GSP Stopover: Receiving the Istanbul given to me
My fantasy of an Istanbul stopover involved a morning immersed in the history of the Hagia Sophia, followed by a brief stop to feast my eyes and nose in one of the city's famous markets. But as with many other parts of this trip, I had to adjust to a slightly different reality.
At least the stop itself did not come as a surprise: that part I planned. Since the Eurail pass did not cover all countries on my Europe list, I flew to Kiev from Bucharest, via Istanbul. Though I got a less than 24-hour stopover, an e-visa cost only about $20, giving me the freedom to roam beyond the airport.
By the time I stepped off one of the last trains from the airport, it was minutes past midnight. Free of the backpack I'd checked through, I could move a bit closer to my normal pace as I crossed a pedestrian bridge from the station to the other side of a multi-lane highway.
Remnants of a recent rain had left small puddles that reflected the lights of a night alive with color and people.
Ramadan had ended, and people were in a celebratory mood. As I turned left onto a pedestrian walkway lined with shops, I passed blanket after blanket laid out by street vendors still selling wares. Another time, I might have stopped to inspect what they had (shoes? Food? Bootleg movies or music albums?), but I was already late to the home of my Airbnb host.
When I finally found the doorway into his building and made my way up the stairs, Omer greeted me with house shoes and a small snack: baclava, water and Coke, which he seemed surprised I didn't drink. We sat in his tiny kitchen and talked for a bit. When I said I wanted to see a bit of the city the next day, he surprised me by offering to accompany. Since I didn't know how hard it would be to get by without Turkish, I agreed.
My room proved secure and comfortable for a woman traveling alone (he made sure to point out the door lock), but I soon faced a choice between sleep disruptions: street noise or warmth. I chose the sauna.
By morning, I regretted my lack of faith that sleep could prevail with ear plugs and my white noise fan, but it was too late. Fortunately, Omer's of cheese, bread and fried eggs also included tea.
Somewhat revived, I followed his lead back to the train station, where we received a half-price fare into the heart of the city because of the post-Ramadan holiday.
After a train change and brief water stop, we emerged to a glorious sunny day. Saying little, Omer led the way to a crowded waterfront along the west side of the Bosporus. Families streamed along the broad sidewalk adjoining the dock, where ferry after ferry offered scenic tours of the strait that divides European Istanbul from its Asian counterpart. As we passed them, ticket hawkers barked out the boats' destination with a cadence fit to shame a cattle auctioneer.
Omer had yet to ask me what I wanted to see, but I followed him past carts selling roasted corn and bottled water, happy for the clement weather and chance to explore the city. Once we'd passed several large boats and squeezed through a crowded pedestrian tunnel with a toilet on one side, Omer doubled back. He then explained that a ferry we'd passed earlier seemed less crowded. We walked back nearly to the start of our journey and walked up the ramp, but when he realized I'd paid for my entry, Omer went back to get it. Apparently he'd paid for both of us!
I was still working out how much the ferry ride cut into Omer's scant Airbnb profit when we found shaded seats on one side of the top deck. The boat seemed to run more on capacity than a schedule, so we waited several minutes for departure. In the meantime, various couples and families took seats around us, some looking out at the water alongside us, others choosing the long bench seat along the rail that faced us.
Not until we'd set out did I learn that the ferry would take at least an hour and a half. When I asked if we'd have time to see the Hagia Sophia (I now accepted the market stop might not happen), Omer said he didn't know. Since he volunteered little else, I settled in to enjoy the view and the breeze. When I'd started my trip, almost a month before, I'd imagined spending my many hours of train travel writing, knitting or even hand-sewing the hem on a silk scarf for which I'd brought fabric. So far, though, I'd spent hour after hour in silence, letting the miles lip at the remaining thoughts of home and post-move anxiety.
A little past the remains of a Roman-era fort called Anadoluhisarı, the ferry turned back along the European side of Istanbul.
Afternoon prayers began — the mosques so closely spaced that we traveled from prayer to prayer, the loudspeakers bleeding together in a mournful ribbon of sound.
Once off the boat, Omer chose a tram that ran past the Hagia Sophia (apparently the #2 tourist destination, behind the Bosporus) — a small concession to my sightseeing preferences.
When we got back to his neighborhood, we had time for lunch at a doner place where, to my chagrin, he paid once again. Between my few photos from the boat and bad estimate of how much meat I could eat, I fear I wasn't such a good guest. But then, I hadn't expected my host to spend more money than he earned from my stay.
By the time I left for the airport, I was still puzzling over my taste of Turkish hospitality. When I thanked him as best I could, Omer said something about "duty." While I may not have seen all the sights I hoped to, perhaps I got a deeper taste of local life and culture in the end.