Tulips and Tea

Trip Start Jan 18, 2006
Trip End Jun 02, 2006

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Istanbul, Turkey: Where East Meets West

Armed with a video camera, passport, and Lonely Planet Middle East, I set out for the Cairo airport to begin my great trek across the Middle East in the middle of April. My flight to Istanbul left at 2:00am which meant that I basically pulled an al-nighter in transit. I arrived in Istanbul groggy and cranky, hardly excited to be in a new place.

Turkey is known as the bridge between the East and the West, bordering Greece in the North and Syria and Iraq in the South. With its bid for EU membership, the country is leaning more and more towards Western culture, but still has roots firmly grounded in Islam and traditional Eastern values. The women covered their hair, but Parisian flare, donning bright silk scarves instead of the modest coverings I had grown accustomed to in Egypt.

My two friends, Hye Won and Leah had flown to Turkey the day before and were to meet me at the airport. So I walked off the plane alone to be greeted by signs in scrawling Turkish and (al-hamdu lilaah!) a Starbucks right there in the arrivals terminal. It quickly became apparent that Turkey was far more European than I had thought and everything from taxis to toilets was cleaner, nicer, and more Western than its Cairo counterpart.

After traveling all the way to Istanbul I was impressed at first not by the mosques and the waters of the Bosphorus, but by the tulips. Apparently the bulbous flower originated in Turkey and we had arrived in the middle of the annual tulip festival, "three million tulips in Istanbul" signs proclaimed on every street corner. Cairo's dust was replaced by clean streets and rainy weather; there were even trees which was a shocking sight after three months in the desert. Twice I had to save Hye Won's life when she wandered into a busy street, in Istanbul they had crosswalks and used them.

The flight, time difference, and culture shock quickly took their toll and the first thing I wanted to do in Turkey was sleep. Our friendly hostel receptionist insisted that I drink some apple tea first and then let me stumble upstairs to a room occupied by two grumpy Australian tourists and the maid. I was awoken from my slumber by the Australians who were discussing in worried tones an infected lip ring. As the woman began explaining in detail the pain she felt and how her lip had become infected, I started feeling nauseous and decided the nap was over.

We set out that afternoon for the two big touristy sights, The Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia. After buying headscarves we realized that it was time for the noon prayer so we decided to visit the mosque after Aya Sophia. It was built first as a church by Emperor Justinian and was grandest church of its time. But when Islam arrived it was converted to a mosque and then Attaturk had it turned into a museum in the 1930s. Now its architecture tells the tale of religion in Turkey, mosaics of Christ are mixed in with Islamic designs. On the ceilings you can see where crucifixes have been painted over with Islamic circles.

The Blue Mosque was the first mosque I had ever visited and I was terrified of offending someone. But with my brown head scarf wrapped tightly around my head and my shoes left at the door, I was allowed in. It was beautiful, priceless blue tiles decorated the walls and the floor was cushioned with row after row of prayer rugs. From the outside the mosque reminded me of Cinderella's palace at Disney World, it must have been the combination of the minarets and the fountains.

That night we went to eat at Moustafa's, his cozy little restaurant would become my second home over the next few days. He was always bringing us free bread, some complimentary dessert to try, and one more apple tea. Moustafa and I talked about tourism in Turkey, about the backpackers he met and whether or not Turkey was Middle Eastern of European. In the end we decided that Turkey was Turkish, that's it. No other term could successfully harness in its vibrant culture.

Next door was a carpet shop filled with the handmade treasures. I wandered in one night and the owner Hassan knew immediately that I didn't have enough money for one of his woven pieces, but he treated me to tea and conversation anyways. He was Kurdish, an oppressed minority in Turkey. He told me of his village Van in the East which is famous for albino cats that have different colored eyes. He had brought one with him to Istanbul and it liked to try and steal my meals at Moustafa's, its one blue eye and one green eye glaring at me in the dark.

Somewhere around my third tea, Hassan stopped touting the virtues of a future Kurdistan and brought up religion instead. He is Muslim and I am Christian and I pestered him with questions, discovering quickly that European atheism had influenced his faith. He does not pray he tells me which contrasts sharply with the dedicated Muslims I have met in Egypt. Soon we have arrived at the one fundamental difference between us.

"In Islam there is justice. Every man pays for his actions," Hassan is saying waving his cigarette around. "Some small sins can be forgotten, but some things cannot be forgiven. If you kill a man you must face judgment. It must be this way or God is not just."

"But what about mercy? Is God merciful?" I ask as he pours me another cup of apple tea. Hassan is musing over my question when two French tourists appear in the shop. Instantaneously, Hassan is up and selling his carpets in thickly accented French, flattering the two women as he explains the fine handiwork. They refuse his carpets but accept his offer of tea and soon all four of us are chatting about Turkey in French, the topic of religion replaced with a more diplomatic discussion of the beauty of Cappadoccia and Turkish delight.

Ephesus, Turkey

I had mentioned to Hye Won that taking two overnight busses in a row would be exhausting but the prospect of not having to pay for a hotel impaired our judgment and that is how we found ourselves snoring away at Ephesus' great amphitheatre. The overnight bus had been a long and stressful affair and with Turkish movies just like in Egypt keeping us awake. The awe of Ephesus' ancient beauty soon wore off as I laid down on one of the stone benches in the amphitheatre and fell fast asleep.

When we woke up we realized falling asleep on stones in the brutal sunlight was a bad idea and we had to coax our sore bodies into movement. It was Easter morning back in the U.S. even though the Middle East wouldn't celebrate it for another week. So, Hye Won pulled out her Korean-English hymnal and we sang every hymn we could remember the tune too. I sang a tearful Be Thou My Vision, praying in my heart about the rest of break. Finally, Hye Won closed by singing her favorite Korean hymn. I read the first chapter of Ephesians and our little Easter service was over. There were no new floral print dresses or Sunday school skits, but the passion and meaning of the day was there.

That night we took the overnight bus back to Istanbul which meant we hadn't really slept for three days. Drowsy and confused, we boarded the shuttle that would take us back to our hostel. Hye Won and Leah dozed off and I half-heartedly tried to pay attention to how the shuttle worked. It didn't seem to have stops and people were telling the driver where to let them off. I saw us approach the neighborhood of our hostel and I got up and attempted to tell the driver where we wanted to be let off. He responded in Turkish which could have been Russian for all I knew. I tried again and this time the Turkish came back fast and angry. I sat back down. Next thing I knew we were crossing the Golden Horn and driving into Asia. Person after person got off until we were the last ones. The driver explained through an interpreter that we had "missed our stop." Great. We then had to pay for a taxi to take us back to Europe and to our hostel.

We spent a few days wandering around the city. The Sultan's palace was amazing, a sprawling complex with buildings for the harem and council to live in. Everything was in bloom and there was a gorgeous view of the Bosphorus. Small details made the place come alive, like the screen in the council room that the Sultan would sit behind, eavesdropping on all the proceedings.

Istanbul is home to the mother of all bazaars, a market with 4,000 stalls that tempts and traps every bypassing tourist. Lonely Planet warned us that we would get lost and so I designated a meeting point before we split up, deciding that we would all come back to the entrance in an hour and a half. Time raced by as I saw dozens of things I wanted to buy. I drank tea with a dozen shop owners and was offered 60 camels in exchange for my hand in marriage from an eager CD seller. Eventually I reached the end of my lira and couldn't carry many more Turkish mementos. So I started heading back, trying to wind back to a place that looked familiar. It all looked familiar. After twenty minutes of right turns and circles I found the entrance only to discover that it was in fact not the entrance but an entrance, one of about twenty identical archways that bordered the market.

I got horribly lost from there. Eventually I left the market and the confusing maze of stalls and circled the bazaar from the outside. This strategy proved successful and I found Leah and Hye Won dutifully waiting for me at about the tenth entrance I passed. I was a half hour late.

My last day in Turkey I was alone because Leah and Hye Won had to catch the bus to Athens, Greece. I was so worried about spending the day along, but God was kind and had sovereignly ordained the day. I spent the morning journaling and praying, preparing for the more challenging part of my trip that was coming.

That afternoon I took a ferry to the Princess Isles. The idea was a good one, but I failed to realize that the ferry took two hours so I spent four hours in transit and only one on the actual island. Still, it was worth it because the water was beautiful and the island was amazing. Cars are forbidden and everyone travels by bike, horse, or foot. It was completely European, with charming cobblestone streets and horse drawn carriages everywhere. The most amazing feature though was a forest that covered half of the island in dark green trees. In Cairo this would be a complete impossibility.

The day came to a close and I was soon on a plane flying back to Cairo. Once there I spent a night in a hotel, taking three hot showers and reveling in the softness of the bed, until it was time to head back to the airport and catch a flight to Beirut.
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