After all the emotion of the first couple weeks of April I was in desperate need of a getaway. Although I would have preferred a week or two at home in the States, I instead found myself in Istanbul, Turkey. For the Coptic Easter holiday, IFSA students were offered the first 11 days of May off from school. This was our longest break of the semester so this was really our only chance for a big trip outside of Egypt, anywhere we could afford to go. Since we are already half way across the world it would have been silly to pass up the opportunity for cheap airfare. It really was a once in a lifetime chance to go experience a completely new country on our own. Initially I assumed the 5 of us would all go together on this adventure but the IFSA gang split once Emily and Dhruv decided to fly to Morocco on their own. Sarah was lucky enough to have friends to stay with in Australia so she went there. As for Matt and I, it was between Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey. With Greece on the Euro we soon found out that spending two weeks there would be well out of our price range. And with Cyprus experiencing so much unrest we booked our non-refundable (though surprisingly cheap) ticket to Turkey. I was so excited to go. I needed something to take my mind off the long month that still remained, the inevitably of finals quickly looming ahead of us, as well as all the emotions built up as a result of the tragedy in Boston and homesickness.
And so, on April 30th I was up bright and early on the train headed for Cairo. Once Matt had his passport (his was stolen a few weeks back so we had to go to the embassy to pick up his new one) and we ate an awesome dinner at our favorite restaurant near the IFSA apartments in Cairo (GAD), the trip was off to a good start. Matt was euphoric to finally have a passport in his pocket again and once I eat I always feel better haha. But the moment we stepped into the taxi on our way to the airport our happy getaway turned into an all-too-real nightmare. Everybody knows in Cairo, or should know, that foreigners HAVE TO take taxis with meters, otherwise the consequences WILL undoubtedly be costly. Before we got in I asked if the taxi had a meter, he said yes, I saw the meter and we began loading our bags. Once in the car, not two minutes after we started driving I realized the meter was not working. I asked the driver about it and sure enough, it wasn’t. BIG PROBLEM. The next 4 hours would have changed drastically if we had just gotten out right then. But we didn’t. Next thing that happened was our driver began pulling over asking people on the street for directions on how to get to the airport. Picture the two of us, stuck in a taxi with no meter, with a guy who has no idea how to get to the airport. Perfect. We left at 5:30pm. Our flight was supposed to leave at 8:15pm. That gave us about 1 hour to get to the airport. Which is what we had been told was plenty of time by many people. An hour and 30 minutes later we finally see the airport. This is when I get frustrated with myself. Neither Matt nor I knew which terminal we were flying out of but the second we passed it we knew we were headed the wrong way. I tried with all my might to explain to the driver in Arabic to turn around but my vocabulary failed me. Once at the (wrong) terminal we hopped out in a rush when the driver, naturally, demands 200 EGP for the trip. Keep in mind with a meter this should be around 45/50 EGP. I was beyond furious. I argued with him, in Arabic keep in mind, for a good 5 minutes. I would not back down. If I had not been so rushed I believe Matt and I could have done better but we had to go so we settled for 90 EGP. Feeling ripped off we clamored into the terminal and discovered that, of course, we were at the wrong one. Luckily there was a free shuttle so we didn’t have to deal with another taxi driver. With the seconds feeling like hours we waited and finally got to the correct terminal. Bumbling about we got through initial security and found the check-in desk about 45 minutes before our international flight was scheduled to leave. There was only one desk with a ticket agent. One blessing is that there was no line, there was no one there at all. I walked up to the ticket agent and asked if we could check-in for our flight. She said no. She was closed. They closed an hour before the flight was scheduled to leave. On the verge of tears I practically begged to be checked in. We stood there begging when another ticket agent came over and said he’d check us in. Hallelujah! Matt and I got our boarding passes and headed to customs. I got through but Matt was held up. It turns out he didn’t have an arrival stamp or a visa into Egypt in his new passport. Immediately I told him I would run and hold the plane for him thinking boarding was practically completed at this point. I took off like a freight train, sprinting through half the airport, luckily a guy in a golf cart picked me up halfway to my gate. I got there and had to wait in security (yes, again) then waited…. And waited… And waited for Matt to show up. He had been taken into police questioning which is never a good thing in Egypt. They had demanded he pay for a new visa but he didn’t have enough cash and he accidentally left his debit card in the apartments and he also checked his police report in his luggage (when it rains it pours, right?). But Mr. M swooped in to save the day and convinced the police through Matt’s cell phone that Matt’s story was true. Practically the last two on the plane we sat down and couldn’t stop laughing and high fiving. What a series of events. But we defied all the obstacles and made it.
The rest of the trip was not nearly as dramatic. We landed, got a van to take us to our hotel, checked in and passed out. The next morning we accidently slept in too long and missed breakfast but we didn’t mind. We grabbed the map and my camera and headed out into the sunny early afternoon. We walked for about 45 minutes along the main road near our hotel before we asked for directions. We asked for the Blue Mosque, our goal for the day, when they told us we had to take a bus there. So for 2 lira (about $1.30) we bought a bus ticket, hopped on and took the main road in the exact opposite direction back towards our hotel. Oops. haha. At our stop we got off and found ourselves in the center of the old city. Oh my goodness, it was breathtaking. After being in Egypt for so long I forgot was grass smelt liked, what fountains sounded like. On that walk towards the Blue Mosque, Matt and I pointed out everything in Istanbul that Egypt wasn’t. I was on cloud nine. The air was clean, the streets were clean, the cars stayed in their lines, there were traffic lights and benches, grass was everywhere, there were even trees and I could hear birds in the air. If this is any indication of what my culture shock is going to be like going back to America my family is in for a good laugh. I was mesmerized. Purely mesmerized. Seeing the inside of the Blue Mosque and later the Basilica Cistern only added to that feeling of wonder and amazement. They were both so beautiful and so well preserved. Egypt could learn a thing or two from Turkey. The following day the excitement continued as we wandered the grounds of the Topkapi Palace. What an amazing place. It reminded me of a real life Cinderella’s Castle, except Kiara would tell you it has none of the same architectural doo-hickeys at all. haha. But inside it was full of mind-blowing items and beautiful artwork. Tiles from the 1400s and gold in some form were in every room, the detail was incredible. The armory housed items from all over Europe and Asia from all different time periods. The military history of the palace might as well have been the history of all of Eurasia. The palace even housed a relics section which supposedly held ancient religious artifacts such as Moses’ staff, the first Caliphs’ swords, and Prophet Mohammed’s beard, robe, and sword among many other belongings. Not to mention items from the Khabah. I found it hard to believe, personally. My favorite part of the entire palace was definitely the treasury. Oh my goodness, it was chock full of rubies, emeralds, jade, pearls, gold, sapphire, and every kind of precious metal and precious stone thinkable. The most prized possession in the treasury? An 86 carat diamond. Yup, I stared. Imagine being proposed to with that bursting out of the ring box? haha.
On Friday, Matt and I explored the coast and took a ferry along the Bosphorous to Kanlica. Kanlica is supposed to be home to the world’s greatest yogurt… but I wasn’t all that impressed. I only ate it because they drowned it in honey and powdered sugar. I’m no yogurt connessuir like Matt is though. He loved the stuff, so it made the trip worth it at least. Unfortunately, we missed the last ferry back to Karikoy from Kanlica BUT we still had one way left on those bus passes we bought when we got lost so we used them to get down to the ferry station across from Karikoy so it all worked out Saturday was spent admiring the gorgeous mosaics of Hagia Sophia. For those that don’t know, Hagia Sophia was built as a church then taken over by Muslims. After seeing the inside of it… I hope Christians take it back one day. The giant wooden billboards with all the Arabic just look so obviously tacky, wrong and obviously out of place with the ancient stone majesty of the place. And the lazy Islamic glasswork inside the long, steep windows frustrated the crap out of me as I imagined how it must have looked with all the gorgeous stained glass murals of early Christendom. This area of the world makes me think about religion too much haha. The next day added to those feelings as I saw the beauty of the Chora Church. It was quite the hike to get there but it was totally worth it. Saturday night we watched Istanbul win the Turkey National Championship futbol match from inside the Port Shield Pub. That was a ton of fun. I felt like I was in England The best part of the night was witnessing the scene in the streets after the game, however. The whole city went nuts. Flags were everywhere, people were hooting and hollerin and cars were honking at anyone wearing the red and gold. It was electric and so much fun to be a part of
On our second to last day in Turkey Matt and I did a LOT of walking. We ventured through the Egyptian Bazaar, bought a ton of lokum, found the Galata Tower and walked along the Istiklal Caddessi which is a high class shopping street in the “New City” of Istanbul. And oh yea, I got caught in a protest!!!! Go figure the odds… I leave Revolution-torn Egypt for the stable, mostly European Turkey and I find myself in a demonstration in Istanbul… haha. Matt and I were eating our lokum (that we bought at the Egyptian bazaar.. ironic?) in Takim Square when all of a sudden people began sprinting by us. Immediately confused we looked up to see a British couple next to us gathering their things and yelling at us to move as well. Quickly we packed up but curiosity got the better of us and before we began running we wanted to know what it was we were running from. That’s when we saw the protestors just on the outside of the square. I still don’t know exactly what they were protesting but I think it had something to do with the events of May 1st/ May Day just 5 days before. Riot police were everywhere. There were two big ol police tanks with a mounted water canon on top of both and they were driving the protestors back away from the square. I was never scared. Shocked, definitely, and my adrenaline was certainly pumping, but I wasn’t scared. Matt and I hung around to take pictures and to see if the small group would come back but since the police shot off tear gas we figured it wasn’t likely so we decided to look for a place to eat and then began making our way back down Istiklal Caddessi. The tear gas hung in the air but it wasn’t too powerful. My nose was a little runny and there was an itch in the back of my throat but most of it had dissipated with the wind. Not far down the road we saw another group of protestors marching towards us and the square. As we turned to head back towards the relative safety of the square the riot police had blocked the end of the street with their shields and the tanks. Uh-oh. That was when the adrenaline really kicked in. I thought we were going to be caught in the clash. But luckily, at the last minute, the protestors ran down a side street in the hopes of outflanking the riot police. It was definitely an exciting way to finish up our vacation haha.
(P.S. I am having serious technical difficulties uploading all the photos to this gallery. I will try to upload the rest of the photos in a separate post. So sorry!)
We spent the majority of our final day shopping for souvenirs and bartering. The highlight of the negotiations took place in the Grand Bazaar when I was on the prowl for a part cashmere, part silk Burberry scarf. It was the only thing I had desperately wanted from Turkey. I found the perfect scarf and asked for the vendor’s price, 50 TL. Ten minutes later I had that guy down to 15. WIN. If nothing else, I will leave Egypt with epic bartering skills. Looks like I am my father’s daughter afterall! haha
The journey to the airport and back to Cairo wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the journey to Istanbul. This was mostly due to the genius planning by us two broke college students to avoid the 30 Euro shuttle fee to the airport. Rather than taking the shuttle, we decided to take the last metro to the airport and hang out there, oh, for about 6.5 hours. haha. Hey, it worked out well. We had no problems getting there or getting on the plane. We landed in Cairo and I paid for Matt’s visa so he would be allowed back into the country, and that was it. We spent the next couple days in Cairo just relaxing and preparing for our upcoming finals (which went pretty well by the way!)
In all, my trip to Istanbul was truly an experience I will never forget. I was so blessed to have had the opportunity to go. Even though it was expensive, it was totally worth it. I got to see and do so many things that not many kids my age ever get the chance to. It also made these last couple weeks fly by and provided a great distraction before the craziness of finals week began.
Thank you for reading and I promise to write on my feelings/emotions about the end of my study abroad experience soon!
Until next time, Ma’a Salaama!