Monday, May 14, 2012

Mother of all derbies: Fenerbahce vs Galatasaray

The Turkish soccer league season came to a glorious, deafening close on Saturday night. In past years, the season ended without playoffs, and the league champion was whatever team had accumulated the most points over the season. This year, however, they implemented playoffs, called the Super Final, which lasted for 6 weeks and in which only the top four teams were involved -- which ended up being Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, Trabzonspor and Besiktas, all of which are Istanbul teams except for Trabzon.

Each of the four teams started the playoffs with half of the points they'd accumulated during the season, and whoever had the most at the end of the Super Final would be declared champion. Fenerbahce was league champion last year, but they're deep in the match-fixing scandal, so a lot of people don't trust that they rightfully earned that trophy. This season, Galatasaray was ahead at the end of the regular season, and they went into the Super Final with nine points more than Fenerbahce. Trabzon was third, and Besiktas a dismal fourth, and I think it's fair to say neither of those teams had a hope of finishing higher.

So, anyway, Saturday night saw the last game, between major rivals Fenerbahce and Galatasaray -- and Fenerbahce had managed to whittle down the point difference, leaving Galatasaray only one point ahead. To win the title, Galatasaray needed to either win or tie -- but they were playing at Fener's stadium on the Asian side, where they hadn't won in 13, as you can imagine, there was quite a bit of excitement leading up to this match.

Early Saturday morning, we had sort of forgotten about the game (Cagatay's team is Besiktas, and we don't have the cable channel to watch the Spor Toto games) and made the mistake of heading over to the Asian side for something else. By the time the afternoon arrived, Bagdat Street was packed, with about half of the people in the streets decked out in Fenerbahce gear, waving flags, blowing horns and just generally getting revved up for the match. These photos aren't doing it justice, alas.

We left just as people were starting to walk toward the stadium, probably around 4pm, though the game didn't start until 7, and it took us forever to get to the ferry -- probably because half the road was blocked off for pedestrians.

Then I forgot about it and went to the movies with a friend on the European side, in Nisantasi. We came out around 9:30, when the game had just ended. The score ended up being 0-0, so Galatasaray won the title, and people were just going nuts. We came out and there were all these horns honking, guys shouting and singing, flares going off... Even in the metro, it was a scene. In my car, guys were jumping up and down, banging on the roof, singing at the top of their lungs, and the air was thick with sweat.

When I got home, we watched a bit of the aftermath on TV. It had been agreed that the trophy would be handed to the winning team on the field, which did not go over well with the Fenerbahce fans (who had thrown flares and stormed the field). Apparently it was suggested that Galatasaray be given the trophy in the dressing room (which was rejected) and the prime minister had to intervene in the situation. There is a fantastic photo of the chaos on the field here, on Today's Zaman's website.

Celebrations went on well into the night. One of my coworkers said a Galatasaray fan and a Fenerbahce fan got into a knife fight outside of his building, and a man died in another city when overexicited fans fired a gun up into the air (this is a popular tradition in Turkey; sometimes you see ridiculous stories where brides or grooms or wedding guests get injured). Apparently, 47 fans were arrested during the revelry, and 36 were injured. Pin It

Five Things about Oman

I made a little map generally outlining where we went on our trip to Oman. While I feel like we did a decent amount of things while we were there, like Australia, the map says, you suckers, you barely scratched the surface! The red line is my guesstimate of the driving route, while the red-and-white flag is the area where we went diving.

And in summary, here are five travel tips I picked up about Oman:

    1. WEEKEND: In most Middle Eastern countries, the weekend is Thursday and Friday – so if you’re planning visits to avoid crowds, be sure to keep this in mind. (The United Arab Emirates apparently changed its weekend to Friday and Saturday in 2006 to better align itself with Western businesses; Wikipedia says Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country following a fully Western calendar.)
    2. MONEY: Everything will seem expensive in Oman because of the currency exchange (1 Omani Rial equals $2.6). If you decide to travel there, I think you just have to accept this and think instead in terms of relative value.

    3. FOOD: From what I saw, Oman doesn’t seem to have its own national cuisine, making Indian food the go-to choice. However, several websites say that Omani food is an amalgamation of that of other cultures (as a result of its geographical location and, I would imagine, its rich trading history), and is often a combination of some meat (chicken, fish or mutton) with rice, and “prepared with liberal use of various marinades, spices, herbs, onion, garlic and lime."

    4. VISA: Most visitors need a visa to enter Oman, but it can generally be bought upon arrival. (See the list of nationalities this applies to here). Confusingly, you have to buy it from the Travelex Foreign Exchange desk in the arrivals hall, which is not immediately obvious, before getting in the immigration line. The website says you can pay by credit card or in most currencies, but when we were there, it was cash only.

    5. ENTRY/EXIT: Omanis like their doors. Even in the smallest villages, I would see the most elaborately carved wooden doors (or sometimes, elaborately shaped plastic grills) on houses. I wasn’t able to take any good photos as we were driving along, so the doors at the Sultan Qaboos mosque and the 1,001 Nights Camp will have to suffice to prove the point:

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Oman Trip: Flying back to Istanbul, Day Seven

Well, the week in Oman went by in a flash, and before we knew it, we were leaving behind sun and beach and heading back to Istanbul via Doha.

We pretty much spent the entire day in transit, and we flew in around 6:30 p.m., just in time for the most amazing late afternoon views of Istanbul. Seen from the air, I realize just how huge Istanbul is, and just has much it has spread. For example, look at the photo below to the right -- that body of water is the Bosporus, which means that huge swath of land stretching out into the distance is the Asian side...which is just one half of the city. One half, I can hardly believe it -- look at all of those buildings! Hello, 15 million people...

The other two photos show the historic heart of the city, from two different angles. In the photo at top left, the body of water coming toward you is the Golden Horn, which the Byzantines had sealed across with a massive chain in order to protect the old city, but of course, in the end, it didn't work. The piece of land to the right, triangle-shaped, in that same photo is Sultanahmet, and the long, square "building" is Topkapi Palace. To its right, directly south of the bright white cruise ship is Aya Sophia.

In this set of photos, what is most interesting to me, in the ones at the sides, are the amount of ships in the Sea of Marmara. They're all waiting to sail up the Bosporus into the Black Sea, and only one can go at a time. I read that these ships wait on average 20 days before they can go through because of the traffic -- isn't that insane? Pin It

Oman Trip: Wadi Bani Khalid, Day Six

It was another early start on Friday, and after enjoying the 1,001 Nights Camp's delicious buffet breakfast, we headed off to Wadi Bani Khalid. It took about 40 minutes to reach the end of the sands, and then perhaps another 40 minutes to reach the wadi itself -- and it's amazing how much the landscape changed in that short space of time, from desert to lush oasis (though I guess that's how it normally works, eh?).

When we got to the wadi, it was pretty empty of tourists, which was mostly due to Qais getting us out of the camp earlier than everyone else. The tourist services at the wadi are fairly developed, especially when compared to the others we saw (we had also stopped the day before for a quick look at Wadi Tiwi); we made our way through the parking lot, along the path to the “developed” area (there was a little snack bar and I would guess toilet facilities), and then clambered over rocks to get to the swimming area.

We spent about an hour there, and it was just divine. The water was totally clear and throwing up dancing reflections on the surrounding rocks, and the little pedicure fish were busy gnawing at our toes. There weren’t that many people there, either, just some Filipino workers who assumably had the day off and some local teenagers. When we left, however, it was clear that all of the other tourists were pouring in, and I imagine our hour there would not have seemed so idyllic – so, my best advice is, come early (and, maybe, during the middle of the week).

Besides a brief stop for lunch (more Indian food!), we spent the rest of our tour driving back to Muscat. At some point, Qais told us about Sultan Qaboos, which led into a discussion about his family. The Britain-educated sultan has been in power since 1970; his father had had him more or less locked up in the palace for six years until Qaboos managed to overthrow him in a coup. Wikipedia and other websites say that the sultan was married to and shortly divorced from his cousin, and that he has never re-married or had any children; if you Google him, it becomes clear very quickly that many people suspect he is gay. If this is true, then it’s not clear who will succeed him. But what’s interesting is that is not what Qais told us at all – he said that it’s unknown what the sultan’s marital status is or whether he has children, and that this information is kept from the public for his security, especially considering what happened between him and his father. In terms of his rule, many people seem to be divided – he is credited with modernizing Oman and keeping it free of the fundamentalist elements that have destabilized other countries in the region, but he’s also a despot, even if a kindly one. 

Somehow, this led us into a conversation about multiple wives. He told us that his father had had four wives, although it was one at a time until the last two. He said he himself only has one wife but said that it would be better to have two because then they would compete, which would result in him being treated like a king. I think my mouth just hung open at that – and I wanted to say, but restrained myself, what about them? Don’t they deserve to be treated like queens as well?

Anyway, we got back to the house around 3 p.m. In the previous post, I mentioned that we haddebated over taking a tour, wondering if the thin guidebook would be enough to get us around. Having now seen the roads, signs and sights, I think we could have done it ourselves, but it wouldn’t have been easy the first time, with what we had. The road between Quriyat and Wadi Arabayeen was a dirt track, though I suspect it was a shortcut. Although the path through the Wahiba Sands seemed quite clear -- it wasn’t a real road since it was all sand, but it was also pretty obvious what was to be driven on (and what wasn’t) – I heard that you can get quite lost if you’re driving all the way through and don’t know where you’re going.

Having said that, our friends gave us an amazing resource, Oman Off Road from Discover Publishing.  It lays out 26 road-trip routes in Oman using satellite images and GPS coordinates, and also features about a page per route describing what there is to see. Using this book, I think we probably could have found our way around pretty well.

Anyway, after we got back from the overnight tour, we spent the remainder of our last afternoon at the beach with our friends, playing Frisbee, enjoying the surf and examining the critters. Overall, it was a really lovely holiday, and I feel like we barely scratched the surface of Oman, so I hope we'll go back to some point to go diving in the very north and exploring in the south. 
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Friday, May 4, 2012

Oman trip: Wahiba Sands, Day Five

As we planned our trip, we knew that we wanted to go beyond Muscat and see other parts of Oman, but we weren't sure how we wanted to do that. For awhile, we toyed with the idea of renting a car -- a 4WD would have been about $100 a day but the gas incredibly cheap -- but were a little nervous about getting around and actually finding the things we wanted to see, especially the wadis. (My Lonely Planet Arabian Peninsula guidebook is from 2004 and has directions like, "Turn right at the small roundabout by the block factory at the end of the village" and "Don't leave the track: mirages of water can lead you into the shallow-crusted sabkha [salt plain].")

So upon the advice of our friends, we decided to take a tour instead, a private, guided tour with Zahara Tours. We did the overnight 1001 Nights Package, which added in a couple of other locations before and after the main event, the Wahiba Sands. It was pretty expensive, and I was quite shocked when I heard the price -- but later, we realized it was a reasonable price in Oman, it's just that with the exchange rate of 1 Omani Rial to $2.6, EVERYTHING seem expensive.

Our driver, Qais, picked us up at 8am at the house and off we went, up and over the mountains, to the first stop, the fishing village of Quriyat. There had been a sand storm in the region a couple of days before we arrived, so while it was sunny, the sky had this greyish-brownish pallor almost the entire time we were there. When we got to Quriyat, it was particularly heavy, which made it seem pretty blah as a destination. There weren't any flamingos or eagles in the inland stream, so the highlight there was the fish market, where we were the only patrons/visitors. They had a bin of small dead sharks, unfortunately, which I found especially interesting as the owner of the dive shop had told us the day before he'd gotten the market in Muscat to stop selling them (for awhile anyway; apparently they'd lapsed).

After that, we got off the main road and bumped our way along a rocky, dry track up and along the hills until we reached the amazing Wadi Arabayeen. In thinking about traveling to Oman, I'd been a little up in the air -- would it be as great as I imagined? -- but then a photo I saw in National Geographic Traveler a couple months ago of Wadi Bani Khalid sealed the deal, so I was pretty excited to actually see our first wadi, which is really just a flat stream bed cutting through the mountains. We initially stopped at one of the pools, where a couple of teenagers were enjoying the turquiose waters, but then after that, we just drove through it, along the track, with the mountains reaching up on either side. At some points, we saw goats, a couple of kids (who may have been tending the goats)... I wish we'd stayed longer at the water there -- compared to the dry, deserty environment all around us, the pools just looked so inviting.

We then went to the Bimah Sinkhole, followed by the mausoleum of Bibi Miriam. Both were interesting, but not the most exciting...though perhaps that was because of the heat and the fact that we were still pre-lunch. :) The sinkhole is basically one big pool, which was created by seawater eroding the limestone underneath the ground, until it collapsed -- the water there, too, is a lovely green-blue color, and a mix, I believe, of salt water and fresh water (and home to those tickly little fish that like to eat the dead skin off your feet). Interestingly, I saw a Nike-sponsored video less than a week after we got back where two guys pack in like 10 countries in 10 days that features the sinkhole (around minute 2:50, where the guy's jumping into the water). Anyway, we went about halfway into the water, mostly because it was a little too cold to go in all the way. Bibi Miriam, in contrast, is a 2nd-century AD ruin that Marco Polo visited at one point; apparently, it used to be reputed as the site of the Virgin Mary's tomb. The only thing you can do there is walk around the perimeter of the building (and according to a sign out front, it seems like you're not even supposed to do that).

We had lunch in the town of Sur and then made a quick stop at a dhow (boat) factory in town, which was surprisingly interesting, as they had multiple boats in progress, at different stages, so you could really see how these handmade wooden boats come together.

After Sur, we headed for the Wahiba Sands. The landscape at this point was pretty flat and aside from the occasional camel at the side of the road, there wasn't much. But then, probably about 45 minutes before we reached the sands, we started to see them in the distance -- and for a long time, it really just looked like hills. And then you get there, and it's amazing, this red-sand desert. It was actually sort of formed like the wadis -- hills (here made of sand) on both sides with a flat track running down the middle, making it driveable.

But pretty much right off the bat, Qais asked us if we wanted to go dune driving, and then proceeded to drive like a crazy man up and around on the actual sand dunes. We were sliding from side to side and going up and down these dunes (made of nothing but sand!) and I was pretty terrified we were going to flip was like riding a rollercoaster. Thankfully, it only lasted about 10 minutes, until we reached this Bedouin home we were to visit, which was more or less right where the sands started (which is to say, it didn't strike me that they were out in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking). The "home" visit was a little weird, for a number of reasons. I'm pretty sure we just went into an entry room that had been built for visitors, and we sat on the blankets and had tea and dates. Some of the family was there, but they were only little kids and teenagers, and were mostly fooling around amongst themselves. So I don't feel like we really got a glimpse into the "Bedouin life" or anything like that. Having said that, one of the boys was a little rascal and pretty funny. They had a scorpion trapped in a water bottle, which they'd attached to a pole -- when we were looking at it, the kid snuck up behind me and pounced on my leg, hoping to scare me (which he did, quite successfully!). Then, when we went outside, he decided to start "playing" with one of the camels -- he got on it and started swatting it until it stood up, at which point he started doing gymnastics on its back. :)

After that visit, we drove about 45 minutes into the sands to reach the 1,001 Night Camp, which was set in the middle of nowhere and where we stayed overnight, in our own fixed tent. It was incredibly nice, and while I'm not sure what you'd do with yourself during the day, I don't feel like we were there long enough to have really, truly enjoyed it. As I said, we had our own tent, which had two beds and a bathroom (open to the sky), and there was a swimming pool and a open-air dining area.

Qais offered to take us up to the top of the sand dunes for sunset, so we only had about 30 minutes to chill out before we were off again on another roller-coaster ride. :)  The Wahiba Sands are just amazing -- the sand is a vivid burnt-orange color and it just goes on and on and on. So Cagatay and I sat up there at the top and we were just enjoying the expansive view until...HE PROPOSED! I was pretty surprised, to say the least.

We spent the rest of the evening at the camp. After a buffet dinner that was mostly Indian food (over the two-day tour, every meal we had was Indian food...I assume because of the amount of Indian workers in the country...and because I love Indian cuisine, it was pretty awesome), we went back to our tent, pulled the chairs out and sat under the stars for a couple of hours...

As usual, the slideshow comes next:

Created with flickr slideshow.
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