Don’t expect a slick sophisticated travel review today. I’m returning to my recent trip to Istanbul to tell you about some of my adventures. Many times when I travel it is because I am tagging along with my husband while he works. We have our methods down pat. We arrive a day or so early and do things together. Then he works for two and a half days while I amuse myself, and then we have a little more time together after his work is concluded.
When people I know found out I was going to Istanbul, a majority of them advised me not to go anywhere alone. Many of them said this not based on any of their own experiences, but because an American woman had recently been murdered there. Personally I was not afraid. For one thing I already live in a very violent town, and could hardly imagine Istanbul being worse. Second, I am careful when I travel. I don’t venture into “iffy” areas. The places I want to go are distinctly undangerous – museums, for example. What are the statistics on murders inside museums and museum bookstores? Finally, I trust my own instincts. If I even think I might start to feel uncomfortable in a place, I leave.
Despite my own opinions, the pleas not to go out alone continued. Even my daughter who had recently been to Istanbul asked me not to go out alone. She had not gone out by herself while in Istanbul, but she had had no reason to; her husband was not working. To appease my daughter, I said that while her Dad was working I would get a Turkish bath at the hotel and go on a tour. That seemed to assuage her fears.
As planned. my husband and I had a day to orient ourselves to the town before he started work. The first day he worked I booked myself for a Turkish bath at our hotel. I knew this was probably not going to be the most authentic experience, but having had no Turkish bath at all, ever, I thought I could start here. In fact I wasn’t even sure what a Turkish bath was. When I checked in at the spa desk, I was led to a ladies’ dressing room and shown where to put my clothes. and what towel to wrap myself in.
I complied with these directions, and sat down on a bench in the dressing room wondering what I was supposed to do next. After a few minutes I went out to the front, draped in my towel, causing a maintenance man to jump ten feet,( They’re very modest over there) and asked the receptionist if I was supposed to come back to the front. All she said to me was “No.” “OK, no,” I muttered to myself and went back to the dressing room. It sure was getting hot and humid in there! I sat and sat. In a few minutes a woman clad in a bikini like outfit came in from a back door in the dressing room and addressed me in Turkish. When I couldn’t understand her she left. Since I have such trusty instincts I realized, in my sweaty humid state that unless I approached someone I would probably spend my entire day sweating in a towel in a dressing room! I knew not to go to the front desk so I opened the back door, where I saw the Turkish speaking woman. Gulping in the fresh air of the corridor I ventured,” Turkish bath?” She responded again in Turkish, but this time I heard the word“hamam” (Turkish bath) so I vigorously nodded yes.
We needed no language for the bath. I stretched out on a warm slab of marble, listening to some soft music as the attendant scrubbed, lathered and rinsed me. Heavenly! After her ministrations she led me, freshly toweled, to a dark room with chaise longues, and brought me a tray of tea and fruit. And left me.
I nibbled my fruit and drank my tea, resting on the lounge which also seemed heated. After a few minutes it seemed a little…hot. What was I supposed to do now? I peered into the hallway. I saw no one. Once again I decided I’d better take matters into my own hands. Since no one was apparently ever going to come back for me again, I decided I could sneak back into the dressing room for my phone and take a few stealth pictures. Then I let myself out. No one seemed to notice.
The next day, Sunday, I was booked on an all day tour which was to include being picked up at the hotel and returned to the Asian side at the end of the day. I arrived in the lobby at the appointed time. After fifteen minutes of waiting, caffeine deprived I spoke to the desk clerk who stated my car was outside. Sure enough, a young man in a business suit was waiting for me in a four door sedan. He ushered me into the back seat and in silence drove me from the Asian to the European side. We pulled into the parking lot of the HIlton, beside a couple of vans, where several Turkish men were conferring. It seemed to me that Turkish men seemed to do quite a bit of conferring.
Someone opened the car door for me and I got out and stood there. One of the Turkish men approached me and asked if I wanted to go on Tour One or Tour Two. I stated I was booked for Tour Two, because I had already done most of the things on Tour One. His face fell.”Alright,” he informed me,”You are the only one on your tour then.”
Gulp! How does one go about being the only one on a tour? I didn’t know how to get myself back to the ferry to the Asian side so I decided I had best just go ahead with it. I was returned to the sedan, with my original driver, whom I thought resembled Balthazaar Getty, plus Aran, my very own tour guide.
After riding through several neighborhoods, with Aran narrating and Balthazaar silent except when the two men needed to confer in Turkish, Aran announced it was almost time for our break, during which I might like a coffee. Aah, a stop in a darling Turkish coffee shop sounded just right to me. As I daydreamed of aromatic coffee in the back seat, our driver pulled right into McDonald’s. Yes, I did say McDonald’s.
While my driver and tourist guide bought coffee upstairs, I went downstairs to the ladies restroom. I had bought a bottle of water ( You can’t drink the tap water there) so I could take my vitamins and such. I was the only one down there, so while I was in the stall I went ahead and dug out my gallon sized ziplock bag which was filled with individual baggies of all my daily medicines.
My water bottle was in one hand and a baggie of vitamins was in the other, when the lights suddenly went out. I dropped the vitamins and they scattered all over the floor. Here I am. I said to myself. In this moment. On a toilet. In a bathroom. In the dark. In a McDonald’s. In Istanbul. With two men I don’t know. Taking a tour all by myself. Well, what is travel for if not for new experiences?
I managed to get my pants up without flushing my medicines down the toilet and exited the dark room without further mishap. My two Turkish friends were still enjoying their coffee and cigarettes.
Next we went to a scenic overlook. I am afraid I can’t remember the name. It was too hazy for good pictures, but I enjoyed people watching while I tasted a selap, a local drink made of dried orchid roots. Aran and Balthazaar were standing by, respectfully keeping an eye on me. I was beginning to feel the way Sasha and Malia Obama might feel, precious and well cared for. And deserving it too.
Soon we departed to the Beylerbeyi, a summer palace of the sultans. Baltahzaar let us out and we entered the palace grounds. Aran told me that visitors must be accompanied by a guide, So he gave me a lovely tour of the palace. Unfortunately photography was not allowed, so I can only tell you it was sumptuous inside.
We journeyed on to the Serkeci train station, to the site of the original Orient Express route. A complimentary lunch in the train station restaurant, also named the Orient Express, was included on my tour. Aran ushered me to a table with a gentlemanly flourish. Before I knew it a mustachioed waiter appeared for my drink order. Since I was the only person in the restaurant, I was in fact attended by several mustachioed waiters. In regal solitude I sipped my tea, ate my lunch, admired the Agatha Christie posters, and read my Kindle.
After lunch I had time to take a few pictures and pretend I awaited an appointment with Hercule Poirot. Aran seemed to have vanished but I eventually saw him conferring with a few other Turkish men and drinking tea at a small corner table. I think my darting in and out of the train station alarmed him; whenever he couldn’t see me he rushed outside to find me. In fact there seemed to be an abundance of time to wait after lunch.
Because guess what? We were waiting for Baltahazaar to bring Other People, would be joining us for the second half of the tour!! Was I ever glad to see them! Now I no longer had the crushing burden of being the only person to tip Aran this day! This dilemma had been buzzing around my brain like an aggressive bazaar merchant all morning!
When the others joined us we piled into a van and went for a brief turn at the Spice Market. I was surprised to find myself a little unwilling to share “my” guide with these interlopers. I winced when I heard these Americans asking questions such as ,”Are you a Muslim?’ And, “Why do I see so many covered women?” But I remained gracious, as always.
Our last stop was a cruise on the Bosphorus. As we made our way there Aran asked the others what hotels they came from. I was the only one on the Asian side. “What will happen to me when the tour is over?” I asked Aran. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I have to take all the others back to their hotel. But I’ll show you how to ride the ferry back; it’s easy!” he reassured me. Hmmm. Suddenly I was no longer such precious cargo.
It was such a glorious, sunny day for a boat ride that we had a huge crowd. It was difficult to take pictures, so after a while I just listened to Aran’s narration and wondered how I would return to the Asian side. In due time the cruise was over. Aran was in a big hurry to get the other tour members back in the van. I can only assume there was some deadline for returning either the van or its passengers. I barely had time to press some lira into my guide’s hand before he pointed where I should get the ferry to the Asian side, and turned in the opposite direction.
I approached the pier as Aran had directed but the sign did not say Kadiköy which was my destination. No one was on duty in the ticket booth. I needed to buy a ticket from someone. Since I did not know I would need my Istanbulkart, I had left it at the hotel. I saw someone talking to a man in a reflective vest, so I decided I too would approach him. He informed me that this was the correct ferry. The destination was the Princes’ Islands, but Kadiköy was the first stop. And he was glad to sell me a ticket.When the gangplank was lowered I crowded aboard with all the others.
When the tea man came around, I treated myself. Sipping the sweet hot liquid, I concluded that when I travel there is no such thing as “going out alone”, because I always take me with me. In all of the activities I had undertaken in part to keep my promise not to go out alone I had had to rely upon my own judgement. Heck, if I’d not taken action the day before I’d still be wrapped in a towel in the basement of my hotel! Who had helped me in the dark McDonald’s bathroom? ME!! And right now, after being treated like a hothouse flower most of the day by my tour guide, I was left to my own devices to get back to where I’d come from. From now on, I told myself, whenever someone says don’t go out alone, I’ll say, “Don’t worry; I never go out alone!” I am the most reliable tour guide of all.