Misadventures in Istanbul
A lot of travel mistakes I’ve had the displeasure of being on the receiving end of have been lessons, or obstacles that could probably be avoided given proper planning and research. Others just come with the territory of traveling stand by, last minute, without a plan, short on money, or all of the above. Mistakes don’t vary in level of discomfort or cost of remedy according to the type of situation you happen to be in, so the best course of action is often to make peace with the fact that they will happen, be flexible, and prepare for some mild physical and mental discomfort. This is all part of the fun of traveling, and eliminating them completely would probably defeat some of the purpose of travel for me.
A number of different struggles and mistakes conspired to create the following situation, and while several aspects of the experience that resulted could’ve been avoided, and made for a much less painful experience, there isn’t necessarily a catch all lesson to be learned.
I was a student at the time of this particular adventure, so suffice to say, I didn’t have a great deal of working capital. I was making my way to and from Istanbul via the generosity of my mother and stand by on United. From there I would be going by low cost carrier to and from Cyprus to meet up with a friend and fellow law student after her stint studying the legal ramifications of the last divided capital city on earth (at that point), Nicosia, Cyprus. She was kind enough to invite me to join her for a week on the Island following the conclusion of her program, and I of course accepted immediately.
By the time I made my way back to Istanbul after the adventure on Cyprus, I was pretty broke. I nevertheless had a phenomenal time, and was thrilled I had gotten to spend a few days in Turkey. While I did have the pleasure of taking advantage of Istanbul’s terrific public transportation several times, I was still high enough on the hog when I made for Ataturk that I took a cab after I got sweaty of tired of walking. This is where things started to come unraveled.
While my phone had been in airplane mode since I first took off from the states, I had been utilizing offline google maps, the camera on my phone, and some notes I had taken down prior to departure throughout the trip. One of the things that has always kept me occupied on cab rides in foreign countries is referencing my GPS location on my downloaded google maps to ensure I’m not being taken for a lengthy and expensive ride without need. Naturally, I was doing exactly that on the way from the city to Ataturk. Once we arrived, I paid the driver, and gathered my belongings as I headed inside the terminal. All my belongings except for the phone I had left sitting on the backseat of the cab. It might be worth noting at this point that I have been needlessly taken on a ride around town or ripped off by a foreign cab driver exactly zero times.
In any case, I realized my error almost immediately. Only a few seconds had passed between the time I had gotten out of the cab and the time I realized I was without one of my most valued possessions, my phone, second only to my passport in real or theoretical value at that point. Bags in tow, I took off after the fiat cab I knew contained my phone. I sprinted down the ramp and tracked down the cab, banging on the car until the driver stopped to see what the hell was going on.
I was thrilled, a serious crisis had been averted, and I would be on my way back home in a matter of hours. The cab driver rolled down his window and I immediately realized how foolish I had been. There were maybe 1,000 ten year old fiat cabs in the area, and I had failed to find the right one. I looked around frantically, but I had missed my chance, my phone was history.
This presented a couple of problems. The first was that I now had no way to communicate with my parents, who were not only picking me up from the airport upon my return to the states and several connecting flights, but more importantly, I was now shit out of luck in terms of all the pictures I had taken on the trip. I could hitch hike home. I could buy a new phone. But the pictures from the trip were all but irreplaceable. Fortunately, at that moment, I had other issues to mull over. Chief among which, was getting on the one (at the time) United flight back to the states that day which I was standing by for.
The first step was gaining the approval of the agent at the check in desk and being issued a boarding pass allowing me to clear security to get to the gate area where I could hope to get an actual seat on the flight. I am not sure how closely the agents at check in examine the loads, but I was granted a boarding pass allowing me access to the gate area. I cleared security and made my way to the gate. The complications began to compound. I did not get on the flight. This isn’t a very big deal in most circumstances, including this one, but given the stress I was already experiencing, it didn’t seem routine. I was escorted, alone, from the gate area by two men carrying automatic weapons into a holding area where the marked my passport and belongings with stickers.
I knew I had done nothing wrong, and that stand bys probably missed international flights from this airport each and every day, but these thoughts didn’t do much to calm me down. I was still very much hung up on the cost of replacing my smartphone, which I could very much not afford. After a few minutes, I was released back into the check in area. Although they didn’t speak English, the gun toting men were very kind to me, and I didn’t ever really feel like anything out of the ordinary was going to happen.
I was now able to devote my full attention on getting in touch with my parents, and the fact that I had lost my phone. After mulling this over for an hour or two, I was forced to confront the reality that there wasn't a whole lot I could do. Even if I had my phone, this was long before the days of free wifi. Fortunately for me, my mother was almost always more aware of the stand by status of the flights my siblings or I were trying to board than we were, and had seen that I had not gotten on the flight. Hoping that this had been the case, I spent the next 24 hours sleeping, or attempting to sleep in the check in area of Ataturk. This actually wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared it might be, with comfortable chairs and outlets in relative abundance.
Round two. I checked in at the desk. This time, I didn’t even get past the check in area. I was told that seats were scarce and that I would not be proceeding to the gate area. I was demoralized at this point to such an extent that I was actually willing to spend a few bucks to get back into the city and get a bed at the very un-air conditioned hostel I had stayed at one of the nights prior. I should mention – it was August. In any case, I stayed far away from cabs and took the train back into the city. The hostel, while being un-air conditioned, and having bizarre and cryptic shower controls, did have internet enabled computers available for a small fee. This was a pretty big thrill considering the last 36 hours I had experienced.
I emailed my parents, informing them of my situation, and prayed they had decided to start checking their email more often than once a week at some point during my trip. I did purchase a calling card or two and attempted to get in touch with them via those means, but ultimately was not successful. Looking back, this probably would’ve been an easy way to get in touch with my parents and relieve some stress. Not many Turks I encountered spoke very good English, but I’m sure I could’ve eventually made the calling card work at the hostel. Unfortunately, I had long since written the phones off, and was working with the knowledge that I would continue to be listed on United stand by flights to the states until I actually made it past immigration limbo and onto an airplane.
I did what I could to enjoy another night in Istanbul (drink Raki) and again prepared for an uncertain day at the airport. To my extreme delight, I got on the following day’s flight back to the US. I was never so happy to be heading to Newark, NJ. Between deplaning and immigration in Newark, a very kind gentleman allowed me to use his cell phone to call my mother, who was of course expecting my call. We briefly discussed the relevant details of my flights back to the Midwest, and all was well, for the moment. But I had unfortunately missed the flight I sought and would be waiting until the following morning.
This however, was a minor consideration once I started to piece together what my next moves would be. I would be returning to law school to begin my third year in a few day’s time, and needed to replace my phone. Thank God smart phones had been around a couple of years, and I was able to replace my phone with a serviceable replacement for under $200. This was still a painful hit to my extremely thin wallet, but nowhere near as painful as the knowledge that an entire trip’s worth of photos were lost. I had an incredible trip, but almost nothing to remember it by.
A week later I had pieced my cell phone situation back together and was sitting through a business law course when I refreshed my email and saw a subject line that made me fall out of my chair. “My cousin is a cab driver in Istanbul…” I let out a “NO WAY” and apologized to my professor. The driver whose cab I had left my phone in in Istanbul had given my phone to his English speaking cousin and used the email account saved in the phone to get in touch with me. He wanted to know if the phone he had belonged to me and if so, how he could return it.
Ultimately, I wired him some money, and he shipped the phone back to me. He profusely refused additional money as a reward and compensation for his trouble, and insisted that any Turk would’ve done the same for me. Against his wishes, I rounded the amount he needed for shipping the phone up, in the hopes he would accept it as thanks for his unbelievably kind gesture. I still have a hard time believing this actually happened, and I am eternally grateful to these individuals. I love to look at the pictures I’ve taken on my trips, and they do a much better job of reminding me how special certain people and places are than my memory alone. For that reason, they are extremely valuable to me.
I would never advise someone to count on the kindness of others to reclaim the shambles they have made of their trip back from a foreign country, but this experience reminded me just how far the generosity of others can go. I have replaced several phones since this misadventure, but the pictures I was able to salvage from the phone that was returned to me can never be replaced, and to me, are truly priceless.