Saturday, July 24: I get up early, ready to explore the world that is Istanbul. But where is my towel? Obviously someone has been a little zealous in their cleaning. I throw on some clothes and run down to the front desk to get a replacement. At the computer where I detour to check my emails sits a curly red-head girl named Jessica. Coincidentally, she has been teaching English in Seoul, Korea for 2 years! And here she is in Istanbul! She is having money problems. Her debit card, which has worked without a hitch in every country she has traveled to, is being rejected by Turkish ATM machines. She has absolutely no money but wonders if I will lend her some until her mother arrives that afternoon. She says, I will give you my whole backpack as collateral!! I am a little leery. I myself have little money on me since no one would take my Korean won. And I don’t know her at all. She needs enough to get on the metro to meet her mother at the airport and wonders if she can have 50 lira. I give her 10 and tell her that if she can’t figure something out through the English-speaking front desk guy when he gets in, I will give her more at breakfast.
in Sultanahmet Park
After showering, I go to the terrace, where I join Jessica for breakfast. She tells me much about her 26-year-old self; she elaborates on her travels to Vietnam, where I hope to go this winter. She is a stand-up comedian in Seoul and her boyfriend is one as well. I tell her my daughter is 26 and a red-head as well. She eats a ton of olives and makes a sandwich from the breakfast buffet for lunch and she stuffs it in her bag. I give her the 50 lira she needs.
Alex, a lively guy from Sweden, sits near us and strikes up a conversation, telling us a harrowing story about how his bus was detained for 2 hours at the Syrian border. He is reinventing his life; after working in the telecom business for years, he is now back in school studying psychology. I tell him I was always interested in psychology but I never followed that dream. He wants to go shopping to get some new trousers to replace the camouflage shorts he has been wearing for his entire 2-week journey. He is waiting for a friend who will join him in the afternoon from another country; they are planning to travel around with no set plan. I am impressed that he is reinventing his life! I feel we are connected in that quest. I admire his adventurous & courageous spirit….
The Imperial Gate of Topkapi Palace
After breakfast, I head for Topkapi Palace. After wandering around the lovely grounds and looking at the Divan Tower and Council Chamber, I head directly for the Harem, where there is luckily no line. “Harem” refers to 2 things: (1) the wives, favorites and concubines of the sultan, and (2) the place where they lived. I meander through about 20 rooms with rich tile-work, including the Courtyard of the Mother Sultan, the Courtyard of the Wives and Concubines and the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs.
Hagia Irene ~ dating back to the 6th century
the council chamber under the divan tower
harem… they’re for real!!
Though the Arabic word “harem” means “forbidden,” it commonly refers to the part of a Turkish house that’s reserved specifically for women family members. To the Turks, the word connotes respect and dignity, not sexual fantasy. At Topkapi Palace, the harem’s role was primarily to provide future heirs to the Ottoman throne. Every time the Sultan had sex with one of the women, it was carefully planned and recorded.
one of the rooms in the harem
in the harem
sitting room in the harem
stained glass windows in the harem
mosaics in the harem
The Harem’s once opulent space is now a faded version of its former self. But still. I get a sense of its magnificence. It sprawls. It brims with endless long couches, low tables, ottomans, huge beds with elaborate canopies, royal blue gleaming niches in walls. Candy for the imagination. Of course, as always, nothing is air-conditioned (we are so spoiled in the U.S.!) and it is sweltering and close.
in the harem
at topkapi palace outside of the harem
After leaving the Harem, I wander into the beautifully landscaped Third Courtyard, and sit for a minute to enjoy the shade.
in the 3rd courtyard of the palace
on the Palace grounds
on the grounds of Topkapi Palace
I pack in with the crowds to the Imperial Treasury to try to look at some of the Sultan’s riches, but I admit I only do a perfunctory walk-through. It’s just too darn hot!! And sultry. Outside, I stand on a balcony that looks over the Bosphorus, Bosphorus Bridge, Asian Istanbul and Sea of Marmara.
on the palace balcony overlooking the bosphorus
on the balcony of topkapi palace, the bosphorus below
For 3 hours, I explore Topkapi Palace. It’s funny when you travel, you feel a sort of obligation to see all of these historical sights; you hope you will visit this place again, but you fear that you may not, so you try to soak it in with all your might. But. In the end, what you remember are the moments of pleasure you experience. For me, it is sitting in the shade in the courtyard; it is standing on the balcony looking over the Bosphorus and feeling the breeze. It is drinking in the colors of the opulent blue and green tiles and loving the way the light streams into the rooms. It is stopping in the bookstore near the entrance to discuss good Turkish books with a young bookseller and almost buying Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings because he is so enthusiastic about it.
on the other balcony of the palace looking over the golden horn into asian istanbul
Next, I walk to the Istanbul Archeological Museum and ask about air-conditioning. Ha! I am so kidding myself! By now I am hot and exhausted… and hungry… so I walk away and away and am lured into a Turkish restaurant by a guy who specializes in luring. What is this person called, who does this thing? Is he called a “hawker”? The definition is “one who sells goods aggressively, especially by calling out.” I met many of these people in Istanbul, “hawkers,” maybe. I think “lurer” is a better word because they don’t really shout. They try to strike up unobtrusive conversations with you as you walk by and they suck you in like this. Quietly but persistently.
Anyway, I am lured in because he can promise me air-conditioning. I am so easy!! I order cold meze, appetizers served in small portions, cooked in olive oil: stuffed grape leaves, eggplant salad (delectable!), and a mix of yogurt, cucumbers, and garlic with olive oil. As I speak with an older couple from Argentina at a next-door table, I sip a glass of red wine. The Argentinian man tells me you must either like Chile or Argentina, not both, because they hate each other; people who love one must necessarily hate the other! Odd. He catalogs a whole series of hatreds: we like Brazil but they hate us; we hate Uruguay but they love us. He (who seems more British than Argentinian to me) raves about the Archeological Museum and goes into great detail about all the treasures there. He insists I MUST go there. They also say I should take a long walk to the New Mosque, where I might be able to see a Muslim service in progress. The wife raves about that.
After my wine, I feel fluidly loose (too relaxed really to go anywhere except for a nap!), but by gosh, those Argentinians told me I MUST see the Archeological Museum. So there I go. A smaller version of the Egyptian museum, there are too many antiquities to count. The grounds are green and lush and I fall in love with a little garden with ancient statues in it. I wander around, feeling a little too tipsy to even bother reading the placards. A huge sarcophagi collection. The highlight, which the Argentinian raved about, is the 2,000-year-old Alexander Sarcophagus (Alexander the Great is portrayed in battle on the sides), though it was actually carved for King Abdalonymos of Sidon. Greek and Roman sculptures abound.
statue in the garden of the archeological museum
inside the archeological museum
the archeological museum
mosaics in the archeological museum
in the garden at the istanbul archeological museum
Outside I go to another building that’s the highlight for me: the Tiled Kiosk … Why is it I am always drawn to beautiful colors and the decorative arts? This pavilion contains a huge assembly of Selcuk, Ottoman, and regional tiles. I fall in lust with the tiled prayer niches in the walls. I am so nappy now. In Korea, the Koreans are always telling me to “take a rest.” Heeding the echoes of their repetitive advice, I go back to the garden with the statues and lie on a bench looking up through the leaves. I drift off. Ah, a slice of heaven.
a circa 1430 prayer niche in the Tiled Kiosk
the coke zero guy (& someone’s been into the turkish viagra):
After “taking my rest,” I walk along the street following the tram tracks toward where the New Mosque is supposed to be, asking directions along the way. I stop to buy a Coke Zero and as I’m walking along sipping my coke through the crowds, a very young (read: cute & hot) guy appears beside me with a Coke Zero in his hand. He is tall & medium build, has dark hair, an unblemished face, a sly smile.
He holds his Coke up as if to offer a toast, noting that we are both drinking the same drink. He starts rattling off the regular Turkish guy talk: Where are you from? What’s your name? I’m Mesmut. I study physical education. Do you like physical education? (I swear he flexes his muscles at this point). Do you like me? I like older women. I say, how old are you? He says, guess. I say 21. He says, yes, I’m 20 or 21. Hmmm. Doesn’t he know his own age? He smiles, says, you want to have a fling? We can go straight up to a my room and have a fling. I say, I’m going to the mosque to see the service. He says, let’s sit on this bench for a minute. I am hot, so I sit. I’m also curious to see how he operates.
Surprisingly, in the middle of this park, right next to the mosque and the spice market, crowds of people orbiting, he grabs me and kisses me! I actually enjoy it for a split second until I realize how idiotic it is. I’m embarrassed. He is kissing me and then he is pulling my hair. Hard. He is crazy passionate, or just plain horny. I’m not a prude in public or anything, but he looks so young that the age difference is utterly absurd. Ahmed in Egypt was young for me at 26, but he at least looked to be in his late 30s and had a mind of a 45-year-old! I abruptly stand and tell him I’m going to the mosque, but first he insists on giving me his email address and Facebook name. I tell him it is time to say goodbye. I pull myself away and escape to the mosque.
I swear, poor Mesmut has been into the Turkish Viagra. This is a popular name for a spiced paste in the form of candy (made of nuts and dried fruits) which claims to restore health, youth and potency; it is more commonly known as Mesir Paste. Apparently the “viagra” claim is based on the traditional link between nuts (with their vitamin E) and libido! Hmmm… poor Mesmut ought to steer clear of the Istanbul spice market.
the new mosque, aladdin, & the flower & spice markets:
I walk, a little shaken, into the New Mosque, and sit in the courtyard to calm down. I don a cloth skirt and scarf provided by the mosque and go into the mosque. There is no prayer service at the moment, I have no idea when the next one will be, and I don’t want to wait around.
the courtyard of the new mosque
inside the new mosque
So I leave, wander through the flower market and then sit down to have a mango juice at a cafe where another crazy guy takes a bunch of pictures of himself with my camera.
at the flower market
the flower market
the crazy guy in the cafe
I then explore the spice market. This is a feast of sights and aromas: Turkish delight, lentils and beans, dried figs and apricots, pistachios and hazelnuts, saffron, henna, olive oil soap.
delicacies at the spice market
at the flower and spice market
sweets at the market
nuts and grains at the market
While taking pictures of some jewel-colored water pipes, I am apprehended by shopkeeper Aladdin, who strikes up the regular involved Turkish conversation. He plans to study acting in New York. 🙂 He asks me if I will have a drink with him at 7:00 when he gets off. I say I will see. Of course, I never go back.
aladdin’s colorful water pipes
By this time, I am utterly exhausted and I walk the LONG hot road back following the tram tracks to the Big Apple, where I take a nap. After showering and changing, I meet Jessica and her mom in the hallway. Her mom, who is my age, is thankful that I helped out her daughter by giving her 50 lira, and she repays me immediately. They invite me to have a beer with them on the terrace, which I do. The mother is a lawyer living in Ohio. Every year she goes to a conference in London and has been rotating her 4 children, one at a time, through London and then to a country of their choosing. She asks me what took me to Korea at this point in my life. I tell her the long boring story.
I go to dinner at Lale Restaurant, the famous “The Pudding Shop,” where, according to Rick Steves, “a generation of vagabond hippies started their long journey east on “The Freak Road” to Kathmandu in the 1960s.”
feeling a few moments of loneliness at the Lale Restaurant
I am practically the only one in the restaurant, and despite the male attention I have had in the last two days, I actually feel lonely, probably for the first time on my trip. I drink a glass of red wine, eat chicken orzo soup and a vegetable omelet. I go back to the hotel early, and right before I get in bed at a pathetic 9:00 p.m., I meet my two new roommates, a mother and daughter traveling together from England. The mother has to take the bunk above me because there are no more bottom bunks. I go to bed happy to have met two older women also staying in a hostel. Maybe this adventure I’m on is not so unusual after all.
On men (Turks, Koreans and expats):
Though I understand fully that these Turkish men have their ulterior motives, whether to sell me a carpet, sell me lamps or ceramics, lure me into their restaurant, or get me to sleep with them, it is still refreshing (& a relief!) to get some male attention. In Korea, I’ve begun to wonder if I am grossly deformed, have the plague, or have bad body odor. The only time men look at me is to give me dirty looks because my hair is white and I refuse to heed their dye-your-hair ultimatums. Even the expat guys here seem to be looking for the submissive Asian girls. These kinds of men, those looking for the submissive girls, hold no interest for me; and neither do the Korean men. So. As silly as it is, I am loving the attention I have gotten in 2 days in Istanbul. It is more than I have had in 5 months in Korea. Hmm. I’d say it’s more than I’ve had in the U.S. as well. Or anywhere. 🙂
the blue mosque with the fountain turned on