Istanbul, continued (Days 29, 30)

7.04.2014

"Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. 'But which is the stone that supports the bridge?' Kublai Khan asks. 'The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,' Marco answers, 'but by the line of the arch that they form.' Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: 'Why do you speak to me of stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.' Polo answers: 'Without stones there is no arch.'" — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

We fled to Asia; it seemed appropriate to outrun our shame. Abby had never been to Asia; I'd been once but far on its other end. A ferry across the Bosporus cost two euros, so why not?

We arrived on Istanbul's Asian side, which I found underwhelming and Abby seemed to like maybe a little more than I did. It felt more Western than the European side, ironically: very new with shiny glass buildings and fancy designer stores. But it was calmer, quieter, and we both welcomed the recess it offered from the nonstop noise of Istanbul's European shores.

I don't think we actually did anything while in Asia, just walked, walked great laps around empty neighborhoods, kilometers of footsteps tacked onto an already impressive count earlier that day. We found a few parks, I suppose. The first centered on a semicircle of Ottoman heroes over the past millennium: Ataturk, obviously, but really anyone who had a hand in ever conquering and land and people anywhere the Ottomans once ruled, Attila and Barbarossa and about a dozen other sultans of violence and ego and death. Neither they nor their statues interested me ("Many are concerned with the monuments of the East and West," Thoreau once wrote, "for my part, I would like to know in those days was above such trifling"), but what did interest me in that clearing were the cats who lurked behind the statues. There were about a dozen of them, maybe a few more, maybe the exact number of cats as statues, and the way they slinked between and about the busts struck me as peculiar. They were bold, too: they came up to us, and purred as they were pet, and as I whipped out my camera to photograph the strangeness of those feral felines, they all descended upon a crouching Abbilyn and climbed all about her, up onto her knees and over her arms and atop the pack on her back, where one cat sat proudly up as though he were surveying his kingdom from the seat of his throne. The reincarnated spirits of the dead sultans, I guessed.

The next park we found was a little less mystical. It went by the name of "Democracy Park" and looked a bit like democracy does after its shiny luster wears off: outdated and dilapidated, as though those who once cared about it had since forgotten to care for it. It was dreary, but we could hear something going on in the distance, faint rock riffs rising up onto the park's elevated basin. We descended and found a small crowd gathered inside of a fenced-off circle; the banners read "100% Fest" and headlined with Savage Garden. Amused, we hovered by the fence for a moment too long and a security guard hurried over to inform us that we couldn't be on the grass, that the music festival and the smooth sounds of Savage Garden were for paying guests only, and that it was our duty, as non-paying guests, to remove ourselves from the audio overflow of the venue by extricating ourselves from the center of Democracy Park, that merely remaining outside of the fences wasn't enough. People really are silly sometimes.

By dinnertime we were positively famished, having sustained ourselves on nothing more than street snacks the whole day through. Abby suggested sushi—not because we were in Asia, but just as a little comfort food we'd gone a while without—and we searched on my phone and found a place two kilometers away, yet it didn't seem to exist when we arrived and we were then two kilometers more famished, and quickly things fell apart from there, a terrible hour spent wandering from storefront to storefront in search of anything that we could translate into English and ensure was vegan, anything that would pack our starving bodies with calories.

We'd walked nearly seventeen miles, my pedometer had informed us, with our search for sustenance adding another few, and finally we simply gave up, collapsing into the next establishment we found, an "American rock bar" by the name of Rock & Rolla, every bit as bad as you might expect. I ordered a veggie burger and Abbilyn a burger-burger and we waited, too exhausted to even speak, for our food to arrive. Five minutes, nothing; ten minutes, nothing; twenty minutes, nothing. Each time we asked for an update on our plates, the waiter would meekly glance up from his phone and shrug, terribly unhelpful, and just as we decided to pack our things and leave, the meals arrived. They were good, I'll admit—though anything would have been good at that point—so we scarfed down our burgers and left for the ferry, an appropriately anticlimactic end to our Asian (non)adventure.

Back on the European side, we hit land and walked from the dock back to Taksim, a long but rewarding route that we'd come to know well during our week there. It was our last night in Turkey, so we closed it out the same way we'd opened our first, with a little live Turkish folk music at that same neighborhood bar.

Weary but excited, we arrived and spotted a table outside, and the server, our very same one from the other night, greeted us with a hearty smile and ushered us to our seats. We ordered a round of drinks and chatted amongst ourselves about travel plans for tomorrow, interrupted a few moments later by the owner of the bar, who had come by simply to say hello, welcome us back, and offer us that same homey handshake we'd seen him greet the locals with a few days prior. It was a tiny gesture, really, and I'm sure he thought little of it, but it meant the world to me, shaking hands with him like that. Perhaps, after nearly a month as a stranger in a strange land, it was nice to just be recognized, to be acknowledged as a face that had been remembered—not just another hapless tourist intruding on Turkish traditions, but as a traveler, a pair of travelers, who were seen as people, not pocketbooks.

The music was phenomenal, as we'd come to expect. We stayed around a while, but those twenty miles had taken a toll on us, so we retreated some time later, playfully resisting the owner's pleas for us to stay a little longer, and skipped the few steps back through midnight Turkish rain (always with the midnight Turkish rain) to our cozy apartment.

***

Our flight was early the next evening, which left us some time to take in one last great Turkish wonder. On our way into the city, we'd driven underneath some impressive ruins, which we later read were the old Theodosian Walls protecting Constantinople. So it seemed fitting to catch them again on our way out, and with a whole day to kill, maybe for a little more than a few seconds passing underneath.

We packed our things and left our little apartment and set out for a long walk through Beyouglu and Fatih, through busy streets and quiet riverside, through quiet streets and busy riverside, and I wasn't really sure where we were going but steered us west anyway, hoping that we would eventually just, well, hit the wall.

And we did ... such is the great thing about once-walled cities: if the walls are any good, they shouldn't be hard to spot on the city's perimeter. We were at the water's edge, and the walls towered high above us, so we banked left and followed the wall south, traced its trajectory through parks and plazas and overgrowth, through tightly-knit neighborhoods that made us feel a little too intrusive and packed highways that made us feel a little too exposed. Finally, some halfway down the Fatih peninsula, we found ourselves a stone staircase leading up to the ruin—it was in good condition for a ruin, not quite crumbling, but certainly not open for tourism, either—and we climbed the unmarked steps to, once again, find ourselves on a breathtaking platform of centuries past.

It afforded spectacular views of all of Istanbul, and spectacular views of itself snaking up toward the Golden Horn, and from its edge one could see dozens of domes with their magical minarets, one could see Asia in the distance if she squinted and the airport in the other direction if she searched for the planes arcing upward like little birds in the sky. One could look up and see a bright red Turkish flag flapping in the wind up on the wall's top tower, and if one was daring enough, one could climb up to that tower for a closer view of Turkey's treasures.

There's a reason the wall wasn't marketed to tourists: it just wasn't built for them. The stone staircase with which we climbed the wall was steep and unrailed and definitely inaccessible, but wholly manageable for most. The steps to the tower, by contrast, weren't really steps at all, just narrow six-inch holds that had to be carefully climbed—like, actually climbed—all hands and feet and hands again. And though it wasn't a difficult climb for anyone who has found themselves at the receiving end of a belay device, really just a fifteen-foot scramble up an eighty-degree incline, it was a dangerous one: a slight misstep or slip would surely land the clumsy climber on the solid stone below, and shortly thereafter in a Turkish hospital with a broken ankle or a broken spine or worse.

Fortunately, we were careful, and hoisted ourselves over the wall's upper edge onto the tower's landing, which then took us the tower itself, just a simple circle with a proud star and crescent waving above and a vertigo-inducing pit dropping precipitously in its center. And all around the tower's parapets, more spectacular views of the massive Ottoman city. We saw more wall further south, more wall ripe for climbing, but I checked the time and realized with alarm that it was already four, that our little excursion had eaten away at the whole day and that our flight was leaving in just over two hours, and there we were atop a Theodosian ruin, very far from the seat of a plane indeed.

Abby and I scurried down the wall and hurried to a main road, where we discussed whether it'd be quicker to just flag a cab or walk the twenty minutes to the subway and board a train to the airport from there. Cabs were everywhere, and though we'd managed the trip without cabs thus far, though I really prefer to avoid cabs whenever possible, time was of the essence, a timely arrival in Amsterdam was of the essence, so I stuck my hand out and flagged the next cab rolling along.

We hopped inside and mimed airport, one palm flat and the other hand whooshing away from it, the universal language, and he got the idea and hit the gas and we barreled ahead to the highway, where we promptly stopped, and sat ... and sat.

Turkish traffic was a nightmare. We'd seen it that whole week,  but then again we'd been footbound and free to avoid it, but now we were in a cab, on our way to the airport, on a Saturday evening, in Istanbul, and our cab was driving us away from the subway with its quick underground service, and so now, my silly decision all at fault, we were stuck.

We sat there and watched the meter tick, but more concerningly watched the time tick, and we got all fidgety and restless looking at the map, looking at how far we were from Ataturk Airport and its punctual planes. It's not that we were very far in distance, I should say; absent traffic, a drive to the airport should have taken twenty minutes, which is why I opted for that in the first place. But we'd been in the cab ten minutes and had moved under a mile, and at that rate, we'd still be in the cab as the plane sealed its doors, and as we taxied toward it, it would taxi toward the runway, and certainly, it'd be long gone before we arrived at Ataturk, before we could even run all sweaty and frazzled to the gate and be told sorry and turned away.

I think the cabbie sensed our urgency, or maybe he just wanted to get out of the traffic as badly as we did, for he yanked us off the highway at the next exit, rocketing off the ramp and swerving sharply onto narrow urban streets, across tiny alleys and busy backroads, north and west and south and west and south and south and west again, racing through Istanbul's haphazard urban plan like Ms. Pacman: never stopping, always turning, ever outrunning the ghosts of time.

I watched the little blue dot on my phone crawl westward. This city is so fucking big! I thought, unable to believe that the progress we seemed to be making in the real world was translating to mere millimeters on the small screen of my phone. More turns, more dead ends, a truck blocking the road here and a pack of kids kicking a football driving us to a hard brake here, and all the while more minutes ticking by.

Finally, we hit the airport's access road, a straight shot south that, unlike that gridlocked highway out of the city, was empty and uncongested. The engine roared as the driver pulled us into second and third and, for the first time, fourth gear, and we smiled hopefully as we raced into fifth, as we flew underneath the grand Ataturk sign welcoming us to the airport, as we stopped at our departure gate and thanked the cabbie profusely and rushed inside to security.

All told, we were in the cab for a little over an hour, and we paid a little over forty dollars, and while it seemed a real nail-biter the whole way through, we still had about an hour to work our way through the airport and board the plane, and I'd already checked in as we sat in traffic, so things were looking pretty good. And they were good: no real problems at security, what with the spork gone and all, and no real problems after that, and we somehow managed to arrive at the gate before the doors even opened and found enough time to spend our remaining Turkish lira on muffins and plane snacks and board the plane calmly and coolly, no dramatic last-minute plea for mercy.

We touched down in Holland after ten. Not wanting to navigate nervously to the city center so late, knowing we'd be weary and tired-eyed upon our arrival, we'd booked ourselves a nice hotel right near the airport. It was cute, at least as far as airport hotels go, and though we'd hoped to reward ourselves with a late-night soak or swim in the hottub or pool, both closed well before our arrival. Dismayed, we settled on showers instead, and then we slept, the sounds and smells and sights of Turkey fading into nothing but a memory in our minds.

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