Woah it’s been a while since my last diary post. A lot has happened in that time and I’m happy to say, I’m STILL ALIVE. 🙂 The Middle East has been amazing and I’m excited to share with you all what I’ve been up to!
First of all, if you’re interested in catching up with my trip for the last 3 months and 3 weeks (almost 4 holy crap!) then check out my latest posts mainly around Europe:
Okay, so last time I wrote I was getting ready to get on a bus from Thessaloniki, Greece over to Istanbul, Turkey. In my latest posts I talk about how the bombing at the stadium in Istanbul happened minutes after I bought my Turkish visa. I was a bit nervous to go and especially to take a bus over the border, but it turned out to be great!
Mikael (my friend from Iceland that I’ve been traveling with for a month) and I boarded the bus in Thessaloniki, Greece and realized NO ONE was on the bus with us. This was slightly alarming, but I had pretty much gotten over my fears by then and I was excited I was going to Turkey! It’s been a dream of mine for a while so I was super duper pumped! Oh, and people ended up boarding the bus at later stops (phew)!
After a super easy bus ride of 10 hours and after taking like 10 naps and finishing my book, we made it to Istanbul. We immediately went to the bus station and that’s when I had a bit of culture shock. This was my first Muslim country and the first time I REALLY felt out of place.
After going from a place where majority of the people spoke English to a place where it’s harder to find English speakers was interesting for me. Plus, even though Istanbul is super modern and a huge melting pot and mix of culture, I still could tell a difference of dress and culture. ALL of the women I saw seemed to have head scarves when I first arrived. I felt like I needed one, but then later I noticed that there were plenty of women without them so I felt okay. It was exciting, but also took me a bit out of my comfort zone for a second. I was also really grateful to be traveling with a guy, which is the first time I’ve had to say that.
Also, there were barely ANY tourists in Istanbul when we went. Apparently they normally get 35 million tourist a year and this year (because of all the attacks) it’s dropped down to 10 million in 2016. So sad and lots of businesses have had to close down because most of them make their living from tourism.
So right when we got off the bus in Istanbul something super frustrating happened….
Mikael and I walked up to the desk of the bus station attendants to see if any of them could help us with the train to our hostel. I was the one doing most of the talking to the attendants at first. One was a girl and 2 were guys. They couldn’t really understand what I was asking so they decided to call our hostel or an english speaker (not sure) to help tell us how to get there. The the girl who was on the phone with the English speaker handed the phone to me so I could communicate with them. When I went to grab the phone, the man behind the counter pointed at her and me and said ‘no’ and pointed to Mikael for her to hand the phone to him. He didn’t want me to talk to the person on the phone for some reason? I was super taken aback by this. I wasn’t sure why he would be making her hand the phone to him instead of me when I had been handling most of the communication at that point. Then I realized. It’s because I’m a woman.
I have NEVER had anything like this happen to me before. I walked away in total shock. Growing up in the USA, yes, you get sexist comments, and remarks, but nothing like this. Maybe I was overreacting. Mikael didn’t even notice this interaction. But, SHIT I noticed and remember how I felt when it happened.
Anyway, I didn’t dwell on it too much and chalked it up to a different culture. Since then I’ve seen a lot more than that and it’s just what I had to accept while traveling in these areas.
We spent 6 nights in Turkey. That was probably too many, but we had a few chill days in there which was nice. I was fascinated by the architecture in Turkey. WOW! The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar were all serious highlights. The sun would set behind the Hagia Sophia each night and take my breath away! This was my first time in actual Muslim mosques as well. All woman have to cover up their head with a head scarf and wear a long skirt. Luckily the Blue Mosque provided this stuff for me. It was annoying, however, that the 2 guys I went with could just walk right in and I had to deal with putting on a skirt and head scarf and then trying to keep the head scarf on while taking off my shoes and carrying my bags. Props to Muslim women who can so gracefully wear head scarves. The inside was SO beautiful and very much worth the outfit change. Then I found out that the entire beautiful and large area meant for praying is only for MEN. UGH. Women have to pray behind a wall in the back corner. WTF. I’m being dramatic, but seriously it sucks how second class women are treated in this culture. I’m sure most of them are used to it or don’t know much of a difference, but still irked me a bit.
Oh and another new thing for me was the loud speaker praying throughout the entire city 5x a day and 6x on Friday’s (their holy day). This was wild to hear coming out of the mosque loud speakers every couple hours. It almost sounds like the mosques are competing with each other for prayer. It’s really fascinating to listen to and did wake me up a few times sleeping. haha.
Okay so now let’s talk about the food in Istanbul. OMG yes. So good. The kebab shops are to die for. My favorite was inside the Grand Bazaar (Gelgor Kebap Salonu). The kebab wraps in Turkey are not good tho. So buying these from the street kiosks is not recommended. For some reason their kebab wraps aren’t very good at all? You’d think they’d be awesome cause they are from there, but compared to western European kebab wraps it’s not even close to the same.
The shisha (hooka) was so fun in Istanbul also! Not a ton of women do it, but when I went there were about 2 women. I walked in with 4 guys and at first thought I was the only girl there which was so crazy. Anyway this place was SOOO cool. If you ever go to Istanbul I HIGHLY recommend going here even if you don’t smoke and just want a Turkish coffee or tea. I really felt like I was integrated into the Turkish culture after going here. It’s called Erenler Nargile and it’s the first place on the left. It’s super close to the Grand Bazaar.
Oh and the turkish full breakfast was also awesome if you get a chance to get that. I also really liked going to a bean soup restaurant by the Istanbul University. The guys I was with tried the famous Istanbul fish sandwiches and even though I love fish I didn’t like it. I LOVED their Sahlep, though, which is a hot thick milky looking drink but made from orchid root. It’s sweetish and they put cinnamon on it and I DIED and went to heaven. Also Turkish delight. They sell it ALL over the place and you can sample it til your heart is content in the Grand Bazaar. Oh I also bought my fam Turkish towels and awesome Turkish pillow cases. I wanted a rug soooo bad but I refrained.
The cool part of Turkey is that half is in Asia and half is in Europe. We took a ferry over to the asian side one day and everything was way cheaper! Turkey has had a lot of struggles because of their neighbors (have middle east and half Europe). Their history is so crazy interesting and I learned sooo much.
So a lot of people have told me other cool places in Turkey to go like Cappadocia which has been on my bucket list for forever. We didn’t go this time because it was super cold. Plus the vibes in Turkey/Istanbul were super tense while we were there. Every day the news was on in our hostel and something more messed up had happened. The Russian ambassador was shot while I was there and that was super intense. They are in the thick of the mess over there and I really do feel bad for them.
Oh and in my hostel I met a Kurdish guy from Iraq who was a translator for the USA in the war and now lives in Turkey. I also met a guy from Iran. It was wild to be so close to the middle east! I also met a great crew of peeps and most of them were going on next to Israel so we would meet up later!
To end our trip, Mikael and I went to the Turkish Hammam which is the Turkish bath house. You lay on a hot stone for 20 mins and then they come and get you and basically bathe you…butt naked…but in private with your own Turkish female or male depending on your gender. First they scrub you all over with a hard loofa to get off the dead skin and then rinse you while you’re laying down. They wash your hair, soap you down and lather you up. It was actually really awesome. Then we got a 20 min oil massage. This was a great way to wind down before our flight to Tel Aviv!
We got up early for our Israel flight and HOLY CRAP the security at the Istanbul airport was intense for people flying to Israel. That is because Israel has to be intense about security because they are the target of so many countries. They don’t even give out stamps in your passport anymore (they give out a piece of paper) because it was affecting tourism. If you go to some Muslim countries like Iran, UAE etc. they won’t even let you in if you have a stamp from Israel.
At the airport we went thru our regular screening and then at the gate we got split into a man and woman line and they pulled everything out of our bags and checked every corner of our bodies. They even made a lady take a sip of her water to make sure it wasn’t poison or something?! Woah. I couldn’t tell if it made me feel safer or more stressed out.
I learned sooo much about the Israeli culture while here and how they’ve only been a country for 60 years. I had no idea. The West Bank is also Palestine territory and full of Palestinian refugees that used to live in places like Tel Aviv and Haifa in Israel, but got displaced and have been living in 60 year old ‘refugee camps’. I wish I could have spent more time in Palestine to learn the history from their perspective. The whole thing is super complicated and crazy.
Anyway, Israel has quickly become one of my favorite countries! We spent a few days in Tel Aviv which reminded me of a Californian beach town. It was amazing. Israel is also super westernized in most locations. After Tel Aviv we headed over to Jerusalem to celebrate New Years and Christmas. There is so much culture and history here. It’s crazy how many religions can live together there in ‘peace-ish’. The old city in Jerusalem had an Armenian quarter, Jewish quarter, Christian Quarter and Muslim Quarter living all side by side. It was super interesting.
Highlights of Jerusalem was the Western Wall (i felt the energy there). I’m not religious, but man you can feel something there. The Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount, Old Town, Mount of Olive, Church of the Holy Sepulchure (one of the places that people think Jesus was nailed to cross). My fave place to eat was the food at a place called Jahnun Bar (OBSESSED). The crazy part of Israel is they have Sabbath that starts every Friday night and lasts all day on Saturday. They don’t work on Friday’s (it’s like their Sunday/day of rest). So, everything shuts down on Friday night at Saturday day until sunset.
The Orthodox and extreme Jewish attire was so fun to see. A lot of the uber Orthodox people wore the curls on the side of their head and all black and white outfits all the time. Sometimes they would wear huge furry round black hats that were SO cool to me. A lot of them also put boxes on their head and body during prayer time and then many of them have strings hanging off of their clothes. Many of these different types of clothing represent different things depending on if you are a super strict Jewish person or not.
For Christmas day, a big group of us rented a car and drove down to Masada to hike up to the fortress with views of the Dead Sea. Then, at sunset, we went to the dead sea at a spot where NO ONE was! We also didn’t have to pay and it was awesome. We had our friend Shamant drive (he’s from India) and was the only one we would trust on the crazy Israeli roads :).
The dead sea was defo a highlight of my trip to Israel. Such a cool experience and I hope everyone gets to go if they visit Jordan or Israel at some point! It was truly a memorable Christmas experience!
Mikael and I ended up going to Bethlehem one day which is located in Palestine which is located in the West Bank. I thought that maybe they would check our passports or something before crossing the border, but we got there just fine on the public bus. WOAH crossing over there was like a different world. You can tell they are way poorer and have less resources. All of the sudden going over there was way different than Israel as a whole. We ran into our Austrialian friends while there and all took a cab to the wall. This wall was HUGE. According to some people, Israel built this to keep out the terrorists and Palestine believes it’s a wall of racial segregation. On the Palestinian side there are tons of Banksy pieces of graffiti art and it was quite sad. You could tell the Palestinians did not like the wall at all. It reminded me of a modern day Berlin wall. I didn’t know any of the history of Palestine and Israel until coming over here and it’s amazing how little I knew about what happened here. It’s hard for me to side with either Israel or Palestine after hearing both sides of the story. Both are dealing with a lot and it’s super complicated over here!!
Mikael and I then went south to Eilat (mini Vegas on the Red Sea) and crossed the border over into Aqaba, Jordan. Now talk about a crazy difference! All of the sudden I started to see people with the Saudi Arabian head dresses which I had never really seen before in my life! This was pretty cool actually.
We crossed over to Aqaba and then took a bus to Petra (my 3rd Wonder of the World!). Petra was so cool. We met up with friends we had met in Tel Aviv and went to Petra at Night which I highly recommend. It was very special. Then the next day we got up early and explored Petra all day. It’s AMAZING. I couldn’t believe the history here and how advanced these people were. The worst part of Petra, though, was the treatment of the animals especially donkeys. If you go, please report the behavior. It’s actually disgusting how they are treated.
After Petra we spent New Years Eve in Wadi Rum, a Bedouin camp in the desert. It was SUCH a great way to ring in the new year! We listened to Bedouin music all night, did a jeep tour all over the desert, sand boarded, walked out to the middle of the desert to make a fire in the middle, saw millions of stars, ate awesome Bedouin food, and saw fireworks! It was super special and I highly recommend it.
After Wadi Rum we went to Amman (the capital of Jordan). I had NO clue what to expect here. It wasn’t super exciting, but it was cool to go up to the citadel and see the rows and rows of the same looking houses, but also see the temple of Hercules and the museum at the top. It was definitely worth the price to enter. Amman also has really great street art on every corner that I enjoyed.
A few notes on Jordan. Most toilets don’t have toilet paper so make sure to pack that with you. I barely saw any women at all in the rural areas which was interesting. They are a SUPER welcoming country and one of the calmest in the middle east. They will haggle the SHIT out of you and try to rip you off, but it’s never malicious. I felt more comfortable with a head scarf than without, but I didn’t wear one for the majority of the time.
After Jordan we weren’t sure if we were able to cross over back to Israel from the Northern border in Jordan. It ended up working though which was great because we had to head back to Tel Aviv for our flight. That day we took 3 cabs and 4 buses before making it to Nazareth. I was soooo exhausted and a long day!
In the north I explored Nazareth which was Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ hometown and is very Muslim, Tsfat which is a cute mountain town with mainly Jewish people living there, and Tiberias which is where the Sea of Galilee is located (place Jesus is said to have walked on water).
We then explored Haifa which is Israel’s 3rd largest city on the water. The beaches were great and the Baha’i Gardens were a highlight. We took a train to Akko one day which is an awesome little walled city on the water and had hummus from a GREAT place called Hummus Said. So good.
Then we spent 3 days in Tel Aviv before flying out to Cyprus. We stayed at the same hostel as before (Florentine Hostel) and there happened to be a few peeps who were there than we had seen 3 weeks prior so that was fun! Israel and Jordan have a backpackers trail and we ran into a lot of the same people throughout the trip which was fun. I seriously love Tel Aviv and could totally live here. It reminds me a lot of San Francisco.
I’m currently now in Cyprus with Mikael for some chill-out time before heading to Bangkok. We are splitting up here and he is going to meet friends and so am I. It’s been so nice to have a travel companion (and a male one) to travel through the Middle East and Turkey. I think I would have been a lot more on edge traveling in Turkey and Jordan (and some spots in Israel) if I was by myself. Thank you Mikael for traveling with me (if you even read this far which I highly doubt you will) lol.
In Cyprus we’ve been at an airbnb and are staying in Larnaca. It rained the first day we were here and has been sunny ever since. They have 340 days of sun per year! We went to Limassol and I really liked it and the rest of the time we’ve been relaxing and walking to the beaches. Mikael’s parents used to live here so we’ve been retracing their steps and trying to find their old home and restaurant while here. Yesterday we saw the Larnaca Salt Lake with migratory flamingos which was sooo cool.
Tomorrow we head to Bangkok where we are staying one night (going to party) and then splitting up the next day. I have my friends from SF coming to meet me for 2 of my friends birthday’s! It’s going to be sooo fun to see them. I’m spending 2 weeks in Thailand with them and then I have up in the air plans. I’m either going to a coding bootcamp in Bali or am going to spend a bit more time in Thailand before meeting another friend in Laos.
Still haven’t gotten super homesick just missing lots of people and am excited that I get to see my family in May! 🙂
Welcome to the Traveling Spud! I’m Katie, a 30 something from Idaho who quit her marketing job in San Francisco, California to travel the world for a year. After a trip around the world, my heart chose Idaho. I'm addicted to outdoor adventures, photography, and inspiring others to get out of their comfort zones and cross experiences off of their bucket lists. Let's explore together! Read more here.