As our most recent — and final — instalment of our rent-a-nephew program, we took two nephews to Turkey this summer.
Turkey was surprisingly difficult for us to travel in because we didn’t speak the language. I realize that that’s probably how it goes for most tourists, but we have generally been able to have *some* facility in the local language. Even when we went to Bali, we were able to learn some rudimentary grammar and vocabulary. This time, in part because Turkish is so hard for an Indo-European speaker and partly because we were *so* busy before the trip, we couldn’t really say more than “hello”.
Also because we were busy, we did essentially no planning ahead of time. Jim booked us a hotel for the first three nights in Istanbul, but aside from that, we had no itinerary. For the first two days, Jim and I discussed (with some input from the nephews) what we were going to do and how we were going to accomplish it. Note that “discuss” is a somewhat polite word.
Eventually, we admitted defeat and decided to throw ourselves on the mercy of a travel agent. We looked around on the Web for recommendations, and ended up going with Turista Travel. We walked in, told Davut who we were, what we were looking for, and he basically arranged everything.
The basic style of the trip he built for us was a sequence of mini-packages. “Package tour” had always sounded to me like “two weeks on a bus with 50 other rich old white Americans”, but that’s not the flavour of the trip. Instead, most days on the Turista-arranged tour went like this:
- Wake up at a decent, clean but not opulent hotel.
- Have breakfast at the hotel’s breakfast buffet (food included, drinks extra).
- Get picked up by a minivan that would carry a driver, a guide, and 2-6 other tourists, usually Europeans.
- Go to a cultural site, where the guide would show us around.
- Go to a banquet center (which our nephews quickly dubbed “Tourist Feeding Centers”) with (food included, drinks extra) with adequate but not super-tasty food and chairs with bows on the backs, filled with other rich white overweight tourists.
- Go to another cultural site, where the guide would show us around.
- Go back to the hotel *or* get sent on to the next hotel. Note that they arranged ALL the pickup / drop offs.
- Have dinner at the hotel’s buffet (food included, drinks extra).
This was not always the exact schedule.
- Sometimes the guides would take us to a really yummy place for lunch. Lunch costs came out of their profit, but they allowed as how they could only handle so many meals at the Tourist Feeding Centers. Those meals were usually really, *really* good (as opposed to adequate at the TFCs).
- Sometimes the guides would take us to commercial artistic establishments where we would get demonstrations of how crafts (e.g. rugs, pottery) were made, and be given the opportunity to buy stuff. We believe the guide got a kickback for bringing customers to the factory, but the demos were generally pretty interesting, and the pressure wasn’t too bad to buy.
- We went on a four-day boat trip where the rhythm was to go to anchorages and swim instead of getting tours of cultural sites. (The boys loved that part; I was bored.) (Food included, drinks extra.)
By and large, the trip went very smoothly. It was not perfect:
- One day the minivan broke down going over the mountains, and we lost an hour or two while they arranged a different van for us.
- One day our package was subcontracted to a different vendor, but we didn’t know that, so at the pickup, we were looking for “Turista” and the driver was looking for people looking for “Beach”.
- One day, there was some confusion about which bus we took, when, and where the tickets were supposed to come from. The hotel’s English-speaker was on vacation, plus we didn’t realize we already had the tickets, etc.
However, in the first case, it wasn’t anybody’s fault, in the third case we were at least partially to blame, and in ALL cases, the staff worked hard to make it right. (When we got back to Istanbul, I stopped by the Turista office and Davut tried to refund our money for the bus ticket; I insisted that we only take half because it was partially our fault.)
We might have been able to do the trip cheaper ourselves, but it is more likely that it would have been more expensive if we had done it “a la carte”, and I am sure that we would have encountered more frustration and seen less if we had done it ourselves. I am pleased with Turista and would recommend them to all but the most experienced or frugal travellers.
We spent three days in Istanbul at the beginning of the trip and two or three at the end of the trip on our own, and did mosque and museum crawls which I found quite interesting. We also ate really, really well. The food in Turkey is really, really yummy in general.
The cultural sites were great from my point of view; the swimming was great from the boys’ point of view. My take on those is probably no more interesting or insightful than any other travelogue you can find on the Web for the most part. I will give you only a few points:
- We made a special effort to stop in the capital, Ankara. It’s not on the usual tourist route; apparently there’s not much there. However, they do have an amazing museum there that were quite interesting to someone interested in old writing systems. In particular, they had lots of cuneiform tablets. I had always thought of cuneiform tablets as being like the tablets that Moses is shown carrying in cartoons: about as tall as waist-to-chin; a bit wider than a torso. Well, to my surprise, they are about the size of iPhones, and the script is TINY. The script was made by pressing the ends of reeds into clay and the reeds were basically the size of small grass blades. I guess it makes sense: iPhones fit nicely in the hand, and one would probably want a cuneiform tablet to fit nicely in the hand.
- Also at that museum, I saw artwork that seemed to be between cave paintings and stylized Greek art. I found that fascinating: I had never seen quite that niche of art before.
- As everyone else who has been to Turkey will tell you, the Turks are very very friendly, especially rug salesmen who want to show you their wares. However, something very interesting happened: they were on us like flies when we were in Istanbul at the start of the trip, but much less when we returned at the end of our trip! Someone suggested that we walked differently or gazed differently, but I don’t think that was it: I think we were pasty white at the start of the trip and suntanned at the end of the trip. So if you want less hassle from the rug vendors, catch some rays before you go.
Best anecdote of the trip: there was some commotion at a restaurant we were at. The woman at the table behind me was complaining loudly that she had complained three times “Excuse me, this is rubbish” to a busboy and said busboy did not bring the manager so she could complain about the food. (Excuse me, that’s HIGHLY colloquial English!) The manager (who eventually showed up) pointed out that the busboy didn’t speak English well. The woman then exclaimed, “How do you expect to serve the public if you can’t even speak the language???”
I was pleased that my nephews both immediately had to stifle laughter and also pleased that the woman was British and not American. 🙂