Istanbul – My Heart of Hearts

Oh, Istanbul. The city of seven hills. This place is so spectacular I don’t think I could find it within myself to ever want to leave. Even after the hassle at the border, the second we got into town I could just feel the energy. The place has a wildness I’ve never felt anywhere else. The population as it stands is about 18 million so you can imagine what kind of life you must lead in a city as big as half a Canadian province with quadruple plus residents. The cars appear to hold no rules and neither do the pedestrians as they dodge and jay walk on the regular. The seas and seas of people some would find overwhelming but I was surprised to find myself completely at home in this sardine can of a polis. We arrived into our hostel after the taxi driver had to ask the police for directions. They were holding M-15s as casually as walking sticks. As the Poop Troop rolled in, we were surprised to see that Alex (from Belfast) who we had met in Belgrade, Serbia was still there for one more night! Our plan for the Friday evening as we strolled, or rather dodged, our way into Istanbul was to hook up with Serkan and have him take us to Taksim. Taksim square is potentially known as the busiest area in Istanbul. Along Istikal Street during the day is a plethora of cafes and shopping, but when the sun goes down, that’s when things get really mental.

We started the evening off by enlisting a troop of around 20 of us from the hostel for some shisha. After filling our lungs with melon and apple smoke we were off to get legless in Taksim. Off every side street for about a 40 minute walk there are labyrinths of clubs and bars. You’re literally shoulder to shoulder with Turks all in the mood to party. Our first night in town we went to a metal club called DoRock. It’s down a short side street where, in front, were parked over half a dozen motorbikes and the streets were littered with Turkish metal heads. My adrenaline shot up like the first monkey into space. Beers were cheap and you could drink on the side streets. Word for the night wise, don’t even think about going to a bar or club before 1 AM or you’ll be bored as a eunuch in a whorehouse on discount Tuesday. Inside DoRock was a live band playing all the metal classics so you could imagine that I was as happy as a pig in shit. This is where I met my first few local friends, Kadir and Barbaros. After drinks had been consumed and an intense chucking around the crowd when Painkiller was played, we stuck to the drinking on the side streets. For all the women out there, Turkish men refuse to let you pay for anything (Hooroo!). Drunk as lords at 6AM we went for the classic boozie munchies at the top of Taksim square – wet burgers. They sound disgusting, but by Golly, they are delish. It’s a simple hamburger similar to ones you would find at Maccers but they are kept inside what looks like an incubator – sweating like a well-diggers ass crack – so that all the flavors marinate into each other. After consuming these delights, I managed to get my smokes pick pocketed. The thieves in Istanbul are as slick as a greased pig so make sure to keep your bag and wallet in check at all times.

Saturday was spent taking a tour around the Old Town (Saltanahmed) across the Galata Bridge where one of Serkan’s childhood friends, Benan, took us for the tour of the Grand Bazaar, the Palace and the Blue Mosque. Benan also knew where all the best places to eat traditional Turkish foods were and so we were lucky to get the best of all words sans the cost of an actual guide. After a good walkabout, we jumped on the ferry across the massive harbor to Kadikoy, which is officially my favorite place in Istanbul. Far less tourists know about this place and it is considered the alternative neighborhood in Istanbul with tons of pubs, tattoo shops and street performances.

Many of the locals that I met love Istanbul but hate living there after much political change has taken place over the years. Ataturk founded the country on freedom and liberation; he wanted his people to be modern and make their own modern decisions about the ways in which they wanted to live. After an influx of Kurdish and Islamic people, the government has now become very conservative and right wing to the point where alcohol bans are taking place and strict laws and policies are being instituted as a way of containing the freedoms of the Turkish people. On that note, never talk politics while in Turkey or you’re in for an ear full. There are fundamentally different and diverse views on how the country should be run and it is a source of contention for many. All that aside, the locals I met are increasingly angered over the right wing and corrupt government who manages to stay in power through means of pyramid schemes.

We met up with some more local friends at an Irish pub called Belfast where we recruited the Turks into the Game of Life. We learned what the word M-I-N-E was in Turkish which sounds a lot like “demin” and so any time we heard them even slightly utter the word, BOOM, ten push ups! We ended up getting Barbaros about six times forcing him to do 60 push ups in the middle of the street with stares aplenty. This too is where a cat attacked us because we wouldn’t let him jump onto our table to eat off our dinner plates. After getting well watered, we then decided to buy some beers and go drink in the park by the water. During this time, a poor stay cat had been chased up a tree by a stray dog and was whining for help. One of our new friends actually dangerously climbed the tree to save the cat.

I’ve never seen so many strays in my life. You know they are all safe however, as they all have tags on their ears which mean they have been sterilize and had their rabies shots. For many of the locals, the strays are as much Turkish citizens as the people. Unfortunately though, the government in power just recently passed a law declaring that they are going to exterminate all the strays and that families are only allowed one pet per household. This was quite the upset when I found out about it as these animals share the same friendliness as the Turkish people do. There was a demonstration and protest held the following day in support of animal rights to which I did not attend because, as a traveler and foreigner, I do not want to meddle in another countries political dissonance and end up having to contact the embassy after getting jailed.  Don’t drop the soap.

Continuing on! The camaraderie and hospitality of the Turkish people is truly amazing and unlimited. We met up with some more local friends after some wobbley pops in the park before heading to Taksim again for another last wild night before the Poop Troop had to part ways. We ended missing the last ferry back to Taksim so we had to take what is called a Darmus (“dar-mush”) which is basically a hybrid taxi mini bus – faster than the bus and heaps cheaper than a taxi. There are no stops for these vehicles, you just have to flag one down and hop in before they speed off again. That night we went to Machine Club which is probably one of the most mental clubs I have ever been to. It’s in a dark and dank basement where the Djs are inside a cage that people climb and shake themselves off of. The music is so dirty and the strobe so fast and intense it could induce anyone into an epileptic fit. This is where I made my new girlfriends, Dilek and Gulay. Two stunning and amazing women. We spent the entire evening dancing our arses off all the while, the girls protecting me from skeezy men who, like snakes in the grass, move in on obvious naïve foreign women to either drug or pick pocket them. Another night that lasted until early morning.

Sunday was a sad day for us all. Our Aussie boys had to fly to Vienna to transfer over to Bratislava to meet their cousin. A slight depression sat in after we said our goodbyes (probably also due to too much booze I reckon) but I have no doubt in the future I will see my Team Brown again when I visit OZ. Adelaide, I’ll be heading your way have no doubt! And that is a promise and a threat! Serkan had a tattoo appointment at about noon that day but I needed more sleep so we agreed I’d find my own way there and meet him later over in Kadikoy. This is where I almost had the classic Western woman assault incident. On the ferry over, a couple of younger looking men took a liking to me. They couldn’t speak a word of English save for “You are beautiful”, “I love you”, and “Will you marry me?”. They seemed quite harmless but when abroad, especially in countries where you don’t speak the language, we weary of who you trust. In retrospect, I reckon they were dodgey characters as they were very poorly kept and their teeth looked like they’d brushed with Marmite. They were very adamant about helping me find where I needed to go despite me knowing my directions just fine. Now, this could have been all and well but having traveled enough up to date, I was aware that “going for tea” with absolute strangers of the sketchy variety generally means “going for a mugging or rape”. Needless to say, I dodged that bullet with the help of a cellphone and my knight in shining armor, Serkan Tabanli. After the tattoo session was all said and done, we went to a tea garden that overlooked the water. What a peaceful place. Later on we met Dilek and one of Serk’s old childhood friends for a walk along the water. Dilek, what an amazing woman. Upon our second meeting she gifted me with a beautiful silk scarf that was handmade by her mother. When Turkish women come of age, the women in their family start making linens and scarves that they keep in a chest until the time of marriage. These are very special and carefully thought out pieces. The scarf that Dilek gifted me was from her wedding chest which she was not suppose to open until her wedding. I was completely floored that only upon our second meeting she would give me such a significant gift. People like this don’t exist everywhere. This is something I will cherish and remember forever. After big hugs, we got to drinking some very delicious lemon beers on the water. (If you ever go to Turkey, you MUST MUST MUST drink the limonata/lemonade; literally the best I’ve ever tasted). A few drinks and smokes in, along comes our entertainment for the evening – Istanbul darbukacilari (drummer boys who busk for money) who sang a love song rearranged for the love of Julia and her deep cold eyes!

Monday marked the day when we met a fellow Victoria-ite, Jessica. Turns out that despite her living in the same Victoria neighborhood and working at the bank we all frequented on a regular basis, we had never met until Istanbul. Fucking oath, it’s a small small world. We all headed over to Kadikoy again where we met another one of Serk’s childhood friends, Bahrin. We went back to the tea garden where he read our Turkish coffees. It was definitely an emotional and grounding day. Serk’s friend has been practicing reading fortunes from the dregs of Turkish coffee (similar to tea leaf readings) for 11 years.  How it works is that you tip the muddied cup upside down on the saucer, spin it, and then let it rest opening down for the mud to paint the sides of the cup.  His reading floored me.  Keep in mind this man had never met me until this moment.  He turned the cup over and read the painted sides of the cup.  He said, I have come here from a lot of sorrow but am happier now that I am here.  He said it was difficult reading because my present state is very very mixed up and complicated (we all compared cups and mine was definitely a mess in comparison).  He asked me, “Do you think of your father often?”.  I cried instantaneously when he said this because how would he know that?  He told me that I am having a hard time making decisions because I’m feeling weak inside and that I question myself a lot.  He told me it’s time to basically get my shit together because I cannot remain in this state.  He then moved on to say that the places I want to see, I will go to but beware of an older woman in a head scarf.  She cannot hurt me physically but she can very much harm me spiritually, mentally and emotionally depending on how I react/deal with the situation.  I have to be strong and smart.  Finally he said that I need to chose a direction because when I do, I will be very successful.  He said something about being in a very high position where people will stand to show respect when I enter the room.  Basically, I’ll make it to the top if I chose my direction and stick to it.  He then finished by saying that despite the sorrow I feel inside, he can see that it has caused me to treat and care for others in a more passionate way.  In the meantime, I am weak and need to be very careful.  I need to get my shit together because even right now I’ve been having trouble with parting ways with people and finding the confidence to be on my own.  Waking up with doubt.  All this was translated to me through Serk from a man who I had not known for an hour.  Apparently he is known for his accuracy. It was an altering moment, I can tell you that much.

Later that evening we went on a pub crawl with the owner of our hostel who doesn’t generally organize crawls but will come up to the terrace around midnight with the declaration that he is going out to party if anyone wants to join. Inevitably, the majority of folks staying there do. After another heavy evening, one thing led to another and a small romance develops between myself and the owner which was to continue for the next few days after.

The remainder of my days spent in Istanbul before heading out on a Turkey tour of my own included going to a traditional Turkish pop concert that our friend Bahrin was the drummer for which was definitely a good cultural experience; a private tour of the Galatasaray soccer stadium (with the most VIP seats in Europe next Madrid); a street art festival and party in Kadikoy to which was quite dissonant as they had famous global graffiti artists painting enormous murals on the sides of buildings with very political connotations and messages with regards to religious extremism; more Taksim partying at Machine and various other clubs; a ferry tour up the waterfront to see some more Istanbul architecture; a hardcore show with Benan and Kadir (who I met the first night); and DoRock one last time before hitting another bar in Taksim called Pendor where they served shots called Honono. The Honono shots are similar to the Fane shots in Budapest (carbonated vodka and black current syrup). Meant to get you legless if you do enough of them. Oh and don’t forget the Turkish ladyboy street where painted nymphets were hooting and hollering out of second and third floor windows beckoning sexual favors. We ended our evening with a couple glasses of Raki which is an unsweetened, anise-flavored hard alcoholic beverage that is popular in Turkey and in the Balkan countries. It is similar to several other boozie delights available around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and in Colombia, e.g., ouzo and sambuca. Raki is a clear alcohol on its own but when mixed with water, which is how it is suppose to be drunk, turns into a cloudy white delicious liquid for all those licorice enthusiasts out there. You only need a couple glasses to start feeling the tinglies. To the Turks, three things are considered sacred among the gastrointestinal scene – Raki aka medicine (sometimes even drank in the morning), Cai (Turkish tea; drunk all day every day at any time of the day; I’m now addicted), and bread (a Turk will not eat a meal if there is no bread present). Prepare for a spare tire round the middle while in Turkey because the locals love to eat and they love to eat in enormous groups so prepare for constant meal invitations. No one goes hungry here.

Stay tuned for my trip down the south west Turkish coast and a very racey Raki romance with a young and dangerously handsome local captain on a traditional Turkish yacht. Swwwwoooooonnn, c’est l’amour!

As the Turks say, “Seni cok seviyorum, askim.” ❤

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Bootlegging in the Balkans

The ride from Budapest to Belgrade certainly could have been disastrous as we went to the wrong train station – a small one out of the way from the main international station that was actually only walking distance from our hostel. We took a cab out to this almost industrial looking rail station to only to find out that we couldn’t actually buy tickets at this station to get to Serbia. So, in a panic, the Poo Crew are frantically running around like chickens with their heads cut off asking anyone and everyone whether or not we could just get on and pay the conductor and if the train even stopped there. We decided to risk it and knowing which train was which, thanks to one of the staff members at the station, we hopped on, fingers and toes crossed. All the cabins were full and the slim corridors were too small for all of us and our packs. We ended up popping a squat in the exit hoping that someone would get off at the next stop so we could sit somewhere for the upcoming 8 hour train ride. So, there we were sitting beside the train exit, the stenchy dunny, and the motion censored door to first class on the train which appeared to be empty. At least we were on the train, ticket or not. The train conductor came by not too long after and motioned us into first class. We looked at him with hesitation and then he ushered us in to sit. Apparently the woman that helped us find the right train had explained to him our situation and he was kind enough to allow us to first class for the trip. And for regular price.  Who’da thunk it?! What could have been a major muck up turned into a first class ride into Serbia! Belgrade here we come!!

Belgrade, Serbia is a destination designed for those who don’t want to sleep. Belgrade’s specialty for all those night owls out there are the heaps of Splavovi barges. These are basically giant rafts that have been turned into clubs and are anchored at the riverbank. Most of them are open until the crack of sparrows and I can tell you wh-at, Serbia knows how to party. It has now become routine for me to not leave the hostel until midnight or 1 AM and then party until 6 AM. This is how it’s done Eastern European, folks. For those of you who don’t already know, Belgrade is also a man’s paradise – the Serbian women are so beautiful they put Aphrodite to shame. Thanks to traveling with a pack of wild boars (men), I was privy to weakening of the knees and absolute awe these women possessed. Ladies out there, Serbian blokes unfortunately do not compare.

We stayed at a hostel called Hedonist which proved to live up to it’s name quite accurately. We had a sneaky peak at some of the not so PG activities taking place in the common room via the front desk’s security television. Couple of crazy Aussies didn’t check for a camera after everyone left I reckon. Anyway! Hedonist is located right near the downtown shopping district and close to heaps of bars and restaurants. The staff are so vibrant and energetic as well, loved partying with us.

Friday night, having only just arrived and gotten settled in by midnight, was a quiet one. We barely survived Budapest and needed to be in tip top condition for the Warrior Dance Festival the following night which was to be held at the Belgrade stone fortress. So needless to say, I won’t bore you with the Friday details.

Rise and shine on Saturday and we wake up for a quick nosh before racing over to the ticket center in the square to get our Skrilly Willy tickets. Success! The day was basically spent having a wee exploration of the place. There are nice parks there but otherwise, dog poop is the main sight seeing for Belgrade. I was told there wasn’t a whole lot to see in Belgrade but that the night life was worth the visit so I wasn’t all too surprised when there wasn’t too much to look at other than shops and the occasional tower here and there. The poop though, definitely was Team Brown’s highlight. That and the outrageous traffic. The cars honk at each other so often it would appear they were having a chin wag. We then strove to get the cars honking at us. Natural honking became a goal of the stay in Belgrade shortly thereafter. As the sun began to settle, we headed back to get the festivities in order for some serious Warrior Festival dancing. With tons of grog to go through, we were about to get right yobboed. We started off just the crew playing the card game Shit Head and then after getting into the Clap game (which is better shown than explained via writing) recruited half the hostel into this sweaty drinking game. Marijan, one of the very handsome staff members, then came over and offered us each this strange looking liquor in fluted shot glasses. Rakia (also Rakija) is an alcoholic beverage that is produced by the distillation of fermented fruit such as plums, apricots or grapes; it is a popular beverage throughout the Balkans. Its alcohol content is normally 40%, but home-produced rakia can be stronger (typically 50% to 60%). Which is the stuff that Marijan foolishly gave us. It’s classically a sipping drink but being the ignorant tourists we were, we thought it was for shooting. Our mistake. The second we downed the stuff our trachea started burning and our eyes watering. Should have known better than to trust something out of an old plastic gasoline container. Ah well, when in Rome! Err… Serbia.

And this was the evening that marks the beginning of my recruitment into the Game of Life which has played a role in every country since Serbia. Basically, the game is centered around how the world M-I-N-E is a very selfish word and therefore should not be said without consequence. Any time this word is uttered and caught, the perpetrator has to do 10 push-ups with a clap during the last one. Doesn’t matter where you are – nursing home, grocery store, mud pit – anywhere you get caught. So, this being also a “game”, you can imagine how we would all try to set one another up. “Hey, who’s beer is this?” or “Who’s fart was that?!” In any case, once you’re in, you’re in for life. And now there are people all over Europe doing push ups thanks to our recruitment process. Photo evidence.

After getting well watered we were off to Warrior Dance Festival – an open air concert at a fortress. What an amazing night. I wasn’t really into electronic music before then but hot damn I can say with conviction that it definitely gets everyone going. What a good night of rampant dancing and near front stage views of Prodigy and Skrillex.

We slept quite late the next day after a seemingly long night getting lost on the way home at some ungodly hour. The next day was spent in the shopping district picking up some new Connies and staying far too long at an ice cream shop because Ollie’s future wife was working there. Sunday evening was taking a turn for a repeat of the previous night but alas, I was too tired and fell asleep while the boys went out and didn’t roll back in until 11 AM the next day. Sweet heaven almighty, Belgrade is very much a vortex in that sense. Monday was spent in the Bohemian quarter of Belgrade where there are fantastic traditional Serbian restaurants and little pubs. I probably ate the biggest stuffed pork chop on this side of the moon. After a late lunch, Dougie, Ollie and myself went over to the massive shopping center across the river to pick up a few things. Namely a netbook for myself because traveling without a laptop is an extreme hassle when everyone fights for a turn on the communal hostel computers. Here is where I had a lesson in Serbian gypsy cabs. I was lucky enough to get into a good one but the driver was kind enough to learn me on the ways of unlicensed taxi drivers. Essentially, if you get into the wrong car, they will either lock you in and take you for a goose chase demanding an obscene amount of money or, if you’re completely green, they will just savagely rip you off. Serbia is a very cheap country but the exchange rate is ridiculous so it’s easy to not be able to figure it out in your head. 1 Euro = 115 Dinar, which makes the math a little tricky. Serbia is also only an up and coming tourist destination so there is not a lot of knowledge on these types of things and the locals look at visitors like absolute aliens. Despite this however, the locals are very well versed in English and are very friendly people. Thank you in Serbian is “hvala” but sounds an awful lot like “koala” which we proceeded to say in jest so I’m sure we looked like fools the entire time.

The last night in Serbia was a total ringer. Serk didn’t come out with us as he was to fly to Istanbul the next morning but god Jesus love me, what a night. We went down to one of the barge clubs with the whole hostel and everyone found their “soul mate” that night. Imagine a pack of us stumbling home in the wee hours. The poor locals must have hated us. “DO YOU SPEAK ENNNGRISH?!”

Our last day in Belgrade was spent sorting out overnight train tickets to Bulgaria with Alex, Ollie and Doug. And what an interesting train ride that was. The Eastern European trains are exactly how you would picture them to be. Especially the sleeper trains. Tiny cabins with six bunks with maybe a couple feet between each one. Tiny tiny tiny. And of course the shortest female of the bunch is in one cabin over on the very top with an older man underneath her from Montenegro who, dare I say it, was a “sleep wanker”. Thank god for earplugs because that was definitely not in the bargain.

I’ve been surprised that border control has been so easy so far. Mind you, I haven’t been out for as long as the boys have and they were questioned ruthlessly a couple of times with regards to a lacking of stamps from certain countries. Sometimes you just don’t get a stamp when entering certain countries within the Shengen zone depending on your form of transportation. We definitely got stamped coming into and exiting Serbia as they are not part of the Shengen zone, weirdly enough.

Anyway! Took the night sleeper wank train to Sofia. The toilets were Trainspotting and the cabins were surprisingly full of locals who just drank and smoked out the corridor windows of the train. Good times.

Sofia. There is not a lot to say about Sofia… There isn’t much there save for a mountain which helps pick up their tourist industry in the winter. There is also a monastery to visit in one of the Bulgarian mountains but because we were only staying a few nights and because there wasn’t much to see in the town, we just partied our nights away. Or tried to… There is a very interesting subculture of clubs in Sofia called “Chalger” clubs. It’s basically Bulgarian teeny bopper electronic music which was then extended to categorize the type of people that listen to the music and then the type of clubs that entertain these. You know you’re in a Chalger club when there are tissues all over the floor. Apparently, it’s trendy to buy a packet of kleenex and to one by one throw them in the air when you’re at the club. Very interesting indeed. I think a lot of the Bulgarians take the mickey out of these places. Hmmm yeeshh. I don’t know if it was because we went mid-week but we didn’t find Sofia to be anything special and the people not nearly as friendly. But then again, anything would be crap after Belgrade. Especially for the Root Crew. Other than spending time in our private dorm making a fool of ourselves because the weather was so crap, we were gypsy cabbed to the “Studentski” district where the bartenders MADE us buy and entire bottle of vodka. Not the friendliest of places. The interesting thing about the Bulgarian language is that they do adopt a lot of other languages as part of their own.  For instance, thank you is “merci” and goodbye is “ciao”.  Also, in Bulgaria, nodding your head means no and shaking your head means yes.  Perhaps that’s why they thought we wanted an entire bottle of vodka?  But that is all a part of the past because Istanbul changed my life. It took us a hell of a long time and a whole lot of hassle to get there but we finally made it.

Words for the wise, anyone in the Commonwealth and the United States actually has to pay 45 euro for the Turkish Visa to get into the country rather than the 15 euro that all the forums tell you. But the 45 euro is amazingly worth it. Istanbul will be my next home, no word of a lie. More to come on Turkey – the place that has healed me and never made me feel so alive. ❤