Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ultimate Travel Purse - a cry for help...


I do not own the ultimate travel purse and I need to.  I have a lot of different bags for travelling and they all let me down in one way or another.  This trip, I used a backpack for everything and carried the baby in the Baby Bjorn, which meant that nothing was ever accessible.  I need to invest in the right purse to help keep organized.

For me, the ultimate travel purse will be large enough to hold:  wallet, camera (normal, digital camera size), water, travel guide/map, Kleenex and hand sanitizer.  (And also anything else my husband asks me to carry at the last minute.  It will not be so big that my stuff gets lost in the bottom or so small that everything is crammed in and anything extra is a problem.

This purse would not just be for the airport but also for sightseeing.  It would be nice if it looked presentable as well, but I think my wish list may lean more toward the “sporty” type purse.

I already own a couple of MEC purses that sort of fit the bill, until they are too small, etc.

Lastly – it cannot go on my back – this is awkward for access and I hate it!  I also am too “cool” to wear a fanny pack – so don’t even suggest it.  There is enough bulk attracting attention to my fanny area as it is.

I would be happy to hear any suggestions, or, if someone has the ultimate bag, please let me know!

Last Day

Yesterday was our last day in Istanbul.  We started the day with a brisk walk to Gulhane Park.  A crowd of teens who seemed to be cutting class became enamored with our baby – they wouldn’t let him alone until he made the “I’m about to cry” face.  Then we heard some gunshots and looked over and saw some military men running and training.

We walked on past rail yard to the docks and saw a naval ship – it was massive.  Then we walked through the small streets to the spice bazaar and into the Grand Bazaar.  After a wander, we had lunch and then wandered further.  At around 3:30 we went back to our hotel and caught a shuttle for the airport.  We had an uneventful flight and homecoming – the best kind.  It was about 2:30 am when we arrived home, so we are having a quiet day to recover.

Istanbul is a beautiful city and it was pretty easy from a traveler’s perspective to get around.  It is hilly so walking is strenuous.  Food is cheap and relatively healthy and incredibly available.  The notable sights are close together, so every time you turn a corner there is something interesting to see unlike other cities (for example Paris or New York) where there are huge gaps between notable sights.  People are incredibly friendly and I felt safe, but I still do not take foolish risks.

On the downside, the city is dirty and there is a lot of trash in the street, parks and around the tourist attractions.  As with a lot of European cities, there are not many public washrooms and the ones that you do find are typically dirty, even if there is a fee to use them.  (My husband always says that is why European beverage sizes are so small – so that people don’t need to use the facilities).  Some public washrooms were downright disgusting, but you’d find that anywhere.  There were also no baby change facilities after we left the airport, with the exception of the lovely facility at City’s Centre Mall.  Even McDonalds did not have a change table.  The public washrooms are typically tiny, so babies need to be changed on the ground outdoors.

Would I recommend Istanbul as a travel destination?  In my opinion is it a “do it if you are in the neighborhood or if the cost is not too great” but not a “you must see this city” kind of city.  We also may have stayed about 1 day too long.  It would take about 3 packed days or 4 relaxed days to see the major sights, we were there for 7.5 days (although my husband was in a conference for about 4 of those days).

The first hotel we stayed at – the Crowne Plaza Haribye was lovely.  It was brand new and everything was clean and shiny, and the service was great!  It was located in a neighborhood that was outside the touristy areas, which means that I had to travel to the touristy sights, instead of being right beside them.

The second hotel was Villa Sphendone and it was amazing.  It was a beautiful row house with an atrium and back terrace.  Our room was massive and it suited our needs perfectly.  The hosts were gracious and the breakfast was delicious every morning.  I would highly recommend this hotel to anyone who wants to stay in the Sultanahmet area.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Topkapi Palace, Kucik Aya Sofiya, Galata Bridge

After breakfast this morning we walked to Topkapi Palace.  We bought tickets and went in.  This Palace is a little different from others I have visited.  It consists of a series of four courtyards with different buildings on each courtyard.  Each building is richly decorated and has a different use, such as the building where the Sultan would receive guests, the hospital building, the cooking building and the circumcision building (for real!).  The final courtyard has amazing views of the Bosphorus, looking out toward Asia and Prince’s Islands.

In the Palace there are displays of artifacts, and some were incredible, such as an emerald the size of a chicken’s egg and an 86 carat diamond.  There are also jade tea sets, many bejeweled household items and a display of textiles.  The Palace walls had many interesting tiles with varied histories, making the rooms quite beautiful.  Overall the grounds and courtyards of the Palace were amazing, but the palace did not have the grand feel of a single building with dramatic halls, etc.  The walls that ring the Palace have a beautiful “castle” style – they look just like a stereotypical storybook castle.

After Topkapi Palace we had lunch and then headed to our hotel for a short rest.  We got moving again and spent the first part of the afternoon at Kucik Aya Sofiya, a church mosque that is older than Aya Sofiya.  It is beautiful and there is one area where a viewing pan has been set up to reveal the original foundations. 

Then we took the tram to Eminonu station and walked around the spice bazaar again.  Even though it was Sunday, all of the stalls were open and it was crowded with people.  We walked through the crowds toward the historic Galata Bridge and had dinner beneath the bridge at a fish restaurant.  How it is set up is that there is a “layer” of restaurants situated below the bridge deck that cars drive on.  I had balik ekmek, a fish and salad sandwich (based on a recommendation – thanks KBL).  It was fresh and delicious.

We walked across the Galata Bridge and my husband bought a kind of honey-dipped crunchy donut from a street vendor.  I sampled it – pretty yummy, but I dripped honey down the baby’s head!  We took the funicular in the upward direction.  The funicular driver was receptive to my son’s interest in his vehicle and offered to let my son go inside the control area and see how he drove.  My son was so excited!

We spent the rest of the evening wandering around on Istiklal Caddesi.

Our journey was somewhat poorly calculated – to get home we had to ride the funicular again (our 4 year old loved this) and then take the train home.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dolmabache Palace and Taksim

We took the tram this morning to Dolmabahce Palace.  After the usual nonsense getting into the palace (first you go through a metal detector, then they check your bag, next you buy a ticket, and you walk 15 feet and give the ticket to a ticket-taker, then you have to leave your bag in the cloak room, you next walk through the palace grounds and then you have to wait in a line for a tour to start, then you put booties over your shoes), we took a tour of the palace.  The palace is beautiful with majestic grounds and dramatically decorated indoors.  It has many trompe l’oeil ceilings, and I have to admit that some of them completely fooled me!  There were chandeliers, detailed furniture and art.  The room called the “Grand Hall” was nothing short of incredible.  It was huge, with frescoed ceilings, columns and more trompe l’oeil.

After the palace tour, we had tickets for the tour of the Harem.  A palace is where the sultan would do business and entertain, while the harem was more his living quarters and the living quarters of his wives and (largely female) staff.  I started the harem tour, but the baby got fussy so I left.  I was told by my husband that there were many smaller rooms to look at with décor that was less ornate than in the Palace.  The highlight of the harem tour is Ataturk’s bedroom, which is seen as a sacred area to Turkish people.

After the tour ended, we walked to Taksim Square, a most laborious walk, up extremely steep hills through a light rain.  The sidewalk/road was slippery because of the rain and the oil. 

We found a restaurant to have lunch at on Istiklal Caddesi called “Hala.”  We were damp and hungry, and Hala was an excellent choice.  I had a hearty vegetable soup and then a local dish – a semi-sweet pancake folded over and filled with dry cottage cheese inside (sound familiar S.A.L.?) and my husband had the same, but made with mince inside.  We also shared a dish of strange but tasty pasta – spinach ravioli in a sour cream and vinegar sauce. 

After lunch we headed down Istiklal Caddesi and stopped at a Turkish delight shop.  I picked jellied citrus sweets and my husband picked Turkish delight.  We ate my yummy sweets first, and then tried the Turkish delight.  I am not crazy about it – I knew this from previous sampling, but my husband hated it.  He said that it was the opposite of “delightful”….whatever that is.

We walked on to the artistic district near Galata Tower.  If we were in Istanbul permanently, there are a lot of shops here that I would be a repeat customer at….little artisan shops and music shops.  My husband saw the Tower (he was not with us when we went up it before).

Then we rode the funicular – my son had been asking to ride it ever since he saw it.  This is a cross between an elevator and a railway, and we used it to travel to a tram station.  We took it in the downward direction (a bit silly not to use it going up), so it was not crowded.  It was a short ride, but it saved a lot of walking.  This was the most expensive public transport that we have experienced so far – 2.50 lira each.

We caught the tram back to our hotel for a very late nap (4:00 pm!).  After nap, we headed out for supper and I bought a small pair of slipper booties from a lady on the street.  I didn’t bargain (gasp!) so I may have over paid a bit (they were really cheap though).  Just as an aside – I hate bargaining with shop keepers, etc.  I do not see it as sporting and if I can avoid it I will.  My theory is that they can tell me what an item costs, and if I don’t like it, I won’t buy the item.  It is a one-shot deal with me, not a haggle or a protracted discussion.  I noticed a few shops with signs in the windows stating “our prices our fixed,” which is obviously meant to circumvent silly conversations with customers.  I think, as a customer, this is an attractive quality in a shop.

We walked around some more, then back to the hotel for the night.

Today was a damp, chilly and rainy day.  This was a welcome change from our weather in Dubai, and I did not mind it, however if our entire holiday were in this weather, I would have been very disappointed.

It is the weekend here, and there are far more tourists out and about.  While I have found the Turkish people to be lovely, respectful and helpful, other tourists are sometimes a disaster.  I was extremely annoyed with other tourists two times at Dolmabahce Palace.  First, we had to put on booties over our shoes before we could enter the Palace.  We were all being held in a waiting “pen” and people, including me, were getting antsy.  Putting on the booties, in the circumstances, was a relatively exciting task, so people were making their way to the bin to grab the booties for themselves and their companions.  I was in line sort of near to the booties, and, because I enjoy personal space, I was not standing on top of the people in front of me.  I also had the Baby Bjorn on, so I could only get so close.  Because of this perceived gap, a few people came through where I was standing to get the booties.  Three men pushed me in the process, and the third one actually pushed me a second time after my husband told him in no uncertain terms not to!

The second incident was really annoying.  I was going to use the washroom before we left the Palace area.  I walked up to the washroom and there were 3 steps to the washroom door with the “ladies” sign on it and then after the door, you entered the area with the sinks, and across from the sinks were stalls – a normal public washroom set-up.  Outside, there were 6 ladies sitting around on the ground near the steps, with the closest being about 3 feet away from the bottom step.  They were having an involved conversation, chatting and laughing.  I walked up the steps and opened the door and they all started yelling at me.  Apparently I was jumping the queue.  This seemed impossible, because there was no queue outside and inside the stalls were occupied, but the spacious area was otherwise empty.  I asked them, “Is there a queue?” And one lady who spoke English said “yes!” and moved her hand to indicate the other ladies sitting around casually.  Then all of the ladies got up and formed and orderly line on the steps, muttering under their breaths, presumably about my bad manners.  I left.

I was also struck today by the excessive amount of trash around the city.  When we were walking to the Palace, we passed a petrol station.  There was a hole in the sidewalk near the station created by an uncovered panel.  I commented that it was dangerous, but as we passed it, I saw that people had filled it with trash.  My husband said that it made it safer – there was a soft landing if you fell in.  There was loads of other trash on our short walk to the Palace – wrappers in the street, cardboard boxes, food, napkins and many other things.  On our walk to Taksim, the streets were filthy with animal mess and there was litter everywhere.  And this evening, when we walked around, there was small trash everywhere – wrappers, corn cobs and even a kitten eating out of a soiled diaper near the Basilica Cistern.  There was trash that had not made it into the trash bins and trash that was in the bins but had been pulled apart by the stray animals.  On our way back to the hotel, there is a house with blown out windows and a pile of building rubble and trash inside (there are actually a few of these houses), and tonight, this house caught our interest because on the pile of trash was standing an incredibly cute puppy.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Asia, Spice Bazaar, Concert and Whirling Dervishes

At breakfast this morning, we tried Turkish halva.  It was kind of a pasty sweet-ish substance, with nuts inside.  It had the sweetness and consistency of marzipan, but it was a little more grainy or floury.  My husband really liked it – I thought it was good to try it, but I certainly don’t need to eat it again.  I have checked it out, and it is described as a confection make from flour, nut oil and sugar.

After breakfast, we went to Asia – the part of Istanbul that is located in Asia, that is.  We walked to the Eminonu ferry dock and set sail for the Kadikoy ferry dock.  I bought a glass of tea on the ferry and it was delicious and only 50 kurus.  The ferry ride and other public transport that we have ridden on here (train, cable car and street car) have all been very cheap – it is 1.75 New Turkish Lira per adult per trip, no matter how far.  Both kids are free.  The interesting thing is that when you buy your ride token, the machine does not accept 5 kurus coins (there are no smaller coins here).  So, the machine carries the balance from one customer to the next.  Also, if the machine is out of 10 kurus coins, it does not refund change requiring that coin, so the balance is again carried.  Therefore most of the time, when you approach the machine to purchase a ride token, there is a 5, 10, 15 or 20 kurus credit carried over from the previous person who purchased a token.

The ferry ride across the Bosphorus was fast and pleasant – there were lots of other boats.  We learned on our bus tour that this is a crowded sea passage because Turkey does not tax the boats or require a local captain to pass through their waters.  We arrived at the Kadikoy ferry dock and decided to walk north toward Uskudar, but a bit inland.  This was a total bust.  At first we ended up wandering through a strange dirty slum that contained stores selling medical equipment and uniforms.  Then we ended up walking along a freeway up to the Uskudar station, it was not pleasant at all.  So, we turned around and headed back to Kadikoy to try again.  This time we walked the other way to Moda, a shopping district, with many small shops of every sort. 

We had lunch in Moda at a chain restaurant called Simit Sarayi.  This restaurant is absolutely everywhere and it seems like the Turkish Tim Hortons.  There is coffee, sandwiches and baking.  Lunch was good and it was cheap.

We bought diapers in Moda and then took the ferry back from Kadikoy to Eminonu, back to Europe.  We walked through the spice bazaar, which was crowded and exciting.  I had expected that the Grand Bazaar would be more like this.  I liked the chaos.  There were lots of spice stalls, but also everything else under the sun for sale, just like in the Grand Bazaar. 

Then we took the train back to our hotel for naps.  After naps, we headed out and found ourselves at a cultural concert at Sultanahmet Park.  There were singers and folk dancers, our 4 year old loved it!  The accordion players were impressive and there was also a very good string section.  During the concert, a local dignitary arrived – he had photographers (paparazzi?) all around him, celebrity-style.  We could not find anyone who spoke English who knew who he was.  We left the concert when a series of speeches started, all in Turkish.

We walked down the street a bit and found a restaurant for supper near the Grand Bazaar.  I had a whole fish and it was wonderful - fresh, hot and tasty.  We walked on a bit and ducked into a shopping mall, because I wanted to change the baby in the washroom.  It was a chilly day, so I preferred to do this indoors.  Anyways, I was trying to pay at the washroom, but when the attendant saw the baby, he told me firmly that no babies were allowed!

We walked on to the Grand Bazaar, but as we arrived it was closing.  We are used to Arabian shopping hours, where stores and malls are open until 10 pm or midnight, so this early closing was a bit of a shock.  I bought roasted chestnuts from a street vendor.  They were OK, but once again, this is not something I need to eat again.  Corn on the cob is my favored street-vendor snack so far.

We walked back toward the Blue Mosque, and we passed the concert just as it was ending.  We saw some whirling dervish dancers in two of the open air cafes as we walked by.  The performances are very graceful and peaceful.  My son bought a small souvenir from a stall and proved his bargaining skills – he had talked the fellow down from 4 lira to 2 lira – probably no great feat.  He paid for one, and then said, “but I need two.”  (It made sense in the context that he would need two).  So, he assumed that the second would also cost 2 lira – and the shop-keeper did not necessarily see it that way…he had agreed to the reduction only for the first one.  But, he could not argue with the logic of a 4 year old, and my son ended up with 2 for 4 lira. 

Then, back to the hotel to turn in.

I have discovered that I love Turkish tea.  It is served in impractical glass cups that are kind of like beakers – they have no handles and they are very hot to the touch.  The flavor of the tea is what I would call perfect – it tastes a lot like my beloved Red Rose from home.

Istanbul is incredibly hilly, but we are getting used to it.  The sheer walk from our hotel to the train station is starting to become routine.  In Istanbul a person could truly claim to walk uphill both ways to school…I’m sure there would be an uphill portion to any journey.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Basilica Cistern, Hop on Hop Off and Grand Bazaar

We had another busy day today.  After breakfast, we headed out toward Hagia Sophia and purchased tickets for a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour.  The tour did not start for a while, so we visited Basilica Cistern.  It was amazing!  It is an underwater cistern with walls that are 4 meters thick.  There are fish in the water on the bottom.  There are a lot of different columns, including 2 “Medusa” columns.  The ambience is set for visitors with colored lights shining up from the floor and slightly creepy Turkish music in the background.  Thanks for the tip – sis.

Then back out to the light of day to join our tour.  I usually don’t do tours, I prefer to get around on foot or public transit, but I wanted to see some of the more far-flung highlights of Istanbul and this was a logical way to do it.  The tour was great value and I was impressed with the quality of information and the number of sights that we saw (72 that were pointed out to us).  We were given ear phones to listen to a recorded tour that matched up with the speed of our progress.  I was pleasantly surprised by our 4 year old, who was listening to the tour and then regurgitating facts from the tour.  That got annoying, but he was really listening and learning as we went.  Sometimes I tend to forget that kids really are little sponges.  I was also pleasantly surprised by our 5 month old, who slept through the tour.

Although we could hop on and hop off, we didn’t, because the best point to do so was in Taksim and we’d already spent time there. 

After the tour, we had lunch at a restaurant near Kennedy Caddesi.  It was a delicious lunch and we were all ready for our afternoon naps at the hotel.

We went to the Grand Bazaar after naps.  It is truly huge, but I expected it to be more chaotic and less like an old, huge mall.  Instead of shop stalls, there are actual stores, some of which spill out into the mall and some of which are contained.  There were some loud men celebrating a football victory in the mall and setting off flares – our 4 year old really enjoyed that.

We left the Grand Bazaar without purchasing anything and we found ourselves near the university campus.  We wanted to wander around the campus, but we found that it was secure – you could not enter without a student ID.  Fair enough, but I like looking around university campuses.  There is quite a bit of security here.  At our first hotel, you had to go through a scanner on your way in, and they checked my back.  At the mall that I took the kids to, the security was similar to an airport.

So, the campus was a no-go and we decided to walk around the surrounding area.  I bought a corn cob from a street vendor – it was yummy.  The corn was boiled in big vats and then smoked on a grill and then salted right as I bought it.

We wandered a bit, had supper (chicken pita sandwich things...), wandered some more and went back to the hotel.

I just wanted to comment on kids in Turkey.  The people here are really nice and seem genuinely kind.  They love kids and are excited to see them.  They also seem to always have to touch them or ask to hold them.  In the markets, they often try to get the kids attention to draw us into a purchase. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Moving Day

Today we moved from our hotel in Kurtulus on Dolapdere Caddesi, which is a “newer” (but still very old) area of town to a different hotel in Sultanahmet, which is a really old area of town.  My husband’s conference was in Kurtulus, and we have moved so that we can experience a more tourist-oriented area of Istanbul. 

The first hotel was brand new and just lovely.  The room was large by European standards and it was very clean inside.  There was a varied breakfast buffet.  The neighborhood that the hotel is in was not perfect for our visit – it is not terribly close to the tourist spots and it is in a slummy, dirty neighborhood.  On a positive note, I enjoyed staying there and seeing another part of Istanbul that I would never have normally explored.  Also, the neighborhood was excellent for buying supplies and there were plenty of places to walk around nearby.

Our new hotel is also nice, but really different from the first.  It is in a historic building and the room is huge – there is a queen bed and a double hyda-bed and there is also a sitting room.  It is extremely spacious and clean.  It is on a back street and I would have been lost trying to find it, but my husband had no problem.

So, back to this morning.  I packed up our room a bit and then took the kids for a walk down Halaskargazi Caddessi, which turns into Cumhurivet Caddesi. This is a main, large street for cars and there are nice sidewalks on both sides.  I picked this street to walk on only because of its proximity to the hotel, but it turned out to be a nice place to walk.  We picked up some food from a bakery for lunch and headed back to the hotel.  On one of the side streets we say a horse and buggy carrying water melons and rock melons.

Then after lunch and naps, my husband’s course ended for the day.  We took a long but cheap cab ride to our new hotel and settled in.  Then we went out for a walk and took in so many sights!

We saw the Blue Mosque, the Million (the central point that everything is measured from), Aya Sofya and Gulhane Park.  We were able to go into the courtyard of the Blue Mosque, but no further due to evening prayers.  We did not go into the museum at Aya Sofya – maybe another day.  We also walked right by the Hippodrome.  This is an incredible area to walk – around every corner is another historic building and they are all dramatic and beautiful to see.  It feels like I can’t take enough pictures and none of the pictures I take would sufficiently show what I see.

We also tried Turkish ice cream – it is “sticky” and I didn’t love it.  The texture is somehow chewy, but still just like ice cream.

On this side of Istanbul, there are more stray cats and less stray dogs…it makes for cleaner walking. 

Bosphorus Dinner Cruise

Last night we went on a dinner cruise around the Bosphorus.  It was really neat.  The boat was overloaded with patrons and understaffed, but we had fun.  The boat cruised between Europe and Asia affording views of Dolmabahce Palace and Mosque, the Naval Museum and some of the fancier hotels.  We turned around after passing under the Bosphorus Bridge which has lights that constantly change colour.

There was entertainment on the cruise – some traditional dancers that paint faces on their stomachs and wear silly costumes, a traditional wedding and a seedy belly dancer that my 5 month old loved.

On the bus ride to the cruise, we passed a ton of stores on one street that looked like mannequin shops.  Very strange….

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Demokrasi Park and Tesvikiye

This morning, I took the kids in a taxi to Demokrasi Park.  The hotel staff helped me to instruct the cab driver, and then gave me a very helpful card which said, in both Turkish and English “Please return me to…” and then gave the name and address of the hotel, along with a map – very clever.

We were dropped off in a corner of the park with a sign and sort of gateway labeling the park.  The gateway was old - it looked as though it was grand once.  We walked through and right away spotted a playground.  There were some kids (big ones, pre-teens) in school uniforms hanging around the playground, but they seemed harmless, so I let my son go to play.  He was on the swing when one of the kids decided to pester him a bit, but no harm done.  One thing I noticed about the kid was that he was smoking – I think he was pretty young for that, but I probably have no idea what kids get up to. 

We moved on down the lawn from the playground and they had some outdoor exercise equipment for adults.  I have seen this before, I believe in Bordeaux, and I think it is really a good idea.  There were people actually using this equipment.

Further into the park I started to notice something I don’t really like – dogs with no apparent owners.  There seems to be a lot of dogs and cats wandering around Istanbul with no humans accompanying them.  This leads to a lot of the filth on the sidewalk.  One must be very careful to avoid dog mess everywhere here.  These dogs were large breeds and looked quite well fed, but not brushed or washed.  I wonder if they belong to people who live around the park and are permitted to have a wander, or if they are true strays.

We walked on and there was a playground suitable for toddlers so my son was excited.  What was not exciting were the three stray dogs in the playground, napping.  He played a bit, but could not use the slide due to a dog sleeping at the end of it.

We walked onto a pedestrian bridge crossing Kadirgalar Cadessi.  Interesting wooden bridge – here you had to watch your step because of a missing slat!  The view from the bridge was really pretty.  Nice bushy trees and cared-for lawns in the park and then the surrounding buildings.  On the other side of the bridge we were greeted by about 20 dogs that all seemed alone - a bit scary until I figured out that they were with two dog walkers.

As an aside, I quite like dogs, but stray big dogs are frightening to me.

We walked up to the cable car station and took the car across to the other side of the park.  This offered views of the park and out onto the river.  The ride was relatively short and then we walked out of the park.  My 4-year old loved this ride! 

We walked up Macka Caddesi and it turned into Tesvikiye Caddesi.  We walked past a bunch of high-end shops, that are not of interest to me because they are beyond our means (or needs).  When it was time to sit down for a break, I opted to duck into City’s Shopping Mall, so that I could use their great baby facilities.  We also had a little snack (at Starbucks).

When we left the mall, we poked around Tesvikiye for a while, we found another playground, ran some errands and grabbed a bakery lunch to take back to the hotel and eat.

I opted for a taxi back, to make things a little easier.  This was a bit of a mistake.  I gave the driver the handy card from the hotel, which was good because he had no idea where the hotel was.  He followed the map and drove for a bit.  I had asked him how much it would cost before we drove (the guy at the hotel told me to do this) and he had said “5”.  He did not run the meter while we drove.   Traffic was heavy, and he drove us about ½ way back and then stopped and said that our hotel was over there (and pointed), and this was as far as he was willing to go, and also as far as 5 would get us.    I paid him the 5 and we started walking.  (Yes, I know I should have challenged the price, but sometimes I like to avoid confrontation).

I figured out which way to walk (not the way he indicated), and it was an interesting walk home.  The first thing I did was step on a glass bottle that was littering the side walk (thank goodness for sneakers!). It shattered beneath my shoe.  I stepped onto this glass bottle while trying to avoid stepping in some other disgusting mess.  The sidewalk that we had to take back to the hotel was full of litter, dog mess and really gross smears of what I think was rotting fruit. 

We navigated the sidewalk and steps and ate delicious lunch (from the bakery) in our hotel.

Taksim Continued

After meeting up with my husband last night, we went back to Taksim Square to show him the sights.  We had leftovers for supper in the hotel and then a treat of gelato along Istiklal Caddesi.  Istiklal Caddesi was very busy and there was a protest going on, along with police geared up in case anything got out of hand. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Taksim

What a day!  We had breakfast with my husband this morning and then he went off to his conference.  The first thing that I did with the boys today was to go back to the café we ate at last night – my husband forgot our guidebook there.  The staff had it and very nicely returned it.  Then we walked around the neighborhood a bit.

We went back to the hotel for a brief rest so that I could read the guidebook and plan our next steps.  I decided that we would take the train to Galata Mevlevihanesi to see the whirling dervishes and then we would go on the Hop on Hop Off tour.  So, we took the train to Istikal Caddesi, where the whirling dervishes were supposed to be.  It took two trains, which, of course, thrilled my older son.  We started to walk in the direction of the dervishes and the street was really neat – it was a hilly, torn-up road with all music shops on both sides.  Then I looked over to my right and there was a tall tower, the Galata Tower.  Oops!  We had passed the dervishes.  Oh well.

We decided to go up the tower and it was amazing!  The views of the city and the Bosphorous were incredibly, we could see the aqueduct, Hagia Sophya and all of the other landmarks.  We took a ton of pictures.  The viewing balcony was incredibly dangerous, especially for a child.  It was a 360 degree balcony circling the round tower with widely-spaced wrought iron railings, 9 stories up.  Then we had Turkish coffee (yum) and apple juice tea (not so yum) at the café near the top.  The true top of the tower is a disco at night.

After the tower, we walked back to where the dervishes should have been and the museum is closed for renos….bummer.  We decided to get some lunch and noticed a street car running in front of the restaurant.  We took the street car after lunch to the train station at Taksim Square.  We explored the “Times Square of Istanbul” (about as disappointing as the real Times Square and looked at the war memorial.

Then we took the train back to our station and walked back to our hotel for naps and to rendezvous with my husband.

There are some pretty obvious differences besides the age of the cities between Istanbul and Dubai.  First is the dress of the people.  Religious clothing is illegal in Turkey, but the county houses many Muslims.  They have adapted their dress so the women generally wear a scarf tied around their heads under the chin and an overcoat instead of a shayla and an abbaya.  The men seem to all dress western style.

Also the city is filthy compared to Dubai.  There are dogs and cats running around the streets everywhere and no-one picks up after them.  Rubbish and bad smells abound.  I’m sure there are rats or other vermin.  Also everything is crumbling and in disrepair.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

On the road again....


Today it was about +40 Celsius in Dubai - a scorcher, especially with the humidity as of late.  But it didn't bother me because we are in Istanbul, Turkey, where it is about +20 Celsius....much more reasonable!

We flew into Istanbul today.  We started the day with a late morning trip to terminal 3 in Dubai – I love the Emirates terminal.  Terminal 3 is beautifully designed and huge – so civilized.  The wait actually seems to go by more quickly because it is so pleasant. 

Once we boarded, we were treated with the unusual Emirates hospitality – they had a backpack full of toys and activities for our older son and special food and toys for the baby.  The 4.5 hour flight went by quickly.  If you can’t tell, I really like the Emirates airline.  The contrast in service to the other airlines that I am used to flying on is striking.

Once in Turkey we had to apply for a visa, which was quick, it really just involved paying a fee.  Customs was fast also and our bags were waiting for us.  A driver met us and took us to our hotel.

The roads seemed busy to me, but the driver said that traffic was light.  We drove through the European side of Istanbul to Taksim, the neighborhood we are staying in.  The drive was interesting; we passed through the poorer residential neighborhoods, filled with deteriorating apartment buildings.  Because it was so nice out today, many people were outside (Sunday is a part of the weekend here).

Once we were checked into our hotel, we walked around Kurtulus, a nearby neighborhood.  We were astounded by how hilly the streets are – it seems to put San Francisco to shame!  I’m sure glad to have my Baby Bjorn.  We bought water and juice for the next few days and had supper in a local café.  The food was simple, but it hit the spot.  Then back to the hotel for bedtime.

My husband said that being here is “back to reality,” and he is right.  We are so far removed from reality in our resort lifestyle that seeing “real” homes seems like a bit of a shock.  That’s not to say that our apartment or lifestyle is perfect in Dubai, but they are surreal and unnatural.  Our environment in Dubai is totally intentional – a product of careful planning and building.  Here in Istanbul, the city seems more organic; it has grown in a very natural, imperfect and human way over hundreds of years.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nannies

I will preface this by saying that I'm sure there are many good nannies, this is just based on the ones that I see everyday.


Many people in Dubai have a nanny, and there are a huge number of nannies that take care of the children living in our complex.  The nannies are essentially similar to housemaids.  They have no special training and they are paid (very poorly) accordingly.  When I take the kids outside, most of the other children are accompanied by a nanny.  The nannies have formed their own groups and networks, but I will cover that in another post.  Here I want to talk about the level of care.

For a nanny, it is her job to watch/care for the children, instead of a calling/passion/labour of love.  This really shows in how they deal with the kids.  There are some nannies who seem to never let the toddlers out of their buggies, because they are easier to deal with when they are not running around.  In contrast, some nannies let the kids run everywhere and focus on texting on their mobile telephones or chatting with their friends instead of focussing on the kids.  Some nannies seem to only feed their charges junk food.  There is one nanny in particular who pays almost no attention to the child she watches.  She takes a laptop and earphones to the playground and sets herself up on a corner of the grass while the child plays at the playground.  She generally cannot hear or see the child.  This child runs wild, I have even seen him urinate in the playground!

The other activity of the nannies that I take issue with is the length of time at the playground.  Generally my son lasts an hour at the most, and that is only if he has good friends to play with.  Some of the nannies take the kids to the playground and stay 4-5 hours.  A group of nanny friends hang out while the kids become increasingly irritable.  These people live in our building so they are only steps from home.  I'm not sure if their bosses have instructed them to take the kids out of the house or if they just would prefer to spend the time hanging out with the other nannies.  The kids are totally bored and whiny after a while and they tend to pester the nannies, who are texting or chatting with their buddies.

I am starting to wonder what happens now that the weather is warming up.  The nannies never take the kids to the pools (and given their level of supervision, this is a good thing).  When we stay inside, I read my son books, do crafts with him and help him learn to write his letters.  I don't imagine that most of these nannies do those sorts of things, so what do they do all day?  Also, what do the mothers do?  The mothers of the kids that we see most are all stay-at-home mothers...so they must want the kids to go outside in the winter, but what about the summer?


My one friend wants to tell the moms about some of the outrageous things that the nannies get up to...one nanny regularly punishes her charge by telling the child "I hate you!"  I wonder if it is best not to get involved, and if the mothers would do anything if they knew?

A Pile of Kittens

Each day in our complex the male outdoor workers get a midday break.  (Please note that there are only male outdoor workers, the few female workers that we have work indoors).  In a few weeks they will also be entitled to a nap break in the afternoon, once the temperatures get hotter.

During their lunch break, these men stay in the shade (smart), which happens to be outside our window.  The men all sleep/lounge on the grass.

From my window, without my glasses, they look like a pile of kittens.  It was really weird once I figured out that it was the gardeners and other outdoor workers.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Papier-mâché

My older son and I made a papier-mâché ball.  It is very hot outside and outdoor activities are limited so I am trying new things indoors, and I thought this would be easy.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was easy!  The ball looks strange - it is a multi-coloured, randomly painted "mess," but it has character.  

All of the things I needed were common household items.  I was careful to keep my son in the dark regarding our goal (a painted papier-mâché circular item) lest we not achieve it.  If a project does not turn out as expected I often change the goal, but this time I did not have to. 

It was a great project because it had to be done in stages.  Each layer of papier-mâché has to dry and the entire ball had to dry before it could be painted.  I want my son to learn (among other things) about project follow through and patience, both of these things are difficult for a four-year old to understand (they are sometimes difficult for others to understand as well).

One problem that I have is what to do with crafts like this one once they are completed.  My son wants to preserve every piece of artwork and every craft he creates forever.  This is not realistic and I do not want to add to my dusting.  I sneak some of his projects into the garbage, but they proliferate.

Baby Flipping

There is a new activity in our household…baby flipping.  You see, our 5-month-old baby is a roller.  He loves to roll over, mostly back to front.  We put him to sleep at night and he settles in, generally on his back or his side.  Then, a while later, he rolls over onto his front in his sleep and partially wakes up while trying to get comfortable in his new position.  If he doesn’t get comfortable right away, he starts to fuss.

At his point we have about a minute to “flip” him back onto his back to get him back to sleep.  If we miss the window, he will wake up fully, so timing is crucial.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Storage Locker Follow-Up

We tested the key and we had the right key for the right locker!  Time to clear out our storage room!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Hero

There was an article yesterday in the newspaper here (The National) about Elroy Friesen.  Mr. Friesen is a University of Manitoba choir leader and while the choir was on a tour in Sweden, he noticed that their bus driver was slumped over the wheel of the bus (he had a heart attack), and then Mr. Friesen hit the brakes and saved everyone.  There were 32 passengers on the bus and no-one was injured.

What a hero!  He acted quickly in a emergency situation and saved all of the choir members from injury or worse.

Tea Party


This morning, I hosted a little tea party in our apartment.  I invited two other mums and three kids.  I bought (yes, I’ve gotten lazy) scones and macaroons and seedless grapes.  I filled the kettle up and got out my two teapots and three flavors of tea.  I also vacuumed and dusted.

My guests arrived right on time, and it was fun.  The kids played (not always together) and everyone ate snacks.  My son didn’t share his toys or play with the other kids very well, but neither did the other kids.

We will be hosting and attending way more tea and coffee parties now that the weather is getting warmer.  It was +45 Celsius today and it was really too hot to go to the beach or the playground.  The pool is divine though….

Monday, May 16, 2011

An Accomplishment


Today started out badly, in a specific way that only parents will understand.  Our older son woke up at an insanely early hour and decided that simply because his father was not home the normal rules would not apply.  He proceeded to wake up the baby and so we were all awake.  By 6:45 am we had eaten breakfast, done chores and homework, so I decided to take the kids swimming (yes, I know – why was I rewarding his bad “waking up” behavior?).  We had the pool and beach club to ourselves – except for the ants!  There were millions (seriously!).

After our swim, we headed home to change and get ready to go out.   You see, I was on a mission.  I decided that today, I would accomplish Something.  Anything.  It didn’t really matter what, I was just sick and tired of not accomplishing anything due to “Dubai” systems.  The task at hand today was to rent a storage locker.

This had been going on for a while.  Five weeks ago another mum at the playground mentioned to me that she had rented a storage locker in our building.  I wanted one!  She said it took two hours of bureaucracy, and you needed to bring your passport.  I was up for the challenge.

So, I went the next day to the office and met with the security guard, who is tasked with renting out these lockers.  He had me fill out a form, but then took issue with my ID.  I needed to return with some more information from my husband’s employer.  I got the information in about a week and went back to the office.  The security guard took a long time reviewing it, but it passed inspection.  He told me that someone (i.e. not him) would have to draft a contract (yes, he actually said “draft”) and that he would call me once it was done.  I asked the obvious question – how long?  He told me maybe that day, but probably the next.  Once he called me, I would need to go to another office in another location and pay the fee.  Once I did that I would get a receipt that I would need to bring back to the first office.  But, he would call me that day or the next.

Of course, he didn’t call.  I waited ten days, and then I called.  There was no answer from the security guard, no matter how many times I called (a phenomenon I witnessed while waiting in the office).  I called the other office and a rude woman told me that I was obviously impatient, having heard none of the facts.  I decided to pay another visit.  The security guard assured me on this third visit that it was being taken care of and that someone would call me that day or the next.

I got distracted for a while.  We had visitors, we went away.  So, this week, I decided to check in again (it had been a month).  Yesterday I stopped by the office, and the security guard was surprised that it had not already been taken care of.  He promised to call back that day.  He didn’t.

This morning, I decided that enough was enough.  I went in again.  The security guard was really surprised that it had been over a month, and he promised to call and again gave me his number.  I decided to give up.

I went off to do my errands, and on the third stop, my phone rang.  It was him!  I could now go and pay the fee.  I drove from this third stop to the payment office.  Of course it was not simple.  I had to pull a u-turn in the middle of a huge road and I managed to get honked at. 

At the payment office, there were five buildings on a beautiful campus and a parkade.  The parkade was no-where near the buildings.  We started our trek through +45 Celsius sun with no idea which building to go to.  I stopped and asked in the first one, and, of course, we needed the furthest one.  We went there and it only took 45 minutes to make my cash payment.  I say “only” because some other people had clearly been there hours.  It was a customer service centre where people buy new and used homes, pay management fees, pay school fees, and pay storage locker and other fees.

Next we drove back to the first office (visit number six if you are keeping track).  The security guard was still there – no lunch break, poor guy.  He had the contract for “Jania” (hey – it’s close).  He had to talk to his boss upstairs three times while I waited, but, after 20 minutes I had signed the signature page of the contract that I could not read and was not given the option of reading and had been given another form.  This form was to be taken to the security guard in our building.

I drove back to our building and the floor of our parkade was flooded (as it had been earlier that morning), and it smelled rank!  Some poor workers were pushing the water around with squeegee mops. 

I went to see the security guard and he was not there, so we went up for lunch and naps.  After naps we went and exchanged the form for a set of keys.  Only, it wasn’t that easy, of course.  The keys were lost.  This is because when I initially inquired about the storage locker, the other security guard set them aside for me, and they were not in with the other keys.  Eventually that got sorted and I had to fill out another form to get possession of the key.  I wanted to check the key, but the security guard informed me that the leak was “yucky” and I had no interest in going back into our basement at that point.  I will try the key another day, here’s hoping I have the right one!

Mission accomplished.  So far.  This rental is only good for six months, then I have to figure out how to renew!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Washer/Dryer

We have a machine in our kitchen that is both a clothes washer and dryer.  This is one of the appliances that we bought when we moved in.  This is a change from Canada in a couple of ways.  First, we don't keep our clothes cleaning equipment inside our kitchen in Canada.  In Canada, we have a laundry room, so we are not dragging our dirty and clean laundry through the kitchen.

Also, in Canada we have one machine that washes clothes and one that dries them.  They each do their respective job really well, so our clothes are very clean and dry when we have finished with the laundry.  Our single machine in Dubai does neither job particularly well.  The combined wash and dry cycle takes between two and four hours and the laundry usually comes out dingy and wet.  Not damp, wet.  Then, I take the clothes and hang them on a drying rack in the heat and blowing sand outdoors.  So we get sandy, dry, laundry.  This is time consuming and hard on our clothes.

We had rental appliances prior to receipt of our purchased appliances, and the rental appliances had the same issues.  I find it curious that these appliances are accepted by consumers when they do not do an acceptable job of cleaning and drying laundry.  From talking with my friends, it seems that these are universal issues with these appliances.  Perhaps more of us should complain.