One of my best friends from Group 15 is the amazingly infamous, Emily. I was lucky enough to be able to meet up with her for part of her COS (Closing of Service) trip before she returned to America. Our first stop was Istanbul, a city of over 13.5 million people. That is by far, the largest city I have ever visited and I would lie to say it wasn’t a little daunting. My flight from Albania arrived 5 hours before hers, so I was on my own to find our hostel.
After buying my first visa into another country, and getting through passport control, I wandered outside. Not sure where to go or how to find the bus I needed, I walked around with a lost look on my face. Don’t worry, this is my normal traveling expression. The ticket collector was closing up a full busload of people and he waved at me to wait on the sidewalk until the next bus arrived. The driver came outside at just that moment, and realized I was by myself. He smiled and told me to get on board and I got to sit up front with him. Not a bad start to my Turkey adventure! After an hour bus ride and wandering up and down the streets of Istanbul for about 45 minutes, I stumbled upon our hostel. I felt so incredibly accomplished and was sitting on Cloud 9 as I waited for Emily to arrive.
Istanbul is sprawled over two continents and has an impressive amount of hills. Our main day of sightseeing consisted of a LOT of walking. For some reason, we decided that we didn’t want to take public transportation and we trudged up and down those hills enough times to put us into a semi- comatose state. Right of the bat, we visited the famous Spice Market and Grand Bazarr. The spice market has numerous little shops selling everything from spices to nuts to teas to turkish delight candies. Competition is high and so you are constantly harassed as you walk by these stands. This was actually a theme throughout our entire vacation, whether it was for a shop or just a restaurant. It didn’t help that we were two blonde, foreign looking tourists! The Grand Bazarr is a famous attraction as well and holds over 4,000 shops which are strewn throughout maze like hallways. The lights that were sold in every other shop were absolutely beautiful. Lucky for my bank account, these weren’t going to be fitting in a backpack.
We also headed to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. These are the biggest mosques in Istanbul and they are absolutely breathtaking. In order to go into the mosques, women had to dress in long garments and a headscarf. As we strode into the mosque, I couldn’t quit staring at the differences in gender rules. This continued to startle me throughout Turkey, as I saw women dressed in full hijab’s and their husbands were walking in shorts and a t-shirt.
Emily and I both like to run so we set a goal to run a few times throughout our vacation. We set out one morning from our hostel and put in 5 1/2 miles throughout Istanbul! There was a lot of people dodging as we made our way along the water and to the bridge. We were the only runners that we saw in the entire city for our stay there. Of course, we finished in style and drank coffee and stretched at Starbucks.
One of our favorite splurges in Istanbul was a Turkish bath. There are quite a few traditional bath houses strewn throughout the city. After sitting in a sauna, we were scrubbed down by two strong Turkish women. Following that, they had some sort of soap bag that they washed and massaged you down with. After which, they wash your hair and send you into a wading pool. You finish off with another round in the sauna and a shower. Never before, have I felt so clean!! It was such a fun experience and I would high recommend it!
One morning, we stopped for a coffee close to our hostel. There was the cutest woman inside that ushered us to a corner seat. She didn’t speak more than a few words of English so we sat in silence as she brought us our coffees. As we waited for our drinks, we were snacking on some cherries I had bought on the street. They weren’t washed but we have both eaten worse things in Albania. She was appalled and brought my fruit in the back to wash for me. She returned with a bowl that contained significantly less fruit than I brought in and she set the bowl down as she visibly chomped on some of the cherries. She then, proceeded to teach us turkish words that we had no idea what they meant. She also stared and tapped my teeth and seemed to be asking if they were real. In the corner of her shop, a mama bird flew inside and fed two baby birds. We were staring and taking pictures at this unexpected decoration and she started blabbering at us. We finally figured out that she was asking us for money to help pay for bird feed. We declined and she brought us our bill, which ended up being almost as much as Starbucks. Which is ridiculous and way too expensive. We walked away from the cafe with a sneaking suspicion that she has done that more than once before.
We also visited Topkapi Palace. It is placed on one of the hills overlooking the city and was home to Ottoman Sultans for over four hundred years. The Harem was home to the Sultan’s mother and the other woman of the empire. It was a maze of impressive rooms, unfortunently the pictures do not do it justice!
To be continued…