Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Public Transportation in Turkey

Yang enjoys a pit stop during our all-night bus ride

Some of our best adventures involved riding the public transportation in Turkey.  To travel from Istanbul to Antalya, we opted for a cross-country bus.  The stop was a hellish tram ride to the outskirts of Istanbul.  No one spoke English, but by pointing and asking, "Antalya?  Antalya?"  We managed to make our destination reasonably clear.  At 7:00pm we boarded a large van and were driven to another station on the Asian side of Istanbul where we upgraded to a very big bus.  This coach was deluxe-- comfy seats, bathroom underneath, television in the seatbacks (Turkish only-- so many shows about weddings!) and a cute little steward wearing a bow tie and serving tea and snacks.

Buses in Turkey have single-sex seating, so Yang and Ryan sat together and I ended up with a Turkish grandma.  She didn't speak English I don't speak Turkish, but she still spent a long time chatting with me.  The quality of sleep in moving vehicles is never great, but I was surprised not to be too exhausted when we reached Antalya.

On our second day in Antalya we decided to trek out to the ancient ruins of Olympos.  One of the hotel staff told us to go back to the main bus terminal and catch a bus there.  Again, no one spoke English, but by asking "Olympos?   Olympos?"  We were pointed to a very old van.  The van slowly filled and left the station.  We drove around for 30 or so minutes, dropping off and picking up in the middle of highways and busy roads, or sometimes in the middle of nowhere.  We drove on and on, and Ryan finally raised his voice above the Turkish music to ask "Olympos?"  The driver nodded and drove on.  We stopped again, Ryan asked "Olympos?"  The driver shook his head.  The next stop, a small convenience store in a very inconvenient location of nowhere, the driver said "Olympos!"  and let us out.  We walked into the store.  It was part 7/11 and part living room.  A large group of headscarved women sat around a long table with ancient bubbling pots.  Ryan asked the clerk, "Olympos?"  The clerk turned and spoke to an old man, then replied, "20 minutes."  We went outside to eat a small picnic.  Chickens clucked around our feet.  We looked down at the forested valley below the convenience store.  Eventually the old man emerged from the store and spoke to us in Turkish.  "Olympos?"  We asked.  He opened his van door. 

We bumped our way down some dirt roads, over dry river beds, past what appeared to be a hippie commune.  After 20 minutes or so the driver stopped, said something to us in Turkish and got out.  He came back with a young man.  "You need accommodation?"  He asked.  We told him no, and the old man shook his head and drove onward until we reached a very official looking park gate.  Three young men sat at the gate and asked us what time we wanted to be picked up.  Then they spoke to our driver and told him to come back at 5:00.  There was much gesturing of "five" with our fingers until he seemed satisfied and drove off.

One of the surprising things in Turkey is that everything somehow works, despite a complete lack of schedules.  The buses seem to operate completely by chance, and yet we never once got lost.  Our entire bus ride from Istanbul to Antalya cost about 20 Euros per person (or, about E 1.67/hour).  Our entire transport from Antalya station to Olympos' gates cost 6 euros.  I guess this is the triumph of capitalism?  Wherever there's a tourist who needs to go somewhere, an enterprising Turkish person will appear with a 40 year old van to make it happen.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Turkish Cafe Culture

our favorite cafe in Istanbul
When I thought of cafes, I used to think primarily of Paris and Rome-- quaint sidewalk affairs with croissant and cappuccino and let's say a man dressed like a mime smoking a cigarette.  But Turkey has a cafe culture all its own.  Perhaps because alcohol isn't such an important drink in Turkey (as my elusive hunt for drinkable wine would suggest) Turkish coffee and tea has pride of place.  Tea is seemingly drunk at all times and was much better than any German/French/Italian cafe could muster.  Ryan and Yang seemed to mostly enjoy the coffee, though they do not recommend drinking the muddy sludge at the bottom.

The Turkish cafe is about more than drinking coffee, though.  You can smoke a nargile (hookah), though we generally saw only tourists like ourselves doing this; but the real deal is backgammon.  This is a seemingly simple game with endless combinations of strategy and luck.  It also can draw quite an audience, as we discovered.  Bored waiters seemed to relish the opportunity to walk past Ryan and Yang's game to mutter things like "Close the door!"  "No, no, here!  Pieces here!"

I was a late comer to backgammon and chose not to involve myself in the blood battle between Ryan and Yang.  I sat writing postcards, my pens and stamps spread across the table.  A waiter came and complimented my pens.  One of them asked if we could "change" pens.  He handed me his pen, I feigned skepticism.  "Does it work?" I asked.

"Of course it works!"  The waiter replied, "look at it-- very nice pen, very good color!"  I weighed it in my hand, wrote with it, and told him that it was okay for a trade.  He happily took my pen and went about his business.  I thought this was funny but found it even funnier 15 minutes later when another waiter came over to trade for the pen I'd just received from the first waiter.  We repeated the same charade, and the waiter seemed very happy.  This happened a few more times, and looking at my pens now, I have one that I originally took with me, and two from Turkish waiters.  I sat out of backgammon, but I seemed to have been drawn into a cafe game of my own.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Best Way to Stop a Tourist in Her Tracks

For years I've wanted to travel to Istanbul.  The name conjures up images of veiled belly dancers, hookah pipes, sultans in turbans, and open air bazaars.  Now that I'm back I can say it is and it isn't exactly what you'd expect.

One of Ryan's best friends, Yang Yang, joined us for this adventure.  He is a fun travel partner, always up for eating weird foods and climbing ruins.  He's also very outgoing, which is an asset in Turkey.  I forget, having lived in Germany for almost 3 years, that in many parts of the world, it's okay to talk to strangers.  One of the first things we noticed about Turkey was how friendly the Turkish people are.  I expected as much in the touristy areas where Americans are often viewed as dollar signs, but throughout Turkey we constantly met people who just wanted to chat with us.

In Istanbul we stayed in a quaint little place called "Hotel Peninsula."  It is run by the super helpful Rohat, who we spent a lot of time chatting with and taking advice from.  The hotel was in an enclave of backpacker hotels and cheap restaurants, as well as souvenir shops galore.  The employees of these shops and restaurants stand on the road and try to entice tourists to come in.  We heard many lines, and the line "Hello, I am here!"  became a running gag amongst us.  But there were many other creative and interesting lines:

"Hello lady!  Who is the boss?  I want to give you informations!"
"Hello!  How can I help you spend your money?"
"Hello!  Spend some money for your honey!"
"Hello!  It my job to say 'hello!'"
"Hello!  Do you have money?"
"Hello!  Come buy here!  You not buy?  That's ok, I still love you!"

And on the way to the beach one morning, when I was wearing a bathing suit cover up rather than long pants, I heard the line "Hello!  Is your dad a terrorist?  You are da bomb!"  We laughed and wondered if these lines actually worked on tourists, and we realized that at some level they do, because on our last night in Turkey, after much persuasion from a short man called Ounos, we ate at his little restaurant. It was low season in Antalya, and Ounos treated us right with large dishes of mixed curries.  Then he sat down to play backgammon with us.  He moved his pieces with concentration, and then got up from the table to chat up tourists, usually striking out.  I lost the backgammon, but it was an entertaining evening nonetheless, watching charming Turk trying to entice tourists.