The airport bus creeps up the hill to Taxim Square. Our progress has slowed to an ooze. I gaze out the window into the opposite lane. Typically choked with cars, taxis and smog-belching buses coming from the water; now its completely empty. I can’t help hearing the woman behind me. As she complains into her phone about the traffic that has us locked into a holding pattern, I start to hear something else. A slapping sound. Shoes hitting the concrete going downhill. Running fast. I blink. Then I see them. A river of people fleeing down the middle of the street. Coming up behind them, a hard white jet of water from an armored pressurized-water-spewing police tank. With the pace of a giant tortoise it lumbers into my field of vision. And turns the corner, sending the jet straight into the bus.
As it hits we gasp collectively. The woman on the phone begins to rant openly. “I’m sure its the Kurds,” she is saying. “Filth….”
The tank meanders past and disappears from view. In its wake a rain of rocks, bricks and construction debris, hurled by unseen hands. “Now they’re throwing bricks,” the woman hisses into her phone. “Filth...they’re filth.”
Up front, the driver is finally taking his foot off the brake, shifting into first and moving into a gap that has appeared. We’re probably all wondering the same thing: what will we find if we ever reach Taxim Square? I sense my first tickle of excitement.
As we advance I notice the buildings that line the street. In every doorway, under each awning, women and men in their sodden summer weight clothes. Huddling and wet. As though they got caught in the rain without umbrellas.
I turn to my friend, J. She raises her eyebrows. It’s her first time in the city. We’re here for the Ottoman palace. The harem. The church that Constantine built when he moved his empire east. Sunsets on the Bosphorus. I have seen these things. Over and over again. But I want her to stand under the dome of the Hagia Sofia like I did the first time. Watching the pigeons fly back and forth. Wondering where the nests are hidden. Praying there won’t be a dome-rupturing earthquake: right now.
We step off the bus in Taxim. The epicenter of Istanbul’s fabulousness. Walls of idling buses and tour coaches. A pitiless yellow ocean of pirate taxis. Flower hawkers, pamphleteers, shoeshine guys, the communists, kids selling tissues and free weigh-ins. The lame. The desperate. The overwhelmed. All of them shouting loud enough to be heard over the honking and the shaka-shaka-shaka of arabesque streaming from the food stands across the street.
Look around, I want to say. More humans of every description than you will ever see gathered on any one spot anywhere else on the planet. And they are all trying to squeeze onto your bus.
Where are they?
Taxim Square is empty. But for the grumbling airport bus passengers, their luggage. And the police.
I can hear the wind. There’s a tang to the air. It has texture. What now? I think.
Clearly, something is about to happen. I couldn’t guess what. And suddenly, I’m feeling it; that discomfort that arises from not being able to predict or judge. Fear. Excitement. I pull it into my lungs: my drug of choice.
Like anything that’s not necessarily good for you, effects diminish over time. You need more and more. And I’m used to Turkey. After all these years I can predict and judge. And it’s boring. Which means it’s time to leave for someplace new.
But not today. Finally. A hit.
J’s eyes are starting to water.
“Welcome to Istanbul!” I say with enthusiasm. And savoring a horrible guilty joy, I drag J and her rolling suitcase past rows of gas-masked police in riot gear. Past the water cannon idling in the brick strewn intersection. Past this man selling simit.
Simit. The famous Turkish bread rings, with sesame. I really hate them. But he is standing here in a surgical mask. The first of many I will see in the coming days.
A real entrepreneur.
I buy one. There’s a tang to it. Like the air. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
I share it with J. She takes a bite. Chews. “I like the Ankara simit better,” she says, “they’re crispier.”