Not Constantinople: 9 Misconceptions About Istanbul, Turkey

Misconceptions about Istanbul and Turkey
The country of Turkey has been getting a lot of bad press this year, due to the tragic disappearance and murder of American Sarai Sierra in Istanbul, and the suicide bombing at the U.S. Consulate in Turkish capital city Ankara, which was quickly linked to a Marxist group protesting the Turkish position on the war in Syria (a Turkish security guard was killed, no Americans were harmed). Both events are scary and horrible, but their discussion in the news highlighted a lot of ignorance and hate about Turkey and against Muslim countries, women and solo travel.

As a as a female traveler, mother and former Istanbul expat, Sierra’s disappearance especially resonated with me and many of my friends. I arrived in Istanbul for a visit the day her body was discovered, and the Turkish and American press were full of rumors and speculation for weeks following, with no real evidence or leads at solving her case. Several fellow expats – all women who have spent plenty of time solo in Turkey – have responded with their feelings about being female in Istanbul, writing about relative safety in America vs. Turkey, the greater issues of domestic violence and sex trafficking and the risks all women of the world face. We feel disturbed that such a thing could happen in a place we feel safer in than many other world cities, defensive about our adopted country, its people and their faith, and disappointed in the misinformation and bigotry about Turkey and the Muslim world.

If you have reservations about travel in Turkey, alone, as a woman or both, please look beyond the hateful and incorrect comments to the many people who have happily traveled and lived in Istanbul and Turkey. In case you read no further than this paragraph, I will say that in my three years in Istanbul, I never felt unsafe, harassed or threatened, and in traveling in 13 countries with my baby, Turkey remains to me the most child-friendly in the world.Based on what I’ve read in online discussions, and have heard from friends, these are the common misconceptions about Turkey:

1. Turkey is part of the Middle East – Geographers may quibble, given Turkey’s borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, but it also borders EU members Bulgaria and Greece, as well as Central Asian countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, so it could claim membership in several regions. Politically, many of the people of Turkey would rather align themselves with Europe, and they have been bidding to get into the European Union since 1987. Better to say it is part of the Muslim world (which includes counties in Asia and Africa) than to lump it in with the Middle East.

2. The women all wear burqas – A little background: when Mustafa Kemal (aka Atatürk, the most recognizable man in the country, whose face you’ll see in every Turkish business and on the money) founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, he made it a strictly secular state. One of his reforms was to ban religious headgear from state universities and public buildings. This is now being contested as a point of religious freedom, but in essence, Turkish women are not required to cover their bodies or hair, and many dress the same as women in the U.S. or Europe. You will see some women who wear a headscarf and long jacket, but you will also see women uncovered, even dressed immodestly. After “East meets West,” one of the biggest cliches in Istanbul travel writing is to mention the contrast of “miniskirts and minarets.” Often, the women you might see on the streets in Istanbul wearing a full black hijab or burqa are Arab tourists, or immigrants from the East. The headwear law also applies to the fez hat, so that red tasseled hat you bought at the Grand Bazaar would actually really offend the founder of modern Turkey.

3. You can’t drink alcohol, find pork or eat during Ramadan – In addition to being a secular country (there is no official religion, and the 99% Islamic demographic includes the many non-practicing Turks who might only culturally identify as Muslim), Turkey is very liberal and lenient. While the country has many observant Muslims who do not drink alcohol or eat pork, there are plenty of others who enjoy their Efes beer and a pizza with prosciutto. I’ve heard the explanation from many Turks that the Koran doesn’t say not to drink alcohol at all, but rather not to become intoxicated (though you’ll see plenty of drunkenness around Taksim on a Saturday night). I’d rather not try to dissect or debate religious doctrine, so just know that Istanbul has a thriving nightlife scene, and while alcohol is becoming more expensive due to increased taxes, it’s readily available. Turkey even produces many beers, wines and liquors, like the anise-flavored raki, also known as “lion’s milk”, of varying quality and price points. Pork is harder to come by, but you will find it in many larger supermarkets and some upscale restaurants, usually at a high premium. I’ve found fewer Turks who eat pork than drink alcohol, mostly because they haven’t grown up eating it, but they won’t begrudge you a bacon craving. Finally, if you are visiting during the Ramadan holiday, you’ll find it mostly business as usual in Istanbul and other major tourist areas, and unlike other Muslim countries, foreigners are not expected to fast and are often invited to share in the nightly iftar feasts.

4. It’s a hot, desert climate and everyone rides a camel – Possibly due to the Middle East connection, people seem to imagine Turkey as a desert with hot weather and no change in seasons. Istanbul is actually on the same latitude as Chicago and New York City, with similar weather patterns; winters are cold, even snowy, and summers are humid. The country has nearly every type of climate, and there are many bodies of water around and throughout, including the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas (and the Bosphorus Strait, dividing Europe and Asia, of course). Not sure where the camel idea came from, likely the same misguided idea that it’s a desert country in the Middle East, but I’ve yet to see any camels in Istanbul. You might find them as strictly-tourist photo ops in Cappadocia, or even camel-wrestling matches on the Aegean coast, but you aren’t likely to see any ambling down Istiklal Caddesi.

5. The food is spicy – Possibly all those pictures of colorful saffron piles at the Spice Market (actually called the Egyptian Bazaar) have given many the impression that Turkish food is very hot and spicy. While there are many varieties of dishes, and some can pack quite a punch, most of the popular foods are rather mild: roasted lamb or beef kebabs, kofte meatballs, grilled fish, manti ravioli and the many varieties of pizza-like fast foods like pide, lahmacun and the like. Compared to the hot spices of Morocco or Southeast Asia, Turkish cuisine is downright cool, but still totally delicious.

6. Men have harems – Assuming that Muslim men have many wives is about as offensive as assuming Mormons all live like the TV show “Big Love.” Again, you can thank Atatürk for making polygamy illegal back in 1926, and it’s a jailable offense. While it’s possible that you might find a few rogue polygamists living out in the far east of the country, the only harem you’ll find in Istanbul is at Topkapi Palace – which has been a museum for nearly 100 years. Turkey has come a long way from the days of the Ottoman Empire, and likes to distance itself from the old ways of the sultans. Women are highly respected in Turkey, and afforded all the rights and privileges of “Western” women.

7. They speak Arabic – In case the above points haven’t made it clear, Turkey is a country of Turks, not Arabs, and the language is also distinct. With a few additions and subtractions, Turkish has a Latin alphabet, thanks to yet another Atatürk reform (see why they love him?), and while it has some “loanwords” from Arabic (it also has many from French, Persian and English), it’s closer linguistically to Mongolian, Korean and Japanese. The concept of vowel harmony and subject-object-verb grammar have confounded many new speakers like myself, but you’ll have a much easier time reading Turkish than Arabic. At the airport, will you hail a taksi or a تاكسي?

8. It’s a war zone – Turkey has had a few small-scale bombings in the past decade, which are scarily detailed on the U.S. State Department’s page on security threats. This has resulted in increased security in large hotels, malls, museums and office buildings, and it’s common (if a bit jarring) to see metal detectors and car trunks checked on entry in such public spaces. All that said, you aren’t going to see tanks rolling through Istanbul, and you aren’t likely to be in danger unless you are in the far east of the country. How about their neighbors in conflict? Turkey is a huge country, slightly larger than Texas, and Istanbul itself is closer geographically to Athens, Milan, and Zurich than it is to Tehran, and over 500 miles from Syria. The possibility of terrorist attacks are, unfortunately, a part of life no matter where you are, and Istanbul is as safe as any major world city (and with lower street crime than most other European capitals). In many ways, I feel safer in Istanbul than New York.

9. They hate Americans – Despite the above mentioned security threats and February’s embassy bombing in Ankara, the U.S. State Department does not warn against general travel to Turkey, and Turkey is considered an important ally of the United States. You are advised to “stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times” in Turkey, as with anywhere in the world. Turkey does not condone the actions of Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organizations. On a micro level, you will rarely encounter anti-American sentiment in Turkey, and you will find most Turks to be friendly, helpful and big fans of American culture (“Mad Men” and “How I Met Your Mother” are quite popular).

Of course, it’s impossible to make blanket statements about any one culture or country, and many of the current events and issues happening in Turkey are beyond the scope of a travel blog, but we hope more Americans will discover what a safe, modern and hospitable country Turkey is and plan a trip there themselves (Turkish Airlines is one of the world’s best airlines and has some great deals this spring).

Any other myths or generalizations you’ve heard about Turkey? We’d love to set you straight! Share your experiences traveling in Turkey with us.

[Photo credit: Flickr user James Cridland]

4 Big Travel Fears And How To Overcome Them

When I meet people who tell me they’ve never flown on an airplane or stepped foot outside their home state, I’m always a little taken aback. In this day and age when travel is so accessible, affordable and commonplace, it’s amazing that there are still so many travel virgins out there.

Now, of course, if these folks didn’t want to travel, or were unable to afford it, that would be understandable. But it’s not lack of desire or means that seems to hold so many people back. Instead, it’s fear – fear of heading out into the great unknown and fear of what will go wrong when they get there. And this fear is crippling enough to stop them from living out their travel dreams.

But the good news for travel newbies is that fears can be overcome. It’s just a matter of understanding what you’re really scared of and learning to manage your concerns. Here are the four biggest fear-related excuses I hear from would-be travelers and tips on how to cope with them.

Going abroad is dangerous


This is probably the most common excuse I hear for not traveling. In fact, the idea that foreign places are dangerous is so pervasive that many people not only stop themselves from traveling, but they try to prevent others from doing so as well. “Are you really planning to go there? Do you think it’s wise? Have you heard the news reports about xyz?” are all refrains I’ve heard over and over. But here’s the thing: life is dangerous and bad things can happen to you anywhere. Despite this, we tend to be afraid of the big, catastrophic events that are actually quite rare (such as our plane crashing, or being kidnapped abroad), but less afraid of more common dangers (such as car accidents) that happen all the time.

So how can you quash this fear? First, do some research. People are often afraid of travel because they don’t know what to really expect. In other words, fear of going abroad is really just fear of the unknown. By learning about your destination, you can start to feel more comfortable with the idea of visiting it. You might even be surprised to learn that your destination is less dangerous than where you live.

Also, remember that news reports tend to focus mostly on negative events, giving you a disproportionate image of how dangerous a country really is. Even in countries that do have genuine problems, not all parts of the country are necessarily dangerous. So just because you saw a story about a shooting or hostage situation in one city doesn’t mean the popular tourist town you’ll be visiting has the same problems. The best way to know for sure is to read detailed travel advisories.

At the end of the day, as long as you use common sense (avoid dark alleys, keep an eye on your belongings and so on) you’ll be just fine.

I won’t be able to communicate my needs

If all you have in your language arsenal is a bit of high school Spanish, then it’s normal to feel anxious about heading to a country where you won’t be able to understand a word of the local lingo. But of all the fears on this list, not being able to communicate is probably the most unfounded. Remember, English is widely spoken around the world, and even those who don’t speak it may have enough of a basic understanding to be able to help you out. And the people you’re most likely to come into contact with – those working in the hospitality industry – will almost certainly know some English.

If you’re still worried, it might be a good idea to prepare yourself by learning a few key words and phrases in the local language. Things like, “where is the toilet?”, “I want chicken/beef/pork,” “I want a single/return ticket” and so on, always come in handy. Of course, “please” and “thank you” also go a long way when you’re seeking help from locals.

Other ways around the language barrier include carrying phrase books, flash cards or picture books bearing images of things you commonly need when traveling. You could also try using gestures or miming to get your point across – it may feel silly but it works.

At the end of the day, there are very few places in the world where you’ll struggle to get by without the local language and if you’re a first-time traveler, chances are these places are not on your itinerary anyway.

What if I get sick or hurt?

Falling ill or being injured abroad are unlikely but not altogether impossible scenarios. So the key to getting around this fear is to be prepared. Firstly, recognize that most health problems people have when traveling are minor – according to this list of the most common travel diseases, diarrhea is the number one ailment. Carrying a small first-aid kit with a few common over-the-counter meds should get you through most situations, but if not, remember there are pharmacies just about everywhere.

Of course, a stomach bug is not what most people are really worried about. It’s the bigger health emergencies that could end in a visit to a scary foreign hospital that gets travelers anxious. But it’s worth noting that many international health systems are better than you think. India, for example, has earned a reputation for its highly experienced heart surgeons, while Thailand is top a destination for medical tourism because of its internationally accredited facilities. Moreover, many developing countries often have large expat communities, so sleek hospitals with highly-trained English speaking staff have sprung up to serve them. If you have a pre-existing condition or are simply anxious, find out where these expat-oriented hospitals are and keep a list of them when traveling.

Lastly, get up to date on all your vaccinations and make sure you have good health insurance that will cover you while you’re abroad.

What if I lose my passport/credit cards/wallet?

Losing your documents is a nuisance, for sure, but it doesn’t have to ruin your whole trip. I once had an ATM swallow my debit card at a bus station in Bolivia … 15 minutes before I was about to board a bus for a distant city. What did I do? Well, I wanted to be sure that no one would figure out a way to retrieve my card from the machine and use it, so I borrowed a cellphone from a kind passerby, called the bank and canceled my card right there on the spot. They promised to express post a new card and a few days later, it was in my hands. Life certainly went on despite the little hiccup, especially because I had other cards to fall back on.

Rogue ATMs aren’t the only threat to your valuables, in fact, pick-pocketing is much more likely. Still, this doesn’t have to be a trip-ending nightmare at all. Just be sure not to carry all your credit cards and cash in your wallet everyday – it’s best to leave most of it in your hotel safe and only tote around what you’ll need for the day. Should the worst happen, call your credit card company right away, cancel the lost card, and they’ll express a new one out to you.

When it comes to passports, again, don’t carry it around unless you have a good reason to. If it does go MIA, you’ll have a much easier time getting a replacement passport if you’ve made copies of it. Keep one copy with you and leave another with a trusted friend back home, just to cover all bases. Your nearest embassy or consulate should be able to help you out from there.

At the end of the day, remember that if the trip really turns out to be as horrible as you imagined, you can always turn around and come home. However, chances are, once you take those first steps and get going, you’ll discover all the wonderful things about life on the road and want to stay. If anything, you’ll probably wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

What kinds of fears stop you from traveling? Have you found ways of managing them? Let us know below!

[Photo credits: Flickr users cvander; shock264; Fields of View; gwire; swimparallel]

The Kimchi-ite: Living And Traveling South Of North Korea

One of the top stories this past week on CNN, BBC, Fox News, Reuters and so many other major news organizations was that of North Korea‘s plans for a nuclear test. However, in South Korea, no one seems to care. It was certainly not the biggest story for Korean news outlets, sometimes even buried under stories about a coming cold front, the president-elect’s cabinet choices and advice on how not to get your cellphone stolen from a sauna. People often worry about whether or not it is safe to travel to less talked about South Korea because of the psychotic neighbor to the north. The truth is that even with today’s threats, which are only the most recent in a long string of hostility, South Korea remains one of the safest travel destinations in the world. When traveling throughout the country, rarely will there be an instance of theft or physical abuse. But obviously, travelers are not so much worried about pickpockets and scam artists when curious about the Koreas, but instead are much more worried of World War III breaking out.However, many feel safer in Seoul, roughly 30 miles from the North Korean border, than in the United States. And that is taking into consideration that the Korean War technically has not ended and also that the world’s largest artillery force is likely pointed at the capital right this minute. Much of that safety can be attributed to how ill equipped North Korea is and how well allied South Korea is.

I have asked my Korean friends how they feel about the situation and many reply that it is extremely complicated and they are numb to it all. They have grown up with this constant threat of North Korea. Very rarely does a month go by without some sort of threat to South Korea or the world at large. Most feel that these threats are empty and are simply ways for the nation to intimidate other countries into giving them food aide.

There is a feeling of sadness and sympathy for the people of North Korea. Their situation is dire and there is little anyone can do about it. In many ways, South Koreans don’t feel as though North Korea is a neighbor. Even though it is the only country South Korea shares a land border with, there is no real communication or travel between the two nations, making ties to nearby Japan and China stronger.

All of this is not to say that any report of danger in a foreign country is false, but it’s always important to consider a local perspective. The truth is, there are risky and dangerous aspects to almost all facets of travel. Whether it be the threat of attacks from North Korea while checking out a palace in Seoul, an imminent hurricane while at Miami Beach or having your camera stolen from your hotel room.

Be sure to check out all the other Kimchi-ite posts here.

[Photo credit: U.S. Army Korea Historical Image Archive]

Shop the Bakaara Market: five gifts from Somalia

It’s always hard to figure out what to get your friends when you’re on vacation. I usually just give up, and they’ve learned to accept that my gift-giving ineptitude has led to laziness. There are some trips, however, that leave you with no excuses. If you decide to head into Mogadishu, for example, you’ll be expected to bring home plenty for your friends and family.

In a place like Somalia, it can be hard to figure out where to shop, let alone what to buy. Fortunately, you can start in the capital’s shopping district (the last three words used very loosely), the Bakaara Market. This spot was made famous a little over 17 years ago when a U.S. mission went awry, and it remains incredibly unsafe for outsiders everybody. When you can’t ignore your obligations to the folks back home, though, this is probably the best place to start.

Keep in mind that the Bakaara Market is a dangerous place. Only two weeks ago, fighting broke out between the Al-Shabab and Hizbul groups, leaving five dead and more injured. According to SomaliPress.com:

The movement of the market was halted for a while shortly as the gunfire spread further into different sections of the market according to the businessmen adding that the clash was ceased as officials from both sides started mediating them.

It pays to be careful.

To help you make the whole process easier, here are five gifts to get at the Bakaara Market for the person who already seems to have everything:

1. Weapons: you can get all kinds of firearms in Somalia, including AK-47s, favorites of insurgents, terrorists and combatants around the world and since its introduction in 1947. For those truly special to you, splurge for a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. You may get better deals outside the Bakaara Market, but you may be putting yourself in even more danger.

2. Counterfeit Currency: real cash isn’t good enough for you? You should be able to get some of the fake kind in this part of town. There was a big problem with counterfeiting in 2001, when U.S. dollars were the standard for trade, but this caused prices to skyrocket.

3. Memories:
there are many photo opportunities – especially since you aren’t likely to make a repeat trip. Take as many pictures as you can, but do be smart enough to remain unobtrusive. You don’t want to attract the sort of attention that could lead to a kidnapping. Wait until you get home to have the shots framed.

4. Influence: Somalia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, so there’s a good chance you can use some cash to buy influence and favors. But, don’t expect to find any honor among thieves.

5. A Big Payout: make sure your life insurance policy is up to date before you leave – and that the company will write a check if you do something stupid that costs you your life in Mogadishu. You won’t be around to see the smiling faces of your beneficiaries, but you can meet your end knowing that a boatload of cash will be delivered to them.

[photo by ctsnow via Flickr]

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk – White Water Rafting on the Tuolumne!

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk, episode 27 – Click above to watch video after the jump

Suit up, strap in, and get ready for this week’s Travel Talk! We’re going white water rafting down California’s mighty Tuolumne River on an action packed 2-day adventure. We’ll show you what it takes to navigate Class IV+ rapids and teach you all of the vocabulary that you’ll need in order to stay dry.

In this episode’s couch talk, we’ll delve into a little bit of the history behind America’s National Park System; what the first established park was, what the most frequently visited park is, and what terms the NPS uses to classify our many protected lands.

Think you’re ready? Click the link below to watch.

If you have any questions or comments about Travel Talk, you can email us at talk AT gadling DOT com.

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Links
Appetite wet for a real rafting trip? Then check out Oars.com for some of the best guided expeditions around the world.
Tuolumn-what? Get familiar with the mighty T!
Want more info on a National Park near you? Check out NPS.gov for information.

All images used under a Creative Commons license. All music used courtesy of Nonstop Music.