Saturday 31st May
At breakfast with my new friends I’m unsure about what to do with my day and pick their brains as they have been in Istanbul nearly a week. They suggest going to a relatively undiscovered photography museum and taking a ferry to the Asian part of the city.
I decide to maximise the wifi in the hostel until checkout at 11am. At this point I make my way on foot to the Golden Horn Hotel where I am meeting my topdeck group at 7pm. I look super stylin walking down the street with my huge pack (I’m sure it can’t only be 12.5kg) on my back and my baby pack strapped to my front. I trudge into the hotel, walk straight to reception and de-pack in an extremely graceful manner. Once we’ve confirmed I am part of the Topdeck crew, the hotel man says “that’s great, some of your group is right behind you in the lobby”. Instantly regretting my decision to not wash my hair and put on a sports singlet and home-died genie pants, I 180 to see eight girls watching my every move. That is, eight lovely, smiling, familiar sounding girls. Initial reservations are (nearly) forgotten as I am swept up with the unexpected delight at meeting some of the group earlier and the comfort of hearing that Aussie twang (never thought I’d say that). Introductions over, the collective decision is to take a scenic ferry trip down to the Bosphorus Bridge which separates Europe and Asia. We sit on the top deck and soak up the sites for the two hour round trip.
After kebab lunch we accidentally find ourselves lost in the spice market jigsaw. It’s Saturday and it is busy; literally shoulder to shoulder with everyone going about the their business. It’s a different area of the spice market than the one I saw yesterday. These vendors sell everything from silverware to ‘western’ lollies (still gutted I didn’t buy some) to plastic soldiers. Although some among us are complaining about the claustrophobic nature of this experience I feel as if I am at the throbbing heart of Turkish culture and mostly enjoy it.
We eventually emerge and the girls decide that they want see the underground cistern which I saw yesterday. I take this opportunity to go and see the Fotograf Museum. This is located in a new part of town for me. I head down the main street following the tram tracks. After taking a few turns I quickly find myself truly in the backstreets. This area is untouched by tourism and it clearly shows in the rubbish on the street, the extended stares of Turkish men unaccustomed to seeing blonde hair and blue eyes in their part of town and the overflow of stray cats. I don’t feel like I have mentioned this before which is rather remiss of me but Istanbul is FULL of stray cats and dogs. The closer to the city they are the healthier their weight but these ones look a bit scabby (and that’s putting it kindly).
I am standing exactly where it says the map says the photography museum should be but I see only men standing outside their shops and homes eying me carefully. I go back and fourth up three or four streets (some of them very steep) in the one block trying to find this place. I know the Dutch girls said it was kind of ‘underground’ but I didn’t expect to have this much trouble. I stop and ask a guy at a hotel. He misunderstands and takes me to a nearby church. Fearful of a repeat incident of yesterday I thank him and tell him I am happy to try and continue my adventure on my own. During this time I see several things that make my heart warm and I manage to capture most of them on camera. I see young boys playing soccer on the street, men playing cards outside a shop, a young housewife wearing a headscarf beating a beautiful rug out a of a third story window and a family sitting on the steps outside some brightly coloured houses. The kids are teasing a stray cat and the women are laughing. Hoping not to make them feel uncomfortable I squat down and take a snap, making sure I capture the colourful washing strung up high between the two sides of the street. It frames the picture perfectly and it is my favourite of the day.
I get comfortably lost on the way home, finding myself caught up in the middle of some kind of demonstration as I get closer to the city centre. From my hotel room I am struck with the thought that the chanting does not sound dissimilar to the New Zealand All Blacks’ haka.
At 7pm we meet the rest of the Topdeck crew in the lobby. We are meant to be having a group briefing there but the protests are in full swing and we can’t hear each other over the din. Our guide takes us to the restaurant on the top floor for the meeting. We are a group of 20, 17 of them girls. Everyone is Australian bar me, a Brit, a Canadian, a South African, an Argentinian and two guys from South Korea. Everyone is between 19-29. Our guide is legit. He is 32, from Istanbul and he is known in the Topdeck community as Shaggy.
Shaggy goes over some basics like the fact that it’s not recommended to drink tap water, not to eat street kebabs that cost less than five lira and that Turks have a custom of tipping (about 10% usually). I suffer a pang of guilt upon hearing this, realising that perhaps it would have been the right thing to give Kamil some money yesterday.
He also explains what is going on with the protests. The marches going on on our side of Istanbul (the old side, the ones that I got caught up in) are peaceful demonstrations supporting the current government. Across the Galata Bridge in Taksim Square there are 25,000 police monitoring the anti-government protestors. They are also non-violent although rather intimidating (the sheer number of police more than anything) for some members of our group that were dropped there from the airport train this afternoon. I’m glad I had visited Taksim yesterday.
We also learn some interesting facts and stats about Istanbul and Turkey. Here’s what I retained:
- Istanbul population is 17 million.
- 97% of Turkey is on the Asian continent.
- Istanbul is the number 5/6 tourist destination in the world, contending the number 5 spot each year with London.
- 35 million tourists visit Istanbul annually which is more than the Australia and NZ populations combined.
- Turkey is not officially an Islamic country but one with a secular republic. Because of this, headscarves and other religious garb is not allowed at school. Even in public it is not acceptable for Turkish women to wear burkas. The women in burkas that we see are visiting Muslims as Turkey is the number one destination for Muslim tourists; it is viewed as one of the most ‘free’ islamic countries.
- Although 99% of the population is Muslim, only 8% pray regularly at the mosques.
- There are 2000 mosques in Istanbul with 95% of these historical domes.
- The 4.30am alarm is the call to prayer. It is only supposed to last two minutes but with each of the 2000 mosques not starting at exactly the same time, it is usually heard for about half an hour.
- Turks have a heavy diet of a lot of red meat, much caffeine (they drink almost as much coffee as tea), very sweet puddings such as Turkish delight and baklava, it seems they all smoke and they drink a lot, particularly a licoricey spirit that is 45% alcohol called raki. The average life span for a man is 65 which ironically coincides with the age of retirement. They live by the the Iraqi adage “live fast die young”.
After the group briefing we walk down to a restaurant for a typical Turkish dinner. After the entree which is a green salad and a selection of cold dips like tzatziki and mushed eggplant I order the ravioli as it is the one choice from the three that I am the least familiar with, plus I’m sure I’m going to have many more kebab opportunities. It’s delicious. We have cut up fruit for dessert. It’s not the first time I have seen watermelon since I have been here. It is available in great abundance and is a staple at a every hotel breakfast and market stand. The wine list humours me; simply “white wine” and “red wine”. We head to a shisha bar next. From what I can gather shisha is a flavoured tobacco-like substance that is smoked out of something that looks like it could spout a genie at any moment. Like a really ornate bong. It is a very common social Turkish behaviour. Keen to try everything once, I order a banana shisha, because it seems the strangest flavour on the list. The waiter stuffs up the order and after about half an hour (when the majority of the group has demurely finished sipping their tea) I am told that there is no banana flavour left. Clearly it was not meant to be. I’m sure I will have other opportunities to get on board the shisha bandwagon. Back at the hotel everyone pairs off to their rooms. In all of our accommodation we are staying in twin shares. I am yet to meet my roommate though as she hasn’t shown up yet. However it’s not long before I can hear someone fiddling with the door key. Enter Luisina. I like her instantly her as she reminds me so much of a close friend of mine (shout out to Mathilde!) Same age as me. Argentinian. Gorgeous. Infectious smile. Cutely nervous with her halting English. I try, and fail, not to ask a million questions at once. Eventually, I remember that she has just come off a long flight and chances are she’s exhausted and probably doesn’t feel like playing 20 questions right now. We jump into bed and are lulled to sleep by the sound of merry-making on the streets below.