Thursday, October 11, 2012

Penniless & Clueless

Taksim Square
Photo taken the next day!
Tuesday was the day to fly from Barcelona to Istanbul. Simple. Get on a plane, land, get Turkish Lira from an ATM, get on the bus to Taksim Square, get a taxi to the AirBnB apartment, check in with Cheryl, the host.

Well, to start with Spain is having a serious economic crisis. Earlier in the week, the metro drivers went on strike, on the very day of the giant soccer match between Barcelona and Madrid. So nobody could take the metro to the game or anywhere else in the city. Buses were packed and the taxi drivers were making out like bandits. 50,000 people affected. Not a bad way to get your message across.

Tuesday I got packed and out the door at a decent hour, air-kissed Dalila goodbye and rolled two blocks to the bus stop and waited. And waited. Several people collected around the stop and we all waited. Finally someone consulted an iPhone and said there was a strike.

Hailing a cab was a challenge. They were already full. Finally one stopped. I told him I had only 20 Euros. Would that be enough to go to the Airport? He agreed to do it. And that left me penniless.

No problem. I wouldn't need Euros until Italy, six weeks from now.

Lovely flight to Istanbul, excellent lunch of red wine, ground beef and lamb, potatoes, eggplant with other vegetables nicely spiced, tea and cake. Touched down and got in line to go through the passport check. It could hardly be called customs because our bags were still coming out of a carousel, somewhere else. Four planes landed close together so there were literally about 1000 people in the line and 25 ports open with staff checking passports. Thirty minutes later it was my turn and the guy said, "No way, no visa, no getting into Turkey". I thought we bought the visas when we checked through. Yes, but not from HIM. He didn't take money! I had to go to another office.

So, luckily (or maybe on purpose), outside that office was an ATM machine. To my horror, it could not, or would not, read my ATM card. Or my other ATM card. I could feel panic starting deep in my gut. What to do? Remembering there were some American dollars stashed away I dug around in the zippered pockets of the carry-on bag. $30. Signs said the Visa is $20 American, or $15 Euros, so I was able to purchase the stamp for the passport. Back through the line, much shorter now that four plane loads of people had been processed, I finally got into Turkey. My colorful luggage was sitting all by itself, way down at the end of carousel 11. It could easily have been stolen, but it wasn't.

The remaining $10 bill was traded for 17 Turkish Lira, which should be just enough to get to Cheryl's house. 10 Lira for the bus, 7 for the cab.

That was sure cutting it close, but there had to be an ATM somewhere that would take my card. If that didn't work, I could PayPal Cheryl and she could give me cash. It would work out. Somehow it would work out.

The giant bus was solidly packed and zipped off at highway speeds until it plunged into the bowels of the city where we crept along in massive chaotic traffic. I could feel panic rising again. This bus ran from Taksim Square to the airport and back. So once there, I should be able to find a cab. Cheryl's email said don't pay more than $6 Lira, so I figured she must live awfully close. She even sent a translation of what to say, but if he refused for whatever reason, what would I do?

Nobody spoke English except for an Italian woman behind me, so we had some stilted conversation. She didn't speak Turkish, but knew her way around, she'd been in Istanbul for three weeks already. The young woman with orthodontic braces, sitting next to me, didn't seem unfriendly, but never said anything either. I assumed she didn't speak English. Turns out she was listening all along, and understood that I was worried about getting to Profilo Mall, the area where Cheryl lives. When she finally started talking, she spoke perfect English, better than most Americans!! Her name is Pinar. She's a lawyer, just starting out, and studied at an English University in Amsterdam. We had a long and fun conversation about living in Istanbul, her plans for the future, her family (mother a nurse, dad a veterinarian who wanted her to become a doctor), and that she plans to move next week to an apartment a block away from Profilo Mall.

She promised to help me get to the Mall and when we got into the cab, she chattered away to the driver. Even clueless, I could tell he didn't want to go there for a set rate, the traffic was a nightmare and it would take a long time. So she agreed to pay the meter. I gave her my remaining 7 Lira to help with the cab, it was barely a third of the final amount.  She told me she would be getting out on the way because she lived closer. She would pay the driver, and he'd take me to the address. We continued talking and she never got out of the cab.

A good thirty minutes of creeping honking traffic, he dropped both of us in front of the mall as he had no idea where the address was. I had the impression from the email that Cheryl's building is pink and houses a burger restaurant named DoyDos. Nothing matching that description was anywhere near the place we were standing. Pinar used her cell to call the number Cheryl gave me. Cheryl was thrilled to finally hear from me as I was about 3 hours late. While we waited Pinar told me that she hadn't trusted the driver to take me to the right place and feared he might try to charge me more. Pinar was truly an angel who showed up at the right time and place. I am taking her to dinner on Friday night to say a proper thank you. Who knows what would have happened to me if she hadn't spoken up and taken over?