Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Trials and Tribulations of Turkish Travel

So it really wasn't a trials and tribulations type of trip, but I couldn't think of a better post title. Here's a quick list of observations on some of the various aspects of our recent trip to Turkey. What you're about to read is complete opinion, so take it for it's worth.

The Language
A quick lesson I learned upon arrival in Turkey was that for all intents and purposes, the India in which I live has no language barrier. Sure, I may force myself to speak slower or use fewer or less complex words when communicating to certain people, the net result is that communication in India is simply not an issue. I lulled myself into thinking that was the case everywhere.

Then I showed up in Turkey. I was absolutely stunned at the lack of English language fluency in the country. I ignorantly didn't think those types of places still existed. Among the English-deficient included those that make their living in tourist-heavy industries; airport employees, hotel employees, taxi drivers. After some initial frustration, it was actually refreshing in a strange way to find a place that, in this day and age, that basically said, "screw it, we speak our language." Turks weren't rude about not knowing their language and they were genuinely helpful when asking for directions or trying to communicate; however, some were nearly as stubborn about speaking my language as I was about even attempting to learn their's. Even when both parties were equally stubborn (ok, maybe one side was stubborn and the other was ignorant), once a key word was understood I'd gleen enough information to get myself where I needed to be.

Maybe that's the case through the rest of Europe or other parts of the world. Maybe I live in a privileged bubble in India. Maybe English isn't becoming the global language after all, which is certainly frustrating as a unilingual traveler, but I'm not exactly in a position to complain.

The Flag
The Turkish flag is bright red with a white cresent moon and a white star, and in Turkey, it's everywhere. On the front end of the trip I thought that maybe it was just because we were in a port where ships and smaller boats proudly displayed the flag; the nautical world is, after all, a little more flag happy than other worlds. However, I quickly realized that it wasn't a "we have flags on our boats because flags are cute and seemingly more approrpiate on boats" kind of place. Proudly flying in any prominent place was the basic yet imposing and impressive Turkish flag. Let's just say that with the flag and the language, it's fairly obvious that the 70 million Turks are proud of their country and culture.

The Heat
As any guidebook or website will tell you, Turkey is hot in August. For some reason, having lived through one of the hotter springs and early summers in fifty years in India, I thought I would be immune to effects of the heat. What I failed to realize is that even if I'm exposed to temperatures in India that regularly approach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, I'm exposed to those temperatures for minutes at a time, not entire days. Bottom line, the guidebooks and websites weren't lying; Turkey is hot in August.

The Coffee
While walking around Bodrum one evening, a restaurant owner was conveniently walking into the patio just as we were walking past. As is usually the case in Turkey, he tried to lure us in to the restaurant, which was (I think) the only Chinese restaurant in Bodrum. Having no intention of eating Chinese food but still interested in the free coffee, we decided to sit down, where as promised, we were brought free Turkish coffee and the restaurant owner, "Charlie," sat and talked to us. It was a little sketchy (if not disturbing) that he guessed the hotel we were staying at saying only, "another American couple was there the night before and mentioned there was one other American couple at the hotel" (note, we had no idea who this other American couple was). Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe we're naive. He was an interesting guy who had been an interpreter in Iraq and avidly followed the NBA even though the west coast start times weren't terribly convenient for his time zone. At any rate, the Turkish coffee was actually very good, stronger than any I've ever tried before (I'm a staunch black coffee drinker but had to ask for sugar), and left a good half inch of sludge in the bottom of the small cup. As we were leaving, we tried to leave a small tip for the waiter (something like $3 for the two free coffees) and they nearly forced it back in our pocket. Charlie ultimately seemed to just want to show us some good hospitality. Of course, if we had wanted Chinese food at a harborside restaurant in Turkey, he may have just had a sale.

The People
As evidenced by Charlie, the people of Turkey were extremely gracious hosts and very friendly. Even with the language struggles, they were more patient with us than they needed to be and I never felt uncomfortable or like I was in the wrong place. They were easy to talk to and Lindsay found, that if she offered to take a picture of a group of people, they often wanted to include her in the picture. We were visiting a cave church near Goreme one day and Lindsay climbed a ladder to get into the chamber. After she got up, there was a group waiting to come out that I left come passed. In the two or three minutes that it took me to get into the chamber, she had made good friends with these two older women that were there with their family. I have no idea how she did it, but it was good to see that Ambassador Luth was back in action (I had no idea Lindsay was this funny but apparently she can tell a good joke in Turkish).

The Touts
Those same guidebooks that warn summer travelers of the heat also warn unsuspecting tourists that they will be mercilessly badgered by people trying to sell them things on the street. This is one area where our experience in India had us ready, if not too ready. In India, it's best to simply not make eye contact or keep walking as people approach to try and sell you something in a market. In short in Turkey, "no" really means "no."

The Driving
I drove for the first time in nearly seven months and also realized shortly after leaving the rental car counter that it was the first time I had driven in a foreign speaking country. Admittedly, it took a couple days to get comfortable behind the wheel again; however, I struggled the most with the signage. Signs indicating the street name were either nonexistent or precariously posted walls that weren't too obvious. Arrows at various angles seemed to inconsistently indicate exactly where one was supposed to turn. Ultimately, I made it where I was going, it was just more frustrating that I would have hoped. When asking for directions, our pronunciation of cities and streets pretty much sucked so that took longer than you would typically expect or we'd get one key information from a person and drive until we felt it time to ask a new person. Often times directions would come in the form of, "just keep driving and then turn left." Not exactly the precision of Google Maps.

The roads were actually in very good condition, and, unlike a certain other place, drivers basically stayed in their lanes. Other drivers had a habit of coming up right behind you and swerving out and swerving right back in front of you; however, I quickly determined that if I drove a little faster this didn't happen nearly so often.

The Verdict
As a whole, there is a lot to see in Turkey. Probably not groundbreaking news there. It's a little difficult to get around by yourself but ultimately not impossible (as proven by the fact that I'm writing this from my living room in India). In fact, for us, it actually helped define the trip and was part of our experience. Since the wife and I tend to have about a 90 minute attention span when just looking at things, we were much better off driving ourselves around without a guide trying to explain everything to the "nth" degree. Of course, we would have been somewhat insulated from some of the items above, but then again, would fun would that be?