Sunday, March 23, 2008

Three continents in one weekend? Not too shabby.

Warning: Abnormally long post to follow. Here's a synopsis so you can read just the parts that interest you, if you want:
Day 1 - Arrive/description of Istanbul/dinner/bar/Turkish liquor
Day 2 - Shopping/desserts/Hagia Sofia/Blue Mosque/Turkish Bath
Day 3 - Spice Market/Asia/Cultural Arts Center/Bazaar
Day 4 - Home!

This weekend I went to go visit my friend Kate, who is studying abroad in Istanbul. Before I left, my professor told me Istanbul was a mix of New York and Cairo, which I thought could either be awesome or terribly, terribly bad. Luckily it was the former, although I would describe Istanbul as a mix of Copenhagen, an Italian sea town, and Cairo. The city is pretty dense, but clean and full of amazing architecture. For some reason the wide streets and red roofs reminded me of Copenhagen. The really pretty pastel colors of the buildings remind me of Cinque Terre, which is a collection of small towns on the west coast of Italy. I include Cairo because the city has one foot in the East.

Day 1: After I got to my hostel and met up with Kate, she and I went out to dinner at a restaurant underneath the bridge between old and new Istanbul. Our hostel location was incredibly convenient. We were right next to Istiklal Street, which is the main thoroughfare in new Istanbul with tons of bars and restaurants. After dinner, she and I headed out with a big group to a bar on Istiklal Street. Everyone else drank Turkish beer (which is allegedly much better than Egyptian beer…I wouldn’t know), but I had tequila. Yeup, because it’s gluten-free. After that everyone decided I needed to try Raki, the local witch’s brew. They brought me two highball glasses, one of which was half Raki and half water, the other of which was all water. Raki is pretty darn potent, so you need a glass of water just to chase it. I thought it was pretty good. It tasted like anise, but I could only get through half my glass because it was so strong.

Day 2: Kate had to be in class most of the day, so I went out exploring the city on my own. First order of business: shopping! I wandered down Istiklal street, going into shops and munching delicious Turkish figs, dried apricots and Turkish delight along the way. Turkish desserts are amazing, and there are small stores and pastry shops everywhere glittering with candies, fruits, and baklava.

When I was done with shopping I hopped on the tram and headed over to Hagia Sofia (or Aya Sofya) and the Blue Mosque. At Hagia Sofia I ran into a large English-speaking tour group, and their guide said it was fine if I tagged along for the tour. He spoke excellent English and was full of interesting information. I learned that there are no stairs up to the second floor because nobles used to ride horses in the building (because they were lazy), and it was easier for horses to go up ramps. I learned that Hagia Sofia means ‘divine wisdom’ as exemplified through the life of Jesus Christ, but that over the centuries the building has been inhabited by Latin rulers (they discovered it during the crusades and stayed for 60 years), the Byzantines and the Ottomans. I learned all kinds of interesting things about the architecture, but I would need a visual reference to explain everything. The Blue Mosque was equally spectacular. I didn’t have a tour guide, but the building is absolutely gorgeous. (See facebook for pictures).

After all my sightseeing I was ready for a relaxing evening, and luckily everyone wanted to go to the Turkish Baths that night. Oh. My. Lord. Most wonderful cleaning ritual EVER invented. The bath we went to was built in 1584. The main steam room had this beautiful marble domed ceiling, and a large marble platform in the middle for you to spread your towel out on. We just lay there on the marble, and I steamed away all the pollution and toxins I’m sure I’ve absorbed in Cairo. After you steam awhile, a woman comes to scrub you down and dump warm water all over you, and then you head to a separate room for an oil massage. We must have stayed for two or three hours, and when we walked out even my brain felt clean. We were too tired to go out, so we traipsed back to the hostel and just fell into bed.

Day 3: The next morning we got up to go to the SPICE MARKET. Everywhere we looked there were baskets overflowing with cardamom and cinnamon and hibiscus tea. The sellers in Istanbul speak better English than the ones in Cairo, and they yell out all sorts of colorful things like, “Come in and break my heart!” or “Hello gorgeous, I can help you spend your money!” or, Kate’s personal favorite, “Do you want to play!?” After wandering around for awhile, Kate and I caught the ferry to Asia. Yep, Asia. Istanbul is on one side of the Bosporus, (we were in Beyoglu and Eminonu), but if you go across the strait to Uskudar, you’re in Asia. Asia looked a lot like Europe, except for the fact that the bazaars weren’t as colorful, and the restaurants weren’t as touristy, which was nice. After we got back from Asia I wanted to head to Topkapi Palace, but was told that it closed half an hour later than it actually did. Oh well, no Topkapi. Instead I went to the Traditional Turkish Arts Center and learned how to make pottery. I also learned that the work ‘turquoise’ comes from ‘Turkey,’ because it used to be unique to the country, and has been used in pottery for centuries. The women who were making the pottery were extremely nice, but surprised that I would even consider studying Arabic or living in Cairo. None of them had been, even though it’s only a two hour flight. Turkey may technically still be considered by many as part of the Middle East, but these women viewed themselves as something very separate. After the Arts Center we headed out to dinner and then to the Bazaar, which was a bit of a sensory overload but lots of fun. The Turkish lira is not much weaker than the dollar, but I decided to buy lots of cool things anyway. Hey, it’s Istanbul. And Cairo is really cheap. Oh well.

Day 4: I didn’t have much time in the morning before my flight, so we just headed out to breakfast, stumbling across a political demonstration on our way, which was an interesting way to start the day. Then I got in a cab and headed back to the airport and back to Africa! Before I left Kate and I were talking about how funny it is when people cross paths again. After high school she headed to Kenyon, a small liberal arts college in the middle of rural Ohio. I headed to DC and George Washington. We have completely different majors and interests, but somehow we both managed to end up in Istanbul, a city with roots in three continents, which has synthesized different cultural traditions in a pretty unique way. It’s funny how everything diverges only to connect again.