Well, the Europe portion of my trip is already finished! On Wednesday evening, I took the bus to the Heraklion airport and waited for my plane to leave. My first flight was to Athens, which lasted an hour. And then my flight to Istanbul was an hour later. But since I had to go through security again, by the time I got to my gate they were ready to start boarding. I forgot how easy travelling can be when flying! No slow trains, no missing buses, no metro breakdowns. Sure, planes sometimes have their delays, but they’re usually pretty reliable. On my flight to Istanbul, to my surprise (and delight!), they gave us a meal even though we were in the air for less than an hour. I arrived in Istanbul at 8:30pm. The visa process was extremely easy; I just gave them 45 euro and they gave me my visa with no questions asked. I was easily able to find my way to the general area of my hostel, but finding my hostel was another story. It was difficult walking around with all of my luggage and being approached, “Are you lost?” “What are you looking for, baby?” “Would you like something to eat?” I soon found out that’s the norm here in Istanbul: Everyone’s always trying to sell you something. Women are still very much objectified here, I feel, so showing skin is not very common. I decided that since it was bad enough with my blonde hair as well as being alone, I would not be wearing shorts and I would never have my shoulders uncovered. Therefore, I was covered head to toe in 30 degree weather… Not the most comfortable feeling, but I’d rather feel uncomfortable physically than uncomfortable by the men.
On Thursday, I made my way to the Eminonu metro station so I could take Jono’s advice and take a ferry to Kadikoy. The ferry gave an excellent view of Istanbul, showing many of the mosques and the beauty of the city. Once I got to Kadikoy, I had lunch (a chicken donair) and then I took the ferry back. I went to the Yeni Cami, the “New Mosque,” which was absolutely gorgeous! I think it’s the first time I’ve ever been in a mosque so it had a very magical feeling to it. There were even prayers going on at the time; I just sat on the floor like everyone else did and relaxed. What I did notice was that all of the people praying at the front of the mosque were men; I wondered where all of the women were and noticed they were all up against the back wall. After leaving the mosque, I walked around for a bit and ended up making my way into the Spice Bazaar! It was really cool; they sold mostly spices and Turkish Delight, but there were also quite a few places to get souvenirs. And the souvenirs were dirt cheap too! I didn’t spend too much time at the bazaar because it was pretty intimidating, not being able to even look at anything without someone trying to make a deal with you. I then walked to Yerebatan Sarnici, the Basilica Cistern, which was so cool! It’s an underground cistern that used to provide water in the 6th century. It’s completely dark with glowing lights on every column, and there’s some relaxing music that plays while you walk around. I’ve never seen anything like it before, I loved it! Afterwards, I went to the Ayasofya Muzesi which is a museum that used to be a mosque as well as a church. It was huge! And it had mosaics on its walls and ceilings. After doing so much sightseeing, I sat in the museum’s park and had freshly pressed pomegranate juice; it was delicious, so much better than the pressed oranges! I tried to go to the Sultanahmet Cami, the “Blue Mosque,” but the lineup was huge and it didn’t seem to be moving. It sure is gorgeous from the outside though! After it got dark (around 8-8:30), I usually headed back to my hostel since it was usually bad enough being alone in the daylight. But just before I headed back, I’d always find a bench to sit on in Sultanahmet Square, which was very close to my hostel. There is a huge fountain in the middle of the square and at night, there are lights inside it that change colours. It was so nice, watching the fountain change from green to red to blue and so on, while having the Blue Mosque to one side of you and the Ayasofya Muzesi to the opposite side. So magnificent, calming, and beautiful!
I decided Friday would be my shopping day! I headed to the Grand Bazaar and boy, was it huge! It was just really overwhelming with everyone getting you to only buy their products. And since I wasn’t really looking for anything specific, it was difficult to want to bargain since there wasn’t anything I really really wanted. And the one bag I really liked, I couldn’t find where it was ten minutes later haha. So I didn’t stay at the Grand Bazaar for long; I much preferred the Spice Bazaar. I then went back to the Blue Mosque but unfortunately, I got there during praying times so they wouldn’t let visitors in. So I just walked down the streets on the way to the Spice Bazaar so I could find a suitcase since I had bought too much stuff. I went to many different places and finally found what I was looking for, yay! Here, my everyday treat has been baklava and apple tea. Denise (the girl I met in Athens) told me not to waste my time buying baklava in Greece because it wasn’t even actually invented in Greece (contrary to what I had thought). So even though she told me to wait, I tried it once. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. Then here, I tried it and they make theirs with pistachios (best idea ever!); it is absolutely amazing! To die for! Delicious! I bought a kilo to take to China; chances are it won’t make it back to Canada, sorry guys. And then the apple tea… I’m not much of a tea drinker so whenever I’m offered tea at the end of the meal, I always decline. However, when I declined at one of the donair places I was at and the guy was like, “What if I gave it to you on the house?”, how could I not accept? It was sooo good, I went out the next day and bought half a kilo to take home with me 🙂
On Saturday, I was planning on going to Topkapi Palace in order to keep myself away from the stores. Once I got there, I saw it was 25 lira and thought, “I could be spending that at the bazaar instead!” so I turned around and headed that way. I spent all of my money until I had one lira left and then I made sure I couldn’t take out anymore cash. That day, I FINALLY got into the Blue Mosque, but it wasn’t as amazing as I had expected. I much preferred the New Mosque, but one of the guys I met had said that once you’ve seen one mosque, you’ve seen all of the mosques. So that could have been my problem.
There are so many cats here! Everywhere I go, there seems to be more and more cats. Croatia had a considerable amount of cats, then Greece had even more, but here in Istanbul there are cats everywhere. And they move into the buildings and try to get food. It’s sad…at two different times, I’ve found a cardboard box on the side of the road with a mom and 5 or 6 kittens inside. My roommate that I had in Heraklion works for an animal protection program where she’s from. She said that in one year, one cat can multiply to about thirty! Female cats are able to have three litters per year with 4-6 kittens per litter, and female cats are sexually mature at four months old. So cats sure add up, especially in a place where they roam wild.
Sunday morning, I had breakfast before I caught the shuttle to the airport which ended up being about an hour and a half long. I stood in line for a good 45 minutes and once I finally got to the check-in counter, the guy said that my flight wasn’t open until 12:30pm so I had to wait an hour and a half before I could check-in(!!). What’s the point of having to be at least two hours early when they don’t open the counter until two hours before?!? I decided to eat lunch so I could waste some time before checking in. Finally I got to check in and go through security, but maybe I spoke too soon about flying being convenient because by the time we were supposed to start boarding, the plane hadn’t even arrived yet. We ended up leaving 45 minutes behind schedule but made up a bit of time and arrived at the Paris Orly airport 20 minutes late. Even though I only saw Paris through the window of the shuttle, it was very comforting to be back. I took the train to Rambouillet and Catherine was there waiting for me so that I could spend the night at their place in Le Perray. Unfortunately I didn’t arrive until 8:45pm so I didn’t get much time to visit before everyone had to go to bed so that they could wake up early for work or school. But it was nice to see them all one more time before I left! And was I sure glad to be somewhere familiar again! As much as I liked backpacking, I was also relieved when I was done. Backpacking isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Or maybe not if you do it “right,” which I feel I did 🙂 My shower towel is the same towel as my beach towel which is the same towel that I sit on when I’m at the park, on grass or rocks, and is also my first aid towel when I used it to wipe off my knee when I fell last week. Therefore my towel is a dirty, bloody, smelly rag. I’ve worn the same seven shirts in five weeks, only “washing” them once. I’ve managed to somehow survive off of the same hotel-sized bottles of shampoo and soap, using everything very sparingly. My hair either goes up in a ponytail or stays down in a huge, puffed-up rats’ nest. How many times I have wanted to shave my head during this trip, I cannot tell you. I’m walking around in over 25 degree weather every single day all day long, and HAVE to shower by the time I get back to the hostel (it’s not a choice, it’s a must!), and by the time I’ve toweled off, I’m already all sticky again. I sleep with no a/c, I’m lucky if I even get a fan, I’m woken up by disrespectful roommates in the middle of the night or early in the morning by talking, snoring, or the rustling of bags. But I still love it! Although I think next time I do backpacking, I’ll only do it in 3-4 week periods. It’s the different experiences that make the trip and even though I was exhausted and ready for it to be done, I really enjoyed myself! Meals are the things I could always count on. I remember in Bari when Phoebe and Ruby wanted to get groceries at the supermarket so we went and they were complaining that they had spent 7 euro on their groceries, which is considerably more than they usually spend. So they were hoping that what they bought would last them for the next three meals. How sad… I won’t tell you how much I spent at the grocery store that day! I could have made this trip waaaay cheaper than I did (and I did start like that), but why go to a supermarket and buy an apple when you can do that at home? For me, trying the local cuisine is a huge part of experiencing a culture. I’m so glad I stopped trying to budget myself and I JUST DID IT. I ate what I wanted, I went where I wanted, I bought what I wanted. And never ever did I think, “Should I really be buying this?” My first and only thought or concern was, “How will I get this home?” Somehow, I still even have money left over, at least enough for China anyway. That was my biggest regret last time I went to France. I was getting paid 60 euro a week which gave me about 8 euro to spend each day, equivalent to about two cokes at the Celtique. And I never did anything, I never went anywhere, I never bought anything. Cause I didn’t have the money. I was in France, yet I might as well have been at home. And I always looked back and regretted not doing anything because I always made an excuse not to. That’s why this time around, I’m doing it differently. And I have absolutely no regrets. Maybe when I carry home my three bags, I will! But we only live once. Why say, “Let’s do it next time,” when we SHOULD say, “Let’s do it NOW!” I’m just lucky I DID have a next time! I hate how society has an expected idea of how life for everyone should be. Elementary school, high school, university, job, marriage, kids, retirement. Who wrote these rules, and why are they so boring?! And because of this, everyone has the same idea, “I’ll do it when… (fill in the blank):” When I’m done school, when I get a promotion, when I’m married, when my kids are older. And some people don’t even HAVE the idea to do something different because it has never even occurred to them. Actually if it weren’t for my cousin who started travelling at a young age, I probably wouldn’t have had any of those ideas either. But I’m glad I did!
On Monday, I woke up and got ready which was incredible! Instead of quickly getting up and getting ready in 10-20 minutes, I took my time. And I got to straighten my hair, and paint my nails, and spray delicious-smelling products in my hair since I had them all again! Ah, it was great! Then I headed to Saint Quentin to have lunch with Beatrice, who had kept another one of my bags with all of the stuff that I got in London. We went for Chinese and then she showed me her university since she had to register. Afterwards, I went back to Le Perray to pack my two bags in one hour. Closing my bags, hauling them to the train station, and lugging especially the large one up the stairs was (I’m pretty sure) more difficult than walking the Cinque Terre. I found out later that the one suitcase was 27kg, the other was 12 and I also had my backpack. I took the train to Rambouillet and walked to the family’s house to get there around 6pm. It was so great to see the kids again, and they were extremely excited this time! The last visit, everyone (including myself) was a bit hesitant and not too sure what to think. But this time around, everyone was so relaxed and it was honestly like I hadn’t left three years ago. Except I was always shocked when the kids would help clear the table, or shower by themselves, or say something extremely intelligent. And then I’d have to remind myself that these kids are no longer 5 and 6 years old. Sadly, Alice is already in the preteen stage; she rolls her eyes constantly (although I’m pretty sure she had that covered when she was six too haha) and she was too cool to walk to school with us the next morning 😦 But wow, the girl who used to complain all the time is now the peacekeeper of the house, the big sister. She loves Elsa so much, it’s adorable. And Antoine is extremely intelligent. The one who was always quiet is now the one who argues about absolutely everything, but his explanations are actually logical. It’s not just arguing for the sake of arguing; he makes valid points and I’m always so impressed. And Elsa is still cute, little Elsa: laughing constantly and always joking around. It makes me kind of sad how the kids who once depended on me for everything have now outgrown me and no longer need me anymore. At least Elsa still wanted me to read her a bedtime story… Antoine also wanted to spend as much time as possible with me as well, but Alice’s nose was always in a book. Guess I can’t complain since that’s usually me as well! But I also realized that the next time I see these kids, they will likely be teenagers. How sad… Anne and I had a good visit after the kids went to bed and then I headed to bed as well so I could get up early to join them all for breakfast. I walked the kids to school with Anne which was cool because I got to see all of the moms that I used to see everyday three years ago. Anne drove me to the station and then I made my way to the airport. Unlike the last disaster I had trying to get to the airport, I was prepared for the shuttle this time! It must have been my lucky day because the airline I was flying with allowed two bags per person, with 23kg per bag. So I didn’t have to pay any extra costs! Which I was prepared to do, and I knew I’d have to do for my connecting flight. But it saved me a good 150 bucks! I got through security and waited for my 11 hour 20 minute flight, booooo. While I was in the lounge, I kept hearing humming. But it wasn’t like humming a song, it was an annoying humming. And I found the source to be an older man across the lounge. When I got on the plane, guess who my neighbour was… Not so much humming, but constant tongue clicking and belching, some talking to movies, and a large invasion of personal space. So as much as I tried to sleep, there was always an elbow hitting me at some point. And the point where I almost lost it was when he knocked over his coffee all over my shoe, inside and outside, right before we landed. And it wasn’t like that was a one-time thing; during the trip, he knocked over his drink three times and I managed to catch it two of those three times. So now my 350 dollar insole probably has a permanent smell of coffee. Enough complaining, keep in mind I’m writing this towards the end of my 11 hour flight, when it’s 6 in the morning Shanghai time but midnight Paris time. Today’s gonna be a looooong day, especially since I have a 15 hour layover in Shanghai before going to Zhengzhou tonight at 10pm. Hopefully I’ll figure out something to do! Hope everyone’s enjoying the last of September, sure went by fast! Love always
White Nights – Oh Land