The Story so far . . .
My sister, Natalie, and I have decided to travel through the Middle East and Africa with an overland company, beginning our journey in Istanbul.
It was 5th September 2002 - departure day. A year of planning and anticipation was behind us, and the trip of a lifetime lay ahead. We flew to Istanbul a few days before the start of the tour to give us a chance to explore the city. We both had far too much luggage, but swore that everything was essential.
As we were arriving in Istanbul after midnight, we had prepaid with a company that would sort out our first 48 hours for us. They'd book us into a hotel for two nights, meet us at the airport (with our names on one of those boards - I've always wanted to be met by someone with my name on a board), and transport us to the hotel.
The airport was busy, despite the late hour, and we were surrounded by the din of voices. We collected our bags and donned our goliath packs before heading to the arrivals hall, and the eagerly awaited man-with-board . . . who was not there.
I deposited Natalie on a seat, and piled her up with bags before calling the company. There had been a communications breakdown somewhere along the line: while the hotel had been booked, the driver himself had no knowledge of us. He said he didn't want to venture out at that late hour, and advised me to catch a taxi into town, saying he would telephone the hotel in one hour, to ensure that we had got there safely . . . although what he would do had we not arrived was left unsaid.
I returned to update Natalie on the situation, and found her being pestered left, right, and centre by a gaggle of Turkish youths, who were delighted to have found a captive audience trapped under a stack of bags. We shooed them away and lugged our excessive burdens out into the moist, warm air to do battle at the taxi rank.
We found the hotel and were shown to our room, which was small and smelt stale and musty. A few minutes later the telephone rang. It was Metin, the man who'd failed to meet us. He apologised for the misunderstanding and asked if he could take us out for supper the following evening to make amends.
The next morning, after a poor and short night's sleep, we ate a breakfast of bread and goat's cheese before setting off into town, eager for our first glimpse of the splendours of Istanbul.
We made our way toward the river, chattering excitedly to each other as we walked past haggard, squat women with coats tightly fastened. Dusky, moustachioed men leant in shop doorways, pungent cigarette smoke curling up from their mouths as they bade us good day, and beckoned us into their souvenir or carpet shops.
We approached the Golden Horn, the gulf which divides the European part of the city in two, separating the old city from the ancient port of Galata. Traffic became heavier as we neared the water, and the air thickened with exhaust fumes and the sound of car horns. The pavements were full of the hustle and bustle of city life: street sellers hawking cigarettes, tissues, and pens sang out offering their wares; scarfed women hurried by, heads down turned; young men rushed to catch one or other of the frequent ferries.
We descended into a subway which was filled with shops and stalls. The noise enveloped us, rising to a dull, echoey roar, which was stimulating and only slightly daunting.
The Galata Bridge was crowded with fishermen concentrating on their lines. We crossed to the other side and made our way to the Galata Tower, which dominates the skyline, and climbed to the top. Below lay the city of Istanbul, once known as Constantinople, and before that Byzantium. Comparing what we saw before us to our map, we gained a tenuous grip on our bearings and descended.
At the foot of the bridge we explored the colourful - and pungent - fish market, where stallholders poured water into bright, plastic bowls bulging with shiny, still-live fish displayed for shoppers to buy.
We had four nights in Istanbul before beginning our overland tour, and on waking that morning we realised that the room we had reserved was even grottier than we had given it credit for in our exhausted state the night before. We investigated a few alternative hotels, and came across a newly opened Chinese establishment with big, clean, fresh rooms and decided to relocate the following day.
Back at our less-salubrious digs we caught up on some sleep, and were roused from our snoozing some time later by the telephone. It was Metin calling from the lobby, asking whether we were ready to eat. We were - once we had come to - so joined him downstairs ten minutes later.
Metin introduced us to his cousin, Mehmet, and the men led us through the packed streets before hailing a taxi to take us to Taksim Meydani, a popular meeting and eating place for young Turks. The pavements were packed and noisy; people swarmed all around as the fourth call to prayer of the day rang out. We walked through the streets and then turned into a covered avenue full of eateries, tables laid out in the lane, waiters leaning towards us, trying to tempt us in from all sides.
At the end of the passageway we emerged into a busy food market, the exotic and the mundane side by side, vendors calling out to the passing crowds. We left the market behind us and started down a steep street lined with restaurants, and busy with people enjoying al fresco meals. The air resonated with the loud buzz of voices; music and laughter filled my ears as faces loomed in from both sides, and menus were thrust in front of us.
Once we had reached the bottom of the road Metin asked, "why did you not pick one of the restaurants? Now we must turn round and go back up the street." It seemed that he had expected us to choose an establishment to dine at . . . or was it just an excuse to parade two blondes up and down? We told them to select one, and after some discussion they did.
We had a traditional mezze - a selection of cold dishes followed by hot. Serving plates of food were brought out on a big tray, and we pointed at the ones we wanted, selecting a number of dishes to share. After the substantial starters, the sparse hot course came as something of an anticlimax. The meal was a drawn out affair - the custom in Turkey is to eat slowly, picking at the dishes here and there, adding small bits of food to the plate over the course of several hours.
The cousins suggested taking us on a tour of the city's sites the next day, but we dodged the issue - Metin worked as a tour guide, as well as doing somewhat unreliable airport transfers, so this was unlikely to be a friendly, free offer.
On several occasions throughout the evening, Natalie and I had mentioned our wish to avoid causing offence in this foreign land, and asked the cousins for advice. We got vague, unhelpful answers to our questions, along the lines of, "it's okay, Turkey is an open-minded country - do what you want," even regarding things that we had read in guide books should be avoided (such as blowing your nose in public).
I was feeling tired - the effects of the previous late night, along with the strain of polite conversation, and listening carefully to understand Metin's thickly accented English. Natalie and I began readying ourselves to leave.
"I'm afraid that I'm going to have to call it a night; I'm very tired," I told Metin. "Here, let us pay for our share of the meal."
"No, not at all. I have invited you out, so that is not necessary; I will pay," was his reply.
"Are you sure?" My sister and I are not the sort to scrounge from people, and would prefer to pay our way than be beholden to anyone. Granted we had been offered this meal as compensation for the previous night's cock up, but we felt we should offer to cough up our share.
"Absolutely. This is the custom here - we have invited you, so we shall pay. But what about tomorrow? We shall meet up at twelve, yes?"
"Well I think that we are going to be rather busy, actually: we're changing hotels tomorrow," I replied, reluctant to appear rude, but not wishing to meet with the pair again.
"We have your number," Natalie interjected. "If we have time, then maybe we could give you a call, but we've too much on to make firm plans. We really should go now, I'm exhausted too."
"We have a saying in Turkey that you get your energy from your companions," Metin quipped.
"Well in England we say, when you are tired you should sleep," I returned, smiling sweetly, but beginning to get annoyed with his persistence - after all, it was because of the fiasco the previous night that we were as tired as we were.
Suddenly his manner changed. He became aggressive and told us it would be offensive for us to leave - this from the man who had pooh-poohed our earlier attempts to establish the local etiquette. It was an obvious attempt at emotional blackmail, trying to make us feel guilty and shame us into staying longer. Not one to give in to this sort of behaviour, I told him no - we must leave.
"Right," he snapped, angrily. "You must pay for what you have eaten."
"No problem," we replied in unison. A waiter was summoned, the bill was split, and Natalie and I paid our share and shot off into the night, retracing our steps and taking a cab back to our hotel. We laughed and fumed, and were astounded by his cheek.
The next morning we moved to our new hotel - which was a great improvement on the first one, and even closer to the sites - before exploring some of the ancient city. Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmet Camii as it is more properly known. The interior of the building seemed somewhat plain in comparison to its sumptuous exterior, although it was enlivened by the 17th -century Iznik tiles, which give the mosque its popular name.
Interestingly, it is said that the six minarets that make the mosque stand out from the rest came about as a result of a misunderstanding. The Sultan had asked for a golden minaret, the Turkish word for golden being altin. The architect, however, thought he said alti meaning six. Fortunately the Sultan liked the fact that his mosque was the only one with six towers, and allowed the architect to keep his head.
The mosque's magnificence paled in comparison to our next stop, Aya Sofia, also known as Hagia Sophia. The gargantuan building was constructed as a church in Byzantine time, and later converted into a mosque.
Third on our list was Basilica Cistern, an underground reservoir built in Roman times. We found ourselves in an atmospheric subterranean cavern, filled with rows of pillars supporting an arched, brick ceiling. A boardwalk led through the cool room, over water filled with peculiar fish.
The following day we visited Topkapi Sarayi, a truly splendid palace. Begun in 1465, and finished thirteen years later, the remarkable collection of structures was built for the seventh Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, better known as Mehmet the Conqueror. Mehmet was born in 1432 and ruled twice, initially from the age of twelve, when his father decided he had had enough of the throne, and abdicated leaving his young son to rule.
Two years later his father realised that the youngster was not quite up to the job, and retook control until his death, when the boy was nineteen. Mehmet proved his worth by conquering the city of Constantinople at the age of 23. Afterwards he continued to build up his armies, paying them well to ensure their loyalty, and allowing religious freedom. It was a policy that paid off, and he managed to extend the Ottoman influence well into Europe, and helped the empire on its way to becoming the major world power of the time.
The buildings were lavishly decorated, particularly the harem, which was covered in intricately designed tiles, colourful decorations, and wonderful geometric designs. It was built to house the sultan's mother, wives, and children, and later went on to be home for all the women associated with deceased rulers.
In our quest for cultural experiences, we also felt it fitting to sample a traditional shisha - a water pipe similar to the caterpillar's hookah pipe in Alice in Wonderland. An ornately decorated glass container is part-filled with water, and a small metal bowl placed on the top; this has an attached pipe that draws the smoke down under the water level. The moist, flavoured tobacco is put in the metal bowl and covered with foil, and glowing coals are placed on top. One or more flexible pipes extend from the glass body of the shisha, and by sucking on these the smooth, water-cooled smoke is inhaled. We soon found apple tobacco to be our favourite, providing a smooth, fragrant smoke.
On our last evening in the city centre we had planned to catch the nightly sound-and-light show at the Blue Mosque, but arrived to find the English version had finished and the German one in progress. Although we could only comprehend snippets of the voice-over, it was nice to see the structure lit up by the different coloured lights, and we munched on popcorn as we enjoyed the show.
A young Turkish man started talking to us - he first asked me if I was from Japan, curiously . . . with my blond hair and blue eyes I have never before or since been mistaken as Japanese. He told us of a whirling dervish show that was about to begin; we thanked him for the tip and rushed off to the café he had pointed out.
The crowd hushed as the dervish (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Alexi Sayle) in his long white robe moved to the centre of the stage. He whirled non-stop for a full six minutes, while a small band played traditional instruments in accompaniment. I asked the waiter who brought our apple teas, whether the dervish ever got dizzy, but was told no, he had gone to school to learn his art.
The ritual of the Mevlevi sect known as the sema was founded by the Turkish sufi, Rumi, a great philosopher and writer, and renowned poet of the 13th century. It is believed that the dervish can obtain a state of spiritual ecstasy through this unusual form of prayer, acting as a conduit for the power of the heavens, which enter him through his up-turned right palm travel through his body and leave via his down-turned left palm to enter the earth. The dervish - the word meaning doorway - is an unbiased instrument of Allah, and so is not able to direct this power, but allows it to pass through him. The whirling dance is accompanied by music, traditionally supplied by a reed pipe called a ney, as well as drums and chanting.
Rumi argued against the orthodox Muslims, who were opposed to any form of music claiming that it distracted from a religious life, and was sinful and harmful to the listener. Rumi believed that music uplifts our spirits to the realms above, and so the meeting places of the dervishes became central to the artists, poets, musicians, and writers of the day; contemporary bohemians and beatniks.
After the dervish had whirled his last whirl, and we had drained our dainty glass cups of apple tea, we returned to Green Corner, the open air establishment near to our hotel that had become our favourite place to while away the hours. We lounged on cushions, the shisha pipe bubbling away between us, and played gin rummy until the night grew late.
We awoke at a reasonable hour on the morning of the 9th, and had eaten breakfast, packed, and checked out by ten thirty, leaving our many bags in the care of the friendly hotel staff. We spent the day strolling around Istanbul, soaking up the atmosphere of the interesting city.
We visited the Grand Bazaar - which was less grand than we had hoped, and a lot more touristy - and wrote postcards. In the afternoon we retired to our favourite haunt, to play cards and smoke apple tobacco until it was time to catch a cab to the campground, on the outskirts of Istanbul.
We had both enjoyed this time to explore the city, but were well aware that it was just a precursor, a warm up before the main event. As the start of the tour drew close we became nervous, wondering about our fellow passengers. Would we like them? Would they like us? We glanced curiously around us . . . were they here, wondering the same things? We speculated on what to expect from the group, the truck, and the trip, full of anticipation and some apprehension for the months that lay ahead.
As the sun started sinking we returned to our hotel, gathered our belongings, and hailed a taxi to take us to the campsite, on the outskirts of town. We left the city behind us and drove along the course of the river, as the sun reddened in the sky. I began to entertain romantic notions about our home for the night.
"It'll be a beautiful spot, backing on to the river. I'll probably have a dip before I watch the sun go down," were my optimistic thoughts. Consequently I was somewhat disappointed when the road took a turn inland, and we pulled into a service station attached to a 24-hr garage. The campsite was a basic establishment providing some grass to camp on, a few plain rooms, and an ablution's block that reeked of urine. Fortunately not everywhere we were to stay was like this.
We paid for a room and squeezed our bags into the slim space at the end of the bed. Then we went to the garage shop, where we found pasta to be our most likely meal in there. Halfway through cooking it, a sweet old man - who had no English, but a nice smile - managed to convey to us that there were leftovers going begging. We abandoned our attempts, and helped ourselves to the still warm food that had been offered.
Around ten o'clock we heard the sound of a low, throbbing engine getting nearer. A large, yellow truck pulled into the campground, and we read the lettering on the side - it was ours! The truck had been the cause of much conjecture, and we eagerly examined the vehicle, concluding that it was better than we had hoped for. Along either side of the exterior were lockers. On the right hand side was a door allowing access to the interior, with flip-down steps beneath it. Inside were thirty seats in a variety of different positions: some facing forward, some facing each other, some arranged around tables bolted to the floor.
Gary had been driving, and told us that he was flying back home to England the next day. The other man, an Australian named Jake, was to be our tour leader for our journey from Istanbul to Cairo. For the next few hours we quizzed the two men, gleaning snippets about the forthcoming expedition, watching Gary's face light up as he spoke about Africa, a continent he obviously loved. We listened to the stories they told, and bombarded them both with a hundred questions.
Some time after midnight we hit the hay, full of anticipation for the adventure ahead of us.
Our overland experience was about to begin.
. . . to be continued . . .