Istanbul Ataturk airport is starting to show its age. It’s getting dirtier. The restrooms dank. Maybe it’s just the summer heat accentuating the less desirable things. Or, less attention is being paid here and more to the Istanbul New Airport, which when it opens in late October will be the largest airport in the world. It’s planned to funnel 150 million passengers a year to some 300 direct-route destinations, with capacity to handle upwards of 200 million.
The first time I transited through Istanbul was in 1973 on the way back to the US from a visit to Slovenia after our Yugoslav Airlines (JAT) chartered DC-10, in typical fashion, was re-routed for no apparent reason. None that we were given anyway during the eight or nine hours we spent on the ground. It suited me fine. I was eight. It was already early September, school had already started and I was in no hurry to join my classmates. The terminal, our gate, our row of chairs, were much more interesting that anything that would appear on the blackboard at my aging grade school on the eastern edges of Cleveland.
One man was holding a large red weathered hacksaw on his lap, its partially exposed blade wrapped in torn masking tape. Nearby, a woman was re-arranging blood-stained packages of raw meat. Another was counting eggs. Nobody was manning tables as they do now, heaped with samples of Turkish Delight sweets, in dozens of colors and flavors available now in each gift shop. I don’t even remember there being a gift shop, just a small stall where a man with bad teeth was cooking small kettles of Turkish coffee, the smell of his burnt grounds melding with the smoke from his cheap filterless cigarettes. Through the fog of memory, I can still make out his smile as he poured coffee into tiny cups and pushing them carefully towards the edge of his counter where an elderly couple waited longingly. He refused to take their money.
It takes about seven hours to reach Lagos, Africa’s largest city, from Istanbul, Europe’s biggest.