Foggy green hills rolled past the car window, slowly transforming into clusters of buildings, pastel yellows and salmons and greys. At 6am, Istanbul was still draped in a quiet sleepiness and covered in a light mist from the night before.
By the time I arrived at the hotel, the sun was beginning to inch its way over the buildings and spill its golden light onto the cobblestone streets. The hotel, situated on a small side street near Taksim Square, was quaint with a lobby located on the fourth floor and a few adjoining stories. Just inside the building, a neon sign emblazoned with “ISTANBUL IS ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA” in hot pink and green letters welcomed guests from one wall above a large monstera plant.
I made my way to Van Kahvalti Evi, a restaurant known for its traditional Turkish breakfasts. In true fashion, it came with an array of spiced black and green olives, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, thick feta cheese, and a rich spread of honey and clotted cream on fresh bread. I tried salep, a warm Turkish drink made with frothy milk and orchid flour. Everything was simple and flavorful, the salep thick and creamy and sweet with a little sprinkling of cinnamon on top, the olives just a tad tart, the butter rich and full.
I also tried my first authentic Turkish coffee, the residue of fine grounds left in a thick paste at the bottom in the traditional way. I remembered I was once told that if you turned the cup upside down, you could divine your future in that residue. I wondered what it would have told me then—what destiny was hidden in the milky streaks and ribboned patterns, what secrets were hidden in those watered-down grounds.
Through the open front of the restaurant, a cat sauntered in and begged a couple near the front for food. The staff shooed it away, sternly but gently, as if it were a pestering younger sibling. The couple laughed and talked, the young man crossing his legs and smoking a cigarette, waving his hand as he spoke. The woman, taking the cigarette between her own lips, smiled at him over the top, smoke billowing up in a silky ribbon between them. Through the restaurant’s open front, I could hear the low gurgling and rumbling of old cars as they drove past.
After breakfast, I walked toward the old city, crossing the bridge where men were lined up, one after the other with their fishing poles and plastic cups filled with water and bait clustered in a little pile at the bottom. It was a warm day, and the sun hitting the water looked like a thousand tiny silver coins on its surface.
As I walked, I listened to broken fragments of conversation the way someone might savor a rare delicacy—slowly, intentionally, trying to taste its subtle flavors. Turkish is a language that rolls, a continuation of one word to the next, not like English that starts and stops and starts again like a stalled engine. In Turkish, the words seem like they’re connected by one long string—as if a sentence or a story can all be contained in a single, undulating word.
From the bridge, you can see the mosques on the opposite side of the river, big metallic domes emerging from the sea of buildings, their tall minarets puncturing the sky. I walked past the touristy Grand Bazaar and Mısır Çarşısı, or the spice bazaar, buzzing like a swarm of bees.
I walked to a quieter area on a hill where the Süleymaniye Mosque sits, a massive stone structure overlooking the city, a delicate crescent moon perched atop its central dome. Men sat at the mosque fountains and washed their face and hands and tilted their heads back gargling the water.
Through one massive doorway was the open-air inner courtyard, bordered by long, elaborate stone arches. Above each window, tiled Arabic letters were embedded into the wall in sea and royal blues with delicate flowers around the edges.
I wandered around the interior of the mosque with my face, wrapped in a baby blue headscarf, tilted skyward. That’s really the only way to walk around a place like that—the only way you can take it all in: the low-hanging chandeliers, the beautiful curves of foreign words etched in forest greens and worn golds, all that space in the dome’s cavernous belly—heavy and grandiose and austere.
Back outside of the mosque, it was cloudy, the kind of grey that coats the sky, and I sat on a long stone bench that ran along the outer edge of the mosque. I looked out over the city and could see the thick urban sprawl clustered together, severed in two by the river. Everything was covered in a light afternoon haze—the reddish-browns and eggshell whites of the buildings cut sharply by the occasional bright red Turkish banner hanging from their sides. Small black birds darted overhead, stark and bold against the muted backdrop, flying past buildings that had so long ago lost their color of grey, they had turned a hint of blue.
From where I was sitting, minarets from the mosques below jutted up from the clustered buildings, oddly reminiscent of long necks, their heads looking out over the city like watchmen.
The next day, a Sunday, was a national holiday in Turkey: the Commemoration of Atatürk. It’s celebrated to honor Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the date, May 19, is regarded as the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence.
Flags were strung up in every plaza, large banners of Atatürk and the Turkish flag draped down the sides of buildings, and the main thoroughfares were packed with locals donning their favorite football team’s jerseys.
I made my way to Hagia Sophia, the Greek Orthodox cathedral turned Ottoman mosque and an architectural and historical wonder. Built in 537 AD at the beginning of the middle ages, the building is a fascinating mixture of Istanbul’s religious past, with much of the earlier Christian mosaics preserved. Now a museum, the building offers a beautiful dichotomy of Christian and Islamic motifs, all under the same roof.
Similar to the Süleymaniye Mosque the day before, lights from low-hanging chandeliers lit the interior, and each pillar had a large circular panel emblazoned with long, elaborate golden Arabic letters that looked like streaks of fire. On one side of the interior, black scaffolding stretched from floor to ceiling—a large skeleton holding it all up. I remember thinking it looked so brittle, as if you could knock it all down like a stack of toothpicks.
The interior was mostly stone, and inside felt cold and solemn, like being enveloped in an icy metal womb. The air had a crispness to it, the cold passing through you as if ghosts from the past were drifting through your bones and leaving their chill, the way breath leaves white mist in cold air.
At the front of the cathedral-mosque were large stained glass windows with brilliant blues and greens and deep purples with long cursive writing in a honey color. High up under the front half-dome was a golden Jesus and a dark-robed Mary that sat in a pool of golden light. The image was flanked by two large discs on each supporting column with large Arabic calligraphy, and below these smaller discs that looked like gold coins. From the upper left window, a single beam of light shot through the center of the building as if shining a spotlight on someone in the back of the room.
Hagia Sophia is one of those places that simply cannot be captured with a lens. All that golden cursive lettering, the white light streaming through the windows, the ancient hanging chandeliers, all those Islamic prayers and Christian motifs all mixed in with each other—as if that’s right where they were supposed be.
I remember thinking how strange it was how people came from all over the globe—China and Israel and India and America and South Africa—to this benign art exhibit of sorts, to see these things living together side by side, while wars raged over the very things they represented. It makes you think of the weight that words and symbols have—how nothing more than inky scribbles and quilted stone can transform into something else altogether, can grow into something that can inspire, confuse, harm. How dangerous they can be—how they can settle in someone’s chest like a seed (or a weed) and grow there. It makes you think how infinite interpretation is both humanity’s great blessing and our great curse.
Words. It’s amazing the power they have over humans. How simple and complicated it all is.
By the time I got back to Tasksim Square, the city had erupted into festivities. The streets were crowded with football fans, chanting and singing in unison for the football match. The open air bars were filled with people laughing and smoking in the low lights that spilled out onto the streets.
Apartment buildings were open to the warm evening air, and as I walked back to my hotel through the narrow side streets, whole blocks would erupt into cheering and clapping. The moment it would die down, I’d round another corner and the roar would start up again, rolling out of the windows in waves. The city felt alive with it.
As I got to the hotel, I could hear the evening call to prayer echoing across the city. Just then, another roar picked up and died down again from the surrounding bars, and for a brief moment, I wish I knew which team had won.
Coming back from Istanbul, people ask, How was it? What did you see? What was your favorite part?
So you tell them about the Turkish baths, how after you feel clean and raw and relaxed. You tell them about the kebab—the real kebab—with all those warm spices, roasted pepper, fresh onion and cilantro and tomato. You tell them about the half of Istanbul that lies on the Asian continent, what it was like walking around Kadıköy: the produce market with baskets of dates and nuts and fish; the men standing by their kiosks selling olives, cheeses, pickled goods, candies, spices, and fresh stuffed grape leaves.
You tell them about the street vendors with trays of mussels and the little slices of decorative lemon and tomatoes on top. The carts all across the city selling simit, similar to a sesame bagel, and roasted chestnuts. You tell them about the meat with cherries that came in a little silver bowl, the roasted eggplant and hummus and yogurt dip. It was all great, you say. It was beautiful.
But what you don’t tell them—because you’re not quite sure how—is what it does to you. How it changes you. Because at the end of the day, coming home with stories of what you ate and did and saw is only half the reason to travel. The other half is how it winds its way inside of you and changes the way you think and perceive and feel. How it heals you, or rips you open, depending on what you need right then.
You see, the more I travel, the more I like going to places that shock my senses awake. That take down the cushiony bumpers and make me reevaluate what is different. Because, maybe we’re the ones who are different after all. Our worldviews are squishy—or at least they should be—allowing space for something new that may cause us to shift.
In truth, we visit these places to see what’s different from us—but also what’s the same. Because travel is really about finding those parts of ourselves we didn’t know we had. It’s about letting ourselves evolve, and sometimes that means discovering the multitudes that exist in ourselves—the seemingly contradictory motifs that live under the same roof.
That’s the magic of travel. We see the blaring contradiction of being human: we realize how infinitesimally small we are in the world—just one tiny human among billions—and yet we carry an entire universe inside of us: feelings and thoughts and memories and ideas. Love.
The thing is, we humans are complicated creatures. We’re incomplete and fragile and inconsistent at times. And that’s okay—it means we’re still growing, that we still have a lot to learn. Travel reminds us that we need that black scaffolding inside ourselves to build and repair and keep everything upright, even though it can just as easily be torn down to build something new.
I never want to get to a point where I think I know it all. Where I have become so calcified in my thoughts that I don’t have room to change or grow. I’ve learned that the simple act of observation and listening can be a shockingly educational experience—one that shows us our duality, our complexities, makes us nearly strangers to ourselves. And from what I can tell, that’s not such a bad thing.