Saturday, 30 July 2011

Twitching in Turkey

When I arrived in Cappadocia at eight in the morning after a 12 hour bus ride and not much sleep I had two missions:
(1)    Caffeine
(2)    Flamingos 
After breakfast and coffee (mmm, nescafe), a few exclamations about the amazing landscape and a number of conversations with local travel agents and travelling companions I had a driver for the day and a fellow flamingo spotter. Ivana- a Serbian woman I met on the bus ride to Cappadocia wasn’t realy sure what the whole Flamingo thing was about but was up for the adventure. 

Two hours after we got off the bus I handed over a wad of Turkish Lire and I was back on the road with my new friend Ivana, a taxi driver with no English and only a vague idea of where the Flamingos could be found, some binoculars I bought in Amman, a small bag of peanuts, very little sleep, very little camera battery and my new very pink earings from Istanbul as a lucky charm. 

We drove for another two hours and in between naps we spied lush blue lakes surrounded by green, the famed fairy chimneys and fields of Sunflowers. After several conversations with roadside locals our driver delivered us to the Saltan Marshes, the bird watching center of Turkey and we were told it would be ‘5 mins’ before our official Flamingo driver would be with us. 

A plate of amazing local grapes, a couple of cokes and a nap later we piled into the most unlikely safari vehicle I have ever seen. Squashed into the hot, cramped little Russian Jeep were Ivana, myself, the taxi driver along for the ride, our bird guide/ driver, and an amazing telescope. 

We drove about on the severely rutted salt marsh of the national park stopping occasionally to spot herons, eagles and other things to small fry for a Flamingo watcher to waste her time on.

After a period of hot bumpy driving we pulled over again and our bird spotting driver told us if we wanted to see Flamingos we must remove our shoes, roll up our pants and follow him. Pausing only to remove his own pants our driver set off with his telescope across the marsh and we followed along as best we could. 

Having frowned at my decision to go barefoot rather than in my sandals, Ivana lost one of her new fake prada thongs at the first marsh; but happily claiming to be Cinderella she soldiered on barefoot, and soon spotted plenty of frogs amongst the mud to kiss and was converted to the joys of barefoot adventuring. 

I had no barefoot worries to cope with. In Tanzania I was frequently lectured for going barefoot while on safari, so it made me a happy lady to be on a Flamingo adventure on which bare feet were mandatory. 

We slowly moved towards a group of birds we could hear but not see. Although the mud was a lark the sharp dried out salt flats a little more tricky for the soft footed to navigate. Spiky ground however had no power to diminish my excitement as our guide paused to focus his telescope and we all peered through at the happy birds in the distance.

At long last the Greater Flamingo was in sight, less pink in the body than the Lesser, but with striking long pink legs and under wing, when they stretch or take flight there are brilliant flashes of vivid pink. 

Close and closer we stalked, our motley band of (mostly) recently converted Flamingo rovers, all very happy to be out twitching in the middle of Turkey. We always stayed at a respectful distance, so I must say that our best views were still through the telescope rather than the naked eye, but the experience of walking barefoot through the marshes in pursuit of Flamingos was absolutely exhilarating. Unmissable.

And still so much of Turkey still to explore.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Heathen in the Holy Land

I had this thought as I travelled across Jordan, somewhere in between Wadi Rum and Petra I realised that if I was on my original two month trip I would be in New England right now, possibly eating fish and chips on Marthas Vineyard.  But somehow I got lost on the way to Cape Cod and ended up in the Middle East.  For me it is a happy, albeit rather hot accident; but for many others a trip to the Middle East is a once in a lifetime pilgrimage.

Climbing Mt Sinai in Egypt was a cool overnight adventure for me, but as we waited for the sun to rise pilgrims from around the world were making their way up to a place of huge spiritual significance. Many were going slow with the steepness of the 700 steps, but all had the spirit of the place firm in their hearts as they climbed. Pilgrims make it up the final accent and barely pause for breath before breaking into song- I just chat to my friends about Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and star gaze.

Mt Sinai, final ascent.

I enjoyed my visit to Mt Nebo in Jordan, there were good views out over the Dead Sea towards Israel, cool mosaics  and the road up was like something out of Top Gear- but many people visit to pay homage to the place where Moses (possibly) saw the Holy land before he died. 

the cool road to Mt Nebo, Jordan.

There is quite a difference between the experience of visiting churches when I was in Italy a few years ago and visiting churches in the Middle East. Around Florence you visit to see the architecture and the fresco's, in Jerusalem and Bethlehem the churches I visited were alive with worshipers.

One of my favorite churches has been the  Holy Church of the Sepulchre, inside the old city in Jerusalem, friend and I arrived in the courtyard just as the bells began their call- ringing is almost too subtle a word for the righteous noise which reverberated off the ancient stone. 

The aural experience continued inside with chanting- incomprehensible to me but beautiful. Inside was a maze of low doors, little caves and quiet places combined with ornate vaulted ceilings brought almost to the lowly level of humanity with dozens of lanterns. And of course we shared the experience with many pilgrims.

On mass pilgrim tourists are as appealing as any other bus load of tourists, but these people are visiting to do more than take a photograph, they want to stop and pray, to sing and above all to feel the magic of the place. The enthusiasm of tourist pilgrims to immerse themselves in places often led them into conflict with holy men and their local worshipers. For myself I think they added to the spectacle.

This purposeful travel makes an interesting contrast to my meandering accidental tourism. For pilgrims kissing a particular rock or sending your prayers out from a particular mountain makes for a successful journey. I have not figured out how I will measure the success of my own journey. My purposelessness is occasionally at the forefront of my thinking as I potter about from place to place, but then I make a new friend, see a cool place, have a good dinner, or a beer on another balmy evening and I forget about my purposelessness and just enjoy the moment.

 It is not just in visiting places that you get reminded of your heathen status, getting to know local people comes with its own perils. A friend was invited to Shabbat dinner by a Jewish family, he worked very hard to observe the behavior of others and follow suit, still in a quiet moment in the meal, wanting to make himself useful he poured wine for those sitting around him, only to be told that although it was fine for him as a guest to drink wine he was not allowed to touch it.

No matter how hard you try to be a polite hethan you always end up putting your foot in it.  Living with a devoutly Muslim family in Jordan I always tried very hard to avoid causing offense, but I still had moments of blundering about chatting during prayer time, and probably causing subtle offense in other ways. 

But along with the blundering comes learning about the world, and pondering different ways of thinking. Sitting quietly day by day and talking about Islam with my hostess in Jordan, she told of finding all the answers to all the questions she had ever had in the Koran. As she talked  I pondered whether that was something I sought, was there a security in what she has found, a certainty, knowing the path you are on, having a guide book to tell you the way, answer all your questions. There is something very appealing in that. But unlike an organised holiday you cannot talk about your guide behind his back and you cannot get off the bus and do your own thing for a day or two and then get back on board. 

In Jordan as I sat up on mountaintops watching the clouds go by and birds fly oh so high up on air currants I couldn’t see; I asked myself about god and I looked in my heart and tried to see if there was belief there, could I get on this train? With its answers and its rules, and the answer for me was no. I did not believe.  I believed in mountains and birds, but not god.

At the Western wall in Jerusalem on a Friday night I wandered about amongst the massive crowd and watched the various groups of men and women going about their business, it was spiritual business, but also the business of life; people were singing, dancing, praying, flirting, waiting for their husband, chatting to their friends.

Walking amongst so many people out celebrating life and faith I felt my own faith move-  my faith in humanity. Yes it is a sight of deep conflict, but it is also a living place. And whatever force it is that brought me here rather than someplace else, I am thankful to be here, in the land of calls to prayer, handsome Hasidic Jews, the birthplace of Jesus, holy mountains, and my personal favorite the Dead Sea.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Letter from Istanbul


I hope your return from Israel to home and work has gone well, and that everyone is impressed with your travel stories.

I am often a little flat on arriving in a new country, and had expected to be the same today, especially after saying goodbye to you at the airport. Which makes my travelling to many new places where I have no friends a questionable plan, but the joys of getting to know new places and people override the initial flat period. Up until now that has been my travel pattern, but arriving in Turkey something has shifted for me and I have felt energised to embrace the place from the beginning. Maybe I am finally getting into the swing of travelling, or maybe my friendships from Jerusalem have stayed with me in my pockets and helped me on with my journey. 

So although I did feel bereft after leaving you at the airport, by the time I landed I felt something else as well.
Anyway I made it to Turkey. And as I have been used to your company I have been talking to you in my head this evening and thought I would try to capture some of the place for you. I should add also that I am thinking of using this letter to you in my blog, an inside glimpse of sorts into this travelling girls life, so to see the letter with pictures you can go to flamingorover.blogspot.

It was lucky that I had some buoyancy on arriving because getting to the hostel meant a very long walk with my backpack on down a street almost as crowded as the market-party from last night. I arrived just in time for the evening promenade. There was a happy vibe to the crowd but not quite so much reggae- and no one to help me carry my bag. 
market festival, Jerusalem

Also in addition to the weight and the crowd was the slight worry that I was not going in the right direction. This was not helped by the blank looks I received everytime I asked if I was going the right way. Eventually I put down my bag and squinted at the stupidly large map trying to find myself and I decided I would have to go back the way I had come, contemplating methods of transport that did not involve breaking my back. 

To my great relief at the last moment a man pointed out that I was almost there, except for the two flights of stairs I was home.  The hostel is different from Citadel – first of all it is not a stone labyrinth, but has actual hallways and doors you can stand up in- I am in the biggest dorm- which has fans, windows, some room to put my bag and a small table at which I am currently typing. There is no rooftop however so Citadel wins for views.

sunset view from my hostel rooftop in the old city, Jerusalem.

I am withholding judgment on the inhabitants for the moment though the man in his underpants with the pot belly currently walking about the room and grunting is not winning any points.  Surely the etiquette is mixed dorm- put your pants on! Especially when not particularly attractive.  I am very happy with the area I am staying, Galata Tower was a recommendation from one of my Aussie friends from Jerusalem. The vibe is quite young and relaxed- the relaxed vibe is greatly assisted by the lack of automatic weapons. 

Typical fashion accessory in Israel

 Here in Istanbul people seem to have been replaced guns with musical instruments and circus tricks.  There are plenty of nice looking restaurants around but tonight I just had an evening stroll and a fresh grapefruit juice. 


Tomorrow will be for exploring the city and planning the next stage of my journey, I need to figure out the best way to get to Cappadocia to track down the Flamingos there.  

Goodbye for now from Istanbul and thank you for your friendship in Israel, looking forward to meeting again in the future. 

With love from Istanbul, Sandy.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

How to: be a good Bedouin houseguest

During my stay in Wadi Rum, Jordan I have been privileged to be a guest in the home of a very devout Muslim Bedouin family who run Wadi Rum Jeep Tours. Being a houseguest made my stay rather different to the average tourist. While I have still seen amazing sunsets, rock art, the changing colours of the desert and climbed some pretty special mountains, I have also been part of everyday life in the Wadi Rum village. Bellow are my tips and lessons for any future visitors.  

If you arrive in Wadi Rum at night do expect to be blown away that greets you as you sand in your doorway rubbing sleep from your eyes.

First thing to know is that the best way to be a good houseguest when staying with a Bedouin family is to be a woman. A male houseguest from outside the family is unlikely and the wife would have no association with him. Thus making every ones life rather difficult.  A female houseguest (such as myself) is free to spend time with the wife anywhere within her home, and may spend a limited amount of time with the husband and his male associates.

The female guest should be somewhat wary of the tone of interactions with friends and cousins – if it feels as if there are inappropriate attentions from male visitors there probably are. When in a mans company the less he speaks to you the more polite and respectful he is being. A very chatty man is flirting. Unless you want to encourage the flirting it is best to remain relatively mute.

Women wear floor length skirts or dresses and long sleeves, whenever they are outside or in male company they cover their heads. When outside of the home a women will often choose to wear a burqa to further remove herself from the gaze of the outside world. Obviously as a guest you should dress conservatively, and never appear outside of your own room unless fully dressed. This is respectful to both your male and female hosts.

At home: 

Do expect to drink a lot of tea, if you do not drink tea you should probably take up smoking.
Do expect people to be extremely generous.
Do not expect to be given cutlery at meal times, food is taken from communal bowls with torn flat bread, you should eat from the side of the bowl closest to you.
Do expect to have regular naps, especially in the heat of the afternoon.
When hanging out your laundry be sure to cover any ‘smalls’ with a sarong. Exposure of ones underwear is most unseemly.
Strange noises in the night may well be a crazed camel, a rooster, a call to prayer, your hosts praying, goats or mosquito’s.
Men do not do very much for themselves, although when away from the females in their family they can make tea and cook quite competently.
Eating, socialising and sleeping will very likely take place in the same room. If you are visiting in Summer hopefully this will be the one room in the home with air conditioning. Depending on the size of the family several generations of the same family will likely use the same room.
Sitting on the floor or on mattresses on the floor is the only option.  There is little other furniture.
Everybody smokes everywhere.

Out and about:

Do not expect to bump into many Bedouin women at the shop, it is the husbands duty to provide the food for the home. A woman may leave the home if the absolutely has to, but the necessity is rare.
In Wadi Rum you can be confident that the price you are given is the true price.  If you have just arrived from Egypt this may come as a surprise, and I am told that the only shop likely to try for a higher price is the one run by an Egyptian.
If you have associated with female Bedouin you should not refer to them outside of their home, if you  must a  woman will be referred to only in the context of her husband, or close male relatives. 
Despite various stages of decay Bedouin seem to be able to keep vehicles running. It will be normal for doors not to open, the dash board to be rotted by the sun, the seat belts and windows to be nonexistent, the car to be roll started or to assist in starting the car by crossing the wires. Despite all this the 4WD  function works and the Bedouin ability to negotiate the perils of driving through sand and over steep rock is sound. If the car stops they can get it going and if it gets stuck in the sand they can get it out again. I was very pleased to discover working headlights on various occasions.

The same goes for climbing- if you venture out with someone you trust you can be confident that the many trails out amongst the steep rocks will be confidently navigated.

When I climbed Mt Sinai in Egypt I was accosted with Bedouin trying to sell you coke, coffee, chocolate and camels every hundred meters or so. In Petra there are jewelery stalls and young boys with postcards and donkeys at every turn. 

A donkey rush at Petra.

Much as I loved climbing Mt Sinai and exploring in Petra there is a lot to be said to the paths that are less frequented by tourist touts.

When you climb a mountain in Wadi Rum be sure to take your own supplies, don’t expect a path, do expect to take frequent naps on the way up. If you are climbing with a Bedouin he will probably carry a teapot and everything required to make tea during the journey. 

Most of all as long as you agree that Wadi Rum is the best place in the world you should get on just fine with everyone, and while the heat made me sometimes wish for Cape Conran I can honestly say that Wadi Rum is up there on my list of special places. 

With many thanks to Mehedi and his family and Salman and his family for welcoming me toWadi Rum and life amongst the Bedouin.