Thursday, January 8, 2009

Travel memories

I went to Istanbul for nearly a week last November, and decided I needed a month just to see a fraction of the city, so I'll have to go back some time. Tom (an English guy I met in Bulgaria) and I went down there and wandered the streets rather aimlessly, which is the best way to visit a place in my opinion. Tom's one of those people who makes no real plans for a day, and the biggest decisions are whether to go right down a street because it looks interesting or left because it is colorful and you can hear music from it. When we needed food, we ducked into whatever place was near. When we needed beer, we sat down and had some Efes at whichever bar we came across.

On the first day we met this American kid who was studying the Byzantine era at a university in Greece, and he was the tour book kind of tourist, but he was justified because there were things he needed to see for his studies. He was quite knowledgeable and very interesting to follow around on the first day, but I more enjoyed our wanderings later in the week. On Jacob's last day we led him around in our style of touring, and he rather liked it. At least we could teach him a thing or two about traveling.

Tom was kind of looking for a job and once we saw a big school on a hilltop and he decided to ask about teaching English, so we made this mammoth climb through what was probably not a great part of town, judging from the crumbling buildings and people living in what looked like bombed out apartments with only three walls. We got to the school and pressed a bell and a buzz let us through a gate without ever having a word spoken, so we began climbing the stairs and we looked through some holes in the walls and realize that there must have been some kind of palace or something underneath and that's when I realized how amazing just the dirt on the ground of that city really was - I mean, just think of all of the stuff under there, all of the artifacts and relics from the time when Istanbul was the center of the world. We swore we were looking at some kind of dungeon through the cement walls of the stairway, but it was more likely just the product of our imaginations. At the top of the stairway we discovered we were standing on a cement football field,and a man emerged from the school and spoke Turkish to us with an apprehensive smile. Naturally, none of us knew what he was saying, so Jacob tried to speak to him in broken Greek, which is sort of like speaking Hebrew in Mecca, but it was fine, because as it turned out, it was a Greek school for children of those who worked for the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church situated somewhere down the hill. Jacob's Greek wasn't good enough, and though the three of us had six languages between us, it took us a good five minutes to communicate that Tom was looking for an English teaching position. No luck, but it was fun. That was my favorite day of the whole trip.

I did, however, have some gender issues in a couple of the neighborhoods we visited and was glad Tom was there to wander with me, because I don't think I would have enjoyed the city as much alone. In one neighborhood, every woman was clad in a black burqa. I and my uncovered head were the recipients of some spit from one of these creatures. Then there was harassment in some other quarters, but that's really no different than what you find in Italy.

I enjoyed eating fresh mackerel sandwiches along the Bosporus and perusing the pickings at the spice bazaar more than anything, I think. Oh, and there was an old aqueduct somewhere north in the city near an old mosque that was not frequented by tourists, and the three of us climbed to the top on hands and knees for what has to be the best view of Istanbul. I think I could have sat up there all day staring out at what seemed to be an infinite city, where there was no horizon, only endless tracts of stacked buildings and minarets and the occasional sound of the muezzins calling the inhabitants to prayer.

I was rather disappointed by the Ottoman palace. It felt more like an amusement park rather than the "White House" of its time. Plus, I don't consider anything that was built after the United States was an independent country as "old." I looked at some of the "treasures" found in the palace - such objects as plates and jewelry - and thought they were rather crudely constructed given that the industrial revolution was already a century underway when they were created. Factories were already mass producing the same kind of china that they found so precious. It's no wonder the empire crumbled - they refused to modernize.

Unfortunately, it was near the end of my trip, and I had to pick and choose which places to go in since most of the tourist sites cost around $10 to enter - the dhimmi tax, we called it, because the mosques were free to enter but any Christian site charged an entrance fee. I suppose I'm just spoiled having lived so long in DC, where most of the museums are free, but it was rather suspicious.

There are pictures of my trip on my blog Bulgariarox.

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