Wednesday We slept in a while since we had been up so late and finally started moving around 10 or so. While Joanne and I were primping in the bathroom, we met a nice girl from Canada. It is really funny how sometimes complete strangers can really make an impact on your life. Amelia overheard us talking and piped in and as we started talking we found out that she was traveling alone because he boyfriend abandoned her in three different countries. They kept making plans of him to come over and meet her and travel a while and three different times he told her last minute (after buying a plane ticket or getting to the country) that he wasn’t coming. She had broken up with him just a week prior to meeting us and Jo and I immediately went into girl mode bashing this total stranger and telling her she was so much better, etc etc. It was all true and after all was said and done, she said that was the best advice she had received from anyone! I felt that after a deep talk in the girls bathroom of a random hostel we were destined to be friends! We invited her to join us for the day and she accepted. So the 5 of us set off about an hour later to explore the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. When we got to the Blue Mosque, prayer was about to start so we were not allowed to go in. We strolled over to the Hagia Sofia and spent a long time exploring everything it had to offer. To say that it was beautiful or amazing is such an understatement! This and the Blue Mosque really do need to speak for themselves. I will put some pictures up, but if you can, google image these places. The Hagia Sofia was first a church and then later converted into a mosque. Ataturk decided that it would become a museum and should feature both the Christian and Islamic symbols that make it so special so he ordered for the plaster that was covering the Christian symbols to be chipped off. Now you can see large hangings featuring scripture of the Quran next to paintings of the Virgin Mary and her son. It was quite powerful and there was just so much to take in. I wish that it was free because I wanted to go back a second day. After a while I just got so overwhelmed by it all that I had to take a break and sit down. I don’t feel like I got to see everything completely and I want to go back again. After Hagia Sofia we took a nice long walk through a beautiful park as Amelia was leading us up to a café with a great view of the Bosphorus. I felt so bad for Raughley because he was limping the whole time and walking up and down the expansive rolling hills of the park proved especially difficult for him. We all took turns holding back and helping him along. In the park we found a man that had two rabbits and a chicken. On pieces of paper were written fortunes and he would hold a plate with slates in it up to a rabbit’s mouth and whichever paper it picked was your future! I think the initial price was 5 lira but we really didn’t have small change so Raughley offered him a US $1 bill. He took it and Raughley got his fortune (it came true too because he was offered a job he had applied for!) As we walked away I realized that I really wanted a fortune to because I am way to into that kind of stuff and even though I know it was super silly, I wanted to know what my future held. Between the five of us we scrounged up 3 lira and ran over to him and had his rabbit pick out my future! (It was pretty good too and I hope it comes true!) The man then insisted on taking pictures with all of us, shouting “Lady” at Jo and Amelia. When we made it up to the café that Amelia had told us about, we were overwhelmed with the view. It really was beautiful. Unfortunately, you had to pay for that view and Nescafe coffee (1 lari in Georgia) was 6 lira!! We passed, which forced Raughley to walk right back down the steep hills that he had just come up. Amelia wanted to go back to the spice market to buy a lamp and ship it home to Toronto, so we followed along. It was a decent walk but along the way we stopped in for a hot meal for Amelia and tea/beer for us. After our break we wound through the market to get to the light shop. It was incredible. All this multicolored glass strung together and hanging in all different orders and shapes. If it wasn’t so expensive or heavy/expensive to ship, I would have bought one on the spot. However, the man asked where I was from and happily informed me that they have a chain of the shop in Dallas! How crazy! He said that they make everything in Turkey and then send it over to his friend who runs the shop there. I am definitely going to fish out the card when I get back home this summer. We spent a good deal of time in the light shop and they brought out tea for us and we were just chatting. Jo bought a scarf for her host mom and after a while Amelia came down stairs and explained that she had to go to FedEx to haggle the price down for shipping (you can haggle EVERYTHING!) So we left and walked back to our hostel. We took a few little detours to try to find Raughley some loose fitting pants. His jeans were too tight and rubbed on his cut. We initially found a pair of granny Capri pants that were hilarious, but served the purpose. However, long pants were required for mosques and they capris were just hideous. Unfortunately we couldn’t find anything suitable that fit and were a decent price. We also made plans to cut a kitty cat shaped patch to put over his torn pants but that never happened. We got back to the hostel and decided to go to the grocery store next door and pick up stuff for dinner. We got oven pizzas that we cooked in the microwave (terrible bologna like meat on them and sprinkled with corn…) and then we made sandwiches. We had all sorts of yummy fixins like pickled red peppers, mustard, fresh cheese, two kinds of pepperoni, mustard, and we put it all on the biggest treat of all-WHEAT BREAD!!! It was so oaty and delicious! The kitchen area was under strict restrictions since the hostel cooked meals for those who wanted it. There were no plates or utensils or anything like that so we had to cut a big 1.5 liter bottle of water in half and filled it with boiled hot water and instant coffee mix. Not the best idea as the bottle started to shrink, burned our hands when we tried to touch it and the coffee was crap, but it was still fun. That night we walked around the city so Pauli and Jo could take some night shots with their fancy cameras. It was super chilly and pretty soon I had wrapped my scarf around my head and neck to try to stay warm. My little Northface fleece is not as warm as I thought it was and the whipping wind was really getting to me. Once back at the hostel we fixed up Raughley’s knee again and then all quickly fell fast asleep. Thursday In the morning we went to the Blue Mosque which is still a functioning mosque so we had to get there early enough to have enough time to view it all. It was one of the most stunning sights I have ever seen. It was so powerful and I was literally on the verge of tears from the beauty. At one point I sat down and tried to meditate/soak it all in but there were too many people walking around and talking so I couldn’t calm down and focus. We walked around and looked at everything and even read a very helpful pamphlet on What Is Islam? That afternoon we walked to Topkapi palace, sat in the park and ate our sandwiches and fed the two big sweet kitties that were lounging in the sun. We wadded through the streams of children to look at all the precious jewels and other unique relics in the palace. There were some pretty amazing pieces of past sultan’s royal jewels and even some historical Christian and Islamic artifacts. As we were leaving the palace we ran into a whole mess of kids. This area of town, so rich in culture and history, attracts children’s groups like moths to a flame. We had been battling with these kids the whole time in the palace, but they quickly melted our hearts. We all voted that they were between the ages of 8 and 10 (the adorable age) and one kid could obviously tell that we were not Turkish (I wonder what gave it away-probably the kid’s Deutsch-dar went off for Pauli) and he said “Hello!” We responded with a nice “hello” as well. Pretty soon, the entire group of close to 50 students were shouting “Hello! How are you?! What is your name?!!!” We even had kids come up and shake our hands! The amazing thing is that when the kids at school do this, it is annoying because those are the only words in English they know (1st through 12th graders) but when strangers do it, it is the most precious sight to see! Their unabashed courage, innocence, and pride in themselves was obvious, and so heartwarming. When we had finished at Topkapi, we decided that we could splurge and went back to the expensive café with the great view that Amelia had shown us the day before. We would have sat there longer, but the sun was quickly being covered by clouds and it was chilly up on the hill. We made our way back to our hostel and grabbed all of our stuff. That evening we had to move to a different hostel as a group of Dutch students had booked up the whole hostel! We walked to the tram which took us to the ferry which would take us across the Dardenelle straights, where we thought we would have to get another bus to get across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul. When we consulted our map, we realized that we were not staying on the Asian side, like we initially had thought. It was convenient for us, but a bit of a disappointment because we were looking forward to waking up and exploring all the goods of that side. After winding our way around a new part of the city, and asking for help a few times, we were pointed in the direction of a construction zone. Literally, there was red tape all around and you could hear jackhammers going off. We were quite confused but we looked around for the building number and sure enough found our hostel right next to the building under construction. We had to walk under the restriction tape to get to the hostel. Sign number 1 that it would be a bad experience. Number two was that the door was locked and when we rang the doorbell, a man stuck his head out the window and yelled us asking why we were ringing the bell. When he came down he seemed quite put out. We walked up the narrow winding stairs to what was our room. Sign number 3 He immediately asked us for the payment in full. We set down our bags, declined his offer to join him in the common room upstairs to chat and rushed out to get away. We ate at a nice little diner that we had seen on the way in. Although the menu offered a few different items, when we all ordered, we basically got the same thing. It was a lamb but in different forms. Mine was wrapped in a tortilla/pita thing, Raughley’s was the solo thing on his plate, and Pauli’s came minced on a piece of bread. Jo ordered soup and chicken. When the soup came out, the oos and ahhs coming from her were ridiculous! We all promptly tried her soup and simultaneously made the same sounds. It was delicious-hands down the best soup I have ever had in my life. It was lentil soup with a little drizzle of sauce and a lemon squeezed in. Raughley ordered a bowl, and I vacillated but decided against it since we had ordered a lot of food already. Once we had finished dinner, we strolled around our new area and then ended up back at our hostel to get a good night’s rest. Friday We woke up and got out of our hostel as quickly as possible. The weather was quite nasty, overcast and windy, but we wanted to check and see if there was still a possibility to take a hot air balloon ride, something we had all been looking forward to since we booked our plane tickets months before. Unfortunately, due to the weather, there was no way that we would be able to take the trip. Both Friday and Saturday were bound for bad weather. We turned back, disappointed. At this point, Pauli and Raughley went to find the ticket office for Pauli to find his bus ticket. Joanne and I stayed near the balloon/main part of town to find a bathroom and a hot coffee. Switching different countries, which includes new water and food was taking a toll on both of our digestive systems. No serious problems, just lost of inconveniences. We walked across the street and found a fancy looking little café. At this point we were willing to pay just about any price for a good, clean, western style bathroom. (I mean a room with a toilet you can sit on and not just a hole you squat over.) We were supposed to meet the boys in 30 minutes to go about the rest of the day. Well, we sat down and marveled at the extensive menu presented to us! They have everything you could imagine! Ok not really everything, but after bread and cheese in Georgia, and only allotting ourselves one hot meal a day for the past week, we were both salivating just reading the descriptions of the delicacies available at our fingertips. Jo settled on pasta, and I ordered a plate of assorted stuffed, dried vegetables, drizzled with olive oil. It tasted like pure heaven whenever I put that first bite into my mouth. I almost cried right then and there. I had not tasted something with so much flavor in months! Plus, it was actually a piece of food that had some nutritional value to it, unlike the loads of white bread, stripped of all fiber and helpful natural ingredients that I shovel into my body. We sat there reveling in our gorgeous meals. Once it had been the allotted 30 minutes, we took turns every 8 to 10 minutes running out to the meeting spot we were supposed to find the boys at. Well, it took them over an hour, which worked out for us too because it took a long time to get our food delivered to our table. The four of us met up and were soon in a search to find a hammam, or Turkish bath. Well, we saw a small shack that looked like something resembling a visitors’ center. We walked in and found out that they did not speak an English and it was actually, not a tourist center. However, once again, we were overwhelmed with hospitality. The woman working there grabbed her cell phone, spoke into it and then handed it over to Joanne (in Georgia, we would have been overlooked immediately and the phone would have been handed to Raughley, the male in the building. I just want to reiterate again the amazing differences I saw between the two neighboring countries of Georgia and Turkey). Joanne spoke into the phone, apparently to the woman’s niece, and explained that we were looking for a close hammam. The phone was passed back and the woman answered the question and gave the phone back to Joanne. The niece explained that we were just a few blocks from a hammam! What luck! We thanked the woman profusely, shouting a massacred version of “Tea sugar!” We went out to gather Pauli. The building was small so he had opted to wait outside. While he was outside, he was lured to a stand of woman who offered him food. They were petitioning for equality in the Turkish parliament. So the woman gave us all pins and stickers, shoved food into one hand and a pen to sign the petition in the other. We all happily signed and took a picture to prove that everyone, even westerns believe more women should be in parliament! We took our fresh baklava goodies and followed the directions to the hammam. We were in great luck and found it easily. Plus, it was cheap! 30 lira for all services. These include sitting in the steam room, a full scrub, and a massage. There were separate areas for men and women, including separate entrances from the street, so there could be no mingling between the sexes. As soon as we walked in, we could see why. It was full on female time. There were naked women just hanging out, joined by those half and fully clothed as well. An old Turkish woman met us, handed us “towels” that are made by large machines using both hand and foot pedals and feel more like a rough cotton shirt. They were large and are intended to wrap around you a few times. She also escorted us to a small area with a door. She motioned for us to leave our shoes and clothes there. It is funny that it is supposed to be the private area where you get undressed and yet there is a large window in the middle of the door, so anyone can see anything. I guess that is to slowly get you used to the whole naked in front of others part. Jo and I had both been to the baths in Tbilisi, but had gotten private rooms. We didn’t know if we were supposed to be totally naked or partially covered so we decided it was best to keep on our bathing suit bottoms. Well once we walked into the secluded area that proved to be a bit of a sauna, everyone was totally naked. We sat down next to one of the small semi circles of stone with two faucets hanging over the top. One of the scrubbers showed us that one was for scolding hot water and the other for freezing cold water. She made a nice concoction of both in the small bath and took one of the plastic bowls floating in it and tossed Joanne with water to demonstrate what we were supposed to do. We covered ourselves with the warm water and sat there adjusting to the heat. Also in the room was a young woman sitting by herself and looked like a foreigner, and an old Turkish woman with her daughter who was probably in her mid twenties and about the size of twig. Ok, so naked bodies are a bit like car wrecks. You know that it is inappropriate to look, but you just can’t help it. So initially, Jo and I were talking about how much we hated the gorgeous, young, so thin you could see all her ribs girl who was getting her massage when we walked in. However, soon after trash talking her, our conversation quickly changed into how beautiful bodies are and how they have inspired and torn down everything from men and art to empires. It was a really nice and comforting, honest talk. I also shared a lot from what I read in the book Captivating. If you haven’t read it, please do! It is a great book about how special girls are and how they are created in a unique way to reflect God’s image of beauty. We also struck up a conversation with the foreigner who turned out to be American sitting to our left. She was in Turkey to meet her husband who had been doing research in Africa for 2 months. We were just starting to get into talk about what he was researching when it was her turn to get a scrub and massage. So Jo and I alternated between chatting and just soaking in the silence and relaxation. Jo went first for her massage and then it was my turn. I laid face down on a big cold stone slab in the middle of the room. By this point, the bathing suit bottoms had come off, since we had seen the woman cleaned every part of the others so what was the use. Plus, who need modesty, when being naked is the norm in the room? So the woman threw some warm water over me and started to scrub my body with a rough rag/loofah thing covered in delicious smelling soap. To indicate me to flip over onto my back, she just gave me a little slap on the behind. I flipped and she continued the process on the front. None of it felt embarrassing or strange. She was efficient and just kept scrubbing. It was gross to see all the black thin peels of skin that were rolling off of my body. I know only shower a couple times a week, but I didn’t think I was THAT dirty. It felt so nice to wash off Georgia though. I joked with Joanne that they were scrubbing all the little kids grubby, grimy hands off of us. After an hour and half of relaxing, it was getting a little too hot for both of us. We rinsed off with cool water and then went to sit out in the common area with the naked Turkish women. We changed into our clothes and sat there drinking water and getting our body temperature back to normal. After our relaxing afternoon filled with estrogen, we met back up with the boys. We found out that we had been cheated! The boys got the royal treatment and had an extra massage in a special part of the hammam! We walked back to our hostel and just relaxed for a bit. Jo and I had to get up to get ready for our last night in Turkey, but it was so hard to drag our relaxed bodies up and get in the motions to get pretty. We finally did as the boys went out to get goodies for the night. They came back with wine and beer. We all chatted and drank up and pretty soon had to coach Pauli on how to say phrases with his German accent, which he has significantly lost. There was a nice long 5 minute period focused mainly on “Europe bitches” We left with a group of people from our hostel to go down to the main square which was crawling with people. We separated from the group when we found out they wanted to get a nice cup of tea and chat. The four of us were looking for a bit more adventure that night. We found a club called IQ and went on in. We got settled in and I shouted to Raughley to buy a round of beers on me as Jo and I plowed through people to the dance floor. Well, it ended up that 4 local beers cost about 50 lira!! So the round was on everyone as we had to split the cost. Jo and I were tearing it up on the dance floor and not even caring what we looked like. We were having a blast bouncing around from our table of “complimentary” popcorn, carrots, and celery, and expensive beers to the dance floor. Sometimes we were the only ones dancing, but we didn’t care one bit. It was so much fun! At one point Joanne made friends with the manager/owner or something of that caliber and asked for a bottle of vodka. I know that sounds extravagant, but in Georgia, it is really the way to go. It is much cheaper than beer and goes a lot further. Well, he informed us that they didn’t serve vodka but they would go to the store and get some especially for us! How generous! What we didn’t think about was going out and buying one ourselves instead of them marking it up. So the man came back with a bottle and poured us a bit and then added in water to our glasses. Well, we were all under the impression that it was vodka, and when we all started to take it down as so, we were taken by surprise. It was not vodka at all, but instead a bottle Raki. Raki is a local aniseed liquor that tastes like black liquorish. Well I HATE that taste. It was cloudy in the glass and cloudy in my tummy. Yuck yuck yuck. Unfortunately, we had already paid for it, and it was about 50 lira, so we couldn’t let it all go to waste. Gross!! We sucked it down as best as we could and probably went through 10 bowls of popcorn. Raughley and Pauli decided when it was time to leave, because if it was up to me and Jo, we would have stayed dancing the whole night away. We were walking home as it was raining. I wanted a sandwich, so we all went in, but Jo and Pauli quickly left since Jo really wanted to get back to the hostel. We joined not too long after, soaking wet. Saturday Ok, so preface-Friday was not one of my drunkest nights (sorry Mom and Granddad!) but Saturday was one of my WORST hangovers, EVER! I don’t know what was in that evil Raki, but it tore me up. I was sick all day long and Jo and I didn’t get out of bed until after 4. Pauli had to leave early in the morning to catch his bus back to Batumi, but we stayed in bed. We roused ourselves finally to get to the Grand Bazaar. In the guide book, it told us that we needed to give at least 4 hours, if not more than one day to walk through and see all the sights. Well, we had about an hour and a half. However, due to this pressure, we were extremely efficient. We each knew what the others wanted/needed in the way of gifts so we pushed on through the hoards of people shouting at us. At one point we just didn’t want to respond so we spoke to each other in Georgian, and a man made fun of us making monkey sounds and laughing. I guess he thought that we were making up jibberish words…..(funny, I have been here almost 9 months and Georgian still sounds like that to me too sometimes!) We finished at the bazaar, walked back to our hostel and packed up. We had to take a few different buses and what not to get to the airport, and we were running short on time. By the time we got to the big bus station, where we had been told we could pick up a bus that goes directly to the airport, it was getting late and the bus wasn’t coming. At one point, we started to make contingency plans if we missed our flight. Thank goodness the express bus showed up when it did, and instead of making a ton of stops and taking an hour and a half, we got to the airport in just about 45 minutes. This left us with plenty of time, even though I still was on edge until we actually got through security and had our tickets in our hands. Jo took a Zanax to prepare for the flight and went duty free shopping while Raughley and I ate the most expensive meals in Turkey. I had Burger King (which I don’t even like in America) and Raughley at Sbarro. My total was about 22 lira and his was about 30!!! How crazy is that!?!? We got settled into our seats and Raughley soothed Joanne’s flying worries with historical stories and backrubs. We landed safe and sound at about 2 in the morning Tbilisi time. It was quite disappointing, and oddly comforting to be back in the land of plastic bags, black on black on black, women wearing stripper heels to work, and more importantly where I have called home for the past 9 months of my life. This trip was the best I have ever been on. I had incredible experiences in Europe, both times, and made wonderful memories with great friends, but being able to be in charge of yourself is so nice. I didn’t have to report to anyone, and if we wanted to change our plans, we could! It was so freeing and relaxing! I had great company and was in a marvelous country. I wouldn’t change a bit of it for the world and I am so blessed for having the opportunity to travel and explore in a foreign land.