The Complex Istanbul

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote and posted in this blog, especially since I wrote more private stuffs as a personal (and definitely private) diary to alleviate my anxiety.

I was finishing packing, making sure that I wouldn’t get delayed too much and missed my bus to the airport while discussing many thought-provoking stuffs with my friend who has graciously hosted me for the whole trip and prevented me from starvation (just kidding), when she asked me what has been the most memorable thing, or what stood out the most from the trip, and what has been my impression so far.

I like to get lost in thought, and for the better or worse, I got lost and confused in my own thoughts and the dialogues in my head so many times, I admit, but these questions are definitely welcome, since it usually leads to a very reflective discussion.

As I got older and become a lot more introverted, I found myself liking to travel even slower (and I already prefer slow travel since I first began visiting neighboring countries all by myself). 1 week in Ho Chi Minh, 5 days in Singapore, 7 days in Gävle, and then Helsinki, and now 10 days in Istanbul. These aren’t even slow enough since it allows me to be the relaxed tourists to explore the surroundings I’m in, but never to really understand the culture and the society deeply enough, and the only things preventing me from staying longer have always been my budget and work (to an extent). But it’s slow enough to prevent me from place-hopping and rushing from one place to another before really knowing what the place (oftentimes are touristy spots) are about. It’s also slow enough to allow me to take breaks in-between places and write my postcards, my journal, read my books, and observe the surroundings. Except for the tiring, restless long flight, I am usually well-rested throughout the whole stay.

Back to the work questions. My impression of the city itself. I am well aware that my observations are those of the visitors and tourists—someone who stay for a while, but not long enough that I would claim to know the city well.

1. Similarities

One thing that got my attention right away is noticing how similar Istanbul is to Jakarta. It’s another metropolitan city, with malls as one of the destinations for fun and relaxation, hang out places, and basically everything. Malls after malls after malls after malls.

And then I heard the call to prayer and it threw me back right away to Indonesia.

The mixes of fashion—especially the women, since this is where any differences tend to stand out more: Some chose to don hijab, some even don a burka, some wear tights, skirt—it really is a combination of things.

Cars, cars, cars. For convenience, you do want to travel with cars. What I took comfort in, however, is the whole other options to walk and could still feel safe to walk despite the challenging terrain. Comparing it to Jakarta or Surabaya, I found more civilized driver who would wait for the pedestrian to walk (unlike Jakarta where you wave your magic hands and dare them to hit you because they wouldn’t—but please don’t try this), or the lack of motorbike drivers who would ride on the sidewalk in times of traffic. Traffic is much less crazy than Jakarta and sidewalk is still very pedestrian-friendly.

Traffic in Istanbul one evening

2. Landscapes and architectures

I’ve always wanted to visit Istanbul and I think to some extent I used to view the city with some exoticism, thinking of its beautiful mosques, and somehow my image of this got a bit mixed up with Morocco, which is also in the list of country I would love to pay a visit to. I am now ashamed of this ignorance I used to cling on to. I realised this, of course, and I would say that I am well-informed by now, but only to a certain extent. I also know that traveling also feels a lot better when there’s a certain familiarity to it–at least for me, or if I know better what I am going into. I want to know more about the city before stepping in, instead of simply stepping into the unknown. Some people prefer this, and I could see why there’s some joy in it, too, of course.

But then, for this mission to get to know Istanbul better, I started with purchasing two fictional books on Istanbul, and I went for Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind, and The Museum of Innocence. I understand that the hype to his authorship and his works is somewhat mixed–some people love him and his works, some people don’t. Prior to this, I have only read his book Silent House. Afterwards, in the middle of reading it, a dear friend of mine, who’s also my photography mentor and my host, and currently living in Istanbul, also advised me to read Strolling in Istanbul as the perfect guide to the city. I ended up getting a soft copy of the book, but never eventually managed to read it prior to my trip. Even after the trip’s over, I am still trying to finish The Museum of Innocence.

Thankfully, I love the sentimental feel of A Strangeness in My Mind, and the historical background Pamuk would insert throughout the story, and I have mixed reception so far, halfway with the other book, but we’ll get to that one day.

Then after googling more about places to visit in Istanbul, I was captivated by its complex and rich history, where different cultures, civilisation, and religions seem to mix altogether in that one city. It appears initially to me as a bit of a mess, (then again, which country isn’t a mess?), but I come down to think about it as a beautiful mess. It leaves them with beautiful landscape to admire, and amazing architecture to visit, and grand history to reflect. I believe these are always the thing that shape one’s society, and I could see that reflected when I see such contrast between one area to another, despite being in the same city.

In Istanbul where you could look to the other side of the Bosphorus sea and pointed out that that’s Asia while sipping out your beer or maybe a glass of rakı (Turkish arrack) in Europe. The area I was staying at is this modernized apartment building with lines of malls adjunct to each other, and then I went and visit the old city wall and the beautiful Chora church, and old houses (sadly, some are dilapidated as well) where architectures from the 20’s remain intact. It gave me a glimpse, albeit just a bit of a glimpse, of the different demographics, and possibly the economical situation of the two different areas as well.

Houses rooftops across Fatih.

3. The animal and the smell

Another thing I noted about Istanbul is how much they love their animals. Stray cats and dogs are everywhere, but you can see that no harm is coming to them. Either people leave them alone, or they take care of them. One time I actually see this one lady walking around with her tiny cart containing a large bag that I suspect contains cat food. And she literally walked around the neighborhood visiting the stray cats and making sure they’re all taken care of and fed. Tokyo people took care of stray animals as well, but I’ve never seen anyone do that.

Seagulls, pigeons, and ravens are everywhere. So are their shits. They’re beautiful sights to behold, and perfect moving objects for my photography practices, but from time to time I mumbled my prayer that they wouldn’t shit on me or my camera while I was trying to also capture them in motion, flying above me.

Sea gulls flying over the Bosphorus

Locals love and feed them, and tourists also want to pet them. That’s probably why Istanbul has this mixture of smell. Of the sea, and the fishy smell of its marine life, of course, of cat and dog food and their shits, of the birds and their shits, too.

4. The people

In so many ways, Turkish people remind me of my own people, Indonesians. In a good way, they’re warm and generally nice. They seemed to love to make a conversation, although I’m unsure if that’s because I’m obviously not a local or because they just love to do so. In the more touristy place, they always love to ask where I am from, before later on trying to probably impress me by saying thank you either in Indonesian or in Japanese.

At the same time, knowing full well I’m a tourist, there seem to be an endless lines of people (and by people, mostly men), trying to talk to me. My friend warned me nice and early that despite the good intention I also need to be wary of people trying to scam me and then got into the tourist trap. I came from a culture that also has people doing this to tourists, so it was not at all a surprise to me, of course.

While I appreciate the nice greetings they seem to really like doing, I also realised that they might simply want to promote their shops/restaurants, and if I stop by each time someone talked to me, I may not even managed to go anywhere else.

And then there’s the stares, like seriously people stare at you. I was told that they do this to everyone and not necessarily because I’m a tourist, though I suspect as well me not looking at all like a local also has a part in it. Regardless, it took me a couple of days to get used to it and just ignore the awkwardness I felt, having acclimated already to the Japanese culture of not staring at other people since it would be rude and embarrassing.

But I also found some general kindness, people of genuine curiosity and just sweetness, things that I have come to really value and remember most whenever I met a random encounter of kindness.

4. The power of smile

This one part is not going to be a nice bit, and while I am afraid some people might find it offensive, it is still a part of my reflection to the trip itself.

So, men stares. And Turkish men can be really charming, in my opinion. The way they flirt is different from some other cultures I’ve encountered, and I could see how in other cultures and context, can be viewed as downright aggressive.

Yet, what I found to be a bit disturbing is when I found that merely smiling could be possibly seen as an invitation, for a romance talk, allure to sex, and unsolicited message on social media. One of this happened only with a smile. Not even a chat, but a smile.

While I consider it polite to simply smile as a nice gesture to one another, and who knows, a smile could go a long way and make others feel welcome (I do feel less inclined sometimes to enter a restaurant when traveling when everyone’s looking with their resting bitch faces), but when that could also be misinterpreted as a welcoming invite to unwelcome attention, it could instead make one feel less inclined to smile to just anyone except for the people they already know, so at some point in my trip I just tried to smile when I only had to.

***

Yet, in spite of the bad, and most definitely, because of the good as well, I consider it to be a good trip and a good experience. I do not believe that by now I have understood Istanbul well, and I don’t think I would ever claim so, and certainly 10 days would not reflect that at all, so visiting again is always something I would be looking forward to, especially when I believe that there are still plenty of room to explore. While visiting ancient fortresses are always nice, and plenty more modern art museums were left unexplored yet, but I wold also love to come and sit down in one of lovely bookshops I found in Beyoğlu, for example, or just getting more midye dolma somewhere around Şişli.

Until next time, Istanbul. Until next time.

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