You need to go to Istanbul

If you like food, history, or architecture, you need to go to Istanbul. With the introduction of Turkey’s new e-Visa program in 2013 and excellent metro connections from the airport, it has never been easier to explore Istanbul as a tourist. You can even see quite a lot during a 7-hour layover through Istanbul.

Now that I think about it, you should probably be ashamed if you haven’t been to Istanbul yet!


After over 1,000 years as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, modern-day Istanbul is a cultural melting pot with influences from all over Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia — perhaps you’ve heard of Constantinople, established in 324 AD? Nothing is a more obvious reminder of this rich legacy than the dozens of minarets spiking the skyline; beautiful mosques in the unique Turkish style are everywhere you look!

The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish), for example, is nearly as old as Istanbul itself, and has existed as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, then as a Roman Catholic cathedral, and finally as a mosque. As you can see, the building looks stunning in the afternoon light of Istanbul’s summer:

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

The Hagia Sophia is now a museum, and shares a large complex with a beautiful water fountain, tulip garden, and several other relics, including the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (aka The Blue Mosque).

No trip to Istanbul is complete without visiting these two sites! Indeed, I always walk by and stand in awe of them for at least a few minutes every time I’m passing through the city. If you have more time you can also walk around down behind the Blue Mosque where there are some cute streets with shops and restaurants.


Because there’s no way I could describe everything else there is to see, eat, and do in great detail, here’s a list of a few tidbits I thought would be helpful:

  • Turkish Lira — honestly, just do it at the airport. Otherwise, you’ll kill yourself trying to figure out which place gives you the most money after the market rate and the commission. I changed $100 in town and got 265 Lira, then changed $100 later at the airport and got 255 Lira. That’s a difference of three short metro rides, or one shawarma. Your choice.
  • Metro from airport to downtown — just follow the big “M” signs as you exit the airport and get on the train that says it is going to “Yenikapi” (it’s the only one, as it’s the end of the red line). Get off after about 20 minutes at “Aksaray“, exit the metro station, and walk two blocks to get to the blue line metro at “Laleli-Üniversite” that goes to the old part of town, towards “Sultan Ahmet” and “Kabataş.”
  • Turkish bath aka hamam — pretty sweet, you get to lay on a hot marble stone while some Turkish guy scrubs you with a big, rough sponge. It’s more fun than it sounds! Not all venues are created equal, and some can be weird. I had a good experience at on by the Burnt Column metro stop on the blue line, and a bad experience at one near Sultan Ahmet.
  • Eat baklava — they’re all good, but I’d recommend anything with pistachios, as it’s kinda a thing in Turkey. They all go well with Turkish coffee (black, no sugar, of course).
  • Dotted and dotless I — this is pretty awesome. The Turkish alphabet has both dotted and dotless I letters. You can see the dotted one in İstanbul, for example. It’s just like in the Latin script, but they dot the I even when it’s capital. :)

A few more pictures from my last visit:

The next adventure

This last time I visited Istanbul I noticed a sign for a shop advertising bus tickets to Greece, Bulgaria, Iran, Georgia, and Albania. Can you imagine?! When was the last time you opened up your atlas and looked at those parts of the world? I can only imagine the food, adventures, and history that await… at this rate East Africa seems boring. :)


Seaweed farming in Zanzibar

Last week I saw an article about fascinating satellite photos of seaweed farms in South Korea. These stunning photos are from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (and there are more on their Flickr stream).

Seaweed farms in South Korea as seen from space
Seaweed farms in South Korea as seen from space

It immediately reminded me of the seaweed farms I saw when I was in Zanzibar last year. Rifling through my pictures from that trip I found that small-scale seaweed farms are visible in most of the pictures I took at the beach! Here, for example, behind the dhows (wooden boats):

Seaweed farms in Zanzibar, Tanzania
Seaweed farms in Zanzibar, Tanzania

Tides on the Eastern side of Zanzibar completely drain the water from the beach every 12 hours, so the seaweed is tethered to strings and pegged to the sea floor using the little sticks you see in the background. I remember being impressed by the simplicity and cleverness of the farms.

Falling seaweed exports from Zanzibar

Sadly, according to a 2014 BBC report entitled Seaweed – Zanzibar’s ‘gift from the ocean’, seaweed exports from Zanzibar have declined in the last few years. This is especially saddening because the industry was at one time supporting 23,000 people — 90% of whom were women!

Doha by night

Another layover in Doha, Qatar, another visit to Souq Waqif! What more could you want than delicious food, new buildings made to look old, and a beautiful night sky?

Doha's Souq Waqif by night
Doha’s Souq Waqif by night

There’s probably more to see in Doha (and indeed Qatar) than this, but I just get too many weird vibes from this country to ever go and find anything more.

A thinly veiled facade

Despite the veneer it’s all pretty obviously fake, a facade created to conceal a rich1, conservative2 society with the institutionalized subjugation of women and a poor track record on the rights of immigrant laborers.

It seems Qatar is trying REALLY hard to divest their economy from petroleum and natural gas, or perhaps they’re trying to create a new image for their country ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

Nevertheless, the grilled chicken, hummus, and shisha are delicious, and that’s enough for me.


[1] Qatar is the world’s richest country per person when adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity. Source: Wikipedia contributors, “Qatar,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 12, 2015).

[2] After Saudi Arabia, Qatar is the most conservative society in the GCC as most Qataris adhere to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Source: Wikipedia contributors, “Qatar,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 12, 2015).

The “most intelligent” city in Africa

CNN reports on the news that Nairobi has been ranked, apparently for the second year in a row, as the “most intelligent” city in Africa.

According to the Intelligent Community Forum, “intelligent communities” are those that have taken “conscious steps” to create an economy that can prosper in the “broadband economy.”

Well that’s definitely misleading: it’s not about intellectual intelligence. The forum merely considers the fact that Nairobi has relatively fast/cheap broadband, incubators for tech startups, and the ability to pay for stuff everywhere using our phones. Yeah, it does. Shrug.

So what?

The reality is that Nairobi is corrupt, dangerous, dirty, and expensive. I don’t think it’s any consolation to Nairobi’s denizens that their city is “intelligent.” Nairobi also has one of the most “painful” commutes of any city in the world. And the insecurity in Nairobbery obviously contributed to Kenya’s abysmal ranking in the 2014 crime index.

All of that doesn’t just stop being important because we can stream YouTube videos without buffering! We should be focusing on metrics that matter, like the Human Development Index or the Global Peace Index.