Last night I had a yummy goodbye dinner with Emre and Karpat at a place near the Galata Tower called Kivahan. It has been so nice just hanging out with them the last few days, they are such great guys. With everything that is going on in Turkey politically, they are looking into their options for living elsewhere, and I have been pushing hard for New York of course. It would be great to have them close-by.
After bidding goodbye to Emre this morning, I made my way to the airport with very little hassle, catching a taxi and getting here in plenty of time. Which was good, because everything took longer than it should have at the airport. Not that I expect to be flying business class through IST on Turkish Airlines again, but every part of the experience is sub-standard. I can’t imagine the process is worse in economy, unless perhaps they are tortured or humiliated there for good measure. First, there are no signs to tell you that, unlike every other airport I have ever been in, the check-in for business class is not next to where the economy check in for your flight is, but about a football field away, and not marked on any departures / check-in sign. Once I found it and finally checked in, I was told to go to through the special passport control line for business class that is supposed to be much faster and smoother, but it was actually about 4 times slower than if I had simply gone to the normal passport control line. By the way, then one has to go through a second bag screening (in addition to the one entering the airport, WTF). After that, I made my way to the Turkish Airlines business class lounge, which although nicely designed has rather crap food and service. If I had paid anything close to full price for this ticket, I would be bummed.
Anyway, I am off to Portugal (my first time) where I will spend the next 10 days before finally heading back to NYC. I have two friends from Amsterdam, Xavier and Stijn, who will meet me for a few days in Lisbon, and next weekend Arnaud will come from London to meet me in Porto.
Emre, Karpat and I were in the car yesterday (a very rainy day) on our way to breakfast, and when I pulled up the map, I noticed that we were near to an area called Üsküdar. I told my friend that it reminded me of a funny old Earth Kitt song called Uska Dara, that was ostensibly about a little town in Turkey, but that I was pretty sure it was all made up and that the language she was speaking was not a language at all, but just some foreign-sounding gibberish that was meant to stand in for one.
Well, it turns out that almost all of what she was saying in the spoken parts were actual Turkish words (even if some of the translations were made up). And the sung parts (both words and music) are from very well known folk songs. Emre and Karpat knew all the words and were singing along. For some reason, this whole scenario tickled me to no end.
And just like that, you are in another country, on another continent (the airport is on the European side after all).
It has never been a huge hassle for me to get a visa for Turkey, but now it is even easier. You used to have to get it on arrival at the airport, necessitating a wait in a separate line from passport control before entering the country. Now you can just get it online and go straight to passport control.
After I go through passport control and baggage claim, I was greeted outside by my good friend Emre, who was a total sweetheart coming to pick me up. We headed into town and met up with his partner Karpat, then went for dinner and a walk around Istanbul, as I tried mostly in vain to fight off my jetlag. But even through the mental fog caused by that, it was striking (after the last few weeks) how much more even this place resembles the culture I grew up in than India does. I was really noticing how neatly laid out the buildings and sidewalks and roads were, how quiet it seemed in the absence of excessive honking, and how fresh the air felt.
It was so nice to see Emre and Karpat again, but by 9pm I was falling asleep standing up, so hit the hay early. This morning I feel much refreshed, and ready to attack (in a totally non-violent way, of course).
The first day being a rather wet one in Bursa with all the rain, we were perhaps a little down on our choice to go there. But yesterday the weather was great and we took a walk down from the hotel to see the town. Although many of the buildings are quite ugly, there are some very interesting and historical ones in the city center, and we ended up really enjoying our little side trip here. Bursa is definitely a regional city, and it had a less hectic pace than Istanbul and many fewer tourists. Bursa is also home to one of Turkey’s famous national food dishes, Iskender, and we found a well known local establishment. Although delicious, if people eat this everyday I suspect the stats on heart disease here must be through the roof.
The hotel we are staying in is attached to a really beautiful centuries-old hamam fed by natural hot springs. Along with our hotel booking we had the right to a visit, so we went yesterday evening. What a difference this place was from the last one I went to! This one had several rooms, all large and in beautiful shape. After hanging out in the main one with its hot pool and alternating rinsing, we decided to go for a scrub. These guys obviously take delight in smacking the tourists around a bit, and occasionally make very loud noises that echo through the hamam by loudly slapping their sandpaper like gloves on the patrons as they scrub. My guy in particular seemed to relish digging his elbows into my back and scrubbing furiously to remove the top layer (or two) of my skin. And in the brief pauses between exfoliating me he would throw buckets of boiling water at my face. After the final rinse off, we were dressed up again like the last hamam I was in (but in a more manly fashion) and headed off to the well appointing cooling off room, with its recliners and beautiful domed space. I felt refreshed and relaxed, if slightly beaten up. If you are ever in Bursa, I highly recommend this hamam.
Since we needed to checkout from our hotel in Istanbul today anyway, Olaf and I decided to take a quick trip to a nearby city. My friend Emre suggested we check out Bursa, so we hastily booked a hotel (attached to the historic baths) and a boat trip. This morning the weather was pretty crappy with rain and the seas were a bit rough, with more than a few green faces to go around on the boat. We were supposed to then connect to a bus when we got to the port, but just hopped in a cab and made our expensive way to the hotel here, which is not exactly centrally located, but is rather on a hill about 7km from the town center. Pretty much everything about this place is just slightly off, but in a way that makes me giggle non stop. Even though it was recently renovated, the decor and feel of the place is very retro socialist chic, the kind of place I imagine politburo members would have vacationed to in the early 70s. As it is raining rather heavily, we decided we would wait til tomorrow to see the town, so we took a walk around the rather sad neighborhood we are in, treated ourselves to some kebab and the disbelieving stares of the locals. Later we will go to the historic baths (they are luckily included in the price of of our stay) and perhaps even agree to a vigorous scrubbing by some burly Bursian body worker, stay tuned.