(I traveled to Turkey for vacation during first half of July,2014. Following is an account of my experiences in Istanbul. This is the Eleventh installment of the series, focusing on a missed opportunity to visit Topkapi Museum and things I learnt about Turkey. I hope you enjoy it.)
Cumartesi, On Ikinci Temmuz
(Saturday, 12th July)
I had planned to visit Topkapi palace but as soon as I exited my hotel after breakfast, I felt intense pain in my upper back, just below the shoulder blade.I ignored it initially and took a morning stroll around the half-empty Isteklal Street. During the walk, I bought one of the only English-language newspapers published in Turkey (Today's Zaman) from a small store. During the walk, I noticed the inability to move my neck sideways. It was probably a strained neck muscle, so I visited the nearest Eczane (Turkey's answer to Walgreens) and got some painkillers. Thankfully, I was able to find the right tablets despite the language-barrier.
I decided to continue with my plan and boarded the Taksim Tünel followed by a tram to Gülhane. I found Meltem and her fellow volunteers Gülhane station. They were guiding tourists about the Istanbulkart Refill machines. I spent almost 30 minutes assisting the volunteers. I wasn’t able to walk comfortable so I decided to postpone the Topkapi visit and walked towards Blue Mosque. My interest was piqued by a sign pointing to a place that used to be Hurrem Sultan's hamam. Initially I ventured towards the ladies' side of the establishment but I was then guided by a lady towards the entrance for gentlemen. At the entrance, I received a brochure for a ‘Royal Message Service’. It felt like a godsend but a) It was expensive and b) I wasn’t looking forward to jumping in the sauna with a loincloth.
I continued my journey to to Blue Mosque’s gate A and caught up with Hatice and Bayzanur along with their fellow volunteers. Went inside the mosque and sat with Doğukan and Ahmet in the
Shady courtyard of the mosque. It was there that I learnt about traditional Turkish dishes from Sinem, and took some absurd photographs of different varieties of hair. Discovered that Today's Zaman is published by Gülen party sympathizers and they had started criticizing the Erdoğan government since the 17th December crackdown on Gülen sympathizers (Hizmet Movement) in judiciary and police.
I confessed to my volunteer friends that I had already tried etliekmek, kurimpi, simit, börek, patso, doner, Turkish delights, Turkish coffee and baklava among traditioal Turkish cuisine. They asked me to try Iskander, Mantı and Dolma apart from Turkish Pizza. Sinem and I talked about medical education in Turkey and she mentioned that Istanbul University was probably the best medical university in Turkey We also touched upon the cost of braces for teeth. As a former "sufferer" of braces, I empathized with her and reminisced about the difficulties faced by people in braces after eating any regular meal. She explained the education system of Turkey (8 years primary school, 4 years high school, entry exams and then University). I discovered that possessing a Turkish passport was only slightly better than having a Pakistani passport, as people with Turkish passports could only visit a handful of countries without visa.(Being a third world citizen really sucks!) We scattered on sight of Miss Cansu, the supervisor and landed near German fountain.
It was there that I had a good chat with Ertugrul (his name reminded of Chilean midfield player Arturo Vidal) about religion and politics (I learnt that ISIS was called "Ishit" in Turkey). He confessed about his "virtual relationship" with someone in Torino, Italy. Kaan joined us after a while.
We talked to a Ukranian family that wanted guidance regarding a place that was quite far from Fatih and the patriarch of that family was really funny. They were visiting from Kiev and supported the Euromaidan protests. They were amused by my reference to "the Chocolate King"(nickname of Ukraine's current President, as he owns chocolate factories). Kaan made a cheeky comment about him supporting Yanukovich (the deposed Ukrainian president who fled to Russia) which didn’t amuse them and they branded him a “risky boy”.
I was supposed to get a shoulder bag for my younger sister, so I sought help of Sinem in this venture.We walked to Grand Bazaar (called Kapali çarşı in Turkçe) with Kaan and Ertugral in tow. En Route, We encountered a very animated Turkish girl who knew three languages (Turkçe, Italian and Spanish with some knowledge of English). She was interested in our “group” due to the “Ask Me” shirts worn by volunteers. We did a grand tour of the Bazaar focusing on shop that sold bags but the prices were quite high, due to what Ertugrul called the "Grand Bazaar effect". Sinem informed that she could get bags of similar quality from market near her home.
As a last resort, we visited the nearby flea market and finally found a decent bag. On our way back, a restaurant worker recognized me as a Pakistani and tried to tempt me by offering Biryani with kebabs (I would’ve accepted his offer but I was not hungry and am a vegetarian anyway). On our way back, we had to make two stops as Sinem wanted to get bracelets for herself. During the return journey, we talked to a German couple from Dusseldorf who wanted to know directions to the Galata Bridge.
I wanted to get some balance charged in my account and wanted the volunteers to help me interpret it to the sales person. They took me to the nearest “Avea” franchise. To my surprise, one of the sales people was a former musician and knew Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (one of Pakistan's finest Qawals/sufi musicians).I had to sing a stanza from NFAK’s "Dam Mast Qalandar" to convince him that I knew and revered Nusrat. I later roughly translated "Dam Dam Ali Ali" to the guy, who was pleased to entertain us.