Istanbul or, One City, Two Continents, 15 Days, and Millions of People

I walk down the stairs from my changing room in the issued red, yellow and white plaid towel and through the door between the juice stand and the employee lounge. To my left are some marble sinks, to my right a man in front of more towels telling me to proceed through the door straight ahead while he is taking my yellow plastic entrance token. "Massage?" I figure I paid for it so I might as well say yes. "Yes." A smiling but rather burly man whose name I do not catch in a towel of his own guides me through the door into the center of the hamam: a round marble platform surrounded by more marble sinks under a dome with many small round skylights - all kept in a balmy, waterlogged heat. As you might guess, I didn't get any pictures, or I'd insert one here. It'd be me lying facedown on the marble platform while the aforementioned attendant sanded the skin off my back. This is what I will always remember as my first spa (sort of) experience. It will be a great memory.

To rewind slightly, we arrived in Istanbul, Turkey two weeks ago yesterday. September 10th, ten o'clock in the morning. That was about two hours after we were supposed to be meeting my friend with whom we'd be staying. The border crossing from Bulgaria into Turkey ended up taking slightly longer than anticipated, giving us a full two and a half hours in the middle of the night to contemplate the plethora of duty free goods available to us. Since that leisurely ride into the city, circling us around the south side of Sultanahmet before swinging back around onto the coast of Golden Horn, however, it has been anything but leisure. It is, after all, Istanbul.

Istanbul is a lot. It's a lot to see, a lot to wrap your head around (or try, especially in only two weeks), and it's a lot to try to describe. The best we have been able to come up with is that it's a little like New York but with more people, less rules, and an entirely different skyline. It's a bit amazing to watch how it all comes together in a beautiful chaos of humans and motorbikes and handcarts and cars - each one dodging the other but none of them seeming too plussed about it.

We were lucky enough to have our time here line up with the International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA), an eight day conference of panels and workshops dedicated, as the name implies, to conversations and ideas on, or related to, electronic arts. There were enough sessions that we were both interested in, had a reasonable €18 price tag, and it was well worth it; giving us some fresh ideas, a brief respite from just traveling, and a crash course in adjusting our brains back into an academic realm. One workshop also got Casey into the Balat neighborhood - one of the lower rent, originally Greek areas in the city - where she ended up sharing a cup of tea with some entirely friendly furniture refinishers. Below is the owner, Cengiz, in front of a picture of - wait for it - Cengiz.

We went back to this neighborhood a few days later and it proved one of the most memorable days we had, despite its lack of many of the major historical sights. We saw the 1,500 year old Aya Sophia (still the 4th largest church in the world), the bazaars, and Topkapı Palace, but the stilted, gesture heavy conversations and interactions we had in Balat once again confirmed that people can make any place worthwhile and interesting.

I'll rewind once more here to the day we arrived and were accompanied by our gracious and amazing friends and hosts, Özge and Herman, to a short cruise up the Bosphorus. This is, I learned, the relatively short body of water connecting the Black sea with the Mediterranean, dividing Europe from Asia. It is beautiful blue water that, aided by a good afternoon sun or evening sunset, provided not only a great starting point for our explorations, but an ideal time for our camera battery to die. Borrowed camera phones to the rescue.

I'm leaving out our food experiences here entirely as that is a post all to itself that Casey is already working on. Suffice to say, the cuisine is enough to justify a return trip. As Herman pointed out, eating in Istanbul, we haven't even eaten Turkish yet.

Last night we had a toast to celebrate our last night in Istanbul and then had to expand it to include our last night in Turkey and on the European continent as we realized that one chapter of this trip is ending and another about to begin. A strange and exciting feeling for two Asia newbs, but also a little sad as we have enjoyed the last few months so immensely it's difficult to know what to feel. Either way, the exuberance, color and grandiosity of Istanbul was an excellent transition, bridging (literally) our time in Europe with our next few months in Nepal and southeast Asia.

Location:Istanbul, Turkey