We'd barely been in Russia (Irkutsk, Siberia more specifically) when I found myself drinking Vodka with Audrey's father. Not sure if it was the two days we'd already spent on the train, with three more…
August 21, 1988 after cycling 4,000 miles across the United States and sitting on the beach in Newport, Rhode Island I was thinking, what next? A trip around the world was what immediately entered into my mind and was finally accomplished 17 years later. And what a trip it has been.
The last part of our journey took us through a country not on the original itinerary: Turkey. We’d heard too much good about this land to pass it up so bought a plane ticket and for the first time in our life stepped foot onto Middle East soil. Bordering Iran and Iraq to the East, we stayed more to the West near the Mediterranean and Agean. Anyhow, we needed some beach time to reclaim the tan we once had in SE Asia.
After leaving several large and westernized cities in Europe, we felt good to be back ‘traveling’ when we landed in Istanbul. We couldn’t understand the language, the streets were chaotic, and the currency was confusing. Our guidebooks and currency converter indicated the exchange rate was about 1,300,000 Turkish Lira to $1 USD. So when I went to the ATM for the first time, I expected to take out a couple hundred million. I was feeling rich.
But my ATM options ranged from 50 – 500 Lira. Confused. Knowing there was an error somewhere between me, my converter, and the ATM, I took out 250.
Because of the exorbitant devaluation of the Lira, last year Turkey changed the currency by 6 decimal places so now 1.3 Lira = 1 USD. To make matters worse, you get change in both currencies so a 1 million note is the same as a 1 Lira coin. But, we also found 250 coin is the same as a 25 coin. And, they quote prices in both Turkish currencies, Euro’s and US dollars. I was forever trying to figure out prices. The confusion didn’t end with the money. A sign above the toilet in the airport said, “Conserve Water, Flush Twice”. Twice? Hmmm. Or why we had the emergency procedures of a 737 posted outside our hotel room near the fire extinguisher. We just laughed and thought back to China where signs were always wrong. We did, however, put Turkey high on our favorite country’s list and find Istanbul to be an amazingly vibrant and lively city.
It is a city of magnificent mosques which are seemingly visible from anywhere. While the Grand Bazaar is truly grand, I found the Spice Market more appealing because of the smells and colors. When walking through the bazaars, you’ve got to try the Turkish Delight, a sweet confection popularized in the late 18th century. “Turkish Delight” we found was so much more than a candy.
Turkey is on the same latitude as California so, climatically and geographically, we felt at home. The landscapes reminded of us driving down the coast to Monterey, up to the mountains in Tahoe, or through the vineyards in Napa. It wasn’t just the geography but the people who truly made us feel welcome. We never felt like a tourist or a visitor but as a guest in their country. Even in the largest city, Istanbul, the people greeted us with enthusiasm. Granted, many were carpet sellers inviting us in for tea and a possible purchase. But, even when we said no to a purchase, they continued to treat us like their neighbor.
In the much smaller town of Goreme, we were flabbergasted by what happened while we were sitting in a restaurant. Two couples walked into eat and the guys asked the waiter for directions to a pension so they could go pick up something. The fact that two guys asked for directions was not the weird part. The waiter explained the location then said, “Wait here.” He then yelled something in Turkish to his buddy and the next thing we saw was a set of keys come flying outside and be handed to the guys. The waiter said, “take his car, it’s too far to walk.” They too were amazed as they’d never met before. That’s just Turkey.
With 98 percent of the population Muslim (although only 25 percent reportedly practice) and neighboring Iran, Iraq, and Syria, it is a country with many challenges. The suicide bombers who hit the USA and more recently London, Egypt, and even Turkey (while we were there) claim to be Muslims.
Unfortunately, these few extremists are destroying the reputation of so many.
And because of Turkey’s proximity to the USA’s foes, it is torn between supporting more Westernized rule and face trade sanctions or maintaining friendly neighborly relations. This has a high cost at times as was evident in the $7.50 per gallon price of fuel. Because the USA asked Turkey to restrict fruit and vegetables to it’s neighbors, the oil-rich neighbors charge exorbitant fuel prices.
The feel of their religion is omnipresent. At 4:45 on our first morning, I am well into REM sleep with my eyeballs flicking back and forth under my eyelids probably envisioning me kayaking on a serene Sierra lake or riding my bike up a mountain road. Then, at decibels not suitable for that hour, a Muslim prayer chant bellows into our room. We happen to be less than 100 yards from the iconic Blue Mosque which has a sound system Bill Graham would envy. We quickly learned the Muslims pray 5 times a day and every Mosque conducts these chants loudly. Every Mosque. Five Times. Loud. At first they seemed so melodious but quickly turned cacophonous.
We moved south to the Utah-like landscape of Cappadocia. The hot air balloon ride at sunrise was a highlight as we drifted over the cavernous sand formations. And, the tour of an underground city built thousands of years ago and used by different factions to avoid persecution was an experience.
Our guide explained that the walls are sturdy until the dirt hits air. I uneasily wondered why they wouldn’t fall down as we were breathing ‘air’.
Then Audrey asked if there was a problem with them collapsing. He said, and I am quoting exactly, “There is not a problem of collapsing because the dirt is good for caves. We will visit only about 10 percent of the caves as the rest have collapsed.” More confusion and uneasiness filled my head. I kept looking for the Exit sign.
After two enjoyable weeks, we left Turkey to visit friends in the Netherlands where we rode bikes and had one of the finest meals of the trip.
Sipping on a French merlot and eating venison in a typically Dutch, flower-filled garden with friends will forever be etched in my memory. Now we are in Iceland spending a few days and where we plan to spend our last day relaxing in the geothermal pools of the Blue Lagoon.
Overall, the trip went with few catastrophes. We avoided cyclone Ingrid but felt its devastating winds in Australia and we avoided deadly bombings in Turkey and Europe but felt the added military presence. Especially when two Turkish guys were escorted by the police from our plane. Except for a stolen camera in Beijing, an attempted robbery in Moscow, some minor bowel disagreements, and a few minor scars that will forever remind of us this trip, we remained safe and healthy.
206 days ago we were anxiously sitting in SFO awaiting to board our first flight to New Zealand. That was the first of many transportation methods we used to circumnavigate this globe including elephants, Tuk Tuks, pedicabs, and bamboo rafts. Although, most were more conventional with 62 hours on a plane, 233 hours on the train, 197 hours in a bus, and 79 hours on a boat.
Now we sit in Iceland waiting to board our final flight home on Wednesday.
Home. Since we left in January we’ve called our hotels or pensions or hostels ‘home’ but have never forgotten our true home. We never will forget the friendliness of the Kiwis or Turks, or the stunning scenery of Australia, or the tremendous growth in China, but do look forward to flying over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. The beauty of living in California is that while we always enjoy venturing onto foreign soil, we like just as much to come home. When we left I wrote about how fortunate we are to have taken this opportunity when so few who we’ve met can even travel outside their region. And I still feel just as fortunate. Thank you for sharing in my journey.