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Cliffs at the End of the World

sunrise view from the house

I’m sitting in Sara’s rental house in Luz, Portugal.  Maybe it’s called Playa del Luz or something like that?  Okay, I just consulted my Portuguese expert, Sara B.  Beach is Praia, so it’s Praia de Luz, I think.

The house is a little shabby with cheaper than Ikea furniture, but has lots of stairs and random balconies and patios.  I got lost going to the pool the other day.  You have to go through a bedroom to get there, and the thought that this was possible didn’t occur to me, so instead I kept walking up and down half staircases and looking over balcony railings to see if I was missing a hidden path to the pool.  Finally I realized what to do.  We hung out by the pool all morning and part of the afternoon.  Don’t worry – I’ve been spraying on copious amounts of SPF 45, so although not burning I’m barely even tanning.

We also ventured into town for some wifi, which has become a standard in all of our day trip planning.  The house has a “wifi pen” from Vodafone, which unfortunately 5 different people couldn’t get to work.  When we asked the management lady, she simply agreed that most people couldn’t get it to work and the owner should do something about it.  So, no wifi.  Do you really need wifi to enjoy your vacation? No, not really.  But we’re still looking for it everywhere we go.

Last night we abandoned our plans to grill kebabs at home and instead went to the town of Lagos searching for dinner and wifi.  The town square had little columns with eerie blue lights and a banner stating there was free wifi, but none of our devices could find it.  We tried a tapas place recommended by Rick Steves and got some traditional Portuguese dishes, like Piri Piri Chicken and bacalao cod.  Unfortunately they were also all meh.  The wine was nice, though.  After it breathed for a while we had a spicy peppery blend to pour down our throats.   After dinner we found a crepes bar with free wifi and went to town.  We sat outside on a busy pedestrian street and shared Sara’s headphones to Skype back home with limited success.  Skyping definitely tends to work better with in a quiet room with strong wifi than on a shared public signal in the middle of street full of tourist crowds and musicians passing by.

In between the poolside sunning and the wifi/dinner searching, we did some sightseeing along the cliffs of Cabo Sao Vincente.  There’s an old fort (Fortaleze del Beliche), a convent, and a lighthouse on the southwestern most part of Europe that used to be considered the end of the world!  The buildings were all interesting, but the most spectacular part was definitely the raw landscape.  In every direction we saw tall beautiful cliffs butting up to a deep blue sea.  The wind is crazy, and after almost being blown away yesterday I was a little hesitant to stand right at the edge of the cliff like I usually do and look down, so all of my pictures are taken from a safer distance.  We were all imagining the action back in the heyday of the area – with a fort, a convent and a lighthouse in such a rugged, desolate landscape I couldn’t think past lots of lonely souls.

The concession lady told us that in March and April the sea goes crazy in these parts, with waves crashing over the cliffs!  Since I’ve only seen waves that wild when skirting hurricanes in the middle of the sea, I definitely want to come back and check it out!  Here’s what it looks like in August:

Algarve beach walk

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I know it gets confusing, but I’m in Portugal now. My friend Sara rented a beach house on the Algarve (southern) coast to meet up with friends before she heads south to Mozambique. Luckily I got here in time to see Laurie, Axl and Madeleine Steiner before they head back to Paris. Here’s a pic of all of us together:

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Later on we headed down to the beach to check out the tide pools and grab lunch. The town of Luz is mostly a tourist town, and mostly occupied by Brits. Is it any surprise that the food is far from amazing? The best thing I’ve had so far is churros, which I’ve never thought of as Portuguese before!

So, back to the tide pool walk. We headed from the beach to the cliffs during low tide. The beach is really protected, so when we rounded a cliff at the end of a cove I was surprised to be lifted off my feet by a raging gust! The tide pools were mostly filled with anemones, small shrimp, and tiny fish. Although not the usual La Jolla marvel that I’m used to, they were pretty awesome!

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While the tide was low we kept walking east along the beach/rocks. Eventually we reached the limit of our non-sturdy footwear and gear – I was climbing rocks with slippery flip-flops while clutching my camera, a too-big hat, all the while trying not to get blown over by the fierce wind. When our casual stroll became a challenge we turned around, only to find that the tide had come in and we had to scramble back on the crazy rocks of the beach. No worries – rock scrambling is always pretty exhilarating!

Here’s a few more pics of the beautiful coast:

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Graffiti in Gdansk

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I love street art!  I think it started with all the Cool Disco Dan tags along the Red Line in DC – spotting a new one always made me giddy!  Now I’m searching for it everywhere I go.

The graffiti in Gdasnk is fun and quirky.  I’m sure there’s some kind of political message attached to most of it, but my complete ignorance of the Polish language and Polish politics limits my appreciation.

Pomerania – It’s a place too!

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I learned all kinds of things this weekend while visiting friends in beautiful town of Gdansk, Poland. For instance, the southern shore of the Baltic is called Pomerania, or Pomorze in Polish. Don’t ask me how to pronounce it – I tried over and over again to speak some Polish with coaching from friends and got nothing but bemused chuckles, or responses in English.

Another great factoid – Poland was once the largest country in Europe! It’s southern end practically touched the northern reaches of the Ottoman Empire, which is why as a Turkish scholar I felt obliged to go and visit.

So, the weekend in Gdansk was full of Polish history (fascinating stuff), pork products (fascinating to my belly!), amber shopping, churches (there are tons!) and beer, of course! We did all this while festival shopping, kayaking, and museum hopping through the town.

One thing that struck me in Gdansk is how strongly the years of unwelcome communism shaped the town. For instance, as a rejection of communism and a statement of their individualism, Poles attended church, well, religiously. During the communist years, there was a stretch of forced vegetarianism. Now there’s a national chain restaurant that serves up delicious vegetarian food – in your face, communists!

Black Sea Adventures

When I started learning Turkish, stories about the backwards Black Sea area started immediately.  The people up there are called the Laz, and although they speak Turkish it’s in a different dialect, Lazca, and since most Turks have a hard time understanding them I figured I’d be toast!  In humor, the Laz serve the same purpose as the Polish in American jokes or or the Irish in England jokes.  To me, because their main characters are Temel and Dursun, they sounded just like Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes on the Gulf Coast.  Here’s an example:

Temel is a watchmaker. One day, his friend Dursun comes to him with a watch that has stopped working. Temel shakes it, puts it to his ear, turns the knob and stares at it for a while. Then, he opens it up and finds inside a dead ant. “Uyy, Dursun!” he exclaims, “Of course your watch has stopped. Can’t you see, the machinist is dead!”  HAHA!

As well as being the greenest part of the Turkey, the Black Sea is also well-known for its fish.  I agree – the fish is excellent!  I chose it for every meal that I could.  It was always served the same way – grilled seabream with olive oil.  And watch out squeamish types – the whole fish is served, with those eyes looking right at you! After the trip my Turkish teacher told me there’s another kind of fish that I should have tried, lüfer, or, according to google translate, bluefish. Now I have a reason to go back.

The area is also the center of hazelnut production.  When we walked around the old town, we saw mats with hazelnuts drying in the sun in most yards.  We also ate some picked directly of trees, cracking the shells with our teeth!  Along with the hazelnuts, we ate raspberries, blackberries and some local berries that we plucked off the side of a farm road.  A guide told me that in Turkey, if you can reach it from the street, it’s yours for the taking, making Turkey the best for street food, even when there’s no vendor!

This weekend was the first time I’ve seen the Black Sea!  I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a waterbaby or a sailor, but I’m always drawn to the water, and despite the strong winds and crashing waves I couldn’t resist a punishing dip.  It was rough!  I felt like a kid in a washing machine.  Instead of sand the ground is all rocks – either jagged, feet-cutting boulders or slippery moss covered stones which make it really difficult to find stable footing.  So, instead of a pleasant float I received bruises, cut-up feet, and as penance sacrificed my sunglasses to the big Black Sea.

After another fish dinner, we headed to a gentler beach for a bonfire and music.  First we sung some Turkish folk songs (okay, I really just listened) then the band came and played a variety of Turkish music and more worldly stuff, but with Turkish lyrics.  It was definitely different but music on the beach at night with a bonfire to keep you warm and stars over your head always equals bliss!

Sunday was all sightseeing.  As we were finishing breakfast a huge storm passed by the hotel, and rain continued off and on through the day, usually starting just as were finishing at some site, causing frequent mad-dashes back to the bus.  First stop was a ruined Genovese castle.  Only a wall and a few extra stones remained, but the area had amazing views.  The castle is slightly overgrown, reminding me of Ta Prohm in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, except not nearly as magnificent.

Next we headed to the old town of Akçakoca, where we ate all the fruits hanging in the road and took pictures of some of the old buildings.  I loved the mix of the very old and the very new, like a tractor parked in front of a house covered in satellite dishes. 

Along with all the charming old buildings, Akçakoca has a super-modern mosque.  Apparently there’s another of the same model in India or Pakistan – our guides couldn’t agree.  Anyway, it’s designed as an eight-pointed star.  Compared to the other mosques I’ve visited, it felt more open, airy, and bright!

After lunch we tried to see a cave.  In true Turkish fashion, we weren’t exactly sure where the cave was, so stopped frequently to ask local villagers on backroads who also weren’t really sure where it was for directions.  I think we spent an hour driving back and forth on the same stretch of road.  Finally we found someone who had reasonable confidence that it was just up the hill and headed there.  A tractor full of logs parked on the road, making a bus passing impossible.  Our guides set out in search of the owner.  Instead, they found a guy with a screwdriver who was willing to jump the truck and move it further to the side of the road.  The cave was not unlike most other caves I’ve seen in America, although no bats in this one.  As we came out, the rain started.  It took about 10 seconds to turn from drizzle into buckets of rain, and not much longer until it was a full-on storm.  On the way back down the hill, we had to get 3 more trucks to move to allow us to pass – this time in the rain! Driving in Turkey is always a challenge, whether you’re fighting Istanbul traffic or tractors without drivers on country roads!

Gölcük – a perfect stopover

On our way up to the Black Sea this weekend, we had a great stopover at Gölcük, an area with a beautiful mountain lake and hot springs. After two and a half hours on a bus, a brisk walk around the lake was welcome exercise. Actually, the area was so beautiful that I wanted to just stay there for the weekend. There are plenty of thermal springs hotels in the area, so I may be back.

As we walked around the lake, we kept spotting watermelons, as if we were in some surreal Easter Egg Hunt. Finally I realized that the watermelons were all directly under or in cool springs – the picnicking families were using the springs to cool their desserts!

The house you see in this picture is a retreat for ministry workers, kind of like Camp David.

I included this picture, even though it’s fuzzy, because it was a harbinger of one of the oddities of the Black Sea Region. While these woman worked, the men sat and had coffee, smoked cigarettes, and played backgammon. As we closed the Black Sea, these gender roles became more and more apparent.

Another Sunday Hike

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Last Sunday I went on another hike with a different group than my usual cadre of forest trompers. This group was way more organized and focused a bit more on education than simply the sheer fun of playing in the forest. On the bus ride to the drop off point, I actually felt like I was in grade school again, getting lectured on drinking water and the importance of a balanced diet. Several times throughout the day I got this field trip feeling – maybe a casualty of such an organized, pedagogic group where very little is left to chance.
Originally the group planned a hike of Mount Ararat but had to cancel it for some reason. Instead, they took a group of mostly beginner hikers to nearly the same area that I was in last week. Amazingly, just a few miles away from the redwood hotsprings area we were in a sort of dry valley that reminded me of the hills outside of Yosemite in California, “Steinbeck country” as my friend Sara calls it.
We actually started the hike on the road, which as a Turkish hiker is now a foreign concept to me. Of course, after a mile or so we trekked up a dirt hill and started the normal bushwacking routine. A guy insisted on my taking one of his walking sticks. At first I was apprehensive – I’ve been hiking sans sticks for my whole life with no problems! Still, it’s difficult to refuse a Turk, and I agreed to try one out. For the easy parts of the hike, it was an encumbering accessory that I had to maneuver with when pulling water out of my pack or trying to take a picture of something. During straight downcliff or uphill climbs, however, I have to admit that the stick actually helped me not fall on my butt! So I’m thinking about purchasing a set.
After taking a few of these hikes, my favorite part is eating. As I write this, I realize that’s probably my favorite part of most travels. On Sunday we found the usual wild mountain strawberries, as well as wild raspberries and blackberries, and pears. The pears were still a little hard, but all of the berries were amazing. The guide talked a lot about one tree then put it’s berry in his mouth and started chewing. Although I didn’t really understand his Turkish description of the plant I followed his lead, and chewed on a juniper berry for a while! Even as I feel my Turkish is improving dramatically each day, it’s amazing how much there is to learn. I think the hikes should help with botany.
Occasionally we’d stomp over oregano growing like weeds in the fields. These varieties are pretty strong and acidic but release a great scent. Throughout the hike our guides would wonder off the to take pictures of butterflies, insects, and other flowers. I included a few of my shots in this slideshow. The red and blue bug is from Africa, but I couldn’t really decipher much more information about it from the guide’s description.
When we were nearly done with the hike, we stopped at a creek, took off our shoes, and cooled our feet in the water for a while. It was a great way to wind down and really refreshing.
For a language learner, these hikes are ideal. In general there are few English speakers, so if I want to talk to people I’m forced to use Turkish. It’s also a great way to meet all kinds of people outside of my normal circle in Ankara. They hike year-round – we’ll see how deep the snow gets before I start hike-hibernation!

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