My heart is with the people of Turkey in the wake of this terrible news out of Istanbul. Writers always leave things out of their finished products, and in many cases, like the one that follows, they wring their hands about it. This was one of mine:
When the shuttle stops for a light, I take a picture of two older people waiting at a bus stop. People. Actual, human interaction with someone who lives in the country I’m visiting. That’s another requirement for really being somewhere. But there’s no interaction here: They sit on the other side of the glass, and I wonder briefly if I’m treating them like a zoo exhibit – Look! Turks in their natural habitat! It not only doesn’t count, but it’s borderline offensive. Yet there they sit, a man dressed entirely in black, from his baseball hat, to his puffy coat, to his shoes; a woman with loose grey hair, a nice black winter coat with gold buttons, and bright red, baggy workout pants with white stripes running down the sides. They sit apart, but both hold small shopping bags and watch the passing traffic. Neither pays our shuttle any special attention. We’re just part of the rest of the rush.
Nothing to see here, I imagine them saying. Go on, be on your way.
Such a little thing, a throwaway, but we so rarely look at other cities and countries halfway across the world and consider the people who live in them – in Paris, Brussels, Ankara, Lahore – people whose lives and daily “normal” are also under attack, whose lives are ultimately not all that different from our own. It’s too easy to think of the world as disconnected when it’s actually so much smaller than we give it credit for. We’re all in this together. It’s not “kumbaya” to say so – on the contrary, it’s never been more crucial to live this notion as truth.
Stepping out of Istanbul Ataturk International Airport, I breathe deep. The air is a bit humid, would be clammy if it wasn’t relatively warm. Forty-five degrees in January for an upstate New York girl like myself is downright balmy, a taste of the weather that, upon returning home, I’ll have to wait another two months for at least. I’m only here temporarily, but I savor it. Breathing in, you see, is one of the steps. It’s as much a part of travel as anything else you do. What does the air smell like? Is it clean and thin, like in the foothills of the Annapurnas, where we’re coming from? Does the incense it carries, the smog, piss, and smoke, scratch the back of your throat like in Kathmandu? What do you hear in the wind? Traffic? Birds? Voices? A language you don’t understand? A language you do?
As a rule, I’ve never included airports in list of places I have visited. You have to step outside, I argue, breathe the air, eat the food, meet a local. You have to set foot on the city’s streets, or at the very least put your feet somewhere that’s not tarmac. Preferably somewhere people live their lives, some place with some history. Air, food, people, the street. Those are the rules. So, it follows that I have not been to Amsterdam, or Frankfurt, or Dublin, though I’ve passed through their hubs. I have not been to Panama City, despite seven hours staring at its palm trees and sky, completing a few too many Sudoku puzzles and waiting for a flight to Quito. There’s a small part of me, easily overruled, that still thinks Panama should count. It doesn’t.
Istanbul, then, is a technicality.
We’re here on a layover, having been fogged in, back in Kathmandu. We arrive in early evening and our new flight, from Istanbul to Chicago, will leave tomorrow at one. Turkish Airways has given us hotel vouchers for the night, herding our group and many others onto a shuttle that will take us to the Akgun Hotel. I’m one of the first to board the shuttle, so I sit in the back, piling my backpack and my purse onto my lap. Malinda, a friend from this trip to Nepal, squishes in beside me. I look around at the other members of the group. We’re all legs and arms and packs and bags, and a healthy dollop of exhaustion.
This, then, is how I will see Turkey, my nose pressed against a cold, dirty window in the back of a small bus, a window that can’t be opened to let the evening air fill me up, fill my lungs. We may as well not be here. We may as well be in a submarine. We may as well still be at the airport, but we’re all happy that we’re not.
When everyone has boarded and the shuttle leaves the airport, we’re invited only to sample the smallest taste of what Istanbul could offer. The city hums with traffic. Its lights stretch across the horizon, beckoning but indifferent, the city as a whole taunting me like the promise of a lover secure in his own position, a lover who smiles, curls himself around me, draws me in—then holds up his hand: Not yet.
We shouldn’t do this now. The time’s not right. I need to take some time for myself. You understand.
The size of this gateway between the East and West defies logic: A city of more than fourteen and a half million people, Istanbul stretches more than two thousand square miles along the sea of Marmara, a sea that at its westernmost point connects via a channel to the Aegean. We drive for what feels like miles across the city, the night sky blotted out by an eternity of lights. But on our six-mile journey from the airport to our hotel, we only skirt the city’s edges. Still, we drive past a long, somber stone structure, beige and ancient. A wall of some kind. It stretches for its own forever, and my heart launches itself into my throat and the spaces behind my eyes, desperate for anything Turkish, anything to solidify the fact that I am somehow here.
“What do you think that is?” I ask Malinda. Malinda is a slim, dark-haired, recent college grad I only met two weeks ago, but who’s already a sister in travel. We’re both outdoorsy and love languages, have both studied in and dearly love Ecuador, have spent time in each other’s cities there and on this trip bonded over it.
Malinda turns and looks, shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
“It must be Ottoman. Do you think it’s Ottoman?”
She shakes her head, then rests it on the big bag in her lap, still looking, but tired. I’m still determined. I’m in Turkey. This is as unexpected as it is fleeting. I take out my camera but try not to hog too much of the window. It’s futile anyway. The airport shuttle’s speed and the night sky make clear shots impossible. I’ll be left with memories only slightly more clear than the ones I can keep in my head. I glue my face to the window, still trying to memorize the world outside. I wonder if I’ll have time in the morning to go outside and try to find that long stretch of stone, walk up to it, take a clear picture, touch it, feel other centuries in its rough surface, along with the passage of time.
But this is a flirtation, nothing more. The city glows orange and red. It stretches beyond comprehension, and I realize: Istanbul will never want for lovers. It can afford to be indifferent.
Ask me why I travel and I won’t know what to tell you. All I can say is that sleeping in a strange bed feels like potential to me, feels like home. It feels like opening the window on a new city street, and there’s a new language out there, and promises hidden behind it. The cities are portals. What I don’t know about Istanbul mirrors a part of myself that I cannot yet see, a part covered by fog, denying arrival or departure, denying knowledge. This unknown is keeping some part of me safe from sight, for another time, but it’s not the kind of safe that comforts me. It’s the kind of safe that festers. The kind of safe that makes the world just a bit flatter, a bit more gray.
The first time I went abroad, I went to Germany to visit a good friend of mine: Ruth, an exchange student from Leipzig whom I’d gone to high school with. I flew alone. Plans for another friend to join had fallen through, mainly because I was being dumb about a boy and she called me on it and we fought. Silly. I was a freshman in college, young and dumb and soon to realize that my friend was totally, 100% right, as they usually are. When she bailed, the same boy convinced me that airports were easy to navigate, that there are signs everywhere, and I still should go. In the end, I’m grateful to both of them.
I flew on Lufthansa from JFK to Leipzig, with a connection in Frankfurt. Ruth met me at the airport. Over the next two and a half weeks, we backpacked around Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, even went to Strasbourg, France, for a day. I rode trains, tried the beer—at nineteen I hadn’t quite acquired the taste for it yet—and butchered even the most basic German. But it was enough. It was all I needed. It was love.
I’ve been to France, I’d later tell people, but just for a day. Even then I knew how little that meant. But I could still tick it off the box, with a caveat: Just a day. I went back to France years later, for ten days as a chaperone on a high school French club trip, so the asterisk I marked that particular country with is gone. This is why I hesitate to even say I’ve been to Turkey. Nearly three years later, it still seems just out of reach.
Upon arriving at our hotel, a few in our group decide that the Turks are rude. Some of the other Americans in our group chatter among themselves, nervous, prepared to take offense. We’re so tired. I can’t blame them, though I want to. After rising early and leaving our hotel and beloved translator in Kathmandu, we faced a four-hour delay at Tribhuvan International Airport, where the seasonal fog rolls in on most mornings, prohibiting anyone from landing or leaving. In 2014, Turkish Airlines had only just started flying to Nepal. The Kathmandu-Istanbul route was new, and they didn’t know to account for the fog, which departs at its leisure. No one can say when that will be. We know this because we were delayed seven hours on the way in, when none of us knew each other and only knew to look for David and Malinda, who each wore a bright blue New Community Project t-shirt emblazoned in white: “JUSTICE: Can you see it?”
NCP is a nonprofit organization that focuses on gender justice and environmental sustainability. It regularly runs “learning tours,” mini-study abroad trips, in which David, the director, brings groups of social justice-minded individuals to learn about the work NCP and its host organizations are doing. It’s a very short-term way of getting beneath the surface of a country. We spent the next week and a half traveling around the Pokhara valley, hosted by Shakti Samuha, an anti-sex-trafficking organization run by formerly trafficked women. We visited villages, vocational schools, and safe houses, and met with the Women’s Skills Development Organization. We met small girls on NCP scholarships, who shyly sang traditional songs and shared their artwork with us. Malinda bought and learned to play a sarangi, a musical instrument from Nepal and India. It resembles a tiny cello but has a higher pitch. We hiked in the Himalayan foothills and visited tourist sites: Swayambhunath Buddhist Temple, where the monkeys run; Pashupatinath Hindu Temple, where families cremate their loved ones; Durbar Square.
Only Pashupatinath would survive the April 2015 earthquake, which killed more than 8,000 people and injured more than 21,000, relatively intact. Buildings in Durbar Square crumbled. Some of Swayambhunath’s structures crumbled, were left in disarray. Its treasures had to be protected from looters. One of the villages we visited, built into the side of a hill, was completely destroyed. Miraculously, only one person died, but people who had next to nothing now had even less. Only the Annapurnas looked on, indifferent.
When we finally said our goodbyes and boarded in late morning, back in Kathmandu, we flew for seven hours across western Asia and the Middle East, cramped in coach, inhaling recycled air. We are tired. Tired, and after starting out as strangers to each other touring a strange country, we are starting to be sick of each other, ready for some alone time, ready to start reverting back to our normal lives. When our tickets provide us each with our own room, no one complains. No one wants a slumber party now, myself included. I want a shower, some privacy, and a comfortable bed.
I look at the young, offending Turk who has come out from behind the desk to arrange us. He’s tall, slim, with dark hair and eyes. He has good posture, would be attractive if he smiled. He is a bit abrupt, impatient, but as I shift a wary glance around the lobby, I think of the many times I’ve waited on people as a bartender or barista. I decide that he most likely doesn’t relish the arrival of two airport shuttles at once, each bearing a gaggle of disoriented Western tourists, all of whom must be checked in to individual rooms, and none of whom seem particularly inclined to pay him any attention.
No one will leave the hotel with me. Reagan and Samantha, my best bets, had a layover here on their way over, saw the Blue Mosque and wandered the Grand Bazaar, where they were leered at and harassed by enthusiastic shopkeepers for being young and white and pretty. They have checked this city off the list. Done. There are other places.
And, at this point in the trip, can I blame them for wanting to rest here, of all places? We’re told the Turks are famous for their hotels. I don’t know if this is true, but upon walking into the Akgun, I believe it. The hotel is stunning. It is easily the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever stayed in, though admittedly, I’ve never been able to afford much. The five-star Akgun Hotel has the usual amenities, like TV, a pool, and a gym, but it also has its own spa, sauna, and Turkish bath. Artwork adorns the walls. Here, a white tile floor with a patterned design gleams under a high ceiling that overlooks the open dining room on the second floor. Warm, bright lighting casts the entire downstairs in a soft yellow glow. The lobby hosts an ample, comfortable sitting area with several black couches. I can’t imagine this location going for less than two hundred dollars per night at the cheapest.
We’re given room keys and meal vouchers, and a curved staircase leads us to the second floor, and the dining room, where hot food awaits us. Food. Another step. Meats and sauces. Fruit and dessert. I don’t know the names of anything, but it’s all fresh and natural and delicious. The rooms we stay in are simple but classy, even downright swanky compared to the modestly nice accommodations we’ve been used to on this trip, where we nearly always had hot water and Western toilets, and were happy for them.
Later, when I look up the price of the hotel, I find that rooms start as cheap as seventy dollars per night, depending on the season and the deal you find. The most expensive option does break two hundred dollars, for the deluxe family room with free breakfast and cancellation. Some reviewers suggest the most stars they’d give this place is three, and I wonder what their standards are. I wonder if this is, indeed, in its own way, a little bit of Turkey.
Despite the fact that Reagan and Samantha said they’d be reluctant to venture into the city alone, I don’t want to miss my chance. After dinner, around 9 p.m., I go back downstairs, still thinking of all that lies outside. A hotel employee mans the tourism table, and I decide this is as good a time as any to ask about venturing out. He’s an older man, probably in his sixties, but with a grandfatherly smile. He wears a crisp white shirt and tie under a black vest, and he smiles at me as I approach.
“Yes,” he says, though I haven’t said anything yet. “What can I do for you?”
I’m hesitant, unsure whether there will be a language barrier. “Hi. I was wondering—where is the Blue Mosque? From here? Is it far from the hotel?”
He shakes his head, still smiling. “No, not far at all, miss. Maybe half an hour by metro with walking. Less by cab. Very close.” His English is very good.
“Oh great,” I say, relieved. “When does it open?”
“Well,” he says. “It’s open all the time but it is closed to the tourists for the call for prayer. Middle of the morning is the best time, I think.”
“Oh.” My heart sinks. “We have to leave for the airport at ten, maybe we could go before?”
He repeats himself, but kindly. “That will be difficult, miss, because the mosque closes for the call to prayer. For one hour and a half each time. You will not be able to go in. It will still be opening, like many places. Mid-morning is better, if you can do it. Maybe you can stop on your way to the airport. It’s really quite beautiful.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see that someone else is waiting, to ask directions or with questions about the city, so I smile back at the man, whose name will slip away from me like so much else in this city. I thank him, and step aside.
In my hotel room that night, I press myself against another window that won’t open, crane my neck up and down, from right to left, checking all the angles available. Six stories up, the street still seems close enough to touch. It’s as though there’s a part of me out there, somewhere in the city, that must be reclaimed. I sense this with a clarity I never feel in my normal, day-to-day, Stateside life. There’s a part of me, a part of my heart out there in Istanbul—I just have to find it.
I think back to our drive over here, that long stretch of ancient beige. What was it? I examine my blurry pictures. On our drive, the structure looked like a large, long wall, so I log into the free wifi and look it up. I somehow decide it is the Valens Aqueduct. Its Turkish name is Bozdoğan Kemeri, or “Aqueduct of the Grey Falcon,” and it’s not Ottoman. It’s older. The Romans completed its construction in 368 AD to bring water to this city when it was called Constantinople. Its centerpiece now crosses Ataturk Bulvari, or boulevard, and traffic unimaginable at the time of its creation now streams through its archways. A piece of history. Another step toward truly being somewhere. It counts. The Valens Aqueduct. It seems close. Maybe in the morning I can walk to it. Alone in my hotel room, my heart flutters.
In the predawn light of morning, I wake early, jet-lagged. It’s shortly after six but I think it’s nearly nine. But something has changed. Suddenly, I’m wary of stepping out. I realize I’d be alone. I’d have three hours at most to get downtown and back. Alone. It’s a big city. I have no money. I don’t speak the language. We all have separate rooms and I don’t know where Malinda’s room is, or David’s. There’s no way to leave a note. No one would know where I had gone.
I freeze. Everything feels like it’s sinking. I want to be braver, to be the girl who ventures out at six to witness a city waking up, then scuttles back to the hotel by ten, ready for whatever’s next. I want to see my aqueduct—my aqueduct; it’s real, it’s out there, I saw it—but I think of Reagan and Samantha being leered at in the souk. I want to be braver, but I’m not. I decide it’s a bad idea. I toss and turn for a few more hours. At eight I get up and go to breakfast.
The shuttle arrives promptly at ten. We stumble back inside it and rush back to the airport, presumably the same way we came. But I have no memory of daylight striking the ancient city walls. Was I not by the window then? Was I sitting on the wrong side of the bus? Had the nerves and dread for our twelve-hour flight home already set in, lurching me into the future, toward another city I’ve never met? I can’t remember.
Later, from the airport windows, the sea of Marmara glitters. It’s a torment now laced with resignation, like the other places that have glinted at me through airport windows. But worse than the others, because of how close I was to almost touching it. To starting the relationship. There could be love there. I can taste it, taste it like the rich, gritty sludge of this country’s famous coffee, like pomegranates, like honey. It could be something that stays with me, that can tell my fortune lightly, like the draining grounds of an overturned demitasse cup.
It’s not until much later, back in the States, that I question the route we took from the airport to the Akgun Hotel. Track it on a map. It doesn’t add up, and a few quick Google searches instead inform me that while we were close to the aqueduct, it was not what we saw. What we saw, quite simply, were walls. Ancient city walls, also built by Emperor Constantine, among others, around the same time as the aqueduct, but meriting no such poetic names. The walls were meant to keep invading armies out. These walls have withstood wars, including the Fourth Crusade, and the Fall of Constantinople. They are still here. They will certainly withstand me.
This unfulfilled flirtation causes me to bump Istanbul high up on my travel list, before Scotland, before India, even before Peru. But my sense of this potential love is tenuous: When suicide bombs go off in the Sultanahmet tourist district in January 2016, I bump Istanbul down the list a bit. In March of that same year, when another bomb goes off on İstiklal Avenue in the city’s Beyoğlu district, a famous shopping and pedestrian section of the city, I bump it down a bit more.
I’m a seasoned traveler. I know that, statistically, me being injured by a terrorist attack in Istanbul is highly unlikely, akin to my plane crashing on the way there. Tourism is also a thirty billion dollar industry in Turkey, making up four percent of its economy. Thirty-eight million people visited in 2015, so the country has an interest in keeping its visitors safe. But I waffle. It somehow seems like an awfully big risk, despite the fact that I know better. And my internal debate continues, a debate so central to this kind of whiplash romance: Love, or fear? Even now, writing this, bringing up all my fuzzy recollections, my hopes persevere. The timing was wrong then, in 2014, but it could be right now. Possible. Worth it, if I can find a tipping point, a reason to go. As I conjure the feeling of being there, I feel the city’s lure flicker back to life, like a loved one waking up from a long sleep. This traveling, my one true love.
I think what I could say to Istanbul were such conversations possible. Think how to address a place’s spirit as though it’s as tangible as its streets. But I don’t know Istanbul, only one bed in one hotel that fed me, kept me warm, let me rest. But not the city’s heart, not its beating, bleeding center, not its lira, not its language. Yes, I breathed its air, walked on the sidewalk, ate the food. True, I saw something ancient and spoke to a few people who live there. And yet.
Istanbul, I want to say, I’m convinced that if only you really got to know me, we might have a chance.
These strange beds, myself their strangest bedfellow. There have been too many of these in my life to count. But never enough, Istanbul. Never enough.
Carolyn Keller is a writer and ESL teacher now working toward her PhD in English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University. Her travels have taken her across the U.S. three times, and to fifteen countries on four continents. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Susquehanna Life, Paterson Literary Review, and Pink Pangea. You can find her on Facebook here.