MHS student visits Istanbul, Turkey

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Photo by Hannah Prensky

The Hagia Sofia stands tall and mighty in the center of Turkey’s most prominent city.

By Hannah Prensky, Round Table news editor and reporter

The city in Turkey that lies on the Bosphorus Strait between Europe and Asia has had many names over the ages. First it was Lygos, then it was Byzantium and later it was Constantinople. Now, this beautiful city is known as Istanbul.

This past summer, I spent two weeks in Bucharest, Romania with my family. One night, my dad and my uncle were conspiring in secret and they made a plan to visit Istanbul… for one day.

The original plan would include my dad, my older sister, my cousin and me. However since my cousin, Maria, is a Romanian citizen, national laws prevented her from leaving the country without a parent. So to solve the problem that had no other way around it, we included my uncle.

On a silent Saturday morning at 3:30am, I woke up in my hotel room and prepared for the adventure ahead. My first stop was breakfast but I was disappointed to find that there was no food anywhere in the hotel to be found. I had forgotten how early it was.

I got dressed in long pants. Even though temperatures would range in the upper 80s, I knew we would be visiting several mosques. A few years ago when I visited Vatican City, I made the mistake of wearing shorts and I was not allowed in St. Peter’s Basilica; I had to wait outside. (In my defense, it was 93 degrees outside and I probably would have had a heatstroke if I were wearing jeans.)

My dad, sister and I crept out of the hotel and got into a cab. This would be the first of many exciting cab rides of the day. Even though we’ve been to Romania many times and my dad used to live there, our cab driver thought that since we were Americans heading to the airport we were completely foreign to the area. He drove us all over the city before heading even remotely toward the airport.

When we realized that we were NOT going in the right direction, my dad started arguing with him saying that he’d refuse to pay the extra fare that the driver piled on with our little tour around Bucharest. Upon arriving to the airport, my dad threw him a small bill and got out of the car.

We met my uncle, Dragoș, and Maria at the airport at 4:30am and since we didn’t have any bags to check we were on our way. There was just one little problem, our passports.

My sister and I are dual citizens of USA and Romania. When we travel to Europe, we use our Romanian passports. When we go back home, we use our American passports. It’s easier this way because we don’t have to stand in hopelessly long foreign customs lines wherever we are going.

The problem lied in our stamps. Our American stamps didn’t have any record of entering Romania. It did however have record of us LEAVING Romania last year.

“Have you travelled more than 90 days in the past 180 days?” the passport officer asked us.

“No we have not.”

“According to your passport you left Romania in 2014, but you didn’t come back. You don’t have an entrance stamp,” the man told us.

That didn’t quite occur to us, but luckily we got through to the terminal when the guy decided he was too tired to ask any more questions.

The first thing I thought was “food!” The second thing I thought was “Wi-Fi!” Unfortunately I didn’t get either of those things because our plane was about to board and we had to get to the gate.

The flight was only an hour and a half but since my anticipation and excitement was so high, it felt like forever. We landed in Istanbul at 7:30 and at 8:30 we were about to have our second exciting cab ride of the day.

The five of us piled in a little car with 4 people sharing the back. It was a wild ride. We wanted to go to Eminönü, which is a port on the Bosphorus where you can take a boat ride to Asia. The cab driver was recommending other places where he’d drop us off instead of just taking us to where we wanted to be. He was partly negotiating with us and partly trying to convince us to go to a different part of the city- a part farther away from the airport which means more money for him.

Miraculously, we did end up in Eminönü. We immediately bought boat tickets because we had no time to dilly dally. Right away we got on the boat and we were on our way to Asia for my first time ever.

The five minutes we spent in Asia was surely memorable. We achieved so much and did so many things. It was great. (Actually, we just got off the boat, looked around, saw nothing remotely interesting, and got back on the boat. I did get some cool Instagram pictures though.)

With one attraction accomplished, we were on our way to the next one, the Topkapı Palace. We walked through some beautiful gardens to get there but the journey was quite a long one. We made several wrong turns, and we ended up walking for ages.

The palace had many lovely rooms full of Ottoman jewelry, clocks, armor, and other treasures to admire. Everything was very beautiful, including the view from the balcony. You could see two continents from the top.

After we finished at the Topkapı Palace, all five of us were getting pretty tired and hungry. We decided that our next stop would be a nice Turkish restaurant.

A few steps away from the stunning Hagia Sophia, we settled down outside in a little restaurant under the warm Turkish sun. I ordered a mezze platter which consisted of pita bread and small portions of six different spreads. It was interesting to me to see how Istanbul has such a wide range of foods. It’s a perfect blend of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian cuisine.

While we were eating, we noticed the streets started to clear out. It was getting much less crowded. All of a sudden, we heard a noise. My sister got very excited because she knew exactly what it was.

“Hey! I learned about this in school. It’s the call to prayer.” she said.

Muslims pray five times a day, and since Istanbul is a primarily Muslim city, the call to prayer is sounded for everyone to hear to remind them to pray. It was very interesting to hear and experience.

After my meal, I was very ready to take a nap. I needed a pick-me-up. Luckily, I was in the perfect place for one! For dessert, I ordered a cup of Turkish coffee, and of course, baklava. You cannot go to Turkey without getting baklava.

Now, Turkish coffee comes in very, very, very small cups. They’re smaller than espresso cups. The coffee is dark, strong, and served with grounds in it. When you finish drinking it, you can look in the cup and see all the grounds settled at the bottom of the cup. Wow! It sure woke me up! I was ready to face the rest of the day.

We were really hoping on visiting the Blue Mosque after lunch. We were right around the corner from it and we were all very excited. The Blue Mosque is the first of only two mosques in all of Turkey with six minarets. Most other mosques have only four. While we walked toward the mosque, we were in awe of its beauty. We could hardly wait to see it from the inside.

But then, somebody stopped us. He asked us if we were going to the Blue Mosque and we said yes. Well… it turns out the mosque was closed. Remember the call to prayer that sounded while we were eating? Since it was Ramadan when we were visiting, (a major Islamic holiday that lasts about a month) the mosque was closed for prayer. The mosques in Istanbul close five times a day for an hour when it is time to pray.

The five of us were disappointed, but there was still plenty to do in Istanbul! Right across from the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia. I was so amazed to be in the presence of such a fantastic structure. I remember learning about the Hagia Sophia in 7th grade, and now I was here. My 7th grade self never would have thought I would be standing right outside such an important, beautiful, historic monument.

The Hagia Sophia was declared by the Turkish government to be secular, which is why it was open instead of closing for prayer.

The interior of the museum was just as magnificent on the inside as it was on the outside. I spent lots of time admiring the detailed ceilings, stained glass, and architecture. The fact that the Ottomans were able to accomplish building the mosque 1478 years ago really proved how brilliant they were. They were worlds ahead of other empires during that time. It was crazy to think about the how much history I was surrounded by. Constantine walked exactly where I was walking. All these thoughts rushing through my head were very overwhelming but they really made me appreciate the opportunity to visit the Hagia Sophia.

When everyone agreed that we were done and ready to move on, the Blue Mosque was back open. To our despair, we did not have time to go visit. Even though we were looking forward to the Blue Mosque, we were looking forward to the Grand Bazaar even more; however, the Grand Bazaar had a closing time and we had no time to waste.

We didn’t get to visit the Blue Mosque but in the words of my mother, “you always have to save something for next time.”

The Grand Bazaar is a massive covered market in Istanbul which engulfs 61 streets and contains over 3,000 shops. With more than 91 million visitors a year (250,000-400,000 per day), it is the most visited tourist attraction in the world. That’s right, the most visited attraction in the whole world. It attracts more visitors than the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, or the Great Wall of China. That fact blew me away.

With only a few short hours left in the day, we rushed to the Grand Bazaar. Leading up to this excursion, I received a lot of advice about how to act and what to do in the Grand Bazaar. I probably got more advice about the Grand Bazaar than anything else in my whole life.

Negotiation is a game; you must play it correctly. You have to act cool, confident, carefree, and basically just bored. If you see something you really like, you’re not supposed to act excited about it. Don’t act excited about anything because the vendors will be able to tell that you really want the item and they will raise the price through the roof.

At the Grand Bazaar, you can buy pretty much anything you want. There’s so much to buy that I didn’t even know what I wanted! I was on a mission, however. I really wanted to get a genie lamp because I don’t know another place where you could get one of those, especially an authentic one. The lamps were everywhere. They came in all sorts of shapes, sizes, styles and colors. It was hard to choose, they were everywhere.

In the end, I found the perfect one for myself and another one to give to my boyfriend. As I continued looking around, I noticed that apple tea glasses were on sale at almost every shop. The apple tea in Istanbul is to die for! It’s everything you want in life. It’s the perfect mixture of sweet and sour and it’s unlike any other tea I have had. (I am very tea-savvy.) I knew I had to get a set. I found a perfect box which contained three glasses; one for me, one for my boyfriend, and one for my best friend, Emma. It was so hard to contain my excitement.

I negotiated with the generous vendor for quite some time. Every time I gave a reason why I wanted the price lowered, he’d prove his product to be the best. For example, I told him that all I had with me was a backpack and the glasses would have to survive not only the plane ride to Bucharest, but also the plane ride back home to America. He laughed at my concern.

In one brisk movement, he grabbed a tea glass off his shelf and threw it on the stone ground. I was so startled that I think I may have screamed. The man picked the glass up off the ground and continued to pound it against the floor. It didn’t break. It didn’t even scratch! Right when I thought he was done proving his point, the short, stout man put the glass down and stood on top of it. He put all of his weight on the little thing and it still didn’t break whatsoever. Ok, so I was definitely proven wrong. I bought the set of three cups for 30 Turkish Lira (slightly below the set price), which was about $9.75. I was very proud of my purchase.

Maria and I reconvened after a little while, she was making out like a bandit! She had arms full of souvenirs for which she paid a pittance. My cousin is Eastern European, she’s from Romania. The Turks weren’t even going to try ripping other Eastern Europeans off because they know it’s no use. However, like my dad says, “America is the land of money.” They know they can get more money out of us, so they raise their prices and they don’t negotiate as easily. They know the game and they know how to play it.

It was getting late, the Grand Bazaar was about to close, and we needed to get to a restaurant. Tired and carrying full backpacks, we trudged up cute cobblestone streets to find a place to relax. It started to cool down outside which was a very nice and refreshing feeling, especially after I was sweating in my jeans all day long.

We sat down at an outdoor table right in the middle of all of Istanbul’s hustle and bustle. We were surrounded by little boutiques and we had a nice view of the side of the Blue Mosque. Our dinner experience was much different than our lunch experience. Lunch was relaxing, quiet and chill. This was mostly because the restaurant wasn’t crowded and neither were the streets. However during dinner, swarms of people surrounded us. The whole population of Istanbul was out and about. It was so crowded that we saw people walking in the streets next to the cars; there was no more room on the sidewalks.

The good news was that we were not actually in the crowd; we were just observing the crowd. It wasn’t until we finished eating when we realized just how many people were out. Where did they all come from? What were they doing? Where were they going?

When we finished eating dinner, it took us 45 minutes to find a cab and when we finally did it was absolute madness. This was the third exciting cab ride of the day. This car was the smallest one yet, but we still had to fit five people.

When we were in the cab we asked the driver why there were so many people on the streets. He reminded us that it is Ramadan. We completely forgot about that. During Ramadan, you cannot eat during the day; you can only eat when the sun goes down. Because of this, everybody goes out to eat as soon as they can and then the streets get very crowded. We saw what it was really like to be in a city a population of 14 million.

The streets were packed with people and it was difficult to get around them. Cars were everywhere yet nowhere where they were supposed to be. The only way around the various obstacles in the street was to carefully maneuver around them. In the eyes of our cab driver, this meant ignoring all the rules of the road. He put his blinkers on and turned down a sketchy little street. I must admit, I was a little scared. My dad turned around to look out the window and saw a sign in the road.

“Doesn’t that sign mean one-way?” he asked, “we’re going the wrong way!”

“Yes but I have my blinkers on so it’s ok,” the cab driver said nonchalantly.

I was terrified at this point. I was just praying that a car wouldn’t come in the opposite direction. Luckily there was nobody else sharing our alley. We approached a section in the road that looked like a wheel. It was a five-way intersection and there were absolutely zero signs. Tons of cars were just going right through the intersection without slowing down, stopping, or looking back.

“You just have to be confident and aggressive and hope it works out,” the driver told us very matter-of-factly.

As we went through the intersection, my sister next to me started cackling. She was laughing so hard that she was out of breath so instead of telling us what was so funny, she just gestured out the window. My attention was immediately directed to a young man in a bright orange vest. The traffic director. He was standing against a building off to the side and he was looking at his phone. He clearly had a very long day and it looked like he had just given up and stopped trying. It was too funny.

When we got to the airport, things got confusing. The driver decided that he didn’t want to speak English anymore. He dropped us off in some random spot nowhere near where we needed to be and then he started rushing us out. He seemed to be in a gigantic hurry. He showed my dad the fare and then as my dad was handing him bills he started to hide them. The driver was trying to scam us by stealing our money. Unfortunately for him, nothing gets past my dad. 20 years ago, this happened to him in Rome. He handed the Italian cab driver a bill who quickly swapped it out for a different, smaller bill when he wasn’t looking.

“You gave me a 1, I need 100,” the cab driver would say.

This is an easy way to steal from your passengers. But now, my dad was smarter than that. He saw our cab driver try to hide a bill and he immediately called him out. The cab driver had such a pathetic, guilty look on his face. Underneath the anger, my dad was beaming with pride. In case you were wondering, the cab driver did not get a tip.

Our flight to Bucharest took off at 10:55pm and landed at about midnight. I slept through the whole thing and even slept through the cab ride back to the hotel. Was this cab ride exciting too? Of course it was. As it turned out, we got into an illegal cab. The man didn’t have a meter or even a license to part at the airport. He ended up charging us 16 times what we were supposed to pay.

“On our way to the airport this morning the price was 25 lei, now you’re asking me to pay 400?”

The cab driver was very confused. “You flew out of Bucharest this morning and now you’re back?” he asked. My dad had no time or patience to explain. The man was about to charge us the equivalent of $100 on a 30 minute cab ride.

He also didn’t realize that we’ve been in Bucharest for the past two weeks and we know how cabs work there. After demanding a receipt and asking for a license, the cab driver apologized, gave us a huge discount and then drove away very quickly. The discount wasn’t big enough though. We were still scammed.

My dad was a little upset that he had to pay so much, but we were all pretty glad to be back at the hotel. Spending 14 hours in Istanbul was a real treat. It was a day I will remember for the rest of my life.

My favorite part about visiting Turkey was being completely immersed in such a different culture. When you go to Eastern Europe, there are a few differences about how people live their everyday lives but in Istanbul things are completely different. It’s interesting to see how the Muslim population of Istanbul went about their day and how they celebrated Ramadan. I really liked going for just one day because it really motivated us to do the most we could. Sometimes when we go on vacation we spend a lot of time doing nothing. While I do think it is important to relax every once in a while, I also think it is important to be making the most of being in a new place.

We definitely made the most of Istanbul.