On The Road to Taiwan

I’ve been in Taiwan nearly a week. My friend Sandra and I left Istanbul at midnight Friday, arriving in Hong Kong about 9 hours later. We were impressed by their lavish Chinese New Year decorations—mostly gold and red.

Decorations at the Hong Kong airport:

After posing with the brilliant displays, we tried to cash in our “refund” for the departure tax, which we’d learned was refundable for people arriving and departing Hong Kong on the same day. That would be us. I’d jotted 7th level, row D, but of course the desk wasn’t there. In spite of the New Year’s crowds, we forged on, asking people until we found it. The lady at the desk said we didn’t have the right papers, and to go to the ticketing desk for a new receipt. Thanks to Sandra’s perseverance, we found that desk (no line, thank goodness), had her print up new receipts for us, and trekked back to the first desk. The woman nodded when she saw us, made multiple copies of our receipts, our passports, and our boarding passes for both flights, highlighted important information, and filled out yet another form. Really! It took her well over ten minutes, but in the end we each got 120 Hong Kong Dollars (about $15). It must have cost the airport authorities far more to process it, but the Starbuck’s frappucino tasted GREAT!

Even Starbuck’s had Chinese New Year decorations:

We arrived at our hotel in Taipei around midnight Saturday night (after 18 hours traveling), and amazingly found our way on public transport to our hotel. We collapsed into our lush room at the Hansome (Han-She) Hotel. and barely woke in time to catch breakfast, which was pretty Chinese (lots of indescribable dishes). We managed scrambled eggs, peanuts, sesame-covered dried/sweetened carrots, and who-knows-what-else. Thankfully, they had an espresso machine.

Pretty nice digs at the Hansome Business Hotel:

We headed off with Linda Kuiken (our friend teaching in Taiwan) for the National Palace Museum. Between the first and second world wars, many of China’s finest treasures were removed from the Forbidden City Palace (Beijing) and brought to Taiwan for safekeeping, and now nearly a third of China’s great art and artifacts are housed in this museum. It also got us out of the drizzle. Actually, there has never been a palace in Taiwan, so the name is a misnomer.

National Palace Museum, Taipei:

Sandra, Les, Linda, Chris (Linda’s sister) and me in front of the Museum steps:

Next we headed for the harbor, but the rain drove us into a Starbuck’s (only Western businesses were open—everything was closed for the Chinese New Year). We ended up wandering a bit and discovered a few temples and shrines, then strolled down a narrow street where vendors sold street food. My favorite was the cooked quail egg shish-ka-bob slathered with soy sauce. We also watched people burn fake money in little buckets to honor their ancestors.

Ah, Chinese street food:

Quail eggs, cooked in the ’round’ and stacked on a skewer:

Chinese fake bills, folded and made into lanterns~money to burn:

On the way back to our hotel we came to the frightening realization that the restaurants were all closed. We wandered the deserted, rainy streets hoping to find something edible and ended up dining at KFC. “I travel 1200 miles to Taiwan for the Chinese New Year, and I end up eating KFC chicken, for cripes sakes!” Sandra moaned. Well, it was food, and we were starved.

 Neither Sandra nor our new friend Joe was too excited about KFC:

The highlight of our first day in Taipei was the lantern festival at Longshan Temple. Although it was still drizzling, hundreds of people gathered to pray, chant, sing, and honor their ancestors at this ancient temple, probably the most famous in Taipei. As we snapped photo after photo, people lit candles and incense, nodding and praying as a monk led their worship.

The Longshan Temple, Chinese New Year’s Eve:

Lighting incense from candles in the temple:

A Buddhist praying at the temple, a dragon behind her:

The temple was not only filled with people, but also with offerings of food and flowers—everywhere. As we watched in fascination, a huge fireworks display was set off just outside the front gate of the temple. It was all amazing. Then afterwards officials paraded through displays of lit-up models of the animals that represent each of the 12 years of the Chinese zodiac. The largest, of course, was the dragon, as 2012 is the Year of the Dragon.

Fireworks through the window at the Longshan Temple:

On Monday we gathered early to trek to Taipei 101, the world’s second tallest building. Luckily, it was one of the few things open, since it was the actual Chinese New Year’s Day. We rode the fastest elevator in the world up 89 floors, as the observation deck was closed due to weather. It took 37 seconds. The elevator can go over 1000 meters per minute, and it’s a smooth ride—a real ear-popper, though. We could only see in one direction, as much of the city was blanketed in fog. Sigh… It was fun anyway.

Me, Sandra, Chris, and Jana in a “stolen” photo at Taipei 101:

The elevator had a video showing our progress and speed as we whizzed up the building:

The most attractive of our Thai meals: Curried Shrimp:

After a delicious Thai lunch (we still hadn’t had a Taiwanese meal) we headed off to take a gondola to see the city from a mountaintop. The wait was only a half hour because the weather was so bad (and clouds would hamper the views). The ride was gorgeous, though, and we could see fingers of the city poking between the mountains.

We found a very traditional tea house for our obligatory cup of tea, and the waitress gestured for us to walk across a little pond, hopping from stone to stone, to enter the eating area. She showed us into a small, ornately-furnished room with a low table and silk cushions. We settled in with as little bone-creaking as possible, then puzzled over what to do next. Oops! Shoes… We snuck them off and set them on the steps leading into our room. The waitress returned with a wooden tray of snacks (probably expensive), and told us there was a surcharge of $150 each (about $4.50 American), which we assumed was for the cushions. Tea would cost an additional $350 for the five of us, and we chose Oolong.

The accoutrements for tea brewing at our tea house:

None of us really knew just how to brew the tea, but we figured that we should put loose tea into the pot, then pour water over it. I remembered that Mayu taught me to pour off the first water, so we did that. Then Janna poured water over the tea and we let it steep a while as we chatted and enjoyed the stunning mountaintop view. We strained the tea into a pitcher, then poured it into the taller of the two cups we were each given. From there we poured it into a small cup and took a sip. It tasted like silage. Wet silage. Hysterics abounded.

Jana poured water over a over-full teapot of Oolong:

“Maybe we used too much tea,” Chris suggested. “How about if we water it down a bit?”
We did.
“Better,” I said after a tentative sip. “At least palatable.”
We each choked down a few cups of the tea, agreeing that it was all about the experience more than the taste. We brought our leftover Oolong back for Sandra, who didn’t make it to the top of the mountain.
Tuesday we basked in hot springs, then hopped the evening high-speed train to Kaohsiung, where Linda and Les live at the south end of Taiwan. Oh, such larks!


Snow and Tears in Istanbul

I’m done. Yesterday was my last day of school, and it was easily the warmest send-off I’ve ever had.

My adventure started last weekend with a Friday dinner shared with Minnesota friends, Susan and Waverley–fascinating women. We knitted, sipped, ate, and chatted our way into the late evening.

Saturday morning dawned drizzly. Sigh…

Istanbulites forge on into the drizzle (and snow)

My friend David trekked over from the Asian side and we headed into Sultanahmet for one last trip. I needed to pick up some spices, interview a bag-seller for the third printing of my book, and pick up three glass lanterns for my porch. I bargained a good price for lanterns in the Spice Bazaar, and after the obligatory cups of tea in the shop, we headed back out into the blustery day. The cold air penetrated to our bones as we wended our way to the Hamdi Restaurant for a “farewell lunch” of Iskender (pide with doner, tomato sauce, melted butter, and yogurt–YUM). As we indulged, I noticed snowflakes in the air–the first I’d seen this year. Such fun. Minutes later the power went out. Luckily, we were near a window and it didn’t affect us all that much. Soon the power came back on, and we ordered tea as we chatted, continuing the slow process of warming up after being chilled to the bone.

We forged out to finish our spice shopping, but when we got to my spice dealer, his shop was dark. He tried his scale, but to no avail. It needed power—Istanbul has gone digital. “Maalasef,” he apologized. There were a few shops in the Spice Bazaar with generators, so that’s where we headed. Maalasef. (I prefer frequenting the shops outside the bazaar.)

One of the many vendors just outside the Spice Bazaar

“I’m about done,” I said as we completed our purchases of salep and pistachios. “Let’s head home.”
“Do you think the trams will be running?”
“Oh, no—electric trams.” Another sigh.
We walked along the tram line long enough to verify that our main line home was out of commission.
“How about a ferry?” I suggested. “We can take the ferry to Kadiköy, then take another one back to Beşiktaş.”
“If the ticket machines are working,” David replied. “We might as well try.”


Snow swirled around our heads as we climbed the overpass to the pier. The first station was roped off–closed. Oh, no! We kept walking and found our way to the Kadiköy station, which was operational. Apparently they had a generator. Whoopee!


The ferry to Kadiköy was packed–and quite modern

Our roundabout route from Europe to Asia and back to Europe again took nearly three hours, but that included an hour in the Iskele restaurant.

My buddy David toasts to winter in Istanbul.

We were serenaded on the second ferry ride, a welcome diversion.

That evening our friend Güler joined us for dinner in my apartment–leftovers, sadly, but we managed well. She informed us that the entire city had been without power that afternoon. That’s a city of 15 million people. Whew!

Sunday David and I roused early to ferry across the Sunny Bosphorus (Hooray!) and met my friend Julide, who had offered to show us the Beylerbeyi Palace.

David and I after a delicious Turkish breakfast at Beylerbeyi.

We started with a Turkish breakfast in a poolside gazebo, then wandered the grounds before the English tour finally started.

Julide poses with David outside the palace…

…then escorts us up a few garden terraces to the outdoor pool, just below the Bosphorus bridge.

We were accosted by a guard as we meandered around the pool, but since we’d entered on a walkway with no barriers, Julide talked our way out of an arrest. 🙂


The contrast between the 19th century palace and the 20th century bridge is stunning.

The palace, a summer palace built after Dolmabahçe, was stunning, and Julide walked us through the charming waterfront community of Beylerbeyi, where we again stopped for tea. When I asked for the bill (it was to be my treat), the patron insisted that our tea was complimentary. Only in Turkey.

The sweet Beylerbeyi Iskele (ferry station)

Fishing boats moored just outside our little restaurant

Cyclamen (Ataturk plants) bloom optimistically outside a Beylerbeyi restaurant.

The snow kept coming, and Monday evening brought a few inches that stayed on the ground–well, at least the trees. I took my camera with me to school, just to record the event.

Snow below my apartment…

…snow on the Bosphorus at sunrise…

…and snow at Robert College (two students pose with me–Yasemin and Pelinsu)

My last day of school was a tear-jerker—literally. This has never happened in all the years I’ve taught over here, but I had students crying all day long. Pelinsu, an exuberant girl in my core class (10 hours a week) had started crying the day before, and she was in full weepy-mode when I got to class on Thursday. She sort of led the charge as her friends joined in sobbing.

Though I did my best to console Pelinsu, the tears kept coming.

I cheered them up with some word games, then we went down to the lush Faculty Parlor to celebrate our semester together. I supplied cheesecake and chips, hoping to ruin their lunch. Which I did. Mine, too.


Everyone grinned when they produced a gift they’d bought for me, gathering eagerly as I opened it. My first Oscar! YILIN EN İYİ ÖĞRETMENİ —THE YEAR’S BEST TEACHER. Gosh.

Who could resist loving these kids, huh?

During the flag ceremony I was applauded (at least by my three classes) and presented with yet another gift–a silver salver engraved with my name and the Robert College insignia. Along with that I received a card from each of my classes with touching notes from every single student. More tears—mine this time. Hugs abounded after the ceremony.

Fellow teachers topped off the day with a round of adult beverages at Bizim Tepe, the Robert College Club adjacent to the school. And there’s MORE—dinner with Erica, a woman who’s reached out warmly while I’ve been here.

So, as I said, I’m done.

I’m all packed up to move back home, but first I’m traveling with my friend Sandra to the Far East—Taiwan, Hainan (China), Hong Kong, and Thailand.


Not too bad.

Taking leave of Arnavutköy

It’s time to bid my beloved Arnavutköy farewell yet again. I’ve grown to love this charming community in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities. Oh, if only every city were a conglomeration of such sweet village-like communities.

Arnavutköy’s famous ‘seaside houses’~

Friday night before I snapped off the light I heard a deep, resonant voice calling from the street—”BO-ZA! BO-ZA!” I was just too darned tired to walk down for some, though I love it.

I slept in after a long night with aching legs. The excessive stair climbing at school had wreaked havoc with my hips, knees, and legs after their week’s hiatus of strolling the flat terrain of Antalya. I ended up lying with my hips on a pillow, my legs extended up the wall to ease the pain. UGH! I scheduled a session with Edith, our Arnavutköy massage therapist / holistic healer. When I had similar pains last fall, she fixed me up in one session of acupuncture and massage. All fingers crossed. Enough whining, though.

More of Arnavutköy’s Ottoman houses below my apartment

I got up and settled in the living room with my morning coffee, Libby curled beside me. “SEE-MEET!! SEE-MEET!!” echoed from the street. I peered down to watch the simitci as he climbed the steep, cobbled street with a huge tray of hoop-like sesame breads balanced on his head.

“Time to start,” I reminded myself, rising to sort through the desk drawer and sundry piles that have materialized in my apartment (amazing what one can accumulate in five months). I made a schedule of social events, errands, and purchases for my last few weeks, then headed down with Libby to begin the process.

The local hardware store where the owner cut off a small bolt for me, free of charge~

I had friends coming for dinner, so my tasks included buying food for Egyptian Kosheri, recycling paper(from my culled piles), framing a hamam picture, and repairing my ailing hair dryer. (My Scotch tape repair just wasn’t cutting it.) It began drizzling as we headed past the old synagogue ruin and down to the recycling bins on the Bosphorus. We trekked along the pier past the ferry station and up into the village for our first stop: the art and frame shop. The framer speaks no English, but my Turkish was adequate to the task. We chose an ornate gold frame, which will be ready in a week. Cost for a custom-made frame: 10 lira ($6). Amazing.

Fishing boats along the Arnavutköy pier~

A statue to Ataturk in the town square~

…and up the street, Istanbul’s ugliest sculpture.

Second stop: grocery store. Though Libby was not thrilled to be tied outside again, when I emerged from the store she greeted me like she hadn’t seen me in months. Love that enthusiasm.

Third stop: electrician. I’ve used the cluttered Bogazıcı Elektrik a few times, and since the owner likes dogs, I knew Libby would be welcome. He has a big German shepherd who likes to remind Libby of her position in the world of street dogs. This time he was lazing contentedly outside the shop and didn’t even muster a growl.

The Electric Shop’s guard dog–NOT!


The young proprieter, clad in a black stocking cap, jacket, and polar plus shirt, sat behind a desk in the back of a tiny shop crammed with sundry electronic devices and accoutrements. He stood as I walked in, and when I showed him my bozuk (broken) hair dryer, he gestured me to a seat. Would it be that quick, I wondered? He plucked a screwdriver from the mountain of wires, tools, drills, cables, and numerous newspapers covering his worktable and dove into the task–on his lap.

My electronics hero–note the workdesk to his left.

As he worked, we chatted about life in Arnavutköy, the Black Sea area he came from, our parents, and Libby, who warmed right up to him.
A few men came into the shop, greeted us both, then showed him a bulb or electrical connector. He’d give them a a code number and explain how to navigate their way through the thousands of boxes of electronic paraphernalia piled on shelves up every wall (and on the floor). They helped themselves, pocketed their purchases, told him what they’d taken, then headed off. I wondered whether they were partners or would sort out the money later, but it was too much work to figure out how to ask. He never wrote anything down, though at least fifteen items walked out the door while I was there.

It took nearly a half hour to fix my hair dryer, which included soldering wires with an iron he heated against his electric floor heater.
When I asked what I owed, he said it was nothing, then offered me coffee. I promised I’d be back for coffee later and left a ten-lira note on the table ($6). Precious little for a half hour of his time.

Another happy customer in the Boğaziçi Elektrik shop~

Our last stop was the bakery, where the proprietor always slices up a loaf of Kepekli ekmeği (whole grain bread) with a smile. I bought a cheese-filled roll to share with Libby and a few of her street dog buddies on the way home.

Farewell, sweet bakery!

I’ll miss all these sweet Arnavutköy shops, which also include the cobbler who put new arches in my shoes, the butcher who tosses all his bones to the dogs, the tailor who took in my slacks, and the anahtarci who fashioned three sets of keys for my apartment. Actually, Margaret’s apartment, and it’s soon time to hand it back. Sigh…

Farewell to the Tuesday street market!

Farewell to the cobbler!

And Libby, of course, bids a fond farewell to all the Arnavutköy cats…

especially to Fat Cat, who lives just up the street.

Ah, Arnavutköy!