Istanbul, Turkey (20-28 Mar 2007)

I’ve only just left, but the glow and excitement of being in a new place is already fading quickly.

Monkey testicles

Images of Istanbul burn in front of me and fade. Burn and fade.

Sometimes on trips overseas, the plane seems to me like sovereign ground, like an embassy on foreign soil. Approaching the gate, I feel the weight of the rules and regulations of the US. In the waiting area, the social norms of Americans — even of the subset with the werewithal to visit a foreign country — prevail over local customs. This return to the known and predictable signifies the end of a trip to me more than walking through customs or the front door.

We live only tiny fragments of all possible lives that might be available to us. Likewise, the things that we can know in one lifetime are limited, too: people, places, or ideas.

Sometimes all the things we know are right in front of us. Sometimes they are scattered over vast distances, both vivid and ethereal at the same time, somehow real and completely unreal.

I know that it will be quite some time before I return to Istanbul and perhaps I never will. It’s the same with every place that I visit. I want to study, to review my itinerary, and mental notes, to try and develop a sense of permanence of this visit.

I want to collate these memories to those that have come before, providing a new perspective, setting the stage for deeper experiences.

Memorable things and miscelleous thoughts

  • The Food: lokum (turkish delight), baklava, eggplant kebaps, the yogurt drink ayran, lamb and chicken doner (gyros), lahmacuna (pizza but with better toppings), simit (sesame seed bread rings), midye (fried mussels).
  • Sights and sounds around town: men running back and forth between shops with trays of tea. Being called to prayer at 5 AM. Musty, cold drafts blasting from the rug seller’s cellars.
  • Oddly, elements of Istanbul remind me of Mexico. It’s probably just the smell of diesel and burning wood, or maybe the well-utilized public squares and benches.
  • The coins feel great in hand. I love the 1 YTL coin which feels and looks startling similar to a 1 euro coin. I really wish there wasn’t such an aversion to the $1 coin. It’s so handy — and the value of a dollar so eroded — that I wish they were in wider circulation.
  • Making phonecalls from pay phones or hotels continues to be the most aggravating and expensive experience of traveling overseas.
  • Where are all the trash cans? Normally when travelling, whenever I see I bathroom I stop in, never knowing if the next one is 8 minutes or 8 hours away. That isn’t a problem in Turkey where there are W.C.s around every corner. But where are the trashcans? I’d gotten to the point where I avoided buying things because I didn’t want to carry around a greasy fish sandwich wrapper all day.
  • Battling Mosques. The adhan, beckoning muslims to come to prayer, echoes out over Istanbul five times a day. With all of the surrounding mosques, sometimes to me it sounds like a call-and-response akin to a Native American song. Other times, like they’re not quite in sync and it sounds like they are battling for aural supremacy. I can say this: it’s a tie.
  • Crowds. Istanbul rightfully is a huge tourist destination. It has great mass transit but many sights are tightly clustered so you don’t even need it. The food is awesome, varied, and reasonably priced. The scenery is stunning. And the markets just a joy to walk through.The tourist crowds did get me down. I hate being stuck in a huge mob of them but sometimes you can’t avoid it. But because the city is so large, with so many attractions, the throngs tend to be dispersed. Expect to see them at any hour of the day along Diva Yolu, the Aya Sofya/Blue Mosque area, and Topkapi Palace. If you take a cruise up the Bosphorus, you’ll be among a huge crush.

    But even the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar don’t feel too overrun. Just wander around in the warren of streets that separate the two. You’ll feel miles off the beaten path.

    I had heard that Istanbul could be unsafe for tourists — and I’m certain there are parts that are. But I walked through many areas including Taksim, Beyoglu, and Sultanahmet late at night and only felt a little dodgy in some of the Beyoglu backstreets. If you’ve visited any of the world’s big cities, you’ll be fine. It feels safer than New York, less safe than Tokyo ;)

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