July 28, 2015

New Adventures in Old Istanbul

I started my first morning in Istanbul with a cup of Turkish coffee at a local cafe. Served in a tiny portion, especially by American standards, this coffee packs a punch. Coffee grounds are boiled in water, creating strong flavors that drip coffee can never achieve. Sugar can be added to the boil, but never milk, and when the coffee is poured into the cup, the grounds gradually sink to the bottom, leaving a dark sludge that you do not want to drink. The flavor was rich and surprisingly sweet - it can't dethrone flat whites as my favorite coffee, but Turkish coffee is king in its own way.

Me for scale. Check out that sludge.

After leaving our one-night apartment, we checked into the cruise ship. It took a lot longer than anticipated, so we ended up spending the rest of the day relaxing on the ship instead of doing the big bus tour as we originally planned. The nightlife was quiet that first evening, so my friends chose to go out in the city. It was almost midnight, and I didn't like how aggressive the guys were in Taksim Square the other night, so I opted out. It was a smart decision, since they didn't end up getting back until 6am. I did the bus tour by myself, because I would never have forgiven myself for not seeing the big sights in Istanbul.

I picked up the bus in Taksim Square, not realizing that there was a stop right outside the cruise terminal - no matter, because taxis in Istanbul are dirt cheap. It was only 6 Turkish dollars, about $2 USD. I was glad I knew approximately how much the ride should cost, because the taxi drivers right outside the port were asking 10 euros. Riding a taxi is an adventure all by itself, because the streets are confusing and the drivers are intense, driving fast and sometimes the wrong way on a one-way street. Unfortunately, there's a definite language barrier which we observed when we asked drivers to take us to the cruise port and they had no idea what we wanted. It was confusing, because it was only a few minutes drive away - how could they not know what we were talking about?

Taksim Square

Speaking with the wisdom I've gained on this ten-day trip, the Big Bus is my favorite hop-on, hop-off bus company. Their audio guide is the best, the buses are nice, and it's reliable. One of my first stops was at the main market area. I looked around a mosque and perused the market. Though I didn't buy anything, I saw a lot of pretty things, tasty food and colorful spices, and even got a sample of Turkish delight. It was delicious!

I was most excited for the stop right in the heart of old Istanbul. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are right across from each other, and Topkapi Palace is there too. The Blue Mosque, formally known as Sultan Ahmet Mosque, dates back to 1616 and is still used as a mosque today. It was built with six minarets (only four are pictured), which was considered extremely presumptuous of Sultan Ahmed.

It was around the mosque that a man approached me, and after making small talk about where I was from, asked if I was interested in buying carpet. I don't have room in my suitcase for that! I thought briefly, and when I said no, he practically vanished into thin air. It was much later that I remembered that I was supposed to beware of these carpet sellers. They take you to a basement, befriend you and maybe serve you a meal, and all but force you into taking their "deal" on carpet. It's strange. You can't really trust anyone in this city. Another man approached me saying he wanted to practice English, which I thought was completely harmless, but then at the end of our conversation he said he'd be happy to take me in his car and show me around the city. I had to give him the shake-off (gently), but at least I got him to take my picture.

Blue Mosque

The Hagia Sophia is a Roman church that is now an architectural landmark and museum. The church was actually built three times in the same location - the first was built in 360 and destroyed in a fire, the second in 415 and demolished after revolt, and the current one completed in 537. I purchased admission for 12 euros, and marveled at the interior. Even though some of it is under renovation or restoration, it's still a remarkable sight to see, especially considering how ancient it is. Its interior architecture is intricate and grand, and the surviving mosaic work on the upper level is a highlight.

Hagia Sophia

Topkapi Palace was the residence of Ottoman rulers for 400 years of their 624 year reign in 1465-1856. It was the center of administration, education and art at the time, and has since been turned into a museum. I didn't check out the museum, just walked around the park grounds, where a lot of people were simply relaxing on the grass.

Topkapi Palace gate

With that, I'd seen all the big things I really wanted to see. Well, I missed the Grand Bazaar since it's closed on Sundays, but the main market satisfied my needs. The only thing I'm a little bummed about is not making it to the Asian side of Istanbul. I mean, what other city is split between two continents? I'm definitely coming back another time, though. There's so much more of Turkey to see, and the food is so good. Yes. I need more Turkish food...

July 26, 2015

Cruise Diary - 3

Well, the cruise is over, and to be honest, it was a rough week. As I expected, I was too busy alternately adventuring and relaxing to post any updates, but there will be plenty of time for that once I'm home.

Cruising with friends sounded like the classiest vacation ever, but even though I was with two friends I really liked, our dynamics were horribly off. I realized that they liked different things. While I was perfectly happy to relax in the shade and watch shows, they loved sun and fell asleep at the first show we attended. They stayed up having fun until 4 or 6 in the morning, whereas I preferred to sleep before a day sightseeing in port. I thought the best thing about a cruise was that we could do our own thing and then reconvene later, but it was painful that they were bonding the entire time, while I was in a room by myself. I was always calling or knocking on their door, and my incessant questions about what time we should meet were not well received.

It was stressful and upsetting, especially since I was called difficult and high maintenance. I always thought that my qualities of being responsible, sensible and organized were strengths, but they turned out to be weaknesses as I became the wet blanket robot of the cruise. It was a struggle, so the trip was not as fun as I'd hoped. Still I enjoyed myself - the ship was amazing, I consumed the expertly crafted food with abandon, and our sightseeing exploits were successful, though frequently thwarted by getting lost.

I will admit fault on this trip - I could have conducted myself in a better manner and tried harder to overcome my emotions. I let them wash over me and take me over, depressing feelings of being unwanted, unattractive, and inadequate. I can't tell you how crushing it is to feel lonely when you're with friends. When even though you're on the same ship, and just two doors down, you feel miles and miles away.

Unfortunately for me, this is the second time I've had problems when traveling with friends, which suggests that I am indeed the cause. I feel that I'll have to travel by myself from now on, because I am so much happier that way, and no one gets hurt. I feel like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, except I don't even want a Ryan Reynolds.

I hope I didn't scare anyone off with this surprisingly honest post, but bottling up these feelings cannot be the answer. I'll post something fun next, I promise.

July 17, 2015

Cruise Diary - 2

Over twelve hours, our flight was long but enjoyable. Turkish Airlines took good care of us, so I had a good meal, drank a couple of beers, and watched a few movies! Once we got in, we took a taxi to the apartment I'd booked. Although I'd booked a one bedroom apartment for us to share, we were shown to a two bedroom apartment! With a pull-out sofa, each of us had our own bed, and there was even a nice balcony!

Amanda sipping tea on our balcony.

After settling in and washing off airplane goo, we headed over to Taksim Square, the center of modern Istanbul. We walked down the main street there, Istiklal Avenue, which was heavily crowded. Someone groped my butt in the madness - not cool!

We wandered the streets looking for a cool place to eat Turkish food, and finally ended up at this quirky restaurant. I don't even know what it was called...but we sat upstairs by the window overlooking Istiklal Avenue, and ordered a ton of food. It was very good. Almost everything was a smash, and it was so cheap. For five dishes and three beers, we only paid about $30 USD.

Clockwise from top left: sarma, gözleme, Turkish dumplings, lamb kabob, kavurma, flatbread

When we were leaving, someone called my name - two of my friends from UCLA were sitting in that very restaurant! Can you believe it? In a city of over 14 million people, I reunited with members of my dance team in a random restaurant like that. It was amazing. Hi Steph and Jason!

What a crazy event! I kept thinking about it as we walked back to our apartment. What are the chances?

Turkish sweets: baklava, Turkish delight, etc.

So far, Istanbul is pretty cool. People are friendly, though sometimes too friendly, like the guy who touched my butt or the guy who approached Melissa and Amanda and kept saying how beautiful their faces were. But we left all that and bought some beer to drink on our balcony, and now it's time for me to sleep! Tomorrow, we're doing a big bus tour!

July 16, 2015

Cruise Diary - 1

What could be better than sailing around the Mediterranean with a few girlfriends?

Today, I'm embarking on a girls' trip with some flight attendant friends. I've been planning this for two months, and it's finally happening! We're flying to Istanbul, where we will cruise to Rome, with stops in Mykonos, Malta, Sicily, and Salerno. I've been wanting to travel all around Italy, and I would like to visit Turkey and Greece, so this was a perfect itinerary! I'm going with Melissa and Amanda, who have appeared in previous posts. Unfortunately, our fourth companion dropped out last minute, so we now have an odd numbered group. But it's a great group! And we travel in style!

I won't have wi-fi on the ship, and I think I'll be a little too busy having FUN to write lengthy posts, but I'm hoping to post some pictures and short updates here and there. It would be great if I could keep up the "cruise diary" daily.

I'm looking forward to taking a bus tour around Istanbul, seeing the windmills and partying in Mykonos, chilling on beautiful beaches, and visiting the ruins of Pompeii! But day one is all travel. We're flying from San Francisco to Istanbul, where we'll be staying one night in an apartment before the cruise leaves the next day.

Wish these "fancy beaches" luck!

July 12, 2015

Why are Nguyen & Tran such common names?

The two most common Vietnamese last names are Nguyen and Tran. About 38% of Vietnamese people are Nguyens, and about 11% are Trans. I wondered why and started Googling, "Why are Nguyen and Tran common Vietnamese names?" The autofill made me laugh.

I learned a lot from Wikipedia - hopefully all the information is accurate! These are the top ten most common Vietnamese last names. Tran is not as popular as I thought...

  1. Nguyễn 阮 (38%) 
  2. Trần 陳 (11%) 
  3. Lê 黎 (9.5%) 
  4. Phạm 范 (7.1%) 
  5. Huỳnh/Hoàng 黃 (5.1%) 
  6. Phan 潘 (4.5%) 
  7. Vũ/Võ 武 (3.9%) 
  8. Đặng 鄧(2.1%) 
  9. Bùi 裴 (2%) 
  10. Đỗ 杜 (1.4%)
The reason certain names are so common goes back to when Vietnam was a monarchy, long before the French colonized it and ruled it as French Indochina in 1887. When power changed hands, people changed their last names to show loyalty to the king - and to avoid persecution for being a rival of the new dynasty. The Nguyen dynasty was the last dynasty of Vietnam, ruling for 143 years (1802-1945). Since the Nguyen dynasty ruled for well over one hundred years, and was the most recent, many people became Nguyens and people stopped changing to anything else.

I've been reading a lot of fascinating information about Vietnam on Wikipedia. Did you know, the first emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, Gia Long, was the first to unite the country and call it Vietnam? I think I'll be writing another cultural post soon.

July 7, 2015

Big Bus in Paris

My first time in Paris was in January 2013, right before I started this blog. Really, the only touristy thing I did was take pictures of the Eiffel Tower - extremely easy, since my hotel was right next to it. It was a bad day to be there, as the city was overrun with protesters against the legalization of gay marriage and gay adoptions that would be enacted that year. 340,000 people were in the city protesting an issue I feel strongly about, and that just put a damper on everything. All I did was walk around with a crew member for a few hours, taking pictures of interesting buildings. It was muggy, and I didn't eat any French food or have any French wine.

Two years later, I came back determined to redo my Paris experience and see as much as I could. People may look down on tourists and sneer at "tourist traps," but I didn't care. I was going all over the city, and the easiest way to do it was to take a hop on, hop off bus tour.

Katy and I picked up this trip together, and our coworker Sonia joined us on our excursion. We bought tickets for the Big Bus, one of the most prominent hop on, hop off bus tour companies in the world. It was about 30 euros, and it would take us around all the big attractions in Paris, like the Louvre, Notre Dame, and the Arc de Triomphe.

We boarded at Tour Eiffel. The Eiffel Tower was considered an eyesore when it was first built, described as an ugly, unnecessary "metal asparagus". It's since become a symbol of France beloved by most of its citizens. More importantly, I like it!

We stopped at the beautiful opera house. A funny story here - Sonia and Katy were taking touristy pictures when a solitary old man reached his hand out to them. They started talking, he said Sonia looked like some celebrity, and they decided to take a picture together for kicks. He was all into it, so Katy took one with him next...and then his wife appeared. She was not impressed.

Palais Garnier

I was really excited to see the Louvre, even though we didn't go inside and see the Mona Lisa. The landmark Louvre Pyramid in the center was designed by I. M. Pei and composed of 673 glass panels. Apparently, it's popular to take a photo where you're pointing to the top of it so we had to do it! Touristy, yes, but a) fun, and b) worth it.

Quintessential tourist photo. I LOVE IT.
From this arch at the Louvre, you can look straight down to the Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe.

The Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge crossing the River Seine, gained fame as the place for lovers to write their names on a lock, attach it to the bridge and throw away the key as a representation of everlasting love. It's been mostly tourists doing so, and locals have complained for years. Over a million locks had been placed since the "tradition" started in late 2008, and last year part of the bridge collapsed under the extra tonnage. This year, the city declared that it would start cutting off the locks and replacing the grate with a material where locks cannot be affixed. However, it seems the railing along the river remains safe, so people continue to lock their love.

Institut de France

I was looking forward to seeing Notre Dame, which must be one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame heavily focused on the structure, especially as the cathedral itself was intended to be the main character - though many people assume it's Quasimodo.


We drove through Place de la Concorde twice, but never stopped there. It was a bit of a shame, since this has been the city's main square for quite some time. Thousands of Parisians were executed here by guillotine back in the day, including Marie Antoinette. In the center is a hieroglyphic-carved obelisk gifted from Egypt.

One of our final stops was the Arc de Triomphe. We knew we were tired, but we must have been totally out of it, because we completely failed to get off the bus. We thought we were stuck in traffic for quite some time, and when I finally had the good sense to look down and notice that yes, we were right at the stop, we pulled away. Oops. Luckily, I managed to snap a decent shot and with the help of filters, managed to make it look good despite being taken against the sun. Thanks Instagram!

The tour ended at the Trocadero, and we took the metro back to our hotel area and had dinner. I made sure to have a glass of wine! It had been a long day, and we did so much! For people with limited time like us, the Big Bus tour is really the perfect way to get around. I got to see so much, heard some interesting stories from the pre-recorded audio guide, and just had a blast with Katy and Sonia.

The word tourist has developed a negative connotation, but I don't care. It's defined simply as a person who is traveling or visits a place for pleasure, and I think we should reclaim the term. I travel for fun, I journey for me, and some people are even envious of my lifestyle. So go ahead and call me a tourist. I'll gladly answer to it.