Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Constantinople, Part 1

Our trip began at 8 PM on Thursday, when a shuttle came to pick us up in Panorama and take us down to Thessaloniki to meet the big tour bus.
The tour bus left at 9 PM and, to make a long story short, we arrived in Constantinople (Istanbul) at 10 AM the next morning. It was quite an adventure. In theory, you're supposed to sleep during the ride, but it doesn't actually work out that way, because the seats aren't particularly comfortable and you have to keep stopping. This is the absolute cheapest way to get there, though.

We hit the Turkish border around 3 AM. Unlike citizens of other countries (which DON'T support Turkey as the US does), we Americans were hijacked for 15 Euros each (about $20) to BUY a tourist visa. (This would be a pattern that would continue for the whole trip, but more on that later.)

After the border crossing, the whole bus also had to switch seats, which meant gathering all our stuff and moving it to the other side of the bus. As you can imagine with Greeks (we were the only non-Greeks on this trip of about 50 people), chaos ensued. This is apparently standard practice on Greek trips. When we asked what the purpose of this insanity was, we were told it was so that people who didn't like their seat couldn't complain. Since the seats appeared to us foreigners as exactly the same, we couldn't quite grasp this, but oh well.

When we arrived the next morning, we went straight to Dolmabahce Palace, the later of the city's two palaces for the sultans (built around 1800). The tour would, of course, cost 10 Turkish lira (about $7) each, so we passed and had some coffee along the Bosporos with others from our group.

When we first got off the bus, many people ran to the bathroom. There, it turns out, you are required to pay 1 lira (about 70 cents) for the right to go into any public bathroom. This is Turkey in a nutshell -- NOTHING is free. That $20 visa bought us the right to breathe the air (presumably because they haven't figured out a way to charge for it yet), but everything else cost money.

Also, when we got off the bus, we were practically attacked by peddlers selling tourist junk and poorly translated English guides to the city. This turned out to be the hallmark of our trip. Istanbul is more touristy than Disneyland, and every step you take somewhere is trying to "work" you. As Americans, we are accustomed to being polite, and they count on this. You actually have to learn to be rude to be able to have a moment's peace. I can't describe this adequately.

After this tour, we headed to our hotel to check in and have a rest. The hotel was very nice -- I've included some pictures. Thankfully, the bathroom was European and not Turkish. (A Turkish toilet is just a hole in the floor, and the shower is just a moveable shower head in the middle of the bathroom -- no curtain or anything, just a drain in the floor.)

We took a little nap and then headed out for an adventure with the group in the evening. While we were resting, though, someone knocked on the door. When Pelagia answered it, he said "Room Control" and then just left. Later, when we met back up with the group, one Greek family was incensed because they had all been asleep and these guys had just come into their room and were rummaging through their stuff. When they woke up, these guys, whoever they were, left. Needless to say, everyone bolted their doors from that point on.

(In case you can't tell, we were NOT impressed with Turkey as a country. Some of the people were, of course, very kind, but on the whole, the country does not impress.)

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