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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Istanbul musts

Here's my must-do list for a visit to Istanbul. Some -- or maybe even all -- of these are obvious. Istanbul is full of things you must-do and for good reason. 1. Aya Sofya This is quite possibly the most incredible building in the world. Don't be deceived by its exterior - it's the interior where the marvels reside. But when you see Aya Sofya from across the Bosphorous, the warts aren't as visible and its overall shape becomes quite beautiful. 2. Topkapi Palace (Harem tour) Don't miss the extra Harem portion of the Topkapi palace. Although the rather flawed Lonely Planet book suggests that the (required) guided Harem tour is only conducted in Turkish, our guide spoke English. That doesn't mean you should opt out of the self-guided audio tour. I couldn't hear anything over the tourist din in the cavernous spaces, and the things the tour guide said didn't make much sense to me. 3. Gallata tower For all the seven hills in Istanbul, it's hard to find a good vista. The Gallata tower gives a 360 degreee panorama of the city complete with questionable railings. Well worth the 10 YTL. Take note of just how narrow the spit of land that Sultanahmet resides really is. 4. Grand Bazaar / Spice Bazaar Of course you aren't going to miss either of these. 5. Hamami Don't miss a visit to a hamami. It's a welcome break after an afternoon in the Grand Bazaar. Full of ritual, and undoubtedly full of tourists. Be sure to opt for the full scrub and massage. 6. Food Go nuts. Lokum. Bahklava. Doner. Kebaps. Medye. The food in Turkey is awesome and the dining experiences are fun and convivial. Be sure to hit a lokantas or bufe around lunch time. Don't miss a visit to a meyhanes at night (you'll need to be over near Taksim for this). 7. Bosphorus cruise A great way to get a sense of the layout of the city. You wouldn't miss riding on the Staten Island ferry if you visited New York, would you? Take at least a ride on a Ferry in Istanbul, either. Optional maybe-dos. 1. The full on Topkapi walking tour There are tons of things to see. It's all cool. But it takes a long time. At the very least, walk to the end of Topkapi and see the Marble Terrace with the awesome views of the Golden Horn and Bosphorous. When I build my ultra-exclusive luxury hotel, it's probably going to be right there. Please stop in and see us. 2. Blue Mosque. You've come all this way, you might as well go inside the Blue Mosque. If you are pressed for time, skip seeing the inside. Seriously. It's more intimate than the Ay Sofya, but nowhere near as impressive. The most memorable views of the Blue Mosque are to be had either in the evening when it's alit or from across the Bosphorous. 3. The Sultanahmet fish market 4. A belly dancing demo A lesson, perhaps.

Last manic day

After an early work day from 3 AM to 1 PM, I'm already feeling pretty beat. Sultan Ahmet Camii And the last day visiting a new place is always a bit manic for me. Will I ever be back here? What have I missed that I may never have the opportunity to see or do again? What things left a mark that I'd like to experience one last time? Finally, the sky has partially broken open. There's some middling mid-day light so I dash up to the Blue Mosque to snap some photos and hear the battling muzzein announce the afternoon's adhan -- call to prayer. Listen to a bad recording I made from my laptop; the echoes are from adjacent mosques). Basilica Cistern Next, a run across the street to the Basilica Cistern, a "not-to-be-missed" sight right on the Aya Sofya / Blue Mosque square. A bit pricey at 10 YTL for a simple walk through a cave, but it is artfully lit and inspires the imagination about Istanbul's storied history. The cistern had been discarded, turned into a dump and makeshift morgue until being rediscovered and reclaimed in modern times. Down the street to an Ishekender for lunch. More eggplant, mixed vegatables, a Turkish goulash of sorts, and of course -- not tea -- but a Fanta. I brave one last trip into the Grand Bazaar. I love shopping when I travel, but I rarely buy anything. I like to think I'm bringing back memories but as I get older, I'm starting to think I might need totemic reminders. I start up a chat with a shopkeeper about some rugs. All I want to do is learn about them. I have no place for a rug, I don't want to buy one. The shopkeeper's store is "busy" but they have another around the corner. I walk in to meet someone who might be the owner, Hasan. He's quite nice, we sit for some tea, and look at various rugs that are absurdly expensive. Hasan drops his prices quickly from the absurd to the merely unaffordable. I still haven't made any counter offers. That's when he starts in with affable witticisms like "The tea is best tasted when hot" and "Look in your heart. Why do you want to think about it? How much for you to buy this today?". He's good. He's *really* good, and I'm starting to think I want a rug, a really expensive wool/cashmere rug. It's then I realize that I'm powerless and I must escape before another cup of tea. I duck out with a vague promise to return after clearing my head. Hamami'ed To do that, I hit the Cemberlitas hamami (Turkish bath), right around the corner from the Grand Bazaar. The steam room is beautiful and -- it's packed with both tourists and locals. I lay down on the giant marble slab in the center of the room until a masseur finishes up. This guy scrubbed and kneaded me into a pulp. Leaving the hamam, I no longer had any desire for carpets or the Grand Bazaar. Shit. It's perfect golden afternoon light. Of course, the last day. I run around like mad trying to get a few last photos. They all suck, and that's when I resign myself to the fact that this photo safari, this first venture into Turkey is offer. Might as well have some Raki and relax.