Here’s a list of some of the most important lessons (and plenty of not-so-important lessons) that we’ve learned while travelling this amazing country!
1 PLACES ARE GREAT, PEOPLE ARE BETTER
As much as you travel to see natural wonders, history, art, and visit museums, making friends and dipping into the culture is so much better. The best, of course, is when you get to combine the two.
2 LANGUAGE IS HUGE
While simply knowing the names of the places you’re going and being willing to use a ton of hand gestures can get you basically anything you need, the thing that has really opened up Turkey for me has been learning Turkish. It’s what has allowed me to make friends with locals and it’s the locals who can take me to the really cool stuff and explain the culture, history, and intricacies of life.
3 MY PASSPORT ISN’T SWEAT PROOF
It’s easy to spot my passport in a pile of other passports. I went for a short hike in Urfa (that’s Edessa for you Templars), which is basically always hot, with my passport in my back pocket and now the once brilliant gold coat of arms is almost completely gone.
4 THE QUALITY OF A SPRING IS MEASURED BY ITS ABILITY TO MAKE WATERMELON EXPLODE
In central Turkey every town has its spring and the locals take great pride in how cold and sweet the water is. Often a pool is carved out in the spring and the water is used to keep food and drinks cold. Whenever someone talks about how good the spring is (and they talked about it a lot, especially in Bingöl and Malatya), they would say that it was cold enough to burst a watermelon!
5 BROWN MEANS ADVENTURE
OK I exaggerate, it’s not even a great colour EXCEPT! that brown street signs mark the way to all sorts of attractions. Sometimes it’s a cave, or the türbe of some historic figure, a ruined city, or a national park. Either way, I always make sure to look these places up and add them to my list of places to visit if I don’t have the time right then.
6 OFF THE BEATEN TRACK IS GREAT (USUALLY)
Exploring off the beaten track isn’t a sure-fire way to great experiences. While many of my favourite places and best memories have happened off the beaten track I’ve also hit plenty of dead ends. I’ve even driven a few hours only to find out that the town we were headed to had nothing to offer and we had to turn back. Once we even drove 5 hours out of our way only to find our destination closed! It happens but if you’re willing to take the gamble there can be great stuff in store.
7 APPRECIATE THE CHEAP STUFF
You don’t have to be a millionaire to be able to travel, but even so a good many of us need to forsake the luxury travel for the budget whether we like it or not. The great thing in Turkey is that budget travel will give you a much better look at what Turkey is actually like. Only a small portion of locals could afford many of the tourist experiences priced for foreigners. Eating like a local away from the tourist hubs will not only be more authentic but often one third of the price for the same food. So embrace and enjoy the cheap side of Turkey and don’t worry about missing out on the expensive stuff if you’re on a tight budget!
8 PICK THE RIGHT RENTAL CAR
Make sure the car is safe but also try not to rent something so fancy that you end up standing out TOO much. Our car got bumped up to a higher class one time and we really regretted looking so rich in some really poor areas that we ended up in; it only alienated us from the locals.
9 EVERYONE’S TRAVEL STYLE IS DIFFERENT
I’ve been to a lot of ruined cities and have a list of a few hundred more I’d like to go to some day. My wife, on the other hand, is DONE with ruins. When planning out your trip feel free to ignore other people’s Must See lists (not our list of course, ours is amazing) and just do what you’re into.
10 DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE CURIOUS
Many of my favourite memories come from times when I’ve acted on my curiosity and followed a little gravel road, stopped to check out a cave I saw in the hills above, or went to talk to some interesting looking strangers. It doesn’t mean throw all caution to the wind but following your curiosity with a bit of boldness can often lead to some awesome things.
11 EVERYONE IN ISTANBUL IS FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE
Istanbul has grown immensely over the past few decades with millions of people pouring in from the small cities looking for work. One of the quickest ways to make a friend here is to ask where someone is from (they’ll usually be confused and be like “I’m a Turk obviously” to which you clarify with “But where is your memleket?” which is kind of like motherland). If you’ve been to their memleket, you’re friends. As soon as I told a guy at a government office that I had been to his memleket I got personally escorted past hundreds of people to the front of the line!
12 OVERLY TOURISTIC PLACES SEEM TO RUIN PEOPLE
These are the places that you get ripped off at and people will often look at you as an opportunity to make money rather than a relationship; go off the beaten track and it’s the opposite. In the tourist hot spots you’ll likely pay double the normal price and, in those places where foreigners rarely go, they’ll likely just bring you home and feed you.
13 EVERYONE LOVES CATS MORE THAN ME
While I wouldn’t call myself a cat person, I do like them. But in Turkey, and especially in Istanbul, people take it to a whooole new level. Cats hang out in cafes and no one will disturb them for almost any reason, people buy them food, and to walk by a cat without petting it is a bit heartless (the Turkish word ‘to pet’ is actually the same verb as ‘to love’). People will even go out and buy medication for the street cats! There was a park where great herds of cats usually roamed, and a sign was put up letting people know that the cats were taking eye medication for the next week so please don’t give them any other medication!
14 GARBAGE SUCKS
While this isn’t the case everywhere, there are parts of Turkey where litter is a major problem. People throw their garbage directly into the sea even if there’s a garbage can right next to them and some of the most beautiful natural sites have heaps of burnt tires, old mattresses, and overflowing garbage cans ruining what should be pristine natural beauty. While you can’t just show up and start cleaning up ALL the garbage (there’s too much and when foreigners did that once it didn’t go down well) make sure to at least do your part and a bit extra if you can. Hopefully this garbage plague will stop ruining these beautiful places soon.
15 IT’S WORTH SLOWING DOWN AND TAKING YOUR TIME
But that means you won’t be able to do as much! Ultimately, quality over quantity is important if you want to really enjoy a place instead of just seeing it. My solution to this is be out every morning by sunrise when I’m on the road. Sleep is for the weak/people who want to speak coherently after 10 pm.
16 THE DIVERSITY IS MIND-BLOWING
Turkey isn’t a very large country. It’s not exactly small either but it is a fair bit smaller than my home province in Canada. Yet for its size Turkey contains an amazing amount of diversity. From the Aegean islands in Muğla, to the rolling plains of Konya, or the mist-shrouded, green mountains of Rize, the landscape changes drastically from province to province. On top of that the people are just as diverse. There are numerous languages (some people even communicate with a whistling language), traditions, dress, music, and endless histories behind all these amazing differences!
17 SUNSCREEN ISN’T ALWAYS TO BE TRUSTED
I got burnt by sunscreen. What sort of betrayal is that? My sunscreen was in the car on a 40*C day (that’s just over 100 for you weird Fahrenheit people) and when I poured it in my hand it burnt me, leaving a red blotch on my hand for the day.
18 YOU’RE GONNA SCREW UP
Cultures are different and knowing how to behave is hard. You’re going to screw it up and make mistakes but as long as you try, are respectful, and are able to laugh at yourself it’ll be just fine. If you can join the people that are laughing at your mistakes you’ll make friends and learn a whole new way of life. While I make less and less mistakes as time goes on I don’t expect that I’ll ever fully master it and that’s OK. If you want to see a (rather long) list of our embarrassing moments, check out our language blunders here!
19 MUSEUMS HAVE GREAT AC
I spent a week in Antakya one summer visiting some local friends there and it was HOT. The kids were small and always on our laps or in our arms which made it soooo much worse. We ended up taking refuge in the blessedly cool archaeological museum until the heat of the day began to subside.
20 DON’T WORRY SO MUCH ABOUT GEAR
OK, so these new bags, clothes, cameras, and gadgets are pretty sweet; we all like them, but don’t ever let not having them hold you back. Maybe your pictures won’t be as sharp, or your bag won’t be perfect, but the people, the places, and the journey are what it’s about. You probably won’t even remember what gear you had 20 years down the road.
21 I CAN’T DANCE
I’ve been to five Turkish weddings to date, and so far all five have centred around dancing. In fact, there’s very little else to a Turkish wedding. And this is a serious problem for me. I’ve tried really hard a couple of times to master the horon, a dance from the Black Sea region resembling a line of people being electrocuted, but I’ve accomplished nothing more than sweating buckets and looking like an idiot.
22 DON’T TRUST THE GRASS IN ISTANBUL
In Istanbul where the cat population is in the millions, grass is apparently synonymous with litter box.
23 TRAVELLING WITH KIDS ISN’T IMPOSSIBLE, IT’S JUST DIFFERENT
If you’ve got kids don’t buy into the idea that your travelling days are done. It’s still totally possible to explore new places and travel the world with kids; it just takes extra work and a bit of flexibility. Less hiking, more beaches, less late-night walks down ancient streets, more nights in, less wine tours, more ice cream. Rather than explore a city for hours on end we parked next to a river and let the kids play in the water for hours on end. It’s different and takes a bit more thoughtfulness regarding what your kids are into and capable of but it’s totally doable and can still be a lot of fun.
24 FILLING A NOTEBOOK TAKES A LONG TIME
I like notebooks. Which basically just means I like buying a new one every now and again. The problem is it took over a year of travel notes and research to actually fill the thing before I could get a new one!
25 YOU MAY FIND YOURSELF IN CRAZY SITUATIONS
You may find yourself at a wedding surrounded by people shooting guns in celebration while you and a crowd of others smack a groom you’ve never met. Or you may find yourself in a 1500 year old monastery crypt at night where people are making a procession in front of tombs praying in a language you don’t understand. You may just have a male belly dancer come up to you and dance against you while others look on laughing and you have no idea what you’re supposed to do. You never know! But these are all good signs that you’re really getting into all that Turkey has to offer.
Have any lessons that you’ve learned in your travels in Turkey or around the world? We’d love to hear about them!