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A Mainer Abroad: Adventures in Istanbul

It has been almost a month of adventure without a study abroad column. Where to begin? I will talk about my trip to Istanbul over a long weekend, because that was the most interesting and eventful trip I’ve experienced since my last piece.

I had a long weekend due to the Bulgarian Liberation Holiday on March 3. At American University in Bulgaria (AUBG), I do not have class on Wednesday or Friday, so I had a five-day weekend. I decided to take a bus with four friends to Istanbul, which took 13 hours. The longest stop by far was at the Bulgarian-Turkish border to enter Turkey. I had to get a visa in order to visit Turkey, but these can be easily obtained online as an e-Visa. It is interesting which countries require this and which do not. For example, we had to get visas as U.S. citizens, as did our other friend who is from Netherlands, but our German friend did not need one.

Good thing we checked the day before! The Turkish border had very strict security, which I can understand given recent events there. We were at the border from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. (the bus was overnight) and we were required to get out of the bus three times: once at a passport checkpoint, once at the actual border and once at customs, where every piece of baggage had to be removed from the bus and put through a scanner, which was a rather lengthy process.

We arrived in Istanbul at 5:30 a.m., in the middle of a dark street. The call to prayer was happening right next to us at a mosque, which was a little bit eerie sounding. For the first time, it felt like we had left Europe and entered the Middle East.

We got to our hostel at around 7 a.m. My friend had chosen it online, where the photos had clearly been photoshopped. The actual hostel was horrific. We stayed in the “basement room,” which consisted of six beds in a narrow hallway. The beds were in cubbies like those you’d see in a morgue. It was actually raining the majority of the time we were in Istanbul, which only made the basement stay worse. The bedding was dirty, and the owner pulled it out from an uncovered cardboard box underneath the basement staircase! My friend Haley Williams — who is also from UMaine — and I both got bacterial conjunctivitis from staying at the hostel. We laughed at the fact that the hostel had no sign, just printed pieces of paper with the name typed on them hung in the windows. Note to self: do not stay in the cheapest hostel available, especially in a place like Istanbul. You live and you learn.  

The first day, we were very tired and napped that afternoon. When we woke up, our friend informed us that there had been a terrorist attack in the city, on the Asian side. We were staying on the European side. Some terrorists had thrown grenades at the police station, but the terrorists were then instantly killed. Police brutality is actually very big in Turkey. We were definitely unsettled by this, but since it was only our first day, we had three days ahead of us and we had to make the best of it and not live in fear.

One of my favorite parts of Istanbul was the spice bazaar, which also had many vendors with clothing and beautiful scarves. It was so Middle Eastern-feeling, and really an experience to walk through the bazaar with hundreds of people and bargain for items.

We also visited several mosques, including the large Blue Mosque. Everyone upon entering a mosque is required to remove their shoes, and all women must cover their heads with scarves. Scarves are not provided at every mosque, so I used one I just had bought at the bazaar. We also did several things incorrectly, such as stepping on a wrong area of the mosque with shoes still on. All-in-all, Istanbul was the most unique trip I have had yet while abroad.  

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