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A few random thoughts from my trip to Turkey:

Traffic – Seeing the traffic of the city completely stopped or moving at a crawl makes me thankful I don’t have a car so I don’t have the option to try to drive.

Turkish Men – I’ve read about them being sleazy, assuming a woman traveling alone is a whore… But I was unexpected by just how sleazy a couple of them I came across were.

Istanbul a Second Time – It’s an easy city to navigate, but by the time you are doing it a second time, the trams, metro, streets, and airport are a breeze.

Just Ask – If I was asked what I learned from this trip, I would sum it up in the two words: just ask. From asking for peanut butter, to getting an earlier bus, to getting on an earlier flight, to finding the trail, to getting warmed rolls on a flight when you missed the meal, to getting to sleep in a tent, to skipping the sales pitch at the end of a tour… You just don’t know what is possible if you don’t ask. Remember, typically the worst that can happen is they say no, but I only have 2 examples of Nos from the trip.

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Personally, I think that people in the West are way too modest, myself included. We encounter so many depictions of model-like bodies that it’s difficult to simply enjoy and embrace the skin we’re in. I try to push myself to do some of those uncomfortable activities, which I think will help me align my personal philosophy with my mindset.

So even though I knew it would be weird, I was looking forward to visiting a hamam, or Turkish Bath. Lots of people just getting clean. However, I was really worried about the whole “scrubbing” portion because I have very sensitive skin. (I also talked with another traveler who reported that the “peel,” as it was called, was torturous to him.)

I went to a hamam in Antalya on an off day, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I could pick which things I wanted to have done. There is a steam, scrub, soapy massage, and oil massage. Thankfully, I was able to avoid the scrub!

After paying, I went into the women’s portion of the hamam, where two women were waiting. I went into a changing area, coming out in a towel and clogs, and then the nice lady, who didn’t speak any English, led me to the steam room. She took my towel and dumped small buckets of water over me. Then she showed me how to lay down on the marble, to embrace being naked in the steam room. I was both thankful to be alone but a little disappointed not to see lots of women gossiping around me. After the steam, I had the most interesting soapy massage. First, soap is slippery enough without trying to lay on a marble table while a woman is pushing and pulling you. Second, it was by far the most thorough massage I’ve ever had… Then she dumped about 10 buckets of water over me and then motioned for me to continue with another 40 or so. Then she led me to the outside area where I had a nice cup of apple tea (cider). By this time, I’m feeling pretty ok with removing my towel and getting onto a normal massage table for the oil massage, but I’m still confused by the fact that she never shut the door of the small massage room (which opened to the entrance of the hamam). I suppose it was  so she would know if someone came in, but somehow naked people seeing me seems very different than clothed people.

Overall, it was a great experience. I was there a little over an hour and came aware feeling extremely relaxed and just a little bit more comfortable in my own skin. I will definitely try it again!

Note: after my experience and talking with others, I encourage you to definitely go to a smaller hamam outside Istanbul to have an authentic experience, to avoid paying exorbitant rates, and to avoid being pushed for extra services and tips.

As anticipated, I spent a few days in Istanbul and then traveled to Cappadocia to hike around the beautiful environment and see the underground cities.

Then I took an overnight bus to Antalya. (Note: worst bus experience with two children throwing up, windy roads, continual picking up and dropping off passengers despite being “express”, lights on, attendants grabbing back of seat, etc.)

Personally, I didn’t care for Antalya (and felt oppressed by the humidity), but from there, I took a dulmus to see Termessos.

While it was difficult to get to, it was exactly the kind of hiking and exploring I really enjoy, and absolutely beautiful.

Then I bused to Fethiye, which was another beautiful ride. I didn’t spend any time in Fethiye except to catch a dulmus to a tiny spot another traveler recommended called Kabak. When I arrived there, I hike 25 minutes down into the valley…

to get to the small cabins and tents, where I would stay.

This place was just the kind of thing I enjoy (totally appealed to my hippie side), but it was fairly lonely compared to my evenings spent in hostel dorm rooms.

Then I went to Sakilikent Gorge, which seemed fairly similar to Zion National Park, but with only one major river crossing to navigate.

After so many bus rides, I learned of a small local airport (again, from another traveler) and decided to splurge and fly back to Istanbul, spending my remaining days there, rather than 2 days on a bus.

At the Grand Bazaar, I was looking at some old copper and silver jewelry, when the shop keeper offered me tea or apple tea. As part of my attempt to take it easy and talk to people, I asked him what apple tea is. He said it’s a Turkish tea. Intrigued, I said I would try it. When it came, I realized that it’s essentially what we call apple cider (what an improvement on all of this tea being drunk!) The shopkeeper and I exchanged pleasantries. He was astonished that I live in Kabul, and I learned that he is an Afghan, who has only been in Istanbul for the past 10 months. I was excited to show off my limited Dari with him and to hear how he came to Istanbul, since it’s fairly difficult for Afghans to get visas. (At more than one time, I’ve learned that someone I interact with (like a guard or driver) has lived in other countries as an illegal alien for awhile before returning to Afghanistan because it is too difficult &/or boring there, where they can’t work and are away from family.) The shopkeeper told me that he is staying with his brother, who has another shop in the bazaar and has been living and working in Istanbul with his family for the past 10 years. Then he introduced me to his nephew, who I learned is 7 years old and more than happy to correct me on my pronunciation of colors in Dari.

On the way to the Kabul airport, I started feeling a little down. I can’t pinpoint exactly why. It seemed to be some combination of feeling like I’m leaving my “home” while listening to a melancholy song the driver had tuned the radio to. As I was noticing this feeling and telling myself I was being silly, I saw a vehicle drive by in the other lane that changed my mood completely.

In the past 3.5 months in Kabul, I’ve seen just about everything possible packed into or being lifted out of the trunk of a car. It’s very common to see a car pilled to the roof with the traditional Afghan nan (bread). One day, I saw a car piled high with a light-colored squares about 4″x7″. At first glance, I thought they were squares of cheese, but then I was informed that they were sponges (like the kind you see when the cheerleaders are raising money by doing a car wash). When driving along Butcher St., it’s common to see a huge leg of beef sticking out, with a couple plastic sacks laid down to protect either the meat or the floor of the trunk.  Similarly, I’ve seen an entire lamb being pulled out of a trunk. About a week ago, I saw some men lifting a full-sized refrigerator out of the back of a car (with the seats down).

And today, on the way to the airport, I saw a car coasting at almost 40mph with the trunk completely open, and 2 men were sitting inside the trunk facing each other.

After 3.5 months, this place still makes me smile.

I have come full circle through Turkey, returning to Istanbul to fly back to Afghanistan (to include another long layover in Dubai) tomorrow. It has been a good trip. Unexpectedly, I did not miss guards, translators (ok, honestly, I did twice), dust, guns, or long sleeves. (I gotta say that on 3 separate occasions in the past 2 weeks I was asked by a Turk how my skin is so white! How do I explain that my typically white skin turns practically ghastly translucent without sunlight on it for 3.5 months?)

I have not had much time at the hostel computers (or I have stayed places without computers) so I have been making some blog notes in my notebook, which I will add for your viewing in the next week. As a few general observations, I can definitely understand why so many people like Turkey.

Istanbul, where many travelers never get beyond the Old City of Sultanahmet, is exactly what a lot of people are looking for:

  • It has lots of interesting historical and cultural sites within a short distance of each other (Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia, Cisterns, etc).
  • English is by far the most prevalent language spoken (at times, it felt like Prague because of the language, without quite the same exorbitant prices).
  • There is a general carnival atmosphere, with street vendors selling everything from traditional snacks to corn on the cobb (I do not recommend; it is not the sweet variety) and cotton candy.
  • And of course, there are plenty of places to shop; something not to be underestimated when it comes to tourists.

While I enjoyed seeing some of the sites, I was ever thankful that I was traveling by myself. I could go at my own pace and seek out the items that interested me.

My thoughts on the rest of Turkey will have to wait until I am at my computer (thankfully, with my own keyboard, which does not have all of these strange keys, ı ş ç ö ğ ü € £ ½, in the way of my typing).

I’m headed to Land of the Turks today. Everyone that I’ve talked with raves about the bazaars, beaches, culture, geography, history, sights, etc. More than one person told me that it doesn’t really matter where you go because everything in Turkey is worthwhile. (Can any place meet that kind of praise?)

I haven’t planned any more of my trip than in my last post. I’ll be spending some time in Istanbul, followed by Cappadocia, and then I’ll decide what’s next when I’m there.

I think it will be very disconcerting for me. No guards, no translators, no drivers dropping me off exactly where I need to be, no exact plan of where I need to be when, no daily workout, no one else worrying about my safety, no house mates with their strange quirks, no weekly work reports.

Still the change will be good for me. I look forward to exploring without any specific schedule. To fresh air. To walking until my legs are sore. To trying new foods. To spontaneity.

But first, I need to pack…

Whew! The month of abstaining from food, drink, cigarettes, and everything else people enjoy during daylight hours is almost over.

Normally, we hear the call to prayer 5xs/day, but this month, in additional to the call to prayer, there are lengthy readings of the Koran and mullahs shouting something that sounds similar to “hell, fire, and brimstone” at all hours of the day. I’m not sure if they turned the volume up on the loud speakers throughout the city, or if the mullahs are simply becoming more animated as the month progresses. Whatever the cause, it has become much more difficult to tune out.

Another thing that changed during Ramadan is the tv. This month 75% of the channels depict a mullah reading from the Koran or doing some form of preaching. The remaining 25% of the channels are news or educational (like animal planet and discovery channel). Almost no music videos, no movies, no reruns of Law & Order…

Working hours have also changed drastically. Most government staff work until 1pm (and since many of them take buses, they are really leaving around 12:30), making it very difficult to get much work done. Most contractors work until 3 or 3:30. The national staff finish their day at that time, while the internationals go to other office spaces or work from home to finish out their required 8 hrs.

I’ve been able to keep from drinking/eating from breakfast to lunch while I’m in the office, but I feel dehydrated just doing that. It is particularly difficult on days that I present information or run meetings. The Afghans have definitely been crankier during this time, and there were a couple short fuses that blew up (feelings were hurt, people were offended, voices were raised). But now, with only a few days left, everyone is smiling (and no one is concentrating on work) because they are preparing for the big Eid holiday.

Much of my job feels like a game. It’s a problem solving game similar to chess where you try to think several moves ahead for different pieces. The difference in this game is that there are a lot of squares that are actually bogs or quicksand and extra pieces that appear out of thin air.

This morning our team was scheduled to conduct an interview at 10am.

Thursday, I met with the members of the team who are working with me to prep for the interview. I learned that one of the guys is about to leave for vacation/marriage and will be out for 5 weeks. So then I went about getting one of the other staff members assigned to our work. It took several discussions (and running after my counterpart when he would say “1 minute” and walk out) to get another staff member assigned. Then we tried to have the prep meeting, only to find that the newly assigned staff member had already left for the day. I did the prep with the other two. Then I arranged for another translator to attend the interview today because my translator had a prior commitment. I also made sure that another vehicle would be available for the group of us attending the interview.

This morning, I learned that the translator wasn’t available, but luckily, there was another one who could substitute in. I talked with the new staff member to try to get him up to speed for the meeting since he missed the prep Thursday. Then I learned that someone from management had taken the car that was arranged. So I went about trying to get another vehicle. Once that was secured, I tried to get everyone gathered and ready to go (always the phrase “herding cats” comes to mind). Some of us loaded up into my vehicle and left for the interview. We actually arrived at the ministry early (bc traffic was lighter than usual). But we couldn’t find the staff from the other car. Then we learned that the guy we were there to interview was gone to another ministry and might be back soon. We waited. After 25 minutes, I called the guys in the other car. They were stuck in traffic, still far away. Then we learned that the guy we were going to interview would in fact not be back soon. I decided we would interview another person in the office. I started the interview, and after 15 minutes, the guys from the other car showed up. But there were enough chairs. Apparently, there are no extra chairs in this ministry. So after some back and forth, we ended up moving to another office with a conference table. After about 10 minutes, the guys from the other car stopped taking notes or paying attention to the interview (despite the fact that this is very important information and they will have to lead interviews later this week). It’s Ramadan (so they aren’t eating or drinking during the day) and their normally short attention span has reduced to practically non-existent. I continue the interview, trying to keep up with the circles that the process is taking and make sure the new translator understands what I’m trying to ask. And at the end of the interview, one of the guys says to everyone in dari that the whole hour was practically a waste of time.

So while I came away feeling I got some good information (despite all of the numerous setbacks), none of that matters if I haven’t built their capacity far enough for them to recognize good information when they see it.

Check.

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