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Saturday, September 27, 2003

Overwhelmed in Istanbul
Istanbul, Turkey

We've only been in Turkey for three days, and we're already making plans to return here again. We haven't even scratched the surface of Istanbul, which is proving to be an incredible city from all aspects... accessibility for tourists, friendliness of people, cultural and historical attractions, and the food... my gosh, the food is awesome.

I'm sure we'll be gushing more over the next few blogs, but so far, Turkey is everything that Caveni and her Turkish friend Demet have said it would be (thanks for the recommendations!). With the three weeks that we have in Turkey, we're spending a week in Istanbul and two weeks travelling to the central region (Cappadocia and Nabul), the south (Fethia and Antalya) and the west (Pammukale and Selçuk). While we know that most of these are the touristy areas, we decided we should see these things first, then hit the routes less travelled next time. Now that we are getting a better idea of what Turkey has to offer, we're wishing we had two months to spend here!

We arrived three days ago on a short but sleep-depriving flight from Malta; the flight was only two hours long, but it arrived at 4am. Ouch. We stumbled from the transfer van into the Hotel Peninsula; even though they didn't have a room available (they were full and we technically were supposed to check in after 11am), they graciously let us sleep for a few hours on a bed in the basement usually used by the resident staff.

Upon awaking at 9am, we set out once again in search of that which has been unattainable to us: the Indian Visa. Believe it or not, our plans to get there once again took a wrong turn, literally this time: a well-meaning taxi driver took us to the private residence of the Indian Consular, instead of her actual office! He didn't rip us off for the price of the 90-minute detour, but it did cost us some valuable time. In any case, we DID find the Indian Consulate (phew!) and we have submitted our passports, and are now waiting with our fingers crossed for our visa applications to be approved... Please approve us, please!!

So because visa processing will take five working days, we have found ourselves with seven or eight days to spend in Istanbul, which, we're discovering, is really not enough. However, we are enjoying visiting the sights at a leisurely pace; the hard part is picking what to see and what to pass on this time.

We're staying in Sultanhamet, which is in the European side of Istanbul (the Bosphorus river splits the city into two sides, one side in Europe, the other in Asia). Most of the sights of Old Istanbul are in Sultanhamet, so we are three minutes away on foot from the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya, and the Hippodrome, which we visited today and yesterday. Both the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya are incredible structures, more so for the Aya Sofya's interior and the Blue Mosque's exterior. How that massive gold-tiled dome in the Aya Sofya is being supported is beyond me.

This morning, we strolled through the Grand Bazaar (I think Jen's eyes just about bugged out of her head) for a peek of some of the things that can be purchased there. It's a gigantic complex, and there were many modern shops as well as some older ones; there are so many shops there, but it doesn't quite have the same hustle and bustle, nor near-claustrophobic conditions of the Moroccan medinas. Nevertheless, now that we're getting a feel for the prices, I think there's a good chance we'll be returning, and won't be leaving empty-handed next time.

Tomorrow, I'm really looking forward to something a little different; we're going to a football match (that's soccer for most North Americans). It's with one of Istanbul's big teams, Besiktas, not quite as big as Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, but still enough to draw a huge crowd, apparently. It seems many people are fanatical about their football here, and while some matches can turn ugly with amped-up fans, hopefully we'll see a good match with some interesting crowd dynamics.

I was told about how modern Istanbul would be, but wasn't really prepared for how developed this city actually is, especially when I have recent images of Casablanca and Tunis in mind. Some areas of Istanbul look like they could be Broadway in Vancouver, or the Embarcadero in San Francisco. With all the development and Westernization that is apparent all over Istanbul, I am somewhat bewildered as to what happened to cause the huge deflation of the Turkish lira. With the miniscule glimpse we've seen of this city, there don't seem to be any obvious signs of an economic crises, other than the fact that a bottle of water costs one million lira. We'll have to find out more about this.

There always has been a lot of commentary on how Turkey is the place where East meets West, and that is obviously apparent by just looking around Istanbul; grand mosques stand next to modern office buildings, ancient tombs are around the corner from flashy shopping plazas (flashier than most places in Seattle, anyway!). However, Turkey's latest application to the EU was rejected again apparently, and I'm interested to learn more about what kind of political dynamics are happening in THAT arena. I think when we eventually do get out of Istanbul to visit the rest of the country, we'll have a broader understanding of what else Turkey has to offer, or at least I hope that will be the case.

We're planning on taking the cheap passenger ferries up the Bosphorus to the mouth of the Black Sea, and possibly also up the Golden Horn, some time in the next few days. With fantastic views from the terrace of our hotel, wonderful food and lots of new friends we've met, it'll might be tough for us to leave Istanbul altogether, which some say isn't the 'real' Turkey at all. So far though, it has certainly been pretty real to us!

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Goodbye Malta
Valletta, Malta

Gosh, have we really been here 11 days? Time sure passes by quickly, for a tiny island with much to see and do. The highlight of our visit to this interesting country is definitely meeting up with Scott and Rochelle, and presenting the Companion Flag to George Schiner Primary School in Luqa. Read on for more details.

After Winston's dive on Friday, we went to visit Ninu's Cave in Xaghra (couldn't go there the day before due to heavy rains). It was interesting walking through a man's house to get to the entrance of the cave. Once we descended, we were sprinkled with water that fell from the roof of the cave every few seconds (the ground is wet from the heavy rains the previous day) though we were amazed with the staglatites and staglamites that have been growing there for centuries.

Leaving Gozo on the ferry, we headed for the town of Valletta, where we stayed at the Grand Harbour Hotel, in a nice room with a balcony (covered with 5 windows!) and a view of the Grand Harbour. Valletta, the capital city of Malta, is a fortified city on a peninsula in the eastern coast of the island. There are many shops and museums in this city, though it's a very quiet place once business hours are over. We found that out while walking around at night trying to find a good restaurant for dinner.

The narrow streets of Valletta only permit one way driving, and parking is quite interesting as most of the spots include leaving your car half on the sidewalks of the streets. As mentioned earlier, the housing here resembles much of Europe with one exception; the covered balconies. Painted in all sorts of colours, these boxes (anywhere from 2 - 8 window panes) stick out of the face of the buildings. They are quite beautiful actually, though they sure make the alleyways seem narrow.

The Maltese language was too complicated for us to learn; luckily everyone here speaks English so we didn't have to worry too much. The only words we've learnt are "grazzi hafta" which means thank you very much! The other strange thing we've found out is that many Maltese (30%) live abroad, in London, Toronto and some city in Australia (I have forgotten). Sure enough when we talked to some local women, they all seem to have relatives in one of these three places.

We visited the War Museum, which is located near Fort St. Elmo's at the very eastern end of Valletta. They have a lot of domentation, photos, uniforms, medals, transport vehicles and bombs from World War I and II. The Maltese were an important part of these wars, and were awarded the George Cross for their bravery in WWII. Severely bombed by the Italians, the country was almost ready to surrender but were rescued by the arrival of the Ohio (an American oil tanker) with food, fuel and supplies. The museum is a definite must see for war buffs, and though I'm not exactly one, I sure appreciated the opportunity to learn more about those scary times.

On Saturday, we drove out to a craft village, where we saw a presentation of glass blowing. They sure make them look simple and fast! The phoenician glass items were indeed beautiful though we didn't buy any since they are difficult to transport. We also looked at laces (lots here - not the shoe kind, but the ones on table cloth and cushion covers) and other local products. We had a wonderful lunch at a cafe looking over Spinola Bay in St. Julian's. In the evening, we finally got our sushi fix at Zen's Restaurant, with sashimi, nigiri, miso soups, green tea, and green tea ice cream. Yummy. We watched Terminator 3 at a cinema in Paceville (walking distance) and picked up groceries for our 2 bedroom apartment in the Galaxy Hotel (where we stayed for 3 nights).

Sunday the 21st of September, we checked out Kirkop, a town which would be holding a festa that evening, to make sure we knew where to go when the time comes. Sure enough, driving through the small town, we ended up in the area where they were setting up the decorations and statues for the evening's event. Festas are very special to Malta and other catholic communities; each village honours one or two patron saints, and they do that by having a celebration for that particular saint. I will talk more about the one in Kirkop soon.

We picked up Scott and Rochelle (our good friends from Seattle) at the airport (next to Kirkop); they were vacationing in Italy and flew to Malta to join us for two days. We drove back to Sliema to drop their bags off at our apartment and had lunch (instant noodles with shrimp and lettuce). Isn't this so 'chinese' of me? :) They brought me a replenishment of chinese junkfood (thanks guys) and also delicious almond cookies from Italy called ricciarelli. Absolutely delicious stuff!!

This Malta's Independence Day, so we drove into Valletta to witness their festivities. Unfortunately we were a bit late (it was mid afternoon then) so the streets were quiet. It was rather nice though, to have the town to ourselves as we walked along the walls admiring the Grand Harbour and the tri cities across. The blue sea and limestone buildings just on the edge of the coasts were very impressive indeed. We saw a cruise ship enter the harbour and waved to the tourists on board. In the square by the Grand Master's Palace, we sat down under an umbrella and enjoyed cold beer served by a local cafe. Ah - it was very fortunate that the heavy rains we experienced earlier in the week had gone, and we were left with wonderful sunshine and blue skies the rest of the time.

We entered the St. John's Co Cathedral and walked around the very 'ornate' church. Let's put it this way, there were no blank plaster anywhere on the walls of this huge building. There are famous paintings here by Caravaggio but the museum is not open on Sundays, so we planned to return the next day. Walking down the Republic Street on a Sunday afternoon was very different from our experience on Friday, when the street (pedestrian only) was packed with shoppers and tourists.

For dinner, we went to the La Dolce Vita in St. Julian's, a highly recommended seafood restaurant in several guidebooks and travel forums on the web. We had a table on their balcony, overlooking Spinola Bay. It was wonderful to sit outside in the light cool breeze, though it sure was very humid! Our tablecloth and napkins all felt rather damp. That did not affect our dining though, as the food was superb! We had sea bream, grouper, swordfish and shrimp. We all enjoyed our food very much.

At 8pm, we drove back towards Kirkop to witness the festa of Saint Leonard. What a night! There were lots of fireworks (though they sure spread them out throughout the night), and people everywhere. Two sets of bands played (in two squares connected by a narrow road) and vendors sold nougat, cotton candy and toys. Old and young alike were out late, and everyone was in a excitable mood. Many streets were lighted up, with streamers connecting two sets of opposite lamp posts together; the church of Saint Leonard was covered by lights as well, and the bells rang for over 30 mins while we were there. There was a parade led by Church leaders, with the crucifix, and other religious items, with the statue of St. Leonard rounding up the end (he was held up by 6 men). It was a very neat experience with lots of sound, and lots of people. This is certainly something that is unique and we were very glad to have been a part of it.

We had breakfast at the apartment before setting back out towards Valletta to see the Carravaggio paintings in Valletta. However, Monday was Europe's Car Free Day, and Malta participated by closing several streets around the island. As it turned out, all streets in Valletta and Floriana (the city right next to it) were closed. We were able to find a parking spot not terribly far, and enjoyed walking through a promenade into the city. Republic Street was very busy as business was in full force. We paid our admission to the museum and joined the crowd to admire these famous paintings. Apparently people would visit Malta just for these paintings. Check out an example of his painting on our website when Winston gets the pictures up on our website (soon).

After Valletta, we drove to Mdina and Rabat. Mdina was the ancient capital of Malta (it's been around for 3000 years), in the middle of the island. It is situated very high, fortified, of course, and has a 360 degree view of the island. Unfortunately the sky was a bit hazy; it would have been neat if we were able to see the sea. A small but beautiful place, it is coined the 'silent city'. Sure enough, it was very quiet, and there were a few other tourists there when we visited. All the buildings looked well maintained; then again, there is an ongoing restoration project in the city. We walked inside the cathedral (not as ornate as St. John's in Valletta) and across the street to the Cathedral Museum. This was an unplanned visit, but all four of us really enjoyed it. The museum has a wonderful collection of coins, dating back to 300bc, as well as paintings, etchings, carvings on driftwood, musical scores, illuminated manuscripts, 15th century cathedral choir organs, poems by the national poet, and much more. It sure was a treasure.

We enjoyed a late lunch of sandwiches and Maltese Ftiras, along with milkshakes. Yummy. By the time we drove to Rabat (just below Mdina) to visit the catacombs of St. Pauls and St. Agathas, these sites were already close. Malta is a very religious country, with history such as St. Paul being shipwrecked on the island and converted the governor to christianity, as well as being ruled by the Order of St. John's in the 15-1700s. There are cathedrals in each town, most businesses observe the Sabath by being close on Sundays.

We drove out to the west coast of the island to view the temple of Haggar Qim and sunset. We arrived just in time to see the bright, round red sun sink into the horizon behind a cloud, and the temples from 3600bc right in front of it. As it was fairly late by then, we were unable to walk into the site but did get a good views it from the fence which surrounds it. There is a pathway which leads to a second megalithic temple down towards the water, and so we took a nice sunset walk down that direction. However, we didn't stay too long as we heard rifle shots, and saw birds falling out of the sky. There were also several barking dogs so we made a rather quick exit back to our car. We later learned that this place is popular for bird hunters, as the birds fly inland from the sea at this time of the day.

Driving back to St. Julian's we parked our car and wandered around Portossimo, where we looked at expensive sail boats (and talked about sailing around the world together in our own sailboat one day). It's just a dream for now. We heard band music playing, so we walked towards Spinola Bay to see a small group marching up the street. The weather was very lovely, with a cool breeze but we realized that by then were hungry. Dinner was at the Pagado Restaurant, which is a Chinese Malaysian place. Unfortunately for me they did not have laksa but we ended up sharing hot and sour soup, lemon chicken, vegetables in curry sauce, noodles and sambal ikan (fish). It was quite lovely. We ended our meal with ice cream; Rochelle and I had coconut, Scott had pineapple and Winston, lemon Sorbet. What was neat was that each ice cream was presented in its fruit; i.e. coconut ice cream packed in half a coconut shell.

We were going to change rooms on Tuesday morning, but Winston and I were lucky to be able to stay in the same apartment for a one bedroom rate. Since the hotel was not full at the moment, it was more convenient for us not to have to move for one night, and it's probably better for them not to have to clean up another apartment. After a quick breakfast, Scott and Rochelle packed up their bags and we drove to the town of Luqa (pronounced Lu 'A). Here Scott has made contact with Mrs. Karmen Tadesco, head of the George Schinas Primary School in Luqa for us to make a presentation of the Companion Flag.

We arrived at the school at about 10:15am, and spent about 30 minutes talking to Ms. Tedesco, and her two assistant heads, Mary Anne and Wilma. They were all very nice, and very receptive to the Companion Flag. We presented them with 2 desktop Companion Flags (Malta's flag on top, and the Companion Flag with a red stripe on the bottom). Scott had made the Companion Flags himself; very impressive! We were unable to have a school wide assembly as the school yard was too sunny. Instead, two classes of the older students were collected together into a room, and we were able to talk to them.

Scott first talked the concept of Companion Flag, and then presented the school with a large Maltese Flag, along with the same size companion flag. The students were very attentive, and looked so smart in their nice white and grey uniforms. Winston talked a bit about our one year trip, and asked them some questions about different countries. At the end of the session, the head girl and head boy of the school presented us with Maltese flags that we could bring back to Seattle and give them to the schools there. It was a very nice gesture on their part.

After the students were dismissed, the heads along with a handful of students walked with us to the courtyard where their flag pole stood. There is already a large Maltese flag on the pole. The handyman Raymond hoisted down their flag, and replaced it with the ones that Scott brought. It was a joy to see the Companion Flag flying, and the children were very interested as well. We gave everyone there a Canadian Companion Flag pin (which they quickly pinned on their shirts) and snapped a few photographs. We were quite elated with this achievement; the first Maltese school to be flying a Companion Flag! The teachers were all very supportive of the concept, and the children present in our presentation were asked by Ms. Tedesco to share what they have learnt with the rest of the school.

The hospitality of this great school did not end here; we were invited to have tea with the heads in the school's coffee room. They served us a wonderful snack called Krustinis, a biscotti-like pastry but much softer and very tasty indeed. We had a truly special time at Luqa Primary School and look forward to future efforts with Ms. Tedesco, and perhaps link some of the Seattle schools with the students in Luqa.

With a few hours before they had to head to the airport, we drove to the fishing port of Marsakloxx. Here we could see many colourful boats in water. We bought a few souveniors from the stands along the water (quite cheap in comparison to the bigger towns) and sat down for a nice seafood lunch.

It was sad to have to say goodbye at the airport. We have truly enjoyed Scott and Rochelle's company (they are very good travel companions; we spent 4 weeks with them in China last year). They are hoping to join us in South America next May, in the meantime, email and online chat will keep us in close contact. Back at the hotel, we had a lazy evening, reading up on Turkey and catching up on world news.

Today is our last day in Malta. We will be heading to the airport at about 10pm or so (our flight is at 1am) and return our rental car. As crazy as the driving has been, and the lack of signage, we were grateful to have a car as it made travelling around much easier. We went to see the National Library of Malta this morning, though we were unable to take any pictures or look at the old manuscripts (reserved for researchers only). It was stil interesting to see the tall shelves of old leather bond books. A single large room, the library consists of 2 stories, with 5 shelves of books up top, and 10 shelves on the bottom floor. The library was created when there was no standardized cataloging system yet, so the books had stickers on their spine with their shelve location.

We are planning to visit Marsaskala before going to the airport tonight. It's another fishing port, so we will probably have more seafood! Thank you Malta, we have enjoyed our relaxing stay, inspite of the rain ;) Wish us luck in Istanbul as we will be knocking on the doors of the Consulate General of India tomorrow morning. We'll be staying at the Peninsula Hotel for the next week.


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