It’s easy to spot a tourist abroad. Actually, it’s even easier to be that tourist.
You know, that tourist who walks around with a selfie stick, probably dressed in jeans and a I LOVE NY shirt (or a shirt of whatever place it is that they’re visiting), walking around with a map in hand and attempting to take one of those typical tourist photos. You know, the ones where people try to hard to do the same things everyone else is doing. The ones where they capture the picture of them pretending to be pushing the tower of Pisa up, or the one where they’re pretending be touching the tip of the Eiffel Tower?
You know what I’m talking about.
Well, I’m here to tell you how to not be that tourist. Instead, dare to immerse yourself enough in a country with the locals that it feels like you are a local yourself. Trust me, this kind of travel experience allows you to see traveling on a different level. It’s a whole new vibe. A different kind of feeling.
I recently helped a relative move abroad from Canada to Turkey. Not only are those two countries oceans apart, but they’re also in two different continents. That is enough to guarantee that things would definitely be different.
There’s a lot of change to adapt to: different languages, dress wear, traditions, cultures, community and cuisine.
Transitioning to Change
A view from sunset in Istanbul – the city of two continents
I went to Istanbul three times during the moving process. Each time, the experience was different. It almost felt as if my experience was “evolving” from my past trip. Looking back at it now, I can break it down in simpler terms:
Trip Número Uno – The First and Big Move
When it was time to move, it wasn’t easy.
I mean, moving in general is hard, but moving countries?
Man, don’t even mention it. It’s a LOT of work. First, you need to figure out what it is that you really really need, because you can’t take everything with you, even if you want to.
Traveling can also be a hassle at times, because of all the issues that come along, whether it be weather, a delay or a misconnection, etc. That’s stressful enough to deal with. Now imagine traveling with a baby and ten checked in bags (that just made the cut on the weight limit), and each passenger having a carry on, but STILL having to leave things behind!
Basically, in other words, what it is:
moving + traveling = a headache
When we landed, my family members purchased a phone plan at the airport, although you could probably get it cheaper elsewhere. I didn’t get one, because I wasn’t planning on staying in Istanbul for more than four days, so I wouldn’t really be needing it.
We were in contact with a local named Yusef (the anglicized version is Joseph) who also ended up getting employed by my relatives. He works as a chauffeur, translator and just about everything you can think of (even if he needs to do plumbing, he’s there to get the job done!)
What’s the catch?
He lives an hour and a half away from where we were staying, meaning he doesn’t come to work every day. That also means it’s our time to shine and learn to adapt to the environment, little by little. All on our own. For me, it wasn’t that problematic, since I was only there for a couple of days. But for my family, it meant they had to go through a learning process.
With this experience at hand, I ended up with my first local encounter.
A Foreigner in a Foreign Land
I got lost in a neighbourhood I’ve never explored before. With nothing on me, except a phone that I didn’t want to take off airplane mode and a little bit of cash.
When you move somewhere, you can’t expect to have everything handed to you on a plate on the very first day. It takes time and sometimes, it’s a slow process. Speaking of which, in Turkey, I found that the process for everything was extremely slow.
It took me almost half an hour just to get my order from a Burger King that had no line up and it took almost two weeks before my relatives had their internet up and running.
With their limited data plan, I didn’t want to constantly be asking them to give me their hotspot, so I set out on a walk in the neighbourhood on a quest to find internet.
And, that is how I ended up taking a one hour walk to a hotel nearby that was only supposed to be fifteen minutes away.
At the time, I was stressing. Looking back now, I’m laughing.
The crazy things we do sometimes… *face palm*
By the time I returned to the apartment, Yusef came back with a feast. He brought chicken, kebab, rice, salad, pide (Turkish flatbread with filling like meat, cheese, spinach, etc) and sweets.
A close-up of Turkish flatbread (pide)
Afterwards, we set out to clean the empty apartment. It’s easy to clean when there’s nothing, except a couple of temporary floor mattresses with bed sheets, pillows and covers and appliances. No furniture also meant shopping time.
We walked around the local neighbourhood to see what they had and here’s a few things I noticed:
Again, the struggle to find Internet is REAL!
I mean, that’s something I already knew, since I had the adventure previously with getting lost for Wi-Fi. But, no I mean, really, the struggle really is real.
If you ever landed at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, then you already know this. There is Wi-Fi, but you need to connect with a phone number (which means if you don’t have a local number, you have to go on roaming to actually receive the text and put the code to connect).
But, while walking around, I noticed that all the shops and restaurants had password-protected their Wi-Fi. Even if I bought something at a café and asked for the password, the workers either didn’t know the password or they didn’t want to give it to me.
Note: It is much easier to find internet in the touristic areas, but it’s not relatively as popular everywhere.
Tip: If you’re traveling via Ataturk Airport, I recommend going in to the food court where you will find Caffè Nero. Present your boarding pass, buy a bite to eat or a drink and get a code for the internet that you can use for up to two hours. If you need more time, simply ask the staff and they’ll give you another code.
Communication is hard but it doesn’t have to be!
There are a lot of tourists in Turkey, but not enough locals that speak English. When I went on my hunt for internet, I stopped in different shops to ask for directions and nobody understood what I was saying. If I knew some Arabic or Turkish, it would’ve been to my advantage, but I don’t.
I managed anyway.
What I had to do instead was to show a picture of the address on my phone. I came across some of the nicest people. One girl asked one of her colleagues in the shop to walk me over to the hotel. She wasn’t sure where to go halfway through, so she stopped another person walking by and the woman made her son walk with us all the way to the hotel. The hospitality is incredible and simple acts of kindness like this makes it easier to get comfortable in a new place. Don’t be scared to speak to the locals!
Get lost, go out and explore.
There’s only so much you can learn by having an end-goal in mind. Instead, be open to let yourself wander off the beaten path and walk around. The best way to explore a new place is to walk around and get the sense of the place by yourself. Put your focus out of your destination and focus on your journey there instead (I know this sounds so cliché but it’s true!)
Trip Número Dos – Gone for the Holiday Season.
Two months later, there I was; back in Turkey.
A man selling simit (Turkish pretzel/bread) on the highway
Seeing people sell tissues, water and simit (Turkish bagel/bread) on the highway was nothing out of the ordinary for me at this point. My family had settled down and became a lot more familiar with the locals.
They no longer had to open the Google Translate app to communicate. I myself also started to catch on some Turkish words, but that’s also because I am the type of person that likes to read signs everywhere I go. I find that Turkish is a very phonetic language in the sense that it’s really easy to pronounce the words once you know the alphabet (or if it’s a simple word, like “taksi” then you can easily get the meaning of the word from reading it out or by looking at it).
The few months my family spent there alone before my second visit also allowed them to spot some hidden gems, such as coming across some of the best food spots! (I’m a huge foodie, so I’m always on the lookout for those places).
One of the places where I had the best pides with a nice view of the Blue Mosque is at Doy Doy Restaurant in Sultanahmet. You may also come across Hafiz Mustafa, my go-to for desserts because of their amazing sliced ice cream and Turkish delights (that are not too sweet). But, if I can’t go there for whatever reason, then my second option is Faruk Güllüoğlu.
Kunafe and a peak of pistachio sliced ice cream from Hafiz Mustafa
By getting out of the tourist areas, we also came across a restaurant called Karogözler Et Izgara Cağ Kebabı, an all-you-can-eat restaurant with a different style of buffet. The restaurant looks like a place you’d come to shop for meat, but you choose what you want and they’ll cook it fresh for you. It’s a bit out of the way from Istanbul, but it’s worth the drive if you have the time! I recommend trying their çiğ köfte (raw meatball dish).
The more time I spent in Turkey, the more I learned and found these spots. With a little patience, you can learn so much.
The Final Trip – Comfortable Living
On my third trip to Istanbul, I spent the most time that I’ve had from my past visits. I spent two weeks there. Although I was in the middle exam season at the time, I took some time out of studying to explore some new areas nearby.
We took a road trip to Bursa, an ottoman charm known for its silk. On the way there, we took the ferry (and brought our rental car on board) and on the way back, we drove. It took us about 2 ½ hours to get back to Istanbul.
But, if you want an escape with a great view of the Marmara sea shoreline, Bursa is the way to go! More specifically, I recommend stopping in the town of Tirilye. There’s not much to see there, but you can fresh olive oil, fish and other locally handcrafted products, along with a nice view of the water (can’t get any better than that, can it now?)
A quick stop en route to Tiriliye
For Bursa, I’d say a day or two is enough, since there’s not much to see, but you can’t leave without buying some silk products (they’ve got nice scarves or towels) from Koza Han. If you’ve got a sweet tooth and you’re into pastels like me, a nice little shop for dessert I came across was Alaçati Muhallebicisi.
Turkey is a beautiful country with way too much to see and I always end up loosing track of time. I’d love to visit Cappadocia, Izmir, Antalya to name a few. As nice as it is to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, I also found that all the mosques in Turkey have their own unique style and beauty! Each comes with different tiles, calligraphy, lighting, design, colors – basically nothing like I’ve seen elsewhere! It’s all in the details.
From all my three trips combined, I’ve learned so much and most importantly, I’ve learned the burning question I sometimes used to wonder:
How do you avoid looking like a tourist?
View from our Bosphorus Cruise
You may want to stop by the scenic Çamlıca Hill, or go on Bosphorus cruise, visit the Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Place, Taksim Square, Basilica Cistern, Galata Towers, Rustem Pasha Mosque, go to a hammam (Turkish bath) or Dolmabahçe Palace. But while you’re busy hitting all the tourist landmarks, don’t forget to immerse yourself in the place, interact with the locals, try the national dishes (Turkish cuisine is one of my favorite, it’s delicious!), learn about some traditions, learn some of the language and get lost (sometimes ditching the tourist traps, like the bus tours help you find hidden gems on your own that you wouldn’t normally find if you were with a group).
I’ve seen the progress that a couple of months can do.
I’ve realized that to be a local in a new place doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to move there to fit in.