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Exploring Istanbul

Stepping off the boat from Uskadar on the Asian side of the city, our one goal was to find the spice bazaar.  On our glossy pull out map in the back of the Lonely Planet Guide to Istanbul, it seemed as though we would find it if we would just meander through the correct streets.  Then, to get back to the old city or Sultanahmet, we would continue on from the bazaar straight up the hill.  Easy enough.

The first leg was perhaps the most challenging.  We had to scurry through the long underpass that connects the Bosphorus, the waterway that separates Europe from Asia, and the edge of Eminouo. We had done it once before, unaware of the degree to which we would be accosted by Turks trying to sell us everything from batteries to laundry baskets.  We were not prepared for the unrecognizable smells, and the steady flow of foot traffic seemingly going in the opposite direction.  This time however, we knew what was in store, and so, down the steps we went, anticipating the onslaught before us.  Heads down and hands held, we barreled through making no eye contact, and with one mission only, to get to the other side.  We made it of course unscathed, purchased nothing, and said not a word. 

Returning above ground we were in Eminouo, the bustling neighborhood at the far edge of the old city.  Although just barely down the hill, it is a little bit more modern than the Sultanahmet above.  However, as busy and modern as it gets, Istanbul does not lose its Ottoman charm.  Next to buses and taxis zipping past McDonald’s, there sat a group of four old Turks in small wooded chairs around an engraved brass table, sipping tea.  Everywhere you looked there was a similar scene.  Be it the slurpy traditional Turkish coffee, black tea, or the incredibly sweet apple tea, that so many are fond of, the Turks, at least the men, take time to drink and sit around to watch their sprawling ancient city move by.

The noise was incredible until we left the streets passable by vehicles and entered into a different sort of buzz of narrow pedestrian friendly cobblestone.  Each street dictated the next.  We followed the flow until in front of us were arches of marble and beneath them piles of colorful spices.  We had found the spice bazaar.  Pile is actually not the correct shape to describe the displays.  They were more like pyramids of finely ground spices of the riches colors you could imagine.  They were the colors of pure earth, gold, rust, a purple so deep it is almost brown.  And the smells, equally strong, dank, and memorizing.  Next to these pyramids of spices sat blocks of cheese that with each customer were chiseled and scraped with precision.  We wandered around from vendor to vendor just listening, smelling, and watching.  With each turn we followed our instincts, moving in and out of people, letting ourselves be part of the commotion that surrounded us.  Soon it did not feel like commotion, but rather a near effortless flow of life, of people living on the outside.

The street we traveled began to slant slightly up hill, and we knew we were making our final push back to the heart of the old city.  Upward we stepped.  Ahead of us was one street, slightly larger than those we had just been on, but not by much.  People, mostly Turks, traveled in both directions, up and down forming a sea of motion.  The street was lined with shops from bottom to top.  To our amazement, each shop sold just one item.  There was a store front overflowing with zippers, next to it a shop full of mannequin parts, next to that, bed sheets, then nuts and bolts, then more batteries, then blue jeans and so on.  Each one was packed full of its particular product much of which spilled onto the sidewalk and at times into the street.  We continued on and up.  Our senses swarmed still.  Cresting the top of the hill, tired and hot, we sputtered out of the street’s funnel.  Just then the Blue Mosque began to blare its prayer time cry.  Through speakers attached to minarets, crackly voices echoed as Muslims gathered inside.  The twice-daily ritual had become an expected part of our Istanbul vacation, but right now the noise seemed incredibly surreal.  We spun around at the top of the hill near the courtyard outside Istanbul University.  Not knowing where exactly to head next we just watched the February sky as if faded between shades of dark and light.  The voices still cried from the Mosques.  This is Istanbul from the Bosphorus to the Sultanhamut.

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