Even if the Turkish sun is hot, my trusty Tilley hat should do the trick, even if it’s old and battered, like its owner. Looking in the mirror, I pretended I was on camera, and gave myself a wink.
“Straighten your hat,” Brenda advised me. “You look like Jed Clampett.”
Istanbul must not have much of a welfare system, because everyone that you inadvertently make eye contact with is on the hustle like a Turkish Sammy Glick. They are certainly a likeable bunch, however. After putting our shoes back on and stepping outside the Blue Mosque, we realized that we had lost our bearings. Our confused predicament was picked up on by a personable young passerby, who we took to be a local guide. After pointing out the quickest route to the Basilica Cistern, he ‘fessed up to his personal sin. “I’m a carpet salesman,” he stated without embarrassment, not knowing that I would have felt more at ease if he had admitted he was a serial killer. I grabbed Rachelle’s arm and started scuttling off in what I hoped was the direction of the Cistern. The poor guy didn’t realize that he might as well have told me that he specialized in selling Florida swampland.
Ah, carpet salesmen. My first encounter with the beast was in 1996, when we spent a year teaching in France. Brenda thought that our February break would be best spent by driving through Spain, leaving our car in Gibraltar and taking the ferry into Morocco. It was our first foray into a developing country and it opened my eyes as to what people, especially children, could learn when they possessed the intrinsic motivation. Little boys standing no higher than your waist were pushing in front of each other in order to be your guide, each one hustling for your business in English, French, German; all of which they could speak fluently as well as their native Arabic. After days of resistance we finally succumbed to the salespitch of one establishment, whose proprietor charmingly told us that we had been such sharp negotiators that he would be forced to make up his losses on our deal from the next rich Swiss businessman who stumbled into his shop. To celebrate the deal we all sat cross-legged on the carpet and a large bowl of couscous was brought out. Excusing myself to wash my hands I descended the rickety staircase into the basement where the only facilities were an ancient Turkish toilet and no sign of any running water. I returned upstairs to find everyone digging into the bowl with their right hand. I’m not squeamish by any means, but I can’t say that I dug into that particular bowl of couscous with too much appetite.
The Basilica Cistern was cool in every sense of the term. The ancients’ sense of architecture and engineering never fails to awe me, even if the primary architect seemed to have a fetish for Medusa heads. We weren’t turned to stone, but we were conned into the very modern practice of having our photos taken in mid-thirteenth century sultan-like garb, even if I don’t particularly want to show those photos to anyone.
Last stop in the late afternoon was the Grand Bazaar. I was exhausted from a hot day spent sightseeing after an all- night flight with no sleep. I had run an eight hour gauntlet of vendors, hucksters and con-men and I was now content to throw my wife and daughter to the wolves by themselves; they seemed more immune and better equipped to deal with the hurly-burly of the marketplace than I did anyway. By now I felt as skittish and nervous around vendors as an old carthorse making a delivery to the glue factory. I waved them off, bid them good luck and plunked my weary derriere on a bench outside the bazaar where I promptly fell asleep and probably started snoring.
I came to a little while later and found a young woman seated beside me, texting. She must have noted that I didn’t look Turkish because she spoke to me in English. “You are very tired,” she said, smiling.
I wasn’t sure what was up because I was more used to being conned by men and not women. “I was on an overnight flight,” I said in response, as naïve as if I had just rode into town on a load of watermelons. She smiled, pleased to have stumbled across a pigeon ready to be plucked, and continued to text.
“What’s the name of your hotel ?” she inquired.
By now even I was beginning to catch on and with my usual sharp repartee answered, “Well, I,uh,hmm… don’t know,” was the best I could do. I wasn’t playing dumb; I truly didn’t know. I was squirming in my seat when I saw Brenda and Rachelle approaching from the bazaar. So did the uh, young lady, as she speedily rose and hurried off without so much as a fare-thee-well.
“You should have come into the Bazaar,” both Rachelle and Brenda exclaimed at the same time.
It had been a long day. “I’m hungry,” I answered, “and the only thing I want to haggle over now is supper.”