Sunday, September 2, 2012

Tales of a city between two worlds

Song of the week: White Coats – Foxes

Notable Mention: Safar Barlik’s EP

Here I am, in a soft and warm double bed in the Landmark Amman hotel, looking out the window to sand-colored buildings and passing cars as I try to recover myself from two sleepless nights of airplane travel and a packed 19 hours exploring as much of Istanbul as possible. It really takes it out of you. Bottom line, though, I AM IN AMMAN!

I’ll relate my eventful journey from the beginning. My first Turkish Air flight, from Stockholm to Istanbul, was slightly delayed, leaving at 1am. Right when I sat down in my seat, the man in the aisle across from me pretended his seatbelt was broken and promptly moved to the empty seat next to me. A tired-looking Turkish woman occupied the other seat next to me. During the flight the man sitting next to me, who writes Turkish novels about UFO sightings, tried to convince me UFOs were real (he even showed me an image of one on his phone – I am still not convinced) and taught me how to ask for coffee in Turkish. About 2/3 into our time in the air, the man next to me and I realized that the old woman next to me was white as a sheet, and when I moved past her to use the restroom she didn’t move. The cabin crew tried to revive the poor woman and moved her over to business class, muttering in Turkish with a mix of worry and panic on their faces. I was just thinking how sad it would be to die on a plane. Fortunately she didn’t die. Apparently her blood sugar was alarmingly low but could be saved with emergency medical assistance upon landing. It definitely made my first Turkish Air flight memorable.

In Istanbul Ataturk Airport it’s impossible to get internet access and in order to use the payphones you need to get a calling card from the post office. Fortunately, some friendly Turkish travel agents let me use their cell phone to call the couchsurfer meeting me at the airport. I stored my luggage in the airport for 15 TKY, and soon enough I was riding on the Sultan Mehmet Bridge across the Bosphorus I had studied so much in my history books, passing from one continent to another ever so nonchalantly. Over on the Asian side, in Üsküdar, an enormous stray dog decided to stalk me, and at breakfast overlooking the glittering blue Bosphorus a dignified-looking cat liked to pat me gently with her paws (I eventually gave her some of my Borek). I already had admirers in Istanbul.

After Breakfast we headed over to the European side again, this time on the incredibly modern and efficient Istanbul subway. We walked through the tourist hub of Taksim and climbed up the recently renovated but centuries old Galata Tower where one of the first successful aviators in history, Hazarfen, flew across the Bosphorus to Üsküdar in self-made wings in 1630. Of course, the sultan saw such talent as a threat to his throne, and promptly exiled this clever man to Algeria. The views were amazing, definitely worth the 12 TKY.

We then took a tram across the Bosphorus to Sultanahmet, the old city, home to such wonders as the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar. I only had time for the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, which were both stunning, especially the Mosque. In the Grand Bazaar (which actually translates to the Closed Bazaar in Turkish) I successfully won a bidding war, getting a silk and cashmere scarf made in Turkey for half the asking price. Negotiating a bargain always makes me feel great!

After that I said good bye to the couchsurfer who showed me around in the morning and took a taxi to Ortaköy, where I explored the neighborhood weekend street bazaar. I had a relaxing afternoon talking with another couchsurfer at a popular student café overlooking the brilliantly blue Bosphorus. Afterwards he showed me his neighborhood. I tried Turkish hamburgers, which were much more tasty than American ones thanks to a perfect selection of spices, and drank Ayran, a popular Turkish beverage consisting of yogurt mixed with cold water. I was invited into the couchsurfer’s apartment where I shared music and stories with him and his cousin. I then returned to Taksim to meet the first couchsurfer where we had Turkish coffee, Sultanahmet meatballs, and Tavuk göğsü, a Turkish dessert pudding made with milk and chicken of all things. Everything was delicious, and I couldn’t even taste the chicken in the pudding, even though the gummy consistency was very strange to me.

The couchsurfer kindly drove me back to the airport, since my body was quickly crashing after so much action and I could barely keep my eyes open. I owe a big thank you to both couchsurfers I met, who were beyond generous with their time and help, and showed me more of Istanbul than I ever thought possible in 19 hours.

Over such a short time, my main impression from Istanbul was the conflicting East-West images that the city’s residents constantly have to deal with. Above all, the tourism industry is projecting false stereotypes of the city by advertising bellydancing and water pipes, when neither of these things is particularly Turkish. I found that the city was a delicious combination of European infrastructure, Eastern traditions, world history and Turkish pride. I already have a list of things I want to see and do when I go back.

On the short flight to Amman I met an Iraqi and a Palestinian who also had connections to Sweden. We had our own, very multilingual row where we smoothly switched between English, Swedish, and Arabic as we discussed, among other things, Spanish football and old Arabic poetry. After a very clumsy landing in Amman and a long wait for luggage, which made a wonderful little pyramid at this one sharp turn on the luggage belt, I said good bye to my new friends and joined the CIEE crew. By now, bubbling excitement had replaced my exhaustion. At the Landmark Hotel the incredibly kind manager gave me a double room overlooking the pool all to myself – an unexpected luxury that I especially appreciate this calm and quiet late morning. In a few days I will tell you of my first impressions of Amman. MY DREAM CAME TRUE! I AM LIVING AND LEARNING IN JORDAN!

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