It is a crisp morning, as I set off on foot from Professor Kural’s place to explore the unfamiliar Istanbul. I leave without a map. Maps are for tourists. Travelers journey by the feel. And moreover, I don’t want to get anywhere. I have no destination.
“Traveling has taught me that the journey itself is the destination”
I can feel the adrenaline rush and my heartbeat quickens- I have very little money and I don’t know how long it will last. It is remarkable how everything about the city suddenly feels different. The same streets, the same shops, the same people, the same trams trotting through the Turkish metropolis. And yet life feels entirely transformed. Like I’ve been picked up from a play and put into another one- but with the same setting and characters. And what a mystifying idea it is to think that the city still looks at me with the same eyes- like I’ve always been there. People still pass by me like there’s nothing amiss. Some greet me, some smile, some merely look at me. And some look through me- as if I harmonize, complement and blend with the colossal city of Istanbul. As if I am a part of the city. As if I am Istanbul.
The grumble in my tummy brings me back to my senses. Seven hours of walking has left me hungry. I walk into a superstore and spend 3 Liras to buy bread, milk and some cheese. I realize that at this rate I will be left with no money beyond the fifteenth day. I’m worried. But somehow I have an intuition I’m going to be in the city for a long time and that feels good.
I spend two days walking around the city, talking to strangers and sleeping on the pavements at night. On the third day, as I sit on the banks of the Bosphorus reveling in the setting sun, a man in his late-twenties comes over to me. He is selling Turkish flags. I have neither the desire nor the necessity (or the money) to buy a Turkish flag, but I start talking to him. Alper is from Syria. He speaks broken English, but we manage to understand each other; and something between us clicks.
I tell Alper stories from India. He tells me stories from his childhood. He says he had been kidnapped back in Syria when he was just a teenager. He narrates his thriller about how he managed to escape and flee to Turkey. He has been living in Istanbul ever since.
Time seems to slow down as we walk in the dead of the night through the sleeping city, talking about death and immortality. As if to complement our discussion, there are metaphors for Life and Death all around us. The deserted streets. The pointless blinking of the signal lights. The stationary trams. The static city-lights and their moving reflection in the dark waters. The empty ferry stations. It is implausible how Alper never made it past high school, and yet his perception of life-theories still gives me goose bumps.
“I am not attracted to book smart. I could not care less about your college degree. I am attracted to raw intelligence. Really anyone can sit behind a desk. I want to know what you know beyond the realm of our society. And only living and seeking can give you that intelligence. We’ve got time. Let’s sit on the rooftop at 2am and introduce me to your mind.”
We talk about life, religion and philosophy, about the universe and the concept of time. In all my life, this is the most intense conversation I have ever had. And isn’t it beautifully enchanting to think that I had to travel a few thousand miles from my country, wait for the sunset on the edge of an alien city, and meet a strange flag vendor who didn’t even speak my language, to find out my answers to some of life’s unfathomable questions? Like it all had been immaculately planned and flawlessly executed by someone called Destiny, and yet had all its recognition stolen away by the notion of Coincidence.
“Isn’t it ironical that sometimes in Life you need to lose your way in order to truly find yourself?”
It feels like just an hour ago that we had met, but now the eastern skies have started to brighten. As we walk towards Alper’s tiny apartment downtown, I feel like I’ve known Alper since he was a boy. I know what is great-grandfather did for a living. I know the number of flags he sold on the Turkish national day last year. And I know exactly what he did when he was asked to recite a poem in front of the class, back in high school.
“You can eat it,” Alper catches me looking at a discarded packet of cookies on the side of the road. I am apprehensive. It is unthinkable to eat off the street in India. But it feels different here. The cookies look untouched. And I’m hungry and moneyless. I put one in my mouth. It tastes heavenly. Cookies have never tasted so good all my life. Between the two of us, we devour the cookies within minutes. Alper tells me how he sometimes finds enough food on the street to last him a full day. He is right. Suddenly my eyes open to a whole new city- a city that offers food, a city I had, all this while, unknowingly turned a blind eye to. As we walk along the desolate banks of the Bosphorus, we find uneaten salads, half eaten bread, and an assortment of fries- all leftovers from picnics and get-togethers. Assuming an air of expertise, Alper throws off the soiled part of the bread and gives one half of the clean part to me. That morning I have the best meal I’ve had in the past four days.
After catching a few hours of sleep at Alper’s place, I prepare to leave. He doesn’t have a Facebook profile or an email id, but he writes down his postal address for me on a sheet of paper and I promise to write him a postcard when I get back to India. As a token of gratitude I offer to buy five flags from Alper, but he doesn’t agree to take money for them.
“I’ll sell four. I’ll just keep one for myself,” I explain to him but in vain. It takes a lot of coaxing and persuasion, before he finally accepts the money but only after a massive discount on the price.
With a brotherly embrace, we part ways, and I know for once that I’m going to miss this exceptional flag seller.
That day I manage to sell just one flag- at a 0.5 Lira profit. But I am excited about the next day. I have memorized the first four lines of İstiklal Marşı, the Turkish national anthem, and I plan to use it to sell the remaining flags. It seems to work well. I manage to sell all of the remaining three flags, making a net profit of 5 Liras.
Over the next two days, my survival (and waste-food spotting) instincts kept getting sharper. I’m a guy with a small appetite. Just three small portions (of leftover food) and I’m good for the day. Now that the initial embarrassment of picking up leftovers in public has subsided, I can boast of knowing exactly where to find the best (leftover) food in the city. I learn how to spot the most edible prey even from a distance.
The quest for food brings me to notice a few ripe figs lying on the ground in a public park. I realize it is fig season in Istanbul, and there are trees laden with ripe figs all over the place. Here they are- delectable and succulent export quality figs, at the top of my dessert menu. There are oranges too, but to be honest, most of them are sour. Although I do need to spend a little on milk and sometimes on bread, I save a lot of money eating like a nomad. It is remarkable how we start to attune and adapt ourselves to the situation we are subjected to, if we give ourselves room to do so.
But just when I am beginning to feel that there is an abundance of leftovers in Istanbul, the weekend passes. The profuseness was just an eyewash. The parks and public water-fronts see fewer visitors now.
I sit on a bench in Gülhane Park, looking up at the old, gigantic plane trees. They seem to look back at me and smile, like wise, wrinkled, white-bearded men. It must take a great amount of modesty to remain so peacefully silent, calm and tranquil, even as centuries of generations emerge, mature and wither under them. I wonder what stories of time they have, concealed within those mighty, old, gray trunks. I shut my eyes, listening to their unspoken words. But they remain silent. Just the rustling of the leaves when the breeze blows. And then silence again. Sometimes there is this peaceful, musical, almost a mysterious and an incomprehensible tranquility associated with silence- In being cut off from the world. Here I am, far, far away from the people I know, all by myself under the limitlessness of the intense blue skies. There is some strangely sweet seduction- An addiction to the roads untraveled. Oh, for the deep blue skies, I could be a traveler all my life.
After about half an hour, my eyes open. Meditation always puts me to sleep. It is evening. I’m hungry. I realize I haven’t had a single complete meal all day.
As I begin rummaging around the trash cans, looking for leftovers, a Simit vendor notices me. Simit is a circular Turkish bread encrusted with sesame seeds. Seemingly without a thought, he comes over to me and offers me a Simit. I bow low to thank him as my eyes begin to well up with tears of gratitude (and self-pity). A Simit vendor in Istanbul probably earns a modest profit of 50 Liras a day. And to think he cares for one hungry stranger…
“Real wealth has nothing to do with your bank balance. True riches are the ones that are possessed inside. The ones rooted in relationships and in humanity.”
The Simit vendor silently teaches me a lesson of life. A lesson I’ll never forget.
That night as I try to sleep through the pangs of hunger, I fantasize about the palatable meals at Professor Kural’s place, and the thought makes my mouth water. I picture all the food I would waste back home in India, and I promise to henceforth, make every crumb count. Listening to the indomitable, relentless and vehement grumbling of my tummy, I hug myself to sleep.