- Grand Hyatt Istanbul
- Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul
- Blue Mosque, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
- Old Town Istanbul (at night)
- Eminonu New Mosque & The Egyptian Spice Market
- Doubletree Istanbul Old Town
- KLM Business Class Istanbul – Amsterdam – San Francisco
- 5 Things I Love About Istanbul
I got to the airport roughly an hour before departure, so after checking my bags and saying goodbye to my family, I immediately headed to the gate. My mom and sister were flying on Air Berlin, while my dad was headed back to Kabul.
Boarding was very disorganized and tons of economy passengers boarded when business class passengers were called (the horror!). The flight was uneventful – I can’t even remember what was served onboard.
At Schiphol Airport, I had a 1.5 hour layover. Since the gate was so far away, I rushed to ensure I made it on time. Once there, the flight kept getting delayed and I spent another hour and a half waiting to board.
Since I had booked a last minute ticket over the phone, the agent had simply asked if I wanted to sit on the top deck or the bottom, and if I wanted a window or aisle seat. I hadn’t bothered to check my seat assignment, but it turned out I had (in my opinion) the best seat on board.
KLM’s business class seats are angled-lie flat and very outdated. The service is pretty solid – not overly warm and friendly, but they get the job done. The entertainment selection was pretty decent, but I ended up sleeping most of the flight and very well too. I’ve always loved KLM’s food in economy, and their meal in business class was even better. The hollandaise sauce would make even road kill taste delicious.
At the end of the flight, they let you pick from a collection of KLM “Houses” which are filled with some kind of alcoholic beverage. The agent at SFO looked at it suspiciously, until his colleague ensured him they were souvenirs from the airline.
Upon arriving at SFO, there was a sign at the immigration line promising to treat all travelers with respect. By and large, they abided by this promise. The agent checked my passport, asked where I’d been, whether I brought back any food items, where I worked, etc. He looked at me a little strange when I told him I worked at an Oakland branch of a health management organization. “Is it the hospital?” When I explained it was a research institute, he nodded slowly, made a red mark on my customs form, before handing me my passport and sending me off with, “Welcome home.”
At the carousel in the next room, my bags had already been set aside. I had completely forgotten about the 2 bags I took off my mom’s hands. As soon as I threw them on the luggage cart, I was approached by a security agent who asked to see my customs form. Noting the red mark, he gestured over to a nearby security checkpoint. This consisted of tables where people’s bags were opened and checked.
An agent who looked like a high school freshman greeted me, very upbeat and friendly. This was in stark contrast to the cold reception we received in Minneapolis the year before.
This agent was trying the “good cop” tactic, which I think is a good way of putting people at ease while interrogating the hell out of them. I knew despite his conversational tone, this guy wasn’t interested in my trip – I was a female traveling alone from Kabul and Istanbul. Still, his jolly attitude was much more disarming than the gruff tone of the Minneapolis agent.
The agent asked what I was doing in Kabul and who I was staying with. When I told him I was staying with my aunt, he asked “How is she doing?” which was strange. “She’s doing well. She says hello.” He was a good sport and laughed. When he asked if there were any food items in the bags, I told him no. Little did I know my mom had packed one of the bags with shelled almonds, spices, and tubes of those fizzy vitamin tablets. When a second agent showed up and opened the bag, I’m sure the scene from Blow came to mind, when Johnny Depp smuggled cocaine out of Columbia in walnut shells.
They explained they would be unpacking my bags for security reasons, but they would do their best to get this done fast so I could avoid traffic on my way home (it was around 3:00 PM at this time). They cracked open a couple of almonds and popped open a tube of vitamins. I was surprised they didn’t bring one of those drug sniffing dogs around. These agents were cool and remained friendly and upbeat.
Amidst the chit chat, one of them admitted that my bags were searched mainly because I had traveled to Istanbul, which is a center for drug trafficking. Surprisingly, he said alot of people have been traveling to Kabul and while it is a security concern, it was me traveling as a female alone from Istanbul that arose suspicion. Apparently I fit the profile of a drug mule.
Neither of these guys traveled much, but they talked about all the places they wanted to see. They did ask me extensively about my travels and I know this wasn’t so much out of curiosity than to get information out of me in a non-threatening manner. Even though I had always vowed to be snarky if I was “randomly selected for additional screening,” these guys were actually pleasant and did the whole thing in a very respectful and professional manner. In general, I find security agents at SFO to be the least obnoxious out of any I’ve encountered. I walked away without feeling bitter or disrespected in any way. Customs and immigration officials across the country could learn a thing or two from them.
When my mom and sister arrived, they told me security was a breeze. Nobody asked any detailed questions, nobody checked their bags. When my dad came home a few months later, he didn’t encounter any issues either. In fact, even though he has now traveled to Kabul half a dozen times, he’s never been “randomly selected” or subject to thorough questioning. If anyone on this trip was going to receive “special treatment,” I would have guessed anyone but me.
As I drove over the Bay Bridge and past San Francisco, I thought how funny it was that the people on the plane with me had traveled thousands of miles to see this city, yet I was rushing past it to get home…