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 this week.

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 so sure…
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 profits.
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.


Katie's Komments

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 city.

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 cathedrals…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.












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