If you’ve scanned through your radio dial any time in the last six months you’ve almost certainly heard the song “Wake Me Up” by Avicci on one of the pop stations.
It caught me at the perfect time when I heard it last September. Finishing med school, not sure where I was going to go for residency, being forced to think about what I want to do/where I want to go with my career… The line “I can’t tell where the journey will end, but I know where to start” really captured my place in time. I still do not know where the journey will end, but at least now I know that my pursuit of further training in clinical medicine, academics, and research is taking me on a journey to Utah.
Back in September another line, “Hope I get the chance to travel the world, but I don’t have any plans.” was also really apropos. Graduating in January, but starting residency in July, left me with six free months in which I planned to “travel the world”. But 3 months before graduation I still didn’t have any concrete plans.
That didn’t stop me from talking … I knew I wanted to spend a couple of months in Australia and New Zealand, I was dreaming of going to the Galapagos, and I was talking about visiting friends in Belize, but after the three months of rotations and interviews that filled my schedule, my calendar was bare.
My dad (and Groupon) changed that.
Back in September a travel deal to Turkey came through Groupon that seemed almost too good to be true: 6 days, 6 nights, a number of meals, all transportation (round trip airfare, an internal flight, and ground transportation), and entry into a number of sites all for $1300? I’d never done an organized tour before (now I’ve done two- this Turkey trip and a tour of the Galapagos), but it seemed worth the risk for such a reasonable amount of money. After a bit of agonizing over dates, we chose a week, booked the deal, and I finally had some solid travel plans.
I’ll admit that Turkey was never on my “to visit” list (not that I really have one, though there are a number of places I’d like to see). My brother and father visited a number of years ago, and my father’s interest in the culture and history was piqued, and his enthusiasm made me keen to see some of the country for myself.
The tour, which was run by Friendly Planet, was booked as “A Taste of Turkey”: just a quick stay, in which you saw a number of the historic highlights on the western coast of Turkey. For the price, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d found the tour a bit lacking, so you can imagine my surprise when the tour was really 1st class!
I’m not going to write out a blow-by-blow description of our trip, but I wanted to share some thoughts and some pictures that I acquired while travelling this part of the world.
Our journey started at JFK airport, where we travelled with Turkish Airlines to Istanbul and then on to Izmir. As I’ve been travelling quite a bit of late, I’ve been taking note of the various airports in the US and around the world. I hate to admit it, but Biden’s comment about LaGuardia (and by extension, many US airports) being like a third-world country is pretty much spot-on. I wasn’t overly impressed by the Istanbul airport on our brief layover on the way to Izmir (though having our bags checked all the way through and going through customs at our final destination was nice), however on the way home I was absolutely wowed by the Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul. Talk about luxury!
Once arriving in Izmir we were picked up by our guide and taken to Kusadasi. There were ten of us in our group, which was a great number. At a number of our stops we saw big 50-person busses, and I frequently thought how fortunate we were to have such a nice, small group. We also absolutely lucked-out with our tour guide. Isa has 26 years of experience guiding, and is deeply knowledgeable about the geography, history, biology, and religious-importance of the various places that we visited. He’s actually written books on these subjects, and is truly a thoughtful guy.
One of the reasons our trip was so affordable is that we were definitely visiting during the “off season”. In my book that’s an advantage. We didn’t have to fight the cruise ship-crowds to see the various sights, and we got to stay in pretty nice, fairly empty, hotels.
The first day in Kusadasi we were left to our own devices. Having taken the red-eye flight, most of us took naps, and then my dad and I took a walk along the Aegean sea, eventually stopping for a beer and a coffee.
The next day we started our morning with a trip to the House of Mary- a Catholic and Muslim shrine- near Ephesus. The area is steeped in history, and while the identity of the original inhabitants on the site will never be known, it has earned pilgrimages from three popes.
The next stop was Ephesus, an ancient Greek city that has undergone (and continues to undergo) a lot of excavation.
In the afternoon we stopped by the remnants of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There’s not much of it left (when it comes to marble, the inhabitants of this part of the world have been great believers in the principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle!), but it was interesting to see. Here, like many places, there were buildings (or ruins) from many eras of human civilization.
The following day we headed to Pergamon, where we visited the acropolis (ruins, ruins, and more ruins), and then to my delight we had a bonus trip to the aesclepion.
The asclepion at Pergamon was not on our original itinerary, and I was excited to hear that it was added thanks to renovations at other sites. Asclepions were Greek and Roman healing temples to the Greek god of medicine and healing- Asclepius. The one in Pergamon is particularly historic because it is where Galen, a prominent Greek physician and scientist lived and practiced. Over the years I’ve had a bit of interest in medical history, so this was a cool bonus stop!
While we’re on the subject of Asclepius and medical history, lets take a quick look at the caduceus.
Even if you don’t recognize the word caduceus, you’d probably recognize the symbol: two snakes entwined around a rod (sometimes topped with wings). You might recognize this as the US Army Medical Corps insignia (or the insignia of many medical organizations). This is inappropriate,
The caduceus was the staff carried by the God Hermes, and holds no medical significance. On the other hand, the rod of Asclepius, a god of medicine and healing, would be an appropriate medical symbol. Indeed, many medical organizations do use the rod of Asclepius as their symbol. While the caduceus is certainly an interesting symbol, if you want a mythologically appropriate symbol, you want a staff with only a single snake wrapped around it.
Later in the day we stopped by a co-op where women make and sell traditional Turkish carpets. There we learned how these pieces of art are traditionally made (complete with natural food diet and traditional silk processing), and even learned how to tie the traditional double knot.
The next day was an interesting combination of legend, history, and modern tragedy. We started the day visiting Troa (the city that has been dubbed Troy). Like many ancient cities, Troy was originally on the coast, but silt has left it stranded miles from the coast. There have actually been 9 levels of construction at the site known as Troy. Archeologists believe that level VII is the level that was in use during the time of the Trojan war, but the structure of the city walls makes the likelihood that a giant wooden horse was used to smuggle soldiers in very unlikely.
Nevertheless, the Trojan Horse is alive and well at Troy. A large wooden horse is a popular photo op for tourists, and the large plastic Trojan horse from the recent Hollywood movie resides in one of the local towns.
After visiting Troy we took a ferry across the Dardanelles to Gallipoli. I have never been to a modern battleground and found the experience very sobering. The memorial to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC forces), the various graveyards, and the open air mosque and memorial to the Turkish 57th regiment were all very moving. My knowledge of history is incredibly lacking, but visiting Gallipoli and this part of the world inspired me to read more about World War I than I have since high school
By the end of the day we reached Istanbul, the final stop on our tour.
Over the next two days we explored many of the famous sites around Istanbul- The Blue Mosque (aka The Sultan Ahmed Mosque), Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Hagia Sophia, the spice market and the grand bizarre. Recognizing my father’s interest in religion and history, our guide also showed us the slightly less well known Suleymaniye Mosque. I won’t go into detail (you can search these places on Wikipedia if you’re interested), but the architectural sights were awe inspiring (while I found the market and bazaar overwhelming!)
I am, without a doubt, an avid naturalist. This trip was definitely focused on history and culture, but there was still some interesting wildlife to see. I was intrigued by (and sad to be a little too early to sample) the wild figs, and enjoyed the display of spring flowers. There were some interesting birds to spot, including pelicans, flamingos, and perhaps the coolest one for me for me- Storks.
So there you have it. Our “taste of Turkey” (and our taste of Turkish Delights) definitely hit the spot. I’d love to go back, though there are so many places I’d like to visit I can imagine it will be a while before I revisit Turkey, but you never know. It is important to recognize that not everything was “sweetness and light”. In Istanbul there were many Syrian Refugees begging on the streets, and there is certainly plenty of civil unrest in some parts of the country, with many people unhappy with the corruption of the current Prime Minister (it will be interesting to watch where this all goes in the near future).
“I can’t tell where the journey will end, but I know where to start.”
My plans to travel the world (well, at least to travel for six months) started with a Groupon to Turkey. Around that starting place I fit in a trip to Belize, the Galapagos, and England. Tomorrow I head back to Ecuador to explore the highlands with a new friend, and later in April I head to Australia and New Zealand. When I finally get back to the US I’ll pack up my belongings and drive across the country to Utah.
“So wake me up when it’s all over
When I’m wiser and I’m older.
All this time I was finding myself,
And I didn’t know I was lost”