I’ve had a lot people ask about my trip. And even though I’m filled with a million stories and a million experiences I want to share so badly, I have a hard time expressing it verbally. I’m also really disappointed with my pictures and I don’t think they’ve quite captured what an amazing place Turkey really is. Thus I decided, maybe if I could write it all down (which I needed to anyway so I don’t forget everything) and combine it with my amateur photos, maybe I could better share what this little corner of Eastern Europe was truly like. So now, if you want the Readers Digest version, you can skip ahead, look at the pictures, and call it a day. Or, if you have some time to kill, you can read about all the mundane and rambling details; the food I ate, what the bathrooms were like, and which seat on the bus I chose. (Okay, the last one was a stretch.)
I arrived in Istanbul Monday morning around 10:00 am, local time, after a fairly uneventful, albeit long, flight over the Atlantic. I had never not checked luggage before on an international trip and I strolled by my fellow passengers with glee as they queued up for the baggage claim, proud that I had managed to fit two week’s worth of necessities in a carry on. I found a taxi stand and handed him the handy-dandy print out provided by Rick Steves. On it was a request, in Turkish, that the driver should take me to the Azade Hotel, the approximate amount the ride should cost, and directions. My cabby straight up laughed at me when he finished reading it. (But the last laugh was on him because he did get lost and had to refer to the directions more than once.) We zipped up and down impossibly narrow cobblestone streets, nearly colliding with pedestrians, work trucks, and a cart of vegetables before finally arriving at the hotel. The lobby was located down a curved flight of stairs and the concierge met me halfway, exchanging my luggage for a cup of tea. My room wasn’t quite ready yet so I waited in the lobby, fighting the urge to curl up on the leather couch and take a nap. Before long my roommate arrived, Barb Thompson, and soon after we were allowed to go up to our room. I love European hotels. They are unfussy, compact, and almost always have huge windows that you can crank open. I guess in America they’re afraid you’ll jump because they always seal theirs shut.
We had a few hours to kill before meeting up with the group so we took to the streets on our own. I tried my first (of many) mysterious meat dishes from a food cart outside the Hagia Sophia, most of which I gave to a sad looking black dog laying the middle of the square. We later found out that traditionally they do not own cats and dogs as pets in Turkey. Rather, they are “community owned”. The government tags them (more so dogs than cats) and often provides medical care while the local people (and tourists) feed them. It seems to work out well because nearly each one appears healthy, well fed, and well socialized.
At 2:00 pm we met the rest of our tour group at the hotel. There were twenty-six in all, plus our two tour guides, Cemil (pronounced Jah-meal), and Julie. Everyone went around and introduced themselves and where they were from; most were from the West coast and close to the Rick Steves headquarters. I was one of three representing the East coast, and by the far the youngest.
We began with an orientation walk through Istanbul. I quickly learned that if you want to enjoy the scenery you should do so while stationary. So many of the sidewalks seemed to be laid out with no rhyme or reason and were a scattered mess of hodge-podge stones; one misstep would send you sprawling to your knees. So I walked carefully and stopped carefully and took in as much as possible at stop lights and crosswalks. Our first destination was the Egyptian Spice Market, a veritable smorgasbord of exotic looking teas, dried fruits, candy, spices, and Turkish Delight. Yes, Turkish Delight (lokum) is a real thing (though hardly worth exchanging for with the White Witch). I don’t know exactly how to describe it; it has a gelled, sticky, fruit-like quality, sometimes includes nuts, and covered with a sort of sweet powder. It’s no Snickers, but when in Rome…
A month before our tour departed, they sent us Rick Steves’ Istanbul guide book. While I didn’t get a chance to read as much as I would have liked, I did remember glancing at a paragraph pertaining to shopping. It suggested that avoiding eye contact is the best way to avoid pushy sales people, as well as perfecting an authoritative “no” when approached with items you’re not interested in. Well it just seemed rude to not acknowledge people when they say hello, so I ignored the advice of the seasoned travel pro and decided to respond with a polite smile and nod. And do you know what? Rick Steves was correct. Once that eye contact was made it was like trying to untangle yourself out of a wet bathing suit. You just. can’t. quite. get. free. Every conversation goes something like this: “Where are you from? America? Delaware? I have a good friend who lives very close to you!” Most Americans can’t even locate Delaware on a map, but there I was in Turkey, surrounded by people who knew people who lived practically next door. Ah, what a sales pitch. Although my approach meant it took longer to browse from stall to stall, I did find that it also earned me free Turkish Delight. The sugar kick was much appreciated as I was on my 25th hour of no sleep (I think I may have dozed on the plane periodically but really not enough to count).
Our next stop was a boat ride on the Bosphorus, the straight that separates the continents of Europe and Asia. It was a beautiful evening and it allowed us some spectacular views of Istanbul. As it grew darker the city lights began to glow and the silhouettes of the mosques and Ottoman palaces filled the skyline. The name Bosphorus, we learned, comes from a Greek legend: Zeus had an affair with a woman named Io. When Hera, Zeus’s wife, found out, she turned Io into a cow and sent a horsefly to sting her. Well, Io the bovine jumped clear across the straight and the name was born. Bous =cow, and Poros = crossing-place: Bosphorus = “crossing-place of the cow.” You gotta love those Greeks and their imaginative legends.
After about an hour and a half the boat docked, and as we began walking to the restaurant for dinner, a sound unlike anything I heard before suddenly rose up over the noise of the boats and the cars and the throngs of people. It was a mournful and passionate cry, very haunting, surprisingly beautiful. It was joined by three or four others and soon the air was thick with the vibration of multiple Imams singing the call to prayer. And you know what? Nothing happened. I expected to see a massive surge of people head toward the nearest mosque or stop and pray in the middle of the sidewalks. But nobody did anything. It was business as usual. Up until that point I guess my “education” on Islam and Muslims and middle-eastern countries (yes, I suppose I had somehow lumped Turkey into that category) came from television and movie depictions. Much later in the tour, when I finally worked up the nerve to ask our tour guide about my misconceptions, he explained that for many Muslims, it serves as a reminder to pray- but not necessarily at that exact moment. And of course it should be noted that it also depends on where you are during the call to prayer. Istanbul, for example, is a very a modern metropolis. In smaller villages and more conservative parts of the country it may be more common to see people react. Additionally, those who do go to the mosque have probably arrived just prior to the call of prayer anyhow.
Dinner that night began with a traditional salad- a mix of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and a heaping of parsley with a bit of olive oil. It was followed by a meat dish (lamb, maybe?) and a side of egg plant, then topped off with the most delicious baklava I have ever eaten. Finally, blissfully, we returned to the hotel (I was going on 30+ hours of no sleep) and I didn’t stir from my bed once. That is, not until 5:00 am and the first call to prayer of the day nudged me into consciousness, but that’s the beginning of Day 2….