An Unexpected Introduction to Istanbul

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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.

A Quick Metro Rant – Basic Information Everyone Seems to Have Forgotten

Photo by Stignygaard

Life is full of unspoken rules.  These rules can be hard to figure out if you’re an outsider. Yet, when followed they tend to drastically improve the flow and efficiency of group activities.  When violated, you not only risk drastically reducing the system’s efficiency, but also pissing off a large number of people in the process.  Here are a few general tips for improving your public transportation experience.

General Traffic Flow

Foot traffic typically follows the same basic rules (flow wise) as vehicle traffic.  While this isn’t particularly important in wide open spaces, when confined to stairways, on escalators and in other like-kind situations this becomes extremely important.  While left vs right varies from country to country you can typically figure out the appropriate place to walk by pausing briefly to observe locals.  A good rule of thumb tends to be that pedestrian traffic will mimic automotive traffic.  This is particularly important on stairways where one side is used for traffic heading up and the other is used for traffic heading down.

Escalators

These are perhaps one of the most rule centric areas of public transportation.  The cardinal rule of escalator traffic is that slow/stopped traffic should always stand to the right.  Yes, this holds true even if you’re in the middle of a conversation with a friend.  If you’re stationary or moving slowly on a moving walkway or escalator stand to the right, single file, while leaving space for people in a hurry to pass on your left. It’s just like the highway – the left lane is the passing late.  If you’re in it and not passing you’re a road hazard and can expect to get tailgater…or worse.  If your conversation can’t wait, then turn sidewise and have a discussion with the person in-front/behind you.  The only exception to this rule is when there’s a significant traffic backlog in which cases space use efficiency becomes more important.

Many metros, like those here in Copenhagen, have double escalators to handle the heavy flow.  In these instances both escalators may be transporting people in the same direction (up/down).  Keep in mind that both escalators are not the same.  The same traffic flow rules apply here.  If you’re not in a hurry then stick to the escalator to the right side. If you’re in a hurry or will be walking part of the time, then aim for the one on the left.

Boarding Trains/Subway Cars

For some inexplicable reason most of us can’t help but rush to board public transportation when it arrives.  I know I’m guilty of this as well.  Unfortunately, this usually results in a traffic jam as people end up so focused on boarding that they fail to let the people trying to get off of the train/tram/etc. disembark.

When the train/subway arrives people waiting to board should wait to either side of the door(s) leaving a path for departing passengers. It is especially important that you do not stand/line up directly in-front of the door.  Only when the final passengers disembark is it acceptable to start making your way on board.  Just because there’s an open space immediately in front of the doors doesn’t mean you “lucked out” and get to be first in line.

Mothers, the Elderly, Injured and Disabled

While people seem to remember that eating with their mouths full is impolite, it appears that proper etiquette on public transportation is a whole different matter.  We all love to find that coveted seat on the bus or subway.  It sucks to give it up, but let’s keep things in context.  When you see a mother carrying a young child, an older person, someone on crutches or similarly injured, or the disabled don’t wait for them to ask, don’t ignore them, and definitely don’t shrug it off as their tough luck.  Do your best to give them your seat, or at the very least offer it.  There’s a spectrum here. The younger you are and the better shape you’re in, the more important it is that you’re the first one to offer up your seat.  Think of it as a competition.  Besides, it’ll feel good knowing you’ve made someone’s day a bit easier and that you’ve done a good deed.

These rules vary slightly from culture to culture and are more prevalent in most western countries. It’s worth noting that most of these rules don’t apply in a lot of major Asian cities where it tends to be far more cutthroat and physical. Be mindful of your destination and take an extra minute or two to figure out how the system works.  While there’s no one to force you to follow the rules discussed in this post, don’t be surprised at the stray elbows and brusque treatment you may find if you don’t.

Are there rules I missed or do you have stories about where a rule violation went wrong?  Please tell us a bit about them!