Monday, August 9, 2010

How Many Camels Do You Want For Her?

In a perfect case of Serendipity, Charming Daughter’s visit to see us this summer coincided with one of Mr. Big’s work trips to Istanbul.  So, my daughter and I got to experience our first trip to Asia together, plus I had someone just as crazy as I am to hang out with instead of just bumming around by myself like I usually do.

Wow.  Istanbul is really hard to describe.  On the one hand it is much more modern than I had anticipated.  You can really tell that Turkey is seriously trying to identify with their Western cousins to get into the EU.  They have changed their alphabet from Arabic to something Westerners can read and seriously mangle pronunciations.  They knocked off about 6 or 7 zeros from their lira so the tourists can do the math while buying their rugs.  All the signs are in English and Turkish.  Once you venture beyond the “old town” parts into the neighborhoods and over into the Asian side across the Bosphorus, you could be in any large Western city.  Well, except for the minarets sticking up everywhere.

On the other hand, the old, touristy parts of the city near the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and the Hagia Sophia are still very Middle Eastern and just what I was expecting. 

One side effect of the Europeanization of Istanbul has been a huge influx of traditional Muslims coming there for vacation because it now seems “foreign” to them and the strict standards of their religion have been relaxed to a degree. 

They still have to wear their burqas, and follow their rules but they get to watch us parading around in shorts and drinking wine with dinner.  We are fascinated with them and they are fascinated with us and it’s all happening within a six block area.

We stayed for three days over in a modern Sheraton hotel on the Asian side in the business district while Mr. Big had his meetings.  This meant that the first thing Charming Daughter and I had to do was figure out the public transport system to get us back over to the European side where all the action was happening.  The last thing Mr. Big said to me on our first morning just before he left for work was “Whatever you do, don’t take the buses.  Get a cab.  I don’t know how safe the buses or trains are.”

A cab?  Where’s the fun in that?  Cabs are for tourists!  As soon as he shut the hotel room door, I was on the internet googling “Bus System Istanbul”.  It appeared that, in order to get to the Grand Bazaar, we would be required to take a local bus to the ferry, the ferry across the Bosphorus and the above-ground Metro through the old town to the top of the hill.  I called Charming Daughter’s room and told her to be ready in 15 minutes.

It didn’t take us long to screw up.  There are about one hundred and eleven local buses that passed by our bus stop every three minutes.  We were looking for one that said “Harem” on the top.  I watched the locals and tried to copy them.  Apparently, when they spied their correct bus coming they would jump up and wave like calling a taxi.  Then, the bus would screech across three lanes of traffic and pick them up.  Unfortunately for Charming Daughter and I, we spied our “Harem” bus a block away ON ANOTHER ROAD ALTOGETHER.  Incredibly enough, the bus driver saw my arm y’all and stopped while my good-sported daughter and I ran across an 8 lane highway.  So much for trying to blend in with the natives.  Then, to make matters worse, no one got on with us (possibly because we were not even at a bus stop and in the middle of a freeway, but I don’t know) so I didn’t have anyone I could watch to see how they paid for their bus ride.  So, we just sat down.  And did not pay.  At the next legitimate bus stop, I watched the locals and saw that the new passengers each gave the driver a one lira coin.  I didn’t have any lira coins yet and I was pretty sure the guy would not take Swiss francs.  Here we had been in the country only for a few hours and already I was breaking the law.  I had visions of Charming Daughter in a Turkish jail being lashed with a braided leather whip and Wolf Blitzer interviewing Mr. Big via satellite from the Situation Room.

Mr. Big:                I told them not to take the buses.

Wolf:                     Is it normal for your wife to disregard your instructions?

Mr. Big:                Yes, but it usually doesn’t lead to an international incident.  Usually.

After scamming our first bus ride, we got off at “Harem” which is the port where we needed to catch the ferry.  There appeared to be two ferries docked at the port, both unmarked, and I didn’t really want to take a side trip to Syria that morning so we watched for awhile to make sure that these ferries were heading in the right directlon.  Did I mention that the temperature in Istanbul is about 135 degrees F in the shade?  After about 15 minutes standing out in the sun watching random ferries, Charming Daughter and I decided that we would risk going to Syria if it meant that we could get out of the heat.  When I paid the toll booth guy with my paper lira, he gave me a strange little token for boarding.  Ah, I was learning!  Little token with anchor on it for the ferry, real coins for the buses.  That 1 lira ferry ride was awesome.  Best 60 cents I ever spent.  Charming Daughter and I ended up taking the ferry every day for the next three days.  Here’s a hint, if you are sweaty, (and you will be!), the ferry ride give you about 20 minutes of cool breezes if you go way up top and stand near the rail.  Next best thing to a shower, of which you will take many if you visit Istanbul.  Like, three a day.

Onto the Metro where we tried to pay with coins.  No.  To ride the Metro you must buy a special kind of 1.50 lira tokens which are red plastic that you buy from the nearest kebap man to the Metro stop.  Kebaps are fast food.  They are not what we call kebabs in America.  They are pita sandwiches with shaved meat inside.  We did not buy a kebap, but we did get a pocketful of Metro tokens and up the hill we went to the Grand Bazaar. 

Before I describe that shopping Mecca, let me warn you about the Metro.

Istanbul is a city of 17 million people who are all on the Metro and who are all sweating.  After having our faces mashed into a variety of armpits of fellow travelers who are hanging onto the overhead straps, Charming Daughter and I were wishing WE were wearing burqas just to cover our noses.  I was thinking to myself, Mr. Big is never going to do this in a million years.   Foreign sweaty armpits are just a bit toooo local for Mr. Big.

The Grand Bazaar is a rabbit warren of covered shops selling everything from kilim rugs to gold jewelry to Turkish tiles to Ali Baba lamps.  It is overwhelmingly stupendous.  Do not miss it.  The vendors hit just the right note between charming and obnoxious.  They are pushy, but it a cute way, if you know what I mean.  We didn’t buy anything that first day as it was just a reconnaissance mission to get the lay of the land, but we did work up an appetite and began to think about lunch.

Restaurants in Istanbul are thick on the ground and their proprietors call out to the passersby extolling the virtues of their particular establishment.  Again, it is more a fun thing and not an obnoxious thing. 

Now, my daughter is blond and cute.  Blonds are a rare sighting in Istanbul, especially blonds in shorts and tank tops.  One enterprising young man, after Charming Daughter had completely dissed his restaurant and was already half a block away, pulled me aside in the middle of the road in front of his restaurant.  Turns out he was interested in a little bit more than just persuading us to eat in his establishment.

“Lady, hey nice Lady!”


“How many camels do you want for your daughter?”

Taken aback by this request, I hesitated.  “Well, I don’t know, exactly.  She is worth a lot of camels.  Can I get back to you on that?”

After posting this conversation on Facebook later that night at the hotel, one of my friends told me that there is, indeed, a camel-to-woman conversion chart on the Internet, here:  It would appear that Charming Daughter is worth 38 camels, 8 goats and 9 sheep.  This is good information for a mother to have at her disposal in Istanbul.  If I am ever in need of a herd of livestock, I now know where I can get some.

Y’all this was just the first day.  More later on little boys parading around celebrating their recent circumcisions.

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