After resting in Bulgaria, we were ready to get into our tourist roles. Istanbul, although not very beautiful architecturally (except for its famous Aye-Sophia, Blue Mosque, etc.), is colourful and spacious. We stayed in the old city, rather charming. When we asked directions to it, locals informed us that "people do not live there", meaning, as we found out later, that it is abandoned to the armies of tourists.
Istanbul, amongst other things, is a city of cats. Cats are in complete control. Our hotel, for example, had in its lobby, three cardboard boxes of nursing cat mothers and their cute litters: every visitor would check on them periodically, witnessing various stages of kittenhood. A young man in the tourist agency business explained that although Turkish people are very fond of pets, they have no space for them in their urban living quarters, thus they take care of them (cats) in the great Istanbul outdoors.
As our ambitions to see and touch and experience had dwindled after Italy, we enjoyed leisurely walks, drinking Turkish tea while looking out on the Bosporus Straight. We took a slow boat around the Bosporus going to a Whirling Dervish show in the Oriental Express Train Station, and we strolled along the picturesque streets of Istanbul.
As the old folk proverb has it: If you come to Istanbul, you will leave with a carpet. Despite this prediction, we managed to depart unscathed, even though many people kindly offered us help. Sale "a la Turque" can be fun, although relentless. "Sir, where are you from? How do you like Istanbul? How long do you stay (all too familiar phrases, well used in India and other countries). "Ola, amigo! Como estas? Can I show you my business? No need to buy, just look."
They are cheerful and inventive. In one carpet store, an owner lifted his shirt, turned around to demonstrate he had no gun. "We are not in Morocco, we are in Istanbul", meaning there is no pressure to buy. It is true, he was not as blunt as many of his carpet selling compatriots, but at the end of a 30-minute carpet presentation, during which his helper, like a circus performer, hurled on the floor dozens of beautiful carpets, it was still pressure. Good Turkish tea magically appeared in our hands, at which points he asked, "So, is there a carpet that is crying to come home with you?" Of course, "we can ship it to Canada." Thankfully, he lets us escape free handed.
I thought I found a good way with carpet sellers and restaurant callers – they do appreciate jokes. Humor can be like a token exchange, when no other is going to take place.
"Sir," (it is always sir even when I am with Teodora), let me show you my beautiful carpet."
"Thanks, I am afraid I am very allergic to them" or, "Sorry, we have bought 10 already!"
"Thank you, we are on a strict diet" or "We have terrible diarrhea today."
They smile, slap me on the shoulder (which I assume is a sign of appreciation), and we part seemingly without frustration or bitterness.
Despite this constant pursuit of tourists, genuine hospitality is still discernible; as in Italy, people smile, sing and are helpful. So, why abuse? Well, since you have read this far, here is your reward. The answer is in Hamam – a famous Turkish bath. According to one friendly tourist agent and a recent history graduate, Turks do not go to Hamam anymore; they have hot water at home. His words were confirmed when we went to a gorgeous Hamam, build in the 16th century. I was bathed near two Americans and three Spaniards, who uttered puta and other indigenous swearing as the skinny dark men kicked, soaped, twirled and slapped them with obvious joy and sporty vigor.
The bath was beautiful: the main room was under a tall dome roof, studded with small star-shaped windows through which soft day light peaked in. In the center was a large round marble warm stone. There were a few figures on the stone, draped in long checkered towels tucked at their waist. After a few minutes of relaxing on the smooth surface of the warm stone, a dark skinned, slim, mustached Turk suddenly slapped me on the shoulder. After a brief inquiry into my country of origin, he laughed and started rubbing me enthusiastically with a coarse mitten, singing something militant. I had no idea that in addition to the rub and wash, I was to be subjected to some kind of chiropractic procedure; my legs suddenly were pulled into the air, folded with force above my head, my hands pushed to the side so that my spine could open with a crack! These prompt maneuvers alternated with strong slapping on my back, shoulders, arms and buttocks.
"Aye, strong Turkish bath. Good for Canadian," he yelled. Then came his, "Is it OK, Sir?"
Before I could answer or protest – slap. I was propelled into a 180-degree turn, executed quickly onto the smooth marble slab. More rubbing, stretching, pressing and slapping and then – whoosh – a bucket of cool water made me alert again, waiting for the next episode of violence. Finally it was over. I stumbled away, clean yet skittish, tensing at the sight of anyone in Hammam who looked like a server-dark skinned and mustached…
Hammams, like other businesses, are staffed by a number of men – all doing small jobs here and there, alternating, talking, appearing and disappearing. For example, at the restaurant, you can be greeted by one of them, another brings the menu, the third takes your order, while the forth brings the food. Another asks you if you liked the food and then a new one, you have not seen yet, brings you the bill. It is dizzying!
Any story of Istanbul would not be complete without telling about deafening sounds of Muezzins. In the area we stayed, two big mosques were competing for air time, using pre-recorded chants to command attention from everyone in the vicinity. Although nobody responded with prostrations, a Dervish show at a nearby restaurant halted for a while, conversations were disrupted. It seemed that many modern Turks objected to this hijacking of sound scape, but so far, the sirens of muezzin calls continues.
One day we were lucky to stray from the regular tourist path. We wandered into a picturesque but poor religious neighbourhood. Suddenly, it was not us any longer gawking at people and sights; we were now the minority to be eyed with curiosity. An old man tried to gesture to us to hold tight to our camera and wallets because this area, as we found later, was known for its petty crime. Children, however, were gorgeous – unselfconscious and curious, they posed with joy for my camera and thanked me for taking pictures.
See Flickr for more photos.