26 PICTURE ALBUM
Tuesday, August 26
Steve: Today we spent with our new friends Talya and
Serra. Talya lives in Yzmir (about 8 hours from Istanbul), and is a university
student entering her final year. We got connected to Talya through TravelingEd.
Serra is a friend of Talya's and has lived in Istanbul her whole life. Serra
has recently graduated from the university, and wants to find a job in brand
management. We had a great day today, and as usual, found that spending time
with people who live locally is absolutely the best way to learn about what
life is really like in each country we visit.
We started by visiting the Aya Sofya, originally the largest church in the
Roman Empire (and in the world), and built in the 6th century. When the Ottomans
conquered Istanbul in the 15th century, they converted the Aya Sofya into
a mosque. However, they chose not to destroy the intricate interior of the
church, so they simply plastered over the gold-tiled mosaics that filled the
church, and hung large Arabic medallions inside the dome. Many of the mosaics
have been successfully restored. The dome of the Aya Sofya is considered to
be an architectural masterpiece, especialy for its time.
We took a taxi across the Bosphorus Strait to an area called Ortakoy. This
is a waterfront district with many nice shops and cafes, and is a departure
point for an hourly cruise on the Bosphorus. Istanbul's subway system is not
nearly as developed as in the other cities we've visited - it's being enhanced,
but still does cover much of the city. In needing to take taxis and fight
Istanbul's heavy traffic, we realized how important it is for a city this
size to have a good underground transportation system.
Ortakoy is a charming area, and we enjoyed browsing in the shops and buying
some souvenirs before eating lunch at one of the many cafes that line the
streets. Talya and Serra told us that this area becomes very busy at night,
and has several popular bars and restaurants.
After lunch, we took a boat cruise on the Bosphorus. The boat went first
along the European shore, and then crossed to the Asian side. We all realized
that this was the first time any of us had ever seen Asia! Istanbul is the
only city in the world that straddles over two continents. We'll have to wait
until tomorrow before actually setting foot on Asian soil. It was interesting
to note the differences between the European and Asian sides. The European
shore is much busier, and is lined with nightclubs and harbors. On the Asian
side there are many luxury homes built directly on the water, many with their
own pools. There are also several palaces that we could see on the Asian side.
The boat trip was very relaxing, and it felt good for all of to get back out
on the water again. We noted that this was our first boat trip since leaving
Massachusetts and Cape Cod in June!
We had a great day today (despite the heat), and especially enjoyed our conversations
with Talya and Serra. We learned much about life in Turkey including education,
religion (especially what it's like to grow up Jewish in a country that is
so predominantly Muslim), food and politics. We'll write more on this later
Distance Walked: 3.75 miles
On the way back to the hotel, we counted how many times we were approached
by people looking for money in some way. This has been a constant occurrence
in the tourist areas of Istanbul, and we certainly seem to stand out as tourists.
We also experienced a fair amount of this in Russia, and after we arrived
there, we started writing down all the creative ways that we've seen people
use for making money. At this point, we thought it would be good to capture
this list here, and we'll add to it as we continue our travels. Here we go
1. We saw people in Russia who wait in line at tourist sites, and then offer
to sell their spots in line to others.
2. People in Russia often get on the subway and begin a well-rehearsed (and
loud) speech regarding some product that they're selling. We saw people sell
magazines, ice cream, and toys on the subway. We especially appreciated the
entrepreneurial spirit of a guy in St. Petersburg who was selling CD's for
$3.00 that he claimed had the land and cell phone numbers for all residents
of the city. We learned that in Russia, there are no telephone books and each
call to directory assistance costs $1.00. Despite the warnings of people riding
the subway regarding the likelihood of viruses on the CD's (our book says
that up to 75% of all CD's for sale in Russia contain viruses), our guide
Sasha bought one of these CD's. He said that it was worth the risk - we weren't
3. People also get on subways and sing or play musical instruments. Often,
these are children, war veterans or older ladies.
4. In Turkey, we're often stopped by smooth-talking guys who try to engage
us in conversation leading to an eventual trip to their Turkish carpet stores.
5. In Russia, we were in a taxi on a busy St. Petersburg street and came across
a man literally lying face-down in the street. Sasha asked the taxi to stop,
and got out to help the man. As it turned out, the man was a drunk who employs
this technique to extract sympathy - after being helped up and off the street,
he asked Sasha if he could spare some money for a beer!
6. We watched an attractive girl in St. Petersburg works who on the busiest
part of Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main street. She smiles and asks nearly
every man that passes by if he'd be willing to buy her an ice cream. An ice
cream cone in Russia is not very expensive - generally around 7rubles, or
$.30. When she finds someone who's willing, she brings him to the counter
and points not to the cones, but to the large cartons on the bottom shelf
that cost 100 rubles! If the man balks, she raises a fuss, shouting "What
kind of gentleman are you?" If he agrees, she accepts his generosity
and then quickly ditches him (most men buy the ice cream with the expectation
of spending some time with their new-found friend). After he's gone, she simply
returns the ice cream to the shop and collects 80 out of the 100 rubles back
from the sales person who is working with her as part of the scam! Then she
heads back to the street to start her little game all over
7. In Russia, we witnessed the art of institutionalized ticket scalping. Apparently,
the theaters all sell specified numbers of tickets to people who are authorized
to actively hit the streets to look for tourists who will pay top dollar for
the top seats.
8. Security guards and police officers in all the major sites in St. Petersburg
actively accept bribes from local tour guides who want to get in without waiting
in lines or paying entry fees. It seems likely that these individuals are
actually working with the administration of these sites who share in these
9. Individuals working the ticket booths at Russian train stations, in partnership
with the reservation controllers working behind the scenes and responsible
for setting prices for seats on an hour-by-hour basis, accept bribes for access
to the best seats on the most attractive trains.
10. Babushkas (Russian grandmothers) often sell their home-grown flowers,
vegetables, and herbs on the street. This is not legal, so they often employ
a "safety in numbers" approach. This means that we often saw many
people selling the exact same product (e.g. mushrooms, dill) all in a row
on the street. This is certainly not the most effective marketing technique,
but we assumed that safety was more important for these people.
11. In Moscow, there's a specific spot by the Kremlin where people stand and
toss coins over their heads for good luck. We saw a group of older women who
camp out at this spot and quickly scoop up any coins right after they're tossed.
12. In St. Petersburg, we saw men carrying musical instruments and hanging
out in the areas where all the "New Russian" wedding parties go
to take pictures. When the bride and groom and their entourage approach, the
men start playing wedding songs in return for an expected payment. If no payment
is made, then the men begin playing funeral music while the group takes their
pictures! We also saw people who stock and sell champagne on the street near
the spots where the wedding parties normally go.
13. Boys bring live bear cubs (they're muzzled) to heavily trafficked areas
and allow tourists to have pictures taken with bears on their laps.
14. We've seen many people selling pet dogs and cats on the streets.
15. Russian police officers routinely approach unlicensed street vendors,
threatening to fine them unless some of the profits are "shared."
In Russia, we learned that methods such as those listed above are accepted
as a normal part of life, and are often deemed as necessary for people to
make enough money to live. We were told that average incomes range between
$500 and $1,000 per month, but that generally people find other ways to make
money to bring their net monthly pay up to the $1,000 - 1,500 range.
The topic for today is
first impressions of Istanbul's culture and customs
We have now spent two full days in Istanbul and have already discovered many
differences in the culture and customs of this remarkable city. The following
paragraphs describe my first impressions of this very unique European city.
As soon as we walked out of the taxi and into the blazing heat we knew this
place was different. We went into our small hotel room and absorbed the cool
air into our parched skin. The relief of the air-conditioning must have really
distracted us because we forgot to look out our window. As I peered through
the tiny opening I suddenly forgot about the refreshing air that surrounded
me; all of my senses were completely focused on the enormous mosque that lay
in my line of vision. It was a breathtaking structure framed by six huge minarets
(pillars) that are supposed to lift your eyes to heaven
it works! This
beautiful mosque is formed by two major domes and four smaller ones on either
side; together they form the magnificent structure. The complex carvings on
the minarets and golden steeples on the black capped domes highlight the beauty
of the masterpiece. Leading up to the major dome are stair-like structures
that guide your eyes into the sky. We heard that at night the blue sky shimmers
on the stone creating a bluish effect inside and out. This effect gave the
mosque the name "Blue Mosque." I gazed out at this slice of heaven
not believing that it could become even more beautiful at night. I quickly
unpacked now extremely excited about the adventures that lay ahead in this
We walked outside and now believed our books which said that Istanbul's population
was 99% Muslim. I wasn't scared. I was excited. The atmosphere was very different
with women wearing scarves over their heads sometimes with only their eyes
showing. We were uncomfortable in the heat, but just thinking of how hot all
of the women dressed with layers of scarves must be made us feel lucky. I
wanted to wear my own scarf but was reassured that this would be unnecessary.
I still had the urge to fit in with their culture as I don't like being recognized
as a tourist. I don't like being looked at as a rich spoiled American. I wanted
to be part of their culture and religious customs and not just watch and learn
about them. With this thought in mind I walked casually down the narrow street
our hotel was on. I wanted to look like I knew where I was going but found
this to be very difficult. I was in the middle of Turkey and how could I feel
so comfortable in a country bordered by Syria, Iraq, and Iran?
We walked off of the narrow street and into a square we later heard was used
for chariot races during the Roman Empire. In the center was a big stone obelisk
with Egyptian hieroglyphics carved down it. People were walking casually around
a four thousand year old structure. We finally got through the square after
being stopped by a couple of people trying to sell us things and made our
way to the Blue Mosque. We walked through an archway and into a pretty stone
courtyard just outside the mosque. Here we saw people washing their bodies
with water from some small fountains. We later learned that cleanliness was
a big part of the Muslim religion. We decided not to go inside of the mosque
because my shoulders weren't covered. I was a little disappointed but decided
this left another adventure and thing to look forward to tomorrow.
We then walked into another square with tons of colorful plants and flowers.
On the benches were Muslim families eating corn on the cob together and paying
very little attention to their incredible surroundings. Surrounding them were
not only pretty flowers but also a wonderful view of the blue mosque on the
right side, and on the left the Aya Sofya, a reddish colored mosque. In the
distance were other beautiful mosques and palaces; was this just the normal
atmosphere and surroundings they had everyday? It sure wasn't normal for me!
I looked around and took in all I was seeing. We had read so much about each
of these sites individually but never realized how they were all strung together
around one square. It was something completely different after seeing so many
we were now viewing religious places for a different group
of people. The mosques had a very different effect-their enormous domes and
minarets gave the square an almost spooky effect. To go along with this I
was surrounded by a new group of people. They were all walking slowly and
gracefully in their scarves and religious outfits. It almost felt like they
were stepping in unison! This was different but once again I was not scared.
I was excited. All of these wonderful things were just waiting for me-I couldn't
wait till tomorrow to explore them. We were so absorbed by the beauty that
we forgot we were hungry. We decided to leave the exploring for tomorrow and
have a nice dinner at our hotel. As we walked away from the square I felt
as if I was walking away from a dream-a very pleasant dream.
When we got back to the hotel we were told at the front desk that dinner
would be served on the top floor. When we stepped off the elevator and into
the open air we knew there was no chance we would eat inside. To our delight
we were going to eat at a table overlooking the city. On the right side was
an enormous harbor releasing boats into the Sea of Marmara. We were told that
many of the big boats were carrying oil to the Black Sea. Also on the right
side were some of the palaces and mosques we read about. To the left was the
square we were in earlier. It was not dark enough yet to see the stone of
the blue mosque shimmer, but even without this effect it was a beautiful sight.
Behind the hotel was the modern part of the city. We could clearly tell the
difference between the two areas and I felt very happy to be on the older
part of it. We began to eat and watched anxiously as it gradually got darker.
Suddenly we heard something. I immediately got up and listened. Someone
was chanting something very loudly inside the blue mosque. As I began to listen
more closely I noticed that other people were reciting something more softly.
I listened for a couple minutes in confusion and then suddenly realized why
these people were doing this. They were praying. I suddenly remembered that
in the Muslim religion you are supposed to pray five times a day--one of the
prayer times was at dusk. As I began to walk around I realized that the prayers
were coming from many different directions
different mosques. There was
praying from all different directions. People were all kneeling in different
areas but in the same direction. They were all facing their holy city of Mecca.
There are 12 million people in Istanbul and to think of all the people praying
at the same time was unbelievable. I listened to the chanting as I watched
the sky turn into a magnificent reddish color. It was an amazing atmosphere
to be a part of on my first day in Istanbul. I went back to the table and
ate my meal focusing completely on the sky gradually turning to a bluish color.
I now knew why the impressionists liked to paint the same thing at different
times of the day. Every fifteen minutes brought a different effect to the
sky and buildings. By the time we had finished dinner the sky was completely
blue. We could now see how the Blue Mosque got its name. The bluish shimmer
I had been anxious to see the entire day was now surrounding me. It was not
just a shimmer; it was a glow.
I overlooked the entire city I had just set foot on and the thing that stuck
out in my vision the most was the glow of the Blue Mosque. We went back into
our room and got ready for bed. I took my last look at the mosque and fell
into a peaceful sleep only disturbed by sudden bursts of excitement about
the adventures that lay ahead.