Europe 2015: An Istanbul, Turkey Hiatus
So... THIS was actually, kinda, sorta planned - a moseying, noseying-about visit to Turkey, if perhaps only to Istanbul (also commonly called IstaMbul). Thing is, as originally "planned", it was supposed to be more like a mere week's stepping out, a fluff of an interim in the land of caliphates which would allow me to then return and obtain a fresh visa back in Europe. *That* idea, however, was before I read up on the Schengen Zone agreement and all that it entails. To recap the subject: Oops!
Anyway, doing a modicum of research is how a supposed week's foray suddenly turned into a glorious month's stay, although I'm fortunately none the less happy for the change. Turkey's long held allure for me. How could it not? The former eastern side of the Roman Empire, actually its sole successor for a very, very long time, this is the place that gave license to Aladdin's genie and flying carpets, all the while hosting some of the most famous ancient ruins (and standout mosques) in the world. That all this lies in an Islamic society known for being moderate (especially in an age of increasing extremism) unquestionably helps to clinch the sale, too. Sold! What's not to like?
Apparently nothing, so back in Madrid I've crash-thumbed through an absolute brick of a Lonely Planet Turkey guide at M&F's pad where, in a flurry of last-night-in-town cram reading, has me frantically jotting down notes. The idea is to rapidly achieve a heads-up on reasonable expectations, traveling for a first time into culture truly foreign to any I've experienced. Said crash course quickly morphs into a mere jumbled blur, however, by the time I'm boarding yet another plane in Madrid, almost immediately finding myself at the supposed 45min pitstop in Zurich before next circling Ataturk Airport. Worlds collide so quickly these days, indeed.
The "supposed" part of the "45min pitstop" is because it turns into almost two hours, by the way, and only later will I learn that what a lot of planes on their way to Turkey do is circle a lot. That's because Ataturk Airport has demands that vastly overwhelm its capacity, and on a daily basis this mess backs its way first into the sky above the metropolis before rippling further backward to clog the airports feeding it. The good news, and there will eventually be some, is that a new 'port is being built as I write. It'll soon be the largest in the world, handling an expected 150 million passengers/yr. Yikes! Come to think of it, I think I prefer this little bit of circling, especially since we'll be landing really close to town (as opposed to up by the Black Sea, where the new one will be located).
In any event, the plane finally touches down, an event I find immeasurably better than running out of gas - and this has the bonus of simultaneously permitting me to write about the merry adventure to come in lieu of croaking in a fireball. And an adventure it shall be, too, starting right in the airport - if only because the first thing I notice are the headscarves galore that I see. That's different, if expected. No burkas - yet.
But otherwise this entry into the Muslim world is pretty much like that of entering any other modern country. All is essentially modern, and it will continue to be so at least here in Istanbul and the West Turkey areas I'll soon end up in. Certainly everything is on a par service-wise with many a developing country well on its way, like Chile for example, and this is evident as soon as I find myself jumping onto the soon-to-be-packed metro train which'll take me properly into the grand city. A couple of folks in the seats near me answer in English, politely replying to my typical questions of where to get out, how to get to my destination, etc., as I otherwise peer out of the windows at contemporary buildings with the odd, ancient minaret lending exotic spice both near and far away from our hurtling conveyance.
This packed transit scene continues when I exit the metro at Aksaray Station, immediately cutting through a large plaza and then some nearby stalls on its periphery to next catch a glistening tram. This clean machine will transport me to Sultanahmet, the core of the ancient scene of this antique burg which is Istanbul... where I'll find that there are suddenly *way* more people. Evidently I've entered the country during Ramadan/Ramazan (I'll never learn which is the better spelling, just like Istanbul/Istambul); Sultanahmet is the country's center for all things related to the occasion. This makes sense, of course, as it hosts the biggest and baddest of the mosques in the country, both the Blue Mosque (still in use) and Hagia Sophia (not). This duo of religo-antiquity handily explains the multitudes of folks standing about or sprawled out literally everywhere, many sitting down wherever possible to gather in groups in any open green or concrete space alike. All are awaiting the sundown frenzy of eating to come; the current mania is all about finding a spot to call one's own in time for that.
For my part, I'm trying to make heads or tails of this crappy map I've drawn to get to my hostel. I guess my hurried effort at drawing has accomplished about as much as my students' cramming does: little. A slightly perturbed-seeming woman in a nearby store, however, soon takes a kind of pity on me, explaining how to navigate the open plazas in front of me to send me on my way which sighing in a type of disgust in the process. She eventually warms up, however, enthusiastically recommending eating any food I'm offered. Apparently it's a custom to share all your food with anyone in your vicinity, but this is only once the critical sundown has occurred to call off the starving portion of each day that is part of Ramadan. For the record, I'm never offered said freebie grub, starting... now.
I'm also informed that I shouldn't get too used to the many, many sweets and delicacies I'm spying literally everywhere (to which I'll include the roasted chestnuts I'll shortly adore, snagging a bag of them approximately each day). All the above is only available during this one month of vigilant fasting and prayer, so I should get some while the getting's good, I'm advised. I thank my benefactor-in-passing, next making my way through the many, many folks which seem to mostly consist of women in headscarves - even some in the rare burka or African robe - to find my hostel. No, as mentioned I'm not offered any food - fair enough, the sun's not down yet - but it seems that about every shop or restaurant has someone in it whose job is to walk out and immediately entreat me with "My friend, my friend! Could I interest you in...(fill in the blank)" This'll get old REAL quick, but at this moment I'm merely a bit bewildered by it all.
Such exclamations of enduring brotherhood, I'll soon learn, are only meant as an entry point to everlasting camaraderie, anyway. Next will always follow the familiar "Where are you from?", a query which'll come whether I've responded in any way whatsoever or not to the first greeting. Next, it'll be "Sit down to some tea!" and likely "My brother...!" Really? I am? Oh, gosh! Sigh. Fortunately, I can draw on at least some previous experiences to negotiate this ancient form of commercialism, so already on Day One I try to only modestly smile, nodding my head to remain polite while averting my eyes. The running theory is that this'll work, but in reality it only sort of does. Nevertheless, it *does* effectively remove the guilty feeling that evidently only Westerners feel in not stopping to more fully engage. It's not as if I won't rapidly relearn all too soon enough of all the dangers and dread which might come from such a pause in gait, anyway. Right now, though, I've got baggage to stow, and *that* forms a single-mindedness that will brook no stream to stop it. (Nor will it slow down for a lousy metaphor.)
Thus I finally enter through my hostel's restaurant, securing my bed in a dungeon area below and to the back... and immediately beginning what will become an all too common resignation, when I realize that something stinks an awful lot like foot odor. Well, I've been warned about this annoyance by a friend, true enough, just as I've also been informed that the air-conditioning that comes with most such lodgings should go a long way toward making my stay bearable. The A/C available here is admittedly more on account of the pot being on the boil, which is the steamy weather outside, than any thought over foot smell reduction, but it's a necessarily happy part of the package. In any event, as far as such things so, neither the heat nor the stink's quite all that yet, so in such respects I'm fortunate. Thus I'm soon peppering the staff, questioning away about how to make my way about, trying to use humor as always to befriend them in the way I've generally found works. Here it does so as well, and I'll come to enjoy knowing several members of the staff reasonably well over the weeks to come.
The next/first order of business is food, of course, and here I've got a lot to learn. The quick part is figuring out that the tea (çay) on hand virtually everywhere is universally good - and is also often sugared-up pretty well, too. It's served in clear glasses, the most popular drink in the country by far. It's Turkish coffee (kahve) that's better known abroad, however, and being a coffee nut I naturally succumb to the obligation of trying this a good number of times as soon as possible. To such java's end, I immediately learn that (1) it's a bit stronger and "chewier" than I like my joe, but (2) it does come with a bit more presentation than the usual coffee in the West. Thus, with this reality of cafe coffee playing out as rather less than hoped, I soon find myself making my own coffee - but that'll also be because most of what's to be offered at my lodgings to come will be only Nescafe. Yuck. Thus my mental rejoinder will lie in resigning myself to the decent tea that's everywhere, with these ubiquitous (tea) cafes becoming my usual retreat from mayhem with book in hand.
On a perhaps related subject, let me here say that a great source of food in this country could be... cats. They're everywhere, I notice right from the outset of this trip, the sheer number of these feline creatures roaming about every nook and cranny of the city beyond phenomenal. Almost all are strays, generally looking like they've lived the hard life and then some, but I'm also surprised to learn that there's a modicum of sympathy for them - even if there's not *also* a proper program to get them all fixed to alleviate the problem somewhat. At some later point in bringing up the subject I'm told that there *was* an actual plan to remove their counterparts - the also-ubiquitous-but-smaller-in-number stray dogs - to a nearby island, but that was met with a lot of resistance and was never able to be implemented. Well, surely it's at least time for the ol' snip, snip, I say.
[As for the 22-year-old mangy cat that crawls around the hostel, mostly around the roof areas where I'll find myself practicing my trumpet, I'm convinced that this is the original Grumpy Cat of internet meme fame. His snarling, upset sound that he makes as he arthritically makes his way about is practically comic, if it weren't so sad. He's half blind, knocking over his water or food dishes down the creaky stairs leading to a disused terrace, and this only before trying to slink down the stairs sideways to find any unspilled remnants. He's often not successful, stiffening to shake his head in anger. Not happy at all, no, but I guess in cat years he must be 200 or something - so it's not like he can exactly be blamed. I'm not sure when/how the mercy rule is applicable in such cases, but he's gotta be on the edge of it, if not well past. I imagine there is no cottage industry here in attending to pets with cancer or any such maladies, or pain drugs, either, so suffering must be a common reality here. Snip, snip, snip... anyone?]
Okay, maybe wild cat's not the best food choice, as advertised above, but that's particularly and emphatically true since I find heaps of grub that is just plainly fantastic. This even includes the accidental orderings of liver kebabs and a tripe sandwich I receive - both completely edible, for the record - although I do find myself consistently preferring the meats that aren't viscera. Making such mistakes in ordering, meanwhile, will soon at least find me the proud possessor of a Turkish phrasebook and dictionary. *That* should allow me to tend to my *own* slaughterings, albeit in the form of pronunciations of Turkish words which I'll attempt with willful abandon. Anyway, I'll gratefully find myself getting a higher dose of lamb for this lingual effort, plus I'll soon consider a lentil soup its necessary accompaniment - de rigeur for all meals Turkish, ALWAYS with a prodigious squirting of lemon on it. Lots of Turks think so, too, so I'm in good company.
Breakfast, meanwhile, is an interesting turn altogether, with the local morning fare being typically a sampling of cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives with some pita bread and yogurt thrown in for good measure. Such an aggregation will be consistent over my entire stay, I'll find, although the hostels and hotels catering to tourists will often offer cereal and milk - sometimes even eggs - to appease their guests. I decide to always eschew such panderings in instead going local-style, however, although this won't stop an ingrained habit of skipping on my most hated of veggies, the cuke. (Do I get redemption in loving pickles, their processed counterpart? Do I care? Do you? Exactly.) I'll get used to this very different first meal of the day, in any event, but - and as with so many countries in Latin America, unfortunately - I won't learn to accept the accompanying "juices" that'll only eternally leave me hoping that once, just once, said juice will be left in its natural state (instead of the almost always sugary confection that is served in its place). The upshot of this disappointment is that I find myself drinking ever more çay, and then some more.
It's breakfast time, meanwhile, that serves to connect me somewhat with my fellow hostelers. Many (at least at this hostel) are from countries which mildly surprise me - Chile, Argentina, Brazil in particular. They're often part of student groups from Europe, each with more than their share of beauties per the capita norm in my sometimes overly latina-focused book, so I withhold any complaints if purely on a visual, superficial basis. But there are plenty of others that aren't from such South American climes, of course, and those are namely many, many Australians who are specifically here to check off the tragic Gallipoli battleground from their world tour lists. And then there are the Brits and Germans, of course, with all others coming somewhere behind in numbers - French, Dutch, Canadian, even scaredy-cat Americans.
All said and done, it's an interesting clash of cultures that occurs each day between breakfast and nighttime, a daily transformation of the grudgingly subservient staff putting out breakfast into swans of the evening. Suddenly they've become "playahs" when night falls, now handing out beers in addition to the large pipes necessary for smoking various herbal weeds (that aren't marijuana or hashish, by the way, but other herb blends which supposedly give some kind of "lift"). Their grumpy faces turn into flirty ones, happy to imbue a party atmosphere, but a cynical side to me wonders if this personality contrast over the course of the day maybe has more to do with the hangovers that come each morning - or the possibility of earning tips at night. No, Turks don't really tip, but us silly Westerners sure do. All of this conviviality is played out here - and elsewhere - around low, shin-height tables, each surrounded by deep cushions that make one think of a harem, but this is just the traditional lay of a eating/drinking establishment hereabouts. When in Istambul... get ready to lounge about, literally.
Over time I befriend only one of these younger bucks on the staff, a Kurd who slowly allows me into his confidence to eventually relate what it's like to be a Kurd in Turkey, always only half-trusted. Unsurprisingly, he's considering emigrating to Australia on a test basis - where a former female guest at the hostel awaits him. But he's the exception of the young staff in bothering to communicate with me, and I often find myself congregating in the back by the hostel reception where the older staff work. (It's also the only area with decent WIFI, but that's not the point). There I always find present at least one interesting Turk working the hostel side of this place's business, with each of this tight-knit group being discovered (surprising to me, however unfairly/ignorantly I judge this) to be modern, well-educated and open-minded. Of course, the Ecuadorian girlfriend of one of them will eventually set the record straight on their machismos which I'm not witnessing here, something which comes only moments after realizing that we can speak in code since my Spanish is up to snuff (and no one else's is - I also similarly play translator for older latinos with little/no English when she's not around.)
Such staff intrigues aren't to be the order of my days and weeks here, of course: baldly crass tourism is. No, this time there can be no denying that I'm without a doubt one of that rapacious horde of rubbernecking, eyeball-popping knuckledraggers called TOURists here. And I'll fess straight up that I *am* curious to see the different, exemplary examples of architecture, cuisine, streetlife, etc. to be found here. The great news is that such offerings here in Istanbul are frankly on steroids. Wow. It's just one minaret after another spiking the land into the sky, interspersed with one mansion after another to remind any and all of the former glory days of the Roman/Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. So a-touristing I go, and gladly so.
A cruise down the Bosphorus Strait, which ultimately connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, is an obvious first itch to scratch. Conveniently, hulking, open-air cruise ships of about every level and stripe can be found at the waterfront district near Sultanahmet called Kadiköy. They wheel in and out from this extensive dock practically non-stop; only by luck do I happen to choose one of the better ones, which offers some seats inside to provide protection against surprisingly cool, switching winds which sometimes make their presence uncomfortably known while accompanying the always-beating sun.
So off we go, then, hugging the shore of the European side, then the Asian one, then back again, a smorgasbord of architectural stimulation. There are numerous palaces on the shore, interspersed with stately mosques and an untold number of mansions, even the odd flag that must be a few stories tall. That there's the odd, towering bridge, or even an ancient stone castle, just adds to the mix. All lend tapestry and pageantry, as I frankly heretofore had no idea that there could have been so much wealth in one area at one time. The parade of opulence literally seems to go on and on, and this is just what fronts us from the shore. It's two hours-plus of eye candy for chump change, quite a treat.
The other given activity here is to check out some mosques. This entails wearing jeans as a practical matter, since they won't let you enter otherwise, but that's not an onerous hassle (even given the heat index) when I decide to lump some together for the day. In short order I get the feeling that if you've seen one, you've seen them all, however, although this does nothing to take away from their imposing presences. It's just that's how it is. Each one is fitted out with big oriental carpets in an open space, a hanging rack with a zillion bulbs for ambient lighting, numerous domes and mini-domes that create spaces for elaborate geometric patterns, quotes of exotic calligraphic presence in gilded (gold leaf?) arabic, an altar-like structure which serves as a lectern, and a cloistered area out of view for the women. Fountains outside, for ablutions of head, feet, hands, complete the picture.
What I chiefly notice in these edifices, to be honest, is the inescapable waft of foot odor. Since everyone has to take off their shoes (and women have to don scarves), there ARE unavoidable consequences, ablutions be damned. As for those actually visiting these places for the business of praying, and not sticking in their noses like yours truly, these guests usually make their way to the more forward areas for praying (or even sleeping). Have prayer rug, will travel. Overall there's generally a respectful amount of silence inside; tourists are as a rule forbidden to enter the mosques when they're in session.
The calls to prayer that attend each mosque are a different thing altogether. I don't know what they say, of course, but I'm assuming it's something like "Come to prayer now... or else!" Like I said, I dunno, but it's done in a singsong voice that at times can be a bit enchanting - while at others pretty annoying for being done five times a day - with one of those being at sunrise or so. Ouch! For an area as chock-full with mosques as Sultanahmet, this can feel a bit out of hand, particularly when two singers/chanters at different mosques close to each other have to alternate their verses with each other. I wonder, too, if all this isn't being kicked up a notch since it's Ramadan, but I forget to ask that. As for asking the crew at the hostel about the whole Ramadan thing and their take on it, that mostly brings about shrugged shoulders. Different folks adhere to the fasting code at different levels, they say - and that's their business. All I can think is that it's awfully nice to hear this: Were all the Islamic world so tolerant!, allowing each to their own level of interpretation.
Other items on the usual tourist checklist here are a mixed bag, all completely in the eye of the beholder per the usual. The massive cistern across the tramline from Hagia Sophia are one example, an ancient underground water storage area boasting a lot of ample Roman columns and a couple of simple medusa heads with a mystery and a minor amount of attending history. It's pretty stuff, and some of the multitude tromping through this below-ground area are completely enchanted. But others quickly walk through as I do, evidently a bit jaded - or just bored. (The cistern IS a welcome cool relief from the furnace outside on the day I venture inside, however.) So it goes.
I get about the same reaction, too, when I sample the fresh fish sandwiches (balik) at the Galata Bridge at Kadikoy, of which I've heard quite a bit. Uh... meh? Not that special, and I'm not into crunching tiny bones in my yap. Well, what about the central spice market (misir çarşisi, behind the "New Mosque"), then? Okay, *that's* pretty cool, a visual feast boasting an array of color of which I doubt I've ever beheld before. With no access to a kitchen, though, I won't be buying baggies of these spices - but I'll happily load up on the variety of dried fruits (like dates or figs), or versions of sweets like baclava and Turkish delight (lokum, each oozing in honey and nuts like pistachios and cashews). Hell, yes. I thus emerge from the spice market out possessing a surprising pile of goodies - if not any idea of when (not how!) I'll eat it all. Ah, but they'll keep, I know, affirming to myself with nodding approval of a job well done.
As for the much larger and more general bazaar area, found adjacent to the spice market zone (which is located in an old (if sizable) building), this sprawling commercial area is unfortunately less interesting: its offerings are mostly the mundane items which fill everyday needs like clothes, luggage, etc. No scimitars or monkey skulls, no puzzle boxes or bottles housing genies. On another level, however, it's quite pleasing: its narrow alleys afford people watching that is nothing less than stupendous - although I do make the effort to refrain from staring when the rare burka-clad woman goes by. I have to admit that such a mysterious (if sad, at least by my accounting) presence adds to the... spice of this trip.
The commercial chaos on hand is truly what these wanderings are all about, anyway, and this I enjoy greatly, be it in the bazaar or other narrow alleys - or even up on the Galata Bridge, where gads of fishermen angle for their luck. These qoutidian events I can watch all day long, I think, and sometimes it seems precisely that that's all I'm going do. There's just such a pleasant bustle to this city, the fifth largest in the world, to keep me occupied for a long time. This IS the other Rome, I constantly remind myself, in many ways completely like it and in others completely different as well.
Aimless strolling about is thus how I somehow find myself at the museum of modern art, a converted warehouse on the Strait's shore that hosts some pleasant surprises. This includes a sizable collection of photos from Magnum, the supplier of photos for the international press. Many world events are presented in chronological order, poignant all, and mostly focused on struggle and revolution. There's also a retrospective of a very talented Turkish artist I've never heard of, Mehmet Güleryüz. He's got a playful, critical eye. I wouldn't normally think of going to a modern art museum in Turkey, to be honest, so I'm thankful my friend Igor made mention of the prospect of checking it out.
The museum, by the by, turns out to also provide itself as merely a nice pitstop in walking over to the end of one tram line, at Kabataş. This allows me to access Ortaköy beyond, which I've heard tell of, and it's there that I stumble onto something of a Bohemian district (read: place to get ice cream, coffee, lunch, or check out artisan stands). I debate checking out the grand mosque there, parked right on the shoreline - a handsome presence here just as I remembered it from the ferry, a truly remarkable and imposing structure - only entering after being invited inside by a waving man (and in spite of wearing shorts, which he's surely noticed and decided to not be bothered with). I cater to his entreaty by briefly admiring the interior (more of the same artistic details found in the mosques entered in Sultanahmet - if perhaps with a little less foot odor, that likely due to the windows being open at times to the sea), before beating a retreat to secular confines of the great outdoors and deciding to walk a-a-a-allllll the way back to the hostel. This allows me to take in some ancient parks along the way, plus I can mosey alongside the one palace that supposedly nearly bankrupted the country to build (and which is also located on the shore, another long and lovely view to take in during the Bosphorus cruise). As usual, I pass on entering the actual edifice, sticking with my program of merely admiring the presence of the place in its setting. The gilded thrones inside can wait. (This is not entirely coincidental to my being cheap - er, frugal - by the way, just that I've become somewhat inured to the thrill of pronounced wealth, jaded from many travels.)
Meanwhile, and perhaps only on account of the great conglomeration of urbanity that Istanbul is - or a necessary progress made over its many years of its history, done grudgingly or not - I've rapidly become a fan of the public transport here. Be it trains, the metro, trams, ferries, buses, funiculars, or other means of conveyance, it's all been well-thought out here. And it's insanely cheap, too, at only something like a dollar-plus to enter any of the vehicles - and transfers only adding a pittance more. One token serves all means and routes, and this includes some rather lengthy links which I'm surprised to find covered. What a beautiful system of integration!, I find myself repeatedly thinking, one that many other (supposedly more advanced) metropolitan areas should be jealous of. *However*, this does come with the odd minor caveat regarding safety. For one thing, I can only imagine how many folks must get clipped or worse by the sleek trams that shimmy down these congested and narrow roads, teeming with folks walking about, through and all over the tracks without much of a car. Sure, the tram drivers clang their horns repeatedly - but they don't slow down a whit, either. You're on your own, Achmed!
It's on the theme of appreciated transport, perhaps, that one day I jump aboard a ferry for the nearby Prince Islands (called Adalar - "the islands"). Somehow, I've learned, they too are an extent of this integrated metro system. Wow! Seriously: these four serviced islands lie about an hour-plus from the metropolis - if they're also a world away from the hubbub. What makes this seem even a bit more remarkable is that for almost the entire way the ferry sidles alongside the mainland shore, an endless jungle of urbanized humanity. Istambul somehow even just got larger. Criminy.
As for this slack-jawed joyrider, I'm content to enjoy this steady accumulation of views on both sides, city or the bucolic country as found on the islands we pass. As for the ferry's agenda, the first couple of stops are very quiet affairs, offering almost no amenities of note (or so I've been told, and that's how they appear). But the third stop is supposedly a much quieter version of the fourth, which I've been informed should be a form of daytrip/vacationer madness. So I get off here, then, at Heybeliada, one of only a dozen or so to exit here from this very large ferry packed with hundreds of people. The multitudes left behind on the ferry leaves me to only guess what that bespeaks come the next island.
But for now here I am on Heybeliada, walking along the waterfront and in front of some very large restaurants with almost no one inside them. I of course immediately make for the road behind this obvious esplanade of eateries with a view, and it's on the backstreet that I find a bustling cafe that makes many pastries of its own design. Coffee, tea, pastries, book... I'm home! Or traveling. Apparently about the same thing in my case when it comes to daily activities.
But eventually, I suppose, I'd better walk off this new ballast that the cafe has provided me with so generously. Fortunately, I know that there are a number of grand homes here to take in (if some in severe states of dilapidation), plus there are some of the fabled phaetons (horse-drawn chariots) I've heard about clopping by, too. Almost no one here is availing themselves of their service, though, and I don't, either. Instead, I quite contentedly walk to the logical end of the shoreline in one direction, then head onto the other main drag to curl inland and move up the hill for a ways to get some views. A restored hotel is the highlight of this little stroll, and I join a couple of similarly disoriented Australian girls in wondering exactly why we've stopped on this island. Well, it sure is quiet, anyway...
...which brings us all to the last island serviced by the ferry in the group, Büyükada. Good gravy are there a lot of folks here! The ferry terminal is absolutely jammed with folks; so is the waterfront lane outside just beyond it. Again a plethora of seafood restaurants line the shore, but here all are busily churning through a heavy rotation of clientele salivating for fish. Everyone else seems to be holding an ice cream cone. Maybe this is a Turkish version of a Boardwalk in NYC or Atlantic City, I dunno, but it's nuts, and indeed what I surmised a bit of on the ferry has come to full bloom here. Not that it's all bad, though. For one thing, it's lively. For another, there's the simple charm of a good number of women sporting tiny flowers pinned in their hair, an affectation that seems particular to the islands (although I never do ask the question as to the origins of what seems to be a local custom). But then again, here, too, are those famous phaetons, on this island seemingly going full tilt. Tourists clamber aboard approximately all of them, which effectively serves to explain the ubiquitous smell of horseshit I'm increasingly noticing on this island. Hmm.
Taking a cue from the madness, almost immediately after landing I'm ready to move as far from this island's urban area as possible. I immediately follow the direction in which the phaetons are almost all heading, on a road which loops about the island, figuring that should give me a fine lay of the land. And it does, too, with one pretty estate after another beaming at me in succession to both sides. True, a fair number are in severe distress like on Heybeliada, but many more are not, and one was even made famous by briefly housing Trotsky in his exile before his nasty demise in Mexico.
I'm far from alone, either, as plenty of others similarly forgo the phaetons as I have. They're also on foot - these generally only for a short while - while numerous others zip by on bicycles in evident need of servicing. Each of the latter group seem to feel the need to try their version of "Look! No hands!" - without realizing that their brakes probably aren't in the best order. The more sane walk alongside me, I thus determine, even though their numbers are dwindling rather quickly and any and all of us are all soon dehydrated, needless to say... which means that each to a one of us is soon willing to pay the exorbitant prices being demanded at the few places we pass by offering bottles of water. This is a tourist economy, indeed. I buy the biggest bottle I see.
In any event I make my way up hill and dale to do this short loop, even as I become increasingly agitated by the smell of horse crap and wonder if something far ecologically happier - like solar-powered electric bikes, for example - couldn't be offered instead. I'm all the while also not getting the impression that the horses are thrilled with the service, either: I see one get almost splattered into the ground, barely saving itself after its nutball driver decides to accelerate into a sharp downhill curve to cut off another chariot in what appears to be something of a local jostling competition of one-upsmanship. Yikes! Poor thing! But, unfortunately, I'm guessing that this ubiquitous and traditional chariot service represents a few hundred jobs that wouldn't be otherwise replaced if my (electric) bike scenario should come to fruition. So there's probably a lot of horse poop to come in Büyükada's foreseeable future.
Meanwhile - and if only after a loop-finishing treat of mackerel, ice cream, and tea has been accomplished - I've had enough of the Prince Islands. I never even go out for a swim, once a passing thought before setting out, but sadly one that wasn't going to see the light of day after seeing literally oodles of jellyfish blanketing the water in such plain view from the ferry. Worsening the case, it also seems that all of Büyükada's beaches are private, anyway, pay-to-play spots that are invariably backdropped by a resort with cranking Turkish pop music. So, while I can certainly say that I'm glad for this experience, especially for the ferry views, I nonetheless feel no need to come back, either.
Throughout all of my time in Turkey, and beginning right after landing in Istanbul, women as a group have formed something of an enigma to me here. In the first place, I'm seeing many more men than women - so there's that - but I'm also aware that this is the case in primarily checking out the most touristed and Western-friendly spots in the city. I imagine there are even fewer elsewhere! True, there are some women in full Western dress (i.e. not wearing a dress to the ground, and sans headscarf), even others surprisingly scantily clad on rare occasions, but all this disappears rather quickly when heading to any area peripheral to the more-touristed zones. As for the all-covering burka, rare in these near-to-center areas, I hear that its use picks up steadily as these environs are abandoned for the more distant 'burbs of Istambul and the greater Turkey found beyond this grand city. Nope, I'm NOT in Rome.
Regardless, when I see a man in sandals, shorts, and full "Taliban" beard escorting a woman in her black-out burka, I can't help but wonder what this world is exactly about. I can only come up with one answer: power, and keeping women "in their place". I've read plenty about women in these cultures preferring the "modesty" of such attire at times, but I also can surmise that much of this thinking might be really just be the reality of being brainwashed by the culture in which we grow up. The upshot is that I can't help myself in pitying each woman that walks by in a headscarf or the rare burka, whether this is a potentially condescending view or not. To not be able to enjoy the wind or sun in one's hair, or on one's skin, on a warm day? I can't think anyone innately prefers that. In any event I hope that it's the individual woman who gets to decide what she wears from no pressures from without, even as I fully aware that that's vastly not the case here. (On the other hand, I suppose I have to ALSO fairly admit that this covering up *does* add at times a bit of exotic/erotic mystery, especially when trying to guess from an eye or a hand what lies beyond. Shame on me...?)
Such are my thoughts, anyway, as I wander past the next ancient column, obelisk, or perhaps those extensive bazaars mentioned before that lie below the main university. Now I'm venturing out further from Sultanahmet than before, at least, for example finally entering into the next neighborhood up the Golden Horn (the land of this most touristic and ancient part of Istambul takes the shape of a horn in how the water cuts around it, called "golden" for being the eternal high-rent district of the city, I imagine). This area'd be Fatih, and it's here that I walk along the long ruin of a Roman aqueduct, here also taken aback (positively) by a statue straight out of Sinbad's tales, with turbans, scimitars, and bent triangular sails, before strolling along the original city walls.
In this neighborhood I'm seeing no obvious tourists for a first time, and I receive just a few looks askance as headscarves have increased in numbers still probably in the same proportion to the few more burkas I see. The various mosques here seem to be doing banner business - perhaps on account of Ramadan, I dunno - but I still feel generally safe (if nevertheless slightly sticking out) since folks are wandering about without seemingly a care. Thus it doesn't take much of an excuse to stop in somewhere for a tea and backlava, now unsurprisingly at half the price I've been experiencing in the more touristed districts. (As usual, my book of the moment - an exploration of old Cuba before things got too communist, in Infante's word-play-clever La Habana Por Un Infante Difunto - is completely unrelated to my environs at hand.)
Continuing to switch my gears toward something more of an "abroad" nature within the city, I similarly venture into 'hoods unknown by crossing the Bosphorus Strait. Certainly it's high time to see some neighborhoods on Istambul's Asian side, so once again I'm jumping on a ferry at Eminönü. Once again, too, I glide past the tiny, fortress-like Maiden's Tower islet up close, but this time it's not for simple cruising but to instead check out Kadiköy - which I'm told is a hip neighborhood of the city. Frankly I can't tell if it is or isn't, but what it is is feverishly bustling, especially in its lower area that lies close to the ferry docks, here a jumble of restaurants one on top of another. The number of food choices here are so bewildering that I have a tea at one, a coffee at another, a lentil soup (çorba) at a third, and something of a first lunch at a fourth. That latter scenario arises when I can't eat another bite of the liver surprise dish I've ordered by accident - and I try, I really do, but that's one strong taste! - so I end up at a fifth place to gorge on dolmatas, those glorious grape leaves stuffed with rice. (It's this particular liver incident, by the way, which proves the usefulness that could be had if I actually read the dictionary I just purchased a half hour previously.)
Meanwhile I'm not really in a shopping mood, nor am I looking for a discotheque - and those, I know, are Kadiköy's main claims to fame. So I find a bus to take me to the adjacent neighborhood of Üskudar, also on the water. Supposedly Üskudar houses about the highest density of mosques and related artifacts in the city, and I wander near a few of these soon enough. Each is pretty busy, even if only judging from the outside. With men performing their ablutions at the various faucets and fountains located at each mosque's exterior, I don't even think to try and enter inside any. Once again, I feel a bit conspicuous as a (lone? probably not) tourist in this area. Certainly this area's not completely untrammeled by tourists, I don't think, but it's not where they typically go, either. So I pass on the mosques to stick to less "pushy" stickybeaks like enjoying an outdoor art exhibits of photos from Africa, or stopping at the various examples of statuary or murals that I pass by. When I finally tire of such wanderings, and I do, yet another ferry is within easy reach to return me to Sultanahmet and back I go to its relative "safety" (of touristic familiarity, if at the very least).
My newly intense studying of Turkish words and language probably won't achieve anything anytime soon, I'm meanwhile realizing, but by now I HAVE learned that Turkish has a Yoda-like way of putting verbs at the end of sentences. Here they do so not only when they're an infinitive, either, as in German, but it DOES make me wonder if such lingual angle could have had *anything* to do with the longstanding German-Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest worker) program. Okay, probably not. Further afield, though, Turkish does a lot of other stuff with stems and prefixes for adjectives and some prepositions that I find interesting, jamming them together. That's new, I nod to myself with properly pursed lips to feign intelligence, but once again it's not as if I'll really make a lot of headway beyond this scant understanding of the language.
Mostly this language challenge stems from Turkish coming from Central Asia somewhere, language-family-wise, and it's this far-offedness that'll remain something to contend with likely never even as I make slowly better stabs of at least proper pronunciation. No more liver chunks for this boy, thanks! As for the book I have, my bible to Turkey, even IT essentially punts on getting much further than a rudimentary understanding of the present tense. Beyond that it presents a kind of "You're on your own!" dismissal for any that might even think they can take learning this language beyond asking where the toilet is or how much a dagger - more likely baklava in my case - costs.
Eventually realizing that I should soon be leaving Istambul to see a bit more of the country, I finally decide to enter the one substantial tourist attraction I've been avoiding, Topkapi Palace. It's right above the park that I've also been putting off, Gülhane, but now I decide to do a two-fer and whatchaknow, it turns out that the palace is worth the go (just as the park is worthy of a pleasant stroll). Now THERE's a pleasant surprise. Indeed, it's the be-all end-all on Turkish tile work and gilded script for one (okay, two) thing(s), but it's got quite a bit more beyond that. For example, it also houses numerous rooms which each play museum to a dedicated subject like clocks (my favorite), scimitars and other weaponry (which are surprisingly interesting in their extensive variety and detail), or jewels (zzz...), etc. The security at this place is more intense than usual about taking photos, though, and the guy in the clock room in particular (damn it!) plays his version of Soup Nazi to such a height that that Seinfeldian ladler of liquid could only dream of such power.
But there's even more to the palace than that, what with throne rooms, gardens, balcony overlooks of the Strait and more. The detail truly is stunning, and I find myself enjoying this far more than I would have guessed, lackadaisically strolling around to see what comes next (I have no guide, per the usual). Even the kitchens hold some interest, with their brickwork of colossal scale and their ability to feed hundreds or thousands of guests at a go. The biggest trick of my visit, thus, isn't in finding interesting things at all, instead lying in trying to skirt around the numerous tour groups with their guides. These massive clusters of folks have a habit of getting in the way at inopportune times, nor can they be gotten through or around to sidle up to my next object of interest. The "competition" be damned, however, I'll still deem Topkapi worthy of the mayhem endured - and that's even if only for the clocks.
Another walk I've put off until the eve of departure is heading up to Taksim Square. This is where numerous demonstrations have recently taken place, a political uprising of sorts stemming from a heavy-handed move by the president (actually starting with his cohort, then backed by him) to knock down a bunch of old buildings to put up a shopping mall. That was the start of it, anyway, but it shortly proved a useful vehicle to voice discontent and took on the form of an outlier to the events that formed The Arab Spring. Here, too, it unfortunately hasn't come to much, but at least maybe the mall won't be built after all. As for the square itself, meanwhile, it's been effectively cleared of protesters and there is a strong police presence - the latter coming complete with paddywagons stationed nearby to take any and all away make haste if deemed necessary.
For my part, the Square holds no interest in and of itself. For one thing, it's mostly a vast open space of concrete, hardly interesting. Yes, there is here access to the cool underground funicular that's part of the greater system, from here connecting to kabataş, but that's it. Zzz. No, this square is just so insanely massive and modern in its surroundings that I can't see the point in hanging around it to possibly wait for a protest or riot to spice things up. Actually, given the police presence, I don't want that, either, come to think of it.
The main drag which connects Taksim toward the Galata Bridge and Sultanahmet beyond, however, is another story. Here I find buskers galore (some quite good, playing that haunting music for which the Balkans and Middle East are known), a protest over missing persons (no one speaks English to help me out, but I think the gist is that the government has something to do with their disappearance), various embassies, and there are crowds that in general are almost shoulder to shoulder. An ancient trolley makes its way through this multitude somehow as well, plus there are side streets lead to even more signs of life - many fronting small shops, or one cafe after another that come with those tiny stools and tables never found in the Western world. These latter locales lend atmosphere if not comfort, and it's among these that I see quite a few (local) folks playing away at what I assume is the national game, backgammon, if not the tile-based game called okey. All the while I can't help but notice that, especially here, it seems like every country in the world is represented somewhere in Istambul. Perhaps this is a sensible or at least logical thing, though, when a town is literally split between two continents and is able to lay a fair claim to "Crossroads of the (Ancient) World".
Meanwhile, come the eve's night of my bailing out of Istambul for points south, a youth invasion seems to have taken place in the main squares of Sultanahmet. Many of these bright-eye-bushy-tail kids sport t-shirts that say "Ask Me" in a multitude of languages, only several of which I recognize to be sufficiently confident that they always say the same thing (i.e. the one in Turkish probably doesn't say "BEHEAD THE INFIDEL!"). I'm guessing that this is the local version of those starry-eyed evangelists found in the US and elsewhere (well, those'd likely mostly be the Mormons, generally - sigh.). Uh, no thanks.
Nah, I'll stick to the soccer extravaganza I return to after dodging their repeated pleas to be of help, instead opting to watch on big screens back at the hostel an evening's match between Chile and Argentina. I get ready for a proper drinking sitdown, sharing the table with the only Argentine around to jaw our way through the contest alongside a table of three Chilean beauties. All is right in the world and even the score, 0-0, is likely for the best. There should be only limited unrest in the Southern Cone on this night.
Less restful is the ensuing morning, where I rather hurriedly find myself saying goodbye to my favorite staff members Orhan and iTouch (well, that's what his name sounds like and that's how I roll!). Next, dodging the usual battery of "My friend!", "My brother!" and "Where are you from?" outside, I walk-run to soon freely sweat my way through the alleyed underbelly of Istambul behind the Blue Mosque. I just barely catch the IDO Ferry at Yenikapi, immediately wondering if it's possible that I could finally be escaping Istambul's welcoming grasp. And should I even be doing so? I dunno, but it's now too late: the ferry pulls away from shore, and off we head into the Sea of Marmara. Looks like it's time to see a different side of Turkey.
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