Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Drop of History - Basilica Cistern (Istanbul, Turkey)

When you can feel the dank walls of history literally dripping on you, it's a kind reminder that you're in a special place. Let's say 532 AD special.

Known as the largest surviving Byzantine cistern, this remarkable place was built using 336 separate columns. Bridges for tourists strategically weave through the columns, making for the utmost sensory appeal. As I overtly mentioned in my opening paragraph, the history drips on you. The air is an odd combination of cold, moist, and heavy. I suppose I remember the sensory details because this is not a place that cameras thrive. It's all in the physical experience, as the grainy photographs only give half the picture - pun, fully intended.

The cistern itself was built during the height of the Byzantine empire, under the rule of Emperor Justinian. The cistern was actually filled using an elaborate system (20 km) of aqueducts from the Black Sea. Apparently, it could store up 80,000 cubic litres of water. The goal was to provide water to the nearby Topkapi Palace.

Legend has it that the place was all but forgotten until the 16th century, when people began telling tales of being able to miraculously retrieve water from below their floorboards, and in some cases were even fishing (Many large koi fish can still be seen swimming the waters). The cistern only really became fit for the public in 1987, and now it's one of Istanbul's major tourist pulls. Not to mention, it's featured in the James Bond film From Russia with Love.

When I read Lars Brownworth's book "Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization" while I lived in Korea, this is the sort of stuff that was floating through my brain. I, for the record, adored that book - perhaps it's a small reason as to why I find myself here now.

If the impressive feats of architecture and engineering aren't enough for you, beautiful displays of craftsmanship can be found everywhere, especially on the ceiling. What really draws people's attention, however, is the northwest corner of the cistern. The medusa column bases. Many theories exists in reference to them and why exactly they're there, but none are considered flawless, so perhaps it is the mystery itself which draws people in.

Istanbul is not a city without its challenges, of that I can confidently conclude after a month. Nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems, and nothing seems to come easily. But, the truth is that in Istanbul, it's worth it. I get to spend my weekends leaving the comfortable modernity that my neighbourhood, Şişli, offers and seemingly time travel back a few hundred or thousand years, depending on the area. What perhaps excites me most is the notion that boredom will never be something I have to confront here. Good or bad, everything here is worth writing about.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Quick Stop in Kilyos (Istanbul, Turkey)

When I think about the word "suburb," I conjure up images of endless rows of cookie-cutter houses, bland big box stores, and about as much culture as the crumpled receipt currently loitering beside my computer. Being from midtown Toronto, I'm used to thinking about suburbia as little more than a residence which happens to be within driving distance of Canada's economic hub. Well, I realized that Istanbul is cause to re-consider what exactly a suburb could be.

Kilyos, on the coast of the Black Sea, feels a world away from the chaos of central Istanbul, despite only being about a 45 minute drive from the heart of the city. The sun shines brightly in the sky, enveloping you in an almost tropical heat. There were five of us who made the journey to Kilyos's Solar Beach Club. We all crammed into a petite cab in Taksim, where I was able to practice my makeshift Turkish with some success. Evidently our cab driver was fond of us, as when he departed he stretched out for a group hug and said, "I love you all." Turkish people are simply wonderful.

The beach itself had no shortage of soft, brownish sand upon which you could sink your toes, if you could stand the sheer heat of it that is. The entrance was about 45 TL if I can remember correctly, which, in retrospect, I can confidently say was worth it. The electronic beats bumped all day, making sure that we were able to relax, but not quite fall asleep and wake up with sun burns that might not even be classifiable by the current degree burn system. The water was warm, yet refreshing, and the bridge which led out to the cabana like structure off shore certainly was a nice touch. It was, simply put, all we could have asked for on this particular Saturday.

To a large extent in life, it's not what you're doing, but who you are doing it with. Thus, while the beach was nice, and the water was a magical escape from the heat of Istanbul, it was who I was with that made all the difference. Of course, Bri was there, which always brings me joy, but also our new found friends and colleagues Chantal, Anjali and Jamie were right there as well. Perhaps the most exciting part of this whole venture is the people I'm getting to know, and all the people who I haven't met yet -- the conversations I've had, and that I've yet to have. There is something deeply exciting about endless possibility.

I know what you're thinking. I agree, I am quite pale.
It feels great to get my first post on Turkey up and running. Many more are in the woodwork.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Guest Post from Guerrilla Gallivanter: "The 11 Strangest Things I've Eaten In Asia"

This is a guest post from Guerrilla Gallivanter. We met while both living in Seoul, South Korea, and I'm happy to welcome him to my blog. Please check out his travel blog here. And if you're interested in the post I did for him, check out "Five Venturesome Vantage Points in Ecuador's Elevated Capital - Quito." Enjoy. 

WARNING: This post contains some pretty disgusting photos and videos of the 11 strangest things I've eaten in Asia. This post might make some people sick or angry. You've been warned.
When I was a child, I remember being excited for holidays because of the turkey dinner. Not that I was ever peeing my pants over turkey, but I would always get a chance to eat the heart. Now that I'm a 28 year old child, I've had the opportunity to live and travel in Asia for four years. East Asia has a really rich diversity of culinary traditions, and I've sampled almost all of them. Aside from the mainstream, exportable dishes, however; there exists a culinary underworld of very strange food options in Asia. Sometimes hidden in the back alleys, that place most people don't want to go to.
I've gone to those strange places your mouth usually doesn't lead you to... That street vendor hiding from the cops in Thailand, that flooded seafood spot in the Philippines, that hidden snake restaurant in Vietnam  - or even just the rain forest floor of Borneo. Consequently, I've put some pretty disgusting things in my mouth.
I think challenging your appetite and learning to eat anything helps you to understand foreign cultures while traveling, and leads to awesome memories and stories! So here it is, The Eleven Strangest Things I've Eaten in Asia.  

11) Ostrich, Taiwan

Yup, the world's largest bird with the fastest land speed is very tasty. Also probably one of the smallest brains proportional to body size... (GETTY IMAGES)

Every time I've eaten ostrich, I've loved it - however this particular restaurant in Taiwan gave me my first taste of the world's largest bird. The dish was really well prepared in a sauce with typical fresh Taiwanese ingredients - it was zesty, rich, with a bit of heat. And the ostrich meat? Well the color is closer to beef than chicken. It's gamy, tasty, and a bit more chewy than chicken. Wherever I go, if ostrich is on the menu, I'll probably order it after this.

Ostrich dish in Taiwan

10) Frog, Vietnam

Frog for Christmas dinner in Vietnam

I don't see what the big deal is with frog. It's just like eating a little chicken. The meat is really tender, and this dish was cooked in mint leaves. I don't know if the Vietnamese could find anything they can't make tasty: literally everything is delicious. You'll see why I say that if you continue reading..

9) Eel, South Korea

South Korea has a really diverse culinary culture, chalk-full of spicy, healthy, well balanced dishes. However, as in the rest of Asia, South Koreans (and I) have been known to eat some of the strangest things. I quickly realized that eel seemed strange to me only because I'd never heard of eating eel, but I've since learned it's very popular outside of my little bubble of awareness. The reason it's popular? Eel, if prepared well, is some of the tastiest seafood I've had. 

First, they bring you a crispy eel spine to dip in sauce and chew. Next, we had barbecued eel with two sweet and spicy marinades, as well as some eel soup. The meat was like a combination of chicken, tuna, and scallops in taste and texture. The soup was fantastic, with a very dark red color with a smoky, spicy, rich taste. As usual with Korean meals, the table was full of tasty sides, giving you options with each grab of your chopsticks.

8) Live octopus, South Korea

Suck em down whole or cut up, but they best not be dead... (Photo, AP)

I hate octopus and squid, which are obviously key ingredients in a lot of Asian culinary cultures, so I've had to learn to just force them down. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when I first tried eating live octopus. In my opinion, octopus actually has a softer, juicier consistency when it's alive and uncooked. It's also fun feeling the tentacles gripping your throat, which, I should mention, can also kill you. This is a great snack to accompany beer and soju at a Pojang Macha - a cheap place to drink, usually hosting several very loud groups of jolly Korean men, with plastic chairs and tables.

7) Crocodile, Cambodia

Fresh out the swamp.

There were two very cool things about this Cambodian barbecue meal: the first is that it was served alongside number 6 on the list. The second is the anticipation of not having any idea what crocodile would taste like. Crocodile is actually really savory and soft meat. It was cooked on a elevated grill in the middle of the table, and vegetables and soup broth were gradually added to the drippings from the meat.

6) Kangaroo, Cambodia

(Getty Images)

I know... Kangaroos are really cute, unique animals. Seeing it on the menu next to crocodile, though, I has no choice. Kangaroo was good, but not very impressive. At this point in the meal, we had already eaten ostrich, beef, and crocodile - so everything was blending together on the taste buds. Also, does Australia really export Kangaroos?

5) Balut, Philippines 

Oh Balut... I'm considering moving this down on the list because I'm almost gagging remembering trying to eat it. Balut is a developing duck embryo boiled in its shell. You  crack the egg open, suck the juices, and eat the duck fetus. My friends said I took it like a champ, because they didn't see me crying. The juice was actually quite tasty, but swallowing the fetus is a rough process.

4) Beondegi, South Korea 

There are a lot of things about South Korean cuisine that confuse me... Pickled EVERYTHING, fermented EVERYTHING, minnow-almond salad and dried squid... But 번데기, or Beondegi, sits around the top of the Korean strange scale. Silkworm pupa, or disgusting little insects which have just passed the larva stage, are boiled, seasoned, and placed directly in your mouth. The taste, texture, and smell of this are pretty unforgiving - but some people love it! I actually suggested a friend try it once, and he immediately threw up. 

3) Insects, Borneo

While I was in Malaysian Borneo, I met Jungle Survival Guide Mike Mikki. He taught me to catch a variety of insects, roast them quickly with a lighter, and eat them. After this, I was catching and eating insects as much as I could. The taste? Well It's not great, but it's not as bad as you might expect. Ants are sour, grasshoppers are bitter, beetles and moths taste like chalky beans... Just a side note, I had eaten fried cricket, cockroach, and grasshopper in Bangkok a few years earlier. They were cooked and covered in soy sauce though, so they weren't as adventurous as just catching bugs and eating them raw. Warning: please don't just walk around rain forests eating random insects because you read this - do it with a guide!

2) Bat, Vietnam

This was probably one of the biggest surprises in my career of putting strange things in my mouth. You'll get more on the context with number 1 on the list, but I will tell you: bat is one of the most shockingly delicious things I've ever eaten. The meat is almost like a mix between duck and pulled pork, if that makes sense. It's like dark chicken meat, but better. Feeling adventurous, I asked the waiter to cut open the head so we could try the brain.

1) Cobra, Vietnam 

(Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

This was the ultimate attack on the mouth, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to top this. It was Christmas Eve in Ho Chi Minh City, and a friend had found a secret set of directions to a hidden restaurant. We went into the back, chose our bats and cobras, and sat down.

They prepared the cobras in front of us: first they slit the neck to kill it, and to drain the blood into a bottle. The blood was mixed with vodka. Next, they removed the hearts, and put them into shot glasses.

They poured the blood mixture over the beating hearts, and we took the shots. Next, they cooked the cobra, and brought us several dishes with the meat. As I mentioned before, the Vietnamese don't know how to cook bad food.

The dishes, from soup to stir fry, were very flavorful. The cobra meat, for the most part, was quite chewy, but tasty - a bit like chicken with a hint of fishiness. We continued in that manner, alternating between shots of bat and cobra blood vodka, until the owner took out a bottle of fermented deer antler whisky. I've forgotten a lot of Christmas dinners, but this one? I can't un-remember this one...

There it is, the eleven strangest things I've eaten in Asia. Eating things that make my adrenaline spike has taught me to be more flexible with food and has given me a new sense of adventure. It has made me a better traveler, a bold eater, and has left me with some wicked stories to tell.
Have you also tried some of these strange foods in Asia? If so, how did you like them? What other strange things (food...) have you willingly put in your mouth while traveling? Let me know below!

I’m the Guerrilla Gallivanter, and I’ve been traveling for the past 5 years. I like to dig deep into the cultures I visit and absorb everything through photography, close encounters with locals, and an inability to say no to almost anything. Follow me on twitter and instagram as @Guerrillaglvntr, or check out my blog at www.guerrillagallivanter.com.