Las Vegas, Nevada USA
Tires rolling over cobble stones make a loud and distinctive sound usually alerting anyone walking in the street of an approaching vehicle from behind, well in advance of it actually reaching their location... usually. Yesterday during the 14:00 calls to prayer there was so much echoing noise being made by all the holy yellers I failed to hear a yellow cab racing down the narrow alleyway behind me. The sidewalk ahead of where I walked had construction scaffolding over the area with a barrier blocking the exit which I noticed only as I reached it. Stepping off the curb to walk around the obstruction, the racing cab squeezed by missing my foot by inches. Fortunately, survival instincts created a reflex reaction that propelled me back up onto the sidewalk and out of harm's way, but with barely microseconds to spare.
One day while walking back to the hotel I noticed a commotion in front of an ice cream stand and paused to witness an hilarious exchange between the ice cream scooper-comedian and a group of about six elementary school age children and their parents. Every time the scooper would present some ice cream to one of the eager kids he would pull one of several slight of hand tricks which delighted the kids no end. Using a "scoop" with a two foot long handle he could make any combination of ice cream, cone, none or both appear or disappear at will. Once he offered a little girl just the scoop of ice cream without the cone. Uncertain what to do she giggled with delight while the vender swung the scooper high and struck a cow bell in one smooth arch before stabbing the ice cream ball with a cone and making the complete treat magically appear in front of the bewildered little girl. Everyone laughed, kids, parents and amused bystanders like me. One of my readers familiar with the "dondurma" ice cream venders of Istanbul provided the missing name for these magicians. A quick Internet search found the linked YouTube video.
Venders selling hot, freshly roasted chestnuts made a production out of efforts to peddle their hot treats as well. Most of what I experienced in Istanbul this time felt familiar, but I still enjoyed wandering the warren of narrow streets and alleyways... and watching the predictable antics of the hustlers harassing the flood of camera toting tourists: "The Hagia Sophia is closed right now, but you might like this guide book." or some other equally transparent ploy to become your new best friend... and get you into their carpet shop or book their guide service.
Overcast skies made bright photography impossible most of the time; rain limited the length of outdoors walks. With such miserable weather there were a surprising number of tourists in the city. Judging by the number of tour buses I suspect a majority came in package tours. Compared to twelve years ago, touts and vendors seem noticeably more sophisticated, creating almost believable reasons for that ever important initial contact with potential customers. All the hustling so prevalent during my previous visit has been replaced by polite, even helpful and welcoming comments to passing tourists.
Along the shore of the Sea of Marmara I discovered clusters of derelict buildings just waiting for someone to convert them into beautiful boutique hotels. It seems strange these old structures would be allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair. Unoccupied and condemned today, they must have been imposing dwellings a few decades ago. Four and five star hotels abound not more than a few dozen meters away.
Before leaving Aydin, the 13:00 checkout time from the hotel left more than five hours before the bus departure for Istanbul. I spent part of the time working at the lobby computer, finally abandoning that effort when the hotel pet, "I Do" decided to harass me into paying some attention to it. As the little feathered pest displayed a very threatening sharp beak and repeatedly pecked at the computer mouse and then even the keyboard, the distractions finally reached an intolerable point and I ended my work session and went out for yet another walk until closer to the bus departure time of 18:30.
The ultra-modern Pamukkale bus left on time for our eleven hour overnight trip, though this one only had on board WiFi and no USB port for recharging cell phone batteries. Around three AM I awoke with a start and realized the bus had stopped and turned off its engines. That often means a comfort stop of fifteen minutes and I wondered where we might be at this hour. Checking the GPS display I saw we were on the coast south of the Sea of Marmara... but the little location indicator seemed to be drifting away from the land... not uncommon as the GPS tries to lock on to a sufficient number of satellites. I waited for a lock, but instead the triangular indicator on the screen continued to slowly drift further out into the water.
Confirming I had time to shell out one Turkish Lira to some guy minding a toilet, I hopped off the bus and looked around puzzled. We seemed to be shoehorned in among other buses... not uncommon at the comfort stops, but also quite a few cargo trucks. Then I felt it: the ever so slight sway with the low pitched rumble of marine engines driving a massive vehicle ferry. During my sleep the bus had joined others boarding a short cut ferry across a Bay on the Sea of Marmara. The trip lasted less than twenty minutes and we were soon back on solid dry land rolling toward Istanbul.
The over night bus from Aydin arrived before dawn in the Istanbul otogar. At 05:00 nothing is open, not even the Metro underground subway. So, I walked around the area of bus agent offices inquiring about schedules for buses into Bulgaria. When the Metro rapid transit service opened its gates at 06:00 I bought a 3TL jeton (token) and rode into Anksaray, then walked over to the Tram line to get down to the Serkeci stop near the Hotel Prince. I'd hoped one of the guys I'd met twelve years earlier might still be working there, but no luck. I booked a room for two nights after negotiating a 130TL rate. The room I got was much smaller than what I remember from my earlier stay and the WiFi functioned poorly. On top of that the breakfast failed to meet my inflated expectations as well.
During the subsequent hotel shopping exercise I found a cute little newly built boutique hotel behind the Hagia Sophia and booked it for two nights at a negotiated rate of 105TL. The WiFi in the Hotel Valide Sultan Konagi is strong and works well, but the lobby computer is set up for Turkish users only and we were unable to get a QWERTY keyboard mapped. The top floor dining room where the breakfast buffet is served offers a panoramic view of both the Bosphorus ship traffic and the imposing Hagia Sophia structures. The interior of the hotel has been tastefully decorated in French Provincial décor throughout, creating a truly charming impression, despite the fact I am someone who prefers more modern decorations.
On my third day in the city I realized my 90 day visa would soon expire so I dashed out to the airport for a visa extension consultation with the tourist police handling foreigner visas. Surprisingly, they spoke no English and were no help at all, even when someone who did speak a bit of English on the telephone explained my concerns. My original 90 day visa will expire on Tuesday, 29 January, so I must make plans to get into Bulgaria before then.
Thinking I might try for a 09:00 bus departure to Burgas Bulgaria on the shores of the Black Sea, I moved over to the Princess Hotel closer to the otogar the night before. That turned out to be problematic: tiny room, poor Internet connections and the coffee pot exploded when I tried to get a cup of coffee. Disheartened by all the complications and tight departure schedules, I decided to do the sensible thing and booked a later noon bus to Sofia. The ten and a half hour estimated travel time would get me in late, but Sofia is a big city and vague memories from my last visit in 1999 suggested hotels should be no problem.
The next postcard
should be sent from somewhere in Bulgaria. Until then,
Fred L Bellomy
Fred L Bellomy