Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A trip to Turkey

1.

In July this year, I traveled to Turkey. I reached Istanbul on July 09 – the day Ramazan began – and stayed in at Koc University near Sariyer, a northern suburb of the city on the European side (pardon the incorrect Turkish spelling: for those used to the English alphabet, the Turkish one is convenient and familiar, but at the same time there are some key sounds the English alphabet does not cover). I was attending an academic healthcare conference at Koc. But that was merely an excuse to begin again the kind of unstructured travel I’d managed in Latin America a few years ago.

I stayed for 3 days in Istanbul but then flew with a longtime Turkish friend, Serhat, to northeast Turkey: cities, towns, and villages in Erzurum, Artvin and Kars provinces, along the border with Georgia and Armenia. Serhat, an avid traveler himself, had already been to these and other far flung parts of the country. So this trip was different in that I had somebody who could translate and interpret things for me. I returned to Istanbul on July 18th, and experienced the Ramazan rhythms around the Sultan Ahmet mosque that evening. The next day I left for Boston. 

Why Erzurum and Kars? The choice was arbitrary; I wanted to get a sense of a completely different part of Turkey. And the Northeast seemed like a gateway to the vast Eurasian mountains and steppes of the Silk Route that I knew very little about, but had always had dreamed of traveling to. This post provides some quick impressions of my time in Istanbul, but in the coming weeks, I’ll write about the 6-7 days of extensive travel in Northeast Turkey.  

2.

On July 9th, my flight arrived at Istanbul at 2 pm. It took about 40 minutes to clear my passport; the line for South Asians was the same as that for Iraqis, who outnumbered all other nationalities. The Iraqi lady behind me wondered if I too was from Baghdad.

Serhat picked me up from the airport. We used the metro, tram and funicular – I was impressed how organized and cheap public transportation was – to get to Taksim Square and Gezi Park, the site of fierce public protests and even fiercer police/government retaliation this summer. Gezi Park had just been reopened to the public the day before. But the reopening had prompted more protests; teargas had again been used the previous evening.

One view from Taksim: the image of Ataturk, the founder the modern Turkish state, on the building in the distance. 

Police vehicles at Taksim
Taksim was quiet when we arrived: it felt strange that the explosions, fires and water cannons that I’d seen on television in June had happened here. But for the police trucks that were parked in one corner, ready to repress if a critical mass of people gathered, Taksim seemed as safe as the rest of Istanbul. I passed through Taksim twice again in the next days with no problems. I was told that the story was different the evenings, when those interested in protesting got off their day jobs began to congregate at Gezi Park. 

3.

I did the usual things that tourists do in Istanbul: visiting buildings, mosques, streets and bridges the city is famous for; taking the ferry ride on the Bosphorus Strait (we took a public ferry used by commuters in the evening: the 80-minute ferry ride from Eminonu to Sariyer, as scenic as any I’ve been on, astonishingly cost a mere 1.5 US dollars); visiting Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, an actual museum based on the novel of the same name, in Cukurcuma, near Istiklal Street; and shopping for food, spices and souvenirs in and around the Grand Bazaar. There’s plenty of information about these things in travel books, so I won’t say anything more, except that Istanbul lived up to its promise.

Vegetarian options at a restaurant on Istiklal Street. 

Courtyard of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque at 10:30 pm
4.

When I first reached the gates of Koc University, I had to check in with the security. This private university – owned by one of Turkey’s prominent business families – has a secluded campus set on a hill in the midst of pine and oak forests, far north of Istanbul’s attractions, and close to where the Bosphorus opens into the expanse of the Black Sea.

A security guard in fatigues asked for my passport. He said I’d have to wait for the next shuttle that would drop me near my dorm accommodation inside campus. Until then I could spend time inside the small security room. It was around 8:45 or 9 pm. About five security guards were absorbed in having dinner in the room. A number of dishes were on display in plastic or glass containers: bread, salad, fried cheese rolls, pasta or noodles, vegetables, rice. All dishes were shared. The guards offered me some of the food. I ate a cigar-shaped fried roll filled with slightly salty cheese. The guards did not see it, but I am sure my eyes must have lit up at the taste. 

I remember feeling struck by the atmosphere in the room: there was something very warm and genuine about that gathering. It didn't occur to me then, but this was of course the dinner, iftar, after the day-long Ramazan fast: perhaps even more special, since this was the first day of Ramazan, so the first breaking of the fast. Later, in Northeast Turkey, while sharing tables with strangers in crowded restaurants – all customers patiently waiting for the powerful microphones on minarets to signal the end of the fast, even as freshly served bread, soup and salad sat enticingly on the table – at these restaurants, I experienced again and again, that same atmosphere of a communal meal.

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