Early this year, while taking a short break one night from endless writing, editing and translating, I decided that I needed a vacation. I had not been taking a real holiday for 18 months. I was exhausted from work and had started to develop back pain from sitting too much in front of the computer.
Browsing dozens of travel websites and blogs, I stumbled upon Istanbul. I had always wanted to go to Turkey, particularly Istanbul, thanks to the rave reviews from the media, including ‘Monocle’ magazine the hipster bible, and from friends. So, the destination was settled then.
Everything rolled from there. I called up my travel agent friend to look for cheap airfare, and continued my research on accommodation, itinerary, costs, and so on.
Just when I was about to book the plane tickets, my husband received a better job offer and took it, which meant he could not take a leave until a year later. Excited as I was for him, I would go crazy if I had to wait for another year to go on a holiday.
“Do you mind if I go without you?” I asked. It was not so much a plea than a statement, actually, and my husband, knowing his stubborn wife too well, said, no, he did not mind.
After all, we’re not the type of couples who always have to spend times together even on holiday. He sometimes goes with his friends, I’d go with mine, or alone if each of us goes on a trip for business or fellowship and extended the trip.
I didn’t ask any friend to go with me because just thinking about matching schedule and arranging and re-arranging things gave me headaches. Call it a soul-searching journey, if you like, but I’m going solo, baby!
As it turned out, the idea of me, a married woman, to go on a vacation to another continent by myself was surprising for many. Some praised my audacity (as if I was going to war-torn Syria), others said I was rash and reckless and questioned whether it was a safe place to go for a solo female traveler. Again, it wasn’t like I was going to Syria, or India, though several women I know did go to India alone and nothing bad happened to them. And it wasn’t like my trip to Yangon where two guys with military-style haircut suddenly popped up in my hotel room.
But most of all, people gave credit and their sympathies to my husband, who apparently is the most understanding and nice husband in the world for ‘allowing’ his wife to go on vacation without him. A friend’s friend, an American woman, said that while it was OK to travel by herself when she was single, it didn’t feel right once she got married.
I was baffled and annoyed with all the comments, but it did make me wonder whether I was so selfish to leave my husband alone. But I thought about it again and felt that it was actually good for our relationship. Having been married for nearly a decade and being childless by choice, it would be nice to take a break from one another once in a while to avoid boredom and codependence.
Fear of Flying
The worst thing about traveling solo, however, is the plane ride. I love traveling but I hate flying, no thanks to a couple of severe turbulence. This time, no matter how hard I prayed, calling all the gods possible, the plane was shaking when it flew over India and only stopped a few hours before landed in Istanbul.
I was restless and sweating profusely. In a moment of desperation, I turned to the passenger next to me, an Indonesian woman traveling with her family, “I’m sorry, I’m really, really sorry, but can I hold your arm?” She smiled, saying it was OK, so I held hers during the turbulence.
And that’s how we became friends. After exchanging numbers, and promised to meet, we went separate ways once we touched down Istanbul.
The city is what it promised to be. The atmosphere is thick with traces of different civilizations and cultures—Muslim Turks, Islam, Christendom, East, West, Asia and Europe.
The summer view was gorgeous, with clear blue sky that meets the equally blue Bosphorus Strait, the succulent colorful fruits sold in every corner, and high-rises red brick buildings.
And the food! Oh the food was just heaven, the best eastern Mediterranean cuisines. The cheeses and bread were amazing, and I could not get enough of ayran the yoghurt drink , the ubiquitous simit or sesame seed rolls, the pastry and pistachio. More than one occasion, I turned heads because of the way I ate – devouring every bite and said ‘damn, it’s good’ over and over again.
Location, location, location
I rented a room inside a three-story apartment in Beyoglu area that I found from airbnb.com. I chose it because it’s cheap, less than US$25 a night but I got the room for myself, instead of sharing it with four to 10 other strangers in a hostel. Besides, I wanted to know how locals live.
The apartment was neat and the host was friendly and helpful. The neighborhood, however, was a bit rundown and shabby, although it was clean. The neighbors could be rowdy, sitting on the stairs in front of their buildings, chatting until the wee hours. Their voices were combined with the sound of their children screaming and running around, food vendors and their carts, and the calls for prayer (which is a bit subdued, better than the one at home).
But the location was perfect, and it’s behind a police station so I felt safe going home at night (except for the last day, but we’ll get to that later). Beyoglu is only 10-minute walk away from Taksim Square, Istiqlal Street where restaurants and shops are, and Karakoy area by the Bosphorus.
After spending three days of checking the tourists’ must-see list—Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Turkish bath in a hamam, and so on—I spent the rest of my stay literally walking around the city and getting lost. I walked up and down the steep alleys, going in and out of galleries and bookshops, jumping up and down of the train, stopping in a coffee shop whenever I felt tired, or just sat in the yard of Istanbul Modern, the art museum, by the Bosphorus, and read. It was the best time.
I didn’t go to other cities as I only had eight days, and I didn’t want to spend it hoping from one place to another. I’d rather get to know one place better and immerse myself in it. As it turned out, so much to see and do in Istanbul that eight days were not enough.
As with me being a solo traveler, I didn’t find any problem. Safe practice means avoiding quiet streets at night or not wearing excessive jewelry, and stay away from taxis (I got ripped off!). I also found Turkish people similar with my fellow countrymen, being laid back and friendly. So, there was nothing to worry about.
Tear Gas Conundrum
On the last day, my husband texted me, saying that my father called him. My father, the deadpan man who barely talk and called me only once a month to ask ‘Are you well?” and then hangs up after I said I was fine. And he called his sons in law only in an emergency, which never happened before.
“Why would he call you? What did he say?” I asked.
“He asked how I was doing, and if I was OK by myself. I said, ‘Errr, yes, I’m fine’,” my husband said, chuckling.
Great. So, now my own father also thinks I’m a wayward wife too? Gee, Dad, what happened to the speech ‘Everyone will end up alone. So, never depend on others’ you told me over and over again when I grew up?
Sulking, I went to meet the family I met on the plane for dinner. We met in front of a store in the middle of Istiklal Street, which was strangely filled with police officers. The answer came soon after when we saw hundreds of people from afar, marching and shouting slogans toward Taksim Square.
Excited, I told the family to wait for me and ran to the crowd to take pictures and video. Apparently, they were protesting against the police for the death of a protester in a Syrian border. It was near dusk and more and more people were coming, many went straight from work, seeing their attires.
All of a sudden, there were the sounds of shootings and soon tear gas was all over the air, hurting my eyes. I ran to an alley nearby and went with several other people inside a small building. “Come, come up, there’s an Internet café that you can stay,” one of them said.
I quickly followed him to the second floor and went inside the Internet café. There were about 10 people inside, looking completely indifferent to what was happening outside, even though the shootings were incessant and the tear gas was so thick it even permeated the café.
I texted a friend of a friend, a Turkish woman I met a couple of days ago to tell the situation. “Stay there until the streets are safe and try not to be stuck between police, they are not polite at all. There are some civil police who attack— those are dangerous. They won’t attack inside cafes or shops,” she said.
I waited in distress. The shootings were still going on, and we saw people burning used tires and throwing rocks on the police, who shot tear gas canister and plastic bullets back at them.
Two hours later, the shootings dialed down and the employees at the café said he would take me home. Covering my mouth and nose with wet towel, we went through Istiklal and small alleys. They were a mess, with rocks, cans and burnt tires all over the place, and groups of people and the police were still seen. We finally arrived at the police station near the house that I lived, but they formed a barricade and didn’t allow us to pass by.
We had to circle the entire block before finally got to the house. It was dead quiet this time. Nobody was around. I thanked the good employees of the Internet café and quickly went inside.
What a night. Thank you, Istanbul, for the experience. You certainly made me feel at home. And I really wish I could go back again some day—with or without my husband.