Istanbul Saga: part one, in which the narrators come to be in the minivan of their nightmares.
“Van here!” the mustached man was shouting over the crowds, “Van here! Everyone inside!”
The next thing I know, I was shoved into the waiting minibus like a doomed heifer into the chute. My arms were crammed to my sides and my hands scrambled to cover my wallet and camera. The door was slammed behind me: no escape, smashed in a crowd like so many wide eyed and squirming fish in a net. Tires squealed, and we rocketed into traffic, the mass of passengers swaying bodily against one another—no room to hang on to anything. Andy would have face-planted into a pile of Turks if there had been room enough for any of us to fidget.
“Turn it up, Captain!” someone yelled, after removing another passenger’s elbow from his larynx, and in no time flat the rattling speakers were piping 90s techno into my eardrums; around me, no less than two dozen fellow passengers, all Turks, were smiling and jabbering away into the pile of shoulders and knees and backsides and backpacks contorted all over each other. Two dozen of us smooshed into the space of a ten passenger van. When the driver stopped fiddling with the radio long enough to squeal around a devilish corner on two wheels, I kept my footing only by wedging my neck against the smoke-crusted carpet of the ceiling, my head at right angles to my body. Then, everyone erupted in an impromptu sing-along with the radio.
Andy and I looked at each other. How did we get here?
Oh yeah, I remember: we bought a ticket from that mustached guy on the riverfront—you know the one—Istanbul’s answer to Marlon Brando, the guy whose fat fingers held a laminated page full of images of a gloriously white cruise ship awash in golden sunshine visiting all the city’s chiefest waterway attractions.
“Van leave ten minutes!” he yelled into my ear.
“No need to shout, sir,” I replied. We’ll consider your offer.”
“Van leave now!”
And when his mustache mouthed the magic price, and his hand waved to the then-empty van, well, he had us.
Ten minutes later, though, and we just hoped we were really headed to a Bosporus cruise and not into the midst of a human trafficking scam—two tourists whisked away to a lifetime of slave labor picking pistachios on a wasteland plantation somewhere inland for the remainder of our sunburned days while all our friends and family were left wondering what happened to us—“they just went to visit Istanbul,” I can see them talking over the 60 Minutes ticking stopwatch, “and then…”
Then what? I was wondering that myself, as we slammed into a stoplight’s red. What had happened to us?
It was probably my fault for not negotiating with the more reputable cruise hawkers—you know, the ones with shined shoes and trim leather jackets who court the European clientele milling around the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, the ones with actual tickets instead of stubs of pink carbon copy, the ones with printed brochures instead of a greasy laminated page with digital pics from the dinosaur cameras who still read floppy disks.
In short, the ones whose prices were double what we paid.
Those were tourist traps, I’d told Andy. we’ll get a better deal down by the river.
Good call, me. Just like the good call to book our layover as we had—after a sleep-strapped night of Romanian trains and scratchy-eyed airport mornings, we found ourselves with seventeen hours to kill in a sightseer’s paradise. That is, if your idea of paradise involves drenching rains and single degree (Celsius) temps. I guess you could say we even had the heavenly choir all around us—the tangled mess of humanity belting out “It’s Raining Men” while swerving through riverside roadways to the port.
That’s how we got here. Though now I wondered what had made sightseeing in a bucket-list-topping locale like Istanbul seem like a good idea on 36 sleep-deprived hours and in weather more fit for a walrus than a tourist.
We jumped to book that flight and that red-eyed layover all because it was Istanbul.
Let me explain: Bucket lists may be a bit cliché these days, but I’ve had my eye on Istanbul for quite awhile. I remember back to my days as an exchange student in Spain—even then I kicked around the idea of spring break in the city of many waters and many names.
But I never made it.
And all the times I’ve popped in at Romania—just an hour’s flight away—I’ve always been more preoccupied with a certain little Romanian sweetheart of mine to pay much attention to that busting, ancient city, that gateway to the fabled orient, that jewel among the crown cities of the world.
Well, this trip was different story. A perfect storm of circumstances— a trip back to Romania, a good deal on flights with Turkish Air, an itinerary with a seventeen hour layover, a couple extra unexpected days off work—all transpired to finally bring my feet to the streets they’d longed to tread. It was an inspired moment, to be sure.
So what did I do as the planes’ tires scorched the Turks’ most storied runway? What did I find myself engaged in as soon as we’d cleared customs? My first act in the city I’d so longed to see?
I took a nap.
Yep, it had been a long night: tough goodbyes from the family in RO, a late-night train and an all-nighter in stations and airport lobbies, an Istanbul awash in frigid temps and rain clouds thicker than any rug in the bazaar—yeah, I took a nap right there at the airport door in plastic chairs more ergonomically designed to torture than coddle weary travelers. The city I’d yearned for lay right outside, and I slept.
Actually, I was waiting for a map. You see, there were two or three tourist info booths open, and I was kind of banking on these to give me a map and some advice. Over the years, I’ve come to travel more like a deranged photographer on an impromptu photo shoot than any sort of guidebook-toting, schedule-making, fanny-pack wearing accountant who’s actually going to learn something from his trip. So these tourist booths are kind of my thing: a free map, a brief chat, a useful tip or two, and I’m off.
It was just before eight in the morning, so I said they must open on the hour. We waited and caught a bit of shut-eye—nothing. OK, scratch that, but it can’t be past nine, right? It’s freezing outside and everything’s rain and we haven’t slept in two days, why don’t we just—but my wife was already snoozing. When in Rome—do something Roman. When in Istanbul—take a nap.
To my dismay, an hour’s nap on the hard plastic chair brought me nothing but a sore back and no sign of tourist help. I asked at the nearby shops—rental car and city tour packages—for a hand. It went something like this:
Me: (Still sleepy and rubbing my eyes) Good morning.
Turkish guy: (After staring at me a minute) ugh.
Me: Uh, yeah. So, do you have any maps? (long pause) Of the city? Maybe the metro?
Turkish guy: No. (Staring at me and slicking back his hair even more). No maps.
Me: (Looking at the map in his hand, gesturing toward it). Nothing? Not even like a metro station map?
Turkish guys: Metro down there. (Pointing emphatically to the escalator). Down There! Metro!
Me: I know. I want a map, though. Like the one you have in your hand. Can I have one like that? Maybe from the big pile of them you have there on your counter?
Turkish guy: Metro over there! (Crosses arms). Ugh.
So I did the only thing a reasonable person would do, I snapped a picture of a nearby points of interest poster, and one of the metro map (Down there!) with my phone, yawned and scratched my belly, and we took off for the City Formerly Known As Constantinople.
We were hoping the rain would let up and the sun would make an appearance, but we were thwarted again, landing on what was certainly the absolute coldest and wettest day in the long, long history of that proud city. The subway was OK, but as we came above ground and had to wait for the tram—at stop barely sheltered from rain—we shivered and dripped cold raindrop runnels down our hair and off our noses.
I felt like heading back to the terminal. I wanted to suggest it, but the wife had too much ear frostbite hear anything.
So we plunged ahead into the city, never dreaming the minivan ride that awaited us. Never suspecting that this was the day I’d taste the most amazing fish sandwich of my life.
To Be Continued…