Turkey: Tea Tour of Istanbul

In the sunken courtyard behind Süleymaniye Mosque we listen to Turkish chatter and the trickle of an ancient fountain. It is far from the noisy froth of cappuccino making and nu-folk playlists that signify coffee shops back home. Students of Istanbul drink black tea from gold-rimmed glasses, papers spread out over squat tables in front of them. Some chat in clusters on bright cushions, passing a waterpipe between sips. Business men and stall owners from the Grand Bazaar gesticulate wildly – lost in grand political debate and a haze of apple tobacco.

The first sip of tea scalds my tongue. The waiter appears with our waterpipe. Mark and I look around, hoping that the seasoned pros reclining in confidence don’t notice our wheezing attempts at smoking. The waiter takes pity on us trying to relax Istanbul-style. He gets the water bubbling for us, smoke spiraling from his lips. When the coals burn amber he lets me have the pipe back, as if spoon-feeding a toddler.

After a few splutters our draws become smooth. The tea has cooled to perfection. I sink into the cushions, warm fuzz in my brain and broken sunshine through leaves on my face. We watch the microcosm of Istanbul society until we are left with dregs in our glasses.

istanbul-spices

Past the cries of vendors selling cheap cookware, mosaic lamps and coils of waterpipes the smell of the Spice Bazaar floats on the air. We are engulfed in a labyrinth of bright yellow, burnt sienna and rust coloured powder. Mark dons his chef face, tutting and hmm-ing at mounds of spices. I spot a brass coffee machine through a cloud of steam. The mustachioed barista catches me looking.

“You like to try? For free?” he shouts to me.

I nod, leaving Mark bartering over black cumin.

The barista pours the tarry liquid from a long-handled jug into a tiny cup. He looks at me like I’m mad when I decline sugar. I see why as the bitterness hits the back of my throat, sending electricity down my spine. It’s perfect.

Mark waves a bag of canary-yellow turmeric in victory. I mirror him with a bag of coffee.

Istanbul is built on seven hills, and it feels like we climb all seven on our tea quest. Up a steep, cobbled street a gnarled old man sells tea from another brass contraption. He smiles as he hands us hot, dirty glasses of tea, his calloused fingers poking in fresh mint leaves.

istanbul-tea-trolley

Our final stop is a rickety tea house on the edge of the Bosphorus, where uneven floorboards creak under faded Persian rugs. Another tourist couple has found this place. A waiter lights the vanilla-scented coals of their waterpipe, and they wait until his back is turned before inhaling and spluttering.

I take a smooth puff of our waterpipe and wait for my tea to cool. Tomorrow we might see that couple in the sunken courtyard, reclining into bright cushions like they’ve been doing it for years.

Croatia: Downhill from Here

I pedalled through the hot pain, unable to tell if it was my legs or my bike-frame that was creaking. My front wheel inched forward and I was surprised the tyres hadn’t melted into a sticky pool on the road. I had expected cooler air and cloudy skies in October, but the Croatian sky was chicory blue and the sun felt like wildfire. Somewhere behind the endless pine forest was a cool breeze whipping off the Adriatic, but it had been hours since I’d felt it.

“Shut up, legs” I muttered, willing them to pass from throbbing to numb. Mark was a dot at the top of the hill, luminous in lycra and blurring like an amoeba through the sweat in my eyes. He sprinted up the hill like he was after the yellow jersey. The cycle from Mlina to Bol across the centre of Brac island was supposed to be moderate, but the rasp in my lungs left me wondering why I’d agreed to take the trip by bike instead of hopping on a tourist boat. I could have had a cold beer in my hand swishing about the deck in an airy skirt. Instead I was running out of lukewarm water wearing a pair of padded shorts that felt weirdly like a nappy. We’d wanted to see the real parts of the islands, the centres, the bits that nobody went to. We wanted to smell them from the bicycle seat. The road we were on smelled like hot tarmac and burnt pine needles.

“Ding ding!” I hoped Mark’s bell meant he had found the lunch stop.

Keep going, keep going, keep going, I whispered in time with the slow rotation of my wheels. Collapsing in a sticky heap at the top I saw salvation: a little village almost hidden in the folds of the hills, a single church spire jutting out like a signpost. The lunch stop.

croatia-village

Buildings surrounding the square were beige stone with green shutters and orange roofs. The cheep of birds and click of our bike wheels were the only sounds. If it wasn’t for the colourful washing hanging from some windows I would have thought the village had been abandoned.  We heard the slow slap of slippers on the smoothed cobblestones, announcing the arrival of an old man with a large, drooping moustache and braces holding up sagging trousers. As he approached us his face broke into a grin.

“The shop is closed,” he said, pointing at a cracked Tabac sign. “There is a very nice lunch at the farm up the hill,” the man said. “It’s not far, you can cycle.”

I very much doubt that, I though as I got to my feet, pain shooting back into my knees. The sweat on my forehead had dried into a crust. You could have harvested salt from my pores.

“I will call the cook to let him know you are coming. Fifteen minutes,” the man said.

Mark shook the man’s hand and thanked him.

At the top of the hill a large man in a stripy apron waved us off the road. He guided us to a crumbling old farm, trees growing through the broken roofs of stone buildings and old ploughs rusting in clumps in the yard. A wooden barrel had been turned into a table laden with fresh bread and olive oil. Before we ate, the cook offered us a shot of something that smelled like it might cleanse a wound. It burned my throat. Sunshine broke through the olive trees bathing the yard in warm sepia. I stretched my legs out and let the pleasant hum of the alcohol warm my limbs. The smell of cooking meat floated on the air. A litter of tiny kittens mewed and tumbled over each other, shading under an old cart.

“It was cooked under the bell,” the cook said as he brought our food. “Six hours.”

croatia-food

He placed a platter of tender meat and potatoes that looked like they might melt into the drippings if we didn’t eat them fast enough. A smile touched his sun-crinkled eyes as he also set down a carafe of cold white wine. We ate like we’d been cycling for weeks. The kittens slunk over and mewed until I nudged a bit of meat onto the ground. There was nobody else at the restaurant so he showed us the cracked iron bell that the meat roasted under and told us about the farm’s 800 year history. As he handed us a small jar of honey each “in case of emergencies,” I stretched my legs ready for the final push to Bol.

“Don’t worry,” the cook told us, “it’s all downhill from here.”

We flew down hillside roads with the sun on our backs and bellies full of food. The buzz from the wine made the Adriadic twinkle as we sped into Bol.

Docked in the harbour were two large boats and, as we negotiated the winding lanes and juddered over cobbled alleys we could hear the thud of bass pulsing from the harbour. As we got closer to the harbour the music got louder and little local Tabacs turned into shining modern bars. My legs ached and I was drenched with sweat. Side-on the hill we’d just flown down looked like a mountain, but as we got nearer to the party boats I would have faced a hill ten times the size to get back to the centre of the island.

croatia-bol

Above: Mark relaxing on the pier at Bol, probably staring at the party boats.

France: The Beautiful Game

The bone white facade of Lyon’s Notre Dame de Fourviére looked down on the shambling rooftops of the old town. I threw open the windows of our tiny apartment, expecting the smell of fresh croissants and gentle hum of French chatter to float up and meet me.

“Green and white army!” a strong Northern Irish accent pierced the air.

In the narrow street below, just outside a puppet shop that had been there for centuries, a huddle of bright green football shirts. Further up the street a couple more green shirts swaggered, singing in the sunshine.

“It’s the Ulster boys, making all the noise…”

Before we boarded the train to Lyon I’d noticed the ruffle of newspapers in the waiting room, pictures of red-faced, men in football shirts, mouths twisted into snarls and headlines that read ‘Football Hooligans Wreak Havoc in Marseille.’ As French businessmen glanced over at us, I wished Mark wasn’t wearing a Northern Ireland shirt.

A flutter of relief had settled in my stomach once we arrived at Lyon. The taxi drove past the Fan Zone, vomiting out brightly coloured football fans through metal barriers. If anything was going to kick off it would be here, behind the temporary metal cage. Hopefully the fans would stay mesmerised by images on the big TV screen and accidentally hydrated by 0.5% pints of Carling. Mark and I would just keep to the Old Town, explore the history and little eateries of Lyon and only venture outside the cobbled streets for the Northern Ireland – Ukraine match in the evening. We could still be proper travellers.

Green shirts had gathered outside pubs called ‘O’Brien’s’ and ‘Molly Malone’s’ like iron filings to a magnet. Mark nodded at each of them as we walked past. Disgruntled locals tutted at the loud songs and cheers and I wanted to catch their eye and say “I’m not part of this – I’m a librarian!”

With each flash of blue shirt on the crowded Rue Saint Jean my heart fluttered. I expected jeering, racist slurs, maybe a punch or two thrown. At the very least riot police would seal off the street and I would definitely be caught in tear gas. My mum would see my tear-stained face on the news back in the UK as I wailed to the cameras “I don’t even like football, and I’m not even from Northern Ireland!”

 

A couple of blue shirts stopped outside ‘Molly Malone’s’. I waited for shouting, swearing, punching.

“Excuse me, do you know how to get to Fourviere Hill?”

“Aye, just round the corner, stunning views. Just stunning.”

The bus out to the stadium was packed with green and white. The largest men spread across the back seat, belting out songs and waving their arms like choir conductors. It smelled like sweat and beer. Legs jigged nervously in seats. If Northern Ireland didn’t win this game then the green and white army would be going home.

Two blue-shirted Ukrainian fans squeezed into the already cramped bus. A small man with round glasses like a doctor’s led his nervous-looking wife through the forest of Northern Irish fans. I was scared for them.

“Hey, yous,” one of the green shirts said.

The wife pretended not to hear and started picking at a loose thread at the hem of her Ukraine shirt. The doctor-looking man plastered a smile across his face. They were the only blue shirts on the bus.

“Yous can come and sit by me,” the green shirt said. “I’ll look after yeh.”

He opened up his arms and enveloped the small man in a bear hug.

 

Inside the stadium the crown pulsed with a nervous energy. The man next to me fussed over the flags he’d tied to the balcony railings. Mark squeezed my hand before kick-off. It was the kind of squeeze he used when we were going through rough turbulence, the kind that said “just in case we don’t make it”.

As thousands of voices swelled and screamed through well used football chants I caught snippets of conversation.

“I’ve paid 80 euro for a ticket and I can’t even watch it, just tell me if we get close to scoring,” from a man with his hands over his eyes.

Soccer Euro 2016 Ukraine Northern Ireland

 

Just before half time the net nearest us rippled with impact. 1 – 0 Northern Ireland. The noise around me was deafening. The concrete platform shook like an earthquake. Mark threw himself at me in a hug designed for a man double my weight.

 

By the second half my knuckles were as white as anyone’s. I’d picked up some words to belt out along with the crowd. After the fifth or sixth round of “Will Grigg’s on fire” I turned to Mark.

“Which one’s Will Grigg?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s not playing. Hasn’t set foot on the pitch all season,”

“But all the songs are about him,” I said.

“Northern Ireland fans,” Mark shrugged, as if that explained everything. A felt a little swell of pride for the odd group I was becoming part of.

 

At full time it was still 1 – 0 and an announcement echoed around the walls in French. Nine minutes of added time. The red numbers stayed frozen at 90 minutes. The crowd counted time in heartbeats. “Come on, come on, allé, allé,” I whispered to myself as the minutes trickled past. Ukraine had the ball dangerously close to the goal. I didn’t want to look as the hollow kick sounded around the stadium. The net shivered with impact of the ball. A draw was not enough. Mark had his head in his hands, unable to look at the pitch. The keeper fetched the ball from behind the net.

A groan of relief. We just had to hold on for one more minute. Sixty seconds has never felt so long. A green shirt broke free from the scramble and ran down the pitch.

“That’s it! Just get it down our end and keep it there,” Mark was on his feet.

2 – 0 Northern Ireland.

The green side of the stadium erupted, cheering so loud that nobody heard the final whistle. As the players ran around the pitch celebrating I joined in on my favourite song.

“We’re not Brazil we’re Northern Ireland…”

And I really felt the we.

Russia: Once Bitten

“Yeah, base camp was amazing,” Edwin said, necking another shot of nasty vodka and wincing as it went down. I copied him, the neat alcohol hitting the pit of my stomach. I had run out of instant noodles and was starting to feel hunger pangs. Edwin was a proper traveller; a medical graduate with a mountaineering addiction. I had just spent 3 months on various beaches in tropical South East Asia, drinking gin and tonic from buckets. Luckily the heat was cranked up to the thirties inside the wood-panelled train compartment; the only evidence of the freezing cold outside was a crispy layer of frost at the bottom of my blanket where it leant against the outer wall. Looking out the train window at the expanse of Siberia it was as if someone was playing the same dirty film reel over and over. Low brown hills splotched with snow.

Half-way through the second bottle of vodka, the squeal of train brakes announced our arrival at a desolate Siberian station. Peering out the window I saw old freight trucks standing as if frozen to the track opposite. Edwin applied a million layers of outdoor-activity wear. I, however, prepared to leave the train for the first time in two days by popping a hat and scarf over my linen jungle clothes.

I spotted little shops stocking beer, vodka and a million varieties of instant noodles. Thank God. Without food, the vodka was going straight to my head. Ice coated the external door, freezing it shut. Edwin battered at it with his shoulder, but it wouldn’t budge. I started to panic. I didn’t fancy living off pocket fluff and toothpaste for the next three days.

“Excuse me!” I shouted down the carriage to no one in particular. Other than the two of us it was packed with Mongolian students returning from New Year, and they had all brought enough steamed pork dumplings for the journey.

The Provinista waddled out of her compartment wearing nothing but her thermal underwear and a deep scowl. She was large and bulky, built like a female wrestler with the skin-tight outfit to match. She grunted something in Russian, draped heavy grey coat over her thermals and started battering the external train door with the fire poker. Eventually, with an almighty ‘crack’ the door swung open and the needle-sharp chill of Russian winter hit me.

Within minutes my hair had frozen and a thin layer of ice from my breath had settled across my scarf. It felt like a thousand tiny needles were pricking the surface of my skin and by the time we reached the shops I couldn’t feel my fingers. We stocked up on instant noodles and more vodka because the timetable was in Cyrillic, for all we knew it could be days until the next station.

Just as I was handing over my roubles to the toothless shopkeeper I heard the shriek of the train whistle. Snatching up my instant noodles and renewed stock of vodka I skidded across black ice to the door of my carriage. The Provinista now hanging out of the open train door and bulging out of her thermal underwear again, shouted garbled Russian at me, holding out a hand. I grabbed on to the metal railing of the door and pain shot through my fingers like I’d been burnt, but I managed to pull myself into the carriage. The Provinista slapped me on the back and laughed like she’s never seen anything so funny in all her life.

I threw my instant noodles onto the bed and stuck my fingers in my mouth. They were in agony. Tears pricked in my eyes as the change in temperature sent searing pain through my digits. The tips were turning a dull blue and Edwin, in his serious mountaineer’s voice, shouted at me to run them under very mildly warm water.

The lukewarm water felt like it was scalding my fingers and I started to cry from the pain. Emerging from the toilet compartment fifteen minutes later I held out my bruise coloured fingers to Edwin like a child with a paper-cut, tears streaming down my cheeks.

“Just what I thought,” Edwin said as he studied my hand, “frostbite.”

“What? Frostbite?” I couldn’t believe it. Frostbite is for intrepid Arctic expeditions, not dancing about on a station platform after too much vodka. I clutched my poor, painful fingers to my chest not knowing what else to do.

Moscow was still three days away.

Note: This is my winning entry for the Pure Travel writing competition, published in Geographic Magazine.