The kind of revenge only Montezuma can take.

If you value your bowels, stay away from all food items in the southern coastal region of Turkey. In particular, a remote little town called Olympos. Trust me…. no, trust my bowels.

When you’re traveling to a country that you know very little about, it’s always a good idea to do some research before you arrive. Take these tried and true google searches that I’ve made good use of: “What shouldn’t I bring up at the dinner table?” “What animals/insects/acts of God are most likely to kill me in some horrific manner?” “What is the most effective way to die a slow, painful, and embarrassing death?” Yes, I did the research, I read the travel books and forums. And yes, I even remember pausing to make a note aloud to Noel that we shouldn’t eat the food if we ended up in Olympos. But did I remember this when, 5 or 6 months down the road I was ravenously grinning at my heaping plate of free food and marveling to anyone in hearing distance about the large portion of much needed fiber I was about to consume in the form of a salad mountain??? …Oh that fateful salad.

It would seem like a rookie mistake to eat uncooked vegetables in a place like southern Turkey, wouldn’t it? But just let me explain the situation we were dealing with. Noel and I were on day 5 of our nine day tour around Turkey.  For days, we’d been bussed around, dropped off, picked up, bussed a bit more, dropped off, waiting around, picked up, and bussed around some more, until we no longer felt like humans, more like a parcel, or a germ, or gum on the bottom of a shoe. The day getting to Olympos was the worst in this regard.  We had been in Pamukkale walking through the magic waters that added seven years of life to our feet, apparently. The plan was to take an overnight bus from Pamukkale to Olympos, but the bus ticket man (please refer to my blog about sexual harassment to meet this gem) convinced us to stay at a hotel and take the early bus the next day. So it went early bus to bus station. Bus to Antalya. Bus to Turunçova. Another bus to a random stop at the top of a mountain. An anxious hour waiting, not knowing if there really would be another bus, or if we’d have to call a taxi, then finally another bus to the bottom of the mountain.  We had long passed any form of town or food store, there was only hostel after hostel after hostel until ours – almost the last one.  Despite the absolute beauty and wonders we had seen out our numerous bus windows along the way, we were tired, frustrated, and irritable.  So when the words, “free dinner” reached our ears, you can imagine how we might dive right in.

Where all the meals were served at our hostel. We got to stay in tree houses! Really this place was AWESOME. Except for the salad.

There really was no other option. There were no stores around, no real restaurants, only bars at other hostels, and no town close enough to search for food. Not that looking for another option even crossed our minds, did I mention the dinner was free? When you’re traveling on a budget FREE is the magic word.  And here it wasn’t just ‘free’ rolls that you stuff in your pocket as you leave the restaurant, or ‘free’ packets of jam and butter you can snatch from the ‘complimentary’ breakfast table… This was vat after vat of steaming hot dishes of rice and chicken and stew, followed by a fresh supple salad (…. oh that fateful salad). There were dinner rolls with butter and dessert even!  We were eating like kings!! Kings who were unknowingly being poisoned by their wives. Well, they say you win some, you lose some.  I won a free meal.  I lost…. well, the entire contents of my bowels throughout the next five days, and probably 5 or 6 pounds.

About the moment when I first realized there might be some issues with my stomach.... I'm looking for a nice rock to crouch behind.

So regardless of whether I forgot of just didn’t care about the warning, I took bite after bite and enjoyed every free second of it.  And was none the wiser for a good day and a half.  There were a few unpleasant rumblies in my tumbly the next day as we explored the overgrown ruins between our hostel and the Mediterranean Sea. But nothing to cause worry… no, that wouldn’t hit until the smack middle of our eleven hour, no toilet, overnight bus ride to Göreme. And boy did it hit! Like a ton of bricks in the lower gut. The discomfort and nausea were almost more than I could stand and I was about one stomach cramp away from waddling up to the front of the bus yelling “jou-jou!” (which we had, ironically, learned the day before and meant the squirts, the runs, diarrhea, etc…). Fortunately for me and all my fellow passengers, we stopped at a rest stop. Noel and I each paid our Lev to get into the loo and I did what I could not possibly have waited any longer to do… I won’t go into details, your imagination is probably doing a fine job anyway. I felt much better, washed my hands, and headed out the exit gate.  I made it two steps and stopped dead in my tracks.  With panic on my face I called to Noel a few steps in front of me, “Noel… do you have any more money?!” I had spent my last coin on that entrance fee, but thank the Lord Almighty and Noel, she gave me another coin, I handed it over to the guy with an, “oops?” look on my face and a knowing look on his.  Round two.

We were both out of coins then and our bus was getting ready to leave so I sent out some fervent prayers, took a deep breath and settled back into my seat for the end of our bus ride.

Of course, being an overnight bus means you arrive in the morning, unable to check in, unable to shower, only able to set your bag against some wall and take off again. In our case it was on a day tour of Northern Cappadocia. Somehow I was spared the torments of my illness during that tour, but as soon as we got back to our hostel (which was a cave!) that fateful salad made itself known again. It was in this hostel’s bathrooms that I learned what “pebble-dashed” really meant. Noel and I had made some new friends that we were supposed to have a backgammon tournament with, but I went into our cave to have a quick nap and didn’t wake until the next morning with a fever. Fun! At least I get say the sentence, “I had a fever in a cave, once” and not be lying. Not many people can claim that.

Our itinerary had us doing a tour of Southern Cappadocia that next day, but we were able to move it back a day. However, we still had a sunrise hot air balloon ride planned…. leave it to my body to lure me into a false sense of security then BAM! hit me when we’re several hundred feet off the ground in a dangling basket with 16 other people.

Cappadocia balloon ride!

Picture it: sunrise over Cappadocia, undoubtedly one of the most stunning places on Earth, sun glinting off the eerie rock formations below, casting irregular shadows across the land. Passengers oooing and aaaahing as other balloons slip past, climbing, descending, the roar and hot rush of air as the pilot takes us up…. and Stephanie, doubled over in pain, plotting her escape over the side of the basket, trying to decide which is worse: soiling her pants, vomiting over the side, or death. Thankfully I had some medication in my bag so I took a few of those and after about 20 minutes of cowering in a corner or leaning dangerously far over the side of the basket, I was A-OK again. Okay enough to sip champagne with the crew and passengers when we landed. Okay enough to chat with people, laugh and make jokes. Even okay enough to be suddenly hoisted into the air by one of the crew and thrown onto the deflating balloon. AWESOME.

Noel (on the right) and I (in the sunglasses)- thrown onto the deflating balloon.

The rest of the day was spent in bed, counting cracks in the wall of the bathroom, walking to a pharmacy, and eating lentil soup and bread – the only thing that my stomach would accept. The meds from the pharmacy started working pretty quickly and trips to the loo became less and less frequent. We made it on our Southern tour of Cappadocia and caught our overnight bus back to Istanbul with out incident. I did use several Lev on every available bathroom stop on our trip back, but there were no urgent matters.

When we arrived back in Istanbul, I was at least 5 pounds lighter, and looking pale and malnourished enough for Yeliz and Okan to be so concerned that they cooked me a homemade meal. They’re staff members at the hostel Chill Out Cengo, and had taken Noel and I in like family. But all in all, I’d say our 9 days were a success in that we got to see all the glorious wonders that we set out to see and learned a valuable lesson: don’t eat anything in Olympos, Turkey… especially not the salad…. oh, that fateful salad.

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Toiletries…. or souvenirs?

Forget t-shirts, forget hats or shot glasses, mugs or tacky magnets.  Don’t buy those little pens with the city name on them, or that plaque with a picture of the skyline. And for heaven’s sake, DO NOT purchase that egg that cracks open to show you a dangling Eiffel Tower. Don’t buy them because you’ll use or look at them once and that’ll be that. They cost too much and they weigh your rucksack down like a bag of bricks.  They’re the kind of things that won’t even sell at your next garage sale.  Now, I’m not saying don’t buy those things as gifts. Sure, give Aunty Sue a bookmark and Uncle George a calendar, but spare yourself if you can.  So what kinds of things should you collect to help you remember your travels? Here are a few ideas:

Photos
Starting with the most obvious idea, collect photographs.  But maybe be a bit more creative than just a photo of a building you’ll forget the name of by the time you get home. Instead take photos of the sewer covers from different cities (you’ll be amazed by how ornate and cool some of them can be) or photos of you touching famous monuments-it proves you were there without the cheesy forced smile you have in all your other photos. Noel and I have been collecting photos of things like men in dungarees, animals pooping and punch buggies, for example.

Tickets, receipts and brochures
Another obvious idea, keep scraps of your travels.  Flight tickets are great because they’ll help you remember important dates that you may need later when you’re trying to file your taxes… yes, I did search through my scrap book so I could tell the government exactly when I was out of the country.

Postcards
They’re everywhere and they’re relatively cheap but the best way to put them to use – other than mailing them to friends to visually brag about all the adventures they couldn’t join in – is to send them to yourself.  I know at first it sounds lame, but I think it’s awesome. I started this tradition in Fiji and have done it in every country since then.  When you’ve finally arrived at home and you’re facing adventure withdraw, you’ll arrive to find postcards reminding you of your trip. You’ll have the countries’ stamps and post mark and a letter written from your past self. Also if you meet people along with way you can have them write on it, too.  A good example, “Dear future self, I’m sorry that you are home now and bored to tears, but remember that one time when Noel tripped up the stairs in Istanbul!?! Yeah, that happened today. You should call her and laugh at her.” or “Dear Stephanie, Hello. How are you? Today you almost had diarrhea on a hot air balloon, but you toughed it out. Then you were thrown into the deflating balloon while all the other tourists took photos and wished they were you. That was fun.” or “Dear future Stephanie, I’m terrible sorry that I spent all your money traveling and you are now poor and homeless….” The options are endless!

Recipes
They don’t cost anything, and they only weigh as much as the paper you write them on, but that dish of pierogi that captures the essence of your time in Poland, or the snezanka that summarizes Bulgaria can be on your own kitchen table.  Brilliant, yeah? …. However, this is with the understanding that you’re a brilliant cook, of course.

Words
Instead of impressing everyone with all the keychains you bought, try impressing them with all the languages you can say, “cheers!” in:  Prost! Proost! Na zdravi! Na zdorov’ya! Na zdrowie! Santé! Serefe! Yamas! Noroc! OR all the languages you can say “thank you” in: Tesekkür, Merci, Danke schön, Efcharisto, Dêkuji, Terima kasih, Mulţumesc… (those last three I’m still working on remembering).

I’ve done all of these things and I’m pretty sure they’ll help me remember my legepic trip around the world more than a figurine or a bottle opener.  But if you REALLY want to know where I’ve been, look no further than my toiletries bag.  There’s something to represent nearly every country I went to on this trip.  Face wash left over from my trip to Japan. A toothbrush from Korea. Body lotion, body wash and a shower cap from the posh hotel in South Africa. Mascara from Germany. Chapstick and shampoo from Belgium.  Toothpaste from the Czech Republic. Hair ties from the Netherlands. And conditioner from Turkey.  You say toiletries, I say souvenirs!

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Dolmuş

I like analogies. If you know me, if you’ve ever read my personal journal – which you haven’t or I’d have to seriously maim you – you would know that I tend to find deeper meaning in a lot of common everyday things. I see Truth in normal situations and depth in mundane occurrences.  Drawing similarities out of these ordinary happenings helps me gain new perspective on some of life’s nagging questions and helps me to process difficult issues. Since one such analogy has to do with traveling, I thought it appropriate to include in my blog. The issue is that of a life in transit and what that means for my relationships.

People are constantly coming in and out of my life. They enter, stake their claim, shake things up a bit, and are gone again. It’s not their fault that our relationship is short lived, I’m not even saying whether this continuous overturn is inherently good or bad, it’s just the nature of this transient life I’m leading. And yet, even though it’s my choice to seek new adventure and explore new horizons, it doesn’t mean I particularly enjoy this constant coming and going. In fact, I tend to have a really hard time with it. Especially when I let myself get really close to someone, knowing full well our time is limited. The goodbye is inevitable and it’s always painful. Yes, these people always add something precious to my life, but they also take with them something precious when they leave.

It was my first time in Istanbul when I met Steven. We were instantly close and had everything in the world to talk about. We sat over fish sandwiches and Turkish tea exchanging tales from our travels; me philosophizing about why we travel, Steven regaling with episodes of his journey from Cape to Cairo. We wandered around the city together, getting helplessly lost, taking loads of pictures, browsing shops… laughing the entire time. We became incredibly close in just those four days. Needless to say, goodbye was difficult. Especially in our situation where there was absolutely no way of knowing if or when we would see the other person again. I’m American, he’s British, we met in Istanbul as I was passing through – not the best of conditions for a blossoming friendship. It turned out that Noel and I were actually able to return to Istanbul two other times in our travels, but goodbye only got harder. I was still raw from saying goodbye to all my friends in Korea and South Africa. I was just plain sick of “goodbye”….

This is probably about the time that you’re rereading the title of this blog and wondering what the heck a “dolmuş” is and what it could possibly have to do with sad goodbyes. Well, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Dolmuş, pronounced doll-moosh, is like a shared taxi-van. Many of the countries Noel and I went to had their own version of this. South Africa had white vans that seemed to kidnap people every few blocks and hold their ransom at 4 rand. Turkey was similar, but yellow instead of white. It was basically a taxi with a set route. If you were going in that direction, hop on! Then when the van was full you’d set off. A pretty smart concept, if you ask me.

So I was on the dolmuş from Bakirköy to Taxşim after saying goodbye to Steven for the last time, and I was struck with the thought: Life is like a dolmuş. My life is like a dolmuş that I’m driving. I’m going my way, I’m following my route, I have set destinations (regardless of whether I know what they are or not). I’m turning the van, choosing the pace, accelerating, breaking. I’m in control*. People who want to go my way climb into my van and join me. Some may get out after a few blocks, some may stay for the whole route. But they always reach their destination and go their own way. Our lives only align up to a certain point. Eventually the van empties and new passengers board. This is what my life is like. Destination: high school. Destination: College. Destination: Korea. Destination: home. At every destination my dolmuş empties and new people come in. There is joy in the newness of every journey, but there is tremendous loss at the end of each voyage.

I don’t know where I’m going next, and I don’t know who will join me on my way or how long they’ll stay, but I’m longing for the day when someone comes on board and doesn’t leave. We decide together where to go, we share the burden of driving and there’s no destinations but the ones we share.  I know you’re sticking your fingers down your throat trying to gag away the cheesiness… Trust me, I am too. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m tired of goodbyes. Maybe, just maybe, this dolmuş needs to park for a little while and wait for the right passengers to come along….. but then again, maybe the right passengers are just a few blocks away.

 

 

 

 

*(Of course if you want to take this analogy further you could say God’s in control, he provided the van, gave me the license, and determined what areas I would serve with my taxi, he decides when I should retire, and what my earnings are, and maybe if I’m a good driver he’ll even write me a letter of recommendation when I leave the company… hmmm, this is getting out of hand).
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Flattery vs Repulsion

Traveling around the world is an amazing experience. You meet so many people along your way that you get to share life with even if only for a brief moment.  This is the second time I’ve gone on a big backpacking trip and both times have been absolutely incredible for their own reasons.  I have discovered something quite obvious along my way: every person’s experience is 100% different and it’s not necessarily because of the unique way we view our surroundings. A lot of it has to do with the way our surroundings view us, in other words, what we look like. The first time I traveled around SE Asia I was quite heavy and I had dark hair. No one really gave me a second thought. Having now lost quite a bit of weight and gone blond… you can imagine the difference that might make in countries with predominantly dark featured inhabitants.

Turkey has been the best and worst as far as my appearance goes. There are some Turkish women who have lightened their hair, but for the most part I stuck out like a sore thumb. Sometimes I didn’t mind standing out, but sometimes I just wanted to be ignored.  A lot of women get annoyed with any kind of attention from the males, but I’ve decided that it can be fun if you choose to see it that way. And choosing to see it that way will make your overall experience in Turkey or other such countries much more positive. However, some men do cross that line between flattery and repulsion and just appall you with how offensive, abrasive, and vulgar they can be. This happened on a few occasions.

The difference between flattery and repulsion can be clearly seen in these following examples…

Looking vs Gaping.
When I was younger some college girls were staying with us for a few nights from the University of Michigan and we were watching the Olympic swimming matches with my mom.  My mom decided to announce just how fine those speedo wearing hotties were. Naturally, I was mortified and made it known with a, “mmMMOOOmmmm! to which she replied, “what? I have eyes, too!” Well, yes, we all have eyes.  This is a fact that even Google can’t refute. So if a male walks past and his eyes linger you can be flattered that you’ve caught his eye. You’re attractive. Like a well done painting or a beautifully composed photo in a gallery, he just wants to look.  It doesn’t always mean he’s objectifying or thinking inappropriate thoughts.  Gaping or staring on the other hand… not awesome. The man on the bus who watches every move you make and listens in on every word you say?…. that’s just uncomfortable and intrusive. Take a picture, it will last longer… Actually don’t, that’s creepy.

Friendly vs Audacious.
There were a few times when men would start a conversation with, “Oh, you are very beautiful” but that was that.  They would then go on to ask where I was from and how my travels were going (and sometimes whether I would like to buy a carpet or not).  That’s friendly. Thank you for your compliment and diverting conversation.  BUT then there’s the man who decides to sit way too close to me, instantly making my guard go up, considering there was an entire stretch of wall space to sit at a more comfortable distance.  And when it was clear by my taking out my iPod and putting in my earbuds that I didn’t want to talk and yet he still continued on, more red flags. I decided it was time for me to find another place to sit and enjoy my afternoon.  But he followed me… I said goodbye… he followed. I said “okay, I’m going now”… he followed. I said in a strong voice, “I’m going this way, YOU go THAT way!”… he stood there and stuck out his hand. I thought, finally, he’s going to shake my hand and go on his way.  But when I shook his hand, he held on tight and would not let go. I twisted and pulled and then shoved his hand away and yelled, “STOP! GO AWAY!” and turned and walked toward a group of other people. I swerved in and out of small side streets always looking back to make sure he wasn’t following. That was NOT friendly behavior. That was scary, not gonna lie.

Romantic vs Sexual Harassment.
These are the big events. The ones that will stick out in your mind as either a fond memory of a grand gesture or a troubling memory of a degrading and angering moment. The romantic I think I blogged about already but I’ll recap briefly. It was back in Korea on the day before I flew to Malaysia. I was walking back to my friend Nick’s apartment since I’d had to move out of mine, when I heard feet running up behind me and someone yelling for attention. It took me a minute to realize this person was yelling for MY attention. When I turned around, I saw a Korean man that I remembered passing on the street a couple of blocks away.  He ran up out of breath and in very good English said, ” I don’t normally do this and I hope you’re not frightened, I’m not chasing you, but I think you are very beautiful and I would like to take you to coffee.” THATs a romantic gesture. That takes a lot of courage and could be straight out of a movie. I was quite flattered, unfortunately I had to tell him no, that in this romantic comedy/tragedy the hero was a few days too late and the heroine was flying out of the country the next day.  The end. Cut to credits.

Now lets examine the antithesis of this: the bus ticket salesman who got drunk one night. That was one of the most uncomfortable, disgusting moments of my life. Noel and I had been warned by a man at a previous hostel to be careful when using the word ‘sick’ because in Turkish it’s the “f” word. He told us story after story of ill travelers being misunderstood. Well it was no misunderstanding when this man of 40-45 years started nuzzling my neck and saying, ‘sick, yes sick tonight’. We’d met him earlier in the day when we were trying to decide between taking an overnight bus or a bus early the next morning. He’d been kind enough and helpful, so when we saw him around the hotel Noel and I always said hello. It was around 11:30 that night that we were sitting in the restaurant area writing postcards and blogs when he came through on his way to the toilet. He seemed in good spirits when we said hello and asked him about our bus tickets. When he returned from the washroom and staggered a bit I could tell he was indeed in good spirits if you get my drift. He came over laughing, touching my back and getting closer and closer as he spoke with that awful alcohol breath. I was feeling nauseaus just sitting in that saturated air. I don’t remember all that he said because I was concentrating on how to get away from him and making anxious eyes toward Noel who couldn’t hear or was ignoring the awful things he was saying to me. Finally I just said, “please stop”. He looked surprised and feigned an expression like, “what? I was only kidding!” Then walked away. Drunk jerk.

So yes, I’ve had some not so awesome experiences, but I will say again that most times haven’t been as repulsive or offensive as that last one. I know that I’m blond and clearly foreign in a country like Turkey, it’s useless to get frustrated when people look at me because I’m out of the ordinary. But I will say this, if you’re reading this blog and of the male persuasion here are three tips: don’t gape, don’t grab or hold on, and do NOT nuzzle. ew.

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I’m American and no, I don’t want to buy a carpet

Even if you’ve never been to Turkey, I’m sure there are a few things that you already know about: Turkish kebaps, Turkish ice cream, Turkish delight, and of course Turkish carpets. But maybe you’re unfamiliar with Turkish friendliness and curiosity.  Walk down any street in Istanbul and you’ll be greeted cheerfully by almost every man, woman or child… if they’re selling something, of course. “Hi!” “Hello!” “How are you?!” “Come inside!” … See? Friendly.

I even got a “Nice hair!” once. Noel and I laughed so hard after that one.  Not because of the compliment he made to my day-old greasy locks, but to the look of absolute shock and horror on his face when I turned around to look at him.  As if the compliment had startled him as much as it had me.

Most of these conversations would occur around the touristy places and would go something like,
“Hello, where are you from?”
“The States.”
“Oh, welcome to Turkey!”
“Thank you.”
“Do you like Turkey?”
“Yes, very much!”
“Good! Would you like to buy a carpet?” …. ah… and there it is.
“No.”
“Okay, bye”

Of course some were quite a bit more pushy, although many times a conversation with a stranger would start in a similar way and you’d be standing there waiting for that sales pitch that would never come. This happened on our way into the Blue Mosque.  We’d just bought a snack that should be called ‘diabetes on a stick’ but was probably something more like ‘sugary fruity flavoured sticky sugar on a stick with sugar’.  We were feeling the effects almost immediately and getting extremely giggly, when a would-be carpet salesman witnessed our hysterics and asked if anything extra had been put into our snack.  Naturally, this made us laugh.  He then told us to hurry up and finish because prayer was going to start soon in the mosque and we wouldn’t be able to enter. He offered to show us the way and with our dulled senses we agreed, even with the risk that he might try to sell us something.  Our apprehensions were put to rest almost immediately after he asked us where we were from.  “Oh you’re American! Great! …oh no, here it comes…. I would normally try to sell you a carpet, but I can see that you don’t have money for one even though you are American”.  He was right, we didn’t have money for one, but I think he was saying we looked poor.  Maybe it was the pit stains, or that hole in my jeans, or the smell of 6-days-in-a-row-unwashed undies wafting up to his nostrils that gave us away…

We’d finally caught onto this conversation pattern and could ward if off almost immediately although one managed to get as far as putting a business card into Noel’s hand in case she met someone, or had a friend who wanted one of his carpets. Almost immediately after we escaped him, another man approached:
“Hello, how are you?”
“Hello. I’m American, where are you from?”
“I’m from here, Turkey”
“Great! Would you like to buy a carpet?”
Total and complete confusion covered his face like the carpet he would not be selling. Noel slipped him the business card and we walked away before he could recover himself.  Noel and Stephanie: 1 – Carpets: 0

If this kind of reeling in doesn’t appeal to you, I’d avoid the Grand Bazaar like the plague.  Or do what I did: pretend you’re Russian. It’s not likely they’ll know your language so you can get by with a nod and a smile.  This works especially well if you’re blond and alone, which I was. Row after row after row with stall after stall after stall of ‘hello! where are you from?’s.  Not answering and just continuing on with a smile worked for a while.  I didn’t get sucked into buying even one over priced souvenir, not one….. not even that one I really, really wanted since I didn’t know how to ask the price in a believable Russian accent, and I wasn’t about to blow my cover. Word would get out. They’d come after me.

So I walked on, until I found myself between two warring salesmen in stalls across the way from each other.  The man on my left began, “Hello, where are you from?” no answer. The man on my right, ” America?”
L: Canada?
R: Do you speak English?
L: Parlez vous français?
R: Are you from England?
L: Australia?
R: South Africa?
L: Germany?
R: Spain?
This banter continued back and forth across my path until,
“Oh no no no no no, wait!…. she’s from paradise!
My cover was blown with an explosion of laugher. I turned the next corner to escape their ‘ha! I knew it!’ look. I composed myself as best I could and thought, ‘well maybe I’m a Russian who can understand a little English… OR, even better, maybe I’m a Russian who can’t understand English but  has uncontrollable boughts of well-timed laughter…. yeah, this can work.’

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Hypothetically speaking… If I were to have a romance in Istanbul…

At first sight Istanbul doesn’t really seem like a city of romance and intrigue, but it’s there. Around unsuspecting dark alley corners, on rocks near the sea, in dark and dank uninviting tea shops, and yes even in cemeteries. If I were to have a romance in Istanbul, and this is all hypothetical, of course, it would be pretty awesome.

It would start in a hostel, not the most charming beginning it may seem, but you see, it’s in hostels where a girl who’s passionate about travel will find a boy who shares that passion… why else is he paying for a cheap bed in a dorm of snorers with questionable hygiene? So we’d be at the hostel, everyone chatting in the common area and someone would mention magic tricks – my cue to woo. I would dazzle my fellow hostelers with my tricks, making sure my awesomeness was being noticed by that certain boy who had caught my eye.  This hypothetical flirting would continue throughout the evening, tra la la la la, fast forward to the part where it’s clear we’re both interested but we’re just passers-by in this city, after all, so how attached should we get, right? Well, lets say we decide, “heck, you only live once, what’s wrong with a little romance?”

Courting is best done on walks through empty city streets so the next day I’d plan some way to do just that by announcing that I’d go with so and so on their way to see such and such monument and then I’d probably break off and go my own way.  I’d make sure this announcement was made in earshot of the boy who would then announce, “I think I might just join you!” PRESTO! A day date! Although at this point we wouldn’t dare call it that aloud. So we’d walk and chat and avoid hawkers all the while getting hopelessly lost in tiny winding streets then finding ourselves again exactly where we didn’t mean to be, but oh well that’s part of the fun, right?

It would be time to rest our weary wandering feet so we’d probably decide on some tea, but where? As travelers, we’d need somewhere cheap… ah! a sign advertising 1 Lira per cup of tea (roughly 60 cents)! So we’d follow the sign…. through a cemetery, yes, a cemetery, where in the very back there’s a tent with tables, chairs, tea and lots and lots of men smoking hookah. It’s starting to feel more like a date: sitting telling jokes and stories, gazing into each others’ eyes, actively ignoring the fact that we’re in a cemetery….  The hookah would probably start getting to us after a while so we’d decide to take to the streets again, going new places, seeing new things, until a stomach rumble would interrupt our conversation, because at this point we would have been walking for hours without even noticing the passing of time.

We’d probably be near the sea and Mr Man would propose dinner, fish, perhaps? At dinner, the Turkish waiter would dote on me bringing free tea after free tea and making my day date appreciate the fact that he’s the one that gets to sit across from such a perfect specimen of a female. And I’d be quite content being the one across from him.

Most day dates would be coming to and end at this point, but since it’s all hypothetical, let’s continue…. We’d amble up the narrow streets still talking endlessly because we hadn’t even begun to run out of things to say and hear. Then he would suddenly turn to me and say, “I have a great place where we can go, but it may seem a bit dodgy at first”. Let’s add here, the fact that this charming male is British so everything he says sounds even more appealing. So he’d lead me down dark and empty alleys, the kinds of alleys that make me question how much I actually trust this guy who I’d stumbled upon at a hostel of all places…. he could be anyone. He could be running away from the Turkish Mafia (capital M). Or he could have a wife and kids in England. Or he could be the guy who shows up in the news a few years down the line as the serial hostel kidnapper/killer, finally giving my parents closure as to who murdered their youngest daughter. Fortunately he would turn out just to be the guy who leads me through dark and scary alleys to a beautifully lit street, if you can call it that since it’s entirely stairs.  He’d take me to the roof of a cafe, because everyone knows that roofs are the most romantic. There’d be live music but no atmosphere, so he’d lead me back down to a secluded nook off the street. Because everyone knows that secluded nooks off the street are the most romantic. There’d be a couch, blankets, and a heater, but he’d be glad for the chill – his chance to put his arm around me. Of course, he’d been too shy to come near me all day, so he’d probably be on cloud nine at such a close encounter.

So we’d be sitting in our own private cafe, pretty much, enjoying the live music that’s streaming out an overhead window when he would take the opportunity during a rare pause in conversation to admit he’d wanted to kiss me all day but he was shy and didn’t know how I would react, and may he kiss me now. Well A. I’d spent the entire day with him loving every minute of it… B. I’d get to tell everyone about the romance I’d had in Istanbul with a Brit…. and C. what the heck, why not? so yes, he may and must kiss me. And obviously because it’s all hypothetical it would the perfect kiss. One for the movies.

The nature of travelers is that they go their own ways, so while maybe he was staying in Istanbul, let’s say he got a job there, I on the other hand had to continue on.  Several days of travel would pass, but let’s say Noel and I were afforded the opportunity to return to Istanbul, and our British friend offered us the spare bedroom in his apartment. I’d take him up on the offer, reasoning that it’s not a bad idea if my best friend is there, she’ll protect me.  Our hypothetical romance would continue as long as Noel and I would stay there (which would probably go from the planned 3 days to a week) and we would have all kinds of dates. Not raisins, just dates.   I’d meed him for his break at work, we’d decide to risk sitting on the rocks by the sea because they’re more secluded, but we’d realized that they smelled like cat feces and were dirty and uncomfortable so we’d choose a park bench instead.  We’d find little tea shops that only played Elton John but, at least the tea was cheap. I’d buy him strawberry Nestle Quick to start his working day off right and he’d bring me back free bread from the restaurant because he knows how I save them for sandwiches later. Life would be just dandy… until it was time to go.  Hypothetically I could decide to stay… but this story already seems a bit unrealistic, so I’d go… obedient to our travel itinerary, but downtrodden.

At least I would have had an amazing romance in Istanbul with an English man. There could be no complaining, he had made me feel beautiful and cherished, even if it did have to end.

Even if it was all hypothetical… right?

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Sharing is caring… except when it’s a bed. If you really cared, you’d sleep on the floor.

It finally struck me in Turkey, how valuable traveling with someone is.

The first time I backpacked, I was alone as I trekked around Europe for 5 weeks. It was an awesome adventure. Traveling alone allows you freedom and independence. You have absolutely no one to answer to. Go where you want, when you want. Like a city? Stay a while! You also have heaps of time to sit and process what you’re seeing and experiencing. Read a book, people watch, wander aimlessly for hours. Being a solo traveler is amazing, but you don’t really get to share the experience with anyone. There’s a lot of alone time that you’d rather not sit and people watch, you’d rather be the people others are watching.

The fact that there’s always going to be that companion, that person who is the, “if we’re lost, at least we’re lost together” person, THAT makes traveling with someone else worth it. There will always be someone to take that photo of you in front of that statue you’re pretty sure is famous for something. There’s someone to double check the map before you set out in the completely wrong direction. Someone to complain to when your bag is too heavy and you’re tired of walking. Someone to watch your back when a shady stranger approaches. And someone who will sit with you at a restaurant so you don’t have to be awkwardly alone, pitied by strangers.

Having a travel companion is about sharing. Not just the experience and the costs (which is a MAJOR plus, sharing taxis, grocery bills…. man that’s awesome!), but even the little things. Sharing a hairdryer and straightener (for the days you’re feeling more vain), sharing a first aid kit (although some people, ahem, Noel, used it more than others – what an accident prone woman!), sharing a computer, and even sometimes sharing a twin size bed for a week. Good thing neither of us are snorers, or kickers.

There are some things that you seem to share even when you’re angry, or annoyed. Tic-tacs and gum are an obvious share, but also hand sanitizer before a meal. Roll my eyes all I want and be as irritated as I might be, I’ll still share my tissues when you’re in the loo next door with no toilet paper.

And of course the best thing to share is blame. Like that one time in Malaysia when we both paid to go into the loo and were the only ones in or out for awhile.  I’m not going to say who it was, but one of us made a duty, did a number 2, pooed… whatever you want to call it, it just would not flush.  The workers, who were outside waiting for us to finish before they went in to clean, had no one to pin it on. As much as they may have wanted, they wouldn’t have been able to put a face to that specimen. And that’s what a travel companion is really for. Thanks, Noel, er, uh, I mean…. you’re welcome.

There's a good chance that had we attemped this legepic trip separately, we would have died, or worse - gone 5 months with out eating ice cream, or laughing.

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Turkish mafia

Beginning a word with a capital letter can drastically change it’s meaning. Take, Pole vs pole, for instance. One is a native of Poland, while the other is a long (usually round) rod of wood, metal or plastic. Or another example: the book vs The Book.  The first is any pages bound together on one edge, the other the sacred writings of the Christian religion. So when I say that we had a run in with the Turkish mafia, I’m not a liar. Mafia (capital M) of course refers to the secret terrorist group in Sicily or the crime syndicate in the United States. The lowercase mafia I’m referring to is any tightly knit group of trusted associates.  In fact it seemed as though the entire country of Turkey was part of this mafia.

We happened one afternoon upon Walkabout Tours, a travel agency in Istanbul, and decided that it would probably be worth our while to book our nation-wide expedition through their agency, rather than have to figure it all out on our own. Instantly, we were befriended by Hüseyin, our travel agent extraordinaire. He offered us deal after deal, and tea after tea… we just couldn’t refuse, his charm won us over. That, and the assurances from his boss (and owner of Walkabout), that we were in fact getting an exceptional deal. We purchased our personalized package, but we’d have to stop by later to pick up our vouchers; the best time, Hüseyin informed us, would be 8:30pm when he’d be getting off work. His boss added the promise of a free drink upon our return, so we agreed.

The next few hours were spent wandering around Istanbul, up and down alleys and through small galleries and shops. I’m sure we must have stopped for ice cream, as is our habit, but around 7pm we had exhausted our options of time killing activities and were getting a bit tired of walking around in the hoards of tourists. We’d decided we would forgo the free drink and just pick up our tickets early.  Easier said than done. Although Hüseyin was visibly disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to join us, the offer of a free glass of wine was renewed and, though tired as we were, we accepted. One of the agents walked us to a very nice restaurant a few doors down where live music was playing and the richer of the tourist breed were gathering for their nightly feeding.  The thought occurred to me that this might be one of those stories you read about where you’re lured into a nice looking establishment, offered ‘free’ refreshments, then presented with a horrendous bill upon leaving. We’d just have to wait and see.

courtesy of Noel

Killing time with ice cream. mmmmmmmm

Courtesy of Noel

Free wine with Hüseyin's cousin.

The man and woman at the next table turned their attention to us, asking about our travels, etc. After the woman offered to take our photo and excused herself, the man asked to join us. We agreed with as much politeness as our hesitancy allowed. He introduced himself as a relation of Hüseyin then chattered about things I can’t really remember now, until he was interrupted with a punch to the shoulder by a younger man, Hüseyin’s cousin. This mafia was good. They were coming in from all sides. He informed us that Hüseyin had called him and asked him to keep us company in his absence. Noel and I exchanged looks, that said, “hmmmm this is a bit strange, but we’re in a crowded restaurant, and we’ve got each other.”  They shared stories, asked us to guess their ages, guessed ours, told us of their lineage (the cousin had a Korean middle name – WonBin – named after a famous actor in Korea, whose nephew, incidentally, was a student at Noel’s school. Small world.) As our wine glasses were slowly emptying, we noticed that the restaurant was filling and that there was going to be a dinner show of Sufi dancers.  The free wine and familial conversations were great, but why not bump this up to the ‘too good to be true’ category and ask if we’d be allowed to stay and watch. “Oh, sure! The owner of Walkabout owns this restaurant, too, I’ll let him know. More wine?” was the response as we were escorted inside to a table with a better view.

copyright Stephanie DeMott

Whirling Dervishes or Sufi Dancers

Around 8:45pm we were joined by a bewildered Hüseyin who wondered at our still being in the area – remember we’d left him almost two hours earlier. The show concluded with a surprise performance from the man who poured our wine, and urgings from the cousin that we join him at a party later. We declined, but couldn’t refuse the Godfather’s offer to walk us the 30 minutes across the Bosphorus and back to our hostel, since it was dark and late. So we said our goodbyes to uncle, cousin, boss, friend, sister’s neighbor’s dog, and kitchen sink. I’m not going to lie, these mysterious connections, and random appearances by family members did make me a bit nervous. I thought maybe, by some unlucky stroke, we’d stumbled upon the Turkish Mafia -capital M.  That maybe we’d not only end up paying for our ‘free’ drinks, but find ourselves accepting other more dangerous offers that we really couldn’t refuse, or worse, find ourselves sleeping with the Bosphorus fishes: hooked, cooked, and served off a boat tethered to shore.

How we'd be served for lunch off a boat if the Mafia/mafia threw us into the Bosphorus.

There was in fact one more offer we couldn’t refuse and that came in the form of made-to-order waffles. Otherwise known as “diabetes stuffed in a cakey waffle sandwich with cavities drizzled on top”….. DELICIOUS! Hüseyin insisted that we top this off with Salep – a cinnamon/coffee/milkshake drink.  My system was in sugar shutdown mode so I declined, but Noel accepted – the first of what would be several Noel-Hüseyin dates.

No, I didn't eat ALL of those.

Hüseyin and Noel

When we arrived back in Istanbul after our 9 day tour around Turkey, we were greeted warmly by the Walkabout team. I was offered more tea while Noel was offered more dates. We even reached Walkabout fame when we were asked to relate our experiences on film for a documentary/commercial they were working on.  We spent that first afternoon back just hanging out in their office until my friend Steven could meet up and take us to his apartment where he’d so graciously agreed to let us crash for the next week. Yet throughout that week we somehow still managed to make our way back to their offices for tea on a regular basis.  It was beginning to be ridiculous how many times we found ourselves sitting across the desk from Hüseyin. I guess that’s how mafias and Mafias work. They reel you in with kindness and generous offers until you’re indebted to them and loyal.

The last time I graced walkabout with my presence was to buy our bus tickets from Istanbul to Athens.
Us: “We would like an overnight bus to Athens for Wednesday night, can you do that?”
Hüseyin: “Of course I can. So you’d like to go overnight on Thursday night?”
Us: “No, Wednesday night if we can.”
Hüseyin to his coworker: “Okay, Murat, can you book a ticket for these girls on Thursday night?”
Us: “Wednesday night”
Murat: “Okay, Thursday night it is.”
Us: “umm… alright. Thursday night!”

We actually ended up staying until Saturday night, but that’s an entirely different story all together now.  (in unison: “That’s an entirely different story”…….. an Airplane! quote, my favourite movie)

There were so many other instances of this Turkish mafia during our month-long stay in that land. Everyone seemed to know everyone from everywhere. And countless other travelers along our way had the very same Walkabout Tours stationary with a meticulously planned and personalized itinerary.  This mafia had their fingers in every aspect of a tourist’s life in Turkey. And fortunately for us, we found ourselves mixing with the only mafia in the world that didn’t have a hidden or dodgy agenda. They really just wanted to help. They love their country and they want other people to love it, too.  Yes, they’re a business that needs to make money to stay afloat, but we were never once treated like ‘clients’, only as friends. And WHEN (bold, underline, caps, and italics) I return to Istanbul, I’m sure I’ll make my way to Hüseyin’s desk at Walkabout to drink some tea and catch up like old friends.

That first night, as we were sipping on our free wine, I sat there skeptical of all these men and their generous offers, wondering how it would all turn out. I leaned over to Noel and said, “If we make it out alive, and with all our Lira sill in our wallets, this will make a pretty good blog.”

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Bira, Banjos, Busking and Backgammon

There are some things that Noel and I are not good at: being touristy, getting up early, faking interest after 3 hours in a museum, finding cheap food, and sticking to plans …to name a few.  But there are some things that Noel and I are exceptionally good at: finding ice cream shops, sleeping with our mouths open, laughing at things no one else would think is funny, writing postcards, and being flexible with our plans. All those aside, I would have to say Noel and I excel most at being groupies. Not the old fashioned sense of the term (following bands around from city to city in a cloud of sex, drugs, music, and bad decisions), rather the sense where if we like your music, we will follow you around, going to as many gigs as possible. End of story.

Well that’s not the end of this story, it’s the beginning, actually. And it starts with Noel and I walking down Istiklal Street in Istanbul. Our thoughts were most likely set on eggplant and mushrooms over pasta with a side of pilav, when a quirky, vibrant, non-Turkish sound entered our ears and interrupted our thoughts.  There, busking on the street, banjo, cello, trumpet and saxophone were mixing perfectly into a dixieland jazz melody…. wonderful! We stopped and listened longer than the average passer by, and could barely peel ourselves away when the music ended. Fortunately they had a sign saying they were playing at a cafe near our hostel later that evening. Our extremely packed travel itinerary (consisting of lounging around with fellow travelers at the hostel) would have to be changed! We had a performance to attend!

Billie Not on Holiday performing on Istiklal street, Istanbul

We showered, shaved, even put on our last pair of clean underwear – it was our first excuse to look decent since the start of our adventure after all – and headed in the general direction of the cafe/bar.  Being new to the city, we didn’t really know where we were going. We JCGIed (if you’ll remember my last post this means we googled it) so we knew what street it was on, but parading up and down an alley with countless bars, asking where the live music is produces a variety of results, most of them being akin to, “Live music here! You come inside and live music!” In a last ditch effort, ignoring the man telling us there was no live music further down the road, we entered a building with an establishment of a similar name to the one in our memories.  We had almost lost hope and returned to our hostel, but persistence won and we found the place on the fourth floor of that building. It turned out that the cafe was more like a small restaurant and we’d already eaten, so we ordered a Turkish bira to keep our hands occupied while we waited.  The band members started arriving and finally they took to the stage…

Billie Not on Holiday was their name, and apparently when they were busking on the street they were one member short – the lead singer. She was brilliant. I couldn’t have imagined them sounding any more amazing, but I was wrong. Toes were tapping, fingers drumming, shoulders shimmying…. and before long the more courageous among us (Noel) began to migrate toward the dance floor.  Yes, I too, couldn’t contain my urge to dance to this dixieland jazz and soon I was being twirled and whirled around by a stranger, enjoying every second of it.

The end of the show came all too soon, but they did offer a consolation prize in the form of a cd for sale.  We pooled our measly resources and made our purchase, not realizing that we didn’t have a cd player, and wouldn’t have one for another 4 months…. oh well. The show was over and it was time to head home, though first we had to decline some offers to tag along to a recording studio where the strangers we danced with were going to lay down some tracks. We bobbed, scuttled, and skipped back to our hostel with the tunes still bouncing around inside us.

The next two weeks were spent asking all of our new acquaintances if they had the capabilities of putting the cd onto our iPods, all to no avail. Little did we know, we weren’t at the end of our Billie Not on Holiday fun. Our travels took us back to Istanbul for another week and it happened that Billie and the boys were playing again at the same place, we even got to see them busking on Istiklal again. We made sure to keep our evening free for the show, and this time we arrived early to get a good table and a backgammon board. We’d learned how to play while on our travels through Turkey (an entire blog about this marvelous old game is coming soon… don’t worry!) Another night of Billie, banjos, bira and now backgammon. Playing backgammon didn’t last long, the beat begged us to dance and we obeyed. We were quickly joined by a Georgian and an Albanian. They were professional traditional dancers in Georgia (the country, not the state, although I’d like to see what traditional dances the state of Georgia has…) and showed off some of their moves between the spins and dips they led us through. It was another magical night of good music and good company. But when you’re just a passer by, floating from one place to the next, the time always comes to move on. We left Turkey and the hope of seeing another Billie Not on Holiday performance, but I hope I’ll have the chance to shimmy and jive to their music again some day.

An abandoned attempt at playing checkers with the Georgian, after a short lived backgammon game.

So, to all you musicians out there, take this as a warning: If Noel and I like your music, we will follow you around. End of story. And this time it really is the end of the story.

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Just Cussing Google It: Istanbul Edition

Let me say this one time, and one time only: sometimes I just don’t know the answer. There it is. You’ll probably never hear me say that again. So congratulations on receiving privileged information.

Sometimes you just see something odd on the street, and you wonder what the heck it is. Maybe you’re curious about the back-story to a random painting, or ponder about the meaning of that symbol you keep seeing… everywhere. What should a person do when faced with a situation where you refuse to admit your own ignorance?  Just Cussing Google It. JCGI is a phrase or acronym that I adopted from a friend.  Those who prefer a more strongly worded version tend to say JFGI, and I’m sure you can fill in the blank for F: Just Frantically Google It, of course. Either way you refer to it, you’ll find that 60 percent of the time, it is always the perfect answer.

When Noel sees a curious sight on the street and approaches me with my vast knowledge base, I can’t possibly disappoint her with an, “I don’t know”. So instead she gets, “JCGI”. Maybe this means “I have absolutely no idea”, but for all she knows, maybe I’m just too wise, well-informed, learned, educated, well-read, erudite, scholarly, cultured, cultivated, enlightened, and all the other words Thesaurus.com just gave me for high-and-mighty, to stoop down and answer such a lowly question as, “Why are they waving those red flags?”

Since this blog needs to meet its quota of truthiness, I’ll say this: There were many, many, many times, in every city we toured that I was clueless. So I’ve decided to share some of my questions and googles for you. So without further ado:

Just Cussing Google It: Istanbul Edition

Dogs
Q:
They’re everywhere in Istanbul, just hanging out, sleeping, doing their non-aggressive thing.  But some of them have tags in their ears…. Why?

A: Animal control in Istanbul doesn’t collect and cage their dogs. Instead they collect and vaccinate their dogs.  Then they release them to live happily on the street amongst wandering pedestrians. Not a bad idea. Food is left out for them. They sleep and wander.  No harm, no foul, right? Maybe we should consider this for America’s rampant STD and teenage pregnancy crisis … “Hey, sergeant, collected this twelve year old boy skateboarding on First Street” “Okay, Bob, give him the works: vaccinate him against unsightly cold sores, uncontrollable itchiness, and throw in the won’t-get-a-girl-pregnant-til-marriage vaccine, too. Then tag his ear and we’re good”.

So to sum it up, if it’s got a tag in its ear, it’s safe. The dog has had all its shots and shouldn’t give you anything besides a sniff of the butt or a lick of the hand (i.e. no rabies).

You can see the tag in this dog's ear, just outside the Aya Sofya

A dog totally unaware the a group of tourists in Cappadocia are walking around it.

Maybe they already are tagging the ears of stray humans.......

Men with Scales
Q:
Walk around the streets of Istanbul for a day and you’re bound to see a man on the side of the street chillin with a scale by his feet. This will make you ask, “…..huh?”

A: Weigh yourself! If you don’t have a scale at home and you’re curious to see if those Turkish ice creams are catching up with you then look no further than that man on the side of the road with a scale. Don’t be surprised if your reading isn’t accurate, though, or if you consult the next road-side weight measuring man, and get a different result. You know that could be a good business card title…. Ibrahim Oziel R.S.M.  Road-Side Weight Management.  The next time I weigh myself on a crowded bridge, I’ll propose this business card idea.

It's fitting that I had to google this picture, since I didn't have any.

Corba
Q:
What is this word that looks like Cobra that I keep seeing on restaurant signs?

A: Soup.

The Blue “Eye” Symbol
Q:
It’s everywhere, lit’rally everywhere: on a child’s pram, over doorways, painted on oil trucks, hanging from trees, but what the hiz-eck is it and why is it EVERYWHERE?!??

A: It’s the eye of Medusa.  Prepare yourself for a popular myth explained very badly, ready?  Athena loved this really hot guy. Medusa did, too. But I guess Medusa was a babe where as Athena was librarian style plain. Obviously, being a guy, Poseidon picks the babe over the librarian leaving one very unhappy goddess of reference books. Athena turns Medusa into stone. End of story. Nobody wins. So now the saying goes that since it was jealousy and envy that turned Medusa into stone, if you have those feelings in your heart when you look at her stony-blue eye that evil will be reflected back to you and you’ll be turned to stone. Therefore, if you have something nice like a baby, your own business, or even a beat up truck, you can put Medusa’s eye on it to ward off evil thoughts. Example: I’m having an awesome hair day > I put a barrette with Medusa’s Eye in my hair > you look at my gorgeous flowing locks with jealousy > you’re turned to stone! BAM! WHAT NOW!? HA!

I guess the things that prompt the most envy in Turkey are keys, because there are a LOT of Medusa Eye key chains.

Another Googled Goodie! don't you dare be jeals.....

Muslim Prayers
Q:
The call to prayer sounds 5 times a day and Muslims are required to pray 5 times a day, but we never saw anyone put down their doner carving knife, leave their weaving loom, or excuse themselves from driving the bus to pull out their prayer mats when the call to prayer sounded…. what gives?

A: First of all, let me say this: google authors could be anyone anywhere if they just make a website, correct? So when I say Just Cussing Google It, maybe sometimes that could mean asking our new friend and travel agent, Huseyin…. right? His answer was short and sweet and much quicker than typing your question in the search box, then scanning for the best and most concise spoon-fed answer: “They just pray 5 times at the end of the day”.

Montezuma’s Revenge
Q:
Why, oh why did this happen to me and how long must I suffer?????

A: You ate that fateful salad, and 3-5 days on average. Don’t worry, Stephanie, you will live through this.

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