Journal 27 - May 21, 2003

Istanbul » Go Back

Journal 27
Over three weeks since my last email, during which time I've gone from having a lot of time to write and nothing to write about, to having a lot to write about but no time to write.

I don't have much to report about my time on the Canary Islands. My very relaxing daily routine was something like this; wake up, put lots of sunscreen on, go to the beach, open book, read, turn page, read, turn page, repeat several hundred times, go back to the hotel. After ten days of that I had my best tan of the trip and finished two books. Damn that Tolkien is good.

From Tenerife I flew back to Barcelona for two quick days of site seeing and a fun night out with a cool German dude. Two days later I flew to Athens, where I found a little of the relief I was looking for from the western European tourist scene and prices. The ancient and chaotic city provided some relief, but not enough, so the next day I caught a 22-hour train to Istanbul.

My time in Barcelona was regrettably short, having made the mistake of booking my flight to Greece too soon after my return to Barcelona. But once there I found Athens to be fascinating despite the less than stellar reviews in the guidebook, and I enjoyed how the city felt. Although I only had one day to explore before catching the night train, I was able to get a small taste of what life in Athens is like. It's less organized than the other two cities I've visited so far in Europe, Brussels and Barcelona, which made me feel more at home, like being back in one of my beloved South American cities. For me the chaos is more interesting than the organized and highly developed worlds of Belgium and Spain. But as I said, Greece wasn't foreign enough, nor were the prices low enough, so I jumped the night train and arrived in Istanbul last Sunday with a couple of Mexican brothers I met on the train, and a Japanese guy attempting to travel on ten U.S. dollars a day.

Istanbul is a fascinating clash of East and West. For centuries the city has represented a symbolic mid-point between cultures, trade and continents. This cosmopolitan city rests beautifully on the Bosphorus, as the waterway between the edges of Asia and Europe is known. With miles of coastline, quaint seaside communities, and several enormous Golden Gate-style bridges spanning the two continents, Istanbul might be the most aesthetically beautiful city I've seen. Dozens of mosques pierce the skyline with tall spires and rounded domes. Several times daily the centuries old call to prayer fills the air, inviting citizens to pray. Hearing this ancient call while walking the narrow and crowded passages of the Grand Bazaar, or better yet some of the smaller, harder to find bazaars, definitely provides the feeling of being in a foreign land. But you are reminded that you're not far from home as you step from the bazaar into the street only to watch a brand new Mercedes pass by, or turn the corner and see a pair of yellow and red McDonald's arches.

While getting settled at the hostel my first night I met a fellow Latin brother from Argentina. I commented that it was rare to meet an Argentinean with plata for traveling, which made him laugh as he told me he had learned his lesson about putting money in the Argentine banks, better to spend it on traveling. We agreed to meet up the next morning for some site seeing. At 10 million Liras per night including breakfast, the hostel was more than adequate, and I was eager to put my pack down and get some rest after the long train ride. By far the most lopsided exchange I've encountered on my trip, each U.S. dollar is worth 1.5 million Turkish Liras, so prices for everything are quoted in millions. Fortunately it's possible to get a sandwich and coke for two million Liras, which is exactly the sort of budget-living I was looking for. And Turkish food is excellent, possibly the best distinct cuisine I've encountered on my trip.

According to which statistics you read or hear, Istanbul's population is approximately 12-15 million people, roughly a quarter of Turkey's of 60 million citizens. This ranks Istanbul somewhere among the world's ten or fifteen largest cities, close to Buenos Aires, but below Mexico City and Sao Paulo. Most of the main tourist attractions are in Sultanahmet, a neighborhood densely populated with hotels, hostels, restaurants and carpet sellers. These guys prey on tourists like buzzards to road kill. Most speak English very well, in addition to several other languages too, so our "no comprendo compadre" was met with the touché, "Espanol, de donde son? Hablo Espanol, como estan amigos?" much to our collective chagrin. These guys were by far the most aggressive hustlers I've encountered on my trip, way beyond the shoe shiners of Cusco, and they are very good at their jobs. Dressed well and smooth talking, they are able to converse about a vast array of topics depending what country a given person is from, anything to get you into their store so they can start talking rugs.

After fighting our way through the throngs of carpet sellers it was off to the Grand Bazaar, home to over two hundred shops selling everything from more carpets, leather jackets, t-shirts, to the classic Turkish water pipe known as the nargile. Valentin the Argentine bought one of the first nargiles he found, paying a hefty 40 million including apple tobacco and carbon. The brothers also bought themselves Nargiles, but I passed, reluctant to add more kilos to my pack, which seems to get heavier with each step. The chicos and I had a great time wandering around Sultanahmet for a few days, visiting the major sites around Istanbul, and doing our best not to spend too many millions per day.

A few days later, when Miguel, Jaime and Valentin left, I was lucky enough to meet a group of young Turks who wanted to show me around Istanbul. I accepted an invitation to join them on a boat ride to the Asian side of Istanbul to get a cup of coffee and watch an important football match between two of Turkey's biggest football clubs. We took a boat to Asia and headed for Bagdat Street, the Rodeo Drive of Istanbul. Turkey is a country where the people who have money, have lots of it. Never before leaving home did I expect Istanbul to be the one city where I'd see the most Ferraris in a given day, but after seeing half a dozen on Bagdat Street within just a few hours, I realized the Turks were showing me a part of Istanbul far away from the carpet sellers and five dollar hostels of Sultanahmet. I'm not talking about a bunch of old Magnum PI reject Ferraris; these were the very expensive, two hundred thousand dollar models.

My new friends were extremely friendly, eager to learn about life in the United States, and embarrassingly generous. They paid for everything we did, from the boat ride, coffee, dinner, even my time at the internet café. They wouldn't consider having me pay for anything. I spent several days with them doing my best to un-do much of the harm done to their minds thanks to Hollywood, and also being shown aspects of Istanbul I never would have seen without their tremendous hospitality. They were extremely nice, and it was very humbling to receive the generosity I did from people who make as much per month as I would in a good night at Emilio's.

After nine days in Istanbul it was time to leave, feeling the time crunch for the first time during my trip, and realizing that there is much more to see with the relatively short time I have left. From Istanbul I bussed to Cappadocia, home of the famous ferry chimneys and underground cities. I'll explore here for the next few days, then make my way to the beaches of the south.

I hope all is well back home and elsewhere.