[I'm the first traveler-in-residence to participate in a new partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center. Over the next year, Adventure Center will send a total of eight MatadorU students and alumni on epic trips. Travelers-in-residence will be writing for Matador, their personal blogs, and for other outlets. Follow me here and on Twitter.]
The first leg of my departure, from Toronto to Paris, was on a 747 — a plane so big it’s got a second floor. The sight of a staircase on an airplane makes me regret not being old enough to remember the days when people dressed up for their journeys. I imagine myself in an outfit involving a cravat, enjoying a tumbler of something amber on the upper deck.
In the event, I sat in 22E. The area under 21E was bisected by a metal strut, so my bag had been stuffed into the closest overhead, somewhere in the neighbourhood of row 473. It wasn’t a great start, but things improved when I struck up a conversation with my seat mate. “I’m Keph. It’s like, Jeff, with a ‘K’.” I extended a hand. “Dane,” the woman in 22F responded. “Like Jane with a ‘D’.” And thus our friendship grew its first tentative shoots.
Dane was in her 60s with a life story of international adventure, marriage and divorce, a career in cancer research and three daughters. When she discovered that she and I were both planning to order the beef with a glass of red, Dane rocked back in her seat, throwing her hands up at the happy coincidence. I caught her palm on the down-swing, effectively completing a high five. Over our dinner, we skipped the small talk and went straight to secrets of life. “If you’re a writer, then you write,” she said. “It will take you everywhere.” She leaned in then, and told me sotto voce that she was going to Paris on a religious pilgrimage with her sister. “Even after years of Catholic school, I’m not religious,” she whispered. “But don’t tell my sister!” Then she initiated her own high-five.
After a layover in Paris I boarded a second Air France flight and was seated in an ignominious row so shallow that it could only have been added as an afterthought. At mid-morning Istanbul time I gratefully unfolded myself back into the shape of a human and hurriedly left the plane.
I was greeted at the airport by a Diego Luna-looking driver who was there to deliver me to the first hotel on my tour, the confusingly-named And Hotel. After engaging in a multilingual version of “Who’s on first?”, Diego shuttled me out of the parking garage and into rush hour traffic, where for the duration I chuckled to myself about the rooftop signs on all the orange cabs: Taksi.
At the And, I totally lucked out. My bunk mate for the next 15 days turned out to be a South African woman named Kate who is basically freaking hilarious. Fifteen minutes into our acquaintance, she pulled a long light cotton skirt from her handbag, and proceeded to tell (and show) the story of how, concerned that her jean skirt might be considered a little too short to be culturally acceptable, she’d purchased the garment to tour the city in. She’d had a lovely day, remarkable for the seemingly endless number of eager carpet-sellers calling her into their shops. It was only when she got back to the room and stood with her back to window that she caught sight of herself in the mirror. With the sun at her back, the ankle-length skirt was entirely transparent.
Pulling myself away from what was shaping up to be an entirely satisfying chat with my new roomie, I went for a quick walk around the neighbourhood before I had to be back for our group orientation meeting.
The And was situated in a very tourist-friendly area full of restaurants boasting Dervish shows, shisha houses, and carpet emporia.
After our introductory group meeting that evening in the hotel dining room, we all went for dinner together where we covered the basics: where we were from (Australia, Canada, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States), what we did for a living (a true gamut from cattle farmers to federal employees to school teachers), and whether any of us had ever been to Turkey before (none of us had).
Back at the hotel, I was awake long enough to pop in my night guard and remark on the comfort of the pillows (and to muse about whether they’d fit in my bag). The next day we’d begin learning about Istanbul.