Monday, December 23, 2013

Greece/Turkey - Leaving, Culture Overload

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Aboard a small Turkish ferry.
Thursday, November 3

Gusty winds woke me periodically. I looked to make sure my belongings were still between me and the wall, turned over, tucked the loose ends of the sleeping bag beneath my legs and settled down again. A cooler breeze lifted my bangs. I realized we were somewhere out in the open Aegean Sea.

At 4 a.m. voices announced in four languages that we'd arrived at Chios. Andy and I rolled from the boat. It was too early for shops to open. We made coffee, ate cereal as the Turkish sunrise glowed orange-red, revealing a flat landscape, ethereal, alluring. An unknown country captivates us – Turkey even more so because it would be the eastern most country in Europe for us and our first experience with Muslim religion.

We spent the day on errands: buying food, round-trip tickets to Cesme, Turkey, locating a Greek-English translation book (long overdue as we'll return to Greece later), and to our surprise are unable to convert Greek drachmas to Turkish currency. The tourist office frowns on the money, “it's worthless”, and recommends leaving it behind upon our return.

Since arriving on Greek soil, it was easy to overlook the first disparaging remarks against the Turkish people, but unfortunately animosity runs deep, often spilling over into conversation. I imagine it's difficult to let go of ingrained hostilities, fueled from early Ottoman Empire strife, inflamed during Greek independence, to current Cyprus war and disputed fishing territory. As U.S. citizens we've been insulated from war for nearly 200 years on our own soil, whereas in parts of Europe it bubbles beneath the surface, never so evident as on our Grecian travels.

As we go through Greek custom formalities, I recount to Andy a run-in with a overly friendly Greek man. I scribbled in our journal, passing the time while Andy was away on errand. The man had been friendly at first, but eventually it becomes evident he wants more than conversation. I point at the ring on my hand, which didn't dissuade his intentions, until I raise my voice and insist he leave me alone. Afterward, I kept glancing over my shoulder, waiting for my husband's return.

Cesme harbor, Turkey. Photo credit:
The Turkish ferry had arrived by 11 a.m., but sat in the harbor for several hours before it's application was accepted. It seems par for the course in Greek-Turkish relations. Fortunately, we'd been forewarned. We arrive at, pay $12.00 each in Greek port taxes, and board the small ferry boat after 4 p.m.

The captain is a short, smiley, gray-haired man who, after helping lift bikes inside, shook hands in a fun way. I copied him, dancing around with our fingers. We laughed. He welcomed us on board. No need for language translation.

Andy and I sit top-side, befriending an American lady who has resided in Izmir for fourteen years. She was accompanied by a French and New Zealand women. Every 3 months the trio spends a day in Greece, applies for another 3-month visa, pays requisite $20.00 Turkish tax, and get their passports re-stamped, repeating the process when necessary. The American vows that living in Turkey is Asia's best kept secret.

During our conversation, the captain appears bearing a tray full of saucers holding tiny glasses of sweet black tea. I smile at the captain. I am overwhelmed. After he leaves, I exclaim my wonderment to the ladies. They tell us the Turkish people are very hospitable and love to care for you. The ladies ease our transition with helpful tidbits: Islam is primary religion, replacing Christianity in the Byzantine area; call to prayer occurs several times a day; only men go to Mosque; women pray at home. Campgrounds are probably closed, but suggests pansiyons (pensions) which are very cheap, approximately 10.00 USD. Turkish lira fluctuates on a daily basis so don't change more than 100.00 at a time.

The boat pitches sideways across the ocean rollers. In spite of the short hour ride I grow nauseous and concentrate on the horizon for the remainder of our journey. The sun sets as we enter Cesme's port. Islam's call to prayer sounds like a buzzing chant, emits from loudspeakers atop 2 or 3 mosques, enveloping the small city. I am excited, nervous, frightened and mesmerized. I am unprepared when a shipmate, only ten feet from me, drops anchor; the chain lowers as a deafening rattle, echoing, and reverberating throughout the wooden hull. I jump and nearly let out a scream.

Andy and I pass through customs, pay the 20.00 per person fee – new practice as of October 1 – from our U.S. currency stashed in neck pouches. Our travel companions point us toward lodging before heading off to Izmir. In the dark we observe shops are open with very few pedestrians. Andy inquires at one hotel, but 60-65.00 USD is too steep. Later we learn the hotel's historical significance, providing overnight accommodation to caravanserai’s many years ago. A helpful teenager directs us to a pansion. Sure enough, after checking the room with queen-size bed, private bath, balcony, priced at 250,000 lira (7.50 USD) we accept and count ourselves lucky. The young man bows, refusing any token of appreciation other than our smiling gratitude.

Before relaxing however, we must go out, locate a travel agency/exchange business to convert American Express travelers checks into local currency to pay for room, food, and a few days of travel. Again, we are offered tea, but respectfully decline, preferring to retreat to the pansiyon. I am happy to learn that I am not the only one who suffers from culture shock. Andy, normally upbeat and adaptable, also needs time to adjust and regroup to a strange, intriguing country – especially thrust ashore in darkness. We collapse in bed by 9 p.m., mentally exhausted, though excited to explore Cesme in daylight, prepared to venture on bikes the following day.

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