Foreign intrigue

Two RN&R regulars write about their summer experiences abroad

Photos By D. Brian Burghart

This summer, Chanelle Bessette and D. Brian Burghart traveled to Europe and Asia for foreign studies through the University of Nevada, Reno. In an attempt to avoid a couple of “What we did on our summer vacation” essays, they decided to create “10 Things You Should Know” lists.

10 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Turkey

I have no doubt that I could write a book about my experiences in Turkey. Maybe at some later point, I’ll write about my adventures specifically. Suffice it to say that in two and a half weeks, I was able to scratch almost every cultural, recreational and academic itch I ever had about this pivot point between Europe and Asia, East and West, Islam and secularism/Christianity.

While state-managed media reported a peaceful removal of protesters from Taksim Square, we could see an enormous pillar of smoke and tear gas above the district.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

1. Turkey is a Muslim country, but that doesn't mean what you think.

The Turkish government is secular, just as the U.S. government was secular under George W. Bush. We know, practically speaking, that Christianity is the dominant religion here. It’s analogous there. These stories about Muslim women not meeting a man’s eye or being defiled by an accidental touch are just baloney. In public situations, men and women stared unabashedly at me. Booze is anywhere you want it, but is most easily accessed in the commercial areas that surround the oldest mosques and other tourist areas. I highly recommend the touristy area behind the Blue Mosque for shopping and partying. I specifically recommend the Sultan Hostel, where one of the waiters, Sercan Sengel, was kind enough to give me a ride to the airport, and then refused to take a tip.

2. The biggest thieves are the phone companies.

With more than 3,000 mosques, visitors will likely never run out of mosques to see.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

I was occasionally surprised by the honesty of the Turkish people. Once, one of our traveling companions forgot her wallet in a busy store. Several hours later, when she realized its loss, she called the store and walked the proprietor to the spot she left it. Although it was in plain view, it hadn’t been touched. I forgot my umbrella on a table outside for more than an hour during a downpour while we toured the Dolmabahçe Palace. It was there when I got back. On the other hand, I got ripped off twice by representatives of Turkcell. My advice on phones: Just set up a foreign data and phone plan before you leave. Yes, it seems more expensive, but the Turkish police require every local cell phone be registered, and if you don’t know this—and nobody tells you—they automatically shut down your locally purchased sim card after a week. It costs about 130 lira (about $70 U.S.D), to register, but many hoops must be jumped through.

3. The recent protests were both ubiquitous and localized to Taksim Square.

As students, we were required to stay away from the protests, and our professor was conscientious about this, but when we were on our own time, we headed straight to Taksim. I wasn’t there when the police made their periodic sweeps, and I never got gassed. You know what it felt like? It felt like any other big protest I’ve been too: the Occupy stuff, the anti-war demonstrations before Iraq, the pro-immigration marches. It’s hard to estimate the crowds, but one Saturday night, there were probably 30,000 or 40,000 people there. I never felt particularly unsafe. In fact, the opposite was probably true: When people found out we were Americans, they welcomed us and really wanted us to understand their points of view. We also saw spontaneous protests in support throughout the city and on the Bosphorus Strait.

4. Burqas and headscarves are clothing styles, religious symbols and symbols of rebellion.

Symbols of Turkish pride are everywhere.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

I know that there are exceptions to this, but looking through Western eyes, we believe those over-dressed women only do it because the men in their lives force them. This was simply not the most common reason for it. I say they’re symbols of rebellion because since the founding of the country in 1923, they were banned from the public and government sectors. This would be analogous to forbidding American Christian women from wearing a cross—you can be sure they’d wear 10 crosses.

5. Tales of anti-Americanism are vastly exaggerated.

Even when we were drinking with the protesters and the communists in Taksim, nobody ever said anything negative about America. And make no mistake, America has often been the bad guy in this country, backing military coups, etc. No, at most they’d complain about imperialism or capitalism or NATO. I’m not saying anti-Americanism doesn’t exist here, but as soon as I said I was from Nevada—“Las Vegas”—they’d be all “Yeah! Las Vegas!” Nobody had ever heard of Reno.

6. The Turkish media lies.

In the U.S., we love to make media conspiracies, but it’s rare that major American media actually intentionally lies. Here, the problem is more likely to be that reporters and editors are stupid, uninformed or have no long-term memory. I remember one moment in Turkey when I was reading internet reports of a peaceful removal of protestors from Taksim Square at the exact moment we were witnessing columns of smoke and tear gas rising above that section of the city. Until the cops shut down my cell service, Twitter was the only uncensored media we could use to keep current with Taksim, but guess what? The protesters sometimes lied, too.

7. Muslim people are incredibly genuine and friendly.

Istanbul is an ancient city with some very modern urban problems, like graffiti.

Photo By Brian Burghart

Our professor kept his eyes peeled for opportunities to talk to strangers and to ask them questions that seemed somewhat invasive to some of us students. It took me awhile to realize that some of this feeling of intrusiveness was my own cultural bias. After all, if a group of nine foreigners stopped a typically dressed group of American college students and started asking them, “Why are your shorts so short?” or “Does your boyfriend or brother make you dress like that?” Americans would likely be offended. Not necessarily so in Turkey. To the contrary, most seemed to find the situation humorous and were forthright with their discussions.

8. Women are not treated equally.

This is a tough one. Men’s and women’s roles are differently defined in the Turkish culture, so it’s easy to apply an American cultural bias to the situation, but there’s no possibility of objectively calling the sexes “equal.” I occasionally saw women forced to defer to random male authority. In one example, a woman was refused access to a secular museum because the guard didn’t like how she was dressed. I also heard several reports of women getting groped or grabbed by men in crowded situations.

9. Ataturk!

It’ll only take a visitor about 10 minutes to begin to wonder who this guy is who’s shown on all the statues and photographs and whose name resides on the airports, bridges and buildings. He’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk means “Father of Turks,” a name that was given to the man by the Turkish parliament in 1934 while he was still alive. Simply put, it would be as though George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were all rolled into one person. He was the top military and political leader during birth of Türkiye, as they spell it there, and he symbolizes the nationalist secular identity of the country. Any political argument is viewed through the lens of “What would Ataturk do?”

10. Take a class.

I don’t know how practical this one is for everyone since most people travel with families or partners, but having daily writing deadlines, reading assignments, guided discussions and a knowledgeable guide imposed a certain discipline that made this one of the most fun, most informative vacations I’ve ever had. Dr. Berch Berberoglu is a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and he leads classes to Istanbul twice a year. There’s just something about the quality of people you meet in this sort of quasi-academic situation that makes the experience so much better than traveling with your average American slack-jawed gawker.

—D. Brian Burghart

10 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Thailand

On a month-long study abroad trip to Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of northern Thailand, I was exposed to a fascinating and hospitable society that was at once familiar and entirely different from what I know in the Western United States. I enjoyed getting to know the people and experiencing a new set of social norms, cuisine and language. I have prepared this guide for Reno folks who are considering traveling to the Rose of the North, as Chiang Mai is sometimes called. It’s a destination for adventurers and urbanites alike, and the amenities provide something for everyone.

1. The exchange rate is pretty much the greatest thing ever.

Thailand: This panda lives at the Chiang Mai zoo and is a favorite for tourists.

Photo By Chanelle Bessette

At the current rate of 30 baht per $1 USD, traveling to Thailand makes a dollar stretch farther than it would in most other vacation spots. Over a period of three and a half weeks, I was able to go out to eat every meal, travel around northern Thailand, buy quality souvenirs for my friends and family, and do some great personal shopping all for a little more than $500. The most expensive part of the trip was the round-trip airplane ticket, which ran around $1,500. Several of my friends on my trip also spent a few days on the beaches of Phuket in southern Thailand, and their round-trip ticket cost around $150 for travel with very reasonable hotel lodging.

2. The toilet situation is … different.

For me, the trickiest part of traveling to Asia was dealing with non-Western toilets. For the uninitiated, Asian style toilets are also known as “squatters,” where instead of sitting, one squats over a porcelain hole in the floor and scoops water, which is supplied in a bucket in the corner of the stall, to flush the toilet. Toilet paper is often not supplied, and even if it is, most places will request that it be deposited in the trash can, not the squatter itself. Another interesting feature is the oft-supplied water hose, which many Thai people—including Buddhist monks, who don’t use toilet paper—use like a bidet. I was extremely reluctant to succumb to the use of squatters, but once I let go, I found that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I never stopped using my beloved paper products, however.

3. You should underpack.

Remember that awesome exchange rate I talked about? Well, you definitely get more bang for your buck because everything is very inexpensive. Articles of clothing can be purchased for a few dollars, and familiar brands of hair and skin products are available in local shops. In addition, many pharmacies carry very cheap over-the-counter drugs, some of which require prescriptions in the states. For part of my trip to Thailand, I went camping in the mountainous northern region and decided I would rather be safe than sorry when worrying about illness, and I found a 35-day supply of malaria pills for less than $7 at a drugstore.

4. If you're looking to get some medical or cosmetic work done, save it for your trip.

Thailand: The exterior of a Buddhist temple in the “Old City” of Chiang Mai.

Photo By Chanelle Bessette

Medical tourism is a huge industry in Thailand. Many college-aged girls—I was told around 70 percent—invest in nose jobs to install nose bridges, and one girl at Chiang Mai University told me that it only costs around $300. In addition, aesthetic surgery offices exist around every corner, even in malls, to supply botox treatments and liposuctions. Hospital and dental treatments are also inexpensive and are a fraction of the cost compared to American hospitals.

5. Adjust your expectations (or try to avoid them entirely).

As is true when visiting any foreign country, it’s important to keep in mind that things will not be everything that you’re used to. There’s a phrase that market vendors like to use in Thailand to describe their products, “Same same but different,” when compared to U.S. items. I find that the easiest way to prevent culture shock is to maintain zero expectations about what a place will be like. That way, there won’t be too many surprises, and I can enjoy the experience more for what it is instead of what I think it will be. For example, I had to adjust my beliefs about sanitation, not only with the squatting toilet situation, but also with how food is prepared and doesn’t contain the same kinds of pesticides and GMOs that American food does.

6. Don't criticize the royal family, ever.

One major difference that I was completely unused to was the complete deferment to royal leadership. Criticism and disrespect of the king can be punishable by 3-6 years in prison in Thailand, although the king will often just forgive and deport an offending international visitor. Currency bills are always treated very well because they bear the king’s image, and many places of business display portraits of the royal family on their walls. In addition, a standing ovation is given for the king at the start of every movie shown in a theater. The Thai people love their king, although that love seems somewhat mandated.

7. If you're looking to drink something that's good quality, drink liquor.

Although Singha and Chang are very popular beers in Thailand, they taste a lot like Coors, and I instantly began to pine for the craft beers of my homeland. In addition, good wine can be difficult to find, given the scant selection of wineries in the region. Well-mixed cocktails, however, are abundant, and the fruit juice mixes are often fresh.

8. Practice your smiling.

Thailand: Traditional Thai dancers perform at Kantoke Palace.

Photo By Chanelle Bessette

Thailand is called the Land of 1,000 Smiles, and for good reason. It took me awhile to get used to smiling at random strangers since in the U.S. doing so can invite unwanted attention. But in Thailand, smiling is the easiest way to cross cultural barriers and show an appreciation for the hospitality that seems to be ingrained in Thai culture.

9. Learn some Thai phrases, but don't stress.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how many people spoke English in Chiang Mai, and not only college students, but also many people in the service industry. I learned a handful of phrases, but they carried me far in building a rapport with the Thai people with whom I interacted. For example, simply by asking, “Lot day may kha?” (“Can you go lower?”) gave me a huge advantage in bargaining with street vendors and saved me quite a lot of baht. Of course, saying “Sa-wa-dii kha” and “Khap khun kha,” which mean “hello” and “thank you,” respectively, helped a lot as well. One of my favorite phrases that I learned in Thailand was “mai pen rai,” which means, “don’t worry, it’s OK.” It’s a versatile phrase that can be used in a variety of circumstances. You missed your train? “Mai pen rai.” A street vendor is charging too much and you want to walk away? “Mai pen rai.” You’re trying to keep your friend calm while you both get extremely ticklish fish pedicures? “Mai pen rai.”

10. Asia is going to rule the world.

After my visit to Thailand, I have no doubt in my mind that Asia will be—or perhaps already is—the world’s next ruler. The amount of hard work, industry and dedication to language learning that I saw from the college students I interacted with and the implementation of globalized business practices were astounding. The economic and political unification of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is kicking the area into hyperdrive to expand economic growth and infrastructure, and it will definitely be an area to look for in the news over the next few years. You can catch the growth in action by scheduling your trip to Thailand tout de suite.

—Chanelle Bessette