It’s been said, often, that I live under a rock. This is a truth I was about to reencounter unbeknown to me sitting on a shuttle bus from Sabiha Gokcen International Airport to Karakoy, Istanbul. We had taken an overnight flight from Dubai to Istanbul for a short December break. I had never been abroad on holiday before and could barely sit still from excitement even though the logic behind taking an overnight flight was so we could sleep and wake up refreshed in Turkey.
That morning drive from the airport, about 50 km east of Istanbul, I stared out the window thinking how very little seems different compared to back home. The landscape was green and rolling much like most of South Africa. The differences began accumulating as we got closer to the city and by the time the shuttle reached the subway station in Taksim Square we were wrapped snugly in the fact that Istanbul was very unique and a one of a kind city break experience.
We took a quick subway ride to Karakoy located close to the ever popular Galata Tower, Galata. The walk from the Subway station with backpacks and wheelie suitcases soon became more of an adventure than we bargained for with tiny cobble streets winding as much up and down as they do from left to right. “LOOK AT THAT CAT!!” I yell with the excitement of a 10 year old that just saw their first fire truck. My girlfriend, being half Turkish, explains “Yeah there are tonnes of cats in Istanbul”. I am a terrible traveller planner, even when I was travelling often in South Africa. I don’t do any research aside from a google search: where is a cool neighbourhood to stay in so-and-so city. To this day I still do only that amount of research and I think it has something to do with the intense jolt of pure and unadulterated joy of finding out something special about a city firsthand. It’s kind of like watching a good film but without having seen the trailer or reviews or knowing anything about the plot. Istanbul, it turns out, is a city with a ridiculous amount of cats.
“WHAT??? How did we plan this trip and you NEVER told me about all the cats?” even more strange since we were planning a few trips around the same time, one which was to a well known cat Island off the South Coast of Japan. “I thought you knew”she exclaimed quite casually, as is her nature. Being December it was quite cold, and our conversation took an abrupt backseat as we got sucked in by the warm and cozy appearance of a cafe on Serdar-ı Ekrem St. We went inside and were relieved as much by the warm atmosphere as by the free wifi. We were lost and needed to locate our airbnb, which turned out to be a minute’s walk away from our temporary sanctuary disguised as a cafe. My girlfriend was as excited about a “real Turkish breakfast” as I was about the cats and it really didn’t take long for me to understand why.
A breakfast in Turkey is a leisurely affair and the Turkish take the phrase “most important meal of the day” to heart. You can spend anywhere up to 3 hours having breakfast if you find yourself eating with a Turkish family. Whereas most Westerners would rush through breakfast more like a chore the Turkish take little breaks and chat, and nibble, and read the paper, and nibble, and smoke, and nibble, and relax, and nibble. Hardly surprising since you`d find a spread of delicious items like cheese (beyaz peynir, kaşar etc.), butter, olives, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, jam, honey, and kaymak, sucuk (spicy Turkish sausage, can be eaten with eggs), pastırma, börek, simit, poğaça and soups.
After what felt like an unnatural amount of time to be eating food, nevermind breakfast, we made our way to our Airbnb. Down a hidden dead end alley we found several doors. After trying to follow the Landlord`s instructions, failing miserably, realising we tried to get into the wrong place, finding the right place, trying to unlock the wrong key safe, unlocking the right key safe, and making our way up the narrowest staircase in the world, we had finally arrived. But no time to relax, we needed to explore.
I’m not sure what I thought I’d photograph in Istanbul. Maybe I thought I’d just photograph buildings and streets and things I found a little strange or different from home. Whatever I thought, it quickly became clear to me that I was going to photograph cats. Lots and lots of cats. The thing that was so appealing was that although I deduced that they were all homeless they didn’t come across as homeless. They all seemed well fed, groomed, and carried the general playful or nonchalant character of well looked after cats. They were either playful, sleepy, or unbothered. They just seemed like happy little cats.
I later found out that the general community take care of the cats and it’s very important to them. These cats are everyone’s cats. They aren’t homeless but rather have many homes, many owners, and many responsible human parents. It was evident in how you would see any given person stop to talk to a kitten or to scratch an itchy cat ear. Some beautiful but derelict buildings almost seemed to be an unofficial town hall for cats where they would gather in groups up to 9 or more, almost appearing as if they are having meetings.
Even though the cats were without a doubt my favourite part of Istanbul, Istanbul is more than just a collection of beautiful cats. There is a certain sense of composed joy in Istanbul. I like to believe it’s best observed in the Turkish sense of fashion. Almost everyone wore dark and deep autumnal colours and I felt very much at home. People dressed in dark indigo, olive green, mustard yellow, and the deepest scarlet red could be seen everywhere. From the fisherman spanning the length of Galata bridge reeling in fish or baitless hooks, to the hagglers negotiating at the Grand Bazaar (the largest and oldest indoor market in the world), from the hipsters searching for their speciality coffee fix and unique pieces of art in Karakoy, to the wanderers at the harbour and the fish market.
Istanbul is a vast expanse of age-old culture amalgamating with a modern world and this is obvious when you move from a cafe that could’ve been in any major city in the world to a restaurant situated on the fourth floor of an old building with an elevator, to my great amusement, that has no doors “My god, we can touch the outside!?” Often when one travels there is a little bit of where you are that reminds you of home. Istanbul, until now, is as far as I’ve been from home without missing home.
On our last night I met with great demise through the works and trickery of a very deceptive liquid. I called it “not that bad”, the Turkish call it Raki. Raki, the national drink of Turkey, is a clear alcohol drink flavoured with aniseed and most Turks add water to it which turns the drink a milky white. This almost alchemical transformation entertained me immensely and as a result I drank with much more vigor than usual in order to amuse myself with my next construction of alcoholic alchemy.
Suffice it to say, I don’t remember much of that evening. I vaguely remember looking at stained glass, cuddling a grey kitten, and conversing with a suit of armour. On my camera I found blurry photos of happy couples, at dinner, posing for portraits and some dry vomit on my lense. Not my finest moment but certainly not the worst. Waking up without a sense of who I was or why I existed, suffering a rebirth into reality with the hammer-bang of the industrial revolution, in its universal entirety, all condensed into my headache it was brought to my attention that I pissed the bed.
Death. Please. Death.
After trying to undo that which has been done, and evacuating the scene of my most heaviest shame we ate, for the last time, A turkish breakfast at what had become our favourite little morning cafe. After which we wandered, for the last time, the winding cobbled streets of Karakoy and Galata. The anxiety of having to leave started setting in and as it slowly started setting in so also was an old lady, shaped like an optimistic question mark, slowly walking uphill with a large grey plastic shopping bag. She stopped ever so often and gestured with her hand from the bag, it seemed, to nowhere in particular. We drew closer and it became apparent that she wasn’t gesturing at all, she was taking cat food out of her bag and throwing it towards cats whenever she came across them (which was often).
My girlfriend went to speak to her. Myself on the other hand still attempting to shake the hammers out of my head, and stinking of sadness and regret, opted to rather seem occupied with overly troublesome camera settings. The old lady, it turns out, fed the cats because she felt it was her responsibility. Much like everyone else felt it was there responsibility. She took care of the cats because the cats are part of the city and the city is her home. She grabbed a handful of cat food and flings it on top of a roof where two cats were sitting, watching the street. We parted ways and at that point I really needed a beer to act as a barrier between my brain and the hammers. We spent the afternoon eating and cuddling on a sofa, outside a cafe, on the sidewalk. It was almost time to go home and it was hard to feel like anything knowing we had to leave in 5 hours, and the cuddles squeezed tighter, then 4 hours, what if we moved here, then 3 hours, maybe we could just miss our flight, then 2 hours, should we just stay, then 1 hour, let’s call a cab, maybe the cab will be late, the cab is here, the sun is down, goodbye Istanbul my new friend.
See you soon.