Monday, March 22, 2010

Three continents in 24 hours

After seven or so years of studying, dreaming about and working on programs in Ethiopia- I never thought I’d dread going. But, guys? Istanbul (or ‘stanbul according to the locals), I could seriously get used to that place.

Turkey is the first Muslim country I’ve ever visited and the religion and the culture are fascinating to me. The call to prayer every few hours sets a regular and audible reminder of the dominant religion. Women in full burkas shuffle through the streets alongside their counterparts in fashionable boots and designer coats.

Turkey is also incredibly fast changing, there is abundant free wi-fi, but people my age lament the loss of milkmen.

As a tourist you are incredibly visible and it is impossible to walk anywhere without hordes of men (beautiful dark, tall, blue eyed men) beg for your attention and your business. Their questions come at a rapid fire,“Excuse me? Can I ask you one question? Where are you from? What did you think of the mosque? How are you today? Would you like to come in and have tea?” It was a big success the day I counted more questioning in Spanish than English.

My first real experience of the Turkish charm was on the flight to Istanbul. I sat next to a Turkish man who owns several gourmet food shops in NYC. Throughout the flight he kept getting up and coming back from first class with an array dried fruits for me to try, cups of tea and suggestions on what to see in Istanbul. Thoughtful but he came on a bit strong. Such is the case with all the Turkish men I encountered.

Tea, or cai (pronounced “chai”) is everywhere. Each shop you go in, every social interaction, every meal starts and ends with tea. Men with carry trays from shop to shop delivering little glass cups of tea with two sugar cubes to each saucer. There are two main flavors: “Turkish tea” a black tea, and “apple tea” which is more of a hot sour apple flavored kool-aide of sorts.

They say that New York is the city that never sleeps, and Istanbul is the city that never stops eating. But in my experience, Istanbul is the city that never stops drinking. In addition to the tea in shops and the men selling tea from carts on the street, there are also big carts that freshly squeeze orange and pomegranate juice on demand.

Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice several times a day- I told you I could get used to that place. Abundant bathhouses with cheap massages. Hookahs and backgammon. Finally figuring out just how good Baklava is supposed to taste. Ethiopia has a lot to compete with.

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