Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Istanbul Stopover - updated

June 19, 2013 Update: The last lighthearted comment in this post is ironic, considering the events that were unfolding in Istanbul as we were passing through on our way home from Croatia. Little did we know, how could we know, that as we looked out the window and snapped the photo below on the afternoon of May 27th, we were probably taking one of the last aerial photos of a peaceful Gezi Park and Taksim Square, seen in the lower right portion in shadow, before violence erupted hours later when a group of citizens staged a sit-in to protest replacing the park with a shopping mall.
Gezi Park and Taksim Square, the circle at lower right. The tall building is the Gezi Park Bosphorous hotel, which has been sheltering people.

May 17-18, 2013
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Our flight from Dubai arrived in Istanbul at 10:30 a.m. and our plane for Zagreb, Croatia was the next morning at 9:10. We were thinking we could take in a bit of Istanbul. Mark thought we should get a hotel near the airport, but I wondered if we could get a little closer to the heart of the city and the famous waters of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn. Mark maintained that we were close enough, it was only a matter of a few kilometers.

There was a long Passport Control cue when we arrived in Istanbul, and we had to join the rapidly extending line. After a few minutes Mark said, "Why does that say we need a visa?" No, I checked, I said. US passport holders don't need one in Croatia. But oops, we're in Turkey! I forgot to check that. Fortunately it was just a matter of taking our passports to a nearby window, which didn't have a long line, and paying 30 euros which I could do with a credit card since I didn't have enough Turkish liras, euros, or dollars.

When I returned to Mark who was waiting in the line, things had changed. A mob of people who had emerged from other flights were pushing into the entrance to the cue, ignoring the lineup behind us. Nobody who had been waiting in line was saying anything to the bargers.

When we got to the cordoned entrance, I spoke up and said, "The line is over there," pointing behind us. A man, who was close to me and pushing in, said something like, "Yes, yes, but our luggage is there." He pointed toward the Passport Control, and the baggage carousels beyond, and said, condescendingly, "Don't worry!" People looked at him and me with amusement. What a load of bullshit! I think maybe when a certain type of European man says "Don't worry!" to a woman who challenges him, he is finding a polite way to say "F--k off."

Mark said, "Just keep pushing," which we did, keeping to the inside corner to edge out the others as we rounded the post, just like rounding a mark in a sailboat race. You can gain, or lose, a lot at a crowded mark rounding.
A few minutes later a couple of young guys climbed over the metal and plexiglass railing, cutting into the line a few people ahead of us. Nobody seemed to notice or care, and the boys laughed and congratulated themselves, then climbed over again, the same way, and that was the last we saw of them. They probably went all the way to the front. "I wouldn't have let them in," Mark said. "I would have pushed them off." I was thinking exactly the same thing. I haven't forgotten the lesson I learned sitting next to the "Snakes on the Plane" last year, who slithered their way into the empty seats in my row until I eventually had their hair and feet in my face. I swore afterwards that I would always speak up and, if possible, prevent rude people from taking advantage of me and my accommodating nature. Plus, I'd spent the past two days substitute teaching, and so I was still in the "You can't take advantage of me, I've got your number, kid," frame of mind.

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Finally, through customs, we hailed a taxi, and gave the driver a map to our hotel, as suggested in the guidebook. He seemed completely stumped, like he had never been to that part of town, which was only 5 minutes from the airport. After stopping another taxi and conferring, we got on our way.

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But when we arrived in the neighborhood, which was a little fishing port south of the airport, he drove around for a long time, asking directions and showing the map. Meanwhile, we got a good look around, and we were both thinking that it would be OK to stay in this little town rather than trying to go sightseeing in Istanbul.

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Finally, after the sixth time asking directions, we found the hotel. When the proprietor heard our taxi story, he shook his head. "He didn't telephone?" he asked. I had offered the phone number, but our driver didn't seem to want to call. "We have been here for 65 years. He wanted a bigger fare." It was true; we had 10 lira on the meter when we got into town, and 15 by the time we found the hotel.

Our proprietor spoke very good English, although he still had a distict Turkish accent. "You are American? I'm from Chicago," he offered. There was a discussion about going sightseeing and he explained that, if we chose to do it, we would have to leave right away - it was 2 p.m. - and we could not return until 8 p.m. at the soonest. It was Friday. Our other option was to stay in town and relax.

There were a couple of things that made our decision easier, although I still felt pangs of regret. We had got up before 3 a.m. to get to the Dubai airport. If we had gone sightseeing in Istanbul, we would be too tired to really enjoy it.  On Friday afternoon, in a dense and dynamic city, a few kilometers can be a very long distance, and sitting in traffic wasn't an appealing idea.

Plus, the nearest major sights were the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. "I don't want see another palace," Mark said. We saw a lot of palaces in India, and by the time that trip was over we both felt like we needed a break from forts and palaces. And, although I would have liked to see the special tiles that the Blue Mosque is named for, I didn't want it that bad. There would be other tiles, and there is no shortage of magnificent mosques where we live in the Middle East. So we got settled into our room and then went out to explore the town and have a bite of late lunch.

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The harbor town of Yeskilov is a patchwork of old and new, with many of the older buildings in various stages of decay or retrofit, including our hotel, the Yeskilov Butiq Hotel, where two workers were on the front porch covering the old stone facade with a new, identical one. It reminded me of a gentrifying neighborhood in the USA, although the hotel owner told us that Turkey has such a good economy now, everyone is retrofitting.

Istanbul (48)The narrow streets in town are lined with small dry goods shops, fishmongers spraying water on their fish to keep them cool, colorful vegetable stalls, sweets shops and tiny restaurants serving flatbreat filled with roasted meats sliced from a large spit. Things were quiet in mid-afternoon, but people were beginning to gather in the cafes to sit and drink coffee and tea and watch passersby, which is a ritual in this part of the world. We could see that there would be a lively nightclub scene later.

IstanbulBeing thirsty as well as hungry, we stopped at a pub where Mark ordered beer and I decided to try raki, an anise-flavored drink with which the locals wash down their mezes, or appetizers. We had a little trouble communicating with our waiter, who didn't speak much English, and we had, regrettably, left the pocket guide in our hotel room. Doh!

We finally agreed on a meze platter he said was good.  It was cigara boregi (cigar shaped pastries stuffed with cheese,) breaded chicken strips, and chunks of hot dogs on a bed of fries, served with ketchup and mayonnaise. We must have been hungry, because it tasted pretty good.

Istanbul (14)After a nap of several hours, we managed to get going again at about 8 p.m. This time we took a twilight walk along the waterfront, which has a beach and small harbor. The locals were out, walking dogs and babies in strollers, and gathering in the waterfront restaurants for dinner. We walked past the row of small powerboats which were stern- tied to the wharf, with families and friends gathered around tables enjoying drinks, a meal, or a card game. It was so friendly and intimate that I could not even bring myself to intrude and ask for permission to snap a photo.

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We had to choose a restaurant, which wasn't easy since we were newcomers. Fortunately they all looked similar, with similar menus and prices, so we picked a place where we could be seated on an upper terrace, overlooking the harbor. It was lovely, if a bit chilly, which as a bit of a surprise -- but a harbinger of what was to come. It turned out that the restaurant provides fleece blankets, but it was a bit late when we learned about that.

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After much discussion with the waiter, and one false start where we ordered a fish that was no longer available, we ended up with our wine, fish, and side dishes. It was expensive, with the fish sold by the kilo costing us about $75 USD alone plus the wine and Greek salad, but what the hell.

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It was a lovely evening and we were in Istanbul -- sort of.

The next morning we got up very early to be sure we caught our flight to Zagreb, Croatia's capital city. As we were standing in the very long Passport Control cue, we noticed a young couple who were making their way through the line toward us, saying " Excuse me," as people moved aside to let them by. They were very tall, as we were beginning to notice is common for Eastern Europeans, especially Croats. Mark is rather shrimpy compared to his ancestral countrymen.

Anyway, this guy was boldly moving through the line with his girl friend in tow,  as she smiled with either amusement or disbelief, it was hard to know. Mark and I watched and as they grew near, I could feel the two of us, without a word to each other, moving into position : the Body Block, with the added advantage of Luggage.

The young man attempted to pass Mark, who blocked him, forcing him to say "Excuse me?" To which Mark stopped him in his tracks and asked, "Why didn't you get up earlier? Everybody else here did." Of course there was no intelligent response. After a few more comments from Mark about getting up in the morning and being on time, we let them push through but by this time the smiles had vanished, replaced with hangdog looks of embarrassment. As they worked their way through the people in front of us, I saw that there were actually three of them: the tall boy, the even taller girl, and a tiny Indian girl who was about half their size and shrinking by the second, looking like she would prefer to just vanish altogether. "Wow," I said. "This must be very embarrassing for you. Really. Not. Cool." By this time they were all looking properly stricken with embarrassment.

We normally don't make a scene like that, but for some reason we both just had to be buttinskis that morning. People around us were smiling quietly. "We're Americans, we don't give a shit," Mark said. "We believe in justice," I added, "and equality." Not to mention free speech!

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On the way back to Dubai through Istanbul, we were on a plane with a group of Azerbaijani football players who also thought they had a right to cut through. You can be tall, you can be young, and you can be good-looking. But I am American, and a woman, and you can’t cut in front of me.

We learned an important lesson here. While it may be worthwhile to do an overnight stopover, choose your destinations carefully. Do not plan a short stopover at a crowded airport in a tourist destination. It just won’t be doable.

Thanks for reading! And remember: stand up for your rights, and little venting is good for the soul.

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