Two Years Away – My First Visit Back to Arizona

Self Portrait - Colorado Rockies

With my Master’s thesis handed in and the clock ticking down on my time as a student, I finally set aside the funds to return to Arizona. It seemed like a perfect opportunity.  My schedule was largely open, consumed only by applying for jobs and PhD positions here in Denmark.  My brother, the author of, who has spent the last 26 months in Africa with the US Peace Corps was scheduled to return to Arizona for his month and a half long home leave.  His home leave marks the 2 year mark in his service, and he’s currently scheduled to return to Zambia for a one year extension which made this my only opportunity to see him and my folks together for at least another year.

The plan was simple.  Return home and spend time together as a family.  While we all Skype multiple times a week, it would be the first time any of us saw each other since last year when we spent a month together in Zambia. As the date approached, David and I chatted in mixed tones of excitement and trepidation.  Would we experience homesickness? How strong would the reverse culture shock be?  Would we suddenly feel a sense of regret or second guess our decision to not only go abroad, but to stay abroad for so long?

Since many of you have asked about my experience, what I saw, what I felt, and my thought process, this post will be a rolling explanation that seeks to shed insights into these questions.

General observations

Sense of Noise – One of the interesting shifts was just how “loud” things seemed when I returned to the US.  Living in Denmark for the last two years my ears and brain have re-focused their filter from only seeking out relevant English words and conversations to filtering out Danish conversations which I only marginally understand.  Those who have traveled may know what I mean – your ear is constantly scanning and suddenly picks-up-on and hones in on English – any English – it hears. It can be a radio station in the background, Danes switching seamlessly to English and then back again, or folks having a conversation in English across the room.  The odd twist is that upon returning to the US and leaving Denmark behind, my brain took a while to slam the old filters back into place. The result was a sense of inundation as my brain tried to pick up and process every English sound and conversation occurring around me.  It made for a very interesting and slightly overwhelming experience.

Native English Speakers – In Denmark I speak English exclusively.  However, that English is international English, which is to say it is simplified English with slightly different emphasis and a significantly reduced pacing than I would use in the states.  My usage of slang is greatly reduced as is the use of highly complex or obtuse words. My day-to-day conversations take place with non-native speakers. Many of these non-native speakers are completely fluent in English and competent.  Yet, to be better understood my use of language while abroad changes. The same has occurred among my fellow American expats so that even when we’re talking to each other our conversations fall somewhere in-between a truly fluent native conversation and an international English conversation.  The result is that my active vocabulary has shrunk by hundreds of words. While this loss of vocabulary and change in pacing is temporary, some parts definitely recover faster than others. Throughout my stay I found myself searching for basic words or frustrated at my inability to draw upon the specific, descriptive word I needed.

Inflation – I was really surprised to see that the cost of everything has gone up $1-2. When living there day-t0-day you don’t tend to notice it.  Having left and returned I was quite shocked to see that things had increased significantly.  Especially when one considers just how low and slow to change the minimum wage is. When I consider the minimum wage in DK vs. Arizona and the prices of things in DK vs. the US, I  am reminded that prices  aren’t nearly as expensive in DK as they initially appear.

Nice vs. Friendly – The Danes, famous for being a bit more reserved, are incredibly kind.  They are truly nice people on average, and once you strike up a conversation they are eager to chat, eager to help, and very curious.  Americans on the other hand live up to our reputation abroad. Folks are just down right friendly.  They’re outgoing and eager to strike up random conversations.  Bored?  Downtime?  Waiting in a line?  You name it, it’s grounds for commentary and social interaction for the duration of the time spent in the same space. As someone raised in that culture, it’s something I really enjoy and miss a little bit while in Denmark.  Luckily, Danes are always more than happy to respond to my prompts for conversation – even if they violate social norms and take them a bit off guard.

Things I Miss

I have a deep seated love for the US, for all it has to offer and even for many of its failings.  While I haven’t felt a strong pang of homesickness during my two years in Denmark, there are definitely things that I really miss. Some of which I didn’t even realize I missed.

Family and Friends  – This is a given, but it still bears repeating.  Spending time back with family and my amazing group of friends was truly a wonderful experience. It is, hands down, the hardest part of being abroad and leaving Arizona behind. That even after two years apart we can come back together for wonderful evenings, conversations, and stories is a true tribute to what a fantastic community I still have back in Arizona.

The Food – I often am greeted with extreme skepticism when I tell people that of all the countries I’ve visited, the US has some of the best food in the world. It does, and Arizona will forever hold a special place in my heart for its amazing Mexican food. You could likely eat Mexican food and its various Americanized variations for every meal, every day, for a week without having  the same style twice.  Of the many things I’ve missed while living in Denmark, good, cheap, filling, grungy Mexican food is one of those that I hanker for most strongly.  Similarly, cheap, amazing, massive steaks from the supermarket, as well as hamburgers.  I’m not talking flowery, pretty, Danish-style hamburgers you eat with a knife and fork.  I’m talking about delicious, sloppy, ugly hamburgers that are packed with flavor and send you into a food coma afterwards. Hamburgers that you eat with your hands until they implode, like flavored fireworks, and are only finished when you lick the leftover juices from your fingers.  I also miss the Chinese buffets, especially a fantastic seafood variation in southeastern Phoenix. For $17 of all-you-can-eat goodness, you can gorge yourself on surprisingly high quality and flavorful crab legs, shrimp, scallops, sushi, frog legs, you name it.

American Friendliness – Americans are awesome. They’re friendly, chipper, positive, optimistic, and love to talk.  Walking into a shop for lunch?  Be prepared, you’ll likely have a total stranger at the door strike up a conversation with you and make suggestions – “The double paddy is massive, go for a single unless you’re sharing!”.   For some foreigners this comes across as insincere, fake or overwhelming.  I don’t find it to be any of those.  For me it’s just down-right friendly.

American Bathrooms – I appreciate that this is more of a matter of building age and logistics, but I don’t care.  American bathrooms are amazing especially in comparison to Danish bathrooms (and European bathrooms in general) which suck.  They usually have more space in them than your average Danish bedroom, have real showers, real tubs, water pressure, and are set up so that you don’t have to spend 20 minutes after every shower squeegeeing everything down, including the damn ceiling.

Western Apartments – Your average student’s apartment in Arizona looks more like a luxury condo here in Denmark.  They are large, often recently renovated, with lots of room, decent furnishings, and loads of amenities. It’s the little things like full-sized refrigerators, in-house washer and dryer, and walk-in closets that really make a difference.  The friend’s apartment I stayed in was a beautiful, if normal, two-bedroom, two-bath student apartment in central Phoenix. The complex was fairly new and tailored to students with cheap rent, in a neighborhood that was being gentrified.  His rent was less than I pay for a single, shared room, with four people co-sharing a single bathroom in Denmark.

Good Ol’ American Bars – There’s something deeply charming about various types of American bars.  I really enjoyed some of the funky bars we ended up in.  One in particular that comes to mind was a VERY stereotypical country bar in Durango.  My brother and I stuck out like sore thumbs, but thoroughly enjoyed grabbing a drink while listening to great live music as folks did the country-two step on the dance floor. It was lots of fun, and as you might imagine there were cowboy hats and boots a-plenty to be found.

American Retail – American retail is amazing. It is incredible just how much high quality stuff is at your finger tips.  Even more incredible is that should you not find it or not like the price in one of the sprawling warehouse-like stores, you can hop online and order it from groups like Amazon and Newegg.  One of the things I miss the most while in Copenhagen is Amazon. I can still order from the UK or German versions but it just isn’t the same and the pricing is nowhere near as competitive.  I was, however, very disappointed at how much service quality and consistency has dropped.  I used a NET10 pre-paid wireless plan during my trip in the US and it was dreadful…as in borderline scam-bad.  Their customer service was some of the worst I’ve seen in years.  My brother also ordered a new laptop from TigerDirect.  The folks at TigerDirect seem to, at best, be having major quality control issues and at worst to be running a shipping scam.  The laptop he ordered arrived missing 4gb of RAM and the processor speed had been misleadingly listed on their website. Their response?  “oops” we’ll send you the RAM and you can figure out how to install it yourself OR refund the entire computer. Take it or leave it.  No interest in making the situation right.  Talk about disappointing. My other main frustration was dealing with Apple which continues to pump out defective products and which was more than happy to agree that the hardware they’d given me was failing and inferior, but unwilling to do anything about it.

Things I Don’t Miss

Fake Patriotism – Sticking an American flag bumper sticker on your car automatically serves as a justification to say and/or hold whatever idiotic or intolerant view that is your personal flavor of the month.  It is the sentiment that doing whatever you want, to whomever you want, is acceptable so long as it isn’t happening to you. When they are reminded that their rights only stretch to the point where they infringe on another’s, they automatically claim oppression.

The Number of Grossly Unhealthy People – This doesn’t really need clarification. A trip to a local super market typically means you’ll risk getting run over by a small army of heavily- laden scooters with folks suffering from extreme obesity and sipping on a 64 oz “diet” big gulp.  This is a stark contrast to Copenhagen (perhaps not Denmark at large) where the mere nature of the day-to-day lifestyle encourages a very fit and comparatively slim population.  Which is not to say that there are not a fair number of heavier folks, but that number and the scope is dramatically reduced.

In-Your-Face Christianity – You would think that with an astounding majority of the population being one flavor of Christian or another that everyone would just chill out. Not so. It seems like everyone and their sister is in a competition for who can be the more visible (not better) Christian.  I suppose in the US your particular version of Christianity is as much a part of your socio-identity as your job and the car you drive.  The number of ridiculous bumper stickers, flyers, handouts, corner preachers, and times folks mention religious stuff in conversations is mind numbing. Every fourth conversation seems to include at least one reference to being a “God-fearing Christian”, “going to church every Sunday” or being a “good Christian girl”.  The Danes have a state religion and state church and while it is true that they are also one of the most atheistic countries on earth, Danish Christians are MUCH more relaxed about it. It’s something private that they do; it is a personal relationship with their church and god. Not a method for self promotion and advertisement. I definitely do NOT miss the US bumper-sticker Christians.

Religious Fanatics – Tough fact. The US has a high number of religious fanatics.  It is, perhaps, the most fundamentalist Christian nation among the western cultures.  With the high number of religious fundamentalists and fanatics comes all of the negatives that we much more easily and readily identify in other cultures and faiths.  Unfortunately, it’s something that is largely ignored by the American population and/or not realized.  They are also nearly untouchable as it has become unacceptable to critique or challenge issues that folks claim are faith-based or parts of their religious identity. The religious extremism in the US is something that deeply saddens me, and which I feel has direct connections to many of the nation’s current woes.

Traffic Jams – Having a 20 minute commute turn into a 50 minute stop-and-go session. Ugh.

The Car – Having a car was great! It adds flexibility and freedom.  That being said, it’s also a royal pain.  I really, really, really missed having a city that was walk-able or which had fantastic public transit where I could hop-on, hop-off, and not have to worry about parking, gas, and all the other complexities that come with driving. It also makes enjoying night life, MUCH simpler and safer.

American Bar Culture – Again, this is one that falls on both sides of the fence.  On the one hand, I love elements of a good ol’ American bar.  On the other hand, I love the relaxed charm and dive-bar (but not) mystique of the Danish bar scene.  People in Danish bars are friendly and approachable.  No one is looking to start a fight. Everyone is fairly in control (even when falling-down drunk) and overall it’s just pleasant and harmless.  In the states too many folks get violent, or just obnoxious. The hyper-sexualized environment makes conversations with strangers, especially members of the opposite sex, more like an argument or fist-fight than a relaxed conversation and the whole thing has a certain shallowness and blah feel to it.  The exception of course is when one goes out with a group of friends and sticks to that group of friends.  It’s an odd mixture, because there are great elements to it like the American friendliness, but at the same time that is countered by how bar culture works and the hyper polarized male-female dynamic.  Say hello to a girl?  She assumes you’re hitting on her.  Even if you are and she’s interested, for the sake of appearances, she needs to put on the image of being proper and not too interested, “slutty, or “easy”.  Meanwhile, she, or others are constantly fishing for a free bar tab to drink on or free drink.  Dancing is far less dancing and far more grinding on each other with the hope of figuring out and perhaps remembering each other’s name. Bleh.  Maybe I’m just getting too old and got it out of my system when I was younger and doing the Scottsdale club circuit. Either way, i’ll stick to my Danish bodegas.

The Struggle – Student life in the US is challenging.  As much because of the academics as everything else that goes with them.  In chatting with and seeing friends who are struggling to deal with the ridiculous amounts of debt they are accruing as part of their education and the criminal medical bills they face in instances where they’ve had medical issues surface, I definitely feel disappointment for how badly the American system is failing them.  After spending the last two years in an environment where higher education is free and comes with a $800 living stipend, and medical costs are mostly covered by the state, I find myself shocked by how appalling, exploitative and counter-productive the American system is.  Not to mention the deep costs on both health and future potential and success which it extracts from American students. While some sense of having to work for it, and earn it is important – what’s occurring in the US these days is tragic and definitely undermines the country’s future prosperity.  It, and the impact it has on people’s emotional state and overall health, is something I definitely do not miss.

The Lack of Consumer Protection – Deregulation in the US has provided increased competition in a few cases, but by and large seems to have just allowed for exploitative monopolies and brutal consumer exploitation.  My US-based retail experiences were, with the exception of an exchange with REI (who were fantastic), extremely frustrating.  Quality control is abysmally low, product quality is hit or miss, and the companies providing these products no longer seem inclined in the slightest to go an extra inch, let alone mile, to make things right.  Their mistake, should you catch it, is almost your fault. Something you should feel guilty about as you force them through the inconvenience (after wasting hours of your time) of correcting the order or servicing the warranty on a defective product.  The US consumer has an amazing number of options available to them, but they’re also getting screwed on a regular basis. Short of trying to make a small stink via social media, most of the old agencies in place to keep retailers in check are now irrelevant or lack their bite.  Something needs to change and soon.


Over the final few years I spent in Arizona my contempt for the political, religious, social and intellectual environment in the state grew.  My general level of disgust colored and partially blinded me to the raw naked beauty of Arizona deserts and her diverse terrain.  Even as a more green and water-oriented traveler, the canyons and deserts are gorgeous. Before I left for Denmark, I spent the last few months trying to experience Arizona as a tourist. Those trips were immensely successful and paved the way for this return visit.  While I still have very little interest in returning to Arizona in a long-term capacity, the two+ years spent away did allow me to more accurately enjoy and experience the state’s natural beauty.

When I chose to leave Arizona it was because it embodied many of the woes facing America.  Outside the state’s shining bastions of intellectualism (ASU, UofA, NAU), it is a fetid and intellectually decrepit place.  Conservatives and their religious fundamentalist allies have waged a concerted war on education and science in the state for decades and turned what was once one of the more progressive southern states into one of the least advanced and most regressive. The state has  become the poster child for failed conservative ideology.  Things like school voucher programs and unregulated charter schools have been used to gut comprehensive education, while fundamentalist factions from both the Evangelical and LDS populations have heavily infiltrated the Government and carefully dismantled sound policy.

It’s the type of state where it is common to encounter people who have such a warped understanding of science that they sincerely believe and advocate that the earth is 6,000 years old. It’s the type of state that rages against the “socialism” of funding basic infrastructure repair projects, education, and safety-net programs while having a large portion of the population on medicare or food stamps. The same state that is so perversely corrupt that things like the sale, and lease-back of capitol buildings at outrageous prices is just common place and an every day occurrence. It’s also the type of place that, in the middle of a recession, feels the best use of legislators’ time is to legalize people’s “right” to carry loaded guns into restaurants and bars (now a law of the land) and to try and do the same on college campuses and in college classrooms.

As an expat, when I see an article about one US state or another doing something mind-bogglingly stupid, evil-spirited, or incoherent, it usually turns out that it is Arizona.  From SB1070 to Sheriff Joe’s blatant abuse of the constitution, Arizona is a walking tragedy.  The role of profoundly ignorant fundamentalist Christians cannot be over-emphasized.  Arizona is the state where, just after September 11th, we had a random Sikh shot and killed on the street because he was wearing a turban and believed to be a Muslim. Racial rants targeted at various religious and associated ethnic minorities are common place. The state has boasted the likes of Russell Pearce as President of the State Senate who found widespread support and used his influential position for writing and endorsing bills despite clear ties to white supremacist and neo-nazi groups (to Arizona’s credit Pearce was, eventually, recalled and pulled from office). It is a place where for every well-balanced, moderate Christian who has embraced Christ’s message of love, tolerance, and integrity, there is another that is every bit as radical and fundamentalist as many of the Muslim extremists that are viewed as such a profound threat to the civilized world. They may not be inclined to blow themselves up, but they regularly discuss armed conflict, make veiled threats, and are open to violence on a lesser-if still present scale.

To be clear, this is not to say that there are not wonderful people, and many people who fall at various spots along the spectrum.  During my time in Arizona, I made a number of truly incredible friends. People who are a gift to the world at large, and who  endeavor to better themselves and their companions.  Some are Arizona natives and others are imports.  Many are such a stark contrast to Arizona at large that it is truly shocking. They are some of the greatest minds in the US tackling social, scientific, and moral issues who range from atheists to devoted Christian scholars.  Other friends are individuals whose hearts are in the right place, even if we harbor strong ideological or intellectual differences. Together we challenge and tolerate each other, hopefully constantly growing and learning from each other even though our world views, moral priorities, and intellectual beliefs stand in direct contrast.

Of course, no community is perfect.  There will always be individuals who stand out as the best and worst the community can produce. There will always be political conflicts and ideological differences.  Yet, the more time I spend in the world at large, the more confident I am in saying that an influential segment – perhaps some 20% of the population – is an American incarnation of the Taliban. Their core drive, mentality, and approach to everything from knowledge to women’s rights is similar in approach and end goal even if their path to it is different.  As we’ve seen the world over, when these groups, even if they are only a minority, take control they are able to cripple government and – if they retain control – do lasting societal harm. That is, I fear, the nature of Arizona as it exists today and will continue to be for the next few decades at least. The young population – those who have not been brainwashed at least – are starting to push back and to seek change, but unfortunately, for most of us it makes far more sense to leave upon the completion of our degree. And leave we have. Many of those friends I mentioned previously – some of the state’s best and brightest – have already left. Many of those who remain will leave soon. Of those who do stay, it is often because they are held hostage by a rare job opportunity or a desire to stay close to family.

When I chose to re-locate to Denmark from the US, I felt fairly confident in these conclusions and observations but still retained a certain uncertainty.  My time away, and observations during my recent return, have done away with any lingering doubts. It has provided further perspective and for that I am grateful.


Upon touching down in Copenhagen I was tired and stressed out, as my return to Copenhagen marks the beginning of an intense 3-month period where I have to sink-or-swim if I’m to stay on in the country.  I have submitted a number of PhD application and am firing off job applications where I see quality fits.  I stand on the cusp of that point where I have to decide “what comes next” now that the 2-year MA program is winding to a close.

Yet, I was also excited. I’ll return to the US at some point.  That point may be 6 months from now, or it might be 6 years.  Regardless, I’ve truly fallen in love with this city and Danish culture.   If I was to sum my sentiments up all in a word, it is, just quite simply “Civilized”.  Oh, it has its failings.  The Folk Party is the Danish alternative to the Tea Party, full of horrible economic policy and rampant racism. The bureaucratic environment is embarrassingly primitive at times and at others painfully relaxed.  Yet Denmark, and Copenhagen in particular, is amazing.  I think at a certain level I was afraid that my return to the US would suddenly reveal that Denmark wasn’t the wonderful place I had convinced myself that it was.  That it was a sorry alternative to the US and that I’d feel a pang of regret and the draw to return to Arizona. I need not have worried.  There’s a reason that Copenhagen is one of, if not my favorite, city in the world.  It is a wonderful and special place and while I don’t think it will be the right place for me forever. For now, I’m confident that it definitely is where I should be.

For those who read this and are considering relocating or a place to live or study, I highly recommend it. For those of you who know me and have wondered how I’m truly finding it and relating to it – perhaps this post will help you better understand why I am not only here, but intending to stay here for a few years.

As promised, this has been a rambling chain of connected thoughts, but if I missed something or there is another specific you’re curious about that I’ve failed to cover or elaborate on, let me know.  I’d love to elaborate.

Lastly, to all my friends and family who made my return to Arizona and Colorado so lovely and memorable.  Thank you.  I miss you and treasure you.

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.

A Powerful Visualization Exercise

Listen to this post:

Blog Audio Transcript: A Powerful Visualization

There are few things more central to the essence of who we are than our perception of the world around us.  The way in which we relate defines both how we perceive the world and how we chart our course through it.  At an early age my dad shared a mental exercise with me.  Despite being young, and not really understanding the power of it at the time, it stuck with me and has been an incredible tool every since. It has given me insights into myself, my place in the world, religion, morality, and helps me keep things in perspective.  Don’t worry if it makes you uncomfortable, or you get lost while doing it the first few times.

Step 1: Find a quiet spot.  It can be a park, your room, or anywhere that won’t have any distractions for 2 or 3 minutes.

Step 2: Sit or stand in a comfortable position, close your eyes, relax your body and focus your thoughts on an ant. Visualize the ant in as much detail as you can, but make sure it fills your minds eye.

Step 3: Step your minds eye back slightly so you’re now visualizing the ant and the inside of the ant hill.  Your visualization should only include a small area – 2 to 3 inches around the ant. Mentally pause and let your mind explore the scope of what you’re already seeing.

Step 4: Take another step back, this time visualize the entire anthill and the foot or so around it. Don’t rush the process, make sure to try and visualize the scene as richly as possible.

Step 5: Take another step back, now visualize the area in the immediate vicinity of the ant hill. Is it lush jungle, barren desert, are there animals, what time of day is it?

Step 6: Expand your visualization to a mile or so.  What does the terrain look like.  How does the initial ant, and its fellows compare and affect the surrounding area?

Step 7: Step back to 10 square miles.  Are there cities?  What else can you visualize.  Take the time to explore the mental landscape and how everything relates to everything else.

Step 8: Visualize the continent with millions of anthills and hundreds of millions of people in their cities.

Step 9: Step back out beyond the atmosphere.  Up into the space between the Earth and the Moon. Consider the world, the cultures, the natural environment, and recall how the ant relates to it all.

Step 10: Visualize the moon with the earth behind it.  The moon’s surface.  Its gravitational pull creating the earth’s tides and its impact on each step you’ve visualized previously.

Step 11: Travel out across the solar system. Mentally stopping to visualize, explore and to look back.

Step 12: Move beyond the solar system and seat your minds eye in the Universe taking in our entire Galaxy.

Step 13: Move your eye further back into the Universe and expand your visualization to include as many Galaxies as you can visualize.

Step 14: This is where it gets really difficult and can be somewhat uncomfortable. Can you continue to expand your visualization? What comes next? If your answer is nothingness, then try and mentally explore the scope of that nothingness. As odd as it may sound, this step has actually made me dizzy.

Step 15: Reflect.

Each person’s experience will differ.  The way your mind works/relates to the world around you will effect how easy parts of the exercise are. I encourage you to consider not only how you relate to the world you’ve explored during the visualization, but also how the ant relates, and even how the earth relates.

Step 14 is one of the most difficult, but also one of the most rewarding.  When we go about our day-to-day lives we view the world from our perspective and relate to it through our perception of time.  As you push your mind out past the depths of space, you also will eventually discover something we almost never experience. The complete unknown.  Something so completely foreign to us that we can’t even visualize it.  It is, perhaps, the only time in your life you’ll face a question that is not only unanswerable but which is also unfathomable.

For me, this exercise has helped me understand the scope of my existence.  Instead of making me feel small and insignificant, it has given me the utmost confidence that every action I make alters the very fabric of the universe.  I may be nothing more than a grain of sand, but each grain of sand alters the entirety of the beach.  Each action I choose to make sends out ripples across the Universe and for that reason, it’s paramount that I chose the right actions and work to make a difference because even though that difference is beyond minuscule in the grand scheme of things my actions do effect the world. For me, life has become about creating positive ripples.  How will you choose to live your life?

I would love to hear your experiences with this exercise and your reflections.  If you have thoughts, are having trouble with the visualization or have a story/realization you would like to share, please post it in a comment.

Terrorism & Technology – Ignorance is Bliss

I can’t sit idly by any longer keeping my view on this matter to myself or limited to select conversations. The House’s recent vote to approve the FISA bill with provisions allowing immunity for the Telco companies that participated in the blatant violation of constitutional rights has left me steaming. Call it the straw that broke the camel’s back if you’d like but it’s time to take a real look at everyone’s favorite word – terrorism – and the delusional behavior that’s allowed otherwise intelligent Americans to sign off on atrocity after atrocity while selling the constitution and bill of rights off wholesale.

Willing to give up our constitutional rights in the name of security? All because you’ve been told and believe it will prevent Islamic terrorist attacks and that air travel, buildings, etc. will be safer and that you and your fellows will no longer be at risk if we give up enough of our liberties or allow enough supervision? I’ll let you in on a little secret. Not only are you wrong, but you’re so far off base you should be embarrassed. You want something to be afraid of? I’ll share the TRUTH with you and let me assure you it’s FAR scarier than the cinematic garbage you’ve been cowering from for the last 7 years. Only, these threats are hardly mentioned. These are just a taste of the real threat you face and the sad reality is that the steps being taken, and the rights you’ve offered up for sacrifice won’t make you any safer from them.

Edit: In reviewing this post I’ve decided that I need to attempt to clarify a key point before going into the following illustrations. I’m sharing these threats not to illustrate the danger we are in, but rather to illustrate the general dangers out there…To paint a big picture in the hope it helps you understand better, the real situation.  I believe that once you understand the situation better that you will, I hope, be less willing and susceptible to fear tactics based on over exaggerations/lack of perspective. I’ve included the following illustrations because while useful, I don’t believe big picture statistics such as the following register for the average individual. On the off chance that they do please note that the CDC has reported the following top 10 causes of death in the U.S. in 2005: Heart disease: 652,091, Cancer: 559,312, Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 143,579, Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 130,933, Accidents (unintentional injuries): 117,809, Diabetes: 75,119, Alzheimer’s disease: 71,599, Influenza/Pneumonia: 63,001, Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 43,901, Septicemia: 34,136.  When you add up these 15 diseases they killed 1,891,480 in 2005. Keep in mind that these statistics do not accuratly include the estimated 400,000+ people who die from smoking each year, or the 43,000+ estimated car accident fatalities which occured in 2005.  Consider how these threats impact your behavior and then consider how your behavior and ability to live life to its fullest has changed given your reaction to the threat of terrorism.  Now please consider these illustrations. I remind you they are real and shared not to drive you to give up your constitutional rights but rather the exact opposite. These are shared to educate and to give you perspective. Before you give something up paramount to the quality of your life, consider the relative nature of the alleged threats to your life.

Illustration I: It’s 113 degrees outside right now, tonight’s low will be 77 degrees. My air conditioning is running, I have constant access to cooled water, and I still go home dehydrated. In fact when I walk into my apartment I have to take off my shoes, or wait for the tar that’s melted onto them from the asphalt in the parking lot to melt. On my way home from work I’ll pass through at least 10 traffic lights. When I get home and go to cook dinner I’ll pull a T.V. dinner out of my freezer and microwave it. Now imagine the death toll that we could expect among Phoenix’s 6 million residents if the power went out for 2 days. The death toll aside, imagine the catastrophic economic impact?

Don’t think that’s possible? The Washington Post, January 19th 2008:

In a rare public warning to the power and utility industry, a CIA analyst this week said cyber attackers have hacked into the computer systems of utility companies outside the United States and made demands, in at least one case causing a power outage that affected multiple cities.

‘We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet,’ Tom Donahue, the CIA’s top cyber security analyst, said Wednesday at a trade conference in New Orleans.

The article goes on to quote:

Over the past year to 18 months, there has been “a huge increase in focused attacks on our national infrastructure networks, . . . and they have been coming from outside the United States,” said Ralph Logan, principal of the Logan Group, a cyber security firm.

At the time MSNBC noted:

In a test last year, the Homeland Security Department produced a video showing commands quietly triggered by simulated hackers having such a violent reaction that an enormous generator shudders as it flies apart and belches black-and-white smoke.

Illustration II: The power issue aside, let’s talk about Nuclear threats. We are, after all discussing invading Iran for continuing to pursue nuclear weapons – but again, let’s look at the REAL threat to Americans. Compare the impact of a foreign nation located on the other side of the world in which, despite all of the posturing and what’s happened in the middle east over the last 6 years, has a relatively positive view of the U.S. or…the potential harm just one or two rogue hackers could inflict if they were able to hack our nuclear facilities. Let’s look at Arizona again. Arizona is home to the Palo Verde nuclear power plant which has 3 reactors and is the largest in the U.S. It’s also located less than 50 miles from DOWNTOWN Phoenix. Anyone in the mood to speculate what might happen if hackers were able to compromise the facility and initiate an overload resulting in an enormous generator literally ripping itself apart? Oh, and I forgot to mention Presidential Candidate John McCain stated last week that his future energy policy would focus on building 45 new nuclear reactors in the U.S. by 2030 (NY Times).

Illustration III: Feeling nervous? That’s hardly anything compared to what would happen if malicious hackers penetrated the FAA’s flight system. You thought Sept. 11th was bad? As I’m writing this I did some flash research. According to FlightAware there are currently over 5,500 airborne aircraft being tracked by the system right now, with over 53,000 arrivals tracked in the last 24 hours. What happens if the software coordinating part or all of that traffic is compromised?

Illustration IV: Attended a major concert or sporting event recently? Pretty tough security right? Pat downs, searches, no opened water bottles or containers. Heck, more than a few of us have had our small nail clippers confiscated for “safety” reasons. All in the name of preventing terrorism and keeping you safe – it makes you feel better, right? One catch – when I was a student at ASU we snuck all sorts of things in through those security measures. Luckily we were focused on getting in tortillas and bottles of alcohol not plastic explosives and marbles. The student section typically holds several thousand of Americans best and brightest youths, packed shoulder to shoulder. The pathetic thing is, that despite all the money being spent and time being wasted, those security precautions still miss more than they actually catch. Just last week I was talking to a friend, who realized after the fact that she’d accidentally flown with a can of mace in her handbag. It’s an uneasy feeling I’m sure more than a few of you have shared.

Illustration V: Let’s put death, destruction and devastation aside and look at the information wars. Earlier this month an important, though little covered, news story broke noting that at least 3 members of Congress have reported that their computers had been compromised by Chinese hackers looking for information on dissidents. Even more interesting is this quote;

The Pentagon last month acknowledged at a closed House Intelligence committee meeting that its vast computer network is scanned or attacked by outsiders more than 300 million times each day.

Do I have your attention yet?

The Reality: These dangers are a basic snapshot of the threats out there. I’ve shared them with you to 1) educate you and to 2) offer illustrations of the extreme dangers out there in the hope of illustrating the triviality and blatant stupidity of the fear tactics currently being used on the American public 3) illustrate why terrorism is not sound grounds for giving up our constitutional rights. The panic-laden behavior of the current atmosphere of fear is a very real type of terrorism. The talking heads also have it right, in part. The target IS America and the American people. The unsettling and unpopular truth, however, is that we face two distinct groups of terrorists. The Islamic extremists we’re all more than familiar with and then a second, equally insidious group. The politicians, corporations, and consultants encouraging an atmosphere of fear for political and economic benefit. Since the viewpoint I’m about to cover is extremely controversial let’s start out with a basic definition:

“terrorism“ noun

1. The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
2. The state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. A terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

In a post 9/11 world we are all more than familiar with this definition. Most of us have used the words terrorist, terrorism, etc. on a weekly basis over the past 7 years. However, this post is about what happens when we take a close look at the actual definition – at the significance of the word, the meaning, and what it truly means for American’s health, freedom, and safety as it relates to domestic threats.

For the sake of this post the two parts of the definition we need to focus on are the 2nd and 3rd points. In respect to the 2nd, I’d like you to take several moments and to reflect. Ask yourself who are ALL of the parties that have played a role in the creating and perpetuating the current atmosphere of fear and submission in the U.S.? Second, I want you to ask yourself who has capitalized the most on those fear and used the threats posed by terrorism to the greatest advantage? As you ponder these two questions keep in mind, that no one can hear you right now. No one is there to judge you. Now is a moment for true, honest reflection, for you to look at the concepts fairly. Ask yourself if you’ve been correct in your assumptions, and if you feel you have to defend those assumptions to yourself.

Now – consider the 3rd definition. This is of paramount importance as it’s something we seldom look at fairly. When we discuss terrorism it is typically as a tool for resisting government, as is the case with the Islamic zealots. Occasionally, as was the case with Saddam, we apply it to foreign dictators who have shown a blatant disregard for human rights, who typically operate above the rule of law, who imprison political prisoners, and who discourage opposition through fear. Say it again, “A terroristic method of governing a government” and now ask yourself how that fits against what has occurred in the U.S. under the Bush administration. Consider it relative to the questions you answered in regard to the previous point and keep in mind that the current administration and it’s supporters have violated the Geneva convention, made a mockery of habeas corpus, have made proven use of reported terrorist threats to shift elections/political favor, has ousted secret agents for political gain, has facilitated countless no-bid contracts, forced into retirement or disgraced any qualified dissenting voice, and illegally spied and detained Americans among a plethora of other scandals and violations.

Realistic Threats

Don’t mistake my words. I’m not saying that religious zealots are not a threat. I’m not saying that we should ignore their preferred use of hijackings and suicide bombings. I AM saying that they are a relative threat. I AM saying that the fear of boarding an airplane and having it hijacked should be kept in perspective. That if we give in to fear and are willing to sacrifice everything America stands for, and even our morality for a false sense of security, then we are anything but patriots. The war on terror hasn’t just been a war against a small minority which attacked us. It hasn’t just been a war on the government (Afghanistan) that supported them. It has been a war on an entire religion, a war against sovereign nations under false pretense and most disturbingly, it has been a war against what America truly stands for carried out by self proclaimed American patriots. The real threats to America come not only from extremists but those bereft of morality seeking power or financial gain. It doesn’t matter if the threat comes from an Islamic zealot, a Christian zealot or an Atheist hacker. This is not truly about religion. It’s about money and power.

My only hope is that from this point forward, when faced with new legislation, or a decision that affects the future of the world, that you will pause. Ignore the false appeals to fear. Transcend the impulse to sacrifice anything and everything for the illusion of safety. Judge the measure, bill, action, or statement by its legitimacy instead.

Let the words of our founding fathers guide you:

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
-Benjamin Franklin

It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others: or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. -Thomas Jefferson

For further reading: A recent Forbes article on tech threats.

Something unclear?  Want more information?  Have a question? Disagree? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.