Tuesday, September 17, 2013

This past July, I chased the moon across three continents, traveling to Tangier, Barcelona, Cinque Terre and Istanbul. I intentionally gained 3.7 kilos in carpets, bowls, paintings and trinkets and not so willingly added a few from the constant tasting of breads, gelato, bruschetta, tapas, sangria, and hot mint tea so sweet it rivals Chick-Fil-A. I stood before artistic geniuses like Gaudi and Picasso and was amazed by the beautiful ceramics and windows of Topkapi palace and the Blue Mosque. I rode all forms of transportation, though the most exhilarating were a camel on the beach and on a wagon behind a galloping horse down the highway. I hiked, swam and kayaked along the Mediterranean Sea falling in love with the colorful villages tucked amidst tremendous mountains veiled in vines. And I experienced a traditional hamman where I was exfoliated with black sea scrub,and exited an entire skin shade lighter. 

During this time, I observed a flaw of traveling; The ease in which we forfeit the substantial things for the sheer excitement attached to seeing a new world. Everything is exotic- the food, the language, the scenery-and it’s easy to get trapped inside the way your eyes interpret it, rather than the way your heart might. This in turn excludes one of the most important parts of becoming cultured; understanding people. 

I have 2,000 pictures to remind myself of the things that I witnessed, but I also have a notebook that I think I’ll always cherish more than the pictures I print and cover my walls with. It’s pages are full of messy scribbles of the people I met and hope to remember forever. Like Mohammed, a boy of about 16, who seemed to appear around every corner to help us with directions, always with a cheerful countenance, as he said, “hello spice girls.” Like the dad who got his topsiders shoe-shined in Barcelona, solely to give business to a man who needed it. Like the man with a toothless grin at a roadside stand who grew his own oranges and squeezed the juice for passing neighbors. 

Traveling to both Tangier and Istanbul during Ramadan was an interesting experience. Ignorant to a lot of the Islamic faith, my first impressions of the month-long religious fasting, were of sheer terror as we woke in the middle of the night to a call to prayer on the loudspeaker and what sounded like hundreds of people pounding on drums and screaming in the streets.  Feeling like the country was going to war, I spent what seemed like ages gripping tightly to my sheets, barely able to breathe. The next day we heard stories of the hostility provoked by not eating or drinking all day in the dead of summer, and how last year angry men ransacked a bar that was illegally selling alcohol during the time period, destroying all the liqueur bottles, furniture and hurting people in the process. Fast forward to Istanbul and the sickly feeling in the pits of my stomach as we walked around Topkapi palace and saw beautiful ancient relics given from the Egyptians to the Ottoman Empire as gifts for killing Christians and a discussion afterwards of the genocide in 1915 of the Armenian race. And I’m ashamed to admit, a part of me struggled with how their faith claims to be one of such love and understanding and yet they can discriminate against my beliefs and exhibit such violence regarding religion. 

Despite my internal confusion, I didn’t have to mask my immediate feelings of affection for the Turks. In attempts to stuff our ever-growing suitcases with things from the Grand Bazaar, I adored the fact that everyone we encountered treated us like old friends. We sat cross-legged on many floors, as shop owners dug through towering piles of pillow covers. We followed more people into private jewelry showrooms than I think my parents want to hear about. And we were spoiled with apple teas, coming to a consensus that perhaps the famous “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” extends to apple tea as well as the fruit itself. One of my favorites was a precious man who had pillow covers in his hands and laughed at us as we passed, and I had the audacity to take it and hit him in the head like a pillow fight, to which we both keeled over with uncontrollable laughter. As we talked with him he continually wished us good health and happiness for all our lives, and as we left the bazaar, elated, it took all my control to not high-five every person we passed. 

Over the next few days, I grew to love the Turks impeccable sense of humor and the fact that they not only understood my sarcasm, they gave it right back. More so, I began to notice their deliberate generosity; The sweet old man at a Baklava shop who offered me a chair beside him, the free desserts we were given at almost every single restaurant we ate at, and the dry cleaner who was going to stay open for as long as it took us to get across town. But the thing that will remain with me forever, came on the day I lost my wallet in the Grand Bazaar.  

While photographing Turkish towels and proposing a future as business partners, leaving my purse unattended for five minutes, my whole wallet was stolen. It’s hard to dismiss the initial feeling of being played a fool, but as I glanced around me, all I could see was the frustration and empathy from the nearby shop owners. They expressed their sincere apologies, promising they would do everything they could to find it, and I burst into tears and gave them hugs, overwhelmed by their kindness.

Within minutes of the Grand Bazaar police being alerted, each security guard had blocked the exits, three undercover policemen came to question me and the two women who had taken my wallet were found, with a bag full of disguises and four different currencies on them. We were taken to the Grand Bazaar headquarters to watch security cameras and then to the city police station to file a police report. There we joked with the officers of their filing system since I was writing all my details on scraps of paper and they had crumbled balls of paper pouring out from underneath the desk. And as we walked back to the Bazaar with Burkay, our translator and friend who spent the day with us, he joked about holding tightly to our purses, laughing to me and saying, “well your wallet got stolen so I guess you can leave yours open.”

At the end of the day, it was just my wallet. Of course it’s a pain to cancel and reorder credit cards to be sent to France. I don’t want to endure the DMV to get a new license and was a bit bummed to lose my student discount card for Jcrew. Fortunately though, I was safe, I had my passport, and everything was replaceable. However, to the Turks it was a big deal. They saw me as more than a foolish tourist, wearing a very unambiguous colorful tunic, purchased the night before since all of my clothes were bed bug bombed. To them, I was a friend in need, and as I thanked them a million times, Burkay kept saying, “it’s fine, you would do the same thing for me.” Struck by his simple, yet profound words, that parallel scripture, I was left hoping he was right but wondering if I really would lose a day’s worth of profits by closing my shop, spend hours repeatedly translating the same story for a police report for a complete stranger, all the while exhausted from having no food or water all day. I can only hope so and certainly intend to be mindful from now on. 

Our guardian angels continued to watch over us at the airport the next day as a man walking into work passed us as we were getting our bags out of a taxi. We’d booked a taxi you could pay with a credit card, but were pointed to the wrong one as we left our hostel and were unable to pay. Without hesitation he pulled out his wallet, paid the driver and gave us his card saying just to shoot him an email when we got back to Paris. His response to my email thanking him, was simply, “To help someone and to see that honest people are still somewhere out is more precious than 50 dollars. Glad you got to see what the Turkish people are like.” 

My wallet has since been found. The women took the money out and ditched it in a store in the bazaar. The shop owner looked inside, found a card from a carpet guy I’d met during my travels, who then contacted me on Facebook and found my mom’s cell phone number. My dear friend, Burkay, retrieved it and has put it in the mail for me, saying I don’t owe him anything for the cost of post, but that he hopes I can one day be his tour guide in Paris. 

Not a day has passed that I haven’t been grateful to the people of Turkey-- for their sincerity and graciousness; For their humor and lightheartedness, despite what their country may be fighting for. But most of all I’m thankful for shifting my perspective and allowing myself to refocus on the importance of loving people, no matter what cultural, religious, or political differences you may have. For half of what makes this world so beautiful, are the people who are placed here with us. And it would certainly be shame to be blind to half of it’s beauty. 

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