It’s a slow start in Istanbul. When I get off the plane I walk past the visa counters, as I had organised my visa in Aus, so I thought I’d be close to the front of the queue. But the queue for immigration winds back and forth around barriers, worse than waiting for a ride in a theme park. It moves reasonably quickly, however. Nearly at the desks, a young British man yells at an older man and woman:
“Oy! Ow about you go to the back of the queue like everyone else, then!”
The woman is taken aback, then says: “I’m sick.”
“I’m Turkish, anyway,” the man says. “I’m just here to be with her.”
“Does that give you the right to jump the line then?” the British guy asks.
They just ignore him and the British guy lets up.
I walk the length of the baggage hall before I find the carousel with my bag on it. I look for what’s allowed through customs but everything is in Turkish and we weren’t given any instructions on the plane (at least not in English.) I have fruit in my backpack, but I don’t know the rules about it. There’s a door with a sign “Nothing to declare” that everyone seems to be going through, so I follow.
Out in the hall there is a huge crowd of people standing watching, most with signs saying someone’s name. I don’t spot my name first time round, so I walk up and down again, people calling to me to look at their placards. Still no luck.
I remember I need to get Turkish Lira so I go to a machine and withdraw some. Then I scan the names again, back and forth. No luck. I stand aside, pondering what to do. I turn on my phone, but it doesn’t work. I try to connect to wifi but it doesn’t work. I see there’s a phone shop nearby. Maybe I could buy a simcard.
I walk up and down again, and eventually spot my name on a piece of paper stuck to the barrier. I point to it and a man behind the barrier says:
I point again. “Please come around here,” he says to me. “It belongs to my colleague. He will be here soon.”
I trundle around. He asks me to point out my name again. “Please wait.” he says.
In a few minutes, he takes the piece of paper off the barrier and gives it to a bald man with narrow hips and points at me. For the next 20 minutes or so, the man with the narrow hips beckons me to follow him, asks me to wait at a spot, goes away and comes back with 3 German women, beckons us to follow him, asks us to wait at a spot, goes away, comes back, beckons us to follow, wait, follow, wait, and then directs the German ladies into a car. Eventually he directs me to a car and I’m on my way.
It’s hot and humid and twilight, almost dusk as we leave the airport and drive in crazy traffic along the edge of the water. There must be more than a hundred ships I can see out on the water. There’s a thick pall of brown smog settled over the city. There are modern buildings but tucked around them are mosques with slender minarets rising around them. At one stage we drive through arches of what is unmistakably an ancient wall.
My driver is good. He tells me it will take 30 minutes and he keeps a good distance from the cars in front. He toots regularly to warn cars or trucks that we pass close to or that are drifting towards us. When we are nearly there he turns into narrow streets, narrow like mediaeval towns, and crowded with people. He toots and edges forward. The people are drinking outside a bar and they move aside to let us through. A few more turns up narrow streets and he stops the car, opens the door and gets out my luggage. It’s just a narrow backstreet, lined with cafes.
I get out, bewildered, but am soon reassured when a young man approaches me and introduces himself as Berkay, Bec’s friend. He shows me a doorway, next to a cafe. (Bec is my niece, who has travelled extensively and now lives in another part of Turkey. She recommeded Berkay’s apartment, 212 Istanbul Suites.)
“You enter through the cafe,” he tells me, “but after midnight, you come through here and enter the code: 0003. That is, 3 zeros then 3.”
He directs me up metal steps to the first floor, the lights coming on as we go. Using an electronic card, we go into the apartment. It is spacious, L-shaped, open-plan, timber floor. A lounge, a double bed, a kitchen, with the bathroom leading off from it.
“Sit, please sit,” he motions me towards the lounge. I drop my gear on the coffee table and sit, then remove my gear from the table and put it on the floor as he starts to show me things he has on the table: 3 tourist guide books for Istanbul, a brochure on tours and attractions, some Turkish Delight in a glass bowl with a glass lid that he takes off to offer me. He shows me around the apartment, where everything is, gives me translated instructions for the washing machine ,other general instructions. He tells me the room is not serviced every day unless I request it – just let him know the day before. He says they don’t normally come into the apartment unless we ask for service.
I decide to book tours there and then. I thought I’d do a tour tomorrow, then look around myself. But he suggests I look around the local area, which is modern Istanbul, and do a tour on Saturday. He tells me there are protests planned in Taksim Square for Saturday, so I should be away from this area. He says he will ask the tour company to drop me at his hostel in the old area afterwards until he knows it is safe to go back to the apartment. I decide to do a tour Friday and a Bosphorus Cruise Saturday.
Berkay also shows me a brochure about a whirling dervishes show. I’ve heard about whirling dervishes, a ceremony connected to Rumi the 13th century poet. A story I read some time back which I think was a fictionalised version of Rumi’s life was, if I remember rightly, written by the same author who wrote the Bastard of Istanbul. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Istanbul, along with Bec’s raves about Turkey, was because of descriptions that I read in The Bastard of Istanbul. So I ask to go to the whirling dervishes show. Berkay tells me this is not like belly-dancing, it is a cultural show. He would book it for me for the next evening.
He tells me not to drink the water from the tap. Ooops, this is a problem. I’ve totally run out of water, and I’m already thirsty. I ask him where the nearest supermarket is so I can buy water. He tells me he will show me. He also tells me how to get to the main street, Istiklal St, and how to remember how to get back – there’s a McDonalds on the corner that I need to turn at.
So we walk up the cobblestoned street to the supermarket and he says goodbye. He lives just a couple of streets away himself. I wander into the supermarket. There’s a big bottle of water, so I grab that and put it in the trolley, not even thinking about how heavy it will be to carry. I need some washing powder, but, shit, everything’s written in Turkish. Which ones are washing powder? I take a bit of a guess and pick up a bottle of liquid. What else do I need? I add some sliced cheese, some tomatos and a lettuce to the trolley, none of which I end up eating. I look in all the fridges for milk but can’t find it. It’s around 9:30pm here and the man starts closing over fridges and turning off lights. Finally I ask “Milk?” The shop owner looks puzzled and I’m contemplating mooing but not really in the mood for animal noises. Luckily another customer points to cartons right next to him. Oh, must be long-life milk. I thank him, take some and go pay.
Already I head off in the wrong direction and find myself on Istiklal Street, which is lined with shops and teeming with people. That’s OK, I’ll walk until I find McDonalds, turn left, then 2nd left. After I turn off the main street, there are cafes lining the alley and I am invited in to 1 of them. Someone else offers lewdly to help me as I trudge uphill with the big bottle of water. Reaching the cafe under my apartment, I walk across it and up the stairs. I’d love to look around, but maybe it’d be better to wait till morning.
Instead I pull the bags of dirty clothes from my suitcase and try to work out how to run the washing machine. The instructions Berkay pointed out are for a different model, so I do a lot of random button-pushing until the machine sounds like it’s filling up. I start to look through the guide book but tiredness sets in and I go to bed.
Istanbul Day 2
I wake late. It’s after 9:30am. I drag the washing that I’d done the night before from the machine and drape it all around, then get dressed and go downstairs to the cafe for breakfast. I really feel like I should have a Turkish breakfast (whatever that is) but am a creature of habit and ask for a Hong Kong breakfast – muesli, yoghurt and banana – and a cappuccino. (It seems like cappuccino means the same thing in every country, so at least I know what I’m getting.) It’s exactly what I want, but huge, so I can’t eat it all. I try to get my head around attractions in the local area by browsing the one guidebook that’s in English, but decide it’ll be easier to just head down the main street.
I decide to try to get a Turkish simcard, have a look at Taksim Square, which is nearby, and maybe buy a cooler longsleeved top. Already I’m cooking in my stretchy purple top and I’m not yet sure whether it’s acceptable to wear low cut singlets in a Moslem country. Istiklal St is busy, but not as teeming as last night. A single-carriage red tram, packed with people, with children hanging off the back step, runs slowly up the middle of the street.
Almost immediately I see a shop with interesting T-shirts. I end up browsing the full 5 stories of the shop and leaving with a T-shirt and a longsleeved cotton green shirt. Prices are not expensive. The Turkish lira is worth 50cAU yet clothes prices are in TL what you’d expect in AU.
A couple of shops further on is a TurkCell shop, one of Turkey’s mobile phone providers. I tell them I want a simcard, prepaid and they seem to understand and I ask them to put it in for me, which they do. They keep saying: “In 10 minute, enter code,” and point to the code on the card the simcard has come from. I say I want data too and they say: “data extra”. I say OK.
I pay using my travel visa, and enter the code. They ask me to do it again, and I assume that’s the extra. Then they ask me to do it again. “But I did it already,” I say.
“Didn’t work,” they tell me, so I enter again, and apparently this time it does.
I wander up to Taksim Square. Like most squares, there is a monument in the middle, looks like people in combat. There are also lots of pigeons pecking at the ground, and there seems to be seed sprinkled around. Along one side are flower stalls selling fresh flowers and fake garlands. As soon as I approach, the stall owners stand up and walk towards me, so I back off and take photos. At the far end of the square is a park. Near Istiklal St corner are several kebab stores emitting heat and the smell of cooking meat.
Ten minutes later I enter the code and the carrier shows up on my phone. But I can’t get data, so I return to the shop.
“I can’t get data,” I tell them.
“Data extra. Data extra,” they keep saying. The lady demonstrates that the phone works by calling her mobile.
“But I paid data already,” I keep saying.
Anyway, in the end they say: “60 lira phone only. No data. Data extra.”
So I put an extra 25TL on my card and then I have data. Yay!
I’m really hot by now, so I head back to the apartment to change into my newly-bought cooler clothes. As I mount the stairs I see the door is wide open. What the….? I continue in and there is a young woman in the kitchen. Clearly she is cleaning, so I relax.
I duck into the bathroom and change my clothes, then sit on the lounge and check emails & fb. Meanwhile the cleaner strips my bed and changes the sheets. I’d made the bed myself before I went out because Berkay had said they only service the room if we ask for it. Somehow the communication must have gone awry.
I receive a text from Berkay. He has booked the whirling dervishes show for me for 7pm. I look up the location on google maps. It’s 3 km away, according to googlemaps, 35 minutes walk. When I look up public transport, it comes up with nothing. It’s the other end of town and over the bridge. Well, I figure I can work my way down to that end of town during the day, go to the show, then walk back.
I set off down the main street. It’s getting busier, and somehow the mainstream seems to be opposite to the direction I’m heading. I try to keep right to dodge people. I go into another clothes shop, attracted by a T-shirt that says “Istanbul In Love” on it. The shop is busy, with a huge long queue feeding 8 registers. I emerge with some T-shirts for myself and others, including the “Istanbul In Love” one.
I meander down the main street, diverging into side streets and markets every now and then. At intervals there are carts selling crusty donut-shaped sesameseed-coated bread, and (I think) roasted chestnuts. The aroma of burnt chestnuts is one of the smells I keep coming across. I suspect the sewerage system is not the best, because a faint aroma of sewer is another of the predominant smells. There is also the incessant smell of smoke. Everywhere people smoke cigarettes, but at cafes there are also hookahs that are continually refilled by waiters. Cafe life seems to be a part of the culture, with people just sitting, chilling, drinking tea, and smoking.
There are stray cats everywhere. They slink around, hide under cars and chairs. Further down the street I come to Galata Tower and I go up sidestreets in search of coffee. I find a kitten and its mother cuddling together. At a cafe I ask for cappuccino but they have only Turkish coffee, so I go back to a “Best Coffee” shop opposite the tower and have one there.
A young muslim woman, in black hijab, sits next to me with her husband. She catches my eye and smiles and I smile back.
“Where do you come from?” she asks, as she unwraps her scarf and rewraps it again, which appears to me to be a gesture of friendship.
I tell her, and assume she is local. She asks me if my family is with me and I tell her I’m travelling alone. She asks about children and a husband and I tell her I have 3 grown-up children and am divorced. Her English is very limited, but her body language says, as she gestures towards her husband “I wouldn’t mind getting rid of him.” She indicates that changing husbands after 10 years would suit her. She has 3 children, 2 boys and a girl. The oldest is 11, the youngest only around 2, and she says her mother is minding them, which is good, but she misses the baby.
Communication is fairly difficult but I realise she, too, is on holidays. I think she worked somewhere, that she’d been to University but that she wasn’t using her qualifications. It’s a bit hard to understand.
My coffee is long finished so I get up to leave and we say goodbye and smile goodbye some more times.
Past Galata Tower the street name changes and there is a string of music shops: gleaming brass instruments in one, drums in another, stringed instruments in another. Amongst the modernness there are overflowing bags of rubbish grouped at intervals along the street. There are occasional cars and motor bikes tooting their way through the stream of pedestrians and the streets are cobblestoned and rough.
I am in sight of the Bosphorus (or maybe it’s the adjoining Golden Horn, the strip of water that was once a river) now, the wide waterway, and the Galata Bridge. I sit on a retaining wall to rest my legs and watch the world go by. Parked adjacent to me is a black car with a man slumped backwards against the driver’s door, an arm resting across the steering wheel, like he’s been shot in the stomach and floundered backwards. There are no obvious wounds. I watch him for a while but he doesn’t move. I wonder if he’s dead. The blinkers on his car are flashing.
Eventually he wakes up and drives off.
I look for a way to cross the road, and find an underpass. There are shops in the subway, too. I emerge into what looks like abandoned roadworks, then make my way down to the edge of the water. There are restaurants all along.
The Galata Bridge has 2 levels. Cars go across the top and along the bottom are restaurants. As I walk along the bottom, waiters try to lure me into their restaurants. I see a bucket tied to rope being lowered into the water from above, then hauled up again. There are fisherman above, all along the top of the bridge. (The next day, my Tour Guide tells me some of these fisherman sell their catch to the restaurants under the bridge.)
At the other side of the bridge is an overpass. I’m trying to work my way to the Hodja Pasha Dance Centre, an old bathhouse where the whirling dervish show is on, so that I know where it is for later on. I come across the train station and sit inside in the cool for a while. Another thing I find out later is that this station is the one where the Orient Express used to end. Further up the street and down an alley I locate the Hodja Pasha Centre.
There are hole-in-the-wall “restaurants” lining the narrow alleys, most of them with only 4 tables. I allow one of them to lure me in and order vine-leaf rolls, some yoghurt and a coke, and linger for a long while as I slowly eat them. The owner hovers, asks me several times if I’m all right. Finally I get up to leave and pay and he suddenly remembers I’d asked for a different type of yoghurt. He makes out his wife forgot it, she looks embarrassed, but it’s obvious who forgot.
I still have hours to fill in and I really don’t want to walk back to my apartment, so I decide to look at the nearby “new”mosque, which is a mere 400 years old. I go into the courtyard and watch men washing at the taps. I found out the next day that it is the custom to wash face, hands and feet before they go into the mosque to pray.
I suss out what tourists need to do and pull out the scarf I’d brought and put it on. I’m already covered from shoulder to knees, so that’s good. I take my shoes off and put them into a plastic bag supplied at the door, to carry with me. Inside there’s a cordoned off area, ostensibly for prayer, but as well as people praying there are children running wild on the large carpeted space. Behind the cordon, tourists sit on the floor, while others walk around taking photos. There are pretty tiled patterns all over the inside of the roof domes. I’d love to get down in the prayer attitude myself, to bend my knees and stretch my back after all the walking. But I know that, with my hips, to get up off the floor I’d practically have to do downward dog, which is not a pretty sight, so I resist the urge.
The spice markets are just next door, so I wander in there next. It’s crazy crowded. There are stalls selling spices, nuts, grain, fruit, jewellery, knickknacks and a heap of other stuff. I try to buy a small bag of cherries but the guy will only sell me 500g so I don’t buy. Instead I buy some pistacchios.
Back at the Dance Centre people are already filing in. I follow, and explain at the desk that I’ve booked, showing them Berkay’s text with the booking reference. Upstairs where they give me my ticket, they offer a free drink of juice, water or tea. The theatre is round, made of stones, and not very large. By the time the show starts, just about all the seats are taken.
We are told that it’s not appropriate to applaud or take photographs during the ceremony.
It starts with traditional music that I don’t really know how to describe. It is eery, and if it followed conventions of western music it would definitely be in a minor key, with a sadness about it. At times it developes a beat that you almost felt like tapping to. And while the singing is not like ours, you can tell that the men have beautiful voices.
Then the whirlers come in, 5 of them I think, mostly young men, one a little older. They come in solemnly, take off their black cloaks to reveal white robes and do lots of bowing. Then, essentially, they spin around to the music, flaring out their robes, for pretty much an hour. Don’t know how they manage to do it without getting hopelessly dizzy. The spiritual significance, as I understand it, is to free themselves of worldly longings.
It started out being cool in the theatre, but by the end it is hot and stuffy. Next to me, a young boy about 10 years old sits patiently and finally falls asleep against his mother, who cradles him lovingly.
We all file out silently, with no applause for the musicians or whirlers.
I hadn’t been looking forward to the long walk back but as it turned out I love being out at that time of night, just as it’s beginning to get dark. There are lights on the boats and the bridge and the mosques are lit up. Magical.
Down by the waterfront I pass a stall frying fish. It smells good and I’m hungry, so I buy a “fish kebob”, which is really just fish, onions and lettuce on a bread roll, but it’s good. It’s only later that I see men cooking fish on a rocking boat and remember it’s those that Bec talked about in her “must see/do” list for Istanbul.
The crowds are out in droves. It seems night time is when Istanbul really comes alive. At intervals all along my walk back to Taksim there are street buskers, crowds gathered around them. I stop and watch for a while at each one. Don’t know if it’s coincidence or not, but they seem to set up with graffitied walls as their backdrops.
I’ve reached McDonalds and turn up the alley. As usual the restaurant owners try to entice me in. I’m trying to shake them off when someone touches me on the arm from behind. I whirl around, to see Berkay.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says. “I come to the apartment to find you but you were not there.” He came to tell me he’s arranged the tour for me tomorrow and says he’ll pick me up at 9am.
By the time I get back to the apartment I’m exhausted.
Istanbul Day 3
I’m expecting a pick up for my tour at 9am, so I go downstairs for breakfast around 8, only to find the cafe all closed up. Oh well, I wander down the street to find something else. I really want a coffee, not Turkish coffee, and I’m not sure if the cafes down my alley serve our type of coffee, so when I spot a Starbucks I go in. I order a coffee and chocolate muffin for breakfast and sit down and do some writing. When the coffee doesn’t come to me after 10-15 minutes I look up at the people serving and they are standing around chatting. So I walk back to the counter and they push a coffee towards me. Guess they don’t call you, or bring it to you here.
“Muffin?” I ask.
They quickly put one in a paper bag and push it towards me, then the guy takes back the coffee, tips it out and makes me a new one.
“Cold,” he may have said, or indicated.
I don’t have much time to have it now, and eat the muffin hastily. My phone rings, and it’s Berkay.
“Are you at the apartment?” he asks.
“No, I’m at Starbucks just down the road. Shall I come back?”
“No, I’ll come to you. Which Starbucks are you at?”
“Down on the Main Street, on the opposite side,” I say, unsure if that’s directions enough.
He finds me OK, and I pack up my coffee and walk with him a couple of blocks, where we meet a car. I think it’s the same driver who brought me from the airport. He takes me across town to the Old District, parks the car then walks with me to a large busy square. Suddenly he spots a man, who is holding up his arm and waving, and heads across to him.
The waving man introduces himself. I think his name was Morat, because I thought of Borat (not that I ever watched the movie, only heard about it.) Morat is maybe 40, and has long hair tied into a ponytail. He introduces me to a young German couple, who are also doing the morning tour.
Morat talks first about the Roman Hippodrome, a huge stadium that once stood on this site. I don’t see any ruins of it, but I think he said there is part of the wall remaining. Apparently it was there in Roman times, was used for chariot races and the like, and was larger than any stadium in existence today, in terms of the number of people it held. It was gradually dismantled and the stone used for other buildings. He shows us 3 different victory monuments, one of which is a single piece of pink marble, which was transported from Egypt or something. I can’t remember the figures, but it was a massive weight, and it is still a mystery how they managed to move it.
Morat takes us to the Blue Mosque. He shows us where the men wash and tells us some of the customs. Good muslims pray 5 times every day, and Friday is a special day for prayer. He says that, while most of Turkey is muslim, most of them, like him, don’t put in that much effort. To me, it sounds similar to Christians, or in particular Catholics, The Blue Mosque is closed for prayer until 2pm, so we can’t go in. He will bring me back this afternoon, but the German couple will miss out and can only admire it from the outside.
Next we go to Hagia Sofia, which is only a short walk away. It was originally built as a Greek Orthodox Basilica in the 6th century and was later converted to a mosque, and more recently, to a museum. It’s architecture is Byzantine and it has massive domes.
Because we’ve booked a tour we don’t need to join the long queue for tickets and Morat takes us in almost immediately. Inside is huge and amazing. Some of the paint on the ceilings is looking shabby, and there is a large scaffold set up in one area where restoration work is taking place.
A healthy-looking tabby cat wanders around. This cat has its own website, Morat tells us. Apparently when Barack Obama visited, he patted the cat and it instantly became famous, so someone decided to make a website for it. Morat reaches down to pat the cat, and I do too. It comes eagerly to me and I give it a rub.
“Oh, you know how to touch cats,” Morat says. “Do you have one?”
We follow Morat as he points out features and answers questions. When the church was converted to a mosque, the pictures were covered over, as Moslems do not allow images in their mosques, only patterned tiles. These have since been uncovered, so it is again recognisable as a Christian cathedral. I’m fascinated by the gallery around the top and Morat tells us we can have some free time and go up there.
This is the best part for me. Instead of steps, there is a wide ramp sloping up to the gallery, through an enchanting tunnel that turns every so often at a landing.
Later, we meet at the cafe and I buy myself a freshly-squeezed pink grapefruit juice. Yum! I hear Morat telling the Germans about how to catch public transport. Seems like you can either use tokens or get a card that you can put money on. You use one token each time you get on or change, but if you use the card it costs less than the cost of a token.
The German couple have only booked the morning tour. I see the guy slip some money into Morat’s hand as he shakes it and Morat thanks him heartily.
Lunch is included as part of the tour, but it is still early, so Morat suggests we go to Topkapi Palace first. It, too is in the area, and now it’s only him and me. I’m afraid I can’t remember a lot of the history he tells me about the palace, only that the sultans had many wives (hundreds), who came from all over the world. Most of them were happy to come because they were looked after and given a good education. If they were not happy, it was up to the sultan to decide whether they could leave or not. They lived entirely with women and a few eunuchs who looked after them. (Sounds like hell to me!)
I go to look in the chamber of justice. The sultan had a window from his living area that looked into the chamber, where he could watch proceedings. If a person was found guilty, they were beheaded, and Morat pointed to the place of execution. I ask how they were beheaded. With a sword, he tells me, then, possibly thinking I have morbid interests, directs me into another room where I can view weapons.
The weapons are pretty scary. I can just imagine people being bludgeoned or hacked by them. I go to take a photo, but as I raise my camera, a guard is immediately at my side telling me not to. Ooops.
There are about 4 more rooms to view different museum pieces. There are jewel-encrusted all sorts of things, and I wander through, every now and then taking a break to sit for a while on the seats thankfully placed in the middle of the rooms. There is a humungous diamond, surrounded by other large diamonds. It is about the size of one of the large crystals that Vince and Carmel put on the end of sun catchers. A couple of pieces that catch my eye: magnificent jewel-covered candlesticks, and a gold, jewel-covered ceremonial cradle. It wasn’t a practical cradle. It was too narrow, and the baby would easily roll out, but it was very pretty.
I also wander through the religious relics section, seeing ancient books, and a piece of Mohammed’s beard.
By now I’ve done enough walking and collapse next to Morat in the courtyard. He tells me that the agency has told him that the Bosphorus Cruise is no longer possible tomorrow, that the Government has banned boats due to the planned protests. So they propose that I do it today as well as the other parts of the tour, and they’ll give it to me for half price. Now this is a problem, because the idea of doing the boat cruise on Saturday was to be away from Taksim Square while the demonstrations were on. So I call Berkay and ask him to speak to the guide. Berkay confirms what Morat said, but says that instead he’ll bring me over to the Sultanamhet district tomorrow to the hostel he works at. So I agree to do the cruise.
There are 2 people who are also staying at my apartment who want to do the Bosphorus Cruise this afternoon, so we need to meet with them. I’ve already told Morat I need to use the loo and I don’t want to do too much more walking, so he says we’ll use the loo at the museum and we’ll catch the tram to meet them. As we walk through an opening in a stone wall, I’m startled to see a guard either side each holding a big machine gun.
We are almost at the tram and I remind him about the loo – he’d forgotten. So he ducks into a restaurant and talks to them, and directs me downstairs. Talking of loos, don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but the custom here (and in parts of Asia that I’ve visited) is not to put toilet paper in the toilet, but instead to put it into a bin next to the toilet. I find this unpleasant and a very difficult thing to do. I keep forgetting and sometimes am able to retrieve the paper before I flush, if it goes on a ledge and not directly into the water, but sometimes I just have to flush and hope for the best. Too much information? I leave the restaurant feeling conspicuous but more comfortable.
Morat swipes his card and we hop on a tram, go a couple of stops, and get off next to the Galata bridge. Here he buys me and himself a “fish kebab” from the boats cooking them by the side of the dock and we squat on little stools to eat them. This one is not as good as the one I had the other night. It is chock-a-block with little bones that I have to keep picking out of my mouth. In the end I give up and ditch half of it. Morat also buys some honey-soaked “morsels”, a pastry a bit like donut dough. We wolf these down quickly as he gets word that the other people have arrived.
The other people are a couple: Caroline from England and Eamon from Ireland. Caroline is frecklefaced and lively. Eamon has a smoothly shaved head and face, and they are both, I’d be guessing, mid-forties, though Caroline could be older and Eamonn could be younger. They both work in Qatar, for a telco. Oosomethingoo. It’s one that keeps swallowing up other companies and wants to become an international name. Caroline is working on their intranet – sounds pretty much like she’s a technical writer.
Caroline says Qatar is a terrible place to live, but the money’s good. The politics are awful and they are very racist. People who come from a sheik’s family are privileged and saving face is the most important thing for them. Status, apart from belonging to the sheik’s family, is all about having expensive things and people are always showing off. Caroline relishes being in Istanbul, where she can wear a top that reveals her shoulders, which she is unable to do in Qatar. The rules are really strict in Qatar, and if people who are not married are known to be living together, and someone dobs them in, they can be deported. She has been there, I think, around 4 years and does not intend to stay. Eamon has lined up a job in Oman in the Middle East starting in October, which is a lovely place, and she aims to follow him there next year. They’ve been together for 2 years.
They didn’t tell me all this immediately – it’s stuff I found out over the next day or so. What they do tell me is that the trip to Istanbul for the weekend is a surprise present for Eamonn’s birthday, as he has always wanted to go to Istanbul and is obsessed with its history. He didn’t know where he was going until he got to the airport. Caroline also tells me he had a special razor shave this morning, a specialty in Turkey. I say he looks rather smooth, but he says it doesn’t shave as close as his electric shaver.
Morat buys tickets for us for the Bosphorus Cruise, which leaves from the wharf we’re on by the side of the Galata Bridge. It’s 15 minutes before the boat leaves but we board anyway and grab seats on the top deck. Two Japanese girls are sitting near us, taking photos of each other. Morat asks if they speak English and they say a little. He says that if they want to know about anything they see, just ask him, he is a tour guide.
“Free of charge,” he says.
“Oh, free of charge,” they echo, their eyes lighting up.
“Except maybe for a small tip at the end,” Morat adds.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak English,” one of them says.
When the boat leaves it ducks under the bridge. It looks to me like it’s going to hit, and I brace myself, but it slides just under.
“Is this tidal?” Caroline asks Morat. “We just barely fit under the bridge.”
“No,” he shakes his head. “And it’s about this much,” he shows with his hands about a metre apart.
We motor past palaces, palatial homes, lovely homes, mosques, stacks of units and out-of-place hotels, one of which looks like it has a barn stuck on top of a square highrise building.
The weather changes. A cool breeze whips up and suddenly the stifling heat has turned to cold. Luckily I have that green cotton top with me, which I’d brought along in case I wanted to go into a mosque. Caroline doesn’t have anything else so she cuddles up to Eamonn and I see him running his hands over her and squeezing her bum.
I decide to go to the loo on the boat while there’s one handy, though I’m not desperate. First I go to the counter downstairs and buy a bottle of water. I head towards the back of the boat where Morat had indicated the toilets were, and there is Morat, so I ask him. There’s only one working, he says. The symbol on the ladies toilet is scribbled out and so I wait for the men’s. When a man emerges, I start to walk in but a strong stench of urine hits me. The floor is very wet, and it’s one of those toilets without a basin, just 2 spots marked with feet and a hole in between. I baulk and back out.
The next sight on the tour is the spice market, where I went the day before. But I’m happy to browse again and we agree to meet in half an hour. I discover a section selling seed and live birds. Amongst the tittering I recognise the cheerful chirp of a peach-faced lovebird and find a cage of them amongst all the cages of budgies.
Walking through other parts of the market people are continually calling to me in English, trying to get my attention. I get fed up with this and go outside. A storm has arrived and it’s raining, so I shelter under a tree until it’s time to meet again.
Morat calls a car to take us to a (supposed) carpet manufacturer. In the car, I find that Caroline and Eamonn are planning on going to a Turkish Bath this afternoon, so they will stay in the area and not come back to the apartment at the same time as me. I’ve read about Turkish Baths and I think they are brave to be going, getting totally naked and scrubbed vigorously all over by a stranger. Caroline has been to one before – she travelled the world a lot when she was younger, often on her own.
Arriving at the carpet shop we are offered Turkish tea, which I enjoy. We sit while we are shown carpets and told the difference between handmade and machine made. Handmade show a different shade depending on the angle you view them. They last much longer, but they can take up to 18 months to make. Each carpet has to be completed by the same girl, so that the tension doesn’t vary and put the carpet out of shape. We manage to escape without too much of a hard sell, each of us careful not to encourage them by asking the price.
When we get out, Eamonn asks Morat what the carpets typically cost. A goodsize handmade one (wool, not silk) can cost US$4000.
The next place Morat takes us is the agency shop, where, just because we’ve walked in the door, everything is magically half price. But half-price is still expensive and Caroline walks out in disgust. Later Eamonn tells me she went back in and negotiated on Turkish Delight and got a much better price.
“So you’re finished now,” Morat says to me outside the shop. He calls me a car, I do the sneaky handshake that I saw the German guy do, with a tip slipped in, and the car takes me back to my apartment.
I’m buggered, but I’m still drawn out to the busy street. I browse looking for somewhere to eat and come to a shop that has yummy food displayed that you select cafetaria-style. I choose some meat, beans and tomato, a rice-stuffed tomato and something else. I enjoy it all.
There was a sweets shop that I’d passed, so I go to that next and select a decadent cake, which they package up for me in a plastic container and their own branded paper carry bag. All right, so it is a bit expensive. I take it back to my apartment and let it sit for a while while my other food goes down.
Berkay calls by and asks me about my day. I can’t tell him much, I’m still overwhelmed. He says he’ll pick me up at 9am tomorrow and take me to the Sultanamhet district. There are other people from upstairs that he’ll be taking as well.
I finish the day by eating the decadent cake and go to bed totally stuffed.
Istanbul Day 4
I’m up early enough to go out for breakfast and I look again to see if the cafes in my alley sell cappuccino. As a young waiter approaches me I ask him, and yes! they do. So I sit and order a cappuccino and ask about muesli. No. So I ask about pancakes. No. The waiter suggests ham and cheese on toast so I decide that will do.
I have my iPad with me and sit and type away. At a table diagonal to mine, just one behind, there are some young men clowning and laughing. I ignore them, but then they move a table down, sitting right next to me.
“Excuse me, do you have internet?” they ask.
“No,” I tell them, and turn back to my typing. I notice they are speaking in English, but they have a heavy accent. They are saying something loudly in English, which I don’t catch, then they turn to me and say “It’s true. ”
I wonder why they’re speaking English and end up talking to them. Two of them are Portuguese, doing contracts around the world with Vodaphone. The other is a local, also working for Vodaphone. They say working in Istanbul is good compared to other places they’ve been, like East Timor. They ask where I’ve been and they tell me I missed the best country – Portugal. By the time I have to leave to meet Berkay, they’ve given me the address and website of the hotel their mother works at in Portugal, which I say I’ll visit next time I’m in Europe.
Although I’m back at 10 to 9, Berkay is already there. There are 3 other couples he’s shipping over to the other side of town, and one of them is Caroline and Eamonn. Berkay orders 2 taxis (in Turkish they are taksis) and I catch the one with Caroline & Eamonn.
We pull up next to a hostel/hotel, which has colourful lounges on the footpath under an awning, and music pumping out. Breakfast is being served on the top floor and there’s a rooftop cafe. Caroline invites me to join them there for breakfast. Narrow, metal steps wind up to the 5th floor roof top.From the cafe there are water views out across the houses to the Bosphorus in one direction and the domes of Hagia Sofia in the other.
After a leisurely breakfast we are given directions to the square where the main attractions of the old town are ( the ones I saw yesterday) and I trail Caroline & Eamonn up the hill, then go to find the Grand Bazaar. When I ask directions I’m told to take the tram 2 stops.
I watch a woman put coins into the turnstiles, but they keep dropping back out the bottom. Another woman, already on the tram platform, sees her and explains that she needs to use tokens, not coins. The tokens can be bought from machines across the road, and cost 3 TL each. After eavesdropping, I now go over and purchase the magic tokens. They are little red plastic ones, like play money.
The tram comes a couple of minutes later and I hop on. At the first stop I ask an older man if this is the stop to get off for the Grand Bazaar.
“There are 2 you can use,” he says, “but this is the best one. I’ll show you.”
I follow him down the street. He takes me all the way to the entrance. “This was the first commercial building like this in the world,” he says proudly, as he leaves me.
Now the Grand Bazaar is huge. There are thousands of shops in it. I look at some jewellery, hoping to get some silver and turquoise earrings. But the prices are like $80AU so I decide against it. I have plenty of beautiful earrings. But when I say no, the shopkeepers keep lowering the price and insisting. Every time I pause to look at something, the shopkeepers try to drag me into their shops.
I’m careful to keep track of where I’ve walked. I don’t want to get lost in here. I do a couple of aisles then decide I’ve had enough. On the way out a boy selling perfumes walks alongside me, hounding me, despite me saying several times I don’t want any.
I’m already tired and hot and indulge in another one of those hand squeezed ruby grapefruit juices.
I decide to check if I can see inside the blue mosque today and go back on the tram to the main tourist area. On my way in, a handsome man asks me where I come from and offers to help me.
“No, I’m fine, I don’t need any help,” I tell him.
“Free of charge,” he insists.
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” I tell him.
I sit in the courtyard for a while and watch people going in and out. The same man comes to me.
“You need to go in quick,” he says. “Mosque closes soon for prayers then you won’t be able to go in for 2 hours.”
As I start to rise he tries to help me up, but I pull away with bad grace, and he looks offended. “I don’t need any help, ” I tell him.
“Would you like to look at carpets when you are finished?” he asks me.
“No!” I tell him, and now he is really offended.
At the entrance to the mosque I am redirected around to the side.
“Tourists to the left,” they say, as if it is a dirty word.
I join the queue at the side, take off my shoes, put on my scarf and slip through the narrow archway.
“Hurry, hurry, mosque closing soon,” someone keeps repeating.
Like the other mosque, inside there is a cordoned off area where there are worshippers praying, and children running wild. I look around with wonder at the beautiful patterned domed ceilings, until we are hustled out again.
“Time for prayers, please leave.”
As I leave the courtyard another man walks beside me. “Are you Australian?” he asks. “Would you like to see some carpets.”
“No thank you,” I say. I really don’t want to be rude. I was mortified in Rome when some of my fellow travellers on the bus were rude to the hawkers, telling them to “Get lost!” or “Rack off!” I figure at least they are trying to make a living, not just begging.
Still the man follows me. “Can I give you my business card?”
My legs are tired again and I decide to head back to the hostel. Easier said than done. I have a map, a GPS, I know it’s downhill towards the water, and I know we followed the ancient wall up. Still, I’m having trouble orienting myself, and head first in one direction then the other, to see if my gps says I’m getting closer. Either way I seem to get further away, and I wonder if my gps is responding correctly.
I ask someone and they give me directions, but it just doesn’t feel right. There are some workers planting annuals in the gardens lining the street, and when I show them the map they have difficulty understanding it and identifying where we are.
A man sees me studying a map and offers to help. He asks me where I’m from, tells me he lived in Australia for 7 years at Lane Cove. Do I know Linley Point? He used to run a pub at the Rocks, but his father doesn’t like him selling alcohol. He has an Australian wife, they are just here visiting family, still living in Australia. I’ve got it all wrong where I am. I need to head in a different direction, and he’s going that way, he’ll show me. He takes me back uphill. Just then his phone rings.
“It’s my wife,” he says, then talks into the phone. “Hullo, I’m just bringing an Australian lady up to meet you.”
I can hear the voice on the phone and it’s speaking English.
“You must come in and have a tea with us,” he says.
He goes to turn into a jewellery shop, but I pull away. “Come and meet my wife,” he says, and indeed, there is a blonde woman standing in the shop, who sees me and starts to come out from behind the counter.
“Come in and have tea with us,” she calls with an English accent. “Oh come on! Did he tell you what I do? I design jewellery.”
“Just tell me how to get to the hostel”, I say.
“But why?” he asks. “Come in and have tea with us.”
“I’m really tired,” I say, and it’s the truth. I also don’t want to be harangued to buy jewellery.
“You take the next right and follow that,” he says, and I hot foot it away.
I’m sure you don’t turn right, and instead follow an alley in what feels like the right direction. I find a group with a tour guide and ask the guide. “I don’t know that hostel, but follow this wall down and that’ll put you in the vicinity,” he says.
Finally the hostel is in sight. I stumble in and collapse onto a lounge.
I order a coke and a salad and tap away at my iPad. On one side of me a young fellow drinks beer after beer and sucks on a hookah. On the other side an older man and a younger African man sit and smoke. The younger African tries to make conversation, but I don’t encourage him.
I hear a “hello again,” and Carolyn and Eamonn flop onto the lounges beside me.
I’m pleased to see them and tell them how I was fooled by the jewellery seller. They are exhausted too, and ran out of time again to have their Turkish Bath. They need to leave for the airport in 45 mins so I have their company until then.
When they leave, the African guy tries to talk to me again. I get the feeling he is trying to crack onto me and feel uncomfortable. I can’t really understand what he is saying except that he says the Hagia Sofia is crap and makes finger-down-the-throat motions. I tell him I think it’s great. Finally, I’m blunt and say “Sorry, I just want to write.”
He finally gets the message and stops talking to me. A little later, he and his mate get up and leave and I breathe a sigh of relief.
After a while I try to make conversation with a French guy who’s sitting on his own. He’s on holidays for a week, does something to do with music, and is on his own because friends couldn’t get time off work at the same time as him.
At a cafe across the road, a man does a trick, stacking 3 full beer glasses, with coasters in between, on top of his head and wiggling his body around. We cheer him on. Then the French guy goes off walking too. I notice the African guy is back again, but this time I avoid eye contact and it seems he is doing the same, thank God.
I go looking for Berkay to ask for news and am told he’s asleep. I feel like I need to move around. I’ve been sitting there for ages. Carolyn had said there was a nice restaurant up the road, so I go for a walk. The problem is, there’re lots of nice restaurants up the road, and lots of nice men trying to entice me into them. I’m not game to stop and look at their menu boards, so I return to the hostel and order dinner and a bourbon and coke there. The dinner, kofta, turned out to be really tasty and was served with rice and salad.
My dinner is finished and I’m chilling, when a group of about 8 burly guys pause at the front. They are welcomed in. The only space where there are enough seats is all around me. A couple of guys sit down but the others hesitate. The guy next to me, a pom, starts talking to me. They are all from the military and are going on an ANZAC memorial tour. The other guys come and sit down, one of them saying ” we ‘re not trying to hem you in”, but that’s exactly what they’ve done. I chat a bit longer with the pommy guy then say “I’ll leave you to your boys night,” and weave my way out.
I go inside where I can sit on a lounge next to the power point and charge my iPad. It’s getting late by now and I’m tired. I can’t get any news off google – I suspect it’s being blocked by the government. I’m talking to Jas via SMS, as she’s doing a shift at the ABC. At first there’s no news then she sends me a cryptic message: eartay asgay. I puzzle over it for a while then the penny drops: tear gas, in pig latin. I’d told her to be careful with the words she used in case the government scanners picked it up.
Later, I see Berkay again and he calls the cab company to see if they’re getting through. They aren’t, so I decide to stay at the hostel for the night. I tell Berkay I’m happy to pay for a room. By now it’s about 10:30 and I’m dropping dead on my feet. My hips and legs are killing me. My muscles have frozen up with all the walking and my left hip aches like hell. I’m given a key and stumble my way to the next building and up 2 floors. My simple room with a bed and a lovely ensuite looks like heaven. I shower, put my dirty undies and t-shirt back on and fall into bed. I toss and turn all night.
Istanbul Day 5
I wake around 5 am, hearing the call to prayer ringing out. My legs are aching, so I get up and do my stretches, which I should have done the night before. That feels a bit better and I go back to bed and doze for a couple of hours. I start to hear movement around the hostel, so I get up and do my stretches all over again.
I check the news and now I can see one from the SMH. It says protesters tried to storm the square, but police stopped them. They say no one was killed and just a couple injured. Another site shows photos of injured protesters lying on the ground in awkward poses, and one of police officers holding up a woman affected by tear gas.
I get dressed and comb my hair – good thing I brought a comb with me. It’s raining outside. Down at reception, the chairs are still all packed up. I ask about breakfast and the same guy who was on reception until late last night is there. He directs me up to the rooftop cafe. Of course.
It’s a typical simple buffet breakfast. I help myself to a bowl of muesli and yoghurt and a coffee, clumsily dropping a big dollop of yoghurt onto my shoe and the floor. I ask the girl working there for some tissues and she hands me some but tells me she’ll clean it up. “No,” I tell her. “I made the mess, I’ll clean it up.”
There are people from all over the world there having breakfast together, mostly young, but some older people too. I don’t feel out of place.
Back down at reception I ask if Berkay is around. “He will be here soon,” the guy tells me. I settle down into a lounge, looking out at the rain wondering what “soon” translates to in Turkish. A man goes up and down the street selling umbrellas – he offers them to me 3 times. But in about 10 minutes Berkay appears, neatly groomed and professional as always.
“What happened last night at Taksim?” I ask him.
“Nothing,” he says. “I talked to the guy in the apartment on the 5th floor and everything was OK. There was not violence. The people try to get to the square but the police stop them.”
“Last night I couldn’t get any news about it on the internet,” I say. “Is that because the government blocked it?”
“I don’t know. Probably,” he replies. “Are you ready to go?”
He calls a cab and we set off in the rain.
“It’s unusual to be raining,” Berkay says. “This would be better if it was raining last night – stop the protesters.”
“What’s your opinion on it?” I ask him.
“We don’t have a good Prime Minister,” he says. “Last year I supported the protesters. But now it is too political. They take it too far and I don’t support it anymore.”
(Actually, Caroline had told me that Berkay said one of his customers insisted on going back to the apartment during the riots last year, so Berkay went with him. The guy was a New Zealander and off his face drunk. He started doing the Haka on the street and police fired tear gas at him and Berkay. So Berkay was determined to stay away this time – he’d had enough of tear gas.)
“But didn’t the Prime Minister get voted back in?” I ask. “If he’s bad, why do people vote him in?”
“Actually the country is 50/50 divided. Many people love him because he goes out into the country and buys votes by giving them things. So half the people want to keep him, half don’t.”
I ask about his work. He owns the apartments where I’m staying at Taksim, and works at the hostel. He also has another business importing cocoa, for which he travels sometimes. I’m guessing he’s about Bec’s age, and he’s a good looking guy.
“Do you have a family? Are you married?” I’m curious.
“No, no wife. Not enough time, concentrating on the business.”
He’d be such a good catch. He has a lovely gentle way about him, and his business arrangements seem to work like clockwork.
Back at the apartment, he goes upstairs to see the other people. He tells me he has called the cleaner, and she will be here soon, as he has someone else going into the apartment. Oh, damn, guess that means I need to get out soon. It’s close to 10 am. He also tells me they’ll pick me up at 1pm. We shake hands and I thank him for looking after me so well.
I hastily pack up my stuff, then look at myself in the mirror and decide I need another shower and my hair needs a wash. So I risk it and duck in. The cleaner is still not there when I get out. I empty my loose change into the tips jar and put my bags near the door. Then I go out looking for a coffee.
At the same cafe as yesterday, the young waiter greets me with a smile and I sit down and order a cappuccino and type away on my iPad again. I feel a bit peckish and ask the older man, probably the waiter’s father, if they have baklava.
He shakes his head. Then says “Baklava? Baklava?”
I repeat it after him and now he nods.
I’m amused to see him dispense his son off down the street with money in his hand. Sure enough, he appears 5 minutes later with a package, and soon 4 pieces of baklava are brought out on a plate. I hope I have enough Turkish Lira left to pay the bill.
Yep, I have just 5 to spare after I’ve paid (which is worth about $2:50.)
A car is pulled up outside the apartment and the driver is just about to make a call.
“Airport?” he asks me.
I rush upstairs for a pee and grab my luggage. Now the cleaning lady appears. I’m having trouble managing my suitcase and the cleaning lady bends down and lifts the other end and we take it slowly down the stairs and I pass it to the driver. Berkay suddenly appears from upstairs and we say goodbye and thanks again and I get into the car and head for the airport. The queues at the airport are interminable – to check in and to go through passport control, but I’ve allowed plenty of time.
I’m still feeing exhausted from the day before and feeling uncharacteristically homesick. I just want to get back with my family and with Col and where everything is familiar again. It’s been the most incredible experience, one I wouldn’t have missed for anything, but I do love my home and my work and my family and friends.
I will definitely want to go again, but next time I think I’d travel with someone. It’s too hard on your own, especially being female and not as agile as I used to be. But boy! what an experience!
Like me to write about your destination? Commission me to go there and write about it for you. Email me firstname.lastname@example.org.