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Antakya Turkey

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Antakya is in the south of Turkey…30 miles from the Syria border. I flew here yesterday from Istanbul and Friday I will take a 3 hour bus back north to Adana north of here where I will stay with another Couchsurfing host.

The guy sitting next to me on the plane to Antakya was a Canadian working for the American Emergency Services Organization. He was going to Antakya for a meeting concerning the Syrian refugees at the border. Perhaps with the UN. Today I saw the proverbial white SUV with UN written in bright blue on the side. I asked him how many refugee camps there were along the border. He said “not camps.” Just solid people on both sides. This doesn’t bode well.

So I am ensconsed on the third floor of a little hotel with windows opening to the city center along the Orontes River about 14 miles from the Mediterranean coast. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Known as Antioch in ancient times, the city has historical significance for Christianity, as it was the place where the followers of Jesus Christ were called Christians for the first time. It had an important role as one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire and Byzantium, and was a key location of the early years of Christianity, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the rise of Islam, and the Crusades because of it’s massive walls.

According to wikipedia, both Turkish and Arabic are still widely spoken in Antakya, although written Arabic is rarely used. A mixed community of faiths and denominations co-exist peacefully here. Although almost all the inhabitants are Muslim, a substantial proportion adhere to the Alevi and the Arab Nusayri traditions, in ‘Harbiye’ there is a place to honour the Nusayri saint Hızır. Numerous tombs of Muslim saints, both Sunni and Alevi, are located throughout the city. Several small Christian communities are active in the city, with the largest church being St. Peter and St. Paul on Hurriyet Caddesi. With its long history of spiritual and religious movements, Antakya is a place of pilgrimage for Christians. It also has a reputation in Turkey as a place for spells, fortune telling, miracles and spirits, the wiki writer says.

But I have to tell this story. In the breakfast room this morning I saw a guy who had a “California” sweat shirt. But he looked maybe Turkish. I felt silly asking this but I asked if he was from the U.S. Yes, he said, but I’m Syrian. He has been going to a large refugee camp 30 miles away on the border to volunteer. No toilets in this camp…one of three along the border inside Turkey. The UN is giving food but this guy says he went to several markets here in Atakya and he saw “with my very own eyes” sacks of grain with “UN” marked on them being sold on the black market.

His brother, a medical doctor has traveled from CA to this camp 3 times to volunteer with Doctor’s Without Borders. He spent 20,000 of his own money for milk for one week for the children and to build 12 toilets for men and 12 for women. He and his brother have collected money and clothes and blankets through a Syrian-American org. They sometimes don’t even have shoes or anything else because they fled so quickly.

His father is very sick in Syria. His sister is 6 months pregnant. He cannot reach them because it is so dangerous. He has been told by everyone he dare not go…even with a bullet proof vest and that he likely will be kidnapped by the opposition who hates Americans. Who is the opposition I asked. Various Al Queda groups, he said.

“Syria doesn’t care about the people. Turkey doesn’t care about the people” he said. Turkey has forbidden any more camps along the border and they won’t allow any pictures from visitors or the press. So now the camps are beginning to multiply along the border on the Syrian side. For every person who goes back 1000 will flee. So people aren’t seeing the misery. It’s just an impossible situation. And this is only one of the wars going on in the world.

I have to go back to the US to school he said. I am doing what I can.

My friend Dilek, however, says that Turkish TV reports have indicted massive problems in the camps…predictably so considering the environment. And the guy I talked to had a very hoarse voice. He said it was from yelling at a bunch of drunk Syrians the other night who were raising hell in the camps. It’s the women and children and old people he was concerned about the most. They are always the most affected victims.

Another Turkish friend wants to know, if the opposition is Al Queda…and Al Queda is our enemy…why is the U.S. supporting them against Asad. But things are never as they seem.

Update 2/28/2013: This morning in the breakfast room I met another Syrian. His brother works in the hotel, he says. I imagine the hotel is putting up these Syrians. He said he came here from Lebanon but cannot go to Syria. Two brothers in Syria are “kaput” in a bloodbath of 200 people. “Kaput?” Odd word to use? He showed me an interview on his iPhone he gave to Aljazeera. Then he showed me a photo of the head of Hesbollah. Said Hesbollah was behind the opposition. They are not good he says. He wanted to know why Obama wasn’t helping. I told him we never know what our government is doing or not doing.

Update 05/19/2013 Last weekend there were two car bombings in Reyhanli, near Antakya on the Syrian border, in which 50 people were killed. Nearly 20 people were arrested. The bombs were most likely planted by pro-Assad forces in retaliation for Turkish support of the Syrian rebels. Criticism of Prime Minister Erdegon’s response to the bombing, fearing Turkey is being dragged into the Syrian conflict, criticism of Turkey’s lack of intelligence and criticism of PM Erdogan’s relationship with the U.S. has sparked anti-government demonstrations this week in several cities across Turkey on a day that is supposed to be celebrating Ataturk’s tribute to children. My Turkish friends are posting slogans all over Facebook.

Turkish Anti-Government Demonstration


Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Arriving in Istanbul I was delighted to see smiling, laughing, joking people! I am so tickled to be in Turkey! I had forgotten how open and fun the Turks are…laughing easily and so funny! What a relief from the oppressive atmosphere of Oman where I felt like I had to walk on egg shells!

Much to my surprise, I was met outside the arrival hall by Darrell, a Couchsurfing “friend” that I had corresponded with for several years on one of the forums. I don’t know how Darrell recognized me at the airport…probably the hair. I had no idea he was going to be in Istanbul! So we took a taxi to another couchsurfing friend’s house in Bakirkoy where I was going to stay for 3 nights. Apparently it was a secret kept from me because Dilek knew Darrell was going to be in Istanbul. She had prepared a traditional Turkish meal of rice and lentils and condiments for us and then Darrell left for the Peninsula Hotel in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul.

It was so much fun meeting Dilek after years of being on the Couchsurfing International Politics forum with her! The first night after Darrell left we stayed up late talking a mile a minute about everything under the sun. I am enjoying her insights. She is the consumate cs host! ! I told her I was enjoying seeing her in her own country…being a Turk!

Dilek and I and Dilek's Childhood Friend Standing

Bakirkoy is a lovely middle income neighborhood and Dilek, my friend, is still living in the house she grew up in. Most young people move out, but in her case, her parents moved out she said laughing. Our walk-about the next day included a buffet meal I had been looking forward to, a visit to a pastry shop where I wanted some of everything, and a yarn shop where I saw more yarn than I had ever seen in my life! I was introduced to the tram and the train and bought a transpo card I could use on either.

Then the next day Dilek took us on a walk-about to see some of her secret haunts…one being a shop that sold a fermented beverage called Boza…popular in Kazakhstan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, parts of Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, according to wikipedia. It is a malt drink, made from maize (corn) and wheat in Albania, fermented wheat in Turkey and wheat or millet in Bulgaria and Romania. It has a thick consistency and a low alcohol content (usually around 1%), and has a slightly acidic sweet flavor. It tasted to Darrell and me like slightly fermented applesauce. It’s supposed to cure everything under the sun and locals often stop by for a glass.

My last and only visit to Istanbul had been in 1995 on our way back to the states after a trek in the mountains of Central Asia. I was astounded at how developed, Istanbul, at least, had become! I certainly don’t remember a tram! Or the train!

I didn’t visit the Blue Mosque or Aya Sofia or the Bazaar or a hamman or the underground Cistern because I had done that in ’95 and wanted to see more of the rest of the city.

I did visit the Suleymaniye mosque which had been closed for restorations since 2008, and since re-opened to the public in November 2012. It’s the largest mosque in Istanbul with four minarets, symbolizing, I am told, the four centuries of imperial Ottoman rule. It’s architecture is a blend of Islamic and Byzantine architectural elements and took 8 years to construct. It combines tall, slender minarets with large domed buildings supported by half domes in the style of the Byzantine church Hagia Sophia which the Ottomans converted into the mosque of Aya Sofya. People going in for prayer now put their shoes into plastic bags and carry them into the mosque with them…leaving them on shoe racks just inside. The women are still made to sit in the very back of the mosque in their own section behind a railing while the men fill the main cavernous interior. It is a bit touching to see so many men washing their faces and hands reverently before entering. It seems a religion for men.

After 3 days with Dilek, I checked in to the Peninsula Hotel so it would be easier to meet up with Darrell for dinner. Darrell was hilarious! We met some delightful travelers in the hotel where Darrell was quick to robustly tell early morning people in a hushed breakfast room that he was a farmer from Indiana and that we were couchsurfers. And then go on to tell them about the people he knew on Couchsurfing!!! Of course he was met with quite quizzical looks! He’s Anabaptist but I think his mission is to get everyone in the world to join Couchsufing! LOL He was off to Uganda after Istanbul. Couchsurfing is his world now.

I stayed in Istanbul an extra day because I had an opportunity to do a walk-about through old neighborhoods near the Spice Market with a young Turk, also a member of Couchsurfing, who had stayed with a Mexican friend of mine in Oaxaca. Onur was really interesting…had lived in Columbia 9 years, traveled all through Mexico, Central and South America and I don’t remember where else. I enjoyed his take on Turkish politics. Turkey is like the U.S. in many ways…very diverse with many minority groups. It is booming economically. At the moment he was in-between jobs as an IT engineer.

OMG, up and down hills! My poor knee! But we stopped to have lunch finally in a working class neighborhood and and I sampled Turkish tripe soup, Işkembe Çorbasi, which was wonderful. Not as sour as the Polish tripe soup and not as spicy as the Mexican Menudo. We were going to go to a Klezmer concert that night at a synagogue but I was beat and literally limped my way to the tram which took me back to my Sultanhamet hotel.

BTW, Sultanhamet, near the Blue and Sofia Mosques and the Grand Bazaar, has completely changed since ’95! Total Tourist! Streets full of smart cafes with white table clothes!!! Many offered a hookah pipe.

So after a week in Istanbul I flew to Antakya just on the mediterranean coast…and about 30 miles from the Syrian border. My plan is to take the 3-hour bus tomorrow to Adana where I will stay with Gursel, a couchsurfer, a couple days before working my way to Antalya where I hope to see Tijen, another couchsurfer, and then to stay with yet another couchsurfer, Gunes, in Bodrum and then fly back to Istanbul from Izmir. I will stay a night with Dilek and pick up my big bag she let me leave in her apartment before flying out to Oregon and back to Oaxaca. Whew! I think when I get to Oaxaca and my own apartment and my own bed I won’t want to leave it for a month!

Adana Turkey

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
Map of Mediterranean Coast After Antakya, I took the bus to Adana where I stayed with a lovely couchsurfing host, Gursel, and her daughter Nida in their beautiful high-rise flat. The evening of my arrival we sampled traditional Turkish food in ... [Continue reading this entry]

Selcuk: Ancient City, Temple of Apollo, Ephesus

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013
"Jimmy's Place" behind the bus station, right in the center, welcomed me to Selcuk where I stayed for three days and took two tours. One to an ancient Greek city and the Temple of Apollo and the next day to ... [Continue reading this entry]

Visa Run To Kuala Lumpur

Monday, February 18th, 2013
[caption id="attachment_2336" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Me and LiYu"][/caption] LiYu, my former couchsurfer in Oaxaca last year had been a student at Colby College in Maine on a scholarship and had accompanied Gustavo Esteva, from ... [Continue reading this entry]

New Zealand Next?

Monday, February 18th, 2013
Met a really nice bright young Swiss guy in the breakfast room while at the Sarisanee who has been living in New Zealand. He talked up NZ and of course now I want to go there! He, a self-described punker ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bangkok And Thonburi

Monday, February 18th, 2013
After traveling through central Thailand with Supaporn, I returned to Bangkok to get started on my dental plan at the Bangkok International Dental Clinic. My mainstay, the Queen Lotus Guesthouse just off Sukhumvit 20 welcomed me anew. I left my ... [Continue reading this entry]

Istanbul Two 2013

Monday, February 18th, 2013
Dilek, I'm back home again, I blurted as I came tumbling through her door with my baggage in Bakirkoy, Istanbul. Thankfully the weather turned warm so Dilek and I walked all over Bakirkoy for a few days before catching my Turkish ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bodrum Turkey

Sunday, February 17th, 2013
Bodrum and all it's inlets and bays seen from Mediterranean hilltops is about as breathtaking as it gets. My Couchsurfing host, Gunes picked me up from the bus station after my 6 hour ride from Antalya and roared up the ... [Continue reading this entry]


Tuesday, February 12th, 2013
After the family reunion on Koh Samui I flew back to Bangkok for 3 days while I waited for my flight out and for more last minute dental work. ... [Continue reading this entry]

Breakfast Conversation In Antalya Turkey

Monday, February 11th, 2013
I have never seen so many stray cats in a country. The people put food outside their doorways to feed them. Dogs too. The surprising thing is they are so mild and gentle and approachable. Never seen an ... [Continue reading this entry]

Antalya Turkey

Saturday, February 9th, 2013
I left Adana by plane for Antalya.  Outside the Arrivals Hall I asked a gentleman if he spoke English. He didn't but another one with a very busy 4-year old in tow, overhearing me, asked if I needed help. The ... [Continue reading this entry]