like my daunting pile of laundry that needs to be washed, the list of things i need to write about has certainly piled up…though thankfully, is less smelly. i’m back in my village now after a whirlwind of adventures in istanbul, turkey and it’s back to the reality of teaching, lesson planning, washing that mountain of laundry by hand, and life without my fellow american travelers.
while i’d like to think i’m a dedicated writer, i think i’m going to have to slack on this one and give you just a taste of turkey. there’s no way i’d be able to back track that much and give you the day-to-day version, because for one, it was more like a blur of awesomeness, and secondly i’ll run out of clean clothes before i’d finish writing that. so summary it is.
istanbul was amazing.
just kidding…i could go on forever about istanbul. but i’ll start from the very beginning when i bought my plane ticket to istanbul on a whim after hearing four other volunteers, brian, michael, becca and beth were going. the combination of the travel channel shows on istanbul i’ve seen and the fact that the tickets were only $140 round trip, i couldn’t pass it up. and i must say it was money well spent. i bought my ticket to fly out of donetsk (a big city east of me) while the others flew out of kharkiv (in the north). i took a six-hour bus a few days ahead of my plane to visit with one of the visiting ceramic artists, georgie, i met at my school this past summer who lives in donetsk. georgie (middle-aged man with a daughter around my age) was an excellent host and like a typical ukrainian man, did not allow me to pay for anything or even carry my own bag. he showed me around donetsk which, despite the fact that my lonely planet tour book said ‘nothing would attract the common tourist, unless you want to visit a mine’, it was a little nicer than i expected. we walked all over donetsk, georgie pointed out the sculptures he was commissioned for by the city, saw the multi million dollar soccer arena built for the euro cup, visited a few museums, met some of georgie’s art students, and had dinner with a few of his friends, at which i was the singing entertainment (not by choice).
after a few days staying with georgie, being fed waaaay too much, only having conversations in russian (even though i learned ukrainian), and my lungs filled with fresh smog, i was certainly ready and excited to leave for istanbul. georgie escorted me to the airport, which looked more like a dilapidated shopping mall, and we said goodbye. i told him thanks for everything and hoped my homemade american chocolate chip cookies i left him expressed my gratitude more eloquently than my broken ukrainian/russian.
then if was off to istanbul. it was a thrilling feeling to finally take off into the air and leave ukraine behind. though not for good. on the flight over i met two other volunteers and was super glad i made friends with them because if it wasn’t for them i would have never left the airport. i saved up quite a bit of ukrainian money for the trip and i guess without thinking AT ALL didn’t convert it into dollars before i left. so there i was, in the istanbul airport with a wad of ukrainian cash and a confused currency exchange worker who had never even heard of hryvina before declaring ‘i do not know what dis is’. yea…most people probably haven’t. i had a credit card but no debit card and no cellphone. not my brightest move. i was certain i’d end up having to draw portraits or sell my belongings to get out of the airport and make it to the hostel. but thankfully my new peace corps volunteer friends fronted me, the poor moneyless and homeless girl, some money to get out of the airport at least. serious lifesavers.
i was lucky enough to get into a taxi driver, named murat, that spoke some english. enough english to ask me ‘you married? you have boyfriend at hostel?’ and to let me know he’s divorced now. i told him i have been living in ukraine and figured i might as well ask him if ANYONE will exchange it. like the currency exchange teller, he looked at it questionably but said he knew a place. we zipped around stopped, murat spoke for me and VOILA he agreed to take it. i handed the pile of money over and got a pitiful pile back. oh well. at least i could afford to eat now!
as murat drove me to the hostel, i looked out the window in amazement. everything was SO CLEAN! the streets weren’t filled with potholes, there wasn’t trash thrown everywhere! i was seriously so shocked. this was nothing like ukraine. i guess i’d gotten use to the way things are in ukraine that i kind of forgot what it’s like elsewhere. it’s hard to explain, but i almost felt like i was in america for a minute. when i met up with brian and michael at the hostel, they definitely agreed with me. michael and becca , who had both been to istanbul one before, were in love with the city, and i could see why. later that night paige, my cousin from chicago who is studying abroad in prague, checked into the hostel with her friends. and despite the fact that our sleep schedules were pretty off, excited to see the city we hit the old cobble streets.
with a population of 98% muslim i expected it to be a whole different world, but in a lot of ways istanbul reminded me of other nice european cities with beautiful secret alley ways and tucked away restaurants, souvenir shops catering to the masses of tourists, and plenty of history and architecture to feast your eyes on. but there was something about istanbul that, like michael and becca, i fell in love with. the culture and people were as colorful and warming as the spices in the bazaar. very eager salesmen lined the streets enticing you into their shop or restaurant usually speaking four or five languages, you can bargin for EVERYTHING even the price of beer!, delicious and dirt cheap street food was only a few steps away at all times, and locals were friendly and welcoming, most knowing at least some english.
i couldn’t get enough of the mosque dotted skyline (or baklava and feta for that matter), the blue water and the vibrancy of the city. we did and saw all the touristy things including all the essential historical sites, mosques, cleaned up with a turkish bath, and saw the whirling dervishes and ate ate ate delicious food. but i think my favorite moments were those when we simple wandered the city, stopping to play with an old record player at a vintage store (and surprisingly not getting yelled at like we would have in ukraine), going to an earthquake relief fundraiser, buying spices from a ‘locals only’ shop, and learning to dance with some turks at a small off the beaten path cafe. every moment was awesome and the group of people i was traveling with made it all even more awesome (and hopefully we, the crazy socially deprived peace corps volunteers, didn’t scare paige off too much).
time went by too quickly, as all vacationers tend to claim. and the time had come for us to leave. as we sat on the hostel’s roof top terrace, surrounded by views of cobalt blue water and the faded orange of hagia sophia, we ate our free turkish breakfast one last time. sadly, it was time for us to go back to ukraine and paige back to prague. our duty in ukraine was calling us back. paige and i parted ways saying ‘see ya in a year!’ and the rest of us hopped back over to the much less tastier and colder country we now call home.
within minutes of standing outside freezing our butts off in the depressing, gray, snow inclement weather of ukraine, we all were wishing we were still back in istanbul. our vacation time together was coming to a regrettable end. but not before we all attended a countrywide halloween party for volunteers in kharkiv. after spending the night curled up under benches in the airport, we could have very well pulled off zombies without any effort. a total of 150ish volunteers from all over ukraine migrated to the party which was more of like a reunion while wearing silly costumes than anything. we all spent one more night together, showing off our new turkish dance moves and laughing at all of our istanbul made inside jokes. by the morning, volunteers parted ways not knowing when we’d see each other again. becca, michael, and i were lucky enough to spend 11 hours waiting in a freezing train station for our overnight trains back to site.
michael and i said bye to becca and then i said bye to michael and waited for my train back to no-man’s land. not wanting to go back is an understatement of how i was feeling, or how i think we were all feeling. istanbul stole our hearts. with every bite of baklava and crumble of feta, i was won over by the beauty of the city, the liveliness of the culture, the tempo of the music, my great traveling companions, and heck, even the warmer temperatures. but it’s back to school, solitary life in the village, potatoes, potatoes potatoes, counting down days till my next adventure, and that mountain of laundry calling my name.