Well it’s summer vacation and Jess and I have nearly 3 months off (ah, the perks of being a teacher!). It’s time to keep up with our life goal of visiting at least one new country each year. People say this life goal will change as we get older with kids, failing limbs, dementia, balding, but we damn well intend not to let life get in the way of eventually visiting every country on the planet!
I sure gave up on the last trip’s blog after Oregon, but here is a summary of the rest of the trip using only a string of single words: seattle, coffee, beer, crab, snow, deer, ice, forrest, hiking, eating, beer, canada, vancouver, victoria, beer, banf, bears, waterfall, blue, lake, moose, elk, camping, squirrels, idaho, boats, pancakes, montana, wedding, sky, missoula, hippies, barbeque, beer, mines, radiation, arizona, night, drive, tahoe, home. BAM, match that with the pictures and your all caught up with our travels.
And now on to the current adventure:
Turkish airlines was awesome: good food, good service, good selection of entertainment, free liquor, enough to keep occupied for 13 hours. 3 movies, a couple glasses of whiskey/wine, and a nap later and we were in Byzantium…no wait, Constantinople…no wait Istanbul…er…all three?!
As always Jess had a plan. We had a couchsurfer to meet in the city center. Her journal laid out the new journey we were to embark upon involving a subway, a bus, and a walk through a busy plaza. Things got hairy when we couldn’t figure out the subway to bus transfer point, but this was the moment when we got our first tastes of Turkish hospitality. People were literally falling over eachother to help us lost looking travellers. Eventually an incredibly friendly Kenyan showed us the way.
We soon met Ahmet in Taksim Square. With his two friends we had dinner at a cute place which felt a bit like a cafeteria, but had good home-cooked Turkish food; just what you’d expect, eggplant, meat in sauces, cheese, etc.
The night finished watching a football game (do I really have to call it soccer?) with Ahmet and friends as they tried to tell us about the city and teach us some Turkish. “Thank you” sounds like Teh-shek-ur-ler, probably the most difficult “thank you” we have tried to learn alongside Kap-kun-krup (Thai), Tee-ree-mak-a-se (Malay), Dahn-ya-vad (Hindi), and Gam-ung (Vietnamese).
Ahmet could only host us one night so we strapped our backpacks on and headed to Galata Tower where our hostel awaited. We threw our bags into a 6 person bunk room, sat down to a complimentary breakfast, and quickly hit the town.
Walking across the Galata Bridge gave an awesome feel for the city. The view on either side of the bridge is a smattering of tall, but squat pastel buildings, sprinkled with mosques towering in the background which call prayer over loudspeakers 5 times a day (Alllllaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh Hu Akbar!), long fish lines thrown over the side into the Bosphorous Sea, vendors peddling various goods of roasted corn, roasted chestnuts, kebab meat, as seagulls and swallows squawked overhead.
Walking through the spice bazaar was tantalizing and tempting, but we had to resist the sweets until we could better gauge how much we should be paying for things so we can best de-rust our bargaining skills.
Next stop was the Archeology Museum inside of the Topkapi Palace park. We splurged for the Istanbul museum pass, knowing we would try to see as many as possible in the coming days. The Archeology Museum was a fun romp through Istanbul’s extensive history dating back to the Hittites, the Romans, the Byzantines, and finally the Ottomans.
We caugh some moderatly dissapointing fast food Doner, then headed to the mother of holy buildings the Hagia Sophia (Who knew it was in Istanbul?) Of course only English speakers called it Ha’G'ia Sophia, the locals and everyone else calls it Aya Sophia, but whatever we speak AMERICAN, not Turkish, and that G in Hagia is part of our heritage dammit! I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore…it’s late right now.
Okay so from the outside it really isn’t too remarkable, I mean it was built like 1,700 years ago, but the inside was extraordinary! It was built by the Roman emperor Constantine (Get it now? Constantinople) as a testament to the Roman Empire’s official conversion to Christianity, though Jesus didn’t seem to help much as the Roman Empire was shortly thereafter wrought with civil war and shattered to pieces by invading Franks, Alemani, Visigoths, and Sumaritans. The Byzantines hung out for awhile, renamed this city Byzantium for a short, seldom spoken of period of like 1,000 years, then the Muslim Ottomans took the city, named it Istanbul, and put up Muslims stuff inside each church. As they say in Thailand: “Same same, but different.”
The place has awesome mosaics, sweet architecture, pretty Islamic calligraphy, cool colors, chandeliers, what’s not to love? Plus it’s not even a mosque anymore, just a museum; a testament to the modern secularization of Turkey (yay secularism!). Fun fact about the picture below, this woman was taking a photo with a pink “hell-kitty” cell phone.
We tried to see the Topkapi palace next, but the crowds, sore feet, heat exhaustion, and jet lag had us hopping on the next tram to the hill we had to climb to our hostel. Shower water wiped off the sweat, and a quick nap the exhaustion.
We hit the town one more time to a great local spot with Turkish gypsy music playing and a delicious meal of Turkish pizza, eggplant-wrapped kebap, and what meal isn’t complete without Turkish tea? After dinner we headed to a Couchsurfing meetup at a bar for some cheap draft beers, shitty pop music, and chatting with 30+ couchsurfers from around the world. Our favorite part about the bar scene here is that you can take your drinks outside instead of having to suffer inside with the blaring music.
The city stays awake LATE, far too late for our exhausted selves. So we marched home and fell into dreamland.
We headed back to finish off the museums at Topkapi Palace, the center of the Ottoman sultanate. There was a good bit of drama at the gate as apparently our museum passes are good for 72 hours, but do not allow re-entry. Since we came and left yesterday they did not wish to let us in. Through pure stubbornness and pleading with a nearby police officer, he reluctantly let us in through the back way, more to shut us up than anything; success!
Topkapi Palace is amazing. We learned a great deal about the Harems the Sultans would keep here, with hundreds of especially chosen non-Muslim slaves (since Muslim women could not be kept as slaves). If anything at least the Sultans gave a huge diversity to Turkey’s gene pool!. Within the beautifully achitectured buildings we got to see some stunning relics given as gifts over centuries from around the world. The pictures of the hope diamond do it no justice. When it sparkles in the light it is truly a stunning sight. The history of it is neat too; origins unknown it was found in a rubbish heap, sold by a vendor for next to nothing, appraised as one of the largest diamonds in the world, given as a gift and worn by the Sultan as a piece of jewelry on his turban. No pictures allowed of the prettiest stuff, but here is a good one of the splendid architecture and design.
And then there was this guard outside, nice enough to pose for us!
Our bellies a’grumbling we headed back into the busy foray of the city. Worldwide we are annoyed by the dozens of restauranteurs hawking their restaurants loudly over the others, but we settled at a very nice looking place, with an incredibly friendly staff (who didn’t shout at us to enter their restaurant). We chose correctly, it was undoubtedly the best meal we have had yet. Succulent kebap, poofy fermented breads, spiced pepper paste, and Anatolian chicken, washed down with the local Eres beer, and later some bitter Turkish chai.
Next stop was the Blue Mosque. Far more impressive outside than within. Tourists had to cover shoulders and legs, take off shoes, and head in. It was nice, but nothing compared to Hagia Sophia.
We were tired, very tired, but had to take full advantage of our museum passes. So we hit up one more Islamic Arts museum. It was great, beautiful rugs, carvings, mosaics, but tough to enjoy as we sluggishly yet efficiently roamed the halls.
The next stop, the Mosaic Museum, we were almost thankful was closed for repairs, we needed naps. So that’s what we did. We headed back to the hostel, showered the sweat off our bodies, and rested for a bit.
But we were soon off again for another culinary adventure to try the famous fish sandwiches; cooked in a floating kitchen lit up with neon lights, with raw onions, lettuce, and lemon juice we enjoyed in plastic chairs rubbing shoulders with the locals. We also tried a local favorite of pickle juice, definitely not as delicious as it sou….oh never mind.
We spent the next couple hours sitting at a cafe under the Galata bridge smoking Nargile (hukka), watching to locals go by and chatting with some very sophisticated Jordanian girls. The hukka made us a bit nauseous as we were not sharing with a group. We headed back and went to sleep…
…but were shortly awoken by the two completely belligerent Australian girls we were sharing a room with. Vodka, water, and .1% Hydrochloric Acid soon spilled all over our floor and through the hall to the bathroom. Jess and I jumped into caretaker mode and soon had them filled with rehydration salts in water, the vomit cleaned up with hostel towels, one girl in bed on her side with an emptied trash can by her head, anf the other resting on towels with her head on the toilet. Ah, hostel life; expected the unex…well I guess this kind of this is expected after all.
A break from the hustle and bustle of the city, today we found ourselves on a boat with 30 couchsurfers, about half Turkish, the other half visitors, cruising through the Bosphorous and Marmara Seas. Until this point it was difficult to discern who is Turkish and who is a traveler, but getting to meet a group of born and blooded Turks we got a sense of how they can be identified. What we found is that it is completely impossible to identify the quintessential Turkish person; red hair, blonde hair, black hair, curls, straight, dark skin, light skin, headscarf, no headscarf, big nose, small nose, the Turkish people seem to have absolutely no identifying features. This comes from millenia of cultures mixing in the ultimate melting pot between Eastern and Western cultures. The only thing our Turkish couchsurfing brethren shared in common is that they were all really fun to hang out with all day.
The trip took us along the city, a truly massive beast stretching to near infinite. We stopped by some bustling islands where tourists and locals alike flocked for a weekend getaway. Then we headed to a busy little cove for some swimming with sting-less Jellyfish in surprisingly cold water (I thought this was the mediteranean?!) We made friends with an Austrian girl, a Russian couple, an incredibly enthusiastic Egyptian fellow (according to Jessica also incredibly attractive), A Brazilian girl (sporting your traditional Brazilian bikini), a Mexican girl, Libyan guy (very happy for the recent coup against Gaddafi), and the many amiable aforementioned Turks! A truly international adventure.
A Hamam is a traditional Turkish bath, a necessary experience for any visitor to Turkey. A smiling portly man picked us up in his grey Hyundai. His car sputtered up and down the cities vicious hills until up one particularly steep hill it made it’s last put and died. A friendly man nearby and I helped him push the car out of the way of traffic and we walked the rest of the way to the Hamam.
We knew it had to be a good place because no one spoke English here. We were soon disrobing and wrapping ourselves in thin, red/white, linen Turkish bath towels. The bath is really a large dome-topped stone cavern with a giant marble slab in the middle and faucets and stone enclaves for cleansing with fresh water. We poured water on ourselves and lay on the slab, soaking in the intense heat billowing from below. We were alone and our voices echoed pleasantly off the walls.
Soon the portly man returned wrapped in a similar blanket to us. He slapped my belly and uttered “Sure you not Turkish?” followed by gutteral laughs by all. Then came the Turkish massage. More like meat tenderizing really, but with more soap. I laughed loudly, but only to mask the screams which would have eminated in lieu. Jessica laughed in a more Schadenfreude, less agonized sort of way.
We relaxed more, my muscles now feeling as loose as rice noodles. Soon a woman came to give Jessica the same treatment; needless to say she handled the pain much better than I.
Then we did a bit more relaxing around the city. Tea in a cute little cafe, more succlent meat and mezze plates while watching the locals do local stuff from a veranda. We wandered, we laughed, we marveled, we talked, we took pictures, and more pictures. It was fun.
Next stop was the Grand Bazaar. In the height of it’s glory during the Ottoman empire I am sure it was a majestic place, trading luxuries, spices, textiles, and precious gems from around the world. Nowadays it is reduced to cheesy tourist shit made from China sold by pseudo-friendly hawkers charging 10x what you can get the stuff for down the street. Still it is an experience, and we flexed our bartering skills, bringing some nice scarves from 65 Turkish Liras ($37) to 15 Liras each. We still likely got ripped off.
In the evening we headed to our new Couchsurfer’s place. It ended up being a needlessly long adventure taking the long way from metro to metro to metro, but we got to see a bit more of the city through the windows.
We got to the station we needed to be. It was dark, and Jessica’s directions were not particularly clear. Ending up walking in the wrong direction we took a taxi ride from a driver far more clueless of our destination than we were. He stopped by a police kiosk and the man holding a machine gun let us use his phone to call our host Yucif.
Turned out we were quite far away from Yucil’s, but by sheer coincidence a mere two houses away from his good friend. This incredibly generous friend walked over to the police station, brought us to his house for some dinner, and the three of us and his French guests headed to Yucils. We met with another Turkish girl, a Belgian fellow and his Finnish, blonde hair, blue lazy-eyed travel partner. It was an evening of tea, beer, philosophizing, then bed.
Of this day there is little to tell. We have exhausted most touristik activities so we upgraded to the next level of Istanbul travel: simply moving from tea house to tea house, taking in the city and sipping copious amounts of coffee and tea. One place, Lebi-Derya, had a particularly breathtaking view of the city.
We sat for hours, just enjoying the breeze, and the tea. Funny thing; no matter where you go or how much you pay (at this posh establishment almost $2 a glass, at others maybe $0.25), the tea always tastes the same and is served in the exact same clear, glass, female-figure shaped container.
We wandered more through the city, picking up random souvenirs here and there; bath soaps, Turkish towels, clinky things, you know, crap we don’t need. Eventually we made our way to a particularly grand mosque, Suleiyman, the architectural opus of the famous Sinan. Finally a mosque beautiful on both the outside and within!
We took the bus home and went to bed early.
Yucil treated us to a deliciously authentic breakfast of dates, almond pate, hazelnut pate, various breads, honey, dried cranberries, olives, and of course tea. Notice a theme yet with the tea? Everyone in Turkey is drinking tea every waking moment of every day. There must be some law which probits citizens from being a certain distance from tea. In the busier parts of the city you see men carrying steel trays stacked with tiny clear glass cups filled with Turkey’s finest amber chai, scurrying deftly from vendor to vendor on the city streets delivering the devine ambrosia. This tradition does not stop in the home apparently. Fun fact: Turkish also only seem to use cubed sugar.
We then made the trip by bus then boat across the sea to a new continent. Istanbul sits right at the split between Asia and Europe. Look it up on a map it’s cool…you can do it now, I’ll wait…………
The aptly named Asian side is the more affordable, thus hipper side of Istanbul, it’s the equivalent of how Oakland is to San Fransicso. Tattoo shops, smoke shops, cute little cafes, and the first bicyclists we have seen in a week. Feels like home! Just to be ironic we ate at an American themed restaurant. Neither of us were brave enough to try the Burritos, knowing there was no possibility of them being done justice. The meal wasn’t particularly amazing, but I guess that was expected.
We headed up another long flight of stairs to yet another rooftop cafe, a city tradition. We sat and enjoyed the view of the other side sipping more tea and coffee of course.
We headed back around commute time, which was fun to see that so many thousands of people’s commute involved taking an efficient ferry to and from entirely different continents.
Yucil invited a number of friends over. We listened to live music from a lute and guitar as the group sang some traditional Turkish songs. More beer, more tea, and lots of delicious Turkish delight we brought. Jess and I headed to bed at 1pm, all night it seemed the remaining members of the gathering drank tea and played backgammon.
And here we are. I am finishing up typing this upon the airplane to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The day was mostly uneventful, we wandered Yucil’s neighborhood, went to a post office to send stuff home worth probably the amount of postage we paid, then headed to the airport.
Bye bye Turkey, you were fantastic as expected. Hello AFRICA!