For a detailed trip itinerary, click here or for more info on the company that runs it (African Trails) visit:

Want another perspective? There are now a few other blogs for the trip all listed half-way down on the right-hand side of this page.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Turkey Part 5: Istanbul (Hagia Sofia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque / 'The Blue Mosque', The Grand Bazaar)...and then home.

(...Continued from Turkey Part 4.)

With cold extremities and heavy hearts we finally turned up in Istanbul. Norm parked Roxy up in a car park on the sea-front and, after a bit of faffing around and scrambling about for rucksacks and belongings, everybody filed out of the back of the truck for hugs and kisses in the car park. (Stan Collymore was nowhere in sight!)

It was all pretty bizarre – as goodbyes always are: I’d got to know all of these people pretty well over the course of the year. We’d gone through trials and tribulations together and, to use a cliché, it had been an emotional rollercoaster: malaria, dengue, thieves, worms borrowing into your feet, Al Qaeda scares, riots, corrupt police, sky-diving, bungy-jumping, cage-diving with great white sharks, extreme heat, extreme cold…not to mention all sorts of dangerous wildlife - from petite and poisonous to big and bitey.

With all of this in mind, the goodbye was somewhat unceremonious…for some, the end had been a long time coming. People were eager to get home and as everybody walked off either on their own, in pairs or in threes to their individually booked accommodation, it became clear pretty quickly that our days as a travelling family were numbered.

That was the last I saw of Yoichi. As much as he pissed a lot of people (everybody) off at some point or other on the trip, at various points (when his stubbornness wouldn’t get in the way) I’d taken him under my wing. It was sad that you could be around somebody for that long but never really know them. It didn’t seem to faze him though: A few days later, I would leave a note with the receptionist at his hostel (Big Apple Hostel) explaining how to get hold of us and where to meet us to say goodbye to Berbs and the others, but his mind was elsewhere. He’d arranged to reconvene with a Japanese girl he’d met in Damascus and they were both due to stay at the Big Apple. I wasn’t about to get in the way of the moment when Yoichi’s self-confessed “challenge” of ten months of abstinence from “solitary romantic time”, finally found a release.  Banzaaaaaai!

Most of the others had a couple of days left of exploring Istanbul before their flights home, so before Son, Ish and I strolled off to our hostel, we made sure we got the names of everybody’s hostels.

It took a lot longer than we thought to find our hostel. Ok, it was a bit further out of the way than the hostels the other guys were staying at (on the street where we’d left them) but the whole process of finding it was exacerbated by the fact that, despite us being back in Europe, the local’s comprehension of English was limited. After a few red herrings, misunderstandings and wrong turns, we ended up at our hostel absolutely knackered after what seemed like an hour or more of walking uphill with all our gear…probably the most exercise we’d had in months.

No sooner had we settled in then it was time to get showered and go out and meet the rest of the gang for some grub and some booze as a kind of final blowout.

After a good feed, the booze continued to flow along with the stories of highlights and lowlights of the previous ten months. All this to the soothing sounds of a bubbling shisha pipe…(well, when not drowned out by the bass of the house and hip-hop that was thumping out of the large speakers).

Spirits were high and we were just getting into the swing of things when somebody suggested we hop across the road where there was better music, more girls, cheaper booze and a better atmosphere in general. Disappointingly, the chosen venue failed to deliver on all of these promises but we carried on puffing the peace pipe and drinking undeterred.

After one drink too many, our numbers began to dwindle and those still left behind moved on to the karaoke bar next door. Before I went to join them, I said my goodbye to Marjane – who was taking the truck off to a workshop out of town. I thanked him for everything he did for us over the course of the trip. The guy’s a year younger than me and was already on his 7th year in Africa and his second Trans Africa trip. He’s a qualified carpenter, skilled driver, resourceful mechanic and on top of all of that, was ultimately responsible for all of us reprobates and had to put up with our crap for ten months. Legend.

As Marjane’s silhouette disappeared in the distance I reluctantly joined Dan, Berbs, Ish and Elisa in the karaoke bar. No sooner had I entered then it was time I made a hasty retreat: the largely overweight and sweaty local patrons started thrusting the microphone in the faces of unsuspecting newcomers. I think Dan was in the middle of “Summer of ‘69” as I left…

Another day went by and it was time to say more goodbyes…Spencer and Allison left on the 7th Jan, as did Berbs…and Marjane’s trusty Homeless side-kick (Kyle) left us to join him too. Kyle’s adventure wasn’t quite over though: him and Marjane were aiming to work on the truck before starting their drive through Europe and finishing up in Spain where the next Ultimate Trans Africa trip would start.

Now it was just Gab. Dan, Ish, Son, Elisa, Kim and I. With Kyle gone, Kimbo was without her partner in crime so she came and joined Ish, Son and I in our hostel for a couple of nights.

Son and Gab were next to leave (from memory, I think they both left on the 8th Jan). Before Son left, she treated Ish and I to a meal at a Mexican restaurant, we’d kept passing with a curious glance over the previous few days.

Now that Gab had returned home, there was another damsel in distress (Elisa) without her other half. With Son gone too, there was a spare bed in our room again…so it was now Elisa, Kimbo, Ish and I in a room with Dan in another hostel relatively nearby.

During the dying days of our trip, we busied ourselves strolling the grounds of the awe-inspiring mosques and museums (particularly the Hagia Sofia and the ‘Sultan Ahmed’ orBlue’ Mosque); drinking coffee in whatever Bohemian wee coffee shop we could find (or failing that, a Starbucks); gorging ourselves on kebabs and Pide and exploring the Grand Bazaar where we would barter for last-minute souvenirs. (The latter comes highly recommended.)

By Jan 10th, it was Just Ish, Dan and I left…the last three in Istanbul. We spent the afternoon together before one last Efes (Turkish beer) on a roofed terraced bar with spectacular views of the minarets of the Hagia Sophia - the multi-coloured spot-lights showing them off in all their beauty. A good time to reflect.

I said goodbye to Ish and Dan that night – despite Ish staying in the same place as me, he was up and out early in the morning and we both knew an early wake-up didn’t need to be endured by both of us.

On Tuesday 11th Jan, I was on my own with just my thoughts for most of the morning until my taxi arrived to take me to the airport. It’s fair to say that I did Istanbul a bit of a dis-service as all I could think about was home. I wasn’t particularly homesick…I was just road-weary…. Tired of living out of the same backpack; wearing the same old, stinking, sun-scorched, starched, faded and stained clothes; tired of moving on every couple of days;  As a result, I really didn’t see as much of Istanbul as I should have done.

11th January happened to be both my mum’s and Lara’s birthday and I had planned all along to come back and surprise them both on that day. Whilst I’d been away, my little bro, Elliott ‘Wormboy’ Kennedy had passed his driving test so I’d arranged for him to pick me up from the airport. I didn’t know that my dad had organized a birthday meal for my mum and, with no real excuse for leaving the table mid-way through, the only justifiable alibi Wormboy could conjure up was “I have to go home. I need a dump and can’t go in public toilets!”

Wormboy was waiting for me in the arrivals hall and we gave each other the big brotherly embrace that a year apart deserved.  15 minutes later, a surreal feeling past over me as we rolled up to the front door of my parents’ place. I’d figured as much would happen: the whole African experience was so different to everyday life in Guernsey that it didn’t even feel like the last year had been real.

As I walked through the front door, I was overwhelmed with feelings. I was sad as I was all too aware of the symbolism involved in crossing the threshold of my parents’ home: My African odyssey was well and truly over. I was also anxious, nervous and excited about seeing my family after so long. On the drive home, Wormboy had confided that he’d had the same feelings of nervousness when waiting for me in the arrivals hall at Guernsey airport.

Feigned or otherwise (evidently brothers tell their girlfriends who tell their sisters who tell their mums…!), everybody seemed suitably surprised to see me. The only member of the Kennedy Clan missing for my homecoming was Morgan (aka Big Mo). It soon transpired that just a week prior to my return, he’d left on his own travelling adventure. So whilst I finally put down my laptop and put this blog to rest, I’ll leave you in the safe hands of my bro. He recounts his travelling tales over land from Berlin to Russia, China and then South East Asia in his blog here:

Home in one piece.