Wednesday, March 22, 2006


*queue "Istanbul (not Constantinople) by the Four Lads*

Istanbul, the city where "east meets west," loads of people speak English, and everyday is a good day for bargaining!

with a combination of bulgaria's proximity to turkey, its frequent buses to Istanbul, and Peace Corps earned vacation days, Istanbul is perhaps the one place that all volunteers visit. last tuesday, I boarded a bus at 10pm to take me to this former Turkish capital city. $27 and 12 hours later, Christin, Kelly, and I arrived in Istanbul- armed with our tourist information and maps gallore, we set off to experience a city entwined with Greek, roman, ottoman, and EU influences.

Our first stop was hostel "bahaus." After wandering tram to tram, we finally found our hostel, which was lodged between rows and rows of other hostels- each one promising to be more homey, cozy and english-language-friendly than the last. Our hostel was beyond fantastic, and one of the real selling points was the staff. if you've never stayed in a hostel before, here's a quick run down of the experience. (Hostels vary a lot in quality and rooming, but in our case, we booked a room for three people, and then shared common spaces with other people-hallways, showers, common room/dining room. The idea behind hostels is that people who are traveling the world need to save money more than they need their own bathroom. Hence, the hostel culture is one where you meet really amazing people, and if the reduced cost of your night's sleep isn't enough of an incentive to stay at a hostel, the other guests that you'll meet definitely should be!) One great service that our hostel offered was a walking tour of Istanbul- highly, highly recommended!! Not only did we pay about 15% of a travel agency's price for our tour, we again got a chance to meet other hostel guests and staff members, and saved a LOT of time following around a local, rather than getting lost with our heads stuck in our travel books!

Istanbul is a largely Islamic city, which it has been since the end of the Roman empire. So one of the most beautiful things about this city is the number of ornate mosques which were commissioned during the Ottoman empire. Although it would be impossible for me to actually NAME most of the mosques we visited, the two most famous are the Blue Mosque, and hagia sofia, though the latter is no longer a mosque. most of the mosques are open to tourists. you simply have to remove your shoes- and for women cover your head with a scarf- and then you can enter the mosque. We also visited several Tomb sites, which are all in public buildings. Who knew that my vacation would include seeing the coffins of former sultans of Turkey?

speaking of sultan's, one place that can't be missed is the palace in sultanamunt (the old city). We spent almost 3 hours just wandering around the palace grounds, marveling at the beauty of the structures, the gardens, and the view of the city. A lot of people go to this palace to see the harem. The harem was really ornate, and is the largest building in the palace. If you check out my photos from the last post, you can see pictures of the sultan's throne/sitting room. We also checked out the treasury, which held precious items and jewelry from several important time periods in Constantinople. One of my favorites was the jewel encrusted throne on which the Sultan would have been carried from place to place- think Aladdin here!

another 'do not miss' aspect of Istanbul is the trip to Asia!!! Istanbul is separated by the Bosphorus River so that part of Istanbul is on the European continent, and part of it is in Asia. People often say that once you leave Istanbul, you have left the last piece of Europe behind, and have entered into The East. So while you can't tell a difference in the Asian and European part of Istanbul, its pretty fun to say that you've been to both continents in one day!

And of course, no trip outside of Bulgaria would be complete without the desperate search for a starbucks! If you are looking for the true mark of the modern world, you must first seek out the city's starbucks. I think there's actually a law about it. Brush up on your homeland security sub-laws. So, while feeling TOTALLY American, Christin, Kelly, and I indulged in Starbucks and reveled in the smoke-free coffee shop that volunteers in Bulgaria only remember in dreams. Or trips to Istanbul.

So in addition to a trip to the Asian continent (I've now been to BOTH sides of Asia!), hanging out in a harem (no job offers just yet!), hitting up the local starbucks (and I actually hate caffeine!) and scoping out some palaces, we saw tons of other landmarks too! We went to a photography exhibit near Taxim, which displayed photos taken by a current parliamentary Member. As part of our walking tour, we climbed up some tower for a view of the city, which was effectively Istanbul's answer to the Empire Statebuilding. It was basically a big waste of money b/c the sky wasn't that clear, but the ticket was cool- so all and all, that trip wasn't so bad :) We tasted Turkish Delights, sipped apple tea, reveled in Turkish style pudding (soooo cheap!), took Turkish baths, and visited many mosques.

Another thing which you might be familiar with, is the bazaar scene in Istanbul. For a normal Westerner who does their shopping in malls with the occasional summer-time roadside sweetcorn purchase, bazaars are a bit daunting, if not insane. But for seasoned Peace Corps volunteers, bazaring is our way of life! its how we get our shoes, our fruits, our veggies...sometimes even notebooks or jewelry! But the big difference between Bulgarian bazaars and Istanbul's??? The BARGAINING!! When you enter the bazaars, such as the spice market or the grand bazaar, you'll notice two things. First, EVERYONE will be dying to get your attention. You'd be surprised how the simple utterance of "hello, how are you today?" or "hi lady!" will attract your attention to a booth. Some people say nonsense, and others come up with witty sales pitches such as "how can I help take your money today?" The second this that will strike you is the lack of pricetags. By and large, every item must be bargained for, and your ability to speak English could significantly decrease your ability to take home your treasure for a great steal! I tried by best to speak Bulgarian to people in the bazaars, and I think it helped me get a better price- but only when people understood Bulgarian! lol.

the spice market was one of my favorite places, because it was filled with shops overflowing with colorful bins of different spices. From natural fruit teas, to sugary fake teas, to Iranian saffron, fake perfume, different peppers, to whatever kind of spice you can think of! Its all sold in the spice market. When you make your selection, its really high-tech. All the shops have those vacuum seal machines, so your purchase is not only well suited for packing, but it will stay fresh longer. In the grand bazaar, people selling Turkish rugs, bracelets, pillows, pottery, artwork, tshirts, tapestries, purses, gold, perfume...You name it! This bazaar was SOO big that we actually left to prevent getting lost!

So we saw lots of cool stuff and met lots of cool people, but I have to say one of the best experiences for me was linguistical. Enough people in Turkey understand Bulgarian, but most people don't speak it. However, we were lucky enough to meet a few characters who spoke and understood Bulgarian! First, in our hostel, one of the boys who was working there was born in Bulgaria. He lived most of his life in a town with a large Islamic population, and for that reason, speaks both Turkish and Bulgarian. He didn't speak English, but all the other guests in the hostel only spoke English or German. So we had the unique experience of communicating with this guy in his own language! Then, on our last night, we were killing time in a cafe until our train arrived. We were enjoying our last cup of apple tea, when the people at the table next to us bumped our table and began apologizing in English. We struck up a small conversation, and when one of the men (who was from Slovakia) realized we were living in Bulgaria, he immediately began speaking Bulgarian to us! As it turns out, this guy had been a professor in Bulgaria for 3 years, and as a result speaks remarkable Bulgarian- he could have passed as a native speaker in my book! As I've spent time in Bulgaria, I've marveled at the group of foreigners we know who speak their second or third language, English, to each other. Its so cool to see people use additional languages in order to communicate, so when I was able to take part in an attribute I've been admiring in other people for so long, it felt really good!

All in all, this trip to Istanbul was more than I could have ever imagined a vacation could be!! I got to meet some really fantastic people, see a historically important part of the world, speak a little Turkish and Bulgarian, and come home FULLY relaxed and ready for work.

I recommend Istanbul to all of you!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

pics of istanbul

Istanbul photos are ready- check 'em out!

okay, update soon. promise! :)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

istanbul sneak peak!

This is the Hagia Sophia - a church turned mosque turned museum- sorry the picture is blurry, but I thought it was too beautiful to delete! This building was orignally commissioned in the 6th century by Justinian. Today, this part of Istanbul is considered the "old city," and contains many historical buildings.

St. Patrick's day! This is Christin and I celebrating the holiday in local "Irish" pub in Istanbul's hip neighboorhood, Taksim. We spent more money on beer and fries here than we did on entire night's sleep in our hostel! and we only bought 1 beer each!

okay, stay tuned over the next few days for a detailed list of characters encountered in Istanbul, more pictures, and a general update!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

travel travel

One of my new favorite spots in bulgaria is the sofia central bus station. I wager that anyone with an inquisitive mind and fascination with public transportation would feel the same way.For this bus station, you can get almost anywhere via a direct bus to your destination city or one further down the line. at 7pm, 8-10 buses depart to all different directions of bulgaria, and rain or shine, those buses are always full. This friday, as I sat in the front seat of a bus bound for Shumen (home of ben and jen of shumen), I marveled at the array of people traveling around the country- to shumen, plovid, dobrich, varna, pazardjik, viden, instabul, greece- everywhere. and with a varied assortment of luggage, newspapers, and snacks, one can't help but wonder the what and the why of the travelers. how many of them commute? the bus to plovdiv is a double decker, and every night its packed full. as i looked out my window into sector 26, the plovdiv sector, I saw people sitting calmly, people stuffing their luggage under the bus, people snoozing, and people reading the newspaper. something about those newspaper readers really triggered my mind, and I wondered if it was possible that these people commute to sofia? everything seemed so normal and undercontrol- as if people had made these trips before a hundred times. outside the buses, girlfriends and boyfriends shared hugs, kisses- husbands and wives, cousins, and other close relations shared long goodbyes- and it makes you think- is this event only today? do you go through this process every week? so i am truely amazed by the sofia bus station- people always coming, always going...who knows what their business is?

today that person will be me. the mysterious person traveling for mysterious reasons. Only for you, dear reader, is the mystery about to be solved! with my bags packed and an extra hour to spare, I am going to Istanbul! that's right, Istanbul, the former center of the Byzantine Empire, former largest city in the world, formerly called "constantinople," and I'm going!!! after 4 1/2 months at work, its time for a little pochevka! (break!) So I am catching an 11pm bus out of sofia, meeting up with Christen (PCV from the city of Sliven) and her sister Kelly (visiting) in Plovdiv, and heading for the border! We should arrive around 7am- IF there are no delays crossing the border! Hopefully we picked a good company, because there are many horror stories about bus companies that really just operate for smuggling cigarettes and liquor back into keep your fingers crossed that we don't do accidentally do anything illegal!

While we are there, we will see the St. Sofia church (sofia, is this region of the world, means "knowledge"), which if i am not mistaken, was at one time the largest church in the world? or something?? anyway, Istanbul is this amazing city where "east meets west," as the city straddles two continents; europe and asia. After Constantinople was taken over by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire, this once over-whelmingly christian city is now FULL of mosques...many of them gorgeous- so expect pictures!

part of me thinks that taking vacations like this while being a peace corps volunteer is ridiculous. My friend Monica, from Vanderbilt, recently returned from 'alterntive spring break" in guatamala, where she was working with Peace Corps Volunteers doing physical labor of some sort. Since I am in Europe, its infinately easier for me to travel to other countries than say, a PCV in guatamala. While Bulgaria is far from a perfect country, the infrastructre is WAY more modern that some other peace corps countries, so it is really easy for us to move about. PLUS, since Bulgaria itself was part of the Ottoman Empire, many Turks live in Bulgaria, and many Bulgarians live in Turkey. That means that travel between the two countries is frequent and CHEAP! I am traveling a total of 24 hours on a bus (provided no border delays) and the entire ticket will cost me about ~$50! you can barely get a ONE-WAY ticket on southwest for that price, *and* I'm going to another country and attempting to speak turkish!! (this is the part where everyone comments on the sensibility of my trip, rather than the extravagence of taking an international vacation :) )

okay, well a nice part of my extra hour is up- so i better gather my stuff, double check for the passport, and jump on the bus to sofia!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

po dobre

A week ago, i was in Stara zagora, thinking about how much i wanted to kill my counterpart, Isai. This week finds me in a different mood- thankfully NOT one of murder and corruption!!! PeaceCorps sat us down with a translator last week, and for the most part, everything was worked out. Some people might file this away as a big mis-communication, but I would say its more accurately described as an unwillingness to communicate. Well, such is life, and there is no point in dwelling on things such as "who was right" etc etc... from the beginning, I have just been anxious to move on and start developing some stuff at work. Hopefully this will start to happen pretty soon!!

Other things that have brightened my mood are recent visits by near and dear b18s- PCVs from my group! as friday was a holiday, apryl from rakitovo came to pernik!!! we ate yummy traditional bulgarian food on friday and also enjoyed some wine. On saturday, i made BIG plans for us to take a hike up to the famous "krakra fortress!" This fortress was a medieval structure used to protect the city of Sredets from Byzantine threats. The early town of pernik gained and lost importance throughout history, but the remenants of this fortress- with its reinforced walls and turrets- prove a lasting reminder of the theaters of war in europe. whoops, got sidetracked! anyway, after making sure we'd eaten something and loaded our bags with snacks and water, apryl and I started off for krakra fortress! map in hand, we successfully found ourselves weaving through town and onto some dirt roads. Approximately 5 minutes later, we'd arrived at the fortress!! so my big plans for hike turned out to be plans for a little stroll around town- but check out our pictures anyway! (some are stolen from apryl!)

afterwards, we headed into sofia (surprised) for some indian food! we met up with my sitemate Lincoln and his girlfriend Sevi, and a former volunteer from pernik, Brian, and his wife Maria. good times were had by all!!

On sunday, after latin mass and a fantastic vegetarian meal, apryl went back home to the Rodope mountains!! :(

THEN i met up with Vassi!!! i assume we all remember Vassi as my DC and borovets roomie, but if not, consider that your reminder!! :) we ate some dinner, caught up from her trip to india (!!!!) and then cruised around sofia on foot! we both made some interesting discoveries in town including; a new movie theater, break dancing bulgarians, many many stores with great clothes that we will never be able to afford! after some ice cream and talk about the upcoming minoirty camp committee meeting, we parted ways-

so i just wanted to say that I am doing much better, my boss still sucks but I'm willing to overlook that, and in 9 days, I will be sitting on a train to ISTANBUL!!!!!!