The most Turkish-ass Turkish day

1-Istanbul_3PHOTOS BY COLIN RIGLEY

The bus from Eceabat to Istanbul was supposed to take five hours, but it arrived a little late, hit traffic on the outskirts of Istanbul, and we wound up not arriving at the bus station until early evening.

It was a treat actually checking into our hostel with all of our luggage—the airline had lost it at the beginning of the trip forcing us to spend out first night in Istanbul with essentially nothing—although Galata is a nice uphill climb and my arms were tired by the time we reached the hostel. Galata West has many steep stairs and we were on the fourth level so I then had the sweaty privilege of hauling my suitcase up four flights of stairs.

Our hostel was across the street from a mosque, which meant that the 5:30 a.m. call to prayer woke us up far earlier than we intended. Every. Day. As I mentioned before, it really is a beautiful sound. It’s just not what I want to hear at 5:30 a.m., which is nothing.

It was sort of nice arriving in a city we recognized. We knew how to use the Metro (how to get the little red chips that would allow 1-Istanbul_7us entry after hitting the “Onay” button on the machine), knew how to get to our hostel, knew that there were accessible but disgusting bathrooms labeled “WC” for water closet at either end of the Galata Bridge, knew enough of the basics to not feel so terribly stupid. We even knew where we were allowed to walk in the street because the sidewalk was fenced off and inaccessible.

The next day—a Sunday and our second to last full day in Istanbul and Turkey—we woke up early to buy tickets to a whirling dervish service at Galata Mevlevihanesi.

We then tried to visit the blue Mosque which was so packed with people and lines that we almost immediately gave up and went to Cemberlitas Hamam instead.

We were both nervous about our first hamam visit, but determined to experience something so decidedly Turkish. We chose the “traditional” package, which included a scrub but no oil massage. Then Colin and I parted ways—him for the men’s section and me for the women’s. There are, apparently, hamams which have mixed use sauna areas, but I didn’t get the impression they were very authentic and the few we all saw mostly looked geared toward western tourists. A few also had signs with happy ending undertones and the last thing we wanted was to be involved in a prostitution sting in Turkey.

I was handed a pouch with a mitt and a pair of “disposable briefs” which were black bikini bottoms. I was also handed a checkered red hamam towel. A woman showed me to a changing room and I put on the briefs and wrapped the towel around my top, leaving everything back in the locker. The key was attached to a bracelet I wore on my wrist.

I walked downstairs and through a hallway into a very hot room with a domed ceiling with bright circles of light pouring through. There was a large circular slab in the center and 10 or so women were lounging on the slab like beached seals. At first, I flopped down on the slab very carefully and consciously, belly down, trying very hard to lay modestly. After a couple minutes though, when I saw how relaxed and casual everyone was, I stopped caring and started lounging more comfortably.

I had been afraid of the heat because I don’t care for being warm … the heat was fine. I had been afraid of being naked in front of people … the nudity was fine.

There were four attendants wearing the bikini bottoms and a matching black bikini top. They each had a number and they would call “lady” and whoever was ready for her scrub would pack up her towel and move in front of the washer. You start stomach down then flop over as they dump water and soap on you, scrubbing you with the mitt that you give them. It lasts all of 15 minutes and feels very refreshing and cleansing. In fact, I emerged glowing and pink, very content and very proud of myself for going forward with it.

Colin seemed a little more uncomfortable with his experience—describing his wash as painful and apparently his attendant popped his back. Our washes, while thorough, were pretty gentle. “Sit up lady.” “Turn over, lady.” I actually thought it was the perfect way to recover from three weeks of wearing the same sweaty clothes and showering in shared hostel bathrooms.

We then returned to Galata and walked up an exceedingly steep hill to the museum where our whirling dervish performance was being held. We arrived somewhat early and I found myself sitting on a wall petting a stray cat (of course!) who had a major attitude and in between sitting on my lap and purring actually scratched at me and also tried to attack another cat from my lap.

There was a long line forming so we got in line—or Colin did and I waited with the cat—and were eventually shown into a small circular room where the tourists were jockeying like mad for the best seats and generally behaving very badly. Photographs and video were allowed, but no flash photography.

These particular whirling dervishes belong to the Mevlevi sect who were followers of Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi, a man who was Istanbul_13known for sometimes whirling joyfully through the streets of his hometown. The practice in which Mevlevi dervishes chant and spin is called Mevlevi sema. Apparently, most order of dervishes were closed when the Republic of Turkey was founded, but this particular order was later allowed to continue as a cultural institution. (Also, this is all based on very limited research so if you’re interested in whirling dervishes, by all means do some research of your own.)

It started with music and chanting from a chamber above us and to the right. There were a half-dozen men or so in brown and beige felt hats producing beautiful music and chanting. Then a handful of men walked out. They did a lot of bowing and walking. But finally they would bow to the oldest of their order and then with a graceful flutter they were turning. Their hands began at their stomach, worked slowly up their chest and then gracefully and naturally they were aloft and whirling, white skirts flaring. It was truly stunning, truly spectacular. I might not believe in god but I could see how spinning and chanting could make you feel closer to a deity. Their expressions were solemn, intense, peaceful. My favorite dervish was a tall man who twirled with his head titled at a precise angle and he had an expression on his face like he was doing something profound.

Unfortunately, the tourists did not all behave respectfully and we saw many flashes go off until security was forced to call out “No 1-Istanbul_18flash!” Someone’s cell phone went off loudly and they must have been too embarrassed to turn it off because it went right on ringing. And the guy sitting next to Colin—a Muslim man who made a religious gesture at the end of the ceremony—actually answered his phone during the ceremony. It was quite painful to witness such bad behavior and especially to feel like I was somehow a part of it as a tourist

But those few moments of discomfort could not undermine the emotional impact of the service. It ended leaving us in awe. Elated by the ceremony, we went to one of the restaurants under the Galata bridge—which had spectacularly bad food, but we got to watch the manager harass passersby futilely trying to get them to stop and eat there—and smoked rose-flavored tobacco from a hookah which they call “shisha.”

We spent the rest of the night smoking hookah and eating the worst hummus I’ve ever had. I called it our most Turkish-ass Turkish day because the whole day felt like a very good dream—so many firsts, so many experiences I’d always wanted and wondered about, and it was one of those rare moments when everything was even better than I’d thought it could be. Those are the days you live for as a traveler.

The following day—a Monday—the Grand Bazaar was finally open so we went and got lost in the maze of shops. Neither of us was 1-Istanbul_22much for bargaining but we muddled through finishing our Christmas shopping. I expected to be more impressed by the bazaar but I think a combination of euphoria from the previous day, excitement and nervousness about going home the next day, and my memory of the intensity of the Moroccan souks stood in the way. I can’t actually say with certainty that the souks in Fes and Marakkech are larger than the Grand Bazaar, but in my memory the intensity of the smells and colors are just more vivid. Maybe it’s because it was my first international adventure and I was seeing everything through exceptionally innocent eyes, but Morocco stole my heart in a way I thought Turkey would replicate. And that’s just not realistic.

We returned to Galata for our big fancy Turkish meal—Lokanta Maya—which came recommended by Lonely Planet. It was super chic; the walls were covered in walnuts and the menu items were intriguing and different from what we’d seen on menus elsewhere (just by virtue of the fact that fries, or “cips,” didn’t come as a side with everything). I ate cauliflower soup and ordered zucchini fritters which I pretty much wanted to stuff into my suitcase and bring back to America with me. Colin ate bruschetta.

We unloaded our haul from the bazaar at the hostel and returned to Eminonu to go to the spice bazaar where Colin bought some tea.

From there, a barbershop we had seen earlier where Colin got his first straight-edge razor shave which I documented with my camera.

Then to a sweet shop where he ordered Turkish delight and I ate pumpkin pudding and chocolate cake.

The Turks, I have realized, take their desserts very seriously. There was practically a sweet shop every other store and the most crowded restaurants were the ones that just served dessert with Turks gathered around downing baklava and clotted cream at all hours.

1-Istanbul_1On our last night, after our final bus ride was safely behind us, Colin told me that while I was asleep on the overnight bus from Istanbul to Cappadocia the bus drove past another bus that was turned over in a ditch. Colin said he didn’t see anybody but it looked as though the bus had caught on fire and he turned his head to see name of the bus company he realized it was a Metro bus—the same company we were riding. He said it reminded him of riding through Juliaca in Peru, when all the tourists on the bus recognized danger and panicked at the idea that maybe we weren’t as safe as we had supposed.

Considering that Turkish drivers are insane and pedestrians don’t seem to follow any rules, I’m surprised there weren’t more incidents. We saw a number of near-crashes but that Metro bus was the only actual crash either of us saw. It certainly is a sobering sight on the first leg of the journey and I’m glad I wasn’t aware of it.

We also saw plenty of women wearing headscarves and several wearing the full body covering with just two eyes showing. I couldn’t help but recoil when I saw this. Those women’s lives seem so small, so confined, so limited, and while it might not be right to condemn something I do not understand—and I would never attempt to make it illegal for a woman to be able to choose any kind of covering she chose—there’s simply no arguing that it’s just for a woman to be expected to cover her entire body while men wander around in public wearing any kind of covering they choose. Ultimately, everything to me boils down to choice. No one should be told how to dress themselves. And I truly believe that if men and women both covered their entire bodies, I wouldn’t think anything of it. But because the expectation is on women to cover themselves, because women are expected to take responsibility for men’s thoughts and desires, I just can’t get behind it. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether I get behind it. Millions of women cover themselves regardless of what I think, and I recognize that they have numerous reasons for choosing to do so—those that actually have the choice, that is.

I don’t tend to think of myself as markedly western or American. And I kind of like it that traveling to different countries forces me to evaluate my stereotypes and prejudices, to consider whether my beliefs put me at odds with the majority of the world. I recognize that the fact that I am an atheist does mark me as a minority, but I don’t want that atheism to make me intolerant of other people’s beliefs. At the same time, I am also a feminist and there is simply no denying that most religions have a lengthy and unpleasant history of oppressing women.

I don’t have any conclusions here. Clearly there is some tension between my beliefs and much of what happens in the world—including within my own country. Or maybe I do have a conclusion: Whatever you believe, and wherever you are from, you should travel. Travel to make the world smaller. Travel so that you have faces and personalities to connect with the terrifying stories you hear on the news. Travel to challenge yourself. Even if it doesn’t go as planned—even if you wind up vomiting for two days and there’s too much wind for you to go hot air ballooning above fairy chimneys as you hoped—every moment in a foreign country is a humbling, enriching experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

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