Have you ever gone on a trip, not expecting anything more than a few days of rest and fun, and ended up with a radically new perspective? Have you gone somewhere expecting one thing and received something completely different? You may have come home from your trip with a great tan, as well as a whole new head space—looking at your life in a completely new way, and feeling either shaken or thrilled, or both.
We travel for a lot of different reasons, but I would guess that the top reasons are: to experience places that are different from where we live, to visit exotic and beautiful parts of the world, and to dip our toes into a different stream while we take a break from our everyday lives.
The first time I remember experiencing a destination as a new way of seeing things was when I took a 4 day trip to Istanbul. I was living in Athens in the late 80s on a residency visa and every 3 months I had to leave the country to renew the visa.
Somewhere in the far recesses of my mind I had wanted to visit Turkey, but truthfully, at the time that I went, I was just looking for a different place to go, have a fun few days and go home. When a friend that I worked with told me she had a friend in Istanbul who would be happy to show me around, that made my decision all the easier.
I arrived in Istanbul and was met at the airport by my new friend Gürken. Over the next few days he took me to some amazing places—the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace— he took me down back streets, and to small bazaars and markets and I met many of his friends and much of his family. He wanted to show me everything about the city that was his beloved home, and so to make the trip complete, he also took me to the Asian side of the city. He said he wanted me to see the whole of Istanbul, not just the side that was for the tourists.
We crossed the Bosphorus in a little boat and landed on the Asian side of Istanbul. I believe Istanbul is the only city to reside in two continents. I have to repeat that another way: One city, Two continents. Imagine the city you live in straddling 2 continents, especially two as varied as Europe and Asia.
Our main destination was the home of some of his friends, for a hike along the water and then dinner. After the crossing, we stopped at the market to buy produce and fish as our contribution to the meal. I had travelled some in my then short life, but I had never travelled into a world so vastly different then my own.
I had never seen women with veils over their faces in person,, or three wives in full burqa, walking behind their one husband. I had never seen the beauty and the poverty that I saw that day. And I had never seen my western-female-self, through someone’s eyes who had not grown up in anything close to my world.
I was young, in my early-mid twenties and I can’t remember exactly what I wore that day but it was probably a variation on my usual theme at that time: blue jeans, t-shirt, lots of necklaces and bracelets, and sandals. I remember feeling lots of eyes on me. I couldn’t tell if the women looked at me, their heads were down or covered; and from the men there were no direct gazes, only peripheral looks filled with disapproval, but it felt like all eyes were on me. And then I looked around more carefully, and realised that I was the only woman there whose head and arms were not covered, and one of the few women there that did not have her face covered.
It never occurred to me that I should have asked how to dress before we got in the boat to make the crossing. It never occurred to me that anyone except maybe my mother might have a disapproving thought about what I had decided to wear that day. When I realised that we were at the center of a lot of uncomfortable attention, I felt a quick succession of emotions: embarrassment, confusion, irritation, then back to embarrassment.
I asked my friend why he hadn’t thought to tell me that it would be different on this side of the city, that I should bring something to cover my head, that I should have dressed just a little more low key. He told me he hadn’t thought about it.
We talked at dinner that night about the differences between western and eastern culture, the differences between western and Muslim culture, and where it is that we meet, and where it is that we misunderstand each other. We talked about women, and their places in both cultures, and we talked about men and their place too. I realised how very different my life was from theirs. Not better, not worse, just different.
In the days and weeks after I got home to my apartment in Athens, to my Australian roommate, to my job at a British magazine, and to my group of friends from different places around the world, I thought about some of the things I had seen and felt, about the things we had discussed at that dinner table in eastern Istanbul and acknowledged that even with all my travel and my friends from different places in the world, I still had a lot to learn about the world, about people, about cultures different from my own.
My trip to Istanbul gave me the gift of seeing myself through the lens of another culture. It changed the way I look at people, and opened me up to the fact that though I had already seen a lot of the world in my then short life, I hadn’t begun to scratch the surface of what was out there to be experienced. I look back at that day in the marketplace, and remember how that was the day that I discovered that the world is much much deeper and bigger and wider than I had ever truly realised.
One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. -Henry Miller
EDITED to ADD: Reading all of your comments has been a great experience and after reading them realised that I needed to add a few more words. The experience that I talked about was less a travel piece about Turkey and much more about something that happened to me, that was personal to my experience, and an important part of my education as a “citizen of the planet”.
Istanbul (the only place I have ever been to in Turkey) is probably one of the most exotically wonderful places I have ever visited. I grew up in a few different countries in Western Europe, South America and also the U.S., and so when I visited Turkey I thought I had seen enough of the world that there was not much more for me to learn. I was wrong about that. That was what my post was about, and it was written less as a piece about travelling and more about how it changed the way I saw myself and the world.
My trip to Turkey was full of wonderful experiences and many new insights. I met many lovely, warm people, and visited some amazing places. But mostly that 4 day trip taught me a lot about what I didn’t know about the world.
I would love to hear about anyone else’s experiences on a trip that taught them similar lessons about themselves and the world, and would love to hear more stories about Turkey today. As I said at the beginning of the story, this was an experience from the late 80s—1987 to be specific—and perhaps much has changed in that area of Istanbul since then.
I think one of the most amazing things about travel is that it can teach us about how others live, and teach us just as much about our selves. What a gift!
Liz Kalloch is a regular contributor to Gypsy Girl’s Guide.