I should’ve known something was up when I touched down in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. The hustle and bustle I normally would expect in a capital international airport was conspicuously missing.
I walked out of the terminal to the taxi stand and asked the attendant to help me hail a taxi to my hostel. A little yellow Fiat pulled up beside me. The driver rolled down his window, but hesitantly asked me where I was going.
“Taksim Square,” I answered.
And off he went to find another customer, leaving me and my backpack behind.
This went on for a few more taxis, until the attendant walked over to me and informed me that I would be better off trying to find a bus heading downtown.
The bus driver told me that while he wasn’t heading towards Taksim, his final destination would be at a tram stop in central Istanbul. It would only take 20 or so minutes to Taksim Square from there. That was good enough for me.
I got off at Galatasaray station and followed the signs. As I continued walking through the boulevard, I started to catch a hints of smoke and pepper. Perhaps, someone was having a barbecue? Or perhaps that smell was coming from a nearby kebab stand?
I then saw the police barricades. And the groups of young people running past me towards the square. And finally, the riot police.
One of the young men in gear stopped in front of me and through broken English ordered that I should head the other way, away from Taksim Square. It was Emek ve Dayanışma Günü, or the Labour and Solidarity Day. It was not exactly the best day to be strolling through the neighborhood. A demonstration of leftists, workers, anarchists, and student activists had devolved into violent skirmishes with local authorities. The officer sarcastically said to me that unless I had a particularly enjoyed getting hit by water cannons and tear gas, I should look for accommodations elsewhere in the city.
I asked him how long these protests would go on for.
“Not longer than a day, I imagine,” he said through the muffle of his gas mask.
Those protests ended a few months later.