Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

SO MANY ANIMALS

Posted from Lake Manyara, Tanzania at 10:01 pm, July 31st, 2014

I think I saw 80% of the cast of the Lion King today. I won’t do the full species rundown, because that would take forever and be the most boring journal entry ever, but there were wildebeests and hippos and gazelles and zebras and giraffes and baboons and monkeys and cranes and storks and hornbills and vastly more. No big cats or elephants, but for the first day of the safari this was a hell of a start. The experience was straight out of a National Geographic special, with all manner of species in huge numbers mixed-up together and going about their business – we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of yellow-billed storks mixed in with pelicans, zebras, hippos, impala and other critters in just one corner of the lake. Side note, but the sound of hippos lazing about is a deep rumbling noise that anyone hearing would be able to immediately identify as having come from Africa – hippos are clearly badass.

Lake Manyara is just at the edge of the rift valley, and tomorrow we’re off to the top of Ngorongoro Crater, down to Olduvai Gorge, and onto the Serengeti proper. Today’s park is supposedly just the tip of the iceberg, and I’m already in full-on amazement mode. More, please.

Blue monkey at Lake Manyara

Blue monkey sitting on a post near Lake Manyara. Not the greatest picture, but this monkey reminded me of Gandalf, and that guy is all right.

Yellow-billed stork at Lake Manyara

Yellow-billed stork at Lake Manyara. Africa has some weird and wonderful creatures.

Under African Skies

Posted from Lake Duluti, Tanzania at 10:15 pm, July 30th, 2014

Day two of the African adventure – the full safari starts tomorrow, and in the interim I got to enjoy the second day at Lake Duluti with a morning walk around the lake and then plenty of time to enjoy the sprawling lodge grounds. My first animal attack of Africa occurred on the walk – it rained a little last night, so a colony of red ants was flooded out of their home and covered a fifty foot section of the trail; despite running through it I had a dozen defenders doing their job on my legs. Africa 1, Ryan 0.

In the afternoon a troop of two adult and three young monkeys came through where the lodge is located, and as opposed to yesterday’s distant views these guys were fearless and were at times only a couple of feet away. Monitor lizards and more types of birds than I can count made up the rest of the day’s wildlife sightings, and another bushbaby made a fleeting appearance at dusk.

I can’t wait for phase two of this African odyssey – if the grounds around a lodge and a tiny lake reserve can produce so much, I can’t fathom what the wide open spaces of the Serengeti will yield.

Spider at Lake Duluti

A giant (5 inches across) spider from the path around Lake Duluti, since I know a girl who likes spiders.

Hakuna Matata

Posted from Lake Duluti, Tanzania at 10:15 pm, July 29th, 2014

I’M IN AFRICA !!!!!

I woke up this morning at Kia Lodge, went outside, and looked out on Mount Kilimanjaro dominating the skyline; I bet my Tuesday morning beats your Tuesday morning. Kia Lodge is actually adjacent to the airport, but it was still filled with all manner of birds in its sprawling gardens, including hornbills and amazingly-colored bee eaters. At 10 AM it was off to our home for the next two nights, Lake Duluti Lodge, which is a luxury lodge on the edge of a national reserve. The route there was Africa like you see it in movies – people herding cattle, people balancing massive loads of goods on their heads, and a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore in most western countries. There was definitely no mistaking the feeling of being very far from home.

Lake Duluti is the meeting spot for everyone joining the Cheesemans trip, and while it isn’t as iconic as the places we will be visiting, it is nevertheless a great introduction to Africa. I took a walk with a guide and one other trip participant around the lake, seeing huge monitor lizards and all manner of strange birds, and even getting a look at my first monkeys in Africa – a troop of perhaps six blue monkeys slowly made their way across the canopy towards us as the light was fading.

So far my happiness level is quite high – Africa is going to be an amazing experience. And a random side note, but apparently “hakuna matata” isn’t just a catchy phrase from a Disney film, but is a common Swahili expression that you hear all the time. The people I’ve met here have been extraordinarily friendly and genuine, and “hakuna matata” is inevitably their response whenever I apologize for a late flight arrival, asking for something at a meal, or any other little thing. Given the tough living conditions you might think “no worries” would not be such a common refrain, so it’s perhaps a lesson to learn and take home for application in the much easier world that I come from.

Update: on the way to dinner a nocturnal bushbaby was in the path – sort of like a lemur, and about the size of a cat. After dinner I went searching for him again, and found him scrambling through the trees and leaping 20 feet between branches. It was a sight that I don’t think has any comparison in America. This is going to be an awesome trip.

A second helping of Turkey

Posted from Lake Duluti, Tanzania at 12:10 pm, July 29th, 2014

News of Africa will follow, but first here are a couple of additional photos from Turkey that didn’t originally make it into the journal; that is truly an amazing country for history and culture, and I had a great time there.

Cappadocia landscape

Cappadocia landscape. If you look closely you might be able to find an ancient cave house.

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia

I highly recommend taking the hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia, and then running away before they can ruin it with a cheesy champagne toast and “flight certificate” presentation.

You Shall Not Pass

Posted from 35,000 feet over Turkey at 9:14 pm, July 28th, 2014

This entry was going to be about how sad it is to leave Turkey, how exciting it is to be going on safari, and how neat it is to be setting foot on three different continents in a single day. However, my plane broke shortly after taking off from Istanbul and had to immediately return to the airport, so I’ll write about that instead.

First, the caveats: the plane was newer and in better condition than most of what we fly on in the US, so any issue had nothing to do with Turkish airlines. Second, whatever happened was probably the flight equivalent of getting a flat tire when driving, i.e. something that just happens from time-to-time that isn’t anything serious. And third, Turkish airlines landed us safely and got us on a new plane in less than an hour, a turnaround time that I doubt any American airline could have pulled off. With that said, the plane took off, and immediately started shaking in a way that felt weird – maybe we hit a bird, or a rotor in the engine cracked or something. A weird smell accompanied this, but any time you fly there’s something that feels a little out-of-the-ordinary, so I figured it was nothing. Then we stopped ascending, and flew low out over the ocean. Also weird, but airspace around Istanbul is congested. Then the pilot came on and made a terse announcement: “there is a problem with the plane, we are returning to Istanbul”. That was it – he said nothing else for the remaining thirty minutes that we were in the air.

I’m an engineer, studied aerospace, and know that commercial airplanes are built like tanks. They can fly across the ocean on a single engine, stay aloft with damage that seems catastrophic, and everything is double or triple redundant. Still, when you’re on a plane, boat, or any vehicle travelling in an environment where you don’t want things to go wrong, there’s still a little voice that lives in the pit of the stomach that is hard to ignore. Knowing that nothing serious was wrong as we repeatedly made circles over the ocean was a different feeling from finally landing again in Istanbul, with the entire plane full of passengers breaking into very loud applause. We taxied directly to the maintenance hangar where six guys immediately descended on the left engine, but beyond that I never found out what had happened.

I’m chalking the experience up to Turkey simply not wanting me to leave, and also treating it as yet another good reminder to almost always let the engineering logic in the brain drown out the dumb guy in the stomach. I write this from the new plane, which took off smoothly, with thoughts of lions to be seen in the coming weeks, fond memories of so many historic sights seen over the past twelve days, and appreciation for the fact that planes are by far the safest mode of transportation.

Day of Rest

Posted from Alacati, Turkey at 9:36 pm, July 27th, 2014

In an effort to reduce potential driving stress I got up this morning at 6 AM, while most of the vacationing Turks were sleeping, and made an exploration of the surrounding area. Unfortunately it’s pretty developed, so I’ll need to search out the famously beautiful coastline elsewhere in a future visit, but it was nevertheless neat to look at the sea and have the Greek Isles nearly close enough to swim to (nearly – they’re still a few miles away, and I’m not swim team material). I had time for a short hike along the coast before people started waking up, after which I retreated back to the hotel rather than face the horns and congestion of the Turkish roads. Thereafter I decided to make today a rest day, since I’ll likely be too afraid of missing anything to spend much time sleeping during the upcoming safaris in Africa.

Some random thoughts about the trip so far:

  • The call to prayer is an oddly reassuring thing to hear throughout the day, even if the mosque loudspeakers make it sound like some weird mash-up of Ravi Shankar and an electric shaver. The invention of the loudspeaker has to be one of the most momentous events in the history of Islam – I can’t imagine the imams were able to rouse everyone from bed at 4 AM back in the days when they were singing a cappella from the minarets.
  • The internet makes the world seem much, much smaller. The ability to check email and Facebook temporarily makes me feel like I’m back home rather than on the other side of the world, and as a result any moments of homesickness have been short-lived. On a related note, despite having taken a few jabs at Google maps in past journal entries, driving would have been a much, much more stressful experience without it.
  • The Turkish people have generally been very friendly and hospitable, but one aspect of the shared personality in particular caught my attention: there are a lot of stray dogs and cats everywhere, and I’ve seen numerous people leaving out bags of scraps or dishes of water. The culture seems to view the animals not as strays, but as shared pets, and they collectively take care of them as such.

Tomorrow is a day of flying, from Izmir back to Istanbul and then on to Arusha in Tanzania. Internet connectivity will likely be spotty in Africa, so posts may be delayed a few days – don’t call the embassy unless I go missing for a couple of weeks. Sadly, there will be no more trekking in ancient Roman cities, but there will be lions…

Self-portrait at the stadium in Aphrodisias

Self-portrait at the stadium in Aphrodisias. I didn’t take any new photos today, but the smile in this one from yesterday sums up my Turkey experience.

Aphrodisias

Posted from Alacati, Turkey at 10:34 pm, July 26th, 2014

I didn’t make any advance plans for the last few days in Turkey, so the ad-hoc activity for the morning ended up being a trip to Aphrodisias. This was my third ancient Roman city in three days, and it might have been the best of the bunch. There were no crowds – people doing archaeological work outnumbered tourists – and only a small portion of the city had been excavated, leaving lots to explore. There were literally carved blocks sticking out of the ground everywhere, demonstrating how much of the city has yet to be unearthed. What was excavated was in amazing condition – the stadium is the largest and best preserved anywhere in the world, the amphitheatre is in similar condition, and even the marble floors of the baths are still present and intact. The massive agora is also relatively complete, and I got the impression that as they dig more that Aphrodisias will rival Ephesus for the title of “best preserved ancient city”. Finally, the museum contained the most impressive statues and carvings that I’ve yet seen on this trip, I assume because excavations were done mostly after the era in which archaeologists dug things up and then shipped them back home to the local museum. Best of all, I got to enjoy most of these sights on my own – I stood in a 30,000 seat stadium with no one else around, and then repeated the act in the 7,000 seat amphitheatre; the Indiana Jones spirit lives on.

In addition to the history and landscapes, everyone raves about the beaches and coastline in Turkey, so I figured I’d wrap up the trip on the Aegean Coast. A Tripadvisor search for hotels located within 1-2 hours of my departure airport led me to the city of Alacati, so after leaving Aphrodisias I drove four hours west to a town that is sort of like a Turkish version of Carmel. Alacati seems to be a destination primarily for well to do Turks, so it’s a slightly more authentic experience than in other areas that cater more to foreigners. This town would probably have been my dad’s favorite stop, as tonight there was a farmer’s market going on that was easily three times bigger than any farmer’s market I’ve ever seen, with everything from stalls selling dozens of varieties of olives, to stalls selling homemade cheeses the size of a human head, to fruit stalls with watermelons piled six feet high, to carts offering steamed mussels. Pa Holliday would have been reduced to a walking pile of drool.

The plan for tomorrow is to explore some of the nearby beaches, although that option is highly dependent on driving conditions in case some of the “roads” on the map turn out to instead be glorified goat paths masquerading as highways.

Marble carvings at Aphrodisias

This stash of marble carvings was sitting under a shelter to form a long wall. I don’t know if it’s temporary storage or a permanent thing, but I liked it very much.

Aphrodisias stadium

The 2000 year-old, 30,000 seat stadium, which I had to myself. I’ll leave it to the reader to guess whether I spent part of my time there re-enacting scenes from Gladiator.

Lost in Translation

Posted from Pamukkale, Turkey at 10:46 pm, July 25th, 2014

Today ended up with two adventures, one planned and awesome, the other unplanned and not quite as awesome. The latter began after a late lunch when I attempted to save 30 minutes of uphill walking by catching the local shuttle to the upper gate of Hierapolis. The shuttle bus arrived, I hopped on, and my first sign of trouble was that there was not a white face on board. Thirty minutes later the bus finally stopped at the downtown terminal in a nearby large city. Once I found a bus that was supposedly returning to my starting point I made sure to repeat the name of the town I wanted multiple times just to be certain that I wasn’t accidentally getting on an express bus to Istanbul or any other surprise destination. These sorts of things are inevitable when traveling, but it will still be nice to be able to reliably use either English or French in the remaining countries on the trip, since with the aid of a limited vocabulary and excessive hand gestures I might have a decent chance of successfully doing simple things like riding a bus.

The day’s more enjoyable adventure was a visit to the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis. Having already spent an hour of fun in shuttles I gave up on trying to get a ride to the top gate, and made the very pleasant no-shoes-allowed walk up the white travertine terraces, with pools along the route and water from the springs running down the path. At the top, the ancient city sprawled across the landscape. Visits were made to many of the buildings, and one of the things that I’ve learned to love about Turkey is how accessible things are – I climbed to the top of a hill that literally had corners of sarcophagi sticking out of the ground, obviously waiting for archaeologists to find the time to excavate them. Similarly, I’m frequently blown away by the historical significance of what’s here – as if visiting Roman cities wasn’t enough, this one is home to the tomb of Philip. The apostle Philip. A guy who partied with Jesus. You don’t accidentally stumble upon the 2000 year old tomb of a biblical figure in too many parts of the world, but that was just one of several notable discoveries during the day today. The walk back down along the terraces at sunset was a final experience worth savoring for the day.

One last note, but a giant stork has built a nest on the roof of the local mosque and hangs out on patrol for large portions of the day; for reasons I do not understand, I like both that the stork chose the mosque, and that the locals don’t seem to mind having a huge pile of sticks and a large bird on the top of their religious edifice.

Travertine terraces at Pamukkale

Travertine terraces at Pamukkale. To get to Hierapolis you walk barefoot for about 30 minutes up a path through the terraces, with foot-deep pools along the way to soak in. Combine that with the view, and the ancient Roman city at the top is almost the second-best part of the day. The only downside is the number of large, hairy people making the journey in a speedo.

Travertine terraces at Pamukkale

I’ve gone back-and-forth a few times about whether or not I like this photo enough to include it in the journal. If you’re reading this, it means I included it. If you’re not…

Road Trip

Posted from Pamukkale, Turkey at 10:24 pm, July 24th, 2014

I slept in until 7:15 this morning, and it was glorious.

The plan for the day was to visit the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. The place is so old that it used to be located on the coast, but its port silted up and it is now located a few miles inland. O-L-D. I arrived when the gates opened at 8 AM in an effort to beat the crowds and heat, and then spent nearly five hours exploring ancient ruins and trying to imagine what life was like two thousand years ago. In addition to its theaters and famous library, the town is home to an amazingly well-preserved “terrace house”, complete with frescoes, marble paneling, and mosaics. With a little imagination and some modern amenities, you could easily see how these 2nd century apartments would rival any millionaire’s home today – the Romans were awesome.

By early afternoon I was ready for the three hour drive inland to Pamukkale, home to giant travertine terraces and the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis that sits on top of the travertine hills. I’m sure there was probably a shorter way from Ephesus to Pamukkale, but after yesterday’s fun with “roads”, today I was treating Google Maps with significant skepticism. It still tried to sneak me on to some questionable routes between villages, but as the pavement narrowed I figured out the trick, and spent a half hour backtracking to a more circuitous route that actually had pavement.

I have two nights booked here, and while I had been planning on doing some exploring of the surrounding area after visiting Hierapolis, the option of a rest day in a town that has been known for two thousand years for its hot springs sounds very appealing after the frantic pace of the past ten days.

Celsus library at Epeshus

Celsus library at Ephesus.

Grand theatre at Epeshus

Grand theatre at Ephesus. The 24,500 seat theatre is used today only for classical acts due to fears of damaging it, but until recently bands ranging from Elton John to Ray Charles to Jethro Tull (!) played here.

Floating in the Air

Posted from Selcuk, Turkey at 10:35 pm, July 23rd, 2014

It’s pretty cool when you feel like you’ve gotten in a full day’s worth of activity, look at the time, and realize it’s only 6:30 in the morning.

The hot air balloon ride was totally worth doing. The pilot of our balloon was apparently some sort of otherworldly wizard who was capable of sending the balloon three thousand feet into the air before dropping down to within a foot (literally) of the canyon walls for a few minutes, and then lifting us up a thousand feet before repeating the maneuver in a new canyon. The trip started in the pre-dawn hours, and the balloon lifted off so gently that the only indication of flight was that the ground was becoming distressingly far away – it’s an unnerving sensation to be leaning over the side of a basket a half mile up in the air with nothing supporting you. We watched the sunrise from that height with a hundred other balloons surrounding us, then the balloon armada dropped down to float together through the canyons before repeating. The weather conditions were apparently perfect, and after an hour in the air we landed softly next to the waiting trailer. The much feared presentation of the “flight certificate” was as painful as I imagined it might be, but despite that bit of tackiness I would still highly recommend the experience.

Following the balloon ride I was back at the hotel by 7 AM, grabbed a quick breakfast, and then did a return visit to hike in the Rose & Sword Valleys in order to enjoy the Indiana Jones spirit one last time. Sadly, after that it was time to check out of the incredible, stupendous, and ridiculously great cave hotel, and then it was off to the airport to embark on stage three of the Turkish odyssey.

For my last five days in Turkey I’ve put my life on the line by renting a car and facing the wrath of the Turkish roads, with tonight’s first lesson being that a “road” on Google maps may be something that causes locals to jump up from their seats and yell out warnings when you try to drive on it, necessitating a long drive of shame in reverse along a narrow, one-lane cobblestone path. Assuming the necessary lessons are learned without incident and I can survive this new motorized portion of the trip, in the coming days I’ll get to see a mix of ancient and natural wonders that were old even in biblical times. Life continues to be very, very good.

Cappadocia hot air balloon sunrise

This was my sunrise this morning, but with a hundred other balloons that are out of frame. I have no complaints.

Cappadocia hot air balloons in Love Valley

I wish I’d gotten much, much better pictures that did justice to how cool it was to be floating through the valleys of Cappadocia with a hundred other balloons. Unfortunately this is about the best I got, but on a positive note you can see the previously mentioned phallic stone towers that give the valley its name.

The active trip, now with hills

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 9:27 pm, July 22nd, 2014

The 2006 Galapagos trip was referred to (fondly, by most) as the “active trip” since we packed in non-stop activity. Thus far this adventure is definitely living up to the standards of the active trip, with the added element of massive numbers of hills. My legs and feet appear to still be on speaking terms with the rest of the body, but I fear that if this pace keeps up there will be unrest and threat of strike from my appendages responsible for locomotion.

Today was much like yesterday, with less Indiana Jones and much more finely painted stone churches. The day began before 4 AM with the man in the mosque singing me a song through the loudspeakers on the minaret. This particular melancholic lament was considerably longer than his normal pre-dawn melodies, and when it finally ended sleep was hard to find. Finally at 5:30 I went up to the terrace to again watch the balloons floating by, and thereafter it was off to the protected area of Goreme to see the most impressive of the stone churches. This area is actually managed as an open air museum, so it was quite a different experience from the previous day’s journeys into lonely corners of hidden valleys. Photos were not allowed and, since I’ve already gone on ad nauseam about how amazed I am that anyone could have built such structures inside of solid rock, like Forrest Gump I’ll sum up by saying that’s all I have to say about that.

After visiting the pretty churches the first attempt at a hike for the day ended in defeat as the trail through the Zemi Valley simply faded away, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where it had gone. Ego in hand, I made a one-eighty and came back to my ridiculously awesome cave hotel for a nap and to avoid being out in the heat of the day. Nap completed, I then headed off for a late afternoon hike in Love Valley, which I swear has to be a toned-down translation of the actual Turkish name since it was named after the giant stone formations that are found throughout the valley floor, each one looking exactly like a fifty foot tall weiner.

Tomorrow is my last day in Cappadocia, and I reluctantly shelled out the big bucks to take a ride at sunrise through the valleys with Istanbul Ballooons. A hot air balloon ride has to be the most touristy thing I could possibly do – all the balloon companies advertise that after landing they have a champagne celebration and present you with a “flight certificate”, which hurts my soul in the most severe way – but I’m hopeful that this one is a truly great experience that comes with a side of touristy schlock. Following the balloon ride there should be time for one more hike, and thereafter the second leg of this trip will have all-too-quickly come to a close.

Cappadocia sunset

Until today I’ve been lucky enough to get at least one journal-worthy photo each day, but luck finally ran out. While it was tempting to just post a shot of the giant stone wieners, instead a generic sunset photo from a couple of nights ago will have to do.

Indiana Jones of Cappadocia

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 9:08 pm, July 21st, 2014

Yesterday I woke up at 6:15 and counted 26 hot air balloons floating across the sky. Today I woke up at 5:45 and there were too many to count. Six days in, and this adventure is still going very strong.

Prior to arriving I knew nothing about the logistics of visiting Cappadocia, and not wanting to lose even one day of this trip I had made advance arrangements with a trekking company for the first day here. After arriving I realized that there is TONS of great history and landscapes surrounding Goreme (the town I’m staying in), so today I was happily able to return to my lone, free ranging ways. A hike through any of the surrounding valleys literally passes by hundreds, if not thousands, of stone structures that date back a couple thousand years, so I was in full-on Indiana Jones mode as I scrambled through ancient churches that had been hacked from stone, roamed through eroding rock formations, and explored old monasteries that crept up multiple levels inside of the rock. Without trying to sound like a broken record, it’s unbelievable what people have been able to carve out of the rocks here – at one point today I stood in a church that was three stories high, all chiseled out by hand deep inside of a cliff.

After returning in early afternoon and getting a much-needed nap during the heat of the day, the late afternoon activity was a visit to Uchisar Castle, which is the high point in this area, and which was hacked out of the top of a stone hill (of course). From there it was a nice stroll back to Goreme through Pigeon Valley, so named for the high density of pigeon houses carved into the cliffs and built by ancient people since they used pigeon droppings for fertilizer.

One last note, put here mainly for my dad – no matter where I travel, his first question is nearly always about the food (“Antarctica, huh? What was the food like?”) Gotta say, while I haven’t been spending much time eating, Turkey does the culinary thing right. Best olives I’ve ever had. Fresh fruit that is smaller than what we get back home, but seems to pack in more flavor. Grilled meats that have all brought great joy to the tastebuds. And while I’m not yet a card-carrying member of the Turkish tea fan club, I could see how that ubiquitous drink would grow on you. The only downside for me has been that this is the wrong place to not like eggplant – at one point I politely declined some sort of curried eggplant from the guy working the breakfast buffet, and while he didn’t say anything out loud, the look on his face was pretty clearly one of very deep-seated disgust towards me and all of the evil that I represented. In my defense, I had tried the dish he was offering earlier and re-affirmed that eggplant continues to keep its position on my unapproved vegetable list.

Cappadocia hot air balloon launch

Hot air balloons launching at sunrise. This photo captures just one corner of the sky – the horizon was filled.

Aydinli Cave Hotel Room #2

Room #2 at the Aydinli Cave Hotel. A 300 year old space carved out of the solid rock of the hillside would be a national historic landmark in America, but in Turkey it’s my beyond-cool home for four nights. Giant bathroom (former stable) not shown.

Walking on Sunshine

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 9:35 pm, July 20th, 2014

I woke up at 6:15 this morning, walked up to the uppermost terrace of my cave hotel, and watched 26 hot air balloons floating over the rock formations. Life is that awesome right now.

The day’s plan was to hop in a van and go see evidence of civilizations that were here millennia ago, starting with the Kaymaklı Underground City. The “city” part of the name is actually accurate – ancient people hacked the rock to build tunnels and living quarters that are large enough to hold 4000 people with enough supplies to withstand sieges from invaders for several months. The underground labyrinth has at least 100 rooms that extend below the surface for eight levels and a depth of at least 70 meters, with the oldest portions dating back as far as 2000 BC. I had no idea such a thing had ever existed in this world, but seeing the lengths ancient people were willing to go to in order to escape from invaders made me very, very appreciative that I live in a time when it is no longer necessary to deal with surprise raids from barbarian hordes.

The next stage of the journey was an eight mile hike through the Ihlara Valley, a hideout for early Christians escaping religious persecution (at that time “religious persecution” was a euphemism meaning “a horrible, awful, terrible death”, so the hiding was mostly justified). Cave houses were everywhere, and hidden churches appeared at regular intervals. Sadly the frescoes in the churches were heavily obscured by graffiti – “crazy lovers” was how the guide I was with described the perpetrators – so works of art dating back to the first few centuries AD are now victims of visitors who felt it was important to scratch their initials and the date of their visit into the ancient plaster. JC would have been forgiving, but it gave me a significant frowny face inside.

With all of the day’s activities there wasn’t time to take photos of my uber-awesome cave hotel room, so those will need to wait for a later journal entry when extreme tiredness isn’t such an immediate concern.

Cappadocia landscape at sunset

Cappadocia landscape at sunset. There is an ancient cave house or storage space carved into just about every piece of rock in the area.

So Many Things

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 10:20 pm, July 19th, 2014

The days when it was a struggle to find subject matter for three journal entries a month are gone… I’ve just arrived in Cappadocia, and this journal entry would be all about my 300 year old carved-out-of-solid-rock cave hotel room(s) if there wasn’t more to recap from Istanbul. The high level overview on the lodging for the next four days: if you’re ever planning a trip to Cappadocia and think it might be better to save some money and not stay in a cave hotel, have someone immediately slap you across the face, hard. You will later thank them repeatedly after not missing out on the most unique accommodation experience of your life.

Now back to Istanbul. Thus far I’ve been going to bed early and waking up even earlier, so last night was the first night where I ventured out in the evening. Ramadan is ongoing, and when I got to the main park outside of the Blue Mosque there were literally thousands of people having picnics with their friends and families to break their daily fast. I’ve never seen anything quite like it – imagine the scene on the Fourth of July just before they shoot off the fireworks, but no one is American, the food is completely foreign, and the music and games are unrecognizable; that sort of captures it. It was incredibly neat to just walk around and absorb the atmosphere.

After last night’s meandering I got up reasonably early today for my final day in Istanbul. The first destination was to the 7AM opening of the rooftop restaurant at the Seven Hills Hotel to soak in the 360-degree views of the ocean, the Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sophia in the early light. “Soak in the views” might be a cliched term, but in this case the surroundings really were sort of like fuel for the soul.

With the spirit refreshed and the belly full of olives and honeycomb, the activities for the day were a trip to the Little Hagia Sophia and to the Basilica Cistern, followed by an interlude at the Blue Mosque prior to heading to the airport to catch my flight. The Little Hagia Sophia was actually built by Justinian before the Hagia Sophia and, unsurprisingly, is a much, much smaller version that has less ornate decoration but some amazingly impressive carved marble columns. A thunderstorm arrived while I was there, and I was trapped in a 1500 year old church (now mosque) for an hour; that is misfortune of the very best kind. The Basilica Cistern is a 1500 year old underground Roman water storage tank, which doesn’t sound so neat until you’re in it: it is 453 feet long, 212 feet wide, 30 feet high, and supported by 336 marble columns – it’s also known, understandably, as the Sunken Palace, and probably ranks in my top ten most unexpectedly weird discoveries. The support columns were re-purposed from other structures, so most of them are ornately carved with different designs. Rumor has it that it was forgotten until the 16th century when a scholar researching Byzantine antiquities was told by locals of how they could catch fish through holes in their basement floors, and carp are still present today in the two feet or so of water that floods the bottom. Wandering around inside re-affirmed my belief that had Rome not fallen, their genius would have had us launching satellites and making microwave popcorn five hundred years ago.

Thus ended the very first leg of this three-month long odyssey. Tales of the cave hotel, hidden churches, and attempts to avoid heat stroke will follow tomorrow.

Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern. Completely full it held 80,000 m3 of water, which means that 32 Olympic-size swimming pools could be emptied into an underground storage unit that the Romans built without mechanized tools. Note that there were even more columns behind me when I took this photo – the place is not small.

Entry to the Blue Mosque

Detail of the front of the Blue Mosque. The main entry is for worshipers only, and a man with a uniform and an absolutely impeccable Muslim detector was stationed there to redirect people to the visitor’s entrance on the side as appropriate.

My Dogs are Barking

Posted from Istanbul, Turkey at 8:40 pm, July 18th, 2014

After walking all over Istanbul in the heat today I sat down while inside of the Archaeology Museum to rest my (very, very, very) tired legs and accidentally dozed off – I could be wrong, but I think that means I’m doing this adventure thing right.

It’s shockingly difficult to find a nice view of Istanbul’s Old City, but after scanning the horizon I noticed people dining on the roof of the Seven Hills Hotel and the day started with me heading over there to catch the morning light. Surprisingly they didn’t insist that I buy anything, and for the equivalent of a couple of dollars gratuity I started the day with a great view of the sea, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia – there may be a return visit tomorrow.

From there the day of much walking commenced, with a journey across the Old City and through all manner of narrow alleys to the Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Suleymaniye Mosque, Archaeological Museum, and along the waterfront. My expectations for the Grand Bazaar may have been a tad unrealistic – I imagined a labyrinth of shops straight out of the Arabian Nights, with artisans, exotic goods, hookahs, and maybe a camel or two. The labyrinth part was accurate and very cool, but the shops themselves were more flea market than Arabian Nights, and there wasn’t a camel anywhere to be found. The Spice Bazaar came closer to matching my imagination, with brightly colored bins of spices laid out in hundreds of stalls. Even better were the shops in the narrow alleys around the spice market, where labels weren’t printed in English and none of the goods were being sold pre-packaged in gift baskets.

From the Spice Bazaar it was uphill to the Suleymaniye Mosque, which is slightly older than the Blue Mosque, approximately the same size, equally as impressive inside, and filled with perhaps 1/20th as many tourists. Also, it’s less blue and more red.

The day finished with a slow meander towards the Archaeological Museum, through innumerable narrow cobblestone alleys, across public squares, and past all manner of shops. When finally it occurred to me that some sort of sustenance might be a good idea I ordered a kebab, and after I answered in the affirmative when the guy making it pointed to some french fries, I learned that in Turkey they are apparently toppings rather than a side dish, as they came wrapped inside of the kebab – yet another tiny reminder that I am far from home. Hopefully I can get my tired legs to cooperate and do a bit more wandering tomorrow, after which I fly out of Istanbul in the evening and head to the weird landscapes of Cappadocia for the second leg of this adventure.

Blue Mosque

The elusive Blue Mosque skyline view. Someday more owners of nearby buildings will realize that their rooftops are untapped gold mines, but until that day the Seven Hills Hotel will be my eatery of choice.

Spice Bazaar

Stall in the Spice Bazaar. When the labels on the spices are printed in English it is not-so-secret code for “you’re paying double”.

On the Second Day

Posted from Istanbul, Turkey at 9:52 pm, July 17th, 2014

The tour groups filtering through the Blue Mosque seemed to allow about fifteen minutes to visit the place, which means I probably saw nine rotations go through while I enjoyed the cavernous interior – at the rate I’m going, four days will be enough to see only a tiny, tiny fraction of Istanbul.

By the standards of Istanbul’s other monuments, the Blue Mosque is fairly young, having been built only 400 years ago, but it is equally as impressive as its older siblings. 20,000 handmade tiles decorate the inside walls and pillars, the central dome rises 141 feet into the air, eight supporting domes create a huge interior space, and one awed and smiling American got to enjoy it all for a good chunk of the morning.

The day’s next visit was to the nearby Mosaic Museum, which is the remnant of a 4000 square meter mosaic courtyard built by Justinian about 1500 years ago that, for whatever reason, was mostly built over and forgotten as the centuries passed by. Today archaeologists have restored a portion, and I’d put the artists who built it up against any artist living today – it’s an impressive piece of creative work. Following that stop it was back to the Hagia Sophia to see the tombs of four sultans. All of the tombs were inside of large domed buildings, all impressively decorated with tiles, and the actual sarcophagi (?) were carpeted on the outside, which I guess is the way you do it when you’re a sultan (or a relative of a sultan) of one of the largest empires ever to exist on Earth.

Thereafter it was off to the Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire from 1465–1856. The palace grounds included four courtyards and hundreds of rooms, leading to a tired set of legs when all was said and done. The Sultans lived well, as evidenced by the residence area (the Harem), the museum exhibits that included an 86 karat diamond and bowls filled with emeralds, the ornate receiving rooms, and the tremendous views out over the Bosphorus Strait. The day’s final visit was to the Hagia Irene, a church that is slightly older than the Hagia Sophia but slightly less massive and in a much greater state of disrepair. Surprisingly, the worn down old building is used today primarily for musical performances, as it apparently has amazing acoustics under its high dome.

Finally, random side note, but while the focus on wildlife for this trip won’t start for two more weeks when I reach Tanzania, it’s impossible not to notice that they have (very loud) parrots here, too. In addition, there are a surprising numbers of birds that have found holes in the exteriors of the historic buildings and set up homes in hidden corners of architectural wonders. Hearing a pigeon flying through the vast interior of the Hagia Irene or Hagia Sophia isn’t what I necessarily expected in the stillness of a 1500 year old religious edifice, but at the same time it definitely doesn’t detract from the ambiance.

Mosaic Museum detail

Detail from a 1500 year old Byzantine mosaic at the Mosaic Museum. I continue to be hugely impressed with the ancient Romans’ ability to arrange tiny pieces of rock and ceramic.

Column detail in Sultan Selim tomb

The Ottomans seem to have been all about arches, domes, and colored tiles. This photo shows details of the supports for the dome above Sultan Selim’s tomb, which was built in 1577.

In the Beginning

Posted from Istanbul, Turkey at 6:04 am, July 17th, 2014

Yesterday’s plan to avoid jet lag despite sixteen hours of flying and a ten hour time change was simple – get up to catch the plane at 4:30 AM (Los Angeles time) and then stay awake until I was somewhere over the Atlantic and it was the equivalent of evening time in Istanbul. A brilliant plan, had it worked, but instead I never fell asleep on the plane and arrived in a state resembling the walking dead. On a positive note, I finally got to see Captain America 2, Thor 2, and the Hobbit Part 2 (Air Canada is really into sequels).

After landing and fetching luggage I arrived at the hotel in Istanbul at noon local time (2AM Los Angeles time), and fearing that it might not be a good idea to see some of the world’s most amazing landmarks while hallucinating, took a three hour nap before heading out. Once off, my hotel was only a couple of blocks from the Hagia Sophia, so I got to spend the remainder of the day in one of the most remarkable buildings ever built by humans. The place is old – it was built in 537 AD, and is the kind of old where you look at a marble block at the entrance and notice that it has been worn down two inches in the center from people walking on it. In addition to its age, the building is an architectural marvel that, like the pyramids or Stonehenge, makes you wonder how societies of that time could possibly have built it. The central dome alone is 101 feet across and 160 feet high, creating an absolutely immense enclosed space. I stayed well past closing, allowing the crowds to thin out, and got to enjoy the place as it got quieter and stiller; not a bad way to kick off this adventure.

The Blue Mosque faces the Hagia Sophia from across a park, so I ventured over to it as the sun was setting. It was too late to go inside, but standing in the courtyards finally gave me that electric shock feeling that yep, I’m far from home on the opposite side of the world. Hearing people speaking Turkish, not knowing what the customs were, navigating narrow cobblestone streets, wading through the touts in the park (“My friend! My best friend! You want Bosphorus cruise?”), and being awed by a sight I’ve wanted to witness for decades was just the right combination to let it sink in that I am most definitely on an amazing adventure.

Hagia Sophia mosaic detail

Detail of a mosaic of JC from the Hagia Sophia’s walls. The Byzantines apparently knew a thing or two about arranging tiny colored tiles.

Hagia Sophia interior domes

Unfortunately half of the interior of the Hagia Sophia was filled with scaffolding, so this is the best attempt I had at capturing the amazing domed ceiling. You obviously can’t tell from this botched effort at a photo, but it was the kind of awe-inspiring that makes you want to go to church on Sunday.

Hagia Sophia interior hall

Torn between waiting for a break in the steady stream of people, or of using some of them for scale, I chose secret option three, which is either turning them into ghosts or accelerating them up to warp factor five. Whatever your preferred explanation, it made for a cool shot of the halls along the side of the main sanctuary.

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

Posted from Los Angeles International Airport, California at 6:33 am, July 15th, 2014

This will be the last entry written on US soil for quite some time – I’m sitting at the Air Canada gate at LAX watching the sun rise, and will most likely be writing the next entry from Istanbul (Istanbul was Constantinople. Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople). In the next two weeks I’ll be setting foot on four different continents, which is one of the most awesome things I’ve ever been able to write in this journal. With that ahead, however, a quick recap of the fun times over the past couple of weeks still needs to be recorded for posterity.

For the Fourth of July Audrey arranged another group trip to the amazing Hollywood Bowl to see Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers. The show this year was with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and included post-show fireworks, and while I preferred the version without the accompanying orchestra (more banjo and fiddle, less French horn), it was still pretty damn fun. As an added bonus, Paul Simon made an appearance to join his wife onstage for one number, and my thought at finally seeing a musical legend whose songs I’ve heard thousands of times was “Wow, that guy is SMALL”. Big talent in a tiny package, apparently.

The following days were filled with many errands as I made a valiant effort to verify travel arrangements and acquire appropriate gear for the trip – Audrey was displeased when I suggested I might take only two pairs of pants on a three month trip, so the pants quota was increased fifty percent, among other last-minute changes. In the midst of the packing extravaganza I made a two day journey up to the Bay Area to visit younger Holliday. A day spent hiking on the Peninsula in search of banana slugs was followed by an evening of adventure, gyros, and albino alligators at the California Academy of Sciences, followed by a day of beer, ping pong, and giant breakfasts, and there was much rejoicing.

And that’s it for my time in the US – future updates involving attempts to avoid accidentally causing international incidents, being chased by dangerous animals, and barfing in foreign countries to follow.

The Holliday Brothers in Half Moon Bay

No one understands what mutated gene in the Holliday DNA is the cause, but taking pictures with wooden people will never, ever stop being fun for us.