Friday, June 14, 2013

Day 0 - Istanbul

We found a quiet apartment at which to stay, about one kilometer away from Taksim Square. When we arrived near our apartment around 2am, there was an uncomfortable quality in the air; remnants of the gas bombs that had been deployed just a few hours earlier.

We met a local girl who had been at the square earlier. Though it was late and she was very tired, she stayed up and chatted with us for some time about her experience over the last two weeks. She was friendly and open, and not at all imposing or preachy. She was educated and professionally successful. She was not the typical hippie type that comes to my mind when I think of people who 'occupy'.

Although her conviction gave the impression that she could have been there from the start, she did not, in fact, get involved until a number of days after the conflict began. Although she had been frustrated with the character of and the manner in which many changes had been imposed by the regime, it was the excessive force that had been imposed against the protesters in Gezi that was, for her, the last straw. It was this that drew her out to express her solidarity with the people and her support for a more democratic process. She'd spent a night in the hospital already last week, but that seemed to fuel her motivation to continue (as did the fact that one of her friends is still there).

I know very little of the country or the politics and I am in no position to make judgement or take a side; however, I was grateful to have started my time here hearing one very personal perspective on the situation.


After a brief sleep, we assembled our bicycles and then set out in search of the laundry list of items that we had forgotten to pack. Because neither Carrie nor I are particularly good with structure, we didn't have a map or a real plan, just a list. We started walking, popping into stores here and there, getting distracted by anything and everything (mostly food related) and not making much progress on the to do list.

We eventually found ourselves on a wide pedestrian street with many stores and side streets with cute restaurants. This seemed to be 'the place to be'. Ha, who needs a map!

Walking down the main pedestrian street, we could have been anywhere. Families. Street musicians with pan flutes from the andes. Kebab shops and postcard shops.

But there were a few peculiarities:
1. Regular street pedestrians (young and old) prepared with face masks and goggles around their necks. Street vendors selling the same.
2. Graffiti *everywhere*; in stark contrast to the feeling of modernity and affluence that a street filled with western shops like Sephora, the Gap and Starbucks, some of which were boarded up.

But the vibe was light and full of energy. We eventually made our way to the square, unable to hold back our curiosity. The square itself seemed relatively empty, except for teams of police and large vehicles surrounding a political monument and a government building. In the far corner, there was a group of protesters chanting and waving flags with various letters and colours. We walked over to see more.

It was not a massive group protesters, it looked to be maybe 100. There was there was a flow of pedestrian traffic on either side of the protesters, moving in both directions. We decided to go in and see what was behind. What we found was Gezi Park, filled with trees and people and tents. It was incredible to see so many people.

It is a pity that all of the images that I've seen of the conflict have managed to miss showing an areal shot of Gezi Park. Most of the pictures that I've seen on the internet show the square, the masses of people at the moment when they gather in the square, and then micro shots of the conflict with police. It never give a full impression of just how many people there are, on a constant basis, in Gezi Park.

It was the police on one side, protecting the symbols of their strength (the monument and the government building) and the people on the other side, protecting the symbol of their strength (the trees and the natural public space).

Forgetting completely about our 'to do' list, we found a spot nearby for dinner and took things in. We were joined by the friend that we made last night and we spent a few hours together, sharing stories and thoughts about life.

Night came, and we moved back to the square, where someone had wheeled in a grand piano. He began playing and people gathered. It was such a nice moment, everyone singing along together (sometimes to songs that I couldn't understand).

We leave in only a few hours and are still not packed, but we will figure that out in the morning.


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