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THE author before boarding the aborted Turkish Airlines flight to Antalya at Istanbul Ataturk Airport. PICTURE: MWAZIPEZA CHANDA

Scribe’s lesson at Istanbul Airport

MY FIRST-TIME travel to Turkey has taught me some imperatives of life, adverse effects of climate change and perhaps more importantly, people’s love and care for each other despite diversity in beliefs and backgrounds.
The catchword was snow which restricted me and 20 other journalists to one of Turkey’s high-class  international airports at the same time blizzards were hitting some parts of the United States of America.
The trip to the country that has a rich history and geographically bridges Asia and Europe is one whose memories will stick in my mind forever.
I was headed for the Samsung Africa Forum in the town of Antalya, the country’s tourist outpost.
The travel itinerary required a short afternoon flight from Lusaka to Johannesburg and then a 10-hour journey over land and sea to Istanbul, Turkey and then another short flight to Antalya – but nature thought otherwise.
A night time arrival at Istanbul Atatürk Airport or as it is known in Turkish, İstanbul Atatürk Havalimanı, did not prepare me for what was soon to play out as a life changing travel experience and lesson in humility, meditation and optimism.
Before my journey commenced, I had limited knowledge of Turkey except for the misguided notion that it was an Islamic nation with great shopping potential. In my mind, Istanbul would be a congested town with most women dressed in burqas ( black gowns worn by women in some Islamic traditions to cover their bodies when in public).
A quick check on Accuweather advised me that it would be very cold in Istanbul but warm in Antalya. A day before my trip, a Turkish colleague actually advised me that it might snow in Istanbul.
A part of me was hoping to see the snow but knowing that my time in Turkey’s second largest city was limited, I just put aside this information.
Thanks to my mother’s never ending stream of advice, I also ensured I had a change of clothes and the bare essentials in my bountiful handbag – this was to come in very handy.
So, I awoke from my slumber on the Turkish Airline flight into Istanbul to the voice of the pilot announcing our imminent descent. The cabin was dark and nothing could be seen through the windows as it was around 04:00 hours.
Despite having been airborne for 10 hours, I felt fresh and perky after a deep snooze. I prayed that my neighbours forgave me for snoring or drooling on them.
It was interesting that announcements were made first in Turkish and then English and again we were advised that snow had been forecast for Istanbul.
We touched down at the airport and, following the mad scramble to the doors to disembark, “Team Samsung SADC” regrouped in the massive arrivals lounge. Guided by Samsung electronics manager James Chona, we headed to the domestic departure terminal to catch the Turkish Airlines flight to Antalya.
The team comprised myself, a seasoned business reporter from Malawi, two senior Information Technology (IT) journalists from Mozambique, two other journalists from Zambia and a Zimbabwean newspaper man.
As we walked through the massive airport, I noticed two things – Turkey appeared to be a very conservative modern nation and two, it was a big country.
Looking out of the big glass windows, the sun slowly began to yield light to display a light covering of snow.
In tune with our IT theme, everybody took chances to pose for selfies with the ice cold backdrop, thinking that this would be our last encounter with snow.
We arrived at the domestic terminal after a 15-minute trek and were very impressed to discover there were over 50 gates from which we might board our flight from.
Over 65 airlines fly through this airport with an annual average of 2,986,440 passengers transiting through the international terminal, a standard our Kenneth Kaunda International Airport can only dream about.
İstanbul Atatürk Airport is a modern highly functional facility that was named Airport of the Year in 2013 and so when we started to notice flights being cancelled, we did not think much of it.
A walk around part of the terminal exposed me to a massive café that could comfortably sit 200 people, a Burger King outlet and a book store with international titles in Turkey. English language newspapers were nowhere in sight.
There was a lot of human traffic primarily from Europe but also a lot of local people of varying ages and temperament.
Eventually it was our time to board the flight and we were bussed out to the plane through a light fall of snow which soon turned heavy. For a brief period, I was able to catch a few snowflakes and feel its light powder like consistency on my skin.
Once on board, I was fortunate enough to have a window seat, where I could observe the snowfall.
My neighbour advised me that as long as we could see the writing on the plane next to us, then the weather was not too bad. Over the next three hours, the snow got so heavy that at times I could not see past the wing of the plane we were on.
To pass time, we discussed topics ranging from Zambia’s heavy reliance on copper exports, ICT’s effect on traditional media to the impact of reality cooking shows on DSTv’s massive Africa-wide audience.
Apparently, it was not an ordinary winter’s day as the airport was then shut down due to heavy snow fall.
An announcement by the pilot in Turkish was received with cheers and applause and we, English speakers, were shortly advised that the flight had been cancelled and we were to disembark the plane.
Our long wait for the next course of action then began.
The centre of hurricanes are often calm and peaceful, as opposed to the raging treacherous winds surrounding it – and so it was at the terminal.
We soon learned that all air travel had been cancelled and there were several pockets of irate travellers trying to get information from Turkish Airlines staff.
Astonishingly, all the airline staff at the numerous check-in counters were calm and collected, even when being shouted at.
I don’t understand Turkish but I am sure a lot of unprintables were flying around and violence was being proposed.
At first, I was shocked that the people responsible for abandoning us seemed oblivious of our emotions, but after a few hours, I was impressed that the company was functioning as a single unit.
On our part, all we could do was wait.
Sitting for hours at that airport showed me just how important having a general knowledge about other people’s cultures is.
I was at a loss on what the foreign exchange rate was and communication with most people in the terminal was limited to misunderstood sign language.
Even when successful in the procurement of items or securing a power port to charge our phones from, we were unable to say thank you in the local language. I felt bad about the fact that despite all the hospitality we were being shown, I was unable to communicate my appreciation.
By 17:00 hours, it had become abundantly clear that we would not be flying out of Istanbul and the airline made provision for accommodation at a top class hotel in town that was 17 kilometres away.
Again, due to language barrier, we could not understand why we were advised not to take a taxi but instead wait an hour for the complimentary coach.
The snow was falling lightly but had accumulated into a solid pile outside, luckily the fact that we were walking in snow distracted us from the freezing temperature.
One thing, Istanbul has in common with Lusaka is the fare charged by taxis – they were asking for US$70 for the journey.
In the process of haggling for a better fare, the 60-seater coach arrived and we commenced a gruelling three- hour journey, yes three hours, snail pace drive to the hotel.
Traffic was ‘bumper-to-bumper’ and painstakingly slow.
That journey exposed me to the varying forms of snowfall – light, heavy, slushy,gusty…
I saw people walking, skidding, playing and failing to drive through the snow.
Also the camaraderie on the bus saw us share snacks purchased from the various service stations on the way.
Some people even managed to get off the bus, puff the smoke but still manage to catch up with us after 15 minutes.
There were shops, houses and offices lined along the sloping road side and it was easy to see how this bustling economy was able to thrive.
I was able to compare petrol prices, quality of housing, vehicle types, road safety service and politics of the varying nationalities during the ride.
When we eventually got to the hotel, we were beyond tired – we were spent. The hotel staff had kept the kitchen open and we joined the mish-mash collection of air passengers who were now guests at the facility.
By dawn, the airport was still closed, but by 10:00 hours, people started to make their way back to the airport to discover whether or not rescheduled flights would see them reach their destinations.
This time, the trip to the airport took 45 minutes by taxi albeit at a neck-breaking speed and with snow still on the road, most of us passengers were a little nervous being victims of a mishap.
Back at the airport, we sat around cafes, restaurants and terminals sharing travel horror stories and getting to know the backgrounds of many international travellers.
There were teachers, girlfriends, football players and fans, business consultants, traders, Chinese tourist groups and holidaying families.
Our stories were shared in often some form of  English and gestures but I got to realise that in such circumstances skin colour, religion, social standing, financial clout or political affiliation were hardly a factor for segregation.
I truly felt like a global citizen and was glad to raise the flag for Zambia, SADC and Africa, knowing that there is still much to be done to attain a first world status.
We finally set off at 21:00 hours and suffice to say, I got to know a little bit more about all the corners of the globe at Istanbul Airport, and I am a better journalist now.