A guest post by Maria. Istanbul
"You’re still going!?“ was the question a lot of people asked me after the attacks on Atatürk Airport. I must admit that although I wasn’t buying into the panic, the news coverage didn’t do much to up my levels of feeling safe either. “The statistics are in my favor,” I told them, “maybe even more so now.” I calmed my mom down by saying that, statistically speaking, the most dangerous part of my journey will still be the car ride to the airport. And well, after getting to Istanbul and spending the first hour outside of the airport in a car, I thought I might have made a prophesy there.
In the midst of incessantly honking cars trying to take over the ones in front of them by any means necessary and pedestrians crossing the highway at all the wrong places, evading the cars with some kind of superpower… a 3-year-old in the backseat of a rusty VW with no seatbelt on, hanging onto the open window with his head outside the car is really quite a sight. But apart from the foreign traffic culture, there’s really nothing to be worried about here. The locals are friendly, the weather is nice and the city is beautiful.
Our apartment is in Beyoglu, a neighborhood full of local people that is a mere 10 minute walk from Taksim Square. So although our days are mostly spent exploring the busier streets of Istanbul, we always return to a place where kids are playing football on the street and women put carpets on the sidewalk so they can sit down, have a chat and drink tea after sundown. There are calls to prayer, or adhans, five times a day. From our balcony, I can hear the simultaneous calls of three different mu’adhans in three different locations:
Allahu Akbar God is great
Ash hadu anna la elaha ella Allah I testify that there is no god but Allah
Ash hadu anna mohammadan rasulo Allah I testify that Mohammed is Allah's messenger
Hayya Ala alSallah Come to prayer
Hayya Ala alFallah Come to success
Allahu Akbar God is great
La Elaha Ella Allah There is no god but Allah
Although all the adhans are the same, apparently someone had a sense of humor in the olden days, because the sunrise adhan has an added line of Alsalatu khayron min alnawn which translates to „praying is better for you than sleeping“.
On our third day we went to see the whirling Dervishes in the Mevlevi Cultural Museum. Although we couldn’t understand the words being said during the ceremony, the music, songs and movements were very meditative. That is, of course, the whole point of the whirling – meditation through rotation akin to that of our Solar system. Although whirling is the most well-known aspect of the ceremony – and it is truly beautiful – the whole thing is built on the concepts of rotation and repetition. It seemed that the dervishes themselves were lined up from the youngest in the back to the oldest in the front. Everything they do has symbolic meaning – from the hat on their head representing the tomb of the ego to how their arms are open while whirling, one directed towards the sky and one towards the earth.
Our stay in Istanbul coincided with the end of Ramadan. Although the tradition isn’t as strong as it used to be, there was a very enthusiastic Ramadan drummer in our neighborhood. Every night during what was left of the Ramadan month, just after 2 o’clock, he passed our open window and balcony door and announced to everyone that it’s time for sahur, to wake up and eat the last meals before sunrise and the following fast. It was proper banging of the drum too, I tell you, and he took his sweet time under every other window. At first I thought it might be fireworks or guns. Jamie, of course, slept through the whole thing.
On Thursday, we took a ferry to Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands. This used to be home to only monks and exiled princes. Nowadays it’s overflowing with tourists from spring to fall. Privately owned cars are not allowed on the island, so locals use mostly electric scooters, while tourists can rent a bike or hail a horse carriage. Yes, there were a lot of horse carriages. When we arrived on the early ferry (trying to avoid the tourist rush hour) they were all patiently waiting for business and as the day progressed more and more started galloping by. By the end of our daytrip the streets were full of carriages and not-too-experienced bikers, making staying alive among them feel like a professional sport. Despite the hordes of people, the island is truly beautiful. The architecture had me clicking away at every other house, the abundance of horse carriages instead of cars did something to the romantic in me and all the while there was a panorama of mainland Istanbul in the background. Simply scenic!
Trying to get off the island was not so fun though. All the online guides said to be smart: arrive early and don’t bet on getting on the last ferries as they might be full. We did start looking to go on a ferry just before 17.00, which sounded like early enough. But one of the ferries was already booked full and we couldn’t even get near the building where tickets to the other one were sold – it was so jam-packed with people lining up, it was madness! So we had to wait to get on the next ferry and boy were we glad we didn’t listen to the ferry company employee’s “be here at 19.00” and just sat in line for 2 hours straight because as it happened, the ferry was again completely booked and already leaving the port by that time.
On Friday we went to the Grand Bazaar… for the 3rd time. We’d been there twice already, but since it’s the holidays, we had the opportunity to stare at the closed gates. So third time’s a charm, we thought, and we were right. It was big and everything, but I think since it was already our third attempt our expectations were probably too high so we were left underwhelmed with the whole thing. We’d seen most of the things sold there in other shops around Istanbul already so there wasn’t really anything new to look at, just the context of the bazaar. The building itself is interesting, with domed ceilings and old painted ornaments, and it felt like quite the maze. Since the stands aren’t all unique – there were different shops selling the same things – you never really knew if you’d been on that particular corner or if it’s a different set of bowls you are looking at. Despite the lack of a wow effect, Jamie did buy a hat (he looks like Huckleberry Finn now) and I can go home with an extra pair of shoes, so we can still call it a shopping success.
There’s something to be said about the cats here as well. Although there are stray dogs as well, there aren’t nearly as many as there are cats. They are everywhere, including restaurants and shop entrances, not to mention almost everywhere you can think of on the streets. But while they are most definitely living on the streets and don’t have their own owners or their own homes, they aren’t really ownerless nor homeless. They aren’t strays, they’re more like… community owned. There was kibble and water put out for them everywhere. And not just by some lone do-gooders. Shop keepers would come out to put food for the kitties, and not somewhere far to lure them away from the shop entrance but right there next to the door. People would pet them and pick them up from time to time, babytalk to them and scratch their ears. Not something you’d see in Estonia, that’s for sure.
All in all, it’s been a wonderful stay in a wonderful city with a wonderful person. It would be nice to postpone leaving, stretch it out for a few more days, but alas! the plane won’t wait…
Jamie said all my photos are going to be of him and cats. After going through said photos for blog selection I must admit he might have been right. I did manage to select some with actual Istanbul on them, but I’ll still throw in quite a few whiskers and wifebeaters as well – at the end of the day, that’s my Istanbul experience.