“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde

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Istanbul, the Second Impression

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We landed in Turkey with a thud. You can read about it here.

It was a tough start, but it’s obviously not fair to let one bad experience – or one bad night – permanently ruin our impression of a place. That would be short-sighted and not really serve anybody.

So I’ve given it a few days and now feel ready to make a more honest assessment of a place that I don’t think I could ever get a proper handle on.

Istanbul is certainly a city of contrasts; of land and water, east and west, rich and poor. It’s a place steeped in history, where cars zoom under an ancient Roman aqueduct while old men shine shoes and roast chestnuts, using the same methods they have for centuries.

In Istanbul, you can get a fresh orange juice for 1 lira or 20 lira, depending on where you buy it. If you’re a tourist, you can get a beer pretty easily in a restaurant; but it will come served in a take-away coffee cup.

It’s a place where democracy is dying; two weeks out from the election there is only one face to be seen – and it is everywhere. Yet the economy is growing, fast.

It’s a place where ethnic minorities are so reviled that when a peace rally is bombed, its leaders boycott the funeral.

It’s a place of relentless, but good-natured, harassment by street touts and the incessant beeping of car horns – as though drivers here believe the pedestrians lack a familiarity with the perils of oncoming traffic, even when walking on the footpath.

I haven’t figured it out.

But I am enjoying it.

It’s been a while since we’ve spent time in a place as gritty as this. It feels real to be out on the streets, watching people go about their lives in their little corner of the world.

I have a million competing thoughts; one is that it feels really uncomfortable being out and about, especially in side alleys and off the tourist track, where we seem to be spending quite a lot of time. To get back to our apartment we walk through what would constitute a slum in a developed country.

But that’s also the fun of it. Travel is supposed to stretch you, take you out of your comfort zone and expand your horizons. And I very much feel like we’re doing that.

Yes, we are still tracking down our hipster cafes and gluten-free baklava (yes Mel did find one!) but being out on the streets, it makes you feel alive in a way that a more sanitized, prettied-up western city just can’t.

Whether I’d want to live here, well, that is another matter altogether.

I feel like – and this is very much the perspective of a spoiled Western tourist – the city is at that stage of development where businesses start to transition from a service-oriented focus to a ‘profit at all costs’ kind of mantra. And that’s a bit awkward.

I’m always looking for frameworks around which to base my understanding of concepts and places; my working framework here is that of China, where an emerging middle class sees their neighbors getting bigger TVs and newer cars, and thinks: “why don’t I have that?”

I rail against consumerism as much as the next guy, probably much more, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting the stuff that you think will get you a better life.

However, it does create more of a ‘dog eat dog’ attitude; a competitive environment in which the weak suffer and the ruthless prevail.

A Chicago School economist would say: “that’s how it’s supposed to be” – incentives should be provided to those willing to work and innovate.

I used to ascribe to this way of thinking wholeheartedly. But these days I carry a much more nuanced view of things.

Especially in a country like Turkey, where society is not equal, it’s extremely flippant to say something like “you should pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”.

Here, it feels much more like we are experiencing the tail end of a caste system; just a hundred years ago, Sultans still ruled from monolithic palaces and, when they died, had tremendous mausoleums built by slaves, serfs and underlings in their honor – we’ve walked into some (I would not recommend the experience highly).

Today, as we walk the streets of the old town, where we are living, we are frequently harassed by street vendors keen to make a few Lira selling this or that. Our local juice cart sells orange or pomegranate juice for 1 lira (40c) a cup; that is maybe scratching a living but it’s not going to take you to the next level – no matter how many you sell.

Tonight, on the way back to our apartment, we got accosted, as we often have, by a few local children, obviously accustomed to – maybe trained in – the art of harassing foreigners for money. While one girl of about eight years old was grabbing at me – literally climbing me – to get at my freshly purchased cup of juice, the other followed Mel relentlessly repeating “money, money, money”.

Rather than spill my juice everywhere, I relented; I didn’t have a choice. I was tempted to try and take a sip before I lost it, but I wasn’t even able to do that.

Mel had no money, so in order to prevent the girl following us into our building, I thought it prudent to give her some change, just 50 cents, so she would back off a bit. The fact that giving money to poor kids merely serves to perpetuate the problem notwithstanding, I’m not sure what other option we had.

It turns out that she would not have likely followed us in, but the whole situation was extremely uncomfortable. What can you do? I wish I had the answer.

But back to economics. How can these children get ahead in a society where their parents have no money, they themselves have no discipline and the education system serves only to benefit the rich and middle classes? They have no chance.

The development economist in me says that a social protection system is essential to give their families a safety net and remove the requirement to go begging and harassing hapless foreigners in back alleyways. I’d certainly love to see that happen, but right now I think the powers that be are more focused on spending public money on building 1000 room palaces and acquiring A330 airliners for their own personal use.

I don’t want to turn this into an economics treatise; suffice it to say the economy is suffering ‘growing pains’.

So we come full circle to our current situation. Wherever we go in Istanbul, we’re constantly reminded of the need to hold tightly onto our things, don’t flash any money and maintain a healthy distrust of, well, everyone. It’s a shame.

But if we just let ourselves relax and experience the place, there’s a very good chance we’ll get taken for a ride.

Just yesterday, our friend Brett avoided two separate scams within 2 hours; one, the shoe shiner who drops a brush – and then, when you kindly pick it up for him, he offers you a ‘free’ shoe shine – except it isn’t. And the second, a random stranger approaching him with the line “Hey, John, from the hotel!” – presumably, if it’s anything like the one I encountered in Bangkok a couple of years back, then claims to have been robbed and needs a loan.

Fortunately Brett’s BS detector is finely attuned, so he wasn’t about to fall for this one, but he did follow and watch the guy approach several other people soon after.

Evidently, none of them was called John.

Just this morning, while waiting at 6am for our pre-booked airport transfer, we were approached by the same taxi driver three times. The first, accosted from across the street by beeping and yelling (because that’s a good way to attract business).

We ignored him, which usually works, but he was particularly tenacious and crossed the six-lane road on foot to harass us a second time.

Despite telling him, quite clearly, that we had arranged our own transport and were waiting, he wouldn’t leave us alone until after several emphatic ‘NOs’.

But that’s not the end of the story, either (of course).

For then, he swung his car around, approached us from behind and, through a cloud of cigarette smoke (because the way to get us into your taxi is through harassment and lung cancer), told us in very broken English that we’d be much better off getting in his chariot of death because there was a problem with our transfer. He must have said the word ‘problem’ nine or ten times.

If I were the kind of person who is trusting and always gives people the benefit of the doubt, this trip would have done me in already. I’d be lying in my second ice bath tub with no kidneys, no money and I’d have swapped identities with some low-level street gangster.

Perhaps that’s a bit extreme (or is it?)

Yes it is. Because I actually have enjoyed Istanbul – on the whole. It just needs to, in the words of my father, get its shit together.

Mel commented to me today that the wealth disparity here is the worst she’s seen; and she’s been to quite a few more developing countries than I have – certainly countries whose national airline didn’t win best airline in Europe 2015 by Skytrax.

Today, we’re glad to be getting out of the city to experience a bit more of the ‘real’ Turkey. Funny how they say you need to leave the cities, where all the people are, to experience a country at its most genuine.


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