Strange Encounters on the Traveller’s Highway #11: Istanbul: Meeting Bill Clinton – Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul: Meeting Bill Clinton

It was 8am and I was hurtling through a new city in the back of a taxi. It was chaotic. Cars flew everywhere and new sounds, sights and smells greeted me at every turn. I was in Istanbul, Turkey but had no idea where exactly. All I knew was the young taxi driver spoke no English, he drove very fast, and I was undergoing sensory overload. And I loved it. I loved every little bit of it. I’d experienced this feeling before, upon arriving jetlagged in some exciting foreign city at a weird time of day. I knew that the first day of a trip was always the craziest as you adjusted to the new surroundings and fought bitter tiredness. It had happened to me before in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and even London.

The taxi hooligan didn’t bother checking for traffic as he careened around a large roundabout that sported hundreds of enormous yellow and orange marigolds. A small truck missed us by inches, its horn fading in and out of our ears. A skyline defined by rectangular apartment blocks and the minarets of mosques rose before us. I felt a hand slip into mine and looked over to smile reassuringly at Nadia, who I had reunited with in London.

It was great to have her with me again, and not only because she was my girlfriend. As far as travelling companions go, Nadia was a good one to have, as her open manner and friendliness had enriched many of my travel experiences in the past. I fondly remembered our trip to Vanuatu when Nadia had made friends with our flight attendant Joanie on our flight over, and the subsequent personally guided tour of the kava bars later that week with Joanie and her friends. Then there was the taxi driver Sim, befriended in Port Vila, so proud of his country that he took us to a rural church service and then back to his shack-like home to share a traditional Vanuatuan lunch with his wife and children.

Nadia tried unsuccessfully to talk to our Turkish taxi driver now, but he just shook his head to indicate he didn’t speak a word of English. But before we knew it we were in central Istanbul, passing by the covered Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi), which the young driver indicated with a grunt and a slight flick of his index finger. Our hotel was nearby, just one parallel street down from the busy Divan Yolu. Once there, a dull, middle aged Turkish man with no memorable features checked us into our room immediately. This was despite our early arrival, so it was well received by us.

As we groped our way up the stairs and down the corridor to the room, I couldn’t help but notice how dark it was on account of no lights being switched on. This was no accident and wasn’t going to be an isolated incident, due to the high price of electricity in Turkey. Many of the hotels, shops and restaurants turned lights on sparingly. All too often, we purchased warm drinks from a drink fridge that was switched off. Air conditioning existed but was never running; but some shop owners cunningly turned it on as you entered their shop to fool you into thinking it was always on. Too bad the shop was 47 degrees Celsius.

Our room was a typical Turkish hotel room, being small and sparse. But it did have its own bathroom, which appeared to be a bonus. The toilet had the obligatory narrow pipe protruding from the back of the bowl for, er, washing oneself, along with a bonus eight squares of toilet paper, a rare commodity in Turkey. Despite our extreme tiredness, Nadia and I had travelled enough before to know that we should not sleep now if we were to get over our jetlag quickly. So we settled on having a small rest before going out to see some sights and eat some lunch. It was going to be a small, non-eventful stroll around the town, but boy did it turn out differently.

Istanbul Alleyway

Istanbul Alleyway

We emerged on to the street blinking furiously in the bright sunlight and were attacked immediately. A lady holding a baby pressed up against me, gesturing for me to give her money. Another lady came rushing over and did the same to Nadia. It was a contrast to the London beggars who cheerfully asked for spare change as you strode past; or at their most active, tried to sell you the Big Issue. We shook our heads as we walked up the street, but the beggars closely followed, saying “plis sir, plis”. As it was, we had no money to give them, as our first task was to visit an ATM. We soon reached Divan Yolu, where the beggars were replaced by touts, extolling the virtues of the shop or restaurant they were standing outside of. We must have looked like the perfect targets, walking slowly with tired, pale faces, looking around us in wild eyed wonderment. It was all so overwhelming. After using an ATM, we spied one of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar across the street and pondered whether or not to go in. The guide book suggested when one went in, it was not quite so easy to come out so we decided to tackle its delights and challenges tomorrow, with a bit of sleep behind us. For now, food awaited.

Nadia and I went on a long walk down the street towards the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofiya. Touts hassled us at almost every step. At first we made the mistake of slowing or stopping to hear what the tout had to say but when this happened they became increasingly meddlesome and made every attempt to win you over. Our patience was tried many times, but we learned quickly that the best way to act was to just ignore them, not slow down and avoid eye contact. The comment I heard all too often was “Excuse me sir, but are you deaf?”

We had a fine lunch of baguettes in a lovely café in the park, duly washed down with several glasses of apple tea. Apple tea, which to me, essentially tasted like warm apple juice, is a staple in Turkey. It cost about 20 cents and could be bought everywhere one went. I thought it was absolutely delicious and looked forward to taking up the custom while I was in Turkey. The café also had orange tea, which tasted like warm, flat Fanta. It was also delicious. We sat back and sipped our tea in the wonderful sunshine, watching other patrons contentedly puffing away on enormous Nargileh’s (water pipes). These contraptions, essentially a large bong used for smoking apple tobacco, were placed next to each table. At the time, our café session felt like it would be the highlight of the day, especially when the bill came and it reached a grand total of about $4 Australian.

Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

It was heading toward late afternoon as we strode past the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. These mosques were both incredible to see in reality. However, just to clarify, Aya Sofya was no longer an actual mosque, but was rather classified now as a museum. It was built as a church (and always classed as one of the greatest in the world) in 537 and remained that way until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when it was turned into a mosque. In 1935, Ataturk proclaimed it as a museum, which it has remained as to this day. The Blue Mosque, built by the Sultan Ahmet in 1617, was the more striking from the outside; but both mosques/museums were absolutely enormous and a sight to behold.

We wandered gradually towards the Sultanahmet district, Topkapi Palace and the Sea of Marmara. As we walked along a quiet street I realised that we hadn’t passed anyone else for a while, which felt a little weird, since we were next to two of the largest mosques in the world. Something just didn’t feel right. As we turned a corner, we spied a most worrying thing. Off in the distance, in the shadows of the Blue Mosque, was a long line of police cars. It looked like military vehicles were there as well. Policeman sat around their vehicles, languidly holding enormous machine guns. Nadia and I stopped walking, unsure of what to do. We were literally fresh off the plane and in Turkey for the first ever time. Admittedly, I thought the worst possible thing – there might have been a bomb blast. We conferred and tried to work out what was going on. I spied an old man walking nearby so asked if he knew what had happened; but he just shrugged his shoulders and kept walking. We felt that if something bad had occurred, or was occurring, we should get out of the area immediately.

But in the end curiosity got the better of us, as it often does, so we continued towards the commotion on foot. I’m bloody glad we did. No sooner had we walked 100 metres than we no longer felt tense at all. In fact we felt quite relaxed. There were a horde of tourists, milling amongst the policemen and there were even more photographers. Someone famous was visiting Istanbul. We sat on a wall near a young German guy, identified by the flag on his backpack. Soon another guy came running up to join him with his camera held aloft, smiling. We tried eavesdropping on their conversation but this didn’t really help, because Nadia or I didn’t speak German. Nadia spoke fluent French, and I spoke, er, fluent English, but German was not our strong area. But we heard one word several times, one that started to make us wonder – “Kleentonn”.

We stood up and continued on, soon finding ourselves peering up a narrow alleyway of Turkish souvenir shops. It was blocked by a road barrier, behind which a wall of photographers lazily sat. There must have been over 30 of them. A small gap beside the barrier was blocked by a policeman but we noted with excitement that he stood aside as a tourist walked past. I looked at the wall of paparazzi and it all clicked into place. They had to wait in an orderly ‘holding bay’ while their subject shopped for carpet or trinkets unbothered. And the tourists got to do their shopping in peace too. So we continued walking right into the alley, somewhat nervously past the policeman, while the assembled paparazzi looked jealously on. There were touts everywhere as usual, but they were busy looking up the alley to where a large mass of people congregated. We continued on, fighting our way through the crowd until we were standing opposite a darkened shop. By the way people were excitedly chatting; we knew who the ‘celebrity’ was now.

Suddenly I felt hands yank my day pack off my shoulders. I turned to find a serious faced young man with black hair, chiselled features and checkered shirt and earpiece opening it up and rummaging through it. He saw me looking at him and said “I have to check your bag, sir.” He looked through it carefully, peering closely at my camera before handing it back to me. When I looked at him blankly, he explained, “we have to check big bags like that, sir. How do I know that you don’t have a bomb in there?”

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

I looked back at him, with his neatly ironed “casual” checkered shirt and spoke before I thought; again. “Well how do I know you’re a real bodyguard?” He looked at me menacingly, and I suddenly realised that he was probably a CIA agent or something, and he could probably ‘take care of me’ and make it look like I’d died of food poisoning. I started to shake with fear. But in reality, all he did was ignore me and move on the next person. It was all forgotten when there was a commotion at the entrance to the shop and bodyguards streamed out. They cleared a path around them until there was no one in between us and the shop.

And then there he was. A towering sight, the ex most powerful man in the world. Grey haired, a saxophone player, Mr Charisma himself, the man that gave good cigars a bad name, Bill Clinton. And what was this, he was walking straight towards us? Five steps later and he was standing with us. It all happened in a blur, he smiled and warmly shook Nadia’s hand, and then he turned and briefly regarded me before shaking mine. I seem to remember saying something quite stupid along the lines of ‘G’day Bill mate, how’s it going?’ We talked briefly about Australia, but all too quickly Bill was mobbed by a bunch of excited, loud American ladies. As he turned 90 degrees to talk with them I realised that I was standing shoulder to shoulder with a very powerful and amazing man.

Bill Clinton & his security

Bill Clinton & his security

So I took out my camera and snapped a photo of him close up. Maybe it was a good idea for that ‘CIA agent’ to be checking people’s bags. As the party of bodyguards moved down the alleyway with Bill in their midst, I shook my head in wonderment. He had made a beeline straight for us, ignoring all the hundreds of people clambering to get a photo. Perhaps he thought we were fellow Americans, perhaps he wanted to ask my intellectual opinion on the latest wheat prices or Democrat foreign policy, or perhaps he saw just saw Nadia standing there, with her six feet height, good looks and shoulder length blonde hair. We’ll never know. All I knew was that I had just shaken Bill Clinton’s hand and would be telling people about it if I ever got bored at a party.

I took a few more photos of Bill as his entourage slowly moved down the alleyway, ducking into a shop every now and then. Bill received several urns and trinkets as gifts and many shopkeepers had more sense than us to think of getting their photo taken next to him. We continued on ahead, which was made tough by the amount of tourists, touts and shopkeepers milling around. I wore my Nikon camera around my neck and was even asked by a policeman I if I was a member of the press. He looked ready to arrest me if I was but I think the blank look I returned made him realise I was just a gawking tourist. As we reached the end of the alley, the real members of the press (aka paparazzi) looked on lazily, ready to spring into action once Bill got closer. I felt cheeky and decided to make the photographers the photographed, taking my camera out and snapping a photo of them. A series of annoyed snarls greeted me through my lens. I guess they couldn’t take the heat.



Bill reached the end of the alleyway eventually and we all blinked through a series of flashes like you see on the TV at the Oscars. A cheer rose from the crowd as he got into a luxurious car and was whisked away. A procession of no less than 20 luxury cars, police cars and army vehicles followed behind him. Five minutes later the streets were relatively empty again. I realised things had turned back to normal by Turkish standards when a small moustached man came over and tried to convince us to come have apple tea with him in his carpet shop.

Nadia and I wandered on as the day grew late, talking elatedly about our chance meeting, up narrow cobble-stoned streets past rustic houses with peeling white paint. After a while we sat down in a back street of Sultanahmet to relax and enjoy our surroundings. Two young girls were playing nearby and when they saw us came skipping over. We then made our first friends in Turkey. Their names were Esel and Ayla, they were eight years old and they were best friends, having lived next door to each other their whole life. They spoke little English and we spoke no Turkish, but that didn’t stop us all from having a ‘conversation’ using body gestures, which they threw themselves into enthusiastically. They gave us some of their lollies and we wished that we had something to give back. Before long several other children came running over and played happily around us. As we sat there laughing I realised that our tiring, crazy first day in Istanbul had ended very pleasantly indeed.

On the way back to the hotel I stopped off in a store and bought some freshly made Turkish Delight. It came in a multitude of colours and flavours and was nothing like the droll artificial tasting Turkish Delight back in Australia. It was absolutely delicious. I looked forward to seeing the rest of Turkey.

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