Right here, right now
There is no other place I'd rather be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up from history
- Jesus Jones, Right Here, Right Now
Istanbul. Constantinople. Ottoman Empire. Byzantium rule. With the bewildering array of historical facts surrounding this strange but beautiful city, it's easy to understand why modern day Istanbul seems like a collection of jumbled cultures and artefacts mixed up like a tasty beef stew. The city is visually stunning, and even in the couple of rainy days here, the so called Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia which stands just opposite are instantly recognizable landmarks on the world stage. Our first impressions when getting off the night train from Bulgaria were India like. The look and feel of the place, and the simple fact that there were so many men in the streets and almost no women made the entire scene feel like a cleaner, more prosperous India. And that might not be too far off the mark. With a predominantly Muslim culture, Istanbul takes on the many traits that a more separated male/female society tends to have. Male hand holding is the norm here, if not just a little less comfortably than in India. But that is the story of Istanbul, not quite comfortable as to whether or not it belongs with the east or the west. The city is an ongoing experiment in fence sitting.
The night train was a laugh. First of all, it was over 3 hours late arriving from Belgrade to our stop in Bulgaria, Plovdiv. This meant that our 10 pm departure was now 1 am and our customs stop was going to be at a joyful 4:30 am. Yippee. We were travelling with a Russian America girl from San Diego who had the weirdest Russian Hispanic accent -try and picture that - almost impossible eh? Anyway, I had done a bunch of research about crossing into Turkey sans visa ahead of time, and knew that it would be possible to buy one at the land border on the way over. This girl really didn't have a clue, and many other travellers seemed oblivious to the Turkish visa situation. To be fair, we had also met a couple from Quebec who were equally uninformed and when I insisted to them that the price for Canadians was 60 USD he just refused to believe me. How could this be?
Well, this story goes back a little. Actually, it goes back to Carla and Adam's honeymoon last year when they came to Turkey. I'm sure I don't have the story quite right, and somewhere in there there's a part about Adam forgetting to bring his passport (It's a foreign country dude!), but the part I want to focus on is the visa thing. I remember that Adam was very upset that Canadians, perhaps the most diplomatic and peaceful people on earth, were being charged the highest amount of all countries to enter Turkey. I remember he was pissed (at least according to Carla's depiction of the scene). Anyway, it is not without truth, as Canadians are horrendously overcharged. Many nationalities are free, and many more are just 15 or 20 USD. But the line saying Canada stands out dramatically at 60. They even have to put an ink stamp on top of your sticker that says "60" because they don't have any stickers that go that high!
The question is why? Adam was right to be upset, and as we approached the wicket at almost five in the morning. The scene went quite normally ahead of us. Everyone was paying their 15 or 20 dollars. And then came our turn and we handed over our Canadian passports. The women stepped back and cringed as though she thought "Oh, oh - here we go again, I'm about to have another 10 minutes being berated by a couple of Canadians who want to know why they are being charged so much". Instead, we kept our smiles, and handed over a crisp US 100 dollar bill along with a couple of 10's and said thank you in Turkish and we were on our way. Research does a good ambassador make. I think she was in shock. On the other hand, there is a real problem here, and I can't seem to dig up the answer. Usually it's a trade dispute between countries or a reciprocal fee or something, but the best story I could get came from a fellow here from Calgary who reminded me that Canadians are doing a lot of the long term peace keeping in Cyprus, which I am sure is not sitting well with the Turks. Perhaps that's it.
Anyway. Once back on the train we went back to slumbering only to have one last check of the passports before we were allowed to slip away. Not until morning did we find out that the American girl had slept through the whole process and caused the train to wait an extra two hours on a siding while they sorted out her visa. Some guy had to drive to get her one. At first, I couldn't understand why we were so late getting into Istanbul, but then I got my answer as she spilled her story all morning long :|
This caused us to be late for check in at our hostel, and they gave away our room. Well, Kristine was a little tired at this point, so she pretty much had had enough, and the room thing was the last straw. She started to cry and I tried to console her and work something out with the hotel guy. Fortunately, there was a double next door, and our move would not be inconvenient and the price was the same so we were OK. But it was a bit of a rough start for Turkey. Anyway, after a little rest, and a little food, off we went to see Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is impressive, but the Hagia Sophia is much more. It is particularly interesting because it was once a church, and was later converted to a mosque by one of the Sultans. Inside, there are all kinds of references to both Christianity and the Muslim faith, but today the building operates as a museum, perhaps avoiding the obvious question as to what ought to be done with the building from a faith point of view today. In many ways, the solution for the Hagia Sophia is symbolic of Istanbul, and perhaps Turkey as a whole. Everywhere, the secular and non secular lives of people seem to blend seamlessly into a colourful, endlessly woven carpet.
Not so fun are the 4 am calls to prayer. While other times of the day are more bearable, the 4 am one is just plain hard to take. And the hostels are always near the mosque it seems, so you get the full on Van Halen version every time. I mean culture is culture, but this is ridiculous! The other thing we walked in on without realizing it was the end of Ramadan. On Saturday night we were out walking the streets, and the whole place was a full on kaleidoscope of street vendors, food stalls, and anything else you can think of. The streets were packed with Turks and music flowed everywhere. As Ramadan ends, there is a huge celebration as the fasting period ends, and people visit each other for three days, hugging and eating along the way. It really was special to be here at this time!
I also need to put a special word out to Yesim, a friend of Chrystal and Jean Marc's whom we met in Vietnam, as she came to meet us for the evening (in spite of being a little under the weather) to show us around a little bit. She took us to a wonderful little restaurant along the Bosphorus where we were able to try some traditional end of Ramadan Turkish foods, and we were given a great little tour of the city at night. It is only then that we realized the immensity of Istanbul - 12 million strong.