People crammed onto the tram as we got closer to downtown Istanbul. Fresh off the plane, I was seated with my large backpack still attached, my excitement brewing rapidly as we approached the heart of this pumping city. I hadn’t realized how much I loved Istanbul – until I made the return and discovered my heart leaping backflips!

There are so many sides to Istanbul. An exciting city – dirty, smoggy, cluttered, noisy and smelly, yet beautiful in sights – the sea, shady parks, and an immense river. Rich in colour, history and its people cosmopolitan, passionate, joyful, vibrant and spirited. Completely unique, standing on its own from any other city in the world.

Its sounds, smells, sights, and tastes of Istanbul are what make this city different. Like any busy city, the traffic noise (especially taxis!) punctuated by polite yet unrestrained use of the horn is inescapable. Competing with the traffic is the shouting of men selling their wares from overflowing shops and street vendors selling corn-on-the-cob or large donut shaped bread sticks, and the general hubbub of MANY people (11million! – plus all the tourists…). Down by the water, the sounds become even more intense, with cars, trams, busses, people and ferries! The Bosphorus, the large canal-like river that runs through the centre of Istanbul, is a happening place! I am amazed at how many boats, ships and ferries cruise, speed, row, putter, and sink on the Bosphorus! It is a very busy port – with fishing boats, cruisers, container ships, ferries, and other indefinable floating devices. And yes, they are not quiet! Fog horns, motors, engines, steam, whatever – they all add to the city symphony. Interwoven in this wash of sounds, about 5 times a day, the call to prayer is amplified through megaphones from the iconic mosques all over the city. I find the passionately sung call beautiful, a stark reminder that this is an Islamic country despite its cosmopolitan atmosphere. Bringing all these sounds together, is the music of Istanbul – the heart of Turkey. Wondering past shops, restaurants and houses, the unmistakable traditional Turkish music is heard. The Turks are very proud of their music heritage, and if it isn’t traditional music, it is Turkish music fused with pop, jazz or funk.

The people of Istanbul are warm, eager to help, peaceful and very social. Being an Islamic country, there are more men about than women. They sit around chatting together, laughing easily and readily. They are kind and gentle people. They like socializing, and they gather together in Tea-houses smoking cigarettes, hookahs (water pipe) and playing back-gammon.

To get the full Istanbul experience, I tried a hookah with some Belgium girls I’d met in my hotel. We sat in a outdoor ‘tea-house’, full of locals (and tourists) smoking hookahs. It is not like normal smoking where you inhale the substance – you don’t actually breathe it in – so the smoke is blown out immediately. Also, it is filled with apple flavored smoke so you taste apple in your mouth as you breathe out. I found it fascinating, but not exhilarating! Another favourite Turkish pass-time is to play backgammon. Again, as you walk past tea-houses with hookahs, you will inevitably see Turks playing backgammon. My Belgium friends wanted to learn, so we asked for a game and I taught them how to play. There was some live music to add to the atmosphere. And then, to top the experience off, a Turkish ‘whirlish’ dancer entertained us. This is actually quite an intriguing thing to be called a dance! It basically consists of one spinning around with arms out wide non stop till the music ends. Interestingly, the dancer doesn’t seem to be affected by dizziness afterwards! Apparently it is a ‘trance-like’ dance.

As I am alone, (and a woman), I have been approached many times by men who are curious about where I’m from and what I’m doing and where I’m going and what my name is… I quickly discovered that their interest mostly has no intentions other than general curiosity. Not like Tanzania where their intentions were more often questionable! I have had a few harmless offers from guys to take me into Taksim – the music heart and night-life of Istanbul, but once they discover I have a boyfriend, they take back their offer.

‘Taksim’ is the music centre of Istanbul. There is a narrow busy pedestrian shop filled street that winds for about a kilometre through Taksim. The amount of music shops – selling traditional Turkish instruments is quite amazing! The clarinet plays quite a large roll in Turkish music – and every music shop window had an array of different clarinets. I was fascinated with the metal clarinets, and had to have a go! They are pitched differently, based on a minor mode key. They make a rich sound, however the holes are awkwardly placed and I found it difficult to play. I also tried an instrument called the Dukun. It looks like a recorder – yet is played with a large double reed (as big as a bass clarinet reed)and sounds like a clarinet. It had a reedy and haunting sound. At night Taksim comes alive with pumping night clubs, jazz and Turkish music. It isn’t the best place to be as a single woman, and it was quite a distance from my hotel, so unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to see it in its late night glory.

To get to Taksim, I had to cross the long Galata Bridge that crosses the Bosphorus river. Lined up along the bridge are fishermen – another iconic sight of Istanbul! Young and old, some fishing all day, some turning up after work – in their business suits to make their catch for the evening. They chat and laugh and swing their lines around, completely oblivious to the pedestrians passing by and the loud constant flow of traffic. By the bridge, on the water are boats rocking with huge BBQ’s, and men cooking the ‘catches of the day’ on them. They slap the fish in a roll with some onion and lettuce and sell it for 4 Lira. (About $3). This goes on all day and into the night. I sat eating the fish sandwich with the locals, enjoying the atmosphere, smells, people and the sun setting, silhouetting the mosque filled skyline.

In Istanbul, there are cats everywhere. They seem to wonder around like they own the city – just like a cat ‘owns’ the house it lives in. They find anywhere they like to sit, sleep or lick themselves – whether it’s outdoors or in! I found a cat quite content on the seat of a motorbike yesterday. Today, I was sitting in a park and discovered a cat having a snooze in the tree next to me. I also saw some cats lazing about on the rocks by the water! The Turks seem to enjoy having the cats around, and not infrequently, I see the cats getting their share in some affection.

Since I have been to Istanbul before, and seen a lot of the ‘tourist’ attractions – all the mosques and ancient historical sights, I am happy to just relax and absorb the city at a slower pace. It is nice to just wonder around, watching people, cats, boats. Enjoying the smells, tasting the food, sitting in a park, and taking a rest from ‘sight-seeing’. (I think I’ve suffered overload over the past few weeks!). A feast for the eyes, Istanbul is full of colour with its abundance of carpet, ceramics and lightshade shops. There is a ‘spice market’ which is an enclosed space of crammed in stalls all generally selling the same thing – spices and dried fruit. It is a game for the stall sellers to strike up conversation and sell you something!

My hotel restaurant balcony has a stunning view of the Sea (of Marmara). I’ve spent quite a few long hours watching the boats float by, with their huge trawlers and followed by flocks of opportunistic seagulls. The sunsets and sunrises on the water have also been a treat. And I am as happy as a pig in mud!

As you can see, being in Istanbul has been awful! :D

Tomorrow I meet up with 12 people for an organised 3 1/2 week tour of Turkey, Syria and Jordan. Very excited about that! It has been a month already…and the next few weeks will fly!

Originally written for Intriguing Abstractions and Curious Diversions