Cold turkey in Istanbul


Cold turkey in Istanbul

There were many aspects of ADÉLE CHANGUION's Turkish trip that she did not divulge to her parents.


A FEVERISH excitement was ignited in me the day we went to OR Tambo to drop off my oldest brother. At the age of 10, I knew that like my two brothers, one day I would also step through the marvellous gates of immigration and security into a wide world far from Limpopo.

In the back of my parents' car, I often flipped through my brothers' passports and admired new stamps from distant places. With each visit to the airport, my belief in the adventure that awaited me grew stronger. Eleven years later, the prophecy was fulfilled.

There is surely a degree of risk for young women travelling alone, but a 20-year-old mind believes it is invincible. My poor parents were placated with fiery persuasiveness when they voiced concerns about my travel plans. With each return from a different country, my experience was somewhat “strategically" retold; if my parents were to hear the whole truth, I would never get a ride to the airport again. I suspect my mother spent my time overseas on her knees.

Turkey was one of those places where things went so disastrously wrong, it was as if it was planned. The flight to Istanbul gave me a chronic fear of flying. About an hour after departure from Dubai, we experienced severe turbulence. With each sudden dip and dive of the plane, passengers like me gasped for air. I clung to the seat with white knuckles and wished someone would use a pillow to smother the woman who occasionally cried out, “Oh Jesus!" Babies screamed bloody murder and the chilled air did nothing to stop the trickle of sweat running down my back. In response to the captain's instructions, the cabin crew belted themselves in. In the second hour of the flight, lunch still couldn't be served.

Small bottles of Jameson

I was desperate for any form of numbing and wished the flight attendant would start handing out small bottles of Jameson like Oprah. There was nothing under my seat except a life vest, which wouldn't be much use if we crashed in the desert. It must have been telepathy when the woman next to me swallowed two white pills. “Sleeping pill?" she offered like gum. When the plane hit turbulence, we didn't want to be aware of it. With a dry throat, I swallowed my pill and thanked the woman for her kindness. You see, statistics mean nothing when a plane starts shaking like an off-kilter washing machine. Intellectually, you understand that the plane shouldn't fall, but there's a small irrational part within you that insists, “maybe this flight is the exception".

I've watched enough episodes of Air Crash Investigations to fuel my imagination. I sank lower into my seat and didn't fight the forced slumber that enveloped me. I woke up from a jolt and a loud noise — it felt like I'd obliterated the afternoon. Passengers whistled and clapped because the nightmare had mercifully come to an end. With a dry mouth and a rumbling stomach, I weakly joined in, grateful to be back on the ground.

Good taxi drivers know where a city's hotels are located, but I wasn't staying in a hotel. On the recommendation of a colleague, I was staying in a stranger's flat via Airbnb. The driver looked at the address on the piece of paper I'd handed him, scratched his head and gestured for me to get in. The hostess had told me the flat was  a 35-minute drive from the airport. With my head against the window, I sat snugly in the warmth of the taxi's heater, the city passing dreamily by.

Istanbul is impressive, even more so in the evening with the multitude of mosques glowing gold. At the 45-minute mark, the taxi driver became irritable; I jumped in surprise as he slammed the steering wheel and started yelling. He angrily pointed to the surrounds but I didn't understand a word. When he suddenly slammed on the brakes, my body jerked forward but the seatbelt kept me in place. We glanced at each other in the rear-view mirror. Impatiently, he gestured towards the meter by the steering wheel, and I almost fell out of the taxi when I saw the hefty amount. After I'd paid over the equivalent of R600, he got out, retrieved my luggage from the boot, opened the door and tossed the note with the address onto my lap. “Out!" he commanded in English. If someone talked to me like that now, I'd give them a piece of my mind. Feeling thwarted, I stood in the middle of the street as he drove away, regretting that I hadn't shouted back at him or at least shown him the middle finger.

I buttoned up my coat and wrapped my scarf tightly around my neck. Rows of streetlights illuminated the houses where I would have to go knocking for directions. My head throbbed from hunger and thirst, and I tried to think of a possible alternative if I could not find a place to sleep. In a dark alleyway, I saw two men in black leather jackets with chains around their necks. They looked like mafia henchmen in James Bond movies.

Too hungry and tired to be afraid, I walked towards the men and handed the crumpled paper to the nearest. The man swung my bag onto his back and headed towards a block of flats. Docilely, I followed; if this was a robbery, it was a slow one. In a small elevator without music, the three of us stood and gazed at each other. Like every city, Istanbul has its unique scent. In the confined space, it was particularly prominent. I wondered if they could smell South Africa on me. After about 15 hours of travel, I certainly wasn't a good ambassador for our country.



On the eighth floor, the men left me in front of a steel door. I took my leave gratefully, regretting that I didn't know a bit of the local language. A young man welcomed me at the door and I was immediately wary as my correspondence had been with a woman. “If I'm at the wrong house, I hope the man is kind enough to let me stay overnight," I thought. Not having a damn clue, I took one step further. A young woman with an apron around her waist appeared and greeted me with a firm handshake. The scent of nutmeg entered my nose, an aroma I now indelibly associate with Turkey.

The next day there was a small teargas incident. Or perhaps it was pepper spray. Istanbul has a wonderful transportation system, but I believe a city should also be explored on foot. After a visit to the Blue Mosque, I was looking for food. With a sudden screeching of tyres, a white minibus was forced to a stop by four police cars. Men with guns surrounded the minibus and shouted at the driver to get out. When the first shot was fired, we scattered. When the locals run, you run too.

A block away, there was a scratchiness in my throat. A woman coughed next to me and folded her scarf over her nose and mouth. When a fit of coughing took hold of me too, I started walking faster to get to the flat. My eyes, nose and mouth were watering involuntarily and what felt like a burning coal lodged in my throat. It was only when I blindly purchased a bottle of water at a stall and splashed it over my face that I could see again. At the flat, with a sore head and chest, I swallowed two Panados and lay down for a nap, my appetite completely gone.

The final straw came three days before I flew back home. At the ATM, I attempted to withdraw the last bit of my salary — money that needed to fund three days of food and drink and get me to the airport. During the withdrawal, there was a power cut. The transaction went through but there was no trace of my money. I stood in the rain, watching over a machine that showed no sign of life or money. I tried to ask for help, but everyone merely shrugged.

On the bus, I started making plans and searched my handbag and jacket for loot; every lira was now precious. On my dressing table were a few banknotes. Thankfully, I had enough money for a bus ticket to the airport. With what was left, I bought bread, milk and a few bananas. On my last day in Istanbul, I sat on a park bench, basking in the winter sun. The street dogs I usually fed turned up their noses at the banana I offered. I didn't hold it against them.

Back at OR Tambo, I was glad to be home. You could blindfold me and fly me around the world, but I would know when I'm in South Africa. It's a sensory knowledge that I believe every South African possesses.

With open arms, my family was waiting at the arrival gate. From the back seat of my parents' car, I excitedly recounted details of my trip such as the fishermen on the Bosphorus Bridge, the spice stalls, and the many mosques. From my handbag, I handed my mom a blue pashmina and held a box of Turkish delights in the air so my dad could see it in the rearview mirror.

I carefully flipped through my passport and admired the new stamps adorning another page.

♦ VWB ♦

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