Turkey Offers Moustache Transplant Surgery Vacation Packages

We’ve all heard of medical tourism in which travelers head abroad to get liposuction or a nose job and then recuperate on the beach – but have you ever heard of a mustache transplant vacation?

Cosmetic surgeons in Turkey have been performing hair transplants on balding men for years; however, it seems there’s now growing demand from men with bald upper lips.

Men from Asia, Europe and the Middle East have been flocking to the country in order to give their mediocre moustaches a helping hand and tourism agencies have taken notice. Many local companies have begun offering “transplant packages” in which tourists can get their surgery done before chilling out at a Mediterranean Resort or hitting the capital’s shopping malls.Turkey has quickly been making a name for itself in the health care tourism industry. Last year alone, the country earned $1 billion from travelers visiting to have surgical procedures done. Of course, most of that revenue likely comes from procedures like plastic surgery, but the facial hair transplants are certainly adding up, with one doctor in Istanbul claiming he performs around 60 mustache transplants a month.

Interestingly, there’s little interest from Turks in getting the procedure done. According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of Turkish men sporting moustaches has fallen radically in the past two decades – not that they have any trouble growing facial fuzz. “Personally, I’d be suspicious of a Turk who couldn’t grow a mustache,” a salesman from Istanbul told the newspaper. “But if foreigners need to come anywhere for the operation, it should be here. The Turkish mustache is still the envy of the world.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user hapal]

Knocked up abroad: prenatal care and pregnancy advice in a foreign country

pregnancy foreign country See part 1 of Knocked up abroad: getting pregnant in a foreign country here.

One of the best parts of my experience so far with pregnancy in a foreign country has been the excellent medical care I have in Istanbul. Like many other expats before me, as soon as I took a positive pregnancy test, I called up the American Hospital for an appointment. The hospital treats many foreigners each year, is renowned for infertility treatment as well as other quality medical care, and is popular as part of Turkey’s growing medical tourism (the cow pictured at right is in the hospital lobby; you can tell how serious he is because of the glasses).

My first prenatal appointment was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, and while many Americans were getting up to stuff the turkey, I confirmed I was six weeks’ pregnant (you’re welcome for sparing the “bun in the oven” puns). My very charming and English-speaking Turkish doctor gave me the usual pregnancy advice/warnings*, all peppered with only-in-Turkey bits:

  • Eat lots of dairy like ayran (yogurt drink Westerners often hate because it’s not sweet), yogurt, and cheese. While pregnant women should avoid unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses, you won’t find many of either in Turkey (or in the U.S.) unless you are looking for them.
  • No undercooked or raw meat like çiğ köfte, a popular raw meat and bulger-wheat snack served all over Istanbul (I first tried it outside a trannie bar here). I’ve discovered that the primary concern with sushi is an elevated risk for food poisoning; there is no additional or specific risk to the fetus. Sushi fish is often flash-frozen when caught, therefore it contains lower levels of bacteria. Use your judgment when ordering raw sushi, or stick to California rolls.
  • It would “be a crime to not eat fish in Turkey,” according to my doctor, but stay away from the big ones like shark which have high mercury levels. 1-2 servings of salmon or tuna per week is fine.
  • Sadly, especially in a country with excellent produce, eating unpeeled vegetables or salads in restaurants is a no-no, due to the hepatitis risk. While most restaurants are very clean in Turkey, when you are in a country with some traditional “natural-position” (aka squat) toilets still in use, you run the risk of some food contamination that’s riskier for expectant women than the general public.
  • Like many Europeans, I was told that 1 or 2 alcoholic drinks a week is okay, such as a glass of wine with dinner. Moderation and common sense are key, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
  • Caffeine is also fine in moderation: 1-2 cups of coffee, tea, or sodas are allowed per day, though I’m not convinced that a piping hot, two-sugars-no-milk glass of Turkish çay isn’t higher in caffeine than your average cup of tea.
  • Light exercise like yoga, pilates, and swimming are fine, but no “jumping exercises.”

My other concern was, of course, travel, but that was given the green light as long as I have no complications. Most airlines allow travel up to 28 weeks without a doctor’s note and up to 35 weeks with medical clearance. Whether your flight is short or long-haul, it’s advised to get up and move around every hour or so (good advice even for non-preggos) and choose the aisle seat. As I get bigger, I find puffing out my stomach as much as possible helps to get baggage assistance, and seats on the subway is good too.

The costs of prenatal care in Turkey are low: each of my appointments to a top-end private hospital cost just over $100 USD even with NO insurance (my U.S. insurance treats all international care as out-of-network and thus, out-of-pocket), even with ultrasounds at every visit–most American women get only a few over the course of the pregnancy. I’ll pay less for childbirth with a private room and catered meals for the family than I would for a shared room in a New York hospital. I rarely wait more than a few minutes to see the doctor, and the facilities and equipment are new and clean.

So far, Turkey has proved fairly easy to navigate as a pregnant person. I’ve never had a doctor who I could easily email with problems (such as which cold medicines were okay to take when I was sick in Russia), and everyone I meet is helpful with my concerns and questions. Istanbul is built on hills, so walking to the store can mean a fairly strenuous hike, but modern Turkey accommodates with online food and grocery delivery. Organic food is cheaper than at home, and nearly all of my cravings have been satisfied so far (though I could go for some American mac-and-cheese). I’m not yet halfway through the pregnancy but wouldn’t hesitate to reassure another expat that Turkey is a fine place to have a baby.

*Note: none of this is intended to be taken as medical advice, but rather my personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Talk to your own doctor about warnings and concerns before traveling to a foreign country, pregnant or otherwise.

Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, where to travel in each trimester, what to eat when pregnant abroad, where to do pre-baby shopping, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

Five easy ways be a philanthropic traveler

philanthropic travelVoluntourism is the newest warm fuzzy of the travel industry. Under ideal circumstances, it’s a sustainable, experiential way to see the world and give back at the same time. Whether you’re helping to build a new school or clearing a trail, a working holiday is, for some, the best possible expenditure of disposable income.

But there’s the rub. Along with multitudinous other factors that make voluntourism a dicey concept, it doesn’t come cheap. Some organized volunteer holidays cost as much as a luxury vacation or adventure trip of the same length. That’s great if you can afford both the time and expense, but many of us don’t have that option.

The good news? You can still be a philanthropic traveler regardless of your income, physical ability, educational background, or destination. Below, five easy ways to make a difference on every trip.

1. Donate.
Clothing, shoes, school supplies, basic medical supplies (Neosporin, aspirin, antidiarrheals, bandages), food (fresh fruit and dry goods such as rice, flour, or beans are often good choices, depending upon where you’re traveling; avoid processed foods and candy).

In regard to donations, I’ve found it’s best to do a bit of research beforehand (even if it just involves talking to some fellow travelers or travel operators in the region, or locals). You don’t want to inadvertently cause offense or shame by giving freebies; on the other hand, don’t be put off if you’re asked to help if you can. Some reputable outfitters may request that clients donate any unwanted items of clothing at the trip’s end. These items significantly help local communities (especially children) or the families of contracted staff such as porters or cooks. Donating gently used clothing and shoes is also a greener way to travel.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Visions Service Adventures]philanthropic travelAsk–tour operators, guides, community leaders–before donating medical items, even if they’re OTC; ditto food. Guidebooks, travel articles, and local travel literature often note what items are in short supply in specific destinations.

For example, when I did a farmstay on a remote island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, my guidebook suggested I bring fresh fruit for my host family, as residents could only purchase it on the mainland. The farm patriarch also let me know at the end of my visit that any clothing donations for his children would be greatly appreciated. Depending upon your cultural and/or economic background, such a request may appear brazen or appallingly rude. Coming from a humble man whose entire family had welcomed me into their single-room home, fed me, and treated me as one of their own (rather than just a fast source of income), it was a request I was only too happy to honor.

2.Volunteer…for free
Voluntourism is something you can do yourself, assuming you ask permission when appropriate, and act in accordance with local and cultural mores (Behave Yourself! The Essential Guide to International Etiquette is an entertaining and informative book I recommend for all travelers). Whether you pick up trash on a beach, offer to work reception at a locally-owned backpacker’s for a few hours or days, or teach useful foreign language phrases to children, you’re giving back to that community.

I realize how colonialist this may sound, but the fact is, English speakers are in great demand worldwide. Even in the most impoverished countries or regions, locals who speak English (or French, Italian, German, etc.), no matter how rudimentary, can find employment or offer their services as guides, taxi drivers, hostel employees, or translators. Fluency in a foreign language(s) gives them an advantage in a competitive market. Think about it. It’s never a bad thing to learn a language other than your own, no matter who you are, where you live, or how much money you make.
philanthropic travel
3. Buy local handicrafts and food
Just like shopping your farmers market back home, buying local supports a local economy, and usually eliminates the need for a middle-man. A bonus: many specific destinations all over the world are famed for their food, textiles, woodcarving, pottery, etc.. Every time I look at certain items in my home–no matter how inexpensive they may be—I’m reminded of the adventures and experiences that led to their purchase.

4. Immerse yourself
You don’t need to “go native,” but the best travel experiences usually entail a certain amount of surrender to a place or culture. Learn a few key phrases in the local language or dialect; treat the people–even if they’re urbanites in an industrialized nation–with respect and observe their rules or customs when appropriate; be a gracious traveler or guest. Your actions may not provide monetary or physical relief, but giving back isn’t always about what’s tangible.

5. Reduce your footprint.
It’s impossible not to have a carbon footprint, and as recreational travelers, that impact increases exponentially. But there’s no need to eradicate “frivolous” travel; indeed, experiencing other cultures and sharing our own helps foster tolerance and empathy. Rather, we should be mindful travelers, and do our best to conserve natural resources and preserve the integrity of the places we visit. Just as with camping, leave a place better than you found it. Even if the locals aren’t putting these philosophies into practice, there’s no reason you can’t.

[Photo credits: schoolchildren, Flickr user A.K.M.Ali hossain;vendor, Laurel Miller]

Three travel ideas from the ITB Berlin Travel Show

More than 11,000 exhibitors from 187 countries tried to make their mark at the 2009 ITB Berlin Travel Show. They showcased wines, highlighted unique local attractions and generally tried to show that they are the best places in the world for tourists to spend their hard-earned cash. Travel+Leisure tried to describe the industry’s hottest trends, but the article really came across as “here are a few cool things I noticed.” So, I took the coolest of the cool, below:

1. Get healthy
Plenty of destinations offer spas, yoga and fitness options – sometimes using them to theme an entire resort. But, that’s thinking small. Go all the way with medical tourism, and call those DDs your own in an overseas clinic. Before you develop visions of hacksaws and cigarettes over the operating table, some of these surgical getaways are in upscale facilities.

Hey, it’s up to you. Roll the dice.

2. Hearken back to the Cold War
Screw traditional cruise liners in favor of Soviet-era ships pushing down the Volga River. Praise Lenin, listen to a balalaika and drink Russian Standard vodka (quite good, actually). Lament how long it will take for the dictatorship of the proletariat to emerge.

There are other unusual cruise options out there as well – such as one in Laos that takes 28 passengers into a once inaccessible piece of the Mekong River from Vientiane.

3. Watch a new nation rise
Kosovo doesn’t have much to say for itself except that you should be patient, because the country’s just getting started. So, if you go there now, you’re getting in on the ground floor. Get to know the concierge. Tip him well. You’ll become a national hero.

Sun, sea, surf — and a boob job?

Some people travel to see the sights and sounds of a foreign country, others travel to enjoy the beach.

Then there are those that pack their bags and head abroad to get some work done on their nose, face or other body part.

Medical tourism is big business – so big in fact that Asia expects a whopping 1.3 million people heading their way for medial procedures in 2009. The 2 most popular clinics in Thailand receive 650,000 foreigners a year.

The foremost reason for heading abroad to get some work done is of course the cost – many Europeans go to Turkey for LASIK, and do so for just $2200, which includes airfare. Compared to the $6000 a local procedure will cost, shows how big the savings can be.

The newest development in overseas surgery is in package deals – you get some work done on yourself, then you spend some well deserved time on the beach recovering, which is a hell of a lot more comfortable than in your own bed in bad weather back home.

There are of course some risks involved, and the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery has compiled a handy checklist which may help make the right choice, and select a safe location for your procedure. The society has members in over 80 countries, and many of them are located in clinics mainly used by medical tourists so it is not too hard to find a reliable clinic.