Our departure from Sydney was like all our departures from Sydney to date; manic, hurried, and powered by very little sleep. I boarded our no frills Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur more than a little upset, having just spent the last 20 minutes at the boarding gate in heated phone calls with incompetent corporations*. I put aside my frustration once we got on the plane, and settled down to read as many of the books on my brother’s e-reader as I could before we landed, whizzing through two and a bit novels. I have to (begrudgingly) admit that my brother has good taste in literature, and the idea of having so many excellent books to read during our trip was exhilarating. Sadly, it was not to be – we had just cleared passport control when I realised I’d left the e-reader behind on my seat. Lost and Found did not find it.
Suffice to say that I entered Kuala Lumpur with a bad temper and the gloomy conviction that our entire trip was going to be a miserable failure, punctuated by a series of cancelled flights, lost luggage, and long stints in hospital for diseases not covered by our travel insurance. The bus’s failing engine and the seemingly never-ending string of traffic jams we encountered en route to KL proper meant I had close to two hours in which to envisage a number of potential travel scenarios, the last of which saw Will and I being kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan and forced to watch the other being tortured and killed. (I couldn’t decide who should be the one to watch, and so I played both scenarios in my head while I sat there with a big ol’ lump in my throat and tears streaming down my face. Will thought I was crying about the e-reader, which just shows how much he knows). The delay looking for the e-reader and the excruciatingly slow bus ride meant that we didn’t reach our AirBnB accommodation until it was almost 11pm, after borrowing a phone from a family at the LRT station to contact our host*. Unsurprisingly, he was not impressed with our tardiness.
By this stage, all I wanted to do was take a hot shower, check in to our flight to Istanbul the next morning, and go straight to sleep. This was not to be. Once it was connected to the wifi my phone erupted with Facebook notifications, including messages from two Couchsurfers from Istanbul who we’d been in contact with for the past month. One of them was Özgur, who we were planning to stay with for the four nights we were in Istanbul. The second was from Ayşegül, a woman who wanted to meet up and hang out. Both their messages held dire warnings. We’d known that Taksim had been replete with protests for over two weeks, and had already been prepared to avoid Taksim Square and Gezi Park except where necessary. Both their reports stated the situation had worsened significantly over the past 12 hours. The police had evicted all the protestors from Gezi Park amidst violent clashes, and spread out their presence to other areas near Taksim, including Osmanbey, a suburb situated less than two kilometres north of Taksim Square. Özgur’s apartment was in Osmanbey, and he had originally offered to meet us at Taksim Square with the aim of walking or dolmus-ing it back to his apartment together. He now reported that the transport around Taksim had completely shut down and bus and metro services in the area were no longer running. While this was not unusual around Taksim, Osmanbey was now under lock down as well, and so alternative public transport routes were also out of the question. He was fairly certain that the transport services would not be running by the time we arrived, and so he offered to come and meet us at the airport instead, so that we could jump in a taxi and he could direct it around the back streets to get to his place. I wasn’t quite sure how we would spot each other at the airport, and I was reluctant to drag him out all the way to the airport just for our sake; but at a loss as to any other options, I agreed.
This conversation began that night and continued on to the very early hours of the morning, before we set off to the airport. By the time we landed in Istanbul, I was yawning and rubbing my eyes every five minutes. Passport control was a nightmare at Istanbul airport. The line resembled a ragged snake, edging its way along and around the lengthy queue barriers and down the terminal for at least 300 metres, containing what looked like close to 1000 disgruntled passengers. There were only a handful of officials at the desks and so it was a good hour and a half before we were finally able to collect our bags and leave the airport.
The arrivals hall met us with a sea of smiling but slightly impatient Turkish faces holding up placards – I gathered that it wasn’t only our flight that was late to land. Will had not a clue what Özgur looked like, and I had only seen a couple of photos of him on Facebook. I clumsily described him to Will: “He’s tall, has dark hair… wide…” and trailed off. We looked around. My attempt at visualisation could have described 60% of the men there. I promptly gave up any hope of finding him and began looking around for a payphone, and thinking I had spotted one (it turned out to be an internal security phone) started walking resolutely towards it. Just then, like some kind of wizard sent to the Earth to stop me from making a fool of myself by looking for a dial pad that didn’t exist – Özgur appeared. He had been waiting for over an hour for us, unsure if he had missed us or not. We withdrew some Turkish lira, and headed out into the fray of taxi drivers. By now it was 8pm and only 45 minutes from sunset, but the weather was still warm and the drive along the waterfront with the windows down was perhaps the most pleasant introduction we could have had to Turkey. The parks were packed with families and young people with picnics and ballgames; summer was in full swing in Istanbul and it felt divine.
Once we crossed the Galata bridge the taxi driver traded main roads for back alleys, exchanging low, almost whispered words with Özgur as he navigated roadblocks and avoided police. He eventually dropped us off at the end of a narrow street on a steep incline that was presumably too difficult for a car to traverse. As we got our backpacks out of the boot, I noticed that there were very few people outside. I assumed that the inner-city suburb of Osmanbey would be bustling at sundown, but the atmosphere was subdued. The cats that Istanbul are so famous for were present however, some nibbling at the bowls of food that were left for them at most doorsteps, others lounging on windowsills and kerbsides, one eye on us as we passed. We walked down the lane for about 500m before ascending the steep and rickety spiral staircase four flights up to Ozgur’s apartment on the top floor. I grew apprehensive, but I needn’t have – the door opened to revealed an ultra-modern, spacious and Ikea-furnished apartment in stark contrast to the aging and dilapidated stairwell. The bathroom was particularly luxurious, with toiletries and towels all organised immaculately. I felt like I’d walked in to a hotel. We dumped our bags and I immediately jumped into the shower. When I came out, Özgur and Will were leaning out of the windows in the living room. Loud cheers, whistles, drums and bells permeated the apartment and the street. It was 9pm: Özgur explained that since the protests in Gezi had been uprooted, people had taken to making noise from their apartments at 9pm in solidarity with the protestors. I looked out into the street, where it seemed that at least one window from every apartment block had a person leaning out, either participating or just watching. It took me a minute to realise that some of the sound was coming from the TV, where they were screening similar protests from other parts of the city and country.
It was 9pm: and we wanted to take Özgur out to dinner to thank him for letting us stay with him. I put a packet of Tim Tams and a jar of Vegemite in his kitchen and we walked down to the main street and up towards the metro station. There was a large police truck on the corner and a number of cops hanging around in groups along the street. I was amazed at how many there were, but Özgur said that only some of them were real police; the rest had been hired by the government to wear official looking vests to curb any unrest that might erupt again. I’m not sure whether or not this was true – there’s just so much misinformation about the protests – but either way, there was a conspicuous attempt to try and keep people in line through a show of state force. Some of the police officers looked like they were gearing up for a fight, others just looked tired and bored. I regretted not bringing my camera with me, until one of the cops gave me a look that made me feel thankful I hadn’t tried to take a photo of him.
We ate at Ozgur’s favourite local restaurant. Our hunger had been overwhelmed by our fatigue, and so Will and I just picked at a sujuk pide that was mostly cheese with hardly any meat, while Özgur ordered doner and a kiyamali pide. I think he ordered it for us because he barely touched any of it and paid for it all before we even realised he’d asked for the bill (one of the downsides of not speaking the language). On the way back to his apartment he pointed out places that had been tear-gassed in the past couple of days, including the grocery store where we stopped to buy some water. There had apparently been a few people inside at the time, including 4 primary school-aged children.
When we got back to his place, Özgur showed us the tear gas canisters that he had collected over the past few weeks. We were fading fast, and he could tell. His hospitality made an appearance again – he insisted we take his bedroom, and he slept on the couch. We protested, but he was insistent, and we eventually gratefully accepted. Within a few hours a stranger we had only spoken to on the internet had shown us more hospitality than I’d experienced in other countries in months, and it was only the beginning.
* Our international sim card still hadn’t been activated due to a a server error on the sim card company’s end, and they couldn’t seem to understand that no, I couldn’t call them back in 24 hours because I was about to board a plane and I didn’t have a working international sim card. On top of that, the retailer Woolworths refused to acknowledge extra credit we’d bought at the store, stating that it is impossible for them to sell credit in-store and so I must be lying. More angry phone calls – note the plural, because after I tried to explain for the third time that I couldn’t take my receipt into the store because I was about to board a plane, the manager hung up on me.