23 December 2010

In which we write a Christmas letter

Dear Friends (Meegan says this aloud, with a lisp.  “Please put a ‘z’ on the end of that,” says Emily.  “No,” Sarah says, unamused.  “How about f-r-e-n-z?”  Emily begs…):

While Emily’s packing to take the train to Greece, we thought it would be a good time to sit down and write you a Christmas letter from Istanbul.  Starting, however, is harder than we thought it would be; we are three people, see, with three different brains, and distinctly different personalities.  Sarah, a Bryn Mawr linguistics major from Colorado Springs who spent the semester in Cairo, is the museum-pusher.  She and Meegan, also a Mawrtyr who spent the semester in Granada (not the Caribbean island spelled with an “e”!), Spain, had planned to meet for two weeks of adventure before going home.  Emily, from the University of Minnesota, was in Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya for four months, has made her way north to Turkey and will continue on as she heads to Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Austria and the Czech Republic before flying back to Minneapolis.  We met in a four-bed room in the Stray Cat Hostel four days ago in Istanbul, instantly “clicked”, and have been exploring this city of two million people and having a great time.

Highlights on the sites front have included the absolutely stunning Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Ottoman Palaces and Harem, also stunning and which contained supposed holy relics including Moses’ rod, John the Baptist’s forearm, hand and skull, Muhammad’s beard, Joseph’s turban and Abraham’s saucepan.  We did some shopping at the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar and the bazaar that locals actually use and which is much more exciting, and then headed to Galata Tower, from which we had some amazing views of the city.  The enormous Underground Cistern, built somewhat like a giant, wet, underground Roman temple and sort of with that atmosphere, too, was fun because we (read: Sarah) got to try and identify the different kinds of columns represented.  As it turns out, Doric, Corinthian, and Ionic styles all made an appearance.  Our favorite museums thus far include the Turkish Train museum at the train station, the Istanbul Modern and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art.

We have also been to Taksim Square near our hostel and up and down the very European-looking thoroughfare that is Istiklal, then carried on over the Galata Bridge – which is lined with fishermen who somehow manage to catch fish within their own square meter of space without getting their lines tangled up with any of their neighbors’ – and to the nearby fish market.  We also made our way to many parks, in which Sarah and Emily relieved their green-starved eyes, and into the so-called New Mosque, which looked very similar in style to the Blue Mosque but was more frequently used as an actual prayer space by locals.  While entering the latter, we witnessed a group of older women outright prevent a pair of younger women (who we think were Turkish) from entering the mosque in their short skirts (bad taste, in our opinion, no matter where you are in the world) and without head coverings while the men supposedly in charge of ensuring proper dress in the tourist population looked on and seemed not to care – we were struck by the scene and were interested in the fact that it was not men but women who were policing female modesty in the mosque.

Our range of other experiences has included a lot of walking, eating and bathing Turkish-style.  There are a lot of hills in Istanbul, and though we’ve figured out the wonderful tram system pretty well, in order to really see a city it’s good to walk, especially if you’re a penny-skimping student like we are.  So we’ve been a little sore, and always are completely exhausted by around 7 pm – we’re a bit tired as we write this, actually.  The other day, we opted for a Turkish bath (called a hammam) experience in the evening after a long day of walking and were incredibly pleased with the results.  The bath was incredibly inexpensive and included spending an hour in a steamy marble room, in which we bathed ourselves with warm water (and yes, engaged in a few water fights) and then got scrubbed, massaged and soaped down ‘til we were literally squeaky-clean by a lovely woman who hummed Turkish tunes under her breath.  It was one of the most relaxing experiences that we (collectively) have ever had – except when Meegan erupted in uncontrollable giggles upon having to undergo massage where she is most ticklish.  As for our culinary experiences, we’ve eaten just about every kind of cheap street food we’ve seen: roasted chestnuts, fresh fish sandwiches (with quite a bit too much raw onion), bagel-like breads, lasagna-like pizza, pizza-like sandwiches, rice with chickpeas, the best pomegranate ever grown, sweet tea, Turkish delight and baklava, dried fruits and nuts from the bazaars, and kebabs galore…  It has all been delicious, and none of us has gotten even the slightest bit sick, which is a plus.  Unfortunately, we seem to do quite a bit worse when it comes to trying to prepare our own food in our hostel: we’ve discovered that powdered soups made with not-quite boiling water are not really a great idea (our “tomato soup” yesterday turned out to be a neon-pink color), and most of our dinners have consisted of bread and cheese with unhealthy amounts of sweetened yogurt and cheap ice cream from the small grocery store across the street.

Our next adventures take us in vastly different directions (Emily to Eastern Europe; Sarah and Meegan to Jordan and Israel) but we’re thrilled to have happened to end up in the same place for such fun adventures.  We’re all in the process of transitioning from “Study Abroad” mode to “home,” and Istanbul has been a great place for that.  We hope that wherever you are on this Christmas Eve (eve), that it’s a pleasant one and that you’re having adventures (small or large!) of your own.

Much love and best wishes,
Emily, Meegan, and Sarah

20 December 2010

In which I leave Africa and there is a small reunion

Although I have been dispicably inadequate in my blog posting, I thought I ought to take a moment to let you know how life across the ocean is going.  The semester at AUC had its final classes last Thursday, and on Sunday, I left Cairo for Istanbul, where I met my friend Meegan (from Bryn Mawr).  We had been planning this adventure (or variations on the itenerary) since last spring, so I'm very impressed that the whole two days we have experienced thus far have worked out so well.  We'll be here for the next week, playing our touring by ear, before we head to Jordan after Christmas.

Briefly, the end of my time in Cairo was busy, filled with finished classes up, visiting the bazaar to get some shopping done, and saying goodbye to the people I felt I had met just a few weeks before.  One of the great things about the hostel where we're staying in Istanbul is that there's very good wi-fi, and people have a tendency to hang out in the common room on the computer, which means that you can expect some actual updates for a while - maybe I'll even get through some of the backlogged stories I have to share with you about the past two months.

As for Istanbul, I arrived in the afternoon, and took a bus to Taksim Square, where I wandered about in the rain for a little while, before dropping off my bag at the hostel where we had decided to stay.  Thanks to Facebook's NewsFeed feature, I happened to run across a high school friend's blog sometime in November, and leanred that she was studying in Istanbul (see link here for some great observations about life in Istanbul), and it worked out that we were able to meet up for dinner.  She took me to a great local place where I had lentil soup and lamb.  By the time I got back to the hostel, Meegan had arrived, and we were able to do a little planning for the beginning of our time here, and then got to sleep for a very decent length of time.

Today (Monday) we went to Topakı Palace, which was built and improved by various sultans over the course of about five hundred years (yes, you're getting the very condensed explaination), and which currently houses several different exhibits (the highlights of which include Moses' Rod, the Prophet's Beard, Abraham's Saucepan, and John the Baptist's Arm and Skull) in various parts of the palace.  The architecture, internal decorations, and grounds are all fantastic in and of themselves, though I was struck at the difference between this and the temples and other places of opulence I have visited in Egypt.  There is no way that anything so ornate would have survived so long in Cairo.  We also saw the underground Cistern, built by Justinian (well, by order of Justinian) in 532, and repaired and opened to the public in 1987.  It is a beautifully lit underground cavern, with all sorts of columns, which I enjoyed trying to identify as Ionic, Doric or Corinthian.  Fun fact: there are actually all three styles represented.  I have no idea why this is.  Bonus points to anyone who finds out.  We'll continue the tourist adventures tomorrow - I'll try to keep you updated on what we get to see, and where we're going when.

**brief awkward sappy note, which you should feel free to skip**

Just a note, in light of recent events in Colorado Springs, and the various anniversaries which have passed or are fast approaching.  I am working hard to not be fatalistic, or too glib about these deaths.  I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but I'm greatful that I am able to visit all of these exciting places, spend time with people who are important to me, and see so many different cultures.  I feel a little bit uncomfortable posting this paragraph, but I feel as though I need to say something.  So in memory of those we've lost (a list growing far too quickly for my junior year of college) I'm here to live.  I still don't regret choosing to spend Christmas away from my family, but I do look forward to seeing them again in January.  Please, find someone important to you and hold them close for a moment during the next couple of weeks, when family and friends are particularly in our thoughts.