life's a picnic

the adventures of william & laura

a general rambling update

It’s been about three months since we returned home from Istanbul, and apart from sharing our travel photos, we’ve been very slack in the blogging department. But we’re still here! Still alive! Still living life!

The weather has turned here in Nairobi and hopefully the cold weather has gone for good. Winter dragged on for too long this year, and everyone seems  a little giddy now that we’re getting regular sunshiney days. A gorgeous day in Nairobi really is gorgeous – not too hot, not too cold, big blue skies, new growth on the trees, pops of fuscia and orange in the form of bougainvillea. The jacarandas are also flowering, a little earlier than we’re used to in Brisbane, but they are just as beautiful.

Metaphorically speaking, it also feels like we’ve hit a new season. The past few months have been long and tough. We had a whole number of frustrations that seemed to roll in like unrelenting waves. Problems with contracts. A huge fraud case on our visa card. A dog who had a heart attack (she’s now doing much better). A trip home to Australia we had to cancel. A job that fell through. A stolen wallet and drivers license.. and so on.

Since July last year, we’ve been dealing with ongoing uncertainty. We’ve never known exactly how much longer we’d be staying in Nairobi and it’s been hard to make a plan with so many unknowns. We’ve learnt a lot in the past 15 months, and while we’re still dealing with a fair amount of uncertainty, we’re feeling a lot more comfortable with riding the wave and letting go. Oh how we’ve learnt about letting go!

But it does feel as if life is changing from winter to spring, and we’re embracing the change wholeheartedly. At this stage, we’re think (never certain!) we will be here for at least another six months. We’d be happy to stay for at least another year or two, so we’ll see how the path opens up. We are both busy with work and assignments, which feels like such a blessing after about 9 months of unemployment on my side. I don’t tend to write in detail about our work in this space because it just feels wiser not too, but Will is consulting on a Somalia project and working freelance as a photojournalist on the side, while I’m working on the South Sudan refugee situation through an internship role. We’re doing the kind of work we love, the kind of work that we feel God has called us to, and we’re really grateful for the opportunities we’ve currently got.

And Rum is doing much better. It was a scary moment, very early one morning, when she had the attack. Thankfully we got her to a vet pretty quickly (at 6:30am on a Sunday morning no less!). After a couple of months on medication, our latest check up went well and she’s doing much better. She’s such a beautiful dog and perhaps the best decision we’ve made for our mental health.

I will endeavour to update the blog with everything else that’s been going on in recent months (it hasn’t always been doom and gloom), but as for the rest of life, we really feel grateful. We love our home and neighbourhood, our friends, our church and community. Really, we’re doing well and as always, thankful to the friends who are looking out for us, both here in Kenya and back home. We appreciate it!

princes’ islands

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Here are the last of our Turkey photos!

Princes’ Islands are a group of nine islands off the coast of Istanbul. They have a fascinating history: back in the Byzantine and early Ottoman period, princes and other royalty were exiled to the islands. In preparation for our trip, we also read that they still rely on horse and buggy for transport around the island. Though we did spot a handful of motorised vehicles when we were there, most people have to rely on the horses and bicycles to get around.

Our airbnb hosts have a summer home on Büyükada, the biggest island, where they stay when they have guests in their Galata apartment. But after mentioning we’d like to explore the islands, they kindly offered us a guest room in their summer home for a night or two. So we caught the ferry one morning, stopping at each of the smaller islands before arriving at Büyükada. It was fascinating to see Istanbul from the ferry – it just goes on and on and on!

We met our hosts for a late breakfast, wandered back to their place to drop our bags, and then walked around the waterfront. The weather was a little glum but it’s always so great to be by the sea.

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In the afternoon, we explored more of the island in a horse-drawn cart. You can choose between a short trip and a long trip (we opted for the long one) and the driver takes you up through the hills and around to the other side of the island. The sun peeked out for a few moments here and there and it was so peaceful looking out onto the Sea of Marmara!

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We ate SO much stonefruit when we were in Turkey. We get great cheap produce in Nairobi but unfortunately all the stone fruit is imported. We calculated that cherries were 10 times cheaper there than our local green grocer!

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How sweet are the dogs and cats outside this little restaurant!?

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It was lovely to wander around town and back down to the waterfront. We spent the late afternoon hanging out with our host and their sweet little boy and then strolled back to the waterfront for a yummy fish dinner in the evening. The next day we woke up early, had Turkish tea and toasted cheese sandwiches by the wharf and then caught the ferry back to Istanbul.

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topkapi palace and the grand bazaar

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On our second day in the Old City, we explored Topkapi Palace and the surrounding grounds. We could have spent all day in this gorgeous park – it was so green and lush and clean. One of the things we miss out on in Nairobi is beautiful, safe green spaces. We ate our morning baklava and did some people watching before walking up the hill to the Palace.

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It’s always funny to reflect on the things you remember about a holiday. One of my clearest memories of this particular day was standing in line with Will to get our tickets, and him spotting a fellow tourist who he suspected to be a Mongolian street fighter. So then he told me some hilarious (and scary) stories from his time in UB, and shared a bit on the current relationship between Turkey and Mongolia. There is so much about this world of ours that I am yet to learn!

But back to the Palace. Topkapi Palace was home to the Ottoman sultans for over 400 years. It was constructed in 1459, survived an earthquake in 1509 and a fire in 1665 and in 1985 the Palace, along with a number of other historic sights in Istanbul, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are displays throughout the grounds of various historical items, however for the most part, we weren’t allowed to take photos. But the real reason I wanted to visit was the see the gorgeous ceramic tile work.

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Our favourite section was the Baghdad Pavilion, which was used as a library. The ceiling was exquisite.

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The palace is set up high above the water, with beautiful views of parts of the city. We asked a stranger to take our photo – we never have enough photos of us together! (P.S. Can you tell who was taking most of the photos today? The photos of me:Will was basically 1000:1!)

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After exploring the gardens further, and saying a quick hello the police horses, we jumped on the light rail and headed to the Grand Bazaar. It’s one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world and was teeming with people. We felt the TV screens and funny lightening kind of dampened the historic effect a little. We’re collecting globes and so we wandered around to see if one could be found, but alas all we discovered was a dinky Made in China option that wasn’t so inspiring. It got really hot inside so we headed back to the train station, stopping for fresh orange juice on the way.

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And then that evening, we headed to Nardis Jazz Club to hear an 84 year old Turkish trumpet player. The club was just around the corner from where we were staying in Galata and it was a definite holiday highlight.

Previous: The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia

Next: Princes’ Islands

 

the blue mosque and the hagia sofia

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We split our main sight-seeing over two days. Originally we planned to fit the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia (pictured above), Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar into one day, but of course we discovered the Palace was closed the first day we were there. We almost missed the Statue of David in Florence last year for the same reason, we can be such unorganised spontaneous travellers sometimes!

First up, the Blue Mosque, which is also known as Sultanahmet Mosque. The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 and is in remarkable condition. I had to don a full length dress and head scarf before entering and we all removed our shoes. I realised as we walked it that it was the first time I’d walked barefoot on carpet in about a year. The chains holding the lighting fittings up blocked the view of the gorgeous ceilings a little, but the detailing was impressive. Certain sections were roped off and only devout Muslims were able to enter to pray, but we wandered through and caught snippets of information from all the tour guides leading their little groups around.

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We can’t help but laugh when we see people trying to take photos with a tablet. Isn’t it the weirdest thing? We’ve even see people try it on safari!

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The line into the Hagia Sofia was rather long, so we stopped for Turkish icecream on our way. It’s stickier than icecream we’re more familiar with, and the traditional icecream sellers have this whole slight-of-hand routine where they use their long scoop to offer you the cone, but take it back, then offer it again, and somehow leave you with just the cone in your hand, then take it back, then you end up with icecream on your nose, or an upside down cone, or a huge scoop with two cones protruding from either end. I’m sure that makes no sense if you haven’t seen the routine for yourself, but it’s highly amusing for spectators and hilariously frustrating for the person trying to buy the icecream!

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On to the Hagia Sofia! I think we were both more impressed by the Hagia Sofia than the Blue Mosque. Its history is fascinating. The current building is actually the third structure built on the site. The first church, finished in 360, was burnt down in riots in 404. The second church was finished in 415 and also mostly destroyed by fire in 532. The current building was constructed over five years and finished in 537. The basilica was the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and often used for Byzantine ceremonies and coronations. For a brief period, it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral, before it converted to a mosque in 1453. The brain boggles at all the dates and all the changes this building has seen!

In 1931 it was secularised and by 1935 it was open again, but now as a museum.

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We watched Argo again on TV the night before we visited the Hagia Sofia, and there is a scene near the beginning of the movie that features these huge black and gold discs (and Ben Affleck being very serious). In reality they are huge – see the photo below to get a sense of their size.

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Will educated me on the fact that Islamic art relies primarily on intricate patterns and beautiful calligraphy, as many Muslims believe that depicting the human form is idolatry.

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I think one of the most spectacular aspects of the Hagia Sofia is the incredible mosiacs that were previously plastered over when the building served as a mosque. It was a little surreal seeing various religious imagery from both the Christian and Islamic faith in such close proximity.

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If we’d been more organised, we would have liked to get an audio tour to learn more about both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia as we walked through. But regardless, we enjoyed wandering through with the hordes of tourists and did all our serious learning on Wikipedia that evening ;)

Previous: Exploring Istanbul: Part Two and Part One

Next: Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar

exploring istanbul: part two

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Isn’t trying new food one of the best things about travelling? Kenya isn’t particularly well-known for it’s cuisine but Turkey, on the other hand, was such a treat. We did a full Turkish breakfast one morning, some delicious kebabs around town and an amazing collection of mezzes at Karakoy Lokantasi, by far the best meal we’ve eaten since our seafood entree at Trattoria Del Billy’s in Italy last year. Our Airbnb host had recommended the restaurant to us but forgot to tell us we’d need a reservation. We showed up at about 7.30pm on a Monday night and were the last couple let in before the place was full! The decor was just as lovely as the food, with stunning floor-to-ceiling turquoise ceramic tiles and a slight Art Decco feel. We loved it. We also ate at Shake Shack for the first time ever, and we were quickly reminded of the nasty effects of fast food.

Other food highlights were the Turkish tea in little glasses (we brought a set home), freshly made fruit juice and baklava. Our favourite Turkish Delight was a rose one made on honey, wrapped in Turkish nougat and sprinkled with crushed pistachio. It looked a little like a Turkish Delight sushi roll. Oh and the cherries! They were the equivalent of AUD$3/kilo, which is approximately one tenth of the price to get them here in Nairobi. We may have overdosed!

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Of course, we walked it all off by traipsing all over town on foot. There are so many pretty alleyways and shop windows to meander past.

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The white cat above was lounging on that door mat every time we walked past. Istanbul is full of ‘community’ cats and dogs. ‘Stray’ feels like the wrong word because the animals are so well-looked after, especially the cats. Everyone leaves food out for them and sometimes people even let them come inside for a play and a cuddle before letting them go on their way. And all the dogs we saw had their ears tagged to indicate they’d been spayed and vaccinated.

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We walked across the Golden Horn a few times during the week. I loved seeing these weather-worn fishermen all sitting around sipping tea together.

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On our last day in Istanbul, we returned to the waterfront for our ‘fish bread’ lunch, such an Istanbul institution! The fish is cooked up on these boats, and then stuffed into a bun with onion and lettuce. The place was absolutely packed with locals, who were eating their fish sandwiches with a plastic cup of pickled vegetables and a cup of lemon cordial. We did likewise, sitting on these little wooden seats and watching everyone around us. The turnover is so high that the manager was shooing people away from tables even as they took their last bite. We struggled a little bit as the fish was full of little bones, but it was definitely an experience to remember!

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Previous: Exploring Istanbul: Part One

Next: The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia

exploring istanbul: part one

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Here is the first batch of our Istanbul photos! Friends recommended we stay either in Sultanahmet or near Galata Tower (above), so we opted for a lovely little Airbnb apartment in Galata. Our hosts were so helpful and laid back, and the apartment was in a great location for us. Our first Airbnb experience in Rome last year wasn’t so great, but this apartment more than made up for it.

Istanbul is huge and we barely scratched the surface. It is the only city in the world that straddles two continents – Asia and Europe. Most of the touristy sites are on the European side, which is split in two again – the Old City to the south and the New City in the north. Galata is in the New City and we had easy access to the attractions in the Old City via the light rail.

On our first afternoon in town, we unknowingly found ourselves in the midst of a political protest and sought refuge in a Turkish Delight store. On our second day, we slept late and then wandered all the way down the Istiklal Caddesi to Taksim Square. We walked the stretch a few times again during the week as we shopped for clothes and mementos and ate at a great little local restaurant. The following day we walked across the bridge to the Old City for a day of sightseeing at the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, photos of which we’ll include in a coming post. It was so refreshing to be in a city on the water and to feel safe and free to walk around right through into the night. And the food – oh we ate well!

Our apartment, tucked away next to a beautiful old church

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Protesters in Galata

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The beautiful Galata Tower

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Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim

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Crossing over to the Old City, where the sun shone on one side, and dark clouds gathered on the other!

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Coming up: More from around Istanbul, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar, and Princes’ Islands.

istanbul escape

We’ve been trying to get away for ages now, but nothing was working out with Will’s work. But then all of a sudden Will found out on Monday he could have the following week off. We booked flights on Tuesday and accommodation on Wednesday. And then we flew out on Friday night to Istanbul for the week! It was such a great trip – relaxing and memorable and full of Turkish Delight. We got back very early Sunday morning and while there are many more to come, here’s a few quick photos of some highlights.

We arrived in Istanbul on the one year anniversary of the 2013 protests…

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… and found ourselves locked in a Turkish Delight store while we waited for this year’s protesters and accompanying tear gas to pass!

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Our home-away-from-home was a lovely apartment  just around the corner from the famous Galata Tower (pictured here from the Old City side).

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We enjoyed amazing food. Yes, those are green chillies.

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And marveled at Istanbul’s beautiful architecture and mosques.

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We visited the main touristy sites: the Hagia Sofia..

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The Blue Mosque..

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Topkapi Palace with it’s incredible ceramic tiles..

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And spent a night on Buyukada, one of the Princes’ Islands, where people get around the island by horse and cart.

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And of course, we drank our way through innumerable cups of Turkish tea.

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We’ll put some more photos up on the blog once we’ve sorted through them, so keep an eye out if you’d like to see more :)

the little things

… that have made Kenya feel more like home.

  1. When we go to our local mall and run in to four different people when know
  2. When we stop thinking (just) in Aussie dollars, and now think in Aussie Dollars, Kenyan Shillings and US Dollars
  3. When we no longer gape at a passing politician’s motorcade
  4. When we realise we can find our way around the supermarket
  5. When we finally figure out which brand of whatever is our favourite, and which is our second favourite for when our other favourite is mysteriously out of stock for five months
  6. When we know the road rules, and the rules on how to apply the road rules, and the rules seemingly specific to certain intersections, and the rules of going through the bamboozling double roundabout
  7. When we know the price of the normal bus fare, and the fare when it’s raining, and the fare when it’s peak hour, and the fare when there is a public transport strike… and when we’re just actually being ripped off
  8. When we start recognising people in the street that we’d seen regularly at our favourite cafe
  9. When we can sing the Swahili songs at church and have a pretty good idea of what we were saying
  10. When we know that we’ve made a horribly embarrassing mistake in Swahili
  11. When we carry an umbrella with us everyday during the rainy season, no matter how sunny it is when we leave the house
  12. When we perfect our own collection of phone numbers – our favourite carpenter, our favourite driver, our favourite water truck etc – and no longer have to ask all our friends who to call whenever we need something made or fixed
  13. When we automatically open our hand bags and lift our arms up away from our bodies for the security check at malls, restaurants, offices, church etc.
  14. When we drive out of our compound and everyone waves – the neighbours, the neighbour’s nanny, the neighbour’s cleaner, the neighbour’s gardener, the neighbour’s gorgeous three year old, the random guy running an errand for the neighbour and the askaris at the front gate (not going to lie, you can feel like a celebrity driving into our estate!)
  15. When we drive out of church / the office / my ballet class and are completely unfazed by the armed guards / troop of baboons crossing the road / herd of cattle blocking the driveway

mr chameleon

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I was ringing my neighbour’s doorbell the other day when I noticed a chameleon in their front garden – just sitting there right in front of me! I raced across the street to grab my camera from home and then spent ages snapping away. Isn’t he handsome?! (My neighbour wasn’t home, the housekeeper answered the door though and was more than happy for me to turn the front garden into a photo studio – the brown wall made such a great backdrop!)

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I emailed Will some photos (subject line: the best photos I’ve ever taken!) and he classified it as a Jackson’s Chameleon, or Jackson’s three horned chameleon, which are native to higher-altitude areas of Kenya and Tanzania. They usually live between five and ten years and, if looked after correctly, can be kept as pets. I took a gazillion photos of this little fella as he explored leafy branches and I swear he stopped more than once to pose for me.

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Baboons last week, chameleons this week… let me organise some flamingoes for next week on the blog, hey?!

babooning around

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One of the best Kenya-related books we’ve read is a hilarious novel titled ‘A Primate’s Memoir’. Author Robert Sapolsky chronicles his 21 years in and out of Kenya as he studies a baboon troop. He weaves such a fantastic tale, alternating between stories about his beloved baboons and insights into the highs and lows of field work, with his own experiences as an expat primatologist navigating a new culture and land. Will was gifted it by lovely friends for his birthday and we both laughed pretty hard the whole way through.

Not long after we’d read it, we stumbled across a rambunctious baboon troop right near the main gate to Nairobi National Park. We’d already driven around the park with Jeremy for a couple of hours, but we easily spent another half hour just watching this funny little creatures from the car. I didn’t have the right lens on my camera to capture them all, but there were tiny babies and overprotective mothers through to slow old fellows, lazing around under the trees. They were so entertaining!

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We joked that we’d pay the park fee just to sit near the front gate and watch these guys play…. but actually, we really would!