Hello Stranger. Yes, it has been a while, I know, but I have a good excuse or two or three. Let me tell you all about them.
This past June as I sat wondering if it was too early to start planning a trip home to see the folks (it had only been 4 months since I was last there) that trusty voice popped into my head and said “Wait!” So I did. And something else happened instead.
I went to Turkey!
Pause for backtracking: In early July I celebrated my 2nd birthday in Brazil. Last year on this day, Carlos took me to a beautiful garden within the country club we belong to and proposed to me. *sheepish grin* This year he and I planned one of those famous Brazilian churrascos (barbecues) at our apartment here in Sao Paulo. Friends and family came, I made my American version of specialty Brazilian dishes (and found out that Brazilians like them done their way better, oops) and I gave my first speech in Portuguese, which was kind of terrible but from the heart. While there, two of my friends invited me to join them on a short trip to a well known beach town called Ubatuba.
My beautiful Brazilian pals, Simone and Renata
It was actually a birthday wish come true. I had said to Carlos a week before my big day that what I really wanted was to see the ocean again. I have to not think about the fact that I live less than an hour from the sea and can easily count on both hand the amount of times I have been there so far. And so it was that two of my newest girl friends, Renata and Simone and their four sons combined took off for 4 days of beachy paradise.
Every time I see the ocean something primal emerges from my core. I feel a reckoning occur, emptying from me any stress, negativity or fear that I have been holding onto. It’s as if the constant pull of the waves washes those things back out to sea the way a powerful current sucks the sand out from under your feet as you stand at tide’s edge. I feel new again. During those few days, falling asleep to the sound of constant breaking waves, waking up to the yellow sun hanging over a turquoise expanse as far as I could see, even repetitiously sliding down the smooth rock face of a natural water slide into an ice cold pool of river water with the boys (who, btw, bestowed the honored name “Tia Ursula,” or Aunt Ursula, upon me) I felt one thing most. I felt an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I am here. The beauty of the land and it’s people match so closely and I moved into a space of deeper appreciation for both of these things.
Carlos and I at dinner in Istanbul
Not wasting any time, one week after my return from the beach my husband and I took off for Istanbul. I was warned of this land of enchantment. Everyone I know who has visited was spell-bound by it. I can honestly admit that now I too have been completely overtaken.
Carlos had to present a couple of papers on spine related research at a congress which takes place once a year in some city around the world, outside of the U.S. This is because they talk about techniques and instrumentation that the FDA has not approved yet…putting the U.S. at a slight disadvantage in my opinion but back to the story. While booking the flights we chose the cheapest option, a Turkish Airlines direct flight from Sao Paulo to Istanbul. I will now admit that my sheltered small town mind went a little into panic mode at the thought of 13 hours in some small, rickety, ancient aircraft that probably been retired by our military and passed down through several hands before being “refurbished” by the Turks. Boy, was I wrong! It ended up being, hands down, the best overseas flight I have ever taken. Not only was the plane new and fancy, even in coach, but also the food was…Turkish, so it was EXCELLENT! Oh and there was free wine and everyone got one of those over-night packets with all those handy knickknacks like socks, ear plugs, toothbrush and even lip balm. Of course we kept one of those intact and brought it home, like any good tightwad would do.
Arriving in Istanbul we had been told to expect a driver waiting for us at baggage claim. No one was there. So upon asking we were instructed that drivers wait on the other side of customs. So I am imagining some lone dude lazily leaning up against a pillar holding a sign with our name on it. Boy, was I wrong again! As the custom doors open I see a thousand frenzied men thrusting their arms into open view and calling out, some with three and four signs all with different names on them and my jaw hits the floor. After the shock, Carlos and I methodically pace up and down in front of all them looking at each of the hundreds of signs until I spot “Castro.” Our man now leads us out into the hectic heat and energy of the streets straight to a sleek black Mercedes. I act natural as I turn around and come back a step from the mini van I thought the man was walking towards. How Cool! I must say, I love that the thought of riding in a Mercedes gets me giddy and I would prefer to not ever have one so it could never become mundane.
Mosaic of Jesus and John the Baptist, inside Hagia Sophia
Driving into town I took immediate notice of the huge brick wall that runs much of the length of the city; it’s crumbling structure a testimony to its age and a visitor’s first example of Istanbul’s ancient heritage. For anyone, Istanbul’s breathtaking architecture is an absolute must-see at least once in a lifetime. However, for the art historian, as I like to imagine I am somewhat because my university degree tells me so, Istanbul is a treasure trove of priceless artifacts from every age and culture in the last 2,000 years. It’s a city wide museum where people live and work; where you are actually allowed to get up close and touch some of the worlds most ancient and beautiful hand-crafted objects and they won’t even kick you out! Istanbul comes complete with tourists from around the globe making it by far the most culturally diverse place I have been. A place where old meets new and where east blends peacefully with west, no questions asked as we, citizens of the world, wait patiently in line with full burkas or mini skirts to see the Hagia Sophia; united in anticipation under the hot sun.
Ground level inside the Hagia Sophia. Notice how low the lamps are as compared to the height of the ceiling.
The Hagia Sophia, easily one of highlights of my trip, is one of the oldest standing Christian churches. It was originally built in 360 AD but like all good historic buildings it was destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times. The current structure was built in 530 AD (still incomprehensibly old) and is the embodiment of what Byzantine architecture had to offer with an expansive center dome, plenty of sweeping arches and massive walls and pillars to hold up the what was the largest building in the world at the time. Any way, I could really nerd out on you right now with more terminology but don’t worry I won’t. I will mention that the
Taken from 2nd floor gallery; exact place where Holy Roman Empress Theodora would stand to watch mass.
interior has some of the most spectacular Christian mosaics in the world. These were covered over for centuries as the Muslims took over what was then the city of Constantinople and converted the cathedral into a mosque. But covering over of the these images actually preserved them for us today. Funny how things work out like that. So now the place is a world heritage museum and an homage to all those who graced it with their presence over the millenia. Byzantine Emperors and Ottoman Sultans came to worship daily within these walls and the very places they would sit are etched into the marbled floors. Being here was a fulfillment of a dream for me and I shall not soon forget it.
Life of Mary. Inside Chora Chapel
Also worth mentioning is another little Byzantine church called Chora Chapel which has the most impressive display of Christian mosaics and frescos I have ever seen, these dating back to the 1300’s. Spec-ta-cu-lar!
Another must-see is the ancient Basilica Cistern (500AD) built directly under the old city just a few steps from the Hagia Sophia. This place looks unalarming as you walk into a small building to buy the ticket and descend the stairs into the underground chamber used formerly to store water for the residents of Constantinople. However, as you enter the darkness the first thing that catches you is through your nose. The smell reminded me of my grandma’s basement times 100. Imagine one-thousand five-hundred years of mildew. The next thing to hit you is the view. Imagine an underground room as large as a football field and as high as three story building with hundreds of huge Roman columns the size of large oak tree trunks running from floor to ceiling in perfect rows . It’s completely dark except for the dimmed lights that shine up the length of a few rows of columns and it’s completely silent except for the sound of drips that fall from the condensation on the ceiling to hit the perfectly still lake of shallow water that completely covers the floor. This place is a scene from some depiction of Hades both terrifying and romantic; sacred and goosepimpling like an ancient temple dedicated to some dark god. It even comes complete with the mystery of two huge Medusa heads used for some unknown purpose as the bases for some columns at the far back of the room. The place is full of mysterious possibilities and if not for real than your mind cannot help but create them while you are there.
Smoking at our favorite Hookah bar The Gulhane Sur Cafe….you know what they say “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
We saw several famously beautiful mosques. The detail of the decoration inside of these sacred places is truly unfathomable. We saw famous palaces where the Sultans ruled the Ottoman Empire for many generations and we relaxed by sipping Turkish tea and smoking nargilehs pipes (hookah). I even accidentally bumped into an old Whirling Dervish monastery. For those that may not know, The Whirling Dervishes are a sect of Sufism, (a branch of Islam that promotes a more personal connection with God). Their famous spinning dance is actually a deeply ritualized meditation designed to cause union with the divine. The dance is a perfect symbol of Istanbul since the sacred prevails in this city.
The people in Istanbul seemed undoubtably connected to their faith and seemed (at least on the surface) completely comfortable with the faiths of others. It serves well as an example for understanding amongst the world population. For me, it was an unearthly experience to hear the somberly beautiful Call to Prayer, singing out from every mosque at the designated hour, 5 times a day, beckoning its people to pause, reflect and pray. I felt so honored to be there in those moments, to see groups of families coming together in parks and squares to break the fast of Ramadan every day at sun down. To me there is no better connection, than that of person to person and that given as an offering of love, to God.
Returning home I felt an immediate need to promise myself that I would return someday, when the time is right.
Candomblé dancers in Salvador
In August Carlos had one more congress to attend, and for me of course, one more reason to travel. This time it was to another state in Brazil called Bahia, which is famous for its spectacular beaches and the hang loose spirit of the people . The trip was pure fun. My Portuguese had a run for its money as I spent most of the days hanging with the other wives, gossiping, shopping and giving advice just like women in every other part of the globe. Carlos and I took one day out to go to the nearby city of Salvador. It has a lovely European flavor to its brightly colored architecture as well as its own flavor of food, and flavor of spirituality. Salvador was well known for its slave trading years. Many of the descendants of the slaves still practice a mix of Christian and African faiths. These often incorporate drums, dance, plants and animals. One in particular called Candomblé is quite popular and easily recognizable from its customary women’s clothing; white dresses that exaggeratedly balloon out at the bottom and a large white head covering. Carlos and I were lucky enough to stumble upon one of their performances. This city was, in some ways, like visiting a whole other country. It reminded me that I have so much left to see and experience here in Brazil.
So Let the adventure continue….