It has only been eleven days since the semester ended, but I’m already having trouble remembering the sharp, wet cold of my last day in London. I skipped spring altogether, luxuriating in the long days of sunshine and the ensuing sunburns. Last Saturday four friends and I made it to balmy Kalkan, Turkey in one piece. We’d booked the trip so long ago it felt strange to be pulling up in front of a pastel-colored house that was all ours for a week.
Kalkan fit the bill in a few ways. The stress of work, school, and leaving London melted away in the Mediterranean heat. It was one of those times when I had literally no obligations or work at all. I actually read for pleasure again, burning through The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, and Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Not used to Vitamin D, my skin blossomed scores of new freckles. The trip was also a salute to my 13-year-old self, who traveled to Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara with friends in the summer after 8th grade. On my first go round I drank peach juice by the carton, took a liking to the Turkish flag, learned a few Turkish words, and kept a lookout for dolphins. Really, nothing has changed.
One day all of us went for a boat trip to Kokova for snorkeling, a “sunken city” beneath the waves, lunch, and some good swimming spots. It was a deliciously hot day and we made fast friends with our guide, with whom we arranged other trips and activities. The ruins were a bit difficult to see above the water (swimming there was prohibited) but it felt adequately cultural so we were satisfied. At various stops we’d groggily lift our heads from sleep or books on the deck of the boat to plunge into frigid water. The shock left me gasping for a few seconds but the temperature was refreshing and the water my favorite shade of turquoise. We took a few plunges from the railing on the top deck of the boat – a good long drop with a satisfying, thumping splash.
We spent our time in Kalkan navigating the steep streets and perusing knickknacks at shops. Older British couples, the trickle of holiday goers before the deluge, flanked us at restaurants and in shops. The lack of Internet was a blessing as well; it felt good to be so unconnected. Thursday’s local market offered Turkish delight (a treat of jelly squares and powdered sugar), colorful spices, produce, souvenirs, and stalls upon stalls of knockoffs. On our last night we ate a delicious meal on a restaurant terrace overlooking the bay before popping into a nearby cafe for WiFi and dessert. We tasted the best baklava ever, syrupy sweet and nutty, which was fitting, as baklava originated in Turkey.
On Saturday four out of five of us continued on to Istanbul. Our hostel sat right near the main sites around Sultanahmet. For the day and a half I was there, we mostly stuck around that area. We were almost too tired to go out on Saturday night, but the hostel’s pub crawl promised a shuttle and free entry to a few bars in the Taxim area. On the terrace we joined a huge group of Australians (with a few Americans, Canadians, and a New Zealander thrown in). Led by boisterous bar crawl guides, we pushed our way in a pack from place to place. At midnight the streets were as crowded as those in Madrid, with hordes of Turkish twenty-somethings smoking and chatting outside bustling bars. I liked the music and the style and the smiling DJ’s bobbing their heads.
The next day my friend Dani and I were sightseeing ninjas, hitting two major mosques in the morning with a new hostel friend from Kentucky. First we visited the Blue Mosque, which was stunning in its domed height, intricate designs, and blue hues. There’s something quietly grand and powerful about a mosque. I love how a mosque’s design incorporates lettering, places language itself on a divine pedestal. Clean of religious iconography, the Blue Mosque infuses swooping lines of Arabic calligraphy with delicate floral motifs and rich colors. The prayer and praise takes on a new level of beauty in golden writing.
Up next was the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sophia in Greek), which I remembered from my first visit to Istanbul and my AP World History textbook. The immense, domed building was constructed as a Byzantine cathedral in 532 AD. It operated as a Roman Catholic cathedral from 1261 until the Ottoman Turks converted it into a mosque in 1453 after conquering Constantinople. They added Islamic architectural features like the mihrab, minbar, and four minarets. Now a museum, the Ayasofya is enormous, breathtaking, and tranquil all at once. Only a few peeling, cracked symbols of its Christian past remain. The supporting pillars for the domes are concealed within the walls, giving the interior an appearance of weightlessness. It’s the kind of place you wander through with your eyes gazing perpetually upward, which is the point I imagine. What a perfect confluence of religion, history, and architecture.
Our stomachs rumbling, we connected with our travel companions and more new hostel friends, including another post-grad American currently teaching English in Georgia (a country about which I went from knowing nothing to everything), and a New Zealander living in Edinburgh. We wound down streets filled with shops, many of which seemed left over from the ’80s and others displaying some truly creepy mannequin children. We finally found the restaurant listed in a pilfered Lonely Planet guidebook – a beautiful, high-ceilinged place serving simple Turkish food. Afterwards we checked out the Spice Market, which was brimming with piles of spices, dried fruits, and foreign little pastries. We only responded to vendors’ calls for attention when free samples of Turkish delight were involved.
Topkapi Palace was our last sightseeing stop. We explored cobalt-colored rooms, lingered on ornate weaponry, peered at diamond-encrusted jewelry, and admired a decadent library. After walking in the unrelenting sun all day all we wanted was a beer by the Bosphorous, the river dividing Istanbul and Turkey into Europe and Asia. I didn’t have the time to set foot in Asia, but I figure that when I do I’ll make a real trip of it. That night we ate a cheap and filling dinner. My search for authentic Turkish food proved very difficult this trip, as I was staying in such touristy areas. Nevertheless, I adore any version of Turkish food, be it smoky kofte, shish kebabs, or pizza-like, boat-shaped pide.
On Monday morning we popped into the Grand Bazaar, a behemoth of an indoor market selling everything from Turkish tea to chessboards to mandolins. Of course many stalls hawk the same things, like evil eye trinkets, hookah pipes, and patterned ceramic dishes. I bought some Turkish delight for family friends I’d soon be staying with in Brussels.
Dani and I each had to catch late afternoon flights, so we lugged our bags on the tram to the airport. She went through security while I sought out the UPS office in the Yeni Kargo terminal, which was parking lot-oceans away from International Departures. I arrived at what was clearly a loading area to find a tiny UPS office completely lacking in English speakers. Luckily, a helpful man who noticed my distress spent the next half hour translating for me, as I tried to ship 20 pounds of extraneous clothes and belongings to DC. My large backpacking bag would be too heavy to carry around for the next two weeks. The office had no boxes, so the kind woman from UPS and another man started fashioning a smaller box out of a large, used one. The Exacto knife cutting and taping process was a little ridiculous, but things were less funny when the credit card I planned on using didn’t go through and my flight was set to board in less than an hour. Finally, I was saying a rushed “thank-you-very-much!” and running through security. I arrived at my gate just as my flight was boarding.
I was sweaty and flustered but on a flight to Venice. Turkish Airlines compensated for our half hour delay on the tarmac with a better than average in-flight meal. I’ll confess to a certain fondness for airplane food. The little compartments are just so orderly and it feels like you’re eating for free. With my little bottle of Turkish white wine and my neat tray of food I was on my way to Italy. And so there I was, and so here I am.