Float on

09Dec15

We woke the next morning and I was feeling mostly back to normal, praise Allah.  We packed our things and Zach got in touch with a nice cab driver named Waleed who he had met the day before and who offered us a good price to take us to our hotel on the Dead Sea, about an hour away.  On our way out of town, we went by the Syrian embassy that had crowds of people waiting around outside.

Our cab driver was explaining to us that the amount of refugees coming in from Syria and Iraq could end up being almost half the size of the total population of Amman.  This is, of course, a huge strain on resources, particularly since Jordan isn’t a terribly wealthy country and it’s one of the most water poor countries in the world.  They don’t have oil and one of the main drivers of their economy is tourism, which very few people are wanting to do nowadays since oooh, Middle East, scary.  Despite all of this, Jordan remains generally hospitable to the refugees and provides them services along with the various aid organizations that work in the area.  I detected no bitterness from the people of Jordan who we discussed it with. It’s really staggering to think about how many people are being housed in a country not much bigger than Wisconsin with so few resources.  It’s things like this, and seeing Syrian men, women, and children begging on the streets or selling small things like tissue packets to try and get some money to survive that make me particularly pissed off at the shitheels in our country who think admitting 10,000 of these refugees (a minuscule drop in the bucket compared to what places like Jordan are doing) to our rich, vast, resource laden country is going to destroy us all.

And don’t even fucking get me started on the “all Muslims are terrorists” folks, because holy fuck is that some ignorant shit.  Yes, there are extremists, and yes, those extremists are incredibly bad..  but I cannot stress enough how kind, gracious, hospitable, welcoming, accepting, etc. etc. every single person I encountered over there was.  I’ve been asked a lot since we got back “so, how were the people?” (often in a thinly veiled “was it super muslimy and scary?” way)…  they were great!  The people were absolutely great!  Really, not that different from us.  We all want the same things.. to be safe, to love our families and friends, to have fun, to laugh, to go to work, to practice our religion.  Dehumanizing and distilling Muslims to one single caricature is not only ignorant, but downright dangerous.  So many great atrocities that have happened in history..  slavery, the Holocaust, etc. etc., happened because we decided that some group of people was less human than we are.  To see this starting to happen all over again, and particularly after seeing with my own eyes how straight up wrong people are about it…  it’s heartbreaking and enraging and kill-all-humansy.

Whew.  Ok.  Just had to get that off my chest, since it’s topical and something I’ve been thinking a lot on both while we were there and since we returned.  On to more pleasant things…

So, we take our cab down, down, down towards the Dead Sea.  Since Amman is on a hill (well, a bunch of hills) it was pretty chilly there (highs in the low 50s), but the temperature increased quite a bit as we got closer to the sea (more like mid-80s), which was awesome and welcome.  It was also my first good chance to see desert (which I had never been in before) and mountains.

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Our cab driver had a friend who just opened up a souvenir shop (because of course he did) and he promised us good prices for Dead Sea products, so we stopped in there on the way to get some salts and mud masks and mineral soaps.  Waleed got some soap-kickbacks, but he was correct that prices were fair and he had a good variety of things, plus the shopkeep was friendly and served us tea… so good on him for hooking us up.  We commemorated the experience by taking a picture in front of the store pictures of the former king, current king, and crown prince..  pretty much every single business in the entire country has some version of these portraits, though the ones pictured below were definitely the most common.

Waleed the taxi driver and his captive shoppers

From the shop we were very close to the sea and it was only a bit further to our hotel (we were staying very far north on the sea).

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We had decided to splurge a bit and stay at a nice hotel right on the sea, since public beaches are actually quite expensive to visit.  It’s not particularly easy to maintain them, what with the shitloads of salt in the water making everything jagged death, and so if you wanna visit, you gotta pay.  We figured once you added in that cost and cab fare to and from a hotel that is cheaper but not on the shore that we were basically breaking even in our fancy-schmancy five star hotel.

Oh boy, was it fancy.  It was actually kind of painful to walk in and know that we’d be staying there for less than 24hrs… hell, I basically wanted to move in and never leave.  I mean, look at this place!

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We also had the added benefit of traveling off season, and it was in the middle of the week, so we practically had the place to ourselves.  We got settled in and immediately got down to the task of enjoying the hell out of the place.

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Now, it’s of course well known that it’s very easy to float in the Dead Sea, but I truly was not expecting just how easy it really is.   The water feels almost soapy it’s so full of salt.  It’s phenomenal.  What is not phenomenal is just how much it burns on even the slightest of open wounds…  I had made the terrible, terrible mistake of shaving that morning and hooooooly crap is that unpleasant.  Also unpleasant is getting the water in your mouth, which also happened to me in a photo taking incident.  Besides that, it’s seriously magical.  You can basically “stand” vertically in the water and float with your head and shoulders out of the water with no effort.  Kate has a GoPro so thankfully the experience is well documented.

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After you float around for a bit, you can get out and slather yourself with mineral rich mud from the sea that they conveniently dig out and place in little tureens for you.  Once you’re all covered, you let the mud dry on your skin and then go back in to rinse it all off to reveal the softest, smoothest skin I’ve ever had in my life.  Seriously, I don’t think I came out of the womb with skin this soft.  It’s amazing.

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Once we were sufficiently salted and softened, we got some food and went to catch the sunset from the adults-only pool and tiki bar.

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I don’t know if it’s because there’s more atmosphere above us there or what, but the sunset there was particularly beautiful.  We had hoped to swim a bit more, but when they said the pool closes at sundown, holy shit do they mean it.  The second the sun fell below the mountains it was everybody out of the pool.  I tempered my disappointment by making friends with a totally awesome kitty.

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We hung out at by the pool for a bit after dark enjoying a drink and some hookah (joined by our kitten friend).

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We did not linger too long because our support driver would be there a bit after 2am to pick us up and take us to the starting point of the Dead2Red bike race.  We actually had good intentions of getting a good rest and called it a night around 7:00pm, but a loud group of people next door to us started blasting music at 9, which woke me up and with pre-race nerves I just wasn’t able to get back to sleep.  B and I finally gave up around 1am and mercifully found an open cafe in the hotel so we could get some food in us for the 200km we would soon be facing.

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Amman, man.

09Dec15

When we awoke our first morning in Amman, Zach found that Istanbul had gotten the last laugh on him in the form of a sore throat and cold.  He wanted to go to a pharmacy and the grocery store, so I tagged along to get my first daylight look at the city.

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Zach got his cold medicine (and their cold medicine has the good stuff in it, no meth addicts in Jordan apparently) and we went to the market (named Haboob, hehe) and picked out a variety of tasty beverages.  I was particularly drawn to things in the “green” part of the color spectrum, since you don’t see a lot of that here in non-Mt.-Dew form.

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A Love of Cheese:  The Great Uniter

It was then time for our first real Jordanian meal, and Zach knew just where he wanted to take us.. a little place called Abu… uh, something, I’ll ask Zach later…  that served falafel, hummus, baba ganoush, and the thing that Zach most wanted to go here for, fuul.  Fuul is Egyptian and somewhat similar to hummus but made with fava beans.  It’s garlicy and a little spicy and I definitely understand why he missed it so badly (the fuul is in the middle of the picture below, I believe).

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Everything was absolutely amazing, of course.  This was also our first exposure to a particular tea brand called Alghazaleen (which apparently means “two deer”), which is pretty much the best black tea I’ve ever had.

After lunch we spent the afternoon doing a lot of boring things that I can skip over, like trying to get data service on our phones and walking a super long way to a duty free to get some booze without paying 300% tax on it.  The walk was fun cause it was along one of the main roads, so we got to see more of the city.

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Later that afternoon we went to a store called Bike Rush to get fitted on bikes for our upcoming race and meet our fearless driver Hassan, though the most exciting part about that was the adorable tripod kitten who was hanging around the shop.

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After we got our bike situation sorted, we headed in to the old city to get some dinner.  We decided we pretty much had to have mansaf, which is the national dish of Jordan.  It consists of lamb served over rice pilaf that you then spread a yogurt sauce over.  This sounds all fine and well, but the yogurt sauce has some kind of funky fermentation thing going on with it… so while it actually doesn’t taste too bad, it smells like the devil’s asshole.

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Besides the putrid smell, it was actually all quite delicious… the lamb was incredibly tender and I love me a good pilaf.  We couldn’t even begin to make a dent into the massive platter though, so hopefully some street dogs got a snack.

After dinner we spent a bit of time wandering around the shopping area.  Kate was on the hunt for a Jordan national team soccer scarf and we all needed to get kaffiyehs to be true Jordanians.  We accomplished one of these goals, but the search for the soccer scarf ended up being quite the saga.  A lot of the clothing they were selling had beautiful embroidery on it, so “Jordanian clothing embroiderer” is definitely on the short list of things I could do should I need to flee the country and start again under an assumed identity.

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Once we were done shopping, we headed to a hookah lounge called El Bourge that Zach used to frequent.  Some of the dudes who walked around with buckets of coals remembered him, cause a tall, lanky blonde dude who speaks Arabic tends to make an impression.  The place is basically an Arabic bar, minus the alcohol.  Kate and I were definitely the only women there…  it’s not that women aren’t allowed, exactly, but men and women just don’t socialize in public much from what I could tell.

Damn the man, fuck the patriarchy.

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That man is giving me the hairy eyeball because he is probably wondering what the fuck I’m doing.

After enjoying some tea and smoothies, we decided to call it an early night, as we were all feeling pretty beat after several long days.  Zach was able to connect to his media server set up at home and brought a Chromecast, so we all piled on the gigantic bigger-than-king-size bed to watch Simpsons and eat hummus.

When we awoke our second morning in Amman, I found that Amman got gotten the best of me, as I was feeling awful…  achey and feverish and just all around lousy.  I decided I didn’t want to push myself since the bike race was only a few days away, so I spent most of that day snoozing in our hotel room.  Kate and Zach went out to do some sightseeing and their pictures looked lovely.. but the real excitement of their day is that they got interviewed for a National Geographic special about tourism in Jordan, so they’re going to be in a documentary that comes out sometime next year!

George and Akram, filming for Nat Geo

Thankfully after a day of rest I was feeling quite a bit less terrible, so that evening I joined everyone else as we went out for dinner with one of Zach’s friends from his time when he lived there.  She teaches music and works with refugees and was all around lovely, and it was interesting to chat with her and get her perspective on living in Jordan, particularly as a woman.  Additionally, the restaurant that we went to was absolutely delicious, one of the finest meals we had on the trip.  Highlights included delicious lamb dumplings w/ a yogurt and tomato sauce on them called manti, which kind of tasted like pel’meni, and a chicken dish with creamy, lemony sauce and melted cheese…  holy crap, it was tasty.

After dinner we pretty much called it a night because we wanted to be up bright and early the next morning to get to the Dead Sea as early as possible since we would have to leave by 2am the next morning to get our bike race on.


To the east!

08Dec15

Christ, I need to step it up with these.  I’m going to forget everything that happened if I don’t move it along cause we haven’t even make it to Jordan in recap-land yet.  Ok… ready, go..

When I left off we were heading to bed very late Sunday night/early Monday morning.  As such, B and I decided to take a lie-in while Kate and Zach who were feeling more energetic went out to see a few more sites.  We all met up again later in the morning to scrounge up some lunch and to hopefully, finally get to go in to the Blue Mosque.

We were successful on the lunch front (lahmacun pt. 2, delicious lamb boogaloo) but less so on the mosque front, as the call to prayer was yet again just starting when we finished.  We instead did a little trinket shopping from a nice old man and went back to pack up our things in preparation for our flight to Amman late that evening.  At some point during this packing process, Kate got a news notification on her phone that simply said “2 Americans Killed by Jordanian Official”…  which, when you’re Americans and only a few hours from your flight to Jordan is understandably a bit concerning.  We were fairly quickly able to discern that this was a non-random shooting of the workplace violence type and not a death to Americans type thing, so whew.  Plus, we’re Americans!   With the police killing people and gruesome shoot-em-up workplace violence we would feel right at home!

Anyway, after we got all packed and ready to go, we FINALLY had the timing right to go to the Blue Mosque.  Unlike the Hagia Sophia, which was converted into a museum, the Blue Mosque is still used as an active place of worship… so they don’t want people wandering through and gawking at them while they’re trying to pray.  The Blue Mosque was the only time on the entire trip that I had to cover my head (one of the main questions I’ve gotten from people has been about whether I had to cover my head most of the time or not) and they are quite strict about what you wear to go in as well, though they have all the modesty apparel to lend you if needed.  I had on a dress that went to my knees and leggings on under that and they still made me wear a long wrap skirt, lest my calves turn anyone away from Allah.  You also have to remove your shoes before entering, since the entire mosque is carpeted in the most lovely, thick carpeting you’ll ever feel.

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Getting hijab'd and shoeless

Once we were sufficiently modest, we were allowed to walk through the sanctuary.  It is stunningly beautiful, my pictures can’t begin to do justice to all the beautiful stained glass and mosaics.

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Since it is still an active mosque there is a fairly limited area where visitors can go, the above picture is looking in to the area where only muslim men are allowed to go.

P1090714 (1)The sign apparently said something along the lines of “Women, please do not pray here”… but ladies, never fear.  You get your very own prayer area, way in the back, walled off from everything else, lest someone gaze upon your backside while you are praying.

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After we finished at the mosque we still had a bit of time to kill, so we again took a wander and again ended up on a rooftop cafe for tea and coffee and a snack.  It was then time for us to get to the airport and fly off to Amman, to arrive very late that evening.

The flight was uneventful, though a bit longer than I thought it would be because we took the least fiery-death-from-missiles route which basically took the right angle side of the triangle rather than the more direct hypotenuse.  Thankfully we were once again on Turkish air, with their tasty food and quality entertainment so the time passed quickly.

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We touched down in Amman, and almost immediately things took a turn for the excessively stressful.  When we got on the flight, Branden wanted to put his shoulder bag (containing his passport, wallet, and laptop amongst other things) in an overhead bin but they were already full immediately above us, so he tucked it in a bin 3 or 4 seats up the aisle.  This shoulder bag is literally one of a kind, he bought it in Chicago and it had been custom made for someone or as a prototype or whatever… doesn’t matter, besides to say that this bag is quite unique, not something someone could mistake for their own.

We’re waiting to get off the plane and it’s a huge plane so it’s taking forever but finally the people right in front of us are starting to move..  one of the guys starts his way down the aisle, sees B’s bag in the otherwise empty bin above a now empty row, and apparently thought to himself “jackpot!”.  I see him grab the bag and start down the aisle again and so I immediately start jumping up and down and screaming HEY! HEY! HEY! THATS NOT YOUR BAG! HEY HEY! much to the shock and irritation of the other people on the plane.  For once in my life my ability to be loud as hell and cause a big scene was a benefit and not a curse, because he quickly turned around and handed Branden his bag, with a slightly-sheepish, shit-eating, you-caught-me grin on his face.  What an asshole.

So, we finally manage to get off the plane without starting an international incident and make our way to customs.  Prior to our arrival we had all purchased a “Jordan Pass”, which included our visa fees and entrance to a ton of tourist attractions like Petra (and on a side note, if you’re ever going to Jordan I highly recommend this route because it will save you a bucket of money), but only Zach had thought to do it in advance and print out his receipt, whereas the rest of us just had a PDF with a QR code on our phone.  Zach had many warnings for us about the technological capabilities of Jordan (well, the lack there of) and so we were all a bit nervous for the moment of truth as to whether we’d be able to get through customs…  but thankfully it went about as smoothly as such things can go.  We then got our luggage and found an ATM to take out some dinar when the next stressful situation hit when B realized he had lost his debit card somewhere in Turkey.  Thankfully this ended up being a non-issue, since I could still take out cash and he had his credit cards, and it wasn’t stolen by anyone or anything… but still, not the thing you want to discover when you’re already exhausted and stressed.

Once we finally got out of the airport our fortunes started to turn.  We caught a cab and made our way in to the city, Zach excitedly chatting with our driver in Arabic the whole way.  Amman is arranged along a series of traffic circles though the middle of the city (though, in looking at a map it doesn’t really make any organizational sense at all, but I guess that’s what happens when you build a city on a bunch of hills) and we were staying at the First Circle, which is also the general neighborhood where Zach lived.  Zach was super excited to be “home” again, and even more excited that our hotel room had a butt washer:

Plumbing systems there are not as robust as here (and need to use less water since, ya know, desert), so you generally shouldn’t/can’t flush toilet paper and rather there’s always a little garbage can to toss your used TP in.  Since this could quickly get…  horrifying, most bathrooms have a sprayer that you can use to clean yourself up before wiping, basically a handheld bidet.  Zach is a big fan of this system, as you can see from his joy above.  The rest of us were never really able to get in to it.

We got settled in and decided we were all still a bit to amped up and also a mite peckish, but it was two in the morning so we weren’t sure we’d be able to do anything about that.  Mercifully there was a Buffalo Wings and Rings (or as we called it, Wings n’ Stuff) right next to our hotel that was still open and serving til 3am, so we were able to get a bit of nosh and a drink and relax a bit after a trying travel experience.

First Jordanian(?) meal

Wings n’ Stuff basically became our American embassy, like how Mitch Hedberg said that Subway was his embassy in Dublin.  We made note that they had signs up advertising both that they played NFL games and that they had a location in Aqaba, where we would be the next Sunday.  Sweet, sweet American chain restaurants.

So, with that we headed off to bed to get some rest for our first day in Jordan.


When we left off, our intrepid travelers were shuffling off to bed late, late, late their first night overseas.  Morning came exceptionally quickly, and we slept in a bit to give our tired bodies some energy… but we didn’t snooze too long because jet lag and sleep deprivation be damned!  We were in Istanbul and it was time to see the sights.

We began our day at the aforementioned rooftop terrace recommended to us the evening before, which had obscenely beautiful views of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the sea.

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We were a bit late for traditional breakfast, so instead we ordered a spread of dips and snacks.. which, really suits me just fine.  Prior to leaving on the trip, B and I consulted our favorite wise travel oracle, Anthony Bourdain, for suggestions on what to keep our eyes out to eat and drink while we were there.  It was at this restaurant that we got to try the first thing on our list, a flaky pastry with cheese and pastrami called (if I am remembering correctly) borek.  It exceeded expectations.  There was also, of course, plenty of coffee, tea, hummus, and yogurt based foods.

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After we were all jacked up on caffeine and hummus, we set out to do tourist things.  First stop was the Hagia Sophia, the first church ever (no really, go look it up!).  There was a long line to get in, but we met a friendly tour guide who (for a small fee) would let us skip the line and show us around.  I’m often leery of these deals, but he seemed on the up and up and Salah-al-deen turned out to be funny and informative and very much worth the cost.

The Hagia Sophia was originally built in 360, but that first church and a second one both were burned to the ground during various riots of the time.  Nothing is left of the very original structure, but they have found some of the facade of the second church that stood from 415-532, like these lambs that apparently represented the Apostles:

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The current building that still stands today was finished in 537, though parts of it have been replaced from time to time due to collapses from earthquakes and attacks from angry hordes and such.  It was a church until sometime in the 1400’s when the Ottomans showed up, snatched it, and turned it in to a mosque.  As muslims don’t believe in showing images of faces in their idols, they removed most of them and covered up several of the mosaics.. though kindly did not destroy them so once the building was desanctified and turned in to a museum in the 1930’s they were uncovered and restored.

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The large door pictured above was the main entrance in to the sanctuary.  In the floors on the sides of the doors you could clearly see where the marble had been worn down from hundreds and hundreds of years of guardsmen standing there and protecting the sanctuary.

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The inside of the sanctuary was partially under construction (which I guess is a common occurrence since keeping a 1500-some year old building in good condition is no easy task), but still very beautiful with  elements of both Christianity and Islam evident.

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The door in the above picture dates to 2 B.C., which is just..  wow.  I remember going to Europe and being impressed with buildings that were built in the 1500’s, and then standing on the Great Wall and being impressed it was from the 1300’s, but this just blows that away.  Cradle of civilization shit right there.

After touring Hagia Sophia we decided it was time for some more coffee and a snack, and I got to have my 2nd Anthony Bourdain recommended food, lahmacun, which is basically turkish pizza w/ ground spiced lamb on it.  Probably the best thing I ate in Turkey.  Someday when I win the lottery and become independently wealthy, I will open a lahmancun food cart in Madison.

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There were more cats as well.

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After our snack we visited the Basilica Cistern, which is…  well, a really old cistern that used to supply water to all the government buildings and palaces.  It’s now mostly drained, save for a few feet of water that is home to some incredibly gigantic and fairly horrifying carp-like fish.

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The columns were all repurposed from various other places so they weren’t all uniform… though, let’s be real here, a column is a column.  There was a few exceptions, like this cool column that has carvings on it that are supposed to be a hen’s eye crying:

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Wikipedia tells me this was supposedly done as a tribute to the hundreds of slaves that died while building the Basilica, but that’s really depressing so..  let’s just enjoy the pretty carvings.

There are also two random medusa heads in the far back corner, one placed sideways and one upside down (so that you don’t turn to stone when you see them, natch).  Apparently no one knows how or why they showed up here or where they came from in the first place, which makes it strangely creepy.

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After touring the cistern, we tried to visit the Blue Mosque, but it was prayer time so it was closed to the public.  We got to wander through the outer courtyard, but we would have to wait until the next morning to go inside.

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We then decided that we pretty much HAD to go over to the Asian side of the city, because seriously, how often do you get to take a 20 minute transcontinental trip?  If only all travel involved hopping on a boat for a few minutes and ending up on a different continent.

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In my limited research on the city prior to the trip it sounded like the Asian side was more residential and also kind of hipster, so I was very interested in checking that out.. some of my favorite things to do in other countries are people watch, wander, and go to grocery stores…  and we did all three.

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Paralytic shellfish poisoning, anyone?

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We were walking around looking for somewhere to eat when a nice Turkish man who lived in the US for many years overheard us speaking English and took us to a cafeteria style place I had actually stopped and took a picture of previously because the food was so pretty.  With his guidance we got a smorgasbord of delicious things that I could absolutely in no way tell you what they were.

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Nice old Turkish guy who helped us find a good cheap buffet cafe

 

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After dinner we took a different ferry back to Europe to explore yet another side of the city around the Galata Tower that was also incredibly hip and filled with bars and lots of amazing graffiti and gigantic hills

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Of course, my personal favorite:

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We were eventually lured in to a bar with the promise of free shots ..which never materialized, but it was fortuitous that we stopped anyway because they had live music and it was excellent.  It was just two guys, one on a guitar and one with an electric violin that he could do crazy things with.  They played what I assume was kind of new school Turkish folk music.. it’s kind of hard to tell when you can’t understand any of the words, but regardless it was quite beautiful.

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On our late night cab ride home our cabbie asked us if Obama is a muslim, and then that’s about all for our whirlwind only full day in Istanbul.

 

 


The back story:

For a few years after he finished college, my friend and coworker Zach lived in Amman, Jordan to work with Iraqi refugees displaced by the war and teach them computer skills.  He always spoke fondly of his time there, and for several years had been trying to convince us that we needed to go visit.  Since we’re also all cycling buddies, one of the main attractions of the trip was to participate in a bicycle relay race that runs about 200km from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea.  B and I finally got sick of his cajoling (kidding, kidding..) and decided that we should do it.  Kate heard that we were going to the Red Sea, which she has always wanted to visit to scuba dive, and with that our merry band of travelers was cemented and we began to make plans.

Then, to add another layer to the whole thing, in mid-August between when we decided that we were going to do this trip and when we actually started buying tickets and making reservations, B and I decided that it would probably be a good idea to just go ahead and get married.  It went something like this:

Caitlin:  “Ya know, maybe we should just get married before we go to Jordan?”
B:  “Are you serious?”
Caitlin:  “Yeah, I mean, it seems like it would make things easier.”
B:  *happy crying noises*

…and so we power-planned a wedding in just over 2 months and the trip became a “honeymoon” with some third wheels.  If you’ve never tricked your friends in to coming on your honeymoon with you, I highly recommend it.. very entertaining.  Also, if you need to gently break the news that you’re traveling to the Middle East to your nervous family, softening the blow with the news you’re also getting married is a pretty great way to do it.

We decided that as long as we were going half-way around the world, we might as well get as much out of it as possible and schedule a stopover somewhere.  Thanks to white folks being terrified of the Middle East, airfare on Turkish Air was obscenely cheap… base fare: $250 dollars (with, of course, about $500 worth of taxes and fees tacked on, but still..) and so we added a few days in Istanbul on to the start of the trip.

(Airline-related aside:  Holy crap, Turkish Air is amazing.  Can’t recommend them enough.  Nice planes, great entertainment, surprisingly delicious airline food, fresh flowers and nice smelling lotions in the bathrooms, awesome little care packages w/ socks and slippers and bougie lip gloss…  the whole package.)

The evening of Friday, November 6th we took off from Chicago O’Hare and had a mostly uneventful flight to Istanbul.  The only event of note was thankfully a happy one, as Zach mentioned to our flight attendants that B and I were on our honeymoon, and so they brought us a tray of delicious treats!  Like, actually really, really tasty even though it was just airplane dessert.

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So, loaded up on sugar and adrenaline and airplane wine and excitement, we landed in Istanbul and then had to wait in the world’s longest customs line, which would have been less long if people hadn’t kept cutting the line (grumble).  I did manage to get the last laugh when I (accidentally, I swear) ran over the foot/ankle of one of the line cutters when we met again at baggage claim.  I did not apologize.

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The cab ride to our AirBnB apartment took us along the shores of the Sea of Marmara (which eventually flows to the Mediterranean Sea) and by many of the old walls of the city. We were staying in the old city of Istanbul, which turned out to be very convenient as most of the interesting touristy things to see were within a very quick walk, important when you only have about 48 hours to visit.  We arrived after a bit of difficulty to meet our host Tansel (so hot right now!) and settle in a bit.  He provided some recommendations for reasonably priced Turkish food in the neighborhood, so we headed out to find our first meal abroad.

We think we actually didn’t even find the right place, but regardless we had a tasty first introduction to Turkish food… and tea.  Oh, the tea…. so much wonderful, glorious tea everywhere you go.

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The next exciting thing I learned about Istanbul is that it is filled with cats.  Seriously, cats are EVERYWHERE.  I couldn’t take 10 steps without encountering a friendly feline.  Normally you’d expect street-cats to be kind of mangey, but the cats here all generally looked well fed and healthy and people seemed to be mostly kind to them.

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After dinner we decided to wander a bit and follow our senses and whatever looked interesting until we found something that actually was…  and we did, along a cute little street with some nightlife.  The one unfortunate thing about the old city is that it mostly shuts down in the evenings and the few places that are active in the evening tend to be pretty touristy.  Lots of overpriced food and drinks and lots of people standing out in the sidewalk begging you to patronize their establishment.  Regardless, we persevered and found a lovely rooftop terrace (which would be a significant reoccurring theme of our time in Istanbul) that had drinks and nargille (aka hookahs).

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We spent a bit of time joking around with our waiter, who was incredibly proficient in English smart-assery.

Ok, bit of an aside here…   prior to this trip Zach was not particularly keen on Istanbul or the Turkish people.  He explained that he had been there only immediately after leaving Jordan, which is like the “Midwest of the Middle East” in that people are excessively polite and friendly.  The people of Istanbul are, well.. not rude, exactly, but more akin to the dry/blunt types you might find in New York City.  The more time we spent there, the more this assessment seemed to ring true.. though I generally found it pretty funny.     Another example:  the next morning we were walking from breakfast to go do some sightseeing and a cabbie called out to us “Need a ride?”.  We told him we were going just up the block, to which he replied “Then mind if I stick my hand in your wallet and take some money?”.  I’m ever impressed with people who are able to be smart asses in a foreign language.

Anyway, Zach noticed that the gentlemen sitting at the table next to us were speaking Arabic with our waiter, so he got his first chance to brush off his old language skills.  This was particularly fortuitous because the Syrians-by-way-of-Dubai recommended an excellent spot for breakfast the next morning, which we found and heartily enjoyed… but more on that later.

We eventually wandered back to our AirBnB and spent some time chilling out and sitting in the back garden that overlooked the sea.  When we were heading in to call it a night, we realized we could see the spires of the Blue Mosque looming over the roof of our apartment… so, of course we had to take a late night stroll there to check it out.

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It really is quite a beautiful building, and we had the plaza to ourselves seeing as it was pushing 3am.  After admiring it for a bit, we realized that it had been many hours since dinner and we were all starving again.  Thankfully a place next to the mosque serving all kinds of various meats on swords was still open.  The world needs more late night kabab joints in it, seriously.

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12208785_10104758127521187_1987983777358583849_n After our late-night meat stop accompanied by many angsty kitties, we were all pretty sleepy and headed back to our apartment so the weary travelers could get some much needed rest and start out our first full day in the city bright eyed and bushy tailed.


After the most ridiculous week of my life, we were finally at the apex of the wedding celebration.  First up was the Sangeet on Friday and then the actual wedding on Saturday.  

Friday we all took quite the lie in.  It was necessary to prepare for what was to come.

I took my only solo trip (not in our car) in to the city this day.  B was dealing with the aftermath of the Great Mumbai Massage-oil Massacre, and I needed to get my tailored dress, so.. I wandered the mile or so down the road to the store to pick it up.  I wasn’t terribly surprised by this, but I experienced the most stare-downs of the whole trip on this venture… apparently being a white girl, unaccompanied, in a knee length dress is quite the scandal.. this coming from a people where it is entirely common to have your entire midriff exposed.  Cultural standards are weird and interesting.

I know I’ve discussed how entirely overwhelming shopping for Indian clothing is, it’s also as bad or worse to actually put said dresses on.  Once I finally had my whole outfit, I still needed to rely on a nice Indian lady to put me in it.  Which she did.  Hours before the ceremony.  I was hot and sweaty and wearing a bazillion lbs of mesh.. but it ended up being ok after going to sit in the AC for a while.

(Aside: I got to bring my sari-thing home and it’s so beautiful.  If I ever need to wear a gown somewhere I will wear my sari…. but I will have to find a nice old Indian lady in Madison to put me in it.)

After I had been put in my outfit I primped myself up because any time you have to hire someone to dress you, you better be classy.  The white folks were looking proper this evening. 

we looked really, really good

we looked really, really good

 

Wait! 

(Ok, it’s time for another, more significant aside.  I completely forgot to mention this part. 

So, the night before the wedding proper is pretty much the apex of the party, called the Sangeet.  It’s a musical/dance celebration in which the families of the nearly-newlyweds perform Bollywood style dances.  This particular sangeet was essentially a Bollywood-style retelling of the intended’s story… and, of course, that involves some dancing.  

We (the white people) were assured that we’d be taught a dance plenty in advance, and we were actually gifted with the dance as performed at once of the rehearsals, so we joked amongst ourself about the dance through the week.  Then Thursday night we had a rehearsal.  

It was chaos.  Just chaos.  …and we all decided the choreographer was a real bitch (particularly after the fact when I learned she was pissed the white people were being allowed to do the dance because apparently if we don’t know the meaning of a word we can’t recognize it and oh man, my first and probably last extremely insignificant exposure to extremely insignificant racism.)

This night was SO FUN.  Our dance was great, if not technically.. but, we had the appropriate enthusiasm! …ok, actually it was so bad, but.. appropriate and funny.  The rest of the dances were actually good, like knock-it-out-the-park, we-get-paid-for-this, GOOD.  We all were dressed up and looking… just totally badass. 

the best night

the best night

The sad part of this night was that Yuya had to leave in the middle of it… and, lord, did he cut it close.  Thanks to our awesome drivers, he made it to his flight on time.  Not to get sappy, but weprobably couldn’t have met a better addition to the crew. 

 

compatriots

compatriots

 

And so, it went on like this.  For many hours that were (blessedly) undocumented.  …and a few that were that I’m ignoring to protect the innocent.  Shoutout to Berman for wanting to leave when I did, and accompanying me “home”.  

SOON 

 


After my Wednesday night reprise, I was all ready for whatever the rest of the week was going to entail.  I yet again got up and had a wonderful and leisurely breakfast (consisting of chai and toast) in the hotel restaurant, and then fancied up for the mehndi party.

So, mehndi is what one might call henna..designs put on hands with a paste that eventually flakes off and leaves an orange design on whatever skin it was applied to.  Generally it’s done to hands, but can also be put on feet, arms, shoulders, etc.  Mehndi is apparently considered a symbol of good luck, health, and sensuality, along with representing the “inner sun”, so it makes sense that it’s an important part of the wedding ceremony.

I was really excited about this part and it did not disappoint.  I’ve been back for almost 2 weeks and the faint traces of mehndi are still on my palms… one of the greatest and most fleeting souvenirs I’ve ever had.

This is most definitely a place where I let pictures speak for themselves:

It was awe-inspiring how quickly these women were able to do this

It was awe-inspiring how quickly these women were able to do this

top of the hand art

top of the hand art

 

during

during

action shot during

action shot during

 

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i rarely feel lovely, but in this company I feel super lovely

 

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Yuya bucks gender norms and goes for it… with great results

The final (beautiful) result

The final (beautiful) result

Also of note during this party:  B, Patty, and I all tried lamb brains.  I thought it was alright, Pat did not.

After the mehndi party, B, Pat, and I went to get a massage at a place by our hotel.  It was great, but allow me to present a dramatization of what was done to me:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXjHNpNgXpo

Also there was a massage oil related incident, but it’s so not my story to tell so I’ll just gloss over that.

So after said massage it was once again time to get dressed up to get messed up for yet another… at this point, I don’t even know.. there was a party and we were there.

I finally managed to take a picture of what basically all the buffets were like:

buffet for miles!

buffet for miles!

Thursday night would have been unexceptionable except that Berman decided to head home early (early = 2am) and got in a car accident with our driver.  Praise Jebus everyone was ok, and honestly I’m surprised that was the only traffic incident we suffered (traffic there is a hot mess), but it was still quite scary.  I do have to laugh a bit about it because after Berman messaged me to tell me what was up, I went to tell Slim cause I figured he was the master of the cars and need to know…. his reaction was to give me a huge hug, kiss me on the forehead, and tell me everything was going to be alright.  I am not mad about this approach.

We got home and spent a bit of time watching the footage that Yuya had been taking all week, but backwards at 8x speed, to Jamiroquai…. not unrelated to that, it was one of the best films I’ve ever seen.. the man has a gift.

…and then… bedtime, to rest up for what was to be the actual craziness amongst a whole week of crazy.