Expat Magazine

Istanbul & Israel 2016: A Preview

By Gail Aguiar @ImageLegacy

Dead Sea, Israel

We’ve returned to Porto from our anniversary/my birthday trip several shades darker thanks to the intense sun over Turkey and Israel, still a little incredulous about what we managed to see in just a couple of weeks. I have more than two thousand files of photos and video downloaded from the journeys, my memory crammed with sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and smells that will surely fade to oblivion if I don’t try and document at least some of it.

We really hemmed and hawed over the main destination for our third anniversary. Continuing my birthday tradition of visiting a new country, we choose new places for these trips. We got married in the Azores, celebrated Year 1 in Cabo Verde, and Year 2 in Malta, San Marino, and Italy with a whistle stop in Madrid. This year we broke our unintended pattern of visiting small islands. But in the early months of 2016 the plans kept changing, vacillating between countries such as Sri Lanka and Colombia and Iran, until finally we came to the conclusion that we procrastinated too long to apply for visas for Iran to guarantee we’d have them in time. In late April we let attractive flight prices and visa convenience prevail in our selection. Neither of us required a visa for Israel, and for Turkey it was just a matter of obtaining the visas online (as a Canadian, my visa was 3x the cost of Paulo’s!).

As random as the selection process sounds, both Israel and Turkey have been on my radar for years — in Turkey’s case, many years since I had lived with a Turkish boyfriend 20 years ago and the relationship ended before a homeland trip happened. Flight deals to Turkey from Canada kept popping up over the years, but as with all heavily discounted flights there is either a quick sell-off or the dates are restrictive (or both). With Israel, it was a little different: after losing David at the end of 2005, I was determined to visit (because he was no longer able to). I’d planned Israel for 2012, but the Turning 40 Series happened that year, which made Vancouver the priority for June. Little did I know back then that a few months later that my life would change radically again and 2012 would be the final year for the solo birthday trips. It took another four years for a trip to Israel to become a reality.

I was more diligent this time about posting updates in Instagram and in the Facebook page because I could sense the family’s concern about our destinations this year. Both Turkey and Israel are high on the travel advisory lists for terrorism threats, and the first half of 2016 has been a particularly deadly year for Turkey, with seven bomb attacks since January. Tourism is at an all-time low. I had hoped that Ramadan would decrease the likelihood of an attack, but there was a bomb in Istanbul just two days before we arrived. We avoided large crowds and hoped for the best — that there would be no incidents. I told a friend in Porto that it was my only wish, and everything else was a bonus.

Ramadan in Instanbul

First, Istanbul

Istanbul was a stopover that we extended to four days for a small fee (€50). Our flights were on Turkish Airlines and we had to stop in Istanbul, anyway, to connect to Tel-Aviv. As one of the world’s largest cities, it made sense to visit Istanbul in installments and we viewed this as an opportunity to gather knowledge and whet our appetites for exploring Turkey more thoroughly later. Paulo posted our trips in Couchsurfing as an open invitation for hosts to contact us, and we were surprised at the number of responses we received for Turkey. We said yes to one host in Istanbul, and a local teacher contacted us through couchsurfing and very kindly offered to take us around Istanbul for an entire day. Since neither Paulo nor I speak any Turkish, we were very grateful to have a local guide. Although we’re not picky about where to go, what to do, or what to eat, having someone show us the city, answer questions, and give explanations and opinions made an enormous difference to our overall experience. It’s what we do for visitors in Portugal, and it’s interesting to be at the receiving end, too.

This trip marks the first time Paulo stepped foot in Asia and we couchsurfed in Üsküdar on the Asian side of the city the whole time, which meant Paulo entered Asia over and over again as we crisscrossed the Bosphorus Strait daily. It’s a cheap, short, and beautiful ferry ride that we were happy to take, to give us a taste of local life on the non-touristy side, with plenty of angles and views:

ferry across the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul

ferry from Üsküdar on the Asian side to Eminönü on the European side

A few more photos around Istanbul, a random selection of street scenes across the days.

cats of Istanbul

You’ve probably heard Istanbul has large colonies of cats. It’s true, and they’re not all raggedy strays, either.

Eminönü, Istanbul


a planoply of mosque tiles

a planoply of mosque tiles

gailatlarge-a nap in the courtyard of Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), Istanbul

a nap in the courtyard of Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque)

artfully-arranged fish at the market in Besiktas, Istanbul

artfully-arranged fish at the market in Besiktas

Album: Istanbul 2016

Then, Israel

It goes without saying: Israel is complicated. Politically, ethnically, religiously, historically, how the State of Israel came to be and its development over time is not light reading. While Turkey is under threat by the PKK and Islamic State, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has its own tensions which run deep and my awareness as an outsider is only at a superficial level. As tourists, we have choices whether to be merely consumers of tourist products (hotels, restaurants, souvenirs) or we can choose to educate ourselves while travelling: interacting with locals beyond business transactions, observing local life without judgement, participating in local life (eg., taking public transit instead of tour buses), etc. When we can, we try to couchsurf with locals in order to boost our cultural and political understanding, but this time we didn’t need to send any couch requests to Tel-Aviv since both Paulo and I each knew someone there… and it turned out those two people happened to live just one block from each other!

Having two contacts in Tel-Aviv helped to shape our trip, as we relied on them for ideas rather than create an itinerary ourselves before arriving. We made Tel-Aviv our base for the first four days, visiting Jerusalem on a day trip on Day 4, then rented a car to travel around the country for the next few days, returning to Tel-Aviv to stay at the second apartment for the end of the trip.

Here’s a sampler of images from around Israel:

Old Jerusalem, Israel

Old Jerusalem

a very proud fresh juice vendor in Nazareth, Israel

a very proud fresh juice vendor in Nazareth

Bell Caves, Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park, Israel

Bell Caves, Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park

daredevil diving in Akko (Acre), Israel

daredevil diving in Akko (Acre)

street art in Tel-Aviv

street art in Tel-Aviv

Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, Israel

Damascus Gate, Jerusalem

Album: Israel 2016

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