In mid-May, I satisfied a hankering of many years to see Istanbul — ancient city, capital of three empires, link between continents. It's also crowded, chaotic, poorly labeled and short of people who speak English.
Perhaps it's good that it took a few years to get there, as today's technology made the trip much easier. A simple smartphone and run-of-the-mill 3G service allowed me to do things spontaneously that would have required a lot of preplanning and frustration otherwise.
Paging through a phrasebook is one way to bridge the language gap, but a smartphone app is quicker and saves pocket space. I simply downloaded a few free apps on the drive to the airport. "Speak Turkish," for Android and iOS, gave me a plethora of handy words and phrases, and some surprisingly pointed ones like "Can I give you a kiss?" Better than a book, the app includes audio with correct pronunciation.
For everything else, there was the "Sesli Sozluk" dictionary app for Android and iOS, which translates between Turkish and 14 other languages, also with pronunciations. Without it, I couldn't have asked that waiter to correct my bill because I had ordered the pomegranate juice but he had brought me the pomegranate-orange juice instead.
As difficult as deciphering the language is navigating the streets of Istanbul. Straight lines don't exist and right angles are rare. Google Maps, though, provided clear directions between any obscure locations. And for the first time, I appreciated Compass Mode, which uses a smartphone's compass and a 3D map to orient the map based on which way you are facing.
I got great insight on the city from "The Rough Guide to Istanbul" (Rough Guides, 2012) about $18 in paperback or just $12 for the Amazon Kindle device or smartphone app. With that and the Wikipedia mobile app, I learned plenty about mosaics in the Hagia Sophia and etiquette for visiting the Blue Mosque.
The Rough Guides has restaurant reviews, too, but I looked instead to Foursquare. I always found plenty of places that were within half a mile and rated and 8 or higher (out of 10). While I couldn't read the dozens of comments in Turkish for each place, I knew that it was popular with locals.
Fortunately, getting my phone online in Turkey in the first place was a cinch. Despite all the push for laws that allow unlocking cellphones, there are already plenty of legal ways to get a phone unlocked. Verizon, my carrier, doesn't even lock its 4G models, like my iPhone 5. The other major U.S. carriers will unlock phones after 60 to 90 days of service. [See also: Why You Don't Need Congress to Unlock Your Cellphone ]
A bigger hassle is keeping a smartphone powered for a long day of exploration. Location services like Google Maps rapidly drain the battery. My iPhone would have survived only about three hours on its own. But I roughly doubled that with a $80 Mophie Juice Pack Helium, a case that contains a battery with about 80 percent the capacity of the iPhone's onboard cells. For the long haul, I tossed a New TrentiDual NT5200 battery pack in my bag (now on sale for $33 on Amazon). Its 5,200 milliamp hours of power were enough to charge the iPhone two more times.
Of course, the one time I did run down all my batteries, the walk back to the hotel wound up especially long and circuitous.
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