Live and Learn

After experiencing the squalor and beauty of Cairo, we continued our holiday in another historically significant, but much more sanitary, center of Islam: Istanbul.

Our flight out of Cairo was about what we had come to expect. Unorganized lines and procedures that aren’t really explained, followed by long queues and lingering mix of powerful body odors masked by even more overpowering oil based perfumes. The terminal our flight left from was fairly nice, but the small number of bars and the horrible quality of service meant a wait that felt much longer than necessary. The flight was relatively uneventful, although there was a very interesting older Egyptian gentleman who felt inclined to disregard most of the rules (including trying to smoke) and eventually passed out lying with his feet in the aisle. He was travelling with a bottle of what looked like booze and a dozen or more cartons of cigarettes in his plastic bag carry on and nothing else. We didn’t see him again after passing through passport control.

Landing in Istanbul was quite refreshing. It was still early spring, with bare trees and patches of brown in the fields and forests surrounding the city, but everything else was shaded in various hues of green. Having seen nothing but sandy shades of tan for the past 6 months, it was a nice change of pace. The weather was relatively beautiful, a chilly 55 degrees with a light breeze and a fine mist, but it felt wonderful to experience natural coldness and dust-free air. We collected our baggage and hailed a cab, not having to physically push anyone away or having to haggle, then set out for our hotel. Twenty minutes later we arrived. There were no horns, no bumps or scrapes, no irrational lane changes, no death grips on door handles. I paid the driver what the meter read, tipped him without him demanding it, and it was finished. I was perfectly content with my experience at that point, and was almost willing to end my holiday early for fear of everything suddenly going to hell.

Thankfully my fears weren’t realized.

 The Bosphorus. Europe on the left, Asia on the right.

We spent the next nine days seeing as much of Istanbul and the surrounding areas as we could. In some ways, it was a bit too long to stay in just one place and it would have been wise to have planned a few side trips to help pass the time, but it was nice to spend time lounging around, sleeping in, and generally not having to worrying about anything.

One of the many Bazaars near the Blue Mosque

Istanbul is very much a European city, with winding cobblestone streets, pleasant little sidewalk cafes, and plenty of hole-in-the-wall pubs almost everywhere you expect them to be. Despite the cold, rain, and walking up the many hills, I very much enjoyed the atmosphere and cultural attitude of the city.

The Hagia Sophia, a 2000 year old Byzantine church, later turned 
into an Ottoman mosque, now a secular museum.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

It was much easier walking around conducting self-guided tours of the many famous mosques and markets than it had been in Cairo, much to our relief, especially for the Paki. He joined us at the hotel shortly after we arrived and was very relieved to find everything was much better than the experiences and accommodation Girl had emailed to him about Cairo. It was also relieving for myself and Girl because the Paki is not a very adept traveler, talks non-stop about anything and everything, and becomes very fussy when things don’t meet his standards. It was awkward being a third wheel for nine straight days, mostly because it was like being a parent to two easily distractible overly keen toddlers with cell phones. Because of their fascination with each other and their cell phones, and mostly because they never once looked at a map or read any sort of travel guide, I planned all our activities and did anything I felt like doing. They followed me wherever I went, and after they realized it didn’t matter how much they complained they were stuck in this situation for the remainder of the trip they started enjoying the random places I brought them.

The Blue Mosque

The city and its surrounding areas are an interesting mix of unexpected geographic features, and the long and complicated religious and social history of its people make it a very fascinating place. Overlooking the Bosphorus, it’s easy to imagine any number of different times from its past, or to sit and wonder how drastically things have changed over the thousands of years it fostered civilization.

The "Little Hagia Sophia" another Bzyantine church turned into 
a mosque, tucked into the neighborhood surrounding our hotel.

The best part of Istanbul, based on my woefully inadequate but very specific experience as a world traveler, was being able to sit alongside the sidewalk outside a pub or cafĂ©, enjoy a beverage, and watch the day go by. I don’t like the bustle or awkwardness of touristy things, but I do like to experience a culture in ways that help me understand it and enjoy my time there. Most of the famous sites in any city require putting on a tourist cap, but Istanbul was an easy place to do so in a way that didn’t make me feel like an idiot.

The Marmara Sea, a two minute walk from our hotel.

The last night of our stay in Istanbul, I went down to the narghileh (sheesha or hookah) bar we had been frequenting. I left Girl and the Paki at the hotel. I wanted some time to myself after 14 days of constant interaction, but it also wasn’t even 9pm and they were both sound asleep. I greeted the Lebanese waiter in Arabic and told him I’d be going to the third floor. He brought me a cappuccino flavored sheesha and two beers a few minutes later, already well aware of what I would have ordered. I sat by the window overlooking the array of fish restaurants and kebob stands and passed the time listening to the Turkish soap operas on the TV at the other end of the room. For most of that day I had been preoccupied thinking about everything that I wished I would have done over my holiday, and steadily grew frustrated that I would have to settle with the choices I had made. I was also dreading going back to Saudi, a long break-less stretch of school, and the ever increasing temperatures. I didn’t have any profound realizations while I sat there, but after a few hours feeling sorry for myself I realized I was being ridiculous. Here I was on a vacation I never would have dreamed I’d be taking less than a year ago, and as far from perfect as my life in Saudi is, it’s ended up being a much more valuable experience than anyone could have anticipated. I spent some time thinking about what my life would be like if I hadn’t made this decision, knowing that there are far more people living in worse places, with unfulfilling jobs, and limited opportunities.

As with everything, there are pros and cons. I’ve spent most of my life thinking about the cons, wishing I could do something with whatever problem I stumbled into. It’s a tough habit to break. Travelling has helped change that in many ways, and I’m finally at a point in life where I can choose to focus on the positives and enjoy myself. I may still make a dumb decision from time to time (or a lot of the time), but at least now I’m learning from them instead of just complaining about it.