I felt a chill as I step off the tram at ‘Sultanahmet‘ station so I throw up the hood of my camo coloured Khujo jacket.
I love this hood, it is so deep that it not only keeps out the cold but also dissuades vendors from approaching me.
I make my way through the crowds at this tourist hot spot where you can find ‘Blue Mosque‘, ‘Hagia Sofia‘ and ‘Cistern Basilica‘ as well as my current destination ‘Topkapi Palace‘ all within walking distance of one another.
As I walk along the main road to towards the Palace I hear someone say: “Excuse me.” I don’t think anything of it though, probably not even speaking to me, this hood does render me faceless after all so why would anyone be talking to me. But there it is again, “Excuse me,” only this time it’s a little louder and it’s accompanied by an unwanted although gentle touch on my arm.
Dammit! my cloak of invisibility has failed me. I exaggeratingly yank down my hood, making sure my body language left no doubt that I was annoyed by the interruption. I know, I’m such a bitch and normally I am very open to meeting new people, it’s all part of the fun of travelling after all, but it was that time of the month and I just wasn’t in the mood, especially after having spent the day yesterday fending off shop merchants at the Grand and Spice Bazaar.
“Yes?” I ask, looking him dead in the eyes with my best “this better be good” look.
“I’m sorry I was waiting for a friend, she has the same type of jacket as you, I thought you might be her.”
“Sorry, not her.” I say curtly. I throw my hood back up and begin to walk away.
“I’ve been waiting for 40 minutes, guess she’s not going to show, we were supposed to go to ‘Topkapi’ together.”
Why is he telling me this, and why is he walking beside me? I don’t respond hoping he gets the hint.
“No point in wasting the trip over here, you don’t mind if I tag along with you do you? I’ve lived in Istanbul for 20 years and I’ve been told that I’m a great guide.”
“I’m not trying to be rude here, but I’d rather be alone.”
“I can also get you in without waiting in line, my friend works at security.” He says it playfully but at the same time pleadingly, head cocked to the side, a smile revealing a set of perfect white teeth.
How dare he insult my integrity, like he could just buy my company with some promise to get me past the line.
“No thanks, I’m fine.”
I had lucked out anyway, there didn’t seem to be that many people going into ‘Topkapi Palace.’
“Wow you’re a tough cookie,” his excellent use of North American English vernacular seemed amiss with his heavy Turkish accent, “well I’m going to the Palace anyway.”
He walks beside me, keeping up with my ridiculously fast pace in silence.
We arrive at the Imperial Gate, it is a massive and impressive work of art. Made of imposing white stone, and beautifully gilded gold Ottoman calligraphy at the top. The armed military men that are supposed to be guarding the gate instead seem to be involved in a casual conversation with each other while smoking cigarettes. It wasn’t until we crossed the threshold into the first courtyard that this strange man finally spoke again.
“I’m Mario, what’s your name?” He offers me his hand, STILL smiling.
He’s just so darn perky and bubbly. I admit defeat by first letting out a sigh before responding.
I shake his hand.
The first courtyard is well manicured, trees that look more like several cords of thick bark have been fused together to form one trunk and others hollowed out from disease are scattered around the grounds giving the place a sort of magical character (I think trees are magical). Of course the scene wouldn’t be complete without Istanbul’s signature stray cats walking around getting photographed and pet by passersby. As we get a little deeper inside it seems there are a lot more people at ‘Topkapi Palace’ than I had initially thought. No one was going into ‘Topkapi’ because everyone was already here. WHAT THE HELL! there’s about 300 people in line waiting to buy tickets. I curse myself for not pre-booking and then look at Mario, he looks right back at me with a knowing and victorious grin.
Next thing I know we’re at the security area where the security guards check your bag before they scan your ticket and let you in to the second courtyard and start of the museum. Mario converses with a young female security guard for about a minute while I stand off to the side, feeling like a sell out. Yes, I know I’m weak but it was chilly out and I didn’t want to stand in line for who knows how long, and he seems like a nice guy so I decided to make an effort and take him up on his offer. Maybe he would be a good guide after all, who knows.
Yes, I know I’m a sell out.
A moment later Mario turns to me with a scowl on his face and says: “Brainless fool, she takes her job way too seriously, what she makes in a month I pay for a pair of jeans.”
WOAH! where did that come from? That seemed a little harsh. Needless to say his friend wasn’t working that day. Before I can say “I guess we better get in line,” he grabs my hand and pulls me towards the line, not to the end of the line though, instead we go straight to a ticket wicket. Yup, that’s right we just cut in front of about a million people. It would seem that when you do something with confidence no one really questions you. Well he looked confident anyway, I was led by the hand looking bewildered.
I think he did it just to get back at that security guard, because her look of surprise that we were back only 5 minutes later with tickets in hand seemed to make Mario happy judging by the smug smile on his face as he waved his ticket in her face and passed through turn-style.
And we’re in.
“That will be five kisses.” He says smiling, AGAIN.
I look at him with my ‘what you talkin bout Willis, face.’
“Ummmmmm, NO.” I say, sarcastically pretending to think about it for second.
“So I don’t get anything for getting you in here without waiting in line?”
The scary thing is he actually sounded insulted.
“I guess you’ve learned a valuable lesson, ALWAYS make the deal BEFORE you do the deed.”
He said nothing more on the matter and I start to wonder if I made the wrong decision to let him “tag along”. First stop was the Clock collection. The Ottoman craftsmanship of these 16th to 19th century timepieces are amazing, but I am not enjoying it as much as I would like because it seems that the ‘nice’ Mario has pulled the old bait and switch on me. He went from nice to self absorbed douche in 0.2 seconds. He talked incessantly about himself the entire time. Within 10 minutes I knew that he makes “tons of cash” selling gold at the Grand Bazaar, he has a summer home on Prince’s Island, he goes to Thailand every year for vacation, he has a ‘Jack Russell Terrier’ named ‘Baby’ and that the jeans he is wearing are Armani and cost him $250USD.
Back in the courtyard I stop for a minute to get my bearings a little, I look around as Mario digs into the pocket of his orange polo jacket and pulls out his Iphone, he starts swiping away like he’s looking for something.
“I want to show you something, I want to give you a better impression of me.”
He finally turns the screen toward me, I’m looking at a picture of him on a beach, topless, hair blowing in the wind, holding a surf board and looking off in the distance in a cheesy ‘I’m deep in thought’ pose, wearing a pair of board shorts so low you could see his *ahem* lower ab area that looked like a slab of stone was put on his pelvis it was so chiseled. All I could ask myself was: Who does this?
Although not my type he is a good looking man I’ll give him that, square jaw, tanned skin (although not as tanned as he was in the picture), grayish blue eyes, full lips, brown shoulder length hair pulled back into a pony tail, and after looking at that photo I now know he has six pack abs. He didn’t stand very tall at 5’9″ but a good looking guy all the same.
Still this shocking display of insecurity was not only a turn off but alerted to me to a possible personality disorder. You know, that disorder where you think you’re so amazing and you’ve had so much given to you based on your looks that you fail to develop any other qualities and end up shallow as fuck as a result? Yeah that disorder.
I shake my head and keep walking without saying a word. I knew at this point our little ‘tour’ was over, there is no way I could spend the rest of the afternoon listening to him ‘navel-gaze’.
“What? You don’t like the pic?” He called after me, he seems genuinely puzzled.
I stop walking, and turn toward him, “I don’t know what you meant by showing me that picture or if you are expecting something in return for getting me into the Palace, but I don’t think this is going to workout, I think I’d rather see the rest of the Palace alone,” there, that was direct enough wasn’t it?
“I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot, I didn’t men anything by the picture. I just wanted to show you I usually look a lot better. Come on we can still have a good time.”
Yes! because that’s a quality a woman can’t resist in a man, desperation, why do so many men not know when to just walk away?
“It’s fine, I think I’d just rather be alone.” I say sternly.
I walk to the promontory to try and capture some pictures of the Bosphorus, but Mario had not yet given up. As I take pictures of the Bosphorus he rambles on about more things he owns, and things he’s done. Eventually his talking was replaced by some music that was exotic to me. Against my better judgement I look over to find him watching a video of HIMSELF on his phone BELLY DANCING in tight white pants and of course topless.
“You know how many page views I got on YouTube with this?”
He had one of those half smiles and was nodding his head proudly.
I literally burst out laughing. How could I not? I felt like I was talking to ‘Ron Burgundy.’ I continue to laugh as I walk away, Mario starts to follow but I outstretch my arm, palm of my hand facing him at about chest level, he stops dead as if I have just created an invisible force field. Although his antics were hilarious, enough was enough.
“Don’t follow me, I do not want to spend even another moment with you.” I was still laughing.
“Well if I see you outside the Palace you can buy me a beer as a thank you for getting you in here.”
“Mario we won’t see each other again, good bye.” I turn and walk away, still laughing.
The rest of the afternoon was spent reveling in the utter majesty of this UNESCO World Heritage site, once the center of the Ottoman Empire housing not only the Royal Sultan but a University, treasury, mint, and council of ministries and a population of about 4000. The history and culture are deeply embedded in each colourful Ottoman tile that adorns the floors and walls of the Palace. I believe this site is a definite must see in Istanbul but just be careful who you pick up at the front gate. If anyone named Mario wants to be your “guide” I suggest you run and don’t walk to your nearest help center.