Sunday, April 22, 2012

Oman Trip: Scuba diving, day four

We spent our second day in Oman at the house, reading and relaxing by the pool in better-than-I-can-tell-you-after-a-long-winter warm weather. As a result, we didn’t have time during the trip to make it out to the Western Hajars, the mountainous area east of Muscat, but a day of rest and relaxation was what we needed. And it was amazing. We even had cupcakes, which are pretty much unheard of in Turkey -- and how I've missed them.

On our third day, we went scuba diving! I had heard/read that the scuba diving in Oman is good, but there’s not a lot of information out there, so I really wasn't sure what to expect. Lonely Planet, for example, says Avyalik, Turkey, is "famed" among the dive community for its red coral and implies that it's great diving, but that's a big ole lie created by one very entreprenurial dive company owner. But I digress...

I had really been hoping to dive the Daymaniyat Islands, a nature preserve and according to National Geographic Traveler, home to the Arabian Peninsula's best diving, but our dive days were limited (you're not supposed to dive 24 hours before or after a flight) and it didn't seem like anyone was going out there during our week in Oman. (Later, one of the dive guides told me that it wasn't really the season for Daymaniyat and they'd start going there in a couple of weeks or so, though the Internet seems to suggest it's a year-round scuba destination.) Instead, we went diving at Banda Khayran, near Muscat, with Omanta scuba, which operates out of the Intercontinental Hotel, though the marina is probably a good 40 minutes, maybe more, to the west, outside the city.
We went to Mermaid Cove and Seahorse Bay, and although the water was a little cold, even with a wetsuit, we saw a number of critters down there. I usually judge a dive destination on number/variety of marine life and while Oman doesn't compare to the Red Sea, for example, or any of the other blockbuster places, it was solidly good diving. We saw a number of moray eels, clown fish, box fish, lion fish, crabs, butterfly fish, a nudibranch, a flounder and even a cuttlefish. We also saw a number of poisonous stone fish, sneakily lying on the sand or the coral -- in the photo below, to the right, there's one on the rock formation. Can you find it?
While on the boat, we also saw a sea turtle swimming near the surface and a shark nursery in a shallow inlet. (You can see them in the photo in the first group, to the right -- it was easier to spot the sharks then since they were swimming, but they're pretty much any of the large dark spots to the right of the big rock jutting out of the water, or from there to the shore. I can pick out five in the photo, though there were probably 10 or more.)
Overall, I thought the dive company was pretty good. The boat was pretty small but there were only six divers, so it wasn't a big deal -- however, the dive boat only had the one main area, where all the gear was, so if there had been another five divers, say, I think it would have felt incredibly crowded and perhaps not relaxing. We also had two dive masters with us -- one was a British guy and he was incredibly friendly and helpful. The other guy was Omani, and he wasn't so nice -- in fact, he kind of treated us like we were imposing on his time. But overall, I was pleased with the trip and would consider diving with Omanta again.
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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Oman Trip: Muscat, Day Two

After our day in Doha, we spent the next five days in Oman. Cagatay has a high-school friend who lives now in Muscat with her husband and kids, and she insisted that we stay with them. We arrived late on Sunday night, but luckily they only lived a couple of minutes from the airport, in an expat complex with its own private beach.

The next morning, Dila had to go to the girls' school for parent-teacher conferences, and she offered to drop us off at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque for an hour. I was silently thinking to myself, an hour? I have been in my fair share of mosques in Istanbul, and that seemed like an enormous amount of time. But this mosque was AMAZING and we easily could have spent another hour there. (If you're going to go, plan wisely: The mosque is open everyday except Friday, but only from 8:30-11am.) I already knew that I would have to dress modestly -- I wore an ankle-length skirt, t-shirt and sweater -- and they make you (women) cover your hair as soon as you enter the grounds.

We first walked directly across the grounds and headed into the prayer room, which we at first thought was the main prayer hall but turned out to be just for the women. The main prayer hall ended up being around and behind, and was just incredible. According to the Omani tourism website, this room fits 6,500 worshippers at a time, and the Persian carpet is apparently the largest in the world. Basically, it's about 50 meters from carpeted floor to blue-porcelein dome, and in between is just wide open, airy space. After going in both the prayer halls, Cagatay and I wandered down the various passageways outside -- I was particularly taken by the decorative niches, which were done in either exquisite tile work or mosaic.


After the mosque, Dila and the girls picked us up and we headed into Mutrah, which is sort of the downtown Muscat area, except that downtown is mostly just a row of three- to four-story whitewashed buildings along the water. In this regard, Muscat is a very odd city -- it's very long and thin, the city stretching some 50 kilometers or more in the narrow space between the ocean and the dry mountains. As a result, I never really felt like I had a handle on it. We didn't spend much time in Mutrah -- we took a quick walk through the souq, but it felt very touristy and inauthentic (which was sort of disappointing as Oman is well-known in history for its prime trading ports, and they were great exporters of frankincense). We then headed to the Bayt Az-Zubair museum, which is home to a number of displays on Omani military history (lots of weapons on display) and culture (also lots of traditional dress) in a restored house. The museum wasn't really my cup of tea and I think we were all hot and hungry, so we made only the briefest of stops to take a look at the exterior of Al-Alam, the Sultan's Palace (though he doesn't live there, it's purely ceremonial), within the Walled City before heading to lunch at the Intercontinental Hotel.

The rest of the afternoon was pretty leisurely, I must say. Cagatay and I both really needed a vacation so after lunch, when the girls were off having their tennis lessons on the hotel's courts, we relaxed in the lawn chairs and had a little siesta. :)  On the way back to the house, we stopped briefly at the City Centre mall, which looks like any mall you'd find in America (or Istanbul, for that matter). Except, of course, for the lettering -- most of the shops were recognizable brands and had the names displayed in both Latin and Arabic alphabets. My favorite stylistically was Marks & Spencer, purely because they incorporated the green "&" in both versions.

As usual, the Flickr slideshow is below. Most of the photos are from the Sultan Qaboos mosque, up until the wide exterior shot. After that comes a snap of the Mutrah souq, followed by a poster featuing Sultan Qaboos himself, then it's the Sultan's Palace, some watchtowers nearby, and the Marks & Spencer logo in Arabic lettering.





Created with flickr slideshow.
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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Oman Trip: Doha, Day One

Two weeks ago, we took a week-long vacation to Oman. I know what you're thinking -- Oman? But it's been popping up in the travel press the last couple of years and was also a place that both Cagatay and I could go without having to pre-arrange a visa. (To go to the US or Europe, for example, Turks have to apply for very costly visas, which aren't always a sure thing.)

Because of the flight schedules, which would have put us arriving in Muscat at 3am, we decided to spend the first full day of our trip in Doha and take an early evening flight to Oman. We thought it would be simple -- Qatar is another place for which neither of us needs a pre-arranged visa -- but we had a bit of a scare. When we arrived at the Istanbul airport Saturday evening, the Qatar Airways representative looked at us askance and said, "You know your layover is 24 hours, right?" She then proceeded to tell us we wouldn't be able to leave the terminal in Doha. Whaaat? She then clarified that we needed to have made a hotel reservation and thankfully, we had printed out the confirmation sheet, but it still didn't seem like a sure thing. She also pointed out that our luggage would be checked through to Muscat -- which totally makes sense, but it hadn't occurred to us, and we didn't pack anything useful for an overnight in our carry-on.

 As we were landing in Doha, we found out that you don't actually even land at the terminal building -- you land on the tarmac and then are brought by bus to the proper location based on your status, as a way to make sure everyone goes where they're supposed to. Although we had the "transfer" colored boarding envelope, we decided to just fake it and see how far we could get. The bus first went to the arrivals terminal and a security guard was positioned at each bus exit  -- when the guy asked me if Doha was our final stop, I just nodded quickly. Inside the building, there was a huge desk with a sign over it reading Pre-Arranged Hotel Reservations. I thought this meant generally, considering the strictness of the rules (it turns out you can avoid this whole stuck-in-the-terminal problem by booking a hotel through the airline), so we went to talk to the guy there, who told us that Turks were in fact NOT allowed to buy a visa upon arrival. Whaaat? He was a nice guy though and kind of shrugged his shoulders and told us to give it a try. So we did. The Qatari official looked at Cagatay's passport for a good five minutes, studied our hotel reservation for another few minutes, but eventually gave us the green light. And that was our introduction to Doha...

We took a taxi to the hotel. When we got in the cab at the airport, they driver told us it would be around 40 Qatari Rials, which is what the dispatcher had said -- but he didn't use the meter and ended up asking for 20, which we thought was a mistake. (But this turned out to be a trend -- when we went back to the airport the next day, I asked about the meter and the guy gave me a plaintive look and asked if I really wanted it on...when I asked him how much it would be without, he also said 20. From him, I gathered this was a way to pocket a little extra money.)
Anyway, we arrived at the hotel around 12:30am so we just went to sleep. Turkey was switching to Daylight Saving Time that night, but it turns out that in the Middle East, they don't observe it at all -- the hotel desk guy was quite confused when we asked about it. :)

The next morning, after hitting up the hotel buffet breakfast, we went exploring. We stayed at the Kingsgate Hotel, which was nice enough (we were barely there), and seemed to straddle the Disney-fied souq area and the behind-the-scenes area, if you will, where some of the workers live. Overall, I liked Doha from what I saw, and would like to go back and spend another few days there, but it also seems like a very strange place. For one thing, with all of the building construction, I felt like we had arrived at the party, but way too early. In a lot of ways, it felt like the city was still being set up.


We spent the morning wandering around the souq area, which was only a few blocks from the hotel. Although the guidebook made it sound like there are various souqs -- the animal souq, falcon souq, gold souq, Souq Waqif -- it seemed to me like it was one big souq but with separate sections. After walking through some of the covered passageways, we managed to find the animal souq, which was pretty heartbreaking. There were all sorts of creatures -- pigeons, chickens, neon-colored chicks, parrots, rabbits, turtles, kittens, etc -- and all stuffed together in little cages out in the blazing sun.

From there, we managed to find the Falcon Souq, which seemed like it had just been opened -- in there, it was more like proper, individual stores, and the peregrine falcons were just sadly sitting hooded on little perches. On the way back to the main area of Souq Waqif, while crossing through a car park, we came across this sandy area filled with camels. I have absolutely no idea what they were doing there, but we jokingly referred to it as the camel park.


We probably spent a couple hours wandering around the souq area and so after, we decided to take a break at a shaded coffee shop along Souq Waqif's main street. While I liked the souq, it was too prettified and too new-looking, which made it feel like we were instead at Epcot. I think part of it is that it's not the locals doing the work -- instead, they've brought in tons of workers from third-world countries like India, Pakistan and the Philippines. I'm not sure we ever saw a local in Qatar. And, as a result, the souq doesn't feel all that authentically Middle Eastern when it's staffed by Indian guys. This is also generally true in Oman and, as I understand, the UAE -- but places change and evolve, of course, and maybe this is, in some ways and places, the new Middle East.

After about an hour's break, we headed to the nearby new Museum of Islamic Art, which sits out on a little peninsula in the Persian Gulf and was designed by I.M. Pei. The building was absolutely amazing -- my photos don't do it justice -- and to our surprise, the museum was free! As the name implies, the museum is devoted to Islamic art and the pieces on display were generally pretty amazing. If I am remembering correctly, the art is more or less from the 12th to 17th centuries and came from all around the region -- there were gorgeous pieces of jewelry from India, intricately carved wooden doors from Egypt and Iran, and even exquisite examples of Turkish tilework from Iznik.


We spent most of the afternoon (and the heat of the day!) in the museum and so we ended up not having any significant time to stroll along the corniche, which is a 13-plus kilometer path that runs along the water. We also never made it to the Katara cultural village -- which looks pretty amazing though also Disney-like in photos -- or West Bay, where all the skyscrapers are going up.

For our remaining hour, we headed back to Souq Waqif to have dinner -- which ended up being yummy hummus and pizza at an outdoor cafe as the sun set. As we sat at our table, we watched these four Qatari guys in white outfits ride up and down the street on horseback, and I gathered it was to entertain the tourists. But interestingly, there was a worker with them, and his sole job seemed to be to walk a couple paces behind them and clean up after the horses. See what I mean about Disneyland?

The slideshow is next, but you have to be on the blog page to see it:




Created with flickr slideshow.
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Monday, April 9, 2012

This Week in Turkey: Wrapping up week of 4-2-12

So, what has been happening in Turkey, you ask? A lot of trouble.

One of the biggest pieces of news is that the trial of former President Kenan Evren and former commander of the Air Force Tahsin Sahinkaya -- two of the men responsible for the bloody 1980 coup -- began on Wednesday. "During the period when Evren was at the helm of the country, 650,000 people were detained and 1,683,000 people were blacklisted; 230,000 people were tried in 210,000 cases, the death penalty was sought for 7,000, while 517 were sentenced to the death penalty, and 50 people on death row were executed..." are just a few of the numbers. Evren is now 94 years old and Sahinkaya is 86, and both reportedly in ill health; apparently they will be testifying from home by videoconference.

Turkey is still seeing the fallout from Nevruz, the spring festival celebrated by the country's Kurds that took place three weeks ago. The short version of the story is that the date of Nevruz fell on Wednesday, March 21, but the Kurds wanted to celebrate it the Sunday before; the government said no, claiming that the terrorist PKK group would use it as an occasion to stage attacks. But this exacerbated tensions with the Kurds, who don't feel like they have equal rights in Turkey (for example, they're denied the right to educate their children in the Kurdish language), and people came out for Nevruz that Sunday anyway -- and the celebrations essentially turned into violent demonstrations, both here and in the eastern city of Diyarbakir, which continued for a couple of days. This week, 38 people were detained in Istanbul for their involvement. But more importantly, this week also saw the "birthday" of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Technically, nothing happened on Ocalan's birthday. But it is a time known for attacks, and there were several bombings or attempted bombing in Istanbul last week. On Monday, for example, a bomb was discovered near the Swissotel but defused, while a bomb exploded that afternoon in another neighborhood near a government office; early Tuesday morning, some percussion bombs went off. I haven't had that anyone claimed responsibility and with everything that's going on with Syria (a number of foreign ministers were in town a week ago Sunday for the Friends of Syria meeting), I think it's hard to say anything for sure.

So, Syria. With the country sitting to the south, Turkey has seen a lot of refugees flooding in, particularly in the last few weeks, and tent cities in the southeastern provinces were set up. But then today, in the first incident of its kind during this crisis, Syrian forces fired across the border into Turkey and hit people at the refugee camp, injuring 5. It doesn't exactly seem like a ceasefire is going to be taking effect tomorrow, does it?
In other sad news, the last official member of the Ottoman dynasty died on Monday at the age of 91.

But I don't want to end on doom and gloom. My favorite story of the week by far was about simit, the ring-shaped bread covered in sesame streets that you often see sold on the street here. Apparently, Barack Obama recently said at the White House that he liked "Greek baklava" -- but the president made a little faux pas because the dessert is both Greek and Turkish, and as you probably know, the two peoples have a fraught history. As a response, the chairman of the ─░stanbul Simit Tradesmen Chamber decided to try for an international patent for simit, to protect the Turkish food. He was quoted as saying, "We will hold on to our simit and won't allow Greeks to grab our simit." I imagine he also puffed out his chest. Pin It

Sultanahmet tulips

By Saturday, the first group of tulips were firmly out, which I was very, very excited about. (As it turns out, so are all the tourists, but I'm less thrilled about those crowds.) Because we already had to go down to the Grand Bazaar to get my ring sized down, I convinced Cagatay that we should walk around Sultanahmet checking out all the flowers.

We started out near the Hagia Sophia, where there's a bit of greenery across the street at the Mehmet Akif Ersoy park. While there were some nice beds, most of the tulips there weren't out yet, so it was mostly ground-cover flowers (petunias, I think) with a few vibrant daffodils. We headed next for Topkapi Palace, following the crowds, where we found beautiful pink tulips lining the pathway, though in places they were a little sparse. But the best show was at Gulhane Park, where we found the most gorgeous pink tulips, which appeared to be two-toned in the light. They were dazzling, and my photos are barely doing them justice.

But why talk about them? Let's look at the photos...



Created with flickr slideshow.

I am pretty sure you have to be reading this on my blog page to be able to see the slideshow. You can also scroll through the photos on Flickr. Pin It

Friday, April 6, 2012

Istanbul's tulips are in bloom

When I was a kid, my dad liked to tell me, and often, that the only question he missed on some college history exam was: Where did the tulip originate? Like most folks, he answered Holland. But the right answer was, drumroll please...Turkey. You're surprised, I know. Now, the tulip is from a much wider area of course, but I think what the question was getting at is that the people living in Turkey were the first to cultivate the flower. (I say "people" because the Internet is telling me that this happened as early as the year 1000, and the Seljuk Turks wouldn't arrive until 1071.) 

I had heard that Istanbul would be awash in tulips in the spring and now, finally, spring is here. Hallelujah! It seemed like the tulips started blooming at the beginning of this week -- on Monday, from the bus, I saw a couple of orange ones had popped up, decorating the highway around Merter -- and by Wednesday night, they seemed to be definitely out. But both times, I was in a vehicle and couldn't stop or take photos, so today, when I was out strolling with a friend from Taksim to Nisantasi, I was pretty thrilled to see them along our route. And they were only the white boring ones, too, so you can see the level of my excitement.

FLOWERS! I find them so captivating, which I recognize is weird, but I can't help it. (My mother once told me I have the interests of a 60-year-old man.) But at least it's harmless, right?

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The last month...

Yes, it's been that long....where has the time gone? This winter was pretty harsh, I must say. It snowed a bunch of times, well into March, and when it wasn't snowing, it was rainy and cold. Paired with my excessive work hours, it kinda beat me down. But we had a couple of respites -- there was a time in February when it warmed up a little and I thought winter was over -- and about three weeks ago, spring arrived. So after hiberating most of the winter, we've started to get out and about again...





















I took the picture on the left in February, when the weather was only teasing. We had gone to a screenwriting panel hosted by the Sundance Institute, as part of the !F film festival, at SALT Beyoglu on Istiklal Street, and afterwards, since the weather was halfway warm, we walked around Taksim and Cukurcuma, and stumbled upon this stuffed animal on the street...  I took the other photo about three weeks ago, on my way to work -- this was the moment I knew spring was finally, blessedly here.

















These last two photos I also took about three weeks ago, both obviously at sunset. To to the left is Taksim Square, to the right is just before Taksim, looking at the other side of the Golden Horn. It felt like the first time I had dug out my camera in a long time -- sure, I have taken pictures over the winter, but it was the first time in quite awhile that I just felt inspired to snap away at anything and everything, just because. It's amazing what spring can do to the mood, isn't it?

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