I had a dual birthday party to attend – drink homemade wine, pose for flower-framed photos, write a message in their memory book, hold the baby, post a picture to Instagram, and eat two plates of food in prep for dessert – choice of strawberry or chocolate ice cream cake that I shared a slice of. I made my round of see-you-laters as I told everyone I was off on my first solo trip to a new country – as I’ve always had someone with me.
Of course I was nervous and excited. I’d had to change my flight which altered which airport I would land in and which rental car company I would then use, so I changed my hotel as well. I was anxious, but all the email confirmations had come and I’d taken pictures of them. I had my wallet packed with dollars, Euros, and lira like the Internet told me to. With my wrists and elbows covered, two cameras, and a smile on my face I was ready to see what all the hype is about.
I love getting to the airport hours early, either to wait in line, or to sit in complete stillness as I realize that no one else is as excited as I am at this hour. I chose the red-eye flight, saving $100 or more, as I did by changing the day as well. I originally planned to land at noon, but this way I’ll be in Istanbul by 7am. The customs agent says I look like Queen Diana. I could become a frequent flyer just for all the compliments I get.
If I thought the airport was empty, the plane is even more so. It’s too bad the seats can’t fold back into other rows or I’d have made a bed. I lift the arms instead and lay out across three seats. The safety video is subtitled with a kid practicing safety with superheroes. I think this is great as it keeps the kids involved and might entertain the adults. I prefer to watch the different videos than the same boring people in the aisle – not everyone is going to be viral on YouTube.
I didn’t sleep much the night before – pre-trip excitement, and I’ve gotten three hours on the four-hour direct flight. I think I might be too excited to need coffee, but I will need caffeine’s effect to help me focus. The weather was to be 26 degrees in Turkey, and I was so happy to be leaving Bahrain’s temperature of 40, so imagine my surprise when I stepped off the plane into 16 degrees of happiness. Others were wearing coats and I wanted to wear less after having to deal with sauna day-temps for six months.
The bus drops us off a few meters from the door and I try figuring out why my phone battery is so low as I look at the luggage transport area in the basement and walk towards the entrance at the same time. Of course I tripped, but I didn’t fall. My phone had wifi on instead of being on airplane mode for the flight – great. Into the passport control line, and this is my first time with an e-visa, so I show the officer my phone – even though he obviously has it on his screen and hear his stamp of approval. I thank him and quickly start turning pages. I find a half-legible red stamp on a busy page giving me nine used pages in my tourist passport and six in my official one.
I continue towards the exit not wanting to keep the guy that will pick me up for my car hire meet-and-greet waiting, but my name is not one of the three on the cardboard signs. I’m fine with that as I didn’t put that I would pick up till 8am, even though they have my flight information. I’m ready to enjoy a coffee first, and after checking out the competition next door, walk around the displays to the other side. The barista is at a table writing dates for her fresh products, so I sit with her and a friend while I wait to order… Turkish coffee, but I thought it would just be coffee, and what’s the difference. Oh well, I’ll just take one.
While I wait for my coffee to cool and figure out how much I owe – seven Turkish lira (with a varying exchange rate to the dollar, but averaging 1TRY to 0.35USD) – the barista’s friend gives me free chocolate-covered pistachio Turkish Delight (lokum rahat in Turkish meaning contentment of the throat) or something sweet to go with the bitter drink. He’ll also teach me my first, and most used, Turkish word: teśekkürler – which means thank you. Of course I’ll roll the word around in my mouth and won’t get the spelling just right, but I’m starting to relax.
I call Thrifty. I wanted an in-terminal company, and went through Argus Car Hire (not my usual) and they wanted me to fly into Sabiha and then drive to Atatürk and bypass all the scenery on the way to my hotel. I was able to email them and get them to agree to this company only a couple kilometres from the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (located on the Asian side and named after the first female combat pilot in Turkey). The guy that answers the phone mentions that his friend (not colleague) will pick me up and I fear that I’ve reached the wrong number.
I wait for them to call back, and I call them at 8am. The friend, which everyone in Turkey is if not family, has been waiting patiently outside near the car. I’m relieved to see the embroidery on his shirt – he’s either legit or shops at the same discount store I do. We bypass the tiny office on the other side of the street, make a u-turn past all the stray dogs lounging about and some crossing the road, to a box big enough for two desks inside and a parking lot with four cars. It wouldn’t look promising if the name wasn’t so familiar.
I’m charged the 500 lira for the week, and then another 500 is held on my card as insurance. I’m given a piece of paper with HGS on it for the tolls and told to u-turn again to get petrol across the street. They have an empty tank policy here and I prefer the full tank, so I can land and go. I get inside my Opel Corsa 1.4, check my paperwork that says I was born in Amarika, and put it in the glovebox. I pull up to the pump and point to the non-diesel hoses – there are two yellow and a blue on one side and two green on the other.
The attendant fills the tank and gives me a receipt so I can go inside to pay 190 lira… wait, that’s more than it costs to fill my SUV in California, or I’ve just been in Bahrain so long and gotten used to the $12 fill-up. I take the signed receipt back out to him so I can go and note the kilometres on the odometer. I will start at 6430 and am sure now that the gas will be my biggest expenditure. I was too full of sunshine to realize how cloudy it was; and too busy looking at the colorful buildings, manicured landscape, and the Turkish signs to even think of rain.
Every mosque looks beautiful whether next to reflective skyscrapers or dilapidated buildings. There are Turkish flags flying everywhere – inspired by the finalised Ottoman design of 1844 and made into a standardised law in 1936. There are a lot of brick streets and sidewalks and even more hills. Parking is not available in front of most shops which is great for pedestrians, but a bit of a hassle for those spoiled by the park-and-honk availability of shopping in Bahrain. Istanbul knows if you want something bad enough, you’ll find the garage or steep side street a kilometre or two away and walk or take the trolley, bus, Metro, or a taxi.
I keep driving until I see water and a free parking spot near Maiden’s Tower where an engaged couple is getting their photos taken – drawing the attention of the kids clapping across the street and the men drinking tea and smoking cigarettes by the waterside with stepped seating similar to that at Nepenthe, a restaurant located in Big Sur, California some 6,800 miles away. I walk awhile more before going back to the car.
The streets are lined with trees and banners, and though elections are in November, I feel as if there’s a huge party going on that I’m missing out on, as I’m sure I will. I pass the Dolmabahçe Palace where the entrance is extravagant, the outside parking none, and the rain has started to fall. This doesn’t keep people out of the road, literally, as I drive around them – some with umbrellas, others in suits – getting further into a neighborhood in search of a street, a museum, and another tower.
It makes me nervous to drive on the tramline, but other cars are doing it. I see the famous simit sarayi (literal translation: wheel palace, meaning: circular bread) aka sesame bagel cart and pull over to try one. Luckily the guy is only selling that and water or my bite gesture might not have worked so easily. I love the warmth of the bread and the crunch of the seeds. In the last year I got introduced to sesame oil – and I love it. I’d been raised to think that these tasty bits only deserved to be sprinkled over hamburger buns, and I’ve been missing out.
There’s the international symbol for NO and there’s the X sign too, but I don’t know if these mean don’t go that way and don’t park here as it’s clearly being done – the good ol’ Middle Eastern way – and I’m fine with that and peering down a steep drop debating to drive down what looks like an aqueduct when a police car, in passing behind me, thumbs me to go the way they just came – which looks like a one-way. Thanks, I guess.
The rain has me confused and I’m soon on the European side, which is just three percent of Turkey, and passing the Hagia Sophia. My mistake was thinking that the streets were full and not realising that the crowd was the 100 people waiting in queue to go inside. I have reached my destination (according to my GPS), but I’m parked at Topkapi Palace and there’s a guy at my window trying to collect a fee. I should’ve gone inside, but Google Maps works well for me here and I’m soon near my hotel.
I find decent parking in front of a closed shop two blocks away and pass the guy that offered help when I looked lost. He invites me in for tea and I kindly accept as I check out the earrings on the wall finding a cute pink/copper pair. He says there used to be lamps overhead (where all the plugs are still dangling) and there are sunglasses by the door. He offers me a seat and I realize I forgot my wallet so I can check-in to my hotel.
He lets me wear the earrings out and on my way to the car a guy buys me a banana after I thought he was offering me his half-eaten one. I come back with two lira and then go inside Ast Hotel where the clerk attempts the currency exchange ripoff with me – just another reason to be grateful for the internet and smartphones – research before you go and the technology while you’re there.
He wanted 80 or 90 lira, but didn’t have change. Then he wanted to quote me the wrong Euro price. I showed him the XE Currency Converter rate (updated every minute) and he accepted the 23 euro for my room and I made sure I got back correct change. I asked where my free parking is and he pointed in the other direction and I decided to leave the car where it was – same thing.
I’m shown my room, 501, where there’s a clean bed, shower with soap and towel, and a private balcony with a view of the ceramic-tiled roofs leading to the ships at sea. I take my key, set down my bag, and go to lock up when the door handle comes off – perhaps a new safety feature, but I stick it back on and take the lift down. I have to pass the earring guy on the way to the tourist sites and he invites me in for coffee and gifts me with a nazar, evil eye, magnet.
I love the mix of old and new – buildings, people, cuisine; and that there’s a bakery close to my hotel. I’m considered lost again, and a guy invites me into his shop for a map which just confuses me more. I’m fine wandering the streets and soaking up the aura without knowing which direction I’m going. Up a hill and I find myself attracted to a silk spinning wheel as it reels the fine thread from the cocoon. I’m invited over to notice that it takes eight cocoons to make a thread, and they have four going, and it takes 2,200 cocoons to make a pound of thread – that’s a lot of dead bugs.
Inside I’m shown the quiet artist behind the work, the woman that will sit for a year or more to make a traditional family pattern or something more modern to appeal to both tastes. She works quickly: double-knot, cut, repeat, as I strain my eyes to keep up with her hands as they pass through warp and weft. I wonder how she knows which color is next as it seems she’s been programmed and runs as a smooth silk rug making machine, not pausing to breath or sip tea. She prefers to work undisturbed and doesn’t want to take her eyes from her work, even at the boss’s insistence for a photo, and I can understand why.