Originally, it didn't seem like Istanbul could hold a straw to Rome. Although it was incredible in its own rite, Rome is... well, the Eternal City. But looking back on the trip as a whole, I think my perspective has changed. While I visited Rome, I experienced Istanbul. If you merely visit Istanbul, it will be worthwhile. If you experience it, you'll never forget it.
The Hostel: Mavi Guesthouse
Mavi was one of my favorite memories. When Kelly and I realized that our original reservations didn't go through a few days before arriving, Mavi was the next best thing... staying in a 22-person room on the roof. The roof, it turned out, was an opaque tarp. Admittedly, the first night was a bit rough, not to mention cold. Kelly said at one point she awoke and looked over to find me completely submerged under three enormous blankets, head and all. However, waking up to see and hear birds feet on the tarp above me magically erased the previous night, and the trip really began.
Breakfast everyday consisted of slices of tomato and cucumber, a hard boiled egg, cream cheese and jelly, and an endless supply of sliced bread with coffee and apple tea (a Turkish staple!). One of my bunk buddies was an enormous bald Turkish guy who worked at the hostel, and after a few days, he had our eating preferences down and brought our food immediately with a smile. Ali, the hostel owner, was an endless fount of information and advice, as well as an offbeat sense of humor that continually caught me by surprise.
The Blue Mosque
Our hostel was literally right around the corner from two of Istanbul's most famous sights. The Blue Mosque is an impressive structure, but as Mars, a new acquaintance who happened to be attending OU, pointed out, it appeared to be in perfect harmony with the surrounding landscape. Kelly and I stopped by right before the evening call to prayers. To enter, we first had to remove our shoes and cover our heads. Habitually at a loss for all fashion tricks, the scarf wasn't working for me, so I turned to a Muslim woman who was also removing her shoes and asked for help. With a quick flip of the scarf and whipping out a pin from her own covering, mine was perfect!
Inside was spacious and colorful... in a subdued sort of way. Women already praying lined the walls while tourists flashed their pictures. An unfortunate [ugly] American girl seemed to have forgotten to take her shoes off and got into an embarrassingly loud argument with one of the mosque men who was quietly asking her to leave. A few minutes later, that same man returned and herded us all out as quickly as possible right before the call to prayer thundered from the minarets. The whole city echoed with the various mosques' calls as the sun began to set. It was beautiful.
The Hagia Sophia
Right across the street, the Hagia Sophia kept a watchful eye on the Blue Mosque. Originally a Byzantine cathedral, it was much more imposing than the Mosque. However, when the Ottoman Turks invaded, they converted it to another mosque and plastered over many of the Christian paintings and mosaics. Kelly and I, becoming adept at eavesdropping on others' tours, learned that the plaster had begun to chip away in spots, allowing some of the original work to show through. There were also several beautiful golden mosaics of Mary, Christ, and a few other saints that had survived. My main lament on this trip was not having brushed up on my ancient history more thoroughly. 10th grade was a long time ago. Still, the tours we pirated were quite helpful :)
On our first night, we arrived famished. Ali recommended a restaurant down the street, Meat House. We were skeptical until, at that very moment, his to-go order arrived. One look at the dishes and we were convinced. Dinner began with the best yogurt I have ever tasted and the most enormous puff of pita bread, fresh from the oven.
The next dish, a combo platter, was equally as delicious, and our server watched attentively and answered all our questions. When we were finished, he begged us to stay for a cup of apple tea on the house. This was to become a custom no matter where we went. Turkish people are, above all, hospitable!
Jimmy and the Asian Side
The hill entailed a bus ride and a sharp walk upward. Jimmy accompanied us the whole way and was an endless source of knowledge and conversation. While some of us were worried he'd turn around and demand millions of dollars at any moment, the rest of us enjoyed a lively conversation. He seemed to take a balanced perspective on most things, whether the Kurds, or gypsies, or censorship, or Turkey's pending admittance to the EU.
The Whirling Dervishes
In college, Dr. Spencer's classes nearly killed me. British Literature Since 1800 and Ancient World Literature. Even the memories make me shudder involuntarily. My biggest problem with world literature was that most of it was so foreign that, despite having traveled, I had little experience to which I could connect my readings. Nevertheless, I did emerge with some favorites, one of which was Rumi, the Sufi Islam mystic.
While waiting in line to see the Hagia Sophia, someone gave us a flyer to a whirling dervish performance that evening. Dervishes, as you may know, are the mystic clerics in Sufism, and they dance in circles in a set ceremony as a spiritual practice and entrance into meditation. Intrigued and wishing I'd brought my Rumi book of poems (which actually did make it to Spain!), I put it on my If-We-Have-Time-and-Money-I'd-Really-Like-to-Go list. The timing worked perfectly, though it meant we had to scarf down the world's greatest kebab en route. (I kid you not, most kebabs are pretty similar. This one was divine.) The performance itself was cool, but it was definitely helpful to have an explanation of the ceremony in front of us!
I'm currently debating how much to explain about Turkish baths. It is easily one of my favorite memories. However, on the off-chance that some of you mystery readers will make it over, I think you should just experience it. Let's just say, it's not a Roman sauna experience by any stretch of the imagination, though it begins like that. Red-checkered towels, steamy stone rooms, vigorous exfoliation and olive oil soap suds... yes, it's better to just experience it.
The Grand Bazaar
Most Unexpected Moment
Favorite Second-Hand Story
(told without permission... sorry Kelly!)
One of the nights, most of our group opted to go to Taksim, the nightlife hub of Istanbul. Ready to call it a day, I declined but wished them a good time. Off they went. They arrived at a huge club, only to find that it was mostly deserted except for the fourth floor. The bouncer, however, was not very understanding and flatly refused to admit them. Kelly and Tina watched from a distance as the Wills tried to argue (sweet-talk) their way in. Defeated, they returned to the girls with the bad news. It was a no go. Not ready to give in, Kelly spoke up. "Step aside, Will, let me handle this."
Now, you need to know that Kelly is a few inches shorter than me, has beautiful eyes, and is altogether gorgeous. In fact, as Evil Eye Will put it, "You just so adorable, it's disgusting!" So Kelly walks up to the bouncer and smiles sweetly. "Is there any way we could go up to the fourth floor, please?" she asks.
"For you," the big man grinned, "no problem. Open sesame!" And that was that. The boys followed in silence :)