I think there was this moment right as we got off the bus in Istanbul where the pendulum of culture shock swung from one extreme to another with blinding, befuddling speed.
After having been ushered off the bus into the terminal, the crew unloaded everyone's luggage except ours. People started walking away and we stood there looking around. Finally a crew member started to explain to us as best he could that we would catch some kind of shuttle bus. We tried to tell them that no, we didn't need a shuttle, we would just like to get our luggage and a taxi. This didn't translate, and I think they must have assumed if they just ignored us and went ahead with their shuttle bus plan we would go along with it. Clearly they don't know loudmouthed Americans very well, because as the bus started pulling away without us, my parents and I all simultaneously started yelling at the top of our lungs and running after it, banging on the side and the windows. With a look somewhere between bewilderment and disgust, the driver stopped the bus and unloaded our luggage.
Feeling sheepish but irritated at having made a gigantic spectacle of ourselves, we walked out onto the curb and my Dad immediately flagged down the nastiest gypsy cab we saw. An ancient, creaking rusty car of indeterminate eastern-European origin, the toothless driver of similar vintage. Watching him drive, it was clear the gearbox was at this point probably not much more than metallic good-intentions. The floor mats were made of yesterday's newspaper. As we pulled up to our hotel the inside door handle fell off in my Mom's hand. It was, well, authentic. And, the security guard at our very nice hotel looked at us getting out of this cab with an expression that suggested we should probably be decontaminated before he let us in.
Unlike other places I've been thus far, there was real and pressing business in Istanbul. My parents, as part of the planning process, put the word out among some of their international contacts that they would be in the area and wanted to put together a seminar. My father can be best described professionally as a fiber-optics rockstar. You know, those cables that use flexible glass fibers instead of wire because light travels, like, fucking fast. Well my parents have been in the business for so long and my dad has been educating and evangelizing such that he can now pretty much just show up somewhere and people will travel long distances to hear him speak.
I, on the other hand, had made arrangements a few months in advance to pick up my visa to Iran. This process has been so involved and fraught that I wondered if it ever would really happen. If at some point along the way it had stalled or fallen apart, I would have been completely and utterly unsurprised. But step by complicated step, I'd gotten to the point where I would be walking into the Iranian consulate with paperwork in hand and get that magical stamp on my visa.
This is what I should have done first thing, that day, the minute I got off the bus. But as is my wont, I procrastinated. We did some touristy stuff, seeing the famous Blue Mosque and the catacombs and the Grand Bazaar (by Grand they mean holy shit gigantic) and just exploring the city a little. Istanbul is both incredibly walk-able and incredibly tourist friendly. Again, I think there was a misplaced expectation of a bustling, intimidatingly disorganized metropolis filled with people yelling at each other and goats running through the streets. Rather, it's a laid-back city with a European vibe and by far the cleanest streets I've ever seen. (For real. It makes Los Angeles look like the Wall-E garbage planet.)
It wasn't until the second day, while my parents were schmoozing with the captains of industry, that I walked down to the consulate and handed in my papers. At this point it started seeming like an elaborate political scavenger hunt. Go make copies of this, bring a photo of that, go to the bank and give them this. By the way - it's good to be a consulate, they're open 9-11 Monday-Thursday. What a pain in the ass. While I was busy running around collecting all the details, they closed.
That night I responded to the ubiquitous couchsurfing "I'm in town, let's get a drink" post and a few ex-pats and I went out for some beers on the main pedestrian drag. (Imagine, if you know it, the 3rd street promenade - about a mile and a half of it.) The strategy seems to be to just walk down the street and as the various waiters shout at you to come into their bars, you can play them off each other to drive down the price of a watered-down pint of local beer ("Efes" - tagline: "you can't buy anything else! Sucker!")
This turned into a random side conversation with some locals (three guys, a boss and two employees, one of whom made it clear they were getting drunk the boss’s dime) who after a while insisted that we should go to a club with them. The club was actually a rooftop, with a spectacular view and some suit-wearing traditional Turkish musicians interspersed for no particular reason with a Latin DJ. We all got crazy on the dance floor - by now I have some enviable middle-eastern dance moves, don't think I don't. I had a really odd conversation with a girl from Los Angeles at a conference for "panoramic painting" who soberly and without irony agreed with my assessment that it was a weirdly, amusingly specific that ought to be laughed at. When I thought back, the next morning, I realized she was stoned out of her mind and that explains the serene, compliant answers.
I closed the place down.
The next morning, I woke up lazily and we all went for a long, slow breakfast. We walked from the restaurant back to the consulate, where I found out I had more pieces of the scavenger hunt to gather. I looked at the time - 10:45, I had fifteen minutes before they closed AGAIN. I did some quick math and realized that if I didn't get it in that day, given the 24-hour turnaround they quoted me, I would miss my flight to Cairo that sunday. FUCK.
But I got it in, just.
Moral of the story: do not fuck around with consulates. Not ever. Get it done FIRST and EARLY.
Having that big yellow sticker in my passport made everything alright again. So the next few days were a breezy and enjoyable experience. I got the world's most ridiculous haircut. I bought a new, shittier backpack. We ate fish sandwiches off a boat and an expensive but fantastic meal under a bridge. Tourist stuff: a cruise on the Bosphorus, Aya Sofia (which seems to be... some kind of extra giant mosque?), Top Kopi palace.
About that: So in the palace, not listed on any tourist materials whatsoever, they have what they claim to be the prophet Mohammed's bread and tooth. Also, something they claim to be the "rod of Moses" from 1500 BC. Wait, what? Hold the phone. His beard? A 3500 year old stick? Are you kidding?
I've asked several people about this now and the broad consensus seems to be that nobody believe they're actually real. But I assure you they're presented as such, without any kind of discussion of authenticity.
There's something deeper here, above my pay grade, about the difference between Catholics and Muslims. I mean, we built cathedrals around the alleged finger bone of some-or-other saint. We go nuts for the image of Jesus in a water stain. No one seems that awfully impressed. Real or not, they practically put it in a closet.
One other highlight: at the Archaeology museum, we found a display of unearthed gravestones. On tiny signs next to them they had made translations. We may go to hell, but some of them were eye-wateringly funny. “She lived an inoffensive life and didn’t hurt anyone.” “I paid xxx dollars for this grave.” “Anyone caught robbing this grave will be fined.”
But the most moving, sincerely heart-felt inscription was a tomb that had been lovingly carved for a man’s best friend, his dog.
And then, in the final evening before my parents would fly home, we sat on the palace lawn and shared a few drinks, watching the sun dip low. It was such a satisfying and comfortable moment, feeling all the concern and love of parents and the camaraderie of real friendship with people you respect and like.
I saw her, then. I don't want to write about this, but it stuck out so sharply and with such clarity in that moment that it feels dishonest not to. From a distance, it was the perfect ghost of her - the person that in so many ways set me down this path - as a child. All full of grace and energy, the short black hair fluttering in the wind as her mother took photo after photo. This child soaking in all the attention the world could give her. It was like seeing a window back in time to a moment of innocence and hope. This is what I had seen of her all along, an essence of uncorrupted things. A childish kind of hope - I fell in love with it, even though by the time I arrived it was long gone.
That moment settled on me like a dense fog rolling in off the water. It was a silent and small expression of forgiveness, and a goodbye. She wouldn’t trouble my thoughts again in the weeks that followed.
So in the morning I packed up my newer, shittier bag and took the train to stay in a hostel for my first time. Ten euros a night doesn't go far in this town, tell you what. But it was saturday and I made the most of it. In the morning, I had a hungover flight well and truely off the deep end: to Cairo.