Monday, August 31, 2015

Journey to Ankara

There are two take-away's from this post:
  • First, that I am safely in my final destination of Ankara, alhamdulillah.
  • Second, the journey was quite bumpy and interesting. See below for the three legs of my journey.

IAD (Dulles), 9:30pm to CDG (Paris), 11am
After saying goodbye to my family, I waited at my gate for an hour. An Air France staff lady walked around the waiting area looking for volunteers to check in additional carry-on items for free; I gladly gave up my carry-on, becoming a minimalist traveling only with my backpack which held my laptop, wallet, and journal. For the first time in my life, I had a seat near the emergency exit. I was promised extra leg room in exchange for guiding passengers safely to the exit in case of an actual emergency. There were two ladies who accompanied me in that role. To my left sat an African woman who was traveling to Mali for a peacekeeping mission for the UN, and to my right sat a white woman who had a cold. The worst part about this 8-hour flight was that I may have caught the white lady's germs. I did watch Legally Blonde 2 and The Queen though, which was a good balance between fun and serious movies, and helped me not think about the germs I was breathing. I'm very germophobic.

CDG (Paris), 12:35pm to IST (Istanbul), 16:55
A view of mountains while flying to Istanbul.
This was a very troubling flight. It was late, I felt sick on it, and there was an unusual passenger on board. While waiting at the gate, I ran into another Fulbrighter headed to Turkey. She was also Pakistani like me and therefore we bonded over our desi culture. But as we started boarding, we heard screaming from the back of the 25-row plane. At first I thought someone was getting medical assistance, but as I made my way towards my seat in the 20th row, I saw two French police officers holding down an Arab-looking man. When I put my backpack in the overhead compartment, I could see that the Arab man was handcuffed. He was yelling at the top of his lungs, repeating the same two phrases. I can't remember what he was saying, but I remember hearing the word "Hezbollah" a few times. I felt nervous and uneasy being seated so close to him. The Pakistani girl was seated in row 24, and she was even more scared than I was, so she asked that I sit with her. As a good friend, I agreed to be supportive. In row 24, we both sat directly across from what appeared to be a detainee, literally 3 feet away. As he screamed and banged his head against the seat, I couldn't help but stare. I felt nauseous, jet-lagged, hungry, sick, and sleepy; and now, very uncomfortable because of what I witnessed. After everyone was seated, the French steward noticed us turning completely yellow and he moved us to seats towards the front of the plane. I felt better about my new window seat, but still had a ranging headache as I tried to make sense of my sniffles and what was happening. As soon as we were served lunch (best plane food I have ever eaten, by the way! - mushroom/mozzarella cheese hot pocket sandwich, bread with brie cheese, pasta with salmon, and a chocolate brownie!), I took two pills of Advil-like pain killer medicine and slept like a baby. I managed to snap a picture from my window seat during landing. Enjoy the pretty mountains! (Unfortunately I don't know what mountain range that is.)

IST (Istanbul), 19:35 to ESD (Ankara), 21:02
Istanbul was a mad house! I felt like an ant squirming in an ant house or a dirt hole, pushing over other ants to move ahead. Needless to say, it was the most stressful airport experience of my journey. I had to single-handedly retrieve my luggage and recheck it for a domestic flight. This was not an easy task. My first challenge was getting a cart; I didn't have any Euros and the currency exchange line was huge. I decided to offer the lady in line ahead of me Turkish lira for a Euro coin; much to my surprise, she was very kind and gave me the coin for free! So glad to know goodness still exists in the world. I proceeded to my luggage claim area, which was the furthest station in the airport. Just my luck. With God's grace, I got all my luggage and exited the "international" section of the Istanbul Ataturk Airport and proceeded to the "domestic" section. This is where things were haywire. It was very disorganized and people were rushing in every direction. I managed to finally find Turkish Airlines desk and waited in line to book my luggage and get my boarding pass. Not only did people cut me in line, which I found to be rude and frustrating, I had to pay again to check my luggage, which as you know I despise. The man who was helping me could not speak any English, and I encountered my first gesticulating experience. He gave me a receipt with luggage weight printed on it and instructed me to go make a payment at the sales desk; noting that he would withhold my passport until I do so. What a hassle, and how inconvenient. I had to make my way back through squirming ants, wait in another line at the sales office, and pay approximately $60 in Turkish lira. After my first successful Turkish lira transaction, I went back to the short man at the Turkish Airlines desk, gave him my receipt of payment, and he finally issued me my boarding pass. Many people asked him questions while he was helping me and I exercised my patience skills.

When I found my domestic flight's gate, I found a huddle of young people sitting in a circle on the floor. Such an American thing to do at airports, and at once, I knew that was the Fulbright bunch. I chatted with them, made new friends, and waited for the flight to Ankara with dry eye contacts and an exhausted body. The food on the flight was eggplant sauce and a turkey sandwich -- ha, I'm not sure if that was supposed to be a punny joke on their part. The domestic flight was quick, maybe 40 minutes but the landing was atrocious. Instead of a smooth "woosh", the plane landed with a big "THUMP". Luckily we were all safe.

Ankara to Hotel
Like a sheep following a herd, all passengers getting off the Ankara flight went to the first sign that said "baggage claim". What many people missed, including myself and all my fellow Fulbright peers, was that there were two baggage claim areas -- an international one, and a domestic one. So where does everyone go? To the wrong baggage claim. For some people who were able to book their luggage directly to Ankara, the international baggage claim area was the correct place to be. But for majority of us, we waited like fools in the international section not realizing that our baggage was actually in the domestic area since our flight was coming from Istanbul. These are real life experiences, people. It would help if I knew some Turkish -- inshAllah, soon I will. At about 23rd hour (11pm), a group of of us found our luggage, took the Belko Air bus to the hotel (very fancy and comfortable for only 8 TL ~ $2.50), got off at a big station, took a taxi that drove 100mph without seat belts, and reached our destination, the fancy Niza Park Hotel, at 12:30am. My phone battery was at 3% and the first thing I did when I got into my room was charge it and let my family know I had safely arrived.

Why do airports make you cry?

August 29, 2015

Today is my last day in the U.S. and it has been a pretty hectic one. I woke up two whole hours earlier than my normal summer hour, noon, and finished packing. My older sister took me to the mall to get comfortable Nike shoes, but malls over the weekends are crowded and it took us longer than we had anticipated. Nonetheless, we got home in a timely fashion, ate Mom's delicious chicken biryani, and got ready. As per tradition, my family took photos and then we all prayed for my safe journey. Around 5:30pm, we hit the road for Dulles airport.

I'm flying Air France from DC to Istanbul, with a quick layover in Paris. I packed two checked luggage, one carry-on, and a backpack. Luckily my first checked luggage was free, but the second one cost $100. There's nothing in the world I hate more than luggage fees. But alas, such is life. And no, this is not what made me cry at the airport.

Next, my parents and my younger sister went to the exchange booth because I wanted to have some Turkish lira on me before I got to the country. The current rate in the market is 2.91 lira per dollar; but the guy at the booth cheated us and gave us 2.51 lira per dollar, in addition to charging us a $10 service fee. Baba was not happy about this, and I rolled my eyes in frustration. There are some things in life that you just have to accept; sadly, a corrupt world is one of them. Again, no tears here.

The Departure Gates. That's where it happened.

There was a man standing in front of the big sign labeled "All Departure Gates." His job is to check boarding passes and only let traveling passengers through, which means he probably witnesses a lot of emotional moments. What a tough job! Speaking of emotional moments, my family and I had mine. My mom started crying, which made me cry, and we shared a warm hug for a good two minutes. Then I turned around, and saw Baba teary-eyed, and I hugged him goodbye too. Last time I saw Baba cry was when he dropped me off at Bowdoin College back in August 2009. Finally, I hugged my airport photographer, my sister Laraib and proceeded towards the man witnessing the scene. I didn't want to look back but I couldn't help it. I waved my family a final goodbye, took a huge breath (which helped clear out the emotions), and went down the escalators.

Saying goodbye to my family at Dulles Int'l Airport.
There's something about airports that just brings choking tears to people's eyes. I don't know what it is. Maybe they spray something special in airports to make sure eyes water up. Parting from family members, regardless of the occasion, is very symbolic and often emotional. I told my mom she had nothing to worry about because I would be back in 9 months, and she and Baba would be visiting me in a few months too - that we will all be reunited in just a matter of short time. This didn't console her much because I knew the thought that was lingering in her mind -- it was the same one that lingered in my mind. The thought that no one likes to admit but expresses with their tears: what if there is no next time? What if this is it, this is the last time you see your family?

As scary as that thought may be, I'm an optimist so I like to think the best of every situation. I am confident that my travels will be safe and that I will return to the USA in one piece, inshAllah. That said, there was one last thing that made me cry at the airport: I badly chipped my left thumb's nail, so much so that it bled a little. It must have happened at some point while I was handling luggage. I didn't have clippers on me, so a bandaid did the trick.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Some News

First, some good news: I got my work visa on Monday! Woo! I'm so happy to check that off my list. It's a huge relief. I went to the Turkish Embassy on Monday, August 3rd between 9am and 1pm, just as the shrewd lady had advised. When I picked up my passport, the lady handed me a receipt and quickly bid me adieu. While I've had warmer encounters, that morning, I was just happy I got my vize.

Second, some okay news: I've started packing a little bit, but not too much. I can't decide what clothes to take, what items to leave behind, what can be bought in Turkey (like shampoo and soap) and what cannot (apparently index cards). I'm not sure if I should pack some American board games like 'Apples to Apples' or 'Uno' -- would my students even enjoy them? One of my roles as a Fulbright Scholar is to serve as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. Hmm, I need to think some more about how I can best convey the values of America while still keeping the classes fun and engaging. I'm open to suggestions if anyone has any!

Third, some exciting news (saved the best for the last): I have received my flight itinerary from the Turkish Fulbright Commission. It's official -- I am flying out on Saturday, August 29th! I will be having a small layover in Le France before arriving to my final destination of Istanbul. In talking to other Turkey Fulbright scholars on Facebook, looks like we are all arriving to Istanbul around the same time. All of us will then have a connecting flight to Ankara, where we will have a two-week Orientation. In preparation for the intensive Orientation, I have checked out some books from the library to learn some Turkish phrases.

This is all becoming real, slowly by slowly. I suppose you can say the countdown has begun.