Monday, July 5, 2010

Istanbul: I am thank for you and you are thank for me

So. I took off a week of school (I know it sounds irresponsible and indulgent [which it was], but I agonized over the decision and calculated that it was more worth my time to be in Turkey than in class because I have barely missed any) and went to Istanbul! One of the better decisions of my young life. Emily and I met Paul at the airport on Tuesday afternoon to catch our uneventful and surprisingly delicious (baklava on the plane) flight into Attaturk Airport in Istanbul. We fought the urge to squirm as we got our single entry visas within our passports stamped with an “exiting Greece” emblem and then figured out how to catch the bus to Taksim Square, a bustling pedestrian street with tons of shops, cafes, hookah bars, restaurants of all types, bakeries filled with Turkish delights, and many eager Turkish men selling irrelevant crap. But anyway, we got to Taksim without any issues. Can’t say the same about our skills locating our hostel. We must have looked ridiculous walking through the crowded streets with our rolling suitcases (Well, Emily and I had suitcases…Paul only brought a backpack because he wore the same pair of pants every day. Lightweight Dad Pants [capitalized because I feel like that should be the name of the brand]. Khaki colored, yet paradoxically not khaki material. Also, fully equipped with a hook on the inside so that one can attach what one can only call a man purse that dangles down in the ball-sac region.) Every time we asked for directions, we had to engage in long, irrelevant conversations that eventually ended in the typical European response, “Go straight and you will see it.” That isn’t true, sir or madam. After an embarrassing amount of time, we flagged down a taxi that told us “we are very close”. Are we? After the first of two terrifying transportation situations riding down very narrow streets that could not have possibly been intended for vehicles, we arrived at the constricted alleyway that would become our home for the next few days.

We had booked three beds in a 10 bed mixed dorm room and we were all slightly terrified of what we would find once we got inside. To our surprise and delight, the inside of the hostel was far less ominous and possibly even delightful with its cozy lobby area and young, friendly crowd. A Turkish girl in her twenties checked us in and then we chatted for a bit with other guests at the hostel including other Americans studying and working in Europe, two girls vacationing from Belgium, and a guy from Germany who was stranded in Istanbul because of the volcanic ash situation. I guess there are worse things than being stranded in Istanbul, but what strange circumstances. They were all very friendly and we found ourselves chatting with the group in the lobby when we came home in the evenings to make our plans for the night and the next day. The first night, we explored that main pedestrian drag, Istaklal street. After about an hour of chaos and harassment in several different languages, we ended up taking comfort in the universal, homey feeling of a Chinese restaurant (something you can’t really get in Greece and something Emily and I have been craving since the closed Thai restaurant fiasco on the island of Naxos over spring break. Very upsetting.) After some cashew chicken (we think) and some famous Turkish tea, we wandered around a bit more and happened upon one of the many streets filled with bars and their insistent owners who attempt to physically pull you into their establishments while offering nonsensical invitations that are one part flirty and two parts undecipherable.

We decided on a somewhat relaxed looking pub-like establishment that was playing the Barcelona v. Inter soccer game and serving up inordinate amounts of beer. We eventually made our way back to the hostel and after what seemed like only a few minutes, Paul was shaking me and Emily awake at 9am. May not seem terribly unreasonable in hindsight, but we were not pleased at the time. I think Emily may have growled. We sat down to a lovely Turkish breakfast at the hostel including bread, Turkish cheese, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, and some more Turkish tea (I think my blood had been completely replaced by this stuff by the end of the trip). We navigated the public transportation system with its candy land-ish, plastic tokens and ended up in the Sultanahmet district. This is the area that houses many of the historic sites including Agia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern. As we approached, we could see the impressive enormity of Agia Sofia looming in the forefront. Dad, I know you’re probably still sick of this word, but the inside of this building was truly ineffable. Yet, apparently I’m about to attempt to describe it. In addition to the impressive exterior, the space seems to grow in size and beauty as you enter its doors. Despite the inundation of tourists (remarkably one of my first abroad experiences that has actually felt touristy), the cavernous alcoves absorbed the general noise of crowds and left the church eerily quiet and intensely spiritual. We spent hours just strolling around, taking pictures from a million various views, and standing on the balcony staring down into the intricate abyss of Agia Sofia. Some of the walls are peppered with the remains of beautiful Byzantine era mosaics, many of which were regrettably painted over with some strange, dull yellow base with a flowering vine running along it. Why must everyone always pick on Byzantium?! The remaining frescos are so incredibly emotional and human, so much so that they leap off the walls from across the church. The whole building was magically lit from windows at the peak of the high ceilings. After asking an Australian couple to take our picture (and getting mobbed by large groups of Asian tourists), we eventually left the church for the early afternoon sunlight.

After this experience, the Blue Mosque paled in comparison. But it was still cool to see. We arrived there at the interesting and audibly painful time of the call to Prayer. We could not believe that such a piercing, guttural collection of noises could possibly be what the Turks were going for. Emily took a video to attempt to capture this experience, but as she says, we’ll need subwoofers and surround sound to really do it justice. We sat in the expansive courtyard for a bit watching the men wash their feet in faucets that were set up outside of the entrance to the Mosque. No women were present in this ritual and many of them sat waiting in the courtyard. We entered through the visitors’ door after a lovely woman assisted us in fashioning head coverings out of scarves. They came undone soon after we entered the Mosque. We tried to recreate the way that she had tied it, but I think we ended up looking fairly foolish. Oh well. The supporting columns inside, decorated in red and gold, seemed intrusive within the space (as opposed to Agia Sofia whose hundreds of columns added to its aesthetic). After the Mosque, we wanted to grab a quick lunch before we continued on our historic journey. We thought we had ordered some sort of Turkish equivalent of a hamburger, yet what showed up in front of us was some unrecognizable collection of filo dough, unidentifiable meat product, flavorless yet feta-esque cheese, and what looked and tasted like Chinese egg noodles. All very confusing and hilarious. Slightly dazed after this disorienting lunch, we walked over to the underground Basilica Cistern—possibly one of the coolest sites I have ever seen. After walking down the stairs, we were greeted by the sight of endless rows of columns illuminated with tiny red-orange lights in an otherwise pitch-black space. The lights reflected off of the water which was interrupted only by the slim walkways leading around the cistern. We rubbed the famous “sweating column” (aptly named for its constant dampness—kind of gross) which apparently is an underground extension of one of the columns in Agia Sofia. We followed the signs pointing toward “Medusa” (who knew she was in Istanbul?) and pushed our way through crowds of tourists to witness these two strange, sideways Medusa heads that inexplicably reside in this underground cistern. No one is really sure how they got there. And, may I add, even if they did know, the attempt to convey the myths in broken English on plaques around the cistern were not entirely successful.

Now onto perhaps the most thrilling event of our Turkish adventures: the Bazaar quarter!! (Yes, two exclamation points are absolutely necessary). After asking directions multiple times and almost getting dragged into a huge carpet store, we finally found the entrance to the Grand Bazaar. I have never seen anything like this. The size, the colors, the hugeness, and the bustle put us all in sensory overload. We started to walk around and quickly learned that it is unwise to a) make eye contact with anyone or b) look at—or G-d forbid touch—any piece of merchandise unless you are basically 100% sure that you want to buy it. Dozens of wide-eyed, overly enthused Turkish men broadcasted all sorts of crazy lines to try to get us to come into their eclectic and tiny shops. The bazaar is enormous and widespread; one can find anything from jewelry, scarves, antiques, genie lamps, perfume, machetes, sports gear, the ugliest pajamas known to man, feather shops (exclusively feathers), Mexican wedding dresses (don’t ask questions), queens’ capes/combo bedspread adorned with sparkly, red, puffy strips of ribbon/velour/rhinestones. I picked up one of those for each of you. Every shop owner was on us like Paul on the toilet after drinking Turkish bath water (more on that later) shouting the craziest, funniest lines. “Hallo! Escuse me, eet is my turn now! Jus one moment. You love it. Everything very nice. You know it!” We were basically walking around laughing hysterically. “Hallo, let me help you spend your money!” “Escuse me, can I please hassle you quickly?!” “Escuse me, where are you from? England? America? Spain? …Paradise?” Every Turkish skip (skip is what Emily calls any random person) was chasing after us down the crowded aisles of the Bazaar. “PURSES! PLEASE! YOU LOVE IT!” We enjoyed the insistence of these hilarious one-liners and even spent some time doing some much-expected haggling. “No no!10 liras? I cannot! Oh you leave now? Okay fine. 10 liras. Just for you. Only you.” We tried to get rid of some of the more aggressive vendors by shouting out random countries when asked where we were from. That backfired though because apparently vendors in the Grand Bazaar speak a dozen or more languages.

Exhilarated from our first trip to the Grand Bazaar, we wandered into the Spice Bazaar more prepared for what we would find. Stepping in, the aroma of a thousand spices fills your nostrils in a way I presume only the Spice Bazaar can boast. Between the infinite varieties of spices and teas, we could have easily spent hours in this place. And, to the grave dismay of Paul, we did. After shopping around a little bit for prices and seeing who was haggle friendly, we ended up in this one spice/tea shop talking with the sixteen year old Turkish boy, Ohmer, who was eagerly tending to his spices. The speed and swiftness with which he moved around the tiny shop were impressive to say the least, especially considering that the 10 pounds of grease product in his hair was probably a little bit cumbersome. We lounged around with Ohmer as he fed us tastes of the various spices, teas, and handfuls of pistachios. We bargained with him over several spices and even talked Paul into buying his mother some tea (He did not, forever, purchase the “Turkish Viagra” that had Ohmer giddy with salesmanship). So many flavors: pomegranate, lemon, “love tea” (tourist trap, but it smelled so good I was obligated to purchase a quarter kilo), strawberry, hibiscus, chamomile, etc. all made from died fruits and flowers. Incredible. We made our selections and Ohmer vacuum sealed everything so that it would be fresh when we went to use it back in the States. That took us into the late evening at which point we got a recommendation for dinner out of an “Istanbul” book and actually found the place! We got some very tender lamp (lamb) and socialized with the old man owner who took an immediate and unwelcomed liking to Paul. He kept trying to hug Paul and when Paul looked at him, terror in his eyes, the old man just laughed and kept repeating the phrase, “I am thank for you and you are thank for me!” ….? We trammed it back to Taksim square and fell asleep very easily that night.

The next day—after the obligatory wake up call from Paul in his bright orange Bucknell t-shirt that matched the sheets in our hostel—we set out for the National Archaeological museum. We spent forever wandering around its corridors. This huge museum holds some real treasures including a lot of Greek sculpture. The coolest thing was probably the lion mosaic that ran along the gates of Babylon, but the highlights are too numerous to list. We were starving when we reached the conclusion of the museum, but managed to wander far enough out of the tourist zone surrounding the museum to find a little restaurant with an old Turkish woman sitting on the floor in front of a big, round metal plate. She cooked us what I can only call the Turkish equivalent to crepes. Enjoyable. After some more Turkish tea, we headed back to the Bazaars. I think Paul was ready to kill himself by this point, but he wasn’t really offering any alternate suggestions. The Grand Bazaar was even more thrilling than the first time. Emily and I both bought antique genie lamps. We got to witness a very angry bargaining session between a middle-aged Asian tourist and the antique vendor. Hilarious, truly.

At this point, we were all quite exhausted and dirty. We had put off showering at the hostel because, quite frankly, the shower was disgusting and it just wasn’t worth the agony. We convinced Paul that a trip to the traditional Turkish Baths must be a brilliant idea. Begrudgingly, he followed us like a prisoner that just received the death sentence to one of the famous baths in the historic district. Upon entering, we ran into a few Australian guys that were on their way out of the baths. They warned us that there experience was dominated by men and that we might want to wait a little while and see if some women show up. Well, boys, possibly you are unaware that they separate the women and the men into two different bathing rooms? I’m pretty sure they thought that they were going to see naked women. Not the case. Anyway, we said goodbye to the crushed Australians and checked in with the serene and lovely receptionist (or whatever one calls someone who collects money so that one can be smacked around by overweight Turkish women in the nude) and ordered two “traditional” baths, including a scrub down, washing, and soap massage. We parted ways with a terrified Paul and made our way up to the female dressing room. After reluctantly shedding all of our clothes and belongings, we proudly sported the huge spandexy black bikini bottoms provided to us at the front door and boldly ventured down the staircase that would lead to our impending experience. This bathhouse was built by the wife of a sultan is the 1580’s and showcases historic Ottoman architecture. The actual bathhouse chamber was a huge octagonal room with a central marble slab. We entered said octagon only to be greeted by two extremely obese, extremely sweaty, and extremely naked Turkish women. The next twenty minutes blurred the lines between cleanliness and impropriety. We were lathered up by a billowing, overflowing net of suds (yet remarkably one could still distinguish the scent of naked, fat, foreign body odor), smacked around (a brisk hit to the tush indicated a sweaty Turkish lady’s request that I turn over on my back), massaged, and eventually left to sit in the steaming baths and pour hot water all over our bodies. Other noteworthy details of the Turkish bath include a shockingly cold pool of water in which I had to dunk myself with two ambiguously shaped Spanish women (to use Dane Cook’s explanation, they were not fat but they were “shapes”) and an employee of the bath approaching me to insist that I give her a brief massge with the exfoliation glove she presented. We left reluctantly and rejuvenated to find a visibly impatient Paul waiting for us in the lobby. Apparently he’s not as comfortable with foreign nudity as was needed.

The following day, after much confusion and the expected vague directions of locals, we enjoyed a ferry ride over to the Asian side of Turkey. We walked around to explore the intricately built and heavily populated streets of its neighborhoods, finally settling in an outdoor restaurant overlooking the city and the sea, complete with its swaying, almost choreographed arrangement of boats. Afterwards, we found ourselves meandering down a pedestrian walkway that hugged the sea. We spent some time in a sprawling park compete with a little petting zoo, outdoor exercise equipment (right next to the playground—not a terrible concept), a small cafĂ©, and a gorgeous marble fountain with water that sparkled in the Asian sunlight.

We headed back to Turkey to spend our last night out at the bars in Taksim Square. We enjoyed an evening of confusing and nonsensical discussion and drinking with a waiter whose only English phrases seemed to center around Michael Jackson. After declining his heartfelt if not all together clear invitation to a far away discotheque, we called it a night.

After a leisurely lunch to end our trip the following afternoon, we realized that we were extremely late to the airport. Don’t ask how this happened. Paul blamed us, naturally. We slowly realized that taking the tram would have us at the airport after our scheduled flight, we grabbed a cab with an insane, babbling Turkish man who chastised our immature tardiness. We happily let him rant as we nervously fidgeted in the backseat insisting, “FASTER, FASTER”. “Oh, the kids. All they want is faster faster faster. This is not life.” What? We just want to make our flight, buddy. “You pay lots of money for new airline ticket! Big money. No small money for ticket. You pay.” OK. “International flight? Everyone goes.” So he overcharged us when we finally arrived, claiming that everyone knows you must pay more to get there faster. No small money. Needless to say, we rush in, run to the Aegean Air counter and find it essentially empty. The guy checked us in at a snail’s pace, more interested in the caloric, doughy mystery on which he snacked. We made the flight with time to spare.

Stupid cabbie took two years off of my life.

Until next time, fair Istanbul.