Knocked up abroad: the baby-friendly difference

Me in Istanbul on Mother’s Day, 7 months pregnant, with Dalin baby product mascot

Just over two weeks ago, I made the leap from pregnant American in Istanbul to expat with child. My decision to have my first baby in a foreign country has been met with reactions from friends and strangers ranging from surprise and curiosity to outright disapproval. The transition to new parenthood is a strange and challenging time for nearly everyone, but living in a country that respects pregnant women and worships babies has made all the difference. While baby and child bans are being considered in many places from travel companies like Malaysia Airlines to American restaurants, Turkey remains one big baby-friendly country.

On the surface, Istanbul is not an easy place with a baby. The city is crowded, traffic is terrible and taxi drivers will barely pause to let you run across the street, and the sidewalks are a mini Olympics for a stroller with few ramps, cracked pavement, uneven cobblestones, and endless hills. There’s not many green spaces or parks, and for older children, few museums or activities designed for or appealing to kids. It’s the people that make the city welcoming to children. I can’t walk down the street without a chorus of “Maşallah” (bless you) and “çok güzel” (how cute!). Crowds form around us in stores of people wanting to kiss the baby, ask questions about her, and give me advice (this is when my limited Turkish is a blessing and I can just smile and nod). Waiters in restaurants coo over her and offer to hold her when I go to the bathroom (note: I’m hyper-aware of being a disturbance for other diners and will always take her out if she starts to fuss). As much as she is adored, the feedback isn’t always positive. Some older Turks don’t believe young babies should be out in public and think mothers should follow the custom of staying in the house for the first 40 days (our pediatrician says it’s fine to go out and we’ve taken her places nearly every day since she was born). Despite the current 100 degree heat, I’m warned against holding the baby near a fan, in air conditioning or even in front of the refrigerated case in the grocery store, lest she catch a draft.
Even before the baby arrived, Turks go above and beyond to make mothers and babies comfortable. Recently, a Turkish woman told me how she had been heavily pregnant in winter and one day found herself out in the rain, unable to get a taxi home. She began to cry in frustration and a police officer stopped to see if she was okay. She told him she was fine, just wanted to get home, so he approached a nearby taxi with two men inside, kicked them out, and gave the cab to her. I have no doubt that the ousted men were probably understanding and gracious about the situation, and the whole story encapsulates the Turkish experience for me.

In contrast, when I spent a week home in New York at five months pregnant, I was never offered a seat on the subway and struggled like everyone else for a taxi in the rain. Shortly after my visit, I read an article about a proposed official ban on food in the NYC subway (the idea has since been dismissed) with suggestions for other things that should be banned and was shocked to see a few commenters indignantly refuse to give up their seat to pregnant women. They reasoned that pregnancy was a choice and not the responsibility of society or any other passenger to cater to them. While I can understand their viewpoint, it’s so far from the Turkish mentality, I’d be hard pressed to explain it here.

While these are very extreme examples and not necessarily indicative of the average pregnant woman’s experience in New York or Istanbul, they represent two ends of the spectrum in terms of baby- or pregnant-friendliness. Consider this chart of a New York woman’s experience getting seats on the subway; while the overall results aren’t bad (just over 80% of the time she was offered a seat), it’s pretty appalling by Turkish standards. Since I began to show, I could barely step onto a bus or through the metro doors before I was offered at least one seat (and they’ll insist on it, even if I say I’m not traveling far). It’s not just on public transportation: I’ve been offered to cut in line for public bathrooms and even in line for ice cream. Several American cities like Boston and Chicago are considering or enacting rules against strollers (at least open ones) on public transportation to save space and aggravation for other passengers. When I return to New York, I’ll plan on wearing a baby sling or carrier on the subway, especially since few stations have elevators or escalators.

A few weeks before my baby arrived, I was wandering around Cihangir, a neighborhood I’d compare to San Francisco partially due its artsy, cafe-culture vibe, but mainly due to its many hills. My afternoon stroll involved many hikes up steep staircases and near-vertical sidewalks. Each time I’d pass a Turk, he would stop, watch, and wait for me to get to the top and once he saw I was okay and not about to pass out or go into labor, he’d continue on his way. Last week, I battled the same hills with a stroller and was helped by Turkish men on nearly every corner and curb.

So what makes Istanbul such a welcoming city for little ones while New York remains hostile? It’s hardly a small town, Istanbul’s official population of 13 million is nearly double that of New York and the high density doesn’t make it much less crowded. It could be the volume of children, Turkey’s birth rate is nearly double that of many western European countries and significantly higher than the United States. I asked on Twitter about what countries travelers have found to be the most baby-friendly and most hostile, and nearly all of the positive experiences were in European and Latin American countries. Writer Anita Bulan put it well when she noted that in these baby-friendly countries, kids are seen as a part of life and allowed to participate in it. I’ve seen babies out late at night with their parents in Argentina, young children at fancy restaurants in Italy, and toddlers in museums in Spain. I’ve also seen hardly any tantrums in these places. I haven’t figured out their secret yet, but I imagine it has to do with exposing them to real life from an early age. Few restaurants in Istanbul have a kid’s menu but nearly every place will happily provide something appealing to a child, even if it’s not on the menu. If a baby cries, the parents as well as strangers will quickly comfort him and return to their meal practically before anyone else can notice.

This week I applied for my baby’s first passport and am planning travel in Europe and home to the US in the next few months. I’m not sure what to expect in each place, we might continue to be treated like rock stars in Europe and get dirty looks in America, or the reverse. I’m hoping my past travel experience helps me navigate airports and new cities but I’m aware of how a little one will slow me down and make me think ten steps ahead. My baby won’t remember these early trips or appreciate new places, but I hope that kindly strangers and a well-used passport for my child will make me a better mother and traveler.

Vera Alcazar Nesterov was born July 12 in Istanbul. Read her about her travels before birth and pregnancy in a foreign country in past Knocked up Abroad posts.

Latin America on a budget: Suchitoto, El Salvador

We launched Gadling’s Latin America on a budget series last week with a post on Antigua, Guatemala. This week, we check out the impressive budget-friendly credentials of Suchitoto, El Salvador. Suchitoto is a well-preserved colonial town overlooking a scenic reservoir, situated about thirty miles from San Salvador. Suchitoto is a peaceful town that moves at its own quiet pace. It’s beautiful, charming, friendly, and absolutely picturesque, and should have a much higher profile as a tourist destination. The fact that it isn’t well known can be ascribed to El Salvador’s unfortunately poor reputation as a country for tourism.

Several tour operators in Suchitoto ply tourists with brochures hawking volcano hikes, kayaking expeditions, beach trips, and archaeological adventures across El Salvador. Though the town itself does not come with a long checklist of activities and specific attractions, there are several places and points of interest that shouldn’t escape the attention of visitors. And happily for our purposes here, just about every activity in Suchitoto can be sampled for $5, tops.Admission to Suchitoto’s one church, the blindingly white Iglesia Santa Lucía, on the town’s central plaza, is free.

A smattering of galleries in Suchitoto justifies the town’s reputation as a place receptive to artists. Galeria de Pascal, which has a deep inventory of art objects, home décor items, books, and honey–mostly from El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America–is likely the best of the crop.

Galeria de Pascal is owned by Pascal Lebailly, who is also the co-owner of Los Almendros, the fanciest hotel in Suchitoto. Even for visitors on a budget, Los Almendros is a great place to stop by for a cappuccino ($2.70). The lush courtyard is welcoming and the price of your cappuccino, while about as expensive as a filling meal elsewhere in town, is still pretty reasonable.

A donation of $2 gets you into Centro Arte de la Paz, with exhibits on Suchitoto’s cultural and physical history. The center hosts a number of programs and activities designed to promote nonviolence and also build skills and competencies among locals. The center operates an exhibit devoted to El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992), and is a very useful resource for visitors interested in the war’s history and significance.

Another top attraction is the Museo Alejandro Cotto (admission $4), a museum with lots of photographs chronicling the life of Cotto, a film director who took the lead in working to preserve the colonial nature of Suchitoto. Views of the reservoir from Cotto’s museum are quite possibly the best in town.

There are physical activities as well, none particularly demanding. Los Tercios waterfalls, dry for much of the year, can be visited with a tourist police accompaniment. (Suchitoto is very safe and the presence of the tourist police is gratuitous, but the tourist policemen often enjoy having the opportunity to converse.) There are also some waterfalls on the other side of town, which should only be visited with a local during dry weather. The path is steep and not marked terribly well. My guide led me down to the waterfalls, swam with me, and walked back with me along narrow trails, charging me $5 for his time.

And if you’d like to laze about by a pool, stop by El Tejado hotel and restaurant, where use of the pool costs $3.25 for the day. The views from El Tejado are outstanding as well.

Beds and grub are remarkably cheap in Suchitoto.

I stayed at El Gringo, a tiny hostel run by Robert Broz and his wife Tita. Robert, an American man of Salvadorean descent resident in El Salvador for many years now, is an expert on all things Suchitoto. Robert and Tita’s rooms run just $10 per person per night. The rooms are very simple and somewhat cavernous but comfortable. The toilet and shower are shared, and water from the shower is cold.

Food in Suchitoto is extremely inexpensive and in many cases delicious. Outstanding pupusas begin at 60 cents at El Gringo’s restaurant; they can be purchased for much less from street vendors. A full meal at El Gringo, including a beer, can be had for under $3.50. And while El Gringo is inexpensive, it is not vastly cheaper than many other restaurants in town. I strayed from El Gringo for a few meals; the most expensive of these topped out around $10.

One nighttime highlight is El Necio. a leftist bar filled with language students, volunteers, and locals. Shots of rum begin at $1.25. And for snacks, there is Pan Lilian, where an alfajor is yours for 25 cents.

Amazingly, a comfortable day on a budget of $20 is completely doable in Suchitoto. The only expense of note is transportation to and from the airport. It’s possible to take buses all the way to Suchitoto, with a change in San Salvador. But for anyone on a tight schedule, it makes more sense to negotiate a shuttle with your hotel. Mine cost $30 per person, and the journey took around an hour and 45 minutes. This cost seriously ate into my $75/day allotment, although costs are otherwise so low that I was able to meet my budget.

Who should visit Suchitoto on $75 a day? Couples, relaxation-minded travelers, and adventurous retirees.

Latin America on a budget: Antigua, Guatemala

My first Latin America budget adventure, to Antigua, Guatemala, got off to a bad start. My flight from New York to Atlanta was cancelled due to bad weather and I was rebooked via Los Angeles. I finally arrived in Guatemala City a day late, and two days of activities suddenly needed to be compressed into one. In the spirit of the assignment, however, I didn’t inflate my budget. $75 was my limit for accommodations, transportation from the airport, all food, and all activities.

Antigua is Guatemala’s top tourist draw. Famous for its language schools, its new age aura, and its nightlife, Antigua is a major tourist center, and it is undeniably cute. The town is a very pleasant place to loll about, with its particular hybrid of colonial, expat, new age, and contemporary Guatemalan influences, though it’s also easy for more action-oriented travelers to fill days here visiting the town’s churches, museums, and convents.

Antigua is also known as a jumping-off point for adventure activities, especially volcano climbing. One of these excursions would have made for a perfect second day’s activity.

Antigua is chock-full of visit-worthy spots. Some essential stops that also happen to be free include the Church of San Francisco, the Santa Catarina Arch, La Merced Church, and Antigua’s central park.

The Church of San Francisco dates back to the 16th century, though it has been rebuilt many times. A service was underway when I visited. The Arco de Santa Catarina is probably the most iconic sight in all of Antigua. It’s an arch across 5 Avenida North, one of the town’s busiest blocks. Its golden yellow hue is matched by the exterior of La Merced church one block away.

La Merced itself boasts a beautifully ornate stucco exterior of golden yellow and snaking white symmetrical vines that look from a distance like icing on a big yellow cake. Next to La Merced is a fountain which can be visited for 5 quetzales (65 cents.) The fountain was not running during my visit; apparently this is the normal state of affairs. Rounding out the town’s top free sights is Antigua’s Parque Central, located at the nerve center of Antigua. The fountain in the center of the park dates to the 18th century.Also not to be missed are a number of sights that have very reasonable admission costs. There is the Museo de Arte Colonial, which includes paintings, largely religious, of the colonial era. The collection is frankly a bit thin, though it is certainly of interest. Admission is 50 quetzales, or about $6.55.

There is a worthwhile exhibit on colonial religious life in the small museum area of the Capuchinas Convent, though the real treat here is the convent’s rambling compound. It features a glorious patio around a fountain and a still, echoey cellar. This was probably my favorite place in Antigua. Admission is 40 quetzales, or $5.25.

Also absolutely worth a visit are the ruins behind San Jose Cathedral, just off the Parque Central. Admission is 3 quetzales, or just under 40 cents. These ruins date from the late 18th century. There are underground storage spaces and at least one quaint and very popular underground chapel.

Eating and sleeping, of course, occupied the lion’s share of my remaining costs.

I had a delicious breakfast of eggs and beans at Fernando’s Kaffee, a lunchtime sandwich at Doña Maria Xicotencatl, and a chicken dinner–no shame!– at Pollo Campero, the enormous Guatemalan fried chicken chain restaurant. Pollo Campero has taken off across Central America and beyond. Table service sets the experience apart from US fast food chains.

At Doña Maria Gordillo Dulces Típicos, a famous traditional candy shop, I obtained a solid shot of sugar in the form of a delicious little dulce de leche puck for 5 quetzales, or about 65 cents.

Here’s my grub costs breakdown: Breakfast came to 34 quetzales ($4.40). Lunch was the most expensive meal at 46 quetzales ($6). Dinner was mine for 40 quetzales ($5.25). Three meals plus my caramel delight totaled $16.30.

My head hit the pillow at Hotel Casa Cristina, a cute guesthouse close to La Merced, where I paid $27 for a small, simple, and attractive room. Casa Cristina is a budget traveler’s dream spot–cheap, friendly, super clean, and without question a good value. Single rooms on the first floor at Casa Cristina begin at an even more affordable $22 per night in high season. There are cheaper places to bed down in Antigua, but I wanted charm and personable proprietors. I found both at Casa Cristina.

So how did I do in respect to my budget? I miscalculated slightly and ended up spending $76 on my action-packed day, once the shuttle from the airport was added into the total. Still, I came awfully close to spending under $75 even with a compressed schedule and the $20 cost of the shuttle from the airport into Antigua.

For anyone wanting to stay in Antigua for longer than a weekend, these costs should flatten out quickly. Those days that don’t require a shuttle to and from the airport, for example, will be much less expensive, and days spent visiting churches and other sights that don’t charge admission could easily translate into expenditures as low as $40 per day, assuming a baseline of $22 for accommodations and around $15 for food.

Hungry for more budget travel ideas? Be sure to check out Gadling’s budget travel archive.

Latin America on a budget: How to plan a budget-friendly adventure

Latin America is one of the world’s most budget-friendly regions for visitors. There are very cheap places to stay across the region–most notably across Central America–where a few dollars will get you a bed for the night and dinner.

But in a budget-friendly region like Latin America there are also huge divides in terms of quality. How do you do your research to make sure that you come up with decent accommodations and an itinerary that delivers the best value for your money?

There’s a big difference between a guesthouse that’s cheap, clean, and cheerful and one that’s filthy and barely fit for a hedgehog. There’s a big difference between good cheap restaurants and bad cheap grub, too. How do you make the right planning decisions to make sure that you end up pinching pennies in a manner that’s both high-value and high-quality?

In the video below I discuss how I planned my budget-friendly adventure to Antigua, Guatemala.

Check back tomorrow for my story and video on Antigua, Guatemala. On April 12 I’ll extend the same treatment to Suchitoto, El Salvador. All my videos were shot by Gadling’s own Stephen Greenwood. On April 19 Jeremy Kressmann will apply the Latin American budget magic to Bogotá, Colombia.

Latin America on a Budget is proudly sponsored by Delta Air Lines.

Five reasons Americans should choose Panama over the Caribbean, with day trips to boot

Panama. It’s a small nation of about 3.3 million inhabitants, with a land size roughly equal to South Carolina. It’s the southernmost country in Central America, and if not for its mind-bogglingly thick Darien National Park, the so-called Panamerican Highway could run from Alaska to the bottom of South America. But you knew all of that, didn’t you? What you may not be aware of, however, is just how stunning and tourist-friendly this incredible nation is. I recently embarked on a trip to Panama City and beyond, scurrying along the beach towns in Chame and the mountains of El Valle. If you’ve been considering a tropical getaway, particularly now that Old Man Winter is hovering over the United States, I’ve got five good reasons you should head south rather than east. Click on after the break for more, but only if you’ll kosher with mentally burning those final vacation weeks you’ve got socked away.


1) Panama uses US dollars as its currency

You heard right: US dollars! The how, who, what and why goes back quite some time and would probably only interest historians, but present day argonauts will certainly appreciate skipping the Robbery Machine (i.e. the foreign exchange booth) as they sail through customs. Panamanians may call it the Balboa, but make no mistake — the paper currency used throughout Panama is the US dollar, and coins are either US minted coins or Panamanian counterparts of identical size and weight. You may notice coins with slightly different markings, but if it looks like a quarter, you can bet it’ll spend like a quarter. (Fun fact: Panama’s quarters are accepted in American parking meters and drink machines.)

Bustling Panama City

But in all seriousness, it’s a huge relief to simply fly (or drive!) to Panama with the same currency that you use at home. No funky conversions to remember. No leftover foreign currency to exchange on the return trip. Just cold, hard, US cash. Better still, prices for nearly everything in Panama are far below US levels, so you’ll be fetching far more for your Benjamins here than back in the States.

2) Easy to reach (by plane or car)

Ever tried flying into a Caribbean airport? Okay, so it’s not that difficult, but your flight paths are generally limited. Really limited. Most of the outlying islands connect to the States via one major route, likely to Miami, Florida. One problem in South Florida, and you’re looking at a vacation-destroying delay. Tocumen International Airport (PTY) is a real-deal airport, with direct flights to a smorgasbord of locations around the world. It’s the only major airport in Central America with two runways, and it also happens to be one of the cheapest to fly into thanks to a healthy amount of airline competition. In the States alone, you’ll find direct flights to Houston, Miami, Orlando, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Newark and New York City.

Downtown Casco Viejo

Moreover, Panama’s closer than you might think to the States. It’s just 2.5 hours away by plane from Miami, and since it’s in the Eastern Time Zone, a good chunk of you folks won’t even have to adjust to an oddly setting sun. Let’s put it this way — you can get from Virginia to Panama in less time than it’d take you to fly from Virginia to California.

Life in El Valle

Oh, and did we mention that you can drive? For the absolutely carefree adventure travelers out there (with the right insurance policy), you can drive right through Texas, into Mexico and down the Panamerican Highway to Panama. We wouldn’t recommend this without being fluent in Spanish, but hey — talk about the ultimate road trip!

3) Diversity of land

Sure, Aruba has desert landscapes, and Turks and Caicos has the Conch Sound. Grand Cayman has shockingly blue waters fit for diving. But good luck finding a single place in the Caribbean, using a single currency, accessible via a single roadway system that offers picturesque beaches, white water rafing outfits and canopy tours. Panama is startlingly diverse; on one end, you’ve got the practically impassable Darien National Park. On the other, there’s Bocas Del Toro, a pristine hot spot for surfers. In between, you’ve got Boquete laden with flora, the lush mountains of El Valle, unspoiled beaches in Coronado and modern day nightlife awaiting you in Panama City. If you can’t find a landscape that suits you in Panama, you’re probably not looking hard enough.

Drive up to El Valle

Also, Panama road rules mimic those of America; folks drive on the right, and the Panamerican Highway runs nearly the length of the country. You’ll have far fewer signs and far more ambiguous speed limits, but it’s not too difficult to grok for the amateur traveler. After all, that’s what GPS rentals are for. I’m not saying driving in Panama is simple, but it’s totally doable. And yes, every single kilometer is an adventure of epic proportions.

4) No risk of hurricane

Here’s one you probably haven’t considered. In recorded history (reaching back to 1851 by some reports), not a single hurricane has made landfall on Panama. It remains the only Central American nation to avoid being struck by one, making it far safer to travel to than many of the islands hovering out in the Atlantic. No risk of hurricanes, yet still providing 365 days of pure, tropical bliss in terms of weather.

Gorgona Beach

5) It’s still natural… or should I say, unspoiled

Look, the Caribbean is a truly magnificent place. Given the sheer quantity of countries and cultures, it’s impossible — nay, unfair — to lump it all together as one. There are most certainly locales in the Atlantic chain of islands that are relatively unspoiled. Prune Island comes to mind, but that’s just one of many. But by and large, the unspoiled islands in the Caribbean don’t meet an earlier criteria here: ease of access. Some of these require multiple plane hops, ferry rides and golf cart shuttles. That may intrigue some, but the fewer connections in our schedule, the less potential follies we see.

Panama, on the whole, is still largely untouched by tourism. Just over one million non-natives visited last year, which definitely isn’t many in the grand scheme of things. Just an hour outside of Panama City lies a string of beach towns — Punta Chame, Gorgona, Coronado, El Palmar and San Carlos (just to name a few). You’ll find just enough lodging here to stay comfortably (rental condos are just now starting to pop up), but you’ll still get luscious views of the oceans (yeah, oceans — you can swim in the Pacific and Atlantic in under two hours if you’re a good enough driver) and jaw-dropping looks at nearby mountain ranges. You’ll be hard-pressed to find more than a few dozen Earthlings on Panama’s central beaches, particularly during the week. Postcard-quality shots abound, and it’s comically easy to lose the world and find your soul in secluded places like Punta Chame.

El Valle mountains

There’s just enough tourist infrastructure here to keep vacationers occupied — white water rafing, zipline excursions and fishing expeditions abound — but you’ll bypass the glut of chain restaurants, overpopulated coastlines and horrific traffic (outside of Panama City, of course) that typify so many other tropical destinations.

Needless to say, your trip will be made a great deal easier if you speak at least some Spanish. I barely speak a word of it, and managed to get by just fine. People are genuinely warm here, and the diversity and beauty of the land is certainly awe-inspiring. If you’re looking to take your next vacation in Panama, feel free to take a peek at a few recommended day trips I’ve compiled here:

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]