September 11th as an American in Turkey

We left Istanbul the day prior and motored all night and into the first half of the following day.  We pulled into the port of Kusadasi, Turkey around noon on Wednesday.  Kusadasi is less than 900 kilometers (not even 600 miles) from Benghazi, Libya, the site of the attack on an American diplomatic mission exactly one year prior.  It is also just about 1,500 kilometers (approximately 900 miles) from Damascus, the capital city of Syria, where civil war brings daily images of death and destruction that most Americans can’t even begin to imagine.

I was worried.

I was on high alert.

I was situationally aware.

We were American tourists in Turkey on September 11th.

I had promised Sheepdog that I would always stay close to Kid A during our travels, but most especially on this day.  Most Americans over the age of twenty-five are able to tell you in detail where they were and what they were doing that clear, fall morning when the planes deliberately crashed on our American soil.  Even twelve years later, I can still remember those feelings of anxiety and fear and grief and uncertainty.

As a group, we decided to disembark the ship, go into the port, but not travel too far into town.  I was adamant that we have some sort of escape plan (as lame as it was to “escape” onto a cruise ship… it was the best I could do under the circumstances).  That meant no tour of Ephesus, the ancient Greek, and later Roman, city famed for the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World, which was destroyed by Goths in the 3rd Century AD), as well as the still-standing Odeum, the Celsus Library, the Temple of Hadran, and the Great Theater.  It also meant no visit to the House of the Virgin Mary, which is widely recognized as the final resting place of St. Mary, Mother of God.  So what was left for us to see and do in Kusadasi, you ask?  Take a wild guess.

My dad and I carefully watched my daughter, mom, and sisters as they moved from shop to shop throughout the winding district.  Shopping, as per usual, was on the docket today, especially once someone heard a rumor that shopping in this port rivaled and even surpassed that in the Grand Bazaar.  At least here I didn’t totally hate it, but only because the sales people in Kusadasi were less intimidating and pushy.  They were even kind of funny.

"Sir, I know I will like you VER much.  Come." - common sales pitch heard in port of Kusadasi

“Sir, I know I will like you very much. Come.” – common sales pitch heard throughout the shopping district in the port of Kusadasi

We made it through the shopping district in under two hours.  And a wonderful thing began to happen during that time… I was actually able to relax a little and enjoy the people of Turkey.

Don’t get me wrong.  I was still very situationally aware and always had eyes on the Energizer Bunny Shopping Team as well as others around us, but I also interacted with many of the vendors while my dad and I waited outside of the stores.  Most, if not all, of them were kind and interesting and really enjoyed practicing their English (which can be a fantastic source of entertainment).  We asked questions of each other and I learned many things that I did not already know.  It was a wonderfully surprising experience for me.

When there was a lull in the procurement of souvenirs, we decided to sit down at a cafe for a bit to enjoy some wi-fi and Turkish beer.  It was a gorgeous day… sunny and in the high 70’s/ low 80’s.  We were checking in with family and friends at home, talking to one another and other people around us, and generally having a very nice afternoon.  We enjoyed it so much that we ordered another round.

Facebook check-in on 09/11/2013: Kusadasi, Turkey.  God Bless America!

Facebook check-in on 09/11/2013: Kusadasi, Turkey. Mom, Dad, me, Sister B, Sister C, and Kid A.  God Bless America! (and free wi-fi)

It was getting later in the afternoon.  Soon it was time for the Muslims’ salat, specifically the Ahr (afternoon prayers).  We had learned a little bit about the five daily Islamic prayer times from our tour guide on Tuesday in Istanbul.  There was a mosque beyond the area where we were sitting that broadcast what I presume was the salat into the marketplace.

Imagine being an American tourist sitting at an outdoor cafe with your family on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, drinking an Efes Pilsener, and enjoying the company of those around you, all while listening to Islamic prayers playing live over a loudspeaker.  I have never had a more surreal experience in my life.

I understand that we were in a very insulated town that makes its income mostly from tourist revenue, so we were as safe as we were going to be in that part of the world.  Nevertheless, what a pleasant surprise on this day in Kusadasi, Turkey.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

Talking Turkey (Day Eight in Istanbul)

WEIRD, REAL-TIME PHENOMENON:  Prior to going on this trip of a lifetime, I had only been on a cruise ship once.  I was pregnant with Kid D at the time.  It was a fun trip with my sisters and my mom, but I was not a huge fan of cruise ships following that vacation (you try shaving your legs with an unyielding, pregnant belly in a tiny box of a shower stall).  Then there are all of the grouchy, old people (you would think that people of every age on vacation would be happy, but noooooo, that is not always the case).  And the lines.  And the waiting for elevators because the stairs are nearly impossible to find and they never go all the way from the bottom to the top.  And the nit-picking, à la carte charges for all of the “extras” (I wouldn’t be shocked if there was a daily charge for my unborn child; but in fairness, I was eating for two).   Did I mention the never-ending lines?

When my mom was bouncing around the idea of the original six of us going away together, I was all “YAY!” but then she mentioned doing it on a cruise.  Well, bollocks (I’m much more European now, so I can use a fancy word like “bollocks.”  In the moment – pre-trip – I likely just said “crap.”).

But all of the cruise stuff ended up being fine (even the shower even seemed bigger because I wasn’t growing a human being inside of me this go-around) and I got over the lines and tried really hard not to be a grouchy, old person myself.  I had a really great time with all of my family and friends.  I’m sure all of the wine helped, too.

In the end, you can say that I am still not a cruise person, but I got to see so many interesting places and it really was a cost-effective way to travel.  I might even be on the fence about the whole deal.  So much so that last week I found myself going on the line and looking up other cruises to see where we could go and what it would cost.

Oooooh… Alaska!?!  That sounds fabulous.  We could even bring the kids for that price.  And look!  A short cruise up and down the California coastline.  That sounds romantic for me and Sheepdog.  And Airtran flies on the cheap to SFO.  We could totally do that!  

How quickly I forget.

Then, yesterday Good Morning America ran a news story about how the Royal Princess – the exact same ship we lived on for twelve days – had broken down in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and was likely cutting the cruise short, giving people refunds, and making arrangements to fly them home.  Here’s an article about it: “Bollocks” doesn’t even cover it

A college friend, who had just texted me another article about scuba suit-wearing protesters throwing themselves in the Venice canal to block the passage of large cruise ships because of alleged structural damage to the city, summed it up best… “I can stay home and have the power go out for a lot cheaper.”  Agreed.

…but have you checked out the itinerary for that Alaskan cruise?

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I woke up to a cloudy view of a crowded city skyline.  It was the first time in over a week that my waking eyes weren’t met with an abundance of green mountains and/ or blue sea.  The forecast is for a bit of rain, followed by mostly sunny skies and a high of only 25° C (77° F). The date is September 10 and today we are in Istanbul, Turkey.

Turkey is a country of 75 million people.  15 million of them live in Istanbul.  Istanbul is divided by the Bosphorus waterway into two sections… half lies in Europe and the other half in Asia.  The European side has both historical and modern sections of the city, while the Asian side is primarily residential and offers much more room for growth.  In many ways (population, traffic, skyline, a general vibe of crazy), European Istanbul reminded me of New York City.  So I guess that would make the Asian side a kind of Turkish New Jersey.  I guess we’ll see tomorrow when we get to Kusadasi.

Our tour bus deposited us in the Hippodrome, which is a city square in a very busy section of historic Istanbul.  As we climbed off of the bus, it was loud and confusing and we were immediately met with several Turkish men who were trying to sell us guide books to Istanbul.  During the first week of our travels I had developed what I found to be a fantastic, universal language, Maverick-is-disengaging procedure (a loud, “No, no!” accompanied with a head shake, similar to what I would do a million times a day when my kids were toddlers) for use in such situations.  I used it in my best don’t-mess-with-me-cause-I’ll-cut-a-bitch voice, so the men left me alone.

My dad, however, had been out of the tourist game for a couple of days.  The cruise ship had made him soft, and you need to be tough or New York City Istanbul will swallow you whole.  He didn’t understand the language, the men were shoving the books (and now postcards too) into his hands, but he also didn’t want to offend anyone.  There was so much confusion and so many men trying to hand these books to everyone.  It was crazy and not a little scary.  We needed to get back to our tour guide.

I saw what was happening and quickly told my dad to hand the books back to the men and not to buy them.  In retrospect, that was probably not the wisest course of action for me to take.  The man who was on my dad whipped his head around to me and yelled with anger in his voice and fire in his eyes.

“You say, ‘No, no, Daddy?'”  Spittle flew from his venomous mouth.  “You should say NOTHING!”  The last word came out as a snake-like hiss.

Bollocks.

He turned to my dad and spitefully said, “You take.  Is gift.”  But I do not think “gift” actually meant “free,” because he and his friends all tried to get money from my dad at that point.  Blood pressures and tensions were definitely high.  My dad pulled a bill from his pocket and handed it to the man, who finally left us alone so we could catch up with our group.

So, that was our first five minutes in Istanbul.

The rest of the day was actually quite awesome, especially because it was definitely filled with a lot less street fighting.  We went inside the incredible Blue Mosque, a 17th century landmark renowned for its huge domes and 6 minarets (historically, more minarets means it is built by and for the higher classes).  We also visited the Hagia Sophia, which was built in 527 A.D., has served at different times both as a Christian church and a Muslim mosque, and is now operated as a museum.

The most interesting part of the day for me was a demonstration by Turkish rug makers.  They won me over when they first offered us warm apple tea and raki (Turkish moonshine, like the Greek ouzo), along with simit (think sesame bagel, yet more savory), but what I learned about rugs was even cooler.  The incredible amount of work that goes into making them (time, talent, materials, natural dyes) was very interesting to learn about.  Now, I have a new appreciation for quality rugs.  And raki.  Şerefe!

We ended the day shopping (of course) in the Grand Bazaar.  I was kind of getting sick of the aggressive sales techniques on this trip, but my mom and sisters, along with Kid A, were having a ball bargaining and haggling and boosting the local economy.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

Baby, You’re a Ship – You Make Me Want to Wear My Evening Gown… and Cruuuuuuise

…aaaaaaaand we’re back.

After fifteen days, six countries, and three continents, we are finally back.

WOW is really all I can say.  I am simply blown away in retrospect.

What a trip we had!  It was amazing and truly once in a lifetime.  It was not a vacation by any means; it was much more of an experience.  We set an alarm almost every morning, were out the door and off of the ship to meet and explore (and get a little lost on more than one occasion), came back hot and sweaty and covered in filth, but our memories (and our cameras) are filled with some absolutely amazing things.

Yet, that was not the end of each day.  After we reboarded the Royal Princess, we then showered and dressed for dinner (Sheepdog is so mad that he missed that… I wore a dress and heels every single night, and I even wore gowns on the two formal nights).  Then, we started our nighttime adventures on the cruise ship.  We drank, we ate, we laughed, we cried, we drank some more.  My sisters, an aunt and an uncle sang on stage.  We gambled and played BINGO and asked if they had any swedish fish (sadly, no).  We shared stories and reconnected with old and new friends and family members.  We met new people and made new friends.  Then we drank some more.  Sister C, Kid A, and I (we were roommates) went to bed “early,” but many of the rest stayed out until all hours of the night watching (and participating in) shows and sing-a-longs and whatever else was happening aboard the incredible floating entertainment palace.

It was like being back in college... tiny twin beds (one came out of the ceiling ), no closet or drawer space, a very small shared bathroom, and lots of drinking.  And we loved every minute of it!

It was like being back in college… tiny twin beds (one came out of the ceiling), no closet or drawer space, a very small shared bathroom, and lots of drinking. And we loved every minute of it!

We made even more spectacular memories than I could have imagined.

I tried to jot down some of the things I was thinking and feeling throughout the trip.  It was hard, mostly because we were so busy and always running from one thing to the next, but I managed to keep a journal on my laptop.  Most of the entries are unfinished because I fell asleep in the middle of writing them.

My plan is to post everything, along with some pictures, over the next few days.

For now, I have to unpack and wash a mountain or two of laundry, catch up on two weeks of lost sleep, and should probably spend a little time in rehab.

My family did it like we always do things… absolutely over-the-top.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…