Turkey

I never expected to be able visit Turkey. Although everyone I knew that had been loved it, they all said how they thought it was too inaccessible for me. You see, I can’t walk much because of my disabilities, and generally use a wheelchair scooter to get around if we don’t have our car handy. I have travel with disabilities down to a science – I do my research, rent a car (or drive our own), figure it out, adjust my day. So how could I travel to Turkey, where the buildings are so ancient that accessibility isn’t really an option? I saw photos, I heard stories and travel tales, I tasted fresh Turkish delight and made gozleme. I hung evil eyes (gifts from loved ones), and read voraciously. Turkey? It was my Mt. Everest.

And then.

Turkish Airlines asked the most influential travel bloggers (including yours truly) from the White House Travel Bloggers Summit to visit Turkey. I asked if they could help make it accessible. Gizem Salcigi White of Turkish Airlines worked hard to make it so – she arranged for a wheelchair for me and found some university students, Sezer and Kadir, to help me get around Istanbul. YES!! I was so excited – I could visit a place that I dearly wanted to explore, but never thought I could. Having disabilities can be difficult, especially for travel. Venice? Probably not an option. Turkey? NOW an option!

The two guys that helped make Istanbul accessible to me.

Kadir and Sezer, two university students that helped make Istanbul accessible to me. 

And so I went – flying from Chicago to Istanbul was effortless. Airport handicap access is not the same the world over, but I had no issues. In fact, in Turkey, Turkish Air has these amazing trucks that lift up to the plane and then drop down and take you to the airport – all in your wheelchair. Genius.

At first, handicap accessibility was easy. I can do up to a flight of steps, so walking a few steps up into the bus that took us into Istanbul was no problem. Our hotel (the Renaissance Bosphorus) was completely accessible. I began to wonder if I had made much ado about nothing.

Cruising on the Bosphorus.

Aboard a cruise on the Bosphorus

Once in Istanbul, all of the travel writers split into groups and then went out to discover different aspects of the city. My trusty wheelchair was stowed in the back of the bus, and my university friends were ready and handy. We went to the Turkish Airlines campus, exploring training for the airline (including heading inside an enormous flight simulator), and the HUGE hangars in which airplanes are repaired. Mostly accessible, thanks to my wheelchair and Sezer and Kadir.

At the Turkish Airlines training center, Istanbul.

At the Turkish Airlines training center

Visiting the Blue Mosque gave me a glimpse into accessibility and ancient buildings. The wheelchair could only go so far – the rest I had to walk. I held tightly onto Kadir’s arm as I climbed the steps into the Blue Mosque, wandered around inside on the soft carpets, and then headed out again, in a daze from the beauty and history of it. Sezer had taken the chair back around to the entrance and was waiting for me.

Steps into the Blue Mosque.

Steps into the Blue Mosque

Heading into the Blue Mosque.

Heading into the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul.

Inside the Blue Mosque with Kadir

A visit to the Hagia Sofia… same thing. You can’t really make millennia-old buildings accessible, although there are some concessions (a shorter line to get in, sort of ramps to get over the door steps). I felt a bit stymied (and in a great deal of pain), but enjoyed the time with my new friends, who pushed without complaint and sought new ways to show me parts of these gorgeous buildings. We laughed, explored, and figured it out as best we could. In the back of my mind, I was becoming more and more stressed about actually seeing anything in Istanbul. It’s too ancient, too inaccessible, too crowded.

crazy sidewalks in Istanbul.

Crazy sidewalks in Istanbul – these ancient marble slates were the GOOD sidewalks!

And then it truly became more difficult. Crowds. Traffic. Steep, winding cobblestone roads. I sat in my wheelchair for a long time while my fellow travel writers went down a hill to an incredible arts museum and learned to do traditional Turkish marble painting. It was hot, and I looked at the wares for sale across the street, eyed some of the many Istanbul cats roaming the streets, people watched, and started to feel sorry for myself. It isn’t fun to wait, in the sun, while you’d rather be doing something else and you feel your disabilities acutely. Tears may or may not have entered the picture. 

getting into ancient buildings in Istanbul.

getting into ancient buildings in Istanbul.

Watching cats in Istanbul

Watching cats in Istanbul

The long steep pathway to a traditional crafts museum in Istanbul.

The long steep pathway to a traditional crafts museum in Istanbul – you can’t even see the door from here

And then Sezer left the museum and came up to keep me company. He showed me photos – of his friends, his beautiful mother, his home. I learned that many Istanbulites escape the city as often as they can, to go home to relax and visit family. I learned that family is extremely important in Turkish culture. I learned about what life is like for a university student in Istanbul, far from home (in Sezer’s case, beautiful Antalya). We laughed, played word games, shared stories, and sat in the sun together, enjoying each other’s company. All of a sudden, being in a wheelchair wasn’t so horrible. I was having a great time, instead of missing things I’d wanted to see and experience.

It dawned on me…that instead of seeing the sights of Istanbul (or sitting outside of the sights of Istanbul, if they were too ancient), I was here to learn about the people of Istanbul. That instead of wandering through millennia of history, I could find glimpses of now. Instead of learning about a building (i.e., Topkapi Palace – extraordinarily beautiful, but NOT accessible), I could learn about a person, family, culture. If you know me, you know I love to talk with and learn about people. Why didn’t I realize this earlier, instead of being sad about not seeing the main attractions? The change in me was immediate.

I sparked with joy.

Instead of a tour of Istanbul, I was on a people tour. Here’s how it went…

We next headed down an extremely rough cobblestone street and down a hill (one thing that Sezer and Kadir did was pretend to be Fast and Furious drivers. I didn’t fear for my life, much, but it was a great deal of fun once I got over being scared. Istanbul is hilly!). My travel writer friends headed into a beautiful pottery shop, and learned about making traditional Turkish pottery. I climbed the few steps in, and then waited while our group went downstairs to see traditional moonstone pottery. I found a newspaper with a new kind of game, like Sudoku (with famous people!), and chatted with a local. Learning about Turkish culture and talking with people? CHECK.

The next day, we visited Topkapi Palace. While some of Topkapi is somewhat accessible, most of it isn’t. For me, there was a long, restful period of time sitting around the fountain inside the grounds – peaceful and relaxing. I talked with the guys, with fellow tourists, with girls duckfacing for selfies. We then had lunch at the amazing Istanbul360, known for its views.

At Istanbul 360

At Istanbul 360 – what a view!

Afterward, instead of heading off to explore and photograph Taksim, Galata, and other famous areas of Istanbul, Kadir and Sezer played Fast and Furious again, taking me down a very (very!) steep street (yes, some walking was involved, as the wheelchair would never have made it all the way on the street and sidewalk).

Sidewalks in Istanbul.

Sidewalks in Istanbul. Yes, we headed down this steep road in a wheelchair…

The steep road down to the lemonade cafe.

The steep road down to the lemonade cafe.

Down, down, down the hill in Istanbul.

Down, down, down the hill in Istanbul

Destination? A lovely lemonade café, with a side journey to a bookstore (it’s the academic in me, I can’t pass one without going in) and an art supply store to pick up a notebook for our daughter.

a bookstore in Istanbul

An academic can always find a bookstore or two…

Bookstore in Istanbul

We made it to the lemonade café… and I discovered an entirely local, completely beautiful aspect of Istanbul I never knew existed. Shady trees in between the tall buildings, people playing chess, a professor holding forth to his class at the next table, couples on dates, groups of friends. THIS is also the real Istanbul, as much as the tourist attractions are. We ordered crisp, tart lemonades, and talked school mascots, friends, family, what they were studying in university, and more. We whiled away a few hours, and I thought: today, I discovered a tree in a bathroom, a secret garden, new friends with a wicked sense of humor, and a slice of life in Istanbul. It was glorious.

At the lemonade cafe in Istanbul

Kadir, Sezer, and I sipping lemonade

Look what message I saw on the board at the lemonade cafe in Istanbul!

Look what message I saw on the board at the lemonade cafe in Istanbul!

At the lemonade cafe, Istanbul.

At the lemonade cafe – what an oasis of calm! 

At the lemonade cafe, Istanbul

At the lemonade cafe, Istanbul.

A simple change in perspective can truly change your journey.

 

Evil eyes in Turkey

When our group went to the Spice Market, I was told that it was not accessible. Sezer and I rolled across the empty square, seeing a wedding party and a very smart way to handle the great amounts of trash in Istanbul (hint: it looks like a TARDIS). While I didn’t see the spices inside the market, I did see men on tiny stools having coffee, discussed trash with the trash guy, bought plenty of Turkish delight, discovered and discussed how many Syrian refugees are living in Istanbul, and had freshly roasted corn on the cob with Sezer, who loves old cars and showed me one of his favorites, parked near to where we munched on our corn. It was a different side of Istanbul than I’d expected to discover – one where you see real life, not just tourist stuff.

Turkish delight in Istanbul.

Turkish delight in Istanbul

An open square near the Spice Market, Istanbul

An open square near the Spice Market

Happy wedding! Istanbul

Lovely wedding couple 

TARDIS trash machine in Istanbul

The TARDIS-like underground trash containers in Istanbul

Sezer and I with fresh roasted corn in Istanbul

Sezer and I with fresh roasted corn

Vintage cars in Istanbul

Vintage cars in Istanbul

Sezer is a cowboy, a James Dean, a renegade who will go far, but whose thoughts are never far from his home in Antalya. Kadir? He’s a sensitive, thoughtful guy, very smart and talented (he can bowl backward!), with a strong grip that helped me up many a staircase and a ready smile to encourage me.

Sezer and I in Istanbul.

Sezer and I

Kadir in the Hagia Sofia

Kadir in the Hagia Sofia

My fellow travel writer friends helped when I needed it, lent arms and shoulders, and gave hugs. A loving and friendly face in a stressful situation is a wonderful thing – even better when you are longtime friends and colleagues. Like when you’re an expat and you find a box of Cheerios and your heart gives a leap? Yes. My friends made my heart happy, with their care and love.

My people tour of Turkey didn’t end in Istanbul.

When we flew to Izmir and Kusadasi, to visit Ephesus, the House of the Mother Mary, and the Basilica of St. John (and later, Pamukkale), I spent most of my waiting time with Can (pronounced John), a funny guy with a wry smile and a very caring nature. I hacked his internet while we waited atop Pamukkale (because I am addicted to Instagram and wanted to share it); laughed at signs at the marketplace at the end of visiting Ephesus; learned of his job in tourism and how he tries to help travelers with disabilities.

Can and I in Sirince

Can and I in Sirince

Laughing at Ephesus

Laughing at Ephesus. No genuine fake watches were bought.

Handicap gate to Pamukkale

Handicap gate to Pamukkale

A lovely table atop Pamukkale, where we rested in the shade

A lovely table atop Pamukkale, where we rested in the shade and instagrammed the heck out of the lovely area

When I waited outside of the ruins of the Basilica of St. John, I sat and talked with a man and his father – they ran the gift shop directly across the street. I learned that they each practice Islam very differently, but that understanding goes across generations, and is humble and kind.

new friends near the ruins of the Basilica of St John, Turkey

New friends

While I waited in Sirince, after a glorious lunch at Sirince Artemis, I talked with the woman who ran the beverage shop. She was surprised when I asked for a cold hot chocolate and then made me one after we figured out the language difficulties, and then she made fresh hot donuts for me (I think she wanted me to have something hot that day).

Fresh donuts in Sirince, Turkey

Fresh donuts for me! Thank you!

We visited a local cooperative and learned about traditional Turkish rug weaving. While our group climbed the stairs to see the amazing showroom and museum, I sat in the main weaving room under a tinted portrait of Ataturk, watching the women and girls weave in peace, chatting softly amongst themselves and showing far greater skill and talent than I had ever imagined.

Ataturk

Weaving course in Turkey

Weaving Turkish carpets

I rested and watched her artistry

When we stayed at the Hotel Kismet in Kusadasi, one of the staff very kindly took me down the hill in a golf cart, so I could swim in the Aegean as often as I could. For a mermaid such as I, this was more than welcome – it was life-giving and soul-nourishing. I know he was busy, and I appreciated his efforts.

Catching a golf cart ride down to the Aegean at the Hotel Kismet, Kusadasi.

See how happy I am? BIG THANKS to this kind man for helping me to get to the sea!

When my friends boarded the Turkish Airlines flight back to Istanbul the regular way (walking across the tarmac, climbing the stairs), I talked with the guy who ran those genius accessible boarding trucks, learning about how things work at smaller airports – and who solicitously made sure I got to my seat ok.

Accessible airports in Turkey

I love seeing signs like this! It means WAY less pain for me.

Loading trucks for accessible travel with Turkish airlines

Loading truck for people with disabilities. You go on the back gate in your wheelchair, it rises up to the top. You drive to the airplane, and then get right up next to the plane. Voila – VERY accessible boarding! Thank you, Turkish Airlines.

Did I miss seeing the attractions? Yes. But I learned so much more about Turkey than I realized – about the people who live there and care about their country, who pine for their homes while they are in the city, and who daily practice kindness and generosity to strangers. While some ancient structures may be inaccessible, people with disabilities can definitely visit Turkey – if they change their mindset on how to experience place, as I did. You won’t be able to see everything, but you will be able to experience more than you ever thought possible.

Me and my shadow- accessible Turkey

Can and I and our shadows on some pretty flat marble in Pamukkale

 

And the famous Turkish hospitality? It runs more deeply than I could have imagined, and made me fall in love with this venerable culture and country, which welcomed me with open arms.

 

Accessible Istanbul.

#WidenYourWorld - accessible travel in Turkey

#WidenYourWorld – accessible travel in Turkey is possible!

 

 

Note: This article was originally published at Wandering Educators.

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Back in 2000 when I first lived in Istanbul, most of my foreign female friends were blonde. Whenever we met for coffee they would regale me with stories of being followed by strange men and touched intimately and inappropriately on the shoulder or the backside. Perhaps I was more prejudiced than I realised or simply naive, but at the time I felt they were exaggerating. Some of them went on about it so often I wondered if they secretly liked the attention, as by their accounts it was so much more than they received back home.

Two years later, after a confusing day when it seemed like the whole male population was winking at me as I ploughed through the crowded alleyways of Eminönü and Tahtakale in search of smuggled tobacco, I had to rethink my assumptions. It was late December and I was well rugged up in a long black coat with my hair back in a neat pony tail that showed off the black beret I’ve worn every winter since I was sixteen. The tobacco men were situated in a tiny, almost hidden laneway I called Porn Alley. It was where smuggled tobacco was sold alongside pornography, perfumes, condoms, vitamins and elaborately displayed packets of Viagra. Few if any women frequented the area but I was with my husband so I wasn’t worried the men would do anything more than just look.

However I was really puzzled, so I told my Turkish friends what had happened. I learned that in those days, young Russian women were turning up in Istanbul with a single suitcase full of items to sell. With the money they made they planned to return home with the same suitcase, full of money and Turkish goods to re-sell. Sadly many were unsuccessful and had to turn to other methods to survive. My friends told me told me these women, known locally as ‘Natashas’, would mingle with the crowds trying to catch men’s eyes. If a ‘Natasha’ winked at a man it meant she was ready to do business. Wearing a beret somehow signalled to the passing men that I was one such woman, despite my marked Anglo Saxon appearance.

Even without the beret I am marked as a foreigner. For me it’s normal to go out on my own but Turks travel in pairs or groups unless it absolutely can’t be helped. Being on one’s own is a marker of foreignness that makes you rethink your ideas on a lot of things. Such as what constitutes a ‘short skirt’ in Turkey? When I lived in Kayseri I stopped wearing knee length skirts altogether because there they were considered practically indecent. Back home it’s not uncommon for girls to wear skirts so short they’re little more than belts designed to display as much as is possible and then some. And again, after years of living in Turkey and being told how ‘brave’ I was to go out with wet hair I no longer do so because I’ve learned everyone will think I’ve just had sex. I no longer so readily make eye contact and am selective in whom I ask for help.

Change comes so gradually that you often don’t realise how much you don’t let yourself do as a woman in order to have a hassle free life. At a lunch with a foreigner newly resident in Istanbul, it came to me how much I now take for granted that I would not so easily accept in my own country.

The fact is whatever you do to change, sometimes it doesn’t matter. You will always be a yabancı woman, a foreigner, and therefore the object of unwanted attention from certain types of men. And believe me, age, theirs or yours, is no protection. This came home to me when I was at my local hospital waiting to have a tomography. I was in the emergency section and in a lot of pain from mysterious stomach cramps. No one was at the desk of the department and all I did was politely ask the only other patient there if he knew when the receptionist would come back. Five minutes later he was telling me my beautiful blue eyes reminded him of the waves in the sea. After he had his test done he waited for me to exit the hospital. When I spotted him loitering in the carpark I wheeled around and went in search of the toilets. I decided if he as still hanging about when I came back out I’d find a security guard and say the man was a sapık, a pervert. When I was a teenager my mother told me the toilets were the one place a man wouldn’t follow me, and luckily this proved to be true, even in Turkey.

About the Author: Lisa Morrow is a sociologist, English teacher and writer. After many years travelling back and forth from Australia to Turkey, she decided to make Istanbul her home five years ago. She now writes stories about Istanbul so that others can better understand this place she loves.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

A place of peace, serenity, and hope. I felt all of these – and a gentle wash of kindness – as I ventured up the path toward the House of the Virgin Mary, or Mother Mary (Meryem Ana), located just a few miles away from the busyness of the ruins at Ephesus, Turkey.

It was a hot day in spring, and we had a very important stop before exploring Ephesus. We were visiting a place of pilgrimage for many global religions – that of the House of Mother Mary.

Visiting the House of the Mother Mary

History has it that when Jesus was on the cross, he tasked his apostle John with taking care of his mother. St. John and Mary relocated to this area, John to spread Christianity, and Mary to spend her last days. John is honored by a basilica over his burial site near Ephesus, the ruins of which you can also visit. Mary lived in a small stone cottage, far up on a mountainside. The structure of this building dates to around the 6 century AD, but the foundations date to around 1AD. It has been restored in the last century.

Visiting the House of the Mother Mary

Educational signs, teaching about Mother Mary

Located on Mt. Koressos/Bülbül Dağı (Nightingale Mountain) near Selçuk, Ephesus, and Şirince, Meryem Ana is reached by driving up a narrow winding road. Park, and breathe a sigh of relief for being here at this quiet, historical outpost. Then wander to the outdoor café, where you can rest under beautiful shade trees and have a Turkish coffee – and perhaps a simit stuffed with chocolate, if you’re lucky.

Relaxing at the cafe, at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Snacks at the cafe (including delicious Turkish coffee)

Cafe at the House of the Virgin Mary.

There are both indoor and outdoor tables at the cafe

Refreshed, we made our way up the stone path, through shady trees and blue skies. There was an open area to the left, in which you could look down and see the ruins of a baptismal cistern. We next came upon a small, outdoor chapel with benches. Then a statue of Mother Mary and some large educational signs amidst a beautiful, lush garden on each side of the path.

Pool of Wishes at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Remains of the baptismal cistern

Educational signs at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Educational signs

Statue of Mother Mary at the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Statue of Mother Mary

Small groups of people wandered up the path, taking their time, enjoying the gardens. At the top, everyone stopped and paused to take in the very small building that is the house of Mother Mary, now a chapel. Our guide, who told us much about Mother Mary, reminded us to take no photos inside, and that the chapel was still in use as a place of prayer.

Looking at this small building, with arched doorways and windows, ironwork on the windows, shaded by tall trees, you’d never guess it as a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims (Mary, mother of one of the great prophets, is known as Isa Peygamber to Muslims). We approached the open door, and saw a small room within.

Window of the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Once we stepped inside, though, something was markedly different about the house. The very air changed; it was noticeably still and peaceful, and sounds seemed to fade away. 

A few older, local women kneeled on small benches on the sides of the main room. Their kerchief-covered heads bowed in prayer, they reminded us of the holiness of this place. With quiet, deliberate steps, I walked forward, my footfalls softened and silenced by thick Turkish carpets. Moving slowly through an archway to the main altar, located in the smaller room where Mother Mary slept, I glanced around at the walls, the ceiling, the light streaming in from the windows. I wished I had my camera, but I was also grateful that I didn’t – for no camera can capture the utter peacefulness of these two rooms, the immenseness of millenia of belief, the stone walls holding stories no writer could ever tell as well. At the front, before the altar featuring a statue Mary surrounded by candles, I bowed my own head and paused to soak it all in, and gave thanks for this place.

I exited the house through a small, arched doorway. Once outside, everything seemed clearer, somehow. A few steps more and visitors can light a thin, white candle and place it in sand in large, iron boxes, saying a few words. Stopping to reflect here, I thought about all of the shrines, mosques, and cathedrals I’ve seen around the world. None of them were as peaceful as this small building, perched on a dusty mountain, in view of the Aegean. I like to think that Mother Mary loved being here – loved the view, the landscape, and the people – as I did. This love seeped down into the very rocks of the mountain, I think. We could feel it.

Lighting candles at the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

But the place wasn’t done with me yet. After turning a corner and heading down a few stairs, I came upon a few surprises.

First was a series of three natural springs, which were located in nooks in a tall stone wall. The springs are said to bring health, love, and wealth, so fill your bottle and drink, if you’d like.

Just past the springs is the Wall of Wishes, where I saw thousands of wishes tied to large, rectangular hangings on the wall. I didn’t look closely, because I think wishes are personal, but I was taken aback at the great quantity of them. Just imagine the power of these wishes, carefully tied by pilgrims from all over the world. It’s a startling and important reminder of the power of hope, and of belief.

Wall of Wishes, House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Wall of wishes

Wall of Wishes, House of Mother Mary, Turkey

 

Note: Our guide, a local, told us the story of the fire of 2006. It was an enormous forest fire, spreading rapidly across the mountains, burning all those dry trees and scrub in its path. She said that they all worked hard to stop the forest fire from reaching Mother Mary’s house, but it was a close call. The fire, which burned 1,200 hectares, stopped just 3 feet short of the house.

 

For more information:

http://www.meryemana.info/

http://www.kultur.gov.tr/EN,39846/house-of-virgin-mary.html

 

Tips for visiting the House of Mother Mary

Do not walk to Meryem Ana – the road is narrow, winding, and there are cars and buses utilizing it. Hire a taxi, drive your rental car, or take a bus tour there, for safety. You can also take a bus from Kusadasi for Sunday Mass – be sure to reserve your space on the bus; check the official website above for more information. You’ll know you are on the right path when you pass a very large statue of Mother Mary, guiding the way. There is parking here, so you can hop out and take photos.

Statue of Mother Mary, guiding the way to her house. Turkey

While most of the path is wheelchair accessible, there are a few steps in the walkway up to the house, as well as a steep ramp. Upon exiting the house and descending to the springs, there are a dozen or so stone steps.

There is a souvenir shop at the entrance, across from the café.

The entire area is very clean (including the bathrooms) – the caretakers work hard on this, as you can see. I didn’t see anything out of place here.

Cleaning supplies, House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Fun bathroom sign at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

 

 

 

This article was originally published at: https://www.wanderingeducators.com/best/traveling/visiting-house-mother-mary.html

Note: I was part of a group of White House Travel Bloggers that Turkish Airlines flew in to experience Turkey (thank you, eternally!). Stay tuned for more posts about this special country I’d love for you to explore  – and check out our The Best of Turkey – an A-Z Guide for inspiration from travel writers around the world.

 

Jessie Voigts has a PhD in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled around the world. She’s published six books about travel and intercultural learning, with more on the way. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding, and is passionate sharing the world through her site, Wandering Educators. She founded and directs the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program, teaching teens all around the world, and is co-founder of Writing Walking Women.

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Wandering Educators

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Blue skies. That’s what I think of when I think of Turkey. Blue skies for miles – the sweetest blue, the kind you can taste in the air. I imagine skimming my fingers against the fabric of the sky; I bet it would be softer than rose petals, smoother than a Queen’s silks. I remember a wisp of cloud spun around a jagged mountain top like cotton candy, so thick and real that I could reach out and sink my fingers into it, wrap it around my shoulders like a heavy, damp cloak. Cappadocia.

There aren’t movies made about the romance of Cappadocia; no great men have walked its streets as in Athens or Rome. It is small, but it feels like home and starry nights with nothing but air and the weight of the world keeping you from swimming among the constellations. It feels like whispered stories and blood-streaked rocks, scarlet-scarred mountain faces, caves that wander too deeply into the warm Earth for us to follow.

It is there that I can feel myself melting away; I am no longer a shy girl from the suburbs of Houston. I am invincible, I am the stars, I am the earth. I am staring Atlas in the face, seeing the place where the heavens kiss the humble feet of men. I see the meeting place of the universe, opening my hands to the sky, to opportunity. It makes me feel brave. If the Earth can kiss the stars and be unafraid of being burned, I think, so can I. If the heavens can still embrace the Earth even as it pulls and scrapes against her sweet blue, I think, then maybe I can embrace myself. I can stop worrying about the future and the past, and accept the present.

I have the courage to be who I want to be, do what I want to do. I can topple kingdoms with my words, sharpen my axe on the ignorance of humankind. When the sun reaches its apex in the sky, my shadow stretches out below me, confirmation that light has traveled for 93 million years to touch the ground beneath my feet only to be obstructed by my presence.

In Cappadocia I feel brave. I feel like I can be more. The Earth and its beauty reminds me of my insignificance, but instead of feeling scared and alone, I just feel stronger.  I am reminded that no matter what I do, the Earth will keep on turning, the sun will still rise. No matter what failures I stumble through, the Earth will survive and so will I. The sky reminds me of the incredible odds of my existence, and how I defied them just by being born. A million things had to fall perfectly into place so that I could walk the Earth, and a million things did.

 

Cappadocia is the place in the world where I am reminded of this, of who I am. I am reminded to be proud to be who I am. Atlas may hold up the sky, but I’m the one who holds myself up – and that’s a great feat in and of itself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Eighteen months ago my partner and I made a decision.  We’d give ourselves one more year working and saving in London before loading up our bikes and cycling around the world.  Excitement, madness, months of planning and getting used to life in ‘technical gear’ ensued. And it was with a generous stash of lycra, a large dollop of vaseline and two very big smiles we set off in June 2014.

Our first days peddle took us North for our ferry to Holland.  The journey across Europe and getting used to life on a budget of $15 per person per day, took some adjusting. Though cycling is at the heart of our relationship and hitting the saddle each morning not knowing what lies ahead, is undoubtedly what keeps us moving.

It was a rainy first couple of months and with me having Coeliac Disease it means most meals have to be prepared and/or cooked.  Rain, wild camping and using a methanol stove can be a killer combination that, on occasion, pushes one to the limit.  But this was, and is, our choice. We love it for all the sparkly and soggy bits in equal measure. So eight months on we’re feeling blessed with each turn of our pedals.

Cycling touring is a popular past time and each rider approaches it in their own way.  We chose to keep off the beaten track. Our route has taken in some incredible and isolated mountain ranges from the Bavarian Alps in Germany to the Carpathians in Romania and the Staraplanina Range in Bulgaria.  But we were delivered a warm buttery slice of heaven when our wheels rolled into the Tauras Mountains in Central Turkey.

In the edited words of Forest Gump ‘The Taurus Mountains are like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re going to get’.  Be it her crystal clear mountain lakes of Egridir and Beyşehir, the snow capped peaks and plains of her central range or the ever present troglodyte dwellings that pot the mountainsides from the moment you’re in her company.

By the time we arrived at the Western edge of the range it was late October and winters grasp was starting to tighten.  Our ascents were taking us beyond 2000m and we often found ourselves cycling through icy mist clouds on peak passes. Using every layer of clothing to stay warm was sometimes not enough and on one such pass I suffered a bout of hyperthermic shock.  We stopped and as my vision began to fade I hit the foetal position on the side of the road, my limbs feeling empty and drained. No sooner had my head met the gravel, my partners voice bellowed me back to reality. A couple of Marathon bars and some vigorous body warming got us back on track. You never know what mother nature has in-store. But it’s moments like this, when you have to push on in the face of adversity, that you feel most truly, and literally, alive.

The end of the Taurus range meets the Unesco Heritage plains of Cappadocia.  It’s very hard to express the magic, energy and sheer beauty of this region.  The earth is made from solidified volcanic ash deposited thousands of years ago.  And in line with the rest of central Turkey, this soft rock has been carved out by both nature and humans to form the most fantastical structures and dwellings.  From the underground city of Derinkuyu, that at it’s peak held 20,000 inhabitants in a series of chambers up to 100metres underground, to the Red Valley scattered with churches and temples her entire length to the mesmerizing fairy chimneys and overground cities carved into the faces and roots of mountains.

Our journey from the start was a brave decision. To step away from everyday lives and open ourselves up to the world in all its colour. Getting a bashing from the Taurus giants left me questioning the sanity of the trip but being humbled by their majesty and power gave me the strength to go on. We were left speechless by the resourcefulness of the human species in harnessing nature as their home in the foundations of Cappadocia. In hindsight, my hypothermic episode paled in comparison to the vastness of what we as a people have, and can achieve. As we pedal on these memories will continue to inspire us to be brave, bold and perhaps just the right amount of crazy.

Anything is possible and we must strive to find our limits in order to better understand who we are. For us this is built around our tent, two bikes, a tight budget and a heart bound for exploration, all propelled by the everyday wonder of nature and the adaptability of the human race.

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Fifteen hours – for some, it sounds like a horrendously long bus ride from Skopje, Macedonia to Istanbul, Turkey. Yet, it was the shortest bus ride during my six-month solo backpacking trip in China and Southeast-Central Europe.

Six months ago in early March this year, I quit my well-paying job in Malaysia and packed my bags to set out on a grand adventure (that was what I envisioned). To cut a long story short, I felt more alive than ever except for a few hiccups here and there along the way.

Three weeks before my flight from Istanbul to return to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, my family and friends’ worries became reality. When it happened, all I can say was ‘Perhaps, Lady Luck ain’t smiling down’.

It wasn’t a case of getting mugged. The painful near-rape experience in Kosovo ruined my trip and became a nightmare. It happened too quickly and I was shocked.

Since I was due to return home soon, I did not want to cause trouble and left for Skopje early morning after the traumatising episode. The incident didn’t dawn on me until a few days later when I realised what happened. I hated myself because I did not lodge a police report.

Being alone on the road meant I could not share it with anyone because I felt too embarrassed. I made numerous Skype calls back home and cried secretly in the hostel.

Finally, I have to leave and travel to Istanbul for my flight back home soon. Sobbing quietly during the 15-hour bus journey, I couldn’t wait to reach my hostel in Istanbul just so I can hide and do not have to face the world. Last minute change of plans, when I found two couchsurfing hosts in Istanbul.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, I was clearly wrong. Another traumatising episode happened on this Wicked Wednesday, exactly a week after the first incident. As my first host stayed far from the city centre, I had to take two buses to reach his house. On the way, as the bus that I was in, stopped some 100 metres away from a pedestrian bridge, a terrifying accident happened.

Before it happened, I was trying hard to hold back my tears in the public. As I was looking out the window to my left, I saw a truck rammed into the pedestrian bridge with a loud ‘Bang’ and it collapsed. A few people fell from the bridge.

The accident was shocking and it was the last straw that pulled me down. I started crying in the bus that caught the attention of the driver and other passengers. Some offered me bottle water and tried their best to console me. They were strangers, but their acts of sincere kindness gave me reassurance that there are Good Samaritans out there.

When I finally reached my destination, I felt depressed. It was in the outskirts and all I did was starved myself and cried. I left after two days when I sensed negative vibes from my host. I was sceptical to meet my second host after the not-so-happy encounter with the first host.

The first meeting with my second host wasn’t as smooth as I had expected. I could not control myself and started crying when he, Serkan, came over to greet me. He was afraid and concerned at the same time. Minutes later, I met another couchsurfer, Kristina from Germany, and then, we took a cab back to Serkan’s place. Again, I cried when Kristina exchanged greetings with me.

Little did I know, they changed my perception on how I viewed the traumatising incidents. As I could no longer hold back my emotions, I poured my hearts out to them. Understanding perfectly describes Kristina, while, Serkan is generous and warm-hearted.

They persuaded me to eat, to the extent of looking after me whenever they are around especially Serkan. Days after ‘torturing’ myself through starvation and self-blaming for what has happened to me, I decided to put an end to it.

Both might not realised how their simple actions can bring me tears of joy but I found peace and serenity whenever they are around. While millions throng to Istanbul for the glitzy Grand Bazaar and historically beautiful Hagia Sophia, Istanbul is different to me.

A simple act of giving me bottle water, Kristina passing me a packet of tissue and Serkan’s heart-warming words of ‘I just want to help’ meant a lot to me. If it weren’t for their unbelievable generosity, I might be crying home onboard in the flight back to Malaysia. Istanbul is the place where I broke down in front of strangers and also, learnt to accept the past.

Picture: The balcony (I cried here) overlooking other apartments in Koca Mustafa Pasa in Serkan’s house.

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I left the U.S. on August 1 for a grand adventure.  Many thought I was foolish.  Others thought I was unique.  Some told me that they were a bit jealous.  And, a few saw me as just plain crazy (including myself, at times!).  There have been those who support my journey and those that dismiss it.  However, for me, this trip has been more than seeing amazing things and meeting incredible people—it has been a chance to remember who I am again.

Perhaps, I lost myself a bit in shuffling papers, endless meetings, and making lists of local parking garage rates for my superiors.  Maybe, it was in all of the negativity that I heard from many of my “friends,” particularly on social media, about everything I worked for while in politics.   It could have been some of the uncomfortable moments during which I lost respect for many of those that I should have admired and looked up to.  Or, maybe it was just the days filled to the brim with things to do that were never actually accomplishing much of anything.  While there were moments of me in the midst of this, I feel that they were fleeting and overpowered by everything else that swirled around me.  Life seemed to become one long to do list that I never made much headway on.  

Making the decision to go was not an easy one.  I had what seemed to be a good job.  I had real friends who I was sad to part with.  I lived in a city that I loved.  My family wasn’t too far away.  I had built a good life for myself.  But, it wasn’t enough.  There were too many things that I was not satisfied with.  There were too many days that I felt were wasted.  There was something more than the life I was living.  And, knowing this, how could I stay?  Despite the difficulty in leaving, I knew that something had to change.

Flash forward four months…  Life on the road has been far from life in the U.S.  The longest that I’ve stayed anywhere in the past few months as been seven nights (and that only happened once) and usually it’s just two nights before I’m off to the next place.  Every day is a challenge.  Nothing is easy.  But, life is amazing.  While I don’t experience a life changing moment each day, every day I’m inspired.  Some days by natural wonders.  Other days by ancient ruins.  And, many more, by the kindness and compassion of the people around me.

Rather than traveling to find myself, this journey has enabled me to remember who I am.  I am freckle-faced dreamer who loves adventure and can’t stay in one place for too long.  I love life on the road, not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next.  I love photography and trying to capture just a moment of all that is wonderful (and not so wonderful) in the world.  I love to be surrounded by those who are defying norms and changing the world and doing what I can to be a part of their work.  I love to be “in the field”, side by side with those who are thinking of new ways to challenge poverty and injustice in our world.  I love spending every day with the person I love—from sunrise to sunset, when I’m at my best and when I’m at my worst.  In all of this, I remember what it is to be alive.  To be a part of the human race.  To be fighting for a better world for all of us.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for so many things and also sad that I am not with my family and friends in the U.S. who do mean so much to me.  But, most of all, I’m thankful for this opportunity to travel the world and thankful that it has helped me to remember who I am.

Happy Thanksgiving from Turkey,

Foreign Loren

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One Thousand and One Travels

 

In July 1994, “tarmac” wasn’t a word I knew. I called it “the magic carpet main station,” as every plane had to start there if it wanted to go for an air ride.  I was eleven years old, on my own, and vastly excited as I walked down the jet bridge. Magic carpet would take me from Istanbul to New Jersey, with a brief break in Germany. Once in the United States, a guy I had never seen in my life was going to pick me up and take me to summer camp. I was to spend a month with American kids.

 

In Germany, airline crew took me to children’s playroom. After a while, I, the shy princess who had never left her palace before, calculated the time difference, checked the flight time, and realized something was wrong. I walked up to the woman in charge and told her in English that I needed to be taken to America.

 

“Don’t worry,” she said smiling. “You have time.” She checked my ticket and her cheerful smile left her face. She made calls, yelled in German and soon another woman grabbed me by my arm. We ran on long corridors with carpets that had nothing to do with fairy tales.

 

Then I was on the flying carpet again. The excitement. The giant grin. The anticipation. When the ride ended in Jersey, there was no one around to pick me up.  I went to the information desk and asked to announce Jeff Summers – a name I’ll never forget. Within a minute, a tall, handsome Jeff appeared. He looked like a prince; I wished I were older.  

 

Camp opened my eyes. I learned wall climbing. I hiked in the woods and slept in a tent. I saw it was okay for girls to be in tiny shorts and I realized it was okay for a twelve-year old, green-eyed Ethan to ask me out. I learned how to be on my own in the world and how things always turned out fine. Like in the legend, for those who trust, the wind always follows the carpet.

 

I’ve since been on a plane at least a hundred times. And it still is nothing short of magic. I spent years in the United States. I studied in Spain, then in Germany.  I went to Costa Rica for language school. I showed up in Hawaii with no travel plans. I went to Cambodia and saw real poverty. Then I went to Singapore and saw extreme posh. I flew to Latvia, Slovakia, followed by Hungary, then Czech Republic. I went west to Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. I went to Italy. I visited many cities in Turkey, including poet Rumi’s abode. I attended nights of mystic religious chanting led by women in red veils and red lipstick.

 

Through many carpet rides, wonder-by-wonder, I absorbed the American zest for life’s pleasures, the Buddhist contentment, the Israeli courage, the European culturedness, the Middle Eastern hospitality, and the Latin American amor… all on the go. Like lovers Aladdin and Jasmine’s song goes: “a whole new world… through an endless diamond sky.” Traveling is personal revolution in disguise. If we want a peaceful world, if we want our hearts to be like diamonds, we must travel.

 

I’m my spiritually most flexible, clearest self on the tarmac. It is the main station of many tales and it makes me feel strong, hopeful and free. I’ve sat next to religious Iranian men, Orthodox Jews, young people, old people, an opera singer, an NGO person, businesspeople, devout Christians, atheists, punks, veiled women… I’ve sat next to all kinds of wonderful people on the tarmac. I’ve also sat next to my Aladdin.

 

In our everyday, seemingly non-magical lives, many of us turn money into a convenient excuse. If you want to go, just grab your can-do attitude and go. Work in a farm in New Zealand. Teach English in Japan. Bartend in Costa Rica. Volunteer in Africa. Live in an ashram in India. Ask your company to transfer you to a branch abroad! Just go! Every turn is a surprise.

 

The world is a boundless place and it is such richness that we’re all so different from one another. The tarmac is the real red carpet and we are all celebrities. Put your best spirit on and get going! What are you waiting for?

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The Long Road Towards the Inevitable

Tomorrow you’ll wake up realising that all your hopes and promises of happiness are not there. The comfort of a house, a pair of loving arms and the job are gone. As well as the emotional balance and self-esteem. Everything vanished a month ago when your now ex-husband shut the apartment door on the last day of your life in common. You know that all those things have been slowly disappearing along the last 10 years but now you have the perfect person to blame.

Then the weight of emptiness takes in. You feel it in your shoulders as if you were carrying a backpack full of rocks. You want to run away. Maybe quit. But go where? Quit from what? You start regretting every choice you’ve made in life. Because all of them led you to the unbearable being you are now.

You regret the 11 year-old you dreaming about becoming a famous writer. You were the shy little girl who valued the company of written words. While your colleagues made fun of your loneliness, you felt relief in words. They wouldn’t disappoint you.

Until the day you had the courage to show your writings to an adult. A friend who’s opinion you valued. After a quick reading, she gave her sentence: shallow, amateurish. You were devastated. You don’t regret you showed her your work. You regret having believed her to the point of quitting writing for several years.

As you regret when you realise that this was only the first of many times you putted your writing aside just because someone made you believe that what you do isn’t of much value. “Being a writer is not a profession” has been the repeated mantra from people around you. You heard it so many times that you believed in it. Now you know that your insecureness is what you regret the most.

An insecureness that empowered others opinions over your will. You start letting go of your dreams believing that happiness could be in a place where you cannot be judged.You also end up quitting travel after someone telling you that this kind of life doesn’t fit the normal patterns of society. You choose normality. A job. A career. The harder you try to fit in the less normal you feel.

Believing that something might be wrong with you, you quit your job. You start your own business. It doesn’t take long to realise that nothing really changed. Now you have even more hard and unfulfilling work. You regret being your own boss and have the extra responsibility towards the people working for you. You regret compromising your freedom even more.

Travel and writing become a vague memory and it scares you. You start suspecting that life is shorter than it seems and you regret wasting most of it. You quit again.

You start a journey of self discovery. You study many different subjects. Chinese Medicine, Meditation, Chi Kung. You change your perspective, you shake your beliefs, you challenge your comfort zone. Then the husband comes.

He brings his beliefs into your life. You mistake love with something else. You know that writing and travel means uncertainty. And you let yourself be convinced that uncertainty doesn’t go well with marriage. You opt once more to put your dreams aside and help him being successful supported by the romantic idea: “if you’re happy, I’m happy”

When regret arrives again you understand you were wrong. Romantic love is not a good excuse to avoid taking full responsibility to make your dreams come true.

You tell him you need to change. That you are suffocating your true nature. You need to write, to travel. You’re not a housewife. A few month later he tells you “I can’t be with a woman who travels. Not knowing when you are home or for how long you will be absent creates too much instability in my life”.

He leaves and you feel again like the devastated 11 year old who believed a bad review. You regret letting yourself guide by other people’s opinions. You will regret it for a whole month. You’ll cry, you’ll be angry and you’ll pity yourself. Everyday.

But tonight I promise you it will be different. It will be the first day you haven’t cry in a month. And just before going to bed, you’ll realise that the cause of your regret is your tendency to overvalue what the world thinks of you.

Hang in there, my dear me, it is almost over. Tonight right after buying a ticket to Istanbul you’ll finally make an important decision. Maybe the most important in your whole life: You choose writing. You choose travelling. And you are grateful to every one in your past that led you here.

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           A curtain was pulled back and figures emerged from darkness in a shaft of light—a half dozen cloaked musicians with medieval instruments. They arranged themselves on rugs, the light faded out, and the sounds of reeds, drums and unfamiliar string instruments filled the dark confined space. It was surprising how these primitive devices could create such a palpitating mood of expectation.

            My mouth was dry as the volcanic rock surrounding me. Moments earlier, I’d entered the cave and passed through a tunnel that widened into a circular arena. Outside, the air had been uncomfortably warm, but the blistering heat couldn’t reach through tons of insulating rock. I was in Cappadocia to see the famous Whirling Dervishes.

            Apprehension had nearly prompted me to cancel my trip to Turkey, a secular country with a 99.8 % Moslem population. Back home in the States, Islam was perceived as a religion whirling into fanaticism and violence, with far too many people painting all Muslims with the same brush. I’d come to explore this religion for myself.

             As a kid, I’d fling out my arms and spin around as quickly as I could until I was so dizzy I’d collapse on our front lawn. Was that what this was about? Watching grown men in skirts spin around without getting dizzy?

            A voice in broken English admonished us against taking pictures until after the ceremony. The Dervishes entered, dressed in black but for their towering beige camel-hair hats. They appeared to be glowing, as if light emanated from them. To deepen my experience I’d recently read about the Dervishes, and learned that their monastic life was outlawed in the 1930s by Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Atatürk maintained that young Turkish men shouldn’t be hidden away in monasteries. He wanted the country to shift its attention from religion to the progressive ways of the West, but his secular vision for Turkey was rapidly coming under attack.

                 The Dervishes bowed to the empty hat on far side of the circular stage, their tall hats (tombstones for the ego) seeming to defy gravity by staying on their heads when touched to the ground. According to our guide, the bow was to honor Mevlânâ, their thirteenth century spiritual leader. Mevlânâ, creator of the Whirling Dervishes, was said to have whirled for two full days. It was his belief that the fundamental condition of existence was to revolve. He knew the world to be made of revolving atoms, knew that blood revolved within the bodies of men and animals and understood the revolving nature of the planets and stars. His achievement was to acknowledge and embrace this feature of existence through an act of homage—whirling.

                 They looked exposed when they removed their black cloaks, as if the whiteness beneath was not only purity but vulnerability. Lined up, they acknowledged each other, and slowly, one by one began to spin in the confines of the cave, giving the impression of dropping into a fathomless void like falling snowflakes. We sat close enough to feel the uplift of wind from their skirts as they spun in the same direction as the Earth on its axis, one hand pointed upward to receive the blessings of Allah while the other was turned downward to pour Allah’s blessings onto the people. Nothing was kept for themselves. Their simple gestures filled my soul with gratitude.

                 I finally understood that this was not a performance, it was a ritual, a re-creation of infinity and creation, a thousand year old version of a high energy particle accelerator

operating in the bosom of the Earth.

                 No one has ever been able to point out for me the differences between Allah and God, and I’ve come to assume that, if there are any, they’re insignificant. I can’t claim to know what these Whirling Dervishes believe, what thoughts animate their spirits, but their sincere commitment to Allah and His universe lead me to accept that they’ve achieved a harmony with existence that I can only imagine. I might not understand their beliefs, just as I don’t understand many of the tenets of my own religion, but this manifestation of faith made me feel strong and hopeful that the pendulum of religious hostility outside this cave might one day swing in the direction of peace and tolerance for people everywhere.

            The thought was enough to set me whirling.

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