Thursday, April 30, 2009
The second semester of school is by far the best in Austria. There are so many holidays and school breaks that it seems we are hardly ever in school. Even as I now write, I am enjoying a very nice 5-day weekend in Graz. (N.b.: Today, May 1, is Tag der Arbeit, or the Austrian Labor Day. No school!)
Since I take every opportunity I can get to travel, I decided to go to Turkey for my Easter break. A friend of mine from New York was coming to visit, and so we decided to meet in Istanbul and then travel on to Cappadocia. We were in Turkey together for a week and a half, but it only took me several days to realize that Istanbul was my new favorite European city and that I loved Turkey.
I shouldn't tell you all about my trip because it would be another novella. So instead I've decided to cover the trip over several posts (like my farm experience last summer), highlighting just certain aspects of our travels and our experiences. I'll treat the trip topically, and if you want to know more, please just email me and I'd be happy to bombard you with all of the minute details you can handle!
Let's start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.
Why Turkey? The reason is quite simple, really: it's cheaper than the rest of Europe and, from what we'd heard, very interesting. One of our main considerations when planning where to travel was the cost. We considered places like Poland and other Eastern Europe destinations, but I'd already heard a bit about Turkey from other friends who had been there and thought it would be great to experience a completely different, non-Western travel destination for once. Until now, I'd only ever traveled in Europe and Australia, and never in a non-Western, non-(traditionally-)Christian culture. Last year I'd even made a list of places I'd like to visit while I'm still in Europe, and Turkey still hadn't been checked off. My travel buddy immediately agreed, and we started researching our trip.
How does a self-professed "anti-planner" plan a trip to a destination you should really know a bit about before you go?
I hate planning. Anything. I hate planning parties, I hate planning events, and I even hate planning trips. My travel M.O. is to arrive on the scene and then check it out from there. I might read up a bit before I go so that I know what I should see when I get there, but I rarely have an itinerary until I'm on the scene. But Turkey, being so culturally different from any place I'd visited before, was worth a little travel prep.
My travel buddy and I decided to research Istanbul and Cappadocia on our own and then come together with our combined knowledge and plan the trip from there. So I spent a couple days on the internet, looking up articles and such, but this wasn't really the part that interested me. The part that interested me was the suggestions, tips, and advice I solicited from several of my friends who had either lived in or traveled to Turkey.
I got in touch with about 5 different friends who had been to Turkey for various lengths of time and collected their advice. I got tips on what to see, what to eat, how to get around, and--most interestingly--how to act while in Turkey. So for today's excerpt of my Turkish experience, I'll start with one of the most interesting bundles of information I got before the trip:
The Do's and Don't's of Traveling in Turkey and How I Followed Them...or Didn't!
1. You shouldn't make eye contact or chat with men as you're walking down the street, on public transportation, etc., as this can be seen as a come on.
Um, as we learned, pretty much *everything* in Turkey can be seen as a come on! But putting that aside, I have to admit that this piece of advice was pretty hard to follow. You don't realize just how much eye contact you make with people as an American until you're deliberately trying not to make eye contact. I have certainly toned down the eye contact since living in Austria, since people don't really do that here either, but in Turkey it was so much more difficult! Especially because people watching in Turkey was so much more interesting, and it's hard to look at someone without really looking at them. I did notice that any accidental eye contact with men was immediately returned with a smile or a wink or a pick-up line, rather than a simple break in eye contact like here. It wasn't until my last day in Istanbul when I was traveling by myself before going back to Austria that I really mastered this. I put on my city face and was finally able to walk the streets undisturbed by looking like I knew exactly where I was going and and mentally blurring out the faces of any men I passed. But getting to this point was hard work.
It should also be noted that we were two obviously non-Turkish girls walking around (one Caucasian and one Asian) and so that's bound to draw attention anyway. But we never felt really uncomfortable, and the attention we got didn't really seem like more than we'd get in other large cities.
2. It's not a good idea to speak English loudly or laugh in public, as this draws a lot of attention.
Me, not laugh in public? Yes, another challenge! There were enough tourists in Istanbul and Cappadocia that we didn't have to draw any extra attention to ourselves. And as an American living in Austria, I've already taught myself how to be quiet in public so as to blend in and not communicate "I am supporting the stereotype that American tourists are loud [and therefore obnoxious]" to those around me. But no matter how loudly or softly we spoke, we also noticed that the Turkish men had the uncanny ability to pick up on any phrase we uttered in passing and turn it into a pick-up line. ("Oh, hold on a sec--I dropped something." "Hello! Hello, lady! You dropped my heart!" Or: "Those British guys in the hostel were sooo loud, all night long!" "[singing] Youuu. Shook me alll night looong!") Finally, we decided it would make a good game to say something outrageous and see how our admirers could work with it. Best comeback gets a prize. ("And then my finger fell off!"...they could totally work with that material!)
3. Don't go outside with wet hair.
Some of you may recall my early posts about my arrival in Austria and some of the cultural differences I mentioned...including not to go outside with wet hair! Apparently it's the same thing in Turkey. Unfortunately, I don't have a travel hairdryer, so this meant that I could try my hardest to towel dry my hair but that ultimately I was, indeed, breaking this rule and going out with wet hair. As far as I could tell, there weren't any negative consequences. However, once we were walking down the street when my hair was completely dry, and a man called from a storefront, "How were the Turkish baths?" My travel buddy turned to me and asked, "How did he know we went to the Turkish baths last night?!" And as far as we could figure, it was my hair gel giving me the "wet hair" look. Oops.
4. Don't wear anything tight or low-cut, don't wear shorts or skirts above the knee, and don't wear sleeveless tops. It's also best to wear pants or long shirts that disguise/cover your butt.
One of my biggest questions before packing for Turkey was how I should dress. Although 99.8% of Turkish people are Muslim, it is a secular country (where, incidentally, headscarves are not allowed at universities or some government buildings) and you'll see the Turkish women wearing everything from conservative Islamic dress to far-from-conservative "Western" dress. As a foreigner though, it's best to be sensitive to the culture and dress modestly. The weather was nice and cool the whole time we were there, so we were able to dress in layers. Although none of my pants hid the face that I am a woman and therefore have certain curves, I didn't feel like that was ever a problem where I was. As far as we could tell, we never got oggled, and anything worth staring at was always covered. Fortunately we weren't there in the hot summer months when covering up more may have been somewhat hot.
5. Don't take layers of clothes off in public.
The most I took off in public was a jacket, so this is finally one rule we were able to keep!
6. Don't chew gum in public (especially blowing bubbles).
I forgot to ask why this piece of advice was here, but--like most of the others--we broke this one too. It was only after we were walking down the street chewing gum that I realized we were not supposed to do exactly that. And my friend had a habit of blowing bubbles. Oops.
7. If someone (especially a man) brings up the topic of U.S. foreign policy or politics in general, it's a good idea to avoid an inevitably heated discussion and politely change the topic.
Since our visit coincided with President Obama's visit to Turkey, this piece of advice was impossible to keep. Not only were both of us interviewed by the press (me for the English-language newspaper and my friend for the local news) about his visit to Turkey, but shopkeepers and hostel employees sometimes wanted to discuss Obama and/or U.S. foreign policy. I found that, for the most part, this was absolutely alright. One shopkeeper in Cappadocia even praised Obama and his politics (saying, sensitively, that he wouldn't even bother to address what things were like a mere 100 days ago with Bush), and told me that most Turkish people appreciated his visit. I only had one Turkish man tell me how bad U.S. foreign policy is, but I was just a bystander in the conversation, and he kept apologizing, saying, "I know where you're from. I'm sorry. But...."
8. Don't agree to pay full price for anything in the bazaars.
I'm sure we got ripped off enough as it was, but we were successfully able to negociate prices, usually to about 60% or so of the asking price. Which, for tourists, I've been told is reasonable. When we had the luxury of having Turkish friends with us, they did the haggling for us and we were able to buy our goods with much more confidence that we weren't getting horrendously ripped off!
...So, suffice to say that we broke plenty of rules and, at some point or other, went against pretty much most of the advice that was given to us. Fortunately we didn't have any problems...and now we know better for next time, right?