Istanbul – A Little Love Story

The guy behind the counter barely speaks English, and so I smile bigger, speak a little slower, and hope he understands my question.

How much does it cost to get to the Blue Mosque?

I am surrounded by foreigners, in a foreign country, and I am doing something that most wouldn’t… especially while 20 weeks pregnant. It’s 5pm, and I am in the Istanbul airport with a 6 hour layover. I have escaped the homogenous town of Boulder and am replacing it for a three week adventure back to South Africa. But somehow I am in Istanbul first. For the last 8 hours I sat next to a lovely woman from DC and half way through the flight we realized we had acquaintances in common. Although tired, we talked more, and I shared the crazy idea I had of adventuring into Istanbul alone. She more than encourages me – she tells me how much she loves the city, how safe she feels when she’s there, and that I must get out.

Not long after our landing I find myself outside of airport security, with a one-day visa in hand, and my other hand free of my carry-on bag which is now safely locked away in a short-term locker. The giddiness of adventure is giving me that bubbly feeling I get in my tummy when something unknown and exciting is on the horizon. It’s hard to hide my excitement and underlying trepidation, but I do so with a trained travelers fake confidence of acting as though I know where I am and what I am doing. 

The man behind the taxi counter in broken english is tell me it will cost over $100 US dollar to get into the city. I make a swift decision that I will not be taking the overpriced, tourist trap of a taxi – I will take the train.

I walk confidently over to the ATM and insert my card – I withdraw money without having a clue what the currency is or the exchange rate. I push the middle button – trusting that I didn’t just take out a thousand dollars or a measly ten dollars in the Turkish currency. With unknown bills in my wallet, I turn and cross the open lobby of the airport, trusting I will find the train – and with the help of icons and arrows I find it. I also find a way to figure out which stop will take me to my adventure destination. I make it on to the train and trust I read the map correctly.

As the train passes through the city I am aware of the beauty surrounding and passing me – I  stand near the window and watch the sea whirl by and then the city. I look up at the train map on the wall and stand confidently waiting for 5 more stops. Finally the Grand Bazaar and Blue Mosque appear in front of me. As I step off of the train the Call to Prayer fills the air, and I am entrenched in a world I know absolutely nothing about. I never travel like this – normally I do a little research on where I am going, yet this approach is simply magical.

I walk into the grand bazaar and make sure I act like I know where I am going: no eye contact, quick glimpses at the intricate rugs, perfectly curved brass vases, hookahs that line the stands. Through the calls, the “hellos” and the tsstsss… I carry on walking. They know I am a foreigner, I can’t hide it. So I smile, I nod, and keep walking. Colorful miles of hallways layout before me at every intersection in every direction. It only takes me a few minutes to realize that it is all the same, and that I can check this off of my list of ‘been there, seen that’ since I won’t be a buyer today.

What I am really looking for is an experience – I step out of the bazaar and onto a cobblestone street. The air is crisp, the smells of the streets are filled with fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, grilled meat, just baked baklava, and I don’t hesitate to stop at every enticing smell and delight along the way. The happy kicks of the baby in my belly affirms my culinary choices.

After a short visit into and surrounding the Blue Mosque, I find my way down a quiet narrow street that must be hundreds of years old. The cobblestone is still held together and the houses that line this street have seen better days – they are alive with stories. They reflect to me adventures much more extreme than the one I am taking right now and they encourage me to continue down the dimly lit street. I hear people in restaurants, laughter, and languages I don’t understand.

As I turn the corner I choose to go right instead of left. And then I see it, an old house with a sign out front, warm light pouring from its doorway into the street, and delicious smells luring me to come inside. Once seated I am in a room with a fire oven in one corner, and locals in the other corners. The owner comes out to greet me, and after a little small talk, he informs me he has recently lived in Wisconsin for 3 years. Of course he has.

He orders me his favorite dish: fresh seafood in a white wine sauce slow cooked in the wood fire oven accompanied by fresh bread to dip into the broth and a small glass of red wine. The restaurant cat cozies up on the chair next to me and I savor every morsel in the cozy warm corner of the world. After I don’t feel like I can eat another thing he brings out Turkish coffee with a side of Turkish delight. The dark sweetened coffee and the sugary sweet Turkish delight are the perfect complement to the end of this meal and they go down quickly. The hospitality continues with a short walking tour of the old town I am in, and the conversation ends with an offer and drive back to the airport instead of a taxi. Hospitality at its finest. The entire time I have been following my instinct and gut and even an offer to take a ride from a man I just met in a country I don’t know feels ok. And I trust that voice inside of me. 

When I am back on the plane reflecting I realize how much I love not having a plan and how much the power of intuition is real – I just tend to override it with perfectly laid plans. The beauty of true adventure unfolds in these 6 hours and reaffirms for me that its about going with what opens up before me, checking in with myself before I make a crazy decision, and then trusting that my experience will be taken on a more incredible journey than I could have controlled and planned for.

My mind wanders as I begin to drift off to sleep on the plane.

I smile, Istanbul, I don’t know the language you speak, I know nothing of your city, I have no clue how much I just paid for that meal, but what I’ve seen from your train, from your streets, from the faces of your people – I fell in love with you today – your hospitality, beauty and food have left me wanting more. I will return.

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