An Unexpected Introduction to Istanbul

Turkey-3676

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.

When Pay It Forward Meets Its Match

Several years ago I had a realization.  That realization wasn’t sudden, or abrupt, but it was profoundly powerful.  It was the realization that we as individuals are fundamentally responsible for our actions and the impact of those actions on the people around us.  That realization led me to re-analyze the way I interact with people, and what type of people I choose to surround myself with.

I’ve come to realize that there are effectively two types of people in the world.  Those who create their own luck and dismiss adversity/challenges and disappointments as part of the process, and then those who languish in their own bad luck.  This latter group seem constantly plagued by bad luck, most of which can be traced back to their life choices and fixation on their own poor condition.  The latter seem to always be pointing to others and claiming, “if only I had your luck, your skill, your opportunities, your good lucks, etc.” and who by that same coin refuse to create their own luck and opportunity.  These ‘if only’ personalities relish in creating missed opportunities and then pointing to and fixating on them as indicators of why they cannot get ahead or succeed.  While this world view isn’t the focus of this post, it is tied directly to an inner decision that goes hand in hand with it.  So, keep it in mind as you read.

Pay It Forward

The concept is simple.  When you read those three words, you probably immediately think of the movie which offered the ideology significant publicity.  Ultimately, however, it’s little more than an extension of the Golden Rule – that is, do onto others as you would have done onto yourself.

It’s a simple approach to life, but one which is surprisingly rare. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’ll find small examples of good behavior in everyone, but in many ways it has come to be an ideology at odds with our culture.  Why help a stranger in a city of millions? It’s part of our nature to wonder, “What’s in it for me?”   and of course, “What’s the cost?.”  The answers to these questions don’t exactly give the most marketable responses.  What’s in it for me?  The chance of a better world. The chance to help people. It’s a vague answer, one which is general and initially seems insignificant. You can bring the concept of Karma into it as many do, but even then it’s somewhat nebulous.  The truth is that living a life which focuses on paying it forward does pay major dividends.  You live a happier, healthier life and ultimately end up surrounding yourself by other people who are sincerely willing to help, for no better reason than that they can, but in truth – that is the easy part of the equation.

The second question is far more challenging: what’s the cost?  Most believers in a pay it forward ideology will shrug off the question, usually giving a nebulous answer that implies nothing – that there is no cost.  The reality is, that there is a cost – and that cost can potentially be significant. A point I was painfully reminded of last night.

There’s a reason that one of the most widely recognizable adages in our culture is, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”.   It’s not that every good deed is punished, but rather that the sting of getting burned while trying to do a good deed hurts twice as much.  It’s not only fundamentally hurtful but carries with it a strong sense of betrayal coupled with anger and those emotions, especially combined are incredibly powerful.  So powerful in fact that they can do far more than just causing people to abandon a Pay It Forward approach to life, where they might do little more than revert to apathy and inaction.  It can cause a Pay It Backwards approach which leaves people bitter and aggressive and that’s the true danger.  It’s also why I started this article talking about how we deal with success and obstacles in our day to day lives.

An Example

I mentioned earlier that the reason for this post was an altercation I had last night. Without going into too much depth I came upon a car last night around 9:30PM in a parking lot commonly used by bar goers.  I was a bit early and the parking lot was largely empty. I immediately noticed that the car next to mind still had the keys in the door.  I faced a dilemma. The keys were not owned by someone I knew and none of my business.  They were a stranger’s keys and any theft/damage done would be to a complete stranger, and the direct result of their lack of attention. Yet, if they had been my keys and a stranger noticed them – what would I hope that they might do?  Ignore them and leave the car to the next, less scrupulous passer by (Keep in mind that the Phoenix area ranks in the top 10 for Automotive theft)?  Or take what action was available to help.

After a moments consideration I weighed the options – would they find the keys if i put them on the front tire?  The windshield? Probably not. Should I open the car door and place them on the car seat?  Maybe during the day, but not at night – that would go beyond just helping and risk trespassing.  The obvious option seemed to remove the keys and drop them on the ground immediately below the lock.  There they’d be easily found by the owners when they searched their pockets, but wouldn’t be readily visible to everyone in the parking lot. I dropped the keys, and began my way towards the bars where I was schedule to meet several friends.

I got about 15 feet before a large male (I’m 6’4/200 pounds and this guy was larger/more athletic) started shouting at me from ahead of me. I quickly explained the situation, what was going on, and encouraged the guy to calm down and talk to me. He wasn’t having it.  The back and forth continued for a solid minute as I backpedaled maintain my distance while he threatened me, demanded MY keys, and ignored what I was saying. I even went so far as to volunteer to call the police over, if he’d calm down, so that I could explain the situation.  The threats continued, even after I could see that the Girl he was with found the keys – right where I said they’d be – and had opened the car door.

Eventually he decided threats of putting me in the hospital were insufficient, and made a leap towards me. I know when I’m outgunned – and I retreated. Quickly. He couldn’t keep up, gave up shortly there after, turned and made a B-line back to my vehicle, which he proceeded to kick repeatedly leaving heavy scuffing on the trunk and denting in the rear passenger side door so badly that it won’t open.  Keep in mind, all of this has occurred AFTER I’ve offered to discuss the incident with the police and after the girl he was with had gained access to the car.

Still keeping my distance, I dialed 911 as soon as he headed back towards the vehicles and requested police intervention.  They arrived, but not before the thug and the woman he was with got into their car and burned out of the parking lot – unfortunately – before I could close enough distance to grab a plate number.

So, what did trying to help someone get me?  Very nearly a serious trip to the hospital, and at least a $500 deductible to get the damage fixed.

To Pay It Backwards?

The whole event left me feeling incredibly frustrated, angry, and disheartened.  Beyond that, it left me wondering what I’d do in the future when I find myself faced with a similar dilemma.  The thought do nothing of course came to mind, but it didn’t stop there.  What might I do in the future?  After all, helping someone had just been negatively re-enforced, so why not do the opposite?  Why not sheer the key off in the lock with a quick kick? Should I join countless other Arizonans and start carrying A gun? A knife?

As each of these thoughts floated through my mind over the course of the evening, I inevitably had to keep reminding myself that the cost still merited the greater benefit. That I was faced with a very clear opportunity.  I could stick to my guns and remain a “shit happens” person, or I could pack it in, throw up a white flag, and retreat to the “If only”,  “poor me” camp.

For my part I’ve chosen to stick to my guns.  In the future I may think twice before deciding to go ahead and try and help someone out in a similar situation, but I’ll still do it.  Why?  Because it’s worth it. Unfortunately, discussions I’ve had with friends in the last 24 hours left me feeling like these types of events have led a lot of people to abandon a Pay It Forward approach to life, which is a loss for us all. I hope if you find yourself in that camp, that you’ll re-consider.

At the end of the day, despite the occasional cost – it’s worth it.

A World of Inspiration – July Guest Post

Croatia

Now that I’m back stateside and getting caught up on things – I wanted to share with you a guest post that I wrote for the travel blog VelvetEscape.com. Keith, the blog’s author approached me about participating in their “World of Inspiration” series. Each week VelvetEscape posts a new blog post where guest bloggers share amazing experiences and the revelations that resulted.

Eager to participate I wrote a piece sharing my experiences in Croatia which he published on July 15th. If you have a few minutes definitely head over and check it out: A World of Inspiration – Pay It Forward by Alex Berger. Definitely take a few minutes to view some of the other posts as well – they’re truly wonderful and share the magic of travel.

-Alex