Hi folks, if you’ve been following me on my social media channels, you’ll know that I went to Cameron Highland last weekend for a wedding.
As much as I like to write about the road trip, I kept getting writer’s block so I give you another post instead.
I’ll be talking about my current obsession (apart from playing Skyrim and improv which I’ll get to these one of these days)–fountain pens. I have these little spurts of obsessions from time to time. I can’t really remember my other obsessions (um, travel?) so I’d better jot this down.
There’s a strange relationship between being a writer and publishing a book.
In the day of the possibility of publishing online to an audience of millions, having a solid book in hand is still the goal. The part where bringing out the Champagne is called for.
At least that’s for me.
Before travelling, I had hoped to be able to gather enough stories to piece together into a travel memoir, or a book.
During travelling, I kept a digital journal each day to remind myself of what happened.
After travelling, I went to the library to get my hands on books about writing books.
[Hi, before you continue, I have to warn you that this is is a rather TMI (too much information) post. It has the most concentration of the word “naked” out of all my posts. In case you are curious, I’ve used the world “naked” before.
You are welcomed to imagine whichever person you want to see naked while reading the post, if that makes you feel better. You have been warned.]
One of the things you need to do in Turkey is to get a Turkish bath at a Turkish bath (hammam). For those aren’t sure what a Turkish bath is, it’s a bath where someone–hopefully Turkish for an authentic experience–scrubs you really hard with a loofah and let you lie for a short period of time on warm tiles.
Yes, you pay someone to scrub you in the nude.
The last time I let anyone bathe me was when I was a kid and didn’t have full control over my limbs.
I’m not usually a shy person when it comes to bathing matters. After spending a bit of time in Japan, I am comfortable with walking around naked in Japanese and Taiwanese onsens. But getting someone to rub my body with a loofah is probably a test of my limits.
Even though I have Turkish bath on my to-do list, my mom who was travelling with me in Turkey wasn’t keen at all. She’s the type who get squeamish in onsens so I understand that. In the end, I have to visit the baths on my own.
According to my research (reading loads of mixed reviews on Tripadvisor), there were a few baths around my hotel area. I eyed two and started looking for them.
I found Cagaloglu Bath’s side door after a long walk up and down Istanbul’s slopes. Fortunately, it was also the ladies’ side door. Entering the entrance, I passed by a poster of Kate Moss posing on some tiles before the screen that divided the bath and the outer world.
A long poster hanging on the second floor told me that it was one of the “1000 Places To See Before You Die”. That probably means that I’ll be paying for a lot of ambience too.
The little court had a few marble tables and stools. There were a lot of ladies sitting around looking bored. They wore the uniform white polo t-shirt and some brown pants.
I asked the lady at the counter for the price. Looking at the chart, I did a quick calculation and realized that it was quite out of my budget. But I already had my feet in the compound and I feel compelled to sign up for a session even though it would mean less lunch for me. I chose the cheapest package that included a scrubbing session.
Counter Lady said I could pay later and shouted to one of the ladies. The woman who answered reminded me of Rebel Wilson.
I was shown to a room and told to change. The room had a sleazy look to it. A bed with a plastic-like dark green fabric was pushed against the wall. A small dresser with a feedback form was next to the bed.
The room had a glass window which was frosted on the bottom half to protect the modesty of whoever was inside. Not that we need any modesty since we would be buck naked in the sauna room anyway.
So I changed out of my clothes and wrapped a towel around myself. Since I was paying a night’s worth of a hostel stay, I wore my glasses so that I could admire the marble hammam. But as I closed the door, Rebel pointed to my glasses and mimed taking them off. So much for getting my eye worth of the hammam.
I was told to wear clogs and I shuffled like some Ch’ing dynasty lady with lotus feet. Rebel helped by grabbing my arm and steadying me.
I walked with blurred vision, passing an empty chamber before going into the hammam itself. Rebel brought me to the round stage-like marble place and slapped the surface. I interpreted that as asking me to lie down.
So I lied down on the warm marble and tried to relax. It was a bit difficult because the marble is hard. Being half blind without glasses didn’t help with my experience. Everything on the ceiling looked like a blurry bouquet of lights as the sun streamed through some of the circles on the roof.
After a while, I flipped myself over like a piece of steak to warm the front of my body (while covering my backside with my towel). My neck twisted uncomfortably as I rested my cheek on the marble. I didn’t know I have cheekbones until the marble pressed against them.
I tried counting how long I was told to grill myself. It didn’t seem very long before Rebel appeared. She was armed with a loofah mitten and a bucket.
She flipped me around so I was facing the ceiling again. With a bit of warm water sloshed on me, she began her car polishing moves. Every inch of my skin was scrubbed.
Halfway during the scrub, Rebel grabbed my hand so I could feel the bunch of dirt that she had scrapped off me. There seemed to be a crazy amount of dead skin on me. I thought back the times that I had showered and wondered why there weren’t as much dead skin.
Then I was flipped over like a burger patty. My back, backside and legs were scrubbed. When all was done, Rebel patted my shoulder and escorted me to the shower area.
The shower area is basically a corner of the hammam. The bath lady waits for the pail to fill with warm water before giving you a good shampoo.
When I was lying down on the tiles, it was OK for me to close my eyes and not look at what Rebel the Bath Lady was doing to my body. But now that we were standing up, I awkwardly looked at the top of her head.
As Rebel finished my shampoo, I saw her give my body a look and give a nod. I felt it was an approving nod, or wasn’t it. I wasn’t sure what to do so I awkwardly smiled at Rebel instead. Then I was wrapped in a towel and shooed back into the room.
Back in the brothel-like room (where no one gave me a “happy ending”), I counted my coins for Rebel’s tip. My notes were too large and luckily my coins were just enough for tip.
I shuffled out of the “1000 Places To See Before You Die”, feeling sparkling clean but strangely molested.
I later discovered that the ladies’ entrance I went into was a dwarf compared to the real entrance which was very beautiful. I felt cheated that I wasn’t asked to leave from the main entrance.
Read more about other people paying to get scrubbed by strangers:
For my 4-month trip, I did not bring any physical guidebook with me. My backpack was too small to stuff any guidebooks so I relied heavily on my phone for travel planning.
Although I have PDF copies of some Lonely Planet guidebooks in my computer, I find them awkward to read on my small netbook screen and even worse on a smartphone.
For travel planning while on the road, I rely heavily on my almost 3-year old iPhone 4 and internet connection. It’s a bit laggy but it works.
I have some apps which I adore for travel planning and I want to share them with you. I only know apps for iOS so if you are looking for Android versions, give the name a Google to see if Play Store has it.
I’m dividing the apps into different periods of travel planning and the relevant apps. For me, the stages of travel planning include:
Knowing more about the place
Deciding where to visit, see and have fun
Some of the apps are useful for multiple stages of travel planning so don’t rule them out if you’ve completed the different stages.
1. If you want to know more about a place
At the beginning of location-specific guidebooks, there are usually a few pages (but definitely more than the list of Places of Interest) on the history and culture of the destination. I enjoy reading those when I’m not travelling but while on the road, it’s a bit of a drag to read about what happened 100 years ago.
Instead, I have two apps that work like offline versions of Wikitravel. I forgot the name of one of them so I’ll tell you the other that I know of.
With the app, you can download Wikitravel-like entries for different destinations. That’s actually it’s weakness because it means that you will need to load the app with destinations instead of surfing randomly for different places.
Still, the app is useful for reading up on a destination and to know safety tips for where you are going.
2. Finding accommodation
One of the most painful parts of travel planning is finding the right place to stay. I get a bit OCD like Goldilocks, flipping through webpages and webpages of different accommodation before finding the right one.
The best thing about mobile booking apps is that they have user reviews. Granted some users leave crazy reviews but generally, you get a good idea of whether you want to stay at the place or not.
I think this apps is less user friendly than HostelWorld’s app because you cannot have a calendar view of the dates. My mind works in a monthly calendar view.
I used to think that people who booked hotels through mobile phones were crazy. But then I became one of them. It’s much easier for me to lie my bed, click around for a room and booking it immediately.
To be honest, I hate this app because it takes forever to load. But it’s useful for locations not included in TripAdvisor City Guides since it shows the same content.
4. Audio guide
I found Rick Steves Audio Europe app majorly useful while I was in Europe. I adore the walking tours for the different cities and the museum audio tour which I listen alongside the official museum audioguides.
Sunday was election day so no museum was open while Monday was the day all museums close so I only had Tuesday to visit Santiago’s museums.
The Museum of Memory and Human Rights was the #2 tourist attraction in Santiago on Tripadvisor. Being the sheep that I am, I went to the museum just to see what the fuss was about.
There wasn’t an entrance fee for the museum which was “dedicated to commemorate the victims of Human Rights violations during the Military Regime led by Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990″ as noted by Wikipedia.
I shed big fat tears when I watched some of the interviews of those who were around during the coup. Luckily I was wearing glasses and a scarf so the tears could be hidden away.
After the sad museum, I went across the street to the contemporary art museum. I lied that I was a student and paid the 400 peso entrance fee instead of the 600 peso.
Unlike the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, the contemporary art museum made my laugh. Some of the works on display were clearly just trolling the audience and the organizers.
My favorite was a tiny glass bottle with eraser shred. The piece was titled something like “Copy of someimportantdrawing but erased”.
After the museum, I got on a bus to the city center. However, the bus stopped halfway and I had to take another bus. I realized much later that everyone got out of the bus because the terminal was nearby.
I hung around some sort of rundown mall and had a lunch of hotdog. Even though it was a fast food stall, the queue took forever to end and the food took even longer to come.
My hotdog was garnished with avocado and tomato, an interesting combination that was destroyed by the limpy hotdog bun.
After heading back to my hostel for another round of honey lemon drink, I went out for museums. This time, it was the Museo de Bellas Artes near my hostel.
I went to the wrong direction of the museum and entered another branch of Santiago Museum of Contemporary Art. After this round of modern art viewing, I decided that contemporary art is not my cup of tea.
The collection at the real Museo de Bellas Artes was pretty good. However, there was a large exhibition on Gordon Matta-Clark so I thought the museum had a bit of a confused identity.
The night ended well since I got to try out Pineapple Champagne! (Just regular sparkling wine with pineapple pulp.)
Wait, YQ, you can’t just drop new vocabulary like that into your post and expect us to Google it.That’s just lazy.
OK OK, I’ll explain. Long term travellers do visa run to extend the length of their visa. The do this visiting another country and coming back to the country of their choice in a short period of time.
Take me for an example, when I arrived in Argentina, the immigration officer gave me a 30-day visa. (I seriously thought it was 90 days. Damn you VisaHQ.)
That 30 day deadline is coming up in 2 week’s time and I will become an illegal alien if I overstay.
However, since I’m applying for a US visa, I suspect that my passport would be kept with the US embassy for at least a week since next Thursday and Friday are public holidays. If I have terrible luck, I might even overstay.
So to extend my visa, I will visit Uruguay. I will get an exit stamp at the Argentine side and a new entry stamp when I come back in the evening.
Thankfully my visa run is just a ferry ride away. I’ve read horror stories such as Juno from Runaway Juno who had to do a 573km visa run.
After concluding my affairs of the morning, I decided to take a walk and visit the second hand book stores my teacher told us about.
Streets of Buenos Aires
Luckily, Ave Corrientes, where the bookshops are, is very near the hostel. I only had to walk about 3 blocks to get there.
Along the way, I snapped a few photos so you can see how Buenos Aires looks like.
Poked fun by a jerk
I browsed through one of the second hand bookstores. It didn’t look like the usual second hand bookstores crammed with books from top to bottom shelf. Instead, the books were arranged in stacks on tables.
There were a lot of interesting books around. I was tempted to get a Book of Myths for Children which had Greek legends but 22 pesos wasn’t something I wanted to spare.
At last, I found a Sweet Valley Twin book. I’m more attached to the Sweet Valley High series but that book was only 3 pesos so I bought it.
At the cashier, I made a language mistake by saying, “Good.” when the cashier said, “Good day.” The other person at the cash register was unkind and asked his friend repeatedly if he asked “Good day” and laughed.
I was rather upset about that. When I left the shop, I kept imagining that I knew enough Spanish to retort, “Well, at least I’m learning another language. What about you?”
Alas, I do not know that much Spanish.
On Ave Corrientes, Ave 9 de Julio
Enough complaining, let’s get back to sightseeing Buenos Aires.
Dinner was another nice meal of home cooked steak with mushrooms. It’s strange that the mushrooms were more expensive than my two rather large pieces of beef.
Yesterday, I did a bit of research on the Museum Pass. On the web site, a lot of museums in different regions of Turkey were listed so I had the impression that the Museum Pass would cover all those sites. That’s perfect for us since we’re visiting Cappadocia where there is the Goreme Open Air Museum.
So while queuing for Haghia Sophia, I told mom that we should just buy the Museum Pass. I forked over 144 Turkish Lira to the man in the van and received our two black passes.
I was rather devastated when I read the pamphlet. It only listed a few museums in Istanbul and none that were out of the city. I looked at the pass again and realized that it’s actually Museum Pass Istanbul.
Worst thing was that we would be leaving Istanbul almost 25 hours after the pass’s first use. *sad music*
Anyway, I decided to make the most of it and cram 72 lira worth of sites into 24 hours so we wouldn’t be wasting our money.
This is also a list of “How to see the most of Istanbul’s museums in 24 hours”
Site 1: Haghia Sophia (Day 1 5pm) [25 lira]
We checked off Haghia Sophia around 5pm on Day 1. This is the one site that everyone must visit while in Istanbul. It was even featured in ARGO where Ben Affleck’s character walked with an U.S. agent who worked in Turkey.
This church/mosque/museum will take about 1.5 hours of careful looking and posed photographs. When inside, the space looks smaller than it does from the outside.
Some renovation work was going on so we saw a bit of scaffolding on one side of the hallway.
The mosaic on the second floor was probably the most impressive among everything on display. You could see each tiny mosaic tile when you stand close. When you stand further, the tiles blend together into a stiff representation of Jesus and gang.
Unfortunately, by the time we finished Haghia Sophia, most of the other sites included in the museum pass was closed so we ended today’s sight seeing.
Bonus site: Blue Mosque (Day 2 8:30am) [0 lira]
We learned the hardway about the Blue Mosque’s visiting hours. It’s best to visit here in the morning as visiting hour streches from 8:30am to 12 noon. The timing’s much shorter in the afternoon and evening.
Heading to the Blue Mosque earlier means it won’t take up the time for other paid sites that uses the Istanbul Museum Pass.
Unlike the other sites, the queue for the Blue Mosque is much faster as there is no second queue that you need to go to. Just be sure to wear modest outfits.
Site: Istanbul Archaeological Museum (Day 2 09:40am) [10 lira]
We needed to check out of the hotel by 11:00am so I scheduled a visit to the Archaeological Museum in the morning and Topkapi Palace later in the day.
The museum is not very big so it’s easy to fit this place in an hour’s visit. We did it in less than that.
One of the best exhibit in the museum is the Alexander Sarcophagus, which wasn’t Alexander the Great’s actual coffin but one that had carvings of the guy at war.
There are a few mummies around if you’ve not seen one.
BONUS TIP: There is a free shuttle service on a golf kart from Gulhane Park (the beginning of the slop to the museum and Topkapi Palace). The service is FREE and saves a bit of time walking up or down the slopes.
SIte: Cheap boat ride across the straits (Day 2 11:30am) [extra 4 lira not included in Museum Pass]
After we stored our luggage at the tour agency, we head out to explore. As we weren’t hungry, I suggested that we take a boat ride (since mom seemed to desperately want to ride the boat).
There are packages for 2-hour Bosphorous Boat Tours which cost about 10 euro. We didn’t have 2 hours in our day’s schedule so we took the public transport boat from the Old City to the Asia part of Turkey.
With our Istanbulkat (public transport value card), we paid about 2 lira each for each way. It’s not exactly a long tour by the coast but we did see parts of the shores and the many houses and buildings crammed on the small land.
Across the straits, food seemed to be cheaper as we bought a doner for 2.50 lira (while it’s usually 4 lira at tourist places).
We waited for the Topkapi Palace shuttle but it didn’t come in 5 minutes. As we walked up the slope, the shuttle went past us. We waited at the Archaeological Museum for it to come back up. There was only a seat so mom got in and I walked up to the top. It was torturous.
The Topkapi Palace was bursting with tourists. It was a Sunday so it seemed like many locals were there as well.
The Palace has nice exhibit items. The most memorable was Prophet Muhammad’s multiple beards in multiple small beautiful cases. There was also a really really big diamond that was about the size of a chicken egg.
Besides the exhibit, the palace’s gardens is great for relaxing. Roses were in full bloom while we were there.
The museum pass also covers the harem so we headed there last. I had read that it was the best building in the Palace but I thought it was a little underwhelming since some walls of the palace were decorated more lavishly.
Remember, the Topkapi Palace is closed on Tuesday, as noted by an angry user on Foursquare.
Did fitting 72 hours into 24 hours work?
By the time we finished Topkapi, we were quite tired. If I was travelling alone, I might have forced myself to walk to the Mosaic Museum. Since I was with my mom, we took it easy and went for a tea break instead.
We only used about 75 lira of entrance fees in the end but the pass was still very helpful since we did not have to queue for tickets.
If you are in Istanbul for a similarly short period, the pass is helpful to help you cut down on queue time. Think of it as Time Equals Money and the few minutes count as 1 lira, or something like that.
My trials weren’t over when my long-distance bus stopped in Istanbul’s terminal. My 3 labors were:
I had no Turkish money
I had no idea where I will be sleeping tonight. (This will totally freak my father out, so thankfully, he’s not reading this.)
I had no mobile internet
I remember reading that long-distance bus companies would provide shuttle service from the terminal to the city center. None of the signs on top of the buses said Sultanahmet which was where I planned to find a place to say.
Despite being a ‘fraidy cat when asking strangers questions, I asked one of the employees where the bus to Sultanahmet was. He pointed to an empty space, surrounded by other people waiting.
So I waited. The second bus that parked at the mysterious space was the bus I had to go.
Of course, I did not know where to stop. It wasn’t until the last stop when everyone got off the bus that I asked the driver, “Sultanahmet?”
The man who looked 40-years-old spoke a lot of Turkish loudly, throwing his hands in the air. I translated this as, “Stupid foreigner, why didn’t you get off when I asked about LOCATIONNAME?”
I had to put on my Stupid Tourist face the whole while and smiled brightly.
The driver continued driving and said something that had the word “Metro”. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the bus company “Metro” or the metro system. I nod my head anyway. The driver looked pleased.
While he drove, he pointed to neighborhoods and said things in Turkish. I tried as hard as I can to decipher, getting it right some times.
I figured that a particular neighborhood was where rich people lived, since the driver said “doktor”. He also said that the lane was small, or narrow.
We amused ourselves with this guessing game. At one point, he stopped by the road, pointed to the clock and showed me 9 fingers. I nod.
He showed me mobile phone photos of his five-year-old. I smiled and nod my head. He rolled some dried grass into a square of paper and went out to smoke.
Just a minute before 9:00am, a call came. The driver had finished smoking and picked it up. It seems to be that the head office was asking where he was. He grumbled loudly and drove to a Metro branch to pick some people up.
He told the young lady who came in about the stupid tourist. I caught the word “Sultanhmet.”
When the bus reached the tram station, the driver stopped the vehicle and pointed to the metro. I thanked him and got off.
In search of an international ATM and SIM
Despite the driver’s helpfulness, I was still cashless. ATMs that accept withdrawal using foreign ATM cards were difficult to find.
It took me a damn long time, passing at least 6 ATMS, before I found one that had the CIRRUS sign. Turns out, it only accepted Cash Advance.
I moved to the other ATM nearby and successfully withdrew 300 Turkish lira (TL), thinking that it would be sufficient.
Just across the street, there was a Turkcell shop. I head in and waited a while before the other customers were done.
The lady in the shop, with bleached blond hair and heavy eyeliner, told me that it would cost 35TL for a SIM card and 25TL for 1GB internet.
35TL for a SIM was the most ridiculous price for SIM card. It was equivalent to about S$30, with 5TL credit.
I almost didn’t want to get the card but I knew that I would regret it. So I did pay 60TL in the end for the card and data connection.
I felt like one of my limbs had regrown as I searched for information using my mobile data. Now to find a place to stay!
Snow White and the Seven Grown Men
I chose a hotel that had dorm rooms, thinking that I needed to save since SIM cards ate up half of my daily budget.
Following Google Maps, I walked down slopes from the restaurant to the hotel. The staff was still cleaning up so I had to wait a while. I didn’t mind waiting since my bag was off my shoulder.
At last, I was shown the dorm room. Inside, about 7 beds were arranged messily. The hotel person pointed to the beds and said it was occupied by which nationality.
I decided to choose one of the beds but the hotel person asked, “Do you want to change rooms?”
Come to think of it, I don’t really want to stay in a room with 6 other men. Even if they were gentlemen, it’s just plain weird.
My budget was blown through when the hotel person showed me a double room with an attached bathroom. Oh well.
Later, after a half an hour nap, I was thankful for the private room and its air-conditioning.
All’s well that ends well, I suppose.
Post script: My 14-hour bus ride has sapped a lot of my energy away. It’s only 9:40pm now but I feel the need to get back into bed. Plus, I need to pick up mom from the airport tomorrow at 6:00am. See you tomorrow!