Friday, May 29, 2009

Istanbul- Warm People, Friendly Scams

the old gates of Istanbul
Istanbul –where East Meets West
The only city to be part of two continents, Istanbul is home to over 16 million people. Looking from atop a hill down at the metropolis below, I can’t help but feel a slight a moment of intimidation from its vast size.
My taxi drives between the ocean and the ancient walls of the Ottoman Empire that once proudly protected its jewel. They stand now, crumbling from old age, yet dutifully trying to carry on their mission.
Driving into the Sultanahmet region the streets narrow drastically. Vendors abound, hawking their wares on the sides of the road. We pull into my recently renovated twenty two room hotel, the Darussaade Istanbul.
I am greeted very warmly, and the service throughout my stay was outstanding. I put my bags away, and go out and explore.
My first stop is the Havat Café and I am greeted by Havat himself, a super friendly, caricature of a Middle East shop keeper whose lined, mustached face expresses a genuine mirth and enjoyment of life. Warmth radiates from him as he smiles and laughs, his food acts in similar manner.

The Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque of Istanbul
One of the most famous attractions in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, an enormous, impressive structure with six 200 foot high minarets surrounding it. It is actually the third largest mosque in the world.
I enter in, the massive interior has few worshippers, as the mosque is about to close for the day. While technically a handsome building, I am not wowed. I have been to much smaller Mosques in India that were not only far more beautiful, but much warmer in vibe.
interior of the  blue mosque
Turkey is probably the most modern country in the Middle East, with a largely secular government, and is currently trying to gain membership to the European Union. In stark contrast to the culture of equality seen through most western nations, in a tiny little corner, covering perhaps 1% of the Mosque’s area, is a “Woman’s Section,” the only place in the Mosque women are permitted.
(I have been told since that women are also allowed to worship upstairs)

Exploring the surrounding Sultanahmet area, I find numerous small restaurants, sweet shops, and ice cream parlors lining the road. Meat on a stick is shaved off and put into pitas ready, along with olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes that constitute salads in this region of the world. The place is busy and prices while substantially cheaper than America, I am told by locals, are “tourist prices.”
Many little carts sell corn on the cob for one Turkish Lira (66 cents.) Storekeepers nearly bear hug you into their shops.
Eventually you learn that it’s best to ward off the never ending line of salesman, but being new to the Middle East, I was curious. I allowed myself to be taken in by several rug vendors.
Apparently Turkey is the #1 carpet producer in the world, and these rugs aren’t cheap. Almost every third store sells hand woven rugs, and they assure you that not only are they of exquisite quality, but are certain to increase in value if you hold onto them.
A small silk rug, done by a “master,” depicting the scene from The Last Supper is offered to me for $20,000. Other rugs sell far cheaper, but there’s a minimum of $300 for the least expensive rug.
The store where I am is a family establishment. In addition to rugs, they sell various decorative plates and glasses, which are artistic and nicely finished. I pick up a plate and ask how much.
“Oh this one, not much,” says the merchant, his eyes akin to a no limit poker player with the nuts, figuring out how much he can extract out of you, “only $90.” Sorry, he overbet the pot by a long shot.
Regardless, we had a nice, polite conversation. I tell him he has an impressive store. Walking out I ask  how much money the store makes a year.
“One million dollars,” I am told. An impressive figure til I discover that their family has 2,000 members who share the wealth.

The Dervish
A Turkish dance performed by a male wearing a sort of tan, thimble looking hat and a white Cinderella dress. It consists of him twirling around for the duration of a song with one arm stretched out parallel to the ground, and the other by his waist. The only impressive thing about it is that he’s able to do it for so long without getting dizzy.
I ask a store keeper what the point of the dervish is. It is believed that continuous spinning allows one a connection with Allah, for it clears the mind of thought, which I totally buy into. It is another form of meditation for the dancer.
The Palace

The next day I visited the Sultan’s palace, where a guide gave us a tour and history of the royal chambers.
The Sultan's family crest
Perhaps most intriguing was the harem section of the palace, where the Sultan sheltered five hundred Russian and European concubines. If you think it’s unfair the Sultans refused all the local girls, then you haven’t seen Turkish women.
The Sultan was allowed four official wives, and as many unofficially as he wanted. You didn’t necessarily want to be born a prince back then. Each women plotted to kill the others’ sons, until there was only left standing, who would then be crowned King when Papa died. I’m sure if you turned it into a reality show today it would get great ratings.
the Sultan's armor
Unlike China, where the Emperor had thousands of wives who were never touched by a man, after nine years of service the concubines were free to leave and marry outside of the palace. Generally they got handed off to the Sultan’s generals.
The Cistern

Definitely far and away the coolest experience I have ever had at a man made tourist site. The Cistern was built as an underground water storage facility. To support the structure, Roman columns were built under the surface of the earth.
the blackness around the columns. Waist deep water
Underground, walking on a narrow platform inches above the water, dimly light with soft, eerie Middle Eastern music playing in the background, moving through a forest of perfectly shaped Roman columns, I felt as though I were transported onto the set of an Indiana Jones movie.
To top it off, at the bottom of two of the columns are heads of Medusa (the mythological Greek woman with hair of snakes who turned mortals to stone when they gazed upon her.) No one knows why they are there. Well, not no one. I’m sure Indy could tell you. (movie idea?)

Medusa- upside down at the bottom of a column
The Grand Bazaar
A bazaar is the Middle Eastern equivalent of a mall, only without the fancy decorations or cleanliness. At the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul there are thousands of small stores, selling everything from clothing and trinkets, to jewelry and gold. The place has more bullion than Fort Knox.
I come upon a stand selling Turkish slippers. I begin negotiations with them for a pink pair (for my Goddaughter.)
"I stand at $10."
"Come on, $20. Good deal."
“I’ll give you ten dollars.”
“What are you a Jew?”
I heard this refrain elsewhere as well, Middle Easterners don’t hide their anti-Semitic feelings. Maybe it’s just a negotiation ploy.
“You tried to sell me these for $40. Who’s the Jew?”
A few exchanges later, I smile, say good-bye, and turn to leave. They call me back and sell me them for the $10 I was willing to pay. One thing about Turks, they’ll smile broadly at you, and do their best to skin you alive.

For the few of you who doubted whether or not we elected the right man to office, 100% of the people I talked to in Turkey like Obama. (20 sampled)
100% of them did not like Bush in the least.
Isn’t it easier to get things done when you have rapport with the people and they’re behind you? Obama’s words will hold a lot of sway over here. I’m glad.

Rich’s Night Out
So wanting to go see the Istanbul night life, I asked the boys at the hotel and was told that Taksin Square was the place to go. They told me to go to Club Riddin and ordered me a cab, which took me no problem to my location.
Taksin Square
It is a busier, less pretty version of the Santa Monica Promenade. I walked around and visited some bars, and after an hour went to Club Riddin. Apparently, it is a couples only club, and as I was alone, was not granted entrance. So I went next door to a disco, determined to experience whatever Turkish night life would hold.
$10 to walk in the door. Let me look around and see if it’s worth it I request.
“No,” comes the disgruntled uninterested voice of the cashier.
Forget this, I’m not dealing with that surly attitude. I walk out.
So a guy has seen me walk away from two clubs. He approaches me. Something odd about the way he does it, and I’m suspicious.
After speaking with him for a minute, he tells me the second club I tried to get into was a transvestite bar.
“Give the guy a break,” I think to myself, “he knows what’s what. Why were you suspicious of him? Cause of the odd way he dropped his shoulder, or whatever imperceptible body movement he made when he came up to you?”
“Well, I know a club,” he tells me, “It’s a little too early for some of these, but this one’s happening.”
“You know what,” I state politely, “I think I’m done for the night. Besides, I’m not inordinately fond of Turkish women.”
“Actually, Russian women at this club mainly,” he states.
'What the hell' I think to myself, let’s see this place.
Off we go, walking about 500 yards, we’re talking, Obama, America, his dreams of going there. Doesn’t seem like a bad guy, why did my suspicious radar go up?
We get to the club called Playshow. I walk in. About ten girls, none of them even close to beautiful, the employees, myself, and my new ‘friend.’ Something ain’t right here.
“Hookers?” I ask.
“Just sit, talk to the girls, relax,” he replies.
I survey the scene a little bit. Something is definitely off here. A guy walks up to, “Can I get you something to drink sir?”
I think about it? “How much is a Coca-Cola?” I ask.
“Twenty dollars,” comes my answer.

So there it is. BAM. I wonder how much expensive drinks are. I very politely excuse myself and walk back towards the square, somehow not at all angry that they had tried to rob me.
I find out later, this is a common scam. Nice man befriends you, takes you to a club with what passes here for ‘hot chicks.’ You order some drinks, the girls ask you to buy them some drinks, and all of a sudden you have a thousand dollar bill. If you profess poverty they will gladly escort you to the ATM.
I’d rather someone be straight up with me and point a gun at me and tell me to empty out my wallet. You sell someone a vodka cranberry, who thinks the most you could POSSIBLY charge is like $15, and you sell him a few for $70 each without telling him, and then force him, under threat of bodily harm to pay you, that is flat out theft.

I get a taxi cab. How much back to my hotel, I ask, having paid 13 Lira to get there.
“Meter, meter,” says the cabbie.
“15 Lira max,” I reply.
“Meter, meter.”
“15 Lira or I find another cabbie.”
“Meter, meter.”
I walk away.
“Okay, okay, he calls after me. 15.”
I get in the cab, he comes to my hotel.
“Fifty Lira,” he says.
Sounded like fifteen to me. I happen to only have a 50 Lira bill. I hand it to him.
“Okay,” he says smiling, “You go.”
“Can I have my change?”
He points to the meter which says 50 Lira. “Meter! Meter says 50.”
“Dude, I was very clear with you. 15 Lira, give me my change.”
We argue for two minutes. “Meter says 50.” “I have no change.” “I don’t remember that.” Every excuse in the book.
Finally he gives me my 50 back and tells me to go. Maybe I should have gone, but I end up paying him 20 Lira somehow. He had change, maybe he had more. I don’t know.
I go to my hotel room. Suddenly I felt very sad.

Overall, I would say that Turkish people are quite warm. It’s difficult for me to impugn a whole nation based on the actions of a couple people, but it is not unfair to state that most of them will skin you alive if you let them.
I’m not sorry I went, but aside of the Cistern, I really didn’t see anything that made go “wow,” nor is Turkey an especially cheap holiday. The surrounding area is somewhat pretty, but if you want true beauty go to Thailand, Iguazu Falls Brazil, Fiji, or Maui. On the whole, I would say, skip it.

Next up--> Egypt
(a view of the ocean from the Sultan's palace)
(Hi Mom!)

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