Before I arrived in Turkey, I didn’t have time to do any research or read much about it. Normally, before vacations I’ve taken in the past, I was all about pre-planning and loved reading about the places I would visit and making lists of my ‘must-sees,’ etc. The planning stages always got me excited about the trip. Travel is one of my basic needs (kind of like oxygen, food, and water for others) and planning allowed me to prolong the experience. I’d often read the guide book three times—I’d skim it when I first bought it, then right as the trip started (often on the airplane on the way there) I’d usually read it more thoroughly for the second time. Finally, I’d end up reading it for a third time because I’d typically read about each place as I was seeing it.
I always figured I was learning a lot more this way and hopefully retaining some knowledge about these far-off lands that I’d “learned” about back in 7th grade history class. Well, “learning” may be too strong a word—I actually remember yawning through most of it and cramming my brain full of purely memorized data. (For example… some Turkish Trivia we once knew: The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers start in Turkey; The famous town of Troy from Iliad’s Homer is in Turkey, the words turquoise, parchment, angora, and yoghurt are Turkish). It was always really hard to wrap my mind around all the names and dates of places I’d never been to or heard of. Now, in Turkey, historical spots like Gallipoli and the ancient cities of Troy and Pergamum were really springing to life right before my eyes.
On this extended ‘world tour,’ I’m often not able to read about my next destination because I can only carry one guidebook at a time and I’m just too busy seeing the current place to start reading about the next one. So, since I really knew nothing about the Turkish countryside and I wasn’t so sure how draining and difficult it would be to travel around the large country all by myself, I decided to book a two week tour of some of the highlights to make life a little easier.
I signed up for a tour with a Turkish Tour company called Fez Travel. In fact, my first day in Istanbul, I realized their office was literally just around the corner from my hotel so I popped in there to say hello and confirm my trip. After a half hour in the office, I had met Hasan, one of the travel advisors who I’d previously corresponded with by email regarding my trip. Not only was he really helpful and friendly, he also won me over because he had a big panoramic poster of the Chicago skyline tacked up to a bulletin board behind his desk. Right on. I also met Vanessa, an Australian gal who, like may others I’ve met, came to Istanbul on a vacation… and never left. I even met the owner. They were all super nice and when I mentioned possibly looking for a job (I’ll get to that later), and they even helped me with some leads. It was hard not to notice just how friendly this country is.
Our tour began in the old quarter of the city where we took in the highlights of Istanbul. The Aya Sofya Museum, originally built as a Christian church in AD 527, was later converted into a Muslim Mosque in the 1400s and somewhat ‘recently’ became a museum in 1935. It is, in a word, huge. It is one of the world’s greatest buildings with a massive dome soaring 53 meters (175 feet) above our gaping mouths.
But my two favorite sites had to be the famous Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern. The Blue Mosque is an amazingly peaceful and stunning home for Muslim worship. The 17th century building is a beauty with interior walls that are covered with tens of thousands of Iznik blue tiles (hence its name) and more than 200 windows that give it a bright, airy, magical luminescence.
The Cistern is an architectural marvel built in the 6th century; it was used to store water for the great Topkapi Palace. It was an amazing underground network of symmetrical brick arches and 336 columns to support the roof. Today, it is just a tourist stop, but it once held 80,000 cubic meters of water pumped through 20 kilometers of aqueducts.
I really liked our nice, diverse group of travelers. We had a mother/daughter pair from Melbourne, Australia, two British girlfriends & co-workers, a wonderfully cute and fit Kiwi couple in their 80s traveling with their fun daughter and granddaughter, a young couple from New Zealand who currently live in London, and a well-traveled, active married couple from Canberra, Australia.
I hit it off with one of my fellow travelers, who was only with us for a few days. Yukari was a cute Japanese girl who was also traveling solo. After just a few minutes of meeting, we were chatting in both our ‘second’ languages—Spanish. It turns out that she had studied at university in Mexico and lived there for five years so her Español was better than her English. Being that I know only about three Japanese words (well, besides all the sushi words—my favorite!), we fell into speaking Spanish. It was so much fun. For many people, Europeans in particular, it’s normal to speak in a second language. But for me this was a new and fun change… for the first time I was conversing with someone in a language that was not native to either one of us. Muy bien.
Astrid was one of the gals from London. She, Dina, and I were walking along the promenade one evening in the cute Mediterranean town of Kusadasi. She was telling us of the time she’d toured the USA for a few months back in the 90s. It was cool for me to hear because most other travelers I’ve met haven’t been able to do this since, overall, the states are just too big and too expensive (especially hotels). She stayed in hostels and picked up odd jobs here and there and loved her time in the US. She also said she had family in California.
“Where in California?” I asked, wondering which city.
She hesitated for a long pause and then said with a smile, “Beverly Hills.”
“Oh! Really! They must be rich! Are they famous?” I exclaimed, excitedly.
“Have you heard of Ernest Borgnoine?”
“He’s my uncle.”
How cool is that?