“Smile at strangers and you just might change a life.”
For a long time now, Turkey has been #1 on my Bucket List. Knowing that it was a short flight away from Kuwait, I decided to start planning a trip for my February holidays. I began looking in September, and in November I casually mentioned it to P in a Skype conversation. He mentioned possibly coming to visit me, and he suggested meeting in Turkey given that Kuwait isn’t exactly a happening place to visit. Not long thereafter, we had a trip booked.
We decided to go with a tour for a few reasons. First, Turkey is quite a large country and its major cities are spaced out and difficult to get to if you are arranging for travel yourself. Second, and more importantly, the dates for this particular tour we booked lined up with my February holidays perfectly. Finally, the tour covered the majority of the places that we hoped to see, and promised a large amount of cultural immersion and interaction with the locals.
I arrived a day ahead of P and had an entire day in Istanbul at my disposal. I met with my tour coordinator, Ibrahim, and got some good recommendations from him about how to navigate the city, and most importantly: where to eat. Naturally, the first thing I did was visit the biggest church built by the East Roman Empire in Istanbul: the Hagia Sofia. It was just a five-minute walk from my hotel. I walked all around the outside of the impressive Basilica-turned-Mosque-turned-Museum. I didn’t go inside (due to the enormously long line up), but I learned that the Aya Sofia was used as a church for 916 years, but was converted into a mosque after Fatih Sultan Mehmed conquered Istanbul. It was in use as a mosque for 482 years until Ataturk and the Council of Ministers ordered it to be turned into a museum in 1935.
I also strolled around the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, meandered over to the Blue Mosque (which I am partial to, over the Hagia Sofia), and I ended up eating at a fabulous restaurant called the Pudding Shop on the recommendation of Ibrahim. If you Google “The Pudding Shop” a whole host of websites will come up which detail the history of this neat eatery. Essentially, in the 1970s, it became a meeting point for travelers who were heading east. Many travelers would meet up with others, share their experiences, or leave messages for those who would come after. According to one website (http://www.travelsignposts.com/Turkey/food/the-pudding-shop-istanbul) it was the “famous starting point of the Hippie Trail East.” The vibe in the restaurant is decidedly un-bohemian, in fact it was quite hectic. They had traditional Turkish food on display and the whole place smelled savory and delicious. I highly recommend a visit if you find yourself a little peckish when in the Sultanahmet neighborhood.
Afterwards, I felt a little adventurous and began wandering aimlessly throughout the streets of Istanbul – I wasn’t looking for anything particular, and of course, that’s how I found Ishmael.
Ishmael: The Free Turkish Tour Guide
I am a Canadian expatriate living in Kuwait. I am used to greeting people on the street, offering smiles to strangers, striking up conversation with store clerks or wait staff, and generally enjoying kind interactions with strangers. Maybe it sounds stereotypical, but that has genuinely been my experience in my city back home. In the six months of living in Kuwait, I have learned that smiling at strangers is not only culturally inappropriate, but can also be offensive, striking up conversation with most people is awkward and unwanted, and for the most part, my interactions with strangers in Kuwait have been sexist, rude, or otherwise unsettling. So, when Ishmael struck up conversation with me, it caught me off guard in the most refreshing of ways.
“The Grand Bazaar is closed today,” said the stranger.
“Thank you, I’m not heading to the Grand Bazaar,” I replied – a little too coldly, I’ll admit.
“It’s always closed on Sundays. Do you need help finding anything?” He asked.
“No no, I’m just out for a walk thank you.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
This launched our conversation. I told him where I was living and my nationality. We discussed my experience with Kuwait and the Middle East, so far, and he began telling me about the buildings that we saw as we walked around. The next thing I knew, I had a tour guide.
“I don’t mind,” Ishmael said, “I just walk on Sundays.”
We walked all around the streets and he pointed out old buildings, “Ah yes, that one there used to be an old newspaper building,” and mosques, “We call this one the New Mosque,” because unlike other mosques in the city it was completed just a few years ago, in 1665. We sat down outside of the Spice Market and he bought me my first apple tea (of so, so many). We talked about religion, the history of Turkey, his livelihood as a tanner, and his family.
“Which reminds me,” he said as we finished our tea, “I will introduce you to my son!” We went into the Spice Market (more on that later) and he brought me to his son’s stall. After being offered at least 10 types of tea and candies, which I politely declined, we left the Spice Market and headed to Ishmael’s place of work. It was then that I received a private tour of the leather factory and shop that he works in. When we returned to the main part of the Sultanahmet District Ishmael and I parted ways, just like that. He thanked me for my company and wished me well on my travels in Turkey. I watched him disappear into the crowds, continuing on his Sunday walk.
I could just tell that I was going to love this country.
Until Next Time – Keep Wandering,