I had slept with earplugs in, having read that the Call to Prayer was loud and that it might wake me up. It didn’t. What did was the cacophony of seagulls. We’d slept with the window completely open because the room was so hot. What we didn’t realize is that meant we’d get the full volume of seagulls as an alarm clock at 5am. Didn’t hear the call to prayer, but I did hear that.
Sarah woke up a few hours later—which worked out, it gave me time to get some writing done. After getting dressed and ready, we headed down to the hostel restaurant for breakfast. There we were pleasantly greeted by Elif, the lovely lady who runs the restaurant. She was very friendly and chatty, and ensured we were getting enough to eat. She’s our adopted Turkish grandma.
After having some food, we gathered for our complimentary walking tour of the city. This wasn’t necessarily a guided tour with a professional, rather, one of our hotel employees, Max, showed us around the hot neighborhoods of town. It was conveniently a small tour, just me, Sarah, and three other Australian girls who were also staying at the hostel.
We started off down the same road down which Sarah and I had found dinner the night before. After veering right instead of left, we came to an artisan bazaar. This was an open-air market full of little souvenirs and shops selling everything from jewelry to furnishings to Turkish delight. We had a couple of shopkeepers trying to get us to buy stuff, but everyone was friendly. We marked this down as a place to return.
Next we came to Sultanahmet Square, which is the main square that houses the highlight historical sites of Istanbul: the Hagia Sophia, the Grand Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. We were just here to stop for pictures on the outside. I’ll tell you more about the inside in tomorrow’s blog entry. But the outside, albeit crowded and chaotic, was absolutely beautiful. These were the views I came to Istanbul to see.
After walking down the square, Max took us to one of the hookah hubs of town. The building apparently used to be a religious school. Now it’s one of the city’s biggest hookah lounges. It was a really cool building, full of mosaics and colorful lamps. I’m a sucker for pretty lamps.
Hookah’s a really big deal in Muslim culture because a lot of vices (alcohol, drugs, etc) are forbidden. But tobacco gets the green light, so hookah is the option of choice. It wasn’t my first time smoking hookah, but smoking in a really cool building in Istanbul certainly felt right. The flavor was licorice, not necessarily my cup of tea, but it was alright. We also were given Turkish tea, which was just very strong, very hot black tea. But they serve it in these curved glass cups, so that was cool.
From the hookah place we continued down our path to the Grand Bazaar, which was absolutely insane. It’s a giant maze of shops selling anything you can imagine. Gold jewelry, rugs, Turkish delight, spices, lamps (so many lamps. I wanted all of them), clothes, shoes, everything. Thousands of shops, all in teeny tiny little stalls, with the shopkeepers outside offering samples and telling you they’ll give you good prices.
We started in the newer section of the bazaar, which definitely had more of a new world “mall” feel to it. But then we swung a left and wound up in the old section, made of stone columns and arches that definitely had a more authentic feel.
There were also a bunch of ablution fountains, which we saw a lot of the men using. It was prayer time, and as part of the ritual, muslims are required to wash their hands, feet, and faces. So you look to your left and you’ve got a bunch of people trying to get you to try their spices, and you look to your right and a whole bunch of guys are washing up for their prayers.
After the Bazaar we made our way through the courtyards of Istanbul University, which is a really open, green, quiet place in an otherwise bustling city. Apparently it’s really difficult to get into the University, and only like 10% of the applicants make the cut.
Following the University, we found another one of the major mosques in town, the Suleymaniye Mosque, named after Suleyman the magnificent, one of the most powerful and long-reigning Ottoman sultans. We were enjoying the courtyard, which was cool and breezy, unlike every other part of the city. But then an official from the Mosque told us we needed to leave because we were wearing short sleeves and the Aussie girls’ dresses were too short. I mean, fair. Gotta respect the practices.
After leaving the bazaar, our guide took us down a side street and then into a building for a lunch break. Upon entering the building, he informs us that we’re going to get “the best view in Istanbul.” As soon as we reached the terrace, we knew what he was talking about.
Mosques. Minarets. Bosphorus. Asia—yes, half the city’s in Asia, and we could see it from the restaurant. It was absolutely beautiful.
If the view wasn’t enough to win us over, the food at the restaurant was amazing. We all got meat wraps that were absolutely divine. Add in the view, and the fact that the food was super cheap, and we had the making for a lovely time. Though it was really windy and the metal pole on the awning kept knocking against the wall. So that was a little jarring. But other than that, it was an amazing time.
From there we continued walking to the Spice Market. This place was just as crowded as the Grand Bazaar, but with much fewer stores. This market was also much more aimed at showcasing food—and spices. Hence the name. We were also told by Max that free samples were a thing here, so we took everyone up on that. We tried some Turkish delight, which came in some kind of almond variety. I liked it right away, though some other members of our party needed to think about it. Of course as soon as we all took a piece, the shopkeeper tried to get us to buy some. But then we all ran away.
The Spice Market was the end of the tour, but unfortunately we were on the other side of town. Max asked us if we wanted to stay out, or take a tram back. We’d walked plenty, and felt like we could keep going, so we asked him how long the walk was. He said about twenty-five minutes. It seemed perfectly reasonable, so we opted to walk. Well, we hadn’t factored in that it was the hottest part of the day and that we’d be walking back completely exposed with no shade. So we almost died. But we walked along the water, so at least the view was pretty. Well, nixing the fact that the shore was populated with a bunch of sunbathing and swimming middle-aged men. Less scenic.
But yeah. Hot is an understatement. We felt like we were on fire. We’d asked earlier in the day if there was a place where we could swim, but apparently it’s a cultural thing that only men go swimming at these beaches. There are a bunch of conservative policies here. Women are definitely expected to dress more conservatively, covering their legs and shoulders. We’d seen a guy eye one of our Australian counterparts in a short dress and “tsk” her audibly. Our guide was also a little awkward talking to us. He said it would have been easier if there were at least one guy with us. Gender roles, man. They’re alive and well in Istanbul.
We went back to the hotel to change and refresh. We’d signed up to do a Bosphorus dinner cruise, so we wanted to get nice and fresh before our pickup time, considering sweat had become less of an annoyance and more of a state of being. We also talked to management about fixing our air conditioner. They said a repairman couldn’t make it until Monday, but that they’d let us switch rooms tomorrow when it became available.
We got ready and went downstairs for our 5:30 pickup time. 5:45 rolled around. It was at that point that we realized that the pickup time was 7:30 not 5:30. Military time had messed us up. But it worked out, considering we were both a little tired and wanted to chill a bit anyway.
Eventually we did get picked up, with our Australian friends from our walking tour, to drive to the cruise. The van ride was quite an adventure. If driving crazy fast up and down the windy roads of Sultanahmet wasn’t enough of an adventure, our driver took us to a parking lot, stopped the car, got out, and didn’t come back for ten minutes. Turns out he was picking up another couple, but we didn’t know that at the time. We thought we’d been driven to our death.
Eventually we did make it to the boat, which is when the festivities began. We were first greeted by an appetizer plate of sorts, piled high with a variety of spreads, veggies, bread, some kind of pastry, and a stuffed grape leaves. Pretty much everything on that plate was delicious. Dinner was just ok. It was chicken kabobs with rice and veggies. And dessert was fruit.
It was around the time that we finished our apps that the show started. Our emcee for the evening was an adorable little man named Charlie who I swear spoke every language. He was very charismatic.
What we didn’t realize is that Charlie was planning to introduce every table’s nationality, and then play a song from that country with the expectation that they would go dance with him. He started with a Sri Lankan couple who set the bar way too high. They were there for this. Our whole table cringed. By the time he got to us, he started with Australia and they all avoided eye contact. And then Sarah decided that now was the best time to ditch me and go to the bathroom, leaving me as the only American person in the whole room to stare blankly into space while “Rock Around the Clock” played and Charlie danced by himself. So thanks, Sarah.
It was really cool that he did that though, because we saw people there from literally every inhabited continent. Macedonia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, South Africa—a pair of batshit crazy girls from Romania. I have never been in a more diversely populated location. It was pretty cool.
After this, the dancing began. We saw a variety of dances, staring with a whirling dervish. This is basically a guy who spins around a lot while wearing traditional dress, including a really long skirt. It’s a traditional Muslim style of dance, which is meant to demonstrate a trance in one’s connection with god. I could go on a long rant about its origins in Sufi culture, but you’re not here for that.
More exciting were the folk dancers. There were two male and two female dancers. Sarah and I had a long argument over which of the male dancers was cuter. And we both wanted to wear the female dancers’ outfits.
And speaking of female dancers’ outfits, next came the belly dancer, who was more fabulous than any person I’ve ever seen. She really rocked it. Also the two crazy Romanian girls were trying to follow her and dance with her for attention but she ignored them, like a boss.
Also let’s take a moment to recognize the dichotomy in Turkish culture in which I can’t wear a tank top walking down the street but belly dancers are fine.
I don’t get it either.
Anyways, the night carried on. They opened up the dance floor a bit and we danced to maybe two songs. Also Charlie put on “We Are The World” and talked about how we should all celebrate the world as a beautiful place and we all waved our little table flags. It was horrendously cheesy but I loved it.
Also, a note. The package we’d purchased had included unlimited alcohol, and to “get my money’s worth,” I partook…a lot. Whoops.
When we got back to the hotel we decided to keep the party going by playing Jenga in the hostel bar. We also each got a glass of wine. That was a poor choice but we did it anyway. We also played chess (which I don’t think I’ve played since I was 12), and Uno, which Max joined us for. We were up really late. And we’d had too much to drink. Stay tuned for that thrilling conclusion.