With entry-level jobs comes money. And with money, comes the ability to spend money. I’ve never plunked down more cash on a vacation than I did for my week in Turkey with my college roommates, and I still spent less than $2000. It turns out Turkey is 1 of approximately 2 countries with a good exchange rate. Point, Americans.
The trip started shakily. With no cell phones between us, three gals had to meet at a hostel in Istanbul at nighttime. WIth one flying in from Spain, where she moved to teach English, that left us two Yankees to find each other in an international airport. After failing to find each other at our three checkpoints (visa booth, baggage claim, kind man named Onir holding up a sign with my name on it), I decided to hitch a ride with Onir and trust that my friend would find the hostel on her own. When he turned around in the driver’s seat and said, “Welcome to Istanbul, Miss Cason,” I relaxed, knowing that we both have brains or, at least, addresses written down somewhere. My friend did eventually get to the hostel, and when my Spanish friend rolled in at midnight, it was comparable to the joy I feel when my Geo’s chicken finger order is up.
I tossed and turned that night, waking up at dawn when I heard the first prayer erupt from the loudspeakers that are attached to every minaret of mosques in the city. Though we were all still a little groggy, we hit up as many major landmarks as we could. Most notably, the Hagia Sophia:
This beaut was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Istanbul. Once the premiere church of Constantinople, it was converted to a mosque once the Ottomans put an end to Roman glory for good. Their solution to covering up that pesky iconography?
Why, slapping huge medallions with messages from Allah over all of the angels and stuff. Quite the quick fix.
This is the minbar, where the leader of prayer, or imam, stands at the halfway point to deliver a sermon. The top is reserved for Allah.
The dome (I’ll never understand how they built these things.)
Moving right along, we then visited the Topkapi palace, where sultans used to rule the school. Fun fact, while harems were very real, sultans were only allowed up to four wives, most of whom were chosen by their mother! Gross. No pictures were allowed inside, but suffice to say we saw some tricked out old sultan outfits and lots and lots of bling.
Next up was the Blue Mosque, where we had to cover our heads and go shoeless.
But the mosque that I found to be the most beautiful was the New Mosque, which was closer to the Bosphorus strait, a channel that divides Istanbul in two and Europe from Asia.
See the reds and blues and greens? Again, because iconography was a no-no, the Turks resorted to tiles for decoration. Also, these adorable old men.
Needless to say, the sights were amazing. One thing that confused me was prayer time. In my head, this 99% Muslim country paired with the fact that prayer is broadcast through the atmosphere five times a day meant that I would constantly be seeing people drop to their knees in worship. Not so. The only time I saw people in prayer was inside of the mosques that I was touring. It doesn’t seem to be the integral part of life that I was expecting, and I think that may be a sign of the times. The most reverence I noticed from young people was when my hostel owner turned the radio off during one midday prayer. Something to ponder.
The experiences probably trumped the sights in Turkey. Just wandering the streets introduced us to new things and interesting people. Such as…
Fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice
Smoking apple hookah
Or traveling to Goreme, a tiny town in central Turkey. It was like a space camp fairy castle wonderland, but with less English-speakers and lots more horse poop.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Hmm. That photo looks like it was taken from above. That’s peculiar,” then you are one smart cookie. Because I did take that photo from above. While inside a wicker basket. On a HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE.
This video consists of one of my friends gasping for air and me burrowing my head in her shoulder, sobbing. It was about that time that I realized I hadn’t signed any sort of waiver, and one of the men tending to my balloon was also the waiter from the restaurant we ate at the previous night. But I quickly got over it, once I saw the incredible vision of dozens of hot air balloons floating in the air.
Paired with the incredible rock formations resulting from volcanic eruptions that took place centuries ago, it was one heckuva experience. That I will probably never do again.
When we returned to Istanbul, we also went to a traditional Turkish bath, where we were treated with all of the warmth and gentleness you want from a topless, round-bellied old Turkish woman. When we bought our tickets, we were given a package consisting of a towel, a hand mitt, and disposable bikini bottoms. No instructions included. We went into a locker room and changed, all the while debating whether or not to embrace our inner Europeans and go topless. In the end, we decided to do as the Turks do and throw modesty to the wind. We went to the indicated room, opened the door, and were hit in the face with steam. Once that cleared, we found that we were in a large, domed, 500-year-old room, filled with topless women being washed. Oh boy.
A nice old woman came up to me grabbed my towel that I was clutching to myself, and threw it onto this large marble slab in the middle of the room. She instructed me to lie down next to the 15 or so other women waiting for attendants. At this point, my friends and I realized that our friendship had reached a level before unknown to us. I lied there for 20 minutes, letting my pores expand and feeling so relaxed I almost fell asleep. Before I knew it, the attendant returned to me, and began to pour hot water over me. She used the handmitt to slough dead skin off my limbs, which felt very good after five days of walking. She then lathered me up and let me lie there. After a few minutes, she led me to one of the many fountains lining the periphery and washed my hair. When that was through, we all met up again in a hot bath, where we tried to process what had just happened. Again, an experience that, while at first scared the crap out of me, ended up being one of my favorites.
We also enjoyed some delicious food, such as hummus, yogurt, lamb, nuts, and Turkish coffee and tea. Only once did my body react negatively, despite Rick Steves’s warning that 1 out of 4 travelers to Turkey get diarrhea. Point, Sarah. We spent a lot of time in the open markets, where we tried different spices and haggled for souvenirs.
This friendly fellow gave us one Lira off our lowest price if we took a picture with him on his phone. Deal.
In all, Turkey was full of strange opposites. One half is ancient and steeped in transition, the other half, stretching outward from Taksim Square, is bustling and new. Everyone was friendly, polite, and confused that we came all the way from Chicago. The weather fluctuates, as do the social customs. For instance, until the 1920s, Turks were not required to have last names. Almost every shop owner, waiter, tour guide, or person in general that we interacted with was male, and women seemed to only hold jobs that allowed them to be in the back of stores or restaurants. According to these men, my friends and I are Charlie’s Angels.
I’m glad I got to check another place off my list with two of my best friends.
And I’m very glad I met this mannequin.