Saturday, September 1, 2012

Day 1, Istanbul

I watched the carousel go round and round at the Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. It was 5:40 am and I wasn't sure if it was a good sign that I hadn't seen my bags from my flight from New York. When I booked my flight to Israel, I gave myself a 12 hour layover in Istanbul so I could go out and see the city, a place I had always been dying to go to. However, a common theme I find in my life is my lack of planning and propensity to hoping things work out. So, here I was hoping that my large suitcase from New York would be put on my flight 12 hours later to Tel Aviv. "Off to Istanbul!" I thought to myself. I took out my iphone to pick up the wireless internet I was almost sure they'd have available for free in the airport. A friend of New York had put me in touch with a Turkish girl who I was hoping would show me around for the day. The two of us had not really made a plan on when to meet or what to do, so again, I was just having faith it would all work out. I was sure all I had to do was email her when I arrived in Turkey and I would be whisked away to an "Istanbul behind-the-scenes," locals only tour. My pictures would differ from every other person I knew that traveled to this tourist-trap of a destination. It would be a great start to my new adventure, everyone on facebook would be super envious. But first I needed internet.

I'm not picking up any wifi on my phone so I look for the food court area. The first thing I run into is a Starbucks. Of course. Why wouldn't there be a Starbucks here? At least I'm sure they'll have internet, and they did. But only for people with Turkish sim cards. That's ok, minor hiccup, its still only 6 am, no point in bothering the nice girl who has agreed to show me around for the day.

I head to passport control and it's a mob scene. I figure this is my first test of practicing my Israeli nerve. Lines are not meant to be queued up on, only pushed through. I do my best shoving and pushing from one end of "I don't know where" to the other of "Where the hell am I" before I finally ask which line I should queue on. 

When I get to passport control the guard looks at me, bored of course, and says "You don't have a Visa, you can't come through." 

My stomach drops, thoughts of 12 hours in Ataturk airport looking through a glass window at civilization, mosques and fresh air outside frighten me for a moment. But then I find out you can buy a visa at a counter in the back for $20, so I go join another queue. The rest of the day goes nice and orderly. On the metro to the city center, and Italian girl sits next to me and we start talking. She's finishing up traveling two weeks through China and has also given herself a layover in Istanbul to see the city. We decided to walk around together before she has to leave for her flight around noon. We see the mosques, we get some coffee, we go to the spice market. We talk about American movies and TV, about traveling in China and about traveling in general. We take some pictures and have some laughs. We give big hugs when its time for her to leave and promise to become friends on Facebook. She'll always have a place in New York and I have a place to stay in Italy. I've misplaced her name in my journal.

After walking around by myself a bit, getting a little lost in the winding neighborhoods before backtracking, I get in touch with Aycen, the friend of my friend in New York. We agree to meet around 7 pm for dinner and a night tour of the city. At this moment I feel its a perfect time to indulge myself in the one thing I've wanted since my first and only day in Turkey four years ago, a Turkish Bath, or Hamam.

At this point especially a Hamam was the perfect idea. I had woken up at 5:30 am the previous morning (New York time), barely slept on my flight to Turkey, and had spent about a day and a half in the same clothes and only recently brushed my teeth. 

I go to the bath and enter a very large, rotund, marble room that is apparently 500 years old. I sit there thinking I really should be more impressed but the exhaustion has dulled my senses for appreciating beauty and history. I sweat out all my impurities alone at first, and then am joined by two other Turkish women using the bath. I notice they sit by the sinks and take bowls to pour water over themselves. This looks like an excellent idea and I head over to do the same. Next came the part that I paid for, to be washed. A nice turkish woman comes in and gets to bathe me like I've never been bathed before. 

Seriously, I felt like I was transported back to being a baby, being washed by my mother with all the tenderness, care and love that can only come through when the dirt is washed away and you are made to feel like new. Which is weird I felt this way because I'm pretty sure my mom would just throw us in the shower as we cried that we were missing watching "The Simpsons" or "90210" (Yes, I was young enough to be forced to shower by my mom when Beverly Hills was the hot new thing). But in this bath, I was scrubbed from head to pinky toe. All the dead skin scrubbed off and rinsed with bowls of alternating cold and warm water. My hair was shampooed my scalp was massaged, she even seemed to get a bit frisky but I was so numb with the pleasure of cleanliness everything was wonderful. She finished, I dried and dressed and walked back out into the afternoon sun.

I still had time to kill before I met up with Aycen so I continued to just walk from place to place. I was aware that it was the month of Ramadan, the muslim holy month, and was actually a bit happy for it. It seemed Istanbul had all the energy it normally maintained, but just with the volume turned down. The reason for this is during Ramadan, all muslims are required to fast from sun up to sun down. They have to refrain from eating, smoking, drinking water, and of course a lot of them joked about refraining from sex. A normal day in Istanbul might consist of non-stop harassment. "Yes, yes! Come here good food! Where you from? You so beautiful!" But because everyone's energy was severely depleted from fasting, the harassment kind of went like this "Hello, you want to eat here? No? ...Ok." But in addition to everyone being very tired and subdued, they also practice more charity. I was taken in and offered tea and water more times than I have in my entire life! Add to that, I was never starved for conversation or stories. The Turks love to talk. Once you got one going he never shut up. I was in the square waiting for Aycen and I ended up talking to these two guys. One of the guys wouldn't stop bullshitting which was fine, but then when Aycen showed up, who they knew I was waiting for, it was like, "Oh wait, one more story! One more parable about life! One more nugget of knowledge!" 

The rest of the night went really well. Meeting up with Aycen was probably the highlight of my day. We had only exchanged a few emails and the only connection we had was our mutual friend. Yet as soon as we met, we had no problem filling in conversation or opening up about our views on life. We went to a wonderful seafood restaurant on the Bosphorous overlooking the city. I was able to see all the beautiful mosques and especially the lights lit up for Ramadan. Afterwards she took me to a main shopping street and I offered to treat her to coffee and dessert. We went to a really nice place, and even though we were in Turkey, I knew exactly what to order, "Tall skinny vanilla latte and a grande cappuccino." Yes, we went to Starbucks! The day had come full circle, and I was ok with it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment