Antwerp - Istanbulthe real end, part IV

The following events in and around Istanbul in December 2019 were unforeseen, uninvited and they changed my view of travel in the 21st century forever. An equally big surprise, however, was an encounter with someone I had been avoiding for far too long: myself.

- by Ward Hulselmans

- Tuesday, 3 December 2019

At seven in the morning, our 290-metre ship was pushed against the quay.Gemlik was in no way different from any other container port in the world, except that everything was a few sizes smaller. From the upper deck, we looked down on an iron molehill of thousands of containers with streets and corridors along which computer-controlled loading trucks passed. It was the same everywhere: not a second could be lost and even before the ship was properly moored, the unloading cranes were pushing alongside.

While I was writing in the watchman's logbook, the morning sun was just rising above the high container walls and as I descended the gangway for the last time, its rays warmed my face.

Downstairs, Gemlik's friendly ship's agent was waiting to take me to the city, and in my pocket I put a piece of paper with the name of a small hotel for the night. This was very different from depressing Istanbul and I felt like starting to whistle.

What else did I need? The answer was: a smartphone.

On this trip, I had wanted to prove that all those apps on your smart smartphone only made you more omniscient, over-informed - and therefore more unfree. If you wanted to remain independent and curious, you had to travel with a €38 Nokia, was my view. More than a Nokia was not necessary.How naive. I had not realised that the world had changed in the meantime. A Nokia was only good for a walk in the park; if you really had bad luck in the world, the best you could do with it was to call and say "Help!

That was exactly what I had done this morning and in Antwerp my friend Joris had sprung into action. In no time, he had arranged another flight to Brussels via the internet and his smartphone.I could sink into the ground with shame. My high principles no longer made sense. I was absolutely not free and independent. On the contrary, I was pathetic, needy and a nuisance to others. My outdated views were a burden to me.The fact that a small hotel was waiting for me here, plus a new reservation for the flight back tomorrow, was only thanks to the new technology I was so fond of patronising and to Joris, who politely didn't mention it.

All these things were on my mind as I sat in the car next to the ship's agent. We were racing towards Gemlik at 110 km per hour and I still had no idea where I was. I was simply looking at dusty streets full of Turkish flags, with the occasional tractor and dilapidated van lining the side. On a smartphone, I could at least have called up Google Earth and determined exactly where I was via satellite.It wasn't until I got to the hotel desk that I read in a brochure that Gemlik was about 150 kilometres south of the Bosphorus and had a beautiful promenade along the water.

Because I did not have a smartphone, Joris could not even send me my plane ticket for tomorrow from Antwerp. Instead, there was a copy of my reservation at the desk. What was written on it was difficult to decipher; probably the ink on the hotel copier had run out a little. I took a nice hot bath, hoping the Turks could read it all better than I could.

The latter proved to be the case when the taxi driver came to pick me up early the next morning. Unexpectedly, a discussion arose as to which of Istanbul's two airports he should take me to.The driver was a quiet, unassuming man with no knowledge of English, but he was firm on one point: I definitely wanted to go to the wrong airport and he would not do that to me. The right airport was actually closer, about 110 km from here, along the Asian side of the capital. I felt I shouldn't argue about it and after a few minutes, we left.

It became a silent journey.

After 50 kilometres, we arrived in a small harbour where we took the ferry across a side arm of the Sea of Marmara. For three quarters of an hour, we jolted across turbulent waters and ate my last bar of Belgian chocolate together.At noon, the driver dropped me off at the Sabiha Gökçen airport and disappeared back to Gemlik. On the stretch between the car park outside and the counter inside, the military turned my luggage upside down three times. My story kept sounding unreliable: arrived as a passenger on a cargo ship, yet wanting to leave immediately and no plane ticket on a smartphone screen, only a crumpled copy that I could barely read myself. It did not work in my favour.

When I finally stood in front of the Turkish Airlines counter, the attendant shook his head:

"Wrong airport sir."

"What?""Wrong Airport sir. Sorry."

The fucking driver of my taxi had made a mistake! I was at the wrong fucking airport!

Again, a plane would take off without me, but fortunately I could now rebook the flight myself. The lady of Turkish Airlines was categorical: it was high time and I'd better take the bus to that other airport right now. How far was it then?

"One hundred kilometres," she said. "The new airport you need to be at is on the European side of Istanbul."

It was a miserable journey, between crammed Turks and suitcases. The bus went up and down mountains and none of my fellow travellers spoke a word, absorbed as they were in their own thoughts. They, too, were moving between two airports, perhaps even between two worlds or two lives.

The scenery faded away and I closed my eyes. I was back on board, in my cabin, on that special last night; the ship's engines were roaring and outside, the invisible sea was sliding past.In front of me was the book "Only in my poems can I live" by ship's doctor and poet J. Slauerhoff. I was on page 195 and reading:

"Tonight I must sail again.Sometimes a man has perfect happiness, but can never keep it."


- the real end1 & 2 December 2019

part 3