Thursday, January 24, 2013


I found myself having to go to Istanbul to meet with a customer and due to complicated rules of international chihuahua travel, I had to go alone. The plan was to leave home on a Wednesday, arrive in Istanbul on Thursday, meet with my customer on Friday (hopefully without too much jet lag), and then I had a day to myself on Saturday to see the city. After that I was to fly to Portugal, work from Lisbon for a few days and then meet the family, one week after I had departed, when we would all reunite in Portugal. 

The flight was about as good as I could ask for given that I traveled for 20 hours straight. I arrived reasonably fresh and well rested, which is a good thing given the madhouse of an airport that I found in Istanbul. I had managed to sleep a few hours over the Atlantic and had caffeinated myself in Zurich, where I found an airport so quiet, efficient and well managed I almost didn't recognize it as an airport. On the flight from Zurich to Istanbul I sat next to Walad from Dubhai. He was, of course, in the oil business and had flown with his family to Paris for the new year. When he said Paris I thought he was saying Belize, so for the first part of our conversation I had the surreal experience of learning that Belize didn't meet his expectations for new years due to a lack of fireworks, rude natives and a total disregard for the English language. Once I understood it was Paris he was talking about, everything made a lot more sense. Maybe I wasn't as well rested as I thought. For the rest of the trip Walad regaled me with tales of the United Arab Emirates, how wonderful a place it is and how different it is from Saudi Arabia. In Dhubai you can go to the beach! And wear a swimsuit if you like! You don't have to though, you can go to the other beach with all the people who wear full arab desert gear in the water if that's more your style. You can also wear shorts that are above the knee. In public! Compared to Saudi Arabia this is quite a relaxed culture because in Saudi Arabia you can get in trouble for what seem to outsiders like very mild infractions. He told me about the day his wife wasn't wearing her robe thingy quite right and maybe a little of her ankle was showing. A man in the street yelled at her and then raised a stick as if to hit her. Plucky Dubhai lady that she is, she took the stick from him, beat him about the arms and chased him off the street. I took a look at her from across the aisle and while she seemed very sweet, she was at least double my weight and apparently handy with a stick. I wouldn't mess with her.

In the Istanbul airport, I found myself surrounded by masses of people forming half a dozen lines all going to various spots that looked like important components of my goal to exit the airport. I paused near an airport person who looked like he could help and listened as a loud American from Washington DC yelled at him in an American accent while loudly proclaiming where he was from, what he thought of the chaos and what he needed the airport guy to do to fix it for him. I think this is how many Americans make their way in the world. It does make us easy to pick out in a crowd.

Eventually I made it to my hotel and had a chance to explore the area. Istanbul is huge. Really huge. It spans two continents, both sides of a large river (Bosphorus) and edges out into two seas (Black and Marmara). It feels big driving through it. It looks big from the air. When speaking with people in the city I heard anywhere from 13 to 20 million people in the metropolitan area. By any measure that makes Istanbul the second largest urban area in the world by population, just behind Shanghai. It is also high energy, vibrant and an interesting mix of east and west. It feels completely different than a Christian, Western country but it has recognizably strong connections to the west. I could walk the streets and pretend I was in any European city, I stepped into a Porsche Design store and looked at $30k watches, but then the call to prayer would echo over the streets, my eyes would lift to the nearest mosque tower and I would realize I was very, very far from home.

On Friday, after all my meetings were done, I had the chance to see the city. I hopped in a taxi and directed the driver to take me to Sultanahmet, to old Istanbul. The driver drove and we talked. He was a college student, studying public relations and hoping for a good job when he gets done. He has a brother in Bulgaria studying engineering. The rest of his family is back home. "Where?" I ask. "Syria." He explained that he was from a little part of Turkey wedged between Syria and Iraq but he thinks of himself as Syrian. It struck me in the cab at that moment that it is very easy to be scared of what you don't know. I mention Syria or Iraq to people back home and it sounds dangerous, exotic and foreign. But riding in the taxi I was just talking with another human who is studying and working to make his way in the world. We had a friendly conversation, he dropped me off, I left him a nice tip and wished him luck. With that he drove off and merged with the millions of other people and all the other bashed, dented taxi cabs roaming the streets.

I spent the morning touring the Blue Mosque, the Haghia Sophia, the Basilica Cisterns and then made my way to lunch at the Medusa Cafe. I was on my own and I felt strangely uncomfortable. I didn't know the rules and wasn't sure how to behave without giving offense, either personal or legal. At the Blue Mosque there was a sign with rules, including behavior and clothes, but I wasn't able to make it beyond the courtyard. The faithful were praying and outsiders weren't welcome. I walked along a wide parkway sprinkled with obelisks and towers erected in the 3rd or 4th centuries. I witnessed women getting harassed because they had no man with them, young men would grab an arm, "Hey, what are you doing here? Where's your boyfriend?"

While walking between historical sites I was approached by a young man myself. I made the mistake of making eye contact. Its hard for me, I'm from Montana and used to being friendly. He asked me a question, "Where are you from?" I made the mistake of answering and that encouraged him, "Oh I love your country, I've been there before, is it near Toronto?" He walked next to me, closely, like an old friend, his body language said he was taking me into his confidence, "Want to come see my shop?" I ended the encounter as quickly and conclusively as possible and could still hear him trying to get my attention as I walked away. The behavior here is forward, rude even. There isn't the civility and polite distance I am used to. It never felt physically dangerous, but I felt that there was a constant threat of uncomfortable interaction or confrontation.

Ahmet joined me at lunch, I'd met him the day before and he'd offered to show me around the city. He took me to the Topkapi Palace and explained to me the things I was seeing. We walked through the entrance and into the harems where a maze of brightly tiled rooms once held all of the Sultan's wives. Anyone is allowed in now, where only the Sultan, his wives and his eunuchs were once permitted. After the harems we went to see the sacred relics. Behind glass were the keys and locks of the Habab, the Beard of the Prophet, the Staff of Moses and various other relics from people famous to Islam. When we first entered I took out my cell phone and asked Ahmet if he thought it would be OK if I took pictures. Before he could respond a security guard approached me and asked me if I had taken any pictures. I said no and he became agitated. I iterated, and re-iterated, that I had not taken a picture. He began to yell and it became clear his English was not serviceable. Ahmet spoke to him in Turkish and that wasn't working either. He yelled about pictures, about video and then asked me to show him what I had taken pictures of. After my repeated attempts to explain, including showing him all the pictures on my phone, he suddenly smiled and said, "I understand" and left me alone. Feeling a wee bit trembly, I put my phone away and resolved to leave it in my pocket until well away from the sacred relics. As I looked around I saw many other cell phones, cameras even, and pictures being taken. Ahmet had told me earlier that I didn't look like a tourist, he felt I fit in, perhaps due to my subdued clothes and quiet manner. After the security guard I no longer felt so sure of that.

As we left the relics Ahmet mentioned that he had never made it into the exhibit before. He has always come in the summer and it is extremely full of Arab tourists, in the winter, however it was much less busy. He pointed over to the treasury, which was full, and stated that while the Arabs like relics, the Europeans seem to like the treasury best.

We wandered to the palace walls and paused to enjoy the view of the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea. "Do you see that island between the continents?" Ahmet asked. "That's Maiden Island, legend has it that the Sultan put his beautiful daughter there to protect her from the men who wanted to marry her. Or maybe from a snake, there are different legends. It was built a very long time ago. The daughter died when a snake hidden in a basket of fruit bit her. Now it is a famous and very nice restaurant. Expensive for Istanbul but maybe not so expensive for America." He paused, "The tower over there, that's the Galata Tower. Also a restaurant now. Everything is being turned into a restaurant it seems." And in this way old Istanbul is re-used for the purposes of new Istanbul.

We walked through corridors on our way out and Ahmet explained about the lives of the Sultan, the Queen mother and the various broods of children, "Have you seen the Tudors? It was like that but the mother kills all the brothers. It is to make the empire strong."

From the palace we took a tram to the Grand Bazaar and walked through its many covered streets. Ahmet used to walk through the market every day on his way home from school and knew it very well. But on our way through we happened upon a section he had never entered before and he had to stop to ask directions several times to point us towards the Spice Market. The Grand Bazaar is a labyrinth filled with an incredible collection of goods, exotic and kitsch, cheap and expensive, commonplace and rare. What chance would I have had to ever find my way out without a guide?

We walked from the enclosed streets of the Grand Bazaar to an open air market where we were regaled by the sales cries of the various vendors and shop keeps. All the sales pitches were in Turkish so I understood nothing, but Ahmet explained to me that in this market each vendor was making personal appeals to the people who passed by, "Here it is personal, not someone trying to sell to the crowd."

The Spice Market was much smaller and extremely aromatic. I felt as if all the spices of the orient were trying to make their way up my nose at once. After stopping to admire the goods we made our way through to the exit. Ahmet explained to me that the Grand Bazaar was mostly for tourists these days but the Spice Market is still used by people from Istanbul, "There is nowhere else that I can find spices this fresh and flavorful. They are wonderful."

We stood on the verge of the Galata Bridge which spans the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet to Galata. I admitted to Ahmet that I was beginning to get tired and perhaps a little cold. He looked at me strangely and said, "That is good, I was beginning to wonder if you are human." I guess my talk of Montana and the temperatures we experience had made an impression on him. We walked the lower level of the bridge, framed on one side by restaurants and on the other by dangling lines of fishermen above, tiny sardine-like fish wriggling on their way up. We could have stopped at any of the sea-side tables for a meal of flash-fried whole fish. On a nondescript corner we dodged traffic and entered a subway entrance. It is one of the oldest in the world, just after London. But it is also very short, we hopped on at one station and rode the subway uphill to the only other station where we hopped off. 

Before dinner we sat down for drinks at a rooftop bar in a building that is owned by his school, surrounded by people he knew (handshakes and kisses all around), and enjoyed a panoramic view of the city as the sun set. The conversation turned to politics and to American culture. He explained to me how American culture has given him a common ground with people all over the world. When he works with engineers his age in India, for example, he can strike up friendships that would otherwise be impossible. They've all grown up with American culture and have a foundation they can build upon. The older generation dislikes America and the conservatives who feel that way have been gaining more power, it makes life less comfortable.

We walked through the crowds to dinner. A street hawker was showing off a small children's toy. All day Ahmet had been asking if I wanted to buy anything, the opportunities for shopping were endless but I hadn't taken advantage of any of it. I'm not a shopper I guess. But this toy caught my eye and I wanted one for my kids. Ahmet stopped, talked to the vendor and insisted that he would pay for it, he couldn't let me buy it myself. "For me it will be 5 Lyra for you 20." After a short exchange in Turkish, he paid for one and he was given two.

For dinner we had sheep-gut sandwiches and fried mussels, both much more delicious than they sound, or looked. We got a taxi out of Taksim square and after a short ride I found myself safely back in my hotel.

For the most part, the story ends here, but there is one more thing to add. I took a taxi to the airport and as I was getting my luggage out of the back I heard an insistent voice behind me, "Hurry up. Hurry up! HURRY UP!" I was used to Istanbul at this point and I ignored it until my bags were all ready. When I turned around I saw none other than Walad standing on the curb in his suit and giving me a crooked smile. He had hoped to play a joke on me I guess. We stood in line, the first of many lines in the airport, and talked about our days in Istanbul. Do you believe in fate? I think some things happen for a purpose. What are the odds of me seeing Walad ever again? What are the odds of running into him in the airport? We exchanged contact information and he urged me to come to Dubhai with my family so he could show me his country and his culture. I encouraged him to come to the US so his family could see my country. After the line ended we parted ways, south to the Dubhai for him, north to Zurich for me.

Click here for pictures from the trip.
Click here for a video of the Blue Mosque.
Click here for a video of the Hagia Sophia.


dallyup52 said...

There are no coincidences.

Arvind said...

This is a great blog. I'd like to touch upon a few points that I enjoyed.

a) The mention of Zurich efficiency. That's great attention to detail and I guess it's closish? to Germany and well ..German efficiency is known worldwide. Did you feel by any chance that staff in Zurich were more ..efficient? As in...the American way is to (AFAIK) be extroverted and extremely it the same in Europe? Do people for example..greet you a lot or just fix your problem really well? Just curious about cultural differences.

b) did Belize (Bay-leeze) sound like Paris? The accent must've been totally different.

c) The contrast between the imported stuff and the mosque prayer calls is very nice. It's a lot like many many third world countries. Although I'm not sure you can call Turkey completely third world. It's sort of the Asian and the European border (I know this because of my soccer team (Arsenal) going to Fenerbahce to play games :D. More so ..though I guess in the Middle East because of a high Moslem population who is deeply religious.

d) I totally know what you mean about Syria. And it's natural to feel a touch of fear? Having said that, even if you go into Syria I'm reasonably sure you'll be welcomed by most people and cursed at by a very small hateful minority. It's the case with every warring country. It happens all the time with India-Pakistan. Maybe talk about this sometime in person ..I'll keep talking :)

e) The photos incident sounds scary. It is lucky here that you were in Turkey; I guess? If you'd been in Saudi Arabia you'd have probably been in jail or be whipped for "violating" laws. I probably exaggerate but you get what I'm talking about. In Iran for example a guy who wore shorts on the road inside a park got stopped by the police. But by and large they too..were very nice people.

f) America's usually a dream for a large number of people. They'd probably do anything to get here. Largely it's the financial side, but also I guess for the fact that you can pretty much do anything here (within limits of course).

g) The kisses and embraces (did you see any?) are very common in Asia (more embraces). Also it's also a religious thing...most Muslim countries have people embracing after prayer and even otherwise.

h) The privacy loss with shopkeepers hounding you isn't a shock. I guess it has something to do with the number of people. The more populous the more all this will happen. It does seem to happen more in certain places though, I guess. Mumbai where I huge...but it doesn't happen. New Delhi to the North of India is notorious for this nonsense. But by and large it's going to be more touchy feely outside USA and Europe :)

i) It's wonderful you met Walad again. I'm fairly sure he will be a good friend in the years to come..somehow.

All in all...its a really nice blog where the words spoke without the pictures. Just the way good writing should.

Jason said...

@ Arvind - thanks for all of your comments.

Regarding the Zurich airport, I primarily noticed how quiet and fast everything was. We landed and before I knew it we were at the gate. Within minutes, I could exit the plane. The passport check went by without a wait. It was all no-drama and no-problems, always obvious what to do and no long lines. A marked contrast to what I experienced in Istanbul.