Loaded with copious notes and tips about what to do on our five-day trip to Turkey, we arrived at Istanbul’s International Ataturk Airport one sunny Saturday morning.
The first impression of a country is always its airport; ours got off to quite a shaky start. Of five open foreign exchange counters, none was willing to exchange our traveller’s cheques. Excuses ranged from “my computer is not working” to “my manager hasn’t come in yet”. Wherever we tried to argue, the teller would throw his arms up and mutter incomprehensibly. Exasperated, we headed for the taxi reservation counter.
Haggling for a taxi in Turkish (we assumed), a woman soon broke off her conversation, turned sharply towards us and told us, in English, that we were being hustled.
She suggested we share a cab with her and her brood—sleeping over their haphazard mountain of luggage nearby—since they were going the same way. We hesitated. After all, when you’re from India, thoughts of tricksters and con artists are never far. However, after a quick assessment of Abby and her family (of three adorable kids), we abandoned our don’t-trust-a-stranger viewpoint and pronounced them harmless.
We headed into town, in a tangle of human limbs—a style, little did we know, we were soon to become accustomed to. Abby, we soon discovered, was the most disorganized soul we’d ever known.
Quite the adventuress, she’d come from her home in New Jersey to embark on a two-month expedition with her two children and niece, aged nine to 17. Being of Jordanian descent, she’d brought her family on a trip to explore their roots. Which was a great plan, except that there was no plan. For two hours, we drove around town trying to find Abby a hotel, finally ending up at spiffy Hotel Divan, where we had pre-booked a room. We then went our separate ways and spent the day walking around, getting acclimatized and discovering that Istanbul is quite full of folks happy to shortchange or overcharge you.
On the way back to the hotel, we bumped into Abby and her flock and, within minutes, she had convinced us that she knew the best way around Istanbul and would be our trusty guide.
Day two included cursory tours of Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and other must-sees, where we quickly fell in love with our new friends. Quirky and dangerous, they lived on the edge, staunchly refusing to let us pay for a guided tour, preferring to casually saunter around a group who had paid for one, and running back to the rest to deliver the goods. In the Abby-way, we finished the touristy-historical portion of Istanbul on day two and decided to take on the Bosphorus.
Horrified that we considered it perfectly acceptable to pay €50 (Rs2,800) each for a cruise up the Bosphorus, Abby disappeared into the crowded pier and returned shortly with a ferry/water-bus schedule and an ancient local Turkish woman in tow. For only about €10 (Rs574) each, she promised, we were going to do something light-years better than our stuffy €50 cruise. And we did. For the next few hours, we hopped across the Bosphorus to Cubuklu and hung out at the ancient Turkish woman’s house, where she plied us with fresh watermelon (“for the heat”) and displayed her organic tomatoes and embroidered towels. We followed that up with a delicious lunch, at the local haunt under a 1,000-year-old tree, of d oner kebab, and sliced rotisserie lamb piled into a local baguette with tomato and onion, served with a heavenly garlic-yogurt sauce. After lunch, we journeyed to Beykoz, where we lolled at the waterfront, feeding the gulls, while Abby and our new companions, the Turkish lady and her grand-daughter, searched for a “captain” to take us the rest of the way (our destination: the tip of Istanbul, where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea).
“Captain” finally arrived. A wrinkled old man and his schooner. He promised to deliver us unscathed to Anadolu Feneri, where we could enjoy a traditional seafood dinner washed down with a trough of arak. Turkey is a seafood lover’s paradise and our meal (€20 each or Rs1,150) was no disappointment. The waiter did us well by recommending the stew, which was a creamy tomato-based medley of scallops, fish and calamari, and the fried sardines. Arak, “lion’s milk” to the locals, is a clear aniseed flavoured liquor that is diluted with ice or water at the table, which turns it a milky opaque (hence, the term “milk”) and has a punch that makes every other alcoholic beverage you’ve consumed pale in comparison. True to its reputation, the first glass goes down slowly, particularly if aniseed is not your cup of tea. But the more you have, the easier it goes down, which may not be such a good thing when it hits you an hour later on a bumpy boat ride back home! After we reduced our dinner to a tinder-esque pile of fish bones, we realized that Captain’s schooner had no lights.
The arak might have had something to do with our casual reaction to this predicament, but luckily, the moon was full and the sea calm. Somewhat sober, Captain used our pocket-sized torch to alert passing ships of our presence and we sputtered down the sea, sticking close to the coast, everyone on the boat keeping an eye out for capsize-potential waves and ships that could run us over.
Captain was the man of the hour, as he swung his vessel around to avoid waves and rocks. Abby smoked her menthol cigarettes with the Turkish lady and sang unmelodious songs that we couldn’t understand. It was perfect. She’d been right. One hundred euros could not have bought us such a unique experience.
The next two days flew by. We spent an evening playing backgammon and smoking flavoured hookahs around Taksim Square, walked around aimlessly, stopping where we felt like, getting lost in the labyrinth of streets. If you love glass, Pasabahce, a chain of Turkish glass shops, is paradise. I frequented two, one at Taksim Square and the other at the Kanyon Shopping Mall, where we joined the locals in celebrating Istanbul’s latest Western addition—a Haagen Dazs store.
Abby’s amazing philosophy of unplanned-ness and spontaneity was entirely rejuvenating. We watched amazed as she repeatedly disappeared into a sea of people, and her kids, minutes later, their homing pigeon instinct perfect, would dive in after her (with us in tow) and find her.
With no scepticism, of the un-explored, she taught us how to have a great trip without the usual pre-mapped routine. How glad we were we’d waylaid our perfect, upscale plans and leaped in to holiday with a crazy, Turkish-speaking American of Jordanian descent.