Month four of our family’s round-the-world trip began with a stunning arrival into Istanbul at dawn. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this exceeded it all. The sky was just beginning to turn from black to purple to pinky-orange, and I saw ahead of us the arches of a roman aqueduct. When we passed that, I could see the domes and minarets of mosques piercing the skyline all around. We pulled into the station and I could just glimpse the Golden Horn – a body of water so named because of the color it reflects at dawn and dusk. We got off the bus and the air was warm, a fact which alone might make me love the place after months of cold in Europe. We were at the furthest eastern edge of Europe now, and we could barely remember where we came from, we were so anticipating the next days in Istanbul.
It did not disappoint, in any way.
We stayed in a very sweet little Airbnb apartment in the Beyoglu neighborhood. We met our host on a busy shopping street and followed him down a path so twisty I was wishing I had left a breadcrumb trail. Tiny, hilly streets barely allowed for more than one car at a time – I’m not sure how people do it.
It became obvious very quickly that this was going to be a place we would be eating well. Food is everywhere in Istanbul, and people are passionate about it.
The first night, we tried to find a place we had read about that should have been near our apartment, but we did not succeed. We were drawn in by the smell of grilling meat to a place nearby, so we decided to try it. The smell was amazing, but we weren’t entirely sure what we were eating. The thing that was cooking looked like hundreds of balloons tied around a skewer. I’m not sure we would have eaten the kucuruc if we had known it was barbecued sheep intestines, but sometimes it’s better not to know. It was delicious, and we ate every bite.
The next day, we decided to experiment on the sweet end of the spectrum, and had our first baklava of the trip. We were in heaven, and the girls vowed to try a different one every day to try to find the best in the city. They made a good effort, but in all honestly they were all delicious, and a decision could not be reached.
I had read about some foods we should try on a website called Istanbul Eats, and one of them really piqued my interest. The writer recommended getting a fish sandwich from a vendor at the end of the Galata bridge, for a very fresh bit of mackerel grilled and served with a squeeze of lemon and some salad. We were walking that way anyway, so we sought him out, just before the seafood market stalls. Calla declared it the best sandwich ever in the world. And the rest of us agreed. We returned a few days later, on a cold and rainy night, and we took shelter under the vendor’s umbrella. He took pity on us and invited us to share a drink with him. We watched him pour the icy cold purple juice into cups, and we anticipated a sweet pomegranate juice. But no. It was salgam suyu – thick and salty and vinegary – not unlike a V8. It was pickled purple carrot juice. “Perfect with the fish,” he said. Not sure I’m convinced, but I’m glad we got to try it.
We followed another Istanbul Eats suggestion on the Asia side of the city, in Kadiköy. We took a ferry across and found Ciya Sofrasi to be just as described – reasonably-priced meze with the most carefully prepared and amazing flavors we had ever had. And at nearby Baylan, the Kup Griye – ice cream with caramel and honey almonds – was bliss.
John did a lot of research for our food outings on the Guardian’s travel site, and it hasn’t steered us wrong yet. Durumzade, near our apartment, had amazing wraps of marinated meat that we went back for several times. Recommendations from the New York Times got mixed reviews from us. In at least one place, it appeared that the Times mention had caused prices to nearly double.
We did manage to see some sights between meals and snacks. At the top of the list, the Topkapi Palace was beyond impressive. There were weapons and craftsmanship on display there that I have never seen anywhere else. It was truly amazing to see the riches on display there. We understood then why there were armed guards outside, standing with their fingers on the triggers of their guns. A bit disconcerting, but when we saw the massive diamonds inside, it was easy to imagine someone trying to pull a heist there.
We managed to only skirt the outside of the Grand Bazaar on a Sunday, when many things were closed. John had no interest in it, the girls were afraid of pickpockets, and though I would have liked to have seen more of it, I really don’t need to buy anything. I have no interest in Turkish rugs whatsoever, so it just wasn’t a priority for us. We went through the Spice Market but, um, didn’t need any spices.
We did enjoy shopping in “our” neighborhood of Beyoglu. There was something for all of us there, from the cute trendy shops for the girls, to the antique and vintage shops for the parents, and the English-language bookstore for all of us.
From Istanbul, we flew to the middle of the country, to spend some time visiting Cappadocia, a region of unbelievable landscapes and underground cave cities. We stayed in the Karadut Cave Hotel in Göreme, the central town for visiting the area. Our room was indeed in a cave, dug from the ground. The landscape here is primarily sandstone, which is very soft, so over the centuries, people have carved out living spaces from the rock rather than constructing homes from other materials. The stone is so soft, little bits of stone kept crumbling from the walls and ceiling of our room so we had to be sure to cover our things and make our beds so we wouldn’t be sleeping in a sandy bed.
A big activity in Cappadocia is taking a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. We did not do this, because the cost was too high, and because one member of our family who shall remain nameless refused to do it, such was their fear of heights.
We did take a bus tour of the area one day, and spent the next day hiking around on our own. The underground cities, where Greek Orthodox people hid from their oppressors from the 4th to the 11th centuries, were incredibly large – one was 8 stories deep! And these were straight underground, not carved into the cliffs. It’s really astounding that people constructed these cities without machinery, and without, apparently, written designs.
That night, we ran into an Australian couple from our tour at the Göreme Restaurant. The place was great – cushions on the floors, a nice fire burning, wine and meze and a mean game of backgammon with the owner. Nikki taught our girls to play, while Matt gave us some great advice on travel in Australia.
The next night, the host at our hotel had offered to cook us a dinner of local specialties, which was nice, because many restaurants in the area were closed for the low season. They started us off with soup and a bulgur pilaf – both of which Calla proclaimed to be the best ever. The bulgur had a nutty flavor, with roasted peppers. The soup had a spicy broth, and contained tiny meatballs. They also had salad (with loads of parsley), pickled vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, and cucumber cured in a salt brine), and pomegranate and grapefruit sections. He brought out a dish of beans and meat for us to try, he said if we liked it he’d bring out more. And we did. The sweet he brought out was delish. Sun-dried apricots , each stuffed with a nut (walnut, almond, or hazelnut), sautéed in butter and drizzled with honey.
We reluctantly said goodbye to Turkey, but we were excited to get to Jordan, where we would catch up with old friends. In my excitement to get there, though, I had neglected to write down the address or phone number of the friends we’d be staying with, which made the exchange at immigration a little tense.
“Where are you staying in Jordan?”
“With my friend Fiona.” I didn’t even know Fiona’s married name, I realized as I answered.
“What is her address?”
“Um, I have that in my phone, but I’m not sure if the network is going to work when I turn it on….” In fact I only had her mailing address, which was a P.O. Box.
“Do you have a phone number where you’ll be staying?”
“Yes… but that’s in my phone too,” I lied straight out. And somehow he let us in. Maybe that’s why they made a retinal scan of each of us as we entered. Cool!
Fiona’s husband, Abed, met us at the airport. It was the first time I’d met him, but he seemed like an old friend immediately. He was utterly charming and seems to know everyone in the city. It was great catching up with Fiona and getting to know her sons. She and Abed are just amazing parents, and it was really impressive to watch them interact with their kids.
Fiona and Abed had planned a week of activities for us, including setting us up with a driver for much of our stay. I could barely contain my joy at not having to figure out the logistics for anything for an entire week. Our driver, Muhammed, picked us up and drove us around Amman, taking us to the Roman arena and to the Hercules Temple at the top of the hill. The museum by the temple was incredible in its 1950s simplicity. Unbelievable relics presented in display cases with just enough information to make you wonder at how casually they are displayed. A blank section of wall had a piece of paper indicating that normally, the Dead Sea Scrolls would be there, but they were being relocated to the soon-to-open Jordan Museum. Nearby was a large stone tablet from 961 BC – totally uncovered and open, and at risk of being bumped by the hordes of touri…, oh right. We were the only ones there.
Muhammed took us to Hashim’s, which is like the Ben’s Chili Bowl of Amman. Everyone goes here for falafel and hummus. Pictures of famous people line the walls. And just like Ben’s, it’s worth the hype.
The next day Muhammed drove us to the Wadi Rum desert, where we would camp out for the night in a Bedouin camp. Before we went to Jordan I had emailed Fiona – I’m curious about the Bedouin camps. Are they cool or is it like going to a Hawaiian luau in a resort? She said it was cool, and it was. The camps are indeed set up for tourists – the Bedouins who run them don’t normally live in them, but they are made just like the Bedouins who do camp in the desert. Semi-permanent frames are built in sheltered areas, and heavy carpets are hung to keep out the desert winds and sand.
Our guide, Omar, picked us up and drove us in his old Toyota truck, where we sat on benches in the back, around the desert, stopping to show us petroglyphs, sleddable sand dunes, and barely climbable rock formations. On one particularly precarious climb, I was seriously questioning my own judgment in letting myself and my children climb this high without safety equipment. Omar talked me down, literally, telling me he knows the rocks like the back of his hand. And then he showed me the front of his hand, where a scar began which ran all the way up his forearm, and pointed down to the ground. Somehow, that was reassuring.
We arrived at the camp just before the sun went down, and witnessed a gorgeous sunset over the desert. Several other guides brought their charges to the camp. They cooked an excellent dinner for us, which we ate around a fire in the main tent. Later, we admired the thickest array of stars we had ever seen, and then we retired to our carpet-walled and unheated tents for the night, fully-clothed and snuggled under the heaviest blankets I’ve ever seen.
The next morning we drove out of the desert and Muhammed drove us directly to the town of Petra, where an ancient city was carved into the cliffs. We were blown away by the size of the city, in height as well as acres. A looping road curves through the city, and we walked most of its length over three or four hours, deflecting offers for donkey and camel rides and souvenirs the whole way. The final stretch was a half-hour-long trek of 800 steep stairs leading to a major building and a great view. It tested our cardio-vascular abilities, but we made it. On the way back, exhausted as we were, we allowed Calla to cross one item off her “life goals” list and rode camels much of the way back up the road.
From Petra we drove on through dry, mountainous terrain until we turned a sharp corner and saw a green valley full of farms. This turned out be to the valley leading to the Dead Sea. We were a bit surprised that although the sea is huge, it is narrow enough that we could see Israel on the opposite bank. Also due to the fact that it’s the lowest point on earth, the temperature is much warmer there than in Amman, even though it is only 40 minutes away. So we were indeed able to float in the Dead Sea! Thanks to the thick concentration of salt and minerals, your body floats much more easily than in regular seawater, and it is almost impossible to get all the way under (and you wouldn’t want to, since the water burns your eyes and mouth quite a bit, we learned the hard way). We enjoyed soaking in the sea and coating ourselves with black Dead Sea mud. We’ll see if we notice the benefits to our skin and joints that these treatments are supposed to provide.
It was so nice we stayed an extra day. Woke up early to breakfast and swim with the Radi family. After they left, we went to float in the Dead Sea and then coat ourselves with mud. The sun was just warm enough, the water too, and it was just incredibly peaceful. We had lunch at the beach bar, then we went back to the room and slept, which seemed to be just what we needed to knock out the last of our illnesses. I’d had a fever since Wednesday, and Magno and I both had some intestinal issues.
Our last day in Amman, we met up with our old friends, the Akards. Shawn Akard was the girls’ preschool teacher, and she and her husband now work for the embassy here. Shawn showed us some of her favorite spots, and she had stocked up on some American treats for the girls, and even had a gingerbread house ready for them to decorate! This was a real treat for the girls, and it was great to see Shawn and her kids.
We went to the American Community School to see where Miles and Claire go (and where Shawn has of course started a school garden). Shawn seemed to know everyone there. We ran into the principal, and Shawn told him about our trip. Without any hesitation he said, “That’s great! I’m sure you guys are getting a lot more out of this trip than you would from a year in school.” Nice that a school administrator agrees!
We were really impressed by the Arab hospitality in Jordan, and we wished we had budgeted more time in the Middle East. Since neither of us had ever been there, we didn’t know what to expect. Would we feel safe there? Would there be tension? We found Jordan to be a place where we felt incredibly safe, and the people we met could not have been nicer. I think we’ll want to come back to this part of the world. I would love to see Syria and Lebanon, though they are not good places to visit right now.
We packed our bags and got ready for the biggest flight of our trip so far: to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia via Saudia Arabia.
Security at Amman airport was odd. You have to go through one set of scanners to get to the airline check-in desks. It’s good, because if there’s any problem they can tell you to put, say, your nail clippers, in your suitcase. There were separate screening areas for men and women. The two women screeners were in their 20s with heads covered, and the fashionable hair bump underneath their scarves, with bright green and yellow eyeshadow sitting, drinking coffee, and smoking. They sat, pointed at various pockets (and I do have a lot) and asked me to show what was in them. They would argue among themselves, and then waved me on. I couldn’t help but think of the girls of the Jersey Shore.
The guy at the check-in desk was the most cheerful airline worker I have ever seen. He was so giddy he might have been high, now that I think about it. He asked where we were from, said he loved Americans, said “I like you. I give you an upgrade.” And he made a big show of taping a special handling business class tag to our luggage. Sweet. Turns out it was just our luggage getting special treatment. That probably means, go through these bags and mess them up good!
Inside, just before the gates, you go through another security point. The physical flow of it alone is ridiculous, with a line sort of looping back through itself after the bag scan and before the body scan. They pull me aside to see my computer cords. The guy next to me has two plastic bags with him. One contains a crumpled dress shirt, something that looks like a small battery charger held together with tape, a dusty old cable box, and a pair of scissors. The other held a long piece of rope. Um. We’ll keep the scissors and rope, thanks. The next guy had a 10 liter jug of some kind of liquid that looked like dish soap. That must exceed the 100ml limit that is posted on the sign, right? But later we see him carrying the big bag of blue gunk onto the plane.
Why do we always seem to have the longest layovers in the crappiest airports? The Riyadh airport has 3 food options, none of which take credit cards, and the saddest duty free shop you’ve ever seen. The biggest display was one of huge jugs of Tang.
The flight was about 1/3 full, which meant we all had plenty of room to stretch out, making it one of the most comfortable overnight flights of my life.
We woke up just before landing in Kuala Lumpur, and you’ll hear more about that in Part 2.