Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Stroll Through Downtown Istanbul

      Istanbul is perhaps the easiest city for accessing tourist destinations just by walking around the center of town. Sites that cannot be reached that way are near the Bosporus and its inexpensive public ferry which plods the waterway regularly. Thus, the city is not just one of the most interesting places in the world; it is arguably the simplest one to get around in. I suggest that the traveler find a place to stay in the center of the city (although, of course, hotels are more expensive there than ones further out), get a map, put on his walking shoes and then just roam about. As soon as you hit the street in the central area, the city jumps out at you. There is activity everywhere. Outside of India, it is the busiest city I have ever visited. Water sellers with old time costumes approach to sell you their wares. Kids walk by with flat boards on their head piled with delicious herbal breads. People hustle and bustle everywhere. You are definitely in Istanbul.

     The first places the visitor needs to head for are the preeminent and fascinating Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia which stand directly across the street from one another. A visit to these two historic and magnificent structures makes a trip to Istanbul worthwhile alone.  Not far from these sites are the Hippodrome, the vast Topkapi Palace which houses an extensive anthropology museum, the Rustem Pasha Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. You may not make it through all of these in one day. The Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque is indeed one of the most beautiful religious edifices of the world. Its 260 windows and multitude of Iznik tiles are hypnotic while the ceiling stands out with its heavenly blue color. Outside there are six graceful minarets and the onlooker can marvel at the skillfully constructed Byzantine Dome which dominates the building. While this structure served as a mosque for its lifetime, the Hagia Sophia was originally built as a church by the Byzantines when it was dedicated in the year 360 AD and it became a mosque only after the Ottomans conquered the area. It served that function from 1453 until 1931. It was then converted into a museum by the secular government that followed the Ottoman era.  The building is one of the great remaining monuments to Byzantine architecture. Some of the wonderful Byzantine mosaics that decorated the walls have been uncovered and offer fascination for the visitor. These ancient religious creations were among the finest art of their time. The structure has been transformed or rebuilt more than once and is somewhat of an historical symbol of the city. Near the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern. This underground storage facility was built by Justinian in 532 AD, and it is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. The huge structure once held over 80,000 cubic meters of water. The vaulted brick roof is supported by 336 columns, each over 30 feet tall, and water was pumped to it through over 40 miles of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea.

      Only about one block away one comes upon the Roman Hippodrome. This ancient site was the scene of festivals and contests during Roman and Byzantine times. Its main feature is the 3500-year-old Egyptian granite Obelisk of Theodosius, brought to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius in 390 A.D. A longer walk takes one to the 1384 Galata Tower originally built by the Genoese. The tourist's next step may be a day's trip on the ship that plies the Bosporus and stops at a host of little, interesting towns along the way. One can visit the Dolmabahce Palace, one of the most glamorous, excessive and luxurious buildings of the nineteenth century on one stop and then enjoy the products of the most famous yogurt producing town in the world on another. Even for those who not especially fond of yogurt, this creation has to be sampled. Vendors board the ship with trays of yogurt and disappear as the voyage continues up the Bosporus to the Black Sea. Although the trip on the Bosporus is a great second day, the most incredible thing about this bustling and historic metropolis is the fact that one or two days of just walking about in the neighborhood of the old city covers the most important sites to see in Istanbul. I don't know of another place where that is the case.             

     While the Grand Bazaar is a bit of a walk from the center, the tourist is bound to make that trek. The glistening plates and ceramics, the spices and sweet smelling food, the color and the bustle make this a true travel highlight. My favorite site is still farther away so the tourist might want to catch a ride to the Suleymaniye Mosque. It is the mosque's simplicity combined with its majesty that entrances me. While the more centrally located Blue Mosque is better known, Suleymaniye is the more dramatic building. It was designed by the master architect, Sinan, in the mid-sixteenth century. Its great dome and four minarets dominate the third hill of this fascinating city. You can't go wrong just wandering about in an amazing metropolis which combines the best of the East and the West. I think you will find Istanbul to be one of the most delightful and interesting places in the entire world to visit.

Lake Van, Western Turkey


Friday, April 20, 2012

No Third World No More

     My aching and vulnerable body makes it impossible for me to travel to the Third World or actually anywhere with my customary abandon and relative disregard for comfort and protection. The time has arrived for careful pill packing and a far slower pace. That is the fate of every aging traveler at some point in their life. The trick is to do as much as possible when the opportunity presents itself. I still have many unwritten anecdotes about my voyages past but my current adventures are tamer and far less frequent. For example, I have just returned from a second trip to Costa Rica. Now I do not consider Costa Rica a Third World country though some of the folks living in one room shacks might disagree with me but there are passable roads to travel on, electricity and filtered water  and good sewage facilities throughout the country, artifacts that the Third World often lacks. The food is safe, schools are available to all and people vote for their political leaders. But the country is a splendid place to visit for folks looking for scenic delight, jungle adventures, Hispanic culture and cuisine and other such things. The entire country is is a bit like a self-contained resort in an underdeveloped area.

      In spite of my apprehension, my family was eager for one more trip. I did not want to disappoint them so off we went. This trip was quite a change for me. As a now disabled traveler, I had to concern myself with lots of new things. My rooms needed to be handicapped accessible; I had to organize my pills in a box with each day marked on it; I could no longer do hikes or climb hills; I needed to make sure I had sufficient rest (no more all nighters for me); I needed someone to wheel me from one place to another, and so on. Costa Rica turned out to be a wonderful place for a wounded warrior still moving along the travel path. The distances from one place to another are manageable so a couple of rides of a few hours each was the total transportation I needed to weather. Even those trips were delightful with views of neat farms, resplendent vegetation and lovely mountain scenery. The rides simply flew by.

     Costa Rica is an extremely beautiful country. There are smoking volcanoes, soft and lovely beaches, jungles with zip lines and hiking trails, rivers filled with large crocodiles and with birds and iguanas and lizards perching on the tree limbs, magnificent but expensive hotels in the tourist areas, monkeys and other animals to be spotted throughout the country, white water rafting and more. It is a place worth going to even if one's travel capacity is not 100%. I was able to do some rather nice photography without walking a lot, especially from the boats that took us on the picturesque river rides. With the help of my family I was even able to ascend to the jungle canopy in a lift which took me up to the zip line although I could not join the others flying through the forest. At least I was in the company of howler monkeys and such. The biggest problem was the price of almost everything. Food at the hotels was outrageous and traveling into town by taxi or shuttle was even more. The excursions could break the bank as well. As a Third World traveler, I was not used to resort rates. This was not a trip one could easily do on the cheap and still participate in the things the country has to offer.

     All my life I have taken risks and gone to places many others tend to avoid because of the presence of the unknown and the absence of customary travel comforts. My Costa Rica trip was just another extension of such activity. A safer, more predictable journey for a body that I now need to be more careful about. But it was successful and surely delighted my family who shared my expectation that I would not venture abroad again. Glad I surprised them and myself. If you share my dilemma, evaluate carefully what you can do- and do it. It is always about seizing the day, whatever that may mean to you.

Howler Monkey with Baby, Jungle, Costa Rica

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Traveling with Friends

      We have gone on vacation with several of our friends, but traveling with them to the Third World is another matter. For the most part, it is more challenging and more complicated to go to places where one is not really certain about what to expect around the corner. We usually go alone. In the past several folks have indicated they would like to take a Third World trip with us and we have had a few successful voyages with good friends. It takes a bit of planning and one needs to evaluate a few things first. People who travel together have to be socially compatible of course. That is a sine qua non for any kind of travel but especially where the going can be rough. No complainers welcome. Pleasantness and flexibility required. Waiting at unexpected obstacles on the road or stretches between acceptable restaurants are common. Hotels may not meet usual standards but they are what they are and that is where we stay. So we start out by voyaging with those few friends who don't care too much about minor inconveniences along the way.

      Flexibility is the most required characteristic for couples who journey to out of the way places together. One may well have to change plans in midstream, move along with a piece of luggage missing for a period of time, or tolerate discomfort for part of the trip in order to access the places that need to be visited. I wrote earlier about our experience in the monsoon in the Philippines and how we had to completely revise our trip in midstream. Although most trip alterations are not so dramatic as that, we do try to do things that are unique and we often thrust ourselves into the unknown from time to time. If our companions cannot tolerate risk at about the same level, the trip may be lacking surprises and excitement. Time and travel are too precious to sacrifice the serendipity that makes the Third World so inviting.

     Personalities need to mesh during as intimate an experience as adventuresome travel. If one person does not care about time, meeting arrangements are not kept and the rest of the group may be waiting in a lobby for a half hour for the other person. That can be especially aggravating when more punctual members of the group have rushed to make sure their companions are not waiting for them. Morning people and evening people may have to adapt by modifying those tendencies when they are with others for breakfast or during an evening excursion. One sad sack can drag a group down and diminish its level of pleasure. Folks who like museums or ruins have to compromise with those whose interests are more focused on the outdoors or hiking or other more active undertaking and vice-versa. People who are shy about participating in ceremonies or activities of people in the places they are visiting may have to put themselves out more than they otherwise would. People who are germ adverse may need to just let some things go that they would react to at home.

     There are many such matters which folks need to be sensitive to before embarking on a two or three week endeavor to experience some place in the Third World. It is unlikely that travel companions will make an otherwise potentially pleasant trip into a failure but an inability or unwillingness to change one's behavior or an insensitivity to others' wishes and needs can certainly make such an undertaking less enjoyable and less productive. We know our friends in the social context where we usually associate with them but travel is something else. It is hard to know for certain what people will be like on the road but one should take as full measure how that might turn out as possible before taking a risk on a diminished journey or even worse, a diminished friendship. Traveling with company can be lots of fun if the group is truly compatible and on the same page about what they want to do and what they hope to get out of the experience. My wife and I still prefer to wander the Third World on our own. That's how we do it most of the time.

Buddhas in Temple, Mandalay, Myanmar