—Catch-up post #1: Istanbul—
Guys, I am so behind.
Currently, I am sitting in a hostel in Cairns, Australia, where I am working a few hours a week as a receptionist to pay for my bed here. I think it might be a good gig for a while, but hopefully I can find more permanent/paying work on the Great Barrier Reef. How unreal does that sound?
But since I last posted, I have only updated you about half of my EuroTrip. I still have Istanbul, Slovenia and London to talk about! I’ve also made it to Australia and been in both Sydney and Melbourne before making it here to North Queensland. OHMYGODWHATHAVEIDONE.
Here’s the plan: I’ll post about Istanbul first and then Slovenia and London tomorrow. Then I’ll do another catch-up post about my beginnings here in Australia. HERE IT GOES.
There isn’t a much better way to describe Istanbul than to say it is an absolute overwhelming of the senses. Incredible views almost everywhere you turn, an array of color, smells and sounds throughout its vibrant streets and crowded bazaars, and an incredibly deep and unique history that blends Eastern and Western cultures, Istanbul doesn’t disappoint. Looking back on the whole trip as I am now able to do, this was definitely a highlight I’ll treasure. And make sure to be back in the near future.
The incredible hospitality of the Turkish people began in Copenhagen, where we boarded our Turkish Airlines flight. Unlike most airlines I’ve flown for just 3 hours, we were given a full, luxurious (for airline standards) meal with unlimited wine! The incredibly welcoming attitude kept going after we got off the tram we took from the airport and found ourselves in the Sultahnamet neighborhood (the center of the old city) with no idea where our hostel was. After popping into a little bakery and buying some Baklava, we asked the store owner for directions. He then asked a young girl at the store, who then decided to guide us there herself! Her English wasn’t very good, but we managed to say a few things, most importantly a big “thank you.” The walk took a good 5 minutes, but she led us the whole way. Great first experience.
We walk up to the hostel to find Christine, Dana and Christina sitting outside, smoking a large hookah (“FOR ONLY 15 Lire!”—which translates to about $7.50). Not much time was wasted before all of us were sitting around the hookah with a few snacks. In total, there were 6 of us; 3 girls and 3 guys, and we all got along ridiculously well. The girls arrived on an earlier flight than us, and had been checked in to the hostel for a few hours already. It was already quite late by the time we got there, so we smoked for about an hour and decided to go to bed so we could get a head start on our visit.
It turns out we didn’t have a whole lot of an idea what we wanted to do, so the next day was spent just exploring. It was actually a perfect day, in my opinion, as days spent wandering are often some of my favorites. The only thing on our agenda that day was to get to Asia, so we took a ferry to Üsküdar, one of the Asian neighborhoods of Istanbul. The ferry ride, which cost about $1.50 or 3 TL, was incredibly scenic and a great way to see the Bosphorus. Like any great city claims, Istanbul says it is built on 7 hills, which you could see from the water, lined with minarets from the hundreds of mosques you could see in every direction. On this day, a few of us wore denim. Just denim. Decked out in our “Canadian tuxedos,” we always knew where to find each other in this city of 13 million. Just look for the “denim on denim on denim,” as Kelvin would say.
Without much direction, we found ourselves wandering about the Asian side of Istanbul, climbed a lot of stairs, found an open-air market and ended up at a terrace cafe to have some Turkish coffee (Türk kahvesi) and some sweets. As a Turkish coffee noob, I had no idea that they served alongside the coffee a little Turkish delight, dipped in powdered sugar and served with a tiny fork. Mistaking it for a lump of sugar, I dumped it in my coffee and gave it a swirl while my fellow Americans laughed at me. Of course that was a Turkish Delight. Duh. Dipped in coffee or not, it was delicious. We also found out that per tradition, you’re supposed to dump your grounds in order to read your future (Turkish coffee is served with the grounds still in the mix, although they sink to the bottom and you don’t drink them). My grounds just looked like a pile of shit. Prophetic?
After our coffee break, we took the ferry back to Europe (see what I did there?) just as the sun was setting. It was absolutely stunning. The low light cast dark shadows over the city as minarets became the only distinguishable shapes in an incredibly dense and vast skyline. The city and the water was stained in a dark yellow and orange color, and a bustling city appeared quiet as the only sounds were the crashing of the waves against the ferry and the seagulls. I was smitten.
After disembarking from the ferry, we walked by the New Mosque and the Galata Bridge. Hundreds of locals had their lines cast out into the water to try and catch a bite, and we just walked, mingled and watched with them. After the sun set, we headed back toward the Sultahnamet neighborhood for a bite to eat. On the way, we found some kittens making a playground of the alleyway, and of course had to pick them up. I guess I deserved it, but a few seconds later, I look down at my hand to find a little brown present. The cat… shat. Probably worth it, though.
We ended up finding a place tucked into the side of what I’m sure was an ancient (potentially Roman) wall. Of course, we got some hookah, hummus and some mint tea. Christina and I ended up splitting two delicious meals, which ended up becoming the norm for the rest of our time in Istanbul. Neither one of us could decide between two great options, so we would just split. (As I sit here in Australia, I miss how cheap Turkey was… most meals didn’t cost much more than 10-15 TL, or $5-7.50, and definitely less than that a lot of times).
As we sat passing the hookah, alongside that ancient wall, we set out to solve the world’s problems. The discussion weaved in and out of politics, religion, America’s place in the world and human rights. Sometimes, even getting a bit heated, but of course everybody respected each others’ opinions. While these talks are something that can occur at home, there’s something about travelling that brings it out of people more, I think. While the weather in Istanbul was quite warm during the day, usually around 65º with the sun shining, at night it definitely cooled down, and our discussion was then given a stopping point when it became too cold for those of us with just denim on to keep sitting there. Otherwise, we probably could have talked for days.
The next day we again set out with little planning about where we wanted to go, and ended up walking up the hill from our hostel for about 2 minutes before running right into Topkapi Palace. The stronghold of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, this palace was stunning. I had been a little opposed to going to (another) palace because European ones are extremely similar: lots of gold, paintings and tapestries, fancy furniture and big chandeliers in grand halls—I didn’t feel the need to pay $20 to see that again. But this palace was different since it was such a mix of Western and Eastern style, which definitely made it worth a visit. There was lots of the classic Arabic-style blues and greens, gold Arabic script over doorways and monumental pieces of art, and the classic keyhole shaped doors. It was really beautiful.
We then ventured out toward the Grand Bazaar, ended up getting lost and making a circle at least once. After a group decision to sit for a while, we found a small place to eat, and had a great lunch that ended with us getting some free dessert—some cake made with poppyseed and coconut that was to die for. Never figured out what it was called. After another try, we found the Grand Bazaar and then spent the afternoon walking through the crowded, covered passageways, and had the opportunity to buy basically anything we could think of. Ben ended up with a pretty nice hookah.
That night, we decided to smoke some hookah and ended up at a place that we then frequented at least two more times on the trip. The maitre’d looked like a Disney character with slicked-back hair and a pronounced cleft chin, and he loved to hassle us Americans, even sometimes crossing some boundaries for some of us. But in the end, it was all in good fun, and the hookah was so good that we had to keep coming back. To top it off, we had live Turkish music and a whirling dervish dancer to complete our Istanbul experience. Oh, and how could I forget our little cat friend “Ahmed,” a sickly stray that hung around our table like he belonged to us. Unfortunately, he didn’t smell great. But he was pretty cute.
The next morning, we were determined to be tourists. The wandering had been great, but we really needed to check some things off our lists. So where to head first? Hagia Sophia, of course. Arguably the icon of the city of Istanbul, the building was first constructed under Constantine as a Christian church, later being converted to a mosque during the Ottoman conquest about 1000 years later. The first Turkish president decided in the 1930s to convert the building into a museum and no longer have it serve as a functioning religious institution. This also coincided with the formation of the Republic of Turkey and the change of Istanbul’s name from Constantinople. That same president also decided on a huge renovation of the mosaics that lay underneath the plaster that the Muslims used to cover them up during its conversion to a mosque. Now, the juxtaposition of a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with the infant stands next to giant tiles with Arabic script. East meets West at its finest.
After getting some groceries and eating a lunch of cheese, crackers and persimmon in the park, we headed to Bascilica Cistern. A remnant from Istanbul’s Roman days, this underground wonder was basically a fancy reservoir of drinking water for the city. The water level is now drained down to a level where you can walk on boardwalks and see its structure. It’s actually quite surreal.
On our way back, we stopped for a bit at the Blue Mosque and explored inside. After Hagia Sophia, this is probably the most iconic building in the city, and the two basically face each other. After walking around (of course without shoes on and the girls covering their heads), we ended up sitting in the courtyard for probably 30 minutes, just soaking up the last rays of the sun before it set. But we made it back to the hostel for the actual setting of the sun, and what a treat that was. From the rooftop terrace of the hostel, an amazing array of pinks, blues and purples swirled across the sky just like the combination of colors lining the shops at the Grand Bazaar. The Blue Mosque’s giant silhouette sat in direct line with the sun, creating a stunning scene that a photograph can’t do it justice. As if the situation could get any more perfect, the call to prayer came on in the middle of this sunset show, adding a soundtrack to the experience.
We went out that night in a part of town called Beygolu, which has all the fancy restaurants and five-star hotels, with great views over the old city. While the rest of Istanbul was an incredible bargain, they were definitely catering to a different subset of much wealthier people on this side of town, and at some places we went to, drinks were the equivalent of $30 each. Definitely not worth it, but an interesting experience nonetheless. We ended up getting a late-night bite to eat and heading back, but Christine was hinting at the fact that she wasn’t feeling great. She stuck it out for the majority of our time out, but life caught up to her on the cab ride home. Stopped right in front of Hagia Sophia, we were slowly gathering our money together. I was sitting on the driver’s side in the back seat, with (short) Christine in the middle. She leaned over to me and said so calmly, ” Can you get out fast?” I could and did, and luckily Christine made it out of the cab to…vomit. Right in front of Hagia Sophia. If you’re going to do it, might as well have some scenery, right? It turns out this was a bad omen for things to come, as Ian and Dana had decided not to go out earlier because they also weren’t feeling well. By the morning, those of us who weren’t up puking our brains out (me, Peek, Kelvin and Christina) found out that everybody else had been. That morning after breakfast, those of us who weren’t still feeling like shit took a “garlic bomb” to kill whatever potential bug could be floating around our stomachs. Probably more of a placebo than anything, it worked. And lucky for us.
It was our last full day in the city, and we just had a couple attractions to check off our list. One, a Roman Aqueduct, and the other, the Spice Bazaar. We got to the aqueduct and saw what modernity had done to it as a major thoroughfare ran under it, with cars blithely passing under those iconic Roman arches. Wouldn’t it be something to have your morning commute under a 1,500 year-old structure like that? After wandering around the base, we ended up finding a part that appeared to have an easy climb to the top. We looked for a couple places to stick our feet and began to climb the thing. Some police drove by and stopped to look as Ben and I jumped off and tried to scamper away. The police weren’t coming to reprimand us, actually, they came to watch!
Kelvin ended up making it to the top before some neighborhood kids approached us to tell us of an easier way to ascend the aqueduct. How friendly, we all thought. Another prime example of Turkish hospitality, no doubt. After leading us to an area where a tree stuck out of the wall creating a natural step, the kids then followed us, and once we were no longer able to get away from them, began demanding money. After trying to shake them off, Christina rightfully got a little worried with them grabbing her arm and gave them a few lire, but it definitely left a sour taste in our mouths. But it didn’t matter after a few minutes looking around the sprawling city views all around us. The wind picked up as we walked across this ancient monument, and realized how strange it was this wasn’t illegal/regulated. But who can say they’ve climbed a 1,500 year-old aqueduct? I’m guessing not many.
The four of us then continued on through to the Spice Bazaar, buying a few (a lot) of Turkish Delights and again witnessing the incredible amount of color, smells sounds and noises that are the bazaars of Istanbul. We emerged near the Galata Bridge just in time to make it to the Galata Tower for sunset. Flying solo, I took an easy elevator ride up an old guard tower set up during the Ottoman Empire. I was rewarded with argualy the best views of Istanbul in every direction, and the characteristic pastel palette of pinks, oranges and yellows stained the city again, with hundreds of minarets shooting toward the sky. The call to prayer came on for me one last time before the sun actually set, and I could feel an incredible sense of calm watching this incredible, bustling city below me.
I was a bit sad on the walk home thinking about my incredibly early flight the next morning to Slovenia, as I knew not only that my time in this amazing city would be over, but the shared experience with new friends would also be coming to an end. It was an all-around incredible time, with incredible people (and incredible hookah). Incredible Istanbul.