Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Istanbul, not Constantinople

Okay, I know I always talk about wanting to move to different cities we visit, but this time I'm serious: I want to move to Istanbul. Shut up, it's for real this time.

We spent our first 8 days in Istanbul, completely enthralled by everything. Granted, the first 2 days we just wandered around in a culture-shocked stupor, mumbling about how smooth the roads are, how fresh the fruit looks, and how amazing it is that the buildings have elevators. (When we first arrived at our hostel, we were deliriously hyper because it was 3am and we had been traveling from Nepal for 20 hours. When I saw the elevator I screamed, "ELEVATOOOR!" and giggled the entire way up, even though Ross and I were squished into the tiny little space with a large and somewhat perplexed Greek man. That is when I realized I had culture shock.) But once we got over that, we were like, daaayum, this place is actually fucking AMAZING, yo. In those exact words.

First of all, it was nothing at all like what I expected. I think, looking back, that I expected something out of Aladdin -- lots of dusty roads and little monkeys in fezzes running around. It was not at all like that. No one was wearing fezzes, and there was not even a single monkey, which was disappointing. Instead, Istanbul was an enormous, cosmopolitan city with well-dressed people in sky-high heels and cute little cafes and shops everywhere. The skyline is studded with beautiful mosques, while the ground is dominated by an inordinate number of adorable stray cats, which added to the city immensely. It is an extremely glamorous and eye-catching city.

More mosques than you could shake a doner kebap at:

Stray kitten + ancient sculpture = golden photo opportunity:

Another thing I quite enjoyed is the quirky Turkish culture. It seems like life is lived in the streets here -- people don't stay at home surfing the internet (like some people do back home, but I won't mention any names). They go to cafes, sit around on little stools sipping overly strong but inexplicably tiny glasses of tea, smoke hookah, and play Backgammon. There's much more of a community feel here than in North America, and I really like that. I WANT TO INFILTRATE YOUR COMMUNITY, Istanbul. And I must admit, the ubiquity of Backgammon has made me really want to learn to play. (Although I can't say the preference for tiny furniture and child-sized glasses of tea has particularly won me over.)


or alternatively, "WHY AM I SUCH A GIANT?"

What really grabbed us is that Istanbul is just European enough to be familiar, but just Asian enough to be very interesting -- a combination we've been searching for this whole year while scoping out potential future cities to live in. The fact that it's relatively cheap definitely doesn't hurt either. We half-seriously started to point out neighborhoods we might like to live in and restaurants we'd like to become regulars of. Not that we're thinking too far ahead or anything. Just because I've already made friends with the crazy neighborhood hobo, DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING, OKAY?

One potential future home, dog included:

I also had no idea how historically rich Turkey was until we got here. Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, The Ottoman Empire, The Byzantine Empire -- all those topics I learned about in history class, they all happened RIGHT HERE! How crazy is that? Considering that both countries I've lived in have a history no longer than 300 years (not counting Russia, of which I have no memory), that is PRETTY FUCKING CRAZY, if you ask me.

We actually got to see original sculptures from ancient Rome:

As well as original tablets with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on them:

Is your mind blown yet? Because, I don't know if you realize this, but mine was.

We also visited Aya Sofya and The Blue Mosque, two absolutely stunning buildings which were impossible to photograph properly, but just trust me, they were great.

The marvelous Blue Mosque:

Part of the interior of Aya Sofya, built in 562:

The Basilica Cistern was fascinating and spooky. I had no idea what a cistern was before visiting this one, and when I learned that it's basically just a place where water is stored, I was a bit confused about why we were bothering to go see one. But then the reason quickly became clear: it's 100,000 sq ft, built in 532 and gorgeous. Plus, two of the columns are supported by giant Medusa heads for some reason. One of the heads is sideways, the other is upside down. I don't know why, but I like that. When those emperors built stuff, they really did it properly (and somewhat strangely).

They built this JUST TO HOLD WATER:

Creepy 1,500 year old Medusa head:

There were many more amazing sights - The Topkapi Palace, The Grand Bazaar, Suleymaniye Mosque, not to mention being able to go from Europe to Asia on a 5-minute ferry ride - but I'll just summarize by saying GO TO ISTANBUL, it will be fucking awesome and you won't regret it. And by that time, Ross and I will probably have moved there, so we can all hang out and play Backgammon. Alright, now this post is starting to sound like an advertisement or something, so I'm going to stop there.

Now we're in Selçuk, a cute little town right next to Ephesus, which are meant to be the most beautiful and well-preserved ruins in all of Turkey, if not all of Europe. (A side note about Selçuk: We just realized we can see the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, literally right from the terrace of our hostel. This place keeps getting more and more fucking amazing.) We'll be doing a tour of Ephesus today! I can't wait, because I am nerdy like that, and ruins make me giddy.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Perspective in Nepal

Nepal is such a different place from anywhere else we've been, that it's basically impossible to write a post about it without rambling away in a million different directions. Please forgive me if this is the least organized post I've ever written.

Here are some highlights of Nepal that I wanted to mention, which don't really relate to each other in any meaningful way but are kind of interesting anyway!

1. Nepalis are friendly in a very affectionate, touchy way. They hug, they hold hands (although not if you're of the opposite sex - God forbid!), they pat everyone on the arm like old buddies. It's so unbearably cute that it instantly makes you fall in love with everyone. (Strange, but true.) They also call each other "brother" and "sister," which I find very endearing and wish we did in English.

2. The majority of Nepalis live in remote villages that have little contact with the rest of the country. This results in hundreds of different cultures, all within one country, that each have their own language, clothing, traditions, and even facial traits. It's kind of mind-blowing. We think we're multicultural in the States - imagine if every state spoke a different language and even looked completely different. It would be MADNESS.

3. Many women wear saris, which I think may be the most beautiful thing a woman can wear. Deeply colorful, flowy and often shiny -- is there anything more feminine? The answer is no. Sometimes I simply can't stop staring at the women here. It's probably a bit creepy, but I can't help it. I want to buy like 300 saris and just keep wearing them for the rest of my life, but I won't because that would be expensive. And weird.

4. Pokhara is a charming little town. It's nestled in between a pretty lake and some of the tallest mountains in the world. We went paragliding and did a few hikes, where we were offered weed by various villagers who apparently really wanted to get us high. Pokhara was so pleasant, we frequently chatted about moving there. If only it wasn't for the thousands of tourists who flock there every winter to climb the Annapurna mountains. Why do tourists always have to ruin everything (except us, we don't ruin anything of course)? Sigh.

5. I think Nepal may have converted me into a trekker. Up next: Mt. Kilimanjaro!

6. Nepalis are religious, but in a laid back sort of way. Many are Buddhist or Hindu, but a bunch of them are a combination of both. They took Buddhism and Hinduism and incorporated them into each other. They just decided -- Okay, Buddha was the 9th reincarnation of Vishnu! BAM, two religions become one. I love when we can all just get along.

But there are also many downsides in Nepal. Lack of education, healthcare, clean water, electricity. A caste system, many homeless people, corrupt government. Landslides, poor roads, garbage, pollution. Basically any problem you can think of, Nepal has it. The scale and pervasiveness of the issues here leaves one shocked and depressed. It's the first country we've visited that really feels "third world." Even in Kathmandu, the capital city, there are still electricity blackouts every day. In the mountains, the villagers start their fires by blowing on them -- they don't even have bellows, a device that was popular before Jesus was born.

I know that money doesn't actually make people much happier. That is, there appears to be a threshold beyond which, as long as people have food, water, safety, health, warmth, families and love, they are content. Being here has made me think about this concept a lot. I don't know what the actual threshold is -- I'm sure it varies a lot depending on many variables -- but I wonder where Nepal stands on that line.

I can understand that people are reasonably happy as long as their basic needs are met, but my mind just keeps asking -- what about having running water inside your house? What about being able to go the hospital and being sure that the syringe they're using isn't dirty? What about having a clean street instead of piles of trash everywhere? What about being able to travel 200km without needing to spend 10 hours on a bus with people hacking and spitting everywhere? (That last part was mostly for my own nostalgia.) These things must have an effect on people's happiness. Or is it just that I'm accustomed to a different standard of living, so I give these variables more weight than a Nepali would?

I really don't know. I suspect that Nepalis are content for the most part despite these hardships, but either way my opinion is uninformed. I'd love to come back here someday and explore this country and its people a bit more. Bino has become a friend more than a guide -- we had dinner at his place with his brothers; he gave us lychees! -- but I feel like I want to delve much deeper into this fascinating place. I'm glad we came here; it's been illuminating and beautiful, even if a little challenging at times.

But tomorrow we'll be in Turkey, and I'm excited about that too.