The Kindness of (Turkish) Strangers

Everyone I know who has visited Turkey has returned with glowing reports, so expectations of Turkey were high to begin with. The problem with expectations, as we all know, is that they are rarely met with reality. However, I am happy to report that thus far, our experience in Turkey has been nothing short of sublime-so much so that I can not understand why we haven’t run into more American tourists or vacationers. As popular as it seems to have become with Aussies and Europeans, and Russians in particular, we have encountered very few travelers from the states. Must be a well kept secret, but as far as I’m concerned, this is a must visit for so many reasons, but today I will start with the people.

The Locals
I do not presume to make sweeping generalizations about an entire population of people, and at the same time, as always, there are exceptions. That being said, the Turkish people we have encountered have been polite, friendly, and truly wonderful. I can’t even keep track anymore of how many people have stood up to give us their seats, offered us tea, given us directions, or just wanted to chat or share a laugh, all without expecting anything in return. Really. After traveling for four plus months, this has come as a bit of a shock. Initially, we were suspicious, waving away offers for help and dismissing those we assumed were touts with curt replies. But here we have found that most of these advances are genuine and even the touts back off quickly and politely once they know you aren’t interested. And we have made friends with a few strangers, despite the language barrier.

Our first encounter upon arriving in Istanbul, was with two young men who wanted to practice their English. After ignoring their multiple attempts to say hello, we finally stopped and made guarded small talk and declined when they offered us a smoke, until it became clear that they had no other objective other than to talk to the Americans. As they walked off, after pointing us to the bus station, I frantically checked all my pockets and backpack, and felt only slightly ashamed of doing so.

That night we took the overnight bus to Izmir. Not only was this our first overnight bus, it was also our first major bus ride outside of Central America. It is hard to compare the two, because there is little comparison to be made. In fact, it may not be quite fair to do so, since Central America’s “chicken busses” are so named because the locals can bring aboard live animals, including live chicken. Anyway, we found our assigned seats on this large clean fancy new-looking bus, and settled in. The guy seated across the aisle saw us looking at the controls, TV monitors, and refrigerator like country bumpkins and showed us how to work the armrest. As we have learned, busses in Turkey have a “helper”, just like in Central America. In Central America the helper collects the fare, yells the stops out the window, and opens and closes the door. In Turkey, the helper is more or less like a butler. This being our first ride, we tried to figure out what was happening as he swiftly made his way down the aisle, carrying a small bottle and splashing some of its contents in the hands of those who indicated for him to do so. On the second round several hours later we thought we’d try it out and found that it was hand sanitizer. This in addition to him spraying down the carpet with something like Febreze between stops, the washing of the bus at rest stops, as well the individually packaged handi-wipes that came with our choice of drinks and snacks, was our first introduction to the cleanliness standards here. At one point, our friend across the aisle, asked us something in Turkish, and through pantomime we determined that he was asking us if we wanted water. As we stared back, trying to figure out how to ask if it was free, he got up and returned with three cups of water, handing us two with a nod. After the bus drove onto a ferry, we were allowed to get out and walk around the boat. During this point, I made friends with a very sweet Turkish lady, using nothing but gestures, as we waited in line for the bathroom. By the time we made it to the front of the line, we were sharing a laugh and she was pinching my cheeks and patting my face. When we re-boarded the bus, the very same guy had bought us a packet of snacks, which he tossed to Jeff with a smile. We just sat there smiling gratefully, wishing we knew how to say “thank you” in Turkish. It’s a good thing we soon learned how, because with the way we continue to be treated by the people here, we say it a lot.

In our short time here, we have been the recipients of random acts of kindness. There were the semi-truck drivers who saw us walking a long road in the mid-day sun who gave us a lift (to our destination, and another ride back). There were the guys at the market selling olives, of which we taste-tested several varieties before deciding what to buy, but when I handed them the money, they insisted I keep it and enjoy the olives. And there was the guy at some tourist trap who gave me one of the necklaces he was selling for free “as a gift”…just like the bag of mixed Turkish Delights I was given today (yum!). They say that nothing in life is free, but our friends here are proving that wrong everyday with their kindness.

The awesome olive guys

The awesome olive guys

Posted: May 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , | No Comments »