Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Solo travel to Turkey - one woman's experience

A brief diversion from an account of my trip to talk about a few things people have been asking me about (in real life, not on the internet, but hey, maybe someone out there will get some use out of this).

I know that before I came to Turkey I wondered a lot about what it would be like to travel there on my own, as a woman - whether it would be safe, whether I would be extraordinarily conspicuous, etc. I have friends and acquaintances, male and female, who had traveled to Turkey in pairs and small groups, but I didn't know anyone who'd gone to Turkey on their own, male or female. None of my friends who'd been to Turkey urged me to go on my own (one of the things about traveling solo is that your friends don't necessarily learn a lot about your travel style!), but none of them said, "God, no, don't do it!" So, I took to the internet to hear what other women trave ling alone had thought about Turkey. I found a lot of encouraging firsthand stories, a few people who had been miserable, and some news and guidebook accounts of actual crimes and other horror stories.

But you know, I think by the time I started looking at other women's stories, I'd already made up my mind to go. So if you're a woman (or a man) who's already decided to go to Turkey on your own, go ahead and read this post for lots of reassurance and a few caveats and cautionary tales.

Now, for starters, solo travel is not for everyone, period. Some people don't like traveling alone, and I think this is largely a personal temperment issue. Solo travel in general and its challenges and rewards is probably worth a whole blog entry of its own (which I may even write at some point!), so for now I'll just talk about Turkey specifically.

Lots of people have asked me if I felt safe in Turkey, and overall I would say yes. I acknowledge that the risk of being affected by a terrorist attack is probably higher than in the US or Western Europe, though still extremely unlikely. As far as crimes against my person (attack, robbery, rape, whatever), I can 100% say that I never once felt that I was at risk of bodily harm from another person. I did get lost more than once, and that was unsettling and a bit scary, but realistically I do not think I was in any actual danger (other than the danger of needing to take an expensive taxi ride to get where I needed to go!).

I was appropriately cautious; I did not stay out very late, I kept to well-populated areas, especially at night, I did not drink to excess or use any mind-altering substances, and I was vigilant about what was going on around me. I'm a reasonably street-smart person - I used to work in an inner-city hospital complex until midnight, then take the bus home, and I never came to any grief there - and I used my own good judgement.

The time I was most scared, and probably in the most actual danger, was when I got lost in the scrub forest in Kas. This was my own fault for wandering off the trail, and I would have been in just as much danger if not more if I'd been in the mountains of my native New England (in Kas, I at least had a great mobile phone signal, which you can't count on in the White Mountains!). Even then, though, because I'd taken appropriate precautions, the risk I ran was pretty small - I had a mobile phone that I could use to call for help if necessary, I had a whistle, a flashlight, a small first-aid kit, food (dried fruit) and water, and I had good long-sleeve, long-trouser, synthetic hiking clothes. I might have really annoyed my hotel and the local police if I'd had to call for help, but there was never really any risk that I wouldn't be able to get out!

I would say that as far as physical danger goes, you can greatly reduce the amount of risk you run by observing a healthy level of caution, being prepared, and thinking things through. Also, if you know you're prepared, you'll feel a lot more comfortable! (Just don't get too comfortable and stop observing your healthy level of caution...)

A couple of people have asked me about food safety - I didn't drink tap water, but I wasn't particularly careful otherwise, and I felt 100% fine. I ate raw fruit and vegetables without worrying about whether they'd been peeled or how they'd been washed, and a lot of the food was served lukewarm, which I know are all the red flags you're supposed to avoid, but I never had any problem. I do have a stomach of steel, though; I've never had food poisoning that I can remember, and I seem to be able to eat whatever I want, whenever I want, with basically no ill effects (besides weight gain). I think the cure for IBS is lurking somewhere in my digestive tract (OK, gross image; we'll move on now). Obviously if you have a more sensitive stomach you might want to ease into things and be more cautious.

Enough about danger - let's move on to "hassle". In the touristy parts of Turkey that I visited, people (and by people I mean men, actually) are constantly asking you, "Where are you from?" and "What is your name?" and "Are you lost?" I found it a little bit exhausting, just because there are so many of them; individually they're no more annoying than many Save the Children and Greenpeace canvassers I've encountered at home. Mostly I was able to ignore them or develop a sense of humor about it - when I ignored one guy who asked me where I was from he said, "Are you Japanese?" and I said, "Yes, konnichiwa!" which he thought was pretty funny. And I just had to bust out laughing when one guy asked me "Are you lost?" while I was standing directly in front of the Aya Sofya! I don't think it would be possible to be less lost anywhere in Turkey - it's surely the most famous and recognizable landmark in the country.

Constant questioning aside, I did feel very observed on occasion. More than once when I was wandering around in Istanbul I would suddenly find myself in a bustling street (just beyond a touristy area) that was full of men, with no women at all besides myself. It was disconcerting! I don't recall ever finding myself in that situation in North America or Western Europe. It certainly made me feel like I stuck out. In Ankara, also, I felt like people were paying me more attention than I would have liked. But what can you do? I did try to maintain a low profile in terms of my appearance, but I was clearly not Turkish, and clearly a tourist.

I did run into one scam (um, one scam that I noticed, anyway), at the Nevsehir bus station - as described in many other travelers' reports and in all the guidebooks, people at Nevsehir bus station will try to scam you into taking their taxis and private transfers to Goreme and Urgup, rather than the bus company transfer included with your bus ticket. Be prepared and don't fall for it. Make sure you buy a through bus ticket to your final destination, and if you do have to transfer make sure you find the real transfer bus (it will be the one without a bunch of guys trying to talk you in to taking it!).

Another question people have asked me is "What did you wear?" and "What do women wear in Turkey?" I wore long sleeves with highish necklines most of the time, but this was actually as much for sun protection as it was for modesty (I am of the Pink race). I was traveling light, so I brought one pair of (quick-drying, nylon) trousers and one skirt (likewise a wringable, comfy breathable polyester knit) and some long-sleeve shirts. I also brought a couple of t-shirts (and I didn't feel conspicuous in these, either) and a couple of sweaters (almost completely unnecessary - should have left them home!).

As for what how other women dressed, I saw people wearing just about any old thing you've ever seen on anyone - Western and East Asian tourists in tank tops, shorts, beach caftan coverups, jeans, t-shirts, sundresses, a kameez top from a salwar kameez with no trousers underneath (my personal favorite), and other tourists, pilgrims, and local women in various kinds of Muslim traditional dress from long sleeves and ankle-length skirts right on up to women in niqab/black face veils. All over Turkey I saw lots of women in headscarves and lots of women with bare heads. In Cappadocia I saw lots of women in traditional salvar trousers (I can't find any good pictures but basically they have as much fabric as a skirt and a very low crotch, well below the knee; I wish I'd taken photos but I hate asking people if I can take their photos). I saw lots of women wearing variations on these drop-crotch trousers in Greece and Madrid, and I remember seeing those kinds of trousers on The Sartorialist (a fashion blog). I guess I should have bought some - I'd be tres chic! But I'm not sure tres chic is really the way to go in Boston. We're simple people; frumpy and content to stay that way.

The last thing I should mention is the Turkish language. People didn't speak as much English as I expected; not that I have any right to complain about this, as I am pretty monolingual myself. But I didn't do much to prepare myself at all. I wish I'd at least brought a proper phrasebook, rather than relying on the abbreviated one in the back of the Lonely Planet guide. Turkish mostly just washed right over me. I think by the end of two weeks I knew maybe 15 words of Turkish, five of which I've now forgotten two weeks later (I definitely knew the word for "ten" at one point, but that's gone). My favorite Turkish word was "feribot" which, disappointingly, is just pronounced the like "ferryboat", not like some kind of exotic robotic ferry system.

One consequence of the language barrier was that it could be a bit lonely (constant "Where you from?" and "Are you lost?" queries aside). I only spoke with one or two Turkish women the whole trip; almost all of the women I spoke to were either expats living in Turkey or other tourists/travelers. This was a language thing and a cultural thing - my impression was that at least in the tourist industry the men were more likely to hold the public-facing jobs, and the women were more often working behind the scenes; women don't need to speak English to do these jobs, so they don't know English, and so even when I did interact with the Turkish women working at the hotels and restaurants I visited, we couldn't really talk (though some of them were incredibly friendly).

Anyway, to sum up: There are some dangers and annoyances in Turkey, as in anyplace worth going, but I found them completely manageable and worth it. If you can ignore a charity canvasser or a panhandler, you can ignore a Turkish carpet salesman (and the carpet salesman will be a lot more polite than either the canvasser or the panhandler). Read Turkey Travel Planner and a guidebook or two or three before you go to give you an idea of what to expect. Think through a couple of worst-case scenarios (worst-case scenarios aren't as scary to think about if you're prepared for them). Even if you're uncomfortable in one part of Turkey there's probably someplace else that will be a perfect fit for you (it's a big country, and it offers a diversity of tourism experiences). Solo travel in Turkey can be loads of fun; it's probably not for everyone but it was great for me, and if you think it sounds good, go for it!

Monday, June 15, 2009

More Rhodes

I did eventually venture out of the Old Town in Rhodes, and went to what you might call the Actually Much Older town, i.e. the Acropolis of Rhodes.

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This is the ancient city of Rhodes. There were three other ancient acropolises on the island of Rhodes, but I did not make it out of Rhodes Town, I'm sorry to say. There's also a stadium there:

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Wikipedia says that "acropolis" literally means "city on the edge" (edge in the sense of extremity). I like the idea of a "city on the edge" even if the translation maybe has some layers of meaning that the original version might not. Unsurprisingly, ancient people liked to build their cities up high, where it was easy to defend them. Then the actually living city of Rhodes built up around the acropolis, and the part of the city near the harbor ended up being the more important part.

I also went to several more museums in Rhodes, and I think my favorite was the decorative arts museum. It was all everyday objects like pottery, bedsheets, cabinets, and that sort of thing. It was small, but I really liked the stuff in it. Here's one of my favorite pieces, a jug with a beautiful young lady with a unibrow on it:

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So much of the stuff here was just simple and charming and lovely; I took loads of pictures mostly with the idea of eventually stealing the motifs for as-yet-unconceived-of art and craft projects.

I also took the Wall Walk, which, as you might guess, is a walk around the city walls. This was cool, even though it was raining a little bit (it did not rain much while I was in Turkey and Greece. It was lovely).

Rhodes rooftops:

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When I was up there I noticed loads of solar hot water heaters and satellite dishes, but they're not so obvious in the photos.

I took a Blue Star ferry overnight from Rhodes to Athens. I got a berth in a four-berth cabin - it's cheaper than getting a private cabin, but more comfortable than sitting up all night on the brightly-lit areas above decks! It was a little noisy, but I got a several good hours of sleep and didn't wake up until they played the "coming in to Athens, time to get off the boat" announcement (at six AM, ay-yi-yi).

I then proceeded to leave my iPod on the boat and spend a good hour wandering around Pireas, lost, but the iPod was old and had something wrong with the screen, and eventually some locals took pity on me and dragged me onto a tram that took me to the metro, so all was well. Next entry: Athens!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Goodbye Turkey, Hello Greece

So, yesterday morning I was checking out of my hotel, planning to take the bus to Marmaris and then take the ferry to Rhodes in Greece from there. But when I asked Marie at the hotel if she could help me book the ferry she was like, don't go to Marmaris! You can go via Kastelorizo instead and it will be cheaper and more fun and more comfortable! But you have to leave right this second! So she hurriedly checked me out, got me and my luggage on a scooter down to the harbor for a boat to Kastelorizo, and called to make sure there was indeed a way for me to get from that island to my final destination of Rhodes.

I went on an excursion boat to Kastelorizo, which is an interesting place in a sleepy kind of way. You might say that it's boring, but for interesting reasons.

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Kastellorizo has been occupied by basically any entity that has ever occupied an island in the Mediterranean. It is currently part of Greece, and before wwII it had something like 15,000 residents; after bombings, fires, and assorted other geopolitical difficulties, it currently has a population of about 250. There are a lot of ruined buildings:

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Part of the problem is they can't have such strong ties (trade and otherwise) with the towns on the Turkish mainland as they once did. One interesting consequence of this population loss is that, in order to maintain sovereignty to an island that is actually much closer geographically to Turkey than to any other part of Greece, the Greek government basically pays people to live on Kastelorizo (which is also known in Greek as Megisti, and to Turks as Meis). And it subsidizes travel between Kastelorizo and other Greek islands, which is how I ended up on the afternoon flight to Rhodes (I paid 26 euros for the flight!). Here's the airport*:

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Here's the plane, just landed from Rhodes:

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Here's the baggage claim area:

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Anyway, so we all got on the Olympic Airlines plane (maybe 25 of us) for a 25 minute flight to Rhodes. The flight attendant gave us all drinks and snacks and everything, just as if it were a real flight! Then we landed in Rhodes and picked up our luggage from a real luggage claim.

Now, at this point, because I had not been planning to come to Rhodes for another day, I had no hotel reservation and no real idea of how I was supposed to get from the airport to any place that I would want to stay. A difficulty. I saw a sign for a bus stop and there were some kids waiting at the bus stop and the bus timetable said a bus would be by soon, so I waited for the bus, and took it into Rhodes Town. Then I still had no idea where to go so I wandered for a bit until I found a tourist information office. A nice young man in the tourist office called a pension for me and got me a room, and while we waited for the pension owner to show up to take me to the room he showed me on a map all the places I should go while I was in Rhodes. Given that I had no idea what I was doing at any step in the process, I think it turned out very well!

And Rhodes - I love it! The old town, where I am staying, is just about the most romantic thing I've ever seen (or at least it was at first; I've gotten lost in it several times since and now it seems to be equal parts romantic and irritating). But seriously, it is great:

Winding passageways:
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A laundromat called Hobby of Laundry for some reason:

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Rhodes Old Town is super-touristy - almost all of the businesses are souvenir shops or restaurants (and not particularly good souvenir shops or restaurants, either) - but it's still wonderful. I really like it here. Today I went to a couple of museums, which didn't allow me to take pictures, and then I got lost, stuck in the fortifications of the city:

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I walked three-quarters of the way around the city stuck between those two walls.

Anyway, tomorrow a lot of museums and things are closed so I think I'm going to do some open-air activities, and maybe even go to the beach!

*I think Kastelorizo airport is smaller than Beverly Municipal Airport, the airport in my backyard growing up; Beverly has three runways, and Kastelorizo only has the one.


I took the bus to Kas, which is kind of a long trip from Selcuk (that's why I spent the extra day in Selcuk, because I couldn't quite bring myself to spend another 7 hours on the bus after just getting in).

The bus was smaller than the one I took to Cappadocia from Ankara, but also less full, so it was more comfortable in the end. I had to take one bus to Fethiye, then change for another one to Kas; it was supposed to be about five hours to Fethiye and then another two-plus hours to Kas. It ended up taking even longer, though - our bus needed maintenance halfway through our journey so we had to sit around at a highway rest area for an hour and a half. Fortunately there were some companionable people on the bus - a Canadian family with two tween/teen kids who had been travelling for almost a year and were getting ready to go home, and a nice English couple. So we hung out and got to know each other a bit, though I've now forgotten all of their names. Alas. Here's the rest stop:

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Anyway, the bus change went smoothly, and I decided to just walk to my hotel from the bus station because it seemed pretty close, and I only got a little bit lost, and the hotel was lovely, with a beautiful terrace and excellent breakfasts and BBQ dinners. I really love Turkish food. So simple, and so tasty. And the vegetables are so good - so fresh and delicious! The tomatoes in Turkey have me really excited for July and August in New England. Tomato time! I don't seem to have any photos of the hotel or the hotel terrace, which is too bad because it was a lovely place and I hung out there a lot; met some nice people there, too, not least the hotel staff who were all 100% charming.

My first day in Kas I went for a walk to Liman Agzi, which is a beach that's only accessible by water or by walking. I had a little guidebook to show me the way but it was actually very well waymarked because this is a very popular hike. On my way there I got invited in for tea by a woman who then asked me to ask my family to help support her mentally disabled son, and gave me gifts to encourage me to do so. Which was kind of uncomfortable and embarassing, but oh well! She was very nice.

Anyhow, the beach was beautiful:

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And then on the hike back you pass some Lycian tombs:

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The Lycians were a mysterious people who lived in the southeastern part of Turkey and buried people in these cliff tombs, dug into cliff faces with sort of shelves for the bodies to lay on. They also built sarcophagi once the cliff tomb fad passed, and these are all over the place in this part of Turkey. I went on a kayak trip and saw some in the water:

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The kayak trip was great. First we went to a nice little beach for swimming:

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Then we went on to paddle near the sunken city of Kekova, a Lycian city that got dumped into the ocean by an earthquake hundreds and hundreds of years ago. I don't have any pictures from when we're paddling because I'm scared to get my camera wet.

I spent four days and five nights in Kas; I think one of those days I just kind of pootled around, shopped for souvenirs, went to see the Antiphellos ruins (a Greek amphitheater right around the corner from my hotel):

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I went for another hike on my last full day in Kas, which was a bit disastrous - I tried to follow another hike from the same book as the first one, but the land seemed to bear no relationship to the directions in the book. So, like an idiot, rather than just turn around and go back, I decided to try and cut across to another path that I knew was probably not far away. It wasn't all that far away, but I ended up hacking my way through pricker bushes and scrambling down rocks, and scratched up my arms and ripped a hole in my trousers. I had my mobile phone and a whistle and things like that if I had really been seriously lost, but it was stupid to put myself in that situation in the first place and I'm embarassed that I did it - you would think I would have learned something in Girl Scouts, backpacking class, etc., but apparently not. But no harm done, except to the trousers. When I did eventually rejoin the path, I followed it back to Liman Agzi, and this time I took the taxi boat back (even though it was an exorbitant 10 TL!).

Next post: My precipitous departure from Kas!


OK, so my last post was about Cappadocia and how wonderful it was to take a balloon ride there! Which still stands, but apparently the other day one of the longest and best-established balloon companies in Cappadocia, Kapadokya Balloons, had a fatal accident. There were two balloons involved (not clear if they were both from the same company or what) and the basket on the upper balloon tore the lower balloon, which then fell several hundred meters. A British tourist was killed. How awful, and how scary. I am selfishly glad this happened after I took my balloon ride, otherwise I might have talked myself out of doing it. I hope the Turkish equivalent of the FAA or whoever is in charge of something like this gets to the bottom of it and figures out a way to prevent anything like it from happening in the future (just as a wild guess I wonder if 45 balloons aloft in an area only a few kilometers square all in one hour may be too many; maybe they need to spread out more, or send up fewer balloons, or something. But I'm no balloonologist).

Anyway, after Cappadocia, I flew to Selcuk (in a plane, not a balloon). I ended up spending three nights there, which was one night too many. For me, there was really only one day worth of stuff to do in Selcuk - the ancient city of Ephesus, the ruined Temple of Artemis, the Ephesus Museum and the ruined St. John Basilica all fit handily into one day for me, and then I just sat around and did nothing the second day. I thought on the second day maybe I would go to the beach or take the bus to a nearby village that is supposed to be cute, but I couldn't quite delazify myself so I just hung around Selcuk and read. Which, really, there are worse things I could do with my time. It was nice.

Anyways, Ephesus! The best-preserved classical city in Turkey, and one of the best-preserved classical cities anywhere; you may remember Ephesus from such holy books as the Letter to the Ephesians - this is who St. Paul was writing to. Ephesus was a prosperous port town with a population of 250,000 in its heyday and became the capitol of the Roman province of Asia Minor. However, the river on which the port was located changed course, the port dried up, and so did Ephesus. Here's what it looks like today:

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Still very busy as you see! There were thousands and thousands of people at Selcuk when I went. I went right in the middle of the day, against the advice of the guidebooks, and it was as hot and crowded as the guidebooks said. All that white stone reflects the light something fierce - it reminded me of being in Washington, DC a little bit, in that there were tourists and white marble everywhere. Some of the tourists come on cruise ships that dock at nearby Kusadasi, some come from Selcuk where I stayed, some come from further afield. It all adds up, apparently, because there were loads of people there.

Here's the library, which I am contractually obligated to take a particular interest in:

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They stored thousands of scrolls there - seems like that would be even more of a hassle than storing books, and storing books is hard enough! But I guess books hadn't been invented yet? I should look it up.

Anyway, part of the reason Ephesus was so important was that it was a center for the worship of Cybele/Artemis/Diana/whatever other names she went by. Here is what's left of her temple, which was once one of the Seven Wonders of the World:

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Just one column left out of, I believe, 127 original columns (note the stork nest on top of the column). There are also some foundation pool deals.

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The Ephesus Museum was pretty nice - It's mostly stuff that has been recovered from digs at or near the city - statues, parts of statues, etc.:

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My favorite was the pipes, though:

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I love ancient technology!

Then I went to the Basilica of St. John, where John, the author of the eponymous Gospel, is supposed to be buried. There's pretty good evidence, as I understand it, that John did in fact spend time in and around Ephesus; the Virgin Mary is also legendarily said to have come to Ephesus to spend her last days but that's less well backed-up as I understand it. Ephesus was an important early Christian site (as you might guess from the Letters), and this basilica was built by Justinian, who also had the Aya Sofya built, over a fourth-century tomb that supposedly held John's body (what John, a contemporary of Jesus, would be doing in a fourth-century tomb is not explained).

It's a very lovely place, though:

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It's located right up at the top of a hill and gets nice breezes. It was basically completely ruined but has been extensively restored. I especially liked the cross-shaped walk-in baptismal font:

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Anyway, as I say, I spent the next day pootling around the pension where I was staying and sitting in parks reading books. It was nice and vacationy, but I really rather would have spent that day in Cappadocia, where I'd come from, or Kas, where I was headed to. Next entry: Kas!