After two months in Turkey, it was past time to head north. We were losing the summer and still had more to see. We thought we should head straight to Croatia so we could enjoy the beaches while it was still warm. After a lot of research, we found that the overland options would be expensive and time-consuming… but the flights were pricey too. We started looking at major cities in neighboring countries that had easy ground transportation to the coast. Winner: Sarajevo.
Since it was a morning flight, we decided to save some money on accommodation and sleep at Ataturk International. The tone was set for the journey when a man, who had been standing too close for most of the tram ride, reached back for a little pinch before rushing out the door at his stop. I had heard from several unaccompanied female travelers of having multiple similar incidents in Istanbul, but I hadn’t had any problems. It’s nice to have a husband who looks intimidating. Unfortunately, Tony’s presence didn’t deter the creep and it happened so fast that he was out of sight before I could shout and shame him. Besides the icky feeling that comes from something like that, I was more upset that after two months of coming to love a place, the actions of some anonymous perv would be my very last memory of Istanbul and Turkey.
At the airport, we used some carabiners to attach our packs to each other, and pushed some plush chairs together at a deserted cafe. I’m pretty sure these chairs are specifically engineered to be usable only for sitting bolt upright. I found an uncomfortable position that allowed me to lay flat, but required my neck to be twisted at a funny angle and my legs to dangle over the side. A few hours of fitful unconsciousness followed. I don’t think we can exactly recommend this cost-saving strategy.
Finally, dawn came and we are able to check into our flight. We have always been able to take our bags with us in the cabin as carryon luggage, but according to the Bosnia & Hercegovina Airlines website, they would be too big. But the woman at the desk didn’t bat an eye and said checking the bags would not be necessary. A bright moment at the end of an otherwise all-around bad night. We trekked to our gate which ended up being somewhere in a nearly deserted section of the terminal. Nearly deserted, except for our fellow passengers whose size and number of carryon items far exceeded our own. Then I grumpily paid $4 for a Lipton teabag and some hot water. We didn’t actually board the plane from our gate; we boarded a shuttle bus which took us to our plane. Our aging, twin propeller engine, rear loading plane. Interesting.
The inside smelled of stale cigarettes and was about as comfortable as an old school bus with half the leg room. The tiny overhead compartments might have served well as glove boxes, but there was no way our packs were going in. We put them on the floor under our feet, which did nothing to enhance the comfort level. But somehow our attitudes changed, despite the tram groping, the airport slumber party, and sketchy plane. We found a cheap flight! To a new country that we didn’t expect to visit! Even through the plane’s dirty windows, Istanbul looked beautiful and mysterious from above in the morning fog. It would be another scorching day there, and we were headed for the Bosnian mountains.
After a few hours, the plane passed the border from Serbia to Bosnia, and a group of ladies behind us began singing. They continued until the city came into view. We landed smoothly. It was a smaller airport than we expected, and there were no other planes in sight. Before the exit hatch was even opened, the B&H maintenance crew drug out a ladder, popped open the engine cover and began pouring in fluids. We googled the airline out of curiosity later, and found that not only was B&H on the verge of financial collapse, but that we had ridden on its one and only plane. Good things to know once you’re safely at your destination!
We got a cab and headed for the city center. The bullet holes sprayed across almost every building we passed reminded me that I was only a little girl during the years that the video clips of fire and explosions and misery in Sarajevo filled the evening news. I’m sure I never dreamed I’d actually walk down those same streets one day.
Here are some pictures we wanted to share that didn’t relate to any particular story.
Sean and McKinze (of “Sean and McKinze” fame… we’ve mentioned them about eighty times so far in our Georgia posts) had finished up their Peace Corps service and were on their way to make their new home in Portland, Oregon… via Turkey, New York City and Iowa. We planned to meet up with them again in Istanbul for a few days.
We cruised the Bosphorus and shared a sugar wafer the size of a manhole cover from a snack seller.
We laughed at funny English phrases on peoples’ clothing.
We ate impossibly cheap balık ekmek (literally, “fish bread”) on the Galata Bridge.
We visited the carpets and manuscripts and carvings at the mysteriously un-airconditioned Museum of Islamic and Turkish Art.
We found a great view of the Blue Mosque, which came with expensive drinks.
We shared baklava.
We walked up and down the hills of Galata…
…and the side streets of Istiklal…
…and caught our breath in mosques…
…and ignored the touts at the Grand Bazaar…
…and wandered all the places in between.
We also enjoyed an long and incredibly relaxing Turkish bath – ladies and gentlemen separately and photography not allowed. Just imagine steamy, centuries-old rooms, with only a few shafts of light filtering in through small circular openings in the ceiling; hot marble slabs; mounds of bubbles; and unlimited bowls of hot and cold water to pour over your head. It was one of those rare places where the official advertising photos matched real life– as long as you swapped out the supermodels in tiny towels for large, topless bath attendants.
Sean and McKinze are great travel partners. They’re flexible and laid back, but also goal oriented planners. Whatever they suggested, we said “yes,” and we were always glad we did.
One night, we were wandering around Sultanahmet after dinner with Micah and Steph, some of our favorite fellow travelers we’ve met so far. (Go visit their blog, especially if you love great photography.) Some music caught our ear and we followed it to a stage where there was some sort of folk dance event.
We began to casually watch for a few minutes, and intended to start walking again, when a girl with silver medallions in her hair caught my eye. And then a boy with a black, shaggy headdress darted through the crowd. I managed to surpress a shriek of excitement, but still got a little bouncy and clap-happy. Micah and Steph were probably a little alarmed at my sudden enthusiasm. (If you know me well, you know that I don’t get genuinely giddy over very many things. Except maybe small, cuddly animals. And free food. And making Excel spreadsheets.)
Only a few weeks earlier, we were treated to a fantastic evening of Georgian folk dance in Akhaltsikhe. Could it be?? A whole troupe of Kartvelians in Istanbul? And we just happened to run into them??
I waited impatiently for the Ukranians and Romanians and Hungarians and other groups to complete their routines. They were all good, and entertaining even to those who might be less than enthusiastic about dance. Most teams were made up of adults or older teens. When the Georgians finally took the stage for the last performance for the evening, it was obvious that they were much younger than the other represented countries.
Since I don’t have much experience describing dance, here is what EasternArtists.com says about Georgian folk dancing:
“Georgian dance is generally characterized by the graceful floating gait of the female dancers. With bodies erect and leaning very slightly forward, the women create lovely formations and turns in an appearance that has been said to form the illusion of ice skating along the floor. The hand, arm and head movements are flowing and gentle while traveling in this quick floating manner.
The most characteristic element of the male Georgian dance is the acrobatic, or gymnastic movements including knee spins, aerial cartwheels, splits and kicks and many other such feats. But the most amazing to most viewers is the fast and varied manner of dancing on the knuckles of the toes. The dancers wear soft soled boots and often jump continually on the toe knuckle, with the body straight and strong, the arms in a very heroic posture, the men often shout or proudly stare as they do this spectacular feat.”
We weren’t surprised when the little soldiers and fair maidens floated and twirled and leaped and kicked with more skill, precision, vigor and heart than their predecessors. The crowd yelled and clapped more loudly for the Georgians than they had for anyone else, and you could see on the dancers’ faces that they were so happy and proud in that moment.
The crowd started to filter away, and I noticed the white and red Georgian flag heading up the sidewalk, with the dancers all in a row behind it. I thought they were probably headed back to their hotel and was still so excited to have made another Georgia memory (in Istanbul!) that I decided it wouldn’t be too creepy to follow them. Our hostel was in the same direction, and we were headed that way, anyway.
When we caught up to the group, I said hello to one of the girls. I told her how much I enjoyed their performance and asked if they were from Georgia. (Not the most brilliant of questions, but I was having a fangirl moment.) She said, yes, they were from Batumi, and that they had made the finals. Tomorrow night, they would dance again at the same stage. I promised that I would be there to see it.
Then I noticed that one of the chaperones kept glancing at us nervously. Walking a large group of children through a major world city late at night was probably not her idea of a good time, and me following them with a deranged smile wasn’t helping. Tony was very relieved when I agreed to turn around.
The following evening, we returned to the park and the place was packed. Our Georgian team took the stage and repeated their great performance, and the crowd seemed to respond even more loudly. A man standing in the middle of the seating area kept standing up and waving the white flag with red crosses. The people behind him weren’t happy and eventually convinced him to at least sit down. But his flag kept waving.
We stayed to see the results of the competition, and it was difficult to know what was going on since the emcee was speaking only in Turkish. Suddenly, I realized that there were a lot more Georgian children at the wings. It was another Georgian dance team. TWO teams had made it into the finals; one from Batumi and one from Tbilisi.
The second team also brought the house down, and a section of the crowd was cheering, “SA-KART-VE-LO! SA-KART-VE-LO!” The man with the flag went nuts along with them.
The emcee called the eight finalist teams to the stage. Some sort of local celebrity and a beauty queen joined him and they began handing out the awards. It was really apparent how young the Georgian teams were when they were standing with the other countries. In a fairytale moment, the two teams were awarded first and second place, and they all looked ready to burst with joy. I couldn’t help but be proud of them, too.
One night in Istanbul, we sat down to eat dinner. The tables were half full. We had a few questions for our waiter, and he responded in an extremely agitated manner, nearly shouting his suggestions at us. I was a little dismayed at this and forgot what I had originally wanted. I pointed to the words yoğurtlu kebab on the menu, even though I didn’t know what it was.
A large family arrived and the waiter, now in a frenzy, barked orders at the bus boy to push some tables together. More people arrived and the place was quickly full. The waiter continued to rush around, gesture wildly and alarm the other diners. Totally. Out. Of. His. Mind. We thought it was probably a bad decision to eat here and wondered if it was too late to bail.
Then I noticed that the big family had all been served their food, but were just sitting there staring at it. The flat screen t.v. on the wall (an unfortunate “necessity” in all but the swankiest of places) was displaying a countdown, and the children fidgeted as the numbers ticked away.
Then we remembered that Ramazan had begun the night before. (Ramadan is called Ramazan in Turkish and a few other languages.) We had gazed at the Blue Mosque’s special kandil lights that welcomed the season of Ramazan, sampled impossibly sweet pastries at a special artisans’ exhibition, and watched the crowds of families socializing at Sultanahmet Square.
The waiter’s behavior made total sense now. We imagined how calm we’d be if we hadn’t had even a drop of water since sunrise but still had to suffer the July heat, go to work, smell the food being prepared, and serve guests at one of the busiest times of the year.
The minaret across the street blared the sunset prayer, the countdown on the t.v. hit zero, and the family drew their hands down across their faces and began to enjoy their iftar. Our food arrived and the yoğurtlu kebap, a dish of grilled flat bread and chicken smothered in creamy yogurt and savory tomato sauce, became one of my favorite Turkish dishes. The waiter disappeared for a while, and when he returned, he was composed and smiling.
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Galata Tower, Istanbul — As seen from the table at a tiny street-side kebab shop.
You may have heard that Istanbul is home to a cat or three. Most of the cats that crossed our path through Turkey looked very… unfortunate.
But the ones in Istanbul seem pretty healthy and manage to navigate the rooftops, alleys and crowded streets in their own self-assured way.
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Every now and then, we’ll post a single photo on this theme.
First up: Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul. 500 years old. Over 11,000 square feet of carpeting. All of which needs to be vacuumed. A lot.