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How I Became a Traveler
September 2, 2011 is the day I became a traveler. On a direct flight from New York to Istanbul, it hit me. For the first time, I would be traveling solo in a new country. Although I had visited Greece three straight summers in the 1990’s, this was the first time in 14 years that I would be crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Only 10 months earlier I had received my passport for a short trip to Canada. That trip marked my first time leaving the US since 1997.
Arrival in Istanbul
Ten hours and seven time zones later, I had arrived in Turkey. Prior to this trip, most of the reactions to my choice were variations of “be careful.” Admittedly, those doubts swirled in my mind while walking off the plane. Leery of well-documented “single male traveler” scams perpetrated in the city, my guard was elevated. Initially, I planned to ignore anyone who tried to speak to me on the street, particularly in English. One of the most common was a well-dressed English-speaking man who would lure the unsuspecting traveler into a bar with promises of women and a good time. Predictably, this would end in disastrous fashion, with a sky-high bar tab and potential violence.
As a 24 year old male American novice traveler, there may as well have been a target on my back. Prior to this adventure, I had been on a five year hedonistic and materialistic binge. Eschewing the frugality instilled by my mother, I had no qualms about spending $100 on a pair of sneakers or on a night out at Lower East Side bars. My thinking was that now that I can afford to, why not? However, I packed for this trip with no flash or pizazz in mind. “No need to attract unnecessary attention,” I thought to myself. All of the clothing in my luggage had no brand name and was understated.
Beginning to Overcome the Doubts
Many of these doubts slowly dwindled upon first gazing out of my hotel window in the historic district of Sultanahmet. On one side, a myriad of tanker ships scattered through the glittering Sea of Marmara. On the other, the architectural wonders of Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque stood out among the red-roofed low-rise homes of the neighborhood. That first bite of tender, well-spiced kofte washed down with a salty, cool ayran comforted my stomach after a long jetlag-induced nap. Ten minutes later, a free sample of Turkish delight enticed me into Hafiz Mustafa 1864, where I had the most delicious baklava of my life to that point.
Dividing the continents of Europe and Asia, the Bosporus Sea was the first truly jaw-dropping moment of this trip. Seagulls circled the seafood hawkers selling their delicious fish sandwiches alongside the Galata Bridge as the day began to turn to night and the call to prayer blared from the stunning Blue Mosque. After the sun set, I crossed the bridge and headed towards Taksim Square, admiring the Galata Tower and the graffiti on the buildings. The city formerly known as Constantinople had already made a deep impression after just a few hours.
Journey from Istanbul to Kuşadası
Two days later, I would embark on a twelve hour voyage via sea and land from Istanbul to Kuşadası, located on the Aegean coast. In preparation, I researched the routes and schedules from Seat 61, an excellent guide to train travel throughout the world. Also, I purchased my boat ticket to Bandirma a day in advance from the Yenikapı port in an effort to save time and stress ahead of the 7AM departure the next morning.
While waiting for the ferry, I scored a simit from a vendor who had just set up shop outside the port. The warm, sesame-studded bagel-esque bread was a tasty fuel for the many hours of travel to come. Interestingly, there was one person who stood out as we queued to board the ferry. However, I kept to myself and slept for the whole ride across the Sea of Marmara. Two hours later, I woke up when we arrived in the city of Bandirma.
After arriving in Bandirma, I purchased the train ticket for the next step of the journe to Izmir. Conveniently, the port was a short walk from the train station. As I settled into my seat, I noticed the same person from the Yenikapı port. As it turned out, he was also an American tourist traveling solo to the same destination. Although we didn’t speak much on the ride, it was reassuring to have a fellow traveler who spoke the same language on the same route. Even though the trip was long, it was nice to see the landscapes and countryside on the southern route.
Seven hours later, we arrived in the city of Izmir. Since the city is a large one, there are two different train stations to accommodate the traffic. To get between the two, taking a taxi was necessary. Fortunately, having a fellow traveler made the experience much easier. After arriving at Basmane Gar station, we grabbed a quick bite at an unassuming eatery across the street. This turned out to be the best lahmacun I have tasted to this day. The difference here was that they added peppery arugula leaves to the thin, crisp lamb-topped flatbread. We both purchased our train tickets for the much shorter trip between Izmir and Selçuk, the train station closest to the coastal town of Kuşadası.
Finally, there was a fourth and final leg to this epic voyage. This step required a short ride on a dolmus, a minibus that resembled a large van. This was all that separated me from finally arriving in Kuşadası. Ahead of time, this was the step that was most uncertain. In essence, the dolmus was more of a freelance style of transport without a specific schedule. Once again, having a fellow traveler along helped make the experience a smoother one. Swiftly, we boarded a dolmus bound for Kuşadası and were whisked away with fellow travelers. We parted ways as he headed for his hotel and I walked ten minutes up a hill to mine which overlooked the beautiful Aegean Sea.
The next morning, I discussed with the son of the owners of the hotel about taking a day tour to the famous sites surrounding Kuşadası. Fortunately, he already had a group who would be taking the tour and I was able to join. On this day, my travel companions were a group of Australian girls who were in the midst of a year-long adventure across the world. Interestingly, they told me how it was customary to travel for a year after finishing high school in Australia, something that stuck with me. Regrettably, the United States doesn’t place this level of value on travel. On the contrary, more of a “live to work” mentality is drilled from an early age. Thus, college is the next step after high school and taking a year in between is frowned upon.
We visited several sights, most notably Ephesus, which I had heard about for many years. The ancient Greek ruins were stunning, especially the immaculately preserved Library of Celsus. We were in awe of the ornate details and columns. Coincidentally, I ran into the same traveler who had taken the journey from Istanbul while at the sight. A real life example proving how small the world can be. Funny how these things work out!
From Turkey to Greece
After Kuşadası, the next leg of the trip was to Greece via boat. Thankfully, the son who coordinated the day tour was able to purchase the ferry ticket for me. Again, as a novice traveler at the time, the less stress the better. From here, the ride was two hours to the island of Samos. It was the first time I had set foot onto my motherland in 14 years. In fact, it was before Greece had even joined the Euro currency and still used the Drachma. Two more steps separated me from the island where I spent those three summer visits in the 90’s.
Step one was a taxi from the northern port city of Vathy to the southern port city of Pythagoreio. After a brief respite and relaxing seafood lunch overlooking the blue sea, I boarded the Dodekanisos Pride ferry. After a three hour journey with stops at a few smaller islands in between, I finally arrived in Patmos. Once I stepped off the boat, I met my Yiayia (grandma) at the port of Skala. It was a surreal feeling to stroll through the narrow winding streets of Chora as an adult. Memories of exploring the island back in the 1990’s came with each reacquainting moment.
This trip gave me the travel bug with a vengeance. After returning to New York, I began to re-think how to approach life with a traveler mindset. One of these approaches included curtailed spending on material objects. Shortly after leaving Greece, I envisioned visiting again the following summer. Looking back, these few days on my own were a defining moment that fueled my desire to see more of the world.
How did you become a traveler? Was there one specific trip that changed your perspective on travel or life in general? Would love to hear your experiences and what led you to become more interested in traveling.