Thursday, July 22, 2010

Plotting an eastern adventure

E (of The Gurly Life) and I are plotting. For some time we have been going back and forth on social networking sites and in person, skating around the edges of an idea: an exploration vacation together!

The more we keep saying it, the more the offhand thoughts begin to form into ideas, and the ideas into plans. Yesterday, on FB, we tossed out some countries.

I said London (for the 2012 games). She said New Zealand. I said Bali. She said New Zealand. I refused to go anywhere where the national language is English. She said Turkey. And I was sold.

I've been to Turkey thrice before. Once, back when I was a travel ingenue. I went on a school cruise (yes a school cruise - 1,500 teenagers between the age of 11 and 16 on a rickety old, Greek cruiser - not as fun as it sounds). It was one of the stops on our Mediterranean educational adventure. The others were Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Rhodes. I was looking forward to Cairo most because of the Sphinx and the pyramids (one of my childhood dreams was to be an Egyptologist!), then Athens because of the Accropolis, then Jerusalem because of the religious mysticism that comes with it, Rhodes fourth because I'd seen pictures and it looked pretty, and Turkey last because, well, what the hell was in Turkey? I was 12. I had NO idea.

Turkey was our last stop before we returned back to Pireus port in Greece. I had not had a fun time in February on the choppy Mediterranean. It was my first time away from home and my parents, and I was on an old, creaky boat,  feeling seasick most of the time, and avoiding the odd food they dished up the rest of the time - burgers with bits of wood in it (WTF!?) and breaded camel; I kid you not, they tried to feed this stuff to English teenagers at a time in the 80s when Pizza Hut was considered exotic! I still remember using the pound coins my mother had sewn into the lining of my suitcase (because we were only supposed to take so much money and our teachers were supposed to hold onto it for safe keeping and ration it day-by-day - yeah right!) to purchase bars and bars of Milka chocolate from the gift shop. Me and my cruise buddies would sit in our tiny, wood-paneled cabins that shook as the engines toughed-out the rough seas, and devoured those bars of candy as if they were lifelines. I'm probably the only person who went on vacation, ate chocolate for every meal, and lost weight. I also wrote sorrowful postcards back home to my mother and father, and worried them sick - a story my mother still loves to tell from time-to-time.

I remember being disappointed at every port of call back then, although now, knowing what I know about travel and having seen what I've seen, I realize that I was looking at the wrong things, scared as I was to be somewhere so different and without my parents.

Athens was dirty and busy and a mess. We didn't get to go up the Accropolis, in fact our visit to the city was reduced to a bus tour on our way to Pireus port to meet up with the cruise. Cairo was even dirtier and busier and more messy. It smelled funny and it wasn't a wonder - I still remember seeing a man openly urinating on the center divide of a busy street, from my tour bus window. The Egyptian tour guides were all over us too, in a way that a twelve year old girl with light hair just couldn't brush off. They grabbed for us as we stepped off the tour bus at Giza and tried to get us to leave our group to take private camel rides with them. We had been warned about a girl who had been separated from her guide group a month or two before, and had been raped by an Egyptian man in one of the secret passageways of the pyramids, so we were all scared of the strangely dressed and rank-smelling men. In fact, because of that event, we didn't even get to go into the pyramids, we only took pictures from the outside. It was also strange and odd that Giza was on a hill just above the outskirts of Cairo itself. Somehow I had pictured the great icons standing alone on a barren field of sand dunes. Overall, I was underwhelmed.

Jerusalem was intriguing but scariest of all. We went to the Wailing Wall and soldiers barred our entrance, towering above us, unsmiling in green uniforms and with rifles slung over their shoulders. I'd never seen a real gun before that day (yes, that's the reality of living in England, folks - guns of any kind are not an everyday reality) and so I remember my heart almost leaping out of my mouth. It added to the otherworldness of everything around me - the spices that sweat-out from everyone you passed, the sounds of discordant music, the domed skyline that seemed to vibrate with the heat and the tension, and the soft sounds of moaning from those at the wall. I did get to see the places where Jesus was purportedly born and laid to rest after the crucifixion. Despite not being religious now or then, those places and images still stick in my memory like photos on the wall. The sense of history, of gravitas, was awe-inspiring, even back then when I didn't really understand or appreciate such things properly.

And then we cruised into the port of Kusadasi on Turkey's Aegean coast slowly one sunny morning, on calm seas. I still vividly remember standing on the deck of the ship alone while everyone else ate breakfast, watching us pull into the harbor. Kusadasi was prettier than the other ports we had sailed into, the landscape more hilly and the buildings a pretty white, less decayed, and standing out like little Lego blocks on the green hills. I hadn't given Turkey a second thought, in fact I was looking forward to getting it over with so we could return home, but I knew right then that I was going to like it. In fact, I loved the place.

The people seemed kinder and friendlier, for a start. Whether that was because I was more accustomed to "foreign-ness" by then, or because this was a country at peace with it's eastern religions and westernized society, I couldn't tell you now; my perception is clouded from having visited so many other new places since. Certainly, they still pulled at you (verbally and physically) to visit their shop, and the men still eyed you or reached out sometimes to touch your light hair, which was unsettling. This was still the Turkey before Turkey became a popular European beach destination and so this group of cute, tweenage girls with their long, light locks, were just as new to them as they were to us. Yet, it did feel safer there.

Still, what grabbed me most about Turkey was it's startlingly fascinating history (the Greeks, the Huns, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Romans all conquered, ruled, or attempted to conquer the country), and the large number of well-preserved and fascinating historical sites that are still standing as a result. While we were there, we visited Ephesus, which to this day is still the MOST AMAZING historical site I have ever been to, and was the one place I ended up talking about the most when I returned home. Yup, that's right - Cairo, pyramids, sphinx, Jerusalem = meh. Ephesus = WOW! I also loved the town of Kusadasi, with it's mixture of beach-vacation, eastern-flavored bazars, and historical sites.

Not two years later I persuaded my parents, who had yet to travel on an airplane, to take me back to Kusadasi. We re-visited Ephesus and then an amazing place called Pamukkale, a hillside of calcium baths which has to be seen to be believed. My parents also fell in love with the Turkish hospitality and my Dad almost sold me to a young Turkish waiter for a camel. (A story for another time.) Then, not four years after that I returned with my boyfriend at the time and did it all again. (Aside from the selling me for a camel thing... my boyfriend at the time thought I was a keeper!)

It is not an exaggeration to say that my passion for travel, for going somewhere so completely out of my comfort zone, outside of my culture and beliefs, was born in Turkey. So it holds a very special place in my heart.

Yet, I have still only seen a small slice of it. A sliver. Just the portion that borders the Aegean Sea. One of my top ten list of places to go before I die is Istanbul and so I hope that E and I can pull this trip together a couple of years from now because it would be wonderful to check that one off my list and return to the place that made me who I am today: a travel-crazed suburban mom, just waiting to break out of her 9-5 cage at the first opportunity.

1 comment:

e said...

Far be it from me to keep you in your cage! Turkey it is. I think we will take, between, 10,000 photos. At least. Flickr will have to add a new membership category, and they will call it Oh For God's Sake!

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