1001 Istanbul Nights

Over the bridge to Beyoglu. "You want to go/to the city and the bright lights" -Tiesto

Over the bridge to Beyoglu. "You wanna go. To the city and the bright lights" -Tiesto

After a somewhat disappointing first night out, we tried a new neighborhood. It didn’t take long to discover the Beyoğlu district just across the Golden Horn. This area around Taksim Square is packed day and night with locals, tourists and expats all looking for a good time. With countless rooftop bars and basement clubs lining Istiklal Avenue, it was not surprising that we opted to return here and explore night after night. Here are a few of my highlights:

Araf: The main feature of this club is the band that plays live music all night, every night of the week. The genre of music is difficult to categorize. I would call it Turkish folk/bluegrass with a danceable edge. Whatever it was, it had all kinds of people up and dancing. I managed to set a bar stool in the middle of the floor and participate. This place is popular with foreigners, mostly because it was written up in Lonely Planet. I had great conversations with one guy from Scotland and another from San Francisco, as well a girl from Hungary. Drinks were a bit overpriced, but well worth it for great free musical entertainment.

The gypsy band at Araf

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No Mosque in the Wild

Istanbul at the crossing between Europe and Asia.

I’ve finally made it to Istanbul and, as promised, this city is certainly one of the most beautiful and amazing places I’ve ever seen. Based on the landscape alone, it is easy to understand why Istanbul formed the core of several great civilizations throughout history. Endless container ships along the Bosporus at all hours of day or night make Istanbul  the heart of the world pumping the lifeblood of commerce to the far-flung extremities of civilization. This country’s palpable youth and energy manifests itself in a culture of hyper-nationalism and overheated economic growth. As the city hurdles into the future with high-rises and highways, Istanbul’s awe-inspiring monuments to its Greco-Roman and Ottoman past serve as a preview of its limitless potential.

I’ll write three separate posts later about my three obsessions: one about my impressions of Turkey’s political-economy (for those who share my IR nerd enthusiasm), another about Turkish food (which is excellent), and a final one about the music/nightlife scene (rage). But for now I’ll move on to the fun, touristy stuff:

Our first stop was the Noah’s Ark hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, which would serve as our home base for 10 days. A group of four boys and four girls, we occupied a substantial portion of this small hotel. Overall, I would definitely recommend Noah’s Ark to anyone looking for a hotel in Istanbul. The owner, Ali, was friendly and his staff helpful and competent. The best part of Noah’s Ark is its prime location. Even on crutches, the hotel was a perfectly manageable walking distance from the major attractions of the old city. Like many buildings in Istanbul, the hotel features a rooftop terrace where we enjoyed breakfasts with a view of the Hagia Sofia.

The first night out, we decided to look for a bar to unwind after a day of traveling. We stumbled upon a small place tucked into the side of some ancient stone building that featured the decor of a 16th century Ottoman opium den. A waitress gave us menus for food and Nargile (Hookah).

“Can we see the menu with alcohol?” a member of the group asked.

“We don’t have alcohol,” the waitress responded with an impatient look that suggested that we were not the first group of stupid American tourists to make that mistake today. So we sat to enjoy bottled water and bond over the absurdity of having flown to the other side of the world at age 20 only to be denied alcohol one last time.

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Out from Under the Knife in Istanbul

At a population of 13 million people, Istanbul is the third largest and least handicapped-accessible city in Europe.

My apologies for the tardiness of this update. Unforeseen medical circumstances very nearly derailed my entire semester and it has been a harrowing couple of days trying to salvage the situation. However, everything is fine now and doctors have assured me that it is safe to resume blogging.

Despite my total wheelchair-confined helplessness, the flight from Madrid was relatively easy. Turkish Airlines’ safety video featured the goofy antics of Manchester United, which meant that it was the first time I’d ever actually watched the safety video on a plane. The airline was also aggressively pushing for the  export of Turkish hazelnuts through advertising and unlimited free hazelnuts and hazelnut-based candy. However the highlight of my flight, and of my crippledom thus far, occurred when, instead of the usual poverty parade past the condescending glare of  the first-class passengers, I got to roll right over their toes and board the plane first.

The people of Istanbul have been uncharacteristically patient and accommodating with my injury. Passing shop owners on the streets will often greet me with a “Hi friend, what happened to your leg? I give you big discount!” Sometimes cars will even stop if I am in the crosswalk, a courtesy never extended to pedestrians with multiple remaining legs.

I went to get a follow up x-ray at the American Hospital, followed by an MRI, which looked like this:

See that part where there's chunks of bone, that's supposed to be one bone.

After seeing this image, the orthopedic surgeon recommended that I return to the US for surgery immediately. This would be followed by 3 months of recovery, and obviously no more semester abroad.

When faced with devastatingly bad news, I’ve always found that denial is the most effective response. I decided to seek a second opinion from another doctor. Looking at the same images, this second orthopedist came to a completely different conclusion. My ankle could be healed without surgery, in fact I might be able to walk again within a month. Best of all, I could stay in Turkey!

Now I had to make a difficult, potentially life-altering medical decision. Naturally, my solution was to crowdsource:

Everything is so beautifully simple on #Twitter.

Throughout my life, I’ve always opted for the improvement of my mind, even at the expense of my body. This has never been more true than today. My decision may have serious medical consequences for the future, but I know I could never forgive myself for sacrificing my study-abroad experience out of physical weakness.

Next post coming soon. I promise I’ll stop whining about my leg and show you all the fun, awesome stuff I’ve been doing here!

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Flying too Close to the Spanish Sun

I lied, I am not yet in Istanbul. Instead I am writing to you from my hospital bed in beautiful San Sebastián in the north of Spain. I decided that in order to fully appreciate the academic endeavor of studying the Eastern Mediterranean I needed to begin with research on the culture and political-economy of the Western Mediterranean as a point of comparison. Just kidding, I’m on vacation and I injured myself, but more on that later.

For you non-SFSers, this is Spain, which is in Europe. Not to be confused with Mexico


Our first stop was in Madrid, where my father and I tried to emulate the lifestyle of Ernest Hemingway, only to pass out from jetlag on the first bottle of Rioja.

Don Ernesto at Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world

The first morning in Madrid, we went to El Rastro, the largest open-air market in Europe. In little stalls, the locals sold everything from clothing and sunglasses to electrical appliances and car parts.

El Rastro Market

Our arrival in Madrid also coincided with Catholic World Youth Day. As far as I could tell WYD is just a giant hippie festival but with the Pope instead of Jimi Hendrix and the father, son and holy ghost taking the place of cannabis, LSD and mushrooms. Honestly the Youths seemed to be having a better time than me. If I were to be reincarnated as a Catholic I would definitely be there.

World Youth Day

Not everyone in Spain was thrilled with the Papal visit. At a time when the Spanish government cannot pay its debts, the hundred million euro Papal visit did strike me as a wasteful excess. In the face of a massive debt crisis and crippling austerity measures, Spain’s political system is under a great deal of stress.

As an IPOL (International Politics) nerd, I was intrigued to witness first-hand the political polarization and the rise of the far-right that is taking place across Europe. At approximately 40% unemployment, Spain’s youth have become thoroughly disillusioned with the government and are gravitating towards extremist movements.

Swastika graffiti marks the rise of the European right; crossing them out marks the half-assed response of the European left

Oh and I also saw some churches and art and stuff.

Toledo and Castilla y León 

From Madrid we headed first to Toledo for a day trip. Famously the home of Miguel de Cervantes, author of the novel Don Quixote. Toledo was also a center of Spain’s Sephardic Jewish population before the Jews were expelled in 1492. The only remaining synagogue is now apparently staffed by nuns who try to convert anyone who looks like they might be a jew.

Translation: we will force feed you bacon until you submit

The next day, we rented a car and drove to Segovia. This town is famous for its perfectly preserved Roman aqueduct and a full-scale copy of Cinderella’s Disney Princess castle from Disneyland in California, which was given by Walt Disney to the Spanish government as a reward for expelling the jews (#notintendedtobeafactualstatement).

Cinderella's castle

Later that night, we arrived in León. For accommodations, we stayed in a 16th century monastery. This hotel was part of the Parador chain of hotels, a chain owned and operated by the Spanish government, which are also famously the setting for Ron Paul’s worst nightmares.

It's a Don Quixote reference (I love when google images does my work for me).

Asturias and Cantabria 

Yay more maps. León to Ovideo to Santillana del Mar

Pouring the Sidra in Ovideo.

Our next stop was in Oviedo where we enjoyed a lunch served by the most stressed out waitstaff in the world. Despite their incessant drinking and chain smoking, the waiters at this restaurant did display an element of charming local culture that redeemed the whole experience. Sidra, Spanish for cider, is a specialty of the Asturias region. In order to bring out the carbonation in the cider, the waiters would pour the cider from over their heads and into the glass below.

Moving on, we arrived at Santillana del Mar, also known as the “Town of Three Lies.” According to Wikipedia, the town is deceptively named:

since it is neither a Saint (Santo), nor flat (llana) and has no sea (Mar) as implied by the town’s name. However, the name actually derives from Santa Julliana

As it turns out, in a very tangential connection to the rest of this blog, Santa Julliana was killed in Turkey!

Pais Vascó (Basque Country)

After 2 more nights at another Parador (Ayn Rand is rolling over in her grave, (she’s dead right?)) we departed for Basque Country. Our first stop was in Bilbao, home of the famous Guggenheim museum. This may not be the most original travel insight you’ve ever heard, but definitely see it if you get the chance.

Here's me in front of the Guggenheim and looking all sexy with 2 functional legs.

Based on my fairly limited knowledge of the subject, I find myself generally sympathetic to the Basque separatist cause. This was especially true after I learned out about the bombing of Guernica, which inspired the famous Picasso painting. Which, by the way, I saw at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid:

Hitler was kind of an asshole; so was Franco in case you weren't aware

My final stop is here in San Sebastián. In this magnificent seaside resort, where everyone thankfully speaks French and I can tell what’s going on, my story comes to its tragic climax. However, I would first like to talk about food. San Sebastián also known as Donostia, is famous for its cuisine. Here are some cell phone camera pictures of food:

Lemon sorbet blended with champagne, probably the most delicious non-meat thing I've ever tasted.

Merluza a la Vasca, a traditional Basque dish.

This is what the mini-bar looks like in heaven. (Sorry those were actually just pics of alcohol not food)

Finally, I will describe yesterday morning’s incidents in graphic detail. Around 10am I went for a surfing lesson at Playa  la Zurriola, supposedly the best surf location in Europe. The last time I went surfing, I was 9-years-old. As far as I’m concerned, and as people who know me well will confirm, having done something once 12 years ago pretty much qualifies me as an expert in my mind.

On the first wave, I stood up and confidently rode into shore. My ego massively inflated by this initial success, I went back for round 2. As soon as I stood up on the surfboard, I lost my balance and fell toes first into my right foot. Simultaneously, the wave carried the surfboard further out, wrapping the safety cord around my ankle and pulling violently as the wave crested.

An artist's rendering of the moment before the accident.

“Probably God’s punishment for me making fun of the catholics earlier” I mused to myself as I screamed in agony face down in the shallows. If you’re  more of a visual learner, I believe there is a video on YouTube of the entire incident, complete with my family laughing hysterically in the background. I’ll post a link later.

With the help of some lifeguards, taxi drivers, and my dad, I made it to a clinic and then the hospital. The excellent doctors at Hospital Donostia confirmed that I had a fracture of the right fibula and promptly treated and discharged me. I’ll refrain from here launching into polemics on the superiority of single-payer healthcare except to say that It is my sincere hope that, one day, my tax dollars go to pay for the healthcare of some stupid Spanish tourist who injures himself surfing on Cape Cod.

Good times

I leave for Istanbul on Thursday, where I will continue medical treatment and to hobble my way through the city sites. Of course I’ll be blogging all the excitement right here so stay tuned for my next post from Istanbul, Turkey!

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Preparations and Expectations

Welcome to the travel blog of my international adventures in the fall of 2011. I will be spending roughly four months traveling around Turkey, based out of the McGhee Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies in Alanya (highlighted in white on the map).

In less than a month, I arrive in Istanbul. Armed with knowledge from travel books, novels, and conversations with friends, I have some idea of what to expect. The purpose of this blog is primarily to keep everyone in my life up to date on my adventures, but also to add a bit of my own commentary and sense of humor to the world as I experience it. I recall reading somewhere that “keeping a study-abroad blog is really easy because you’ll only have to write three entries, then get bored and forget about it.” Hopefully this blogging attempt will prove more successful. (For basic questions like “where is Turkey?” please see FAQs)

Why Turkey?

Probably the most frequent question I get when explaining my travel plans. Aside from the obvious “who wouldn’t want to spend 4 months in a villa on the Mediterranean?” I have a several legitimate reasons.

  • Turkey is the bridge between Europe and Asia. As someone of mixed Asian-European heritage, I am perpetually engaged in exploring and contemplating the links between east and west that forge the fabric of my identity.
  • I want to be in the Middle East during such an historic and exciting time, but I also don’t want to have to evacuate half-way through the semester. Turkey offers the perfect balance of exposure to Middle Eastern culture and Western amenities and stability.
  • Turkey is the future. The country had the highest economic growth in the world for the beginning of this year, and it is on track to keep growing even while powerhouse industrializing like China and India have faltered.
  • Much as I would have enjoyed a semester of “partying abroad” somewhere in Western Europe, I wanted a real personal and academic challenge.

Classes: At the McGhee Center, I plan to take the following classes:

  • Issues in International Migration: Turkey and the European Union
  • The Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey
  • The Eastern Mediterranean Since 1911
  • Turkey’s Relations with the European Union

I’ll also be taking a class in Turkish language and I’ve been trying to get a little head start:

Crash course in Turkish language

Textbooks on my Kindle

Tentative Schedule:




September 1: Istanbul

September 4: Bursa

September 10: Edirne

September 12: Ankara

September 15: Alanya

September 23: Yayla

September 30: Konya

October 6: Antalya

November 17: Cyprus

I also have a week-long break at the beginning of November, so if you have travel suggestions or if you are in the region and would like to meet up, let me know!

My next entry will be from Istanbul!

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