Hope all my readers are busy planning their next adventures (gotta make good use of that time off over the holidays)! While I know it’s time consuming to plan trips, please do take a moment to check out my latest article – ‘Feminine Street Smarts‘ – posted over at the Broke Backpacker! It’s packed full of useful travel tips, which will come in handy during your upcoming travels.
The most common travel-related questions I receive are: “What’s it like to travel alone as a woman?” and “Is it safe to travel overseas alone?” While I have many detailed answers to both questions, the general response is always – YES! It IS safe to be both a woman and a solo traveler, with the caveat being that one must have a fairly level head and a great deal of street smarts. This is true for both men and women, but women more so, given that they are (generally speaking) more commonly targeted for certain types of crimes and less likely to have experience being alone and knowing how to take care of themselves.
With these questions – and answers – in mind, I decided to write an article that would discuss the topic in detail, and (hopefully) equip more women with the knowledge they need to travel alone safely. In the article, I explain what street smarts are, how you can learn them, and generally how to travel alone and stay safe no matter the destination, time of day, or activity.
Whether you’re a woman looking to travel solo, or a man interested in learning more about navigating foreign cities on your own, take a moment to pop over to the Broke Backpacker’s blog and read my article! You know the information is valid when it comes from a woman who traveled alone to Cairo in the middle of the Egyptian revolution and managed to get home unscathed. 😉
I am in a unique position to comment about Syria – about our utter failure to act in any meaningful and help way – and about, in a greater sense, the message that very lack of action will send to other places that have recently seen revolution, such as Ukraine and Egypt.
In both Ukraine and Egypt, I was on the ground during the protests. I have friends in both areas, friends who were highly involved in the revolutions. I saw the state of each nation, I spoke with and tried to understand the voice of their people. I wrote extensively about my time in Ukraine (here), and at the time I wrote about my experience in Egypt as well for Gap Adventure Tours, now GAdventures (sadly, the blog post I wrote about the Egyptian revolution has long since been taken down).
My point is this: I may not hold a degree in international relations, but I, more than 99.99% of the Amercian population, know what it’s like. What it’s like to have inhabited pre-revolutionary Egypt, or what it was like to wake up one day to tanks, rubber bullets, and the realization that nothing can be as it once was. I know how deeply the dream of freedom is cherished, and how fragile a thing is hope.
And it is with this understanding that I write about Syria.
It makes no sense to me that we Americans talk of helping Syrian refugees but yet we take no military action to help solve the underlying issue. There doesn’t even seem to be the slightest interest or thought put into how to handle the Syrian crisis. Putin sends in planes – ostensibly to protect Assad – but at least he is doing something! He’s siding with a brutal dictator and that’s not the answer, but at least perhaps he can bring some stability to the region, enough stability so that another 250,000 civilians will not die, and millions more can begin to rebuild their lives.
It’s as if domestic squabbles over legal abortion and the upcoming election are more important to lawmakers and politicians than the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Which is, quite frankly, disgusting. I understand that Obama, along with the upcoming presidential candidates, don’t want to talk about or be involved in military action because it’s a controversial and complicated topic. It’s not an “easy talking point” but for the love of God, take action before it’s too late!
The Syrian people began the revolution mainly because they wanted a democratic society or at the very least a society that afforded them freedom and opportunity similar to that in the West. But if the world’s Western democratic societies will not help Syrians in their struggle, and choose to turn a blind eye to their suffering, who can blame them for choosing another alternative? It’s either IS (religious extremists) or a brutal dictator (Assad) but to many people starving and being murdered, any order is preferable to none. If we want to turn our backs because it’s too “complicated”, we do so at our own peril. What message does that send to other countries that have recently seen political upheaval in search of democracy? Ukraine, Egypt….again, if we abandon those who look up to us and deny their suffering, who can blame them for siding with the group most willing to help them survive?
One can only take so much neglect. When the Middle East and when Ukraine turned to us with idealism and with hope and said – “We believe in your dream, we believe in your message, we believe in human rights and dignity!” – and when their friends and neighbors and lovers began to die or disappear, the brave people of these countries still said: “We believe”. In the face of other options – being bought out, becoming religious zealots, giving in to another dictator – the majority said no. And to this day, the millions of migrants flooding Europe are still screaming – “We believe in freedom, in democracy, in human rights.” And how do we answer? With silence. With closed borders. With xenophobia. How loudly must someone claim the dream we sell before we are willing to offer assistance? How strong must a voice be to matter? Again – how much neglect can one take before they turn Eastward to Putin, seemingly the only superpower willing to even listen? And rue the day they turn inward and find the ears of IS.
I worry for this world – for Syria, for Ukraine, for Egypt, and for America. This a plea for action. I can only hope it is one day heard.
The piece was inspired by my trip to Jakarta, Indonesia during Ramadan, back in August, 2012. I was traveling with someone who, at the time, I had recently met and fallen in love with. The piece is more about him than it is about Jakarta; nevertheless, the backdrop of the city sets the tone for the piece, and it’s startling diversity meshes beautifully with the joys and pains of being with someone 12 time zones away.Please take a moment to read and comment on my work. I would appreciate it greatly.
To Stay: Alila Hotel, Jakarta. Rooms start at $70/night, appx. Beautifully appointed hotel, very clean, with large rooms and excellent views of the city. A great value, compared to other hotels in the city. Secured entry and attentive staff, along with an excellent breakfast spread. The only downside is the location – it’s rather far from city center and the neighborhood lacks variety of nearby food or entertainment options. But for the price and quality of the rooms (blistering fast wifi!), it’s well worth the compromise.
Thanks so much!
I’ve briefly touched on the topic of Istanbul in a previous post, but the city of Istanbul is my second favorite global metropolis in the world, so I feel it’s time to further, and more deeply examine my adventures there. In addition, I get asked about Istanbul, and Turkey in general, more often than most other places. It’s one of those cities (and countries) that borders between the East and the West, and it’s generally a great “starter” place to begin
exploring the world. Inherently, people seem to pick up on this, and instead of jumping into a place such as Cairo, which has a large language/cultural barrier, people choose to ease into the East and Middle East through the relatively easy gateway of Turkey. Of course, there’s much more to both Istanbul and the rest of the country than simply being a great bridge from the European tradition into the more diverse traditions of the East, but I feel that people are often drawn to Turkey for this very reason.
For starters: Turkey is a first world country, possibly 2nd world in some remote places, but overall, a very clean, very well organized country with a well functioning government, lots of modern infrastructure, and great sanitation. It is comparable to Western Europe in this respect. Also, almost everyone there speaks enough English for a native English speaker to get around without needing a guide. It’s easy enough to hail a taxi or to figure out the bus or trolley system without needing local assistance. Bargaining for items IS part of the culture in Turkey, but key items like bus passes, museum tickets, or hotels, are fixed price and non-negotiable. This is important because I know most Westerners HATE bargaining. Sure, in the bazaars and souks of Istanbul you’ll be pushed to bargain, but it’s really not essential to be a good bargainer to get by in Istanbul.
That being said, I myself was also drawn to Turkey for a similar reason. In 2010, I decided that was high time to start pursuing one of my lifetime goals–to travel the world and visit every single country. I had traveled the entire USA and North American continent prior to 2010, and felt I had exhausted my
opportunities for travel on this continent, and looked at branching out. I studied maps, read a lot of travel guides, joined the forums on TripAdvisor, and tried to determine what places interested me the most, and what places would be the best for a first time overseas traveler such as myself. Of course, I had been overseas as a child, but as an adult, potentially traveling alone, I wanted to make sure that I acclimated myself in a relatively easy place before jumping into more difficult countries, such as say, Turkmenistan or Iran.
After some research, I settled on a tour through Eastern Europe that would conclude in Istanbul, which happened to be (in 2010) the European “Capital of Culture” city. Each year, the European Union names ones city to be it’s “Capital of Culture” and throws a lot of money at that city for renovations and varying cultural events and tourist attractions. I figured that 2010 was as good a year as any, if not one of the better ones, to visit Istanbul for the first time. And I was right! Being the “Capital of Culture” leant the city a very festive atmosphere, gave it more touristy events to attend, and in general lead to improvements in both accessibility to the city and improvements in local transport. Hotels were also prepared for tourists and there were many tour guides out and about, willing to give travelers free or discounted tours of the city.
My Eastern European trip began in Prague, visited Budapest, Kiev, Sighisoara, Bucharest, and then ended, as mentioned, in Istanbul. Two friends from America ended up traveling with me, which was a nice addition to the
trip, although I would have gone alone, had it been needed. I planned the entire adventure myself, and most of our traveling was by rail between the cities.
Istanbul was no exception. To get to the city, we took a 3 day long train from Bucharest, and let me tell you, that whole ordeal was probably the worst decision I made in planning the trip! Not that it wasn’t beautiful to roll into Istanbul by rail and to see the countryside unfold from nothingness, into suburbs, into the city, and sure it was beautiful after days and days of emptiness to finally catch a glimpse of the Sea of Marmara, BUT….3 days on a sleeper train in the economy class with 6
people to a cabin in the extreme humid heat of August with no air conditioning was a nightmare. In addition to those conditions, and no dining car on the train, and very few eateries at most train stops, our train also decided to stop for a day, in Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria, with no discernible reason or explanation. It seemed like we were stopping to pick up more passengers, when suddenly, without warning, the engine to the train just took off, leaving the 12 passenger cars behind it sitting on the tracks. My friends and I tried to cajole answers from the warden of our sleeper train car, but he was a jovial Turkish man who spoke zero English and who proceeded to happily laugh away our distraught faces with a wave of his expressive hands, and then
offered us Turkish tea, distilled from “recycled” bathroom tap water. Since he obviously was not going to tell us what was going on, I organized a recon mission and visited a few other stranded sleeper cars, finally stumbling across a pack of barefoot, acoustic guitar laden Italian hippie boys who told me, in broken English: “The engine, it just goes, sometimes, you know? Bye engine! Will come back when it is time to go.”
Well then! Of course, that extremely helpful tidbit of information was accompanied by several invitations to kiss the boys, listen to them stomp the ground and dance around their bongos and guitars, and to perhaps pet the crotches of their dirty harem pants. I was not interested in any of that, so I took my leave and returned to try to sleep in my 110 degree F train car and pray for the engine to return soon.
The problem then arouse, several hours later, regarding food. The local train station in Dimitrovgrad was not exactly full of food. In fact, about all they offered were the ubiquitous European “digestive biscuits”. At this point, we had been on this train for 48 hours from Bucharest, Romania, and hadn’t eaten a thing. We were all starving. And, most importantly still, I WAS RUNNING OUT OF SMOKES!!!
Anyone who knows me well will tell you that when I’m about to run out of cigarettes, all hell breaks loose. Screw food. Screw bathing. I need nicotine! So I sent my friend Mark on a mission to go find some smokes. Which,
turns out, were even more scarce than food items, or working plumbing (the other issue was the toilets on the trains just emptied directly onto the tracks, which is fine when you’re moving, but when you’re stuck, um, shit piles up?). Luckily, he found me some cigarettes after walking 12 miles to and from the nearest store, and also returned with provisions. Lydia, my other friend, had given up all hope and had turned into a zombie and laid, despondent, on her 2′ x 4′ “bed” aka dirty platform. She hated me for booking the train, and still does, but at least Mark, who was an ex-military, had my same attitude, which was “fuck it”. I used the time to write odes to tuna sandwiches from Subway, fresh guacamole, and spicy goat tacos. Mark sang to himself.
Eventually, an engine came and we began moving again, but when we reached the Turkish border, there were two more issues. One–Americans need a visa to enter Turkey. From what I had read, you could give someone $20 USD at the border and get a visa there, saving yourself the hassle of
having to get one beforehand. However, that is only true, I found out, when entering by air, at the Istanbul International Airport. Whoops. So, all three of us travelers were about to get denied entry to Turkey after being on a train for 3 days. Lydia, again, looked murderous. Of course, I’m crafty, so after thinking about things for about 10 seconds, I walked up to the best looking Turkish guard (all Turkish men are beautiful, btw) and began to cry. Of course, he immediately asked what was wrong and several other guards came over too. Long story short, I cried my way into Turkey and slipped the cute guard $100 USD cash as a thank you. Works every time.
So second issue was that there had been major flooding in the northern part of Turkey and the railway lines had been washed out. So about 2 hours outside of Istanbul, we had to switch from the train to a bus, and then we were driven into Istanbul proper, finally reaching Büyük Otogar, or Istanbul’s main bus terminal, which was a lovely old station, with classical 1800s style high vaulted ceilings, lots of glass windows, and tons of money changing shops and various eateries. Finally! We were there!
Long story short: don’t take a bus to Istanbul if you’re coming from Europe, especially Eastern Europe. It may sound fun and all, but it’s not. The state of the railways between Istanbul and say Bucharest or Budapest is NOT
good, and especially in Bulgaria, the service is spotty, the trains are slow, and they are ill equipped (i.e. no food cars). Plus, you might end up in a sleeper bunk with a bunch of Russians who tell you “Ah it’s hot! No fans! Just drink VODKA!” and who then pass out and fart for 3 days straight. Not good. Just fly into the beautiful, modern, gorgeous, and amazing Istanbul Ataturk Airport! Truly, it is a first class airport, highly modern, fully serviced by local transport, and conveniently located to the city. I regret not flying into Istanbul the first time I visited and every time thereafter, I’ve flown in. Enough said.
Once in Istanbul, we checked into the Hotel Niles, which more than made up for our horrendous “train from hell” ride. The hotel was located perfectly–across from the Grand Bazaar, and within walking distance of all the
other major tourist attractions (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, etc). When checking us in, the staff took the time to give us a free map, locating with a pen where the hotel was and telling us how to get to all the local hotspots.
The hotel was simply beautiful! Our room was a suite and it came with a HUGE marble bath, Turkish style, and supremely outfitted rooms with high ceilings, A/C, fast wifi, and beautiful decorations mixing local Turkish flare with European elegance. The rooms were very affordable, the staff helpful, and the rooftop restaurant had breathtaking views of the Bosphorus harbour. Breakfasts were free on the rooftop, and every morning we sat amidst palms and plants, watching the sun rise over the sea, and listening to the caged birds on the roof while we snacked on a wonderful breakfast spread. I couldn’t have been happier with the hotel, and I befriended the owner after raving to him about how beautiful his property was. Later, upon my return to Istanbul in 2011, he remembered me and hooked me up with a free room. I’ve stayed in contact with him ever since.
After checking into our hotel, sleeping soundly, and having a few solid meals, us three traveling companions hit the city to see the sites. Istanbul is very
modern, clean, and the streets are easy to walk and wonderfully twisted and meandering. It is somewhat hard to follow the streets on a map for this reason, as the city itself is old and not laid out on a grid like most American cities, but to me, that’s part of it’s charm! I loved getting lost on the back streets of Istanbul, and peering in windows of shoe factories and stores selling clothing, leather, textiles, and the like. There are few people to hassle you on the streets, and lots of opportunities to use public transport. In addition to taxis, which periodically drive around the city, and which use meters if you ask them to (or not, as I prefer to bargain on a flat rate), there are also public buses and a wonderful trolley/electric tram system that happened to stop right near my hotel.
These trams run through various parts of the city, but I primarily used the tram to get from my hotel down to the waterfront, and along the way, to stop and see the Blue Mosque and the Hagia
Sofia, which sit right across from each other. I also used it to visit my favorite, FAVORITE spa on earth, the Cemberlitas Hamami! They are pretty cheap, and you gain entry by putting money into a machine and receiving tokens that you then put into a turnstile which allows you entry to the station to wait for a tram to come by. The machines that dispense these tokens have a choice for English speakers and are easy to use.
Before I go any further, I’m going to have to take a moment to describe the Cemberlitas Hamami because it is truly one of the most magnificent spas I’ve ever had the pleasure to relax in. It’s not a spa like you would think of in America, but more like a gorgeous public bathhouse, which is what hamamis (or hammams) initially were. It was constructed by Mimar Sinan in 1584, and is still housed in the same beautiful building. The interior has been renovated of course, and it’s divided by gender into the men’s and women’s areas. The entire place is made of white marble with soaring domed ceilings, punctuated with small windows which let in the natural light in soft, warm streams. I can’t speak for the men’s side, but on the women’s side, there are lockers, and you are given a small packet of items and told to undress. In the packet of items you’re given, you have a disposable bikini bottom and your own personal scrubbing mitt. Once you’re unclothed (everyone walks around topless in the hamamis, it’s very refreshing, and totally acceptable because all the employees are women and all the patrons too), and your personal belongings locked up, you take your mitt and walk into the main room of the hamami. It’s a HUGE white marbled room with 8 corners, and with a magnificent domed ceiling and a large marble platform in the middle, probably 9′ in diameter, with small enclaves with spigots dispensing water of varying temperature around the outside of the room.
Once inside, you’re given a Turkish towel (made of cotton, thinly woven, not absorbent like Western towels) and you’re told to lie on the marble platform. Underneath this platform, and invisible to you, is a large cedar fire which heats up the marble and the entire room. It’s hot to the touch, so you must lay your towel down and then lay on top of the towel. Once you do this, you just lay there and soak up the heat and the humidity and gaze up at the domed ceiling with it’s little rays of light shining through. There are bath attendants, all old, motherly women, who then come around one by one to the women laying on the hot marble stone and once they arrive, they douse you with lukewarm water and start SCRUBBING! And boy do they SCRUB! After you’ve sat around in the heat and humidity for awhile, your skin starts to shed and these women then come around and remove all the layers of dirt and dead skin from your body. I’ve never had cleaner skin or softer skin than after a visit to the hamami!
After scrubbing, the attendants then rinse you again, this time with cold water, and bring you over to an enclave along one of the sides of the room. They wash your hair there with water from plastic buckets and cheap shampoo, but god, is it ever so amazing! I don’t know what it is about having someone wash your hair, but it’s one of those things in life which is extremely underrated in pleasure. Especially when done by a matronly older woman, it’s like being a child again, very comforting, very soothing.
Once done with this, you’re taken to a cold plunge pool and a shower, and you’re done. That’s it, really. Nothing fancy, although they do offer basic mud facials and hot oil massages, which are also great and are added on after your bath. But a simple bath in such an old, elegant place is more than enough for me. It’s the ambiance, it’s the older women, the communal safeness of being in a women’s only environment, the casual gossip and talking and the hot white marble and the tradition that makes the experience so wonderful. And after you’re dressed again, skin clean and soft and pink, you go to the rooftop to have a cup of Turkish coffee with a smoke–ahhhh god, there’s nothing better!
In addition to the Cemberlitas Hamami, the Grand Bazaar, which is right next door, is amazing too, although overwhelming for most Westerners. As soon as you walk in, you’ll see stalls selling all manner of goods, although mostly touristy stuff like carpets, glassware, linens, etc. and as soon as you walk in, you’ll get SWAMPED by salesmen, all telling you to visit their store. Some may even physically grab you and direct you to their specific store. Some will follow you around and continually harass you until you yell at them to screw off. Don’t be afraid to be loud and direct–match their directness and pushiness and they will back off. It’s really not a big deal, although many women especially find it intimidating since most of the salesmen (all of them really) are men and are totally all about hitting on you as well as selling you items. All it takes is a firm NO more than once and you’re good, and if it ever does really feel threatening, just start yelling loudly and every local woman in the area will come to your defense and handle the situation for you.
Despite this though, the Grand Bazaar is worth a visit for it’s beautiful displays of spices, carpets and all manner of other bric-a-brak. It’s the place to take the photo that most travel agencies use when they advertise “Turkey” and a great place to pick up cheap souvenirs. Like I said earlier though, be ready to bargain and bargain hard. Also, near the entrance there are some really good gyro places, and during the winter, little carts selling roasted chestnuts and sesame seed round pretzel like breads also congregate here. Also, if you have the time, hit up the Spice Bazaar as well, which sells more local stuff and less touristy items. At the Spice Bazaar, which is down near the waterfront, a bit of a walk from the Grand Bazaar, you’ll find lots of local food and medicinal items that will blow your mind–stuff like eels, and leeches, and what not. It’s much more colorful and less crowded and intense than the Grand Bazaar.
What to say about the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia that hasn’t already been said? They are both beyond description, akin to the Eiffel Tower, or the Taj Mahal. They sit across from each other, and are both easily entered via ticket booths at each location. Usually, if there are any lines, they aren’t long, even during the high season. The Blue Mosque is an actual mosque that is still being used (the Hagia Sophia was a church, then a mosque, and is now a secular museum). Be aware of this when entering the Blue Mosque and be respectful of it’s status as a house of worship. Ladies this means covering your heads and shoulders and not wearing pants (long skirts instead), men it means no shorts, and for both men and women, removing your shoes and not taking flash photographs. You will be told to do these things anyways, and will be given a place to put your shoes and if you need a head or shoulder or leg covering, there are some clothes available for this as well. If you’re so inclined, you can visit during the Friday prayers, and listen to the imam, which I recommend doing to give you a deeper understanding of the Muslim faith.
Topkapi Palace is nearby both of these locations as well, and is worth a visit, especially to see the all the beautiful old weaponry and jewelry! Plus there are many cultural events and art exhibitions here and it’s just beautifully located with great views and a relaxing atmosphere. Be sure to try some of the dondruma, or Turkish ice cream, which is sold by vendors who lift it up, spin it, twirl it, then place it back in it’s freezing tin all afternoon long. Turkish ice cream is thicker and chewier than Western ice cream and comes doused in pistachios and honey and is really, really tasty! There are tons of vendors lining the way to Topkapi Palace.
The Basilica Cistern must also be on your list of places in Istanbul to visit! It’s super creepy and very atmospheric and, at it’s most basic, is a tour of the now empty Roman water cisterns that lay underneath the city of Istanbul and that were constructed in the 6th century. You descend into the largest of the many empty water cisterns (there’s still a small amount of water in them, lit up beautifully by warm yellow lights and filled with koi fish) and walk along planks to the back of the underground chamber to two large pillars that are supported by two large carvings of Medusa’s head. One head is upright, the other reversed, and no one really knows why
exactly they are placed there. The whole place is dark, damp, filled with the sounds of dripping water, eerily lit and absolutely wonderful!
Lastly, the Bosphorus waterfront in Istanbul is probably it’s most famous vista. It’s here that many movies have been filmed, many promotional tourism photos taken, and probably billions of personal “look I’m in Turkey!” Instagram photos have been uploaded. It’s the scene that you see in your head when you think of Istanbul, so it’s worth a visit. It’s at this point that East meets West–where the continent of Europe ends and the continent of Asia begins. Most of Istanbul that tourists see (and all the places mentioned above) lay on the European side, so when you visit the waterfront you’re looking out at Asia. From the waterfront, which is lined with ornate floating restaurants that will cook you freshly caught fish while you wait, you can catch short or long term cruises up and down the Bosphorus straight. I took about an hour long cruise and it was really wonderful to see the city of Istanbul rise up from the water. They are not expensive and the cruises are really just medium sized passenger boats, lined with benches and equipped with a snack station, that loop around the local waterfront area, but they are fun none the less. You can buy tickets from any of the agents standing near the docks, and even haggle with them for a better price than the one listed if you’re so inclined.
Overall, Istanbul is one of my most favorite cities, second only to Hong Kong. I can’t say enough good things about it! Just remember that there is a $20 USD departure tax when exiting the country (as well as entering) so keep $20 USD on you to pay it! Other than that, have fun, and know that Istanbul is an incredibly beautiful city, easily navigable, and absolutely worth a visit! My favorite time to visit is in the winter–around February–and while it does get cold and even snows in Istanbul, if you lay in your hotel room on a frosty early morning, and listen to the call to prayer, and smel the roasted chestnuts cooking….I’m sure you’d agree with me that there’s really no better place to spend a few winter (or summer) weeks!
To Stay: Hotel Niles. Rates fluctuate from $100/night during the off season (winter) to $200/night during high season (summer). A 10% discount is offered on cash payments if booked through the hotel website. Rooms are gorgeous, decorated in the continental style with small local flourishes (such as a turkish bath in some rooms). A lovely terrace at the top of the hotel has an amazing view of the Istanbul harbor and every morning a large breakfast spread is put out on the terrace for guests, free of charge. The hotel is located within walking distance of all major tourist attractions in the city (Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, etc). Airport transfers from Ataturk Airport are roughly $30, one way.
To Eat: The Han Restaurant. The best hummus in the city! I was quite naive when I first visited Istanbul and mistakenly thought that hummus was a common local dish. It’s not. Hummus is an Israeli/Jordanian thing, and it’s hard to find in Istanbul. However, the Han Restaurant has some amazing hummus on the menu, and it’s located very conveniently, right next to the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, on the road that the tram runs along and along the way to the waterfront as well. The dining area is also quite nice, with pillows to sit on and low tables in the common Turkish fashion, as opposed to a more Western dining style. The waiters are friendly and they remembered me every time I visited, so kudos to them! The menu ranges from a few items of Western food to Turkish staples. Prices range from $5-25 per head.
To See: Cemberlitas Hamami–There won’t be too many times in your life when you’ll get the opportunity to have a Turkish bath in a building dating back to 1584, so do it – particularly because this hamami was designed by the great architect Sinan and is among the most beautiful in the city. Bath, scrub, and soap massage (plus hair washing) is TL90 (roughly $40 USD). Self service bathing is TL60 (roughly $30 USD), but I highly recommend spending the extra $10 and getting the full “Sultan’s Bath.”
Grand Bazaar/Spice Bazaar–Both are free to enter, and well worth visiting, particularly the Spice Bazaar as it has more local items and less pushy salesmen. However, if you’re looking for a kitschy souvenir, try the Grand Bazaar, which also has lots of great street food stands near the entrance.
Hagia Sophia/Blue Mosque/Topkapi Palace–For TL80 (roughly $35 USD) you can buy a 3 day museum pass that includes the Hagia Sophia and Topkai Palace. Otherwise, the Hagia Sophia entry is TL30 (roughly $13 USD), the Blue Mosque is free (you must enter using the south door; the north front entrance is for Muslims only), and Topkapi Palace is TL30 (roughly $13 USD) for the museum and an additional TL15 (roughly $7) to enter the harem section. You can buy Topkapi Palace tickets and museum passes online here.
Basilica Cistern–Open every day from 9am to 6:30pm, with an entrance fee of TL20 (roughly $9 USD). Located across the street from the Hagia Sophia.
To Get There: DO NOT TAKE THE TRAIN! 🙂 Turkish Airlines has many direct flights to Istanbul from locations throughout the United States (New York and Los Angeles, mainly). In addition, United has direct flights from Newark and Los Angeles. Roundtrip ranges anywhere from $700-4000, depending on route, time, and fare class.
Hello everyone! I am finally back in the USA from my trip to Hong Kong to cover the pro-democracy protests that have sprung up recently. It has been quite the adventure!
It was quite inspiring to see the residents of Hong Kong, young and old, students and activists as well as local shop owners and businessmen and women, all come together in the fight for true democracy. As my article states, it was very apparent to these protesters, and to most Hong Kongers, that this struggle for democracy belied a truer, more essential goal–to preserve the cultural of Hong Kong itself.
covered, they were also unique. It’s fascinating to me to see how each culture handles it’s own growing pains and to see the drive to protest for a better, brighter future filtered through the lens of each distinct culture. In all of these protests, university students formed the main core of the protesters, and historically, most political rallies begin on college campuses and in the classrooms of local universities. Each of these movements was also mainly co-originated and communicated to others through Twitter and other social media sites (Instagram in Hong Kong, Facebook in Egypt, VK in Ukraine). With the advent of social media and smart phones, it’s made spreading the word about rallies and giving directions to protesters about movements and updates so much easier. This, in turn, has lead to larger crowds, more mobile and reactive crowds, and I would like to think less violence towards these mostly non-violent protesters than we would have seen 40 years ago. With everyone so plugged in, and with cameras on phones at the ready, most governments think twice before using force to disband protesters and this has given them all the much more power to have their voices heard.
Unfortunately, violence is still used, and oftentimes in the form of plainclothes
“distrupters.” Because governments feel their hands are tied about any sort of force used on protesters, for fear of blowback from the international community, and, of course, often times too a fear for their own seat of power, they have taken to using “pro-government protesters” as a way to disrupt these rallies for freedom and democracy. Basically, instead of using state forces (military and police), these governments find local agitators to fight against the crowds instead, and simply tell their state forces to stand down and let it happen. This has occurred in every single protest I’ve covered. I’m sure that some “pro-government protesters” are genuinely pro-government citizens fed up with the protests in their neighborhoods, but oftentimes I am quite sure that these elements are paid and sent by governments seeking to use the disruption and violence they cause as an excuse to end the protests. It’s much cleaner for governments to act through non-state forces and most cities don’t lack a criminal element willing to take money to cause civil agitation. In Hong Kong, it’s no surprise that most of these clashes between local pro-democracy and pro-government forces happened in the Mong Kok neighborhood. Throughout most of Hong Kong’s history, Mong Kok has been the seat of the local gangs, called the triads, and during most of the clashes between protesters and pro-government “citizens”, many rumors swirled regarding who these people actually were. Though the triads have been officially banned and “wiped out”, they do remain underground, and still quietly influence the Mong Kok area to this day.
As with Egypt (which was oftentimes filled with rumors of agitators paid by Gulf states wanting political instability in Egypt for financial reasons) and as with Ukraine (who’s pro-government protesters were plainly Russian military without official uniforms), the Hong Kong protests suffered some violence and as soon as they did, it was immediately blamed on the protesters themselves, and used as an excuse to end the protests. I have to state that as someone who was there on the ground, and there during the moments when the protesters were attacked (yes I would use that word) by these “pro-government” people, none of the Umbrella Movement, pro-democracy protesters responded with any violence at all. It was amazing and quite admirable how little hostility the crowds showed towards these attackers, even when being pummeled in the face by them and even when they ripped up student’s tents and yelled wildly insulting things into the crowds. I think it should speak highly of the integrity and character of not only the protesters, but the movement itself, that despite the Mong Kok attack and despite the tear gas and pepper spray used earlier in the week, the situation never devolved into angry,
violent mobs. It’s easy to respond to violence with violence, and harder still to turn the other cheek and simply remove and/or ignore protesters who become violent. As soon as the Occupy Hong Kong group saw violence, they closed ranks, removed and contained the agitator, and got immediate medical help for the wounded, allowing ambulances through the thick crowds easily and swiftly. If there was any sort of malice in the movement at all, the entire situation would have quickly escalated, but as it was, there could be no more of a dedicated effort to peace and non-violence than the one they made. I was truly impressed with the control of the Hong Kong protesters, because as we all know, large scale demonstrations, and large groups of people usually bring out the worst in human instincts; hivemind usually leads to violence, sexual assault, and destruction of property. None of this was noted, not a single case of it, during the entire week of the protests. That should speak highly for the protesters themselves, and for the people involved, as well as the Hong Kong culture of tolerance, globalism, liberalism, and peace.
In addition to their excellent handling of violent attacks, the Hong Kong protests also struck me as the most organized, civil-minded group of protesters I’ve ever seen. The willingness of the protest leaders to organize everything from medical aid, to cell phone charging stations, and to recycle stations for used water bottles and other refuse, was utterly astounding. Essentially, in less than a few days, an entire mini-city, complete with public services was set up at the protester’s central camp near the
Admiralty MTR station, in the central business district of Hong Kong. There were protesters dedicated to picking up trash and disposing or recycling it (the camps were breathtakingly clean), as well as many tents dedicated to medical help for hurt or injured protesters (the Red Cross building was also helpfully located alongside part of the camp). There were also tents handing out free food and water to protesters, and lots of volunteers standing with bottles of water, spraying down the crowds, to keep them from overheating (it was brutally hot and humid during the protests–30 C with 60% humidity). There were also many open political forums with university teachers coming to create open-air “democracy classrooms” where protesters could sit and listen to democracy theory, ask questions, and provide input into whatever was being discussed. There were also a couple of different religious booths supporting the protesters with social comfort and aid. A Buddhist tent stood right next to a Christian tent, and both happily co-mingled, providing goods and services to the protesters. Eye coverings to protect against pepper spray, plastic body coverings for the rain and tear gas, face masks, and of course, the ubiquitous umbrellas, were also made freely available to all protesters. It was truly one of the most civic minded groups of protesters I’ve ever seen, and all of them were polite, dedicated to democracy and non-violence. The local businesses also must be noted here for being very supportive and understanding to the protesters who shut down the roads near their stores. Not only were these shopkeepers supportive, they also allowed protesters to use their facilities and offered free or discounted products to them, which was very helpful, considering many of these protesters camped there for upwards of several days.
Overall, the Hong Kong protests were up against some really strong and powerful players, but they did what they could do to make their voices heard, and I sincerely hope that their efforts are not in vain. Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities in all the world and has an incredibly unique and open culture that deserves preservation and support. It would be a worldwide tragedy to see Hong Kong begin to close ranks with the rest of China, to see it lose that special openness and freedom that has made it one of the world’s true global cities. The loss of Hong Kong’s culture and political and social freedoms would not only negatively impact the lives of its residents; it would also affect the rest of the world. As it stands now, Hong Kong is one of Asia’s largest financial centers and is home to many mainland Chinese artists and writers who have fled the heavy censorship of the Chinese government. To lose Hong Kong’s social freedoms would mean to also lose a lot of it’s financial stability as well as most of China’s most talented artists, writers, and thinkers. It’s not hard to see why Hong Kong, and it’s fate, matters greatly to the world. One can simply hope that a conciliation can be made between the PRC’s government and the residents of Hong Kong. While it doesn’t look likely, that is what I hope for, and what the people of the great city of Hong Kong surely deserve.
(All photos and video copyright Suzanne Borders; please do not use without permission!)
Stay tuned for my coverage of #occupycentral. I will be in Hong Kong interviewing protestors and gathering information for an article.
If anyone has any contacts who wish to speak to the media about their experiences and motivations, please have them contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or follow my Twitter: @dameonaplane.
To all the protestors: STAY STRONG!
To Listen: “The End” by The Doors
(Title image copyright Suzanne Borders; do not use without permission, thank you!)
In 2012, I decided to spend Halloween in Hong Kong, both as a way to celebrate the holiday and my birthday, which is towards the beginning of October. Hong Kong is one of my favorite destinations and I had been there several times before (and several times after as well), although I had never been for Halloween. I wasn’t even sure if the culture in Hong Kong celebrated Halloween, but considering their British Heritage, I figured if anything, the large amount of Western expats would have some sort of celebration.
Turns out, Halloween in Hong Kong was a pretty big deal! Especially in the touristy district of Lan Kwai Fong, which has hundreds of clubs and restaurants and bars lining the avenue, starting at the intersection of D’Aguilar Street and Lan Kwai Fong road. This area is on the actual island of Hong Kong, near the Central Metro station, and is a really great place to party, as you can easily get to it from the metro station and everything is walkable, which is important after a certain point of inebriation.
This visit to Hong Kong, I decided to rent a serviced apartment from the Ovolo Hotel chain, an Australian brand that has both hotels and serviced apartments all over Hong Kong. Although the serviced apartments were deep in a residential neighborhood of Kowloon, and quite a metro
ride away from the downtown area of Hong Kong proper, they were wonderful, if not a bit cramped. That’s not saying much for Hong Kong, however, as every piece of real estate on the island or even in Kowloon is small and cramped, due to sky high property values. Hong Kong is very similar in that regard to New York, with the only difference being the addition of several million people and the towering 60+ floor residential blocks built to house them. I rented a two bedroom serviced apartment that was probably 700 square feet total, but the lay out was done tastefully and the apartment was furnished in a way that maximized whatever space there was available. It came with a fully functioning kitchen complete with utensils (which I of course didn’t use because I don’t cook), a TV with several gaming consoles, Apple TV, and an apartment wide sound system that had a place to plug in your iPod to listen to music. A doorman and a lobby on the second floor with a concierge service completed the package, and it was easy to get around either by the taxis they would call for me or by the nearby metro station.
As nice as my serviced apartment was, however, I didn’t spend much time there. The highlight of my stay was running into a few of my Indian friends who work in the gem and diamond industry in Hong Kong. I know that many people have a bad impression of the Chungking Mansions off Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon), but since I am unafraid of most anything, and the Chungking Mansions have the best Indian restaurants in the city (along with the best fake Rolexes and purses!), I ended up there for a meal one evening and happened to see a couple people I knew from Jaipur. They invited me to their nearby bachelor pad to party and get drunk on Blender’s Pride whisky, which, as any Indian knows, is the whisky to drink if you wanna get the party started! Since it was Halloween, or close to it, and since I was
still celebrating my birthday, I thought why not? Let’s have some fun! I’d seen all the touristy sights in Hong Kong several years before, so I spent the majority of my trip just getting drunk with my friends, eating their amazing laal maas, and partying at various clubs around the city, mostly in Lan Kwai Fong.
As my friends were Indian, they didn’t celebrate Halloween, and it was their first year in Hong Kong (they had moved there together to learn their father’s trade). I told them about the holiday and what it represented (basically you celebrate dead ghosts and scary things), which they didn’t quite get, but weren’t about to turn down a good party simply because it was for a stupid reason! They especially were interested in the costume aspect of Halloween and were amazed by the many different costumes we saw on people as we hit the clubs
in Lan Kwai Fong. As in America, there were tons of different outfits–gangs of bloody Snow Whites, Arabian dancers, Greek fighters, computer memes, and so much more! The clubs were packed the night before Halloween, the night of Halloween and pretty much several days before and after both. We saw more than several street brawls, people puking alongside the road, illicit make-out sessions in dark back corner booths in more ritzy clubs, and tons of people pissing on buildings. I got wasted more than a few times, and on Halloween night, grabbed a nearby guy’s pirate hat and decided to become a runaway pirate queen. As per the usual, most people jokingly asked me “What are you, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?” since obviously, I dress like her and I have tattoos and it’s kind of one of those things were one could easily mistake me for actually attempting that look as a costume.
The clubs stay open very late in Hong Kong and if you stay in the touristy Lan Kwai Fong district, are not difficult to get into, save for the sheer number of people. There are generally no guest lists or lines in these sort of divey places, and we spent a fair amount of time hanging out in the bars along Lan Kwai Fong. However, as Halloween grew closer, they became so incredibly crowded (fuck
the fire codes, they were packing in as many people as possible to the point where you literally would get so crowded in your feet would be lifted off the ground) that we bailed for some more obscure clubs off the beaten tourist trail. My local friends took me to a more expensive and nice cocktail lounge up high in a skyscraper off of Nathan Road that had a fantastic view of the city; we also hit up a more underground style club playing, of all things, hip hop. All in all, it was a great time and most every night we stayed out until 6-7am, opting for yummy food at 24hr Middle Eastern or Indian places after our binge drinking. Since it was a holiday, some of the clubs never even closed–they were open 24hrs a day, and from my understanding, some always operate this way.
There’s no set time that the bars have to close, so some are always open, some close at 3am, some at 6am. That’s one thing I love about Hong Kong–there are very few rules. There’s also no sales tax on most items, save stuff like alcohol and tobacco. It’s a place that is free from a lot of the random little laws that in America are utterly unnecessary.
Anyways, all in all, I had a great time. It was unique to see such a culturally American and Western holiday interpreted in a Chinese setting, and to experience it with Indians who had never seen Halloween celebrated before. The combination of random Western cultural references (Snow White, Spiderman, Greek soldiers) a Chinese city/culture, and Indian friends made for a very unique experience. In addition to all of that, I got to celebrate my birthday again, with a cute little cake my friends snuck out and bought for me, as well as with
nightly servings of my favorite food in the world, Rajasthani laal maas. I will never forget running barefoot, drunk, through the Hong Kong metro at 4am singing “Mein Sharabi” (a Hindi song whose title literally means ‘I’m Drunk!’ and who’s lyrics consist of repeatedly saying ‘I’m drunk, I’m drunk’ over and over again), swinging from the metro handrails, forgetting my Octopus card at some random bar, and hopping the turnstiles more than a few times. Hong Kong is an amazing place, even more so on public holidays, because while Hong Kong natives work hard, they play even harder. I highly recommend visiting!
Pub Street in the old market area of Siem Reap, Cambodia, is the place to be after sundown. Siem Reap is primarily known as the city closest to Angkor Wat, and thus attracts people visiting the ancient temple complex (see my entry on this here). However, there are quite a few backpackers in the city as well, and local tour guides, as well as expats, and all of these types and more hit up the bars, clubs, and dance halls off of Pub Street after darkness falls. The clubs are not by any means ritzy or exclusive–no, no, they cater to the crusty backpacker crowd and usually play top 40 hits, but still, are a lot of fun. Think buckets of beer vs. martinis. Nearby, there’s also an excellent night market selling everything from raw jade to kitschy little tourist shirts that say stuff like “I left my heart in Angkor Wat!” So imagine, you can get wasted on cheap beer then buy shitty souvenirs to your heart’s delight! After days wandering around spiritual, intense, and ancient temples at Angkor Wat, you’ll need a little David Guetta and a nice cold beer.
In this video specifically, a good friend of mine was drunk and decided to challenge a small child (maybe 8 years old?) to a breakdance competition outside of one of Pub Street’s bars. He was trying to show off in an effort to impress this girl, and the whole thing was absolutely hilarious. Yes, I know the video quality isn’t so great, and yes, I know he dances like a spastic robot, but all in all, I had to post this because it brought back such good memories. As in, memories of me bawling my eyes out because I had a crush on him and he left with another girl. Sigh. We can’t win them all now can we?
Note: Don’t worry, I waited and pretended not to care about him at all, and, in the end, we dated for a brief period of time, so it wasn’t a complete loss. 😉
To Listen: Great bubblegum to inspire your best drunken breakdancing moves!
Traveling to Egypt in January of 2011 was one of my most intense travel experiences–and I don’t say that lightly, considering I’ve traveled to many crazy places during many crazy events!
I’ve taken awhile to write about this because it was such an all encompassing experience. It’s hard to really do the whole thing justice; how is one really supposed to describe what it feels like to be a part of a living history? So please forgive me for holding out, and know that I will do my best to capture the essence of such a truly unique experience. I have written about the revolution in the past for the GAdventures blog (at the time, they were GAP Adventures), however, it’s since been taken down. Another roadblock in the completion of this post was the theft of my laptop in 2012. Sadly, I had none of my pictures or videos backed up and the thief stole all of my media from both the Egyptian revolution and my trip to Turkmenistan and Iran. Thankfully in the case of Egypt, I had uploaded some photos to Facebook before they were stolen (the other trip, sadly no). The accompanying photos were saved by Facebook, and for the lack of video, I apologize, again, all the footage was lost to me when my old laptop was snatched from my car.
To begin: I had always wanted to visit Egypt–it was number 1 on my list of dream destinations. I had always been fascinated with the Ancient Egyptian culture, ruins, monuments, mummies and hieroglyphics. Who isn’t, really? While my first trip overseas wasn’t to Egypt (I thought I’d get my feet wet going somewhere with a little less of a cultural difference, so I hit up Eastern Europe first), my second trip most definitely was. I booked myself a spot on the Absolute Egypt GAdventures tour, picking that specific tour because it touched on various parts of Egypt that most tourists don’t get to see; namely the Western Desert and it’s many oasis towns (Siwa, Dakhala, Farfara, etc). I had been obsessed with the Western Desert ever since I had first picked up a copy of “The English Patient”. Michael Ondaatje’s breathtaking descriptions of the desert that the explorer Almasy chronicled around WWII had me in a swoon. I would have done anything and everything for even a glimpse of such a beautiful desert! So, when picking out my Egyptian tour, I made sure to book one that had a few stops in the Western Desert.
I will write more about the rest of my Egyptian trip in another post; here, I will focus on the end of my tour, which was cut short by the Egyptian revolution. I was visiting in January of 2011, and little did I know that by the end of my stay, Egypt
would be in the midst of a full fledged revolution. Despite my love for conflict zones, I genuinely had no idea going in that a revolution would break out. Of course I knew about what had happened recently in Tunisia, but I, like most other people, did not expect anything similar to happen in Egypt. Egypt was a much larger country, with way more freedoms afforded to it’s people than Tunisia. At the time, if you had asked any Egyptian a week or two prior to the revolution, they would (and did) say the same thing–“We have Facebook here, mobile phones! What need do we have for a revolution? We are too big, we cannot have one, things are too complicated here.” Those very words were spoken by my tour guide, Said, at the beginning of our tour in Cairo. Some member of the group had asked about the Tunisian revolution spilling over into Egypt. Said casually dismissed the thought, dismissed it outright.
The tour commenced and I was having a wonderful time. We visited all the major tourist sights.
We began the tour in Cairo, and then took an overnight train to Aswan. From there, we sailed up the Nile a ways in a traditional Egyptian boat called a felucca, stopping occasionally to see many historic sights, to take lunch, and finally, to sleep. We visited the Valley of the Kings, had a dinner in a local home in Aswan, stopped at the Temple of Edfu, and ended up in Luxor. As I stated, I will cover all this in a later post.
This story begins in Luxor, on our second day in the city. Said, our tour leader, was on edge, and when we pressed about what was bothering him, he mentioned that it was a national holiday–National Police Day–where Egyptians were to celebrate the police force. This was a tricky thing, since most of the police force was utterly corrupt and acted like assholes. You’d see them on every corner, semi-automatic weapons drawn, big bellies hanging over their belts. They were local bullies who would show up to local stores and demand to eat for free, and sometimes would even trump up fake charges for local business owners who wouldn’t refuse their requests for free food and labour. Long story short–everyone in Egypt hated the police force. So what to do on National Police Day? Organize a protest, or a march, against the police force’s long abuse of power seemed to be the answer. Said had gotten word from friends in Cairo about a planned march in protest of this holiday, and was worried that the protest would get out of hand and result in violence. Said and I were pretty close–much closer than the rest of the group–and he confided more to me than to anyone else. He held
back with the rest of the group, out of a desire not to cause panic, but in private relayed to me that as the minutes passed that afternoon, the group in Cairo had gotten bigger and bigger. Everyone who had started the protest on Twitter had showed up, in addition to about a million more people! This was entirely unexpected and suddenly it wasn’t just the police force the people were protesting against–it was now every oppressive part of Egyptian life, which pretty much meant the protestors were now calling for an entirely new government!
That evening, Said took me to a shisha cafe on the outskirts of Luxor and ordered me an apple shisha and mint tea–my favorite combination. As a woman, I was normally not allowed in shisha cafes anywhere in Egypt, but Said worked something out with the owner of this cafe so he and I could spend some quality time alone. It was unthinkable for a single man to hang out with a single woman pretty much anywhere in Egypt, as dating is not a common practice and men and women who are not family are not supposed to spend time alone except after marriage. Given this, it took some special work to spend time alone, and since it looked especially bad for us to hang out alone together in our hotel, a shisha bar was the most viable option. Said and I had a good time talking about various things, but I was mostly concerned about what his thoughts were regarding the situation in Cairo. While worried, he felt that because the average Egyptian was better off than say the average Libyan or Tunisian, that these Egyptians would eventually go back home soon and forget about the whole thing after expressing some of their frustrations. Said said that perhaps if the imams rile people up after the Friday prayers, maybe it will last a few days. But nothing longer. He was more
concerned for his family in Aswan. He had left his mother and sister alone without a male guardian and, being Coptic Christian, he worried that if the protests spread to other cities, they would be in danger. We ended up staying out pretty late, having a great time. I liked Said a lot; maybe in another culture or situation I would have dated him. But as it was, we both ended up going back to the hotel and sleeping alone.
The next morning we awoke to chaos. We had planned to stay another night in Luxor, but as we awoke up to the smell of heavy smoke rolling past our hotel, we realised this would not be feasible. From the hotel rooftop, we could see the building across from us smoldering. In Egypt, there are not many building codes; in the neighborhood where we were located, most buildings were made from either concrete and dried mud or just dried mud. A fire could easily and quickly spread from building to building. Ergo, we had to evacuate pretty quickly, and come to find out, the building across the street from us was none other than the local police station. The situation had escalated dramatically overnight. As our tour group rushed into a hastily prepared and waiting van, we saw hundreds of protesters marching up the local side streets towards the Luxor’s city center. Things were not “dying down” at all.
Said quickly called his company’s headquarters for advice–they told him to come to Cairo and get the tourists evacuated as soon as possible. Said made a few more calls into Cairo and found out things had REALLY escalated there, with lots of violence, nighttime raids on local houses, and groups of armed people going through, raping and plundering family homes. He made a final call and decided to go against his company’s orders and drive us out into the Western Desert, a few days before we were scheduled to go anyways, to wait out the protests. He called his mother and sister and assured them he would be back to Aswan soon, to look after them. Thankfully Aswan, being at the far end of Egypt, was barely affected
by the protests. In hindsight, I respect Said a lot for putting us random foreigners and our safety and our happiness over the health and wellbeing of his own family. That choice should say a lot about both his character specifically and, generally, the amazing generosity of the Egyptian people. Above all, throughout this whole ordeal, I was made to feel nothing but goodwill, protection and kindness from all the Egyptians I encountered, and most of all, from Said.
We broke with our itinerary and immediately began to drive out into the Western Desert. The Western Desert is a huge swathe of desert that blurs the borders between Western Egypt and Eastern Libya. It’s one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth and for thousands of
years has only been inhabited by roaming bands of Bedouins, or native desert tribes. Even to this day, apart from small oasis towns, there are no permanent inhabitants in the area. It’s a rather dangerous area too, known as a conduit for trafficked drugs and human slaves, funneled from North to Central and South Africa. Being the case, we were supposed to pick up a police officer to protect us before entering the desert proper, but since the revolution had begun, all the police officers had fearfully abandoned their posts. We did, luckily enough, find one policeman just outside of Luxor willing to travel with us, weaponry included (but sans official uniform). He too wanted out of the city and thought hiding out in the desert sounded like a great idea. So, he joined our little party and we drove west into the desert after swapping out our tourist van for two JEEPs, filled with the necessary provisions for several nights of open air camping.
The first part of the Western Desert is the White Desert–a very surreal place, filled with windblown chalk formations. The entire desert is covered in white–it looks like a layer of snow on top of yellow sand, but it’s actually a very fine layer of chalk. In some areas, huge white chalk formations rise up out of the desert sands, shaped and molded by the strong winds that blow through the
region. The White Desert and it’s chalk formations are truly a sight to behold and continue to be one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I am a lover of deserts, above all else, so to me, I was overjoyed to stay out in the desert and explore forever! Of course I wanted to get into the fray in Cairo too, but at the time, the magic of the desert overpowered my desire to follow what was going on elsewhere in Egypt.
When night fell, we set up camp and cooked a dinner of lentils and flatbread over an open fire. It was wonderful falling alseep piled together on a bunch of mats beneath the bright desert stars and silvery moon. We saw a few desert foxes out and about at night, looking for shiny things to steal from camp. In the morning, we all enjoyed hot tea as we watched the slowly sun rise. Being
January, it was freezing cold at night but thankfully not too hot during the day. After a few nights in the White Desert, we proceeded onwards to the Black Desert, which, just as with the white, was covered in a light layer of black volcanic stone, giving the sand a black sheen. Large volcanic looking hills sprouted out of the flat desert floor all around us, and we climbed up a few of them for a fantastic panoramic view of the vast emptiness of the Western Desert. Again, I was elated and again, we camped out under the stars, stopping around noon at a beautiful hot spring for a quick bath and scrub!
However, after a few days of camping, we were beginning to run out of petrol, food, and water.
The next day we turned and drove back to the nearest oasis, Dahkala, hoping to restock on provisions and to receive some news of the situation in Cairo. The Egyptian government had shut off all cell phone, data, and internet service, so we had lost contact with the outside world and many of us (Said included) were very keen to get word of what was happening in Cairo and to assure our loved ones that we were alive and safe. We pulled into the nearest town, Dakhla Oasis, got some cheap rooms at a local guest house, and proceeded to plant ourselves in front of the only working TV in the
building–a small, maybe 10″ set, with a working cable connection. We were astounded at the images and words coming through; blown away at the millions upon millions who were now occupying Tahrir Square. None of us, including Said, or the owner of the guesthouse, or the driver, or our police officer guard, had expected this. We all just sat around the TV in shock. Said translated for those who didn’t speak Arabic–“an estimated 8 million people are marching…” “…they demand that Mubark step down as President…” “…there have been many violent conflicts at night in residential neighborhoods; many people have been killed and houses and hotels have been looted…” Said was beside himself with worry for his family in Aswan, and tried to call on a landline, with no success. All forms of communication save radio and TV were cut off and we were essentially stranded in this oasis town because–guess what!–we had also run out of both petrol and food.
And by “running out of food” I mean we had run out of provisions in addition to the hotel as well. There were no local restaurants that had food either. No local markets with food. The Egyptian government had stopped the transportation of petrol to all parts of Egypt in an attempt to quell the revolution and this had resulted in no trucks being able to transport food to remote places like Dakhala. Since Dakhala didn’t produce much food on it’s own (it’s an oasis, all they produce are dates), that meant that people were beginning to starve. It had been about a week since the first protests had begun, and people were slowly running out of food stock. There
weren’t even the basics; no bread and babies were hungry because there was no milk. Our dinners at the hotel (we were not allowed to leave due to violence in the streets) consisted of a meager cup of chicken broth with one or two lentils swimming sadly in it, and moldy flatbread. It was becoming a dire situation. From the roof of our hotel the next morning, I watched a bakery store open. Within about 5 minutes, all the bread had been sold and there were still hundreds of hungry people waiting for a chance to eat. A fight broke out between people, women with babies started screaming, and suddenly a gun shot was fired. Fists were flying, someone was down, and blood was fanning out on the street.
We were all very concerned about our situation, Said most of all. Along with a lack of food, we had no petrol and hence no way to leave the oasis. We were stranded. For several days we stayed in Dakhla, and every night Said and I would sit and eat some of his private stash of dates that he had smartly purchased before the revolution began. He told me he wasn’t sure we would actually make it through. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t contact anyone. He couldn’t continue to keep us at this hotel. In desperation, he had gone to the tribal leader of the oasis and asked if we could borrow some of the petrol that fueled the main well that fed the city water. It was a crazy thing to
do–to ask this man if we could endanger his entire city and potentially deprive hundreds of people water simply to get some foreigners home, but out of hospitality and duty he felt he had to ask. And thankfully, and because Egyptians are truly amazing people, this elder consented and we were rationed a small amount of fuel to get us back on the road towards Cairo. It wouldn’t take us all the way there, but it would get us close. We prayed we would run into another source of petrol somewhere along the way.
Luckily, the day we left Dakhla, the cell service in Egypt was turned back on again, and Said was able to speak with his family and his company headquarters in Cairo. His family was thankfully safe, although many of his friends in Cairo were not. The company told him under no uncertain
terms to head directly to international airport in Cairo and to get us on evacuation flights out of the country before it was too late. The US Government (along with most other Western nations) had been running evacuation flights out of Cairo for about a week now, and were about to stop doing so. Anyone left behind would be, well, left behind, with no consular assistance and with zero ground support from their home nation. It was imperative we get on those last few flights out of Egypt.
We drove through the night, but ran out of petrol less than half way to Cairo. Despondent and trapped without water or food, we waited for someone, anyone, to drive by and offer help. We were near a petrol station, but it had been abandoned and vandalised. Said called his friends and fellow tour guides seeking aid, and finally, Mohammed (later to become a good friend of mine) happened to be close by with another van full of foreigners and agreed to come over to help us. He showed up, siphoned some of his own meager supply of petrol into our gas tank and both of our vans hit the road to Cairo.
At the outskirts of the city, we ran into many road blocks. Military equipment, tanks, shell casings, and random artillery lay everywhere alongside the road. Fires were burning out of control and all the buildings had been abandoned. We were not allowed through roadblocks several times, as the millions protestors were marching to Mubark’s house and demanding his resignation that very day. To get to the airport, we needed to cross the path that the protesters were marching, and no member of the military would less us through. Finally, after a long hard discussion, Said and the plainclothes police officer who was with us, with his guns, turned to us
in the van and said “We are going to drive off road. Please lay on the floor of the van and do not look up. You may see things you don’t want to see.” At this point, the police officer stuck his guns out the window and the driver veered off the road and down over a ledge. The police officer shot a few times into a crowd, trying to make way for our bus to get through. People cleared, but starting throwing rocks at us, angry, thinking we were pro-Mubarak thugs. It was pretty crazy for awhile. People mobbed our van, climbing up the sides, shaking it violently, grabbing things through the windows, throwing stones, molotov cocktails, bullets and all manner of objects at us. Eventually we made it through, mostly due to our police officer guard, who kept shooting the mobs of people who were threatening or too crazy with the van.
Finally, we pulled up at the Cairo airport. Everyone was let off at their country’s evacuation
points, and I was last, as I am American and of course, we had taken over an entire terminal! Said and I had grown close and it was hard to leave him. I stood for maybe 45 minutes, watching families being ripped apart. The mother can go, she’s American, the son must stay, he’s Egyptian. The father can go, he’s American, the newborn baby without a mother has to be left here. It was gut wrenching. Families were wailing, begging US military members to be allowed to go with their other family members. People were foisting babies in the US military member’s
faces–“Give my son a chance! What life will he have here? Maybe he will die! Do you want to be why my son dies?” Remember at this point, no one knew what would happen, and it seemed at that moment that nothing but utter chaos and anarchy would reign. For the Coptic Christian minority, fearing a Muslim Brotherhood majority, religious violence was also looming large.
I was handed a piece of paper and told to sign it–it was my official document of evacuation. Essentially it said that I was being consensually evacuated from Egypt and that I was agreeing to pay the price for the evacuation flight. It also told me I could end up in one of three places–Cyprus, Istanbul, or Athens. The document told me I wouldn’t know until I landed. The price for the evacuation flight was left blank and I took issue with this; how was I to sign a piece of paper promising to repay an amount that was unspecified? They could write in $10 million dollars! I could never repay that! How was I to tell how much the government would charge me for this? The last flight out before the final US military presence was removed was queueing up to board and I was still arguing with some US official about the paperwork, standing with Said, who was holding my hand. He wanted to come with me. He had never left
Egypt, was a Christian, and for all he knew, he and his family would end up being the targets of violence and bigotry for years maybe decades to come. For a good long moment, I stood resolved not to get on the airplane. I would stay with him and I would stay in Egypt and I would write about what I saw and what was really happening. I would call the BBC, or hell even CNN, and stay on and ride it out. But then I made the mistake of calling my mother to tell her this and she threatened to send a privately chartered jet to come get me if I didn’t get on the one waiting for me on the tarmac. So against my better wishes (and in hindsight I truly believe I should have stayed), I turned, said goodbye to Said, and got on the plane.
We touched down in Istanbul about 2 hours later. I had amassed a group of fellow Americans who were really scared and lost–the sort that get jostled by these kinds of scenarios (as opposed to me, who is energized by them). I had been to Istanbul many times before and knew my way around the city and had quite a few friends, so I offered to get these Americans a cheap, good hotel room and give them tours of the city while they got flights back home. I called a friend of mine at the Hotel Niles and pretty much filled his hotel up with guests (my room was free of
course, muhahaha!). I showed these Americans the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, took them to the waterfront and put them on cruises. A lot of them were GAdventures people from various tours in Egypt being run co-concurrently, so the GAdventures company reached out to me and offered me a huge thank you, a free tour in the future, and a place on their blog to write about my experience (which I did, but which sadly has been removed).
End of the story– I stayed on in Istanbul, waiting for flights into Cairo to recommence. All air in and out of Egypt had been suspended, but I waited and I waited, I followed the news and I waited some more. But it took too long and I had to get back home. I waited because I wanted to see Said again and I wanted to go back to that lovely country who’s people risked their lives for a group of strangers. I was as in love with Egypt as I was with it’s people, and I wanted so badly to go back, but the revolution took longer than anyone ever suspected. I ended up returning September of 2012 to finish my tour, and again in November of 2012, but
sadly I haven’t seen Said since the revolution, although we stay in touch over Facebook. I also sadly have not visited Egypt in several years, but I hope to return soon. I cannot say enough good things about the country, it’s people, and it’s history. No matter what the situation is politically, make sure you visit Egypt and be sure to support all the amazing tour guides that put everything on the line for their group members when called upon to do so. As they say, once you drink from the Nile, you will always return. I’ll see you there.
Recommended Tour: GAdventures, “Absolute Egypt“. $1279 USD for 16 days, Cairo to Cairo. $449 USD single room supplement (if you want your own room without a same gender roommate). It’s a comprehensive tour that touches on all the best that Egypt has to offer–all the major temples including the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Hatshepsut, the temple complex in Luxor, Edfu, and of course, the Great Pyramids. It also includes a felucca sailing journey up the Nile from Aswan, an overnight train from Cairo, and several days out in the Western Desert, along with a night in Alexandria and a visit to the famous library.
To Stay: Hotel Niles (Istanbul). Rates fluctuate from $100/night during the off season (winter) to $200/night during high season (summer). A 10% discount is offered on cash payments if booked through the hotel website. Rooms are gorgeous, decorated in the continental style with small local flourishes (such as a turkish bath in some rooms). A lovely terrace at the top of the hotel has an amazing view of the Istanbul harbor and every morning a large breakfast spread is put out on the terrace for guests, free of charge. The hotel is located within walking distance of all major tourist attractions in the city (Topaki Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, etc). Airport transfers from Ataturk Airport are roughly $30, one way.
To Listen: A good friend of mine suggested that I add a few song recommendations to each travel update, and I happen to agree with him, it’s a great idea, and a great way to capture the spirit of a location. Here are my recommendations for this post:
- “Wakhali” (Empty) by Omar Souleyman (one his videos)
- “Aicha” by Bayta Ag Bay from the album compilation “Music from Saharan Cellphones”
- “Shou 3melti Feye” by Haytham Shoumali
Note: Despite the many official government travel warnings, I’ve always found Egypt to be a welcoming, hospitable place. As long as you have a good guide if you’re a first time visitor or a non-Arabic speaker, you’ll be just fine. I returned to Egypt under many heavy travel warnings and never had any issues, as I was under the advice and guidance of honest, hardworking tour guides. If you have any question about the character of your guide, because some can be shady, I recommend you call an international tour company and ask to rent out one of their guides for private hire if you do not want to go as part of a group. Egypt can be hard to navigate on your own, and whatever you pay to your guide will be more than worth the hassle and expense of hiring him or her. If you are a woman, be sure to adhere to local dress codes, especially in more rural areas. This means cover your shoulders and cleavage, do not wear shorts, and cover your head with a scarf if entering any mosques or churches. If you choose not to follow these local customs, prepare to be harassed often. As a Western woman you will already attract enough attention as it is, and highly advise you to minimize this impact by simply covering up, even if you’re inclined, due to the heat, not to. It’s better to blend in than stand out for both safety and sanity reasons.
Given my somewhat recent post about Nairobi, Kenya, I just wanted to give my readers an update about the city.
I had one hell of a time leaving the city, as I departed on the last flight out of the airport before the airport exploded into flames.
A few weeks later, after having seen a couple Bollywood movies at the Westgate Mall, several people were taken hostage by militants after killing over 67 people.
Now today, there were explosions near the market I am pictured standing in in downtown Nairobi.
I urge everyone considering a trip to Kenya to postpone it until Kenyan troops cross back into Kenyan territory. Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia in an effort to fight terrorism in 2011 and the results have been an increase in terror attacks in the Kenyan capital.
I am not one for hyperbolic travel warnings, and I definitely don’t believe in traveling with fear, but there is something to be said for being sane and safe. Plus, even if I would still travel to Kenya, I can’t say that I would recommend that normal people visit at this time. The area is too close to chronically unstable regions such as Somalia and until the Kenyan army works out a new way to battle Islamic extremism, the area is just too dangerous to travel to at the moment. This includes also Tanzania and Zanzibar, as there have also been several acid attacks on Westerners there within the past year or so as well (also coincidentally right after I departed the country). I guess my luck was running low or high, depending on how you wanna view it.
At the end of the day, as someone who’s been to these places and who can asses the risks realistically, I have to recommend that people wait until things settle down before starting a safari. All major safairs run through Nairobi, so please just postpone until the region stabilizes.