Bulgaria had been an unexpected trip back to Cyrillic and outward opening doors. The doors were almost as hard to get used to again as the letters. I got about two thirds of the alphabet again before it was time to leave. I was excited about heading home. Catching the bus from Plovdiv to Istanbul for my last stop meant I had caught my last train unawares. I enjoyed the rhythm and noise of the trains, but a real border crossing with customs etc in the middle of the night didn’t appeal.
The bus came complete with screens in the back of the seats and a staff member to deliver bottles of water up and down the aisles. He also checked our ultimate destinations in Istanbul, but it didn’t seem to make any difference when we transferred to the minibuses. I was sat next to a Greek fellow whose kids are about my age. He told me about the economic woes of Greece and how he had set up his business in Turkey because it was too difficult in Greece. I thought he said he was exporting chicken feed, but it was chicken feet. He kept saying “too much” when he meant “a lot”, so I had to keep editing my interpretations.
When we asked where our mini bus was, the bus company man said ten minutes. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and believed him. For ten minutes. It showed up about half an hour later and then didn’t leave until 10. All the other mini buses left at the same time, so maybe he meant it would leave at 10. I don’t think so. The American teachers had said how living and working overseas had helped them realise how American they are. Perhaps this ‘ten minutes’ thing is telling me how Australian I am. Either way, there was facing off between buses, minibuses and taxis when we all tried to leave at the same time. Mini buses fenced with each other to get into the queue first then filed through the biggest bus station I’ve seen, to come out the other side at essentially the same time as each other.
I’m not sure where the three days I had in Istanbul went. The weather went from ordinary to freezing. One last snow fall for a two days was touching of Europe. The wind blasting it into my face was less friendly. I ruled out a cruise on the Bosphorus, grey views and a hike up a hill in sleet didn’t really appeal. I wasn’t in the mood for the baths on my own this time either. I did visit Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya. Once a church and at another time a mosque, now it’s a museum of itself. Marble steps worn down over time. It has a huge open central area under its main dome, and old mosaics which were plastered over at some point to protect them. Now uncovered again, two show emperors with their empresses giving bags of money to Jesus and Mary as representatives of the church. Slightly strange, but still the one I felt most comfortable in because it’s no longer either a church or a mosque. I’d stopped going into the churches in Europe because I felt tacky going in for a gawk while others went in to pray, crossing themselves on the way.
The other museum I went to was the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. The English translations were as difficult as reading a poor year 8 or 9 essay and didn’t really help me understand the pieces on display. There were lots of old copies of the Koran, with intricate calligraphy and decorative patterns. I liked the 500 year old carpets with their wear and tear and the loose broken waft threads stitched to a backing cloth. I wanted to know how long it would have taken to make them and how long it took to wear through them. Another room left me slightly confused. I had the impression that the jars and boxes had or do hold beard hairs of the Prophet Mohammed. And a sandal imprint in dried clay seemed to be labelled as his footprint. If this is the case, I don’t understand how keeping and visiting such relics is any different from representing him in artwork in terms of avoiding idolising the man.
I wandered the spice markets and got some Turkish delight. In the Grand Bazaar, I got my third dinner offer for that evening. This one was so keen he offered to give me one of the rugs he was trying to sell me if I went to dinner with him. That was the clincher. I took the forth option and ate alone. Something like a cross between stewed and stir fried vegetables, roast eggplant with olive oil and mild chilli couscous. The day before I’d tested out some Turkish sweets and coffee. The coffee very thick at the end. Continuing in reverse order, Turkish breakfasts at the hostel included olives, raw red capsicum, cucumber, cheeses, parsley, a hard boiled egg, bread and incongruously enough, cherry jam.
The hostel was off the main pedestrian street in basically a shopping district away from the sightseeing. Arriving on Saturday night, the street was chokers with people and light and music. It reminded me of my first night in London. Men sold roasted corn and chestnuts on three wheel carts. The street an along a ridge, with steep streets dropping away from it. The Greek man on the bus had said he says Istanbul has it all. The mixture of east and west putting it above Paris and the like in his eyes. I’m not sure I’d go that far. Step away from the glitz of the main street, and razor wire tops fences by falling down buildings.
At the bottom end, pedestrians flow over and under the bridge to the other side. I was caught off guard in a subway under a busy road here by shops selling guns beside car radio systems and security surveillance systems. On top of the bridge, along both sides but not in the middle section where the boats go under, men and a woman fished with long rods. They had various rigs to attach their rods to the top rail. Others walked among them selling Turkish tea, the Turkish pretzel simit, hooks and bait. There were fewer each day as the weather deteriorated.
That’s all I have to say about Istanbul at the moment. I’m holed up in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur after the flight from Istanbul was eventually cancelled. Luckily the plane was only half full, and similarly with the other airline’s plane we ended up on hours later. It does leave me wondering about how many flights run so far below capacity that the hostesses are telling passengers to lie across the five empty seats in the middle when they want to go to sleep. That was before we were herded off the first plane while they tried to fix it. Lots of people weren’t happy with the way the delays were handled. A Turkish woman told me that complaining is one of the first things about being Turkish. One fellow said he’d paid good money for his flight and he expected better service, which makes it more about a consumer drive than a dubious national identity. Too bad for them, I wasn’t bothered by it all. Except that I finished my book before we got off the ground. It does seem kind of ironic that the most delayed leg of my entire journey should be a flight. I was incredibly lucky inmaking all my connections until now.
I’m not totally happy that I’ve had to take two flights to get home. On the other hand, in the last seven months I have gone from Singapore to Scotland and then to Turkey via Morocco by bus, train, ferry, and without any flights. I visited so many places and met so many interesting and friendly people. I went kayaking, hill walking, snow shoeing and sledding. I think my favourite single experience was walking in the Swiss Alps and seeing the ice halos, but on the whole, talking with others was the best part. Including of course, my time in the UK with family and their friends. Unlike the American women who realised how American they are, I’m not sure what I’ve learnt about myself along the way, but I feel like I’ve learnt a fair bit about the world and her people and I’ve had a great time along the way. I’m glad I did it the way I wanted to.