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Postcard: Istanbul

Hagia Sophia ATB
The Hagia Sophia (Illustration by Aileen Torres-Bennett)

I took my first big trip by myself just before my 25th birthday. It was a trip to Turkey. I was living in New York City at the time, and I had friends who were well traveled. They inspired me to get out and explore the world.

I had never done anything like that before. I was completely inexperienced. But I was open.

I bought the cheapest travel fare I could find. It entailed a three-leg plane journey to Istanbul. Inefficient, but I was willing to pay the price in time and physical toll.

I was young and game to suffer. My head was full of notions of the ennobling process of suffering; enduring the pain of little money and little rest. I thought it would purify me. These were young, romantic, impractical notions. Silly notions. But they did do me some good.

I don’t regret that trip to Turkey. It was life changing.

I didn’t have much money to spend, but I had enough to get there, move around between the city and the country, and get back to New York. I had a few clothes in my framepack and “The Rough Guide to Turkey” to help me navigate. That’s all I needed.

I spent about a week in Turkey. I stayed for a couple days in Istanbul, then took a bus to Cappadocia for another couple days, then returned to Istanbul before going back to my then home in New York.

A general disequilibrium characterized the trip. I didn’t sleep well because I was unfamiliar with the environment, and I was pushing myself to move to exhaustion. I didn’t speak Turkish, and I found only a few people who spoke English, so I couldn’t communicate much.

But I am so glad I made the decision to embark on that journey. It remains a seminal experience for me.

I figured out how to get around between the city and the country by using my guidebook, pointing at things, making hand gestures, and relying on the kindness of strangers.

I witnessed beautiful artifacts of the history of the world in a country that is deep with cultural significance for world civilization. It was awe inspiring to be inside the Hagia Sophia, a place of Christian worship in the Byzantine Empire that later became a place of Islamic worship in the Ottoman Empire.

I bought a dagger with an intricate carving on the handle at the Grand Bazaar, before I realized, sadly, that it would never make it past security going back to the U.S., so I tossed it in a public trash can and kicked myself for, one, being so stupid, and, two, having to part with what would’ve been a beloved souvenir.

After a trying journey to Cappadocia by bus and on foot, I was so glad to have made it so that I could experience a place where early man lived in caves in the rocky, hilly, Martian-like landscape.

I got to walk the cobblestone streets of Istanbul and float along the Bosphorus, the waterway that divides Europe and Asia.

That’s why I chose Turkey as my first solo international trip: It represents the nexus of Eastern and Western civilizations. So much history and so much beauty exist there.

Along the bridge into Istanbul leading to Taksim Square, I still remember the line of men who calmly stood by the railing, putting bait on hooks and dropping their fishing lines into the sea. They paid no mind to the traffic of cars.

I wonder if that’s what people have been doing over the centuries: standing waterside and patiently waiting as they cast a line–for sustenance, for pleasure, for life.

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