Alone and Unafraid – My Time In Istanbul
The early morning light illuminated the ornate dining room of the Hotel Air Boss on the western edge of Istanbul. Sunlight streamed through the floor to ceiling windows and settled on pure white tablecloths and maroon chairs. A light rain brought the smell of soil and trees through an open window. Walking through the double-door entrance, the earthy smell greeted my nostrils as an assortment of dozens of different kinds of foods laid out on trays drew my eyes. As I approached the long self-service buffet table the smell of soil and rain was gradually replaced by the scent of fresh fruit, sizzling meat, and cheese.
The circular plate seemed too small for the quantity of food I intended to put on it. Fist-sized apples of every color, red and green grapes, berries of every hue of red and purple, trays of sliced meats of every kind, cubes of cheese that I had never seen before that produced a slightly rancid smell, small tortillas that had been baked into a firm crisp, decanters with different fruit juices and iced coffees, small cakes with various jams and jellies. This was the breakfast of my dreams.
While I crammed a sample of everything I could fit onto my plate a short man in a black and white server uniform approached me and smiled.
“Is der anyting I can assist you with, sir?”
“Oh, no! I just want to try a bit of everything! Where is all this food from?”
“Oh, dis?” The man gestured to the table. “Dis is all from local markets. Der are many around here. Dis is very authentic Turkish!”
With a brief wave, the server excused himself and approached another guest. Not a moment had passed before my attention was fully on my overflowing plate. It looked like an absurd set up for a still life painting class. I found a table next to the window and sat to enjoy my breakfast.
As I put my napkin in my lap, I took another look around the dining room. There were many tables that were empty, but those that had people seated at them had at least two people. I realized how alone I was. I had not realized it before that morning, but there it was. Seeing the different parties at their tables reminded me that I had come to this country by myself – that I was on my own. I shook my head and looked back at my plate.
The fruit was first. The juices and flavor exploded in my mouth. Each fruit was different than its equivalent back home because of the lack of genetic modifications and the like. The meats, many of which I was unable to identify, smelled of spices that I had never experienced before. Peppery, but also smokey with garlic and onion. Each cheese had its own distinct flavor. One was sharp while the next spicy. The very last item was the chai. Served piping hot in a two-ounce hourglass-shaped glass, the tea finished the meal well and settled a bulging full stomach.
I handed my clean plate to a passing server and made my way to the exit to begin my day’s adventures. As I passed the first server I encountered, I reflected that if every meal that I ate during my stay in Turkey was this good, this simple and authentic, then no matter what else happened I would be extremely content with my stay. I sauntered down the sidewalk and smelled grilling meat and vegetables as they wafted through the air. Lunch could not come soon enough.
Glasses tinkled and a multitude of voices and laughter reverberated through the unnamed restaurants dimly lit interior. Michael and I seated ourselves on the patio where we enjoyed an excellent view of downtown Istanbul. As we discussed how fortunate it was that he happened to be in town while I was and planned my stay in his apartment later that night, crowds of people, tourists and locals alike, bobbed and swarmed through the streets, hardly paying attention to their surroundings. City lights illuminated the sky and the sights, smells, and sounds from the city almost drowned out those from the restaurant. The occasional honk of an impatient driver would filter through the din.
In Turkey, alcohol is extremely heavily taxed and difficult to come by. Instead, Michael and I ordered a small glass of chai and ayran, which is a Turkish drink made of milk and salt. Our drinks arrived at the same time as our food. A lamb kebab, nestled cozily on a bed of dark green salad and rice, sizzled and steamed. Each bite of the meal introduced new flavors and smells that I had never been acquainted with before. Through the discovery of the delectable foods, I had nearly forgotten my drinks. The chai was deliciously spiced and warmed my belly after the dense and fulfilling meal. Upon indulging in the ayran, I discovered that I was not yet finished with experiencing new flavors and smells. The foamy off-white beverage smelled like spoiled milk but tasted like Greek yogurt. As I paid my check and polished off the rest of the ayran I found myself wondering, How many more new and exciting things will I discover while here?
The protesters in Istanbul roared as Michael and I snaked our way through the dark, winding side streets toward Taksim Square in the heart of the city. Angry chants echoed deafeningly off the pockmarked sandstone walls and cobbled street as burning tires filled the air with putrid smoke that made my eyes water and my nose run. The midnight sky glowed with the light of hundreds of fires.
Taksim Square revealed itself to us in the form of a long, deserted street with a dull, run-down, brick wall with a stone archway closed off with a wrought iron gate at the end. Through the gate, the square’s ground was littered with hundreds of discarded signs and debris of all colors of the rainbow. My eyes and nostrils began to burn as we advanced down the road, closer to reaching our destination. We did not initially notice the three green armored trucks and the massive tank with its ten-foot-long gun idling silently to the left of the gate until the roar behind us was broken by the metallic screech of the tank lid. Startled, we stopped in our tracks. A man’s head emerged and shouted something that I could not understand.
“He says we need to leave the area,” Michael translated for me with a shout as he attempted to be heard over the raging crowd. His words had hardly any impact on me and my rampant curiosity.
“Why? I wanna see what’s make this place so important,” I took a couple of steps toward the gate. Michael did not move.
With another metallic screech, the man disappeared into the tank. Moments later, a dull “THUMP” echoed through the street as a cannister with a trail of white smoke shot out of the barrel of the tank’s gun. With a yelp, Michael turned and ran. I froze as my eyes followed the trail of smoke until the cannister skipped across the cobbled road and came to rest ten feet from where I stood. I stared at the cannister. The smoke had stopped coming from the end, so I took a single step towards it to investigate. A single step was all I had time to take before the cannister vanished with a deafening bang to be replaced with a suffocating cloud of white misery. Backpedaling furiously, it felt as if hot knives were cutting into every millimeter of exposed skin while thousands of tiny fish hooks embedded themselves into my eyes. The smell of burning rubber was replaced with the smell of nothing. My nose had ceased functioning as intended and every portion of my sinuses were evacuated.
It took hours of cold showers and intense scrubbing to relieve my body of the unbearable pain that the 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile gas had produced. Michael only laughed as I languished in the shower, moaning and blowing snot out of my nose. Never had I been exposed to such a pain that CS gas produced, and never again have I disobeyed a policeman’s commands.
It was my last day in Turkey. Michael had departed for the United States early that morning and I was once again alone. The sun was shining through clouds and smog and the sounds of honking cars could be heard over the din of the shoppers as they bargained over various sundries. Despite the hubbub around me, I could not help but notice how alone I was. As I looked around me, I could not find a single person who was walking or shopping by themselves. Even the cars, as they zoomed by on a street with no markers, all seemed to have more than one person in them. Walking through the streets of Istanbul, I was alone and an outsider.
As I neared an outdoor market my senses came under attack. Cloth and clothing of every hue hung from shabby windows set in run down, pockmarked residences. Herbs and meats of unknown kinds assaulted my nose while cooking in makeshift stalls in the alleyways. The sounds of people haggling over prices in a foreign tongue reverberated off my eardrums as I fought to orient myself. The feel of the cobblestone street beneath my feet and the touch of strangers as they brushed shoulders with me.
Despite my confusion and ignorance of the Turkish language, I stopped at a few stalls that looked to be of interest. I was examining an elaborately decorated silk scarf that looked like only someone of royalty could afford. My mother’s birthday was approaching and I wanted to bring her back something special- something that could only be found in Turkey.
As I fingered the delicate cloth, an old lady, she had to be over seventy years old, approached me and lightly tapped my elbow. Looking down, I saw the woman pull down her shawl and address me. Her eyes were a dark brown with red lines running away from her retinas. Her face was a tanned topographical map of lines and scars.
“American? Ban Lmak Ister Misk?” Her accent notwithstanding, the only word I understood was American. Lucky for me, however, I knew that I was at a market and that chances were high that she was trying to ask if I was looking to buy the scarf. I gave her the international sign for “how much?” by rubbing my thumb and forefinger together. The elderly woman showed me an open hand, which left me questioning.
Without my trusty guide, Michael, present, I was on my own to translate both words and body language. It took various repetitions of various hand gestures and auditory sounds for the two of us, me and this elderly street vendor, to come to a mutual agreement on price. I paid the eighty Lira, thanked her for the beautiful blue and gold scarf, and continued on my way.
As I continued on my way with the scarf in my hand, I remembered how alone I was. I purchased the scarf for my mother, but she was a world away. Four-thousand miles away from home, all of the people I knew were carrying on with their everyday lives while I navigated the alien streets of Istanbul, Turkey. As I walked back to my hotel to check out and head to the airport, I reflected more on the trip. It had changed me in a fundamental way. I had ventured out of my comfort zone and tried new things and met new people. I had been alone for over a week in a country where I did not even know the language. Despite being scared and, frankly, out of my element, I had survived. With this in mind, my confidence soared and I began to become excited to tell my friends and family back home about everything I had seen, done, tasted, smelled, and heard while staying in the beautifully inexplicable city of Istanbul, Turkey.