Saturday, September 28, 2013


I try to stay positive in this blog, find the good parts of everywhere I visit and not dwell on the negative.  Every place has negative aspects (except Tavarua, I think). However, the experience with the dog at Lake Bafa got me focused on the problem of homeless animals in Turkey.  In the Cihangir district of Istanbul (where our hotel is) it seems to have gotten much worse in the 2 years since we rented flat here. There are 11.5 million people in Istanbul and an estimated 150,000 homeless dogs. Probably 10 times as many cats. Turks have a different attitude than that of Americans and Europeans about the animals, which is hard for us to understand and to see when we visit. It's become particularly hard for me, and I feel like I am retreating from a country I used to love to visit - I ranked it in my top 2 countries in the world. But now I don't know if I'll be coming back. I  just can't stand to see indifference to suffering (one reason I won't be going back to India), even if it is the cultural norm.

So farewell Turkey, and farewell Istanbul, with your opulent palaces and dazzling mosques. I hope someday that the European side catches you up.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Food Geeks

As some of you know, today is my birthday and I chose to spend it in Istanbul, like I did 2 years ago. A huge part of the draw here is the eating - just amazing Turkish food.  We signed up for a private food tour with Tuba Satana, a food writer, to get some inside information on Turkish food since we both love to cook it on our own, as well as as eat it in Turkey. 
 First we went to the sweets shop and Tuba explained the traditions surrounding sweets. We tasted some amazing lokum (Turkish Delight), made with fresh pistachios, rose petals and dried pomegranate seeds. We loaded up and then went to the fish market to see the local catch. The red gills are turned out to show how fresh they are (the gills should always be red. If they aren't, the fish is not fresh).

Next up was the offal butcher (think organs, tripe, sheep heads) and then the spice shop, where I loaded up on all kinds of special Turkish spices I use at home, extremely fresh and a fraction of the price they would be in California (if you could even find them).

Next was the pickle shop, where we sampled pickled plums, cranberries, beans and carrots, as well as the usual cucumber. Pickling has a long tradition in Turkey, and people drink the pickle juice as a refreshment on a hot summer day. Really!
Lamacun is a kind of flat bread with a very crispy crust, baked in a wood fired oven. Tuba took us to the best place for lamacun in town, where it has been made for generations for a pre-lunch snack. Delicious!

Finally it was to Ciya for a lunch of Anatolian specialties. There were so many dishes we had never tried before, we went crazy trying everything and were so stuffed, we could barely drink our zahtar (thyme) tea.
Tuba was great and taught us so much about food and culture here. It just made me appreciate it that much more!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Two Sides of Turkey

In one day we went from one extreme in Western Turkey to another. We left the simple dairy farms and fishermen and our simple pension in Lake Bafa and drove south 2 1/2 hours back to Marmaris so we could drop off the car. We hadn't planned well - at Efes we were half way to Istanbul and could have gone on if we hadn't had the car, but the roads are good and the driving easy. From Marmaris we took the bus 1 1/2 hours to the airport at Dalaman and caught our flight to Istanbul. From there we got our stuff on the Metro, then to the tram across Istanbul to the neighborhood of Cihangir. I've got about 25 pounds of carpets plus my regular bag and our hotel was straight up a very steep hill. I am not feeble normally but by that time, pulling 50+ pounds up a steep cobbled hill had me doubled over. 
We were rewarded with a lovely 4th floor suite in the stylish Witt Hotel, with a view back to the old town. The Suleymaniye Mosque (the largest in Istanbul) and the Galata Tower were lit up and provided a stunning night view. This is the modern, luxurious and stylish side of Turkey, a world away from Lake Bafa.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Efes (Ephesus)

This morning (Wednesday), we joined the hordes of tour groups descending on Ephesus (that's the Greek name; the Turks call it Efes, which is the name of the major beer here). The site is significant in that it had been used continuously from the 10th century B.C. (Yes, B.C.!), and today the town of Selcuk continues as part of the overall settlement. It is the largest set of Roman ruins (with some later Byzantine mixed in) in all of Europe, and it takes hours to see all of it with just a cursory review.
 Such an extensive set of ruins is a lot to take in, so I was ready for something different. Helena obliged me, and we set off the beaten track for a village on the eastern shore of Lake Bafa. There are cave paintings in the area from Neolithic times, as well as Roman and Byzantine ruins. We didn't have time to see much, so we opted for a walk along the lakeshore among farms and massive granite boulders. A local dog befriended us and accompanied us on our walk. He listened to us and answered commands (from Helena, on Turkish). We later learned that his owner died and he has no one. It broke my heart but what can I do here as a tourist for a period of 15 hours? We gave him food, but I really wish I could bring him home. 
Above photo: Helena pulls water from an ancient well, still being used. Dog friend waits for a drink.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


We arrived mid-afternoon in Selcuk, a mid size provincial town in western Turkey, which is the base for exploring Ephesus. For the number of tourists the town sees, it is surprisingly normal, with reasonable prices by Turkish standards, and is quite laid back.  On the way to look for dondurma (Turkish ice cream which is kind of chewy), we were enticed into a carpet shop by the owner's unique Van cat (from the Lake Van area). If you have read my previous posts about traveling in Turkey with my sister, you know she is a cat lover to the extreme, so we had to go in.
We ended up spending most of the afternoon in the peaceful quiet of the carpet shop, chatting with the owner, drinking glasses of tea, and playing with the cat. I ended up with yet another carpet (the photos are from the ones I bought in Cappadocia) - green ones, which are hard to find here in Turkey, surprisingly.
Like other Middle Eastern countries, Turkey has a long carpet making tradition, with different regions making unique designs and patterns, so there are endless possibilities (but little green!).  No trip to Turkey is complete without a trip to the carpet seller... The trick is finding one with nice things and an honest owner (easier outside of Istanbul).

On the Road

Goodbye Sogut! Tuesday morning we caught the 8:30 dolmus to Marmaris (ugh) where we picked up a rent a car for a little road trip, something Helena and I have done on my 3 previous trips to Turkey. The car is cheap - only $30 per day including insurance, but gas is incredibly expensive. It was $100 to fill the tank of our little Fiat! The bus is cheap as an alternative, but you need a lot of time, which we don't have.
As with previous days, the morning was full of wind, putting a good chop on the sea. There was definitely a change of weather with the change of seasons and it was a good time to leave (although Helena will be going back when I go home). 
There is something to be said for village life - fresh baked bread from a brick oven in the court yard of a simple stone house, fresh pine honey from local bees, home made yogurt and fresh milk from the cows out back that graze on wild thyme, oregano and sage...maybe in another lifetime.
For now, it's on to Selcuk and Ephesus, the most significant set of ruins in Turkey, and the largest Roamn ruins in all of Europe.

Wind, Wind and Wind

For several days, the wind blew onshore in our little hamlet, cooling things off significantly, but making a mess of the sea. We ended up walking again - frying ourselves in the midday heat since the ocean was too messy to swim.  At the end of one walk we happened upon a fisherman coming in with a modest catch, and bought one of his fish ($5). Talk about fresh! We took it immediately to Mehmet's, a quayside restaurant and had it cooked for us.  A lovely fish lunch with salad, stuffed squash blossoms and housemade bread for nothing at all.
That was my last day in Sogut. Not as water time as I had hoped due to the unrelenting wind, but a lovely warm time nonetheless.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Back in Time

Today was typical, a swim, a walk... somewhere out of time, the other side of the world. On our walk Helena casually pointed out the cows responsible for the yogurt we have been eating for the last 2 days; a local lady makes it from her own cows' milk and sells it at the market. Talk about farm to table! Turkey has always been farm to table, locavore eating. Fig trees overgrow in every nook and cranny, grape arbors shade every terrace and grow like weeds onto power lines, and wild herbs like thyme, oregano and bay leaf fill the roadside with their scents. Gardens everywhere overflowing with eggplant and peppers this time of year.

We have been eating in, as Helena is an excellent cook, and excels at Turkish cuisine. But at the end of our long walk we were famished and I have bee itching for seafood so we tried the only open place in town for some fresh calamari stuffed with seafood and cheese, and some local marinated hamsi (anchovies). They were something of a cross between the pickled herring of Scandinavia and the raw mackerel we get at sushi. Very good and healthy but something I will not need to eat every day!

Accompanying us on our walk was Moka, a rescued hunting dog who had been abandoned by her owners, and who now lives next door. She has heaps of energy, even in the heat, and even considering that she was up all night carousing on the beach in the full moon light with some local dog friends. She loves to watch the fish in the sea, and the aquarium-like view next to our table kept her busy at lunch.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Akdeniz At Last

Akdeniz is the name in Turkish for the Mediterranean Sea. I can't believe it's been so long since I was here as I feel such a draw to it and the traditional way of life of the people living on its shore. I felt it in Spain too, but not as much of the "ancient-ness" that I feel in Turkey.
The trip from Cappadocia - which is very much in the center of Turkey - to the small town of Sogut on the southwest coast where my sister is living for 2 months took nearly a whole day. An hour to the airport in the morning, a flight to Istanbul changing to a flight to Dalaman, a bus to Marmaris, and an hour and a half of winding road on a dolmus (minibus) to this small seaside town. Helena met me in Marmaris, where there are supermarkets, which was lucky because finding the dolmus and her flat would have been nigh impossible in my still jet lagged exhaustion.
Marmaris is a package tourist town where Europeans come to lay on the beach during the day and party at night, and it lacks the soul of real Turkey. We couldn't get out of there fast enough! There are pensions in Sogut and some tourists, but no bars or discos. It's blessedly quiet. I'm here for a week and we may or may not go anywhere else. Swimming in the sea and reading quietly seem like enough.

Balloons Over Cappadocia

On Tuesday morning I did the popular thing in Cappadocia: a hot air balloon ride at dawn. It's an amazing way to see the geologic formations as we went at eye level to ancient caves through poplar strewn valleys, and then soared high above the plain where we could see the larger effects of the erosion since the ancient volcanic eruptions.  I wasn't as freaked out as I thought I would be (being generally afraid of heights) - so long as I did not look straight down.  Our pilot was an Englishman who has set the standard for ballooning in the area - perhaps that's why I felt okay dangling beneath a balloon 3,000 + feet in the air.
After that it was a visit to the Open Air Museum, a cordoned off series of caves that had been used as Christian churches during the times Christians were facing persecution. Amazingly, 1,000 year old frescoes depicting Jesus' life have remained vividly red, blue and ochre in a number of the caves. Also a very popular thing to do in Cappadocia, I dodged tour groups and crowds and felt lucky when light rain drove people away. I didn't mind being a bit wet if it meant not being crammed in a cave with a bunch of strangers.  After that I took in the local hamam before doing a bit of shopping for local lokum (Turkish Delight) made with honey and/or grape molasses (a natural sweetener special to this area) and no sugar. I also bought a kilo of roasted pumpkin seeds, freshly harvested from local fields this time of year. Apparently they are very high in zinc, but are also a very tasty snack. 
 I took myself to dinner again at Seten Restaurant - the best in town I reckon, where a full meal 3 course meal runs less than $20 (high for Turkey but worth it!) 
 2 days in Cappadocia was enough for me, and I was on to the coast to meet my sister.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Almost Ruined

My initial side trip has taken me to Cappadocia, a large archeological area in Central Turkey known for its cave dwellings and underground cities. The various rock formations were created by ancient eruptions of 3 massive volcanoes covering areas of snow and water. 

The Hittites first came here 4,000 years ago and carved out underground cities from the porous ash-rock. The claustrophobia-inducing caverns and passageways were used only to hide from Arab invaders, and were later used by Christians hiding from Roman persecution.  

The area has been occupied continuously since 2,000 B.C. with the last people leaving the above-ground cave houses in the 1950's. Some of the old cave houses have now been turned into luxe hotels, and I booked myself into a cave room for a night. It's, well a cave, and it's a bit chilly even on warm summer days. Cappadocia is more than 3,000 feet above sea level, so it's decidedly cooler here than Istanbul. Somewhat unexpected!

I'm jet lagged despite my best efforts, and looking forward to a cozy cave sleep tonight under a pile of blankets.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hello Beautiful!

Is there a city more picturesque than Istanbul? My flight arrived at 5 p.m. and I just had time to get to my hotel and to the rooftop terrace (a common feature here) in time for the standard amazing sunset. The last time I was here was December 2011 and it was too cold for rooftop terraces. September is the best month to visit. As my sister texted me when she came through 2 weeks ago, the weather is Perfect with a capital P.
The only downside is the heaps of tourists, but it's my fault that I chose to stay in Sultanhamet, which is tourist central. I'm here only tonight and I leave at 7 a.m. for Cappadocia, so I thought I would grin and bear it to be close to good food and good hamams (Turkish baths).
We will be back at the end of the month for a few days and I can already see that it won't be enough time. Must come back again. Darn.


Monday, July 8, 2013

The Blue Lagoon

For our last day, we stopped at the Blue Lagoon geothermal pools on our way to the airport. It has nothing to do with the cheesy movie from the 80's! It is large pool filled with silica rich water runoff for a geothermal plant, turned into a commercial soaking pool and spa. The silica is supposed to be very good for your skin, and they sell all kinds of products made from it. While it was full of tourists (this being prime tourist season), our guides said that locals do go, especially in winter. 
It was a sad round of goodbyes to our guides and the rest of the group. I do hope that some of us keep in touch. I'll be organizing my best photos for everyone as I became the de facto "trip photographer" - the only one with a DSLR camera. I regret not having some kind of waterproof option on this trip. I was worried about my rented wide angle lens during all the rain. 
I hope to come back to Iceland one day, probably in the winter, to look for the Northern Lights and see a bit more of the country. We all lamented not having just a few more days...

Icelandic Guides

Other than the first 3 days of the trip, my time in Iceland was organized by Mt. Travel Sobek, a travel company from the Bay Area. They hired Icelandic Mountain Guides, the  company for which Helgi and Dagny both work. Through them, the 12 people in our group learned heaps about Iceland and Icelandic life, both past and present. Not only did they play for us Icelandic music new and old, Dagny read from the sagas for us to pass the time on long drives. They endured endless questions from our group on everything from the migration patterns of puffins to best place to buy traditional Icelandic knitting. They procured some fermented shark for us to try - a specialty of Iceland (I couldn't do it), and kept adding exciting surprises to our itinerary. They cooked for us, dressed our blisters, and as noted in a prior post, Helgi even rescued Debra on her slide down one of our many mountains. And they had faith in us; to climb mountains and endure freezing cold and rain, to wade streams and to recover and do it again the next day. Many thanks to them for making our trip so special!
Below photo: Dagny and Helgi making us French toast for us at one of the huts.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fire and Ice

Today we drove the rest of the south coast back to Reykjavik, stopping at another waterfall on the way (there are a lot in this country of melting ice!).
The south part of the Ring Road skirts the glaciers and the famous Eyjafjallajokull volcano that erupted in 2010 and wreaked havoc with European air traffic. Icelanders live with active volcanoes, and the threat of eruptions is constant. Because the volcanoes are mostly covered with ice, in an eruption the magma causes a huge meltdown of ice, resulting in a glacial flood. There are evacuation plans all over the country, and in 1986, the Westman Islands off the south coast evacuated all 2,000 people with their fishing fleet in time to avoid the flood. This is truly the land of fire and ice.
Another unique thing about the country is the moss covered lava fields. The one below is from an eruption over 1,000 years ago. I couldn't get great photos in the rain, but hope you can see how it makes for a fairyland landscape (although my guide says no fairies, only trolls and elves). 
Tonight we have a farewell dinner even though tomorrow there is one last adventure before our flights home. I'll try to write more about the people on the trip with some farewell photos. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013


We awoke to more rain. Quelle surprise! And 30 mph winds.  Unfortunately, this meant our glacier walk was canceled, but we still took a boat ride in the glacial lagoon for Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Europe. The water was so choppy and the wind so strong we ended up drenched and I got no photos since I dared not take out my camera. After another brisk picnic lunch, we took a hike around another glacial tongue of Vatnajokull, this one where both Game of Thrones and Batman Begins were filmed. We drove to the foot of the tongue after, and I was able to get some nice photos. 
The drive on the town of Vik took us through the largest lava field in Iceland: black lava lumps covered by green moss ... It's like another world. Tomorrow we are back to Reykjavik where we expect... More rain of course. 
I think I am beginning to believe in elves myself ...

Waterslides and Rain

Yesterday we hiked to the second highest waterfall in Iceland, a lung busting 60 minute uphill slog, followed by a 30 minute downhill run. We drove from there along the south eastern coast to Hofn, stopping at Djupivogur, an historic trading town that is now another fishing village. After a stroll through town and a warming coffee we headed to the hot pools. These are public swimming pools and hot tubs heated to varying degrees of hotness by geothermal energy, with waterslides and kiddie pools. The local kids were out running around even though it was 50 degrees and raining! Our group finally succumbed and took to the waterslides too, laughing hysterically in the rain. I ended up a little bruised from hitting the slides, but it was still a lot of fun.

Black Sand

After driving south from Borgafjordur, we landed in the biggest forest in Iceland (I was wrong - there are trees, but they have all been planted). We stayed in a very nice hotel but the power went out early so no wifi! I would have written about our 5 hour walk through fog and freezing rain, ending by a glacial river with banks of black sand. It was the coldest day so far- the onset of July has not made it warmer here! We hiked down to the beach, a stunning setting straight out of Jurassic Park. I am beginning to see how the Icelanders believe in elves. 
We also visited a puffin colony - they are so cute, it's hard to believe they are a regular menu item, but with 18 million pairs of them in the country, I suppose I could understand.
We have 2 guides on this trip: Helgi and Dagny, both supremely qualified native Icelanders. They have been taking great care of us, but for the 4th of July they treated us to cake and coffee (their equivalent of the BBQ) at a farm cafe run by Helgi's family for 4 generations. We had homemade black currant Skyr cake and toured the barn where the cows were in for their twice a day milking. We were all stunned to see the cows take themselves into the stall with the robotic milking machine, patiently waiting in line for their turn. No humans involved. They seemed very content, as have all the animals here. Happy cows, sheep and horses. 
It's raining again. I'll write tomorrow about our day today - rain and waterslides.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Little Green Houses

The wilderness huts were actually very cozy, with a sleeping loft for hikers and a downstairs room for the guides, a full kitchen, and outdoor flush toilets. They are maintained by volunteers, who spend a week in isolation at the outposts. 
Finally, last night, we arrived at a small fishing village of 125 people and are staying in a guesthouse that was a former fish factory. The village people still fish cod here, in small boats by hand, and we were treated to fresh cod for dinner, caught the same day. So wonderful! It will probably be the only time in my life I will have fresh cod straight out of the sea like that as cod is nearly extinct in most parts of the world (I am reading Cod: the Biography of the Fish that Changed the World). Iceland is the one place that stopped overfishing cod before it was too late and now the fishery is quite healthy. 
The guesthouse was very cozy, and we enjoyed real beds and real bathrooms for the first time in 4 days. Today is our last big hike, then it's only 1-2 hour hikes each day as we make our way back to Reykjavik.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Out of the Wilderness

On Saturday night Wendy and I met our group and were off Sunday morning like a flash! First we flew to the Far East of the country on a quick Air Iceland flight. After loading up on 4 days of provisions, we started hiking to the first hut. A hired driver in a 4 wheel drive truck with trailer took our bags and the provisions ahead  - slow going over rocks and gravel, and we hiked over on a trail/ sheep track instead of going around via the road. Very steep and very pretty!
A funny goose followed us halfway up the first hill, then flew up to keep us company. What a welcome to the Eastern Fjords!
There are no trees in Iceland. It is believed that there were forests at the time of The Settlement, but the Vikings cut them all down for ships, houses and firewood. Now, all the green you see is moss, bilberries, and other small shrubs.
For 4 days we hiked, staying in wilderness huts ( no electricity or phone, access only by high clearance 4 wheel drive) - no contact with the outside world! The hiking was the hardest I've ever done, and our group (aged 19 to 69) was incredible. I can't believe some of the scrambles up scree slopes we did! 
We also hit a a lot of snow, and on the way down one slope that was worth of a snowboard, one lady slid and was on her way quickly down the mountain when our guide Helgi sprang into action and launched a full scale intervention! You can see his bounds in the snow on the left.
Sorry the photos are so weird on the posts. I am doing everything from my iPad and I haven't figured it out yet. More tomorrow on our last 4 days.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

66 Degrees North

66 Degrees north is what Iceland's latitude is on the globe, and there is an outdoor clothing line with that name. They certainly know cold here and how to dress for it. But I am pleased with all the merino wool from NZ I brought with me, and haven't had to invest in any of their non-merino, itchy variety. 

Today Wendy and I went whale watching just outside of Reykjavik. We didn't have to go too far before we came upon a bunch of minke whales, which we followed around for 2 hours. We bundled up in the provided red jumpsuits, which kept us toasty in the 40 degree weather ( at least it didn't rain). After the yellow rain suits of yesterday, the the red jumpsuits felt downright stylish. 

Minke whales come only in the summer, spending their summers in the balmy waters off West Africa. Unfortunately, some Icelanders started whaling a few years ago even though only about 5% of the population consumes whale meat. The rest is served to tourists. If the demand from tourists goes away, they won't be motivated to kill the whales. It's not a tradition or a traditional food in Iceland, like in some countries. So if you come to Iceland, don't eat whale meat! Go watch them in the wild, it's much more satisfying.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Of Horses and Women

Of Monsters and Men, the band that is all over the radio, is from Iceland. who knew??

But for us today it was about the Icelandic horses. The breed was originally brought with the Vikings from Norway around 870 A.D., and in the 10th century the country banned any further importation of horses, a ban that continues to this day. They don't vaccinate the horses, and the horses suffer from no diseases. They want to keep it that way. So much so that horses that leave Iceland for competitions cannot return.

The horses are on the small side, it not as small as ponies, and have a uniformly even temperament. The thing they are known for is their special gaits: the "flying gait" and the "tolt," a super smooth gait as fast a trot where only one hoof at a time leaves the ground. In the flying gait, all 4 hooves are off at once! The horses are not taught this, they just do it, and there are competitions just for these special gaits (some people breed Icelandic horses in other countries too). The tolt is so smooth you can carry a full glass of water ( or ale or champagne) without spilling a drop.

I loved the horses!
My horse, Gaurkur, kept nuzzling me while I tried to take photos. It was love at first sight!

Apparently there are also Icelandic sheepdogs to help with the herding - they look a lot like Shetland sheepdogs - but I haven't seen any yet. Sheep here outnumber people 4 to 1, so I suppose the people need all the help they can get! 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Far Reaches

I landed to grey drizzle and chilly wind in Reykjavik, Iceland. The terrain felt oddly famliar, with touches of Patagonia and Alaska coming to mind...other places that have harsh climates and few people. I also felt a bit of New Zealand in the apparent love of corrugated tin as a building material. 

A forty minute bus ride from the airport took us over a crumbly black lava landscape, marked by patches of purple lupine flowers, with the icy blue-grey of the North Atlantic Ocean a constant presence on the left.

I hadn't had much sleep on the plane as it was only 6 hours and 50 minutes flying between Denver and Reykjavik. It was in the mid-nineties in Denver and the airline informed us that some of us would be missing our bags when we landed since they had to off load luggage due to the heat. No one knew if they were going to be one of the unlucky ones. Fortunately, my bag arrived with me, and I was able to tap into my cold weather gear (hat gloves, raincoat), since it is absolutely freezing here! says 46 degrees but "feels like" 40. 

I ducked into the Phallogical Museum, which is conveniently right next to our hotel.  Lots of jars of formaldehyde with penises from every mammal in Iceland, including the whales (and one human). I didn't take any photos, being a bit queasy already from the travel, the sight of all the dead members just really put me off! I did snap this photo of the very phallic Hallgrimskirkja church, remarkable that it took more than 50 years to build as it was done by one man and his son. 

I'm now resting up and waiting for my friend Wendy to arrive from London. She should be fresh since its the same time zone and only a 3 hour flight.