Balkan Doživljaj, final chapter: All roads lead to…Istanbul?

I’ve just spent 2-1/2 weeks travelling, bouncing between historic stone towns wrapped in ancient fortresses and a mesmerising display of what happens when nature gets to push its boundaries. I spent time in Croatia and Montenegro, and then a couple of drive-throughs of the Bosnia end of Bosnia and Herzegovina (passport stamped 2x, but it feels a little like cheating to “count” a country without really seeing it). Croatia, and to some extent Montenegro, draws cruise ships to its ports, but thankfully many of the wonders of both are too far inland or too small to be considered “worthwhile” destinations.

Worthwhile is in the eye of the beholder: I’ll always gravitate towards that which is lesser-known, farther-flung, not-as-trodden, ditto obscure; grateful for the opportunities that health and employment and relative freedom afford.


Before going home, I further bounced to a stopover in one of my favourite cities, Istanbul, where I set my sights on seeing things I hadn’t in my previous visits here. In all its own ways, this city mesmerises. On so many levels, it’s where East meets West and where secular meets orthodox. The Adhan, call to prayer, echoes in the streets at its regular cadence, the chants melding with the city’s din. In the market crowds, suited or Levi’s- and T-shirt-garbed urbanites jumble with burqa and niqab and headscarf-clad women to create a kaleidoscopic patchwork of cotton and silk and wool and skin.

It is an architecturally fabulous city, elaborate and historic mosques and the 5th-century Walls of Constantinople that surround the oldest parts of the city, juxtaposed against the gleaming downtown bridges and myriad shops…there’s a sweet shop on nearly every corner selling a regional favourite – Turkish Delight.

I spend my first afternoon reacquainting myself to this old town neighbourhood – Sultanahmet – known primarily for the Blue Mosque and its neighbour, the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sofia), an Orthodox cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-cultural museum. It’s the latter I’m intent on seeing this day. The mid-day tourist crush has diminished and I breeze in without much wait. It is immense, and an engineering wonder on its own…(the interior height of the dome is an astounding 55.6 metres high). (Re-)built as a cathedral in 537AD, it was considered a pinnacle in Byzantine architecture. Once the Ottoman Empire did its thing in the 1400’s, Ayasofya was converted into a mosque (in the process, the spectacular mosaics were plastered over). Today, the structure serves as a museum, and as such, we see a restoration of the old Orthodox tilework with Christian works contrasted against the elaborate mosque décor, including 8 massive calligraphic discs depicting the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, and other related messengers and bigwigs (thus concludes my knowledge of the Islamic hierarchy). At present, the Turkish government is arming for a fight with the UNESCO folks, as Erdoğan is angling to turn the museum back into an active mosque.

Next morning, I hop a bus to get on a boat that takes me on a water tour from the Golden Horn (Istanbul’s old trading port and current and bustling waterfront) and into the Bosporus Strait, the waterway that serves to connect the Black Sea with the Aegean, and one of primary reasons Constantinople was a key trading post along the Silk Road. There are reminders of Istanbul’s place in history scattered throughout the city, like the Obelisk of Theodosius or a little stela, almost hidden between a tram stop and the crowded entrance to the Basilica Cistern, called the Milion Stone, marking the “zero point” to everywhere else that was important in the Byzantine era, with distances. Constantinople was the center of the modern world and this stone told you how far away the place you wanted to go was from the only place that mattered. It’s these little wonders that just add to the magic of this city.

Istanbul is the largest city that sits on the cusp of two continents, the Bosporus separating the European from the Asian side of the country. And from the water you can definitely see many of the historical influences in the variety of architectural styles. Grand mosques, old and new; modern industrial eyesores, marble palaces, red roofed stone houses built into the hillsides, pretty painted neighbourhoods that look like something from a travel magazine… And, to my delight, a castle! As we make our way down the Bosporus towards a stop on the Asian side, I see a massive fortress on the European side. The Rumeli Fortress, I learn, is one of several fortresses here. It’s not really surprising, knowing something of the history of the region, and these are now (all!) at the top on my list of what to see next time I return.

The Golden Horn is a natural harbour, and as we come into port, it warms my heart to see some of its resident dolphin population. This harbour was once bubbling with fish and these dolphins’ ancestors, but here, too, they’re sadly feeling the impact of overfishing and pollution.

We’re at port and I bid farewell to the hungover Finns I met onboard. My next stop is what’s becoming an annual pilgrimage to the Mısır Çarşısı, the old spice market, where I acquire enough Turkish Delight, cheese, olives and biber salçasi (a thick red pepper paste) to eat like a Turk for a while back home!

My remaining hours here fly by – I walk back towards my hotel along the water, watching the fishermen cast their lines in the channel where the Golden Horn meets the Bosporus. On the way, I wander through the lovely Gülhane Parkı and make it back to my neighbourhood. It’s all becoming more familiar to me; even the human traffic jam I encountered at the spice market seemed amusing, and I had a laugh at the situation with strangers in the crowd.

Dinner is at a cosy little place lit by hundreds of Turkish mosaic lamps, then I meander back to my B&B a bit slower than necessary. Early the next morning, I do a last wander around Sultanahmet before the crowds arrive. I patted some stray dogs, got adopted by a cat, had a fresh-pressed pomegranate juice and then brekkie in the lovely B&B courtyard before starting the journey back to the real world.

In a blink of an eye, I’m on a bus, reflecting on the string of encounters I’ve had in this strangely enchanting city. The bus is taking me back to the airport, and to the air ferry that will magic me over the continent of Europe and then over the sea that separates this continent from mine. Sitting next to me is a smiling woman from Kabul, here in Istanbul for a few days of shopping. Back home, she teaches Arabic. In broken English, hand gestures and Google translate, we shared a little bit about ourselves. Then she WhatsApp calls her teenage son in Kabul so he could meet me. The world is so much smaller than we are led to believe (and parents around the world will forever be embarrassing their teenagers, I think). People are people, regardless of their wrapping.


When I travel, I try to come home knowing more than I did and seeing something new or from a different perspective. Sometimes it makes me question the rat race, makes me more worried about the rabid consumerism that spreads like a virus, makes me want to work harder to find that balance between work and play, where play should win out but doesn’t always…

Until next time, Istanbul. I’m readying for the next adventure…


Read the whole Balkan Doživljaj story here: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains of Montenegro | Part III: Fleeing the Russians for the Countryside | Part IV: Nature, Fog, and Maybe Going to Hell | Part V: In Which I Split

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.

2017-03-18 08.31.52-1

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]

Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town. Spices. Ivory. Slaves.

[Part I: Pemba Magic]

flight1Early on this Sunday morning, the small plane carries its payload from Pemba back to the relative civilisation of the island of Ugunja where two of its passengers are to spend their last full day in Zanzibar exploring the streets, sights and sounds of Stone Town.

It is something of a sensory overload, this urban-ish smell of more densely-packed humans, the noise and bustle of cars, the barking of street vendors and flurry of tourists galore, compared with the tranquility we’ve just left on Pemba: the sweet fragrance of flowers in the air, a magical carpet of stars in the sky, African nocturnal critters rustling in the bush, crickets and bushbabies our nighttime soundtrack. And playing over in my mind is the hilarity of the prior night’s bushbaby “hunt” involving a baited stake-out, hoping to lure the small beasts with a mango while we hid, cameras peeled and giggles stifled, behind a wall. Meanwhile the bushbabies laughed at us from the trees above and made off with the mango after we got tired of the game and went to bed. A fruitless fruited effort, as it were.

Stone Town is essentially the crumbly remains of the capital of the old Zanzibar Sultinate (crumbles observed literally, as we walked past the blue cheese-like bits of a building that had recently succumbed to time and gravity). Stone Town was a big deal in its day: the hub of the spice, ivory and slave trades in East Africa in the 19th Century. Today the old city it is a World Heritage Site, though its largest industry these days is in catering to tourists.

We’re staying at the Stone Town Café and B&B in the thick of the Shangani section of town; blocks to the waterfront and not far from the two landmarks we’re keen on seeing here: the slave market site and the Darajani spice bazaar. I’ve chosen this place in part because of their work with the Creative Education Foundation, a schooling project that gives a Waldorf education to disadvantaged kids in Zanzibar. Disadvantaged kids back home look like sultans compared with the level of poverty found here. And because music is integral to their curriculum, I’ve brought with me things that can’t be gotten on the island: a stash of recorders (the musical kind) and some yarn for their arts projects at the suggestion of Judi, Stone Town Café’s owner.

DSC_2942 (2)Stone Town feels 10 degrees hotter than Pemba, although the thermometer reads virtually the same. So we pack water, have a nice meal of these Tanzanian breakfast chapatis of which we’ve become raving fans (they resemble a delectable cross between crêpe and injera), and take to the streets of Stone Town for our day of sightseeing.

Shops and more shops line the narrow maze of cobblestone streets, and we’re harassed every several metres to buy a souvenir or six. We dodge the crap-sellers (an I ❤ Tanzania mug is not on the liste de courses) by ducking down emptier streets, and wend our way towards Darajani market. Asking directions, we’re led by a guy to the market and find we need to lose him by promising to come to his spice shop later (our mistake: he pops up unexpectedly and repeatedly throughout the day, “you promised to come to my shop but you didn’t…” I would ironically meet his long-lost twin in Istanbul the following evening).

Finally, we reach our destination. Outside, tropical fruits from pineapples to mangoes to rambutan are on display. Inside, my stomach turns as we enter the ‘hall of meat’. The fish section is more interesting (and palatable), as every imaginable fish is on offer. Then we find the spice stands and my inner cardamom goddess dances with joy; I’m on the lookout for the merchant with the freshest-seeming stock. I love perusing the aisles, laden with every variety of local banana, taking in the pungent aromas, the piles of chilies, vegetables, fruits…everything here piques my senses.

I haggle with a merchant for kilos of turmeric, cardamom, cumin, star anise and of course the local cloves. My spice stores now overflowing, we’re off to find a market of a different variety.

Human chattel.

Exotic as Zanzibar sounds, its roots are in Africa’s darkest trades: slaves and ivory. Its spice trade, while sweetening the air, was also mired in shadow. Slaves worked the plantations that grew the spices to serve Omani and European needs. A vicious circle, which only partially ended when the slave market on Zanzibar was closed in 1873. The slave trade continued underground on Zanzibar for decades, and until 1909 in Pemba when those slave markets were closed as well.

Zanzibar was the Arab world’s largest slave market. Slaves were used to transport ivory to the coast, their handlers fetching double remuneration: for both the goods and their haulers. Those not carrying ivory were marched as bound animals, heavy wooden stocks around their necks, hands tied around the beams to thwart escape, from places like the Congo and Zambia. Many perished, some escaped and some were sold or traded along the way. Many others died as they were packed into the hulls of the trading ships bound for Zanzibar’s shores. Bodies of the recently- and not quite-dead were thrown overboard so the slave traders didn’t have to pay duty on their stale cargo. As if this treatment wasn’t inhumane enough, the humans-turned-chattel were then confined to underground holding rooms on the slave market site for days with no food, water or daylight (save a small window carved into a stone wall for ventilation), awaiting auction day. 75 were kept in a single 30 or 40 square metre cell, where many perished in the process. It was said that the strongest (quality merchandise if you will), after surviving the holding room and the requisite lashings while tied to the market’s central tree, fetched the best prices at auction.

An Anglican church now sits on the slave market site. They’ve set up a room inside one of the buildings with a pictorial depiction of Zanzibar’s slave history. Outside, a Swedish artist has carved a sculpture that incorporates some of the market’s original chains and shackles; in seeing these I think that no level of tribute could ever right the wrongs inflicted here. Even the distilled version of the atrocities turn my stomach; I can’t at all fathom what the survivors endured…surely this is the definition of ‘a fate worse than death.’

DSC_2998So with this historical dark stamp on our hearts, we wend back towards the B&B via some quieter roads not taken. We pass the old fort (a plaque is inscribed with ngome kongwe: Oldest Castle), stumble across a wood craftsman’s shop and purchase a couple of miniature Zanzibar chests as mementos, then decide to make a 2nd trip to the spice market (running into and dodging our “you promised” friend again) to haggle anew for a pile of goods to fill C’s spice shelves too. Returning to the same vendor near closing time had its benefits – I think he got the better deal than I.

A monsoon-like thunderstorm heralds our pre-dawn wake-up call, rains so intense that we’re concerned the plane won’t take off. But as we get closer to the airport, the skies clear and we’re shuttled through security for this next leg of the journey that will transport us back to Europe.

As we while away the hours on the flight, my mind replays our adventures in Africa, under and above water. With faraway friends, you must treasure each moment spent with them, as life sometimes gets in the way of life and you don’t know which visit may be your last or when the next will come. 💗

We say our goodbyes at Istanbul airport and my Calvin boards his flight home. And I, with melancholy heart, walk towards passport control to continue my adventures in this old-meets-new city, background music resonating in my head, “Istanbul not Constantinople.”

[Part I: Pemba Magic]