Highlights: Turkey (Istanbul)

Aya Sofya: Or Hagia Sophia, depending. It's a museum, now, but in its 1500 year history has been an Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedral as well as an imperial Mosque. The main dome is amazing and huge but almost more real seeming is the way the marble doorways have been worn from use. It remains the fourth largest cathedral in the world.

Süleymaniye Mosque: The relatively young, almost 500 year old mosque built by master architect of the time, Mimar Sinan. Huge and gorgeous and immaculately kept up.

Spice Bazaar: Or Mısır Çarşısı, it is, as its English name implies, a market primarily for spices, though you can get an awful lot of Turkish Delight and textiles here as well. Amazing to walk through and gawk at the perfectly piled spices, walnut stuffed figs, and dried apricots, even if it is jam packed with people. Plus, it smells great.

Ayran: An incredibly refreshing, salted, watered down yogurt drink. Especially good when fresh from the machine that aerates and froths it.

Peaches: It's hard to beat perfect peaches. Especially when they're from a fruit cart on the corner.

Balat: The aforementioned neighborhood where we found not only beautiful views of the Golden Horn, but also got to meet some wonderfully friendly people. One of these, Sebastian, took us into the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols - another 1000+ year old church that we didn't even know we were standing next to. In addition to the amazing artwork and architecture inside, there are a few small steps that lead down to a still un-excavated tunnel that is said to lead all the way to the Aya Sofya...5km away.

Fresh Pomegranate Juice: All over the place and crazy delicious. Ingredients? Pomegranate. Or your fruit of choice...

Boat rides on the Bosphorus: Especially awesome with good friends and weather. Plus, they're cheap! Head to Ortaköy for the docks surrounded by a cool little neighborhood.

Mor Takı: Unique and original handmade jewelry - this place came to us on the hot tip of one of our co-workawayers in the Czech Republic.

Lokanta Helvetia: An excellent and affordable example of the cafeteria style lokanta eateries around town where you pick five dishes for your plate from those available for a fixed price. We went twice and left both times filled to the gills.

Tilework: It's in so many places around the city that it is nearly impossible to miss, but there are particularly outstanding examples of the color and pattern variations throughout Topkapı Palace.

Uncontainable: This was part of the ISEA and had some amazing interactive work from around the world. A particular highlight being the hanging plants that were somehow rigged (magic?) to produce sound art by the slightest touch. No wires could be seen...just plants.

Rakı lesson from Herman: Rakı, an anise spirit, is the national drink of Turkey. Being as such, there are of course certain ways to drink it, made all the more interesting learning from someone who not only knows the ways, but has the traditional glass chilling apparatus already in the freezer.

Location:Dubai,United Arab Emirates

Food Porn: İstanbul.

It's true. The street corn came in printer test paper. It looked better than it tasted, but a Wisconsin lad and a Jersey girl are tough customers when it comes to this vegetable. However, lackluster is not a word that often came to mind while indulging in as much of the cuisine as possible in Istanbul.

Eating gluten-free here was not difficult, but it did strike up some fleeting moments of jealousy. Most every meal is accompanied by a delicious looking, wheat flour based, baked creation - it is a staple in the experience and Eli was more than happy to test everything.

OVERVIEW: For breakfast there is simit (think wider, thinner bagel) sandwich with cucumber, tomato and cheese, or bürek (super-thin pastry, like steamed filo, layered with cheese, spinach or other options). We tended towards making eggs, yogurt on the side and slicing up the best peaches or figs we've ever had.

For lunch there is simit once more, but more often pida served with something to dip it in, with something on top of it, or with it rolled around a kebap. The pida is versatile, clearly. Dinner can be mezze (with rakı, see below) or more complete dishes, all accompanied by pida or a variant thereof. Thankfully, there is also the choice of getting most things as "porsiyon" (read: portion) with rice or making a meal out of mezze dishes alone. My point is, there is a solution for everyone. Like below - there is adana kebab (spicy lamb) hiding in that bread and I stealthily saved the exterior for Eli while piling together more than my share of pickles, grilled peppers, parsley and dried spices and eating it all with one hand. Voila!

FRESHNESS : By far the best looking and tasting produce we have enjoyed seeing and tasting thus far. Each market has piles of the biggest cabbage you'll ever see (we are talking good carving pumpkin size), snappy green peppers (the skinny kind), spices (fresh or dried) wafting all around, and so on. Meandering through means navigating the crush of people, but once you find your comfort within in it, you can stop to sample anything and not get mauled by the stampede.

DAIRY: Yogurt is practically coursing through veins here. Ayran, a salty lasso type drink is refreshing and cuts through spice. Plain or savory yogurt accompanies many dishes, balancing the olive oil or heaviness nicely. The supermarket aisle drives this point home. Not pints, buckets:

Additionally, the ice cream here is a bizarre textural adventure. It is thick, gum-like, and doesn't seem to melt like other ice cream. The better kinds are bought in a log form, with pistachio on top, and sliced like cake...but still different than Carvel by a longshot.

STUFFED POTATO: You have not seen one until you have seen Kumpir. Baked, or jacket, potato with cheese mixed thoroughly into the potato as a base. Add in your choice of anything at all from chopped pickle to sausage to potato salad (no kidding) to olives. Top it all off with ketchup and mayonnaise. We sided with our friends who recommended that less is more; our favorite combo being eggplant ratatouille, extra parsley, roasted red peppers, olive paste, pickle, spicy pepper paste and greens. No topping, much to the dismay of the young men prepping them.

IMBIBING: Şerefe (cheers) to Herman for teaching us the proper way to consume and fully enjoy this unsweetened anise-based spirit. A rakı equation: rakı (+) mezze (x) conversation (=) relaxation/time. There is a proper glass, which gets a dose of rakı, topped with cold water and two ice cubes. No more, no less! Eli and I had our juvenile attempt with it on Herman and Özge's balcony. Wrong glasses, and Efe brand is better than Yeni, but you get the idea:

Lastly, some of our favorite sweets: • baklava - naturally, the best we've had. • walnut jam with clove in syrup - just wow. • tahini with grape molasses - comes in a paired cup at the supermarket. • clove lokum - we imagine craving this in winter.

And other favorite things: • as always, homemade meals shared with friends can't be beat and our wonderful experiences here were no exception to the rule. • minted carrots - a surprise win at a lokantasi near Şişhane. • a dried fig, stuffed with a walnut, shoved in Eli's mouth by a random woman at a market in Balat.

We left with our bellies full, our hearts warm and a long list of recipes and ingredients to attempt and rely on in the future. İs it too obvious to say that I sense a trend building?

Location:Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul or, One City, Two Continents, 15 Days, and Millions of People

I walk down the stairs from my changing room in the issued red, yellow and white plaid towel and through the door between the juice stand and the employee lounge. To my left are some marble sinks, to my right a man in front of more towels telling me to proceed through the door straight ahead while he is taking my yellow plastic entrance token. "Massage?" I figure I paid for it so I might as well say yes. "Yes." A smiling but rather burly man whose name I do not catch in a towel of his own guides me through the door into the center of the hamam: a round marble platform surrounded by more marble sinks under a dome with many small round skylights - all kept in a balmy, waterlogged heat. As you might guess, I didn't get any pictures, or I'd insert one here. It'd be me lying facedown on the marble platform while the aforementioned attendant sanded the skin off my back. This is what I will always remember as my first spa (sort of) experience. It will be a great memory.

To rewind slightly, we arrived in Istanbul, Turkey two weeks ago yesterday. September 10th, ten o'clock in the morning. That was about two hours after we were supposed to be meeting my friend with whom we'd be staying. The border crossing from Bulgaria into Turkey ended up taking slightly longer than anticipated, giving us a full two and a half hours in the middle of the night to contemplate the plethora of duty free goods available to us. Since that leisurely ride into the city, circling us around the south side of Sultanahmet before swinging back around onto the coast of Golden Horn, however, it has been anything but leisure. It is, after all, Istanbul.

Istanbul is a lot. It's a lot to see, a lot to wrap your head around (or try, especially in only two weeks), and it's a lot to try to describe. The best we have been able to come up with is that it's a little like New York but with more people, less rules, and an entirely different skyline. It's a bit amazing to watch how it all comes together in a beautiful chaos of humans and motorbikes and handcarts and cars - each one dodging the other but none of them seeming too plussed about it.

We were lucky enough to have our time here line up with the International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA), an eight day conference of panels and workshops dedicated, as the name implies, to conversations and ideas on, or related to, electronic arts. There were enough sessions that we were both interested in, had a reasonable €18 price tag, and it was well worth it; giving us some fresh ideas, a brief respite from just traveling, and a crash course in adjusting our brains back into an academic realm. One workshop also got Casey into the Balat neighborhood - one of the lower rent, originally Greek areas in the city - where she ended up sharing a cup of tea with some entirely friendly furniture refinishers. Below is the owner, Cengiz, in front of a picture of - wait for it - Cengiz.

We went back to this neighborhood a few days later and it proved one of the most memorable days we had, despite its lack of many of the major historical sights. We saw the 1,500 year old Aya Sophia (still the 4th largest church in the world), the bazaars, and Topkapı Palace, but the stilted, gesture heavy conversations and interactions we had in Balat once again confirmed that people can make any place worthwhile and interesting.

I'll rewind once more here to the day we arrived and were accompanied by our gracious and amazing friends and hosts, Özge and Herman, to a short cruise up the Bosphorus. This is, I learned, the relatively short body of water connecting the Black sea with the Mediterranean, dividing Europe from Asia. It is beautiful blue water that, aided by a good afternoon sun or evening sunset, provided not only a great starting point for our explorations, but an ideal time for our camera battery to die. Borrowed camera phones to the rescue.

I'm leaving out our food experiences here entirely as that is a post all to itself that Casey is already working on. Suffice to say, the cuisine is enough to justify a return trip. As Herman pointed out, eating in Istanbul, we haven't even eaten Turkish yet.

Last night we had a toast to celebrate our last night in Istanbul and then had to expand it to include our last night in Turkey and on the European continent as we realized that one chapter of this trip is ending and another about to begin. A strange and exciting feeling for two Asia newbs, but also a little sad as we have enjoyed the last few months so immensely it's difficult to know what to feel. Either way, the exuberance, color and grandiosity of Istanbul was an excellent transition, bridging (literally) our time in Europe with our next few months in Nepal and southeast Asia.

Location:Istanbul, Turkey


Squat toilets are no problem. Squat toilets on a somewhat moving train provide an interesting challenge: hold it or hold on. To flush is to fill the chopped off bottom half of a plastic bottle with water and pour it down the hole.

On the bright side, we somehow lucked out in only having three people on the entire car (six if you count the train attendants) so it didn't get too overused.

Location: The train from Bucharest to Istanbul