Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ordinary encounters I won't forget

"Çekme! Çekme!" Though I couldn't see the source of the voice as I squinted into the low sun, which had been setting ever so beautifully on one of Ayvalık's old cobblestone streets, the message was clear: Don't take that picture. I lowered my camera. "Çekmiyorum," I called back. I'm not shooting. Afraid of what faux pas I might have committed or what awkward situation I might have stumbled into, I approached the woman who had called out to me. She wasn't angry at all.

"I just look so ugly in my house clothes, I didn't want you to take my picture," she explained (in Turkish), laughing. The heat of the early summer day still hung on the street and like many other residents of the old part of town, this thirtyish woman was sitting on her stoop to stay cool, chatting with people as they passed by. She invited me to sit and I spent the next two hours or so amidst the ongoing neighborhood conversation, meeting her teenage son as he sped by on his bike, answering curious onlookers' questions about where I was from, getting tips on which beach to go to, sipping juice, and finally joining my new acquaintance and her equally friendly daughter and mother (pictured) in the courtyard of their home, talking about the differences between Turkish and American culture.

I recalled this experience from my first summer in Turkey this past weekend, while taking another trip to the relaxing seaside town. No matter how frustrated I get with my halting progress in Turkish, chance encounters like these remind me of how glad I am to be making an effort to learn the language, something that has served me especially well -- in terms of both practical and entertainment value -- on trips out of Istanbul, where the people I meet seem ever interested in chatting with the foreigner who has somehow not found herself in Cappadocia or at a Mediterranean resort. If not for Turkish lessons, after all, I never would have been able to joke with the bored attendant at Saklıkent Gorge about his time working in Bodrum, where all the middle-aged female tourists seem to be on the prowl for young men. Nor would I have been part of the gem of a conversation my friend Matt and I found ourselves engaged in last year at Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site outside of Şanlıurfa.

I don't remember how it happened, but somehow one of the guys showing us around decided we would be a good audience for his conspiracy theories about how Israel is trying to take over Southeast Turkey. Which is rich in, uh, watermelons and pigeons? Trying not to get too engaged in this one, we demurred, saying a few wishy-washy things about how there are good and bad people in every country, etc. etc. When he started asking about our family's religious backgrounds, I thought we'd be in for more of a tirade. But instead he seemed delighted, summing up the encounter as if he had discovered the secret to global peace: "Look at us, me a Muslim, you a Jew, and you a Christian -- all together! If only the whole world could be like this."

NOTE: People make the place, wherever you go. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' encounters around the world with interesting locals -- from teenage village girls to famous astronauts -- in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Travel Encounters, hosted by Camden Luxford of The Brink of Something Else.

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