Somewhere mid-flight NYC to Turkey, I realized that I miscalculated the hours I was to spend in the Istanbul airport before my flight to Israel. The actual layover time was whooping 8 hours!
Well, I certainly could not waste that much time boring myself to death in an airport! So I asked an unbelievably nice Turkish flight attendant where in Istanbul I should go. “Oh, the airport is very far from the actual city. Your best bet would be to go to …., which is an Istanbul suburb. This way you could at least glimpse at Turkey.” He was also nice enough to write that name on a piece of paper, which, of course, I lost, so the code name for that place is now “….”.
At the airport I found out though that the only way for me to step outside its walls was to buy Turkish visa – which I did, and now for $30 I have 6 months Turkish visa. No one in the airport knew where “….” was, but taxi to Istanbul would be about 200 Turkish liras each way, so I also changed $100 and then ran a few miles (no kidding) looking for an exit. This is the biggest airport I have ever seen (and I travel quite a bit).
As soon as I finally stepped out of that maze, I sat down on a bench to have a cigarette next to a young girl doing the same. 2 men in their early thirties came over and, lighting their own cigarettes, asked us in English how to get to Istanbul. The girl suggested the bus #20 that would take us to the center in about 1.5 hours. The girl knew not of the “….” place.
So I’ve decided to ride the bus with these guys. As we were looking for it, I’ve discovered that their native language is Russian and, if the USSR have not had the misfortune of falling apart 30 years ago, both would have been my countrymen. But now 1 was from a politically neutral country of Kazakhstan, and the other stemmed from the enemy camp of Ukraine, and he was a Crimean Tatar to boot. Ukrainians and especially Crimean Tatars are supposed to hate Russians now.
But we got along fine from the start. Moreover, the old Soviet school of gentlemen manners was showing, even though the guys must have been merely babies when the USSR kicked the bucket.
As we were talking, I found out that they both were living in Bahrain now for almost 10 years. But they speak little Arabic, because they hardly ever see the natives, who only work in high positions of the government administration and consider themselves too good to socialize with foreign workers. So my companions have learned Urdu instead – the prevalent language of migrants there.
In Turkey my new friends were for a 1 day meeting and were flying back to Bahrain that very evening. The Kazakh was in Istanbul previously, but his memory of it was spotty.
We disembarked the bus at a beautiful square by a riverbank. The area had oddly familiar European feel.
It was 7 am Turkish time, and we wished to have coffee. But soon I’ve learned my first Turkish words: “Khavekh Yokh” – “No coffee”. Turks were just waking up and, although some eateries were open, coffee was obviously not what Turks drink in the morning.
So we had nothing better to do than sightseeing. The Khazakh said we were near a world famous mosque that was either the biggest/ most beautiful or an extra special in some other way, but he did not know which one. Now, wise from 2 weeks travel through the Middle East, I know that the world can have several “the biggest”mosques, many “the lowest” places on earth and quite a few birth places of the same famous person.
Getting to that extra special mosque took climbing tiny side streets that had more Asian/ Indian feel to them, being poorer and yet more colorful at the same time.
When we got to the mosque, we found that we can only enjoy its gardens outside
After taking a few pictures that could never capture the beautiful landscapes around and below us, we’ve left in search of coffee.
On 1 of the tiny hilly with hardly-a-sidewalk streets, we encountered a group of teenage boys that did not seem threatening at all to me. Yet my companions have immediately flanked me at each side, and the Khazakh said to me: “close your pocketbook and hug it close”. They only seemed to relax when we finally found our coffee down at the riverbank. I suppose, Bahrain is a dangerous place.
Although all of us had plenty of time, we (especially the men) were quite exhausted from climbing up and down the narrow ancient streets. So after about an hour of pleasant conversation, I hiked a taxi to go back to the airport.
The taxi driver was eating. So he offered me half of his bread, then half of something else, and, like all Turks I met so far (mostly the flight attendants), he got upset that I would not partake of his offerings.
Although my Catholic Easter was over, the Orthodox Easter with its Holy Fire, that I was traveling to Israel for, was not until that Sunday, so I was still lenting and upsetting Turks right and left.
Then the driver offered me a cigarette. I gladly reached for mine. I have not enjoyed a cigarette in a taxi for such a long time!
Since the times of the Native Americans, the tobacco has been uniting people in peace.
As we smoked, the driver and I talked through a translation app on his phone. I found out that I was beautiful and special and that he wanted to marry me.
When we got to the airport, I was amazed to find out that he was so sincere, he did not want my money! When I finally talked him into taking some, he wanted to charge me 100 liras, which I knew was half of the real fare. For the first time in my rather long life I had to haggle up rather than down!
Back at the airport, I had to pass 2 security checks for some reason before I was allowed to relax at the VIP lounge. I think it has been the same lounge I have seen on many youtube videos, where various musicians would play a piano. This time though, the piano was playing some classical pieces all by itself.
When my gate was finally opened, I found out that I had to go through a third security check. A very old guy in front of me was given a third degree. He could hardly stand up on his own, yet he was told to remove his shoes and was patted all over. That scene played nicely into my expectations of a terrible Nazi state that I was about to visit.
Surprisingly, I was handled gently.
In Israel, I’ve suddenly realized that I have no place to go to. I kept the link to the address of my airbnb in my email, but I forgot my password. The stupid Airbnb site would not send me the links to reset my password despite all promises. After an hour of waiting for the link, I was becoming increasingly desperate. I did not bring my smart phone with me to Israel, only a tablet and a flip phone with a prepaid Israel local calls sim card. It took a Jewish Good Samaritan for me to be able to call my son in NYC, so he could open the link and read me my airbnb address.
The taxi ride took me to a nice and cozy studio apartment in West Jerusalem I would call my home for the next 5 days.
But first I had to pull my luggage all the way up to the 5th floor. By the 3rd floor, I was ready to give up. Luckily, a young guy of my son’s age saw me struggling and rushed to help.
As he was pulling my hefty suitcase, we had a nice chat. Then, by my door already, he asked me if I was Jewish.
All the horrible things I was reading on the internet about Israel have immediately sprang in my mind. Afraid that if I say I am a Christian he would drop my luggage all the way back to the 1st floor, I’ve said I am Jewish.
I did not lie. Ethnically, I am. But I came to Israel on my Christian journey, and, from what I knew, Jews did not like Christians.
The young man nodded approvingly, helped me to find my lockbox and put the code in. Only after being assured I was safely in, he left to play ping pong on the terrace next door.
My airbnb was perfect all the way down to the expensive sateen bed sheets, in which I soon fell asleep.