Friday, 18 November 2011

Tales from Türkiye - 1

Basilica cistern
Turkish Airlines non-stop: Mumbai-Istanbul. Deafeningly noisy & filled with holidaying families & college groups; strangely, for none of whom Turkey is the final destination. How do I know this? Well, when you have people yelling across the flight about how they can’t wait to get to Switzerland, about how mama should definitely be there at Heathrow to pick them up, about how many rides they’ll ride at Disneyland or whether all the home-cooked food will suffice until they get back from the ‘Europe Tour’, you’re bound to figure that out, aren’t you? K (the hubby), I & a few businessmen travelling to Turkey shift ourselves to the rear of the flight (which is thankfully empty) & try to get some shut-eye. Our flight takes off very early in the morning; an odd time for a flight, really. 

Istanbul, Bosphorus & Galata bridge
Seven hours later, I’m roused by the sun on my face. I peer down to see the gleaming Bosphorus snaking its way through the city, around equally gleaming buildings. I can see ships & yachts. I can see minarets. I can see bulbous domes. I can see the mad jumble of buildings, but, I can also see sprawling gardens……I can see Istanbul! Hungry, my mind starts conjuring up images of the fabled baklava & embarrassingly, I drool over my T-shirt. The baklava will have to wait; I’ve first got immigration to deal with.

Camel rock, Cappadocia
I went to Turkey much before it began its active publicity campaigns in India. I had rudimentary knowledge of Turkey (known as Türkiye, locally), gleaned from sources as varied as school history books, TV travel programmes & cookery shows: Baklava, the Mediterranean, Turkish delight, whirling dervishes, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, Ottomans, carpets & pottery. The Turkey I came to discover had all this & more. These are snippets of my experiences, thoughts & anecdotes, from the 2-1/2 weeks I spent in this lovely country:

A tale of 2 cities:
The Golden horn, dividing the city
Istanbul accorded me a grey, rainy, cold & windy welcome. Nonetheless, I pulled my jacket tightly around me & stepped on a boat. All the tiled & gleaming buildings looked freshly bathed, the rain having washed away all the dust. As I bobbed around the Bosphorus (the strait separating European & Asian Istanbul) under bridges spanning across the two continents, I took in the contrasts that the city offered: Palaces, villas as well as contemporary buildings on one side & densely populated residential quarters on the other side. The unifying factor on either side was minarets, towering above everything.

Istiklal Caddesi
When I returned 2 weeks later, it was to a different city; sunny and with Tulips in full bloom. But the jacket had to stay; if not to keep out the cold breeze, then, to prevent me from being incongruous in a crowd of nattily dressed & jacketed Istanbullus (residents of Istanbul; like Bombay-ites or Bangaloreans). I felt this acutely as I stood out like a sore thumb at Istiklal Caddesi, in up-market Istanbul. People walked past with a swagger, displaying what looked like Versace’s latest winter collection. As stilettos & boots clicked all around me, I peered down to be greeted by the sight of sneakers adorning my feet, my ‘functional’ green jacket & an even more ‘functional’ backpack. But here, clearly, black was the colour of the season & so were smart black bags. It made me want to bury my head like an Ostrich. Since that wasn’t possible, I did the next best thing; take a tram back to ‘not so up-market’ Istanbul. But, not before I’d grabbed a dondurma cone to go.

Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, the Dolmabahçe palace is a worthy replica. The Baroque overdose & bling hits you in the face as soon as you spot the gates at a distance. I watched the change of guards & then walked into the manicured garden. We were all given protective covers for our footwear; maintaining the parquet flooring & carpets is difficult enough without visitors like us bringing in dirt & grime. This palace had everything that would probably make even Louis XIV nod approvingly: Baroque? Check. Bling? Check. Ornate columns? Check. Domes & cupolas? Check. Freshly waxed Parquet floors? Check. Un-imaginably large, heavy & ornate carpets? Check. Gilded walls & ceilings? Check. Stunning paintings & frescoes, in vibrant colours? Check. Gardens & fountains? Check. A view of the sea? Check…..why, it’s right by the ocean! Doesn’t that beat Versailles?

Ruins, history & lore:
The entrance gate at Aphrodisias
The sports arena
I ran around Disneyland, giddily. No, Turkey does not have a Disneyland. But, seeing such magnificent Greco-roman ruins, to an architect, is akin to a Disneyland visit. Having been a part of Greece until the 20th century, Turkey has its fair share of monuments & ruins. Probably not to the scale or abundance of Greece or Italy; but, impressive nonetheless. Aphrodisias is my favourite and the most picturesque; quite befitting Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The guide who was supposed to take us (hubby & I) there never showed up. We decided to go ahead, armed with guidebooks to tell us the story. I was smitten by the ruins! Visited by very few, and, on that day, by none, I quite felt like Indiana Jones. And, it gave me goose-bumps; especially when I stood in the centre of the large sports arena. The arena was also used frequently for gladiator fights & you could see areas where the animal lay in wait & areas from where the gladiator entered. He may not necessarily have left the arena on his feet; carried for burial, maybe? The setting sun added to the eeriness of it all. More goosebumps!

A corner of the communal bath
Your slave wakes up before dawn, before the rooster has crowed. He walks in the dark to the bath. He sits on the toilet bowl & waits for sunrise. You’re up at the crack of dawn. You shake laziness off your limbs & head outside. You meet a few friends along the way & chat until you get to the bath. Your slave gets up so that you can sit on the bowl. The marble seat, cold until just about an hour ago, is now warm & inviting, having been heated by your slave sitting on it. You sit alongside your friend & watch the fountains splutter & gurgle to life. As if on cue, the live musicians begin playing songs. A harp emanates soothing notes. Relieved to have the music mask any embarrassing sounds, you do your thing. Incense burns in a corner & fills the air with its sweet scent. People walk in & out & you wave to those you know. You scan around the room with its marble-clad walls; your eyes chance upon the new marble sculpture they’ve added, of a young man with his rippling muscles; ooh…..if only you had a boyfriend like that!

This is how your morning bathroom rituals supposedly were, if you lived centuries ago, in Ephesus. I stood at the communal bath, visualizing the scene. My guide invited me to sit on a bowl. I did & instantly felt the cold marble chilling my gluteal muscles. But, the vision swimming before my eyes was so inviting. Suddenly, even the poshest bathrooms I’d enjoyed seemed boring in comparison!

Travertine pools
Tombs overlook Pamukkale
“Walk through the water, following its course & you will reach the ancient city” Mehmet told us “And take off your shoes else it’s slippery”. There was a road that would’ve let us drive straight to the parking lot but we’d wanted to trek up. We looked quizzically at Mehmet “Through the water? In this freezing weather?? Without shoes???” He smiled “You forget that it’s water from a spring; it will be warm”. Driving up sounded so unappealing that we decided to walk; comfortable or not. I’m glad we did! Walking upstream takes you to the famous travertine pools of Pamukkale, formed when mineral water cascaded over the cliff edge, creating calcium shelves & stalactites. Misuse in the 20th century led to the water draining out & intervention has now restored some of it. After some time in the pools, we continued walking up till we reached the ancient spa city of Hierapolis. We spent the whole day there, walking through the historic ruins, the museum, bathing in the pool & walking around the enormous theatre. As the sun threatened to set, we took the path down, passing alongside a beautiful necropolis (burial place for the dead). The beige tombs, overlooking the town of Pamukkale & the travertine pools, with pretty spring flowers running riot around them, didn’t seem to be a bad place at all, to be laid to rest in. After we visitors had left, the pools & Hierapolis would make for such an amazing place for the spirits to wander in; if I were a ghost, I’d really like it here!

Where we’re up in the air & fairies are on the ground:
The hot air from the fire was a welcome respite from the cold at this elevation, as we floated around peacefully. Below me, surreal landscapes unfolded. 

Aerial view of Love valley
As the sun rose, it tinged everything orange & shadows slowly appeared, adding to the drama. Our pilot Kylie pointed out to the different rock formations; some called ‘love valley’ and some, ‘rose valley’. The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia are intriguing enough from the ground but to see them from the air was a different experience altogether. After floating high enough for some time, Kylie lowered the balloon so that we floated just over the pretty apricot trees in bloom. We could’ve plucked some fruit if we’d bent down. Of course, being 10 adults tightly packed in a basket didn’t allow for luxuries like moving around or bending. A couple of hours later, we landed; literally with a thud, on the grass. It was time to toast to our flight with some champagne. In ‘high spirits’, we returned to our cave. 

A view of Goreme, Cappadocia
Yes, cave! Cappadocia is famous for its volcanic rock formations, called ‘fairy chimneys’. People built houses within these rocks. So did pigeons. The rocks were also great to hide in, when you were being persecuted for your religion; this is how early Christian monks hid. We can now see their hide-outs as part of an open-air museum. We stayed in a family home, now converted into a ‘cave hotel’. This is something I’d never seen before nor have ever seen since then. Of course, the younger generation was said to prefer conventional dwellings & we could see that most families had moved out of the cave homes into brick-n-mortar ones. Oh, if only I could live in a cave…..I’d never leave it! Talk about the grass always being greener on the other side!

One night, I entered a small café at Goreme. It was empty, given the ‘non-smoking’ sign, something that’s quite a rarity in Turkey. Run by a couple, this café served home-cooked food. I dug into some hearty soup & gozleme (savoury pastry), as music played in the background. Suddenly, strains of familiar music wafted in. Chatting with the couple, I asked them how they’d got Indian music. They were quite surprised to know that the music was Indian and said that this was one of their favourite CDs, given to them by a backpacker. They started this café because they enjoy meeting people from different countries. These travellers left gifts behind at times, sometimes also in lieu of money for the food. We continued to chat as I ate; it felt like I was at their home. 

Walking through corridors
I bent & ducked my way through the stairs. A hundred stairs later, I could stand erect in the small, cavernous chamber. I took in what the guide was telling us & shook my head in disbelief. No way did a few thousand people live here! The steps & narrow passages had actually taken us below the ground, to the underground city of Kayamakli. A few hundred feet below civilization with no light shaft & cleverly concealed ventilation shafts, the very thought of living here filled me with a wave of claustrophobia. I wouldn’t have lasted a day. I was also overcome by a wave of sadness, for the people who had to escape marauding armies or religious persecutors & escape underground. But, it definitely beats being killed by marauders & I was happy that they’d come up with such an ingenious solution. Each house had access from within to the underground city & people could escape quickly without being discovered.

Fun, laughs & surprises:
I was promised that all my dead skin would fall off me & I would feel as soft as a baby’s bum. A very tempting thought that lead me to the hamam, a communal Turkish bath-house. But, as I lay on the cold marble slab in a bikini, pummeled (I kid you not!) by a stocky old man, some coarse soap & an even coarser loofah, I didn’t care two hoots for the baby’s bum. I was worried I’d have to have plastic surgery to recover from this. Many others around me seemed to share my fear, for we all looked at each other in alarm. But, none of us wanted to be sissy enough to scream. 30 minutes later, after a sauna session where my raw skin boiled in the heat, I sat drinking apple tea at the reception. This is the least they can offer me, I thought! K too came out looking like a boiled carrot. We, two dusky Indians, had magically been transformed into red-skinned people. I slathered myself with lotion to help my chafed skin. But, by the next day, the burning stopped & I did feel like a baby’s bum. Well, no pain, no gain! And for the record, I didn’t need surgery.

A tea-house at the bazaar
K & I ambled through the spice bazaar; some things very familiar & some things, exotic. A man called us into his store & we browsed for a bit. Taking K aside, he said “Buy this bottle. Drink 2 tsp of this and you will run like a horse”. “Thanks, but I don’t want to run like a horse” said K, amused. “You don’t understand”, the man persisted “you will run like 4 horses”. K too persisted, even more amused “I don’t even want to run like 1 horse, let alone 4”. “Then how will you have children?” wailed the man. That’s when it hit us…..he was trying to sell us one of Turkey’s fabled aphrodisiac potions! I guffawed & the man turned pink, embarrassed that a lady had heard his sales pitch. Soon, he laughed too and K & I left for some more browsing, without the ‘horse syrup’. 

Aishwarya! Shah Rukh! Sometimes, Salman. This is how we were hailed by shopkeepers at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, asking us to look at their wares. They knew where we were from; our un-mistakably Indian features being a dead give-away. An elderly gentleman sang a Raj Kapoor song as I debated whether to buy those expensive Turquoise earrings or Amber pendant from him, which he insisted were ‘original gems set in pure silver’. His song swayed me & I bought both.  The Grand bazaar is as grand as it sounds; a planned, covered market, heaped with carpets, onyx, blue pottery, jewellery, lanterns, evil-eye charms & the works. Built more than 5 centuries ago, it is still as bustling & wallet-draining as it probably was, then. When all the shopping tired me, I popped into one of the numerous cafés for some çay (Tea). I silently thanked the person who had designed the bazaar & thoughtfully sprinkled it with cafes. 

In the days of yore, when a Turkish woman was hunting for a groom, she had to undertake a carpet-weaving test. The more skilled you were, the better the husband you’d bag. For a Turkish man, it was a pottery test. A man had to use the potter’s wheel & produce a jar & a lid. If the lid fit the jar perfectly, he was said to possess enough skill to earn money & hence, take care of his family. I tried my hand at weaving a few knots in a carpet. The giggling girls at the weaving school proclaimed me fit to marry; not necessarily to the best groom, though. K sat at the potter’s wheel & produced a jar with a hole at the bottom. His lid looked like a mashed potato. He was deemed unfit to even dream of marrying!

Link to Tales from Türkiye – 2:

Curious to know more about our itinerary in Turkey? Read on:

Tales from Türkiye - 2

In search of the fallen heads:
Bodies in the east, before sunrise
The heads were scattered on the snow-covered mountain. Some men; some women. They were exquisitely beautiful. Their bodies were further away. The heads had probably rolled away from near the bodies, due to wind or snow. No, this is not something out of a macabre murder mystery. To see these heads, we’d driven across the country to Eastern Turkey, to Nemrut. Landscapes changed dramatically. Rugged mountains & snow replaced the pleasant & colourful spring that had set elsewhere. Tourists were few & far between. Our Kurdish guide walked about nonchalantly in a sweater even as the rest of us looked equipped for an expedition to Antartica. He shrugged his shoulders….it’s warm today; just 10 below freezing. Brrrr! We’d woken up in the middle of the night & headed (pun intended) to see the heads at sunrise. We climbed up the slippery, icy path, glimpsing the snaking Tigris River; along-with the Euphrates River, it formed the core of the Mesopotamian civilization. Though you’re expecting it, it stuns you to see heads in the middle of nowhere & you wonder why they’re there. They’re there because Antiochus I (who was a king for about 30 years from 64 BC) constructed a tomb & a temple here, in the hope that his spirit would join Zeus after death. So, to the Eastern & Western sides of the artificial mound, are gigantic sculptures of Antiochus seated with Apollo, Fortuna, Zeus and Heracles; all the gods whom he believed were his ‘relatives’. The better-preserved statues on the western side were still covered in snow in April while the eastern statues glowed in the warmth of the rising sun.

We were near the Syrian border; re-iterated by the billowing chadors, as women walked across the mosque. Urfa is a pilgrimage town & we were conspicuously non-pilgrims. We visited a cave, said to be the birth-place of Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) and then went to the nearby mosque. Later, walking through the maze of streets, we stumbled upon a local coffee house. Soon, we were seated on the low wooden seats in the courtyard, drinking Turkish black coffee that was much stronger than what our palate could handle. To revive our taste-buds after the coffee, we headed to the nearest bakery to gorge on baklavas. The next day, we visited another unique town; the nearby town of Harran, said to be one of the continuously inhabited spots on earth. Even more unique were the local bee-hive houses; once, a way of life & now a rarity, with many families moving to ‘modern houses’.

Food adventures:
We stopped at a remote village for lunch. “Bread & potatoes for us please, as we’re vegetarians”. “Oh, maybe some honey to go with the bread?” “Sure thing!” The ‘honey’ was served on a plate & was neatly sliced. I wondered if I was hallucinating. “No”, egged my guide….”go ahead & place a slice between the bread & eat it. See, like this”. I watched as he devoured his sandwich & made me one. Maybe people here extract the honey from the honeycomb themselves, just before they eat? Nope, they eat the honeycomb, with the honey still in it; neatly sliced to fit between the bread! Definitely one of the ‘weirdest’ things I’ve eaten. I’m not even sure if it qualifies as vegetarian, assured though I was that “all the bees have left from it”. Hmm….crunchy & sweet.

“Every time!! How can this happen every time?” I thought, annoyed with my clumsiness. I’d once again dripped sugar syrup onto my jacket, tried to clumsily wipe it off with my hands, touched my handbag with the same hand by mistake & now had 4 items on me that were covered in the sickly-sweet syrup. Only my mouth let out sounds of delight. Did they have to make the Baklava so syrupy?? But, the pleasure that you get in this one messy mouthful is hard to beat! My jacket still has a ‘souvenir stain’ from that day, stubbornly refusing to vanish despite my laundry-wala’s many ‘treatments’.

One cold, winter evening, a few of us sat at a small café, knife & fork in hand. Soon, our food arrived; a perfect square, looking all white & creamy. I struggled to cut myself a piece & waited until the food warmed a bit. Warmed? Yes, I was trying to eat an ice-cream; the dondurma, that’s only available in Kahranmanmaraş, in Eastern Turkey. So hard, you have to use a knife. Yet, melt-in-your-mouth & incredibly creamy….like double fat icecream! We packed a few tubs to go. Four hours into the drive, we satisfied our ice cream cravings once more. It had just begun to show signs of melting.

My first meal in Turkey was a hurriedly grabbed shawarma from a street stall. In its vegetarian avatar, it resembled a falafel more than shawarma. I had no trouble finding vegetarian food in Turkey. The Mediterranean has blessed this country with fresh veggies, lovely olives, apricots & figs, sweet fruit, olive oil & feta cheese. Combine all this to make some fresh salad. There’s freshly-baked bread for every meal….nobody eats bread that’s been baked earlier! Add some rice wrapped in vine leaves, gozleme, boreks, pide, shorbas, mezze & yummy desserts… needn’t go hungry at all!

To tide you through the day, you have a lot to choose from: The sweetish Apple tea, the stronger çay, some very strong black coffee or refreshingly cold ayraan. At night, the Turkish liquour, raki, it is. Made from anise, it was too strong for my liking, but is a local favourite. If it’s a particularly cold day, warm your innards with salep, a unique Turkish drink made from crushed orchid roots.

Ruins, history & lore, some more:
Entrance to the han
The stage for the sema
The han was in the middle of nowhere, partly in ruins; yet, beautiful enough to cause a sharp intake of breath in me. Of course it would be in the middle of nowhere….why would they build a resting place / re-fuelling stop for weary silk route travelers in the middle of bustling towns? I imagined the relief I would have felt a few centuries ago, had I been trudging through unknown, desolate lands with my camel or horse laden with goods for sale. The han would have been a life-giver. Today, I sat inside around a dimly lit stage, with a hundred others, waiting for the whirling dervishes. Soon, the sema began. We’d been told not to be noisy or click photos. I don’t think we would’ve been able to, in any case, hypnotised as we were. Accompanied by mellifluous instruments & the head priest’s chants, the dervishes whirled themselves to a trance; their eyes closed, one hand pointing up & the other pointing down, symbolizing the receiving from god & giving to the needy. It made me question all laws of science known to me: Doesn’t any centrifugal force affect them? How do they not fall down? How do they maintain balance while looking graceful at the same time? Have they really moved to another world, forgetting our presence?

Remains of an aqueduct
I noticed this as I walked through Selçuk: Aqueducts on the road, for a few metres at a stretch, with stone arches supporting them. Some arches were now used by nesting storks. What a fabulous system it was, for carrying water across towns. I thought of the dull & drab pipes that run underground, bringing us our water. And, look at Istanbul’s Byzantine era water storage, the Basilica Cistern. Compare that to our monstrous concrete water tanks! Why do beautiful things become outdated? And why can’t functional things be beautiful? Weren’t the aqueducts both?

I bumped into a lot of Greek goddesses, across Turkey. Medusa, of the (in) famous curls can be spotted at Ephesus and also at the Basilica Cistern. Here, her head is upside-down, supporting a column. Legend has it that Medusa was actually ethereally beautiful. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, caught Medusa with Poseidon, the sea god. Jealous at the thought of losing the man she loved, she cursed Medusa & turned her into an ugly monster with snakes for her hair. Looking at Medusa was also supposed to turn you into stone. In Ephesus, I also saw the goddess of air, Nike. One look at a carving depicting her & suddenly, the origin of the contemporary Nike’s ‘swoosh’ was clear to me. Another interesting goddess is Artemis, the goddess of fertility & animals; In Ephesus, she is depicted very differently, with multiple protuberances on her chest.   

What we call ‘amphitheatres’ today would be put to shame by amphitheatres built by the Greeks. I saw at least 5 of them: at Ephesus, Aphrodisias, Hierapolis, Priene & Miletus. At Priene, the front row had special ‘VIP’ seats in marble, with a high back-rest. The stage & skene (backstage) area at the amphitheatres in Hierapolis & Aphrodisias are reasonably well preserved. It felt nice to be able to walk through the remains of dressing rooms, prop storage areas & other spaces backstage. And, since we were alone at Aphrodisias, we could test the acoustics without being a nuisance to others. We were skeptical about it, but, we discovered that despite speaking from the stage without a mike, the audience can hear you, even those in the uppermost row! Respect & admiration for the architects & designers of that time!

More tales of 2 cities:
The Blue mosque (aka Sultan Ahmet camii) & Aya Sofiya (aka Hagiya Sophiya) are Istanbul landmarks. Luckily for me, they were very walk-able from my hotel at Sultanhamet, the heart of old Constantinople. 

Aya Sofiya at night
Blue Mosque

Aya Sofiya was built as a church & served as one for over 900 years and then, after the Ottoman conquest, used as a mosque for about 500 years. It was finally declared a museum by the Turkish President Attaturk, in the early 20th century, after Turkey got its independence from Greece. Mellow-looking from the outside, it has a huge central dome that refused to fit into my camera frame, from within the building. The grey & yellow interiors are unique: you can see beautiful Islamic calligraphy as well as stunning mosaics depicting scenes from Christ’s life. The ongoing UNESCO renovation meant that there was scaffolding all over that detracted a bit from the experience. The Blue mosque, in comparison, is stunning from the outside as well. I donned my headscarf & went in to be greeted by the sight of lovely stained-glass windows & mosaic work using ornate blue Iznic tiles, which is what gives the mosque its un-official name.

Kariye museum (originally, Chora church) took quite an effort to reach, as it is located in a little-visited area of Istanbul. But, it was well worth it. Every inch of the interior is filled with stunningly brilliant, multi-coloured mosaics depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus & Mary. I gaped open-mouthed, even as the impact of the artistry knocked my socks off!

More fun, laughs & surprises:
The emperor’s pool at the ruins of the ancient city of Hierapolis: the guard looked suspiciously at my swimming trunks. I’d arrived in Turkey without swimwear, with a prejudiced notion that in an Islamic country, I couldn’t wear one anyway.  K’s spare swimming trunks were handy but the guard shook his head “No shorts or T-shirts, madam”. “But, but”…..I spluttered, casting a longing glance at the emperor’s bath, filled with people in swimwear….”but, this is swimwear; just that it is men’s swimwear”. “Okay for the trunks”, said the guard “But the tee won’t do. We need to maintain the pool’s cleanliness”. “I swear this is a clean, washed tee & not the one I’ve worn the whole day…please???” And I showed him my other tee in my backpack. He relented. I jumped in. The gargoyle spat hot spring water on my back. I bobbed around the mossy, algae-filled pool. This was where the king used to bathe. Of course, he didn’t have people sitting around the pool at tables, eating food from the food court & watching him in the pool. He didn’t have bus-loads of people arrive & point cameras at him to shoot a photo of the pool. I tried hard to ignore these people & enjoy the water. It didn’t work so I used the ostrich technique….I buried my head in the water & closed my eyes. Now, it was just bliss….

Girls in Eastern Turkey
Hawa, sabun, shorba, hisaab, pardah, duniya, sheher, subzi, bhai, behen….I’m not spouting Hindi words suddenly. These are Turkish words. Surprised? So were the Turkish, when we told them. And they mean the same as in India: Air, soap, soup, accounts, curtains, world, city, veggies, brother, sister (the last two though, are pronounced ‘bai’ and ‘bain’). Also, funnily, in an airport announcement at Istanbul, they pronounced my tongue-twister of a surname perfectly; so perfectly that I was shocked & it took me a while to realise that the call indeed was for me. Many people back in India struggle to pronounce my name!

Mehmet & Mustafa, two names that a lot of Turkish men answer to. We met so many during our visit that we had to give them pre-fixes, so that we wouldn’t have embarrassing mix-ups. So, our gracious host at Pamukkale was ‘Pamukkale Mehmet’ while the manager at Istanbul was ‘Istanbul Mehmet’. We were soon foxed at our plan; sometimes, we met two people with the same name in the same city! We had to devise other innovative ways to refer to them; in Cappadocia, we had a ‘Guide Mustafa’, a ‘Planner Mustafa’ and a ‘Manager Mustafa’.

Cigarettes, tea & coffee at a coffee house in Urfa
Everybody in Turkey smokes all the time: the young & the old, men & women. It’s either cigarettes or Nargileh (a water pipe, a hookah). Even during overnight bus journeys, people would rush out as soon as the bus stopped for a break. To pee, I would think. But it turned out that the rush was for a fag. Bathroom breaks were secondary. Worked for me, though; I would happily rush to the free bathrooms & then wait around the bus with the others, looking odd without a cigarette dangling from my lip. And, to add to my happiness, there were always small stores selling hot tea & biscuits, much like the chai stall in India. A puff & some hot tea later, the bus would set off again into the darkness. Only too soon, somebody would feel like a smoke & the next thing you know, everybody would be craving for it, enough to request the driver to stop for a bit. Oh well, I could have another cup of tea…..  

Delicate, white, intricate….the lace-work in small towns & villages in Turkey enamoured me. I resisted the urge to buy it; where would I use this back home? Finally, when I gave in to temptation, ironically, I couldn’t spot a single shop that sold lace. By then, I was at Pamukkale. Sensing my distress, our hostess, Ulmi, graciously offered to give me the lace curtains that she had just purchased for her house, if I liked them. Love them, I did & I bought it from her. It’s still lying wrapped neatly in a paper bag; it’s too precious to be used in an apartment….maybe someday when I own a large villa, with French windows opening to a gorgeous view that’ll do it justice.

Our cafe bouncer smoking a nargileh
What better way to spend my last night in Turkey, than by the Bosphorus; the very same strait that was my first view of the country.  Having climbed to the top of the Galata tower in the evening for a view of Istanbul, I headed to the Galata Bridge. Mehmet, our hotel’s young manager, had told me about seesha cafes & eateries under the bridge which are popular haunts for youngsters. Being a youngster myself, he thought I’d like it. It turned out that a lot of youngsters had the same plan that night. We struggled to find un-occupied tables. Finally we were seated at a small table outdoors, with bean-bags for seating. We sank into them thankfully & spent the next couple of hours aimlessly munching on assorted mezze & guzzling drinks. The sun set over Istanbul, which slowly lit itself up in response. I wistfully gazed at the minarets, the ferries, the sea & my plate of mezze; the next evening, I would be landing at Mumbai airport. Oh, how I hate the end of holidays!

Link to Tales from Türkiye – 1:

Curious to know more about our itinerary in Turkey? Read on:

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

A chequered date with the Chequered-flag

Panoramic view from my seat, of turns 10 & 11

India’s first ever Grand-Prix: beyond cynics’ wildest dreams; and, for F1 fans, their wildest dream come true. I myself couldn’t believe it, as I sat in the electrifying atmosphere at the circuit; stands chock-a-block with spectators. For most people, it was akin to a family picnic or a chance to hang out with friends in a ‘different’ ambience. You had the noise, the food & the drinks. And, the snob value. It was ‘the place’ to be seen in. People were dressed to the nines. Air-kissing was rampant, as was the clicking of heels. But, the deafening roar of the engines silenced everything, as people watched in awe. I think the sport gained a few fans at the end of that weekend. And those who were fans already were re-converted, vowing to come & watch this each year.

Bruno Senna misses the apex
We all waited with bated breath, for the drivers’ verdict of the Buddh International circuit. Did the much-hyped design live up to its name? After 2 days’ practice, it received a unanimous thumbs-up. And the spectators’ verdict? Another thumbs-up. Seated at the premium South stand, with its double turn & some elevation in the track, I had plenty of action to keep me happy. The circuit was loaded with over-taking possibilities & thrilling ones at that. Initially bothered by the dust that hadn’t quite settled down, the drivers soon took to the track. 

Practice session
I watched the race with one bad eye, having had a metal piece fly & embed itself into my cornea when dust flew into it just as I left my hotel, eagerly heading to the race. After a frantic visit to the doctor & fervent prayers for the race to begin at ‘IST’ so that I don’t miss the drivers’ parade at 1:30, I made it to the circuit just as the last three drivers drove past. My prayers weren’t answered; the parade had begun on time. 

Fernando Alonso
Felipe Massa

The race was exciting, with Massa & Hamilton again at loggerheads; one of their many clashes this year. Massa’s suspension, which had already troubled him at qualifying, broke soon after. When his car stalled near my turn, you could sense his disappointment as he was driven away on a scooter. Vettel’s lead was stupendous & he’d cemented his place on the podium right from the first lap. Credibly, Narain Karthikeyan finished the race. Karun Chandhok waved to spectators as he vroom-ed past during the practice sessions. I threw away my ear-plugs; it wasn’t half as fun without the sound of these beauties zooming past. 

The first lap of the race, with Vettel in the lead (outside the photo) with Button seen here, ahead of Webber.
Massa's car, carted away
Massa walks away from his car after the suspension broke

Lewis Hamilton
Michael Schumacher

I was wondering how people who didn’t follow the sport would enjoy. To add to their woes, the commentary wasn’t audible at all as it was drowned by the cars’ sound. But, people discovered their own little ways to have fun: they cheered as Karthikeyan drove past, they cheered for Force India’s cars, they posed for pictures with the race in the background, they came armed with Force India flags (which they waved), and they applauded as cars tackled corners at un-imaginable speeds. 

Vettel & Hamilton on the victory lap
Now for the minor irritants: As an architect, I first noticed it & then, it irked me that the stand design was clumsy, with the roof barely covering me (I was in the last row, last column, but I still expect to be covered when I pay for a ‘covered seating area’). Four annoying columns right in the front did block a bit of my view of the exciting double turn. And yes, Jaypee Sports goofed up the travel arrangements. Yes, the food was over-priced & bad. Yes, they’d barely completed the work on time & we had to walk through undulating sand (fine by me, but it inconvenienced children & the elderly quite a bit). And, I was stranded after the race when the taxi service didn’t send me my ‘confirmed’ cab because they couldn’t find a cabbie who wanted to venture so far to pick me up. I waited in hope until it turned dark & even the organizers had left; I then almost hijacked the next taxi that drove past, thankfully empty.

Vettel receives his trophy from Mayawati
The view outside the stand

The arrival of F1 in India has not been without its share of brick-bats. Organizers have been accused of wasting money. There are factions that say that the money could have been spent to boost other sports. Some are worried that F1 will now lure all sponsors who were supporting other sports. And then, there is the question of affordability; with prices like this, it will be accessible only to a niche audience.

Looking back at the lighter moments, a dog ran across the track on the first day, only to be promptly christened the ‘race dog’. Luckily, it escaped, un-injured. Mayawati caused not a little mirth when she was called to present the trophy. She did that, amongst boos & speculations about whether each of the three winners on the podium would get designer handbags, especially chosen by her. But, undoubtedly, the star of the show was the circuit. We ooh-ed & aah-ed each time the giant screen flashed a view of the entire track, shot from the helicopter hovering above. All the circuit needs is a little polishing. Hopefully, a year should remedy that. But, the race more than made up for it. Until next year, then!

For information about our trip & tips, read this: