By Chandi J. Wyant
I hadn’t been to Istanbul since a night bus ride there from northern Greece in 1984. On a recent trip I found some significant changes but what had not changed was the loveliness of the Turkish people.
Back in 1984 on my first vagabonding around Europe trip, I crossed the border from Northern Greece into Turkey by bus in the middle of the night in a moment of spontaneity and recklessness, with my traveling companion.
At the border, it was clear to us that there was no love lost between the Greeks and the Turks. Turkish guards in fatigues, shouldering large machine guns, paced around us as we lined up outside the bus, clutching our passports in the chilly night.
Raised in idyllic Santa Cruz, we’d never been near a real machine gun and we were entering a country that was depicted in the movie Midnight Express, which had come out five years before. (Based on a true story of an American traveler caught with large amounts of hashish strapped to his body in the Istanbul airport, and his subsequent harrowing experience in a Turkish prison. The film portrayed Turkey as a barbaric third world country with little respect for human rights.)
Moreover, the Iranian Hostage Crisis had ended only three years earlier—a cataclysmic event that had caused such horror and fright that any land between the Bosphorus and the Persian Gulf was seen with panic by the majority of Americans. Among our contemporaries and those of our parents, we knew of no one who’d ventured east of Greece. Before the internet and travel blogs,young people our age were ignorant of these further-flung places.
Today Turkey is a “normal” place on Americans’ itineraries. Back then, our parents told us in no uncertain terms not to enter Turkey when we were in Greece.
We didn’t inform them of our spontaneous decision. Of course calling home required finding an open post office with a special phone booth for international calls, where one could expect to stand in line for a long time, only to find that the call wouldn’t go through. If the call did go through, and my parents weren’t home, I couldn’t leave a message as this was before answering machines.
My parents had to be assuaged with occasional crumpled letters that took a month to arrive. And thus we considered our adventure reckless as we arrived early in the morning at a large bus station in Istanbul.
We had no idea where to go. We’d done no research. We had no guidebook. Without a common language, and without an address to provide to the taxi driver, he did the only thing a taxi driver in that era could logically do. He took us to The Pudding Shop.
The Pudding Shop had been the most well-known meeting place and rest stop on the Hippie Trail– probably because Istanbul sat at the spot where all roads from Europe enter the exotic east and thus was the start of the “Hippie Trail” of the ’60s and ’70s that went from Europe to Asia.
The bulletin board in the Pudding Shop was an antique version of an online travel forum–a place where travelers could find rides into Asia, (invariably on a VW Bus) and where they left messages for friends who might find their way to The Pudding Shop, even if months down the road.
After having Turkish Tea at The Pudding Shop on that early spring morning we found a dive hotel nearby that suited our ten-dollar-a-day budget.
On my return trip, in February of 2013, I wondered if the dive hotel was still there. I recalled that it was near the Aya Sophia and Blue Mosque. I could vaguely picture the street. Twenty-nine years had passed and I would have never recognized the street if the Pudding Shop hadn’t still been there.
Seeing the words “World Famous Pudding Shop” emblazoned in orange above the restaurant brought back a jumble of disjointed memories that I couldn’t place in context with the street before me. The street now had a tram running up the middle of it. There had been no tram in 1984.
The street was crammed with bustling restaurants that were slightly trendy and mostly just plain touristy. Included were Starbucks, Mc Donald’s and Burger King. Twenty-nine years ago there were no American food or coffee chains. There were a few simple homey Turkish restaurants– for locals, not tourists.
I noted that even though it was February, and low season, the street was full of foreign visitors–Japanese, and Americans, as well as Europeans. In 1984, in early May– much higher season than February–we had encountered hardly any other travelers. It was a street still unimpressed by the tourist possibilities that it now fervently embraces.
Other changes: Not only were there no trams in 1984, there was no metro, and Istiklal Street (across the Galata Bridge) was still full of bordellos and low-income emigrants from inner Turkey, (having fallen from its illustrious past when, in the 1800s, it was lined with stately manor houses where the wealthy lived who followed Parisian fashions.)
The massive restoration of this street happened about ten years after our visit. Post-restoration Istiklal was a revelation: Pedestrian and lined with fashionable shops and attractive cafes, with the historic red tram reinstated. A perfect mix of history and hip.
What is the same? The thousands of years of Western and Near Eastern civilization that can felt; the remnants from the ancient Greeks and Romans; the architectural achievements of the Ottoman Turks; and the loveliness of the Turkish people. I was struck by it again. Wandering around the Grand Bazaar on my own I had a blast, making friends and being offered a chai every time I stopped to chat with vendors.
Napolean said about Istanbul, “If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” I feel that way about Rome and Florence, but Istanbul is close on their heels. I can’t wait to visit it again!
Slide show of my photos: