Welcome to Istanbul!! I know, you were probably wondering if we were ever going to manage to leave Georgia, but we did it!

View over Istanbul

My flight landed in Istanbul after a solid 3 hours in the air… during which I was completely comatose, but it apparently didn’t make a difference because I was still exhausted when we landed. I hate feeling groggy while going through immigration and customs, but sometimes there’s only so much you can control. Before leaving the airport and attempting to navigate the long journey to my hostel, I tried to smack myself awake and pull it together the best I could (never underestimate the power of a quick face washing/tooth brushing in the airport bathroom).

From the airport, I had to take three modes of transportation. This trek was completely the result of my trying to spend as little money as possible. There are two airports in Istanbul, one on the Asia side of the city and one on the Europe side. I was staying on the Europe side, but I flew into Asia because it was way cheaper. Then, I could have gotten a pick up or a taxi from the airport, but I’m not made of money! And the less I spend, the longer I can take coming home… hehe just kidding (Mom, I’m just kidding. I promise!). Anyway, all of this led to three modes of transport: shuttle bus, funicular, and tram.

The shuttle was the longest leg of the journey, about 45 minutes, and I slept from the moment I sat down. That’s great, except then when we got to the end stop, I was completely disoriented and had no idea which way I needed to go. And it was raining, of course. I marched off confidently in some random direction until I could get oriented… at which point I turned around and marched off in the exact opposite direction. My approach to walking around strange cities: Always look like you know exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing, even if you haven’t a clue.

Long story short, I figured out where I needed to go, how to buy a transit card, etc. with my eyes at least 50% closed, and when I got to the hostel, they showed me where to drop my bags (since I was there about 6 hours before check-in) and told me to help myself to breakfast. Ah, those words were like music to my ears after spending the night eating crackers, gummies, and a variety of other travel snacks that I love but that will also lead to my slow death-by-vitamin-deficiency.

Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the details of my breakfast (but bread and chocolate spread were obviously involved because gotta get those essential vitamins!). Instead, here are my first impressions of Istanbul (admittedly collected in more than just the hour and a half journey from the airport):

  1. Mosques – There are SO many, and they’re everywhere. And they’re seemingly always under construction, but I’ll talk about that later. I’ve been to other countries with a lot of mosques, but the ones in Istanbul are generally very welcoming to visitors which was a huge difference from places like Dubai, for example.

    The Blue Mosque, one of many, many mosques in the city
  2. Public transportation – It’s so good! And there are more modes of public transit than anywhere I’ve been. There are trams and funiculars and ferries and metros and trains and buses and probably spaceships too if you know where to look. And they’re all nice and clean and on-schedule and easy to navigate.
  3. Food – This has to be one of my favorite places, food-wise. I think I said that about Lebanon too, though, so it’s definitely a Middle-Eastern-food thing. This is the most similar to the type of food I grew up with which made me feel at home. Kind of funny because I used to hate practically all of those foods, but hey, times change. I could eat kebab and lahmajoon for every meal for the rest of my life.
    Kebab platter

    Soft serve. Yummmm
  4. Dessert – Yes, this gets its own number, separate from food. If you don’t understand already, it’s not worth my trying to explain it. Three words. Baklava. Icecream. Turkishdelights. (Okay, I should have said five words.) I usually don’t like baklava but there were a few fantastic baklava moments that happened. It’s very hard to disappoint me with ice cream, so the fact that it even exists puts it on the list. Turkish delights aren’t my personal favorite to eat, but they’re high on the list of my favorite desserts to look at.
  5. Nuts – This deserves its own number too. So much love for nuts. They’re everywhere and in EVERYTHING. Chocolate, Turkish delights, every other dessert whose names I don’t know. It’s almost impressive how many different ways they manage to use the same ingredient.
  6. Flags – There. Are. Turkish. Flags. EVERYWHERE. Honestly, it’s a little weird. Someone tried to tell me that there are a lot of flags around in the States, but this is like the U.S. on Independence Day x 100000.

    Flags. Everywhere.
  7. Flowers – I’m sure this is partly just a spring thing, but also landscaping. I have never seen SO many flowers and so many impeccably landscaped parks. I was completely obsessed because what’s better than flowers and parks? But it definitely takes a huge amount of work and maintenance for them to look like that. It’s amazing!
    Check out this park…
    They’re winning the landscape game
    This just looks so magical

    Apple tea, my new true love. There’s even a cinnamon stick in the bottom of this one!
  8. Tea – In general, I hate tea. I think it tastes like something that could maybe be good if it wasn’t so watered-down. Also, most typical flavors are kind of eh. In Istanbul, tea is a big thing, and I LOVED it. This is a significant statement coming from me. Apple tea is like <3 <3 <3. There are no words. It’s like drinking warm apple juice but better. And there’s definitely a pile of sugar in it, so that doesn’t hurt. I had some delicious pomegranate tea too, and I don’t even like pomegranates! Summary: they know what they’re doing when it comes to tea.
  9. Water – There’s nothing better than a city with a nice river… except for a city with an estuary and a strait AND a sea. You can take ferries like buses!
    On the water! On a boat!

    The estuary is coming in from the right, the Bosphorus Strait is on the left, and the Sea of Marmara is out in the distance
  10. History – Istanbul is an old and complicated place, and you can see it. There are old churches that were turned into mosques, palaces, the ruins of Roman aqueducts and city walls… the city oozes history.

I also quickly noticed that my chameleon suit worked very well there (that’s how I’ve started to think of my somewhat ethnically ambiguous appearance… often, it’s like I’m a chameleon that can kind of blend in, or at the very least can keep from standing out). I got a lot of, “You’re Turkish, right?” Thank you, chameleon suit. Which brings us to #11…

I got some Turkish ice cream which is very similar to Arabic ice cream (which I had when I was in Lebanon). It uses mastic (a resin) which helps to keep it from melting.
Also note my fake engagement ring. Hehe.
  1. Men – Aside from Ghana, this is probably the place where men have been the most forward on the street. In Armenia, other people had issues with this, but I walked around ignoring everyone, so I was generally left alone. I tried to apply my ignore strategy in Istanbul, and that just led to follow up questions about why I was ignoring them and promises that they were of good character (claims which, I would argue, were negated by the fact that they were disregarding my clear disinterest in talking to them). UGH. After about two days of it, I got so annoyed that I went and bought a fake engagement ring to wear when walking around alone. I don’t know if it made a difference, but at least it gave me a very easy “out” if someone tried talking to me, “Oh sorry, I have to go. I’m on my way to meet my husband.” I HATE having to use the “other man” shield because it’s a lie and saying “leave me alone” should be enough, but for sanity’s sake, there are some battles not worth fighting.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Get yourself excited for some history because next time, we’re going to learn alllll about just how much history Istanbul has.

I’ve already decided that I need to go back to Lebanon because there’s SO much more to see there (and because I had a great time hanging out with Badveli and Maria). I spent most of my time in Beirut, so I definitely have to go back to see the major sights that I didn’t get to outside of the city. Next time will be a cross-country tour… which sounds intense until you remember that it takes about 2 hours to drive across the country from west to east and maybe 6 from north to south.


Anyway, we did get out of the city a couple of times, and one of those adventures was to Byblos (Jbail in Arabic)! Byblos is a coastal city north of Beirut. “They” say it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. “They” seem to say that about a lot of cities though, so I’m a little hesitant to listen to anyone who tries to claim that title. People in Armenia say that about Yerevan too, but there are a TON of waaay older cities than Yerevan. I guess that when you say it’s “one of the oldest”, there isn’t a clear place to draw the line. Convenient. Well then, I’m one of the oldest people in the world. I’m one of the tallest humans. I’m one of the coolest people in the universe. These all could very well be true as long as you stretch your imagination a little bit.

View of the city to the north of the castle

Wow okay, I got a little carried away with that. Like I was saying, pre-rant, Byblos is old. That certainly can’t be argued… Back in the day, Byblos was a fishing village until it turned into an important Phoenician port, shipping out the famous Lebanon cedars and more. It was known for both that and for fantastic shipbuilding. The city grew very wealthy due to its trade with Egypt, and it was heavily influenced by Egyptian culture. It’s also one of the Phoenician cities that gets a few shout-outs in the Bible (though that’s not exactly a good thing because it’s usually when one of God’s prophets is foretelling judgment on the city that will lead to its destruction or something to that effect).

That water though…

As Tyre became more and more important, Byblos became less and less and started to decline. It had a resurgence under Babylonian and Roman rule until almost fading out completely during Muslim rule. During the brief upswing, they exported a lot of papyrus. For this reason, the Greek word for book, biblio, came from the city’s Greek name. And the word for Bible came from the Greek word for book… so the Bible is kind of named after Byblos. After the Muslim conquest of Byblos, they cared so little about the city that they didn’t even bother fixing the things that were destroyed during their invasion. Byblos was nearly forgotten until the 1860s when it was brought back into the picture by a French historian (Ernest Renan).

Today, Byblos is becoming a more and more popular tourist destination because of its beaches, history, and beautiful setting.

One of the restored “souk” streets in the city which basically just sells souvenirs and such now

The “modern” Christmas tree in Byblos. Hovig despised it. I thought it was kind of interesting.

Badveli asked one of his car-owning friends, Hovig, if he could drive us there, and thankfully he said yes. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Hovig has the same *brilliant* sense of humor as Badveli and I do, so all it took was a few corny jokes before it felt like we were old friends.

We went to the Crusader castle in the city, and I absolutely loved it. The castle was built in the 12th century by… you guessed it, the Crusaders. Besides the castle, there are also extensive ruins on the grounds. You can see the foundations of temples and dwellings and fortifications, and the actual castle has been restored to give you a better idea of what it was like in its former glory. It’s pretty cool because there are ruins from practically every part of Lebanon’s history… prehistoric dwellings, the Phoenician necropolis, Egyptian temples, Persian fortress, a Roman amphitheater, and more. The site is right on the coast, so there’s a beautiful view of the sea which is made even better by the fact that you can go all the way to the top of the castle to see it. I kept marveling at how pretty and blue the water is… and Badveli and Hovig responded by saying how gross and dirty it is because trash and stuff get dumped into it. Well excuuuuse me. I didn’t say it looked clean (though from afar it looked fine), I just said it looked pretty.

Entrance to the castle

Can you see me?
Me, Badveli, and Hovig on top of the castle

Badveli took over as the official “Lara in holes” photographer during the trip. Can you find me?We were at the castle until closing when a guy started aggressively blowing a whistle to get people to leave. I, of course at that very moment, was poking around a building on the site that I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be poking around. (My recent approach to sightseeing has been “do what you want until someone yells at you” because so often, things that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in the US are totally okay in other countries. If you limit yourself to the things you think would/should be allowed, you’ll probably miss out on something.) Since you get super jumpy when you think you’re doing something wrong (or at least I do), the instant the whistle started blowing, I was sure that it was someone whistling at me for being somewhere I shouldn’t be. I’ve been to places (I can’t remember exactly where… Machu Picchu maybe?) where that’s the how the guards get your attention. I kind of spazzed and ran to what I deemed a more acceptable location before realizing that he wasn’t whistling at me. And of course, Badveli and Hovig laughed at me the entire time (to be fair, I deserved to be laughed at). Apparently not having learned my lesson about trying to look semi-normal, I then ran around like a lunatic, trying to see the couple of things we hadn’t gotten to yet before the whistle man kicked us out.

Poke poke poking around… this is just moments pre-whistle and spaz attack.
The castle from my illegal (but not actually) stop on the steps of that building
Egyptian obelisk temple that was relocated to this site to conserve it
Weird flower field
Looking south

We used the last hour or so of daylight to walk down to the harbor where Hovig was a helpful tour guide by showing me where you can see trash floating in the water. I chose to ignore it, not because I think it’s fine that the water is gross, but because I wanted to enjoy the illusion that the water was blue and pure and that humans weren’t doing what they do best and ruining nature.

Despite the garbage, it really was beautiful. There were some very nice rocks, and the sun was starting to set. Boats bobbed around in the harbor, surrounded by picturesque buildings. The air was that perfect, comfortable temperature, and a breeze was coming off the sea. We stayed there for a bit, me soaking in the beauty of the moment, Hovig looking in disgust at the dirty water, and Badveli most likely making a fantastic(ly bad) joke (Badveli – by bad I obviously mean good… but if not good, definitely funny… or at least cringe-worthy).

The harbor
Admiring the *clean* water

Okay, quiz time. What’s the best way to make a great day into a phenomenal day? The answer is ice cream. Always ice cream. On the ride back to Beirut, we stopped and got Arabic ice cream which is different because it uses flour made from orchids that helps keep it from melting and mastic tree resin to help stabilize it (whatever that all means). I’ll be honest, if you didn’t tell me that it wasn’t normal ice cream, I never would have known. It was delicious. We were supposed to just stop to pick up a container to bring back with us, but we obviously ate some there also (unless Maria is reading this… then that didn’t happen and we just did what we were told because we’re very good at following directions). Then, I ended up eating ice cream TWICE, and that’s how you make a phenomenal day into a historic day that will be remembered forever.

If you remember anything from my blog, let it be this: Ice cream makes everything better.

Chocolate and vanilla because I’m boring

I survived my first work week!! Woo! I know, not that impressive considering it was only one day, but let me have this little celebration anyway. Week #2 is definitely going to be much more challenging, so I’m building up my confidence in preparation for that.

A picture from our afternoon run

Debbie and I planned to go for a run this morning, but our plans had to be postponed when we woke up to rain. Everyone was confused because apparently rain isn’t common here during the summer, and when it does rain, it’s usually more of a mist rather than raindrops. Well, it was definitely raindrops this morning. This is what happens when I try to run… I think that means it’s not meant to be.

Instead, I spent some time getting mentally organized. I made a list of what I want to do each day (go for a run, practice Spanish, read my Bible, write in my journal, etc) and then tried to translate that into a rough schedule so that I can plan my time better. I always run into trouble with trying to pack too much into one day, and often the things that are most important end up getting pushed out because I’m too busy wasting time. I’m turning over a new leaf though! No more time wasting for me!

Feel free to marvel at my Spanish skills. I couldn’t find anything that was exactly what I wanted in English OR Spanish, so I decided to make my own (and swiped some graphics from the Crayola page linked to the left for the sake of time). Those street names though, those are all mine. Bear Avenue? Genius.

Debbie and I met again in the afternoon to try to make a more detailed plan for the first day of classes. We’re going to do some activities with the kids that are focused on maps, discussing what maps show and how to use them. I made a worksheet for the 7-9 year old class (C3) (with some help from THIS Crayola coloring page), and Debbie cleaned up a plan of the compound to do a navigating activity outside with the 10-12 year old class (C4). I’m feeling good about the first class now, so we’re 1/15 of the way there!

We all ended up going for an afternoon run before the sun set. To sum it up in one word: ugh. But we went! That’s accomplishment enough for me. We’re going to try to run 3-4 times a week, and I know that after 2 weeks I’m going to feel exponentially better. It’s that knowledge that will keep me going, but it doesn’t make getting there any easier.

Here’s Chilca, near the coast, south of Lima. We’re located a little bit north of Chilca.
A Catholic church in Chilca that’s located right off of the main square.

For dinner, Debbie, Julie, Eddy (one of the local staff members), his daughter, Dasha, and I went into downtown Chilca. We went to this place that serves “pollo a la brasa” or roast chicken cooked on a rotating spit (basically a rotisserie chicken). It’s considered a typical Peruvian dish and is often accompanied with fries. There are also some sauces involved that vary depending on where you get it (mayonnaise is typical, plus some hot pepper sauce). My picky eater self was happy that the meal wasn’t much of a stretch for my food habits. I did try the sauces though… and decided to stick with the Peruvian “ketchup”. The quotes are required because no one does ketchup like the USA. The stuff here is similar what they had in Ghana. It tastes okay but is just not quite right… It’s too thin, and there’s something about the flavor that’s off.

Look at this place! So trendy. Not shown: the nonexistent 4th wall because when you have bearable weather year-round, you can do things like that.

After dinner, we roamed the streets of the downtown. In general, being here doesn’t feel like as much of a stretch as being in Ghana did. At times, I can even fool myself into feeling like I’m still in the USA… and then someone talks to me, I have no idea what they’re saying, and I remember where I actually am. We went to this new ice cream place (VERY new – they’ve been open for one day!) in town that seriously looks like it could be in the middle of a city at home. Feeling sufficiently stuffed, we loaded back into the Esperanza de Ana van and headed back to the suburbs.

Tomorrow, we’re going into Lima for church. It’ll be my first time seeing the city in the light, and I’m excited! Now I just need to figure out how to fall asleep… Our neighbor is having a party and the music is incredibly loud. Don’t they know that their old person neighbors are trying to go to sleep at 10:30PM on a Saturday?