Dinner by the Bosphorus and other memories
On our last evening in Turkey, we had dinner in a restaurant, called Lacivert, on the banks of the Bosphorus. To get there, we boarded a shuttle boat that ferried clients from the “European” side to the “Asian” side. Once there, we basked in the late afternoon air, taking in the gentle breezes and the other patrons who came dressed for an evening out. Earlier, lunch was aboard a small yacht that cruised the length of the strait, bringing us to picturesque districts of old houses and palaces, modern restaurants, parks and mosques.
Truly, the Bosphorus, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, can be said to be the “heart” of Istanbul, its pulsing, dynamic center that has enough room for giant tankers, luxury cruisers, fishing boats, and, while we waited for dinner to start, even a submarine suddenly surfacing, cutting the water with a splash that reminded us of a whale coming up for air.
There is the tang of the sea about the waters, but none of the “fishy” smell one associates with such a busy body of water. Of course, my thoughts harked back to home, to Manila Bay, Pasig River or even Laguna de Bay. There are eateries along Manila Bay, but one has to withstand (or try to ignore) the oily water that exudes the faint stink of diesel oil and garbage.
When we observe that the Bosphorus seems extraordinarily clean for such a busy metropolis, our Turkish friends exclaim “Clean?!” in an incredulous tone. As we pass clumps of men dangling fishing poles from the bridge rails, they tell us that “of course, we would not eat the fish” they catch. And neither would they risk swimming in the waters. But to our eyes, the Bosphorus is clean enough, and the tang of sea salt in the air is reassuring.
The Bosphorus was not as pristine—or pristine-looking—well into the 1970s, we were told. But soon after, a determined government set out to clean the strait, in use since ancient times, mainly by heavily regulating the cargo ships that ply it.
It may have cost a lot to clean up the Bosphorus, at least to a standard acceptable to tourists, but surely it was worth all the trouble and expense. Surely we can do the same for Manila Bay and—hope springs eternal—maybe even the Pasig, too.
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We came too late in the season to see the fields of “gold”—that is, wheat stalks swaying in the fields of Urfa in the south where some of the wheat harvest originates. Harvesting had been completed just a few weeks before we arrived, and so all we saw were barren fields with a few pistachio trees lining the highway.
But we did get to see a glimpse of bread-making in Turkey, in a factory on the outskirts of Istanbul. An exhibit of antique machines—huge wooden paddles, ceramic vats and grinders—can be found just outside the main factory floor, but what we see beyond the glass walls are gleaming, stainless equipment.
Before we’re allowed on the factory floor, we’re asked to don white robes and hair caps, plus blue plastic covers for our shoes. We carefully make our way to the ovens where loaves undergo preliminary baking, then go through a “shower” of water and butter, before spiraling down a chute for final baking and packaging.
One of the breads passing through the ovens is a special kind that is served only during Ramadan, or Ramazan, as the Turkish spell it. These are discs of unleavened bread, baked a dark brown that are served during the meals used to “break” the daylong fast of believers.
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Visiting Turkey during the monthlong fast is an exercise in cross-cultural sensitivity and tolerance.
Being a secular society with a largely Muslim population, Turkey is a cosmopolitan mix of races, beliefs and practices. It is also a major tourist destination, so restaurants and snack bars operate as normal throughout the day. While having dinner at Lacivert, we observe a couple dutifully studying their menus and inquiring if any of the dishes had pork. They then waited until 8 p.m. before having their meals served, since this is the designated time that the day’s fasting ends. One of our guides was an observant Muslim, and he kept quiet for much of the day, even as we asked for cold water to keep the heat at bay. Once the fasting ended, he grabbed the first water bottle he saw, then went out to fetch his “take-home” meal, explaining he preferred to eat this with his family when he got home.
The only guideline we got was to avoid eating or drinking on the street so as not to offend observant Muslims. But we could discreetly do so if the need arose. And in the dry heat and searing sun, the need certainly arose more than once.
But we felt no disapproval, or even scrutiny. Perhaps even in this, Turkey is showing the way. Tourists may dress any way they wish, but are requested to cover their heads and shoulders when entering mosques. Authorities will even provide shawls for those who forget. And in the cool night air that suddenly descends after sunset, there are as well complementary shawls in restaurants for those feeling a bit of chill.
And no, we did not see any belly dancers, even if Turkey is famous for this sort of performance.
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