Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Final Shenanigan: That Awkward Moment...

Well, the fashion show is over but after the last week I'm kind of out of Istanbul, so rather than trying to scrape something together about our last day (in which I left Time Lady and the kids at Aya Sofya to go back and learn to marble paper before taking Team Bazaar for one last bit of shopping, after which we returned to the airport), you're getting this.  See, traveling has a habit of bringing out the awkwardness even in the best of us (in the population that is already pretty awkward - watch out!)  When traveling with teenagers, it's even worse.  There were a lot of great moments on this trip...there were also quite a few awkward ones.  Like that awkward moment...

...when the bus has to stop because you've left your luggage by the curb.

...when you trip over something that isn't there.  In front of everyone.
...when you ask your student for their phone number, only to have another one accuse you of hitting on them.
...when one of them says something comPLETELY inappropriate and you really want to laugh but know you shouldn't. (More awkward?  When your art teacher proceeds to explain how erections were carved on a lot of statues because they were a symbol of power in Ancient Egypt, and how sometimes invading armies would break them off the collosi to psych out the Egyptians).
...when you show up wearing the same thing as someone else...and it happens to be a laurel crown, because PRETTY and WHY NOT??  (The one Ukulele Man is wearing?  Yeah, that's mine.)
...when your belly dance teacher makes fun of you for being too sexy.

...when you trip over something that's not there for the second time (if you're really lucky, only one student will witness it this time).

...when you forget your luggage for the second time.  At the freaking airport.  And they ALL witness it.
...when you realize that you'd rather travel with teenagers than most people your own age.  I looked forward to and dreaded our vacation together in equal part.  There was the responsibility (including for the weather, which rationally I know I can't control but when your flight's delayed or you spend your visit to Topkapi Palace cold and wet, somehow you feel like there's something you should have done), the fear that they'd be let down with something, and the diminished lone wolf-iness, but there was also the joy of watching them experience new things, of sharing my love of travel with them.  So there's all that.  But then there's moments like when you watch them pick up garbage at the Gallipoli Battlefields, and you just feel so damn proud of them.  There are also the moments when you want to scream at them, and you don't, because even when they deserve it they still don't deserve it (I swear this is much easier to do with young people, at least for me, because you still have hope that they'll grow out of whatever idiotic thing they're doing).  So yeah.  90% of people in their 30's would not be welcome on vacation with me.  90% of my students would.  I've said it before and I'll say it again - they're just that awesome.

Also entertaining.  They crack me the hell up, even when I shouldn't laugh at them.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Shenanigan-ing the Fifth: Shelter from the Storm

We'd been playing pussyfoot with the rain since our second day in Istanbul.  People kept apologizing for the weather, explaining that it was usually warmer this time of year.  Little did they realize that we hailed from Mongolia - their idea of "cold" is a warm spring day to us.  Also, it was nice to not have to fight our kids over wearing the hoodies on account of it being too hot.  That said, I have to tell you that when the weather really did catch up to us, we felt it.  The fifth day of the trip we were scheduled to visit Topkapi Palace, and while the weather held long enough for me to go ahead of everyone and buy tickets...

...just FYI, apparently those 85 lira 3-day museum passes can sell out.  As in, like, everywhere.  And that sucks...

...but by the time we'd entered the second court and started to look around rain was coming down.  This was such a bummer I hardly had words for it, because the last time I visited Topkapi Palace, it was a gorgeous autumn day, and the lovely grounds really deserve to be strolled through at a leisurely pace, rather than quickly as you shiver from building to building.  Still, a palace is a palace, and I think everyone enjoyed seeing the fantastic architecture...just not as much as they would have on a sunny day.
While Time Lady stayed back with the majority of our students who were getting their fill of shopping at their second gift shop of the day, I went ahead to buy tickets for the Istanbul Archaeology Museum (since we now needed tickets for every attraction we went to) with one of my tenth grade boys (who brought a ukulele on the trip and thus earned the moniker "Ukulele Man") who had a great sense of direction and liked to be ahead of everyone else.  The main group spent so long shopping that we bought the tickets and were half the way back to the gate before they caught up to us.  Since we were all cold from the rain we decided to go to lunch down the hill from the museum first, and we all ended up eating at The Han, where most of the kids got to enjoy another meal seated on cushions (not to mention some good food).  Afterwards we went to the museum where we were THRILLED to be able to skip the ticket line and go straight in.

Now, this is where I kinda lost it a little.  We'd already "lost" kids a couple of times - once because they forgot to check in before wandering off, once because "Can I goof around?" means something different to me than it does to one of my students.  And I had not yelled at anyone, even though at one point I promised to murder one of them, because we were on vacation and I didn't want anyone - myself included - to have a shitty time.  As we were getting ready to leave the first building of the museum, a few of the girls were straggling, and when they and Time Lady caught up to the main body of the group, we came up one girl short.  And I cracked.  It's a big enough museum that you aren't going to be able to find someone just by looking, so I waited out in the cold rain while Time Lady went on in with the rest, and I started feeling sorry for myself and got pissed off for a couple of reasons, so that 10 minutes later, when I made a lucky guess and went in looking for our girl, I couldn't actually talk to her, and had to go off by myself for a few minutes once she was with the rest to cry a little.  It didn't ruin the rest of the trip for me, but it made me ready to go home, and even though when we did get home it was disappointing to be back and I was all about planning a trip for next year, I also needed to be left the hell alone for a while.
It helped to lift my spirits that after a short walk up the hill we were visiting one of my all-time favorite places, the Basilica Cistern.  You walk down steps into a cavern of water held up by columns, lit from below by a soft golden glow.  Every time I'm there it feels like magic, like a different time or even a different world.  It's my kinda place.
We went from there back to the hotel for about an hour, where people put on dry clothes and I let myself nap for about a half hour, before we headed out to our belly dance workshop.  This was another of my ideas for something we could do in the evenings, and on I found Hale Sultan, a fantastic Turkish dancer who agreed to do a workshop for us for a great price, and was super flexible with our schedule and the weather.  We ended up going to her studio in Taksim, and I had to listen to both grumbles and giggles along the way, because a lot of my students didn't exactly know what to make of the fact that they were going to learn belly dance.  Once we got started, though, almost everyone enjoyed themselves.  In our two hours Hale talked about some of the history and culture of belly dance as well as teaching us most of the basic isolations.  She was a great teacher - she kept it fun and fast paced, and at least a couple of the girls told me they'd like to learn more. Afterwards we went out to Istiklal Caddesi (known as "the street" by all my students, most of whom were keen to go back) to grab a bite to eat before heading to Sultanahmet. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Shenanigans, Part IV: Ruined!

Being Aussie, Time Lady was really looking forward to Gallipoli.  Being a student of the classics, I was excited to go back to Troy.  It was the whole reason I went to Canakkale the first time.  I love the story, even if - as Time Lady pointed out - it probably isn't true. Part of me wanted to bring movies and books and shove them down our kids' throats, like, "THIS IS THE TROJAN WOMEN!!!  DON'T YOU GET IT???"  The other part of me started thinking that next time I should tag team Lil' Miss Catwalk for our trip and let her shove the literature down their throats. 

At any rate, we set out from the Egem Pension at around 9 a.m. for Troy.  The breakfast there was not as nice as the one at the Antique Hostel, but we paid half as much for the room, so what do you expect?  Although we needed a guide and he was helpful when it came to communicating with the driver, Time Lady didn't think he was that good a guide, and I've already mentioned how much guides annoy me, so the plan was that the kids would kind of be in charge while we were at Troy, and refer to us or the guide if they had any burning questions.
How that worked out in practicality is that I was in the front with the kids who - like me - wanted to soak things in.  Time Lady was in the back listening to the audio guide and passing the knowledge on to her History Geeks.  In the middle we had Ekrem (which was actually an easy name for me to remember because it's fairly close to a Mongolian name, Erkhem), and a group of students who was asking him questions.  So actually, it worked out pretty well. 
At least one of our kids is an outspoken believer in aliens.  I'm kind of "live and let live" when it comes to alien conspiracy theories - the universe is a pretty big place and I see no reason why we should be alone in it, although I don't particularly think that means they built the pyramids - but it drives Time Lady nuts.  Luckily she was still further back when our girl said she felt like she was on an episode of Ancient Aliens and I had her pretend she was explaining something about the site for the show.

We finished up at the gift shop where some of us went a little crazy (and would have gone crazier if our money hadn't been on the bus...I personally would have done some serious shopping, but after my major purchase I handed the rest of my money over to kids who couldn't access their cash).  I asked the guide if they wouldn't let us go out and come back and he said no, which seems like a pretty ridiculous policy, considering several of us were all, "SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!"  But oh, well.  We finally loaded up the bus and headed back to Istanbul, with a couple of stops along the way for the bathroom and food.  The rest area food was surprisingly good, but that's the regional cuisine for you and supports my theory that the prison food in Greece is probably pretty tasty.
So far everyone had loved the food but we hadn't eaten a real meal together and I hadn't really hit them with a truly fantastic restaurant.  I was hoping to really wow them with a restaurant before we left, either with music or something, and when I had my layover in February I wandered past Palatium, which is right down the street from the Antique Hostel.  The poster on their window showed that they'd been featured on the History Channel for their ruins of part of Constantine's Magnaura Palace, so I figured that would definitely wow them, but I wondered about the food.  One of our students recently became vegan and one of her friends was supporting her by joining her for the week, so we were looking to find something good for them as well...we hadn't had dolmades yet, and they wanted hummus.  Well, the night before in Canakkale Time Lady and I looked at the menu, and not only did they have good vegetarian options, they got good reviews on TripAdvisor. so we made a reservation (with some help from our guide, who overall did earn his keep) for an hour after we were set to get back to Istanbul.  It was everything we could have hoped for and more.  We sat at low tables on cushions.  The food was delicious, and it was really great to eat together as one big family.
After a good long chat we went down to the ruins.  A lot of Sultanahmet has just been built on what came before, and when the owners were doing renovations in 2000-something they discovered part of a palace, and chose to excavate, spending millions of dollars to open it up.  It was really cool to wander around in.  One of my 10th graders might be moving his way up in my list of favorites, thanks to the fact that during the trip he kept touching things because they were "old," and this is something that I also love to do - put my hand on a wall that has stood for thousands of years.  And then he just got ridiculous by touching his friends and saying, "I'm touching an ancient Munkhy!"

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Shenanigans a Trois: Road Trip

Tuesday was the day we set out for Canakkale.  It also turned out to be our earliest roll out.  The only real "free" time we had to make up our visit to the Blue Mosque was before the bus came, and during my early morning reconnaissance Monday morning I decided that it would be best to go at 8:30, right when they opened, so that we could avoid all the tourists (FYI - my students aren't tourists...they're travelers.  I done raised them right).
So most of us had breakfast (the boys were only just rolling out of bed when we knocked on their door at 8:25) and we walked the short distance to the mosque, where we girls covered our heads.  One of possibly the sweetest moments of the trip was seeing my Indonesian student helping his sister with her scarf.  We all took off our shoes and put them in bags, then walked in.  The Blue Mosque is something else.  It seems like there's hardly a surface that's not covered with decoration, and it's so HUGE inside.  We didn't have a guide, but Time Lady may have eavesdropped on another group's guide and I don't think we missed out on anything, other than the fact that apparently the ginormous pillars used to hold water from Mecca but don't anymore due to damage).  After taking in the beauty of the mosque, we went back to the hotel (some people didn't get their coffee, and may Allah save me from un-caffeinated teenagers!)

We hired a 15-seat bus from Seven Hills Sightseeing to take us to Gallipoli and Troy, as well as our airport transfers.  When I was putting the tour together, I balked at the price a little.  Back in the day I took the public bus, and it wasn't too expensive an adventure.  We ended up paying around a hundred dollars each for the hire, but my mind quickly overcame the shift because it was so convenient, and most everyone was comfortable (Time Lady and I might have a had a few problems, thanks to the size of my backside, but we managed).  About a month before the trip I found out we needed a guide (government regulation that tour buses of 9 or more have to have one), and I wasn't super excited about that, either, but it turned out for the best, since our driver didn't speak English and not everyone is like me (I hate guides - they annoy me with their talking when I'd rather just soak it in).
On the way out we visited Gallipoli, which was one of the first big battles of WWI and celebrates its centennial in 10 days.  It was a big, bloody SNAFU, because the ANZACs came ashore at the wrong cove and had an uphill battle pretty much the whole way.  Both sides suffered about a 60% casualty rate, but it was the beginning of big things for them both, and every year tons of Australians and New Zealanders come and pay tribute.  We started at ANZAC cove, then visited Lone Pine and finally Conkbayri.  One of my proudest moments came at the trenches, when two of my kids started picking up garbage.  They seriously give me hope for the world.

We ferried across the Dardanelles to Canakkale, where we got settled into our hotel before going out to a place on the waterfront for dinner.  It started pouring down rain and we didn't stay out very long, especially because the kids were happy with the hotel and kind of wanted a down-night to play games and hang out.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Shenanigans, Part Deux: Bazaars and the Bosphorus

Day two began on nearly as high a note for us as day one.  I didn't think the spice market was going to be a huge draw for our kids, but I needed to buy us tickets for the Bosphorus cruise and it gave them something to do in the meantime.  Something that, as it turns out, they really enjoyed.  They hit the ground running as far as shopping goes, and were still going up until we boarded our plane to come back to Mongolia.  I told them all to be sure to try the Turkish delight, and plenty of boxes found their way into backpacks before we set out - far too soon for their tastes! - for our Bosphorus cruise.
Several of the kids asked me about going to the beach before we set out, and I had to tell them we'd be on the water a bit, but it would be too cold to swim.  Most of them are Mongolian, and if you haven't figured it out, we're a landlocked country, so it was pretty cool to be out in a boat.  For most of the trip up to Anadolu Kavagi they were out on deck, taking in the fresh air and lots of selfies with the new selfie sticks it seemed like half of them bought in front of the spice market.  When we pulled into the final dock, it was sprinkling, and Time Lady and I were worried about the hike we were supposed to take up to Yoros Castle, but the weather held and nobody melted.
In my prior incarnation as a hopeless wanderer in Istanbul I didn't take the trip up the Bosphorus...too many other things to see.  This go-round we had more time, and I thought it would be cool for us to see a real fortress, and luckily Lonely Planet was wrong for once - we actually got to go in and see the Black Sea from the wall.  Which is a good thing, because it would have been a helluva hike to go up just to turn around and go back.  We'd just got back down to the village when the rain started in earnest, at which point we jumped on the boat and went back to Istanbul proper for yet more shopping.
The Grand Bazaar was one of my favorite places in Istanbul the first time.  I must have spent five hours wandering the place back then (in part to find a metal belly dance bra that Belynda later told me would just look like pasties on me - le sigh).  We didn't give the kids nearly that much time - an hour and a half later we were leaving, our bags stuffed with even more goodies.  Mostly this was because I'd scheduled an art workshop for us at 7 that night, and since the awesome folks at Les Arts Turcs were kind enough to accommodate our late schedule, I didn't want to keep them waiting.  However, I think it took a load off Time Lady's mind that she'd only have to worry about someone getting lost for an hour and a half - she was quite concerned, given the size of the Grand Bazaar and the number of people who visit there each day.  I tried to encourage the students with a good sense of direction to go with her, but I think in the end I lucked out - I got my tenth grade Mongolian boys (one of whom I would have trusted to lead us around, if he weren't underage) as well as a few others, and we had a pretty damn good time, ending up at a damn good doner shop while waiting for the other group (did I let my kids swear a little on this trip?  Fuck yeah, because they were definitely going to hear me doing it by the time it was over!  Vacations and weekends are fair game, in my book, although this is probably to my detriment since now that we're back at school they're using "I'm not used to not swearing" as an excuse to drop bombs in art class...)

We finally all got back together and made our way to Les Arts Turcs (which was down the hill from the main gate of Topkapi Palace, not behind the Basilica Cistern like I thought).  We worked really hard raising money for the trip with our weekly coffee shop, and I decided that rather than give it to them as spending money (which they had plenty of!) we'd use the money on some experiences they couldn't have anywhere else.  When I contacted Les Arts Turcs, not only did they arrange to do our workshop around our schedule (which was day-heavy), they gave us a great price.  At first, we were all kind of worn out, but after everyone (except the Mormon) drank some Turkish tea we perked up and got into a creative mindset.  We made our tiles using traditional designs, methods, and colors, and they were ready for us to pick up Friday morning before we left (which provided me with an excellent opportunity to come back and buy their marbled paper supplies, which they taught me to use at no extra charge!)  When we went to the Blue Mosque the next day, I made sure to point out all the tiles decorating the building and remind them how long it took all of us just to make one of them, and I think that helped them appreciate its beauty even more.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Shenanigans the First: Turkish Delight on a Moonlit Night

If you travel, you know how much it sucks to get your flight delayed.  Ever since the debacle surrounding my abbreviated visit to Greece in February, I've been dreading the flights to and from Istanbul.  Ulaanbaatar is in the process of building a new airport even further outside the city, because it's current location has a big problem that I've talked about before...the wind.  It seems like every other trip I take one of my flights gets delayed thanks to UB's winds.  This time, the wind was couple with a shit ton of snow that worried me when I woke up, but since the airport website said the flight was on time, we packed the kids and our luggage on the bus and set off for the airport, and had eaten our cinnabons and were just chillaxin', waiting for check-in, when they announced the delay.  Since the plane apparently had yet to leave Istanbul this was infuriating, but we did what we could, ordered a new bus back to the school, left everything in my classroom and scattered for the 12 hours we had to wait until going back.  It was NOT exactly the most propitious way to begin our spring break, but once we finally got on the plane and got going, it was pretty much smooth sailing, minus a couple of adjustments.  These mostly took place on the first day.  We got to our hotel and all the kids were oohing and aahing over how cool Istanbul looked, and once everyone got cleaned up we went to the Blue Mosque...just in time for prayer.  Several of the kids were curious about the prayers, but prayer time is the time when the mosque closes, so we went up the street for lunch, passing the Hippodrome (whose obelisk we all admired as we talked about chariot races), and came back later, to find a ridiculously long line.  Rather than wait, we decided to hit it another morning.
We took the tram across the Golden Horn to Beyoglu.  My original plan was to walk up the hill and visit galleries along the way, which would make the hike a bit less of a pain.  Since we were running late, we were going to take the funicular from Tunel, but then we couldn't figure out how to buy the damn passes, so we ended up hoofing it, and at a faster pace.  I've done that before...although there was about 70 pounds less of me back then, and I wasn't accompanied by 12 teenagers who (rightly) wanted to stop and see everything.  We did stop at one gallery - one of the girls asked about Jews, and when we stumbled across a synagogue-cum-gallery, I figured it was too serendipitous to pass up.  I particularly loved the notebooks they were selling with scenes of Istanbul and the lyrics to a certain They Might Be Giants song.
Finally we ended up at Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower built by the Genoese, and a good landmark, if, for example, you were going to let your students explore a little.  I ran up the hill to the Mevlevi Museum which - humd'Allah! - still had tickets for that night's sema, and in fact gave us two free tickets for me and my partner-in-crime, Time Lady.  When I got back I joined my kids in line for the tower, which had some stunning views but involved more pushing and shoving than a Sunday afternoon at the Gubei Carrefour (because somebody told some of the tourists to go the wrong way around the tower).  Afterwards we relaxed a little at the Lavazza next to it while some of them went shopping, and I had my first panic attack when two of my girls wandered off without getting the meet-up time.  When they finally made their way back we had dinner and looked around a little more before going to see the sufi dancers.
This is one of those things I didn't see my last time in Istanbul.  I've seen dervishes before - it's been nearly ten years since I started dancing, after all - but I've never been to a sema, and I wanted the kids to have as authentic an experience as possible, rather than really cool costumes under a blacklight.  The semahane was beautiful.  The music started with a voice droning out a chant, to which the dervishes entered the room.  It was joined by a nay, and they began to bow and move around their space, until finally, the other instruments joined in and the dervishes began to whirl.  Other than that, the occasional click of a camera or a cough were all you heard.  They moved so smoothly, and their gestures were so evocative, and we felt ourselves fall into their trance.
As we waited outside the museum before the sema, someone looked at us wearing our matching hoodies, and asked if we were there on a mission.  I replied that we were there to learn, not to teach.  We walked back from Sultanahmet to the Antique Hostel, past the Blue Mosque lit up like a birthday cake while a full moon glowed above us, and I felt how true that statement really was.  And it was only day one.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Re-spon-si-bili-ty is a Big Word

When I was in college my friend Diana, the Frodo to my Sam, shared what is possibly the best children's book in the world with me: The Happy Hocky Family.  It.  Is.  Brilliant.  We would giggle together at the back of our gospel doctrine (aka, Sunday school) class for hours on end at its witticisms.  "I have a balloon."  "What is toys?  We do not know this word."  "I like the alligators!"  Even now it brings a smile to my face, and it does not matter one bit that you have no idea what I'm talking about, but since I'm starting this post out this way, I guess I should give you at least a little background - it's written in the style of the old Dick and Jane books, but is dark and sarcastic.  In one part of the book the sister, Holly, gets an ant farm, which is a big Responsibility, a word which means the ants look to her to take care of them.  To keep them from getting too hot, she takes the lid off the ant farm.  I'm sure you can figure out what happened at that point to Mrs. Hocky's new, shiny kitchen.
Ironically enough, I finished my last post with a soliloquy about how children are a big responsibility.  During the last week, I realized how true that statement really is.  Thankfully they are all almost adults, but I am still responsible for them, and besides the fact that I'd never forgive myself if anything happened to them, I'm pretty sure their parents would have me crucified if they didn't come back in one piece, so needless to say, it's been a pretty stressful week.

Not only did I have to keep track of them, just like ants, children have needs.  I had to find bathrooms.  I had to feed them.  I had to listen to them whine (okay, not that much - they were pretty happy the whole trip, and were healthy apart from a little seasickness and a couple of upset stomachs).  And I don't know if you've picked up on this from the last - wow, it's already been six - SIX years of blogging, but I'm kind of a lone wolf when it comes to travel (and by kind of, I mean almost exclusively, whether I like it or not).  So while I loved sharing traveling with them - and I really mean that, I LOVED spending this time with them and seeing them fall in love with Istanbul while experiencing all sorts of new and exciting things - it was...pardon the Aladdin reference...a whole new world.  When I have traveled with people, we're all adults and if I go off and leave them, it's no big deal, and if any of us decide to alter our plans, well, that doesn't have to affect anyone else.  When traveling with teenagers, every change requires adjustments, and you can't just let them go off on their own.  I gave my kids a lot more freedom than I possibly should have, and we had a few heart-stopping moments when people didn't come back to the meeting point on time, or when there was a miscommunication, but for me, the freedom is part of the experience of traveling as well, and I wanted them to be able to wander a little, to find things on their own, so I gave them as long a leash as I could.  Luckily - to extend the dog metaphor, since we saw a lot of those in the last week - they didn't come back to bite me in the ass, but parents definitely have the advantage in this sense.  It would have been nice to base my judgements on knowing them for 16 years, rather than 2.

Shaggy posted an article on his facebook recently about the value of experiences over things.  Although this wasn't a cheap trip (and that's despite fact that I'm willing to bet it was a steal compared to most student trips) and there were quite a few of our original 20 that dropped out because of financial concerns, I'm pretty sure every one of their parents tonight feel it was money well spent.  They had a fantastic time.  They tried so many new things - which I will be telling you about presently - from Turkish delight to bargaining to painting tiles and belly dancing, and saw so many new things.  They took incredible pictures, and they bonded with each other in a way they don't and can't during school.  All the stress and all the time spent making it happen were so worth it.