The Istanbul Saga—part three, in which the protagonists freeze, fall, fill, and fly


If the bazaar had been open, we would have been spared the torture.

Our bellies were full, our eyes and memory card sated from a stroll through two of the loveliest architectural wonders known to man, and as we wiped the last of the kebabs’ sauce from our lips and stepped back out into the Istanbul street, we had no idea of the terror which awaited us.  The rain had fizzled out into a half-hearted drizzle, and we smiled, hand in hand, and strolled.  We thought Istanbul would be all smiles.

If only the bazaar had been open, we would have been spared.  But in a cruel twist of fate—or perhaps a way-too-logical coincidence—the bazaar was down that day.

Honestly, I had never suspected that the bazaar—the Grand Bazaar, the most legendary madhouse of a shopping extravaganza that the last five centuries have ever imagined—could possibly close.  I’d been led to believe that this place would make Black Friday look like a chess festival in a Palm Springs retirement community, that it would take every notion of the sane and logical checkout-line purchasing system and shake it like a hapless lightning bug in a summer jar in a child’s hands.  But it was silent and shut: a spin-off holiday of Ramadan that’d I’d probably butcher in pronunciation and explanation.


“What crazy luck,” I muttered.  “What a bunch of crazy, lazy, non-working bunch of—“

“Babe,” Andy said through her last bite of kebab, “don’t you think it’s the same holiday that gave you these days off work back in Jakarta?”

“Well. . .”  Don’t you hate it when someone spots the obvious you should have seen a mile off?

“Whatever.  Let’s go see the river.”


So we turned our backs on closed doors of the famed bazaar, and we smiled and strolled, little suspecting that soon my fingernails would be scrambling for traction to keep me uprights in that swerving shuttle, that within the hour I’d find my heart racing and eardrums thumping in the thrill ride of all minivans.

No idea in all the world—I took Andy’s hand and we started toward the river.

If the bazaar had been open, we would have been spared the torture.

The path to the good old Bosporus led through a thousand meters of rolling park and another legion of fat, fluffy cats eyeing tourist targets for snacks.  I guess they get fed by the hands of foreigner vacationers—it certainly seemed to be a hobby of choice for the meandering crowds there.  If I had known what lie in store for me at the water’s edge, I would have stayed and stroked a few strays myself.  If they’d proved rabid and demonic, I think I’d still have preferred their companionship to what awaited us at the river.


It began innocently enough, though, for as we neared the mighty river, as we crested the final knoll and looked down upon the waterways connecting and dividing the mighty urban sprawl, we were filled with regret we hadn’t booked a cruise from the seedy hawkers back at the Hagia.  I sighed.  “Yeah, it was expensive, but when are we gonna be back?”

“Maybe they’ll negotiate…”

So we fixed a price we could afford and set out along the cruise ships and fishing fleets, the commuter ferries and tourist shuttles, the dinghies and yachts all vying for space in the ancient straits.

I shivered, and I thought it was just the cold.  That’s the thing about premonitions, I guess.  If I took ever shiver as a sign I was about to be abducted…  well, I guess I don’t shiver too much here in Jakarta.  Either that or my ability to receive premonitions is decaying quick.

And speaking of decaying, I’m convinced that dentists make bank in Istanbul.  How could they not—just take a walk around Sultanahmed, or anywhere along the peninsula for that matter, and count the number of stores you see specializing in sweets.  I mean, of course there’s the aptly named “Turkish Delight,” but you also see stacks and stacks of baklava, row on row of delicate pastries laced with pistachio and almond, mound upon mound of sugar-drenched goodies, jar after jar of crunchy nuts soaked in thick, gorgeous honey.  It’s not just a single store—it’s a pile of them.  On every street.  And I didn’t even get inside the bazaar.  These people must munch themselves into diabetic frenzies; the insulin must flow down like the rains of Istanbul, the dentists must have their pockets stuffed with cash keeping these people’s poor teeth from rotting in their crazy heads.

sweet window

Unless, of course, those sweets are solely meant for tourists’ teeth and foreigners’ wallets.  Which is possibly true—and a good reminder for me to book a teeth scrubbing.

That night, one of the last stops we made before trudging off to the airport again was a street market: stall after stall of Turkish men standing, hands clasped behind their backs,  before enormous baskets of pistachios and baklava piled higher than a small minaret, just waiting for another sucker to come in and get his sugar fix.  How could we not?  So much honey was oozing through everything.  It was dark, the shops were closing, we were fresh off the frozen boat ride, fish sandwiches settling contentedly in our bellies, smiling indulgent as a fat cat in a sun-soaked window, just looking for an excuse to spend our last few Lira.

Dentists Make Bank

Let’s just say that by the time we boarded the last trams heading back to the airport, we had bags full of sugary goodness and silly grins plastered to our faces.  Thank the Lord we didn’t have more Lira, or the Jakarta dentists would be drilling our molars away right now.

I knew Indian sweets are impossibly dense with flavor and dripping sheer bulk of sugar, but from what I’ve seen in Istanbul, Turkey is bent on giving the subcontinent a run for its dessert money.

But all that was after dark, after the sun set green through the clouds still pondering over the city, after cup after cup of chai in the café on the bridge over the Golden Horn, after the illustrious fish sandwich, and of course, after the (shudder) van ride.

It happened as simply and as innocently as I said before—two obvious tourists with a camera strapped around the neck and a map in the hands.  Oh wait, scratch that—I never did get a tourist map.  But we were just commenting yet again about how, since the Bazaar wasn’t running and since the daylight lingered, we ought to catch a cruise.  Just then, in a puff of black smoke and a devilish laugh, a hefty, mustached Turk appeared at our side, brandishing the laminated pictures of tourist cruise stops and smelling of the inferno.

I should have been more suspicious when the price he named was precisely what we’d agreed we were willing to pay.  His fiendish laugh and malevolent twisting of his mustache tips as he cackled and vanished into smoke again should have tipped me off.

Instead, (sigh) we boarded the van.

What’s left to say?  We somehow survived a ten-minute ride just as long and hot and jostling and crowded and confounding and utterly straining as purgatory itself.  If only it were as constructive and refining—if only it led to a glorious promised land instead a seedy row of “cruise boats” looking like Tim Burton’s take on Gilligan.  We boarded and found it already half full—passengers sipping chai and chowing down on falafels.  Naturally, we raced up the ladder for top-deck seats, readied the camera, and promised each other it wouldn’t be so cold after all.  Even the van ride hadn’t conquered our enthusiasm.

But it was cold—utterly and completely so.  No amount of hand-breathing and shoulder shuffling and trying to distract ourselves with the scenes rolling by could keep us warm.  Not Topkapl, not bridges, not bubbling mosque, not smiling tourist portraits could quit that chill from our bones.

From the River

Fortunately for us, the generous captain was in a good mood and decided to take us an extra twenty minutes dodging ice bergs and cruise liners and tourist launches every few meters.  My lady and I took turns—one with the camera and the other warming hands and feet.

The ancient hills of Istanbul, the same ones that overlooked the rise and fall of Rome’s soldiers, the same that ushered Byzantium’s emperors through centuries of glory and decline, the hills that watched over the rising of the Hagia and the world of wonders it ushered to human thought, who wept over blood spilled by the bucket during armored crusades and pestilent nightmare years, who sat stone-faced through Ottoman centuries, brooding over the opulent palaces at water’s edge, contemplating the sultan’s excess and storied harem, as well as the rampant poverty of the shackled people.

Yes, those same storied hills now saw us—two insignificant, shivering tourists on a cheapskate bark.

The city is meant for more than emperors—we, too, took our tiny part in Istanbul’s grand pageant.

On the Bosporus

But what else can we ever do?  Is life not made of moments such as these—moments when we may do nothing more than simply show up and be humbled before the weight and grandeur of millennia past?  When we see ourselves as specks in the great train of history?  What more befalls us than to glory in our life and our motion and our reason the few remaining days its allotted to us, before we too take our place amid the silent multitude in the tomb of the mute earth.

“Ummm.  Are you alright?” Andy asked through chattering teeth.  “You’re getting… weird.”

“Uh, yeah, we better warm up.”

In the end, we were aloft for the first forty minutes, and then decided to nurse our frostbitten remnants back to health below.

Istanbul had another curve for us, though: maybe it was the cold, maybe the rain-wet carpet underfoot and the drizzle overhead and the slick polish of the rungs all combined, maybe we just had to suffer a bit more for such a crazy-good layover, but on our way below deck, in the middle of the ladder down, Andy fell.

She stumbled and crash down the remaining stairs, and sat stunned on the floor.  Bruises on the buttocks would surely ensue.  Thankfully no one decided to do anything rash like ask if she were alright, or apologize for the ill-conceived half-ladder-half-stair, or get a blanket and a place to sit for a trembling lady.  No, thankfully everyone just stared at us with blank faces a few moments and then watched us stoically as we tried to squeeze into the only remaining centimeters of un-cushioned bench alongside a barf-filled sink.

Yes, someone had barfed in the sink.  No, no one had done more than pour water on it.  Alas, the ravages of untested sea-legs.  Alas the weak-stomached passengers without the decency to clean up after making such a mess.

So we rode out the fabled cruise in that fashion.

night fishing

All was not for naught: I did learn a couple things from my trip down the Bosporus.  For one, Istanbul sits atop what has to be the primest spot of real estate on the planet—sensible hills full of sensible homes ring round the majestic, strategic, and fish-filled waters: a natural amphitheater watching the endless circus of skiffs, yachts, schooners, and container vessels scooting here and there, honking as if all were wheeled cars in an enormous parking lot, forever weaving in and out of each other’s wake.  That was cool.

And the other thing is that not all good deals end up meriting the reduced price.  Several times our chugging little party wagon was passed by sleeker, quieter, roomier vessels with European tourists waving and snapping pics from the wide verandas.  Hot chocolate steamed the windows inside their cabins.  Andy and I looked at each other.

“Yeah, we could’ve gone with those,” I said, “but it’s the experience you pay for in this one.”

“The experience of freezing your butt off, then smacking what’s left of it on all the stairs?”  She was holding her nose closed—too close to the clogged sink still.

She’s got a definite knack for sarcasm, this wife of mine.  I like that.

Back ashore, we limped away from the boat and the dock on wobbly legs.  We still had hours left of our layover, but not enough gumption to fill them all up.  Somehow we staggered across the bridge of the Golden Horn to a fish market of the river bank.  There, I partook of the most delicious fish sandwich—served up straight from the Bosporus itself, by a man who looked like he’d eaten a considerable mess of fish sandwiches in his day—and never paused to wash his hands for any of them.


I guess the difference between street food and restaurant food is that with street food, at least you see and are aware that the guy seasoning your sandwich has a cigarette in his other hand and nailbeds slightly blacker than those of a coal miner personally performing a transmission overhaul on a fifty year old tractor.  Oh wait, it was the chef in the cart next to us that was cig-grilling; ours had the nails.  But that man sure could scale a fish, slip the spine from its flanks, and slap it onto a toasted hoagie filled with waiting salad and oil and sautéed veggies.

Fish Sandwich

It was a magical sandwich.

In a restaurant, you miss that experience and have to bother with the business of menus and waiters and tips and hand-washing.

The best moment in the fish market—other than the sandwich, of course?  No doubt, it had to be one of Istanbul’s fluffiest cats sneaking up on a father-son duo angling in the river, stealthily sneaking a fish from their pail and sprinting for shelter.  It was a moment straight from a cartoon—especially when the man noticed too late, turned and gave chase with a fist in the air.  The kitty scampered away to hide with his prize fish in some nearby bushes. I couldn’t help but wait for a few anvils to fall from the sky.  Ah, Istanbul, among your many wonders, may I veritably say that you are the place where cartoons come true?

Cat Thief

Crossing back over the bridge—I don’t know the name, I was too exhausted now, too cold, too sated with the whirlwind windings and roller-coaster emotions to care.  It’s the bridge full of people fishing from the lip up above and sipping chai in cafes below.  We stopped for a few rounds of steaming chai, a chance to upload pics to facebook via their wi-fi, and watch the sunset glow green through the stubborn gray clouds.  I know, right?—it was green.  I trust that on normal days, Istanbul witnesses the customary majesty of yellows and reds and oranges as the day fades. But we just so happened to catch the day of the coming apocalypse or something, and saw it green and incredible as the Hulk himself.

We also were fading fast by now.  Our feet dragged our weary eyes back through the streets.  We sampled baklavas and roasted pistachios.  We shopped souvenirs from hard-bargaining hawkers.  We yawned in and out of shops touting tourist wares—everything from tacky magnets to Aladdin lamps to flying carpets.  The winding streets of the peninsula glowed in the streets’ lights and shops’ neons, lighted now to bring our full bellies and chilled bodies back to the airport.


The hawkers in their crowded shops, the winding streets of Kebabs and baklavas, scarves and rugs, postcards and coasters, the corner vendors wafting the smoke of roasting hazelnuts and almonds to the clouds above, all slowly slipped into the realms of the unmoving night as the tram clacked us back, back to the airport, back to our home.

Sweets Market

What else is left to say?  All airports are variations on the same theme, and exist collectively as a nation of their own.  We were through security (with our extra bag full of snacks) in no time, and passed out for the twelve hour flight even before take-off.

Istanbul, city of centuries and empires, I know you hold many more secrets than a single day allotted us.  I know I need to come to you again, you in all you brawn and shouting, in all your play in Oriental fantasy, in all your living ruins and sudden stream of the new century’s tourists.  But for that moment, it was time for sweet sweet shut-eye as we climbed toward the stars and home’s soothing call.

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