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Crossroads of Civilization - Vivek Vanwari

Ages ago, I had read an article by the Indian Journalist Behram Contractor on Istanbul - the crossroads of civilization, the gateway to Europe. That's when I dreamt of going there someday. It was simply so romantic, so very irresistible. Just to be able to wake up in the morning, watch the sun come up over the Blue Mosque and hear the muezzin cry out his prayers over the minarets! To stand on the banks of the Dead Sea, to take a cruise down the Bosphorous, to visit ruined cities of the Roman Empire in Epheseus and Troy. To stand on the battlefields of Galliopoli, to sit down on a street cafe and sip Turkish coffee; to take a mud bath at a hammam or take the night train out of Istanbul station and sit by the window watching the world go by.

I realized my dream only last year. Settled on the airline seat, I looked down at the tarmac from the window, elated with fear and excitement, fists slightly clenched, cheeks flushed. I felt the power of the jet engines in the pit of my belly and in a few moments, my heart soared with the aircraft and I was in the clouds.

I greeted my next dawn over Byzantium. The plane broke through the cloud cover and I got my first view of Istanbul - it took my breath away as I watched the sun drown itself in the Marmara sea. It started raining as the aircraft taxied to the terminal. I rushed out of the airport as soon as I could, and the adventure began immediately. Immediately met a tout and it took me some time to shake him off. I guess it's the same all over the world! It was about 9 pm, the streets glistened with rain and the sky crackled with thunder and lightning. I was stranded in an area called Sultan Ahmet. I took shelter in a dilapidated building and saw the blue mosque all lit up. I did not find it spectacular. Rather found it very serene. All of a sudden, I felt strangely safe.

I managed to get a hotel for 10 USD and crashed out immediately. I was woken up at 5 am sharp by the cry of the muezzin. It called out to your soul, to come and pray. The echoes lasted in the room for a long while. Dawn broke and it was as if I was back home. Like a typical Bombay morning, it was raining and the bed was cold. You could barely see the raindrops on your window but you knew it was raining and the roads were wet. You squeeze yourself back into the blanket, all warm and snug, but your feet are still cold. I felt that any moment my mom would come to wake me up and I thought of all the excuses I would make not to go to school. I pulled the blanket tightly around me and relished its lovely warmth.

Finally got up, took a shower and dressed up. It was time to eat. Those of you who were waiting for the food part to come, here it goes! White fluffy eggs -sunny side up, crunchy strips of bacon, fresh juicy tomatoes and very very soft, freshly baked warm bread. To top it all, the strong aroma of Turkish filter coffee filled up the room as I sipped it. I went out of the caf‚ and walked for 9 hours just absorbing the city, eating on the street, walking on the pavements, watching the kids polish boots, watching two lovers hug each other on the banks of the black sea. Istanbul has a lot of character and pulse. I realized I had fallen in love with the place.

I always thought that Indian women were the prettiest in the world but I have changed my mind after visiting Istanbul. Turkish women are so breathtakingly pretty, one gets pretty, well, breathless! A typical Turkish beauty is slim, about five and a half feet tall, hair naturally curly in different hues of brown, very neat features and a stunning complexion. I might have ended up suing the Turkish government for serious neck injury, couldn't stop craning my neck to look at every second passerby - they are all so very beautiful!

A couple of days of roaming and eating, more roaming and more eating left me at an old station at Haydarpasa for the night train to Denizli. I managed to get a seat and climbed in. I felt so much at home; nothing feels so good as a train being pulled out by a blue electric engine in a romantic city. In a few hours, I felt hungry and walked through the compartments to the Dining car. Stop and picture this. The door opens sideways and as you enter the dining car and make your way through the smoke (I did not meet a single male Turk who didn't smoke), time freezes. It was a scene from an old black and white Cary Grant movie where he enters a dining car and tough men with cigarettes hanging from the corner of their mouths puff away. They look him up and down meanly and sip their locally made liquor from short, cheap glasses. Then, as he settles down, someone utters an insults and he picks up a fistfight. After a brief but passionate scuffle everyone settles down. A gorgeous blonde with an inviting smile enters..............sorry but I guess I am no Cary Grant and nothing like that happened with me! I did manage to get a light meal though!

In the morning, the train reached some wayside station at about 8.30 am and I was hungry again (gosh, I'm always hungry ! ). Well, I got off the train to hunt for some food. The station was not big enough to accommodate the whole train so I walked by the tracks. The train slowly started off again in the direction it came from but then it didn't stop. I ran, but it gathered speed and was soon pulling out of the station. All my bags, everything was on that train. I yelled but to no avail. Within minutes the train had disappeared from my view. Believe me, when a woman leaves you, you can still justify it and get over it, but the most tragic feeling in the world is to see your train leave with all your bags on it, leaving you stranded in the middle of nowhere. I have lived my life around trains and it was stupid of me to forget that at the last station before the hills, they always shunt a double header or have an engine at the back. It always, always would go in the direction it came from. How could I make a mistake like that, I wanted to kick myself !! I did manage to get my bags though. The couple sitting next to me kept it with the police at the next station and waited for me.

I went to a Thermal Resort at Pammukale where there were in-house thermal springs. Went for a long swim, lazed around on the beach chairs and soaked in the afternoon sun. Turks make the most awesome sweets you can ever eat. I had this lip smacking pastry - soft and succulent. I could not eat more than 3 - my appetite died with all the morning excitement. Lunch was an insipid burger.

I made my way from Pammukale to Selcuk where there are some old Byzantium ruins. They were quite good especially the colonnade leading to the amphitheatre but I am not much of a "RUINS" guy. I made my way back to the city and there was a small street cafe with chairs outside run by an old man with his two sons. I sat there and in the distance I could see the hills - all green and lush with flowers. I had an out-of-the-world sandwich stuffed with various meats and cheese and washed it down with coffee. As I sat there, I watched the sun dip below the hills, felt the cold slowly creep in and felt my face awashed in the orange, gold rays of the setting sun. I felt I was in a dream.

It was a holiday and all the girls in town had dressed up to come to a nearby amusement park. I guess there could be no better experience than sitting alone on a chair in a street cafe somewhere in the south of Turkey and watch the prettiest women in the world, with their hair flowing down their shoulders and their faces so fresh and lit up with huge smiles.

I got back to Istanbul and met some fellow travellers. A French man was traveling overland from France to India. I was ready to join in but........we sat there and discussed his journey for the next 2 hours and parted as best friends.

I stood alone on a short hill with the Topkapi Palace behind me. The sky was overcast and there were voices in the distance of children playing on the lawns of the palace. I snuggled into my jacket and watched the Bosphorous make it's way down to the sea. I was filled with immense sadness - my dream had come to an end. As I stood on that hill, I was finally at peace. We all collect things - some collect stamps, some pictures and some coins. I collect memories. Years later I need to only close my eyes, step back and recall scenes from Istanbul, see myself standing once again on the banks of the Bosphorous, watching the sun slowly sink in the horizon.

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