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Friend or Foe? The truth on travelling in Turkey

Friend or Foe? The truth about travelling in Turkey

Julz’s World: Julie Symons

For the past few months I’ve had to force myself to ignore the doomsayers who’ve gasped in horror when I’ve mentioned spending Easter in Turkey.

Invariably eyes would widen in horror and the words “war in Iraq”, “terrorists”, “death” and “never to return” would emerge from worried mouths in quick succession.

But not only did I return intact from my nine days in Turkey, but I was loaded down with a few extras - nine boxes of Turkish delight, a sun burned nose, and lots of positive stories about the Turks.

I joined some friends in Istanbul on Easter Friday, and for the next few days we experienced all the local attractions – the famous Blue Mosque, the former Sultan’s palace, the stereotypical tourist restaurant with cushions as chairs, the grand bazaar, and a local night-club (where the youth act as they would in any western country, drinking the local beer and gyrating provocatively to music in a distinctly non-Muslim way).

Then while most of my friends returned home, two of us continued down the coast to visit the Gallipoli battlefields and the historical Greek and Roman ruins at Ephesus, near Selçuk. We were amazed by the friendliness of locals, who forgave us for our obvious lack of Turkish and went out of their way to give us directions, make sure we caught the correct buses, escort us to women-friendly restaurants, offer us free apple tea, and generally made us feel safe. We even overcame one of life’s biggest obstacles – getting a haircut – and managed to get passable coiffures from a woman who didn’t speak a word of English (thanks to the help of a picture book and a measly $5).

Gallipoli was certainly a sad experience, although lots of people later in the trip made me feel like a sorry excuse for a New Zealander for missing ANZAC Day (I went three days earlier to avoid the crowds). We visited many of the Australian and New Zealand landmarks, spread over a few kilometres of shrub-covered hillside. All the major battle sites are now covered in headstones, some with simple messages from family members that drive home the horrific loss of life, and most of the deceased were university aged. After commemorating ANZAC Day for years, it was a bit of a shock for me to suddenly realise that the English and French were also slaughtered at Gallipoli. And the Turkish soldiers – just as young and innocent – lost even more men. Significantly, there are signs in the graveyards telling foreign families to rest easily because their soldiers are buried on friendly soil and the Turks consider the each of the deceased to be one of their own.

One of the things that struck me the most at Eceabat, the starting point for many tours of Gallipoli, was a small restaurant where the locals all seemed to know each other. An old man went to each table to say goodbye when he finished his meal, but instead of overlooking us for the strangers that we were, he made a point of stopping at our table to say goodbye. I was touched by this simple gesture of friendliness.

Further down the coast at Selçuk, after a day of exploring Ephesus, we went for a walk through a relatively poor residential area on a hillside, a little bit off the beaten tourist track. It was about 6pm and the streets were filled with pedestrians: young gangs of men ambling along, groups of women sitting chatting, and gaggles of children playing on the streets, gaping at us so blatantly in fascination that one child’s face almost touched ours. To be fair, we were staring back with an equal mixture of curiosity and envy. The kids were playing the same games I played in New Zealand, except their game of hide-and-seek took place behind ruined columns that were hundreds of years old and their game of elastics used bits of old wool knotted together rather than a nice new length of elastic. I desperately wanted to join the game of elastics, and maybe teach them my old favourite from when I was five - “England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales; Inside, outside, inside, out” - but exactly how do you say “Can I play?” in Turkish? Eventually we returned to the town centre, along the cobbled streets, past stucco houses, piles of branches of firewood, pot plants growing from tin cans, and cats exploring untold rubbish bins.

The closest we got to terrorism was the next day, women’s afternoon at the local Turkish Hamam (bath), when we couldn’t miss the unique opportunity to be scoured and soaped down by a ferocious looking fat local woman who would be better suited as a prison warden. We walked into the ancient domed room with sarongs wrapped tightly around us, the only ones clinging to our modesty in a room full of plump and naked Turkish women. We lay on a heated marble slab in the middle of the room and waited for our turns to come to be tortured. I’m sure the women who work there must get a sadistic kick out of punishing the tourists, especially when they slap your backside to tell you to turn over and yank your hair like vicious four-year olds as part of the massage. But in a bizarre quirk of nature, you really do feel relaxed and happy after a couple of hours sitting in the steam, even if you do pay more than the locals do and for a shorter massage too.

In hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing about my trip, except perhaps to travel more independently rather than pre-book everything from Istanbul. It’s very sad that the Turkish economy is affected by a downturn in tourism, because the reality is we felt safer in Turkey than in some western, English-speaking countries that are far from Iraq. And it just goes to show, you shouldn’t listen to the scaremongers, because it might just mean you’ll miss out on a great opportunity to eat kebabs and drink apple tea.

© Copyright Julie Symons 2003

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