Istanbul has endearing qualities that I fear I cannot effectively articulate – it is an energy that must be felt – but in the interest of convincing you to go, I will try and capture it in prose. Just know that my words will not do it justice.
There are innate qualities in some people that are a product of nature, and those that are nurtured – one quality that straddles this line is the art of hustle. I firmly believe it is a mix of both – some people have it and some people don’t. However, no where have I felt a uniform embodiment of this quality more than my time in Istanbul. This has to be driven by the product of environment – an economy in flux – combined with a way of life that is reflected in the largest open bazaar in the eastern hemisphere. I was greeted right away with this energy the first moment I stepped foot in the city.
After taxiing into the runway at Istanbul’s regional airport on the Asian side of Turkey, I was the first one off the plane. Eager to make the trek across the Bosphorus and into the heart of Istanbul, I raced through the airport (my modus operandi any time I travel) to beat the customs line. My hard-charged running paid off. With no one behind me I strolled up to the single customs agent, showed him my Canadian passport and smiled – without any questions I got the stamp of approval. I didn’t make it three steps, however, before I felt a firm grip on my right arm. “Wait, where is your Visa?”. I checked the travel requirements before arriving and didn’t see a visa requirement anywhere. The gentleman, flashing a smile while he continued to crush my arm with a Turkish death grip, kindly let me know that a lady down the hall would sell me a visa, for cash only, no receipt.
This was my first brush with the hustle. It became very clear that there was a bit of a game being played here – but as a foreigner fresh off the plane, little time to spare, and a low opportunity cost with the strong Canadian dollar to the Lira, I relented and went down the hall to purchase my “visa”. I got a slip of paper that was a mix of illegible printing and a few pen scratches and brought it back to the guard. He waved over a colleague who then took my paper and escorted me through the flight crew line to bypass the now cumbersome line of travellers. I had been swindled, but all I could do was respect it. Like I said, it was kind of endearing.
On my way out of the airport a lady tapped me on the shoulder and asked for a sip of my water, which I had in-hand. This was my next brush of cultural contrast. I couldn’t fathom asking a random person for a drink of the beverage they were in the midst of enjoying back home, but here, based on her body language and the non-reaction of those around me I could tell this was not so abnormal. I gave her my water and smiled – it was nice to be greeted with a sense of sharing that we seemed to have lost in North America. That being said, I am a complete germaphobe and had no interest in sharing, so I just let her have it.
After a 45 minute drive into the city center, curiously listening to K-Pop with my uber driver who spoke exactly zero english, I was dropped off at the foot of Galata bridge. My AirBnB was just across the way, but I was frozen upon arrival – not for any reason other than that the ambient noise of the city was overwhelming, in a good way. Laughter, yelling, and singing, all mixed together and all well intentioned – I could tell this city was alive. Bikes were racing every which way, children running everywhere and a cool breeze blowing through open courtyard. This was living.
As I strolled across the bridge it became abundantly clear, everyone is selling something. The bridge was lined with fishermen, casting off into the Golden Horn, pulling fresh fish from the line and immediately turning around to sell it to passers by. Their storefront, an empty paint bucket. Weaving in between were young boys selling bottles of water, some of which bargaining with the fishermen – this was barter economics, real-time.
I finally crossed the bridge and made my way to my dwelling. My AirBnb is a stone’s throw from Galata tower. A gothic staple in a small square. Immediately my mind came racing back to bedtime stories of Rapunzel from my early years. It’s funny how random things can trigger distant, seemingly lost memories.
My trek to the Airbnb was for nothing more than to drop off my backpack. I was on the move, determined to see everything there is to see in this vibrant city. Back across the bridge, I plan on aiming mindlessly. With so much to see in the city it felt unnecessary to have a plan, other than to move.
The first thing that came across my path was the Bazaar. If it wasn’t for a stone sign that signalled I was now officially entering the Grand Bazaar, I would have had no idea where it started and ended – the streets to get there are lined with merchants, selling everything from spices to clothes – some of which looked like the cover of Aladdin (clearly I watched a few too many Disney movies as a child). I had no intention of buying anything – I travel light and regardless of location try and limit my possessions to a minimum at all times – but I wanted to experience the marketplace. It did not disappoint. Haggling is a friendly sport, I could observe the back and forth from travellers and locals, and the contrast in conversation between a tourist (easily identifiable with the pale skin and large sun hats) and two local bargaining was amusing. As a passive observer it provided a great case study in the laws of human nature.
After my circuitous stroll through the bazaar, filled with the aroma of eastern spices, I made my trek to the edge of the Bosphorus, keen to catch an evening cruise through the famous straight. This was a peaceful endeavour. A chillier evening with slightly choppier waters than normal (so I was told), the boat was at less than full capacity. This made for an immersive experience, saddled up right beside the captain.
On returning back to the foot of Galata bridge, my luck could not have been better. The sun was setting right overtop of the Blue Mosque. A sight ingrained in my mind forever – I cannot describe it, and I was so taken I did not even think to pull out my phone to snap a photo. I was completely present. That also marked the spot of my next destination. I had to see this awe-inspiring structure first hand.
Weaving through the streets, using the relative direction from my vantage point earlier for direction, I followed the sounds of the evening prayer to find my way. I do not hold the same faith as those worshipping here, but I respect their faith and admire the community entrenched in this special time of worship. Although I was welcome to enter, I stayed in the courtyard to respect the time of prayer that these people were partaking in. It was a special experience to see a mass of people converging to pray. Although my time of fellowship looks very different back home, at my dad’s church – I could identify with the human spirit of coming together under shared values and shared faith. This was a special moment for them, and I felt blessed to observe this.
I spent the rest of the evening, under the stars, watching families share in laughter and community. All I could think about was how much I value my family, and how blessed I am to have great people in my life, albeit on the other side of the world, to share in similar but different experiences when I am with them.
The next morning I arose at the crack of dawn, made myself some turkish coffee and went on my way. I was determined to walk as many streets as I could before I moved on to my next adventure. Through parks, winding streets and the beating sun, the energy was alive and well. I walked through Topkaki palace, a serene sanctuary on the edge of the city with a clear view of the Bosphorus I was skimming through the evening prior – only this time the water was as still as glass. This was indeed beautiful, but I wanted to get back into the energy of the city – the palace was spectacular, but the people are what make Istanbul.
As my day came to a close, it was time for me to leave the city, I called an uber as I stood idle, listening to some street performers playing the mandolin. A perfect opportunity to offload my remaining Lira, and whatever went in their hat was not enough. However, the angelic sound of the Mandolin was drowned out by a familiar, and peculiar sound. Around the corner comes an uber, blasting K-Pop. Lo and behold, my Turkish Korean pop-star loving uber driver was back. Going out the same way I came in – the perfect bookend to a perfect two days in a city of energy and hustle.