Thursday, April 27, 2006

Not Constantinople

Today is an absolutely gorgeous day here in the Rhadope Mountains, and I’m excited that I’m feeling a bit under the weather so I can stay home and enjoy it. I caught a cold on my way back from Turkey. My colleagues joke that it’s the “Bulgarian Flu.” Yeah, having to come back to my beautiful, peaceful home is making me come down with something. It really is such a genuinely great day. I’m sitting in my apartment, listening to some quiet music, the birds chirping, and the rush of the river outside. The occasional car, motorcycle, or barking dog breaks the stillness every once in a while. Plus, here’s my new favorite thing about my apartment: storks and bell towers. I can sit at my living room table (like I’m doing right now), look out the door that opens to my balcony, and see the church tower directly across the way. There’s a giant nest there with a couple of storks. I watch and listen to them chat with one another. The baby pokes its head up every once in a while. Other storks have been lazily swooping around the tower. It’s a cool sight. And I had to bust out my new camera.
Speaking of my new camera… I’m so excited. It’s so awesome. I typed a whole paragraph about this, but have decided to delete it because it’s fairly irrelevant to my poor readers. I bought a new camera. I have no money now, but I’m happy. The end.
So yeah, Turkey. Or more appropriately, Istanbul. I only saw one city, and going to a bustling, tourist hub does NOT make me a source of information on the rest of the country. Just like we PCVs get exasperated by tourists who talk about seeing Bulgaria when they’ve only been to Sofia. “Yeah? Well, come visit my little town of a few thousand if you want to see something real. And stay for two years. And even then you won’t get what it’s all about… just like me. Anyway, I digress. Back to Istanbul.
It’s an absolutely astounding city – spread out along the Bosporus Strait which links the Black Sea to the Aegean, I believe. It also separates what we’ve designated as Europe and Asia. But then the Middle East is over there, too. So don’t ask me. Ask the Turkish people, however, and most will probably tell you that they’re European. As many of you probably know, they’re petitioning entrance into the European Union.
On Thursday, after buying a camera and walking around Plovdiv for a bit, I met up with another volunteer. Matt and I had dinner, and then we caught the night train to Istanbul. It was almost two hours late, and when we finally got on, the guy who took our tickets got snippy with us in Bulgarian. Apparently, each sleeping compartment has three beds, and each already had someone in them. Even a compartment with only one person in it wouldn’t want us because, thinking we were a couple, they would feel awkward or something. So? How is this our fault? We’re not a couple. Split us up if you have to. Exasperated, the man started talking to a woman alone in her room. I couldn’t understand everything that was going on, but she was not happy. She didn’t want us in her room. The guy told Matt to follow him down the hall, explaining that he didn’t think he had a place for him. Fortunately, Andrea and Boudreaux, two other volunteers who had caught the train in Sofia, heard Matt’s voice and invited him into their room. I was placed with the upset woman – who soon grabbed her stuff and left. I think she got off the train or something. Isn’t that crazy? How awful must the thought of sharing a room with me be? You have to get off the train? Haha. So I ended up having a room to myself all the way to Istanbul and it was awesome! The man even turned sweet, offering me extra blankets and going out of his way to take care of me and help me feel secure. I didn’t sleep that much – between forking over my passport to migration a couple times, having them check my room, and getting off the train in the middle of the night to purchase a $20 visa to Turkey, there wasn’t a whole lot of quality time for shut-eye… not until we actually crossed the Turkish border and chugged to Istanbul.
Istanbul is a bustling city of millions, and it’s HUGE. We only limited ourselves to one tiny (and probably the most touristy) area. The first thing that hit me was all the tulips. Thousands upon thousands of tulips were planted everywhere – in the gardens in front of breathtaking mosques, in the flower beds along the sides of shops, even in the street dividers. Other colorful flowers were strewn about everywhere as well, and they were absolutely enchanting. I’ll share pictures with you guys, but pictures aren’t going to do the flowers justice – the smells, the atmosphere they created along with the mosques… wow.
So, after dropping off our stuff at the hostel and grabbing some lunch, we started with the Blue Mosque. I’ll try not to get too involved with explanations of what things are and what they mean… not like I know or remember anyway! You can always “Google” something if you want. We went into the inner courtyard and saw people congregating for Friday prayers. During lunch we had heard the calls to prayer amplified from speakers placed on the minarets of the mosques. It was absolutely beautiful and haunting. It was also kinda weird to have religion blasted so publicly like that. Storekeepers closed their shops and hurried to the mosque. After witnessing prayers, we went across the way to the Hagia Sophia. It’s a Christian church built in 532 A.D. (previous versions had been destroyed by fire), conquered by a sultan and converted into a mosque in 1453, and then changed to a museum in the 1935. So you walk in and see all sorts of Islamic and Christian iconography. Elaborate religious mosaics showing Jesus, Mary, and various disciples peek out from plaster that had once covered them for so many years. A mihrab points the way to Mecca. And the entire edifice is massive.
After walking around there for a bit, I went to the Blue Mosque again to take a peak inside. It is called such because it looks bluish-gray from the outside, but it’s also filled with blue tiles and stained glass on the inside. I took off my shoes, put a blue scarf on my head, and sat down on the carpet to take it all in. A sweet girl sat next to me, smiled, and looked at me curiously. “Are you alone? Are you lonely?” No on both accounts. “I want to give you something.” So I walked out with a Qu’ran or a commentary on it in English. I’m not sure.
She was the only Turkish woman to talk to me. Anyone else who talked to me were men, and they only bothered when I was alone. “Where are you from? Where are you going? What are you doing? Are you alone? Let me show you Istanbul. Can you stay for a minute and talk to me? Can you stay and have tea with me?” They weren’t rude, just persistent, and that was annoying. It’s expected, and I didn’t even get anywhere near the worst of what I’ve heard has happened to other women. Probably the worst thing was when I was asked by a Turkish man now living in Florida if I was 31 (which is not old, I’m just not that close to 31). “Oh, well are you Irish? Yeah, okay, makes sense. The Irish get premature wrinkles around their eyes from the sun.” I wanted to deck him. “That’s how you know I’m not hitting on you. I would have asked you if you were 21 otherwise.” Okay, good, you’re not hitting on me. Can I still deck you? The only reason I was still talking to this guy was because he was standing next to a shy Canadian guy. I didn’t want to offend Canada. “So you’re working in Bulgaria? For the Peace Corps? Oh yeah, I know all about that. You have no money.” Seriously. Can I hit you now? “So you’re going to the mosque, huh? To pray? I’m being sarcastic with you. You don’t like sarcasm, do you. Joke around with me here.” I lamely offered that I had been on a night train all night and was too tired to be witty. I wish I could have said something to the effect of, “Look. You stopped me. You kind of insulted me. You’re still talking to me while I’ve been trying to leave. I’m tired. Don’t tell me how to be. My wit is saved for special people who don’t make snap judgments about me in thirty seconds. Go back to Florida and let me talk to your Canadian friend who at least has the decency to keep his mouth shut, hang out, and smile.” But this guy got the job done. He merited a place in my blog. Sad.
After that, I ran into another man who chatted me up. I explained that I had to get back to my friends. The worst thing was that he saw me again a couple days later, and once again I happened to be by myself. “So, where are your friends?”
The women, in comparison, were totally demure. A few did have the black burkas that covered from head to toe. Many wore a colorful scarf over their head along with an ankle-length skirt. Most women were simply dressed, with a quiet elegance. Skin was nowhere in site. David, another PCV, pointed out how refreshing that was. Yeah, and quite a contrast from their Bulgarian neighbors. I wonder what their pop stars wear.
So there were eleven of us that took the trip together – 10 volunteers and an English woman who was a riot. We had a good time giving each other a hard time. After spending the day sightseeing, we went up to Tikrim, a boulevard with tons of shops and restaurants. There’s a Starbucks there (gasp!) and even a couple Gloria Jean’s for you So. Cal people. There’s also an El Torito’s up there somewhere. I never found it, but I know it’s there because other PCVs have eaten there and their website talks about an Istanbul location. Yeah. Apparently they have locations in Japan as well – along with some western states in the U.S. How random can you get?
The next day, we took a ferry to the Asian side. Yay! I’ve been to Asia now! Scratch another continent off the list! It’s kinda pathetic in a way. Like going to Tijuana for an afternoon and being in Mexico. Like going into Morocco for a day and being in Africa. Which I’ve all done by the way. Yeah, I’ve traveled quite a bit, but I have been a shortcut traveler as well. Hey, it counts! We got some good eats and then headed back to the European side and then some of us headed to a cistern under the city. After a quick cup of expensive Turkish coffee, we went to the Grand Bazaar, which was a labyrinth of sights, smells, and merchandise. There was so much stuff in a variety of colors, shapes, and smells that I was at a loss to buy much of anything (which is probably good). We then went up again to Tikrim, walked around, and got dinner.
The following day, we had an interesting experience. A bunch of us decided to get a Turkish bath. It was basically getting scrubbed down and thrown around on a marble slab by an old Turkish woman. I’m being trite, and it’s not fair. I’m just looking at it from the comic side at the moment. Yeah, you get washed and massaged, you sit in the sauna for a while…. It’s an elaborate bath. I’m glad I went because it was a fun experience with some of the other women in the group, but it’s not something I would do again. Some people are really into that stuff and come out feeling even more relaxed. I was aching. She was a good scrubber, but a horrible masseuse in my opinion. I felt like she was massaging my bones and she pinched my already tense shoulders. It made me long for the last massage I had – a relaxing one in Hawai’i. Yeah, I’m a weakling and a princess. I got slapped around by an old Turkish baba that I could probably outrun, but apparently not take in a fight. Still glad I did it to say I’ve had the experience, and the marble room was awesome with the light filtering into the dome. Almost takes away the pain… hehe. Wish I’d gone to Ephesus that day. No! Wait, I did say I’m glad I had the experience, right?
After being folded like “Gumby,” we got some yummy lunch and Amy and I went walking around to some archaeological museums and a nearby park. It was beautiful, and I enjoyed just spending some time talking to Amy. We went to the rooftop of a nearby restaurant and got some great views of the city and the water. Again, a bunch of us went up to Tikrim for dinner.
Our last day in Istanbul, Jerramy, Amy, and I went to a huge palace where so many sultans had ruled. We saw tons of artifacts – probably the most interesting being the skull and forearm of John the Baptist, a gazillion-carat diamond (yeah, I forgot the carat size, but it was “ginormous”), a preserved footprint of Muhammad, a box apparently containing his hair, some of his swords, one of his letters, and we also went into the harem.
Amy and Jerramy, along with some of the other volunteers in our group, went back to Bulgaria after that. I took some time to myself and walked around the Spice Bazaar, went up to one of the highest points in the city to snap some pictures, and generally walked around enjoying the time to myself. I was getting ready to go home though. It’s hard leaving at night ‘cause the last day you’re just kinda hanging out waiting for the time to pass. It was nice taking some time to myself and walking around. I was exhausted afterwards, and my feet hurt, but it was worth it.
I met up with Matt, Andrea, and Boudreaux and then we met up with another group of volunteers that happened to be in Istanbul that weekend. It was just a Bulgarian Peace Corps party in Istanbul this last weekend. So we had some traditional food, watched a bit of whirling dervish, and then headed to the train to take us home. After a long, overnight trip with the usual interruptions, Matt and I were finally back in Plovdiv. I came straight to Rakitovo, and was finally home after over fourteen hours of traveling.
Istanbul was gorgeous and I would definitely go back. I even got to speak Spanish randomly – twice on the same day! Once when I heard some Spanish ladies talking in line and once when I needed to translate for a couple at the hostel. My Bulgarian was messing me up though, and other volunteers were laughing at me. I would say “da” and they would say “si.” Ugh! Bulgarian! It was funny. So cool.
There are some things I categorically didn’t like. The biggest one was price-gouging. While nice people, the locals seemed ready to take you for all they could. Taxis would charge different prices depending on who you asked, and when you mentioned the meter, they would purposely take the long route. One guy gouged us on water when we were dying of thirst – charging four times the actual amount. Restaurant servers would make mistakes on the bill, forget how much something cost, and then say, “Oh, sorry. Let’s fix that,” and it was hard to believe it hadn’t been purposeful. Istanbul wasn’t as cheap as I had hoped. The market was competitive out there and salesman (while clever and witty with their approaches) would do their best to corner you… except in my experience when I would actually walk up to their stand and show interest in something – then they seemed to ignore me. Strange. And then there were just so many people everywhere. I’ve grown accustomed to my tiny little town, and I can’t take much of people rushing around me. Another thing not so high on the list: Aussies and Anzac Day. Now don’t get me wrong. Australians are awesome people with accents to die for. I haven’t met an Australian I didn’t like. The ones I’ve met, mostly in hostels, have all seemed laid back with a great outlook on life. The problem was that the entire continent (massive exaggeration) was in for Anzac Day. And “hostelers” in general, not just Aussies, like to party. Every night was a constant party on the street outside and in the hostel. I slept better than I expected and was able to get up at a reasonable hour and be okay for the day, but nightly block parties are not a funfest when you’ve been out all day and just want to relax. Well, it was our fault for coming in during that time of the year and not being in a partying mood. It was interesting being asked all the time if we were Australian though. So anyway, four days were enough. I was so happy to be coming home, and that was a good feeling. It’s great to be so happy in my site that I miss people and look forward to returning. Not every volunteer can say that, and I got lucky for sure.
So, work. It’s been slow, but there are some good things that have been happening. We got some free second-hand materials from an army base in Germany: sleeping bags, backpacks, desks, cupboards, carton paper, and English books. I received an e-mail that we’re going to get a donation of books shipped to us from the states. Should be able to celebrate that in about 2-6 months…. Plus, Yanko and Ani went out and bought a bunch of tiles for the floor of our educational center. We were worried that the money wasn’t going to stretch far enough to fill the space (we measured incorrectly when preparing the proposal), but apparently they found a good deal, and these tiles will cover the whole place. They’re beautiful, and we’re excited. Now we’ve just gotta find someone to put them in at a fraction of the salary they usually charge. It’s about to get crazy, but I’ll save future events for future posts. If you’re still reading, and you love to travel, I hope I’ve put the bug in you to check out Istanbul. If you’re still reading, and your eyes hurt, you have my most humble apologies. Think how long it takes to write these things!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to write your blogs. I love hearing about you and your new life in Bulgaria. Doubt I will ever make it outside the US unless I am with you so if we ever go you can show me those tulips! Love ya