When I arrived in Istanbul, I felt like I was going to be there forever. Somehow though, forever wasn’t quite as long as I thought, and soon enough it was my last day in the city. I, of course, hadn’t done everything that I wanted and had no time to finish it all, so I was faced with the decision of how to spend my final day.

My friend Zoe (from Armenia) told me that while she was in Istanbul, some of her friends went to the islands near the city, rented bikes for the day, and just biked around exploring. The weather was beautiful on my last day, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than on a boat and on a bike.

I asked my friend Gareth if he wanted to join, he said yes, and we were off! Yay! There are some things that are way more fun with a friend, and this was definitely one of them.

Dolmabahce Palace from the ferry on the way to the island

The Princes’ Islands are a series of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara, southeast of Istanbul. During the Byzantine years, they were a place of exile for princes and other royalty, hence their name. At the time, they seemed extremely remote, and only the exiles and some monks lived on them. In the 19th century, everything changed with the arrival of the steamboat. Then, they became more accessible and were transformed into a popular resort for the wealthy people of Istanbul. Historically, the islands were dominated by minority groups. There were significant Jewish, Greek, and Armenian communities living on them. Those populations are now much less prominent, but traces of them can still be seen in the buildings on the islands.

Dolmabahce Mosque from the ferry

Out of the nine total islands, five are inhabited. Three have no settlements, and the last one is a private island. The four largest are popular tourist destinations, great for escaping the chaos and noise of the city because there are no motor vehicles allowed besides service vehicles. The popular forms of transport are horse-drawn carriages and bicycles! That’s my kind of place!

One of the other islands from the ferry

We went to the biggest island, Buyukada (meaning “big island”… creative, right?). It’s a little over 5 square kilometers in area and has a population of around 7,000 people which increases tenfold in the summers! It was still early in the season when we went, but even so, our ferry was fairly crowded. The best part of the ride was when this dude put on a live infomercial for a vegetable peeler. From the sound of the crowd, it was like he was putting on a magic show. People were cheering and clapping, eager to see what food he would pull out of his bag to peel next. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I am nearly certain that I’ll never see anything like it again.

See the guy in the white shirt in the background? He’s in the middle of an intense vegetable-peeler performance. The crowd is completely hooked. My favorite thing was imagining him practicing his presentation at home. He’s surrounded by peeled vegetables and fruits. His wife walks in and shakes her head. “What else can I peel, honey?” he asks.
Remnant of the Armenian community on the island – an Armenian church!

When we got to the island, we walked around a little first to get our bearings and then decided it was bike time. Well, I decided it was bike time because the day was required to consist of two things, remember? Boats and bikes, and we had already crossed off the boats.

We rented some bikes and biked one of the loops on the island. There’s a short loop and a long loop, and we only ended up having time for the short one because we took a long break in the middle to go to the highest point on the island. The bike rental guy told us that we would need to walk up to the lookout point because it was too steep to ride. We decided he didn’t know what he was talking about and started to ride. I made it approximately 5 minutes before I changed my mind, decided that riding was more effort than it was worth, and pushed my bike the rest of the way while Gareth rode next to me.

The streets are lined with big beach mansions, some well-maintained and some on the verge of collapse.
This looks like it’s in great shape, right?
This thing screams “BEACH HOUSE!” Geez, house. Could you be any more obvious?

The view at the top was really nice, so we sat and looked at the sparkling water and talked until it was time to ride back and return our bikes. I guess I was kind of happy to have a bike for the way down the hill, but at the same time, that’s not true at all because the whole way was cobblestones, and the however many minutes it took us to get to the bottom were completely uncomfortable. Plus, you never know how functional the brakes are on a rental bike, so I was constantly braced for the moment when mine decided to quit on me. Gareth, on the other hand, seemed unfazed by the whole thing, so maybe I’m just crazy.

View from the top
Me and Gareth

We returned our bikes and drank some horrible tea with the bike rental guy (seriously, why does any tea besides apple tea even exist??), and I passed out on the ferry ride back to the city. Who knew I was so tired? I guess it’s a good thing that I slept a little because after we got back to the hostel, I had some packing to do!

Too many people on bikes

There was another cool Birthright excursion a couple weeks ago, so I made another exception to my usual “avoid large groups” rule and signed up. That rule exists for a reason, and I knew that I would be subjecting myself to inevitable irritation by going… but bikes were involved, and I love bikes more than I hate large groups.

Talene and me during an unnecessary break at the airport

Side note: If you’re wondering about why I have that rule, it’s for a lot of reasons. When it comes to traveling, large groups are always late and can never make decisions and there’s always someone who’s unhappy for some reason or who is out of sync with the rest of the group. It’s better, in my opinion, to limit your group sizes and save yourself the stress. Plus, in general, I’m not really the type of person who thrives in large groups. I’m much better one-on-one or in settings where I can talk to each person and actually get to know them. Too many new people or things going on at the same time completely stresses me out.

Funky flower at one of the churches

Anyway, the excursion was biking to Etchmiadzin. I was almost convinced at “biking” until I thought about the fact that it would be 50 people on bikes, and so many people are terrible at biking. I wasn’t exactly interested in having someone who hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years swerving into me and knocking me over. Somehow, I was convinced to go anyway, and my game plan was to stick to the front of the pack.

For the most part, it worked. There was one dicey second when a girl next to me swerved into a (parked) car and then swerved back out into the street, towards me. Thankfully, there was no collision, but I got away from her as quickly as possible and sped my way to the front.

I forget that a lot of other people don’t really bike that often or that far. The ride was 20 km (about 12.5 miles) on almost completely flat ground, and for me, that was nothing. I used to bike 8.5 miles one way to get to work every day. Especially considering the speed we were going for most of the ride, I probably could have gone for 100 miles. At least. We were moving at about 6.5 miles per hour which is less than half the speed that I’d ride to work. Anyway, afterward, people were talking about how far and difficult the ride was, and I was baffled. I wanted so badly to ride back so that I could do the ride at a normal speed, but I wasn’t allowed, even though two of the BR staff members said they would go with me. Bummer.

Squash at the lunch spot

Once we made it to Vagharshapat, the town where Etchmiadzin is, we went to 4 out of the 5 churches in town. This is the same place where Sarah and I went on our “day of a million churches”. There were weddings in progress at 3 of the 4 churches (that’s Armenia on a Saturday for you). It was cool going back to Etchmiadzin because I still love the ceiling there. Even though there are these weird 3D baby heads randomly on the ceiling that I think are supposed to be angel heads but are mostly just creepy.

They should have just hired me as the tour guide for this trip because telling that story about Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime is one of my most favorite things. Maybe I can have a career in Armenian folklore storytelling? I hear there’s a big demand for that. Anyway, I won’t tell it again because we’ve already been there and done that, but in case you missed it, you can check out my post about visiting Etchmiadzin with Sarah HERE.

Nice chair feet!
Supposedly the rocks that killed Saint Hripsime. True or not, it’s kind of eerie.

We had a rare treat this weekend… a day off! Actually, we technically had two days off (a normal weekend… imagine that!), but Debbie and I had to do some prep for class today, so maybe we’ll settle at a day and a half.

A cool but also semi creepy mural…

In celebration of our vacation, we planned a trip into Lima on Saturday. Debbie and Julie’s favorite part of town is the Barranco district, described by them as “hipster Lima”. It’s the part of the city where a lot of artists and musicians live, and you can definitely feel the artsy vibe (plus there are murals everywhere). There is also a famous 19th century bridge, the Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs), that crosses a ravine (“Barranco” = ravine) turned walkway to the beach (called the Bajada de los Baños). As you might imagine, this part of the district is very popular, especially during the summer months as people are actually going to the beach. The beaches in the area are PACKED, and the waves are decent so there are also a lot of surfers (fun fact: the “shores of Peru” are given a shout out in the Beach Boys song, Surfin’ Safari).

Heading down to the beach

The cliffs and the remaining part of the walkway to get all the way down to the beach

Looking at the way back up

Headed back up…

The church next to the main plaza: Parroquia La Santísima Cruz

I’m getting a little ahead of myself though… As I was saying, we decided to go into Lima, but not until around noon so that we could sleep in!! I got a whole 10 hours of sleep! Plus I had time to accomplish things before we left. It takes about an hour to get into that part of Lima from where we are, and after we got to Barranco, we ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant and did the walk down to the beach. The way down is nice and scenic, and the way up is nice and steep. As a reward for our good walk, we got some gelato and watched some spectacle that was going on in the main plaza. No one in our group seemed to know exactly what it was, but there were a bunch of groups dressed in traditional attire (someone said they were from the highlands but who knows) and doing dances. I wish I had any idea of what was going on/that we were a little closer, but it was still cool to see everyone’s outfits.

Bike ride!

Our last stop of the day was Larcomar, a shopping mall in the Miraflores district of Lima. We rented bikes, per my request, because I’m working on a bucket list goal of biking on every continent (shout out to Kristine who came up with the idea for herself and allowed it to be stolen by me). I only have Oceania/Australia and Antarctica left, and don’t even ask me how I’m going to accomplish that last one.

Early sunset from Parque del Amor

Late sunset from elsewhere along the cliffs

We biked down the road that runs along the cliffs to “Parque del Amor” (Love Park) and then paused and found a good spot to watch the sunset. The sunsets here are pretty amazing, and there are people lined up along all the good lookout spots on the cliffs (Miraflores is basically city, cliffs, beach, ocean) to enjoy the view. You can’t go wrong when you end a day by watching an awesome sunset! Afterwards, we headed back to the mall to return the bikes and then to the car to make the trek home. By the time we got back, I was wiped out. Good thing too because our neighbors kept up their perfect record of Saturday night parties, but I was so tired that I fell asleep without a problem.

Today was the usual Sunday schedule – church, grocery shopping, some relaxation time, and class planning with Debbie. As much as I’ve enjoyed teaching this class, I also won’t be too upset when we don’t have to prep for it anymore! Teaching is a lot of work! The last week of summer school starts tomorrow, so we only have 2 more classes to finish off the robot and city projects. We can do it! I think. I hope.

The open road!

I went for another bike ride today! Everlasting, my teacher friend with the bike, is out of town for the weekend, so he told me I could borrow his bike again! I did another 6AM wake up to avoid having too many cars on the road, and I road all the way to Sanga, a town past Asikuma (the town containing one of the orphanages and where I biked last time). The distance was something like 16 miles round trip, and I’m more than happy with that considering my bike and my lack of fitness.

I wish every bike ride was so scenic.

It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in a day when you wake up early! I got back from my ride, stretched and did some other exercises, and still had time to eat breakfast and get ready to leave for church at 8:45. Nick, Andy, and Gaby came with me this week. My new friend, Elisha (from the clinic), preached about the importance of prayer. After the service was over, he came over, said hi to me, and welcomed the new volunteers. I think this means we’re actually friends! Or maybe not, but I’ve decided that we are, so he’s going to have to live with that.

Hooray for 6AM traffic-less streets!

In the afternoon, we all headed to… you guessed it… the soccer field! The senior team didn’t have a game this week, so instead, the two younger teams (under 17 and under 15 maybe?) played back to back. I think they both won? If I’m being honest, I didn’t see a single goal. I really see soccer games as more of a social event than something to actually watch. I caught up with one of the senior high girls who has been out of town for school, talked to some of the other volunteers, and basically did anything except watch soccer. The mason from Friday, Senyo, has taken it upon himself to find me a husband (“someone with good character”) before I leave, so we’ll see how that goes. All in all, I’d say it was a successful day of soccer games!
James, Yara, Anna, and Avy all came back today from their weekend trips, so the night was spent going over information for tomorrow and doing more of the usual “getting to know you” small talk. I’ll be happy when this phase is over and we’re back to the point where everyone feels comfortable around each other.

Okay so I probably shouldn’t have been taking a selfie, and I clearly know that because my eyes are filled with worry and fear. But I’m still alive so that means it’s fine.

I woke up early this morning and went for a bike ride!!! As much as I hated waking up earlier than I had to, I did NOT want to bike on the road during the day when there are more cars. Since there’s only one paved road in town, my options for non-dirt routes are limited to the busiest street. I figured that at 6AM, it would be light but it wouldn’t be too hot or crowded on the road yet. If I put it off until later in the day, there’s no way I would have mustered up the courage to go. We can pretend that I had a helmet and that there’s a huge shoulder on the road, if that makes you feel any better.

Some of the scenery along the road. Yes *wink*wink* I stopped the bike to take this picture.

The open road!

I decided to bike away from town and towards the orphanage because I think that way is a little less populated. I went for about an hour, did around 11 miles, and made it all the way to Asikuma, the town where the orphanage is. Even though it was early, plenty of people were awake, and I was apparently quite the spectacle, a yevu on a bike. Some guy even took a picture. I would equate it to one time in Philly when I saw Benjamin Franklin on a bicycle. I thought it was funny and ridiculous, and most of the locals seemed to think the same about me.
Avy proving that it’s possible for a girl to know how to use a saw.

Don’t worry, this is way safer than it looks… But anyway, they said they knew what they were doing.

Stabilizing the back

It’s amazing how much time there is in the day when you get up early! I got back to the house and still had time to do some stretching and a workout before breakfast and church. We went back to Agnes’s church (it’s looking like that’s going to be our church home) and brought all of the new volunteers with us. The setup of the chairs was different AGAIN, which means it’s never been the same twice in all the times I’ve been there. This week was really fun. I can tell that people are starting to remember me, and I’m beginning to feel like they’re accepting me (not that they were ever unwelcoming or anything, but like they’re seeing me as an actual part of the community rather than just a one-time visitor).
Putting in the shelf supports.

The finished product!!

When we got back from church, one of the neighbors was on our porch with two saws! He said that his dad would be mad if he let us use them, but he could cut the wood for us. Fine with me! He ended up letting me use the small saw to cut the pieces to reinforce the back, and we helped a little with the big cuts for the shelves. I was just happy to be able to finish the job. We stabilized the back, measured out the shelf heights, nailed in the shelf supports, and we were finished! Now you can actually see all of the books and games we have, and there’s even some space left over! When Joe came over later, we asked him if he regretted doubting us. He said yes, but who knows. I’m just happy that we didn’t talk ourselves up and then get stuck and have to ask for help.