Hey, it’s Not Like I Meant to Cause a Security Breach at an International Airport…

When it comes to foreign travel, I’m not exactly Marco Polo out here. When I had money, I had no time, and when I had time…well, let’s just say I spent much of it praying that those three taquitos and eighth tank of gas would pull me through the day. That said, I’ve never been on any kind of independent travel outside of the US and Canada.

So, as a naive and inexperienced Yankee utterly ignorant of the world outside of his own I did the sensible thing. I signed up for an full-year Study Abroad Exchange Program in a Middle Eastern country bordering two war zones which itself was still on the State Department’s Travel Advisory List at the time I sent in my application. Oh, and I’m not affiliated with CIEE or any Study Abroad organization, so arranging my visa, residence permit, health insurance, housing and school registration in a completely foreign country in the largest city in Europe was and is entirely my responsibility. But I won some scholarships to pay for everything, so that was pretty cool.

With this in mind, you can imagine my terror when upon my descent into Istanbul I looked out my window two miles in the air and witnessed an endless sprawl of buildings extending far past the horizon, something like Coruscant with mosques. Upon landing at Istanbul Atatürk Airport it took fifteen minutes to get to passport security, even with those flat escalator things laid out the whole way. But I was optimistic as I handed my passport over to the passport security officer. I mean I didn’t have many reasons to be since I spent so much time dealing with school, the GRE and my mother’s recent passing that I was arriving with no living arrangements or even a place to sleep for the night, but I took two years of Turkish and read a couple books, I mean, why wouldn’t I be able to survive in this beautiful coun-

“Dikkat!” (“Attention!”) The PSO snapped, ripping my passport out of the sleeve and demanding to know where my visa was. Putting my mad Turkish skills to use, I squeaked out that the visa was “th-there”. A few seconds and one icy stare later, I got my stamp. Surely he was just a particularly hostile bureaucrat and I’d never encounter anyone like that in my travels again. Surely.

I brought no cash and needed some to rent a baggage cart, so I sought out an ATM. When that failed, I asked a more knowledgeable authority (i.e. some guy in a uniform) where one was and he directed me past the customs gate, which was heavily guarded. Perhaps for more intelligent people that would have been a warning sign, but in my defense I flew with United, so I hadn’t been able to catch any sleep in twenty-three hours. So I went out, got the money, and turned back to the gate to see some very large signs reading “GIRILMEZ” (“NO ENTRY”).

In less enlightened times a particularly coarse individual was said to “swear like a Turk”. I can’t say there’s any truth to that but I responded to this piece of news in a manner that managed to offend any Turk within earshot who could understand. And there were a lot more than you might think.

Directed to the airport Lost and Found, I joined a motley crew of Africans, French and East and Central Asians who made the same error. We were a mini United Nations, and unfortunately, just as effective. I knew we were in trouble when an irate Kazah woman screamed at an official in a mixture of broken Turkish, Kazakh and Angrish about having had to wait for two hours before shouting questions at me about whether I could speak Russian for some reason and hissing contemptuously when I tried to respond (I only took a year, okay?) One Turk held up his ID card and pleaded “But I’m one of you!” to no avail. It dawned on me that other methods would have to be tried.

I tried the lost baggage office, but as soon as I opened my mouth I was swarmed by Turks holding up tickets and shouting for their suitcases back. I decided to find another guy in a uniform. He pointed to a small side gate and I hear him say “Gidebilirsin” (“You may go”). Turns out he actually said “Gitmeyebilirsin” (You may not go), a fact which became apparent to me the moment I tried to pass the gate. Soon as I tried to cross, a guard yelled “Ey!” (“Ey!”) and yanked me back, thrusting his arm toward the exit and sending me back. I was greeted by the mini UN, who asked me in broken English what I had tried to do. When I told them they all brushed past me and began arguing with the guards at the gate, I suppose because they couldn’t avoid us. Angry Kazakh Woman really saved us, as her earth-shaking multilingual rage compelled the guards to finally allow us back in on the condition that we leave our passports with them until we returned.

My problems were far from over. Twenty-four hours without sleep and I’m pushing around a loaded cart like Erykah Badu’s Bag Lady with no idea where I’m going to sleep. Luckily, a champion had come to my rescue. Wasn’t exactly a miracle-my hero was some guy working at a booking agency next to a Turkcell and a Burger King who offered to place me in “an economically-priced hotel near the airport.”

Dude puts me in a four-star hotel on the other side of town.

The hotel was in Esenyurt to be exact, a district located deep within the European suburbs. Like so many other residential areas in the city, it is a rapidly developing area where midsize apartment buildings likely designed for Istanbul’s middle class are rapidly consumed by walls of identical high-rise towers sprouting up in random areas. I wonder how many of its more modest residents will be priced out of their homes by all this development. At first I thought the area had some religious significance, as I could see from my hotel’s balcony several impressive and ancient looking mosques dotting the horizon, but I hadn’t realized then how ubiquitous mosques are in this city, or how is isn’t really all that hard to build in a manner that imitates the past. That said, I have a wonderful photo of a beautiful mosque that in all likelihood was just some place built in the last thirty years. It was from here I first heard the call to prayer blare from speakers throughout the city seconds apart from another, as if adhans throughout Istanbul were proclaiming God’s greatness in a discordant round. In Istanbul, it is surprisingly easy for one to forget that Turkey is country far different from the United States, but the call to prayer is the greatest reminder that one truly are in a different land.

The suburbs of Istanbul. Seriously.

The suburbs of Istanbul. Seriously.

A beautiful mosque that appears to have centuries of history behind it but is in all likelihood quite ordinary. Hundreds like it dot the city skylines.

A beautiful mosque that appears to have centuries of history behind it but is in all likelihood quite ordinary. Hundreds like it dot the city skylines.

A Night in an Urban Labyrinth

The hotel was actually very nice, but I had little reason to stay. My focus was on finding an apartment near Boğaziçi University as I had read about transit and traffic in Istanbul and dreaded the thought of being sandwiched between seven people on a bus that would drop me off a mile from campus. Seeking temporary housing, I tried to find a hostel in the area, but the closest was miles away, in Beşiktas, located near Taksim, the city center. The lady at the front desk offered to call her cabbie friend for me who works at a discount and for a moment I thanked my lucky stars that I could just stumble on someone who just happened to have connections to a good cheap cab company, but nope. First morning in the city, and I’m riding in an unlicensed taxicab with some chain smoking football hooligan who spent half the trip asking me how “Natashas” were like in America. Still, it was a good chance to practice my conversation skills…

Beşiktas is actually one of Istanbul’s municipalities, as the city’s so big it’s divided into little nearly autonomous mini-cities who have their own mayors and public works. However, when people talk about Beşiktas they almost invariably are referring to Beşiktas Meydan, a fortress-like complex of shops and restaurants sitting at the foot of ancient three-story buildings flanking skinny single-lane cobblestone alleyways where little rivers of humanity flow through during the evenings while very brave motorists attempt to pass through the crowds. One could compare it to the Kowloon Walled City except in Beşiktas you can sort of see the sun, at least at noon. While not as insanely vibrant as the Old City or the world-famous Taksim area, it’s still a magnificent place to spend a weekend, especially for someone looking to have fun at a slightly slower pace.

A section of what I call the 'Great Wall of Besiktas', two great rows of multi-story buildings fencing in Besiktas Meydan. It extends over a mile.

A section of what I call the ‘Great Wall of Besiktas’, two great rows of multi-story buildings fencing in Besiktas Meydan. It extends over a mile.

These photos were actually taken near Taksim, but provide are virtually identical to the crowded alleys inside Besiktas Meydan.

These photos were actually taken near Taksim, but provide are virtually identical to the crowded alleys inside Besiktas Meydan.

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However, it isn’t such a wonderful place to live. There’s another student from UW living there now who’s absolutely in love with the place, but she apparently can sleep through the constant hum of the crowd and vehicles blasting anything from Irem Derici to Eazy-E (I never thought I’d hear “8 Ball” in Istanbul) on their speakers. She also was fortunate not to have seen police officers slam some drunk’s head into a police van door my first full day in the city. Besides, my hostel room was very…spartan. I mean, exchange the European backpackers with angry men in orange jumpsuits and you can visualize what I’m talking about. Terrified of getting lost in this maze of century-old houses, çay houses and internet cafes, I was very glad to have been paired up with a Turk willing help me navigate through the labyrinthine streets-I’m not sure I would’ve or could’ve left the hostel without his assistance. But while I wanted to explore, I had to spend most of my time on Craigslist apartment-er, flat hunting.

From Kowloon to the Favela to Orange County

Housing is amazingly cheap in this city. One could get a room with a few roommates in Taksim and environs for around 400 Lira (roughly $200) a month, if one’s willing to put up with the noise and the insane commute to campus. Everyday’s I-5 during rush hour in Istanbul, unfortunately, and I was singularly focused on landing a place within walking distance of campus, though these places are a bit more expensive, ranging from $350-$600 for a place with one or two roommates. I mean, I could’ve signed up for housing at Boğaziçi’s “Süperdorm”, an apartment tower near the main campus much like any dorm in America, but balked at the price, their no takesies-backsies policy, and a rule book the size of a Tolkien novel.

Problem was, Boğaziçi’s a school of 10,000 students located in a neighborhood not much larger, so you can imagine the piranha-like atmosphere I was thrust into. My leads would dry up hours after I got them, and those who were willing to see me had at least two or three others lined up as well. At least one was kind enough to offer to “touch me at my hostel” and let me crash at his place while I looked for an apartment…for all of one day, anyway, before his new roomies showed up. While I was exhausted from traveling and this growing cough I’d had since before I left, it would get me a little closer to where I needed to be. And yeah, you bet I had to do a bit of clarifying before I accepted his offer.

Again, these were not taken in Rumelihisarı, but in a virtually identical but more sparsely populated neighborhood. Some residents are very poor, but Istanbul is almost completely devoid of the "no-go" areas endemic in American cities.

Again, these were not taken in Rumelihisarı, but in a virtually identical but more sparsely populated neighborhood. Some residents are very poor, but Istanbul is almost completely devoid of the “no-go” areas endemic in American cities.

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My new friend lived in Rumelihısarı, or “Rumelian Castle”, named after the great Ottoman fortress built on the Bosphorus prior to the 1453 Conquest of Constantiniople, which Turks call the “Fetih”. It is near to Boğaziçi, and though I’ve yet to see inside, I’ve got a couple photos of its exterior, which I’d absolutely love to show you but technical difficulties have ensured that I’ll have to win you all over on the strength of my prose, God help me. Still working on a solution, believe me. Anyway, Rumelihısarı can be described as a merger between a Brazilian favela and the Ave-restaurants serving cheap but tasty dishes and shops no larger than bodegas sit at the base of often dilapidated shanty towers, and the businesses cater to ideal for both college students and the city’s poorer residents, but I repeat myself. It is by nature a diverse place, and you can never be sure if that cute blonde you want to talk to is an American, a German, Belgian, Italian, or a native Turk who thinks you’re being a bit presumptuous for approaching her with your funny babbling. I mean, what kind of idiot puts his verbs in the middle of a sentence?

The exterior of Rumelihisarı fortress.

The exterior of Rumelihisarı fortress.

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It was here where I began my search. I got a whole lot of “I will make my decision in a few days”, which is a perfectly understandable request for someone who isn’t going to be sent packing with no place to go in less than twenty-four hours. Finally, at the end of my rope, I told the one guy who seemed cool enough, “Look, dude. I got no real options here, so I’ll be straight with you.” (Kudos to him for deciphering my off-key English) “I’ve been negotiating for two days with too many people, I’ve got this bad cough, I’m sweating bullets-see me sweating? Yeah, that’s a mix of stress, frustration, fear, and probably an actual illness. And let me be more frank. I’ve heard way too much (redacted) and I’m tired of (redacted) and dealing with this infuriating (redacted) (redacted). If you can tell me that I can move in tonight and for the love of God never ever call me Rick again, I will take the place as is. Deal?”

“Okay, man, cool with me.”

“Teşekkür ederim, arkadasım.“ (Thanks, buddy)

And so it was done. I dragged myself and a year’s supply of clothes over to my new apartment, which isn’t technically in Rumelihısarı but in Etiler, a highly fashionable neighborhood of mansions, fancy restaurants and fancier shops, Istanbul’s very own Orange County. I found my bed, and I collapsed. No seriously, I was done. All the adrenaline ran out, and I was stuck with a 103 degree fever and such a pitiful disposition that my roommate bought me Adana kebab and cheeseburgers with an really funny tasting “American sos” just to keep me alive.

But I did it, I finished out what was probably the most difficult month of my life and accomplished almost every goal I had set for myself. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of myself. Oh yeah, and I also live in a gated community. Mom, who spent her life clawing her way into the (upper-lower) middle class, really would’ve gotten a kick out of that.

So, did the experience and all that give me a crash course in how to survive in Istanbul? Yep. Did it make me a tougher, more resilient person, all that “what doesn’t kill me stronger blah blah blah” thing? Maybe. Was it worth it? (Redacted) no. But hey, at least I got a blog entry out of it.

Don’t let me give you the wrong idea, though. Since then, I’ve had an amazing time traveling in and around the city, and would love to tell you about it. I’ll keep you posted.

Fatih Sultan Bridge, seen at the foot of the Bosphorus.

Fatih Sultan Bridge, seen at the foot of the Bosphorus.

Fatih Sultan Bridge, seen at the foot of the Bosphorus.

Fatih Sultan Bridge, seen at the foot of the Bosphorus.