Visiting the Basilica Cistern

Yesterday evening, Lauren and I took a quick trip to the Basilica Cistern, or, as it’s called here, the Yerebatan Sarayı (sunken palace). The ancient cistern was constructed during the reign of Justinian I, by the labor of a supposed 7,000 slaves. It was used as a water filtration system for hundreds of years.

Today, the cistern is nearly empty of water, so tourists can walk around on platforms suspended over the water. The place is very leaky and damp – I got startled a few times when a big fat drop would fall on my face.

A big tourist draw to the cisterns are the large stone Medusa heads in the underground chamber. Historians don’t know where the heads came from, why they’re there, or why one of the heads is tilted on one side.

I couldn’t get a good photo of the whole place because it was so dark. I suppose back in the day, this place would have been incredibly eerie. But on our visit, with 100 kids underfoot, the place was booming with echoes. Regardless, it was cool to visit someplace that was so historic and preserved for generations upon generations.


The wake of revolution

As loyal readers already know, we spent Thursday through Saturday in the Hatay region of southern Turkey, which is in close proximity to the Syrian border. A growing number of refugee camps dot the dusty landscape of Hatay, and the cities, like Antakya, are increasingly full with those who have escaped violence in Syria.

I don’t want to tread on the stories I’m working on too much. Nearly 9,000 Syrians have reportedly perished at the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s forces since last May. People told me stories of brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and children being slaughtered.

The ones who have survived say they will never be the same.  When we visited the Antakya State Hospital, we talked to people disfigured for life – who say they narrowly escaped death.

A refugee woman who helped us communicate at one of the camps took us to the hospital, where she often volunteers and brings food. The two men we visited suffered tremendous injury in Syria, one said he was injured by a bombing and one from being driven over by an Assad army vehicle during a demonstration. They have both been in the hospital for several months. They told us they were carried over the border mountains on the backs of Free Syrian Army members, then driven to the hospital in Antakya.

I will be writing more about these men and the other refugees I met this weekend, so be sure to look out for those pieces this week!

Suyu, or Don’t You?

Back home, I never give water a second thought: I drink it from the faucet, brush my teeth with it, shower in it, put it in my drinks as ice cubes, and generally don’t appreciate it as much as I probably should.

Here, it’s kind of a different story.

We’ve been assured that the water here is perfectly fine, but Istanbul life has become accustomed to hosting a never-ending fleet of bottled water-drinkers. Restaurant tables are lined with bottles of water and corner shop floors are crowded with water jugs. The only time I’ve actually consumed non-bottled water here was from brushing my teeth.

We were joking around earlier today about how at home we guzzle water carelessly, but here, we’re careful to ensure that our water supply is constantly stocked – quite a change from knowing your next drink is just a flick of a faucet away.

At restaurants, we’ve come to expect plastic-lidded cups of water that look like glasses after you unpeel the lid. When we visited the Kocaeli government office last week, they gave us water in those containers and told us a charming legend: that anyone who drinks the water of Kocaeli will return someday.

I do hope to return someday, but I certainly miss those ice cubes!

Looking at them, looking at me

On Saturday, we stepped foot in some of the oldest and most celebrated mosques – like the Blue Mosque – in Istanbul. The rules for those mosques are as follows:

  • No shoes allowed. You either carry your shoes in from outside or leave them on a rack outside the worshiping area.
  • Women should have their heads covered and wear a long skirt; men should wear long pants and not shorts. Occasionally they let these rules slide, but if the officers outside believe you’re dressed inappropriately, they’ll often provide a sheath of cloth to drape over your legs or shoulders.
  • You’re not technically supposed to speak aloud inside the mosque if you’re a visitor. They’re not too strict about this, so we didn’t feel too bad about exchanging awed “wows” as we looked around.
  • Photographs should not be taken during the prayers, which are supposed to happen five times a day; a couple hours before dawn, sunrise, midday, afternoon, sunset and after the last light of day disappears.
  • Visitors are supposed to stay behind the area designated for prayer.

Visiting these mosques was obviously a new and unusual thing for me. And the weirdest thing happened when we visited the first one: Another visitor politely asked if he could photograph me just standing there. I thought it was strange, but I told him that it was fine.

And it happened again later that day. After entering the Blue Mosque, I stopped looking upward at the ceiling when I realized an older woman was looking at me. I instinctively checked to make sure my scarf was in place, and I pulled my sweater close as I murmured a quick “Merhaba.” I blushed, embarrassed and worried that she thought I was dressed inappropriately. But not five minutes later, a man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, but my mother-in-law would like to take a picture with you. She likes you very much.” The small woman was smiling at me shyly and I happily agreed.

I realized, then, that she wasn’t judging me for me for being different. On the contrary, I think – or at least I hope – she realized that I was trying to be respectful of her beliefs, even though it was pretty clear I came from a very different place. I’ll never quite understand what it’s like to be her, just like she’ll never quite understand what it’s like to be me. But the least we can do is try.


We went on a tour of the Bosphorus this afternoon with Dr. Ercan Balci’s class of University of Illinois students who are also in Istanbul this month. Though we had some soggy weather, we got to see the stretches of Bosphorus coast that are usually difficult to reach – Istanbul traffic can be very heavy!

Some of the architectural standouts we saw were the yalıs – pronounced “Yah-luhs” – which are waterside wooden residences. There are roughly 600 of these primarily 19-century homes, painted in any and every color. Dr. Balci explained that though many are owned by wealthy families, there are many that are shared by several owners. Since the homes are so expensive, owners will try to sell their share of a residence but face difficulty when these multiple owners squabble over who the home will be sold to and how much it will be sold for. This often forces people to remain living in these fabulously expensive homes while they’re living in relative poverty.

Another difficulty these homeowners face is in the upkeep. Since many of the homes are considered to be historic buildings by the country, there are laws about how the homes must be remodeled and restored. Since these particular restorations are often quite expensive and unaffordable, some of the homes fall into disrepair.

Our Friendly Neighborhood Antique Shop

While wandering through Beyoğlu the other day, we decided to stop in an antique shop – Karadeniz Antik in Beyoğlu – to browse around. Let me preface this by saying I am not an “antiquer” in the least – I usually find antique shops totally dusty and dull. But this one was completely charming.

Everything was stunning – the old Aladdin-like lamps, Christian-themed paintings and crosses that the owner said were hundreds of years old (and they certainly appeared it!), daggers with decorative sheaths and infinite other treasures gleaming in the morning sunlight. We could have spent all day there.

The owner, Ömer Gençtürk, was very sweet about us young’uns poking around his shop before eight in the morning. He offered us tea, showed us old helmets to try on and tried to answer our every question. Ömer said he had collected his antiques himself over the years, and took special pride in showing us the fish in his outdoor pond that the had caught in a net the day before.

There wasn’t much in the shop our college-budget wallets could afford, but we had fun chatting with Ömer and poking around.


Visiting the Istanbul Culinary Institute

Yesterday, I visited the Istanbul Culinary Institute to meet its founder, Hande Bozdoğan. Since one of my stories is about the cuisine of Istanbul, Ms. Bozdoğan talked to me about eating in Turkey.

The Institute is in its fifth year of operation, usually hosting a very small class of students. The culinary students run the restaurant hosted in the Institute, and they gain experience running almost every aspect of the restaurant. Bozdoğan said the Institute owns a farm outside the city, so the restaurant uses fresh fruits and vegetables grown there. Each day the menu changes – whichever ingredients are fresh and in season are featured in the menu, and the students are responsible for featuring those ingredients in the day’s menu. This, Bozdoğan said, is a key element in Turkish food: Eating seasonal food in its prime.

Turkish 101

Lindsay and I attended a beginner’s Turkish class taught by Dr. Ercan Balci last week. It was really hard to figure out how to pronounce a lot of the words – some of their letters make completely different sounds in English. But we did get the hang of the most important Turkish word; “Merhaba,” which means hello.

Till next time, “güle güle,” or “Be on your way with a smile!”

A Backpack Reporter’s Equipment

Nearly a week away from our departure, we’ve been busy getting our equipment in working shape. While we’re in Turkey, we’re going to need the necessary equipment to shoot, edit and produce all of our content. As a writer, all of this video and photo stuff was new to me, and it’s not easy!

If you’ve ever wondered what a backpack journalist has to carry at all times, here’s your guide:

Camera – Ours are Canon PowerShot SX10’s. They’re small and handy, but shoot high-quality material.Tripod – To prevent shaky video, we bring along a portable tripod at all times.

Audio Recorder – We’ll use recorders when we do interviews to get the best-quality audio for our video.

Lavalier Microphone – This connects to our audio recorders to a microphone that can clip onto the collar of whoever we’re interviewing.

Batteries – Journalists should never be without lots of lithium batteries on reserve!

Camera Bag – All of this equipment, plus cords and headphones, fits into a compact camera bag.