21 Feb Ferry to Asia: An Essay
I love the idea of boat travel. It’s so much more than arriving by plane, moving through sterile halls, maybe standing in line at security for so long that finally getting out into the city can be a little anticlimactic. But arriving by boat, and stepping off onto new land is so much more tangible and exciting. And besides going to a new country, going to a new continent feels huge.
When thinking of Asia, most people think of China, Japan, and Korea. And probably rightly so, but when I decided to go to Istanbul I was obsessed with the idea of going to Asia. Even on the European side of Istanbul, where most of the city is, where the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque are, it felt more Middle Eastern, and therefore Asian, than I’d ever experienced in my life.
The buildings were different, the mosques poked up in the shy like I’d never seen. I didn’t blend in as easily with the people, the food was trickier to order, and the intermittent calls to worship took away the last bit of resemblance to home. But even all of this difference didn’t get the idea of Asia, just across the water, just within reach, out of my mind.
Luckily the people I was there with felt the same, though with maybe slightly enthusiasm. But we still boarded a train and took the short ride across the straight. In March the wind was chilly over the water but we still stood outside, on the deck, not wanting to miss anything. Once across the water, things weren’t really different. Not that I’d expected things to suddenly be more “Asian” I thought there’d be some difference, kind of like going from one side of town to the other, things change, at least in a feeling.
The only difference is that it was a little less crowded in places. But that’s only because I’m looking for something to be different. We ate the same food, we heard the same call to worship, though from a different mosque, and we saw the same food markets. Though, we did see more stray cats and dogs. The cats were everywhere. I’ve never seen so many cats in my life, not just at one time, but I think ever, all the cats I’ve seen combined. They were on benches, windowsills, rooftops, under cars, bicycles seats. Any flat service they could curl up on.
While the Asian side of Istanbul isn’t any more Asian than the European side is really European, there’s something about going to “Asia,” experiencing it, however un-new it is. And more than anything, it makes you think about the meaning of being somewhere. Have I really been to Asia if I’ve only set foot on soil that was claimed as Asia? Or is being in Asia more of experiencing something typically Asian?
I think about this a lot when traveling in Europe. Because while I wish I could get passport stamps for the individual countries, sort of as a physical, governmental record of being there, I wonder if it really matters? Isn’t being there, seeing things, talking to people, feeling a place all that matters?
More on that later, but for now, I’m glad I went to Asia, even if it was barely touching the service of such a huge continent. And until I get to experience “real” Asia, that’s what I’ll hold onto.