On the JLO tour, my bus arrived at our hotel on a curved road that was nearly a full U-turn continuing down a significant hill, which merged with a crowded horn-blowing 5-way intersection.
I was amazed that our bus driver was able to navigate the small confusing streets of Istanbul and was equally impressed at his calmness while he safely managed our route through the chaotic traffic patters we encountered along the way.
We were here for a single day off that was well deserved, because it had been a long few days of shows. We had traveled for a show in Moscow, then on to Kiev in the Ukraine, and now we were in Istanbul, Turkey. I’d been here before, so I was familiar with how overwhelmingly vast the city is. There are 14 million people here, and it has become the 5th largest city in the world. To me the housing is what stands out the most. These houses are stacked upon other houses over and over with no real sense of order. They cluster up hills and through valleys like a forest of vines that have spread entwining their way up a towering Cathedral stonewall far beyond their roots. Most of these domiciles appear ragged and some look to be held up by nothing but wooden poles as they hang over various small unstable cliffs. Large rounded trunks that, I would describe as old telephone poles, look cut at different lengths and precariously perch at whatever angle is needed to level the floors of those homes looming dangerously over these rock faces. As I think of the comforts of my own home in my own town, these images make me wonder about the difficulties that Turkey as a Country must face in their modern development. This is a city that has endured the test of time having been around for centuries. This is a civilization that is set in its ways.
The hotel we arrived at didn’t seem like a hotel at all, but more like apartment buildings that had been renovated to resemble upper class condos. I was pleasantly surprised considering the city’s condition just blocks away. The people at the hotel were very inviting with their bright red tunics and black sashes for uniforms, and my room was just that…an apartment. I even had stairs to a second floor. All the walls were painted white in stucco patterns, and the floors were of a dark wood that heartily groaned under foot. As I was exploring the upstairs, I turned to look back and took notice of an elegant chandelier hung over the floor below. This luxurious light was arranged in curvy melted silver droplets that swirled together housing a red glowing glass orb. As I gazed at it over the lofted hallway, my eyes slid past the chandelier to a gas fireplace against the far wall, with its white jutting pillars and thick dark wooden mantle. A luminescent glowing LED strip of red light surrounds it as well and threw slits of color across a darker red oval rug tying together the whole room into one lovely art piece. I must say it was indeed a relaxing place, and as I settled in for the night, all I could wonder about was what other rich cultures would I experience the following day.
The next morning I got up ready to explore. Outside of the hotel I flagged a taxi and headed off to Old City Istanbul (Constantinople) that was teeming with history. It was only 5 miles away from our hotel, but getting there proved to be a whirlwind of action. Istanbul was as fearless as it was large. Looking out over the top of the cab and beyond the apposing intersection, the houses and streets seemed to blend feverishly forever. If you’re not careful, you can end up turned around in an area you don’t want to be, which was certainly on my mind as I took a deep breath and shut the taxi door behind me.
The drivers too are just as bold. I found this nice old man driving a quaint little taxi, but imagine driving through a 2,000 square mile-never-ending game of Bumper Cars in the largest carnival game imaginable. And the “race” began; my sweet little arthritic taxi driver became a jockey, a competitor, and a contender in the race of a lifetime. I sat firm, white knuckled-grip on the door handle, beads of sweat on my temple, and prayed for dear sweet Jesus to spare my innocent life as we darted in and out of traffic heroically, as if I had just entered a car driven by Jason Borne on a quest to save the world from certain destruction.
Once my fearless driver downshifted to a halt near the Grand Bazaar, I gladly exited the vehicle feeling a little woozy from all the quick turns and far to many close encounters. Scanning my surroundings, I decided to concentrate on seeing the Blue Mosque first. This Islamic Temple built in the early 1600’s was such a beautiful sight with its 6 Minarets surrounding a flurry of domes at its center. These domes were of solid grey stone crowned around its edges with arched windows. The 6 towers looked like rockets aimed eagerly towards the heavens ready for launch. I wanted to go in and see the wonderful architecture surrounding the blue tiled interior of the center dome, giving this place it’s name. Plus I wanted to walk across the plush red carpet where there were various people kneeling in prayer, but guests weren’t aloud inside at that particular time of day.
The inner courtyard was very interesting as well, built with smooth grey granite stones. The stones were cut into flat steps that gave way to an inner plaza which included rounded pillars and covered arcades sharing with everyone some delightful shade from the sun’s harsh rays. What added to the appeal was the smell of all kinds of spices drifting through the air. The quantities and variety was plentiful, and I couldn’t distinguish one scent from another, as they seemed to meld together delightfully. Some vendors were selling bags of spices, some had fresh squeezed fruit juice stands, and other vendors roasted nuts of all sizes and shapes. There were many visitors throughout and the whole area was bustling with activity, and as I strolled in and around the religious site, the mood was pleasant. I was being constantly escorted to everyone’s cart of goods whether they were full of snacks or sewn scarves. I welcomed the interaction, but politely declined their many offers and moved along my way each time. I was all too aware that they spotted me as a foreigner, and I didn’t want to be walking around with two arms full of purchases. I enjoyed socializing though and smiled my way through each encounter while soaking in every moment.
As I walked further along the outer streets from the Mosque, an Islamic Prayer Song started resounding all through the city and it was especially loud where I was. The music was being broadcast through mounted speakers that I noticed at every other street corner as a part of the lamp pole, which allowed the chant to be heard clearly down every street. Some people were still around, but for the most part the streets had emptied. I was relatively alone. The Islamic prayer sounded divine but eerie to me. This was a new experience, and my heart began to race for no apparent reason but culture shock. I had an instant understanding that I was a stranger in a holy land, but at the same time was overcome by an indescribable inner awe that I have never felt in any other area of the world.
At the next corner I turned once more, but this time it seemed the wrong way. The housing in this area was much older; the street started breaking up as it began to angle off kilter, and the few sporadic people I saw milling about their doors were clearly not interested in tourists. It didn’t help that I was now staring down the sun while walking in this slum. I felt the need to leave. I stopped and glanced further ahead. The relentless sun beat against my face as I raised my left hand for shade. I was forced to squint as a bead of sweat dripped across my dominant eye. The energy in the air seemed to harden even more, so I turned and headed back the way I came.
During this whole time, one of the main goods of interest was carpet. I must have been heckled to buy carpet a dozen times, and when I headed back across the main Bazaar, I was yet again the focus of many carpet salesmen. I have to admit there were some great looking rugs, with streams of colors and shapes in wonderfully crafted patterns, but it was impossible for me to acquire one as getting it home would be just too much to manage. As I strolled along, a man walking past stopped me to talk. He was tall, well groomed, middle-aged, and wearing a light blue casual shirt with jeans. Having an American accent, he seemed pretty normal. He stopped me to say that he recognized me from the States. As we talked this stranger lured me in by saying he knew me from Florida, which I’m sure was a lucky guess, but it still caught my attention. Soon after, the conversation diverted towards…take a guess. Carpet. Maybe he knew me, probably not, I don’t know. All I know for sure was when we parted ways I left completely bewildered.
Time was running out, and I had to find another taxi to get back to the hotel. I waved one down, and that driver seemed very polite in a chatty sort of manner, which I found amusing. Again, I’m okay with this as it’s all a part of the experience. I’m in a car with an interesting driver in a strange city, what could go wrong? He then took me on a similar horrifying cab ride lacing his way back through the multitude of small streets while jabbering on and on about…I don’t know what, because I was distracted by our multiple brushes with death. Then for our final approach we screeched to a standstill at the 5-way intersection below the hotel.
While caught in this jumbled gridlock, with horns blazing from all directions, he immediately claimed I had to get out and walk. In broken English he explained to me that he wasn’t allowed to drive up that particular street. I began questioning him because I able to hop in a taxi right by the lobby just that morning. Doesn’t matter. I knew where I was…I could walk.
Here’s where it got weird.
I asked him, “how much.” He said, “30 Lira.” I gave him 30 Lira. He freaked. He began waving his hands and screaming something that sounded to me like, “No, no, no, no,…30…30!!!” Does he mean 60? While doing this, he proceeded to reach for my wallet grabbing for the 50 that I had stashed in an adjacent fold, which had become visible in the confusion. Now, he was getting more hysterical, and I’m still not sure what he was asking for, 30, or 50, or 40…I can’t tell anymore, because he’s not giving me a chance to speak in turn! It was rapidly becoming quite a scene as eyes from other cars began peering my direction. He kept reaching across his body with his left hand for money out of my wallet as I was waving Lira at him with my right directly in his face. I felt like Jet Li as I batted his hand away over and over with my arm, then elbow, then back-hand, like I was defending my wallet using American Kung Fu against his Turkish Crane Style, in the car! I ended his gorilla tactic by tossing 40 Lira at his feet and jumping out of the cab only to start walking as quickly as I could trying not to draw any more attention to myself. Outraged, he quickly began inching his way back through cross traffic and I heard him hurl what sounded like profanity in his own language infused with a couple angry whacks at his horn, most likely aimed at me. After a few more paces, I stopped. I was dumbstruck. I felt naïve to not have seen that coming, but it happened fast. A smirk filled my lips as I tried to piece together the event. Was I wrong? Was he playing me? Who knows…I turned and caught him darting off down a different side street barely missing the back end of another cabbie only to blend back in with the rest of the mayhem.
I checked to see if I still had everything on me. I did. I had to give a final laugh as my nerves were still on edge. Shaking my head, I turned back to continue my course past the 5 way intersection. This day was a fulfilling escapade that encompassed all that I set out to accomplish…learn the history, walk among the culture, survey all that is Istanbul. I will always remember this day with my ups and downs being merely a small fraction of what goes on in this great city. However, as I walked back to the hotel, I was exhausted. What a day! All I wanted was to paint myself into my artful room and relax in the red stillness of the glowing orb.