What Loneliness Provides

It’s often in the midst of a crowd that you can feel the most lonely. Great gatherings of people united by a religion, a cause, a nationality or a language can make you acutely aware of just how different you are. No matter how hard you might try, you are still distinctly and unalterably an outsider.

Of course, you don’t need a crowd to find yourself lonely. You can be by yourself in a hotel room on a Friday night in a city where you have no friend or contacts. You watch TV and learn about events that are going on at home, they feel so distant and strange. You can also find loneliness while riding a near-empty crosstown bus on a Sunday afternoon. The only other passenger on the bus sits far in the back. He stares at you, wondering why you might be riding this bus and why you might be headed to this pat of town.

However there is an upside. The sensation of loneliness while traveling gives us a chance to take a journey within ourselves. In our daily lives, it is very hard to remove ourselves from the constant pull of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and email. We are constantly surrounded by things to do, each task or responsibly tugging at our focus. Every alert and alarm chips away at our sense of self and orientation.

Travel can help us to remove ourselves from this addiction. It can show us that the world will indeed continue to function if we wait until tomorrow to answer that last email or finish just one more piece of our current project. We will not lose our faithful and hard earned group of followers if we fail to post to our Instagram feed. We can finally see that we really do not matter that much and that much of the stress and worry that we experience is self imposed. The enforced solitude and disconnection we experience when traveling allows us to relearn how to listen to the voice in our head that we know we should follow. 

I would feel the most alone that I had ever felt while in Istanbul, when I completely by chance found myself in the middle of the first two days of violent demonstrations against the Turkish government. The room that I had found on Airbnb was about four blocks from Taksim square. It provided me with an ideal vantage point to witness this historic event.

Early on a Friday morning I leave my flat to meet Theo, one of the people that I want to interview for a project that I was working on. The protests had started a few days earlier, but at the moment were focused only on the potential demolition of trees in Gezi park. Things seem calm and I hardly noticed the quiet demonstrations as I pass through Taksim Square. I get on the metro and head to Osmanbey station.

I meet Tomas at his studio. He orders two Turkish coffees over the phone, and few minutes later a man from a shop down the street brings a small plate with coffees into the studio. As we enjoy the drinks Tomas tells me about his mixed Greek and Turkish background as well as the business he is doing in Istanbul. He wonders about the ways in which the city is changing.

We talk briefly about the news Tomas has seen earlier. The demonstrations at Taksim Square are becoming more intense. People are upset about a recent ban on the sale of alcohol and other policy changes brought about by what is seen by many as a more and more conservative government.

After lunch, I head around the corner to the an independent art space/gallery to conduct another interview with the space’s founders.

One of the founders tells me all about the organizations mission and her own work. She also tells me that as she was riding the bus through Taksim Square earlier in the afternoon, she saw the police tear gassing protesters. The gas hurt her eyes and the whole event made her very sad. Her husband and partner says that he has heard that the police are using rubber bullets. There are also rumors that you cannot access Twitter or Facebook because the government has blocked them. She also wonders about how the city is changing.

Later I sit with her husband and look at some of his photography and other projects on his laptop. One of his browser windows is open to a local news website. Pictures of police launching tear gas into crowds of students play on the screen.

Suddenly we hear loud chanting and whistling outside. People run down the street and sirens blare. A few teenagers in military style gas masks pry bricks out of the sidewalk and walk defiantly down the street with them.

We head outside. I look around the corner and I see tear gas clouds in the air. The men from surrounding tea and coffee shops stand around, looking anxious and annoyed. A young couple leans up against a wall next to me, their eyes red and tearing. Their impromptu cotton surgical masks are useless against the gas. It is clear that the protests have moved far from Taksim square.

Tomas appears, also crying and red faced from the tear gas. He has obviously been involved in the protest. He tells us how the police were shooting tear gas canisters directly at people. He is very upset.

The couple shuts the gates of the gallery, as they want to join the protest. I tell him to go and I’ll find my own way home. He points me in the direction I should walk, tells me to be careful, and heads off to join the demonstration.

I realize that I am on the opposite side of town from the street where my apartment is. Taksim Square lies in the middle. I decide that heading down to the Bosphorus river and trying to avoid Taksim will be the safest route home.

I turn onto a larger avenue. It is filled with thousands of people marching. Many hold scarves from the local football team above their heads as they chant. Shopkeepers bring in chairs from the sidewalk and close the gates to their shops. Onlookers record the event with their iPhones. I keep walking.

The subways are shut down and every direction that I chose to walk the demonstrations seemed to follow along. My eyes water and my nose and throat burn from the tear gas.

Outside of the Istanbul Technical University I watch a group of 40 or 50 police in full riot gear charge a group of a few hundred students. The distinct thud of tear gas canisters exiting the barrel of riot gun echoes in the air as police fire on the students.

I turn back up a hill and try to cross a bridge over the freeway, but a group of police threaten myself and a small group of students with their batons. They yell at us and push us back down the road.

I walk up another hill and through tiny alleys and enter into an intersection full of dozens of police. Riot shields and helmets lay on the ground. Buses with caged windows and water cannon tanks are parked near by. Other civilians pass and the police pay them no mind. The cops even chat casually with a handful of protesting teenagers wearing surgical masks. I walk silently through the crowd, nearly rubbing shoulders with groups of police who seem not to notice me at all.

I’m still not sure where I am. More small streets and alleys. I turn another corner and somehow manage to find myself smack in the middle of Taksim Square. Tear gas blankets the square and surrounding neighborhood. My eyes still water.

It’s about midnight, and the square appears to have been more or less neutralized by the authorities, at least for the moment. But this quiet seems to be only temporary.

There are burned out remains of barricades everywhere. Hundreds of empty tear gas canisters litter the ground. Small groups of demonstrators gather around the peripherary of the monument to the Republic of Turkey in the square’s center. I see protestors rub lemon on their faces and yogurt under their eyes to counter the gas’s effects.

I finally wind my way up one last set of steep concrete stairs and back alley and find Yeni Yuva Sokağı, the street where I am staying. It has taken me five hours to walk back to apartment.

In my room and I can still hear chants and whistles, punctuated every few minutes by the sound of tear gas being fired. People fill the street outside, banging pots and pans. They are joined by others hanging out of the windows of their apartments, also clanging cookware together. A police helicopter flies low overhead. Its spotlight flickers in my room for a moment as it shines over Taksim Square. I close the windows to keep out the gas.