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Hong Kong – What a Souprise

It was worth the three flights and missing-luggage scare to discover soup dumplings on our first full day in Hong Kong. Not any old-hat dumplings bobbing in soup but pleated pouches of XiaoLongBao that contain a soupçon, as it were, of ambrosial broth within the wrapper as an extra special soup-rise (see what I did there?).

There is a ritual to eating XiaoLongBao that is detailed on the quick reference instruction card that comes with your order. You transfer the plump packets to a spoon and gingerly bring spoon and dumpling to your bowl. Then you dip them carefully in a mix of soy sauce and vinegar with shredded ginger before poking a hole in the top. You can let the fragrant liquid drain into the spoon, mixing with the soy-vinegar-ginger and taste it delicately, or you can fall on the dumpling like a sucker fish cleaning barnacles off a whale, slurp up the broth and gobble the pork dumpling in one bite. This was how I started a month in Asia-Oceania with my travel pal, D.

It began as a trip to Vietnam but spread out once we looked at a map with Cambodia-is-right-there, and look-how-close-Thailand-is, followed by since-we’re-here-how-about-Australia, capped off with we-have-to-go-through-Hong-Kong-we-might-as-well-stop-over.

We knew we were in for a treat when the actors on the Taiwanese airline videos from Seattle to Taipei to Hong Kong explained the safety instructions gravely in Chinese then broke into interpretive dance when it was time to review them in English.

Two days in Hong Kong is too short but still allows for a good sampling of food. The XiaoLongBao set a high bar that was met by successive meals of braised, charred short ribs; dim sum of har gow, siu mai, and black pepper squid tentacles well worth the 90-min wait; and topped off by a seafood restaurant that ferries you 30 min to an island, feeds you whole snapper, steamed shrimp in garlic sauce and butter-drenched fried lobster all freshly killed and cooked to order before shipping you back to Hong Kong Island.

The city itself isn’t what I expected. Not a slick, shiny metropolis, but a bustling, grittier city with towers stepping on top of each other forming a ring that creeps up and around the island, and spills across the bay into Kowloon. It has cramped alleys with signs that jockey for position up into the sky; crowded markets dedicated to ladies’ wares or flowers or textiles; and big sprawling malls with high end brand names and architecturally spectacular washrooms. The city is shrouded in a mysterious, smoggy glow by day and puts on a light show every night to rival Times Square or Picadilly Circus.

We did what I love best which is walk around the city to get a feel for the life there. Our lovely hosts, childhood friends of D, knew the best places to go including a stop at the (free) exhibit of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority on an upper floor of the second tallest building. We went for the view but got caught up in the Science World-like games including a full-body interactive one about whether Hong Kong should peg its currency to the Chinese renminbi or the US dollar. I played it energetically enough that I caught the eye of the poor woman charged with surveying the few visitors and felt compelled to answer her questions with extreme enthusiasm including whether I would tell others to go visit (“Of course!”). So now I’ve kept my promise. Go see it.

My favourite part of this first leg of our trip, aside from the freshly baked pain au chocolat our hostess made every morning, was riding up the escalators from Central at the waterline to the Mid-Levels where we were staying. There are 21 escalators and inclined moving sidewalks that make up the longest covered outdoor escalator system in the world. Incredible people watching as you glide by crooked streets and busy stalls and glance into peoples’ kitchens.

I feel like I should wrap this up by using the XiaoLongBao as a metaphor for Hong Kong with its flexible wrapping, pleated streets and meaty deliciousness surrounded by the salty Kowloon Bay broth but that is just ridiculous. Maybe instead, I can just say this is the best way to start a new year – Gong Hey Fat Choy!

Panama City: Stay on the Cobblestones

People should go back to yelling “Fire!” in panic. I think I would have reacted to “Fuego!” Instead, K and I calmly continued our meal as someone shouted and all other patrons rushed to the door. I was matter of fact, “Looks like that tour group overstayed their dinner time.” Then one kind woman ran back for us, clearly realizing we didn’t understand Spanish and explained the building was on fire. We grabbed fistfuls of McNuggets and fries and ran.

For all our precautions in Colombia and Venezuela, Panama City provided our sketchier moments. A planned 5:30am departure the following morning sent us in search of a grocery store to pack snacks for breakfast. We passed the McDonald’s on our way back and walked in to make up for the run of mediocre to awful meals in Caracas. Our guide/wrangler had given specific directions to the store, “Go two blocks down and four blocks over. That’s safe. Don’t go three blocks down!” While we stayed obediently within that radius, the fire forced us off our planned path, and along unlit streets with crumbling edges past a cluster of feral cats (incidentally called a destruction collectively), a trio of hookers and a man who popped out at us from behind the car he was fixing in the dark.

That was our first night in Panama. Our last night we ate at a restaurant in Casco Viejo, the historic centre of the city. The directions here were a firm, “Stay on the cobblestone streets.” We had driven through the neighbourhood that afternoon on the way from the airport to our hotel, a 15-minute drive that took an hour due to Carnival road closures. The streets were flanked by run-down buildings and people lounging in doorways staring stonily at our little white minivan as we crept past in traffic. One guy ran at us from a car parked crookedly in the street waving a US bill but we didn’t stop to find out his motive. But then the neighbourhood transformed from aggressive to attractive within a block. The buildings got older and more stately, people were peacefully strolling and cobblestones appeared underfoot. Casco Viejo proper is charming with narrow streets, churches, a kind of waterfront, stone boardwalk-sea wall, and lots of restaurants. My final dinner of octopus and faux risotto made of Israeli couscous was followed by group drinks at the rooftop bar overlooking the lit-up city. We planned a pretty waterfront walk back to the hotel but were detoured by security through the edges of a Carnival concert and city streets made safer by the sheer number of people and cops on every corner. Our guide made good use of them by confirming the safety of our new route periodically. It’s stuff like that that paradoxically makes me feel less safe. But we laughed as we turned a corner we’d driven by earlier in the day, one about which our guide had said, “Well I wouldn’t walk around there!”

We could have spent another day in Panama City if only to take a boat cruise through the canal. Instead, we watched it from an observation deck and tried to absorb facts and rumours:

Panama is almost exactly a horizontal “s”, not a comma on the end of Central America as I expected.

The canal is in the middle of the country and runs northwest to southeast. It starts with a bay off the Atlantic, goes through a narrow set of locks which open into a large lagoon and artificial lakes before constricting again into two more sets of locks, the last of which is Miraflores, just outside Panama City. The canal has two lanes and all ship traffic moves in one direction in the morning and the other in the afternoon. There is a project underway for a third wider and deeper lane to accommodate the ships of today.

Two little electric machines run on rails on either side of the canal like those rabbits at racetracks and tow the ships through.

Although the average toll is $14k US (a gamillion Canadian), some ships pay as much as $300k for the 10-hr crossing, still a deal compared to the 15-day long way round that costs (rumoured) $3m in fuel and operating costs. An American is credited with the cheapest toll at $0.36 for swimming the canal in 1928.

And so we reached the end of our trip, a slightly different style of travel for us, with more guides and drivers and people taking care of us than usual but with our standard keep moving and see more philosophy that had me on 10 flights over 12 days. I’m back now and people ask me what I thought. I’m not sure what to say because I enjoyed it very much and feel lucky for the opportunity to have gone but also realize clearly the difference for me between travel and vacation. Both are great but Caracas, Bogota and Panama City fall into the travel category, learning more about the culture, about daily life and ancient or recent history. The middle part of the trip to Bocas and Boquete was very much vacation, relaxing and focused on activities like swimming, snorkeling or hiking (not me personally, of course). In spite of all the worry before leaving, Caracas and Bogota were the highlights by far and it is to Colombia that I’d return to see more. I guess when it comes to travel, I prefer not to stay on the cobblestones.



Home for a Rest — Wrap Up

Five countries later, 207kms walked, 300k steps trod, and an extra 5lbs gained (I’m guessing), my Eastern European trip is done.

In trying to give a flavour of what we got up to, I left a whole lot of fun out. In each city we compiled lists of recommendations from friends and guidebooks and checked them all off.

We ate at great restaurants like the one I described in Split and awful ones I didn’t, like the tourist trap called N’Joy (we should have guessed from the name) in Cappadocia that fed us a kind of Turkish quesadilla but with no discernible filling for my friend’s cheese version and crumbly dried dog food in mine.

We met some unimpressed, stoic, quasi-angry people in Croatia, the first of whom was a waiter in the Zagreb airport hotel who impatiently chastised my perfect mother for stacking glasses on plates to help with bussing the table, since “the plates go to the kitchen and the glasses to the bar!” We met lovely warm, friendly, helpful people…everywhere else.

We took tours and explored on our own; we took buses across countries and planes between them, mostly. We walked. A lot. And followed only one umbrellaed tour guide, which we appreciated as it provided a molecule of shade on a hot day in Ephesus.

We remembered to have Kleenex with us for all the toilet-paper-free bathrooms and generally had change in local currency to use the toilets. The exception was on the 7-hr bus ride from Budapest to Krakow. We stopped at the Slovakian-Polish border after four hours, with bursting bladders — a bus-load of people faced with a coin-operated turnstile that accepted Euro cents or Polish zloties. The machine rejected my Euro coins so we trooped over to the money exchange in the gas station. But that took some effort to get the right coin denomination back. The guy ahead of us in line, now zloty-rich, offered to pay for us to pee. But by then our fellow frustrated bus passengers had managed to jam the coin machine. We looked at each other nonplussed then jumped the turnstile. I crawled through the equivalent of a doggie door instead because I foolishly thought that would be more graceful. In the process, I re-opened the scab on my knee from when I fell on the rooftop of Budapest’s Spice Market, moments after standing on top of the world and face-planted into our good-looking guide’s crotch. See? The things I didn’t tell you.

We hired amazing cab drivers to be our guides, and avoided the one in Zadar, whose business card had the charming logo and contact info of his Croatian girlie club on the flip side. Although that would have made an awesome story.

I didn’t tell you when Mom and I pooh-pooh the organized tour to Montenegro from Dubrovnik, opting for public transit instead. Our bus got caught up in the border crossing at Bosnia-Herzegovina and arrived two hours late. Time enough only to eat uninspired fast food at the bus station out of view of the beautiful UNESCO-town before having to get back on the bus to head home. Nice bus ride, though.

We went to castles and swam at beaches. We rode the metro and walked across bridges. We took boat tours in every city with water, except Krakow. There we saw a salt mine with steps, bricks and cobblestones made out of rock salt, as well as a salt Pope John Paul II and a salt Last Supper.

We learned six key phrases in four languages: hi/bye, please/thanks, yes/no, and learned that you can turn any phrase into something English. Just as “buy a donkey” means thank you in South Africa, “choke a horse” sounds remarkably like “very nice” in Turkish.

I learned that any attempt at a joke in a foreign language wins you points. Mine was saying “bad dog” to a stray canine in Turkish. It sounds like “buu-uuk eat” and cracked us up all out of proportion. Must have been in the delivery.

And I’ve leaned a lot about myself:

The number of times I say “I’m good” instead of “No, thanks,” which is not helpful in foreign countries.

How much I don’t like hot weather; it makes me grumpy (sorry mom and sis). Not fond of 2-degree weather in Poland either but I can keep my sense of humour.

There is always a fancier section on a plane than the one you are in. In Lufthansa, First Class is set off from Business Class by a space-age door-like curtain instead of a regular accordion curtain, and those fancier pants people get macadamia nuts instead of cashews. Although in Business Class the flight attendant correctly determined the wine I was drinking by holding it up to the light instead of asking me. I also learned a credit card opens the door to business class. That’s almost free, right?

Most of all, I learned again how small the world is:

…From the family and friends I travelled with (huge thanks to them for the great times)
…to the old friends I met unexpectedly abroad (in Croatia and on the plane in Munich)
…and the new ones I met on the road (cab drivers and tour guides alike)
…as well as those who emailed from home and around the world as they work and live in countless other countries
…and the one I texted on safari in Tanzania from a catamaran in Croatia.

I am truly lucky to have friends and family no matter where I go even if they are simply back home at the end of an email. Now I just have to pay more attention to the cab drivers in Vancouver. I had good success with the ones over here.

A Warning to Humanity — Krakow, Poland

Red bricked buildings stand in quiet rows along a wide tree-lined boulevard, like a broader version of New York brownstones or a set of university dormitories in New England. We took pictures with blue sky and green trees and red buildings just outside of Oświęcim, a small town in southern Poland, 50km from Krakow. It’s when you turn the pictures to black and white that the scene take on its sinister cast. That, and the words “Work will set you free” that you walk under to get there — to the place that is more famous by its German name, Auschwitz.

Auschwitz is actually three separate camps plus 40 subcamps. The three camps had slightly different roles during WWII although they each included ingredients from the Nazi recipe of forced labour: human experimentation, starvation, disease and extermination. Auschwitz I is the one you think of, held 16k prisoners, and was the administrative head. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was built a short distance away primarily as an extermination camp and held 100k prisoners, with high volume gas chambers and crematoria. Auschwitz III-Monowitz focused on forced labour for a nearby rubber and chemical plant. Inmates there had a three to four-month life expectancy which dwindled to one month for those who worked in the nearby mines. The 40 subcamps provided slave labour for other factories in the 100km radius. The population of the Auschwitz complex comprised 25% of the entire concentration camp system with 1.3 million people deported there during WWII and only 200k making it out alive. 90% of those killed were Jews.

No picture can capture the size of the operation or the horrific things the Nazi minds thought up. The 2hr tour (joining a tour is mandatory) walked us though selected barracks to show just a touch of what was involved. The stats are what stick in the mind, a hopeless attempt to comprehend the scale of the horror:

Two trains could unload a total of 6k people at once. People were either sent directly to the gas chambers or to registration. The gas chambers killed 2k people in 20 minutes.

232k children arrived at the gates but only 22k made it as far as registration.

The gas, Zyklon B, was previously used as a pesticide for insects and rats before the Nazis thought to use it on humans.

Hair shorn from arriving women was made into textiles — human-hair blankets and cloth. Blankets were tested after the war and confirmed to be made of hair, likely female and containing traces of cyanide, left over from the Zyklon B. Liberation forces found two tonnes of hair in the warehouse. A selection fills a room today at Auschwitz, at a guess, approximately 30’W x 10’H x 6’D. Most impactful perhaps because it was so unexpected and so human. This is one room where no pictures are allowed although you can find them online if you search “Auschwitz hair.”

The warehouses contained the accumulation of the 25-50kg of luggage each prisoner could bring. Room after room, window after window, showed piles of these belongings grouped together: shoes, shoe polish tins, combs, brushes, children’s clothes, prosthetics (most people with disabilities were killed immediately) etc. We were ashamed to hear that the prisoners called the warehouses “the Canada Baracks,” as Canada was seen as a rich country with a lot of material goods.

There were 802 attempted escapes out of Auschwitz; 146 were successful. Out of 1,300,000 people.

But aside from all the numbers, what stuck us was the quiet. There were hundreds there with us. Filing along, communicating with each other through speaking glances. And not one selfie.

The 1.5 million tourists that visit Auschwitz every year read the memorial plaque: “For ever let the place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity…”

But for all the sadness and horror there are stories of help and hope. We walked through the Jewish Ghetto in Krakow and visited Schindler’s Enamel Factory. While Schindler was also described as a war profiteer, a womanizer and a cheat at business, the 1,200 Jews that worked in his factory were among the few that survived the liquidation of the ghetto in 1943, codenamed Aktion Krakau, and were fed, provided with jobs when that was the golden ticket and treated like people. The very things we take for granted.

Shoes on the Danube Bank — Budapest, Hungary

I found Budapest both beautiful and slightly elusive. Partly due to hazy mornings that made the views of the city look ethereal, like a watercolour painting. Partly because of a language filled with Sz’s and unfamiliar accents, although Hungarian wins for the best hi/bye greeting of “szia” (see ya). In part because of a broad mix of architecture styles from intricate and lacy to upright and martial. But mostly because it has changed rulers so often and fought on the unpopular side of the two world wars that even the history is hard to grasp.

To start, Budapest is the amalgamation of two cities: Buda and Pest (pronounced Pesht). The Buda side is hilly and boasts the Castle District. The Pest side, flat and is home to pretty much everything else. They are separated by the Danube as it meanders through 10 countries. The commentary on the Danube boat cruise stated proudly that Budapest has “never had trouble with the Danube, except in 1838 when it completely wiped out Pest.” That’s like saying, “I’ve never had trouble with clowns, except for the one that killed my father,” (paraphrasing an old Jack Handey joke).

Between that, the occupations by the Huns, Tartars, Ottoman Turks, the Habsburgs, Austrians, Germans, Soviets, a war of independence and two world wars, it isn’t surprising that the architecture is a mix of over eight styles:

  • Baroque: the dome and colonnades of the Royal Palace
  • Neo-Gothic: the lacy spires and flying buttresses of the Parliament Building
  • Classicist: the proportion and geometry of the Chain Bridge
  • Renaissance: the symmetry of the Opera House, borrowed from Classicism
  • Romantic: the aesthetics of the Great Synagogue
  • Art Nouveau: the intricate Academy of Music
  • Plus the Turkish baths and Roman ruins
  • There are a few oddities of architecture as well. In the late 1800s, the Jewish population divided into three congregations: the Neolog (modern), the Orthodox (traditional) and the Status Quo (moderates), with each building its own synagogue. In what sounds like a fairy tale, the Neologs hired an architect more used to building cathedrals or basilicas so the Great Synagogue has the cathedral layout with a central rose window and is jokingly called the most Catholic synagogue in the world. The moderates hired a protege of the first architect who, in some kind of odd competition, built a synagogue with Islamic elements like minaret-style spires. And the third synagogue, neither too hard nor too soft, too hot nor too cold, was just right.

    That was described on a free walking tour about the Jewish history in Budapest. The guide also spoke about what it was like to be on the losing side both two world wars, having aligned with the Germans. It was tragic and a bit disorienting to see how both Allied and German bombing left only 26% of Budapest undamaged. Most of it has since been rebuilt using original materials and matching the architecture where possible, as shown in an eye-opening set of before-and-after photos on Castle Hill.

    While the Jewish Memorial and Museum were closed for a high holiday there was a low key but impactful memorial called “Shoes on the Danube Bank” on the river wall near the Parliament that is not mentioned in many guidebooks. Shoes sculpted in iron represent Jews who were made to remove their shoes and stand on the bank before being shot by the Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian Fascists) so their bodies would fall into the Danube and be swept away. People come to fill the shoes with flowers.

    But Hungary is not dwelling as much in the past as I have here. The city is vibrant, the people friendly and speak such good English that it feels pretentious to attempt our limited Hungarian travel phrases. And much like Canadians who name all the famous Canadians in other countries, Hungarian commentary lists their proud accomplishments, both known (Liszt, Rubik’s cube, ballpoint pen) and lesser known (vitamin C, the computer, the foundation of physics, and Windows and Excel). I’ll have to fact-check those last ones. So despite its elusiveness, or maybe because of it, Budapest should not be missed.

    Surviving the Apocalypse — Ephesus, Turkey

    Wisdom, knowledge, fortune, virtue: this is the Ephesian recipe for success. It could also be why a nearby village in Turkey was deemed a safe haven to survive the predicted apocalypse of Dec 21, 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar. This little village of 600 people, Şirince (Shee-reen-jay), swelled to 60,000 for doomsday – chosen by virtue of its proximity to Ephesus, where the Virgin Mary spent her final days until her assumption into heaven.

    It’s a cute town whose white hillside houses are lined up like soldiers, rows of windows shuttered with dark brown wood. It has UNESCO status but while it is pretty compared to its neighbour, Selçuk, the cultural significance might be more the cause than the aesthetics. The cobblestone streets funnel you through a tourist trap, at least on the surface, of pensions, uninspired restaurants and kitschy shops.

    Founded by freed Greek slaves in the 1400s, they named it Çirkince, “rather ugly,” to discourage others from coming. The current name means “quaint,” changed a few years after Turkey’s 1924 population exchange with Greece following the Greco-Turkish War. The exchange was based primarily on religion, ignoring language and nationality: Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians were sent to Greece in exchange for Greek-speaking Muslims.

    The new now-Muslim town retained the local trade in very sweet fruit wine (blackberry, mulberry strawberry, pomegranate, melon) and in 2012 created a special end-of-the-world vintage that had to be consumed before the apocalyptic deadline. Savvy. They also jacked up the $60/night hotel cost to $1600/night.

    Şirince had a role in the discovery of the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus. With most of the credit going to a paralyzed German nun with visions, it was the people of this hillside village making their annual pilgrimage from the town’s church of St. John the Apostle to a little place in Ephesus that triggered a greater look at the area. 

    Mother Mary’s House, as it is called in Turkish, is a lot of guesswork. The two-room structure has only a two-foot base of original walls. The rest is reconstructed. There is some doubt as to the authenticity of the house and site but it has received three papal visits, the first in 1896 and the last from Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, which is good enough for the pious and tourists alike. Outside, the “fountain” is a row of taps mounted in a wall reminiscent of the bathrooms in prison movies. But we gamely washed our hands and I took a sip, unsure if that was required to aid in good fortune. 

    Beside the fountain is a wishing wall covered in paper streamers to tie up your wishes. I wrote my wish, more of a freeform haiku, on a bank receipt. My friend felt that could be construed as bribery and elected to use toilet paper instead. I didn’t point out how *that* could be construed. Our guide dashed our hopes by saying the wall is cleaned off once a week so I hope Mother Mary works fast.

    Selçuk, the nearest city to Ephesus, takes the knowledge requirement of success seriously. Guiding is a profession, not a summer job. Guides are now required to have a 5-yr tour guide degree that includes courses in History, Archeology, and Mythology. We were fortunate to book a tour that had only two other people on it, an Australian couple married 46 years. The four of us had our pedigreed guide, Nizan, and minivan to ourselves.

    Ephesus is a revelation. Expecting only the theatre, we were delighted to find a city of marble ruins with a wide main street, the beginnings of side streets, a harbour street and columns, arches, walls, stairs, and a few key buildings.

    The highlight is the Library. My kind of town. Rising two-stories high, it could be the twin of Petra’s Treasury in Jordan, but free-standing. It is intricate with tall Corinthian columns and the four statues of wisdom, knowledge, fortune and virtue guarding the entrance. 

    Directly across from it is the brothel with an ancient ad for it etched into the marble sidewalk a block away. The ad shows a broken heart, a footprint pointed towards the building, and the face of a beautiful woman along with a square that once held menu prices. You can almost hear the Ephesians calling, “Honey, I’m going to the library..” as they closed the front door. 

    Through the arches, down another street and past the agora, lies the famous theatre. Still in use periodically today, it has hosted Sting, Elton John and Yanni, seating 25,000 people and using the natural acoustics. 

    Having the guide brought us to great vantage points that large groups passed by unaware and provided some commentary not found in books. Ephesus is still being excavated. With only 20% of the city uncovered, new artifacts are being found every day. We passed a colonnade that had been discovered in 2013 and the previous week, an archaeologist measuring an area found a tablet with a Maltese cross etched into its face, that she placed casually against a wall.

    We left the ancient city to lunch at a small restaurant in the country that is part of a carpet-weaving cooperative. The meal was delicious and fun as we and the other couple good-naturedly out-travel-storied each other. Hard to do with peripatetic Australians. We had a fascinating demonstration of de-silking worm cocoons (the worms had been gassed to death) and watched slackjawed as women wove intricate Turkish patterns into carpets in silk and wool. Then it was time to pay our dues. A large, square room, some Turkish tea and men blanketing the floor with carpet after carpet, twirling them professionally to show how colours shift depending on the angle at which you see them. Despite the timeshare-style full court press, we left empty-handed, but with a greater appreciation of the skill involved and an understanding of the thousand-dollar price tags.

    So farewell to Turkey, a warm and friendly country, with a blend of ancient and modern, natural and urban, delicious tea and a McDonald’s that delivers (based on the branded motorbikes with panniers). That’s civilization.

    Up, Up and Away — Cappadocia, Turkey

    Our cave hotel came with a welcome cat. Cut into the soft, rock cliffs, caves are everywhere in Cappadocia, and make the best kind of boutique hotel. The cat is the Cappadocian equivalent to a mint on your pillow. And a natural byproduct of leaving your window open.

    Cappadocia is a large region best seen by car. We used the lazy-traveler method of hiring the cabbie who drove us to the hotel as our guide. I’d had such good luck with my last one.

    Our new guide’s name was Ufuk (pronounced oo-fook, come on, now). He was 40 and at mid-afternoon was still laughing at a feeble joke I’d made in Turkish, hours earlier. I was charmed, especially since “joke” and “Turkish” is overstating it. He rejected the standard tour bus routes for a more natural one, which included sites called “Church with the buckle” and “Church of the snakes,” and where he had to chase the keeper of a 9th century monastery down from high in the branches of a tree so that we could pay the $2.50 entrance fee before we left.

    Cappadocia is the land of fairy chimneys, rock churches and underground cities of tan, brown and black, softened by shades of green from the cypress groves, apple trees and grape vines. Fairy chimneys are the Turkish counterparts of the hoodoos in the North American badlands, eroded by wind and water out of ancient volcanic deposits from eruptions more than three million years ago. Like Stone Age Rorschach tests, the formations take on many shapes: black-hatted chimneys, a camel, the profile of Napoleon.

    The churches were carved out of rock 1600 to 2000 years ago and painted at some point with murals on a black background. While the murals in some churches were still quite colourful, the monastery looked to have unrelenting black ceilings until Ufuk borrowed a powerful flashlight. As the light played over the black, paintings of Jesus and the apostles came out of the shadows, as if being discovered for the first time. There is Greek graffiti (Plato heart Persephone-style) dated 1888 on the walls adding to the sense of history. Ufuk also led me up a set of very worn, just-short-of-vertical stone steps to another church and top of the world moment. He complimented me for making it without any difficulty by saying that even young people in their 20s had trouble. I looked around for my cane.

    The underground cities are the stuff of Indiana Jones movies and nightmares for claustrophobes. The region has an estimated 200 of them, linked to each other and to the houses of the ancient residents through hidden trapdoors and courtyards. We toured Kaymakli, a four-level city, walking through slanting tunnels just wide enough for a person and in some areas only high enough to walk fully bent over at the waist. The tunnels were generally well lit, with fresh air due to effective ventilation shafts, and opened every few feet into rooms about five feet high. They were used for retreat when under attack, had their own water source that couldn’t be tampered with from ground level, and could house 10-30k very short people with their tiny horses. The first level was kept as the stable.

    Our final moment of wonder was going up, up and away in our blue- and yellow-striped balloon, suspended over the canyons and valleys of Cappadocia at sunrise, one of 100 hot air balloons dotting the sky. The balloons themselves draw the camera as much as the wide vistas. People whisper or gesture. The balloons glide, up and down and rotate in each direction to provide everyone a view. The pilot brings us within touching distance of the cliffs then we rise silently by them. It’s peaceful. Awe inspiring. Not at all scary. And a great metaphor for Turkey itself.

    Turkish Delight — Istanbul, Turkey

    The whirling dervish spins, arms raised, eyes half open, head tilted, one palm to the sky to receive gifts from God and one facing the ground to give it to Man. Istanbul could be as disorienting; it seems to spin around you even as you stay still. But as our private guide explained, “Once you know Istanbul, you sense the order behind the chaos.” He is right. There are people everywhere, but not in the overwhelming, claustrophobic, stressful sense. Istanbul is colourful and lively, pretty and sprawling. And the number of people is outnumbered only by the number of cats.

    Street cats are everywhere. But instead of mangy and scrawny and sly, they seem clean, well-fed, and flealess enough to hold on my lap. They’ve taken ownership of the city: lying on statues; standing by gates; and sitting upright on restaurant chairs like little furry men, spines against the chair back, hind legs stretched out in front of them, and front paws up high waiting for their coffee.

    Old Istanbul conveniently gathers most of the major sites in one place:

  • Blue Mosque: more of a pastel mosque with as much pink as blue
  • Aya Sofia: named “Holy Wisdom” (“Sofia” meaning wisdom, not someone’s name), the church has changed from Greek Orthodox to Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox to Imperial Mosque to museum since it was built in 537 AD
  • Topkapi Palace: home to the stunning 86-carat pear-shaped Spoonmaker’s Diamond that legend says was found by a fisherman who bartered it for three wooden spoons
  • The Spice Bazaar: endless stalls with perfect pyramids of multi-coloured, fragrant spices and dusty Turkish Delight, and the surrounding streets with wall-to-wall shops selling party favours beside prayer beads beside guns with child-sized mannequins in camouflage
  • The Grand Bazaar: much more civilized than expected and both cramped and enormous: small, clean stores with doors and air conditioning, beside busy kiosks selling variations of the same thing: carpets, pashminas, jeweled teardrop lanterns, copper pots, wooden spoons, housewares, hardware, giant rolls of bubble wrap… I regretfully passed up the opportunity to buy the softest scarf of unicorn hair.
  • Bosphorus cruise: a beautiful 2-hr boat ride at sunset on the breezy top deck listening to the incomprehensible, monotone tour guide who sounded like the teacher in Snoopy cartoons but thankfully was so bored by her job that she’d stop talking for long stretches
  • As much as I loved the majesty and variety of the sights, it is the little human moments that I enjoyed the most:

  • My friend and I laughing at the plaque in Aya Sofia that we both read as the minibar, instead of “minbar,” where the priests gave sermons
  • Conservative women in niqabs taking selfies over and over again, going for the perfect expression in their beautiful eyes, I guess
  • The museum’s cat that preened in front of a giant floodlight to a paparazzi of tourists snapping pictures – work it, kitty
  • The mesmerizing whirling dervishes who spun continuously for 30 minutes both on their axes and around a central dervish to mimic the solar system, then slowed to a stop without falling drunkenly over
  • But the highlight was the private tour guide we hired for our last day. Highly recommended, he was more like a rent-a-local-friend. He was friendly with a masters in history and walked us around 15 km (and 52 floors according to my FitBit) of neighborhoods telling us history and stories of current life in Istanbul but never feeling like he should have an umbrella or lollipop sign.

    He took us to local restaurants, chocolate shops and a tea garden. He revealed the creamy sweet deliciousness of balkaymak (literally honey and clotted cream) on bread, and we shared a pot of the richest melted chocolate with fresh strawberries and a crunchy granola. Best of all, we all drank “boza,” bulgur wheat fermented with water and sugar and topped with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas that you eat with a spoon. Like a summer eggnog and apparently very effective in treating cholera.

    And to crown it off, we walked up steep stairs, down a dimly-lit hallway, did a secret knock on an unmarked door, and then waited until the caretaker came towards us. The door to a narrow stairway was unlocked and then we were up and out on the roof above the Spice Bazaar to unparalleled views of Istanbul. Our guide making me climb up on one of the roof-top domes to be King of the World – definitely an afternoon of Turkish Delight.

    Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds — Croatia

    Croatia’s national food is pasta. That was according to the proprietress of our hotel in Zadar. She explained it was a hangover from when the Venetians ruled the area from 1420 to 1797. It certainly dominates every menu no matter what the style of food. Pasta, pizza and risotto are staples. The rest of the menu consists of fish and meat, usually chicken, lamb and beef.

    It is hard to judge what is authentic Croatian or Dalmatian food. We stayed in the Old Town of each place for the atmosphere (worth it) but that also meant it was more touristy. My sister and I tended to claim the fish or seafood dishes while Mom generally kept the meat side in business. Cuttlefish and octopus were common and seemed to be the most local, along with the fish.

    In the early days we were thrown off by the pricing, moving on quickly when the menu listed steaks and fish for the equivalent of $80 Cdn. It wasn’t until a few days later that we realized they were priced by the pound, while other menu items, like pasta, were not. In general, we could eat a delicious dinner for $30-40 each, all in, with a little wine.

    Croatia counts heavily on tourism so most people speak some English and wait staff generally speak it very well. Menus are translated and if some of the labels aren’t exactly accurate, well that’s not really unusual when you are traveling. Pan-fried and deep-fried are often used interchangeably. Our “pan-fried squids” came deep-fried and breaded. And enormous: wide, thick rings of calamari with those spider pieces but of giant size, and an off-putting arrowhead squid tail that must get thrown away in Canada.

    We were also told by one server that in Croatia, omelette and scrambled eggs mean the same thing, although that was likely a language issue. He’d offered us a choice of omelette or eggs and we’d made the mistake of asking how they prepared the non-omelette eggs. We gave up and enjoyed the omelettes.

    Our most unusual meal came from the highly rated and personally recommended Azur in Dubrovnik. Azur, like many restaurants, lines up candlelit tables in the narrow alleyways radiating out in three directions. Well-fed cats sauntered by hoping for some of our pan-fried swordfish in black curry sauce and crispy salmon pockets with wasabi sauce. Black sauces and black risotto, courtesy of cuttlefish ink, are popular. And delicious.

    But our tastiest meal was at Konoba (coastal Croatian for restaurant) Matejuska in Split. A top favourite on Trip Advisor, it books up days in advance so we were lucky to discover it in time to score a table on our last night there. The server presented a cutting board of fresh fish his father had picked up at the market that morning: black sea bream, gilthead bream, sea bass, sarpa salpa (another species of sea bream) and golden mullet. All white meat, you order by the whole fish so need to balance mild vs. fuller fish flavour with the size of the fish and the number of starters and sides you are having.

    We settled on the medium-sized sarpa salpa, grilled whole, with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon. Tender octopus with whole chickpeas in a rich sauce started the meal. Fresh bread sopped up the sauce. A flavourful grilled mixed vegetable dish of red onion, mushrooms, red pepper, eggplant and zucchini, just on the right side of salty, complemented the simple preparation of the fish and boiled potatoes tossed with oil and vinegar cut some of the richness. A little research revealed that salpa can induce LSD-like hallucinations. It’s a thing called salpa-tripping and might explain why the restaurant is so popular.

    To add to the atmosphere, we were on the edge of a storm front, not raining but cooler and windy. When we sat down outside the server said, “I’m sorry, we are all full inside so if it rains…I don’t know what to say… If it is light, you’ll be fine under these awnings. If not, you’re all in trouble.”

    Apparently they have hurricane-speed winds (up to 225 km/hr) occasionally. I can believe it as the unpredictable gusts we had that night blew the clean side plates, cutlery and napkins completely out of the server’s hands the minute he walked out, forcing him to go back for others. Throughout the meal, a strong gust would come up and we’d all dive for whatever meant the most to us. My sister and I dove for the wine, Mom grabbed the food, and the vase with flowers went flying. Napkins were airborne all night.

    We finally tried the pizza on our last and only night in Trogir. It was the sole real day of rain so after a late lunch and walking around the once-again beautiful UNESCO town, damp and tired, we ordered a large pizza and took it home to eat in our attic suite. The pizza, thin crust with salami, ham, bacon, onions and egg, made for a cozy dinner and perfect lunch the following.

    One final surprise of eating in Croatia was the predominance of gelato. It is everywhere, every few feet in every town and all dressed up for the ball. Creamy and rich, there is a multitude of flavours in each case, from chocolate to stracciatella to hazelnut to strawberry to lemon. Rarely translated, each flavour is decorated so extravagantly with some of the fresh ingredients that it wasn’t difficult to figure it out. Just to decide.

    Wary Wary Extraordinary — Dubrovnik, Croatia

    Dubrovnik has rebuilt itself in the last 20 years, repairing most of the damage from the Homeland War while leaving shrapnel marks in the walls of churches and other buildings as a reminder. I was concerned we’d be charmed-out after Zadar, Split and Hvar but I needn’t have worried. The minute we walked through the main gate, we were transported back in time. I’m not a Game of Thrones fan but scenes are shot here and I doubt they had to do much to dress it up.

    It is like the planners used the wall as a belt around the city and cinched it up to jumble all the houses together tightly. The UNESCO rules are strict but they pay off by limiting the excessive touristy elements and keeping the city uniform with light stone walls, terracotta half-pipe shingled roofs and dark green shutters.

    During the day you have to avoid the hordes of cruise ship and bus tour people who, by their sheer number, chase you down the narrow, stepped streets like the bulls in Pamplona. I’m still most partial to simply walking around and soaking up the atmosphere. While this is enjoyable at street level, it is breathtaking up on top of Dubrovnik’s city walls. For a fee, you can meander around the perimeter for what is billed as an hour’s walk but stretches to two when you stop every few feet to snap pictures. The many stairs up and down and up and up again have something to do with that too. You look out over the beautiful turquoise and deep blue of the Adriatic and in on the inner courtyards and bougainvillea of hidden Dubrovnik.

    Tourism is clearly the primary economic driver and never is it more obvious in the choice of music that permeates the area from restaurants and terraces and shops. There are jazz trios, string quartets and the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra playing a concert, while others blare Rod Stewart. We had our own lounge singer each night, wafting up from the restaurant directly below our attic Airbnb. We heard the pianist/singer’s full repertoire of The Entertainer, Memory, Windmills of my Mind, New York New York and Somewhere Over the Rainbow a number of times. But my favourite was Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E. While we butchered Croatian greetings in part due to our misunderstanding of how their Vs and Ws work, they clearly had the same trouble with ours. The Love song turned into:
    L is for the “vay” you look at me
    O is for the only “vun” I see
    “We” is “wary, wary” extraordinary
    E is even more than anyone that you

    That’s Dubrovnik without question, wary wary extraordinary, even more than you can adore.