*The Bosporus is a strait representing part of the border between the continents of Europe and Asia. It connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and cuts through the middle of the Turkish city of Istanbul.
Stumble down a cobblestone road, over the trolley tracks, a tantalizing peek of domes and minarets appears between buildings. A whiff of fried doughnuts wafts down an alleyway; a group of men gathers at a corner cafe, sharing mint tea and passing the snake-like nozzle of the hubby bubbly. Just a little further, through an archway, and you’ll see him. He’s sitting on a wall next to a little blue box, waiting to tell your future; all you need do is give him a handful of Turk liraci and he will read your fortune.
My husband, kids and I had come to Istanbul as a first stop on a trip we had long planned: sail a gulet – a wooden ship – off the southwestern coast of Turkey. Before we boarded the boat near the southern town of Antayla, we immersed ourselves in this city with a foot on two continents: a completely cosmopolitan mix of east/west, old/new.
Women wearing full-on burkas strolled the streets alongside women wearing 4-inch pumps and miniskirts. Just outside a mosque, men washed their feet in long marble basins. At the Spice Market a woman shouted into a cellphone, behind her a man inspected leeches crawling in a plastic jug, the vendor balancing a slimy sample on his finger. Further down a garish sign in three languages proudly proclaimed the benefits of Turkish Viagra.
We visited the Turkish baths for a rubdown beneath a moon-and-star studded dome, we ate fried fish at a restaurant beneath a bridge across the Bosphorus. To escape the searing heat one afternoon, we dipped below the streets and descended into the Yerebatan Sarnici – an ancient underground cistern complete with a lopsided Medusa head, the water lapping against her angry snakes and adding to her apple green patina.
Yet in all our wanderings nothing was quite as unique as a street peddler we came across our first day in Istanbul. We had been enjoying the late afternoon shade of the Blue Mosque, shaking off the jetlag on the rooftop terrace when the call to prayer cut through our fatigue, jarring us awake. With still a few hours to go before we could sleep, we decided to venture down the cobblestone alleyway behind the hotel. Following some stray cats we passed under an archway into a large piazza. Off to the corner stood a man with a blue cart; seeing us he waved us over.
“Come,” he gestured. We approached to see his cart held two white rabbits and two pigeons. Bending over, he removed a small tray from the bottom, then stood up and held it out.
“Please, please,” he said, showing us the tray, filled with tiny papers lined in rows.
The rabbit will choose for me….right. Figuring this was going to take a while, I stepped away and watched. He swung the tray over to the cart and balanced it on the edge, holding it in front of the rabbit’s nose. For a moment, I thought the creature was going to turn away, disinterested, but its nose began to twitch, sniffing at the papers. Slowly, it zeroed in on one of them.
Smiling broadly, the vendor then offered the tray to me. I pulled the bunny-approved paper from the tray and unfolded it. Wider in size than a traditional fortune cookie, the words were bordered by a simple pattern. It was also covered in a thin layer of dust; from the looks of it, it had been in the tray for some time. Perhaps bunny fortune telling was not a lucrative business in the streets of Istanbul.
Unfolding it I read:
I was tired alright, but I knew it was jetlag — and when I’m traveling I’m not ever sure I can perceive my own state. I looked up at the vendor, puzzled. He smiled benignly and nodded. If the fortune wasn’t to my liking — you must try again! He bent over the tray and gestured at me to come closer, the Istanbul sun reflecting off his burnished scalp.
This time it read:
Thanking the vendor, we passed over a handful of lira; I stuffed both fortunes in the pocket of my jeans skirt and forgot about them for the remainder of the trip. In the following weeks we dove off the gulet into turquoise waters off Cleopatra’s Cove, and listened to our fellow boat mates serenade our daughter’s birthday in Portuguese, Italian, French and Dutch. We wandered through the ancient city of Miletus where a sinking sun set an empty amphitheater ablaze with copper light, and slept atop deck in the middle of the Aegean, waking to watch the moon rise and cut a path through an indigo canopy of stars while the boat gently rocked us back to sleep.
One afternoon after our return, I checked the pockets of my jeans skirt and two little pieces of paper fluttered to the floor. Picking them up, I was brought back to that day and admitted to myself: I had preferred fortune number 5. But how do you define wealth? I still wasn’t sure what the fortune meant, but if like me, you considered the greatest treasure to be with loved ones in an extraordinary part of the world, I knew it had already come true.
Photos: © Amanda Summer