The Pera Marmara is one of the nicest hotels in Istanbul. At 17 stories, and perched atop the steep Beyoglu district, the Marmara hotel boasts one of the most privileged vantage points in the city.
I dressed up for the occasion, in a blue button-down shirt I had carried all the way from Paris. It was my first time wearing it, and the fact I lugged it around on my bike so long had been something of a running joke. I was glad it was finally getting some use.
I took an elevator to the top of the hotel and stepped out onto the terrace, where I spun 360 degrees to survey the panoramic views. I tried to decide which balcony to gaze over first, but it was impossible. Every direction I looked, the vista was stunning. I grinned stupidly; I had never seen anything quite like it.
To the East, cargo ships lined up to squeeze past each other along the Bosphorus Straight, the historic waterway dividing Europe and Asia. From high up, the boats looked like tiny, luminescent ants, crawling past each other single file through a great, dark vein. To the West, I caught the sun’s last rays setting over a never-ending blanket of hills, covered top-to-bottom with dense, hastily-constructed apartment complexes. The mounds of jagged concrete looked like a giant hand had dropped piles of monopoly-sized houses across the landscape. I was awed.
I tore my eyes away from the absorbing views. Morgan and his family were standing around me, glasses raised, beaming. Since leaving Paris, it was the first time we had had any visitors.
I raised my glass, and took a sip from my Manhattan. It was delicious – a far cry from the cheap liquors I’d grown accustomed to during college. I felt luxurious, not to mention privileged, for being treated to such an indulgence. I swirled the well-balanced cocktail in my mouth, and couldn’t help but wonder what the drink had cost. I made a mental guess, but it was low. Coming across a menu, I noticed the prices listed next to the cocktails. It threw me for a loop.
Right then, I realized that just half of my drink – two gulps of that gold-tinted liquor – was about the price equivalent of what I had been living off for an entire day, prior to my arrival in Istanbul. I remember thinking that this should have made me feel even more grateful. However, more than anything, it made me feel uncomfortable.
It was the beginning of an uneasy sentiment which has persisted throughout my stay here in Instanbul. Namely because, in the past three weeks, my day to day lifestyle has been completely turned around compared to what it used to be. Sound exaggerated? Allow me to highlight just a few things that have changed from before I arrived in Istanbul. Then you might understand why I am so appreciative and lucky, yet so uncomfortable with the way things have been recently.
My lifestyle 3 weeks ago.
- I lived on the road
- My allowance was 15 dollars a day
- 6 hours a day were spent cycling. Or if I wasn’t cycling, I was conducting interviews or writing
- I had little to no privacy, Morgan being around at all times
- Outside of Morgan, I had no face to face interaction with anyone I knew
- I only showered twice a week, by which point my skin was typically coated with a millimeter-thick layer of grime, sunscreen, and sweat.
- I was never sure where I was going to sleep each night.
- I was losing weight at an unhealthy rate
My lifestyle now
- I live in Taksim, one of high-rent districts of Istanbul
- I eat at restaurants most meals, usually being treated by the guests and family members who are visiting me
- My bicycle is parked in our apartment
- I have my own room, and privacy
- I am constantly surrounded by visiting family and friends
- I shower every day
- I have a set place to go back to, and sleep each night
- I am rapidly gaining back weight
I always knew Istanbul was going to be an extravagant, yet emotionally trying, destination on our trip. After all, the primary reason we decided to come back – even after biking all the way across Turkey during June – was for our family and friends to be able to visit us. In that way, it was slated to be a unique phase on our journey, and implied that a lot would change during those four weeks.
The thing that has surprised me, however, is just how accustomed I had become to vagabonding, and how anxious I am to get back to it.
This isn’t to say I am not incredibly grateful for the company of those visiting — who I’ve missed for so long — and the generous lengths they’ve gone to spoil me during their time here. However, I think my underlying unease has to do with the knowledge of how temporary it all is. That, after having my lifestyle so radically changed, it will undergo a complete reversion back to what it was in only 1 more week, when we set off for Georgia and beyond.
The mattress and apartment will return to a sleeping bag and tent; the physical embrace of family and friends back to skype calls on the internet; planning tourist sights back to planning bike routes.
I can’t wait – to get back to the dirt, the dangers, and the challenge. My stay in Istanbul has been relaxing and privileged, but it has also felt out of sync with the rest of this trip. Where I in Shanghai, at the end of the whole journey, I might be feeling differently – more susceptible to celebrating. But we still have a long way to go, and many more stories to write. I’ve come to regard Istanbul as a break from everything else, and have tried to appreciate it as such. But come the end of July, when we carry our bikes down the five flights of stairs in our apartment building and hand back the keys to our landlord, I think I will be relieved. Getting back on the bike won’t just mean I’m resuming my life as a vagabond. It will mean I’m again riding towards a goal.