My Summer Workaway Adventures, Part I

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It is hard to believe that I have just come back from a four month Workaway experience on the continent. It seemed like I departed a year ago at least so rich and varied has the experience been for me. After returning from a memorable three months in Africa backpacking from Cape Town to the shores of Lake Tanganyika I didn’t think I’d be able to round off the remainder of the year in Europe in any way as exciting. How wrong I was to be proven.

After returning from a memorable three months in Africa backpacking … I didn’t think I’d be able to round off the remainder of the year in Europe in any way as exciting. How wrong I was to be proven.

I selected a varied number of projects on the site, Workaway.info, based on things I’d knew I’d probably enjoy and a few I wasn’t so sure about but which looked interesting. Workaway is a website which facilitates pairing hosts with volunteers for a number of different projects varying from farm labouring to au pairing to assisting in hotels and hostels.

The two parties enter into a non-binding contract whereby the host provides board and lodging and the volunteer provides whatever service is required of them (as per the host requirements on the website). Central to it is that the agreement between host and workaway is a purely social contract i.e. no money change hands.

Workaway is a website which facilitates pairing hosts with volunteers for a number of different projects varying from farm labouring to au pairing to assisting in hotels and hostels.

I made the decision to avoid flying, or at least to keep it to a minimum. I set off from my uncle’s house in Poole in early August on a cross-channel ferry to Cherbourg. I had set myself a conservative budget of about maybe 1200 pounds, the idea being that I was only going to pay travel costs and entertainment. If I was frugal I should spend even less.

My spirits had been flagging a little, due in some part to the uncertainty of setting out into the unknown, alone. It didn’t help that my arrival in Cherbourg coincided with a spell of rainy weather. The historic harbour – the 2nd largest artificial harbour in the world – was a strange, place-out-of-time experience. Before the buildings of modern Cherbourg hove into view through the mist there was for a while only the Napoleonic harbour walls stretching far out to sea and attendant fortifications, long obsolete. It was quite eerie.

Before the buildings of modern Cherbourg hove into view through the mist there was for a while only the Napoleonic harbour walls stretching far out to sea…

I struggled for the next few hours to find my way to a campsite on the edge of town. When I got there I found myself walking in the wrong direction, hopelessly lost. A chill wind was blowing hard off the sea. My first stroke of good fortune came in the shape of a Frenchman, Roland, grey-haired and lost in thought. I politely approached him and asked for directions. He steered me back to the camping/caravan site and before long I had a spot allocated me and my one-man tent.

He looked a little concerned considering the weather but the next day he picked me up and showed me some highlights of the district. An interesting and thoughtful man he also introduced me to his other half at the local market as well as his youngest son and Thai wife, selling SE Asian cuisine from a mobile caravan.

After two damp nights at the campsite I jumped on a train and headed to Bayeux, arguably the highlight of my trip through Normandy. What else but the Bayeux tapestry can elicit such emotion? An amazing work of historical art. Absolutely fascinating, accompanied by a charming audio commentary. Very much recommended.

What else but the Bayeux tapestry can elicit such emotion? An amazing work of historical art.

From Bayeux I continued to Caen and it’s chic riverside shopping malls and apartments. That said the charm soon wore off as I found myself walking for an absolute age looking for my hostel, or as they call them there, l’auberge de jeunesse.

As with other youth hostels I stayed in whilst in France I found it to be fairly utilitarian: clean and functional but without much charm. All the same I got my head down soon after arriving and was up early and refreshed. As I write I was trying hard to recall the exact route I took from there. I recall that it was a longer train journey this time to either le Man or Tours whereupon I had to change to another train to Poitiers.

Arriving in Poitiers I was met by Gerard, similar in age to Roland and also sporting a clipped moustache, but shorter and wearing a pair of round spectacles. He put me in mind of an old photograph of my great grandfather on my dad’s side of the family. He had a ready smile but his English was non-existent. Thus with some difficulty, initially at least, I was forced to use my schoolboy boy French. It was good experience and a necessary one dare I say.

Arriving in Poitiers I was met by Gerard, similar in age to Roland and also sporting a clipped moustache, but shorter and wearing a pair of round spectacles.

Despite the transient difficulties I had a wonderful time at le Jardin de Verrines, a smallholding on which Gerard grew vegetables and created all manner of articles from his barn-cum-workshop. We made a rocket-stove, a bicycle-powered washing machine and from his garden harvested an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

Everything was done in the spirit of permaculture. No artificial pesticide or fertilisers were used and boy did it taste good. “Tres bon” as I found myself saying time and time again. No superlatives could do justice to the cherry tomatoes! I dare say I could have gorged myself on those alone for the several weeks I was there.

We made a rocket-stove, a bicycle-powered washing machine and from his garden harvested an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

From Verrines I turned back north and caught a train to the historic city of Orleans where Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) rose to prominence in the early 15th century. There were references to her everywhere, at least one statue, a museum and a house where she had allegedly lived, now a national heritage site. I wasn’t there to see the maid of Orleans, however, but rather as an entry point into the much acclaimed Loire Valley along which many 100’s of kilometres of cycle lanes have been purposely built under a scheme called Loire à Vélo.

I hired a bicycle for several days (I had to extend it slightly) and set out from my hostel in the south of the city in a westerly direction. It was a truly memorable few days cycling in what was still late summer: long, warm days followed by cool, 8 hour nights.

The Loire is dotted with historic villages, towns and old chateaux.

The Loire is dotted with historic villages, towns and old chateaux. The latter are a big attraction and draw in much of the tourism alongside the wine tours; campers, caravaners and cyclists like myself; visitors to the towns and villagers; etc. The best part of this leg of my trip was simply the pleasure of riding alongside the broad river, periodically reading the information boards and all the while taking in the subtle changes in colour, character and landscape.

The best part of this leg of my trip was simply the pleasure of riding alongside the broad river

The birdlife was good and ensured that my binoculars were always close at hand. From time to time I could even see the fat, dark forms of fish lazily holding their position mid-stream. The occasional fisherman sat on the bank or stood waist-deep in the water, a study in patience, oblivious to the modern world and the buzz of its motorways, aeroplanes and passing traffic, me included.

I didn’t go quite as far as Tours but instead turned back towards Orleans at chateau Chenonceau. From Orleans I caught another train southbound again to Toulouse, known popularly as La Ville Rose due to the prevalence of pink-coloured stone used to construct many of its buildings. There I stayed with a friend, Rui, whom I’d been at school with in Zimbabwe. I had lived with him for some months in the the town of Luton in the UK where he worked in the aviation industry.

From Orleans I caught another train southbound again to Toulouse, known popularly as La Ville Rose…

It was no coincidence that he was in Toulouse, the heart of the aviation industry in Europe. As in the UK he worked long hours and I didn’t see that much of him. Consequently I had a good deal of time in the several days I spent with him to explore the city and enjoy the buzz of its many parks, cafes and squares.

Best of all was sitting on the east bank of the Garonne as dusk approached, a plastic glass of wine in hand (purchased from a 24 hr store near he apartment), accompanied by a packet of peanuts and a rolled cigarette. Guilty pleasures.

Best of all was sitting on the east bank of the Garonne as dusk approached, a plastic glass of wine in hand … a packet of peanuts and a rolled cigarette

Sitting there, watching the sun set behind the dome of the chapel of the Hôpital Saint-Joseph de la Grave alongside many other like-minded individuals, many of them students, gave me a sense of bonhomie and good will even though I knew none of them individually.

After a weekend in Toulouse I met my next hosts near St Cyprienne Metro station. Anne and Hector used to live in the city but now resided in a small town about an hour or so to the south. It nestled near the confluence of the Garonne and the Salat.

I spent only a couple of weeks with the family, busy with their varied lives, helping Hector insulate a barn-roof.

I spent only a couple of weeks with the family, busy with their varied lives, helping Hector insulate a barn-roof. The barn itself he had partitioned into an upstairs and downstairs area. The area beneath was living space and the upper floor was to be a large music room replete with stage and lighting.

The job itself was instructional but not particularly exciting. More of interest to me was being in a position to explore the surrounding area. One weekend I took Hector’s town bike, slung a sleeping bag, tent and some provisions on the back, and headed for the Pyrenees just a little further south. I cycled from Montréjeau to Luchon and took in a wealth of sites in-between: old monasteries; orchards; medieval towns and sweeping vistas.

One weekend I took Hector’s town bike … and headed for the Pyrenees just a little further south.

That night I camped up near a village calleed Sost, renowned for it’s cheese, and the next day cycled all the way up to Lac d’Oô, an artificial lake fronting some jagged, snow-capped peaks. There were signs saying beware of avalanches but the meadows and hillslopes were still green and cheerful. It was a magical weekend and will live on in my memory for many years to come.

My Workaway experience may have ended here as plans for the next stopover in Italy fell by the wayside. I had intended to make my way across Italy and the Balkans towards Greece but decided, somewhat spur of the moment, to fly back to Istanbul.

I’d been in Turkey earlier in the year teaching English at a language school near the capital and sharing an apartment with my old friend Sofian. If you have read any of my other travelogue you might recall him from an earlier Turkish chapter, a summer language camp in the provincial town of Merzifon. I had also visited him in his home-country, Algeria.

I would like to say that I was confident in my decision to travel on to Turkey but the moment I crossed into Turkish airspace I felt I had made a wrong one. Menacing grey clouds blanketed the landscape below and on the ground the city was inundated after days of incessant rain. I couldn’t help but feel the weight of it pushing down on me.

I would like to say that I was confident in my decision to travel on to Turkey but the moment I crossed into Turkish airspace I felt I had made a wrong one.

I headed out of the city towards Izmit, really just a satellite of Istanbul, to where I’d taught earlier in the year. I checked into a hotel in the meantime. Much of the novelty had worn off and now what impressed me most was the seemingly endless extent of concrete buildings, factories and apartment blocks for the 70 or so kilometres en route.

To get to the point I was offered a teaching place at a new language centre in a neighbouring town, Sakarya, but without the assurance of a place to stay nor a negotiated salary. I asked for a few days to think about it and returned to Istanbul. It was there that I realised that my journey was only half complete. I’d really wanted to go to Greece at the outset and I was only a stone’s throw away so to speak.

I’d really wanted to go to Greece at the outset and I was only a stone’s throw away so to speak.

I returned to Izmit and declined the offer in person and immediately felt a sense of lightness and relief. At last I felt the urge to meet up with several friends and students I had engaged with earlier in the year and the return trip seemed to have a purpose after all.

As an aside it is worth pointing out that elections were imminent after the failure to form a coalition government after a prior general election earlier in the year. This may have contributed to some of the tension I felt in the air. Additionally, Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict seemed to have intensified, as had the involvement of other powerful nations. The morning news bulletins were laden with infographics of Russian warplanes on bombing sorties although I couldn’t understand any of the attendant commentary.

The morning news bulletins were laden with infographics of Russian warplanes on bombing sorties…

On my way back to Istanbul prior to my outgoing flight out to Athens I took the intercity train for the first time. It didn’t go all the way into the heart of the city and I had to find a way to get across to one of the metro stations for that purpose. I was helped in that respect by a polite, somewhat reserved young man from Ankara University.

We conversed a little and he told me in halting English that he was studying medicine. He was on his way back to Istanbul to visit his parents for the weekend. That was a Thursday evening. On the weekend a terrorist bombing blamed on Islamist radicals in Syria would kill dozens of his co-students who were participating in a peace rally in the capital. It was a small consolation to know that he wasn’t amongst them.

That Friday morning I was greeted by clear skies, a good omen. An indirect flight, I had to catch a connecting plane in Izmir, a popular tourist spot on the Aegean coast. As I flew on to Athens, the Med sparkling beneath, islands dotted here and there, it seemed inconceivable that there was a tide of refugees attempting to cross those same waters to Europe. But more of that in the next chapter. The French leg of my journey was over and despite my Turkish diversion I was back on course for more adventures in Athens and beyond.

The French leg of my journey was over and despite my Turkish diversion I was back on course for more adventures in Athens and beyond.

The Marmaris Straights

You can read more on my French Workaway experience on my sister blog which include a few funny anectdotes at the end.

Back to Istanbul and a short hop to Izmit

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I’m back in Istanbul!

I’m back in Istanbul! That was me announcing my arrival (to myself of course) of a Sunday evening on the 18th of January, 2015. Although I hadn’t thought it at the time it was a rather auspicious date: my late mum was born that day back in 1952 and, coincidentally, my passport had been issued that day 4 years earlier (definitely not of great significance).

I had a good view of my previous place of employment as I flew out of London-Luton Airport – the manor estate called Luton Hoo (hotel, golf couse and spa) which borders on the one side of the airport – but not before I had to go through some unprecented formalities prior to check-out. You see, anyone traveling to Turkey today from mainland UK, especially men of a certain age, is deemed a potential Jihadist en route to Syria.

anyone traveling to Turkey today from mainland UK, especially men of a certain age, is deemed a potential Jihadist en route to Syria.

I assured them I wasn’t but the plain-clothes security officers still deemed it necessary to call through to spook HQ and check my passport details as well as grill me on the what, why and where-to of my intended trip. I left contact details with one of them and agreed to relay any information that might be of interest on the ground (should it be requested).

I arrived in Istanbul in the early evening not long after dusk. Having been to the city several times now I found it easy enough to negotiate the tram and metro to Gulhane (near Topkapi and the mosque complexes) where I checked into the Istanbul Harmony Hostel. This was a bit of a misnomer as I was to discover later that evening whilst talking to the Turkish owner of the establishment.

He employed quite a number of Syrians as staff but he didn’t have much good to say about them! I invited my friend Samer, a Syrian who worked in the vicinity, to come join me up top for a drink. If you had read my prior posts from Istanbul you might recall that I had bought an ornate box inlaid with tortoise-shell and mother-of-pearl from Samer a few months before.

Unfortunately he arrived right in the middle of my discourse with the proprietor who went so far as praising President Assad in bombastic terms. “Assad is Gud, only he knows the best way in this situation” he proclaimed, arms extended outwards. By “Gud” I understood him to mean ‘God’, although in retrospect he probably only meant ‘good’.

“Assad is Gud, only he knows the best way in this situation”

I am not sure what Samer made of all this but I recall him telling me that his brother died fighting with the government forces somewhere beyond Aleppo, his hometown. I get the impression that Syrians are used to being on the receiving end. That said they have much to be grateful for in Turkey.

Ironically enough, when I chatted to one of the Syrian staff manning the reception desk the following morning he laughed off his boss’s prejudice and told me not to listen to him and that he was, despite all that, “a good man”. I guess he was one of those gruff types who hides a softer heart.

Samer himself was well enough but now sleeping in his shop on an inflatable bed after being unable to afford the rent on his previous shared accommodation with an American lady. I think he has resigned himself to staying in Istanbul after his EU asylum application had been rejected (to the tune of 500 Euros which I find appalling). Before I departed the following day I gave him a set of earphones from my Walkman. His had been lost/stolen. That’s as much as I could offer in the circumstances.

his EU asylum application had been rejected … to the tune of 500 Euros 

On the Monday I took a quick tour of the area between the mosques. It was a bright, clear morning, around 14 or 15 degrees I suppose. Certainly not unpleasant. It wasn’t long before I was approached by an amiable young guy called Omar. He invited me to take a look at his carpet shop. I declined and instead went on a tour of the old subterranean waterworks beneath the steet-level just to the SW of the Aya Sofya mosque (formerly the Hagia Sofia cathedral, now deconsecrated and purely a monument).

It was really interesting and quite atmospheric. My pictures speak for themselves I think. When I emerged there was Omar, patiently waiting to nab me. I could hardly say no considering his shop was only a few yards away. To be honest looking around his shop was genuinely interesting.

In one corner someone had been working on a hand loom making a silk tapestry only a few feet across and perhaps 30 cm wide. Omar told me that it was the result of 5 months labour! Talk about a labour of love. Wow. I was then ushered to another room where there was an impressive array of woolen and silk rugs (kilim), and hybrid textiles of the two. Anything with silk was invariably more expensive. We were joined by another salesman and Omar left discreetly.

Someone had been working on a hand loom making a silk tapestry only a few feet across and perhaps 30 cm wide. Omar told me that it was the result of 5 months labour! 

I drank their apple tea, enjoyed some fruit cake, but resisted their efforts to get me to purchase anything, despite me mentioning my brother’s impending nuptials (what was I thinking!).

It was only later in the day, around 1345 hrs that I finally started moving in the direction of the coach station. I was in contact with Sofian via Messenger. He had been prepared to delegate a class of his to someone else but I told him not to. It wasn’t going to get to Izmit much before 5.

It wasn’t difficicult finding a coach and the journey was at least hastened by conversation with my neighbour, an electrical engineer called Mehmut, returning from a project in Saudi Arabia (building a Pepsi plant apparently). He was formally dressed with a the beginnings of an impressive beard. At first he was a bit stand-offish but after a few minutes of relentless questioning he yielded.

I discovered that stamp collecting was his real passion. He pulled out a new catalogue mailed to him from London and displaying all the previous year’s first day and commemorative covers. I used to be an avid collector so I could relate to his enthusiasm. There’s something magical about those little squares of paper and their depictions of countries and events far removed in place and time. It’s a form of escapism from the rigours of life I guess.

Mehmut was none to keen on getting married I discovered. His political views were conservative and looking out the window he expressed his disdain for modern Tukish architecture. “This is not the original Turkish style. We are trying to be too Western but we are not from the West. We are from the East. We are Ottomans,” he told me matter of factly.

“We are trying to be too Western but we are not from the West. We are from the East. We are Ottomans”

His views extended to the behaviour of women, their style of clothing, and young people in general. I tried to play the devil’s advocate but he wasn’t having it. I liked him nevertheless and on reflection there was a only a year between us after all.

I learnt that he had been in a relationship with a woman when he worked in Turkmenistan and it had evidently coloured his view of relationships and marriage. As for the inhabitants of that nation he blamed the previous Russian occupation and long-lasting influence for corrupting their traditional Muslim values. Apparently they enjoy drinking vodka, the women have no morals and the men all gamble!

As for the inhabitants … he blamed the previous Russian occupation … for corrupting their traditional Muslim values. Apparently they enjoy drinking vodka, the women have no morals and the men all gamble!

I am now in Izmit with my good friend Sofian. I have a fair bit of the city around the centre where I’m staying but of the surrounds only the nearby ski resort of Kartepe up in the mountains to the south of us.

Sofian shares an apartment with a diminutive Vietnamese-Canadian called Luan. They are only a stone’s throw from the school where they are teaching English. Over the last two weeks I have sat in and participated in a number of lessons where I think Sofian and his colleagues have been more than happy to have my augment their sometimes repetitive lessons.

As on previous occasions both in the UK and elsewhere the students seem genuinely delighted to have a native English speaker from the UK in their midst. I am at pains to dispel the illusion of complete authenticity and explain that I was raised in Africa in an English-speaking country. This usually raises a few eyebrows but I am helped by having a few other African teachers in their midst: Georg, a mixed-race young man from Botswana; and two part-time teachers, one from Zambia and another from Ghana.

I am at pains to dispel the illusion of complete authenticity and explain that I was raised in Africa in an English-speaking country. 

The Turkish youth have all the hopes and aspirations of their generations the world over. The classes are mostly composed of university students and recent graduates of both genders, most of whom want to learn English to further their chances of employment. It seems to me as though every second student is studying engineering or is a recent engineering graduate. I am not surprised to learn that Kogaeli University (Izmit is in the district of the same neame) is strong in the engineering disciplines.

Perhaps one of the most amusing anecdotes from my short time here comes from when I was chatting to an aircraft engineer during an outdoor activity session with one of Sofian’s classes. We had just been bowling at the nearby N-City Mall and were sitting having a coffee. The engineer, a swarthy, stockily-built Turk, a little older than the others, explained to me that his technical english was ‘very good’ but his spoken English was ‘very bad’. I assured him it wasn’t that bad (it wasn’t).

We were discussing the details of his job and the places he had worked and it transpired that he might have the opportunity of training or working in Austria at some point soon. I whipped out my phone and showed him a magnificent vista of the Swiss-Austrian Alps I had taken on my camera phone through the window of the jet on my outbound flight. He got very excited but not for the same reason.

I whipped out my phone and showed him a magnificent vista of the Swiss-Austrian Alps I had taken on my camera phone … He got very excited but not for the same reason.

“Do you see this?” he said pointing at the wing of the plane poking into from the edge of the photo. “It is a Delta wing,” explaining how the doofy at the end of the wing had a characteristic shape.

“But what do you think of the view?” I insisted but he wasn’t much interested. With relish he continued to expound on the names of the various flaps and something called a ‘vortex generetor’… That’s engineers for you!

I was originally only going to stay a week but now I am considering staying on a bit longer and teaching part-time myself. I have found another school who seem interested in hiring me on such a basis. I’m finding life here engaging so why not? My intended trip to Hatay and the Taizé Community there can perhaps wait a little longer…

Istanbul Roundup

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After the initial shenanigans regarding re-booking my flight I have to say it was an event-filled week or so in the metropolis. Istanbul, like New York, is worthy of the accolade ‘the city that never sleeps’. In hindsight, as I suggested in a previous post, it was mostly about connecting with people, both fellow travellers and residents. I mentioned the thoughtful Ayşe with whom I had corresponded with over the interim period between visits but neglected to say anything of the staff of the Stray Cat hostel where I stayed for the 9 nights I was in the city.

Istanbul, like New York, is worthy of the accolade ‘city that never sleeps’

There were four residents of Istanbul who worked the reception: Ur and a youngish girl, both Turkish, and Mhede and Hamet who were Iranian. The latter were both trying to get to France but had been denied visas. Therefore, Hamed informed me, they were obliged to find work in Istanbul whilst the uncertain wait continued.

Mhede had a ready smile, lank dark hair and a fashionably bushy moustache twirled at the ends in the old Ottoman-style. Hamed was approachable and equally helpful but with a slight air of sadness about him. I detected the pain of separation when he told me about how his plans were on hold whilst he reapplied for asylum in Europe.

The owner of the place, Sedat, was a tall, blue-eyed, bald-headed Turk who strode around purposefully or sat on the furniture scrolling through messages on his phone. He was a man of few words though he seemed fair in his dealings with the patrons of the hostel who often asked for concessions, cancellations or extra nights’ accommodation.

The owner of the place, Sedat, was a tall, blue-eyed, bald-headed Turk who strode around purposefully or sat on the furniture scrolling through messages on his phone.

Here I am sitting in a soggy UK and it all seems a world away from the Stray Cat and its motley crew. Every time I cast my mind back I think of someone else I might have mentioned or should still. Did I for instance elaborate on American Dave’s uncanny resemblance to a young Bob Dylan? Apparently he has been told this before and he is considering traveling with an acoustic guitar in future.

I know that I failed to mention Rosie and Fi, the intrepid Australian girls (aren’t they all?) and they ARE worthy of a mention. They arrived at the SC not long after me en route from a festival in Portugal. Prior to that they had been just about everywhere including Zimbabwe a few months earlier. How else would they know of the Matopos Hills and the lovely inhabitants (excluding all political types and those affiliated to them)? They spoke well of the place.

Before that they had been in Cape Town – not long after I had been there it transpired – for a festival called Africa Burn. Small world: my old school pal Sean and a group of his mates were just preparing for it when I was there in April. The ethos of the festival was all about giving to strangers, whether it be food, a gift or something else. I couldn’t really appreciate it except I was to understand that no money was to be exchanged. From Istanbul they would be heading to the mother of all Burn festivals, Burning Man in Nevada, the United States.

They were a colourful duo, like something out of the art nouveau era: scarlet lipstick and bright garments (can’t elaborate more) with the anomaly of laden backpacks slung over their shoulders. Hannah reckoned that the names Rosie and Fi were simply nom de Plumes and she also reckoned, after witnessing their largesse in the Grand Bazaar, that money wasn’t short. I wouldn’t go so far to say they had money to burn because that’s an awful pun… ok, so why would they be staying in a hostel if they were fabulously wealthy?

They were a colourful duo, like something out of the art nouveau era: scarlet lipstick and bright garments…with the anomaly of laden backpacks slung over their shoulders.

Like me they were probably there simply to enjoy the ambience of the hostel rather than the isolated luxury of a hotel. Hannah also expressed an inclination to name the two surviving kittens from a litter born at SC after these two impressive Sheilas from Melbourne. I liked the idea. They were actually lovely girls, unashamedly green in their worldly outlook and somewhat free spirits. Fi was suffering a spell of flu after the rigours of the festivals but didn’t make too much of it.

Like a number of other hostel patrons they disappeared off to Cappadocia for a couple of nights before departing Istanbul to see the famous fairy chimneys and catacombs of that unusual landscape. Just about every tourist who has spent any time in Turkey has seen them except me! It’s always good to leave something for the next trip…

I have mentioned a number of other Australian occupants of the SC whom I shared a drink or exchanged a story or two with but Rosie and Fi were probably the most memorable of them. Besides the Australians and the Americans I have already mentioned, Germans were the other most notable ethnic group in the SC.

Hannah, my soulful Canadian philosopher was herself half-German and now a resident of Heidelberg I think she said. I can’t remember most of what she and I talked of but she was one of those people I could just talk to about seemingly anything. Whatever I had read it seemed she had either read already. Her eyes were both kindly and uncannily honest and probing. She invited you to trust and in turn expected you to reciprocate. Like anyone who has spent any time digesting the enormity and breadth of human literature she had the wisdom of words and recorded knowledge.

I can’t remember most of what she and I talked of but she was one of those people I could just talk to about seemingly anything.

I will probably always best remember Ayşe in her summer hat and dress, smiling amiably as we crossed from Kabataş to Kadikӧy with my cohort of hostel-dwellers. As for Hannah, it will be the memory of her stroking her thick braid of dark brown hair and expounding on critical theory as we sat on a ferry plying the same route a few days later after an evening of smoking Nargile (Shisha) and playing Tavla (Turkish Backgammon).

I’m not sure if I mentioned my aspiration to take up teaching again a bit more seriously, more specifically as an English Teacher to non-native speakers? To this end I had made an inquiry from the UK before I left with an institution in Istanbul who provided business English tuition to their clients.

And so it was that on the day I had to try to re-book my ticket at Atatϋrk International I jumped off one stop away on the Metro for a meeting with the managing director of Global Ingilizce, a lady called Burcu. Like Hannah she had kind and lively eyes. ‘Why Istanbul?’ she asked me. ‘What would you like to achieve?’ She asked these and a number of other probing questions which had me on the back foot. Still, she was asking what was pertinent and after listening to my response she rather tactfully pointed out that Westerners did not always get the social-work balance quite right.

‘We have a very strong work ethic in Turkey,’ she continued. ‘Not all Westerners appreciate this. Ask me when I have last been to Taksim and I will tell you, not for 8 years!’ I raised my eyebrows and she continued in a more measured vein explaining the ins and outs of obtaining a work permit and the nature of the contracts that foreign teachers could sign up to. We parted with the assurance that I would get back to her once I had finished my next certificate (a TESOL or a CELTA).

‘We have a very strong work ethic in Turkey’‘… Not all Westerners appreciate this. Ask me when I have last been to Taksim and I will tell you, not for 8 years!’

Talking of Taksim, the hostel was only a stone’s throw away from the square, made somewhat famous on the global stage by the tenacity of the protesters in the adjacent Gezi Park a little more than a year back. I had arrived bang in the middle of the protests as I think I mentioned previously and it is worth contrasting the two occasions, then and now.

Last year Gezi Park was the heart of the protest movement standing up to the autocratic Erdogan, then Prime Minister (President, yet again, as of two weeks ago), seething at the audacity of the protesters who dared question his decrees. I remember the buzz of activity and the sense of community and camaraderie amongst those encamped there and the genuine interest of the public, especially in the cooler evening hours, as they strolled through the park, curious but perhaps not brave enough to stand side by side with the protest camp.

Now they were all gone, expelled by water-cannon and baton-wielding riot police, and the Park was curiously quiet. Although the graffiti, tents, and protesters were gone something tangible still lingered on the periphery of the place near where it merges into the broad paving slabs that constitute Taksim Square itself. It may have been the rough sleepers I saw sleeping there on pieces of cardboard mid-morning after breakfast at the hostel or the scratches on the outer flagstones, or maybe just the memory of what I had seen superimposing itself on the present. I can’t be sure, but it was there. ‘At least they actually attend to the gardens now’ Ayse had emphasized.

Now they were all gone, expelled by water-cannon and baton-wielding riot police, and the Park was curiously quiet.

On my last afternoon in the city I saw a very heart-warming scene: a little boy approaching an old vendor selling balloons and blow-up animated Disney characters, brandishing a lira coin and full of expectation. The old man untangled a blow-up ball and patiently blew into it before presenting it to the boy who was obviously delighted.

The old man had obviously had a long day and although he was gracious in this transaction once the little boy had gone he seemed to visibly deflate a little. Sales had obviously not been as good as he had hoped. He gathered the strings to his inflatable goods and made to move off. I thought that perhaps it could be a metaphor. Maybe the little boy represents Turkish Society, expectantly extending its cupped palms to the state. Then again perhaps the old man is not representative of Erdogan’s regime but rather the embodiment of the working man, slaving away to satisfy the burgeoning middle classes?

I never set out to ‘do’ Istanbul as some might attempt, seeking to tick off the major attractions as listed in a popular guidebook or magazine. The first time I was in the city last year I was there simply as a prelude to an assignment for a couple of days as I mentioned. No, I’ve taken Istanbul mainly as it saw fit to rise up and meet me. That’s not to say I didn’t have an agenda but it was primarily in the social domain.

After a few days hanging out with guys and girls from the hostel and because Ayşe was working and unable to join me I chose to wander a little off the beaten track. I felt I was rewarded in my meandering inspection of the old Theodosian Land Walls which straddle the European peninsula of the Bosphorus. These would have been a lot more prominent in ancient times when they were fully functional and citizens, traders and visitors going in both directions would have had to negotiate one or other of the gates along its length.

After a few days hanging out with guys and girls from the hostel … I chose to wander a little off the beaten track

Today they are crumbling in many places and most of the gates are bisected by roads or public transport systems, people hardly giving them a second glance as they whiz by. What were once moats are now fields of vegetables and buildings encroach upon them and in some cases overshadow them along almost the entire stretch.

As for the so-called Old City and Sultanahmet, I left that for the throngs of tourists. I had done the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque on the last visit and the Grand Bazaar I avoided on account of knowing that I probably wouldn’t be able to say no to the dozens of vendors and curio-sellers therein (and feeling terribly guilty as a result).

I did peruse the Spice Market and walked many of the surrounding streets but I haven’t taken many pictures of this area and if that’s what you want to hear about, I’m sorry to disappoint you! I regret not going to see the ancient cistern and water works but the queue was dismayingly long. Maybe because my interest was piqued last year whilst visiting the Armenian churches around the city of Van in the east and an amazing Byzantine-era church in Trabzon I decided to continue in this direction. As a result I stumbled across the small but impressively decorated Chora Church near the Golden Horn side of the city walls.

It was an interesting little adventure. I remember meeting a Spanish tourist in one of the convoluted side-streets in the vicinity a short time after having come out of it. He was evidently disoriented but seeing that I had a camera slung over a shoulder and a guidebook to hand he recognised me as a fellow traveller. He asked me if I knew where the church was and although I knew it must be close I couldn’t honestly hope to tell him how I had got to where I was because I myself was a rather lost.

‘Where are you from?’ he had asked and when I replied ‘England via Africa’ he said with a shake of his head and in broken English that I must be very lost indeed. What I neglected to mention was that the Church was closed to visitors at 6 pm and it had just passed the hour. I didn’t have the heart to tell him but who knows, maybe that day they stayed open a few minutes longer.

… when I replied ‘England via Africa’ he said with a shake of his head and in broken English that I must be very lost indeed.

Also worth a mention is one other character I met the year before, a Syrian named Samer. Samer hailed from Aleppo and worked in a small curio shop along a stretch of street which flanked the city walls alongside Topkapi Palace. I had stayed in a 2* hotel nearby the year before and we had become friendly, taking Chai every morning outside the shop as his potential clientele strolled by.

He was very good at picking out the different nationalities by their dress and appearance, alternatively trying to cajole them inside by chatting in French, German, Spanish, Italian or English. He may only have had a smattering of several of those languages but it was more than I had anyway.

Through the course of our discussions I discovered that he was a) gay and b) that Istanbul was only a waypoint in his quest to reach Western Europe. Whilst Turkey is a lot more tolerant of gay people than other Middle-Eastern countries, or so I am led to believe, he accused ‘them’ of being ignorant and rude.

My impression though was that he was surviving in a manner perhaps far better than many others could hope for at this difficult juncture in the region’s history. He smoked almost constantly and talked in hushed tones as if the effort of talking any louder was pointless. There were times he seemed to receded into his own thoughts but when pressed he talked quite openly of himself and his thoughts on matters.

On Syria he seemed to come down on the side of the present government; his elder brother had been ‘martyred’ (his words) whilst in combat serving with the national army. His parents and sister lived in Aleppo not far from where the Sheraton Hotel had recently been blown up he told me. ‘My father called me and told me there was a terrible noise and that they thought they were going to die in that moment.’ They hadn’t and that is where they still lived.

On Syria he seemed to come down on the side of the present government; his elder brother had been ‘martyred’ (his words) whilst in combat serving with the national army.

I didn’t press him much on the politics of the conflict but he volunteered his thoughts on the people opposing the government. ‘They are stupid people who will believe anything they are told’ he said to me, ‘but they can be taught the correct way of things given one or two years.’ What ‘the right way’ was I could only speculate having something to do with embracing Assad’s rule and the previous status quo.

At the end of this trip and can honestly say that I spent far more money than intended, than I probably should have, but that I met some inspirational and diverse people from many different places. I would love to have carried on the adventure and know that I will again most certainly. It was particularly hard coming back to my lodgings in the south of England after the communal loving experience even though I know it would have worn me out in the end… but here I am and richer for it so let me not count the monetary cost and instead appreciate these memories and experiences for what they are.

I would love to have carried on the adventure and know that I will again most certainly.

Putting It In Context

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Way back last June I came to Turkey, indeed continental Eurasia for the very first time, I had ostensibly signed up for a month long teaching assignment in provincial north-central Anatolia. I was fortunate enough to arrive early in the month, bang in the middle of the Gezi Park protests: More insightful than dangerous I hasten to add. Several days later I was on a coach to Merzifon, a medium sized town an hour or so away from the Black Sea and host to a large military and police presence.

Above the town of Amasya on the site of an old fortress with fellow teachers from Ahi Kolegi in Merzifon.

Above the town of Amasya on the site of an old fortress with fellow teachers from Ahi Kolegi in Merzifon. June, 2013.

We were able to use the town as a platform to explore some of the surrounding towns and villages which included Samsun, where Atatürk rose to prominence quelling the rebellious Anatolian Greeks. We also visited Amasya, renowned for a number of stone tombs carved into the mountains there, a relic of an ancient line of Greek monarchs (a little known dynasty I recall reading). Turkey has such a wealth of archaeological sites and attendant history that it is quite dizzying. I am liable to confuse some facts.

After the teaching assignment in Merzifon I was free to travel for a few weeks in a counter-clockwise direction (my choice) around the perimeter of the country, or a rough approximation thereof. From Merzifon I caught a coach to Samsun and hence to the city of Trabzon a little further East. At this point the Pontic mountains, which extend from Georgia to the east, meet the Black Sea (Karadeniz in Turkish). Whilst there I felt compelled to visit a few of the local landmarks including the house of a Greek businessman who was expelled during the ‘Population Exchange’ years and then given over to the state and gifted to Atatürk himself. Like all things associated with the man it was treated more like a grotto or shrine rather than a monument. A large Turkish flag enveloped much of the living room and photography was forbidden (although I managed a few on my phone).

Ataturk's state-repossessed mansion in Trabzon

Ataturk’s state-repossessed mansion in Trabzon. July 2013.

I am partly of Greek extract and my reflex emotion was one of indignation but those were tumultuous times and I cannot appreciate the full scope of the socio-political landscape at a time when Imperial Europe was at loggerheads and the Old Ottoman Empire was in decline. The other place I visited was Sümela monastery set high in those coastal mountains amongst hill slopes of pines and plantations of hazelnut. It was on that leg of the journey, in a local tour bus, that I fell into conversation with a Turkish girl who was visiting from Istanbul.

Nestling high in the foothills of the Pontic Range near the Black Sea city of Trabzon is this abandoned monastery, now a major tourism attraction.

Nestling high in the foothills of the Pontic Range near the Black Sea city of Trabzon is this abandoned monastery, now a major tourism attraction. July 2013.

She was supposed to have met with some friends but they had pulled out. Her name was Ayşe (you pronounce the ş ‘sh’). She explained that she had been born of Turkish parents in France and educated both there, the UK and in the US. She was obviously pretty brainy. We exchanged details and I have kept in contact with her subsequently.

My trip to Istanbul this time was in large part to see her. She worked in Istanbul for a French bank who finance projects in the regions. She told me that she had considered working in aid and development and had wanted to go to Afghanistan but her parents had dissuaded her, concerned for her well-being, somewhat understandably. All the same she has an impressive resume of places visited: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Malaysia and no doubt other places she never mentioned.

Awaiting a return ferry from Kadakoy Iskelesi. From L to R: Dave, Tim, Ayse (resident friend), Brett, Me (yellow shirt)

Awaiting a return ferry from Kadakoy Iskelesi. From L to R: Dave, Tim, Ayse (resident friend), Brett, Me (yellow shirt)

We met for an informal meal on my first night at the hostel and the following day she played the role of tour guide to me and three other gents from the hostel. We met at the Iskelesi (ferry terminal) near Kabitaş and caught a ferry across to Kadikӧy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. I think she was a little taken aback by the entourage but she was a good host and we enjoyed a tour of what was probably the best little stretch of street markets that I can recall in the city: everything from fishmongers to cheese sellers, fruit sellers and luxury pastry shops.

A few nights later the two of us met for dinner in an Iranian restaurant that was recommended by one of the two Iranian guys who worked behind the reception desk at the Stray Cat. It came as some surprise that she knew of the place as soon as I mentioned it, having gone there on a recommendation of an Iranian colleague of hers. I have to say it was good food – very tender chicken and garnished rice – and at a very reasonable price. (The restaurant is called Reyhun, near the Galatasaray Lisesi.) I was a bit ashamed to arrive sweaty and unkempt from an afternoon of walking the ancient Theodosian city walls, whilst she was clean and respectable in a light cotton dress, hair combed and nails polished. I did my best to refresh in the bathroom. We had eaten out once already on the evening I had arrived but that had been a bit rushed. This time we had a bit more time to chat.

Ayşe came across as she had before as being rather a private person but nonetheless quietly observant with an understated and self-effacing sense of humour. She seemed to work a ridiculous schedule and confessed that she suffered insomnia. Like so many of us living between different countries I detected a tinge of loneliness. She spoke of having enjoyed Istanbul but that she wanted to return to Europe and Belgium specifically. More than once she emphasized that she was French first and Turkish second. Somewhat modestly she talked of the sacrifice her parents had made for her and her brother: uneducated villagers who had worked the ‘shitty jobs’ in France so that they could have the opportunity to get a further education and the fruits thereof.

Coincidentally they were staying with her at that very moment in time now that they had retired and more able to travel and spend time back in their country of origin. They had just returned from their ancestral hometowns near Gaziantep/Karamanmaraş, I can’t remember which. Perhaps they would settle back in Turkey Ayşe speculated. This would be the last time I would see Ayşe on this particular trip. She talked of settling back in Europe – Belgium or France perhaps – but she didn’t know when she would be permitted to move again. “I love my job but I can’t carry on at this pace forever” she confided in me. I knew exactly what she was getting at. Back in the UK I had never settled properly and went through periodic episodes of what I can only describe as a depression. It’s more complicated than that but suffice to say that I don’t know where the heck I do belong!

Offline in Istanbul

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Based on content extracted from my travelblog (www.travelblog.org) between 14/08/14 – 24/08/14.

I know much has been written about this incredible city. As my travel guide says in the preface ‘if ever there was a happening city is has to be Istanbul.’ Ok, I’m sure that could be said of a few other great metropolitans but Istanbul is, I can confirm, a very, very busy place. I won’t say too much because I’m rather exhausted. You see I have spent most of the day trying to change a flight ticket and it has been very, very frustrating. The crux of the issue is that I have not been technologically agile enough to negotiate the change in dates and attendant fee differences. Ataturk airport has NO INTERNET TERMINALS people. It has plenty of wi-fi but without a gadget you are hamstrung, as I was today. If you are new to the internet/cybercafe scene in Turkey you are in for some more brain-taxing puzzle solving as you find yourself confronted by a keyboard with an extended alphabet: ç,ş,ğ & ü are on the right of the qwerty adjacent to the return key and the regular ‘i’ on the English keyboard has exchanged places with its Turkish cousin ‘ı’ without the dot (hence the fact that my text is a binary creature – not every ‘i’ has been dotted). Other characters like @ and $ are activated via an Alt Gr key so touch-typing proves difficult.

If ever there was a happening city is has to be Istanbul

Anyway, I have soldiered on at various ‘I’ cafes, at the Otogar (coach station) and near Aksaray, yet it has been as if I have been beating my head against a brick wall. The real culprit I have to confess is not the cryptic keyboard but Skyscanner.com, that great all-seeing oracle through whom the world’s many air terminals are connected. It failed me badly today. It promised me flight bookings only to find that, after being redirected to airline or broker websites, it was all a lie. No tickets! What a mad month August is. I must try and unwind now and hope that my travel agent in the Netherlands can find me an amended fare in the morning. I’m shattered….

So the moral of the story is… try get your bookings done in advance and if there is a chance you are going to make or change a booking on the run so to speak, make sure you have the right tech in hand. Mostly though I am the idiot. Travelling without a gadget these days is a bit like having a passport without any pages. You are going to find yourself in difficulties at some point, particularly if you are dependent on the technology for blogging, travel bookings, flight changes etc on the go. Lesson learnt.

Stepping back from practical considerations, flight oversights and worries... but still nursing a hangover.

Stepping back from practical considerations, flight oversights and worries… but still nursing a hangover.

Travelling without a gadget these days is a bit like having a passport without any pages.

As I mentioned it is a year down the line and here I am back in Europe’s largest city, or the Middle East’s depending on your definition of the geographic boundaries. What has changed? If anything it seems more frenetic this time around. I checked into a hostel last Thursday near Taksim and have used it as a base to explore the city. I came without any sort of sightseeing agenda, having done a fair bit of that stuff last year. Primarily I wanted to escape the confines of my life in the UK, however fleeting it may be. To this end I have really enjoyed meeting new faces and engaging with young vibrant young travellers from all over. I hadn’t really realised how lonely life can be in the West without a community. Whereas there I am a visitor amongst residents (extended family included), here I am amongst a community of visitors. We are reliant on each other in so many ways the community back in England is not. The flip side of the coin is that I have somehow regressed since last year to become a stereotypical, naïve turista.

Just this morning I got taken for a ride on a batch of laundry, paying well above the going rate because I was essentially bullied by an overbearing, rude man in a dry-cleaners cum launderette. The recommended place was only a 100 yards up the road as I discovered too late and am 25 TL poorer as a result. Yesterday I fell for an old trick: ‘I give you gift’ turned out to be ‘I give you a free chain and tag but charge you through the nose when I write your name on it.’ I know it is the same the world over but I feel I should be little wiser for my travels.

Yesterday I fell for an old trick: ‘I give you gift’ turned out to be ‘I give you a free chain and tag but charge you through the nose when I write your name on it.’

The Stray Cat HostelI guess what I am saying is that there are many sharks out there and if you visit Istanbul try to take some local advice from those who do not stand to profit from your naïvety. The guys and gals who work in the hostel are great for instance. They can be relied on for some solid advice. Perhaps due to my lack of awareness more than anything I have felt a little indifferent toward the inhabitants of Istanbul this time around. Anyway, a little more on the hostel and the characters therein. I have met quite a few, some stereotypes, others quite their own persons.

From Aussie, Tim, a madcap Aussie who was all go after a few drinks. He landed up losing Dave and I and going off to a Turkish house-party at 4 in the morning with 3 girls we had only met a few hours before.

Firstly, Hannah, a lovely Canadian girl who majored in philosophy and English and with whom conversation has been food for my soul. Also from that side of the Atlantic, Brett, a fairly conservative American soldier who loved clubbing and Turkish women (his words) but was loath to spend money on public services (frustrating companion). Oh yeah, he also told everyone who asked that he flew UAV’s for the US Army (definitely the sort of information to keep to one’s self). Next, Dave, a softly spoken and exceptionally intelligent American from Boulder who had worked for NASA and was now working for a company building a weather satellite. A lovely guy and a dead-ringer for a young Bob Dylan. Sharing my dorm for several nights was Jake, a rather intense Chinese-Canadian, a bit older at 40 years, with whom I never really broke the ice. From Aussie, Tim, a madcap Aussie who was all go after a few drinks. He landed up losing Dave and I and going off to a Turkish house-party at 4 in the morning with 3 girls we had only met a few hours before. Also sharing my dorm was an Aussie, Colin, an Asian-Australian who has been tracking all across Europe by train.

From L to R: Dave, Tim, Ayse (resident friend), Brett, Me (yellow shirt)

From L to R: Dave, Tim, Ayse (resident friend), Brett, Me (yellow shirt)

I even met a South African guy from Port Shepstone who now lives in Ankara with his mum. He was a student of architecture travelling with his Turkish girlfriend and some other students mates. He confirmed what I had heard from so many other young white South Africans: I don’t feel like there is a place for me in the country today. Much like my home country, Zimbabwe, the nationalist pendulum has swung back to the right, except that it was a black élite now and not a white, that was benefitting. He was making a new life for himself in Turkey which I applaud. Screw nationalism and politics of race – Honestly. Once upon a time I embraced affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment and whatever other acronyms or synonyms exist for essentially the same thing – discriminatory practices given a veneer of legality – because I had this quaint notion that two wrongs really could make a right. It doesn’t work that way.

So I have just discovered, as an aside and rather embarrassingly at this juncture, that the keyboard can be adapted to an English language configuration by clicking on the language button near the date and time at bottom right. As I said before, I am as green as the next tourist. Take it easy folks: the Thessalonian Walls await me!