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.

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