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

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.

Trip Planning

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:15 pm, June 29th, 2014

With most of the logistics for the trip now in place, the trip-planning has moved into its final stages. For anyone who wonders what else has gone into setting up this three-month odyssey across two continents and five countries, here are some notes:

  • It only recently occurred to me that the visa-on-arrival option for Tanzania and Kenya might not be a good idea, particularly since I’m entering Kenya through a land border. A brief panic ensued after I discovered that obtaining visas in advance for both countries required mailing my passport to the embassies and an expected 1-3 week turnaround for each. Luckily both Tanzania and Kenya are far more efficient in their visa processing than the US; one week after mailing it I had my Tanzanian visa, and literally 48 hours after sending my passport to the Kenya consulate in LA it arrived back at my doorstep with the required stamp in place. Disaster averted.
  • While I do love my current Canon 100-400mm lens, there is a new Tamron 150-600mm lens that has gotten great reviews and will get me 50% closer than the current bird nostril lens (i.e. new lens = bird boogers). Unfortunately, the lens is sold out everywhere, so I’ve got it on backorder from B&H. With luck it will be back in stock in time to get here before I leave, and there will be pictures of rhino eyeballs to show off when I return. I also got a used Canon 60D as a backup in case my camera breaks or is stolen, since I’m guessing camera shops may be few and far between in the African bush. Last of all I picked up a GoPro for scuba and shark diving, so that I can have video to forever remember the moment when a great white swims by and I soil myself.
  • Clothing-wise, it has been all about avoiding the bugs and not coming home with malaria, yellow fever, or five point exploding heart disease. ExOfficio insect repellent clothing seems to be the recommended way to go in the “don’t die from mosquito bites” department, and while expensive it’s supposed to work well and is super comfortable. Whether or not two pairs of pants and five shirts is sufficient for a three month trip is still a subject of discussion and potential modification, although I have already acquiesced to carrying multiple pairs of boxers.
  • Other acquisitions include bottles of Deet, sunscreen, medicines, toiletries, and every other thing one might need over three months when the nearest Rite-Aid is 11,000 miles away. No doubt many items will be forgotten, and I may find myself treating some ailment with whatever the local Masai witch doctor is able to mix up using plants, animal dung, and black magic.

Four more days of work, and sixteen more days until I board a plane for Istanbul. Adventure is out there.

Planning the Odyssey

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 6:39 pm, April 30th, 2014

It’s a very old adage that you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone, and planning the trip to Madagascar has reinforced that dictum as most of the internet planning tools we now take for granted are of no use, making things significantly more challenging. I’ve instead found myself working with middlemen, wiring money via Western Union, navigating various bank transfers, and doing my best to email in French, despite twenty years having passed since I last used it during high school language classes (note: those classes ended with my teacher taking me aside to tell me that I was an embarrassment as a language student, and she was not incorrect).

Luckily most of the places we want to visit in Madagascar at least have a web site or a mention on Tripadvisor, so while it sometimes takes several days of contacting the hotel owner and a variety of travel agencies in order to get someone to finally respond with information about price and availability, after countless hours of research, emails, phone calls, etc, we’ve managed to ensure that we have transportation and lodging for most of our time in Madagascar. “Ensure” is of course a relative term – in several cases I’ve wired not-insignificant sums of money to a person I’ve never met, and while I’m not too worried, it’s still an act of faith that they’ll be there with a car, boat, or hotel room at the place and time we’ve arranged. Travel is always an adventure, and this one may be far more unpredictable than most. In addition, I’ve quickly learned that any time you try to send money to someone in Madagascar, whether via bank transfer, credit card, or Western Union, alarm bells and flashing red lights go off in the fraud departments, so I’ve now become quite well-versed in talking to the bank and credit card folks when they follow-up to alert me to all of the dubious activities taking place on my accounts.

With most of the planning now complete, the final itinerary looks like it will be Turkey for two weeks, Tanzania and Kenya for almost four weeks (with the Cheesemans, so at least for that part of the trip there won’t be any worries about travel arrangements), a week in Kruger National Park in South Africa (Etosha National Park in Namibia didn’t work out, unfortunately), ten days in Cape Town with Audrey, then we’ll be spending four weeks in Madagascar. All told I’ll be gone for just shy of three months, so this will be the longest adventure I’ve ever been fortunate enough to undertake. In six months I will no longer be able to say that I haven’t seen the Blue Mosque, a wild lion, the sunset over the Serengeti, or a dancing lemur, and life will definitely be better as a result.


Posted from Culver City, California at 9:26 pm, March 31st, 2014

“Boredom, Tyler. Boredom, that’s what’s wrong. And how do you beat boredom? Adventure, Tyler. Adventure!” — Never Cry Wolf

This journal started in 2002 as a way to chronicle an epic, three month adventure through Alaska and Northern Canada. Since then there have been additional amazing trips captured on these pages – Antarctica on an ice breaker, South Georgia island on a 90 foot yacht, the Galapagos on a motor yacht, and even some trips that didn’t involve boats. Some of these journeys were done on my own, others with friends and family, but all had a profound impact.

The next odyssey is scheduled to start in late July and last through early October, with Audrey joining for the latter half. The route is still being fully fleshed out, but the trail looks like it’s going to lead through Turkey, Tanzania, Kenya and Namibia, with Audrey then joining for ten days in South Africa followed by a month in Madagascar.

I’m fortunate to be in a position to be able to break from the day-to-day routine and head out to experience the world, and can’t wait to see what insights this next journey brings. Three-and-a-half months and counting.