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Gap Year Odyssey

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It's All Greek To Me

Athens, Greece

The first thing I saw of mainland Greece was Starbucks. A good omen, I thought to myself. I felt awful: neck ache, headache, very little sleep, and on at least half a dozen occassions throughout the night I had woken to find I had no sensation in one of my limbs due to my awkward sleeping position, draped as I was over my backpack and curled around the arms of a chair. My mood had not been improved by the ferry failing to serve breakfast and charging me 5 euros for a coke and a packet of crisps. So I made for Starbucks, praising the deity that had brought two of my favourite things to me: coffee and WiFi.

Finally I decided I had to get to Athens proper. The ferries arrive into Piraeus, some kilometres outside of the city centre and fairly uninteresting. The route to the centre, however, is less than obviously pointed out. But with the help of a local businesswoman I managed to get a bus and then the metro, and she even insisted on paying for my ticket. I was in the centre by midday.

When in Athens, head to the Acropolis. So I did. The heat was overpowering, and limited the sort of walking you could do seriously, but I am not one to complain. I spent the day exploring Hadrian's Library, the Roman Agora and the Acropolis. The latter was obviously the highlight, though the Parthenon is itself a dissappointment in one respect due to its continual state of scaffolding-clad repair. When you step back, however, and consider the age of the buildings, the significance of the sight and the civilisation that grew from here you begin to really appreciate it. The setting, as well, is incredible. I had been warned that I would not like Athens because of its ugly modern buildings, the smell of sewage that pervades the atmosphere and the notorious and equally ubiquitous 'women of the night'. Somehow, however, all these lend the city something of authenticity: it is alive, in all its ugliness and sin, and it was probably equally sordid and even more foul-smelling two and a half thousand years ago. From the hills overlooking the city, you also have the benefit of seeing the city buzz beneath you, without the scents and sights you would rather miss. For me, this didn't ruin the ancient buildings; it just put them in a different context.

In the evening I went out with three others from the hostel: an Australian, a South African and an American. So, naturally, rather than taking on the nickname of 'Britain' as is common in such gatherings, I became 'Europe', as we realised we represented four different continents. And whilst I resented the pressure that comes with representing over 700 million people, there is something special about sitting around four corners of a table, having come from four corners of the globe. We went to a wine bar in the centre, then took a ridiculously cheap taxi to a club playing something like remixed ska, and walked back past the Acropolis as the dawn was breaking over it.

On day two after getting a much-needed haircut, which was pleasantly unsurprising, I headed back down to the ruins aiming to spend the day exploring those parts I had not yet seen, namely the Agora and the surrounding area. I did, but having forgotten my camera, I knew I would be back the next day. The sun was again bright overhead, so I relaxed, read, and treated myself to a (relatively) expensive lunch. That evening we stayed in the hostel, which had a friendly and relaxed bar area, and played cards. The hostel seemed to attract really interesting and fun young people from all over the world and was big enough that there was variety in company but small enough that you could find people again.

The next two days passed similarly. I had got into a pattern of exploring the fascinating areas around the main hills, which stretch further than is at first obvious, and which are constantly opening up new paths to walk down, new pillars, inscriptions or monuments to investigate. On the final day I climbed the big hill opposite the Acropolis with a guy from the hostel, and was amazed at the views of the sprawling city, stretching from the coast and the port, past the ancient city, and up to the mountains in the distance.

Nightlife remained fairly relaxed over the final two nights. One interesting occurence happened, however, after two of us had gone to get food. We noticed, as we were walking, that the streets were empty, cordened off by the police who were showing a big presence. This was because of demonstrations, fairly small, but potentially violent as they seemed to included both right-wing nationalists and left-wing anarchists. Many of the shops were closed, but due to the banishing of the usually terrifying traffic, the city actually felt safer than normal. That was until we were on the street on which the hostel was located. Extraordinarily, of all the places to choose, about 50 protesters and perhaps 20 armed riot police were standing just yards from the hostel door. At first we planned to walk through them; 'they don't look very violent' I said. Famous last words: I fight broke out at that very moment. So we managed to navigate a back street, sneak behind the protestors and police, and reach the hostel before they started using tear gass. The hostel was locked, but the receptionist let us in, and the other guests who had been on the balconies watching the fighting, came back in as the tear gas got to them.

Later that night, however, the violence had cleared, so four of us walked back down to the Acropolis, climbed the hill next to it and sat to watch the lit-up ruins with the full moon behind them as some Greek men played folk music on a guitar beside us. It was one of those atmospheric 'gap-year' moments you know you will never forget.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 7, 2009 from Athens, Greece
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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Rain, Wind and Sun in Santorini

Thira, Greece

The ferry pulled into the main port on the island of Santorini (also known as Thira) in the dark. The setting is surreal: a small port surrounded by a dozen or so shops and cafes at the bottom of a dramatic cliff face and accessible from the land only by a small winding road. The cliff was lit up by the lights from the port and a few hoteliers and taxi-drivers were loitering where we disembarked in the hope of catching some extra business. The hostel owners had promised to meet me to save a taxi fare, and I was expecting the usual custom of a piece of paper bearing my name so we could identify each other. I waited for some minutes before realising that this was obviously not the method used here. Eventually I saw a man in the distance holding a sign with the hostel's name and ran to meet him before he gave up and turned around.

We drove through the winding lanes and over the rocky landscape to the town of Perissa on the other side of the island. All I could really see, however, were the lights of the few and sparsely placed dwellings. The hostel was much what I had expected for the small price I was paying: clean, full, but nothing special. In fact, we were on the ground floor with a door opening to the outside seating area and as the temperature quickly dropped outside, so it did in the dorm. I met my room-mates and settled in for an early night.

The next morning promised a wasted day - heavy rain set in, making any efforts at sightseeing doomed to failure. This is the main problem with the smaller Greek islands as opposed to cities: enjoyment is heavily reliant on good weather. However, I met some new people, ate and drank in a couple of nice cafes and watched films and read. It was the first day of the trip so far in which I did not take a single photograph, but I needed to catchup on some relaxation and it served that purpose.

The next day the weather was a little better. Frustrated by both the rain and my inactivity on the previous day, I probably over-reacted on both counts and decided to head up a mountain ... in shorts and flip-flops. The inappropriate nature of my dress didn't hit me until I was a quarter of the way up and by this stage I refused my better judgment of going back. It was still drizzly and every few minutes the wind would surge round the bend of the mountain and make walking the delicate path almost impossible. But it was worth it: the views over the town towards the sea, the beautiful flora and the rocky crags were so wild and unspoilt. I reached the top, but didn't hang around as the wind was picking up and nearly swept me off - literally! The weather gradually improved throughout the day, which I spent a little more sedately. I went a number of times to an internet cafe to plan the next leg of my journey, upload photos and catch up with friends, but the wind was still intermittently strong and every time I went there was a power-cut. Indeed, so synchronised were my arrivals and the losses of power that the owner started to think I was an unlucky omen and laughingly nearly refused me entry towards the end of the day.

In the evening, I went to the bar opposite the hostel and met some of the 'locals'. In the summer, these are mostly made up of Britons and other English-speakers who head to the island to get work. The holiday season, I discovered, did not start for another week or so, and nearly everyone in the hostel was planning on remaining on the island until September and looking for more permanent accommodation. As such, the place has a real community atmosphere, but I also realised that not being part of this group I was effectively an outsider; a tourist. This may be something to do one summer, I thought.

On the final full day, I had intended to be a little more adventurous. Cycling was futile because of the terrain, however, and quading or motorbiking was probably a little too adventurous given the local drivers and the unpredictability of the roads. I therefore planned a day lying in the sun, and headed down to the black beach, where the sand is thick, dark and consequently keeps warm all day. The weather was some of the best I have had yet, and almost made it worth enduring the rain of two days before. I lay out on the beach into the evening hours and finally headed in for bed.

The next day I was due to leave for Athens, but my ferry did not depart until midnight. I spent the greater part of the day reading on the beach again and walking around the town. In the afternoon I had wanted to leave for Fira, the capital of the island, so I could see some variation. However, the timing did not work out and by the time I got to Fira by bus, it was time to get a taxi to the port. At the port I ate in a cafe full of locals watching Chelsea play Barcelona, and was eventually able to board the ferry, take my seat, and try to sleep.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 4, 2009 from Thira, Greece
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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Not another ferry trip ...

Rodos, Greece

Santorini is not that far from Rhodes, but the ferry I had chosen to take was the slow option, spending the day drifting from island to island. This way, I thought, I could see some of the natural and architectural variety of the islands in one day - the perfect option for the traveler who is limited for time. It is also cheaper and after my previous ferry experience I recognised the value of taking a proper ship rather than the sort that is more usually used as the temporary home of recently slaughtered fish.

The early morning taxi ride to the port cost, as always, almost as much as the ferry itself. Having boarded, I occupied myself in sitting down to relax for the next fourteen hours. As it was 7am, cold and damp, I settled in the bar and took the only available food and drink for breakfast - a cheese pie and a poisonously strong coffee. Then the irritations began. Children, I have come to realise, are the biggest annoyances of any traveler. In fact, in the Lonely Planet guides, the Dangers and Annoyances section should list children as the first item for virtually every destination. I hate that I've become one of these child-haters, but I wish parents would leave them at home. They won't remember anything, and really it's a waste of natural and economic resources and a damn nuisance to everyone else. To the point: as I sat in the lounge of the ferry, peacefully reading my newspaper, one of the little brats started flicking coins noisily onto a table. The parents, evidently relieved by this distraction in its attentions, did nothing. After several minutes of this, I started to lose my patience, but I know that hitting other people's children is generally frowned upon, so I too did nothing. But then it became coin-throwing, as the child started hurling the money violently at the table and watch it bounce up again. The phrase 'take someone's eye out' passed through my mind, and I raised my copy of Friday's International Guardian to shield my eyes. Soon afterwards, I made my escape.

Some of the islands we passed were completely unique and passing between them in a relatively short space of time gave an interesting perspective and a rare opportunity to contrast these isolated cultures and worlds. Thin layers of cloud were flitting over the sun, so I spent the day between the outside deck when it was warm and the relaxing bar when it wasn't. Despite the poor selection of food, it was one of the better ferries I have been on and I valued the opportunity of seeing several of the islands both up close and at a distance. I managed to read a great amount and to eavesdrop on some interesting conversations - one of my new favourite pastimes - and so the day passed almost too quickly.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 3, 2009 from Rodos, Greece
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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What Colossus?

Rodos, Greece

When I arrived into Rhodes, the heat of the sun was beating down and the few early tourists were walking along the waterfront. Rhodes is an idyllic place, spoiled only by the people who drive its economy: the tourists who come religiously every summer to bask in the sun and frequent the beach-side bars and clubs. Fortunately, by late April and early May the worst of the holiday season hasn't begun, but you can still benefit from fantastic weather. Everywhere has opened by now too, but you won't be hit by the prices that get hiked into June and beyond. I slowly made my way along the waterfront the makes the northern border of the town, stopping at a cafe and eventually completing the 2km walk that brought me to my hotel.

I say 'hotel' because the place I was staying was rather different to the establishments I have become accustomed to. Clean, modern and well located, it was nonetheless completely soul-less and characterless, the sort of place that people come to to stay by the pool all day and only to venture out at night. It, along with most of the accommodation, is in the modern part of the town: equally uninspiring, but close enough to both the old town and the beach. However, it was nice to have my own space, to have a real shower and even to get access to a television to fuel my hypochondria about swine flu. It acted as a good base and enabled me to have my first lie-in for weeks.

The next day I had planned to have a catchup, doing the things that build up when you neglect them for too long: doing my laundry, getting a hair cut, planning the next part of my journey and catching up on sleep. Stupidly, I had not foreseen that it was May Day, a national holiday in Greece. Everywhere was closed; literally everywhere. And what made matters worse was that the sun - an essential element if you are to enjoy a day on a Greek island when all businesses are shut - was on holiday too, hiding for the better part of the day behind heavy clouds. Even the sun-worshippers who are normally shamelessly baring all in their multitudes along the beaches had retired into their hotel rooms. I tried to make the most of the day by using the cool temperature to explore the town, but I couldn't help feeling a little defeated.

Saturday, however, was much more productive. The sun returned, as did the businesses and with them the tourists. I dumped my laundry and headed off to explore the old part of the city. Rhodes Town, which is apparently the biggest medieval walled city in Europe, is beautiful if a little crowded. It is a great place for walking, the walls acting as a your points of orientation, and in the centre and at the water there are enough cafes, restaurants and shops to keep most tourists amused for days. The prices, however, reflect the level of tourism, and it is probably a good thing that the next day I had planned to move on.

The people who come here seem to be a mix of northern Europeans, more diverse in some ways than the Marmaris crowd, but nonetheless fairly limited in their variety. Displaying unwarrented levels of delighted exoticism at the smallest cultural differences, it can be quite difficult to take them seriously. Go down to the beach in the day, however, and even at this time of year you will be visually assaulted by hundreds of square meters of sweaty pale flesh. Needless to say, I avoided the beaches during the day for this very reason. In the evening they cleared, however, and found a sun lounger to read for the final minutes of the day.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 30, 2009 from Rodos, Greece
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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The English Turkish Riviera

Marmaris, Turkey

The less said about the bus journey from Goreme to Marmaris, the better. Suffice it to say that thirteen hours on a bus that gradually became more crowded, more overheated, and more malodorous throughout the night was not one of the more comfortable nights I have had to endure. They try their best: there are TVs, and the seats are at least soft, and there are regular stops, but nothing could induce me to have more than about an hour's sleep all night.

Marmaris, into which I arrived, had little of what I have come to expect of Turkey. There was the shuttle bus from the bus station to the centre, which was small and authentically Turkish, but here the similarities stopped. Having avoided wearing shorts for fear of offending, and having eaten almost nothing but true Turkish cuisine for over a week, I was suddenly thrown into an environment in which my Western values and expectations were both at home and thoroughly alarmed. Having enjoyed a great choice of vegetarian food in Turkey, here the only veggie burger I could find was at Burger King - everywhere else was catering for the British tourists. In fact, the first item on nearly every menu was the full English breakfast. But the strangest difference was in dress. Here, religious sensibilities are thrown at the window along with 80% of a person's clothes: short shorts, mini skirts, t-shirts or even toplessness (of the male variety I should add) were ubiquitous and nobody thought twice about it. In the summer I've heared that tourists can outnumber locals by 10 to 1 and the majority of these are Brits. I'm sure even in late April I heard more Yorkshire accents alone than people speaking Turkish.

I explored the waterfront of the town, which takes a good half hour to walk from end to end, sat in a couple of cafes, did some reading, and soaked up the sun, but the interest for me in the town was soon exhausted. Had I been here longer, I would have taken a tour to explore the beautiful coastline, but even these were geared towards the package holiday market, mostly involving stops at beaches only. The place I was staying was great for the price, but there were no other backpackers there and I was pleased I was not going to be there long. I went to bed early so I could get to the ferry early the next morning.

The next morning, the owner of the hostel offered to take me and my luggage to the port, situated out of town, on his scooter. I was eager for the free ride and so hopped aboard. At the port, the boat I boarded was not what I was expecting. Having been used to bigger ferries in the Adriatic, and seeing the numbers of tourists at Marmaris, I expected something like this, but the boat was tiny and the passengers didn't number above 20. Towards the end of the 90 minute journey I started to feel sick, no doubt due to the small size of the boat but the sight of Rhodes in the distance managed to keep me focused and we gradually pulled up into the harbour.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 29, 2009 from Marmaris, Turkey
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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Land of the Wild Horses

Goreme, Turkey

Somewhere in the middle of Anatolia lies Cappadocia, a mysterious landscape of canyons, rivers, and the caves of the troglodytes who settled there nearly two millennia ago. Cappadocia is like nowhere else on earth. My guidebook describes its landscape as 'lunar' - it is certainly rocky, dramatic and in places barren, but what makes this place so spectacular is something that is unique to earth: human settlements built into the rocks. The bus drive to Goreme gives you some idea of what you can expect for the next few days, but what I was completely unprepared for was the scale, the sheer number of these cave villages and underground cities.

I had only a short afternoon on my first day to explore, so after a little walking I headed for a cafe with a balcony overlooking the town. Sitting back, a cold beer in one hand and my reader in the other, whilst I looked across the valley in the evening light, I realised how much I love travelling. The only thing to mar the feeling was the restaurant I went to that evening, which was by far the worst I have been to on my travels. I should have known: in the vast room, I was the only one there. The food was burnt, tasteless and soggy, and the staff lingered around my table with a disturbing blend of obsequiousness and intrusive questioning. I hurried through my meal, didn't leave a tip, and dashed out before I could be persuaded to stay any longer.

I only had two full days in Cappadocia, and because the landscape is so vast and the places of interest so far out I knew that I would need help in getting around. On the first full day, therefore, I took a tour. This is something I would never normally do; in fact just days before I had been scorning the tourists who needed a guide to show them around and make their holiday interesting for them. But as I don't drive, and I had travelled nearly 24 hours to get here, I had to find another way to make the most of the area. The tour surpassed my expectations and turned out to be one of the most enjoyable days I have had so far. There were sixteen of us, mostly European, though I got talking to a lady from Chicago who within minutes had invited me to drop in when I am in the States this summer. The guide was knowledgeable, interesting and helpful, and over the course of the day we managed to see and learn a great amount.

We started off by stopping at the top of pigeon valley; of course, no pigeons live there now - they have been driven away by the humans - but the view was stunning. Next stop was the biggest underground city that has been excavated so far, where the early Christians would hide in the hills. This was extraordinary, and photos or description cannot really do it justice. As we half-walked, half-crawled through the underground tunnels, it suddenly struck me that people used to live here for months at a time. The city had dwellings, stables, a winery, a church, a burial place, communal areas ... and it was all buried deep beneath the earth. (Note: the experience is not advised for claustrophobics.) We were then driven to a valley, with great faces of rock on either side and a river running through trees below. Here we walked for an hour, stopping to look at the local farmers and shepherds and finally reaching a restaurant where we were treated to an authentic Turkish lunch. The remainder of the afternoon was spent admiring the views, learning a bit of history of the region and stopping at an onyx workshop, outside which we finally caught site of some of the famous pigeons.

I returned to the hostel, which deserves a description of itself. I had chosen one of the numerous 'Cave Hostels', which are fairly self-explanitory. Built into the rocks, our hostel had cave bedrooms, with a communal area made of glass that looked out onto the valley and the town. I had been expecting something a little less comfortable from a cave, but we had beds and sheets, and there were even curtains of sorts on the window cut into the cave wall. The only time you noticed it was a cave was the morning, when you woke up in the stale and heavy air, but for about 3 pounds a night, I wasn't complaining.

That evening I met up with two other travellers at the hostel and we walked to the top of the hill into which our hostel was built and from where, apparently, you could get the best views of the sunset. Unfortunately, the cloud cover was wrong and it never turned into the spectacular event one might have hoped for, but it was still an experience. In the evening I went with one of them to a pub down in the centre of the village. Typically for the area, it was an international theme and was run by an Australian, a reminder of the tourism in high summer. Again, it was also almost empty, another indication that the season hadn't really begun here.

By the next day I felt that I had already seen enough of the village, but was reluctant to take another tour due to expense and loss of independence. I decided to rent a bike, and explore the local landscape in this way. I hadn't ridden properly for years, and this was on the 'wrong' side of the road, so I was a little apprehensive. However, after a couple of early wobbles as I learnt left from right, I was fine. The first route I took rapidly turned into terrain that was impossible to navigate, so I took another. I rode up to the Open Air Museum, an awful hill but a worthwhile view at the top. The museum itself was a little dissappointing - swarming with tourists and overpriced - but the ride down the hill again was so exhilirating I didn't mind. I explored more, rushing through canyons, arriving into tiny rural villages, and stopping every so often to photograph a rock face or a lone donkey.

Despite aching greatly, I wanted to make the most of my last night in Goreme, so joined most of the others from the hostel in going to a Turkish night. All you can eat, all you can drink, with entertainment of the Turkish variety throughout the evening; all for 50 lira or about 21 pounds. The evening started tamely; it was the whirling dervishes, and because of the event's religious significance, there was to be no drinking and no flash photography for this part of the show. Of course, the sanctity of the moment wasn't spoiled by them charging bus loads of wealthy Japanese and American tourists money to see it, nor by its inclusion in a show that would later include belly dancing and considerable amounts flash photography and drinking, but the hypocrisy was hardly noted. As the secular entertainments proceeded, the evening gradually became louder, less Turkish, and culminated in the aforementioned belly dancer being lowered from the ceiling in a luminous cage and calling several male members of the audience up to have lessons. Authentically Turkish? Probably not. Amusing? Certainly. So continuing the mood of the evening, six of us headed for what we had been told was the only club in Goreme and turned out to be a small bar with a number of surprised locals that played almost exclusively 80s music. Everyone I was with was great, however, and I certainly have met some people here I will be keeping in contact with.

On the final day I had a bus to catch, but most of the day to spend in Goreme. Most of the morning I sat talking with my fellow travellers in the atrium area, and later headed out for a lunch with them. The day passed so quickly that soon I was saying my goodbyes and heading down to the bus stop for the next leg of my journey.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 25, 2009 from Goreme, Turkey
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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More Turkish Train Time

Ankara, Turkey

As I have previously mentioned, I finally made the decision to explore more of Turkey. Having got here, and realising what a diverse, huge and at times daunting country it is, it felt foolish to move quickly on to somewhere new. Of all the places in Turkey, the one that had the strongest pull for me was Cappadocia, the Middle-Earthly valleys of towns built into the rock. Problematically, this would require a 21 hour journey from my current location of Izmir. Normally this might have been too much of a barrier; in comparison to what I have been getting used to, however, it seems positively short. And besides, I have learnt to make the most of my time spent travelling: reading, sleeping and working out where I am going to go next.

The first couple of hours of the train ride gave some stunning views of the mountains, kissed pink by the setting sun; once darkness set in, however, there were no such amusements and other than this, the journey from Izmir to Ankara was greatly uneventful. A couple of locals tried to talk to me, but soon realised the limits of their English and my ignorance of Turkish; I got very little sleep and that which I did get was disturbed; and I consumed large amounts of water, diet coke and Turkish tea. Otherwise I read, philosophised and generally let my thoughts morph between wakefulness and sleep in that surreal way that they tend to do.

Ankara, into which the morning brought us, seems fairly unexciting despite being the capital of modern Turkey. But I wouldn't know; I took my guidebook's word for it. I was more concerned with getting to Cappadocia as soon as possible. Having managed to lose myself in a sort of underground bazaar annexed to the station which sold mostly military uniform and equipment, I decided to indulge in a cab. Little more in price than the metro it got me to the bus station, or 'otogar', in good time. Next came the tough part. Insular as I am, the words 'bus station' conjure up images of a few buses lined up at Exeter or at the very most Victoria Coach Station in London. In Ankara, this is more like a medium sized airport, but I managed to locate a company selling tickets to Goreme, where I was going to be staying, and boarded the first bus I could. For four hours we rushed down straight roads as the scenery became increasingly desolate. Sometimes in the distance you could see snow-capped peaks, but mostly it was rocks, small mountains and a scattering of grass between the small towns. At Nevsehir, I changed to a shuttle bus, which took me to Goreme, in the heart of Cappadocia.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 24, 2009 from Ankara, Turkey
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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The Odyssey brings me to Homer

Izmir, Turkey

I had travelled to Izmir to meet an old school friend who was travelling with her family. Having promised to meet her at the hotel for breakfast, my first hurdle came when the train stopped at a station in the middle of a field and we were shepherded off and taken to a shuttle bus. The route, it seems, was undergoing major engineering work, a crucial fact you miss when you don't speak the vernacular. When I had located the hotel, I got some strange looks from security - it seems I was not kitted out in quite the style of the 5 star's regular patrons - but was eventually let in and enjoyed my first cooked breakfast in weeks.

Her parents having rented a car, I experienced the luzury of 'private transport'; I had forgotten the freedom that we take for granted when we are not relying on timetables. We drove down through Selcuk to Ephesus, the site of some of the most extraordinary ruins in this part of the world. Having parked in the main car park, we boarded a 'free' shuttle bus that kindly took us via a school of carpet making, just on the off chance that we should be looking to purchase a carpet - see '20 Lessons', lesson number one: nothing is free. When we eventually reached the ruins, the sun was baking the ground, and tourist groups swarmed around their multilingual guides like flies.

The ruins at Ephesus are fascinating because of the great length of time that this area was settled. You can see inscriptions in all periods of Greek and Latin, and a myriad of styles of architecture. I of course am not educated in the subtle differences between these, but my friend is terrifyingly well read and was able to provide me with information. In the afternoon we drove up into the mountains to have a picnic, and spent a good deal of time searching among the trees for a particular kind of plant to no avail. But getting a chance to fully explore a less populous part of the country is something you rarely get as a solo traveller without a car, and so I made the most of it. Back in Izmir, we ate out in the evening at an authentic Turkish restaurent by the sea - my first real taste of a selection of the local entrees.

My second day in Izmir was spent in varying degrees of panic. I woke up knowing that I only had a bed for one more night and had no more idea of what country I was going to as I did what bed. My main options were to head to the Greek islands, to explore the Turkish coast further or to head inland. After hours spent looking over maps and doing my research in internet cafes I chose the latter, but I had left little time to do anything else all day.

So on my final day I spent a little more time exploring. Izmir is a city that at once appears perfectly simple; as you spend time here, however, you lose faith in the geography you have built up in your mind until you become entirely lost. The outskirts are a sea of square technicolour houses; interesting although not beautiful at a distance, but not worth exploring. The centre itself in many ways resembles a Western European city, but none of the shops are the same. In fact, for the first time in living memory, it took me over an hour to locate a Starbucks. (I know this is unadventurous, but I was after coffee that didn't have mud in the bottom and wouldn't send my system into shock. Besides, few people here understand requests for a Grande Iced Latte.) However, by the sea there are some interesting features including a small mosque and a famous clock tower, and of course the city is famous not only as the alleged birthplace of Homer but as a crucial place in the fight for Turkish independence. Having explored these and resigned myself to the fact that I have about exhausted what Izmir has to offer, I settled into an internet cafe, which is where I write this: small, out of the way, but incredibly cheap. A little while ago, as I was typing, a fight broke out outside, perhaps a sign that it's time for me to move on!

permalink written by  BenWH on April 22, 2009 from Izmir, Turkey
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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Stuffed in Turkey

Eskisehir, Turkey

Taking trains in this part of the world can be thoroughly disconcerting for the following reasons: Firstly, whereas in the bigger stations in London, trains arrive and depart every couple of minutes, in the forty minutes I was at Haydarpasa station in Istanbul, mine was the only train to depart. Secondly, you can board the train a considerable time before it sets off, during which time it will make strange clunking noises as if threatening to take off and confirm your fears that you are in fact on the wrong train. The quality of the trains, however, is better than in most of Europe, with more legroom, nicer toilets and bigger windows. The trolley even comes down the train every half hour or so, significantly better than in Britain, and because the aisle is so big this doesn't disrupt your movements down the carriage.

The four hour journey to Eskisehir therefore flew by, especially as I have been used to much longer journeys over the past few weeks. The next six hours would be more challenging - stuck at Eskisehir station, waiting for my train to Izmir. I managed to find a machine that for a small fee would look after my bag for a couple of hours so I could stretch my legs and explore the town. Having located a civilian who spoke English, I managed to communicate my intentions to the person manning the machine, who told me that I needed to be back no later than 5.30 as there was a likelihood the machine would malfunction and this was when he left work.

I won't waste space describing the town - suffice it to say that I was probably the only English-speaker in a 20 mile radius in an area not known for its tourism. It wasn't bad; there was just nothing there worth seeing. So I made my way back to the station, made use of the free WiFi and read. At 5.20 I returned to the spot specified to collect my bag. I waited; the machine had clearly broken or been turned off or otherwise ceased to work. 5.30 came and went; I continued to wait. A station worker who had passed me by several times, tried to explain in frustrated Turkish that - I imagine, not that I could understand -I could not leave my bag there because it was not on/working; he banged the doors, shouted at me, shook his head and walked off. More people came, to whom I tried to explain that my bag was actually in there, but nobody understood, clearly thinking I was either incredibly stupid or incredibly stubborn.

Finally somebody came who spoke very broken English. I showed him my ticket from the machine, and he understood. Eventually he managed to locate the man who ran the machine and after several attempts to coax it into handing over the goods, it opened up and I was able to take my bag away. I was reassured that they had taken the security of my possessions seriously; I just wish they had been a little easier to access.

When I was finally able to board the train at nearly 10, I was pleased to see I had a single seat between the aisle and the window. However, the woman in front of me kicked up a fuss about being sat opposite a man, and so I did the gentlemanly thing and sacrificed my superior seat. The new one had half the leg room and was opposite somebody else, which effectively limited me from moving my feet; as a result, I slept very little and in the morning was alarmed to see that my ankles had actually swollen from lack of movement. But back to the woman, who by now had vacated the seat behind me and had taken up a further two seats across the aisle, and having left her possessions on my original seat she was effectively taking up three. Some time later, she advanced her foot onto a further seat, contorting her body painfully to extend her monopoly over my part of the train. Petty things like this don't normally bother me, but as I lay awake squeezed into less space than a child could be expected to occupy, my anger gradually increased. Every time I did go to sleep, the train would stop, make the aforementioned clunking noises, and so I would again be disturbed. I approached Izmir more in need of a cup of coffee than ever in my life.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 21, 2009 from Eskisehir, Turkey
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Turkey

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20 Lessons in 20 Days

Istanbul, Turkey

I've been on the road now for twenty days, and it has been the most educational experience of my life. For other travellers and for those thinking of doing something like this in the future, I thought I would compile the 20 most important things I've learnt so far:

1 - Nothing is free.
2 - Beware the Serbian gypsy woman who tries to give you her child. Best case scenario: you get mugged. Worst case scenario: you become an unwilling adoptive parent.
3 - Time is relative. In Eastern Europe 10 hours is a short journey. In Asia, 20 hours is a short journey.
4 - Never wear white to an underground gothic rave.
5 - Don't accept 'there are no tickets left' at face value. Be prepared to smile innocently, then to beg, then to bribe.
6 - Drink the local homemade drinks with caution.
7 - Don't wear shorts in a Muslim country unless you like being stared at.
8 - Talk to the locals, forgive bad English and don't patronise them by trying to speak their language (except in Western Europe, where the opposite is true).
9 - Sleep is your currency.
10 - Eat and drink water whenever you get the opportunity because the next one might not be for 24 hours.
11 - 'Pie' does not mean the same thing in the Balkans as it does in the UK.
12 - Everywhere there is someone trying to rip you off. If someone asks for money, make sure you know why you're giving it to them.
13 - This is the important one: if you are ever unsure about anything, ask someone.
14 - If someone spits on you, swears at you, or is generally unpleasant, it's probably nothing personal.
15 - In some countries there is no pedestrian right of way, and unlike London, they won't stop if you walk out into the middle of the road.
16 - Make sure you always know the name of the place you are staying; otherwise you might never find it again.\
17 - Carry some USD/GBP/Euros at all times, as these can be used anywhere.
18 - Get lost once or twice for the hell of it.
19 - Enlightenment and self discovery will find you in the strangest of places.
20 - There are good people everywhere who will do everything in their power to help you; without these you would be truly lost.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 18, 2009 from Istanbul, Turkey
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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