03/10/2014 05:09 pm ET Updated May 10, 2014

The Side Streets of Istanbul: Snapshots from "Spring" Break

I've never been anywhere like this -- the edge of a continent, the edge of a culture ... Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia, west and east, poverty and wealth. It stands at the threshold of modernity and yet has not crossed it. Remnants of an opulent past and promises of an urbanized future mesh together here. Everything I've seen, heard, and felt here has been a testament to the city's vibrant humanity.

We arrived on the streets of Istanbul just after sunset. Our breaths hung, frozen in the air while rain sprinkled on our heads. The temperature hovered just above freezing; the monotonous winter of Paris seemed to have followed us. I thought back to my temperate Californian spring breaks and reconciled myself to a wildly different experience. I remembered that I had packed a bathing suit and laughed at my meteorological ignorance. Our hands were buried deep in our pockets as neon signs bearing foreign letters flickered red in the black night.

That evening, I heard the Islamic call to prayer -- the adhan -- for the first time in my life. The locals don't even notice it anymore; without the adhan to signify the passage of time, I doubt that their internal mechanisms would continue to work. For me, though, it was the proof of movement, the auditory indicator of a cultural change. I realized that we really were in Istanbul, where there are mosques instead of churches, dürüm instead of baguette, the Bosphorus instead of the Seine. We had arrived.

Here at our hostel, the rooms have pale green walls of plaster and beige polyester drapes. A single light hangs down from the center of the square ceiling, where the white paint is slowly peeling away to reveal the building's wooden frame. Two green and yellow parakeets fly freely throughout the establishment. Graffiti in the elevator demands freedom for the birds in assorted languages and alphabets.

Outside, smooth-talking men hover on cobblestone sidewalks in front of restaurants, trying lure you inside with overly polite English and promises of good prices, "just for you." They sense foreigners like sharks sense blood, both from miles away and with incredible accuracy. On the wall of each establishment hangs a faded poster of General Ataturk, the founder of "modern" Turkey, whose cult of personality rivals those of Mao and Stalin. His piercing blue eyes are everywhere.

Somewhere in the southwest of the city, the relentless coercion stops in front of a run-down mosque; the omnipresent spirit of Ataturk is replaced by that of Mohammed. Walk through the archway and into the courtyard where green grass creeps up between gray stones while Arabic tombstones rest haphazardly in the shadow of the eroding dome. The windows are opaque from years of neglect and broken furniture lines the paved walkways. Perhaps twenty-five stray cats call this abandoned place their home -- the quiet antiquity provides them with a refuge from hostile city streets. They rub up against your legs as you enter their territory; crystal-green eyes closely trace your every movement while the more ambitious felines actively demand your attention or affection. Every permutation of cat imaginable exists here, a veritable community thriving where humans have largely vacated. There was something profoundly holy about that place, something about the greenery crawling up the gray stone, gold Arabic script against the white sky, abandoned desk chairs leaning against the crumbling facade.

In Paris, ruins are co-opted -- they are either knocked down, remodeled, repurposed, or made into museums that you can see for twelve euro after waiting in a massive queue. There's a fast turn around for Parisian architecture -- it is always in demand, it's always changing -- something like that mosque could never exist in quietude for long enough to sustain a family of cats. In Paris, sanctuaries from fast-paced urban life are few and far between; there is always a sense of time passing--here in Istanbul, a single moment can be suspended for what feels like an eternity.

On the Galata Bridge, fishermen cast long lines into the Golden Horn. They wear tattered coats and dirty shoes with woolen socks. Their fingers are calloused and their eyes have the watery look of the sea (perhaps from staring into the gray depths for so many years). Fires rage on, contained in recycled tin cans; plywood still riddled with rusty nails fuel the flames where they warm their wind-whipped, frozen fingers. As you pass by, you can only see their backs -- they look out towards the sea, seeing nothing but the water and thinking of nothing but the day's catch.

After you pass the last of the fishermen going northward on the bridge, the pavement slopes down on the left-hand side. It looks like an accident, like an unintentional architectural mistake -- the concrete plane branches into decrepit, industrial streets. Men stand outside of their shops, selling fishing equipment and everything from faucets and pipes to colored powder for paint (the bright pinks, oranges, and greens seem out of place on the dirty gray streets). It's different here -- these men can tell that you're not there to buy what they sell -- instead of talking, their eyes simply follow your movements, like the cats. Abandoned buildings line this prime waterfront property--one of them has been completely demolished and from its ruins someone has built a chicken coop (despite the coop, chickens roam the territory like kings). Two of the largest white ducks you will ever see pick at trash next to parked cars from the 1970s. The dogs are locked up, probably because they're actually dangerous. The Doberman sits in the corner and peers through the chicken wire into the cold street. It's warm breath freezes in the air around its snout. Further towards the water, men gather behind a ruin and warm their hands over a metal trough of hot coals. A small path takes you past another group of men, each selling something from carefully cultivated carts, everything from hazelnuts to kebab. You can tell they all know one another well because they throw jokes at one another despite being in apparent capitalistic competition. One man with a black handlebar mustache and a bright red apron asks where you're from ... "America?!" ... and gives you a massive hug while laughing to his friends.

There are small boats in the water to your left. As you get closer in order to admire them, the skyline captures your attention and your mind goes blank in the face of such an arresting view. The golden light melts into the white sky, highlighting the outline of a mosque with a chilling glow -- seeing the other side of the river spread out before you is transcendent. This is the awe that Lot must have felt when he looked back. Seagulls gather above the water and break up incrementally -- coming together and breaking apart in a natural and perpetual cycle. There are more birds than you thought; they go up so high that they turn into floating specks. You follow a speck and watch it swoop down towards the sea -- your mind comes back down to earth along with it. There are some small wooden tables with even smaller mismatched plastic footstools around them to be used as makeshift seats. A large tent made entirely of transparent plastic holds a small group of huddled men and some more tiny tables. It's a dirty place, but you can tell that they try to keep it clean; a man sweeps the dirt-stained concrete ground with a dirt-stained broom. He sees that you're cold, that the sea wind is chilling your bones, and gives you tea even though you say that you have no money -- his shoes are muddy and a speckled turtleneck peeks out of his worn black jacket. He gets the tea from a tarnished pot on a foldout table just next to the tent. He tries to bridge the language barrier -- pointing out the landmarks across the water and sharing their Turkish names -- all he can really offer in terms of conversation. His teeth are dirty and misaligned, he hides them behind his lips for a photo, which he wants to see and subsequently admires before muttering a very humble "thank you."

I don't usually feel like sharing the minutiae of my day, but there was something about today that demanded to be documented in detail. It was beautiful, purely. There was something so simple about it. We walked around and saw some lovely things -- we spent hours staring across the sea at the horizon, at the sunset, our frozen hands wrapped around paper cups filled with hot tea, fiddling with the wooden mixing sticks, staring at the golden sky, the terra-cotta landscape, and the gray sea. It was the most incredible thing, just sitting there on the defaced concrete and black tires with barnacles creeping up the sides of the rubber. Sitting there on the Turkish coast, I felt part of a moment -- like I was seeing the future splayed out in front of me, a future of high rises and foreign investment, of real estate brokers and decadence. I was thinking about how much longer Alish will be able to operate selling tea out of a plastic tent, right there on the edge of the continent next to chickens and dilapidated buildings. How much longer will you be able to buy copper piping and fishing rods instead of souvenirs and overpriced döner?

The kindness and hospitality of the people I met today in the poorer part of the city are imprinted on my mind. I value their handshakes more than anything that I've purchased here, even my new Ataturk poster. I think I really saw Istanbul today -- it's not the Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque, it's not chestnut stands or hookah bars either, it's definitely the way the sun hits the water and the way locals want to share their tea with you on a cold evening.