Saturday, 11 October 2014

Turkish Delight: Disappointment

(I traveled to Turkey for vacation during first half of July,2014. Following is an account of my experiences in Ankara/Istanbul. This is the ninth installment of the series, involving an aerial journey to Istanbul and a missed flight to Cappadokia. Later I hung out with a Kurdish fellow and had a jolly good time. I hope you enjoy it)

I woke up fairly early on my last day in Ankara and was ready to get down to the airport by 8 am. My Turkish friend Yigit had promised to pick me up on his way to the airport. My flight was supposed to leave at 9:30 am. Yigit picked me a bit later than we expected him. I bid my Pakistani friend goodbye and thanked him profusely for his hospitality.

During our long journey to the airport(which is quite far from downtown), we had a good chat.I told Yigit about the number of cousins I had and how my mother used to cook when we hosted an annual party, about population explosion in Pakistan and how the population of only Punjab province is larger than whole population of turkey. We also talked about conspiracy theory culture in Pakistan and turkey (his master’s thesis was on conspiracy theories while I have written about this topic for many years). We reached the Ankara Airport just in time for me to check-in at the last moment. Pegasus airlines has the cutest pre-flight instruction videos, involving kids only. I wish more airlines used a "human" touch like that. The flight went seamlessly and I was at Sabiha Gökçen Airport, Istanbul by 10:15 am. I later discovered that “Sabiha Gökçen” was the name of Ataturk’s adopted daughter who was a fighter pilot. The airport is located almost 55 Kilometers away from Ataturk Airport from where I had a flight booked for Cappadokia. I was supposed to be there within 2 hours till the check-in counter closed. I had two options: Either take the Havataş bus service which left from Sabiha Gökçen to Taksim every 30 minutes and took almost 1.5 hours, or I could take a Taxi which would’ve cost more but was supposed to be faster.When I exited the airport, the 10:30 Havataş shuttle was full so I could either wait for the 11:00 am bus (and pay 19 TL) or ride into one of the Taxis.
I chose the later option and took the first available Taxi out of Sabiha Gökçen. I was unfortunate because the driver didn’t understand English and my Türkçe was not good enough to get across my message. I asked him to drop me off at the nearest Tram stations (which, in any case was pretty far) but he took me to Kabataş. The roads were very crowded and it took us almost 80 minutes to reach Kabataş station. His meter showed 85 TL, but he charged me 96 TL due to some stupid reason. I was in too much hurry to argue with him at that point. I recharged my Istanbulkart and took the Tram to Yusufpaşa from where I took the Aksaray-Havalimani line. In hindsight, I should’ve changed the trams at Zeytinburnu but I was in full panic mode at that time. The tram reached Ataturk International Airport at 12:26 pm. I ran like crazy towards the Domestic Departures lounge which is on the second floor. By the time I arrived at the check-in counter, I was 10-15 minutes late and check-in counter had been closed. I talked to a Turkish Airlines representative who informed me that I had lost the flight and my only option is to get a new ticket from their office.

I found Turkish Airline’s office on the same floor and waited for almost 40 minutes before I got a chance to exchange my ticket at the counter. I was informed that I had to pay 200 TL if I wanted the ticket on next flight to Cappadokia. I had previously paid the same amount for a return ticket and this felt too expensive (considering that I was looking forward to an air-balloon ride which cost almost 350 TL). I pondered over my options for a moment and decided that it was too much of an investment, and asked for a refund. I got 93 Liras back and I walked away dejected. I had gotten hotel booking through my Iranian friend in Istanbul but this was an unexpected turn of events so I decided to call my friend and get the reservation for another night. With a heavy heart, I strolled back and took the tram. I was extremely tired after the panic-ride on taxi and tram followed by the airport hassle. On my way to Isteklal (where my new Otel was based), I decided to take a detour of Sultanahmet and catch up with my new friends, the Ask Me volunteers. I had missed them immensly during the Ankara visit. I grabbed a Tavuk Doner from a nearby shop and reached the Hippodrome arena. I met Doğukan, Ahmet and some other volunteers near the entrance of Old Bazaar. I recounted my tragic tale of missing the flight due to terrible traffic and how I decided to stay another day in my favorite city.
After spending an hour or so with the volunteers, I collected my luggage and took the tram to Karakoy and the Tunel from there. My next hotel was located in Asmalimescit Cadessi, at walking distance from Isteklal. I was welcomed in the hotel by the reception guy with an impromptu rendition of "Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan"(means Long live Pakistan, a famous anthem back home). I was allotted a room on the 4th floor and thankfully, there was Wi-Fi availability in the room. I rested for a while and then decided to take a detour of Isteklal Cadessi.  

On my way back from Taksim I square I found the stall of a socialist party (it had a long name which I don’t recall but their flag called for promotion of socialism, income equality and feminism). They didn't have anyone there with English language skills so a Kurdish guy became my interpreter. They showed me their newspaper (more of a newsletter actually) and despite the language barrier, were quick to dissociate themselves from "Turkish Communist Party". Later on, I accompanied the Kurdish guy across Isteklal and we ended up having a long conversation about Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraq.He told that he was studying cinema at Erbil University and was working in the youth and culture ministry of KRG. He was in Istanbul to work in a stage production. One was his brothers was in the Peshmerga force (KRG's national army) and he showed me a lot of pictures of Peshmagras and himself in a Peshmerga outfit (as he had portrayed them in a drama).
He mentioned the natural beauty of Erbil, KRG's capital and how victims of chemical weapons (used during the Saddam era) were still suffering from the after-effects. He emphasised his strict dietary habits (lots of water, some fish, oranges and lemon juice) because he wanted to stay fit as an actor. We talked a bit about situation of Turkish and Iranian cinema during which I name-dropped Antonioni, the only legendary producer I had heard of, from some film aficionado friends. 
He used the word "very" quite a lot and had difficulty in explaining some terms but my cursory knowledge of Arabic was enough to keep us away from a communication blockade. We shared contact information and had Turkish coffee at a chic coffee place in the Galata area.

I finished the wonderful evening by having an "Aaloo paratha" at an Indian restaurant run by Turkish owners. They were playing Bollywood songs in the background, probably to emphasize their "Indian connection". I had a lot of difficult sleeping that night (despite my tiredness) because of strong Turkish coffee. I chatted with a Pakistani friend who was visiting the United States in those days and a Greek friend who told me about “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response”, a technique to help insomniacs. It probably helped and I finally slept around 3:30 am.   

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Turkish Delight: Konyaaa


A Miniature depicting Konya
Statue of a Whirling Dervish

After spending a boring day in Ankara, which consisted of lazing around in the apartment all day and visiting Golbasi park in the evening, I was ready to visit Konya. The only saving grace of the Boring day was my Turkish Friend Yiğit, who showed up after his work at the airport traffic control. Yiğit was a volunteer for the program that brought me to Ankara last year. He was one of the most interesting people from my trip. He has majored in Political Science and tried three times to land a job at the Turkish Foreign Ministry.The exam has multiple steps and one has to pass written exams as well as multiple interviews to be finally selected. Yiğit was terribly unlucky as he had once reached the final interview but was deemed unsuccessful by the interviewer. To quote Yiğit, They are not looking for just any diplomats, they are looking for Henry Kissingers.
Among the many gems shared by Yiğit that night, a few are worth mentioning.
On the topic of Turkish foreign policy and ambitions towards a local hegemony
“We [Turkey] cannot actually become a superpower, despite our apparent attempts to do so, we are just too lazy to be a superpower”.
On the topic of Turkish people trying other languages, “Turkish people don’t usually know how to appropriately express themselves in English, which is why they flail and swing their arms like a shadow boxer when speaking English”.

He had participated in Anti-AK party protests after Gezi and SOMA and he regaled us with stories of how Beşiktaş fans trolled the Riot police and how a Tennis Player in Ankara used to to hurl the Tear Gas canisters back at the police using his racquet. I asked him about CHP, the main opposition party in Turkey. He was of the view that CHP felt content with their role as opposition. They are rich, have a support and patronage network and are not too bothered with the nuisance of governing. In 2014, mayoral elections,a CHP candidate lost in Ankara due to massive rigging but the party didn’t capitalize on this issue and chose to remain inside their cocoon.

We discussed my plan to get back to Istanbul and then to take a plane to Cappadokia. He advised me to book a plane ticket, instead of taking the bus, as the price-difference wasn’t too huge and it would save me time as well. As he left, I looked up websites of different local airlines on the inter-web and chose Pegasus’s flight. The only issue was that my credit card was not valid for online transactions and I had to get that authorized by the bank in Pakistan. It was time for Suhoor in Pakistan, so I called my parents in Pakistan who got the card activated for online transactions and the deed was done. I was supposed to fly at 9.20 am to Istanbul, the caveat being that the flight was to land at Sabiha Gokcan airport while my Cappadokia flight was to leave from Ataturk Airport at 1:20 pm. I left the details to the future and took a good nights’ sleep.

My Pakistani friend and I left for Ankara-gar an hour before our train was scheduled to leave for Konya. I discovered that Ankara’s train station was established in 1937 and it connected Ankara with Antalya, Eskisehir, Konya and Sivas in the eastern part of Turkey. As we embarked upon the train, it was the first time outside of an airport that our luggage was scanned by a machine. In Pakistan, every major government/private building has scanners and people who pat you down for security purposes. The train journey was smooth and without incident. I discovered that speed on the screens was shown as Kilometers/s. I initially thought it was Kilometer/second, but my friend corrected me that the “s” denoted “Saat” (which means hour in Türkçe). I spent the two-hour journey reading Elif Shafak’s ‘Forty Rules of Love’ (Its Türkçe version is called ‘Aşk’) while my friend dozed off.    

From Konya-gar, we took the tram to reach Mevlana, the site of Mevlana Rumi’s shrine. I must confess that I am not a very spiritual person and I was not exactly moved by the experience at Mevlana. I went there as a curious tourist and was delighted to see history and historical items being preserved in the leafy Anatolian town of Konya.I was disappointed when my friend informed me that Whirling Dervishes only performed on Saturdays and we won’t be able to witness a live performance during our short visit. Following the visit to Mevlana, we walked to the nearby Bazaar and looked for a good place to eat some Etli Ekmek(Pizza-like dish which originated in Konya). Despite being a vegetarian, I indulged in the ritual to mark the occasion. The Ekmek felt bland as we were not given any sauces with it, and I improvised by using some lemon juice and spices as a spread for the Ekmek.

Our train was supposed to leave at 6 pm and we were done with Mevlana by 2 pm. There were four hours to kill, so we walked across town, found a green spot to rest and saw some old mosques. From the Bazaar, I got some Pişmanye, a sweet which is similar to “Pateesa” in Pakistan. We found a graveyard of Indian soldiers who were part of British Army in WWI but switched sides and fought alongside the Turks. I discovered that parking at Mevlana was free for the first one hour and one had to pay certain amount afterwards. Konya is a small city and we walked across the city center to reach Konya-gar by 4 pm. My friend dozed off again while I busied myself with reading some articles off the internet. On the return-leg of our journey, my friend, who is doing his Masters Degree in Soil Sciences, talked about difference in agricultural practices between Pakistan and Turkey. He comes from a land-owning family and has studied agriculture in Pakistan so it was an enriching experience listening to him.
We were really tired by the time we reached the apartment but it was a day well-spent.   

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Turkish Delight: Road to the Capital



Fret not where the road will take you. Do not go with the flow. Be the Flow. Elif Shafak

I have this weird habit of not planning about things when abroad. Back home, I plan every single detail possible but as soon as I step into foreign territory, I am without much planning. In the last three years, I have visited two countries (US in 2012, Turkey in 2013 and 2014) and I didn’t plan much in either of those trips. The US trip was pre-arranged by an organization so the lack of planning was not a problem. The first Turkey visit was also pre-arranged (or at least its Ankara leg) so there was not much I could do about it. The second trip to Turkey was my first foreign tour without a conference/program and I was supposed to be completely on my own. I did get my hotel booked online and learnt some basic Turkce phrases, but that was it. My only plan was to spend time in Istanbul and to visit Konya with my friend in Ankara. The plan to visit Cappadokia was a last-minute impulse buy and I had not thought it out well. Anyhow, I got the ticket on Sunday evening for a 10 am bus to Ankara.

Istanbul's Otogar evoked mixed memories in my head. I had visited the place last year on the very first day that I was in Istanbul. I had enjoyed a very good ride from there to Ankara. I had endured a disastrous journey on my way back and had reached the place at 5 a.m. I vowed to make my experience better than my previous one. On Monday morning, after an early breakfast, I checked-out of my hotel almost two hours before the time of my departure. 

Using the Karakoy-Bagçilar line and then the Aksaray-Airport line, I reached Otogar in almost 40 minutes from my hotel in Sultanahmet. I got out of the central area and failed to locate the "Metro" bus service centre initially. Then I asked one of the ticket-guys who guided me to the Other side of Otogar. I had apparently ventured onto the wrong side. Upon reaching the right spot, I was disappointed to find very few seats in the station itself. I stopped outside the place and waited to get a vacant seat. 

I got a seat after about 10 minutes and hopped on the relevant bus at 10 am. It takes almost 1.5 hours for the bus to leave Istanbul as it stops at different small stations. I had good memories of the last time that I travelled in the 'Metro' company's bus. The seats were spacious and there was Wi-Fi throughout the journey. This time, my seat was the same but Wi-Fi was terrible. I sat along a Turkish guy who slept for most of the journey. It felt different this time. Maybe I had forgotten it due to my excitement of last year but the journey was tooo damn long and the seat wasn’t as comfortable as I expected it.

I tried listening to a football-themed podcast that I like. Then I started Elif Shafak's book, which I felt was quite interesting. There was a little girl sitting across the aisle from me who was very active and naughty and smiled back whenever I smiled at her. 

As we approached the city of Ankara, my friend called and asked about my whereabouts. He and I used to be roommates in a boarding school when we were in the 7th grade. Since then, I had graduated from medical school while he had acquired a bachelor’s degree from an Agriculture University. He was pursuing a Masters Degree in Soil Sciences from Ankara University and had been living in Turkey for the last 8 months, learning the language. He could speak Turkce fluently and had helped me learn the basics. Upon reaching the Ankara Otogar, I waited for him to arrive. Meanwhile, I wanted to get some dollars changed but there was apparently no Doviz at the station. I didn’t know what a money-changer was called in Turkce so I decided to ask the lady present at “Information Center” of Otogar. She probably didn’t understand English and thus pointed me in the wrong direction. I later found out that there was NO Doviz at the station. My friend arrived and we took the tram to Ulus from where we rode a bus to Atakule(Ataturk Tower). I was amazed to know that Cinnah Cadessi was named after the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah/Cinnah. We moved to a flat near Cankaya Cadessi, the road which evoked beautiful memories from the previous year.

I have been to capitals of three countries, Pakistan, Turkey and United States. While all of them are wonderfully planned, they share that one trait which is universal to capitals: They are really boring places to be. Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, is known as ‘Islamabad the beautiful’ and it indeed is very lovely(If straight roads and greenery is your thing). It is also incredibly boring. Washington DC at least has some good museums to while away one’s time. Ankara had none of these. No greenery, not much natural beauty and no wonderful museums either.

My friend had arranged for us to live at a Pakistani diplomat’s flat in a residential neighborhood. On our way to the apartment, we stopped to buy some shopping at a grocery store where we got some vegetables and bread(Ekmek) for dinner. I was surprised to find the way people got their vegetables. In Pakistan, when you go to buy vegetables/fruits, you ask for a particular item and the shopkeeper provides you with that item in the required quantity. In Turkey, there are no shopkeepers to put the items in your basket, there are disposable shopping bags. You can choose the vegetables you want and weigh them at the store, paying for them at a separate counter. This way, you can choose the vegetables of your choice(size, shape etc) and it is not left to the whims of the shopkeeper.

It was during that walk that I discovered “Bim” stores. They are like utility stores where one can buy items of daily use in bulk form, at subsidized prices. I was incredibly tired upon reaching the apartment so I unpacked hurriedly and called home to inform them of my arrival in the city. My friend had to visit his dorm so he left me in peace. After the necessary updates on Facebook and browsing through twitter, I sat down with the young Pakistani diplomat. He had been stationed in Ankara to learn Turkce and was being posted to Istanbul in a few days. We talked about my interest in International relations and he told me about the workings of Pakistan’s Foreign Service. We sat down for dinner and he told me about the Turkish claim of having the most diverse cuisine in the world(and how it was not exactly true). He also told me of the special kind of Ekmek(a bulky one) that was available only during the month of Ramadan. My friend arrived from his dorm and we talked about the plans for next two days. We had to go to konya and we had a spare day. I had already seen Ankara’s main attractions(Ataturk’s musoleum,Cankaya Cadessi, remains of old city) so there were few options left. I was also supposed to see a Turkish friend of mine whom I had met last year.