On New Places

Posted on Saturday, May 9, 2015

For as long as I can remember, we've been a family of travelers. My parents left Dublin for Johannesburg when they were first married, and then traveled to England, back to Dublin, and ultimately to the States. Their itchy feet must have been genetic, because my sisters and I haven't stopped moving since we've been old enough to travel alone. My older sister, upon graduating from Villanova in 2009, packed up for KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, where she lived as an Augustinian volunteer for a year (you can still read the blog she kept back then and see some of her photos by clicking here). My family was pretty nonplussed when I, in turn, decided to pack up for France in 2012. My younger sister took off to India for six weeks last year, where she rode elephants and ate curry for breakfast, among other more academic things. Until recently, the most foreign and far-away place I'd seen was South Africa. Visiting Sinéad a few years ago, I found myself 8,000 miles away from home. Funnily, though, being so quantitatively far away from familiarity didn't feel unnerving. I was with my family, visiting my sister in the home she'd already lived in for a few months. Things didn't feel as completely foreign as you might have expected.

A few weeks ago, though, I took another trip. Though the flights weren't particularly long, twice during my weeklong trip I felt as though I'd fallen through the looking glass.

I've wanted to visit Dubai for a long time. Since seeing some photos on the Internet years ago, through StumbleUpon or some other time-wasting website, my imagination was captured by this strange and shiny city. I was taken by the idea of it, a city appearing in the desert essentially overnight and rising to a cosmopolitan world center faster than anyone might have expected. Luckily for me, my aunt and uncle have lived in Dubai for the past five years and so I was able to go and stay with them and their little ray of sunshine, my cousin Meron.

I landed in Dubai groggy after missing a night of sleep, but when I walked out of the arrivals gate and saw a little person tottering towards me with her arms stretched out shouting NIAMH NIAMH NIAMH NIAMH, I quickly forgot my tiredness. We rode home to my aunt's house through skyscrapers and sand dunes, cranes as far as the eye could see and the tops of buildings piercing the clouds on all sides. As we zoomed along the five-lane highway, we listened to the radio where the DJ spoke with an accent somewhere between British and American. The radio played more announcements for parties at Dubai's hottest clubs than songs, leaving no question about the listeners' priorities. In the car we passed familiar sights on both sides - a Subway sandwich shop, a Chilli's, Starbucks, Pier 1 Imports... Names that I've been familiar with for years on both sides of the Atlantic crowding the sides of this Dubai highway. Billboards bearing Sheikh Mohammed's image decorated the side of the highway. We drove past the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world, and as I struggled to find the top from the passenger seat of the car, I remembered thinking to myself (not for the last time on my trip) what a strange place I'd found myself in.

My five days in Dubai were fantastic. Every morning, I'd hear Meron shouting my name long before I felt like getting out of bed... But when a two year old with a just-slept-on afro comes jumping in your bed, gleeful and bright-eyed and ready for another day together, you forget your tiredness and enjoy it. We had a pool day, where skyscrapers sprung up from the horizon line at the edge of the infinity pool, and where we ate a mezze platter as the temperature crept closer to forty degrees. We ate at Shake Shack (which they should have called Sheikh Shack, according to my mother) and I stuck my toes in the water of the Persian Gulf. Time after time, Meron would demand "RUN!" and I'd run a few paces ahead before turning around so she could run towards me and be caught and thrown into the air. At night time, we'd sit in the garden, as Meron rode her Minnie Mouse car in circles and we drank wine and ate barbecue and listened to the distant strains of the Call to Prayer drifting towards us over the desert.

At the Mall of Dubai, we watched musical fountains light up and shoot into the air while Celine Dion and Whitney Houston played... and though I initially thought it was pretty lame I changed my mind fast when I saw how big Meron's eyes lit up at the sight it. Cynicism is hard to stick to when you're holding a two year old who exclaims WOOOOOW!!! at every new color or new sound, and applauds her sticky hands enthusiastically at the end. We drove out to the palm frond of Dubai, the man-made island that is host to the Atlantis resort most notably, and I marveled inwardly that the ground we stood on was put there by humans - and wondered why.

On my last night, after a lovely day spent eating Singaporean crab and face-painting (for Meron) and beer (for me), my aunt and I went out to a bar near the Burj Al Arab, the "seven star" hotel shaped like a sail on the coast. We sipped fancy cocktails and took in the impressive view, and as the sun went down the lights of the Dubai skyline began to twinkle. Though I'm not sure that I could ever live in Dubai, or more importantly that I'd ever want to, looking out at the architecture and the beaches and the yachts docked in the harbor, I had to admit that it was a pretty dazzling place. It's somewhere that's really hard to describe, somewhere that I'm still trying to digest, somewhere that I haven't quite decided about yet. For all its wonder, for all the nights spent with our toes in the sand under big city lights, there's something so superficial about the whole thing that it's difficult to take it seriously - at least, this is my not-fully-formed opinion.

What I do know is that I feel extremely fortunate to have seen it, and to have spent time with my family there while I still can. It's a million worlds away, but luckily it's closer to me on this side of the world than it would have been from the east coast. I'm grateful to have spent time with Meron, too, as she's at the most delicious age and is a joy to spend time with. I can't wait til the next time I see her.

From Dubai, I traveled (after a four hour delay) to Istanbul. Istanbul, too, has long been on my list of places to visit, and it seemed the opportune time since it's halfway between Paris and Dubai. Landing over the city, my breath caught in my throat at its magnificence. A huge metropolis (15 million inhabitants!??!), it sprawls over an extraordinary area. From the plane I saw the minarets of its many mosques reaching skywards, a sight I'm completely unfamiliar with. The exoticism struck me, even from the air above the city.

I spent my four days in a lovely hostel tucked away on a quiet street near the main sights. I walked and walked and walked, attempting to get some sense of direction (...haha). I ate dinner alone at a restaurant on the Bosphorus, happy to enjoy my food but half-wishing I had someone to talk about it with too. The kind waiter gave me free baklava for dessert, though I'm not sure I was quite as pitiful as he thought! I certainly didn't feel it. Another day, I finally understood the hype around Turkish coffee, as I tasted my first cup in a café in the Bazaar's center. When the over-eager waiter whisked away my cup before I was finished, he apologetically returned with a fresh cup and four more pieces of Turkish Delight. Though I definitely did do a lot of eating, I managed to tear myself away from the table long enough to see the sights, too. Over the days I spent in Istanbul I saw the Hagia Sofia, the cathedral turned mosque dedicated in 360 by the Emperor Constantius. I went into a mosque for the first time, embracing the unfamiliarity of it while letting my jaw drop in awe of the beauty. Sandals in hand and from beneath a headscarf, I craned my neck upwards trying to take in every part of the beauty, trying to capture it in my mind to remember for years and years.

Istanbul is, without question, the best city that I've visited. I've had the good fortune to see many European capitals, small towns, villages, countrysides... But for me, Istanbul is top of the list. The place is dripping with history, every cobblestone feels soaked in stories that stretch back farther than I can fathom. Paris is old, too, and history feels present over here for sure - but having been in Istanbul, Paris feels significantly younger. I don't have the words to try to describe what it feels like over there, or rather what it felt like for me. The air itself felt colorful. As the call to prayer sounded five times daily over the city (about three hundred times louder than it did in Dubai, which probably says something though I'm not sure what...) I watched wide-eyed as men and women scrambled towards the nearest mosque. I saw men washing their feet, their hands, in fountains dedicated to these ablutions. The reverence that permeated these actions, the respect with which the people that I saw viewed each other and, presumably, their religion, was remarkable. One night I went to a whirling dervish ceremony (to learn more about this mystic sect of Islam, click here), and was thrilled by the foreignness of it all. In my conservative Gap t-shirts, I was often the most scantily-clad woman on the streets. It was a truly bizarre experience in many ways, but having spent so much time in countries where I am the majority, I found my differentness exhilarating.

One of the most noticeable things about my time in Istanbul was the friendliness of its people. On my short trip from the airplane to my hostel, which involved a metro ride, a tram ride, and a very short walk, I was helped by no fewer than five strangers. I asked no one for help, I didn't particularly want help, but at every turn when I looked a bit lost, a friendly Turk swept in and helped me  - sometimes, without a word of English. Standing on the tram, an announcement sounded in Turkish and everyone climbed out. A man that I hadn't noticed before touched my arm, and explained in (very) broken English that there was a problem with our tram, and that we had to change. I was awestruck that he had obviously noticed I was a tourist, assumed I had no idea what was going on, and kindly explained. My years of helping lost tourists find Notre Dame and the like have finally paid off, I guess. When I explored the twisting paths of the Grand Bazaar, admiring the luxurious carpets and the silk and cashmere and cotton, the hand-painted ceramics and blown glass, the vendors were undeterrable. I fast discovered, though, that the best method was to be friendly. I cast off my adopted Parisian attitude (read: rudeness), and returned their smiles and chatted with them when they were eager to practice their English. I talked with a man who had lived in Texas for three months, helping his uncle who ran a carpet shop in Houston. I was surprised to find that, contrary to what my assumptions were, they were for the most part perfectly friendly and were genuinely interested in my story.

Many people that I talked with over my few days were surprised I was traveling alone, not quite understanding the concept or maybe just not keen to give it a try. Walking through a busy square one day, a man fell in step beside me and struck up conversation. Though I felt vaguely uneasy, he explained he owned a small hotel around the corner and liked to stretch his legs during his lunch break. He walked with me for five minutes, wanting nothing but to chat about my travels. At the end of the square we were crossing he shook my hand and thanked me for my time, and headed back towards his hotel. I smiled to myself. Sometimes, it's nice to remember that people are just people.

One day I took a two-hour cruise down the Bosphorus Strait. As I sat, feeling nerdy but so happy with my 10 lira audio tour, we glided beneath a bridge connecting Asia and Europe. It was immense, and beautiful, and I felt a feeling of smallness that one only gets during moments of real wonder and awe. The following day, taking a ferry over to the Asian side, I thought for the thousandth time how incredible a place it was, really, and how grateful I was to be seeing it all first-hand. I knew on my last day that I'd be back, someday.

In short, because I'm trying not to ramble on too much (and maybe failing...), it was probably the best trip I've ever taken. From the splendor and flashiness of Dubai to the warm exoticism of Istanbul with its good-natured residents, it was a week that I know I'll treasure. To see places that are so extraordinarily different from Europe, from the United States, yet to find moments of familiarity among the difference, is something that I'm still mulling over. It takes a while to digest really good experiences, don't you think? To decide what to take away from it all?

For now, it's Saturday evening in Paris and I'm feeling excited about so many things this summer. One of my closest friends is back in the city for the next year, and she's on her way over to catch up over some bubbly. The schoolyear is essentially over, after I stop procrastinating and hand in my last few projects and sit some exams.
This summer's going to be a really good one, I think, and I'm excited to see what it will hold. If anyone is still reading - thank you! Now, go and book a ticket to Istanbul. I've got some bubbly to pour. xx

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