Wednesday, September 4, 2013

One Year

A year ago, at this exact moment I was curled up on our couch, trying to focus on The Nightmare Before Christmas buzzing before my eyes.  My suitcase laying languid on the staircase, stuffed to the brim with clothes, gifts, and toiletries to last me the year.  My mom scribbled away at a letter, which I would open up in a entirely different world a few days later.  My going away party had come and gone.  I stared at every detail, absorbed the smell of my sheets, the warmth of a hug.  I ran my fingers through the grass, and before I slunk into the car the next morning, I plucked a leaf off of our tree, and pressed it between the glossy pages of the Colorado photography book I gave to my host family as a gift.

That night, in an almost childlike fashion, I pulled my mom into the spare bedroom and curled up in her arms, emotion caught in my throat like a piece of un-chewed meat.  I felt numb.  Tomorrow I would wake up, and everything would go on as normal, right?  If I stay awake a little longer, I can prolong my time with my family.  And then I passed out.

With a gasp, I woke up to the phone alarm sounding out in the dark room.  The house rumbled to life.  I had to sit on my suitcase, while my mom put every ounce of her body weight into closing it.  I scrambled to double check my life as I zipped it away.  All 45 pounds of it, and my backpack.  I kissed my cat on the nose, momentarily used his body to pillow my head, and walked out the door, into the car, and watched my house until no remnant of it remained.  My mom sat in the back with me, and we clutched each other's hands so tight I lost feeling in my fingers.  When we got to the airport and tried to check my bag, it was overweight, and without much thought, I began to fling any items that weren't immediately necessary.  Coats.  Shoes.  Books.  My dad and little sister came as well, and handed me a letter each.

And finally, it was time to say goodbye.  Finally, it hit me.  I was leaving.  I was going to be gone from the only place I have ever known as home, from the people I loved.  So what did I do?  I cried.  Like a freaking baby.  I gave everyone a thousand hugs, said "I love you" more than I can count.  And when I couldn't hold up the line any longer, I took one last look, and marched forward without looking back.

I met with the others at the gate.  We were all going to New York for orientation.  Everyone was peppy and bubbly, and yet tears were still rolling down my face, and continued to do so well into the flight.  As we began to fly down the runway, I hiccuped and took deep shuddering breaths as I watched the mountains fade, and eventually the grassy plains of eastern Colorado twist and morph into the towering skyline and boggy terrain of New York.  Orientation was full of energy.  Italy was the party group, hooting and hollering, followed closely by Spain and France.  The Turkey group was a mere 10 (only 3 were non-scholarship), and we all were filled with nerves.  These people were going to Europe, to lands somewhat known to us.  With languages taught in nearly every high school, and English on almost every corner.  We were going somewhere so deep it nearly hits the middle east, and to be honest, it practically was.  To a language we didn't know, thrown headfirst into a culture and religion we knew nothing about.

The next day, we were the first to leave for the airport after Egypt.  Everyone clapped and shouted encouragement, "Yeah Turkey!  Good luck Turkey, fly safe!"  We checked in, made ourselves comfortable at the gate, and I made one last phone call.  To my mom, during which I slid down the terminal wall and cried so hard I scared a few passerby.  I couldn't do this.  I couldn't get on the plane.  But I did, and the moment I sat down in my seat (by the window, thank god), I was able to breathe.  The group giggled and tittered, mumbling broken Turkish phrases and looking at guidebooks. As I once again heard the roar of the engine as the massive plane clawed its way into the sky, any thought of crying was gone.  9 hours wore on.  Sleep was not even an option, even though we departed at 5 pm.  Night cloaked the plane as people snoozed in their seats.  Meanwhile, Rya, Hana, and I clustered by the bathrooms, talking about life and our impending exchange for a good 30 minutes.  
Finally, with an announcement rattled off in rapid-fire Turkish, we touched down in Istanbul, Turkey. 

The Turkish flag waved proudly in every direction, the first indication that we definitely weren't in Kansas anymore.  As we moved through customs, got our bags, everything was numb, until we stepped outside.  Immediately I was assaulted by the heat, heavy and oppressive.  The traffic was a roar, cigarette smoke wrapped its way around my body and the sharp, yet somehow fluid, new language ran in one ear and out the other.  We were driven to the AFS office, given our first meal, first tea, first briefing, then we were brought to our first hotel.  A slightly run down, interesting little place in the middle of the rolling Turkish countryside.  The only guests were a large group of 20 or so from Kuwait.  The sweet and pungent scent of hookah perfumed everything.  In the "lobby" ( a small room with a couch, computer, and tv) the men roared as a football game played on.  Everything was new, nothing familiar.  As far as a honeymoon phase, I didn't have one.  The next day we moved to our next hotel.  A disjointed, sprawling space that looked like this, with what looked like an older house tacked onto the side, where we stayed.

Each day we took 4, then 6, then 8 hours of Turkish lessons.  We barreled out of our rooms and onto the rooftop when we heard the call to prayer for the first time.  Mouths agap, listening as the haunting chant echoed across the miles, a slight delay heard at the end of each pause, as dozens of mosques echoed the call.  We dragged giant beanbags onto the roof one night after a swim, and cuddled together with blankets as we laughed about anything and everything, about the craziness of the past week.  For those few days, I was ridiculously happy.  I loved my friends, I loved the country, the time was magical, if not taxing.

And then after almost a week of intensive Turkish lessons, we took a bus to Ankara, a rather extensive road trip.  We only spent a night or so there, as we only visited the embassy and to an American ambassador's house for dinner.  To be blunt, the Americanized apartment was refreshing.  A 6-year old boy ran around with his toys, showed me the family cat.  A Disney movie hummed in the background.  The next day, we visited Atatürk's Mausoleum, and said our goodbyes to each other, before each group (Kayseri and Gaziantep) got on their separate busses, and to the airport to meet our host families.  Once again, I was hit by the fact that I had to say goodbye again, to the people I had come to know and love over the past few days.  But onto the next one.  It was finally time to start my exchange.  And as the colorful apartment buildings and craggy desert passed me by, I felt like I was going in the right direction.

(watch the video, it has visuals to everything I just told you about)


Thank you for sticking with me through this post, it was long, but doesn't nearly go into everything that happened those first 9 or 10 days.  Soon I'll make another one, talking about meeting my family, and everyday life , up until my last day in Turkey.

I'm also not sure why one part of this is highlighted.