August 17th, 1:45:
On the last hour of walking around Istanbul before catching a shuttle to the airport, with less than 2 lira in my wallet, I finally found where to buy sequins, beads, appliqués, fringe and more on a side street of the Spice Bazzar/Egyptian Bazzar. I walked down stairs, into the earth, past many tiny stores full of costume jewelry, bags of beads, fringe. I wondered why I had not found this when I had been looking for it a week before and had only found one store of crystals…and knew this was an omen, a sign demanding that I come back to Istanbul again…but I am getting ahead of myself, let’s go to the beginning.( August 7-8 )
Getting there, August 7th:
I set off for Narita international with a half-full suitcase. At Narita I changed most of my yen into Euros and purchased a new watch (because I had left mine at home) in Duty Free.
The flight to Istanbul was uneventful. It was my first time on Turkish Air and I was happy with the service. Sure, I didn’t have my veg meal, but I blame my travel agent for that.
On Turkish Air we were all given complementary slippers, socks, eye-mask, ear plugs, tiny toothbrush and tooth paste and (inexplicably) a shoe horn. The Japanese girl next to me was impressed and lined up all the items on her tray and took photos of them, she was not the only Japanese person to do so. She and I ended up talking for a while (in Japanese). It would also be her first time to Turkey, but she would be meeting friends. As she was curious about belly dancing, I gave her my card for when she returns to Japan. I also talked for a while with the Japanese man across from me…and later we switched over to English after his questions about my hometown and what sort of job I had in Japan made me clarify that I was not Turkish. He’d studied abroad in America and was happy to use his English. Most of the Japanese I encountered assumed I was Turkish and a small number of Turks assumed the same.
The flight took about 12 hours and I slept in fits.
We landed around 7:30PM local time. I purchased my visa, watched luggage being abused (the ramp up to the baggage carousel was fast and at an angle which caused luggage to be launched slightly before thudding down to the carousel, changed half my Euros into New Turkish Lira (some places, like the hotel and Bella, have prices in Euros while other items will most easily be purchased in Lira) and exited to the arrivals terminal. The driver from my hotel had my name misspelled, as it would be the whole trip (but I am used to being a Roberts instead of Robarts). The pick-up area was calm unlike, say, the boat landing at Seam Riep.
I was groggy as we headed to the shuttle… On the way I noticed the Gloria Jean’s Coffee in the airport. Gloria Jean’s, a staple in American malls, was the last chain I expected to be international. GJ is all over Turkey, more than Starbucks. GJ is the corporate coffee house I allude to when I talk about my few months as a barista in a mall during the Christmas shopping season. Like all my customer service jobs, I was not great at my job and brought to it a certain caustic attitude. My bosses liked me, but thought I was better suited for an independent coffee house.
I rode into Istanbul looking around and trying to figure out what would soon become familiar to me and what might remain foreign.
I got into my small hotel in the tourist area of Sultanahmet around 8:45. I checked in and got the key to my room Troy. When I’d made reservations they first told me they had an ocean-view room available and then emailed right back saying they’d made a mistake about the room but had on without the veiw for 50 Euros a night.
Anyone who knows my hotel karma should have been wary. It was a nice room but it was the worst room in the hotel. It was half underground (built into a hill), received almost no light, and was the only one on the lobby floor, so I could easily hear the owners and friends watching sports on TV in the evening. Still, it was bigger than my room in Japan, the darkness was useful for when I tried taking afternoon naps, and everything worked (except the lockbox). I was right in not bringing my laptop (no wifi.or phones in the room).
I dropped my stuff off in my room and went back to the lobby where the owner, Husein, started explaining anything and everything with maps and notes..and then realized how burned out I was and said he could explain the area in the morning. He pointed out where I could buy bottled water and I wandered out to buy a large container of water and a small bottle of Fanta. I don’t usually drink sodas, but in Istanbul I drank more Fanta and coke than I usually do in a year. Sugar water tastes good when you’re dehydrated and forgot to eat lunch.
I slept well and woke-up at 7:30. Because of the darkness of my room and the lack of clocks, I used my iPhone as my clock and alarm. I showered up and headed up to the roof for breakfast.
It was drizzling, so I took my breakfast in the indoors part of the rooftop patio. I was the first person up (breakfast starts at 8) so it took me a few moments to understand what was available to me. On the first table were baskets with bread. Each basket had what looked like a flower of bread, one center bun with 6 auxilery buns stuck to it. For a second I wondered if I was expected to eat 6 breads per breakfast. Then I realized I was simply expected to tear off what I needed and that the trays were for families who wanted a whole flower of bread.
On the buffet tables there were many bowls full of jams, honey, butter and many eatables. There was a huge bowl of yogurt with a ladle. I helped myself to a bowl of yogurt and I filled my plate with slices of feta cheese, cucumbers, tomato slices, ground olive spread, a hardboiled egg, fresh grapes and other fruits. The sister of the owner, a stylish yough Turkish woman with reddish bleached hair, gave me coffee. Everyday I filled up on a large, fresh, breakfast…which is good because I often forgot to eat lunch.
I ate my first breakfast and listened to the Turkish pop music placing on a small radio. Everywhere I went there was some sort of Turkish music playing, which had the effect of making me feel at home. This thing that I love is loved here. This must be what life-long fans of Anime and manga must feel when they finally reach Japan.
The rain stopped and the heat started. Turkey was around 28-30 degrees celcius most days, which was what I’d been used to in Tokyo. I could cope because Turkey is not as humid as Tokyo and there was always a breeze off the many bodies of water that are always nearby.
Husein at the front desk spent more time explaining the area. I grabbed my maps, camera, and wallet and headed out to the Hagia Sofia. I love Byzantine iconography, I have since art school, but there’s only so much an atheist can indulge in such enjoyment without coming off as an ironic hipster. Needless to say the Hagia Sophia left me feeling very happy.
I find myself at a lack of words for much of what I saw, so I point you towards the gallery of day one:
Suffice to say that it was filled with inspiration and much of the visual inspiration in Istanbul was in the complex patterning and ornamentation, which I think my photos reflect.
I staggered out of the Hagia Sophia and looked across the way at the Blue Mosque. I took some pictures, all the while unable to stop thinking “is it wrong that the towers never fail to remind me of Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland?” I decided not to tackle the mosques on day one. I had mixed feelings about being a non-believer enjoying a sacred place as a tourist attraction and worried about how I might offend if I didn’t cover my head correctly. I would later binge on mosques when my money started running out (because they are free, but with many you should leave a donation) and quickly knew that my head covering and skirts that reached my knees were enough. I saw so many women at the Blue Mosque who had to wrap the mosque-provided lengths of fabric to cover their legs, and many more who, upon entering, removed their headscarves as if they were a technicality to get you into the door.
I followed the tramway lines to Sircik, because I had read that it was one of the places I could get an Akbil (the rechargeable transportation pass that can be used for many forms of transport)…but I failed. I asked at the tourist info area next to the old Orient Express building, but the lady just pointed vaguely and said it wouldn’t be open until 2. I wandered toward a cage/structure that said something about Akbil, but failed in communication.
At this point I tried to take a tramway to the Beazit station near the Grand Bazzar. I inserted 1 lira into the turnstile and had it rejected. The guidebook had mentioned that ways of travel, the general price, and Akbil, but didn’t spell out how to ride the rails. After my lira was rejected a few times I looked around and found a sign pointing to tickets. At first I walked past the tiny booth, but then found it. I shoved 1,50 lira at the man inside and he gave me a token. It costs one token no matter how far you ride the tran. I returned, fed the token into the ticket gate, and felt like I’d achieved something. I’ve come to realize that if you can figure out the metros and trains of Tokyo, you can figure out transport anywhere.
I took the tram to the Grand Bazzar area and entered the Bazzar for day one of looking and getting prices.
For all the writings about the bazzars, the bazzars of Turkey seem somewhat sedate and well organized/well constructed, after you’ve explored the markets in Cambodia/Vietnam/Thailand. The Spice Bazzar (which used to be called the Egyptian Bazzar) in Istanbul has a nice but subtle odour and is nothing like the smell-o-rama of south-east Asian markets.
I can’t write about Sultanahmet, or the Grand Bazzar, without starting to address the issue of the Turkish Men in those areas. Turkey is a macho culture, have no doubt about that. Men travel in packs and seem to outnumber women almost everywhere. I kept trying to imagine Michael Baxter here with his Hello Kitty fanny pack… and failed. He’s not the sort of man you see. The men in the areas I mentioned, the bazzars/ the tourist areas, are a slightly different breed than the general Turkish man. The guide books will tell you that you must be in good humor when you enter the bazzar, because you’re on these men’s turf…but I would expand that for all travel around tourist areas. Make no mistake, you are a vital source of income to the tourist areas. You are a source of income to the restaurants, the sites, the stores and, yes, to the men. You have to have to be in good humor about it.
At all times, while in the tourist areas, I was chatted-up constantly by men…by those whose business was easy to ‘suss out by the fact they called to me from restaurants and stores, and those whose business was less readily known. Those who sell things want you to buy. The men who don’t have stores/restaurtants (and many who do) want you to meet them that evening for drinks and to show you around. I was called to, questioned, sung at, chatted-up, plied with business cards, complimented endlessly. Every trick in the book, from the common “you dropped something”/”can I ask you one question?” to the more elaborate set up. There was a wide range of dexterity from “could you please hold your horses?” to “You’re from Japan? Well I am an angel sent from heaven to make this world a better place?” Every language was tried, although on the evenings in which I wore a shawl, I was overwhelmingly thought to be Spanish speaking.
But, even though any walk to or from my hotel became an obstacle course of lines, the men never spoke crudely or sexually and most everyone took rejection and excuse well if delivered kindly… with the exception of a bitter man who wished me a long and lonely life. I avoided spending too much time talking to men, but found that many appreciated being spoken to with mirth instead of scorn, even if that mirth was shooting them down. I saw a few other females traveling alone who reacted to being called to the way you’d look at someone exposing themselves in public.
Over time I knew the restaurant owners in my area, even if I didn’t eat at their overpriced places, and knew a few pick-up men by sight…they would often call out “konichiwa!” at me. I was amused at the endurance of a few of the “local university students” who tried making dates despite how terribly they were struggling with basic English. I made no dates, but enjoyed a beer with one guy who knew a few restaurant owners in common with me and knew Tokyo well. I have many business cards and gave out a few of mine (they have my email and my Tokyo cel-number, and I do carry non-dancer cards). The classiest card I got was one with a Japanese girl’s text address written on the back. On my last day, one guy hawking tour books insisted that, despite my lack of money and the fact that he understood I was leaving in a few hours, I take a free book of postcards because he’d found me nice to talk to.
I made no evening dates.
I was often told “five fingers” when I started turning men down. It was a plea not to judge them by the other Turkish men, because while all five fingers are called fingers, they are not all alike. It would resonate more if I had rarely heard it, but when you hear so many fingers explaining how unique they are….
The biggest thing I came to realize is that I had made a mistake in traveling alone. It was not a grand mistake. I was better off in going when I could than waiting and wondering when I would next get the chance. When I do it again, and I will go back, I will find someone to come with me. Istanbul is the wrong place to be traveling alone (for men or women). It’s not a place where the single traveler can have solitary moments, people who travel or eat alone are not quite trusted. Paradoxiacally, I think you are more likely to carve out those solitary moments of you have someone with you. The risks of going out to bars to hear live music are reduced by having a buddy or wingman. I missed out on being able to go to a taxism where Selim Sesler likes to play. If Dilek had come back to Istanbul before I left, or if Nourah and I had overlapping schedules, I could have.
Above all, I think Istanbul is an experience that demands to be shared with someone else.
But back to the Bazzar…
My game plan was to get a feel for the bazzar and start asking around on the prices of items I liked so I could get a feel for which stores were best to start bartering at in a few days…but somehow I just never got a feel for wanting to buy things. There were some great fabrics I could have gotten at a good price, but nothing that called to me insisting that I make something from it…and I didn’t have a solid idea of what sort of fabrics I need for future projects. I don’t need ceramics. Every costume I saw, even the ok ones, struck me as something I could make or would only buy used as a challenge…I think if I went back now I’d have a list of two or three things I might search out, but they weren’t high priority and I don’t feel I’ve missed out at not shopping at the Bazzars. If I had any upcoming tribal-oriented costumes to make I could have spent a lot of time in a few of the places with Kuchi jewelry.
When I go back I will go back with a few specifics in mind, do a day of price looking, and then get someone well-travelled or native to the area to come with me to show me how to really barter. Bartering is a cultural skill I have never cultivated, nor has my mother, but I’m usually good at it after I see an example of it in action…as each culture tends to have a slightly different way of bartering.
In the Bazzar I had my hand kissed, was given cards, and generally fussed over wherever I walked. I did make a date and promptly stood the boy up that evening. My mind reminded me, as I walked off, that a boy who wants to drive you in his car is a dangerous thing indeed.
But as I said, the reactions to me probably don’t have anything to go with my looks. Wherever I went I was treated as attractive, but around the tourist areas every woman is. There was a store with a collection of essays written by an ex-pat living in Istanbul. The title was “In Turkey I am Beautiful.” Outside of the tourist areas I was generally eyed-up yet assumed to belong wherever I was (which Sema attributes to my stylish but modest travel clothing: no shorts, a lot of mid-length skirts and linen button-up overshirts).
I left the bazzar from a different door than from which I had entered. I started walking, past many silk scarf stores and stores selling the elaborate white and gold fur-trimmed outfits worn by boys for their circumcision ceremony. I even saw a boy all dressed up, surrounded by his family. I regret not snapping a quick picture of the family or of any of the stores, but at that point I hadn’t known what the outfit meant. I knew it meant something, and the outfit made me feel pity for the boy even though he looked happy, but I didn’t yet know it was the circumcision outfit.
Someone else’s blog about the ceremony:
This would be the point where I got very lost. I started to get more disoriented because I hadn’t eaten. I also learned that, in Turkey, I am unwilling to ask for directions to a degree that is silly! This is when I learned that, when you are lost in Istanbul, all mosque domes look like the landmark you are looking for. Do not be fooled.
Somehow I got back to my hotel.
Day one was marked by feeling disoriented and wanting the familiar. I hadn’t needed to take the tramway, I could have walked, but I had needed to know that I could take public transportation. I had needed to be in public transportation, as I am in so much of my Japan life. This desire for the familiar took me one more place, it took me to Bella.
In retrospect, the next time I come to Istanbul I will save Bella for mid-trip. Mid trip is enough time to get everything hemmed or changed before you fly out, but is also enough time into your trip to have a realistic understanding of your finances. I should have stuck to my one-costume limit…but I didn’t. As soon as her assistant cut the hemm on my second costume I knew I had made a mistake. Buying two costumes meant that I would have to be careful about my finances. What was the sense in not buying expensive costumes for months so I could save money for Istanbul…only to buy expensive costumes there? Still, my finances were looking good until my last few days when I realized I had calculated three private lessons in lira instead of in Euros and ended up with only 50 lira for three days instead of 250 lira for three days…but once more I am getting ahead of myself.
When I made it back to the hotel I drank a few fruit juices (I was often fueled only by peach juice, seasame sprinkled breads, and corn on the cob. The last two are available at stands all over Istanbul) and consulted what came to be my third guide to Istanbul:
I will be writing Meissoun about two address changes/mistakes (for showplaces), a showplace suggestion, and some suggested stores for music (I found a used cd store and pilliaged it) and zills (the zill stores are based on Sema’s recommendations about who carried the best zills).
I wanted the familiar, so at 3PM I asked Suleman at the front desk how to get to the address I pointed at. I packed up the half a Bella costume I’d brought, the skirt of my orange costume. I then took a tram, to a fun clear, and a metro. I figured out that each transport needs a different type of token (but all use Akbil) and how to buy each one. My ability to exit one form of transport and find signs to lead me to the next one is high. I’ve learned well in Tokyo.
On the metro I watched a video with an animation depicting why you should not try to retrieve objects that fall onto the tracks by yourself (or with the help of other commuters). The animation showed a man dropping his cell-phone and enlisting the help of another person to help lower him down to it. Then the animated man stepped on the electrical rail. Both men’s bodies were flashing bones in that on-off matter that animation depicts electrocution…and then the train came speeding for the mans head. It cut to a written warning before both men got splattered across the front of the metro, but the bloody end was implicit. Boy, do I love the international language of safety films.
(the following recaps what I have written elsewhere, but in greater detail)
I exited the metro at Sisli. It was, indeed, very close to Bella. I made a turn, crossed a street, and saw the Bella sign in a window. I knew that logo from the Bella tags. It was too easy! I didn’t actually hear angels singing as the heavens parted, but I imagined I did.
Bella is on the second floor. The windows where all shuttered closed and I worried the shop would be closed, but it just turned out to be a precaution to protect everything from sunlight and to maintain the modesty of people inside. I couldn’t find the stairs, so I asked in the store below and was shown to the Bella Butik stairway. I guess I can ask for directions sometimes.
I walked up the stairs , past a dog sleeping in the stairwell. I rang the doorbell and one or two dogs started barking from inside. An assistant opened the door, held one dog back, and let me in.
( Bella and the shows )