September 16, 2015

Turkish Delight

“The voice of Istanbul. I’ve had at least 30 names from New Rome to Islambol. Now they say I’m between the East and the West, an identity crisis. I knew theirs. Enough of this nonsense. Take the labels off and just look at me. You won’t need a guide book. Like all cities, I have my own sense of time. I’m a labyrinth of layers that only make sense without a compass. If you’re hesitant, not sure which way to go as you walk about, follow one of my cats. They will lead you to places, introduce you to people, point out secrets they keep even from me. They, more than anyone, are the longest continuing residents of this city. A challenge to those who see the future in my paths, I’m an obstacle for those who see only the future. I see change with the patience of centuries. Look at silhouette on the bridge on the Golden Horn. Time has not passed me by, it has protected me. I ask of you the same.” -Unidentified Istanbul citizen

“Have you seen the movie Taken?” is a question I’ve been asked on repeat the last month as I told people I had a 19 day trip to Turkey and Africa coming up. Despite the horror stories and their fearful reactions, I can say I was nothing but excited about this trip. Having planned little, I had very few expectations. Unlike my adventure backpacking Europe solo, this time one of my best friends Rachel went with me. Her dad is from India and mom from Kenya so she knew what we were getting into a little more than I did. Her friend Ronak joined us as well. Together the three of us began our adventure with the first stop in the great city of Istanbul.

After a nine-hour plane ride from Chicago, we arrived at the Ataturk airport. We were quickly reminded by all the Turkish signs that English was no longer the primary language. Baggage claim was the first stop, and we were warned the Turks will sometimes hold your bags on purpose because they get tipped when they deliver them. We watched the same six remaining unfamiliar bags cycle the baggage belt a dozen or more times before finally accepting that two of our bags “didn’t make it.” After double checking the other belts, we headed to the lost and found with high hopes. With slow English, a lot of hand gestures and pointing, we were able to communicate with the staff to attempt to locate our missing luggage. We waited for over an hour before they informed us they’d have to deliver them in the coming days – they just needed an address. The problem was we didn’t have one to give them. I had lined up an apartment through Airbnb and had plans to meet the owner, Furkan, in a public location in Taksim Square. He never provided the address of our stay. That meant we needed to get a hold of him somehow with no cell phone service. We borrowed a phone from one of the staff and waited for a response. After waiting around for about an hour, Furkan finally replied saying he could no longer meet us because he injured his foot, and he passed along his friend Cengiz’s phone number. Ugh, this was getting exhausting. After some back and forth with Cengiz and a few language barrier issues, we finally left them with an address, doubtful we’d actually get our bags. At this point it had been about three hours since we landed, so we were more than ready to get out of the airport. We looked for exit signs and decided to take a shuttle bus to the city. While we still had use of a cell phone inside, we informed Cengiz that we were leaving the airport so he’d know an approximate time to meet us. We walked out of the airport only to find the shuttle line was a good 30-minute wait. In addition, our ride into the city was an hour longer than it should have been due to traffic. With no way to inform Cengiz that we were so far behind schedule, we were starting to doubt that he’d still be there waiting when we arrived.

After battling two hours of traffic like I’ve never seen before (which says a lot considering I live in Chicago), we finally pulled into the place we agreed to meet Cengiz at… and as we anticipated, he wasn’t there. With no way to contact him, we sat and waited for about 15 minutes desperately hoping he’d show up, and then just before panic set in, I finally heard someone say my name. It was an instant sigh of relief after a LONG first day of travel. The feelings I had as he approached us were like seeing a long lost old friend. As we walked to the apartment I couldn’t believe the number of kids out and about so late at night (it was nearing 11pm). Dirty, barefoot, parent-less kids flocked the streets holding their hands out like open books begging for money as we passed by. I learned these kids aren’t necessarily homeless but are used as an income source for their families – like trained circus animals performing tricks. The shocking part was how young these children were, many not even old enough to be in school. I couldn’t help but compare my childhood to theirs and feel sorry for all they are missing out on. The stray dogs and cats parading the streets were also too many to count, though I have to say I enjoyed their presence despite having to hold back my urge to pet every single one of them.

After another 40 minutes of walking and checking in, we were in our rooms at last. The liveliness of the city gave us a burst of energy and we decided to step out to get some food and check out the local spots nearby. After eating a Doner kebab and getting a drink at a local bar, I was jet-lagged, exhausted and ready for a good night sleep. It was far from what I got.

Rachel and Ronak wanted to hit up another bar so they walked me to our flat and stayed out for a bit longer. I climbed 13 floors up our dark, steep and narrow spiral staircase before I reached our apartment door winded and sweaty. I pulled out the key only to discover it wasn’t opening the door. There were two knobs and two keyholes so I worked at it for a while before feeling helpless. Having no phone and no idea where Rachel and Ronak headed, I carried out my attempt to get inside for nearly 30 minutes.

Over the years, I’ve read my share of stories about the Muslim culture and how disrespectful the men are to women. Before I left the States I was warned to be extra cautious, not to go out alone, not to wear revealing clothes or look men in the eyes. Fear rarely affects me much, but I have to admit the situation I found myself in was scary. Unlike popular touristy hotels, our flat was down an alley in a local area. I climbed down the winding staircase to see if the office at the ground level of our building was open as I recalled seeing lights on. As I walked out the front door, I was stared at up and down by a group of Turkish men standing around the entry of the building drinking and smoking cigarettes. Being so late at night with “clueless tourist” practically written on my forehead, I knew I needed to act confident rather than fearful. I walked back inside and made the climb once more to the 13th floor. I tried to catch wi-fi through the door so I could attempt to reach Cengiz on WhatsApp but couldn’t get a strong enough signal. I could hear male voices coming from the 12th-floor apartment as the door was cracked open when I walked by, but they weren’t speaking English. Having only been in the city for a few hours and not having a good feel for its safety yet, horror stories started to flood my mind. I questioned whether it was a good idea to ask the men in A12 for help. I didn’t feel that sitting and waiting was particularly safe either as strange men passed up and down the stairwell. Plus it was really hot and dark. After some internal debating, I worked up the courage to walk down a flight and knock on their door. A man yelled what I could only assume was Turkish for “come in,” so hesitantly, I pushed open the already cracked door to find a middle-aged man sitting on his couch drinking a beer with an ashtray in front of him. He waved at me to step inside, but I wanted to remain as close to the exit as possible while trying to hide my fear. The first thing I noticed was his foot was elevated and looked pretty messed up. It was grossly swollen with cuts and metal pins sticking out of it. I have NO idea how he managed to climb all those stairs in that condition. At this point, I literally felt like I stepped into a movie scene and all I could do was hope for a happy ending. I told the man I was having trouble with my key and asked if he knew a trick to opening the door. He clearly couldn’t understand me and summoned another man from the other room. They spoke back and forth for a few minutes until the man on the couch pulled out his cell phone and, using hand gestures, encouraged me to type what I was saying. The second I saw the Google Translate app pulled up on his screen I felt some immediate relief – though I knew I wasn’t in the clear yet. After translating my problem, the man with two working feet grabbed the key out of my hand, which startled me, and proceeded to head out the front door signaling for me to follow. He kindly worked at unlocking my door for what felt like an eternity but was probably closer to ten minutes, until he finally got it unstuck. Though it appeared he was helping me, I still had my guard up crossing my fingers that he wouldn’t try and follow me inside. I thanked him sincerely, he gave me a smile and a head nod and went back to his place. Once inside, I never closed and locked a door so fast in my life! FINALLY, bedtime… at least for two hours until the sounds of Ronak and Rachel struggling with the door woke me. I was certainly glad to see those two.

Throughout the night, the unaccustomed street noises of dogs howling, cats fighting, people hanging in the alley until wee hours of the morning, accompanied by a 5am wake-up call for Islamic prayer over the city loudspeakers (which occurred fives times a day) made sleeping nearly impossible. Being eight hours ahead of our normal US time certainly didn’t help. By 9am we were all up and ready to check out the still-mysterious city of Istanbul.

The next few days were incredibly carefree and enjoyable with tons of sightseeing, Mosque tours including the Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque), dining, museums and even a boat ride up the Bosphorus Sea where we got to step into Asia! The city was absolutely breathtaking from the water. We learned about the fascinating history of the Ottoman Empire and toured palaces of the Sultans who ruled. I continued to learn more and more about the Muslim culture every place we toured. Rachel was super helpful in explaining things to me as well. Shopping is literally unavoidable in Turkey, and we very much enjoyed strolling through the world famous Grand and Spice Bazaars. The food was probably the only thing about Turkey that disappointed. For being known for its Spice Bazaar, I was surprised at how overly bland the food was. Not to mention, whatever Turkish dish you ordered was annoyingly meat heavy (IMHO). Whether it was meat on bread, meat on a stick or just a blob of meat on your plate, there was no way of escaping it. Luckily, Rachel’s stereotypical Indian need for spice meant she carried a bottle of Sriracha in her purse. I made fun of her for it. I don’t anymore. It made all the difference.

Aside from touring the Islamic Mosques, one of the more interesting things we did was get a hamam, which is a Turkish bath. Rachel and I, who had no idea what we were walking into, dragged Ronak along with us and convinced him it’d be a great experience. Rachel and I hadn’t seen each other naked before but were forced to get comfortable with it REAL fast. Luckily men and women split into separate wings where women bathe women and, unfortunately for our poor friend Ronak, men bathe men. The bathing area was by no means private. Naked women flocked a giant stone and tile platform as they waited their turn for a full body (and I mean FULL body) scrub down. Rachel and I laughed hard knowing Ronak was probably cursing at us. During the entire experience, I couldn’t help but feel like I was a character in Game of Thrones. The lady bathing me sang Turkish lullabies and only paused her singing to tell me, “You too much big” as my legs and feet dangled off the table clearly not meant for 6′ women. As a side note, I heard similar comments from people my whole visit. The vendors who flood the streets would shout things to me like, “Hey basketball lady!” and “Hey Barbie!” to get my attention. Rachel and Ronak got off a little easier as their Indian features disguised them as Muslim or Turks. On one of our ferry rides a man even called Rachel over to translate Turkish making an assumption she knew the language. We all got laughs out of it.

At the end of the bath and the massage that followed it (all of which lasted about 90 minutes), we got dressed and headed back to the lobby to meet up with Ronak giggling the entire way anticipating his reaction. The look he gave us as we approached him was priceless. I can only imagine what he went through during that 90 minutes in a room full of naked Turkish men… hahaha. Poor guy.

The nightlife in Turkey was lively. We had a blast at a local pub our last night there. It seemed there were no curfews as bars projected music and shisha smoke and no bedtimes as people roamed the streets all hours of the night. At least men did anyways. Aside from street beggars, local women were scarcely seen after dinner hours. Bars and restaurants were packed with groups of men. It was noticeable and odd to me. I quickly got used to getting gawked at, especially in less touristy places. Men in the States tend to do the same though, so gazing aside, I still felt pretty safe. One night we had the company of two Iraqi men at a bar which I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know. Communication was really rough as their English was poor at best and we didn’t speak a lick of Arabic. Nonetheless, we had fun trying to hold a conversation and laughed at the struggle. While conversing, Rachel said the word “fire,” which they definitely recognized because they immediately interrupted with words like “friends,” “no harm,” and “we safe.” It was interesting they made an assumption that we viewed them as a threat feeling the need to reassure us. At the end of the evening, they were showing us photos of their wives and children and told all three of us that we were welcome to their home in Iraq any time. It was inspiriting to befriend people we so often hear about as enemies.

After spending a few days in Turkey I realized that while the culture is very different, you don’t have to fear the culture as much as you hear. I met a young American girl from Minnesota who told me she moved to Istanbul a year ago by herself to teach English. She decided to stay because she loved it so much. She lives alone in a flat not far from where we were staying. I asked her if she felt safe and without hesitation, she replied, “Absolutely. You hear the worst on the news back in the States, but the people here are great.” She told me she goes out alone all the time and she’s just another local now. It was so good to hear the positive in such a negative world. I would have loved to talk with her longer.

Rachel and Ronak had a slightly different attitude towards the people there than I did. Their assessment was fair though. Throughout our five day visit we were constantly, I mean constantly, hustled to buy things and hand out money. Every person we met while walking around had an agenda. Several times people stopped us on the street recognizing we were tourists and offered to help us get to our destination. They were definitely friendly and personable, but we could never walk away without them leading us to their stores to buy things. One guy helped us find the Basilica Cistern where we did an hour tour only to find him waiting outside for us at the exit with the hopes that we’d buy something from his store down the street. Rachel and Ronak were pretty creeped out by this. I think they felt ill intentions in a way that I didn’t. To me, the man was just working. This was literally their job, nothing more. They see big dollar signs (or should I say lyras) in Americans and they do what they must to try and close a sale. I guess I didn’t view this tactic as any less moral than some of the desperate and shady moves American salespeople pull. Even though they had a personal agenda, overall they were still kind and respectful. They didn’t get upset when you turned them down or curse or yell at you when you walked away empty handed. More often than not, they thanked you for visiting their store while offering you a sweeter deal as you left still hoping you’d change your mind. Over time, we learned our own tactics for dealing with them. We had several discussions about the people there and ultimately Rachel, Ronak and I just agreed to disagree on our opinions of the locals. I will admit though the constant sales pitches were annoying, and I definitely appreciated and missed the ability to roam U.S. streets without being hassled.

For me personally, the best part of traveling is always the people though. Of all the amazing things we saw and experienced in Turkey, my favorite moments were the times we really interacted with the locals. We got to know Furkan and Cengiz pretty well during our stay. One night we sat outside our flat with them while they taught us (or should I say attempted to teach us) how to play Tawula, which is like Turkish backgammon. We also had quite a few laughs over teaching each other our alphabets. Another one of my favorite moments was with a vendor down the street from our flat who had a small food shop of fresh fruit juices and sandwiches. On two different mornings, it took me 15 minutes just to order fruit from him as he spoke zero English. After ordering breakfast on my third visit he came over to me with a pen and paper wanting me to teach him some English. I walked around pointing to things writing down and pronouncing the words for him. I asked him to do the same for me in Turkish which he happily agreed to. I could have done that for hours! He was a gem of an old man and has no idea how much he made my day.

There are many more stories to share about my experiences in Turkey but I’ve still got 14 days in Africa to write about, so this will have to do (: I am beyond glad I had the opportunity to gaze on Istanbul. Its culture and beauty are etched like a painting in my mind and I hope it never fades. The sounds, smells, and vibrant colors are definitely worth experiencing for yourself.