I was in between worlds. Usually, it could easily be in my own mind but this time, I was on the Bosphorous that divides the city of Istanbul in Turkey, as a continent stood on each side. The locals clambered on up the steps, vying for places to sit.
Many of them were from the marathon they ran that morning. As we set off, the seagulls raced and chased the ferry as it cut through the water. A tray, neatly balanced by a man, clinking with handleless, sultry looking cups.
They went out full, then they returned empty. He kept his own balance on the ferry as we took a 20 minute hop from Europe to Asia. Before that I was on land, standing on the pavement and enjoying a busy Sunday as the already creaking streets was filled with locals, turning a momentous marathon in the early stages, to a peaceful, cheerful march.
The band played as we watched the passing people slowly move down the street, disappearing somewhere past the Dolmabahçe palace.
Behind us the sunshine played on the waters, as a few fisherman gathered. Simit stalls popped up. Through a good friend of mine, I managed to secure myself a few hours in Istanbul in 2015. That month in particular was full of short trips (of only one which I had intended to go on). To be precise, it mostly consumed by confused Uber drivers, a lot of traffic and the Istanbul marathon that cost one of us our flights.
I had been here before, staying close to Istiklal Avenue the year before, the densely packed shopping street that leads up to Taksim Square. That’s when I discovered the sheer amount of people moving around a city (Istanbul has a population of around 15m people) that was a true melange of its own proud culture and ways of doing things.
Reading guides is one thing, seeing how people react and move to oncoming traffic, and living their lives is another. But then again, every city has its own faults.
Istanbul is a city on the move, literally. People move in all directions by all manners of transport, constantly moving themselves even if nothing else is. A new wave of construction dots the long highway connecting Ataturk airport and the main downtown areas. There are bus lanes that sit in between the lanes themselves.
I’d been fortunate to stay at the Shangri-La, and on this visit something that brought Turkish culture to life in our eyes was tea. Being British myself, we turn to the humble leaf through the day, a daily ritual in the workplace and a source of comfort perhaps when we gather in our homes with friends.
I’ve also had the pleasure of experiencing the institution of afternoon tea. But tea in Turkey is more than putting on a kettle and having the milk ready. It has a mystical invitation attached to it when you are presented by the traditional Turkish tea cup, filled to the brim nearly with a rich, tannin coloured tea and a few lumps of white sugar stirred in. No sign of milk, the tea is drunk strong and sweet.
In the evening, we saw near the calm, dark water that there was life. Couples huddled together, friends chatted and drank beer. Simit (a Turkish bagel) and kebab, and, there again, tea appeared.
This time, it was mobile units that brought hot water, paper cups and sugar. Tea is a social magnet, drawing people together, in conversations and good spirits, no matter what the weather. It felt like I had rediscovered tea, and made me fearful of opening my own kitchen cupboards at home, only to hear the silent, muffled screams of all the tea I had, still yet to be drunk.
From time to time, there is a reinvention of some of the oldest world institutions. Tea is one of them. Companies have been trying to make tea sexy again.
I’ve seen those adverts on billboards, fighting the growing appeal of coffee somehow pushing its buddy into a much forgotten place. I find fruit teas to be a letdown. What smells good translates into a bland experience on the palate. In Turkey, tea is already sexy, it’s just that the rest of the world should know about it.
Tea goes back how far? Yes, that far. My life has indeed been a tea trail, from Mauritius, to the UK and now Turkey. It’s just one of those aspects of travelling that connects the emotional dots. The evening before, a short venture out to the Besiktas side revealed a more relaxed atmosphere.
Alongside tea, the various, beautiful colours of authentic Turkish delight truly invokes a magical experience. Mostly sold by weight, they are aesthetically pleasing as well as satisfying my sweet tooth. Rolled in pistachios, saffron or sour pomegranate, I’d never seen such a variety that was born out of classic Turkish flavours.
Any multinational product covered in chocolate that tastes of rose fudge isn’t true to the words that they bear. A slice of delight covered in dried rose petals is the proper way of how you indulge your sweet side. Be sure to visit a place where you can see loose delight, rather than the generic boxed varieties. After a frantic dash for the airport and getting to gate at ‘Last Call’, the flight only sat there for another 45 minutes, as a beautiful sunset descended in the horizon.
Even before the plane arrived back in London, people already stood up and were taking their bags down, having been sternly told off by the crew who proceeded to shut, shut, shut all the overhead lockers.
Upon returning home, I opened my suitcase to the scent of the hammam, four blocks of fragrant soap and a new loofah that I could scrub an elephant clean with. I smiled, and realised once again that the pleasures of seeing the world were these small souvenirs and experiences that make up life.