Alison, Emily and I all had these “must sees” and “to dos” in Istanbul. Everyone I knew who had visited the only city in the world that is spread across two continents, had ideas for our girl’s trip. I labeled a yellow folder with our destination and filled it with these suggestions; I wrote more notes on the cover. In an effort to “make the most of our time,” (whatever that means) we jumped from Bosphorus boat tour to Spice Market to Blue Mosque to dinner at a yet another highly recommended place. We wore ourselves out seeing the city, but we did see the city. I started to feel like my two best friends and I were caught up in the wrong idea of exploring. We were following the guidebook’s idea of what would make our trip memorable.
It wasn’t until we accidently, unintentionally, broke away from the tourist traps and started walking down unfamiliar, cobblestone roads that we actually started traveling as a traveler and not a tourist. We wandered up a hill, in a neighborhood, just to see what we would see. We caught a beautiful view of the city and the eyes of Turks wondering what these dress -wearing, camera-holding, Americans were doing outside of the hot spots. But the wondering wasn’t unfriendly, just a mild curiosity, which was what we were finally exercising.
When we reached the top of the hill, a sign announced a mosque close by. This became our destination. I don’t even know the name of the mosque, it wasn’t, nor is it now, important to the experience. What I do know what the feeling of community woman-to-woman I felt inside the restroom, on the corner of the mosque’ s grounds, where I freshened up seated on a stone stable, washed my feet in the facet provided for this purpose, and touched up my make-up from the pounding sun’s effort to melt it away. I did this while women in formal Muslim wear were doing the same.
After exploring the mosque, we headed for our next destination, again from a never-ending idea list. While winding down the streets twisted with booths of scarves and adorable tea sets, we hunted for a taxi. In this city of 14 million and a myriad of taxi drivers, none were available. During the scouting, I was losing steam to actually check off a to do. I instead migrated my friends in the opposite direction, to a rooftop restaurant I spotted. Once seated, we found our moment again. A relaxation came over us and we ordered hookah and Turkish coffee, while taking in the best view we had yet to find. The urgency to do anything but be in the now had left us and we simply enjoyed each other, people watched the birthday party celebration sharing the bar, and accepted the city’s energy.
During another round of hookah and a shared pizza, a song rang out in the city. We were spontaneously seated between two mosques who announced the call to prayer. It was the first time we had heard it since our arrival. We had been running from site to site since we touched down, we had missed the numerous spiritual awakenings that were happening around us. For the second time that day, I finally felt a part of the city, of the community, being a cultural traveler, not just tourist. That moment changed our course for how we experienced Istanbul, we were aware of its energy in a new way. We felt the Eurasian influence, we received the heighted Turkish hospitality, we forgot the must dos and just did.