A much more peaceful shot of Istanbul at sunset
When you’re planning your first day in a foreign country, here are some tips:
1. Avoid mass protests where the crowd is peppered with tear gas.
2. Don’t go anywhere near riot police.
3. When you hear loud noises that sound like explosions, don’t just walk, run.
Yesterday, I managed to fail on all three counts on my first day in Istanbul and found myself stuck in what has been described as “the worst protest in years”. According to news reports that have since emerged, “an estimated 10,000 demonstrators again streamed into the area waving flags and calling on the government to resign.”
Now, I’m not the kind of girl that goes looking for trouble. I’m more of a “book a massage in the day spa, sip Bloody Marys in a groovy bar, then go shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue” sort of traveller.
So I didn’t quite believe it when I found myself in this street:
Yes, I was in this very street.
Crowd control using tear gas.
Riot police here in Istanbul.
Yahuh. SO not Saks Fifth Avenue.
I had caught the train to the area called Taksim Square and had been so proud of myself that I managed to negotiate the public transport system of a foreign country on my first day.
The hotel concierge had told me there were a bunch of environmentalists protesting against a mall being built in the area. He didn’t seem to think that these peaceful protests were going to cause any disruptions. He was wrong.
A few hours later, the number of protesters had swelled, the small groups of riot police had turned into armies. And I noticed people wearing masks. Oh look, they’re like those people who are scared of germs on subways, I thought. How quaint.
WTF was I thinking? When it dawned on me that they were GAS masks, I thought: maybe it’s time to head back to the hotel. Besides I had a dinner date with my friend Nicole and I still had to catch the train back to the hotel which was least 40 kms away.
However, in order for this to happen, I actually needed to get on a train. And all the stations had been shut down because of the protests. It turns out that tear gas had seeped into the subway system.
By this time, people were chanting, walking en masse to a meeting point and I just kept thinking: How Les Mis. We just need Marius and Enjolras to break out in song and this scene would be perfect.
I forced myself to stop humming “Do you hear the people sing?” and tried to focus: Get. Back. To. The. Hotel.
I just kept running till I found cab, jumped into it and thrust the address of the hotel in front of his face. Thankfully, he took off. Away from Taksim Square.
“Instanbul. Big problem tonight,” he explained in his limited English. He then tried to translate news reports from the radio and kept showing me streaming images of Taksim Square from his phone. “Tear gas. So many police.” “Big problem. Ohhh nooo. Tourists have trouble too.”
Thanks to the incident, roads were jammed, some were closed and my hopes of getting back to the hotel any time soon were getting slimmer. However, the driver drove like a man possessed. But I still figured that being in a speeding cab with a driver who steered with one hand and smoked with the other was better than facing the tear gas and riot police in the centre of Istanbul.
Until we starting driving into the middle of freaking nowhere. I’m talking no buildings, just forest on either side, and no humans to speak of.
There were two possibilities at this point: either this driver knew some clever alternative route to the hotel or I had made a big mistake getting into this cab.
I had been texting my friend Nicole, keeping her updated. Then I received a text from her: “Who are you with? You’re not alone are you?”
Ummmm, yes. Alone. Well, with a speeding cab driver. In a foreign country. In what looked like a jungle in the middle of Nowheresville. Fleeing from a riot. Totally safe.
And then he touched my boob.
Ok not quite my boob. But about 2 cms above it. “You have a good heart. You are a good person. I can tell,” he said.
So I could take this as a heartfelt comment. Or I could freak out. I figured it wouldn’t be helpful to do the latter. I just wanted to get back to the hotel.
I said: “Thanks!” And pulled my handbag up to cover my boob/heart in case he felt the need to give me an assessment of my fine character again.
I think he actually meant well by the comment because we had been talking about his kids and life. But the timing wasn’t great. You know … text from Nicole, Nowheresville, all alone, that kind of thing.
This wasn’t helped by the fact that I had watched the movie Taken 2 on the plane. Set in Istanbul, Liam Neeson plays a a retired CIA operative who is kidnapped along with his wife when they come here on holiday.
Then I figured: Hmmm if I AM being kidnapped and taken into the jungle somewhere in Turkey, I better start paying attention. I figured: “What would Liam Neeson do?”
I did a quick stocktake of my weapons. None. No grenades. No shotguns. Not even a Swiss Army knife to speak of.
At least I could try to remember any landmarks, noises or signs we were passing. Ever tried to memorise random street names in another language? Not easy!
I just kept texting Nicole. I also imagined what I could be capable of if he did do a quick turn onto a jungle track while I cursed myself for watching Bates Motel the night before I left Australia.
After 1.5 hours in the cab, we finally emerged from the jungle on to the coast road and I could see my hotel. I wasn’t being kidnapped! He didn’t really mean to touch my boob. It was all just a hair-raising ride to get away from the country’s “worst protests in years”.
I’m safe and sound. But today, I am not going near any protests. And I’ll leave my Liam Neeson impressions to … Liam Neeson.
If you really want to reach me, I’ll be busy booking massages at the day spa, ordering Bloody Marys and finding the local version of Saks Fifth Avenue.