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From Croatia I then spent time in Hungary, Italy, Czech Republic and Greece with some friends before making my way solo to my last stop in Istanbul, Turkey.
I landed in Istanbul and caught a shuttle from the airport to my hostel. Driving through the city, it became immediately clear to me that I was no longer in mainstream Europe. Most European cities are very westernized with McDonalds, Starbucks, and other familiarities from home ever present.
Also, due to the significance of Catholic history in Europe, cathedrals are plentiful in every city.
In Istanbul the streets are lined with kebab restaurants and textile shops offering woven Turkish rugs and embroidered handbags. Not cathedrals but mosques with multiple dome-shaped ceilings are scattered around this dense city. Turkey is a predominantly Islamic country and many tourists from surrounding Arab countries congregate in Istanbul, taking in the abundance of Islamic history the city has to offer.
It was late in the afternoon when I got settled in at my hostel so I decided to take a quick nap before making my way to sightsee. About 15 minutes into my nap I was awakened by masculine chants echoing throughout the city on loud speakers. Confused, I sat up to listen closer, thinking there was some kind of emergency. I soon realized that the chanting was actually a man leading Muslims of the city in one of five daily prayers. This was fascinating to me as an American not regularly exposed to these daily rituals.
I immediately had a sense of excitement about the type of experience I would have in Istanbul. This experience was going to be more than just admiring city sights, but about learning and really being open-minded to a lifestyle and traditions I was not accustomed to.
My first sight of the day was the Hagia Sophia; the former church-turned-mosque and now museum. It is one of Istanbul’s most beloved attractions due to the rich history that lies within its mosaic walls and domed ceilings. As the sun was soon setting, I decided to head back to my hostel for the night to prepare for an early morning and full day of sights.
The next morning I walked to the Topkapi Palace and visited the Grand Bazar. The Bazar is an extensive indoor shopping center with hundreds of stalls offering different textiles, jewelry and silk scarves. I then made my way to the spice market, another indoor center offering fresh spices, saffron being the most sought after, traditional Turkish teas and the popular gel-like confectionary known as Turkish delights. From there I boarded a tour boat on the Bosphorus Strait taking me under the Bosphorus bridge which connects Europe and Asia. Istanbul is the world’s only city to be divided on two continents making the bridge a popular tourist attraction.
To end my last day in Istanbul I decided to enjoy a Turkish dessert and coffee while people-watching at an outdoor cafe. At the table next to me were three adults, all approximately in their 40’s, enjoying traditional Turkish apple tea. After being served my dessert, the only female at the table next to me turned and asked, “Where are you from?”
I told her I was from Los Angeles and ended up chatting with them for about an hour. One of the men and the woman were married and the third person, also a man, was their friend who hand-makes jewelry for a living. Towards the end of our conversation the jewelry maker reached into his bag and pulled out a hand-made woven string bracelet. He asked me for my wrist and said, “for good luck!” I smiled from ear to ear, grateful for his kindness as he finished tying the bracelet on me.
It was getting late and I needed to get back to my hostel to pack for my early morning flight back to LA. I said goodbye to my new friends and thanked them for being so kind.
As I left the cafe I stopped to look at a scarf I wanted to buy from a street vendor. She was asking for more than it was worth and wouldn’t bargain with me on price so I decided to pass. As I was putting the scarf back in the pile, someone from behind me swooped it up and placed it back in my hands saying, “This is a nice one!” I turned around and it was the jewelry-maker from the cafe!
He spoke to the vendor in Turkish, trying to negotiate the price but she wouldn’t budge. He took his wallet out and bought the scarf for me! Shocked, but grateful for his generosity, I was almost brought to tears. I said thank you over and over as he walked away. I will never forget this man and how kind he was to me, someone he had only known for 30 minutes, yet he didn’t hesitate to spend his hard-earned money to make a stranger happy.
Now every time I wear this scarf it will be a reminder that kindness and generosity know no boundaries, no race, no religion, no judgment whatsoever. It will remind me that even the slightest act of kindness can make a person’s day and perhaps make their soul so happy it brings them to tears. These are the moments I live for while traveling.
We come across many people in this journey we call life. Some come into our lives to stay and some merely pass through as lessons to remind us of the important things in life, awaken us to new experiences or simply to point out the value of kindness and generosity across all cultures.
These are the people and experiences that make it so hard to end my travels. Two months ago I left LA as one person and now I arrive back where I started as changed, more enlightened and grateful, something no amount of money could ever buy.
Until next summer…
Nicole Hale is a Downey resident and journalism major at Cal State Dominguez Hills. She documented her summer travels with occasional stories in the Patriot, which are posted online at thedowneypatriot.com
Published: Aug. 7, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 17