Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Istanbul and Beyond

Turkey is a charming country.  I can forward this message, gentle readers, with confidence after having spent a pleasant week in this interesting country with Brother Li Wei.
For those planning to travel to Turkey in the future, I thought some helpful hints about Turkish culture would be in order, so, here they are.  

First, some useful phrases: “Merhaba” means “Hello.”  “Teshekkur” means “Thank you.”

“Inshallah” (which is borrowed from Arabic) means, “May God allow it,” and is used to hedge one’s bets on predicting the future.  You might, for instance, say, “By taking this special, secret shortcut, we should easily make it to Izmir in a couple of hours, Inshallah.”

By the same token, “Alhamdulillah” means “Thank God,” or “Thank goodness.”  Turks seem to often use it the way American college students use “Awesome!” that is, as a general expression of approval or delight.

On this trip, Brother Wei and I cleverly decided to save some money by renting a car when we landed in Istanbul, and driving to Izmir (where we were to attend a conference), rather than paying for bus or train tickets.

A bit more advice: If you look at a map of Turkey, you may calculate that Izmir, for example, seems to be about a four-hour drive from Istanbul.  But, for increased accuracy, it would be a good idea to double that figure to eight hours.  An even better idea would be to triple it to 12 hours, given the “crawling slowly behind truck caravans on winding mountain roads” factor.

On the many winding, two-lane mountain roads that lie between Istanbul and Izmir, one can discover interesting facts about the driving customs of Turkish motorists.  You might, for example, think that passing would be almost impossible on these roads, but you would only think this if you were not Turkish.  It seems that passing a slow-moving truck on a blind curve is permissible on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and other times when one feels like it.  Furthermore, on straight-ahead highways, you can pass any vehicle anytime, even if another car is racing toward you in the opposite lane if you calculate that he has room to move over onto the shoulder to avoid a headlong crash.  I noticed that most drivers were willing to make this move when faced with oncoming vehicles in their lane.

In city driving the most important rule to remember is that when waiting at a traffic light, you have .02 seconds to get moving once the light turns green before receiving a series of friendly honks from the cars behind you.  It is surprising, I might add, how quickly one comes to hear a series of friendly honks as nothing more than a kind of atmospheric background noise.

Upon arriving at Izmir in the dark of night, we were confronted with the realization that we knew neither the location of our hotel nor, for that matter of ourselves.  Here’s a tip.  If you find a friendly cab driver (and they all seem to be pretty friendly), he will lead you and your vehicle to your destination if you artfully draw him a picture like this…

                    Anyway, it worked for us.

 Discussion with non-English-speaking cab driver

                          Following the Friendly Cab

The heart of Izmir is a lovely seaside area wherein an endless series of ice cream shops and restaurants are ready to offer their services to all citizens of the world who want only to hang out and enjoy life.  One of these services is a hookah packed with some sort of aromatic substance.

Friendly, Hookah-smoking Lasses at a Seaside Ice Cream Parlor in Izmir

  Li Wei with Friendly, Hookah-sharing Turkish Lass

 Li Wei with Hookah

After taking care of business in Izmir, we headed back to Istanbul, stopping off on the way to check out Troy.

                                          Trojan Horse

In Istanbul we saw the marvelous sights for which that city is famous: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace.  We also looked around in the Beyoglu neighborhood where the Turks actually outnumber the tourists and where the shopping is good.

                                     Blue Mosque

                               Blue Mosque Interior

                  Hagia Sophia (Or Ayasofia) - Interior

                                 Hagia Sophia Mosaic

We noticed lots of interesting cinema houses here and also a good deal of graffiti and poster art, some of which seemed to indicate that America’s government and its corporations are not as well regarded in Turkey as we, individual Americans are.  Some of the same Istanbulians who couldn’t do enough for us as guests of their nation, seemed absolutely unimpressed with our government’s ability to invade the occasional Middle Eastern country and blow people up now and then with what Bill Maher calls our “flying killer robots,” i.e., our drones.  At least that is the impression we got when we attempted to interpret images like these…

The language barrier was occasionally troublesome for us because, as one of our hosts told us, “The problem is that most of us don’t speak English and neither of you speaks Turkish.”  Indeed.

But all in all, the good-natured generosity and helpfulness of the Turkish people made for a very worthwhile and memorable trip.  In fact, I would have to say that I have rarely been so dependent on the kindness of strangers as we were during out Turkey trip, for one thing that country has in abundance is kind and helpful strangers. Al Hamdilullah.