I curled in an airport seat around 1am Paris-time, waiting for my flight to Turkey, woke at 3am to the airport security preparing for the day.
A 3-hour layover in Poland turned into a 7-hour layover in Poland, and I watched the sky turn to rain then sun again.
I slept on the plane until the announcement for Istanbul shook me awake to the oceans and setting sun. Saturday evening approached over us and under us as the pilot steered into descent. Every boat on the water below glowed, leaving white brushstrokes on the golden-gray canvas of waves.
Until I found Zennur and her boyfriend waiting at the arrivals gate, I was simply walking because I had to keep walking. Not because I wanted to. Exhausted as I was, I couldn’t even put the thought together that I had made it (truly and fınally) Iceland–> Netherlands–> France–> Turkey after 2 months of planes and trains and over 30 new acquaintances in the world of women’s rights. Yet, as I recognized Zennur from the picture she had sent me, we kissed cheeks like reunited old friends, and I felt my energy explode. I was here! Safe and welcome.
We drove along the old walls, past the mosques and towers, over the strait and along the sea, ate a 10-course Turkish meal, drank Raki until we were laughing and eating ice cream as we wandered homeward. Turkey, I felt enchanted and I fell asleep in the humidity under the open window.
Sunday night found us amiably sharing Dominos pizza on a top-story balcony in an old lady’s home, watching the sunset on the sea of Marmara. Gentle contentment swarmed around as I listened to them chuckle in Turkish and throw an English sentence in for me once in a while. Contentment, built on afternoon spent munching roasted chickpeas in the living room and admiring handmade artisan jewelry as we drank strong fruit cocktails and I practiced saying ‘Thank you.’ Zennur, with a thrilled hand gesture, said I spoke the language without an accent. Teşekkür ederim, I replied.
Yet, the morning found me intimidated at the prospect of tackling this 17.2 million person city on my own and the fact that I could say ‘Thank you’ flawlessly didn’t help. Interviews take a lot of strength. That’s my way of admitting I’m scared every time I arrive in an foreign place with my backpack and conviction to meet total strangers in tangled foreign streets and to dare them to give me their trust and story. I dash into the unknown like it’s familiar, and I’m fearless, but I’m only relying on good faith, and I am scared. What is bigger than the qualms, though, is my sheer obstinate desire to prove that I am stronger and bigger than the hesitation.
So, I argued myself out to the corner where the dolmuş runs on a line into the city center, and I was packed into the yellow van with 7 Turks plus the driver. This I must explain. The dolmuş is a shared taxi that costs a few dollars and goes non-stop into town, but you’re sitting on two narrow benches with no seatbelts. I was in the middle bench, so those in the backseat were passing their fare to me to pass to the driver, and then I’d pass their change back to them (this continued the whole drive as people got on and off). Most precariously, the driver leaves the wide van door open to pick up passengers along the way. Thus, this rattling van is ripping aggressively along the highly-trafficked roads, honking, and passengers are jumping in and out without hesitation as it swings up to a corner or traffic light and we’re cruising with the wind in our hair until he shuts the door to get onto the highway. Then, suddenly, we’re crossing the Bosphorus strait on the suspension bridge, and we arrive at the final stop, Taksim square, and those who are left pile out into the crowds.
I immediately stumbled upon a street name I recognized from my research, and I had a suspicion a women’s association was there. It was one of the places I had read about but no one had replied to my emails for an interview. I checked my notebook (always at hand), and I was right, so I stopped by. I snuck into the gated building following a local, instinctively up 6 stories until I found the small plaque indicating the association, rang the doorbell. They were gracious, gave me brochures, a canvas bag, and a promise for an interview this week.
Following the rendez-vous, I went for a wander, off the hectic square to the side streets where it’s instantly quiet, and two young men chased a loose dog, veiled women sat on stools and watched the children tear across the cracked pavement. Middle-aged men leaned in the doors of empty convenience stores. I again recognized the address of a women’s rights organization from my research, only this time the door I found was broken, the sign was dusted, as were the windows. An untouched mess of dirt crowded the stoop. I guess they were out of business.
I bought a paper at a newspaper stand because the cover headline arrested me, New war casualty: Women’s liberties. It’s the first real newspaper I’ve held in my hands since I was living at home (how the Internet changes media), and I devoured it in a cafe.
Then, with a craving to stand along the sea and feel the wind, I followed my nose downhill, down, down, down until there was just a line of buildings between me and the waves. The buildings broke into the stench of fish, puddles, crashing water along breakers, men with fishing poles reeling in minuscule catches, and a restaurant where a man soliciting customers stops me. I take off my headphones instead of waving him away, surprising myself, and he offers me apple tea on the house. ‘I like when people visit my country.. apple tea from the house… try it once, never forget it 14 years.’ We chatted as I sat along the water and drank the tea, shook hands goodbye.
Back uphill, the smell of cooked corn cobs and giant pretzels overwhelmed the falling night. I met a woman for an interview at 9pm. She treated me to fresh lemonade as we talked on a restaurant terrace.
I caught the dolmuş home, fearlessly, happily, and I hiked to the top-floor apartment–home– to feel satisfied. My day and apprehensions gone.