The flight from Kathmandu was memorable for two reasons. First was the large group of Nepali men and women in transit to their menial jobs in oil-rich countries. Some looked exhausted already, some were full of anticipation and nervous energy, some wore their best clothes, but all were bound for cultures in which they are not treated with respect and are often abused, tricked, reduced to servitude, and of course are thousands of miles from their homeland. No doubt the government collects some kind of tax or service fee for allowing them to go.
Second was the stop in Doha, Qatar. I flew on Qatar airlines, said to be one of the top five in the world, but it seemed pretty standard. We arrived at the airport around 2:30 a.m. body time, 12:30 a.m. Qatar time, and the place was wall-to-wall travelers, as if it was mid-day. I made a beeline for the Onyx Lounge which I learned from my travel company will allow access upon a one-time $40 payment. I was turned away at first, told to come back in 90 minutes (I returned and was admitted after 40) and found a sanctuary to endure my 6 hour layover. Free food, drinks, WiFi, and fairly comfortable chairs. Never could get to a reclining chair in time so as to have my own little nook, but so it goes.
We landed in Istanbul through heavy clouds with very limited visibility. It was obvious from the tarmac that I’d shifted civilizations: grass was cut, no junk or trash piles visible, disembark directly into the terminal instead of to a big bus. The first Turkish woman I see is a ground crew member, blue overalls, big eye mascara, hair dyed reddish brown, and cute with a nice smile for passengers deplaning.
Immigration, customs are a breeze, and I’m on my way in 15 minutes since touching down. My hotel has a person waiting for me just like they said they would, and I spot him immediately. His Mercedes van takes us into the city and I am immediately impressed with the green grass on the highway divider, flowers grown in public spaces, orderly traffic that is not honking every 10 seconds, and perhaps most of all, the sheer speed at which the van travels. Shit happens on the roads of Turkey too, of course, but at least they don’t have the crush of motorcycles, trucks, cars, wagons, rickshaws, hand-carts, the occasional wandering cow, and pedestrians all in one space. We whizz past a section of the old city wall which I plan to walk later on. Its builders in the 4th c. CE could never imagine the 21st century, where a hole in the wall does not mean barbarians streaming in to sack the city but instead, a café, restaurant, or little store selling cigarettes and snacks.
(the Blue Mosque from the roof of my hotel)
The Hotel Uyan (which means “view’) is five minutes from the major sights of central Istanbul, including the World Heritage site of Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar (featured in a recent James Bond chase scene), Topkapi Palace, and etc. I am jet-lagged, tired, happy, and excited, so my first walk is a short one but memorable for the grand-scale of these monuments and the long and oftentimes bloody history of conquest and power they represent. The evening call to prayer lasts just five minutes and that’s it! No long Qu’ran readings, sermons, or additional prayers (as in parts of Indonesia). Maybe there’s some hope for Islam and modernity that the Turks have figured out.