Hello Istanbul! It was exciting finally stepping out of Istanbul Airport for the first time. After landing, I wasn't completely prepared for the myriad of signage being held by tour agents at the arrivals area and managed to miss the small "IES Abroad" paper sign (1 of 5 on the same hanger) even after walking through the meeting point and scrutinizing the different signs on display for 4 times and visiting Starbucks thrice. For a moment I thought the team wasn't here yet as my flight arrived early but this seemed increasingly unlikely as the minutes passed by. I finally took a break, visited the foreign currency exchange and bought a local SIM card. Just when I was about to call the Program Director with my newly revived phone, I finally spotted the IES Abroad sign and was on my way!
Apparently I arrived way too early. I thought we'd be starting classes on Monday so a Sunday morning arrival seemed to offer just the right amount of settle-in time before jumping into academia but classes start on Thursday instead. Program orientation starts on Monday so we're on our own for now. The accommodations are fantastic- single apartments for each student mean more than enough space to spread out and personalize the space. Yet being in singles made today's lack of an itinerary slightly unnerving- we really had no idea whether anyone else was in and what we should be doing. Having settled some initial admin hiccups including getting my room card and getting the wifi working (alas it seems to be down again at this moment, having decided to stop breathing at 8.56pm), I figured that combating jet-lag involved not taking silly naps just to pass time and ended up taking an extended tour of the vicinity of the apartment, all the way to Taksim and Tunel.
Some quick observations from a 4 hour walk-around.
1) Currency exchange at the airport is almost always not worth it- while the rates are marginally (less than a percentage point) better, they charge a 4% commission which doesn't get charged in town. At least the operators at Ataturk didn't slap on an additional "Admin Fee" which I was charged in Milan!
2) Istanbul is a hilly city and walking up and down steep slopes is the norm. My walk included a detour through many residential areas and these were often set on steep inclines. From the sweating mother pushing a pram up the slope to the group of 4 teenagers kicking a soccer ball between each other on uneven ground to the yellow Fiat taxicabs whining to overcome their temporary mountains, walking was calf-intensive work.
3) The Turkish people are very friendly- I had a Kebab seller slap 3 high-fives with me and shake my hands twice in 5 mintues. At the same time, most of them seem to prefer speaking Turkish- English is rarely heard, even in the touristy area of Taksim, I heard many tongues but very little English. Surprisingly the only time someone ventured a word of English in opening the conversation was a young boy, probably no older than 8, who shyly said "hi" when I walked past his porch. (Or maybe hi is universal language)
Looking forward to exploring more of the city! Bumped into 2 other program participants this evening who just arrived from Pittsburg and Rochester and arranged to have breakfast tomorrow. Excited to be learning more not just about Turkey but also the cultures and perspectives of everyone embarking on this journey together!