Mamma Mia, Croatia is beautiful!

For the last 4 months I have gotten used to being way more obvious than I usually feel however in Croatia that has changed. I was hardly noticed at all and was not even recognised as a tourist until I spoke… obviously not in Croatian! That is I wasn’t noticed for being blond, white, tall etc but I was noticed because of my nose ring! I had a couple of comments made about it. It was very funny when a woman on a bus was talking to another one about it. I recognised the body language so sort of realised but it was confirmed when she said ‘Hare Krishna’ so it appears I haven’t become a catholic in Croatia but a Hare Krishna! However, it was kind of nice to be not that noticeable and to just blend in with the crowd. Don’t get me wrong. I loved having the attention in India, Nepal and Turkey, as I generally love attention! But it was nice to have a break. The other thing I noticed was that no one was trying to sell me anything! Which was also a nice break.

Zagreb, which is the capital of Croatia, is an interesting city. The buildings in the older part of Zagreb are beautiful and there are a lot of cathedrals! I became so used to the mosques in Turkey that it was weird being in a cathedral. This journey has been an interesting religious experience as well as cultural. The Hinduism in India, Buddhism in Nepal, Islamism in Turkey and now Catholicism in Croatia. There is nothing like mixing it up a bit! I visited the main tourist spots and then wandered off to the University to look at some street art. I am always searching for street art wherever I go. I love it. Im not into the tagging as much but a lot of the art is amazing and there is something about it being on a building rather than a canvas. It also gives opportunity to see other parts of city (away from the tourist areas mostly) and gives another perspective of the city and the people’s lives in that city. It feels more ‘real’ than the tourist areas.

The very old buildings I saw as I headed to the University had a lot of tagging graffiti which felt like 2 worlds clashing (and a little irreverent!). I felt a sense that there was a level of discontent which was supported by a survey showing that many young people in Croatia are unhappy with their society and are experiencing very low employment opportunities. I noticed a number of beggars in the streets of Zagreb as well, however, as adverse to India where they are very assertive, they sat quietly and still with one hand out. Croatia has been subjected to many wars in its history with the last war, the Croatian War of Independence being fought between 1991 and 1995 when they won their independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It is understandable that this country would still be finding its way politically and socially. I’m wondering if there are any countries in this world that are not experiencing obvious social problems! Supposedly Finland is the happiest country in the world followed by Denmark and Norway. I will be interested to see what it is like in Denmark when I’m there!

I met a fellow traveller who is from the USA with Chinese heritage who I hung out with for the first few days. It’s like he is on a pilgrimage as he visits the various cathedrals in Zagreb (of which there are many!). He took me to some good coffee and eating places and was great company. We went up the mountain just outside Zagreb together which was very cool and somewhere I wouldn’t have known about. It snows there in winter and has all the paraphernalia of a ski resort…. which it is. However, at this time of year it was a cool refuge from the heat in Zagreb. I have been very fortunate while I have been travelling as I have never truly been on my own since I started which has been interesting. I have met some wonderfully interesting people. My USA/Chinese friend is a remarkably intelligent man who has been travelling for 19 months (including 3 month periods staying with family). He has been in Croatia for a couple of months and has no firm plans where he is going next. I feel that he is on a journey of self discovery which seems to be a common theme for a lot of the travellers that I have met (including myself).

My beautiful Kingscliffian friend arrived 4 days after I did. It was so wonderful to see her! The day after she arrived we spent the day looking around Zagreb. After meandering around some of the touristy places we went on a pub crawl of sorts and ended up at the National Theatre watching a Croatian ballet! It was pretty bizarre but we loved it. We then hired a car and heading down to the coast. This is where this travelling gig all started! My epiphany while watching Mamma Mia 2 (embarrassingly!). The coast is as stunning as the scenery in the movie which was the motivation for this journey.

Our plan was to go on a cruise between Split and Dubrovnik however that didn’t work out. Instead we drove to Sibenik, then down to the Split and Dubrovnik and headed back up the coast to Krka National Park and a quick overnighter at Zadar. Not only was the coastal scenery amazing, the old towns were incredibly impressive. I took hundreds of photos, which once again, were a nightmare to cull. Zadar was probably the least impressive of the towns so it’s probably better to start there and build up. We decided to go to Sibenik after talking to a Croatian woman we met who said that it was better than Zadar. She wasn’t wrong. We stayed in the old town and totally went back in time. Split was amazing too. It is a must to go to an island or two which you can do cheaply on the large catamarans. The small taxi boats are great for going to the smaller islands and not too expensive. We also ended up on our own on a small yacht with the 2 lovely crewmen but not enough wind to sail unfortunately. Regardless, it was very cool and fun! Dubrovnik was fantastic and I almost connected with the whole Game of Thrones thing even though I’ve never actually seen any of it…. well ‘connected’ might be the wrong word, however, I knew more about it. Not sure if it was enough for me to actually watch it! We walked the wall and I also went up to the fort (twice as I forgot to take my ticket the first time!). Man there were a lot of stairs in that place! Romeo and Juliet (in English) was playing in the fort that night however we were too tired to go after traipsing around the old city all day. It would have been amazing (after climbing all those stairs!) so if you ever have the opportunity…do it!

People have referred to this trip as a ‘holiday’ however I perceive my travelling experience, not as a holiday, rather as a ‘journey’. A process of experience, learning and reflection. Croatia felt like a refuge from my journey. It was so special having a friend who knows me, who understands me (to a degree) and who loves me. Going overseas with someone and being with them 24/7 can be fraught and damaging to relationships. Historically that has happened with me however I am lucky that most of these friendships have recovered enough to be sustainable. I don’t think I was a very good travelling companion as my fears and insecurities got in the way of my trust of them and the situation. However, I feel that this is changing. I noticed that I was calmer and less reactive to situations than I used to be. It was so nice not to have to be hyper vigilant about everything I said and did (which obviously adds to the stress of the experience for both parties!), constantly suspicious of other people’s motivation and feeling like I was always fucking up. I had an amazing holiday with my amazing friend and our relationship became stronger because of it.

So maybe this was part of my journey after all. Every step of the way, something unfolds for me. This time it was again self-reflection and coming to the understanding that I am not the same person with the same fears and insecurities that I used to be. Even thinking like that can be a pattern of behaviour which sabotages everything we do. And that I do have true friends who I can trust love me with all my flaws. That’s always been a struggle for me however I am further along the path of accepting that this is true. My gorgeous friend helped me to see this and I can’t thank her enough.

And so, my journey continues…. next stop, Denmark.

Turkey…. teşekkür ederim!

As the bus drove in the Cappadocia region I was totally blown away by the amazing rock formations. This place is vast and freaking amazing. I have never seen anything like it before. It was inhabited by Christians as far back as biblical times and is actually mentioned in the bible (1 Peter 1:1 and Acts 2:9 for those who are interested). The inhabitants created homes and churches in the volcanic rock formations which still exist today. The Seljuk Turks took the area over in the 11th and 12th century with the last Christians migrating out of the area in 1924-26. Muslims and Christians were cohabitants in the regions of 8 centuries before that. Now, the area is totally Muslim, as is the rest of Turkey (well, 99.8% according to government statistics).

I was staying in Uçhisar with a view of the Uçhisar Castle which is magnificent and can be seen from most places in this spectacular area. There were not many international tourists in Uçhisar as there was in Göreme so I was glad I ended up there. On the second day I caught a public bus to Göreme and walked to the Göreme Outdoor Museum which was pretty amazing (and very full of tourists!) and then walked back through the rock formations. Another day I walked from my hotel through Pigeon Valley where I ended back in Göreme. To explore anywhere else, one needs transport as there are no public buses and it is too far to walk. So it’s either a tour bus (no thanks), a taxi (expensive!) or hiring your own wheels. I was going to hire a scooter however there were storms predicted (which actually didn’t occur that day) so I hired a car and drove around to see Fairy Chimneys, Zelve Outdoor Museum, Devrent Valley, Twin Fairies and the Underground City. It was all rather spectacular! Although I definitely don’t do well in confined spaces like the underground city. It took a lot for me not to run away and I ended up twisting my ankle and probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I could have. I actually didn’t realise how uncomfortable I am in small confined spaces until then. Give me light and air, preferably the outdoors, and I am a very happy vegemite!

While I was there I met some people… men of course as for some reason it is not as easy to talk to women. There was a tour operator in Göreme who, when I arrived in the bus from Konya, followed up with the hotel and ended up driving me there. He wanted to take me places to see stuff and I went with him the see Love Valley. He said that he loves Australians as they have a great sense of humour. I suppose I do. I didn’t end up hanging out with him after that but I appreciated his hospitality. Then there was a lovely young man who was working at the hotel during his university break. He is from Afghanistan and moved to Turkey 8 years ago. We chatted a lot about life, the universe and everything. I think he probably thinks I’m a bit crazy however he seemed to appreciate a little craziness in his life. And then there is the guy who became my wine drinking buddy. We talked a lot about politics and the problems with the system…and about music. My favourite subjects! He was very cool to hang out with and was probably crazier than me which was great! Once again, I hung out with the locals (more or less) which is something I really do enjoy.

After 6 days of exploring this magnificent countryside and chatting to these 2 beautiful men, I headed back to Istanbul. I stayed in this very cute little self contained apartment above a gift shop near Galata Tower. It’s a pretty cool part of Istanbul. I wandered around and then walked over the bridge to Sultanahmet. I couldn’t believe the difference from when I was in Istanbul before heading south! There were so many tourists! When I was in Istanbul prior to this it was Ramadan and there were few tourists and even the locals were pretty low key. It felt a lot more manageable! I actually missed the mosques while I was in Cappadocia and it was lovely to see the skyline of Istanbul with its multiple mosques. I ended up spending the afternoon and evening with STG (refer to past post) and his brother and nephew who also works in the carpet shop. I actually really enjoyed hanging out with STGs nephew chatting and being slaughtered in some Turkish game he loves playing (which cost me an expensive ice cream desert and tea). He is in his early 20’s with a lot of clarity in relation to his values and what’s important to him. However, he will always be the salesman as he has had the benefit of his uncles as teachers.

As I say farewell to Turkey, I reflect on what gems of wisdom this part of my journey has imparted to me. Turkey is an amazingly diverse country with beautiful cities and even more beautiful natural phenomenon and historical significance. I know that there is so much more to see, so you never know, maybe I will return one day. The people are interesting and generally incredibly helpful, regardless of me not speaking Turkish (nor them English). I didn’t really get to know any women as they seem to be less ‘out there’ than the men and the men are definitely ‘out there’. As with everywhere and everyone, they have an agenda which can be very direct or not so clear however, once again, it is about being aware of agendas and understanding how they impact on you. I have probably fallen a little short on this while in Turkey, however, once again the repercussions of this are not as significant as they could have been. In saying that, this part of the journey has taught me more about my strength and my ability to bounce back when I feel like I have fucked up or lost my motivation…. and my ability to smile and laugh regardless.

In Australia I have generally felt invisible as a woman, however my experiences in Turkey have made me feel vibrant and at 58 years old I feel more attractive than I have ever felt in my life. My ego has definitely been stroked which is a fleeting and shallow feeling and to be perceived as attractive is not that important but this is bigger than that. And I’m not just talking about the men who hit on every female tourist they see. I’m talking about those who also commented and reacted to me smiling, being friendly and maybe being a little crazy in a positive way. Those who appreciated these facets of my personality. I intend to embrace the beauty and positive energy that Turkish men (and women) have seen in me and to exude the confidence that comes from that rather than continuously putting myself down and attempting to hide (although I have never been that successful in hiding I have definitely felt the need to). Turkey has taught me that it is ok to be who I am… every aspect of me. So I’m not going to attempt to tone down or change who I am to please anyone again (unless necessary from my perspective). I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, however, I am who I am – flaws, fuck ups and all – and that’s ok.

Konya…. The city of hearts.

I may have appeared a bit negative in my last entry. I feel anything but negative about my decision to travel for 12 months, however, I also knew that there were going to be times when I would find it difficult. It is par of the course. It’s interesting that I felt a bit down in a resort where I was actually having a rest. However, for all the benefits of staying in Antalya I think lying around a lot doing nothing was actually difficult for me because as soon as I was on the road again, I felt so much better. I’m not really sure what that is about, however it was a temporary lapse of reason. The day before moving on to the next place I also tend to feel a little anxious. Not including the first 10 days when I was in a group I have now moved to 9 different areas in 3 countries and slept in 16 different beds in just over 3 months. One would think that I’d be used to it by now! Ironically, the last day I was in Antalya, a man working at the lift to the ‘beach’ said to me “You are perfect. You smile all the time. Don’t ever change” (he was not hitting on me). This is someone who deals with tourists every single day. So I will continue to smile and be friendly as this is who I am (when I’m not stressy, or grumpy, or sulking, or angry or feeling down! 😆).

So I arrive in Konya bus terminal after a 7 hour bus ride with no food or pee breaks and get a taxi to my hotel. My hotel was about a minute walk from the famous Mevlana Mosque and Museum. I ended up upgrading to a better room as the room I booked was slightly bigger than a king single bed! The guy gave me a pretty good deal so I’m ok with that however I think my desire to sleep cheap and rough has been eradicated by being spoilt in Antalya! Adaptation is an interesting, and very quick, process! I head off for something to eat as I hadn’t eaten since an early breakfast to find that it is still Ramadan (which I thought had finished!) so I had to wait until 8.20pm (or thereabouts) to enjoy a set menu (soup, Turkish pizza and rice pudding – all local food) overlooking the Mevlana Mosque amongst locals breaking their fast. It was pretty cool. A guy stopped me in the street when I was returning to my hotel and asked where I was from and then told me about the free Whirling Dervishes show at the cultural centre (which I had read about but then forgot about…as I do!). So off I go to watch. The Whirling Dervish is an Islamic tradition where the Sufi men perform a religious dance called the Sema and is iconic to Konya. It was pretty interesting and I’m glad that I was able to see it as it is only performed on Saturday nights. I was very lucky to have had the opportunity and very grateful to that man.

The section of Konya that I was in (as there are a number of sections) is obviously more conservative than Istanbul and Antalya, however, I didn’t feel any discomfort walking the streets and smiling at people. There were a lot of reactions to my presence as I am rather obvious and there didn’t appear to be a lot of tourists around. Many people smiled at me when I smiled at them. There was also a lot of staring, however, I’m now used to this (it was common in India and Nepal) so I just smile and say hello which usually gets a positive response. Breakfast was provided by the hotel and I attempted to chat the the guys working in the kitchen. The cook, who didn’t speak English showed me his phone with a translated message which said… “you are a very sweet lady”… awww. It was so sweet! He then said that I had positive energy. So in this very conservative city my behaviour was not seen as inappropriate but as positive so I’m going with that!

The owner of the hotel invited me to sit with him for Turkish coffee a couple of times. We talked about a number of things and his political views were obviously more right wing than mine however it was nice to chat. I asked him about the hotel which specified that non-married couples could not stay in the same room. He told me that he requests proof of marriage as well because when the names are put in the computer it goes to the police and they check. I’m not sure if there are legal reasons however from what he said, it can cause trouble for the hotels. It’s a bit too big brotherish for me! However it doesn’t appear to apply to international tourists.

The lack of tourists was obvious. A man I met on the street who wanted to show me around told me that tourism in Konya decreased dramatically after the bombings a few years ago. That is why he said he wanted to show me around (until we ended up at his carpet shop of course!). There has been a lot of unrest and even deaths since 2015 when the capital of Turkey, Ankara, was bombed, and there have been some arrests in Konya of alleged terrorists. It’s a pity that tourists are not going to Konya as Konya is a beautiful, clean city with some amazing Mosques (there are so many of them!) and a lot of parks and beautiful gardens. When I was doing my wandering (as I do) I came upon a market where the guys were so excited to see a tourist! They didn’t even try and sell me anything. I think they saw it as an indication that tourists are coming back. Tourism is so important to this city.

The foremost tourist attraction for me was the tomb of Mevlana Rumi, the Sufi poet which was in the Mevlana Museum. I think most people are aware of who Rumi is. His poetry is iconic. I love Rumi poetry so it was definitely interesting for me to be in Konya. It is interesting that although Rumi was a Muslim totally dedicated to his Islamic believe, his poetry, which is an expression of his spiritual insights and growth, is loved across the globe. Rumi was born in Afghanistan in 1207 and moved to Konya where he became a Sufi teacher and then started writing his poetry. He died in Konya in 1273 and his memory and legacy lives on there.

I was in Konya during an interesting time in the Islamic calendar. It was the last few days of Ramadan and then the celebration. There is a holiday period after Ramadan finishes which lasts for 3 days. On the first day people spend time with their families celebrating and eating. I’ve been told that it is like our Christmas. The market area was very busy for the first 2 days I was there, as although no one was eating, they were preparing for the end of Ramadan. When Ramadan finished, the shops were all closed and the streets were very quiet (like Christmas) and only a few corner shops and a couple of restaurants were open. I enjoyed Konya and it’s beauty however was happy to move onto my next adventure in the Cappadocia region which, as adversed to Konya, is supposed to be incredibly touristy but absolutely amazing.

Southern hospitality… Turkish style.

I left Istanbul to head south and see more of Turkey. I flew to Denizli after negotiating public transport to the airport (I almost made it but then had a get a taxi for part of the way as I got lost!) to stay with a beautiful young woman I met in Rishikesh. Denizli is very different to Istanbul and although it is a large city, it feels regional as it is surrounded by mountains. My friend’s family live outside of the city in a large, modern apartment and although her parents don’t speak English, they were very friendly towards me. On the first night we went to a large family dinner in an outdoor restaurant which was arranged by my friend’s aunt after the Ramadan fasting. It was very cool being involved in this event with a Turkish family. There was a lot of interest in me especially by one young girl of 17. And also comments about my laughing…yet again. It is so interesting being the only non-Turkish, non-Muslim person again. Although, apparently I am now Muslim as a cousin of my friend told me to repeat her words and once I had done so she informed me that I was now a Muslim because I said the words (she didn’t speak English however my friend translated for her). So it appears that I am now Muslim…well at least until I move onto another country and adopt their religion (Catholicism in Croatia?).

Apparently my laughter was noticed by a number of people including the apartments’ security guard! There seems to be a common theme! My smiling and laughing was noticed in Istanbul as well and drew a lot of attention. I noticed in Istanbul that a lot of women, especially of a mature age, didn’t smile and looked downright miserable and when I mentioned this to my friend, she told me that this is the norm and that having someone around like me who was laughing a lot (and loudly as I do) is not common. She told me that she loved it and her mother and grandmother appeared to enjoy it as well laughing with (at?) me and made a comment that they would remember my visit because of my laughing! It was good to have a rest at my friend’s place as travelling definitely tires you out and her hospitality and warmth was awe inspiring and I will forever be grateful to her for looking after me so generously! Also the chance to wash my clothes in a washing machine after over 3 months of hand washing was pretty cool too. I stayed 3 nights and then got back into travelling mode again and headed off to Pamukkale for a couple of nights.

Pamukkale is a tourist town in a regional area not far from Denizli however due to Ramadan it was very quiet. The restaurants and tour agencies were desperate for my custom and very persistent. I went into one of the tour places to get a local map and this very fit, young, good looking Turkish man asked me to come out for dinner and drinks later. Like I said, they were a bit desperate! 😂😂😂. I decided against it and to not even start anything that I have no intention of finishing. I’ve already upset one Turkish man so I’m attempting not to leave a string of angry Turks as I think my behaviour confuses them. Happy, outgoing woman appears to mean an easy, loose woman in their eyes! That’s fine and I’m not changing but I’ll attempt to decrease the confusion for them by not taking up their offers of ‘dinner’!

Pamukkale is a fascinating place. The limestone mountain and pools are spectacular! Words are not enough to describe them and photos don’t do justice. I walked through the ruins too which were amazing. It was a lot of walking as the area where the Heiropolis city was is quite extensive. I’m not that interested in the details of history however walking through those ruins you could feel the history and I loved that. I swam in Cleopatra’s ancient thermal pool which was like a warm spa bath. The water came from the limestone however was clear and tasted sweet, but the pool was green. I noticed a remarkable improvement in my arm the next day which had still been painful. Maybe there is something to it? Maybe placebo? Who knows. I also sat in the limestone pools. I would highly recommend going to Pamukkale as it is absolutely beautiful however unless you want to paraglide and do a balloon ride, one full day is probably enough.

I caught a public bus to Denizli bus station which cost all of 4,5 Turkish lire ($1.08AUD) and found a bus going to Antalya 15 minutes later. I somehow managed to score a pretty nice hotel with a patio, lounge area and spa in the bedroom for around $40AUD a night which also had a private ‘beach’ and included a buffet breakfast. Compared to high class/cost hotels it probably was a little dated but I have stayed in very dodgy places while travelling and this place felt like heaven. I was only planning to stay for 3 nights however extended it to 5. I am very grateful to Ramadan as the usual cost is a lot higher but it was heavily discounted due to Ramadan and reverted back on 1 June which is when Ramadan finishes and I am checking out. I spent a lot of time on the ‘beach’ relaxing which was actually pretty nice except for the loud disco music which they played constantly (am I getting old?). One of the days, I decided to go on a 4WD mountain tour. It was pretty fun and involved multiple water fights between the vehicles and just having a bit of fun and some beautiful scenery.

When I was on the hotel ‘beach’ I was talking to a young Turkish woman from Istanbul who was having a few days break with her mum. We talked about men and women in Turkey and the way they act. When I mentioned how I’d noticed that women appeared to be unhappy she stated that everyone in Turkey is depressed. She said that the government has sold everything off, including telephone and electricity and public transport. I told her that Australia is the same. She said that there was an election in March but the current government has determined that it is invalid for no reason. I had already read that the Turkish government was concerned about losing the election and had the votes counted numerous times with the same outcome so it appears that democracy has been disregarded and this government has determined that as they lost the local election in Istanbul then that election outcome was invalid! They have set a date in June for another election which has attracted global, as well as local, criticism. I’m not necessarily an advocate for democracy as I don’t think everyone understands what they are voting for and are influenced incredibly by the media, however, Turkey is a democratic country and it appears that this fact has been ignored by the current government. Interesting days ahead for Turkey.

On my last day I decided to go by local bus to the ‘old town’ in Antalya which is about 5 kms west from my hotel. So off I go full of confidence that I won’t have a problem getting to my destination. I knew the bus number and basically where to get off. I had to purchase a temporary travel card but the machine wouldn’t accept paper money. It was ok as I ended up getting coins which worked but in the meantime missed my bus. Buy hey, this is the life of a traveller. However I did feel my anxiety rise. I then got on the bus and asked the driver to let me know when I get off. He appeared to indicate an affirmative response however when I asked again it was obvious that he didn’t speak English (which is perfectly fine) but was also not in the slightest bit interested in actually helping me. I didn’t realise how tired I was until I struggled not to burst into tears! Luckily a young woman told me that she would let me know when to get off the bus. So all good. Then when I walked down to the old town my camera wouldn’t work. The message stated that my battery was ‘exhausted’! (I know how it feels!). I have been having a few problems with the battery so decided that I needed to get a new one. I found a shopping centre and when I couldn’t find a store selling camera batteries there the info woman was very helpful and found an address of a camera shop for me to go to by taxi. I got to the place (the long way, which appears to be a common thing for taxi drivers to do with tourists) and they didn’t have the battery I needed, however the camera started working again! (go figure!). I started to feel that this was a bad day but had to pull myself up. Really? A few hiccups and I think it’s a bad day? Yes, the morning had its difficulties however there was a solution for each one and it didn’t impact on me except taking a bit of my time and about 23 liras (about $5.50AUD). So what? I think the big issue is that I am exhausted and a bit homesick and also a little lonely. I have been travelling for 3 1/2 months now and although some of the time has been restful, it has been pretty full on negotiating different countries and different languages and how am I getting there and where am I going to stay.

In some ways Turkey has been more challenging than India and Nepal as not many people speak English (which is perfectly fine as already stated) however, most Turkish people I have met so far have been incredibly helpful. I purposely chose non-English speaking countries to travel in so that I could experience different cultures and languages. Getting a general feel for people in different countries, and even different regions of different countries, and how to manage yourself, and communicate without taking it all too seriously can sometimes be tricky. People are a product of, not just their family upbringing, but also their culture and they act and react from that place. We all are. However at the end of the day we are all people with needs and frustrations. I think remembering that is essential to acceptance, appreciation and embracing difference especially when travelling.

I will be moving from Antalya today, which is a very liberal area where alcohol, short shorts, bikinis and loud disco music is totally acceptable and moving to Konya, which is well known for its conservatism. When I was looking for a hotel in Konya on one of the sites, one of the hotels was very clear that they won’t have alcohol on the property and that if a couple is booking, they need to show proof of marriage to be in the same room! I may have to work on toning it down there, not because I’m afraid of men’s responses, but because I do believe in being as culturally appropriate as possible. Anyway, we’ll see how this 6’1” loud, laughing, blonde, Aussie woman fares in, reportedly, the most conservative city in Turkey!

And now for something completely different…. Istanbul!

A new country, a new culture, and a new communication style…yet to be learnt. And a new sales pitch! In India it is silk, in Nepal it is paintings and in Istanbul it is carpets! The first day here and I’m walking to the Blue Mosque. I don’t even get into the bazaar and there is a young Turk herding me off to his uncle’s carpet shop. I sat in this beautiful outdoor area drinking Turkish coffee and tea for about an hour, and talking world politics with this lovely interesting man (the uncle). His business is a family business which started when his grandfather walked around selling carpets from off his shoulder. His father set up the current business years ago and he has been running it since. He did not even attempt to sell me anything, hugged me goodbye and asked that I come back for another coffee/tea soon. So I move on and try again. I made it into the mosque with only being seriously carpet touted once more. The mosque is beautiful! The architecture and tiling is exquisite.

After leaving the mosque I start looking around and got accosted by yet another salesman who assures me that he is not selling carpets but rather spices (the other specialty of Istanbul). When I convince him that I’m not buying, he then offers me a massage and tells me that he is very good at sex! Although I was obviously tempted I declined. He continued being persistent until I managed to shake him off. Not long after I met a well dressed man who was very smooth and was not selling anything (except maybe himself). I ended up letting Smooth Turkish Guy (STG) show me around which ended up being lunch and then tram and ferry rides and finishing up with dinner. During our travels we also dropped into his brother’s shop (yes, a carpet shop). STG’s brother was incredibly interesting and also an incredible salesman without the intended buyer even knowing. I almost bought something small but then realised I was being manipulated. I pointed this out to him (I told him that he was a manipulative bastard!) and he thought it was hysterical! He loves the game and is very good at it and made a comment that I was the only person who has left his shop without buying anything! He may have been joking, however, it made me realise how strong I have become and how I can walk away without feeling any guilt or concern.

I loved where STG and I went for dinner! It was outside of the touristy area where the locals eat real Turkish food. There is a long street of restaurants with tables outside and it was overflowing with hundreds of people. It is Ramadan so Muslim people do not eat or drink from sunrise (around 5.30am) until sunset (around 8.30pm) and from what I could see, have a feast afterwards. I was probably the only non-Turkish, non-Muslim there. I loved it! I loved the food and the noise and the obvious celebration and appreciation of food. Sadly STG was starting to seriously piss me off as his conversation skills were incredibly limited and confined to one aspect of human interaction. It didn’t really do it for me as I appreciate interesting conversation and actually getting to know someone. He wanted to hang out the next day, however I was of two minds about it but decided to give it another go. I may have been using him a little for the experience with him not gaining much but my wonderful company but hey, that’s life sunshine. I also recognised that his lack of conversational skills may be a language issue so I thought I’d see how it goes.

So off I go to meet with him and he drove me to a recently completed new mosque (official inauguration was on 3 May) on the Asian side of Istanbul, Camilca Mosque, which the current prime minister commissioned (with the help of tax payers money) and is now the biggest mosque in Turkey. Although it was impressive it felt like someone trying to prove something and make a name for themselves…like a guy driving down the street in the biggest, loudest, fastest car they could find but using someone else’s money to buy it. I have been told by a number of Turkish people that the current government is corrupt (seems to be a common theme globally!) which doesn’t surprise me especially after seeing this exorbitant use of the people’s money! I much preferred the Blue Mosque! We drove back to the European side of Istanbul and had lunch in a very cool rooftop restaurant overlooking the ocean on one side, the Hagia Sophia museum on another side and the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) on another side. It almost felt surreal eating lunch between these amazing buildings. I totally loved it! I then went into the Basilica Cistern which was cold and wet but pretty cool while STG waited outside. We arranged to have dinner and then meet with his brother later that night.

I walked the same way to STG’s brother’s shop twice a day for the 2 days as I was in a hotel not far from the Blue Mosque. It is a tourist area however it is a wonderful place to stay in. There is something almost romantic in wandering around its cobbled streets. I think it’s a must to stay around there even if it is just for a couple of days. There were a few people, well men, who said hello every time I walked past wanting my patronage however being friendly as well. On the way home after dinner at the end of the second day, a restaurant owner who said hello every time I passed and called me ‘golden lady’ offered me apple tea. It was actually nice! And we talked for a while. He seemed like a lovely guy who just wanted to talk. I then had a guy who owns a restaurant and travel agent stop me and offer me a beer so I stopped and had a beer with him and we chatted. I arrived back at my hotel at around midnight. I know that the men here love women. I know that their agenda is to get to know women. But they have been friendly towards me and harmless so this has allowed me to enjoy spending time with them hearing more about the country I am in and their experiences.

It’s funny how easily we adapt to our surroundings. I had been in the hotel in the old city for 3 nights and had been going out for lunch and dinner with STG and became accustomed to the very different traffic conditions (although the traffic is a bit chaotic it is nothing compared to India and Nepal!) and had totally adapted to my surroundings within the 3 days. I moved to an Airbnb that by Indian and Nepalese standards is pretty good but my immediate reaction is that I want to move back to the old city! In the city I could walk everywhere and see everything but the Airbnb is out of the city and I needed to get trams to go anywhere. STG offered to pick and drop me if I need to go anywhere and also found me a cheap hotel in the city however I decided to sit this one out and re-establish my independent travelling ability as in 3 days I had also become a bit dependent on STG to take me places and when I was dropped off (yes, by STG!) I actually felt a bit lost and isolated. I ended up staying in bed most of the first day at the Airbnb because I was tired and still had a bloody cold which I got in Nepal! I felt cosy and comforted especially as the mother was giving me lemon tea to drink and was mothering me (although totally unable to speak English) and even gave me dinner.

The next day she took me out for the day. She is 63 years old and is currently fasting – no food or water all day – and she is a powerhouse! It was pretty hot and she needed rests but there is no way I could go that long without water, especially in the heat! Anyway she took me to the Eyup Sultan Mosque and Pierre Loti Hill by bus which are outside the city. We then got a bus and ferry to Uskudar and then a ferry and bus to Taksim Square. These are places that were not on my agenda to see so it was wonderful to be introduced to new places. We had dinner in Taksim Square, after exactly 8.24pm! When we were about to head home we came upon thousands of Turkish people celebrating winning some soccer game in the streets. They really love their football! We left after 10pm however I have no doubt that the celebration went through the night. It was a lovely day. I find it amazing that although we didn’t speak the same language we still managed to communicate and enjoy each other’s company. I experienced this in Costa Rica with a friend of my son’s mother and we actually became friends. Language is important however there are other ways to understand each other. I ended up loving the Airbnb and getting around was pretty easy.

I didn’t go into the city for the first 2 days at the Airbnb. On the third day I caught the tram to the Grand Bazaar which was pretty amazing and then walked to Sultanahmet to STG’s brother’s shop. STG and I had a falling out over a difference in expectation, however I am still friends with his brother. It has been an interesting experience and maybe I should have played it differently but hanging out with STG did allow me to have more connection with the locals which is always a bonus when travelling. Anyway, no loss as I was leaving Istanbul in 2 days time. I spent the last day in Istanbul with a young English man I met at the monastery in Nepal! It is such a small world catching up with people on the other side of the world where you met them who also live on the other side of the world to you! It was a great day of catch up and exploring Karakoy together.

My philosophy while I’m travelling is ‘while in Rome’ so most things in my lifestyle change dependant on what country I am in. I went totally off coffee in India and Nepal and am now drinking a couple of cups of Turkish coffee a day (yes, the type you can stand your spoon up in!). I even had a Hammam, a Turkish Bath which was strange lying on a marble slab in a sauna-type situation and then having someone wash you! I really love the experience and diversity of eating the local food and meeting local people. And the diversity of religions. I was involved in Hinduism in India, Buddhism in Nepal and now a touch of Islam. I feel that India and Nepal were the ‘pray’ part of my journey, and Turkey has become the ‘eat’ part (not ‘love’ as anticipated by STG!). I have gone to great restaurants as well as experiencing lots of local food. Bread goes with everything here and I have enjoyed it with gusto! However I have a number of countries to visit yet so this assessment may change.

Istanbul is a beautiful city – there is definitely something about it and I understand why so many people love it. The mosques that I visited were divine and have a sense of peace about them. Every time I walked past the Hagia Sophia museum it took my breath away. There is something about it which appeals to me even more than the mosques. The city is warm and inviting and the public transport, once you know where you’re going, is great. I found the people to be friendly (sometimes too friendly!) and loved interacting with them.

I read an article on the first morning I was in Istanbul saying that the way to act in Turkey as a woman is to tone down, not meet men’s eyes and not hug anyone. I failed on all accounts on the first day! Me? Tone down? Not a hope in hell! I was walking with a big smile on my face feeling wonderful about everything and had comments made and smiles back from other people. And when I talked to people I was exuberant as that was how I felt. Obviously one needs to be aware of safety however I refuse to always have my head down looking grumpy unless I absolutely have to (as in India when even a look sideways invites a full on sales pitch! And possibly the Grand Bazaar!). I also took a risk (again) but the experiences I had would not have been had if I had stuck to the tourist route on my own. I am loving this life, I am loving travelling and I am loving meeting people from the countries I visit and hearing their stories and even hanging out with them and I refuse to live in fear of what might happen (while doing what I can to maintain my safely). STG kept saying ‘life is too short’ and although he was meaning one thing (the only thing which seems to matter to some men…it must be a common line as it is not the first time I have been told that by a man). I think life is too short to be fearful, to not embrace experience with open arms and to not do things ‘just in case’. So be safe, but also be courageous people!

A different world….

Someone told me that there is no poverty in Nepal.

I met a guide in Bhaktapur who has become a friend. He has a wife and 2 young sons. He is a tour guide in Bhaktapur Durbar Square for 500 rupees (just under $5USD), however, it gets more and more difficult to make a living as people can now guide themselves with downloadable tourist apps. He drives tourists when he has a chance however he uses someone else’s car as cars are very expensive in Nepal and out of 3000 rupees paid by the tourist, he would get 500. He started learning art where tourists can buy Buddhist hand painted prints but the market has been flooded with copies which are much cheaper so the tourists are buying less paintings. Farming was traditionally the backbone of the local economy in Bhaktapur however it is being automated and there are less and less jobs. It leaves Nepalese people, like my friend, in a very untenable situation financially. However, before 2015, they were doing ok.

When my friend showed me his home near Bhaktapur Durbar Square, when I last visited, I thought he was still living there with his family and that only his room had been affected, however, this is not the case. I returned to Bhaktapur for a couple of nights after coming back from Pokhara rather than going to Kathmandu. I spent time with my friend and he told me that the house in the city was his grandparents home which his family, his parents, his brother and his family, his uncles and his unmarried brother lived in. When the earthquake hit in 2015, the whole house became dangerous to live in. For about 9 months after the quake, he and his family (including his new born baby boy) lived in a tent and have been renting a room outside the city ever since. The room in which him, his wife and his 2 children live is smaller than the guesthouse room I stayed in (which he found for me in the old city), with a little kitchen off the side and a shared bathroom area in the open. Yet they invited me for dinner and shared their food with me. His extended family also rent rooms near him. They do not have the money to demolish their family home and rebuild so they stay where they are. He says that they are lucky as other families are still living in tents because they can’t afford anything better.

There is free public education however my friend said that it is such low quality that children leave without knowing anything. He was in private education when he was very young, but his mother became unwell and they had to pay for the medical bills (you got it, no free healthcare!) so they had to withdraw him and his brothers and send them to public schools. He now sees himself as uneducated and having no future prospects so he wants his children to have better. He does everything he can to send his 2 boys to a private school so that they have a better opportunity. With the destruction of his family home and the impact of the quake on tourism, it has been a struggle. This year has been the worst with him having to pay for medical treatment. He is behind in the school fees but it is his priority, above everything else, to keep these boys in private education. He tries to find work with tourists and borrows money from where he can to survive putting himself more into debt.

I was having breakfast the morning after having dinner with my friend and met a Canadian journalist and a Greek architect who were involved, indirectly, in an educational project for children who can not afford to be educated in private schools. The Greek guy took me to the school and I met a couple of the people involved in the project and visited a few of the classrooms where the kids were doing their lessons. I was told that the reason public schools are so bad is that the classes have around 60 children in them and the quality of teaching is not great (not surprisingly!). The private schools are businesses and are about profit (which is also not surprising) however to ensure that they have a good reputation for education and therefore have more parents sending their children to their school and to justify increasing fees, the children are sometimes physically and emotionally abused to obtain good results. A lot of families cannot afford the fees but still send their children to these private schools, while living impoverished lifestyles, in the hope that their children will have a better life. This school nurtures the children to follow their passion while preparing them for the higher grades and is free. There were about 15 kids in each of the classes I went into and the classes go to and include grade 6. The school then negotiates with the private high schools to give poorer families a discount of around 30% and then they pay 50% so the parents only have to pay 20% of the school fees. This project has been going since 2000 where they paid for children in private schools and then in 2005 they started their own school. They have contributors from all over the world and while I was there some French young volunteers were working on a building project. The Nepalese guy who is the founder told us that he wasn’t educated and that this impacted on his life dramatically which was the impetus behind this project.

Reportedly 25% of Nepalese people live under the poverty line (by Nepalese standards… probably much higher by western standards) and earn 50cUS a day. The main contributors to poverty are illiteracy, low economic growth and the death of farming therefore limited jobs. Nepal is a lot more expensive to live in than India and there is no indication that there is food in the temples for those who are struggling like in India. Unemployment rates are reportedly very low, however, people, like my friend, who manage to make a little money, are deemed as employed – the hidden unemployed. There is no government unemployment benefits, although, the government has been talking about implementing one for years – well, of sorts – giving 120 day jobless payment for families where none of them have worked for 12 months! (Go figure). So my friend would not be eligible anyway. However this has not happened. Interestingly I did not see a lot of beggars in Nepal especially compared to India.

Nepal is not the only country which has these issues. The top 10 poorest countries are still in Africa. I was aware of poverty when I was in Africa, however, we hung out with families where one of the family members where living overseas making money to send home and I did not get to really know anyone who was living in such poverty but there were definitely clear indicators. I know that my friend is not the worst off in the world or even in Nepal however when you actually get to know someone and like them it does slap you in the face. I need to reconsider my views around begging as poverty is much bigger than having enough food to eat. The problem is that begging can be a business as well which makes it difficult to determine need from enterprise. For example, I was told about a professional beggar in India whose husband had a fairly good paying job and her begging supplemented their income.

However, poverty is real and we westerners cannot even fathom what it would be like. It breaks my heart especially considering how much decadence and waste there is in this world. How many rich people get richer off the backs of the poor who get poorer. How many people have so much money which they couldn’t spend in 100 lifetimes never mind one but won’t take their eye off a cent of it. How governments do not look after their people but manage to look after themselves while making empty promises of support. How even NGOs can take advantage of these situations and misappropriate donations, whether intentionally or not, where the execs get paid megabucks and there is little or no benefit to the people who need it. How rich countries continue to have a ‘look after our own’ attitude and ignore the plight of the majority of the world and even perceive them as enemies. I suppose I could even say, how people, like me, are in a position to travel the world, live in beautiful houses, never have to think about where the next meal is coming from and still, at times, deem ourselves as ‘broke’ or even ‘poor’. Surely there is something that can change the status quo for these people and support a more equitable world? My thinking is that a decent education for children is the way to go to pull families out of poverty and the universe, once again, has put people in my life to encourage my thinking around my future. But in saying that, I also have concerns around how western capitalism has pushed its economic and educational determinants onto other countries and profit from this when these countries were probably better off living traditional lifestyles without western influence. This is an ethical dilemma for me.

I will continue on my journey and most likely forget the feelings I’m feeling now and enjoy the luxury in life that my place of birth affords me. But maybe I can also do something during my life journey which actually impacts positively on these people’s lives. Or is this supremacist thinking? I am no longer sure what the answer is or what can be done to make things better in this world.

The beautiful Himalayas of Nepal!

I headed up to Nagarkot, luckily by car with a driver who knew the roads. I had considered getting a scooter and going up however in retrospect there is absolutely no way! The roads are very narrow, very windy, incredibly rough and very very steep! Considering my episode in the hotel garage in Kathmandu, it was a good idea to get a driver. The hotel I had booked was not what I expected however it grew on me as it had a timber mountain quaintness about it. It did have the most amazing views however on both days it was foggy and a little cloudy so I didn’t get to see it’s famous sunrise, but it was beautiful anyway. It was also pretty relaxing as other than walking, there wasn’t anything else to do as it was pretty isolated and a fair distance from any town.

I was meeting my friends the next day but was unable to get a room in their swanky hotel so I had booked the closest one (and like a quarter of the price!) I could find on the map. It was close as the crow flies, however, to get there one either had to walk 2.4 kms along the road or climb down the side of a forested mountain on a fairly narrow rough path! So the first day I decided to see how the mountain climb would go. I made it to the posh hotel and made my way up to the sky bar however was stopped and asked if I was part of the Indian embassy conference (in my singlet top, fisherman pants and sneakers!). I said that of course I was, couldn’t they tell? Nevertheless they didn’t let me in but we had a good laugh. I enjoyed a beer on the terrace and chatted to the Nepalese people who worked there who were very accommodating regardless of me looking homeless.

I decided that I’d try the road back as the next night I would be having dinner with my friends and would need to walk back to my hotel in the dark. It was a moderately to incredibly steep road and took over 45 minutes. After I arrived back at my hotel, I met an English couple who I ended up having dinner with in an interesting very rough little cafe up the hill from the hotel. They told me that they had sold up everything and had been travelling the world for 5 years! She is 59 and he is 63. They return home every now and then and stay with her mother which has become their home base. They intend to continue travelling until they are unable to any longer. The whole concept definitely appeals to me however I don’t have a ‘home base’ so would have to keep my home so I could return to Australia down the track. Not saying that I’m doing it but it definitely appeals to me!

I climbed down the mountainside again the next afternoon with a pack pack containing a decent skirt, thongs (flip flops for the non Australians! Not undies!) and a wrap. I changed in the posh hotel’s toilets so I could look the part and had a beer on the terrace again while waiting for my friends who had not yet arrived. They eventually arrived and we had a rather huge dinner in the posh hotel’s dining room. I headed off up the mountainside at around 8pm with a torch after changing into my fisherman pants and sneakers. I was rather impressed with myself as I managed the steep climb in the dark and didn’t get lost or fall over and break anything! Anyway, it was great to catch up wth my friends. I arranged for my guide friend from Bhaktapur to come and get us and take us back to Kathmandu in the morning where we would say our goodbyes.

The next day I headed to Pokhara by bus. It was a luxury tourist bus which was $27 USD and basically falling apart in places however it had the most comfortable bus seats I have ever been in with loads of leg room! It was a 7 hour trip of listening to my music and watching the beautiful countryside which I thoroughly enjoyed as I really did need a bit of a rest. One thing that I have taken more notice of is the ‘naturally’ occurring phenomenon which is growing on the roadside in Kathmandu, on the road to Nagarkot, and on the way to Pokhara…. pot! It is everywhere! I’m not sure if anyone ‘owns’ it as such and how and who harvests it. Marijuana has been illegal in Nepal since 1973 when the government was hassled by the American government, however, it is renowned as being easy to access and it appears that there are crops growing wild all over Nepal (although I have since been told it is mostly male so isn’t much good). Anyways I arrive in Pokhara and it is not what I was expecting. It’s very big and pretty touristy (I expected that) and the fog is thick so it’s not possible to see the snow capped mountains.

I decided to take a walk and discovered bars all along the lakeside across from where I’m staying. In one of the bars I met this amazing English woman who told me that she previously had a house and a well paying job but she was miserable so she chucked it all in, sold the house, and decided to travel. She has been to India and now Nepal and is basically just going wherever the road takes her. I think she’s amazingly brave! Through circumstances out of her control she ended up in a village in the mountains in India with no other tourists and no English speaking locals. Although freaking her out initially, she had the most amazing time there. I have village envy! As we were talking a man at the table next to us was listening and joined in a little in our conversation. He was from Kashmir and lived in Pokhara. The next morning I was walking along the lake feeling like I didn’t particularly want to be there however I was determined that I would enjoy myself anyway as I’m not willing to waste my time being regretful or miserable. I ran into Kashmir guy and we ended up spending the day together walking, talking and chilling at this cool cafe by the lake away from the tourist section which was lovely.

Kashmir guy picked me up on his scooter the next day and we headed over to a secluded area on Begnas Lake which took almost an hour. I haven’t been a pillion for at least 10 years and also the first time without a helmet on a bike (in India and Nepal only the rider has to wear a helmet… not really sure that this makes any sense but there you go) so was feeling a little exposed. It’s funny that although logically I knew he was a much better rider than me and also much more experienced in this kind of riding, I still felt less safe than when I was riding myself. I suppose that’s the control freak in me. The area we went to in Begnas Lake is a lot quieter and has just a few guesthouses and local restaurants dotted over the mountainside overlooking the lake. It was a very beautiful place which is basically untouched. I would definitely come back if I am in Nepal again and spend more time there. We were sitting near the lake in a cafe of sorts and met some great people from Israel. It was wonderful being with a Muslim from Kashmir talking to Jews from Israel. It was pretty relaxing especially after indulging in some local beer etc. so we ended up staying the night and headed back to Pokhara the next morning with me riding and him being the pillion until he couldn’t take it anymore and told me to pull over! Ha! I’m sure I was doing a good job but I think it’s been even longer since he was a pillion and he is even a bigger control freak!

It is an interesting exercise putting yourself in a situation (once again) which may have gone terribly wrong. I obviously took a risk. Weighing up having an experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise and the possibility that I may be putting myself at risk is difficult to balance so I think one needs to listen to their gut. The day before, I had met a young Indian guy who lives in Nepal and he offered to take me places on his scooter however my gut was screaming NO! so I thanked him and moved on. When Kashmir guy suggested it I did consider the risks however my gut said it’s fine as long as I’m clear about my boundaries. Boundaries don’t always work for the other person however as long as you are honest about your agenda, they can consider if it fits in with theirs…doesn’t always pay off however thankfully (once again), with some negotiation, it worked out and I was fine. I also left his details with my English friend just in case!

After Kashmir guy dropped me back in Pokhara I ran into my English friend and we decided to go to the cool cafe I’d been to with Kashmir guy and stayed there most of the day relaxing, swimming and possibly drinking (the Sex By The Lake cocktails were definitely low alcohol so I don’t think you can legitimately call it drinking!). We ended up going out that night where a local band was playing and having a few local beers so it was a pretty chilled nice day. The next day we took a boat across the lake so that we could walk up the mountain to the stupa. The walk up the mountain was not easy especially for someone who is currently not that fit! However to give us credit, we did get an offer of a lift by some workmen driving up the very rough dirt road when we were about two-thirds of the way up but we said we’d be right. May have been regretful of that decision however we made it and it felt good.

It was beautiful and well worth the walk, but then I was mucking around showing a little girl how to pose for a photo, model style, and didn’t see a step which I went down landing heavily on my hand. I actually thought that I had broken something but, although It was very painful, it appears I only sprained my wrist…thankfully! We wandered down the road on the other side of the mountain and ended up going down a path the locals use to get to the main part of Pokhara and then caught 2 local buses back to the lake. That night was my last night in Pokhara so I had dinner with my English friend and Kashmir guy to say goodbye. The next morning I was off again in a tourist bus back to Kathmandu. The touristy part of Pokhara is not really my thing, however, being able to explore other places away from that area was great. I also enjoyed the company of Kashmir guy and my English friend, who is such an amazing person! I probably could have explored more, however, I was happy to be back on the road again.

My time is almost finished in Nepal and I have had such a wonderful time. The people are so beautiful and generous and friendly. I loved the Indian people, however, you have to be aware of how you communicate with them as generally when they say ‘hello, where are you from’ they have an agenda to get you to to buy their service or their goods or part with your money in some other way. When the Nepalese started saying ‘namaste, where are you from’ I was very cautious however realised that generally they just wanted to say hello and to know where I was from! I feel that this is another country that I would come back to and explore the less touristy side.