Ask any traveler about their experiences abroad and you’ll invariably get responses citing the opening of eyes, hearts, or minds. Travel IS the process of opening—exposing yourself to the influence of The Other, seeing great beauty through the eyes of another, and allowing yourself to be altered irreversibly by it.
Less frequently do you hear about the process of closing. I imagine it happens to most travelers at one time or another…take any open-minded person and subject them to constant touting and the less frequent but ever-threatening possibility of getting scammed or robbed, and most would end up with at least a bit of a shell—at best a wary eye, at worst a complete shut-down towards all interactions.
I’ll admit it: Jeremy and I grew a shell. After six months in Asia, we expected that any local who approached us on the street was trying to sell us something. We were most skeptical of those who didn’t lead with a sales pitch, but instead opened by asking where we were from or how long we had been in the country. We recognized the tactic for what it usually was—a lead to make us feel comfortable before the hard sell.
A week in Istanbul broke through that shell and smashed it into a million little pieces. Sure, there were people of the “Hello my friend, come into my carpet shop” variety, but the vast majority of our interactions with the locals here were surprisingly, I dunno, personal. If someone tried to sell us something and we politely declined, they still wanted to know where we were from, how long we would be in Turkey, and whether or not we were having a good time. It seemed like the Turkish people wanted to know all about us—even after we rejected their sales advance!
Even in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul’s most famous tourist market, it seemed like the selling was secondary to the bantering. To be fair, we met another traveler (who has been to Istanbul 8 times) who swears that the salesmen used to hassle you a lot more at the Grand Bazaar (he thinks that they government has instructed the sellers to back off). And, even though it’s off topic, it’s worth mentioning that we weren’t too impressed with the goods on display there (J and I walked through about 3 aisles before turning to each other and saying, “How much of this stuff do you think was made in China?”). But despite stall after stall of identical souvenirs for sale, our wanderings through this 500-year-old market were fascinating. Again, it was because of the people. One Turkish vendor in the spice market even engaged me in competent (though heavily accented) conversational Mandarin.
Turkey is a stunning country. The landscape is incredible and the architecture can knock you off your feet. But despite all of this physical beauty, it’s the people—so full of love and graciousness that they could pierce through a 12FOOT3 shell—that will really get to you.