Turkey

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Eighteen months ago my partner and I made a decision.  We’d give ourselves one more year working and saving in London before loading up our bikes and cycling around the world.  Excitement, madness, months of planning and getting used to life in ‘technical gear’ ensued. And it was with a generous stash of lycra, a large dollop of vaseline and two very big smiles we set off in June 2014.

Our first days peddle took us North for our ferry to Holland.  The journey across Europe and getting used to life on a budget of $15 per person per day, took some adjusting. Though cycling is at the heart of our relationship and hitting the saddle each morning not knowing what lies ahead, is undoubtedly what keeps us moving.

It was a rainy first couple of months and with me having Coeliac Disease it means most meals have to be prepared and/or cooked.  Rain, wild camping and using a methanol stove can be a killer combination that, on occasion, pushes one to the limit.  But this was, and is, our choice. We love it for all the sparkly and soggy bits in equal measure. So eight months on we’re feeling blessed with each turn of our pedals.

Cycling touring is a popular past time and each rider approaches it in their own way.  We chose to keep off the beaten track. Our route has taken in some incredible and isolated mountain ranges from the Bavarian Alps in Germany to the Carpathians in Romania and the Staraplanina Range in Bulgaria.  But we were delivered a warm buttery slice of heaven when our wheels rolled into the Tauras Mountains in Central Turkey.

In the edited words of Forest Gump ‘The Taurus Mountains are like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re going to get’.  Be it her crystal clear mountain lakes of Egridir and Beyşehir, the snow capped peaks and plains of her central range or the ever present troglodyte dwellings that pot the mountainsides from the moment you’re in her company.

By the time we arrived at the Western edge of the range it was late October and winters grasp was starting to tighten.  Our ascents were taking us beyond 2000m and we often found ourselves cycling through icy mist clouds on peak passes. Using every layer of clothing to stay warm was sometimes not enough and on one such pass I suffered a bout of hyperthermic shock.  We stopped and as my vision began to fade I hit the foetal position on the side of the road, my limbs feeling empty and drained. No sooner had my head met the gravel, my partners voice bellowed me back to reality. A couple of Marathon bars and some vigorous body warming got us back on track. You never know what mother nature has in-store. But it’s moments like this, when you have to push on in the face of adversity, that you feel most truly, and literally, alive.

The end of the Taurus range meets the Unesco Heritage plains of Cappadocia.  It’s very hard to express the magic, energy and sheer beauty of this region.  The earth is made from solidified volcanic ash deposited thousands of years ago.  And in line with the rest of central Turkey, this soft rock has been carved out by both nature and humans to form the most fantastical structures and dwellings.  From the underground city of Derinkuyu, that at it’s peak held 20,000 inhabitants in a series of chambers up to 100metres underground, to the Red Valley scattered with churches and temples her entire length to the mesmerizing fairy chimneys and overground cities carved into the faces and roots of mountains.

Our journey from the start was a brave decision. To step away from everyday lives and open ourselves up to the world in all its colour. Getting a bashing from the Taurus giants left me questioning the sanity of the trip but being humbled by their majesty and power gave me the strength to go on. We were left speechless by the resourcefulness of the human species in harnessing nature as their home in the foundations of Cappadocia. In hindsight, my hypothermic episode paled in comparison to the vastness of what we as a people have, and can achieve. As we pedal on these memories will continue to inspire us to be brave, bold and perhaps just the right amount of crazy.

Anything is possible and we must strive to find our limits in order to better understand who we are. For us this is built around our tent, two bikes, a tight budget and a heart bound for exploration, all propelled by the everyday wonder of nature and the adaptability of the human race.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Fifteen hours – for some, it sounds like a horrendously long bus ride from Skopje, Macedonia to Istanbul, Turkey. Yet, it was the shortest bus ride during my six-month solo backpacking trip in China and Southeast-Central Europe.

Six months ago in early March this year, I quit my well-paying job in Malaysia and packed my bags to set out on a grand adventure (that was what I envisioned). To cut a long story short, I felt more alive than ever except for a few hiccups here and there along the way.

Three weeks before my flight from Istanbul to return to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, my family and friends’ worries became reality. When it happened, all I can say was ‘Perhaps, Lady Luck ain’t smiling down’.

It wasn’t a case of getting mugged. The painful near-rape experience in Kosovo ruined my trip and became a nightmare. It happened too quickly and I was shocked.

Since I was due to return home soon, I did not want to cause trouble and left for Skopje early morning after the traumatising episode. The incident didn’t dawn on me until a few days later when I realised what happened. I hated myself because I did not lodge a police report.

Being alone on the road meant I could not share it with anyone because I felt too embarrassed. I made numerous Skype calls back home and cried secretly in the hostel.

Finally, I have to leave and travel to Istanbul for my flight back home soon. Sobbing quietly during the 15-hour bus journey, I couldn’t wait to reach my hostel in Istanbul just so I can hide and do not have to face the world. Last minute change of plans, when I found two couchsurfing hosts in Istanbul.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, I was clearly wrong. Another traumatising episode happened on this Wicked Wednesday, exactly a week after the first incident. As my first host stayed far from the city centre, I had to take two buses to reach his house. On the way, as the bus that I was in, stopped some 100 metres away from a pedestrian bridge, a terrifying accident happened.

Before it happened, I was trying hard to hold back my tears in the public. As I was looking out the window to my left, I saw a truck rammed into the pedestrian bridge with a loud ‘Bang’ and it collapsed. A few people fell from the bridge.

The accident was shocking and it was the last straw that pulled me down. I started crying in the bus that caught the attention of the driver and other passengers. Some offered me bottle water and tried their best to console me. They were strangers, but their acts of sincere kindness gave me reassurance that there are Good Samaritans out there.

When I finally reached my destination, I felt depressed. It was in the outskirts and all I did was starved myself and cried. I left after two days when I sensed negative vibes from my host. I was sceptical to meet my second host after the not-so-happy encounter with the first host.

The first meeting with my second host wasn’t as smooth as I had expected. I could not control myself and started crying when he, Serkan, came over to greet me. He was afraid and concerned at the same time. Minutes later, I met another couchsurfer, Kristina from Germany, and then, we took a cab back to Serkan’s place. Again, I cried when Kristina exchanged greetings with me.

Little did I know, they changed my perception on how I viewed the traumatising incidents. As I could no longer hold back my emotions, I poured my hearts out to them. Understanding perfectly describes Kristina, while, Serkan is generous and warm-hearted.

They persuaded me to eat, to the extent of looking after me whenever they are around especially Serkan. Days after ‘torturing’ myself through starvation and self-blaming for what has happened to me, I decided to put an end to it.

Both might not realised how their simple actions can bring me tears of joy but I found peace and serenity whenever they are around. While millions throng to Istanbul for the glitzy Grand Bazaar and historically beautiful Hagia Sophia, Istanbul is different to me.

A simple act of giving me bottle water, Kristina passing me a packet of tissue and Serkan’s heart-warming words of ‘I just want to help’ meant a lot to me. If it weren’t for their unbelievable generosity, I might be crying home onboard in the flight back to Malaysia. Istanbul is the place where I broke down in front of strangers and also, learnt to accept the past.

Picture: The balcony (I cried here) overlooking other apartments in Koca Mustafa Pasa in Serkan’s house.

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I left the U.S. on August 1 for a grand adventure.  Many thought I was foolish.  Others thought I was unique.  Some told me that they were a bit jealous.  And, a few saw me as just plain crazy (including myself, at times!).  There have been those who support my journey and those that dismiss it.  However, for me, this trip has been more than seeing amazing things and meeting incredible people—it has been a chance to remember who I am again.

Perhaps, I lost myself a bit in shuffling papers, endless meetings, and making lists of local parking garage rates for my superiors.  Maybe, it was in all of the negativity that I heard from many of my “friends,” particularly on social media, about everything I worked for while in politics.   It could have been some of the uncomfortable moments during which I lost respect for many of those that I should have admired and looked up to.  Or, maybe it was just the days filled to the brim with things to do that were never actually accomplishing much of anything.  While there were moments of me in the midst of this, I feel that they were fleeting and overpowered by everything else that swirled around me.  Life seemed to become one long to do list that I never made much headway on.  

Making the decision to go was not an easy one.  I had what seemed to be a good job.  I had real friends who I was sad to part with.  I lived in a city that I loved.  My family wasn’t too far away.  I had built a good life for myself.  But, it wasn’t enough.  There were too many things that I was not satisfied with.  There were too many days that I felt were wasted.  There was something more than the life I was living.  And, knowing this, how could I stay?  Despite the difficulty in leaving, I knew that something had to change.

Flash forward four months…  Life on the road has been far from life in the U.S.  The longest that I’ve stayed anywhere in the past few months as been seven nights (and that only happened once) and usually it’s just two nights before I’m off to the next place.  Every day is a challenge.  Nothing is easy.  But, life is amazing.  While I don’t experience a life changing moment each day, every day I’m inspired.  Some days by natural wonders.  Other days by ancient ruins.  And, many more, by the kindness and compassion of the people around me.

Rather than traveling to find myself, this journey has enabled me to remember who I am.  I am freckle-faced dreamer who loves adventure and can’t stay in one place for too long.  I love life on the road, not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next.  I love photography and trying to capture just a moment of all that is wonderful (and not so wonderful) in the world.  I love to be surrounded by those who are defying norms and changing the world and doing what I can to be a part of their work.  I love to be “in the field”, side by side with those who are thinking of new ways to challenge poverty and injustice in our world.  I love spending every day with the person I love—from sunrise to sunset, when I’m at my best and when I’m at my worst.  In all of this, I remember what it is to be alive.  To be a part of the human race.  To be fighting for a better world for all of us.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for so many things and also sad that I am not with my family and friends in the U.S. who do mean so much to me.  But, most of all, I’m thankful for this opportunity to travel the world and thankful that it has helped me to remember who I am.

Happy Thanksgiving from Turkey,

Foreign Loren

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One Thousand and One Travels

 

In July 1994, “tarmac” wasn’t a word I knew. I called it “the magic carpet main station,” as every plane had to start there if it wanted to go for an air ride.  I was eleven years old, on my own, and vastly excited as I walked down the jet bridge. Magic carpet would take me from Istanbul to New Jersey, with a brief break in Germany. Once in the United States, a guy I had never seen in my life was going to pick me up and take me to summer camp. I was to spend a month with American kids.

 

In Germany, airline crew took me to children’s playroom. After a while, I, the shy princess who had never left her palace before, calculated the time difference, checked the flight time, and realized something was wrong. I walked up to the woman in charge and told her in English that I needed to be taken to America.

 

“Don’t worry,” she said smiling. “You have time.” She checked my ticket and her cheerful smile left her face. She made calls, yelled in German and soon another woman grabbed me by my arm. We ran on long corridors with carpets that had nothing to do with fairy tales.

 

Then I was on the flying carpet again. The excitement. The giant grin. The anticipation. When the ride ended in Jersey, there was no one around to pick me up.  I went to the information desk and asked to announce Jeff Summers – a name I’ll never forget. Within a minute, a tall, handsome Jeff appeared. He looked like a prince; I wished I were older.  

 

Camp opened my eyes. I learned wall climbing. I hiked in the woods and slept in a tent. I saw it was okay for girls to be in tiny shorts and I realized it was okay for a twelve-year old, green-eyed Ethan to ask me out. I learned how to be on my own in the world and how things always turned out fine. Like in the legend, for those who trust, the wind always follows the carpet.

 

I’ve since been on a plane at least a hundred times. And it still is nothing short of magic. I spent years in the United States. I studied in Spain, then in Germany.  I went to Costa Rica for language school. I showed up in Hawaii with no travel plans. I went to Cambodia and saw real poverty. Then I went to Singapore and saw extreme posh. I flew to Latvia, Slovakia, followed by Hungary, then Czech Republic. I went west to Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. I went to Italy. I visited many cities in Turkey, including poet Rumi’s abode. I attended nights of mystic religious chanting led by women in red veils and red lipstick.

 

Through many carpet rides, wonder-by-wonder, I absorbed the American zest for life’s pleasures, the Buddhist contentment, the Israeli courage, the European culturedness, the Middle Eastern hospitality, and the Latin American amor… all on the go. Like lovers Aladdin and Jasmine’s song goes: “a whole new world… through an endless diamond sky.” Traveling is personal revolution in disguise. If we want a peaceful world, if we want our hearts to be like diamonds, we must travel.

 

I’m my spiritually most flexible, clearest self on the tarmac. It is the main station of many tales and it makes me feel strong, hopeful and free. I’ve sat next to religious Iranian men, Orthodox Jews, young people, old people, an opera singer, an NGO person, businesspeople, devout Christians, atheists, punks, veiled women… I’ve sat next to all kinds of wonderful people on the tarmac. I’ve also sat next to my Aladdin.

 

In our everyday, seemingly non-magical lives, many of us turn money into a convenient excuse. If you want to go, just grab your can-do attitude and go. Work in a farm in New Zealand. Teach English in Japan. Bartend in Costa Rica. Volunteer in Africa. Live in an ashram in India. Ask your company to transfer you to a branch abroad! Just go! Every turn is a surprise.

 

The world is a boundless place and it is such richness that we’re all so different from one another. The tarmac is the real red carpet and we are all celebrities. Put your best spirit on and get going! What are you waiting for?

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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The Long Road Towards the Inevitable

Tomorrow you’ll wake up realising that all your hopes and promises of happiness are not there. The comfort of a house, a pair of loving arms and the job are gone. As well as the emotional balance and self-esteem. Everything vanished a month ago when your now ex-husband shut the apartment door on the last day of your life in common. You know that all those things have been slowly disappearing along the last 10 years but now you have the perfect person to blame.

Then the weight of emptiness takes in. You feel it in your shoulders as if you were carrying a backpack full of rocks. You want to run away. Maybe quit. But go where? Quit from what? You start regretting every choice you’ve made in life. Because all of them led you to the unbearable being you are now.

You regret the 11 year-old you dreaming about becoming a famous writer. You were the shy little girl who valued the company of written words. While your colleagues made fun of your loneliness, you felt relief in words. They wouldn’t disappoint you.

Until the day you had the courage to show your writings to an adult. A friend who’s opinion you valued. After a quick reading, she gave her sentence: shallow, amateurish. You were devastated. You don’t regret you showed her your work. You regret having believed her to the point of quitting writing for several years.

As you regret when you realise that this was only the first of many times you putted your writing aside just because someone made you believe that what you do isn’t of much value. “Being a writer is not a profession” has been the repeated mantra from people around you. You heard it so many times that you believed in it. Now you know that your insecureness is what you regret the most.

An insecureness that empowered others opinions over your will. You start letting go of your dreams believing that happiness could be in a place where you cannot be judged.You also end up quitting travel after someone telling you that this kind of life doesn’t fit the normal patterns of society. You choose normality. A job. A career. The harder you try to fit in the less normal you feel.

Believing that something might be wrong with you, you quit your job. You start your own business. It doesn’t take long to realise that nothing really changed. Now you have even more hard and unfulfilling work. You regret being your own boss and have the extra responsibility towards the people working for you. You regret compromising your freedom even more.

Travel and writing become a vague memory and it scares you. You start suspecting that life is shorter than it seems and you regret wasting most of it. You quit again.

You start a journey of self discovery. You study many different subjects. Chinese Medicine, Meditation, Chi Kung. You change your perspective, you shake your beliefs, you challenge your comfort zone. Then the husband comes.

He brings his beliefs into your life. You mistake love with something else. You know that writing and travel means uncertainty. And you let yourself be convinced that uncertainty doesn’t go well with marriage. You opt once more to put your dreams aside and help him being successful supported by the romantic idea: “if you’re happy, I’m happy”

When regret arrives again you understand you were wrong. Romantic love is not a good excuse to avoid taking full responsibility to make your dreams come true.

You tell him you need to change. That you are suffocating your true nature. You need to write, to travel. You’re not a housewife. A few month later he tells you “I can’t be with a woman who travels. Not knowing when you are home or for how long you will be absent creates too much instability in my life”.

He leaves and you feel again like the devastated 11 year old who believed a bad review. You regret letting yourself guide by other people’s opinions. You will regret it for a whole month. You’ll cry, you’ll be angry and you’ll pity yourself. Everyday.

But tonight I promise you it will be different. It will be the first day you haven’t cry in a month. And just before going to bed, you’ll realise that the cause of your regret is your tendency to overvalue what the world thinks of you.

Hang in there, my dear me, it is almost over. Tonight right after buying a ticket to Istanbul you’ll finally make an important decision. Maybe the most important in your whole life: You choose writing. You choose travelling. And you are grateful to every one in your past that led you here.

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           A curtain was pulled back and figures emerged from darkness in a shaft of light—a half dozen cloaked musicians with medieval instruments. They arranged themselves on rugs, the light faded out, and the sounds of reeds, drums and unfamiliar string instruments filled the dark confined space. It was surprising how these primitive devices could create such a palpitating mood of expectation.

            My mouth was dry as the volcanic rock surrounding me. Moments earlier, I’d entered the cave and passed through a tunnel that widened into a circular arena. Outside, the air had been uncomfortably warm, but the blistering heat couldn’t reach through tons of insulating rock. I was in Cappadocia to see the famous Whirling Dervishes.

            Apprehension had nearly prompted me to cancel my trip to Turkey, a secular country with a 99.8 % Moslem population. Back home in the States, Islam was perceived as a religion whirling into fanaticism and violence, with far too many people painting all Muslims with the same brush. I’d come to explore this religion for myself.

             As a kid, I’d fling out my arms and spin around as quickly as I could until I was so dizzy I’d collapse on our front lawn. Was that what this was about? Watching grown men in skirts spin around without getting dizzy?

            A voice in broken English admonished us against taking pictures until after the ceremony. The Dervishes entered, dressed in black but for their towering beige camel-hair hats. They appeared to be glowing, as if light emanated from them. To deepen my experience I’d recently read about the Dervishes, and learned that their monastic life was outlawed in the 1930s by Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Atatürk maintained that young Turkish men shouldn’t be hidden away in monasteries. He wanted the country to shift its attention from religion to the progressive ways of the West, but his secular vision for Turkey was rapidly coming under attack.

                 The Dervishes bowed to the empty hat on far side of the circular stage, their tall hats (tombstones for the ego) seeming to defy gravity by staying on their heads when touched to the ground. According to our guide, the bow was to honor Mevlânâ, their thirteenth century spiritual leader. Mevlânâ, creator of the Whirling Dervishes, was said to have whirled for two full days. It was his belief that the fundamental condition of existence was to revolve. He knew the world to be made of revolving atoms, knew that blood revolved within the bodies of men and animals and understood the revolving nature of the planets and stars. His achievement was to acknowledge and embrace this feature of existence through an act of homage—whirling.

                 They looked exposed when they removed their black cloaks, as if the whiteness beneath was not only purity but vulnerability. Lined up, they acknowledged each other, and slowly, one by one began to spin in the confines of the cave, giving the impression of dropping into a fathomless void like falling snowflakes. We sat close enough to feel the uplift of wind from their skirts as they spun in the same direction as the Earth on its axis, one hand pointed upward to receive the blessings of Allah while the other was turned downward to pour Allah’s blessings onto the people. Nothing was kept for themselves. Their simple gestures filled my soul with gratitude.

                 I finally understood that this was not a performance, it was a ritual, a re-creation of infinity and creation, a thousand year old version of a high energy particle accelerator

operating in the bosom of the Earth.

                 No one has ever been able to point out for me the differences between Allah and God, and I’ve come to assume that, if there are any, they’re insignificant. I can’t claim to know what these Whirling Dervishes believe, what thoughts animate their spirits, but their sincere commitment to Allah and His universe lead me to accept that they’ve achieved a harmony with existence that I can only imagine. I might not understand their beliefs, just as I don’t understand many of the tenets of my own religion, but this manifestation of faith made me feel strong and hopeful that the pendulum of religious hostility outside this cave might one day swing in the direction of peace and tolerance for people everywhere.

            The thought was enough to set me whirling.

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In many traditional Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures women are responsible for ensuring the honour of the family. Men’s passions are uncontrollable and wild, and all women are Eve, the temptress with the apple. He cannot help but succumb so a man is never held responsible for his sexual behaviour. The guilt is attributed the same way whether the partners are married to other people, not married to anyone, or even if the act is non-consensual. If a man and a woman are left alone in a room together, he won’t be able to help himself but the sin will belong to the woman alone.

Using the same line of reasoning, dancing, which brings men and women together and shows off the curves of the woman, is also considered suspect. Like many things in Turkey however, the rules of conduct are not that simple. One the one hand, dancing as a part of folk tradition is highly valued in Turkey, and being a good dancer is much admired. In more traditional parts of the country like Cappadocia, kına gecesi, the Turkish equivalent of a woman’s hen night, are used to showcase the allure and value of young women of marriageable age. At these nights only women attend, so those wishing to find a husband give it their all. They sway and preen and energetically thrust their hips from side-to-side and move their breasts provocatively in front of eagle-eyed potential mother-in-laws. Each move is assessed and judged to determine how supple they are, how well their body is equipped to procreate through the sex act and whether their hips are suitable for child-bearing.

On the other hand, these same movements make what we in the West call ‘belly dancing’ a scandalous past-time for a good Turkish girl. It is known locally as oriental dance, and I go to a class with my Turkish girlfriend Selin every week. We go because it’s fun and good for our figures, but Selin’s grandmother doesn’t understand this. She is scandalised that her granddaughter would do such a thing. When Selin reminds her that I go too, her grandmother dismissively replies that it is not the same. What she means is because I am a foreigner, a yabancı, the question of morality doesn’t apply. This is the complete opposite of the way Fatma in Göreme thought about my behaviour, but then she lived in a small village where everyone knew everyone, unlike in a city where you have a degree of anonymity. More significantly, it points to the fact that being a yabancı woman means you always live with contradictions. At times you are required to be more upstanding than the most moral of Turkish woman simply because you are foreign. At other times you are forgiven any indiscretions just because you are foreign. Living in Turkey is full of such ironies.

It is also ironic that the oriental style of dance is perceived as provocative and dangerously sensual by both Turks and Westerners. Just as being an actress was once equated with being a prostitute in the West, being a belly dancer in Turkey is considered no better than being a whore by some people. Older Turks strongly disapprove of oriental dance because it has connotations of wild abandonment, promise and seduction. These very connotations are what make the eyes of Western men glaze over with lust at the idea of scantily clad women offering themselves in a highly charged and sexual manner.

Yet the reality is very different. There is nothing wild and abandoned in their movements at all. The best oriental/belly dancers showcase immense muscle control, expressing complete stories in the flick of a wrist or the roll of their hips. A truly good performance is the result of hours of practice in stuffy, brightly lit rooms, in front of unforgiving mirrors that show every wrong step. In these rooms the lush shake of the hips becomes an overflow of misdirected and misbehaving excess fat. Sweat rolls down between breasts that are strapped into tight bras, breasts that are revolved left and then right, up and then down, in order to show control of a body that must learn to move as three distinct parts.

We spend a lot of our time vaguely embarrassed at the movements we are required to make, worriedly consulting with each other when we can’t remember the steps and anxiously hoping for a word of praise from our beautifully slender doe-eyed teacher who moves like an exotic butterfly. Beside her we feel like elephants. I guarantee that an hour spent watching my class learn new dance techniques would quell the worries of the most concerned grandmother, and the lust of almost any man.

About the author: Lisa Morrow has published an essay collection called Inside Out In Istanbul, writes a blog of the same name and has had articles published on Australia’s ABC Drum Media website. Both the Australian ABC and Austereo radio stations have interviewed her and she has a monthly spot on San Francisco Turkish Radio. She has recently released a new essay collection called Exploring Turkish Landscape and lives on the Asian side of Istanbul

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

I break through one of the many crowded entryways to the world famous Grand Bazaar and let out an audible, astonished gasp. Never in my life have I seen so much activity in one place and it’s happening all around me; 360 degrees. It’s crowded, noisy, stiflingly hot and smelly-in ways both pleasant and not. Talk about sensory overload. On my left is a Turkish rug shop, it’s window display is overflowing with beautiful rugs of all shapes and sizes. They are crammed against the clear glass like ornate, delicate sardines. Next to the rug shop is a spice stall. The turban clad, moustachioed vendor is arguing loudly in turkish with a customer over a bag of what appears to be saffron-the gold of the Middle East. Across the vast hallway is a sweet shop, it’s tables piled high with sugary sweet turkish delight. My mouth waters as my eyes explore the delicious looking indulgences.

The bazaar is filled with people, oh so many people, who swirl around me in a fluid, homogenous mixture of nameless, unidentifiable faces. It would be so easy to get lost here and I bet that many people do. To just disappear into the churning crowd and simply become someone else-anyone else-is tempting, and I suppose that temptation is what attracts many of the millions upon millions of visitors who travel to Istanbul, the world’s fifth largest metropolis, every year. If there’s a place where it’s possible to feel alone and completely independent when you’re enclosed on all sides by so many other people, Istanbul is that place.

There is a peculiar sense of freedom that comes from being in such a condensed space like the Grand Bazaar. And it’s not a sense of freedom that everyone should be offered. This kind of liberty is dangerous in large doses. The sort of freedom Istanbul offers is two-fold; both choice and opportunity are boundless here.

I make my way through the ebbing and flowing crowd of bodies, travelling in a haphazard zig-zag pattern, as I am constantly pulled and pushed this way and that, towards a minuscule shop with a forlorn facade. The tinkling sound of bells greets me as I push open the heavy door and the shopkeeper, a little old woman who’s weathered face could hold three days rain, stands up from her fold out plastic lawn chair and flashes me a wide smile. As the door swings shut behind me the noise of the outside world is dimmed to a pleasant murmur.

Outside the little shop time is still hurtling on indefinitely, but for me it seems to stand still. The walls and shelves of the shop are crammed with delicate figurines, quirky odds and ends and various household items, all with a distinctly turkish character and all looking as though they belong in some other era. I’m awestruck at the array of wonderful choices and dumbfounded that the shop isn’t packed with others, it’s dilapidated storefront must keep them away. The store is certainly overshadowed by the loud and vibrant window displays and facades of it’s neighbours. It truly is a very well hidden diamond in the rough.

I could spend all day in the shop, but a day is all I have to explore the never-ending delights Istanbul has to offer. I exit the shop and venture back out into the crowded corridor ready to dive into the proverbial melting pot of possibilities. My mind is racing a mile a minute deciding what to do next, where to go, who to see, who to be. It’s trying to milk every last drop of liberty out of Istanbul’s freedom filled udders.

About the Author: Gillian Pierce is a high school student from Edmonton, Alberta. She strives to incorporate adventure into every part of her life, especially through world travel. She loves chai tea, dogs and satirical novels; not necessarily in that order.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Ready to visit two continents in one country?  WSGT found these travel books and gear to help you prepare.

Lonely Planet Turkey:  Learn about Turkey before you go.

Turkish phrasebook:  Learn the local lingo to make your trip a little easier.

tripe soupTripe Soup

My husband and I were wondering through the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, a few streets from the now infamous Taksim Sqaure. The multi-colored flags strung diagonally across the intersections and alleys waved calmly with the Bosphurous breeze. We came to this part of town on a tip from a friend. We were hunting for street food.
We started with Simit, a bagel-like round of crispy bread topped with sesame. I had mine plain, while my husband had his stuffed with sheep cheese and tomato. These can be sold two ways, soft or chewy to a crisp. I prefer the softer round. The bitter dough and the crunch of the sesame seeds that always get caught in my teeth are truly addictive.

Rows and rows of lemons caught my eye next. There were stacks of perfectly oval muscle shells nestled inside of the lemon rows. Midye dolma, street food style muscles, are served steamed and stuffed with spiced rice and lemon. We stood at the high top table near the cart and kept nodding at the man preparing the muscles in a “keep em’ coming” kind of way. The muscles were sweet and had a fresh thickness to them. The rice had been browned with spices, something like red pepper, thyme, and paprika. We ate about a dozen and ambled onto out next stop.

My sweet tooth kicked in right as the coffee was being poured. A long stretch of thick black brew, no sugar because it was for my husband. However, the tempting frosty square served on the plate with the coffee was all mine. Türk lokumu, or Turkish delight, are soft gelled squares flavored with fruits, flowers and nuts. This one was particularly indulgent with rose water and pistachio. I grabbed a few pieces to go, wrapped in pastry paper, and headed on with the sweetest morsel of candy still lingering in my mouth.

The next food adventure was the most triumphant and trying snack of the trip. “This place is famous! Many people will come here when the bars close” was the advice. What is it famous for? Tripe soup, işkembe çorbası, is a famed Turkish hang-over cure. We took a sharp left down a side street into the small opening of the café. There were four tables, an odd number of chairs, and a few TV’s playing live soccer. Two men sat, hovering over their bowls, in the corner by the window. Before we could sit down, a man with a stained white coat waved us to the back of the shop. His smile seemed to say that he was truly enjoying himself. We hesitated but followed his waving arms.

As our eyes rounded the corner, I realized that he wanted to show us the “behind the scenes” of his small restaurant. There was one large cutting board with minced pieces of grey and pink meat and a large vat built into the counter. The smell was overwhelming; at first it was pungent, like a cheese shop. But, as I stood there longer, it turned more sour and acidic. He grabbed a giant pair of tongs and dipped and swirled the soup in the vat, searching, stirring, searching. All of a sudden, the tongs pulled up the whole, giant, simmering stomach. My eyes widened into saucers, I was nervous.

Two bowls sat in front of us. We were face to face, trembling, having a showdown with the thickening yellow soup. A bowl full of bowels, if you will. Turkish food had not failed me yet, I was up for the adventure. How many times would I be sitting here? How many times do you get such a warm welcome from the cook yourself? How many times do you get to truly eat what the locals eat? We dug in. The texture was lovely, silky, reminiscent of lentil soup. But the smell was ripened, I couldn’t get past the achingly sour aftertaste. We tried and tried to add garlic and hot sauce, to finish a bowl, to be humble travelers. Even though our bowls were not empty, the risk was worth the reward of such a vivid memory.

After we politely put our spoons down and handed over the cash, I was ready for a cab back to our room. In the back of the cab, my stomach was still churning. My husband was laughing at my colorless cheeks. I didn’t want our snack-filled night to end like this. Until I smiled and remembered the handful of türk lokumu still safely tucked away in my pocket.

About the Author: Natalie Cowart earned her BA in Creative Writing from the Florida State University. She currently writes and teaches in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Taksim3To Turkey!

I was surprised by the emails and phone calls I had been receiving from friends and family fearing my safety in Istanbul. “Wear a scarf on your head,” they said. “Keep to yourself. Keep your mouth shut,” they wrote. “Tell them you’re from Canada,” they whispered. I was surprised because I’d been there two weeks, and I’d yet to feel fear. I was visiting a country brimming with anger, but the widespread riots were about maintaining a democratic ideal, about feeling threatened by a leader they had trusted, and about maintaining a space where their religious identity didn’t define them, and peace and freedom of expression does.

Turkey is an incredible country, and from the moment I stepped foot in the crowded streets of Istanbul, I was inspired. Turkey is expansive. Turkey is progressive. Turkey has surprised the heck out of me, and I’m a better person having been there during a time of turmoil. Sometimes the most beautiful things can come from the most broken.

Last week, I visited Taksim Square. The night before, I sat on my hotel terrace and smelled the fumes of the burning cars. I felt like a coward in my beautiful hotel, but I told myself it wasn’t my fight. I was an outsider, a tourist. I felt like I didn’t belong, but then I remembered that human rights are everyone’s fight, and after that, I couldn’t stay away. The next afternoon, when I climbed out of the Metro station into the square, I was speechless. The park the people were fighting to protect had been destroyed. There was graffiti everywhere, vandalized and burned vehicles, banners plastered on every building, broken windows, and yet people were happily gathering, talking, sharing food and spreading blankets. Just the day before, people had been arrested, gassed, shot with water cannons, but today the bright sun was shining on the protestors, and there was singing. I heard laughter and chanting, and I watched a man cut a watermelon to share. I walked around for a couple of hours, taking pictures, listening, and watching. I saw a group of college-aged kids painting banners and several people cleaning up a burnt rubbish pile. I saw dancing and yoga. I saw smiling and flag waving, and then I realized that this was the Istanbul everyone else in the world was missing. This wasn’t on the television. My American friends weren’t seeing this part. They were seeing the fear, but they were missing the moments of joy and the celebration, and that was heartbreaking to me. As it grew later, more people were coming to join the protest. It was possible that this night, like the others, could become violent, but the afternoon? It had promise. The afternoon had shown me the resilience of the Turkish people. It showed me that no matter what horrors they endured in the darkness, they would rejoice in the light. I felt honored to be there in that moment. I could feel the spirit and the fight of the people, and it was pretty incredible.

The night before I left, I was enjoying a lovely dinner with my husband in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Bosphorous. At dusk, the lights of the city across the water lit up like a thousand tiny lanterns. We toasted our last night in Istanbul, and we toasted all that light shining like hope. Today, I am home, but I am still toasting Istanbul. I am still praying for all the voices in Taksim Square. This country has wormed her way into my heart, and truly, I wish I were still there. Despite the turmoil, despite the violence, the country has brought me to my knees. It’s so much bigger than all that anger and fury. It’s a human lesson in perseverance and strength. I’ll raise my glass tonight, and I will raise my glass every night until that fear and violence is replaced with safety and with peace. To Turkey! Şerefe!

About the Author:  Jen Lambert is a founding editor of burntdistrict and Spark Wheel Press, and her work has been published in a variety of journals and anthologies including most recently The Los Angeles Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, and Raleigh Review. A fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Jen is currently living in Newfoundland with her husband and three wildly beautiful children.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.