Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia
August 23rd, 24th 2010

I think Split was the first place I’ve actually spent time lounging on the beach. Three times. Varna didn’t count as I just walked along the beach but after acquiring some serious farmer’s tan on my travels, I had to even it out a little bit. The guy running the hostel, Peter, recommended I go to one of the more remote beaches on the right side of Split, which I did once, only to find out it’s frequented mostly by older folk (and you know how older folk also have to wear their speedos and bikinis…). There wasn’t any sand, mostly smooth rocks. I hate walking on rocks in the water as I keep thinking I might step on prickly sea urchins. The water was nice and deep, perfect for swimming but I personally preferred sandy beaches so I left after a while to go back to Bacevice (the touristy but sandy beach). What’s nice about Bacevice is that everyone goes there so it’s nice for people-watching. The first time I was there, I would soak myself in the water at intervals, then go sit on the sand and stare into the open, thinking about all sorts of things. The second time, I would just sit in the ankle-high water as the tide was lower. I started to remember how much fun beaches were and I am now looking forward to the beaches in Nice, France.

Not much in Split, just usual tourist stuff (Dioclethian Palace being the major one but I was quite unimpressed because the insides of the walls are filled with every imaginable tourist shop). One cool thing was the fish market. Got to see all kinds of seafood being sold that I’ve never really seen in markets before. Later that day, I ate some amazing seafood at a popular local joint called ‘Fife’ (some sardine appetizers, fresh fish off the grill, and some good Croatian beer). Other times, I just had pizza slices from one of the many pizza joints all over the place.

My hostel felt like an apartment; it had rooms, a kitchen, a living area with flat-screen TV complete with channels to watch soccer (caught City vs Liverpool with some hostel-mates), a computer…but it was a small area and the guy who ran my hostel, Peter, told me how suffocated he felt working there. He was the only guy working at this place, so it’s almost like a 24/7 job for him, with no one switching shifts with him. The guy has spent the past year doing this and was going nuts. I felt sorry for the guy so I offered to help watch the hostel for him while he went out to relax or to get food/run errands. I didn’t mind, I was sitting in the living area watching sports and surfing the net anyway. If someone rings the doorbell, let them in, that’s all. I also cleaned up the hostel computer as it was super-slow. It made me realize how much I enjoy fixing, improving, and making things more efficient.

On my second night, at 1 am, the doorbell rang. No one was around so I opened the door and some Belgian guy was asking if there were rooms. Peter was gone for the day and I let the guy use the computer to find accomodation around the area. But it was 1 am, most places were closed already, so I told the guy to take one of the empty beds in the hostel. Funny thing, I had some Bosnian money that I couldn’t get rid of (exchange offices don’t take coins, even if they were worth €5, and this guy was going to Bosnia next, so I changed money with him. He told me he would pay the hostel but I think he left the next day without leaving anything, not even a note.

Split, Croatia Pics

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia
August 22nd 2010

The Adriatic coastline is stunning. I arrived and couldn’t figure out how to get to an apartment I was staying at for a night, as the directions weren’t very good. I should have borrowed a phone from a pair of travellers I have run into in Belgrade, Sarajevo, and now the Mostar-Dubrovnik bus trip. But I decided to do things on my own and ended up walking in the heat, following some rough directions from a helpful lady at the bus station. I walked up 600 steps, with 30+ pounds on me. I was soaked by the time I got to the top. With some walking, direction-asking from other helpful locals running pansions, and sheer luck, I ran into the guy who owned the apartments.


(Walked up with my stuff from where the sea is, in 35 deg C, tiring)

I walked down 600 flights of steps again to reach the bottom and took a bus to the Old Town. There are massive numbers of tourists. Dubrovnik used to the a hidden gem in Europe but now, it’s very well-known. Many Hollywood celebs come here for holiday and Oprah even has a house somewhere. But it is very beautiful from all angles, which I enjoyed while walking around the City Walls. The atmosphere was fantastic and watching the skies glow on the coast as the sun was setting was quite magical.


(People walking along the City Walls)


(Old Town)


(Open air market)

I enjoyed delicious seafood at a restaurant beside the docks. The first night, I had seafood risotto. I felt like I could taste the sea (in a good way). It made me feel alive, and that’s when you know the food is really good. I had mussels the next day for lunch, at the same place.


(Seafood risotto)


(Mussels)

When I walked into my room that night, the Australian guy from early in the day was gone and was replaced by an Asian guy. He had very long hair, tied up in a bun (without anything holding it), and shaved sides. I struck up a conversation with him and found out he was from a small village near Hiroshima in Japan. He was, at the time, traveling by bicycle around South-Central Europe. This form of travel intrigued me. He told me he would average about 100 km a day, and at night, he would find an open spot to set up his tent and camp (but this time, he left his bike with a friend in Belgrade, where he will be returning to soon). Once in a while, friendly locals he meets would invite him into their homes for some food, shower, and a bed. He told me stories of his bicycle-travels around the Middle East on bike and I kept listening in fascination. I could also see how much he derives pleasure being outdoors with nature.

Kaz (short for Kazuhiro) is 25 years old and went to school in Tokyo to learn how to make bags from scratch. He then moved to Florence to start selling bags he made. He would buy high-grade leather, and from the ideas in his head (no drawings or anything), make various kinds of uniquely designed bags (deriving his inspiration from nature, which he absolutely loves). He would then go around to various Italian boutiques and try to sell his bags to them to be resold. He told me a lot of store employees would look at him funny because he wasn’t dressed up formally (almost looking like a bum sometimes) when going around selling his work. I guess it’s ok because he’s an artisan. I looked at his work and thought they were extremely unique and wonderful. Imagine having a one of a kind handbag, hand-made with of some best Italian leather. I asked Kaz if he was planning to go mainstream and become a brand (like the Japanese Versace, I joked). He said that didn’t interest him at all. For him, money isn’t everything. His dream is to become an organic rice farmer (if not in Japan where rice is grown once a year, then a country where rice can be grown frequently, like India or Malaysia). He wants to grow enough chemical-free rice to support himself and also sell to his friends and family.

Kaz was one of the most unique and interesting characters I’ve met thus far, not just on my travels, but in my life. It was so refreshing to meet someone so humble, and who wants to live such a simple lifestyle. I told Kaz that when he goes back to Tokyo (he’s in Vienna until March 2011), I will join him for some sushi some time.

Dubrovnik, Croatia Pics

Mostar, BiH

Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
August 21st 2010


(View from the Old Bridge)

Mostar is most known for its Old Bridge, a nice little cobble-stone bridge that was completely destroyed in the Balkan War. I got to see a video clip of the actual moment when a rocket fired by the Croatians destroyed the bridge. Tourists are plentiful in Mostar’s Old Town. Everyone paid a small donation to see a man jump off the Old Bridge (which is quite a long way down). I was disappointed he didn’t do it head-first, like an actual dive. He went in feet first.


(‘Geronimo!!!!’)

The Old Town is much like most other Old Towns, full of tourist cafes/restaurants/souvenir shops. There’s a street in Mostar called ‘Bulevar’ which used to be one of the front lines of the war, where plenty of gunfire was exchanged between the Serbs and Croats. There are many buildings still left unrepaired, full of massive holes, standing next to fully restored buildings.


(Can you tell which one was reconstructed?)

Stayed a hostel that’s quite well-known in the backpacker community, Majda’s Rooms. It was like staying in someone’s apartment because it’s so homely and warm. Majda was a nice but weary-looking lady who employed a couple of other women to help out with operations, from picking people up at the bus station to cleaning. I was actually fortunate when I arrived. It was quite a long walk from the bus station but when I arrived, Ziyada (one of the staff) was waiting to pick up two girls from the same bus so I got a ride too. My nickname for them is “Majda and her band of Merrywomen”.

On the morning before I left, Majda made us a delicious breakfast consisting of bread with scrambled eggs on top, fresh fruit (including a home-grown delicious fig which was my favorite), and some coffee. Got to chat with some other hostel-mates and turns out, one of them (Megan) did some archaelogical research in Athens with a guy (Jack) I met in Salonica (Greece) when I was staying there for the night. Nice coincidence.

Mostar, BiH Pics

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Aug 19th, 20th 2010

I used to read about the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) in the news when I was a kid. I don’t remember much about them but when I decided to do my RTW trip, I had to visit BiH. I thought I’d be walking on the streets of a scarred city, full of buildings still shattered from the war, on frozen in time. I thought I would see a barren, empty landscape with grey, depressing skies. Instead, I was greeted by some of the most beautiful landscape in Europe. Mountains, lush greenery, beautiful bodies of water. I guess this is why Sarajevo was chosen in 1984 to host the Winter Olympics.

Imagine a bowl. The inside of the bowl consists of hillsides. At the bottom of the bowl is Sarajevo. Much of whatever was damaged has been reconstructed but whatever is government-owned has not been repaired. This is because the presidency of BiH is swapped every 8 months between 3 political parties (Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnians). So when one party decides to repair something, before things can be done, power changes hands and priorities are rearranged. The National Library is sitting there in scaffolding and looks like an abandoned building.


(National Library, pride of Bosnia)


(Mortar damage on a church)


(Famous drinking fountain. If you drank water from it, one of the beliefs was that you’ll meet a girl. I drank two bottles of it, no luck)

I stayed at a hostel that’s family-owned and located along the steps that were used by everyone to get up to the mountains for the ’84 Winter Olympics. Now, those steps are beaten to death. The son of the guy running the hostel took us around for a walking tour of the city, including a place to eat some good burek (5 kinds!) and drink some traditional Bosnian beverages. We saw the exact spot where Franz Ferdinand got shot, triggering WW1.


(The famous steps from the ’84 Winter Olympics)


(Franz Ferdinand was shot here)

Sarajevo, BiH Pics

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia
August 17th, 18th 2010

Again, nothing exciting happened in Belgrade (apart from the haircut incident, see a couple of posts below, ‘Tip of the Month’). I guess I’m running a recurrent theme here (‘Nothing exciting happened …’) but you can’t really force things. That’s part of travel, just take things as they come. Sometimes, it’s exciting, funny things happen and you can’t wait to share them on the blog. Other times, it’s mundane.

The streets of Belgrade are much like any other streets in Europe. There’s always one ‘popular’ long street filled with trendy shops, cafes, gelato stands, banks, and all kinds of people, ranging from beggars to shoppers.

The best part about my trip to Belgrade? Yeah, it’s the food. I should start thinking about a turning this into a foodie blog because a huge part of travel, for me, is the food. I was hungry and wanted to get a haircut. I stopped by a Serbian bbq place called ‘Loki’, recommended to me by the lady who ran the hostel. Inside, I faced a Serbian menu and I tried asking the ladies behind the counter what my options were. The blank look on both mine and their faces prompted a Serbian guy to jump in and help me out. He was in his 20s, holding what I think is a Serbian branded beer in his hand. He tried his best to describe the common options but it didn’t help much since I’m a visualizer. I asked him to order me what he thinks is the best item so he orders a Serbian hamburger called a ‘Pljeskavica’. It was cheap, good, and filling. The meat wasn’t cooked all the way well-done, more of a moist medium. Initially, that worried me but come on, it’s beef. Some people eat steak that still has a beating heart.


(Pljeskavica)

So Vuk, the Serbian guy, tells me he used to live in New Jersey for about 2 years, attending college there. His dad is an engineer and his mom has a PhD in Chemistry. In Serbia, education is free but I guess people aren’t paid as highly as a result. Vuk didn’t have money to go to grad school so he had to return to Serbia. Anyway, the guy recommends his friend’s hair salon down the street when I ask for a place to get a haircut. He takes me there, I settle in my seat, find out the stylist doesn’t speak a lick of English, so I showed her a picture I took with my camera of a picture from the internet. Unfortunately, Chow Yun Fat (yes, I took a picture of him from ‘Replacement Killers’) had black hair and on a camera, it didn’t look right. You can’t see he has long hair combed to the side. You can’t tell the length of his hair at all because black hair on a black/white photo is not easily discernable. I tell Vuk to tell her what I wanted and by this point, I realized he was somewhat drunk, but he tries anyway. I don’t know if things got lost in translation or the bad picture on my camera threw the stylist off but she ended up cutting off my hair which took me 3 months to grow out. I permitted it to happen because I have impulsive curiosity about things. I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to see if there’s a lost-in-translation moment here that I could tell people about?’. Who cares if she gives me a mohawk or a bowl-cut, it would be HILARIOUS! Ok, not really.

The haircut was so cheap, one would think it would take the sting away but no, it lingers on my mind. ‘Should I have stopped her just before she made the first snip?’. Ah well, it’s just hair. Just another 3 months to get back to the same point. Then I can be Chow Yun Fat (‘Replacement Killers’, not ‘Crouching Tiger’) when I get my haircut in India.

That evening, I walked quite a distance to go eat at a place called ‘Little Bay’. There’s one in London, and there’s one in Belgrade. I decided to go all out here. I don’t eat at joints like these often so it’s nice to splurge a bit every now and then. I order some pastry appetizer, of which I forgot the name, Greek salad and ‘Assiage of Lamb’. I tried googling ‘assiage’ and I’m sure I misspelled it because there are no results. All I know is, ‘assiage of lamb’ was spectacular. Total cost? €17. Not too bad for a ‘splurge’.


(Assiage of lamb)

I woke up bright and early and headed to Kalamegdan Citadel, which wasn’t that exciting. It’s just a wide, expansive area inside a fortress, on top of a hill in Belgrade. Walked up there, got a good view of the city, went to the Military Museum, which was unimpressive, and got out. The various cannons and mortars lining the walls around the museum was quite cool though, as I got to see how generations of military machines evolved.

I decided to visit Nikola Tesla Museum because I’m an engineer. All I knew of Tesla was that a unit of measurement in physics is named after him, and that in ‘Command and Conquer’, there was a weapon called the ‘Tesla Coil’. Only after the visit did I realize the ‘Tesla Coil’ was real, although not a weapon in a game. I also discovered Tesla to be my new favorite Science Superhero. The guy was a genius, a true pioneer that single-handedly brought the world, indirectly, into the 20th century. The museum itself was fantastic as it was interactive, not a bunch of exhibits that leave people more confused than when they first walked in.

Dinner that evening consisted of a Serbian salad and ‘The Oskar’, a specialty at a restaurant called ‘Oskar’. It was different kinds of meats (pork, chicken, beef) cooked in different ways. Not a bad way to end my stay in Belgrade.


(The Oskar)

Belgrade, Serbia Pics

Sofia, Bulgaria

Sofia, Bulgaria
August 14th, 15th 2010

From Salonica, stopped at Sofia for two nights. Stayed at one of the best hostels, from my experience, in Europe thus far, Hostel Mostel. It had everything I could want in a hostel. Despite no A/C, it wasn’t that hard to fall asleep as the windows were open. It was cheap (€10!), had really fast internet no matter where you are in the hostel, had a fun-looking and spacious lounge, kittens everywhere outside (the friendlist being one named Mark, not coincidentally, the only one with a name), TV to watch the English Premier League games, free pasta/beer for dinner, free breakfast – Excellent hostel, and I rarely dedicate a section to rave about a hostel.


(Mark acting all sexy)

Nothing exciting in Sofia. Went to check out some churches (including the world’s biggest Orthodox church, which sadly, was almost empty and under renovation inside). Ate some good Bulgarian food (which comprises of a lot of pork).

One of the highlights was when I was on the tram going to the train station. Lonely Planet mentioned buying one tram ticket for yourself and one for your backpack. I did this when I arrived in Sofia but on the way back, I decided it was absurd to buy a ticket (as cheap as it was) for a backpack that would sit on the floor.

A group of lady conductors boarded the tram and demanded to see our tickets. I presented my ticket for myself, and she was asking where my ticket was for my backpack (she spoke Bulgarian but I knew what she meant when she pointed to my pack). I immediately went up to the front, bought a ticket for my backpack, came back and she reluctantly let me go. But the German girls on the tram weren’t so lucky. They acted too slow, in fact, doing nothing but sit there and try to understand what these conductors were demanding from them (basically “Where’s your ticket? And it’s a 10 Leva fine for not having it”). I told the German girls to quickly buy the tickets but they just sat there like deer in headlights, being idiots. A group of Bulgarians jumped in to defend the German girls and a huge argument escalated between the conductors and two women (one young, one elderly). The young one ended up paying the fine for the German girls (who claimed they had not enough Levas left to pay the fine). The older Bulgarian lady got up from her seat and looked like she was going to fight one of the old lady conductors.


(Like a pack of hyenas on a helpless wildebeest)

Goes to show how nice the locals can be, sticking up for clueless tourists. I have to say though, the German girls were partially at fault too but not acting quickly when I told them to.

Sofia, Bulgaria Pics

Athens, Greece

Athens, Greece
August 10th, 11th, 12th 2010


(View of Athens from the Acropolis)

Athens! Stepping out to a clean, organized airport, standing in a proper line for a bus ticket to downtown, walking on your quiet, safe streets where people obey traffic lights and drive in their lanes, into your wonderful (but Euro-pricey) hostels, oh you spoil me!

Before I talk about Athens, I’d like to add that at the Cairo Airport, I saw a line of men and women, mostly older generation, wearing all-white and getting ready for what it seems to be a journey to Mecca (the flight was to Jeddah) just in time for the start of Ramadan. What was interesting was that some of the men were wearing what I thought to be towels kept together by pins. I asked an elder gentleman about the attire and he said that all first-timers (men only) to Mecca must wear clothes with no stitching in it. And let’s not forget the beautiful farewell the Cairenese gave me. I ordered a cafe latte and paid up with the last E£23 I had. One of the guys mentioned to my barrista that he made my coffee wrongly. So the barrista decided to fill up my cup with more milk instead. I had coffee-flavored milk, not coffee. But oh well, thanks for screwing me one more time before I left you Egypt!

Honestly though, God bless those Egyptians. Take away the over-aggressive selling, they are a lovely and friendly bunch of people. When you’re back in Europe and everyone’s keeping to themselves, you begin to appreciate the Egyptians for going out of their way to find out where you are from and saying “Welcome!”.

I don’t think I was quite hyped up on Greece. I flew here because:

-I had to get back into Europe, this was the closest to Egypt. The other option had been go straight to Rome.

-It’s Greece, I had to visit Greece! Acropolis, gyros, souvlaki, nude Greek gods…

-It’s the start of my route entering South Central Europe (I had mentioned previously I was going to skip it but time has permitted me to do it).

I booked my hostel pretty late, had discontinuous rooms and since this hostel had two branches (thankfully a few minutes walk from each other), I had to check out each morning and check into the other branch.


(Parthenon. Already lots of tourists at 7:30 am)

Did a walking tour. Our guide was a Greek archaelogist and he took us around to the major sights of Athens (Hadrian’s Arch, Temple of Zeus, Roman/Athenian Agoras, Acropolis, Panatheic Stadium, National Gardens, Monastiraki, Parliament etc.) but the only thing I was interested in actually checking out was the famous Acropolis (where the Parthenon is). So that’s what I did the following day. I went around 7 am and even then, it was already packed with tourists. The Parthenon was closed as there was some restoration work going on. We could only see it from the outside. I wasn’t overly impressed by it but it definitely had its charm. I also visited the National Archaelogical Museum because some people claim it’s one of the top museums in the world. Again, due to my lack of knowledge about archaelogy, I couldn’t fully appreciate all the old stuff I saw. The highlight of my visit was seeing some arrowheads found from the Battle of Thermapolye (“300”, King Leonidas, “This is SPARTA!” ring a bell?). I think I’m beginning to see a trend here. I enjoy things military and war-related.


(Changing of the Guard, in front of Parliament. Note their traditional military attire)

I love good, cheap eats and gyros were my favorite. I had pork, lamb, beef, chicken over 2 days, at €1.80 a gyro. I would buy, sit down at Monastiriki Square, eat, and people watch.


(Gyros)

Not much else to say about Athens. It was short, sweet, and relaxing. I thought about my route already. Thessalonikki, Sofia, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Mostar, Dubrovnik, Split, Ljubljena before entering Italy.

edit : Not much in Thessaloniki, walked around, saw the “White Tower”, that’s about it.

Goreme, Turkey

Goreme, Turkey
July 25th 2010

Took the overnight bus from Istanbul to Goreme (about 12 hours total including stops). Goreme, which is located in the Cappadocia region, has some really interesting rock formations (nicknamed “Fairy chimneys”) that resulted from volcanic eruptions eons ago. I believe the region was underwater as well then, so that’s how the pointed rock formations resulted (bottom heavy, sharp-ish tops).

I stayed at Yasin’s Backpacker Hostel, in an underground cave room. It got cold and the beds got damp at night but it’s a cave, so there’s nothing we could do about it. The Japanese guy who slept in the bed beside me had the worst snore in recorded history. It’s in the top 3 of worst snorers I’ve encountered in my lifetime. It was impossible to sleep the first night. At one point, I lay awake and mockingly fake-snored as loud as him, hoping he’d hear me. But outside of the damp room, the odd smell of shit near the toilet area (I’m sure the sewage system isn’t the best), the squat toilet, the difficult to use shower system (you had to stand at a certain angle in the corner or risk wetting all your clothes that you hung up on the wall, as the shower head sprayed water all over the place), the hostel was as charming as a cave hostel could be. Breakfast was cooked by Yasin’s mom, so good.

Goreme is a small town of about 2100 people. The place is catered for tourism but it maintained its localness. I particularly enjoyed the little bookstore that sold used English books. I sold some of my books, picked up “Dracula”. I ate claypot beef stew twice that day, each at different locations. Absolutely delicious.

I spent the first day exploring the Goreme Open Air Museum. It’s basically a well-guarded enclosed area of rock formations and caves that people used to live in maybe thousands of years ago.Tourists can walk in/out of these caves and check out old frescos, and rooms which used to be refectories, storage areas, sleeping areas, churches etc. In fact, a lot of people still live in caves like these around the Cappadocia region.

I had originally wanted to spend two nights in Goreme but difficult sleeping conditions, on top of the fact I had troubling thinking of things to do in such a small, remote region of Turkey, I decided to stay only a night instead.

I spent the entire second day on a special tour Yasin put together (in addition to running the hostel for 3 years to date, he’s trying to start his own tour to add to the already available commercial Green/Red tours, which apparently had their flaws so he’s trying to improve upon it). We explored lots of cultural regions of Cappadocia, hiked hills to check out remove cave churches and places, ate fresh apricots straight from the trees growing in the area (they were SO good), drank apple tea with a local man and his wife who took care of certain cave churches, ate an amazing lunch (chicken claypot stew, bread with fresh cheese/honey, fruit), exploring an underground city (which had up to 7 layers and many intricate tunnels connecting them, but we were restricted to only a few), checked out local excavation sites that had Roman ruins, looking out our van window as we drove past amazing Cappadocian landscape, watching a local potter show how us how he works…It was a fantastic day I will never forget.

I left on the overnight bus that night. One more night in Istanbul and I’m going to Cairo.

Goreme, Turkey Pics

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey
July 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 27th

Istanbul is a city everyone should visit at least once in their lives. It is like a beautiful woman who also has a wonderful and interesting personality as well. The beauty of this city (and country) runs deep that only a city with so much history could.

The city is so vast and dense as is the population. I can’t even begin to describe how friendly and hospitable the Turkish people are. Maybe it’s their culture to be that way. I’ve met a number of Turkish people who have asked me where I was from. As there are plenty of Japanese and Korean tourists here (which I’ll write more about later), they always guess if I’m from either. I’ve tested saying “I’m from America” and “I’m from Malaysia” and the latter seems to make them a lot friendlier, as everyone in Turkey seems to be familiar with Malaysia (many Turks I’ve met have been to Malaysia). Plus, Malaysia’s a Muslim country. And it’s not America (not such a good rep in these parts of the world, but the people are open & friendly to Americans nonetheless, although not as much as to non-Americans). I’ve met kids who treated me like a celebrity because to them, meeting an Asian tourist is a treat. I remember when I took a ferry ride up the Bosphorus and ended up in a region near the Black Sea (Anadolufeneri), me and some friends climbed up to this castle up in the hill, and we ran into a group of school kids. They immediately crowded around us and asked us where we were from. So one guy said “Iraq”, another said “Tunisia” and I said “Malaysia” and they were like “WOOOOOOOOOOOOW!!!!” and we felt so special. Another time, I was taking a break in Topkapi Palace under some shade, and some Turkish kids came up to me and asked me if they could take a picture of me with some of their friends. I obliged, and they were so happy about it. My God, this is what it must feel like to be famous!

The food is amazing. I’ve written several times in my blog about the number of doner kebabs I’ve eaten in Europe and I’ve mentioned that I knew I would like Turkish food before I got to Turkey. It’s true, I do love Turkish food. I’ve eaten bureks several times while here (my favorite Turkish food, see picture above), yarims (chopped spicy pork sandwiches), doner kebabs, fish sandwiches (purchased by the ferry docks), beef/chicken clay pot stew (so good), rice with meats (their rice or “pilav” is made in the Middle Eastern way, very delicious), dondurum (Turkish ice cream, I call it bubble-gum ice cream because it’s sticky and they’re made in a special manner), Turkish delight, etc.

The sights are just as amazing. There’s the Big 6: Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Topkapi, Grand Bazaar, Archaelogy Museum, and the Basilica Sistern. All (with the exception of Archaelogy Museum) were amazing. I made the mistake of paying 10 TL for the Archaelogy Museum and immediately regretted it. Did I mention how sick I am of sculptures? You can read more about the rest on Google or Wikipedia, I won’t describe each one to you except that they are beautiful and very historical. See the pictures for reference though.

I stayed at Hostelon the first few nights in Istanbul. It was great except we didn’t have A/C the first few nights and it was sweltering hot in the rooms. I had so much trouble sleeping. Everyone would be jostling for the single standing fan in the room. I would let everyone have their turn with the fan, fall asleep, then direct the fan to myself. The last night though, Hostelon installed A/C in our room and that night, it was bliss. Hostelon was located down the street from the famous Istiklal Cadesi, and right next to plenty of mom/pop type shops selling food. I would frequent the one next door selling bureks (my daily breakfast is half/half sugar/meat burek with a cup of Turkish çay (tea) with two cubes of sugar). I would also have several meals two doors down, eating rice and chicken kebabs. The owners of those places would sit outside, sitting on the little tables/stools, lounging in the sun, while I eat, and I tried to conversate with them but their English is very limited. I would be a familiar face though and would say hi to them everytime I saw them. Sometimes, there would be young Turkish guys who spoke more English than the old guys, and I would talk to them about the city, and also about the universal go-to topic for everyone outside of America, futbol.

I became friends with two guys in my room in Hostelon, Martin and Seif. Martin was born/raised in Michigan, but has Iraqi parents. He had been studying for 6 months in Spain, then 6 months in Lebanon. He spoke fluent English, Spanish, and Arabic. Seif was a Tunisian guy, spoke basic English, fluent French and Arabic. I spent a day on a ferry with them traveling up and down the Bosphorus Strait. They loved singing Arabic songs and it was very funny to see them both belt out these tunes everywhere they went. Shopping for jeans with them under Istiklal was also amusing.

I’ve been reading up a little bit on the Father of modern day Turkey : Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He was their first president and many venues have been named after him, including the Ataturk International Airport. He was a great military commander and great leader to the country. He adopted 12 daughters, one of whom I discovered was Sabiha Gokçen, who was the first female combat pilot in the world, and whom the 2nd airport in Istanbul is named after.

Oh yeah, the multitudes of Japanese/Korean tourists here…I wondered why there were so many here and from what I’ve Googled and heard from several people, the Koreans and Turks have a special bond between countries because during the Korean War, Turkey sent the most number of troops to help out. I still don’t know why the Japanese come here in droves, I will need to research that further. A theory I’ve read online is that the Japanese and Turkish people originated from the same ancestors.

More random pictures:

Istanbul,Turkey Pics

Varna, Bulgaria

Varna, Bulgaria
July 19th 2010

It was supposed to be the place where I could go and get my tan on. I have severe farmer’s tan and I needed to even it all out. I was supposed to be at a hostel located a minute from the beach. I would get up, walk outside, see the beautiful waters. The sun would be shining, the sand would be so soft and fine, I would walk barefoot toward the waters, sit down, and just enjoy everything around me. Wishful thinking.

I got to Varna very late at night. I had to take the train from Brasov to Bucharest. After trying to talk to the most unfriendly international ticket staff in the world, I went to an ATM machine. Surprise surprise, DENIED. I was in a pickle but luckily, although my credit card was also DENIED, I could pay using my debit card. What’s up with Romania? Never had this issue anywhere else in Europe.

So I took the train from Bucharest to Ruse (Bulgaria), on the border. Bought a bus ticket from Ruse to Varna but had some down time. So I spent it eating terrible terrible terrible food (I hadn’t had anything to eat all day, so a plate of God knows what which had been sitting behind the counter for God knows how long, was actually something I scarfed quickly, knowing I might die the next day. See picture above).

After that, I went to buy a bottle of water from a vendor next door. She proceeds to sneeze in her hand, then grab my bottle on the head. I don’t know why but I took it, disgusted, but I took it. I should have tried to sign-language my way into another bottle but these Bulgarians, they couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Nobody in Europe believes “The customer is always right”. They don’t work on tips here, it is automatically added on in each bill already. Yes, 20% of what you’re paying, is tip already included. But it is the way it is. BTW, I proceeded to take out my alcohol wipes, then wipe down my bottle. After drinking the water, I did not fall onto the ground convulsing. Long term brain damage? We’ll just have to see. I took one Pepto-Bismol tablet just to be safe.

I do have to say, the highlight of my road trip to Varna was seeing so endless fields of beautiful sunflowers. I think there were millions and millions.

I arrived at the bus station, then proceeded to look for bus #409 or #148 (guide book said it’d take me to the city center). Droves of taxi drivers came up to me, asking me if I wanted a taxi ride. BTW, this is common in Eastern Europe, you will be hassled (and hustled) by every taxi driver, street vendor. They are like hungry wolves, and I’m a juicy piece of tourist meat getting off the bus. Anyway, one taxi driver tries to get my attention and without looking, I say “No thanks, I am riding the bus” but the guy runs to me and starts asking me which bus. So I told him, and surprisingly, he tells me I’m on the wrong side of the street. I need to get on the bus stop across. So I thank him, and it was then I realized, although some people are trying to make a living, there are those who really do want to be nice and helpful. Shame on me sometimes, the way I think…I cannot stereotype these people, even if most couldn’t give a crap about me. It is just my paranoia I think. It is better to be cautious and skeptical of people because I am by myself in a foreign land. I have lied about where I come from, I have lied about my name, about where I’m going to a number of people, just to preserve my anonymity. But there are times I have been truthful as well to complete strangers, and have come out unscathed. It is all about having faith and belief that some strangers out there are truly interested in a foreign person, not trying to find ways to scam them.

Ok, enough about all that. I take the bus, not sure where I got to get off, and the conductor couldn’t understand me. Luckily, a young youth helps me out. I get off, then wonder…”Where am I sleeping tonight???” That’s right, I didn’t book any hostels in advance because I didn’t know if I was going to make all the connections on time the entire day. I walk and walk around those strange streets, trying to find some hostels from my guide book. The first one, wasn’t even there. I got lost, eventually having people guide me to another hostel. It was full. I got sent over to a budget hotel nearby. Luckily, there was a room available. I was far away from beaches, no internet, a hot stuffy room, but I had a bed. OK, works for me.

Next day, fresh from a sleepless night, I buy a small cup of coffee in the cafe next door, and milk their free wifi. I walked around Varna, exploring. The beach was about 10-15 mins walk, not too bad, but again, not what I had in mind when I first decided to come here. The weather was ok for the first part of the day. I discovered a beach filled with Bulgarians and tourists a like. Old, young, men, women, kids, people who shouldn’t wear Speedos, and some topless sunbathers (the good kind). I rolled up my pants, took off my sandals, and took a stroll on the sandy shore. The waves splashing on my feet felt good. I didn’t get in the water. Just took in the views. Not quite the beach I hoped for but a beach nonetheless, probably the “goto” beach for most Eastern Europeaners.

A little self-serve cafeteria food, a stroll along the streets. Nothing eventful. Street money changers constantly come up to me asking if I want a good exchange rate.

Next day, I pack up my crap, prepare to check out and catch the late bus to Istanbul. I get some ice-cream, it is hot, the sun is shining hard. A few minutes later, the rain comes down hard. Everyone runs for cover. I find shelter outside a local bookstore, along with a bunch of locals. When the downpour softened up somewhat, some people make a dash for it to get on buses/taxis/whereever. A few minutes later, the window closes and the rain comes down hard again. I was unfortunate and stupid enough to go scouting for the place where I’m supposed to be waiting for my bus. So I navigated my way back to the bookstore. I stayed put until 20-30 minutes after the rain stopped. The wait for the bus later was an eternity.