Istanbul Again

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A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. ~Lao Tzu

We last left our hero by The Black Sea at Karasu, in an Internet café drinking tea and composing a big “Thank You” blog post…

Karasu and the next seaside resort, Akçakoca, were both larger than I expected but still idyllic; at both I found inexpensive lodging with a view of the sea. The locals were busy preparing for the upcoming season, and the early bird tourists were mostly Turkish.

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The Guys. These fellows took me into their closed restaurant and sat me at the employee table. We had a party for an hour. They sent me away full of food and beer and stories in Turkish. Refused my dough. A hell of a crew.

Lounging around resort towns with time on my hands, I began to feel impatient; I wasn’t getting any closer to Hong Kong. Eventually the map and calendar told me to start looping back toward Istanbul. And even though it was just a loop, heading west took some snap out of my legs.

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I left the coast and climbed into the mountains; nothing too strenuous, a couple of hours on a well-graded highway. Once I was up there the climbs were short and the towns and cities were surprisingly big. Between them were beautiful dark green mountain sides, with the occasional farm, farm village, roadside fruit vendor, cows and sheep and orchards. The cities inland are a bit gritty and depressed. Düzce, destroyed by two earthquakes in 1999, was still only half rebuilt. Everywhere were outdoor tables of men, presumably unemployed, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Lots of men. I sometimes joined them. Sometimes the tea is good. When it gets too strong and bitter they just dilute it with hot water.

One night I stayed in a regular hotel. It rained hard during the night but let up in the morning. Then during breakfast it started up again, a steady rain with light wind. I hung around until 11:00, but by then it was established. It’s one thing to be caught in a rain shower, but it’s a whole different thing to be in where it’s warm and dry, and then decide to go out in it. But I suited up and put the mandolin in its dry bag. Down the road I went. Keeping my stuff dry is no problem, but keeping my self dry is a challenge. If I dress just right, and the road is flat, I can adjust my speed to be warm enough but not overheat. But in the mountains it’s nearly impossible. I’m sweating on the uphills and freezing on the downhills whether I wear rain gear or not.

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Good Kids

Lunchtime that day found me in the shelter of a rural hilltop bus stop eating yoghurt and cookies. Along comes a bunch of teens all dressed up. They tried out their minimal English, got all excited, and invited me to their party. It was in a school nearby, with about 30 kids and two teachers. I played mandolin, sang, danced, posed for pictures, ate party food. Then, back out into the rain.

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Future Bluegrass Star

By the time I got to Hendek I was pretty wet. My bike was filthy from the dirty roads and construction zones. I tried the first place I saw, a run-down truck stop. The price was right, 10 Turkish lira, $5.41, and the people were friendly, but it was the dirtiest room I ever had. The linens were OK, patched, clean enough, but he floor and table were disgustingly grimy, and the room smelled like a lifetime of cigarettes. A bare bulb with a filthy string, and an outlet with burn marks on the wall around it completed the amenities. Down the hall, past overflowing trash cans; two stinky pit toilets and two cold-water sinks, shared with a dozen men. One primitive shower. No towels or toilet paper.

Out my window was a wild-looking young Kurdish man pressure-washing his vintage Volvo “Globetrotter” tractor trailer rig. I brought my bike over and, with a look and a nod, he indicated where to lean it. In one minute he saved me a half-hour of work, and he expertly avoided the bearings, too. I learned he was Kurdish when we had tea later, terrible awful tea, at a table in the hallway. Two other Kurds joined us, unemployed seamen. Seamen always know a few words of English. The few Kurds I’ve met are different from other Turkish men. They make up 20% of the population here. Thank a Turkish man (there are several kinds in addition to Kurds) and he will smile and nod, almost a bow, and put his hand on his chest, the gesture for “you’re welcome”. These fellows ignored thanks, and maintained a stiff posture and gruff manner. My invitation was, “Chai!” (in a bark, not a question) and a chair kicked in my direction. Shaking hands was a show of strength. They glared at each other when they spoke, only softening their faces a little when addressing me. They responded to joking with their teeth clenched, laughing mostly with their eyes. They sat stiffly upright with their chins up and a dismissive scowl. Body language to match. Yet they wanted to know about me: my age, was I married, about kids, job, sports, if I had a gun, a motorcycle, a pickup truck. They answered my questions, told me about their jobs and cars, homes and soccer teams, and they warned me not to argue with the old woman downstairs. I liked them.

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Mehmet

Aahh, next day was good; sun in the morning, clouds later, tailwind. Closer to Istanbul now, 90 miles, and the cities are bigger and closer together. I chose a main road and it was like an interstate highway for the most part, exit ramps and overpasses, heavy traffic, but with cross roads and fruit stands and bus stops here and there, and often a parallel road with frequent access. It’s not like stateside, where a road is either/or. I’m used to it now, but it’s still wildly dangerous out there on a bicycle. With the tailwind and general downhill as I approach the sea, it was fast riding. It’s like a video game; I’m always swinging my head around to monitor traffic, furiously pedaling and operating the controls whili I try to merge with the chaotic traffic. One second I have a wide, smooth shoulder, the next I’m squeezed between speeding trucks and a rusty, jagged guard rail, with gravelly ruts to steer through.

I had a flat tire, only my second one; a piece of stainless steel wire as stiff and fine as a sewing needle. Then I hit an industrial area. By the time I found a hotel it was almost dark, but just in time. As I got out of the shower a huge thunderstorm shook the town, Gölcük.

It’s a nice town, on a branch of the Sea of Marmara. I went out later and ate, met some folks, played jump rope with some kids. I met a guy who was celebrating his win in the regional trap shooting championships; he showed me his big first place trophy and medal. I showed him the photo of my son Tim with the black bear he shot a few years back, and he said, “Mossberg. Good!” Then he opened his case and showed me his Beretta 12-gauge trap gun, a beautiful thing. Said he never shot an animal.

Back at the hotel I found my tire flat again. Awww. Maybe my patch didn’t hold. But actually it turned out to be a piece of glass ten inches from the patch. One flat in five months, then two more within one day. What are the odds?

I stayed another night there because it was cheap, had good Internet, and rain was forecast. I washed clothes and fixed my flat. In the afternoon another big storm knocked the power out for a few hours.

The hotel was downtown, next to a mosque. Five times a day the call to prayer is blasted from loudspeakers right outside my fourth-floor window. First time is 4:30AM. The wailing song goes on for five minutes.

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Thirty seaside miles brought me to Yalova, where a three-hour ferry ride to Istanbul departs. I passed a lot of tempting food joints and picnic spots, but pushed on. I wanted to learn the ferry schedule first, relax later. As it turned out, I arrived at the ferry terminal minutes before departure. With decent food on board, it was a delightful crossing that put me back in familiar territory, downtown Istanbul.

I biked over to the Old Town neighborhood I had stayed in two weeks earlier. My previous hostel was full, but there are hundreds more hotels, hostels, B&Bs, guest houses, apartments and boarding houses in this part of Istanbul.

In my first post from Istanbul I mentioned the silver-tongued rug merchants and maitres-de who stand outside enthusiastically charming tourists into showrooms and tables. The method really is effective. As one told me, “They are going to eat somewhere, right? I bring in fifty customers a day this way. My boss loves it, and pays me well. It’s hard work”

One such fellow, Jamal, remembered me from two weeks earlier. Our exchange had gone something like this:

“Hello, sir! Where are you from? You must be hungry from pedaling that heavy bicycle. Please, sit here. I will park your bike and watch it like an eagle! You like cold beer?”

“No thanks. Nice place, though. How’s business?”

“Not good because you don’t eat here. If you eat here the people walking by will see you and say, ‘Oh, this handsome American man eats here—must be good—I will eat here, too!’ And all of my problems will go away! Do you like inside table or outside table?”

I liked his style, so I played along, “I am just a humble bicycle man, and can’t afford to eat and drink in a fine and expensive a place such as yours. My clothes and dirty bike don’t fit with the elegant china and linen. Besides, I buy two beers at the grocery instead of one beer here!”

It went on for a while and Jamal won when I had a draft beer for $3. I couldn’t argue the facts: it was colder and better than grocery store beer, and the table on the busy street provided excellent people-watching. And Jamal was a treasure house of information. The stone-paved intersection of three narrow streets where he presided saw a very few taxis and delivery trucks, and was quite busy with pedestrians until after midnight each night during the 8-to-9 month season. Jamal, 28, took over the restaurant from an aging uncle last year. Four and a half employees. Competition is fierce: few restaurants are full.

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Jamal, AKA Jackson

The intersection is a few hundred meters from busy Kennedy Drive, a fine seaside park, many historic Roman-era ruins, attraction number one the Blue Mosque, the incredible Grand Bazaar, and many more attractions. It’s an area dense with tourist facilities, ranging from world class to hazardous, thronged with people all day long. Jamal grew up on this corner, which includes a grocery, a dive hotel, a tiny jewelry retailer and nearby another, bigger restaurant.

Now two weeks later, Jamal welcomed me like an old friend. Like all good hustlers, he remembered. Of course he had a place for me. The dive hotel: ugly outside with no sign, eight rooms, clean and nice enough but old and worn. I couldn’t afford it, we bargained, and I still couldn’t afford it. I actually had to get on my bike and click into my pedals before they believed I was leaving. Then they came down in price and practically dragged me and my bike back into the courtyard. For three dollars per night more than the dorm at the hostel, I had a private double room with a kitchenette, and good bike security, in a great location. Strong wi-fi, too. The three guys who own the Place are dear sweet men, bachelor brothers, third generation owners of a run-down hotel on a million-dollar piece of real estate. It’s always full. Celal is a policeman, the other brothers also work other jobs, and they cover the front desk, such as it is, an office crowded with luggage and boxes and my bike. A great breakfast is served on the roof, with a view of the harbor, while the brothers have their morning meeting.

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So I made my home there for several days. The whole neighborhood is so together. It’s not just that they are friendly with each other, but they all go back generations, grew up here, and they look out for each other’s interests. Jamal naturally dragged me over to his friends’ hotel, doing as he has since he was small. The corner store has all I need to keep me out of restaurants, and the beer is cold; the proprietor seems to work a 7:00AM to 1:00AM shift daily. He and his nine-year-old son would greet me by name whenever I stepped onto the street. It doesn’t take long to become a regular in a neighborhood like this. I took to playing my mandolin at one of Jamal’s sidewalk tables in the evening, three or four nights in a row, just for half an hour. I met a lot of nice folks that way, tourists from all over.

There are few dogs but many cats in this heavily Muslim neighborhood, therefore no evidence of mice or cockroaches. The fellow next door has a half dozen cats and two white geese. The cats make a racket at night, fighting and howling.

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During my stay I rode my bike to a different part of the city each day. I found that Istanbul is made up of distinctly different areas, cities within the city. My lodging was in the center of the Old City, on the European side. Tourism, The Grand Bazaar, banking, high-end retail and fine dining are mixed in with funky neighborhoods and lots of street hustle. Across a small bridge but still on the European side is the New City, with shipping companies, government offices, embassies, and an amazing variety of specialized retail shops, many for the shipping trades and industry.

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Roman Aqueduct Neighborhood

The Asian side is served by two huge, historic bridges (no bicycles allowed), and a couple of fast, convenient, crowded and cheap ferries. It’s more residential there, with a slower pace. Huge forts, mosques, mansions and parks line the waterway and dot the surprisingly green hillsides. It seems prosperous and modern on this side, with each neighborhood carrying a unique name and character.

With over a hundred named neighborhoods the city is too big for me to say I got familiar with he whole thing. But for several days I rode my bike through street after street, stopping wherever I could see something interesting or meet someone. And it’s easy to meet people in Turkey.

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Although I loved my little room at the hotel, it was hurting my budget. Plus I received news of a delay in my visa application, adding four days to my wait. I decided to look for a Warm Showers host. But then a warm showers host found me. Carine and Anael, my hosts in Amiens, France, have been following my progress and e-mailing occasionally. They encouraged Kerem, their their warm showers host when they were in Istanbul, to e-mail me with an offer of hospitality.

Kerem is great, 29, a computer program developer. He works hard, rides a bike around Turkey, and loves to host people through Warm Showers and Couch Surfing. Mayana, a 26-year-old woman from Brazil, was already a guest at Kerem’s large, beautiful apartment in the upscale Altintepe neighborhood in Istanbul’s Asian side. The area’s only stretch of bicycle path, ten miles along a waterfront park, passes close by.

I’m staying with Kerem for a few days. His busy schedule keeps him at work late, so Mayana and I enjoy preparing dinner for him. One day I took a ferry with Mayana to Bükükada Island, a beautiful enclave of some 10,000 residents. It’s a hilly, green paradise where motor vehicles are banned. Bicycles and horses serve the townspeople and visitors. A lively central district offers tourist services, bike rentals and plenty of ice cream. Horse-drawn carriages, dozens of them, bring tourists to the park-like hilltop center of the island. Turkish families on day trips from Istanbul crowd the lower streets, but in the hilly interior the shady roads provide spectacular views and quiet solitude. It was a very worthwhile excursion.

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Kerem may be the best Warm Showers host ever. He leaves Mayara and me in his comfortable crib all day where we sleep late and jab away at our iPhones between snacks. He comes home from work in the evening all cheerful and grateful to have people here (he hosts a lot of people). Yesterday Mayara and I found a farmer selling excellent produce right outside the apartment building and bought beautiful tomatoes, salad fixings, peas and eggplants. Then a ten-minute walk to the shore brought us to a row of fish-sellers with impressive selections of mostly unfamiliar fish. We selected some and the man cleaned them while we waited. Then we grabbed a tub of ice cream and some beer on the way back. By the time Karem was home we had a feast spread out.

The minute we were done Kerem said, “Get ready, we are going to see music!” A train, two ferries and a taxi brought us to a square in the Old City neighborhood of Nuripasa where an outdoor stage was surrounded by a large crowd. At the edges of the square were wall-to-wall restaurants with umbrellaed tables outside, and temporary bars set up. I saw lots of drinking but no drunks. The band was great; Kerem described them as among the best modern Turkish country bands, and that seemed to fit. The crowd was rockin’. Returning on the ferry Kerem was a deluxe tour guide, with a comment or story for every beautiful landmark. I’ll never forget the evening.

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Mayana

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Kerem

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Karem carefully administers lemon juice. The clam or mussel is stuffed with spicy rice.

So here I am, with a few more days to spend in Istanbul. This post is overdue, and I apologize for the length, but I don’t want you to miss a thing. Thank you for the e-mails, I love them; more, please.

I’m Tweeting now, @rompbilly, mostly about food; please check it out.

CORRECTIONS: In a previous post I reported entering Istanbul through a straight which I called the Dardanelles. Actually, that straight connects the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea, far south of Istanbul; my passage was through The Bosphorus. Also, I reported the population of Istanbul to be 5 million. Wikipedia reports a population of 13,624,240 (2011) in just the city proper. billyromp.com regrets the error.

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