Friday, September 30, 2011

My Friend Istanbul

“My friend, how are you?” “My friend, how was your day?” “My friend, can I offer you some shisha?” “My friend, good morning!” "My friend, what time is it?"

I guess you are everyone’s friend in Turkey!

After a week it subconsciously caught on with me: “My friend! I am good” “My friend, two dolmas please!” “My friend, will Kobe Bryant play in Istanbul?” “My friend, 14 too much for this, give me two for 13, final offer.”

My friends aside, the energy and life in Istanbul is amazing like nowhere else. It feels like there is a buzz in every nook and cranny of the city, day and night. Sellers in the bazaars, fishermen going for a catch, old men sitting on stools chatting, drinking tea, and playing backgammon, someone welding, weaving, selling, or cooking something just about anywhere you look, music playing on a busy, lit up Istiklal street at night....the list goes on.

You’d need months to get to explore this massive city properly. Felt like I barely touched it, making it to the massive Asian side of the city only once.

Quite possibly my favorite city.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Blue Nile Orthodox Monasteries

The Nile River begins in Lake Tana in Ethiopia, one of the largest fresh water lakes in Africa. In Lake Tana there are four islands, all containing Orthodox monasteries. These are very important historical sites in Ethiopia’s history, and many of the kings have visited them or have stayed on the islands at times in history. The people living in these monasteries have dedicated their lives to God and there is no looking back. I took a boat ride with Netsanet to check them out.

The first one was a female monastery. There are only a few men living on this island, as they must administer the services. This monastery has been here since the 1300s, and it doesn’t seem like life has changed much at all, save that they have more income in the last 10 years due to tourism (which probably has altered their lifestyle). The island is beautiful and more or less is what the landscape should look like. On this island there is a structure that leads to a cave, and during Easter a bunch of them go in and for 50 days they stay, without light, and eat once a day a handful of what amount to some nuts. Otherwise, the rest of the year, they eat one meal per day at 4pm, containing no meat products. Mostly just injera, and maybe some fruits.

Being guided by a female monk up the island:

The view you get when you become a monk on this island:

The second monastery was the neighboring island which is all male. Females today are still not allowed to enter pass the dock. The monks consider it impure to view females. This monastery was founded in 1313. We were guided by one of the monks, who was actually quite friendly and even smiled (another Ethiopian on the tour explained that most monks don’t want to talk to tourists at all, but this one has adjusted as he accommodates the tourists asking lots of questions and being friendly). On the way down, we passed one monk who lowered his head and hid himself as he walked by, indicating he did not want to talk. They have built a tiny museum on the island, filled with all the original texts (written on goat skin), and even the original cross of the founding monk from 1313. Many kings throughout time have also given crowns as gifts to the monastery. On this island, there are about 80 monks. Some of them actually go to the mainland during the day to work. They consider all the property of the island, and any income generated by tourism, as property of the Orthodox Church (communism eh?). On the island I saw monks amongst the trees in various places studying the Bible or other religious texts. Others, just sitting and passing the day.

Approaching the male monastery by boat:

Massive doors on the church!

Ringing the bells from the 1600s. Different rings give the monks different cues:

The original cross from the founder of the male monastery, from the 1300s.

Waters were rough enough to have to wait 30 minutes before heading back out!:

The third island was a flat one, very marsh like. This island is essentially at the inlet between Lake Tana and the beginning of the Nile river. By this time, I was monked out and decided not to enter the monastery (the tourist price is 5x the Ethiopian price). But here, there are also normal people living on the island. They are growing fruit and selling it back on the main land. Bananas, papayas, mangos, etc. Plus chat, coffee, cabbage, corn and other. They also fish still in traditional style boats. We tried some bananas, they were incredible, no comparison to the bananas we get in the US or here in Europe. And picked a few coffee beans to try, as well as some chat, which is bitter and disgusting (and basically is just like coffee but closer to espresso).

Spotted this guy, look at his canoe!

A coffee bean (with the skin still on):

Massive mangoes!

Our new friend from Addis picking some chat for us to try:

Friday, September 23, 2011

Barcelona Beaches

I went to the beach in Barcelona with three Australians from the hostel. These two pictures pretty much sum up the hilarity of the beaches there. This is a place where you can get a mojito from a guy making it out of his backpack, beer from random guys selling it, and a 20 minute Thai leg massage for 5 euros (the latter which I capitalized on after a long day of walking around!)

Guy standing for at least 20 minutes in full suit and briefcase on cell phone before changing into his speedo:

Old guy air drying his trunks and looking like a statue for at least 30 minutes:

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cappadocia, Turkey

In central Turkey, this place looks like a scene out of one of those strange desert Star Wars planets. I’m pretty sure Jabba the Hut may have grown up in Cappadocia.

The limestone in this region is easily carveable, and thus over thousands of years people created rooms, houses, churches, etc in the sides of these hills and mountains. It was one of the best ways to escape the hot summer climate. When taken with the many natural chimney rock formations and the array of reds, yellows, and whites, it becomes quite a spectacle.

There are also underground cities here that are massive. The cities were built over the course of 5,000 years by many civilizations, starting with Hittites then Assyrians, and changing frequently until the Romans in the 300s, then Turks starting sometime in the 1000s.

Nobody lived in the underground cities, rather, they were built as a place to retreat to during invasions, and could hold over 25,000 people! The city we visited had 7 levels, all of which were added gradually over the course of the 5,000 years, and aside from rooms to live in there are also churches, wineries, stables, and even a 9 km tunnel to the neighboring town. However, hardly the place for the claustrophobic or Shaq sized basketball player.

Hallways in an underground city:

Just outside Goreme:

Hot air balloon's fill the sky every day at sunrise. Amazing:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

UAE & Oman Desert & Mountains

I set out from Dubai with Anshu from India and Sarah from Spain in Anshu's car. Due to the extreme temperatures in Dubai and the desert of over 100F/40C, we left later in the afternoon. I was quite excited to actually see something in the UAE that wasn't Dubai and wasn't a massive city (Abu Dhabi), so a trip through the desert and the Hajjar mountains with fresh springs sounded great.

Only 45 minutes outside of Dubai and after passing the largest dune in the UAE, we came to the first border check with Oman. Fortunately, I remembered we needed to drive through a bit of Oman so I brought my passport. Unfortunately, Sarah did not. We were also with another vehicle and two of the guys in that car were working in Dubai. So that led to an hour of discussions with the border guys, trying to explain we were just passing through and that they should just let us through. Eventually they relented.

The great part about the delay was that it began to downpour during their discussions. It doesn't rain very often in Dubai, let alone in the UAE desert, so it was a pretty rare occasion and definitely a very cool experience.

45 minutes later we had reached Hatta, a city on a plateau surrounded by date palms and the mountains. We climbed up to the top of a park for a view of the valley. Check out the amount of rules you must obey! Honestly some of these gulf countries are crazy about rules.

We proceeded to go up to a nearby dam in the mountains, just to check it out. Since it is the summer, it was completely dry on one side (not much to dam up!).

Finally, the coolest part, was we switched to the other car, a 4x4. A 4x4 is absolutely necessary to reach the springs as it is on very rough roads that go up and down through the mountains. The driver had been out here before so he knew the roads. And, he quite enjoyed utilizing his 4x4 capabilities, so essentially, he went crazy, and it was like a roller coaster. Honestly it was actually a bit scary, though more so thrilling. After 20 or 30 minutes off-road, we reached the biggest spring, but by this time it had become completely dark. We could hear some others swimming in the pool below, so for safety we moved on and didn't disturb them. The second place we found we got out and began to eat our dinner, then heard a group of animals in the distance... being so perfectly dark, it was difficult to decide what they were, so we moved on. Finally, we just gave up on finding a spring, and ate some food on the side of the road.

You might not even think beforehand that there are any big mountains near a place like Dubai, as it is in the middle of a desert. But discovering these mountains was the most worthwhile part about the trip to Dubai.