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]

Airline Fees: You Get What You Pay For Or Weapons In Travel Class Warfare?

airline fees - plane seat meapLast month, the media was abuzz over increased airline fees for pre-assigned seating, with many concerned that it would especially affect families who want to sit together for no additional cost. Even New York Senator Chuck Schumer got involved, asking airlines to waive fees for families traveling with children. Rather than look for victims or call airlines “anti-family,” however, look at the bigger picture. Airline seat fees are nothing new, but they are increasingly being used as another weapon in the arsenal against the airlines’ least desirable customer: the infrequent flier. If travelers will choose airfares based on a difference of nickels and dimes, does this force the airlines to nickel and dime the traveler?

The real divide in travel now isn’t between business and leisure travelers, families and singles, or even first class and coach; it’s between frequent fliers with airline loyalty, and price-conscious consumers who won’t hesitate to switch carriers for a cheaper fare. Savvy travelers who fly more than a few times per year understand that it pays to be loyal to one airline. In addition to earning miles for future trips, frequent fliers can jump to the top of upgrade lists, skip long check-in and security lines, and even waive many of the fees not included in the base fare. Travelers who fly only a year or less are more likely to book the cheapest ticket they find, even if the difference between carriers is just a few dollars, assuming the service will be similar (or worse, the same as they remember the last time they flew). What’s the incentive for airlines to give such passengers anything for free if they might never fly them again? “The customers that are more loyal, who fly more often, we want to make sure they have the best travel experience,” said American Airlines to Associated Press.

People are quick to call airlines greedy, and while they are looking to make money, running an airline is hardly a lucrative business these days. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a nifty graphic breaking down the cost of an average flight, showing that on a 100-person flight, the airline is making a profit off only a single seat. Between the rising costs of fuel, staff, security, insurance, and maintenance, most airlines are struggling to avoid bankruptcy or just stay in business. While you shouldn’t feel sorry for the airlines, understand that the alternative to fees is increased base fares, where you may be stuck paying for amenities you don’t need or want.As I’ve lived abroad for two years, I’ve become loyal to Turkish Airlines. They not only have the most flights from my current home airport in Istanbul, but I know I’ll always get a meal even on short flights, never have to pay fees outside of excess baggage, and even be able to use a dedicated check-in desk for travelers with children at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. I’ve often paid more to fly on Turkish Airlines than other carriers on the same route to guarantee the same standards of service. This makes me a valuable customer, and the more money I spend with them, the more perks I receive.

Earlier this year, I was looking for tickets from New York to Austin for a friend’s wedding. It was slightly cheaper to fly on American Airlines (my preferred carrier when I lived in New York) than Jet Blue, but as a solo traveler with a baby, I knew I’d be checking a bag and wanting to take my stroller up to the gate. Jet Blue would offer these services for free (American wouldn’t let me gate-check the stroller, but I could check it at the counter for free), and the overall cost would be about the same, plus I’d get free snacks and entertainment. In the end, I chose Jet Blue and was even given a priority seat without charge because the flight was relatively empty. If I were still based in New York and flying frequently, it would be more worthwhile to me to fly American to build my frequent flier status and miles for places I’d like to go.

As a parent who travels frequently with my child, I understand the potential nightmare separate seating could cause, but I also understand that airlines can’t make exceptions without making some passengers unhappy. If airlines were to waive a seating charge for families, travelers would complain about special treatment. Fliers with elderly parents would ask for exemptions to sit together, people with a fear of flying would want their travel partner close with no fee, and single travelers would feel they were being forced to subsidize everyone else.

Over at Huffington Post, my colleague (and fellow baby travel expert) Corinne McDermott contacted all of the major airlines regarding pre-assigned seating fees. Only Spirit Airlines explicitly said families should pay fees to be guaranteed adjacent seats. In fact, much of the hype about families being separated might really just be that: hype. Most airlines will try to accommodate people traveling together, just reserving preferred aisle and window seats to reward frequent fliers, or sell for an additional fee. It makes sense for an airline to offer a premium like preferred seating for free to a loyal customer, and instead try to make as much money as possible for a customer they may never have again.

Instead of spending time writing angry comments online, spend that time educating yourself about the full cost of an airline ticket and decide where your priorities lie: do you want to pay the absolute lowest fare and expect nothing more than a seat, or do you want to pay for service instead surprise fees? The old axiom “you get what you pay for” is the new reality in airline travel.

Babies and first class: why is this an issue?

babies first classEarlier this week, I saw a story about babies and first class air travel posted on Facebook. The Facebook poster asked our own Heather Poole (flight attendant, mother, and new book author!) for her thoughts on the story, and she replied, “I’m fine with babies in first class. Usually they just sleep.” Columnist Brett Snyder is a frequent flier and new dad wondering if he should use miles to upgrade his first flight with the baby. Reading the article and the many comments, I wonder: why is this (or really any story about babies and airplanes) a contentious issue?

Long before I even thought about having children, I thought the same about babies in first class that I thought about anyone in the front of the plane: must be nice for them. Sure, it might be a waste of money to give a premium seat to someone whose legs don’t touch the ground and who can’t enjoy the free Champagne, but it’s the parents’ choice to splurge on the ticket. If the parents are more comfortable, the kid might be happier and thus quiet — a win-win for everyone on the plane. Does the child “deserve” to sit up front? Perhaps not, but airplane seating has never been based on merit. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a passenger is a passenger, no matter how small.As the veteran of nearly 20 flights with an infant in Europe, the US and trans-Atlantic, I’ve been fortunate to fly a few times with my daughter in business class. While the roomy seats and meals make a 10 hour flight easier with a baby, more valuable is the ability to skip check-in and security lines, board the plane early, and spend layovers in a spacious lounge with a place to heat baby food or change a diaper. Some of those perks used to be standard for all passengers with small children, but have now gone the way of the hot meal in coach. Some airlines still make travel easier for parents: JetBlue is one of the only US-based airlines to allow you to gate-check a stroller of any size and check your first bag free (checking a bag becomes inevitable with a baby). Gulf Air offers free “Sky Nannies” on long-haul flights for young children, and Lufthansa offers a guide service (for a fee) to escort families traveling through their German hubs. Turkish Airlines (my most frequently-used airline while I live in Istanbul) always offers a “baby meal” and blocks off empty seats when possible to give us more room.

I’m also fortunate to have an easy baby who so far (knock on wood) has been very well behaved on every flight. This is in part very good luck, but also due to the fact that I watch her constantly and head off any signs of crying before they start. I’ll hold and feed her as often as it takes, even if it means I rarely rest anymore on a plane. Many of the same people who’ve given me “the look” when boarding with an infant have complimented me after on her behavior. Brett also notes in his article: “Don’t just sit there while your baby screams. Do everything you can to calm him and people will be more understanding.” This is good advice, but does it really need to be said?! I’d never dream of sitting by idly while my child disturbed other people and I’m embarrassed by any other parents who would consider such behavior acceptable. Still, I recognize that even with the most watchful parents, sometimes a cranky baby is unavoidable but I hope that when/if that day comes, my fellow passengers will see how hard I’m trying to make the flight easier for all of us. Better still, if I anticipate a difficult age for my baby to fly, I’ll look into alternative methods of travel (or postpone until an easier time).

If we are going to ban babies from first class, or even segregate them from adults on all flights, why stop there? Why not a separate flight for the armrest-hogs, the obese, the incessant talkers, or the drunk and belligerent? I’d like a plane full of only frequent flyers, who know not to use their cell phone after the door closes, who don’t rush the aisles the minute the wheels touch down, who don’t recline their seats during drink service or bring smelly food (or nail polish) onto the plane. Start flights for only considerate, experienced travelers and you will find me in the front of the plane, with my baby on my lap.

For more about (considerate) travel with a baby, read my past “Knocked Up Abroad” stories here.

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Adventure travel in Somalia?

Adventure travel in Somalia

Will Somalia become the next big adventure travel destination?

Short answer: Not anytime soon.

Long answer: For the first time in two decades, there’s a ray of hope shining across that chaotic land. The Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabab is on the defensive as it gets pummeled by Kenyan, Ethiopian, African Union, and Somali “government” forces. They’ve fled Mogadishu and several other key areas. The battered capital is beginning to enjoy something resembling normal life, as a BBC report shows. They even have traffic police!

Earlier this week, amid much fanfare from the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, a Turkish Airlines flight landed at Mogadishu airport. This was the first flight from a major international carrier to land at the airport in years. On board was Turkey’s deputy prime minister on a goodwill mission. The airline has scheduled twice-weekly flights from Istanbul to Mogadishu via Khartoum. In a statement, it said that it hoped Somalia would soon be “a very normal country.”

A “very normal country,” or even just a “normal country” has a tourism industry. Is this possible in Somalia? Is it even desirable?There’s certainly no shortage of interesting things to do in Somalia. The Somalis have a distinctive culture made up of clans and many are still pastoral nomads wandering the dry scrubland with herds of camels like they did centuries ago. Somali cuisine is a strange mixture of African and Italian, with one of the favorite foods being spaghetti, eaten by hand. There is also the possibility of it having a rich archaeological heritage of painted caves, like the one I visited at Laas Geel in the breakaway northern state of Somaliland. For more contemporary art, check out the funky murals adorning shops and public buildings.

You could even see a “technical” like that shown in this Wikimedia Commons image. Technicals are a favorite weapon of African states and militia. They’re basically vehicles with a machine gun or recoilless rifle mounted on top. I’ve come across these several times in the Horn of Africa. Trust me, when you see one at a roadblock, you stop. And no, I don’t have any pictures. There’s a difference between an adventure traveler and an idiot.

Which brings me to my point. Yes, with enough determination and bribery you could probably take a tour of Somalia. You’ll need to get in good with one of the clans and get some bodyguards, of course. A few people have done this. To say that it is dangerous is an understatement, but that’s neither here nor there. Every individual’s life is their own and if they want to risk it seeing a bombed-out country that’s their business. The problem comes when you look at the ramifications of such an action.

While making yourself a target for kidnappers and suicide bombers will give you some cool stories when, and if, you get back home to your friends, it’s good to remember that the people you pass in the street are home. Walking in Mogadishu puts everyone at risk. There’s enough trouble in Somali without adding a photo-snapping Westerner into the mix.

Luckily, if you want to explore Somali culture, you can still do so without risking getting shot in Mogadishu or kidnapped by pirates in Puntland. Two years ago, I spent an enjoyable ten days traveling in Somaliland without experiencing any threats, although it was a tough trip on many other levels. You can also visit Ethiopia’s Somali region. If you’re serious, drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch with my contacts.

Somali culture is relatively untouched by outside influences. This makes it very appealing to the adventure traveler. Hopefully, some day soon, Al-Shabab will be defeated, peace will come to Somalia, and visitors will be able to come in. This montage of Wikimedia Commons images shows what Mogadishu used to look like. Sadly, the city doesn’t look so good these days. Here’s hoping it will improve. For now, though, those Turkish Airlines flights will mostly be carrying Somalis coming on business or visiting loved ones.

Adventure travel in Somalia

Send a holiday greeting from above the clouds

holiday greeting

Procrastinated on sending Christmas cards this year? It’s not too late to send a holiday greeting to say “Happy New Year” (or Mutlu Yillar in Turkish) with a travel theme. Turkish Airlines has a fun website for generating a virtual holiday greeting with a view of the wing. On Above the Clouds, you can choose a cloud image like a snowflake, Christmas tree, or angel and add a brief message (limited to 40 characters), accompanied by a jaunty version of Turkish Airlines’ theme song, and it will generate an e-card from your window seat.

Make your own greeting at www.newyearclouds.com and Happy New Year!