Traveling during Ramadan

For those not familiar with Muslim traditions, Ramadan is a 29-30 day period during which time a few unusual things happen. The most noticeable of these is the fast. During this time, many Muslims will not eat during daylight hours. As you can imagine, this comes with varying degrees of difficulty depending on what time of year this occurs (the time frame is based on a lunar calendar, so the time of year shifts slightly each year). This year, it’s 15 May – 14 June (at least in Turkey).

When it began, I was in İstanbul. Even though Turkey is a Muslim country, there are a lot of non-Muslims (or non-fast participants) in İstanbul so I didn’t notice that much of a difference. In Ankara, there were also a lot of non-participants so I could still go out to eat during the day without getting looked at strangely.

All that changed when I arrived in Samsun. Here almost everyone is fasting. It’s very strange for someone like me who isn’t used to this sort of thing.

About half the restaurants are still open, but no one in them is eating (during daylight hours). They’ll sit at a table socializing and drinking (usually tea) with their unopened to-go bags sitting on the table.

All the bakeries, fruit stands, and convenience stores are still open. It’s just that now you don’t see anyone walking away from them munching on their newly acquired Simit (a ring of bread with sesame seeds; they look like pretzels, but taste like ‘normal’ bread).

I was warned in Ankara eating in public in an area with a lot of fasting people could be dangerous. As in, a hangry person (someone that’s angry due to hunger) could take my public display of not fasting as an excuse to fight me. Since I didn’t have the foresight to book a place with a private kitchen, this has made things rather difficult for me.

Traveling can be tricky enough without these extra complications. I’m in a new place with unfamiliar restaurants. I don’t speak the local language. And now I have to take any food I get during the day back to my place, and hide the fact that I’m stuffing my face before I get hangry.

Since I started traveling, I haven’t missed much about the US. However, being able to gorge myself in public is definitely something I really miss right now. Anyone that’s met me in person knows I have very little fat which means I’m particularly susceptible to disruptions in my food supply. If some sort of mass starvation event occurred, I’d be one of the first casualties.

Some other people that know me might be like: “This is a great opportunity to experience someone else’s culture. You can find out first-hand what it’s like to be Muslim during Ramadan.” While it’s certainly true that I like new cultural experiences, this is not one I’d like to try. Sorry Muslims, I like my food.

I think the next time I decide to travel through a Muslim country, I’ll check to see if it’s Ramadan time. If it is, I’ll punch myself in the face and re-schedule.

It’s funny; a lot of people back home told me I shouldn’t come to Turkey because it’s “dangerous” and “there are a lot of refugees there” and “don’t they practice Sharia Law there?” To which I can now respond that “it’s not dangerous”, “what do you have against refugees” and “no, they don’t practice Sharia Law”. This ‘fasting during Ramadan’ thing is the biggest challenge I’ve faced.

Now I’m rambling…. Anyway, hopefully someone out there has found this helpful and/or entertaining. Until next post….

Why is Trump murdering my travel plans?

OK, so this isn’t specific to the current US president, but he’s certainly the most recent major contributor. Queue story time….

This started early last week when I met someone from Iran. He’s awesome! We talked about many things including how most people understand that the people of the US and Iran have absolutely zero problems with each other, and that it’s the governments of said countries that are constantly antagonizing each other. After a while, we exchanged Instagram details, and he told me when I was ready to visit Iran to let him know and he’d coordinate.

Wait, what? I was pretty sure the Iranian government wasn’t granting visas to US citizens. However, he assured me that he’d seen many US people in Iran, and that it was possible to go. I suspected these were people with second passports, but I kindly nodded and made a mental note to research this further.

A few hours of research later, I had discovered that US citizens can get visas to visit Iran if the Iranian government decides they don’t have a problem with the applicant. This was a welcome surprise as I’d love to experience the culture first hand of a place where so few westerners go.

As part of my continuing research, I decided to check the news for any pertinent information. That’s when I discovered that guy in the White House decided to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Still worse, there was talk of sanctioning European companies that did business with Iran. Upon reading that, my heart sank for several reasons.

The most important one being that sanctions do not work. They’re intended to pressure governments to change their behavior. However, governments typically have enough money that they remain largely unaffected; while the increased prices on imports (which could be anything from medicine to food) goes through the roof, and causes a lot of poor people to not be able to afford those products any longer.

A notable exception to this is a few years ago when the price of food (which was already a huge portion of people’s income) got a lot more expensive in northern Africa. Queue the Arab Spring. So then, a few government were toppled. But are things really better now in those places? That depends on the country, and even when taking specific examples is highly debatable.

In most cases though, all sanctions do is make things more expensive. Still worse, they enable the government of one country to blame the other for causing all their problems. Sure, foreign governments are responsible for some (or even a lot in some cases) of the issues, but certainly not all of them. And let’s not forget the old saying “borders that goods do not cross are often breached by armies”.

So I primarily felt sad. Sad for all the Iranian people (including my new friend) that would be hurt by a bureaucratic squabble.

Plus, now it’s far less likely any visa application I submit will be approved. Requesting a visa costs time and money. Two things I don’t want to lose a lot of; particularly if the chances of obtaining what I payed for are small. So unfortunately, I won’t be visiting my new friend in Iran. My knowledge of their culture and way of life will have to depend on the stories I hear from fellow travelers from Iran.

There are so many things I won’t learn now. A recent example is how I’m currently in Turkey. I’m learning that ‘Muslim country’ doesn’t mean what most people in the US think it does. There’s no Sharia Law here, I’ve seen very few burkas, and everyone I’ve told that I’m not Muslim has (rather than killing the infidel) seemed genuinely concerned for my soul, and attempted to convert me through words. How many misconceptions do I have about Iran? I may never know….

Like many visionaries of the past, I have a dream. A dream that one day, people will seek out the ones they don’t understand and talk to them. A dream that one day, politicians will try to find ways to get along rather than alienate foreigners. A dream that one day, humanity as a whole will celebrate and embrace our differences.

Will you dream with me?

Ephesus: a biblical scholars dream?

Kuşadası (where I was staying) is the closest ‘major’ (around 100,000 permanent residents) city to the ruins of Ephesus so I had to visit. It’s arguably the most important historical sight in all of Turkey, but we’ll get back to that later.

The first place we went on the organized tour was the Mary’s house. You know, mother of Jesus and all that…yeah, that Mary. It was commonly believed Mary had moved to Ephesus after the death of Christ, but people were unsure where for a long time. It seems a nun in the 19th century had visions of Mary’s house which she wrote down. Having never been to the area added some validity to the claims of finding the location based on said visions. Also, the oldest parts of the structure date to the first century.

A church was later built onto the house, and this is the section tourists are allowed to visit. They don’t allow photography inside, but its appearance is consistent with that of most small christian churches. Due to the large number of visitors, you have to go through rather quickly. There’s just enough time to light a candle, and say a quick prayer before a guard starts hassling you to keep things moving. Note: he only bothers you if you’re slow; most people are fine.

After exiting, you come to the on-site water source. It’s widely believed by religious people that the water is ‘holy’ or has healing properties. They even sell vials of it at the souvenir shop. Being a man of science, all I’ll say is it’s mineral water and [barring some sort of strange medical condition] won’t hurt you if ingested. The day I went, there were hordes of children lined up to get a taste. Noisy brats…I mean…I love kids…yeah, we’ll go with the latter.

Right next to the spring is the wishing wall. Supposedly, wishes/prayers placed there have a higher probability of coming true. Be ware if they do though, because then you’ll need to make the trip back to remove it. Depending on where you’re from, that could be an expensive wish. Though I suppose if it was important enough for you to place it there, it would be worth the price of a return journey.

There’s also a pool on site in the shape of a key. It was used to perform baptisms, and which some believe is the ‘key’ to heaven. Queue bad pun drums.

Travel tip: don’t go close to 15 August. That’s the day Mary died so visitors will be more numerous. Also don’t go on a Sunday as they have services at 1030 which are also largely attended. The site is considered religiously significant by Christians and Muslims who will perform pilgrimages to it. So I would recommend going during the week while most people are working (and the kids are in school).

View this post on Instagram

Ephesus set 1

A post shared by Steve, Jesus, Tea Man…. (@porcupous) on

After fighting through the throngs of teenagers, it was time to hit up Ephesus. At the time of Christ, it was a major (and very rich) city. It’s said there were at least 250,000 permanent residents which is a lot for that time (cities have been getting progressively larger). The Biblical book (that sounds so repetitive…) of Ephesians was specifically written to the church there.

It used to sit right on the Mediterranean Sea via a bay and/or river depending on the year. As time progressed, water deposited increasing amounts of sediment which eventually cut the city off from the water (a death sentence for a major trade site). Today the city is several kilometers from the coast.

While all that sedimentation caused the city to be abandoned, it was awesome for farmers. The entire area is now some of the richest (for plants) places on the planet. So much so that the nearby town of Selçuk is populated by mostly vegetarians. Sorry animal rights activists, they’re that way for practical reasons rather than activist ones.

View this post on Instagram

Ephesus set 2

A post shared by Steve, Jesus, Tea Man…. (@porcupous) on

Back to Ephesus…. The ruins are superficially far more impressive than most. This is because many of the ruins have been reconstructed. Also many of the original statues have been taken to museums so there are quite a few replicas in their place. While this might annoy some people, I loved it. I could get a far better idea of what the place looked like back in the day. Plus, some of the stones are 2000+ years old so…win!

Some of the more notable structures include…. The most famous building on site: the library. At the time, it was the third largest library in the world, and the entrance was commensurate with its stature. If you Google Ephesus, chances are the first few pictures that come up will be of the library.

Connected to the library by a tunnel was the brothel. “Honey, I’m going to the library.” So if you ever hear your partner say this, you might want to interrogate them a little more to ensure it’s not an ancient euphemism. Some people are old school like that….

We also saw a 2000 year old advertisement. Carved into the marble, on the ground, between the port and the city, was a foot, a woman, and a slot for a coin (a prototype vending machine?). The foot pointed toward the brothel. The woman…well, that’s obvious. And the coin was to bring cash; not paper which did exist at the time (see the history of money).

We also passed through Hercules’ Gate. It currently consists of two pillars which are close together with Hercules wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion carved into one of them. Its purpose was to prevent vehicles from going further into the city. It’s also said that if you touch both pillars with your outstretched arms while passing through the gate, you’ll be granted the strength of the demigod. So now when people ask me why I don’t go to the gym, I’ll just be like “I passed through Hercules’ Gate; I’m good”.

There are two theaters. The larger one has been mostly rebuilt, and hosts modern concerts. These are mostly at night as the area is hot during the summer days. In older times, it was also used as an arena.

We also saw a public bathroom (or toilet if you’re British). The sewage system of the city was advanced for the time, and maintained running water pushing the waste out of the area. There was a separate channel running in front of the toilets for people to use the sponges on sticks to wipe themselves. I was impressed.

The public bathroom was also the noisiest place in the city due to people talking and running water. When people (politicians, shady businessmen) wanted to talk and not be overheard, they would go there. I image that’s where the phrase “step into my office” originated. (For those that are unfamiliar, people will say that when they want someone to accompany them into the bathroom. It’s one of the less common English phrases).

Anyway, I really enjoyed my time there, and would recommend it for anyone that’s interested in Greek or Roman history. A few tips:

  • Start at the upper gate. The city is on a large slope with the bottom being the old port. There are two gates you can enter through: one at the top, the other at the bottom. Unless you like walking a few kilometers uphill, I would start at the top.
  • Bring water. Chances are you’ll be there on a warm day. It was 30 degrees when I went, and I’m very glad I bought a water bottle with me. A couple people in our group had to go to the exit early because they were getting dehydrated and needed to buy some water.
  • Avoid weekends. It was very crowded on the Saturday I went. There won’t be as many people during the week. It’s still one of the most famous sites in the world though so you’ll never have the place to yourself.

Until next time….

A little Rhodes, some Marmaris, and a lot of ‘story time’

The whole reason The Ferry Fiasco (see the post if you’re curious) was even a thing was so I could take the ferry from Ρόδος (Rhodes) to Marmaris. And before said ferry ride across the short (30 miles) stretch of water began, I was given shit by the agent ‘letting’ me out of the Schengen Zone. There was no stamp in my passport for when I entered Greece because I entered via Iceland on 30 January. It was 26 April and I had 2 days left on my tourist visa.

For the record: US people have 90 days out of every 180 on a travel visa. Most people are unaware of this as they simply stamp your passport at the border, and let you in without any paperwork or anything. Most of the time, they don’t even say a single word to you. So I understand why this is not common knowledge.

Agent: “When did you enter Greece?”

Me: “I don’t remember, I entered the Schengen Zone at the end of January.”

Agent: “Wait over there.” After everyone else had gone through the line. “You’re going to Turkey?”

Me: “Yes.”

Agent: “When did you enter Greece?”

Me: “Hang on, I’ll check.” I opened the Hostelworld app to see when I checked into my first hostel in Greece. “6 February.”

Agent: “And when you’re done in Turkey, will you come back to Greece?”

Me: “No, I’ll move on.”

That seemed to satisfy her…sort of. She put an exit stamp in my passport, and let me continue to the ferry. There had been several times through the process when she’d stopped, and thought about what to do. She’d even ran off and talked to another agent before calling me back for the second time. I get the impression a lot of people exit Schengen then come right back, and overstay their allotted visa time. Anyway, I had escaped the border agent so all was well with the world.

An hour long ferry ride later, I arrived in Marmaris (Turkey). While standing in line to see the border agents, I saw a price list for visas for different countries. It made me glad I’d gone though the Turkish webpage, and bought my visa online as it saved me over $5. I also noted that it costs Canadians double that of other 1st world countries. Canada, what did you do?

When I got to the agent, he looked at my passport, checked online for my e-visa, stamped my passport and handed it back to me. He totally wasn’t interested in the e-visa copy I’d printed out; thanks, technology! Then I was directed to a bag scanner like the ones at airports. A quick scan later, and I was in Turkey. It was so much easier than I expected. Between the pseudo war between Greek and Turkish fighter planes over the Aegean, and all the news in the ‘west’ about how dangerous Turkey is; I expected more of a fuss.

News flash: I’ve been in Turkey for almost a week now, and I have always felt safe. Even safer than I’ve felt in the large cities in the US. As long as you don’t plan on going near the Syrian border, you should be fine.

I walked 20 minutes to the hostel. It was 25 degrees (77F), and I was carting around my backpack so I was pretty warm and a little tired when I arrived. I was greeted by a nice, old lady who insisted I sit down while she made me tea. The common area at Meltepe Pansiyon (pansiyon is Turkish for ‘guest house’ so almost all hostels, hotels, and lodging facilities have that word in the name) is gorgeous. There are small tables and chairs set up under a canopy of vegetation making it shady and cool.

When I was finished with the tea, I was shown to my room which was far better than expected. I’d booked a single bed room with a shared bathroom, but I was shown a two bed room with its own bathroom. The next day while talking to the owner, I was told he’d upgraded me; winning!

View this post on Instagram

Random shots of Marmaris, Turkey.

A post shared by Steve, Jesus, Tea Man…. (@porcupous) on

The next few days were spent wandering around the city; mostly along the coastline, and through the grand bazaar. This city was built for tourists. It sits on a bay that’s largely cut off from the rest of the Mediterranean Sea. That makes the water a little warmer, and is why there’s a huge stretch of beach interspersed with a couple docks. All along the water sit a bunch of hotels, restaurants, and boat owners offering a plethora of tours.

The grand bazaar is also close to the water. It’s several blocks of shops. The roads are ‘closed’ to traffic (although they can’t completely keep motorcycles out, and covered which is a welcome relief from the hot sun.

There are also small, local buses all over the city. If you see one passing, you can even flag them down for a cheap ride (3 Turkish Lira, which is than $1). So getting around is very easy.

Having never been in a Muslim country before, I was a little surprised the first time I heard a ‘call to prayer’. There are megaphones all over the city that broadcast the voice of a priest singing in Arabic (at least I assume it’s Standard Arabic which is what the Quran is written in) several times a day. I was surprised again when I saw people continuing whatever they were doing rather than stopping to pray; even though I’m pretty sure most people are Muslim. Relatively secularized? I have no standard for comparison so I don’t know.

What I can say is I spent about half an hour one day talking to the pansiyon owner about Islam. He was quite sad to hear I’m atheist, and was concerned for my ‘soul’. One of the things he said is that God has to be proven logically which I agree with completely. Our conclusions turned out to be opposite, but the premise is dead on.

He also told me that heaven is like a castle with 1,000 gates. Each gate is only valid for a certain time period, and one can only enter through the gate that corresponds to their time on earth. For example before Christ, the gate was Judaism. After Christ, it was Christianity. And after Muhammad, it is Islam.

I found this fascinating as The Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (The Mormon Church) also builds on the base of Christianity. I was curious to see what his thoughts on that would be, but I didn’t want to be rude so I didn’t mention that. I also didn’t want to start punching holes in his view as I was still trying to understand it. One must be aware of what they attempt to refute before coming to a conclusion.

Moving on, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Marmaris and the pansiyon. The owner and his mother (the woman that greeted my upon arrival) are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and are incredibly hospitable. When I would use the kitchen, the owner would poke his head in the door, and tell me he wanted me to treat his house like my own and that he wanted me to be comfortable. On the day I left, he even gave me a ride to the main bus station on the back of his motorcycle; saving me time and 3 Lira! If you ever go to Marmaris, I’d encourage you to look up Meltepe Pansiyon.

And now that I’ve talked your ear off…does that work with blogging? Anyway, until next time….