The predictable question travelers get from loved ones is, "Why are you going to Turkey?" With each visit to Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world, my response is: Why would anyone not travel here?
When I was in my twenties, I finished eight European trips in a row in Turkey. I didn't plan it that way — it was the natural finale, the subconscious cherry on top of every year's travel adventures. While my passion for Turkey hasn't faded, my ability to spend time there has been a casualty of my busy guidebook-research and public television-production schedule. But recently, realizing I hadn't set foot in Istanbul for nearly a decade, I made a point to return to the city where East meets West. The comforting similarities and jarring differences between today's Istanbul, and the Istanbul I remember, filled the trip both with nostalgia and with vivid examples of how change is sweeping the planet.
The moment I stepped off my plane, remembered how much I enjoy this country. Marveling at the efficiency of Istanbul's Atatürk Airport, I popped onto the street and into a yellow taksi. Seeing the welcoming grin of the unshaven driver who greeted me with a "Merhaba," I just blurted out, "Cok güzel." I forgot I remembered the phrase. It just came to me — like a baby shouts for joy. I was back in Turkey, and it was "very beautiful" indeed. My first hours in Turkey were filled with similar déjà vu moments like no travel homecoming I could remember.
As the taksi turned off the highway and into the tangled lanes of the tourist zone — just below the Blue Mosque — all the tourist-friendly businesses still lined up, providing a backdrop for their chorus line of barkers shouting, "Yes, Mister!"
I looked at the dirty kids in the streets and remembered a rougher time, when kids like these would earn small change by hanging out the passenger door of ramshackle vans. They'd yell "Topkapi, Topkapi, Topkapi" (or whichever neighborhood was the destination) in a scramble to pick up passengers in the shared minibuses called dolmus. (The dolmus — a wild cross between a taxi, a bus, and a kidnapping vehicle — is literally and so appropriately called "stuffed").
While Turkey's new affluence has nearly killed the dolmus, the echoes of the boys hollering from the vans bounced happily in my memory: "Aksaray, Aksaray, Aksaray...Sultanahmet, Sultanahmet, Sultanahmet." I remembered my favorite call was for the train station's neighborhood: "Sirkeci, Sirkeci, Sirkeci" — SEER-kay-jee, SEER-kay-jee, SEER-kay-jee.
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You are reading "Istanbul Deja Vu", an entry posted on 09 December 2009 by Rick Steves.