36 Hours in Istanbul
For several years, Istanbul and I have had a specific relationship status: It’s complicated. I was wary and suspicious; Istanbul knew I had good reason to be and didn’t want to come clean. The city straddling two continents represents a nation undergoing a century-long identity crisis, and it suffers erratic and unpredictable behavior as a result. Nevertheless, it hosts two international airports and serves as a primary hub for much of the flights in and out of the region; when I lived in Turkey, when I flew to Israel, and even now as I occasionally float in and out of the region, Istanbul is almost always my door to the rest of the world.
Not because I want it to be; again, we have a complicated relationship. The former Constantinople is, as far as I’m concerned, shadowed at best. Still, I finally put Istanbul in the Friend Zone last year and didn’t hesitate to book a round-trip through Istanbul a few weeks ago when a last-minute need to head home arose. When you live in-between the carnage of ISIS and the tempestuous Iran, Istanbul just doesn’t seem so bad. Besides—and I say this sensitively—Istanbul’s Ataturk airport (my airport of choice in this scenario) recently suffered a bombing attack, so when my mom expressed concern at my itinerary, I told her this was not only the cheapest airport to fly through at the moment, it was also the safest, with bulked security measures. What could possibly go wrong?
I had an extended overnight layover both on my way out and back in; flights in and out of my area are inconvenient at best, so I booked that leg separately and made arrangements to spend both nights at the Hilton up the road from the hotel—the layovers were too long to stay in the airport, and yet not long enough to get to my friends’ neighborhood across the Bosphorus and back in again.
The first sign of what would become a very long night was the thousands-long line at Passport Control, which of course was less than 50% staffed in airport rush hour (thanks, Istanbul!). There are a dozen booths with room for two agents; each had only one at best. I grew up going to theme parks annually and have literally never seen a snaked line move so slowly. Halfway through my line, as I reminded myself a king-sized bed waited at the end of my dreary rainbow, a sheet of fiberglass got pushed out of between railings and hit the floor—POP POP! quickly cut all conversations as bodies froze and eyes widened for a moment until we all realized it wasn’t a gun, we weren’t under attack, and for a split second a tired, overheated and overcrowded mass of weary travelers shared a collective sigh of relief and celebrated being alive.
That was the only humane moment of this particular layover.
After two hours, I finally make it to the e-visa line. I forgot my old Turkish residency card in Iraq, which is just as well because I’m pretty sure it expires soon, so I arranged an e-visa while I waited for my flight into Istanbul. This is new for Istanbul, these fancy e-visa things. You’d think it would expedite some kind of process.
After three hours, I make it to baggage claim. I love Jesus and live in a place I wouldn’t particularly choose because I want to love other people who don’t know about Jesus. Some would assume this makes me some kind of compassionate or kind person.
Make no assumptions and let me assure you, this Exhibit A in a poorly organized and mismanaged social experiment that could have caused a riot left me ready to punch anybody in the face. So I track down my checked bag, which is now in a pile because it had been going around the carousel for so long it had to be pulled off and stacked up by some stranger, and head to the rental car booth (travel hack: it is generally cheaper to rent a vehicle for a night than pay the cab fare to and from the hotel; however, on my second layover in Istanbul, I took a cab to the airport and it was 75% less than what I was originally quoted. Such is Istanbul, but whatever) where I meet a kind cab driver, Yasin, who proved my frugal theory correct that my rental was cheaper than his cab fare. But he was a nice guy whose family is from Kurdistan so he made sure the rental guys took good care of me and escorted me to the rental shuttle.
It literally took me the same amount of time to drive from my podunk village hometown to my airport and fly to Turkey as it did to get off the plane and into the hotel in Istanbul. So I finally get to my room, drop my bags and begin to decompress. I am welcomed by the sound of a dozen or so gunshots coming from the Bosphorus.
I decide very quickly not to mention this to anybody.
So I take a shower to wash the airport off of me, put on my pajamas and get ready for bed. I check my phone to see two news alerts that the Turkish military had shut down both bridges across the Bosphorus and I think to myself, 1) this can’t be serious and 2) good thing I didn’t go to my friends’ house. Quickly thereafter I get a text from a colleague in a group thread: There’s a military coup going on in Istanbul. Stephanie, where are you?
“At the Hilton in Istanbul, obviously.” Where else would I be while the Turkish military decides to throw their biggest party in decades?
Another chimes in: “There’s a tank in front of Ataturk.”
Again, This can’t be serious.
“You should head to the airport while you can still get in. Make sure you don’t get stuck.”
Fortunately, I have my getaway car. So I get out of my pj’s, look woefully at the king-sized bed loaded with pillows I didn’t get to use, pack back up and head to the lobby desk. The Hilton guy greets me.
“Yep.” I was just here checking in less than an hour ago.
Funny how a foreigner with broken English at best knows just the right word to confirm your mother’s fears.
“Airport is shut down. All flights are cancelled. Best thing for you to do is stay here in the hotel.”
I obey the Hilton guy with an impressive grip on American slang and take a look at their mini-market. There are a few types of frozen foods I would never eat and had no patience to babysit while they cooked in the toaster oven for three quarters of an hour, but there are only so many of them and now I’m wondering if we’re uncomfortably close to food delivery day at the Hilton. You just don’t know. It’s a Friday, so we’re now in the weekend in a Muslim-majority country. (I’m having really fantastic timing.) Nevertheless, I decide against a frozen food gamble—for now—and head back to my room, back to my pjs, and I watch the news while Erdogan gives his FaceTime PSA to the nation. It soon gets blasted and repeated from every minaret in the city, so now it’s getting noisy. And his thousands of supporters who hit the streets are driving like maniacs, flashing lights and beating their horns.
So much for sleep.
My mother is now one headline shy of a panic attack, and my national Embassy is uselessly not answering their phones. (The emergency line didn’t pick up for nearly 24 hours, and even then they themselves were misinformed. WAY TO GO, TEAM.)
Here’s the thing you need to know about military coups in Turkey: You want the military to come out on top. Erdogan is a thug and, at best, an enemy of democracy. He’s trying to strong-arm the EU, so of course Turkish media begins to report that he sought and was denied asylum in Germany—Germany—but what no one is discussing is the fact that Erdogan just shut down all objective media outlets and kept open only his puppets. So the rule in the early hours of the coup is don’t believe anything you hear.
By 2:30am, we’re a few hours into the coup and Western media is reporting that social media has been shut down—not beyond Erdogan—but I’m literally sitting in Istanbul scrolling through Facebook every time I hear it. So again, don’t believe everything you hear.
It’s now when I’m supposed to be waking up to head back to the airport, but I finally force myself to go to sleep; it’s leaked to friends and family that I’m conveniently caught in the middle of this thing. I’ve been answering messages for hours reassuring everyone that I’m pretty sure I’m fine—for now—and this is either going to blow over very quickly or get very complicated very quickly and you just don’t know. So I’ve decided if it really hits the fan, I’m taking my two bags and American passport in my getaway rental across the border to Bulgaria and flying out of Sofia. Done.
So I finally get to troubled sleep, and wake up at 4:30 to what could have only been an explosion. (Turns out something went off on a bridge.) Jets are flying low overhead. So I go look out my window, and it’s like nothing is the matter. Traffic has died down, and the Hilton guys are outside smoking cigarettes. Whatever it is, I think, it can’t be that bad. I’ll go to Bulgaria when they drop their cigarettes and run.
I sleep for another hour or so before I wake up to news that Erdogan—who was on holiday down south and never attacked during the coup—has landed in Istanbul-Ataturk (yes, the one the army took over hours before and set a tank in front of barring me from my flight home but don’t believe everything you hear) and was holding a press conference announcing the failure of the coup and security of what he likes to call Turkish democracy.
So the casualties so far are 1) my flight and 2) Turkish democracy.
In any event, we no longer have to sit on standby and I saunter downstairs for breakfast. (Note: Hotel food is neither cheap nor good.) The coffee isn’t as bad as it could be in Turkey—which is pretty bad and undrinkable—so I help myself to a couple mugs and eat some cheese and olives. When in Rome. Now I just need to 1) call Air France 2) see if the Embassy has decided to answer the phones yet and 3) assure my mother I’m still alive.
Eventually, after several phone calls, new flights and newly cancelled flights, I’m put out on a flight the next day that is running four hours early and Air France assures me that plane will get off the ground. So I go swim some laps in the Hilton pool, take a nap, and eventually head to the airport with hours to spare.
I have T-Mobile, so I get questionable service in the States and fantastic service in Turkey. Unless there’s a political collapse, in which case I get dodgy 3G at best. And I got no news alerts that Turkey was holding a pro-Erdogan pep rally (which are very strange events) at Istanbul-Ataturk.
Why wouldn’t you?!
This means my ten minute drive to the airport becomes an hour, and airline passengers are ditching their cabs and walking. I, however, have my rental getaway car I have to return and suffer through the traffic jam eerily reminiscent of my Passport Control experience for an hour. But I get it returned, I get to the airport, I toss out my baller pocketknife so I can carry my bag on, and get to my gate—full of poor souls who’ve lived in the airport since the coup broke out.
I had to fly back through Istanbul last weekend, and the Hilton desk guys and I are fast friends. The government didn’t (supposedly) collapse on itself, and I made it home between the ISIS crazies and Iran.
All’s well that ends well.