke rises from the chimneys. Boats swinging and moaning in port, lining streets and market places. Mountains and fields of Connemara giving way to the rocky hollows and ancient graves of The Burren. Slea's Head, where you can stand at the Western-most point of Europe and watch the expanse of the entire North Atlantic Sea from the cliffs of the Dingle fingers. Holding tight to an ancient stone fence, looking out upon lonely islands as they rise and fall in the restless waves while gulls scream madly throughout the air. Dashing through the streets of Galway as an early winter storm breaks against the coast, the wind and the rain racing me to the warm interior of the pub.

Killarney City
Now I am surrounded by the hills and glens of the north: moist and rich with the autumnal colors and full of history, terror and madness. And sheep, of course. There are millions of sheep, white wool and black faces, peaceful and unaware of how they are probably the happiest sheep in the world.

I went for a walk in Ness Woods yesterday with the other volunteers at my hostel. We wandered through groves of trees in a deep valley, along a strong river, making our way to the largest waterfall in Northern Ireland. The trees were flush with vivid fall colors, enough to rival my beloved Northern Minnesota. The cold rain would come down in spurts but then the sun would emerge, calling out the deep hues of everything around us. Soon we’d see a rainbow on the horizon and know more rain was coming our way.

Yes, this wild and colorful homeland of mine is a place I am happy to stay for a while now.
Ness Woods, near Derry, after the rain.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On Arriving in Northern Ireland

For weeks leading up to arriving in Ireland, anxiety crippled me in I way I have not experienced in years. I was awake late and up early with stomach pains, feeling distracted and simply off for the first time in months. I had the vague sense that it was because I was on my way to Northern Ireland without much of a plan besides, you know, achieving a lifelong goal. I was heading into something completely unknown and about to change the pace of the trip entirely.

From my comfy couch in California, 3 months in Northern Ireland researching, writing and living somewhere did not feel like a lot of time at all. It felt half-assed, honestly. I kept wondering if it would be better if I made that more like 4, maybe even 5 months. Now that I stand at the exact middle point of the trip – 13 weeks on the road, 13 more to go – I wonder what the hell I was thinking. I’ve been living out of a suitcase, wearing the same clothes and away from home forever. Three months feels like a very long time from this vantage point.

Traveling through England, I was lonely and exhausted and kind of wanted to back out of all the plans I had made. I was nervous about finding lodging, about people's reaction to my work, about actually doing the work. Which also told me I was onto something: call me a motivational poster board, but I’m pretty sure I subscribe to the idea that if you are not terrified of your goal in some way, you are not dreaming big enough.

But all my terror slipped away as the ferry from Liverpool pulled into the port of Belfast. There was something very romantic about the trip across the English Channel by ferry, watching Ireland rise out of the Atlantic to the west and pulling into that historic harbor of Belfast. I was overwhelmed in a way I had not anticipated: I expected more fear, instead I felt a huge sense of joy and achievement. As the taxi from the port pulled up to the Europa Bus Station I stepped out and sighed with delight: I returned. 

I bought myself a bottle of wine and privately toasted myself and all who have supported me in my hostel room.

When I came to Derry a week later, I walked around the city in glee, relieved that I had correctly remembered so many details, soaking it all in again with delight. It was like eating a fantastic meal, that first day in the city: when you have to keep yourself from rushing because it tastes so good and you know you should savor it, but with each bite you crave the next so strongly. I saved walking into the Bogside for last, my desert, my gift to myself after so many day dreams and plans gone right. As I stood atop the Butcher’s Gate, a place where an important scene in the novel takes place, looking down over the Bogside neighborhood, I gasped, tears welling in my eyes.

I did it. I came back. I allowed myself to stand there a moment and cry a bit. It is important to celebrate ourselves when we come to crossroads like this, I think. This is a big moment for me, as an artist and as a person. 

But arriving truly only signifies the beginning of a lot of work. There is much to get done.

This week I've spent lots of hours in museums and the library, reading and soaking in lots of information and history. It's like taking a refresher course on something you spent your entire college career studying but you haven't really thought about critically for a decade or so: I kept smacking my head and going "Of course! Yes! I remember!" and filling my notebook with dates and notes. The really incredible thing about this region is that no one feels like their story was heard throughout the entire Troubles, so everyone wants to tell whoever will listen, and it's ripe with energy to soak in if you open yourself up a bit.

Each morning I go for a walk through the Bogside, look at the murals, walk up the hill to the city walls, run my hands across them. Maybe I go to the library and read. Maybe I go to a coffee shop and write. I'm trying to reestablish a routine: the most important thing to my prolonged artistic flow. Writing at the same time every day, at least 4 hours. Its slow starting, honestly. But I know where I'm going more clearly than I ever have before, and I'm surrounded with so much new information each day. I just need to keep showing up, I tell myself. 

I have unfortunately realized by picking through what remains of all my past work that I need to start over entirely with a fresh Draft 2. Maybe only a few pages can really be salvaged from the tens of thousands of words already written. With hundreds of pages written over the last 7 years, its a hard truth to face, but it also makes sense - what I have now is jumbled, the style changes often and it's a mess, frankly. Some major ideas need to be cut entirely, continuity needs to be added and in general, I just need to give the whole thing new life. Which is both annoying and a huge relief.

At any rate, one week in the city and I'm giddy and delighted to call this place home. I am still terrified of all the work I have to do, I still struggle with explaining to people my real reason for coming to Derry, afraid to admit the magnitude of the project I'm undertaking, but I'm here, I'm opening my computer each day, and I'm writing, damn it!

The Bogside area of Derry, where my book takes place.

Turkey 3 - The Wonders of the Ancient World

The sunset at the Pamukkale 

We awoke that morning on the deck of our boat in the Mediterranean to thunder on the northern horizon. Above us, the sky was clear as the sun rose and filled in the pale early morning colors of the air. But to the west, over the mountains at the shoreline, clouds were gathering. Groggily, we folded our blankets and sheets, piling our mattresses and covering all the bedding just as the rain began to fall lightly and deliciously. As we pulled away from the dock where we spent the night, breakfast was served and the rain fell just enough to create a full rainbow across the sky, then faded as we arrived at a cove for one final swim before pulling back to shore.

From the Kekova islands we headed northwest along the coast to the small city of Dalyan, a pretty little town along canals leading from a huge lake to the place where the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas meet. Dalyan was probably my favorite city we visited the entire trip, filled with lots of shops, coffee shops and restaurants – and I say that only partly because of a great karaoke and dancing night out we had as a group. There was also really good coffee here.

We took a boat up and down the canals in Dalyan, across the lake ringed by mountains, and to a natural hot springs and mudbath spa. After covering ourselves in sulfuric mud and letting it dry in the sun, we rinsed it off and enjoyed a soak in a hot spring. Back in the boat, we headed toward the Sea, passing spectacularly carved ruins of the tombs of ancient kings along the cliff wall. We enjoyed our final afternoon of swimming in the Mediterranean and caught several glimpses of the local sea turtles, the Caretta Caretta’s. 

The group after our mudbaths
The tombs of ancient kings in the cliffs.
The guide Elif and Erwin dancing for us on our boat ride through the canals 

By public bus, we traveled inland again, arriving in the tourist city built below the giant calcium cliffs that are Pamukkale – “Cotton Castle” in Turkish – and the ruins of the ancient Greek city Hierapolis in the hills above. The cliffs are made from the hot springs which deposit a constant stream of fresh calcium with their hot water, running through several levels of what appear to be pristine tubs washing down the hillside. You can swim in these, as well as walk barefoot up the calcium wall – a feat which takes at least 15 minutes!

Walking down through the pools of hot spring water.
This peculiar phenomena and the apparent healing properties of the waters brought travelers and pilgrims here, and atop the calcium walls are the ruins of the ancient city Hierapolis. Unlike in Greece, in Turkey you can wander through, climb and touch the ruins, making it a much more magical and personal experience. From the steps of temples, hollowed out by millions of people over thousands of years stepping upon them, to the actual marble-lined roads of the city, you get an true sense for what it could have felt like to live in these cities - a special experience indeed.
Hireapolis ruins 
The theater at Hireapolis, which was the most incredible I have seen so far.
The Library of Celsus
But exploring Hierapolis is nothing compared to the grandeur of Ephesus: truly the most superbly well-persevered city in the Mediterranean and Aegean. We traveled to Ephesus the next day and explored the ruins in the hours before the sun was setting – after most of the cruise ships that land and bring hundreds of tourists ever day have left.

In ancient times city was much more crowded than Hierapolis ever was: this was a busy and essential port city, there were many more temples and the political life was much stronger through the Greek, Roman and Byzantine empires. You can see and walk through the ruins of temples to Gods of all kinds, cathedrals, public toilets, bath houses, brothels, the Library of Celsus, marketplaces, a theater and what they think may be the first ever advertisement in the world – for the brothel, of course. Each street is marble lined, with headless statues rising on all sides (it was easier to just put a new head on the statue when a new emperor came into power, so these were the most fragile parts of the statues.)
Walking down the street of Ephesus,
below used to be the harbor.

Mosaic floor tiles remaining from the marketplace
Public toilets - for men only, of course.

The main road of Ephesus, all marble stonework
Before the library of Celsus
In Ephesus there are evidence of hospitals, with the medical symbol we use to this day. You can still see the mosaic floor tiles that decorated the ground before “boutique” shops in the upper class marketplace. There are slabs in public areas with games carved into them – like chess boards in New York City parks. The Library of Celsus is an incredible work of art, covered in detailing, Latin writing and statues.

All that remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders
of the Ancient World.
Ephesus was a very important city in the ancient world: just beyond the city was the ancient Temple of Atriums – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today only a single column still stands and it’s hard to get a feel for the grandeur it once held, but you can go see it for free. It is also claimed that the Virgin Mary and St. John lived here after the death of Jesus, and there is a shrine built around the house they are said to have lived in. 

Wine tasting, as usual.
While visiting Ephesus we stayed in the city of Selçuk, which had plenty of its own tourist attractions to explore and enjoy. There is an ancient basilica and mosque and the ruins of a fort and castle atop the hill in town. The streets bustle with very artsy shops, where very unique Turkish jewelry and souvenirs could be found. Just five miles into the hills is the village of Şirince, a stunning little town with beautiful villas, lots of great wine to sample and plenty of shopping available. 

As the trip was winding down and we were all feeling much healthier than we did at the beginning, each meal felt harder. Every lunch and dinner, Elif would tell us we were welcome to go on our own, but we always met her and as a whole group wined and dined. It was an awesome and interesting group of people. I felt truly lucky to once again find myself inside a dynamic that suited my energy and style of traveling!

The slopped city walls of Troy
On our last night before we traveled back to Istanbul, we stopped at the ruins of Troy – you know, the place with the horse? The whole time I was in Turkey, I felt like people had been saying “Don’t expect much of Troy, there is nothing to see there. You just go because of the story.” Elif promised us a replica horse to play on, but told us not to get our hopes up again and again. I was imagining nothing more than maybe a field with perhaps some old stones nearly disintegrated and close to the ground level. So you can imagine my surprise when we walked up to some fully formed city walls and many layers of buildings. No, it’s not Ephesus, but there is certainly something there - including that horse replica, which is good for a photo-op.

The walls of the city of Troy, probably rebuilt after the fabled events (there is one layer of city remains where it is clear a huge fire caused major damage to the city - this is when they guess the Trojan War took place), but you can see why the Greeks had such a hard time getting into the city: the walls are slopped at a slight angle, making it nearly impossible to knock them down or do much structural damage. 

There is a horse there, and you can climb in it and
pretend to be an ancient Greek, if that's your thing
On our final morning together, we traveled along the Gallipoli Peninsula, an area heavily fought over in doomed battles between Australian and Turkish soldiers in WWI. For the Australians in the group, it was like arriving at Normandy - this was a famously disastrous campaign where thousands of people who had very little at stake in the War, being Turks and Australians, lost their lives over the course of several months of prolonged fighting in 1915. The area is now a huge memorial to all of the troops killed there, both Turkish and Allied Forces. 

Coming back into Europe and Istanbul was hectic - the energy of the city sweeps you right back in. We all spent one last evening together, enjoying rich Turkish food and laughing about those first days of stomach horror. Most of us had early flights to catch, and to a myriad of places around the world, so we headed to bed early, hugging and laughing.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Turkey 2 – Cappadocia to the Mediterranean

On the hot air balloon over Cappadocia, early in the morning.
“Are you alright?” One of the Canadian nurses who’s name I have not yet memorized asks me, sitting down on the bench by my side. I’m squeezing my eyes shut, gently clutching my stomach.

“I’m fine. I’m fine, thanks,” I open my eyes and smile weakly. “It’s just how it goes for me.”

My stomach is the bane of my existence while traveling, especially in countries with massively different diets. I can’t figure out what is bothering it right now, though: I ate very carefully the first few days in Istanbul. So I cruse my bad luck. We’re sitting in the lobby of the bus station, about to get on a 12 hour overnight bus to Cappadocia. And I know that once we get on the bus, we’re all headed straight to the back 17 seats, so I’m worried about my nausea keeping me awake all night as it is.

But it’s only 12 hours. I can do anything for 12 hours, yes?

The pains continue to shoot through my stomach as we settle into our seats on the bus. My roommate Victoria sits next to me, an Australian girl who’s also been traveling through Europe for several months and also come to Turkey after months of dreaming about it. The group I’m traveling with is a diverse mix of Australians, Americans, English folks and Canadians, with one woman from Mexico – 16 of us in total; 2 men and 14 women. We’re all in our late twenties or early thirties. Incidentally the group also contains 4 nurses, one woman who worked as a nurse for 12 years and a hospital administrator, so you'd think if anyone had any health problems, we'd be in good shape.

The bus stops every 2 hours or so for 20 minutes so everyone can use the toilets or get some more snacks. We all sleep shakily, heat blasting on our feet and air conditioning blowing down from above our heads. I curl into several different kinds of balls, contorting and waking myself up when my muscles have clenched any one way too long. The dull ache in my stomach, agitating to shooting pains whenever I move at all, remains the entire night. It’s not quite nausea, and it’s not my normal “something’s not sitting well” pain, which worries me but I try to ignore it as best I can while we're on the bus, counting down the hours.

As the sun rises and we near Goreme, the village we will stay in, our tour guide Elif stands up from her seat, looks back and quiet starts chirping, “kak kak kak! This is how we say ‘wake up!’ in Turkish. Kak kak kak everyone!”

Others begin to moan and twist in their seats as Elif mentions breakfast will be ready for us when we arrive at the hotel. One woman has broken away from our section in the back of the bus, sprawling across several seats as far ahead as she can get, afraid she’ll become ill soon. We arrive at the hotel and everyone collapses and curls up into a chair in the lobby, head in their hands, moaning and groaning at various pitches and tempos.

No one wants, or needs, to know anything more about the stomach virus that took almost every single one of us down on our first day in Cappadocia. It was a bad one, to say the least.

So all I knew of this enchanting, surreal landscape of valleys filled with bizarre “fairy chimneys” was a blur from those last, curvy miles on the bus as the sun rose and the report of a good hike Victoria took with Elif early that afternoon before she too landed in bed, unable to do much by moan and puke for a good 24 hours.

But enough talking about that...

The thing everyone does in Cappadocia is take a hot air balloon ride as the sun is rising. It’s the best way to see the landscapes of the area and it’s probably one of the most unique places in the world to take a hot air balloon ride. This was not included in our budget trip, and I was on the fence, but after seeing photos from the group who took the tour the week before us, I was convinced that if I ever wanted to take a hot air balloon ride, Cappadocia was the place to do it. That night, when Elif came into our room with two plates of plain rice and some Sprite, even though I could hardly sit up without feeling faint and sending pains shooting down my stomach, I rolled off my bed and found my credit card so she could sign me up for the 4:50am ride.

Our views from the hot air balloons over the fairy chimneys and hills.
I honestly don’t know how everyone in the group rallied, nor do I know what our balloon operator thought of us, leaning against the basket, pale faced and dazed, but everyone made it that morning for a spectacular sunrise balloon ride, and some of us even shared in the (nonalcoholic) champagne toast when it was over.

Those of us who were well enough spent the day wandering through the Open Air Museum, a collection of ancient cave churches where some of the first Christians hid their new religion from the Romans. The rock of Cappadocia is relatively soft and these mazes of valleys were perfect hiding places. In the caves are perfect domes, ancient paintings of saints, bodies of the original priests and stone altars. No more than 20 or 25 people could have crammed into each of these tiny holy places at once and with the plethora of tourists moving in and out of each one, it was hard to imagine this being a very solitary hiding place. 

Church carvings and paintings in the Open Air Museum

In the Open Air Museum
We also toured an underground city, another hiding place for the original people of the region – the Hittites – and later the early Christians. The “city” was really a maze of caves and hollowed out caverns where hundreds of people and their animals could hide from invaders for months at a time.

We climbed the “castle” which was more of a fort, filled with rooms and tunnels carved into a tall stone hill for a fantastic view of the entire Goreme and Pigeon Valleys around us. We also got a Turkish rug weaving lesson from a local woman and visited a gallery of artisan carpets, getting to touch and roll around on the difference between a wool and a silk rug. 

The Evil Eye tree overlooking Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia
Rugs on display
Showing us how to make Turkish knotted carpets,
supposedly much more long lasting than Persian rugs.
Perhaps the most interesting adventure of Cappadocia was the very authentic Turkish Bathhouse. I went to a “bathhouse” in Hungary, but my god, I had no idea what this actually meant until I was in a room with 14 other naked women, laid out in marble slabs getting a rub down with rough material to remove all of our dead skin, then a silky soap massage while our Turkish masseuses shouted and laughed around us. Then there was the olive oil rub down and of course the apple tea afterwards. If we were not already intimate because of the stomach flu we had all shared, this certainly brought us close together quickly.

Another free day of hiking and shopping in Cappadocia, and everyone was more or less recovered before a second overnight 12 hour bus ride to Antalya, near the Mediterranean. After a rainy, lazy day in the village of Çirali we woke up early to climb Turkey’s Mount Olympus and see the flaming rocks – a phenomena that is somehow perfectly natural, but totally surreal. It’s not surprising the locals assumed a dragon was trapped under their regional mountain. 

The fiery rocks of Mount Olympus
Finally, we hit the coast, driving along a beautiful, scenic – though curvy – road to a port near the Kekova Islands, where we boarded our private boat, complete with bar, a tiny kitchen from which came the most delicious food, and a top deck where we would spend the night sleeping under the stars. On the boat, we did nothing but relax and lay in the sun, which was pretty incredible. The captain would drive us to one inlet of clear warm, Mediterranean water after the other, let us jump off and swim for an hour or so, then move on to another. 

The Australian girls and I at the front of the boat, enjoying a beer after a swim.
The Kekova Islands.
Our boat home as the sun set.
As we snaked our way through the islands to the port where we spent the night, we passed by the sunken ruins of an ancient Greek port town. As the waters rose in the last centuries, the ruins of the city fell below the sea level centimeter by centimeter, and now there are only skeletons of structures on the cliff walls. But from at the bottom of the sea, if you have a boat that you can look down at what lies beneath the water, you can see shards of pottery, house foundations and other relics of the lives lived along the shores thousands of years ago. 

The ruins of a sunken Greek city.
That night, happy, healthy and sleepy we all lay down on the upper deck of the boat, while Isa from Mexico told us bed time stories, including the Greek myth of how the Aegean Sea got it's name. In the distance, the call to prayer sang through the hills from the village in the port, and the moon rose as a firey red sliver above us. The sky awash with stars, I lay there, thinking about all the roads millions of people have taken over the centuries to arrive here, in the Mediterranean. And here I am among them, all those stories and memories and histories, weighed down the grandeur, and grateful for the chance to be among the waves. 

Turkey - Istanbul

Old friends – or I guess die-hard blog readers, of which I don’t think I have many/any – will know that last summer, I climbed the Inca Trail with an awesome international adventure tour company, G Adventures. I loved my first experience with this company for many reasons: great local guides, good routes and accommodations, other fantastic travelers in the group and a focus on the local peoples of the region. Not just exposing us tourists to locals, but also to making a difference around the world through the company’s nonprofit branch.

Anyway, when I was looking forward to doing this trip, I knew that I wanted to go to Turkey, and not just stop in Istanbul, which I could have done on my own easily enough. I wanted to see Turkey. For many reasons, I was pretty sure as a blonde American girl traveling alone, it would be complicated and difficult to see all of the country the way I wanted to, if not a little dangerous. A good deal at Christmas time ended up pushing me over the edge, and I chose to purchase the 15 day, Turkey On a Budget trip through G Adventures once again.

Man, oh man, am I glad I booked this trip!

I didn’t know much about what to expect in Turkey, besides being drawn to the place that has been at the crossroads of cultures and crux of the ancient world: the place where East meets West, where ancient Christianity thrived and grew, then was replaced by Sultans and Islam for hundreds of years. It’s the Middle East – a region I have always been fascinated by – but with a heavy touch of Europe. A blend I was so excited to experience and explore.

Walking out of the hotel in the historic peninsula of Istanbul, I was immediately enthralled  by all of the colors, the patterns, the textures and the designs. From colorful mosaic lamps hanging in store windows, to heavy tapestries and pillows in the low chairs of restaurants, then all of the colorful tiles covering the walls of the palace and all of the scarves. Throughout this trip, any time I saw something lovely that I wanted to take home with me, like jewelry, scarves and tapestries, I reminded myself 'You're going to Turkey, just wait for Turkey' and I am so glad I did. I stocked up on beautiful things for my body and home, all of it sent home before I left Istanbul at the end of the trip.

The two week tour, which looped around the western side of Turkey, started off in Istanbul. I was so excited to arrive there, and I was not disappointed. But I do remember being taken aback upon arriving; I was not fully mentally prepared for visiting a Muslim country. Walking out into baggage claim in the airport, I found myself tugging the scarf I was wearing from a knot around my neck and laying it across my shoulders, looking at all the heavily-clothed women all around me and worrying at being offensive or insensitive. I soon realized that Turkey’s version of Islam is pretty laid back in comparison to most of the Middle East – religion and rules for behavior based on Islam are not required by the secular state at all, for example – and most of these more conservative women were other tourists form other Muslim countries. Once you leave Istanbul, the amount of women actually wearing the hijab drops, in the western region of the country at least.

Inside the Spice Market, an overwhelming immersion into all the senses.
Istanbul is so many things. It is European, but you can feel the change of cultures and histories inlaid around every street corner. The streets are crowded with the most diverse array of people from all over the world I have ever encountered. Turkish Delight and spice shops sparkle with bright fluorescent lighting, next to holes in the wall selling all kinds of tourist memorabilia. Everywhere you go, there is someone calling out to you “Lady! Yes, please come look!”, “Excuse me, can I ask you a question please?”, “California girl, come and see this!” (How they correctly guessed California more than once I’ll never know because I didn’t stop to ask). And if you’re too polite to walk by without making eye contact you find yourself in a rug shop, with up to five Turkish men unrolling 20 to 30 rugs before you with a flourish, pushing another glass cup of tea into your hands, no matter how much you decline.

From the historic city center, as the streets wind round and round each other and thousands of people shove past, you can look across the main square and see the most impressive Catholic church of the ancient world, the Ayasofia, then turn around to see the Blue Mosque, just as massive and imposing. Their minaret's face each other, and several times throughout the day the call to prayer rings through the streets of the city, a soothing, mysterious routine from the earliest hours of morning until late in the night. 

For a long time both of these structures were mosques, but after Turkey gained independence, the state resorted a few of the spectacular mosaics in the Ayasofia and turned it into a museum, It is an incredible mash-up of the two religions, with the huge signs blessing Allah still hanging, and the intricate images of Jesus, as well as Constantine and other city leaders during the Byzantine Empire have been uncovered and restored on the walls.

The Ayasofia, not the most beautiful from the outside,
but in every way stunning given the time it was built

Inside the Ayasofia - you can see Christian mosaics on the dome,
Arabic words praising Allah and the pedestal from which the Muslim
teachers spoke to the people.
On that Friday afternoon in September, the lines for the Blue Mosque reached around the entire building, passed signs asking tourists not to kiss and for women to please stop and put on scarves and long skirts before entering the building. I ended up visiting the Mosque later, close to the time they were about to close for prayer times. It was a rushed walk, and all of the tourists taking selfies in their head scarves distracted from the beauty and tranquility of the place as it was. 

I learned in Turkey that mosques are possibly the most comfortable places of worship in the world, with spongy, soft carpets and it is totally acceptable to flop down onto them and sit for a few minutes, or kneel and pray. The Blue Mosque is truly incredible: cavernous with spectacular painting and design, lamps hanging from the high ceilings. During prayer times, I'm sure it is a very spiritual special place to pray. 

The Blue Mosque.
Inside the Blue Mosque. There is truly no way to capture
the incredible details of this space, though. 
Then there is the Topkapı Palace – where the elite of Istanbul lived for centuries. Inside the Harem, the Sultan’s private home, there are walls of the most beautiful tiles, raised beds and couches beneath rich tapestries and velvets. It has all the detailing, richness and opulence one would expect, though the signage with information leaves something to be desired. They just finished restoring the kitchens of the palace as well, which used to feed the thousands of people who lived within the palace walls.

A bedroom in the Sultan's Harem at Topkapı Palace 
I didn’t have as much time in the city as I would have liked – I originally thought I had to hurry off to the UK, and bought a plane ticket to London accordingly. Because of this, I never got to see the Asia side of the city, or really much of anything beyond the historic peninsula, which one could wander for a week alone. Between the Spice Market, Grand Bazar, the Topkapı Palace and the plethora of museums to visit, I was enthralled by Istanbul, everything it had been and everything it could be.

Basically, I can't wait to go back one day. But we had other places to get to on our tour, and after a day and a half in Istanbul, we were on the road.