one of our favorite sights

Sunday, July 21, 2013

To Istanbul and Back: A Worldwind tour of three cities on three continents

                Our recent trip to Istanbul was saturated with preconceptions, anxieties and miscommunications, but it was all part of the adventure of traveling to three continents in a short time. Landing at Nairobi airport we had a day of waiting in front of us before our flight to Istanbul late that night. To pass the time in Nairobi we thought we’d run an errand or two and visit someplace we had not yet seen. Phillip, the cab driver that we always use when we are there, is a fabulous driver. You have to have a good driver  in Nairobi because otherwise all you do is sit in endless traffic jams.  After enjoying a coffee together, we got in Phillip’s Toyota Camry and attempted to get into the city.
The atmosphere in Nairobi is similar to Eldoret although it is so much bigger.There are over 3 million people living there and there seem to be at least 3 million vehicles. Like in  Eldoret, the main highway, which runs from the coast to Uganda, runs through the city. So there are many trucks and lots of transport going on but no public transportation aside from some busses.  It seems very ill-prepared for the influx of people that has occurred. Like all big cities, young people flock to it  because it is the “place to be” and it supposedly offers more work, but many of the people are living in abject poverty.  As far as I’m concerned, the only reason to go there at this point is to visit the elephant orphanage, the National Museum of Kenya, or to run necessary errands or  get things we can’t get in Eldoret (rumor has it you can get salmon there….I have yet to find it). This is not to say that there are not interesting things to see there. You just have to have the time to get to them. Not being in a hurry is key.  Our day was spent mostly sitting  in traffic , as Phillip regaled us with funny stories, interesting insights and anecdotes about the politicians, people, drivers, issues and problems in Nairobi. There seem to be a plethora of them.  Most are caused by traffic snarls and people not obeying laws and cops not really guiding traffic as well as they might. In fact, there are several roundabouts in Nairobi at which the traffic is completely at a standstill so they clearly aren’t functioning well. So, yes, Nairobi can be interesting if you have a good driver, know exactly where you want to go, and are not in any rush to get there. Did I mention that the traffic is terrible?
We were taken back to the airport right on schedule by Phillip and we spent the next couple of hours dealing with airline ticketing issues before finally boarding to go to Dubai, on our way to Istanbul. We had a ten hour layover in Dubai, so we had planned to go out of the airport, and Liam, who was more interested than I , had done some research of the metro system and where to see interesting stuff.  He mostly was interested in going to see the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Because of his enthusiasm I was feeling sort of halfheartedly interested.
It was pretty clear immediately as we stepped out of the tunnel from our flight that we were no longer in Africa. The Dubai airport is huge, very bright, and very modern, completely the opposite of the Nairobi airport. It felt like about 10 times the size of the Indianapolis airport. The folks taking passports and pictures were dressed in traditional garb, called dish-dash and keffiyeh (the men), and were very efficient although not overly friendly.  We had to wait around for the metro to open to get downtown so we had a cup of coffee and looked at a map in what seemed a very sterile and overly large setting  to us. An enormous glass and metal hallway houses the “waiting area” of the Dubai airport which is also filled with shopping opportunities. Another culture obsessed  with shopping!
We got on the metro, which was very easy to figure out and we took it to the marina, as we wanted to see the ocean.  Since it was very early in the morning, most of the folks getting on and off the metro seemed to be non-Emiratis, maybe migrant workers from Asia. The city is an ongoing strip of construction projects of LARGE buildings….it felt a bit like there was a “who can build the weirdest building” contest going on, because although they were all big and modern looking, they were all sorts of odd shapes and configurations. I had an uneasy feeling about Dubai, as someone who was affected by the construction industry’s struggles in the last 6 years. It just seems like they are going to be in for a terrible downturn, if they expect to get all of these buildings leased. I mean I am talking about skyscraper after skyscraper on the edge of the ocean, in the desert. I suppose they expect people to move there and companies to invest. Well, “good luck to them” is all I can say.
Once we got out of the metro we got an idea of how things are in Dubai. There were few people on the street, in complete contrast to Nairobi, and there are long air conditioned tunnels going over the highways. We went to the marina and were disappointed, because there was a lot of construction going on and we were prevented from getting to the ocean by highways and construction traffic. There was one cool building that we admired a bit but as it was early in the morning still (7 am) we began to feel how the heat was going to come on during the day . We took the metro up to the Burj Khalifa area and again had to go through an air-conditioned tunnel to get to it. However,  we didn’t actually get to it because the tunnel took us into the Dubai Mall, which we had been hoping to avoid. No avoiding malls in Dubai, I guess.  I had seen a cool looking fountain from the tunnel so we spent some time figuring out how to get out of this enormous mall and back onto the street, not completely successfully. By the time we did get back outside , it was about 100 degrees with 100% humidity. I was ready to leave.
The Burj Khalifa is remarkable. Very tall and very skinny. The fountain in front of it is enchanting,  so we sat in the shade of palm trees and watched it for quite awhile.  Other than that there was not much to do there as far as we could, tell aside from shop.  We were really too early in the day to see what a “normal” day would be, but there were a few niqab and higab (headscarf and face covering) dressed women with their western looking  kids in the mall.  There are approximately 1000 shops and a giant food court,  an ice rink, an aquarium, a huge waterfall, and a giant movie theater. I could see it being  perceived as a great place for families to hang out, especially when it’s 100 degrees and 100% humidity!
By the time we got back to the airport, I was over Dubai and really ready to head to Istanbul. Of course, there were issues with going to Istanbul at this moment in time, because it had been in the news for the past few weeks due to the protests and police reactions in Taksim Square. The protests had originated out of a concern  by environmentalists for one of the few green spaces left in Istanbul, but had intensified  and escalated into a growing protest of what people seem to feel is an ever expanding repressive government. I felt like it was going to be ok because on our Climate Leader’s Facebook group members (some of whom were Turks) had been saying reassuring things about the protests now being calm and peaceful and no one ever said “don’t come.” The main reason that I was excited  was that Jeannette and Nick were going to be there together for a few days after our training and we hadn't seen them in a long time.  Liam was thrilled to be seeing another international city.  My concerns had lifted and I was looking forward to spending a few days there.  I actually had been there as a college student and really had enjoyed it so was curious to see how I would view it now.
 We took a shuttle bus from the airport to an area that I thought was near our hostel, not far from Taksim Square, since our training was going to be there. Unfortunately, due to the protests, Taksim itself was closed to buses so we ended up having to take a cab also. The cabbie  assured us he knew where he was going and drove like a madman down the  little cobblestone streets, nearly careening into buildings and killing pedestrians in his path. I was horrified and since it became clear quickly that he spoke very little English (except he kept saying “no problem no problem” ) I said to Liam quickly, “let’s jump out at the next stop, this guy clearly doesn’t know where he is going!” I think my hair was standing on end at that point. I was nervous also because it was getting to be dusk and I really wanted to be near our place before dark since there were thousands of folks still gathering in Taksim at night. He stopped right at Taksim and asked a cabbie buddy to call our hostel and they didn’t answer, so he told us to get out and walk. He  ripped me off but I was relieved to get out of his deathtrap vehicle and NOT be taken on a wild goose chase ride any further. I had a sense of which direction our hostel was from the square so we started hoofing it quickly. Liam was interested in hanging around near the square and I had to sort of put my foot down that we could come back in the day, but not at night. So we finally found our place after asking about 6 people. It was not too near the square and on a small side street.
Early in the evening on Saturday June 15th, several days after our arrival, the police took very aggressive action and pushed the demonstrators out of Gezi Park violently.  Our little street seemed to be the place where the protesters were gathering to regroup because the police could not get down into the small streets. The police were shooting many canisters of tear gas which we encountered on our walk back from dinner. It had seemed obvious to me that something was going to go down because there were hundreds of riot police on the street all week, despite the peaceful attitude of the “occupiers” of Gezi Park. As we walked back to our hostel we could sense the tear gas in the air and as we approached, the tear gas was seeping into our building and burning our eyes and skin. It was quite unpleasant but at the same time interesting to see a bit of what we had been reading about.  Many people that we had met were involved in the protests and it seems the current Prime Minister is a bit of a bully and making changes that a lot of the more secular people there don’t like. Turkey has a rich and interesting history and I am not an authority on it by any means, so I don’t want to speak out of turn. It has had a recent history of “democratization” and development but a lot of the young people we met were concerned that the government was making unnecessary and oppressive rules and restrictions and there was a lot of anger in the air (and tear gas).  
We moved early the next day , as our training was abbreviated due to the situation and we had a reservation in Sultanhamet (the "old city") for Monday anyway. Strangely, in the touristy region, you wouldn’t have known the protests were going on because it focused only on pleasing and attracting tourists. No signs of protest or anger there. The guy who was at our front desk seemed to be working in the tourist area during the day and protesting at night which maybe was a common phenomenon. He was keeping me posted on the goings on as I knew Nick was soon to arrive to the Taksim area.
Istanbul is the city in the world where “Europe meets Asia” and it is therefore, both exotic and familiar. It has become an enormous city (12 million) and because of its historic and religious sites, it draws a lot of tourists. Many people from the Middle East are  there and the streets are quite crowded with visitors and many hawkers. It is quite beautifully set, up on hills , spanning three peninsulas. The architecture from the Byzantine and Ottaman eras is quite stunning and it’s fun to look for more obscure buildings which also have lovely mosaics aside from the main attractions. The Bosphorus Strait runs through it, thus  it has both land and seafaring culture.  It felt particularly exotic because of the language and food because it is so different than English, Swahili, or any European language and very very different from the Midwest and Kenya
spice market istanbul

Blue Mosque Istanbul

Blue Mosque at night

Burj Khalifa Dubai

Cisterns Istanbul

Preparing Kebabs Istanbul

Emirati Men in dish-dash

Dubai from tunnel

Fast food in Dubai mall

Store directory Dubai Mall

Fountain outside of Burj Khalifa

Fruit vendor Istanbul

Graffiti Istanbul

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

Jeannette and Mural Istanbul

Tramway Istanbul

Man at Dubai Mall

Women shopping at Dubai Mall

Kids and I with Istanbul and Bosphorus in background

colorful Turkish pottery

Street scene after protests near Taksim

Dubai from the metro

Turkish delight

one small segment of Dubai

More fast food in Dubai Mall

More graffiti in Istanbul

Istanbul shops

Istanbul Galata bridge and tower

view from our hostel in Sultanhamet


Haya Sophia Istanbul

Fountain outside of Burj Khalifa
. We had a lot of laughs due to our inability to communicate with Turks.
Overall it was a somewhat stressful yet very interesting and ultimately gratifying trip. Probably one of the most remarkable moments for me was when, totally exhausted, we were landing back in Nairobi and I thought to myself, “I’m glad to be home.” This was the first time in 10 months that I actually felt like I was coming home…I know what to expect, I know how to respond and behave and be understood and compared to Turkey, I feel completely at home here in Kenya. Marvels will never cease!