This was almost what you imagined the heat in the savannahs of Africa to be like. A road that appeared short at first kept on looking longer and longer before us.
Our eyes were narrowed, fending off the heat and brightness of the sun. At one point, there was a great noise behind us. The minibus that we had been waiting for -- standing for minutes -- was finally approaching. My friend Mehmet removed his hat and wiped some of the sweat from his forehead, waving at the approaching minibus.
We threw ourselves onto the minibus, hoping to be rescued from the heat outside. There was a handwritten sign entreating passengers to pay upon boarding, and the driver said to us, in a voice that was mixed up with sounds from the radio, “Brothers, don’t stand up, find yourselves some seats!” He used his hand to indicate a pair of Japanese tourists sitting towards the back of the bus, saying, “Hey, move over there a bit!” The vehicle actually hadn’t moved yet, and when the driver saw he was getting no reaction from the Japanese passengers he was talking to via his mirror, he raised his voice, saying, “I am talking to you, brother!”
The driver stood up and rolled up his shirt sleeves angrily, then lightly moved the foot of the Japanese man on the bus. The man, who had been looking around confusedly a few minutes before, flew into a rage, yelling at the driver in Japanese. He was gesticulating with his hands and pointing at his foot, while speaking in Japanese. By now the driver, who was clearly surprised by the reaction he had elicited, was using his hands to try and tell the tourist to calm down. But this did nothing to quell the anger of the tourist. The Japanese man then took the arm of his wife, and the two of them quickly got off the minibus, looking at the driver with undiminished anger and surprise. Now it was the turn of everyone else on the bus to be surprised. The driver opened his hands, and asked, “All I said was for him to move over a bit: What happened?” He got behind the wheel of the minibus, and watched the forms of two fast-disappearing Japanese tourists with regret in his eyes.
Cultural differences can be tough for tourists in Turkey. While some are accompanied by guides and brought to the historical and tourist sites without every really making contact with the people of the nation, others come with the intent of learning more about the national culture and village life, and thus make their way freely around the country. Those who are heading here wanting to stay for a longer than usual time, or perhaps who would even like to live here, even start learning about Turkey before they arrive, using Internet sites and social networking platforms to compare notes and anecdotes and pick up information. In fact, this makes it easier for visitors to learn about things that Turks or Turkish culture might see as shameful or bad, what to avoid and what to try, or just how to start a great dialogue with the people.
Here are some suggestions and anecdotes picked up from an Internet forum for people interested in visiting Turkey:
When you go to someone’s home in Turkey, definitely do not go empty-handed. The best thing you can bring to someone is some sort of dessert. When you are invited to someone’s home, find out first whether they drink alcohol, as bringing a bottle of alcohol could be considered a no-no.
Do not turn down an offer of food
When the person whose home you are visiting offers you food, please take some, even if you are full. Also, please let your host know when you like what they have served you. This will make them happy and will strengthen relations. When you absolutely do not want something, be polite in turning it down and let them know what your reason is. Definitely do not blow your nose at the table. If you absolutely must blow your nose, go to the bathroom.
Things to be aware of when entering a home
When you enter a home, take your shoes off at the entrance and do not step outside again before putting them on. If you have taken your shoes off outside, don’t step inside with your dirty socks. Use the slippers your host has given you to wear.
Who pays the bill?
When a Turk invites you to eat out somewhere, they expect to pay the bill, and will politely reject your offer to share the costs. There is no custom in Turkey of everyone paying their own share, so definitely do not suggest this. But also be aware that after you have been invited somewhere, it may be expected that you make the next invitation.
Show respect to elders
When Turks greet their elders, they do something you may not have encountered before. The younger members of the family kiss the back of the hands of their elders and then place their foreheads on the spot they kissed. Also, younger people do not cross their legs when sitting with elders, nor do they stretch them outwards. When speaking with elders, younger people do not place their hands in their pockets or on their waist.
Turkish males keep their hands busy…
You will see many Turkish men holding what looks like a string of shiny beads. This is called a tesbih, or prayer beads, and it is also a religious symbol. Some men wear them wrapped around their wrists and walk around twisting this string of beads. This can be a show of strength, and can also be a way to reduce stress, by counting the beads over and over.
Among Turks, religion, the flag and the state are all things that are seen as sacred. A Muslim in Turkey would not want to see either the Quran or the Turkish flag placed on the floor. Some people turn off music on the radio, etc. during the call to prayer, while some businesses will even close down while their owners or employees head off to the mosque at prayer times.
Respect for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Respect for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk -- the man who brought independence to Turkey, as well as establishing the republic -- is very great. When Nov. 10 rolls around every year, people even in the most crowded of places stand for a minute’s silence to mark his death, at exactly 9:05 a.m. You can see people stopping their cars and getting out of them, even when they are crossing the Bosporus Bridge. Nov. 10, 9:05 a.m. marks the date and time when Atatürk died.
A different body language
Turks can indicate “no” by pointing their heads upward, and making a “tsk” sound with their tongues. As for “yes,” this can be indicated by lightly gesturing downwards with the head and making the sound “huh huh.”
Avoid certain topics
Turks do love to talk politics. It is a subject that comes at the top of the list for weekly topics. You can find the prime minister talking on almost any channel you try. But do not try to strike up conversations on topics such as the Armenian genocide, or politics of the Aegean region. You could really wind up ruining relations by doing so.
Careful who you kiss!
Shaking hands or the Muslim greeting “Assalamu ‘alaykum” are very frequent among Turks. If you learn the latter, you could really warm up relations with some people. Some men greet one another by touching cheeks lightly, or even gently touching heads together. This is a style of greeting used by more nationalistic members of society. In more conservative settings, women are greeted at a distance, with no touching of hands.
Photograph legend: Genuine Fake Watches!
One item that seems to draw tourists, particularly in Turkey, are fake top-brand watches, which sell for incredibly expensive prices back in their own countries but which can be picked up for the price of gum here. The fake Breitling and TagHauer are bought by tourists and used as accessories for a few days. One tourist shared a funny anecdote online, recalling the time he heard a fake-watch salesman yell “Genuine fake watches!” There are also many stories shared by now-savvy tourists, recalling fakes versions of brand names such as Adidas, Puma and Converse that you can pick up in Turkey, all with small changes made to their labels.