The Best Decision I Ever Made: A 4-Day Solo Layover in Istanbul

By Olivia Balsinger

Saying a warm hello to Asia. (Olivia Balsinger)

Not very often do I recommend taking advice from a notorious rapper from early in this millennium. 

But as I waited to check my bags at the “Alexander the Great” Airport in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, the poetic and profound words of Wiz Khalifa echoed continually in my ears.

We searching for the thrill of it, thrill of it

I was a mess. I wore a coat that still harbored the distinct odor of stale rain from a horseback ride through a storm in Albania. My only brush and I had parted ways about 15 days prior, while (half) sleeping on the floor of an oda, the home of a rural boar farmer, in Kosovo. The skeletal remains of my wallet included about 50 euros, the matches I stole from a hotel, and the phone number of a 17-year-old Albanian boy whom I had unintentionally wooed with my American accent. 

Boarding pass in hand, I was ready to jump on a plane to Istanbul, where we would spend a short layover before crossing the Atlantic to normalcy and the mundane once again — my home in New York City. The adventure was over. I had reached maximum thrill-seeking capacity.

And that is when the wise words of Wiz Khalifa interrupted my thoughts.

In spite of the fact that I had nothing to lose, or maybe because of it, I asked the booking agent: “How much would it be to not go back to New York? To take a later flight and spend a few days in the layover city? To see Istanbul?”

“1,600,” she replied.

Darn. There goes that.

“1,600 Macedonian dollars … $32.37 American dollars." 

As a 21-year-old supporting herself on a meager budget in Manhattan, I thought about all of the things $32.37 would have bought me. It would have paid for a good 1/30th of my rent for October. It would have paid for an Eggs Benedict and more than a few mimosas at the brunch place next door that I have never been able to afford.

Related: Channel Your Inner Indiana Jones on a Turkish Wreck Dive

But right here, right now, $32.37 was my ticket to Istanbul for the next four days.  

The one-hour and 28 minute flight between Skopje and Istanbul felt like an eternity as I teetered between congratulating myself on embracing my spontaneity and mentally composing the text I would send my parents, who had been anticipating my arrival at JFK Airport that evening. (“Mom and dad, I have a pretty good head on my shoulders. Exploring the world. Will be back for work Monday. xoxo Olivia”)

Related: Is it Safe for Americans to Visit Turkey with Unrest over ISIS?

Here I was — a young and somewhat naive girl with a few dollars and even fewer plans, entering a country whose political climate had been portrayed by most news media as more unstable than marriages in Hollywood.  

Check out the view from the roof of the Istanbul hostel. (Olivia Balsinger)

I was welcomed into a warm bed at the Istanbul Hostel after aimlessly walking the city’s cobblestone streets for an hour, luggage in tow. Surrounded by history in the heart of Sultanahmet, the Old Town, the hostel provided those plagued with wanderlust from all over the world clean linen and suggestions of where to find the most genuine Turkish coffee. (The complimentary rooftop breakfast served overlooking the vast city skyline was a bonus!)

Related: A Layover Worth the Wait — This Couple Met at an Airport in Uruguay

The author managed to make new friends all over the city. (Olivia Balsinger)

On my first morning exploring the city, while a storm raged outside, I found shelter in a hole-in-the-wall Sultanahmet café, where I tried homemade Turkish delight that put the commercialized candies in the Grand Bazaar to shame. I rode the commuter ferry across the Bosporus Strait just to touch Asian soil for the first time. I even found myself eating an Eminönü fish sandwich on Eminönü Pier with a welcoming family I met while meandering the streets, appreciating the commonalities discovered though broken English and sea salt penetrating our nostrils.

The Blue Mosque. (Olivia Balsinger)

After a whirlwind 120 hours in Istanbul, during which each day presented a blank slate — soon filled with conversations about the history of the hijab at souvenir shops, strolls through residential neighborhoods that I got lost in, and spices that would test my tolerance level — I  made it safely back to Turkish Airlines Gate 44 in JFK.

Had I followed my original plans, I would have entered those terminal doors five days sooner. Instead, I found adventure in a decision formed with little common sense and even fewer cents.   

Related: A Handy-Dandy Guide to Istanbul

Throughout your life you are taught to plan and organize. Step A follows Step B. If you try to jump to Step F, the world may melt. You are scolded if your kindergarten locker is messier than that of the kid next to you. Society tells us if you don’t have a solid plan by age 17 — including your future university, job, and  the names of your first three children — then you must take control of your life pronto.  

Embracing life on Istanbul’s cobblestone streets. (Olivia Balsinger)

But travel is the exception to the rule.

Next time you have a long weekend, escape the mundane: Rent a car, a bicycle, or even a tricycle, and find your next adventure. Next time you’re wasting time at an airport in a foreign land waiting for that connection home, ask about the possibility of feeding your wanderlust.

Next time you’re traveling and have the opportunity to do something for the thrill of it, listen to Wiz. And then just do it.

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