Nomadic life in 2016

Robin and Shari Istanbul

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about my nomadic life, so I’ll catch everyone up a little with an overview of the first six months of 2016.

In 2016, I started out in Istanbul, Turkey. I was there (and a friend was visiting me) when the first of several bombings of this year took place. It was surreal and sad, but not really scary. I think, in general the world is scary, but I was so well taken care of my my friends and contacts in Istanbul, that I never really felt scared for my own safety. I followed precautionary measures, staying away from the bomb site and avoiding the big tourist areas and large crowds, but other than that, I went about my daily life as did all of the locals.

Robin and Shari Istanbul

A few days after the bombing, where 12 German tourists were killed near the Blue Mosque, my friend from Germany came to visit and stay with me in Istanbul. She thought long and hard about it, but I am so glad that she didn’t let fear win. We had a great time exploring, despite the chilly, windy, rainy winter weather.

As my total visa-time for Turkey was running out (only allowed 90 days every 6 months), I packed a small bag and left it behind with some of my contacts in Istanbul. I didn’t want to carry my tripod and a few other random items around for the next couple of months. I had decided that I would be returning to Istanbul as soon as I was allowed by visa regulations, tentatively end of April, and I would stay until the end of May or June.

I had to leave Turkey, so I made plans to visit with my friends Victor and Carolina from Argentina, in Amsterdam at the beginning of February. We spent five great days exploring the city by foot and bicycle and ventured off to Ghent, Belgium as well. The weather sucked for almost all of the days, but the company was good!

Shari, Victor and Carolina

 

Then what?

Believe it or not, I had no plans. I just knew that I couldn’t go back to Turkey right away (re. visa) and I needed sunshine! I made a somewhat snap decision (booked my flight only 1 week in advance) to head to the Algarve region in Southern Portugal. Sadly, the weather wasn’t as sunny, warm and fabulous as expected and it was too laid back for me. Maybe going from 10 million people of Istanbul to a couple thousand in Albufeira, was a bit too extreme for me. I spent six weeks in the Algarve region and saw amazing sites, but I needed more people in my life!

Lagos, Portugal

To throw a (good) wrench in things, I had won a trip to Africa with On The Go tours. After months of asking people to vote on my photo, I actually won the trip. I had chosen the Zebras & Zanzibar trip when I entered the contest and it was now a reality! Wowza! A trip for two to Africa. Where was that going to fit in to all of this?

After a few weeks, I ventured to Lisbon for a little more upbeat living with more to explore and more people to meet. I decided to book an shared apartment for two weeks to begin with and from that point I would decide what I was doing. Would I return home early? Would I return to Istanbul as planned? Would I go to the Dominican Republic for some sunny days, friendly faces and Spanish classes?

Lisbon, Portugal
I fell in love with Lisbon, second only to Istanbul! After about one week in Lisbon, I booked my apartment for an additional four weeks. I had made the decision to stay in Lisbon instead of return to Istanbul. With several other bombings in those couple of months, I decided not to return to Istanbul at this time. Honestly, I felt pretty safe about going to Turkey, but I thought it would cause my friends and family undue stress if I was living there. Although I try not to live my life for other people, I don’t really want people to worry about me on a daily basis either.

I made new friends from Portugal, Denmark, Spain and Mexico. Lisbon was starting to feel like home. It was a place I could see myself living long term.

Shari, JuanFher and Paloma

On my last week in Lisbon, I began looking into the process of making it my home. I knew that I would return to Halifax first, but I wanted to know the process in case I wanted to make Lisbon my home-base. Basically, I found out that I had to do everything from Canada which was fine as I wasn’t ready to make any commitments.

I spent 11 weeks in Portugal and that pretty much ate up my 90 days in 6 months that I was allowed for ALL of the Schengen Area (most of Europe). Coming in to the middle of April, I was in decision mode again. Would I go back to Istanbul for a couple of months? Would I return to Halifax a couple of months early? I also briefly looked at non-Schengen countries in Europe, but the cost of flights there and then home deterred me. Besides, I figured I’d rather spend that money in Africa since I’d be headed there anyway!

Here’s another wrench, just to confuse things. In order to keep my NS Health care, I need to reside in Nova Scotia for 152 days of the year. Not consecutively, but throughout the year. Since I had been away from January until mid-April, and I would be going to Africa in the fall, I needed to ensure that I would have 152 days back in Halifax.

After lots of ‘date crunching’, the decision was finally made for me to return to Halifax at the end of April. I wanted to go back to Istanbul, but I had made the decision not to. I also didn’t want to leave Lisbon. I wanted a few more weeks, I wasn’t ready to go back to Halifax. It was just getting warm and beautiful on a daily basis in Lisbon and I knew that Halifax was a month (or more behind).

I made the responsible decision, to go back to Halifax in order to keep my health care valid. This also allowed me a little wiggle-room in case I wanted to stay in Africa (or elsewhere) until the end of 2016. I would be in Halifax for May through September and possibly part of October. This would give me more than my 152 days in province and then I could be on my way again.

I landed back in Halifax on April 28th and here I am, July 24th …. Where has the time gone? I certainly haven’t spent it taking in the sun because it’s been so cold, foggy and rainy, but today it’s sunny and I’m writing from the balcony of Humani-T cafe.

When you live nomadically, there is a lot of adventure, a lot of decisions, crazy emotions and fun, but you miss out on a lot of things too … like your sister’s wedding, your grandfather’s funeral and the passing of not one, but two of my past photo tour passengers who were both dear friends. I don’t want to stop travelling, but it definitely reminds me to be more present when I am spending time with people I care about.

I’m living with my sister, her husband, 16-year old step son and my two nieces in Hammonds Plains (which feels like the middle of nowhere after living in the centre of Istanbul and Lisbon). I’ve taken my nieces to the Shubenacadie wildlife park and swimming at a friend’s place. We’ve had a water balloon fight, played at the park and survived a week of me taking care of them when my sister went to Jamaica. I’ve gone running and biking with Samantha and helped Elizabeth learn how to skip rocks. I even caved and played Cranium with them all the other night after Samantha’s incessant begging! We’ve been to the beach a couple of times, but it’s been CHILLY! My parents visited for a few days and I’ll visit them in Fredericton in September as well when I go to the town I grew up in for my 20th high school reunion. Yikes!

I’ve gone running, walking, cycling and kayaking but not nearly enough of any of those!

I’ve seen most of my friends at least once in the last two and a half months sharing laughs, tears and lots of food! Most importantly I was home to see my friend Kevin receive a commendation for bravery and the adoption ceremony of one of my best friend’s kids. Deciding to come home early was definitely a good decision this time around and I’m so glad I could be here for both of those very important events.

Kevin's commendation Ceremony

I’ve taken portraits of my friend’s and client’s growing families. It’s always so nice to reconnect and to see the kids grow up and new ones growing in mama’s belly!

Ember and Sarah

I’ve done several speaking engagements, including Mo Monday’s where I spoke about my 1997 plane crash and several Travel Talks about different destinations. I’ve been interviewed for the radio about the events in Turkey and I’m about to have another paid travel article published (this time online).

Shari at Mo Monday's

I’ve taught my Goodbye Auto, Hello Manual Photography course and will be teaching a Composition course this coming week.

All at the same time, I seem to have done a lot and not nearly enough. Somehow two and a half months have passed and I only have two and a half left!

I’m wrapped up in trying to enjoy the sunshine when it makes an appearance and growing my business with new clients while I’m in Nova Scotia. I’m also planning my next 6 – 8 months of travel including a huge adventure and luxury travel conference this August in Las Vegas, as well as visiting the Grand Canyon and then I’m off to Africa with my sister in October for the trip I won! Who better to take than my sister?!

I’m happy to be in Halifax for five and a half months to spend time with friends and family. I’m happy to be in one house with my clothes unpacked, a fridge full of food (most of the time) and two cats! I’m not happy about the weather, my lack of connection to the city, the high prices of everything (compared to Asia and even Portugal) and the thought of summer being so darn short here!

I still feel a bit nomadic as I’m not in ‘my own’ place, but I have to admit that it is nice to have some extra clothing choices and the same bed every night.

It’s funny to feel nomadic when I’m technically ‘at home’, but with more adventures in my near future, I guess I’m not ready to settle down quite yet. We’ll see what 2017 says about that!

 

Life is unpredictable

Sultanahmet square

 

Sultanahmet square
Obelisk in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, where the suicide bomber attacked in Jan 2016. 10 people killed. 15 injured.

In the old city of Istanbul, adjacent to Blue Mosque, stands the Obelisk. This photo was taken only a couple of days after the January 2016 suicide bomber killed 10 people and injured 15 others.

I was not in that part of the city when it happened. I did not hear or feel the bomb go off. It was a strong blast, but was only felt in the immediate area. A week later, it looks like most of the world has already forgotten about it and moved on to other news.

I was in Istanbul, only a few kilometres away, when the bomb went off. My local friends immediately began messaging me to make sure I was safe and to tell me to stay home, or at least out of crowded areas. I was shocked and saddened, but not really scared.

After the bombing, I never once considered leaving the city because of the events. I actually didn’t want to leave at all. I felt like I had the opportunity to show people that expats are alive and well in Istanbul and it is not a scary place to be. Yes, there was a bomb, but you can’t just run away from what ‘might’ happen next. Unfortunately my visa was nearing it’s end and I had to leave the country or I’d be there illegally.

The truth is, our world is a scary place. There are terrorist attacks, bombings, traffic accidents, murders, thieves, plane crashes and incurable diseases. All of these things are unpredictable.

Life itself is unpredictable.

I know many people are scared to travel, but to what end? I cannot stress enough what a negative impact the media has on travel. So many people believe that the entirety of Turkey is a dangerous place to be. When, in fact, the only areas that have strict travel advisories are along the borders with Syria. The other communities and cities are every bit as safe as any other large city in any destination, such as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Buenos Aires in Argentina or Barcelona in Spain.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but cities are not safe … ever. It is just that simple. There is petty crime, tourist crime, murders and traffic accidents in every single city. Then there are the mafia, drug crime and bombs … the list of ‘bad’ goes on. However, the stats show clearly, that the number of people killed by terrorist activities are far less than that from traffic accidents. Many more people are killed from hand guns than bombings. And let’s not forget traffic accidents. If you are operating a vehicle in Canada, you are more likely to be killed than by traveling to Istanbul or Paris or Jakarta.

Perspective …  There is no advance notice of either a traffic accident or a bomb and therefore you can’t purposely change your location to avoid it.

In the end, what I am saying is that you shouldn’t stop traveling to an entire country because a bomb has gone off in one small area of one city. Avoiding all of Istanbul because of the bomb in the Old City is like avoiding all of Prince Edward Island because a bomb went off in the centre of Charlottetown. Is that reasonable?

Isn’t it also amazing that the CITY of Istanbul is the same area as the entire province of PEI? Holy!

With that in mind, would you avoid all of Atlantic Canada because a bomb went off in Charlottetown? No, of course you wouldn’t. That would be ridiculous. But, if you are avoiding Turkey because of the bomb in Istanbul or because of the problems along the borders with Syria, it is the same thing. Media would have you believe that Turkey is a dangerous place and makes it seem so small, but it is not. There are hundreds of kilometres between Istanbul and the capital of Ankara. There are hundreds of kilometres between either of those cities and the borders with Syria and Iraq. Don’t let media scare you!

I ask you to remember the innocent lives lost in these tragedies around the world (Paris, Jakarta, Istanbul, 9-11, hurricane Katrina … the list goes on), but please do not stop living your life because of unpredictable circumstances. You might stay home for fear of a suicide bomb, just to find out that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. You might avoid flying because of two recent severe turbulence incidents, just to end up in a car accident.

I don’t say these things lightly. They are spoken from experience and from the heart. I was in a plane crash in Fredericton, NB in 1997. I let that hold me back for over 10 years. For 10 years I missed out on incredible opportunities to see the world. I lived in fear of getting back on a plane.

I am here telling you that life is precious and unpredictable. Do not let your fear of the unknown keep you from living, tasting, touching, feeling all of the amazing things our great big beautiful world has to offer.

I am thankful to be alive. Thankful that my life has changed and that fear does not reign any longer. I am thankful to have been in the beautiful city of Istanbul to share my experiences with you first hand.

Travel. See the world. Enjoy the beauty that surrounds us on your own terms. Don’t let the unpredictable control your life.

With love, and passion for travel … from Istanbul,

Shari

 

The Journey with Life Line Ezidi

This is a follow up post to How to help save a life. If you haven’t read it yet, please start there for the back ground information.

On January 27th I met the fantastic founder of Life Line Ezidi at a Cafe in Galatasaray, Istanbul. We became fast friends with common goals and on January 28th (about 15 hours after meeting him), I found myself rushing to meet up with him to take on the day’s tasks; to bring back as many lifejackets as possible to give to at least three families who would be departing on the Agean Sea in small, rickety boats on January 29th.

He had warned me that our own journey would be long, physical and a bit chaotic. He was indeed right about all of it, but I was up for the task.

At 10am I left my house, walked to Taksim square to get my Istanbul kart (public transit card). After a couple of complications, I was on my way by Metro (subway) to Yenikapi where I would meet up with David before continuing on. We crossed under the Bosphorus Straight via the Marmaray, switched to another Metro line and went all the way to the end. We then caught a bus which took us another 10 kms where we hopped off and walked another couple of kms to the Manufacturer’s location in the outskirts of Tuzla. All in all, we arrived around 12:15 or 12:30pm (about two hours of transit from my home).

We were greeted by David’s contact, Mehmet at the Tuna Ship Supply Ltd Co. where we were to wait for the delivery of a few lifejackets that had to be special ordered from another factory.

Very_excited_to_helping__lifelineezidi_deliver__life_jackets_to__refugees_in__turkey_today._Just_helped_pick_up_31_life_jackets_and_about_to_tackle_an_hour___of_public_transit_with_the_huge_bags_of_product._Great_job_David__centre__and_thanks_for_eve

As a side note, there have been horrific stories of factories making fake life jackets and selling them on the streets. This is part of what prompted David to start Life Line Ezidi. He wanted to ensure that if these families were going, that they at least had proper life jackets. He sourced out a manufacturer that provides life jackets for the shipping industry with very high standards. All of the life jackets purchased are SOLAS approved and built to keep people alive and their heads above water in rough seas.

On occasion, when David inspects the jackets, if he sees an inconsistency, he returns them to the factory to have them repaired before giving them to families. He takes no chances that the life jackets aren’t 100 safe. I saw this with my own eyes as he returned two that morning for stitching that had started to part from the jacket. We were assured that the jackets were still safe, however they didn’t hesitate to fix the small errors.

We sat and discussed the day’s order of over 40 jackets of different sizes from adult to child to infant and then we waited for the delivery to arrive which took an hour or so more.

Mehmet shared stories of his own life as a deck hand at sea and that he had visited over 40 countries in his career. Wow! Amazing to meet someone who had traveled more countries than I have. And to hear his stories of small ports where he had spent anywhere from a couple of days upwards to a month. His English was excellent and you could tell that he was willing to do anything he could to help out this cause.

When the life jackets arrived, they were repacked into large white bags that David and I would carry back to a common area where we would meet the refugees and deliver the jackets. In the end, we ended up taking 12 adult life jackets, 19 child life jackets. This was literally all that we could physically transport. We took all of the child life jackets that were ready and had to leave a handful of adult ones behind, simply not being able to carry them all. Not only are they bulky and awkward, 15 life jackets are also pretty heavy. It would be one thing if they could be carried on your back, but they can’t, so lifting 20 to 30 lbs of awkwardness in your hand is difficult, especially for long periods of time and lifting them over turnstiles, up and down escalators and stairs.

Mehmet was kind enough to take us by vehicle to the first Metro so that we avoided taking the large bags on the bus. We maneuvered down the stairs and escalators to the underground where at our first entrance, we were stopped by security who didn’t initially want to let us through. The issue, more than anything is the size of each of these bags (approximately 4 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep) They are not small and take up the space of at least a person on the metro. After waiting for two more security guards to come, scan the packages, ask a few questions, check for our payment receipt and David’s passport, they let us go. All in all, relatively easy, but none-the-less, a pain in the butt when we were on a time line to get them to the families before their departure.

Aboard the metro, it was relatively unoccupied, which made life a little easier. Our 20 minute journey was relatively uneventful. Then we pushed our way off the metro through crowds of people boarding with their heads down looking at their cell phones and not caring if people were trying to get off the metro. We took a rest to regroup and for David to begin organizing which families would get which jackets.

This process is particularly complicated.
David can only purchase life jackets when he has donations to do so. These have been coming fairly regularly, but in small amounts. He does not have the luxury of buying many at once, nor does he have a location to store them. The other large complication is that he often only gets 24 hours notice when a family (often of 7 – 15 people) is coming to Istanbul. Within that 24 hours, he needs to raise the money for the lifejackets, place the order and make his way to / from the manufacturer (5 – 6 hour journey) with the correct sizes for each family member. Further than that, often three to seven families can arrive on the same day. That could mean up to 50 life jackets are needed with 24 hour notice.

To this point, David has now delivered approximately 600 life jackets since November, with his record being 44 in one day.

On our journey, we started out with three families that we were hoping to help. Because we could not physically carry all of the lifejackets, we would only be able to provide for the children and the youngest of the adults in these families. Sadly, difficult decisions have to be made and this day it was that anyone over 40 would be last priority. So we carried what we could to help as many as we could, insuring that children were first priority.

We were told that these three families would be leaving the same night to head to Izmir to board the boats to head to Greece. Other families who have been waiting for lifejackets were put on hold as these families leaving same day became priority.

This alone weighed on me all day. As I carried 19 lifejackets, having trouble lifting them and manouevering them, I kept wondering, could I have taken just one more? Could I have helped save one more adult?

When we exited the Marmaray, we again regrouped. We found a corner of the station where we were out of the way and not blocking any entrances. We began the process of putting life jackets into large blue plastic bags for each family. Generally speaking, when the families meet in a public area to pick up the life jackets, they don’t want anyone to see what they are doing, so the life jackets need to be hidden in bags. After about five minutes of starting to organize and re-bag life jackets, security came over and told us that we could not stay here. We asked for two more minutes and were able to push it to five or seven more minutes where we were able to almost finish sorting everything. When the next security guard came over, he stood with us and waited as we packed up, ushering us to our next destination, through another set of turnstiles to go on yet another underground. This one was a bit more difficult as it was busy and getting around with these large bags is difficult alone let alone when people are pushing and shoving to get through turnstiles.

We made it.

On to the Metro from Yenikapi to Aksaray which would be our last stop. On arrival at Aksaray, we stopped to rearrange everything that was left and ensure that everything was bagged properly for each family. At that time, David also was still receiving messages about other families looking for life jackets, others who would also be leaving tonight and some who would be leaving the next day. Ah! The confusion! The pressure.

Not to mention that he’s also in touch with the refugee families to advise of meeting time and location. He also has the awful job of telling them that he has as many lifejackets as possible, but he does not have one for everyone in the family.

Don’t forget, very little of this is being done in English and David does not speak Arabic. He speaks a tiny bit of Kurdish and the refugees speak Kurdish, Arabic and a tiny bit of English (some more than others).

Once again, we made changes to the bags, last minute. Now we would be providing child life jackets to four families and adult jackets for part of each of three families. We had spread the supply as far as it could possibly go.

We walked to the meeting point to see four anxious men waiting for us. We greeted them, confirmed their identities and began handing out the pre-bagged life jackets prepared for each family. Of course, in finding out that there were not enough jackets for everyone in each of their families, they were heartbroken and begged for more. They could see we had more life jackets with us (a big white bag half full) and it was very difficult to explain that they were for a different family and not the right sizes for their family.

Sadly, in this time of need, they aren’t able to understand that a child life jacket will not support the weight of an adult, therefore it will do them no good, but it WILL help save the life of another child. They pleaded with us for more. It was heart wrenching.

David explained to two of the families that he also has infant lifejackets for their youngest family members, but he needed to go pick them up. After some miscommunication / language barrier, everyone understood that David would return that evening to the same location with infant life jackets for their families.

Once the life jackets were handed out, their faces wrought with anxiety, they smiled through it, shook our hands, thanked us and went on their way. I shook each of their hands with the beginnings of tears surfacing in my eyes, wished them a safe journey and then we all parted ways.

David continued his journey – another approximate two hours in transit to pick up infant life jackets and return to meet two of the families again to provide hope for their littlest family members.

At 10pm I was in touch with David and he was meeting with the last of the families for the day. Getting ready to return to his home, calculate funds raised on this day (most of which came from YOU my fabulous supporters). He would then sleep and do it all over again the next day because he had new money to buy more lifejackets!

As for me, I arrived home around 7:30pm. Although I had wanted to continue on, I was exhausted. I also knew that David did not actually need assistance carrying the infant life jackets, I would just be tagging along. I decided my time was better spent promoting the cause on social media.

I am extremely proud that my friends and family came through with over $400 CAD worth of donations for this great cause. I had been aiming for $200 to cover one family of seven members and in the end, we covered two families. That’s about 15 child lifejackets a couple of adults and a couple of infant ones. These will be picked up on Monday, Feb 1st and delivered to the next families in need.

At the end of the evening, I swear David had said thank you to me at least 50 times. It is just the kind of guy he is. He is caring, compassionate and thankful for everything that everyone does. I said to him, ‘I don’t really feel like I did all that much other than keep you company and help you sort through a couple of complications.’ He forcefully reminded me that I had done so much more. He praised me for the fact that if I hadn’t tagged along he would only have 15 – 17 lifejackets to provide, but because I was with him we were able to transport 31 in total. That made a difference to at least 15 more people.

Then my heart swelled and I nearly cried. Not sure how I hadn’t realized the impact I was making, but he laid it right out there for me. Me spending 10am – 7:30pm that day trapesing across the city to pick up and deliver these life jackets was the difference in 15 people having a much better chance at survival across the cold, angry, Agean sea that night.

There is never any guarantee that a life jacket is going to save a life, but it is certainly a much better likelihood than not. And with thousands of refugees drowning in the waters of the sea after capsized boats, all I can do is cross my fingers that if their boat didn’t make it, that they were able to swim or float until rescuers on the other side were able to get to them.

I hope to have an update in the next day or two on these families and if they made it safely. They aren’t always able to get back in touch, but if they do, I will let you know!

If you are inspired by this story and able to make a donation, it is always appreciated. Please click here to make your donation. Any amount helps save a life!

How to help save a life

As many of you know, I returned to Istanbul, Turkey in December to search out opportunities to work with Syrian refugees. I had planned to stay in Asia over the Christmas holidays, but was feeling a pull to return to Turkey and to help out with the refugee crisis in some way. What way? That, I was unsure about, but I began looking into volunteering to teach English. I have been here for six weeks, made connections with a couple of great organizations and finally found one that would be happy to have me teach English. The problem is, I am leaving Turkey in less than a week. My heart hurts because I want to stay, but I have plans in Amsterdam with friends and have to leave Turkey for a certain amount of time before I can return for longer due to visa regulations.

To make my heart hurt a little more (in the best way), today I met a remarkable young man by chance, sitting in a little cafe in Istanbul. He was sitting behind me at the cafe, working on his laptop and he ended up chatting with a Syrian man who was also at the cafe. I tried not to eavesdrop (impossible) but when he started talking about working with refugees, I tuned in rather than out. A few minutes later I barged right in to the conversation and starting firing questions at him as I found his story so interesting.

I will write a longer blog about this young man, David Boulton, sometime soon, but in the interest of getting this information out quickly, I want to get right to the point.

Quick background:
David arrived in Turkey in July 2015 to volunteer teaching English in the Sirnak Ezidi refugee camp near the Iraq border. As you have all heard, camp conditions are pretty much deplorable, but David was lucky enough to be working at one of the ‘best’ (that’s the best of the bad). He was the only educator for the entire camp and lived by the same rules, in the same lodging and with the same food as the refugees. They were lucky to have buildings instead of tents, they had water most of the time and electricity (albeit, intermittent) and the local city council did what they could to provide food for the camp.

The Nitty Gritty:
Around November 2015, David’s students began to leave the camp. Their families were tired, without hope and were wasting away just waiting for ‘something’ to happen. The weather had turned cold, the seas had gotten more dangerous and the prices from the traffickers helping refugees get out of Turkey, had dropped because it was ‘low season’. Many of the families were now taking advantage of the price drop to get their families out of the camps. Doesn’t this alone horrify you?

NOTE: Traffickers (from my minimal knowledge) recruit families, charge them large sums of money and then put them on packed buses or other transportation to get them to ports where they are then put on rubber dinghy’s or otherwise deplorable boats to cross the Aegean sea to Greece. As I’m sure you have seen in the news, many of these boats never reach shore and thousands of people have drowned in 2015 alone.

Refugees are herded like cattle; no human rights, no medical attention, no guarantees of their safety. However, they have no reasonable choice, as staying in a camp with no work, no education, minimal food, lack of safety and complete lack of hope, is not a life at all. Taking a chance on a trafficker and getting to a country where they can start a new life, at least gives them hope. The hope of a brighter future for themselves and their children.

This is an incredibly simplified description, but I hope you will understand my point.

These refugees have left their countries because of war. They have already fled their homes, left their entire life behind and often walked literally over mountains and run through gunfire to cross the border into Turkey where it is safer, although the camps aren’t safe by any means.

These refugees have literally fled situations where entire communities have been captured, families have been segregated into men / women and then often by age groups. Elders and adults are often shot and killed and then teens and young children are sold into slavery, or into the sex trade.

These people are the community members … Doctors, lawyers, teachers, mechanics, librarians, farmers, entrepreneurs … just like you and I. Fearing for their lives and that of their families, they fled their cities and communities in droves, often, with only the clothes on their backs. They are running for their lives, literally.

My heart aches as I write this.

How can this be happening?

Back to David’s students:
As David began to learn that his students and their families were leaving the camp with traffickers to catch boats to Greece, he knew he had to do something. He couldn’t stop them from going, but he could make an effort to help them arrive safely.

How you ask?

He started buying life jackets for these kids (and their families). These families were about to risk their lives to cross the Aegean sea on rickey old boats, filled over-capacity with other refugees. They were willing to risk their lives at a chance for a better life rather than living in fear, desperation and slowly dying in the camps.

David came to learn that traffickers were providing poor quality / fake lifejackets to these scared families and convincing them that this would increase their chances of survival across the sea. Appallingly, it turned out that many of these poor quality lifejackets were actually mass made in factories and stuffed with packing supplies that don’t even float. If it isn’t bad enough that they were poor quality, they were actually not floatation devices at all. (BBC News story and video – Jan 6 / 2016)

David started spending his own money to source quality lifejackets to ensure that these people he knew personally, would have a better chance at survival.

If that’s not amazing enough … he has continued to spend his own money as well as raising funds from friends and family in England to buy over 565 life jackets since November that have helped families reach safety. His own money has long since run-out, but his very supportive parents help keep him going so that all monies raised can go directly to purchasing life jackets.

His connections in the refugee community are mostly with Ezidi refugees from Iraq, but when possible he provides life jackets to any refugees that are in touch and can prove they are indeed refugees. He goes to great lengths to ensure that the life jackets are only reaching refugees and not falling into the hands of traffickers or other people pretending to be refugees.

He is here in Istanbul at the moment, as the camp that he was working at is nearly empty. Almost everyone has left or is in the process of leaving. Many of the refugees are routed by traffickers through Istanbul before heading to the ports to start their horrifying journey by boat across the sea. He often finds out that the families are coming to Istanbul only 24 hours in advance, the amount of time it takes them to travel by bus (arranged by traffickers) to Istanbul. The families then stay in Istanbul for only one to two days before being moved along to the coast to continue their journey. In this 24 – 48 hours he needs to go to the life jacket manufacturer personally (approximately five to six hours round trip) to get the proper size life jackets for the family. He then hand delivers the life jackets to the family where they are, or at a central meeting point. He makes sure that the life jackets fit properly and then the family are on their way. He also provides instructional videos on his website which show families how to properly use each size of lifejacket. Thankfully, although migrants don’t have much, they often have a cell phone to make calls and access internet.

What got me tonight as I picked his brain for more and more information about everything he has seen and done over the past seven months was this …

He has been working tirelessly trying to provide these families with quality lifejackets but his limited resources have run out. His friends and family / connections etc have supported him with amazing efforts, but at this time, he only has 12 lifejackets left in stock, all of them for infants.

Yesterday, he delivered an infant life jacket to a family who left on their journey today. The family had four children and he had to tell them that he could only provide one life jacket, the one for the youngest. This family, like hundreds of others will be crossing the sea on an unsafe boat, without lifejackets.

This tears my heart into pieces.

The big ask (which isn’t so big at all really):
I am only in Istanbul until Monday (sadly) and I want to do something to help while I am here and I’m hoping you’ll be compelled to help as well.

Life jackets (depending on size) cost $21 – $41 USD per person. Families range in size, but I’m aiming to cover a family of seven members. That comes to just under $200 CAD approximately.

“All our lifejackets are made by reputable suppliers, are SOLAS certified and are suitable for non-swimmers in rough seas. They will turn an unconscious wearer face-up and keep their nose and mouth above the water.”

David’s project is called Life Line Ezidi. You can check out his website and / or Facebook group for further information.

I want to be upfront in saying that Life Line Ezidi is not currently a registered charity. David hasn’t had time to go through the bureaucracy of getting that set up yet (if you’ve ever tried to start a charity or organization you will sympathize with this!). What he is doing, is keeping track of all monies received and publicly showing receipts for all purchases. All money donated is going directly to the life jackets. It isn’t even going to his transportation / living / cell phone costs. He’s living very minimally and his amazing parents are helping to keep him going.

Have I mentioned that this amazing David fellow is the ripe old age of 20? Yes. You read that right. He is just a damn amazing 20 year old (as ‘Green as a meadow’ in his own words! ha ha). He doesn’t have savings from working all of his life, he just believes in doing what he can.

If I raise the $200 quickly enough (before I leave on Monday), I will go with David to the manufacturer to pick up life jackets and deliver them to the family. He is checking with the family now to see if they are willing to be photographed and have their story shared. Understandably so, they may decline due to safety / security reasons. But, if they agree, I will share photos when I can.

How can you donate?
Go to David’s website and donate through pay pal. Then send me a quick email (info@sharitucker.com) to advise me of the donation amount so that David and I can track the donations to ensure life jackets, in the right sizes, are purchased for an entire family. Of course, if I raise additional money, more life jackets will be purchased for other families. If I don’t reach my goal of $200, that’s ok too, any money donated will still go toward life jackets, it would just mean that the entire family would not be covered. I’m sure that with your help I can reach $200 though!

It’s a small ask, that will make a big difference. Can you spare $25 CAD to make sure someone has a life jacket to continue an already traumatic journey? If you can’t spare $25, donate $5 or $10 … every little bit helps and is greatly appreciated!

1 … 2 … 3 … Donate!

PS – before I even got a chance to post this, I’ve decided to go with David today to pick up some life jackets that he received donations for just last night. Watch my Facebook and Instagram feeds for updates on this journey (provided I have cell service)

Love Letter to Turkey

Dear Turkey,

It’s been two months since I’ve seen you and I still remember the kiss of your crisp fall air on my cheeks and your mouth-watering cuisine. I remember your bright colors, rich history, your friendly spirit and the beauty of every sunrise and sunset that I saw over your sprawling cities and weather-carved landscapes. I remember feeling happily breathless as I floated above your valleys, wafting in your light breeze in a hot air balloon at sunrise. You wrapped me in your warm welcoming arms and took care of me like I was one of your own.

I know that your government is a work in progress, that many of your borders are riddled with controversy and that no matter how much you try to help the Syrian refugees, the backlash seems to be an on-going battle. I know that being a primarily Muslim country in a time when Muslim’s are being bullied and discriminated against is not easy, but you have been strong throughout history and I believe you will keep your spirit alive.

After hearing the recent news of attacks in Paris and Beirut, I checked with the (Canadian) government to see if I should be concerned about coming to see you again. They say that I need to be cautious, but that as long as I stay away from the Syrian border areas, that are no immediate concerns. In fact, the concerns are the same as those listed for many countries that I’ve visited before that many people think of as safe, such as Peru.

Ah. What a relief to know that as of right now I can return without any serious risks. And, unless this changes, I know we will get to spend some quality time together soon.

I know that Istanbul has been known for it’s historical, very powerful protests and statements from artists. I was also there when a bomb killed people in Ankara in October. I saw your tears and pain. I hope that your healing has begun and that you continue to fight the good battle.

As you go through these difficult times, try to remember that bullies exist everywhere in the world and you are not alone. There are those from outside who scrutinize your every move and broadcast it to the world through television and media. Some of their findings may come from the truth, but they twist and stretch it so much that it is often unrecognizable. Sadly, people too often believe what these loud voices are saying without seeing with their own eyes. Keep whispering your truths until enough voices join together that it drowns out the lies.

In order to survive these difficult times, you need to find it within yourself and your people to continue doing good. For every bad story that reaches outside your borders, make sure that you are creating 10 good stories. Not as many of these good stories will reach the world, but for the one that does, it makes a lasting impact. And, don’t forget that the other nine good stories have a huge impact on your own people and their spirit. Bad news is immediate, but feel-good news lasts longer in people’s hearts and minds. You are strong. I believe in you.

I may be far away at the moment, but I think of you often and dream of when we will be together again. I may even like to make you my home for a few months, despite the difficulties you are enduring. Just as people stand together and continue to visit Paris, I will do the same for you.

I hope that in a few short months I will be sharing your beauty with some of my friends and showing them how to look at the world through their lens. I hope that they will then share your beauty and fond memories of your warmth and hospitality with their friends in their own countries. I hope that by continuing to visit, by continuing to believe in a country that embodies so much history, culture and beauty, that it will help people to look beyond the loud voices and see for themselves what you are all about.

Until we meet again, may your call to prayer be unwavering, may your tolerance for one another be strengthened, may your caring hands take care of many in need and know that I will continue to share your culture with the world outside your borders.

With Love,
Shari

Istanbul Night Tasting Trail

In September 2015, I explored the foods of Turkey on a great tour with one of my favourite companies, Urban Adventures. They welcomed me along to enjoy their Istanbul Night Tasting Trail and share my food experiences with you!

I met up with my local guide, Beatrice, and four other passengers; two were from Germany and two from the United States. We set off from the Galata Bridge, taking the Tunel (one of the oldest in the world) to the top of the hill where we began our evening food adventure. Trust me, the two minute ride is well worth it, it is a steep hill!

The tour itself was presented as a day in the life of a Turk, through food. We started at a small cafe eating a breakfast food called su boregi (directly translated to Water Pastry) and a sampling of Turkish coffee or tea. The su boregi was light and mild. Layers of dough boiled and then flipped to keep the inside moist and the outside crispy. Sometimes they are filled with meat, cilantro, eggplant or yellow cheese, but ours was light and simple with just a sprinkling of white cheese inside, mixed with oil and hang yogurt. The texture is like eating pasta, but with no sauce, it is light enough for breakfast.

Su boregi
Su boregi

With Turkey being the world’s second largest tea producer, you might understand that it is an important part of their culture. Most of the tea is grown in the Black Sea area and Turkey as a whole, produces 1/3 of both tea and hazelnuts in the world. You don’t see Turks just sticking a tea bag in hot water though. There’s a delicate process where they use two tea pots with water in the bottom pot and loose tea in the top. They pour the boiling water from the bottom over the loose leaves. A bit of this extract will be mixed with more of the hot water and voila, the perfect cup of Turkish tea!

Turkish Tea
Turkish Tea

For ‘lunch’ we headed to a lovely little patio restaurant where they served up a bottle of Raki for us to share as we pondered our meze options. Raki is a local liqueur. When mixed with an ice cube and water, watch the magic happen as it turns from a translucent liquid into a milky substance that they refer to as Lion’s milk. It has a distinct liquorice flavour and is regularly compared to ouzo, but don’t say this out loud as you will start a big debate that cannot be finished!

Raki
Raki

Meze is a variety of hot or cold small plates, served with bread. Our group poured over the options, asking what each one was and then a handful were ordered to give us a little taste test of everything. From denim borulcesi (sea weed / sea beans) to atom (a powerful chili), kozlenmis biber (red peppers), patlican ezme (mashed eggplant) to the most delicious hummus I’ve ever tasted. Of course, it was accompanied by the standard onion, tomato, garlic, pureed salsa and haydari (hang yogurt with garlic and herbs). Add a spoonful of any of these tasty dishes on top of bread baked soft in the middle and crispy on the outside, and you have yourself a meal! Did I mention we were only on lunch at this point?

Meze
Meze

As we moved on from the outdoor patio to our next destination, we stopped for a quick bite of street food. Vendors throughout the streets of the Taksim and Galata districts are always hopping with the crowded night scene streaming by at a constant flow. As two men stopped for a quick snack from the muscle vendor, we joined in the fun. A muscle shell filled with rice, drenched in lemon and popped in your mouth is apparently the way to go for your mid-evening night-out-drinking snack! Seeing as we had already had our afternoon Raki, I guess we had caught up with the youngsters. I’m not a huge fan of muscles normally, but decided to give it a fair try. After staring down the shell convincing myself that I could do it, I popped it in my mouth and was pleasantly surprised at the mix of soft flavors and absence of distinct seafood taste. I almost had a second one and then remembered that I needed to save room for dessert! Oh wait, dessert isn’t next?

Stuffed Muscle
Stuffed Muscle

You can’t have dessert before you’ve had at least one more Turkish tea or coffee! So off to an open air cafe near the Passage Hazzopulo, we went! With a mixture of both tea and coffee drinkers, we got to enjoy the thick bold goodness of Turkish coffee, the smoothness of Turkish tea and the sweetness of emil cay (apple tea). Apple tea is my favourite, but apparently it is more of a tourist drink than one of the locals.

Turkish Tea and Coffee
Turkish Tea and Coffee

To give us a feel for a real ‘afternoon’ out in the life of some Turkish ladies, Beatrice offered to do a coffee grind reading for one of the guests. Often a way for ladies to pass the afternoon, is to sit and have tea / coffee with friends and then read each other’s fortune from the upside down settlings of the thick sludge at the bottom of the coffee cup.

We then meandered off through some of the narrow streets and were drawn in by the methodical clickety-clack of metal utensils on a hot metal cooking service. As the minced meat on the cooking service was broken up, tossed around and loaded up with spices, you could see people piling around to get it while it was hot and fresh. Kokorec it was called and our guide asked if we wanted to know what it was before or after trying it.

hmmmm … that doesn’t really sell it for me!

Kokorec is a very popular delicacy of cow or goat intestine mixed with spicy tomatoes and onion and then served on a small bun. I was sorry that I had asked what it was beforehand, but dug out my inner bravery and gave it a try. Much to my surprise, it was actually pretty tasty. It had the texture of minced beef or lamb, although maybe a little greasier, and the spices added a nice flavour. I even managed to take more than one bite, so it must not have been too bad at all!

Kororek
Kokorec

With our bellies warmed up from tea / coffee and spicy Kokorec, we headed off to a narrow, off the beaten track street for a taste of Efes, Turkey’s famed beer. Although I’m not a beer conosoeur, the gentelemen in my group described it as an “Easy drinking beer. Sweet and not too hard.”

Efes Beer
Efes Beer

After our ‘night out’ for a beer, next up was the typical ‘after-the-bar’ food; a little something called a wet burger. And, it was just that. It is a small, smoked, beef patty cooked with garlic and tomato paste and then smooshed into a small bun and left to get soggy. Chow down on a couple of these with a few big gulps of Ayran, a salty yogurt based drink and they say you’ll be hangover free!

Wet Burger
Wet Burger

At our final stop, we got to indulge in the delectable Turkish sweets. We were served delicious baklava which is many layers of phyllo pastry, filled with pistachios, baked and then drizzled with sugar water. To take the edge off the exceptional sweetness, we shared some gooey Turkish ice cream. The ice cream has the same substance as chewing gum, so it doesn’t melt quickly and is slightly chewy, but mouthwateringly delicious.

Baklava and Turkish Ice Cream
Baklava and Turkish Ice Cream

As if that wasn’t enough, Beatrice then pulled out a chocolate bar chalked full of hazelnuts which is one of Turkey’s big exports. I have a special soft spot for chocolate and hazelnuts, so I managed to find an empty spot in my tummy to try a couple of squares.

And with that, we finished up the evening near Taksim Square with full bellies, new friends and a feel for how the locals eat. I would highly recommend giving the Istanbul Night Tasting Trail a try for a great way to explore the foods of Turkey and a great way to see a bit of the amazing city by night.

This post has been sponsored by Urban Adventures, a division of Intrepid Travel.

“Urban Adventures is about a new style of travel experience for those who want to get off the beaten path and really connect with a destination. The experience can be as short as a couple of hours, or as long as a whole day, but in every case our Urban Adventures tours take travellers to interesting places to meet locals, and to really see what makes a place tick.”

 

Stark Naked at a Turkish Bath

Turkish Tile Work

I had heard rumours that you had to be naked and that you’d be scrubbed so hard you would nearly bleed. Yet, I was curious what all of the fuss was about with hammams, or a Turkish Bath.

When I came to Turkey the first time in 2014, I had wanted to go but hadn’t found time. I was scared to go alone and vowed I would do it when I returned. Now I’ve experienced it and I lived to tell the tale.

The local family that I was staying with in Fatih, a local community within the overflowing metropolis of Istanbul, asked if I was interested in a Turkish Bath. They explained that their neighbour owned one and he would be happy to have me visit. I anxiously and tentatively said yes, and arranged to go the next day.

The owner of the hammam met me at the house with his two young grandchildren and we walked down the winding, narrow streets from near Molla Aski Terasi to the Tarihi Historical Hamami. With all of the twists and turns I thought I might never be able to find my way back home and it felt like a 10 minute walk, but I’m sure that it was only five.

As we arrived on the street where the Hamam was located, in broken english the man said “Men only,” and pointed to a door. About 20 steps later we turned a corner and there was a door immediately to our left with a curtain. He said “Women only. You go here.” He knocked and then spoke in Turkish from outside the doorway. Next thing I knew, a tall, thin woman came to greet me and introduced herself (in English) as Melitza, the owner’s daughter-in-law.

She welcomed me and invited me to sit in the main area. I looked around at the mixture of tile work that seemed to have no real rhyme or reason to it’s pattern, bordering the entrance to the bath which was surrounded by marble. There were small rooms with doors along the back wall that looked almost like Catholic confessional rooms, but clearly were not. Benches lined one wall and a small table with a drink and a pack of cigarettes were against the other wall, where Melitza took a seat.

It was slightly cooler in the main area than the midday sun outside which was still climbing and had already reached 25+ degrees. There was only one other lady at the hamam and she was introduced as Fatma. She was a short stout lady with an ample bosom who walked with her feet turned out as she scurried around in her night-gown like dress. I later found out that Fatma had been working at this hamam for 30+ years.

With a big smile, Melitza welcomed me again and began asking where I was from, how long I would be traveling for and if I had ever been to a hamam. I immediately felt comfortable with her friendly and open personality and concluded that I would be able to ask her anything I needed.

Come to find out, although she does work at the hamam sometimes, this day she just happened to be there for her own bath experience, but wanted to make sure I was comfortable.

We chatted for a few minutes about what the experience would entail and what services I would like to have. The Turkish Bath, peeling and massage would be 35 Turkish Lira (equivalent to less than $17 CAD). They also had a treatment with a combination of a coffee scrub and honey for 20 Lira. I was there to experience it all, so I said ‘Let’s go for it!’

Of course, with the thought of coffee and honey being spread all over my body, I thought it time to ask about dress code. Melitza explained to me that wearing underwear would be perfectly acceptable as many women do this, however, traditionally women would be completely naked, not just topless. I should do whatever made me comfortable. She explained how she was shy the first time, but now she really enjoys the experience. She was born and raised in Serbia, but had married a Turkish man. Now they live in Istanbul. She had her first hammam experience only a few years before.

I had asked the folks that I was living with about dress code they had told me I could wear a swimsuit if I wanted, so I had. It was a full swim suit as I don’t do bikinis. When I heard a better explanation of the peeling process and then about the coffee and honey treatment I decided that I did not want my swimsuit to be covered. So, just like that, it was decided that I would be going full monty. Why not? I was there for the real experience, I’m not ashamed of my body and it helped that I was the only one there at that particular time. However, I was well aware that others could arrive at any minute.

Melitza explained to me that they would give me everything I needed to enjoy my experience. Fatma then came over and handed me a small yellow basket with shampoo, a wash cloth and two large towels made of tea-towel-like material. I was given a key to one of the small changing rooms at the back and told to wrap the small towel around me and that the bigger one would be used for later.

Fatma then smiled a crooked, but uniquely charming smile, took me by the hand, led me up the stairs through the first marble doorway and then through the second doorway where I was enveloped in the humidity like a warm, but wet, blanket.

It was silent, although when you spoke you felt dwarfed by the size and stance of the great 400 year old building that seemed to talk back to you through it’s echo. The large room was about half the size of a high school gymnasium, with natural light trickling in through the carved holes in the beautiful, dome-shaped, marble ceiling. In the centre of the room, directly below the dome, was a large square marble slab about two feet thick and 8 feet by 8 feet in diameter. It demanded attention, but I wasn’t quite sure of it’s purpose. The walls were lined with ancient marble sinks, each with their own hot and cold water taps, about 15 separate washing stations in total.

Fatma led me to one of the stations, turned on the hot and cold water, hung my towel on a rod above the sink and there I was … stark naked in this large room where I was about to bathe myself, publicly!

Through words and hand motions, Fatma explained that I should pour water over myself, but not to use soap or shampoo yet, just water. For the next 30-45 minutes I breathed in hot, humid air and poured warm water over myself until my skin softened. I alternated between hot and cool water every once in awhile. The humidity was hard to get used to, so I found a bit of cool water helped me endure while still softening my skin to prepare for the peeling process.

At the 45 minute mark, Fatma returned and took me out to the front waiting area to cool off and get some fresh air. I sat and chatted with Melitza while other women and children began to arrive at the hammam for their Sunday cleaning ritual. Melitza prepared me for the next section of the process which would be the peeling, washing and massage part. She told me that I would know when to roll over as Fatma would slap my ass.

Yes. You read that right! This local woman was going to slap my naked ass to communicate with me that I needed to roll over. I won’t lie, I giggled …. slightly horrified!

When Fatma gathered me to go back into the sauna area, she motioned for me to lie down on my stomach on the large marble slab in the middle of the room. She threw some warm water over the marble slab so that I wouldn’t stick to it and I laid down near the edge, on my tummy, and tried to find a way to get my boobs comfortable while being smushed against warm marble. Before I could even find a half comfortable position, Fatma was busy ‘peeling’ away my dead skin with a rubber mit with rubber teeth. It is similar to being exfoliated, but with something soft and rubbery tugging at your skin instead of a loofah which is hard and scratchy. Somehow she balanced the pressure of her body and the pressure of her scrubbing so that my skin started to roll off in little packets. She scrubbed all over my back, neck, bum and legs and then slapped my ass and mumbled something in Turkish.

Time to roll over.

Now, being naked in public is one thing. Having another nearly naked woman peel dead skin off you is another. But really, the hardest part to get over is laying face up with your private areas exposed.

I awkwardly rolled over on the wet slab and laid face up while Fatma continued to scrub my legs, stomach and breasts. Sounds weird right? Well, I can’t lie, it is weird, at least for me! I just kept telling myself that she’s done this for 30+ years, she’s seen everything by now!

Coming from Western society where it seems like just about any same sex contact is ‘gay or lesbian,’ it was hard for me to let a stranger rub and scrub all over. I’m sure she could see my tension. I couldn’t open my eyes, as I couldn’t bare to look at her while she was scrubbing me.

She tugged gently on my arm and motioned for me to sit up where she held my arm against her body and methodically scrubbed everything clean.

By this time, an elder had entered the sauna area in her underwear and was sitting in the corner gingerly pouring warm water over her body. On the other side of the large room, two women and a young girl of about five years old, were frolicking and giggling as they bathed one another. The young girl’s enthusiasm for bath time made me smile. It was in that moment that I understood that the hammam was a tradition that was being passed down. It may have once been a necessity and a place for people to clean themselves once a week for lack of having access to water at their own homes. But now, it was more of a tradition and luxury which families would hopefully share with the younger generations. Occasionally I opened my eyes and saw the joy of this little girl and heard her squeals of laugher as her mom dumped buckets of water over her head. Each ear piercing squeal made the corners of my mouth turn up in a delicate little grin.

I had heard about the peeling process and people described it as being rubbed raw and then roughly pummelled with a massage. For me, although slightly uncomfortable, it really wasn’t anything at all like being rubbed raw or being pummelled!

The soft teeth of the rubber mit hitched slightly on my skin and then continued down my body taking a thin layer with it. It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t even uncomfortable. Mostly it just felt like being scrubbed super clean or having a massage with no oil. When Fatma was done scrubbing me down, she went to get water to clean the dead skin off me. I made the mistake of opening my eyes and seeing the rolls of greyish skin laying lifeless all over my body. Had I really been that dirty? I was almost sorry that I looked! But, before I could be too disgusted, a bucket of warm water hit my back, then each of my sides and my front. The dead skin washed away, down the drains, leaving me naked and one shade whiter than when I had arrived!

I was directed back to the wet marble slab and laid down on my front again. This time, Fatma rubbed a soft washcloth with soap all over my body and then gave me a soap massage. The massage lasted about 10 – 15 minutes and was concentrated on the knots in my back and neck, but also on my legs and feet. It was an ok massage, but nothing like the joys of going to a professional massage therapist for a treatment where they could actually help your body recover. It was more like a boyfriend giving me a massage that he felt obligated to provide. It wasn’t bad, but I’m not sure that it was great either. Another slap on the ass and I rolled over again to have my front soaped up.

The process of being bombarded with buckets of water continued until all of the soap was washed off. Fatma motioned to me to use the water to clean my lady bits and then back to the slab. This time my large tea-towel like coverup had been spread out on the slab drenched in water. I got uncomfortably comfortable on the towel, face down and then the sweet, delicious smell of coffee wafted past my nose. It was like a little slice of heaven as she covered my body with coffee grinds and began to use them to gently exfoliate my soft, tender skin.

Once both sides of my body were amply covered in fragrant coffee grinds, she gently exfoliated my face. The heavenly coffee aroma made me relax and smile, despite the fact that I was sitting naked in public covered in coffee grinds.

When she was done the coffee application, I opened my eyes and all of a sudden was shocked to see that I was now a dark shade of brown all over. I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought of it before, but it was interesting to see my skin as a different colour. After all, I already felt strange enough being naked in another country, why not try on a different skin colour too?!

Fatma washed the coffee off with buckets of water and then allowed me to wash it from my private areas where the water had carried the coffee grinds it on it’s way off my body. Then she sat me down, poured warm water over my head and washed and conditioned my hair.

I climbed back on the slab one last time for the application of the honey treatment. Pure, natural honey mixed with water was drizzled all over me and then spread around and left to melt into my skin for a few minutes before being washed away again.

Fatma slapped me on the ass one last time and drizzled honey over my front. The scent made my mouth water. Luckily with the honey mixed with water it was much less sticky than I expected and it washed away easily with one more quick soapy wash down. Fatma finished washing my hair and then motioned for me to cover up and head back to the waiting area.

Oops! I hadn’t brought my second towel in.  My first towel was soaked and covered with coffee and honey and there I was naked. Now what?

Fatma chuckled and shook her head at me and then asked Melitza to grab my towel from my changing room. I wrapped up and headed to the waiting area to sit, cool off and chat. There were a few ladies arriving and preparing to enter the sauna area, a couple women were cooling off  after their first 40 minutes or so and Melitza was there waiting to ask me all about my experience.

I sat for another hour, had a lemon drink and chatted with Melitza about Serbia, Turkey, why women choose to cover their heads and bodies and why not. She explained the challenges of being a Serbian, non-covering woman who married into a family where covering was expected and that she has always stood her ground explaining that they can wear what they wish and she will wear what she wishes. She told me about her psychology background and a school she had opened in Serbia to help special needs children learn better math skills through different teaching methods. What an interesting lady! I’m so glad that I met her and took time to hear her story.

Eventually, I decided that I needed to get lunch seeing as I had skipped breakfast and it was already 3pm. I put my swimsuit and clothes back on and Melitza’s mother-in-law walked up the hill with me, back to my apartment.

Now, as I think back on the experience and am so glad that I did it. Not only was it an interesting local experience, but also a freeing of my mind and liberation of my body. In a society where women spend their days covered, it was an interesting contrast to see them uncover completely as an indulgence in themselves.

If you are visiting Turkey, I highly recommend the experience. And, don’t go to one of the expensive touristy hammams in Sultanahment. Dig a little deeper and find a family run one that operates as they have for hundreds of years. Enjoy the true Turkish hammam experience!

I highly recommend visiting Tarihi Historical Hamami in the Fatih / Balat district for the full, original experience. They have not sponsored this post or asked me to promote them, I am just 100% pleased with the experience I had and would like to see them thrive.

As always, if you are planning a trip to Turkey (or anywhere), feel free to get in touch. I am a full-service travel agent and happy to help you plan your next great adventure!

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

Preface: Education by Travel
I am not a religious person. I very rarely discuss religion as, quite honestly, it frustrates me. When there are wars being fought based on what ‘power’ you believe in and people being killed in the name of religion, my heart aches over the irony. How ever you choose to believe in a God, or whether you believe in science, we are all here on this same big planet together. Although this blog discusses religion, it is not about trying to change your belief (or non-belief) in a higher power, simply a reminder of how to live as a good person. For me, it is a testament (pardon the pun) to my love of travel and the education that I earn every day by opening my mind to new cultures.

I hope you’ll take time to comment and discuss after you’ve read the following.

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

It was late afternoon when I was standing in the doorway to my private room-rental in the local community of Fatih in Istanbul with the sea breeze wafting past me into the kitchen. I was engulfed in a conversation with Babek, the building owner, who I had met only a few short hours earlier.

What started out as me asking questions about the week-long Bayram festival to understand more of the culture, as well as arming myself with knowledge about closures over the next week, turned into exactly the type of conversation that drives me to continue traveling.

Although my correspondence leading up to my stay in Fatih had been with Sourena, the son, Babek was the one to greet me at the un-numbered wooden doors. My transfer driver from the airport had chatted with Sourena only minutes before, so I was (fairly) confident I was at the right place despite not seeing a number on the building.

I was welcomed with Babek’s warm smile and then Sourena quickly peeked down from upstairs to say hello. Then the two men carried my heavy suitcase up the narrow staircase to their second floor home. I immediately noted that both of them had really good English. Of course, there is an accent and words here and there get confused or lost in translation, but overall, I was surprised at the level of their conversation skills.

Sourena showed me around the small apartment and then led me to the roof top to see a spectacular view over the Balat area and toward Emininou. Indeed, the view is worth seeing and was a great way for him to point out the attractions of the area, along with giving me directions. He welcomed me and offered me a Iyran (mixture of yogurt and sparkling water) to drink, which I promptly devoured in the heat of the midday sun.

I spent only 15 – 20 minutes with Sourena gathering information for my stay and then I settled in, cleaned up and took off for a meeting in another part of town.

After a busy afternoon I walked back home surprisingly, without getting lost. Babek came to offer tea, which is a staple of the Turkish diet and hospitality. Although I was too hot to drink tea, a conversation arose.

I asked Babek about the Bayram festival that I had been hearing so much about. My local contacts are expats, so I thought I would ask a local for the inside scoop. He explained that Bayram is a sacrificing festival, often celebrated twice per year for families. Many people who live in the city go to the countryside to be with their family for this week-long government holiday. Families buy (or raise) an animal to be sacrificed and then they share the meat with friends and relatives. Traditionally the meat was divided into thirds; one part for the poor, one part for friends and one part for family. The festival is all about sharing what you have with others.

Although I can’t say I agree with the practice of sacrificing a live animal, I do try my best to respect other cultural and religious beliefs. I was interested in seeing the ceremony and photographing it, as I had heard that it may take place in the streets or backyards in the communities. However, now-a-days, law requires the slaughterings to be done by a butcher, rather than just by anyone. In all honesty, it is likely more humane than many of our practices in North America with the way animals are treated before going to slaughter. And, it seems, that at the root of this festival, at least from my understanding, is the kindness of sharing with those you love and those less fortunate.

As I chatted away with Babek about what stores may or may not be opened and closed over the next few days and if there was an area that I could watch a sacrifice (horrified, but with camera in hand), he ended up telling me that he wasn’t really sure because he is not Muslim and it is a Muslim festival. I tried to hold back my surprise. Not Muslim in a Muslim society?

Many questions begged to be asked, but where to start!

Come to find out, Babek and his family are Iranian, not Turkish. Six years ago they moved to Turkey to escape punishment in their own country for their choice of religion. Three years ago, they relocated to Istanbul. They were Christians in a dominantly Muslim society in Iran. For this, they had been persecuted and they could have been killed. In Istanbul, although dominantly Muslim, they are more tolerant and accepting of Christianity with the religions existing side by side with little conflict.

Immediately, my heart sank for them, knowing that they had left their home because of fear.

Immediately, I also asked myself ‘If I had known the family I was about to live with was Iranian, how would I have reacted? Would I have made a different choice?’

I like to think that I am not prejudiced or racist. I like to think that I am open-minded. And, I truly believe that good people come from every country of the world. But, that belief was challenged when I found out that this family was not what I had ‘expected’. If I had known they were from Iran, would I have chosen another place to stay? I am sure that many people would have. For me, I also asked myself, if I knew they were from Iran, wouldn’t I have assumed that they were Muslim? And, if that were the case, what would be the difference between staying with a Turkish Muslim family and an Iranian Muslim family?

If my friends and family knew this (which now they do!), what would have been their reaction? It is so easy to say ‘Nothing would be different’, but I am positive that some of them would have a heightened concern for my well-being based on the fact that I am staying with Iranians and all we know about Iranians is the bad news that the media shares about war, terrorism and death. We never hear about their caring side, their hospitality or that they aren’t all the same! Imagine for a moment thinking that all Canadians were terrorists. Doesn’t that seem more than just a little ridiculous?

Luckily, in asking myself these questions, I also realized that in booking my stay with this family, religion never once crossed my mind and for that I am thankful. I try to be open to religions and cultures around the world and I try not to pass judgements, but treat it as an opportunity to learn about other beliefs. Having said that, it is not something that determines my comfort or happiness. Whether I stay with a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Jewish family, for me, I will look for the opportunity to learn from the experience. Will I agree with all of their practices and beliefs? No, but I will be respectful as I understand that is what they believe.

Learning of their background led to a particularly deep conversation with a man I had only met a couple of hours earlier, sharing our thoughts on religion. He thoughtfully explained to me that at the heart of everything, his core belief is to not judge others. “Judgement can only be handed out by God. It is your job to live and love under God and not to act as God by judging other people.”

Seems simple enough.

In Canada, we hear about refugees in the news. We see them in our communities, some Canadians more accepting than others. We (as a society) often pass judgements on these people without knowing anything about them.

Now, let’s take God out of the equation for a moment, as not everyone believes in ‘a God’. One of my core beliefs is to treat others with kindness. And really, isn’t this similar to not judging? Who am I to pass judgement on someone else. I don’t know their story. I don’t know their struggles. I don’t know their beliefs. It is not my business to judge them based on their beliefs and upbringing, as I would hope that they do not judge me for mine.

I think what makes our world so beautiful is the differences in opinions, the million ways that people can do the same thing but in different fashions, our different religious beliefs that really all come from the same core, yet they are interpreted and taught differently.

Be kind.

In any religion that I can think of, at the core of that religion is a message about love and being kind. So, why, if all religions want the same thing, can’t we all get along?

Isn’t that the big question?!

For Babek and his family, like millions of others, believing in kindness and love has led to persecution. Since moving to Turkey, he and his family can never return to Iran for a very real fear of being killed, as they have chosen to believe in a different teacher than the mainstream of that country.

Regardless of my religious beliefs, I applaud these people for standing up for their beliefs. Regardless of our religious similarities and differences, Babek and I were able to have great conversation about religion and the world as we both try our best to ‘not judge’ one another.

At no time did I feel that Babek was trying to convince or convert me to believing in God, or ‘his God’, but yet it was clear that he is a religious man. It was in this, that we discussed how backwards it is in many cultures that you are forced to believe in any one thing. In Iran, his government and the community were busy trying to force people to all believe in the same thing. This force came through fear and persecution. For Babek and his family, this was not acceptable. Babek expressed his frustration that the leaders in his community were trying to forcefully get people to follow their religion.

Believe or die.

Rather than conforming to the beliefs of the people around them, they fled. Had they conformed, they would have been doing themselves an injustice, as they would have been living a lie. Sure, they would have been able to stay in their country, but if they stood up against anything they believed to be wrong, they would have been killed. If they in any way rebelled against or questioned Islam, they would have been persecuted or killed. Can you imagine living with this fear? Not just a fear of being outcast by your community, but a real fear of you and your family being killed for having a mind of your own.

The problem with the world and religion is not religion itself. The problem is the leaders of the religion who have manipulated the teachings of the religion to benefit themselves in the form of power and / or money. If you read the ‘book’ of most religions, they talk about kindness, love and being brotherly to your neighbours. This message is not the problem. I think everyone can agree that this is a good rule to live by. The problem is those who manipulate this message to gain power and then use their influence to teach people differently. Funny how religion and politics seem so much alike at the moment … or is it just me?

For me, on my first day in Istanbul, regardless of my religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), ‘Don’t Judge’ is a reminder of how travel has opened my mind in the last few years. It is a reminder that people do things differently and that is ok. It is a reminder that there are more good people in the world than bad. It is a reminder that we are human-kind and should not be defined by our color, country or religion.

Despite having fled his own country for fear of being killed for his religious beliefs, Babek did not speak ill of the community that did not accept him and his family. He simply spoke of judgement and that it was not his place or right to place judgement on others.

A lesson that we should all live by, starting with the smallest of things in our lives. You only know your own story. Leave your judgements behind and ensure that you are living your life with kindness and love.

I hope that next time you meet someone from Iran, that you let go of your hesitation, put your secret, media-driven, prejudices behind you and see these beautiful people for who they are as humans and all they have to offer.