Thursday, June 28, 2012

Istanbul: Haggia Sofia Museum

The Haggia Sofia is one of the highlights of any trip to Istanbul. First off, it's gorgeous, as you'll see from the pics below in a sec. To add to that, the structure has an amazing history. From the year 360 to 1204, it served as a Greek Patriarchal cathedral. Then from 1204 to 1261, it was a Roman Catholic church, then back to the Greeks until 1453 when it was converted to a Muslim Mosque. Finally, in 1935, it was opened as the museum it is today. The combination of religious influences make the place really unique. One on wall you've got a mosaic of Mary and baby Jesus, across from it a plate of Arabic writing, a few angels overhead. Really amazing - the photos below don't do it justice, but we tried! :)

A view from the outside. The museum opens at 9:00 and luckily from the research I did in advance we knew to get there early to avoid the lines. We arrived about 8:40 and ended up about 10 in line. By 8:45, the line numbered close to 100. Whew!

Another tip for those traveling to Turkey: You can use credit cards, but in places like the Haggai Sofia, it means getting into a specific line, which of course we didn't find out until we got up to the window in the wrong line! Get some Turkish cash to make things easier.

One of the Catholic influences - a baptismal font. I just really loved how the light was coming in at this time of day.

A view of the main alter area. Notice the Muslim plates on either side. The small painting in the middle of the dome above the windows is the Virgin Mary and Jesus. So cool to see the contrast and mix of religions. And yes, those are chandeliers throughout the area. There were lots and lots of them and they were HUGE.

The Muslim ablution station. Muslims wash hands, feet and face before praying using this jar to get the water for the ritual.

Our official tour guide. This cross-eyed cutie was walking around the place like she owned it. She was nice enough here to pose for the paparazzi and then stretch for a little scratch behind the ears.  We saw quite a few cats around the city - in the outdoor cafes and at many of the sites like this one. Really healthy looking and well fed, they were all quite friendly - a true reflection of the Turkish culture.

This is called a Mimber - in a mosque this corresponds to the function of a pulpit in Christian church. Basically, it's where the sermon or message is given on holy days.

There's a closer view of the painting of the Virgin and Child.

A long view from the balcony. It was just breathtaking and unfortunately, the photos just can't capture how beautiful this place is, and how big.

This final photo is one of our favorites. Brian took it by holding the camera out one of the windows in the balcony. We think it looks a bit like something George Lucas would use in a Star Wars film. And as you can see, the weather was absolutely perfect - a welcome change from hot and humid Abu Dhabi.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Istanbul: The Spice Market and Dinner

After settling into our hotel, it was late afternoon in Istanbul, too late to fit in any of the tourist sites, so we decided to venture out to the Spice Market and have a look around. The Spice Market is an Arabian souk (market) with a whole lot of other junk for sale as well. There is actually a larger souk called the Grand Bazaar, but unfortunately, we ran out of time before we could check it out - next visit. Didn't find a single thing to buy as the place was filled mostly with cheap junk made in China so we just wandered around and took some pictures.

After our wander, we headed out for dinner at one of the rooftop terrace restaurants that are all over the city. Here are few photos of the view.

 Looking out towards the Bosphorus River way in the distance.

 This is Turkish tea served in these beautiful glasses. Tasted a bit like Lipton to me so I'm not really sure if it's a special tea or just the way they serve that makes it 'Turkish'. There was also Turkish coffee available everywhere, as you can imagine, but that stuff was just too strong for us.

This is Turkish Delight, which I'd never tried before. Unfortunately, I loved it! :) It's a sticky gelatin, very sweet and covered in really really fine powdered sugar. This flavor was rose, but you can find it all kinds of flavors like pistacio, coconut, strawberry, lemon and a bunch of others.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Arriving in Istanbul

We're off on another adventure, and I'm actually blogging from the "living room" of the Neorion hotel in Istanbul. This is a 3-day weekend for us in UAE to celebrate the Prophet's ascension, so like all good airline employees, we took advantage of my discount and flew to Istanbul.

Actually, we had a few minutes of panic yesterday when I realised that the tickets I thought were confirmed, were actually standby - which means we could have gotten bumped at the last minute. I think we both slept with our fingers crossed hoping we'd get on the flight.

Well, we did and had another lovely time in Etihad business class. We'll see if the luck holds for the return trip!

Arriving at the Istanbul airport, we got in line for passport control and then realised we hadn't yet gotten our visas. Off to the visa counter where we were allowed to line jump due to our 'preferred' status as Etihad business class (have I mentioned how much I love my employee benefits?!) Then through passport control which was also painless due to fast track status.

We were supposed to then meet our hotel representative, and while there seemed to be hundreds of people standing with placards at the exit, none of them seemed to have our names on them. Eventually, we had to find a tourist info center and ask them to call the hotel for us (our UAE phones don't work here and the SIM card Brian purchased needs an hour or so to become activated). Anyway, we got everything sorted and hopped in the van with another couple, newly arrived from London, to head out.

Our first impression of Istanbul driving was a good one and I think Brian must have jinxed us by saying so because a few minutes later we hit terrible traffic and some of the narrowest streets I've ever seen. Thank goodness we hadn't considered a rental car!

We arrived at the Neorion hotel where I'm sitting now, enjoying a nice glass of red wine, which is our welcome drink and watching these two at a near table laughing and playing backgammon.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Roundabouts of the Middle East

The civil engineers in this region must be of European training rather than North American if the number of roundabouts (R/As) are any indication. In the year and a half we've been here (that long already?) we've both learned how to navigate the R/A, and while I still wouldn't say I'm ready for the R/A in Paris around the Arc de Triomphe (the mother of all R/As) I feel pretty confident with them around here.

It's the other drivers you have be cautious of.

But this isn't another "Renee can't drive" post, this is about the creative way the region decorates their R/As. Some of them are really, really cool. Take a look.

 This one is a little misleading - the gold pots are the roundabout and the incense burner is another monument in the background on top of a hill.  I just thought the photo was cool. Below you can see more of the roundabout.

Monday, June 4, 2012

City Curb - 2; Renee still 0 - Part III

So when we last left our heroine (me) she had left her car in the hands of the very nice insurance agent (almost as good as the service we get from Gina at Am Fam back home! :)

Said insurance agent promised to call me back when the car was finished ... but he didn't. At least not the next day. On day three, and after Brian ended up renting a car for a work trip he had scheduled in Dubai, I got a call from someone at the garage asking if the Lexus was ours. SIDE NOTE: In case you're wondering how Brian is holding up through all this chaos, he was actually a pretty good sport after the first few hours of fuming and swearing. It probably helped that he didn't have to do the running around to get it fixed. :)

Anyhooo, on day three, I finally reached someone at the garage with passable English skills and found out the car was ready and they were open from 3-7pm, so Brian and I made plans to pick it up together from Mussafah (you remember Mussafah from Part II, right?) The fun part was getting directions from the garage owner. The conversation went something like this:

"Can you give me directions?"
"Yes, Mussafah, Industrial Area 14."
"... And where is that?"
"Mussafah, Mussafah, Industrial area 14. First roundabout - straight; Second roundabout - straight; Third Roundabout - U-Turn; then first right; first left and first right. There you find us."
ummmm (I actually started laughing at this point and the garage owner joined me)
"It's 100 Meters from the Honda Service station. Madam, you come Mussafah and call me when close."

Sounded like a good idea to me.

So, we hopped in a taxi and gave the driver the directions I had from the phone. He seemed to know where the Honda Service station was so off we went.

About 4 wrong turns and 3 phone calls later, the owner told us to ditch the taxi and he would come and pick us up. How's that for service? And he did. A really nice man from the shop picked us up (we were only about a long block away, but would never had found it the way we were going) and took us to the shop.

And then we met the owner who was one of the nicest and friendliest people we've met in Abu Dhabi thus far. He and the co-worker who picked us up explained that they had to bend the muffler pipe back into shape and then replace the bumper where the exhaust had bubbled the paint and plastic. They were quite proud of their ability to match the pale pale blue paint exactly.

I think we stood around (in the 95 degree heat mind you) for almost 10 minutes just chatting and making jokes. They were really nice guys and as I told him as we got ready to leave ...

"It was really nice to meet you, but I hope I never have to see you again."

And now you know the rest of the story and from here on out, I'm going to look twice before backing out of any parking spot at the grocery store.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

City Curb - 2; Renee still 0 - Part II

You know how they say hindsight is 20/20? Well, that should probably be the title of this post as had I known then, what I know now, my Monday would have gone a lot differently.

As you will no doubt recall, I had a 'smushed in' muffler to fix on this fine Monday morning. I called my boss to tell her I'd be in late and then called the Lexus dealer to make an appointment. Luckily, they could take me right away. 10 minute drive later and I was at the shop. They inspected the car and told me I'd have to take it to the body shop in Mussafah as I had bent a bracket near the top of the muffler pipe which needed to be bent back into shape.

Great, Mussafah. Let me tell you a little about Mussafah. It's the industrial area of Abu Dhabi and HUGE and confusing to drive through and packed with car repair shops of every kind you can imagine. And always busy - lots of traffic and lots of trucks. It was also a 25 minute drive. Off I went with my trusty map and a few prayers that I wouldn't get lost.

And you know? For probably the first time here in Abu Dhabi, I didn't get lost! Wow, maybe my luck was changing?  not so fast

The body shop guys took a cursory look and then asked if I had a police report. Huh? But it was just me, there weren't any other cars involved. I still needed a police report if I planned to make a claim on insurance, which I didn't have to, technically, but they suggested that they might need to replace the entire muffler system as well as the bumper that was getting melted from the exhaust of the 'smushed in' muffler. Sounded like the repairs could add up quickly so an insurance claim seemed a prudent route to take.

So I called the police and got more bad news. You have to get the police report at the location of the accident - no exceptions (and believe me, I tried) which meant I had to drive back to the supermarket (across the street from work) which was almost 30 minutes away. (sigh)

And you know the worst part? I KNEW about the police report thing. One of Brian's co-workers tried to fix a dent in his muffler and had to get a police report before they would work on his car, so I KNEW!!! Why didn't that nugget of information pop into my head the moment I heard the crunch? I don't know, but it was causing me some serious stress now.

Off to the supermarket and another call to the police to meet me there. After some photos of the offending curb and the car, a few unappreciated smirks from the policeman, and a 300 dirham fine for "making a mistake, Madam", I had my police report in hand and was ready to call the insurance company.

Who told me I had to make the claim in person with the car ... in Mussafah.

This time I did get lost, but not too badly and after a second trip around the large block found the insurance office. I presented my police report, explained what happened and waited to hear where I would need to take the car next - I was expecting to have to go back to the Lexus body shop (only about 5 minutes away thank goodness).

So I was unprepared to hear, "Madam, the police report is not available online yet. You can come back tomorrow?"

(in my head) GAAAAA!
(out my mouth) "Oh no, I'm missing so much work. Is there any other option?"
"You come back tomorrow at 8am and I take you right away, Madam."
"I'm just worried about driving the car any more. I don't think it's safe. And I'm missing so much work." (sad and pleading eyes - shamelessly milking the helpless female angle)
"Okay Madam, okay. If you want to leave keys. I look for report tomorrow and take it to garage and call you when finished. Okay?"

Okay? Not just okay, completely awesome!! I was so happy, I almost hugged him ... which would have been a whole other story involving the police and probably deportation.

I happily left him my keys and caught a taxi to work.

Stay tuned for Part III - All sorted and on the road again