23 June 2007

The Stiff Upper Lip

I've been practising keeping the stiff upper lip lately because ...

I'm British now, apparently.

Yesterday I went into the British Consulate here in Istanbul and picked up my brand spanking new British passport.

Actually, I always was British. I was born of British parents (who later became Australian) and I was born in a British colony. When I was 21 and married to an Australian, I chose to become Australian ... but underneath I was still a "Pommie" of course.

Now I'm one of those people with Dual Nationality.

The tricky part is going to be turning Peter into a Brit, because he really is an Aussie.

So ... it was our day off and we had just picked up my passport from the hallowed (and very secure) grounds of the British Consulate in Istanbul. The task of assessing visa applications has been outsourced to a Turkish travel agent over at Üsküdar on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Well, how hard can that be?

The Consulate is in Taksim, the steep hilly centre of Istanbul - part-way down the hill. The last time we went there we just wandered on down the hill, discovered the Galata Tower on the way, and eventually found ourselves at the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn. Intending to repeat the experience, we set off through the narrow, winding, traffic-snarled streets ... we figured that as long as we just kept going down we would eventually end up on the bridge again.

We were quite hot and tired by the time we stepped out across the bridge ... and stared out over the water of the Golden Horn at the Galata Bridge, the one where we wanted to be. We had got ourselves totally lost and ended up on the wrong bridge. Down there, near the Galata Bridge, we could see ferries lined up - one of them would be going across to Üsküdar, so we just had a bit more hiking to do.

Really hot and tired, but now very relieved to be no longer lost, we stepped onto a cool, airy ferry. A waiter came and offered us a drink - the freshly-squeezed orange juice barely touched the sides and we were soon relaxing our way across the Bosphorus, enjoying some of the most beautiful sights of Istanbul.

Stepping off the ferry in Asia, we showed the waiter the address we had on a piece of paper. He pointed off to the right, and assured us a taxi would get us there for 5 lira. We climbed into a waiting taxi, and showed our paper to the driver ... who promptly took off to the left. The ride in the taxi was considerably longer than one would expect for 5 lira. We went to all sorts of interesting places, along a nauseating high-speed tight switch-back road, up and down some hills ... Well, we were quite relieved when he "only" charged us 11 lira for our little tour, and dropped us in a very out-of-the-way place that looked like a housing development.

After the customary security check, we joined a queue where they looked at our IDs and photographed us then pointed to the reception desk. The nice lady gave me a large, heavy plastic tile (at least six inches square) with the number 77. We sat among the waiting crowd for a moment, spoke briefly to a fellow-Aussie lady, and decided this wasn't good enough - we must surely need to fill in a form or something.

To the consternation of all the non-English-speaking staff (considering this is an outpost of the British Consulate) we reappeared at the reception desk. Runners were sent off and people called for and a mere 10-15 minutes later they found someone who could maybe answer our questions. Finally someone handed us a 10-page form and a black pen, and pointed to a desk where we could work.

During our wait by the reception desk we did notice a schedule of fees. My passport had 'only' cost us 300 lira, but apparently this visa was going to cost us 1400 lira! We surreptitiously reefed through our wallets, and although we had left home feeling "loaded" we came up a hundred lira short.

Nevertheless we ploughed on through the form. Endless stupid repetitive questions - designed to check up on 'visa marriages' but meaningless for an old married couple like us. We were taking so long that the queue went way past our "77" tile, they were well into the 80s, and the whole centre was waiting to close soon - they close at 2pm - so they finally found a staff member to sit down with us and work through the form.

At a quarter to two it was all done! Nothing left to do except pay. Knowing we were 'a little' short we asked if they could accept debit card, or was there an ATM nearby. No, and no.

Back out on the deserted hot streets with our sheaf of papers to return with next week, we had to work out how to get back down to the ferry. Not a taxi in sight, nothing but houses in three directions, and then a fenced, empty parking lot, and over there past those houses what could be a bus station. We squeezed through a gap in the fence into the parking lot, and from there gained access to the bus station. The buses here were all empty, but down the far end we could see a crowd of people.

"Feribot?" we asked, and were directed to the already-full but still loading dilapidated articulated bus. We waved our akbils, but apparently it was a free bus ... no wonder it was so full.

Where was the bus when we went in the taxi?? It only took a few minutes to get down the hill to the ferry - and no switch-back or scenic tour - arriving from the direction the ferry-man had originally indicated.

So, now we are back into the weekend - wall-to-wall classes for the next four days for both of us.

And then ... more fun. They have promised us that next time it should only take about ten minutes for us to pay the money ... and then return again a week later to pick up Peter's passport with the visa in it.

England here we come! You'd better be ready for us.

14 June 2007

Büyük Ada - Big Island

A trip to the Turkish Islands

We live on the coast of the Sea of Marmara, so it's just a ferry trip across to the nearby Turkish Islands - a popular destination among Istanbul-ites this time of year.

Everyone told us it's beautiful out in the island - but then we have had years of island life on a beautiful tropical island ... so we are not easily impressed.

We got up early-ish, hiked down to the sea-bus (14 minutes) and went across to Kadıköy, on the Asian side, ready to catch a ferry to the islands.

At Kadıköy there is this strange structure. In winter it was just an open frame, but now they have the balloon in place and apparently you can take a ride in that blue thing at the bottom. We have seen it rising straight up, and then they pull it back down again after a few minutes. Its obviously not a regular balloon - we saw a workman open a little round door in the bottom of it, and then he climbed up the side of it and did some work on the top.

We had quite a wait in the hot sun and in a pushy crowd before the island ferry showed up - already fully over-loaded with people who had boarded at the previous stop on the other side of the Bosphorus - at Kabataş, on our side but near the city centre.

As we struggled our way aboard, clambering over luggage and bikes and teenagers sitting on all the steps and leaning against walls, we were quite surprised to spot a couple of wooden seats near the window in the inside cabin.

It was early in the day and the sea was still misty, but the sun beat through the window where we were sitting and we were soon regretting our choice of seat (not that we actually had any choices really).

We stopped at the first small island, and several hundred (mostly teenagers) of the couple of thousand people on board disembarked. Much relieved, we gave up our hard-won wooden seats and moved around and found some soft seats available in the cooler open section of the ferry.

The ferry stopped at two more islands, and each time hundreds of people disembarked. Finally we reached the big one: Büyük Ada, "Big Island".

There would have been well in excess of 2000 people on the boat, so there were still several hundred waiting to get off at the big island.

But remarkably within a very few minutes they had all disappeared along the island streets.

These islands have almost no petrol-driven vehicles, only a few service vehicles belonging to the council. Everyone else travels on foot, by bicycle (there are lots available for hire), or by horse and cart.

We paid 40 YTL for a "big" tour, right around the whole island. There were dozens of horse-drawn buggies, and bikes. But we seemed to have snagged the slowest pair of ponies. In fact our little dappled pony kept trying to canter, while the brown one trotted. And we were endlessly overtaken by other carts carrying up to six people at a time.

The big island is very hilly and steep, and we saw quite a few cyclists grabbing a bit of help. Of course it was very difficult for our two little ponies coming back down the hill, the driver had to keep applying the brake and slowing them down.

At the top of the hill was a wooded area, and we saw lots of family groups and young people picnicking among the trees. It all looked very dry, though.

At the top of the hill a breeze was blowing, and there were great views.

We saw a lot of different houses - most of them large and stately, others more homely and belonging to the permanent islanders, not just rich holiday makers. Instead of a garage, many of them had a buggy parked and a horse or two grazing out the back.

Then we left the main village, and the road became quite narrow and rough. The back of the island was bushy and quite inhospitable really.

Finally we returned to the yard where the horses and buggies were gathered waiting for their next turn.

There were several dozen carts, with their drivers taking a nap, watering their horses, or having a meal and a chat while they waited for the next boat-load of eager tourists. The tourists, though, were almost all Turkish, we only heard one family of people speaking English.

So we wandered around the village a little, stopped and had some çay at a little outside cafe. People here also support Istanbul football teams - well, FenerBahçe, of course.

There were, of course, lots of cafes and ice cream shops. Turkish ice cream is a little different, sort of chewy.

So then it was time to join the madding crowd, and get back on the ferry to Istanbul.

We got to the dock a little early, wandered slowly past the people waiting on benches, and went to stare through the gate to see if the boat was coming. Turning, we were surprised to discover that our actions had unwittingly started something of a stampede - the whole crowd had leapt up and were crowded in behind us, and we were at the front of the pack!

We had no trouble finding a spot on the soft seats right next to the open door, and we had a delightful trip home.

These seagulls flew alongside the ferry, keeping pace with us. Then we noticed that people on the (open) top deck were throwing food to them, and they were trying to catch it in flight. Actually, not many of them were successful.

It was a lovely day out, though we don't have much of a hankering to return. There are hardly any beaches - mostly at the first island, and a few patches on the others - and the beaches have pebbles. I guess we have been spoilt by our Australian beaches.

If you are thinking of going out there ... unless you want the whole cultural experience of an hour or more on a steamy, over-loaded ferry to be part of your adventure, it's probably worth getting up to Kabataş to catch one of the high-speed ferries (35-45 minutes). They are enclosed (air-conditioned), so you won't get the wind in your hair ...

Well, whatever blows your hair back.

10 June 2007

Bomb in Bakirkoy

Our first bomb.

"I heard a loud bang."

If the TV men had turned and asked me about it, that's all I could say.

Usually I am teaching on a Sunday afternoon. But my class had their final exam yesterday, so no class today. So I was sitting at home, and I did think about going down to the shopping centre for a bit of exercise. But CSI was on TV and I was feeling lazy after four hours of teaching all morning.

And then, at 3.30, I heard the bang. I went out onto the balcony, expecting to see smoke ... or something. But no one even reacted. Everyone at Dilko was just sitting there chatting and drinking tea.

About an hour later we went for a walk down the street to see how things were. A small news item on the internet told us that a bomb went off right in the centre of Bakırköy.

Lots of police - on foot, on motorbikes, various uniforms, carrying big guns. Several ambulances. Lots of TV cameras, and lots of interested onlookers (like us). Crime scene tape blocking off a section of the walking street.

We couldn't see anything burnt or blackened, but it was difficult to see anything with the big crowd and the police watching everyone so carefully.

Here is what the news reported:

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A bomb blast outside a store in Istanbul wounded 14 people on Sunday, Turkish police said, amid increased worries about Kurdish separatist violence.

The state Anatolian news agency said the blast appeared to have been caused by a percussion bomb, often used by Kurdish militants and other radical groups operating in Turkey.

Authorities have warned of possible PKK attacks on civilian and security targets in cities and towns, especially in the run-up to national elections on July 22.

"It is still not certain what kind of bomb it was," Istanbul police chief Celalettin Cerrah told reporters at the scene of the explosion.

Percussion bombs typically make a loud noise but rarely cause serious damage.

"The explosion was very powerful. We were really shaken," said Muttalip Erdogan, who sells doner kebabs.

The blast, which shattered the windows of many shops and offices, occurred in the Bakirkoy district of Turkey's largest city, near the airport, where Kurdish militants have carried out similar attacks in the past.

Tensions are running especially high amid increasing clashes between Turkish troops and guerrillas of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.

The clashes have fuelled talk of a possible major Turkish army incursion into northern Iraq to attack PKK bases there.

In May, eight people were killed when a suicide bomber struck a shopping mall in the capital Ankara. Authorities blamed that attack on the PKK, though the group denied involvement.

Last week, seven paramilitary policemen were killed when PKK rebels attacked their base in the eastern province of Tunceli.

On Saturday, three soldiers were killed when rebels remotely detonated a landmine near the Iraqi border.

Each incident has added to pressure on the government, which faces a strong nationalist challenge in the election, to get tougher with the PKK.

Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since it launched its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.

Forensic officers investigate the scene of an explosion in Istanbul June 10, 2007. The blast occurred in the Bakirkoy district of Turkey's largest city, the state Anatolian news agency said.

Picnic Time

School outings and picnics ... counting children on and off buses, permission forms, kids injuring themselves on playground equipment, the whole thing ... I remember it well.

My weekday morning class, which I've had since elementary, are about to take their final intermediate exam, so we were having a picnic.

I share the class with Turcan, a Turkish-American guy, and we make a good team.

The class has progressed really well - their English is quite good, and they are responsible and reliable. So, our students organised transport and booked a restaurant and we went down to Florya.

Florya is by the Sea (of Marmara), and it was a beautiful day - cool and really pleasant.

We sat around several tables and shared some çay (Turkish tea).

Here is Turcan with our two young men in the class - Yiğit, and Cenk - as well as our lovely lady, Şadan.

And then there are these three delightful young ladies: Zübeyde, Seda, and Merve.

And two more gorgeous girls: Çiğdem and Naime.

And last, but not least, Gözde and her new boyfriend who came along for the day.

So, after our çay we all went for a little walk along the seafront. And we came upon an amusement park - usually open and teaming with kids on weekends. Today, quiet but not closed. So our two 'boys' had a bit of a race in the go-karts.

Cenk (yellow helmet) won ... but the general consensus was that he had a better vehicle and it didn't seem to be a totally fair race.

Yep, they are a really nice bunch of people. Spending time with and getting to know people like these is what makes ESL teaching worthwhile and fun.

02 June 2007

Keen Supporters

The Turks love their football.

We were coming home from the cinema the other night and there was a crowd of FenerBahce fans celebrating a(nother) win by congregating in the middle of the (one way) main street. The traffic was banked up for miles, we thought there must have been an accident or something as we jay-walked our way between the cars ... and when we got to the head of the line, all that was there was this bunch of excitable people standing in the street. The first car in line, a tiny red thing, was getting increasingly impatient, honking his horn and revving his engine so the air was full of a dreadful burning smell. Inch by inch he began to edge his way into the crowd. They surrounded him and rocked his car. But he kept on, and eventually broke through and roared his way angrily along the empty street in front of him.

Everywhere there are flags and banners.

We are often amazed at the size of them. But then yesterday we went to the Grand Bazaar and saw this one.

That's only part of it, it continues around the corner and the next.

The Turks are pretty fanatical about their national flag too. When there was talk recently about political problems the common red flags suddenly got a lot bigger and bolder. This is the one in our street.

Mind you, it is a nice flag. We hang one in our balcony where it faces out to Dilko (work).

The sun shines through and gives the room a nice glow too.

More fun with students

Peter's class planned a day out together, a chance to show us the sights of their city.

On the day only three young men were able to come, but another joined us later in the day after finishing work.

We caught the bus to old Istanbul, where most of the museums are as well as the Grand Bazaar.

Aya Sofya, or Hagia Sophia, is a must-see that we hadn't seen yet.

From the outside it's a huge, imposing building. Inside it's cluttered with repair and renovation work.

Dimly lit, and hard to photograph. It started off as a Christian cathedral, and then was taken over as a Muslim mosque, before it ended up as a musem. So it is a strange mixture - Christian symbolism overhung with huge Arabic plaques.

The Pudding Shop

I liked the sound of it. The boys wanted to have lunch there. According the the decor it used to be the place for foreigners to meet, back in the 70s and 80s.

The notice board was an important feature in the old days. Apparently this was where you came to hitch a ride across the continent or buy or sell an old combi van. It was mildly interesting. The food was forgettable, and over-priced. (Not much actual pudding.)

The Underground Cistern

We had heard that this was a place worth seeing too.

Dim and eerie, very difficult to photograph. They had appropriate weird music playing as we made our way along the boardwalks over the shallow water. There was constant water dripping, and in places where this was too soaking they had suspended plastic sheets for protection. When we first walked out over the water we noticed tiny fish swimming around. As we got towards the back of the huge underground cistern we saw bigger and bigger fish. The ones near the back corners were monstrous - not just more than double pan-sized, but so fat it was amazing they could swim at all. (I'm sure the bus-load of Asian tourists that arrived were eyeing them hungrily.)

In the back corner are the two "Medusa Heads". There are all sorts of stories about how and why these got here. Of course we had to go and take a peek at them.

One is on its side facing the back wall - with a supporting pillar resting on it.

The other is upside down.

Mystery Tour

Then the boys decided we would go to another place by bus. We all followed the leader and hopped onto a bus. They were laughing and chatting and relating to the other passengers ... when all of asudden they realised we were on the wrong bus - they really didn't have a clue where we would end up. Various other passengers gave their opinions about what we should do ... we just decided it was an "adventure" as the bus ran on at break-neck speed up and down step hills, tossing passengers hither and thither as it twisted and turned through the sorts of narrow streets I would have thought were "no bus" zones. The other passengers didn't seem to mind, I guess they travel there every day - a couple of them were fast asleep, coming awake at the appropriate moment just before their stop.

Eventually we got off at a spot next to the Golden Horn (the waterway that is like an off-shoot to the Bosphorus). We were on the wrong side of the water, and a long way from the nearest bridge.

The boys went down to the waterside and negotiated for a ride with some fishermen, and for a mere lira they transported the six of us to the other side.

The boys thought it was a scream. We felt our adventure was really beginning to get interesting.

The boatman took it all very seriously.

Pierre Loti

Then we climbed aboard a cable car to get to the top of the hill and visit this popular spot.

The hillside is crammed full of tiered graves, but at the top there is a great cafe, and brilliant views.

It was a long day, and we all had a lot of fun.

Two of the boys went off while the rest of us relaxed in the cafe and borrowed a dad's car and drove us all back to Bakırköy, not wanting to risk another wrong bus adventure.