Sunday, October 31, 2010

BlogCarnival #13 - Memorable City Experiences

In the wake of the recent rough news to hit my current hometown of Istanbul I thought I'd present a magical moment experienced in this city that preceded the aforementioned act of terrorism by roughly 36 hours.

October 29th is Cumhuriyet Bayram (Republic Day) in Turkey. On this day in 2010 Turkey celebrated the 87th anniversary of the Turkish Republic.

That evening from our balcony on the Asian side we were treated to one of the most amazing fireworks displays I have ever seen. Truly memorable and definitely magical. Spanning an area of 5km the show lasted for 15 minutes. Here is two-and-half minute hastily shot video where I sound a little bit like the 'double rainbow' guy. Listen for the Istanbulites cheering in between booms and enjoy the broadcast.

In commemoration of Turkey lifting its two-year ban on YouTube here is the video link below:

In addition to, this posting is also featured as a part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Carnival. Every two weeks one of Lonely Planet's favorite bloggers becomes the editor of a series of postings all centred on the same theme. This week’s editor is Denise at Travel With DenDen and the declared theme is "Magical/Memorable City Experiences". So visit Travel With DenDen thisNovember 8 to read what the Blogsherpas came up with.

Friday, October 22, 2010

1st Anniversary - North Cyprus

EZ and I decided to put an 'add-on' to our marital vows. In a collective mission to get to and experience the world's tinier nations, the countries easily missed whilst travelling, we pledged to visit a different out-of-the-way country on dates landing on and around our wedding anniversary. Insallah, we can look forward to clinking champagne cups together in Malta, Monaco, Macau, St. Martin, and perhaps even the island Yap in The Federated States of Micronesia.

To kick things off, for our first anniversary we hopped on a flight for 3 days in North Cyprus. Before our departure, friends in Istanbul declared that there is nothing going on in North Cyprus; just a slew of resorts and not much else. Either way, I was looking forward to some quiet beaches, seaside fish/mezza restaurants and lots of halloumi, a traditional Cypriot cheese.

We arrived at the Ercan Airport and hopped on a Havas (airport bus) that would shuttle us in one hour to Girne (Greek pron. 'Kyrenia') for 10 TL each (5 Euro). Okay, let me take care of the elephant in the room. Not having exchanged our currency, technically we weren't in a new country, but, the flag is different and a de facto state is good enough for me. Just show me the fish, cheese and beach.
Driving through the countryside, we noticed a lot of abandoned housing projects and dozens of car rental outlets and dealerships. The landscape was nice though and reminded us of the high-hills to sea geography of the Turkish Mediterranean. You have to drive around one of these hills to get into Girne. Just as the sun set behind the hill, we arrived in Girne, a picturesque harbour-town nestled like an egg between the hill and the sea. Not wanting to be tied down to one place we opted to stay in town as opposed to doing the resort routine. It was a bit of a shady walk to the guesthouse as most of the locals were young squirrelly men, skulking about in the cobblestoned back alleys. The local creepy man vibe was very typical of most seaside resort towns. See: Dahab (Egypt).
For those of you taking notes, we paid 50 TL for a double-bed private room at Cyprus Dorms. Our suite had a lovely snapshot of the harbour, excellent sight lines of the action along the pier and a perfect view of Girne Castle to our right. That evening we cruised the main drag, found one of those aforementioned seaside fish/mezze restaurants and had some Levrek (fish), 10 mezze dishes and of course, a couple tall glasses of Raki. At the conclusion of our dinner we were treated to a fight between a gang of local lads. The tourists, for the most part English, were well behaved.

My initial impressions of Girne, apart from the ever-present squirrely local packs of dudes, was that the tourists tended to avoid the main city and stay confined to the neighbouring resorts or inside the plethora of casinos. There is a lot of really nice restaurants and bars in town. Of course, the best ones are off of the main drag and you have to do some searching. I'll tell you about the one we found in a bit. We weren't hassled by shop owners and restaurant hosts nearly as much as I thought we would be. Also unexpected, there wasn't that laid back island vibe, to the contrary, juxtaposed with the vacationers, the people here seemed to really work hard and have not inherited a chilled out mentality common to most hot climate islanders. Often they were quite serious, curt and plainspoken. Hey, at least we didn't hear Bob Marley blowing out of the bar speakers all day and night. Overall, I think Girne has managed to avoid most of the pitfalls of a resort town but could still use a little dusting off.

Yada yada yada, the next morning we made our way over to Girne castle (Kyrenia Castle). The tourist price is 13 TL. I stay out of sight and EZ (who is Turkish) negotiates successfully for the 'local' price of 3 TL. The castle is worth a visit if only to see a properly elevated view of the coastline and the geography of the city below. There are also some corners and hidden nooks to kiss in. It was our anniversary after all and I'm not going to leave all of the romance out of this posting.

Speaking of romance, after the castle we went for breakfast and I had BACON for the first time in 9 months. It was back bacon no less. Canadian style.

It was around this time when we were forced to make a decision. Whether or not to use our two days to travel around the island or to stay in this area. Breaking with tradition we elected to stay put. We checked in to a newer (and fancier) hotel then took a cab to the nearest beach. You should also know that in Cyprus they drive the English way, on the left side of the road.
That evening as we got ready for our official anniversary dinner we saw an amazing sunset behind the hills.

The back alleys of central Girne, local squirrels aside, are quite lovely. There is a architectural consistency in the shaded stone homes and the width of the cobblestone lanes don't allow for much motorized traffic. We were able to track down a gorgeous Italian restaurant tucked away within these back lanes. SET Ristorante Italiano, if it weren't a restaurant, would be our dream home. We sat in the courtyard garden at the bottom of a sculpted staircase that connected various sections of the stone hewed building. In our dream home of course, the staircase leads down through an archway to a marble dock on the Mediterranean. One day, perhaps.

Over the course of our candle lit dinner we were visited by some curious cats.
On a cultural note, over the past couple days we were noticing that a lot of the hotel and restaurant employees were not Turkish and definitely not native Cypriots. It turns out most of the tourist haunts are English owned and these businessmen from Britain import workers from Kashmir province in northern India. How these Kashmir(ians?) are pulled out of this unstable region and connect with English tourism businesses in Cyprus, I have no idea and our server wasn't about to give up his secrets.

Apart from inquisitively inquiring about the immigration status of our servers, the minutes turned into hours as we sampled local red wines, ate lasanga and cheesecake, smoked a cigar, gazed longingly into each others eyes and nostalgically recalled the year that has passed since the celebration of our nuptials. After dinner, with wide-eyes and blushed cheeks we made our way to the after party in room #36 at Anadol Hotel...

The next day was spent much the same as the first with a visit to the beach and meals at scaled down hole in the wall eateries. I also purchased four giant blocks of halloumi. We woke up at 4am the following day to catch our 7am flight back to Istanbul.

Which brings me to the important part. Are you a fan of Raki? In Cyprus it's 11 TL ($8) for a litre and flying into Istanbul I suppose you are not on an international flight (though for all intents and purposes for us, we were) so there is no customs check upon arrival. For 100 Euro we got some big bottles of Tequila, Vodka, Baily's, 2L of JD, Glennfidich, and a couple jugs of Yeni Raki. That should keep us going through year 2 of our union, or at the very least until New Years.
Which brings me to this other slightly more important part. No matter where we spend our feasts of occasion and celebration you should all know that I have the best travel partner ever. Not only is she the best dressed backpacker out there and up for anything but she is also happy to take 6 tries at making me look like Nixon getting onto the Marine One chopper while the flight crew impatiently look at their watches.

(below: flying out of Girne, North Cyprus)
I love you EZ. Cheers to us!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Carnival #12 - Scary Stories

As the host of this month's Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival, and in the spirit of the North American holiday of Hallowe'en, I have asked some of the best travel writers on the web to share their own indigestions, and recount to you, the reader, some scary tales of woe whilst travelling the face of the globe.

I'll go first.

"Where is the scariest place you have ever been?" declares an inquiring mind. The scariest place I have ever been? Well, apart from high school, I have to confess that given my over-active imagination, simply walking down the street after midnight in any small town in Canada can be just as fearful and mind-wringing as most of the places I've visited overseas. At various instances, even across "the true north, strong and free [Canada]," I've seen grown men howl at the moon in anger, complete strangers have asked that I punch them in the face as hard as I can, and the bus station at 4am in Barrie, Ontario, can be just as tense and thrilling as a taxi ride to the Cairo Airport.

Which brings me to a brief disclaimer. I think every place on earth has the same potential for dangerous pitfalls and shaddy people, and I would never say that a place is 'too dangerous, they have snakes and spiders, don't go there.' For me, I do not place the blame for my tales of terror on specific places, but rather, I would say it sparks from random moments that are either in or out of my control in any place and time. Simply put, if you should have a spooky encounter in Paris, that doesn't mean that Paris is too dangerous and no one should visit. Broad generalities such as this are insensitive to the place you are visiting and give an incomplete impression. With that in mind, I digress slightly, as a story does need a location.

To begin, here is a frightening event that was thrust upon me, out of my control.

My wife (EZ), a friend and I were in a taxi, riding home from a friends wedding in Istanbul. Even at 1am the highway was busy. Our driver, inadvertently or intentionally, I'm not sure which, cut off another motorist. The other car was a dented-in-12-places white FIAT, crammed with the requisite 10 family members that have all made their way into town from Central Anatolia. If you have been to or live in Istanbul, you know the kind of car I am talking about. I slouched down in my passenger side seat, just in case a bullet came through the back window (I've seen too many movies). After a few seconds pass, the FIAT screeched beside us. The driver and his entire brood started to hurl obscenities past me toward the taxi driver. Obviously, the taxi driver shouted back and vigorously raised his hands in fury. The FIAT swerved in front of us and halted in the fast lane of the 6-lane freeway. Our driver was forced to apply the brakes. Four men got out of the car and approached the driver's side. The taxi driver started to roll up his window but he was too late. One of the assailants grabbed the window and began trying to pull it off the car. Another proceeded to punch the windshield until it smashed. That was when I decided that it was time to get out of the taxi. Thankfully, the attackers had no interest in the passengers. It was like that scene in Jurassic Park where Sam Neil and the kids ran away without incident because the dinosaurs were instead preoccupied with devouring each other. Now would also be a good time to mention that EZ, a week prior to this, had undergone reconstructive knee surgery and could barely stand. I opened the back door and did my best to help her out. Amidst the screaming traffic, she steadily attempted to maintain balance on her crutches, but instead ended up looking more like Tucker in There's Something About Mary after he dropped his keys on Mary's office floor. To add more insult to this madness, we had a suitcase in the trunk. Our friend repeatedly screamed at the taxi driver to open the trunk. The driver, though understandably distracted, somehow managed to pop open the trunk. I grabbed the bag and we began our trek across the highway. Seeing the 3 of us meandering across the highway brought traffic to a halt and there must now be a video of it somewhere out there. Reading the distress signals all over our faces, another taxi pulled over, we got in and eventually arrived home safely. On the bright side, we only had to pay for half the fare home!

We currently live in Istanbul and while it is our favourite city and often, to a fault, we promote it with great positivity, we also know it can be quite manic and we are habitually prepared for things to turn sour quickly. However, what if the scenario was that we were a couple on our first trip to Turkey and taking a taxi into town? Not a good start to the 2-week 'vacay.' When I recount this story to local friends, they say that while the taxi drivers have dangerous reputations and a penchant for the dramatic, this tale of road rage is an exception and we all know it could happen anywhere.

Alternatively, there are the scary moments, rather, activities, that I have the power to choose. I'll keep this short as there is other, more important business to feature. Suffice it to say, any thrill embarked upon with my own prior approval satisfies this second category. Among others, this activity could be paragliding in Oludeniz, Turkey; bungie-jumping at Victoria Falls; ascending a Himalayan mountain; and/or going to the washroom at a rest stop in middle China. All of which provoke fear in the pit of my stomach, but afterwards I am usually happy and proud with my accomplishment.

Now, on to the point of this exercise.

Firstly, here is a bone-chilling story from Barbara at Hole in the Donut Travels that loosely involves the US military, Moth Man sightings and Richard Gere. Her story begins peacefully enough with an arrival to the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. She checked into the Lowe Hotel - the only hotel in town. In Barb's own words, "I got a room for the night and was pleasantly surprised to find my room decorated in antiques and outfitted with a queen-sized poster bed. It didn't take me long to climb beneath the fluffy quilt, prop myself up with two down pillows, and get to work on the computer. And that's when the noises started..."

As we hear in the news almost everyday, climate change is one of the scariest things on earth. All that Kate at Kate Rambles wanted out of her birthday trip to Nha Trang, Vietnam, was some sun and seashells. Instead, she got the aftermath of a typhoon and had to grin and bear it through a haunted airport.

I didn't have too much luck in Nha Trang myself. In fact, I ended up in the hospital for a couple days to receive treatment for a ruptured ear drum that was caused by swimming in giant waves that were far too big for casual jumping and splashing.

Bret, at I Moved to Africa sent me a spider story. I hate spiders. In hindsight, perhaps I should have known that my solicitation for scary stories would bring out a tale about these eight-legged freaks. I have even hesitated to 'cut' and 'paste' an image, but in the spirit of Hallowe'en, here goes nothing.


Okay, I've got to bear down and confront this fear... Here is my own scary spider short story. When you get off at the public bus terminal in Siem Reap, Cambodia (the city close to the famous Angkor Wat temples), children will offer to give you bananas and if you decline to purchase, they will give you an offer you can't refuse. These little brats will put a tarantula on your shirt until you agree to buy a banana. Here are a couple pics of some fellow backpackers immersed in this local prank (photo credit: Kevin Naughton).

Moving forward, lets inject an action-packed thrill ride into this piece. Jason at Alpaca Suitcase takes his son and daughter on a self-proclaimed Death Ride In the Andes. This ride is complete with stray dog attacks and a torrential visit from Mother Nature. Fun for the whole family!

Living in Istanbul, I know first-hand the joy that a stray dog gets from lunging out at passing motorists.

Continuing along on the same theme, Shanna, from Grand Cycle Tour writes of a harrowing cycle through Albania's Llogara Pass. Cycling past countless roadside memorials she and her husband attempt to move forward without thinking about statistics surrounding Albania's shockingly high number of road deaths.

People returning home from time spent abroad always have stories about how they averted a gypsy scam or a dishonest cab driver. It's one of my pet peeves of travel; the fact that a lot of the time it's difficult to trust locals that randomly approach you. Jaded, you stand patiently listening to their story, wary of a scam, waiting until you hear the true objective of their visit. "My uncle owns a suit shop. You should come with me to buy a suit." "My brother has a guest house. I can get you in for a good price." "Hello... Pineapple?" No, thank you.

Vibeke at Photito's Blog shares a very common tourist scam from the City of Light. If you have been to Paris, the 'ring scam' has likely been perpetrated on you by a wandering gypsy. How you fared depends on how suspicious you are towards strangers. Don't get me wrong, I love meeting new people (it's why I travel) and some of my best friendships were born out of chance encounters on the road, but if you are a traveller, you have to know that more times than not, people that approach you around the famous sites do not really want to be your friend. Again, it's the hardest part of travelling for me, feeling jaded.

Okay, let's hear some more ghost stories. Anne-Sophie at Sophie's World has been to 'the most haunting place in the Pacific'. According to legend, this honour belongs to Norfolk Island, one of Britain's worst convict colonies.

Liz at Travelogged rummaged through Rufford Abbey, one of Britain's most haunted places. Read on, only if you want to get spooked. The 'ghost baby' stories are really creepy. Though, if you made it through the spiders, you'll probably be fine.

Let's conclude these scary stories on a humorously violent note. When friends visit me in Istanbul, I usually drop them off at a Turkish Bath (Hamam) for a couple hours. The Hamam I take them to is extremely authentic and the experience is very traditional. This is not a watered down, pun intended, tourist experience. Upon entering, I can always tell by my friends' expressions and body language that they are not comfortable and quite tense. When it's all over however, every time, they come out feeling like a million bucks. Shawn at Shawn Was Here articulates his hamam experience. Like most things in life, as a smart man once told me, "you just have to let it happen."

Thank you for stopping by. I really hope you enjoyed these stories and my contribution to the LP BlogSherpa Carnival series.

For more Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnivals check out Carnival #11 (Food Around the World), hosted and posted by Kat at Tie Die Travels. Carnival #13 (Magical City Experiences) from Denise at Travel With Den and Den will be up and running in early November.

What is a BlogSherpa? Lonely Planet has signed up the best travel bloggers they can find. They bestow the title of 'BlogSherpa' to the blogger and then publish the blogger's articles on