New perspective in Turkey
We decided to take a side trip to Istanbul. For some, it was a chance to visit a country that might not always be open to tourists. For me, I was curious about a culture where women are viewed so differently from men.
Arriving in Istanbul, we immediately felt the difference. Uniformed officers with machine guns guarded the entrances and exits of the airport. Crowds of people waited to greet family, friends and visitors.
Walking through the airport, I got my first glimpse of women in full hijabs. Groups of women with only eyes peering out at the world as they gathered children and hurried on their way. Men handled the luggage and women handled the children – maybe things weren’t so different here?
We arrived at our hotel and immediately headed out to explore the Grand Bazaar. I was conscious of what I wore, packing flowy linen pants and shirts that covered my shoulders. Thinking about what to wear is not something I normally do, especially traveling on Remote Year where my decision is based on what’s clean.
As we walked along in our group, one guy naturally led the way and the other guy brought up the rear, keeping us girls in the middle. It wasn’t something we discussed but something that just happened.
The Grand Bazaar is a sensory overload. People and noises and smells; lamps and t-shirts stacked up and hanging from the ceiling; jewelry and art for sale along a maze of windy, narrow aisles.
But what grabbed me first were the colors – I was instantly drawn to a deep turquoise and knew I had to bring something home. (And so began my negotiating with a vendor who invited me to first sit, take a cup of hot apple tea and talk. A fun but lengthy process that left my friends tapping their toes…)
We booked a private walking tour the following day and our guide led us through the Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome of Constantinople, Spice Market, Basilica Cistern and Blue Mosque. He explained their history and welcomed questions we had on any topic.
Sitting on the floor in the Blue Mosque, surrounded by locals for Friday prayers, I had a million questions about being a woman in Turkey. Why must they be covered? Why are they not allowed to pray together with men? Are they allowed to work? Do they have a choice in who to marry? Is the culture changing?
I felt a sense of calm in the mosque. Even though hundreds of people flowed around me, I felt a connection to the women who had come before me, to the women who will come after me. I felt hopeful and optimistic for their future. I felt like prayers made here were heard. I felt honored to be allowed to glimpse into this foreign world.
Continuing with our tradition of trying local activities, we booked a hamam at the oldest Turkish bath house in Istanbul. (For those shocked at our bath house experience in Bulgaria, you’ll be happy to know we were provided with a plaid triangle bikini top and shorts.)
We were directed into the steam room, or hararet, and instructed to lie on the hot marble slab for 40 minutes. Lying together on the huge stone, we got the giggles as sweat rolled into our eyes, time slowly ticked by and we wondered if we’d be able to last in the heat.
I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself it was simply mind over matter – it wasn’t really so hot.
As I gazed at the domed ceiling and imagined who had laid exactly where I was laying and what their life looked like, the small round windows in the roof started to blur. In fact, all the edges of what I looked at were fuzzy. I’m not sure if it was the heat or a deep meditation but it felt surreal.
Once I started seeing blue dots, I thought perhaps it was a bit too hot for me. As I sat up (suggest doing this more slowly than I did, giving myself a head rush and almost falling over), our hamam guides entered and took four people to begin the next phase.
Ackk! – Adrienne and I were left behind to continue to sit in the heat!
We quietly snuck out to the waiting room and stuck our heads under the tap to cool off but got busted and were sternly told to go back in and wait.
Finally it was our turn and we were thoroughly scrubbed from head to toe, followed by a heavenly massage with soap bubbles. (Seriously, I don’t know how they made the bubbles but it felt like being snuggled into a cloud!) We were rinsed off and wrapped up in towels and sent out to join our friends. Our skin was soft and glowed for days.
That night we sat on the rooftop terrace of our hotel, under the light of a full moon and talked about our journey so far – and how blessed we are to be on this adventure.
We had another full day exploring the city, taking the ferry to the Asia side of Istanbul, strolling through main streets, shopping, eating and looking for rooftop locations to take in the views.
Our final day started early with an invitation to join a new friend on the Hiawatha, a US Embassy boat given to Turkey in 1932. We excitedly climbed on board the historic vessel and cruised the waters of the Bosphorus towards Princes Island.
Being on the water is my happy place (not raging, white water but calm lakes, rivers and seas). The feeling of fresh air blowing over your body relaxes me and I find it impossible to think about anything other than the pure joy of being alive in the moment.
As we dropped anchor and jumped into the Sea of Marmara to swim, (okay, I didn’t jump from the rooftop like our captain but I did slip off the back into the water), we kept saying: “Can you believe we’re swimming in Turkey?! Is this really our life?”
Yes, this is our life.
Sometimes I feel guilty that I should be so happy but I’m reminded of a beautiful quote I recently read:
“Do not be ashamed of what makes you happy. Whatever it is. And do not give up on what fills you with joy. No matter how much time it takes.”
We left Turkey that afternoon, back through the tight security and women fully covered in black rounding up their children.
I only grazed the surface of this culture but I’m intrigued by it’s foreignness, how a woman’s life here is vastly different from my own.
There are many things I don’t understand and obviously my knowledge is lacking as I only spent four days in Turkey but nonetheless, I appreciated my glimpse into their world. I know I’m fortunate and not a day goes by without me stopping to say thank you for the life I’m living.
Want to see our boat trip? Check out Justin’s vlog!