Monday, November 27, 2006

Hahahaha

So you are still paying attention. Good. Thought you'd be too busy doing "homework" to check.
Ok, so I do still look around for my girls and still have nightmares about Savannah throwing her "dead rats" at me. I still think I'll starve to death too, but this is also a warning. Coming back is only the half-time break and if you don't come back I will finish the trip without you and you will miss out on all the fun. I remember walking Bre and Sandra to the airport bus a few days ago thinking "This is 2km, my fast paced walk, mostly uphill with our heavy packs on and Bre is faster than me." Maybe thinking of someone or something on the other side of the airplane gave her superhuman strength, but it also perfectly illustrates how much you guys changed and grew out here. You would have died trying that at the beginning and now it's just another walk. So yeah, it wasn't so bad at the end. But bring your boyfriends or something next time so I don't have to hear about them all day long. Geez.
Ammon
PS. The pope is in town for a visit and he is really unpopular, hence the extra police presence lately. I have been out with other couchsurfing travellers lately too so I haven't been alone yet really. But I'm just not as cool without the family angle.

On my own

FREEDOM!!!!!
Hahahahaha, finally I have out-lasted the others and am on my own! Too bad they left me in a miserable state of being sick and totally worn out.
Actually the truth is I can't admit to missing them or not missing them. Things just are. I spent so much time walking ahead of them and not with them, or just planning things out on my own that it doesn't feel like I've lost all that much. Ouch, that was mean, but hopefully you can understand. The only thing I worry about now is food. How am I supposed to feed myself now?? And what women am I supposed to defend from sleazy looking dudes?
Well, at least it will be easy to find a place to stay for only 1 person now. On the night that Sandra and Bre left, I went to a hospitality club party and found a new host. Our old one is away on business. For a couple nights we had to stay in a hostel. Craziest story with that too. I woke up the first morning to go find breakfast and working in the hostel is a girl from Poland that was working in a hostel in Warsaw when we were there in July. What are the odds? There are so many hostels in both places and this one in Istanbul is new and out of the main hostel area. Anyway, it's that kind of thing that makes travelling so fun and random. Never had it happen with a non-traveller though.
Istanbul feels warm after being inland and so far the weather has been cloudy at worst. I've already written about it but I just want to add that there is definately a strong police presense in the city. They are everywhere and even when we went to arrivals to pick up Sandra we had to go through all the security checks. Just for kicks, yesterday I went "carpet shopping". Of course everyone knows about Turkish carpets and the infamously hassley carpet sellers. Well, I just had to go check it out and compare with India.
These guys are good, but maybe because it is the offseason it just didn't feel as bad. Not as many of them. I went in with one and let him do his thing and had my apple tea. The carpets really are pretty but in all honesty I only have one piece of advice. Never buy a carpet in Istanbul. You will get ripped off. You might as well shop at home. The asking prices on these things were insane. 1/2 square meter of carpet (2 feet by 2 1/2 feet) for $500. They are crazy. I look like a bum and they can still look me straight in the eye and say, "But you need a special souvenir from Turkey, your future wife will like it. This one is only $900." Are they nuts!?!?!?!
Actually, I had fun because I got to learn a little about different types of carpets and then test the guy by leading him in one direction and suddenly switching and watching his story change. They have an answer for every excuse but I am poor so it doesn't matter. Maybe someday I'll get one because they are beautiful. But go inland where they make them or better yet go to Persia or Central Asia to get one.
Too make my life more interesting, I am flying to Northern Cyprus tomorrow night. If you have to ask why then you haven't been paying attention to what we are doing. The answer is simply "because it's there". I am flying because it turns out that flying is much much cheaper than taking the ferry. Pretty soon flying in turkey will be cheaper than taking the bus, as it already is in much of europe.
The Last of the Watkinstravellers......

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Return of Sandra

We made it to Istanbul, as I mentioned before, only a few hours ahead of Sandra who, once again, came to visit. She obviously has things figured out and knows where the fun is at.
Istanbul is a massive city with nobody sure quite where it begins and ends so estimates of its size range from 12 to 20 million people. Either way, it is massive. It is also incredibly old, having once been Constantinople, the capital of so many past empires. It is also the only city in the world sitting on 2 continents. It stradles the bosphorus, a narrow waterway linking the Black sea to the Med. I thought the North Shore was bad with only 2 bridges but can you imagine that there are only 2 bridges across the bosphorus too? That has got to suck. They have an amazingly busy ferry system though, so people get around well enough I suppose.
We spent quite a bit of time just hanging out in Istanbul in the beginning but also walked around to see stuff. The entry fees to the sites are all very high, with no student discouts at all and unfortunately there are just too many things to see and pay for. There are still quite a few tourists but the main harassment season is long gone and even walking around in the markets hasn't been too bad. I was expecting worse. The architectural style of the mosques is really something else. Beautiful, huge things. The best, like the Aya Sophia, are converted from old churches over 1000 years old. That is just one example and perhaps the best illustration of what Turkey is like. It has been the bridge between East and West and so many great and ancient civilizations that every style and idea seems to have passed through and found itself being incorporated somewhere into the culture. The markets are also crazy. The Grand Bazaar is huge and the Spice market is also pretty crazy. I finally tried my first Turkish Delight. I thought it would be a lot sweeter actually but it is pretty good. Too bad I couldn't help but think of "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe". Bre and Sandra are actually addicted to Helva, some sesame sweet thingy that I don't think is Turkish but can be found in the area.
Turkey is mainly muslim, but it is so lax about it in some ways that you just have to laugh. It seems like everyone we talk to drinks and does not worship, and yet many women wear the headscarf. Life here seems quite modern though, with new buses and trains and roads that put most of eastern europe to shame. They have more of the fast food chains and American brands of products than we have seen anywhere else on this trip I think too.
Life is still tough and wages are low. Honestly, I don't know how they can afford to have so many cars on the roads or take the buses to get anywhere. The gas is over $2/litre and they make much less than we do. The intercity buses are expensive luxury things that serve tea, pop, biscuits and show movies. The trains are nice but hardly go anywhere. Speaking of tea, after all the Balkan countries constantly offering us "Turkish" coffee it was a bit of a surprise to find the Turks drinking more tea than coffee. Black tea with lots of sugar. Turkey has also been the 2nd worst country for smoking so far of the trip I think. China is by far the worst. People here are chain smokers and it is made worse by the fact that it is now cold so everyone is inside doing it. At least buses and trains are smoke-free. By cold I mean 16C today in Istanbul but freezing or near freezing at night depending on where we are.
From Istanbul we went by train to Kayseri, a town of about 1 million people, way inland and the closest rail stop to Cappadocia. We had a host there that was a very interesting guy and we actually spent longer there than we had intended. Kayseri was once an important town during the Seljuk period so has a different style to see but again there are only so many mosques and markets you can see. The coolest thing was that our host was Kurdish, so I was able to get a little rundown on the politics and attitudes on that. You'll have to ask later, though I still can't say much. The general consensus is that things are getting better.
From Kayseri we took a bus out west 60 km to Goreme. It is a little backpacker town in the middle of the strange rock formations that make Cappadocia so famous. It's like Hampi meets the Badlands. Very chilled and cheap by Turkey standards. There are tons of hikes in the area to see all the rock formations. Many of them have homes carved into them dating back to the early days of Christianity. There are more than a few still in use and even most of the town is still built into the rocks. Our room in the hostel was a "cave" as well. Very cool, no, actually it was below zero at night so we were cold. Not many people there but we met a few others. We met a couple guys from Lynn Valley, one of whom works as a chef at the old Savoury in the cove. What are the odds? It would have been sweet to have stayed longer and or visited in the summer so we could go on longer hikes but I guess I'll just have to go back one day. For the record, staying in the hostel in Goreme was the first time we paid for accomodation since Montenegro about 5 weeks ago and first time in a hostel since mid Sept. Not bad at all.
From there we made a quick stop in Ankara for a day's look before coming back to Istanbul today. Ankara is a pretty modern and unexciting city that most people recommend skipping. I might have to do the same. We have had some great local food lately as our hosts have been very skilled cooks. The craziest thing in Ankara was the size of the bus station. 3 levels with 140 bays. It's unreal how busy it is.
Sandra and Bre are leaving tomorrow to go back to Vancouver. Bre will join mom and Savannah and will hopefully be back again travelling in Feb with the rest. I will continue travelling on my own around Turkey for another 2 weeks before going home on Dec 9th for a 3 week visit.
Ammon

Friday, November 17, 2006

Breanna

Howdy Folks!!
I wıll have to admit that even though the four of us had spent 24-7 together when mom and savannah left I cried. ahahah It was a huge change. Hey now I wasn't the only one who did . "Savannah". That was at least two weeks ago and I still catch my self looking for them. It's really weird when (for example) I'm in the back of a car by myself, I was huddled against the wındow when I had all that space....I guess I'm just a lıttle too used to beıng squished wıth all our bags piled on top. I guess you guys might want to know how Amo and I have been doıng with just the two of us. Actually it's all good! I have picked up the job to make him fat. Its a hard thing to do. He won't gain weight even if I feed him all the tıme.

I 'm so happy to have Sandra here with us!!! She is the cutest! We are always laughing! Turkey Is awesome!! In grade 8 socıal studies we learned about Turkey and I remember telllıng Mr. Conners that I would go there some day and well... here I am! I can't wait to tell all my old teachers about this trip in person. Istanbul is amazing! Wow, all the mosques are so beautıful lit up at night. We are stayıng with couch surfers and still having a great time with them!
Sorry this one is a shorty. Hey, Mr. Bear hugs... Thanks for Everything you really are the best!!
See you all sooner then never. Heeheee!
Breanna

Monday, November 13, 2006

Thessaloniki

We came out of Kosovo back to Skopje for a few days. Wow the weather can change fast. It went from 25C to 2C practically overnight. We had a nice relaxing time in Skopje but were looking forward to moving on. Greece was actually never on the original plan and decided on more or less last minute. It is too expensive for us and we had no plans to do any more than see Thessaloniki and cut the corner on our way to Turkey.
We had a cool host and it was the first time really that we had other guests there as well. There were 3 others, making it even more fun. For some strange reason I never could get oriented in Thessaloniki and always felt lost. Not a good sign. It was really strange because there was no communist architecture anymore but lots and lots of apartment buildings and balconies. Crazy heavy traffic, very modern and expensive food. We didn't really see much and ran into the missionaries so hung out with them in the evenings. Ping pong and pool were fun but basketball was the best. In true Ammon fashion I ended up with a bloody nose too. If you don't bleed you aren't having fun. Odd fact for you, the mission in Greece/Cyprus is the most expensive in the world and the least successful as well. That's a huge contrast to Albania which is one of the best in Europe.
The weather was good and we spent the better part of a relaxing week there. Thessaloniki (I like it's other name Salonica better actually) is the 2nd largest city in Greece and historically was the 2nd city of Byzantium. It also has some great Byzantine ruins right in the middle of town.
From Thessaloniki we took head to Istanbul. Truly an amazing city and I immediately fell in love with it. Huge and with tons of history and character. I can't think of a more immediately impressive city. Gotta go check it out.
Ammon

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Kosovo

I hate to say it but we made a mistake with Kosovo. We didn't go soon enough and because of time constraints at the moment we had to leave way too soon.
My life lately has been one long political discussion. It's tough and I'll be relieved to finally get out of the Balkans soon. Because the wars have been so recent and everything still revolves around them in all of the countries here, everyone in every country wants to justify their side's role in it. Add to that the fact that I genuinely want to understand it all and you just constantly get bombarded by horror stories of the other side and racial comments. As an outsider it is impossible (and stupid) to pick sides. Honestly, every side has done terrible things and each one is to blame, but then they are all victims too so it's really just too bad for everyone. I have enjoyed my time with each group, the Serbs, Albanians, Bosnians, etc. People really aren't that different at the individual level, it's the group psychology that screws everything up. It's also impossible to tell who's what too as they all look the same. How did they have a war with each other anyway? Did they have to knock on the door and ask that person's ethnicity before deciding to burn it down? You just can't tell from a glance.
Kosovo was a great experience for us and like I said, we wish we could have stayed longer. It is a really strange situation but totally safe now. It's run as a UN protectorate called UNMIK (which is what they're passports say) which will decide on the fate of Kosovo within the next few months to a year. They are expecting to become their own country at that time. Right now, I think it is still officially recognized as a part of Serbia but if they reincorporate it back into Serbia, the war will just start up again and everyone knows it. When you cross the border, there are separate controls and you get a funky UN stamp in your passport. Crossing into Kosovo first, you are not allowed to enter Serbia as the Serbs don't recognize this system. There are still lots of the KFOR troops and UN vehicles all over the place but it's not really a big deal and everything is more or less normal. Everyone is ethnically Albanian and the Serbs live in small, protected and isolated areas of the "country". The part I don't understand is that they are ethnically Albanian but want their own country and not to "rejoin" Albania, yet they fly Albanian flags everywhere. They use it like an ethnic flag rather than a country flag. No wonder Albania gets in trouble when they have nothing to do with it all really. Every Albanian we've met recently has given us the Mother Theresa test too. They ask who she was. The answer, if you didn't know, is that she was an ethnic Albanian from Skopje, Macedonia. That means that everyone around here tries to claim her, but she is as I told it. Lots of statues of her in Macedonia, Albania and even Kosovo.
We were picked up by Fatmir and driven to his mother's house in a town called Besiana or Podujevo in the northeast of the country a few km from Serbia. He is 33 and single but has 4 sisters and one brother, most of whom are married and have their own families. Despite many of them living in the capital, Prishtina, on the weekends they all try to stay in the countryside with mom. It's like having a family reunion every weekend. Fortunately we arrived on saturday night and got to spend the whole day with them on sunday. We got to meet everyone, and there were a lot of them. There were a bunch of kids, from 11 to 15 all of whom could speak a little english. Bre had fun with them while I was back and forth between them and the adults.
They are non-practicing Muslims, like many out here and religion was a topic of conversation almost as much as politics. I like it though. Having nearly finished reading the Koran/Qu'ran I can now participate without looking totally ignorant. I think I'm the first missionary in Kosovo too because they hadn't heard of Mormons. One of you guys out there that thinks they are qualified, should email me and tell me what points I should be emphasizing. The way I see it, there are a suprising number of similarities with Islam and I get along with them really well. I'm looking forward to the middle east.
Anyway, it was really really nice to be in a village type setting (they have their own cow and chickens and a little strip of land) with a family reunion type atmosphere with such welcoming and people that clearly love each other. The weather was great too and the only problem was that it got dark too soon. Monday morning we went to Prishtina where Fatmir works. He's an IT guy in the PM's office. He had to fly to Denmark in the afternoon so we had to catch the train back to Skopje. Everyone out here has some story to tell. The family had a 2nd house that burnt down in the war, but their new second place looks great. Fatmir's boss also had some interesting stories to tell. Tough people to start all over after losing everything.
Shean, I know what you are saying. But I full expect to come back and become a robot someday too. I'm just saying I don't want to do it for 40+ years. The truth is I am a closet family guy and want to have 10 kids. I was reminded of that in Kosovo. If you enjoy your job and are doing something you love then that is good. But there are too many miserable people out there. Why you don't just retire when you know you could is beyond me. I'd call it quits as soon as I could. We spend to much time doing what we don't want to do just to get things we don't need and don't really care all that much about anyway. We had a great time with the kids playing volleyball with a flat soccer ball and a string between a fence and tree. We don't need all the image stuff, but it's the same problem out here too. People make 200 euros a month in eastern europe on average and yet they buy $400 cell phones. They can't afford that so they put $2 on the phone and then pretend they are talking to someone. Same thing with smoking. It's all image. So many young people do it and if you look, half the girls don't even inhale. It's pathetic what materialism does to people. And then they have the nerve to lecture me on how poor they are and that I must be rich to travel. Hahahaha, maybe I am rich, of course I have a castle with slaves back home. But I don't like to say such things about you guys.....
Ammon

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Rapid Decisions

Wow, where do I start?!? For those of you that DON'T already know because you're sooo out of the loop and we haven't seen you yet or you're on the other side of the world or you've just never met us before........you're never going to believe this! Knowing us, we aren't the type of people to make our plans way in advance or we come up with new plans quite often and fast when we do. On October 23rd, we were in Prilep, Macedonia and that's when the plans changed. I've never seen such a drastic move made so fast in my entire life. My back, like I said, has been killing me for the last 3 months or so. I was thinking of skipping the hike up to the monastery because it was affecting me so much. It was then that mom said we should go home to heal it. HOME!??! I never even thought about it. It was the most sensible solution to my problem yet it never crossed my mind to actually go home.
That day, we did end up going to the monastery (there's a blog on that) and staying the night. The next morning we hiked back down and went directly to the internet to check out flights, dates and prices. In the morning we went to the travel agency to book a flight. That was the day that Bre had her rather interesting accident. I'm sorry Bre, but thinking back on it now, I crack up every time. Especially telling the story. I mean, c'mon, mom tells the poor girl she's going to die if something weird happens in the next hour or two. Breaking out in bumpy, rashy, itchy spots isn't all that NORMAL wouldn't you say?! I don't blame her for thinking she was going to die. Love you Bre!!
The following morning mom and I parted from the core of our trip.......You'll never see me cry as much as I did when I left! I know you'd think that leaving your siblings after spending 24/7 together would be something of a relief but it wasn't at all. You become used to having them there ALL the time talking, laughing, arguing, walking beside you. I seriously had to go through withdrawls. I've never been away from my sister longer than 10 days on a couple occasions and that was hard enough.
Our journey home was long......We flew 2 hours on a tiny Macedonian airplane to Zurich, Switzerland where we had our quite adventurous 1 1/2 hour stop over. From there we went to Atlanta 9 1/2 hours away and waited 3 hours before our 5 hour flight to Seattle. We were awake over 27 hours (not that that's anything new, haha) but we arrived at night so our jet lag could have been at worse odds.
Ammon this one is for you bro. You will be proud to know that mom and I are equally as obsessed with stamps as you are. You taught us well! When we got off the plane in Zurich we were both thinking the same thing but......"Is there enough time?" That was the big question. "C'mom, c'mon, we'll just have to hurry. We've got lots of time." We both went rushing around reading english signs trying to find our way to the exit. When we got to the booth to get our stamp into Switzerland the guy just looked and said "go ahead"......what!?!? "Well, we need our stamp, sir!" He looked a bit confused as to why we wanted one so desperately but he gave it to us anyway. How exciting!!! We went down the escalator to find the door.....Go, go, go....TOUCH DOWN!!! We did our jiggy, jiggy, happy dance for about 20 seconds (Our new record for shortest stay in one country, hehe) then came back in to get stamped out and find our plane. The next guy was really nice and wanted to hear about our trip "Wow!! A year and a half??!!! Where have you been??" Of course I don't have TIME to talk so the best I could do was smile "32 countries....can I have the stamp now?" hahaha. Now, here's the stupid thing. Did you guys know that you're not allowed bottled water on a plane any more?! Well, we didn't and that's why mom had her whole daypack torn apart......therefore making us late. Eeeka!! We finally got to our gate and the people immediately said "You guys are going to Atlanta??!! Go over there to security.'' Uh OH!!! I don't mean to be mean or anything but I have to admit that American border guards are almost ALWAYS dinks. We were on Delta airlines so we had some guy come over to question us. "Why are you late, blah blah blah?" We told him the truth but how could a guy like that EVER understand our quest? He asked for our passports and of course mom's passport opens right up to the AFGHANISTAN, PAKISTAN pages. I'm thinking "Ok, we're in trouble now! Dead meat." He gives us the whole "Why, why, why? What was so interesting about these places that you just HAD to go there? What was the purpose in stay?" You know what? The key to getting through is just act dumb and they'll either eventually get sick and tired of you and let you go or if you look like a criminal (like Ammon, lol) you'll get hauled off to the back room! Seeing that we are simply young ladies too stupid to really know WHY we were there, he just said "Ok, go through. You're the last ones on the plane!!!" hahahah, suckers!!! We went running on as they were practically closing the doors off. Phew, that was a close call but we did make it and with great success!! Wahoooo! I'm one up on you now Bre......or wait, I guess we're at a tie still now that you went to Kosovo and have a better stamp than I do. DARN!! I miss you!
So ya, coming home was extremely crazy. I was shocked for the first few days and can't believe how fast things can change if you put you're mind to it. I cried so many times....I cried when I saw my first Denny's! hahahh, omg, how embarrassing. Sushi was AMAZING!!! I haven't had it since I left because they just don't eat it in the places we were. Or we were just to cheap to buy it.
Our plan is to stay here in Vancouver until my back is healed. Ammon and Bre are doing Greece and Turkey with out us and we'll go back for Africa. I had my X-ray taken today and we'll see what's going on tomorrow. So ya, if you guys want to see us and hear our stories......let's go hang out. I'm talking to you too Andrew!!!!
It's great to be HOME!!
Savannah