Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Beautiful City

While on the 14-hour train ride from Sighet to Bucharest, I had plenty of “quality” time to daydream and get excited about my imminent trip to Istanbul, Turkey. I have never been much on doing a lot of research and planning for trips, I prefer the “shoot it from the hip” and “I will figure it out when I get there” methods of travel. Thus, my trip to Istanbul was no exception. Besides arranging a place to crash for the first two nights, the rest was all up in the air, just the way I prefer it. Honestly, the 14-hour train ride to Bucharest on top of the 21-hour train ride to Istanbul was not as bad as I thought it would be. A lot of this had to do with the fact I was traveling with my buddy Mike, another volunteer and as chance would have it a Turkish man named Ali, who was entertaining to say the least. Ali’s topics of conversations revolved around women, politics and conspiracy theories, in that order! As we were making our way through Bulgaria, we happened to make friends with a Bulgarian train controller, who claimed he was “THE” train controller of train controllers in Bulgaria. The train stopped somewhere around Sophia, for a period of time to change and add wagons. At the station we were at, there was a little store/restaurant/bar, that “THE” Bulgarian train controller invited us to, for as he described “The Best Kebab in Bulgaria,” you don’t have to ask me twice I was out of the train before he could finish the word kebab! Just for reference, it is about mid-night at this point in our journey. Once we are seated at the table, the women behind the counter demanded while also asking us “3 kebabs, 3 beer!?” We just smiled and nodded, yes. I am no food guru, but I do know the difference between a kebab and a non-kebab. I observed the women open a freezer door pull out three white hamburger patties and pop them in a microwave. Mean while, our conductor friend was sipping on a small coffee cup, that obviously did not have coffee in it, repeating “Americans… Kebabs” with a bright white grin on his face. To this day, I am not sure what we ate that evening, but it was a damn good non-kebab whatever it was. After washing down the mystery meat with a local Bulgarian beer, my buddy Mike asked our controller friend, while pointing at his watch if we should be boarding the train soon. The controller, laughed out loud, took another sip from his coffee cup and said, “the train leaves when I say it leaves…as long as you are with me you are fine,” while raising his coffee cup to offer cheers. The man was true to his word, after a few phone calls in Bulgarian that sounded a lot like Russian, he motioned for us to board the train and I will be damned if that train did not start moving as soon as we all stepped on board…Nine hours later, hello Istanbul.
I have always respected the expression “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Well, Istanbul’s first impression on me was an impressive one to say the least. Immediately, I felt a soft, colorful vibe of the city. The streets were spotless and full of life. For a city the size of Istanbul, 12-13 million, it is impeccably clean…even if you want find a gum wrapper on the street you will be hard pressed to find one. As we searched for our hotel, men trying to steer us into their restaurant or store, greeted us. They were never pushy; it was all very friendly, genuine and clever, while obviously trying to make a sale. The city’s many Mosques were also another strong first impression. Structurally they are they simple, ornate and absolulty stunning (see picture.) The first time I heard the call to prayer, the prayer called from Mosques from speakers on each Minaret, chills rushed down my spine, which was what happened every time I heard it through out the whole trip. However, it is the Turkish people and culture that make Istanbul my new favorite city in the world I have visited so far. Everyone we came in contact with was friendly, warm, engaging and very hospitable. The best term I have to describe the Turkish people and culture is, classy.
I had just set foot in this city but already I had a good feeling for it, one that just grew stronger as the days went by. Finally, reaching the hotel Mike and I meet up with Liz, another volunteer, took a much-needed shower and hit the streets. First stop was to the Grand Bazaar. If I had read a tourist’s guidebook to Istanbul, without question the Grand Bazaar would be number one on the list, but if it is not, it should be. The Grand Bazaar is a giant market where you can find just about anything, and you cannot find it just ask, because more times than not it will be found for you. To be honest, it was a bit over whelming the first time walking around. First of all it is massive, with all these little side paths, all jammed pack with vendors selling everything from gold, silver, scarves, leather and the world-renowned Turkish rugs…and the whole time bargaining for the so called right price, a definite sensation overload. Again, each vendor is unique and full of personality to catch your attention and hopefully land a sale. I could see how some might find this a bit aggressive and maybe uncomfortable, but I loved it! The first carpet store we were convinced to visit was a lot of fun. The gentleman helping us, spoke excellent English, as do most in Istanbul, and seemed like a genuine salesmen, if there can be such a thing! First things first, tea…he did not mention a word about rugs or carpets until well into our second glass of tea, which is customary, piping hot, sweetly delicious and on the house. Then once we started on rugs it was all encompassing…big ones, small ones, thick ones, thin ones, double knotted, single knotted, traditional, modern and prayer ones etc. Most vendors I encountered in the Bazaar practiced the true and traditional sense of salesmanship, the customer is always right. You cannot come up with an excuse that will stump these guys…if you tell them you do not have room in your suitcase, they will wrap it right there and ship it to you, if it is not the right color, they will find you the right color, if it is too expensive, which it always is, you bargain for what you think is the right price. I enjoyed this type of consumer environment compared to just walking into a store, picking something out, paying for it and leaving, often never even talking to anyone. Not only was it entertaining but also each purchase has a story behind it.
We crossed the Bosporus river and landed on the other part of Istanbul that is settled in Asia. This was my first but not last time in Asia. The Asian side of Istanbul was much more low key, less touristy and traditional, or so it seemed. Other highlights of the trip, included visits to many Mosques including the famous Blue Mosque (see picture) which were all very welcoming as well as informative in regards to understanding Islam and its faith…each Mosque we entered was simply beautiful, ornate with an powerful sense of devotion. We also wandered in the Hagia Sophia; Takim Square that absolutely blew me away with how crowed it was especially during the off-season. Raki is the traditional drink, with a flavor very similar to Greece’s Uzo or Italy’s Sambuca. It was refreshingly tame compared to the village’s horlinka, served with equal part water and on ice. Also, it was often served with a bowl of mix nuts and or a creamy, salted white cheese. As you might expect the food was exquisite and full of flavor. Turkish coffee lives up to its reputation of strong, delicious and sweet. Smoking fruit or mint-flavored tobacco from a water pipe, nargile, was another customary tradition we enjoyed in many of the relaxed, vibrant, friendly cafes that line the streets of Istanbul. Just before we boarded the train for our return trip to Bucharest, we visited a Turkish bath, which involves getting washed actually forcefully scrubbed is a better verb as I am pretty sure I lost a few layers of skin in the process, massaged and rinsed in a sauna like room. It was a perfect way to end the trip and a great way to prepare for a 20-hour train ride back to Bucharest.
Just like any trip to a new place, the time flew by and 6 days was not nearly long enough. I am not convinced 26 days would be enough for a city like Istanbul…that’s why next time I go there, it might just be with a one-way ticket!