Over the last three weeks in Istanbul I've become quite familiar with the city and it's slowly beginning to feel like "home." After weeks of exploring, I know where to get a good meal in town, where the best bars are in the area, how to bargain a bit (even though I'm still comically inept at it), and even how to navigate the Grand Bazaar without getting lost. I've wandered across the city numerous times, walking over 10 miles on most days, yet there are still parts of this great city I've yet to explore. There’s just too much to do and not nearly enough time to do it, but thankfully I had some help courtesy of a local friend.
Many people think I’m crazy for leaving my life behind to travel the world, but I consider it small potatoes compared to what many of my friends have done. Years ago a good friend of mine, Tam, booked a one-way ticket to Istanbul right after college to work as an au pair. Her boldness to venture out into a foreign country by herself is admirable, especially considering the 2013 World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Report ranks Turkey 120th out of 136 countries in terms of gender equality. After a rather unsavory few months in Turkey, Tam returned home to the US, but was kind enough to put me in touch with an old friend of hers, and fellow au pair, Lacey to show me around Istanbul. Unlike Tam, Lacey was lucky enough to find a nice family to work for and has lived in Istanbul for the last four years.
She originally planned for it to be just a one-year stint.
After a few days of exploring the old town, I was ready to venture far away from the crowds of DSLR-wielding Asian tour groups and rotund vacationers dressed in floral pattern shirts so I called up Lacey. She was all too happy to oblige and we met up in a neighborhood called Babek (literally “baby” in Turkish). Located nearly an hour north of the city center, this historic area is situated on the side of a hill overlooking the Bosphorus strait and is where many of the wealthiest locals reside. While the exteriors of these homes appear relatively modest, a residence in this area of town can easily cost several million dollars.
And that’s US Dollars ($) not Turkish Lira (₺).
To Lacey, our afternoon together probably wasn’t anything special, but it meant a great deal to me to see another side of Istanbul outside of the old town. Life in Babek moves along at a much slower pace; the large neon, flashing lights of the city center were replaced by residents going about their day and students commuting back and forth from school. Lacey and I spent hours wandering through Babek, talking about what it is like to live in Istanbul as well as her difficulty in deciding where her “home” really is (an issue I am slowly beginning to understand). Her biological family lives in the US, but after four years of working in Istanbul she's adopted her host family as her own (and vice versa). While she isn’t aware of the impact living in Istanbul has had on her over the years, her family and friends in the US have noticed subtle changes in her habits, personality, and ways of thinking. It was fascinating to hear Lacey's stories and I wonder what changes friends and family will notice about me when I return to the US.
Lacey was an invaluable resource during my stay in Istanbul. In addition to pointing out some excellent restaurants around Babek and Taksim, she provided great tips for places to visit on the Asian side, introduced me to the famous “Turkish pizza” called Lahmacun, and a horribly addicting pistachio and dark chocolate bar that I couldn’t stop eating. More than anything, she was incredibly helpful with some of my more unusual travel requests such finding a cobbler who wouldn’t price gouge me and a clinic where I could get a yellow fever vaccination. I can’t thank her enough for her help and her great company; by the end of my stay people in the hostel were asking me for advice and the inside scoop on what to do in Istanbul and it was all thanks to Lacey!
Thanks putting us in contact Tam!
Leveraging Lacey’s advice, I was determined to finally cross the Bosphorus and take my first step on the Asian continent. I took one of the ferries across the river and headed straight to a local hamam (Turkish Bath) called Aziziye. I’d recommend this place to anyone visiting the city and it is far cheaper than every hamam in the city center. While the interior isn’t particularly elaborate or full of beautiful sculptures/carvings, Aziziye has an authentic, understated vibe. Nobody there really speaks English, which made it particularly entertaining since I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. After changing, I sat in the main area and simply mimicked what the locals around me were doing.
When in Rome do as the Romans… or Turks in this case.
The bottom half of the room was covered with giant slabs of white marble. Lining the perimeter were little, raised ledges off the floor with large marble basins called "kurnas" to collect water from the separate hot and cold taps. In the center of the room is a giant marble table, called a navel stone, where people often lay down upon first entering the heated room. Higher up, intricate tiles adorned the walls above the marble slabs leading up to a rather modest dome with a single, energy-efficient light bulb dangling from the ceiling by its wire. Unlike many of the dry saunas I’ve been to over the years, the main room of the Aziziye hamam is incredibly moist and steamy.
Just like Houston in the summer… I felt right at home.
After years of swimming back in high school, I am rather comfortable changing in front of people, but there was still an initial air of awkwardness being around strangers wearing what amounted to a glorified dishtowel. On the upside, considering I am 25 years old and sitting around a group of obese 40-year-old men, I was the only person in the entire room who shouldn’t have been ashamed of his body. The feeling slowly faded as I poured water on myself from the nearby kurna and relaxed in the humid room, but as soon as I calmed down a beefy Turkish man approached me uttering an incomprehensible phrase as he pointed to the navel stone in the middle of the room.
...I guess it's time for my massage.
As a young American, I’m used to doing things myself. Call it independence, self-reliance, or stubbornness, but if it’s a relatively straightforward task I’ll do it myself. At the top of this "I-can-do-it-myself" list (right below wiping my own butt) is bathing; I’ve been doing it since I was a child, so it’s weird for me to have a hairy Turkish man scrub me down. After the initial awkwardness subsided, the experience was rather pleasant, albeit painful at times as the 200-pound man leaned into my back with his elbow during the massage. Unpleasantness aside, I came to a fundamental realization: I’ve been incorrectly bathing for the last 25 years! Never in my life have I come out so squeaky clean, it was almost a shame to go walk around outside and ruin it!
For the next several hours, I wandered along the coastline in Kadıköy (which is not be confused with Karaköy on the other side of the Bosphorus). The air was crisp and cool with a slight breeze in the air. Off in the distance, tiny minarets poked up from the old town on the Sarayburnu peninsula like a pack of meerkats on alert to a potential threat. I watched as the giant cargo ships slowly made their way up the strait carrying goods destined for ports along the Black Sea as they’ve been doing for thousands of years. While simple in its execution, knowing that the scene before has remained basically unchanged for hundreds of years gave me a surreal feeling that I was seeing history happen right before my very eyes.
I returned to the Asian side a few times over the course of the next few weeks and walked the northern coastline all the way up to Çengleköy and Anadoluhisari. For anyone interested in seeing another side of Istanbul and is up for a day-long walk, I highly recommend strolling along the coast through these towns. All are significantly cheaper than the old town, far quieter, and generally have a much nicer vibe than the touristy areas. While this was only my first adventure across the Bosphorus to the Asian side, I realize now that Istanbul is the last European city I plan on visiting during this trip. I have a long trek ahead of me since I have to across the entire Asian continent if I want to make it to Japan. Looking at a map the distance is staggering, but it bring to mind a famous quote by Lao Tzu that has never been more relevant in my life than today:
"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."
Farewell Istanbul. Farewell Europe. Asia here I come!