Trying to navigate my way around a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and almost no one speaks English is more fun than any video or board game ever invented. There are challenges to overcome and prizes to be gained. Every time I make it to a new destination, it’s a bit like getting bonus points or advancing to the next level of play. Of course, there are occasional scoundrels, good fer nothing’s, and troublemakers I have to deal with and I do sometimes get ripped off. That’s like losing points or getting hit with a penalty… All part of the game. But more often than not, people I meet are helpful and they assist me in my movement through the complicated maze of the foreign country.
I arrive in Istanbul without luggage thanks to my missed connection in London. That’s a minor setback but nothing to get upset about. Who needs luggage anyway? I speak with the friendly folks at Turkish airlines and fill out a form so they can track my belongings down. Unfortunately, I don’t have a room reservation to put down on the form because I’m winging it, so they won’t know where to send my stuff if they do find it. “No worry” they tell me, “just call us with claim number after you find a place and we will send it where you are.” So here I am in Istanbul with no luggage or room reservation. Now what? Let the game begin…
I do have a Lonely Planet guidebook and that is an occasionally useful tool, but I don’t like to rely on it very much. No doubt, back in my early years of world wandering, the LP was a great guidebook designed for serious travelers. Not any more. Some years back, they got bought out, went corporate and started serving a more upscale clientele. They are still good for generalities but their specifics are crap unless you have a much fatter wallet than I do. Their room recommendations are particularly bad. Overpriced boutique hotels and institutionalized backpacker factories. Follow the LP’s recommendations and you are guaranteed not to meet a single local person for your entire journey. Usually, when it comes to accommodation, I follow a basic strategy. I go to the neighborhood for cheap digs mentioned in the LP, avoid their specific recommendations and look around the area on my own.
The neighborhood in Istanbul I want is called Sultanhamet. I meet a young American traveler in the lost luggage office and he is heading to a hostel in Sultanhamet called Cordial House. Don’t need a taxi, especially without luggage, so we decide to take the metro together and it is relatively simple. We do get mixed up once because there’s a transfer and another token is needed and we only bought one each at the start. But a friendly local helps, shows us the way, swipes his own card to let us through and welcomes us to Istanbul. I’m telling you, friendly locals are everywhere. The Cordial House is fairly cheap and not bad so I check in. I use it as a base to survey the neighborhood. When my luggage arrives two days later I move to a place I like very much. Comfortably established, I spend the next several days exploring this wonderful city. The tourist attractions are nice and I visit many but it’s the human encounters that I like the most. The rug sellers in the market entice me into their shops with offers of cups of tea. I always warn them that I’m not a customer because I am traveling a long time. But they insist, “just come look, I invite you for tea.” They roll out there wares, explain about thread counts and tell me of their many friends in America who have bought rugs from them. Seriously, if I had a couple grand lying around, I might buy one. But I don’t so I just accept a business card and continue on my merry way. On to my next cup of tea. Honestly, how much tea can one man drink? It only costs about 25 cents a cup and there are tea shops on every corner. I sit at a table, watch the action and listen to the incomprehensible symphony of foreign language that surrounds me. If only I could speak some Turkish.
The food is good here too. I could probably live on doner kebabs (a fast food thin sliced chicken sandwich). They cost almost nothing and the guys who sell them are so enthusiastic you would think they were advertising world class cuisine. Actually, the only reason I don’t live on doners is that there is so much other food that is even better. Thus, the most difficult decision I make each day is deciding where to eat my dinner. Breakfast is included with my room. So I fill up on hard boiled eggs, cheese, bread and olives to start the day. Lunch is a doner at the nearest of the infinite doner stands whenever I happen to be hungry. But dinner? How to choose among a million options. Usually, I wander about aimlessly during the supper hour until some enthusiastic entrepreneur drags me inside somewhere. Probably not the most effective methodology but it does work. At the very least, it’s a lot more entertaining than simply following the advice of some know it all in a guidebook.
It’s my third day in Istanbul when I make my most important purchase. I get myself a Turkish phrase book and dictionary; hands down the most useful item in every traveler’s bag of tricks. You don’t have to actually learn the language, you just have to try and the locals will love you for it. Seriously, I only have the book about an hour and I am sitting in a cafe trying to work out the numbers when I notice a pretty young woman watching me. Obviously shy, it takes her about ten minutes to smile directly at me and say “where you from?” Her English is about as good as my Turkish but we spend the next hour or so passing the book back and forth communicating basics. No doubt, our conversation is not deep and thoughtful and complex, but our connection is meaningful and real. Words are one thing and communication another. I ask her to direct me to a good cheap local restaurant and instead of pointing one out she goes along with me. Yeah, I know, the guidebooks will warn you about con artists who take advantage of unwary tourists. But scoundrels generally speak english. Language is the hook they use to reel in their fish. My new friend Berna is no scoundrel. As a matter of fact, she treats me to lunch and now we are friends on Facebook. How do you like that for a welcome to Turkey?
Now I can say please and thank you, how much and how are you. I can count to a hundred and that sure is useful when asking about prices and negotiating services. The smiles just keep coming with every word I try to say. No doubt, I am only in Turkey for a month or so and it is unlikely that I will ever become fluent or proficient in the language. Nevertheless, the little bit I have learned improves the quality of my journey so much that it definitely counts as a bonus point in the travel game.
On my last day in Istanbul, I go on a cruise on the Bosphorous river. I meet a world traveler guy from Montreal in my guesthouse and we take the journey together. We snap photos of the picturesque snow covered buildings along the river and trade stories about the various places we have wandered around the world. So much to see and so much to do in this world, I never get tired of learning more. Except for, of course, when I learn about being wrong. Oops! Apparently, there was a fatal flaw in my last travel log. There are many bridges in Istanbul and one of them does indeed connect Europe and Asia. But the bridge I was standing on and taking photos from and philosophizing about the clash of civilizations from in my last story does not. That particular bridge connects Europe to Europe. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts. The metaphor holds even if the details were not quite true. Next time I will try for a higher degree of accuracy. I finally leave Istanbul after six full days of fun and excitement. Just getting to the otogar (bus station), is a minor adventure. I take the subway again but this time I have all my luggage. I have trouble getting on because I have the wrong token. Thankfully, somebody assists me. I almost get off at the wrong stop twice but three different people correct me and show me my route on the map by the door. I meet a friendly Syrian who welcomes me with halting English. I am curious to ask him about the troubles in his home country but do not want to be nosy. Instead I just smile and shake his hand in greeting before he gets off the metro ahead of me.
The otogar is massively big and complicated but as expected a scoundrel is there to show me which office I want. I’m on my way to a town called Canakkale because I want to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Troy that are near there. I buy a ticket and get on the bus. Two friendly people in the seat across start asking me questions in Turkish. What is your name? Why are you here? Where are you going? Where are you from? Thanks to my lesson with Berna, and with the help of my phrase book and map I am able to answer their first several questions without any problems. The confusion only arises when I mention that I’m American. And that is when they string several incomprehensible Turkish sentences together and ask me what I think of President Obama.
The truth is I don’t like Obama at all. I think he is a horrible president. I don’t like his drone missile attacks, I don’t like his continuing foreign military occupations, I don’t like his ongoing assaults on personal liberty in the patriot act, I don’t like his bank bailouts, and I don’t like his support for hydrofracking. I could go on and on. There are many reasons I think Mr. Obama is a horrible president. Nevertheless, I think he is significantly better than that complete lunatic who ran against him. But seriously, how am I supposed to explain all this in Turkish. Are they asking about Obama in general or are they asking about him in the context of the last election? Maybe I could give a thorough enough response in Spanish, but definitely not in Turkish. My smiling new friends are waiting a response. What in the heck can I possibly say? It’s a long journey ahead and no doubt this question will arise again. To a very great extent, the success or failure of my entire journey is going to depend on how I deal with this issue. Hmm. How about a haiku? I quickly thumb through my dictionary and find the four words I need.
American hukumet berbat, ben heykeltiras. (American government bad, I sculptor).
My new Turkish friends smile and nod their heads in agreement with my response. One of them gives me a thumb’s up sign. No doubt about it, this years journey is going to be interesting.