Turkey has the “it takes a village” mentality when it comes to children, even in the metropolis of Istanbul. Turks trust each other with their children and they expect us, as visitors to their country, to trust them with our children as well. Everybody notices children and jumps to help with them, cuddle them or soothe them during a tough moment.
Turks simply love children and have created a culture where it’s fine to express that. The most common form of attention is the cheek-pinching. I’m surprised Grace doesn’t have bruised cheeks from the number of pinches but she has endured it with surprising, well, grace. A maitre’d standing outside his restaurant as we passed noticed her face was dirty and summoned a waiter to bring him a cloth to scrub it clean. As we boarded a public bus heavy-laden with bags and a stroller a kind young woman scooped up Grace, held her on her lap and sang songs to her as if she were her own. On a scenic boat trip up the Bosphorus where Grace quickly became bored, a young man who spoke no English picked her up and read her one of her picture books. She’s been given many pieces of candy from strangers, led away by a security guard museum to show her off to his friends, had shopkeepers adjust her clothing and received all kinds of free food in restaurants from thoughtful waitstaff.
Such lavish attention from strangers is disarming for us Americans, so accustomed to adults in keeping their distance from children unless they are 1) related to them 2) know them well or 3) have some kind of malintent. At first we (Grace included) were a bit taken aback by the attention total strangers would shower on our tiny two-year old. Once we realized the approach was universal and well-meaning though, we relaxed and, as long as Grace still felt comfortable, we tried to be as well. As we head home after two weeks in Turkey we’ll have to readjust to strangers remaining just that, while trying to maintain that caring attitude towards other children ourselves.
Question from my best friend, Lisa: What do you do about laundry and diapers when traveling overseas?
Answer: Always make sure we have easy access to both!
It’s actually somewhat amusing that Lisa asked me this question. Twelve years ago she and I spent a college summer in Germany where, for two months, our clothes did not once see a washing machine. We were too poor and cheap so, for the entire summer, we washed our clothes in the bathroom sink using dishsoap. I think the dishsoap was Lisa’s idea. We smelled lemony fresh and, for the most part, looked pretty clean.
Don’t think Steve and I are laboring over hotel sinks washing out Grace’s grubby t-shirts, at least not most days. Now that we can actually afford to do laundry the modern way, we do. We always first price out the cost of having someone else do our wash for us. In developing countries like Honduras laundry is a non-issue because it is so cheap to have someone local do the wash (a few dollars/ load). In Buenos Aires this was the case as well, even though our apartment did have a washer. We preferred to spend our time sight-seeing than waiting for a load to finish so frequently utilized the low-cost lavanderia (wash-and-fold) around the corner where the price even included ironing Steve’s shirts!
In more developed countries like Turkey the cost to have someone else do the wash was outrageous. Istanbul surprisingly also didn’t seem to have a single public laundromat. Luckily for us we had rented an apartment from Manzara Apartments and they had a washing machine in their offices they let us use (one of the few good things about this company – more on them in a later post). The washer was tiny though (held about half of what our washer at home holds) and there was no dryer. We just washed the absolute necessities since we then had to trudge a quarter mile home with the wet laundry to line-dry it.
For the most part though, when we travel we are able to do our own laundry because we rent apartments/houses equipped with washers. On our recent escapades in Turkey we rented a house at the coast during our second week. It was equipped with a washing machine and a huge sunny deck for line-drying the clothes. We returned home with suitcases full of clean clothes rather than the usual post-vacation piles of dirty laundry.
One thing we never, ever use are hotel laundry services. Almost always these services are outrageously expensive no matter the country, up to $5/ item. If we’re that desperate we’d rather resort to me and Lisa’s “dishsoap laundry method” than shell out such exorbitant amounts.
As for diapers, we usually try to take enough with us for an entire trip because diapers overseas are almost always imported from the US and therefore very expensive. Diapers aren’t heavy so they don’t add a lot of extra weight to our luggage, and as we use them up they make room for whatever souvenirs we’re collecting along the way.
On our most recent trip to Turkey we found ourselves short on diapers the last day at the WOW Istanbul Airport Hotel. I called down to the front desk to find out where we could buy diapers in the area. I was pleasantly surprised when the kind man on the other end, in very broken English, said they’d send some up. An hour later no diapers had arrived so I called again. This time no one on their staff knew anything about the phantom concierge’s promise to send up diapers nor did anyone even know what “diapers” were. I tried the British word “nappies.” I tried explaining “you know, the thing babies poop and pee in.” I was transferred to six staff members before the last guy asked me to spell “diapers.” I did and he said he’d call me back. Five minutes later, after what I imagine was a lot of frantic googling and then titters when the staff figured out what I wanted, he called me back triumphant: “We do not have any in the hotel.” OK, that would have been nice to know an hour ago when someone else was promising diaper room service. Sadly we found a local grocery store and bought an entire pack of 36 diapers of which we used one. We left the rest of the package behind in our room so if you happen to go to this hotel and need diapers, just tell them you know some crazy Americans left some behind and they’re probably languishing in the hotel’s lost-and-found.
We have yet to find a country that doesn’t have very easy access to diapers and wipes, despite any language barriers. Though often expensive, every corner pharmacy or drugstore around the world seems to carry Huggies and disposable wipes. Too bad for the landfills but good for traveling parents.
Few things are as sweet for this wife, mother and business owner as a completed to-do list. One where every last task is crossed off and the list for tomorrow reads “To Turkey.” I feel more relaxed now than I probably ever will during my vacation.
That’s where I find myself tonight, as we prepare to take off for Istanbul, Turkey in the morning. I’ve never been a last minute person, running around frantically in the final hours before an exam, a big event, or a trip to get everything ready. Instead I run around frantically a day or two before and I wind up with this wonderful window of a few hours just before leaving where everything, yes, everything, is done. Anything that’s not done doesn’t matter at this point. If it was urgent, I did it already. Everything else can wait until I get back and I don’t have to feel guilty about not doing it right now.
I savor this sensation of done-ness in a life typically so planned, so frantic. Is it possible that I plan trips just so I can have those few satisfying hours before of having nothing to do? Perhaps so.
So what do I do? I won’t bore you with the details I took care of to prepare for my absence from my online business. I’ve provided below though my standard checklist of things-to-do-before-leaving, things which apply to just about every traveling family. I hope it helps you create your own quiet moment of done-ness.
Just as we arrived at our seats for our return flight from Buenos Aires last year Grace, 15 months old at the time, proceeded to puke all over herself, me, my seat and the floor. I learned several valuable travel lessons on that incredibly long, painful, smelly flight home. Let me elaborate.
Kids can go from happy and healthy to horribly ill in a single moment. Grace had been in good spirits and eating well all day, despite a flight delayed by more than 12 hours (that’s another story). Like the flick of a switch she became ill and she remained sick the entire flight home.
Always carry a change of clothes for you and your child. Thankfully I had done both in Argentina and I was able to slip into the bathroom and clean myself up. Since she threw up multiple times on that flight though, my change of clothes didn’t stay clean for long and I now carry at least two clean shirts for myself as well as several for her.
Benadryl is a wonder drug for flying. You’ve probably heard parents say how great it is to help kids sleep on planes, at least those kids who get sleepy from it (some don’t, I’m told). Grace is of the former category and Benadryl helped her finally get some much-needed rest when her body wouldn’t cooperate. A lesser-known fact about Benadryl is that it’s an antiemitic, meaning it inhibits vomiting. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so grateful for drugs.
Airplane blankets make great clothing protectors if you think your child is going to throw up on you yet again. My apologies to whoever had to wash those things but we were desperate.
Flight attendants are not particularly helpful or sympathetic to sick children. We had one plastic bag given to us for dirty clothes and then we were told we couldn’t have any more as they were short. Nobody ever came to see how she was doing, what they could do for us or even just to give us a comforting pat on the shoulder. I get it, vomiting children are gross, but a cup of water would have been nice at the very least when I was dying of thirst but unable to move for hours because I was trying to keep Grace asleep in my arms.
Carry on several plastic bags. As mentioned above, the flight attendants would only give us one when we could have used 2 or 3. Plastic bags are always a good idea anyway. Clothes seem to get wet or dirty on just about any flight, whether anyone is sick or not.
You can’t always avoid kids getting sick (we still have no idea how Grace got sick on that flight) but you can be prepared and minimize the disgusting factor. For more on keeping kids healthy while traveling, read Steve’s post on being prepared.
Like many world cities, Istanbul is a complex mix of the new and the old. Everywhere we turn we are reminded by a cobblestone street, a crumbling mosque or an historic tower that we are walking in the steps of ancient history. But this is a vibrant, bustling metropolis, the economic and cultural center of a nation bidding to enter the EU.
The core of modern Istanbul life is Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian-only shopping zone full of people no matter the time of day. Our apartment was located just a 10 minute walk from one end of Istiklal so we spent quite a bit of time on our trip meandering and discovering what it had to offer.
A “nostalgic tramway” reminiscent of San Francisco’s streetcars runs the length of Istiklal. Since the street is built on a slight slope, the most comfortable way to explore it with little ones is to ride the tram from the southern most point to the top end of the street (Taksim Square) and walk back down. That way it’s slightly downhill the whole way plus the tramway is a lot of fun for kids. You can reach the start of the nostalgic tramway by taking the Tunel funicular from Kadikoy. When you exit Tunel at the top (end of the line – there’s only one stop) you’ll see the streetcar stop right outside. You buy your ticket from the driver for 1 Turkish lira (about 60 cents).
Istiklal Caddesi is jam-packed with fashionable boutiques, kitschy tourist shops, cafes, movie theaters, restaurants, and historical sights. We most enjoyed just walking along and people-watching, stopping here and there for a bite to eat or for a cup of coffee. After riding the nostalgic tram to the end, Grace and I started our first day of exploration of Istiklal after we dropped Steve off for his conference at the Hilton near Taksim Square. First we stopped to try a simit from a branch of the chain Simit Sarayi. A simit is a ring of baked dough dipped in sesame seeds, similar to a bagel. You see simit vendors selling their snacks from red carts all over the city. They’re cheap, fresh and very good.
Back out on the street Grace and I followed Rick Steve’s walking tour of Istiklal Caddesi in his Istanbul guidebook (highly recommended), which pointed out some of the historical sites along the way. There are some old movie theaters, churches, mosques, flower and fish markets, that kind of thing. We didn’t feel the need to stop long at any of the sites but following the tour at least I knew what I was seeing along the way.
We made a stop at the Ipek silk shop about halfway along the street, on the left if you’re headed towards Taksim. It’s a high-end silk shop with very helpful staff and good quality scarves. I found a few nice cotton/wool blend scarves (the shop has more than silk). Grace was the princess of the shop with all five shop attendants doting on her, kissing her, and even tying a jaunty scarf around her neck which they gifted to her (and she proceeded to lose on the street shortly after we left!). We have quickly learned that Turks adore children and have no qualms about showering children they don’t know with affection. Grace slowly warmed up to the idea of such expressive strangers and started to return their love with shy waves and air kisses.
There’s a great English language bookstore, Robinson Crusoe (#389), along Istiklal. They have English speaking staff and a wide-range of books about Turkey and other English-language books. It’s a good stop if your kids need something new to read as well.
A fun culinary treat along Istiklal Caddesi, and throughout Istanbul, is ice cream. Turkish ice cream is thick and stretchy so the servers (found in cafe windows along the street – you’ll spot them by their red and gold hats and vests) do all kinds of tricks with their gooey concoctions. When we stopped for a cone after dinner one night the server shot a long metal rod out the window at Grace. Stuck to the end of it was the scoop of ice cream with a cone. When Grace grabbed the cone, the cone (and scoop) detached perfectly in her hand. But the server wasn’t going to let her get off so easily. He continued to grab the whole thing away from her but reaching out and slapping the end of the metal stick back on the ice cream, to which it stuck and he could pull it away. She was bewildered but amused by the whole endeavor but eventually he let her eat it in peace.
We ate a few meals along Istiklal Caddesi during our time in Istanbul too. Haci Abdullah (Sakizagaci Cadessi 17, just off Istiklal (past the Aga Mosque) was rated one of the best restaurants in the city by Lonely Planet Turkey, so we had to give it a try. The food was good and the service was fast, plus it’s a large fairly noisy restaurant, a good thing when dining out with a toddler. Still it was expensive for what we got and we found we enjoyed Hala (about halfway up Istiklal Caddesi, on the right side if you’re headed towards Taksim Square) so much more. Hala serves gozleme, a traditional thin crepe-type dough folded over various ingredients like cheese, spinach, ground meat and other vegetables. The crepes are made in the restaurant window where you can watch women roll out the dough and cook it over a griddle right in front of you, which is very fun for kids. We also tried their stuffed grape leaves (dolma) and Turkish ravioli (manti), both fresh and tasty.
Overall Istiklal Cadessi is an entertaining place for families, worth at least a short outing during your stay in Istanbul.
Barefoot Cay is an exquisite piece of paradise in the otherwise rough-around-the-edges island of Roatan, Honduras. For Thanksgiving our extended family of seven (including our two-year old, Grace) traveled there and had almost the whole cay (tiny island) to ourselves. We took over three of the four bungalows and enjoyed getting to know the handful of other guests who were staying in the fourth bungalow, in several yachts at the marina and in the new lofts the resort has built on the mainland.
Some of the best amenities of this beautiful little cay include the palapa on a dock out over the water, the clear blue water, delicious, well-prepared food in an intimate dining area, and the well-appointed bungalows completely furnished down to the food processor and blender! We felt very comfortable at Barefoot Cay with our 2-year old, Grace. The staff went out of their way to fix special meals for her, entertain her, and suggest outings for the whole family she would also enjoy.
We were also overwhelmed by the wonderful staff at Barefoot Cay. Mel and Fernand at the front desk were there for every little need we had, from taxi service to laundry to ideas for where to go out to dinner. Owners Milesse and John made us feel like personal guests in their home, not as paying guests of a resort. Staff in the dining room, dive shop, housekeeping, and spa were all so friendly but always professional. We have stayed elsewhere in the Caribbean with very little contact with resort staff, but everyone at Barefoot Cay was always happy to see us and so warm.
One highlight for our party was the dive shop. None of us were divers before but three of us did the Discover scuba class and were amazed by the personalized, professional service of the instructors at the dive shop. Most of the time we had a one-on-one ratio instructor to student, and at one point we even had two instructors to one student. They made us feel so safe and comfortable with the new sport. We were lucky to have grandparents along to watch Grace while we were out diving.
Another daily highlight were meals. We ate about half of our dinners in the resort dining room and they all were deliciously prepared, including the special meals for Grace. The rest of the time we cooked for ourselves in our bungalows after stocking up at a nearby grocery store.
The only downsides of Barefoot Cay are not actually the fault of Barefoot Cay. They are the same downsides we posted previously about all of Roatan. Here they are: 1) garbage floating in the water 2) sand flies and mosquitoes and 3) the ugly shipping dock next door. The reality is, Barefoot Cay is in a developing nation. Garbage-polluted water is a problem in every developing nation. It wasn’t always an issue at the cay but seemed to be worse after heavy rains. We’ve heard it’s not a problem at all in the dry season (first part of the year). As for the bugs, Barefoot Cay staff work tirelessly to keep the bugs down, spraying day and night with non-toxic sprays and handing out complimentary bug repellent to guests. Still I think they’d have to drop a pesticide bomb on Roatan to get rid of them all. The one or two times we forgot bug spray resulted in literally hundreds of sand fly bites on all of us, which are still itching a week later. Finally, there is a ship yard next door but it really isn’t that bad. It never bothered us but you may want to look the other way if it bothers you.
All in all, we LOVED Barefoot Cay and highly recommend it to families traveling to Roatan. Milesse, John and their staff have obviously worked incredibly hard to create a beautiful spot in a harsh environment. It’s a wonderful destination for the whole family if you’re looking for a Caribbean destination off the beaten path, but still comfortable and affordable.
A well-kept secret of the Caribbean is the Honduran island of Roatan. Located just off the northern shore of Honduras, Roatan is part of this affordable Central American country but with the laidback feel of its more expensive Caribbean neighbors. Spanish is the national language of Honduras and English-speakers are hard to find on the mainland. Not so on Roatan, where English is widely used. In fact we used our Spanish so little we often forgot we were in a Latin American country.
Roatan is accesible by direct flights from several US gateways including Houston and Atlanta. At present direct flights run only on the weekends, so be sure to look closely at flight itineraries before booking your hotel stay. You can get to Roatan any day of the week via the Honduran mainland or other Central American countries but those flights are notoriously late (think hours and hours) so a “short stop” could add significantly to your travel time. We opted for a Saturday to Saturday trip to minimize travel time. We (Steve, Beth and 22-month old Grace) traveled from Portland, Oregon direct to Houston, where we met up with my husband’s parents (traveled from Ohio) and my husband’s brother and his wife (from Chicago). From Houston we flew together directly to Roatan, less than 3 hours from Houston on Continental. It was a much easier flight with a toddler than the all-day trek last year from Portland to Turks and Caicos (stops in Dallas and Miami made it a 12+ hour day).
First the pros of Roatan. Roatan is stunning. It’s water is turquoise blue and crystal clear. The fish and coral are brilliant in color and diversity. It’s famed for its scuba diving and snorkeling, in part because both are so good and also because it’s very, very cheap to dive in Roatan compared to just about anywhere else in the world. It’s actually cheaper to become a certified diver in Roatan than in the U.S., although if you’re traveling with little ones keep in mind that someone will have to watch the kids if they’re too young to dive themselves. Travel with non-divers like we did if scuba is on your agenda.
Scubadiving is not the only inexpensive pasttime on the island. Just about everything is affordable including food, hotels and transportation, a real plus for traveling families. The seafood on Roatan is fresh and delicious. There are lots of things for families with little ones to do such as swimming with dolphins, bio-parks with ziplines, interesting animals and flora, glasswater boat trips and of course playing on the beaches with their shallow warm waters and little waves.
It’s easy for families to get around the island as well. Taxis are readily available and affordable, although agree on a price before you get in. Your hotel should be able to recommend reliable taxi drivers and tell you what it should cost to get to a destination. Our taxi drivers were always friendly and most spoke at least a little English, although one spoke only Spanish. Their taxis were well-used and worn, and don’t expect seat belts. We rented a van for part of our stay. It was cheaper than taxis for the days we were doing a lot of driving, since we were such a large group (7 people) plus we could use our portable Eddie Bauer car seat for our daughter. There are several rental agencies on the island and none of them seem to have well-maintained vehicles. One van broke down on us in the middle of nowhere but three different cars stopped to help us, including a taxi driver who took us back to the rental agency for a new, equally decrepit van. Don’t expect luxury in any kind of island transportation, but since it’s a small place you can’t get lost and there’s always someone driving by to help you out.
Thinking about our broken down van brings me to the downsides of Roatan. First, the beaches. There are some beautiful beaches on the island but they are all plagued by sandflies. Our visit to Roatan in November fell at the end of the rainy season, when the flies (and their friends the mosquitoes) are at their peak. They were horrible. So long as we had insect repellent slathered everywhere we were fine, but the instant we went in the water and washed it off the insects were vicious. As I write this post a few weeks after our return I still am suffering from a few itchy bites. We’ve heard they are not nearly so much of a problem during the dry season (earlier in the year) but don’t go in the rainy season expecting to lounge peacefully in the sand.
Another downside of the rainy season was floating garbage in the crystal blue water. As part of Honduras, Roatan is a developing nation and the garbage was a visible sign of the poverty that exists beyond the luxury resorts. Garbage is thrown in streams and rivers and, when heavy rains come, that garbage is washed out to sea and into your resort. Some days there was none, other days the water was full of slicks of plastic bottles and plastic bags. Our resort did a great job cleaning up the beaches on a daily basis but they can’t control what’s floating in the water and it did spoil some attempts at swimming. Again, we heard this problem is almost non-existent during the drier part of the year.
Overall our family loved Roatan. It was the right choice for our small family reunion, with the perfect balance of things to do and nothing-to-do. The people both at our resort and throughout the island were laidback and genuinely friendly. It’s a beautiful place but we recommend it for seasoned developing nation travelers, not for those accustomed only to luxury resorts. Even the nicest accomodation on Roatan can’t shelter you from the realities of it being part of a very poor country. For us this was a plus. It meant an authentic experience and the knowledge that our travel was supporting communities that rely on the income from tourism. But it also meant some inconveniences along the way and a few adventures (such as a broken-down rental van).
Watch for subsequent posts reviewing our excellent accomodations at Barefoot Cay as well as our list of things to do and eat on Roatan with kids.