13 May 2008

Yogurt & Mosques

Well well, I am alive and kicking in Istanbul. This will be an extraordinarily long post, but no pictures yet, because my lovely roommate has locked our door and vanished, leaving me without my camera cord. I'll try to paint word pictures instead.

Our group consists of the following girls: Hannah Stone, Dawn Harris, Rachel Elliott, Catherine Wood, Kathryn Williams, Joy Pavelski, Angy Moore, Charlotte Coker, Cameron Wilkens, Betsy Peters, and myself. Also these boys: David Wagner, Jody Lent, Chris Scripter (who goes by his last name), Jeremy Vryhof, Craig Kreinbihl, Jordan Jennings, Andrew Erber, Walter Pettus, Chris Duncan (who also goes by his last name), and Duncan's dad. Plus Professor Westblade (otherwise known as the Blade), his wife, his daughter Kirsty, and two older ladies named Frederica and Elise. My roommate, Betsy, is the only sophomore on the trip; most of us are juniors, and we're all in the honors program here at Hillsdale. I guess coming to Turkey at an extremely subsidized price is our reward for taking extra classes and writing extra theses. :)

In any case, it was raining buckets the day we left for the airport. When we got to Detroit, we did one last passport check (it's the only thing the Blade cares about) and traipsed through security. Oh, and my suitcase was only 37.5 pounds, which beat several of the boys. The flight was eight hours long, and Hannah and I, who sat next to each other, spent it as frivolously as we could by watching movies like Catwoman and Juno. They fed us pretty well for an American airline. I didn't sleep a wink, the main perk of which was watching the sunrise over the Atlantic clouds. Actually, I didn't sleep at all until Monday night, so now I've officially pulled an all-nighter in college...

So after the transatlantic flight, we transferred to a KLM Royal Dutch line. The security in Amsterdam was so much looser than in Detroit, because I definitely had coins and keys in my pocket and the metal detector didn't even flinch. Flying over Holland was really neat, by the way. You could see all of the dikes and neat, tidy fields; no windmills, alas. Back to the plane. The Dutch stewardesses were all blond, freckled, and extremely friendly. (Chris attempted to flirt with the prettiest one, but to no avail due to the complete language barrier.) More important than their beauty was the incredible food they served us. Yes, folks, they gave us organic Gouda and yogurt, added hot rolls to the feast, refilled our water glasses many times, and later came by with a box of European cookies. 'Twas most pleasant. Especially since by that time, we all felt grimy and jetlagged to the max. Hospitality is appreciated even thousands of feet in the air.

Upon reaching Istanbul, we stood in line to get off the plan, then stod in line for a visa, then stood in line for passport checks at customs. I must have looked blonde and naive enough not to merit questioning, as the customs agents slammed their stamp of approval on my passport without hesitation. Then we found our luggage, which an airport worker with very perky spiked hair had collected for us. Craig, Chris, and I visited a perfume shop to pass the time till our tour guide arrived and amused ourselves by splashing on Versace and Armani, pretending to be rich, while Kathryn made a nest in the suitcases and took a nap. (She can make a nest anywhere.) I still wasn't tired, oddly enough...a good thing, as we had plenty more left in the day. Nobody's luggage got lost and none of the flights were delayed and no one was sick, so all in all, the flight was perfect.

Our amazing tour guide Arzu arrived soon after we collected the suitcases. She basically knows everything about Turkey, doesn't take us to overpriced restaurants, gives us the perfect balance of lectures and free time, and is classy to boot.

While we stood on the curb waiting for our bus to pull up, another bus driver parallel parked his vehicle. The thing was gargantuan. He got it right the first time. It was incredible.

We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and then Arzu dragged us out to get us geographically oriented: the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and other landmarks are very close to our hotel. We all exchanged our greenbacks for Turkish lira. Fortunately, the exchange rate is in our favor. Unfortunately, the ATM machines were being cranky. So Craig, Dawn, Catherine, and I had to do the cash swap rather than the more convenient ATM withdrawal, and now we're negotiating with our banks via Skype and e-mail. Hopefully it'll work out, ha. I've got 100 lira (less now!) which will last me for a while, but not if I want to see the whirling dervishes and buy souvenirs.

So, our hotel: the Istanbul Sude is a great place, not super swanky but solid on the most important things. They have hot showers, clean sheets, and superb food. (I'll be talking about food a lot on this blog. I hope you don't mind. As Joy laughingly observed today after I made my tenth comment about a fruit stand or bagel vendor or gelato shop: "You're obsessed with food, aren't you?!" Yes ma'am.) They gave us dinner on the rooftop last night. The sun was just striking the tops of the four minarets of Hagia Sophia, which we can see from the roof, and slanting beautifully over the Golden Horn strait on the other side. We ate a salad dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, a spicy chickpea soup, rice pilaf, grilled chicken, and watermelon. I can't tell you how wonderful it is to eat GOOD vegetables and meat after a semester of college cafeteria food!

This morning, we were again greeted by a barrage of food, as our hotel serves the biggest breakfast buffet I've ever seen. Fresh bread, strong coffee, goat cheese, provelone cheese, bologna, ham, black olives, tomato wedges, cucumbers (probably my favorite part, lol), green olives, salty tapenade, orange juice, strawberries, dried apricots, dried figs, peanut butter, hardboiled eggs, three types of cereal, creamy yogurt, and a rainbow of preserves and honey. I've eaten so many dairy products on this trip; I'll have calcium coming out my ears by the end.

At 8:30 Jody, Chris, and I ran down to the nearest supermarket to buy water in ginormous 5 liter bottles, which we plan to keep in our rooms and use to refill more carry-able bottles during the day. You have to buy your own water here, because as Arzu explained, the water in Istanbul is kept in a cistern (more about that later) and while Turkish people are used to it, our delicate American stomachs tend to revolt. Hannah is determined to inoculate herself to Turkish water by drinking several tablespoons per day. Uh huh. We'll see about that one.

After we three got back from the water expedition, we all set off for a sweet archaelogical museum, about 10 minutes walk from our hotel. Its collection includes the original Siloam inscription, the Kadesh treaties, lovely gold jewelry, cuneiform tablets ranging from shopping lists to marriage contracts to secret smuggling deals (I laughed at that one), sarcophagi coated in bas-releif, a FREAKY mummy, and Islamic tile work in extraordinary colors like lime green and peacock blue. This whole culture is just so vivid! Even the women who wear full-length black robes top them with colorful headscarves.

The museum's courtyard is a garden with random ancient statuary strewn about, no glass or chains or anything, and you can order a soda or pretzel and have yourself a snack among the antiquities. Craig is a Coke freak and happily took pictures of himself holding Coke and posing with the statues. I think we'll have lots of Craig and Coke pictures by the end of this trip. And lots of David making silly faces. When we went to the Hagia Sophia, which was next on our morning's itinerary, we listened very seriously to Arzu's lectures, but then ran off and took silly photos of ourselves. (Jordan jumping off a pillar, Andrew posing as an Assyrian archer, and David sticking his finger up the nose of a poor innocent marble statue.)

The Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Eastern Orthodox church and was also the largest church in the world for 1000 years, until St Peter's was built. Then when Istanbul was overrun by the Ottomans, it got turned into a mosque. Arzu explained that they converted it for several reasons: first of all, they needed a big building to fit all their men-folk! (All men are required to pray 5 times a day on Fridays in the mosque, though the women don't half to. Arzu says perhaps this is because men have more sins...) And second, fundamentalist looters were desecrating the church, but making it a mosque would preserve it.

Since Islam forbids images of animals or humans, most of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia were plastered over. They've been peeling off the plaster to reveal the mosaics, but the result of halfway removed plaster is a bit messy. The place doesn't looked finished, exactly, since it's neither Christian nor Muslim. The Blue Mosque, on the other hand, is a place of staggering beauty. Thousands of blue and white ceramic tiles line the walls in a wide belt. There's a thirty-foot chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The dome and semi-domes lift the soul upward, and windows set high in the roof let in a soft, almost spiritual light. The mosque is square, with MASSIVE pillars at either corner (Arzu says they're called "elephant legs," for obvious reasons). People kept coming in to pray. It was neat to hear the call to prayer, an eerie sound that echoes from one minaret to the other. Yet it was also very sad. I just looked at the worshippers and cried inside; they are so lost. So wrong, pouring such energy and dedication into a fruitless effort of holiness.

The mosque itself had an intensely religious aura, despite the tourists. In order to enter it, we needed to remove our shoes, and we all needed long pants or skirts. Several of us (*cough* Duncan and Jordan *cough*) were wearing shorts and were obliged to don the skirts provided at the door. Now that was funny.

Next on the list: the biggest underground cistern in the world. It's got scads of blind and obese trout living in it, and now I understand which Istanbul water can make you sick! The cistern was built under the Byzantine empire, in order to supply the Hagia Sophia and the palace, but people also built houses on top and added wells to tap into the water privately. When the Turks came, they didn't know about the cistern for a long time. Then they realized that people were fishing through their wells. lol. According to Arzu, Istanbul doesn't have a subway because of the many cisterns. Every time they try to dig for the metro, they run into another cistern (either that, or priceless antiquities!).

After we got through with the cistern, Arzu sent us off for free time till dinner. Joy, Jody, Chris, and I decided to wander; we went to the other side of the Golden Horn straits in pursuit of a mysterious tower, only to discover that you had to pay 10 lira to climb it. It was called the Galata Tower and looked really cool, but it wasn't worth the money. Oh well. We got a good walk, good pictures, and a good laugh out of the trip: Jody was duped into having his shoes shined for 25 lira by a fellow who claimed that his children were starving. Because of this silly exploit, Jody received the Turkey Baster at dinner. The Turkey Baster goes to whoever did the goofiest thing that day. :o)

After we crossed back over to "our" side, we had dinner on the roof again. Fava bean salad, tomatoes and parsley, lamb patties, rice pilaf, and strawberries. Fantastic.

Now I'm sitting here stealing Chris' computer to write this entry. Time for bed, I think, after I sketch a few things in my journal. We leave for Ankara at 8:00 tomorrow.

Love and hugs,



  1. Hi Rebekah! Sounds like you are having a great time. I can't wait to see pictures. The food sounds wonderful. Enjoy it for me...

  2. Wow sounds like fun. Hope the ATM card starts to function.

  3. Looks like a great first few days. I'm glad you'll talk about food a lot :-) All of it sounded really good. I definently want to find out what happens with Hannah's inoculation experiment.

    Love you,

  4. I am laughing at your lovely tales - all very easy to picture in my mind, thanks to your writing skills - college has been good for something, I guess. : )

  5. Rebekah, It sounds like you're having a great time. I love the way you describe your adventures. Looking forward to reading more of your travel blog. Have fun!
    Julia :)

  6. I' m currently blogging for a (poor) living for someone else... but I like it. You' ve inspired me to keep doing it, and look to doing it for myself soon