New Traveler Lessons: Five Things I Learned in Istanbul
My very first trip outside of North America was to Istanbul, in 2005. I was traveling with my sister and her boyfriend, who lived in London at the time, as well as a couple of friends of theirs. I was single, and while it didn’t bother me at all, it meant that any time I wasn’t with the whole group, I was on my own. I was a little cocky, and Istanbul definitely taught me some ‘new traveler lessons’…
One morning, maybe our third or so day in Istanbul, everyone had decided they wanted to sleep in and have a leisurely brunch, with no real plans for the day. I really wanted to check out the Grand Bazaar, which was not far from our hotel, but nobody else seemed too interested. I decided to head out on my own.
1) Not knowing the language really is a handicap
I ditched my group while they were all still sleeping, and wandered, alone, from my hotel to the Grand Bazaar. I made sure to grab a card for the hotel, remembering this travel tip from some guidebook, thinking that if I got lost, I could just catch a cab back. I wasn’t too worried about getting lost, though. I was going to show everyone how good I was at traveling, and make it back by lunchtime, under my own power.
As soon as I walked through the arched door into the Bazaar, I made a point of taking my bearings, including noting the word over the door, “çıkış”, which I presumed was the name of the street or the entrance I had come in through. I proceeded to wander. A lot. I looked at gold chains, and silk scarves, pretty clothing and Turkish lamps. Everything was loud and colorful and oh, so foreign. I love shopping in markets and bazaars.
I realized with a start that it was already lunchtime. Oops! I had been so engrossed by the shiny brass, tasty tidbits, and colorful fabrics that I had seriously lost track of time! I wasn’t entirely sure how far I had come, but I had been moving slowly, examining wares and sampling goodies, so I didn’t think I was really all that far from where I had entered the Bazaar. I turned and headed back the way I came, but more briskly.
2) Assumptions will bite you in the butt
I was only a couple dozen confident strides further along when I noticed, not far away, an arched door marked “çıkış”. I thought I was a bit further into the Bazaar than that. I looked around, and while it looked similar to where I had come in, it didn’t seem quite right. Still, the door was marked “çıkış”, and I had made a real point of remembering that…perhaps I had paid so much attention to the door that I hadn’t noted my surroundings very well. I popped through, and hurried down the street.
3) Walking confidently, even when you are lost…only gets you more lost.
I had only made it a few blocks before I realized that I was kind of lost. Okay, maybe fairly lost. I didn’t think I had missed a turn after leaving the Bazaar, but maybe? I could see minarets in the distance, poking up over rooflines off to the right, and our hotel was fairly close to the Blue Mosque, with its gorgeous slender minarets. I knew I had to turn right at some point to get to the hotel, so I kept walking, and took the next right-hand turn, thinking I could triangulate my way back to where I belonged from the landmarks. Rather than stopping and asking for help from any of the (very few) passers-by, I just kept walking, confidently…
4) Having a hotel card is handy for showing the taxi driver…if you can find a taxi.
Which I couldn’t. Not anywhere. My confident walking had me so turned around, and so far from anything, that I was in a nearly-abandoned neighborhood, and not a particularly nice one, either. The streets were narrow and run down, and there was no evidence that there had been any vehicle down that way in hours, or maybe days. For all I knew, it could have been a pedestrian-only area, or maybe the residents were just too poor to have cars or need taxis. Looking around, I had realized that there were a lot of minarets in Istanbul, and that had been a really poor choice of landmark. I didn’t feel like I was in any immediate danger, but I was definitely in trouble. Not knowing what else to do, I kept on walking, in as straight a line as possible.
5) Carry a map, and know which part of it your hotel is in.
Eventually, I hit the Bosporus river. Maybe. Water, anyway. We’d taken a river tour the day before, and I could finally see for a ways in either direction. Still, nothing looked at all familiar. I picked a direction at random, and kept walking. I walked. And walked. And walked. And…wait! What’s that! Something familiar! I had seen this place before. I was not too far from the Blue Mosque, and from there, I could find my way back to the hotel, though it was still a bit of a hike.
I didn’t make it home in time for lunch. In fact, I almost ended up late for supper!
Later, I discovered that “çıkış” means exit. I do better research, now, and try to have a map on hand when I go wandering, rather than relying on finding a taxi if I get lost. Lessons learned. However, I do still get lost a lot.