(a collection of scattered thoughts scribbled in loose notes on our flight back from istanbul last week)
i have the turkish airlines jingle stuck in my head for the duration of the flights, courtesy of watching too much cnn. the extent of our preparations for this trip can be resumed to:
– preparing & rehearsing a keynote
– making sure we had plenty of business cards (last minute order from moo.com, arrived in 4 days!)
– make hotel reservations and couchsurfing requests
– downloading the istanbul iphone app (no time to dwell into guidebooks, all we needed was a quick intro to the tourist traps & a map).
so without many preparations, it’s only when the plane hovers the city just before landing that you start to realise how massive it is. it goes on forever, in plaid patterns of houses woven in hills between the masses of water. reminds us a bit of lisbon with its hills… on a closer look though, as the tram makes it way to the city center, we start to realise that this city has a lot more things in common with the east than the west. even the language sounds like japanese.
istanbul is home to a population of many millions, and you can tell from the worn feeling it has and the myriad of people crowding the streets, moving fast from a place to the next. we made use of every possible means of transportation: metro, tram, bus, funicular, ferry, taxi, even mini-bus (a van that stops where you want it to, within a certain route). all crowded and busy and fast. the traffic is chaotic, by many levels worse than we’ve experienced in china. in istanbul the streets are narrow, hilly and tortuous, contouring labyrinths in the middle of houses where the cars frequently get blocked and backtrack, fast forwarding themselves in imaginary lanes. while in china you felt the weight of the government’s micromanaging, the laws on the tip of everyone’s tongue, in here it’s the complete opposite. you feel a sort of barely controlled anarchy, in a set of sub-rules that are not clearly stated, or understood. i feel at loss, and yet intrigued to discover this code of conduct that eludes me.
for a country in which over 90% of the population is muslim, we don’t see as many women wearing scarfs as i would expect. we’re told this is because istanbul is a modern city, and the veil is not mandatory by the islam law – only the more strict use it. there’s plenty of mosques with tilled walls and and in certain hours you hear the calls for prayer. they give istanbul a magical aura, in sharp contrast with the mundane bustle of the city.
little things: the weather is mostly sunny the whole time, in sharp contrast with the cold that we in slovenia. we discover there are no postboxes for mail – which is deposited directly on the post offices. the simits (bagels?) we get from the street vendors taste great. so does the baklava. it feels like nobody speaks english (not that it deters us). the streets have unpronounceable names that are hard to find even in google maps or our gps (twice stopped on the airport for inspection). and all the toilet bowls have the embedded water jet to wash your behind – wet wipes won’t catch on here.
i take a few pictures here and there, mainly to appease my father. i feel like a japanese tourist every time i pull my camera out in a overcrowded city like this one. so i don’t. the holga is the only camera i take out regularly. while we wander without direction, we find a shop selling every kind of ilford film, and i stock on them.
we get lost in the labyrinthic paths of the bazaars, but the salesmen here are friendlier, less desperate to make a sale, and a lot less nagging. they serve us sweet apple tea (which we later find out it’s not typical from turkey, but something that the tourists like). to anyone who has ever taken a stroll down huai hai lu, this is peanuts. we buy scarfs and some ties and shirts on the neighbouring streets – we’re here on business after all. and the business part of this visit goes well. we wake up early, put our suits, ties and pretty shoes, do our hair and makeup, stock the pockets with business cards. our presentation goes smoothly, we get plenty of encouraging words, name cards and new ideas (oh! and goodies of the postal variety). mission accomplished.
we travel to the anatolian side through the bridge and are greeted by a yellow sign “welcome to asia”. but regardless the lack of foreign glyphs, the whole istanbul feels like asia, and not just the other side of the bosphorus.
turkey frightens and fascinates me in equal parts. it forces us to stand outside of our element, which is why i think we’ll go back, for a longer period of time. i was not really cut out for this “x days in” kind of travel. besides, with our dark hair and eyes, i think we could be pretty much camouflaged and blend in – at least until we open our mouths, but hey, that’s more we were ever able to achieve in shanghai!
the turks greet friends like the portuguese, with a kiss in each cheek… but then they add 2 cozy hugs, one on each side, for good measure. :) it feels really warm and… right. see you soon, istanbul!