August 5, 2014

İstanbul: hot, crowded, delicious.

Being a tourist is hard.
Being a tourist starts at breakfast.

Sure, tourists are, by definition (I guess), on vacation; but their days are not exactly easy. In a strange city, every step feels, at best, like an educated guess. Every interaction is a linguistic gymnastics move with varying success on the dismount. Every passer-by is a potential mugger waiting to grab  your wallet when you focus too hard on snapping a photo of those interesting trinkets at the market.

Tourists also face the elements in ways that locals wouldn't tolerate. Walking around for hours upon hours in the midday heat. Sweating. Buying waters. Sweating more. Finding a WC (toilet). Paying to use a gnarly squat toilet and wedge your way to a sink between two grandmas ironically washing their feet for pre-prayer ablution under signs that advise them to wash in the specially designed areas next door. Sweating more. Buying more water. Finding a WC.

You can guess by now that I've just spent such a day in İstanbul (say ees-TAN-bul to sound like a Turk). In fact, despite the difficulties of being a tourist, today was the bomb diggity.

Alan and I met up with my former roommate from Flagstaff, Özge, a Turkish woman. She took us on a personalised tour of the city today, including a turkish breakfast, the Grand Bazaar, a few mosques, and one killer baked potato.

İstanbul is the quintessential East-meets-West city, I guess. It's really old anyway. We are staying in Taksim, a famous neighborhood catering to tourists from all over the world.  Steep, narrow and winding cobblestone streets are the norm here. Every building is unique, every door has a different dimension and design. This place has character!

The picture everyone takes of spices.
Neatly arranged dried fruit.
The Grand Bazaar. It is hard to describe the absolute hugeness and complexity of this place. In Cambodia, I experienced many large markets, but this one was easily ten times bigger. The Grand Bazaar is housed in a series of connected halls, mercifully shielding her occupants from the heat of the Mediterranean sun. Air conditioning, presumably a modern addition is the only way this place doesn't spontaneously combust from the fiction of what must have been tens of thousands of people moving past each other. If you've never been to a "market" in a foreign country, you could picture everything sold in a store at the mall compressed into a 10 by 5 room, and all of the stores lined up in a row. Then make about 100 of those, and put them in a dizzying maze shape. Basically it's food, trinkets, clothes, shoes, bags, lanterns, spices, tea and everything else from floor to ceiling as far as the eye can see in EVERY direction.

Bead Heaven
Clearly, disorienting. One part I find convenient is that the market is organised by product type. For example, all leather goods stores are in one section, all spice vendors in another. It took the three of us at least an hour to navigate the labyrinth, but we eventually found our (well...my) goal: the bead section. One hobby that Özge and I got into last spring was jewelry making, so when we found wholesale handmade glass beads, the market trip became a lot more fun.

Bags of beads in hand, we headed for a shady scenic spot to kick back with a beer. It was great to catch up, and no surprise, our Turkish got a lot better after a few sips.

Then we saw dolphins in the river. No kidding. It was awesome!

Toppings
Potato Creation!!
Next, we did a very touristy thing--walked for about two hours in the heat to our next point of interest, the famous potatoes. It was worth every step! Here's the premise: take a baked potato, open it up and mix some butter and cheese in. Then, add whatever toppings the customer has ordered. Serve. My potato creation had pickles, corn, pepper sauce, yogurt sauce, olives, spiced bulgur wheat salad, and probably other add-ins I'm forgetting. Delicious!

As we were accompanied by a Turk, getting back to our home base and ordering a sampler platter of baklava was supremely easy. After dessert, we said our goodbyes and parted ways with our Turkish friend who is headed back to Flagstaff in two days.
Alan and Özge, enduring the sun.

Back in our hotel room, the music noise from the bars below is building, and we are ready to pass out. A day in the sun trying to soak in all that this HUGE city has to offer is a tough day. How lucky we were to have a Turk show us around and help us get our footing here in İstanbul! 

What's in store for tomorrow? Who knows. I hope the day starts with me sleeping in.