Zanzibar Part III: Istanbul (?)

[Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic]  |  [Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town]

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.


Sultanahmet. 

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.

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Bosphorous Bridge from the air, connecting Europe and Asia

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.

[Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic]  |  [Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town]

A letter to 25-year-old me.

I just read a letter that Richard Branson wrote to his 25-year-old self. It is touching, inspirational, humble and sweet. It made me wonder what I’d say to my 25-year-old self, as that was a wild time in my life, full of the magic and wonder of an entire universe available and open right in front of me.

At 25, I was working at a marketing agency, an early career change from accounting, and moving into a new job as an Assistant Account Executive on the Bose account – I managed their first online ad (on Prodigy) as well as countless direct mail programs. Our team produced one of their first animated TV spots, which would live on for years (“can your radio do this…”). I was a founding member of the Inline Club of Boston, managing events and excursions; I was an inline skating instructor, in the IISA’s Instructor Certification program and a member of this inline counter-culture that was pervading city streets throughout the US. Around that year, I started my own skating school (SkateBoston) and wanted to start an events management company but didn’t have either the guts or the funding. I was involved with fundraising for the Aids Action Committee and we even tried to start a young professionals philanthropy group (‘The Realists’) for them. I lived on the 3rd floor of a brownstone in the South End of Boston and loved every minute of the freedom that living in a great neighborhood of a young, thriving city affords. Out-of-town weekends and holidays were spent mostly in New York City, skating in Central Park and drinking in myriad bars on the Upper West Side. There were weekends on dad’s boat, Camp Rollerblade weekends (those may have been the following year) and summer Sundays spent first skating on Memorial Drive, then feasting at our weekly “Celebrity BBQ” series at the friends’ compound in Union Square, Somerville. International dinner parties, scones at Claremont Cafe, drinks at TarBar or the DeLux, brunch at Tremont Ice Cream…Life was (very) good.

Letter to my 25-year-old self:

Dear Lesli,

This is a letter from 48-year-old you, to say hi from the 21st Century and to let you know that you didn’t turn out so bad from this vantage point, 23 years in the future…You are having one of the best years of your life. Cherish your freedom, harness your optimism and whatever you do, don’t let corporate negativity dampen your spirit.

The Universe is going to challenge your every sense and you are going to question both your place in the corporate world and your place in the human world. While challenging, it will be worth sticking to your values, honoring your integrity and listening to your heart. You’ve received one of the best pieces of life advice this year: pick your battles. Never forget it, as these words will be a mantra for you throughout your adult life.

Surround yourself with people who make you think and laugh, who embrace curiosity, and who care about the natural world. You will be faced with life-changing moments in the coming years, and you’ll need all your inner strength and courage to get through some of the days. Fear not, wild woman, you will make it – and come out stronger on the other end.

My bits of advice from the future which may or may not change your trajectory: respect boundaries, listen more, pause before acting. Listen to your heart and figure out who it is you are… then go for what calls you, with everything you’ve got. You’ve got unfulfilled dreams that have merit. You have ideas and opportunities and future diverging roads – which path you choose is up to you, but choose thoughtfully.

Ask your dad all the nagging questions about your childhood. Find out who you are and where you’re from and find out about your family’s history. Go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas even when it’s easier or more fun to stay in Boston. Ask him for career advice, whether or not you take it. Hug him more.

Travel. Explore. Spend as much time as you can in nature. Never stop reading or asking questions or seeking meaning. Keep writing. Keep dreaming. Keep learning. Love will come and love will go, but underneath it all you have this amazing sense of self…do not lose that. Ever.

Now, keep being you…

–Your older self.