Two days before I’m scheduled to depart for Africa, Turkish Airlines changes my return ticket so that instead of another couple of days in Zanzibar, I’ve got a 2-day layover in Istanbul. Turns out this isn’t as big a deal as I had envisioned… Stone Town is hot and dusty, and our one whirlwind day is plenty.
It also turns out that getting a Turkish e-Visa and finding a lovely little B&B just blocks from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia while sitting in my kitchen some 5000 miles away was also a piece of cake. So like that, I had plans to spend a couple of days in a city I thought I’d never get to see during these convoluted political times.
I had left Boston a week earlier, feeling angry, disheartened, rebellious, frustrated, embarrassed and altogether disapproving of the US current administration. Wanderlust raging and fernweh in high gear, I felt like an alien amongst my fellow Americans. I needed to get OUT. The stream of propaganda emanating from my country’s gold house makes me sick to my stomach; the deeper their hole of hate and other-izing is dug, the more my stomach reels as it did in the meat market in Stone Town.
I went to Zanzibar, American passport in hand, for a diving holiday with a dear European friend. We were in the far-flung reaches of a place not many tourists go, let alone even know exists. Aside from a very small handful of other travellers and assorted Peace Corps or aid workers, there were no other white people visiting there; Pemba is roughly 99% Muslim, as is Istanbul in theory. At Ataturk Airport, I’m mulling the fact that it’s almost a relief to have been surrounded by others for whom aggressive white (read: Christian, American, ignorant…) nationalism is just not a Thing at present.
And so I arrive in Istanbul, sad at having just said goodbye to my co-adventurer, slightly anxious about this new stamp in my passport, and more than slightly squeamish about my nationality and what it represents in a country mine has so recently postured to hate. Paradoxically, my complexion belies my country of origin and from the first interactions I’m asked, “Argentina? France? Spain?” I figure that some of my rusty Español and a strategically-asserted “Canada” here and there will be invaluable.
This mind-chatter is still occupying space in my head as I step out of the taxi and into the adorable Hotel Empress Zoe B&B. The neighbourhood is called Sultanahmet, which contains both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, sights I’ve been told are not-to-be-missed here. It is also the site of 2015 and 2016 suicide bombings. I’ve been warned of this as well. Of the school that lightning doesn’t usually strike in the same place (erm, 3 times), I’m slightly mollified by the presence of police with obvious machine guns and armoured vehicles at nearly every open space here. My room is fantastic. The greeting I receive by Layla is warm and welcoming. She arms me with a map and we orchestrate a sights-to-be-seen plan for my next 48 hours. The greeting I receive from the resident cats is equally as inviting.
Once I’m settled, the intention is to get the lay of the land and find some dinner. The first hot shower in a week is medicine for the chilly, damp gray air to which I’ve travelled; stark contrast to the prior week’s steamy East African days. I rebound and set off to explore.
Istanbul not Constantinople.
Called Lygos, Byzantium, Constantinople and then Istanbul, this city is a perfect confluence of east-meeting-west. Quite literally, since Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus, the strait that separates the continents of Europe and Asia, and has been a key trade route for millennia, connecting Black and Aegean Seas, commingling humans, spices, slaves and customs from ancient Greek, Roman, Persian and Byzantine empires before early Christian v. Muslim conflict delivered rule to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century.
Tourism is sparse. I’ve arrived to this normally teeming-with-tourists city in both a political maelstrom and the height of the low season. Glad that there are no lines to contend with at the major sights, I’m also a target for the desperate carpet-sellers that pop from nowhere to begin innocent chatter. “Hello, Argentina?” “Parlez-vous Français?” “Hablas español?” “Where are you from?” Learning from my first mistake, where a conversation with a friendly local turned into an introduction to his other “new friends from South America” and an invitation to the nearby rug shoppe. I declined the kind offer and deflect future propositions like these – of which there are many – with a firm “no,” as the promise “I’ll come by later” is clearly too naïve.
My first impression is that Istanbul is clean. People are chattering and smiling. Most, if not all, women are wearing a hijab. Men are dressed smartly, in tapered-leg suits. Even the street dogs are tagged and friendly-seeming. Like in India, some men hold hands in companionship. New York City seems more stressed-out to me than this place of recent turmoil and conflict.
It’s evening and the sun is preparing to set; we are between late-afternoon and evening adhans (calls to prayer), and I’ve set off to explore the plaza that sits between the Sultanahmet Mosque (dubbed ‘Blue Mosque’ for its elaborate inlaid tilework) and the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish), which mesmerises on first sight. Once a Greek Orthodox church and the world’s largest cathedral, Hagia Sophia’s pinkish stucco is transformed to a glowing architectural sculpture in the late-afternoon sun. I did not get a chance to go inside, but the domed structure itself is breathtaking.
I wander the Sultanahmet Square and note its peculiar mix of political metaphor: Greek and Egyptian obelisks and a German fountain dotting the plaza. Recalling the Istanbul scene in Dan Brown’s Inferno (which transpires roughly where I stand), I locate the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, which is where I’ll go first in the morning. I also find a gorgeous sweet shoppe, displaying the mounds of Turkish Delight that I’ll soon see is ubiquitous in this city. It reminds me of a Charleston Chew-meets-nougat-meets-gummy bear, only with pistachios and coconut. I’ve never had anything quite like it and I vow to find the best one in the city and buy some to take home with me (because clearly the 100g I’ve purchased won’t last the evening). Dinner is exquisite grilled calamari that rivals what I had in Sardinia, fresh bread with muhammara (a fantastic Turkish red pepper and walnut spread) and grilled sea bass, plucked from a pile of just-caught poissons on display in the lobby. My first quarter-day here is pas mal, if I do say so myself.
Monday: in which I do the tourist thing.
Olives and cheese and eggs for brekkie: I could get used to this. Well-sated and map in hand, I head out for a day of touristing. First stop: Basilica Cistern. Descending the 52 steps into this ancient cistern, an underground reservoir that filtered water for the grand Topkapi Palace, the first word in my head is WOW (and it’s the first word of those who enter just after me as well). Turkish music echoes. The ceiling is 9 metres high, its stone arches making it seem more cathedral-like than anything underground. Unfolding around me is a sea of carved marble columns radiating and reflecting the reddish light. The arches look medieval and Greek and Persian all at once. Towards the back of the cistern, a pathway leads to Medusa heads carved into column bases, supporting just two of the 336 columns in this magically eerie place. There are Doric and Ionic and Corinthian columns, and one which is called “Hen’s Eye” and is said to represent the tears shed by slaves who died building this place. I pause for a moment to connect the dots of horror from Zanzibar’s slave market, visited mere days before, to this grandeur. The music is haunting.
My next stop is Topkapi Palace. Almost by accident, I’ve wandered through one of the grand, guarded, fairytale-arched entrances to the palace, following old stone walls as I walked along the tram route towards the Bosphorous. I’ve purchased a scarf at a local shop to ward off the chilly air. From the patient proprietor, while talking tourism (v. slow these days) and sales tactics (low-pressure wins more business), I learn where to find the best Turkish Delight in the city: Koska, a fact subsequently confirmed by more than one local (luckily, it’s mere blocks from stop #3, the Mısır Çarşısı or spice bazaar).
Meandering through the gardens and buildings of Topkapi Palace and taking in the architecture, I reflect on the way of life in a place like this: servants and slaves and someone to wait one’s every whim. Gilded rooms and accoutrements abound, I bristle at the present-day irony of what the commoners’ tax dollars supported in medieval times. I dare not reflect on what today’s aspiring western Sultans would do with the harem or their quarters.
I consider the concept that I’m guided by spices as I continue walking, the narrower streets widening to a bustling downtown that reminds me of a cross between 34th Street in NYC and small villages like Jojawar in Rajasthan, the cobblestone streets and ancient stone mosques yielding only partially to modern commerce and city din, set on the banks of a strait dotted with Ottoman castles and mansions, the European-influenced Galata tower rising from the far European shore of what’s called the Golden Horn. I find the candy shop as well as the spice bazaar, not without getting turned around 6 or 7 times and stumbling upon a demonstration of sorts in the square just outside the market.
I wend my way back to my B&B with time to purchase some souvenir-worthy Turkish baklava, chat with more ever-so-friendly carpet sellers (I am mistaken for a Turkish woman from the back, with my new scarf tied apparently well enough to pass), partake in some local cuisine (for the record, my hummus is better!) and crumple into bed, exhausted, just after the last adhan sounds. Walk-weary legs having surely earned a pile of adventure points for the 17km I marched today.
The next morning, I have time to visit the Blue Mosque (exterior more impressive than interior to this tourist), wander some more around the charming neighbourhood, and I find myself lost amidst narrow cobbled streets and old relics of a time when building was an artform in stone.
At the airport, my travel bubble is burst when I am subjected to a ridiculous succession of security checks and passport controls between the entrance and the gate, an apparent result of the new regulations passed whilst we were in Africa. I fleetingly contemplate ditching the flight to the US altogether and boarding a train to northern Europe. The roaring of distant dragons compels my return to finish projects-in-process back in the real world. Bleh.
Back home, as I succumb to the jet-lag and collapse into my own bed, I feel the irony of re-entry pulse through my every cell…head in East Africa, body in North America, heart in Europe. Demain est un autre jour, I promise myself. My last thoughts before sleep finally takes hold: soothing accents, a swirl of bright colours, azure sea and sky, a personal aquarium, the embrace of a dear heart, mounds of spices in a faraway bazaar, dreamy magic carpet-like music, the sun setting over the Indian Ocean and the germinating seedlings of what I’ve dubbed year of Africa.