Flying By the Seat of My Pants

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I have done absolutely no planning for Turkey. And it shows.

I boarded my plane from Tel Aviv without having done the slightest bit of research on even my first stop, Istanbul. I’d only barely managed to book a hostel — I had been about to go to bed the night before when I realized I hadn’t done that yet. Oops. Quickly searched the hostelworld app on my phone, found a dorm that still had availability on such short notice, booked it. Done.

I meant to buy a guidebook at the airport, but the only one for sale was an Istanbul-only Lonely Planet and it cost over 150 shekels. I’ll pass, thanks. My hostel had automatically emailed me directions, so I figured I’d be set to get there anyhow.

Oh yeah, that Turkish e-visa? I applied for that less than 24 hours in advance too.

I stepped off the plane, cleared immigration quickly, collected my backpack (which Israeli security had forced me to check due to nail clippers), and made my way outside of the terminal. Cabs and buses and airport shuttles everywhere… “Where are you going? Asian side, European side? You need taxi?” I quickly retreated back inside to find an information booth. No free maps available? Well okay then. I consulted the slightly vague directions from Sabiha Gökçen Airport on my phone. First step: HAVAS shuttle to Taksim.

Well, there was no HAVAS shuttle, but there was a HAVATAS bus to Taksim. Figuring they were the same thing, I allowed the attendant to stow my bag underneath and hopped on. Unfortunately I was the last one to board, and there were no seats left. I stared around in confusion until the same attendant grabbed me by the arm and led me to the very front of the bus, to a seat that folded down over the stairs. “You sit here and help driver,” he said with a smile.

Not knowing how long the ride would take, I enjoyed the best view in the house as I was nearly pressed up against the front windshield. We made a few stops once we entered Istanbul, but I crossed my fingers that my stop was the final one. It helped that sitting up front meant I had to get off each time to let other passengers off, so I could look around and intuit that it wasn’t the right place before getting back on again. Finally, the driver turned off the engine and bellowed “Taksim!”

Once again I was surrounded by taxi drivers, but I brushed them off and made my way to the corner, trying desperately to get my bearings in a city I’d never even looked at a map of. The directions indicated that I should take the Metro next, but we were on a side street and there was no Metro to be seen. With lack of anything better to do, I hoisted my backpack and started walking, following traffic.

Success! After a few blocks I found a stairway that looked promising, but when I followed it down it only appeared to be an underground tunnel for buses. I could see across several lanes to a stairwell down another level on the other side of the road, but there seemed to be no way across. Okay: up the stairs, across the square, down one level, down a second level. I had found the Metro at last!

Unfortunately none of the signs seemed familiar, but I figured I’d buy a ticket and hopefully there would be a map somewhere down the line and then I could figure it out. While struggling to operate the machine though, I managed to get some help from the nice Turkish guy who was coaching me through which buttons to press. (I didn’t realize there was an English option until later — it’s rather hidden.) He instructed me to take the füniküler to Kabataş and then change for the tram there.

Knowing which signs to follow in the station made it a lot easier. The füniküler wasn’t at all what I expected (I was thinking cable car, it’s actually a mini-train that goes down a big hill but all underground) and I quickly found the tram after that. I had a beautiful view of the city as we wound our way through it and over the Galata Bridge (only finding out what it was after the fact, of course). When I arrived at Sultanahmet, I easily found my hostel after a 10-minute walk. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia do make excellent landmarks.

Checked in, dropped my backpack, and went up to the rooftop terrace for a cold drink. I immediately made friends with two Australian guys who had arrived the day before, and we grabbed some dinner and played cards for the rest of the night.

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I’ve had a lot of days like this.

I’m not sure if it’s because my usual work life is so scheduled and full of deadlines or what, but when I travel I try to leave things as open as possible. When I’m exploring a new city, I’m focused on where I am today. I don’t want to think about what comes next or even how to get there. So I find myself making spontaneous decisions and just winging it pretty constantly.

The first time I traveled on my own, to Colombia, I didn’t have an itinerary either. I’d done a bit of research and had some idea of where I wanted to go, but I only planned three must-see sights for my three weeks there. Everything else, I made up as I went.

My travel plans have only gotten looser as I’ve gone on subsequent trips. This time, when I was preparing to leave home, friends and family asked me where I was going. Simple question, right? “Well, Israel for sure, then maybe Jordan, maybe Egypt, or Turkey or Greece… I’ll figure it out.” And I have, though I bought my plane ticket for Istanbul three days before the flight. A lot of people seem to have a hard time comprehending this lack of a firm itinerary, but I’m happy to go as the mood strikes me.

Sometimes I wish I were a planner. I have taken very roundabout routes to get places because I didn’t study the map beforehand. I’ve had to wait around bus stations for hours because I didn’t know the schedule in advance and just missed one. And I’ve definitely settled for sub-par accommodations when all the good hostels were full.

Still, last-minute plane tickets or hopping a cross-country bus on a whim has served me pretty well most of the time. I find it to be the most liberating feeling imaginable. The whole “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” thing is such a cliche but there’s a lot of truth to it. Getting from point A to point B isn’t exciting for me. Getting from point A to point Z, however, with a bunch of random stops and backtracks to all the other letters in the alphabet, and without even knowing where point Z is… well, that makes me incredibly proud and accomplished when I finally pull it off.

I’ve been traveling long enough now to know that it will usually work out. I can get off a plane, a bus, a boat in some foreign city and find my way to food, shelter, and good company somehow. Reading this might surprise some of the people who know me personally, because I usually tend to be a bit of a worrywart, with constant anxiety in my everyday life. But when I travel, I mellow out. Maybe because if I stressed about every little thing (What time will this ferry arrive? Do I need to change buses? What if this insane taxi driver gets into an accident?) I would just go crazy and lock myself in my hotel room. So instead I calm down, trust that it will all be fine, and cross each bridge as I come to it.

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I’m moving on tomorrow, and I’m still not 100% sure which bus I’m going to get on. And you know what? I’m totally okay with that.

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2 thoughts on “Flying By the Seat of My Pants

  1. Heh, the grass is always greener… while reading this I was thinking “Wow, I wish I could take trips more spontaneously like that”. 🙂 I have a fair amount of what for lack of a better term I will call logistics anxiety: I get very nervous if I don’t know where my destination is and how to get there and so forth. When I go back to Japan next year I’m going to try to be more adventurous!

    • A happy medium is probably best! I think that I actually just get overwhelmed by the logistics so I choose to ignore them most of the time trusting that it will all just come together and I’ll figure it out. And usually it does, though I’ve definitely done things the hard way accidentally…

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