(After I wrote all of this, I came back up here to proof-read and saw how much I had written. This all happened in essentially a single day. Wow, what a day.)
Holy sensory overload Batman. Our hotel was on the outskirts of the city, in a nice quiet area. When we were there, I kept thinking, this is quiet, this is nice. What are people talking about, Istanbul loud and crazy? Nonsense.
Ok, going back to when we landed. After a Turkish Air flight full of good food and good wine and uncomfortable seats, we land. I was once again thankful that it still seems that around the world, everything is listed in the local language, plus one more, English. It seems that even if English isn’t your first language it is a standard second language with universal appeal. To me the airport was just about like any other large international terminal.
Go thru passport control, get another stamp, gather our bags, and head out for a taxi. On the way we find an ATM, get some Turkish Lira, and then find a taxi. Dark (11pm), rainy, and no seatbelts. Ugh. That’s a big one for me. I sucked it up, and off we went, the whole drive I distracted myself by planning my new face I would get if I flew through the windshield (before you get angry about that, I have known plenty of folks that have done this, some still with us, many are not). The drive was pretty quick. The hotel had security at the entry, the taxi driver had to open the trunk before we could go in. We failed to notice that the meter wasn’t running until we arrived at the hotel. Ugh. Dave asks how much for the ride, driver says 90lira. That’s like $45, totally too much, but not worth a fight. And we did take some blame for not checking the meter. Dave hands driver a 100 note and asks for a receipt. As driver walks around to get the receipt, Dave take a picture of the license plate with his phone. Driver hands the receipt and the change to Dave and drives away.
Walk into the hotel to more security. They take this stuff seriously here. Not sure if they were effectively DOING anything, but if I were a bad guy, I would have to think twice before trying to do bad things there, simply because someone was paying attention. We check-in, get to our room and Dave empties his pockets to find the receipt from the taxi and 70 lira in change from the driver. Amazing how holding dude accountable, in a subtle, I’m watching you way got him to be more honest.
Time for sleep, early start the next day.
We get a free breakfast from our status with Starwood and this one was adequate, not more not less.
Get dressed and ready to head out, get a taxi. No seatbelts. It’s a theme here. We need to go to the Grand Bazaar please. We ask how much the ride will cost and the driver, almost offended, points to the meter. The drive starts on a standard highway-type road. Then we turn off the highway. How in the world do people find their way here? Single lane width roads, but for two way traffic? No directional signs for right of way, no lights, just chaos. And reminding you, no seatbelts. Several twists and turns and horns and screeches later, we get to the Grand Bazaar. What you see or hear about this place is not an exaggeration.
Taking a minute to say that my husband is half Turkish, I hadn’t realized how Turkish he looked until we were there, surrounded by people with his features. Had he not had this tall, curvy, tattooed, blonde white American woman by his side, he would have totally blended. I can try to blend, and I did. Long pants, long sleeves, hair tied back, scarf, only jewelry is the plain gold wedding band I’m wearing on this trip and my Timex watch. Not many blondes around Istanbul, I could count us easily using fingers and toes. I try to blend, some places I can, others I cannot.
I love street merchants. The bargaining, the cool random stuff you find. Love it! The Grand Bazaar is this, everywhere, this. BUT I CANNOT SHOP ON THIS TRIP. Ugh. I am being punished for something for sure. I did cave and bought a new scarf, easy to pack. Dude asked 50lira, I offered 30 and off I went. Should have offered 20, but it was my only thing I could buy, so moot point. Lots of jewelry stores, hard to keep away.
I had heard about the rugs. Rugs everywhere you turn. Beautiful rugs. I knew I wanted to look at some, but didn’t want to waste anyone’s time, knowing I wasn’t going to buy. I dared to look in the window of one place, from like 20 feet away. I was quickly busted, they came right to me. “Come see our magic carpet!” Ok, you get points for creativity. I told him right away I was just looking, not buying. “Please come in, come in. Have some tea!” I look at Dave, we shrug our shoulders and go for it. We walk in and are quickly escorted upstairs (who knew they had an upstairs here!!??). The owner of the place welcomes us, starts to throw rugs on the ground in front of us, “what kind of rug you like-silk-I got silk-wool, I have wool, blended with silk-have some Turkish tea-blended with cotton-what you like-what you like-where you from- I have cousin in New Jersey, he go to Rutgers-he like New Jersey, you from United States-yes, my cousin, he there.” Dude didn’t breathe once. I ask “what rugs do you have in your home?” He didn’t see that one coming. We looked at a few rugs, tried to politely tell him thanks and we were just looking. And went back down the stairs (dark, wind-y, stairs). The whole way he was selling us rugs. “No thank you, we are going to eat lunch now.” He lit up. Like a kid at Christmas. He knew where we HAD to eat, he walked us there, said we were his friends and demanded we sit. We thanked him again, and walked a little bit more. Didn’t find more food (not like there’s a map or a food court), and walked back. We had yummy and cheap food. There was a shop that sold belly dancing gear right next to food place. As soon as we finished eating I was asked which I wanted to buy. I told the guy I would wear anything Dave picked out. (Dave rolled his eyes at me, but hey, got the spotlight off me)
We wandered around the Grand Bazaar a little more, but left as it filled with tourists .
We walked through the streets with the intent of going to the Spice Market. Everywhere there were shops. And by shops I mean stands. And by stands I mean however much stuff you can fit in a small confined space to sell. There was no empty space on these streets. Whatever wasn’t filled by stuff was filled by people.
We make it to the Spice Market and wow. The smells. Most of it yummy, some of it fishy. There was more here than just spices, but mostly was spice. And more people. I think the ratio of tourist to local was less touristy than the Grans Bazaar, but that still meant crowds. Lots and lots to take in. All of my senses were paying attention here.
Once on the other side of the market, we saw a beautiful mosque. (more on mosques at the end of this post)
We walked along the waterfront, under a bridge to a coffee shop. After coffee we wandered to the end of the bridge, to an overlook kind of place. We were watching the boats when I saw what I thought was a bunch of trash in the water. It looked like the clear plastic bags that we were given at the mosques. I was so disappointed that the bags wound up as pollution. Then I looked more and realized it was jellyfish! The one in the middle of the image is obviously a jellyfish, but look at the one near the top. Hard to tell what it is.
We hopped on a local train and went to see The Cistern. This is a really cool underground water collection system that was made in 532. It had been restored more recently and was open to tourists. An amazing feat of engineering. It was a tad claustrophobic, but not too bad. There were plenty of tourists that needed a lesson in pushing and picture-taking etiquette.
On the taxi ride back to our hotel, we hit traffic. Our ride should have been 20 minutes or less and it was over an hour. Our driver spoke only a few words of English and was trying so hard to be a tour guide. He would just point to anything and say its name. Hotels. Restaurants. Clouds. Boats. We would ask questions (in Turkish) and point to more things, we tried to answer (in English). It was adorable.
Talking about both mosques now, since they kinda go together.
I had never been in a mosque before. I wanted to make sure I could respectfully go in. Turns out they were expecting us Westerners. They had signage to make sure we were dressed appropriately (guys long pants, women covered head to toe, showing face and hands only), they had a place with plastic bags for us to place our shoes before we stepped on the carpet, and there were barriers so we didn’t disturb those there to pray. It was such a beautiful place.
After the Cistern, before the taxi ride back we went to the Blue Mosque. Wow. Wow. Wow. This place was more remarkable that the first one. We walked around the outside to take it all in. Lots of Muslims coming to pray, they had their own entrance, but again, they were totally prepared to have Western visitors. There was a bit of a line to get in, but the same set-up for shoes in bags, AND these adorable women with scarves and blankets. What were they for? To make sure that all could visit, even if their skirt was too short or their head wasn’t covered. If you failed to meet the expected dress standards, they simply grabbed either a scarf or blanket and wrapped you up, no words, just cover you up and usher you in. Once inside I was beyond words.
(If you hold dear to your personal faith without room for other beliefs, stop reading now or you’ll likely be offended. I would hope that if you found your way to my blog that you are far more tolerant than that. The following will certainly prevent me from ever obtaining public office in the US because many Americans cannot think this way. But I truly love learning about cultures other than my own, religions are part of that.)
The mosques reminded me of The Vatican. Different, but equally stunning. People make some absolutely beautiful things when motivated by the god they choose to worship. It is my hope to see more places of worship when our trip takes us to Asia.
Next stop, Africa. First Cape Town, then safaris in the north, then Johannesburg for a few days.