Saturday, June 22, 2013

Guest Post: Istanbul (June 2 to June 13, 2013)

Jenny Wood wrote this guest post, sharing her memories and perceptions of our summer trip to Istanbul.

It's about time I share some of my memories of our first trip to Turkey! I'd never visited an Islamic country before, and I never imagined how much I'd love Istanbul. Our hotel was in the Sultanahmet District, a popular tourist region with small cobblestone roads, old and colorful buildings, and plenty of shops, restaurants, and important landmarks. Just a few blocks from our hotel (the Vezir) we could walk to Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, and the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya). All three are together in one large plaza that contains fountains and monuments.

Early on, we toured the Hagia Sophia, learning about its strange evolution. It started as a church, commissioned by Emperor Justinian I who envisioned something that could complete with Solomon's temple. A few centuries later it was converted into a mosque once the Ottomans took over. Fortunately instead of destroying the Christian symbols, the building's new owners covered them up, sometimes with plaster, sometimes with curtains. Now the Hagia Sophia is a museum that contains elements from both periods, bringing Christian and Muslim artifacts together in one place. There are mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Jesus next to the name of Allah written in Arabic. What a great combination of cultures! I love learning about things like this.

Once we got settled into Istanbul we took a side trip to Ephesus, the city from the New Testament, where Paul and John preached. It is all ruins now but is still pretty spectacular. We saw two amphitheaters and the facade of the library where the men would go to study. Supposedly there was a secret passage that connected the library to a nearby brothel. We also saw where their temple of Athena stood, along with a bathhouse and public restroom (again, for men only). It was all so interesting. Oh, and there were lots of cats there too. In fact, we saw cats pretty much everywhere we traveled in Turkey. Some are grungy and scared but others are sweet and happy to be pet. We couldn’t say no.

Back in Istanbul we wandered the narrow streets, always looking up. There are large mosques everywhere, adding a lot of beauty to the skyline. And there is so much history! The city was originally called Byzantium, and then Constantinople, and then Istanbul. You can still see ancient walls alongside new buildings. The architecture varies widely from place to place, but is all lovely and colorful. There are carpet, ceramic, and souvenir vendors everywhere, and lots restaurants with great food. I've had some delicious dishes since I've been here: kebabs, meatballs, hummus, and Sultan's Delight, a wonderful dish of mashed eggplant and cheese topped with grilled chicken and a yummy sauce.

Down by the river they sell a lot of fish. I tried some, but it wasn't very good; maybe I got the wrong kind or something. But, they have these boats where folks prepare the fish onboard, preparing sandwiches to sell ashore. Andy and I skipped those. Now I realize that I probably should have tried one. At least the grilled meat was tasty. One of our favorite meals was a meatball sandwich sold by a street vendor.

While we were there, we found ourselves caught up in protests sweeping the country. We first heard about the uproar about two days before we came, while we were attending the Salzburg seminar in Austria. We read that the Turkish prime minister wanted to bulldoze a park and build a shopping center in its place. Thousands of people responded by attempting a peaceful occupation. Police used tear gas to retake the park (followed by government apologies for excessive force) - and then police and protesters began preparations for what might happen next.

During our first night in Istanbul, we traveled to Taksim Square; that’s where we first felt the sting of tear gas. That evening, protesters were out in force, chanting, waving flags, and making a ruckus. The statue in the square was covered with banners, flags, and people climbing to take pictures or yell chants. A helicopter circled overhead, and every time it came close, people booed and shot birds at it. Some cars had been overturned; some had obviously been sat ablaze and later covered with graffiti. Amid all this chaos, we also saw vendors selling food and banners, and there were plenty of tourists taking pictures and watching the spectacle. Despite the exuberant atmosphere, we knew that another police incursion was possible at any moment.

When we returned a few nights later, the scene was quite different. The barricades were still up, as were the banners and flags, but it was more like a festival than a protest. There were groups of people singing and dancing, and more vendors had gathered to pitch their wares. More families had arrived, many with children. There even some hawkers selling and launching paper lanterns into the air. We stayed for a couple of hours, wandering around, and this time entered Gezi Park. The protestors had formed a big crowd under the trees, but we never felt endangered. Except for the stench of urine that permeated the place, I enjoyed our visit.

Our days weren’t entirely dedicated to watching the unfolding protest, though. We also checked out Istanbul’s grand bazaar and the spice bazaar. I really liked the spice bazaar and could have stayed there a lot longer (though that's dangerous; I wanted to buy everything). Unfortunately the grand bazaar was not as exciting as I had hoped. It was way too much like a mall, stuffed with brand clothing, leather, gold, and other things. There were some nice souvenir shops but they were harder to find.

Then, after seeing so many amazing pictures of the region, we decided to take a two-day excursion to Cappadocia. I’m so glad we did! We saw such beautiful countryside, with buttes jutting from ground, much like something you'd see in Southern Utah. Locals call the buttes “fairy chimneys,” and some had long ago decided to carve homes and churches inside of them. I loved the chance to climb inside. That was our first day in the region. The second day was even better. We suffered a super-early wakeup that morning, but it was worth it: Balloon Ride!

I've never been in a balloon before, and it was really amazing. Such a smooth ride and gorgeous view. I had the still camera and Andy had the video camera, so we created some great images together. There were a lot of balloons up there, too. You could tell that it's big business in this region. I can see why. It was my favorite part of the trip.

After the balloon ride we got an hour or so nap back at the hotel. Loved it! Then our tour guide took us on a hike through one of the valleys. I enjoy hiking, and this area was so beautiful. We saw more buttes and stopped at a couple of trailside “cafes,” conveniently placed at spots where tourists tend to get thirsty or peckish. The best part was the time we spent with the other people on the tour. There was a Pakistani couple that we got to know; he is a doctor and she used to work in education before deciding to stay home with a son who needs special care. And then there was Brian, a New Yorker who shares our love for The Simpsons and 30 Rock.

At the end of the hike, we stopped at a small town called Çavuşin. The most prominent feature of this small town was a large cliff-like butte with lots of rooms carved out of it. The guide said it was a church. Andy, Brian, Jahinder (the Pakistani gentleman) and I all climbed up this structure because, well, that's what we do! What fun to explore and climb, taking photos from different angles. After our climbing adventure, our group waited for Jahinder who always seemed to dawdle. Andy bought some fresh squeezed orange juice and we chatted. Then we spotted our new friend, sporting a red fez. Jahinder had found his perfect souvenir at the bottom of the church structure. We all chuckled, but he seemed genuinely thrilled with his new purchase.

After a great lunch, our group set about exploring an underground city. That was really interesting, too, learning how people once carved spaces to hide and store food from enemies. We were able to walk through four levels of rooms and tunnels. Apparently there are several of these cave cities in the region, and our guide took us to the largest one. We climbed down through tunnels into cool-temperature caves and learned a little more about how the people lived back then. I especially appreciated the group of little vendor stalls that led up to the entrance! We always enjoy a little shopping. Best of all, the venders weren’t attacking us with relentless sales pitches (one of our few irritations with Istanbul). The only downside: Each day of this trip included another one of those workshop “tours” where they try to get you to buy stuff. Thankfully we were able to talk our guide out of a third one.

After our trip to Cappadocia, we still had a few days to enjoy Istanbul. I loved getting to know our neighborhood and walking past the Sultanahmet Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. What a beautiful area! One evening we took a dinner cruise down the Bosphorus. For a dinner cruise it was pretty fun. The food was good but certainly not great. We ate while the ship was moored, but we hung out on deck once we got underway. The cool breeze and night-view were a major improvement over our seating below.

As with our dinner, the ship’s entertainment was a mixed bag. We loved the belly dancer, of course. We enjoyed the Turkish folk dancers too, though some were a little strange. The creepiest part involved these two guys who pulled their shirts over their heads, revealing big wobbly bellies painted to resemble faces. They performed a weirdly comical dance of a couple falling in love. It almost seemed like a satire of the folk dances that preceded them. After the entertainment, the performers invited the audience to join them on stage. Most folks preferred to sit and drink, but Andy and I danced. The best part was just seeing the buildings lit up along the river. Sure, dinner cruises can seem awkward, with a bunch of strangers crammed together on a boat, but it was worth all the strangeness to see Istanbul this way.

As our trip was winding down, Taksim Square was heating up once more. We were eating breakfast on the day before our departure when Andy noticed on television that police were clearing the Square with gas and water cannons again. That dreaded feeling of inevitability came over me. I could hardly be surprised when Andy announced that he had to get up there. Ugh. He said I could stay behind, but there was no way I was going to send him up there alone, with me waiting and wondering if he was safe. No way.

Once we made our way to the Square it was clear that things had changed. Most of the protestors had fled the square, squeezing into Gezi Park. The only people in Taksim were cops in black armor and other journalists, some official and some most definitely unofficial (like Andy). At first I didn't think we would be allowed inside the Square, but there were several people just walking around watching or snapping photos. Naturally Andy dove right in, which meant that I had to follow. The cops didn't seem to care; they were too busy worrying about a small group of protesters throwing rocks in our direction from behind barricades and overturned cars. The cops launched tear gas grenades, but the protesters wore gas masks too. They just picked up the grenades and threw them back.

Andy and I spent about an hour wandering around and trying not to get hurt. He focused on photography and I concentrated on what was happening around him. He got in a close shave when he went over to the large group of protesters. Andy wanted some photos, but once he got too close they started throwing rocks at him. An older man nearby told him that the protestors thought he was part of the Turkish media. Since many of the protesters were mad at the media, the man warned that Andy had better leave. Thereafter positioned himself between the cops and the protesters and got some great shots.

At one point, a gas canister misfired and emptied out right next to us. We all backed up while the park crowd cheered. Then things got stranger still. Another group of protesters, holding hands in a line, walked up through the group of cops. The cops were perplexed. The protesters encircled the police, but they were peaceful. That’s when I saw the water cannon, which for some unknown reason I didn't notice before at all. I knew something was going to happen and worried that Andy was going to get the camera soaked. [Yes, I was worried about the camera, not Andy. He could get a little wet, I figured, but that camera is expensive!] Anyway, it was only a few minutes before that cannon went off against the protesters. That’s when Andy took pictures of five protesters holding hands and kneeling on the ground before they got doused.

I watched from a distance, feeling safely detached from the view, until I felt the sharp sting of gas in my eyes, nose, and throat. My instincts kicked in and I bolted. I didn't breathe; I just ran with my hand over my eyes like a salute. I ran for about ten seconds and took a small breath to see if I’d gotten far enough away. The sting was still there so I kept pumping my legs. Finally I got to a spot where I couldn't feel the pain anymore. I had felt one small rock hit my leg and had a light bruise, but otherwise I was OK. I couldn't see Andy, but I knew he was right in the middle of the gas. I waited with an increasing sense of dread before I saw him running toward me with his shirt over his face. He’d gotten his photos and was ready to depart. "Unless you want to stay,” he added. I smiled sweetly. "No, I'm good. Idiot.

Back at the hotel Andy began to edit photos and video. I opted to take pictures of nicer subjects than protestors and uprisings. Later we decided to head out to Miniaturk (though Andy kept wistfully looking up at the black smoke emanating from the square on the hill). Our goal was a park that contains dozens of miniature buildings and monuments from around Turkey. We got some directions from the hotel, but we were both really sketchy on them: take the metro to the bus station; then catch bus number something-or-other. That will take you there. OK, but how do I pay for the bus? And how do I know which stop it is?

We figured out the bus station (after about 15 or 20 minutes) and we learned where to purchase tickets. Once we found our ride, we tried to ask the driver if we’d selected the right route. He said yes but then couldn't or wouldn't answer any of our other questions. We rode for a while, not knowing at all where we were going or when to get off the bus. There was a young man who spoke some English, and he offered to help. Andy was wary but they guy assured us that we were on the right track. Turns out, Miniaturk has its own stop!

The sun was out and it was quite warm, but we had a fine afternoon. We saw miniatures of many of the things we'd seen that week: The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, Cappadocia, which had tiny balloons floating over it, Ephesus, and even Taksim Square. We walked around and took pictures for a couple of hours and got some ice cream. The heat was beating upon us, so I was really happy to find one of those tacky umbrella hats. It actually helped keep the sun off of me. We saw some things at Miniaturk that we wished we knew about earlier in the trip. Next time, we know to see any miniature parks first!

When we'd had our fill of miniatures, we headed back by bus to our neighborhood and planned on one last great meal at the restaurant that had become our favorite. I had Sultan's Delight again. Yum! Then as we ambled back through the Sultanahmet area, we passed a little outdoor cafe that we'd passed several times before. It was a place called the Dervish Cafe. We’d arrived at a perfect time because they actually had a whirling dervish performing! At first he was just standing next to a drummer and dulcimer player who made charming music together. We figured he would start doing his thing soon, so we decided to stop.

Soon the musicians changed to another song, and he started whirling. It was so beautiful. By this time I’d learned that a whirling dervish is actually a Sufi within the Mevlevi order. Apparently they espouse a love for God and a connection with other people. When they whirl, they hold their hands in a special position, with one hand pointing upward toward God and one pointing downward toward the earth. The whirling represents everything encircling the heart in peace and harmony. I watched as he whirled. The man’s eyes were closed, and he turned slowly and gracefully. To keep from falling, he kept one foot planted, allowing the other to rotate. He whirled for a few minutes and then stopped, rested a while, and then commenced to dance some more. We watched him whirl about three different times within a half hour. It was so relaxing and so beautiful. The whirling dervish reminded me of a hula dancer for some reason; he was so graceful. I could have watched him all night.

I was sad to leave Istanbul. I would miss our Sultanahmet neighborhood, the cats we would pet, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia that would greet us every day, and the whole atmosphere and culture of the city. At least we had one last moment to celebrate as we rode to the airport in the wee hours of the morning. That’s when we heard one final call to prayer, a fitting send-off for our long flight back home.

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