Sunday, July 29, 2012

The city of cats

Most of the developing world is dog-lover's paradise--if you can stand protruding ribs, fleas, mange, and so on.  In The Gambia nearly every dog suffered from some terrible-looking ear infection reducing otherwise cute furry flaps to messes of blood and flies.  Istanbul is one of far fewer locales where stray cats reign.  (Africans don't see any value in cats, a British ex-pat claimed.)  The only other place I can remember with this many semi-feral felines was Rome.  While I was taking a picture of a tabby perched adorably among a display of guidebooks, the shopkeep solicited me to add coins to a tin can supposedly earmarked to provide milk for street cats.  In another area, a rugmonger shooed a cat all the way down the alley away from his shop.

That so many stray animals do so (relatively) well is a sign of prosperity mirrored by many other sides of life here, from gleaming trolleys plastered over with ads to disposable plates and cups to extravagantly paunchy men to bootblacks serving more locals than tourists.  Why isn't Turkey in the EU?  Istanbul seems to be doing as well as Madrid or Paris.

To steal my own line from the Taj Mahal, Istanbul is where film and memory cards go to die.  The Aya Sofya alone ate up more frames than I used to expend on a whole trip in the Ektachrome days.  UNESCO monuments lurk around nearly every corner.  And if the monuments weren't dangerous enough, most streets are narrow, winding, cobblestone orgies of old buildings, flowers, tunnels, balconies, and shifting shadows.  Even the food is photogenic: a window full of 1001 forms of not-quite-baklava is an edible mosaic--to say nothing of the fiery pyramids of oranges and pomegranates on juice-pressers' carts, or the smiling watermelons sliced on wagons.
"Mosaic" of sweets

Mosaic in the street

Turks are famous for their aggressive salesmanship, but only glimpses of this have surfaced so far (the Grand Bazaar was closed today).  Hospitality, on the other hand, has been on full display, starting with the little things like giving directions, on to an invitation to a free lecture on the Blue Mosque, and then a free discussion of Ramadan followed by a complimentary Iftar dinner.  Very seldom are tourists given anything more than a map for free; in Beijing once I was almost obsequiously asked to complete a survey, but it didn't come with refreshments.

It's hot enough to be an irritation, but I've seen a lot worse: it's dry, and the proximity of the sea has a leavening effect.  Tourists wearing tank tops and shorts seem a little silly to me, but the locals are immodest enough in dress that you can't always tell who's who just from the clothes.

Inside the Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque itself was a bit bland after the Aya Sofia (what wouldn't be?), but it renewed my enthusiasm for the human element in mosques, even though it was very different from anything in Pakistan. Men and women intermingle almost without distinction except that there are special semi-screened rooms and balconies reserved for women, and areas closest to the "altar" that seem restricted to men. But it's all hustle and bustle as in Pakistan; tourists and locals alike wave cameras every which way even during prayers. And in the plaza life goes on just as it would in a park.
Outside the Blue Mosque