Thursday, December 30, 2010

Turkey and Beyond

We drop our little car off at the airport and take the bus to the train station. There were meet an amazing couple, Jen and Steve—teachers at a charter school in Oakland. They’d been traveling all over Greece and now were about to take the train into Istanbul as were we. Great to share experiences of traveling and teaching. Meeting fellow travelers is always a beautiful gift on the road.

The double bunk train berth is fun—although I can’t sleep with the rolling of the wheels and the roaring of the engine. An old Turkish conductor stops by our cabin again and again to check on us and make jokes. He actually sits down to look at pictures on my camera. I get the feeling that Turkey is a place of slow moments and flexibility.

My hunch is right. After hours of breathtaking sunflower fields outside the window, night falls and in my half-stupor, I realize the train has stopped. I finally fall into deep sleep. But then wake after the sun has risen to find us still in the same place. There’s been a problem with the train—and Nic and I freak out a bit. They’ve taken our passports and our tickets, and here we are in the middle of nowhere, Turkey. Finally, the train moves along. We stop at a tiny duty free shop at a station somewhere that just happens to have an office to buy visas. We sign our name, pay $15, and hours later get our visa stamped in our passport. Oh the interesting ways of Turkey!

After a bus ride at the end of our train trek (a tunnel had collapsed onto the tracks before we’d left,) we take public transit into Istanbul with Steve and Jen. After a bit of walking, and walking, (lost in the rain!) we find our hotel—Zeynap Sultan --a quaint, friendly place just down from the Hagia Sophia. A great roof-top cafe and kitties galore. Istnabul is a place for cats. We put our feet up and sleep and sleep.

Later that afternoon, we meet Andrea from Wiesbaden and walk over the Galata Bridge—where east meets west, Europe meets Asia. go for dinner at a lovely outdoor café. We chat with our Turkish, prone to motion sickness waiter who is bored and looking for a Western girlfriend (not here, sorry.) He sits down with us and discusses Turkish culture and Western ways. I gorge on cheese borek, lentil soup, Tziki, bread, and wine. It’s another happy-belly moment.

Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque day. We take our shoes off, and cover our shoulder and head. Entering through the visitor’s entrance, the Blue Mosque right away smells of a purity and a coolness that soothes me, even in the crowds. Old chandeliers lit with bulbs and amazing colored windows. People praying in the corner or snapping pictures in the chaos. It’s a place of quiet energy, yet bits of dark and light, electrical, yet soothing at the same time.

Hagia Sofia—Ah! The grandeur once again of this ancient marble structures, designed and attended to for hundreds of years. A mosque now retired into museum. The Christian and Muslim presence is strong here—and bit by bit, you cans see the connection and struggle to between the two. The colors are warm and surround me in a sense of wonder and magic. It's a clear feeling--an earthy purity I sensed back in a mosque/church in Toledo, Spain a few years ago. I often wonder about shared sacred sites and the connection it brings. A time and a place where walls dissolve and the spiritual origins remain. We are all touched. Seems to be the ultimate beauty.

A bus tour around Istanbul clearly reveals the fortress that once surrounded this important, port town. Once again, I marvel at the mix between old and new, and the Christian and Muslim faith. We pass Takshim Square--a hip and crowded spot rejuvenated recently with shops, cafes and bars.

Later, Nic and I decide to return to the shore. We take the train to what we think is the right spot--but then proceed to walk on and on through "siesta hour" empty and dank neighborhoods. We know we're close, but can't quite figure out how to get to the ocean. A wall divides us--train tracks on one side, the sea on the other. Finally, an opening comes our way and we make it over. It's a warm Sunday, and people picnic, relax, eat and drink. We pass a few stands set up with balloons and soon realize it's a shooting range--pay a few Turkish Lyra and shoot a BB gun to pop the balloons. Watch out for pedestrians! LOL! Men selling chai, watermelon, kids playing and enjoying the day. On the way home, we find a quaint little spot to enjoy our own chai--and it's another moment, a sacred spot in time and place that fuses into my soul. Thankful to be here--thankful to be alive.

Sithonian paradise

Sithonian Penisula—

Middle finger in the three peninsulas in N. Greece. Gorgeous aquamarine coast, rocky shore along the windy road from Thessonliki. Follow the road to Sarti Beach—downtown like a beach carnival. Bustling with Easter European families strolling along the boardwalk—the shore is lined with resaurants on the sand. The shops are busy, bursting at the seems with inflatable toys, souvinier clothes and cotton candy. We buy bread, fruit, and miel (honey) and begin the search for our villa.

We follow a dirt road until we reach two barking hunting dogs behind the fence. Cross the river and go left at the white wall. Right and fork and follow the path. There, we find a gorgeous, white villa nestled amongst an olive grove up on the hill overlooking the sea. The Sarti Vista bed and breakfast is run by the charming Chichi and her husband Isadore. An American couple that decided long ago to build their home someday on this land that belonged to Isadore’s father—who owned property across the hillside. Built on old tombs, the area is lush and green and buzzing with bees and birds and butterflies. Grape vines drip down over the trellis, accompanied with oldeander and jasmine creeping along side them. Our balcony overlooks the sea, never ending waves and the Mnt. Athos Penisula--the "holy mountain" This unique place is only inhabitated by Greek Orthodox monks, and can only be visited by men. It's shrouded in clouds, hiding from us almost the whole time.

Breakfast on the porch—eggs, fresh apricot juice, bread and jelly and tea. We are welcomed so fully, that we feel like guests invited into their home. Chichi and Isadore visited this spot and believed it would be the perfect spot for a home. Thirteen years later, they’are living their dream. They say Sarti is not a place to check off your list of Greek sites, but a place “to just be.” We soon find out this is true.

The waters right off Sarti Beach are full of ruins—the old Ancient Greek town of Sarti. I snorkel out into the waters, weaving in and out of pillars that look more like weathered rock formations. Although evidence of the ancient community is sparse, I do feel the haunting presence of human life—as if the stones are watching me, wanting me to remember the electrical buzz that once filled the air. It’s sad and spooky and mysterious all at once. The smooth stones erupt into straight edge walls and layers of brick. I long to know the stories of the people that roamed the streets, the songs of the sailors that cruised these shores in the Persian War (during a time when the king of Persian cut a canal here after losing all his fleets in an attempt to conquer Athens. )

Porti Cali beach (point of reference to locate: a trashbin by the side of the road.) Amazing local beach, graced with smooth, curved stones on the beach that function like stone seats. Perfect turquoise water, snorelers, sun bathers—a great mix of local and worldy visitors.—even some that decide to be super nude! It’s not a reef, the the fish are diverse and I’m especially fond of a school of big red and brown guys who allow me to float next to them in an open cavern. The trickle of sand, the gentle push and pull of the tide. Underwater heaven and its best. I dive down to retrieve a perfect sea urchin shell for Nicola (okay so it takes me a few tries) but lo ‘n behold, I pull it for her to take home. We soak in the vitamin D—loving the peace and the sun and the laughter. Nicola’s first time snorkeling here—and she gets more and more adventurous every hour. It’s one of those days, when you feel as if everything is right in the world (even tho we accidentally crushed the urchin shell as we were leaving!) Paradise found. Hard to leave. But a place I know I will return.

Heading North in a Tiny Car

Drive to Northern Greece:

Nicola and I drive 8 hours north. This time, using Nic’s GPS, we get out of Athens with no problem. Pass agricultural land, farms that remind me of Central CA, then into a rugged coastline toward Mnt. Olympus. Through the town of Litochoro, on the way up the mountain, it smells sweet like vanilla—like my Sierras. We pass a string of restaurants, downtown square, valley off in the distance, and somewhere inside the clouds hides Mnt. Olympus. We drive our tiny car (and Nic finally figures out how to stay on the right hand side!) up the mountain into the thick, white sky. Gorgeous greens, sharp cliffs—but still no Olympus. We’re running out of time. Eventually the road turns to dirt, complete with ! signs to warn us of the hairy drive.

We decide there will be no mountain of the gods for our human eyes, but ever still felt in presence.

Happy in Athens and a Belly full of Bougatsa

Leaving Athens...

Last night in Athens with the family. Hike to the Agora—the main meeting place of Ancient Greece. Impressive temples and Byzantine churches still in tact. In awe of the structural intricacy of the ancient sites. The time and attention to beauty that was a part of everyday life. Nova poses on pillars as a goddess-and fits right in. We say goodbye to our last Athens street dog—one that Nova truly wants to take home. Say goodbye to the "haunted" house that Dan and Nova discovered on day one.

That night the Plaka is alive. Spanakopita. Greek salad. Greek "apple pie" to celebrate my dad's 75th b-day (3 b-day parties in Greece for him!) The Acropolis lit up like a million stars. Painters capturing it all. It’s a haunting electricity and I feel it buzzing through all of us. Buzzing with love and grace of being together in a place so old yet so alive.

The family ventures home, and through heartache, I explore one more day in Athens. So happy to Nicola join me (we met in Kenya in 2007) I know already that our time together will be incredible! We escaped the heat in Greece for two weeks until today. The temps go past 100 F! Ugh. We take the metro 3 stops back and forth to find a train office to buy our tickets to Istanbul. Stop off at the National Gardens. Booksellers on the street--Diary of a Wimpy Kid in Greek makes me smile! More cicadas filling the air with their sound. Children’s laughter makes me miss my family even more. I escape into the cool shadows—bright sunlight reflecting off the trees to create every color of green. Walking back through the Plaka in search of an internet café, I discover bougatsas—phyllo pastry stuffed with custard and covered with powdered sugar. I’m enamored by this delight and I chomp and swallow not noticing my entire body is soon covered by the white sugar. Tourist moment! I get lost getting through old neighborhoods behind the Plaka--I walk the entire outside perimeter, ending up passing the entire Agora again on the outskirts toward the Acropolis. Hot and tired, but never worried-- a happy belly full of bougatsa.