Sunday, July 31, 2016

Family Visit to Turkey

March 20-28, 2016

After the Bursa trip, I was excited for my family’s visit to Turkey. My mother, father, older sister, and younger brother would be coming from March 20-29 for a total of 10 days. This is something I had been anticipating since January. I had booked their domestic flights and made accommodations for both Istanbul and Antalya. Everything was queued up and the only thing pending was their arrival.
In front of Ayasofya with older sister, younger brother, and parents.
The Day Before
I flew to Istanbul one day before, on Saturday, March 19th. I was on a Pegasus flight that flew into the Sabiha Gockcen Airport around 10:30am. I had planned to spend a night with a Pakistani-American woman named Sophia Umar and her husband in their apartment in an upper-class neighborhood known as 4.Levent. Sophia and I connected online through “Muppies,” a Muslim professionals network. I was scheduled to catch a bus to her house after my flight, but as soon as I got out of the airport around 11am, I saw that I had several missed calls from Kari, the Fulbright program advisor. I became nervous because it can only mean something bad if the Fulbright Commission is trying to reach you. They had warned us not to travel this weekend, but I had informed them that I couldn’t change my plans because my family was set to arrive on March 20. I feared the calls were related to security. When I called Kari back, my suspicions came true. Unbeknownst to me was that a suicide bombing had taken place at İstiklal Avenue (central shopping street) at 10:55am that morning and the Commission needed to know I was safe. I was shocked that yet another attack in Turkey had taken place. The attack reportedly killed 5 people and injured 36 others.

Disturbed by the news, I cautiously walked towards the buses lined up outside the airport. I needed to find bus E3 to take me to Sophia’s neighborhood. A husky, charming bus driver was smoking a cigarette outside bus E3 when I approached him. He told me that the bus was scheduled to run at noon. As if he could read my emotions, he puffed out smoke, turned to me and said: “Oturmak ester misin?” Would you like to sit? I smiled and answered, “Evet, lütfen, eğer problem yok.” Yes, please, if it’s not a problem. With my curls bouncing on my shoulders and red lipstick drawing unnecessary attention, I quickly realized that my appearance was not the most appropriate given the events of the day. But how was I supposed to know? The driver then boarded the bus and we talked in Turkish; by now, I was comfortable fluently answering the basic curiosity questions of Turks: Where are you from? What do you do? Are you single? How old are you? After the driver’s fourth cigarette, I couldn’t bear the second hand smoke any longer so I offered him Dentee gum from my purse. Out of politeness, he took a piece. We continued chatting while chewing gum to kill time. At least he stopped smoking.

Finally, around noon, the bus filled up with more passengers and we embarked on the bus route. At one of the stops, the driver bought coffee for himself and me. I felt uncomfortable by this gesture of special treatment, so I offered my cup to the gentleman sitting next to me. He and others around me insisted I drink it, “ikram” they said, our treat. They could tell I was a foreigner. This isn’t the first time I received special treatment from Turks; their hospitality and respect for foreigners, especially Americans, is indescribable. I’ve acknowledged this privilege and sometimes when I would feel too guilty, I downplay my American-ess and up-play my Pakistani-ness, but my rapid-fire English in an American accent do not help me with these missions. This hospitality reveals the immense amount of respect and love Turks have for Americans. I feel double the love when they learn of my Pakistani origin.

When the bus came to the final stop, where I needed to get off, the driver asked me if I wanted to have lunch. Again, these gestures of hospitality are far too common, but as a young girl traveling on my own, I often take caution. I politely declined and told him I was running late for another scheduled lunch. I wanted to thank him for his kindness though—letting me sit on the bus for an hour, chatting with me, keeping me company, buying me coffee. Saying “teşekkür ederim” didn’t feel enough. So, I whipped out the Dentee gum pack, smiled, and offered it to him, adding in mumble-jumble Turkish: “If you ever feel the urge to pull out a cigarette again, I hope you reach for gum instead.” He smiled graciously and thanked me for the American commodity. We wished each other well. Even though our paths may never cross again, I was grateful that they did for the brief period.

Sophia picked me up from the bus station (near a big mall) and we walked to her apartment. She had set up a guest room for me and I met her husband. It was a stormy day and news kept pouring in about the attack on all news channels. We heeded the warnings about staying in and watched a movie in the living room instead of going to Prince’s Island or to the Istanbul Art Museum as originally planned.

Muppies dinner with Sophia, her husband, and friends.
That evening, after things seemed to have calmed down, we had dinner at an Italian pizza place called Upper Crust Pizza on Küçük Bebek Cadessi. I had organized this meet-up for Istanbul members of Muppies. There isn’t a big community of Muppies in Istanbul, unfortunately, but we had a turnout of about 6 people nonetheless, which was pretty good for a first go. The company included Sophia and her husband, a Pickering fellow studying abroad in Istanbul Salman Haji and his friend, and one other Pakistani girl named Nazia. Everyone introduced themselves and shared how/why they were in Istanbul.

There was a bookshelf next to our table and one book caught my attention: How to Become Rich by Donald Trump. As we waited for our pizzas, I humored the crowed by reading short excerpts from Trump’s book. “For many years I’ve said if someone screws you, screw them back,” writes Trump in a chapter titled Sometimes You Still Have to Screw Them. “When someone hurts you, just go after them as viciously and violently as you can.” I was appalled at such a published text! In another chapter titled, Have an Ego, Trump shamelessly writes, “As you know, this rule has been easy for me to follow. But hear me out—I’ve got a good reason for it. Having a well-developed ego, contrary to popular opinion, is a positive attribute. It is the center of our consciousness and serves to give us a sense of purpose.” The scary question is, will Trump’s ego help him win the General Election??

Family Arrives
The next morning, I had kahvaltı with Sophia and her husband, and hurried over to the hotel to drop off my belongings before picking up my parents. I didn’t realize this until I got off at the hotel, but I was being followed by a young Turkish man. I saw him lurking outside the hotel and I recognized him from my train ride. I picked up my pace and turned on different streets, but he managed to catch up. I confronted him and he said he wanted to help me. I told him I didn’t need any help but he insisted. He followed me on the train to the airport as well. My “longer route” made me late to pick up my parents, for which I was extremely embarrassed. As soon as I got to the airport, I ran as fast I could, dodging in between people until I lost sight of the man. My parents landed at 4:30pm and I arrived at 5:15pm. I felt horrible for being late, and my vision for welcoming them didn’t pan out. I had planned to wait at the arrivals gate with a hand-made sign that read “Hoşgeldiniz” (Welcome) with tulips around the word. Instead, I found them in the waiting area, wondering where their daughter was. They even had to use a stranger's phone to call me. Upon arrival, I hugged them and showed them the sign. It was so great to see them! I didn’t want to ruin the moment by telling them about a horror story of being followed, so I lied and told them there was extra traffic on the road because of what had happened yesterday. 

Touring Istanbul
Thanks to Attia’s hotel points, we stayed at the fancy Double Tree by Hilton Istanbul – Old Town hotel. It was quite luxurious, with comfortable bedding, a hamam in the basement, and buffet-style breakfast included. We even got complimentary cookies upon check-in. Our stay at the Hilton hotel was lovely; we even took advantage of the hamam bath, steam room and the sauna (dry heat).
Istanbul view from Sulemaniye Mosque's courtyard.
We spent four days in Istanbul and I showed my family all the tourist sights that I was familiar with— Sulemaniye Mosque (my favorite!), Ayasofya, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Sarayı, and the Grand Bazaar. We also did new things that I hadn’t done before, such as a boat tour around the Bosphorus, shopping at the famous Egyptian Spice Bazaar, and going up to Piyerloti Hill via Eyüp Gondola aerial lift ride. There were a few hiccups in our trip, of course, including being tricked by taxi drivers. I’ll share three quick stories and then let the pictures tell the rest. 
The first story involves an aggressive, stubborn, and lying taxi driver who dropped us off Piyerloti Hill despite our wanting to go to Sultanahmet Square. He insisted that there was too much security in that area, tourists weren't allowed, and buildings were closed. He knew that Sultanahmet was only a five-minute ride away (and thus a cheaper fare) so instead, he cleverly decided to drop off the non-Turkish speaking tourists at a location that was 30 minutes away (for a fare of 80 lira). We paid the crooked man 60 lira and shooed him off, with Baba yelling at him in English and he yelling back in Turkish—and me understanding both of them and wishing it was over. This experience ruined the start of our day yet we managed to have a great time any way—because when you’re traveling, you just have to go with the flow. Even though we hadn’t requested to be at Piyerloti Hill, it turned out to be a fantastic spot with breathtaking views of the entire Istanbul, both east and west, Asian and European. You could see the Golden Horn Bridge and the Bosporus Bridge, the Galata Bridge and Faith Sultan Mehmet Bridge. You could outline all seven hills of the city with your finger and point to the mosques that smiled from afar. Oh, it was quite a sight!
Istanbul in all its glory from Piyerloti Hill.

The second story is that Attia almost got pick pocketed at the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. She felt someone’s hand tug at her iPhone inside her purse; luckily her reflexes made the culprit drop the phone and dash away. In the busy streets of squirming tourists and storekeepers loudly yelling deals, one must be very careful of their belongings. Mom indulged in spices and silver coffee cups. Attia bought jewelry and evil eye key chains. Baba bargained for electronic items such as car phone chargers. Dani was just hungry for food, though he did buy 5-lira selfie sticks. And me? I’m always shopping for gifts for others.

The last story is about tourist traps. We bought lokum (Turkish delight) at one shop upon entering the Spice Bazaar, and two shops later, realized we were overcharged. When an Indian guy approached us and told us that his shop sells lokum for a lower cost, Mama and Baba were not too thrilled. Everyone falls victim to the trap (remember how many times I did that when I moved here?); there’s just no way around it. We used caution thereon after.

Touring Antalya
Antalya’s trip was equally successful. We didn’t have the luxury of a Hilton hotel, but my spacious apartment sufficed. Mom and Dad slept in the third, unused room; Attia took my room; and Dani and I crashed on the living room couches. Alex was a friendly host and welcomed my family into our apartment, and even helped me prepare a homemade kahvaltı, which we enjoyed on our balcony. We invited her to all our adventures—she was like another sister, since we were missing Laraib and Maryum.
Like Istanbul, we managed to cram a lot of sights in a few, short days. We relaxed and ate mediye (stuffed mussels with aromatic rice) on Konyalatı and Lara beaches; spent a lovely afternoon walking around the Düden Şelalesi (Waterfall Park); enjoyed an entire day in Greek ruins at Side; and walked the curvy bazaar streets of Kaleiçi. We met our landlords for dinner at a restaurant, and then they invited us to their house for a full feast. My family also got to meet my Turkish Hocalarim (teachers), colleagues like Meltem and Asli at Akdeniz University, Konak Kafe Baba, and our Pakistani family (Adnan Bhai hosted us). Mom wanted more time to shop, but because Attia was moody, our scheduled trips were quite delayed. In fact, of my 3-page planned agenda, only one-half was covered. I suppose it’s better to over plan and not meet all the destinations than to under plan and run out of things to do. Plus, Antalya is SO big, it took me several months so see all of it; expecting my family to cover the same amount of ground in a few days was unrealistic for sure. Nonetheless, we had a lovely time in Antalya.
It was so lovely to see my family and be surrounded by their presence. Living abroad is taxing, and seeing familiar faces is comforting. I am happy that they got to see where I live, how I commute to work, where I work, who my friends and colleagues are. It’s one thing to share these details over the phone, and completely another to experience it first-hand. Hopefully the visit filled in the missing details in their heads when they thought about me in Turkey. They also got to see what makes me happy: speaking a foreign language, interacting with diverse types of peoples, finding solutions to my own problems—this is my “zone.” I like being independent, I like navigating my own path, and I love sharing it.

Family Departs
Sometimes visits can be renewing. For example, after meeting Muzaffer Hocam, Baba encouraged me to continue my Turkish lessons. “Why did you stop?” he asked me. “If the school won’t give you teaching hours, at least take advantage of this great opportunity.” This was the push I needed to re-motivate myself and find a renewed purpose of my life in Antalya. A day after their departure, I showed up to class sharply at 8:30 a.m.

When I dropped off my family at the Antalya airport at 6am, warm tears streamed down my cheek. I courageously held back my tears until after they passed through the security checkpoint. I walked outside, feeling sad and exhausted after 10 days of nonstop travel. I sat on the curb and waited for my bus, making zero effort to clean the tears that trickled down my neck onto my jacket. With my blurry vision, I saw a tiny bird fly nearby me, chirping for food. I had nothing to offer the baby bird. It had clearly survived on its own for so long, but suddenly it was lost again. I felt bad for the bird. I secretly prayed that its mother would come rescue it, feed it worms, tuck it under warm arms, and take it home.

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