It was a short flight to Istanbul. We arrived just a few hours later blanketed in warm Turkish sun, and we shuttled from the plane to the terminal and trekked from the terminal to customs and waited patiently—or impatiently, if I'm being honest—until our passports were stamped with the familiar welcoming strike of metal on wood.
A bus from the airport took us into the city and deposited us into all the hustle and bustle of Taksim Square. Coming from the quiet countryside of Croatia to the very heart of modern Turkey in such short time was jarring, to say the least: so many noises, so many cars, so many people! Everything moved quickly and everything was crowded; we'd find the sidewalks too jammed to pass and so we'd walk alongside the curb in the street, but then cars would whiz dangerously by and we'd hop back onto the curb, and all the while we'd be stared at by every last Turk around, and the men would leer at Abby, and by the time we reached our apartment some thirty minutes later it felt as though our senses had been beaten and bludgeoned and bruised like some long-ago opponents of the Ottomans.
The apartment had been arranged online, and our directions were to message when we were out front and the key would be brought to us, so we did as we were told and waited outside in the thick of Istanbul for someone to come by and say "hey, here's your key."
We waited and no one came. Finally a pair of women neared the entrance and we stepped aside, realizing we were rudely blocking the door, and they held the door open for us after they went inside in case we wanted to wait out of the sun, or maybe in case they thought we were staying there and maybe forgot our key. We waved and entered and crammed inside; it felt good to be in the shade for a moment. We stood for a few moments and then realized the women were still there, at the other end of the hall at the foot of the stairs, and they waved us over and up. Ah!, we realized, they have our key!
The language barrier didn't matter much. They unlocked the door to our small studio for the week and showed us around, they pointed at the bed and the kitchen and peeked inside the bathroom and that was about it, a quick demonstration of how the keys worked for good measure, but an apartment was an apartment and this would do just fine, so we thanked them with a simple bow of the head and they left.
After relaxing for a few minutes, we left the apartment ourselves, braving the heat to explore a little of our neighborhood. On that first night, we discovered Istaclal, a wide boulevard just steps from the loft that stretched for kilometers in either direction and offered hundreds of shops and bars and restaurants, with thousands more along its offshoot alleys, and every moment of the day—that first jaunt mid-afternoon, later that night and all throughout the week at morning and noon and midnight—it teemed with life, with people and daring scooters and the occasional disruptive car, and then like clockwork the ancient red-and-white tram (the second oldest in the whole world, I'm told).
Before arriving, I'd feared that Istanbul wouldn't be much different than the rest of Europe, that globalization would beat us to Turkey and we'd find heaps of H+Ms and Kentucky Fried Chickens littered about, and people with their phones and pocketbooks and Prada sunglasses. And in a way, that was all true.
Sure, Istanbul wore its Western influence on its sleeve; in many ways, it was one of the most capitalist and commercial places I'd ever been ("how can one city sell this much stuff?" Abby had asked). But there was so much more to the city than just modern mercantile mayhem. It wasn't a place that was built on Western notions, but one that adapted to them, that crammed modernity in between its mosques and its old markets like a patchwork of space and time, a quilt of old and new, a great slurry of tradition and modernity.
And so the young Turks clutched their prayer beads as they shopped for designer jeans and Armani sweaters all along Istaclal, and as they did so the megaphones of the mosques' minarets sounded a call to prayer that rang out beautifully throughout the whole city, round the peninsulas and up the Golden Horn, literally from sea to shining sea, monophoned voices calling out ancient hymns just as they had for a millennium, five times a day and three hundred and sixty-five days a year and one hundred years a century and so on, and it all just made perfect sense. Yes, Istanbul was big and bold and busy, but it was beautiful in spite of those things—perhaps it was beautiful because of those things.
Our first night in Turkey took us to a local bar featuring live Turkish folk music every day of the week, its tunes ringing out through the neighboring streets each evening in between the fourth and fifth call to prayer. We sat ourselves in the small, cozy space and ordered a few drinks just as the band was warming up, a pair of Turkish men, one younger, one older, with beautiful voices and skilled fingers strumming simple sitars. They played a little, just the two of them, and it was lovely, and then they were joined by a third, a woman who greeted a few friends in the audience and then bounded up the small stage to join them with her calming voice.
The trio played for hours without interruption, and the more they played the better it became. There was a certain conviviality about the whole night that's hard to put into words: a certain way they just seemed to be having so much fun doing what they were doing, just a few friends hitting the bar again, and when one of them tired they'd descend for a drink and another in their troupe would take their place. There was something about the audience, too: how immersed they were, all clapping along and getting up to dance, strangers grabbing hands and dancing in a broken circle, and those on the ends waving white napkins to the pace of it all, a lovely little tradition that made the whole bar feel like a family's living room or, maybe, the banquet hall of a small wedding. And though we were outsiders, though those out in the Istanbul streets made that clear with their curious stares, innocent or otherwise, we weren't treated as such in that intimate bar. I felt privileged to be a fly on the wall, thankful to see us viewed as like-minded vagabonds and not trespassing voyeurs.
We left late, those beautiful songs fading as we walked in the midnight rain, and we returned to the apartment and slept and woke again, to more rain, but we waited out the worst of it and then headed out for our second day in that big city, down through modern Taksim and over the bridge to historic Fatih.
Though the Taskim side of Istanbul had some historic charm of its own around its cobbled corners, it was nothing compared to its sister south of the river. Fatih may look a like like Faith, and with good reason, for the whole place is teeming with it: old mosques and towering minarets and the unmistakable architecture of a thousand years of Muslim influence, and if you look a little deeper, a thin layer of Christianity, of old Constantinople, buried beneath that.
We wandered through Fatih for days, spending a good portion of our five days there south of the river. And we saw much, centuries per hour; we ate the fifth century for breakfast and the thirteenth for lunch, we passed dinner between the domes of some of the mightiest mosques of the ages. We toured the Aya Sofia, a sprawling cathedral-turned-mosque that, having been burnt down thrice when the winds of religion changed, still bore the awesome markings of antiquity, crusty plaster covering breathtaking tilework, a literal layering of one history atop another. We saw the Blue Mosque, a newer creation that was no less impressive, and we navigated the elaborate domed tombs of Istanbul's revered sultans. We walked through gardens and great public plazas and we scurried through grand bazaars that seemed to never end.
On our second day in Istanbul—or maybe our third; they all blended together like the apple and the herb and the water and the sugar in a syrupy Turkish tea, so one can't be sure—we found ourselves on the outskirts of the city center, a newer stretch of city with a few interesting statues and pleasant parks. Abby pointed to something off in the distance and I turned, and she asked "is that a Roman aqueduct?"
Indeed, it had the unmistakable silhouette of a Roman aqueduct, and hell, the Romans had once stretched as far as Istanbul, so why not? We neared the aqueduct for a closer look and marveled at its condition, artfully aged yet still standing, and how it just sat there in the middle of everything, an eight-lane highway literally running underneath it, what may just be the most magical overpass ever. And then as we turned to leave, something caught my eye way above, and I froze.
"Is that ... a person on the aqueduct?"
Abby looked up and she saw him, too, a man walking the strip of stone some hundred feet overhead. And then two more! Yes, there were people crossing the ruin, and by the look of their posture and pace, they didn't look like some special staff; they just looked like normal people on a heighty hike.
We needed to get up there, we agreed. We scanned the wall for stairs, and we followed the aqueduct and those stairs until they just crumbled away into brush and bush well overhead, and then we walked back the other way and traced the ruin to its one end about a kilometer down the road. This was its lowest point, its edge maybe a twenty foot stretch from the ground, and we desperately worked to find a way up there.
There was a van, and were we to climb up the van we could probably scurry up the wall, but I wasn't sure climbing up some stranger's van was the best idea. There were a few trees, and were we to climb the trees it'd be but a short jump to the wall, but Abby wasn't sure those trees were mature enough to support our weight. There was freeclimbing, of course; we could use our decently-developed climbing skills to just scale the stone, but neither of us were sure this was the best place to test our climbing, or the absolute integrity of the aqueduct's brickwork.
As we stood alongside the ruin mapping a plan of attack, some local children ran close atop it, four boys of maybe twelve who had evidently found a way up the wall and were now looking for an easy way to hop back down. They too spied the van, and by the look of things, it seemed as though they too were thinking of using it to their advantage.
Just then, an older man—perhaps the owner of the van—yelled from the sidewalk and hurried over, shouting what could only be Turkish obscenities and insults all the way along, you hooligans, get off that wall!, and in case hurtling all that wasn't enough, he picked up a stick and threw that at them too for good measure, a terribly violent attack that, as the kids dodged the projectile and it arched over the wall's narrow end cap to the other side, probably did some damage to the person or property of an undeserving victim down below—or unsuspecting, I should say, for no one really deserves to have a branch launched at their face.
The man, thankfully, left, muttering as curmudgeons do as he went, and the boys ran the other way to find another way down the wall. In their place arrived a lone traveler, walking slowly, who greeted us from above and asked "hey, do you know how to get down from here?"
It wasn't a stupid question, but it did strike me as silly: "well, no," I responded, "how did you get up there?"
He pointed off in the distance and we traded details and I thanked him, and I felt as though we'd benefited from that conversation far more than he, us now with an idea of how to get up there and him left going back the way he came, which he could have figured out how to do without our help.
The north side of the wall way down there, he had said, and so we followed his advice and followed the aqueduct and ended back up near where we had started, which was really nothing but crumbling wall and rock, that same old brush and bush.
But on closer inspection, we spied an intermediary landing, an old garage or something butted up against the wall, and with the help of a few car bumpers we hoisted ourselves up and over a first barrier. A family was residing on the other side, sheltered up with tarps and tents in the shadow of the aqueduct, and while I felt awful that we had just intruded in their humble home, they didn't seem to mind at all—they greeted us with a warm "hallo!" and, already knowing what we were after, pointed us to an arch in the ruin with a thin length of twine working its way up the wall nearby.
It was a short scramble, maybe ten or fifteen feet of hoisting ourselves up a steep incline, but the rope was there for support and we emerged a moment later unscathed and victorious up above ... up on the seemingly abandoned ruins of a two-thousand-year-old Roman aqueduct.
Like my climb through abandoned Jiankou ruins of China's Great Wall some years earlier, that first moment of being on the damn thing was one of life's truly breathtaking moments, those rare seconds when something really takes your breath away—not just figuratively makes you really, really impressed—when the sheer size and significance of the thing being experienced makes you feel so impossibly small and insignificant that your brain powers down completely and finds it necessary to reboot with a new set of scale.
Unlike my Jiankou climb, however, this didn't take place in a remote forest in rural China where you could stumble, break a leg, and die there, no one around for miles to hear you scream. This setting, whether for better or for worse but probably just for different, was smack in the middle of a massive metropolitan city, cars zipping by a hundred feet below and the warm glow of ten thousand lights illuminating everything around with a dusky urban aura.
The aqueduct climbed higher and we climbed with it, up steps so steep you couldn't see their top, just a seeming stairway to heaven that spit us out not in heaven but something close to it: a twelve-foot-wide landing that stretched on for a kilometer and offered the most marvelous panoramas of Istanbul one could imagine on one of the unlikeliest platforms, a stage built by Roman forces some two thousand years before.
It was windy up there, and of course there were no railings—the beauty of the ruin is that one must take safety into their own hands—and wide as the aqueduct was, I bent my knees and crouched, hypersensitive to any rouge wind that might catch me off-guard and blow my body clean off the wall, crashing calamitously onto the street below. Abby sat, and that seemed a good call, so I sat with her and we stayed like that for a little while, glancing up to greet other explorers when they occasionally passed by, descending sometime before dark and brushing ourselves off and turning a corner and, just like that, finding ourselves back in modern Istanbul.
I loved the Turkish people. Sure, they stared a little bit, but we were an odd-looking pair. And regardless of how they treated travelers, I liked the way they treated each other: the way the men would show affection for one another, double kisses on the cheeks and hugs all around and all the normal symbols of trust and endearment without all the unfortunate Western homophobia. I liked the way the owner of that Turkish folk bar would come and shake hands with all of his local patrons, each and every one deserving of a firm handshake and a good helping of sincere eye contact, men and women alike. I liked the way the restaurant owners would read you the menu as you walked by, really getting into the nuts and bolts of it and doing their damndest to find you what you're looking for.
I liked the microeconomies at work all around, the way how, in the morning, you'd see the one guy with a giant bag of pretzels who'd walk from one street vendor to the next offloading his pretzels wholesale, and those street vendors would then have pretzels to sell the passerby the whole day through, or the other guy who wheeled that giant cart of water bottles to all the kids and their waiting ice chests, same model, different product.
I liked the microeconomy wherein the man on his scooter went from one restaurant to the next and rigged a spinning wheel to his scooter engine so that while it was parked it spun this wheel with great force, all glinting steel, and how the chefs would step outside their doors carrying their finest knives—ah, the knife sharpener is here again—and he'd gently press those blades against his wheel with a shower of sparks and return them to top cutting power as he chatted with the cook, as he packed up his spinning wheel and scooted to the next restaurant in need of his services.
I liked the microeconomy in which the men carry tiny vases of Turkish tea on silvery platters to the merchants in the bazaar at noon, or the one where the fisherman post up along the bridge and catch bait for the baitsmen. I liked how transparent it all was, how purposeful and local and direct, how the sellers of services knew the buyers of their services and, what's more, seemed to genuinely care for them, and they seemed to trust each other know that they all had to work together to make it work at all.
I loved Istanbul plenty; I didn't particularly care for its tourists. I suppose I'm always a bit harsh toward tourists, and I suppose they weren't really much worse than those I'd seen on the mainland, a bunch of sweaty faces peering through their little camera viewfinders at something Frommer's told them was worth seeing because ... "culturally significant," but perhaps they just rankled me more in Turkey, their Western ways just a little more misplaced here than Frommer's usual travel picks.
There were the men who'd enter the mosques and attempt to work their way across the barrier to the praying side, where they'd sit cross-legged and whisper back to their girlfriends, "hey, babe, take a picture of me praying in the mosque!" There were the women who would take a photograph of anyone deemed "different," which is to say anyone with a long beard or any type of cloth covering their head or greater body, including but not limited to hijabs, niqabs, and turbans, all the better for getting back to the States and sharing with less-traveled friends how "exotic" the people of the "Middle East" are.
And then there was the special and peculiar sort of person who would enter the Aya Sofia and navigate from behind a viewfinder all around its massive acreage and up its winding stairs and suddenly stop at a photograph, on the second floor of the Aya Sofia, of the Aya Sofia, and deem this photograph worthy of ... photographing.
It was truly meta: why would anyone photograph a photograph of a building they were in while in that building? I found it quite possibly the most puzzling thing in the world—like, you know you're in that building right?—and so I did the only thing I could think to do, to take the great meta of the situation and raise it to the next power: I photographed the people in the Aya Sofia photographing a photograph of the Aya Sofia.
People are so silly sometimes.
Sure, we had our moments too. Much as we tried to blend in, there were some things we just couldn't figure out; for instance: where do the people pee?
Pay-to-pee restrooms were pretty common in the more touristy sections of town, and we begrudgingly paid for them when necessary, but there were other times when we just couldn't find a toilet, massive bazaars where no one seemed to need a loo—or at least, no one seemed to want to advertise one to us. We found ourselves in one of these situations on the third day, maybe the fourth, way down south in Fatih with bladders full of piss and pockets full of change. We needed to pee and we were ready to pay for it, but we couldn't find those "WC" signs anywhere, hundreds and hundreds of bazaar booths all around us and not a single store or shop looking large enough to provide a privy.
We tried to leave the market but it wouldn't end; it just stretched infinitely in all directions and then seemed to wrap back in on itself. Our bladders cried, and after some time we abandoned our hopes of finding a toilet, pay or otherwise; a quiet alley would do just fine.
But this was Istanbul, one of the world's densest cities, and even by our slackened Roman standards a "quiet" alley couldn't be found. Every city block had no fewer than a thousand individuals bustling through it, working their way along every nook and crevice in an effort to get around the booths, the cars, each other. Nowhere was safe.
Minutes ticked by, first five, then ten, then twenty. The crowds got denser, not thinner, the streets busier, not quieter. I don't know which one of us was in more pain, but I imagine we were pretty close, for when one of us said "what about behind that van?" the other agreed in a heartbeat, and "that van" was anything but quiet. Sidled up right alongside a building, it was tall enough and long enough to provide an inkling of cover from someone standing on its other side, but with nearly two feet separating it from the wall, all one had to do to catch us in the act was walk up on the sidewalk. And with ten thousand people in a one-mile radius, those seemed good odds.
Abby went first, pulling her pants down and squatting and letting liters of overdue urine splash onto the sidewalk, and I followed quickly behind, adding more to the little stream, which cleared the van and gave us up before we were even done, which had worked its way halfway down the block before we'd zipped up and which followed us like a trail of shame as we rounded the corner and fled, again, those stupid Americans pissing everywhere!