THE BUDGET TRAVEL CHALLENGE
The Connected Traveler
With a smartphone in each hand, Arianne Cohen tests the limits of online networking in a foreign land. No guidebooks. No language skills. Only social media and mobile apps. The destination: Istanbul.
I was still in the typical tourist quandary of being wary of public transportation, the best way to get around a city of 12.5 million with ferry, bus, subway, tram, and rail lines. When my iPhone was able to connect through AT&T roaming, I used the Google Maps app for directions. But I often couldn't find a connection. (In Turkey, AT&T partners with Turkcell and Vodafone Telekom, and I found the service a bit spotty.)
My fear of public transport was quelled by my lunch date, Gorkem, a fashionista who owns her own travel agency, Hip Travel. I knew what she looked like from my friend's Facebook photos of them goofing around together, and I immediately identified her in the middle of the busy square. She pressed me into a dolmus, an unmarked $1 group taxi, which zipped us up to Besiktas, an upscale neighborhood lined with boutiques I'd never have discovered on my own. Over more crack-like Turkish coffee and watermelon and cheese at Der Die Das Café, an outdoor bistro hidden behind a block-long building, Gorkem mapped out a handful of must-see places on a smudged napkin that I clung to for the next two days. From then on, I carried it in my pocket with my BlackBerry and iPhone—and it was just as indispensable (you don't have to turn on a napkin to access its information).
Dinner that night was the best meal I had in Istanbul, at a hole-in-the-wall called Ortaklar Iskender Kebap, in the company of Irazca, a women's rights nonprofit worker I met through my college alumni's Yahoo group. We noshed on corba (lentil soup), lahmacun (Turkish meat pizza), and raki (an intensely foul drink that tastes like licorice vodka), and later she directed me to a city ferry. In one day, I'd conquered the funicular, the tram, the dolmus, and the ferry, seen several neighborhoods, and met four new friends. Jet-lagged? Sure, I was 10 time zones from my own. But my pride outweighed any exhaustion.
In my e-mails with Turks, I had bluntly asked about sailboats. The waters around Istanbul are teeming with yachts, and I've never been on one. So I kept asking until a friend responded with this: "I don't know anyone who has a boat, but here's a suggestion that would put you in the company of people who do: There's a huge party this Saturday, at a Gatsby-like estate on the Princes Islands." It sounded perfect. The picturesque islands are 15 miles off Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara, where everyone recommended I go swim and hang out for a day trip anyway. I e-mailed the hosts, an American expat and his Russian wife, and not so subtly hurled myself at their party. They said sure.
The formal invitation mentioned one guest's 80-foot yacht, which would transport people from Istanbul to the island. Since I was already crashing the party, I hopped the city-run $2 ferry and took a horse-drawn buggy, the island's main form of transportation, to the estate. This was a grave mistake. From the moment I arrived, everyone there was talking about the yacht—how lovely the yacht had been, how purifying it is to feel the salty breeze on your skin, and, wow, the yacht.
The party's theme was Fruits and Flowers (I had neither fruit nor flowers—just some raki I desperately wanted to get rid of), and so I stood in a corner and surveyed the Chiquita-banana-lady headdresses on many of the guests' heads. Then I heard someone say, "Arianne Cohen? Is that you?"
This, my friends, is how social networking works. If you get a few degrees away from yourself and then go to a 200-person party on an island somewhere, chances are actually pretty good that you'll know someone. Even in Turkey. It was Liesl, an acquaintance from New York. She introduced me to the hosts—friends of hers—and as is always the case with an in-person introduction from someone already in the clique, I was in. For the next six hours, I circulated with a mix of European businessmen and journalists and Russian oligarchs, pausing at one point to walk down a path to the waterside and admire the horizon-wide night view of the lights of Istanbul. I promptly took a photo and posted it to my Facebook page with this note: "I'm. So. Lucky."
Parties themselves are hubs, and one of the people I met that night was Yigal, the cofounder of a food blog called istanbuleats.com. He offered himself up for a post-hangover lunch date. We started at Ciftesarmasik Café, a typical workers' joint, where you point to what you want (eggplant stew, shepherd's salad, grilled meatballs) and everything costs about $3. Yigal then led us to Karaköy Güllüoglu, a baklava wonderland, which made me deeply depressed that I'm allergic to nuts.