Be curious, not judgmental.” -Walt Whitman
My last warning not to travel to Istanbul came less than 24 hours before the trip.
I’d received numerous raised eyebrows from friends, family, and acquaintances, upon mentioning my travel destination, so this particular person’s comments at a tailgate the day before I left, “Oh, I would never travel there, be safe, Megan!” didn’t bother me too much. I’d done my research, I knew just how far away Istanbul was from the Syria/Iraq crises at the border and how the threats were no different (actually, much less) than to any other major city in the world. Really, in some ways, the comments made me even more determined to follow through with my plans.
I’m so glad I did.
Upon my first trip overseas a few years back, my well-traveled best friend told me that in international airports, you should make sure you go to taxi stands to get your ride to the hotel. She may have learned this from fellow travelers, she may have watched “Taken” a few times, but either way, it’s always seemed like sound advice. When a non-uniformed man offered in Istanbul’s airport to give us a ride to the hotel for a fee, I politely declined. When he pushed, I walked away.
And that’s that last time I felt uncomfortable for the next four days.
Our hotel concierge, clearly a native, sat us down to plan our 3-day itinerary — a service we greatly appreciated. His suggestion of visiting Taxsim Square our second day widened my eyes; I even reached for the list of neighborhoods I’d heard in the news could pose a threat. But before I could, he laughed and shook his head. “You Americans and your media, there is nothing bad going on in Taxsim Square!” He was right. Not only did my stepmom and I enjoy seeing the modern-day government buildings of Turkey, I also enjoyed marveling at the peace around me, feeling more secure than I’d felt even in New York City’s Times Square.
It did prove hard initially not to be struck by all the women who covered themselves, many clothing everything but their eyes. It didn’t make me feel uncomfortable — as in, despite the stereotypes, I didn’t feel unsafe — yet it did make me a little sad. Something about a woman having to completely hide her body while the men walked around free to do as they pleased, felt to me like inferiority. Until I read the CNN article the next day.
Published literally on the second day we arrived, available as I sat and enjoyed our Turkish breakfast, was an article by a Muslim woman explaining many of her religious practices — particularly, covering. She explained that she chose to cover so that only God could see her body, not anyone else. Now, I do not proclaim to be a religious expert, but reading her story completely changed my perspective. After all, if a man was truly in charge of what women wore, wouldn’t he have them walking around in bikinis? Maybe, maybe not, but for the rest of the trip I looked at covered women in an entirely new light, as followers of what I learned from the article and from my time in Istanbul, to be a very peaceful, fair-minded religion.
Overall, the Turkish people turned out to be some of the nicest I’ve met. At a tram stop our second day, the machine declined my credit card. Unfortunately, the only currency I had was Euros, acceptable at many places in Turkey, but not at a machine. As my stepmom and I looked around us for an ATM, the guy behind me tapped my shoulder, put 4 Turkish Lira into the machine and instructed my us to please take the travel coins.
I have a personal motto that I like to repeat about education: “The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.” My trip to Istanbul reminded me that travel is just like education — The more of the world you see, the more you realize you haven’t seen and don’t know about.
The first time I traveled out of the country was to a Cozumel, Mexico. A resort, tourist destination, *most* things I encountered seemed like attempts to mimic the US, from the products available, to the television, to the lifestyle, and this left me with the sort of notion that everywhere is just trying to be like the US. Then I went to Europe, where just about everything is different…and it works.
Which makes me think.
It makes me enter situations, both home and abroad, with the idea that you can do the same things differently and still achieve the desired outcome. It makes me realize not to judge too quickly, and to accept new perspectives. If I would’ve listened to the many quick assumptions and judgments based on Turkey’s Middle-Eastern location, I would’ve never gone. Instead, I checked all the important resources — US travel advisories, fellow travelers who had BEEN there — and kept my mind open to a new place.
Traveling to a country as far away — both in views and distance — from my own reminded me just how little I know about the rest of the world.
And of course how much more I want to find out.