Hookah, Backgammon, Baklava ... Almost Didnt Leave
Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
45Trip End Aug 01, 2006
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I write that of course, but it's not true. I literally believe that I am a superhero.
We take pride in being hearty and independent travelers, so to save 5 euro we walked what might charitably be labeled "incorrectly" around the perimeter of the peninsula. Not that we were entirely incompetent, but the tentative route was based on one picture of a mosque that I'd seen online and expected to spot en route, but if Istanbul is short one thing, it's certainly not mosques. Compounding the problem was the collective conscience of Istanbul's taxi drivers who, upon hearing our destination, indicated that they didn't want to rip us off for such a short walk, not understanding out mosque multivision and thus dooming us to more aimless wandering. Finally getting ourselves lost to such a intense geographical degree that a cabby found it appropriate to haul us back, we flagged one off the expressway and were soon at Bahaus Hostel.
With a base of operations (and quite a good one, coming highly recommended on hostelworld .com), we are, internetted , planned, and learned that Citibank was once again, surprisingly for the world's largest financial institution, incapable of executing simple instructions to deliver me a replacement card. We also called Bade, Imad's long-distance girlfriend, and made plans for a rendezvous that evening. On the way to Tahksim Square to catch the World Cup match prior, we met Angelo from Yale who was doing a banking internship there for the summer (no he was not responsible for Citibank losing my replacement card again), and brought him along for Italy-Australia.
The only reason I carried the Italia shirt that my sister had bought me during her study abroad on this trip (remember, I literally only had 3 t-shirts) was that I wanted to have a blue shirt on hand (they photograph and travel well), and my Nike one was getting near threadbare. The only reason I didn't send it home with my parents in St. Petersburg was that it looked as though Italy might have a chance at making it to the World Cup finals and we had a chance of being in Rome at that very time. And the only reason I wore it that evening was that it was laundry day and everything else was in the wash. Of course, none of those reasons were resoundingly accepted by the bar full of large drunk Aussies that we walked into, who all stopped to start and grunt at me. We weren't making any friends that way, but when I took it off to turn it inside-out, tried to order a Foster's, and rooted for the Socceroos (who in fact showed much more skill and class in that game than did the Azzuri ) with all my heart, all was well and chummy. Sadly, Australia lost in the last few seconds of injury time on a specious at best penalty kick call, so the Aussies drank more and we scampered off to drown our sorrows in Turkish cuisine.
Bade must have had quite the first impression of us, being treated in our initial encounter to a spirited and salty review of the game by two heavily bearded, unwashed Americans with passions still running high and not unfueled by a few brews just after we slipped in a "hey, how are ya." Fortunately she went to school in the States so we were not anything she'd not really seen before. Accepting that somehow her well-mannered and charming boyfriend had hooligan friends like this, we continued onto dinner with three more of her friends on a delightful rooftop overlooking all of Istanbul. All Turkish but college educated in America, they spoke better English than we, and we received a stimulating history lecture from one, a lesson on Turkish drinking from his little sister, and a large illustrated book on Turkey that Bade pulled from thin air. The meal was legendary, with course after course punctuated with laughter and Ryan's eardrum, which was nearly burst with near, pure clarinet sound from the roving Turkish klezmer troupe regaling us with "Dixie". Again, as in Pakistan, dinner ended up very sweet in a frustrating way when Bade & Co would not let us pay a cent, the hospitality ethic some places abroad is just unreal. While we contemplated ways to slip some liras into her purse, we told fortunes off the Turkish coffee rinds. Except for mine, I'd just previously accidentally eaten them.
On the way home, we caught the last bit of the Ukraine-Switzerland penalty shootout (go Blue and Gold!) and Bade's singer friend added hospitality to caring injury by sneakily buying us the Tutemas CD. To rub in how nice and amazing they were, they logically connived us into letting them even pay our cab fare home! We were unable to brood, however, over their infectious and much appreciated generosity as we landed not the only but apparently one of a score of crazy cab drivers in town who liked to play chicken with parked, unmanned dump trucks (he fortunately found it prudent to lose at the end) and stopped- at our pleading insistence- near enough home so we could stagger out to walk the rest of the way and regain our composure. Later, much later, that night, Ryan's high school friend Metzger flew into town with his college buddy Mike and got stuck at the low-rent airport on the Asia side (Istanbul actually straddles the two continents) so duly arrived at the hostel well into dusk.
In the morning I realized that, as random connections are wont to go, my college buddy's high school buddy's college buddy was a dude I already knew, having met and hiked with Mike the previous summer up at the Lair, meeting through the two Johns. Anyhow, we lunched again at our new fav cafe (in what Ryan decided was his favorite city so far) and went to go do the check list thang . First stop was the Hagia Sofia. I normally tire at seeing all but the most spectacular churches (i.e. Notre Dame, St. Peter's) once I've seen a bunch while traveling, but this one was so cool because it only was a spectacular church. Once the grandest structure in Christendom, it was later converted into a mosque and you can still see the layered symbols, with the Virgin Mary mosaic near the Islamic geometric artwork, and crosses visibly peeking through beneath newer Muslim imagery. Next was the the Blue Mosque which, while grand and neat in living up to its name, also might have been known as This Giant Carpet Smells Like Feet From All The Shoeless Visitors Mosque. How funny to have one sense engaged and enthralled with the sights while the other is repelled by the odor!
We wend our way to Tahksim again for the Spain-France game and, lo and behold, all the Aussies had changed into Spaniards. I was rooting for Spain as it figured better for my World Cup bracket, but was not super disappointed when France pulled it out, I think I was won over by Henry's constant bewilderment, Zidane's pointy baldness, and their coach who might I say was just as cute as a button. Heading home late at night, we stumbled upon a large, open-air lounge where the maître d' (who professed, as do most Turks we met at work, to be my best friend in the world) kept the hookah and nonalcoholic drinks coming and I taught the boys a little backgammon magic, which I had learned through the course of 2-way, 40-minute commuted over 4 months in the winter on my $10 cell phone, it being the only game I liked and the only thing to do to keep my sanity.
I awoke "early", just in time to meet Nina, the Scottish Greek tour guide for the same breakfast of tomato, cucumber, bread, feta, and tea, and when the boys woke up we changed rooms again (in fact, changed hostels this time as Bahaus had become overbooked) and grabbed Nina, Laurel from SF, and Xanthe the Aussie to hit the markets that Istanbul is known for. At the Grand Bazaar- less Aladdin and more Woolworths by now- Ryan replaced what is now helping a Ukrainian bladder-control-poor hobo keep on schedule, and we made it over to the even more interesting and delicious Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Nina and I ate a lot of Turkish Delight, they don't call it that for nuttin '. Completing the circuit with a romp around the peninsula palace and a roll on the floor to keep the Turkish rug sales pitch quite interesting, we came back home to book our Turkish baths.
Needing to experience what we'd missed in the onseh in Japan and banya in Russia, and honestly just quite needing a proper scrubdown anyhow, we were whisked by cab out to the lair and changed into our towels, boys and girl separated of course. It was a HOT sauna, though none of us wanted to be the first to admit that he was dying and needed to get out, and we were all relieved when we were shown out to the less hot but no shortage of steamy marble altar washroom. There, we waited and watched while Metzger was the first to get the rubdown from the very large and hairy Turkish washman in only a towel seemingly smaller than our stingy dishrags, and suppressed giggles which he was splashed, scratches, slapped, and scraped by his man. My wash was next and was actually quite nice, the cool water is a refreshing contrast to the hot room. I enjoyed the various forms of abuse, as rough traveling had not done any favors to my muscles and they needed a bit of a beating up to hang loose. Ryan's wash, however, was by far the funniest. As he and Mike were being washed at the same time (large Turkish man in a small towel #2 had come out to service Mike), the exfoliating stone and loofah thing made Mike squirm which made his guy start meowing in mockery. Ryan, finding it funny, chortled as he does best, which egged on his own fella to start ... mauling him, making Metzger and I crack up, only prompting him to really launch Ryan into a few new positions we had to name as they were executed: The Inverse Pirate Ship, Beard Puddle, Eye Scrubber, Human Lawnmower, Chocolate Preztel , Donkey Punch, Fuller Nelson, and Fullest Monty as the combination of small flappy towels and jerky movements exposed us to much more of Ryan's flapping sack than can even be legal.
We were dumped back into the blistering sauna, doused off in deliciously cold water again, changed towels, dried, each got a nice cool bottle of the best water I've ever tasted, and just chill dried/recovered with the girls back in the main room. Nice and limber and back to see our best buddy, it was time for more thick hookah, stimulating backgammon, and sticky baklava. As the group slowly dwindled as folks slipped off to bad, we wandered out much later again for a late nite photo shoot and were capturing some killer (or so I imagined, my broken camera screen kept the products in the dark until later) evening shots, and connecting with despite the madly barking dog straining at his chain but 30 feet away, when the Hagia Sofia security guard with little English to speak of and little to do bade us follow him into his pen for tea. Half an hour into learning Turkish and making visual jokes, we were running our of stock phrases and things to pantomime and were about to head out, when our new friends motioned us to follow him into the catacombs. Ducking under security tape and into the ruins being excavated and unopened yet to the public, we were stoked and surprised to find our gaze, directed by his torch light, finally rest upon a half-out-of-the-ground Byzantine mummy. Just discovered the week prior, we were among the first people to witness this one of our ancient brothers or sisters in hundreds of years. He led us down a catwalk suspended above the subterranean arena subchambers and, equally afeared of ghosts and bandits, but with a strong intuition that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and not to denigrate it with fear or suspicion, we were awed by the past given new life right before us. We emerged to the surface energized and stunned, and after a grateful farewell to our foreign friend, climbed to the roof of Bahaus to build a fort and watch the sun rise. Not a bad ending/start to a glorious day in Istanbul, not Constantinople.
Moral of the Story: Next time I'm wearing shaded goggles to match the towel, I need no more of that burned into my retinas.