Ninety-three hours in Istanbul with my two best friends in the world.

1.

Istanbul.

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The flight over was supposed to have been something like nine hours. Instead, we ended up on the plane for sixteen (someone got sick en route over Labrador. The flight attendants attended to him (her?), but apparently the situation was unstable. I had just taken a sleeping pill that Nate had given me, and not five minutes later the pilot announced we’d be stopping in St. John’s, Newfoundland – one and half hours in the wrong direction, as the plane was somewhere closer to Greenland by then – and as much as I wanted to, I could not un-take that sleeping pill.

I don’t remember much else, but Ryan tells me we were on the ground for nearly three hours, before refueling and taking off again). I made the mistake of gambling on getting the isle seat next to Ryan and Nate – the plane was a 2-3-2 seating setup – and chose the middle seat in the middle row, hoping the person on the end would switch. I asked politely enough – “I’m flying from California, and had a hell of a time getting here, so sorry, but no,” she responded, politely enough in her staccato South African accent. Nate didn’t get out of his seat to stretch or pee for the entire flight over. It was after three in the afternoon local time by the time we got out of the airport and found the bus we were supposed to wait for that would take us into the city.

Trans-oceanic airplane flights are not like time travel. They are time travel, and I don’t care what anyone else says. It took me twenty-three days – days – on a sailing boat to reach Ireland from Canada last summer (ironically starting only a few hundred miles from were we spent our little hiatus on the runway in St. John’s), constantly in motion. We made it to Istanbul from New York – significantly further, in mileage – in nine hours flight time.

Time travel.

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“Ryan, what Dave Matthew’s song am I thinking about right now?”

I asked him this as soon as we got on the bus outside the airport and started heading into the city. Through the haze, the skyline was littered with modern business buildings and an abundance of ancient-looking towers, their tops pointed to the sky, some of their walls crumbling and others layered with scaffolds and in various states of repair. The towers belonged to the city's many mosques.

Without hesitation – “Minarets” he said. 

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Ryan inside the Blue Mosque

Ryan knows me (incidentally, he also knows every time what movie line I am quoting, and always plays along with it. And I quote a lot of movie lines. And re-tell a surprising amount of stories that I have already told usually several times, but that’s something else. There’s not often a situation or an observation that the two of us can’t express without sliding in a stupid line from a stupid movie, to Nate’s feigned chagrin (he secretly enjoys it). But it’s a part of our friendship that I love. Somehow it never gets old).

There were more satellite dishes than mosques. The city is hilly – sometimes referred to as the ‘City of Seven Hills,’ in fact – and from any one of them (there were more than seven by my count), the vistas afforded through the haze showed every housing building with dozens of them, on walls, in windows and attached underneath balconies in various forms of disrepair. I’d guess that when one needs replacing, the old one is not removed. There are a lot of people in this city.

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The Blue Mosque

There is a mosque across the street from our hotel. Ryan got it for free (the hotel, not the mosque) with his hotel points from work, but we had to smuggle me and my things in because a third person would have cost an additional nightly sum which we were not prepared to pay. I waited on the sidewalk outside while Nate and Ryan checked in with my bags and were shown to the room. I wandered down the street – a steep hillside really, the road too narrow for cars to pass safely – to a gas station looking for some kind of juice to drink. I remember Mia saying how great it was in Morocco, also a Muslim country, because they had fresh squeezed orange juice on every streetcorner (strict Muslim’s don’t drink alcohol), so I was excited at the prospect of finding something similar. The gas station didn’t have it (not surprisingly - elsewhere in the city though, along with fresh pomegranate juice, I found it easily) and I ended up with a sparkling water, peach flavored that I later gave to Ryan after only two sips. I didn’t take the time to read the label – thinking it was in Turkish anyway – and it tasted suspiciously sweet, so I didn’t finish it.

Nate came outside to find me sitting on the sidewalk not sipping on my drink. In my head I wanted the hotel staff to think that I was just meeting someone there, and my story went that I was actually staying somewhere else in the city and was here for a visit. I kept trying not to look suspicious, but assume that just by trying that I made it even worse (I needn’t have worried. Our total bill – including the nuts from the minibar and the coffee at the lobby bar came to 62 Turkish Lira – about 35 bucks).

Anyway the mosque. I noticed it amongst the residential buildings across the street when I was standing outside. People live ‘up’ from the street, not on it. The houses are tall and skinny, and there are many many many of them. The city houses thirteen million. Amongst those tall, slender, mostly run-down buildings stood the spire of an ancient minaret, one that belonged to one of the cities 2,600-some-odd active mosques. I noticed the loudspeakers underneath the catwalk. In the room that afternoon we heard the Muslim call to prayer for the first time.

“You guys hear that?”

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No shoes in the mosque.

It was most exotic, simultaneously startling and enchanting, and reminded us that we were freaking far away from home. I loved it. I felt like my eyes were opening onto the world for the first time since I first left home and that I was seeing things from a new perspective, all signs of the jaded attitude I’ve developed about traveling gone in an instant. Maybe not jaded, but certainly not surprised anymore, not enchanted anymore, but more or less thinking I know what to expect in foreign places, an attitude that nothing will ever change me again the way traveling did when I first started going away. Thanks in part to that first call to prayer and in part to the timing of it and my exhaustion from the plane ride, I was changed again. I started over.

Five times per day, beginning at five am, we heard that prayer.

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“You're the only one who brought a suit coat.”

And I only wore it for a few hours. Mia warned me that I would not get into any ‘nice’ places without proper shoes and a nice shirt, so I took my pinstripe jacket because I couldn’t find the white one from my wedding. Nate and Ryan guessed that I’d never go anywhere that required that kind of clothing anyway, so they didn’t bother to bring there’s. So I was the only one wearing one when we went out that first night looking for food and beverage (the boys did have on ties). It was also the only night I wore my dress shoes – the rest of the weekend was spent in my running shoes. We covered a lot of ground on foot in three days.

Thursday was shortened for us thanks to our detour in Newfoundland. We were supposed to have arrived at something like nine in the morning, but didn’t make it into the city until nearly four in the afternoon.

The busride from the airport took us along the Sea of Marmara, where lots of tankers and container ships were anchored just offshore, closer than they appeared thanks to the haze, which I had trouble deciding whether it was just haze or pollution (probably both). Some of them looked overloaded, with only a few inches of waterline showing (I decided today on the way back to the airport to come home – I’m writing this on the plane, now somewhere over the UK – that they were not in fact overloaded, but actually sunk and aground). We passed also a few yacht marinas, with small powerboats and sailboats, and I thought that they looked a lot like the ‘lagom’ boats I see a lot in Stockholm, small but cozy, with little enclosures and inboard engines. The biggest sailing boat was about 40-feet, and several of them had varnished wooden cabinsides and appeared to be in immaculate condition, or maybe just appeared that way because the marinas themselves – really just some concrete piers inside a rock breakwater along the highway – seemed neglected. One of the breakwaters had a wooden powerboat perched atop it, just sitting there.

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People washing for prayer outside the Blue Mosque

Then we came into the city proper. I was jet-lagged and tired, but my eyes were open and I was a tourist again, really a tourist, gazing bug-eyed out the window as we passed things absolutely unfamiliar to me. At one stage the road, a four-lane highway, divided and ran between the arches of a Roman aqueduct that I later learned had been built in the fourth century. That’s in the 300’s sometime. Holy moly.

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This trip was born, I think, in part by Nate and Ryan coming to Sweden for my wedding last summer. They are my two best friends in the world. I think Nate got bitten the hardest by the travel bug, and asked me on the phone sometime in July if I’d meet him in Istanbul in the spring. Um, okay. He had an iPad app that told him the city was the farthest point from State College that he could travel on a direct flight and for five hundred dollars. The three of us had a three-way phone call that same weekend and chatted for over an hour like teenage girls. We decided to make traveling an annual tradition since we only see each other once or twice a year. We used to live together in college – Ryan and I shared bunk beds, and he constantly listened to the Killers, a band I hated at first (probably because they were on that show, The OC , which I also hated), but now enjoy. The Killers are in fact one of my favorite bands, and we have some good memories with their music, mostly from in the car, stored away somewhere. 

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A man at the Grand Bazaar. I bought some stuff from his shop.

I knew nothing of Istanbul prior to this trip. I shouldn’t say that. I knew it was straddled between Europe and Asia (I didn’t know the Bosphorous was technically a straight). I knew that it used to be called Constantinople (and had the They Might be Giants song in my head all weekend). I knew also that it was once called Byzantium. I knew it was mostly Muslim, and I think I knew that the Blue Mosque was there. I didn’t know that it’s a practice of Islam to pray five times per day. I knew that they made the call to prayer from the minarets, but I didn’t expect the calls to be so moving and so mysterious and so exotic. I knew that Turkey was partly on the Mediterranean, but I didn’t know that Istanbul itself was on the Sea of Marmara (which I incorrectly assumed was the Med on the busride from the airport) and actually a long way north from the Med. I also didn’t know that Istanbul was also on the Black Sea to the north. I knew the city was big, but I didn’t know it was thirteen million people big. That was about all I knew. I had no assumptions about anything other than that I assumed I’d be a tourist for three days and would not be ashamed of that. I wore my camera around my neck a lot.

I didn’t know that the city had a subway system (for some reason I assumed it wouldn’t, being old and feeling somewhat third-worldy in places – and decidedly first-worldy in others). I also didn’t know that the city had an underground funicular train that negotiated a couple of the hills it's built on. We quickly learned the public transport system, and by experience, having walked into – after paying a token for a subway ride – and immediately out of the first station we got to, having to pay twice for our first ride.

We made our way first to the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar (which I did not know about). It was after three by the time we got to the area. We slept until eleven thirty the first morning, not thinking to set an alarm, and again lost another half day. But the point was not to rush, and it didn’t really matter in the end.