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The Longest 6-Hour Layover Ever: My Istanbul Experience

I’m a strong believer that a layover is an opportunity, not a burden. Granted, I’m sure I would take that sentiment back if I was in a rush somewhere, but thus far most of my travel has been for pleasure, not business, and I’m happy to drag it out. Last summer, Tal and I turned two layovers in London into a trip decent enough that I can say with some degree of certainty that we don’t need to go back (everything closed early, enough said). And if I’d have had my way in the past, my layovers in cities like Frankfurt and Zurich would’ve been mini-trips as well (instead, I just know that the Frankfurt airport smells like hotdogs and the Zurich airport has $8 cups of coffee). Thankfully, then, there aren’t too many direct flights from Tel Aviv to Seoul. My booking seemed perfect: leave Israel Thursday afternoon, land in Turkey with exactly six hours to kill and make it back on a plane to Korea by midnight for a red eye, arriving the next day for a week visiting my brother in Seoul. I had the plan down to every detail of the commute; I even booked a seat in front of the plane so I could run off the plane and make the most of my short stay in Turkey. Aside from one minor detail — my flight was delayed 45 minutes — all went according to plan. I was that nerd jetting off the plane, speed walking like an Olympian to passport control (Israelis don’t need visas to enter Turkey, but Americans do. Who would’ve thought?) and through the enormous Ataturk Airport, down to the metro station and onto the first train, transferring halfway to downtown and hopping on Istanbul’s light rail to the heart of the European side of the city. A few stops from my destination — the famed Blue Mosque — I noticed someone who stood out, easily as much as I did. She was a middle aged white lady with a travel pack, scouring her map for something that remotely looked familiar. That furrowed brow and those squinting eyes are such a common sight when traveling, thatplease, map, help me… you’re my only friend look. I’m not immune, of course; it’s a look I know well. I approached her on the jam-packed, rush hour train. We were the only Anglos in the car. “Where are you looking to go?” “Oh… oh! Hello! I’m headed to the Grand Bazaar, but the text on this map I printed is just so small.” A totally adorable old lady problem. I checked out the metro map I’d printed that morning — with big enough text, duh — and we counted stops together. We got to talking, and I learned she was a retired Canadian meeting her daughter in Istanbul, where they’d spend a week together exploring Turkey. And damn if that lady didn’t have some travel miles on her. When I told her I lived in Israel, she recounted her first experience with Israelis while traveling. Surprise! It was terrible for her. “I was in India with an old girlfriend of mine, and we met so many Israelis. But they were all just high on dope, and laying around all day. And they were so loud, too! I just felt sorry for their mothers; if those poor moms knew their kids were high in India, they would’ve been so upset.” I countered every way I could — they were probably traveling after the army and just wanted to unwind; maybe they had been hiking hard for days and needed a rest; maybe you caught them on a bad (read: stoned) day? But no matter what I said, this lady professed that her experience with Israelis wassimply shameful. Can’t win ‘em all, I guess, and there are any number of complaints against Israel that usually come before stoned 20-somethings, so I just let her rant. A few stops later, I’d arrived. I said goodbye to my Canadian mother figure and walked towards the Blue Mosque. I was literally racing against the daylight; by the time I got off the train, and the sky was that gorgeous bright blue of a full-moon dusk. I raced across a giant plaza towards the mosque, past men selling glow sticks and roasting nuts. Built in the 1600′s, the Blue Mosque (more accurately, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is the kind of thing you almost can’t believe exists. I stood in front of the mosque staring up at it like a drooling baby; its minarets jutted impossibly high into the glowing sky, its many domes looked like giant bubbles on top of each other, its every detail perfectly constructed. I mean, shit, look at this thing:

And the full 180 view:

I spotted the exact stereotype that I needed, Asian tourists touting giant cameras, and asked them to take my picture. They spoke no English, but snapped a decent shot, and told me they were from Korea. “I’m going there tonight!” I shouted. Lots of nods, but absolutely no idea what I’d said. I didn’t have time to explain; layover traveling doesn’t leave time for niceties. I walked around the massive courtyard in awe before hanging a left to check out the view from outside the mosque’s walls. I was greeted by another enormous courtyard, flower-lined paths and fountains dotting the landscape. The requisite old ladies selling crafts to tourists were also there, of course, but somehow these old ladies seemed different. Before I knew it, I’d bought an obviously cheaply made mirror that looked sorta Middle Eastern. Something about the area, the look of it all, the smell of the flowers, these giant spacecraft buildings surrounding me, made me abandon my better judgment and walk around like the kid in a candy store I never was (thanks, diabetes), snapping pictures and buying crappy stuff. I mean, can you blame me? Look at this:

I checked out my watch. Time to find food. And so began a long, long journey that would take up the vast majority of my time in Turkey. What better kind of journey is there, though, than one that ends in great food? I wound my way out of the Blue Mosque plaza — sort of Istanbul’s version of the Old City in Jerusalem — and began the hunt. Restaurants weren’t hard to find. Of course not; I was in one of the city’s most tourist-friendly area. Kebab shop (in Turkish, kebap, which is awesome) after kebab shop sported young Turkish dudes waving to the silly American to come try their finest meats and smoke some hookah. Many of these spots were packed, and probably delicious, but they just didn’t feel right. So I kept wandering, admiring the windy roads and hills of the city — of which I was just seeing a tiny fraction. Istanbul is gigantic. Bigger than New York-gigantic. The few dozen square blocks I wandered through were beautiful, but I had to come to terms with the fact that this little sliver would be all I’d experience of the city. And yet, I wanted something a bit lest touristy. I found the Grand Bazaar, the city’s legendary market, and walked into a cavernous hookah bar. The place was filled, wall to wall, with smoke and young men. No signs of food or beer. As cool as the place looked, I had my priorities in order. I stopped at a food cart selling fried dough-type things, and asked the guy for some suggestions. He directed me right back to the street from where I’d come. I understood; I was a tourist, and he was directing me to the tourist street. I thanked him, but kept trucking. I wandered into the actual Bazaar and checked out some of the wares. It didn’t look altogether different from the Arab quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, but with a few big washing stations for times of prayer. The notion of washing yourself before prayer, especially in this stunning setting, struck me in that moment. What a beautiful gesture, before offering yourself to God. Kind of, almost, a little bit made me wish I was a person of faith. But alas, I continued looking for unkosher meat to devour. I was becoming a bit impatient, so I resorted to an old trick. I got the attention of a young shop keeper, and, after establishing that he spoke a little English, asked, “Where can I find a good restaurant where I won’t see people that look like me?” He laughed and smiled warmly. He got it. “Cross the street. Left at the Burger King, and walk down the hill.” “That’s it, just keep walking?” “Just keep walking.” Sounded simple enough; a Burger King would lead me to a proper Turkish meal. But the hill he spoke of, well, it was less of a hill and more of a never-ending slant. With my only luggage, a wheeling backpack, firmly strapped to my back, I trekked down this wildly steep street. Almost immediately, things looked different. No more white people and Asians with maps; no more huge, open plazas. In some spots, no more lights.

But I kept walking, and walking, until The Blue Mosque seemed a world away. Young Turkish kids were running up and down the street. Old women stood at rickety carts and sold vegetables. Dudes sold meat out of the back of a truck. People hung their laundry from third story windows. I know it doesn’t sound glamorous or that exciting, but I was thrilled. I was in Turkey, a place I never exactly expected to go, but I was endlessly happy to be, even if it was for… just another hour and a half? I realized my time was running short, but something was drawing me to the bottom of the hill. It was almost certainly hunger; this giant hill street offered little in the way of food, unless I wanted to stop in a grocery store and put something together myself. A block ahead, I saw some flashes of color. Then I began to hear more noise. And then, boom, out of nowhere I was in the midst of a flurry of restaurants and lights and people and smells and music. Each crowded restaurant, with tables in the street, had its own band playing (not trying to be offensive here, just making a point of reference) music out of Aladdin. These narrow streets were bustling; it was a sense-overload experience.

I found the least crowded spot, as I was in a hurry, and sat down for some kebabs. I huge, sweaty man prepared a plate of meat, vegetables and rice, and plunked it down on my table alongside an entire basket of bread. I ordered a beer, and the wait for dinner was immediately worth it. Perfectly soft and tender lamb kebabs with a cold Turkish beer. I actually laughed out loud at myself; that I would be on a plane to Korea in a few hours just seemed ludicrous. I downed the meal in a few minutes and paid the sweaty guy a few extra coins for some road ‘babs, then began hiking back up the enormous hill towards the main street, where I could catch the light rail back to the airport. But with 30 minutes to kill before I absolutely needed to leave the city, I was on the hunt for a bar. I was in no mood for an overnight flight; several/many more beers were in order. A few out-of-breath minutes later I was back, my eyes darting around for a bar. I began backtracking towards the Blue Mosque area. I stepped in to that huge hookah bar, thinking they might have drinks, but just like the first time I stopped in the middle, looked around like an idiot, and promptly left. As a Muslim country, Turkey doesn’t boast as many bars per capita as my city, the belly of sin, Tel Aviv. I asked my fried dough guy, although he’d steered me wrong before, and he pointed me further towards The Blue Mosque. I didn’t find his suggestion (Shasha, I think he said), but I saw a Heineken sign in a window and headed inside. My heavy bag, finally starting to hurt my back, came off and I dropped onto a bar stool. “I have 20 minutes. How many drinks can you pour me?” I asked the bartender. At that, my ears perked up. A few familiar sounds were in the air. The sound of English, and the sound of a Southern accent. I looked to my left and saw a table of old white guys cracking up and downing drinks. I cautiously approached their table, and all four sets of eyes locked on me. “I’ve got a few minutes until I need to leave for the airport. Could I join you guys?” They immediately broke into smiles and welcomed me. “The bartender’s name is America. We’ve been calling him that all night,” said one of these gents, winking at America. “Hey, America! Get our friend a dri-ii-ink!” Over the next few minutes, I learned the following: All four middle-aged dudes were from various parts of The South (maybe I’m just too American, but I feel that I can mention ‘The South’ and it’s simply understood that I mean the Southern United States, not, say, the South of France); they were all English school teachers; they’d all moved because they got sick of the States; they were on the last night of their vacation in Turkey; they liked the food here; and, the “Boys here are just so dark and handsome!” “So what are you-ou doing here, young man?” I gave them the brief rundown as I drank an extraordinarily large Turkish beer: living in Tel Aviv, brother in Korea, from rural Pennsylvania. When I mentioned that I lived with my perfectly lovely girlfriend, I heard an audible sigh from a few of them. I don’t know what it is, but I tend to be very popular among the older gay crowd. “Listen, I don’t want to be too presumptuous, but Tel Aviv has an amazing gay scene. I think you guys would love it.” “You think… that we’re gay?” An awkward pause. I wasn’t sure if that was a rhetorical question. “Honey, we’ve been gay since before it was cool!” Whew. These guys each filled a distinct role in their little posse. The tall, husky, white haired guy at the head of the table was the papa of the crew, clearly the oldest and speaking with such a sarcastic authority that the others just kinda gazed at him. To his left was the ‘guy who came out years ago but was still kinda weirded out by being gay’ guy who didn’t say much, then the “I’m gonna come on to you and say mildly inappropriate sexual things” guy, then the genuine, but uber-serious guy. All told it was a good crew. Not exactly my pick for a night on the town, but great for a few quick drinks in Istanbul. “America! America! This nice, young man has finished his beer. He needs another drink!” America looked at me sincerely, his English almost befitting his apparent name. “What can I serve you?” “Whiskey. Make it a big one.” I downed a tall glass of Jack Daniel’s (it only seemed appropriate, when drinking with a bunch of near-Tennessee dudes and a bartender named America), said my goodbyes and split. “Say hi to that little brother of yours for me!” called the mildly innappropriate dude. “No thanks!” Within minutes I was back on the light rail, drunk and slaphappy with a crowd of lawyer-faced serious Turks. Not exactly the welcome committee:

As the city slipped away, I couldn’t help but smile that the whole thing worked out. All told, I was actually in Istanbul for just under three hours, but I did some serious exploring. I was drunk and euphoric, and the whole experience felt, I’m embarrassed to say, magical. Back at the airport, I found my gate and was suddenly surrounded by Koreans. In line to board, I handed the Turkish Airlines worker my Israeli passport. His eyes shot up to meet mine, and his lip curled as if to say, “What the fuck is this?” The whole scene slowed down to a pause. “Uh,” I stammered, “I have an American passport, too.” “Give me.” “Should I ever use my Israeli passport?” The guy laughed. “No, never Israeli passport.” He laughed some more. Fair enough, Turk, fair enough. I was drunk-sleeping half an hour later. The next morning, I woke up in South Korea. But that’s a story for the next post…

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