Tear Gas and Taksim Square


You’ve probably heard about the protests in Istanbul, Turkey on the news.  The anti-government protesting, which began in May, reached a head in mid June as police evicted the peaceful assembly from their camp in Gezi Park in the Taksim Square neighborhood of the city.  As tensions mounted between protesters and police, two misguided tourists sauntered right into the middle of the conflict.   Without intending to join in on the action, and just 12 hours after arriving in Istanbul, John and I found ourselves experiencing our first, and hopefully last, taste of tear gas.

Allow me to explain.

A few days earlier in Cairo, John and I began searching Airbnb.com for places to stay on our upcoming visit to Istanbul.  We had booked our flight from Egypt to Turkey well before protests began, and had no intention of changing our plans.  We did, however, think twice before clicking the “Book Now” button on a perfect apartment rental in Taksim Square.  Despite getting a lot of negative press lately, Taksim Square is a popular tourist district in the heart of the city center with many fancy hotels, nice restaurants and several tourist attractions.  At the time, protests happening in Taksim Square were contained to Gezi Park, a rather small area of this neighborhood.   Airbnb does not provide addresses for properties, only neighborhoods, so there was no way for us to know how close to the actual protests this apartment was located.  Seeing as the host/owner had included the word ‘safe’ in all capital letters in the property title and made mention that he currently had guests staying there, we presumed it was a safe distance away from the generally contained unrest.  We booked ourselves in for five nights.

The evening of June 15, as we flew on a late night flight between the two cities, the protesters and police clashed in Gezi Park.  Police used water canons and tear gas to oust the protesters from the area, injuring dozens of people.  Blissfully unaware of this news, we arrived to a hotel in another area of Istanbul very early in the morning and went straight to bed, planning to meet our Airbnb host the following day.

The next morning I contacted our host to plan a meeting point and time for check-in.   (For the purposes of this story I’ll call our host Faruk, a Turkish name that was not his.)  Via text, Faruk instructed us to meet him at a specific Burger King at 3pm that afternoon.   Satisfied with this plan, we lounged for the rest of the morning and early afternoon, enjoying views of the city and not looking at the news.

At 2:30pm we grabbed our backpacks and hopped a cab to Taksim Square, aiming for the Burger King.  As we approached the neighborhood, the taxi stopped in front of a street closure barricade and let us out, the driver instructing us that we’d have to walk the rest of the way.  Together John and I walked the few blocks up the street, wearing our huge tourist backpacks and using an app on my iphone to lead us to our designated meeting point.  The area was rather calm and quiet, with a few police officers sitting calmly on the sidewalk and pedestrians walking through the closed off street.  Following the map, we turned down a smaller alleyway, onto what looked like a pedestrian mall, and spotted the Burger King.  It took only a moment for the adrenaline to start pumping – the Burger King was located literally at the front lines of a police barricade on the edge of the square.  There was a reporter filming a segment in front of the line, and people milling around us with cameras and gas masks.  The Burger King – and nearly every other shop and restaurant nearby – was closed for business.  Confused and feeling completely out of place, I snapped this photo with my iphone before we headed down the pedestrian mall to call Faruk and regroup.

As we walked down the street the eerie silence erupted into cheering and clapping.  Then cheering turned into Turkish chanting, and chanting turned into booing.  As the booing began, I looked around me and saw a line of 10 police officers in riot gear standing to my left, and a group of booing protesters to the right.  My adrenaline skyrocketed.  This was the exact wrong place to be.  Suddenly walking much faster, John and I darted off the pedestrian mall, through a line of police officers, and into a quieter side street.  We walked briskly down the street until I felt we had reached a safe distance from the action, where I stopped to put down my heavy bag and unleash a fury of angry words about our host for leading us right into the middle of the protest area.  (We later discovered that protesters had publicly planned to re-enter Gezi Park at 4pm that day.  Though we were unaware of this plan, it’s hard to believe our young local host didn’t know what was happening in his neighborhood.  Why Faruk chose to meet us at 3pm in the heart of the conflict is beyond me.)

Once I had calmed down a bit, John took control and found a few older guys sitting outside a convenience store.  He bummed one of their cell phones to call Faruk and reschedule our meeting, and we sat out on the sidewalk to await his arrival.  After just a few brief moments, a flood of people came running down a side street and toward us.  Not understanding what was going on, I turned to an older man behind us wondering if we should be concerned.  He shook his head no, and I looked back toward the running crowd.  This time, instead of running people I saw a projectile heading toward us, spewing out white gas.  Once more I looked to the Turk standing beside me and saw that he and the other men had already piled into the store and were quickly shutting the door.  I ducked in beside them and scooted to the back of the store as far from the door as possible, just as the fumes started to spread.  For several minutes, the room filled with tear gas as the group of us cowered in the corners.  Closing my eyes and covering my face with my hands, I held my breath and envisioned Reiki symbols in my head, chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum” to soothe myself.  (Apparently, I went to my New Age Hippie Happy Place.)  I could hear John saying “It burns!” and old men coughing around me.

As the smoke dissipated the door was opened to let in fresh air.  The store owner expertly sprayed our eyes with water and handed us paper towels while muttering “police fascists” under his breath.  Clearly this wasn’t his first experience with the tear gas.  We emerged from the store with red faces and watering eyes to be greeted by our Airbnb host.

“Don’t cry!” Faruk exclaimed to me, a big smile on his face.

“If I could stop, I would,” I said, still wiping my eyes and quite annoyed that I’d ended up in this situation.  ”This isn’t the best introduction to your country.”

“When you see the gas coming, you just have to run.  I’m fast, so they never get me!” he said with pride.

Faruk then hoisted my backpack on his back and started leading us to the apartment we had rented.  Along the way, he mentioned that just the day before he had been tear gassed while sitting inside the apartment he lives in down the street.  Even with the doors and windows closed, the gas still came in and affected him.  John and I exchanged glances, surprised by how nonchalantly Faruk discussed being tear gassed and horrified at the idea of being gassed within the safety of your own home.

A few moments later, Faruk stopped to point out some of the local sights.  Standing right in front of the police line on another side of Taksim Square, he pointed out restaurants, shops and metro lines that were usually great for tourists (but currently closed down.)  Concerned by our return to the vicinity of protesters and tear gas canisters, I began to wonder where we were heading.

“Where exactly is the apartment?”  I asked.

“300 meters from here,” Faruk pointed, just up the street from the square.

While normally this location would be ideal for travelers – proximity to shops, restaurants and public transit are excellent – it’s proximity to consistent tear gassing seemed like a pretty big downside.  It was time to shut it down.  With a five minute conversation I informed Faruk that he needn’t take us further as we would not be staying at his apartment.  Seeing as we only had a few days planned in Istanbul, it seemed best to avoid being tear gassed a second time.  Besides, since nothing was open in the neighborhood, we’d have to take great pains to get out of the area to enjoy the city anyhow.  Clearly disappointed but understanding, Faruk agreed to our cancellation and directed us back down the street to where we could find a cab to a less complicated part of the city.

Highly aggravated and ready to get out of this area, we hightailed it down the street looking for a cab.  We now had no plan – nowhere to stay and no idea where to go.  After walking about 1/3 of a mile down the road our bags were getting heavy and we were tiring, so at the first nice hotel we saw John hopped inside to inquire about the rates.  As I stood outside the lobby with our bags, gazing down the street away from the direction of Taksim Square, I saw another group of people running, followed by a projectile of white gas.  This time it was far enough away not to affect me, but it was unsettling to see tear gas rolling down the street in this area as well – I had been certain we had gotten far enough away from the center and were walking away from the problem, not back into it.  It seems the entire neighborhood was being swept by police to prevent any attempt by protestors to reassemble.  When John reemerged from the hotel lobby, we decided to grab a cab and leave the area completely.

Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones trying to leave and there were few cabs to be had.  As we waited on the street for an available taxi, yet another gas projectile came rolling down the street, this time closer to us.  We (along with a few other tourists) ducked inside the hotel lobby.  Unlike the convenience store, the hotel lobby kept us sheltered from any of the effects in the outside air, which was fortunate because that wasn’t the last tear gas to be released in front of the building.  As we waited, John saw a police tank rolling through the street in front of us and over a barricade, followed by 50 or more police in riot gear.  Every fifteen feet one officer would stop to shoot another round of tear gas into the street before continuing on.  We ended up staying inside that hotel lobby for about an hour waiting for the chaos to end.

Once the gas had cleared, a hotel staffer hailed a cab for us and we hopped in, heading back to the safety of the neighborhood where we had stayed the night before.  We drove through the streets with the windows down, smelling the faint burning smell of tear gas in the air.  Beside us protesters wandered through the streets wearing makeshift gas masks, revealing injuries from rubber bullets, and at one point blocking traffic from exiting the neighborhood.  Five hours after departing our original hotel, we returned looking for a room for the night and a little peace.

I can laugh at the whole incident now, but at the time the experience was surreal and a bit frightening.  While tear gas doesn’t cause too much damage (at least if you aren’t too close to it or repeatedly hit with it, as more injured protesters were), I feared that things could escalate at any point.  As someone who has never been involved in any variety of civil unrest, there was something very unsettling about finding myself in the middle of a protest I didn’t fully understand or support and witnessing firsthand the aggression of a foreign police force.  I later read that the police were instructed to view anyone in Taksim Square that afternoon as a terrorist, but I assure you we were just tourists in the wrong place at the exact wrong time.

Originally John and I had planned to stay a month in Istanbul, but we decided that this was not the time to spend a month in Turkey.  Istanbul is a gorgeous city, but even though most of it was unaffected by the protests I felt a bit nervous hanging around longer than a few days.  We booked a flight to Crete for a few days later, determined to enjoy as much of Istanbul as we could fit into our short visit without returning to Taksim.

On a side note, the standard Airbnb cancellation policy would not have refunded us any of our money for canceling our rental on such short notice, so I sent a polite email to the customer service team.  It seems the line in my email reading “We were tear gassed by police while waiting to meet our host at the set meet up point” qualified our case for what they call ”Extenuating Circumstances” and they fully refunded our money.  I should think so.

Istanbul » Tracy Carolyn Photography - July 1, 2013 - 1:28 am

[...] kid in The Chronicles of Narnia books was so obsessed with Turkish Delight?)Even with that whole tear gas incident, Istanbul still ranked high as one of our favorite cities.  It’s just that sexy.  I guess [...]

Cairo

I hated Cairo.  I’m just going to get that statement out of the way now because as I sit down to write this post, it’s all I can think.  I barely even want to write this post, because I can’t think of anything positive to say (so I’d better say nothing at all…)  But of course, that’s not how it works around here.  For better or worse, I visited this city and saw it’s sights, and came away with a brain full of anecdotes.  Just please bear that statement in mind as you read this post, so you account for the highly negative tone.

Cairo is a city that’s still figuring itself out and struggling with the financial implications of the recent revolution.  It’s a city where everyone needs money, and everyone asks for a tip – and I do mean everyone.  (I nicknamed Cairo “Islamic Cuba” because the level of scamming felt much like what we experienced in Havana, only with a far stricter dress code for women.)  It’s a city that gets right in your face with a dizzying array of sights and sounds so quickly that just a short 20 minute cab ride was enough to overwhelm my senses.

The next seven photos were taken with my iphone out the window of our taxi as we sped through the congested streets from our hotel at the pyramids to our new place closer to the city.  The iphone couldn’t focus fast enough to catch most of the things I really wanted photos of, but I think you’ll get the gist.

Political murals and graffiti are everywhere in this town, many of which prominently feature Facebook (my phone was too slow to catch those.)The streets of Cairo are full of busses and cars…and horse drawn carriages…and wooden carts being pulled by donkeys.  It’s a melange of transportation.  There are also full herds of goats standing in the middle of the road gnawing on the heaps of trash piled everywhere.  Seriously.Oh, and you can’t forget about the tuk-tuks, too.  Loads of ‘em dodging and weaving and honking their way through the throngs of traffic.  And then there are motorbikes, zipping in and out of lanes and adding their high pitched horns to the mix.  The honking on the street is literally non-stop, all day and all night.  After we had arrived in our hotel room (on the 7th floor) I repeatedly found myself yelling in frustration (through the closed window) at people in the street to stop honking already.  It’s an endless, jarring noise that never faded into the background for me.An underpass produce cart.  Most of the women we saw were wearing full burqas.  Even after two weeks in the Middle East, the women in Cairo were the most uniformly covered I’ve seen.
Where there isn’t a pile of trash, there’s a pile of dirt or rubble.
The guys in the back of this pickup truck were making kissy faces at me as they passed us, and not because I was taking their photo (I only started photographing them after they began.)  I think it had more to do with me being a woman wearing Western clothing and having an uncovered head.  Though I dressed very conservatively, I couldn’t escape being stared at by men (and sometimes women) on the street any time we left our hotel.  I became rather flustered by this – I was covered up as much as I could be without overheating, and the attention made me very uncomfortable.  (I hear the staring is even more pronounced in India.  I would have hated that.)After arriving at our Western chain hotel, I didn’t want to leave.  It was our oasis against the outside world, and I stayed hidden inside for the rest of the day, and spent much of the following one at the rooftop pool.  On our final day in Cairo, however, we decided to do a little bit of sightseeing.  We had just one or two items on our list of things to see before leaving Cairo, and we enlisted the help of a taxi driver we had met the night before to drive us around.  Just as at the pyramids, I felt like we were hiring “protection” for the day – someone to drive us around and keep us safe from the chaos outside the car.  This was to be our ride for the day.  It felt like we were riding around the city in a tank.

Our taxi driver, a polite older man, occasionally yelled out the window at pedestrians and muttered about how the youth had gotten much worse since the revolution.  To us, however, he was over-the-top polite.  On more than one occasion he made an unexpected stop to buy us yogurt or rice pudding or juice that we didn’t want.  (It was really odd.)

He also created his own itinerary of what we should do for the day, mostly ignoring our initial plan.  He first took us to visit Coptic Cairo (where we got ripped off at a restaurant serving falafel.)  Then we visited the tomb of Muhammad Ali Pasha, where the ticket taker led us up a precarious route on the rooftop (the photo below) to see a view of the Citadel (the first photo of this post), and then demanded a tip for services as a guide that we never asked for.

Next stop were two mosques in Islamic Cairo, where the woman selling entry tickets attempted to keep John’s change as a tip.  A plaque outside one of the mosques claimed that it was one of the most impressive religious sites in the world…at least, it would have been if it had ever been finished.  Um, no, you can’t make claims like that about an unfinished building.You are required to take your shoes off before going inside the mosque, and leave them in a cubby at the door.  Of course the guy overseeing the cubbies of shoes also wanted a tip.From the mosques you can see the Citadel, our next stop, in the distance.The Mohammed Ali Mosque.Though there is a call to prayer five times per day in Islamic countries, we never saw anyone going to pray at these times.  One of the calls to prayers happened while we were inside this mosque, and not a single person was praying.The Citadel is best known for its views over Cairo.  They’re a bit obscured, however, by all of the dust in the air.  Everything is covered in a layer, and the thick dust cloud just makes you feel grimy.  If you look hard you can see the faint outline of the pyramids through the dust.Just beyond that garbage strewn street is the Nile River…also full of garbage.  (I’m not even trying to hide my distaste for this city anymore, am I?)

At the end of our whirlwind tour, our taxi driver escorted us to the airport for a night flight to Istanbul.  Surprisingly, he was just about the only person we met who did not ask us for a tip (and as such, he was tipped.)  Truthfully, I haven’t been so excited to leave a country since we flew out of Cuba last August, and I left with much the same feeling: I have some interesting stories from our visit, but I certainly wouldn’t want to go back.  It’s possible that Cairo will become a great tourist destination again in the future, but based on my personal experience I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone for the next few years.

dreez13 - June 26, 2013 - 3:26 pm

Hey, I enjoyed your pictures !

I am going myself in November . Where did you take the first photo , the one at the start of the post ?

Thanks

The Pyramids of Giza

As we drove along the highway next to shopping malls, upscale condo buildings, and the construction site of a brand new Ikea, I caught my first glimpse of the Great Pyramids of Giza looming off in the distance.  I must admit, I hadn’t quite expected to meet the pyramids in this manner.  Though I had read that the city of Cairo butts up right against the site of the ancient ruins, I had still expected some sort of buffer between them and the city.  And I certainly hadn’t anticipated the Ikea.

A few minutes later, we arrived at our hotel for the night (located directly across the street from the entrance to the pyramids and aptly named The Pyramid View Inn.)  Seeing the pyramids up close, my first impression was completed as such:  yep, those are pyramids all right.  It was not the most enthralled response, I must admit, but to be completely honest, they didn’t seem all that awe-inspiring.

After settling into our room, John and I headed up to the rooftop terrace to enjoy the view of sunset over the site.  This was the view from the hotel roof.  You literally cannot stay any closer to the pyramids than this.

It seemed appropriate to enjoy a little happy hour with our pyramid view as we waited for our dinner to arrive.  With a little beer in me, I began to rethink my first impression.  Maybe the pyramids were stunning.  I wondered if during our visit the following day we might be more impressed with the scale of the structures from up close.  Though neither John nor I were convinced this would happen, we decided to give them the benefit of the doubt.

 

 

As we dined on hummus and bread salad, the sun set over the pyramids.  It wasn’t the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen, but its hard not to find the silhouettes of three ancient pyramids emerging against the night sky at least novel.

After sunset each night, the light and sound show begins.  Getting to see it for free was one of the perks of staying at this hotel, so we stuck around to watch. During the show, a loud voiceover (intended to be the voice of the Sphinx) explains the history of the pyramids while a laser and light show displays on the pyramids themselves.  The show felt a bit over-the-top cheesy (not to mention historically inaccurate) for me, but again, it was novel.  

The next morning, we crossed the street and entered the park just as it was opening.  The hotel staff had tried to sell us on tours both on camel back and in an air conditioned car, mostly by lying to us. They claimed that walking on your own was too hard because it was 8/12/15 km (the figure varied depending on which staffer was trying to sell us) and that to walk was impossible.  Even if those figures had been accurate, we are certainly capable of walking a few miles, and in fact welcomed the exercise.  Clearly dismayed that we wouldn’t take them up on their expensive camel riding options, they pushed us to at least hire a guide for the day.  While normally we avoid hiring guides at these types of sites because they are rather under-informed, I had read many accounts that hawkers within the site had gotten overly aggressive toward tourists over the last few months.  Because tourism in Egypt has suffered considerably since the revolution, the hawkers have become more desperate to make money off the few tourists that are still coming to Egypt, and as such have become a rather substantial danger/annoyance to patrons of the site.  I had read that having a guide with you helps cut back on this problem substantially, so we decided to hire someone to walk with us through the park, mostly as protection.  Fortunately, we only thought of him as this – protection – rather than a guide, because he was woefully uninformed about the site itself and provided us with little to no information on our “tour.”  He did keep most of the hawkers at bay, however, with a few annoying exceptions for some of his buddies.

Above is the largest pyramid, the Pyramid of Khufu which measures 481 feet tall.  Below are the small pyramids for Kufu’s wives.

We went inside one of the queens’ pyramids, through the tiny hole you see below.  Once you are inside, it’s practically a straight shot down into the tomb itself.  The space is very small, a bit claustrophobic, and not all that interesting.  Based on this visit, we decided not to go inside the larger pyramids, which have tunnels that are supposedly only 4 feet tall.  John’s height notwithstanding, it did not seem like fun to crawl around inside that narrow of a passage.

The stones that comprise the pyramids are quite huge, with some of them weighing up to 3 tons each.  Apparently they used to let people climb up the outside of the pyramids all the way to the top, but after too many toursits fell to their deaths they put an end to climbing.  Seems like the right thing to do.

The second largest pyramid is Khafre’s pyramid, built by the son of Khufu.  Though it is smaller in size, it was once covered in limestone, making it slightly more beautiful than the larger pyramid.

Several times during our tour, the guide insisted on taking the camera from my hands to take a photo of the two of us.  While I appreciate having a few photos of the two of us, I can’t for the life of me understand why he couldn’t get the top of the pyramid in the photo.  Out of seven images he took, five of them have the top of the pyramid cut off, and one has a bus in it.  Really dude?!?!?  You’d think if you work as a guide at the pyramids you would know that you should get the whole stupid pyramid in the photo…Sigh.  Yet another reason why all of our photos look like this.

(You may be wondering what John is wearing on his head.  It’s an arabic head scarf that he “purchased” the night before while walking back from the ATM in Giza.  I put purchased in quotes because it was quite a shady transaction that led to him owning said head scarf.  The story of how John got scammed by a small child in an alleyway is his to tell at a later date, but he wore the head scarf to keep his neck out of the sun, to try out the local fashion, and I think a bit in defiance of being sold something he didn’t really want.  I made him take it off for one of our photos, but of course in that one our guide decided to only include about 1/3 of the pyramid we were standing in front of. )

The third and smallest pyramid is Menkaure’s Pyramid.  Supposedly because it was the smallest, it was built with the most expensive materials, and was once covered in granite stones.

To one side of the pyramids there is a bit of Egyptian desert.  But most of the views from the pyramids these days are of the massive, sprawling city of Cairo.

Last on our tour was the Sphinx.  It was supposedly built in the resemblance of Khafre.  If the light and sound show is to be believed, the Sphinx speaks in an English accent, and had its nose shot off by Napoleon (a story which is widely discredited as a myth.)  In other words, don’t believe what you hear at the light and sound show.

At least our guide didn’t cut off the top of the Sphinx in this photo…

I had a difficult time feeling excited by the pyramids.  To be honest, the pyramids just are not very impressive in real life.  True, they are very, very old.  But that wasn’t enough to make our experience there a remarkable one.  Perhaps it was the combination of having to be on guard against hawkers, being annoyed with our tour guide, sweltering in the desert heat…I don’t know.  All I can say is at the end of the day we felt like we just ticked off the box of “Seeing the Pyramids” without really enjoying the experience.  On the list of great ruins we’ve seen this year, the pyramids slide easily into last place.  (In case you are wondering, the current standings are as follows: 1) Petra 2) Machu Picchu 3) Angkor Wat 4) Tikal 5) Pyramids of Giza.)

At the end of our tour we left Giza for a nicer hotel closer to downtown Cairo.  Based on the 20 minute cab ride alone, I wanted to hide in our hotel for the remainder of our time in Egypt.  I’ll explain why next.

Jenita - August 23, 2014 - 8:06 am

Thanks for inoiudtcrng a little rationality into this debate.

[...] to get my head around 5,000 years.  That’s how old the Pyramids of Giza are, which is most of what makes them so impressive and important.  Unfortunately, my little human [...]

If I Didn’t Photograph It, Did It Still Happen?

I’ve pondered this question many times during our travels – usually when something interesting crosses my path and my camera has been left behind.  The truth is, if I didn’t photograph it I usually don’t blog about it, and if I don’t blog about it, we might forget about it some day.  I say might because it’s not likely that all we’ll have left at the end of this journey is blog posts instead of memories, but with the number of memories being created daily, it becomes easy to forget one here and there if you aren’t reminded of it now and then.

Recently someone made mention to me that since they had read the stories on this blog they were all caught up with what is happening in my life.  I beg to differ.  While I put a lot of content on this blog, these posts probably only touch about 40% of our experiences.  There is so much content rattling around in my brain I couldn’t possibly post it all.  And many of our experiences don’t have any beautiful photographs to accompany them, which makes them easy to dismiss as blog posts.  Does that mean if I didn’t photograph something it’s as if we never experienced it?  I think I’d argue the opposite.

The thing about photography is that it can be wildly inconvenient.  I carry around a somewhat bulky DSLR camera with a heavy 24-70mm f/2.8 lens attached.  The camera is heavy and cumbersome, and there are times when I flat out refuse to carry it with me.  Like during the Mayan full moon ceremony on a cliff overlooking Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.  The view from high upon the cliff of the entire lake, surrounded by the twinkling lights from each village below, was fantastic, but the idea of carrying the extra weight of my camera (not to mention the worry about dropping or breaking the expensive lens) during a climb in which we needed to use our hands to scramble up to the top of the cliff was simply unimaginable.

Sometimes I don’t even know a photographic experience is happening until it’s too late, and my camera is at the hostel or buried too deep in my bag to pull out in time.  Or I can tell something would make a great photograph, but the bus driver isn’t stopping for my creative needs (see all of New Zealand.)

Many times the camera simply can’t do the scene justice.  Like New Year’s Eve in Sydney, where fireworks exploded from all around us, with the lights of the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge sparkling below.   In no way could my camera have captured the entirety of that experience, and I’m glad that I knew that before the show started.  It would have been a pity to spend the minutes after midnight with my face pressed to the back of my camera, viewing only the tiny part of the spectacle that could fit within the frame.  Instead, I watched the entire show with full attention, and laughed to myself at all the other people holding their iphones up to snap photos and missing the moment entirely while gazing down at their screens to see if they’d captured a good shot of what was going on.

But most of the stories that don’t end up on this blog are occasions that don’t lend themselves well to photography at all.  That includes dozens of interactions and cultural experiences that are simply better left for conversational storytelling, and heaps of views seen from moving vehicles that provide fascinating insight into a country but speed by too quickly to be captured.

A couple of nights ago we watched a spectacular sunset from the rooftop of our hotel in Istanbul, with midnight blue and soft pink providing a backdrop to the minarets of dozens of mosques and the sea just beyond.  It was stunning, but my camera wouldn’t have been able to see it.  While my eye could differentiate all the subtleties of the skyline, the camera simply wouldn’t see anything more than darkness with a few pops of light, and it would hardly be worth the effort to pull out my camera and try to capture something.  Instead I allowed myself to just enjoy the scene, and the experience, without trying to immortalize it on a memory card.  To illustrate my point, the photo above is the best shot I got from watching the sunset over the Pyramids of Giza last week.  Even if you didn’t witness it firsthand, I think its clear that this photo doesn’t come close to doing the scene justice.  (There will be more posts – with photos – from Egypt soon enough.)

If our goal in traveling was to take perfect photos of the world, we could have just purchased books full of them and called it a day.  We could have filled our house with photographs of the world’s iconic sights, taken by people who are far more talented and intrepid than I am, and scrapped the whole idea of traveling around the world.  But the point of our trip wasn’t just to collect pretty photos.  Yes, we’ll have some nice images to look at when we get back, but the point is to enjoy the experiences.  To make the memories.  To see the world through more than just a viewfinder.

So yes, if I didn’t photograph it, it still happened.  There won’t be a pretty picture to post on the blog, or a memento to hang on the wall of my future house.  I may not have photographed it, but I’ve seen it.  And I’ve lived it.  And if you’re interested in hearing the kinds of stories that don’t have good photography to back them up,  I’d gladly share them with you.  Just ask.

 

Road Tripping in Jordan

When we saw the sign for the Syrian border, both of us took pause.  ”Yeah, let’s not go there,” John said.  ”Agreed,” I replied, as we kept driving.

Up until that point, it had started to feel like we were on a road trip back at home.  Fed up with the prices of taxis and transit in this country, we had rented a car for the week and were driving north of Amman to the Roman ruins at Jerash.  The roads were smooth, cars drove on the right side of the road, and the countryside even resembled some of southern Colorado (probably only if you’ve been out of Colorado for as long as we have, but still.)  Once we saw the sign that we were approaching Syria, reality came back into focus: we were road tripping through Jordan.

(A side note to both of our moms:  we did not go anywhere close to the Syrian border.  We did meet a refugee from Syria staying at our hotel, but I assure you that is the closest we got.  We also skipped signage for borders into Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, for what its worth.)

Our reservation was for a Toyota Yaris, but since neither of us can drive a manual car, they had to dust off an old automatic to rent to us.  Going up hills was a stretch for this car, and we often got passed by trucks and busses when John had it floored.  On the plus side, we avoided any speeding tickets from the multitude of speed traps set up all over the place.  (We did get a parking ticket outside of Petra, though.)The bonus of driving yourself is that you can stop at the many road side fruit vendors, who sell produce such as figs, apples, strawberries, grapes, apricots, cucumbers and tomatoes.  Pickup trucks brimming with dark green watermelons line the roads.  Of course, that’s only in the northern part of Jordan, where the produce is plentiful.  In the southern desert we rarely saw anything but abandoned-looking coffee shops.  Fortunately, we always had a plate full of amazing Jordanian sweets with us in the car in case we got hungry.  Best.Baklava.Ever.

The downside of driving yourself is that you have to navigate.  Amman is a maze of streets with chaotic drivers and few marked street signs.  I had an iphone app and a paper map and still got us lost several times.  Perhaps if all of the signs weren’t in Arabic that would have helped, but I think we still would have gone the wrong way.  Whenever we stopped to ask directions people were very happy to help; however, Jordanian directions are often oversimplified and nonsensical.  For example, a police officer gave us directions to one of our hotels that would have had us driving the wrong way down a one way street.  He was quite friendly, but not entirely helpful.Friendliness seems to be one of the biggest character traits of Jordanians.  On one occasion we asked to borrow someone’s cell phone and within five minutes they had allowed us to use the phone, brought us drinks, offered John a puff from their shisha, and introduced us to three or four friends (all despite the fact that none of them spoke English.)  I can’t imagine that happening in the US.

On another day, a driver in a pickup truck flashed his lights at John while we were driving down the road.  As we slowed down he pulled up beside the window to warn John that a back tire was off kilter.  We pulled over on the side of the road to investigate, but before John had even gotten out of the car the guy was wielding a tire iron and tightening the bolts on one of the rear tires.  Confused by something he said in Arabic, John tried to offer the guy a little cash for his help, but was quickly and adamantly waved off.  A few meters down the road the Jordanian driver tried to wave us into his house for tea (which we had to refuse because we had a long drive ahead of us.)  All of this from a teenaged kid with braces.  Again, it would be stretch to imagine that happening back at home.

I could easily relay five more stories of exceptionally helpful cab drivers and strangers on the street, but I think you get the idea.  The people in Jordan are above and beyond the friendliest we have met anywhere in the world.  And unlike most countries, that friendliness comes entirely without expectation of selling you something or garnering a tip in the future.  They genuinely just want to help.To repay some of this karma, John wanted to help out some Jordanian hitch hikers.  Hitching is hugely popular in Jordan (probably because public transit is so terrible), and there were often people standing alongside the road looking for rides.  Having grown up in a culture where hitch hikers = axe murderers, I patently refused to allow him to stop for a stranger.  John persisted, however, and once a woman from New Zealand told us how safe it was and recommended hitching to a nice German guy we met, I hesitantly acquiesced.

John pulled over to pick up hitchers on two separate occasions.  While I think John imagined/hoped we might have a fascinating conversation and meaningful cultural exchange with our hitchers, he was sadly disappointed to discover that neither of them spoke a word of English.  They rode silently in the backseat until we let them out of the car a ways down the road.  Given the language barrier and our ignorance about geography in Jordan, I’m not certain we actually took them where they wanted to go, but at least we rescued them from standing by the road in the heat of the desert for a short time.

Issues with the language barrier and inaccurate Jordanian directions converged into one last adventure for us as we headed to the airport.  The front desk clerk at our hotel in Madaba provided us with straightforward directions to the airport that seemed easy to follow.  So easy, in fact, that it wasn’t until we’d gone 15 kilometers out of our way that we discovered the inaccuracies in his directions.  After stopping for more help (which, due to the language barrier, came largely in hand gestures signifying ‘airport’ from John and ‘turn around’ from the helpful stranger), we managed to arrive at the airport.  We then made the mistake of assuming it would be clear where one is meant to return a rental car.  After driving in circles three times, and asking for directions twice, a friendly guy hopped into the back of our car to direct us through another loop of the airport and to the rental car return lane.  Apparently in Jordan you are expected to know that rental cars are meant to pass through the lane marked “Special Vehicles,” that the guys standing watch will remove cone barriers to allow you to pass, and that you should double park outside the Departures Terminal and run inside for someone from the rental company to come out and inspect the car for you.  By this point we were so ready to be rid of our navigational obligations and return to the life of trusting taxi and bus drivers that we happily ditched our aging rental and hopped our flight to Egypt, hoping not to need to drive until we return to the US.

The freedom of being able to drive through Jordan was essential to our ability to change plans at a moments notice, and generally made our travel through the country more pleasant.  I’m grateful that John was willing to take on the task of driving the entire time so that I never had to maneuver through the crazy traffic, and that he is a patient enough man to tolerate my navigational missteps.  For the next few weeks, however, we’re looking forward to leaving transportation in the hands of the professionals.