TURKEY 2001 TWO-WEEK TRIP

Monday and Tuesday, June 25 and 26. Day 1 and 2 of 15. SAN JOSE TO CHICAGO, TO ISTANBUL. DRIVE RENTAL CAR AND FERRY ACROSS MARMAR SEA TO TERMAL.

PURPOSE OF THE TRIP

Several months ago, daughter Tara and her Turkish naval officer boyfriend Cihan (GEE-hon) decided to get married. It is the Turkish custom in such cases that the father of the prospective groom asks the father of the prospective bride if the two may be married. Assuming consent is given, an engagement ceremony takes place soon thereafter.

This was the main purpose of our two-week trip to Turkey. Tara's mother, Carrie, married Bob Ross after our divorce, and Bob and Carrie were also invited, of course. This would be their first trip to Turkey, and we all wanted them to enjoy it as much as possible. Bob and Carrie's daughter Maureen has a new summer job hunting for human genes, and unfortunately could not come.

A secondary purpose, for Sharon and me, was to wedge in about six days of birding.

Bob and Carrie's secondary purpose was to go sightseeing, accompanied and guided by Tara and Cihan.

And of course, another purpose of the women was to buy as many souvenirs as space in our luggage would allow. The men's purpose was to say "No, Dear," to the question "Do you think we have room for this in our luggage?" before the purchase of said article.

SPENDING PAYS OFF

We have a Visa credit card that sticks one American Airlines frequent flier mile onto my account for every dollar charged. After using this for several years, we found that we had over 200,000 miles. Not all of these came from credit card purchases. Some occurred the old fashioned way -- by actually purchasing and using airline tickets. If you can imagine that.

A round-trip flight in the continental U.S. takes 30,000 miles. A round-trip flight to Turkey costs 60,000 miles. I have figured out that the approximate break-even point for deciding whether to purchase a domestic airline ticket or use frequent flier miles is about $400 or so. That is, if a round-trip flight costs much under $400, it is best to buy the ticket. If it costs much over $400, it is best to use frequent flier miles.

A round-trip economy ticket to Turkey costs about $1400, and a business class ticket about $8000. But put on your economic evaluation hat and listen to this. To upgrade from economy to business class, in the frequent flier world, from San Jose to Istanbul, takes only 50% more frequent flier miles, rather than the five or six TIMES more dollars to upgrade.

So we decided to fly business class. It further turned out that there are no business class seats, so we were FORCED to fly first class. Oh well. Some days you win no matter how hard you try not to.

Our itinerary was San Jose to Chicago nonstop on American. Chicago to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, an American Airlines partner, so they would accept our frequent flier miles. Return would be Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to JFK in New York where we would clear customs. Then JFK to San Jose nonstop on American Airlines. Our Turkish friends had told us that they all fly Lufthansa because it is much cheaper than Turkish Airlines. But to fly Turkish was what they really wanted to do.

And all "free," if you are fooled by that word, as we pretend to be.

GET OUTTA TOWN

We arrange for a pickup by USA Limousine, determined by Carrie Ross to be the cheapest of the ones she called by phone for estimates. They would charge $35 total for a private ride to the San Jose airport.

We like to get to the airport early, and USA is supposed to pick us up at six am, but are about twenty minutes late. The trip to the airport is smooth, and we arrive to find the first class line the longest we have ever seen. We eventually get our turn, and are able to check our two big bags all the way through to Istanbul. In addition, we have two carry-ons (both with rollers) and a backpack, plus a fanny-pack each.

The flight leaves about 8 am. There are two seat pockets in the seat back in front of us, and two extremely wide, side-by-side seats rather than three narrow ones, as in coach. We arrive in Chicago about 2 pm, and leave on Turkish Airlines Flight 6, about 5 pm.

GIVE ME TURKISH

We enter the Airbus widebody plane, and a friendly airline hostess directs us to the left, to the front of the plane, rather than to the right, to our accustomed coach seating. There are two aisles, with pairs of seats on either side of and between the aisles. We are in the second row, on the left.

The Turkish flight attendants are extremely friendly and attentive. From having no experience in this area, we can't tell if it's because we're flying Turkish Airlines, because we're in first class, or both. There is enough space overhead to store a disassembled Toyota, but we settle for all our carry-ons and the backpack. One hostess says we could just put our luggage on the floor in front of our seats if we wish. Even during takeoff and landing.

Each seat has popup TV monitor screens and tray tables stored in the arms of our seats. We have a choice of six movies plus a revolving series of graphics showing our plane's position on the globe. There is so much space between our seats and the seats in front that if I stretch my feet out in front as far as possible, I'm still about two feet from touching the seatback in front of me.

Various buttons swing up the leg and footrest and lay back the seat, so it's almost like you're sleeping in a bed. Holy moly.

We travel from Chicago to Istanbul in this dreamlike existence in 10 hours and 42 minutes. During the flight, when I look out the window, I get a nice view of an engine and one wing, including the Turkish Airline logo on the winglet.

Monday changes to Tuesday somewhere in the air.

We arrive at Ataturk airport about noon. As we exit the aircraft, the flight attendants are standing in the two aisles from coach, blocking those exits till the first class passengers have all stepped off the plane. AND DON'T WE FEEL SPECIAL?!

We buy a visa each, at $45 a pop, clear passport control and make our way to National Car Rental, where we are to pick up our Renault Laguna. But just like last fall, it isn't available, so we are offered a Ford Focus instead. Another choice is a Toyota Corolla, but they poopoo that choice as being smaller than the Focus.

Our travel agent for this trip, Heather, of First World Travel in Monterey, California has gotten us a price of $1700 or so for the 14 days we'll have the car, for the same Renault we had last year. But if we show our AAA card, the price will only be $1300. I made the tactical mistake of not asking her whether that includes the 26% airport plus VAT tax. The National people assure me that it doesn't, and the out-the-door price jumps back up to $1700. In the jetlag fog of my brain and the surprise of not getting the Renault, it doesn't dawn on me to ask whether the price should be lower because we're getting a less luxurious car. And they don't volunteer any such information.

I also try to rent us a cell phone. This would have been a dynamite thing to do, but nobody at the airport seems to offer such a service. If we wait till tomorrow to leave Istanbul, one of the National fellows will bring his other cell phone in, and we can use it somehow, he says. But we don't want to waste a half a day and probably more for that. So we decline that friendly offer.

After signing the contract, one of the workers escorts us to the parking garage location where our car is sitting, and we load all our gear, check out the car's driving functions, and leave the airport.

THE GPS

But first, to my consternation, I find that just like last fall, my GPS doesn't work when plugged into the cigarette lighter. I am going to have to run it on batteries the whole time, at a rate of about one change of four AA batteries every two days or so. Dang.

THE KEY TO DRIVING

I quickly adapt to the Turkish rules of the driving road, and here they are.

1. In a multilane road, and if you are in front of a car, drift over so that you are blocking two lanes.
2. If there is a car in front of you blocking two lanes, pick one of the lanes, move up to within five feet of his bumper, no matter what the speed is, and honk your horn. When he moves over, pass him, and now YOU'RE the car in the lead.

Other than that, there are no rules and it's every driver for himself. We locate the Cinar hotel where we are to meet our friend Selin Turan's mother. We will drop off Cihan's huge black navy shoes, his laptop and some medication for a friend of his.

We make our way over, seeing a couple of HOODED CROWS on the way.

It's time for my bird notice. The first time we see a bird on a trip, the name will be in caps (i.e., upper case), as above. If it is also a new life bird for us (one we've never seen or heard before), it will have an asterisk associated with it also. Sometimes I put it in front and sometimes in back. If it is just discussion about a bird or is a bird we HAVE seen on the trip before, it will be in title case (first letter of each word of the bird's name in upper case). And now back to the trip story.

But as we park the car at the Cinar, we can't get the key out of the ignition. A showstopper. We enlist several hotel employees, but no one can get the key out. We see the head bellman, whom I remember when we were here last fall. he's a very friendly guy and he remembers us too, but he can't extricate us from the situation either. We call Selin's mother, and she arrives in short order. She has a cell phone, and calls National Car Rental for me. They send over someone, but National can't get the key out either. They decide to go back, get the Toyota (remember, the small one?) and drive it over so we can use it.

We enjoy conversation with Selin's mother while we wait. She's German, but speaks perfect Turkish, English and French, as I recall. I check on the rate for a room for tonight, in case things fall totally apart, and am told the rate is $280. Gulp.

National finally shows up with what's to be our rental car for the next two weeks, a Toyota Corolla automatic transmission vehicle with air conditioning, but no cruise control. It should rent for less, but we don't discuss price right now. We'll do that when we return the car. After switching paperwork, we are finally off.

And to my great and wonderful surprise, the GPS works when plugged into the cigarette lighter socket. Finally! Some good news.

I immediately get lost leaving the airport, but we find a petrol station to fill up. The Toyota they delivered had the low fuel warning light on. I don't have any lira, and have to change money at 1.1 million per dollar rather than the 1.23 million available at banks and such. Wewander around about twenty more minutes before we finally get onto a highway that will get us across the bridge, from Europe to Asia. We're on track now.

ON THE ROAD. AND THE FERRY

It is our objective to get across the Marmar Sea, the body of water south of Istanbul, and sleep on the south side of that sea tonight. Last time we drove around, interrupted at the far end of the Marmar with our first night's stay at Cihan's naval base apartment. But this time we want to take a ferry.

There is supposed to be a ferry from Kartal, but the best information we get there is that either they no longer run from here, or the last trip of the day is over (if we spoke Turkish or they spoke English, we'd be a litle clearer about that). In either case, we travel further east to Darica/Gebze. There we catch our ferry, which costs about $12 for a car. This 30 minute trip will save us an hour of driving, most of which would be looking directly into the sun. A great savings in time and energy. There are two possible destinations for this ferry, but we don't realize it at the time. One is further west, and is the one we want. The other is further east and would require us to drive about twenty minutes to get to the one we are hoping for.

We go up on the bridge to watch things, and can see our silver Toyota below. Several unidentified gulls fly by, but don't pay any attention to our boat. A man walks by with two glasses of orange juice, and puts them into our hands. "Here, drink these. They are very good on a hot day." Wow, what a friendly guy, I think.

About ten minutes later, he comes buy and says "Didn't I tell you?" Then about ten minutes later, he comes up, holds out his hand, and says, "That will be six million lira." Now the truth is, that I suspected this, but am a little frosted at his technique. If I hadn't been so jet-lagged, I would have handled it at the beginning. But now what do I do? I say, "That's too much. I'll give you four million." He won't hear of it, and protests that the cost is six million. I give him four million, but he keeps pestering me so I give him one million more. All the locals begin to gather around and they seem to sympathize with us. They start harassing him in Turkish, but he has his act down too well, and knows that I will probably pay him. Which I finally do. He is a jerk Turk, and his behavior is unethical even to his fellow countrymen.

As we near the other side, we believe we are coming into Yalova, but it turns out that it's 30 km or so east of there, to an alternate destination. We see three ferries identical to ours, parked at our terminal in Topcular as we approach the dock. We dock at 6:30 pm but there's still lots of light.

Then it's west, through Yalova, on and up into the mountains of Termal, a hotsprings resort on the side of a hill. We run into a man who says he is manager of a hotel, and if we go there, he'll meet us there in a few minutes.

We go there and look around, but the place is dumpy, perhaps appropriate for students or hikers. He shows us a couple of rooms, but there is no lift, we tell him, and we move on.

We nose around a little more and finally find a hotel in the center of the village that we like.

We check into our room (20 million lira, or about $16), which has a nice view of some forest and a mosque across town. As we walk around the streets of the village, the evening activity picks up, with lots of villagers enjoying the evening. It reminds me a lot of Versailles, Missouri, the town I grew up in but feels cozier, tucked into the hills.

The hotel guys recommend a second-story restaurant up the hill, overlooking one of the village streets, and we eat up there. We love these little Turkish restaurants, and this one is especially good. The tomatoes don't seem to be as ripe and tasty as they were last fall, but the assortment of kofte, chicken and lamb are delicious. Dinner cost is about $13 before tip. The air is clean and cool, and watching the townspeople enjoying the evening is great.

There are lots of little shops, and Sharon buys a handful of jewelery and some fruit. I buy an M and M substitute famous in Turkey, called Bonibons. We happily make our way back to the room.

It's off to bed. We plan to be up early tomorrow, bird a couple of hours, have breakfast, then be off.

Life Birds: 0.
Trip Birds: 1 (Hooded Crow)

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