I climbed past the riot police deeper into gece kondu territory. The houses at the edge of the gece kondu, the ones nearest the riot police, had tapped illegally into the city’s electrical grid, and leading from each power transformer was a rat’s nest of wires strung to the nearby houses. As I climbed further, even those amateurish attempts to wire the homes for electricity dissipated, and soon there was no sign of any power whatsoever going into any of the homes. Some of the homes had doors propped open and I could peer inside to see kitchens with no appliances and living rooms with no TVs. Even the old Datsuns had disappeared and I could walk in the middle of the street with impunity.
I began to notice the residents were staring at me, not because I was a foreigner, but simply because I obviously had no business to conduct there. No one just passed casually through that neighborhood, because there was nowhere to go. There was only one road winding up the hill at that point. It was the road I was walking on, and it had narrowed from a two-lane road to a one-lane road, and that was narrowing to a half-lane road.
I was almost at the top of the hill, with less than forty vertical feet separating me from the huge rock outcropping I had seen from below. What had appeared from below to be a park at the top of the hill was just an empty lot next to the rock, a place where the locals hung out at the end of the day, drank themselves silly, and left behind their beer bottles. They couldn’t afford to ride the bus, but they could apparently afford to drink.
As poor as Basibuyuk was, it was high enough up the hill to have one of the most spectacular views of the city I had ever seen. Looking west from just below the top of the hill I could see the skyscrapers in Taksim and Sisli, and the long ridge that forms the spine of Istiklal Caddesi. Panning to the left, I could see dozens of tankers and dry cargo ships queuing up for a chance to pass north through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea. Further left along the Asian side of the city I could see the neighborhoods of Kadikoy, Fenerbahce, Bostanci, Maltepe, Pendik, huge parts of the city where millions of people live and work. I could even see urban forests I had never realized were there because they had been so easily lost in the urban sprawl.
With only a few vertical feet left before reaching the top of the hill, I began feeling exposed and vulnerable. I was starting to feel a little freaked out by all the locals staring at me. I stopped climbing, turned around, and started hiking back down quickly, trying to keep a lid on the panic suddenly welling up inside of me. I became acutely aware of the fact that there was only one road out of this neighborhood, and I wondered what would become of me if some drunk, testosterone-pumped teenagers decided I needed to be harassed. I began to long for the safety of riot policemen and witnesses who might speak up if they saw something happen to me. I was anxious to duck back under the safety blanket of the state, eager to return to a place where legal electricity, televisions, and city buses would tell me I was in the arms of a society I knew.
Once I descended past the riot police I knew I was safely back in the maw of Istanbul. As beat-up old Datsuns and taxis and city buses began passing by me I relaxed back into the rhythm of the city. I reached the bottom of the hill much faster than I expected, and I walked quickly along the completely deserted four-lane arterial leading out to the coastal highway. Within 20 minutes I was standing next to the highway, happily breathing exhaust fumes and waiting to catch a bus home.
This is an excerpt from Matt Krause’s book A Tight Wide-open Space. In 2003 Matt met a Turkish woman on a flight to Hong Kong. They started going out, and within a year Matt found himself adjusting to a new life in Istanbul. A Tight Wide-open Space is about that adjustment — going through the culture shock, becoming one of the family, learning to love the country. The book is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and for the Kindle.