We tested Istanbul today, setting out unguided to check out the Basilica Cistern, a Byzantine era water storage facility built under the city. We stumbled with every move. First, we had to check out of our apartment and find the hotel that the owner manages so we could stash our luggage. It was about 1 mile away, and we’ve got a fair amount of luggage, and taxi rides are cheap, so we hopped in a car. The combination of language barrier and ancient city with a million alleyways jammed with people, cars, cats, and motorcycles resulted in us being dropped off about a mile from the hotel, but in the opposite direction. A local guy who spoke English could see our plight, told us we couldn’t actually get to that hotel by cab from our current location (Mainers will recognize this as “you can’t get there from here”), and pointed us in the right direction.
It was hot. We made it to where we thought the hotel was. No sign of it. We asked a clerk at another hotel. No clue. We’re sweating hard now, we’re carrying all this luggage. It’s a really busy street, gridlock is setting in, lots of honking horns. My iPhone with a Turkish SIM card isn’t working. We ask another clerk, turns out he’s from New Jersey. I’m originally from New York, so every cell in my body is begging me not to ask this guy for directions. So Heather does, and he takes us about 10 steps and there’s the hotel we’re looking for, a tiny sign on a tiny door. In a sea of tiny signs on tiny doors in a city of millions.
Luggage stashed, we take a another cab to the area near the Cistern, which is also one of the busiest tourist areas of the City, and Friday is the busiest day of the week there. We haven’t eaten yet. We’re dripping with sweat. A carpet seller lures us into his shop, and a hundred hot wool rugs are thrown at our feet. Hot tea is offered. We run out of there, find a restaurant, recharge. We tour the cisterns, buy a tapestry from a Kurdish shop, and realize we are running late. Our flight to Bodrum is in three hours. Minimum 30 minutes back to hotel, then an hour drive to smaller airport on the Asian side of the city. Yet again, we are dropped off a mile from the hotel. We ran, grabbed luggage and another cab, and just barely make it onto the plane.
While all of this may sound like a drag, a day like this is extremely useful to us. We’re scouting this trip for future guests, so every mistake is information we need to make decisions about the construction of a future trip here. About visiting Istanbul, we learned:
1. You cannot rely on cabs to get you to your exact destination.
2. The language barrier can compound existing problems such as thirsty, hungry, lost.
3. Account for lots of additional traffic time on Fridays.
4. Don’t rely on just 1 method of navigation or communication. Have a hard copy map, two working phones.
5. Keep drinking water and eating snacks and apply sunblock often or you will crash hard here.
What this really boils down to is that we now know that SwimVacation cannot start this trip in Istanbul without lots of local help. We have that covered with the company we toured with yesterday. Mission accomplished.
Back to our day, we fly to Bodrum. Turkish Airlines wows us again. They are an asset for us now and for future trips. We roll into town on a bus, tired, weary, thirsty, our phones on 5% charge. We’re supposed to meet our local fixer somewhere, but we can’t find his address or phone number in the 374837539104 documents and emails and texts on our persons (quick addition by Heather here – not having fixer contact info was my bad!).
We remember he suggested we get to the Harbor, so we walk the mile there, and encounter our first Syrian refugees. This issue has been weighing heavily on us since reports first surfaced several weeks ago, and the tragic drownings that have occurred here. And now, here they are, right in front of us, amid throngs of European and Turkish tourists. My thoughts:
The first thing I notice is that Syrian refugees are not bedraggled. They are generally not begging. These aren’t chronically poor or drug abusing or homeless people. These are war refugees, and they are doing exactly what we’d be doing in their situation; getting themselves and their families as far from the violence as possible and trying to find a better life somewhere. Seeing them breaks my heart. I feel helpless, disappointed in the world. The isn’t a sense of urgency here. I feel safe. The sight of refugees in a fancy Mediterranean resort city is contradictory, confusing, perplexing. I’m glad we didn’t cancel the scouting trip due to this issue. That doesn’t solve anything. I haven’t really digested all of it, probably never will, but I’ll keep writing and thinking and talking about it.
We found our local fixer, Don Austin-Frey. 6 feet tall, big shock of white hair, piercing blue eyes. We all hug, the connection is immediate. He’s putting us up, and shows us around the amazing stone house and gardens he’s built. We jump in the pool to cool off and wash off the day. Don makes shrimp curry, local chilled wines are consumed. The refugees are still on my mind. We talk about free diving, shipwrecks, travel, our families. Don was a huge part of one of the most important underwater archaeological finds in history, a bronze-age ship that was carrying a load of precious metals. He gives tours at the local museum, as well as at least a hundred other things. We plan the next few days. Tomorrow we start looking at Gulets.