Explore | Istanbul – First Impressions

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I often reflect on what my expectations say about the tiny, orderly bubble-of-one I live in, and Istanbul was no exception. The stakes were high as I had intended it to be a gentle introduction to the Middle East. I had read so much about Turkish ceramics, craved the pickles I’d sampled here in London and looked forward to exploring a city of beauty and religious diversity. Against the backdrop of an increased terrorist threat, complaints of religious pressure and the majority of people saying “I wouldn’t go somewhere like that”, I applied for my visa online, packed a small bag, and off I went to finally experience the wonder of the Blue Mosque.

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However, things didn’t quite go as expected. My experiences before I even got through passport control were less than welcoming; the chap at passport control threw my passport at me. Deep breaths.  Stepping out of the airport I was engulfed by a thick, cough-inducing cloud of tobacco smoke, people spitting everywhere and this incessant hooting of taxis. My taxi driver chatted away on his mobile phone as he puffed cigarette after cigarette on the seemingly endless motorway. The traffic was heavy, loud and chaotic but every now and then I would catch a glimpse of a minaret over the hills and feel a wave of peace come over me. I would finally get to explore Istanbul’s mosques, eat a kebab (such a tourist!) and see a place I learnt about by ogling its porcelain at the V&A. Complaining because a city in a foreign country is different to what I know and love seems ridiculous to me. Almost as ridiculous as not sharing one’s true feelings… Istanbul is not my city; I don’t know the rules and, as a tourist, I needed to relax and take it for what it is, one day at a time. 

I have never been so happy to get out of a taxi! The hotel, so clean, smoke free and with a smiling face greeting me was such a relief.  I walked in and within 5 minutes, I was in my room, where I had a wee cry. Shattered expectations. Anyway… Whenever I travel, I always contact the hotel to ask for a yoga mat to be placed in my room. Like many people, and maybe more so as a solo female traveller, I struggle to sleep in hotels and often do a gentle yoga practice in these moments of insomnia. The only time I slept well whilst travelling was on a Junk Boat in Halong Bay, despite being certain it was going to sink! For my first night, I stayed at the House Hotel Galatasaray: the gentleman on the reception desk explained that he had upgraded me to a Junior Suite because it was quieter for my yoga practice. This is service.  Even yoga wasn’t enough to help me that night – I opted to calm my nerves with a martini in the hotel bar, where I met a lovely Turkish lady whom happened to be enjoying cocktails with her friend.

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In the morning, full of excitement, I ate a light breakfast before rushing out discover my new neighbourhood. Being late December, it was cold but the blue sky dazzled and I was finally able to explore a place I’d read so much about. I visited St. Anthony of Padua Church to enquire about Christmas Day masses, climbed Galata Tower for spectacular views of the sprawling city, completely in awe of its size, the glistening strait and the enormous mosques dotted around. There were a few school groups too; I cannot speak Turkish but the children I encountered were extremely polite, calm and engaged with their teachers, and it was a delight to watch their little faces as they saw their city from a different perspective for the first time. What a shame we often lose that sense of wonder as we age. The sun shined upon me as I made my way through the cobbled stone streets towards Galata Bridge, where fishermen chatted amongst themselves as the tram whizzed by, people rushed across and tourists like me crawled by at a snail’s pace, taking photographs and getting in everybody’s way.

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As I neared the end of the bridge and approached the Bazaar Quarter, I heard the Call to Prayer for the first time. I was terrified! I thought it was an announcement or warning as it seemed to echo (it was in fact from other surrounding mosques) but nobody else seemed concerned. I noticed a gentle stream of people heading into the New Mosque, and soon figured out what was going on. Within a few days, against the backdrop of exquisitely-designed and maintained mosques, I came to appreciate this call and the meaning it has for Muslims. I feel grateful to the universe I was able to have such an experience. Religious rules and rituals fascinate me, and I was incredibly lucky to be able to visit some such an array of mosques, churches and a synagogue, and indulge my fondness for religious architecture. This exploration greatly aids my desire for a deeper understanding of our different beliefs, but more on religion later. 

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The spice bazaar next to the New Mosque was a feast for the senses: cardamom, sumac, fennel and spices I’ve never heard of. The selection of dried fruit, sugar syrup infused pastries, ornate tea sets and ladies juggling babies and baskets was unique. I loved the scent of pickled chillies infused with freshly-roasted coffee beans from across Africa and the Middle East; suddenly you see names of countries only mentioned when talking about war and misery yet here, in a market,  you are reminded that life goes on, people work and breathe and, in some little way, we can help them. I sampled everything I could until I reached the point where I needed to stop eating or return to my hotel and put my yoga leggings on and return, but that’s not really my style.

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At the end of the first day, I switched to another hotel – House Hotel Bosphorus – where I stayed for 4 nights, and discovered my favourite mosque in Istanbul, met some interesting local people who informed me “we are not ISIS” – a comment I also (sadly) heard in Iran – and sampled some pretty good beer. Istanbul is heaving, very loud, people are suspicious of you (and baffled by why you would visit Istanbul now, at this troubled time)  and, dare I say, aggressive.  By the same token, I also experienced help and kindness from people I did not share a language with – the ladies who helped me take a bus when I decided to have an adventurous moment, the random young man who advised me not to walk alone at night (and he was right, as I didn’t feel entirely comfortable even in daylight) and the volunteers at the Süleymaniye Mosque who made me feel very welcome. The paradoxical nature of Istanbul has me debating whether or not to return but, at least for now, my memories (and the 2000+ photographs I took) will have to suffice. 

Coming soon: Exploring Istanbul’s religious architecture. 

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Explore | Istanbul – First Impressions

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I often reflect on what my expectations say about the tiny, orderly bubble-of-one I live in, and Istanbul was no exception. The stakes were high as I had intended it to be a gentle introduction to the Middle East. I had read so much about Turkish ceramics, craved the pickles I’d sampled here in London and looked forward to exploring a city of beauty and religious diversity. Against the backdrop of an increased terrorist threat, complaints of religious pressure and the majority of people saying “I wouldn’t go somewhere like that”, I applied for my visa online, packed a small bag, and off I went to finally experience the wonder of the Blue Mosque.

DSC00553-edited

However, things didn’t quite go as expected. My experiences before I even got through passport control were less than welcoming; the chap at passport control threw my passport at me. Deep breaths.  Stepping out of the airport I was engulfed by a thick, cough-inducing cloud of tobacco smoke, people spitting everywhere and this incessant hooting of taxis. My taxi driver chatted away on his mobile phone as he puffed cigarette after cigarette on the seemingly endless motorway. The traffic was heavy, loud and chaotic but every now and then I would catch a glimpse of a minaret over the hills and feel a wave of peace come over me. I would finally get to explore Istanbul’s mosques, eat a kebab (such a tourist!) and see a place I learnt about by ogling its porcelain at the V&A. Complaining because a city in a foreign country is different to what I know and love seems ridiculous to me. Almost as ridiculous as not sharing one’s true feelings… Istanbul is not my city; I don’t know the rules and, as a tourist, I needed to relax and take it for what it is, one day at a time. 

I have never been so happy to get out of a taxi! The hotel, so clean, smoke free and with a smiling face greeting me was such a relief.  I walked in and within 5 minutes, I was in my room, where I had a wee cry. Shattered expectations. Anyway… Whenever I travel, I always contact the hotel to ask for a yoga mat to be placed in my room. Like many people, and maybe more so as a solo female traveller, I struggle to sleep in hotels and often do a gentle yoga practice in these moments of insomnia. The only time I slept well whilst travelling was on a Junk Boat in Halong Bay, despite being certain it was going to sink! For my first night, I stayed at the House Hotel Galatasaray: the gentleman on the reception desk explained that he had upgraded me to a Junior Suite because it was quieter for my yoga practice. This is service.  Even yoga wasn’t enough to help me that night – I opted to calm my nerves with a martini in the hotel bar, where I met a lovely Turkish lady whom happened to be enjoying cocktails with her friend.

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In the morning, full of excitement, I ate a light breakfast before rushing out discover my new neighbourhood. Being late December, it was cold but the blue sky dazzled and I was finally able to explore a place I’d read so much about. I visited St. Anthony of Padua Church to enquire about Christmas Day masses, climbed Galata Tower for spectacular views of the sprawling city, completely in awe of its size, the glistening strait and the enormous mosques dotted around. There were a few school groups too; I cannot speak Turkish but the children I encountered were extremely polite, calm and engaged with their teachers, and it was a delight to watch their little faces as they saw their city from a different perspective for the first time. What a shame we often lose that sense of wonder as we age. The sun shined upon me as I made my way through the cobbled stone streets towards Galata Bridge, where fishermen chatted amongst themselves as the tram whizzed by, people rushed across and tourists like me crawled by at a snail’s pace, taking photographs and getting in everybody’s way.

DSC00638-edited

As I neared the end of the bridge and approached the Bazaar Quarter, I heard the Call to Prayer for the first time. I was terrified! I thought it was an announcement or warning as it seemed to echo (it was in fact from other surrounding mosques) but nobody else seemed concerned. I noticed a gentle stream of people heading into the New Mosque, and soon figured out what was going on. Within a few days, against the backdrop of exquisitely-designed and maintained mosques, I came to appreciate this call and the meaning it has for Muslims. I feel grateful to the universe I was able to have such an experience. Religious rules and rituals fascinate me, and I was incredibly lucky to be able to visit some such an array of mosques, churches and a synagogue, and indulge my fondness for religious architecture. This exploration greatly aids my desire for a deeper understanding of our different beliefs, but more on religion later. 

IMG_3949-edited

DSC00658-edited

DSC00647-edited

DSC00458-edited

DSC00677-edited

The spice bazaar next to the New Mosque was a feast for the senses: cardamom, sumac, fennel and spices I’ve never heard of. The selection of dried fruit, sugar syrup infused pastries, ornate tea sets and ladies juggling babies and baskets was unique. I loved the scent of pickled chillies infused with freshly-roasted coffee beans from across Africa and the Middle East; suddenly you see names of countries only mentioned when talking about war and misery yet here, in a market,  you are reminded that life goes on, people work and breathe and, in some little way, we can help them. I sampled everything I could until I reached the point where I needed to stop eating or return to my hotel and put my yoga leggings on and return, but that’s not really my style.

DSC00688-edited

DSC00855-edited

DSC00692-edited

At the end of the first day, I switched to another hotel – House Hotel Bosphorus – where I stayed for 4 nights, and discovered my favourite mosque in Istanbul, met some interesting local people who informed me “we are not ISIS” – a comment I also (sadly) heard in Iran – and sampled some pretty good beer. Istanbul is heaving, very loud, people are suspicious of you (and baffled by why you would visit Istanbul now, at this troubled time)  and, dare I say, aggressive.  By the same token, I also experienced help and kindness from people I did not share a language with – the ladies who helped me take a bus when I decided to have an adventurous moment, the random young man who advised me not to walk alone at night (and he was right, as I didn’t feel entirely comfortable even in daylight) and the volunteers at the Süleymaniye Mosque who made me feel very welcome. The paradoxical nature of Istanbul has me debating whether or not to return but, at least for now, my memories (and the 2000+ photographs I took) will have to suffice. 

Coming soon: Exploring Istanbul’s religious architecture. 

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Coffee Break | Reaching Out Tea House, Hội An, Vietnam

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SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC Lured in by the smell of coffee wafting through the air and my weakness for Chinese decoration, I stepped through the door to smiles and, rather oddly, silence. At first I couldn’t really understand what was happening; a Korean couple reading and Western family of 5 sat eating biscuits and sipping coffee without saying a word. I noticed beautiful ceramics and coffee boxes for purchases, and started to speak before rapidly being instructed to shhh (with a smile)… Oh, what’s happening here? This café – Reaching Out – is run by ladies with hearing impairments, and there is no talking permitted. As someone who believes the world is too noisy, this was a Godsend! I cannot help but think we need a similar type of place in London…

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You place your order by completing a form which, fortunately, comes in English. Quite out of character, I hadn’t researched Vietnam very well; most of my experiences were unplanned and, perhaps, that is what made them even more emotional. The power of a smile, of looking into another human being’s eyes with intend and trying to understand who they are without exchanging words is deeply meaningful, and I was caught off guard. It’s interesting what you pick up along the way, right? Reading the literature at the café, I came upon the term “differently abled people” – isn’t that much better, and far more accurate, than ‘disabled’.

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I chose a coffee-tasting set which came complete with condensed milk and a variety of homemade biscuits. I don’t usually sweeter my coffee but this is traditionally how things are done here, and I like to experience new things. I was particularly impressed by the presentation – perfectly polished glassware, glistening gold decoration, Chinese characters galore and a business model that at once accommodates tourists supports local people and remains true to Vietnam. Highly-impressive.

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I spent over an hour here, taking photographs, sipping coffee and just closing my eyes and enjoying the gentle murmur of life outside and that sweet, smell of really good coffee. Located within the UNESCO heritage town and started by a Vietnamese couple, the Reaching Out company provides employment for those living with disabilities, offering them a chance to enhance their skills to provide an income to live independently. The company receives no outside funding and is completely reliant on people like us. Great coffee, calm surroundings and an even better cause. If you’re visiting Hoi An, I highly recommend a visit.

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P.S. I am desperately trying to book another trip to Vietnam. Alas, it will have to wait until 2017.

Reaching Out
131 Trần Phú,
Sơn Phong,
tp. Hội An,
Quảng Nam,
Vietnam

Explore | Killing Fields, Cambodia

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“When one with honeyed words but evil mind

Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”

― Euripides, Orestes

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I awoke bright and early and tried to mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. I couldn’t eat my breakfast, and so after a little tea and some juice, I set off on for my morning tours. Each nation has its own dark moments – my country has many and, as I type, our inaction in aiding the plight of refugees from the Middle East is currently hanging over our collective heads like a dark cloud. Visiting Cambodia was never going to be about sunbathing and cocktails, too much has happened there for pure fun and frolics, and I knew visiting the S-21 prison and Killing Fields was going to be emotional, but nothing quite prepared me for my encounter with a survivor.

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Our guide, a friendly, well-spoken gentleman was personally impacted the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge. His father was an academic who disappeared without trace. He talked about the fate of such people, political prisoners and anybody the Khmer Rouge deemed a threat. Years later, he now works at S-21 and continues his search to discover what happened to his father. Imagine being a little child, the government is murdering its people and your father simply doesn’t come home one day. I sobbed but didn’t want our guide to see me. After an emotional pause, and with a smile, he told our group that his family felt extreme pride in his father’s action: he explained that although they believe that his father was captured, tortured and executed, they know that he never gave up his family, for they are still here, and that was the greatest act of courage. It was deeply moving.

The prison was particularly horrific: metal beds with hand and feet cuffs, torture rooms and areas where mass rapes, a common theme of the period (and sadly, still today) were carried out. Guards frequently inspected cells to ensure prisoners had no means to commit suicide. After once prisoner jumped to his death, electrified barbed wire fences were put up around the building, which was previously a secondary school.

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Following the tour of the S-21 prison, I visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge murdered an estimated 1.5-3 million people, including up to 1 million at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. As you enter, you see a beautiful Buddhist Stupa. Upon closer inspection, I discovered it was filled with 8000 skulls from the surrounding graves. If you remove your shoes, you are permitted to enter and can purchase flowers and incense for the lost ones. The skulls are arranged by gender and age, and evidence of crushed skulls and bullet holes are obvious.

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The Killing Tree was the most horrific thing I have ever seen. Babies and small children were held by their ankles and swung so their heads bashed fatally into the tree, often with their mothers watching. These women would then be sexually assaulted and murdered before their corpses added to one of the so-far discovered 20,000 mass graves. Children were murdered for fear that, should they grow up, they would seek revenge, though given the scale of deaths; it seems that the murderers enjoyed it. How can you hurt a child? It is beyond my comprehension.

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I bought a coconut, sat on a step and embraced the eerie silence, imagining the screams and terror of those who lived this. This was 8 months ago and I still cannot understand how people behaved with such evil but, even more confusing (and inspiring), is how Cambodian people seem so kind and open, after such recent atrocities. There are moments in our lives when we are consumed with sadness; I do not remember a time in my life when I felt so empty. I left feeling broken. We haven’t learnt anything; the loss of life and abuse of human rights across the world continues. I wrote about my feelings on Phnom Penh here and my lack of desire to return remains. However, I hope my future will include engaging with more Cambodians and learning more from their gentleness and ability to look forward to more positive experiences.

Explore | Halong Bay, Vietnam

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SONY DSCHalong Bay always seemed like one of those places other people go to. You know, those people who take extraordinary photographs, have Condé Nast Traveller raving about them, have seemingly never taken a bad photograph and who are so naturally at ease with everything they encounter within the world. The more I live, the more I realise these people don’t really exist; they’re just like you and me. Halong Bay seemed otherworldly in the most wonderful sense but fear still held me. Fear of the unknown, of fulfilling the words of caution others had ‘offered’ without experience.

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Coming from a busy city I haven’t spent much time at sea or in the water in general. Occasionally I go swimming but then I get freaked out about germs, rush home and spend longer in the shower than I did in the pool! As soon as my bus pulled up at the harbour, I started to feel a little anxious. The moment I put the life-jacket on, I felt nauseated, sweaty and I just kept thinking about drowning.  I just wanted to get on the main ship for some sense of stability though, secretly, my initial thoughts all related to getting back to dry land the following day.

SONY DSCI made my way onto the main Junk boat, and to my little cabin with comfortable little bed with crisp, cool white linen. The awe-inspiring views as the boat made it’s way through Halong Bay. Hundreds, no, thousands of islets surrounded the boat, giving me goosebumps – each one seemingly more lush than the last. It was a place of firsts: I kayaked around the islets, slept on a boat and, most importantly, realised that my dreams are all attainable. I wanted to push myself, to live outside of my neatly planned life of books, manicures and stained glass window ogling; to live what I read, to explore the impact of formal education, my beliefs and to confront my fears. The kayaking was a mistake; it was one step too far outside my comfort zone and something I will never do again. I couldn’t enjoy the view because I was too scared about dropping my oar and, naturally, the fear of my kayak drifting into the abyss as a result. Petrifying.

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SONY DSC SONY DSCThe adventure was only beginning. We docked at one of the islands for a little mountain climbing, as one does in sandals and a bikini… There, high-above sea level, in the company of ravenous mosquitoes I spent a good hour just staring out at Halong Bay’s beauty, patiently waiting for the sun to set.  I soon headed back to my boat for a strong martini and the silence of life at sea.

SONY DSC SONY DSCI awoke feeling refreshed and calm. It turns out sleeping on a boat is a pretty blissful experience. I still recall my morning boat shower; it’s amazing how quickly we become desensitised to the seemingly-new and strange. Having survived the previous night’s shower, with surprisingly-good water pressure, the morning was a breeze. I stepped up on deck, sat down with The Economist and started to cry. It was a magical moment of feeling connected to our universe and myself. I hope I never forget that sense of possibility. Just me, my favourite magazine and nature’s beauty. It was definitely one of the best moments of my life thus far.

SONY DSC SONY DSCIt turns out that my Halong Bay experience, my second and third days in Vietnam, not only opened my eyes to a new part of the world but also set the foundation for my entire trip. Vietnam welcomed me; its people exude warmth and curiosity, the food is spicy and delicious and everywhere you look, even in the main cities, there is an abundance of greenery. Once again, I realised that as expensive and exhausting as travelling is, nothing enriches your life more. I’ve only been to Vietnam once, so I am clearly not an authority on the country.  However, people with lives vastly different to mine, citizens of country deeply scarred by war and Western greed yet with a culture of kindness, education and learning from history. People who affirmed that our differences exist to unite us, rather than divide. I have met never people who have experienced the horrors of war, mass rape, violence and oppression yet whom, astonishingly, show openness and forgiveness.  I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat but first I think I need to visit other distant lands – China, Iran and India – which have long since been calling my name!

Explore | Imperial City, Huế, Vietnam

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The Imperial Palace complex, a designated UNESCO site since 1993, designed with the principles of Chinese geomancy (yes, finally my Asian Art background makes sense!) was home to the Nguyễn family, is surrounded by mountains, lush greenery and locals selling delicious rambutan.  Surrounded by a moat, the main buildings are set within 2.5km-long walls, which make for difficult navigation but, trust me, it is worth it.

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Rooms filled with original blue & white porcelain, mother-of-pearl adorned tables and artefacts the royal family themselves used. Weaving between buildings, I came across countless gardeners happily tending the sumptuous flora as I sought refuge from the humidity in ornately decorated rooms. They’re all wearing 3-4 layers and are working away: I had 1 layer on and almost melted.  To enter some rooms, you must cover your shoulders, remove your shoes and refrain from photography as a sign of respect to the ancestors

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The complex was devastated during the French and American bombing of Vietnam, with only 20 buildings surviving. However, in 2012, the government approved a US$61 million restoration proposal. By the time I visited, the majority of the complex had been restored to its intended glory. Hue, which until the mid-20th century served as the capital of Vietnam, was my favourite city in the country, and I would happily return.

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