24 January, 2010

Being "that guy" / First impressions

backdate: 23 January

Over the Alps, it crossed my mind that travel is like crack: the more you get, the more you need it. (Also you wake up with no money and you don't know where you are, commented Emin later.)

It turned out my seatmate on the flight from Munih to Ankara was another international student, from California. Named David. Needless to say we hit it off, and soon the cloudcover that had obscured all of Europe began to break, just as we reached Anatolia. The landscape was sheathed in snow, low, crinkled hills with scattered bushes and scarcely any roads or rivers.

Then a village, then a valley full of tenements, then a mosque slipped by beneath us. On one side of the aircraft everything was blanketed white; on the other, the landscape was green, like early spring. We slipped safely into Esenboğa airport and through passport control in a matter of moments.

There were actually several of us on the plane - Janki from the U.S., Bruno from France, Isabela from Slovenia, and Giorgio and another Italian. The little queue of students waiting for the Bilkent shuttle grew; University ambassadors welcomed us. But i had to be "that guy": ditch the university shuttle, with helpful directions from one of the student ambassadors. My friend is waiting for me at Asti. I set off with a few, barely functional Turkish words in a bus full of Turkish speakers. Thankfully nerede (where?) is one of those words. Already i notice cultural differences - the bus driver embraces, and stands with his arm around, another male. Two female passengers kiss on both cheeks, a common expression of affection between friends and even acquaintances.

Asti was half an hour bus ride away. Seçil asked for my first impressions so here they are: beautiful color. The social stratification of Turkish society is almost instantly apparent. Dozens of identical, obviously low-income apartment blocs sprout from the hillsides in scores. At first, you think of a communist republic. But these buildings are all different shades, even the identically constructed modern high-rises, different shades of green and carmine. More traditional buildings have roofs of red clay tile, while some commercial structures are light blue metal. Soft mustard yellows and browns blend naturally into the steppe landscape. The only trees - and they are infrequent, like hybrid poplars, lanky and tall - grow near the narrow streams.

As the highway gets steeper and more curvaceous, the architecture gets interesting. Pedestrian bridges are built in the fan cable-stayed style (think Boston's Zakim bridge). Car dealerships crowd the edge of the street, one atop another. Each place is small, with few vehicles for display - Audi and BWM. A city of four million crowds into this valley - three times as many people as the entire state of Maine. There's the first market with bins of oranges and onions on the sidewalk. On the right, crowning a hilltop building, 'Turkiye Voleybal Konfederasyonu' spreads in huge red neon letters. AnkaMall is three stories at least.

Asti terminal is like Grand Central Station. Enormous. Full of vendors, and a thousand and more milling people with luggage. I walk through a security checkpoint and set off the detector. A Polis officer says something in Turkish - but i understand from his body language "just keep going". Security checks here are pretty meaningless. I keep the panic in check: Emin said to meet him at the escalators, and thankfully, there's only one set.