I woke up at 7am with the last remnants of a Strepcil buried under my tongue. I’d placed it in my mouth several hours earlier, and by some miracle it had survived until morning. It quickly dissolved along with the rest of the night’s sky.
Breakfast didn’t start until 8, so I made myself a cup of the complimentary instant coffee (3 in 1!) and did some research for the day. Amanda got in around 4, so I had plenty of time to explore Istanbul on my own. However, I didn’t want to hit any of the major sites, which I would be doing with her, so I took the advice of Lonely Planet and opted for a Bosphorus River Cruise.
After breakfast I showered and got ready. I still felt pretty crummy, and looked forward to the passive enjoyment promised by the boat tour. I plugged the destination into Google Maps, and set off on foot.
I walked briskly but attentively, taking in the cobbled streets, tiny shops, and shameless cats. Daniel had sent me an article that morning declaring the city should rename itself Catstantinople, and indeed there were ally cats everywhere. Locals cared and loved for them, so they were unafraid of brushing against a bare leg or asking for food at an outdoor table. I thought of Marshmallow, the stray my family had adopted on my behest as a child. He would have loved Turkey.
As I waited for a stop light near the water, I checked my phone, not sure where exactly to go.
“Do you need some help?” an attractive Turkish man asked me.
“Oh no, I’m fine,” I lied, not wanting to encourage this would-be Lothario.
He tried another strategy. “Can I take you out for a drink tonight?”
“I don’t think my boyfriend would appreciate that, but thank you.”
“But you look so beautiful,” he persisted. “Please, can I change your life tonight?”
“Nope!” I laughed, amused by his proposal, and sauntered across the street.
I found the dock, and purchased my ticket for the Sehir Hatlari. I boarded the ferry and did a quick round, searching out the best available seat. I settled on a row near the back next to another single female. I was dripping sweat and red-faced from my sickness. The beautiful young Italian girl across the way studied me. She had a notepad and pen in hand, and I wondered if she was going to document me the way I would undoubtedly document her. “Another out of shape, sunburned American” I imagined her writing in her native tongue.
We disembarked at 10:30, and I was grateful for the breeze and the smell of the water. The other passengers went wild with photos immediately, but my seat mate and I simply sat observing in silence.
After a few minutes, my attention shifted from the Turkish flag specked banks of the Asian and European continents to a bizarre cottony feeling in my mouth. It was making it difficult to swallow, and was unlike anything I’d experienced before. My first thought was an allergic reaction – could it be the Turkish cheese from the breakfast buffet? It did taste strange, if not delicious. Or the omelet? I knew this made no sense, I’d eaten hours ago, but what else could it be? Maybe I have a new strain of Hungarian bubonic plague! My hypochondria kicked into overdrive, and I quickly regretted the entire trip. Who was I to think I could travel alone? What on earth was I thinking?! I don’t even have my inhaler!!
I pulled out my phone and started typing affirmations. “You are fine. It was probably from falling asleep with the cough drop. There are plenty of people around you if anything happens.” They didn’t work. My eyes welled and my chest tightened. I was panicking. Then I remembered what I did when this happened during 40 Dates: put my attention on someone else.
“How amazing is that place? Do you think it was once a residence?” I asked my seat mate shakily, nodding to a majestic but deteriorating palace.
“Maybe! It’s beautiful,” she responded. We started chatting and I learned she was from Brazil, on a one-year travel sabbatical.
“A whole year by yourself?!” I was amazed. I was barely making it through my first full day. “How has it been?”
“Incredible,” she smiled. “But not without its challenges.”
She told me about her experiences in Southeast Asia, through Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. We agreed Angkor Wat was one of the most magical places on earth, and swapped stories from Thai beaches. My anxiety slipped away, and before I knew it we’d docked at Anadolu Kavagi.
“We’re here for three hours,” she informed me. “I’m going to get lunch if you want to join?”
I thanked her for the offer, but opted to walk up to the old castle instead. I wasn’t hungry yet, and besides, I wanted to check out the view from above.
It was fabulous. While the castle itself wasn’t much to speak of – crumbling ruins from the 12th century – the sweeping panorama took my breath away. (Actually, the winding pathway up the hill did; I was once again pouring sweat.)
“Would you mind taking a photo of me?” I asked the young Asian man near me.
“Yeah no problem! Where are you from?” He replied, clearly American.
“New York, but originally California. You??” I grinned, pleased to have found another solo English speaker.
“Same! San Diego and San Francisco!”
“Awesome, wanna grab lunch on that terrace over there with the epic view?” He did, and so we grabbed a table.
Over fresh caught seabass I learned Brandon was studying cellular biology at UCSD (my boyfriend’s alma mater- go Tritons!!) and had just completed a summer program in Paris like the one I had done in 2010. We gushed over our shared abroad experience, reminiscing about the art, the nightlife, the wine. He’d spent the last four days in Istanbul with his mom, and gave me some tips. Budapest was his next stop after a night train to Bucharest, so I gave him the 411 I’d received from Ally and her crew. There was something effortless about our conversation. Travel had obliterated the fact we were complete strangers.
After lunch we meandered the small fishing village, heading down the one main road to the “beach.” We picked up a tour guide- a stray dog who eagerly led us out onto the rocks emerging from the cobalt water. I took off my shoes and splashed around with him. We laughed and declared him our spirit animal as round, old Turkish men bathed nearby. I could think of worse ways to spend a sick day.
By the time we returned to Eminonu, it was 4:30. I texted Amanda via tethering to Brandon’s phone,* and got the address for her hotel. Brandon walked me across the bridge before peeling off to try a baklava place two other passengers had highly recommended. We hugged goodbye, aware that we would most likely never see each other again, and wished each other well on our journeys.
I met Amanda at her hotel, and instantly had booker’s remorse. At $65 a night, The Banker Han by the Sofa was a gem. Opened in April, the luxury boutique oozed sophistication on a budget. I wished I hadn’t been in such a hurry to book and spent more time researching hotels. But then I reminded myself of the wonderful service at the Blue Istanbul, and the green slowly left my cheeks.
Our first and only real event planned for the evening was the Galata Tower. The wait was half an hour to go up to the viewing deck, but Amanda assured me it was worth the time and the $12. She was right. Not just because the view was even more spectacular than from the castle, but because it gave me the opportunity to get to know Amanda better. Up until this point, all I had really known was that we shared a mutual appreciation for margaritas. Not a bad start, but… the more we spoke about work, writing, travel, life, the more certain I felt that we would become long-term friends back in LA.
After taking in Istanbul from every angle, we made our way up the Istiklal, the famous shopping and night club street that dissects Beyoglu and ends at Taksim Square. We mistakenly believed we could find a decent restaurant amidst the hubbub of chain stores and kebap shops, and lamented having not done more research. We entered a Starbucks in search of wifi and tripadvisor, but to no avail. Alas we succumbed to our hunger and returned to Galata Tower to dine at an unremarkable tourist trap, promising ourselves a formidable culinary experience the following night.
“Hey, at least it’s a beautiful view,” I remarked, the sun long gone and the tower lit up in green and purple hues. She agreed, and we snapped a few photos before heading back to her hotel and meeting Will.
“Hey, where you guys from?” The boisterous American popped up next to us in the street, obviously having overheard our conversation. We told him LA, and he began giving us a lively account of his love for Istanbul. He walked with us down to the train station, and Amanda peeled off to go to her hotel.
“I’m going to take some photos from the bridge,” Will informed me.
I hesitated. Did I trust this stranger? Absolutely. “I’ll join you,” I said, and we set out on foot across the Galata Koprusu. On the other side, we posted up next to a few fisherman, and admired the Rustem Pasa. Below, brightly lit neon boats jostled back and forth next to the shore.
“What are those?” I asked, then answered my own question. “Oh my god, those guys are cooking on there!” I laughed as I watched the chefs perform a balancing act over large central grills.
We took a few photos, shared a couple more stories, then parted ways. As I walked the mile back to my hotel, I couldn’t stop smiling. The views. The architecture. The people. In less than twelve hours, I had made four new friends to enjoy this extraordinary city with. So much for traveling alone!
*Travel tip: T-Mobile offers free world Internet. It’s dial-up slow, but it’s FREEEEEE!