Culture Shock: Seeing the Thunder in Istanbul

Max Chillin' - Me!

Waiting, waiting, more waiting, and some taxi drivers. Such is life in Istanbul.

This post will divert a bit from WTLC's normal style of writing. It's basically a travel diary of my experiences traveling to see the Thunder in Istanbul. If it's your cup of tea, then enjoy, and if not, there's tons of other content on the site to enjoy!

The first thing I noticed upon my arrival to Istanbul were the incredibly long passport control lines. Ataturk made a really busy airport, and there were tons of flights coming in from all over the world. While in line, I was standing next to Afghani women in full burqas, Swiss tourists, and loud Americans who like to complain. I knew that, as an American, I had to buy a visa at the border, but the signs were very unclear as to where. Shrugging it off, I just decided to stand in line and wait. After about 20-25 minutes, I got up to the counter. He flipped through my passport, and immediately shouted at me, "Toorkish Veeza!". After some discussion, I realized I had to go back past the line and buy my visa at a small kiosk. I then got back in the line, which had gotten longer. The line separated into smaller lines when you got up to the individual desks, each of which took about 15 minutes to get through. I sat in one of those lines for almost all of the 15 minutes, but when I got close to the front, the immigration official got to quit for the day, so they closed the lane. My lane thus merged with another, and I spent a lot more time in line. After about an hour in total of waiting, I finally was granted access to Turkey.

Upon entering Turkey, I found a swath of people holding up name placards for people who were more important than me. While walking past, a man with an "NBA Global Games" sign waved to me and pointed. I briefly considered talking to him in broken German, insisting that I was a fourth string guard that the Thunder just hired from Austria, and that I needed to start practicing against Kevin Durant right away. But I decided against it, and entered the subway.

The public transit in Istanbul gives me the impression of something that's rapidly modernizing, but still struggling to keep up with the demand. The subway was efficient enough, but you needed to pay for every individual ride you took, rather than paying for a two hour period, like in most cities. Making things more confusing was how buses used a different ticketing system altogether, so you had to buy a separate card to use them. Plus, the only way to get over the river that separates Istanbul was by bus, so I was forced to switch networks.

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Anyway, when I exited the Subway and prepared to board the bus, I got my first real glimpse of Istanbul. The most obvious thing to immediately strike me was the overwhelming Muslim influence. A nearby mosque was broadcasting Muslim prayer over loudspeakers, and hundreds of people were gathered on the street to collectively participate. After gawking for a second, I fought through the busy crowd and onto the nearby bus platform. The platform was at least a football field long, and had buses stopping and going literally every 30 seconds or so. Every bus was almost packed to the brim, and none of them were going to where I thought they would. In the midst of all this panic and discovery, I noticed a Little Ceasar's pizza truck go by. I guess that we all have something in common, after all.

After finding my bearings, I boarded the bus across town. For a while, the buses had their own lane on the highway, free of the constant and horrific traffic jams that I later found plagued the city. But when they got past a certain point, the traffic became a huge problem. I remember constant inching and stopping, and lots of disgruntled drivers. Eventually, I reached the end station in Kadikoy, where my hostel was located. Here, I was immediately verbally assaulted by taxi drivers, whom I later found to populate virtually every sector of the city. Many of them scam tourists into rigged fares, and I did my best to stay away.

When I eventually arrived at my hostel, I met a local working there. He was shocked that I came just for the Thunder game, but he was a die hard fan himself. In Turkey, as with many places on this Earth, the most popular sport is soccer. He was a huge supporter of one of Istanbul's three biggest clubs, Galatsaray. He was such a big supporter that he literally had a tattoo on his arm, and was really happy that I had come to cheer against Fenerbahce. (In case you're wondering, all of the Soccer teams also field basketball teams, as well as teams for many other sports.)


One story he told me, however, was particularly unsettling. A few years ago, he had gone to a Galatsaray vs. Fenerbahce match, at Fenerbahce's home stadium. His team had won 3-2. There were only about 2,000 Galatsaray supporters there, so he had to hide his allegiance as he left the stadium. He succeeded in doing so up to a point, but on his way home, a group of 5 guys called him out. As he turned, his Galatsaray jersey stuck out from under his jacket. They recognized it, and immediately closed in on him. He attempted to get into his nearby apartment, but his friend wouldn't answer the door, and it was too late for a key. The group of men beat him up for a few minutes, leaving him with several scars that he showed me. He never went to another Galatsaray away game after that, and his story had me wondering whether cheering for the Thunder was the right thing to do here.

Luckily, basketball is much more tame. After a absolutely hellish 1.5 hour standing bus ride the next day, I was finally at Fenerbahce's home stadium. The atmosphere outside was pretty celebratory and non-threatening. In fact, the most popular scarf for fans to wear seemed to be one that featured Fenerbahce on one side, and the Thunder on the other side.

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Upon entering the stadium, I was hoping to find a kiosk where I could buy a Fenerbahce shirt, for souvenir purposes. But there were only shops selling NBA gear. About half of it was Thunder shirts, while the rest of it was assorted jerseys from other NBA stars. If I wanted to buy anything Fenerbahce, I'd have to do it from the illegal market outside. Also in the concourse were a variety of booths, where you could compare your height to that of NBA players, play NBA 2K14, or try your hand at some pop-a-shot.

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In any case, I entered the actual stadium part of the stadium a few minutes before tip-off, and it eventually became pretty close to a full house. The seats were separated into distinct classes, with the section behind the basket pretty clearly designated as one for hardcore fans. Those seats were little more than bleachers, but the seats immediately next to them were cushioned and had full backs. The ticketing was different for this game though, so the quality of seat you sat in mostly had to do with luck.

Before the game, there was no national anthem, but both teams got their own intros. The Thunder's intro was ripped straight from Oklahoma City, and the cheers were equally loud for both teams. As you probably saw on TV, the game itself wasn't too exciting, The crowd wasn't very into it (save for a few spontaneous rally chants in the early second half) and both teams were mailing it in by the time the fourth quarter rolled around. (For more on the actual game, check out my recap here.)

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All of the in-game entertainment was provided by the Thunder, save for the emcee and halftime show (pictured above). Rumble was easily the biggest in-game attraction. Tons of people grab their picture with him when he roams the stands in Oklahoma City, but the Turkish fans absolutely flooded him. He came to say hi to me a couple of times (as I'm a pretty recognizable fan from Oklahoma City), and both times, about 10-15 people asked for pictures with the friendly bison before he could finally escape. In fact, I'd say his on court performance (as Air Rumble) probably got more cheers than the actual basketball teams did.

Personally, I was cheering pretty loudly for the Thunder, and got on TV a couple of times, which was pretty awesome for stroking my huge ego. My favorite thing to do is try and distract opposing shooters at the free throw line, which is all well and good. But when Fenerbahce came to my end of the stadium, in the second half, they shot 24 free throws. That made distraction a pretty arduous task. Still, the Fenerbahce fans were pretty tolerant of what I did, even though I probably forced a few misses.

At the end of the game, I was swarmed with requests for pictures, and questions about where I was from. One man even offered to buy my foam fingers, but I simply gave them to him. I was pretty surprised at how friendly everyone was. Not a single person derided me for my allegiance. I can't say the same about any other NBA Arena I've been to. Then again, tickets to this game were significantly more expensive than they are for normal Fenerbahce games, so the crowd was probably significantly gentrified.

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Upon exiting the arena, I had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to go. Pre-game, the bus dropped me off in the middle of the street, and now I didn't see a station anywhere. Traffic was bumper to bumper, and I could see the city stretching on for what seemed like infinity. After wandering around for a couple of minutes, two more guys asked to take a picture with me. When the deed was done, I decided to ask them how to get out of here. Surprisingly, they were going to the same place that I was, so they kindly led me there.

The buses out of the area had huge lines waiting for them, so we decided to get in another huge line, this one for a taxi. After about an hour of waiting, one finally became available. Another long ride later, we reached a subway station, where the train took us to our final stop. Along the way I had asked about places to eat, so these guys graciously took me out to a place called HD Iskender.

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To my disappointment, none of the food was in high-defintion, and the restaurant lacked even standard definition TVs. But there was only one main-course item on the menu, along with a few assorted side-dishes. This main course item is a form of kebab, and it might not look that appealing at first. Bread lines the bottom, with thin strips of beef and tomato sauce. Topping that was some boiled tomatoes, chili peppers, and some steaming hot liquid butter. On the side was some plain, unsweetened yogurt. It didn't smell good, it didn't look good, and I expected it to taste terrible. But, to my surprise, it was one of the best meals I had ever consumed. Everything blended absolutely perfectly, and I reminded me of a really good spaghetti.

I did a few standard touristy things before leaving, but none of that is important. Easily the most arduous thing I did was attempt to leave Istanbul. I had two choices on which flight I could take out of the country. One left at 7 AM, and the other left at 5 PM. I needed to take the 7 AM flight, because I wanted to connect with a bus in Skopje.

But getting to the airport at that time of day is a pretty difficult thing to do. I was informed that a taxi would cost about 40 bucks, and that the buses and subway didn't run until the morning Rush Hour was in full swing. In order to get to the airport, I'd have to take the last night bus to Taksim Square. There, I'd wait about 2-3 hours, and then take another bus to the airport. Easy, right?

Wrong. I had no sleep heading into the journey, as you might expect. I found the night bus without too much trouble, and was able to exit at Taksim Square. But from there, it wasn't very obvious as to where the other bus ran from. The bus station was tucked off in a corner, and had only numbered buses running from it. The bus I searched for had a name. I thought that the bus situation would become more apparent when it was scheduled to leave in a few hours, so I left the station, determined to waste some time at Taksim Square.

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The man at the hostel insisted to me that the Square would have some shops open at that time of night, and that I could sit in a Burger King or something and wait. But, to my chagrin, all of the stores were about to close. I hadn't eaten since about noon, and I only had the equivalent of about $2.50 in my pocket. (I already bought my bus pass, and I didn't want to break a 100 Euro bill.) It turns out that I only had enough for 1 cheeseburger, so I bought one from McDonalds and prepared for about 2 hours of late night street waiting in Istanbul. (In case you're wondering, McDonald's tastes exactly the same worldwide.)

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After a bit of searching, I found a park. The place was deserted, save for a homeless man sleeping on a bench. It seemed relatively safe and I saw police in the general area, so I sat down to eat my burger. While eating it, I heard loud screams in the distance. They weren't screams of terror or anything, but the screams of a man who was voluntarily yelling. Upon finishing my burger a man walked up to me.

I don't speak a lick of Turkish, so whatever this man was saying to me was completely lost in translation. Conversely, he didn't speak a lick of English. Yet, he persisted in talking to me, using very animated gestures with his hands. At certain points, he wanted me to repeat words that he said, and continually pointed to his head and the sky. He may or may not have been talking about religion, but I couldn't be totally sure. When I acted like I didn't understand what he was saying, he appeared on the verge of crying, but would quickly snap back to his semi-normal self. Eventually, he left me alone, and started shouting to nobody in particular.

I moved to another section of the park and chilled out for a while. Another disheveled looking guy came up to me and asked for money, which I politely refused. Thankfully, he eventually went away. At this point I thought I was alone, so I whipped out my laptop and watched some Simpsons episodes I had pre-loaded. But, unsurprisingly, both of the aforementioned men came and talked to me again, with the preaching man throwing around a motorcycle helmet like a basketball.

The two hours eventually expired, and I went back to the bus station to try and figure out where my bus was leaving. There were only two people there, and none of the information boards had my bus on them. Out of desperation, I asked the two men where to go. And, to my surprise, after a lot of information gathering on their part, they walked about a mile in order to show me where the other bus stop was. They told me that the entire bus system had been rearranged about a month ago, and showed me where the formerly huge bus stop once resided.

But my journey wasn't over yet. I found out that the bus didn't take regular bus passes, and I had spent my last money on that stupid cheeseburger. So, in a moment of desperation, I had to run to the ATM, withdrawing money from my credit card and undoubtedly incurring huge transaction fees. With that, I was finally off to the airport, where I saw many Muslim men wash their feet in the bathroom sink and finally left Istanbul.

In conclusion, Istanbul was a pretty awesome place to visit. It's full of friendly people, impressive monuments, and tons of cultural differences to enjoy. But I would never, ever, ever live there. The 20 minute drive to Taco Bell I have in Oklahoma City is enough.

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