A new country, a new culture, and a new communication style…yet to be learnt. And a new sales pitch! In India it is silk, in Nepal it is paintings and in Istanbul it is carpets! The first day here and I’m walking to the Blue Mosque. I don’t even get into the bazaar and there is a young Turk herding me off to his uncle’s carpet shop. I sat in this beautiful outdoor area drinking Turkish coffee and tea for about an hour, and talking world politics with this lovely interesting man (the uncle). His business is a family business which started when his grandfather walked around selling carpets from off his shoulder. His father set up the current business years ago and he has been running it since. He did not even attempt to sell me anything, hugged me goodbye and asked that I come back for another coffee/tea soon. So I move on and try again. I made it into the mosque with only being seriously carpet touted once more. The mosque is beautiful! The architecture and tiling is exquisite.
After leaving the mosque I start looking around and got accosted by yet another salesman who assures me that he is not selling carpets but rather spices (the other specialty of Istanbul). When I convince him that I’m not buying, he then offers me a massage and tells me that he is very good at sex! Although I was obviously tempted I declined. He continued being persistent until I managed to shake him off. Not long after I met a well dressed man who was very smooth and was not selling anything (except maybe himself). I ended up letting Smooth Turkish Guy (STG) show me around which ended up being lunch and then tram and ferry rides and finishing up with dinner. During our travels we also dropped into his brother’s shop (yes, a carpet shop). STG’s brother was incredibly interesting and also an incredible salesman without the intended buyer even knowing. I almost bought something small but then realised I was being manipulated. I pointed this out to him (I told him that he was a manipulative bastard!) and he thought it was hysterical! He loves the game and is very good at it and made a comment that I was the only person who has left his shop without buying anything! He may have been joking, however, it made me realise how strong I have become and how I can walk away without feeling any guilt or concern.
I loved where STG and I went for dinner! It was outside of the touristy area where the locals eat real Turkish food. There is a long street of restaurants with tables outside and it was overflowing with hundreds of people. It is Ramadan so Muslim people do not eat or drink from sunrise (around 5.30am) until sunset (around 8.30pm) and from what I could see, have a feast afterwards. I was probably the only non-Turkish, non-Muslim there. I loved it! I loved the food and the noise and the obvious celebration and appreciation of food. Sadly STG was starting to seriously piss me off as his conversation skills were incredibly limited and confined to one aspect of human interaction. It didn’t really do it for me as I appreciate interesting conversation and actually getting to know someone. He wanted to hang out the next day, however I was of two minds about it but decided to give it another go. I may have been using him a little for the experience with him not gaining much but my wonderful company but hey, that’s life sunshine. I also recognised that his lack of conversational skills may be a language issue so I thought I’d see how it goes.
So off I go to meet with him and he drove me to a recently completed new mosque (official inauguration was on 3 May) on the Asian side of Istanbul, Camilca Mosque, which the current prime minister commissioned (with the help of tax payers money) and is now the biggest mosque in Turkey. Although it was impressive it felt like someone trying to prove something and make a name for themselves…like a guy driving down the street in the biggest, loudest, fastest car they could find but using someone else’s money to buy it. I have been told by a number of Turkish people that the current government is corrupt (seems to be a common theme globally!) which doesn’t surprise me especially after seeing this exorbitant use of the people’s money! I much preferred the Blue Mosque! We drove back to the European side of Istanbul and had lunch in a very cool rooftop restaurant overlooking the ocean on one side, the Hagia Sophia museum on another side and the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) on another side. It almost felt surreal eating lunch between these amazing buildings. I totally loved it! I then went into the Basilica Cistern which was cold and wet but pretty cool while STG waited outside. We arranged to have dinner and then meet with his brother later that night.
I walked the same way to STG’s brother’s shop twice a day for the 2 days as I was in a hotel not far from the Blue Mosque. It is a tourist area however it is a wonderful place to stay in. There is something almost romantic in wandering around its cobbled streets. I think it’s a must to stay around there even if it is just for a couple of days. There were a few people, well men, who said hello every time I walked past wanting my patronage however being friendly as well. On the way home after dinner at the end of the second day, a restaurant owner who said hello every time I passed and called me ‘golden lady’ offered me apple tea. It was actually nice! And we talked for a while. He seemed like a lovely guy who just wanted to talk. I then had a guy who owns a restaurant and travel agent stop me and offer me a beer so I stopped and had a beer with him and we chatted. I arrived back at my hotel at around midnight. I know that the men here love women. I know that their agenda is to get to know women. But they have been friendly towards me and harmless so this has allowed me to enjoy spending time with them hearing more about the country I am in and their experiences.
It’s funny how easily we adapt to our surroundings. I had been in the hotel in the old city for 3 nights and had been going out for lunch and dinner with STG and became accustomed to the very different traffic conditions (although the traffic is a bit chaotic it is nothing compared to India and Nepal!) and had totally adapted to my surroundings within the 3 days. I moved to an Airbnb that by Indian and Nepalese standards is pretty good but my immediate reaction is that I want to move back to the old city! In the city I could walk everywhere and see everything but the Airbnb is out of the city and I needed to get trams to go anywhere. STG offered to pick and drop me if I need to go anywhere and also found me a cheap hotel in the city however I decided to sit this one out and re-establish my independent travelling ability as in 3 days I had also become a bit dependent on STG to take me places and when I was dropped off (yes, by STG!) I actually felt a bit lost and isolated. I ended up staying in bed most of the first day at the Airbnb because I was tired and still had a bloody cold which I got in Nepal! I felt cosy and comforted especially as the mother was giving me lemon tea to drink and was mothering me (although totally unable to speak English) and even gave me dinner.
The next day she took me out for the day. She is 63 years old and is currently fasting – no food or water all day – and she is a powerhouse! It was pretty hot and she needed rests but there is no way I could go that long without water, especially in the heat! Anyway she took me to the Eyup Sultan Mosque and Pierre Loti Hill by bus which are outside the city. We then got a bus and ferry to Uskudar and then a ferry and bus to Taksim Square. These are places that were not on my agenda to see so it was wonderful to be introduced to new places. We had dinner in Taksim Square, after exactly 8.24pm! When we were about to head home we came upon thousands of Turkish people celebrating winning some soccer game in the streets. They really love their football! We left after 10pm however I have no doubt that the celebration went through the night. It was a lovely day. I find it amazing that although we didn’t speak the same language we still managed to communicate and enjoy each other’s company. I experienced this in Costa Rica with a friend of my son’s mother and we actually became friends. Language is important however there are other ways to understand each other. I ended up loving the Airbnb and getting around was pretty easy.
I didn’t go into the city for the first 2 days at the Airbnb. On the third day I caught the tram to the Grand Bazaar which was pretty amazing and then walked to Sultanahmet to STG’s brother’s shop. STG and I had a falling out over a difference in expectation, however I am still friends with his brother. It has been an interesting experience and maybe I should have played it differently but hanging out with STG did allow me to have more connection with the locals which is always a bonus when travelling. Anyway, no loss as I was leaving Istanbul in 2 days time. I spent the last day in Istanbul with a young English man I met at the monastery in Nepal! It is such a small world catching up with people on the other side of the world where you met them who also live on the other side of the world to you! It was a great day of catch up and exploring Karakoy together.
My philosophy while I’m travelling is ‘while in Rome’ so most things in my lifestyle change dependant on what country I am in. I went totally off coffee in India and Nepal and am now drinking a couple of cups of Turkish coffee a day (yes, the type you can stand your spoon up in!). I even had a Hammam, a Turkish Bath which was strange lying on a marble slab in a sauna-type situation and then having someone wash you! I really love the experience and diversity of eating the local food and meeting local people. And the diversity of religions. I was involved in Hinduism in India, Buddhism in Nepal and now a touch of Islam. I feel that India and Nepal were the ‘pray’ part of my journey, and Turkey has become the ‘eat’ part (not ‘love’ as anticipated by STG!). I have gone to great restaurants as well as experiencing lots of local food. Bread goes with everything here and I have enjoyed it with gusto! However I have a number of countries to visit yet so this assessment may change.
Istanbul is a beautiful city – there is definitely something about it and I understand why so many people love it. The mosques that I visited were divine and have a sense of peace about them. Every time I walked past the Hagia Sophia museum it took my breath away. There is something about it which appeals to me even more than the mosques. The city is warm and inviting and the public transport, once you know where you’re going, is great. I found the people to be friendly (sometimes too friendly!) and loved interacting with them.
I read an article on the first morning I was in Istanbul saying that the way to act in Turkey as a woman is to tone down, not meet men’s eyes and not hug anyone. I failed on all accounts on the first day! Me? Tone down? Not a hope in hell! I was walking with a big smile on my face feeling wonderful about everything and had comments made and smiles back from other people. And when I talked to people I was exuberant as that was how I felt. Obviously one needs to be aware of safety however I refuse to always have my head down looking grumpy unless I absolutely have to (as in India when even a look sideways invites a full on sales pitch! And possibly the Grand Bazaar!). I also took a risk (again) but the experiences I had would not have been had if I had stuck to the tourist route on my own. I am loving this life, I am loving travelling and I am loving meeting people from the countries I visit and hearing their stories and even hanging out with them and I refuse to live in fear of what might happen (while doing what I can to maintain my safely). STG kept saying ‘life is too short’ and although he was meaning one thing (the only thing which seems to matter to some men…it must be a common line as it is not the first time I have been told that by a man). I think life is too short to be fearful, to not embrace experience with open arms and to not do things ‘just in case’. So be safe, but also be courageous people!