An Unexpected Introduction to Istanbul


I swallowed hard with an expression that was no doubt a mixture of delight and annoyance as I suppressed that small lump clawing its way up into my throat as the airplane descended the final few thousand feet before bouncing down onto the runway. The view out the window was unusual.  What I had initially thought to be part of the city’s sprawl clarified into a veritable armada of dozens of merchant vessels all anchored in line, waiting their turn to traverse the Bosphorus.

Before long the thick rubber tires of the Turkish Airways flight were rumbling along the tarmac soon to be replaced by the high pitched squeak of my shoes on the polished marble tiles of Ataturk International Airport.  Laden with my front and back packs – in total weighing just under 15kg – I wound my way through the airport’s serpentine complex of tunnels, halls, and checkpoints in search of the metro.  It was relatively late. My flight landed just after 9:30PM. Darkness had long since fallen.  I was experiencing that familiar feeling of slight anxiety over finding my way to my hostel, at night, through one of the world’s largest cities.  As usual, I hadn’t bothered to pick up a guide book or a map.  I softly chided myself and wondered – as I often do – if it had been a mistake.  No time to dwell, I eventually found a metro map and paused just long enough to trace my route and take a photo on my phone.  With a map to reference it was time to take the escalator down and into the nearly abandoned metro station.

I didn’t know what to expect.  In a conversation earlier on the flight I’d learned that contrary to the 8-13 million person population I had expected via Wikipedia, the locals all placed the actual figure closer to 19/20 Million.  Nearly double the size.  Guides, tweets, and other travelers had warned me that locals were friendly, but could also be obnoxiously pushy sales people and were prone to running scams.  I had a mental image of the Hollywood versions of the markets in Morocco or Mumbai, filled with in-your-face sales people, large throngs of humanity and more pick-pockets than tourists.    I was on my guard.  Shoulders rolled forward. Thumbs stuck in my front pockets.  I didn’t expect trouble, but I was also dead set on making sure I didn’t find any.

As I waited for the train on the largely deserted platform, I repeatedly checked the map trying to figure out which side would take me in the right direction.  Most metro systems are similar, but there are always subtle differences that take a while to figure out.  Is it a zone system or does it work on a per-line ticket basis?  Does the train stop at midnight or run 24 hours?  How are the signs laid out?  Do they announce stops on the train or do you have to watch each station carefully?  As I worked to figure out each of these key pieces of information, I eventually approached a lone man standing near me and asked to confirm that I was in the right spot, for the right line, in the correct direction.

Luckily he spoke English and was eager to strike up a conversation while we waited, answering my questions and gesturing that we should sit down.  The seats were in one of the darker parts of the station, towards the end of the metro line’s tracks. He chatted away cheerfully and asked me questions about my visit. He seemed friendly and open.  I wasn’t.  I was cautious and guarded, though still striving to be friendly.  But, I followed him the 10 steps or so to the benches and then stood making sure I had an easy route out and away if I needed it. I didn’t.  As we chatted more and I got a better read on him, I grew more comfortable and eventually sat down – still paying close attention to my surroundings.

Eventually the metro arrived and we boarded. He asked me again where I was going and I gave him the general station and route suggested to me by the hostel.  He asked what hostel.  I told him I didn’t remember.  My notes said to transfer a few stations in.  He suggested taking the metro with him to the end of the line, then walking about 150 meters to the tram and mentioned it would cut about 20 minutes off my trip.  I glanced at the metro map.  Both seemed to make sense.  He had been helpful and friendly so far – so I agreed.

We chatted about travel, women, and a taste of politics. All the while I stared out the windows taking in a late night view of Istanbul’s strange mishmash of modern, semi-modern, and ancient architecture.  While my concern over being robbed or mugged had subsided he seemed a bit too friendly and too helpful.  In retrospect, I have to say my perception and reality had been poisoned by the stories I had heard before my trip that biased my expectations.   My new concern was that he’d approach me for money or a tip in exchange for helping me get where I was going. An annoying routine I’ve run into all over the globe.  So, with this concern in mind, as we reached the end of the metro line, and he offered to show me along to the tram station/my hostel if I needed help I resisted saying I was fine and could find it/didn’t want to be an inconvenience.

He insisted on walking me to the tram station at the very least, told me we were in his neighborhood and asked if I wanted to get any food or a beer. I thank him and told him I’d eaten and needed to check into my hostel as soon as possible, as it was already nearly 11:30PM.  As we walked through the snow he gave me his number and told me to give him a call if I had any issues or wanted to connect for a tour around the city.

As we came up on the street tram he explained how it worked.  I expected that this was when he’d hit me up for some sort of tip, as he asked me one more time if I was comfortable finding my way the last leg to the hostel.  I nodded and thanked him graciously for all his help and the delightful conversation, and then fumbled in my pocket for one of the tram tokens I’d purchased at the airport. Before I could find it, and to my complete shock and surprise, he pulled out his metro pass and swiped it for me, and motioned for me to enter.  I was stunned.  Not only had I not been hassled and hit up for money, my first encounter with a local was friendly, engaging, and helpful in every way. I was grinning from ear to ear.

This wonderful experience confirmed once again why it is important to always travel with an open mind…to be friendly to the people you meet and evaluate each situation on its own merits. For my part, I’ll strive to pay his kindness forward and return the favor as I see other travelers struggling or in need of a helping hand.   Remember, you always hear horror stores about a destination, its people, or the experiences you might expect to encounter but, the reality is often vastly different.  For many of us, the nature of our experiences is based on a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Choose to give people the opportunity to surprise you, and quite often they will in wonderful ways.

The remainder of my trip to my hostel was uneventful.  I arrived a bit after midnight with a smile on my face and with my perception of what to expect from the Turks completely re-set and re-framed. Despite the snow falling outside, my mood was as bright as a summer day.  Istanbul and adventure called…but first, I needed a good night’s rest.

International Airports and Luggage Storage (Short and Long Term)

Tempe Sunset with Landing Airplane

When I arrived in Copenhagen to begin my two year study abroad program my flight got in at 10PM, I had a backpack and three 50 pound suitcases with me.  As a lone individual it was way too much for me to get into the city on my own.  Luckily, I was able to store two of those suitcases at the airport which brings me to today’s topic: luggage storage.

There are a wealth of reasons for why you may need to store your luggage at the airport. From simple logistics (like mine) and extended layovers to more complicated reasons.  I’ve seen people who were spending time in two vastly different climates and needed two sets of clothing.  Instead of hauling extra weight and bulk which they had no hope of using, they got a locker and stored it at the airport.

If you’re like me you may be wondering A) Are luggage storage/lockers affordably priced and B) In a post 9/11 world, do they still exist?

Is Post 9/11 Storage Possible?

Surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes for most major airports.  The trick is that they’re no longer (if they ever were) a stand alone department and operation.  Which means you’ve got to be slightly creative when researching if the airport you’ll be using offers luggage storage services.  The most common place to store luggage is actually at the lost luggage counter.  They have the facilities and infrastructure in place and for a daily fee will usually keep an eye on your bags for a few days, weeks or in some cases months.

Many airports also maintain coin operated luggage lockers. However, these tend to have been isolated and reinforced for security reasons. At the Copenhagen International Airport there was one set of mixed size lockers located across from the main terminal structure along a side wall of parking garage 4.  Unlike the lost luggage counter, these lockers were completely automated and had a 72 hour usage limit.

Since arrivals and departures can occur at all hours of the day make sure to do your research.  I did not and by the time I arrived in Copenhagen the lost luggage/luggage storage office had long since closed.  If not for the outdoor luggage lockers, I’d have been left stranded until the office re-opened 6 hours later.

Keep in mind that your airport may have storage services, but those services may be located in/near another terminal. Plan accordingly.

Is Airport Luggage Storage Affordable?

This is always a subjective topic. One person’s affordable is another person’s daily budget. That said, I’m inclined to say that depending on how you intend to use the luggage storage service it is typically well worth the cost.  In reviewing pricing across several airports the standard cost per day seems to be around $6-15 USD.  Depending on your needs and the airport you’re using many of the lost luggage storage services charge on a per item basis, while the luggage lockers tend to be based on size. When I used the “large” luggage lockers in Copenhagen one cost me 60DKK a day, or about $12 and fit two full sized suitcases with room for a third.  Quick online research suggests that large lockers are available at the Barcelona airport for 5.60 Euro, and in London Heathrow  lost luggage storage is 8 GBP a day per item and items can be stored for up to three months.

While you’ll almost always be better off storing your luggage at your hotel or hostel when possible, if you find yourself in a pinch or need the added security of a monitored/longer term/on site storage service there are still great options available to travelers.

Have a favorite resource for finding up-to-date information on an Airport’s luggage storage facilities and pricing? I’d love to know about it.

Don’t forget to pick up several TSA friendly Combination Luggage Locks for use on your baggage as well as securing your hostel locker.

Welcome to Argentina, Hello Buenos Aires!

Hostel Inn Tango City - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The final leg of my flight from Phoenix to Buenos Aires stretched from Florida, across Cuba and then down to Buenos Aires. During the flight, I had the pleasure of sitting next to an expat who was returning to Argentina for the first time in over 20 years.   As the hours ticked by he shared stories of his childhood adventures, insights into the Argentine culture, as well as tips and suggestions on how to stay safe and things/places to avoid. The tips were useful, they re-affirmed what I’d already been told, and added finer details on places to be mindful of, signs to keep an eye out for, and ways to dress and present myself which would reduce my appeal (shoes, clothing, watch etc.).

After a long wait to get through immigration, he mentioned that he was meeting his brother and that there was a possibility that they’d be heading into the city to drop some stuff off.  He cautioned that he couldn’t promise a ride, but if they were heading in my direction, they’d be happy to give me a lift. I evaluated my interactions with him and decided it was a great offer.

As it turned out, by the time we got out of immigration and connected with his brother and cousin they needed to head in the opposite direction and wouldn’t be available for a lift.  Eager to help though, they played the role of translator and made sure I found the stand for Manuel Tienda Leon.  The company offers budget shuttles into downtown Buenos Aires which then transfer travelers into smaller taxis for door-to-door service.  At a cost of 50 Pesos it’s a fantastic deal when compared to the ~150+ Pesos for a Taxi to/from Buenos Aires international airport.

My hostel, the Hostel Inn Tango City, was located in the heart of San Telmo which is generally noted as one of the oldest and most historical neighborhoods in Buenos Aires.  The staff was friendly and the room was good. I checked in, found my bed, tossed my stuff on it and then headed to the shower before collapsing on my bunk for a hearty nap.

A short while later I awoke to the sound of rustling as several of my roommates returned from a day out on the city.  As it turned out the room was an 8 bed dorm of which 6 beds were occupied by a great group of 6 Australian girls on a multi-month knockabout. The 8th bed was empty.  Five of the 6 are pictured below, as well as two random guys we met on the Pub Crawl.

The Pub Crawl

We quickly got acquainted before getting cleaned up, tracking down a bite to eat and then heading out on the town for a Pub Crawl we booked through the hostel.  Usually hit or miss, Pub Crawls are an ideal option for travelers interested in getting a fun dose of night life.  The crawls themselves usually have a ~$10 flat initial fee which results in a mixture of free drinks and night long drink specials. Pub Crawls typically also offer a guide who leads the group through 3-4 bars and then eventually leaves everyone at a local night club.   Despite an initial hiccup (the bar we were scheduled to start at had unexpectedly closed forcing us to re-locate to a pizza shop) the Pub Crawl ended up being a fun one with a hearty group of travelers from a mixture of hostels across the city.

We wandered through a variety of bars and pubs before eventually piling onto two chartered buses for a quick bus ride to an industrially themed night club which boasted a multi-story layout, pumping music and a fun ambiance.  Eventually, foot sore, sweaty and hungry we abandoned the club which was still in full swing and set out in the hopes of finding food.  No small task at 4:45AM as it turned out, as most of the local fast food joints were closed (albeit briefly) for cleaning.

As we enjoyed a quick meal and tall glass of water dawn came and went. Eventually, with only a brief grumble about the sun we hailed a cab and wandered our way back up to our hostel bunks hoping to stealing a little sleep before the day began in earnest.

The city

My first full day spent in Buenos Aires was simple.  Mostly one of transition – I meandered the San Telmo district aimlessly.  Still stiff from the club the night before and the long plane ride from the states, I found the architecture and general feel of the San Telmo district to be very similar to rural areas of Madrid, only with a slightly dirtier/grungier South American feel.

Fearful of pickpockets I left my camera at the hostel, though now in retrospect and after subsequent time spent in Buenos Aires that was completely unnecessary.

In San Telmo I quickly tracked down a small hole in the wall. The place lacked a major sign and seemed to be serving one of two meal options. I saddled up to the small bar area and was nearly dumped onto the ground by loose screws securing the bar stool.  With a chuckle and only slightly ruffled pride I tentatively eased into the next stool along the bar and was met by a minor wobble.

I ordered my meal, and then looked on with mixed feeling as I realized I was sitting directly in front of the Chef’s grill/hole in the wall.  A small dark pit recessed into the wall which housed just enough room for a massive open faced wood grill piled with meats, large sweaty man in a dirty white apron sandwiched between a small table area piled with raw (and cooked) meats waiting to be heated and served.

Eventually my brisket(?) arrived with a coke, some bread, delicious fresh fries and some local seasoning.  I dug in greedily and chewed away contentedly before heading back to the hostel and re-connecting with the girls for another night out on the town.

The following morning promised a new adventure.  It was time to catch my flight from the local regional airport (a fixed 50 peso taxi cab ride)  to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.

The time had come to visit the ends of the earth.