It’s about 1:00am and I’m sitting in a coffee shop at the Istanbul airport, waiting for my flight to Athens later this morning. It’s been an interesting day.

I left Bergama (ancient Pergamum) about 9:30 this morning (technically yesterday morning!). (I got so wet in the rain trying to find my hotel in Bergama that I wake this morning with a doozy of a cold!) Had quite a bit of driving to do. It’s about 1000 kilometers (approx 700 miles) from Bodrum (where I started) to Istanbul and I still had about half of that left to do today (yesterday? I’m tired. You get it.).

I drove north through lands rich in history. Went past Magnesia (where the great Themistocles met his end–a story I’ll reserve for another time). Spent about 1.5 hours on the site of ancient Troy. Not a great deal to see (mostly foundations–much like Mycene). But being in Priam’s city, thinking of Homer’s story, was a great thrill for me. You could almost hear the armor clanking and the swords ringing and the shouts of both the Hellenes and the soldiers of Ilium.

I love the story of Heinrich Schliemann, the wealthy entrepreneur turned amateur archaeologist. Scholars at the end of the 19th century were in the midst of a radical reappraisal of the past and–in particular–ancient documents purporting to report that past. The Old Testament was under critical attack–none of it could be trusted! But Homer was also subjected to the critics’ knife. Homer was not a solitary poet but a stitched-together pastiche of sources (sound familiar?). His story was myth and fable with no historical basis (again, familiar?). He was a fun read, but his references to characters, incidents, geography and culture were poetical fancy.

Schliemann–unschooled in such matters and, as a result, unspoiled–took Homer seriously. Pouring over the Iliad, noting geographic references to rivers, mountains, distances, and seasons, he traveled to Turkey and decided that a modern mound named Haserlik was in fact ancient Troy. He started digging. He learned archaeology as he dug. He made monumental mistakes and monumental discoveries. Critics blasted his techniques and reports (never mind that those same critics had assured anyone who would listen that there was no Troy!). They called him all sorts of names. But Schliemann–for all his failings–at least had the satisfaction of believing Homer and, in the end, proving the accuracy of his story. There was a Troy. And it took a passionate amateur to discover it, not the ivory-towered intellectuals more in love with their theories than with the sources. (Once again, sound familiar?)

Leaving Troy, I kept going north looking for the ferry crossing spanning the Bosphorus, linking Asia and Europe. I was expecting to find the ferry at Canakale (pronounced ChaNAkale), but the only road sign was towards the black hole of the “central market”–an invitation to enter the labyrinth from which escape is difficult and fender-bender is likely. So I kept going, noting an the map a fragile blue-dotted line between Lapseki (about 30 kilometers north) and Galibouli (English=Galipoli of WWI fame). Lo and behold, a sign! A ferry icon and the word “Galibouli”!

(The Turks make no allowance for non-Turkish speakers. None of their signs have English translations for words like “Ferry” or “Exit” or “Life-threatening-road-conditions-ahead”. And very few of the people I’ve encountered in Turkey speak English. I don’t know if this is due to poor data-sampling or a poor educational system–the latter I think.)

A left-hand turn and there it was, a big beautiful ferry. I parked, found someone who spoke English, asked the appropriate questions, put the car in line, paid my 25 Lira, and drove onto the ferry. A quick 30 minute crossing and I was headed north again.

This section of Turkey is some of the prettiest I’ve seen. Rolling agricultural landscapes. Vast coastal vistas with ships plying between the Black Sea and the Aegean. Shepherds and flocks of sheep dotting the hillsides and crowding the road.

I had intended to stop about an hour out of Istanbul and find a hotel. But the closer I got, the more nervous I got: about the unknowns of getting to the airport … about toll roads for which I had no tokens (they do things differently here!) … nightmares about getting lost in Istanbul with its 13 million souls and 13 million ways to take a wrong turn and vanish from the face of the earth. So I kept driving.

Part of the deal with my rental car (acquired from a cheap, no-name company that has no rental return place at the airport) is that I show up in the International Departure lane and let the company’s representatives find me and claim the car at 8:30am. (I know … there’s cheap and then there’s stupid!). Another part of the deal is that I picked up the car empty and was supposed to return it that way (they hope to make a little money off the extra gas left in the tank). So here I was, driving toward Istanbul, no tokens for the toll road, all the signs in Turkish, not an airport icon in sight … and my gas gauge is reading in the red! 40 kilometers out, I was getting anxious. 30 kilometers out, I was starting to sweat bullets. 20 kilometers out and I thought I’d missed the turn off for sure. (I mean, lots of major airports are 30, 40, 50 kilometers from the city center). Finally I saw the airplane symbol and the name “Ataturk (something)”–about a kilometer before the turn off. I made the turn, drove through a murderous morass of traffic, got to the airport, dove into a exit that I prayed led to short-term parking–for if it did not, I was sunk!–parked the car (hallelujah–I haven’t gone to church today, but I worshipped at that moment!), and melted into a puddle on the floor mats.

That’s how I ended up at a coffee shop in the airport in the wee hours of the morning. Now I just have to hope that when I exit the OtoPark, there is a sign that will lead me to the International Departures terminal, that there is a space I can pull the car into, that no one is going to force me to move on at the 3 minute mark, and that someone actually shows up to take the car! Then, finally, I can get on a plane to Athens and sleep!

Ain’t international travel fun!

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.