Turkey: From Bazars to the Bizarre

Friday, March 28, 2014

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

My favorite quotes:
• From a taxi driver: “Trust everything on a stick!” 
(he meant food, like kebabs).
• From 4 year old Nico: “You’re going to Turkey? Will you send me a postcard with turkeys on it?!”
Turkey means good food.
Even before you get to the country, the clues are there: Turkish Airlines serves a meal and freshly squeezed orange juice, even on a short three hour flight (take note United Airlines!). More than that: when you walk onto the plane there are regular flight attendants but also one dressed like a cook, in white apron and tall white cook’s hat. The airline magazine sports recipes.
Everyone is Israel who heard the word ‘Turkey’, said “Food!”, rubbing their bellies and licking their lips. Apparently Turkey means good food. “Eat! Eat! Eat!” said our last taxi driver in Tel Aviv. He didn’t speak much more English than that.

We arrived at one of Istanbul’s two airports: Sabiha Gökçen. It is about an hour out of town and in Asia. Our hotel had quoted us 70 euros for airport transportation. I just about choked. But after some internet research (Trip Advisor) I found a hotel shuttle for 10 euros p.p. I booked this via their website (http://www.istanbulairportshuttle.com/).
They even met us upon arrival with a large name sign and brought us to our hotel. It is good to know, when traveling to Istanbul, that the OTHER airport, Atatürk, is 20 minutes away and in Europe. Be sure to double check at which airport you will arrive and depart. In our case we arrived at one but will depart from the other. Tricky.

City walls

Halfway between the airport and the city we crossed a large bridge over the Bosporus. I spotted a sign along the road saying “Welcome to Europe!”
Again, we are thrilled with the hotel we booked via the internet. It is often a gamble and difficult to judge but we lucked out again. Angel’s Home is in the old city: Sultanahmet. Its crooked, narrow streets and hills remind me of Mont Martre in Paris but its atmosphere is distinctly Middle Eastern with many cafe’s and patios along the streets, fruit stands, water pipes, and twinkling lights.

Cats. What’s with cats in this part of the world? We must have seen thousands of cats, all over Israel, Jordan and now Turkey. Cats around apartment buildings, cats outside stores, cats in garbage cans and along the water front. Cats have inundated the Middle East, it seems. There are more cats here than there are bunnies on Salt Spring…

Mosques dominate the skyline and the call to prayer twirls out of many minarets, swirling its haunting tunes over the rooftops.
Tonight we obliged those who told us to “Eat!”. We had traditional Turkish food in a roadside restaurant, served on beautiful white tablecloths, under colorful lights made of gourds.
A sizzling stone dish held chicken and veggies and mushrooms and rice. We had chestnut puree in a type of corn pastry for dessert, with Turkish coffee and Turkish tea… Then we rolled home to our hotel to watch the lit up skyline and freight ships on the Bosporus. 

Bathing in History

 Today I decided to be brave and experience something unique.
Did you ever laid naked on a slab of marble, covered by 4 inches of foam and then they bring out the sandpaper to work on your body?
Today I took a Turkish Bath!
They advertised everywhere and, since I love Asian massages, I decided to give it a try. The bath people even offer a free ride from and back to your hotel. When the van picked me up, there were already two British ladies on board. I figured correctly that we would get to know each other intimately. The first half hour was spend stuck in traffic in the narrow streets of Sultanahmet, or old Istanbul. Fruit carts, delivery van and buses were stuck in a solid knot while drivers snoozed, honked or swore in Turkish.

The bath house, or hamam, built in 1475, was shaped like a mosque with many domes. The marble entry hall had two storey-high wooden change room structures for men. The women’s bath was off through another hallway under another marble dome with similar change rooms. The two English ladies and I were ushered into a very small room and told to strip naked. We were each handed a cotton strip of fabric, which I hoped to be the size of a table cloth. It actually was the size of a small table runner.
We tried to pull and tug but it stayed the size of a small table runner.
We were then led into a sauna. A small, very hot sauna with cedar benches and a glowing fire. At first I didn’t think I could breathe. But once I relaxed it was fine. I sat until sweat poured freely from my spontaneously opening pores.

‘My’ masseuse summonded me. I tried to look dignified, but all sweaty and wrapped in a handkerchief, this was hard to do. She instantly unwrapped me, spread my cloth like a place mat on a huge marble slab in the center of the room, and ordered me to lay down on it, much like a turkey on a dinner table.

She proceeded to pour warm water over me, before bringing out the heavy artillery in the shape of a sandpaper glove. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared and actually felt quite invigorating. 
More warm water was followed by about 6 inches of foam, spread all over me. Soap crawled into my ears and mouth as I had a massage that was not as good as an Asian massage, but not bad. I flopped around on the marble slab like a slippery bar of soap, trying hard not to slide off and onto the floor. Then I was ordered through an arched doorway, up the steps and into another arched dome with a small pool.

“Swim, lady, swim!” my masseuse ordered. I flopped into the water like a slippery trout.
Cold! It was cold water. But once I decided to endure a Turkish bath, I think I resigned myself to accept my fate lock, stock and barrel – without complaining. So I swam.
After this I was invited back into the sweat sauna, or to take a nap on the slab of marble. I decided that clothes and tea sounded like the most attractive next step.
On the way back to the hotel, and once again stuck in traffic, cars honked, tourists shopped for leather shoes and the driver mumbled many Turkish swear words.
But I just sat there, gloating. I felt very clean.
And very serene.
I had just had a Turkish bath!

I’m sure you will appreciate the fact that there are no accompanying photos for this story. 

Bizarre Bazaars

Sultanahmet or old Istanbul is a medieval city centre, a mixture of Asia and Europe. And it is full of shops. The best place for shopping: the Grand Bazaar which is more than than just little shops. The enormous, ancient bazaar is all indoors – covered by arched ceilings. Its little alley ways crisscross into a labyrinth where you can get lost for hours. Vendors sip tea from tiny glasses in their doorways. Their displays include sparkling silver, hand painted china, woven rugs, cheap t-shirts, dangling blue eyes made of glass that are supposed to bring good luck. There are water pipes for sale and for rent. You can eat fresh bread or drink fruit juice, Turkish coffee or Turkish delight. The market’s stone floors have been worn smooth over the ages, stone steps even hollow out by the millions of feet that have shuffled here.
Across town, past the many mosques, minarets and domed roofs of palaces, is the Spice Market. In this similar labyrinth of alleys, all covered, you can find baskets and mountains of cinnamon, curry, peppers of all color, dried rosebuds and sage. There are many different kinds of tea, cumin and rosemary. You can buy, and smell, dried apricots, dried octopus and
dates. After a while: sensory overload. Add to this the fact that the vendors yell and praise their wares. They invited you to come in, try this, buy that! And you have to barter. It’s exhausting…

We strolled back to our hotel along the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. A long walk along ancient city walls, ferry terminals and one of the busiest waterways in the world. We watched little tug boats plowing alongside huge freighters.

Formerly known as Byzantium, then as Constantinople, and now as Istanbul, the city lies half in Asia and half in Europe. And it shows. With its roasted chestnut stalls and coffeeshops, Istanbul sometimes feels like Paris. Its narrow streets with patios and trams feel like Amsterdam. While its forest of minarets, shoarma stands and water pipes give it a distinct Middle Eastern feel. Women wear burkas or tight pants, hiking boots or high heels. You can buy roasted corn or a Starbucks. Istanbul is a meeting place of east and west.

I’m sure you can spend an infinite amount of time in this city, but to us three days were good. We walked all over the cold city, got a good sense of it and visited its icons: the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the bazaars. We walked and walked and walked, but also lounged on patios. 

Monday, March 31, 2014:

Kees, Margriet and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

 We set our alarm for a 7 AM airport pick up. But when we got to the hotel lobby, it was only 6 AM. I still can’t fully explain it, but apparently several countries changed to daylight saving time last Sunday. Except Turkey. Apparently the government decreed that the change in Turkey would happen on Monday, not on Sunday. So it was confusing. When we searched for ‘current time in Istanbul’ the internet said it was 7 while the clocks said it was 6 AM. All we could do was wait for the shuttle and hope that the airline knew what time it was.

The driver drove like a bat from hell. He actually did 110 KM in a 30 KM zone… By far the craziest drive we had this month.
It was going to to a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
We’ve not often seen an airport that was slower than Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. The passport line alone was over an hour of standing and shuffling.
The flight was delayed for an hour. They said it had something to do with loading luggage. Not ours, as it turned out.
It was to be a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
It got worse when a Dutch guy across the isle from us boarded and started bossing people around, shouting and pushing. He swore and became quite violent. We expected the flight attendants to call in the police but that never happened. All we could do was hope he calmed down, once we were in flight.
But a second guy drank enough to turn violent, very loud and verbal. This time the swearing and yelling was in Turkish. We have never quite experienced anything like it. At one point, during landing, he took his seat belt off and nearly attacked the flight attendants. Still no police was called.
When we finally made it into Schiphol Airport, shaken and tired, we discovered that our luggage had not accompanied us to the Netherlands. Even after a 2 hour wait – no backpacks. It was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
We filled in paperwork and left. At least I had the presence of mind to ask for a toiletry kit, which includes a clean t-shirt and socks. But all we can do is hope our clothes and other things show up tomorrow. A beer and croquettes helped.
And, as Alexander knows, some days are just like that. Even in Istanbul.*
* referenced to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst.