This morning me and my wife are heading off on our first international adventure together. It’s her first time in an airplane, first time leaving Morocco, and first time going through airline security. It’s all bound to be interesting and surprising.
We’re both excited and anticipating the adventures ahead of us in Cappodocia, Istanbul, and along the Bosphorous. I’ve been wanting to go to Turkey since the day I decided to quit being a stock broker back in 2003 when a strange client told me “You know, you’re a great stockbroker, but you seem to hate it (He was right!) Why don’t you quit and go manage a guest house along the Bosphorus?”
It seemed like a better idea than staying in Portland and making myself miserable with worry over other people’s money. The problem was I didn’t have any money but I had just written and published Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond and so I got in my VW bus and set out to do my 20 book tour, since I only had 20 copies.
Since then, that book has passed through the hands of plenty of folks and inspired more than a few vagabonds to hit the road. Anyway, it’s funny that I was heading there when I got sort of sidetracked by falling in love in Morocco, then getting married, and now I’m heading there with my wife.
Of course, I’m having to adapt my travel style a bit but it’s exciting to see if we will be able to globe trot for pennies together. Of course, this is our honeymoon too so there will be some hotels and probably not much hitchhiking. Definitely she has said that there will be no scrounging for food in dumpsters! This is International Vagabonding 101 for her…and it’s time for me to see if we have what it takes to live the Vagabond Lifestyle on the Go.
Our trip started from our apartment near the Imam Ali Mosque in Fes, Morocco. We woke up early and walked the few blocks to the new Fes Train Station in the ville nouvelle.
The morning was bright and sunny and since the weather was already hot we knew it was going to be a scorching day in Fes. The vegetable souk next to Imam Ali Mosque was in full swing as we went by and we thought about buying fresh fruit for the trip but since we had already loaded up with the spoilables from our refrigerator, we passed by the many hawkers calling out ‘Banana ashirah dirhams’ or ‘Hoot Al Hoceima’ and got to the gare in plenty of time.
The new train station in Fes is beautiful. It’s so different from the dark and dingy little place I arrived at the first night I was in Morocco what seems like twenty years ago. Hard to believe it hasn’t even been two years yet. time goes slowly in the 12th century. Inside the station, we had some time so we went upstairs to a fancy coffee place and talked about what we hoped our trip to Turkey would be like.
Boarding the train we found ourselves in a very nice shared cabin with plush seats, cold air conditioning, and a very nice Moroccan family sharing the space with us. Since I had my internet connection with me, I wrote a couple of articles and actually managed to pay for the train trip while we were on the train. It took us just over six hours. Paying for first class in Morocco is always worth the extra money since the 2nd class cars often have AC that doesn’t work and you most often find yourself crammed into a compartment with 8-10 other people as opposed to the 1st Class which comfortably holds a maximum of six. The difference in price between first and second class for this trip was only about $15 U.S. for both of us.
Our tickets were 165 dirhams each for first class to Casablanca Voyageurs Train Station. From there we had to book two more tickets to Mohammad V Airport for 40 dirhams each. Maybe someday they’ll sell direct trains to the airport from Fes, but the transfer is unavoidable at the present time. For the short trip to Mohammad V from Casa Voyageurs, second class is just fine.
Hanane had only been to the Fes Sais Airport to meet me coming back from flights to Europe and the United States, so she was slightly overwhelmed by Mohammad V Airport in Casablanca. We were both nervous that something would go wrong and they wouldn’t let her board the flight since she’d never used her passport since I got it for her back in early 2009.
We checked in at the Air Arabia desk and weighed our bags. I’d offered Hanane everything I know about packing and traveling light and I was proud to see that her bag weighed in at just 6.6 kilos which allowed her to carry it on. Air Arabia allows you to carry 8 kilos and check one bag of 20 kilos. My bag was 5.5 kilos and so we both carried our bags. We filled out the immigration cards and then went through passport control. Both of us were nervous as she got to the immigration officer. Since we have to carry our marriage certificate with us everywhere we go in Morocco, we had that in my bag. It turns out they didn’t need to see it. In fact, we didn’t have to produce it even one time which was thrilling and exhilarating for both of us. Morocco is a fairly relaxed Muslim country in some ways, but it is also a very rigid and tightly controlled society in others. I felt liberated as we passed through airline security and moved into the departure area.
I changed 2600 dirhams into Euros and got the usual horrible airport rate and ended up with about 220 Euros, thus losing about 400 dirham in the exchange. I hated to do it but didn’t want to arrive in Istanbul with no usable currency since Moroccan dirhams can’t be used anywhere else outside of Morocco.
On the subject of airline security, I’ve never gone through security that was as lax as that at Mohammad V. I forgot to take my phone and cigarette lighter out of my pockets, the buzzer rang and they just told me to keep going. Hanane had a few oversized creme and beauty product items that I’d recommended she not bring, but the guard watching the x-ray machine was busy chatting with a friend and didn’t even look at the screen.
We were both giddy to realize that we were really on our way to Turkey. Air Arabia made me show the credit card I’d bought the tickets with before allowing us to board, and then we got to our seats. I’d reserved a window seat for Hanane since it was her first flight, but they put us in different seats for some reason. Luckily, she quickly made friends with the girl at the window who didn’t mind sharing it with her a bit.
Water, coffee, and everything else cost you in Euros on Air Arabia and you have to pay in cash. I was slightly annoyed when they didn’t have change for our coffee and water. They recommended I order something else, I was just aggressive enough that they figured out how to bring me change.
Hanane was a trooper though landing, takeoff, and turbulence all caused her to nearly hyperventilate in panic. As we got to Istanbul, she and the girl at the window both had their faces plastered to the glass and I felt like I was a time traveler returning to his own time after a sojourn in the dark ages.
Our flight from Casablanca landed about 50 km from Istanbul in the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. It’s not nearly as convenient as Ataturk Airport but it services a lot of discount airlines such as Air Arabia. While not a huge airport, it does have a lot of domestic and international flights coming in and going out.
Since we hadn’t checked any bags, I was hoping we could get through customs quickly and be among the first one’s there. Of course, it didn’t work out like that because I forgot to stop and buy the $20 tourist visa required of Americans. Hanane got through and when it was my turn the immigration agent sent me back down the hall to the visa agent. Where I got one of Turkey’s new visa stamps. It turns out they don’t like foreigners to work there for 90 days, take a ferry to Greece, and then come back so they’ve started a new policy that allows a multiple entry 90 day visa which says clearly that the visitor is not allowed to work. After it runs out you can renew for 45 days, but then you can’t renew for 180 days. It’s an attractive stamp in my passport.
Once through customs, we went straight outside so I could smoke since we didn’t see the transport I’d arranged waiting for us with a sign that was supposed to say Vago and Hanane. Once outside, it took us a while to figure out how to get back in. It was about 2 am and our driver was a no show.
I’d arranged transport through Istanbul Airport Shuttle and even when I called them twice and they assured me they were on the way, no one came. We waited about an hour and a half. Later I went to their office and found that they’d gotten the date wrong and sent someone the day before since our flight left on the 23rd and arrived on the 24th.
Hanane was a little freaked out and so I hired a freelancer to get us to the Hotel Ayasofya in Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmet region. Shuttles at that time of the night average at 30 Euros per person. A taxi is 85 Euros. The one I’d arranged was supposed to be 10 Euros each. I hired the freelancer for 20 Euros each which sent Hanane into a rage since that meant 400 dirham for a 45 minute shuttle ride. She harangued the guy into 30 Euros which caused me to be slightly insulted since I’d already struck the bargain.
I ended up giving him the 30 Euros plus an addition 10 Euros as a tip because I was pissed. The thief took advantage of our freshness with Turkish Lira and gave me change for my 50 Euro note with a 10 lira note, thus taking an extra 5 Euros for himself. He was driving for Yume Travel Agency and so of course, I don’t recommend them at all. If you see their van, please give them a Bronx cheer for me.
The drive into Istanbul from the Asian side to the European side was spectacular. As we crossed the Bosporus by the beautifully neon purple Bosporus Bridge, we were both thrilled to see the lights of the Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia), the Blue Mosque, Suleyman Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace. Given the time of the morning and the state of exhaustion we were in, it was surreal, but I suspect that any first sighting of Istanbul is just as surreal.
If you arrive at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport during normal hours you can take the HAVAS airport bus for 10 lira to Taksim and then take a taxi for less than 10 lira or tyhe funicular or tram for 1.5 Turkish Lira to Sultan Ahmet.
I knew traveling with Hanane would be different than my solo travels, but I didn’t know exactly how. It’s funny. It’s helped me to learn a little about myself and about how I usually travel.
One of my hard and fast rules (which I often break anyway) about travel are that a journey should begin with a small amount of luxury so that you can get your head on straight in a new place and end with a lot of luxury so that you have something to look forward to during the privations of hard travel. On this trip, I picked the ideal hotel in Istanbul to start and finish with: The Hotel Ayasofya in Sultanahmet.
We arrived at the Hotel Ayasofya in Sultanahmet a little after 4:30 am. It’s owned by Turkish/Australian partnership. During our stay we met with the wonderful Australian partner, Gaye Reeves who has worked tirelessly to turn it into one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed. Centrally located near the Blue Mosque and all of the major attractions, the Hotel Ayasofya is the perfect place to stay.
If you had seen it back in 1980, you wouldn’t believe it is the same place (just for reference, I didn’t see it in person back then). Originally built in the 19th century in a classic Ottoman style, the private home was allowed to fall into neglect and disrepair. By 1980 it had become derelict. After ten years of painstaking restoration in the original style, it was opened up as a hotel in 1990. Sumptuous rooms, plush classic furniture, and gorgeous decor combined with an attentive staff and the best complimentary breakfast we found anywhere in Turkey, this was a wonderful place for us to begin our Turkish adventures.
With a traditional Turkish atmosphere, gorgeous views of the Princes Islands in the Marmara Sea from the rooftop terrace and a location that allows for easy exploration of the hippodrome, the Ayasofia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bizarre, and the many museums of Sultanahmet.
Not that we took advantage of all of that within minutes of arriving before 5:00 am. What we did do was shower, turn on the air conditioner, see what channels were on the TV, and then go to sleep in the amazingly comfortable bed and linens for five hours. After that we woke up and had breakfast with Gaye who was kind enough to help us out with suggestions for our trip and who even typed up an itinerary based on our conversation complete with personal recommendations and contacts in the places we wanted to visit.
We were so impressed with the basic room we booked for our first night that we booked the top suite for the last night of our trip so that no matter what privations we might suffer on the road, we could know that our last night would be in the total and complete luxury that the Hotel Ayasofya offers.
To arrange a stay at the Ayasofya Hotel you go here or just visit directly
Resit Sok Number 28
you can call them at
To find out about rates and the various accomodation options you can visit their website at http://www.ayasofyahotel.com
I can tell you in brief that our return to the Ayasofya was even better than the first night, but I’ll give you the details about the luxury of the top suite in due time.
First, let me say, I definitely married the right woman. Hanane and I have a couple of rules we laid out before we left.
For instance, we each have to carry our own bag. This may sound cruel, but in fact, it is practical. I travel light so I don’t have to carry around a bunch of stuff. I wanted her to learn the benefits of doing the same. Since this is her first trip abroad, I knew she would be tempted to load up on souvenirs and purchases at the beginning of the trip. I think the time to buy things is at the end of a trip so that you don’t spend money you might need for travel on other things. Since she knows that anything she buys adds weight to her bag, this has kept this impulse in check. Also, I didn’t want her to do the American or Moroccan thing and pack 8 changes of clothes, tons of unnecessary things. She packed smart and ended up with a bag that weighed just under 7 kilos and small enough to carry on. My bag is about 5 kilos. We can both wear our bags and they are small enough to carry on and lug around even if we are sight seeing.
Just a short walk from the Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque was also crowded with tourists. Hanane was undergoing a kind of culture shock in Turkey that involved Islam and Muslims being different than those in Morocco. In Morocco, women don’t smoke cigarettes. Those that do are considered to be worse than whores. In particular, those who wear hijabs don’t smoke. In Turkey, we saw many women in veils smoking and her reaction was always the same “They’re all going to go to hell, I can’t believe what I am seeing.”
Expenses have been different than when I travel solo. That is mainly because while I’m willing to hitch and stay in shoeboxes or even sleep outside, those are a couple of things she is willing to do, but doesn’t want to. So instead of paying double what it would cost me to travel it is actually costing me about 7-8 times as much. A lot of this is because I also want her to experience the things that are available to see, taste, and experience in Turkey. Instead of loading up with free hostel breakfast foods for the day, we are eating nice lunches and pretty good dinners. While she’s willing to couchsurf a lot, I wanted to be extra careful not to cs in party houses or with hosts that are in the least questionable since my wife is a devout Muslim and sometimes tends to trust people that she perhaps shouldn’t. So, we are couchsurfing with great hosts with tons of positive feedback which sometimes means we don’t find a host and end up getting a hotel or pension instead.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m not enjoying this new mode of travel. I certainly am. One of the strange things I never expected was the sense of constancy that comes about from traveling with my wife. For me, there is almost no culture shock because she is a constant that is with me each step of the way. We have no need of finding companions and so there is perhaps less socializing in one way, but since Turkish people are so friendly, we’ve had no trouble making friends.
Hanane tried Turkish tea and looked like she would throw up. She said there was something awful about the taste. To me, it tasted like a strong black tea served without sugar which is quite different than the green mint tea served with two or three tablespoons of sugar per cup which Moroccans like to drink.I tried to get her to take the time to develop a taste for it, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it and instead pined for Moroccan tea during most of our trip and told hosts and new friends that she drinks neither coffee nor tea while she waited eagerly to get back to Morocco and get a big mouthful of minty sugar water.
After we left the Blue Mosque, we walked and talked and it was then that I realized that not knowing anything about our destinations, transport, or options with accommodation was going to make Hanane a little bit crazy with worry. I popped into an expensive English bookshop and paid a whopping 60 Lira (about $45!) for a 2010 Lonely Planet so that she could have a little peace of mind. Of course, I don’t like to carry a guidebook because they are heavy and they sort of herd you to the places the guidebook describes and eliminate the possibility of finding new wonders on your own, but what I realized was that Hanane wasn’t going to be able to travel with uncertainty on this first trip abroad. Hopefully, with time she will learn to trust the will of God as all Muslims are supposed to do, but most don’t. In terms of being a Muslim, I think this is what makes me one despite the fact that in many of the other expected practices I have little to no interest.
The other thing I’ve learned is that I’m probably not a good traveler at all. In fact, I’m a bit of a fool about the way I travel when I’m alone. It’s common for me to hop on a bus which I don’t know the destination of, to take long walks and hope to find someplace to stay, to arrive in a place with no idea about what is there, and to throw my plans to the wind when a new opportunity or interesting situation arises. In the past, this has led to all sorts of misadventures which is why I do it, but I’m not willing (and Hanane won’t let me) get away with this sort of behavior. One of the first things I realized in Istanbul was that the uncertainty I thrive on was making her crazy so I ended up spending way too much (30 Euro) for the latest Lonely Planet so that she could see that we had a place to stay and that we were going to nice places. As most of you know, I usually travel with no guidebook and the reason for that is I find that just asking other people for recommendations tends to work out better than planning things using a book and allows me to build new friendships and relationships along the way. This trip is different, but because we are an interesting couple (an Arab Moroccan Girl and a Muslim American white guy) and because she is so gregarious, we end up meeting a lot of people anyway. Still, I’m hoping that with time, she’ll lose a little of that fear of uncertainty and let me leave the guidebook at home on the shelf.
Another thing that’s wonderful about traveling with Hanane is that it really is a beautiful thing to be able to experience a moment like yesterday when the wind was blowing in my face as we rode the roof of a boat across an emerald lake and to say “Hey, come share this with me!” and to sit with my arm around her as the sun cast golden light on the reeds and the cool of evening began to come.
As I’ve mentioned before, we had planned to use couchsurfing.com throughout our trip to Turkey in order to save money and more importantly in order to make new friends and learn about things from a local’s perspective. For two months prior to our departure, I was searching for hosts, emailing requests, and planning our trip around those who were able to host us. While we were excited about the places we would see, we were equally excited about the people we were going to meet. Since we’ve both hosted a lot of people, we had an expectation that those who agreed to host us would honor their commitments since we had planned our travel and time around them, but upon arriving in Istanbul, I found that one of our first hosts (whom we had planned to stay with in Istanbul’s Princes Islands had had to cancel due to illness), our itinerary was essentially this:
1) Day 1 – Hotel Ayasofya
2) Day 2, 3, 4- Couchsurf in Kadikoy
3) Day 5,6,7 – CS on Princes Islands
4) Day 8,9 CS in Bursa
5) Day 10 CS in Izmir
6) Day 11, 12, 13 – Hotels in Mediterrainian
7) Day 14 – Night bus to Cappodocia
8) Day 15, 16 – CS in Goreme
9) Day 17 – Nightbus to Istanbul
10) Day 18 – CS in Istanbul (different hosts)
11) Day 19 – Hotel Ayasofya
So, based on people agreeing to host us, we planned to spend only 5 nights in hotels and splurged to get the suite for our last night in Istanbul. Our first hosts, Alp and Serap were the only one’s that actually came through though so we ended up booking an additional nine nights of hotel accommodations and didn’t know it would happen until we arrived. Not ideal.
Hosts canceled due to illness, pregnancy, unexpected travel, and having just forgotten that they had agreed to host us. While we were sad to have to stay in hotels, mostly we were sad not to be able to experience Turkish life and make new Turkish freinds.
All of that will help explain why one of the highlights of our time in Turkey was getting the chance to become friends with Alp and Serap who were our first and only hosts in Turkey. Reading about the two of them was like reading a better written profile of ourselves and Alp was thorough in his communication as well as being funny. He suggested that we spend the day sightseeing on our own in Sultanahmet and then catch the 5:30 ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian side of the Bosporus to meet them. I called him as the ferry left and he and his wife Serap were already waiting for us.
They are an interesting and lovely couple. Alp almost didn’t let me pay for the taxi to their flat but when I said that I wouldn’t be able to sleep if he didn’t let me, he relented. During the three days we spent with them they provided us with suggestions, helpful advice, and showed us some places we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. One of them was the busy mezos bar area where we had dinner that night. After explaining three must-eat Turkish meals, Alp let us choose which sounded the most appealing to us. They were Turkish raviolli, Pide (Turkish Pizza), or Hamsi and Mezos which are Black Sea anchovies and tapas, Turkish style.
We chose the hamsi and mezos since it sounded like the most unique experience. Serap then told us that she had been hoping we would choose that one. Alp, like me is a freelance writer and Serap is a food engineer.
Alp has written a lot of the Couchsurfing guide to Istanbul and we found ourselves in excellent hands during our time with them. For dinner we had the fried anchovies, a variety of eggplant, a delicious salad, and I drank one of the local favorite beers, Efes. It turns out that in Turkey, I’m not alone in being a Muslim who likes to sometimes quaff a beer or two whereas in Morocco only the scum imbibe.
Hanane of course didn’t have any alcohol and put about six sugars in her Turkish tea to make it drinkable for her. Dinner was about 120 lira for the four of us. It included an amazing variety and amount of food. It was the most expensive dinner of our trip but well worth it.
After dinner we had a wonderful walk through Kadikoy and Hanane was barely able to restrain herself from spending all the money I’d given her for souvenirs and shopping but our ‘You have to carry your own bag’ rule kept her consumer impulses in check.
Returning to Alp and Serap’s apartment, Alp made us delicious Turkish coffee and then we all went to bed. They provided us with a room of our own and were the epitome of Turkish hospitality.
In the morning, we went back to Sultanahmet to see several sights they had recommended we not miss (The archeological museum and the Basillica Cistern) while they went to the Turkish Modern Art Museum. In the evening they took us to outlet malls because I had asked where I might be able to buy a cheap digital camera since mine was broken and Hanane’s isn’t of the best quality, but since I knew we had the extra expense of accommodation, I didn’t find one that was in our price range.
The next day,Alp took us for an abbreviated version of one of his favorite Kadikoy walks since we wanted to take a boat tour up the Bosporus and in the evening Hanane made a Moroccan meal for us all in their kitchen. Serap was astounded by Hanane’s kitchen skills and said that she might ask for her to come train some professional chefs at the institute where she works. It was a beautiful meal with great wine and gorgeous conversations. One of the highlights of our trip to Turkey for sure.
In the morning, Alp got us pointed in the right direction so we could catch the early ferry to Bursa. I’d decided that since our second hosts in Istanbul had cancelled, it would be better to start seeing more of Turkey sooner rather than later. I was also anxious to get to Manisa.
So, you might start to see that this trip was more than just a holiday, it was a mission to see if we would be able to make the jump from Morocco to Turkey. I’ll give you more on that later. We kept in touch with Alp and Serap throughout our trip and once again, through couchsurfing, we have made friends that will last a lifetime.
Another example of my foolish solo travel behavior is that I usually spend my money without regard for how much I have left for the rest of the trip. The fact is I like putting myself in situations where I’ve run out of money and have to survive by my wits, but as a married guy traveling, that isn’t an option. So I can’t just take a hot air balloon trip and tell myself that I’ll figure out some way to get back to Istanbul without any money. And of course, I would.
Of course, I’m still foolish even with my wife. I like to spoil her a little now and then and sometimes I make decisions to ease her worries that cause her to get upset with me and of course then my brain doesn’t seem to function the right way. Here are two ridiculous examples.
When we arrived in Turkey, the transport I’d arranged to meet us with a sign board was a no show. We called them, waited an hour and a half (at 1 am) and finally, I just decided to find something else. Our original price had been ten euros each, the only guy I could find wanted 20 euros each. Taxis wanted 75 euros. I decided to go for it for 20 each not reckoning on Hanane’s fierce pride in haggling and fear of being ripped off. Pretty soon she was tearing into the guy for charging us too much and managed to get him to drop the price to 30 Euros. During the whole ride my brain was sort of…incapacitated with different emotions. When it came time to pay the guy, I paid him with a 50 euro note and since I was a little pissed about her post deal haggling, I told him to take the 30 Euros and to also take a 10 Euro tip which brought things to the 40 Euros I had agreed on. He gave me 10 in change and since I was sort of preoccupied and pissed off, I didn’t notice he gave me a 10 lira note instead of 10 Euros and thus ripped me off for another 5 euros. So, I’m a fool for a couple of things on this one.
Another one was getting ice cream in Istanbul. It was hot and she was tired of being dragged around to museums so I decided to get her an ice cream. The ice cream guy was funny and put on a good show and when it was time to pay said the price was 25 lira (that’s about 12.5 Euros for two ice cream cones about $9 each U.S.), again, I was distracted and just paid the guy. As we walked away, I realized how much I’d just paid for ice cream cones and so I went back and went to his boss to explain what had happened. He apologized and gave us 10 lira back thus dropping the price to about $5 each, which was still high but at least more reasonable, and in truth they were huge and delicious.
So, it’s a new experience for me. And it’s good too, though I admit that I will have to get my Vagobond on at some time and do some rough travel because I miss the stress of not knowing where I am, what I am doing, or how I’m going to pay for my next meal.