Saturday, October 20, 2012

Greetings from Istanbul

Hello from Istanbul (not Constantinople). We arrived at mid-day local time after a ten hour direct flight from Newark. I only slept a couple of hours as sleeping on a plane is very difficult for me, especially in economy class. The first thing we had to do when we arrived at Ataturk International Airport was to stand in line to buy our tourist visa, which cost US$20 cash per person. Then it was on to passport control. While we were waiting, we saw a lot of people wearing white. Turns out they were en route to Mecca.

Turkey is the first country I've ever visited in this region, so seeing the pilgrims was just step one in a very new experience for me. One of the first things I noticed upon exiting the airport was the numerous minarets dotting the hilly landscape. Our driver took us on a route along the Sea of Marmara to our hotel in the Sultanahmet district, and I couldn't help but observe that although only three lanes (sometimes two) were marked on the highways, somehow Turkish drivers find a way to fit five lanes of traffic in them. This was rather amusing to me, especially when our driver took shortcuts through parking lots to get ahead in traffic.

When we arrived at our hotel we were greeted with sincere hospitality. Before any business was discussed, before we were taken to our rooms, we were served tea and told to relax a bit. While we drank tea (which I think was the best tea I've ever tasted), we got to know some of the hotel staff. Our new friend Omar did most of the talking, translating for the others as needed. Omar was pleased to share with us that his mother lives in New Jersey, which paved the way for a sure friendship since both of my co-travelers have lived in that state. When the tea was finished Omar gave us a city map and pointed out places we should plan to visit like the Blue Mosque, Haggia Sofia, and Topkapi Palace, which are just a few blocks away from our hotel. He also recommended other places to go in other areas of the city, and recommended several restaurants and a hamam. I have a feeling I'll be writing a special entry on the latter, since it's one of the things I'm told we must do while in Turkey.

At about 3:55pm local time I heard my first ever call to prayer. All at once it sounded like several dozen muezzins were reciting and even in our hotel room we could hear the echoes from across the city. It's a beautiful sound and it lasted eight or ten minutes, and then there was a quiet in the streets. No traffic sounds. No construction next door. Just quiet.

It's now nearly 5pm and we're waiting for Mike to emerge from his siesta so we can get out there and see something. Hopefully I will have some photos for the next entry. Until then, just know that so far things are going well and we are all really excited to be here!

P.S. I'm writing this quickly without edits in order to make good use of my wifi time, so please forgive any errors!