Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why I Need to Buy Cuter Socks.

Two years ago I bought a guide book about Turkey. Last weekend, I finally used it. 

Upon arrival in Istanbul, I found myself a tad overwhelmed. When we exited baggage claim and saw about 100 men dressed in suits holding papers with names on them, I was officially thinking, "Well, I'm about to be taken!" Divina went one way and I went the other, looking for our hotel driver. (I found him first!) They began asking, "Sarah? Sarah?" - I guessed they guessed I was American...and that "Sarah" just screams blonde Americana. I also guessed they thought it was funny when I pointed to the name "Divina Fernández"... 

An hour an a half later, we were still in the van on the way to the hotel. Stuck in traffic. I learned a lot about Istanbul in that van ride. 

1) Neon lights are fashionable...even in taxi cabs.
2) Light shop. Light shop. And, yes, another light shop! 
3) Public transport is overcrowded.
4) Lane markings are just a suggestion.   
5) Language barriers are just that, barriers.
6) When it's raining, everyone carries a transparent umbrella.
7) Emergency siren noises are different
8) Cars drive on sidewalks to pass traffic.
9) People cross the street whenever they want.   

You can see him coming from a mile away...
and if you can't see him, you can hear his disco music that was also blasting!
Get your transparent umbrella here! I spy more in the distance.
At one point, another hotel driver pulled up along side our van to ask for a cigarette. Our driver agreed, but only if we could pass in front of the other van. So, the other driver got out of his car and came to ours and the exchange was made! A little while later, the same driver pulled up along next to us again.... on the sidewalk. He just wanted to say hello! When this happened, I turned to look at Divina and behind her I saw a taxi passing through the guardrail - a part had been taken down and a "shortcut" had been made to make U-turns to get out of the traffic! Incredible! I was laughing so hard the entire remainder of the journey! 

We were extremely excited to finally arrive at the hotel, which was just a few minute walk from Taksim Square, the center of Istanbul, according to fellow Westminster graduate, my friend, Akin. We were just off Istiklal Caddesi Street, one of the busiest streets I've ever been on!! It didn't matter what time of the day it was, you were constantly dodging people or food carts. There were restaurants, shops, and discos - with great music that you could hear from blocks away. Thank goodness we were super tired upon arrival (and the nights that followed) that the music didn't keep us up! 
Neon lights and people: Istiklal Caddesi Street
Since we had limited time in Istanbul, we really made the most of our days by packing them full of adventure. We were in plan tourista nearly the entire weekend. 


Our first plan of action was to figure out how to buy an Istanbulkart, a pass for the metro/tram/ferry. I guess I shouldn't have assumed it was going to be easy. Because, it was far from that. You'd think it would have been next to the metro entrance, downstairs. Wrong. After waiting in line at the machine, we realized the machine (yes, there was only ONE...) was to recharge the pass. So, we kindly asked a newsagent and she told us to go upstairs. So, we returned above ground and walked around Taksim Square, looking for a ticket window. We entered into one place and realized we were definitely not in the right place. People were staring at us. I felt super uncomfortable. I quickly said "Istanbulkart???" and flashed a 'half scared/please help me' smile and the boy pointed at a small "office" across the street.

We finally dodged the traffic and were able to cross the street... After waiting in front of the window for about 3 minutes, a man from behind tapped me on the shoulder and said something to me in Turkish and pointed to an "Istanbulkart" sign on the ticket office in front of me and then gestured at another ticket window just down the street. So, not understanding much more than what I took for "you all should go there..." -- we went. After arriving to the second office, we were finally able to get our passes. We attempted to buy them about four times, but since the man spoke limited English, I kept getting frustrated and we kept letting people pass in front of us. In the end, we each spent 18 lira for our passes. After we bought them, the man laughed and said something in Turkish to the man behind us and he laughed too, so it's probably safe to say they were laughing AT US. Awesome. I was just happy to have the card in hand...
Taksim Square Memorial
After figuring out the teleferico and then the tram system, we safely arrived at Sultanahmet.

We started our grand tour of Istanbul at the Blue Mosque. Wow! Millions of small blue tiles adorned the domes high above. There were lights hanging from the ceiling -- chandeliers, that were hung just above your head, as if you were in a house. The floors were covered with decorative carpets and we, were, shoeless. It's customary to remove your shoes outside the mosque and to cover your head with a scarf when you enter. No need to exercise in Turkey - just go to pray. Shoes off. Shoes on. Shoes off. Shoes on. 
This picture does it no justice. The lights and the ceiling were fantastic!
The next stop on our list in the Sultanahmet district was the Topkapı Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While it was nice, it didn't compare to other palaces I've visited in Germany/Austria/Bulgaria... We saw lots of wonderful emeralds and rubies on many Ottoman Sultans old pen cases, water bottles, a fantastic thrown... there was also a 46kt diamond which was absolutely breathtaking. I would have enjoyed these pieces more had they not been boxed in and viewed only in single file lines. Guess we should have gotten there earlier to browse at our own leisure for it to have been more enjoyable. 

I did have the BEST laugh of the trip just as we were entering the Palace. Imagine the situation: lines of Turkish school kids on a field trip... a small walkway... and me on the other side of the walkway trying to dodge water puddles. Enter 20 Asian tourists in the small walkway passing between the Turkish children and me. What do I hear coming from the mouth of one of the children? "Oppa Gangnam Style" with a smile and a wave at EACH Asian that passed in front of him. "Oppa Gangnam Style. Oppa Gangnam Style." I DIED. How could you not think that was funny!! (Ok, if you don't know the song, it will make no sense to you. Look it up!)
There were sofas like his one in every room, they looked so comfy.
Check out those tiles! Wow!
Rainy view from the palace... toward Galata Tower.
Upon exiting the Topkapı Palace, I enjoyed a nice sahlep, a sweet, milk based typical Turkish drink that really hits the spot on a cold winter day. Since it was raining, it became an interesting walk with a sahlep in one hand, umbrella in the other... and the constant desire to take 101 pictures of everything I saw... so, I would stop, put the umbrella under my arm and balance the camera on the rim of the cup. Pure talent.

Our next to last stop in the Sultanahmet district was Hagia Sophia, first an Orthodox Basilica, later a mosque, and currently a museum. It's size alone was something to marvel at... the artwork was another... and the traditional chandeliers another... I could go on and on. We climbed the ramp to the second floor which doesn't seem as high as it really is. I was soon out of breath from climbing upppp. 
Mosaics: the detail was exceptional.
Looking toward the entrance from the second floor high above.
First floor and me!
The final stop in this neighborhood was the Basilica Cistern, built in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. As I was walking down the stairs, I had an eire feeling I had seen this wondrous place before... and then it hit me: The Bachelorette: Allie's Season. As we walked through the cistern, dodging water that was coming down from the ceiling, I was in awe of how silent it was. And beautiful. The lighting really made it light up! In the very back, tucked away in the corner, there were two Medusa heads - upside down or on its side - which were part of the columns support. They were really strange to say the least... and their origin is unknown. 
Beautiful view #1.
Beautiful view #2.
Beautiful view #3.
Medusa head upside-down!!!
We finally stopped for lunch... kebabs. Mmmm good! 

Since we were on a roll, we decided to test our luck in the Grand Bazaar, an exciting maze of shops full of ceramics, lights, scarves, jewelry, rugs, carpets, tea glasses... located in one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops which attract around 300,000 visitors daily. I couldn't get over the amount of things that were there. And of course, all the items were "hand made" and worth different prices at each stop, making it very hard to actually figure out what you wanted to buy. Of course, no prices were marked so you had to play the bargaining game with them, and, as usual, you when you thought you were getting a good deal, the same item was 10 lira cheaper outside the Bazaar. I'm pretty sure the prices varied depending on nationality and level of friendliness you were able to display, too. We got free tea from one of the carpet stores for "playing along" and saying our favourite colors and rug patterns. I'm pretty sure he thought he was going to make a big sell, but if he only knew how much money I had, he wouldn't have pulled us in there in the first place. (PS, I finally got paid for the first time this weekend after three months of work!! SCORE!)
Welcome to the Grand Bazaar!
Scarf? How could you ever pick just one?
BEAUTIFUL lights!!!! I want one when I have a house of my own!
Carpets & Apple Tea
Another view of the Grand Bazaar!
We decided to call it a night and walk back to the metro... when we stumbled upon the Spice Bazaar. Had we been looking for it, we wouldn't have ever found it. We were so lost. Turn right! Um... left? There's life that way... ugh, not walking up that hill, let's turn around... and then, there it was, the Spice Market! Upon entering, we were welcomed with scents of every thing good... cinnamon, curry, rose tea, vanilla tea, jasmine...all piled up high in triangular forms. Ah, it was such a nice place. Overcrowded, but nice! Old men would do anything to lure you into their shop, pawn you off onto a younger boy who would let/make you smell everything. Again, every shop had different prices so you never knew if it was a good deal unless you went into every shop, which we refused to do! 
Come into my shop! Take my picture!
A new meaning to the term "Spice World".
Simply, perfect.
I hope that is for a restaurant, geeze! That bag would last a lifetime!
We finally went back to the hotel around 7:30pm and were able to have a short break before we were on to the next thing, the most personable event of the trip. We met with my friend from Westminster, Akin! Thanks to him, we were able to easily board a ferry to.... (drum roll here) ASIA!!! My fourth continent! Akin welcomed Divina and I to have dinner and spend the evening with his friends at a dinner party. He even convinced a few of them to play some traditional Turkish music with traditional instruments. It was such a lovely evening! Thank you, Akin and company! 
Again with the no shoes rule... welcome to the party!
View from the apartment of the Asian side!
Akin & Company!

Hard to believe all the things above were done in one day... but day two was a bit more relaxed/stress free. For starters, we already had our Istanbulkarts and knew how to navigate the metro/tram/teleferico. We were old pros by day two. 

We started the morning with a late breakfast in the hotel and then made our way to Galata Tower to have the most incredible view of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia from afar, the Bosphorus River, and Asia in the distance... again, I had flashbacks to The Bachelorette while we were there! Besides the view from Akin's friends' apartment looking back to the European side at night, this was the most outstanding view! It left me thinking: Istanbul is HUGE. (Did you know there are 14 million people living there? But it is even more crowded with tourists like Divina and I... that's 14 million plus, almost double New York City!) 
Galata Tower!
View from Galata Tower! The bird was an accident, but he really makes the photo, doesn't he!?
We were able to walk around the neighborhood around Galata Tower and I found it really refreshing and cute, with lots of small side streets and "street cafes" where people could sit on plastic stools, stand in the street smoking a hooka or order a fresh squeezed juice! It really just made me so happy! Everyone knows having a drink outside is more fun, so why not just pull up a chair and have a juice! 
Super welcoming!
Super tranquilla.
As we crossed the Galata Bridge, that spans the Golden Horn, you couldn't help but stare at the fishermen. There were bait shops and poles for sale...  You'd think that no one would catch anything when they are just lined up one after another, but then I saw a fishing line lifted up and one man alone had 5 on his line. Incredible!!! This is what I call fishing, there's no waiting around for a bite all day that may or may not come. (Yes, I am speaking from personal experience. I have fished before believe it or not.) 
Divina and I on Galata Bridge!
Proof they caught something... poor little guy on the right didn't make it in the box.
We decided to take a boat cruise on the Bosphorus and see Istanbul from the water. While the air was cold, we were able to see some of Istanbul's nicest palaces and fortresses from rather close, as their entrances were on the water. We had warm teas, fresh squeezed orange juice and little donut pastries that were to die for... just because. I mean, I don't know when I'll be back to Istanbul, so I had to give in to my food cravings. And, boy was that the right thing to do! Mmmm we ate more yummy things like baklava, Turkish delights, chocolates, nuts.. don't worry family, I'm not coming home empty handed at Christmas. I'll share!
Out in the Bosphorus, between Europe and Asia!
I was praying the boat didn't sink.... JELLYFISH EVERYWHERE!!!! (Yeah, all those blurry white spots!)
View from the boat!
We decided to return to the Grand Bazaar to trust our luck on day two at our barganing skills. Belive it or not, we stumbled upon the same street as the previous night (which seems unthinkable because there are so many ways to go!) How did I know this? I heard "Maricarmennnnnn" and when I turned around, I was greeted by one of the boys who had mistaken me for a Spanish girl the day before. You see, everyone knew Divina was Spanish, but they had trouble with me... "Russia? Germany?" It was then, when we started talking to our new friend, we learned of the minimum prices and where the cheapest shops were located. It was here I also learned different nationalities have different prices... what was 18 lira for us was 32 lira for an Asian girl who questioned him. Sad really, but unless you're able to ask the price in Turkish, I'm afraid it will be us getting the raw end of the deal. Thank goodness "Maricarmen" had made a good impression the previous day so we could get in on the cheapest store location!! Thank you, boyfriend #6. ;) 

Since we are such good friends or daughters and we bought lots of souvenirs for everyone.  I weighed my purse to see the damage the bazaars did to my pocket book and my back... 13kilos. A 13kilo purse, heeled boots and hills.... now that's a workout! 

Later, we visited Suleymaniye Mosque. We got lost in the streets looking around at all the "stuff"... and finally stumbled across a little place to eat where we pointed at photos that looked good to order because they didn't speak English! In the end, we picked well and had a nice, and filling, meal. 
See what I mean when there were lots of people--everywhere!
Chicken Shish and an orange soda with a straw.
Outside of Suleymaniye.
Inside of Suleymaniye, again I can't get over how the lights hang low!
After a brief stop at the hotel, we went wandering around Istiklal Caddesi Street and found a nice (but touristy) restaurant and ordered some small plates of food to share. I think the best part of the dinner was watching the shop owner of the fruit/veggie stand next to us water the produce with a watering can. It was a nice find, a small restaurant down some small curvy streets... we didn't manage to get ourselves lost so it was a successful night and a nice way to end our weekend in Istanbul. 
Watering the food; view from the dinner table!
While quick and action packed, my first experience in Istanbul has been one I will always remember. From the hospitality bestowed upon us by Akin and his friends, to my wonderful travel companion, the sights, the sound of prayer echoing through the city, the never ending shoes on/shoes off process to visit the mosques, the tasty food, the kind waiters who taught us how to say "spoon, knife, water, and thank you" that we couldn't remember when telling Akin our progression with the Turkish language... I am grateful for the opportunity to have FINALLY gone, even if it was two years later than originally planned. 

Until the next time, Turkey, when I want to buy some lamps for my house! :)

P.S. The reason I need to buy cuter socks... Since it's customary to remove your shoes before entering the house or a mosque, I always found myself with plain socks. No one ever sees them, so why buy patterns? I guess you'd know if your friends wore the same socks two days in a row...I think I'll start buying cooler socks!!
Divina's were nice; At least mine were purple!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Just Visiting: Valladolid

It seems strange to be writing a blog about Valladolid just a few days after I ranted and raved in my last blog about how happy I am in Navalmoral. But, here goes. 

When the end of the school year came round last June in Valladolid, I was actually sad to be leaving. But, my job was the best part of my Pucelana life, and that, my friends, was super sad. Like Jefferson City, Valladolid is a town I love to visit. I love [some of] the people there and I feel at home when I am there, surrounded by loving friends and students whom I miss every day. 

One of the great things about Navalmoral is its distance to Madrid. With buses and trains every few hours, it's actually pretty easy to get to and from other places in Spain rather quickly. I was able to arrive in Valladolid just before school finished last Friday, so I was able to visit a few classes. Some students knew I was coming, others had no idea. >> it was awesome << I was so happy to be back in the classroom with most of my favourite students from last school year. The good thing about Spanish students being able to repeat year after year is that my favourite students, who should have graduated, were... STILL THERE!

After saying hello x100 and receiving 100 kisses, I went for lunch with 9 of my co-workers from last year. Concha had arranged it and I was so happy of the turnout!  Three of the teachers were from the English department and the others were my "students" who I gave lessons to last year. We had such a nice afternoon catching up! Strangely enough, it felt as though I was still there. Like, I had never left. I like that. I love when you can pick up where you left off, and it doesn't seem like any time has been lost. 

After a short siesta of, literally, 16 minutes, I was getting ready for the next event: hanging with Javi and amigos. I was grateful that I met Javi and his friends last year... as they were some of my only Valladolid-ian friends I made. Again, it seemed like no time had past with them, and for this I am super grateful. We went for drinks. Big glasses and small glasses, I just know we drank a lot of beer. Later, I went for tapas with Antonio, a co-worker from last year, and finally called it a night around 1am, when I physically couldn't eat, drink, or keep my eyes open from so much traveling (and lack of sleep from the night before.) 
Plaza Mayor goes PINK!!!!
Saturday morning started bright and early at 9am. Maribal, another fellow co-worker from last year, and her husband, Luis, picked me up at Concha's house. They took me to Burgos for the day! Surprisingly, it wasn't too cold and it didn't rain on us much, so we had a really fantastic day. I think the company was the best part, as I could hang anywhere with Maribal and Luis and have a nice time. 

We started our tour of Burgos in the Cartuja de Miraflores, a type of monastary where the monks never leave the building. They dedicate their time to prayer and to make rosaries of roses. 30,000 rose petals in each rosary to be exact. It was really peaceful there... but there was no bathroom. Not even a hole like the monastery in Rome. So, Maribal and I went "for a walk in the woods" to find that we weren't the first to make our own bathroom...
What a beautiful fall day in the woods!
Next stop was to visit Burgos ciudad. I visited Burgos four years ago on a day trip... but this time around, it was different. After living in Spain for several years, I think I have found a respect for Spanish architecture, way of life, cultural understanding... it was just different this time around. A good different. 
How pretty! Crossing the bridge into the city!
In front of the Cathedral with Maribal.
Typical. With Maribal and Luis~
Super proper, with the abuelos.
Burgos' Plaza Mayor is super colorful.
After being tourists, we had lunch. I joked that we had probably been eating for four hours, but when we ended, it was four courses in three hours. It was such a nice meal in a typical restaurant where the waiters served us in traditional dress, kinda like a blast from the past.

Morcilla de Burgos - blood sausage with rice. YUM!
Lechazo - Baby lamb.
Queso de Burgos with nuts and a lengua de gato cookie. :)
After lunch, we had tickets to visit the Cathedral of Burgos. When looking at the Cathedral, you think "wow! that is big!" When touring, you think "WOW!!!! This is so huge... I can't believe there is more." And there always was. It was really beautiful! 
Some of the paintings in one of the chapel ceilings.
Huge ceilings.
Disclaimer: this might be sacrilegious: but is he dancing to Gangnam Style?
We also visited another church, where the altar was made of rock. It was incredible!
Can you believe this is rock???
I found the beam in the middle really beautiful/different!
After touring Burgos, I was extremely tired and went to bed immediately after arriving home. Sunday was spent doing many [great] things. I went to watch a former private lesson student play basketball... not sure if I was good luck, as they lost by 1point with 2 seconds to go in the game. But, it was really cool to watch Juan play! At the end of last year, I asked him what he had learned throughout the year with me and he said "to use all 5 of my fouls." Well, he took my [ok, my dad's] advice to heart, and he fouled out. It was all for a good cause. 
Go Juan! Go #16!
I had lunch with Antonio and his family on Sunday afternoon, which was, absolutely wonderful. I was so happy he invited me to spend the day with him and his parents. After watching some of he Formula One race, I went to meet up with my roommate from last year and Kim, a girl I studied with in Salamanca in 2009. We shared stories from the school year about our students and had a nice catchup. I met with another girl, Natalie, who was an auxiliar in Valladolid last year too, for about ten minutes, before going to the movies to see Amanecer: Parte Dos. I had to take advantage of "the city" and go to the cinema. I had dinner with Antonio and Concha and her husband, Javier, that night at Concha and Javier's house. It was very relaxing and a great way to end the day!
Retracing my steps, through the scary tunnel, like every day last year.
Finally, civilization! ;)
After visiting with my students on Monday morning, I had to get back on the train and come home. I'm still waiting for photos to be uploaded to Tuenti... I was popular and several students wanted photos taken! There were also some new faces in the classes, and I'm sure they thought "who is this girl? and why does everybody love her?" I just explained that I was "Whitney" and not "Winnie" - successful day.

While writing this blog, I realize I didn't take many photos of my time in Valladolid. But, spending time with friends was what was important and I did plenty of that. I am so happy that I met all these wonderful people who treat me like family. 

They say the farther north you go in Spain, the colder the people are. They also say that it takes longer to make friends, but once you have a break through, you have a friend for life. And this I believe to be true.