I don't even know where to start with Istanbul. I spent one week there, which is the longest I've stayed in one place since starting. I took a night bus from Gorëme (11 hours, video entertainment was Blade dubbed into Turkish), arriving around 7:00 am, and desperately needing to bathe. Something about night travel exponentially increases the stinkyness and stickiness factor upon arrival, but apart from me being dirty, my clothes were the worst they've been. The last time any of my threads saw the inside of a washing machine was in Florence, and there's a lot of dirt between Florence and Istanbul. Plus, when I was holding onto the guide's horse in Cappadocia, it decided to use my knee to scratch its face for about five minutes. So dirty and horsey. Before you think I live in complete squalor, I have been rinsing stuff off regularly in sinks, but that only goes so far. My hostel wouldn't check me into a dorm until later in the morning (lame), so I just sat in lobby, using the wireless connection and leaving a stain on one of the couches until I had access to a shower. A clean body with feculent attire isn't ideal, but it's what I had at the time.
Istanbul is one of the biggest cities I've visited in a while. I think it's even bigger than Athens, at least population-wise. The hostel I was at is located in Sultanahmet, historical heart of the city and where most of the main tourists attractions are. Too brain-dead to take in any heavy doses of culture on my first day, I mostly wandered the adjacent neighborhoods, and down to the water; half of Istanbul lies in Asia, separated from the European half by the Bosphorous, and the European half is in turn divided by Golden Horn. What I first thought were plastic bags floating in the water turned out to be jellyfish. Some were the size of ping pong balls, and others topped basketball sized. The docks and bridge were constantly lined with fisherman, who didn't seem to be catching anything over five inches. And a skinny five inches at that. Seemed like a lot of time spent for not a whole lot, but maybe they were just there for the love of fishing. I'm not sure I'd be in a hurry to eat anything out of Golden Horn, even out of the wide Bosphorous. Too many ships passing through, and too close to a major city for non-toxic comfort. Much safer to eat was chicken, and perhaps the most peculiar thing I've eaten to date has been tavuk göğsü - chicken pudding. It didn't taste chickeny at all, just sort of bland and creamy, but slightly fibery. Had I not known what I was eating, no way would I have guessed that it was a bird-based dessert. Against all odds, I ate no Turkish delight in Turkey, probably because it was absolutely everywhere, including in piles at the Spice Bazaar.
I was in the Spice Bazaar for about 45 minutes, and not only could have left with bags of Turkish delight, but also could have netted at least three dates. Needless to say, I turned them all down. I'd rather have choked down a pile of raw spice.
And sort of on a dare, I tried pomegranate juice. Straight out of the fruit, no sugar added. A fellow hosteler, Natalie, didn't care for it at all, expecting something more along the lines of Pom. I thought it was tasty; slightly bitter, kinda thick in that nectar-like manner, and had some chewy seed bits at the bottom for a bonus.
I got my cup of nar suyu at one of the booths near the Blue Mosque. During Ramadan the area around the Blue Mosque is a bit a fairground, with booths lining the Hippodrome, mostly food - gözleme pancakes with savory fillings, pop corn, kebabs, fresh-fried donuts, cotton candy and lollipops made to order. The place is teeming after sunset, Ramadan observants and foreigners alike sitting on the lawns, snacking on food, enjoying the evening air, and watching life go by. On my first night, arriving back at my hostel room just in time to meet and catch Natalie going out for dinner, a handful of us got stuffed potatoes, and joined the lawn picnickers. Afterwards we made our way to the Taksim district, which lies on the other side of Golden Horn, and is full of shops and bars. Natalie has an American friend teaching English here, so we spent the evening into the wee hours with a merry band of international English teachers. There's such a demand for English here that they all work seven days a week, and cut loose in the evenings with beer, karaoke, and cigarettes. By the time we made our way back to Sultanahmet at I don't even know what time in the morning, we all smelled like ashtrays.
Istanbul's skyline is dominated by the domes and minarets of mosques, the most famous of which is Blue Mosque with its six minarets, and predominantly blue tile interior. A posted sign asked women to cover their heads, but seeing that many others weren't, didn't cover mine. I wasn't carrying anything on me to use, regardless, and none of the many guards stopped me. They were ruthless when it came to shoes, practically tackling a woman who started putting her shoes back on inside. On my first day in Turkey, the first muezzin call I heard came as a bit of a surprise, maybe because I was standing within a block of a mosque when it happened, and almost all of them use loudspeakers. But it didn't take long to get used to them, and I actually quite liked listening to the singsong chant, even if I didn't understand what they were saying.
Directly across from Blue Mosque is Aya Sofya, the Temple of Divine Wisdom. The interior is an odd mishmosh of styles, not all of which harmoniously blend with one another. I think this is a result of periodic destruction and rebuilding over the centuries, combined with a restoration attempt in the mid-nineteenth century. Signs of the wear, tear, and pillaging that's taken place is evident. It's hard for the eye to settle on anything, since something new, different, and close-by is usually demanding attention. Unfortunately, one quarter of the dome was obscured by scaffolding that rose from the floor the entire way to the top. It in itself was an interesting structure, just completely in the wrong place.
Being a fan of water and cavernous spaces, my favorite structure was the Basilica Cistern, also called the Sunken Palace, or Yerebatan Sarayı. Not terribly decorative, unless you count the Corinthian and Doric capitals of the 336 columns used to support the ceiling, it's elegance is in its simplicity. In one corner there are two huge blocks of marble with Medusa heads carved in them. One is upside down, and the other is sideways. Images of Medusa were used as protection in the ancient world, but these may simply have been convenient building material. All of the pictures I took turned out to be crap, but I did catch sight of this practically prehistoric fish. He's the fish mom and dad fish tell their eggs about to scare them. I followed him around for about half and hour, snapping pictures.
The Topkapı Palace I didn't find terribly fascinating, and I arrived too late in the day to take a tour of the (in)famous harem (although I did see the thoroughly tiled Circumcision Room). The Treasury drips with gold and jewels, including one of the world's largest diamonds. I saw it surrounded by a group of middle-aged Asian ladies who were so excited and babbling so fast, I couldn't even tell what language they were speaking. Every time I thought I had it pegged, it started sounding like something else. I thought the best items were archers' rings. Fancy as fancy can be, they were meant to be worn on the thumb, presumably as some protection from the bow or bowstring, but no specifics were supplied.
The Rahmi M. Koç Industrial Museum in the Hasköy neighborhood is worth a visit for the classic car, motorcycle, and bicycle collections alone, but there's so much more. It's spread across two buildings and a parking lot, and also contains horse-drawn carriages, steam engines, boats, trains, airplanes, mock workshops showing how wood is milled and olives are turned into oil, scientific instruments, and Atatürk's cutthroat razor. Arriving sort of late in the day, I shorted myself on time to really take a good look at everything; I was there just under two hours and it wasn't nearly enough.
I also took a boat tour up the Bosphorous, and visited the Asian side a couple of times. The Asian side of Istanbul was remarkable in its lack of people trying to sell me stuff; it's basically just regular neighborhoods away from the tourist center, filled with people just going about their normal days. Walking around was basically like walking around at home. Lots of nice wandering to be done, and probably most tourists never go over there. Most tourists go to the Grand Bazaar, which should be visited just because its the Grand Bazaar, but I think I expected a little more crazy stuff to be on sale than was actually there. Then again, I was moving at a pretty good clip in order get away from the chatty vendors, and no doubt overlooked a bunch of stuff. Either way, I left with as much money in my pockets as I had when I went in, although I did briefly consider some old silver pen boxes with attached inkwells.
There were two street money-making schemes going on that I was tempted to try just because they were kind of weird, but couldn't quite bring myself to do it. The first is a kid with a bathroom scale. I think the deal was that he would guess your weight within x number of kilograms. The other, far more intriguing, involved fortune-telling rabbits. I never saw any of them in action, so can only summarize what another hosteler told me about how they work. There's a bunch of pieces of paper, or other tokens, with something cryptic on them. The rabbit somehow indicates, probably just by hopping as rabbits do, one of the tokens, and the bunny minder interprets the message for you. My reluctance to try it, apart from not wanting to know my future, is that all the bunny minders were bored pre-teens. I don't want a bored pre-teen telling me what the future holds. One was so spaced out he hadn't noticed that one of his rabbits had fallen to the ground (they're usually kept up on little boxy tables). Cute to look at, but I remain unconvinced about the ability of seer bunnies.
Have I mentioned Turkish flags? The Turkish flag flies everywhere. Turkey on a Tuesday is like America on Independence Day. But you know, they do have one of the coolest flags.
the divan of the hostel
When I walked into the Big Apple Hostel the day I arrived, two shadowy figures parked in front of the computers at the back of the lobby turned out to be Mauricio and Paula, two Brazilian journalism students I had met in Selçuk. They had spent some hours convincing us that we should never, ever visit São Paulo, since the city itself has no redeeming qualities, being full of traffic, ugly buildings, and under-aged criminals. Their advice - when walking around São Paulo, keep five dollars in each pocket to hand over to the thief that will inevitably rob you. You keep separate stashes of cash because you'll most likely be robbed at least twice during a day out. And under no circumstances wear any fancy jewelry. Despite the dire report, they both love their hometown. It just doesn't sound like a place that a tourist should go visit without knowing someone there to show them around. They were at the end of three months of travel through China, India, and the Middle East, and were spending their last days abroad in Istanbul. Meeting up with them and Natalie during breakfast on my second day, we spent the entire day lazing around the rooftop terrace at the hostel, taking breaks to go get food when we were hungry. It was the anti-sightseeing day for me, and I really needed one. Our group also absorbed a Finn, Ilmari, who wandered up the roof sometime mid-morning. A history PhD student who works as a gun expert for the Helsinki Police, he wanted to visit Belarus for holiday, but wasn't able to cross the border because no visa application forms were available. This was slightly mystifying to him, since immediately before he was told this, they made a photocopy of his passport. So Belarus can photocopy passports, but not visa applications. Also present was a German of indomitable spirit, Joerg, who had all his stuff stolen in Odessa, and spent an absurd 31 hours in and out of the police station in a successful bid to get it back (including his new ipod), since he somehow (I missed the details on this) figured out who had committed the theft. His ordeal included having to spend a night in custody, for his own safety, but he was compelled to hand over ten euros to his ward in order to purchase alcohol and sausage. The upside is that he was fed and got drunk. Biding his time in Istanbul before heading to Iran, he decided to observe Ramadan, just because, and rather seemed to be enjoying himself. He and I were the only ones at night not drinking huge bottles of Efes Pilsen beer. He was having coffee, and I was indulging in my new favorite drink, Cola Turka.
Both Ilmari and Joerg had at one point ended up in Transniestria, a scary-sounding, unofficial country in the Balkans. Evidently visas for Transniestria are easy to come by, costing only 50¢, but they're also only good for a few hours. Not that you want to stay there for any longer than a few hours. The rest of us had to make sure we heard that correctly. Don't let the cheap visa fool you into thinking that it's a good country to visit, because you'll most likely be bribed for bogus reasons by corrupt officials. Can't pay? You may be tossed off a train in the middle of nowhere, as happened to a fellow on the train with Ilmari. After listening to various exploits of my fellow hostelers, my own travels seem a little dull.
So far the most interesting travelers I've met have been in Turkey. I don't know if it's because it's post-season, and most of the the young ones are back in school, leaving more lifestyle travelers abroad. Or maybe because Turkey is still considered somewhat fringe (it really isn't), and doesn't attract the casual tourist. Or, it does, but they all leave the city in tour buses and go back to their cruise ships at night. In a city chock full of things to do, the most enjoyable time I had was spent chatting with people from all over the globe. One night I shared a dorm room with two Japanese girls. I noticed that Japanese girls, even though they may be living out of a backpack, are always fastidious when it comes to personal grooming. At the Gorëme otogar before the night bus, I walked into the restroom only to find a gaggle of Japanese girls clustered around the one sink, all brushing their teeth and applying facial creams. Since it was getting sort of crowded in there, they walked outside to continue brushing their teeth, rather than be rushed about it. Me? I didn't even bother brushing my teeth, merely resorting to chewing gum the next morning. Yes, I know it's gross.
In the middle of the week I moved to another hostel a block and a half away. Nothing was wrong with Big Apple, I actually really liked their common areas. Two others in Bodrum had recommended the Sultan, so I decided to give it a try. Telling the manager, Volcan, that I wanted his cheapest dorm option, I was told to take any bunk in the 26 bed dorm, dubbed The Harem. Don't worry, there weren't even close to 26 people in there. And the bathrooms pretty much lived up the their promise that they would be Shockingly Clean.
On my final day in town I was thinking of visiting another hamam, but by chance bumped into Mauricio and Erik at a tram station. Erik, from Madrid, is also a journalist. We spent the remainder of the day together, wandering nowhere in particular, and eating a lot. During a stop back at the Sultan for me to book an airport shuttle we picked up Durochel, a Haitian girl who has the longest hands I've ever seen on a human. Slender to begin with, everything about her seemed a little longer than normal, giving her a unique refinement. Having won a scholarship in Haiti a couple of years ago, and given the choice of studying in Canada or Israel, she chose Israel. At the time, she knew no Hebrew, and no English. Fairly fluent in English by the time we met her, she tried to teach us some Creole. I can't say I picked up any of it.
Spending the day with new friends was the best way to finish out my time in Turkey. I had been there almost twenty days, and before I knew it, it was time to move on. I didn't feel ready to go, but I've felt that way in each country I've visited. It's sad to move on, but looking forward to being somewhere new is exciting. I had to catch an airport shuttle at 3:00 am; whoever at Adria Airways scheduled a two-hour flight at 5:30 am deserves the business end of the executioner's sword in the Topkapı Palace Arms Treasury. I spent my final hours asleep on the couch in the Sultan lobby. I was trying to stay away until the shuttle picked me up, but it wasn't happening. Catching me dozing off, Volcan gave me a blanket, told me to go to sleep on the couch, and assured me they'd wake me up when the shuttle arrived. The last thing I heard him say was "Safe journeys" before I blinkered out again. And then it was time to leave.