More Than Just a Bed

The stories that travelers tell non-travelers (or at least those not currently traveling) involve the things that have been seen and done in a place: hiking to old Venician mills, visiting hillside tropical monasteries, exploring beachside caves, or watching amazing sunsets. The stories that pass between travelers on the road, however, sometimes skew a little bit more towards the ordinary and mundane, about the little aspects of everyday life that make can make a huge difference. Among them is where to sleep.

Most of the time, any old bed will do. I've stayed in hostels were there is a bare bulb on the ceiling, 12 sweaty men packed in a room, and hospitality offered as though it were gold (i.e. not readily). But that's okay. I sleep, perhaps change clothes, and then head back out looking for adventure. But every now and again, finding a place to stay that is more than just a bed is a very welcome change. I found one of those places in the Youth Hostel Plakias on the southern coast of Crete.

Comfortable rooms, super friendly staff, wonderful atmosphere, cheap prices, and enjoyable fellow travelers doesn't even begin to cover it at YHP. For me, it was a place to recharge, decompress, and get some much needed things done. My days spent sitting around telling jokes, drinking hot chocolate*, juggling the fallen lemons from the tree in the yard were as enjoyable or more so than the ones out visiting ancient ruins or doggedly seeking out the some attraction or another.

While part of me feels like I could stay at a place like this for weeks and weeks*, I know that I need to keep that all important balance. There are more islands to explore, more attractions to visit, and more culture to gobble up. So, somewhat reluctantly, I leave Chris and YHP behind and head north. And while I know there will be many cold dank rooms ahead, I trust there will be places that are more than just a bed as well.
Wednesday April 20 2011File under: travel, Greece

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Historical Context

One must keep in mind, when visiting ruins, historical context. For me, this became quite apparent when I visited the premiere example of Minoan ruins, the must-see attraction on Crete, the Palace of Knossos. After reading up on it and hearing it talked up to me, to say that I was underwhelmed initially would be an understatement. It just looked like a pile of rocks. There are better ruins across the street from my hostel*.

But then I started reading the signs. Dates like 1900 B.C. and 1700 B.C. kept jumping out at me. That's old! And then I started thinking no wonder they don't compare to the ruins I saw at Ephesus, Heroplis, or Olympos. They were built over 1500 years before those places!

For me, impressive architecture is what I like in my ruins. Big and fancy things, like temples that dwarf everything around (like Tikal) or intricate carvings (like Angkor), are what make a set of ruins worth visiting for me. But this time around, I gained an appreciation for the other side of ruins, the contextual side. To realize that people lived in the houses that these foundations once held almost 4000 years ago is impressive in its own way. And while maybe there aren't the glossy brochure photo opportunities, I got off a decent shot or two.
Sunday April 17 2011File under: travel, Greece


Narrow Rhodes

There are a lot of things to like about Rhodes, Greece. The guidebook talks about museums and all sorts of historical buildings/ruins. My sister touts the beaches and island kitties. For me, while all these things are nice, it's no comparison. My favorite thing about Rhodes, that which kept me happily occupied for hours upon hours was the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways.

At first glance, they often look like private pathways leading to someone's out of the way front door. But through a little exploration, I learned that that's the way the city is made, a reminder that, as an American I tend to forget, cities weren't always designed w/ streets to accommodate 2 lanes of vehicular traffic.

While it is primarily pedestrians that ply this meander maze, even the narrowest paths are traversed by the ever ubiquitous scooters. The wider "roads" even allow for the occasional precisely driven mini-car. With little in the way of obvious organization, this leads to impasses which are only resolved by some skillful reversing.

But for the most part, it is walkers that rule these relics of a simpler time. When tourist season hits in a couple months, I imagine the gauge could become an issue. As for now, it's down right beautiful.
Friday April 15 2011File under: travel, Greece

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Turkish Geocaches

Either I've been spectacularly lucky in choosing which geocaches to hunt for here in Turkey, or the overall quality of Turkish caches is far above average. Of the five I've found, one maybe two, have been average or below (compared to maybe 50/50 or worse in the States.)

Just to share a couple of the best ones, outside Selcuk I found my way to the top of a hill looking over the ruins of Ephesus (pictured at left). Here in Olympos, I was led far into the jungle to hunt among overgrown ruins.

But possible my favorite cache of all times led me to a grotto/sea cave that was a good long hike off the beaten path. To get down into the cave/grotto, you had to either shimmy down an often narrow opening or wade through chest deep Mediterranean water. On the first attempt, we looked around for over an hour (both searching for the cache and generally marveling at the awesomeness of the spot) until giving up. Then, with additional hints from the cache owner, I went back solo the next day and found it right away.

All of these caches, even the not-so-stellar ones, have served a very important purpose in my travels, a purpose that I place high on the list of what geocaching is good for, namely to explore places that you might not have otherwise explored, esp. really great, lesser-known places. As a solo traveler who sometimes finds it hard to get out and see another set of ruins or museum that the Book says I simply must not miss, geocaching is a welcome diversion.
Wednesday April 13 2011File under: Turkey, geocaching


Mission Accomplished

When I started telling people that I was going to Turkey, I got lots of requests. "Take lots of pictures!" or "Send me a postcard!" But one request was so specific and awesome, although it took me quite a bit out of my way, I was happy to accomplish it.

"Think my name at a Sufi grave" was the request that my friend tasked me with. At first, I thought it would be no problem. Graveyards are everywhere and one of them was bound to have a Sufi grave. In asking around, however, I found that wasn't the case. I guess Sufis aren't so accepted or something. Anyway, when I reported back, I was told to "pull out all stops and head straight for Konya where the shrine of Rumi is".

So that's exactly what I did. I got there just before it closed but had enough time to complete the mission, and even gain an appreciation for something I would have never otherwise visited. And I get to tell my friend back home "mission accomplished!"
Saturday April 9 2011File under: travel, Turkey

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Market Day

I've always been a big fan of farmers' markets back in the states. (I've even posted about them a time or two.) But stateside markets don't hold a candle to the markets of small town Turkey.

I've passed through 2 little towns on their market day this past week, and have enjoyed the spread (and the excitement and energy) each time. This time, I'm in Egirdir, a neat little town situated on a head of land sticking out into a great lake surround by mountains. The market pretty much takes over "downtown", closing off streets and making it the going slow to get to and from the fresh fruit juice stand.

But unlike in the U.S., these markets sell more than food. Besides the tables upon tables of fresh fruits and veggies, dried fruit and nuts, mountains of olives, and fresh cheeses, there are tables of bedroom slippers, miniature padlocks, hair ties, bras, and so much more. It's kind off like an outdoor mall, but with elaborate put up and take down procecdures.

Today, I bought a carrot, cucumber, fresh cheese, bagelly thing, and dried figs and headed out of town for a hike (which, for the record was pretty dang amazing!). Coming back through town a couple of hours later, all the trucks were loading up and the streets were passable again. It amazes me that such a huge commerce center is set up and taken down every week for just one day of sales. But what a day it is!
Thursday April 7 2011File under: travel, Turkey

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International Banking Fiasco

Some travel stories are too long to fit in a 200 word blog post, but I hate to leave them out because I think they really add to the feeling of what it is like to travel. The following is an example of a longer story that hopefully adds to the picture I'm trying to paint about my travels in Turkey. Please bear with me.*

Due to Turkish web censorship or some other technical reason, I can't access my bank's (U.S. Bank's) website. No biggie, really. I just wanted to see if my tax refund check made it yet. But then I needed to transfer money. And do a few other banking things. Still no crisis, but a pretty big headache.

Then, my accounts get frozen. I only find this out when I am trying to buy an airline ticket from a Dutch website (with liberal use of Google Translate). After completing the transaction, I get an e-mail to the effect of "der carden nein workingen". Bummer.

To try and assess and fix the situation, I talk a trusted friend not behind the great internet wall of Turkey into logging into my account. But one of the oh so helpful security questions have us stymied*. Then I have him use their contact form to submit a letter explaining the situation and try to resolve the issue by e-mail. But the contact form is limited to 200 characters, not nearly enough space to explain things.

It is decided that the best (and probably only) way to resolve the problem is by calling them. Easy, right? Um, not so much.

Being intimidated by regular phones, you can image what international calling does to me. But seeing as that's my only option at this point, I reluctantly go forth. Most international calling these days, at least on the travelling scene, is done through Skype. One hiccup is that the microphone on my computer doesn't work. So I use the hostel's. To use skype, you have to set up an account, so I do that. And to make calls to non-skype users, you have to charge your account up with money. In trying to do that, I realize that I can't...because my bank account is frozen.

I finally get some money on my account by transferring it via paypal, so I set to work to try and make the call. No dice. My skype account has, for some reason, been blocked from that number. Who knows what that's all about. Over the next day or two, I try skyping again from various computers, but again, no dice.

Next choice down the phone options tree is to use a public payphone. Supposedly I can call them collect, but I barely know how to call the US regular style, much less collect style. So to pursue said regular style, I go out and buy a phone card (which is what payphones require here, instead of coins). Through a combination of not understanding the prompts, not necessarily knowing how to dial internationally, and, I'm pretty sure, that I was sold a card with no credit on it, this also fails.

By this point, I can't help but laugh at this incredible fiasco. My attempts to fix a seemingly minor problem have gone on 4 days now and I don't feel any closer to a solution. But since having a frozen bank account doesn't mesh well with spending money hand over fist*, I keep pounding away.

Finally, through gestures and peering questioningly through windows, I find a real phone to call from. Once I get them on the line and explain things, the U.S. Bank people go to work and get most everything sorted out. I still can't access the website, but I can use my card...hopefully. The ticket I wanted is now long gone, so I haven't quite had the chance to test it.

On a somewhat related note, does anyone know how to get back from Europe mid-summer for under $11,000?
Thursday April 7 2011File under: travel

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Attractions, i.e. things to see, while travelling fall into a few general categories. There are the old and man made (temples, pyramids, ruins*), new and man made (big buildings, bridges), events (whirling dervish show, circuses*, and natural attractions (canyons, waterfalls, caves).

Pamukkale* definitely falls into this last category, but not in any subcategory that I've ever encountered. What looks like snow covered hills is actually eons of deposits of calcium from natural hot springs that flow into naturally terraced pools and down the hillside. When visiting, you take off your shoes and climb up the hillside, wading through the successively hotter pools (making friends along the way). Being that it was a cold day, we headed straight for top pool to wade and dork around. After making it to the top, it is back to category #1, with some spectacular ruins of which I won't post any more pictures*.

Yep, Pamukkale is a great spot. I planned on spending one night. I'm working on my third now. But tomorrow it is back on the road, another amazing set of attractions waiting to be discovered.
Tuesday April 5 2011File under: travel, Turkey

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I've found my drink. For a long time, I've been searching for something to serve as my version of tea or coffee*, to warm me in the morning or for slow sipping after a meal. Here in Turkey, I've found the answer: Salep!

Wikipedia can do a better job explaining what exactly it is better than me, but the version I'm familiar with is essentially hot milk, sugar, cinnamon, and a special dash of whatever it is that makes it what it is (some flower, supposedly). Occasionally, it comes in a powder form that you just stir in water (which they sometimes serve on long distance buses).

But now my time in the cold weather is coming to an end (I hope). I'm progressing farther south and the the sun is progressing farther north*. The weather forecasts say that I have at least another day or two to enjoy a warm beverage without needing to find an air conditioned room to enjoy it in. If all goes to plan, that's plenty of time to have a few more good mugs* of salep.
Sunday April 3 2011File under: Turkey, food

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The Absolutely True History of Ephesus

Late in the summer of 4212 B.C., Greek city planner and part time musician John Stamos set sail with a dozen of his closest friends to find a new city. Or was it found? He could never remember and his Greek to English dictionary was woefully uninvented yet. Either way, he and his pals were going to build themselves a home based on truly greek ideals, ones that Athens had forgotten or ignored: toga parties and really good gyros.

Only hours into their voyage, however, a great storm arose from the sea. "That's the last time I pay tribute to Poseidon with generic brand ouzo," John thought to himself as he lashed himself to the mast. The storm raged on for 11 and a half months, with waves as tall as a two story building (which was the tallest thing invented at the time.) Only due to great fortune did they and their precious cargo of rotisserie meats survive.

The story continues...more?
They landed on the first beach they saw and immediately set to work. "We gotta do this quick, boys, so we can send for our wives and start living!"

"You got it, dude" they all replied, creepily in unison.

For 3 long weeks, the men toiled, carving and building the roads, columns, statues, houses, and palaces that would be their new home. They even build a massive theater with hopes of starting up Greece's first stand up comedy club.*

Then, one day on his way back from the Marble Depot, a worker had a realization. He hefted the 37-ton block he had just purchased (Marble Depot was having their end of summer clearance) onto his shoulder and ran the 26.2 miles home.

Not wanting to cause a stir based on nothing, the worker set to work taking careful readings from the sun and stars. After checking and rechecking his calculations and cross-referencing with his GPS, he unshouldered his load and went off to share the bad news.

"Uncle Jesse [an affectionate nickname they had all taken to calling him], I have bad news. You know how we thought it weird that there were so many poultry shops around? I'm afraid I figured it out. The storm must have blown us father than we thought. We aren't in Greece at all. We're in Turkey."

The historian of the bunch, who had the fortunate habit of transcribing all important conversations, noted John's response tactfully in case history students of the future couldn't handle a little potty mouth. This censored response, when reviewed by historians many years later, was misinterpreted as the name of this now immaculate city.

"F*** us," John sighed.

Their wives, who were probably already pissed about them being gone for over a year now, really weren't going to like this. Learning the layout of a new grocery store was trouble enough. A new language, new currency, and a new culture's fashion faux pas would be enough to put John and the boys in the dog house for years.

After careful thought, they came up with a plan. They couldn't just abandon their city because they had invested too much. But there might be a way to recoup their costs and maybe even earn enough to buy their wives a little something.

"Fellas, as you know, ruins are all the rage these days." Pompeii, Chiten Itza, and Leman Bros. were in the news paper almost every day. "With some creative advertising and a few well-placed sledge hammer blows, I predict we'll have caravans full of aged tourists lined up from here to Izmir. And those tourists will buy anything."

Luckily for the men, most of their buildings had already fallen into ruins, owing to the fact that building with giant marble blocks isn't at all like building with legos, which was the assumption from the get-go. A few buildings mostly stood due to the ingenious use of super glue in the building process.

Satisfied with the site and having come up with a plausible origin story, they opened the doors to the public on Sept. 1, 4211 B.C. The commision from the postcard sales alone that first day made them all rich, not to mention the way the coins piled up from charging for the toilets. With their new found wealth, they boarded the train to head back to Greece. (There was no way they were going to chance crossing open waters again.) They each swore to never reveal the truth about their botched experimental Eden, and no one ever did.

The next 6000 years passed in a comfortable routine. Eleven million tourists entered the gates every day, trudged the paths while half-paying attention to their guide, stopping only to take obligatory pictures of themselves to prove they were there. Only when a clever young* solo traveller noticed a few discrepencies in the literature while on tour did the secret history of Ephesus finally come to light. But in a meeting deep behind closed doors, officials and the young* traveller decided that the real story was too much for the public to handle. The story that John and his buddies created to cover their colossal mistake was kept as the official word. And that's how it stands today.

Friday April 1 2011File under: travel, Turkey

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