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Turkey

Last Day in Istanbul and on to Sri Lanka

I just realized something. I’ve been gone from home for 3 ½ weeks and I’ve had only one morning this entire time where there was sunshine where I’ve been. I am a creature who needs sun and I think part of my mood these past few days has been caused by the accumulation of the dearth of life-enhancing weather – it’s been cold and overcast, all day, everyday. I feel noticeably happier now that I am on an airplane and am heading to warm and hopefully sunny Sri Lanka. I’m on a 12 hour flying journey with a change of planes in Abu Dhabi (I just threw that in because it sounds cool). I even went to bed around 9pm last night with my head wrapped in a towel to keep my head warm.

I’ve been honest-to-goodness grumpy these past 3 days in Istanbul, although yesterday was better. I hopped on a tram, got off by the water and watched iced fisherman catch tiny fish with big rods. Once I was officially frozen there, I hopped on the Funicular (short tram used to climb hills – this one underground) and another tram and to a random neighborhood -Sisli – and wandered around. I just wanted to get out of the tourist area. My first stop was a mosque and it was a wonderful experience. It was dark with just daylight peering in through stained glass. There was a central main section with a very low slung large chandelier and two side naves. The men were praying in these areas and it took me awhile to notice that the women were upstairs in a special section. I went to the section to the left, of course after removing my shoes, and watched others to observe the form for their devotion. It was pretty simple, each stands on his own section of the carpet and stands still. Then there is a bend at the waist with hands going down to the knees and then back up. This is followed by kneeling (generally without using your hands – not as easy as you might think) and then bowing one’s head to the carpet flanked by both palms to the floor. The bow is done twice often followed by a period of stillness before rising and starting the cycle again. People were all facing the same direction and often took time while standing or kneeling for what appeared to be prayers. People entered in silence and left the same way so there was a very peaceful aura to the entire place.

I loved it. I stayed for about 45 minutes, maybe longer, and did many iterations of the form mentioned above but also kneeled quietly and meditated for extended periods of time. I felt very welcome there and in some way I felt as I was an emissary bridging between two cultures. It felt for me like being in a Buddhist meditation hall, but with this one allowing for the comings and goings of people at their discretion. Obviously I have questions about the segregation of women there, but they are questions at the moment because I don’t really know the culture well enough to definitively judge.

I loved it since devotion and quiet are always my favorite parts of religious practice. Sermons and the actual written/taught religions per se don’t touch me so much. I of course loved singing in the choir at Glide church in San Francisco for so many years, but largely because there was freedom and joy to the music (gospel) and it opened up channels of devotion and joy largely otherwise untapped in me. As to the mosques, I also love that prayer is a natural part of a Muslim’s day. There are 5 calls to prayer (which is broadcast loudly over the neighborhood) and it is important for people there to pray 5x/day, but even without the call, people seem to be streaming in and out of the mosque throughout the day. I also noticed that the prayers were not simply repetitive recitations, although I can’t know for certain. It was a great start for the day for me and one which grounded me much more.

My day ended with a quest to warm my bones at the Cagaloglu Hammam, a beautiful although aging 300 year old famous bath in the Sultanahmet section of the city. While it certainly wasn’t my favorite bath/spa experience: the massage was painful (imagine random pummeling causing incessant muscle retractions, interspersed with body hairs being pulled and the occasional skin pinch), the bench in the “hot room” was too hot to sit on with any degree of comfort, and the place had an overall scent of Turkish balls and armpit, it did warm me nicely and slow me down a lot to the point of noticing the quietness in my own voice afterward when someone once again approached me on the street to be my friend and try to get me into their family business. Oy vey. Next time the scrub and not the massage for me.

I’ll probably go another time to Istanbul as I think there is much magic to be found there, but it will be warmer when I do and likely with someone with whom to share it.

But for now I am off and shall soon be on a beach somewhere in Colombo on the west coast of Sri Lanka. It nearly brings tears to my eyes to think of it. Something in me deeply wants to relax and warm up, and laying in the sun for a stretch and swimming in a warm sea I think will help immensely. A big plug for Etihad Airways which has comfortable seats, personal entertainment systems, real silverware, the best vegetarian airplane meal I’ve ever had, and stewardesses who are very courteous, helpful and stunning, although not necessarily in that order. Whoever designed their outfits gets bonus points.


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