Following our unforgettable Greek naval odyssey, it was time to say our goodbyes to Alexandros and her crew, and contemplate a return to a lifestyle that did not include daily snorkelling and/or gorging on mountains of shrimp tempura. A horrifying prospect, if I’m honest.
My family flew home, and I continued on to my next destination – Istanbul, Turkey. Like many people, I did not know anything about Turkey, let alone Istanbul – only that it had an enormously complicated history, rife with religious wars, imperial conquest, decline, and then conquest again. The only thing I did know was that it was quite fashionable to say “I am dying to visit Istanbul” – certainly more fashionable than saying “I am dying to visit Old Orchard Beach, Maine, because their fried dough is awesome.” So off to Istanbul I went.
A few surprising facts about Istanbul:
It has a population of 17 million
It is 99 percent muslim
It is one of the worlds epicentres of textile production and exportation
These guys work there:
I arrived at my hotel, a little boutique job in Sultan Ahmet, the old city. The place was located a short kebab’s throw from many of the major historical sites, which is what I’d wanted. Unquestionably, the highlight of the hotel was its rooftop terrace, which provided an unimpeded, 360 degree view of the city. Dusk on this rooftop offered an unforgettable picture: a spire-filled Turkish skyline, crescent moon resting in the heavens and with the audible chants of the “Muzin” playing on nearby loudspeakers, corralling the city’s 16 million Muslims for their nighttime prayer. It makes one feel very, very foreign, and very far away from the nearest Jewish deli.
Nighttime in Istanbul
That first night, I hopped in a cab (after a failed attempt to use the allegedly easy-to-navigate streetcar system) and headed across the Bosphorous river, my destination: Istiklal Caddesi. This was the main thoroughfare on the Asian side of Istanbul, and it was insanely busy – it had the frenetic pace and volume of an Oriental Times square, if Times Square were placed in a vice and squeezed and elongated into a sausage – a big, noisy, delicious, raucous party-sausage. Every night of the week, certainly even on the Monday night that I was there, Istaklal Caddisi floods with tourists and locals alike, all looking for a way to unwind in that most festive and booze-filled of ways.
The strip is flanked with clubs and restaurants of all sorts, but the real fun begins when you start to duck into the alleys at every block, and explore the countless little bars and cafes nestled there: swanky wine bars, hip-hop lounges, cafes, rock clubs, even the odd Goth den; there is something to quench all manner of thirsts. I found one place, Hayal Kahvesi, that featured live Turkish blues music. That’s right, Turkish blues. They said it couldn’t be done, and yet, there it was. The lead singer was groaning and moaning his way through a number that sounded suspiciously like Turkish-dubbed Howlin’ Wolf. The fella sounded hard-done, by someone or something. Authentic blues, then. It was an interesting scene, but I wasn’t long for it – I had an early meeting the next day with Arif, a lovelorn tourguide.
Touring the sites
As I was only going to be in Istanbul for 2 full days, I figured I should make the most of my time by joining an organized tour for a day or two. So the next morning at 9am, I met Arif. He was a pudgy, affable guy in his late 30′s. He had studied English and Hospitality Management at university in Istanbul, and he knew his job well. We breezed through the big sites of the city: the Blue Mosque (a very big, old, ornate mosque), the Hagia Sophia (an old church that became an old mosque, and is now a museum), the Grand Bazaar (an enormous, labyrinthine flea market that used to sell interesting things like skulls and precious stones infused with camel’s blood, but now sold normal looking jewellery and snowglobes), the Obelisk (a 2500 year old ancient Egyptian monument carved out of granite) , Topkapi Palace (former palace of the Sultan), and I’d even convinced Arif to take me to the Basilica Cisterns – an attraction that wasn’t on his prescribed itinerary. They were a true marvel of ancient subterranean engineering.
Perhaps the most memorable part of my day, however, was my heart-to-heart conversation with Arif. During our lunch together, he had decided to go into detail about how he had been jilted by his ex-girlfriend. He had found out, on Facebook, of all places, that she was seeing another man. His anger at “the Facebook”, merely the medium, rather than the message itself, was as clear as it was misguided:
Arif: “Tell me, Mr. Daniel, do you know who is Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of facebook?”
Me: “Uh, yes.”
Arif: “I kill him!”
And so it went, over kebabs and turkish coffee. Where Arif went into detailed explanation of the construction methods used for the Basilica Cisterns, and how he might like to bury his ex-girlfriend’s new beau in said cisterns, I reciprocated with emotional reinforcement, telling him there were plenty of other fish in the Black Sea, and that he should get back on the horse, etc., etc. I like to think that i left him in good spirits.
I suppose the other highlight of the day was my getting suckered into buying a decorative rug, called a Kilim, from a local vendor that Arif’s company worked with. I know it’s standard operating procedure for certain tours to work with the local crafts vendors to try to milk some extra cash out of the tourists, but I didn’t mind. Fact is, I needed a rug to tie my room together. I was assured that my Kilim was hand-sewn by one woman in rural Central Turkey, who worked out of her simple home and was actually a distant descendant of Ghengis Khan. I made up that last bit, but Ghengis had may offspring, and so, to be fair, it wasn’t entirely unlikely. I feel like a got a fair price after a good bit of haggling, and if they ever knew how well the piece would eventually be tying my room together, they’d realize they should have charged me way more. In the end, it was THEY who got swindled, really.
The morning of Day 2 in Istanbul, I was grouped with about 40 other tourists for a boat tour along the Bosphorous. This is the river that separates the Asian and European sides of Istanbul, and connects the Sea of Marmara to the south with the Black Sea to the north. We got a good look at all the seaside historic buildings, government offices, and expensive residential properties, on both the Asian and European sides. One impressive thing about the Bosphorous is the sheer volume of cargo traffic – it’s riddled with giant tankers, and one is reminded of Istanbul’s millenia-old importance as a trading hub.
But the cruise was not the high point – or low point, depending on your outlook – of my tour. That came right before lunch. As mentioned earlier, tours are often in cahoots with local businesses to try to sell you their crap, and often successfully (as in my aforementioned case). No doubt in keeping with this practice, our guide on this day announced that we would be visiting a leather market. I was intrigued, because I hadn’t heard of Turkey’s importance as a leather goods producer. I envisioned a traditional bazaar, with vendors hawking exotic leather products like dagger sheaths, fez tassels, or perhaps a falcon hood or two. Instead, we got something more reminiscent of Dimitri’s Wholesale Leather Outlet:
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. After our tour bus pulled up to a business park near the city limits, we were herded into a nondescript building and seated in a smallish room that was set up for a runway fashion show. Please take note, we did this as part of our tour of Istanbul. I kept waiting for a “candid camera” presenter to pop up behind the curtain, which would have explained the lunacy of the unfolding action, but that never happened. So after a couple of incredulity-filled minutes of models strutting around in leather jackets and coats, I quietly escaped the retail hostage scenario, hopped in a cab, and finished the day on my own. I checked out the spice bazaar, a few more mosques and topped off my visit with a deluxe session at the Cemberlitas Turkish bath, which, obviously, deserves a separate paragraph.
The Turkish Bath
Ah yes, the Turkish Bath. Like Liberace and Jazz-hands, the public bathhouse is a favoured butt of Western homophobic jokes. Indeed, there was even a Turkish bath down the street of my old apartment in Montreal, which my roommates and I used to jokingly accuse each other of secretly frequenting. And to be fair, what’s not totally gay about one sweaty, half naked man vigorously massaging, lathering, and scrubbing the body of another equally sweaty, half naked man? The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, “nothing, really.”
As far as I’m concerned, thanks to the vicious bathhouse fight scene in David Cronenberg’s excellent “Eastern Promises”, the gay stigma of bathhouses has been lifted, and where they previously may have been viewed as bastions of grab-assery and other such nonsense, I view them as they once were: bastions of manliness.
I arrived at the Cemberlitas Bath where the pretty cashier, no doubt used to dealing with nervous, bumbling Westerners, such as yours truly, reassuringly led me to my changing room, where I was instructed to change into my towel and head to the main steam room. The room was a large ante room of sorts, featuring a tall, domed ceiling, and was dominated by an enormous circular marble slab, where various other men were laid down, some being scrubbed by attendants and some laying alone, peacefully. I laid down and tried to relax, letting the steam open my pores, and my mind drift towards serenity. I enjoyed this, right up until “George”, a shirtless, Turkish version of Seargant Slaughter appeared over me, ordered me up, and instructed me to lie on my stomach. I did so, at which point he began to pummel the flesh of my back and my legs into a submission that I did not know how to vocalize. So we chatted:
George: “You America?”
Me: “Err, no. Canada.”
Good talk, I thought. Then, when George went to work on my calves – perhaps not the beefiest specimens on which he had laid his gorilla-mitts, I finally shrieked in agony. “Yes! Good!”, he said, evidently pleased that he had located and neutralized some tension – no matter the long-term tissue damage. I was pretty embarrassed, as the room, though filled with about 10 other bathers and attendants, had been silent until then. But I did appreciate the physical effort/torture George had employed in tenderizing my muscles.
Next came the lathering and rinsing. Despite my skepticism, it didn’t feel like a homo-erotic sponge bath – instead, I felt more like a newly-processed maximum security prisoner being deloused, or maybe just like a sheep being sheared. Either way, not gay. It was done with hot water and, despite the considerable heat of the sauna and the fairly oppressive heat outside in Istanbul, it was remarkably refreshing.
After rinsing off and getting dressed, I had to admit, I felt good – in fact, I felt amazing. George actually ambushed me as I came out of the changing room, poking a basket of cash at my chest and barking, “Tip!” Clearly, he was as shy as he was fully clothed, but I happily obliged, because he did a good job, and I didn’t feel like finding out what happens when you disappoint a guy who has to spend his days in a dark, 400-year-old bathhouse, rubbing down clueless tourists.
So that was the Turkish bath. It was great. In fact, it was probably the highlight of Istanbul, and I highly recommend you try it – just make sure you keep your tip money handy.