Thursday, January 14, 2016

New Year's in Istanbul

December 31, 2015 – January 3, 2016

Happy New Year everyone!! May the year 2016 bring good health and happiness to you and your family.

New Year is one-of-a-kind holiday. It is special because it is celebrated universally, and it symbolizes many things: a new start, courage to let go of the past, strength to forgive and move on, and gratitude for being able to travel around the sun one more time. To me, a New Year is a mix of all these things. I look forward to what 2016 has to bring, while I smile at all what’s happened in 2015. I'm excited to let go of some of my past struggles and confront the new ones. For all the people that have hurt me or caused me anguish, I'm ready to forgive them and move on as a stronger person. And most importantly, I'm grateful to be alive for one more year, to spend time with my loved ones, and to live my life to the fullest.

I often use New Year's Eve as a time to reflect about the good and bad things that have happened in the last 365 days, while staying optimistic about what the next 365 days will bring.

As a recap, here are my 2015 milestones. I am grateful for all of these things.
  • 2015 started with breathing in a sigh of relief after submitting all my grad school apps
  • In March, I was selected for the Fulbright fellowship
  • In April, I was accepted to the Tufts Fletcher School
  • In May, I was offered the Pickering Fellowship, that brought me to tears
  • In July, I left my work at Liberty Mutual with mixed emotions
  • In August, I moved to Turkey, unaware of the challenges and opportunities that lied ahead of me
  • Since August until now, I have been exploring Turkey, learning new things, making new friends, learning Turkish
Here are things I look forward to in 2016:
  • Europe trip over winter break, if we can manage to plan it.
  • Going home to America! Homesickness is real.
  • Summer internship at the U.S. State Department’s Pakistan Desk.
  • Moving back to MA for graduate school—brrr, hello snow again.
These are my three New Year’s resolutions:
  • Drink more water. There is no better medicine than water. People drink a lot of Coca Cola in Turkey, and I plan to order su (water) at restaurants from now.
  • Jog more and build stamina for running again, as I want to stay fit.
  • Learn to read and write Urdu—Urdu is my native language and I can speak it fluently since I was born in Pakistan and lived there for 8 years before moving to the USA; however, I have lost the abilities to read and write this beautiful language. The alphabet is suppressed in my memory somewhere so I feel fairly confident that an intense summer course might bring me up to speed. Perhaps the State Department will allow me to study at their Foreign Service Institute (FSI) during my summer internship.

Traveling to Istanbul
Alex and I decided to spend New Year in Istanbul. We hadn’t traveled in three weeks, and revisiting Istanbul seemed like a good idea—we would get to see the famed fireworks and spend time with other Fulbrighters in Turkey’s historical city. We had a rough start, however.

Our administration failed to communicate to us that we had no speaking club classes the week leading up to New Year’s Day, which was frustrating because Alex and I booked an evening flight to Istanbul. Had we known we didn’t have afternoon classes, we could have booked an earlier flight. To make matters worse, it was snowing in Istanbul and there were an unusual amount of flights going to Istanbul, both of which contributed to major delays. Those that know me well know that I can be very impatient, especially during situations that do not have a logical justification. I could not figure out why every flight to Istanbul was delayed. Should the airport not plan for enough runways? This isn’t the first time people are flocking to Istanbul to celebrate New Year’s, therefore shouldn’t the airport officials and airlines plan for these types of situations ahead of time? Whatever happened to data analysis? If I were still at my desk at Liberty Mutual, I’d be slicing and dicing customer data like nobody’s business. Alas, I’m in Turkey and this place is surely teaching me patience.

Headed to Istanbul on NYE with Toffee Nut Latte.
Alex and I decided to kill our time by sipping Starbucks coffee. I’m actually not a huge fan of Starbucks—overpriced coffee is so overrated—but every once in a while, in peculiar situations like this one, when one’s soul is left with nothing but desperation, when frustration leaves you with no other choice, I resort to the multinational, multi-million dollar company to provide me with a warm cup of caffeine that can calm my nerves. And it worked. Toffee Nut Latte was just what I needed to calm my negativity and pessimism. I complained to Alex that we would miss the fireworks, that this trip was ruined, that it wasn’t worth it any more. I was grateful to her positivism because I was beginning to lose hope. That’s one of my favorite things about Alex; she reminds me of the light at the end of the tunnel. We make a great team!

Finally at a little past 10pm, our flight began boarding. In less than an hour, we were in Istanbul. Finally! But…it was snowing. We took a bus to Taksim Square. But the clock was ticking, and I feared that we would ring in the New Year en route to our destination. My fear came true. Alex and I counted the final minute of 2015 on an unusually quite bus. I couldn’t understand why everyone else was silent. Weren’t they happy for 2016? In hushed voices, Alex and I whispered “10, 9, 8, 7….” and then threw our hands in the air, and gave each other a hug. And this is how I spent my New Year’s Eve, my friends. No pity needed, because at least I was with someone I loved, Alex. Besides, all holidays are about being with the people you love. “Plus, it’s not New Year’s in America yet, so we really didn’t miss it,” said Alex, reminding me again to stay positive.

When we got to Taksim Square, we called our Airbnb host who directed us to take a taxi to the hostel. The weather was miserable; it was a blizzard as we got off the bus. We decided to taxi to our hostel, which was 10 minutes away. The driver made small talk with us and appeared to be very warm—but he turned out to be a crook! He asked us for 100 lira, which I knew was a joke; and then tried to tell us that he was giving us a concession and charging us only 50 lira. Which is still SUPER expensive. The ride should have only cost 10 or 15 lira, but instead we were forced to pay 50 lira. I begged the driver to give us 10 lira back so that we could buy baklava or something. Feeling guilty for ripping off two innocent girls, he smiled through the rearview mirror and handed us the 10 lira change. I expected rates to be high on New Year’s Eve, but this guy was a total crook. I don’t understand people cheat others. It’s an awful thing to do, and I don’t know how people live with themselves after having committed the deed. Needless to say, being overcharged by the taxi driver was the icing on the cake of our awful travel to Istanbul.

Our hostel was actually pretty sweet, unlike the first one which was super sketchy. Four other girls joined us for this 7-bed hostel: Monica, Sara, Jessica, and Caitie. There were three sets of bunk beds plus a lone one. The hostel came with heating, towels, soap, shampoo, and slipper—I was super impressed. Felt like a mini hotel, but for a much cheaper cost of course. The only downfall of this hostel was the alley on which it’s located. Our host was also very hospitable, constantly checking in on us and being available at all times. The living situation was great, no complaints here.

Istiklal Street
Istiklal means ‘independence.’ Istiklal Avenue is one of the most famous streets in Istanbul. It is apparently visited by nearly 3 million people in a single day over the course of weekends, according to Wikipedia. “Located in the historic Beyoğlu (Pera) district, it is an elegant pedestrian street, 1.4 kilometers long, which houses boutiques, music stores, bookstores, art galleries, cinemas, theatres, libraries, cafés, pubs, night clubs with live music, historical patisseries, chocolateries and restaurants.” There’s even a historic red tram that runs up and down the street. The girls and I indulged in Persian food and sweets the night we hung out. I ordered an awful dish at the Persian restaurant—something sweet with walnuts, but curried in a dark gravy. Even though I didn’t enjoy my dinner, the cheesecake we had afterward totally made up for it.
Dolmabahçe Palace

One of the highlights of this trip was visiting the historical, extravagant, and ginormous palace of the Sultans. Sarah, Jessica, Alex, and I toured the Dolmabahce Palace on Saturday. It costs 30 TL for adults and 5 TL for students with IDs. The Dolmabahce Palace is a luxurious palace built by the many great Ottoman Sultans, and later used by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk used the place for work and occasionally lived in it. He also died in this palace on November 10, 1938 at 9:05am—all the clocks in this 285-room palace are stopped at that hour/minute to pay tribute to the father of this republic. Today, the palace is used as a museum and as a place to host foreign dignitaries. Maybe one day I'll be welcomed here as a representative of the USA. The palace is located near the Bosphorus, with huge gates smiling at the shining waters and waving at the tour boats swimming by. When my family and uncle visit Istanbul, I hope to take them on a Bosphorous ferry tour so that they can see the entire city. Because of the icy weather, it was very slippery to walk outside the palace. Our feet froze many a times, but we survived cold feet just to be able to see the magnificent interior. The palace had many rooms that were themed to a color, like the “red room” and the “blue room.” This reminded me of the East Wing of The White House, which, too, has color-themed rooms. We must have stolen the idea from the Sultans. Anyhow, even though we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, the tour was lovely and this is definitely a destination I’m adding to the itinerary of my family’s spring visit.

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