September Notes from Istanbul

Here in Fatih, on the mail boulevard, we were heading to dinner with our hostess (food photos will be posted separately). Blaring horns, scooters, pedestrians crossing any time – welcome to an average evening in the big city.

Fatih

Leaving our residence to have dinner on the main road, we realized we are on a hilltop.

Hilltop Fatih, Istanbul

On our second day, we used our map to walk all the way to the Grand Bazaar. We passed this aqueduct on the way.

Aquaduct in Istanbul

Well, the Grand Bazaar was rather disappointing. To me this was just another tourist trap. Yes, the building and the feel itself is nice, but I got tired of the haggling vendors in the end. I was looking for an everyday bag (one, which doesn’t mind if a banana gets squashed in it), but vendors were trying to sell me expensive leather bags. There was just too much hustle for my taste. I’m glad I went there, but once is enough. This is like going to the Oktoberfest in Munich. I don’t need that a second time either.

On the way out, I spotted a beautiful opal bracelet. The price was out of my range (with or without haggling). In the end, I found some beautiful opal earrings and an emerald ring. I was so tired of the hustle and bustle by then, so I made a somewhat ridiculously low counter-offer and it was accepted. Lack of coffee in the morning, tired feet, and having to give constant polite refusals, can do that to me.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

By all means, go to the Grand Bazaar. I just wanted to let you know what to expect.

What I Saw in Paris

There is nothing better than strong French coffee, a newspaper, and sunny weather.  We took it so easy on our first day in Paris. One of the things I wanted to do in Paris was to take an afternoon nap, which I did, but I spare you the photo. Napping in Paris is one of the best things to do.

DB and Parisien

We only took a walk around the neighborhood in Suresnes, where we stopped at a bakery, supermarket, and a little park. It’s great to eat croissants on a park bench in the early morning sunshine. When you’re done, you brush off the flakes, and you have instant bird feed.

We passed this little bistro with the biggest onion display I had ever seen. They were almost the size of cantaloupes.

onions

I love French chairs and  usually buy one or two on every trip to France. That is when we go there by car. This time, we went by train, so I didn’t buy any. My husband was pleased.

chairs

Getting married in Paris must be any young bride’s dream. The wedding couple lucked out as well, since we had 14°C  – 18°C that weekend (at the end of February!).

Wedding in Paris

Wedding in Paris

These wooden store fronts look so much better than what we have in Germany. Of course, this is a personal taste, but I find this much more inviting.

Le Navigator, Paris

Le Navigator, Paris

Along the Seine River, there are hundreds of vendors. When you get past the first ten, you realize they all carry pretty much the same merchandise – books, posters, cards, some souvenirs.

book vendors along the Seine

old books by the Seine River

Ah, these lock locks are quite an attraction. The vendors, lined up on the road  leading to that bridge, have them for sale at euro 5.

love lockets in Paris

love lockets in Paris

This happens on the Pont de l’Archevêché, a bridge which crosses from Notre-Dame Cathedral to the Left Bank of the Seine. There are thousands of locks attached to its railings.  It looks very pretty in the sunshine – some come with colorful ribbons. One tourist asked me in broken English what they were for. I amazed myself by telling her what they were (common sense and being an experienced traveler) and where you could buy them (saw vendors selling them).

And no, my husband and I did not put one up – a strong bond does not need a lock.

Books, love locks, weddings, big onions, chairs – you can have it all in Paris.

 

Notes from Luxor

Nobuko’s latest travel report is mainly about Luxor/Egypt and its shortcomings.

Yes, you read it right. I said “kuso”(*). Luxor sucked big time. I had planned on being there for  three days, but after being there for five hours, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out! So I left only after 24 hours.

Tourism is down in all of Egypt since the revolution, and the air of desperation is very palpable at the pyramids of Giza and Luxor. What’s sad is that vendors and all people who work in tourism are super aggressive – mostly toward each other. It made me feel awful to see that. And it certainly made my transactions very difficult.

For example, in Luxor, asking for a bottle of water at shops, most places tried to overcharge me. So I continued to look for one that sells it for a reasonable price. Then the previous sellers (some followed me and pestered me along the way) got angry with the shop where I bought the water. If I asked taxi drivers for the price (and repeated the same pattern as above), huge verbal fights broke out.

Whenever this happened,  I just walked away and tried to find mini buses that go my way, but only stated the name of the area I wanted to go to. But even bus drivers who should operate under a fixed fare tried to overcharge by tenfold. I found one honest driver who gave me back 0.5 E pound after I had given him 1 E. Until then, I did not  know the true fare of the mini bus ride.

In Luxor, which consists of the East and West banks, there are numerous sites. If you try to cover them all, you can spend a fortune on entrance fees (most ranging from 25-70 E pounds). On the West bank, the sites are not so close to one another. I saw some people bicycling. This is a feasible way if you have time and don’t mind the heat, because there are no steep hills to climb and it’s much cheaper than a tour.

I took a tour of the West bank. It said half day, but in reality it’s only  four hours. The pick up at the hotel on the East bank and the drive to the West bank = 1hour, go visit four sites such as  the Valley of the Kings, the temple of Hatshepsut, the Mortuary Temple of  Ramesseum, but one of which is actually a souvenir shop = 4 hours total. Then the drive back to the East bank took another hour. In addition, the guide we had gave us very very basic information about the sites at the entrances, and left us to wander around alone inside the sites.

We saw other groups who had their guides accompanying them inside, and  giving detailed explanations about the symbols, history, etc. So it varies widely. I paid 285 E pounds which included the entrance fee. But I think it was only worth a fraction of it. Sorry, I’m being very judgmental here, but this is my objective review.

In comparison, on the East bank, you can visit sites on your own easily. Within the city proper, there are two major sites: the Temple of Luxor and the Karnak Temple. They are much more impressive visually than those on the West bank. A historian may have different opinions, but for a general public who didn’t do their homework (me), these temples are the places to go to take photos and be amused by the size of its structures. I especially enjoyed being at the Karnak Temple. The Luxor Temple is a mere 15 minutes walk from the train station and many accommodations.

The Karnak Temple is about 3km from the Luxor temple. Just walk north along the street along the Nile river. But the heat can be wearing you down and you would have to deal with the beveragevendors / horse & taxi drivers constantly hustling you for business the whole way. I took a mini bus from the train station, though finding one that goes there, was not easy. It took 20 minutes to find one that goes there without a rip-off fare. Coming back from Karnak was easy because all of them go towards the Luxor Temple or to the train station.

There are some bars across the street from the Luxor Temple. I sat there and had beers looking at the Luxor Temple at sunset. I walked back to my hotel around 9pm. Though tourism is almost dead, the town itself seemed alive after dark. Major streets are well lit with many shops open and with a lot of foot traffic. Even smaller and dimmer streets had some shops with locals sitting on stoops, so I felt safe to walk alone.

As for Giza, on the way to the Pyramids, the taxi driver told me to roll up the windows and lock the doors. I saw why… as soon as touts hanging out at the entrance saw me, they chased the taxi, ganged together at the windows, and some even tried to open the door! When they could not get their way, they barricaded the path (! What are they, mobs?) and yelled out all imaginable lies, such as “Taxis are not allowed inside!”or  “You have to take the camel!”, “You need to pay a taxi fee of 100 E pound here!”, “The Pyramids are closed today (the most ridiculous one I heard!!)”. When my driver slowly proceeded forward, several of these guys jumped on the car bonnet and on the top of the trunk. They were determined to get me when I came out of the taxi.

As I got out to buy tickets, they followed me. Some even offered to buy it for me with an added “service charge” of 30 E pounds. They must think I’m so stupid, or they are so stupid to think anyone can be so stupid!  After purchasing the ticket, they demanded that I show them the ticket. I ignored them and walked away.

One of them touched me, so I hissed at him loud and called security. I mean, come on… a group of about 20 Egyptians saw this and took me in. After that, I was off-limit. So I enjoyed taking pictures freely without having any guard asking me for baksheesh for doing what I was entitled to do for free to begin with.

Their behavior is childish, mean, and ridiculous. They are only strangling their own throat by doing this as it encourages a further decline in tourism.

The Pyramids are wonderful to see. Note that going inside costs extra. There is a Light Show at night. Now that I think about it, visiting at night may have been a better option because of the cooler temperature and dramatic effects.

Pyramids are everywhere around Cairo! After Giza, my taxi driver Mr. Ali, took me to Dahshur and Saqqara. Saqqara has many sites including the famous Step Pyramid (now under renovation) whereas Dahshur has two pyramids, the Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid.  But I really enjoyed Dahshur because the two pyramids are far apart from one another, and there is nothing else around them except vast open space! And the whole place had only 11 visitors, including myself. Also, the Red Pyramid has an inside chamber much like the one at the Great Pyramid in Giza which you can go into for no extra cost while the one at crowded Giza will set you back by 100E pounds. Both Dahshur and Saqqaraand were completely free of touts and vendors, and the guards were pretty friendly without asking for baksheesh.

The streets of Cairo, away from the tourist drag, are filled with wonderful encounters with friendly locals! Shop keepers of blanket shops, kitchen wear, and even tire shops, gave me sales pitches, clearly joking, knowing that I’m a tourist and  won’t need their merchandise.

This playfulness almost always turned into conversations – many times people wanting to know my name, my job, whereabouts of my family, my impression of Egypt, and suggestions of which sites to visit near their shops. Some would inform me to make sure to give their names so that I can get a discount on entrance fee, because they know the guards at these sites. Very refreshing interactions because they treated me as a person, not as a walking ATM.

My favorite places were old Cairo (aka Citadel), and the area sandwiched between the famed Khan Al Khalili Bazaar and the Citadel. This was also a bazaar area, but more for the locals. On the other hand, the Khan Al Khalili Bazaar has tons of souvenir shops and is geared towards tourists. The difference in atmosphere is felt instantly when walking from Khan Al Khalili to the local bazaar, the details of which is described above in previous sections. Also, this area is full of wonderful surprises for the lovers of Islamic architecture! There are many mosques that date back to 800-1000 AD.

All you have to do is walk along the narrow street, and  they just pop up right and left without you even trying to find them! A few to be noted are the Al Hakim Mosque, the Bab Zuweila Gate, and the Al Ghuri Complex. Many of these places have guys who will take you to the top of the minaret for baksheesh, and the views are well worth the money. In Citadel, there is an aqueduct which I have not visited. The oldest part was built in 712 AD!

In conclusion, I enjoyed visiting Islamic architecture much much more than the Pharaoh sites.

Having said all this, I really question my role in tourism in so called Third world / developing countries: I have money to spend and want to spend it wisely and ethically. But after thinking it over for a while, I concluded that it is not possible to be politically correct. The disparity of economic status that exists between someone like me and the local people is substantial. So it is human nature to want to justify overcharging the tourists because both we and they know we can afford it.

And I think in some cases, like India which charges 10 times more in entrance fees to foreigners, it is justified. But lying and cheating some trusting people shamelessly is wrong. Instead, they should do what Butan is doing: make it  legal practice to charge loads to foreign tourists from economically privileged countries (I heard it is $200 per day). Some tourists actually derive much enjoyment from the process of haggling and out-witting overcharging or lie-telling vendors. So for them, hustle free situations are like coffee without caffeine. But that’s not for everyone.

Me? I enjoy haggling, but only with vendors who know the limit and have a sense of humor. I don’t like to deal with angry and nasty people. Plenty of those are found in governmental offices in the U.S., some of whom I have no choice but to visit occasionally. And I have spent enough time with them already.

* kuso stands for sh@3 in Japanese.

Behind Egyptian bars

Nobuko – behind Egyptian bars (just kidding!)

Voodoo Market in Lagos

or where to do your next shopping.

One of my friends, an expat living in Lagos, Nigeria, took these photos when he went to the market. At first glance, I was struck by the colors and they reminded me of a Thanksgiving arrangement. On second glance, I realized the tables were set with skulls, tortoise shells, and other mostly unidentifiable objects.

Voodoo market in Nigeria

Voodoo items are in popular demand.

Voodoo is used in many different ways for target management. For example, some madams in Benin City apply voodoo pressure to families with pretty daughters. Then these girls get sold off as prostitutes to Europe.

I guess, business is business. In Eastern Europe, they promise the girls a better life before being sold to a pimp in Frankfurt.

Voodoo market visitor

My oh my –  would this be a rat looking for leftovers?

I found these photos fascinating and worth sharing here on my travel blog. The anonymous photo credit goes to my friend who also gave permission to publish them.