In 2010, I was terrified about our first overseas trip. My terror had infected my psyche on so many levels that by the time our plane leaned into the airport in Istanbul, Turkey and I caught my first glimpse of the pink rooftops in the city, my spirit had left my body and it was standing in the aisle screaming. Turkey was the first country I ever saw outside of the U.S. and I imagined our trip would go something like World War Z even as I thumbed through guidebooks filled with idyllic vistas, Biblical sites, and Cappadocian fairy houses.
As I organized our three osprey backpacks for that 12-day journey, I panicked privately and what I packed reflected this fact. I brought everything from a sewing kit to back-up lighting for emergencies. I didn’t pack a Turkish dictionary or learn Turkish phrases because everyone we knew at the time reassured us that “everyone in the world speaks English” (myth). Instead, I brought a library of guidebooks thinking (erroneously) that I’d have time to consult them on our drive through western Turkey.
It makes me laugh now to think that I ever thought that I’d look down even for a second on that cross-country drive through western Turkey. Talk about a harrowing ride. Holy-Cows-in-the-Road, Batman! Looking down, even for a moment would’ve been a death sentence. I only did it once and when I looked up, a random fellow carrying a tall stack of boxes had wandered out into the road right ahead of our car. John swerved just in time and a few minutes later, I started breathing again.
The only book I’ve ever read that was written by a Turkish author (The New Life by Orhan Pumak) largely dealt with bus accidents and treacherous traffic conditions in the Turkey as a statement about the culture. John, Lydi, and I saw numerous accidents on our drive there and at least one person get hit by a car while we were watching. The experience of driving was seared more deeply into my memory of Turkey than the ruins of ancient Troy.
Our Turkey trip took place before the advent of online tools like www.Booking.com or HomeAway. We left home with only one reservation in a little-known hostel in Istanbul for that first night. Our plan was to rent a car when we got there and find pensions from night-to-night.
(Pause here to mock us…go ahead. It’s okay. I’m laughing at our ignorance too.)
I marvel at that plan now. It was crazy. And we were so brave. Lydian was just excited about the plane ride. Going to Turkey didn’t seem like a weird first-overseas-trip destination to her at all. She was an open-minded 10-year old who was just game for a little fun or something new. As John and I freaked out about everything, fought, had break-downs, and second-guessed our judgment we tried not to catch her in our cross-hairs.
We learned immediately after landing in Turkey that relatively few people speak English in other countries, especially outside of major cities and tourist resorts. English is the most popular foreign language for people to speak throughout the world right now, but not that long ago, it was French. At any time, it could change again.
After parking our rental car under the Blue Mosque, we walked for several miles with our backpacks looking for the street where our hostel was located. I had a map and I knew the name of the street. In fact, five years later, I still remember the name of the street because I said it wrong so many times before I found an English-speaking Turk who corrected me. The street was called Hudavendigar Sokak. I asked at least a dozen people throughout the neighborhood surrounding the Blue Mosque how to get to Hooda-vendagar street. I even pointed at my map as I said it and they’d lean in closely to look at the map with me, but I learned later that Turks aren’t good with maps (I started collecting road maps for Turkey as we made our way through the country because they were all hilariously different). No one could understand me until one man, who spoke English told me that the street name was pronounced Hooda-wenda-yar with a rolled “r” at the end.
And voila once I started saying the name of the street correctly, we found our hostel.
There was a full moon that night and we spied The Harmony Hostel across the street from a man dressed like Gandalph from the Lord of the Rings. Was it a costume? No, silly American. People still dress like that in lots of places in the world. He was selling necklaces and bracelets off a blanket on the sidewalk. This was his life’s work. It was a skill and a business he’ll likely pass on even to his children.
Inside the “hostel” members of the Turkish Mafia were having cigars in a shop filled with kilims (rugs). A small man with a slimy manner led us up a spiral staircase seven floors up where we stepped out, dizzy from jetlag onto a balcony of worldly youth smoking hookahs and checking their Facebook pages. It was a dingy hole dimly lit with one barren lightbulb and miscellaneous crap laying everywhere, but we didn’t really care. It was just nice to have connected with someone who was expecting us. John settled our bill with the man while Lydian and I walked outside and looked out over the city, the full moon illuminating the buildings. A few minutes later, John came out of the hookah room and as we stood there, the first call-to-prayer that we’d ever heard in our lives rang out loud and spectacular like it always does in Istanbul.
It was magical. I’ll never forget it.
Our room was down a couple of floors from the hookah bar. We were traveling on a budget so the sheets were somewhat stained and the shower didn’t drain properly. Rather, in a slow delay the water seeped out into our bedroom area and by the time we’d all showered and gotten into our jammies, there was a pond about 2 inches deep through the center of our room. And the window near our beds was wide open: no screen and no bars and the wall beneath it was only about 3 feet tall which meant that it would be easy for any of us to trip by accident or just go the wrong direction to the bathroom in a jet-lagged stupor and fall to our death. There was no way to latch the window. It just hung open, a big gaping hole. Gandalph, with the necklaces and bracelets was down on the sidewalk below. We were especially worried about Lydian falling out of the window during the night so John and I took turns working with the window trying to get it to close as we organized the toothbrushes, toiletries, the pajamas, and our morning clothes. Since our bags were bursting with too much stuff, it was a challenge to located and pull out the essentials. Finally, I found some Scotch tape in one of our bags (I knew I had to have something that would work) and we taped the window shut.
We had no plan to follow for the rest of the trip except that we knew we were going to try to get to Cappadocia, a region in the middle of the country, by car. The next morning, we found our Peugot under the Blue Mosque where we’d parked it the night before. I remember thinking that our evening martial arts classes at home were going on at home as we made our way across the neighborhood at sunrise in Istanbul, the seagulls circling the minarets. Morning and night were almost the same thing as far as my brain was concerned.
Finding our way onto the car ferry was a challenge because we didn’t even know simple words like “Enter” or “Exit”, which were written in Turkish (of course–duh). We guessed at which one to take by following the other cars. In retrospect, the process was so easy that John and I felt silly for having ever worried about it, but having never been on a car ferry before, we’d had no idea what to expect and we had only one chance to get it right.
From there forward, nothing was planned. Nothing. I emphasize the lack of a plan because I can hardly imagine leaving home now without reservations and at least a rough plan that includes some reservations and connections with real people in real places abroad. When we arrived in a city in Turkey that seemed friendly late in the evening, we’d park, find a restaurant and then find a pension for the night. One night we stayed in a room over a fish shop where I found bloody sheets in the closet. And we stayed there. We didn’t find a different place or ask for a different room because we were that tired. I just closed the closet door and we didn’t talk about it. Lydian fell asleep with her legs dangling off the end of the bed and the whole room steamed up because I also washed all our clothes in the sink that night. Outside the window, storks nested on Dorian columns.
Another night, we slept in a cave hotel and Lydi’s air bed had a slow leak. So she gets to brag legitimately about her night sleeping on the floor of a cave.
At the ruins of Miletus several days later, we met a young family from Oregon with two little kids. They were driving a route similar to ours. As we talked with them, their kids (aged 2 and 4) played in a little pile of dirt outside a ruined mosque. The woman told us about her experience at a Turkish bath.
“They scrub everything.” She told me, leaning in to emphasize, “EVERYTHING.” She said that a man gave her the bath and she sat on the edge of a large pool where everyone bathed. When her bathing attendant washed her hair, she said she got a little water in her mouth accidentally. The rest of her story was about all the different places where she threw up in Istanbul the next day (on the bus, in a waiting room, at the home of a German couple who took them in out of pity, etc.).
By the time we reached Cappadocia, in Turkey we’d learned three different ways to say teshakoor ederim which means “thank you” in Turkish. I purchased a phrasebook and dictionary and realized what fun it is to learn a new language in a foreign country. There’s nothing like it. Who knew? I’d hated Spanish classes in high school and college, but learning a language in a country where the language is alive and spoken is invigorating. People coo and clap over us for learning new words (at least in most countries). It’s like being a kid again. On our current trip to Egypt, we had a layover in Istanbul and in a line at the restroom, an attendant tried to communicate the location of another, less busy restroom to a snippy woman ahead of me in line. At the end of the attendant’s charades, I thanked her in Turkish, and she smiled at me in surprise.
World War Z didn’t happen on our trip to Turkey in 2010. Most of my fears were spurred by an over-active imagination. But still, it wasn’t easy. I learned some things from that trip that surprised me. A big rule that I’ve been slow to learn over many trips abroad is to Travel Light. I’m always striving to Leave More At Home. When I shove something into a bag, I ask myself, “Are you willing to carry this on your back for thousands of miles?” In the packing stage before a trip, when I see John or Lydian standing over our luggage with small doo-dahs or clothing items, I ask them the same question. During our week in Israel and Jordan, we had four small backpacks. I’m really proud of that. I brought meds and our hot plate and the Impromptu Kitchen that we carry everywhere. John carried our computer equipment in the fourth bag so he could keep working whenever he had time. And that’s all we needed. I don’t pack back-up emergency lighting unless there are power outages in the countries we’re traveling to. And I leave the Scotch tape at home too.
It’s more valuable to know how to say “tape” in a foreign language than to carry tape in my backpack for thousands of miles. Knowing some of the language in a country makes all the difference in terms of our experience. Out of the twenty-five countries we’ve visited so far, only two of them weren’t friendlier to us when we used the native languages: China and Tunisia. In every other country, learning simple phrases like “Thank You”, “Please”, “Sorry”, “Excuse Me”, etc. can make such a huge difference in terms of the overall travel experience. Going a step further and trying to actually learn to communicate in that language takes things to an entirely different level. The culture opens up exponentially with each new word or phrase in our arsenal and all sorts of experiences become possible.
After Turkey, we learned to plan ahead for our trips, not because we can’t find a hotel on a whim or walk into a new city without reservations and survive, but because it’s psychologically overwhelming to not know where in-the-world you’re going to be sleeping from night-to-night. And when you’re traveling in a foreign country, it’s best not to set yourself up to cap out emotionally before you even leave home. At the same time, I don’t over-plan our trips either. In any country we settle in for more than a few weeks, there’s a decent chance that we’ll fly out to surrounding countries on weekend excursions, spur-of-the-moment. I like to leave the possibility of side-trips open, but I usually know what side trips are possible for us before we leave home and I have an idea of where we’ll stay and what we do when we go there. If we feel like going for it, we do. And if not, we don’t.
Not having reservations may sound like freedom, but paradoxically, rather than feeling free to stay wherever we want, without reservations we’re constantly preoccupied with the hope for a clean, comfortable room. After all, even the Bedouin nomads have some idea of where they’ll be sleeping from night to night.
Here in Jordan, Turkey is idealized culturally and for me, the stress of moving across borders and from city-to-city has brought back memories from our first trip abroad. This is the sixth Middle Eastern country we’ve visited if we count Palestine/Israel and when I look back on our trip to Turkey, I just shake my head and laugh. We were such newbies. And it was so horrible and so fun.
No regrets. But from now on, we always have reservations.