Nargileh Contemplations: Istanbul Days 3-6
Trip Start Jun 07, 2012
11Trip End Aug 02, 2012
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Where I stayed
6/10/12 - 18.00
The afternoon after my geologist friends left, Najla moved in to the bed next to me. Immediately friendly, we chatted for a bit before deciding to head up to the rooftop terrace for a glass of wine or two. We sat across a small table from each other, ordered our first glass, and commented on the view of Asia across the Bosphorus Strait that the rooftop commands. I start to ask the standard battery of questions that are becoming increasingly common when meeting someone in a hostel: How long are you in Istanbul? Are you going anywhere else? How long is your trip in total? Where have you been so far? It was the last question that prompted the worst travel story I've heard so far. Najla had flown into Berlin on a whim, seeing tickets were cheap online and deciding to visit a friend. She had three weeks for her trip and $2500, and quickly became excited by the prospects a Euro-trip could offer.
Her friend told her of a cheap option to exchange her money, so she picked up her 2000 euros and checked into her hostel. The very first night, she went out with an Italian that she met in the hostel, where she had a few drinks and quickly lost track of time. After a whirlwind night-long tour of the city (including a stop at the Berlin wall), she ended up back in her hostel, sound asleep. The next morning, she awoke to the worst shock a traveller can experience - her money was gone. All 2000 euros, likely stolen by the charming Italian.
After this unfortunate discovery, she raced around the city, finding herself in a police station where she was able to file a report. They found the Italian, but with no proof, they were forced to let him walk away. The money for her trip was gone completely. She contemplated her options: heading to the Embassy she could get herself home (but would sacrifice her plane ticket and have to pay for another one), or she could struggle forward on the charity of her friends and try to complete her trip. The latter option won out (luckily for me), and she was able to get a few loans from friends at home and continue her travels.
All of this deeply resonated with me, as I too experienced money problems on the first day of my trip. That being said, her story confirmed for me that no matter what struggles I come up against, it could always be worse. I'm not sure that this is a very comforting message (after all, who wants to think about all the things that could happen), but I suppose knowing that I was lucky to be dealt the hand I was can provide me with some measure of comfort.
We finished off the night in conversation and more wine. As it turns out, Najla is a Sudanese-American with roots in New Hampshire but currently living in Washington D.C. She is angling to start her Masters education in Global Health Policy shortly, and intends to work for NGO's in Sudan. Her focus and drive kept me inspired throughout the night, as we talked a bit about my confusion about my future and how one can walk down the path toward focus and insight.
The next morning, I went to the bank for a cash advance on my Visa. I practically skipped the whole way, as I was so excited to finally have cash in my pocket. At the first bank, I waited for five minutes before being helped, only to be told that the bank did not offer that service (contrary to what the Visa representative told me before I left.) The teller told me to try another bank further down the road, where I was told exactly the same thing. Four banks and 90 minutes later, I was tired, frustrated and cash-less. It took me about 20 minutes longer to walk home than it did to walk there.
Najla came through again, however, spotting me cash for the stops in the morning and at lunch. By the time 4:30 pm rolled around, I ran back to the hostel and borrowed Najla's iPad, using Skype to call the bank. Danielle (my favorite assistant) picked up and I just about cried. Pulling myself together, I rattled off the list of countries that I would be stopping in (eliciting a "That's quite the trip!" in the process) and gained access to my account. Najla accompanied me to the ATM and gave me congratulations and a big smile when I pulled out my lira. Najla, thanks for helping me keep perspective and for being such an easy-going travel partner! I hope your trip home was as uneventful as possible, and will definitely let you know if I'm ever in D.C!
6/11/12 - 6/12/12
We pass under the great arch and immediately the sound of the city drops away, halted by the imposing stone walls. Time is turned back - taxis, trams, and tour buses exist no longer, leaving only the chatter of a hundred languages streaming down the path to the Palace. As Najla and I approach the next set of gates, two things are increasingly obvious:
1. This is not a European-style palace or castle - even though we've walked half a mile between the two sets of gates, I can still only see one small tower rising above the walls.
2. This place is going to be *crowded* - the line just to get our tickets is twenty minutes, which is twenty minutes longer than I've had to wait for anything since I've arrived in Istanbul.
Stepping through the second gate, we are greeted by an even grander garden than the one we just walked through - the trees are exotic, the blooms overflowing, and the din of the crowd chaotic as ever. The Palace is Eastern-style: unlike the imposingly large Western versions, using height and girth to declare their might, Easter palaces sprawl, with hundreds of rooms in scores of separate buildings connected by gardens, arcades, and balconies, great in the acreage they dominate and deriving their power from the simple notion of suggestion. The high walls closing off acres of the city from view combined with the constant flow of visiting dignitaries and caravans of riches communicate more than half a dozen towers or one building with large square footage could. The first few rooms are architectural show-pieces, displaying the now-familiar Ottoman grandeur, this time rendered in gold plates and stone inlays instead of the comparatively simple painted ceramic from the mosques. The next room is devoted to clocks - apparently every mosque employed one person whose sole job was to set the clocks and time the prayers. In the palace, they had a whole building for this task. From there we behold an absolutely astonishing collection of imperial armor and weaponry. The ancient swords glisten as though they had never seen bloodshed, their graceful curves containing brilliantly scripted prayers to Allah, Mohammed, and of course, the Sultan. Rifles gleam with rich wood inlaid with bones, jewels, and ivory.
Up to this point, the crowds have been bearable, but entering another courtyard reveals what seem to be endless lines snaking their way through the palace's largest two buildings. I want to just turn around - I am already sunburned and can't fathom two twenty minute lines without any shade. But I'm already there, and am pretty intrigued by what may lay behind those imperial walls that is attracting all these visitors. I should have done my research and known, but I suppose the discovery can be half the fun as well.
And what did we find? Treasures aplenty. Indeed, the first line takes us through the imperial treasury which, considering it has stored the winnings of one of the most powerful empires in a thousand years, is grand indeed. The rooms are positively glittering in the dim light of the exhibition, and I can tell immediately why a queue had formed: every piece is so astounding that you have to stop in front of it, mouth agape, in awe at its magnificence. As the line slowly snakes through the rooms, we see, among other treasures: jewel-encrusted emerald pendants as large as one's fist; a gold chest filled to bursting with emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and jade; a baby crib made of gold and decorated with hundreds of jewels; magnificent onyx thrones set with ivory and jade; an 86 carat diamond, set with over 40 smaller diamonds around its sides; medals from every country on Earth composed of gold, diamonds, emeralds, and rubies; helmets with so many jewels they would have been impossible to wear; rings of all shapes and sizes, the only commonality being their enormous weight from all of the decorative stones; and candlesticks of gold, inlaid with jewels, standing six feet tall and looking to weigh half a ton each (they were seriously more glorious than a candlestick has any right to be.) So yeah, the treasury was worth the wait. But it was what lay beyond the next line that will always stay in my memory.
As we walk in, we are told immediately to be quiet, which cast an air of solemnity that the excited buzzing of the Treasury could not hope to achieve. We round the corner of the first room to face a quiet crowd, all pressed to the glass of the exhibitions. I wade my way through the sea of people, wishing I could part them with a wave of my hand. I finally reach the front, and behold: a stick. "This can't be..." I think to myself, and fumble in my bag for my glasses. Throwing them on, I peer into the darkened cupola and read on a tiny card next to the stick: "THE STAFF OF THE PROPHET MOSES." I turn to Najla: "No. Effing. Way." We peer back and stare with untrained eyes, desperate to prove or disprove its authenticity. Alas, we cannot.
As we inch toward the next display, Najla is convince: "There's no way that's real!" I think for another moment, and agree that it's unlikely. And yet, I felt chills beholding something as unimaginable as that staff. I look back to Najla and try to explain my feeling: if it wasn't the staff of Moses, someone a very long time ago thought it was, and was able to convince kings and courts alike of its authenticity. It was likely a spoil of war, and even if not, it was painstakingly preserved and held in a vault for centuries, a value that endured, false though it might be. To behold a staff imbued with so much history and value by men far greater than me was truly a spiritual moment. And even if it was me (or someone else) ascribing false value to the staff, isn't that a fundamental tenet of spirituality? Ascribing value and hope to an object, a person, an idea, with the purpose of connecting with something greater than oneself, such that I am one of a million great people who stood and stared at a stick, joining a lineage far greater than myself? And that feeling of connection one takes with himself - the legacy, the lineage, the feeling of a humbling power that you can share in, if you will have it - is that not worth believing in what very well could be a hoax, a lie?
We moved through the rest of the collection, catching glimpses of the Prophet Joseph's hand, a bit of his skull, hairs from the Prophet Mohammed's beard, a bowl that he drank from, all treasures of dubious "value" but priceless importance. Leaving the room, I am at a loss to describe where the Empire drew its power from. Sure, the gold bought everyday power: something paid for these walls... but its these religious relics that seem to buy the lifelong fealty of the subjects. Men would die to behold these treasures. I only paid $15.
The next morning, we are at the other "must-see Istanbul monument, the Hagia Sofia. An enormous Christian monument built by the Byzantines in the fifth century, it was treasured by surrounding empires and eventually taken by the Ottomans and converted to a mosque. Standing outside and staring up, the building is monumental, if a bit strange. Cobbled together over the course of centuries, it has the feel of a large, geometric curiosity, with a couple rectangles here, an arch there, some minarets at the corners, all coming together in a jumble. The interior is a real treat, however. Once you pass through a large entrance hall, you enter the main hall, a massive and airy work of architectural genius. The dome hangs a hundred feet up, seemingly floating in mid air. The main interest is the way the hall has been re-purposed: it was clearly a mosque at some point, as the minarets, mihrab, and minbar would suggest. There is evidence that this was also once a church though: there are some unbelievable gold tilings of Jesus and the Mother Mary. The Archangel is painted next to the dome. The entrance hall is typical of a church, not a mosque. Seeing these images displayed alongside the prayers praising Allah and Mohammed was truly something, a decision Ataturk made when he had the mosque converted to a museum and the plaster covering the Byzantine relics removed, the latest in a string of conquerors, and a secular one at that.
The rest of the trip produced excellent photos, if no excellent stories, but there was one interesting part. In the north-west corner of the main hall there was a support dubbed "The Wishing Column." Why it was named this is debatable, but according to an audio guide, its because an angel lived in there to protect the church, or something. In any case, there is a notch in the column where you can place your thumb, twisting your hand 360 degrees and making a wish. I thought about my wish waiting in line, which eventually became a rumination on why I was there. Re-evaluating my goals, it came back again to change as a theme, but am I looking to change over these eight weeks, or am I just hoping to recognize how I've changed over the past four years of college? Is eight weeks enough time to do either? Both?
These ruminations continued until it was my turn at the column, where I made my wish and twisted my hand. I won't tell you what I wished for, but I can tell you that it concerned by future, beyond even these eight weeks. In those few minutes, I decided that I'm adding another goal to my list: besides wallowing in my past and analyzing what changes I have made, I also want to get a grasp on where I'm headed. The realization that I've graduated from school is really starting to sink in (even as I still use my student ID card for sweet discounts - 75% off at Istanbul Modern?! I'll take that...) I've got a busy few years ahead, and very little sense of direction as of yet. I guess starting work in September will help, but before then I do need to take some time, sit down, and ask myself: in five years, what do I want to have accomplished, and what would I like to do next? While I don't ever expect to answer these questions fully, I'd like to get at least a start, and eight weeks abroad sounds like an excellent prescription for now.
6/12/12 - 20.00
"Hey, did you guys just check-in here?" This time, I found another way to awkwardly introduce myself to people at the hostel, but unlike last time, I totally got called out on it. About 5 hours after meeting Andre and Chole, I was told, "That was so awkward!" To which I asked the table: how does one initiate a conversation at a hostel without it being awkward?
That is, until Chloe spoke up and, with a shit-eating grin and her arms clasped in front of her, elbows moving side to side like pistons, said, "Hey, did you just check-in?" So I guess there's no answer to that question, but my track record on awkward initiations being 3 for 3, I probably won't be stopping any time soon.
We sat on the roof, drank a couple of beers, and chatted. I shared my story of the Roger Waters concert I had gone to about a week earlier, and they regaled me with stores from their travels. Andre is an analyst at an investment management firm in New York, and was in Istanbul on a long layover after attending his cousin's wedding in Switzerland. Chloe, a travel agent from Australia, was on her second Euro-trip, which also includes a stop in New York for the 4th of July (could she have planned that better?) And joining the three of us, of course, was Najla, my constant companion for those two days, tonight wearing full hijab for the first time since high school. People obviously learn different things when they travel, but Najla's experience was so different from my own that it is really quite remarkable: while visiting the mosques in Istanbul, she began to understand her Islamic faith more and more, leading to the hijab and the swearing off of alcohol to cleanse in preparation for Ramadan (though not that night, of course. It was, after all, the last night of her trip.)
We decided to make a night of it, and left for dinner around Taksim Square, at the north end of Istiklal Caddesi, the heart of modern Istanbul. After a tram and a funicular to the top of the hill, we made it and were starving. Luckily, even after 23.00 most of the cafes were open. The energy along this street was palpable, even on a Monday night. Walking down it is a sea of young Turks looking for a drink, a bite to eat, a night. Down one alley may be a club with flashing lights and bumping music, while down another table after table of people might be lined up smoking nargileh and drinking tea. After grabbing some greasy chicken and eggplant from a late night restaurant, we were off in search of nargileh and a beer. Unfortunately, though these 2 activities are very much linked in the minds of Westerners, serving the two together is a rarity outside the tourist bubble of Sultanahment. We eventually found a tea garden owner who told us about a place called Authentic that *might* serve both. It was promising, so we went off searching.
Down one side street, we saw a bar named Otentik, and deciding it was similar enough, we ventured in. After four flights of stairs, we entered the bar, and much to our surprise, it was actually really authentic. This much was clear from the fact that the bar was nearly full and we were the only foreigners, as well as the fact that the waiters spoke absolutely no English. We sat at one of two tables, too tired at this point to care that, though the inside was cloistered and dense with smoke, there was no nargileh here, only cigarettes. We ordered a round of Efes (the ubiquitous Turkish beer that, while better than Italy's Peroni, was too watered down to taste like much.) The coversation flowed, as did the beer, but the absolute highlight of the place was the live Turkish music: one man strummed an enormous bağlama (a traditional instrument with 7 strings), and was joined by a woman with a soulful, mournful voice who sang melodies over the drum beats and keyboard flourishes of the third. The music was based off of a completely different scale from the Western tradition, full of augmented intervals and chromatic melodic progressions. The woman sang in such a way that, despite having no idea what she was saying, I could follow along with every emotion, every narrative turn. It was truly mesmerizing. Just before we left, some patrons started a line dance near the back of the bar. Andre, Chloe and I joined in, stepping here and there but mostly bopping around. It was delirious fun, even if the simplicity made me want to bust out a jig or two from the old Irish Dance days.
Sated with beer and it being barely 01.00, we went off to a nargileh cafe to finish off the evening. We settled into two low couches in the alleyway, ordered an orange-mint nargileh and some apple tea, and chatted away the evening. The tea in Turkey is absolutely insane - I've never had anything like it! It is served in very small glasses that really only hold a couple of sips, but the tea itself is incredibly concentrated. The apple tea was more like apple juice served warm with spice. It was steeped in about a whole chopped apple per tiny glass. They serve the tea with sugar, but there's absolutely no need - sweet, refreshing, and perfect with the shisha. That's probably why we couldn't find a place to do both at the same time... the tea goes so well, it would honestly feel like a sacrilege to mix in some beer instead.
The conversation was likewise fantastic, ranging from travel stories to Najla's religion to Chloe's job (one of her clients died abroad while we were together) among other things. I'm still impressed by how difficult it is to *not* meet people in this city. Even if I tried, I don't think I'd spend a night alone. This has been an unexpectedly pleasant surprise, however. Eight weeks is a long time, and even if I was totally comfortable with myself, spending all those nights alone could still drive me crazy. I suppose this means that I'll have to spend the train rides I have coming up in solitary contemplation if I have any hope of achieving whatever realizations I'm hoping to reach on this trip...
We ended the night in a taxi, racing along the Bosphorus Strait at 03.30, listening to Brittney Spears. Even when you feel as far away from home as possible, American can always come around and slap you in the face when you least expect it.
6/13/12 - 10.00
"Shane, I'm so excited to be along for one of your first times swimming in the ocean!" I laughed, and told Chloe it really wasn't all that different from a lake. And it wasn't, at least not where we were. The beach was a small stretch of sand, pressed between the "Green Beach Club" and the forests of the island. The island was reasonably small, but within sight were two other islands, creating a natural border for our stretch of the Marmara Sea. There were no waves larger than a couple of inches, and the sightline reminded me of swimming up north: a large body of water surrounded by pine forests, though here there were three small gaps, reaching tot the sea. Hell, we were even lying on a platform not unlike the one our neighbors at our cabin brought out to the bay every summer. The largest difference was the salt - it covered my lips, my face, my hair, my skin. I suppose it wasn't unpleasant, but it wasn't that pleasant either. What was nice, though, was that I was swimming, for the first time in too long.
Andre, Chloe, and I woke up on the early side of things that morning. We had a full day planned: we would take the ferry down the Bosphorus to the Prince's Islands, where we stop at the 2 furthest of the inhabited islands (there are 4 inhabited, and 9 total) and then head back. Getting to Heybeliada, our first stop, took about an hour and a half on the ferry. Though we had to sit in an enclosed upper deck (we got there a tad late), we got a window seat and were able to see some magnificent views of both the European and Asian sides of the city. Seagulls loved flying just past our window, so close we could touch them, and at a few points we even saw dolphins leaping out of the water and landing with a splash. Seeing the water made me itch to jump in - I'm not sure if you guys ever feel this way, but my body seems to know when I haven't gone swimming in awhile. I start to miss the sensation of water flowing across my skin (driven by a force other than a shower head), wrapping my muscles in its cool depths and cleansing my skin of months of grime and dirt. Even if I shower every day, there's nothing like a good swim.
Anyways, we disembarked and were met by an exceptionally cute town, complete with cobblestone streets, meandering couples, and pastelle colored store fronts selling ice cream. Almost immediately, a man rushed at us and shoved a flier in our faces: the Green Beach Club. For 30L (about $20) we could go to a private resort with lockers, showers, our own deck chairs with umbrellas, and an actual beach. Best of all, it was on the other side of the island where it was less crowded, and the short boat ride was free to get there. Looking around, all we saw were small souvenir shops and cafes. We said, what the heck, and did it. Best. Idea. Ever.
The scenery was beautiful, the beach existent (if not necessarily the best), our chairs were comfortable, and the music was awesome, playing everything from Turkish power ballads to Call Me Maybe. (Here is my favorite chorus I heard today: "I'm in love with a fairy tale / Even though it hurts / I don't care if I lose my mind/ 'Cause I'm already cursed.") I got to go swimming in the ocean for only the fifth time ever (once each in California, Caymen, Spain, and Italy, though honestly, Spain was more of a wade than anything) and it was absolutely perfect. The water was cool, but not cold, and the sun warm, but not intense. Floating on my back and watching the clouds inch across the sky was an absolute highlight of the trip for me, as was lying on the platform int he sea chatting with Andre and Chloe about the perfect travel book.
We laid out for the rest of the afternoon, Chloe burning the most severely with me in a close second. After grabbing another free shuttle boat back to the ferry, Chloe headed back to Istanbul to do some shopping, and Andre and I went on to our final destination: BŁyŁkada. Arriving shortly before 19.00 we decided to push dinner back until we got back to Istanbul, spending our 2.5 hours before the last ferry exploring the island instead. We rented a pair of bicycles and set our sights on St. George's Monastery, perched atop the highest point of the island. We walked the bikes out of the square, and I mounted mine with much trepidation. (For the record, I'm not very good on two wheels. Most of you have heard my mind-meltingly embarrassing story involving a German bridge, a horse, and a small patch of grass, but for those who haven't, suffice to say I'm not very good riding bikes.) These bikes were old, and strangely shaped, with seats that are too low and handlebars that are too high. They did have some gears, but some clanged like silverware in the garbage disposal. The bikes worked, though, as Andre proved by racing off. I wasn't so lucky, as my first move on the bike was to jump to the right and nearly knock over a girl about 10 years younger than me (I can still see her eyes widen with fear as I career toward her.) In a stroke of luck (and reflex), I right myself and start off behind Andre.
In about two minutes, I felt like I had a good handle on bike riding again, and I was able to enjoy my surroundings. While Istanbul, like any large city, has a noticeable layer of smog, the air out here was clean (and trust me, after walking around a smog-filled city for 5 days, there's nothing like biking through some fresh air.) The streets are hilly (like everywhere else in Istanbul), which made for an exciting, if challenging, ride. Some hills made us almost stop and walk up they were so steep (though somehow I was able to avoid the temptation), and the downhill stretches were some of the most fun I've had on the trip so far: racing down the streets, avoiding other bikers and horse-drawn carriages, and using the breaks only when absolutely necessary was quite fun. (If the last sentence sounds weird, it's probably because I forgot to mention that no motorized vehicles are allowed on these islands. It's super quaint.) The most astonishing bits of the bike ride, though, were the houses along the road. Actually, "house" may be the biggest understatement of the year. Let's go with "mansions." These places were downright incredible, with huge gorgeous stone entryways, statues, fountains, multiple wings, and enormous pools in the back so large they were visible from the front. I suppose these places are why they're called the "Prince's Islands," and for good reason: I certainly wouldn't be surprised if a prince, duke, or Hollywood celebrity owned one of the places we saw.
We made it is as far as our bikes would allow - locking them to a small light post, we headed up a steep cobblestone path, me wearing only flip-flops and regretting that decision instantly. We reached the summit some 10 or 15 minutes later, hot and exhausted, and saw the monastery, a small, unobtrusive building that wasn't even open to the public. I didn't really mind though, as the real treasure was the view. We climbed over some rocks to the edge of the mountain, and looked out over the sea, seeing some small islands dotted in the distance, silhouettes in front of a slowly sinking sun. The colors were unbelievable - dark blues to blacks in the water, light to dark greens in the forests sloping down to the water from our perch, and red to orange in the hazy sky around the sun, which itself was mutating its color darker and darker as it sank down to the horizon. Absolutely flabbergasted, Andre and I each chose separate rock outcroppings, and sat in solitude, contemplating the sunset, for about half an hour.
I'm not even sure what all I thought about during that time. I know a good chunk of it was devoted to absorbing all of the beautiful details around me: the diamond weaves the water would make as it approached the island, invisible when on sea level but clear as day when hundreds of feet above it; in this pattern, the way each fold of water would catch the sunlight just right and glisten for a second, creating a blinking effect when massed together not unlike looking at the skyline of a city, but changing more rapidly, and glistening more luminously; the way that, when I looked to my left, it was like looking at a daylight scene, but looking to the right was distinctively apocalyptic in its reds and its deep, dark greens and blacks. But this being my last sunset in Istanbul, I also began to reflect on my trip so far. Over the course of 6 nights I had seen so much and delighted in such a unique culture that I couldn't help but feel slightly overwhelmed. I was here, I had made it to this peak, all on the strength of my own deeds. Not only did I bike up the mountain, but I got myself to Istanbul in the first place, I negotiated its winding alleyways and different language, I planned the entire trip I was about to embark on with only a little help from a couple key friends, I paid for the entire trip by working over the past four years - this was a moment for me, one that only I could cherish knowing that I had put it together, that everything leading to me sitting on this mountain and enjoying one of the most beautiful settings I had ever witnessed was planned for me. The sunset was indeed a private show - Andre and I were the only people on top of the mountain witnessing this view - and if it was an ego boost, it was in all the right ways. Watching the sun set, I realized that it was moments like these that I came abroad for: to feel awed by nature at the same time that it inspires me, to recognize an accomplishment at the same time that I'm looking forward to so many more. Those thirty minutes were the most indelible, indescribable thirty minutes I have felt in a long time, and I feel like I will carry the blinding oranges and fiery reds of that sunset with me for the rest of my days.
Getting up, Andre and I meet, and shake our heads simultaneously. Few words needed to be spoken - I think we both knew what we had just witnessed. We gathered our things, and headed back down the cobblestone path. I glance at my phone and realize we have 25 minutes to make it back to the bike shop and on the ferry. "Think we can do it?" I ask Andre. He grins, and starts running down the path, me following in my flip flops the best I could. We reclaim our bikes, and this time there was no time to waste on braking. We twisted down the roads, blurs to the people we passed, wind raising the hair on my skin and a smile lighting my face. We were off.
6/13/12 - 23.00
I wouldn't be surprised if you came away from this blog thinking I am friends with everyone I've met... I will be spending the bulk of my writing on those people that I've met that have inspired me, entertained me, and been nice to me, but for every one of those people, there was another one who didn't want to talk too much, or rubbed me completely the wrong way. I don't want to spend too much time dwelling on those people, because I much prefer to write about people I like, but this story just has to be told, if for no reason other than it led me to find the cheapest restaurant beer I had in Istanbul.
On my last full night in Istanbul, after spending all day on ferries and islands, I was starving (it was already past 22.30 and I hadn't eaten dinner yet). I walk down to my dorm in search of Chloe and Andre, looking for a bite to eat. Straight after I opened the door, Chloe looked up and said, "The most obnoxious guy just moved in here... he won't stop talking!" I like to think of myself as a non-judgmental person, or at least I try to be. My ears perked up here, and I deliberately decided to ignore her assessment until I had a chance to see for myself. After all, I have lots of talkative friends, I definitely thought I could handle making one here in Turkey. We went up to the rooftop bar to get Andre, and met a group of French Canadians who were also starving. Sitting at the table with them was Tim, the new roommate. I stuck out my hand, shook his, and promptly started a conversation with a Canadian. So far, uneventful. Talking about where to eat, Tim stepped in. Apparently he had "been to Istanbul loads of times" and knew "all of the spots only the locals go to," including "this little kebab place only a short walk away in Sultanahment."
As a quick aside, in certain situations I really hate this notion of "only the locals go here!" I agree that finding those off-the-beaten-path places is usually pretty rewarding: the food can be dirt cheap, the quality can be great, and you can usually end up in a short conversation with a local resident there. Just as often, though, the food can be cheap and terrible, the people exceptionally unfriendly toward foreigners, and the experience can be terrible. There's a reason why touristy places are the way they are - they're convenient for travelers like myself. So, when I travel, I like to get a mix. I try to find the "local" places when I can, but I don't make it my end goal. Ultimately, I care more about quality of food, quality of experience, and price. Usually, this means local, but not always. All this is to say: if you make it your goal to find an off-the-beaten-path place, I'd wager you're doing it wrong. "Local" shouldn't be an end in and of itself, but rather should be a component of the decision process when it comes to visiting something or eating somewhere. I like when I stumble upon a local place, rather than manufacture a way to see the "real" Istanbul. Later in this entry, I'll talk about a "real" neighborhood I went to and a "real" restaurant I ate at. It was a place recommended me, and I heard good food and cheap prices, not necessarily "local." The fact that I met some great people there was a plus. What Tim seemed to be suggesting (I've been here loads of times, and if you're not eating here you're doing it wrong) seemed like an annoying attitude to take - I'd love to try their food if its good, but if it means venturing off in some wild goose chase for the real Istanbul, I'd rather not. And that's exactly what it became.
We headed off down the street, got on to the main road, and immediately I knew this place was more than five minutes away - to escape the tourist bubble would take at least ten to fifteen minutes. In reality, it took more than twenty. By this point, its 23.30, and I am close to throwing in the towel. Tim had a group of 8 hungry foreigners trailing behind him like chicks after their mother, and whenever we started talking about stopping at this restaurant here, or that restaurant there, he would encourage us again with his talk of wondrously cheap and delicious kebab. Along the way we had picked up a gaggle of stray dogs - I really have no idea why they were following us, but they seemed to have nothing better to do. It was pretty cute, actually: when we'd stop to let Tim have a look around and gather his bearings, they would wait patiently by our sides, and when we went off again, they would follow. Finally, Tim found the street he was looking for. We turn into a small alley and are immediately surrounded by loud barking. There were dogs on the roof. I'm not kidding, big dogs, with lips curled back exposing teeth and drool, growling, their hair on all ends, who somehow got themselves up on a low roof and were perched as if they were about to attack. Luckily, our dogs started to growl back, and in the confusion we left the dozen or so dogs to figure their shit out on their own.
Pressing forward, Tim decides this isn't the right street. This is where Andre, Chloe, and I decided to break off from the group and go it on our own. There was a restaurant on the corner that had a big "Lonely Planet reviewed" in the window, which even if inaccurate, seemed to be a fairly decent bet. Glancing at the menu outside the place, the dishes were reasonably priced (if a bit expensive) but the beer was only 6L, cheaper than the standard 9L we had encountered at every other restaurant. Even Tim was impressed. But this didn't stop him from trying to convince us not to go here (which is when I really got ticked off.) "I swear, the place is right around here, it will only take a few minutes to find and it will be worth it! Come with me, don't eat here, the food is so expensive! We can come back for beers, let's go!" I finally looked at him and said as politely as possible, "I think the three of us are eating here, y'all can go elsewhere if you want. It might be a bit expensive, but it's midnight, and I have to eat something now. We'll see you guys later." Or something like that. The Canadians decided to join for a beer now and food later, and we all sat down, Tim included.
Almost immediately, though, he jumped up excitably and said, "I've got an idea! I'll go find the place, and then bring you all and we can go together!" The Canadians agreed, Andre and I ordered, and Tim was off. He was gone for over 20 minutes. By the time he got back, I was already chowing down. He said his place was closed. The magic didn't last, apparently. Apparently he did find a cheap kebab place over by the train station, though, and took the Canadians with him (who left nearly full beers on the table, by the way. Andre and I couldn't believe it - we would finish those in America before traipsing off.) They enjoyed their cheap railway station kebab, and I absolutely loved the food I ate - even if it wasn't the best meal I've had, the 40 minutes I got to eat earlier than the others seemed worth it to me.
In the end, Chloe, Andre, and I had a wonderful evening, drinking cheap beer after cheap beer, and a round of Raki as well (a regional alcohol with a strong taste of black licorice... took a bit of getting used to, but in the end I was enjoying it.) The night ended fine, even if Tim wouldn't shut up for a minute. He was an interesting guy after all who had traveled basically everywhere, it seemed, and had good stories if nothing else. I left that night with a distasteful impression, but I realized that could've happened to anyone. It was simply his attitude, his holier than thou judgment, that really irked me. I suppose its important to meet people like that, but it reinforced for me the benefits of traveling alone: when I'm hungry, I eat where I want, and that's good enough for me.
6/14/12 - 13.00
The "Little Aya Sofya" is fairly interesting - like the Aya Sofya, it is covered in Islamic imagery and has functioned like a mosque for centuries, but the actual construction was Byzantine, a Christian relic repurposed. I can tell this from the entry hall and cloisters, which mosques typically lack. It was worth a couple of photos, but really not much else. Stepping out to the garden, I sit on a bench and flip through my guidebook, finding my next stop on this, my last afternoon in Istanbul. Deciding on a bit of lunch, I stand to leave and notice some kids playing with a soccer ball outside the gates. I reach for my camera to take a few pictures, but am stopped by a girl of maybe 5 or 6, offering me a smile and a small, unimpressive flower she picked out of the ground. I think to myself, "How kind!" and take it with a bow and a smile back. She then sticks out one grubby hand, and with the other holds up a finger, the international symbol for "1, please." She was so adorable and the gesture was cute I didn't care what message I was imparting, I wanted to pay her. I shake out my pockets and yield nothing. I knew I only had 20L notes in my wallet and, doubting the ability of this little girl to make change, I shook my head with disappointment, shrugged my shoulders, and passed the flower back. Contrary to what I was expecting, the girl game me a mischievous smile, and with a playful squeal was back in the game. The lokanta I had chosen to eat at was a 15-minute walk away, through the heart of "local" Sultanahmet.
~~~~A quick diversion about Sultanahmet and the construction of Istanbul generally: the city itself is unlike many that I've visited in that its primary historical sites are all unbelievably concentrated. In Beijing or Rome, for instance, there may be small centers of historical import (the Forbidden City, the Coliseum) but many of the cities' other monuments are spread to the corners of the city reaches themselves. In Istanbul, while some monuments exist in other neighborhoods (the Galata Tower comes to mind), most of the important monuments are crammed into a square mile or two (including the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, and the Hippodrome, among others) such that tourists rarely leave this neighborhood. This also lead this section of the city to become heavily touristy and internationalized. There are pockets, however, of the "real," "local" Istanbul left in the neighborhood, however, and this was one of them.~~~~
The streets' cobblestones haven't been redone in decades. Buildings are crumbling before my eyes. Instead of hawking trinkets and souvenirs, the streetside sellers offer fresh, blood fish and vegetables in dirty baskets. Its grungy, dirty, and real. I walk with my head in the clouds, absorbed by the sights I had missed over the past few days. I made it to the lokanta, where hot meals await in large trays under glass. I point to my dish and smile wordlessly at the waiter serving me. I sit and in 30 seconds have a steaming plate of beef, peppers, and eggplant in front of me, swimming in their own glorious grease. I savor every bite, and use three pieces of bread to soak the last of the flavorful broth from the bowl. The waiter stares, but I don't care. $5 for the best lunch I had in Istanbul. I pay, full of gratitude for the wonderful food and wonderfully low prices. I beam at my waiter as I walk out the door.
Exiting, I turn to the next destination, immediately entering a now-common street going up a steep incline, but with uncommon beauty practically begging me to take a picture. I reach to my pocket and realize I must have put the camera in my bag, though I could have sworn I had it at the top of my pocket, nesting above my wallet, cord out for easy access. I swing my bag around my right shoulder to my side in a well-practiced maneuver. I feel around my glasses, sunscreen, notebook, and extra pair of shoes in my camera's normal position. My eye twitches and a lump starts to form in the middle of my throat. The back pocket comes up clean as well. I literally can't believe my eyes, my hands... I check my pockets, my back, once again, twice again, then throw my bag on the ground. I dump out the contents, attracting stares from the pedestrians around me. Now I really don't care. Did I lose my camera? Did somebody steal it? It really doesn't matter, because all I can think about is how its gone. My perfect little tourist bubble is broken.
~~~~Over those 30 seconds, my stomach rode a roller coaster up and down, spinning and wringing, upset with frustration, while my mind was a slate, a single word in capital letters covering my memory: GONE. Though all of this may seem over wrought, I assure you from the bottom of my heart that this is how I felt, that was my reaction. Those of you who know me know that I tend to the emotional, and my insecurities can leap from sea-level to the tops of mountains in seconds. The fact these buttons were pushed is unsurprising, given I actually had a mental order of what valuables I could stand to lose. In reverse order, this went: my MP3 layer, my AMEX, my cell phone, my Visa, my wallet, my bank card, my passport, and my camera. Yes, the least expensive item is the one I could deal with losing least, because my pictures are my memories, they're half the reason I travel, they're everything I take back with me besides 2 or 3 small souvenirs and some vague philosophical adjustments. So yeah, this was the worst thing in the world, a reaction that isn't over wrought so much as it is just plain pathetic.~~~~
I throw my sunscreen, glasses, map, book, notebook, and shoes back in my bag and turn on my heel. If I lost my camera, I'll find it on the ground. If someone stole it, I'll see it in his bag, his hands, the bastard's eyes. I walk past the picture-glass storefront of my lokanta, eyeing the waiter with suspicion, checking the customers' hands for someone rifling through my photos, judging his catch. I walk the street back past the dilapidated buildings and salesmen wielding their knives and their language in the same vicious manner. The store owners I once viewed as quaint and friendly were now alternatively suspicious and hateful.
I'm closing in on Little Aya Sofya, and my mind is a two-lane highway: guiding my route, the steps I took last, the buildings I passed, the shopkeepers outside like statues, smoking and sitting the same way they were over an hour ago. Half of my mind devoted to the search, and the other half, the reason. Oncoming traffic was one long, screeching reminder that my camera was gone, GONE, threatening to disorient me at every step. I lope past 3 teenagers relaxing against the side of a truck, turned inward in conversation. The middle one stares at me as I pass. I stare back, noting his hands behind his back. I make a mental note as I see the gates of the mosque: if my camera isn't there sitting on a bench, go back and find him. I pass the children, the girl with the flowers. Could that have been the distraction? Was the mischievous smile one of success, not of guilt?
I pass the gates, snap my head left, and see an empty bench, the sight of my last photo. It's gone. I throw my bag on the bench, making a large crack that reverberates through the holy courtyard. I throw myself on the bench, and slowly deflate, resting my chin on my sternum.
It's gone, but it's not the end of the world.
It's gone, but it's not the end of my trip.
I lift my head and see the sun shining through the leaves, casting patterns across the ground that slowly sway, mutating with the wind. A shadow erases the pattern and I look up into a kind silhouette. "Are you having a problem?" asks the outline. I simply reply "Yes sir." My problem feels etched across my face. "You lost..." he begins. "...my camera..." I finish. "Sony..." "...Cybershot."
A smile mirrored, we walk into his shop, where 3 men sit huddled around my photos. One looks up and smiles, "Very good!" I bow twice in thanks, take my camera, and bow a third time. I walk out, my skin positively burning with relief. I smile at the children, nod to the trio of teenagers, salute the lokanta waiter, and take a photo of the steep incline. I ascend, feeling like a cloud, sweating but happy, my legs burning from a fatiguing optimism. I reach the top, breathing heavily, turn, and find an even better vista. I snap a photo of the street descending to the sea.
~~~~As I walked up the hill, two thoughts stuck in my mind: first, those men were seriously among the nicest I have encountered while traveling. That they found a camera and held onto it for me is astounding. Its really unfortunate that all I have is one picture of half of one of the men, taken accidentally as they started to view my pictures. The second thought focused on how stupid I was for getting myself in that situation in the first place. I had to be a complete idiot to just leave my camera lying around like that. This thought left me with a fair amount of cognitive dissonance, however: if I was stupid, how did I graduate Penn to make it here in the first place? But if I was smart, how could I leave my camera around to be picked up by strangers? In the end, I decided that the assumption that I must be stupid because of a mistake is simply wrong, even though I couldn't help but think that. I think sometimes I hold myself to these absurdly high standards of perfection that can push me down some emotional roads when I don't quite reach these. The lows I reached while walking back to the monastery were not that shocking, but they weren't necessarily desirable either. The suspicion I treated everyone with is an emotion I detest, and its really something I need to learn to avoid. I really do seem to view the world through an emotional filter, a phenomenon I'm fairly certain I'm not alone in experiencing. When I'm happy, people are nice, food is good, cities are beautiful... when I'm not, people are suspicious, food is bland, and cities are full of malevolence. When all is said and done, this seems to be an argument for me to eat ice cream every day for the rest of my trip, if not my life: ice cream makes me happy, and when I'm happy, the world is simply a better place, for me and the people around me. Going into my job next Fall, there's always the apprehension that I will lose a lot of time that I have right now to do the things I love, the things that make me happy (hang with friends and family, watch TV or movies, play my violin). I guess in a kind of roundabout way, this experience is starting to convince me that making time isn't just important, its essential to loving life. And who knows, maybe ice cream can help me with those standards of perfection as well. Maybe when I find myself demanding too much, I'll eat a bowl of ice cream, and remind myself that a bowl of ice cream is just about the only thing in the universe that can even hope to be perfect. And that's kind of a cool thought.~~~~
Having finished the Little Aya Sofya, the Lokanta, and the camera disaster, I had one more item to cross off my list before I left Istanbul that evening (though admittedly losing my camera was not on my list.) I walk twenty minutes to the main street in Sultanahmet, angling myself East. After the emotional roller coaster of the morning, I really could use an hour with some nargileh...