I’m in Istanbul, Turkey and it goes without saying that I’m somewhat of an oddity in these parts. Everyone’s looking at me. I probably should have done some quick research online to get a sense of the diversity in Istanbul, but I was too eager to get outside, to breathe in the same air that Rumi probably did way back in the 13th century. Okay, maybe the same air is an exaggeration, but I really wanted to just immerse myself in what little of Turkey I had access to, even if for the briefest of moments. And so I ventured outside the Radisson Blu hotel where I’m staying, compliments of Turkish Airlines. I had been told there wasn’t too much to see here besides a park and a bridge. The hotel reviews online generally said the location was great for transits given the proximity of the airport, but far removed from the city’s historical sites. That’s fine, I didn’t want tourism, I wanted Turkey.
Right outside the hotel were a bunch of taksis (taxis). I asked one driver where I might find the bridge. He didn’t speak English, but I could tell he was offering to take me. No thanks, I said, “I walk”, gesturing with my fingers. The taksis remind me of the ones in New York and Dakar. I finally saw the bridge and it gave me the eerily familiar feeling of being at the Circle bridge in Accra, although much less cramped with activity. But of course, today is Sunday here – you kind of lose track of the days when traveling. Anyway, I eventually got to the park – less than 10 minutes from the hotel, and like everything I’ve seen so far, clean. There were a number of people chilling, and here too the stares continued. I think I’ve gotten somewhat used to that – being the visibly different person in a place – and besides, I’m about to immerse myself in such in a few months, might as well get reintroduced.
I should say that the looks were more of curiosity rather than hostility. But just to be safe, I resisted the urge to take out my camera and snap away. I would just take in as much as I could. So what exactly did I see? Hmm, well first I think this small town I walked through is a cross between Malta and France, the former especially. I think the more apt description would be that it’s got a Mediterranean feel to it. It’s still Ramadan, so there were a bunch of Ramadan signs here and there. The buildings were mainly apartment or story style like in Dakar and some had balconies and clothes hanging across – just like in Malta :) The streets I walked through were commercial, and again, very clean. Many clothing stores, electronics, and of course coffee shops and kebab joints. I also saw many wedding dresses in showcase, and it seems the “Cinderella” or “princess” style is kind of a hit here. I saw two Burger Kings in my one hour walk – no surprise there, there’s usually that or MacDonalds somewhere. And just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be any black influences in this part of town – I didn’t see a single black person – I passed by a shop selling a Bob Marley shirt and heard a car playing rap music.
“Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.”– Rumi
The Turkish language is interesting, with hints of French, Arabic, and maybe English here and there. Sadly, I speak none although my imitation of “thank you” last night while speaking to a waiter called Fatih seemed to be on the mark. Don’t ask me what it is, I’ve already forgotten :P Speaking of waiters, as I was having dinner – cheeseburger and fries, nothing fancy, didn’t want to risk trying something new at the expense of my stomach and upcoming long trip home – a Turkish man I was sitting next to at the bar offered to give me a tour of the city and nearby beach with his car. His name is Arkut and he apparently runs the hotels shuttle service. His offer reminded me of the Nigerian man I sat next to on my very first solo air trip to the US for college. Again, I was really tempted. I did get a transit visa, and what I had seen so far in Istanbul had left me charmed and wanting more. But that annoying voice called conscience said “We test you to make sure you have learned the lesson, and you learned this one seven years ago”. Sigh. What’s more, dude winked at me and also told me to take the shuttle to the airport where he would meet me with his car – since he works at the hotel and doesn’t want to arouse suspicion (?!). In my head that translates as “So we can get lost together without anyone knowing”. Again, thoughts of young women who disappear never to be found again crept into my mind, especially given the fact that it was late. I told him I would think about it while eating and that I was tired from my trip.
I also spoke to an American pilot called Arthur who’s been flying the Dubai-Afghanistan route for 15 years. He showed me photos he took of different places from the cockpit and we had a delightful conversation about air travel – it was so obvious he’s passionate about flying! We also spoke about the next era of air travel which could be using rockets to shoot right up into space and shooting right down again to ur destination- to have a nine-hour plane ride condensed into two hours would certainly be something else, wouldn’t it? Obviously, I told him about Ghana and he’s thinking of visiting. Around 11pm I paid my bill – the Turkish lira is similar to the Ghanaian cedi when it comes to the dollar. Just split the local price in half and you’re close to your dollar equivalent – I excused myself and luckily Arkut was nowhere to be seen. I planned to sleep seven hours. What I actually did was wake up every hour or so for fear of oversleeping (my body is still on US time) and missing my connecting flight to Accra.
Anyway, that was a long segway. Back to the walk. I took some pictures on the less crowded streets where not many people were staring and came upon a water fountain as well. Two girls at a clothes shop nearby obviously found it funny I was taking a photo of a tap – I would too- and I went over to say hi. Their names are Shidam and Chuchem and after I introduced myself as well, they retreated into the store to continue their work, and I went on my way. I kept seeing little flags all over the place, not sure if it’s a political party or something, but my first thought was: election campaign season in Accra.
On my way back I saw an elderly woman carrying shopping bags and I thought about offering to help. Should I? Would she accept? Could it be misinterpreted – as me trying to beg, rob or harm her? I had offered one lady once in Washington, DC and it took some minutes before she realised I was offering assistance and not trying to heckle her. What would I say considering I don’t speak Turkish? There was only one way to find out. Gesturing with my hands, I asked if she needed help and with a visibly relieved smile, she handed me a considerably heavy bag of milk and juice. We walked side by side for a while and then she started asking me something in Turkish.
I knew we couldn’t speak to each other, but I thought back to a Rumi quote I read just this morning about people understanding without language and just said “Africa”. Ahh, Africa she responded and then gesturing to herself, said Turkey. We smiled. I know Africa is not a country, but I figured it would be easier than saying “Ghana” which she has probably never heard of. Also, you never know what one word means in another language. She wanted to know what I was doing in town and I said “hotel, plane”, spread my arms wide in flying motion, then gestured towards the airport. I attempted speaking French and Arabic, but she spoke neither – confirming my initial thoughts from last night that my two foreign languages would be of little assistance here. I guess I will have to learn some Turkish for my real visit back here inshAllah Universe, kindly take note :) .
As we walked, two children – a girl and a boy – ran up to us. I thought they were her kids. They weren’t. “Money, money, money” they chanted, gesturing towards my bag. Of course, the only English word I hear is “money” – talk about universal! The kids reminded me of the (refugee) kids near Accra mall who always tug at skirts for money. I reached into my purse and gave the girl 50 pesewa, explaining “from my country”. She looked confused, but I didn’t have any Turkish lira on me. The lady told her it was a dollar – I guess, she recognised tinges of my American accent. After the kids left, she gestured to me what I understood as “watch your bag”. I had let my guard down after meeting her. What’s more, I forgot to keep track of our turns and identify markers for my way back. My saying “hotel” had one man directing me to a hotel which was not mine. Just walk, a voice said. So I did, and eventually found myself back near the main road. Just before I got to the hotel a teenage boy called out to me from a balcony and waved. I waved back and smiled. All this in an hour – and to think I almost passed it up. Thank you Istanbul, for a moment, we shared history.
Written by Jemila Abdulai and originally published by Circumspecte.com. Follow Jemila’s travels on Instagram.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.