“There are people who have a lot of money. And then there are people who are rich.”
I wake up to the sound of the shuffling of feet, just as dawn breaks over a sleepy Istanbul. Right from my bed on the stone pavement next to the road, I can see the majestic Blue Mosque towering over me. I smile, knowing that people would pay 400 Liras a night to get a room with such a view. But me… I don’t own a room. I own the city.
My pavement-buddy from the previous night, an old Turkish man is still fast asleep, curled up on his rug. I bid a silent goodbye as I gather my stuff and prepare to leave.
It is a warm August morning in Istanbul as I make my way towards Taksim Square. It is a much bigger place than I’d imagined. There is a huge crowd of people- Mostly tourists. Luckily, it is not difficult to spot Professor Kural. He is positioned right outside Hotel Taksim, just as he had written in his last email. He is a short, gray-haired man, probably in his late sixties. He was to be my host right from my first day in the city, but he had to travel to Ankara for a day, which meant I had to spend the first night on the streets of Istanbul. He seems immensely apologetic.
“I’m extremely sorry about the change of plans. Did you find a place to stay yesterday night?” he speaks with a slightly unclear accent.
“Yes, I did,” I tell him. “In Sultanahmet.”
He looks at me, surprised. “Sultanahmet is very expensive!”
“Yeah. It was priceless,” I tell him.
He doesn’t understand. He wouldn’t understand. I am not a tourist. I am a traveler.
We get into his black Mercedes van and he takes me home. We are greeted at the door by two Turkish Angora cats. They seem nice and friendly- I like cats. It is a nice, big house, well-furnished and decorated extensively with antiques from around the world. Souvenirs from half a dozen countries adorn the big glass closet in the living room. Over a cup of coffee, Professor Kural talks to me about his travels. There isn’t much of the world left for him to see. He already has five passports filled with travel visas.
Over the next two days, I learn a lot about Professor Kural’s life. Professor Kural teaches at the Istanbul Technical University. I spend the mornings helping him prepare for his lectures. During the day when he’s away, I try my hand at cooking Turkish food. Professor Kural gives me a cook-book to refer. In return for my culinary skills, Professor Kural shares the food with me. I think it is a great deal. I get to taste the best Turkish food (with an obvious Indian tinge), without having to spend a penny.
Professor Kural seems to love my salads -although I think it’s because it is the safest dish to taste from a new cook- a cook who’s not even Turkish. But I discover a great deal of similarity between Turkish and Indian food. For example, a Turkish specialty, generally eaten as dessert is called Halwa, which is the same as an Indian sweet dish, also pronounced Halwa. Also, the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü that I window-shop through, has a lot of spices that we use for everyday recipes back in India.
“Ah! Hindistan!” an amused shopkeeper in the Spice Bazaar exclaims, when I tell him I’m from India. He’s an old man and apparently holds India in high esteem. I would have as well obliged him by purchasing a selection of spices from his shop, but all I have in my wallet is a few Liras that I need to somehow save for two months.
One evening Professor Kural tells me that he needs help preparing for a conference.
“It’s not much. Just about 2500 pamphlets to be arranged in sets of three.” he tells me.
I stare back at him, shocked. It’s not much? It could take me all night! As we start off, Professor Kural’s excited chatter and the extra-strong coffee that I’ve purposefully prepared, keep us awake long enough to finish the job. I glance at the watch. It is 1 am. So much for the free food I get here!
“Could you leave the pamphlets in the car for me, please? I don’t want to be late tomorrow!” he tells me, as he finally puts off the yellow light in his study and goes to bed.
Leaving the main door slightly ajar, so as not to disturb Professor Kural when I return, I carry the bagful of papers to his van. To my horror, when I return home ten minutes later, I am told that one of the cats has escaped.
Ashamed and nervous, I hurry downstairs looking for the white cat. When I can’t find her for some time I start to panic. In the moment of frenzy, I consider calling up the police from a payphone, but then decide against it. After spending about an hour running through the deserted streets like a homeless maniac, meowing at the top of my lungs, I become hysterical. Cold sweat begins to run down my temples. I have no idea how Professor Kural will react. What if I get thrown out of the house? I’ll find another place, I try to console myself. What if he asks me to pay for the lost cat? I don’t have enough money to buy a cat-collar, let alone a big, full-grown Turkish Angora! My heart racing, knees feeling weak, and my lungs gagged up my throat, I walk back home.
“Good Lord! Where have you been all this while?” Professor Kural appears calm as ever. “Don’t worry about the cat, just go to bed. She comes back on her own when she’s hungry. You didn’t have to go looking for her for so long!”
I am ready to go up in flames but I also want to hug Professor Kural out of pure joy and cry. Oh, those sweet, sweet words. And oh, how melodious they sound at 3 am after a peculiarly long day. The solution to most snags in life is indeed a good night’s sleep!
At 6 am, I am awakened by some dampness in my bed. I realize that the white cat is back and (adding fuel to a blazing fire) has taken a sizable leak on my blanket. Furious as I am, I push her away even as she starts rubbing herself against me. You have no right to be anywhere around me, I tell her sternly as I shoo her away. Startled, she hisses at me. I hiss back at her as I slam the door shut.
After a few days at Professor Kural’s place, life becomes monotonous. I’ve always disapproved of rotes and routines. My heart yearns for adventure- For new people and novel places. Some call it wanderlust. I call it Life. I tell Professor Kural that I will be traveling away the next day.