Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Istanbul

Our bus deposited us on the outskirts of Istanbul just after dawn. We were a bit overwhelmed by all the men swarming around and offering their taxi services but because we just wanted to get to the hotel with as little trouble as possible we opted for a taxi instead of trying to figure out which bus to take. The taxi ride ended up being a bit of trouble anyways. We didn't know which district our hotel was in so the driver was unsure exactly which direction to go. The scenery during the drive was some what new to us. Minarets belonging to the various mosques across the city poked up here and there like peppermint sticks. The highway was more open and free than those in Europe. The Turkish flag was proudly on display nearly everywhere you looked. At one point they were strung like Christmas garlands for half a mile across the highway. Once our taxi driver realized he didn't know where to go he stopped right in the middle of one of the small back streets, jumped out without turning the car off, and ran into a corner store for directions. He did this about five more times, sometimes holding up patient drivers behind us and another time finding a random stranger who more than happily called the hostel and asked for directions for us. Upon finally arriving we were able to check in early, but since someone was still asleep in our room we thought it would be kindest to just hang out in the awesome lobby area. The hostel was pretty cool and homey. The lobby was like a wooden dining area with a little section setup with tea, water, a sink and a fridge. There were all sorts of old concert or propaganda posters and newspaper clippings on the walls. One article was about Hitler in 1938 or so (just before WWII), stating that after some time in jail he was released early for good behavior and was heading out to the country where they were fairly certain he would live out the rest of his life in peace and quiet. We all know that plan fell through. I played cards for a bit (I set up a Freecell game right on the table and won, yay) then whipped out the old computer and putzed away with Chuck. There was a house cat that would strut around, just out of reach - a sleek, black, long-haired thing. Later in the day after finally moving into our room we discovered that she was not alone. She had four kittens in the basement that were just about one month old and so adorable it was painful. The basement was another hang-put area with giant pillows lining the walls and plenty of space for the kittens to romp and play. And they did plenty of that. When they got particularly rough you could hear the high pitched snarls as ears were pulled and skin was bitten. When they weren't attacking each other they went after Chuck's sandals that were laying in the middle of the room, or climbed all over my skirt hiding in the folds, or pawing at Robyn's computer screen as she was watching episodes of Bones. When they had played themselves out Mama-kitty would run into the room with a yowl and toss herself on the floor, offering her belly for feeding time. When Mama-kitty wasn't looking after her kittens she was begging and searching for food. She was incredibly skinny as it was, but seemed to be constantly eating. I guess having to feed four kids requires quite a lot of calories. Those cats were so entertaining for us during our time in Istanbul.

On the morning of the 16th we headed downstairs to check e-mail and have breakfast. The hotel breakfast, although not a satisfying American or English style feast, was healthy and filling. They had sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, wrinkly olives, a white feta-like cheese, and a bag of fresh Turkish bread (don't ask me how it's different than other bread, but it was good stuff). I attempted to shower after breakfast and was dismayed to find the water completely cold. I rinsed all the important bits, pouting the whole time and was sure to complain about the whole affair to Robyn and Chuck afterward. I hate cold showers. We took the tram to the Sultanhamet stop and headed towards the Blue Mosque. It's an incredible looking building with it's subdued bubbly shapes and numerous minarets. It's not actually blue from the outside, but I read that it gets it's name from some of the beautiful blue tiles inside the mosque. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to see inside just then. It was Friday and there was a service going on when we arrived, so we decided to head over to the Hagia Sophia in the meantime. It was getting overcast and a light rain was starting to fall as we left the courtyard of the Blue Mosque. We saw a few points of interest as we hurried through the drizzle: Kaiser Wilhelm II Fountain, Obelisk of Theodosius, and the Column of Constantine Porphyrogenetus. I took a look at the Hagia Sophia and decided it isn't quite as cool looking as the Blue Mosque. It used to be a church way back in the day and at some point was converted into a mosque which I think is why it doesn't quite have the typical mosque shape. The inside gives a good impression of how absolutely huge it was, but the grandeur was detracted from by the giant set of scaffolding that took up practically half the room. I was so disappointed! We've learned that if it's cool, it's got scaffolding. Besides the ugly scaffolding, the mosque is topped with faded mustard yellow ceilings, huge beautifully scripted Arabic emblems, and numerous gold mosaics. The mosaics - depicting Jesus, Mary and other Biblical characters - are actually left over from the mosque's original days as a church. They were plastered over during the conversion, and only recently uncovered and put on display. We heard that Obama visited the Hagia Sophia when he was in Istanbul and that he was taking pictures of all the cats he saw. This sounds like a false rumor to me so don't put too much stock into it, but I did try to get a picture of the cat that was sitting sleepy-eyed next to the minbar (the minbar is basically the Islamic version of a pulpit). When we were finished it was raining pretty hard outside, so we waited a few minutes before making our way back to the Blue Mosque. On the way Chuck and I got one of the roasted corn-on-the-cobs that are for sale all over the place. They must just let them sit out all day because ours tasted like rubbery, hard, and cold popcorn kernels. Rather disappointing. Robyn and I pulled on our make-shift head scarves and wrapped ourselves up as best we could while waiting in line at the "Visitor's Entrance" to the Blue Mosque. We slipped off our shoes and placed them into little plastic bags before entering. The carpet was deliciously lush on our feet and I had to wonder whether having nice carpets led to the tradition of removing shoes, or removing the shoes led people to make nice-feeling carpets. Which came first - the chicken or the egg? The space inside the mosque is completely open. There were no rows of chairs or pews because worship is done on the knees. The decoration consisted mainly of beautiful tiles that lined the walls, archways, and dome of the mosque. From the ceiling hung a giant network of lights suspended by hundreds of straight wires. It was very different from a church, but still felt like a place of worship. I found the fact that they had a woman's section interesting. I think that if you're a woman coming to worship you have to be in that area, whereas men get to use the other 90% of the space. After the Blue Mosque we decided lunch would be good. On the way down the road Chuck haggled an umbrella-seller down to 5 TL from 15 TL. I recon it was still a rip-off, but whatever. We ate at a decent little touristy place - nothing really special. Being in Turkey we were interested in Turkish Delight and we had seen a good looking shop on the way to the restaurant. We went back there for dessert and met who I assume was the shop owner: Mr. Delicious as he called himself with a big playful smile. He was rather flirtatious and as soon as he realized that Chuck and I were a couple he left me alone, but continued his flirting with Robyn. He tried to insist that she pay him in kisses. She handled him very well with a smile and numerous "No"s. I've read that in many parts of the world, men see white women as being loose and easy. Whenever a guy was being very friendly with us we had to keep that in mind and try not to be too friendly back - that might be taken as a sign of interest! Luckily no one actually ever really harassed us or anything. The Turkish Delight was some of the best stuff I have ever had! There's a story about where Turkish Delight came from and I will tell it to you now. The Sultan back in...the 1600's or so was sick and tired of breaking his teeth on hard candies. Finally fed up, he threw down his old-school Jolly Rancher's. "Enough," he roared, moustache quivering. "No more hard candies! Bring me something soft and delicious! NOW!" The Sultan's aid worked tirelessly in the candy shop with the Turkish elves mixing corn starch and sugar and rose water to create a soft, sweet candy. When he had perfected his recipe he cut the soft candy into bite-size squares and rolled them in powdered sugar. He fearfully presented the new treat to the Sultan, praying the man would find it to his liking. With a hard look in his eye the Sultan picked one up and bit down. The aid winced, but there was no need. The Sultan proclaimed, with a flourish of his bejeweled hand, that this new delight was the best thing since sliced bread, despite the fact that I don't think they had sliced bread at that point. Mr. Delicious' Turkish Delight ware just as good, if not better than those original Turkish Delights the Sultan had. He had all kinds of flavors: rose, orange, strawberry, apple and coconut, banana and coconut, chocolate, pistachio, etc. Man, Turkish Delight is so good. But now I'll never be able to fully enjoy the boxed Turkish Delight we get at Christmas because I'll be thinking about how good the fresh stuff is in Istanbul. After stocking up with an evenings worth of the candies we headed back to the hostel for the night.



We came down for breakfast and internets in the morning again. This would become our ritual. In the afternoon we trammed to Sultanhamet again. I managed to lead us to what's known as the Milion Column. It's the starting point for the road that leads from Istanbul to Rome. Of course, this was put there hundreds and hundreds of years ago when Rome was all up in everyone's business, but the road actually still does go all the way to Rome today. I thought that was pretty cool. Next we went down into the Yerebatan Saray – a giant cistern. It was the city's water supply back in the 6th century AD and held 2 million gallons of water! Now-a-days you can go into the cistern and walk around all the tall marble columns in the dark. They've built a walkway around the place so you're not stepping in the 3 feet of crystal clear water that's still there. In the water swim large catfish, sucking at the surface occasionally like scaled little vacuums. It's a kind of surreal experience that I really enjoyed. Oh, at near the back are two huge 4 x 4 x 4 foot blocks of stone carved into the likeness of Medussa. One was placed sideways and the other completely upside down and no one knows why. They're pretty sure it was intentional, but they just haven't figured out the significance. This is our 3D picture. Click for a larger version!Chuck played with the camera quite a bit, trying to get the shutter speed down so we could catch more light and a better picture. Once he got it figured out he took a 3-D picture. It's a bit tricky to make the image "pop out," but with practice you can see a 3-D image of one of rows of marble columns in the cistern. Here's a couple guides on viewing 3-D, or stereo photos for those who really want to try it out: How to view stereoscopic digital photographs (about halfway down the page they have a nice guide) and Guide to 3D Photography (near the bottom is the section on the Viewing the Photos). Good luck! Back above ground we walked along Divan Yolan - the road that leads to Rome - towards the Grand Bazaar. The bazaar sort of reminded me of a small fortress, surrounded by protective brick walls. Inside is a labyrinth of shops. Most of the shops were selling jewelry, scarves, rugs, lamps (the lamps were awesome), chess sets, hookahs and teas. While walking around we had a lot of shop owners trying to get us in their shops by saying "Hello! Where are you from?" or telling us how fine their goods were. Sometimes the small smile and polite "No thanks" we gave them weren't enough to get them to leave us alone and they would follow us for a few moments. I was never sure what the best option was: saying "No thanks" or ignoring them completely. Robyn and I had a lot of people trying to get our attention by commenting on our piercings. I don't think they have many locals with facial piercings... Robyn got herself a really lovely scarf and managed to talk the vendor from 60 TL down to 45 TL. I managed to accidentally talk a guy down from 55 TL to 20 TL on a tea set that I didn't actually want. I didn't end up buying it because I wasn't actually trying to buy it - I just wanted to know the price on the thing! He seemed rather upset that I wasn't going to be buying it in the end and I felt a bit guilty. We left the Grand Bazaar to check out the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. The walk there was impressive in and of itself. The shops don't stop at the edge of bazaars - they are everywhere. And people too. The streets were crowded with tons of people. It was an incredible experience to walk through the sea of bodies, along narrow, old streets, seeing the occasional street food vendor or maybe a man dragging behind him a cart laden with nuts. By the time we reached the Egyptian Spice Bazaar the sea of bodies had turned into a narrow, raging channel. We were being squished by people on all sides and there were a few moments were I was swept along for a few feet in the wrong direction completely against my will. We had to squeeze our bodies through this writhing crowd into the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, but somehow we made it unharmed. The spice bazaar is very cool because of... well, the spices. They look so fun piled into tall mounds, just waiting for someone to come take a scoop. Although this bazaar had the same sorts of shops as the Grand Bazaar, it also had the spice vendors and Turkish Delight/candy vendors. We didn't really look around while we were there because it was so ridiculously crowded, but we vowed to come back and explore another day. We decided to walk back to the hotel rather than tram. We got to walk across the bridge that spans the river separating the two halves of the city. The bridge is jammed end to end with men fishing. I can't imagine they really catch anything too exciting, but it's apparently a very popular thing to do. We stopped into a hookah cafe near our hotel to unwind. In Turkey they call it narghile. We opted for melon flavored tobacco and enjoyed our smokes with plenty of cay (tea). They love cay in Turkey. They drink it all the time. In the bazaar you'll see people running around with little trays of cay for all the shop keepers, and we were offered cay a few times in return for going and checking out their store. As we were paying for our narghile and cay we heard a number of loud bangs and voices coming down the street. As the group of rowdy men passed us we heard more bangs, even louder, and saw smoke in the air. We decided to stay put for a few minutes more before going back to the hotel. I'm not sure what they were all about, but maybe it was something to do with football? Or soccer, in American. I know the rest of the world can get pretty worked up about their football. We never did find out though! After the long day we were happy to relax at the hostel for the rest of the night.



We were lazy on the 18th. We pretty much stayed in and played with the kittens all day. They seem to really like my blue skirt. Well, it's Robyn's blue skirt but she let me borrow it. They would crawl on it, play together on it, climb under it and get lost in the folds, and if I was lucky they would fall asleep on it. Eventually they were comfortable enough with us that they would fall asleep on our laps or shoulders. It was so cute! We managed to get out for some awesome baklava and a few groceries. Have I mentioned the bathroom? Yeah, total change of subject, but I should mention it. So you don't flush your toilet paper at the hostel. I might have mentioned this requirement somewhere in Greece, but they seemed serious about it in Istanbul. So you wipe and all, but you toss the disgusting paper in the garbage can rather than just dropping it in the toilet. Ugh, it was gross, but I got used to it.



The next day we went to see Topkapi Palace. It's exactly what it sounds like: an old palace complex. It consisted of a large courtyard surrounded by a wall of buildings that would have housed much of the staff and kitchens. At the far end was the entrance into the area where the royalty spent most of their time. It was like a smaller version of the front courtyard. There was an open, green area surrounded by a wall of various buildings. Jutting into the courtyard were a few small buildings, one of which was the royal library. The treasury rooms were the most interesting for me. The Ottoman empire was hella rich! There were numerous emeralds, a couple of which were as large as a small jewelry box. They had one of the worlds largest diamonds, which looked to be as big as a lime, surrounded by a ring of smaller diamonds. There were pitchers and jewelry boxes carved out of clear quartz crystal, jewel and gold-encrusted swords and daggers, a throne completely covered in a sheet of gold studded with rubies and emeralds. There were three rooms of these treasures, and nearly every display was dripping with gold or gem stones. Another room was dimly lit and showed off the various outfits the Sultans wore. The clothing looked like something that would better fit an alien, with long sleeves and waists large enough to fit a 400 pound man. I tried to look at some of the old artwork for an idea of how they were worn. It seems as though the sleeves are entirely bunched up, but I'm not sure about the waist. Either the Sultans were very fat (which is entirely possible) or they had a bunched, bulky waist as well. I wish they had put on a clothing demonstration for us! Exploring the religious artifacts room I was a walking stick which was claimed to have belonged to Moses. There were bits of beard and teeth that they claimed belonged to Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Chuck and I paid extra to go into the Harem section. Robyn waited patiently for us. This area was covered in the beautiful tiles that are so traditionally Turkish. It seemed that every wall swirled with the delicate blues and greens of the flowering geometric patterns. There were a few rooms that had large chandeliers and sweeping archways, and another section showed the gold-leafed bathing rooms of the many women who had lived there. The whole Harem wasn't as impressive as I had hoped, but it was definitely pretty. After finishing up with Topkapi Palace we found a place to eat lunch and then hit up Mr. Delicious' Turkish Delight store again. Oh man is his stuff good.



We decided to walk to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar on the 20th, instead of paying the 1.50 TL (or about $0.75) for the tram. Robyn had read about the fresh fish sandwiches that are sold along the river and she was determined to try one. We once again passed all the men with their fishing poles as we crossed the bridge. Some were even pulling small fish up as we walked by. A busy stall just on the other side of the bridge was where we ended up getting the sandwiches. Their grill was sizzling away with 20 little fish fillets and people were buying them up right and left. The sandwich was simple: lettuce, tomato, and the fish on a thick bread roll. Robyn and Chuck each got one and I just had a few bites. I'm not a huge fish person, as much as I might like to be, what with it supposedly being so good for you. I admit, it was pretty good and Robyn and Chuck seemed to think they were rather awesome. My lunch ended up being a pizza roll-up, for lack of the actual term. It was a thin, oval shaped pizza that they roll up for you when you order. I think it's a fabulous idea, and it was really tasty. The Egyptian Spice Bazaar wasn't quite as crowded on this trip, which we were very grateful for. One of the many insistent vendors managed to convince us to buy some of his Turkish Delight. We got about seven pieces for 2TL - a good deal in my opinion! It wasn't as fresh and tasty as Mr. Delicious, but he had a plain flavorless one that I really liked. It tasted just like the center of a jelly bean - the chewy middle that's left behind after you suck all the flavored shell off. Good stuff. I managed to get a scarf for 20 TL (originally 45 TL). I'm thinking now that it was probably worth less than that though. It isn't very good quality at all, but I bought it from a shop that was "recommended by Obama." Haha! I guess Obama supposedly went in their little scarf shop and shook some hands. They had a sign about it and everything. We wandered through the busy, bazaar-like backstreets trying to find our way to the Grand Bazaar. Chuck decided along that way that he wanted to get some Turkish Delight for his parents. Once we finally found the bazaar and wandered around a bit we came to the conclusion that they didn't really have any good Turkish Delight stores. Back tot eh Egyptian Spice Bazaar we went! I grabbed a set of prayer beads for half the asked price on the way out... Go me. Once again, we were bombarded by offers and invitations from the various shops at the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. We randomly picked one and got a box of the sweet treats. He was even able to vacuum seal it for us which was awesome. He asked where we were from and when we told him we were American he genuinely seemed to not believe us. He thought we must be Australian or something because we were too shy to be American. I'm not sure how the American tourists usually behave, but he seems to think we're all... not shy. Would that mean we're loud and boisterous? Or rude? I don't know. He was surprised once we finally convinced him of our nationality. We had a good conversation with him about the world and relations between countries, etc. I've found that a lot of people are curious what we think of Obama. They'll ask if we think he is doing good or if we like him. A lot of them think he is good for the world. They'll frequently mention Bush too, and how glad they are that he's no longer in office. For the most part we tend to agree with whatever the persons views are - or at least try not to completely disagree, even if we do. It gets so complicated talking about the pros and cons of our president with people who live so far away from the country! Same goes for talking politics about their government. Another thing the Turkish Delight vendor told us was that the only problem in the Middle East is Israel. Iran and Iraq were fine with him, but that Israel was the problem. I was a bit shocked at the forthright statement, but I can see his point. His sentiment was that all the wars in the Middle East are no good - who can disagree with that? It's all in the details... that's where people start running into problems. It was interesting to hear his views on it all though. So, Turkish Delights in hand, we headed back to the hotel. We, once again, stopped at the narghile cafe to unwind. After our first round of cay we decided to try some of the other drinks on the menu. I got an oralet. I think it was literally hot Tang. I hate Tang, but since it was warmed up and in a cafe in Istanbul it actually tasted kind of good. Chuck got sahlep. Sahlep is amazing! It's a warm, creamy, sweet drink with cinnamon and nutmeg swirled in. We were guessing what it must be made of, figuring that it was milk based. When we looked it up online later we were surprised to find that it's not a dairy product at all. It's made from the root of an orchid! I would never have guessed that one. It's one of the tastiest things we've run across overseas so far. And it's supposed to be good for sore throats.



I finally got a warm shower on the 21st. It was my first one since arriving in Istanbul. Waiting until noon usually means cold showers, and being the lazy butt that I am, that's what I had been doing. But that morning, I made an effort to get up a bit earlier and was rewarded with a warm shower! I don't think I've mentioned the calls to prayer yet. How could I have forgotten that?? So in Islam they have five calls to prayer each day. In Istanbul (and probably all the other Middle Eastern countries, I'm sure) the call to prayer is heard all over the city. Every mosque has at least one tall minaret with speakers mounted at the top. When it's time for prayer the speakers blast the wavering devotions across the city for everyone to hear. It's impossible to miss the call to prayer! One is at sunrise, another at high noon, afternoon, sunset, and a few hours after sunset when the sky has darkened completely. As you might imagine, the sunrise prayer is a bit... uh, difficult to get used to. Chuck would ask me each morning after we had gotten up if I had heard the sunrise call to prayer, a sour look on his face. I always heard it, and popped my handy ear plugs in for a few hours of extra sleep. It would be wonderful to be able to go to bed early and use that as your alarm clock though! I thought it was all kinda cool, actually. So different from anything I've been around. Robyn had plans to go to a Turkish Hammam for the full treatment and would be gone all afternoon. I would have loved to go, but the price was steep and I was sick. Robyn told us about it when she got back in the evening though.
Today I wanted to try the Turkish Hamam. Sarah and Chuck didn't want to come, so I headed off on my own to find the Cagaloglu Hamam. This hamam was built in 1741 as a present to the city from Sultan Mehmet I. They made public bathing houses because there was always a water shortage, and it provided (and still provides) a place for socialization. I entered the hamam and was greeted by the cashier. I told him what I wanted, paid him, and he led me towards the ladies section. I then was given a little room with a bed and was told to undress and wrap the Turkish bath towel around myself. I came out, naked, and not sure what to do next. A lady ran up, handed me a pair of wooden clogs that are impossible to walk in, and took me to the hararet (the hot room). It was a beautiful marble room with water spickets every couple of feet. In the middle, underneath a large domed roof with star shapes cut out, was a octangular marble slab. I sat down on the marble floor near a spicket and sweated profusely for about 20 minutes. Then my washer/massuse came in and motioned for me to come and lie on the big, heated marble slab in the middle of the room. She squeezed her self next to me and put a big loofah on her hand and scrubbed me down really well. I had big chunks of dead skin everywhere...it was great! Then she dumped huge amounts of warm water on me, and lotioned me down. She massaged and rubbed it in really well. Then, more massive amounts of water. Now imagine the old shaving kits for men that come with soap in a dish and the horse hair brush to slather the soap on their face. This is what happened to me next, but the soap dish and brush were about 20 X bigger. She lathered and foamed my whole body for about 10 minutes...then more warm water splashed all over me. Mind you, the whole time she is washing and massaging me she is talking loudly and animatedly with the other attendants. When she wasn't talking she was singing to me. She then sat me up (moving around on that slippery marble slab was VERY difficult; she held my elbow anytime I had to roll over or sit up) and shampooed my hair. She ran a comb very roughly through it and informed me I was finished, and very clean. The whole experience reminded me of being 4 and being washed by a parent. She wasn't gentle with me, and I just had to submit completely to her whims! Then she took me to the towel room, wrapped me into a towel herself, and towel dried my hair. I went back to my room with a bed and blow dried my hair. I thanked her profusely (tipped her, of course) and went on my way....squeeky clean! On my way out I saw thank you notes written by Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, and Cameron Diaz. I got washed in the same hamam as them!!! It was a GREAT experience!!

So while Robyn was getting the full treatment Chuck and I went to mail his Turkish Delights off to his parents. It was a bit confusing. We kept bouncing back and forth between windows trying to figure out what to do. Someone finally pointed us outside and mentioned the name of a store where we could get a padded envelope. We came back with everything packed up and she had us write the address on one side and our return address on the other. I certainly didn't remember the address of the hostel, so we made something up. It's not as though we'd be able to try again even if it was sent back. After that was finished we explored the street that the post office was on. It was lined with modern, glass-front shops and there were sharply dressed people hurrying to and fro. We walked for a bit and decided to eat at a restaurant that had a woman sitting in the front window rolling out tortilla-like breads. It was decent food and lack luster service. I was a bit disappointed, but Chuck liked it. We stopped into a candy shop and found something called PiĊŸmaniye. It's like little balls of cotton candy made of halva flour and sugar. It was very interesting and not at all bad. The rest of the day was spent bonding with kittens and playing on computers.

The 22nd was leaving day. We were all sad to leave Istanbul I think. I know I really liked the place - it's one of my favorite stops so far. I'd really like to go back one day and explore more of the country. It sounds like there's a lot more to see in Turkey than Istanbul. We hung around at the hostel until 1:00 PM and then trammed our way to the airport. They have a pretty decent tram system there. We were scanned and checked before even going into the airport rather than after checking in and getting our tickets. We ended up checking our luggage instead of taking it as carry on. The flight staff seemed to think that was the best idea. Our flight would take us to Athens where we would wait for a bit and catch the next flight to Cairo. We took Aegean Airlines and were pleasantly surprised! Our one hour flight included a warm, tasty meal, and if you wanted alcohol for your complimentary drink there was no extra charge. Man, airlines in the US suck. Both flights went well and before we knew it we had landed in Cairo!


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