Turkey 1

And that overnight bus from Bucharest to Istanbul nearly took years off my life.

Luckily, I was sitting next to the only other person on the bus who spoke a word of English, Danny. Danny was an Iranian who had learned English in Australia -- just try to imagine that accent. His family had left Iran when the war broke out with Iraq and when they returned two years later, Danny, at the age of about twelve, decided it was still too dangerous for him to go back, so he left and went to Australia by himself.

Danny was now tweny-five and going to school in Bucharest where he had just neglected his classes in favor of travel through Germany and failed all of his finals. Fortunately for him, this was in Romania, so he simply bought passing grades from his professors for about 150 US dollars each.

Forty minutes into the bus ride we came to the Romania/Bulgaria border and spent the next two hours there. First we waited on the bus, then Bulgarian soldiers came on and stared at every passport for five minutes, then they took the passports, then we waited, then the bus drove forward fifty feet, then we waited, then the soldiers picked a few people to open their luggage for search, then we all got off the bus and waited, then we walked across the concrete border expanse and waited, and waited and waited.

Finally, one of a group of very gold-bedecked Turks pulled out a money clip full of US dollars, peeled out one bill and gave it to another of the group who walked into the duty-free liquor store which was the only other building on the concrete yard besides the soldiers'. He came out with two bottles of nice whiskey and walked into the back door of the soldiers' building and walked out empty-handed two minutes later. Two minutes after that, we were following our bus onto a ferry to cross the Danube where we again sat around and waited for more buses to come. On the other side of the Danube we went through more walking, waiting, getting back on the bus, waiting, getting our passports back, waiting, and then finally leaving.

We got to the Bulgaria/Turkey border just before 3am and started much the same proceedures. Then it was time for everyone to get off the bus, buy visas, and walk across the border. And that's when I found out that only a couple weeks prior the price of a US visa had gone from $45 to $65 and I didn't have enough US cash to cover it. Naturally, they didn't take traveller's cheques or plastic or cash from any of the places I'd been.

So, not knowing what to do, I approached the most amiable-looking of the Turkish Good Guys who turned out to be very good natured and spoke Italian to my Spanish. I explained my dilema and he showed me an atm around the back of the buildings. This would have been great if my atm card hadn't stopped working in Romania and apparently wasn't being accepted by that Turkish bank either.

By this time everyone else was across the border, on the bus, and waiting to leave. So we walked back and this guy explained the situation to the bus driver who was growing angrier by the minute. Likely cursing the stupid American the whole time, the bus driver finally convinced one of the Turks to lend me the money and we rushed through the visa line so I could get on the bus and we could all drive to the baggage check area.

We got off the bus in Istanbul around 7 that morning and I was immediately surrounded by the group of Turks and one guy off the street who spoke English and translated for me. Since no one wanted to wait around for an exchange place to open, they finally consented to take traveller's cheques from me. I prayed, for my own well-being, that those guys would be able to cash the cheques, but I guess I'll never know what ended up happening.

I took the metro to the Sultanhamet part of Istanbul and accepted a hostel room from the first guy who approached me. After showering the grime of my sleepless overnight bus ride I came downstairs and asked the hostel owner if there were somewhere I might go for information on the city. In response, he yelled out across the room to a thirty-something guy who turned out to be his nephew. Next thing I knew, I was on a day-long, whirlwind tour of the city with Omar as my guide. We saw the Blue Mosque, the New Mosque, the Cisterns, the Bosphorus, Taksim Square, part of Sultanhamet's Market, and other parts of Istanbul. We also just happened to stop into every shop owned by every friend or relative of Omar's in the city. A friend's travel agency, silver shop, and two posh restaraunts were just a few of our many sights.

I mean, when someone who is using his day to show you around says "Would you like to see my family's shop?" how can you say no? So that's how I came to be sitting in the basement room of his Uncle's rug shop, drinking apple tea with the two of them while two more guys were throwing down $2,000 rugs in front of me with Omar's uncle telling me rugs were a better investment than the stock market and asking me which one I liked.

All that day Omar was laying out my next two days in Istanbul at a pace which would get me out of the city in time to catch his travel agency friend's $400 tour package of Turkey. Amazing as the day had been, and grateful as I was for getting a feel and layout of the city so quickly, I decided that I didn't want to see the rest of Istanbul through the Veil of Omar. When I told him that night that I wouldn't be staying in his (other) uncle's hostel a second night, he was suprised and took off pretty quickly.

Omar's manner was brusque, but friendly; accomodating, but hurried and business-like. "Look at this, take a picture of that." I think that Omar was well-meaning, and I probably ended up offending him, but I really didn't know if he saw opportunity in a "rich American" or if this was just his brand of neurotic hospitality.

I've talked with other people who had similar experiences and had a couple more myself; Turkish people will bend over backwards, stop their day and spend the rest of it on you, show you around, invite you in for apple tea, talk to you on the street for hours, and business just seems to be an accepted and integral part of that.

I managed to thouroghly enjoy the rest of my time in Istanbul on my own. I spent half a day marveling at the venerable Haga Sophia and half of the following day wandering Instanbul's famed Grand Bazaar. Everyone, and every guide book, will boast about the Bazaar's more than 4000 shops. What they don't tell you is that, combined, these shops only sell about twenty different items; they just sell them over and over and over. But, it's worth going to the Bazaar if only for the haggling.

Some of the other pictures are the view from the roof of my hostel and the street it was on, and whirling dervishes that I saw during dinner at a water pipe and apple tea cafe.

Just a note: I've been to a lot of cities, and I have to say that Istanbul has the craziest drivers I've ever seen. And, yes, I've been to Paris. And driven with Jessica Glahn. Taxis made up most of the cars on the road because you'd have to be nuts to drive your own car amongst them. It wasn't so much the lack of any legal speed limit in the city or the complete disregard for the concept of lanes; it was the drivers' unwavering belief that absolutely everything, other cars, pedestrians, curbs, etc. would get out of their way if they only drove fast enough. And what horrified me more than the drivers were, in fact, the pedestrians. I took taxis with Omar, so I saw this from both sides; pedestrians would regularly jump out in front of speeding traffic to cross the street...with looks of absolute horror on their faces. Filled with abject terror, they would watch the impending taxis as they lept from the curb and sprinted for the opposite side. The taxis, for their part, never slowed for a pedestrian; they merely swerved.

And how could I possibly go to Istanbul without going to a Turkish bath so I could compare the bliss of Budapest with the original. Fully expecting an experience similar to Budapest, I left myself most of a day to enjoy the Cemberlitas Bath.

The Turkish bath was about as quick, relaxing, and cleansing as a ride in a washing machine.

I was rushed through a changing room and into a back room which housed a raised marble slab, maybe twenty feet in diameter, which was heated and turned the entire room into a sauna. Since there were a lot of guys waiting to be cleaned/massaged, I had a while to wait and sweat before "my" guy smacked me on the foot and motioned towards the edge of the slab.

He first took out a mit that had to be made of pumice and sandstone and scraped off every mole I had before emptying a bucket of soap suds over my head. The cleaning and massage were simultaneous and my handler cracked every joint in my body while he was at it. Actually, that makes it sound nonchalant. No, if there was a joint that wouldn't crack, he worked at it until it did. And all this time, since he didn't speak a word of English (besides "tip") he couldn't tell me to turn around or raise my arm or turn over, so he did this for me, flinging me this way and that on the slick marble surface. And honestly, I got the impression that he thought the dirt wasn't on my skin so much as inside it, and the only way to get it out was to sqeeze me like a Jimmy Dean sausage. The true highlight was when he motioned me to lie face down on the ground, and next thing I knew he was walking on my spine. Luckily, he was a short guy. Stocky, but short.

So, yes, definitely go to the Istanbul Baths if you get the chance, but don't go on a full stomach, and for the love of Allah, don't go if you bruise easily.

On to --> Turkey 2

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