Thursday, August 25, 2011

Final Thoughts on Turkey... mostly its food

We thoroughly enjoyed our Turkey vacation and the variety of new things we got to see and do.

If you didn't know it was going on, we were surprised that Ramadan did not make much of an appearance, other than in a few places... at least, along the tourist trail. We really wanted to experience a traditional iftar (breaking-of-the-fast) meal, but most places were strictly for the observing faithful (typically tents next to the mosque), and we didn't want to intrude. It looked like there was a chance in cosmopolitan Istanbul, but we arrived too late for the seating... and stupidly, it didn't occur to us until we were there, that of course, there would be no second seating!

Turkey offered a varied and delicious cuisine with not a bad meal in the entire trip. In a country where they also revere my favorite meat, my streak of eating lamb ran 13 days. On the coast, there were fried whole fishes and even calamari. Turkish breakfasts ensured a regular supply of fresh goat cheese and exceptional honey. Faced with tantalizingly prepared vegetables and a wealth of meze options, I decided to ignore the traveling taboos of eating of the raw, unboiled, and unpeeled... and was rewarded (or lucky) with nary a bellyache! ...mmm, ripe figs the size of your palm.

The real prize of Turkish fare, especially for backpackers, is the vast array of fast food. In all their shapes and forms, kebaps are king. The meat on them is real meat and bares little resemblance to the baloney-grade rotating skewers you see elsewhere. Red cabbage or garlic sauce did not appear in the original version, but frequently, three or four cold french fries would get thrown in. Pides (Turkish canoe-shaped pizzas), lahmacun (round Arabic pizzas with no cheese), and gözleme (Turkish crepes) were cheap and came with all kinds of toppings. My personal favorite were the börek, a family of rolled or layered flaky pastries that get stuffed with savory (spiced ground meat, cheese, spinach, potato, or some combination thereof) or sweet (fruit) fillings.

Finally, in our last days in Turkey, we became big fans of mulhallebi (Turkish milk puddings). There was your common rice pudding version, an almost flan-like one with a caramel syrup layer under a bed of ground walnuts, and another with a powdery burnt sugar envelope. It was relief to discover the "chicken breast pudding" was just another milk pudding in the shape of a raw chicken breast and did not actually contain any poultry. Cooling and creamy, they were a refreshing break from the sugar and honey stickiness of most Turkish desserts.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Selçuk, Ephesus, Denizli, and Pamukkale (Turkey)

Selçuk is the town functioning as the gateway to Ephesus. The ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus (Efes in Turkish) was the second largest city in the world in 1st century B.C. We heard that archaeologists sometimes use theater capacity to estimate population size. Assuming one in ten people were theater-goers makes me think the ancients must have been a much more cultured bunch... or that there was nothing better to do. For me personally, the true mark of civilization was the presence of toilet seats in the Ephesus latrines! We were lucky to arrive as the archaeological site opened and before the swarms from the cruise ships and coach buses came to view the largest collection of Roman ruins in the Eastern Mediterranean. For religious travelers, probably the most famous resident in the area was Mary, whose house where St. John took her to live (post-Ascension, pre-Assumption) is also open for visits.

Denizli also is better known as a way-station. The real draw is Pamukkale ("cotton castle" in Turkish), a short bus ride way. Hot springs flowing down the mountainside form strange white terraces, or travertines. You can walk up the surreal landscape without shoes and bathe in the shallow, pale blue pools along the way. Not exactly sure why, but the place seem to inspire the taking of many Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editıon-type provocative shots from the bikini-wearing masses. Even though the temperatures were soaring, the fact that the water running along these icy-looking surfaces (calcium carbonate deposits) was not the tiniest bit cool was difficult to wrap your head around. At the top of the slope, included in the ticket was Heirapolis, a Greco-Roman spa city. For a hefty surcharge, you could swim in the same antique pool. The other ruins were less impressive after Ephesus, but a more jarring sight was seeing the same visitors - still clad in their thongs or speedo's - clamber over ancient structures.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Kaş and Fethiye (Turkey)

After several abortive attempts, we finally got to try the meze (selection of small hot and cold plates) dinner on the terrace of our delightful hotel in Kaş. Found in the cuisines of many ex-Ottoman empire holdings, the Turkish meze we sampled included: stuffed grape leaves; pasta - or maybe it was cheese - and other unidentifiable chunks of goodness masked in thick yogurt; white beans and carrot in a tomato-based dressing; a concoction of finely shredded, roasted red peppers and bulgur; tomato-y roasted eggplant; pickled red cabbage salad; and a dip which looked like hummous but had a very strong walnut taste. Washed down with a generous glass of Turkish red wine (a nice, medium-bodied selection, maybe lacking a little in complexity) for me and an Efes beer (pilsner) for Rich, it was a delicious meal with a splendid view of the sunset over the harbor.

We headed to Fethiye to join in on one of the quintessential Turkish holiday experiences - the blue cruise. Gulets (traditional, two-masted wooden boats) have become a popular option for taking in the Turquoise Coast. Choosing the 12 Island itinerary, we cruised along to different small bays and islands for the occasional dip in the water or hike up to ruins. Unfortunately, with motoring being such a convenient and speedy option, the sails are for show in most boats. Our vessel's single attempt to unfurl its jib had us wondering if we had actually started drifting backwards. Life on board was very relaxing. The most pressing concerns were whether to snorkel now or wait until the next idyllic spot, flagging down the ice cream man who would chug along in his tiny skiff delivering joy to blue cruises along the way, or deciding which book to read next in the book exchange. We were lucky in that our dozen or so companions on the boat were amiable, well-traveled folks swapping funny stories (including one about a live show where Dave Chappelle had a nervous breakdown on stage for 9 hours... did you even know he was still alive?!) and not hardcore gap-year booze cruisers which can dominate the scene (kids these days!).

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Göreme and Kaş (Turkey)

We took our second overnight bus from Göreme to Antalya. Overnight buses in Turkey are great. The coaches are air-conditioned, and each assigned seat has its own built-in screen. It's a shame that all the channels are in Turkish. There's a bus attendant who periodically stops by to offer you goodies - moist towelette, drinks, snacks even - all included in the price. But don't be fooled just because he wears a tie or gives you cake. I looked out of the window at one stop to see our bus attendant in fisticuffs with an irate passenger. Sure, the passenger's surprise punch landed on the attendant's cheek and cut it open with his wedding ring. However, this guy was built like a boxer, and the ensuing fight required two groups to pry them apart with the passenger's kerchief-ed wife pleading loudly between them. The bus attendant resumed his duties imperturbably with only the blood spatter on his otherwise immaculate shirt to indicate differently.

The day bus from Antalya to Kaş was a different story. A long, boring one. The bus driver added an extra hour to the 3-hour trip by stopping for tea several times and picking up random people from the side of the road for extra cash in his pocket. These passengers crammed in on plastic stools down the aisle and included a woman with a crying baby covered in some kind of infectious pox.

Kaş is located on Turkey's famed Turquoise Coast. The town is set steeply into rocky slopes, and the water is very blue here. Boats dock in the small harbor, and you can even take a short ferry to the Greek island of Kastelorizo (Meis in Turkish) about a mile offshore. We came to this relaxing, beach town for adventure.

Sea kayaking is one way to view the sunken city of Kekova. Unfortunately, our trip did not really end up stopping there as planned. However, after fighting foul winds and swells for 3 hours without working rudders, I think everyone was quite happy to forgo the visit and make it to dry land. [At this point, any one who knows about our brutal 10 days of kayaking in Belize must be wondering why we would ever subject ourselves to them again. I guess that all we can say is, "Memories fade?!?"]

Our other adventure gave us a better sense of accomplishment. Canyoning is traveling through a canyon the adrenaline way. We scrambled and slid over boulders, abseiled (rappelled) down waterfalls, jumped from rocky precipices into icy pools, and rode zip-lines through steeper descents... all in an extremely unflattering get-up of helmet, wetsuit, and a canyoning "diaper"/harness combination. Really looking forward to abseiling for the first time, I was sorely disappointed to find my lack of coordination showed again in typically ungraceful style. Many of the straight out jumps involved a specific trajectory so as not to bash your body against the foaming rocks around or below. At times, I admit the fear threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to just suck it up and jump. The most panic-inducing was a jump from a tiny ledge down a 20 ft (6 m) narrow shaft in the rock with the guide shouting, "Aim for the bubbles!" Even getting out of the canyon again was a challenge - an unexpected portion of free-climbing followed by a relentlessly steep, vertical ascent of a 1 km hike... in aforementioned wetsuit. Seven hours after starting, Rich, of course, was still happy and leaping like a mountain goat!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Göreme, Selime, Derinkuyu, and the Ilhara Valley in Cappadocia (Turkey)

Once “the land of beautiful horses,” bred for the Persian empire (or Rich prefers “the land of adorable puppies”), the Cappadocia region is now popular for... rocks. Volcanic activity and millions of years created some fantastic geological formations. Hiking lets you see how each valley (e.g. Pigeon, Love, White, Red, or Rose Valleys) has its own features. Sedimentary layers create interesting striations. “Fairy chimneys” alternately look like pillars, minarets, soft-serve ice cream, meringue (ok, maybe those last two are only if you are hungry), or a certain male body part.

Taking advantage of the softer, volcanic rock, people have been digging out caves since ancient times. Whole underground cities even. We visited Derinkuyu, one of the fifteen excavated in the area. It has 11 floors underground with the oldest layer dating to several centuries B.C.! Used for protection from whomever was fighting topside, Derinkuyu could accommodate 25,000 people... and all their animals. When you see the large section that had been devoted to an underground winery, you know they were settling in for the long haul.

Of course, in those days, some of the people were hiding out in caves for religious reasons (think hermits in The Life of Brian). We visited a big ruin of a monastery carved into the rock in Selime. You can also see some of the rock-cut churches elsewhere in the Ilhara Valley and in the Göreme Open Air Museum. Most of those dating back to when Christianity arrived in the region (as far back as when they could say things like “my grandad hung out with Jesus”) are pretty simple, but later ones have frescoes.

Visitors to Cappadocia can share in the experience by staying in caves that have been fashioned into hotel rooms. We stayed in one in Göreme which came with the requisite Turkish breakfast (tea, coffee, bread, butter, honey, jam, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and ample hunks of fresh – probably goat – cheese). The most popular dish (or hyped tourist trap) in Cappadocia was the testi kebap. A casserole of meat and vegetables cooked in the terracotta pot that gets delivered to your table – en flambé in the posher places – and gets ceremoniously broken open to be served. After getting a few grits of ceramic in his mouth, Rich wholly endorses letting the professionals do it rather than taking them up on the offer to break it yourself.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Istanbul (Turkey)

For our summer vacation together, we opted for Turkey... along with the rest of Spain. We heard nearly as much Castellano in Istanbul as in Barcelona.

Istanbul exists at a crossroads between religions (Islam and Christianity), continents (Europe and Asia), and time (ancient and modern life). The Christian church of Aya Sofia, when finished in a scant 6 years (I'm hinting at you, Sagrada Familia!), was compared with the magnificence of Solomon's temple. Then it became a mosque. Now it's a museum. Mosaics depicting Jesus and company decorate the walls while giant medallions of a master Muslim calligrapher hang from the celings.

The Blue Mosque, still used as one, sits opposite. From the outside, it looks like a building from Coruscant, for all you Star Wars fans. All that's missing are a few lighters zipping around the background. Inside is a carpeted expanse covered with domes of intricate painted designs. Outside, we chanced upon a taping for Turkish television with a Rudy Guiliani look-alike. The program allowed us to have a free viewing of whirling dervishes. One poor fellow might have had to abort his prayerful dancing due to premature dizziness.

The sprawling grounds of Topkapi Palace were once home to the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. A selection of the crown jewels are available for viewing with blingin' thrones and emeralds the size of your palm a common sight. Should your tastes run more toward the spiritual, there are also some important Islamic relics. These include bits of the beard of the prophet Muhammad (stored in what looked like light bulbs) and the rod of Moses (handy for parting seas with).

A Bosphorus ferry ride will take you up the strait between Europe and Asia. Yalis, the summer mansions of sultans and the rich, dot either coast. The European side looks very European in architecture and high street shop options. The bridge at the mouth of the Golden Horn is a great spot to get a sandwich from guys frying the fish up on severely rocking boats.

It is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish). The food in Turkey has been fantastic so far, but we do feel guilty stuffing our faces in front of people who have to wait until sunset to eat. In the ancient Hippodrome and Sultanahmet park, families and friends gather in picnics to break their fast. Lines pack the pavements as restaurants do crazy business (kebabs so fast you'll freak!) in the hour beforehand. When the mosque finally makes the calls, the babble of the crowds goes silent for a good half hour as everyone chows down.

Turkey could challenge even the most hardcore sweet tooth. Most Turkish sweets seem to revolve around combining sugar in all its forms. Solving the problem of sugar dropping out of solution, Turkish desserts just coat everything in honey for good measure. There's your basic dozen variations on baklava (sugared and honeyed layers of pastry) or Turkish delight (jellied sugar coated in powdered sugar), which I did not think was good enough to betray your family for (see Edmund in the Chronicles of Narnia). We also tried out some sweets we are calling “goo on a stick” (multi-colored sugary taffy), “Turkish churros” (dripping with honey and dusted with coconut and pistachio), and “Turkish gulab jamun” (fried doughballs soaked in honey). They were all so sweet that Rich was using Coca-cola as a palate cleanser!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Final thoughts on Mozambique

Three weeks flew by quickly in Mozambique. From a professional view, it would have been nice to spend an extra week seeing how the lab puts into regular practice the training and recommendations. As a visitor, I would have liked to see more of the country itself. My hotel in Beira was a block away from the Indian Ocean, and I never even got a chance to see the beach. Below are some odds and ends from my time.


USAID's Farmer-to-Farmer Program was a very good experience for me. It was really great to use my agricultural science background and teaching skills in another environment. Thanks to the following organizations:
- Oregon State University Seed Lab
- SNS-Chimoio

Lost in Translation

Other than numbers and days, my limited Spanish did not really help my understanding of Portuguese. The Mozambican version sounds really different than the accents I'd heard in Brasil and Portugal.

When I first arrived, people kept mentioning talking to or getting help from "fow." It took a few minutes to remember "pao" (bread in Portuguese) is pronounced "pow," so then I realized "fow" probably referred to "FAO," the Food and Agriculture Organization!

Working with a translator was a new experience for me. One simple thing I hadn't considered before is that explaining anything takes at least twice as long. This made my estimates for training time way off.

A few, amusing times, the translator had to go several rounds between the lab members and me, only to discover that, as a scientist training scientists, I had already anticipated and understood their questions. So the translator was the communication barrier! It was great illustration that scientists around the world think alike.

Food and Cooking

Most of the Mozambican dishes I had were simple and unremarkable - beef stews or the ubiquitous grilled chicken and chips. I was really expecting to see a lot more beans or lentils in the diet, but many legumes (other than pintos and green beans) are imported and expensive. Vegetables seemed to be limited to the regular side salad of lettuce, onion, and tomato (this may be because I was visiting during winter). I am told that the highlights of Mozambican food are the seafood dishes, but I was too far inland to sample any.

Much of the cooking at home is done on charcoal, which does add a great smoky flavor. The downside is that this practice results in people getting sick or dying from the fumes and poor ventilation. One shocking statistic said that charcoal-related deaths in Africa were higher than the deaths from malaria! Part of the trouble I was told is that people who make charcoal make it from any tree - not necessarily the most efficient burning or least toxic wood.


As a developing country, I expected to see differences in the technology being employed. On one hand, a visit to a large seed processing/conditioning plant showed equipment and pesticide technology that was a old but still in use in the U.S. On the other hand, it was an awakening to hear a retailer get excited about the potential of their new product - hybrid seed. To put this in perspective, his current seeds were open-pollinated varieties, and hybrid seed technology for corn (maize) became available in quantity to American farmers in 1930.

Power outages were less than anticipated with only the occasional flicker. Phone and internet coverage could be really spotty. Vodaphone and MCel are the two carriers, and some people carry one of each to make sure they have service. The street corners of Chimoio were always littered with guys selling lottery-ticket-type strips of cards to top up your mobile.

Chimoio is the fifth largest city in Mozambique, and still, finding items on your shopping list, particularly electronics-related, could be difficult. Much in the shops are secondhand luck of the draw or poorly manufactured, giving China a bad rap in Mozambique. It took three stores to find a plug adapter for the scale in the lab, and we never did find a replacement light bulb or a good desk lamp to use for evaluations.