“We don’t eat people, we’re vegetarians!”

Travel Tales — By on June 18, 2011 at 10:17 am
Blue Mosque in Istanbul

A view of the Blue Mosque from across some nearby rooftops.

Many hotels in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, even the inexpensive hostels, have roof terraces that provide jaw-dropping views of one of the world’s most beautiful skylines. On our first morning in the city we ate breakfast on one of these terraces, under an explosion of sunshine. We looked out over the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia, which shone against the backdrop of an azure sky, giving the appearance that we were looking at a canvas and the buildings had been painted there. In the distance, the Sea of Marmara glittered diamonds in the morning light and blew a faint salt-water breeze in our direction.

After fortifying ourselves with bread, yogurt and coffee, Lisa and I set off to explore Istanbul. We walked down Divan Yolu, a busy boulevard that slices through the historic heart of the city, passed the ancient Hippodrome where chariot races were once held and found our way to the 1500-year-old Aya Sofia. We were dismayed to discover a long line to get inside the building, but soon struck up an amiable conversation with a local man, Selim.

“Where you from?” he inquired.

“America.”

“Ahhh, beautiful country. What state?”

“Massachusetts. Near Boston.”

“Boston. Boston Celtics!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, uh, you know the Celtics?”

“I love NBA basketball. I first like Celtics when Larry Bird play there. I still follow them.”

“Wow. Well, nice to meet you, Selim.”

“You know,” he said, “there long line here at Aya Sofia. Line not so long at Blue Mosque. And mosque close early for prayers. It better to go to mosque first, then come to Aya Sofia later. It very nearby. If you like, I can show you entrance.”

We were slightly suspicious, but we had seen so many other examples of Turks being helpful merely out of kindness that we accepted his offer. Soon, though, we began to have doubts over our haste when we realized Selim wasn’t going to let us out of his sight. Even when we were obviously within sight of the mosque entrance, he was firm about staying with us the entire way.

“Don’t worry, I don’t go inside with you,” he replied, walking alongside us. “I just take you there.”

Then we arrived at the mosque entrance and he insisted on making sure we got inside. It seemed as if there had to be a catch, but we couldn’t figure out what it might be. We were in the middle of crowds of tourists, he wasn’t carrying anything to sell and he had walked us straight to the mosque. But, still, he wouldn’t let go of us.

“It’s very nice of you,” I said, “but, really, we can figure it out.”

“Mosque very big. I just make sure you find right entrance,” he said. “You go inside on your own. Don’t worry.”

He showed us to the entrance, where there was indeed a much shorter line than at the Aya Sofia. So far, so good. He pointed out a box of scarves for women to put over their heads before entering and to the place where we were to remove our shoes.

“You go inside now,” he said. “Take as long as you want. I will wait for you. When you come out, you come to my store, just one block away. Very nice souvenirs.”

Aha. There was a catch, but Selim was very smooth about making sure the ploy wouldn’t become apparent until the very last moment. Not only did the mosque not close early, we now realized, but the tourist entrance was at one end of the building and the exit was at the other end. He knew that he was leaving us at the only place we could enter the mosque and would be waiting for us at the only place we could exit.

That is how we were introduced to one of the spectacles of international travel and to the business of touts, who are ubiquitous not just in Istanbul but on the streets of most major cities in the non-Western world. They usually want nothing more than to make a bit of money, but they can still be pesky antagonists. Like most travelers, we were never completely successful in avoiding them, but we soon became more aware of their tactics. Although it was frustrating to be taken in by this ruse on our first day in Istanbul, we at least had to give Selim credit for creativity.

It’s easy enough, after all, to steer clear of people who are pushing their wares on the street and whom we could walk away from, but it’s much harder to avoid those individuals who disguise their goal by being helpful in some way. It is also especially difficult to shun anyone who exhibits humor or personality. In fact, it was just a few days later in Istanbul that we heard one of the funniest lines ever from a man who was trying to entice us into his store. We initially walked past him, pretending not to hear his plea. But then we couldn’t help but laugh.

“Don’t run away,” he shouted. “We don’t eat people, we’re vegetarians!”

 

Photo credit: Cem Topcu via Wikimedia Commons.

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