Jul 27, 2012 - published work, travel, Turkey    8 Comments

Tourism of another kind

Alain de Botton writes about the relationship between the anticipation of travel and its reality in his book ‘The Art of Travel’. Before traveling to a place, most people think about the amazing places they would visit, the exotic food they would eat and interesting people they would meet. The reality could be different; they may not get to visit the places they planned, the food may be disappointing and the people, not very exciting. On the other hand, the reality could be everything they desired but it is always laced with the reality that is not anticipated, like braving long lines at the immigration counter at the airport, haggling with cab drivers in a language they don’t know and their inability to do something as simple as reading a road sign and the subsequent frustration over it.
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Before my vacations earlier this month, my level of anticipation was high. I planned a visit to a country that I have always wanted to see – Turkey. I read books about the country; travelogues, stories about the history of the land, influences of Roman and Greek mythology on Turkish architecture, and something as touching as the ode that Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk wrote for his beloved city Istanbul. To say that I was high on anticipation would be putting it mildly. I was anticipating a visit to the Topkapi Palace which would transport me back to medieval times in Istanbul; I would spend afternoons on the beach in Izmir; I would be enthralled by the Sama ceremony of whirling dervishes in Konya; and I was so looking forward to drinking Turkish tea on a balcony one evening overlooking the Bosphorus. The reality was different. Topkapi was so overcrowded that I was literally jostled from one room to another; Izmir was struck out of the itinerary because of a shortage of funds; and the Sama ceremony turned out to be a lot less spiritual and more concert-like than I would have liked. I also ended up drinking Turkish tea not in a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus but in a police station in Istanbul.
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Everyone who has ever been to Turkey has regaled me with tales of how Turkish people love Pakistanis and how it is the last place in the world where we are still respected/loved. I lost that illusion a few minutes after I entered Ataturk Airport. The Turkish embassy in Islamabad assured me that I will get a visa on arrival if I have a US, British or Schengen visa stamped on my passport, so the first thing I needed to do in Turkey was buy a visa. The sign told me that I will have to go to Immigration Counter No 2 to get my passport stamped (they have a separate counter for people from Pakistan, India, Iraq and South Africa). I looked for it but the trail of arrows kind of died in the middle of a long corridor, so I came back and asked the help desk. A man here told me that Counter 2 is closed so I need to go to the counter where everyone else is getting their visas. There was a crazy long line at that counter and when after 20 minutes I managed to speak to the visa officer, he told me to go find Counter 2 again. (This man was not authorized to give a visa to a Pakistani.) I asked several people but everyone spun a new tale about visas for Pakistanis. I saw a desi-looking family walking to the same long corridor where the trail of arrows ended and decided to follow them. It turned out that one had to keep going even when the trail of arrows ended to get to the desired counter. When I got there, I saw a few people gathered around a closed counter and some Turkish immigration officials on the other side chatting with each other. I went up to them and asked if the counter was closed. I was told that the counter was indeed closed. I then told them there must be some mistake because I was specifically sent to this counter to get my visa because I am traveling on a Pakistani passport. One of the immigration officials almost snapped my head off for not telling him earlier that I am Pakistani. I wanted to tell him that I was at the counter for only 30 seconds but refrained from pointing it out. I just wanted to leave the airport as soon as I could. I was then given a piece of paper and was sent to another counter to pay for the visa. I came back with the receipt and gave them the passport and then waited patiently for one of the immigration officials to deign to pick up my passport and stamp my visa and entry into their country. I waited, along with that desi-looking family – they were Indians from Delhi – for the officials to finish their tea. After what seemed like an eternity, one of them took pity on us and gave us our passports back, stamped. In the meantime, I cussed up a storm in Urdu/Hindi with the eldest daughter of the family from Delhi about the sterling work ethics of the Turkish Immigration officers at Counter 2.
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Meeting a friend who was joining me all the way from Canada and getting a tram to our hotel in Sultanahmet went smoothly. Another friend joined us from Amsterdam later that night. We had dinner and made plans for a blitzkrieg tourism-filled weekend. We started the day with a visit to the Blue Mosque which is every bit as majestic as I anticipated it to be. The difference from the anticipation was the rush of people who wanted to get their pictures taken with every calligraphic inscription and every bulb in the numerous chandeliers.
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If the Blue Mosque met my expectations, Ayasofia far exceeded them. So steeped in the history is the place and so different it is from everything I have seen until now that I couldn’t help being mesmerized by it all. Where else would you get to see Quranic inscriptions side by side with mosaic paintings of the Virgin Mary and Archangel?

 

Where calligraphy of the word Allah coexist with a mosaic painting of Archangel: the main hall in Aya Sofia
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Bascilla Cistern, a Bosphorus cruise and a day at Topkapi rounded up our weekend. After a long day in Topkapi, we came out and sat on one of the benches in the courtyard between Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque. My friend needed help in looking for a key in her bag so I put my bag under my left leg and the 60 seconds I spent in looking for a key in her backpack, someone came and stole my bag from under my leg! Yes, there I was, in Istanbul… with no money, no credit or debit card, no passport, no cell phone and no proof of identification, it was like I didn’t exist any longer. After the initial panic, I went to the tourism police office where a gentleman who could speak English refused to believe me; he actually had the audacity to treat me as a criminal and asked me repeatedly if I am sure that I have not forgotten my bag somewhere and am now crying that it was stolen. The policeman was rude, misogynist and quite adept at blaming the victim – just like the policemen back home. After a big hassle, I got the address of a nearby police station where I could file an official report. The policemen at the station desk knew rudimentary English and told us to wait. While waiting he asked us where we were from and when we said we were from Pakistan, he sang JeevayPakistan and said he was doing it to cheer me up. I was looking at him in a state of shock. Never in my wildest imagination had I ever thought that one day, every penny I had on me would be stolen in a foreign land and I will have to hear an impromptu rendition of Jeevay Pakistan in a police station. Truth is certainly stranger than fiction.

 

Some of them very farigh Turkish policemen.
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And, as if that was not enough, random policemen would come, talk to the guy at the desk, look at me, nod their heads, smile, laugh and then leave. Freaked out as I was, I just stood up and asked him why no one was filing a report on my behalf and why everyone was coming and looking at me like a circus animal. I was told that they were waiting for an official translator to sign off the report and that I looked like some Turkish singer who apparently was only popular with the policemen (nobody told me anywhere else in Turkey that I look like a pop singer) and that is why they all wanted to see me. One of the over-eager policeman even shook hands with me as if I was the local celebrity. So flabbergasted was I with this turn of events that I actually complied. This is something I would never have anticipated before I embarked upon my travels.

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The next day was spent at the embassy getting a new passport made. They charged me 168 dollars – which is kind of ironic because I was robbed of every single penny and had to borrow money from friends for everything. I later learned that the embassies are supposed to help such victims and have a special fund with which they pay for your passport and stuff. I don’t know if it is true or not, but I am still grateful to the embassy staff for being courteous and making me a replacement passport the very same day.

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Apparently this chori chakari is so commonplace in Istanbul that the embassy folks were not in the least bit surprised when I went to get my passport made and regaled them with my sob story. The fellow there asked me – very calmly – if it happened at Taksim Square or Sultanahmet. When I told him that it happened at Sultanahmet, he wisely nodded his head and said that that’s where most of the passports of Pakistanis were snatched. They get around 5-6 stolen passport cases every week. The day I got my passport made, there were three other Pakistani guys who were mugged in the alleys next to Istaklal Street.
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If you think it was not shocking enough, on my way back to Pakistan, I learned that I cannot get through the regular immigration counter. They have a separate immigration desk at Ata Turk Airport for people whose passports have either been stolen or lost! You need to show them a copy of your police report; your newly minted very expensive passport, they write the date of your entry on your boarding, stamps the exit on your passport and viola, you are free to go back home. A special desk for people with stolen/new passports! How bizarre is that?
The usual crime scene: the tram that travels from Taksim Square through the length of Istaklal Street
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If anyone had told me before I embarked upon the journey that I will end up spending a day at the Pakistani Embassy in Istanbul and would be shaking hands with over-eager Turkish policemen who thought I was a celebrity lookalike, I would have laughed out at the ludicrousness of it all.
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Originally written for The Friday Times, this is the longer version.
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PS: Special shout out to Saima and Karan for bearing with a very gloomy and morose me in Turkey.
PPS: Sorry for not warning you earlier, this is a rather long rant. 
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8 Comments

  • Oh my goodness. I’m so sorry, but I did end up bursting out in laughter as I read your post. You have the knack of making something so serious sound so entertaining.

    Sometimes, the weirdest things do happen when you’re on holiday.

  • Bonjour Tazeen,

    You can tell a story!

    As to the practical side of all this, next time do as everybody else: use a banana kind of bag or something hanging around your neck, whenever you leave the house.

    I imagine you have already learned by now not to open the door when someone calls you from the outside of your appartment. Now you may add to this the the banana precaution.

    Cheers to you, nevertheless. There is candy in the sky.

    Georg

  • Agree totally to the Pakistani-Turkish friendship over hype, didn’t face the same issues ( with a Pakistani passport) at the visa counter as you did though.

  • agree with the Turkish-Pakistani friendship over hype not reflecting on the treatment to Pakistanis.
    Did not face the same issues at the visa counter ( with a pakistani passport) as you did.

  • I forwarded the link to your post to my travel buddies and this is what I get back. Reproducing it is not an endorsement

    QUOTE
    XXXX bhai,

    I read this blog posted by you, it’s a very disappointing blog by someone who didn’t do any research before leaving for a vacation.

    1. During our euro trip I didn’t do a penny’s research but even I know that if you want to enter Turkey you need to have a valid multiple Schengen or UK visa. Which apparently she didn’t know.

    2. What do you expect when you to in a peak tourist reason, apparently she wanted all halls empty in topkapi.

    3. Long lines at immigration, anyone who has done any traveling fill find 75% immigrations like this. Her ordeal would have been much less if she had a valid visa at the time of entry.

    4. Leaving or bag/ purse unattended for 60 second in any city gives you 99% guarantee that it will be stolen.

    I know you will defend her but I need to speak my mind out.
    UNQUOTE

    In case you are wondering, I didn’t defend you by replying to it as I don’t have the energy for it, Ramzan and all, neither did I correct his English mistakes after pasting it.

  • Ibrahim,

    I had both US and UK visas, hence I was allowed to leave the country, even if you have all the visas, you are still required to purchase a Turkish visa – you know they make money out of it, it is basic Economics. Secondly, if your friend had focused a little bit on the text instead of putting all his energies into judging me as a loser who deserved everything that happened to her, he would have read that I did NOT leave my bag unattended. It was actually UNDER my leg. Thirdly, I would wish something like this to happen to him, not because I am mad at him fro being a judgmental prick, but because I believe that it will teach him some empathy and humility.

    In any case, my post was for people who are familiar with literature, philosophy and the concepts of imagination and anticipation. I guess you expected too much when you fwded the link to your friend.

  • Tazeen. This reminded me of my visit to Istanbul last December when I was on my way back to Mumbai from the US. Getting a visa on arrival was an extremely stressful process. But, I had the foresight to google up blogs of people who had done this before and was mentally prepared for what followed.

    Well, your bag snatching under your leg case is certainly very alarming. I didn’t have any such issue, most of the pick pockets and thieves are hibernating in the winter I suppose. I too didn’t really enjoy the very touristy places, but other things such as strolling along the banks of the Bosphorus from Hyder Pasha to Eminonu were very memorable.

    Btw, I had always thought Turks and ‘Hindistanis’ were bhai bhai. Apparently, Paki-Turk blood runs thicker.

  • Tazeen. This reminded me of my visit to Istanbul last December when I was on my way back to Mumbai from the US. Getting a visa on arrival was an extremely stressful process. But, I had the foresight to google up blogs of people who had done this before and was mentally prepared for what followed.

    Well, your bag snatching under your leg case is certainly very alarming. I didn’t have any such issue, most of the pick pockets and thieves are hibernating in the winter I suppose. I too didn’t really enjoy the very touristy places, but other things such as strolling along the banks of the Bosphorus from Hyder Pasha to Eminonu were very memorable.

    Btw, I had always thought Turks and ‘Hindistanis’ were bhai bhai. Apparently, Paki-Turk blood runs thicker.

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