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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Istanbul, long term travel, Travel, Turkey

Istanbul’s Charm

I wake up feeling lethargic and wanting more sleep, but breakfast ends at 10 and Rodrigo and I have plans to see the Archaeology Museum, so I pull myself out of my warm, cave-like bottom bunk. Breakfast, coffee, coffee, clothes, GO. I’m seeing sculptures and reliefs and remains and ruins, but there’s so much to take in, it’s almost overwhelming. My attention span is limited, so I head outside for some fresh air- and maybe a tea, or coffee.

I head back towards the hostel and pass the owner in the side street. He asks me what I’m up to and I suggest a tea. He links his arm in mine and says, “Come with me.” We stroll to the back of the Sultanahment District, towards the water, snacking on some street corn on the way. Literally, within ten minutes we have lost the crowds from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia and I feel like I’ve entered a new section of the city, quiet and much less frequented from where we were.
We visit Little Hagia Sofia- a smaller scale replica of the more grand mosque of the same name. Craftsmen occupy small workspaces in the mosque’s courtyard, creating and selling everything from paintings to jewelry to plates. We leave the mosque and walk across the street to a Nargileh Cafe. It’s getting cold and gray and we warm up with an apple tea and a water pipe, whiling away an hour of the afternoon.
We then venture further into the back roads of Sultanahmet, down winding alleyways, over bridges, passing old, dilapidated wooden houses that have retained so much character they almost tell a story. We loop back towards Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sofia and rejoin modern Istanbul, almost like we opened a door and climbed back through from old to new, leaving a magical, more unknown world behind. And I realize this is Istanbul’s charm – a beautiful, harmonious balance between old and new, east and west, and it reminds me of something a Turkish man told me prior to my trip.
He said, “Istanbul is the city where my heart, my whole existence belongs to. Some say it’s too crowded, some say it’s dirty, some say other bad things… some poets say Istanbul is a beautiful old lady that has too much makeup on. I don’t care…I am still in love with her.”
I’m leaving for Israel in the morning and I feel like I’m leaving reluctantly, or should I say, with much inclination to return. Istanbul is a very inviting city – one that asks you daily if you want to stay a bit longer. My answer could have easily been yes.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Istanbul, long term travel, Travel, Turkey

Homecoming…Sort Of

I arrive in Istanbul a couple of hours earlier than scheduled and make my way back to Cheers Hostel via public transport. It’s 6am and the city is slowly coming to life. I feel that welcomed sense of familiarity, which can be rare on the road. It’s a beautiful thing to pass through the same place twice, to be greeted with friendly smiles, to know someone’s looking out for you and to be handed a warm cup of coffee and asked to sit and tell all about your recent travels.
This feeling pushed sleepiness from my body, and a warm sense of being back in a familiar place replaced it. After a couple of cups of coffee, I ventured up to the cafe area, found a quiet corner and took a short nap, so that later, I could try and make something of the day.
Around breakfast time, I headed down to the common area and began chatting to Rodrigo. He asked me my plans for the day and I told him I was headed to Asia to see the other side of Istanbul. He said he would join me. Rodrigo is like the character Fez from That 70s Show – same accent and similar looks. He comes from Mexico City and is currently living in Iceland and working in the art history field. He is a shop-a-holic, a bookwhore and tells me he is addicted to milk and Coca-Cola…I can tell today will be an adventure.
We set out with loose plans to get a boat to the Asian side of Istanbul, walk around, soak it in and get a feel for the “other side,” then head back to Taksim for dinner and to search for an English bookshop- I need a guidebook for Israel.
We head to Asia. It’s a beautiful day on the Bosphorus – typical Autumn weather- clear and crisp. We leave Galata Bridge in the distance, and no more than 20-minutes later, we are in Uskudar, the older side of Asian-Istanbul. We’ve shed our guidebooks and maps and just wander aimlessly.
The first thing I notice are the number of mosques on this side of the city. We begin with a few visits. Each new mosque is like studying the art on a faberge egg- so detailed and intricate. The atmosphere is ever so peaceful, people coming and going and saying their prayers between the ezan, or formal call to prayer.
We stroll through a market that has made its home in a historical hamam. Then, we hear the fourth daily call to prayer and stand outside another mosque as men file in to pray. We stroll through the back streets of Uskudar, which is more residential and less-touristic than all of the European side. We are just wandering and stumble upon a smaller, beautiful mosque, Azi Camimi. The grounds alone and steps leading up to this mosque are beautiful and inviting, but the door is locked.
Rodrigo takes a second look and pulls a chord enabling us to push open the wooden door and enter into the smallest mosque I’ve seen so far. No one is inside and it’s end of day, so the sunlight is filtering through the west-facing windows, casting golden squares across the red carpet. Chandeliers and candelabras hang in each corner of the squared room, and as you follow their cords to the mosque’s domed ceiling, your eyes begin to dance in and around the almost hypnotic blue, green and pink painted designs that resemble musical notes in a way.
It is a treat for the eyes and food for the soul. We spend a few moments taking everything in and leave quietly. I feel moved by this little mosque and I mention it to Rodrigo when we go. He is pleased we found our way in and tells me that in certain churches and homes where he grew up, they used to have the same cord method to open doors. But now he lives in Mexico City and looks at me in the most serious manner and says, “If you have a cord on your door in Mexico City now, you leave for 2 minutes and your whole house would be gone!”
We venture down to the Bosphorus and walk along to get a better view of the Maiden’s Tower, the remains of a Byzantine lighthouse. Tea vendor stalls dot the waterfront. It’s getting cold and the sun is beginning to set, so we take a Turkish tea and sit ourselves on pillows propped along the steps leading down to the water.
From Asia, we watch the sun set over Europe, dropping behind Topkapi Palace, leaving us with only silhouettes of Istanbul’s many minarets.
From here, we make a quick trip through the Spice Bazaar and head to Taksim for a warming dinner of Manti, Turkish Ravioli. We find a brilliant bookshop with a vast collection of Turkish and English Literature. I manage to find a guidebook for Israel and I pick up “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” for reading and to later swap in Nepal (apparently you need good material to swap there). Rodrigo highly recommends it and says it would be a much better read if I knew Spanish (I’m working on it buddy!)
We head back to Sultanahmet, down the many steps to the Galata Bridge- happy with our purchases, full from our meal and content with the days’ adventures. We cap off the night toasting an Efes, and for the first time all day, I feel tiredness creep into my body. I crawl into my bunk and immediately fall into a deep sleep.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Istanbul, long term travel, Travel, Turkey

A Tourist or a Traveller?

The past 2 days have been jam packed and I have literally not stopped. I’m not used to traveling at break-neck speeds, but being with Marisa and Jody, who only have a few days to see Istanbul, has lead us to really cramming it all in. I feel like I’ve seen a lot, but I don’t really feel like I’m soaking in what I’m seeing. I’m feeling more like a tourist and less like a traveller, and my favorite moments of the past few days have been when we’ve really slowed down- to sit and smoke nargileh at a cafe or soak in the Turkish hamams (baths).

We have one more day of sightseeing together, before Marisa and Jody leave for Israel and I head east into Turkey. I’m thankful for an additional couple of days in Istanbul at the end of my trip, where I can just roam aimlessly. Until then, I will resort to copious amounts of Turkish coffee to keep up with these two!
Istanbul has such a rich culture and its deep historical roots are still so apparent in what is today a modern metropolis. With 17 million people, it’s no wonder the city feels so big and busy. Yesterday we toured the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, both which left me awestruck. The serenity and peacefulness inside these mosques is difficult to describe, and the cathartic call to prayer has become part of the daily city sounds for me now. The Blue Mosque was especially beautiful and the domed ceilings are so ornate and colorful, it almost seems like you’re looking at a faberge egg.
We toured a few more significant sights and had a delicious Turkish dinner at Cafe Adremos, then ventured to a very authentic open air cafe in Cemberlitas to smoke nargileh and drink apple tea. Groups of Turkish men of all ages gather around small tables and stools, smoking from the hookah and watching the world go by. The only females here are tourists. This is a traditionally male habit. Still, we are all ushered in to a small sofa, and choose from the list of flavored tobaccos, apple, orange, mint, cappuccino ???
The following day, we spend the morning at Topkapi Palace, take a kebap for lunch and then head to the Hamam (or Turkish Bath). This was up there on my list of things to do while in Turkey, and we’ve scoped out a historical bath in the Sultanahmet district. I am ready to be scrubbed and rubbed.
The three of us check in and select and pay for the services we want. We bid farewell to Jody, and Marisa and I head to the changing rooms. We don our pretty black panties (one size fits all), and wrap ourselves in a thin, cotton checkered cloth. We take our scrub cloths down to the entrance to the baths, where two burly Turkish women take us by the arms and lead us to a heated slab of marble, where we are left to sit and relax on the warm surface.
It really is just how I had pictured – a scene from Greek and Roman times, women sitting, or laying in pairs or groups, either lounging or being scrubbed and then doused with water. My lady comes over and sort of grunts at me to turn over and begins to scrub me down with a cloth and soap. I flip and same thing on the other side. After about 10 minutes, this is over and I’m ushered over to a tap, where she fills a bucket with luke warm water and begins to pour it over my head. I’m left thinking, “That’s it?” I had anticipated a real scrubbing, sort of like a grueling, fingernails turning white kind of experience. Marisa and I retire to a pool in the back and share a look of disappointment.
After a soak, we get dressed and head to the lobby to meet Jody, who has the look on his face of a kid who has just seen Santa Clause. He details his experience for us from start to finish, and Marisa and I listen with envy. First the man threw away his scrubbing cloth and said, “This is for tourists.” He then pulled out a real scrubbing cloth and Jody got the real Turkish treatment, with a massage!! He then lets us in on his secret. He tipped the guy before the service. And then because it was so good, he went back and tipped him again at the end. Marisa and I vow to find another hamam the next day and try Jody’s trick.
We head for more apple tea and nargileh at the open air cafe and then part ways for the afternoon. I need to organize some travel for the following day so I head to Walkabout Travel where I meet Ferhat. We spend the afternoon playfully arguing over me buying a bus ticket versus me buying a whole Turkey package deal. One thing that I find so surprising is the number of people who book travel packages and travel in tours. This isn’t my style at all. I decide to go it alone, and Ferhat sells me just a bus ticket. Two hours have passed, and I promise to visit him at the end of my trip to tell him all about my travels and how much money I saved 😉
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Istanbul, long term travel, Travel, Turkey

Istanbul…It has begun


I’m only days into my travels, and already I feel like I’ve ended up in the right spot. Any earlier anxieties and second guessing about leaving the States is far from my mind. I left Atlanta and took an overnight flight to London, where I spent a 7-hour layover visiting family. I had time for a quick shower too, so it was a better layover than most. It was then a short flight from London to Istanbul, and I arrived around 11:15 at night.

Let the airport pickup charade begin. I have booked in for 4 nights at Cheers Hostel right in the heart of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s historic area. I also arranged an airport pickup seeing as I was arriving so late in the evening. I get my bags, say a quick thank you to the bag fairy who oversaw my backpack at LHR during the layover, and head for the arrival area. I see the sign for Cheers and I’m handed off a couple of times to different drivers, then told to sit and wait. After about 20 minutes, I am en route to the hostel with Samir and Yousef, who speak next to no English. The conversation goes a bit like this.
Them: “We are speed drivers.”
Me: “Oh good, we’ll get there fast then.”
Them: “What’s your name?”
Me: “Eleanor.”
Them: “I Love You, Eleanor.”
Me: “Oh? Can you speed drive faster?.”
We play the usual game of charades. They point to my finger and ask if I’m married. Glad I read somewhere to always say yes in order to be left alone. They tell me Turkish coffee is good, but Efes, the national beer, is better. They blast Arabic techno, which is either surprisingly good, or I’m just really tired. They deliver me safely to Cheers, and I’m thankful for the in-van entertainment.
I’m soon checked into an 8-bed dorm, laying down but realizing I’m nowhere close to tired. I’m in a new city, at the beginning of a new adventure, good friends are arriving in 2 days. I could get up and go for a run, not tuck in for a night’s sleep. I listen to the chorus of snores around me, dig out earplugs and will myself to sleep.
I wake up around 10 the following morning, wondering what to do. I have a day to kill before Marisa and Jody arrive, so I don’t want to do too much that they will want to do too. I feel a bit out of place. I have to adjust to nomadic life again, get used to the hostel scene, traveling alone, not knowing a soul, being in a foreign place, with foreign customs…wait, all these things that I love and that inspire me, but why do I feel out of my element?
I venture downstairs for breakfast, and Tarik offers me a coffee and says, “We will talk money later.” (For what I owe for the room.) Breakfast consists of a hardboiled egg, cucumber slices, tomato, cured olives, and bread with jam. It’s free, so I don’t bat an eye. Tarik brings a second cup of coffee and sits down to tell me a bit about the area, some watchouts, etc.
I send a couple emails to let people know I’m alive and still have no plan for the day. I stroll outside and get chatting to Abbhaya and Jo who invite me to lunch at a veggie restaurant in Taksim. So we venture out and the day takes shape from there, as it usually does.
We take the tram across the Bosphorous and board the funicular. Istanbul is a sprawling city. The gray and white skyline is dotted with mosques and the blue water looks so bright next to the aging buildings. Turkish flags dot buildings on street corners and shop owners, touts, tourists, commuters, students and workers flood the roads. It’s not a strolling city, there’s a pace to be kept up with here.
We have lunch at Parsifal and share our condensed life histories, mainly bringing us to the point of how we got to Istanbul, why we are here, and what we might be doing next. Abbhaya is a sound engineer who, while doing his PhD part time, travels as a tennis umpire on The Open Circuit. He has just designed a 3-D microphone and is working on selling it to a major US broadcasting station for use during NFL games!! Joanna, or Jo for short, is on a 2-week holiday from London. She recently finished school and is doing charity work, but she’s got the travel bug and wants to throw it all in and plan her around-the-world trip.
After lunch, we head to the spice bazaar to sample some Turkish delight. Abbhaya heads to the airport to catch his flight to Bangalore, and Jo and I head back to Sultanahmet. It’s close to 6:00 so I do a quick loop of the area, soaking in views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, looking at what’s in store for us tomorrow. I grab a kebap for dinner. I’m really impressed with Istanbul. I can only imagine how much fun I will have discovering this city with Marisa and Jody. I can’t wait. One more night’s sleep.