Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Day 15: Chapel Hill

I am trying to recover from jet lag right now. But I just wanted to finish this blog with some final reflections on my adventure in the Middle East.

I feel so lucky to have had this experience and hope to go back sometime soon. Seeing all the different cultures has given me a new perspective, specifically on this region. Even though this area has many similarities, each city has something unique to offer, from food to architecture to sports, etc.

This experience has inspired me to visit other countries and continue to capture their cultures through my love of photojournalism. Being able to express each countries' social, economic, or political issues through photography enriched my experience beyond traditional tourism. I have also met so many new and interesting people that essentially created my experience.

Although I had a great time, it is good to be home with my friends. Coming back to the United States has given me a new appreciation for familiar comforts of living here.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my adventures as much as I have enjoyed experiencing them.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Day 14: Dubai

I just got a full night’s sleep, which is great because I have a lot I want to do today! On my way out of the hotel I grabbed a copy of the Emarat Al Youm, Dubai’s most popular newspaper.

I was unable to read much of the Arab written newspaper but I was able to make out enough to discover that there would be a rugby match today. In Dubai, rugby matches are played with seven players on each side, this is unique because the most internationally common form of the sport has 15 players from each team on the field.

The United Arab Emirates have recently joined the IRB Sevens World Series, joining 24 other teams including Samoa, South Africa, England, New Zealand, and Argentina. In 2008, the UAE built a brand new stadium, known as The Sevens, in Dubai and hosted the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a match played here. It was incredible to see this massive stadium that can hold up to 50,000 people! When rugby is not being played, The Sevens is also host to other sports popular in Dubai including, cricket, football, basketball, and netball.

I took a taxi home from the Stadium; I was pretty worn out from cheering all game. The UAE team managed to beat Samoa with a score of 14-12! The whole crowd erupted as the final seconds elapsed.

I noticed that the taxi driver also had a copy of the Emarat Al Youm lying on the dashboard. He spoke broken English but I was curious to know what some of the articles, especially in the politics section read. He explained how much like the United States, each emirate gets a say in legal, political, military, and economic issues. But he also said that the two emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi wield a bit more power than the rest because of their good economy and high population. He also informed me that there has been much unrest over the Dubai’s future. Dubai has managed to expand at an incredible rate because of their revenues through petroleum and natural gas. The citizens fear that once they tap their resources dry, that Dubai will collapse when they do not have that revenue coming into the city.

I have finally arrived back at my hotel. Exhausted from another enlightening day, I am very sad to be leaving and heading back to the United States tomorrow.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Day 13: Dubai

I am on my way to Dubai, one of the 7 emirates of the United Arab Emirates. For those of you who don't know, an emirate is a political territory ruled by a Muslim monarch. Since Mecca has no airports with airline services I had to travel to Jeddah where the King Abdulaziz International Airport flew me to Dubai International Airport, which is the 15th busiest airport in the world. I was intrigued at how nice Dubai's airport was and inquired about how much it cost to build it. According to the usher, it opened in 2008 and cost approximately 4.5 billion dollars to make.

Dubai is known for its extravagant constructions, which have in fact led to the increase of trade and tourism, like the Emirate Towers, Palm Islands and my current destination: Burj Al Arab, a famous hotel. Property and construction contributes 22.6% of Dubai's economy, while trade adds on 15%. No wonder you see more and more buildings being erected every day in Dubai.

I rode on the Dubai Metro's Red Line, which is partly under construction and expected to be done by 2012. I arrived at Burj Al Arab, a lavish hotel that is known for its sail-like shape. It is also the second tallest hotel in the world. Luckily I knew one of the receptionists working there. On a summer trip to India a few years ago I met my good friend, Vincent Ganzon, who recently moved from the Philippines in search of a hotel occupation and economic opportunities. Prior to my adventure to the Middle East, I arranged with him to give me a tour of the hotel. I got to see an mezzanine fountain, extravagant rooms, and one of the best views of the ocean I have ever seen.

Vincent Ganzon

Burj Al Arab at night:

After the tour of the Burj Al Arab we took a taxi to the world's largest shopping mall: Dubai Mall. He told me that the city's economy is largely based on tourism and annually thousands of foreigners come to shop at Dubai's 70+ malls during their vacation and shopping sprees. This is why Dubai is commonly referred to as the "shopping capital of the Middle East". I'm trying to be conscious of my tight budget, so I only bought a few cheap souvenirs.

Pictures from Dubai Mall

Aquarium Inside Dubai Mall:

After walking for hours in the mall I decided to call it a day and asked Vincent to take me to my hotel, which is in no way comparable to the Burj Al Arab. I'm excited about my last day tomorrow!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Day 12: Mecca

I woke up early today, mostly because I was very nervous and excited about my upcoming day. To emerge myself in the culture, I planned to participate in prayer at the Great Mosque with thousands of others. After waking up, I left my hotel room as “Shadha Al-Fulan”. I met Abdul, and walked with him to the Great Mosque.

The mosque was not all too crowded, and I managed to take a video of the inside for all of you reading this to get an idea of how massive and beautiful it is.

At the Mosque I went through some parts of Umrah, which is a smaller pilgrimage. I listened in as the group I was with talked about some of the customs they had participated in for Umrah. They had arrived in a sacred and peaceful mental state, and had already recited the talbiyah on their way to the mosque. I then followed them through the motions of prayer in the mosque, and watched as they moved to different areas to recite different praises. It was all foreign to me, but an experience unlike any I had participated in before!

As the afternoon came around, I finished my day of learning in the mosque and realized that I was absolutely famished. Abdul and I walked around the city to find some food. We didn’t have to walk far, because there were numerous Lebanese, Syrian, and Turkish restaurants. The most common items at these restaurants were dishes of rice and meat, as well as meatballs, and kebab. Abdul helped me order kabsa and ordered himself some yemeni mandi (both are dishes of rice and meat, as seen in my pictures below). Abdul insisted we order these dishes because they are the most popular dishes of Mecca's cuisine.

As we ate, Abdul told me about his experiences at Umm Al-Qura University, which is the only university in Mecca. He went to an all boy school through high school, and then attended Umm Al-Qura University, graduating with a degree in religious studies. Once we finished eating, we walked up to Umm Al-Qura to take a look around. The university was gorgeous, and looked much more modern than I expected.

Abdul and I headed back to the hotel so I could pack, sleep, and get ready for my trip to Dubai. It was a nice to make a friend and have a convenient tour guide.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Day 11: Mecca

So I have had an amazing journey thus far, but today things got a little more risky. I wanted to travel in Mecca, the birthplace of the founder of Islam, Mohammed, making it holiest city of the Islam religion. As you may recall, I admitted that I knew nothing about this place at the beginning of my travels. Luckily, I have had many amazing experiences in my previous journeys and have learned many new things along the way. Including the fact that it is completely against Saudi law for a non-Muslim to enter into the city of Mecca, and what am I? Non-Muslim. This posed a bit of a problem when it came my travels.
However, while traveling with my friend Adem around Istanbul, he asked me where I would be traveling in the days to come. I told him that my plan was to go to Tehran, Mecca, and Dubai. When the word “Mecca” came out of my mouth, his face immediately dropped.

He then informed me that I was not legally allowed to enter the city, but others have done it before. However, the consequences if caught are extremely severe. If I attempt to enter, I could be arrested and prosecuted by Saudi Arabian authorities. Now, usually I am not a huge risk taker, but I really wanted to get the full experience of this place while I was here. I needed to find a way to get into the city, so I asked him how it could be done. I realize that my actions were completely and utterly disrespectful to Islam, but this was a chance of a lifetime that I had to take. Adem knew some friends who knew how to get me a fake Visa saying that I was Muslim and that my name was “Shadha Al-Fulan”. He also has a friend that lives in Mecca that went to UNC as a foreign exchange student. Since Adem arranged a fake ID for Abdul to get into Franklin Street bars, he owed him a favor.

I had to buy the proper attire to wear into the city which is called ihram, a white dress and head scarf. Adem told me everything that I needed to be aware of while in the city, including that I should make myself as inconspicuous as possible and the proper way to worship.

This was not an easy task, and there were times that I felt uneasy about the whole thing, but I followed through with it. I was careful about not drawing any attention to myself because I was well aware of the repercussions of my actions. Once we got into the city, I was surrounded by people wearing white ihrams and speaking the Arabic language. I was able to take a few pictures as we walked around the city for a little while. I took this amazing picture of the Grand Mosque which is the holiest mosque in the city. It was absolutely beautiful! I noticed that there are tons of hotels in the city and when I asked why, I was informed that Mecca is the destination of the pilgrimage, known as Hajj. Hajj is the annual gathering of thousands of Muslims to worship and pray about the difficulties they encounter in life. The many hotels are needed to house the people during their five days of Hajj. This also opens up many job opportunities for the people of Mecca to tend to the large influx of people who travel to the city.

The average temperature for this time of year is between 83ºF and 110ºF. Today as Abdul and I walked around the city, it was a sweltering 100ºF! Wearing the ihram only added to the heat which made me thirsty. So we stopped at a local shop where I was introduced to “Mecca-Cola,” an imitation of “Coca-Cola”. It was the most refreshing thing I had consumed all day! Abdul walked me back to my hotel because I was tired and wanted to rest up for another busy day of exploring Mecca.

This is my favorite picture of the day:

Friday, April 2, 2010

Day 10: Tehran

Since I enjoyed my day yesterday so much, I decided to get up extra early this morning to start my trip. It was hard getting up around 6:30 AM, but I decided to take a few last photos around the hotel I stayed in. I must say, during my trip I’ve had exceptional luck staying in very nice hotels, and this time the Kowsal hotel was no different.

The rooms were clean, the food was great, and the staff was, for the most part, very courteous. As I was leaving I had a brief chat with the doorman who taught me how to say “merci” which is thank you in Persian. I definitely kept this in mind. This guy was very nice, unlike the doorman last night who seemed irritated by me. I figured it was because I was a woman traveling alone (more on that later).

I decided my trip should begin at one of Tehran’s most recognizable locations: the Azadi Tower and Square. After a short walk, I hopped on the Tehran Metro which is apparently the Middle East’s longest metro system. On board this fairly empty train car, another woman sat next to me and asked where I was from. When I explained to her that I was a student from UNC, she looked so surprised and explained that she graduated from Duke not long ago! Small world! She introduced herself as Samira and said she was meeting a friend at the Azadi Square. Since I was also heading there, she said she would love to show me around, even though I was a Tarheel!

Once we emerged from the metro, we began our short walk to Azadi Square. Along the way, Samira mentioned that since she wears contacts, her eyes get really irritated due to the massive amount of pollution in Tehran. I thought this was very interesting since I have never considered the more immediate effects of pollution.

Further along, we passed a very tall structure off in the distance called the Milad Tower that was just recently opened in 2008. Samira explained that although that was the tallest structure in Iran, it’s not nearly as beautiful as Azadi Tower and once we got there, I couldn't question her on that.

During our stay there, I chatted with Samira. She was extremely well versed on Iranian history. She explained to me that "Azadi" is Persian for "freedom". This square was constructed in the 1970s as an anniversary gift to the Persian Empire and a “gateway” to Iran, and for this reason it has now become the symbol of the country’s revival. She also mentioned that Iranian history and civilization goes back to nearly 4500 BC and that it has had more civilizations than any other place on Earth!

I also remembered the doorman back at my hotel who was a little rude to me and I asked Samira what the deal with that was. She grudgingly explained to me that a lot of women are treated like that by some, more "traditional," people. She said that after the Muslim take over of Iran, the women were subjected to the strict Islamic laws regarding women. She continued to say that although the treatment of women can sometimes be kind of harsh, it isn't as bad as some other countries in the Mid-East and that they are steadily getting better due to the young, more reformist, population of Iran.

After her history lessons, Samira’s friend arrived and she had to take off. I couldn’t thank her enough for the very captivating and free information. I walked to a nearby outdoor café to slip out of the crowded square. Sitting there, I remembered Samira talk about how Azadi Square was one of the big places for protesting during the 2009 presidential elections. I wanted to learn more about the political state of Tehran and the rest of the country, so I headed to Tehran University hoping to find some students willing to talk. After my trek, I was lucky enough to find some students relaxing and who were very eager to talk about their political views in Tehran.

One of the young men in the group, named Sa'id, was probably the most talkative. The thing he said that I found most interesting was that during the protests the Iranian government blatantly censored a lot of media such as the social web sites Twitter and other blog sites! I can't imagine having so little freedom. The student even told me that a lot of international reporters were being detained, stripped of their information, and deported. The worst part is that the government still claims there is freedom of the press in Iran! Even more depressing was how he told me that the current regime apparently killed some young men who were participating in a peaceful rally.

(Slogan for protesters during 2009 elections)

Since it was getting late, I decided I should get going. After all, my next destination is Mecca and I am going to need a plan to get inside.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Day 9: Tehran

I’m in Tehran! Today is Sizdah Be Dar or 13th day of the Iranian New Year! The weather is so refreshingly spring-like and everyone is outside enjoying picnics and the lovely weather which is tradition for this holiday festival. Some families and friends are soaking up the sun, while others are playing sports like badminton, soccer, and volleyball. The park outside my hotel is brimming with rollerbladers, lovebirds, boys with funky hairdos, and girls with large bangs poofed under their pretty hejabs. Small ice cream carts are wheeling by offering their cheap delicacies to the crowd and seem to be making a good profit.

There is live music in a nearby venue that also seems to be attracting many people. From my hotel window it sounds like rap blasting over a really bad sound system. There are posters everywhere with the name “Mojan YZ” on it so I am assuming that’s who’s performing. I just looked him up and this is the song they are playing right now!

So I decided to venture outside on a walk down Valiasr Street (the longest street in the Middle East). During the festival, Sizdah Be Dar, it is also tradition to throw wheat sprouts into water for good luck. This tradition is similar to how we throw pennies into a fountain. I have decided that both traditions are not necessarily good for keeping the environment clean. In the water canals, I see that they are being clogged with wheat sprouts along with other trash. Street cleaners are sweeping the trash downstream, but I can see it getting stuck somewhere further down and causing some sort of flood on the street. Here’s the kicker though. Not only are they throwing wheat sprouts, they are throwing them in their containers of plastic or ceramic. o.O

Check out this picture:

Well, part of my plan today is to check out the Grand Bazaar. I took a cab to the south side of Tehran to see it and buy some souvenirs.
*Excellent music seems to be following me. Check out these super cute entertainers.

So the Grand Bazaar is a huge marketplace, and the world's largest bazaar. Trade is the main focus of this bazaar. Originally, this Grand Bazaar was divided into strips specifically designed for selling different goods. So you would have a corridor selling copper, another selling carpets, paper, spices, and many other types of goods. Today, there are those goods plus more modern goods like watches and jewelry.

But no worries! The corridor vendors are still in plenty. Times haven't changed too much. Most people I see are still haggling like in the olden days. The prices they are getting are decent too.

Something else a bit random that I noticed today is that everybody is napping! I think it has a lot to do with the holiday and delicious spring weather but look at this sign I found. It's in Persian, the official language of Iran, but I asked another tourist if he knew what it mean. Apparently it means: "No Reading Please, Only Napping".

I love napping. So, I joined in.

Today was a good day.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Day 8: Istanbul

I left the Golden Horn Hotel really early today, so I could spend some time taking pictures of Istanbul's pedestrian streets. İstiklal Avenue is located in the European side of the city of Beyoğlu, and is surrounded by numerous historical and government buildings, boutiques, coffee-shops, restaurants, libraries, bars, and night clubs. This crowded avenue houses some of the finest and most unique works of architecture.

(Istiklal Avenue)

After I finished taking pictures, I took the bus to the Taksim Square, where I was supposed to meet Adem for breakfast. I met him at Yorus Kale Café, where we were served a typical Turkish breakfast:

slices of cheese sprinkled with pepper and served with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and crusty, buttery bread rolls – pogaca. Not to forget some Turkish coffee.

During our breakfast, Adem told me that the headquarters of all the national newspapers and broadcasting companies were in either Istanbul or Ankara. Today around 2,000 newspapers circulate in Turkey. Adem was accepted as an intern at Feza Group that prints Islamic Zaman. “It is a very liberal daily that examines the controversial issues around the world,” - he said.

When I was watching the news (with English subtitles), Adem noticed that awhile ago most of the Turkish channels were illegal. This of course sounded odd to me, and I wanted to know more. He told me that the state founded the first broadcasting company in Turkey in 1964, and it monopolized both the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation up until 1993. After 1990, hundreds of illegal local TV and radio channels emerged. This naturally led to the amendment of the respective article of the Constitution, and the monopoly on TV and radio broadcasting was lifted. Today, there are 24 national, 16 regional and 215 local television stations – most of them have web editions, too.

After breakfast, we headed to the Golden Horn. This estuary is spanned by four bridges: the Haliç Bridge, the Eski Galata Bridge, the Atatürk Bridge, and the Galata Bridge.

We crossed the Galata Bridge and left the European side of Istanbul (Beyoğlu) behind. Then, we walked to Galata, which is located at the northern shore of the Golden Horn. This district is famous for its remnants of the medieval Genoese citadel of Galata. The greater part of this citadel’s walls were destroyed in the 19th century, and only some walls were spared by urbanization.

The Galata Tower is a stone structure that magnificently rises above the skyline of the Golden Horn since the mid-14th century. This 219 foot tall structure served as a fire lookout tower until the mid-20th century. Today, it holds a restaurant, a nightclub, and a panorama balcony on its upper floors. We paid 10 Turkish Liras to enter the tower (that's around 7 US dollars).

(The Galata Tower)


Hagia Sophia, an Orthodox patriarchal church in the Byzantine Empire converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Turks’ administration, was our next stop. Today, this beautiful architectural ensemble is a museum.

The east side of Hagia Sophia was very important for both Christians and Muslims. Christian churches normally face east, while Muslims pray, facing Mecca (or east of Istanbul). This is why the most impressive sights are assembled in the eastern nave of Hagia Sophia.
Most of this basilica’s interior is covered with marble and granite. The tall columns look massive, and weigh around 70 tons! The walls, decorated with gold mosaics and polychrome marbles, make the structure look bright and sunlit. In fact, light in Hagia Sophia reflects everywhere; this gives the effect of dome hovering above the nave.

After this awesome tour, we stopped at one of the nearby restaurants for lunch. Mediterranean shawarmas are delicious. I also had sherbet, a traditional Turkish drink made out of rose hips, cherries, and roses – it's my favorite now!

On our way back, we stopped by one of the internet cafes. Feeling homesick, I was tempted to skype my best friend back in the U.S. Apparently, they are very popular here, equipped with the latest versions of hardware and software. I don't understand the Turkish computer system. So, I had to ask the nearest attendant how to convert the programs to English. While he was helping me, he informed me that the number of internet users in Turkey has increased to 16 million recently. Internet usage here may not be as high as it is in the U.S. or other European countries, but it is somewhat steady.

In the internet cafe, a group of highschoolers caught my eye. Crowded around one of the computers, they were cheering and clapping their hands. When I came closer, I realized that they were watching a football match. Football is the national sport of Turkey. You probably remember that in the 2002 World Cup Finals, the Turkish national team finished in third place. In 2008, their team reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Euro 2008 competition. Today, the national team is considered to be very successful and has a lot of fans among the Turkish people. Football is clearly one of the most popular and favorite sports here. Typically, many children grow up playing it.

I was planning on resting up for my trip to Tehran, but Adem talked me into going out with him and his friends. Istanbul is beautiful at night!

(The Bosphorus Bridge)

(Istiklal Avenue at night)

It is also famous for its nightlife. We ended up going to Sortie, a nightclub on İstiklal Avenue. It was a very interesting experience. Turkish nightclubs, like most other European nightclubs, play a lot of techno. I made a short video, the quality isn't great, but it will give an insight. Enjoy!