On Sunday I left Syria for Turkey without knowing much about Turkey. I also did not plan beforehand so I have been reading as much as I could in the past few days, especially during the 7-hour bus ride from Beirut. Initially, I had not made up my mind which way to go from Aleppo (Syria). Not wanting to waste my time I just decided to cross the border, go to Antakya (the closest big city formerly known as Antioch) and take advantage of the bus ride to read more and plan the rest of the visit :).
The border crossing went well. However, there were a lot of trucks crossing the border so, at one moment, we got stuck in a no-man land in a huge truck-traffic jam until the minibus finally decided to go off-road in order to get through. Visa was not a problem, it is automatic and free for French people.
Once in Antakya, I checked into a hotel but the TV was not broadcasting the World Cup so I decided to go out and find a place to watch the French and the Brasilian teams. This turned out to be not so easy, first because it was Sunday and as I found out, a lot of places in Turkey are closed on Sundays, and second I did not speak any Turkish. I also started realizing that Antakya might not be a place tourists visit much because very few people here speak English and the idea of meeting a French speaker was even more remote.
Yes, leaving Syria and entering Turkey was a bigger event than the other times I have changed countries. Furthermore, the fact that people in Turkey, unlike in Syria and the other countries I visited before, do not speak Arabic and my being comfortable with my limited but very useful Arabic was not of much help in Antakya.
So I had to learn some Turkish. The first thing I learned was “Anlamyorum” (I don’t understand), makes sense, right? :). One advantage of the Turkish language over the Arabic is that Turkish uses the the roman alphabet which they adopted after World War I in place of the Arabic alphabet. So it is easier to learn new words that I see written on the streets, TV, or computers.
What stands out is that people are very friendly and even if they don’t speak English, they are very eager to help. Someone nicely escorted me to a pub after I mentioned “Football”. The owner of the pub received me well and before the game between France and Korea ended, I had befriended the waiter who offered me a map of the region and the city. Watching the games became even more interesting because at the pub I met a few Koreans, who I think might have been the only ones living in that region.
Another word I had to learn early on was “kepati” (which means “closed”) because I arrived in Antakya on a Monday and I discovered the hard way that, different from the Middle-East, all public monuments are closed on Monday including museums and other points of interest.
Since everything I wanted to visit was kepati, I decided to move West to the city of Adana. Turkey is a big country and I decided to move West first and am planning on taking the road along the Mediterranean to get closer to Greece where I will be in a week.
Adana is the 4th largest city in Turkey so I thought it would be a nice stop on my way West.
I started having doubts about going there thought, while reading more in the bus, since I realized it was not well documented. However, I had already made the choice so I decided to stick with it and try to get through without any help from the guide book for once. It actually turned out very well. I even decided to stay one more night in order to visit some of the monuments and get a feel for the place :).
In Adana, while I was walking in the streets with my book in hand trying to make sense of the map, people came towards me and offered to help, especially people speaking a little bit of English that seemed eager to practice.
At a very nice museum in Adana, an employee offered to show me around since the material was only presented in Turkish. She was very nice and thorough. Her English was basic but it was enough to get me through, and she refused any tip or payment at the end! The museum has some really nice statues of Greek and Roman gods as well as a fine example of an Achilleus Sarcophagus (similar to the ones in Beirut).
At the Internet cafe, I was befriended by the owner when I started editing my pictures. He showed me his digital SLR and we talked a bit about music (Big Ramstein and Metallica fan there. And it was dirt cheap too!).
At the hotel, I met Meryem, a Cyprian-Turk lady living in London, and we hung out for some time talking about our lives of expats and a bit about the condition of women in South-East Turkey. For example, she thought it was a bad idea to go out together so we stayed at the hotel.
In general, people have been getting out of their way to help me in the last few days in Antakya and Adana. I think it might be because they are not used to seeing tourists as often and the novelty factor is still high. And believe me, they are not trying to get you to any souvenir shops :).
At the same time, being a novelty also had some disadvantages as some people would look at me curiously. This was especially the case when I visited a new huge Mosque that was built 8 years ago. I was welcomed gracefully but I got a lot of stares. I guess this is a normal trade-off. For the record, the staring was more out of curiosity rather than animosity and at no point I felt unsafe.
As a matter of fact, I have not seen any other foreign tourist in the last 3 days. Welcome to the “off tourist track”!