Time for a Bosporus view of Istanbul
Waking up for my one full day in Istanbul, I pack, make my way to the hotel’s reception desk, and have them stow my luggage until the evening taxi to the airport. Fatima, the concierge who had messed up my tour date, was sitting blithely at her concierge desk. I approached. She of course acknowledged the scheduling confusion, and then our conversation went on from there as I waited for the T-9 tour to begin.
She was a beautiful doe-eyed woman, I would guess in her late 20’s. Well mannered and professionally attired.
“Fatima, I must acknowledge that deep sadness you all must feel about the tragedy facing your country from the earthquakes’ horrible effects.” A second large earthquake had just happened the previous day, which added to their misery.
“Thank you,” she replied, as her face softened, and eyes deepened. “Yes, it is very painful. I have lost many friends.” She went on to provide details of those whom she had heard perish and those who had been providing her reports.
Istanbul was more than 1000 kilometers from the epicenter of the quakes, yet the effects on the mood and economy and logistical organizing functions of Turkey’s biggest metropolis were palpable and profound.
“You know, as hard as this has been for me,” Fatima continued, “it has been more difficult for Naseem (the other concierge who was so calm with me the night before).”
“How so?” I inquired with some trepidation.
“Naseem is Syrian. He is from Aleppo and has come as a refugee. A week before the earthquake, he had traveled back home to bury his mother who had died from an illness. Then he returned to Istanbul, only to discover that the earthquake soon took many in his family. A family already separated by war and death.” Fatima said all this in a slow, almost emotionless manner.
In my reaction to Fatima’s words I expressed empathy as best I could. I told her that it seemed odd, almost an expression of indifference, to be taking a normal tourist jaunt to see the sights. But also, it was important to provide Turkey support, even if it is simply economic support. I had previously asked for a place to contribute to the relief effort and gave a nominal amount to that cause. Now, I would carry on with my 36-hour tourist function.
I waited outside the lobby for a while until the other tour participant made it downstairs from his room. His name was Mohammed, a 30-something, powerfully built Pakistani-American from New York. He clearly appeared to work out a lot, a perception that was confirmed frequently by him the rest of the day.
Mohammed had immigrated to Brooklyn as a teen and told me the classic hard-working-immigrant-makes-good story. He was now married with four children. An acknowledged non-devout Muslim, he nevertheless was devoted to his mother, proud of his accomplishments in business (he ran a service which catered to wealthy clients, like Cardi B and Bill Gates), and was a caring and responsible dad to his children. He also showed me – unsolicited mind you – a picture of the Moroccan prostitute whose services he had secured the night before (probably why he was a bit late to the starting gate that morning.) And yes… of course I demurred at his offer to see more pictures or get her WhatsApp number.
Mohammed and I climbed into a van which wound its way through the warren of narrow two-way streets leading eventually to the waterfront and the boat that would be the starting off point for our tour. Istanbul is massive. A megacity of somewhere between 15 and 20 million people. Apparently, no one really has a grasp on the actual non-official population, as it is a waystation of souls going hither and yon from catastrophes to hoped-for havens. But the inner city street grid is humorously – or more responsibility labeled dangerously – inadequate to its task. Frequently on our passage to the boat, our van or oncoming vehicles would need to retreat in order to find a way to pull off to the side and let the other vehicle pass.
The van drivers knew no English, and there was no “interpretation” of the city we were moving through. So, the tour clearly had not begun. Nor did it begin when we were pointed in the direction of the boat and told to come aboard. We waited close to 30 minutes on the boat, while other tour group members joined us, but finally, the tour got underway with orientations by two guides who would trade off with explanations of the city’s sites and histories in heavily accented Russian, Turkish and English.
Istanbul, the “crossroads of the world” was certainly showing its propers by the diversity of the tour participants. Of the 50 or so tourists on the boat, only Mohammed and I were acknowledged USA Americans. I saw and/or talked with Brazilians, Columbians, Peruvians, Turks, Italians, Germans, Dutch, Swedes, Canadians, Asian Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, and lots and lots of Russians.
Funny thing about being an American. Or probably more specifically an old, tall, single, white American. More than once on this trip, I have been asked to BE in a picture with families. Not take a picture of them. Rather, have them take a picture of me with them. I felt like some kind of curiosity. They must get back home and show their friends, “Look Natasha, here we are with a real, live American old man! Doesn’t he look funny? And he talked with that hilarious flat accent just like the movies.”
It was so awkward, with hidden feelings and thoughts, to be talking with Russians. We clearly were in a proxy war in Ukraine, yet I wouldn’t dream of opening up that can of worms. A Russian grandma, mother and college-aged daughter were traveling together. The daughter asked me to join them in a picture.
Kadir Agir was the name of tour guide. Funny, enjoyable and authoritative. As we finally got underway on the boat, he described the day’s plan. First, we’d get a breakfast served in the covered hold as we traveled down the Golden Horn; a fiord-like bay on the European side of the city which was a key commercial focal point for thousands of years.
The breakfast was terrific!
A Sultan’s summer palace.
After the meal, we’d go ashore and visit a Sultan’s summer palace. Then we’d travel by boat up the Bosporus as Kadir would point out key historic sites. This would be followed by a bus trip on the Asian side to visit promontories and parks (including an elevated cableway ride). Then back over to the European side for a lunch overlooking the Bosporus, a visit to Erdogan’s recently completed Grand Mosque, and a ride back to our hotels in the Old City.
A few gleanings from the tour:
- The European side has most of the jobs, more of the people, and much higher prices for housing than the Asian side. So, many of the lower-skilled workers would sleep in Asia and commute 4 hours a day for jobs in Europe.
- Erdogan and his supporters have made major efforts – with much success – in moving away from Ataturk’s vision of the country led by a secular (non-Muslim) government. That evolving vision is displayed in many ways in the built environment. For example, the Hagia Sophia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagia_Sophia) was built as a Christian church about 1500 years ago, converted to a Muslim mosque, converted by Ataturk into a national museum, and now converted back to a mosque.
- There is a grand synagogue still prominent from the Bosporus, but visitation is only through a rigorous security protocol.
Inside Erdogan’s giant new mosque – completed in 2019
As is my usual pattern, I found myself virtually the only one asking detailed questions of Kadir. I think he genuinely appreciated the explorations of culture and governmental structure and I enjoyed very much our interactions.
Earlier, I had asked Fatima if it was possible to visit some of the Old City sites on foot that I had hoped to see on the T-5 tour. She advised that I tell the tour guide of my desire to be let off by the Spice Bazaar, and walk from there. As our tour proceeded, a Peruvian student, Roxanna, who was getting her Masters in Business Administration in Germany, and I connected over our joint Spanish language abilities (Yes, Juani, I CAN speak and understand well enough for it to be a relief from the tower of Babel we were surrounded with). So by the end of our tour, Roxanna and Mohammed joined me for a walking tour of the Old City.
We walked into the explosively wonderful smells of the Spice Bazaar. Together we walked past – but not into – the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi Palace. We did dive into the enormous and lively Grand Bazaar. Mohammed was in search of goodies for his children. In particular he sought a present for his son who would be deeply disappointed if he didn’t get something, since the girls had already been shopped for.
Inside Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar
It was getting late, and I was exhausted. So we walked Roxanna back to her hotel (the opposite direction as ours), and we had a small bite to eat before walking back to our hotel. (I got over 20,000 steps in this day, for which I was rewarded with fireworks on my wrist from the Fitbit.)
I was ready to pick up my luggage and head for the airport. But first I wanted to give my thanks to Naseem for his encouragement in taking what ended up being quite a pleasant and informative tour.
“Naseem, “ I said. “Thanks so much for your help. You were right. It was a good tour.”
He politely inquired as to my welfare.
“Naseem, I hope it is not too invasive, but I want you to know that Fatima told me of the great tragedies you have experienced in your family and with your country. I am so sorry for your losses.”
As we walked with my luggage to the front door of the hotel and a waiting taxi, Naseem and I stopped for a moment. I asked him, “Naseem, how much loss can one person handle?”
He squared up, looking directly at me, and said, “quite a lot.” Then he reached out his arms, in the universal sign to come closer. Smiled a soft smile, placed his hands on my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks.
At the embrace, I held back tears.
The taxi ride to the airport was relatively fast – well past rush hour – and the driver much warmer and talkative than the fellow who brought me to the Old City the day before. He liked Steph Curry and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. At the end of the ride, my credit card and debit card still didn’t work. I used the last of my dollars to pay the fare and proceeded to hang out at the airport for several hours prior to the overnight to Johannesburg. It was a whirlwind and emotional visit to a traumatized country. And I was ready to be embraced in another way. This time by family.
7 thoughts on “Traffic Jams and Winding Paths in the “Crossroads of the World”: Part 2”
Great story of an exotic layover. Loved the pics and your ability to weave a tale of tragedy into a travelogue. Eyes moistened at the end…
What an amazing start to your trip! Your description of your tour brings back memories of my long-ago time in Istanbul – several days while I was traveling in Europe (and into this crossroads into Asia) as a college student. I was moved to tears by your account of your interactions with Fatima and Naseem. It is your compassion that made those interactions happen, and I imagine that these were conversations these concierges did not have with many tourists.
Wishing you safe and meaningful adventures and time with family in the days to come!
A great preview for my visit. What a good and kind traveler you are, Daniel. Ironic that the Muslim fellow was the ugly American.
Perhaps I came across as too negative about him. He was an interesting and positive fellow traveler who contributed mightily to the legal Turkish economy. Just wouldn’t want him or his family to read my blog!
Sorry, but the whole prostitute story cinched it for me.
The reactions to my reference to his totally gross and inappropriate (in my view) and uninvited sharing of his unethical behavior have been varied. All the women’s responses have been either humourous or unsurprised while you and I see it as “ugly.”
I just think women assume that this is the way men are!
Egad, we are part of a wacko species.
So did you also try to converse in French? Or even GERMAN??? amazing tour, id love to visit sometime. I had people take pictures with me in Bali and Java. I wasnt expecting this in Turkey. And I wish I could have smelled the spice market. Cant wait for your return!