10.10.14 – ISTANBUL, TURKEY
Istanbul turned out to be better than we could have ever imagined. Never before had we felt so out of place, to a point where it would sometimes be uncomfortable. That was exactly what we craved; feeling out of our comfort zones. We wanted to feel lost, wanted to experience a world dramatically different from anything we’d ever seen before. It was not so much the city as it was the people that made us feel like outcasts. Being placed in the middle of a culture where religion and tradition penetrated every aspect of interaction and appearance was mind blowing. It was disturbing and enlightening and strangely humbling.
We had agreed to couchsurf because it was a city and a culture so new and interesting that we wanted a local ‘in the know’ to show it to us. I’m not exaggerating when I say we got 50+ people sending requests for us to stay with them. I chose to believe that this had to do with the mere population of Istanbul, and ignore the fact that all those people were men seeming to think they’d be hosting me and another girl...
I decided on a host really fast – Omer had amazing reviews and seemed fun and genuine. Living with him and his two roommates in a local and cozy part of the city was an experience we’ll never forget. He turned out to be an absurdly giving and caring person, spending as much time with us as he could and showing us subtle sides of his culture that we would’ve otherwise overlooked. He was a musical genius and he always lent us everything we needed (nose-spray, sweaters, umbrellas, SIM-cards). Even when Alex stubbornly claimed he wouldn’t need a jacket, Omer looked him up and down and then threw a leather jacket at him, saying: “No. Put this on.”
After getting used to the different way of interacting with strangers and the different atmosphere in the society around us we started to feel both safe and at home in Istanbul. At least I did. Alex loved it but he was always aware that we really weren’t too safe there. It wasn’t that he was being paranoid. He had received two notices from the American government asking him to please stay out of Turkey. Every morning he would casually tell me how many people died in Istanbul due to demonstrations and random acts of violence the past 24 hours and I’d always wave him off. For the time we spent in Istanbul I stayed happily ignorant (until the end that is) and he just let me do all the talking never telling me that it was only because of my lack of American accent.
On our last full day in Istanbul we finally went to the Grand Bazaar and the spice market. They were as crowded and touristy as we’d expected and we quickly made it out of there, deciding to get off the tram in Fatih, a local neighborhood, on the way back. We got off and were making our way to the nearest metro stop when we noticed the crowds. Across the street from us a swarm of people carrying flags and signs were gathered on a large square. Noticing the line of spectators on our side of the street we knew that something was going on. A few feet later we saw the military trucks. The armed soldiers and policemen… The large guns and shields... We stopped suddenly, startled by this unexpected scenario unfolding before us. Suddenly Alex tugged my arm, saying we should get going, that it wasn’t our place to be. We went under the road in an underground passage and as we made it to the other side we realized that the stairway to the metro station was blocked. Getting closer I was shocked to see that what was blocking it was an impenetrable wall of plastic shields saying “polis”. The only way out was the stairway onto the square.
Hesitantly we climbed the stairs. Entering the afternoon light, I found myself in an unreal scenario. All around us were cops demonstratively holding onto their big guns ordering everybody that came out through the exit to open their bags. Behind them began the big cluster of people that we’d seen form the other side of the road. The black dressed crowd was chanting and clapping and someone was talking from a stage. Looking confused and not knowing where to turn, someone pointed for us to continue down a small passage to the left leading away from the crowd and towards the metro station. Turning the corner we once again came to a sudden halt. The crowd and the security was one thing. But the sight meeting us around the corner was one I’d never seen in my life and never had imagined I would see except for in the news. Blocking the square in all directions and escapes were hundreds of policemen looking ready to fight. They stood in what seemed endless rows of neatly planned out lines of armored, masked, shielded, uniformed cops and special forces. Continuing down the small passage they had left open all of their eyes were on us; it was obvious that a little blonde girl and a tall American had no place there. Passing one row after the other the reality of the situation started to dawn upon me. These policemen were ready for a riot. They were preparing to fight a raging crowd. Right there in front of us.
Finally reaching the final row of armor, Alex and I stopped to look at each other. We both had fire in our eyes. After quickly agreeing that we wouldn’t actually enter the crowd we turned around. Walking swiftly back to the square we made our way around the chanting people and black dressed men to descend into the underground passage and resurface on the other side of the road once more. From there it seemed we could see most of the large square. We joined the rows of local spectators staring intensely across the road with worried looks on their faces.
Finding a spot on a wall we sat down, trying to wrap our heads around the whole thing. Focusing our minds on the tension in the air and the chanting growing louder I felt my heart rate rise. It was too real. We shouldn’t let ourselves get carried away by curiosity like that. I was about to ask Alex if he wanted to get out of there when we heard the gunshots. Two loud bangs right after each other broke the rhythmic chanting and a few screams reached us from across the road. Seconds later the chanting picked up again as if nothing had happened. When I recovered from the shock I looked around me. No one had even moved. Everybody just stood there as if they hadn’t heard. A lady on the sidewalk in front of us was pushing a stroller down the street and she not as much as missed a beat. Alex’s face was the only one painted with horror like my own. Meeting his eyes I panicked. This was real. And we were in the middle of it. Alex was right in the middle of it. The center of my world, sitting there on a wall with a gun being fired across the street. I had to get him away from there. We grabbed each other’s hands and walked away as casually as we could manage, trying to ignore the hard glances from the audience of men and their sons. Walking along the road we continued until we found another crossing far from the square. In silence we hurried into the metro all the while clenching each other’s hands. The next morning Alex could give me the news on Istanbul: 6 deaths due to riots in Fatih.
14.10.14 - MAHMUTLAR, TURKEY
The morning we left Istanbul, Omer was packing his bags too. He was going on his first trip out of Turkey, to Budapest for a couple of weeks. As he told us goodbye he casually said: “Now is a good time to get out of Istanbul. I mean the last weeks were no good, but it will be very bad from now on… It is a good thing you leave and me too.”
Knowing that we weren’t actually leaving Turkey but just going further east, towards the center of chaos, we were a bit nervous. On the other hand we were going to a resort city and we quickly forgot that we were even in Turkey. Oh the convenience of charter traveling… The reason we went to Mahmutlar, a small city outside of Antalya, was to meet up with my family. They’d booked a week in a nice hotel for autumn break and they’d offered to pay for us to come too.
It was so nice to see my family again. It was a week of all-day buffets, pools, sports and evening entertainment; just like I remember it from my childhood. It was a week of soaking in my mother and little brother and a week of missing my little sister who couldn’t come and my father's family who was obviously still back home. It was strange how everything felt like it always had, my uncle complaining about the service at the hotel and my brother playing ping-pong with strangers. And at the same time it was so different, all the time switching in between English and Danish and sharing a room with Alex rather than my siblings. And wow, that bed was heavenly after all those bunk-beds/couches/uneven surfaces we’d slept on.
Suddenly having everything and never worrying about food or safety or accommodation was very freeing. It was like a vacation from traveling. It was also kind of unsettling, witnessing the overflow of wealth, the giant buffets and never ending fountains of wine. It made me sick to my core to see obnoxious Russians bring giant plates of desserts to their tables just to try a bite or two. But how thankful we were that my family had paid for us to come and enjoy the luxury of real beds, clean bathrooms and actual food just so they could spend time with us. I enjoyed every second and was reminded just how much I love my family.
On our last night my grandparents told us they’d decided they would pay one of the tickets if we would come home for Christmas. Immediately my mother declared that she and my stepfather would pay the other. It would be our Christmas present. Suddenly our plans turned around completely and I felt like a huge burden, which I hadn't even noticed in the first place, was lifted from my shoulders. It wasn’t hard at all to say goodbye to everybody as we headed towards Thailand the next morning; we knew we’d be spending Christmas in Denmark!