I would venture to say that when describing our traveling selves, most of us would avoid the word “tourist”, steering well clear of any comparison to large groups in loud, un-tucked Hawaiian shirts employing the “speak slower and louder in your own language” method of cross-cultural communication. Vagabond, pilgrim, wanderer, “scholar-adventurers” as we are billed in the “About the Authors” section of this blog, are better, suggesting a more nuanced, sensitive approach to travel. So, if this late-afternoon tea at Serap’s house, detailed by Jessica in an earlier post, has been one of our group’s most serendipitous and personal episodes to date, then the subsequent walk from her beautiful house, with its Bosphorus view, to the city bus stop felt, to me, like one of our most exposed.
This is not to say that our group received an unfriendly reception from Sarap’s neighbors, or that our presence felt any more than slightly obtrusive. At least a few smiling faces craned from open, second-story windows to offer a friendly “Merhaba” and inquire as to who we were, clearly pleased to see us strolling by.
Yet, at a corner café a stone’s throw from the narrow, rambling, multi-story houses that had once belonged to their fathers and grandfathers, old men sipping tea paused and stared as fourteen Chaco-clad students carrying all manner of backpacks, shoulder-bags, and anti-theft wallets walked through streets that these men might have played on as children. Some gave us a blank stares, others a smile, some smirked and then leaned over to whisper something unintelligible to the man sitting next to them. A hefty local butcher wearing a bloodstained apron paused from slicing cubes of stew beef with a foot-long knife to look at us through the plate glass windows of his store. The stares and whispers of the locals, though not unexpected, still made me feel like an embarrassed intruder. In a foolish way, I felt like we were a school group on a theater field trip being escorted to our seats by way of the main stage – no less unapologetically foreign and out of place than the cruise ship crowd descending on the Grand Bazaar. These feelings increased when all seventeen of us squeezed onto an already-full city bus, much to the obvious amusement and chagrin of those already aboard.
Yet I think being put on the main stage of a foreign country is all right, it’s adventure at its best. Messing up your lines as you try to order at a restaurant, or better yet successfully saying goodbye in Turkish before your subsequent high fiving is interrupted by the waiter who angrily indicates that you’ve underpaid by ten lira is all right too, as long as you apologize and try never to do it again. Yes, it’s hard to blend in when you feel like you’re on stage in Turkey and you’ve only had two days to learn your lines, and when you’re in a large group it’s a little harder still. But I don’t believe that any of us will suffer much for it, and none of us are unhappy to be traveling with friends.