Devorah Lev-Tov

Writing ⋅ Editing ⋅ Consulting

Devorah Lev-Tov is a writer and editor with 12 years' experience. She writes about food, travel, luxury, and lifestyle for multiple publications and supplies content for food, lifestyle, and travel clients. An ex-pat from the publishing world, she is also an illustrated nonfiction book editor, with expertise in developmental editing and cookbook/recipe editing. In addition, she has several years' experience in event marketing and nonprofit copywriting. She's eaten her way through Central and South America, Europe, Southeast Asia, Oceania, and much of the United States. 

India: Getting To The Pushkar Camel Fair

Our second week in India, we went to Pushkar, one of the holy cities of India. Pushkar is a desert town that surrounds a beautiful lake and has tons of temples, including the only Brahmin temple in the world. Every year, it hosts a camel fair. Originally the biggest camel trade event of the year, the Pushkar camel fair has turned into a one of India's largest festivals. When we found out about it, we decided we had to go.

Our journey to Pushkar was a long one. We took a two hour flight to a city called Jaipur, which is one of India's most visited cities, mostly due to its proximity to Delhi. In Jaipur we had to wait a few hours for a train. When I was in India five years ago, I was told by multiple people that Jaipur should be skipped if possible. Now I understand why. It may be because we were only near the train station, but the city was very unpleasant. We struggled to find a decent restaurant to eat lunch in, then went to wait for the train. Trains in India have a number of different classes. In some classes, like the one we had tickets for, seats and a specific car are assigned to each ticket holder. At the train platform there are signs telling patrons where each car will be. We went up and down the platform and could not find the sign for our car. We asked a few locals and no one was able to help us, some even doubting the validity of our tickets. We decided to wait near a sign for a car in the same class.

All of a sudden, our train switched tracks.  The stairs to the overhead walkway quickly filled with people  going to the new platform.  Others took a different approach--they hopped off the platform, crossed the tracks four feet below, and jumped back up on the other side. Not knowing if we had enough time to cross via the overhead walkway, we followed suit--jumped down into the tracks, crossed over, and jumped up on the opposite platform.

Once again, we walked up down the track and were not able to find the sign for our car. When the train finally arrived, we got on a car in the same class as ours, found open seats, and sat down, hoping that we wouldn't get kicked off the train in the middle of the desert. Fortunately, the conductor took our tickets and checked us off his list without saying a word.  The train was about 3 hours and took us to a town called Ajmer. From there, we took a 30 minute rickshaw to Pushkar.

The locals are well aware of the draw of the festival and hotel prices during this time are four to five times what they are normally. Most hotels are fully booked by the time the fair starts. We had booked a room ahead of time in one of the cheaper hotels which, at the inflated rate, was still pretty expensive by Indian standards. When we got to our hotel, we were brought into the room and it was disgusting--the sheets were filthy and had holes in them and the bathroom included an Indian style toilet (a.k.a. hole in the ground) that looked like it hadn't been cleaned in a while.  We considered roughing it until we looked more closely at the bed and noticed a large bug crawling on it.  We started calling other hotels immediately. Most were full or out of our price range. One hotel I called told me they were booked for that night, but had a room open for the rest of the nights and we could sleep on their "rooftop dormitory" for 300 rupees that night. When I said I would have to call him back, he halved the price of his room and offered for us to sleep in the dormitory for free. We ended up taking him up on that offer and he said he would send someone to pick us up.

Leaving the disgusting hotel was awkward. We told them that we were not interested in the room and they tried to bargain with us. We said that price was not the issue and went outside to wait for our ride. As we waited for our pickup, the owner of the first hotel stood next to us and tried to convince us to stay. After a while he stopped talking, but continued to stand there and watch us. It was very awkward. It took a long time for our ride to come; they had gone to the wrong hotel originally. Finally, two men showed up on motorcycles. We each hopped on the back of a bike and they took us to our new hotel. When we got there, we followed them up to the rooftop dormitory, which turned out to be just some mattresses laid out on their roof, but thankfully with clean sheets and blankets. So we slept underneath the desert stars that night. When I woke up early the next morning, I looked over the balcony and saw three hot air balloons floating over the city.

India: Our first week in Bombay

I was last in Bombay five years ago, and since then the city has been going through a construction boom. Just looking out the window of our 6 AM taxi ride from the airport to our new Bombay home, the boom was already evident: new overhead walkways, large buildings, bridges, etc. Advertisements for cement companies are everywhere. The pace of development puts New York to shame. I have noticed a few other changes in the city as well. There is an emerging green movement and a new "Clean-Up Mumbai" initiative. Aside from improved garbage collection, "Clean-Up Mumbai" includes fines for littering, urinating, washing a car, etc. on the streets. There is also a fine for defecating in the street, which, of course, is the smallest fine. More importantly, fines are levied on street vendors that don't provide garbage bins. This is a huge change for a city that I used to say had thirty public trash cans for 20 million people. It was difficult having to teach myself to throw garbage on the ground because there was often no other choice. On the other hand, the lack of trash cans gave me an appreciation for the fact that India is a spitting rather than a nose blowing culture --where would all those tissues go? Anyway, the new policy seems to be working--the city is certainly cleaner than I remember.

Another change is the way women ride on their husband's motorcycle. Five years ago, the iconic image of an Indian family--a man on his motorcycle, with his wife sitting sidesaddle behind him and one or two children sitting up front--was fairly common here. Almost all the couples/families on motorcycles had the women riding sidesaddle. Now, it seems like four out of five women on motorcycles sit normally, straddling the seat, and I've even noticed several women driving their own bikes. I'm not sure how much of this change is because we are are in the more modern neighborhood of Bandra or because of a change in the city's culture, but it's definitely noticeable.

We spent our first week here adjusting. The adjustment took longer than I thought. When I left here five years ago, I really missed the city. I felt at home here and that feeling came back to me every time I was in a place even remotely like Bombay. I expected to have that same feeling the moment we landed here, but the combination of not volunteering for the first week, exhaustion from three weeks of intense travel, and the heat and humidity which made being outside unbearable throughout most of the day made me anxious about our choice to live here. Once I started working and a semi-routine emerged, things improved. The heat has yet to improve.

Our first few days in Bombay were during Diwali, the Hindu new year. I've read that traditionally this is a time when Bombay sees lots of firecrackers, but the city has been urging people against that. The efforts have not been very successful. From the moment the sun went down until the early hours of morning, there were firecrackers everywhere, including right outside our apartment. It was amazing to walk down the street and see fireworks in every direction.

In our first week, we already started to get a feel for typical Indian culture. Many Indians, especially in Bombay, are obsessed with Bollywood stars, and our neighborhood (Bandra West) is famous for being the home of many of those stars. One day we went for a walk along one of the promenades in the area. On our way back we saw a crowd of people staring at a building, but we couldn't tell what was so special about it. As we passed it, Devorah tried to ask someone what they were looking at: "Is there someone famous in that building?" The interaction was not productive--the man she asked did not speak any English. (We found out later that it was the home of Shahrukh Khan, one of India's most famous actors). A few minutes after we started walking home, as we waited to cross a major road, the man Devorah spoke to showed up behind us. He gave me his cell phone and asked that I take a picture of him with Devorah. Apparently, having a foreigner talk to him was more exciting than getting a glimpse of a celebrity.

We also got a taste of some genuine Indian hospitality. One afternoon, after we waiting on a very long line to buy tickets for a local train, we got to the counter, only to find that we did not have enough small bills to buy our tickets--we were 20 rupees short and the cashier did not have change for our 1000 rupee note. We got out of line and started talking about how we were going to get home: go and find change somewhere, find a taxi, etc. As we were trying to figure this out, the guy that was behind us in line tapped on my shoulder, asked me how much we needed, gave me the 20 rupees, and went off to find his train. It may have been Diwali that caused him to do it, but it was a touching gesture nonetheless.

Turkey: The White Wonderland of Pamukkale

When we decided to go to Ephesus, we had another day in the area to explore. Most of the surrounding area is full of ancient ruins (Didyma, Miletus, Priene, etc.), but after Ephesus we were a bit "ruined" out. There are some beaches in the area but it wasn't quite hot enough for that. Last time I was Turkey I saw the natural wonder of Cappadocia, so I thought it would be fun if there was another place like that we could visit. As I began to expand my search of the area, I discovered Pamukkale. While not super close--it was about a 3 hour drive--it seemed like it could be pretty amazing. We did read some mixed reviews noting that it was not the natural wonder it used to be after having become a larger tourist attraction, but our hosts told us that they had guests who had gone recently and loved it, saying it was in better shape because there had been a lot of rain recently. We decided a nice drive along the Turkish countryside would be nice anyway, and decided to go for it.

First off, the drive was lovely. There is some farmland, some more desert-like area, and lots of cute roadside diners (if they have diners in Turkey) and stands selling produce and olives. My favorite was the homemade brined olives packaged in water bottles. They also sold raw olives, not something you can really find in the U.S.! Naturally, we stopped for a snack (gözleme) and I bought a few fresh figs as well.

After the long drive, when you finally see the hulk of Pamukkale in front of you it is somewhat shocking: it looks like a snow-covered slope, about the size of an intermediate ski trail. But then you see incredibly clear-blue water trickling down it into a gorgeous lake. Pamukkale, which means "cotton castle" in Turkish.

It is made up of travertines, which are created from mineral-rich hot springs bubbling all around and depositing calcium carbonate, which starts as a soft jelly but eventually hardens. Luckily, they have begun making people remove their shoes to protect the travertines now so they are in much better shape than they used to be. I was afraid the travertines would be pointy or scratch to walk on but they actually feel quite smooth, but not slippery. And the beautiful clear water that is flowing everywhere is nice and warm.

We were lucky that we started our walk from the bottom. Above Pamukkale are the ancient ruins of Greco-Roman Hierapolis, and many tour buses begin their tours there at the top, allowing the tourists a few minutes to dip their feet in at the top of Pamukkale. So, it was relatively quiet and serene for most of our walk up the hill and we only had to push through some crowds at the very top.

At the top, we wandered around Hierapolis briefly, and then went to find it's famous Cleopatra's Pool, a pool built on hot springs, complete with ancient columns strewn about on the bottom. The pool is a lovely 36-57 °C, and although it was crowded it was still relaxing. We walked back down Pamukkale as the sun started to set.

 

On our drive home we stopped for another snack and came across actual cotton fields at sunset. Perfect end to a perfect day.

Turkey: Kirazli Köy

When we decided to go to Ephesus, I began to look for places to stay. There are a few surrounding towns with accommodations in the area: Kusadasi, which is on the water and popular with the cruise crowd; Selçuk which is the town where Ephesus is actually located but lacks character; and Şirince, a charming town that is famous for it's fruit wines, and apparently, expensive hotels. After poking around lots of hotel websites I decided to check out AirBnB. For those who have never used it, AirBnB is a site that lets home owners rent out all our part of their homes for as little as one night or as long as they wish. The owners have the power to accept or reject any guest applicant and can decide how much to charge.

On there, I found the adorable and affordable Artists Studio in the village of Kirazli, about 15 minutes away from Ephesus. I liked this option because we would have our own studio, completely separate form the owners' house next door so we would have complete privacy, and at $60 a night it was the cheapest thing I'd seen that wasn't a hostel. Plus, Kirazli looked like a very interesting and traditional village, which was more along the lines of what we were interested in.

As we approached Kirazli (which is accessible by a Dolmus that drives from Selçuk to Kusadasi, but we had rented a car), after driving through it's neighbor-village, Gokcealan, we could hardly contain our excitement. This seemed to be the real deal: a traditional Turkish village complete with stone houses and tractors. Not only is Kirazli a traditional Köy, or village, but it is an organic one at that. All the farms are organic and the village has begun working together to market their cottage industry products of jams, preserves, and oils.

There is a farmer's market every Sunday and a small stand set up everyday (where we bought some homemade pasta that we later cooked in India, which was fabulous), and several excellent restaurants serving traditional village food, like koftë (meatballs), manti (meat-stuffed pasta triangles in a tomato sauce and topped with yogurt), and gözleme (thin pancakes with cheese filling).

The most popular restaurant is the Köy Sofrasi, right on the main road as you enter the village, and it did not disappoint.

Our other favorite meal was at what appeared to be someone's home. We sat outside as the wife/mother worked away in the kitchen right inside, serving up possibly the best köfte in Turkey.

Not to mention, everyone in the village is incredibly friendly. The village itself is beautiful. Kirazli means cherry in Turkish and the surrounding mountains are filled with cherry and pine trees, although it wasn't cherry season when we were there, unfortunately. (Although I'm pretty sure it was grape season) There are several hiking trails leading out from the village and it's very easy to be outdoorsy there.

Our hosts at the Artist's Studio were wonderful. Karyn, originally from Wales, built the stone house in the traditional village style five years ago and has become a real part of the community. You can read her blog here. She and her friend Nick know everything about Kirazli and the surrounding area, and they also serve excellent breakfasts and snacks, of course using mostly local ingredients. The Studio was the perfect base for us to explore Ephesus and beyond and we were sad to leave after only two nights.

Turkey: Ephesus

After three wonderful days in Istanbul we hopped on a short flight to Izmir, 564 kilometers south of Istanbul. We took an early morning flight so we could have still spend a full day at Ephesus. We rented a car and after getting lost trying to find the airport exit and subsequently trying to get on a toll road without the proper card, we made our way to Ephesus, about an hour fro Izmir. Ephesus was a major capital city and part of the Ionian League in the classical Greek era and was also a major city in Roman times. It has ruins dating back thousands of years. It used to be home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, but it was destroyed in the year 401 CE. Okay, enough history. We were thrilled to be there in the fall when there are supposedly less crowds and the heat is a little more merciful. It was still quite hot, and there was still a lot of tour groups there, but it was manageable. We did get frustrated with the many tour groups--there seemed to be very few lone explorers like ourselves--but something I read in our guidebook helped me not get too bothered: although the crowds can be annoying, it only makes the experience more lifelike because in ancient times it was home to over 250,000 inhabitants. We opted not to get the audio guide after our disappointing experience at Topkapi Palace and simply used our guidebook and read a lot of signs. The massively imposing and beautiful façade of the Library of Celsus at the end of a long road did not disappoint, and there are also several interesting remains of temples. The large odeon theater was impressive as well. A highlight was the Terrace Houses, which many people opt out of because they cost extra money. Because of this we were rewarded with some peace and quiet (there were only about four other people there), and it's covered by a roof so we were able to cool off. Not to mention, the remains there are fascinating. You can see actual homes, resplendent with marble walls and intricate mosaics.

The worst part about Ephesus is the tacky market right outside it. This is tourism at its worst and it pained me to see people shelling out money for ugly scarves probably made in China and fake watches. Ephesus is a popular stop on the cruise circuit and I guess that's what happens? It reaffirmed my desire to never go on a cruise.

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Turkey: Street and Snack Food At Its Finest

Turkey has amazing food and boasts many specialties. There's kebaps, koftë, pide, simit, baklava, and of course all the yummy items you can get as meze before a meal. While you can get a fantastic upscale modern meal in Istanbul, the traditional delicacies and snack food are affordable and amazing. Let's start with one of the most ubiquitous items: the simit. These can be found all over the streets of Istanbul, sold from wooden carts at all hours of the day. It's kind of like a bagel, but larger and flatter. But it's still fluffy on the inside and with a generous coating of sesame seeds there is plenty of flavor. It makes the perfect snack on the go.

Another snack found all over Istanbul: roasted chestnuts. We didn't sample any, but they smelled delicious.

When we got off in the town of Rumeli Kavağı after our cruise up the Bosphorous we were a little hungry. We popped into a little bakery that had lots of goodies. We got some kind of almond sweet cake number that did the trick.

On our first night in Turkey we were too tired to go very far for dinner so the guy at our hotel took us to a typical pide restaurant. Pide is Turkey's version of pizza, although it's pretty different. It consists of a thick dough made into an oval-ish shape and then topped with your choice of various meats or cheese, sometimes left open and sometimes covered with another layer of dough. I opted for a cheese one while Manor sampled a spicy beef number.

If you're in Istanbul, a must-eat is some fried fish on Galata Bridge. You get to see all the fisherman hauling in their catches, and then you get to eat it! The most popular way is in a sandwich with some veggies. And, it's only 5 liras!

Knafeh, or künefe in Turkish, is a delicious Middle Eastern dessert made from shredded pastry dough that is then layered with soft, creamy cheese, and then doused in a sugar syrup and topped with crushed pistachios. Yes, it is delicious. But half the fun was watching the chef make the tasty treats, it's a fascinating process.

Walking through the spice bazaar, there were many tasty items to smell and eat. We sampled this yummy string cheese and if we had some kind of refrigerator I would have bought some. Of course Manor could not resist buying some halva, which was fantastic--Manor has fully converted me to a halva lover, as long as it's the fresh kind. Packaged halva like Joya that you can get in the U.S. gives halva a bad name!

Of course we had to have a good sampling of baklava. The most highly recommended shop, called Güllüoğlu, actually has a location in New York that I've been to, but I'd like to think the ones we bought in Turkey tasted better. Also, they don't carry my favorite baklava flavor in New York: chocolate! Yup, chocolate baklava, one of the best things ever. We got a nice variety of flavors from Güllüoğlu, including pistachio and walnut in addition to the chocolate. This box of treats took us through Ephesus and Pamukkale and were still just as good.

One of my favorite meze, or appetizers, in Turkey are sigara boregi, these phyllo dough rolls filled with feta cheese and a little parsley that are fried to perfection. They make the perfect snack!

The classic hot drink in Turkey (besides Turkish coffee, of course) is apple tea. If you go into any shop they will sit you down, bring you a glas of apple tea, and try to sell you any number of rugs or other items. It's actually not tea, it's more like a hot apple cider and perfect for those days when it's a bit chilly outside. In Turkey tea is served in these curved glasses that are easy to hold from the top without burning yourself.

The national cold (non-alcoholic--the alcoholic drink is of course raki) drink is sour cherry juice. Tons of cherries grow in Turkey and we actually stayed in a village near Ephesus called Kirazli Koy, which literally means cherry village, as it is surrounded by cherry trees. We stayed at a guesthouse and our hosts served us this amazingly fresh cherry juice. It was a bit tart and super delicious.

We were also served another traditional Turkish delicacy in Kirazli: kaymak, or Turkey's version of clotted cream. I am not exaggerating when I say this may be one of the best things I have ever eaten.  Usually served with honey and best spread on some crusty bread, this stuff is incredible. It's light and fluffy but dense and creamy at the same time. I'm only sorry we didn't discover it sooner as I surely would've eaten it every morning. This article does kaymak justice, as well as mentioning a few places in Istanbul to get some.

Another classic Turkish dish, especially in the area around Izmir and Ephesus, is gözleme. It's kind of the Turkish version of a pancake, but it's more like a crepe. Super thin dough is wrapped around any number of fillings, but cheese is my favorite. It's another one of those things that's super cheap and you get a lot of it.

We also sampled some Ayran, a classic Turkish yogurt drink. It's not sweetened, and in fact contains salt, although not too much. I still couldn't drink very much of it, but Manor managed to finish it.

On our drive back to Ephesus from Pamukkale, we had to stop at the site of this food truck. Yes, even the Turkish countryside has food trucks! The proprietor was serving up kokareç, a spicy lamb sandwich that Manor couldn't say no to. And he was glad he didn't!

Turkey: Topkapi Palace and the Yerbatan Cistern

Istanbul is full of grand sites, palaces among them. Last time I was here I visited the Dolmabahce Palace, which was magnificent. This time we decided to go to Topkapi Palace, the seat of many a sultan before Atatürk came to power and pulled Turkey into modern democracy.  Topkapi differs from Dolmabahce in that is more museum like. Dolmabahce preserved most of it's grand, lavish rooms as they were and consequently you feel like you are walking through one of the grandest homes you have ever seen. Topkapi is more of a royal court, with everything spread out. Most furniture and objects have been removed or placed in glass cases. it is a huge, sprawling complex with dozens, possibly hundreds, of buildings and courtyards. It takes hours to explore and see everything and we spent a large chunk of one day roaming around. We got an audio guide which proved to be mostly disappointing, but we were able to make our way around. I especially enjoyed how intricate the underside of awnings were, and the lovely arches. It certainly gives you a good taste for Ottoman architecture.

There are several rooms dedicated as "treasuries" with many glass cases filled with jewels, artifacts, and the like, one of which contains an 86-carat pear-shaped diamond. I couldn't get a picture of that, but I did get one of 50ish-carat diamond set in a gold neckpiece. Not bad.

There also many beautifully tiled rooms, and many with gorgeous stained-glass windows, much of which are in the harem, a separate part of the palace (that you also had to pay an extra fee for entry). Many of the domed ceilings are covered in intricate tiles and there is also exquisite mother-of-pearl inlay work on cabinets and drawers. The attention to detail in these walls, shelves, ceilings, and windows is breathtaking.

 

Some of the best views of the Bosphorous, Golden Horn, and the city can be seen from various spots around the campus.

There is also a large religious section of the palace and you can learn a lot about Islam if you read all the (sometimes lengthy) signs. They have a large collection of hair and teeth that supposedly belonged to the prophet Mohammad (people kept these in special lockets for good luck), as well as sacred swords and pieces of the Kaaba in Mecca. The Ottoman Empire was in charge of Islam for many years and gained the right to have old or ruined pieces of the Kaaba and it's surroundings sent to Topkapi when parts were repaired or renovated. They also had on display what they claimed to be the staff of Moses and a bowl of Abraham's but I'm not so sure about that...The most fascinating object for me was a mother-of-pearl miniature replica of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

We also visited the Yerbatan (Basilica) Cistern, a wonderful and fascinating place to see. I was happy to return here, and this time with a better camera. It's the largest of many cisterns that lie under the city of Istanbul and it was built in the sixth century to provide water to the Great Constantine Palace and continued to provide water all the way through to the Ottoman conquest in 1453 to Topkapi Palace. It's spooky and beautiful at the same time, with grand rows of columns growing out of the water, which is filled with fish. In the northwest corner are two infamous Medusa heads at the base of two columns. No one really knows what they mean and why they were built, but the are fascinating nonetheless.

 

Turkey: The Bosphorous and Its Environs

One of the greatest things about Istanbul is the Bosphorous River that runs through it, dividing the European and Asian sides and leading out to the Black Sea on one end and the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara on the other. It's a beautiful body of water and provides a great place to take boat rides!

I'd already gone on a Bosphorous cruise the last time I was here, but I was excited to go again. A highlight is stopping for the famous yogurt made in Kanlica, on the Asian side.

And this time, we stayed on the boat almost until the last stop, right at the entrance to the Black Sea. On the way, we passed beautiful sites, like the Dolmabahce Palace and the Rumeli Hisari fortress, as well as chamring neighborhoods like Ortakoy and Bebek.

There are many opportunities to disembark the ship but we ended up being thrilled we stayed on until the neighborhood of Rumeli Kavağı, a small fishing area right near the Black Sea that felt very far away from the hustle and bustle of downtown and the old city.

From Rumeli Kavağı , we took a Dolmus (shuttle bus) to nearby Sariyer, another, larger fishing area. It has less charm than Rumeli Kavağı, but we were able to sit outside on the water and drink some of Turkey's famous apple tea at a café, and have a deliciously fresh seafood lunch. We also happened upon the fish market and an impromptu outdoor prayer service.

My lunch was battered and fried sardines. Yum!

Turkey: Upscale Restaurants and Bars in Istanbul

One of the great things about Istanbul is, of course, the food. Turkey has some excellent classic and traditional cuisine, but Istanbul also houses some of the finest modern restaurants in the country. We ate plenty of street food and traditional items, but we did make it to a few modern and upscale restaurants and bars and we were very pleased--with the prices and the food! The day we arrived in Istanbul was our second anniversary and while we would have liked to go out that night to celebrate, we were too exhausted after our journey and almost losing my bag at the airport to go very far from our hotel, which meant no fancy dinner for us that night. We postponed our celebration until the following evening when we made the trek out to the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Emerigan, a ways up the European side of the Bosphorous. The museum itself is in a mansion on lovely grounds, facing the water.

It was founded by Sakip Sabanci, a wealthy businessman and art collector who lived in the mansion. He even had a room dedicated to himself, filled with pictures of him with various politicians, celebrities, and dignitaries, as well as various honorary degrees he has received. Yes, it was a little weird. The museum had two exhibitions going on at the time; one called “Across - The Cyclades and Western Anatolia During the 3rd Millennium BC,” which dealt with the trading between the Cyclade islands and Anatolia. They had various artificats, as well as a full-size replica of a Cycladic ship, which was pretty fascinating. The other was more contemporary, and quite interesting. Put on by French artist Sophia Calle, "For the Last and First Time" had two parts. The first was her interviews with blind people about the last thing they remembered seeing, and trying to recreate that image through photograph. The second part was videos filing residents of Istanbul who had never seen the sea (although the city is surrounded by it).

Also in the museum is the restaurant MuzedeChanga. Consulting New Zealand chef Peter Gordon crafted a fantastic menu of modern interpretations of Turkish cuisine, and the space was designed by the Autoban Design Team and won Wallpaper Magazine's design award in 2007.

Not sure how these exactly fit in with the rest of the restaurant design, but the cocktail menus were hilarious. Mine was Freddie Mercury from Queen.

And there was a whole array of celebrities:

I even loved the salt and pepper shakers.

On to the food...we started with a few mezze as is common at Turkish meals. We started with Spicy Walnut and Pumpkin Spread, and also got served a house smoked cheese spread. Both were absolutely delicious and a great start to the meal.

We also had a great artichoke salad with green beans and fried zucchini flowers stuffed with Lor cheese (a local Turkish cheese).

 Our favorite mezze was mushroom dumplings with a mint salad. The flavors were just very complex and interesting, and of course yummy!The mezzes ended with complimentary goat cheese toasts.

Our main courses were a Spinach and Lor Cheese Tortellini with a Lemon Porcini Sauce and Lamb and Beef Kofte (Turkish meat patties) with a wonderful salad. Both were fantastic.

For dessert we had something amazing: a fresh fig and vanilla custard with pastry. The custard was so delicious and I love fresh figs, and of course many of them are grown in Turkey.

Our meal was finished with handmade fresh tangerine Turkish delight. Normally I dislike Turkish delight, but I guess I've never had it fresh before because this was light and fluffy and had such an intense flavor. And, it was pretty.

Our next "fancy" locale was Leb-I-Derya, a rooftop bar in Taksim, on top of the Richmond Hotel. We mostly went there for the view, but had some fabulous drinks there as well.

Our other upscale meal was at Lokanta Maya in Karakoy. We got there early, which was lucky because that's the only reason we got a table without a reservation. It has a modern, sleek design and I loved the main light fixture.

Although the prices at Lokanta Maya are incredibly reasonable, the food is incredibly gourmet, fresh, organic, and creative. We opted to get a few mezze and one entree and it was the perfect amount.

While the dishes sound simple, they were incredibly well-made and very satisfying. Our waiter convinced us to try a traditional Turkish dessert of mastic pudding with sour cherries. The mastic come from the gum tree, and it had a sort of gummy texture and a very faint bubblegum flavor. It was interesting and we were glad we got to try it.

If you're looking for a modern, good meal in Istanbul both MuzedeChanga and Lokanta Maya will satisfy you. And Leb-I-Derya is worth the hefty price tags on the drinks for the spectacular view.

Turkey: Magnificent Mosques of Istanbul

Istanbul is definitely one of my favorite cities in the world. It's beautiful, with so many ancient structures from the Ottoman period juxtaposed against super modern and sleek new buildings. It's also surrounded by water, which in my book is what any good city should be. There are lots of people, but not too many that it overwhelms you, and most of them are helpful and friendly. Before we embarked on our journey some of our family members were wary about us going to Turkey, especially from Israel, due to the conflict they've had with Israel lately. But as we suspected, the average Turk has no such prejudices, and Manor even ended up entering the country on his Israeli passport because the visa was free, unlike the American on which was $20. One of the most remarkable highlights about Istanbul are it's many beautiful and elaborate mosques. There are of course two very famous ones that sit across from each other in Sultanhamet, Istanbul's old quarter: the Aya Sofya (ask Hagia Sofia) and the Blue Mosque. I've been to both before, but they were no less majestic this time around. The Aya Sofya was especially different because last time I was there they were doing renovations so there was a lot of scaffolding up. The building also has a fascinating history, originally being dedicated as a church in 360 CE, and then turned into a mosque in 1453. In 1935 it was secularized and turned into a museum by Ataturk, the man generally credited with secularizing Turkey and bringing it into the modern world. While it has many of the markings and installments of a mosque, beautiful Christian mosaics have also been uncovered. You can easily spend a couple hours exploring the gigantic building and we did just that.

The Blue Mosque is quite different, in that it is still a functioning mosque that people actually pray in. You can't walk wherever you want (i.e. into the prayer section, which is most of the room), but you can still get a good sense of the beauty and majesty of the building. It was extremely crowded the day we went, which was a bit frustrating, but we managed to carve out our own little spot.

We also visited the New Mosque (or Yeni Camii, in Turkish), which is not that new, but being built in 1597 is comparatively so. It is in a different part of the city, perched above the Galata Bridge and the Golden Horn (the part of the Bosphorous River that divides the city and forms a strait leading to the Sea of Marmara). Also a functioning mosque, it was full of people praying.

There are many more mosques in Istanbul, and we awoke each morning to the muezzin's call to prayer, often coming from multiple places at once. As a Jew and an American, being in an Islamic country, albeit a more secular one, allows a new understanding for the religion and its people. There are obviously many prejudices about Muslims, and while there are many in Israel we were mostly shielded from them. Being in Turkey allowed me to be more immersed in the culture and appreciate it as a valid culture and religion.

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Turkey and Israel: Kicking Off the Journey

The three week journey from New York to Bombay was a bit hectic. It seemed as though big news stories had been following us around.  Our second week in Israel, the whole country was consumed with constant updates on the release of 5-year Hammas prisoner Gilad Shalit, who finally reached Israel the hour we left it.  Make of it what you will, but on the day of Shalit's release, both foreigners in Israel and Turks asked us the same question: "A THOUSAND prisoners for one soldier?"

A couple days after we arrived in Turkey, news broke of the Kurdish missile attack and subsequent Turkish incursion into Iraq.  A day later, as we returned from an all day trip, we were told by our hosts of the terrible earthquake in eastern Turkey several hours earlier.  Needless to say, our families were worried while we had no idea.

Israel was a whirlwind of family and friends. We went from the center to the north and back several times.  Having been in Israel and experienced the inflation there first hand, I have a much better sense of the cause of the protests several months ago.  I'm not sure how  people survive there financially. Also interesting was Yom Kippur.  We were in Hertzilya for the holiday and it was different than anywhere else I'd been.  To be fair, I'd only previously experienced Israeli Yom Kippur on Kibbutz, where everything comes to a hot standstill for a day.  This was truly different.  People go out and enjoy the day, taking advantage of the lack of cars.  The evening of Yom Kippur, there were tons of people walking and riding bicycles, even on the highway.  The biggest beneficiary of the holiday seemed to be dogs, who could be walked without leashes, free to roam about where they please.  Children rode and played on the city streets--a luxury they don't have the rest of the year.   It was pretty incredible to see this somber, quiet holiday turned into a shared lively experience. We arrived in Turkey to find Istanbul's airport to be deceptively chaotic.  As we went to collect our bags, the belt they were supposed to be on was turned off and no one was standing by it.  After walking around the entire baggage claim section, we found my bag as the lone luggage on different belt.  Devorah's bag was nowhere to be found.  This was not a good start to our trip.  Devorah went to the lost baggage office to fill out a claim and afterwards we decided to do one final check for her bag.  Sure enough, it was in a pile of bags that had been removed off of the belts.  Crisis averted. Istanbul was not exactly the East meets West that I'd envisioned, unless the east that's being referred to is the middle east.  Our first day there we took four different types of public transit: tram, trolley, bus, and two very different funiculars (short distance trains that take commuters up and down hills).  To top it off, a couple days later, we added a light rail, boat, and metro.  We took every possible public commuting option in the city, except the suburban train. It was also pretty amazing to walk through the city and see random ancient Ottoman mausoleums and landmarks.  There are so many things to see in that city, so much history, I feel we could have easily spent weeks there and not seen everything.

After Israel, driving in Turkey was a pleasure.  There were no cars driving dangerously fast, drivers used their blinkers to indicate they wanted to pass rather than tailgating for as long as it takes, and there was no unsafe passing.  It was a stark difference from Israel, where I got clipped by a bus driver that cut me off and then proceeded to drive away and pretended he hadn't left a piece of the bus lodged in my car.  Turkey will be the last time I drive a (four wheel) vehicle for a while.

Breakfasts in Israel

In case you're unaware, I write another blog called Toast 'n Jams with some friends about breakfast and music (the world's two greatest pleasures). While on this trip, I'll be posting about my international breakfasts there. Here's a recent post I did on the great breakfasts we had in israel: http://toastnjams.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/eat-this-abroad-breakfast-in-israel/ Next up: tales of our Turkey travels!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Israel: The Dead Sea

During the holiday of Sukkot, which is 7 days long in Israel, schools are still on vacation and many offices are closed fully or partially. It's a popular time for many people and families to take a tiyul, or trip, often to the north or south. My sister decided to take off a few days from work and the four of us rented a car and headed down south, to the Dead Sea. Manor and I both hadn't been there in many years so it was a real treat.

It's very beautiful there, and aside from taking a dip in the mud and water of the Dead Sea, there are also several hikes in the area. Lucky for us, Dudu is a certified guide and knows a ton about hundreds of hikes throughout the country. He also knew about a semi-secret beach on the Dead Sea, away from the main "Mineral Beach," which is usually packed.

We weren't completely alone, but there were very few others with us, some of whom felt isolated enough to be nude. Seeing the cliffs of Jordan on the other side of the sea is pretty majestic, and we went close to sunset so the rocks got nice and pink.

The water was, of course, very salty. It's pretty fun to float in, but it does get burn-y pretty quickly. Putting the mud on was really fun, and it does feel super smooth. And when we washed it off our skin did feel really soft.

Adina and Dudu also picked a great place for us to stay the night, Metzoke Dragot, which is perched on a high cliff, overlooking the Dead Sea.

Aside from regular rooms, they also have large family tents, that actually looked like large sukkahs, in keeping with the theme. They came equipped with mattresses so we brought sleeping bags and were good to go. However, we still woke up with the sunrise, which happened to be beautiful.

After sunrise we went back to sleep for  a few hours, but while we were snoring Adina woke up and got to see a bunch of ibex (type of wild mountain goat common to the Middle East) right by our tent! Luckily, she took pictures.

We finally made it out to Wadi Amog for a 2-3 hour hike. It was definitely hot, but Dudu chose this hike because it has some shady spots, in the form of large cliffs overhead. That was certainly appreciated! There is also some fun climbing and great views at the end.

Israel: Yemin Moshe

One of the prettiest neighborhoods in Jeruslam is called Yemin Moshe. It also happens to be the one of the oldest: it was the first neighborhood established outside the Old City walls, back in 1830. It's charecterized by it's iconic windmill and views of the Old City. Now it's full of wealthy people who have beautiful homes and gorgeous gardens. We took a walk there and came away with some beautiful pictures. Enjoy! [slideshow]

Israel: Sukkot and Jerusalem's Old City

After a week of staying somewhere different almost every night, we finally landed at my sister Adina and her husband Dudu's cute apartment in Jerusalem, in the Katamon neighborhood. They moved here back in May and seem to be enjoying their first real home (outside of Africa!) together. While we were there it was the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles), where families build and decorate small huts (sukkahs) and eat all their meals in them. These huts symbolize the huts the Jews lived in when they wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt until they got to Israel. Adina and Dudu had a great little sukkah that we enjoyed eating and spending time in. Dudu loves to cook and he's very good at it. He made amazing challah bread and lots of yummy "salatim" (Israeli salads) for the holiday.

Aside from lots of eating, we did find time to explore the city. I've always loved the Old City; it seems there's always a lot going on and something new to discover. We went to the Kotel (Wailing Wall) and walked through the Arab market. We also did the Ramparts Walk, which allows you to walk along the city's walls. It was great to see the city from that vantage point and fascinating to know you're walking along some pretty old stones!

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Israel: Land of Delicious Fruit

Israel is one of our favorite places to get delicious, fresh produce. Because the country is so small, things don't have to travel very far from the farms to the markets, so by the time you get them they are still recently picked. Israel is full of outdoor markets (called Shuks in Hebrew), large and small. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have huge ones, while smaller cities had emore manageable ones. This trip we went to the market in Teverya and saw some beautiful produce, including lots of dates and pomegranates, both of which are in season now here.

The Golan is filled with cherry  orchards, which unfortunately weren't in season now, and apple orchards, which luckily were in their prime. We drove past dozens of pick-your-own farms, and although we didn't have time to stop for that long, we did manage to buy a few from a stand on the side of the road and they were juicy and crisp. We saw lots of Druze men driving tractors like these hauling apples.

We also had some great fresh-squeezed juice in Tel Aviv. There are fruit juice stands everywhere,but this one on Ben Gurion St. was excellent and a huge variety. We went with mango grapefruit.

Because pomegranates are in season now, there were pomegranate juicers everywhere, especially in the Old City in Jerusalem.

We also had our share of pomegranates at various friends' and relatives' houses--everyone seemed to be offering them. And of course, we didn't turn it down as we love them! In Herzilya, Manor helped his cousin peel and seed a bunch of them.

Their dog, Raja, watched and waited patiently:

Hope I didn't make you too hungry!

Israel: Seeing and Eating New Things

First off, sorry it's taken so long to post! Today is the first day we've had Internet on our trip so far, which is pretty surprising because we're not in a third world country yet! But we have been staying somewhat off the beaten path until now. Manor and I have both lived in and visited Israel many times, and we both have lots of family here. Lately, when we come to visit, it's all about running around to see friends and family--which is wonderful, but also exhausting, and leaves little time for personal time. This trip, we knew we would have a lot of people to see, but we managed to carve out a couple days to ourselves soon after our arrival in Tel Aviv--that is of course after seeing my brother-in-law (David) and two friends in Tel Aviv on the day of our arrival. David took us to Chumus Gan Eiden for lunch, at the corner of Allenby and HaNasi in Tel Aviv. Their specialty is what they call Darfur Hummus or Darfur Foul, basically Sudanese style hummus (chickpea spread) or Foul (fava bean spread) with lots of yummy toppings. There are many Sudanese (and other African) refugees in Israel and their cuisine is starting to infiltrate the country.

Darfur Foul comes with lots of Foul, topped with chopped hard-boiled eggs, chopped tomatoes and whole chickpeas.

The next day, Manor and I rented a car and drove up north, to the very top of Israel, right by the border with Syria and Lebanon. We went to the small town of Majdal Shams, which is populated mostly by Druze people. The Druzes are actually Syrian Arabs who remained in their village after the 1967 war and so now are part of Israel. There are four Druze villages in northern Israel and Majdal Shams is the largest. The people were given the option to become Israeli citizens, but many refused because they did not want to have to serve in the Israeli army, which has a mandatory military draft. However, if they leave Israel, for example to visit relatives in Syria, they are not allowed to come back. The exception is if they go to study in university in Syria. The 2004 film The Syrian Bride addressed these issues by telling the story of Druze brides from Israel who marry Syrians and have to leave their families in Israel forever. Near Majdal Shams is a place called the Shouting Hill, where family members from each side of the border would meet and yell across to each other. Before the Internet was popular this was their only means of keeping in touch.

I was very curious to see the village and it's inhabitants and was wondering if they would seem unhappy or lonely, but the town is vibrant and beautiful, with amazing views of Mt. Hermon (the tallest mountain range in Israel) and the mountains of Syria.

People were friendly and happy and the town was bustling, with narrow winding streets alongs the hills and mountains.

We stayed in a "tzimmer," a popular phenomenon in Israel--basically a bed and breakfast. There are thousands of them throughout the country and they present a nice, romantic getaway. It seems a requirement to have a jacuzzi and a lavish breakfast. You can find many of them listed at www.zimmer.co.il. We stayed at a very charming tzimmer called Nofesh Barama, overlooking a cliff with a view of Syria. The hostess, Jamila, was very friendly and welcoming, and the three rooms were all clean and cozy.

In the morning we were served a traditional Druze breakfast, which was massive and delicious. It was similar to Israeli breakfast, with the main difference being the Druze bread. It's a very large, very thin flatbread that can be folded and ripped to use in the many dips.

The main Druze dip is labne, one of my favorite dishes. It's a creamy, yogurt-based dip that has been thickened and comes covered with olive oil and za'atar, a popular middle eastern spice mixture. We were also served hummus, a salty feta-type cheese, goat cheese in olive oil, some of the best butter I've ever had, orange marmalade, sliced tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and two other kinds of pita. Suffice to say, it was way more food than any two people could eat, but we tried our best.

The next day we ventured out to see what the Golan (what upper Israel is called) had to offer. We drove to Nimrod's Fortress, the largest fortress in Israel, which dates back to the 13th century. It was built by Muslims during a few different time periods and the remains are mostly intact. It's on a high mountain and the view to the valleys below is quite beautiful.

It was starting to get rather hot, so we got back in the car and drove a few kilometers down the hill to the Banias, a lush green area with springs and waterfalls. It's amazing how many different types of landscapes you can see in Israel in very short distances. We did a nice hour-long walk down to the falls and were rewarded with beautiful scenery along the way.

Manor and I were both shocked that we saw, ate, and experienced new cultures and environs that we hadn't experienced before in Israel, a country we have both spent so much time in. It continues to amaze me how such a tiny country can contain so much!

Getting Ready for 6 Months Abroad

Tomorrow we leave New York City (specifically Brooklyn, where we live) to embark on our journey. We've spent the last couple weeks packing up and cleaning our apartment so we can rent it out while we're away. As you probably already know, packing sucks! Packing our bags for our journey was another story...for Manor it was easy: he just threw a bunch of shirts and underwear into a bag and called it a day. Of course, I'm simplifying...but that's basically what it looked like to me! For me, on the other hand, it took much, much longer, and was not without a few anguished cries of frustration. For those who don't know me very well, I love clothing and have a lot of it. Narrowing my wardrobe down to a few choice outfits that I will surely wear over and over again in the next six months was extremely difficult for me. Not to mention all the cosmetics, accessories, and shoes I'll need! And squeezing everything I wanted to bring into a large backpack was next to impossible. But it's done now, and for better or worse I've got my bag packed and ready to go.

One thing we did get rather into was buying electronics for our trip. Manor and I spent many hours discussing and researching several practical products to bring with us. In this day and age you can do away with bringing books, CDs (or tapes!), a large bulky camera, film, and heavy laptops. We took advantage of this and bought several new items for this trip that we're super-excited about:

  • A Macbook Air. The volunteer-work Manor will be doing in India requires him to have a computer and this baby is currently the lightest, slimmest, smallest guy on the market that still has lots of power and memory. We decided on the 13-inch model and it was pretty much love at first sight.
  • The Sony NEX-5 Mirrorless SLR Camera. After lots of research and talking to photog friends, we decided that a mirrorless digital SLR camera was ideal. Mirrorless SLRs use a fairly new technology wherein they have the same size sensor and photo quality as a digital SLR, but do not use mirrors, which is what makes regular SLRs so big, bulky, and heavy. The great thing about mirrorless SLRs is that they can still use interchangeable lenses. We decided on the Sony, even though Sony can be annoying in the way that they make you buy their brand pf everything, down to the SD memory card, because it was the best deal: we got the camera body and two lenses (a pancake 16mm and a 18-64mm zoom), plus a case and memory card for $700. Not bad.

  • The Nook Black and White, 2nd Edition. I may have been a bit biased in this decision because I used to work for Barnes & Noble (until a couple weeks ago!) and I got a discount on the Nook. However, I am extremely happy with it--it's so light and small (only 6.5 x 5.0 x 0.47 inches and less than half-a-pound), and easy to use. We've already loaded up lots of books I'm excited to read on the trip (including several very large and long ones that would weigh a ton in their printed form): Tina Fey's Bossypants, Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Karl Marlentes' Matterhorn. Not to mention the dozens of free classics available! We also put some guidebooks on there: Lonely Planet's guides to India, Turkey, and Southeast Asia.

  • HP Touchpad. This was a bit of an impulse buy. We weren't planning on getting a tablet once we decided on the Macbook Air, but when these babies went on sale for only $99 after not being able to compete with the iPad, Manor ran to Best Buy and grabbed one before they were sold out. We're not in love with it, but it will surely come in handy on long train rides when we don't want to pull out the laptop. Plus, I already downloaded the Scrabble application so I'm good to go.

So now that we've invested all this time and energy into these products, I hope they prove useful on our trip. Tomorrow we takeoff to Israel, our first stop. It's really happening!

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