Friday, March 26, 2010

Look At Me! I'm Culturally Aware and Indignant!

The craziest thing happened to me this week - I got homework.  It’s nothing like the levels of homework I've done at Mudd, it does include assignments for all of my 6 classes, and in some of them I have had to teach myself how to do things that all the other students learned in previous years.  While this is by and large a good thing, it has required me to prioritize my activities, and obsessively blogging has not seemed as important as passing my classes (in the typical Mudd fashion, this means I need a B or higher), traveling or spending time with friends.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been on two trips that showed a pretty serious contrast in traveling styles.  The first, to Tuz Gölü (Salt Lake) was a pretty ideal adventure to a not-particularly-nice place.  The lake is huge, and about an hour from Ankara on a major road.  Johnny and I were sold on going after seeing pictures of miles of salt crystals on the base of the lake, shown on a blog of an American expat in Turkey.

There was actually very little information about the lake outside of this one blog.  The Turks think that visiting a giant salt lake is a stupid idea.  They believe that lakes are dirty (partially because the country has a nasty habit of dumping raw sewage into lakes) and prefer to sip tea by massive artificial water features instead.  In checking my story for this post, I asked two of my Turkish friends whether they had swum in a lake.  One had once, but it had been in another country.  The other had never even considered the possibility.

We took the bus from the main terminal, arriving at the town of Şereflikoçisar (to our confusion, just about everyone calls it Koçisar).  From the town (which had the sort of charm you can only find in dusty, forlorn Turkish towns) we had a nine kilometer walk to the lake.  It was quite a nice day and everyone was out, though we had no clue exactly what they were doing.  There were a lot of families that seemed to be picking trash up from the side of the street.  Others apparently were burning small patches of grass.  All seemed friendly, though not particularly talkative.  Eventually we made it to the side of the lake, which was still pretty wet, but had some sizable salt deposits.  We hitched a ride back to the city from an insistently helpful but marginally talkative guy, ate some pide (sort of like pizza), and talked to some inquisitive locals before our bus departed.

The following weekend we went to Cappadocia with most of the Erasmus (European exchange) students at METU.  As I dislike many of the Erasmus students almost as much as I dislike taking bus tours with 40 people, I had low hopes for the trip.  Pitzer agreed to pay for a single Erasmus-based trip though, and as Cappadocia is a little hard to see without a car, I decided to go with Johnny, Nick (from Pitzer) and Müjgan, (my closest Turkish friend).

The trip consisted of a lot of what Müjgan called "Halı Kilim Turizm."  The term was a little confusing at first, since Turkey is all about carpets.  While the tourists no doubt are exposed to tons of carpets, the locals line their homes with them, and the roads out of Ankara feature miles upon miles of carpet factory outlets.

Site-by-site on our bus route, I worked up a rough definition.  The parts of the country heavily traveled by tourists are full of elements of the Turkey of lore – less like real Turkey than like the average western conception of the country.  I spent a weekend searching for camels during the heat of camel wrestling season and saw not a single camel.  This past weekend, I saw no fewer than four camels, their garishly-dressed owners offering rides to tourists craving that “Authentic Turkish Experience.”  “Turkey Night,” held in a massive cave full of foreigners, was an improvement in that it resembled a meyhane (rakı bar), but the decision to have traditional wedding dancing rather than depressing music (a must in a meyhane) seemed like a cop-out.

Now this really wouldn’t have bothered me, except I get the impression that these same attractions crowd almost every popular tourist site in Turkey.  Shuttled in air conditioned bus from one site to another, there are probably some tourists that leave the country still convinced that people ride camels and wear fezzes (the latter of which have been semi-illegal for 80 years).

This is probably a bad thing for Turkey.  I’ve spoken to a bunch of Turks that studied abroad, and they all complained that they constantly had to convince people in their host countries that they did not ride camels to school or keep women in harems.  Some of these westerners had even been to Turkey, but all they saw were camels and belly dancers.

An hour away from Cappadocia, Şereflikoçisar is poorer and more isolated, but a tourist there would have trouble distinguishing it from Eastern Europe.  I have little doubt that if it were to suddenly become a major tourist attraction, it would start to look a whole lot more like a trading village in Yemen.

Anyway, that’s enough self righteous complaining.  Here are the links to some pictures:

Tuz Gölü


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