Note: I had planned to write this post a while back, but thought that writing about Turkey (the country) so close to Thanksgiving might tempt me to make a few corny jokes. Sometimes I can't help myself, it's in my blood. So, I waited. Now LSB is pestering me, so it is time...
The final stop on my 4-day, London-Paris-Brussels-Istanbul trip was here, a megacity that straddles East and West. There is a curious geography at play here, as the city itself is subdivided by several bodies of water—the Golden Horn, Bosporus Strait, and Sea of Marmara—and sits on two continents, part in Asia and part in Europe. I was excited, as I've always wanted to visit Turkey and I really like maps.
There are also less tangible divisions: religious and secular, traditional and modern, Eastern and Western, beautiful and kind of annoying. It is a city of incredible architecture, delicious food, mosques that used to be churches that used to be mosques, modern, European-style shopping districts, ancient subterranean cisterns, spice markets and bazaars, carpet-sellers, hustlers, and palaces once lived in by sultans (you know, the guys with eunuchs and harems). It's a complicated place.
The section of the city known as Sultanahmet sits on a peninsula--the Golden Horn on one side, the Sea of Marmara on the other, and the pointy part reaching out and touching the beginning/end of the Bosporus. This is the “old town,” and clustered in close proximity are an incredible amount of postcard-worthy sites--you could sit directly in front of the Aya Sophia and look across a small park at the Blue Mosque. Both are almost indescribably impressive, yet there they are, only a stone's throw away from each other, dueling domes and minarets.
As this is where most of the tourists congregate (i.e. me), this is also where most of the people who prey on tourists hang out. Wandering from mosque to mosque, there is a continuous flow of approaching hustlers (“hello sir, where you from?”) looking for an easy money-making opportunity from the bewildered guide-book clutching masses (yes, I was one of them). I was offered food, carpets, shoe shines, directions, and tours; and while walking around a quiet corner I was even badgered by a barber who shouted out to me—in the midst of giving someone else a trim—and offered to cut my hair. Okay, I was in need of a haircut, but this seemed to be extreme.
On my second day in town, after my morning coffee, sour cherry juice, and assortment of fresh cheeses, I strolled to a little park on a hill between mosques and sat down on bench to observe The Hustle. I kept my map in my pocket in an effort to blend in as best I could (I wouldn't say that I actually look Turkish, but I wore my best scowl) and sat for several pleasant, hassle-free minutes, watching the hordes of American, British, German, and Spanish victims get picked off like it was some kind of bizarre video game (“I take you to the Blue Mosque, it is much better” “Deutsch? English? American?” “Hello, do you find Istanbul beautiful?” “Please, sir, I show you the best carpets.” “Spice Market? Grand Bazaar? I take you.”).
Contemplating my next move, I discretely (so I thought) slipped the small, folded map out of my pocket and noticed, at the edge of my peripheral vision, a man seated on a nearby bench twitch. I put the map away, stood, walked down the hill and noticed him beginning his gradual and angled approach, matching my stride and not looking at me until he was right beside me: “Excuse me sir, are you looking for the cistern?”
Once I got used to the hassle of the hustle (to be honest, it was actually kind of entertaining), I found Istanbul enjoyable. I drank raki and enjoyed nargile (apple and mint) with a colleague. I had a proper tea service on a high hill on the tip of the peninsula overlooking the confluence of the three bodies of water. I took a boat trip up the Bosporus and wandered down İstiklâl Caddesi in Beyoğlu —a pedestrian thoroughfare that apparently 3 million people walk down each day. It was crowded and a bit overwhelming, so we enjoyed a Turkish beer from a balcony overlooking the masses below.
At the airport upon my departure, I was serenaded by a full Turkish band in the middle of the terminal. It was at that moment that I realized that I won the game. I never did buy a carpet.