Thursday, September 27, 2012

Istanbul, Turkey – The Center of the World

More often than not, getting from one country into another has been rather trivial. Often we don’t know exactly when we go from one country to another. That was not the case traveling from Varna, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey. The bus stopped, we all got out, the dogs searched for drugs and bombs, we put all put our stuff through a screening machine, and we paid the visa toll. Well, we almost paid the Visa toll.

It was only about $40, but we had used up all of our Bulgarian currency. They also took US dollars, Euro and Turkish Lira, but we didn’t have any of those. No problem, we had a card… they didn’t accept Visa. “Is there an ATM machine nearby?” I asked. “Bankomat?” using a common term for ATM… there’s wasn’t an ATM at the border.
We had made some friends on the ride from Bulgaria, but they didn’t have the cash to cover us. When it started to look like we were lost, one of the workers on the bus reached into his pocket and fronted us the money. He had been a complete stranger to us up until this point, and even needed help from one of his colleagues to communicate, “You pay back. Istanbul.”
The bus ride itself was incredibly comfortable. It was air conditioned, and had a guy who was like a airline-steward walking up and down giving out free snacks, water and coffee. They even made an unscheduled stop by an ATM . TV screens were embedded in the seats in front of us, which were quite good, even though they were all in Turkish. I watched “Ice Age III” and some nature shows, you don’t need to understand the moderator to figure out that the leopard wants to eat the gazelle.
It was a long ride though, and the population changed as we went along as Bulgarians got off and Turks got on. For the first time since Morocco, we were entering a country with an Islamic majority. Soon, the hajib (head scarf) turned from an oddity to the norm.
Istanbul has the reputation of being a big city, but I didn’t realize just how big the former Constantinople was. The city limits have almost twice the amount of people as London. We reached the outskirts of the city almost two hours before we reached the central bus station. Istanbul is massive.
It took two trams and about forty minutes to get from the main bus terminal to the central district of Sultanhamet. Sultanhamet is known for being a religious place, and as soon as we got off the tram there were two hugh beautiful mosques staring us in the face, with lights illuminating them, making it easy to see in the night. One of them looked a bit like Cinderella’s castle to our right, which we guessed was the Blue Mosque, and a reference point for the directions from the hostel’s website.
We walked across a major square that seemed to have people meandering across, when a man in front of a restaurant stopped us with the familiar, “where you going?” Usually, this is the call of hustlers trying to get us to buy something, but since we didn’t know, I told them.
“Big Apple Hostel,” I said and soon, the man was giving us excellent directions to the hostel. I thought it was odd, this man didn’t try and get us into his restaurant, just gave us directions.
Turns out, I’ve just become a bit jaded. The Turks ended up being incredibly helpful. Usually, if I answer the “where you going?” question the tout usually tries to explain why I don’t really want to go there. I really want to go in their restaurant or on their cruise or whatnot. As a rule, the Turks politely and accurately helped us find what we were looking for. It was quite pleasant.
We soon found our hostel, which was a twelve person dorm in the middle of the Sultanhamet tourist district. We were hoping to see the prices drop. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Donor Kebab, which is a major Turkish staple was about 18 Turkish Lira, which is about $10. We walked up and down the street, but didn’t find a single restaurant where things were decently priced.
Eventually, we stopped by a street cart in front of the hostel, who was selling Kebab for 7 lira each. It was the best kebap I’ve ever had.
It was a single cart, with half of it being a refrigerator and half being an open-air BBQ. The man running it was short, a bit stocky and was graying at the temples. He looked more like a coal-miner than a chef. We ordered “beef and chicken.” “No chicken,” he said. “beef.”
“Two beef,” I said. He added two skewers of beef to his fire. He had knee-high plastic stools sitting around his cart, with a couple foreigners and a couple locals either eating, or waiting, but there was clearly more meat-skewers on the grill than there were people waiting.
He grabbed one off the grill, set it along a flatbread with shredded lettuce and tomato, pulled out the stick, put some sort of pepper sauce and sprinkled a spice mix over the top. He then wrapped it in tin foil, put some napkins on the outside of the tin foil and put it in a plastic bag. Then, he ran it down to the taxi parked on the end of the street that I hadn’t noticed before. He served the people next to us on a stool, then a guy who worked in a nearby hostel popped his head out to collect his order.
Soon, we had ours and I had realized we had stumbled upon a fantastic chef. He started running out of the pepper mix so made some more fresh pepper sauce, right there on the street. A taxi drove by and grabbed one through the driver-side window. He was a drive-thru as well.
We ended up eating from this guy a few times and I realized that he was a very well respected man. He would show up at 7pm and people would be waiting. Sometimes, his wife was there to help. He’d cook until he ran out of meat, then he was done for the day. The next time we showed up we were late. Leslie got the last beef, so I ended up with kofte, which is a spicy Turkish meatball. Before we were done with our meal he was turning people away.
The travel day ended with us on the top of the hostel, on the European side of Istanbul, looking out over the water at the Asian side while standing in an Islamic city. We had reached the center of the world.
Our first full day in Istanbul saw us head to the main square to take some pictures of the Blue Mosque before heading to a small cafe for some Turkish coffee. The highlight of the day had to be heading to the Grand Bazaar.
Entering the Grand Bazaar was a unique experience, as it was an absolute crush of humanity. The Bazaar itself was encircled by a large cement wall, even though merchants spilled out of the front and into the street. They were selling lamps, tourist swag, purses and hand carved backgammon sets. If you need spices, jewelry or chess sets depicting the Ottomans versus the Crusaders than this is where you needed to go.
For us, we were after jewelry. Specifically, a ring.
We knew that we were going to be traveling a long way, so didn’t want to bring our wedding rings. I got a temporary wedding ring. We had been looking for awhile, but Leslie ended up deciding on a ring in Turkey. It’s a silver ring with a turqoise stone. After she picked it they measured her finger and had the ring resized in about ten minutes.
Dinner was at a very popular Turkish Kofte joint that we found in the Lonely Planet. They specialize in Kofte to such a degree that it is one of only two main dishes on the menu (along with Lamb Kebab). The restaurant was three stories tall and each floor had a barbeque that was constantly cranking out the spicy meatballs. As a result, your order would be there in a flash. They also served a seasonal salad, pepperonchini-like pickled peppers and a lentil soup that Leslie really liked. Rolls would be served for free and the waiter would put a big dollop of spicy pepper sauce on your plate.
Watching the locals, we learned that it’s often eaten by taking one of the rolls, hollowing out the white part of the bread, then stuffing it with the peppers, a meatball and the salad before topping it with dried, crushed red pepper. If you guessed these could become spicy, you’re quite right. They serve a drink called “ayran” that is partway between yogurt and milk, which is great for cutting the heat. It wasn’t cheap, so we split an order… three seperate times.
The next morning I read online about the attacks on the US embassies in Libya and Egypt. I handed Leslie the newspaper article to read on the tablet we were carrying. I wasn’t sure what the reaction was going to be like, and I didn’t want to say anything out loud. We were Americans sitting in the middle of a Muslim country during a major international incident. I didn’t feel like we were in any danger, but felt that discretion was the word of the day.
Well, discretion and “nargile”, which is Turkish for waterpipe. These are better known in the USA as a hookah, and are a Turkish tradition. Our mission for the day, go smoke a hookah.
We hopped onto the public transportation and headed to the famous “Tophame” section of Istanbul, known for it’s hookah bars. Before long, I was teaching Leslie how to play backgammon as we smoked the traditional waterpipe. The call to prayer went off right next to us at a mosque. By this time, we’d heard the call-to-prayer so many times that it kind of blended into the background.
It was okay and the backgammon was pleasant, but I think we did something wrong. The waterpipe lasted for two hours before we just decided we’d leave.
We walked up to Taksin square, then down the famous Istikal Avenue, which seemed to be the beating heart of modern Istanbul. Sultanhamet is clearly a religious center, but Istikal is about shopping. An ancient streetcar runs up and down the street, going very slowly in order to avoid squishing the wall-to-wall people. Street vendors selling roasted things that looked like hazelnuts, fresh mussels and lottery tickets mix with The Gap, McDonalds and KFC.
Mini-skirts mix with hajibs as pre-teen boys hang onto the outside of the streetcar for a free ride. Donor-kebabs half the price of Sultanhamet mix with bars and high-end restaurants.
The mob of people in the street moves almost like a wave. At one point, Leslie paused to take a picture and I lost her, but found her again soon.
This was the moment I realized there was something dramatically wrong with the coverage of the international crisis I’d been reading about. The US news sources kept saying there were protests “throughout the Muslim world”.
I saw no protests, and we were in one of the world’s largest Muslim cities on the holy day.
Of course, there’s protesting, extremist Muslims out there, but they should not be confused with the majority of the Muslim world. I would bet there were more Muslims on Istikal Avenue in a three hour time-span then there were protesting for the past three weeks.
The people we’ve met have cared about their families and their neighbors. They were very friendly and never once were we treated with anything but respect.
There are more Muslims interested in eating at a KFC than throwing things at it. They don’t care about the political implications, they just want some fried chicken. End rant.
The hookah had been more expensive then we originally thought, so our original plan to take the public transportation turned into a money-saving walk across Istanbul. Okay, so I had an ulterior motive.
There’s fish-kebab grills by the water, which ended up being a very tasty fish sandwich. They weren’t that filling though, so we ended up sharing another kebab in front of the hostel.
I’m going to miss that kebab guy.
Next stop, Capadoccia, Turkey.

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