Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

First Impressions of Istanbul


This post was originally scheduled for the day of the tragic bombing in Istanbul. To observe the significance of the developing event, I delayed this post and wrote an immediate reaction on the blog instead.

When traveling, it is important, I believe, to try to capture your observations, thoughts, and memories as quickly as possible—in the moment if you can swing it. Time and effort spent journaling, or even simply making conscious mental notes, is worthwhile, even if you aren’t a dedicated travel writer or blogger. Years later, a look back at your journals is sure to bring smiles and laughter—especially when remembering the inevitable discomfort and hardship that comes with adventurous travel.

When preparing for our recent eight-day visit to Istanbul and Greece, I made sure to pack a blank notebook and I mentally committed myself to diligent note taking; capturing the colors, the people, the food, the in-between moments sure to be lost in the fog of memory if not dutifully recorded. Looking back through the notes only days later, I’m very glad I did. Had I been killing time with an iPod instead of a notebook, I wouldn’t have captured moments like the following brief collection.

Dec 23, 2015

04:27—Dublin Airport: It’s early…early. I think we were the first people at the airport, by the look of things. Wishing we could have found a flight a *little* bit later than 05:40.

It is cold as balls here in the airport—we had to walk around to stay warm, and all the other poor saps like us are huddling under coats and sweaters taken from hand luggage. We ate a small mishmash breakfast of fridge-cleaning leftovers in the shivery airport lounge. I hope it’s warmer on the plane.

Frankfurt Airport—10:46: It was warmer on the plane. We are enjoying our very first European Royale with Cheese—might as well try to have one before we head back to the States this summer. Headline on the International New York Times: “Lifting the veil on opaque art dealings.” Ok.

14:17—Somewhere over Hungary: On the bus out to the plane, I received my first “War Eagle” from an Auburn fan recognizing my hat. We were otherwise surrounded by Americans on the packed bus, including a family man from Colorado excited to hear that we’d be moving there.

I passed up a free beer—free beer!—on the plane as we’ll be entering a bottled-water-only zone, so I’m choosing hydration over intoxication.

22:59—Istanbul Hostel, Room 1: Cops! Guns! Riot Gear! All part of an evening walk in Istanbul. We checked in to our hostel—between the stunning Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque—just after dark and set out to walk across the Golden Horn to the New Town for the night. The city already feels more inviting and safer than Marrakech; maybe we did these trips in the wrong order. The streets are wider, better lit, and easier to navigate; the hawkers and hustlers on the street are much less aggressive.

We made our way—using the tram tracks as a handy guide—to the Galata Tower in the New Town and walked Istiklal Street toward Taksim Square. Istiklal was like Dublin’s Grafton Street, packed with pedestrians and lined mostly with high end shopping. A nativity scene in front of a Catholic church was somberly decorated with life vests and tattered inflatable rafts to recognize the tragic refugee crisis in Turkey and elsewhere in late 2015.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

In Taksim Square, we watched as police transports and armored assault vehicles—like the one in Die Hard—cruised toward Istiklal. On our way back, we passed the police lined up and setting up some kind of roadblock or barrier; officers were equipped with automatic rifles, riot shields, and gas masks. They seemed to be smiling and laughing, so we must have missed the trouble.

Dec 24, 2015

15:18—Hotel Cafe: I keep mischaracterizing people! After a week of shooing away cons and hustlers almost constantly in Morocco, it’s difficult for me to engage in conversation with the friendly locals here in Istanbul. I’m not perfect; I’m learning.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia

At the mausoleums of some of Turkey’s greatest sultans in the Hagia Sophia complex, I stepped out as a local man stood at the doorway with his hands out, palms upraised. He was whispering something that I first took to be begging, and just before I rudely waved my hand and let out a harsh rejection, I realized he was praying. Thankfully, I stopped myself just in time, and respectfully stepped out of his way. 

Others have helpfully given us directions—unsolicited—that we waved away. After finding our own slow way with our maps, these directions have always been correct. Another vestige of our Moroccan-learned mistrust.

20:57—Istanbul Hostel, Room 1: Trying to open my shell, I was nearly sucked in to a shoe-shine scam by a street hustler. He intentionally dropped his brush in front of me, preying on my impulse to pick it up for him and help him. When I gave it back he offered to shine my shoes in appreciation. As I tried to politely refuse—thinking that this shine wouldn’t actually be free, but not wanting to be as rude as I had been with the locals earlier—Sara stepped in with a firm “no!” She, unlike me, had read about this common scam in the book. Back into the Shell of Suspicion I go.

Dec 25, 2015

10:25—Aboard the Sahet Mustafah Aydog DuFire! Fire! Fire! I sat for a shave this morning, and there was significantly more fire involved than I thought there would be; beginning with an alcohol-fueled fireball disinfecting the razor and ending with the barber suddenly grabbing a cigarette lighter to burn away my ear hair. He tried to give me some shaving advice, but we had zero common language, so his sage advice will go unheeded.

The Barber Flashing the Flame

The Barber Flashing the Flame

I’m stepping foot on Asian soil for the first time later today, freshly shaven. Merry Christmas!

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