It’s been almost six months since I was on my mini-RTW backpacking trip, and while there were definitely cities that I fell in love with immediately while on the road, I’ve lately been surprised at some cities that I’m yearning to return to… but failed to impress me the first time around.
Istanbul immediately comes to mind as an example.
Completely stunned by how marvelous Morocco had been, Istanbul felt very underwhelming in comparison. The first thing I did when I arrived was find the square with the Blue Mosque and soak up some rays, waiting for the time to come when I could finally pack up and go meet my host. And thus, I wasted my only day of sunshine in Istanbul.
The rest of the days I was in the city were gloomy, cold, and wet; weather definitely contributes to how you take in a city. Especially in how you don’t photograph a city.
But now, sitting on my full-sized mattress laid out on the ground because I’ve become THAT poor person, I find myself thinking about Istanbul surprisingly often. I miss the seamless melange of cultures there, the great swaths of apartment buildings lining the Bosphorus, and the perfect smell of authentic kebab spices that you can only find in Turkey. A fusion occurs in Istanbul, one between modern society and the deeply ingrained traditional values that the country treasures so much.
I miss returning to my host’s cozy, bachelor pad of an apartment after a slow day of meandering Istanbul’s streets, welcomed back by his roommates’ playing Modern Warfare on the TV in the middle of my bedroom–their living room. Rushing to finish shampooing within the 5 minutes before the temperature of their water boiler dropped below comfortable. Closing the door to their living room and creating a pseudo-room of my own… a feeling that I hadn’t experienced in a good month since leaving Grenoble.
I miss the feeling that I would get sometimes while in Istanbul, where I would be sitting in the bus and I would glance up, mistakenly thinking that I was now in the center of New York City. And other times in small residential neighborhoods, I would be swept back into central Europe with its traditional cobblestone streets and its cafes on the street corner. There were even some times that I was wandering the neighborhoods around my host’s apartment that I could have sworn I was back in Taiwan.
That is how unique Istanbul is.
(Another example of my dumb selfie face.)
Istanbul is so unique as a city that I wish I appreciated it more while I was there. It’s one of those cities with a slow burn. I wish that someone had told me that before I visited so that I would’ve allocated enough time to soak everything in. Once I arrived and visited all the sights, I felt like I had seen everything I needed to see. All that happened in a day; but that’s only the beginning. Like many of the larger international cities, Istanbul’s sheer size allows separate personalities in all of its quarters, quarters that I wasn’t able to completely explore and appreciate because of the scant 3 days that I allowed myself there.
What I thought was (maybe) boredom at the time was really boredom at all the traveling I had to do in order to get to a certain part of the city. Even then, I wasn’t able to dedicate enough time to unearth the character of each neighborhood before hopping back onto a bus and traveling to another must-see. I found Istanbul hard to capture via camera because it was hard to express its vibrant personality through a few sweeping photos. It’s one where you have to dissect it with micro-photos of the people, a mural of a wall, a close-up of the locals’ washing their feet after exiting the mosque for a daily prayer; details that resonate with me even today, 6 months after my visit.