Whatever You Want It to Be

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Istanbul is the transition for Europe-Asia and for me. Though I first came to Istanbul from Greece, still, Istanbul is the last place in Asia for this three-year long trip. In a way, it also begins a session through Eastern Europe, as this evening I board a sleeper train and leave for Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

Aside from this, some other things will change. I bought a guitar, an inexpensive one just for the trip, here in a Taxim music store. And Carolyn brought with her my harmonicas, so music will once again be part of traveling and meeting with people. Already, I played on the hostel rooftop, practicing a bit and removing lots of rust. Some of the old sheet music my father lovingly printed for me no longer fits how I feel; others still fit. So as in life, so with music shedding happens, like a big shaggy dog.

The other change is one of necessity, in a way. In Asia, it was easier to meet people, because they could pick you out of a crowd and would find you. But in Europe, these things change, so to engage a little more, I joined couchsurfing.com and will be meeting people from People to People International along the way.

Because travel will be at a quicker pace, I might not be able to post as I head towards Berlin.

But back to Istanbul, the beginning and ending point for my visit to Western Turkey, a loop to Konya and the Mediterranean then up the Aegean coast. Istanbul can be whatever you want it to be, as far as cities go, it seems. For me it was also many things: a place to relax, to plan next steps, to meet people, to see the Muslim and Christian worlds and their histories intertwining. Here I visited many of the sites: the museums, the Topkapi Palace, the Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque. Each had its treasures that you could find.

In the Archaeology Museum, the treasures were the Alexander Sarcophagus, found intact with all its intricate detail; a small bas-relief of Psyche and her butterfly wings, so simple; lillies blooming outside amongst old ruins and columns with playing cats and kittens; and a collection from the Artemesion from Ephesus, which I would see later.

In the Topkapi Palace, the treasures were the symbolic patterns found on tile and in woodwork and Mother of Pearl--the hexagons, the animals, the mathematical spiritual lines of Islamic geometry that explain so much without showing much--and in a gallery were treasures of the Sultans from all over the world, showing the power of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. These treasures rivaled the treasures of any empire and included large emeralds, diamonds, and rubies. But I can't forget that these treasures and riches also means that many were enslaved and colonized and the earth was plundered at the same time; visiting these places show the opposites, together.

In the Aya Sofya, the treasures were the mosaics as well as the sheer majesty of the place itself, both inside and outside. The same was true for the Blue Mosque, with its elegance.

All in all, I stayed in Istanbul about ten days before and after traveling around Turkey. The Euro2008 football matches were in full swing, with Turkey as a contender, so many eyes were glued to the television screens. I was staying at the Big Apple Hostel in Sultanahmet, where I met dozens of people from all over Europe and Asia. On the roof, they served breakfast overlooking the water with a view of the Blue Mosque, where gulls congregated in the lights at night, perhaps for fun.

Near the Galata Bridge, fishermen brought their catch to make fresh fish sandwiches for everyone, some cooking the meal from a small boat. Dolphins also fished, under the bridge. On many days, I ate a sandwich for lunch. Just up the trolley street, was a good fasulye restaurant, Turkish style white beans, with a Baklavaci nearby. On the streets, people sold corn on the cob and civits, circular bread covered in sesame seeds and baked, and fresh fruits--cherries, melons, and peaches were in season. Taxim was full of restaurants, with stuffed mussels sold as a street snack, and on and on.

One day, I took the metro to the old Ottoman walls, now in a ramshackle neighborhood, showing the poor side of Istanbul's millions. Buildings were almost completely destroyed, yet still people lived in them. Grafitti painted a happy picture of life there, however, despite the hardships. From the walls, I walked to the Chora Church museum to admire the Byzantine mosaics and frescoes there (see photographs).

Walking back to the hostel, I passed people enjoying the weekend, playing football in the park, cooking kebabs with their families, and playing backgammon and drinking tea on their boats (see more photographs). On the way, I ate another fish sandwich.

One afternoon on my second visit to Istanbul, I met Rohat, who I met in Olympos. We walked around Taxim and many other places, stopping for tea and snacks along the way, all the while talking Turkey and such.

So now it is time to say goodbye to the East and say hello to the west, in a way, though I think that the similarities are greater than the differences and that things are mixing more and more every day.
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