The Stupid Myths We Believe as Western Travelers Time and Time Again

I’m narrowing in on accomplishing a major life goal on my bucket list. Before I turn 31 my aim is to have visited 50 countries…and yet, fresh back from my 45th, 46th, and 47th, I’ve just had a profoundly eye-opening and humbling experience. I had, once again, ignored the lesson I’ve learned time and time again, and bought into/believed the enormous pile of bullshit I’ve been fed by the western travel narrative about non-western destinations.

Worse than that, I realized quite vividly that I’d been gobbling down, consuming, and allowing myself to be poisoned by said bullshit for years. I always get annoyed when people tell me they can’t travel because it’s unsafe (my chances of getting robbed, stabbed, shot, or killed are far worse in Arizona than when wandering Europe) or when I read announcements like the US’s recent worldwide terror alert which only served to scare people while delivering virtually none of the context needed or adding any real value. But, the real truth highlighted for me time and time again is that I buy into my own version of this nonsense. The part that really pisses me off about the whole thing is that it keeps me from embracing amazing experiences, makes me stand-offish, much more conservative in my approach when I start, and adds bucket-loads of anxiety.


I’ve talked about misconceptions a few times in the past, such as how wrong my preconceptions about Turkey were, or my African travel fears series looking at how Africa wasn’t nearly the life-threatening-bodily traumatizing disaster adventure I had anticipated. But unfortunately, I still hadn’t learned my lesson.  I’m going to do my best after my latest trip to really finally internalize this lesson and hope you’ll all join me in identifying, acknowledging, and then utterly dismissing the stories and nonsense that we’re spoon fed. It’s also worth noting that I think travel bloggers, myself included, bear some of the responsibility for perpetuating these myths.

As some long-term readers will know, up until two weeks ago, I had never been to Eastern Asia. While this is a very common and popular region for many travelers, especially budget travelers, it has for a long time been my “dark region” in that I had never been. Why? There are a number of factors which range from simple fear, lack of interest, cost, and then desire to protect and cherish the novelty. What do I mean?

  • Fear: Simply put, the Asia I had built in my mind was a very alien place where getting around using English would be difficult, where everything would be deeply exotic, and where even the most basic of daily activities would be challenging. Add to that a fear of a large amount of human and animal suffering. It was a part of the world I always had very mixed feelings about.
  • Lack of Interest: When I was younger I had a very strong interest in Greco-Roman and Medieval history. I find for many young people, tend to be drawn in strongly by Asia or Europe, while others sort out to Latin America, or Africa to a lesser extent. There were elements of ancient history in these other regions that offered passing interest, but beyond that I felt minimal draw. I felt their history was somewhat uninteresting, was not enamored from a cultural dating perspective, and had only minimal interest in cultural creations like anime and food.  As I’ve traveled more, learned more history, been exposed to more culture, and pivoted more to an interest in food, much of this has changed and Asia has increasingly grown in appeal and draw.
  • Cost: This is an odd one, as SEA (Southeast Asia) has always been extremely popular because of its relatively low cost areas. It’s why regions such as Vietnam and Thailand are thick with travel bloggers and has been a major tourist draw for decades. But, the flights from the US were usually fairly significant and even once I got to Denmark, prices and availability when I looked at SEA as a destination never seemed to work out. In 2010 I almost booked a trip to Thailand but, at the last minute, opted for South America (Argentina) instead based on pricing. Had the other factors mentioned in this section not also been weighing on me, perhaps I would have prioritized it.  Never the less I didn’t and the rest is history.
  • Novelty: This is a tricky one to convey. I’ve written in the past about how important it is to travel and experience things NOW in THIS MOMENT because the destination will change and evolve just as you do. You will never see or experience a place the same way as you would have if you went now and the more we travel and are exposed to, the more our relationship with novelty and novel cultures evolves. Globally, if we stereotype regional cultures down to geo-cultural macro-groups there are regions that share some (albeit very limited) cultural characteristics. As my travels took me to different continents and exposed me to different cultures, I felt a shred of sadness as the fear, novelty, excitement and sense of pure discovery that came from exploring an entirely new culture faded away. As I got a taste of Europe, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Africa, I felt as though the last great region to explore and discover became Asia and perhaps as a separate entity Eastern Eurasia and India. While I still have an enormous amount of exploration, discovery and novel cultural exploration to do in all of these areas, I found myself keeping Asia to the side as one of my quasi-last opportunities for that utter sense of the unknown.

But, this winter I decided it was time to explore. I opted for a teaser trip to SEA which started purely by coincidence in Ho Chi Mihn Vietnam. Somehow I would then touch base in Cambodia’s Siem Reap region to see Angkor Wat, and then terminate from Bangkok with a few days in either the north or south to explore. This was far too much ground to cover properly in 19 days, but the goal was to test the waters, explore a bit, see how I coped, and if I liked it/where I wanted to go back.


The Myths

I mentioned that for years I’d been very resistant to a visit to SEA because of different fear-based factors. Eventhough I ultimately found these to be greatly exaggerated, that is not to say that if you go into rural areas, have bad luck, or are in the heart of a heavy tourist area some of these won’t hold some truth, but they are far from the prevalent, unavoidable, and highly experientially potent experiences we’ve been led to believe.

Men, It Is Long Past Time to Study Abroad

The Scottish Perch

Despite these massive surges in the number of students studying abroad, it turns out the majority of western exchange students are women. This has left educators and study abroad students alike asking themselves, “Where are the men?”

The study abroad population is increasing rapidly. Over the past ten years the number of students studying abroad has nearly doubled. In 1996‐7 there were 99,448 US undergrads studying abroad. Fourteen years later, in 2011, that number grew to 273,996; almost three times the amount. Meanwhile, the ERASMUS (European) exchange program increased from 144,037 students in 2004-5 to 252,827 for the 2011-12 academic year; almost doubling over a seven-year period.

Existing research has found that roughly two thirds of American exchange students are female, while data for Europe indicates that on average, 65% of the study abroad population is comprised of women. In some countries, such as Romania and Poland, 71% and 68% respectively of exchange students are female (These figures and others are explored in-depth in my Master’s thesis).

While this should concern everyone, it should be especially disconcerting for men as it means that a huge slice of the male population is missing out on the life and perspective-changing experiences that come from study abroad.  In our global economy, men that fail to study abroad will be significantly less competitive than their female counterparts and they will make decisions based on a highly limited world view.

What I find concerning is just how little specialized information is available for men.  We have developed a western cultural narrative that assumes that travel is inherently more dangerous and challenging for women, and that as a result it is women that need to be the primary focus and recipients of the resources dedicated to encouraging young people to travel. While I whole-heartedly embrace resources that support and inspire young women to travel I also know that young men have been neglected. In our rush to enable and empower young women we have overlooked and failed to address the very real needs of young men.  As a result their significant fears have not been addressed,  and the special set of challenges they face have been ignored or dismissed as insignificant.

1. Men, it’s time to admit we are afraid

Western society has clear rules for what it expects from males.  Machismo/masculine culture is drilled into us from before we can walk.  To be a man it is essential that we be strong, resilient, independent, and self sufficient. We’re told on a daily basis, “Man up“, “Get things done“, “Don’t be a sissy“, and  “It’ll be fine, just rub some dirt on it“.   A failure to do so not only feels like an internal failing, but quite often has very real social costs among our peers and with women.  For many of us, we learn at an early age that it is better to feign apathy than admit that we need help.  Admitting fear is acceptable, kinda, but only if it’s delivered in combination with arrogance and mastery.  While these cultural norms provide men with a set of skills and an internal drive that can be a huge asset, it also opens us up to a lot of harm and missed opportunities. We go to the doctor less, we act out to distract people from things that make us uncomfortable, we fail to ask questions in class, and in the case of study abroad – we scrap, delay, or abandon exploring study abroad all together. There are some great resources out there dedicated to facilitating improved conversation in this area and improving cross-gender discussions when it comes to how to interact. One is The Good Men Project, which has awesome posts like “Why We as Women Need to Ease Up On Men,” and “What If He Cries?” but these projects are few and far between with little-to-no tie to travel or study abroad.

Over the past decade I’ve struggled with overcoming my own fears, embracing the study abroad experience, traveling independently, and simultaneously been involved in encouraging more people to study and go abroad.  As I reflect on the conversations I had in the lead-up to both my six week summer study abroad trip in 2004 and the two-year full degree Master’s program I recently completed in Denmark, I find myself confident that one of the primary reasons there are so few of us studying abroad is because … it is scary.

The risk of lost social capital is significant, and there are virtually no resources available for men to help us address our fears. If you google, “Is it dangerous for men to travel alone?” of the 10 results on the first page, three are gender neutral, and seven are for women despite the search terms used. Similarly, when reading up on solo travel and travel in general, guides are written in gender neutral language or almost exclusively for female travelers. A prime example of this is the BBC’s recent piece “Should women avoid solo travel?.” This is a fantastic piece but, it drives home the point that there is a massive void when it comes to resources for men. Simply put, it implies a culture where men are the dominant travelers and can take care of themselves. While this is deeply ingrained in virtually all of us, myself included, this is a myth.

The reality is that we are every bit as scared of studying abroad as women.  In some cases even more so, because we lack outlets to ask questions and to get re-assurance that our fears are acceptable and common place.  Preparing for and embarking on a study abroad or solo travel trip is something that inherently relies on seeking out exterior information.  You need to find resources, do your research, and ask questions so you know what to expect. This involves admitting what you don’t know, and accepting that you have a bag full of rational and irrational fears that must be addressed.  It is informative to watch men’s faces during a study abroad information session and the look of muted relief that sweeps over them when one of the guys finally steps forward and asks a question they’ve all been itching to know, but were afraid to ask; to risk being judged harshly or appearing overly soft.

We also have to accept and work to improve the support network available to most young men.  While many women are able to share their fears and uncertainties about study abroad with family and friends, it is often a much more guarded discussion for men. Relatively simple things such as a fear of foreign foods, or having to navigate and use buses, trains and planes, are often the types of topics that many men will only discuss with their closest friends at the end of a long night full of beer.

It is important that young men understand that there is nothing shameful about these fears. We do not have to be completely self-sufficient. We can admit our uncertainty.  The alternative is that we find excuses, miss deadlines, or dismiss study abroad as something that we don’t have time for leading us to miss out on an incredibly important life experience.   Those organizing and running study abroad programs must become more pro-active in their efforts to reach and engage young men while realizing that the stoic and self-reliant mask they present covers a boiling mass of uncertainty and layers upon layers of rationalizations and excuses.

2. Added dangers exist for men

Study abroad and solo travel are, in general, extremely safe.  In reality they are often far safer than an identical period of time spent at home, especially if you’re from a major metropolitan area.  That being said, there are some added concerns that are worth being mindful of, particularly because study abroad and solo travel usually include large amounts of alcohol and bar culture. When discussing study abroad and solo travel safety, the present discussion revolves almost entirely around women’s safety and risk of kidnapping and rape.  While these concerns are extremely relevant and valuable, the temptation to assume that men have it easy is misleading and a disservice to the discussion.

One area that is rarely discussed, but much on the minds of young men, is the threat of fights while abroad.  I suspect that this is due in part because our cultural ‘mancode’ dictates that a man that is involved in a fight and loses will be eager to keep the details to himself, while a man that is involved in a fight and wins will be automatically assumed to be the aggressor and somehow responsible for the fight. This places men in a difficult no-win position, and one which encourages silence and the avoidance of the topic all together similar to what researchers have documented when exploring the reporting of domestic violence.

I’m a tall guy, and while that often works to my advantage in discouraging confrontation, it also makes me a target. Despite that, I’ve never been engaged in a direct confrontation that escalated beyond a push or two while living and traveling in more than 40 countries.  That being said, small confrontations and the threat of violence are a relatively normal part of a night out and/or bar culture. While I’ve managed to avoid major conflicts, the sight of guys at hostels sporting a black eye or bruised lip isn’t exactly an uncommon one.  While I think these incidents are less common while studying abroad than at home, men face a significantly increased risk of being assaulted compared to their female counterparts.  This risk is compounded dramatically in social and club situations where men are expected to serve as a buffer and safe zone for their female counterparts when they find they’re tired of dancing, talking to a guy, or want a break.

The risk of sexual assault and of getting drugged, while dramatically reduced compared to women, is still present and a very real risk. I know numerous men who have been drugged for a variety of reasons which ranged from exploitation, to robbery, to sexual assault, and perhaps most commonly, by other men interested in removing competition. While, thankfully, I have never experienced any of those, I have been aggressively grabbed and groped by both men and women more often than I care to recall.

Again, I want to reiterate that most of these threats are the same exact threats we would face and experience in bars in our home cities.  As someone who did my undergraduate program in Phoenix, Arizona, I find that most of my time spent studying/living/traveling abroad is dramatically safer. But, if we want more men to study abroad, we need to discuss these risks and threats in the same way we treat those posed to women.

3. Study abroad – Not just hookups and adventure sports

We live in a media culture that has made the study abroad experience the near exclusive domain of romantic comedies and chick flicks.  From an early age women grow up on stories depicting deeply charming and romantic travel experiences in far off and exotic places.  They are encouraged to see study abroad as an opportunity to seek love, to enjoy incredible food, and to immerse themselves in art, music, and culture.

For heterosexual men the cultural message is far less engaging and not nearly as compelling.  While there are messages to go abroad these often depict men already settled into their careers.  Other alternatives tell us that travel internationally should revolve around sex with exotic internationals (eg: Eurotrip) or the pursuit of adrenaline-fueled activities such as skydiving, bungee jumping, and downhill snowboarding (which are hardly study-centric activities).

The message we get is fairly clear:  Study abroad is only kinda, sorta, maybe for men and even then only high-testosterone adrenaline addicts or head-in-the-clouds whimsical lit-nerds. Those messages are complete and absolute pigswill.  Study abroad is for everyone. Seriously. Everyone.

4. It won’t jeopardize your career

As men, we experience a significant amount of familial and cultural pressure to start our careers and to focus on career-related activities from day one.  Travel is conveyed as something to be done after we complete our studies and succeed. For those with a passion for travel, it is implied that we should find a career that includes large amounts of business travel and use it as our platform for discovering the world.

Again, this is grossly inaccurate and something that is starting to change. Already employers report that they are looking for candidates that have international experience and have studied or traveled abroad over an extended period of time.  This is because they feel that those who have tend to be more adaptable, flexible, able to live effectively in a variety of cultural contexts. In many ways, study abroad is becoming an essential component of the undergraduate experience – on par with taking on a student internship.  It teaches many of the same skills, while also honing a student’s self confidence, independence, and global perspective.  Study abroad matures individuals and builds improved resilience and character while diversifying the student’s world view.

Where many men have historically bypassed study abroad out of financial concerns, or fear of lost opportunities to network or add work experience to their resumes, employers are increasingly viewing study abroad as a key sign of employability.  So, while this in no way means that young men should choose study abroad in place of an internship or career development opportunity, the two should be explored in tandem.  Outdated perceptions that study abroad was a sign of a student escaping from academic work, or taking an academic vacation are now out of date and have largely been abandoned. So much so that we are starting to see many university programs incorporating mandatory exchange periods as part of their curriculum.

Long story short: Men, if you don’t want to blow your future, it’s time to study abroad.

5. Socializing isn’t easy

Depending on where you sit on the nature/nurture debate you can attribute men’s social behaviors to a variety of different sources. Regardless, at the end of the day we tend to be less social than our female counterparts.  This can make establishing new social networks and connections particularly challenging and nerve-wracking when debating the prospect of study abroad.

If you are shy and one of the primary things holding you back is a fear that you won’t be able to make new friends during your exchange, don’t worry.  Travel is an incredible tool for breaking out of your shell and developing new friendships and conversational abilities.  Even if you suffer brutal social anxiety, the opportunity to experiment, explore, and reach out to a peer group of students who are in the same boat, and locals who are deeply curious about where you are from and why you chose their city, is invaluable.

As men we need to be honest with ourselves, accept that we’re not all natural athletes looking to join sports clubs or die-hard Magic the Gathering gamers. We have to accept that socializing while abroad is a huge fear for many guys as they consider taking a trip and re-affirm that while it won’t be easy, it won’t be as difficult or brutally uncomfortable as we might fear. Sure, there will be nights spent alone on Facebook, but far more often you’ll have a group of fellow exchange students with much more in common with you than a group of people 100 times the size back home.

6. Parental support

In conversations with female friends it has become apparent to me that the playing field isn’t equal when it comes to parental support for travel and study abroad. While the student need and benefit from study abroad is equal regardless of gender, there are far too many cases where financial and social support from parents is decidedly lopsided.  While I’ve been very lucky and had folks that prioritized travel, I have many peers who have found that where their parents were willing to support and pay for their daughters to study abroad, there were decidedly different levels of support and social pressures placed on their sons.  It’s impossible to know how much of this stems from cultural norms and expectations that young men should be able to support and provide for themselves, and how much of it is simply based in young women being more vocal about how important study abroad is to them.  I’m in no way implying or seeking to lessen the efforts of the countless women who go about researching, pursuing, and financing their study abroad all on their own.  I’m simply noting observations I’ve had shared by men and women alike, that while women often have to make a stronger case for their safety when seeking parental support, that support, particularly financially, tends to be more available for women than men.

7. The money is out there

Unfortunately, study abroad isn’t cheap.  While every penny invested is 100% worth it, it’s true that a solo trip done on the cheap can run you about half the cost of a study abroad exchange.  Of course, the tradeoff is that you don’t receive the academic credits, and you miss out on opportunities for scholarships, grants, and funding. When weighing the options available to you, you should keep in mind that because study abroad is typically based in one or two centralized locations you will get a much better feeling for the community and culture as opposed to typical budget travel which covers 10-15 times as many destinations. Also consider that each type of study abroad is different, just as study abroad and general travel are different.  For added discussion on the topic see my post exploring long vs. short term study abroad here.

Lastly, it is extremely important that men be pro-active in pursuing scholarships, tuition waivers, and financial aid for study abroad opportunities.  While this is more relevant for American, Canadian, British and Australian readers, it is equally relevant for European readers who may seek to supplement the ERASMUS fee.  There are a wealth of resources available to help you make your study abroad experience possible, you will just need to seek them out and be pro-active in asking for the funds.  Again, this all comes down to asking for help often, and in a wide variety of places.

Final thoughts

Recent growth in study abroad is exciting and representative of how the world is changing as new technologies continue to reduce costs, bridge communication barriers, and provide new opportunities for self discovery and exploration.   Men benefit immensely from the study abroad experience. More than that though, it is of the utmost importance that we strive for relative equal representation within the study abroad community because both genders have so much to contribute. The chance to explore the world, cultures, and foods as part of a group not only creates a more well-rounded exchange experience, it provides a significantly safer one.

As we push forward, it is important that we all do our part to re-frame the discussion surrounding men, study abroad, and independent travel.  The challenges young men face are not limited to their own decisions and experiences. They are representative of the sum of the cultural messages and resources that shape the study abroad environment. It is up to all of us to help create a more supportive and transparent dialogue that helps young men feel comfortable and capable when exploring study abroad options.

We also need to change the way we handle and discuss these types of posts. In researching this post, I discussed the topic with a number of other male peers and bloggers. Many expressed agreement that the topic needed to be addressed, but felt as though any attempt to do so would immediately be met with aggression, allegations of sexism, or seen as an attempt to belittle the challenges and gains women have made in higher education and study abroad over the past few decades. This is not my intention and I know there are large groups of women who are every bit as concerned by the gender gap as I am and working doggedly to help bridge it. Still, I publish this post with some apprehension.

It would be fantastic if men who have made the jump and chosen to study abroad or embark on a solo travel trip would share some of their own stories, their experiences, and their fears in bridging the gap between the concept of going abroad and the reality of making it happen.


8 Ways Turkey Is Nothing Like You Expect

A Mosque at Sunset - Istanbul, Turkey

With the recent protests in Turkey the country has been launched into the news for the second time this year.  As many of you may recall Turkey was previously in the spotlight when a female American backpacker was murdered.  These events have built upon existing misconceptions and stereotypes about Turkey which are grossly inaccurate. They lead a lot of tourists to rule both Istanbul and Turkey out as a viable travel destination.  A year and a half ago I booked a ticket to Istanbul.  I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was what I had heard from trusted friends, travel bloggers, and my brother. Each insisted it was a must-visit destination. I was anxious. It was my first Muslim country.  I was nervous about what to expect and torn about booking the ticket even after I locked in my flight.  Boy oh boy did I have Turkey pegged wrong!  Not only did I enjoy Istanbul, but I fell in love with it. So much so that this past March I returned for my second visit.  If you’re like most western tourists, what you know about Turkey is flat out inaccurate. So, let’s dive into eight of the common misconceptions I hear most often.  I’ll focus mostly on Istanbul, but this information holds true across western and central Turkey.

Women Relaxing - Istanbul, Turkey

1. Turkey: The Extremist Muslim Country

For many westerners who have lived in countries dominated by Judeo-Christian tradition, the thought of visiting a Muslim country is a bit unnerving.  Especially in light of the tensions that have arisen between Islamic groups and Judeo-Christian groups over the last two decades. Tell someone that a country is Muslim and automatically images from movies like Aladdin merge with films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – all weighed within the context of terrorist hostage videos, Al Qaeda, and suicide bombers.  Other stereotypical imagery that comes to mind is that of streets filled with burka-clad women, and entire cities coming to a complete halt five times a day to bend knee and pray towards Mecca.

While things are changing (perhaps for the better, or perhaps for the worse) in Turkey, one thing is certain.  Istanbul and large portions of Turkey, while Muslim, are nowhere as extreme as most of us have been led to believe.  You will find women in burkas, true, but you will also find women in burkas here in Copenhagen. In practice, I was shocked by how few women were actually wearing hijabs or burkas. While it varies depending on the part of Istanbul you’re in, the number of women dressed in burkas was only slightly higher than what I am familiar with in the Norrebro neighborhood where I live here in Copenhagen.  It IS more common to see women with head scarves of some sort, but these are often moderate Muslims roughly as spiritual as your typical American Christian.

The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, is deeply respected and holds a George Washington like status for the Turks.  The Turkey he established was structured to be a secular and democratic nation-state.  The Turkish Government has, as a result, actively worked to discourage fundamentalism and religious influence on government. Turkish currency features great scientific minds and scientific subjects.  The 10 Lira note features a mathematics equation, while the 5 lira note features the atomic symbol and a strand of DNA.  This level of secularism and visible declaration for science is something that puts even the US to shame and offers insight into the compelling contrasts that define Turkey.

When re-framing my understanding of Turkey and the Turks, I like to take a historical look at the origins of Istanbul.  It is easy to forget that Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium, spent the majority of its formative years as the capital of the prosperous Eastern Roman Empire. It was not until the 1400s with the Ottoman conquest that Christianity took a back seat in Istanbul to Islam.  While Istanbul is predominantly Muslim there are still more than 120 active churches and around 20 active synagogues in the city.

Religion in general, and Islam more specifically has and continues to play an important role in shaping Turkey.  It is not, however, something that tourists should be concerned about or feel endangered by. Just remember that when you treat people as individuals matters of faith, nationality, or race tend to be far less divisive.

The Maiden's Tower and Lighthouse

2. Turkey Is An Arab Country

One of the things that frustrates Turks is the common misconception by outsiders that Turkey is an Arab country.  Turkey is not, in any way, an Arab country.  In reality out of nearly 79 million Turkish citizens only 2% are Arabs.  Compare that to Brazil where 3% of the population is Arab or France where a full 9% of the population is Arab.

Turks have a strong national identity.  They speak Turkish and associate more closely with Europe and European culture than with the Arab world. The country also has a very complex power dynamic and somewhat difficult national identity due to the massive geographic area it covers and its historic position in the center of one of the world’s greatest cultural crossroads.  This clash of cultures is a fascinating subject which can be a topic which necessitates tactful discuss with Turks, and which makes for incredible reading and a rich culture.

Best Friends - Bodrum, Turkey

3. You Can’t Drink Alcohol

For many of us, understanding the relationship between Muslim countries and alcohol is a bit confusing. At the end of the day, we don’t really care about the specifics. We just want an affordable drink that doesn’t get us arrested, thrown in jail, or force us into doing something illegal.  Many of you have no doubt heard horror stories about trying to get a drink in Saudi Arabia, about booze delivery services in Iran, or about how locals and tourists have different rights of access to bars and booze in Dubai. I had no idea what to expect in Istanbul, so it was with quite a bit of surprise that I learned upon arrival that alcohol is readily available in Turkey.  While it is quite expensive by local standards it is still affordable very affordable. Beer is readily available in most cafes, particularly in tourist-oriented areas. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Turkey has several national breweries. Of these, the largest is Efes Beverage Group. You also have a vibrant club and bar district situated around the Taksim area just off Istiklal Avenue in downtown Istanbul.  You may recognize Taksim from news articles about the current protests.  It’s one and the same and while this has impacted the immediate area surrounding Taksim it has done little to stifle the greater tourist experience.

The Taksim area at night is a fantastic mixture of hip bars, restaurants and night clubs.  I was shocked to see that young folks would often walk from bar to bar with an open beer in hand. While not strictly legal enforcement seemed to be minimal.  You’ll also find beer, wine and hard alcohol readily available across the rest of Turkey.  When visiting Cappadocia we had several lovely local red wines and in areas like Antalya or Bodrum a few beers on the beach is an absolute must.

Tulips in Bloom - Istanbul, Turkey

4. People Are Rude

I was expecting the people to be rude, pushy, and constantly trying to take advantage of me. In particular I was dreading the shop vendors and street merchants. I wasn’t alone.  I’ve heard time and time again that people have avoided Turkey out of a fear of dealing with the merchants.  Boy was I wrong.  The Turkish people are incredible.  They are warm and the culture revolves around hospitality. You’ll drink more tea than you can bear and while occasionally merchants have an agenda – they’ll saddle you with a steaming hot cup of chai and then try and convince you to buy something while it cools – most are just happy to have a conversation with you in the hopes you consider their products.  They also tend to be very curious about you, your family, and how you are enjoying their country. Similarly, most of the merchants are respectful and nowhere as aggressive or high pressure as you might fear. The exception to this is in the extremely touristy areas such as the Grand Bazaar where high pressure sales are slightly more common. Even there though, they were nowhere near as pushy as I expected. You can read about my first intro to Turkish hospitality here.   I’ve found that many open and friendly folks tend to be members of the Kurdish minority.  These individuals in particular are extremely friendly to the US and Americans.

The Grand Bazaar - Istanbul, Turkey

5. Turkey Is Dangerous

Turkey is quite safe. There are some subtle cultural differences that people should keep in mind, women in particular, but those considerations are quite similar to many other parts of the world. When you consider Istanbul’s size – 13.5 million officially, 18 million unofficially – and compare it to other major metropolitan areas I felt as safe, if not safer in Istanbul than I do in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, or other large American cities.  The rest of the Turkish cities you’ll likely visit as a tourist: Cappadocia, Antalya, Bodrum, Izmir, etc. are all extremely safe.  Even now, in the midst of the turmoil and protests, the majority of the tourist areas are unaffected and I would not hesitate to plan a trip back to Turkey.

Church of the Holy Savior in Chora

6. Turkey Lacks History

Istanbul is, in effect, Rome’s sister city. It is, without question, one of the world’s greatest historical cities.  Yet, somehow, it is largely overlooked. The combination of ancient history, Roman history, and Ottoman history combines with Turkey’s central position to provide a spectacular assortment of historical, culinary and cultural attractions. You need at least 5 days to see Istanbul properly. Visits to other parts of Turkey will require a similar amount of time as there are incredible Crusader castles, historic Greek ruins, and wonderful Roman artifact collections scattered all over the countryside.

Busy Turkish Streets - Istanbul, Turkey

7. It Is Primitive

Another misconception a lot of people have is that Turkey is poor and/or relatively primitive. Many assume that the country has more in common with developing nations than fully developed ones.  While this holds true in the country’s most rural areas, and on the outskirts of some of its larger cities, it is grossly inaccurate when discussing the country’s western half.  Istanbul has a vibrant transit system, and is every bit as modern a city as those you’ll find across other parts of Europe. They have a prolific number of state-of-the-art shopping malls, new theaters, international airports and a thriving business center.

The Turkish Spice Market - Bazaar, Bodrum, Turkey

8. Squat Toilets Are Everywhere

While it sounds silly to say, there are a lot of tourists who avoid countries out of concerns over their bathroom conditions. The good news is, you’ll very rarely find a squat toilet in the modern parts of Turkey.  What you will find periodically are water hoses to supplement the toilet paper for those who have a preference one way or the other. The handicapped stall which is present will also always be a traditional western-seated toilet. So, have no fear, Turkey is a western-friendly toilet destination.  Just make sure you pack a little backup paper just in case.

Istiklal Avenue - Istanbul, Turkey

Turkey is an incredible destination.  I now find myself recommending Turkey in the same breath as places like Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Prague, Central Italy and Budapest. It will defy your expectations and leave you breathless.  Don’t wait to head to Turkey – I can promise you, it is far less of a heart palpitating adventure than you might expect.

While these are eight of the most common concerns and misconceptions I hear, there are many more.  If you have a question of your own, or have something to add, please share it in the comments.

When Pay It Forward Meets Its Match

Several years ago I had a realization.  That realization wasn’t sudden, or abrupt, but it was profoundly powerful.  It was the realization that we as individuals are fundamentally responsible for our actions and the impact of those actions on the people around us.  That realization led me to re-analyze the way I interact with people, and what type of people I choose to surround myself with.

I’ve come to realize that there are effectively two types of people in the world.  Those who create their own luck and dismiss adversity/challenges and disappointments as part of the process, and then those who languish in their own bad luck.  This latter group seem constantly plagued by bad luck, most of which can be traced back to their life choices and fixation on their own poor condition.  The latter seem to always be pointing to others and claiming, “if only I had your luck, your skill, your opportunities, your good lucks, etc.” and who by that same coin refuse to create their own luck and opportunity.  These ‘if only’ personalities relish in creating missed opportunities and then pointing to and fixating on them as indicators of why they cannot get ahead or succeed.  While this world view isn’t the focus of this post, it is tied directly to an inner decision that goes hand in hand with it.  So, keep it in mind as you read.

Pay It Forward

The concept is simple.  When you read those three words, you probably immediately think of the movie which offered the ideology significant publicity.  Ultimately, however, it’s little more than an extension of the Golden Rule – that is, do onto others as you would have done onto yourself.

It’s a simple approach to life, but one which is surprisingly rare. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’ll find small examples of good behavior in everyone, but in many ways it has come to be an ideology at odds with our culture.  Why help a stranger in a city of millions? It’s part of our nature to wonder, “What’s in it for me?”   and of course, “What’s the cost?.”  The answers to these questions don’t exactly give the most marketable responses.  What’s in it for me?  The chance of a better world. The chance to help people. It’s a vague answer, one which is general and initially seems insignificant. You can bring the concept of Karma into it as many do, but even then it’s somewhat nebulous.  The truth is that living a life which focuses on paying it forward does pay major dividends.  You live a happier, healthier life and ultimately end up surrounding yourself by other people who are sincerely willing to help, for no better reason than that they can, but in truth – that is the easy part of the equation.

The second question is far more challenging: what’s the cost?  Most believers in a pay it forward ideology will shrug off the question, usually giving a nebulous answer that implies nothing – that there is no cost.  The reality is, that there is a cost – and that cost can potentially be significant. A point I was painfully reminded of last night.

There’s a reason that one of the most widely recognizable adages in our culture is, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”.   It’s not that every good deed is punished, but rather that the sting of getting burned while trying to do a good deed hurts twice as much.  It’s not only fundamentally hurtful but carries with it a strong sense of betrayal coupled with anger and those emotions, especially combined are incredibly powerful.  So powerful in fact that they can do far more than just causing people to abandon a Pay It Forward approach to life, where they might do little more than revert to apathy and inaction.  It can cause a Pay It Backwards approach which leaves people bitter and aggressive and that’s the true danger.  It’s also why I started this article talking about how we deal with success and obstacles in our day to day lives.

An Example

I mentioned earlier that the reason for this post was an altercation I had last night. Without going into too much depth I came upon a car last night around 9:30PM in a parking lot commonly used by bar goers.  I was a bit early and the parking lot was largely empty. I immediately noticed that the car next to mind still had the keys in the door.  I faced a dilemma. The keys were not owned by someone I knew and none of my business.  They were a stranger’s keys and any theft/damage done would be to a complete stranger, and the direct result of their lack of attention. Yet, if they had been my keys and a stranger noticed them – what would I hope that they might do?  Ignore them and leave the car to the next, less scrupulous passer by (Keep in mind that the Phoenix area ranks in the top 10 for Automotive theft)?  Or take what action was available to help.

After a moments consideration I weighed the options – would they find the keys if i put them on the front tire?  The windshield? Probably not. Should I open the car door and place them on the car seat?  Maybe during the day, but not at night – that would go beyond just helping and risk trespassing.  The obvious option seemed to remove the keys and drop them on the ground immediately below the lock.  There they’d be easily found by the owners when they searched their pockets, but wouldn’t be readily visible to everyone in the parking lot. I dropped the keys, and began my way towards the bars where I was schedule to meet several friends.

I got about 15 feet before a large male (I’m 6’4/200 pounds and this guy was larger/more athletic) started shouting at me from ahead of me. I quickly explained the situation, what was going on, and encouraged the guy to calm down and talk to me. He wasn’t having it.  The back and forth continued for a solid minute as I backpedaled maintain my distance while he threatened me, demanded MY keys, and ignored what I was saying. I even went so far as to volunteer to call the police over, if he’d calm down, so that I could explain the situation.  The threats continued, even after I could see that the Girl he was with found the keys – right where I said they’d be – and had opened the car door.

Eventually he decided threats of putting me in the hospital were insufficient, and made a leap towards me. I know when I’m outgunned – and I retreated. Quickly. He couldn’t keep up, gave up shortly there after, turned and made a B-line back to my vehicle, which he proceeded to kick repeatedly leaving heavy scuffing on the trunk and denting in the rear passenger side door so badly that it won’t open.  Keep in mind, all of this has occurred AFTER I’ve offered to discuss the incident with the police and after the girl he was with had gained access to the car.

Still keeping my distance, I dialed 911 as soon as he headed back towards the vehicles and requested police intervention.  They arrived, but not before the thug and the woman he was with got into their car and burned out of the parking lot – unfortunately – before I could close enough distance to grab a plate number.

So, what did trying to help someone get me?  Very nearly a serious trip to the hospital, and at least a $500 deductible to get the damage fixed.

To Pay It Backwards?

The whole event left me feeling incredibly frustrated, angry, and disheartened.  Beyond that, it left me wondering what I’d do in the future when I find myself faced with a similar dilemma.  The thought do nothing of course came to mind, but it didn’t stop there.  What might I do in the future?  After all, helping someone had just been negatively re-enforced, so why not do the opposite?  Why not sheer the key off in the lock with a quick kick? Should I join countless other Arizonans and start carrying A gun? A knife?

As each of these thoughts floated through my mind over the course of the evening, I inevitably had to keep reminding myself that the cost still merited the greater benefit. That I was faced with a very clear opportunity.  I could stick to my guns and remain a “shit happens” person, or I could pack it in, throw up a white flag, and retreat to the “If only”,  “poor me” camp.

For my part I’ve chosen to stick to my guns.  In the future I may think twice before deciding to go ahead and try and help someone out in a similar situation, but I’ll still do it.  Why?  Because it’s worth it. Unfortunately, discussions I’ve had with friends in the last 24 hours left me feeling like these types of events have led a lot of people to abandon a Pay It Forward approach to life, which is a loss for us all. I hope if you find yourself in that camp, that you’ll re-consider.

At the end of the day, despite the occasional cost – it’s worth it.