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.
Since Emre had to work again yesterday, Karpat and I went to Sultanahmet to hit the spice market and walk around a little. Since I spent about a month in Istanbul a couple of years ago, I don’t really feel pressure to see all the tourist stuff I did back then, and can now just sort of wander aimlessly in some of these areas and take pleasure in that. The markets were surprisingly empty on a Sunday morning, I remember before they were so packed it was difficult to walk through at all. We meandered a bit, picked up some spices, had lunch at a lokanta, crossed the bridge, ate some sweets, took the tunel and metro back to Emre’s place, then drove from Şişli over to the Asian side where Karpat lives. Emre met us over at Karpat’s, and they made me a lovely dinner (which included some yummy new things I had not tried before, like Pastirma). Today (weather permitting) we will take a small road trip somewhere, but even if we don’t, I am really enjoying just hanging out with my friends.
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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).
Having quickly given up on the idea of seeing the Princes Islands this time around (see previous post), We decided to take in the Rumelihisari Fort a bit north on the Bosphorus. It was totally awesome. This place is beautiful to walk around and has some of the most fantastic views over the water. It was really a treat and highly recommended. We took a bus most of the way there and then had a stroll along the Bosphorus for the last leg of the journey. And what a nice part of the river (strait?) bank, not at all cut off like the section on the way to Ortaköy we took the other day. And it all felt a bit like the Italian Riviera, this is definitely a rather upscale part of Istanbul.
Olaf and I thought we would take in the Princes Islands today, and we were told that it is better to take the fast boat, as that would give us a lot more time there. After checking their website, we found that we had many times to choose from, so we made our way down to catch the 11am fast ferry. When we got there, and went to the counter to buy our ticket, the man informed us that the next one was at 6pm. When I showed him the screenshot I had taken of the ferry times, where it was clearly marked that there were several ferries between now and then, he smiled and nodded and told us cheerfully that this information was no longer correct. That ferry schedule was only valid in the summer, and apparently summer in Turkey end on September 16th, as opposed to the rest of the world where its last day is the 20th. I helpfully suggested that they might want to update their website, and he smiled and nodded as if I were the insane one for relying on something so ephemeral as a website schedule.
One of the guys I had met here recommended his barber, and I thought it couldn’t hurt to go for a trim, so I went about an hour ago. It was a tiny underground place at the corner of my street, really like an old man’s barber shop, nothing special at all. I got in and no one really spoke English, but I think I got across to them what I wanted, and they motioned me to sit in a chair. Then one of the mean wardens from the hamam I was in last week (well, he looked a lot like him) came over to begin my haircut. The first part of it, while very thorough, seemed to go as a normal haircut would. And then he moved onto my eyebrows before I could stop him (and worried a little that I would end up looking too plucked), and then to my ears (yes, as we get older hair grows there as well), and finally (I kid you not) to my nostrils with a special pair of scissors. He spent a fair amount of time there before dusting me off in a huge cloud of powder, then removing my many wrappings and cleaning up the lower back of my neck. I thought at this point I was done, but he pushed me gently back into the chair and moved to pick up a bottle from the counter. He then squeezed a lot of some very strong smelling lemon verbena alcohol pledge bug repellant liquid into his hands. He then wiped a bunch just under my nose (like the way they would kidnap people with chloroform back in 70’s action movies), and what was left he rubbed all over the rest of my head and began a very vigorous massage. I thought I would pass out from the stuff I was inhaling, so I wiped my nose a bit and started to come to while he was pounding away at my skull, face and neck. I have to admit that after it was over I felt mightily refreshed, if a little dizzy. And the whole thing was about 5 bucks! That was the best cheap spa treatment I have ever had. And my haircut looks pretty damn good, if I do say so.
Rather unfairly I think, I have come down with a cold the last two days, and it has made me cranky. I am not good as a sick person. Nevertheless, we took a few hours yesterday to walk through some new (to me) parts of the old city and visited a place called Küçuk Ayasofya (Little Hagia Sofia), which I absolutely loved. It is called the Little Hagia Sofia because it is thought to resemble the larger one and could have been used as the testing ground for it, as it was built a few years prior. While there are a few similarities, I really didn’t find it as alike as the name would imply. What we saw was not close to what the original must have been like, except in the floor plan and spacial arrangement, as it has undergone many changes and a recent restauration to repair earthquake damage. But still, I loved it.
Yesterday Olaf and I took in the Galata Mevlevi Lodge Museum, an old Whirling Dervish lodge that has been converted into a museum telling the history of this ancient Sufi order. The museum was very well done I thought, and I learned a lot about the order which was inspired by Rumi and his teachings and founded in the 14th century in Turkey. I first learned a little about Sufism when I was in India a few years ago, and many of its principles are of a piece with several eastern religions and ideas about inner dimensions, transcendence of the physical world, removal of the ego, and union with the divine. Central to these practices are also concepts of love and compassion, and they strike me as much more peaceful and welcoming than many modern fundamentalist mindsets that are prevalent around the world today. We were unfortunately not able to see the performance of the Dervishes since it was sold out, but this practice is a fascinating one that is a kind of meditation/prayer that draws the recipients closer to the divine through the repetition of movement. All in all, pretty fascinating.