Vancouver to Istanbul

November 8, 2020

I make it to the airport in Vancouver in one piece, the cabbie a gracious, older Indian man who tells me of the days of yore, and how the country has changed from before, the commentary triggered by the terrible driving evident on the street. It’s not easy to have a conversation, given the plexiglass panel separating the driver and the passenger, never mind the masks we are wearing, but at least we won’t get COVID while having this conversation! Outside the day is clear, sunny and cold, a fitting ambiance to be departing in, and I certainly feel cautiously celebratory, given the frenzied state I had been in for the last days, if not weeks.

The airport is empty – very empty! No one is queuing for any flights in the entire international departures, other than for the code-shared KLM flight I am taking, and it is mid-afternoon. Incredible. I am handed a sheaf of health-related forms to complete, triggering anxiety around sudden, last-minute requirements that may be imposed en route. In the short term, I am hoping there are few people on the flight.

Vancouver airport is beautiful, probably one of the nicest airports you could be in, and it is always a pleasure to view the pieces of massive coastal indigenous art tastefully installed through the airport. Since I rarely come through this wing of the airport, all of the work seems unfamiliar. Around me, the environment underlines a peak design in terms of airport environment, the kind of place you really would want to spend time in – except that there is virtually no one present. Handfuls of passengers straggle to local flights, but it seems as if I am getting on one of the only international flights. Normally, there would be many flights to Asia: none seem to be going on now.

The requirement to be at the airport some three hours prior to the flight was ridiculous, given how few people there are here. I spend much of that time staring around me at the empty spaces, gawking at the few passengers who do arrive for the flight. Closer to the departure time, a larger number of people appear, but not large in an absolute sense, and that becomes apparent with how few people there are on the plane. On average, there are some two people for every row of eight seats across, and that seems incredible. On the other hand, given how uncomfortable the seats are, very befitting of KLM, I can’t imagine how tortuous the flight would be if it was full.

A few seats next to me, a man from Langley, who lived the best years of his life as a stock trader in Dubai, and years after the market crash drove him home, still regrets having gone: nothing compares to living here. Now has to eke out a living selling goods online, but is content enough. The years have taken their toll, in particular, his challenges with anxiety and depression, his medication causing dry mouth, and hence degraded teeth, which he has decided to go to Turkey to deal with for a fraction of the price he would pay at home.

I move to a window seat, far away from anyone else, where I can cozy up in the space of two seats and try to get some rest as night approaches, but that becomes difficult, given the amount of coffee I drank prior to departure, the challenge of trying to actually lie down in two seats with my height, and the availability of a selection of movies that are not all that bad.

I watched “Dark Waters”, a powerful portrait of a self-effacing lawyer who decides to take on his boutique law firm and DuPont in a case involving the company’s spilling of toxic waste into the environment in West Virginia, against all odds, winning a succession of lucrative cases, followed by the more prosaic “Man from UNCLE”, stirring vague memories of childhood-era television, and finally, “Underwater”, an obvious rip-off of “Alien”, but with weaker direction, equally if not more unrealistic, and set in a deep sea trench.

Flying over the Netherlands into Amsterdam brings back memories, triggered by the view of the perfectly manicured agricultural fields, bright green in the shining morning sun. It is early November and apparently 15 degrees Celsius! Schiphol airport is a bit of an adventure, involving more endless passages to walk. On the other hand, here there are actually people in the airport, although it is evident that it would normally be busier. What’s more, many of the businesses are actually operating, and everyone is wearing masks, which is great.

Despite my short stay in the airport, I have a quintessential Dutch experience, where the gate that was displayed for my Istanbul flight is actually a COVID check station, and the jovial Dutch man doing the temperature check jokes that if they didn’t display the location of the station as the gate number for flights, no one would go through the temperature check. We exchange a few more jokes, then I am off …

The small, cramped plane to Istanbul has few empty seats, and while temperature checks were made prior to accessing the gate in Schiphol airport and everyone wears a mask, being crammed into an older model jet whose ventilation technology may not be so purpose built, I am definitely worried about the risk of COVID transmission. The young man sitting next to me seems decidedly nervous, huddled into himself even though there is nowhere to move to with this extremely limited amout of space.

The jet really pays tribute to why I haven’t flown KLM in eons. Perhaps my cumulative experiences haven’t been representative, but the experiences I did make with this airline consistently rank the airline towards the bottom of the comfort scale.

I hadn’t been able to rest properly on the prior flight, and now need to rest and at least begin moving around without my body going into a panicked state – and it’s simply not possible in these tiny seats.

As physically stressed as I am in the flight, I do have the benefit of a window seat, and now large tracts of the landscape are exposed, not covered with cloud cover. We fly southeast from the structured green of the Netherlands to the organized rolling landscapes of Germany and Austria, relentlessly green, villages spaced evenly across the carefully contoured landscape. Then further down, human settlement appears sparser, more arid and rugged, the topography somewhere more raw, exposed, the green more incidental, and the land craggy, rocky, the environment depleted from relentless pillage eons ago, leaving a stark heritage for the remaining in this mountainous land.

And then the light becomes brighter, clearer, filtered in the pale gold of the late afternoon, a veil of cotton tendrils passing below, the clouds occasionally thickening, the starkness of Macedonia and Thrace, the northern edge of the Aegean, now emerging into the coastal lowlands of European Turkey, sandwiched elegantly between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, seemingly endless banks of high-rise and mid-size tower blocks, stretching along the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara, the urban landscape tinged in its darkening afternoon hue, the green backdrop rich and vibrant, one compound after the other, a vast cityscape with no centricity, then a glimpse of the city core, before flying far beyond over the fecund escarpments towards the Black Sea.

We descend to the airport, but this doesn’t seem like the airport I was intended to fly into. From the booking, the flight was supposed to go to the city’s old airport, but either we are being hijacked, or we are flying to the new airport, as the city seems nowhere close to us now. It seems that there is no way this could be Atatürk airport, given how new the runways seem and absolutely vast the space between buildings – and how many buildings that appear as we taxi to the terminal. Banks of shimmering white Turkish Airlines planes appear in the darkening light, now accentuated with the growth of dark thunderclouds above us, waiting for a brighter future once people will begin traveling again.

Once the plane has landed, passengers are repeatedly reminded to let the preceding rows disembark before proceeding to gather bags and also disembark, which nobody pays attention to. It’s these kinds of scenarios that remind me why COVID has spread the way it has – why sacrifice a moment of your inconvenience!

The reality of COVID is driven home again when we disembark and walk towards the immigration, the passengers from our plane straggling along the cavernous institutional hall, new and characterless, already at the outset with little aesthetically redeeming. And yet on this scale, making the airport pretty would make it so much more expensive, but there it is, for us, and us alone: we are the only passengers walking down these seemingly endlessly halls; absolutely no one else visible.

Until we reach the customs and immigration area, where large throngs gather. Virtually no people are lining up to go through the lineup for nationals, but the lineup of foreigners is huge. Many of the people here look Turkish, but what would I know. I do hear a lot of Arabic, but not only. Comically, there are people, including bulky women in ankle-length dresses, heavy sweaters and head scarves, often on their cell, who somehow have decided that the lineup is a good place to stop and have a long conversation with someone.

Passing through immigration itself its anticlimactic – no big deal at all, and yes, the agent already has a record of my electronic visa, so no need to haul out my laptop and show them. The HES code? What’s that? So the production about the code that people apparently need to travel with here lands flat on him and his partnered agents.

I continue into the immense, hangar-style building to the baggage claim carrousels, absolutely excessive in size, and certainly now, with so little traffic. However, I can see that there are other flights arriving, although the vastness of the space threatens to engulf us all.

The airport is relentlessly vast and institutional, but doesn’t really have a huge amount of character. There is just a lot of space, huge spaces between buildings visible through the windows – and few people. Passing into the uncontrolled area, now the bright, gleaming lights of civilization, a sea of brightly-lit shops, with a crowd of people waiting at the exit gates. My first stop, an ATM, great, one card doesn’t work, but happily the other one does, then to the exit gate.

I ask a man in a shop whether this is the new airport, and he confirmms that it is. Then why did my flight use the code of the old airport? How confusing. And now comes my bigger stress – it was confirmed to me that this is in fact the new airport – but my AirBnB host’s driver will be sending a driver to the old airport.

What a debacle! At the exit, I expect hordes of aggressive taxi drivers and touts, but only one man approaches me, and hardly very aggressively. I see a prepaid taxi booth on the inside, but no sign of the driver, just in case he may have come here. I hover around the exit, someone finally asking me if I need a driver. Well, I may be expecting someone. My name? Yes – he is here – wait five minutes. I sigh a sigh of relief; I am told to wait with my baggage for the driver, and when one of the handlers confirms the address I am being driven to, I sigh a big sigh of relief!

And is it ever cold: who would have expected!

Anticlimactically, I climb into the van, without having sustained any hustling or hassle. I had been concerned about the high fare to go into town – 30 euro! But this airport is some 40 km outside the city, so for the distance, a private vehicle and driver is reasonable. And we are incredibly far away.

We slip onto the superhighway – another surprise – from the immense airport grounds, whose size remind me of Dallas/Fort Worth airport – and off we go, on the long journey into the city. Most of what I see just seems like clusters of lights in the darkness, the freeway unfolding before us, occasionally other major roads intersecting, then back into the darkness. The trip takes an hour, and finally, we are in the vicinity of the city, its horizon dominated by the enormous mosques that are landmarks of the city.

Only having a vague sense of where things are located, it’s difficult to get a sense of where we are, or where we could be heading to. Crossing a bridge with several of the big mosques in sight, I believe we are entering the area of Sultan Ahmet, but the rest is a mystery. We continue weaving through narrow, often not particular evocative streets, then emerge onto a major road, then twisting and turning thorugh the alleys of a very traditional neighborhood, and then we have arrived.

The alley and its buildings seem charming – from a distance, somewhat unassuming, but there is a unique sense I get from the architecture and the lighting. I hand the driver the fare, and am passed over to the keeper of the building, who works for the AirBnB owner, and guides me up the narrow and rickety staircase to the top floor establishment where I will be staying.

The property is a very small apartment that has been designed for optimal usability by guests, with essentially two rooms and attached bathrooms, not very large, but very comfortable, both beds queen sized, the space entirely white, except for the red-based fabrics used to decorate the beds and the cheap topical paintings on the wall.

A tiny passage between the entrance and one bedroom houses the kitchenette area, difficult to prepare food in, but reasonably well equipped, with dishwasher and microwave, and all essential implements. Not that many guests will be cooking here anyway. The space is quiet, except for chatter in the alley, cats occasionally howling, and of course, the requisite call to prayer.

The warden tells me I can drink the tap water. It seems this may apply to Istanbul and other major cities, but in smaller towns, who knows?

I hastily arrange my things, and then need to go out to buy some groceries and eat, before my energy dissipates altogether. Amazingly, at the end of the alley the house is located in is a park, small but very charming, with an encircling wrought iron gate, with gilt adornments, and houses ringing the park that seem rich in character, built in what turns out to be the traditional Turkish building style, with box-like alcoves jutting out from the buildings. Despite it being night time, the area is well lit, and what I presume to be the centre of the neighborhood rising up above. On the other side, through some small alleys is a highway, and then the sea, and with the little I can see, it seems as if there is no clear access to the water.

No matter; there are a few small modest restaurants around the park, one in particular with glass windows and tables outside, perfect for dining at this time, even though it is quite chilly. A few men lounge around the restaurant, otherwise, people trickle through the alley and the park, young hipsters, men in their 30s, old people, and couples.

My dinner is unremarkable, but definitely Turkish. Behind me, some younger students chat and smoke. Welcome to Turkey! Cats hold court, engaged in their curious and elusive activities, their constant begging for food hardly that endearing after a while, however. The ubiquitous cats seem to own and run the city, following their own code of rules and behavior. At the same time, the sense of intimacy you enjoy with cats reflects the city and the people.