My sweat hanky is working over time. I’m dabbin’ my way uphill, getting nowhere. I’ve got the Bosphorus between my shoulder blades and the Marmara pooling in my waistband. My body of water is about to burst its banks.
We’ve eaten nothing all day but soup and dried apricots; add to this a 12 hour bus journey, traffic jam, two mis-directed metropolitan bus rides, and an hour-long ramble uphill in pursuit of a doss-house – we’re shattered. We hope we arrive at Serbia Travel House before the map dissolves in our hands, ashes to ashes, tree pulp to tree pulp.
Two distracted Russians pop up out of nowhere in the darkness to join in our search for the Serbia Travel House. A wholesome dinner and good night’s rest would do the job but there’s no room at the inn – we join 24 bodies on the floor. We’re too tired to feel alarmed by the conditions, or the snaking queue for the toilet. We brush teeth, store our bags and join the pyjama-party-refugee camp on the floor.
The following day when we’re feeling brighter and more responsive we’ll be able to learn about the lives of the other travellers here including the doe-eyed Syrian who is the only genuine refugee. There’s also a couple who have been on the road continuously since 2004 – living on 350Euros a month between them.
The next day over a tahini bun and Turkish coffee it becomes apparent that we’re in no fit state to enjoy this experience… we’re in Istanbul but we’re minus the stamina to enjoy it. We’re minus the will and the inclination too. What to do?
We blame the heat. We blame ourselves. We use the Lonely Planet to stimulate an appetite for exploration, hoping the centrefold photos and suggestive itinerary will be enough to arouse us into action. Maybe some of that Turkish viagra at the spice market would help our cause…
We take a freshly squeezed orange juice instead and find our way to an independent English-language book store. The shop-boy is enthused by the Turkish cookbook I’ve picked up. I have no intention of buying it. “We’re such bad tourists,” Richie whispers. It’s true.
Richie and I spend the next 2 days in Istanbul being really really bad tourists. All our leads come to nothing: the archaeology museum is closed; the boat excursions up the Golden Horn have come to a halt due to ‘renovation’ (of what? The boat? The river? The Golden Horn?) and the Grand Bazaar is closed too. It’s a relief. Except for a visit to Aya Sofia and the Basilica Cistern we eschew the ‘attractions’ and make for shady places where we watch people and scrape our scattered senses into little mounds of dirt that we push around with our toes and fingers. We chew corn, take photos, stop for tea. Dab dab, swipe swipe, the water keeps on coming.
Sultanahmet in the evening smells of diesel fumes, urine and barbecued mackeral. We’ve walked the entire waterfront from Kadirga to Eminonu. The chafe patches that began as Great Britain-sized are now continental. As we walk we’re reminded of the other large cities we’ve visited on this journey: Marrakech, Tangier, Venice, Rome, Athens, Thessaloniki… and the life on the margins. There’s a permaculture principle that applies to city exploration – maximise your edges – it’s where the greatest biodiversity occurs.
We’ve seen things this afternoon that don’t sound like much but which will form the basis of our memories of Istanbul: Ecuadorian ladies selling bracelets on bridges; beachcombers stewing mussels in billy cans; dark eyed adolescents shooting pellets guns at balloons hung out on strings above the rocky foreshore. We’ve watched city workers pouring streams of water from hoses into miles of grass at the foot of the Topkapi Palace walls: “the most pointless job in the world,” is Richie’s surmise. He’d be happier to see them nursing food forests or an assortment of appropriate drought resistant plants.
Best of all, there’s the barrel-chested swimmers that come tearing out of the Golden Horn into the Marmara Sea on a high tide of cigarette butts and flower petals. Their recklessness and enthusiasm heartens me. You’ve got to be joking!
It’s Mumbai all over again… the city is lively and repulsive. Beautiful and unsettling. Why do we keep doing it to ourselves, I wonder? Cities. “Push me, pull you” Richie tells me philosophically. Push me pull you.
The following day we follow the pattern of one tourist attraction followed by an afternoon of rebellious idleness and walking. We spend a good hour chewing cobs of corn while we watch boys bomb-dive a suspect-looking fountain. Water froths out everywhere. The pilgrims enroute to the Blue Mosque are unfazed. I tug my dress as far down past my knees as it will go. Tailored coats and deftly draped head scarves are making me feel underdressed and daggy. These women are extraordinarily beautiful – wide-set eyes and slender figures. Istanbul’s ‘beautiful people’ are among the most refined and glamorous I’ve ever seen. There are young families and muttering drunks, lovers and playboys – all up after hours enjoying drinks and baked potatoes on the waterfront near Ortakoy.
Our two nights at Serbia Travel Club have come to an end. Time to make room for two Russians and a party of 6 French students. Our bus to Plovdiv departs at 11pm. Time to go back and collect our bags. I’m glad I saw Jesus, and Mary and John, Irina and Zoe. Irina means peace, and Zoe life. I hope Istanbul has many years of both. As the bus pulls out we gnaw treasures from the Spice Market. A taste of Istanbul…