Our flight from JFK to Istanbul was uneventful. I relaxed and enjoyed three movies and did some reading. We landed on time around 12:20pm and had a smooth transition through immigration and customs. After checking into our hotel we set off like participants on the Amazing Race to see as much of Istanbul’s Old Town as we could in the time we had.
We made our way to the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia originated as a church and has been built three times on the same site. The third construction was completed around 537, but it wasn’t until 1453 when Istanbul was conquered by Sultan Mehmet II that the Sophia was converted into a mosque. It was stunning inside. It’s so difficult to imagine such an immense project being completed at the time it was done. The connection between eastern and western civilizations was strongly present in the murals, design and history of the Sophia as was the interwoven stories of Christianity and Islam.
My photos do not do any part of our trip justice. They are all iPhone photos and I am clearly not a budding photographer.
We walked through the courtyard to the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque was built in the early 1600s. Women are not allowed to enter without a head scarf. If you don’t have one you can borrow one. Also you must take your shoes off to enter and carry them in a plastic bag. Inside you are treated to a spectacular show of breathtaking architecture and artwork.
On our way to the Grand Bazaar we were told to check out the Basilica Cistern and it was worth the detour. It was constructed in 532 to serve as water storage for the Great Palace of Byzantine. There was something so mysterious and old about the water filled cavern below ground. The water shimmered under the dark yellow lanterns hanging above. A closer look into the water uncovered large fish swirling around. We walked along the rustic walkway until we came to the famous Medusa columns. Two columns were adorned with carvings of Medusa heads. This drew attention to the interesting blend of mythology in a country rich with religious history.
We emerged to find the air had cooled quite a bit outside and dusk was setting in so we kept moving towards the Grand Bazaar. Istanbul in this area surrounding the bazaar is a blur of movement, cars zipping along narrow cobblestone streets, and a mass of locals and tourists scurrying in every direction. The Grand Bazaar was as I expected, a large center of goods, particularly a beautiful array of colorful scarves and displays of tasty Turkish delights. If we were not traveling to Mozambique with limited space in our luggage I would have been very tempted to shop. Instead I settled on window shopping with plans to return someday.
I was a bit disappointed that in our race around Istanbul I did not succeed in sitting down for a Turkish meal. Another reason to return one day. As we strolled back towards the taxi stand we stopped to take a few photos with the softly lit Blue Mosque behind and some with the Hagia Sophia.
Our taxi ride back to the hotel proved to be the most eventful part of the day. Despite showing the driver the hotel’s address on a business card he decided to take us on a very long adventure through the city to “avoid” traffic although we seemed to get stuck in it at every turn. It was a bit frustrating to watch the time tick by not knowing where we were or how to communicate with our driver. Finally after what seemed to be hours though was probably only about an hour we arrived safely at the hotel. We settled in for the evening, FaceTimed my sister, indulged in WiFi, napped, showered and packed our things again. We left for the airport around 11pm and our flight was scheduled to depart at 1:25am.
This is where things took a turn for the unexpected. We passed through security in two areas with no problem. We already had our boarding passes so we went directly to our gate. It was full, but we managed to find a few seats. I noticed on our boarding passes that our seats were not together. Orlando took the boarding passes to see if that could be changed before boarding. He came back and asked for Carlos’ birth certificate. I dug through my well organized multi-pocket folder, but it wasn’t there. How was that possible? I began to panic. After all the research we had done prior to our trip due to changes in South African immigration laws which were difficult to decipher, I at least knew I needed to bring a copy of Carlos’ birth certificate. It wasn’t there no matter how many times we checked. Orlando went back to tell the ticket agent. We were summoned to the desk and told to wait patiently.
Carlos was sobbing, fearful that we would somehow have to stay in Turkey forever. I held him tight and assured him everything would be ok. However, inside I wasn’t sure how this could be resolved in time to get on our flight. My stomach sank into a pit. Orlando was frustrated and although it wasn’t necessarily my fault I felt as though the blame was all mine. I encouraged Orlando to get on the flight and I would figure things out even if it meant returning to the US with Carlos. He shouldn’t miss the opportunity to spend the holidays with his family, but of course he refused.
The airline agent insisted that in order to enter South Africa we needed to get ahold of at least a copy of the birth certificate. Turkish Airlines offered to put us up in a hotel for the night, provide transportation to and from the airport, pay for three meals, and allow us to take the same flight to Johannesburg the following night. We accepted. Upon arrival to the hotel I connected to WiFi and FaceTimed my amazing friend Kate. She lives nearby and drove immediately to our house. She found the original birth certificate in my filing cabinet and texted me a photo of it. I will never forget what she did for us. Without her help we would not have made it to Mozambique.
The hotel front desk allowed me to email the photo to the hotel and they printed it for me. We went to bed around 3 in the morning and did our best to sleep despite feeling very unnerved by the situation. I called the US consulate at 8am only to find it wasn’t open yet. Orlando got information from the South African embassy in Ankara that we needed to get the copy of the birth certificate notarized at the US Consulate. We still couldn’t reach anyone at the US Consulate so I emailed the consulate using their online form requesting an immediate appointment if possible. Rather than wait for a response we took a taxi to the consulate office.
Once there, our taxi driver discovered the road was closed due to what we could only gather had been a bomb threat earlier in the day. We were allowed to walk to the gate of the embassy and present our issue. A kind security guard went inside to presumably plead our case and we were told to return at 1:30. Since I had no access to wifi I was unaware that the consulate had replied to my online plea and offered to see us at 1:30. We sat patiently and nervously at a cafe directly across the street for an hour and a half until we were summoned back by another guard who knew we were waiting.
Inside the consulate we were treated kindly and respectfully. Unable to notarize the copy without the original birth certificate present they offered to notarize an affidavit indicating we were the parents of Carlos. Fifty dollars and 30 minutes later we were in a taxi back to the hotel. Feeling more relieved at this point the ride seemed shorter and we were all in better spirits. We returned to the hotel with plenty of time to relax before our flight. Carlos and I passed the time working out in the gym. Well I worked out while he tested the equipment and played with the balance balls. After showers we went to the lobby to play a game. We ate dinner and rested a bit before catching the 9pm shuttle back to the airport.
We obtained our boarding passes and made it through security without a problem. We knew the last hurdle would be at the gate which wasn’t assigned yet so Orlando hung out at Starbucks and Carlos and I did laps around the terminal. We were feeling much better about our prospects of boarding the plane as planned. Finally they announced our gate, but it still took a while before confirming that we would be allowed on the plane. As soon as we were cleared to go we all took a collective sigh of relief before boarding the bus that drove us to the plane.
This time our seats were all together and we settled down for the nearly 10 hour flight ahead. I have never been more happy to be on a plane.
Despite the drama I wouldn’t change anything that happened. Carlos was incredible through it all. He was quiet and patient. We were so proud of him. He didn’t complain or whine. He watched, listened, and hopefully learned a little bit about problem solving and teamwork.
Next stop – South Africa.