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Asking Directions in Turkey

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A funny story by Allen Milewski …

We have shown many times before, just how incredibly helpful Turkish people are and nothing seems to show that more plainly than what happens when you ask directions. An example:

We are driving in our rental car to some site or other that Nuray has heard is the most fascinating location for… whatever it may happen to be. We got off the new, sleek expressway long ago and are now driving through some villages in the middle of pine-covered hillsides on pretty bumpy, narrow roads. I guess everywhere is hungry for infrastructure improvements and, all-in-all, these are not as bad as some I have seen in the U.S. We are passing by a single-file regiment of cows lumbering toward their fields with a village man following with a small branch in his hand to encourage them on. Nuray calls out “bakarmisiniz!” (meaning “could you look this way?”) as we stop in the road. This is a general plea for help- it can be used when you want to get the attention of your waiter in a restaurant or help from someone on the street- as here.

A villager taking his cows home, Mazi, Bodrum

A villager taking his cows home, Mazi, Bodrum

She explains where it is we want to go and the man walks away from his cows up to the car. He thinks and squints and starts talking and pointing. He points some more and talks some more, pauses and then talks some more. My eternal wish is that I could understand more Turkish as he talks more, all the time looking off at a variety of places on the horizon. By the time he finishes, his cows have moved on by themselves and he walks briskly to catch up to them.

Nuray says “He is not sure”.

I start to say “What?” but she continues, “but he thinks we could go another couple of kilometers and ask someone at the Gozleme stand”. We start driving and a few minutes later Nuray says, “I hope his young boy will be OK. He broke his arm last month”.

This is a social country and nearly everyone will go out of his or her way to help …. even if they don’t know the right answer! This can run you into difficulties, for example, when you ask one person and get one direction and then another and get 180 degrees in the other direction – both are just trying to help.

But, generally, direction-givers are correct and helpful people. Except once.

Map of cobweb-like highways near Izmir, Turkey

Map of cobweb-like highways near Izmir, Turkey

Nuray is exceptionally good at picking out knowledgeable, helpful and kind people when she asks directions. She is correct in her intuitions 99% of the time. But she totally blew it once as we were driving into the outskirts of Izmir towards Kula and the signs were puzzling. No one wants to be lost in a big city- it is confusing, time-consuming and scary. This was clearly her reasoning as we pulled up to the last traffic light before having to make a decision and take either the left or right merge.

“Open the window, lets ask these guys!” she blurts out urgently.

“Well, wait, I’m not so sur…”

“Open the window. Quick”, she says. She was looking at the pile of traffic behind us and afraid they would be honking soon.

“Really?”

“Yes!”

The world has seen many different kinds of panhandlers, but the most insidious are the “squeegee men”. These are lost souls that wait at long stop lights with window washing equipment and when a car has the misfortune of having to stop at the light, they squirt a little water on the window, or worse, squeegee it dry, and then beg for money for their services. The unfortunate cars are usually trapped between traffic piled up behind and cross-traffic zooming by in front. Squeegee men have plagued major cities for years. A New York Times article recently says they are back as a problem in Manhattan.  Apparently, also in Izmir.

The hoped-for direction givers Nuray was suggesting I open our windows to were squeegee men. I lowered the windows. A particularly muscular man leaned way into the car – halfway over me in the driver’s seat and nearly reaching Nuray in the passenger seat. He is talking constantly: “God will bless you. Just give me money”, he says repeatedly.

“He wants five Lira”, says Nuray, “give him five Lira”.

I think about opening my wallet, not 10 inches away from this guy’s thick hands, and decide against it. His talk is increasing in intensity by leaps and bounds. It starts to seem dangerous. I put my foot on the clutch and accelerator. I picture us “patching” out in a cloud of tire dust with this fellow being dragged by his arms until he cannot hold on any longer at which point he tumbles into the curbing. Would I go to jail for that?

Instead, Nuray throws him twenty Lira- too much but the only thing she has. The light changes and we start up fast, though with no cloud. Whew! Somehow, in all of this drama, he did give us valid directions. The twenty Lira may have been worth it afterall and we head for Kula.

Helpful people, to be sure. But, nothing could possibly demonstrate the energetic helpfulness of Turkish direction-givers more than those in Kula. Kula is a medium size city, but with an ancient Old Town. The Old Town has very narrow streets – the sort where you sometimes cannot make a right turn in one swing and where an oncoming car means a negotiation of forwards and reverses until someone finds space enough to squeeze to the side.

Map of Kula, Turkey shows how the tiny streets merge into another

Map of Kula, Turkey shows how the tiny streets merge into another  — our hotel is somewhere in this jungle

We pull into Kula after dark and start to search for our hotel. It is the Anemone Hotel, a renovation of two Ottoman wooden houses surrounding a lovely stone courtyard, all encased in a high stone wall. There is a certain scary aspect to old towns in Europe- I think it is the “gas-light” feel that comes when you don’t have the crazily intense Xenon things hanging all over. And, we have no idea where we are going. Everywhere, there are beautiful stone structures, all close-up to the street. Nuray asks one person, who gives us directions that seem reasonable only for a short while, where we run into something not mentioned in the directions. We ask for directions again. These take us to the next confusing point where we ask again.

Anemon Hotel, Kula, Turkey

Anemon Hotel, Kula, Turkey

We jerk along like this for a while until we ask a man carrying a young baby. He says, “follow me”, and starts to walk into the darkness. He walks and walks as we drive behind him at about 2 miles an hour – just the right speed for these roads anyway. It was the dim lighting that raised the question, “what if he is taking us to some square filled with thieves where we will be emptied of our belongings”, but the baby makes this seem unlikely. So we follow. Block after block, we follow. I see few street signs and business signs are discrete. Then, Voila: the Anemone Hotel, with a sign I could have missed if it teetered off its hinges and fell on my head. The man disappears into the night with his baby as we try to call a thank-you after him, but he is gone.

In Kula, directions don’t seem to work and seem to have been replaced with demonstration. I quickly realize why. If someone tells you to go down two streets and turn right, that might seem like a valid direction, until you get to that corner and see that there are three different right turns. When streets have been built higgelty-piggelty, as they were long ago, the corners cannot be counted on to be right angles, and this leaves room at any intersection for multiple diagonals. A helpful person can quickly realize that giving directions to someone is useless and they might just as well show them.

Narrow streets of Kula with old Ottoman and Greek houses, Turkey

Narrow streets of Kula with old Ottoman and Greek houses, Turkey

The next morning we wake up early with the idea of exploring before breakfast. You guessed it- we get lost after less then twenty minutes. And, you guessed it, a fellow on a motor scooter offers to shows us where our hotel is. He may have thought we had a car, because he seems confused as we charge after him on foot in a half-run, but he soon slows down to a fast walk and takes us through several familiar-looking areas before reaching our hotel. He is a simit and bread delivery man, so we buy some for later in the day and thanked him profusely.

The bread and simit delivery man helping us finding our hotel, Kula, Turkey

The bread and simit delivery man helping us finding our hotel, Kula, Turkey

Running after the bread delivery man to find our hotel, Kula, Turkey

Another helper for finding our hotel, Kula, Turkey

We had intended to spend just one night in Kula, but are delayed by some incredibly interesting discoveries (see Nuray’s blog on the Kula Geopark). This would pose no problem except that we find ourselves in the dark again and, again, needing to find our hotel. We ask the owner of our dinner-spot near the town square for directions and instead of even trying, he volunteers his young waiter to drive with us. This works really well- the boy sits in the front seat directing us in turn after turn until we arrive at the soft yellow glow of our hotel doorway.

Very narrow streets of Kula, Turkey (neighbors can shake hands across the street)

Very narrow streets of Kula, Turkey (neighbors can shake hands across the street)

Central cafe where we found a kid to help us find our hotel after dark, Kula, Turkey

Central cafe where we found a kid to help us find our hotel after dark, Kula, Turkey

The next morning we plan to leave again and there is only one problem. By now you must know the answer: How do we get out of the Old Town and to the highway? The Hotel Manager gives a few half-hearted and vague directions and we head to the car thinking we will have to ask block-by-block again. But, as we approach the front door of the hotel we see the Manager on a bicycle, waiting. He planned from the start to show us the way and as he takes us through movie-footage images of the old town, we say goodbye to Kula.

Anemon Hotel manager taking us to the highway without getting lost in Kula streets, Turkey

Anemon Hotel manager taking us to the highway without getting lost in Kula streets, Turkey

One of the main landmarks that we can see over the top of the houses is the minaret of the central mosque, Kula, Turkey (still didn't help us to find our hotel)

One of the main landmarks that we can see over the top of the houses is the minaret of the central mosque, Kula, Turkey (still didn’t help us to find our hotel)

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