Don’t ask soldiers for directions: Getting scammed, getting lost, getting giggly


What couple doesn’t know that you can learn much about your relationship through travel “experiences.” We learned early on that we did well together on this front, with M. managing the driving aspect of things and me taking on the navigatrix role. We have navigated many a back road sans GPS, but Cyprus has presented us with an, ahem, wonderful challenge.

Karagöz howls with glee at my admission to this truth. “I begged the Gods for some good old-fashioned chaos on this trip!” He cackles as he rubs his hands together briskly before Hacivad Bey yanks him off of the table and kicks him down the beach a ways. I watched him fly about like the calfskin tumbleweed he is until he faded into the sunset of the Altin Plajı (Golden beach) way far East on the Karpaz penninsula which points like a finger to the chaos on the Turkish-Syrian border across the Ak Deniz (Mediterranean Sea). It is as hard to imagine what is going on there tonight as it is easy to imagine Aphrodite’s birth right here in this bay.

“Now, M’lady,” Hacivad says rather haughtily, “now you can get on with your diatribe on the highs and lows of marriageI mean story about your first night on the island!” Sighing, I responded with “While I’m not writing a non-diatribe on the highs and lows of marriage,” I said with a wink, “why don’t you write a dissertation about the centuries of battle between you, Hacivad bey, and Karagöz!”

And with that statement, there was silence, so I turn back to you, reader.

After the short flight from Istanbul to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), we exited the plane despite the insane bum-rush-crush of folks piling to the front of the plane as soon as it touched down and hadn’t even stopped rolling along. Although many were in winter coats, it was a balmy 75F at 9 pm. Remember, folks, it’s November!

Throwing our rucksacks over our shoulders, we headed out to locate our rental car. Searching high and low, there was no “North Cyprus Car Hire” to be found. We asked police, airport people and finally the only car hire agency in the airport – Sun Car Rentals. My ears began to tingle at the possibility of a scam when the gentleman behind the desk didn’t seem phased by this happenstance one bit. “Oh,” he said flatly, not looking at M. directly after trying the telephone number on our reservation sheet, “this is a scam. Did you check outside to see if they are waiting for you with a sign.”

We had & now knew that we were renting a car from this place – they had us. And tabi canım, (of course dear), they couldn’t meet the price of our reservation and we paid more. Taking the whole thing in stride, we thanked the lucky stars that at least we hadn’t given our credit card to the scammers – and giggled gleefully about what a well executed scam this was on the part of Sun Car Rentals. It had to be Sun Car Rentals that came up with the scam – who else is to benefit if no credit card is involved? In the absence of North Cyprus Car Hire, all of the business gets funneled to the reigning monopoly. We cut another notch in our collective belt of travel experiences and drove out of the lot – Brit style, on the left side of the road – and by “we” I mean M., who took to it like a fish to water.

Now I was on deck, charged with getting us to a gas station as the car was empty (hah!) and then on to the mountain village of Bellpais (Greek name) or Beylerbeyi (Turkish name) in the Girne (Turkish name) or Kyrenia (Greek name) province. Immediately, I noticed that despite a decent level of detail, our map had no highway numbers. Lighting on the highway itself was spotty and it was a moonless, pitch-black night – and we seemed to be driving through the buffer area around the famous “green line” that separates Northern Cyprus from southern Cyprus, where Greek is spoken. Add to this that the directions we had from the hotel might as well have been written in Old Church Slavonic give where they were taking us, I began to realize it could very well be a night of dead reckoning at best.

Crumbling the old Church Slavonic directions with fervor, I accidentally knocked a few of the Karagöz puppet troupe off of the back window ledge as I tossed them out of sight. Mumbling my apologies to my dear puppets, I began to study the map and piece things together. Being the navigatrix, I quickly re-routed us towards Bellpais.

As we drove on through the dark, we began to realize the nature of Cyprus – a struggling country, we surmised. M. told me about the stories he has heard about how the South side of the island controls the electricity for all of the north (ah – thus the driving in the dark here and there). Apparently, this goes on mostly in summer, to harm the TRNC’s tourist economy. But more on geopolitics another day.
We were too busy being happy and in love at the prospect of solving our travel conundrum together sans cep telefonu (mobile phone).

After driving too far, engaging in harrowing turns and spluttering with both giggles and a bit of anxiety at one another over the next two hours, we finally found what on the map clearly had to be the road for Bellpais – which soon led past a large Turkish military camp to a dead end. Not seeing any place to ask directions, I suggested that I go up to the military gate and ask the solider on duty – the only human around.

Well, you know how it is about the stereotype about some people asking directions and some people not liking to ask, but M. surprised me, saying “Are you crazy, I won’t let my wife do that – talking to them is dangerous – and for a woman that is dangerous, I will do it. Don’t call me sexist in your blog because I said that.” Giggling, I demurred whilst also remembering M.’s great fear of going near any Turkish military compound – something I have always thought paranoid or post-military-PTSD related in his case. But I soon learned to respect his fear on this matter.

As M. pulled the car up to the gate – not too close – we saw the soldier at the front cocked his automatic machine gun. I gulped, and I could feel M.’s anxiety well up. It was past 11 at night and it was just plain spooky. Clearly, M was desperate enough to get us to the hotel safely to be willing to ask for directions. Opening the car door slightly, he called out “Kolay gelsin, abi!” (May your work be well, big brother – a common greeting that shows respect. He then went on to ask permission to exit the car in order to come up and ask for directions, which surprised me, and was told to stay where he was and not get out of the car. I saw two other soldiers rush to the front gate. It felt surreal. I heard the puppets engaging in the duck and cover position, and I realized that my “always ask the policeman/soldier for help American naïveté” was blindingly stupid.

“You need to get away from here,” the soldier, gun very much at the ready, said, “this is a sensitive area.” Although I couldn’t understand much of the Turkish wording, the tone was abundantly clear. “Go back on the highway and approach Bellpais from the other side of the mountain.” Needless to say, we got out of there as fast as we could, M. mumbling along about never, ever, ever stopping at a military base again. “You don’t realize sweetheart, you don’t understand, I left Turkey because you could full well die over something as dumb as asking directions – I shouldn’t have done it, shouldn’t have done it!” M. went on to explain that still, after 40 years, the Turkish military in the TRNC is still on high alert for incursions from the south – or suicide bombers from Kurdish political groups…so it was no wonder this happened.

I hit an emotional pothole when trying to make him feel better by pointing out that one silver linings of the loss of my Dad 1.5 years ago is that M. Didn’t need to live in fear of explaining what had happened to me if something went wrong like he used to. This was met with an eye roll and a reminder that it wouldn’t be easy to tell my Mom either, assuming he survived the soldiers bullets. Further, Kenne, the Queen of Etiquette puppet began poking me in the ribs at the senseless stupidity of this comment. I quickly steered the conversation out of that bad direction by regaling M. with details about the famous writer from Bellpais, Lawrence Durrell, as we continued on single lane, dark, windy roads. Kenne still muttered in a disapproving tone in the backseat of the car as her maidservant, Zenne, fanned her furiously.

Still lost as all get out, we eventually found help from a family whose lights were on…they could not have been more gracious about our late night visit. One of their sons had studied in Richmond, Virginina. As they only spoke Turkish, M.took in the long explanation about how to get to Bellpais – which as navigatrix I knew he would never remember, but it at least got us started in the right direction.

In the end, we found the Bellpais Monastery Village Hotel with only two more directions-referral stops, and sunk into our couch to watch the news on Al Jazeera with a shared can of well-earned Efes beer and a fit of the giggles that saved the day. So remember, soldiers may not be the best choice to seek help from when lost in Turkey or the TRNC. Allah, hallah (said when highlighting a big sad, bad, surprising or funny point) it’s a sad world sometimes, thank goodness for having a partner to giggle out the anxiety with at the end of the day!

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Thanksgiving on the Karpaz Peninsula


It is a windy day here on this wild peninsula, but sunny enough for a t-shirt. We awoke to the sound of the crashing waves of the Mediterranean Sea and not much else. After a traditional Turkish breakfast of tomatoes, cucumbers, white cheese and an egg we drove on to the end of the Peninsula through thyme – infused breezes, hills covered with roaming goats and wild donkeys and a shepherd or two. Our goal was to visit the monastery of the Apostolos Andreas.

The one aging Orthodox priest has remained on site since the troubles of 1974 during the Turkish and Greek conflict over the island. Luckily the priest was not harmed or threatened by the Turkish side. The main building, the church, was built in the 1700s but the monastery ruins date back much farther than that to the time of St. Andrew. Known as a place where miracles can occur, Greek Cypriots travel to this place every November 30 – tomorrow – with the permission of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus government. it appears this is one of the many small attempts the Turkish side has made towards peace and healing.

Although it felt disrespectful to take pictures within the church, I will describe it as best I can. There were wooden seats ornately carved in the back of the church where the ancient-seeming priest sat speaking with three Greek ladies dressed in black. As the ladies came in and out of the church, they kissed an icon of apostle Andreas. The high ceiling had roughly 10 ornate crystal chandeliers of different styles hung across the center of the sanctuary. There was a space to light candles and a donation box but most striking was the full wall of icons at the front of the sanctuary. As I had not changed into a long skirt (something I usually do for any religious space but had not today because I thought it was a ruin with nobody there) I stood in the corner as respectfully as possible and just watch what was going on.

After enjoying the icons tremendously, M. made a donation to the church which is seeking help for restoration of those icons. Although not at all religious, M., is A connoisseur of icons and is chomping at the bit to visit the icon museum in nearby Iskele. As we left the monastery compound – we noted the mesh nets around the priest’s garden that deter the wild donkeys that walk all over the area. In fact, the donkeys wanted to come into our car with us as the photos will show.

Driving back west towards the small town of Dipkarpaz, we happened upon a small fish restaurant where we had the most wonderful and unusual Thanksgiving dinner in my personal history. Owned jointly by a Greek Cypriots and a Turkish Cypriots, the best of friends, this fish restaurant served up grilled Orfoz – hey fish for which we do not have an English translation. What I do know, is that this fish lives in caves and was quite delicious. This was accompanied by the simplest meze including a wonderful cabbage and tomato salad with lemon and olive oil, raw kohlrabi wheat bread, spicy arugula and fresh onion.

As we finished our meal with a Turkish coffee in the sunshine, A group of Greek ladies we had seen in the monastery came in for their lunch. Side note – you see much more coffee here than tea which is the opposite in Turkey. This seems to me to be more about the influence of Greek culture. In any case, I saw one woman pointing to us – she was the person we gave our donation to back at the monastery. She sent over an English-speaking woman who shared the most delicious dessert with us. It was a semolina and orange zest pastry steeped in simple syrup and covered in crumbled roasted walnuts. It was so good that I ate it before I thought to take a picture. She gave us the recipe which I memorized on the spot. M. was so moved by this sharing that he engaged in a very old-fashioned tradition by reaching for her hand and kissing it, I did the same and then put her hand to my forehead as a sign of respect. This clearly pleased the Greek ladies to no end.

Having done our bit for Turkish – Greek relations on Cyprus for the day, we drove back to our new hotel on the northern side of the peninsula. It is the Oasis at Afilon – A beautifully renovated hotel originally from the 1950s. Each room has high ceilings and ornate doorhandles. The breeze blows through the rooms and I can imagine the cool marble tile feeling quite good in the hot days of the Cypriot summer. This hotel is special in that it is nestled between the ancient ruins another church, honoring Apostos Afilon.

As we drove along a most Mediterranean – seeming Road, through fields of wheat and goats and donkeys, we saw several very talented goats pictured here.

Sappy as it may sound, I couldn’t be more thankful for this wonderful trip despite my pain. I am thankful for our ability to travel and spend time considering life in these other parts of the world. I am thankful for my husband. I am thankful for my cross-cultural road trip called marriage more than ever. Wishing you all in the US a very happy Thanksgiving!

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Bachelors, dudes and dağı: On respecting your elders…and reality TV


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The Bachelor shows his potential wife’s Filipina Grandmother a sign of respect upon meeting her – cultural responsivity hits the mainstream (Image by Liz Cameron)

It may come as a surprise that M. and I watch a really trashy American reality television program each week.

Namely, I say blushing, we watch programs from “The Bachelor” TV franchise. In this reality series, one man (The Bachelor) or one woman (The Bachelorette) interacts with what can only be described as a pre-marriage harem of men or women for possible marriage potential.Of course, not surprisingly, this is a heterosexually biased show so far.

The watching of this program, however, does not seem to phase the Karagöz puppets. It is natural to them that marriage is preceded by parades of eligible, potential partners. They are still in shock, those puppets are, that we eloped in a love marriage, versus a traditional arranged marriage.

And, while it might sound old-fashioned to think that arranged marriage still exists in modern, Western Turkish cities such as Istanbul, this phenomenon has been coaxed along more informally through family networks, even in the circles we know. Wishing M. to be married, even his own Father and stepmother set up an introduction once.  Both M. and the woman he was set up with graciously got out of it as soon as they were out of the reach of their parents. M., you see, wanted nothing to do with this type of parental control. He is a free spirit, an independent thinker and values his independence with vigor.  And lucky me, I wouldn’t be with him, otherwise.

In any case, M. and and I are fascinated by the group dynamics that appear to emerge as a result of social isolation amongst the women or men vying for the Bachelor or Bachelorette depending on the season.  We are most interested in how “group think” combined with copious amounts of the alcohol we observe being consumed on the set play out. It brings out the worst in the contestants. But I make this sound as though it is an intellectual exercise, which it isn’t really. In any case what in the world does the bachelor and all of this have to do with respect? Or Turkey or cross-cultural relationships, for that matter?

“Well,” Hacivad Bey says, “you may well ask, because I’m asking!”

Showing respect to an elder (Image from Filipinofunfacts.com)

Last season’s “The Bachelor” was nearing the end and – with four potential brides left in the mix – aka during the “the hometown dates” in which the bachelor meets the families of his finalists.  M. and I were thrilled to see that this season’s bachelor took a cross-cultural cue from his Filipina-American girlfriend, who suggested that when he greeted her grandmother, he take her hand and put it to her for head. Apparently, this is a sign of respect in Filipino tradition.

Of course, Turkish readers or Turkish-American folk into vintage Turkish etiquette will recognize this sign of respect. I will never forget the first time I saw it. M. and I were at an art exhibition honoring the paintings his Uncle, now deceased. I watched our Teyze greet all of the young artists milling around her to talk about her husband’s art. Many of them took her hand, kissed it and then placed it on their own forehead. I did not know what was going on I had never seen such a thing – it seemed almost medieval to me.

Quickly, M. explained that this indicates a sign of respect for an elder, and that it means something along the lines of “May your wisdom come to my mind.” It is a lovely gesture and I feel honored to know now when to use it. In our private life, M. and I do this to one another in moments when we are feeling especially loving and respectful of one another – even though M. is hardly my elder and I am not his elder.

For example, once, we were walking along the street in Antakya, enjoying the French and Arab influences that abound in that small city.  A young man bumped M. by mistake on the narrow sidewalk and said “excuse me, dağı.” Now, dear reader, let me explain this word, dağı, as I understand it.  My young friend M.T. tells me that it has come to mean “dude” even though traditionally, it is a term reserved for addressing an elderly uncle. In a rare show of upset, M. grumbled loudly, saying “I’m no dağı, that punk, who is he calling dağı???!!!” I realized that M.’s years out of the country might mean that he was not aware of the evolution of the term towards the “dude” and of the spectrum from the “elder” side.  Or, perhaps the “punk” was a traditionalist – given M.’s grey hair. Wanting to return back to our happy, romantic stroll, I took his hand kiss it and put it to my four head we had a good laugh.

I am curious, dear readers, do other American partners of Turkish American marriages use this vintage etiquette? I believe it is still used commonly in on Anatolia, but perhaps not in the cities? What’s your experience?