Late August 2017
I looked around at the few dozen faces surrounding me. Some were old, others young, a few were in groups, while most seemed to be on their own. Not many were talking, as an ever-present fatigue had settled in, but those who were conversed in a variety of languages, all different than my own. However, despite our differences and backgrounds, we shared one thing in common. It was 11:00pm in a far removed corner of the the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and we had all been stranded there for the same reason. Our story began in Terminal 1 of the JFK airport in New York more than 24 hours earlier and at the time, none of us could possibly have imagined the events that were about to ensue.
At first, everything was going so well. The traffic leading to the airport was minimal (an extreme rarity for JFK) and for the first time in my life, I was not stopped and frisked by security. Things were going so smooth, in fact, that I even reached my gate more than two hours early for my 7:00 flight. There was no mad dash, stress, or beads of sweat pouring down from my brow. I got to relax, download podcasts to listen to during my flight and enjoy one of the many snacks I had packed away. And on top of it all, my ultimate destination was Tbilisi, Georgia, one of my favorite cities in the world, just with a minor 90 minute layover in Istanbul. "Maybe this is good karma coming back to me after all the JFK horrors of the past," I foolishly thought to myself as I got in line to board the plane. Today, it seemed like nothing would go wrong, but unfortunately something would.
Just as I was about to line up to board the plane, an announcement sounded over a speaker. "Ladies and gentlemen," a crackly voice spoke in a lackluster monotone "We regret to inform you that the 7:00 flight to Istanbul has been delayed 30 minutes. We apologize for the inconvenience." I sat back down. Just 30 minutes, I thought. I've had worse. But, unfortunately the 30 minutes ended up being just over an hour, and I began to feel a bit nervous. Our new projected arrival was now 12:40 Istanbul, time just half an hour before my connecting flight was set to takeoff. My mind began to race.
"What happens if we're late and miss it? I couldn't be the only person this flight going to Tbilisi, could I? Would they hold the flight if there's a bunch of us?" Each of these thoughts played in my head on repeat like terrible, generic song lyrics. I tried to relax and listen to a podcast before attempting some shut-eye, but the unease of missing the flight kept me from fully dozing off. Nonetheless, after roughly nine hours of flying, we touched down on the runway in Istanbul almost exactly 30 minutes before my next flight. I sprung to action, ready to bolt off the plane to my next gate, but the fools sitting ahead in First and Business class decided to move exceptionally slow (presumably stopping to fan themselves with wads of hundreds while drinking the tears of the poor). By the time we were off, there was just 15 minutes left.
I weaved myself through my fellow travelers, determined to make my flight, but to my surprise, an airport security personnel stood there waiting for us with a sign that read 'Tbilisi'. "Tbilisi passengers, follow me. I take you to your gate." I instantly felt relieved. If this man was waiting for us, they ought to be holding the flight as well, so, alongside about 30 other passengers, we gathered around this short, mustached man and followed. Unfortunately for us, though, this man's sense of direction turned out to be as bad as mine after a night of a few drinks. Three different times, he led us the wrong way, only to backtrack and try again.
When we ultimately reached the gate, right exactly at the scheduled departure time of 1:10, I could tell something seemed off. The whole area was completely void of people and the doors to enter the plane were closed. "Oh well," the airport employee casually grumbled, "Looks like we missed it." WHAT! I ran over to the man, making myself as tall as possible so that I could tower over him.
"I'm supposed to arrive in Tbilisi before night! What the hell do I do now?" I kindly asked (just kidding about the kindly part).
"Check with the information center."
Fine. I ran off, following the signs, getting lost a little, before ultimately reaching the airport's information center. Already, a long line had formed, thus leaving me there to stand and wait. Slowly but steadily, the line creeped forward, all the while my head feeling like Mt. Vesuvius just prior to eruption. When I finally got the chance to speak to someone (nearly an hour later) I explained my situation.
"We can put you the next flight." The person at the counter replied. "It leaves at 1:00am, just about eleven hours from now...
I was not going to settle for this. Compensation was in order, come hell or high water, and I was ready to fight tooth and nail for it. I shouted about how there was absolutely nothing that I could have done since one plane landed as the other took off and that I was now stuck in this airport for hours on end since I could't leave and enter without a visa. My nostrils were flaring as the fury of my sleep deprived state was kicking in.
Thankfully, it turned out the person didn't want to make a scene and quickly made an offer. If I was willing to spend the $30 it cost to get a Turkish visa, they would let me stay for free for a few hours at the airport hotel just across the street, thus making it possible for me to sleep some place other than a dirty floor surrounded by stressed out travelers. I agreed, filled out the necessary paper work, made my way through customs, and headed over to the hotel. Most of the people there were dressed well, clean and put together. I was none of the three but I didn't care. Fitting in was the least of my worries at this point.
After waiting for a significantly longer time than expected, the staff finally told me that my room was ready, so I hoisted my backpack and made my way up the stairs. The room seemed comfortable enough. Unlike the airport, there were no hordes of people or screaming families, so with regards to that, I was relieved. The downside was that I only had about two hours to sleep until I had to head back to the airport for the new flight. But this was my time to myself and it was up to me to make the most of it (meaning I flopped down on the mattress right away). Far too quickly, the alarm rang, rousing me back to reality. It was now time to return to Ataturk airport for round number two, thus bringing me back to the start of the story.
(SKIP FORWARD A FEW HOURS)
Finally, the airplane crew called us up and let us board the plane. Drifting in and out of present consciousness, I stumbled aboard and slumped like a corpse into my chair. It was now just past midnight, although time didn't really register to me anymore. Numbers didn't matter. Neither did the turbulence that ensued shortly after takeoff, nor the rather large man that complained loudly about the drink selection. The only thing of any importance was getting to a soft cozy bed (well, technically I would have settled for anything. Even a mound of dirt would feel soft and cozy by this point. I digress).
Finally, the plane landed. I would provide a more descriptive detail, but I wasn't cognitively processing my surroundings by this point. Somehow I stumbled through the doors and made it through customs, probably looking like a semi-tranquilized sloth. My watch read 3:45am, meaning that it was still just over 3 hours until the bus busses started. I was left with two options: either wait or risk death and take a taxi. Without hesitation, I chose to risk death. Approaching one of the drivers, I told him my location, quickly haggled down the price, and hopped into the cab.
If I could remember the ride, I would describe it now, but unfortunately (or fortunately), I cannot. All I know is that I made it to the hostel in one piece and immediately flopped down I on the bed I was given. No covers or bed sheets were used, for I had not the energy nor the will to put them on. The bed mat was good enough. Before I knew it, I drifted into a deep slumber, thus ending the days of travel.