Sanliurfa, Turkey

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Sanliurfa, also known simply as Urfa, is a holy city. Islamic pilgrims flock here to honor the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. The most iconic site in Urfa is the Balıklı Göl, or Pool of Sacred Fish, where God is believed to have intervened to save Abraham from his death. When King Nimrod attempted to sacrifice Abraham by throwing him into a funeral pyre, God saved him by turning the fire into water and the coals into fish. Today the pool representing this miracle swarms with supposedly sacred carp, which pilgrims feed.

Sanliurfa, Turkey

A pleasant coolness infuses the warm air in the Gölbaşı gardens surrounding the Pool of Sacred Fish.  Women cloaked from head to toe stroll arm in arm beneath the shade of tree-lined canals, while couples meet for ice cream in cafés cleansed by the spray of nearby fountains.  There is even a small pond where families take their children for boat rides.  It is a fresh, pristine place where everyone seems at peace.  A small garden paradise to match the holiness of the site.

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Beyond the Pool of Sacred Fish and surrounding gardens, Urfa transforms into a chaotic and gritty city dominated by the complex web of shops that comprises its ancient bazaar.  Here, vendors sell spices, vegetables, rugs, hookahs, prayer beads, copperware, shoes, furniture and electronics.  Tailors in small cramped stalls lined with fabric make men suits and women skirts.  Men carrying large trays brimming with honey hued glasses deliver tea, the lifeblood of the bazaar, to the vendors and their customers.

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Sanliurfa, Turkey

The people of Urfa dress conservatively, but stand out from their compatriots in neighboring provinces in their preference for purple headscarves, which are worn by men and women alike.  A variety of other attire can also be seen, from red and black checkered head scarves on men to full black chadors on women.   Sanliurfa, Turkey

Sanliurfa, Turkey

The population of Urfa is predominantly Kurdish and Arabic.  However, during our visit, we noticed a significant number of Syrian refugees.  When we would ask people in Urfa where they were from in Turkish, often they would respond with quizzical stares to show they did not understand Turkish.  As way of explanation, they would say “Suriye” (Turkish for Syria) and then, to provide further clarification, thrust their hands in the air and imitate the sound of bombings.  This was particularly sad when reenacted by children, like these three adorable boys we met while climbing to Urfa castle.

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

I was not prepared for the allure of Hasankeyf. My guidebook had called it a “heartbreaker” and I had seen the photos of its famed minaret and stone bridge. Yet, I had not expected much from this village strewn with rubble from a forgotten civilization—a story so commonplace in Turkey that it loses its wonder after a while. I reserved only an afternoon of our two-week trip through Southeast Turkey to visit the ruins of this ancient city.

Jorge and I arrived at 1:00 p.m. and, from the moment we stepped off the bus, I was taken by the tranquility of Hasankeyf. The main street of the village consists of a collection of teahouses and kebab shops perched precariously on a cliff overlooking the Tigris River, the site of the stone bridge I had seen from the photos. I peeked through one teahouse and felt a rush of cool breeze. Around me, old men on low wooden stools sat sipping their tea, their faces glowing from the warm light that emanated from the waters below.

We wandered beyond the main street and bazaar and reached the perimeter of the village. There, we discovered two steep cliffs with caves carved into the sides and large boulders littered between them. The cliffs narrowed into a gorge, which we followed along stairs and ladders built into the rock. Out of nowhere, a young man from the village ran up to us and offered to show us the way to the top of the mountain. We followed him and, as we ascended the gorge, verdant mountains spiraled around us.

At the summit, we beheld the most spectacular sight: a vast city of caves, complete with a mosque and castle, spread across the top of the mountain that faced us. Our guide told us that this was the old city of Hasankeyf, where 5,000 people had lived in caves until the 1960’s when the government forced them to relocate to a new village by the river. This old city remained perfectly intact, tantalizing in its proximity.  Officially, it was closed to the public, but our guide told us it would have been possible to visit if we only had more time.

Our bus was scheduled to leave at 6:00 p.m. Realizing we had less than two hours left in Hasankeyf, we rushed down the mountain, still bewitched by what we had seen. At the foot of the mountain, we entered an open air café, facing the castle of Old Hasankeyf, where men sat cross-legged on large flat cushions drinking coffee and smoking. There, we met an an American journalist and learned about the construction of the dam scheduled for 2015 that will flood Hasankeyf and force its residents to resettle once again. This time, the ancient city will vanish.

We had heard about the dam before coming to Hasankeyf, but had not understood the scale of the tragedy that was about to unfold until we had seen the city for ourselves. We left on the 6:00 p.m. bus, as planned, but were so captivated by Hasankeyf that we changed our itinerary and returned the following day. Even after a second day of exploring this city and talking to its residents, we felt we had barely scratched the surface of this fascinating place. Hasankeyf is one ancient city in Turkey you must visit while you still have the chance.  Though the construction of the dam is currently scheduled for 2015, residents told us it likely won’t be built for a few years, which means you still have a few years to see this city before it disappears.

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

 

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Midyat, Turkey

Midyat, Turkey

 

Midyat, another ancient city in northern Mesopotamia, was historically defined by its large population of Syriac Christians.  In fact, for much of history it was known by its Syriac name, Tur Abdin.  Syriac Christianity originated in the first century AD in Antioch, modern day Antakya in southern Turkey.  It was the religion of the followers of Jesus Christ and, to this day, Syriac Christians speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Today, Kurds outnumber Syriac Christians in Midyat.  Most Syriac Christians emigrated to neighboring Syria during the past century following the Armenian Genocide (in which 300,000 Christians were also killed) and the enactment of discriminatory policies against Christians by the Ataturk government.  Some have returned as a result of the recent war in Syria.  Their legacy persists in the Aramaic still spoken on the streets and the nine Syriac churches throughout the city.

 

Midyat, Turkey

Midyat, Turkey

Midyat, TurkeyMidyat, Turkey

Midyat, Turkey

 

Mardin, Turkey

Mardin, Turkey

Mardin, an ancient hilltop city of honey-colored stone buildings, overlooks the fertile plains of Mesopotamia.  This region, situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is considered the cradle of civilization of the West.  Mardin itself dates back to 4000 BCE and has witnessed the passing of many cultures, from the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Muslim Ummayids, who introduced Islam to the city.  Mardin was also an important stopover point along the Silk Road due its strategic position at the junction of two transit roads.

Today, Mardin is a diverse city of Kurds, Turks, Arabs and Syriac Christians.  Women cloaked in head scarves and dark flowing skirts float down narrow sloping streets, past glowing mosques, madrasahs and caravanserais, before disappearing into shadowy arched arcades that house markets and serve as passageways.  Old men in black suits and skull caps idle away their hours in the city’s many tea houses, chatting and contemplating the views of the expansive plains below.  The younger men sell jewelry, copper ware and textiles along a bustling thoroughfare throbbing with cars and Arab music, the only street in Mardin that is wide enough to permit the passage of vehicles.  In the rest of the city, donkeys provide the sole source of transportation, functioning as garbage collectors, porters and water carriers.

In our day and a half here, we have met only two people who speak English, the Imam of the Great Mosque and the owner of a nearby restaurant.  Nonetheless, absolutely everyone we have encountered has been incredibly warm and friendly and treated us like royalty for being foreign.  For now, Mardin is a favorite destination only among Turkish tourists.  I highly recommend coming before the hoards of foreign tourists arrive and you can still feel the thrill of stepping back in time as you wander the streets of this ancient city.

Mardin, Turkey

Mardin, Turkey

Mardin, Turkey

 

 

Leaving for Turkey

Kas, Turkey

In 2011, I visited Turkey for the first time. It was love at first sight. From the idyllic beaches and Roman ruins of the southern Mediterranean coast to the ancient cave churches and dwellings of Cappadocia to the bustle and energy of Istanbul, Turkey enchanted me. I was struck by its beauty, its rich history and the gentle generosity of its people.

I was also intrigued by the social and political tensions that were hinted at nearly everywhere we went. Repeatedly, I heard guides, innkeepers and waiters grumble about Prime Minister Erdogan and the religious affiliation of his political party. They accused the governing party of wanting to turn their country into a Muslin theocracy like Iran. They feared losing their individual liberties and way of life at the hands of a religious government.

The Turks I encountered represented the liberal, progressive half of this society. They drank raki, wore bikinis on the beaches I visited in the south and danced wildly in a gay pride parade I stumbled upon in Istanbul. They were proud of being Turkish, but identified strongly with Western values.

I wondered about the other half of this society, the religious, conservative Turks of whom the liberal Turks were so suspicious. I had only one brief glimpse into this other world. On an all-night bus ride from the southern city of Antalya to Cappadocia, we made a stop at dawn at a bus terminal somewhere near Konya, a city known for being deeply religious. All of the women were draped in loose dark clothing, their heads covered by scarfs. They rushed by me silently, small children clutching their hands. Men engaged in hushed conversation sat low to the ground drinking tea. No one spoke English. There was a calm restraint in the air, a heavy feeling of holiness. I was mesmerized. I did not want to board the bus.

Now, three years later, I am once again on my way to Turkey. This time, I am skipping the beaches and splendor of the coasts and devoting my time to Southeastern Anatolia, one of the most conservative and overlooked parts of the country. I am drawn by ancient Arabic cities, ruins of lost civilizations and the opportunity to explore a more obscure side of Turkey. I will spend the night in a Kurdish village, drink tea with nomads in a tent and visit the spectacular snow covered head statues of Nemrut Dagi at sunset. This will be a very different trip.

View from the 13th Floor

Bogotá, Colombia

Perched on the thirteenth floor of the Gran Manzana apartment building in Bogotá, I can see and feel the life of this city.  Tall brick buildings hover over and stare at me through rows of flashing windows.  I stare back.  Some windows reveal little, shuttered by drab curtains or gauzy hammocks.  Others expose shadowy apartments containing unmade beds and lonely plants.  A man in a bathrobe across the street and several stories down gazes in my direction.  I look away, landing on a top floor, a penthouse with red Chinese lanterns that wave in the wind.

Below me, the traffic along the Carrera 13 ebbs and flows, the hum of moving vehicles occasionally shattered by the roar of a truck or the sudden clamor of honking taxis.  The currents of this wide avenue, lined with elegant leafy trees, rush south towards the mountains that tower over the eastern edge of the city.  There, La Macarena, my first and favorite neighborhood, rises with pride from the carpeted green slopes.  With nostalgia, I make out the same bull-fighting stadium and climbing brick towers– designed to mimic the mountains behind them– that greeted me when I arrived here ten years ago.

Other parts of the scene are unfamiliar.  Where Carrera 13 meets Carrera 7, a pedestrian path lined with carefully planted flowers and shrubs leads to a large glass box, the entryway to a brand new subterranean bus station.  Passengers, eager to avoid the chaos and grime of the traditional bus system, flock to this station and happily wait in line to board the fleet of red Transmilenio buses that will transport them through an underground tunnel.  They do not seem perturbed by the fact that, after a only block of zooming through this tunnel, they will emerge onto the traffic clogged Carrera 7 side by side with the same buses they had been hoping to avoid.

Nearby, new apartment buildings with green exteriors laden with plants echo the flowers that decorate the entryway to the Transmilenio station.  Pedestrians wearing surgical masks pass by quickly, hardly noticing the burgeoning jungle around them.  Only the thick cloud of smog hanging low to the streets concerns them.  Bogotá, with all its contradictions, continues to tug at my heart.

The New Bogotá

Transmilenio, Bogota, Colombia

I landed at El Dorado Airport in Bogotá at 5:30 in the morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted, but full of anticipation.  I had heard many accounts of the great changes Bogotá had undergone since I left this city, eight years ago, and I was eager to see them for myself.  The first surprise would be at the airport.

Bogotá’s airport, I discovered, had transformed from a single tumbledown terminal into a giant greenhouse flooded with light filtering in through expansive windows.  Inside, it gleamed with silver, from the escalators to the rafters to the shiny conveyer belts spinning merrily in the baggage claim.  At each checkpoint– first at Immigration, then at Customs—the jumbled masses of the past had disappeared, replaced by short lines and calm efficiency.

Outside the airport, an ample roadway hummed with multiple lanes of orderly traffic.  There, my husband’s family waited for me at the designated place for a curbside pickup, a shocking innovation for an airport that until recently ejected its passengers into a chaotic lot milling with taxi drivers and panhandlers.  Even the pickup zone had an air of grandeur and modernity.  Tall columns imposed order and supported a second story with its own roadway and orderly lanes of traffic.

As we drove from the airport towards the heart of the city, a cloud of smog engulfed us.  Soon, we merged onto a large artery clogged with traffic.  Gaudy buses of all shapes and sizes, from stunted blue minivans packed with passengers to enormous half-empty clunkers bursting with festive colors and loud Salsa and Vallenato music, wheezed by on the verge of collapse.  A bright yellow river of taxis inched along slowly, honking impatiently as they attempted to bypass the buses.  Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia.  Ah, this is the Bogotá I know!

In the midst of this maelstrom, slick red buses emblazoned with the logo “TransMilenio” whizzed by in their own lane, stopping to pick up passengers at compact boxes of translucent glass similar in style to what I had seen at the airport.  This was the city’s attempt to combat the snarl of traffic, a rapid transit system that functions like an aboveground metro.  Yet, a lane away from the fleet of evenly spaced red buses, the throng of vehicles lingered.  As I would discover repeatedly during my ten days in Bogotá, impressive as the city’s evolution may be, the past is never far.

Back in Bogota

Bogotá, Colombia

This past week, I returned to Bogotá, a city I lived in from 2004 to 2006.  In the following entry, I reflect on my first visit to Bogotá, ten years ago.

Ten years ago, at the age of 22, I arrived in Bogotá for the first time.  It was the summer after my college graduation and I had come for a three-month internship.

Almost everyone in my life cautioned me against going to Colombia.  Their fears were based on a vague perception of drug lords and violence, stereotypes which I dismissed as misinformed and exaggerated.  Entranced by romantic illusions, I imagined Bogotá in my own way: an exotic metropolis high in the Andes, a place where people led festive, spirited lives despite the volatility of the social and political forces around them.  The very fact that so little was known about Colombia intrigued me.  I yearned to discover it for myself.

As my departure neared, however, my excitement gave way to panic.  Soon, I would be in the actual Bogotá, not the Bogotá of my imagination.  Had I been naïve to believe I would be safe there?  Panic set in, tainting my optimism, and by the time I caught my first glimpse of Bogotá, I viewed the city through a prism of fear.

From the air, Bogotá appeared cold and wintry, a sprawling checkerboard of deep green forest and red brick veiled by low and heavy clouds.  Not quite the land of eternal spring described by my guidebook.  The road from the airport to the apartment where I had rented a room appeared equally dismal, a blur of concrete streets and smog from passing buses.  Each bus was packed with passengers, silent and sullen, their faces pressed against vapory windows.

Once in the safety of my apartment, I crept into my bed and avoided leaving my room.  During my first two days in Bogotá, I left my apartment only once.  The streets were nearly empty, except for a few beggars slumped along cracked sidewalks.  I walked past them quickly and entered a nearby marketplace, a maze of tattered makeshift stands manned by indigent vendors who watched me with suspicion.  Quickly, I bargained for bloodied chicken bones and soiled herbs, then nervously rushed home to prepare a broth.

On my third day, I had no choice but to explore more of the city.  My internship would be starting in a few days and I had to meet with my supervisor at the government office where I would be working.  I awoke early and emerged from my apartment to discover Bogotá transformed.  The gray clouds that had draped the city since my arrival had disappeared and a brilliant sun shone in their place.

In this new radiant light, I noticed for the first time the charms of my neighborhood: the oranges and blues of the faded colonial architecture and the bright handmade signs of the quirky shops and art galleries.  In the city center, site of my new office, I marveled at the cobblestone streets bustling with lively street vendors.  I then ascended into the deep green mountains that tower above Bogotá and traveled north along a lovely forested thoroughfare with views of the city below.  From that day forward, Bogotá slowly unveiled itself to me, surpassing the expectations I had dreamt up for this city before my arrival.

 

California: Mendocino Hotel Recommendation

Glendeven Inn, Little River, California

Glendeven Inn, Little River, California

My dear friend, Jenny Kern, visited the Glendeven Inn in December and raved about her stay.  Here she describes in her own words what dazzled her about this small historic hotel on the Mendocino Coast:

The Glendeven Inn is a historic property on the Mendocino Coast that creates an atmosphere with a certain magic.  When we pulled into the inn, a herd of six llamas all turned to greet us from their pasture. The inn attends to the details — when you arrive you notice a parking space reserved for you, greeting you by name.

Our room contained beautiful historic furniture, while maintaining a luxury feel.  We stayed in the Bayview Suite, which looks out on the ocean over the llama pasture. It was a splurge, but when we read that Bill and Hillary Clinton stayed there, we sprung for it and were happy we did.

Each room has a fireplace and is stocked with firewood.  In the evening, we picnicked in our room by the fire, enjoying a bottle of wine and delicious sausage we bought downstairs. Upon request, the innkeepers provide a picnic basket with utensils, napkins and wine glasses.  In the morning, a breakfast spread is brought on a tray to your room, with eggs sourced from their own chickens. This is a real perk for me, as the one drawback of B&Bs is the need to dress and socialize over breakfast.

The inn provides many other great touches — a bag of chicken feed is left in each room so you can enjoy feeding their beautiful chickens. You can also observe the friendly bees buzzing about their beehives.  There is an endless supply of free cookies downstairs and a complementary wine hour, pouring a local wine and serving an appetizer each day from 5:30pm – 6:30pm.

There are a number of hikes you can take without needing to get into your car. We walked for about five miles along the beach and bluffs near the property.

The owners John & Mike are attentive and friendly – and spent a great deal of time chatting with us as they guided us through a flight of Mendocino wines. Part of the charm of the place, as with all great B&Bs, is feeling you are a part of the innkeeper’s vision by staying there.  We overhead a couple was checking in for their fourth stay there, which is now a tradition. We will be sure to be back, and start a tradition of our own!

Little River, California

Chile: Santiago Hotel Recommendation

Casa Moro, Corte Suprema 177, Santiago de Chile

Casa Moro, Santiago, Chile

In the heart of Santiago just two blocks from the presidential palace, this funky bed and breakfast has garnered a large and enthusiastic following on Tripadvisor thanks to its stylish décor and welcoming hosts.  The hotel revolves around a lush, open-air courtyard of bright plants, colorful folk art and the soothing trickle of a fountain, an ideal place to relax after a long day of sight seeing.  Guests also have access to a communal kitchen and a gallery that features jewelry, woven tapestries and crocheted garments from the south of Chile.

Innkeepers Marcelo and Walter are adored for their warmth and attentive service.  They also serve an exceptional breakfast of homemade scones, eggs and fruit.  At $130 for a double room, Casa Moro’s rates are on par with hostels in pricey Santiago.  However, staying at this delightful inn feels more like visiting the home of a dear friend.