By Hilda Orama
Hilda Orama's stories

“Delicious Turkish delight. Come and taste.”

Bienvenidos…Apple tea…”

Each vendor in the Grand Bazaar badgers you to stop at their shop just to look. I don’t even want to walk near them because of the nauseating smell of cigarette smoke. Each claims he will give you the best deal. I feel comfortable despite having had to walk through a metal detector to enter. Our tour guide seems to know the vendors.

Yuksel takes us to her favorite places, the ones where “you can trust the vendors.” She assures us that we don’t have to buy anything and lets us know where we will meet after an hour-and-a-half of shopping.

Günaydın” —Good morning— “Grubunuza iyi fiyatlar vereceğim!” —I will give your group good prices—

It seems they chat her up in Turkish to get her to bring her large group in. She replies to some but ignores most. They sound as if they’re scolding her for not going into their shops. Others address us in Spanish as they hear her leading the tour in Spanish. I’m surprised when I hear some of the vendors address other tourists in Spanish. Their keen skills of observation allow them to quickly switch languages. Maybe they already know which guides lead tours in what language.

Buenos días!” “Pashminas…”

Yuksel brings us to a shop she seems to trust. There we eat a variety of Turkish delights: pistachio, hazelnut, chocolate, almond, and many more flavors. I especially like the almond flavored ones. It reminds me of the turrón we, Puerto Ricans eat at Christmas. At least they’re not smoking inside the shops. While the shop owners are multilingual I prefer to speak to them in English since it is easier for me to communicate my thoughts.

The decorative plates have caught my eye. One especially, burgundy-rust colored with some light blue greater-than and less-than looking shapes, some white flowers outlined in black, raised bumps, and the center reminds me of a mandala painted in mustard. I am mesmerized by a network of small yellow, orange, and iris blue flowers. As I look, the vendor says they are handmade by a local.

As we walk the crowded aisle the shopkeepers stand or sit in their shop fronts, men smoking, chatting, and interrupting their conversations to invite us in to see their merchandise. I make sure to stay in the middle of the wide aisle to avoid the vendors while admiring the patterns painted in a symmetrical pattern on the arched ceiling. The smell of cigarettes is still strong even though there’s an open doorway at the end. Every shop has a small Turkish flag. We step outside for some fresh air. It’s almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun is shining bright, but we prefer the fresh air for a few minutes rather than the smoky bazaar.

When we step outside, a man is selling perfume. “4 for $20,” he says as he approaches us with designer brand boxes.

“I’m allergic,” I reply.

As my friend, Judith, walks away, he shouts “5 for $20!” She says to me, “Why would I buy 5 when I didn’t want 4?”

As Yuksel shares information about her beautiful Turkey and its history she also shares that she is not religious and doesn’t follow Muslim traditions because some are hypocritical. She seems to be progressive. Yuksel lives alone, has purchased her own home and doesn’t think she’ll ever have children. I ask her if she is concerned of repercussions from sharing her views because the driver may report her, but she says she has had conversations with him and he also doesn’t believe in the restrictions the government places, especially on how women should dress. She recently noticed how girls are covering up younger and younger.

Five times a day the ezan, call to prayer, can be heard all over the neighborhood through speakers mounted on poles every 25 feet or so. The exact times are set by the sunrise and sunset. If you are in a mosque to pray the women and men are separated.

Libro de Hagia Sophia con fotos,” -Hagia Sophia book with pictures- the woman selling books outside the museum calls out. My mother hesitates and asks how much. “Cinco dólares!” -$5

“Mommy you are carrying enough, and I’m not going to carry it. Besides you don’t need another book,” I say to my mother.

Tacaña!” the vendor yells —cheapskate— “Tu eres tacaña,” she screams as we walk away. —you’re a cheapskate—

* * *

After dinner, we went out to explore the neighborhood. As we walked, the restaurant owners motioned for us to come in for dinner. They offered to show us their menus but I gestured to my belly. “We just had dinner.”

“Stop by for drinks. I’ll give you a special price.”

Judith and I stopped by the restaurant closest to our hotel. Judith is the only one in our group who doesn’t speak Spanish but she thought it was a once in a lifetime trip and was assured that some of us spoke English. As we paid our bill the owner brought over the menu and showed me the regular price so that I could see that he charged us less. As I walked out he whispered in my ear, “Bring the group tomorrow for lunch and you will eat free.” I smelled cigarettes on his breath.

We left the hotel early the next day due to a full itinerary of visiting various museums and mosques in Istanbul, and we got back in time to freshen up for dinner. After dinner, some of us decided to walk around and check out the night life.

We were chatting and walking along the street and were already off the block of our hotel when I suddenly heard someone shouting, “Where are you going?!”

I felt someone getting close to me.

“You were supposed to come for lunch!”

As I turned, I realized it was the man from the restaurant where we had drinks the night before. I kept walking and did not answer him but my heart was racing. I was shocked, and if I hadn’t been with a group I wouldn’t have felt safe. I wonder if he spoke to me in English because he clearly heard my friend and I speaking in English or because he didn’t want the others in the group to understand what he was saying.

When I told Yuksel about the incident she replied, “Ah, Istanbul.”

20 November, 2022