I Once Was Lost (In Istanbul)

The last full day of my trip to Istanbul last month, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, started out like the other days, following the itinerary my fellow traveler had set for us.  She was a wonderful tour guide, and since there was so much to see and do and since I am accustomed to taking orders, following her plan without question worked out well for both of us.  That day, our first stop was the Ecumenical (Greek Orthodox) Patriarchate and Church of St. George.  We took a “taksi” from our hotel (point A on the map below) and asked the driver to take us to the church by pointing to the address (point B on the map) in our guide-book.  After the short taksi ride, we stopped in front of a rather austere collection of buildings, paid the driver, and started walking around, looking for our church.  After wandering aimlessly for about 15 minutes, and being led astray by far-off glimpses of what was probably the Phanar Greek Orthodox College, we came upon a young man named Tahir who said he knew the place we were going and could easily take us there.  After walking with Tahir for about five minutes, we were shocked and amazed (not really) to learn that the taksi driver had, in fact, dropped us off right in front of the Church of St. George, we just hadn’t recognized it.  Tahir then asked if he might be rewarded for his services with, say, five Turkish lira (TL), but instead we gave him two dollars (actually one dollar and four quarters).  At the time, the exchange rate was $1.86 to one TL, and most places in Istanbul accept dollars, euros and TL.  I asked Tahir if he would mind taking a photo with me, and we all parted company on good terms.

After spending some time at the Church of St. George (which was so difficult to recognize from the outside because it is both small and does not have a dome), it was time to move on to our next destination, the Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos, otherwise known as the Fethiye Mosque (point C on the map).  This was easily (or so we thought) within walking distance, so we started heading in a general Pammakaristosian direction, when who should we see but, you guessed it, Tahir!  This time, he had a friend with him named Uruk.  The walk was much longer, so we got to know Tahir a bit better.  Apparently he’s 12, in the 6th grade, and hopes to be a math teacher when he grows up.  Even though Uruk was older (15), taller and much, much bigger, Tahir was obviously the leader of this dynamic duo.  As we were walking, Tahir pointed out where his mother worked, and eventually we got to a point beyond which he said his mother would not allow him to walk.  He gave us some additional instructions, asked for another modest stipend (slyly trying to negotiate an additional amount for Uruk at the same time, but we explained as best we could that Uruk was a subcontractor and Tahir would have to pay him out of his own wage), and wished us luck.  After asking for directions a few more times from friendly-looking strangers (again, by pointing to the address in the guide-book), we finally managed to find our destination.

From there, we headed to the waterfront (point D on the map), again by taksi.  Upon arriving, there seemed to be something very exciting happening on the Golden Horn given the number of people standing on the bridge, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be fishermen.

Our original plan had been to take a ferry ride on the Bosphorus, but when we arrived there was a small private boat offering cruises for only 10 TL and we were hoping to make it to the Military Museum before 3 p.m., so we hopped aboard.  Our journey took us up the European side to the first bridge, then down the Asian side and back to our starting point.  It was during this trip that we decided to have lunch (which turned out to be dinner) in Asia.  Oh, what a fateful decision, but more on that later.  On the whole four-day trip this is the only picture I managed to get with my ersatz tour guide (we were always taking pictures of each other):

After the cruise, we headed to the Turkish Military Museum, once again by taksi.  The museum itself is not so highly rated, but the Mehter concert, which occurs daily at 3 p.m., was highly recommended.  I did, however, quite enjoy the display of cannon outside the museum, especially the piece-de-resistance:

As I said, the attraction isn’t the content of the Military Museum, which is not very well curated (although they did have some very fine examples of Chinese weapons captured from the North Koreans), it is the daily Mehter concert.  The video below is not mine and was not recorded in Istanbul, but it is the same performers who can be seen daily at the museum:


After the concert, at around 4 p.m., we jumped in yet another taksi (for those of you keeping track this is number four) and said “take us to Asia!”.  Then we pointed to the restaurant in our guide-book that we were interested in.  In his best English head nod, our driver whisked us away.  15 minutes later, having not crossed a bridge, he indicated that we had arrived.  Clearly something had been lost in translation.  He flagged down the first passerby who spoke enough English to help, and determined that we oh-my-gosh wanted to go to oh-my-goodness the other side of the Bosphorus.  And away we went.  We wended our way through town and eventually got to what promisingly looked like a bridge when this happened:

No, our driver was not kidnapped.  He didn’t walk away in frustration.  He wasn’t even raptured.  We came to the toll at the Asian end of the bridge over the Bosphorus and his card didn’t work.  The driver behind us wouldn’t accept cash to allow us to use his card, but was willing to back up to let us out of line to pull over.  Unfortunately, the machine inside was out-of-order so he couldn’t get a new card, or put more value on his card.  Finally he managed to broker a deal with another driver who was willing to take cash in exchange for allowing him to use their card.  We had visions of him abandoning his taksi and taking the ferry home, or else calling his wife and telling her he just couldn’t make it back and was starting a new life in Asia.

Now that we had made it across the Bosphorus, we thought surely things had turned around for us.  Sadly this was not the case.  Our driver clearly had no idea where he was going.  After stopping to ask for the third time, he finally found someone who spoke enough English that they simply said “he would like you to get out of his car and find a local driver to take you to your destination.”  I didn’t get his name, but if you hop in this guy’s cab in Istanbul, do him a favor and don’t ask him to take you to Asia:

Our translator, who was working at a hamburger shop, turned out to be Oğuzhan Metinoğlu.  Rather than putting us in another taksi, he turned us over to his neighbor at the liquor store, who told us we could easily walk to our destination, the Çiya restaurant (point F on the map).  We attempted to follow his directions for about 30 minutes, finally stopping at a hotel to ask directions.  They were kind enough to print out a map of the local area, with the restaurant prominently identified.  We walked around for another 20 minutes or so, then stopped at another hotel, asking again for directions.  Apparently our map wasn’t so good, or else the first hotel had called ahead and told the second hotel to have a little fun with us, because we spent the next two hours or so wandering around looking for the restaurant.  We even tried getting in two different taksis, who refused to take us to the restaurant.  We were confounded, hungry and about to give up, when we turned a corner and were greeted by a gentleman named Ali who we had apparently asked directions from some time in the past two hours.  “Ah, you are here!  So glad you have finally made it!  You are looking for Çiya, yes?  It is only 150 meters or so down that direction.  I would invite you to come eat with me, but I know you have been searching so long for Çiya!”  It was surreal.  I felt like someone had been filming us for the last four hours (yes, it had been four hours since we had gotten in the taksi at the Military Museum).  But we had finally made it, and the food was definitely worth it.

At this point you’re probably thinking we couldn’t possibly get lost again.  You couldn’t be more wrong.  A taksi was definitely not the way to get back to our hotel (point F to point A on the map), so we decided to walk down to the waterfront and take the ferry for the lofty sum of two TL each.  Once arriving back on the European side, it seemed like an easy enough task to walk from the ferry landing to our hotel.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Although the ferry landing was bustling, even at that time of night, the streets just a few blocks away were completely deserted.  It was like being on the back lot of a movie studio.  There weren’t even any cars parked along the streets.  At one point we thought we knew where we were, but after four turns we ended up back at the same point we had thought we knew where we were the first time.  Then, as if by magic, a young couple appeared.  They spoke no English.  We spoke no Turkish.  We showed them on our tourist map where we were trying to go.  They gestured that it was too far to walk and they would drive us.  Turkish hospitality truly knows no bounds.  Like our taksi driver, they weren’t quite sure where they were going, but they pulled over and asked a hotel doorman and we were soon on our way.  Levan and Gultan got us home safely, and made a wonderful day of getting lost, and found, in Istanbul even more memorable:

Adventures in Istanbul:

She May Wear a Burqa, But She Also Wears the Pants

This past Friday night (the Friday after Thanksgiving), after a busy day of sightseeing in Istanbul, my friend and I decided to have dessert in a rather nice cafe (most of the eateries in the vicinity of our hotel only had outdoor seating areas while this one was indoors).  We went inside and took a long time looking over all of the selections they had available. I eventually decided on a delicious-looking pistachio and chocolate cookie and an even more delicious-looking hazelnut and cinnamon cookie.  Just after we sat down, a couple came in with the man dressed in a long robe and flat, brimless cap and the woman wearing a burqa that covered her face with the exception of her eyes (the local women in Istanbul who wear burqas do not cover their faces).  The cafe was small and they had a stroller with them, so we gave up our seats, moving our jackets and food over a table so they could easily park their stroller next to the end table we had been occupying.

We all sat in silence for a few moments, until one or the other of us (I can’t remember which) asked if it was the others’ first time in Istanbul.  It turns out that the man was a frequent visitor from their home in Libya.  I asked if he always brought his family, hoping to engage his wife in conversation as well.  It quickly became clear, however, that she did not speak English.  His answer, though, told us everything we needed to know about the situation:

Well, you know, she always wanted to come with me and she kept asking me so, in the end, I finally had to give in to her wishes.

I mentioned to him that it seemed like his wife was really running the show and he smiled and nodded.  He also translated everything we said and she made eye contact and smiled at us as well (and don’t tell me you can’t tell if someone is smiling or not just by looking at their eyes).  We finished our desserts, discussing a possible return to normalcy for his home country.  He had high hopes that within as little as two years the tourism industry might pick up again.

My whole point in conveying this story is that I, personally, do not choose to live in a country where I am compelled to wear a burqa or seek a male relative’s permission to work or travel abroad, but I also refuse to judge someone else for choosing to do so.  This woman was obviously happy and in a comfortable relationship with her husband.  Many women, yes, even here in the enlightened, liberated, United States of America, aspire to nothing more than “majoring in their Mrs. degree”.  The only problem I will ever have with any country is when it does not allow its citizens to leave when they DO take issue with how they are treated (the key here is to support change from within and/or emigration rather than expecting every country on the planet to behave the same as the US).

Oh, and just for the record, the baby in the stroller was a little girl, who I’m pretty sure is going to have daddy wrapped around her little finger in a few short years.

How To Get Free Tea In Istanbul

Don’t Buy A Turkish Rug

Prior to leaving for Turkey, I consulted with a friend who had lived there for several years.  He shared with me the following:

At some point you will be approached by a man who will ask you to follow him to his shop to see his rugs.  He may take you down some back alleys before finally arriving at said shop, but as long as you don’t have an uneasy feeling, you should follow him.  Make it very clear that you don’t want to buy a rug, but are only interested in learning about rugs; how they are made, the different kinds, etc.  I know this sounds strange, but you should absolutely take the time to do this.  It is part of the experience of being in Istanbul.

After arriving in Istanbul on Thursday (Thanksgiving) morning just before noon and quickly dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we took off on foot in search of adventure.  Or at least some local tourist attractions.  The first one we happened upon was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque.  Unfortunately for us, we happened to arrive just as the call to prayer sounded from the loudspeakers.  Just as we were discussing what to do with ourselves for the next (mumble, mumble, I’m not sure how long we would have had to wait) minutes, a gentleman approached and asked if we’d like to see his shop.  I couldn’t believe it was happening already!  He led us away from the mosque and past a row of crowded shops, then down a narrow alley (oh my gosh, the aforementioned narrow alley!), which promptly opened onto a wide, well-traveled street, on the corner of which was his shop, the 5K Rug Store (apparently so named for the five brothers who own it).  We were led upstairs and offered either tea or coffee.  I chose apple tea and it was delicious.  They proceeded to tell us everything about Turkish rugs, including the fact that they are sewn by hand, sometimes taking up to four years (depending on the fabric, which can be wool and cotton, silk and cotton, or pure silk), and are woven by a young woman to earn money for her dowry.  I took a picture with one of my favorites, since I knew none of them would be coming home with me (even this small one cost $900).

Be Young, Female, Cute and Not Turkish In a Not-Too-Crowded Street Cafe

Istanbul, at least the part we have been walking around, reminds me of many tourist-rich cities I’ve been to in that everyone will try to sell you anything.  For example, every five feet in Tijuana I recall being asked “Hey lady, can you spare just one Mexican minute?” by street vendors wanting me to buy their trinkets.  The restaurants in Istanbul are so desperate for tourists’ business that one entrepreneurial individual even tried to get my attention by telling me I’d dropped something.  So last night we finally decided on where to eat dinner by choosing one of the least obnoxious places we could find.  We sat down (unfortunately at an end table in an outdoor seating are, so we kept getting approached and asked if we wanted to buy things, the funniest of which was mens’ socks) and ordered.  When the food came, it still being Thanksgiving, we raised our glasses (I actually had a bottle of water) and toasted to the holiday.  The ladies at the table next to us, a mother and her teenaged daughter who turned out to be Canadians who are currently living in Dubai, overheard us and engaged us in conversation.  We ended up talking for over an hour, during which time the establishment began to empty out.  Our waiter approached us (all four of us) not once but twice and offered us free rounds of hot tea, normally 3 Turkish Lira per serving (so a total of 24 TL, or approximately $13) during that time.  The only explanation we could come up with collectively is that we were nearly his last customers and as long as he kept us there, drinking tea and talking, we served as a draw for other tourists to come in and sit down.  Or maybe we’re just that hot.  Or both.

Try the Turkish Bath, Spa Style, At the Hotel

Another friend recommended I wouldn’t have the complete Turkish experience if I didn’t do the whole Turkish bath thing, but warned me NOT to go to the hotel spa but rather to go native.  I completely ignored this advice based on the fact that my travelling companion had attempted to do so in Morocco and had a terrifying experience.  So we headed down to the spa in our bathing suits and were told to first go to the sauna and the steam room.  While sitting in the sauna, a man kept gesticulating to me.  Not realizing that a MAN was going to be doing the whole bath thing, I thought he was another customer and kept trying to tell him to come on in using my best Turkish sign language.  Then I headed over to the steam room, where the same thing happened with a different man.  I finally figured out that I was being summoned to the bath, which, to be perfectly fair, is NOT a bath.  It is the human equivalent of being cleaned and tenderized prior to being cooked.  I’m not saying it was bad, I mean my skin is very pink and shiny and I feel very relaxed, but that beast scrubbed and beat the crap out of me, and put his hands places I didn’t realize he’d be allowed to.  But, in the end, they gave me tea, so all was right with the world.