Istanbul is full of surprises
To be honest, I am wildly naïve and ignorant about this part of the world. The closest thing I have experienced to a Muslim country is our short and slightly cushy trip to Morocco a few years back. It was a culture shock then, and I was bracing myself for it here. I was waiting for the city to overwhelm me, to overtake the senses and make me want to crawl into a ball with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears. Like I said, I was ignorant.
With my mind full of media stories and warnings from friends, we made the decision to go to Turkey anyways. Conflicting stories from other travellers and people who had family there gave us that extra push in the direction we already wanted to go in. Istanbul was our first stop: Turkey’s heart and soul. Mind you this was October, away from the madness that is the summer tourist season.
Our first encounter at the airport was when we had to get e-visas at the counter. While the man behind the counter was pleasant enough to us, he almost pretended not to speak English to the man of African descent who was asking for help. Hmm… not off to a good start. It was also a little rough trying to get around the city when your flight lands at 11:30 p.m. An airport employee helped us get to the metro right before it closed. After getting stuck at the end of the line, a restaurant worker told us how much a taxi SHOULD cost to our Airbnb, which really impressed Mike as helpful. We took our first tentative steps out the next day, with my guard up and eyes shifting, always watching. The wall I put up was unnecessary, as to my surprise, I felt quite comfortable here. What culture shock? This place was awesome and we started feeling right at home, quickly getting used to the transit system and busy streets. Communication was not difficult as most people spoke English. I felt safe as we walked the streets at night and never got the feeling that I had to watch my bag. People here left their purses on a chair on the street side of the table without a care in the world. Everyone was, for the most part very friendly and hospitable. The street carts are very reminiscent of New York selling roasted chestnuts, mussels, and pretzel-like bread called simit.
There was one “A-ha” moment. As we were taking pictures near the Aya Sofia, I parted from Mike just a little bit. Next thing I know, I see someone talking to him. I swear, Mike always gets picked up. Not in THAT way, but he seems to always pick up a conversation with someone, everywhere. So here he was, getting chatted up by some guy. Turns out, he had a carpet shop and wanted to show us. Despite telling him multiple times we couldn’t afford, carry, or didn’t want one, he insisted. He seemed nice enough, although Mike told me later that he knew he was a hustler; just look at the watch. We walked with him to his store but backed out of actually going in. The guy’s eyes became angry and his co-workers raised their voices at us, as we walked away from them. Nothing intense but mildly unpleasant. There was the Turkey I thought I would experience. But I knew was that this one little thing wasn’t going to marr the good feeling I was beginning to have about the country.
Though the streets were filled with people, it was not filled with tourists. As much as I loved being only a handful of people waiting to get into the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque), it felt weird. Being a non-Muslim and allowed in to see such a place was an honour, but it felt odd not having to fight through the crowds of tourists to see it and many other sites. Was this a reward for finally being able to travel at a time other than peak season? I doubt it. The city had to be hurting. Over 600 shops in the infamous Grand Bazaar shopping market had closed down. After a brief scan with metal detectors, we found the bazaar to be eerily deserted and quiet. We had space. I had initially dreaded going here as I recalled my experiences in the Marrakech medina. People calling out to you relentlessly, “China, China! Japan!” The push of people and motorbikes brushing past, overwhelming the very Canadian part of me (Where’s the space and order?!). Yet here, in the largest of bazaars, in a city as populated as Istanbul, I could almost do the Sound of Music type of twirl through the halls and wouldn’t even bump into anyone (Cue the “Hills Are Alive song” – sorry, I went with this reference over the more obvious whirling dervishes). No one even tried to woo us into their stall. We walked through rows and rows and the only bustle we saw were the people delivering çay (tea) to the shop owners. I almost couldn’t understand why it was this bad.
Small hiccup. One morning, I received a message from a friend asking if we were okay. On our second night, there had been an explosion outside a police station on the other end of the city. Luckily there were no fatalities, just injuries. My friend was only a handful of people who even knew we were in Turkey because we didn’t want to worry people. After hearing the news, what could we do? We just lived on like all the others in the city. I had small anxieties when in very crowded places, but you can do nothing more than hope you’re not in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mike shrugged everything off, I don’t know how he could express such confidence. It was a weird dichotomy. On one hand, I was beginning to feel at ease in the city, and on the other, small things would signal off reminders that everything was not exactly okay. We had to go through metal detectors and bag checks at SOME metro stations (Why not all?). There were also police with high powered guns EVERYWHERE. Along A busy shopping street that connects to Taksim square, there were police stationed every 50 metres (overkill or necessary?). It felt like Paris, the more of them there were, the faster I wanted to get away from them. Ugh, it still gives me the creeps thinking about it.
Otherwise, it felt no different then visiting any other cool big city. A place I could go back to again and again, like a New York. Not exactly to live, but definitely to visit over and over. Discovering the lifestyle, drinking Turkish coffee and çay (tea) on the streets, eating really good kebab, Istanbul is a really interesting city with many neighbourhoods and distinct districts to visit. Our week there gave us a good taste at the very surface but it will take more visits to go deeper. Despite all that the country is going through at the moment: taking in refugees, political instability, internal terrorism, and security concerns, as tourists, I could barely observe any of it. Istanbul has its head held high, living life to the fullest degree. The city is as strong as they come and full of surprises.