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Saturday, June 23

Istanbul & Turkey

Istanbul holds a very special place in our heart.  It’s a city we left pleased by its kind people, hospitality and world renown food.

It has 17 million, approximately, people and every nook and cranny is filled to the brim with people, buildings, architecture and/or animals.  While reading about Istanbul and Turkey few weeks before our departure, I was fascinated by the culture and the city’s ingrained relationship to Islam.  I learned that Turkey’s population is over 95% Muslim.  What!?!? I bet you didn’t know that either.  Women wear headscarves but are not required to.  Since it has a large population of Muslims and many mosques, there are prayer calls.  And the rest we learned as we discovered the city on our own. 

Upon arriving we noticed Istanbul is overpopulated; this is not a good or a bad thing, just an observation.  When we left the airport to take the local streetcar to our hotel, we were smashed inside the streetcar with others trying to reach their destination.

The transportation in Istanbul is carefully constructed.  We were in the city for 5 days and never felt like we needed to have a car to get around.   (Though with so many people, I don’t know how one has a car.) They have streetcars, trains and ferries.  The ferries connect both Asian and European sides of the city.  For instance, we went to a Hamam (Turkish bath) on the Asian side that the locals frequent and it was a 45 minute train, ferry and bus ride to Üsküdar without difficulty.  The streetcars and trains were always crowded but the ferries were not.

95%+ Muslims means most women wear headscarves and are covered up.  Neither of us have traveled to a predominant Muslim country so we were surprised to see the amount of women in their headscarves and some completely covered up.  This, my friends, means 2 Indians that could pass for Muslims because of our skin and hair color get stared at everywhere we went.  Although initially uncomfortable, we quickly adjusted to the stares.  We understood; I am a brown-skinned woman and not covered up, he is also brown skinned and sporting a beard (a common practice in Islam) with a woman that isn’t covered up. 

Something that brought us back to our childhood was the Adhān, Islamic call to prayer.  A man sings/speaks specific words which are then projected through the minarets’ loudspeakers to the city.  Growing up in a western state in India and having been around many Muslims, we both remembered our childhood days when mosques in parts of the city had prayer calls.  For Europeans and Americans these can be an annoyance but we didn’t mind.

One reason Istanbul and Turkey left an impression was because the people of Turkey are nicest, friendliest people we’ve met in this part of the world.  When we were lost on the first day a young couple in their early 20s that didn’t speak any English tried their best to help us get to where we needed to go.  The staff was very attentive and helpful at many restaurants, especially because they saw that we couldn’t understand the menu.  At one of our lunch spots, the server told us their pide comes with only ground beef and therefore not an option for us to order.  Many may think this should be the case but we both felt this server went out of his way to explain each ingredient on the pide.

Istanbul is divided by strait of Bosphorus or Istanbul Strait in two parts: European and Asian side.  Our hotel was on the European side in Beyoğlu.  It’s a neighborhood that’s centrally located and close to tourist attractions including Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe Palace, Sophia Hagia and many mosques.  It is close to Galata Tower and connected to the tourist destinations by Galata Bridge.  Most importantly Beyoğlu has superb restaurants for the locals and tourists.  Unfortunately I can’t speak so highly of our hotel, but I do appreciate the recommendation from a German/Turkish friend.   I highly recommend staying in Beyoğlu. 

The obvious difference between European and Asian sides are the number of tourists and locals in each.  Asian side, while it still has its share of people, is mostly filled with locals.   We saw many women, men and children modestly dressed whereas on the European side, I saw more modern fashion trends on women, men as well as children.

Speaking of overpopulation, we were surprised to see the number of cats everywhere we went.  There were stray street cats throughout the city.  I am not sure why the city or the country isn’t taking care of this problem but we noticed it could be a result of locals leaving (cat) food on street corners.  More than once we saw a bowl of cat food by the train station or in an alley.

I get scared with stray animals, anywhere, so I was skittish when cats hung around our table while we were dining.  To make things worse, I was annoyed when the husband fed a stray cat.  This may have something to do with growing up in India and seeing stray animals roam the streets freely and mentally fearing they would bite.

Because of my fascination with Islam we visited few mosques and couple palaces; palaces that were once inhabitated by Sultans.  More on that soon. 

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